The Eighty-eighth Key
Is there any real difference between dreams and a nightmare? If there is, the line between the two must be very fine indeed. Just the slightest change leads the dreamer from an exquisitely comfortable experience down a rabbit hole to gasping confinement, with inward-pushing walls forcing the dreamscape to resolve the dreamer’s darkest fears. Dreams take us on a curious journey within those things we often hold most dear, while nightmares force us to experience our darkest imaginings, and as such it might now be important to recall that both the dream and the nightmare come from within. Neither comes unbidden; both are invited guests.
Yet, and by way of further exploration, perhaps you might consider the line between delusion and perceived reality. Delusions, like nightmares, are constructs of the mind, while reality is imposed not from within but from the world around us. We are surrounded by reality, while delusions warp the deluded mind from within, by what in the end is a most fragile web of self-deceit.
But what happens when the world around us takes on all the characteristics of a nightmare? And what happens to the soul when confronted with just so much existential dread? And perhaps the most important thing of all, what happens to the mind when all the characteristics of a nightmare exist – but there is no easy escape from the terror by simply waking up?
One of Imogen Schwarzwald’s constant companions throughout her life had been the Caped Man with his cane, her very own sumner of thunderstorms, and yet to those who knew Imogen best, this invisible talisman was most often an unseen harbinger of cataclysmic change. Even so, the Caped Man rarely spoke to Imogen, preferring instead to use his cane to summon change or to use it like a conductor’s baton – to play with lightning or to bring a mast’s gaff crashing down. He had, of course, never changed over the years of her life, and he came to her now as he always had: dressed the same; his eyes the same; and as he ever had, he came to her unbidden. Rather like a nightmare, you might say.
And when the Caped Man came to Imogen she retreated from the world, from that place we might be tempted to otherwise call reality, and at first she grew still – and then in time she was possessed by an immense quiet. Yet even in the quietest moments – as when rain falls like tears in the sunshine, even when the song is almost over – the effect of the Caped Man could still be heard, his music playing within her eyes as she fell away.
Because deep within these moments he often spoke – but was it to her that he spoke?
It hardly matters, because more often than not she spoke to him.
Not in words, however.
No, she spoke to the Caped Man in another language, in the arcane vibrations taught to her by another tormented soul. In the notes and chords taught to Imogen by her mother.
And yes, though it hardly matters now, Imogen Schwarzwald’s First Piano Concerto – which she played for the first time on the occasion of her seventh birthday – revealed the contours of her first extensive conversations with the Caped Man. Within that first piece, deep within the sintered vibrations of her soul, variations on a theme could found that would echo throughout her life – even within the grasping walls of the waking nightmare that was the Nazi concentration camp known as Theresienstadt.
The party wound down after that last rousing chorus, and even Fred the dog reappeared, walking from butt to butt, sniffing tentatively as he came back to Sam Bennett. He sat by his master’s side and looked up expectantly, hoping for a pat on the head or a scrap of steak – not so very different from all the others in attendance – and the pup watched as the people started to head – in ones and twos – for the side-gate.
But then he scented something unfamiliar, and he growled.
Frank turned to face the sound, then he went and knelt by Fred: “What is it, fella?”
And Fred stood, then strode to the gate and sat. Protectively.
“Now that’s odd,” Bennett said as he got to the gate and opened it. He stepped out onto the sidewalk and looked up the street towards the park, then down to the bay – and he saw nothing.
Everyone gathered there, by the gate, and everyone looked, too, but no one saw anything untoward…so the usual conversations resumed. “Seeya tomorrow,” type things, and “Sure had a nice time, Sam.”
Chip Bennett sidled over the Frank Bullitt and asked about his new Porsche, then asked where it was parked.
Bullitt got the hint and pointed up the street while he fished his keys from his coat pocket.
“You remember how to drive a stick?” Frank asked as Chip took off up the street, then he turned to face An Linh. “Did you have a good time?” he asked.
“There is much to take in, many new things to understand,” she said, “yet I wonder how much I’ve seen here is really so different from what I am used to.”
“Well,” Cathy said, taking Frank’s hand in her own, “in the end we’re all just people. I suspect we all share the same hopes and dreams.”
“And we’re all haunted by the same demons,” Stacy Bennett added. “Yet…”
An explosion shattered the night, knocking everyone off their feet. Glass shattering in nearby windows rained down on the street, and several trees caught fire – which spread to several wood-shingled rooftops, causing an even greater conflagration. Soon several houses were ablaze.
