He takes one look at the world and flies away, bound for a place he can never reach, but always wants to be.
He lives in a world of carnivals and shoestrings, of toys and candy and apples and cake. In this world of fun and sun, he runs through a playground that stretches out for miles, beckoning forth any and all who look upon its glory. In this world—in this Wonderland, as many would feel fit to call it—there is no one who can’t enter. Men, women, children; young, old, black, white; enabled, disabled, sane, crazed—little is left to question when you enter such a beautiful world. One moment you can be lost in a jungle, then the next swinging from iron bars above lakes of molten chocolate. Rain can taste like strawberries, ice the tang of orange and rocks the crisp of brownies, while the dirt you inhale can smell of dust, a pixie’s lost magic as she flaps her wings and ascends to the highest points in the sky.
Though few are willing to admit it, many are willing to enter.
This is the real world.
This is the world that was always meant to exist.
The word a whisper on his tongue, a lollipop in his pocket, Michael Kelly jumps over an airborne swing just as it sails his way. An arc in the wind, a smile on its face, Michael whips between its chains a breath before the seat is able to smack his legs, thus tripping him with its animated tongue to send him on a flying journey back to earth.
Once through and clear, Michael sighs, takes a deep breath, then leans forward, taking a deep breath and exhaling his worry out his throat.
Beyond him lays a forest of gumdrop trees.
In the distance, Michael sees children climbing their trunks, desperate to reach the candy crowns on top.
Before he can begin to run, the world begins to fade.
Slowly, infinitely, majestically, he is pushed away from the world he has always wanted to live in, from the world that was always meant to be.
“Michael,” a voice says. “Wake up.”
Michael opens his eyes, first perturbed by the wooden ceiling above him, then saddened by the absence of clouds the color of rainbows. It takes him a moment to process that someone has just spoken to him. By the time he has, the owner of the voice has moved to the side of the bed.
Dressed in a flowery skirt, he immediately identifies her as female.
“Wake up, honey,” the woman says. “You overslept again.”
“Michael.” A hand touches his face. “Look at me. Here.”
The face above him clears, shifting into focus.
“Emilin,” he says, sighing as his wife comes into view.
“Yes, dear—it’s me.”
“What time is it?”
“Shit!” he cries, throwing himself from bed. “Why didn’t you wake me up?”
“I tried. You kept telling me to give you ten minutes.”
“Shit! Shit shit shit shit shit!”
“I’m sorry!” Emilin says, retreating to the far wall as Michael tears through the bedroom in search of his clothes. “I tried to wake you up. I thought you were sick.”
“I’m not sick,” he rasps, swearing as he trips over a stray shoe on the floor. “God dammit! Why didn’t the alarm go off?”
“It did. You kept turning it off.”
Shaking his head, Michael storms into the bathroom and tears the shower curtain aside, barely pausing to compose himself before pushing himself into the shower. The initial shock of cold jars him, but is quickly pushed aside as he grabs for the soap and begins to scrub himself down.
Every day—it seems that every day this happens. No matter what time he goes to bed, no matter how much sleep he gets, he can never wake up at the time he needs to. Work calls, he tries to say, as he prepares for bed each and every night an hour earlier than he usually does, but it never matters because he can’t get up on time. Some days he wonders why he does it, because most of the time, it doesn’t seem worth it. He’s always stuck at that boring job, at that boring desk that does nothing but sit there. There is nothing magical about it. It’s all routine—all a boring, stupid routine.
As he continues to scrub, trying not to drift away into his thoughts, he thinks of Wonderland and the gumdrop forest he was so close to reaching.
I’ve never come that close before.
A brief moment of disbelief overtakes him as the wintry plain flashes before his eyes. Trees poised atop high hills sparkle in the mid-afternoon light, blinding those who look rather than adventure, while houses in the distance spout smoke from chimneys that extend into the sky. He has never seen those houses up close, but has always wanted to go there. Some say the gingerbread men live there, making snowmen and laughing all day. Others say that the wicked witch lures people in with the promise of goods, only to eat them alive. It is the curse of Wonderland, to be so good without evil. Eventually something will slip through.
A knock at the door startles him from thought.
The soap slips from his hand.
His foot flies out from under him and he goes crashing into the wall.
“Michael?” Emilin asks. “Are you all right?”
“A bit dizzy this morning,” he mumbles, done with his shower.
“Are you sick?”
