A small subset of humans that, while dreaming, have the ability to inhabit and alter the waking reality around them, within a certain radius.
See also: urban legends, government conspiracy theories
All his men were dead.
And he was running, faster than he’d ever run before, like his life depended on it (which it did). Lights turned on wherever he went, whether this being the work of the folk inside the surrounding houses or the entity that chased him, he couldn’t tell.
He’d made it about five hundred metres with the car before the bonnet sparked up and the wheels lost traction, as the car began to levitate off the ground. He leapt out of the vehicle when it rose from the ground and was lucky not to shatter both his ankles. Sensing this may happen to all the cars he hopped in, he decided to run the last 1.5 km to theoretical freedom, not that he could see any reason why the entity could not do the same thing to him as it could the car.
He’d progressed another five hundred metres or so before he noticed that the road further up had disappeared and dipped into a large pond, a family of ducks gliding peacefully along the surface. He panicked, the sweat pouring out, fully aware whose calling card the duck-pond setup represented. He turned down onto another road, this one thankfully sans duck pond, and continued his marathon for life. His heart pounding, he kept telling himself just a little bit further, just one more kilometre before he was out of reach, that’s what the myths alluded. It felt like he’d run the required kilometre down this street before he sensed the shadow from above. He spun his head around to find the car he had previously ditched, still airborne, veering down on him at a leisurely pace, like a wolf toying with its prey. In the driver’s seat was the supernatural figure that started this nightmare.
He ducked into a side alley adjoining the main street, only to find it was a dead end. He turned and there his assailant stood. The assailant was tall and lean; his naked skin a sickly black of pulsating fluid, shimmering at the edges, but in direct contrast his face was a cartoonish yellow smiley face, the kind you’d see on a cheap novelty t-shirt.
“Please,” the minister begged, “I’ll do whatever you want. I’ll leave. I’ll sign the agreement!”
“It’s just a job for me, minister,” said the smiley-face creature, his smile somewhat dissipating, “I just do what they tell me. Sorry.”
Doomed, the minister stumbled backwards until he was up against the brick wall that had cut his escape and ended his life.
The smiley-face creature was now frowning, as he produced a banana from thin air. The minister shrieked, for he’d seen the same innocuous banana used on one of his bodyguards earlier in the night, culminating in a horrible, inexplicable end.
“Sorry,” the smiley-face man muttered as he carefully lined up the terrified minister and shouted, “Banana Republic!” as he threw the banana at the minister’s heart, only for the banana to stop just short of the man, disappearing into thin air.
The minister opened his eyes when he realised he wasn’t dead.
Smiley Face had turned to a frown once more, his eyebrows raised as he scratched his chin, deep in thought. He then began inspecting a watch on his wrist while doing some calculations in his head. Smiley Face then talked into the watch, “Doug, all I need is about another couple of metres north-west, please.”
The minister looked on in confusion as Smiley Face raised his hand in acknowledgement. “Sorry about this, it should only take a second.”
Somewhere in a sleepy motel, an exact 2.005 kilometres away, a disgruntled Doug pushed with all his might against a futuristic black coffin with red lights whirring along its sides. Doug pushed it to the corner of the room and pressed the recalibration button on the coffin’s lid. He waited, until the sound of Smiley Face cracked through the air again. “Going to need just a little more line here, Doug. Our friend is starting to get wise.”
Throwing his hands up in frustration, Doug looked out the window and did the requisite calculations. He looked out the window and estimated the fall. These things were pretty sturdy, he figured.
Out the coffin slid.
The minister was growing bolder now; though he kept his back against the wall, he started looking at the sidewalls of the alley, searching for an escape route. When that failed, he reached for his phone and started going through his contacts, the screen having stopped melting in front of his eyes since he left the ‘zone’ of his assailant’s influence. He dialed the emergency number, but dropped the phone when he heard a polite cough. He looked up to see the smiley-face man once more pointing a banana at his chest.
Smiley Face grinned. “Sorry, this will only hurt a lot.”
Charlie opened his eyes to Doug Shraeder and the night sky.
“I could have sworn we were in a hotel room.”
“Accommodations had to be changed, because of you.”
“The bad guy is dead, by the way. I ended up saying ‘Banana Republic’.”
“Congratulations,” mocked Doug, “but that’s not really the issue right now. We need to eviscerate the coffin—second one this month—and evac to rendezvous in what I can only assume is now a very awakened city.”
Charlie stood up and smiled at Doug. “Then why are you wasting our time berating me?”
Doug slapped Charlie in the face.
There wasn’t going to be any sympathy from Doug for the punk during debrief, if they were ever going to make it to debrief at all.
Two tense border smugglings and one leech-infested trek through Central American jungle later, Charlie found himself in an interrogation room for his usual game of debrief. Sitting across from him were the Top Brass, Colonel MacCready and his brown-nosing, bean-counting subordinate, Cedric Hayes.
Next to Charlie was his handler, Doug Schraeder, who for the last fifteen days had been constantly reminding Charlie that he was looking forward to saying absolutely nothing in his defence this time. Charlie merely laughed at this; for all his talk, Doug had a soft heart and Charlie was certain Doug wasn’t going to let him hang out to dry.
“What are we going to do with you, Charlie my boy?” MacCready shook his head.
“What indeed,” parroted Cedric Hayes, unnecessarily, as usual.
“Well, here’s an idea,” Charlie began, “How about you decommission me and, I dunno, shut down the program? Because as you can see, from the last two times, the publicity and conspiracy theory venting could get to be a bit too much. Maybe, you should go back to just using those guns of yours—you know, the ones you bought for our military industrial complex?”
Charlie never used to joke like this, at least not to such an extent. He seldom went out of his way to rattle the cage. But he was growing tired of this cage, and something had to give.
“This attitude change has been very disappointing,” said Colonel MacCready.
“Yeah well, so have my twenties, so far.”
“You know we can’t shut down the program, Charlie. There’s too much potential in it.”
If you wanted to know the real reason as to why they kept on with the program of dream men doing paranormal assassinations for the US government, then let me tell you quite frankly, they did it because they could, because it was a toy that simply had to be played with, even if the toy could be a little difficult at times.
“I just don’t feel I should still be punished for something I didn’t mean to do, something I did when I was basically just a kid.”
“You’re not being punished. You’re serving your country,” said MacCready.
“With pride,” added Cedric, once again wrong.
“Haven’t I served my country enough? How much longer can you keep me in here? I’ve paid for my mistake and then some.”
The Top Brass looked over to Doug, who still hadn’t said anything. Eventually, that soft heart of Doug’s relented. “Maybe we could scale back the assignment load, until we find a suitable replacement of Charlie’s calibre?”
The Top Brass considered this for a moment, before MacCready nodded.
“We do have that bunker-busting field test in Pashawan coming up.”
“We could throw someone else in the deep end for that, perhaps?”
“Hmmm…” the Top Brass thought allowed in unison.
Finally, MacCready relented. “We’ll consider it on the condition that during his remaining missions, Charlie will refrain from applying his recent dream style and stick to the allowed dream tactics.”
“And no more feeding the ducks,” added Cedric, this being less a matter of efficacy and more as a form of punishment.
“I can’t always help that!” Charlie shot back.
“Well you’ll just have to; your calling card has become more of an unnecessary sideshow than striking fear into the hearts of America’s enemies.”
Charlie leapt to protest, but Doug drew a hand across him. “It’s a good deal. Just take it.”
With his head drooped, Charlie complied.
