In my most recent dream I died in a thunderous explosion. Maybe it wouldn’t have troubled me so much if it was a propane tank that blew its top or some sort of gas related fire, but this dream portrayed my end in what could only have been a nuclear blast.
As a child raised on early eighties Saturday morning cartoons, I was and still am not without an imagination. Maybe you’re in my group as well; the lucky few whose imaginations run away with them. That phrase goes a little differently when you just ended a three day bender like I did. Maybe in that case, my imagination ran away without me.
My childhood was wrought with unending strife, whether I was beat on by bullies at school or if I had that feeling of dread when a test came creeping up on me, but the cartoons were how I made my escape. I never got into comics, but the cliff notes cartoon versions of the Justice League were my replacement for those and I think they did just fine. I can’t remember specifics, but I’m sure that my first experience with a large explosion was in those cartoons.
In this dream I saw myself driving down a highway in a truck. I don’t own a truck, nor have I ever planned on it, but there it was, man, and the one thing I cantell you for sure was that it was red. It stood out to me more vividly than anything else other than the blast.
The sense of speed in the dream was skewed. Driving down the highway at 75 MPH seemed more like pushing a lawnmower through tall grass or trying to run underwater. Then in the distance I saw a jet stream of smoke coming down from the sky. The smoke acted as a tail for what had to be the missile. My view was obscured as the missile passed directly in front of the blazing sun, and then completely vanished behind some buildings miles down the road.
I don’t know how nuclear blasts work, but in every piece of media I have ever seen, a visible shockwave comes first followed by the life-ending shower of fire. The shockwave came and the truck spun around from the force of it. This saved me the trouble of turning it around myself, and as soon as the wheels were firmly on the asphalt, I slammed my foot onto the pedal as though it were weighed down by a cinderblock.
I do know how dreams work, however, and it came as no surprise that there was almost a negative sense of speed. My truck idled forward instead of roaring uncontrollably down the street. In my rearview mirror cars, vans, semis, and other trucks were tossed into the air like balloons, except these balloons exploded into fire and shrapnel instead of air and rubber.
My foot came off the pedal and I made to escape from the truck and run down the street, but the seatbelt wouldn’t come loose, the door was stuck, and any number of other movie clichés anyone can think of kept me from escaping that metal tomb as the fire rolled towards me like a rush of water breaking through a dam.
The last thought I had before the blast consumed me and the first thought I had after I awoke on the floor of my friend’s apartment covered in cold sweat and even colder beer was: How do they get all that fire to fit in such a tiny shell?
As I pulled myself off of Tim’s floor, the man himself came out of his room with some new girl. Music still pumped from his stereo louder than the shockwave that spun my imaginary truck and men and women from the party still rubbed hips and asses and even more risqué parts of their bodies together.
The clock read 2:30 and I prayed it was still in the AM or I’d be looking for a new job. My drunken mind tried to calculate how long I had been asleep and it came up with something like forty-five minutes. It was enough time for a life-changing dream, but certainly not enough time to work off eight beers and four shots of Jack.
Now with my head numb from alcohol and my mind drunk with thoughts of that nuclear missile, I sauntered past Tim into his living room and through the crowd of dancers. As I opened the door to the balcony he said, “Hey Mark, you all right, man?” I tried to picture myself just then. Brown boyishly long bangs sweat drenched and hanging in my eyes. Five o’clock shadow spreading along my chin like a disease and blue and white pinstriped button down shirt hanging out over my black jeans. I just went through a nuclear explosion. Was I all right?
“Yeah, man. Just need some air,” I said as I went outside and closed the door.
I sat on the single deck chair that Tim kept out on the balcony and I looked out into the courtyard. It didn’t take long for my imagination to run away without me, and I saw that courtyard on fire and then as a barren wasteland. Had the dream seemed so vivid? Was it a premonition? I couldn’t shake the thought that tomorrow, or the day after, my town would be a smoldering crater.
My quiet time was interrupted as a girl opened the sliding glass door and came out onto the balcony laughing at a minute old joke and bringing the sounds of the party out with her. I had seen her before, at some of Tim’s older parties, but I couldn’t think of her name. It didn’t matter though; she didn’t seem to remember me at all.
“I’m Marcy,” she said as she pulled her blonde-streaked hair away from her mouth and took a swig of Corona Light.
