A week or so later, Ashling was once again sitting in front of the television, bored senseless. He had spent a lot of time thinking about his dream and what it might mean, but he didn’t get very far. It was just a fluke. He hadn’t had any dreams like that since then, so what did it matter? Life went on. Despite this decision to just continue on with his life, he was still nervous about returning to the tree in his backyard. It had been such a terrifying experience and he had never felt so helpless. Because the experience hadn’t repeated itself when he was sleeping normally, Ashling was beginning to think that the tree had had something to do with his dream.
Finally, on a partially cloudy, somewhat breezy Tuesday afternoon, Ashling made the decision to climb his tree again. He didn’t plan to fall asleep a second time. In fact, he planned very specifically to not fall asleep again in the tree. He missed his tree though and due to his excessive boredom, made up his mind to face his fear and revisit his old friend, the giant oak.
Timid at first, but gathering courage, Ashling once again came to know his good friend. Up and down, and up again, Ashling climbed and reclimbed the old tree. After some time, he became more and more fearless. He swung on the branches, risking his life and health without a thought. His mother would have called him careless, and she would have been right. Fortunately for both of them, she was not aware of his current exercise, and he managed not to injure himself.
Eventually, Ashling began to tire, and still very conscious of his decision not to risk sleeping in the tree, climbed down and headed into the house for an afternoon nap.
“Honey?” Ashling heard his mother call as he came into the house. “I was just looking for you. Someone called a few minutes ago. Do you know a Derek Jensen?”
Ashling hadn’t heard Derek mention a last name before, but he assumed it was still the same person. “Yeah.” Ashling had hardly thought about his new friend since that hot day in town. He felt an odd feeling of pleasure that a friend had called combined with a feeling of apprehension. “He called?”
Mrs. Welsh smiled. It wasn’t often that anyone called for Ashling, so she could imagine how he might be feeling now. “He left his number if you want to call back. It’s by the telephone.” She smiled again, “why don’t you go call him?” She gestured toward the telephone resting on the small table in the hallway.
“Okay,” Ashling said. He walked over to the telephone and sat down in the small armchair by the table. He saw her smile one more time in his direction before heading down the stairs. Moms are so annoying, he thought. Next to the telephone, on a small piece of yellow paper was a number, one he had heard before and tried to commit to memory. Before he could change his mind, Ashling picked up the receiver and dialed the number.
“Hello,” a woman’s voice answered.
“Hi. Um…is Derek there?” he asked.
“May I ask who’s calling?” the woman asked in a manner far more formal than Ashling was used to. She sounded older than his mother, but it can be hard to tell, sometimes, over a telephone.
“Yeah, um… my name’s Ash. We just met a week and a half ago.”
“Ash, what an unusual name. It reminds me of Cinderella. You know what Cinderella means don’t you?”
“Grandma!” Ashling heard a familiar voice yell through the receiver. “Hang up already! I’ve got it. He called to talk to me, not you.”
“Don’t be rude, Derek. I was just being friendly. Nice talking to you, Ash. Bye.” Ashling heard the click of the receiver as she hung up. Finally.
“Sorry about that, Ash. How’s it going?” Derek asked.
“Not bad. My Mom said you called. What’s up?”
“Not much. I was thinking of taking a bike ride up toward your place. It’s boring as heck here and my brother’s being a jerk. What do you say?”
Ashling considered it a minute. He had never owned a bicycle and so had never realized what kind of freedom could be available if he had one. Five miles wasn’t really that far if you could ride a bicycle. “It’s fine with me. Let me go ask my Mom.” Ashling quite nearly dropped the receiver to the floor in his hurry, but caught it before it could hit. “Just a sec,” he said into the receiver before placing it on the table.
A minute later, Ashling came bounding back up the stairs and over to the telephone. “Hey, you still there?” he asked.
“Yeah, what’d she say?” Derek replied.
“Oh, um…she says it’s fine with her. She wants to know if you like lasagna.”
“Like it? Tell her I love it. I’ll see you in about half an hour, okay?”