A Brief Brief
The Top Brass kept their word. There were no missions sought for Charlie, and with the bunker-buster trial in Pashawan a complete success (the rookie recruit managing to hone his flying skills) Charlie hoped he would soon be on his way out. He didn’t do much at the barracks but daydream about his new life. He’d saved enough over the years, and even entertained the thought of asking for a severance (if that was a thing in the army—unless Doug was lying) and maybe finding somewhere peaceful for a while, let his dreams get quiet again so he didn’t hurt any civilians on the outside.
These thoughts of the future put him in a good mood and in turn he’d go off around the barracks, playing pranks in the day and spooking those on duty as Smiley Face at night. This didn’t last long, of course, and he was reprimanded and reminded that these barracks were the very first place he’d made that fatal mistake that kept him tied up in the military. Charlie apologised and then went back to just feeding the ducks in his night time incursions, only for someone to slip and fall when they failed to notice that the floor had become pond. One bruised ass later, Charlie found himself back on the meds until his next, and hopefully last, assignment.
He didn’t see Doug the entire time either, this probably a good thing, as a break would do wonders for the family man’s patience and blood pressure.
It was precisely thirty-two days of lounging about in leisure before the Top Brass finally came calling. Charlie met with Doug before the briefing and admired his handler’s new tan.
“South Lake with the family,” explained Doug.
“How are the wife ‘n kids?”
“They’re good, thanks for asking.”
“And Heather, how’s she doing?”
“She’s fine, Charlie.”
Doug rolled his eyes. “How was your downtime?”
“Better than expected, thanks. I’m thinking North Dakota once I get out.
“North Dakota, huh?”
“Somewhere quiet. Maybe get a job on one of the rigs, if this severance thing doesn’t transpire.”
“How many times do I have to tell you, Charlie? There is no severance package. You’ve been told multiple times.”
“Change only starts when we take action, Doug.”
“Where’d you hear that?”
“Saw it on some poster in Santiago on the last mission… It’s either severance or I take a quick detour into the local bank on our next job.”
“…So North Dakota, huh.”
Truth was, Doug didn’t think they were going to let Charlie go. He was just too dangerous to just be set free among the civilians, and he wouldn’t know how to take care of himself anyway. Despite the fact that he was a soldier, the kid was treated like an army brat. And if it got to the point where Charlie refused all other assignments, Doug knew that deep down they wouldn’t go for a court-martial. No, young Charlie would be taken care of, and Doug had a sneaking suspicion who they’d ask to make sure this happened.
The Top Brass were already smiling when Charlie and Doug entered.
“Good news, Charlie.”
“It’s Heather’s birthday?”
“Yes—no! Goddamn it! Charlie, we’ve got one more assignment for you.”
“Your last one,” said Cedric.
Charlie’s eyes lit up. His grin pancaked from ear to ear. He even smiled at bean-counter Cedric.
“Absolutely,” Colonel MacCready confirmed.
Doug waited for it all to sink in for Charlie, before he made his questions. He was already sceptical.
“What’s the last mission?”
Cedric scratched his head, “Err, well this one will be a little different, actually…”
Charlie had stopped his grinning.
“How so?” asked Doug.
“The target will not need to be eliminated, but instead made to understand our thoughts on recent relations in order to come to a more positive resolution.”
Charlie raised his eyebrows and sat back in his chair, folding his arms. “So you want me to intimidate someone?”
“Exactly. And you won’t need to discuss the finer points of our disagreement with them either. Just make your presence known and they should come to their senses soon enough.”
Doug was not sold, but Charlie was blinded by the light at the end of the tunnel. “So I don’t have to kill anyone, and this will be my last assignment?”
“You can even feed the ducks, if that’s how you want to make your presence known.”
“Oh, boy!” cheered Charlie.
The dossiers were all dispensed with in less than a minute and a gleeful Charlie smiled as he stood to salute the Top Brass on his way out, before Colonel MacCready asked Doug to stay back. Doug didn’t like the sound of that and even Charlie couldn’t help but hesitate in his joy.
“Go on, Charlie. We won’t be long.”
A French Autumn
It was strange that Charlie didn’t bring up Doug’s private conversation with the Top Brass until they reached their quaint homely hotel in the canal-lined city of Sainte-Rêver after two draining flights.
“You waited all this time to ask me about that?” asked Doug, surprised the relentless Charlie had not pestered him earlier.
“I didn’t want anyone else to hear.”
Doug couldn’t argue with that, nor with Charlie’s obvious yet unspoken feeling throughout the plane ride that something was up.
“So?” Charlie prompted once more.
“So what? They were discussing my reassignment. It had nothing to do with you.”
They stared each other down for a hot minute. Eventually, Charlie buckled. “Well, all right then. You should’ve just said that instead of making it weird the whole plane trip.”
“You’re the one who made it weird,” countered Doug. “Besides, there was nothing to tell…”
Doug tried to resume setting up the coffin in their cottage, before Charlie resumed his grilling. “Who did you get for reassignment? Was it Morris—that atrocious fuck?”
“That was the offer, but I turned it down and applied for a desk job.”
Charlie was stunned. “That wife of yours put you up to it?”
“I want to see my kids become adults, Charlie, so I can protect Heather from deviants like you.”
“Hey I’d treat her with respect, dammit!” Charlie declared, distracted by Doug’s joke, to Doug’s quiet relief.
The coffin now set up, reconnaissance was under way. It was a warm autumn day when they stepped out, cameras in tow. Charlie loved the early part of reconnaissance the most, the first day was really just a day of sight-seeing, taking in all the landmarks, choke points, escape routes, all important features captured under the guise of a curious tourist. Charlie had a lot of photos developed on the barracks and his Nikon D3300 HDSLR camera was his most treasured possession. He had quite a photo collection built up, and, unlike the travel snaps of people his age, all of Charlie’s photos had to be printed and approved by the US military for personal keepsake. He couldn’t just go posting them on Facebook saying “These are the sixty-eight cities and towns I’ve visited across the globe with my military salary—don’t read too much into it!” Such as it was, Charlie wasn’t actually allowed a Facebook account, though he heard and seen a whole lot about it from the others on the barracks. And not wanting to be left behind in the race to make memories, Charlie was steadfast in building his collection for his retirement so that he could one day meet someone and show them all the places he’d been, as if to say “I had a life too.”
Together with Doug, Charlie walked around the beautiful town, lined with cobblestone streets and Victorian street lamps, and took photos of the church, the river and the stone bridge they crossed to get to the North side where their target’s apartment was located. Doug also engaged in the exact same kind of recon, albeit, in Charlie’s opinion, in a less artful way.
Doug was leading them slowly to their target’s apartment, where the target would be holed up for a few days with his mistress.
As they crossed a bridge over one of the river canals, Charlie found himself drawn to the water below, where the river widened and became a riverbank, and along this bank Charlie saw a bench and a family of ducks floating in the water. Charlie’s eyes lit up and he was off. Doug was about to raise his voice until he saw what Charlie was racing to the end of the bridge and down the stairs towards. He thought about following, before deciding to ease up on the boy. The river glistened exquisitely in the afternoon sun, and, with everything in town layered with this enchanting vibe hanging in the air, Doug couldn’t help but relax. They had time. Doug could wait.
There was a young child feeding the family of ducks with his grandma. Charlie was all smiles and so was the grandma, who passed him some bread to also throw to the ducklings. Charlie knelt down next to the young child and cheered when the kid threw in his bread piece. Charlie then dropped his own bread piece in the water and chuckled ducklings scrambled to catch a nibble.