“I already said I’m not.”
“All right. If you don’t want to tell me, that’s fine, but if you are, please don’t put it off. I don’t want you to…”
One look is enough to silence her.
The look of disappointment that overcomes her face saddens him.
She shouldn’t worry, he thinks, reaching for her, but stopping halfway. This isn’t the way things are supposed to be.
“Michael?” she frowns. “Are you—”
“It’s nothing,” he says, pulling his clothes onto his body. “I’ve got to get to work.”
“But you haven’t even…”
He doesn’t bother to wait.
The sole thing he does before he walks out the bathroom door is kiss her cheek. Even then it is forced.
He can’t help but think that things are constantly wrong as he climbs into his car and begins to make his way to work.
Seated at his desk, plugging away at the most recent batch of financial forms, Michael tries to distract himself from the morning’s events by throwing himself into his work. Arranging graphs, monitoring spendings, calculating earnings and working toward financial purity, he tries to create an even environment that allows someone without the proper knowledge to read just what is going into the business and what is coming out of it. By the time he’s halfway through his most recent report, he is saddened to see that the business is only continuing to plummet into depravity.
Whoever said bathroom soaps could save your life.
The reality that his job will, most likely, not last past this month is slowly sinking in. It’s a knot at the lowest part of his neck that grows like a tumor, then begins to spiral, circling its way up his spinal cord until it hits the curve of his skull. There, he feels, it explodes, molesting his mind and tantalizing his senses with false prophecies.
It will last six months, he wants to say, when in reality the charts now show that it will most likely not survive past the last week of June, three weeks away from now.
Pushing himself back, Michael spins around to look out at the city. Manhattan—beautiful, urban, created by the world of profit and birthed by the need of cash, it spirals out below his office like a tranquil jungle in Africa. From his place on the forty-fifth floor, he imagines leafs of a tree shifting, but only sees air-conditioning vents winking in the wind. Where macaws should be there are pigeons—ugly by appearance but beautiful in nature—and where monkeys should be howling cars are screaming, filling the air with metallic reverbs as they plummet into one another and end the lives of children. This, he thinks, is the jungle, a paradise not ground in nature, but nurture. There are no monkeys, no trees, nor are there hidden wonders reaching for the last piece of dying fruit in the forest. There are no ants building homes beneath the ground. There are no elephants bathing their young with their trunks. There are no creatures who look to the sky and see a plane, then reach forward as if to grasp it, then say, ‘Oh.’ There is none of this in this concrete jungle. You are born, only to live life ignorant of the outside world, then die soon after.
Some say this is the way the world was once meant to be.
Michael saw otherwise.
Taking a deep breath, he slides his hands into his pockets and glances toward his desk. Had he looked upon a fellow employee’s workspace, he would have seen pictures of a wife, a child, of a family waiting at home, but on his desk he sees nothing. There is no woman framed within a heart or a case of gold. There is no Emilin smiling back at him.
Is it wrong, he thinks, to marry for ignorance?
Closing his eyes, Michael tips his head to the ceiling and breathes.
Work will be over in three hours.
He’ll return home to a life that was not meant to be.
“How was work?” Emilin asks.
“Fine,” Michael replies, loosening his tie and collapsing onto the couch. “Other than the regular problems.”
“It’s still bad?”
“It’s been bad, Emilin, and it’s only getting worse.”
Frowning, Emilin seats herself in the armchair across Michael, watching him with plain, indecisive eyes. In the slowly-waning, evening light, her heart-shaped face appears even harsher than it normally is, struck by concern and sharpened by doubt. She appears nothing like her normal self. It is this fear that courses through him each and every night when he drives home from work. It’s as if at any moment she will change, metamorphosing into something other than the doe-like woman he has known for the past eight years.
At times, when waking, he believes Emilin is nothing more than a dream, a China doll sitting in a glass case.
Always her eyes, he thinks. Always her eyes.
As though waiting for further dialogue, the woman purses her lips, feigning a childhood pout. One cheek puffs out while the other depresses, further construing her image.
“How was your day?” Michael thinks to ask, popping a button on his shirt.
“Fine,” Emilin says.
“Did you do anything special?”
“I went to St. Mary’s.”
The Catholic church on the corner of the street has served his wife well for the past few years. He makes no further comment.
