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Fiction Friday: In the House that Jack Built


Sometimes, he dreams.

Once in a while, not often, but once in the proverbial blue moon, he dreams he is taking the bar. His brain replicates every nervous tick and timer tock. The hipster humming “Alouette” in questionable B flat major. The Delta Gamma tapping her acrylics on the table – duple, then triple, then duple again. Proctor Gladys shuffling a painful fifty beats per minute. It’s all there.

In the dream, as at the actual event, he reproduces his thumbprint. Gladys says, “Honey pie, put your bag away. They worry about cheating like all get out.” The backpack is an expensive leather number of Jonathan’s. Like everything of Jonathan’s, it is of questionable origin. He pushes it beneath the table, and as he does so, considers the mechanics of fingerprint cheating. A realistic blueprint would require the genuine article, from someone unlikely to blow the gig at a future crime scene, or by logging into an Apple device. He presses his index finger in ink and wonders if anyone has thought of this before, and even as he thinks it, he is sure someone has. There is nothing new under the sun or the flickering fluorescents of the Pasadena Convention Center. He can’t help but think that anyone who obtains a real severed hand for the purpose of cheating at the bar demonstrates such dedication to his cause that no matter what he writes, he is, de facto, a deserving applicant.

He pushes the backpack further under the desk with his foot and de-inks his index finger, but when he turns around he sees that the exam booklet is open in front of him, and hears everywhere the gentle snick snick of laptop keys, like so many leaves fluttering to the pavement. He transitions seamlessly to typing. His blood pumps in sympathy with the clock, and in his dream this feels comfortable and familiar, even though it will be months yet before his circulatory system conforms its thumping to the persistent reveille of billable time, and years before he comes to understand how an otherwise reasonable soul may become perforated by the bullet spray of the ticking clock.

His tablemate, Alice of the middling Loyola Law School, chews her hair. She twitches a Morse code of spasms (“I am breaking,” says her seizing left eyelid) that will earn her the nickname “Blinky” at her substandard law firm. In his dreams, much like the actual event, Blinky looks on the verge of vomit, although unlike the actual event, she never succumbs. He reviews the question before him as he types. It is California essay number two, third day, criminal law. It is always California essay number two, third day, criminal law. In the weeks before results are published, he dreams this dream every night, and for weeks afterwards, and for months after that, until the dream finally wears itself out, leaving a rifting scar across his psyche that still sings, with the proverbial blue moon, fifteen years later. In his dreams, as at the actual event, it is suddenly minute fifty-seven.   He stares at his analysis of the murder/robbery hypo, in which he has concluded none of the three thieves are guilty of the murder that resulted from their botched robbery. In his dreams, as at the actual event, his brain threatens to panic (“There must be accountability!” it says). Over and over again, he instructs that vital organ, “Do not collapse, you piece of shit.” In the dream, unlike the actual bar, he collects himself. He corrects his error. He has corrected this same error tirelessly in the past fifteen years. “Felony murder,” he writes. “Antiquated, but sometimes applicable, depending on jurisdiction.” When he wakes, he is disappointed.   He is fifteen years older. There is no bar. He had passed, of course, despite his error, but it is of little consolation.

Other times he has dreams he does not remember at all. He wakes in the dark, on his couch, or hunched over in his chair, or occasionally, as a young associate, on the floor of his office beneath his desk, sweating through his suit and clenching anything that will seize, his hands, his toes, his jaw, his eyelids. Sometimes he wakes up very cold, even in his office building, which is precisely temperature controlled. Sometimes, he gasps for air, as though he has been sprinting while holding his breath. Has he been running? He can never remember. Sometimes, he wakes disoriented and nervous, as though he is missing a crucial appointment; he is unfailingly surprised to find he is on a couch, or in a chair, or on the floor of an office building, although he can never remember where it is he is supposed to be.

Once, he had an entirely different sort of dream. It went like this:

He is standing someplace dank and cavernous. There is something wrong with his eyes. He can only make out a landscape of shadows and indeterminate silhouettes amidst a hazy fog. In the dream, he assumes an interior space, although when he looks back on this dream at a later date he will wonder if, perhaps, he wasn’t outside after all, maybe someplace tropical, because the air is heavy and warm, and because the walls, if there are any, are far away, so far away that they might be little more than the four corners of the world. He thinks he hears music in the distance. “How faint the tune,” he thinks, “How high the moon.” One of her mother’s records, he imagines, played on an antique Victrola, because her mother delighted in things like antique Victrolas. His own mother never favored jazz.

The ground shivers beneath his feet. He stumbles. In his peripheral vision, the shadows pulsate, throbbing to the beat of their shared subterranean heart. The floor rumbles again. This time, his body instinctively absorbs it, condensing and rebounding like a spring. Like dancing, he supposes. He is not a dancer. All around, the shadows shimmy in sympathy with the earth, all except one. It collapses elegantly, like a deflating balloon, into the gloom, and does not rise. He wonders if this is how the dream ends, with a nauseating drop into deeper slumber. It would be no bad thing. His relationship with sleep is, at best, uneasy, but his bones miss it with a deep, carnal ache.