I stood from the chair and was ready to offer it to her as I said, “Mark.”
She laughed, but I never found out why. The only thing I could think of was the similarity of our names. And she had to be really drunk to find that funny.
“Well, Mark,” she said, emphasis on the “k”, “you look like you were in a fight.” Her lips curled up in what had to have been a perpetual smile.
“Did I win?” I said as I leaned against the chair. I don’t think I ever did end up offering her a seat.
“Hmm.” She exaggerated this gesture, looking up into the sky and tapping her index finger against her soft lips. “I think you almost won, but at the last second one of his buddies hit you in the back of the head with—a tire iron.”
Every word she spoke came out in a musical rhythm, as if she spoke to a beat that played in her head. I became caught up in this beat, tapping my foot as she whispered sweet nothings into the night.
There was very little lead up to it, and I don’t remember which of us made the pass first. Maybe it was at the same time, but regardless, it wasn’t long until we found ourselves in the backseat of my car at 3 in the morning.
Afterwards, I told Marcy about my most recent dream. She listened with as much interest as a drunken stranger who just shared your backseat with you could be expected to. And that was enough for me. What bothered me was that I was still hung up on this dream. If casual sex didn’t make it go away, then what hope was there?
I didn’t go back into the party that night, but I kissed Marcy goodbye forever and began the drive back to my own apartment. I lived over an hour away, but I was pretty sure I was okay to drive. If not, I would find out for sure depending on whether I woke up in the morning with a hangover or with a concussion. It made me feel better that I could at least depend on the certainty in that.
I dropped out of college halfway through in what I called a miscommunication with one of my professors, but really I just couldn’t handle the criticisms. Nevertheless, five years is plenty of time to think about old choices and I think I ended up making the right ones.
“Hey Marky,” Toby my manager said as I walked into work. Bash’s Ink, a little tattoo parlor in the South Suburbs of Chicago, was bustling today. All the chairs were filled and I had to wait for someone else’s shift to end before I could punch in and start working.
It was the Monday right after my adventures at Tim’s apartment and I was still fretting over that stupid dream. When I finally got to work and finished the first of what would undoubtedly be many tribal tattoos, I was ready to go on my lunch break. Unfortunately, a rough n’ tough biker type came in the door with a design for a snake that he would like to spiral up his arm.
Toby gave the design to me and sat the biker down in my chair. I was upset, not only because my break was postponed, but also that if it wasn’t a tribal tattoo, then it was a dragon or a snake. I’ve worked on so many snakes that I was sure I could do this guy’s arm with my eyes closed, but I went on with the procedure anyway.
Before I finished up the biker, he said, “Where’s your ink, man?”
If the question isn’t, “Where is your tattoo?” then it’s, “Who is Bash?” and I’m never able to answer either of those.
“Don’t have any,” I said as I got him up and out the door.
As the biker left, a man wearing a white unbuttoned shirt and an undershirt scrambled in the door. He wore a vomit colored pair of shorts and some ragged sneakers. I thought he might have just robbed a thrift store, but what really caught my eye was the design he held in his hand. He may as well have been holding a flashing neon sign with my name on it; I wanted to do that design.
Toby usually does the more detailed tattoos, but he wasn’t at the front, so I greeted this new stranger myself. “Welcome to Bash’s Ink,” I said as I tried to steal a closer look at the design. He kept it hidden, almost like he knew how badly I wanted to see it.
When he spoke, everything came out fast and high pitched. “By Sam, I was worried I wouldn’t find a place like this.”
I looked him in the eyes for the first time, perhaps drawn to them by the strange tone of his voice. “By Sam,” I said as if I were testing the phrase out for myself. “Strange dialect. You from around here?”
He took a step back and I thought I might have offended him, but he quickly regained his composure and said, “Around here, yeah, but a little down the road I guess you could say.”
“Well, alright then. What can I help you with?” My focus was back on the design. I wanted him in a chair and that tattoo in my hands as soon as possible. I had forgotten that I was even due for a lunch break, even my dream was far out of mind.
“I need this drawing on me. Just like I read about.” He cracked a timid smile and ran a hand through his receding hairline. Then he broke my heart. “Is this enough?” He produced seventeen dollars and three pennies from his pocket.
I shook my head, “Nah, that’s not enough.”
“Is it close?” he said with a worried look on his face.