Rising, Michael stretches, then makes his way into the bedroom, where he discards his shirt and slides his belt through the loops in his pants. Once the buckle comes off, his pants fall to the floor and he wanders into the bathroom, slipping into the shower and waiting for the water to warm.
A moment later, he hears Emilin walk into the room.
“Can I get in?” she asks.
He doesn’t reply. He turns his face to the wall and bows his head instead.
The night comes and the world disappears as he is swallowed whole.
“Hello,” the dalapago says. “How are you?”
Michael smiles as the creature shifts beneath its pile of snow. First peeking out to see if anyone is around, the blue, wormlike creature tilts its head from side to side, winking beady eyes before shaking snow from its head. Once revealed, it takes a moment to gain its composure before snaking its way out of its burrow.
As it moves forward, small, barely-visible wings appear from beneath the snow on its back, then expand outward and began to flicker. Like a dragonfly during flight, the transparent membranes whistle against the wind, only illuminated by the fact that they are covered in snow. The dalapago, vain in its exposure to the cold, uses its wings to beat the snow from its body, then returns them to its sides, content with its current frame of existence. It returns its attention to Michael shortly afterward.
“Oh, you’re a small one,” it says, craning its body forward to look at Michael more closely. “What pretty eyes you have, young one.”
“Thank you,” Michael says, reaching up to brush his cheek. “What is your name, Mr. Dalapago?”
“I am Maximillian the Great Blue,” the creature says, rearing back to form a proud S with its body. “What assistance can I be to you today?”
“The house,” Michael says. “What is it?”
“You mean the house at the top of the hill?” Maxilimillian the Dalapago asks. “Why, that is none other than the House of Dreams, built by the Gingerbreads themselves.”
“The House of Dreams?” he frowns.
“You don’t know what the House of Dreams is?” The dalapago gasps. Its body expands like a puffer fish, feigning the human equivalent of shock, before returning to normal. “Why, the House of Dreams is only the place where children go for their dreams to come true!”
“Can I go there?” Michael asks, looking out at the hills.
“Of course you can go! Why couldn’t you?”
“I…” Michael pauses. “This place… it’s a dream, isn’t it?”
“Anything is possible when you dream.”
Turning its head, the dalapago examines the hills and the plains below, then looks over at Michael. Its near-featureless face shifts, as though smiling, before it bows its head, flattening its body to the curve of the ground.
“Climb on, dear Michael. I will take you where your heart allows.”
Stepping forward, Michael takes holds of the dalapago’s sides, then throws himself onto the creature’s back.
As the dalapago begins down the hill, Michael begins to fall.
No, he thinks. Not now, not after I’ve just…
His vision whitens.
The world goes dark.
They haven’t made love for six months.
Preferring to remain distant, Michael makes as little physical contact with his wife as possible. A comforting woman by nature, Emilin often tries to initiate contact—kneading his shoulders or stroking his palms—but each and every time, Michael turns her down. Lately it seems like nothing satisfies him anymore. Even masturbation, his usual solace in times of frustration, has become a chore. In a way, it frustrates him; in another, relieves him.
How sad, he thinks, that I don’t even want to touch my own wife.
Rolling over, Michael reaches out to touch his wife’s arm, to prove to himself that he can, in fact, touch her.
Halfway there, he stops.
Arm frozen, wrist slack, he finds that he can only reach so far before he has to pull back.
Hurt, angry and confused, Michael throws himself from bed and stomps into the kitchen, where he stops near the separating island to collect his emotions.
Calm down, he thinks. Everything will be fine.
Will it, though? In the off chance that something may, in fact, be wrong, would everything be ‘just fine’ or ‘all right?’ Not being able to control your emotions said something about your character. Some called it an illness, others called it an inhibition, while a few simply said to shut up and deal with it, because life is life and it’s going to do whatever the fuck it wants.
“All right,” Michael murmurs, taking a deep breath. “Just give yourself a moment.”
A clock chimes.
A dove mourns outside.
The rage in his heart slowly dissipates until, finally, it is gone.
His heart content, his mind at ease, Michael makes his way to the refrigerator. There, he pulls out a carton of milk, fills a glass, then walks it to the microwave.
Mother used to say that warm milk would chase the worries away.
Hopefully, he thinks, it will.
“Michael,” the CEO of the company says. “Do you have the reports ready?”
“Yes sir,” Michael says, swallowing a lump in his throat. He toys with the flaps on the manila folder and hopes that the sweat on his palms hasn’t stained it as he musters up the urge to make his speech.
