The sun was high in the Montana sky on the day that Ani and his fiancé arrived at the artists’ workshop. He had never been to Montana; had never cared to go. Michelle, caring and considerate as always, had registered them for the workshop, paid their airfare there, and was committed to making the trip a success. Ani barely spoke during their travels. He had been in quite a rut. A combination of anxiety, writer’s block, and discontentment with life had begun to throw him off of his game months ago. The relentless triumvirate made everything in his life harder, but Michelle was a great woman, and although he felt that her energies were sometimes misappropriated, he could not help but feel a tinge of joy at her grandiose efforts to ensure that he could effectively recuperate. She loved him dearly, if nothing else.
The ride from the airport, albeit silent, had been enjoyable. Montana is a beautiful state, one mostly untainted by the unnecessary fixtures and choking pollution that have sucked the natural aesthetic out of so many “big-city” states. Montana is one of the least populous states in the US, which contributes more evidence toward an age old hypothesis: humans are the problem.
Riding straightway down a highway that felt like the only one in Montana, Ani admired the distant hills and the rolling plains that reached to them. The horizon looked like a portrait. He had never seen a sky so clear and calming in real life. The temperature was mid-80’s, and the air was crisp. It seemed like the type of air you could never get used to, the type where every time you step outside, you are reminded of how good you’ve got it. He scribbled a note in his journal to remind Michelle to paint the horizon once they returned home.
It was easy to tell when they had arrived. The building was not only huge, but the only thing for miles. Ani was slightly startled at seeing the large building appear all at once, as the soft plains blended with the creamy sky had somewhat lulled his visual awareness. The building, sitting high on a hill, gleamed in the sun. It was a mass of concrete, but not the cold, lifeless concrete of schools and prisons. The enormous glass windows were stained with rainbow spirals that scattered colored light onto everything near the building. The roof was adorned with solar panels, and smiled into the sunlight like a morning greeting. Michelle parked the car and looked over at Ani, smiling. They unfastened their seat belts and walked from the lot around the building, getting sprinkled by the deposits of scattered light from the windows before entering through a glass door on the north side of the building. Ani turned before entering and looked out over the plains. Down the hill from the entrance was of course the highway, but across the street was a wide open pasture that stretched wide and deep, back into a wooded area. It looked like a perfect place for picnics.
Michelle and Ani were greeted by a bubbly, dark-haired woman with red streaks in her bang. Her eyes were warm, but a bit sunken into her face. Her smile and tone made you feel that she cared, but she looked as if she had not cared so much once upon a time. She said her name was Sandra.
“You two must be Michelle and Ani?”
“Yep, we sure are!” exclaimed Michelle.
“Awesome. We’ve been expecting you. Now that you’re here, we are going to round everybody up and jump straight into the activities.”
Ani hadn’t looked at the itinerary for the event, but he hadn’t expected that they would be late. He felt embarrassed that the group had been waiting on them to start, and a little annoyed at Michelle for not getting them there earlier. But his conscious caught him, and he realized that Michelle had done nothing wrong, and there was no need to be angry. He wanted to try to enjoy the workshop as much as possible. He felt very remorseful and insecure about his disposition lately, and he knew that he had not been pulling his weight in the relationship. He had no desire to continue to be such a burden to Michelle that she would stop seeing the value in their union. He felt that if he could only get back on track with the writing…maybe everything else would fall into place.
Sandra walked them around more corners than it felt like belonged in the building, and down a set of stairs. The inside was just as vast as the outside, and there were hundreds of rooms. Each room seemed to have at least two or three people chatting or working on something creative. As they saw Sandra pass their doors, they would pack up their materials or cut their conversations short and follow her downstairs.
