1. Welcome Home

Seattle’s morning commute was winding down. It had been largely uneventful viewing for Icon, who had been watching the traffic heading into downtown from the West Seattle peninsula. No breakdowns. No accidents. No bright sunshine in anyone’s eyes. Just Officer Shades issuing tickets for bus lane violations at the eastern side of the High Bridge.

Icon suddenly realized he had company, but he sensed some shyness on the part of the person who had joined him and so he watched the traffic a little longer before introducing himself.

“Hello, I don’t believe we’ve ever met. I’m Icon.”

“I’m Nobbi,” said the new arrival, grinning and looking awkward.

“How long have you been here?” asked Icon.

“I only just died,” said Nobbi.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Icon. “Was it a good death?”

“A bit of an anti-climax,” said Nobbi. “The last I remember is changing into my pajamas, brushing my teeth, and putting the cat out. I must have gone in my sleep. I hope the cat will be OK.”

“Have you checked in with your mentor?”

“Oh yes,” said Nobbi. “She told me to shadow you for a while.”

Nobbi shrugged and smiled. He was most agreeable looking, Icon thought. A young black man with short dreadlocks fashioned into knots at the ends.

“Is the name Nobbi on account of your hair?” asked Icon.

“Oh, my real name was Nawbuiso,” said Nobbi. “I got the nickname as a kid, long before I made this hairstyle.”

“Was this your final incarnation?”

“It was,” said Nobbi. “That hasn’t quite sunk in.”

“Don’t worry,” said Icon. “It takes a while. That’s probably why you were sent to hang out with me for a while — take your mind off things before your mentor gives you the first assignment. I hope you’re happy with the hair though. You realize you will have it for eternity.”

“Oh, I’m cool with that,” said Nobbi, ruffling his locks with a happy grin. “Especially as it will be maintain itself up here. It ended up at exactly the right length too. How about your hair?”

“I really enjoy no longer having to comb it out after washing it,” said Icon, running fingers through his long, thick, blond hair. “But I sometimes miss the way it smelled when it was freshly shampooed.”

Nobbi suddenly looked very sad.

“I’m sorry,” said Icon. “You have a big adjustment ahead of you. There’s so much you will miss.”

“Missing it already,” said Nobbi, closing his eyes and covering his face with his long-fingered hands. “And yet today was such a humdrum day. Would have loved one more like it.”

“What would you be doing today?” Icon asked.

“I operate a food truck,” said Nobbi, straightening up and opening his eyes.

Icon smiled warmly at the mention of food.

“It’s nothing fancy,” Nobbi went on. “Breakfast and lunch only. Breakfast makes it an early start. We’re on the road before it’s light, me and Fai. Fai is my driver-helper, and she also takes care of the business side of things — very good with money. I buy the food and do the cooking.”

Nobbi stopped talking to worry a bit.

“I left several large crocks of beans stewing overnight,” he said. “I hope someone finds them before they run dry of water.”

Icon laughed gently.

“I think Fai will take care of things,” he said. “She’s an exceptionally capable lady. She wouldn’t have been working with you otherwise.”

Nobbi nodded — and worried some more.

“The cat will be OK too,” Icon assured him. “But really, what would you be doing today?”

“Unplugging those crocks of beans, for a start! Not much more needed for them other than a final boil to reduce the liquid. They have been soaking up onion and chili seasonings for hours. We serve them with eggs and tomatoes for breakfast — topped with some goat cheese and hot sauce. Leftovers will be offered for lunch with cornbread.”

“What else?” asked Icon.

“Nothing else,” said Nobbi. “Very simple menu. But the kind of food people just die to come back for again and again.”

“That’s the way,” said Icon.