“Are you going to tell us?”
A murmur of activity begins around the circular table.
“Yuh-Yes sir,” Michael says, standing.
“Something tells me this isn’t going to be good,” an investor mumbles.
Michael tries to ignore the man’s words, reaching into the folder in order to distract himself, but the moment he sees the charts and graphs, he panics. Goosebumps break out along his arms and the hairs on the back of his neck sticks straight on end.
The perfect storm is before him. It’s ready to destroy his life.
Taking a deep breath, Michael pulls the papers from the folder and spreads them out on the table before him.
“The company will last three more weeks,” he says. “Then we’ll go bankrupt.”
The committee gasps.
An imaginary gong sounds.
Tears threaten to break Michael’s eyes.
He can’t deny it anymore.
In less than three weeks, his job will be gone.
He has no idea what he will do.
When work ends, he doesn’t go home. Instead, he detours to a coffee shop with hopes of drowning himself in caffeine.
Seated at the bar, waiting for his cider to arrive, Michael sighs and bows his face into his hands, massaging his temples and dreading the idea of going home.
What’ll I tell her? he thinks. What will she think?
The answer, as obvious as it already is, doesn’t sit well with him. Emilin has known about the company’s slow decline to bankruptcy since it began late last year. Always she has said that it would be fine, that if something did happen, he could find another job. Regardless, the answer she always offers is not the one that is necessarily needed. Emilin doesn’t work. She’s offered to, but with her multiple sclerosis, he’s always said that he would win the bread, that he would bring the venison home for dinner.
“Here you are.”
Michael looks up, thinking it is he who is being served, but comes to find that another man has just received his drink. He’s about to turn his head to the side before the stranger smiles at him.
For a brief moment, Michael stares, unable to contain himself.
The stranger, briefly introduced by a tag embossed with the name Peter, winks at him.
“Michael,” the coffeemaker says. “Here’s your…”
He barely stops to think.
Grabbing his coffee, giving the woman a quick thanks, Michael walks out of the coffee shop with sweat streaming down his back.
“Are you well?” Emilin asks the moment he walks through the door.
“Fine,” Michael says, setting his drink on the counter. Emilin looks at the cup with mute indecision. “Oh, shit. I’m so sorry, Emilin. Here, take it. I didn’t mean…”
“No, don’t worry. You look like you need it more than I do.”
Feeling more of an ass since he’s walked through the door, Michael shakes his head and starts toward the living room, his destination already set. However, before he can cross the threshold, a hand brushes his back and stops him in place.
“What’s wrong, Michael? Tell me.”
“Nothing,” he smiles. “Don’t…”
“It’s about work, isn’t it.”
Michael sighs, nodding.
“You can always see through me,” Michael says, seating himself at the end of the couch. “You’ve always been able to.”
“I’m your wife,” Emilin says. “I can tell when something is wrong.”
Silence clouds the room for the next few moments. Michael, saying nothing, looks to the ground, at his freshly-polished shoes, while Emilin, waiting for a response, looks to Michael, at his hazel eyes and the doubt that clouds them.
“I had a meeting today,” Michael finally says. “About the company going downhill.”
“How did it go?”
“Not good. I wanted to run out the moment I said the company would be bankrupt in three weeks.”
Again, silence washes over the room, but Emilin quickly remedies the situation by setting a hand at the middle of his back.
“I’m sorry,” she whispers. “It’s not your fault.”
“I know, but it sure feels like it.”
Standing, Michael starts toward the bedroom, but once again stops.
“I’m going to take a shower,” he says.
“All right,” Emilin replies.
Michael starts forward without another word.
He can only hope the weekend will be better.
“Hey!” someone calls.
Michael looks up.
Seated atop his own dalapago, waving his hand and flashing his teeth, is another boy, his blonde hair shifting in the breeze as the dalapagos continue down the mountainside.
“Hi!” Michael calls back, smiling. “What’s your name?”
“Peter!” the boy laughs. “What’s yours?”
“Are you going to the House of Dreams?”
“Of course!” Peter calls back, ducking as a stray branch from a gumdrop tree comes into view. “Are you?”
“I’m going,” Michael says.
“Have you ever been there before?”
“It’s great!” Peter laughs, taking hold of his galapago’s neck. “You need to lay down. They’re going to go through the tunnels!”
