Feeling my way through the darkness,
Guided by a beating heart.
I can't tell where the journey will end,
But I know where to start.
They tell me I'm too young to understand.
They say I'm caught up in a dream.
Life will pass me by if I don't open up my eyes,
Well, that's fine by me.
~ Avicii ft. Aloe Blacc
"Wake Me Up"
Justin Clay had gone from being a confused college student at Michigan State University, majoring in Communications and having no clue where to go or what to do with his life - to a sword-wielding, duster-wearing cowboy in a land of Celtic mythology caught in the middle of a civil war. This kind of journey was more than life-altering - it was the kind of experience that made a Humpty Dumpty out of reality and then booted his ass off the wall - shattering it so profoundly against a deeper, darker truth, that nothing would ever be the same again. The pieces would never fit back together because they had never belonged together in the first place.
[East Lansing, Michigan, USA]
The winds of autumn swept through the trees of Michigan State University's northern lamp lit campus. As Justin Clay walked along the winding sidewalks, a storm of crisp fallen leaves spiraled down to the earth. It was late October and the treetops were crimson, dark purple and pale gold; the fields of grass and sidewalks were all blanketed with scattered layers of fallen leaves that crunched under his feet.
As he wandered up the sidewalk running parallel to Physics Road, the strong smell of deep fried chicken wafted over from the cafeterias of Phillips and Snyder Hall. He grinned to himself. It was chicken strip Wednesday. Back when he had lived in Case Hall, the cafeterias served chicken strips every Wednesday. His old Case Hall dorm-mates had begun referring to them affectionately as chicken sliders - because no matter how crispy and tasty they were, by the time you finished eating a plate, you already had to take a shit. About two-thirds through dinner, people started getting uncomfortable and shifty in their seats. With bubbling bombs in their guts, it was a race back upstairs. There were two people to a room, and they shared a bathroom with suitemates, which left only one toilet for four guys. Nobody wanted to be second in the bathroom. People would actually sprint off the elevator; the hallway would thunder with the pounding of running footsteps. Then it was the jingle-jangle of keys as everyone tried frantically to open their door and get to that untouched bathroom. Then you'd hear doors slamming and people cursing.
Those were the days. Good times with good peeps.
But those days were gone, swept away like the leaves of last year's fall. A new season had come. Another year had passed. The last echoes of summer faded like the red light from a setting sun.
Those weren't the memories his mother wanted to hear about. She wanted to know that he was making something of his life. But all he had done for the last three years was drift through college without a clue - no direction, no goal in sight. But how could he explain that none of the job categories out there interested him? It wasn't that he didn't want to work, he did. But he simply had no interest in anything he had seen so far. He'd switched his major five times now... everything from computer programming to creative writing. He'd taken philosophy and psychology and political science. He did find interest in the subjects but had no desire to work in any of the fields.
How do you explain to people that you aren't satisfied with your options without sounding spoiled and conceited? He never had a life of stability or wealth. His childhood was riddled with abandoned homes, lost friends and surrendered opportunities. In fact, he remembered, not long after his parents separated, spending one summer living in a van, sleeping in a YMCA parking lot. If that wasn't embarrassing enough, his mother had gone on the news and broadcast it to the world. She had been trying to shame his father, but only ended up humiliating the kids. "Just think of it as a camping trip," she'd said. Right.
He had later found out that his father had been sending them a couple thousand dollars a month and his mother had been banking it for her 'dream home'. In fact, in those last years, whenever his father had tried to reach out, to offer a way bridge the gap with Justin or his siblings, their mother had always had a way to crush it - and she was so good at having a good excuse. He couldn't hate her, she was his mother, but he really just didn't want to deal with her at the moment. What infuriated him the most is that she would never take accountability for anything, not a single decision she'd made. Justin had always been taught to own up to his actions, by his father of course. His mother would second that teaching, even though she was not a follower of that philosophy herself. But at present, none of that mattered. He was on his own.
He felt lost and abandoned... floating through the sea of life without a paddle. No matter how hard he worked to put the sails up - the wind just wasn't blowing. He was just... drifting.
Grand Avenue, the lifeline of MSU's eating and drinking life, was just ahead. It formed the northern border of campus - separating the school buildings from the off-campus housing. Most of the houses in this part of town were old, two-story houses that had never been upgraded because most of the time it was four or five college students renting them, and the landlords didn't feel the need to spend more money. The students didn't seem to care about such details as dependable appliances or nice paint and carpeting. They knew they were just going to party and ruin half of it anyway.