Everyone assembled outside an empty boardroom once they got downstairs. Sandra stood at the front entrance of the room and called names one by one. Each person from the crowd would go up to her, grab a sheet of paper, and then walk off to somewhere else in the building. A few of the people walked past her into the dark boardroom after they grabbed their papers. Although the room was dark, there was neon glinting through the shadows. Music was playing. It didn’t have any words, but the bass was heavy and the volume was so high that Ani could barely make out the names being called. Michelle swayed back and forth to the left of Ani, eyes closed, smile on her face. Michelle never had rhythm, and Ani was actually a pretty good dancer. They loved dancing together. Michelle said she never felt embarrassed dancing with Ani because she could tell he enjoyed it. She said that even if they were in public, she always felt like it was just him, her, and the music. On their first date, Ani had brought a small speaker out by the lake for a picnic. After saying some sweet things and stealing kisses at dusk, the pair slow- danced by the lake as the moon massaged the water.
“Ani and Michelle!”
The pair walked up to Sandra and grabbed their papers.
“What is this?” Ani asked.
“It’s a rave, dude!” Sandra smiled.
Ani looked at the paper. It was filled with lyrics to a song that he didn’t know.
“Cool. So what do we do now?”
Sandra looked behind her. “You guys can head into the boardroom. Glow sticks are in the corner. You’ll know when it’s your turn. Just keep your lyrics with you.”
Sandra walked off, presumably to another room, and Ani and Michelle walked straight into the boardroom. There were maybe four other people already there, bobbing and swaying to the beat, glow sticks in their pockets or tied around their necks. An ambient red light provided just enough luminance to see the lyrics on the paper. Eventually, another light flooded into the room, and Ani turned to see that a large screen had illuminated. The screen was split into eight or ten or maybe twelve smaller rectangles, each showing the other rooms within the building that the crowd had all dispersed into. Everybody was bouncing up and down. The energy was so infectious, Ani found himself bouncing around with the twelve different crowds. He and Michelle clasped hands and danced and danced until the music changed. The bass dropped out and string orchestra played a beautiful melody. Slowly, the beat crept back into the mix, and right before the massive drop, the group in the first box all wailed in unison.
Oh! To be free, to be loved, for eternity…
The group in Ani’s box was so caught up in dancing that he thought they might forget to sing. As he and Michelle swung around, he wondered how they would know it was their turn to read and wail the lyrics. The danced and bounced and watched the other boxes wail (in no particular order, seemingly) for what felt like forever. Finally, lights began to flash in the boardroom. First green, then yellow, then red. Ani’s group members all pulled their papers from their pockets and prepared to sing. Ani and Michelle shared a sheet. Michelle’s had drifted away somewhere in all the fun. Their box had the last part. It was a very simple portion, and very different from the rest of the song. The tempo slowed tremendously as the lights flashed in the room. A piano took over the primary melody, and a synthesizer in the background felt like ocean waves. Everyone calmed down, swayed slower, and sang softly, yet deeply. Ani wondered how they had all thought to sing the same way. He wasn’t surprised they didn’t wail; this wasn’t a wailing time. But he was caught off-guard by how united they were. They really didn’t sound bad.
The forever we planned for is done here
I’m left a forever to cry
Our love story continues through space and time somewhere
But here, our forever is mine
The song ended abruptly and all of the lights came on. The other four people in Ani’s group rushed out of the room and into the hallway, as it seemed the many folks from other rooms did. Michelle and Ani walked into the hallway. The crowd was so thick, they held hands so they wouldn’t lose each other. Ani tried to pull her through a particularly tight spot in the crowd and lost her hand. When he turned back, he saw that Michelle was speaking with Sandra. They were smiling and laughing, conversing like old girlfriends. It always amazed Ani how quickly women could bond. He caught Michelle’s eye and motioned to her that he was going to walk upstairs. She nodded and blew him a kiss. He continued to politely make his way through the crowd and to the stairwell.
As Ani made his way up the stairs and through the hallway on the second floor, he couldn’t help but feel the positive energy. People lined the hallways, chatting casually. A few rooms had people working inside them like he had seen earlier. He was curious about when the actual workshops would start. He decided to stop in one of the rooms and ask someone.
