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Chapter 3 Reality

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Those first shards of light pierced the slits of my eyes like hot pokers. Then came the cool blast of air, like a hair dryer right in my face. Opening my eyes, I found myself sitting next to my dad in his white Toyota Camry. Outside, trees rushed by in a warm green blur. 

Quickly, I sat up and took stock of my surroundings. Dad took his eyes off the road long enough to give me a funny look. "You alright, Ry?"

What the hell was I doing in dad's car? Where the hell were we? Seconds ago, I'd been under the Heka building. But this wasn't the Heka building. It was some back road in the middle of nowhere. With shock sprawling across my now paling face, I parted my lips and looked at dad. "You . . . remember me?"

"Ry, did you bump your head?"

Black trees, like the ones in Darkwood forest, surrounded us like towering shadows on both sides of the road. Dad turned left onto an exit with a sign that read "Misthaven," plunging us into another labyrinth of backroads.

It couldn't have all been a dream?

Hunter.

Blake.

Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar.

Panic coiled tightly around my throat, waiting for me to relent. Calm down, calm down, calm down, I told myself. "Dad, what's going on?" I asked.

"Ry, are you okay?" Dad touched my forehead, testing for a fever. Nothing. I was clammy, but I didn't have a sickly cold sweat growing.

"Dad, where are we?"

"Ry, we're moving to a town called Misthaven. Remember, I got that job at a newspaper there?"

No. I didn't remember that. Or maybe I did. If I thought deeply enough about it, grains of memories poured into my mind like sand through an hourglass. After the divorce, dad had been pretty depressed for a while, and things were bad all around, then he got a job offer in Misthaven, so we picked up and left Chicago. Alison, whose mom had just died, moved to Florida, where the rest of her family lived, with her grandma. Somewhere sunny, warm. I hoped she was happy, because I remembered we cried long and hard about it.

Memories. These were my memories. And they were real. 

First, relief hit. Then, sadness. Had I really dreamt it all up? Blake . . . the Institute . . . Hunter? The more I thought about it, the more it seemed like a distant illusion, the echo of some time now buried deep under wreaths of gossamer nostalgia.

Surely, it must've been a dream.

It was a dream.

It was definitely a dream.

We passed the "Welcome to Misthaven" sign on the right side of the road, and as we drove by a long abandoned fairground, I couldn't shake how familiar everything looked. Dad drove down Mainstreet until he came to a fork in front of the old church that now served as town hall. He took a right and passed Misthaven Volunteer Fire Department and kept heading up the road, passing George Street and finally taking a left on Pine Street.

Driving past a wooden sign that read "The Pines," dad drove into an idyllic subdivision with Thomas Kinkaid-like white colonials lining both sides of the street. Above us, gnarled tree limbs stretched over the lanes, their leafy branches casting broken shadows on the road.

I'd been here before. Or . . . had I? How could I recognize all of this if I'd never been here? 

Dad pulled into a driveway in front of a house that looked like every other one on the street: white aluminum siding, blue shingled roof, and a cute portico with a little American flag hanging in brackets near the red front door. He stepped out of the car, knotted his fingers behind his back, and with a grunt, stretched his arms high into the air. When I joined him outside, my legs were wobbly, like I'd been sitting down for hours. I kicked them and shook out the kinks then walked to the edge of the driveway and studied the street. Empty. No one outside.

A footpath looped out from the driveway and led to the front porch steps. Dad squeaked open the front door, and I followed shortly after. Light shining in through the transom and sidelite made the entryway bright. To my left of the entrance, a living room with a cushioned bay window, and to my right, a big space wide enough for a dining room table. An arch in the living room led to a sunroom with French doors leading to a screened-in back porch, and an arch in the dining room led to the kitchen. Another arch adjoined the sunroom and the kitchen, and a stairwell tucked between the kitchen and the dining room that led up to the second floor. Nothing too strange, yet.

After walking into the living room, Dad set one knee on the floral embroidered cushion in the bay window and turned the wand to open the blinds. A moving truck pulled up next to the mailbox. He hurried outside to give the movers instructions while I ambled into the sunroom, tracing everything with my eyes. I opened the French doors out onto the lanai and walked out. The lanai must've been a great place to catch a breeze without becoming a mosquito buffet, but I was so confused I could hardly enjoy any of it.

I walked back inside, and while two movers struggled to squeeze a velum couch through the front door, I followed the stairs between the dining room and the kitchen to the second floor. Upstairs, a hallway looped around, with windows on the left side of the corridor and doors leading to a pair of bedrooms on the right. Creeping into the master bedroom, I walked into the bathroom and opened the medicine cabinet, and the drawers on the counter under the wall-length mirror. I didn't know what I was looking for. Maybe some proof this wasn't real. Although it felt real. Although my memories and my eyes and my mind told me it was real. 

Downstairs, I heard some furniture clunk on the floor, followed by a man issuing a loud "Dammit!" Hurrying down, I found dad holding up the front door, which he'd unscrewed off the hinges to make way for the furniture. He had the couch sitting on his foot while one of the movers tried hoisting it off.

"Sorry, sir," the young mover said between grunts.

The mover slid the couch off dad's foot, so dad hobbled into the kitchen, threw off his left shoe, balanced himself on the counter, and lifted his leg so he could rub the spot where the seat had landed. The movers finished lugging the couch into the living room then hurried back outside to move a chest of drawers. Dad sucked in some air through his teeth and spotted me looming in the stairwell. "It's a new start for us, kiddo. No more dirty city with all that smog and rude people."

For hours, the movers carried and hauled and lifted and pushed and pulled until everything was in the house, and around eight that night, dad and I settled around the dining room table, where dad circled a pizza from the local Italian restaurant, Maria's, like a vulture. I couldn't eat, though. I was too excited. I couldn't put it into words, not perfectly, at least, but now that the Institute was fading away like a brutal nightmare, now that real sunlight was pouring back into my mind, watching dad, happy, enjoying his pizza, brought a smile to my face I couldn't shake. 

Dad noticed my silly grin. "What're you so happy about?"

I slid my chair back, stood, walked around the table, and hugged him, and I stayed there for good long minute, fighting back tears as they tried pushing their way out of my eyes. Dad sat there for a second, and eventually, set the pizza down, stood, and hugged me back. 

"I'm just glad to see you happy again, dad."

"Come on, Ry," My dad said, easing away, "you're never like this."

I pulled away and went back to my seat and dad sat back down, too. 

Dad picked up his pizza again and eased it into his mouth, jerking it away when the hot cheese burned his tongue. He set down the pizza and wiped the corners of his mouth with a napkin. 

One thing stayed with me, though: Hunter. How could I feel so strongly about a boy I only knew in my dreams? His smile, his sweet smile, and that squint he gave when his mouth became a perfect semi-circle. To me, it had been as real as dad eating his pizza, or me sitting in front of my plate, and it hovered in the fore of my mind until I fell asleep that night. 


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