As he crossed Grand Avenue and rounded the corner to Kedzie street, a strong autumn wind washed over him - sending a waterfall of colorful leaves cascading down over the concrete. Glowing jack-o-lanterns grinned at him from numerous window sills and porches. Ghosts and skeletons hanging from tree branches swayed in the breeze. Here and there a few spider webs stretched from tree to porch railing or down over window panes. Halloween was hovering at the doorstep.
Pounding bass reverberated through the air - the weekend parties were awakening. As he strolled down the leaf-strewn Kedzie street, his old white house was warm with the glow of late afternoon lights, his roommates preparing for a party of their own.
He entered quietly, slipping up the stairs to his room unnoticed. Slinging his hunter-camo backpack onto his bed, he slumped into his battered leather computer chair. But instead of moving the mouse to wake his screen, he simply stared at the dark monitor and fell into deep thought.
It had been at least a week since he'd been in Akralon - the other world... the world of dreams. A week of real life and who knew how much time had passed in the dream world. He knew, amidst everything that had been happening back in the misty forests of Fablemyr, he really should've returned by now. But for some indescribable reason, he just couldn't bring himself to do it. Things had gotten too out of control. Real people may have even died. He felt no pull to be a part of that madness any longer. It was easy enough to just remain in real life and forget the fantasy. Certainly, if he waited long enough, waded back into the stream of normality - of classes and studying and college parties - it would all become a distant dream.
As real as the dream world felt while he had been in it, the longer he stayed here in East Lansing, Michigan, the less real it became. With each passing day, he began to wonder more and more if any of it had happened at all - if it just been a really lucid dream. It seemed to fade from his memory at an exponential rate... not the memories themselves, but the feeling that any of it had actually happened. Yet, despite his faltering grasp on the reality of his dream world experience, the memories of the faces, the personalities, the camaraderie, still filled his vision when he closed his eyes. Likewise, he remembered that the longer he had stayed in Akralon, the less he had cared about things in his earthly life and the less he felt the need to return. Maybe that was the reason for flickering? Some kind of balance? Maybe, like the old man, the World War II vet who had traveled once and never returned, had told him - the pull on new travelers was too strong to stay, too easy for them to abandon their real lives - to escape somewhere new and magical where they could start over and redefine themselves. Maybe the point of experiencing the dream world wasn't to abandon the real world, but to return to it with a wider, deeper perspective. Like a pilgrimage.
Akralon was like a drug. It came during times of intense emotional stress. Maybe because those were the times in a person's life when they had the loosest ties to life on Earth. Maybe because in the midst of the turmoil they were looking for a way out, for some place to escape to. Someone who was madly in love would never find it - because they were too happy - and their desire to get back to real life would be unshakeable.
Did that make Akralon's dream portals sinister? Or was it merely that only an injured heart could see the deeper things of the world - of life? Do those who are sheltered and spoiled miss all opportunity for growth and understanding? Justin felt that might just be true. Anyone who had never been blindsided by a life-stopping obstacle had never truly lived. There was no journey. There was no story.
He sighed, leaning forward, elbows on his desk and rubbed his temples. The grim funeral was the last memory he had in Akralon. He could remember Emerald's words, her last remembrance of the friends she'd lost...
The first of five graves was marked by a gnarled oaken staff, lodged into the earth at the headstone. A single piece of parchment was laid over the stone. A list of ingredients. Not for a spell or any kind of magic - only a simple recipe. An Irish recipe for a special kind of peppered corned beef.
Emerald's green eyes were fastened on that dirty, bloodstained parchment. "Ash... cantankerous old druid. He lived just out of Kinsale, in county Cork. He'd never shut up about the famous seafood of The Blue Haven or its old blue clock. He hated emigrants. His philosophy was to stay and fix the problem, rather than run away, as many Irish did."
Her face turned slightly and Justin now felt she was talking to him as much as giving a eulogy. "In one of the rare moments he'd talk about his youth, maybe more from the whiskey, he told us all about standing on the edge of Kinsale Harbour and watching the ships sail by... gliding through cool waters... away to places unknown. Like many a child, he'd often wonder where they were going or what they were carrying. He said he was always happy to recognize a ship returning from sea. He said it gave him a sense of security, of community. It gave him hope that those who went away would return. That the community would last.
"In Akralon, he had a reverent respect for the forest - for all trees, for flowers and fungi, for shrub and herb. Gruff as he might've been, he loved this land with a passion rooted somewhere beyond the understanding of the modern, fast-paced world. He was a true protector of the realm. And he loved nature and he loved his home."
Justin remembered the black-bearded, scowling face of the sardonic druid. He cleared his throat and gave his own short words. "You were a cranky old bastard, I'll give you that. But you knew your craft," he gave a tip of his Stetson. "And don't make a fuss about this forest. We'll look after her." He felt honest when he'd said the word, but had he really meant them?