“See you then.” Ashling hung up the phone and plopped down on the sofa. He couldn’t imagine his house being any more interesting than Derek’s, but… hmm… What could they do? There weren’t any creeks to swim in this time – just a hazardous backyard with a really cool tree. Ashling wasn’t feeling up to climbing at the moment though, having exhausted himself earlier. There was always the television they could watch, but he didn’t have any video games like he’d seen in other houses. What did he have? I have a television, a tree, and my imagination, he thought ruefully to himself.
Half an hour later, the doorbell rang. Ashling had been waiting so he opened it immediately. “Have any problem finding the house?” he asked.
“Are you kidding? This is like the only house out this way.” Derek exaggerated. Standing there in the doorway, he seemed taller than Ashling remembered, although they had never had opportunity to actually stand side by side before. Standing there together, Derek was nearly a full head taller than Ashling. He was lean and beginning to develop some adolescent muscle. Dressed in shorts and a tank top, Derek seemed quite a bit older as well, the beginnings of body hair becoming evident.
“Well…come in,” Ashling held the door open wider.
“Thanks,” Derek said politely. “So how come you guys live so far from the town?”
“You’d have to ask my parents that,” Ashling responded. “I don’t really know.”
“Nice house,” Derek said as he walked into the main room. “So where’s your room?”
“It’s right there.” Ashling pointed to the half open door on the opposite end of the room toward the back of the house. “It’s kind of a small house, so everything is right here. We do have a basement though.” Ashling added that last bit as if trying to compensate for the rather small size of their house. Actually, Ashling rarely thought of his house as being small, but he was feeling a little small just then, standing beside this bigger, taller boy.
“Cool,” Derek said. “Show me your room.”
“Well, there’s not much to see,” Ashling said, while walking toward his bedroom door. “There’s the bed right there. I have a desk, a chair. There’s my closet.” He pointed at each item one by one.
“You have a bunk bed? I thought you were the only kid in your family.” Derek said, surprised.
“I am.” Ashling assured him. “I guess my parents always thought they would have another. But then they didn’t. I don’t mind. I like sleeping higher up. It’s cool.”
“Yeah,” Derek agreed, nodding his head. “It would be cool to sleep in a bunk bed.”
Just then, Ashling’s mother poked her head in the room. “Hi there. You must be Derek. I’m Ashling’s Mom. Did I hear right that you like lasagna?”
“Love it!” Derek replied emphatically. “My Grandma’s not much of a cook. I live with her, but…” Derek shrugged his shoulders slightly, temporarily lost for words.
“Well, we’re glad you’re here,” Mrs. Welsh said with a smile. “It’s not often that Ashling has friends over. I think he was getting just a bit lonely.”
“Mom!” Ashling complained as his face began to turn red with embarrassment.
“Anyway,” she continued, “dinner will be ready in about half an hour. Why don’t you two boys go outside to play. It’s such a beautiful day. You shouldn’t be spending it indoors.”
“Thanks Mrs. Welsh,” said Derek. “I think we will.”
As Ashling’s Mom left the room, Derek commented, “Your Mom’s nice.”
“Shhh,” Ashling whispered. “She’s probably still listening.”
“So?” Derek spoke just a little bit louder than normal. “What’s wrong with her knowing that I think she’s really nice.” And then in a whisper, “especially when she’s feeding me!”
“Whatever. So you wanna go outside or stay in here?”
“Well, your Mom wanted us to go outside. Maybe we should.”
Not quite happy with the prospect of further tiring outdoor activity, but at a loss for ideas of anything else they could do, Ashling led Derek into the backyard. Thankfully, Derek wasn’t much in the mood for running about either, so the two boys chatted amicably on the back porch, waiting for their dinner call. By this time, Ashling had completely forgotten his initial negative impression of Derek and so found himself trusting Derek and enjoying the time he spent talking with him more than he had with anyone else for a very long time. Together, they shared their aspirations and hopes for the future. They discussed school, and how things would change for Ashling when he finished elementary school. Anything and everything was open for discussion until Ashling was about to share his dream with Derek. At that moment, Ashling’s Dad opened the back door.