The room he entered was set up like a high school classroom that could seat thirty or so students, but there were only two people in it. One sported a lab coat and was behind a sink pouring a pink solution from one beaker to another. He looked up when Ani entered and gave him a nod greeting. Ani turned to his right to see a guy sitting in front of the blackboard at a computer desk. The guy had big, curly hair and thick square glasses. He sported a graphic tee and corduroys, which seemed odd for the summertime. He looked much more like a programmer than an artist.
“Hi, I’m Neil,” the guy said, “I’m a programmer.”
“Oh, wow. That’s funny because –,” Ani started
“Yeah, you looked like you were thinking it. What’s up, though? Enjoying the workshop? Is there something I can help with?”
“Well, yes. Well, kind of. I’m just confused. I didn’t get the itinerary from my fiancé so I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be doing. But I have to admit, the karaoke was fun.”
“You liked that? Yeah, that was all me on the lights. Well, man, you look like a writer. And the writers will all be heading down the hall in just a minute. If you walk out of this room and take a right, they’ll be in the last room on the left. We’re in downtime right now, but it won’t hurt if you head over,” Neil explained.
“I appreciate it,” Ani thanked him and turned to exit, but before he could go he turned once more. “Say, um…do you know where the visual artists will be next? The painters?”
Neil shook his head. “Nope. Sorry, man.”
Ani walked out of the room and turned to the right. Before he could take a step, his entire body went cold.
In the middle of the hallway stood a bear, a Kodiak undoubtedly, but the biggest brown bear Ani had ever seen in pictures or otherwise. It filled the entire hallway, standing at least ten feet tall. A thousand pounds might be a low estimate for this bear. Its eyes were black through the pupils, and it snarled, saliva dripping from its lips. While Ani stood frozen, it let out a roar that shook the walls and made Ani lose his footing. Thankfully, that jolt also forced him out of his stupor. Ani bolted down the hallway back to the staircase as fast as he could. He dared not look back, for he heard the lumbering bounds of the giant bear following closely behind him.
Down, down, down the stairs, the giant bear crashed into walls, ripping posters off, its claws scraping the metal rails as it pawed at Ani in stride. Ani screamed for help, but whereas the halls had been saturated with bystanders before, there was not one person in sight now. He hazarded a glance over his shoulder at his pursuer and saw that the beast was even closer than he had imagined. He jumped the rest of the stairs onto the concrete floor and bounded away from the stairwell back around the corner where he and Michelle had first entered the building. Still, he saw no one. His jump had put a little space between him and the bear, but it was still a hot pursuit. As Ani reached the glass door, he slid through it quickly and bounded down the hill toward the road. He remembered, in the moment, reading somewhere that bears had trouble running down hills, and if one was ever to be chased by a bear, that running down a hill would make for a good escape. As he hop-stepped down the incline, he heard the loud crashing of glass and bending of metal behind him. He stopped momentarily and saw the bear at the top of the hill. It had run straight through the front entrance of the building, shattering the door. The giant bear let out a ferocious roar, this time sounding angry. And much to Ani’s surprise, it began nimbly (as nimbly as a thousand pound bear can) making its way down the hill.
Ani turned and bounded down the rest of the hill as fast as he could. Once he reached flat land, he sprinted toward the road. He was nervous, for on the other side of the road was the woods, which he didn’t think was the best place to be in his current predicament. He turned one more time to assess his situation before crossing the street.
One too many times.
