by C.W.Smoke

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The dreams began without warning. One night Junior fought furiously against impossible odds. The next he fled, consumed by fear and desperation, running through dismal swamps, chased by an unseen menace, his feet bogged down in mud and slow motion. On another night he worked frantically without rest in a factory, loading trucks by hand, trying to meet an impossible deadline. Later, in that first week, he rushed around at the last minute trying to pay his men with money he didn't have.

Dreams are windows into the soul, some say, but not into Mr. Paul G. Basslard Jr.'s -- at least not as far as he was concerned.

He didn't care about the metaphysical or the psychological, or much of anything except himself, that is. And right now, Junior's needs began and ended with one-good-night's sleep. In fact, after nearly three weeks of rigorous dreaming, just getting up each morning was a problem. He was exhausted, listless and lethargic, slowing down, falling behind. Something had to be done, and soon.

So Junior looked to the bottom line. And decided that even though he wasn't a believer, he would try anything for some blessed, dreamless sleep. That's how he found himself outside the offices of Harold P. Icham M.D., S.C., Ph.D., RSVP (preferably with cash or negotiable securities if you please). A shrink. A well-heeled shrink. Junior was desperate.

"Do come in," intoned Dr. Icham with a minuscule bow before he shook hands and waved Junior over to the only other place in the entire inner suite to sit -- his spindly-looking, but sturdy, chrome-and-leather Bauhaus couch. "Make yourself comfortable Mr. Basslard. Problems sleeping? Yes, I see." And the word see spread out, an expanding inland ocean gently lapping at sandy shores. "May I call you Paul?"

"Hell, Doc," grinned Junior, sitting gingerly on the edge of the couch. "You can call me horse shit if it'll make me sleep any better." He sat there, teetering on the edge, his hand-tooled, imported, black leather cowboy boots tip-tapping time to a silent tune. The thick, off-white carpet swallowed the rhythm like a hungry polar bear. Across the room, on the opposite wall, a black-and-white Picasso lithograph of Don Quixote preparing to joust at windmills leered back at him.

Dr. Icham selected an absent-minded, little half-smile and put it on. "Relax, Paul," he said. "Take off your boots and jacket. Loosen your tie. Lie down. Relax. I want you to be comfortable."

Junior remained balanced, white-knuckled hands gripping the edge of the couch. "If you think I'm gonna just lay down here and spill my guts, you're the one who is nuts, Doc. Can't you just give me something to knock me out while I sleep?"

"That's what I'm here for," replied Dr. Icham, carefully adjusting his smile upward two notches. "To see that you get what you need. But first we must figure out what that is."

They fenced back-and-forth for a minute or two before Junior was unlimbered atop the leather couch, tie loose and boots off.

Dr. Icham sat beside the Bauhaus couch on a matching, ergonomic, chrome-and-leather chair, pen poised over clipboard. "Had any trouble lately?" he asked.

"What's that supposed to mean?" Junior thrust back.

They riposted again for awhile before Junior was ready.

"It probably all started when the wife found out about me and Josie, my secretary...," he confided as the starting gates burst open and his tale came charging out.

Apparently Junior's stenographic peccadillo hadn't been as discreet as he'd thought, and Marian, his wife, had taken exception. The divorce papers took him by surprise as he stood in his bathrobe answering Josie's front door. It was all downhill after that. In addition to being a cad and a scoundrel, Junior was also a self-made man. He still had his first penny, his first dollar, his first million. His kissin' cousin was a Gila Monster. Once his fingers got wrapped around cash they never let go.

Marian wanted at least half, and she'd probably get it. And Junior couldn't live with that, so he made like the rodent he was and squirreled-away his assets -- all of them. Then he declared bankruptcy. Divorce? He'd show her!

Trouble is, he short-changed everyone -- himself, his family, his business associates, even Uncle Sam. He probably never heard of cutting off his nose to spite his face. Or perhaps he was a proponent.

Three weeks ago both the divorce and bankruptcy had become final. He'd screwed everyone and gotten away with it. That's when the dreams began.

"So, what do you feel?" asked Dr. Icham.

"Meaning what?"

"Guilt, shame, remorse, anything?"

"Guilt, my ass!" snorted Junior. "I'm just taking care of Number One!"

"I see," said Dr. Icham, stroking the word for a few extra beats while the waves crested and washed ashore. He glanced at his watch. "Your time is nearly up. We certainly have an interesting course to chart. Will you do me a favor?"

"Sure," replied Junior, sitting up and pulling his boots on. "As long as it doesn't cost extra."

"This is all part of your treatment. Keep a dream diary. Write everything down, and bring it to our next session."

"Uhh, Doc. How about something to help me sleep?"

"I'm going to prescribe a mild sedative until I see you next week," replied Dr. Icham, making eye contact. "I think we're on the right course. If you need me for anything, here's my twenty-four-hour number. Think positive." He handed Junior a black-and-white business card, and gently ushered him out the door.

On the way down, in the empty elevator, Junior stuck the card into his sportcoat pocket and glanced at the prescription. Then he muttered, half to himself, "Damn! Five hundred bucks for an, 'I seeeeee,' and a bottle of Empirin Three. I'm in the wrong business."