Sam Bennett was first on his feet, the first to recognize what had just happened, and he called out his son’s name as he took off running up the street. Bullitt stood and helped Cathy to her feet, but when he heard Sam’s cry he turned and followed his captain up the street.
Harry had instinctively cradled An Linh and fallen on her, protecting her with his body, so the next thing he saw was Al Bressler kneeling beside Stacy Bennett, and then he noticed Jim Parish performing CPR on Stacy. He shook his head, tried to think past the incredible ringing in his ears, then he too realized what had happened and took off running up the street.
He found Frank and Sam standing near the rim of a deep crater, and there was, quite literally, nothing recognizable left of Frank’s Porsche.
And Chip Bennett. He was dead, and as the realization hit Sam he drifted slowly to his knees and began praying.
“Stay here,” Frank told Callahan as he turned and sprinted to the Bennett house, and with that Harry reached out, put his hand on Sam’s shoulder to let his friend know he was not alone, and only then did he look around at the carnage.
Several cars were overturned, their distorted hulks charred and in places, melted. Dozens of trees were still on fire, and while three houses were already total losses, several more were close to being fully involved…
…and that was when Callahan first recognized a peculiar odor in the air.
“That’s C-4,” he said.
“What?” Bennett said, suddenly a police captain once again. “C-4? Are you sure?”
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
“Then this wasn’t a gas leak, was it? Where’s Frank?”
“He went to the house…”
“Come on. Nothing we can do here.”
Already the air was filled with choking smoke, and though dozens of sirens could be heard approaching the area Bennett ran to a house and called-out for survivors. Callahan did the same, and by that time both Al Bressler and his father had fanned-out, looking to assist anyone in need.
At one point he saw Parish still hovering over Stacy Bennett, and both Cathy and An Linh were with him, and he wondered what that was all about before he ran into a burning house. He called out, heard a faint reply so ran upstairs and through a thick wall of smoke. He called out again and followed the reply to a bedroom; he found an elderly man propped-up in a hospital bed, hooked up to an oxygen bottle…
“Can you move on your own,” Harry called out as small flames began breaking through the ceiling, and the old man simply shook his head. He ran to the bed and picked the man up and tossed him over his shoulder, and, with his left hand, he grabbed the oxygen bottle and turned for the door.
But the way ahead was already blocked by another wall of flames.
He made his way to another door and this one opened onto a small balcony that overlooked a manicured side yard, and firemen saw him standing there and raced his way with a ladder.
He helped the first fireman up the ladder take the old man, then he made his way down just as the house fell in on itself. Sparks and flaming embers fell on everything and his coat was soon a smoldering mess; he felt his scalp burning and snuffed out the small flames there, then ran across the street to see what had happened to Stacy Bennett.
Jim Parish was kneeling beside her inert form and without needing to know anything more he knew she was gone and he shook his head, suddenly very confused. He saw Sam holding onto Fran a moment later, then Frank holding Cathy, cradling her head. He couldn’t see An Linh anywhere and he grew anxious – until he saw her sitting next to his father, both on a small bench, and now feeling somewhat more at-ease he walked their way.
“What happened to Stacy?” he asked as he came up to his dad.
“Doctor Parish thinks she might have had a heart attack,” Lloyd Callahan said. “I’m sorry, Harry.”
“Are you alright?” he asked them both, and though his father nodded in the affirmative, when An Linh merely looked away he knelt next to her.
And she looked at him.
“I think Cathy was correct,” she said. “We are all alike. And this city is not at all different than Saigon.”
He looked away, because in a way she was absolutely correct, yet in so many other ways she couldn’t have been more wrong – but how do you explain things you can’t often see? How could he tell her about all the good things without sounding ridiculous? Not after all she had been through the past few weeks. Not after a lifetime of living through bombed-out streets and all the other vestiges of war.
Or maybe, he thought, I’m just biased. He turned, looked at the cratered street lined with ruptured cars, the homes with burning roofs and shattered windows, and then he stopped believing, if only for the briefest moment. ‘Maybe I can’t see the forest for the trees, because…is this really so different? Were the riots in ’68 really so different? John and Bobby Kennedy? Martin King? Didn’t their blood stain just as deeply…or have I missed something?’
And then he felt like he was standing along the edges of a vast precipice, and waiting below – in the darkness – was a vast unknown…like a nightmare waiting to engulf everything he thought he knew about this place.