“I get there before Fai to finish any prep that can’t be easily done in the truck,” Nobbi went on. “By there, I mean the lockup. It’s a space large enough to to drive the truck into. The kitchen is basic, but serviceable. And there’s room to store a lot of non-perishable food. We have to go out every few days for vegetables and eggs, and we buy milk every day that we need it, but we have enough sacks of beans and cornflour to last for ages. I wish I could live there, but the lease doesn’t allow it. I can walk over there in very little time though. I try to have everything loaded up by the time Fai arrives and then we head out, stopping for milk if we have to.”

“Where do you serve breakfast?”

“Train stations are good,” said Nobbi. “Breakfast to eat on the train. At lunchtime we go to a part of the city that has lots of warehouses and office buildings but not much in the way of restaurants. We sell our meals in reusable containers with a picture of my grinning face on the lid. And most of customers actually reuse them! When we’re ready to start serving we light up a sign on the top of the truck.”

“What does it say?” asked Icon.

“Eat.”

Icon howled with laughter and offered Nobbi a high-five.

“It was supposed to say Eat At Nobbie’s,” Nobbi explained, returning the high-five without being sure quite why. “But the man who made the sign was a bit disorganized and hadn’t finished it by the time I needed it. He’d only got as far as Eat. I was tired of dealing with him and Fai said to just pay him for Eat and be done with it!”

Nobbi paused for a sigh.

“Anyway, once lunch is sold out — we always sell out — we do shopping and run errands on the way back to the lockup where we get things ready for the next day. Then Fai goes home to take care of her family — and I have the rest of the day to do my writing.”

“A writer eh?” said Icon. “We’ll have to talk about that. It’s probably important.”

“Not right now, though, if you don’t mind,” said Nobbi. “What were you watching when I joined you?”

“Traffic,” said Icon.

“I could see that,” said Nobbi. “But why?”

“Your mentor often watched the traffic where you were,” Icon said. “She made sure that Fai got you everywhere safely — while you were in the back of the truck cracking eggs.”

“Oh,” said Nobbi. “You got someone down there?”

“Yes. I like to see her safely to work on the bus. But watching traffic is fun for its own sake.”

“What time of the day is this?” asked Nobbi.

“You caught the tail end of the morning rush hour,” said Icon. “I watch it every weekday morning. Sometimes it’s a colossal mess. It doesn’t take much to jam it up solid.”

“Fai and I often got stuck in gridlock,” said Nobbi. “We sometimes served breakfast in the middle of it. Nothing moving. Might as well feed people. A bit risky, running a cook stove on a truck which might have to move at any moment — but we never had an accident. I suppose Shada would have alerted me if it hadn’t been safe.”

Icon smiled knowingly.

“Tell me a little about the place you just left. Just start talking and see what happens.”

Before Nobbi even began his narrative, he was surprised to see a projection of his old world appear. He was even more surprised at how easily he could spin the world with his mind and zoom in on the region he was from — and he squealed with delight.

“That is amazing!” he said, shaking his head and grinning at Icon. Then he remembered what he was supposed to be doing. He pointed out a large island off the southwest coast of a large landmass straddling the equator. A narrow channel separated it from the mainland, and a large city appeared to sprawl along the island’s channel coast.

“That’s where I was,” said Nobbi. “About thirty-five degrees south of the equator. Really nice climate, although the rainy season is about to start. It’s been a very pleasant summer though.”

“Looks like a big city,” said Icon. “Lots going on there?”

“Just about everything,” said Nobbi. “Very prosperous. Considered the world’s cultural center. People have migrated there from all over the world. White people like you moved there in search of sun. Black folks like me moved there to get away from tropical heat. And everyone in between. Always plenty of good jobs. But the whole world has been doing well in that regard for a long time. No one has to move away to find work. But they do like places with nice weather.”

It struck Icon as a rather unlikely place for a last-life existence. The last few lives are usually lived out on a world facing serious challenges. Well, Nobbi would tell all in due course. In the meantime, it was nice to have a new companion to talk with.

Nobbi contemplated his world for a while longer — and become frustrated on discovering he could not zoom any closer. He looked at Icon for explanation.