Watching the kid and the grandma smile together while the sun shone off the water, he couldn’t help but wonder if he would ever have a family of his own. After the grandma ran out of bread, she took the boy to leave, but not before the boy said goodbye to Charlie, which made him go all warm and fuzzy inside. Taken with this feeling, Charlie continued to watch the ducks for a little while longer, content in the moment. When he finally decided to move on and continue his reconnaissance, he crossed paths with a beautiful girl on his way up the stairs to the bridge. She had strawberry blonde hair, wore a purple beanie and looked just a little bit younger than him. They both locked eyes for the slightest moment, Charlie’s heart skipping a beat, before Charlie was met with Doug’s harried look that said, Let’s get the rest of this show over with. Looking back, Charlie swore he caught the girl glancing back at him, before she produced some food, knelt down and threw it to the ducklings.
The rest of their scan went without incident. They proceeded to stake out the target as he did some shopping with the mistress, Doug believing his surveillance had successfully netted him the location of their dinner plans. “They’re going to La Bella Rousseau, which means if they decide a leisurely stroll back to the apartment is in order, we could intercept our man here,” said Doug, pointing at the map on his phone. “Or, meet them in their room and discreetly scare the pants off of them.”
Charlie shrugged. “I’m easy. Both sound good.”
“Then how about the first one, intercepting them by the riverbank?”
“You seem to have it all worked out…listen, after this is done, do you think it would be so terrible if we stuck around, just for a little while?”
“We’ve got a flight scheduled tomorrow night.”
“I know; it’d only be an extra day… I guess I just want to take it all in, I suppose.”
Doug hesitated. “Okay, sure. I’ll see what I can do, but we can only do this if you don’t attract any unnecessary attention in your dream tonight. How does that sound?” Doug felt like a mother bargaining with her offspring, but it had to be this way sometimes with Charlie, who was really more like a boy stuck in a man’s body. “Yes, mother.” Charlie relented.
“Ok then, so what are you going to do?”
“City-wide aerial assault—just kidding! I was thinking of feeding the ducks at the riverbank and then staring at our guy, perhaps while masturbating, making him very uncomfortable.”
“Maybe lose the masturbation part.”
“How else will I stroke—I mean, strike—fear into the heart of America’s greatest enemy?”
“They did say you could do the duck feeding this one last time…but I’d rather you be more certain than that. According to our man’s dossier, his natural fears include spiders, snakes and, strangely, fortune tellers.”
“Did you read the file?”
“I did…but refresh my memory.”
“A fortune teller predicted his father’s death…you’re going to read the file before we have dinner.”
“Absolutely, without a doubt… Maybe I could force a detour to a fortune teller stand, where I reveal a note that tells him to ‘step off’ whatever he’s doing?”
Doug was surprised by this relatively simple suggestion. “You’re showing a lot of restraint, where was that before?”
“Well you said if I did, we could stay a little longer. Besides, this way is kind of funny, no? God knows how many tax dollars just to send a guy a letter.”
Doug chuckled. “It’s your call.”
They had a light meal in the lobby downstairs before they went back to their room where the coffin had to be prepped. Developed by one of the first Dream Men, the coffin had become integral to keeping a dream man dreaming and allowing the handler to monitor a Dreamer’s status and vital signs, with some communication allowed through a series of colour-coded prompts that would appear to the Dreamer. Doug reiterated the radius Charlie’s dreamwaves could extend and, in this case, with the town itself not that big and the task of little strain, all the ducks were lined up, so to speak. Doug had Charlie sit in the chair and wait while the sedative was prepared.
”I think I’ve decided the title of my memoir: Dream Men: The Shockingly True Story of Charlie Wax.”
Doug, usually one to dismiss the joke, given the vast protocols and ramifications both were well aware of, asked who would play him in the movie.
“It’s such a complex role, I may have to play it myself.”
“I thought you wanted to look good?”
”Hardy fucking har.”
Doug nodded over to the Coffin. Charlie sighed as he stepped in.
”Not going to miss this,”
Doug stopped. “You never mentioned any discomfort before.”
“The sedative is fine. It’s afterwards—bad dreams.” Charlie laughed. Doug rolled his eyes, humouring Charlie.
“And you promise, an extra day?”
“I already put the request into HQ,” Doug said as the veins were lined up and the sedative was slowly injected in.
“Good. Thank you. Doug… I’m sorry about the last mission. Sorry about all the times I went too far… But it wasn’t all bad, was it? We made a good team, didn’t we?”
Doug smiled as Charlie’s eyes began to droop. “No, it’s okay. It was good; we were a good team.” And when Charlie’s eyes were fully closed and the visuals on the coffin highlighting his vitals dropped to their sleeping states, pre-REM, Doug removed his glasses and wiped his eyes. “I’m sorry too, Charlie.”
A dream can be a beautiful thing, a place where anything, including flying, is possible; where all the moments are as mysterious as they are tantalising. They can inspire, offer telling truths to those seeking advice or scare the living daylights out of a person. Charlie had a strange gift, a beautiful gift and it depressed him to know that the only kind of dreams he needed to have; the only kind of truths he needed to tell came from dark corners to suck the light out. A boogeyman, that’s what he was but often he wondered if he really needed to be. There was no respite for him, no chance to regather and recalibrate each night. It was either take the pills that blacked him out OR become the thing that goes bump in the night.
There are good people that do good and there are bad people that do good, Charlie. That’s what the Top Brass had said, defining Charlie before he had a chance.
The sun was just setting as the target finished his exquisite roast duck and green sprouts with a glass of white, while his ever-slim and ever-vigilant mistress dutifully ate her salad and a naughty bite of Chocolate éclair.
Entering reality as the dream man was always weird, like how one never remembers how their dream starts. Over the years Charlie had honed this into a well-refined art of appearing inconspicuous at first close to the target, and then beginning the slow stalk of the hunter as Smiley Face. There was no risk of being recorded, Charlie never showed up on any videos or CCTV footage, much to the despair of several conspiracy theorists looking to prove the existence of paranormal government spooks.
Sometimes, Charlie used to come in from the ceiling, covering the whole ceiling with dark wraith-like cloth and chains. In this particular instance he appeared out of thin air on the street outside La Bella Rousseau. This came as somewhat of a shock to an oncoming UPS delivery van that tried to swerve and brake in time—but couldn’t—careering through Charlie as if he were a ghost (which was essentially the truth in this form). The swerve directed the delivery driver to a nearby seasoned oak tree on the canal side of the road, smashing most of the bonnet and sending nearby pedestrians howling in shock. A crowd gathered and Charlie casually joined them, avoiding detection. Dazed, the delivery driver stumbled out of the van with mild whiplash and Charlie blew a sigh of relief. Leaving the crowd, he radioed in to Doug: “Slight mishap on entry. He’s going to live though!”
Doug could not see what Charlie was seeing (this being Charlie’s choice) nor could he really respond, but it was not hard to imagine what had transpired and Doug could do nothing but shake his head.
Charlie searched the crowd to see if the target had come out to witness the spectacle, but found the man and his mistress were already making their way back to their room, presumably for a no-holds barred sex romp of the highest order.
Charlie then floated, as discreetly as he liked, over to the bridge with the side stairs that led down to the riverbank where the ducks had been feeding the day before. Charlie twisted the world ever so slightly so that a detour of bright orange and yellow road signs would guide his target through to Charlie’s fortune telling booth. The sun was making its descent and the streetlights blinked on.
Floating over for a double-check of the target’s status, Charlie found the pair were still a good five minutes away, and thankfully, had slowed down to a pleasant stroll, absorbing the beauty of the twilight draping over this enchanting place. Sensing time on his side, Charlie relaxed and made some bread to feed the ducks (both real and his own) appearing along the bank while he waited.