Some nightmares can’t be denied. They spring forth from deepest fear and slowly invert all the goodness in a dream. Nightmares are undeniable, and the worst are unforgettable.
The same can be said of those circumstances we might, with justification, call waking nightmares. Yet there are key differences. Nightmares are close cousins of delusion, the workings of the subconscious mind, while waking nightmares are creatures in and of this world. But consider that waking nightmares are quite often crafted by sick minds and imposed on others as a form of torture. Let us consider for a moment the concentration camp.
Imagine getting off a train and being met by guards who instruct you to enter a common bathing area for purposes of delousing, and, after you are forced to remove all your clothes, you are packed in a large showering area with dozens of other naked men, women, and children. You are, in such circumstances, being – quite literally – stripped of your humanity, but then gas starts pouring out of dozens of overhead ‘shower’ nozzles, and one by one the people around you fall to the floor, and yes, you realize they are dead. And soon enough you too take your last breath as you fall onto this writhing mass before everything within you grows cold and still.
Can such events be anything other than a nightmare?
But then there was Theresienstadt. The Nazi idea of a halfway house for Jews.
Not everyone sent to Theresienstadt was transferred to one of the Nazi death camps and, indeed, a relative few spent the entire war here. On the other hand, most who found themselves delivered to Theresienstadt were short-timers; if these people weren’t quite what was called for they found ready passage booked on the next train to Poland – to one of the main death camps located there.
And so, on one rainy afternoon, Imogen Schwarzwald found herself on the station platform in the Czech town of Terezín – in the company of several hundred Jews from Holland and Denmark – and she had all her belongings with her. The remnants of her life were contained in one suitcase that held perhaps three changes of clothes and a few toiletries, and the assembled Jews were told to stand away from the platform – in the rain – and they remained standing there for several hours.
Then all of the assembled Jews were told that they would have to carry their belongings up a steep, winding street to their new quarters, so the group – mainly elderly men and women – picked up their luggage and began walking up the hill. The two-mile walk took several hours, all of it taking place during a cold downpour. One by one the weakest fell out of the ranks – those men and women were never seen again – and when the remainder reached the hilltop their belongings were taken from them and – still in the rain – ransacked. Anything of value was simply taken, and then all the remnants were simply thrown into a garbage truck and carried away – never to be seen again. Again, you strip away humanity layer by layer, piece by precious piece, until there is no room for feelings.
Many of the assembled Jews had been told they could purchase apartments in the village, and those with the means did so. These wealthier Jews were now separated from the main group and taken to the most filthy barracks in the compound. Layer by layer, piece by piece…
Imogen was taken to a small house, and the family inside took her to a small room on the top floor, where she learned she would reside with six children – all of them recent orphans.
Cold, wet, and utterly disoriented, Imogen went to the one small window and looked out over the rooftops – and she couldn’t help but think back to her father’s house in Copenhagen, with its view of the red tile roofs and the harbor beyond. She thought of him for a moment, then she thought of Avi Rosenthal and his impossible dream of making it to British Palestine…then she felt someone standing close by and she turned…
“You are the physicist?” the woman standing by her side asked.
“And you are a teacher?”
“Good. Do you teach anything besides math and physics?”
“I play the piano well enough to teach.”
The woman shrugged. “We have several pianists here, an entire symphony orchestra as a matter of fact. We have little need for another.”
“I see. What has this to do with me?”
The woman sighed, then she too looked out the window. “If you are not useful here you will be transferred to one of the Polish camps.”
“These camps…well…people do not return from these places.”
“What are you saying?”
“From what we have heard they are killing hundreds a day at these places, perhaps more…”
“That is ridiculous,” Imogen interrupted. “Who would allow such a thing?”
The woman grimaced before she spoke next. “The veneer of civilization is very thin here. You would do well to remember that before speaking out.”
Imogen felt a familiar stillness settling-in as those words washed over the room, and with these words she new the Caped Man would call for her soon – yet on an elemental level, she now understood that this was something she could no longer allow. If she was not useful, this woman had just told her – she would, at the end of another train ride, be one of hundreds killed on a daily basis at some mysterious Polish camp.
“So,” Imogen replied to the implied threat, “who am I to teach?”
“You are to take care of these children when you are not teaching. They are the future, and this above all else we cherish – and defend. When we return to our homeland, to Palestine…”
“My husband is in Palestine,” Imogen said, “waiting for me.”
And on hearing this the woman seemed to hover over the first hints of an idea. “And what does he do there?”