“I’m afraid we’re never allowed to return,” Icon said.

“Not even for one last look?”

“I’m afraid not,” said Icon.

Nobbie stared longingly his old world for a long time. Icon left him alone with his thoughts and caught up with business of his own. His protege was having a rough day at work. He persuaded her to stop on the way home for a pint of cider at a pub she liked. She found a quiet table and enjoyed some writing for a while. Nobbie finally drew his attention away from his world to see what had Icon’s attention.

“Is that her?”

“Yes,” said Icon. “She’s a bit of a writer too. I planted a funny story in her head while she was on the bus and now she’s busy writing it down.”

“What’s it about?” Nobbi asked.

“It’s about a girl who goes to the park and gets followed home by some trees.”

Nobbi frowned.

“That’s not funny,” he said. “That’s weird!”

“Ah, but these are funny trees,” Icon explained. “And they’re very ticklish. Tickle them under the right branch and they laugh until tears run down their trunks. Keep tickling and they eventually roll on the ground — helpless with laughter. But if you go too far they can uproot themselves and then they might follow you home — which is what happens to the girl.”

“Then what?”

“I don’t know yet,” said Icon, with a shrug. “I’m hoping she can come finish the story herself.”

“Where did my world go?” asked Nobbi, noticing it has vanished.

“You let it slip from your thoughts,” said Icon. “You can get it back if you want.”

“It’s OK,” said Nobbi. “Do you ever look at yours?”

“I’ve been up here a long, long time,” said Icon. “My world no longer exists. Its part of the universe was swallowed by a black hole. The same will happen to yours in due course.”

“So what have you been doing up here all this time?”

“Watching traffic jams,” joked Icon. “It’s quite habit forming.”

Nobbi looked glum.

“It takes a while to get your groove up here,” Icon said. “What’s most important is that you find something to relate to — something which will allow you to establish some sort of routine. Time is meaningless here, especially as there are no meals to organize yourself around. I like watching traffic because it makes me feel part of things down there. You can even watch sports if you like. Follow a major league team for an entire season and you will find a surprising sense of belonging.”

“I’ll just watch what you watch for a while,” said Nobbi. “What’s up next?”

Icon turned their attention back to the pub where his protege was finishing her pint of cider.

“I think she would like another,” he said. “I have to get her to decide it’s not a good idea. It’s time she was getting home. Ah. She’s taking out her wallet to see how much money she has. There’s a twenty-dollar bill that I will disguise as a one-dollar bill — then she’ll think she doesn’t have enough money. The twenty will be back in her wallet tomorrow.”

Nobbi grinned and shook his head.

“Oh, I know that trick! I know it all too well!”

“It worked,” said Icon. “She’s packing up to leave — and two guys are already hovering to take her table. We’ll see her home. The neighborhood is reasonably safe, but it’s a long walk and it will be almost dark by the time she gets home. We’ll keep an eye out for pedestrians she might encounter and drivers not paying attention. I’m officially on alert, so there will be other pairs of eyes watching out for her.”

Icon and Nobbi watched as Zoe walked through a quiet residential neighborhood. Parked cars lined the streets on both sides as most people were home from work by now. Through un-shuttered windows in some houses could be seen people sitting down to their evening meal, a sight that Nobbi found comforting. Then Zoe turned down a wooded street with fewer houses.

“There are a lot of raccoons in these woods,” said Icon. “She knows to look out for them, but sometimes they can surprise her. So the Shamans watch for any that might come out of the trees and have them make more noise than usual so that she has some warnings.”

No sooner had Icon finished his explanation, than a trio of raccoons scuttled out of the trees and stopped in their tracks at the sight of Zoe. They respectfully pretended to be nervous before continuing on their way across the street, breaking into a bouncing run as a car approached. The fat, sluggish one bringing up the rear made it to the other side only just in time. Zoe laughed and continued on her way. Walking down the hill towards the Sound, she enjoyed watching the sun go down behind the Olympic Mountains. By the time she reached her apartment, it was almost dark out.

