Two figures stood waiting like cameos in the porch light of a house that was built in another age for another mode of existence. The building had been made for one of Baraboo Wisconsin’s most notable citizens, a man of wealth and prominence. Everyone who walked past this house would surely have known him, at least through reputation. Somewhere, his name is still etched upon plaques that attest to his donations to parklands, school extensions, and stained glass windows of a local church.
But few in the town now have any memory of the man. Even the imposing house in which he lived seems to have become so familiar with age that it was barely noticed, and the current owner was able to live there in relative anonymity. Time had weathered the house, exposing some its imperfections, but for the better part granting its benediction for its ability to endure.
A decorative iron gate surrounded the property edge, which was lined inside with evergreen shrubs that stood ten feet high. The evergreens, neither meticulously trimmed nor altogether abandoned to nature, permitted only glimpses of what lay beyond, and those only to a person brazen enough to make their curiosity obvious. Such a person might have seen the front door open, allowing the visitors entrance.
A door made of timber from virgin forests long vanished opened easily on brass hinges a hundred years old. Those who had crafted these items crafted them with the thought that future generations would see and admire their labor. What they made was made to endure. What they made was made with pride, with a connection to the craftsman whose knowledge had fed theirs. What they made was made with the conviction that it would outlive them and speak well of them. Their spirits would in some way live on in the works they had created, regardless of whose name was etched into the plaque placed upon it.
Dave Morse and Mindy Virgillio entered at the bidding of Doug Slattery, their employer at the magic shop and now, perhaps, a leader in more important matters. The November wind sought to enter as well, but Doug slammed the door quickly, forbidding entrance to the winds of change and gusts of the moment that were always seeking admittance into this sanctuary of abidance.
Passing through an anteroom lit by a chandelier that betrayed a few cobwebs, they entered a large room that was not unlike Dave and Mindy’s living room, though on a grander scale. But while Dave and Mindy’s apartment was of necessity filled with props and equipment they used in their act, this room was large enough to have collector’s items tastefully spread around the room, magic memorabilia that enhanced the décor rather than dominating. Amidst the Victorian furniture which was the only kind that would have belonged in such a house were fine details, proofs to those who would know that Doug was a serious collector and connoisseur of all things magic.
Upon one wall was a large poster of Carter the Great, promoting his vanishing elephant act. Upon another wall was a Houdini poster, advertisement for his famous Milk Can escape. Below the poster, barely noticed between a settee and a large table, sat a smaller milk can. Knowing Doug, Dave knew it must have been one that was used by Houdini’s assistants to fill the larger milk can that Houdini escaped from. (Tom’s comments).
Dave would have liked to lingered longer in the living room to inspect what was there, but Doug led them on towards a large wooden door, which he opened by sliding it into a wall thick enough to easily accommodate it.
Beyond was a room that was evidently used as Doug’s office. Here, things were less orderly, with piles of papers, books, and magazines piled atop props and tables. Large bookshelves built into the walls were stuffed with books, the better part of them as old as the house they inhabited. Such was the cluttered disorder of the room that neither Dave nor Mindy took notice of Johnny, a fellow member of The Beyond Show, seated behind a large desk. It was not until he rose to surrender his seat to its rightful owner that Dave noticed him. The various tattoos that covered Johnny’s face acted as a sort of camouflage, disguising the natural features of his face. “Welcome,” said Johnny, with an unmistakable British accent.
“Please, have a seat,” said Doug. “I’ve taken the liberty of inviting Johnny, as well as Russell, who will be joining us via Skype,” he said, gesturing to a television screen with a man that appeared awkwardly on the screen.
“Nice to meet you,” Dave greeted the man on the TV screen. The man seemed unable to meet Dave’s gaze, even through the distance that technology provided. It seemed that a certain youthfulness clung to the man, although close scrutiny revealed that he might be older than Dave’s twenty-eight years. Perhaps it was his boyish discomfort that made him seem younger than he was.
“Russell is not a part of The Beyond Show,” said Doug, “but he is an important part of what we do. Some day you well may require the unique talents he possesses.”
Doug walked behind a desk that was large enough for planning a military campaign and began to fix himself a drink from a mini-bar, offering the same to the others. Mindy declined, but Dave felt a certain obligation to accept the offer.
“Izzy won’t be with us today,” said Doug, referring to the man who had recently accompanied Dave and Mindy on a journey into the supernatural, accompanied them, they later were told, at the instruction of Doug Slattery. “He’s attending to some…business for me.”