But he logged his dreams.

The first night he was inside a tubular, hollow metal structure. All night long he worked a jumbo two-handed grinder smoothing off metal burrs and prepping the surfaces for welding where individual sections of the structure fit together. He couldn't raise his arms the next morning. His fingers ached and his skin felt gritty as he wrote down the dream.

He wrote about watching himself in a big mirror, dressed in heavy coveralls, boots and hard-hat, his gloved hands hefting the twenty-pound, two-foot-long grinder as he held it over his head to reach an awkward splice. He wrote about knowing that if he stopped to rest, something bad would happen. He wrote about how his fingers wouldn't unbend when he awoke the next morning. He wrote about how he took the day off just to lie in bed.

The next morning he wrote about using a jackhammer to break up a long section of sidewalk. He wrote about the pieces of jagged concrete bouncing crazily as he watched them in a nearby storefront mirror. He wrote about having to break the sidewalk just right, or the whole walkway would collapse, and he would be blamed. He wrote how his joints hurt and his back ached when he awoke. He wrote about having his food delivered because he was too tired to eat out.

On the third night he ran through rain and mud with a full field pack and his M-16 carbine. He knew that if he stopped to rest, the enemy would catch him. But he had to be careful. A misstep, a careless movement and a hidden trip wire could blow him to bits. He watched in the big mirror beside the path as mud clutched his feet like the Tar Baby in, "Brer Rabbit," pulling him, sucking him down as he fought to be free. He was afraid. So afraid.

His hands shook so much in the morning that he couldn't write. He was sitting in bed, shaking like a leaf, when it hit him.

A mirror!? In the jungle?

He jumped out of bed and grabbed his dream journal off the dresser. He thumbed through it and quickly found the mirrors in his other dreams, then he sat back heavily on the bed, the heel of his palm banging against his forehead. After a few minutes, he thought, Damn! There's a mirror in all my dreams.

I was right, he thought. I don't need a shrink.

He took the day off to think.

That night while he slept, he drove a one-man garbage truck, stopping at each house to dump the garbage by hand -- heavy, slippery, smelly garbage -- old, smashed watermelons mixed with discarded car batteries, broken glass and used diapers. The plastic bags kept ripping, spilling their slimy contents onto the pavement. And, of course, there was the bomb -- locked inside his truck -- set to explode. Soon. And he was chained -- manacled to his truck -- till all the garbage was picked-up. He stank. His rubber boots kept slipping on the spilled garbage, and his long chain kept getting tangled. Jeez. He had to hurry.

Junior drove down the alley, stopping the truck and leaping out to scoop-up the plastic garbage bags lined up beside a mirror-clad garage door.

He stopped, dead in his tracks, and stared at the mirror.

Slimed with garbage, wearing olive drab coveralls, a blue bandana wrapped around his forehead and holding his chain up, off the ground, mirror-Junior stared back at him.

He spun on his heel, climbed back into the truck, and put the transmission in gear. He backed the truck up about ten feet, turned the wheels toward the mirror, and shoved the gearbox into first gear. The truck lurched forward, right at the mirrored door.

Suddenly the mirror became transparent, revealing a smallish, bald-headed man wearing an antique, clear-green, accountant's visor. The man sat at a cash register behind the glass. Just before the truck slammed into the garage door, the cash register rang-up with a loud cha-ching.

Junior awoke with a jump-start, sitting in bed, his hands at two o'clock holding a vanished steering wheel.

He spent the rest of the day trying not to think.

That night, he was in dire straits again, back in the jungle -- cutting a path through the underbrush with his machete -- pursued by head-hunters. He ignored the mirror when he first saw it beside the path. When he was close enough, he swung the heavy knife quickly, and the glass shattered.

The little man bolted, visor flying one way, cash register the other. But he wasn't quick enough. Junior had him by the collar, feet off the ground. He shook the little man like a ten-pound sack of dry onions.

"Talk!" shouted Junior. "Who are you and what the hell is going on?"

"Put me down!" yelled Little Man, trying to break free. "Assaulting me is a Federal crime! I'm just doing my job. Put me down!"

"Your job?" wondered Junior aloud, letting Little Man's feet touch the ground, but still keeping his collar.

"That's better," said Little Man, pulling out his wallet. He twisted around to face Junior. "Here's my I.D. I'm with the I.R.S. -- Selected Recalcitrant Individuals Section -- I.R.S.S.R.I.S. for short. And you, sir, are a tax evader of the lowest sort."

"Now just hold on a cotton-pickin' minute," snorted Junior as he stared at Little Man's plastic picture. "I just went through hell and back to prove I'm broke."

"Really, Basslard," replied Little Man. "Do you seriously think that your government doesn't know the score? You are in our new pilot program. We need to fill these less-than-pleasant positions. Do you seriously believe that we don't collect our debts? We know all about you, Basslard. Now, allow me to ring you up since, at the moment, you are no longer working."

Junior let go. His hand fell to his side. His shoulders drooped. Little Man walked over to the upended cash register and tipped it right-side-up. He looked Junior straight in the eye and smiled a tight little smile as the register went cha-ching.



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