The dream first appeared to him on a canoeing trip in the high desert of Oregon. It came to him in the tent, in the afterglow of adrenaline from a spill he and his father had taken in a rapid. They’d run it because they couldn’t line it, a rapid that swept around a steep basalt curve, the green boiling water cutting deep under the cliffs and sweeping over a staircase falls. There were no shallows to wade the boat through safely. There were no tracks over the ridge, no portage that might allow them to jump a few hundred yards downstream and put back in the river. His father had grinned at him as they scouted the upstream approaches, knee-deep in the shallows and peering around the curve.
“Only one way to go,” his father had said, his voice half-drowned in the echo of the falls around the bend. The boy had felt the tug of the water along his legs. High above them a pair of turkey vultures wheeled lazily in the darkening sky. The sun had dipped beyond the far canyon wall, and the air had taken on the coolness of the rock – wet and clammy and densely cold.
Afterward, in the tent, the boy stripped to the skin and pulled on his polypropelene long johns from the dry bag. He then cocooned himself in his sleeping bag, watching his father through the screen of the tent. His father was standing naked by the fire, tending to makeshift laundry lines he’d strung between paddles jammed vertically into the sand. On the lines hung their jackets and socks, baking in the smoke. The fabric would be peppered with tiny burn holes from the sparks. His father’s skin was painted orange and red, his face pitted with shadows, his thin white hair a dandelion in the wind. The light danced on the canyon walls. The boy closed his eyes.
In his dream he was at the head of the rapid again, steadying the canoe as his father nosed the bow into the current. There was a fuzziness to the picture, a tippyness in the water that felt magnified, and the boy found himself watching the two approaches, inside and outside, knowing what had happened earlier, knowing that they were about to take the outside and flip, knowing that they’d catch a rock broadside halfway down and buckle into the water. He felt the stroke of his father’s paddle press them to the outside approach and he heard a voice. Here, it said, and the world slowed to a halt, the roar falling quiet as night snow. The water beneath his boat was held rigid, the air became a deep breath clutched in his chest. He looked left, then right.
The save points came anachronistically, he learned. They offered themselves up in his dreams, spottily here and there, with no seeming order or consistency to the events that produced them. He’d lie in his bed and they would develop as a memory within a dream, blooming amidst an ordinary recollection of the past day’s events. At the camping trip, and several times after that, he’d felt these dreams were different but he hadn’t known what it meant. He’d taken that step back in time, hovering at some moment now hours gone, and the voice – his voice, he learned – would offer him the choice. Here, it would say, and the world would freeze at the precipice of several options. Before he knew how to use them, in those early dreams, he’d look at the memory like a painting, scrolling his gaze around the edges to the details he hadn’t noticed the first time through. There had been a prairie falcon perched on a branch along the canyon walls by that rapid. Later, beyond the open door of his brother’s car, there had been a thin stalk of lightning etched in a cloud beyond the city’s skyline. He could inspect the brushwork of these scenes. He could zoom in and out, leap back into the void and then swing low across the landscape like a bird of prey. Then he’d return to where he’d been when the scene had paused. He’d do nothing, waiting for the sound and the motion to return. Eventually, time would start again, the memory would continue, and he would wake up.
On Christmas Eve, he tried something different. The dream that night was of the walk he and his father had taken in the woods that afternoon, a gray and rainy day where the fog drifted in off the Mississippi River and hung between the bare trunks of trees with a stink of brine and diesel. They’d had his father’s ancient dog, Loki, along with them. She was a mutt with shaggy black hair and stubby legs and a face like a little black bear, and she was always game for these walks. She’d bounded ahead along the trails off-leash while the boy and his father talked. They noticed after a while that the dog hadn’t come back around – their heyyy Loki! and come on girl! dissolving flatly in the wet air around them. The woods weren’t deep. They were flanked by the river on one side and the access road on the other, so they fanned out and started a sweep, calling her name, clapping and shouting, feeling a panic start to rise as they peered into tangled thickets, into sinkholes, underneath rafts of detritus washed into the underbrush. When darkness fell, the boy left his father on the edge of the woods and ran home to get flashlights. On the way, he’d pictured how his mother would react. He pictured how the light within the warm walls of his house would extinguish at the loss, how the holiday would become a perfunctory exercise, a ritual of self-comfort instead of celebration, a wake for wayward Loki. And then, when he’d arrived at home, there she was, bedraggled and wriggling in his mother’s arms. It turned out she’d gotten lost and just taken off for home. She’d crossed the access road, the highway traffic, navigated the neighborhood on her own and just showed up on their front porch, barking.
His mother had sent him back with flashlights, and his father cried when he found him there, still searching in the night woods. They made it to the late church service, and the four of them sat shoulder to shoulder in the pew. His brother prayed aloud when it was time. His mother kept an arm across each of their shoulders, smiling in the candlelight while the choir sang Silent Night. Around him he’d felt warmth and gratitude, the thankfulness of this near-miss, but his father remained shaken. When the lights came up, he saw his father’s face was pale. His eyes had remained elsewhere during the service, his lips moving absently to the words and prayers and benediction.
