I’m asleep and I’m dreaming. The first part is important because I’m not always asleep when I dream.
So I’m sleeping and I’m dreaming and I’m sitting in a warm room with my family. I don’t know it’s a dream, though.
The room we’re in isn’t that big, but somehow they’re all there--my mom, my dad, sisters, grandparents, aunts and uncles, the whole gang--they’re all there. Everyone’s wearing knitted sweaters and drinking from porcelain mugs crafted with purposeful asymmetries. We’re all sitting on couches and big comfy arm chairs, talking to one another. It’s a pleasant after dinner conversation full of laugher and smiles.
My aunt and I both begin talking at once.
“Oh, sorry. Go ahead,” I say.
“No, no. I’ll tell you later,” she says.
I nod. We’ve been talking about how children never listen to what their parents say.
“Parents think that their kids aren’t listening to them because they don’t immediately follow the advice they give them. But the problem is that a lot of the time the advice they give isn’t applicable to kids' lives. Parents are adults so they’re always giving kids advice for being an adult: never spend more money than you have, don’t get married, always offer to pay for dinner. And to kids most of the advice isn’t applicable because they’re too young. But the weird thing is that as they get older suddenly a lot of the things you parents told you become relevant. These odd bits of advice become an imprinted guide for how to act and as an adult you actually start to do some of the things your parents told you to without even thinking about it. So really, kids do listen to what their parents say, they just can’t follow it until they’re an adult.”
“That’s very interesting,” says a man in the corner. He’s sitting in a large leather green armchair outside our circle, just beyond the warm glow of the firelight. He is not in my family.
The conversation moves on and no one else seems to notice the man, but I keep looking at him. I know him from somewhere.
The man is wearing black jeans, a black t-shirt, and a black leather jacket. He has a large English nose and kind green-brown eyes that look alert and amused by all they have seen, and I can tell from their twinkle that they have seen much. His hair is dark brown to the point of black and it sits in an unruly wavy mop on his head like a challenge to anyone with a comb.
And as I look at his crazy hair I realize who it is. It’s Dream. It’s Morpheus, the Sandman. It’s Neil Gaiman.
Which means this is a dream.
Neil smiles at me as I realize this. “But,” he says with his look, ”that doesn’t mean it’s not real.“
The conversations continue around me like a play, except I’m no longer a part of it. The show, the dream, must go on even without me there to say my lines, so the other players continue, as if nothing has changed. That’s the strange thing about dreams: when you don’t know you’re in one you know all the lines to the story, but as soon as you’re lucid you can never figure out what’s going on.
Neil stands up, and walks to the door.
“Come on, Zac. Let’s go outside!” says one of my cousins.
I nod and follow her.
Outside we’re on a snow-covered mountain full of fresh white powder and tall evergreens. Everyone around us is skiing. My cousin smiles at me and zips off down the slope. In the dream I’m probably supposed to follow her, but I don’t. Neil is walking the other direction. He’s still wearing his black jeans, black shirt, and black jacket, but now he also has a colorful striped scarf, like something the Doctor might wear.
I kick off my skis and jog after him.
The snow is fresh and not yet packed so I keep sinking in. Neil does not, but he moves at a more relaxed pace so I’m able to catch up to him.
When I do, I fall in at his side. He doesn’t look at me but an amused smile plays about his lips.
“Hello,” I say.
“Hello,” he replies.
I want so badly to ask him a question about his stories--an intelligent question--something that will show him I’ve thought about his writing a lot, but at the same time I know this isn’t allowed.
I know who he is.
And I’m pretty sure he knows I know.
But if you get to meet Neil in your dreams you don’t get to ask him about his writing. Those are the rules.
“How are you?” he asks, surprising me. I didn’t think he’d be the one to continue the conversation.
“I’m well,” I say careful to answer in grammatically correct vernacular. “How are you?”
He nods. “I am also well.”
“How is,” I pause, deciding to try it. “Your work?”
Or that’s what I mean to say--to circumvent the rules. But the wind snatches my words, saving me from the penalty. This is a warning. Next time there will be consequences.
“How is your writing?” he asks.
“It’s good,” I say, a little shocked he knows. But, then, of course he knows. It’s Neil Gaiman.
He bobs his head again, a sort of polite nod that I should continue.
“Well,” I begin. “It’s okay. I… I’m twenty-four and I still haven’t written a screenplay or published a novel yet.”
From out of nowhere a random skier appears just to roll his eyes at me.
“I’m not a very good writer,” I continue. “I guess I’m not bad--if I showed you something I don’t think you’d hate it--I’m just not all that good yet. It’s taken a long time for me to accept that. I used to think I was good and it would frustrate me that I wasn’t more successful, but lately I’ve realized that I’m not. I still have a long way to go. But I think that was important to understand, because now I’m working hard to get better.”
As I finish I’m kind of surprised. That’s not what I expected to say. There’s a kind of honesty in it that caught me off guard. Not that I didn’t know I felt that way, I’d just never verbalized it to anyone; It’s one thing to feel something in your head and whole other to say it aloud.
Neil, always a good listener, nods again and smiles in that way he does. I feel good about my answer.
“And what are you writing?” he asks.
“A book,” I answer immediately. This, again, surprises me. I don’t usually call it that. “Well it’s just a story for now. It’ll be a book when it’s done.”
“And what will you do when it’s done?” he asks.
I pause to consider it. The powdery snow squeaks in the silence. “I’d love to get it published,” I start. “But if I can’t, that’s okay. Either way I’ll start writing the next thing.”
He nods again as if approving of my responses.
As we round the corner of the snowy trail we come upon four women in brightly colored clothes. They all have dark tanned skin with straight brown or black hair and big smiles across their faces. Their clothes are vaguely Indian or Tibetan, I can’t tell, and each carries a woven basket of food. Two carry the baskets on their heads while the others hold them in their arms. My cousin is with them still in her skis.
“Isn’t it wonderful, Zac?” She exclaims as we approach. “The refugees were able to escape to safety!”
Hundreds of people appear from the trees, swarming us and cheering. Somehow we’ve caught up with the dream I’m supposed to be having.
In the throng of the crowd I lose Neil. Jumping, I can see him drifting away from me. The crowd hoists me into the air like their champion and begins to carry me away off, singing as they go.
“Neil!” I shout back at him.
He turns, head cocked to the side.
“Do you have any advice?” I ask.
Neil puts a finger to his lips and thinks. He shakes his head. “No. You sound like you are on the right track already,” he says. His voice is soft but I can hear him easily through the noise of the crowd as if he’s whispering into my ear. Then he smiles and opens his hands. “Besides, we are out of time.”
Before I can ask what he means the suns starts blinking on and off, and an awful beeping fills the air. I squeeze my eyes shut to block it out and when I open them I’m lying in my room on my bed. And my alarm is ringing.