“He is negotiating with the British and the Americans for the creation of a Jewish homeland.”
On hearing this the woman staggered backwards, as if she’d just been dealt a knockout punch. “You must wait here. Do not leave this room.”
And the woman fled down the stairs at a furious pace, leaving Imogen to take a hard look around her immediate future. The children – the youngest still in diapers, the oldest in her teens – seemed impossibly well kept…given these circumstances…and in a flash Imogen heard the woman’s voice again: ‘they are our future…’
Of course! The residents of this camp were pouring all their resources into these children, because they were the future. Their future. And this future would reside in…Palestine.
Just as Avi had foreseen.
Only at the time few people in Denmark had bothered listening to Avi and his wild dream.
She looked down, down to the street far below, and like the briefest flash of an idea she thought she saw Saul Rosenthal speaking with several old men, but then she realized that could not possibly be happening.
And certainly not now.
And in time she heard several men rushing up the stairs – yet she remained fixed in time, staring out the window as darkness fell over the decaying town, then she saw reflections in the glass. Men in uniforms. They were SS, she knew, because the twin silver lightning bolts shimmered in the glass, and in that last slice of awareness she knew they had come to take her to Poland.
Because the Caped Man was out there now, out there in the rain with his cane, conducting another symphony in the clouds.
Callahan was kneeling on the sidewalk beside Jim Parish, kneeling over Stacy Bennett’s cooling body while they looked at a small puncture wound on the right side of her neck…
“Harry, that looks an awful lot like a 5.56mm to me.”
Callahan nodded, then he looked up, trying to remember how she had been standing, trying to calculate the angle to the assassin’s perch…
She had been standing closest to Sam, on his right side…
He looked down the street – and watched a dark blue Ford sedan pull away from the curb and take off towards the marina.
The sheer audacity of the strike had kept events at arm’s length, but now the weight of everything lost came crashing down on Sam and Fran Bennett. They clung to the familiar as gales of uncertainty tore at sanity’s weaker fringes, then Cathy and Frank helped them to their house. Harry watched Dell and Stan sifting through the shattered wreckage of Frank’s 911, then it hit him…
…something was wrong…
He turned and looked around, saw his father standing watch over the scene…
“Dad,” he called out, “you’d better get…”
…but now his father was running…
…running towards An Linh…
He turned and saw her falling, saw the wreckage of yet another senseless killing taking form within the sundered fabric of time, and by the time he made it to her side it was all over.
He cradled her head, tried to make sense of the expression on her face, in her eyes, but everything she had ever been was fading now.
Whatever she had hoped for in this coming to America was fading fast, too. As fast as the blood pouring from the exit wound on the far side of her hopes and dreams.
He kissed her forehead, squeezed her hand as paramedics ran to his side – but he looked their way and shook his head.
“Welcome to America, my love,” he whispered.
© 2020 adrian leverkühn | abw | as always, thanks for dropping by…
[note: I typically don’t post all a story’s acknowledgments until I’ve finished, if only because I’m not sure how many I’ll need until the work is finalized. Yet with the current circumstances that might not be the best way to proceed, and I’d hate to have this story stop ‘unexpectedly’ without some mention of these sources. Of course, the source material in this case – so far, at least – derives from two Hollywood films: Dirty Harry and Bullitt. The first Harry film was penned by Harry Julian Fink, R.M. Fink, Dean Riesner, John Milius, Terrence Malick, and Jo Heims. Bullitt came primarily from the author of The Thomas Crown Affair, Alan R Trustman, with help from Harry Kleiner, as well Robert L Fish, whose short story Mute Witness formed the basis of Trustman’s brilliant screenplay. John Milius (Red Dawn) penned Magnum Force, and the ‘Briggs’ storyline derives from characters originally found in that screenplay. Most of the other figures in this story derive from characters developed in the works cited above, but as always this story is otherwise a work of fiction woven into a pre-existing historical timeline, using the established characters referenced above.]
Your work continues to mature – wisdom gained through life, and taught to others through allegories. Your tales gain depth. I know not what problems you now imply in your endnotes to this story, but I wish you, and your tales, well.
Thank you, Robert. I’d say ‘mature’ is as good a word as any. Complicated and perplexing come to mind, as well. I seem to be down to one good eye, one good ear, one halfway decent leg…but my hands still hit the keys reliably (don’t laugh at that one, please)and writing still comes somewhat easily. You keep readin’ and I’ll keep writin’…how ’bout that…?