“Mom says dinner’s ready, Ash.” And then, turning to Derek, “hi.” With that, he turned back into the house and disappeared.
“My dad’s not much of a talker.”
“Obviously,” Derek laughed. “That’s okay. At least you have a dad. I don’t even know who my dad is.” Derek laughed again, but Ashling doubted that it was sincere. “Ready to go in?”
“Yeah. Let’s eat!”
An hour later, after a delicious meal followed by numerous compliments from Derek, the two boys returned to Ashling’s room.
“Your Mom sure likes to talk,” commented Derek.
“Yeah. She talks and my dad listens. They make a great pair.” Ashling rolled his eyes. “So when do you have to go back? It’s gonna start getting dark in an hour or so. At least it’s summer.”
“Well…,” Derek hesitated just a moment. “I was kind of wondering if maybe you wouldn’t mind if I spent the night.”
“You mean, sleep here?” Ashling asked incredulously. No one had ever asked to sleep at his house before, and he had no idea how his parents might react. “You’d better ask my parents.”
“You don’t mind though, do you?” Derek asked. “I mean, you do have a bunk bed, so it’s not like you don’t have room.”
“No. Of course I don’t mind.” As Ashling answered, he silently asked himself if he minded or not. “I’m just sorry I didn’t ask you first. I should have thought of it.” Yeah, I should have, Ashling agreed with his words silently after he spoke them aloud. “I’ll go ask my mom.”
Ten minutes later, after a brief phone call to Derek’s grandmother, everything was decided. Ashling’s parents were so happy to see him socializing and making a friend that they would probably have agreed to anything, or so Ashling thought. After some small amount of pressuring by Derek, Ashling agreed to sleep on the lower bunk. He hadn’t slept on the lower portion of his bed since he had been a toddler, but Derek had never experienced sleeping on a bunk bed before, so Ashling agreed. At this stage of their friendship, he didn’t want to do anything to upset it.
The two boys spent the rest of that evening watching television and playing some card games with a deck that Ashling hadn’t even known that they had had, but were brought out by his Mom when Derek asked. Eventually, Mrs. Welsh insisted that it was time to go to bed. She gave Derek a new toothbrush and sent the boys to prepare for bed. Derek hadn’t brought any pajamas or other clothes to sleep in, so Ashling decided to sleep in his day clothes as well. Even if he had thought to lend some clothes to Derek, they would never have fit his larger frame.
“You know, you’re really lucky Ashling.” Derek said as they laid in bed, Derek on the top bunk and Ashling on the bottom.
“You wouldn’t believe how uncommon it is to have two parents like yours, that really care about you. I wish I had your parents. Then my life would be perfect.”
“No. Then you’d just notice something else that should be better. My life’s not that great. My mom’s always mad at me or telling me to do things I don’t want to do. My dad doesn’t even talk to me. He’s always working or gone somewhere else. What’s the good of having a dad that isn’t there? And then we live so far away from town. I hardly ever see my friends and I’m alone most the time. Really. What’s so lucky about that?”
“You just don’t know. Believe me. It could be so much worse. At least they don’t hit you or anything. And they seemed pretty nice to me. If they get mad at you, it’s probably because you actually did something wrong. Not like my mom. I guess, deep, deep down, she cares about me, but not enough to keep me. Now I have to live with my grandma. She’s not too bad, I guess, but I’d still rather have normal parents. Even if they were ten times worse than yours, I’d still rather have that than nothing.”
“Maybe you’re right. I don’t know. I guess we’d have to switch places or something to really know what it was like. Did you ever see that movie, The Prince and the Pauper? It’s kind of old, but still pretty cool.”
“Yeah, I know that story, but I didn’t know it was a movie. I read it in a kid’s book when I was younger. Too bad we don’t look anything alike, or we could try it.”