“I suppose some answers are in order,” said Doug, handing Dave a glass that tinkled with ice. “Of course, you must realize that answers are a rather difficult commodity to come by when dealing with matters such as these. And the answers that most approach the actual truth will be the most difficult to comprehend let alone believe. Even more than that, the answers that will best answer your questions are ones that you will be most resistant to. They will be the ones that attack some of your most basic assumptions of life. But what I can provide for you, I will. Please, ask away.”
Dave was unsure of how to go about with his questioning. He was unwilling to aggravate Doug Slattery, and yet he was unwilling to place his trust in a man who seemed to be keeping secrets from them.
“What do you want with us?”
“You have certain abilities. I have need of people that can see things others do not.”
“But how did you find out about that?”
“You have your abilities, Dave, and we have ours. You see things you couldn’t possibly know in your dreams. We, too, have certain capacities. Although in your case, it was a bit of an accident. I had been made aware of the talents of a woman called Jennifer Hodgson, and I sent someone down to learn more about her. From what I’d discovered, her talents seemed quite impressive. So I sent one of my best men in the hopes of recruiting her. Sadly, he never made it back alive.”
Dave shivered at the memory of it. “An older gentleman? Short, thin, bald?”
“You knew Alan?”
“I saw him. In a dream.” Dave couldn’t repress the memory, couldn’t keep the images of the old man’s dismemberment from appearing in his mind’s eye. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“He was a good man,” said Doug. “He had three children and several grandchildren.”
Dave sat silent for a moment, not wanting to disrespect the old man’s sacrifice. But his questions were too important to silence for long.
“And that’s what you want us for? To pick up where he left off? To do your work for you, whatever that is, until we encounter a similar end?”
“If I’d known the danger involved, I never would have sent him. I would have gone myself. But there are unavoidable risks involved with the ability to perceive what others do not. And whether you choose to join with us or not, you will not be able to avoid similar situations.”
“I’d just as soon forget the whole thing, if you don’t mind. Not to sound rude or ungrateful, but I don’t want to see things in my dreams. I want to go to bed knowing that I’ll be able to sleep without nightmares that don’t go away when I wake up. I don’t know what Jennifer Hodgson did, but she gave me that power, and I’d just as soon be rid of it. Any chance you could help me do that?”
“You misunderstand,” said Doug. “But that’s to be expected. You’re still relatively new to this. When I said you see things others don’t I wasn’t talking about your dreams. Your dreams are merely an offshoot of your ability to perceive. Ms. Hodgson was able to share with you her capacity for extra sensory perception precisely because you were already ripe for such a thing. You were already seeing beyond the collected paradigm of the society you lived in, so it was only natural that you were able to make use of powers beyond the collective paradigm.”
“I don’t understand what you’re saying. Furthermore, I don’t think I want to understand what you’re saying.”
“Oh, but you do. You want to see, or you would not see at all and we would not be having this conversation. You have seen past the parameters that have been set for you by the culture you live in, and it has pushed back the limits of what is possible for you. Power follows perception. No one can do something they cannot conceive.”
“But I don’t get—“
“There is a lot you won’t get right now.” The voice came from the television. “It is important that you hear what is being said now. Understanding will come later.”
“What you need to understand now is this: every era, every culture, suffers under the delusion that it, and it alone, has a true understanding of the world around them. They are all of them—to a great extent—wrong. Generally, societies cling to the simplest narrative they can find to explain the world outside and its relationship to it. As long as it works, it doesn’t matter how accurate it is. The problem is that no story adequately explains reality. Eventually, the differences between perception and reality tear apart the perception. Eventually, every society is undone by its inability to correctly grasp life as it truly is. Like a building that eventually crumbles due to some imperfection in its infrastructure, every society collapses by the sheer weight of its own incomplete understanding of itself.
“What you are witnessing now are glimpses of the larger world beyond the smaller dome that encapsulates our current cultural understanding. The cracks in our imperfect little bubble reveal things we cannot even comprehend, things we have sought to protect ourselves from. We have built for ourselves a little arc where we are safe from the storms of a great ocean, but the arc is not capable of protecting us forever.
Sensing Russell had said what he wished to say, Doug continued: “When a certain manner of thought is working for a group, those within it are quite willing to see the world through the parameters of the existing paradigm. Thus a successful paradigm tends towards a sameness of thought, for who can argue with success. In the last century or so our society has achieved unprecedented success. Never in the history of the world has a paradigm led to such advancement of the human race. And success, as it always does, leads to an unwillingness to have a different opinion. Why mess with what is working so well?”
“More than an unwillingness.” It was Johnny’s turn to have a say. “An intolerance for opinions that differ, more like it.”