The music surges. The shadows pulse. And then he hears it, close behind him, in the inhalation between up-beat and down – an intake of breath, a scuffing heel. There is someone with him, in this dream.

He turns. There’s nothing there but wet air. He can barely see the rims of his own glasses. The music vibrates through his uneasy brain, sending ripples across the still, inscrutable pools of his memory. He knows, suddenly, where he has heard this song before. “Stop,” he tries to say, but nothing happens, and it is too late anyway. The melody resonates with every manner of sleeping, primordial sludge, sending it whirling across the carefully kempt surfaces of his mind. “Stop!” Again, nothing but the soft slush of his own breath fighting for space against the water in the air. This time, when the ground moves, so does he.

And then he hears a female voice. It is, of course, her voice. He is unbalanced. “Who’s there?” she says. He grasps at the darkness. For a brief moment he connects. His fingers grip hers. She is freezing, despite the heat. She wears her mother’s ring on her right hand. He can’t see the ruby but he can feel it, pulsing as though his fingertips press her carotid.

The earth heaves, or maybe it is just him, he can’t tell anymore. He lurches. Her hand is gone. “Thomas, is it really you?” she says, sounding at once terribly familiar and terribly altered. “What a strange place to run into you. Maybe I should just say, how strange to run into you at all. How long has it been? I’ve lost count.” He can’t respond. She doesn’t seem to expect him to. “Although I have to say, as always, your timing…I mean, really, you’ve caught me on a very interesting evening.” She pauses, as though she is gasping for breath. The air is so humid they are drowning in it. “What is it Fitzgerald said? ‘In the real dark night of the soul, it is always three o’clock in the morning.’ Truer words, you know. I think there is no place homier for a darkened soul than three o’clock. No one knows that better than the two of us. You must agree, for here you are.” She is breaking, like a dry twig, like Blinky at the bar. “It is so dark. I can’t see you,” she says. “Are you still there?” For a minute he thinks he has lost her, but she finds him, her hand all ice and bony angles.

Suddenly, she locks her fingers around his wrist, and freezes. When she speaks again, her voice is low and urgent. “Don’t move. I thought I heard … There. Over there.” She pauses, and he listens, but can hear nothing but the insufferable music. She says, “There are other things, you know, besides you and me that like the dark, I just never… There it was again. Can you hear it?” And then he does hear something, rhythmic and steady, a Taiko drum laying time like bricks in a metered sidewalk, or the stomach-rumbling pulse of electronic bass, or footsteps in the dark. There are footsteps, in the dark.

“Run,” she whispers.

He does. He chases the sound of her erratic footfalls through the forest of shades. All around, the ground beats, the music roars, the shadows convulse. She navigates it easily. She has been here before.

Finally, she slows. “I don’t hear it,” she says. “It’s gone. We’ve lost it. Did you know – ” And then her hand rips from his. Her nails tear his wrist. She gasps, a shuddering sound torn from her abdomen and raked across her lungs. “Get away, Thomas,” she says. Her voice fades. He is losing her. “Get away!” He no longer hears her feet hit the ground. The rumble of the deep deep drums overpowers even the music, which continues to tinkle, merrily and anachronistically beneath the consuming bass. She is barely audible now. “Jane!” she cries, and though he has never known her to back down, he can hear that she is faltering. He lurches forward, fists swinging. At first, nothing, but he runs, and swings, and swings harder, and then he connects, solidly. “When a body meets a body,” he thinks. A memory sears like a sun shadow across his darkened brain in a brilliant and overpowering convulsion. It is June. He sits beneath a tree with a young girl, a little girl, even, a paperback book in his hands. He is laughing.   She says, “Stop it. Stop it! Look here. It’s supposed to be, ‘If a body catch a body…’ Don’t they test basic reading skills on the SAT? ‘If a body catch a body…’” and then the image is gone, and he cannot get it back again. The order of his mental library is shaken to its core in an earthquake of adrenaline. He savages the darkness, all blood lust and rage and distant fear exploding as bone meets bone. When a body meets a body. He can’t tell if he’s winning. He can’t tell where the body begins and ends, it is that large. His opponent does not give or waver. He throws every newton of his considerable force behind his fists. The body flinches, and gives, and then he is falling, first forwards, then backwards, a sickening, blind fall.

He wakes on his back, in his office. He has tipped over in his ergonomic chair, and now lies, face up, on his own carpeted floor. There is blood everywhere.   His hands throb. He lifts one before his face. The blood drips from the butchered meat across his custom shirt. When he folds his fingers, the skin parts across his knuckles, revealing bone and imbedded glass. There is almost as much glass as bone. He wonders if some enterprising doctor will ever be able to separate the two. Above him, his computer monitor, and the television mounted on the office wall, and the Lalique bowl that once decorated the corner of the desk, are shattered across the desk’s crystal surface, and the floor, and himself. His right wrist is torn by three parallel gashes, as though he dragged it across his fractured desk on the way to the floor, or across the nails of a desperate woman’s hand.


  1. What an adventure into a mind! You’ve painted this picture so well that I had to go back for a second look…..

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