“Yeah. That would be cool.” Ashling tried to imagine what it might be like, but couldn’t even begin to picture it. He just didn’t know anything about the lives of other people, any other people. His social interactions were limited to his classmates at school, and that usually didn’t give him any sort of picture of what their home lives might be like.
After several minutes of silent thinking, Ashling heard Derek begin to breathe more heavily. That was fast, Ashling thought. Maybe he was thinking about the same thing. Listening to Derek sleeping, Ashling realized how sleepy he was as well, and so finally let himself fall asleep.
The next morning, Mrs. Welsh came in to wake him up. “Wake up, wake up, sleepy head,” she called cheerfully. Ashling opened his eyes and looked toward his mother. She must not realize we switched beds, Ashling thought as he saw his mother looking at the top bunk while walking toward the bed. What’s she doing anyway. She’s never so cheerful in the morning. She’s usually more groggy than me.
“Good morning,” came Derek’s voice from the top bunk. “What’s for breakfast?”
“I’ve made your favorite. Waffles with strawberry and banana topping. Come and get it while it’s hot.” Mrs. Welsh gave another cheery smile to Derek and then started to leave the room.
“Uh…Mom? What’s going on?” Mrs. Welsh walked out of the room without so much as glancing at her son. “Mom!” Ashling yelled as he sat up in the bed. “Ouch,” he said a moment later as he bumped his head on the bottom of the upper bunk. Something really strange was going on. Just as he was about to get up from the bed, Derek jumped down in front of him. I thought he hadn’t brought any pajamas with him, Ashling wondered, observing the clothes that Derek was now wearing. Actually, I’m sure he didn’t have those before. “Hey Derek,” Ashling said, trying to get his attention. Just like his mother had done, Derek got up and left the room without a word. What is going on here!
Ashling stood up and leaned against the ladder going up to the top bunk. Since when does Mom fix breakfast. Usually it’s just cereal. And why is everyone ignoring me? It must be some kind of joke. Ashling walked out of his room and through the open doorway of the bathroom. The first thing that he noticed was that the bathroom was clean – immaculately clean. Okay, this isn’t right. I know Mom’s clean, but I was just in here last night and it wasn’t even close to this clean. In fact, there was an unreal shine to everything. Even if his mother had stayed up all night cleaning, it could never have reached that level of clean. It was beyond clean.
And then, suddenly, Ashling figured it out. He was dreaming again. If he thought about it, he could even feel the pillow under his head. He wondered if this dream were anything like his dream in the tree, but decided against it. That dream had been real. This was completely unreal. He couldn’t remember having a dream where he was invisible before or where someone else had replaced him as his parent’s son, but they had just been talking about the Prince and the Pauper before going to sleep. Maybe that was what this was. But then, shouldn’t he be at Derek’s house, and not the other way around?
Ashling decided to see where this dream would go, and so made his way toward the kitchen. There was no one there. “Where is everybody?” he thought aloud. Ashling continued to search the house, finding everything ridiculously clean. In fact, the more he looked at anything, the more different it appeared. Weren’t those cabinets blue? I thought that chair had a tear in it. Where did that painting come from? Finally, he thought to look in the backyard.
And there they were. Ashling saw Derek, his mom, and his dad, all playing a nice game of catch – on a perfectly smooth, beautifully green, well-mown lawn. I don’t think this could happen even in one of my dreams, he thought. Let’s see what happens if I interrupt their game. The three people tossing the ball were making an inordinate amount of cheerful laughing that was beginning to get on Ashling’s nerves.
“Hey guys,” Ashling called out, not caring that no one seemed to notice him. “I want to play too.” He strode out into the middle of the yard, for once not having to care about the evenness of the ground. Ashling walked over to stand in front of Derek, who now seemed a full two heads taller than him and quite muscular. “Why would I dream this?” he remarked to himself. As he was noticing these things, the ball that was being tossed suddenly hit Ashling squarely in the side of the head – and then passed right through it into Derek’s ready hand.