“They’re hungry today,” a soft voice crept up on Charlie, whose creepy yellow smiley face was immediately plastered over his face, like a chameleon changing colour when threatened. He turned to see the girl he’d passed before on the stairs looking at him, now taken aback by his yellow smiley face. Seeing her in all her beauty, Charlie was right then and there able to confirm the existence of angels. She was the reason he’d asked to stay another day and she was the reason he believed that, just maybe, this was the end of all his nightmares. Standing there, stupefied by her and unable to respond with anything more than an um-ing and uh-ing, the girl was taken aback, clearly regretting her approach.
“Okay then…” she whispered, turning away and having just decided to never speak to another stranger again, before Charlie finally found his tongue.
“Wait!” he blurted. “Sorry, you just startled me.” He extended his hand out, a piece of bread offered as a token. “Do ya wanna feed ’em?”
The girl smiled and took the piece of bread and Charlie’s relief was unending. She walked over to the side of the river and knelt down. Charlie followed and got one of the ducks that he generated with his mind to come over and quack happily at the girl, eagerly snapping away at the piece the girl threw.
“I think he likes you,” said Charlie.
“I think I like him too,” said the girl, her French accent only increasing her cuteness. “Why do you wear that mask? I don’t want to be rude, just curious.”
Charlie didn’t have any answer that was good so he just told the truth. “I was going to scare someone with it. And while I’m spilling secrets, I should probably just tell you that I’m also a secret agent for the US government.”
“Oh that sounds like fun,” the girl laughed. She then looked over at the fortune telling stall set up behind them. “Is that yours?”
Charlie nodded. “What’s scarier than the future?”
The girl thought about this for a while and eventually muttered, “I guess existential terror works too.”
His heart racing and desperate to keep her attention, Charlie gulped. “Want me to do a reading? I’m sure it will be good.”
Charlie led her back to the fortune telling stand and moved to the other side. The twilight was over, and the lamps became their only illumination. Some wit came to him and Charlie said, “Just one second, I need to get my official fortune telling hat.” He then proceeded, to the girl’s amusement, to look as if he was walking downstairs in an Illusion of perception (though to make it look even more realistic he did in fact create stairs leading down to nowhere) and fetched a large over-the-top purple turban with a glass mirror appearing in the centre to go on top of his smiley face. “Are you ready?”
“How does this work?”
“Give me your hand, please.”
She extended her elegant hand out to Charlie, ready to do a palm reading, and as Charlie brought his hands to reach her, the softness of her skin sunk warm fuzzies all over him. Deeply overwhelmed, he felt the heat burst through his body and inadvertently caused the street lamps that barely lit her beautiful features to surge with light, one even exploding in a rain of sparks. The girl turned around in shock and other pedestrians on the bridge also stopped to see what all the commotion was.
“Sorry,” said Charlie, before raising his other hand and snapping his fingers, returning the lights to their original states. “Now, where were we?”
Untroubled, the girl said, “You were going to tell my future.”
“Of course,” Charlie nodded, taking his other hand, and this time just managing to keep it together as he ran a finger across the lines of her palm. “Oh, yes. This looks like a happy life indeed.”
“Will I get the job I always wanted?”
Charlie pretended to re-study the lines, clearly enjoying the touch of her skin. And because she didn’t seem to mind, Charlie was willing to re-study extensively. “Yes, you get the job you always wanted, and from this line which details your finances and retirement savings, it also looks like you will be very filthy rich too.”
The girl laughed. “Maybe this is true, but money isn’t everything, no?”
“Of course,” said Charlie backtracking, “but if I look further, it seems you will also live a long and healthy life too.”
“Will I have children?”
“And their father. Will we be in love forever?”
Charlie did nothing but stare. He did nothing, because that’s all he could do as he fell into her eyes and was swallowed by her mere existence. Whatever she wanted was what he would give.
“And who will he be, this husband of mine?”
Charlie smiled cheekily, “I can’t tell you.”
The girl raised her eyebrows, as if to say, oh really?
“I don’t want to ruin the surprise.”
“Can you tell me something about him?”
“What do you want to know?”
“What is his favourite thing?”
“He likes to feed the ducks.”
“And why does he do that?”
Charlie drew a breath. “Because he used to go to the pond with his mum before she died, and they’d feed the ducks together, and they were happy, and since then he’s never been more at peace than when he feeds the ducks.”
The girl took her other hand and placed it on Charlie. The street lamps began to overheat again.
“And what is in this man’s future?”
“He takes this girl out on a date and they fall in love and feed the ducks with their children.”
“How many children will this man have?”
“Three, of course.”
The girl smiled and then an abrupt seriousness drew upon her face, “And what is this man’s name?”
Charlie knew he could give no such thing away. What was the point of altering your face if you told them your name? But then again, what was the point of wearing a mask when all you wanted to do was open everything up inside and leave yourself at the mercy of this woman who you wanted to run away with and leave this pointless dream killing behind?
No. This was his future. This was the only dream he wanted to have ever again. And as he went to remove the mask and tell her his name and everything that he was, he felt the familiar prompt in his head, a collection of colours in wriggly lines streaking through his vision, sent from Doug via the coffin, asking for a status on the mission. Charlie glanced over at the empty bridge and realised his target was probably already in bed with his mistress, blissfully unaware how scared he should be of the US government.
Charlie cursed. “Fuck!”
He stood and turned to the girl. “There’s just one thing I need to do. A real quick thing. Please, stay here and I’ll be right back.”
The girl was scared, broken from the spell of their romantic bubble. “What’s going on? Where are you going?”
“Tell me your name and I’ll be right back.” Charlie pleaded, clinging onto her hand.
“Charlie,” said Charlie before reaching in for a kiss on the cheek. “Stay right here.”
“Where can I find you?”
The coloured wriggly lines blurred his vision again. Charlie brought his watch up to his mouth and screeched back at Doug, “I’m doing it! Jesus Christ!”
Charlie then became a dark blur as he left Sophie and snaked through the streets, stunning those who thought they saw (and felt) some dark apparition speed right through them. Charlie hit the target’s bedroom like a freight train on an unsuspecting peacock, blending through the walls so fast he ran into the back of the target, already busy with his mistress.
“Jesus Christ!” the target yelped, as the mistress also turned around to shriek in horror at Smiley Face.
Charlie slapped the man across the face, and in his limited French, explained to the man that he was to think twice about his banking policy manoeuvring lest he want to be haunted every time he made love.
After the man and woman did nothing but cower and shrivel, Charlie threw his hastily-written letter of caution like a paper airplane at the man’s chest.
“Do not fuck with us!” Charlie threatened and then he said a final “Boo!” to the woman before he disappeared right in front of their eyes. The target fainted and the mistress screamed, not for the first time that night.
Like a bullet, Charlie shot back to the fortune stand by the bridge, ignoring the colourful wriggling line prompts going haywire through his head, Doug trying desperately for a status update.
When Charlie hit the bridge he stopped, startling some bystanders at his sudden appearance. He had only eyes for Sophie however, and standing there, enraptured by her beauty, Charlie planned how he’d sweep her off her feet and take her flying around what he presumed was her home town. But as his feet reached for the stairs, he felt a familiar tug on the back of his head, the simulation of falling, sent by Doug via the coffin. Yellow warning flashes and whirling sirens then engulfed Charlie’s senses. Charlie knew what it meant and in pure desperation he called out her name, but when she turned to see him, he was gone.