I’d never wanted to do a design that badly before, so as I stood there bordering on the edge of frustration, I mentally checked my bank account and said, “Yeah, don’t worry about the rest. It’s on me.” And the smile was back on his face.
He sat calmly enough in the chair as I wiped my table down with rubbing alcohol and produced a bag of fresh needles. As I ripped the bag open, the man jumped in the seat and then went to stand up, but I put my hand on his shoulder and said, “You have to stay in the chair.”
“What are those for?” he asked, his eyes firmly on the needle and ink I held in my hands.
“You said you read about this, right?”
“Uh, yeah.” He looked down at the ground as though he were resigned to this fate.
As I loaded the ink into the needle, I said, “You’re sure? It’s not gonna feel pretty, and there’s still time to call it quits.”
“I’ll never get a chance like this again,” he said while rolling his sleeve up. He then handed me the piece of paper with the design on it, and it was even more beautiful close up.
He flinched as I began tracing the outline and I saw his eyes water up. “What’s your name?” I asked him.
“Trever Lemtia,” he said through clenched teeth. And a half hour later, “Can we finish this some other time?”
“Yeah, let me just finish this up right here,” I said as the outline was complete. There was still the inscription and color to add, but for now I was willing to call it quits. “If you want we can finish it tomorrow.”
“Yes, I’d like to get it done as soon as possible,” he said, breathing heavily and getting off the chair. He seemed happy to leave, but at the same time I was sure he would come back.
As he walked out the door, I said, “Just make sure you have enough cash next time. I can’t pay for the whole thing.” It was true. I didn’t even have enough money left for my lunch break.
At home, the thought of that missile exploding invaded my every action, so I was relieved when Tim called to invite me back to his place. Another hour drive and another night of binge drinking would put things back into perspective.
“And the fire was coming towards me faster than I could unbuckle the belt,” I said to anyone who would listen. “And then the truck’s door was stuck, but I woke up after that. Really, I think something bad’s gonna happen.”
As anyone smarter than me would have guessed, the beer loosened my perspective even more. But at least I was in good company. Tim, who had been among a crowd of dancers, came over to listen to my story. “I hope you’re wrong, bro. Cause you won’t be the only one that fries.”
Unsure of whether or not that was supposed to make me feel better; I raised my bottle of Pabst to the air and said, “Here’s to taking everyone with me.” Three bottle necks clinked together against mine and we drank.
I had the dream again that night. I hadn’t had a recurring dream since way back in those early days when all I had to do to get away from it was turn the TV on and watch some cartoons. And in those days, the toons I watched were usually scarier than the dreams.
Waking up on Tim’s couch brought with it a new day to worry. A new day to possibly be consumed by a rolling ball of flame. I left Tim’s apartment without saying anything, and when I got home there was still two hours to kill before I had to meet Trever Lemtia at Bash’s Ink. So I turned on Cartoon Network.
Trever waited outside of Bash’s in a thunderstorm before I got there. He wore the same clothes that he had on yesterday, as well as the same “what the hell is going on?” expression. “How’re you doin’ today?” I said as I shared my umbrella with him.
“I want to get this over with. I think I’m starting to lose my nerve.”
“What nerve?” I asked under my breath. He didn’t hear me, so I said, “Then let’s get started.”
He sat in my chair again, the spotlight of all my attention in the world. I worked to the pitter patter of the rain, the silence of this slow day broken only by the occasional grunt of pain from Trever. As I worked, I picked up the impression that he was doing something that he shouldn’t have been doing.
“There are lots of tattoo parlors,” I said.
He didn’t say anything, just kind of nodded and disregarded my question. A burst of thunder acted as an answer.
“Why is it you need to get this done so fast?”
This time he looked at me, his face carrying the same unsure expression. “None of your business.” The rudeness of his response actually shocked me. He didn’t seem like the type to snap at people.
“I paid for most of your session yesterday out of my own pocket! The least you can do is answer my question.”
When he answered, his voice was hushed to the point where I could barely hear him. “In the future tattoos are illegal.”
I picked a bad day to wear sandals to work as I dropped the needle on my foot in surprise. So my very first tattoo was a dotted line of red ink starting from my big toe and ending at the base of my ankle.
“Son of a bitch!” I kicked the needle off of my foot and in lifting my foot into my hands to check the wound I fell backwards onto the floor. I reached onto the counter and pulled down a paper towel to wipe the blood off my foot. When I looked back up, Trever was gone.
