The Long Dream by Deborah Landers

It was an old conversation they were having, the two sitting at the bar. They seemed to fall into it naturally when they'd had a sufficient amount of alcohol; the arguments flowing from them like bad decisions, lubricated by lowered inhibitions. The regulars found it funny that, for Beatrice and Benedict, their drug of choice was philosophy.

“I’m serious, though,” Benedict was saying, sloshing the amber liquid in his glass. “What if we’re all just dead and reliving our whole lives in the last few moments. It just feels real because it’s a dream.”

Beatrice frowned over the electric blue cocktail she was holding. “I think someone would have noticed by now if that were the case. All the people who say they see their life flashing before their eyes when they have a near death experience still seem to have a pretty good grasp on time after they’ve been stabilized.”

“But what if we skip over those bits because we know that's not when we're going to die?”

She snorted. “Is that just a bullshit excuse to keep your theory alive?”

“But it would explain a lot of things. Like déjà vu. We feel like we’ve already been somewhere and done something because we have and we’re just reliving the moment.” Benedict puffed up, high on his own theory. “And those moments were really significant to us for some reason.”

“Except that I get déjà vu for some of the stupidest things. And wouldn’t experiencing déjà vu throw the whole thing off?” she pointed out. “We wouldn’t have experienced it the first time through, but there have been a lot of times that I mention it to whoever I’m with. By doing that, I have effectively derailed whatever conversation we’d been having.”

“But—"

Beatrice cut him off. “And say you’re right and we are reliving our lives, wouldn’t we have déjà vu all the time?”

“No. Like I said, those moments were significant for some reason.”

“I somehow doubt having the same conversation with a friend in the same clothes I remember them being in is exactly significant. And if there was something significant about it, déjà vu would have made me forget whatever it was.”

Benedict sighed, setting down his glass. “You never let me have any fun with my theories. Do you have to kill a good thing before it gets a chance to live?”

Grinning, Beatrice took a sip of her cocktail. “No, but that would require your theory to be a good thing, and that’s currently up for debate.”

“You’re horrible.”

“I am gorgeous,” she countered, giggling.

“I have to question my sanity for spending so much time around you,” he moaned. “You’re like some venereal disease I can’t get rid of.”

Beatrice choked on her drink and shot him a glare. “Really? You’re the one who keeps coming back here.”

“I found this place first.”

“No, you didn’t. I worked behind this bar to afford college.”

“That’s why you were so familiar when you started coming as a customer!” He sat back and took in her black dress slacks and sleeveless purple V-neck blouse. “You clean up nice.”

“Thanks,” she replied wryly. “One of us has to.”

“Hey!” Benedict tried to be indignant as he smoothed his khaki slacks and stained t-shirt, but he couldn’t help the shit eating grin that stretched across his face. “You know you love me.”

“No, I don’t. If I do, someone has been messing with my head.” Beatrice leaned back in her seat, gazing out at the other customers in the bar.

“What’s with that face?”

“What are you talking about, Ben?” she huffed. “It’s my face.”

“No, it’s your ‘I’m thinking about something really hard face’. What’s on your mind?”

“All this talk of dreams...” She glanced down at her cocktail glass, spinning it around on top of the bar. “What if we are living in a dream? What if it isn’t even our dream?”

“What do you mean?”

Beatrice turned back around completely crossing her arms and resting her elbows on the bar. “We’ve invented deities and religions to fit around them, we live in a world where impossible things seem to happen. At times, it seems like we rewrite the laws of physics and basically say ‘fuck you’ to reality. What’s to say we aren’t all just characters in some person’s head, dreaming up a world unlike their own?”

“You think we live in someone else’s dream.” Benedict took another swig of his drink, draining the rest of the glass.

“Maybe. If we’re, like, background characters or something, it would make more sense. There’s so much of life that just doesn’t seem like it matters, like it isn’t even real.” She waved her hands vaguely. “What if all this is just background for someone else’s story?”

“That would suck. Like, we’re not even main characters? We don’t have any sense of agency?”

“No.” She paused. “Well, maybe. I don’t know how well one mind would be able to track hundreds or thousands of people through a world without help of some kind.”

“I don’t see why you don’t believe my theory if you think that. At least in mine, we are our own people.”

“I don’t always feel like my own person. Surely you’ve had those moments.”

With a gesture, Benedict summoned the bartender and got his glass refilled. “What moments are those exactly?”

“You know.” Beatrice waved a hand dismissively when the bartender offered to get her a new cocktail. “Those moments when you’re just empty and helpless and it feels like nothing you do will have any impact on anything.”

“Huh. I would think that’s a symptom of depression.” He idly sipped his new drink. “I’m sorry you feel that way sometimes. I haven’t felt exactly like that, but I have had days when I’m just operating on autopilot and I don’t care where I end up.” He set down the glass. “Is that what you were talking about?”

“I suppose it would be different from person to person,” she allowed. “But yeah. Those days when you just feel blank.”

“If that’s the case,” Benedict added, nodding, “it’s kind of a creepy thought. One person running all this, maybe treating it like some kind of big mental experiment. Like ‘how fucked up can I make everything before the entire world implodes’? Or, even more horrifying, what if this is all some kind of accident. Like there’s no point to any of it but it happened and one day the’re just going to destroy everything and that’s all she wrote. That’s some Matrix level shit.”