Charlie sped back, the sirens blaring inside him. They were a call to return, to defend the home base AKA the coffin and its handler in a last stand kind of situation. Charlie made it back to the hotel and hovered over it, scanning for signs of approaching enemies. After finding the coast clear he bled in through the wall to find Doug sitting in the chair next to the coffin, his gun drawn. The room was dark.
Charlie’s smiley face disappeared. “What the hell’s going on, where’s the bad guys?”
“Why were you taking so long? I got worried.”
“Are you fucking kidding me right now?” hissed Charlie.
Doug looked overly confused, morose. His gun was drawn. “The lights in the room all blew out. Your earpiece (a severed ear acting as a receiver, courtesy of Charlie’s sick humour) heated up and exploded, and the coffin was giving off these strange readings and there was a thumping, like a heartbeat—your heartbeat—shaking the room. I wasn’t under attack. You were.”
Charlie laughed. “I wasn’t under attack.”
“Then did you complete the mission?”
“Yeah, the target fainted. Lovely end to his evening. Now if there’s no danger here, you’ll have to excuse me, I have to get back to a meeting.”
“A meeting? But the mission is done?”
“It’s with a woman—before you say anything— she’s different. All those weird things that happened in this room—the heart beating, the lights burning out—that’s love.”
Doug winced as he saw all control being lost. “Love?”
“I can’t authorise that.”
“You can’t authorise love?”
Doug shook his head. “I can’t authorise you using your powers unnecessarily once the mission has been completed. You know this.”
Charlie was indignant. “But the mission’s over. It’s done. We’re free! I just need to dream for a little longer, let me go back and impress her.”
“If you go out that door, I’ll have to push the button.”
Charlie stood back. He looked at the coffin where his real body slept and then at the red button at the front of the coffin, which if coded and pressed by Doug, would incinerate the coffin and Charlie. All evidence gone.
A tear was rolling down Doug’s cheek. “They’re not going to let you go, Charlie.”
Charlie was speechless. He lay down on the bed and sunk into the blanket. Finally he said, “That’s what they wanted to talk to you about.”
Charlie sat up. “It doesn’t have to be this way. You could let me escape. You don’t have to follow their orders.”
“I’ve thought about that. Lord knows I’ve wrestled with it…but I don’t just put myself at risk defying them. I put my family at risk too.”
Charlie stood up, took one look at Doug and then materialised a net that pinned Doug against the wall. Charlie then pulled Doug’s gun from him. “You said you’d give me one more day. We’ll talk about it then.”
And then Charlie was out and flying through the night, back to the fortune telling stand by the bridge. But Sophie wasn’t there. Instead there was a man inspecting the fortune telling stand. Charlie swooped down beside the man and said, “Can I help you?” Startled, the man went to reach for something in his coat but Charlie said, “Nuh-uh,” and lifted the man up with one hand.
“There was a girl here waiting before. Where is she?”
The man was struggling to breathe a little too much and Charlie dropped him down but shuffled him backwards towards the ducks in the river, who begun to grow larger and hungrier…
“I saw you. You were trying to take something from the fortune telling stand.”
“I was just looking,” the man gasped.
“If you’re interested in a reading, here’s one on the house: tell me where the girl is and you don’t get fed to the ducks.”
The man said the girl ran off crying.
The man pointed off towards the bridge and the wider city. Charlie dropped the man off in the river and flew out, shooting through the amber-lit city filled with crowds of people with rosy cheeks that drank beer in their bars and ate heartily in their restaurants to escape the cold, while a man with an unnerving smiley face zipped through the city like the flash, leaving those he passed in a cloud of bewilderment, unsure of what the hell just happened. Charlie searched in every public house, church, restaurant, street he could within his radius. He knocked on doors and asked the residents in a futile attempt if they knew a Sophie—about this tall, strawberry blonde hair, face of an angel—and for those who didn’t scream or faint at his eerie smiley face and pulsating black body, the others were simply confused and wondering why a person would be singing carols so early before Christmas.
Charlie checked everywhere, he held up pictures of her like she was a lost dog, but no one could recall this angel from the sky.
Meanwhile, all over town, talk was buzzing of a mysterious figure—a ghost, a strange dark flash—blitzing through the cold streets, haunting folk and asking about his dead lover. The police were going door to door, taking notes about a man in a smiley-face mask knocking on the doors of people and scaring the bejesus out of them.
These were the usual complaints raised when things got hairy on assignment, and usually by this time Charlie and Doug would be well on their way out, but of course this time had to be different. He had to find her; he just had to.
Despondent, Charlie went to the town square and in his final act of desperation he erected a fifty-foot, life-like statue of Sophie, replicating her perfection the best he could. He then yelled at the top of his lungs, all across his radius, “Sophie, meet me where we first met!”
He flew back to the platform by the bridge, where the fortune telling sign had been taken and Charlie waited in the dark for her.
And just when he heard footsteps coming down the stairs, he woke up.
Charlie hit his head on the coffin as he shuddered awake. When he opened his eyes, he saw Doug, gun in hand, aimed squarely at his temple.
“Get up. Slowly.”
A Question of Loyalties
They were going to talk, at least that’s what Doug intimated. What happened after the talk was over was the real question. When Charlie was a dream man he was, for all intents and purposes, invincible. He’d been stabbed, shot, and exploded—or at least each action had been attempted, only for the object of affliction to pass right through. One cannot help but grow a sense of invulnerability with that kind of experience. But he knew deep down that no matter how much of a team they were (despite their ups and downs), Doug’s fierce loyalty would naturally fall with his family, and that would be that. Charlie asked Doug what the deal was, trying to pick up where he’d left off after the whole putting Doug in a net incident; a net that Charlie should have imagined to be of stronger fibre.
Doug was frank: if he followed through with disposing Charlie, his loyalty with the program would forever be unquestioned and treated as tenure, meaning his knowledge would never have to be silenced with a silencer.
If he let Charlie go, a dishonourable discharge was the best-case scenario. Otherwise he’d be looking over his shoulder for the rest of his days.
“This isn’t easy, Charlie.”
“Why don’t we swap positions then? See how we feel when our best friend has a gun pointed at us.”
“If I let you go, and you get caught, spotted, any kind of trouble with a foreign force, they’ll kill me too. I’ve got my family, Charlie.”
Charlie sighed. Who could argue against family? (Though he was still going to try.) “Sophie.”
“Her name was Sophie. I saw her by the river, where the target was supposed to divert to. She was an angel, Doug.” Silent tears made their way from Charlie’s eyes. “Please. Let me find her and start again.”
Doug looked Charlie over, studied the kid and thought about how he’d grown since their first day together. The bags under Charlie’s eyes had grown to carry the guilt applied in sleep, and this was Doug’s fault too, the same way it was his job. Doug was tired of that job. He was tired of putting Charlie to sleep and though he reasoned that this would be the last time he’d have to do such a thing, it was something he couldn’t do. The gun trained on Charlie was finally relinquished, both Charlie and Doug breathing a sigh of relief.
“How about we get a drink?” said Charlie.
“How about fifteen?”
Charlie smiled. “I’m buying.”
Charlie peeled off the bed and went to wash his face in the bathroom.
“We’ll need to come up with a believable story of your exodus tonight,” said Doug.
Charlie began brushing his teeth. When he finished, he went in with puppy-dog eyes ready to request a favour. “We can discuss that tonight, but I can’t leave yet. I have to look for Sophie, and I’m not leaving town without her.”
“Charlie, it’s going to draw suspicion if we stay another day on the books…”
“You said we could stay another day, before.”
“Well that was before, when I was still intending to press the red button.”