“At any rate,” said Russell, “the very success of our present civilization has led to its inability to perceive of different ways of looking at things. In past ages, in other cultures, people that perceived reality differently than the rest were persecuted, martyred.”
“And now?” asked Mindy.
“Now? They simply do not exist.”
“There is no place for alternate views to exist. Who can argue with success?”
“The situation you describe sounds like Soviet Union or Europe under the Catholic Church in the middle ages. But life isn’t like that now. We’re free, at least in our country. I mean, more free than most.”
“You tend to overestimate the role of force in such matters. Or will, for that matter, or even awareness. People assume that since there is no dictator that sits over us that we are all free to be individuals. But we’re not. Maybe we don’t realize it, but we’re not.”
“We’re a bunch of sheeps in wolf’s clothing,” laughed Johnny.
“A century or so ago, all houses were individually designed,” it was Johnny again. It seemed that although they were all speaking from a pooled share of knowledge, that each was interested in coloring it with their own perspective. Johnny, Doug, Russell, they all had their distinct take on the concepts they were putting forth. Dave was curious what Izzy would have added to the conversation had he been present. “Then someone standardized the process so we all came to live in cookie cutter houses. And with modern automation came mass-produced goods. To produce such goods, tasks were broken up into simplistic little blocks so that the people that were put into their roles could be interchangeable. Of course to buy the standardized products made by standardized workers, the system needed standardized buyers. It didn’t do any good to mass-produce an item when you had many people desiring many different things. So you needed to market to the masses, create a common desire for everyone. And since the whole idea was predicated on the idea that mass production called for mass consumption, material goods were sold as the cure for all of our ills. Have a headache? Take an aspirin. Insecure about your manhood? Buy a fancy car.”
“And since manufactured goods were what our paradigm did well,” again, inserting his own perspective, Doug added, “questions of spirituality were of little use. What good were meditation or philosophy when the real problems of the world were halitosis and yellow, dingy teeth?”
“So you’re saying that the industrial revolution created monsters?”
“No, he’s saying that it caused us to forget them…for a time,” this time it was Doug. But only for a time. The cracks are already beginning to show.”
“And what are we supposed to do about it?” asked Dave. “What do you expect from me?”
“Dave,” Doug was in charge once again, “you know what it feels like to be free, to finally release yourself from the cage of safety you created for yourself. You know the fear of the fall as you’ve left behind the safety of your paradigm, prison, home, shell, rut…whatever you want to call it. Imagine an entire society, an entire world, experiencing such a feeling all at once. Imagine a world where all the belief systems break down at once. The dangers are twofold. One, that people will stare into the depths of things their minds aren’t prepared to comprehend and their deepest darkest fears will walk in broad daylight. You two have witnessed this, to a small degree. You have witnessed a group of people summoning powers beyond their ability to control. But this is nothing compared to what large groups of people are capable of.
“The other concern is that you will have the true believers, those who cling to outmoded forms of belief for fear of what lies beyond. Their lack of vision will be just as dangerous. They will close their minds to even the most obvious of truths because they cannot allow their simple beliefs to be challenged. In calmer times, believers are able to admit to ambivalence, but in times such as are to come, the rigidity of their cages are unyielding. But their very beliefs devoid of the spirit of belief will make them victims of malevolent forces. Again, you’ve witnessed such circumstances, though only on the smallest scale. Imagine a nation of true believers.”
Dave cringed at the remembrance of the events on Devil’s Island. If such nightmares could be produced by a mere 100 people, what could a nation do?
“You speak as though this happens with the rise and fall of every society.”
“Yes. And all past ages had an answer for such times of stress: kill. Kill to the best of your ability. Kill until the stress is relieved and new societies are able to build themselves up.”
“But our world cannot accept that answer.” It was Johnny. “In times past, it was horrible enough. Now we have such tools that humanity would not survive such bloodletting.”
“A new world is coming,” it was Doug speaking, “but we must first survive the dissolution of the current one. With the breakdown of all our paradigms, where all our assumptions are tossed aside, we will need to find touchstones independent of logic and even knowledge. In the sleep of reason, we will not be able to have beliefs or even convictions until some sort of framework exists.”
“And what the Hell are we supposed to do about it?” Dave couldn’t begin to fathom the implications of such knowledge, if it were all real.
“We must contain what we can of it, as you and Mindy have already successfully done twice now. We must lessen the shock for society as best we can so that people do not retreat from one another, so that a total breakdown occurs. We must be able to allow people to see what lies beyond their present perceptions in a way that doesn’t cause them to contract. They must be led to open their eyes, to see what is.”
“And why us? Who elected you to do anything about this? What makes you think you’ve got answers?”
“Because we can see, just as you can, in your limited way.”