“Ever consider killing yourself?” the gecko said. “It’ll save you one hundred percent on your car insurance.”
I was alone, but not. I tried to step on the creature, but my foot wasn’t there. I clenched my teeth, which felt like water. Alleyah’s Southie accent crackled a reminder of radio.
“Tracey, are you paralucid yet? Need another poke of DMT?”
I was back in high school—or somebody’s high school. The classrooms were vintage Sears catalogs and a spruce tree that grew sideways—not in a directional sense but just with a profound association with the concept of sideways. I climbed the tree and then fell. I fell for a long time, the gecko taunting me, before Alleyah got me moving with another call on the radio.
“Hurry up, comrade, I’m getting cold. I need you liminal. Remember your praxis.”
I returned to the high school.
“Done your homework, pariah boy?” the gecko asked. “Got your lunch plan sorted? Tough to keep it all straight, town after town after town.”
Panic crested, then subsided. I remembered that I was a grown man, a free adult with credentials to my name, my choice of work, a right to housing, healthcare, and three hot meals. I sat in the back of the classroom and cracked wise, untouchable by the stakes here. But there was something I was supposed to do . . .
With an effort that always seemed to cost me, I opened my other set of eyes.
The hypnogeography of Back Bay rippled into focus. Above me solstice stars swayed in the branches. I could see the black ice on the walk, the asphalt bike road, the dirty snow. I could also see untread desire paths, empty kissing spots, the social scars of homeless deterrent spikes that had once prickled the lawns. Two layers of reality.
“Fucking Geico.” I sat up, rubbed at the headache the vestigial had given me, plucked out the extra tongues that had grown in my throat. “Fifty years gone, but that lizard won’t die.”
“Yeah, but it’s not just persistence lately,” Alleyah said. She sat on a camp chair, next to my napping bench, but still seemed far away. “That, I could handle on my own.”
“Tell me what we’re dealing with,” I said. I couldn’t know the details of the work assignment while I prepped to go liminal, otherwise I might have brought all kinds of baggage in with me. “I need a couple minutes for the cocktail to settle.”
“Insomnia cases jumped last month. People all over downtown Boston, but especially Back Bay, were complaining of generalized anxiety, feelings of self-loathing and lethargy. The public health council canvassed the neighborhood, thinking they’d track down a chemical spill or something rotten in the microbiome. Instead, people complained about vestigials in their dreams exhibiting major sensory sprawl and really toxic messaging drift.”
“I got a taste of that, just now. Do your vestigials usually get nasty in the winter?”
“Would that mean something?”
“Depends.” I did some stretches, twisting in implausible directions, limbering up for the fights to come. “If it’s cyclical, we might just need to run off the worst offenders, like that gecko. If it’s a fresh memetic mutation, we’ll have to take out the new idea at the source.”
“Public Health’s new theory is mass seasonal affective disorder, plus a string of baseball losses that turned the public mood.”
“But you don’t think so. Why?”
“Pack behavior.” Even through the emotional lensing of liminality, Alleyah looked grim. “The vestigials—particularly the advertising mascots—have been . . . congregating. Like they’re forming gangs or even hierarchies. That part isn’t cyclical.”
“No, it’s not,” I said. This was bad news, could make for a tricky remediation. Still, I tried to reassure her. “It’s rare, but it happens. The public is constantly re-interpreting old symbols, subconsciously ranking them, grouping them into categories. When did you first see the packs?”
“A little over three weeks ago. The Geico lizard was leading a bunch of electronics brands in a march up Newbury Street. Hypnopomp union rules say never approach a pack of vestigials without a hypnocath as backup. So, I pulled some strings to have the health council call you. Took a lot of strings.”
“It’s usually like that.” I shrugged. Time for my pep talk. “What we do weirds people out, and council-types often don’t like admitting that anything is fucked up on their watch, even if it’s been fucked up for a long time. But you know and I know that building better dreams builds a better world. So let’s get you in here.”
Alleyah picked the sensors from my scalp. Her dark, small hands moved fast, though I couldn’t imagine she’d taken many people liminal before. Brought them out, maybe, or soothed uncathartic nightmares. That was the hypnopomp’s job—public health and safety patrols of the dreamscape. But just like in the waking world, sometimes peace officers needed to bring in a little muscle.
Shivering, Alleyah lay back, let me redo the setup, inject her with the cocktail. I rubbed warmth into my hands as I followed her progress from drugged to dreaming to lucid to liminal. She, too, opened her eyes.