“Whoa, that’s crazy,” Ashling said aloud, rubbing the side of his ringing head, where he had felt the ball hit. “This isn’t my dream.” And then he realized the truth of his words. This really isn’t my dream, he marveled. A moment later, a broad woman with a cane marched into the yard.
“Derek!” she yelled. “You were supposed to be home hours ago. What are you doing here?”
“But I am home,” Derek insisted. “These are my parents. I don’t need you anymore.”
“You will always need me, little one,” she said in the cruelest voice Ashling could imagine. Before Ashling’s eyes, Derek seemed to shrink in size. In moments, he was no taller than Ashling. “No one loves you and no one ever will. I’m the only one who will ever be willing to take care of you. Who else would do the chores around the house?”
“Stop. Grandma. Please.” Derek pleaded with her. “You’re being a monster.”
“You have no idea,” she said maliciously. Ashling looked around and noticed that somehow during the conversation, the scenery had changed. The grass was no longer green and beautiful, but instead brown and withered. The sky appeared gray and threatening rain. Ashling’s parents were no longer anywhere to be seen. Nor was the house, for that matter. Ashling turned back toward what he assumed represented Derek’s grandmother and was shocked to see what she had become – twice her original size, fangs dripping venom, hideously scarred skin that drooped and fell off in places, a third eye that was developing even as Ashling watched, paralyzed.
“Uh, Derek?” Ashling tried to talk to Derek though he knew it was hopeless. “I think it’s time to wake up now.” There was no response. The grandmother/monster began to advance on four legs, two of which had suddenly sprouted out of her waist – giant tarantula legs. “I’m serious, Derek. Now would be a really good time to wake up,” he pleaded. Derek’s eyes were wide and filled with terror. He had shrunk even farther to become less than half Ashling’s height. Derek’s dream beast was moving slowly, getting closer and closer. “Sorry if this works,” Ashling said as he made his hand into a fist.
Wham! Ashling’s fist slammed into the side of Derek’s head – and then began to pass through. Just as Ashling’s fist was half way through Derek’s head, he felt a tingling in his hand, like a small current of electricity – and then he was back in his bed. Ashling was lying in his bed with his eyes closed, though he felt wide awake. He could still feel his hand tingling, though the feeling was fading rapidly.
Above him, he began to hear the sound of sniffling. Derek was crying now, but trying to keep it quiet. “I’m sorry, Derek,” Ashling said softly. “Did I hurt you?” But Derek didn’t respond. “Please don’t be mad at me,” Ashling said, worried that he had done something really wrong. Derek still didn’t respond and Ashling stopped trying to talk to him. He looked toward the clock, trying to see what time the small numbers on his neon clock displayed. As he looked, they suddenly seemed very close.
“Oh great! Not again!” Ashling moaned. “Well, I guess that explains why you aren’t answering me, huh Derek?” Derek’s sniffling had grown quieter, but Ashling could tell from his somewhat irregular breathing that he was still awake. Ashling let his focus relax so that the clock returned to its normal appearance. Ashling sat up, careful not to hit his head again and got out of bed. “I’m not sure I’ll be able to, but I’m going to try and get some water. You probably can’t hear me talking right now because I’m probably not really talking, but let me know if you can so that I stop talking like an idiot.” Just to be sure, Ashling looked down where he had been sleeping and sure enough saw himself still sleeping there.
Ashling stepped out of his bedroom and out into the main room. Except for a dim night light in the kitchen, all the lights were off, so he needed to be careful as he crossed the house toward the kitchen. As he drew close, he thought about what he was about to attempt. It shouldn’t really be a problem, he thought. I mean, this is just a dream after all. I should be able to do anything I want. He was still more than just a little doubtful though as this was no ordinary dream.
With the tips of his fingers, Ashling stroked the smooth wooden surface of the cupboard door. He could touch it, so he should be able to open it as well. Ashling wrapped his fingers around the handle and pulled. Without difficulty, the cupboard door opened with a very real sounding creak. If he stopped paying attention to the feel of his bed and especially to the pillow under his head, Ashling could easily convince himself that he was wide awake and not dreaming at all.