“You know the protocol, Charlie. We don’t stay in town after a mission. You’ve just been given life, but it needs to happen away from here. We need to be smart—let’s just make it one beer, actually. What’s the status out there, anyway?”
Charlie recalled all the mayhem he’d caused in every inch of the city within his radius trying to find Sophie. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to go for a beer, but he couldn’t tell Doug that. “There was nothing. I saw Sophie, I told her to wait while I did the job. I did the job and no one saw me, except for the mistress of course. Then I went back and looked for Sophie but she wasn’t there.”
“No usual commotion?”
Doug seemed satisfied with the answer. They were about to disassemble the coffin and pack it away when there was a knocking on their door. They both shared a glance before both drew their sidearms. After some silence, Doug asked them to identify themselves. No one answered, so Doug motioned for Charlie to turn on the coffin’s self-destruct button. As Charlie nudged his way over to the coffin and reached for the button, the door was blown out with a shotgun blast. Charlie immediately returned fire with his pistol. The shots echoed around the room with a deafening roar, the dividing wall being chewed up into Swiss cheddar. Charlie emptied his clip as he retreated to the bedside drawer before looking at Doug, who remained still by the foot of the bed right next to the floor.
Charlie kept his gun on the buckshot door as he edged forward to Doug, who was still not moving. Charlie grabbed his shoulder and shook lightly, but Doug did not move. Charlie forgot about the door and whoever was still behind it, turning to face Doug’s eyes, motionless, an entry wound to the right of his temple. Charlie clenched up, his face boiling red with rage as he tried to hold it all in, keep the shock in him at bay as it revereberated all over his body. Doug was dead, and Charlie was left to wonder what could have been different. He does his mission on time and Doug kills him and exits safely. Doug goes home to his family and Heather grows up with a Dad that protects her from people like Charlie. Life goes a different way, a better way.
But this does not happen, and now nothing will ever be the same for the Schraeders.
Charlie was ready to collapse and hold his best friend, the one who had saved his life countless times and granted him this last gift of freedom when so much was at stake. In a daze, Charlie zipped up Doug’s jacket to hide the buckshot in his chest, tidy him up and make his soul more comfortable in whatever afterlife he found his way to. Charlie would’ve stayed there, rocking away forever in his guilt if he didn’t hear the sound of shuffling in the hallway. Charlie swung the door wide open, ignoring the body slumped against the wall and set his fury on the lone survivor crawling away. The man turned, his hands and face smeared with blood, as Charlie raised the gun and sent the man still. He returned to the room and allowed himself a minute, a crucial minute, given that there would be more folks with guns coming soon. But he needed this minute—demanded it—to say goodbye to his friend. Closing Doug’s eyes, he dragged the body outside the room, down the hall as quickly as possible. Charlie returned to the room and set the coffin to self-destruct. He then tried sliding it under the bed to discourage shrapnel. The faint sound of sirens in the distance raised his panic level and he abandoned his attempt, the coffin only halfway under the bed, but hopefully it was enough. The sirens wailed closer to the hotel and Charlie knew it was too late to escape down the hallway. He reached for a lighter and held it above the smoke alarm, which began its incessant, high-pitched whining. He then decided he’d have to get the coffin fully under the bed before leaving, wanting to make sure the explosion hurt no one else. He set the timer for the coffin, took the case of sedatives from Doug’s bag and threw it in his backpack, before opening the window and sliding down a drainpipe, dropping to the ground from a safe distance. Charlie’s window backed out onto the small rear garden (a tactical decision) and Charlie climbed over the garden wall onto a back street, bolting away as the coffin exploded, rocking the room.
Charlie didn’t look back, running down the alleyway and turning any random direction down dark streets, his memory of an exit strategy gone with the panic. At first, Charlie had the darkness to his advantage, but this did not last as the lights from all the houses gradually began to flick on to investigate the explosion. Everywhere Charlie went, the silhouettes of faces crowded front windows, and Charlie could do nothing but keep on running.
He needed a quiet place, a dark place, to take his sedatives and plot his revenge.
Eventually, Charlie made his way to the outskirts of town, where the homeless and afflicted met to collapse. He entered an industrial yard and checked for security. He knew he’d be safe there, the sirens having dissipated, but another part of him realised he’d need to be closer to town to ensure his radius could cover its full potential. They knew he was here, they must’ve known, it was just a question of whether they were his own men or the local intelligence. He could flee, start a new life anywhere else but here, but he knew he’d be hunted to the ends of the earth if he went down that path. So he decided on revenge. Revenge and then eloping with Sophie, with maybe a confession in between. He slumped his shoulders and made his way back to the centre of the city, trying hard to think of the nooks and crannies he wouldn’t be found. It was getting to midnight and though it was a Saturday night, the streets had gone into lockdown, patrolled by all local authorities available. Wearing a beanie as his only means of cover, Charlie felt truly exposed each harried step forward into town. He got a decent way in from the outskirts and found a side alley with several dumpsters lining its walls. It was merely a matter of picking the most comfortable and suitable to his needs. Slushing into its juicy surface, Charlie adjusted the bags until nothing was sticking into him that shouldn’t have. He closed the door on himself and used his lighter to illuminate the box of sedatives.
Charlie opened the box and did a double take, there was only one vial left when there should have been three, four, perhaps even five. Furious and broken by this, Charlie then remembered that the true purpose of the mission had been to terminate him, and any extra sedatives would only play to his advantage were he to obtain them, like he had now. Charlie cursed and kicked at the garbage bags as softly as he could, screaming inside himself. He tipped the dumpster lid open to allow the right kind of light for his syringe. Finding the vein whilst holding the lighter was incredibly difficult and clumsy and after much excruciating fanfare, Charlie just said, “Fuck it,” and stabbed away. He used the whole vial, otherwise it wouldn’t have worked. Feeling it making his head light, Charlie barely reached for the dumpster lid, managing to close it just as his head hit garbage.
Charlie transformed into his Smiley-Faced self atop the building overlooking the dumpster. He gazed over to the distant hotel where red-and-blue lights still flashed and then he took flight.
Outside the hotel all the resident were being comforted with blankets and assurances of refunds while men with guns stood guard and local detectives argued with a mysterious, moustached man about credentials and jurisdictions: “Well I’ve never heard of this Dark Matter Defence Department before, let me speak to your superior!”—”I am your superior!” Etc.
Charlie went invisible in his own discreet way and floated gently towards the hotel lobby, where he went behind the desk and melted the hard drives containing records of his name. He then went back to the police van and melted their systems too, causing deep confusion for the techie manning the computer. Charlie then left the van, and reappeared from behind some bushes. Charlie put on one of his non-descript government agent faces and acted like he was taking notes as he edged his way closer to the mysterious Moustached Man calling the shots.
The Moustached Man noticed Charlie straight away. “Who are you?” asked the Moustached Man. As Charlie wasn’t well versed in French, he went straight for his good ol’ American.
“Sir, I don’t believe we’ve met. I’m Agent Johnson, a local emissary from one of our specialist branches and I would be more than happy to extend an offer of assistance to your boys.”
The Moustached Man smiled curtly, “I’m sorry, Agent Johnson, but this is a local matter of quite technical terms that is (and he was definitely enjoying his power trip) perhaps above your pay grade.”
“Like I said, I’m happy to offer another set of eyes in what looks like one hell of a supernatural clusterfuck, wouldn’t you say?”
Just then, the techie from the van came to complain about the hard drives completely melting. The Moustached Man regarded this information with quiet interest before turning back to Charlie’s Agent Johnson. The Moustached Man then gave the techie an order in French, and then put his hand out to Charlie, who shook it likewise. “Perhaps I should give you a tour.”