Michael throws himself down just as they enter a tunnel.
“That wasn’t very pleasant,” Maximillian the Dalapago says.
“Sorry,” Michael murmurs.
“Oh well. That’s fine. Have you made a new friend?”
“I… I guess.” Michael frowns.
“It seems like I’ve seen him somewhere before. I just wish I knew where.”
“No matter. You’ll be seeing him again here shortly.”
“Maximillian,” Michael says, pressing his head to the worm’s neck. “Why can’t this world exist?”
“It does,” the dalpago says. “It does.”
Michael wakes crying.
Curled into a ball, back facing his face, he draws his portion of the blanket to his face and takes a deep breath.
His head thumps.
His lungs scream.
His heart hurts.
Why did it have to end?
He was in my dream, he thinks. Peter… he… he was…
The coffee shop flashes before his vision. He, sitting at the bar, waiting for his drink; a man, sitting nearby, stubble lining his square jaw and tracing his thin lips, waiting for the same. His mouth need not smile when his eyes, so crystal in clarity, can do such a thing, but seeing the interior of his beautiful frame had been the greatest gift of all.
A shiver runs down Michael’s back, tracing his tailbone and tickling his thighs.
His groin throbs.
His erection lengthens.
Crawling out of bed, he steals into the bathroom and locks the door behind him, falling to his knees and wrapping his hand around himself. His head roars and his eyes roll into his skull as an unstoppable pressure forces itself across his body. Dark memories and closeted desires come flooding back in an instant, assaulting him from all ends. He silences a groan by biting down on his arm as he continues, squeezing his eyes shut at the thoughts that roll through his head. The man, his eyes, his smile, his teeth—by the time he is done, Michael is breathless. His hands are sweaty and his chest is heaving, moisture slicking its surface and dampening the hair dusted across his torso.
For a moment, the feeling is nothing he could have imagined.
By the time he realizes what he’s done, Michael is crying.
Why? he thinks. Why now, after all this time?
Unable to contain his sobs, Michael reaches into the bathtub, turns the showerhead on, and destroys the evidence of his lust.
There’s no reason to deny it now.
He married the wrong person.
He never fell in love.
Michael wakes up the following morning and leaves the bed without disturbing his wife. After showering, shaving and climbing into a set of clothes, he walks out into the kitchen, where he drinks a cup of coffee and eats a piece of toast before heading out into the world. Locking the door, walking down the driveway, crawling into the car and pushing the key into the ignition—it takes little more than forty-five minutes for him to disappear, if only for a few hours. Though he knows he won’t be gone for long, he thrusts himself into his journey as though he will never return.
Making his way out of the town and into the wild countryside, he winds through hills and skirts the edge of forests, passes the remnants of civilizations and explores the world untouched by man. Once every so often, he pauses to look at the land around him, but always moves forward. There is no need to stop, he knows, because whatever it is he is looking for will eventually find him.
Come the birth of mid-morning, Michael pulls his car to a stop in front of a monument to history.
There, at the edge of a cliff, is a river, expanding out as far as his eyes can see.
Taking a moment to console himself from his hour-and-a-half journey, Michael bows his head into the steering wheel and takes a deep breath. Afterward, he climbs out of the car and walks to the wooden fence, where he circles his hands around the wood and leans forward.
I’ve come all this way, he thinks. Now what do I do?
He doesn’t force the image to come. Instead, he closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and listens to the world around him.
Birds, water, the whisper of the wind against his ears—it soothes his aching heart and stills his wandering thoughts.
The memory flows before him as though it has never been forgotten.
Ten years ago, on the eve of his fifteenth birthday, his mother walked into the room with the Bible in her arms. One hand set over the cross, the other grasping its spine, her eyes had sought him out in the gloomy darkness of the room. He’d been reading then, he remembers, under the icy light of a slowly-dying desk lamp. The look on his mother’s face was one he would never forget. Her hair, usually drawn back, had been down, and her old, gnarled hands—laced with wrinkles and veins—had trembled, as though sad and full of worry.
Mother? he’d asked.
I know, Michael.
About the things under your bed.
Even the memory of the words sends ripples through Michael’s heart.
What things? he’d asked.
The magazines, she’d replied. I know what you’ve been doing when your father and I are asleep.