“We can leave her to herself for the rest of the evening,” said Icon. “But there’s an important dream on the overnight agenda — once she’s been asleep for a while.”

“Will I be allowed to watch?”

“Sure,” said Icon. “You might even get to help out a little. How about we sit for a change? I know we don’t get tired up here, but we might as well imagine being comfortable.

Icon summoned a cosy-looking couch and invited Nobbi to join him.

“How long have I been here?” Nobbi asked.

“Not even a full day,” said Icon.

“It seems so much longer than that,” said Nobbi, pulling his legs up onto the couch and hugging his knees.

“You spent a lot of the day staring at that vision of your old world,” said Icon. “It’s very far from the world we’ve been contemplating this evening. So you feel as though you’ve traveled a great distance in space — and then makes the time seem longer too.”

“That world already seems less real,” said Nobbi. “Not so much like home. I could almost imagine that I lived in one of those houses Zoe walked by. And I also stopped at that pub on my way home from work. I would have liked to have stayed a little longer to watch that baseball game on the television. That has to be the biggest television I’ve ever seen!”

“Oh, you will be amazed at the technology on this world! And it’s great fun to mess with, because the people on this world are no smarter than on any other world. While you were lost in contemplation, we were having some fun at Zoe’s workplace. You know how some people always leave things to the last minute — even important stuff?”

Nobbi rolled his eyes.

“That drives me crazy,” said Nobbi. “That’s why I was so happy to find Fai to work with. She’s very organized and I never had to nag her about anything. In fact, she was often having to kick my ass into gear!”

“A person Zoe works with is quite notorious for procrastination. He had a very important meeting today — one he has had many months to prepare for — and this morning he was still trying to round up the information he needed — contacting people and asking them to send him documents over the computer network.”

Nobbi grinned.

“And the computer network was down?”

“No,” said Icon. “But none of the documents arrived in a readable state. Something had mysteriously caused them to get scrambled. And because he had left it so late, there was no time for anyone to help him solve the problem. So he had to go to the meeting without all the materials he needed.”

“Did it mess up Zoe’s day too?”

“No,” said Icon, with a satisfied grin. “It didn’t really involve Zoe. And she rather enjoyed overhearing all the fuss and bother — quite the bright spot of the day. She sensed there was some cosmic interference going on.”

“You messed with the documents?” asked Nobbi.

“It was my idea,” Icon admitted. “This person’s procrastination habit is sometime a problem for Zoe, so I thought it was time it was a problem for him. I don’t think the lesson really sank in — but it certainly didn’t make him look good. Everyone got to see him fussing and flapping and thought that it served him right. And there was nothing wrong with the computer network! He was he only person having problems this morning!”

Nobbi unfolded his legs and waggled a finger at Icon.

“You enjoy this don’t you?”

“Yes,” said Icon. “When the person deserves it. And you will too. Remember, though, that you will never be allowed to do something to someone that hasn’t been done to you at some time. I play tricks on Zoe, as you observed when I messed with her wallet to make her think she had less money.”

“Yes, and I recognized it at once,” said Nobbi. “I think Shada was messing with me right up until the very end. I slept in a little late the other day — and that would be the morning I couldn’t find my keys. I always leave them in the same place — always — but that morning I had to hunt high and low for them, only to find them in the pocket of the pants that I had just put on! Crazy stuff!!”

“Makes you feel that no one ever cuts you any slack, doesn’t it?” said Icon. “But the more interference you can endure down there, the more you’re allowed to dish out from up here. And because you know how upsetting it is, you only target people who deserve it.”

Zoe had changed into pajamas and was busy looking at a small screen which she held in her hand.

“What the hey is that?” asked Nobbi.

