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Life is but a dream.

Row, row, row your boat
Gently down the stream.
Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.

Dark. Always dark. Yet always warm and somehow, normal. Occasionally, the boy cries out for help. Each cry is swallowed by the darkness, the depth, and the heaviness around him. What leaves his lips is only barely heard by even himself.

He’s not alone. Most of the time, a dragon guards him. He never sees her, but hears her voice all the time. It is a strange relationship. Often, she is crying. He never understands her sadness, but occasionally she speaks more clearly and directly to him. She actually curses him — specifically! She tells him again and again how she is wasting her days and even her whole life having to guard him all the time.

During her sadness, he is incredibly patient, almost caring for the dragon. Her anger at him confuses him, and angers him in return. Eventually he screams back at her:

“Then let me GOOOO! Just let me GOOOO!”

Yet instantly, the dark, heavy, immensity of that place eats up his every scream. Even he can only barely perceive quiet whispers from his own lips.

Then the dragon calms herself. For a time they both rest, but soon enough she begins mourning her lot again. Then she is angry. Then he is angry in response. The cycle continues for months. Nearly a year, at least!

Then, faintly, the boy hears someone else in the cave. His heart jumps for joy! This is his big chance! He recognizes the voice of the storyteller who comes around once a year. He engages the dragon boldly. They argue and fight back and forth, but the storyteller is sly and quick. He is never harmed by her. Eventually, he infuriates the dragon so much that she flies off in a rage.

The storyteller then turns his attention to the boy. He calls his name. He encourages the boy. He tells stories. He tells of great heroes courageously overcoming terrible obstacles along their journeys. He tells of adventures great and small. He tells of heroes with incredible wills giving every last ounce of strength to triumph in the end.

The boy, in return, reaches out with all his might. Just like his voice, the boy’s entire energy is swallowed up by the darkness, the depth, and the sludgy heavy emptiness around him. He throws all his energy into reaching the storyteller, but all he manages is a slight twitch of his finger.

Suddenly, he starts in the dark. He realizes he’d fallen asleep. NO! Not on this one night he has to escape! Is it too late? Has the storyteller given up on him? Phew! He sighs, relieved to hear the storyteller’s voice again continuing the stories of courage, adventure, and will.

The stories work exactly as expected. They work their way into the boy’s tired heart and defeated mind. He realizes his voice is getting ever so little louder and his strength is ever so subtly returning. Then, just as the story is getting good, the boy hears the dragon returning. Soon enough, she attacks the storyteller again. He is still quick and sly, but she finally manages to drive him off. The boy’s chance is gone. Again.

Before long, he hears the dragon crying softly. Then she cries louder, and soon her sadness turns to anger. She complains again that she must guard him. Spurred on by the memories of the stories, the boy begins again to cry back:

“Then let me GOOO!! Just let me GOOO!!”

And so the three of them continue. Year after year after year.

— — — —

In a different time and place, a mother comes home from work. She carefully sets down her keys and bag. She eases open the door to her boys’ bedroom and looks in.

A boy in a hospital bed lies in the same position, eyes closed, breathing gently, as he always does. His brother lies in his own bed, sleeping, with a book open on his chest. She marks his place in the book and gently touches his shoulder.

The brother wakes and gets ready for school. After his shower, he gets dressed quickly. He downs some cereal in the kitchen then brushes his teeth. He glances at his watch. There’s still time. He opens the book and starts reading a new story aloud. Right when the story was getting good, their mother checks to make sure he’s ready for school. The brother tells his mother that he saw the boy in the hospital bed move his finger again last night.

“Honey,” she says sadly, “I‘m afraid it’s just your imagination. The doctors have all said it’s just not going to happen. You’ve heard them all right along with me. If he was doing anything like that, I’d see it too, sometimes, and I just don’t see that. All I see is his mouth opening and closing slowly as he breathes.”

“I know,” the brother replies, “and before you say it: I know! I know! We keep having the same argument.”

She stops him and reminds him there’s no time for this discussion this morning. He starts to respond angrily, but they are both surprised by the boy, standing — no — towering over them. Apparently, he’s had another growth spurt since the accident.

“Mom?” the boy asks, looking at them sleepily, “I think he might be right.”

Then he goes over to the hospital bed, lies back down, closes his eyes, and falls deeply to sleep.

— — — —

The boy wakes again. It is dark like it should be. It is warm. Normal. The memory of the dream is starting to fade, but he can remember most of it. What a strange time to dream! Here? Now? While he’s been captured by a dragon and tormented for years — here when life itself is a nightmare, he still has these strange dreams.

He can tell the storyteller has been gone for quite a while, but he still hears echoes of those stories of adventure, courage and will. Then, as usual, he hears the dragon starting to cry. This time, though, something is different. He listens carefully. Suddenly the difference dawns on him…

Why was the dragon happy this time?