“Well, that was what the allegory of the cave was all about. How can we call something 'Truth' if we can only view it from our perspective? We'd be like the blind man and the elephant, never sure if we're seeing the full picture. We can't say we know something until we have been able to see it from different perspectives, and even then, we may be missing something.”

“Okay, so how does this theory of yours work?” he asked, sitting back in his seat. “What about life seems like we are living in someone else's dream? Besides the weird feelings, of course.”

“Well, if it was a writer creating our world, it would explain déjà vu. They are rewriting or reimagining the same scene with minor differences, and we recognize its similarities even if we don't remember the other scene. My experiences with the phenomenon are like snapshots taken out of context that I don't recognize until they're put back where they belong.”

“But what about free will? We pride ourselves on making our own decisions but that wouldn't be true in your case. Everything is already planned out by the author.”

“As if it would be any different if we were reliving our lives,” Beatrice scoffed. “With your theory, we have already made the decisions and we can't change them anymore.”

“At least in the moment--the original moment--we had the choice,” he countered. “If we're figments of someone's imagination, all we have is the illusion of choice while everything is actually predetermined. I think I prefer my idea.”

Beside him, Beatrice went quiet, twirling her cocktail glass this way and that, watching the remaining alcohol slosh against the side, close to spilling. “It might be fun,” she finally admitted. “If everything was just a dream.”

“It’d also be nice to have someone else to blame for all my bad decisions,” Benedict joked. He took another swallow of his drink, turning back to face the bar properly, his arm brushing against her elbow.

They sat in silence for a while, churning wild theories and alcohol through their systems.

“If,” Beatrice began uncertainly. “If this was all a dream and everything was happening in our head, maybe we could change it.”

“Maybe we could. Lucid dreaming is a thing, and the first step is always to recognize when you are dreaming.”

“How would we know if we are?”

Benedict's breath hitched. “I guess the only way to tell would be to change something.” He set down his glass and turned to face her, holding her hands in his. “Bea, we've both been coming here a long time. Would you like to go out on a date with me?”

She pulled back, confused and began searching his face for something. “Are you serious?”

“As I can be. I haven't had quite enough to be completely drunk out of my mind, and I like the conversations we've had. I'd like to have more of them when we aren't drinking.” He smiled. “Besides, we've never actually even talked about this before, and it would be changing things. Breaking out of the confines of the dream.”

“You are such a fucking dork. Did you just ask me out to prove a point?”

“No. Well, maybe it was part of it, but I would like to go on a date with you. I stand by everything I said.”

She sighed, but he could see a smile tugging at the corners of her lips. “Then, yes, Ben. I would love to go on a date with you.”

“Great! Now if superheroes exist tomorrow morning, we'll know that we were right about the dreaming.”

Beatrice snorted. “If I find out you made yourself a superhero overnight, I will dream up enough magic to kick your ass six ways from Sunday.”

“Naturally! What would a hero be without their villain?”

Silence fell between them.

Benedict winced. “I’m going to pay for the villain comment, aren't I?”

“You bet your ass.” An evil smirk bloomed across Beatrice's face. “Besides, I would be no mere villain. I would be a supervillain and your arch-nemesis, at least.”

“I knew there was a reason I liked you.”

“You'll like me even better when I have enough magic to pound you into dust.”

He blinked at her. “You have put way more thought into this than I have.”

“And that's why I'm the supervillain in this relationship.” With another smirk, Beatrice stood up, pushing her mostly empty cocktail glass back towards the bartender. “Well, I've got to be heading out. Text me if you have some ideas about where and when to go for our date, or if your superhero dreams are realized so I can prepare accordingly.”

“Will do,” Benedict replied with a grin and a cheeky salute. “And you'll warn me about your magic powers before you rain hell on me?”

“Maybe,” she said, sauntering away. “Maybe not.”

Once she was gone, Benedict downed the last of his drink and slumped over as if a huge weight had been lifted from his shoulders. “Wow,” he breathed. “Just fucking wow.”

“Guess this means I win the pot,” the bartender cut in, taking the now empty glass.

“Pot?”

“The regulars had a bet on when the two of you would get together.” He grinned, setting the glass aside. “Thanks for waiting until after Christmas.”

“Uh... And how much was riding on this?”

“Something north of $400. Not a lot.” The grin widened. “But twenty bucks a person and with everyone who knew the two of you around here betting, it's not a bad haul.”

“No. Not at all. Did she know about the bet?”

“If she did, she wouldn't have accepted your date just to fuck with everyone.” The bartender's grin turned into a hard line. “Seriously though, Bea is well liked around here. You and I both know that she can take care of herself but, if she needs it, I can drum up a lynch mob faster than you can say, 'I didn't mean it'. Got it?”

“Got it. But I would never—

“I know. That's why it's Bea's call. This is just in the spirit of fair warning. And so I can tell the others that you did get the shovel talk.” He glanced down the bar where someone was asking for a refill. “Good luck, Ben. And let me know if the lucid dreaming works. I'd like to be a hero, too.”

Benedict flashed him another of his famous smiles as he stood up. “Of course.” He sighed and looked around. “Life. God, that's got to be like the longest dream ever, and no one wants to wake up.”

And with that, he left, taking philosophy and thoughts of dreaming with him and the atmosphere of the bar felt colder for it.