It was Carter, standing in his door way, wearing an orange polo sweater.
"Nah," Justin shrugged, "Just tired and psych class hurt my brain."
"You ready to get crunked tonight?" Carter smiled, his green eyes flashing.
"I wasn't planning on it, but we'll see."
"That's the spirit." Carter checked his watch. "People will probably start showing up around seven or eight - so get ready."
"Get crunked!!!" Barry's voice reverberated out of his room. As if in response, his roommate's speakers began blasting the song Butterfly. It was Barry's flavor of the week.
"I'm gonna take a shower and then we're gonna start grilling some steaks," Carter added.
Justin stared at his blank computer screen. "Sounds good."
Several hours later, the house was once again full of drunken college students, talking and bobbing to the music, carrying their red plastic cups full of whatever piss-water beer his roommates had ordered a keg of.
Justin was out back with Mark and Barry, grilling a second round of steaks that Barry had marinated all day. They had pretty much exhausted their liquor supply and were feeling mighty fine. Justin had long since abandoned cups and finished his Jack Daniels. In silent honor to the memory of his Irish friends in the dream world, he had bought a bottle of Jameson and was now carrying it around, taking swigs directly from the bottle.
"To the Irish!" he would yell, with each swig. Everyone thought he was toasting the drink and the culture. Only he knew what dark images filled his mind with each drink. The more he drank, the more his mind let go of all the nasty memories of their cold, pale bodies in the grassy meadow where he had found them, the more he convinced himself that everything was okay. Just keep downing that alcohol and let it wash away the problems of the world.
Barry rubbed his crotch in annoyance. "Man, remember that blonde bitch I took up to my room last weekend?"
"The weird one with the crooked face?" Mark smirked. "She gave you crabs, didn't she?"
"Fuck you," Barry smiled tightly. "And no. I'm clean as a whistle. But that chick was not down for the foreplay, let me tell you. She was all about the dry humping."
Justin laughed. "I didn't hear anything, so she must've been a real trooper."
"Oh yeah, she took it like a champ," Barry sighed. "And I've got some serious chafing going on. She shaves, but the stubble was coming back. It was downright painful, but she wouldn't let me touch her anywhere. She just wanted the D and nothing else."
"Sounds like you got used," Mark laughed. "She wanted some serious deep-dicking and you were the only guy around to give it, so she settled."
"Fuck you again," Barry retorted.
Justin smirked. "She was kind of weird looking..."
"Fuck you, Clay," Barry turned on him in mock indignation. "At least I got some. You let that fine ass redheaded beauty slip right through your fingers! I can't believe you blew that one. She practically gift-wrapped herself!"
"What?" Mark's curiosity was piqued.
"Yeah," Barry gave his impish grin again. "This bitch was a big-breasted, tight-assed, redheaded beauty who walked right into his room and sat down on his bed with an ace of spades wedged in her cleavage and a full cup of beer in hand. She wanted to get some. And all this chump did was talk to her. Talk to her. For like half an hour. Then she left." Barry groaned. "What a waste."
Mark looked to Justin for an explanation.
"What can I say?" Justin defended. "I can only think about one girl at a time, and at that time I was strung up on Mary. She was all I could think about."
"You weren't even in a relationship yet," Barry protested. "You could've hit that sweet ass and had no regrets!! I mean, god! She wanted it!"
Mark nodded with a satisfied smile. "That's dedication."
"That's a wasted opportunity," Barry shook his head. "I thought for sure you were gonna nail that. I was rootin' for ya."
"Thanks for the support," Justin chugged another throat-full of Jameson. "But I don't need help getting girls."
"You don't need help attracting them," Barry admitted, "You just need serious lessons on banging them." He laughed and Mark joined in.
Then Mark clapped him on the shoulder. "Justin..." He held up his blue can of Labatts, "You're a better man than most."
" Yeah, thanks."
"There goes Carter with that young sorority chick he's been eyeing," Barry nodded toward the kitchen.
Justin and Mark peered in the window and saw Carter leading a young brunette through the living room toward the stairs.
"Ten bucks says she runs out of the room crying in like ten minutes," Barry added. They all burst into laughing.
Justin and Mark returned their attention to the sizzling steaks.
"Mmmm," Justin hummed, "Smells mighty fine."
"Oh they will be," Barry promised. "These are masterpieces of art. And I'm damn sure not about to let this mob of drunken idiots eat up my excellently seasoned steaks." He looked at Mark, waving the two-pronged fork with gravity. "I know your big ass could probably eat them all and still have room for Burger King, but you only get one."
Mark shrugged, "I can fill this belly with beer and do a two-in-the-morning BK run!" He laughed.