The bear had caught up with Ani and swiped down upon him with a wrath yet unknown to human kind. Three of its claws caught Ani squarely in the chest, tearing deep into his flesh, scratching up against his rib cage. Ani’s blood flowed freely as the bear recoiled and admired its work. Ani lay on his back, immediately immobilized by the pain, gasping for air. He hoisted himself up on his elbows and looked down at his chest. He could see into his body, his organs pulsing, keeping him alive. Surprisingly, he wasn’t in as much pain as he imagined he should be. He stood up and backed away from the bear slowly. The bear didn’t follow. Ani crossed the street backwards facing the beast, and noticed that the bear seemed to have lost interest. Ani slowed his pace and backed into the clearing before the wood. His wounds were painful, but not unbearable. He figured once his adrenaline slowed he would probably pass out from the pain, so he would need to find help fast. He thought about Michelle. Where had she and everyone else in the building gone? He could still see their rental car parked atop the hill next to the building. She had to still be in there. He would have to go back. But the bear. Ani angled his gaze down toward the bottom of the hill and was shocked to discover that the bear was no longer there. He whipped his head around quickly to make sure he wasn’t being flanked. But nothing. He closed his eyes and although it hurt his chest, breathed in the Montana air. He was all alone in the clearing.
At least, for a moment.
A chorus of low growls made the hair on the back of Ani’s neck stand up. He turned slowly to see them emerging from the wood. Slowly at first, only their eyes visible through the trees, the sound of leaves crunching beneath their paws trumpeting their arrival. When they finally reached the edge of the wood, Ani was already moving back toward the road. Twenty lionesses emerged from the forest, some with blood-stained mouths and snouts, each looking hungrier than the next. None of the cougars charged him; they all simply stalked him, almost in unison. Their measured steps made their approach even more eerie as Ani tried to contemplate his best chance for escape.
Ani noticed an old green pickup truck in the clearing yards away. He slowly walked backward, still bleeding, and eased himself onto the bed of the truck. There was a blue tarp covering the bed, and he crawled beneath it and pulled it up to his chin, like a blanket. The lionesses crowded around the truck and peered in at Ani. Some lay down, others kept their posture. But all kept a focused gaze on Ani as he lay beneath the tarp. At first he was tense, believing they would pounce at any moment. But eventually, as his adrenaline wore off, and the pain of his torso increased, he began to fade in and out of consciousness.
He was awakened by a shift of weight on the bed of the truck, he opened his eyes to see what he thought, at least initially, signaled his end. A brown bear stood up on the tailgate of the truck looking down on him. All of the lionesses remained circled around the truck, licking their chops, some letting out roars of excitement. Ani scrambled out of the bed of the truck and over the side. He fell hard to the ground and began to crawl away of the truck. He heard behind him that the bear had crawled off the truck as well and was following. In between a lioness and a bear, he stood to face the lesser of two evils. Upon standing, however, he discovered that the bear was much smaller than he had initially noticed. It was merely a cub. He faced the cub, his chest aching, and figured how he could maneuver around it to maybe get back to the truck and lock himself inside.
Before he could ponder too far, the cub swiped at him, tearing through his jeans and ripping the skin on his leg. He fell to the ground, gripping his shin in pain as the bear jumped atop him. The bear grabbed Ani’s arm in its mouth and began to shake back and forth. Ani pounded furiously on the bear’s head with his free arm, to no avail. The cub seemed to enjoy it. Panicked and in pain, Ani continued to punch the bear, but the more force he used, the more the bear seemed to reciprocate the aggression.
“He’s playing with ya.”
The voice came from just a few yards away, at the old green truck. An old man with a cowboy hat pulled low over his eyes sat atop the cab. His body was draped in a Native American style shawl of deep mauve. His hunter green pants fit tightly and stretched down into earth-colored moccasins. He sat perched atop the cab like an owl, his feet planted on the truck, and his legs beneath him, but bended at the knee. His entire face was obscured by the brim of the hat and the shadow it cast. He continued to watch Ani frantically struggle with the bear.
“Ya got to play back,” he insisted.