“Oh, you’ll see a lot of those,” said Icon. “Most people have them by now. They’ve been around for more than ten years.”

“What’s it for?”

“At first it was just for making telephone calls,” said Icon. “But now, people use them for just about everything. And it’s not all good news. This is the first world to have this technology, so everyone is learning it for the first time. It’s been fascinating to watch. Earlier versions of this device were big and clunky and actually looked a bit like telephones — and only made calls. But they quickly got smaller. Then someone had the idea to incorporate a camera.”

“Why?” asked Nobbi, watching as Zoe stroked the glass screen with a finger. She seemed to be reading something.

“Beats me,” said Icon. “But people liked it. You could take a snapshot and send it to someone else by dialing their phone number. However, someone quickly discovered a perfidious use for the thing. Men found ways to point the camera up women’s skirts. Upskirting, it was called. Almost every technological advance has prompted some abuse like that.”

“So what’s she doing down there right now?”

“Checking messages before she goes to bed,” said Icon. “We need to start getting ready for the dream. The others will be here soon.”

Zoe plugged a cable into her phone and started turning out lights. When she finally went to bed, a black cat appeared and jumped up to join her.

“The cat will have to be sent off the bed before the dream starts,” said Icon. “One of the Shamans will take care of that.”

“Will the cat interfere?”

“It might sense that something’s going on and get restless.” said Icon. “And that could distract Zoe.”

“Why doesn’t she put the cat out?” asked Nobbi.

“You saw those raccoons,” said Icon. “Big suckers. They think nothing of attacking cats and there are lots of them around.”

The conversation was interrupted by the appearance of several other guides. Icon was eager to introduce Nobbi and have him welcomed to the group.

“Hello, I’m Busby,” said a large red-headed male with enormous hands.

He offered Nobbi a fist and Nobbi was not exactly sure how to respond. So he wrapped his long black fingers around the hairy, pink, freckled fist. Busby burst into hysterical laughter. Panic instantly took over Nobbi’s face.

“Did I do something wrong?” he asked Icon.

“Hardly,” said Icon, also enjoying a good laugh. “On the contrary, it was quite perfect. Be warned though — Busby loves to play!”

With that, Busby hoisted Icon up over his head onto his shoulders and twirled him round and around really fast. Icon managed to get a free hand down to the waistband of Busby’s pants and administered a wedgie which would have done some serious injury down on Earth. Nobbi watched in worried disbelief.

When they were done playing, Icon and Busby straightened their clothing and hair and smiled at Nobbi.

“No harm done,” said Busby. “We were just saying hello. Why don’t we all sit down?”

A dozen stadium chairs appeared, arranged in a circle. Nobbi suddenly realized he was standing — and that he had no recollection of having gotten up from the couch, which had vanished. Icon read his thoughts.

“Don’t worry if you lose track of the flow,” said Icon. “Over time, you will learn to hold on to thoughts that matter and let go of stuff that doesn’t. You’ve taken improv classes right?”

“Oh yes,” said Nobbi. “In several lives.”

“Good,” said Icon. “We play a lot of improv games up here. It’s excellent training for developing the kind of focus we need. You’ll probably remember that in improv one naturally knows when to make use of a chair and when to discard it — without even really thinking about it.”

“I just remember these guys appearing from nowhere,” said Nobbi. “And we got up from the couch without thinking. I can’t even remember what we were talking about.”

“Raccoons,” said Icon. “You’ll also learn to leave trails of breadcrumbs in your mind. One word is usually enough. But we need to start preparing for Zoe’s dream.”

Everyone took a seat in the circle. Nobbi expected the usual go-around of introductions and was surprised when Icon just launched into the premise for the dream.

“I’m concerned that Zoe is a little too trusting of her coworkers, one in particular who is pretending to be a friend. Zoe is opening up to her too much. We just need to plant a doubt in her mind so that she will be more guarded in dealings with this person.”

A face of a young dark-haired white woman was projected above the group.