I jumped off the floor and darted out of the parlor into the heavy rain. Trever sped down the street on foot and I sighed as I gave chase. “Hey!” I yelled. He looked over his shoulder, but didn’t stop.
Our footfalls sent puddles of water into the air as we broke through the rain. It was coming down hard, stinging my face as I ran. I squinted my eyes to lessen the impact of rain, but I could still tell that I was catching up to Trever.
It was no problem, even with my wounded foot, for me to outrun him. I thought of a lion chasing an antelope that I’ve seen on TV before, and then I thought of how pathetic it was that I compare everything to something I’ve seen on TV.
This rogue thought couldn’t keep me from diving forward and grabbing him by the ankles pulling both of us to the wet ground. Bystanders stood shocked, a lady pulled a cell phone from her purse and two men came over and pulled me off of Trever’s legs. But not before I could ask him, “You’re from the future? Is there an explosion? Do we all die in an explosion?”
His lips were trembling. “You all right bud?” someone asked Trever as he helped him up. Trever looked at the man as though he were ghost. When he was back on his feet, he turned and ran around a corner out of sight down an alley.
A bolt of lightning struck the end of the alley and sent an explosion barreling up against the rain. The fire flew high over the buildings that created the alley and the shock caused the men holding me to loosen their grip. I ran forward towards the alley and looked down through the smoke at what seemed to be a dead end. Any further progression was halted by a large garage. The corner of a dumpster sat ablaze, but sitting across from it was a huge red truck that the lightning had struck. The truck was a burning ball of fire, smoke smoldering up into the sky like a geyser. And Trever Lemtia was nowhere to be seen. I had always thought a vehicle was the safest place to be during a lightning storm, so I couldn’t imagine what caused the truck to combust.
When the cops came, I told them that Trever skipped out on paying for his tattoo. Mine was the only story to go by, and Toby was cool enough to back it up.
I was walking out the door to go home, Toby told me to get some rest, when he stopped me saying, “Hey Marky. You think the guy fried?”
“He went back to wherever it was he came from,” I said as I opened my umbrella and went back out into the storm.
I called Tim when I got home that night and I told him everything that happened. “Wow, dude,” he said with the tiniest bit of skepticism in his voice. “So then, why does the dream not bother you anymore?”
“Cause if he really is from the future, then all of this couldn’t have been destroyed in a blast,” I said as I paced back and forth through my living room.
“Right.” There was a slight pause and then, “You sure you weren’t the one that was struck by lightning?”
“Yeah whatever, man. I’ll give you a call some time tomorrow.” I hung the phone up and decided to return to Bash’s. I had a favor to ask Toby.
Before I left, I sat down at my desk and pulled out my sketchpad. What I wanted was simple, and the design didn’t take long to complete. When I finally had the colors just right, I looked at it for a few minutes and then I headed out the door.
“Why do you suddenly want a tattoo?” Toby asked me after I posed the question to him. It was something that I’d been thinking about all the way back to Bash’s. I knew he would ask, so I wanted an answer ready.
“I finally thought of something specific to me and you’re the only person who could do it justice.”
Toby started working on it noting that flattery was unnecessary. But I meant what I said, and I had no regrets as Toby outlined the design, a mushroom cloud, on my upper arm.
The next day I found myself at Tim’s apartment for the third time that week. A new set of dancers was there, and a new girl was sharing Tim’s bed with him while I sat out in the kitchen drinking a beer as I told a new story. My tattoo, not to mention my story about Trever, was a hit. I had a stack of phone numbers that I would never call building up in my pocket and the fear of a massive hangover in the morning. Things were finally returning to normal.
I fell asleep in my usual spot, right next to the dishwasher, but not too close to the fridge. That night, I dreamed again, but this time it wasn’t too bad. Instead of the dream where a nuclear missile slams into the earth and sends everyone and everything you love cascading upwards into oblivion, I dreamt that Trever Lemtia and I were part of the Justice League.
As usual, I woke up about forty-five minutes later, still at the party but always afraid that I slept through the next day. Tim was coming out of his room as I stood up, and I walked out to the balcony. I hoped that maybe while I looked off into the distance, Marcy would come out and this time we would only sit together content to just be there. And I would stop living my life in the future tense.