Short story competition 2017 – Second place: The Elf in the Machine

The Elf in the Machine

By Casper Rudolph

ONE

I’m sitting beside her on the couch in our living room, and we’re drinking our evening tea.

“In the dream,” I tell her, “I was a child. I plucked a rose on an open plain at sunset, and watched it wither as the sun went down. Watched how the petals, the thorns, crumbled to dust in my hand as the sun’s crimson hues, like blades, cut the life from the wild flower. Then I heard a distant voice calling out to me, and the humming of a bird.”

She smiles. “How odd,” she says. “It sounds beautiful, but it seems like imagery found in romantic poetry.”

“Yeah. You’re right. But it didn’t quite end there. I dreamed I slowly woke up, like a false awakening. The first thing I discovered was that I couldn’t move, as if a weight was pressing down on my chest, and I had trouble breathing. The next thing I noticed was that the colour of the wallpaper was off; it was a muddy sort of orange.”

“Is this when you realised it was a dream?” she asks, almost rhetorically.

“No, I didn’t. But the state of paralysis did diminish after a while, and I sat up in bed. Morning rays fell into our room through a crack between the curtains. Then I saw a little creature sitting on the windowsill.”

“What?” There’s a hint of a chuckle in her voice.

“Yeah. Imagine a koala with green fur and black dots. First it winked at me, then it leaped toward the edge of the bed. It started speaking to me, but all I remember is one strange question that it asked: ‘Can you still tell the difference between a dream and reality?’”

“Well,” she says with a serious look on her face, “if there’s anyone who can, it’s you, right?”

I shrug and lean back on the couch. “To be honest, sometimes I wonder if maybe dreams are just as real as waking life.”

The sudden noise of the doorbell cuts our conversation short. “I’ll go,” she says, and I watch her disappear into the hall.

TWO

I’m climbing the stairs, following a trace of a sound like a dog after a scent.

I reach forward, and swing open the door. On the bed, with his back turned to me, sits a man in a black hoodie, cross-legged, like a meditating monk. A rush of shock shoots up my spine when I see him. “Who the hell are you?” I demand as I step inside the bedroom.

“Hello, Andrew,” the stranger says.

“You know my name?” I anxiously look around for something I could use as a weapon. A heavy book. Anything.

“Don’t be afraid, Andrew,” he says.

The door closes behind me with a slight thud. I try to open it, but it won’t budge. I turn around again, and stand with my back against the door as I see him facing me.

“I’m not here to hurt you,” he says. “I’m here to talk. That’s all.”

“Show me your face,” I insist.

Without question, he reaches with gloved hands for the hood, and my eyes widen at the sight. Atop his shoulders I see the head of a black bear, and on his brow, above his dark eyes, there’s a third eye that glows indigo.

By reflex I glance at the alarm clock. It reads 75:83. Any feelings of fright subside now. I look to the bear and smile. “I’m dreaming,” I say.

“In a way, yes,” the bear says, and his third eye gazes at me. It feels like a needle is piercing into my forehead. “Your wife is downstairs, isn’t she? Don’t you wonder who’s at the door?”

I look at him with narrow eyes. “This is my dream,” I say. “There’s nobody at the door.”

His face remains emotionless. “Let’s have a look, then, shall we?”

He waves his hand and I hear the bedroom door behind me. I turn, and watch how it opens upon the hall. What I see puzzles me, as there she stands with slumped shoulders, crying. Beyond her I see a police officer with a grave face. Like spectres, hollow words come floating at me from across the hall. (Car crash…hospital…doctors…all they could. Sorry for your loss.) I bear witness, and a cloak of dread falls over me. My hands are shaking, even though I know that none of this is real.

“Do you understand?” the black bear says, standing beside me.

“Why am I dreaming this?” I ask.

I feel his gloved hand heavy on my shoulder. “Look at me, Andrew,” he says. “Look closely and clarity is yours.”

So I look into the glowing, gemlike eye, and let its brilliancy envelop me.

THREE

In this endless indigo I’m weightless. I can’t pinpoint the location, nor the direction. I’m inside an all-seeing eye, yet I see only a single colour. In the centre of my mind I hear a tone resonating at a high frequency, and other sounds come in, and I realise what I’m hearing is music.

I detect shapes and movement, and the music is getting louder. When I blink it is as if a blindfold is torn from my face, and I see:

I’m in a crowd in an enormous hall. They’re dancing to music produced by a man with a pink monkey mask behind the deejay booth on the stage. Standing still, I look up and behold countless of starlike lights glittering on the ceiling. Though surrounded by joy and beauty, I still feel darkness looming over me.

This brief moment of reflection under artificial stars is interrupted by a spotlight shining on me, and the music is killed abruptly. I realise that I’m standing here naked among hundreds of souls.

“Look who it is!” someone shouts. “The man of the hour!” It’s the deejay, only he no longer wears a mask. He has become a pink baboon, and he’s standing at the edge of the stage.

The spotlight dies, and the room is awash with blue and red and yellow at once. The people around me now have green skin and golden eyes. The pink baboon beckons me.

The crowd clears a path as I approach. The baboon grabs my hand and helps me onto the stage. “Hey, buddy,” he says, “you feelin’ okay? You look a little dazed.”

“Dazed?” I say. “I know I’m dreaming. You and this crowd are just thought-forms created by my subconscious.”

“And yet,” the baboon says, “you still can’t see the difference between dreams and reality.”

The sensation of dread reaches my throat, as though a fist is constricting me. “I…I can,” I manage to say. “Dreams…they’re just part of our imagination. Nothing but immaterial thoughts.”

The baboon grins from ear to ear. “But where do our thoughts come from? What is the mind?”

I open my mouth but lack any answers. Then I realise that the crowd and the hall have vanished. We’re standing in a beam of white light against a black backdrop. I look at the baboon and say softly, “I just wanna wake up.”

His smile fades, and makes way for a sad frown. Before I can ask what’s going on, he steps up to me and presses his finger to my forehead. Blinding light flares up behind my eyes, taking me away.

FOUR

I’m with my friend in his car; he’s driving us down a highway. I feel my forehead pulsating, and the outside lights and road signs shine like neon in the night.

“Do you fear death?” my friend asks casually.

“No,” I tell him. “I’m just afraid to leave behind loved ones without saying goodbye.”

“I get that,” he says. “What do you suppose is on the other side?”

Before us the highway ends at the edge of the world, and beyond I see a colourless emptiness, with not a single star, or planet, or moon, in sight. It’s black and cold, and eternal.

“There must be something out there,” I say.

“Heaven?” he suggests, driving onward.

“Maybe,” I say. “I hope so.”

We drive off the earth, and float into space, and drift awhile in silence until we stop, suspended in eternity.

“We’ve run out of gas,” he says.

I sigh, and look out the windshield. There’s a radiance in the distance. “Do you see that?” I ask.

“See what?” He sounds confused. “There’s nothing there. Only darkness.”

In the back of my mind a voice whispers: Come home to me, Andrew. I look at my friend, and know he couldn’t hear that. He’s just a thought-form.

“I think I have to go on alone,” I tell him.

“I understand,” he says. “Farewell, Andrew.”

“Goodbye,” I say, and I open the door before emotions get in the way.

I fly to the radiance, and its source turns out to be a rose of impossible proportions, blooming in vacuum. It bows to me, and a force pulls me into its vibrant heart. There’s brightness and warmth here, and deeper still I hear the humming of a bird. Moving into the centre, I close my eyes, and accept.

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