They began walking into the hotel.
”It is quite strange you use the word supernatural for a triple-homicide.”
“I was more thinking about the strange reports going around town of a masked man appearing in many places at once.”
The Moustached Man feigned surprise. “Oh, and you think they are connected?”
“I wouldn’t be here otherwise.”
They passed Doug’s body in the hallway. Charlie tried to avoid looking at Doug’s body, and the moustache man seemed to make note of this. He calmly reached for his walkie and made a quick order. The Moustached Man then pushed up ahead to the other men in the hallway. “This is what happens when your subordinates don’t wait for backup.”
Charlie laughed. “I don’t think it would’ve helped.”
The Moustached Man turned back to Charlie, “Oh, no?” before his walkie went off again. The Moustached Man repeated the order, this time a greater sense of urgency in his voice.
“Something the matter?” Charlie asked, smiling.
“Let me show you the room,” said the Moustached Man, his hands visibly shaking.
They walked into the room, everything still smoggy and smelling of ash as investigators took samples. The Moustached Man ordered everyone to leave the room. Once they had left, the man undid the button on his collar. “The coffin is an interesting contraption, tell me, does it improve the radius of your travels?”
“A girl never tells,” said Charlie as he ripped his Agent Johnson face off to reveal his smiley face. The Moustached Man reached for his walkie and hissed into it once more.
“Backup won’t help. If y’all speak of radiuses and coffins the way you do, you should already know that.”
“I have a wife and kids,” the Moustached Man stated, though this was expressed more as a fact than anything, the Moustached Man knowing full well how far that would get with Smiley Face.
“So did my friend,” Charlie curtly replied.
“They disobeyed orders.”
“So did my best friend. Someone’s got to pay for his death. Unless you want it to be the rest of your men, that person must be you.”
The Moustached Man swallowed his remaining fear. “Then please make it quick.”
“I’m going to tear your head off and let it gravitate around me so you get to watch me kill all of your friends.”
“If you sever my head, I will be dead, and subsequently unable to watch the awful acts you want to prescribe to my men.”
Charlie stopped to consider this. “You may be right; I’ll get your heart too.” And then, without further adieu, Charlie grabbed the Moustached Man by the face and punched into his chest, working his way around the rib cage until he felt a large pulse. He ripped the head, spine and heart out at the same time like the tablecloth trick a waiter pulls to impress (the rest of the body in this case being the cutlery and dinner plates). A truly sadistic and blood-gushing sight, the Moustached Man gasped over and over as the chords to his heart were wrapped around his spine like a tetherball so it wouldn’t dangle needlessly.
“Beautiful,” Charlie grinned, his Smiley Face at its absolute brightest. “Now let’s go meet your friends.”
Charlie was going to kill them all. This was the rage coursing through his black, pulsating body and revenge was surely justified beyond reproach. He skipped down the stairs into the hotel lobby. The men had guns, assault rifles of all kinds of badassery, but it would make no difference. They gasped when they saw their superior’s head, still bobbing up and down as it made its gravitational circle round the smiley-faced dream man.
“Get out, you fools!” the Moustached Man slurred with his final breaths.
“Terrific advice, though difficult given the circumstances,” said Charlie as he lined up his next victims.
Unsure of what to do, they began shooting, as this was what thousands of movies, training, books, history and instincts had taught them to do with the modern marvels they held in their hands. Thirty men, firing machine guns in a hotel lobby of no more than twenty square metres. It was obscenely loud, and poor Charlie had to imagine some earplugs.
When they ran out of ammo and realised nothing had worked with Charlie still standing his ground, perhaps even more relaxed than before, whatever was left in their bowels oozed its way out in muddy surrender. Charlie lined up his next victim and was about to strike—before through the lobby door came a gust of energy so powerful it threw Charlie against the wall, forcing his gravitational hold of the Moustached Man loose. As the Moustached Man’s head was about to drop and splat, the gust of energy caught it and suspended it in mid-air.
Charlie’s eyes opened wide. It was another dream man.
“That’s mine!” shouted Charlie.
And all he heard was the echoed voice of No… before the gust was out the door and Charlie gave chase, sparing all the terrified men in the hotel lobby of their floating head fate.
The gust of energy was lean and agile, zipping through tight laneways and tighter turns—up, down, left and right—firing off rounds of fireworks to blind Charlie in his pursuit, but to no avail. The gust then settled on gliding through the river canal, leaving small waves in its wake, the head of the Moustached Man at its head. Charlie gained with each turn, his speed honed after years of hunting. Snaking along the river, Charlie recognised the bridge up ahead and its memory gave him a plan. Just as the dream man went under the bridge, a gigantic duck with a bill the width of the river burst forth from the water, the Moustached Man’s lollypop remains having to pull straight up to avoid the duck bill lined with serrated shark teeth, allowing Charlie to go over the top of the bridge and snatch the Moustached Man in mid-air.
The dream man kept climbing and Charlie gave chase, flying upward into the heavens, the Moustached Man now rightfully by his side, but the higher he flew the slower he got, as somewhere back on earth his brain was finding this all a little too much and when Charlie had seemingly reached the end of his radius tether, the other dream man still continued, well beyond Charlie’s radius. When the dream man realised Charlie was unable to follow, he stopped his ascent and returned to Charlie, staying just out of reach. All Charlie could see was the outline of his enemy, who seemed to regard him and his twisted Smiley Face with boiling hatred.
Despite the lack of face and eyes, Charlie sensed the dreamer was transfixed by the head of the Moustached Man and as Charlie realised this, a droplet of water, possibly a tear, softly dropped onto his face.
The dream man was despondent at losing his handler.
“Now you know how I feel,” said Charlie, no sympathy escaping him. “You want the rest of your friend, come get him.” And then Charlie let go of the Moustached Man’s head and spine, as it plummeted to the earth and the tears began to flow from the dream man, falling like rain drops upon Charlie’s face, who kept his smile burning.
Until he noticed the wings…
Or at least, the outline of them.
They were flapping gently behind the dreamer, keeping him afloat, and the longer they both floated, regarding each other until the Moustached Man went splat, the more this crying dreamer revealed itself to Charlie. The soft face, the hair, and all the transparent lines slowly crystallizing into the shape of an angel…
Charlie’s eyes lit up, and, realising what he’d done, woke up screaming in his dumpster.
Sophie did not wake that night like she usually did when her dreaming became too overwhelming. When Charlie disappeared, she drifted slowly down, like a feather that weighed a thousand pounds, to collect what little remained of the man she had mistakenly called “father” on one too many occassions. Cradling his lifeless head atop an empty rooftop, her tears filled the sky and cast a downpour on the town.
Eventually heeding the call of her other heads of command, she returned to the hotel and was provided with the passport pictures of her mentor’s killer. She showed no emotion when she recognised the American dreamer, codename: Smiley Face, as the man she passed by the bridge in the afternoon, unbeknownst to her that his dreamer alter-ego would be her target only hours later.
With identification of the target’s human face now known, Sophie was sent like a hound to hunt. She spent the rest of the night roaming the streets, tasked with finding Charlie, and wherever she went, the rain of her tears followed.
Back at the hotel, the French agents were packing up the evidence and making themselves sparse lest Smiley Face return. Media news crews were treated with talk of a terror plot successfully foiled in a raid that claimed the life of brave French counter-terrorism security advisor Jacques Dusautoir.