A moment can be described as many things. Wonderful, ecstatic, heartbreaking, terrifying—there are many moments in life that allow you to look back on them with clarity so clear they could have happened yesterday. At that very moment in his life, Michael had felt a fear so great it would haunt him for the rest of his life. He swore his heart had stopped and his mind had locked up, because a moment later—after his breath returned and his eyes came into focus—his mother had stepped forward and her hands were shaking worse than they had before.
It’s the Devil, she’d said. You know it, Michael.
The Devil tempts you, as he tempts us all. But you are young. You can still recover. Pray with me, Michael. Pray with me so your soul can be saved.
Regardless of its clarity, the memory goes no further. He cannot remember what his mother said after she asked to save his soul. All he can remember is her hand on his wrist and his hand on the Bible, tears in his eyes and agony in his heart.
“It’s all right,” he whispers. “You can open your eyes.”
He does just that.
He is greeted by clouds rolling in from the ocean.
This is what I came here for, he thinks. To remember what happened. To know what I really am.
Sliding a hand in his pocket, Michael turns and makes his way to his car.
Along the way, he loosens the ring on his hand.
When it falls from his finger—when it bounces in his pocket—relief fills his heart.
He knows what’s true.
He knows what he has to do.
“Michael,” Emilin says. “Where were you?”
Michael looks up.
His wife is sitting at the kitchen counter, eyes wide and cheeks bloated.
She’s been crying, he thinks, all because of me.
“Out,” he says, then sighs, running a hand through his hair. “I’m sorry I didn’t leave a note. I needed to think about some things.”
“What things?” Emilin frowns. “Michael… what’s wrong?”
“We need to talk, Emilin.”
Shaking his head, Michael steps forward and settles down beside his wife.
Taking her hand in his, he closes his eyes and takes a deep breath.
“About my life,” he says. “I’ve been lying to you for a very long time, Emilin. It’s time I tell you the truth.”
Emilin agrees to a divorce on friendly terms.
The day after Emilin moved back home with her mother, Michael steps into the coffee shop and seeks out the front counter. When he doesn’t see the man named Peter, he frowns, but isn’t dissuaded. He steps forward and settles down in one of the bar stools, relieved when he sees a familiar face.
“Hi,” the waitress who served him no more than three days ago says. “What can I get you today?”
“I didn’t come in for coffee,” he smiles. “I was looking for an employee. Peter.”
“Peter?” the woman laughs. “He doesn’t work here anymore.”
“He moved back to Japan.”
Michael isn’t able to respond.
No, he thinks, trembling. He can’t… he… not after—
“Can I get you anything before you leave?” the woman says, reaching toward the computer console. “Coffee, cider, a scone?”
“Nuh-No,” Michael stutters, stumbling from his stool. “Thu-Thank you.”
Unable to control himself, he turns and leaves.
Tears are in his eyes.
In pain and agony, hurt and despair, he throws himself to the bed, to the throes of dreams and the monsters of nightmares.
He wakes nestled against the curve of the dalapago’s neck. Confused, disoriented, and unsure of his location, Michael opens his eyes and raises his head, only to be blinded by a dazzling light a moment later.
“Where are we?” he asks, bowing his face into the creature’s flesh.
“The House of Dreams,” Maximillian says. “The home of all the good and wonder that exists.”
“Are we really?”
“We are really.”
Shielding his eyes, Michael raises his head to find that the immense light that blinded him moments before is none other than a string of peppermint. Wrapped in cords and melting together like some beautiful, Siamese twin, it frames the roof of the snow-covered house, casting the area in rays of white and red.
That’s why I can’t see it from the hill, he thinks, stepping toward the house. It doesn’t let you see it until you’re right here.
Maybe this is why you are meant to walk the path instead of looking for it. Maybe this is why seeing isn’t just believing, why knowing isn’t understanding, why hoping doesn’t necessarily mean it will come true.
Maybe, just maybe, this is why miracles are meant to exist.
Michael looks up.
Peter is standing at the doorway, waving his arms back and forth.
“I thought you were gone!” Michael cries, running to the boy’s side. “I couldn’t find you!”
“I never left!” Peter laughs, wrapping his arms around Michael. “What made you think that?”
“I…” Michael frowns. “I don’t know.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Peter says. “Come on. Let’s go.”
Turning, both boys look at the gingerbread house, then at one another.
They lace their hands together and run forward.