“This is the only face Zoe needs to recognize — and this is the only character who will speak. She will falsely accuse Zoe of a serious violation of company policy that will get her fired. The rest of the assembled company are there to be silent observers. No one will come to Zoe’s defense.”

Icon summoned a sample of the woman talking angrily about getting her revenge on someone. And the group quickly nominated Manaton for the role, a choice which surprised Nobbi because Manaton looked nothing like the woman. She was older and bigger with lighter hair and browner skin. Busby explained how they made the choice.

“The physical appearance is not important, Nobbi. We can control what the dreamer sees. But the energy behind the character needs to be a close facsimile. And as we observed the sample conversation, we found ourselves being reminded of the energy Manaton exudes when she’s worked up about something. So she is the best choice to portray this woman, even though they look nothing alike. We could even cast you if you had the energy to match.”

Everyone laughed at the idea, especially Nobbi.

“The rest of us will just be the silent observers,” Busby went on. “Zoe’s coworkers are all light-skinned , so we will all be light-skinned in the dream — but otherwise, our physical details are unimportant. Zoe is only to notice the woman doing the talking.”

Nobbi grinned and raised a hand to ask a question.

“Yes, Nobbi,” said Busby.

“Can I be blond like Icon?”

The group dissolved into raucous laughter. Busby offered Nobbi a high-five which was very thankfully returned.

“You’re catching on fast, Nobbi,” said Busby. “You’re going to do just great. But we need to do some serious dream rehearsal — so playtime is over for now.”

For almost three hours (by the clock on Zoe’s bedroom), the group worked out the details of Zoe’s dream, with Icon playing the part of Zoe. Nobbi was astounded at all the possibilities explored, especially the location staging. They considered two meeting rooms (one large, one small), various gathering spots around water coolers and microwave ovens, and the sitting area at the top of the stairs on the second floor, before settling on the second-floor break room — and that was thanks to Nobbi’s suggestion of donuts.

They had needed a plausible reason for the sudden assembly of a group of people in one place. Nobbi reminded them how people flock around a box of fresh donuts — and then everything fell into place. At Zoe’s workplace, the arrival of snacks was usually announced via email, prompting an orderly stampede to the break room.

A mock up of the second-floor break room was then the stage for the rest of the rehearsal. How would the ambush begin? Would Zoe be the first to arrive, last to arrive, or somewhere in the middle? Who would be seated? Who would be standing? It was decided that Zoe would arrive late enough to be the person taking the last donut — an almost unpardonable offense in many workplaces — and the action which would prompt the false accusation. By now, a sinister and disturbing energy hung over the group as they played and replayed the dream. That was the intent. Zoe would remember the way this dream made her feel and would know better than to dismiss it. Satisfied with every last detail, the group did one last run through and Busby called it a wrap.

“What happens now?” asked Nobbi.

“It’s all done,” said Icon. “We just keep working on it until we get the OK to stop. We never know when we are about to go live. It’s better that way. If we knew we were about to do it for real, we might suddenly get nervous and mess it up.”

They checked in with Zoe. The cat was asleep in the armchair in the living room. Zoe was awake, but had not left her bed.

“We’ll leave her alone with her thoughts,” said Icon, “and let her go back to sleep.”

Nobbi and Icon were alone again.

“How long before morning?” asked Nobbi. “Down there.”

“Almost four hours.”

“Wow,” said Nobbi. “It seems like a million years since I arrived. But it hasn’t even been one full day. You were watching the end of the morning rush hour.”

“And you will be able to watch the whole show this morning,” said Icon. “How are you feeling so far?”

“I never expected to feel this way,” said Nobbi. “I have hardly thought of home at all. In fact, this place already seems a bit like home. And you and Busby and Manaton and the others already seem a bit like family. Even Zoe does too.”

“It’s always been your home, Nobbi,” said Icon. “And now you’re home for good.”