Sophie woke in the early hours of the morning to a glass of water and her daily dose of tablets. Sitting at the foot of her bed was Madame Pascal. The Madame was dressed in her professional attire and her commiserations about the late Dusautoir were brief and to the point, betraying the fact that she had just lost a dear friend too; because this was part of the job, as young Sophie was to learn.
“Mademoiselle, we cannot bring him back, we can only honour his memory by continuing his work, his belief in you. You broke a record last night, your submersion was over four hours, quite a feat.”
Sophie did not react to this.
Madame Pascal sighed. “The people that support us do so out of a love we can sometimes feel we can never fully reciprocate, though it is our duty to try. We will get this man, Mademoiselle, and to do this you need to keep yourself ready for your next submersion, no matter how difficult it must be to focus right now.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t enter in time.”
“No, Sophie, You did your best. Those men shouldn’t have jumped the gun, so to speak. Don’t worry, we will track down the American and when we have his position, you will have your opportunity to take your revenge, and it will be yours Sophie, we promise you that.”
“I will do you proud.”
“You will do Monsieur Dusautoir proud. Now, while we search for the American, you will do your exercises, so that you will be ready, understood?”
Sophie nodded and Madame Pascal left the room, leaving Sophie to her water, pills and tedius breathing exercises in an empty white room bereft of natural light while the rest of the department hunted her mentor’s killer.
Thoughts of guilt and the feel of her mentor’s head—the absence of life in his eyes—clouded Sophie as she tried to stay focused on her exercises, the dull monotony meant to lower her stress levels and increase lucidity, thus enhancing the control of her gift during submersion.
Breath in (Smiley-Faced pig)
Breath out (ducks, their necks wrung)
And then she stopped the exercises. They were utterly useless, just like her. The American was probably long gone by now, and Sophie would have no chance of avenging her mentor as she promised. She yearned to sleep and become the angel of death, putting that wretched Smiley Face on those ducks he loved so much and napalming them with her fury.
And as these vicious fantasies reached fever pitch, there was a knock at her door.
The American was at the river, by the bridge.
The sniper team watched over Charlie from a nearby rooftop with a view of the riverbank. Across from Charlie, on the other side of the river where trees and brush of falling autumn leaves completed a Grimm fairytale picture, strike teams edged carefully through the trees, setting up positions against the American sitting on a bench, throwing bread into the bank and feeding a family of ducks.
Sophie joined Madame Pascal and the sniper team observing from the rooftop. Madame Pascal flinched when she realised Sophie was there. “Goodness, Mademoiselle. You can’t sneak up on your own team like that.”
“Is it him?”
“Is he dreaming?”
“Scanners aren’t working from this range.”
“There are no glitches in his image, though,” added the sniper.
Madame Pascal smiled at Sophie, whose eyes never left Charlie sitting in the distance, throwing bits of bread to hungry bills. “Make us proud, Sophie.”
Sophie climbed up onto the ledge and stepped off, the sniper instinctively trying to reach out and stop her from falling, before his eyes bulged as Sophie floated like a ghost slowly to the American.
Charlie stood when he saw Sophie floating over, his peace at feeding the ducks dissipating in his harrowed features. When Sophie landed, they both regarded each other in silence while the ducks quacked away with glee and the strike teams flicked their safeties off.
“I wrote you something,” said Charlie, as he reached inside his coat to produce several rumpled pieces of paper. He held them together and studied them like a child about to read his speech in front of class for the first time. “It’s an apology, a confessional of sorts, and hopefully maybe a how-to guide for dreaming a better life—like, what pills work best and, um…” Charlie stopped because Sophie had not removed her piercing gaze from his sorry face. She then raised her head by the slightest and the pages wriggled free from Charlie’s grasp and flew over to her, reassembling in her hands to which she scrunched up into a ball and tossed in the river, the ducks scrambling to investigate.
“You killed my mentor.”
“I’m sorry. You killed mine too, though…” said Charlie, “…there were some good notes on there…”
“They’re gone now. Say your last words before I finish this,” declared Sophie.
Charlie closed his eyes, holding back tears. It wasn’t because of all the bad he had done his whole life; he’d made his peace with that a long time ago. It was absorbing the sense of absolute loss behind the fury in Sophie’s eyes and knowing he was the cause.
Charlie thought long and hard, and then swallowed his fear. Here went nothing.
“I made a lot of mistakes in my life, wrote as many down as I could on those pieces of paper and yet that still didn’t cover it—wasn’t even close. I didn’t sleep a single second last night and I don’t think I’ll sleep again. But that’s okay, because I’m tired of sleeping, dreaming, except, maybe one last dream: That stuff I said to you, about the kids, a happy future. Maybe you can still have that—I hope you do. Because of all the dreams I ever made, I think that was my favourite one.”
Sophie’s jaw unclenched, her fury faltering as she became lost for words.
Unable to bear the silence, Charlie kept talking, “You know, in the beginning, I thought there were things we could’ve done, good dreams, not the nightmares we became. We could generate food, enough for anyone, least while we were still sleeping or something like that. Enchant the air and make happy zones for the people…” Charlie stopped and chuckled to himself. “You know what I thought I could be: a superhero, and of all the people I knew, I actually had the power to be something like that…”
Sophie perked up, her wrath unwinding further. “I thought that too.”
“But that’s not how it went,” revealed Charlie, “they forced me to kill, over and over. You’ve seen what I’m capable of, and they’ll make you do the same. Sooner or later. I wish I could say otherwise, but that’s what people will want from you: to do the dirty work. Least that’s all they came to expect from me. Don’t let them do that to you, Sophie. Don’t become like me.”
Clouded in confusion and unable to respond to this truth, Sophie looked to stall; she conjured a piece of bread and threw it to the ducks.
Back on the rooftop, the sniper noted this to Madame Pascal.
“She’s getting cold feet. I have a shot. Strike teams are advising the same thing.”
“No,” said Madame Pascal. “She must learn.”
“It’s okay you can finish me,” said Charlie. “Make them believe you’re on their side. But then you need to leave, go anywhere you want.”
“I can’t… I…”
“You don’t owe them anything.”
“I owe them more than you know,” Sophie countered, and Charlie flinched.
“But you haven’t killed for them yet,” he said, hopeful it was a statement and not a question.
“No, you will be my first.”
Relief flushed his face, relaxing everything within him. “I’m okay with that, as long as I’ll be your last,” he smiled, and attempted a cheeky wink, one that said it wasn’t going to hurt, before a tear rolled from his eye that he wiped away.
“I’m sorry,” he finished.
“I’m sorry it went this way,” said Sophie.
And her hand was then raised, ready to apply whatever she wanted to him, all of it at her will, limitless imagination at hand.
She could have fired a gun, a single bullet right in the area (to the millimetre) where he would feel nothing, not an absolute thing.
She could have burned him alive, one limb at a time or all limbs at once. Destroyed him slowly for everything he deserved.
She could have spared him. Saved him. Forgiven him. Maybe even grown to love him.
It was all at her command. Whatever she dreamed.
And yet it wasn’t going to be that simple. There wasn’t going to be any of that dream that Charlie said—or hers, for that matter.
Because the world was going to keep spinning and the world was going to cave into her and make its demands; from Madame Pascal to her deceased mentor and all the systems that willed it be.
And for that, it was to be—but not by her doing, vengeance or otherwise.
“I won’t,” she relented.
“And I hope you won’t ever have too, Sophie. So please: dream of me, dream of us, feeding the ducks,” said Charlie, as he pulled out his gun and slid it up into his chin.
The strike teams saw a weapon and they fired.
The sniper saw a weapon and he fired.
Charlie fired too.