“C’mon, we need to find that lizard,” I said. “The longest night won’t last forever.”
Finding the gecko wasn’t hard—in fact, he found us. No sooner had we gotten off the park bench than the little vestigial rolled up, backed by Chester the Cheetah and a pair of anthropomorphic M&Ms.
“Little night trip with the missus?” A menacing note had crept into the gecko’s Australian accent. “Want a holiday tour of the neighborhood? How about we take you along to the light show.”
“Get over here, tiny,” I said. “I think I can step on you now.”
“Who are you calling tiny?” The gecko looked affronted. “I’m an advertising icon!”
“Who’re your pals?” I asked. “You guys don’t look like you have the same target demo.”
“Last name business, first name nunya,” the red M&M said, and the three junk food mascots rushed forward.
The melee didn’t last long. Most vestigials aren’t fighters; the danger comes when they drag you out of liminal, peek into your anxieties, exploit your fears to keep you from lucidity. But I was at the top of my DMT run and in no mood to be distracted.
So I kicked in Red’s shell with my steel-toed boot, spilling crumbly chocolate onto the bike path. The oblong Yellow lurched at me, but I dodged, grabbed it by the wrist, plucked off its spindly arms, left then right. Then I cracked Yellow open over the park bench, peanut and all.
In the corner of my eye, I saw an orange streak high-tail it toward downtown. I turned back to Alleyah—the two candy creatures already fading from memory and the dreamscape.
“Wow, are you always that dramatic?” Alleyah asked. In the skirmish she had scooted forward and pinned the gecko’s tail with her foot. I grinned.
“Drama is the weapon of the hypnocath,” I said. “Now, let’s try this again.”
I grabbed the gecko from under Alleyah’s sneaker and shook its rubbery body in one fist.
“I don’t think you’re the kind of chap that toughs like that follow into battle,” I said. “So who’s really behind all this winter mob activity?”
“Oi!” the gecko squawked. “You best get out of here. The King of Brands won’t like you threatening his favorite reptilia squamata.”
Alleyah and I glanced at each other.
“Who’s this ‘King of Brands’?” Alleyah asked.
“Look,” the gecko said, “I’m going to say, ‘I can’t say anything else.’ Then you’re going to threaten me, and I’m going to say ‘he’ll do worse if I tell,’ and you’re going to say ‘wanna bet,’ and then you’ll have to pop me just to prove it. So why don’t we skip ahead, good?”
“Fine,” I said. I stuffed the gecko down my throat and swallowed it in one imaginary gulp.
“Great. Another victory for the revolution.” Alleyah rolled her waking eyes. “You just ate our only lead.”
“No,” I burped in birdsong. “I called his bluff. Word will get around. Now when we catch Chester, he’ll know better than to jerk us about. He seemed to have a bit more self-preservation instinct than these other three.”
Alleyah nodded, but then stopped, seemed to study me. “Are you okay?” she asked. “I’ve seen a lot of dreamers, in every phase of sleep, but all of a sudden you look . . . off. Blurry. Like you aren’t entirely here.”
“What I did to those spokescandies was solid enough,” I deflected. “Let’s look for Chester.”
“Well, we know which way he went,” Alleyah said, and pointed. Dusty orange paw prints zig-zagged across the dreamscape.
We followed the trail, sleepwalking up Commonwealth Avenue. Walking liminal was like slipping an antique VR rig over one eye. Or maybe it was like eating with a clothespin on my nose. I was still chewing, still tasting, but I didn’t lose myself in the meal. I could be clinical about the process—but only if I stayed on the threshold of wakefulness.
Around us, Boston boiled with dreaming minds. Emanations swirled out of brownstone windows like snow: glimpses of nostalgia, glossolalic carols, slack ideas, and free associations that we felt more than saw. Figments emerged from the rundown facades, glanced our way, called out with voices that tasted like rain or itched like porcelain. Sometimes they milled around in groups, and we could make out the oversaturated colors of advertising vestigials. None dared come our way.
Even warped by the dreamstate, I liked Back Bay. I’d spent the week before the solstice infiltrating the neighborhood. I picked up a work shift stocking shelves at the corner grocery. I subbed in for a sick kindergarten teacher. I directed traffic, waited for the bus, jogged waving at passersby. Half-familiar appearances that would be noticed but not remembered. It had been a good week, falling into a routine, starting to recognize people. Prep weeks were always good weeks. I tried not to think about what would happen after the remediation.