Michael wakes crying. Ripped from a dream of a world so perfect that problems don’t exist, he rolls onto his side and tries to ignore the festering pain in his chest. He reaches forward, toward Emilin’s side of the bed, but realizes she isn’t there and begins to sob.
All this, he thinks, just because of a memory.
Had he not taken that drive, he would have never remembered that night or the reasoning behind it—or would he? Could it be possible that, had he stayed home—content with the warmth of his sheets, wife and bed—he would have never remembered anything, or would it have even mattered?
No, he thinks. It happened before that.
Almost immediately, Peter enters his mind.
Another strangled sob escapes his throat.
Japan—why there, of all places? Did he have family, friends, an estranged lover who beckoned him back with the wave of his hand? Surely Peter had a partner, a man to call his own. No man so beautiful in body and soul was alone in this world. He couldn’t be, not with a smile that shined like a thousand rainbows and eyes the color of Niagara Falls.
“It doesn’t matter,” Michael wails. “Because he’s gone!”
He throws what used to be Emilin’s pillow from the bed.
A picture shatters, then falls to the floor.
In the faint light pouring from the window, a woman sits trapped behind a pane of broken glass.
Behind her, a man who used to be Michael stands.
He isn’t smiling.
Neither is she.
It was the best picture of their wedding day.
They must have captured the wrong moment, for both of them should have been smiling.
For three days, Michael hasn’t been able to dream. Each day, he has woken to the light of a new day, only to cry and remain in bed until his body is too sore to sleep.
That night, under the cover of darkness, Michael walks to the bedroom with a glass of warm milk in hand.
Its touch against his lips brings him warmth.
His mind at ease, Michael lays his head down for sleep.
He begins to fall.
At the end of a long, dark tunnel, a light appears. Then all goes black.
“Michael,” Peter says. “Can I ask you something?”
“Sure,” Michael says. “What is it?”
At first, Peter doesn’t speak. He seems distracted by the events around him. The children screaming, the gingerbread laughing, the dalapagos smiling and the other, candy-creatures dancing—it seems chaotic in this house of dreams, but it is anything but. They seem to exist in a world all their own, so at first, Michael frowns when Peter doesn’t speak. Then, after a moment, he realizes that his question must not have been thought out, that he first asked without thinking of what he was going to say.
“Peter?” Michael asks.
“Sorry,” the other boy laughs. “I didn’t expect you to say yes.”
“I dunno. You didn’t seem to want to look at me before.”
“Before,” Peter says, then frowns. “Before… in that other place.”
“Oh.” Michael looks down at his feet. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s ok.” Peter sets a hand on Michael’s thigh. “I know what I was going to ask.”
“If you could do anything,” Peter begins, “if you could do anything you could to stay in Wonderland—anything at all—would you.”
“Of course I would. Wouldn’t you?”
“I’d do anything at all,” Peter smiles. “Anything in the world.”
“So would I,” Michael says, pressing his hand into the cotton candy.
His fingertips touch Peter’s.
He can’t help but smile.
Late the next night, after a long day of indecision, he enters the master bedroom and begins to comb through the medicine cabinet. Its interior spacious, its contents few, he begins at the top row and works his way down, all the while set on finding one particular thing. From the top row he pulls tubes of toothpastes and long-forgotten razors, while on the rows below he retrieves prescription drugs and over-the-counter medication. Most of it is painkillers—Ibuprofen and Aspirin, the angels in your pocket—while some of it offers relief in other ways.
Emilin used to say that a good night of sleep didn’t exist. Such is the reason for tonight’s pursuit.
Pushing an aging bottle of shaving cream out of his way, Michael sighs and sets a hand against his forehead.
He knows it’s here.
Where could it be?
Come on, he thinks. It has to be…
It glints at him from the corner of the cabinet.
Reaching forward, he wraps his hand around the bottle and draws it toward him.
Only one word is visible in the glow fading off the nightlight.
A touch—so humanlike and not at the same time—blooms across his chest. An orchid of trust or a devil of relief, its petals spread from his ribs to his shoulder, from his stomach to his abdomen, then back again. As it blooms, birthed from the realization of something so simple, its anthers creep forward like silent killers drawn from the shadows, then begin to vibrate, echoing across its petals and into the wider aspects of the room. First the mirror seems to move, then the walls, crawling with life and laughter, then the floor begins to melt below him. Hands reach up from the depths of nothing and claw at his legs. One grabs his pant leg while another wraps around his shoe. Oddly enough, they do not tug him down. Instead, they seem to be pushing him aside, as though it is not him they want, but something else.