"You're missing another weekend at U of M, aren't you?" Justin asked. "When was the last time you saw your girl?"
"She's been really busy with school," Mark shrugged. "You know she's a bookworm."
"Yup," Barry nodded, "Opposites attract. She's got the brains and you've got the smelly shits."
"I miss her visits," Justin laughed, "Because that's the only time you clean your room."
Mark burst into his high-pitched laughter.
"Yeah," Barry added, "It's starting to smell like death in there. I'm about to pay her to come down just so you can clean that toxic waste dump up and spare the rest of us the torture."
"It is kind of unfortunate that your dirty bedroom is right next to the kitchen," Justin said.
Mark shrugged. "If you guys really want a challenge, I could leave the bathroom door open every morning."
"Dear God, no," Barry protested. "I will seriously light your room on fire."
"Oh!" Barry turned the steaks again and inspected the color briefly. He eyed them both deviously. "You hear about the neighbors? The girls across the street?"
"What happened," Mark raised an eyebrow, "Did you bang one of them?"
"No," Barry chuckled, "But Len's been trying real hard. I mean real hard. There's four of 'em over there. Do you remember the one with reddish-brown hair, shoulder length, with the real big ta-tas?"
Mark cocked his head in curiosity. "He didn't..."
"He wishes,' Barry laughed. "Apparently she came over the other night. They were both drinking a lot, and then they ended up going into his room, making out a little and stuff. Then he started grabbing on her tits and she got pissed and left!" He burst out laughing. "The best part is that Len brags about how he got a good squeeze in. "
Mark sighed and shook his head.
"But that's not all," Barry now turned his attention to Justin. Though he was clearly talking to Mark, his eyes were locked on Justin. "Did you know she wanted to hang out with Mr. Clay here, 'bout a week ago? She made jokes about the old board game Clue, and told him they made a movie. She even agreed to go with him to rent it and watch it here - with him!"
Mark turned his curious, beer-glazed blue eyes to Justin now.
Barry grinned, "Guess what happened that night..."
Justin groaned and looked away.
"That's right!" Barry laughed, "Nothing! She agreed to something as lame as watching an old movie about a board game - just to be over here late with you - and you did nothing! You watched the friggin movie and then she went home!"
Mark laughed. "You're awesome, Justin."
Barry slapped him sympathetically on the shoulder, "Clay, you will hereby be deemed the King of Missed Opportunities."
Justin shrugged. "Always happy to entertain. It's what I'm here for."
Barry finished his Labatts and flung the empty can into the overflowing trash bin. He opened the cooler at the foot of the grill and fished in the icy water for the next blue can. He popped it open with a refreshing pssssss and took another swig.
Justin stared thoughtfully through the yellow glow of the kitchen window. The base from the living room stereo sent thrumming vibes through everyone inside and outside of the house. The bodies inside, all wearing their nice party clothes, danced and laughed and drank and talked. Pretty, made-up college girls in tight jeans and tight shirts, flashed their perfumed hair. Young bucks, itching for a chance to get physical, subtly flexed their muscles and sucked in their guts as they talked. They told stories to try to impress, with forced confidence.
"Hey," Barry's steady gaze shook him from his thoughts. "What would you do if Mary walked in right now?"
Justin's first impulse was to eagerly search the crowd inside, hoping against hope that Barry's question was inspired by her actual presence at the party. But with measured restraint, he refrained. He could tell by Barry's eyes that this was not the case. He silently reprimanded himself for being a pussy.
"I think I'd be pissed," he finally admitted. "I mean, unless she was here to apologize to me. She wouldn't, though." He offered a weak smile, "She won't be coming back here." He took another swig of his Jameson and stared at the party. "Not ever."
His own words echoed in his ears. Marry had moved on. Now it was his turn. That chapter of college romance had ended. There was no going back, no repairing it. That bridge was burned. Probably by him.
As the Irish whiskey burned down his throat and heated his stomach, he watched the drinking and dancing college partiers with a sense of detachment. Part of him felt like he didn't really belong here. Like this wasn't his real life. Part of him felt his real life was elsewhere... In Akralon.
Just hearing the name of the other world in his mind sparked a series of thoughts about life and purpose, struggles and goals. Somehow, some way, his time exploring the mysterious and mythological dreamscape brought clarity to his mind and to his purpose in real life. It was like traveling to a distant country and seeing outside one's culture and stereotypes. Stripped of all the things he used to define himself, surrounded by foreign landscapes and strange customs, he had to look deeper inside himself to find his true identity. Maybe that was what he needed. He had no money to travel to France or Ireland or Brazil. But he could go somewhere even further, more foreign... where dangerous adventure lurked around every corner. Maybe it was time to go back.