As Ashling reached into the cupboard to take down a cup, he noticed something rather odd. Just as he could both feel and not feel the pillow beneath his head by varying the degree of attention that he gave to it, now he could see two different states of the cupboard door. – one open and the other closed, each with a somewhat ghostly appearance.
“Whoa,” he said. “That’s cool.” As he extracted the cup, he noticed the same effect. The cup was both in his hand and still in the cupboard at the same time, neither one appearing particularly substantial. As he focused more on the feel of the cup in his hand, it become more real to him. At the same time, Ashling saw the other cup, along with the closed door, fade into nothingness. As long as he was focusing on the dream, it remained a dream.
As Ashling started to understand what was happening, he began to smile widely. He went over to the freezer and poured some ice into his cup. He was careful to remain aware and focused on the feel of the cup in his hand. He poured some water into his cup and left the water running. With one turn of his cup, Ashling drank half of his water. The water was cold in his mouth and Ashling continued to feel it as the water went down his throat toward his stomach.
His experiment wasn’t over yet, however. He stopped focusing on the cup in his hand and instead focused on the feeling of the pillow beneath his head. “I’m still dreaming,” he said. “My cup is still in the cupboard.” As he reminded himself of reality and focused on it, the cup disappeared outright from his hand. The cupboard door that had been left open became closed. The running water was no longer running. Even the feel of the water down his throat vanished and he felt as though he had never taken so much as a sip of water this night, which was, of course, the truth.
Ashling wandered around his house, practicing and playing with his newly discovered ability. He went about changing things and then causing them to revert back with a simple thought. At first he tried small things, and then he moved on to larger, more violent actions. After he had spread finger paints across the walls, broken a few chairs, and smashed the television screen with a rock, he began to feel that he should probably go to bed.
Technically, of course, Ashling was still asleep, but walking around at night, destroying things, even though he knew he really wasn’t, felt somehow wrong. He went over to his bedroom and walked in. “Now what?” he asked himself as he looked at the sleeping form that represented his real self. “I’m not going to go jump out of the tree again.”
Ashling got down on his knees by the bed and gave himself a tentative nudge. “Hey!” he said. “Wake up!” There was no response. Ashling pushed his sleeping form more insistently, rocking his body back and forth, but there was still no reaction. Then, Ashling took a strong hold of his alternate’s far shoulder and pulled himself right off the bed. He still slept soundly.
“What do I have to do?” he asked no one in particular. Looking at the bed and then to the floor, he saw that what had happened to objects around his house could happen to himself as well. There were now three Ashlings in the room, two of whom were sleeping soundly and appearing somewhat insubstantial. Ashling narrowed his eyes as he focused on his alternate on the floor, willing it to be real. “I need the bed now,” he said. The sleeping form on the bed faded from view as the one on the floor appeared to solidify.
At least I have the bed to myself now, he thought as he sat down on the bed. He lay down on his pillow and tried to relax. He began to review in his mind the whole course of this unusual dream. As his mind wandered, the dream of Ashling sleeping on the floor ceased to exist, needing a focused mind to keep it there. Reality then reasserted itself, causing Ashling to be suddenly reunited with…well, himself. Ashling only had a moment to feel the slight buzz, like a weak current of electricity in his head, before being thrust into blessed dreamless sleep.
In the morning, Derek woke up first, but the sound of the bed creaking as he came down the ladder woke Ashling as well. After a few subtle questions, Ashling determined that Derek remembered very little from the previous night’s dream. Aside from the knowledge that he had woken up in the middle of the night from a nightmare that he could no longer remember, he had experienced no pain from Ashling’s attempt to wake him up.
For breakfast, Ashling was happy to see that they would have to get their own cereal to eat. Ashling’s father had already left for work and Mrs. Welsh was busy with something or other that she didn’t expound upon. The two boys watched some television, played some card games, and otherwise talked until Derek’s grandmother called saying she needed him at home soon. After promises to see each other again soon, Derek left on his bicycle and Ashling was left alone for the rest of the day.