What is this? he thinks, tightening his hold on the bottle. What is this hell below my feet?
Out of nowhere, something presses against his back.
A claw wraps around his neck.
It’s this that you fear, the creature says, the things that you have always known.
Swallowing a lump in his throat, Michael nods. The monster relinquishes its hold and skirts into the shadow. When Michael turns, he sees a crown of gold atop its head. Pendants and medallions dangle from its obscure, hornlike headdress, blanketing its face in wealth, while its eyes—black holes unto themselves—peer out at him from what appears to be a ceremonial mask. What isn’t obscured by said ornamental creation appears to be broken armor, but Michael isn’t particularly concerned about its appearance. What he does know, however, is that it has come with purpose.
“What are you?” he asks.
Something that all know, but few acknowledge.
“What do you want from me?”
Nothing. It is what you want from me.
Michael frowns. He backs toward the threshold, but is caught off guard when the creature lunges forward. A shawl of dead animal fur adorns the curve of its plated shoulders, only barely obscuring the sickly, three-fingered claws that tip its arms. These too appear to be made from plate armor, but he doesn’t linger on their appearance. It has stopped him from walking out of the room, forbidden him from ignoring its call. He has to acknowledge it.
“Are you from Wonderland?” he asks.
I am from everywhere and nowhere at once.
“Are you here to help me?”
To guide you, yes, but not to decide.
“What do you want me to know?”
That you will never escape hardship no matter where you go, that life, as perfect as it may seem, it never as such.
“You’re saying Wonderland isn’t perfect?”
It is merely a mask of what it might really be.
“Do you know what it is?”
It is your choice what you decide to do, mortal, but know that no matter where you go, no matter what you may believe, that nothing is perfect.
Before Michael can question it any further, the creature vanishes, leaving behind only the scent of rot.
Fleeing from the room, Michael makes his way toward his bed and seats himself atop it. In his hand is the Ambien, at his side the glass of water specifically chosen for this mission. Though the scent of rot is gone, it lingers in his mind.
“My choice,” he whispers.
Because nothing is perfect.
Bowing his head, Michael closes his eyes.
Peter, Wonderland, Maximillian, the House of Dreams—whatever can compare to a perfect world?
Lifting his head, Michael presses the bottle’s cap down and rotates it.
He pulls a pill from its depths.
Slipping it between his lips, he lifts the glass of water, then tilts it into his mouth. He swallows the first pill before taking another, then the next. He repeats this process for an indefinite amount of time, his mind lost in other places. Trees topped with gumdrops sprout on the road outside his house, while a pair of gingerbread men prance across the neighbor’s lawn, one laughing while the other raises a hand in silence. A dalapago appears from a doghouse, then slides across the road, while in the distance what appears to be a comet plummets, a candy-like string trailing behind it.
For one brief moment, Michael fears Wonderland may be impossible to reach.
Shortly thereafter, he realizes Wonderland is closer than ever before.
Lying down, taking his last sip of water, he rests his head on the pillow and closes his eyes.
This is it, he thinks.
The world begins to darken.
His heart begins to slow.
Then, with a smile on his face, Michael begins to dream.
They are lying on a bed together. Staring into one another’s eyes, smiles on their faces, Michael slowly comes to the realization that he is no longer in pain. Gone is the hurt in his heart and the anguish in his mind. Gone is the idea that he will always be alone, that he will never be completed. Gone is the feeling that there is nothing better than Wonderland.
“Is something wrong?” Peter asks.
Michael shakes his head.
“No,” he says. “Nothing’s wrong.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m sure,” Michael smiles. “Everything’s perfect.”
In the moments that follow, Peter’s eyes soften and his breathing comes to a halt. He leans forward, as though wanting to come closer, but stops short. His lips purse and his eyes flicker, briefly illuminating an emotion Michael has never truly felt.
“Peter,” Michael whispers.
“Yeah?” Peter asks.
Michael reaches up. His hand touches Peter’s cheek.
Peter leans forward.
Their lips touch.
Some say that eternal happiness can never exist, that it is a state of mind and never a state of presence. They say that love only happens once and never again, that after that first moment you feel as though you are really, truly loved, everything else is false—unreal, an illusion to a perfect, first time.
Some say Wonderland doesn’t exist.
Those that do are wrong.