Dreams were community creations, not shared but co-created with neighbors, comrades, strangers passed on the street. I wasn’t a scientist, just a worker with a knack for lucid dreaming and imaginary violence. I only half-knew how it worked—something about plant consciousness and insect hiveminds. Humans shared reams of data via pheromones and info-rich body tics that formed an asynchronous network of phytochemical and social computation. People were connected in ways their waking minds never perceived.
But the more oneirologists learned about this network, the more they realized how much the old advertising and media regimes had damaged our collective psyche. Sometimes that damage coalesced into localized feedback loops that turned the hypnogeography against the dreamers.
A healthy neighborhood would teem with archetypes presenting as shadow selves, Tarot-forms, or populist characters. But through frosted windows and ivied walls, Alleyah and I saw surreal commercial breaks playing out in bedrooms. Campaign memes from forgotten presidential candidates intruded on sex fantasies. A neighborhood dog, curled up under a fire escape, endured a beating by the smell of Rubbermaid bins.
“Yuck, cross-species germination,” Alleyah complained. “Back Bay should have been prime post-rev real estate. ‘Palaces of public luxury’ and all that. All these mansions were converted into apartment blocks and cushy sharehouses, but the housing council can’t keep the rosters full.”
“I heard a rumor that the MIT Hypnomedia Lab did some experiments here, way back,” I said. “Back Bay was affluent and right across the Charles. Seems like a perfect target for prestige marketing. Any truth to all that?”
Alleyah shrugged. “All I know is that for decades, folks here have been waking up with logo afterimages burning behind their eyes, jingles stuck in their heads. This season, though, it’s gotten so bad that I sleep at home in Southie when I’m not working. Otherwise I start my day with an irrational need to buy dead products I don’t care about. And now . . . vestigial kings? Maybe MIT did do something. I doubt we’ll ever know for sure.”
“Good news is, when we take down the king, the rest should fall apart, and we can remediate—”
Alleyah grabbed my arm, pointed. “Look!”
Down the block an artist, asleep at her lightbox, was getting fucked by Chester the Cheetah. Alleyah and I pulled out spectral spray bottles and chased him off. In a cartoon blur, the cheetah was gone. While Alleyah soothed the dreamer back to empty slumber, I knelt and picked up the vestigial’s trail again. A few minutes later, we cornered the cheetah in an alley, juuling with Flo from Progressive.
Chester was fast, obviously, but I jumped him mid-toke. I grabbed his tail and shoved him up against the wall. Alleyah boxed in Flo with a razor glare.
“Slinking into sex dreams are we, Chester?” I said. “I don’t like this R-rated rebrand.”
“Man, I’ve always been dangerously cheesy,” Chester said. “And that chick grew up furry. She was into it. I’m a cool-ass cat.”
“Tell us where we can find your king,” I said. “Or I’ll mount your head—sunglasses and all.”
“Man, which king? The Burger King? The Vitamin King? The Candy Crush King?” Chester hacked up a puff of cheddar vape smoke and switched his accent from bluesy to mid-Atlantic. “You know, I’m something of a king myself.”
I began to tie a knot in Chester’s tail. “Don’t play with me, Chester. I don’t think you’re the kind of cat to stick his pelt out for that Geico twerp. Who’s backing the lizard?”
“I dunno, man. I never fuck with that holiday rush shit. I was just doing a solid for my girl’s little homie, alright?”
All eyes turned to Flo.
“I think that’s quite enough of that, don’t you?” Flo smoothed her starched apron. “This kind of behavior is not how you get worry-free savings!”
“Nice hat,” Alleyah said, trying to good-cop. Flo was wearing a floppy red cap with a puff of silver on top. “Maybe you can help us?”
“Thanks, it’s festive!” Flo said, chipper again. “So, you want to meet the King of Brands?”
“You know him?” Alleyah took a step forward.
“You betcha! We insurance types excel at watching out for the little guy. And the big guy. In this case, just the big guy.”
“Woah, babe,” Chester said. “You think your boss will like you blabbing?”
“Scat, cat!” Flo snapped. “You need a price check on your pay grade?”
“Where can we find him?” I demanded.
“If you’ve been good little boys and girls, then he’ll find you. But since it looks like you haven’t . . .” She winked conspiratorially and dropped her red lips into a knowing oh.
Then she grabbed me and dragged me deeper.
I was at home, whatever that meant, watching sweaty workmen move a series of precious, fragile objects. What if something broke? What if there was a fire, or a lightning strike, or I failed to bundle my home and auto coverage? Flood waters sloshed around my knees.
Alleyah was there; it was her home too. But she didn’t seem worried.