Ani ceased to strike the bear and noticed that the cub released his arm from its grip. He hurried to his feet and faced the cub. It smiled at him and stuck its tongue out, panting. It beckoned with its playful paws as if to say, again, please. Ani looked at the man on the top of the truck, who returned his gaze with a slow nod. Ani grabbed the cub, not forcefully, by the shoulders and grappled with him. The cub mirrored the grab, its paws around Ani’s waste. The lionesses shrunk their circle around the bear cub and the grappling writer. Ani could feel them closing in, but he didn’t know what to do. As he wrestled with the bear, he wondered how long he would have to keep it up. His wounds stung with each time the cub touched them and each time Ani hit the ground, but he no longer felt that his life was endangered. He couldn’t think past the moment, no matter how hard he tried. Each time he tried to focus his energies on formulating an escape, the cub would toss him to the ground playfully. He had to stay alert to continue the game, and the level of focus needed combined with the pain from his wounds was already too much to juggle, let alone a separate plan for escape.
He looked back up toward the cab of the truck and saw that the man had –
Ani Garrett convulsed on the table. Beads of cold sweat crawled down from his brow as far as they could before sliding sideways down his cheeks. The observers could tell that he was in pain. The holographic projection of Ani’s dream had gone black. The director opened the door separating the observation room from the study room and leaned over Ani, checking the electrodes that were latched on to his temples.
“What happened to the projection?” the director asked the technician.
The technician furrowed his brow. “The dream must have stopped.
“Some dream ”
“Normally they’re not this weird right? We’re normally able to actually glean some sort of meaning from what the subconscious sends them during their dreams? The whole benefit to this technology is having a third, fully conscious, objective party to view your dreams in real time. To make sense of them. Who can make sense of this? Bears in buildings. Mountain lions and dance parties. This is foolish.”
“Well, he’s very creative sir, I would imagine that his dreams would be a bit eclectic.”
“You know this guy?” the director asked
“Don’t you?” the technician responded.
“Cut the shit.”
“Sorry, sir. I just thought that someone would have briefed you. This is Ani Garrett. His publisher sent him here. His therapy hasn’t been working very well, but he complains about having nightmares often, so they thought this sleep study might help him.”
“Yes, sir. He’s a famous writer. Mostly books for school-aged children. His fiancé, the woman who drove him to the workshop in the dream, she committed suicide last month.”
“Goodness. No wonder he’s dreaming crazy shit. He’s probably been going nuts.”
“Well, in so many words, that’s what his publisher says. Says he’s very guilt-ridden. They had some big argument one night. When he woke up in the morning she had already done it. He was the one who found her.”
The director shook his head. “Tragic.”
“Yes, sir. And he’s in the middle of a book. The deadline is coming soon. It’s a sequel to the bestseller he published two years ago. The publisher is scared that he won’t get it out on time because of his emotional state, so they’re trying to fast track his therapy.”
“Business is business.”
“I, for one, think it’s a load of crap…sir.”
“You’re just a millennial. You’ll learn one day. Nothing stops. Business has to keep moving. I really hope he can get back to writing though. This whole situation is just unfortunate.” The director sucked his teeth and shook his head. “So unfortunate.”
The technician paused for a moment, and there was nothing but silence in the room between them. They watched as Ani’s convulsions ceased and his breathing normalized. His face was still screwed up, though. Like he was trying to crack a puzzle and was almost there, but didn’t know what move to make next.
“Who cares if he ever writes again, you know? The guy is going to be living with lions for the rest of his days. All that guilt, you know. Just surrounding him, moving with him everywhere he goes, waiting to pounce on him. That’s no way to live.”
The director shrugged and headed toward the exit of the room.
“Let me know when he wakes up.”
Ani convulsed two more times back to back, alarming the technician. He started to enter the room, but saw that Ani was stabilizing. The wrist and ankle restraints on Ani had prevented him from actually moving anywhere, no matter how hard he tried.
The silence was peaceful but for the metronome of the ekg machine hooked up to Ani Garrett.
“Take it easy, big guy,” the technician whispered, peering through the glass. After a moment, when it appeared that Ani was drifting back into a deep sleep, the technician left the room to find the director. The projection would begin again soon. Ani Garrett’s chest heaved as his breaths took pace with the ekg metronome.