When the dream came that night, the world had frozen at the point he and his father were walking out the door, heading for the river woods. He looked at the dog, locked utterly still in mid-approach to the door. On impulse, he reached out and shut the door. There was a strange rush, and the fabric of the world seemed to invert itself, like a coat worn inside-out. The saga of Loki’s near loss, the search in the woods and the miraculous Christmas journey home, became a dream he’d had. The true history of Christmas Eve became a story in which they’d left Loki at home, barking in the yard while mother cooked the soup. In this story, the walk in the woods led to a conversation about politics, a sharing of his father’s memories in the Korean War. In this story, his father’s face stayed bright at the church service – the early one – and he sang loudly, making intentional goofs to the words of hymns, taking nickel bets with the boy and his brother about what time the service would conclude.
In the morning, they ate pancakes and unwrapped presents in the kitchen. The boy dropped pancake pieces to Loki, who scuttled happily amidst shards of tape and paper. His mother scolded him, and Loki licked her chops, her muzzle pressed against his leg. He felt the strangest sensation as she did this. Later, by the fire, he thought about telling his father that he’d had a dream where Loki had gotten lost, where they’d assumed she’d fallen in the river, been hit by a car, been swallowed up by the night fog. But the words didn’t come. Instead, he held his tea until the hot ceramic mug scaled his palm, puffing steam across the room and wondering what else he could change.
As he came to recognize the dreams when they appeared, he began to change them more and more. Doing this didn’t mean that the opportunities would happen more often, however. There remained an indecipherable pattern, a sense of capriciousness to when these dreams would occur. And yet he came to desire them. He came to recognize their texture, to feel a thrill that almost jolted him awake when he watched, while sleeping, a memory slow down and condense into a still-life picture. Will this be the night, he would wonder, after a fight with a girlfriend or a poorly-taken test. He imagined them as God pausing a video game, saving his progress just in case. He started playing games with himself, predicting where a save point might be, when he might get a second-go at something.
By his final year of college, his friends began to drift away from him, less out of a recognition of his strangeness than because his attention always seemed to be somewhere else. One by one, they gave up trying to extract a conversation out of him. One by one, they began to fill their plans with other people, began to regard him as an acquaintance whose path had veered sharply away from their own. He became a lost sailor in an ocean without harbors. They watched him move his lips when he thought no one was looking. Here, he would say to himself, as he walked around in the daytime, here here here.
When the accident happened, his brother hadn’t been driving. The driver – a guy who shot pool with a cue that unscrewed in the middle and came in a shiny leather case – had convinced his brother that he wasn’t sober enough to get them home, which was true. The driver had been following the rules too, it was the other car that blew a stop sign and t-boned their car. The driver was killed on impact. His brother had been pressed into the crumpled metal of the door, the passenger side of the car wedged against a bank of parking meters at the corner of the intersection. His legs had been crushed but he was alive and talking when they cut him out of the car, mumbling the names of his family and bobbing his head between the slick of oil on the pavement and the hushed night sky.
The boy had actually seen his brother several hours earlier. They’d met for dinner at their parents’ house, and each was heading out for the evening afterwards. They’d spoken about meeting up for a movie. The boy’s mind had been on a girl, and he’d not really listened to what his brother had been saying before he drove off to the pool hall. It had rained in the early evening, and a late summer squall had been building over the suburbs out west. The sky was dense, the wind edgy, the clouds a deep pink from the lights of downtown. He’d hugged his brother briefly, and then let him go.
They stayed that night at the hospital, on cots provided by the ER staff in an empty corner of the waiting room. His father and mother lay in each other’s arms beneath a thin blue microfiber blanket. He watched the fabric heave with their breath in the ozone light. His eyes were dried at the edges, his hands tucked around his body and hugging himself as he sat Indian-legged on his cot, nodding in a slow rhythm. Names and codes squawked over the PA. Doctors came and went. Eventually a surgeon appeared with a nurse. His brother was stable. His parents sobbed, held each other, held him. His brother would likely lose his legs. They held tighter. But he would live.
Later, when the first pinks and golds of dawn began to creep through the windows of the waiting room, his parents slept. He looked at his pillow, at the thin blue blanket he would wrap himself in, and his heart fluttered. He willed his eyes shut. He willed it with a strength so deep that he felt his guts twisting with the effort. But sleep, and the dream, would not come. He rubbed his eyes and watched the stars explode against the backs of his eyelids. He spoke the words, a chant in the quiet hum of the hospital, and pictured crawling out of the emergency room in his mind, back through the evening, back to the movie he’d seen without his brother, back to the front yard, under the deep pink clouds that rolled above the trees, back to where he stood in the wet grass in a brief embrace. To the smell of his brother’s jacket. To the dinging of the keys in the ignition. Heat lighting flickered, tug boats moaned along the river. Crickets sawed and sang in the trees. He kept rewinding, again and again. He watched the underbelly of those clouds, the underside of an uncurling wave, waiting for the ragged edge to drift slowly, mercifully, to a stop.