“This is going to cost the social housing fund a lot of work-hours,” she said, surveying the damage with interest.
I remembered reading about the old privatized insurance rackets—institutionalized gambling everyone had been compelled to wager in, or face random ruin. It was perverse, the opposite of solidarity. I started sorting through wet papers, trying to find my lottery ticket.
“Why are you stressed?” Alleyah said. “You aren’t even from here. Where do you live, anyway?”
“Don’t you know?” Flo asked sweetly. “Your thug here is a lonely, homeless nomad. He’s got nowhere worth insuring.”
I snapped back into paralucidity.
“Don’t worry,” Flo brandished her price checker tool, “we can still find the plan that’s right for you. Maybe some get-a-life insurance?”
I snatched Flo’s scanner from her hands, pointed it at her head, livid that she’d gotten the jump on me.
“The king. Where. Is. He.”
“At the tree,” Flo said. “He’s at the big spruce tree in the Common. A real fire hazard with all those lights, but hey, he’s got great coverage.”
I shot Flo between the eyes with the red light of her own weapon. Alleyah put her hand on my arm and pulled me back to liminal.
Flo was gone except for her apron and nametag. I scuffed them out with my shoe.
Alleyah was panting. She looked like she might throw up, or maybe grow a snail shell. Chester was long gone.
“That was too easy,” I said. “One insurance mascot throws itself on its sword, the other just gives up a location? I guess the word really is out. Trap?”
“Easy? You almost lost it there,” Alleyah said. “I had to go deeper than I like to get you out.”
“Do you want to wake up? I can go it alone. You can monitor me, give me the stim if I fall too far down.”
Alleyah shook her head. “If it is a trap, there’s no way you can do this without a hypnopomp.”
She was right. I had only made it through Flo’s attack with Alleyah’s help, and whoever the King of Brands was, I had to assume he could do worse. I needed her.
Together we trudged out of Back Bay and into the Boston Public Garden. It had started snowing, and fresh powder accumulated at our feet. Our footsteps crunched a music box melody. It was hard to tell what time it was, but I could feel the DMT cocktail thinning in my blood.
“Staying in town for New Years after this remediation, Tracey? We got some great shrinks at our public spas.”
Alleyah was making small talk to keep me from drifting. She meant well, but I’d had this same conversation with other hypnopomps—always trying to pimp me into care services I couldn’t stay in town long enough to enjoy.
“Can’t,” I said. “I have to get back on the rails.”
“Visiting family for the holiday?”
“Not this year.”
“I just move around a lot.”
“So you are a nomad? Like that insurance lady said?” I sensed a note of pity in Alleyah’s voice.
“Hypnocaths are in high demand. You’ve seen what happens when capitalist iconography loses its context—all sorts of mutant, malignant weirdness.”
Alleyah walked in silence for a minute, and I could feel waves of indecision wafting off her like blue beach foam.
“You’re getting blurrier,” she said finally. “I think you should tell me what’s going on. Please.”
I sighed, but she deserved to know what to expect. “Ever wonder why they had to call me in from out of town? Why cities don’t keep hypnocaths on staff? Why there’s just a few of us, bouncing from job to job?”
“I figured there just wasn’t that much remediation work?”
I shook my head. “‘Remediation’ is a euphemism. Makes it seem like your mind is a superfund site, and I just clean it up, purify it. But however toxic they are, vestigials are part of us. Nobody misses them when they’re gone—we have a lot of mind, after all. But when I break them up, the community still feels that violence. And that has consequences.”
“The blurriness . . . it got worse after you took out Flo.”
“Boston is trying to spit me out. It’s not so bad yet, but it doesn’t like me opening these wounds, walking around in them, doing over-the-top nonsense to shatter some piece of the collective imaginary, even if it’s for everyone’s own good. If I do too much more, the community won’t let me back in, not for a long while.”
Alleyah looked stunned. “So, what happens in the morning?”
I shrugged. “We go get coffee. But if I stick around, I won’t be able to sleep. And pretty soon people would start feeling uncomfortable around me, even when they’re awake. They’ll edge away from me on the street, ignore me in the cafeterias, get hostile if I try to strike up a conversation. They can’t help it. I just feel wrong to them. The bigger the remediation, the more wrong I am.”
For another minute we just walked, passing statues, more statues than one park should have: George Washington, Wendell Phillips, monuments to 9/11, to the revolutionary worker, to the Good Samaritan who developed anesthetic ether. A couple of kids were camped out in a tent near the swan boats, dreaming of tearing paper and ringing bells.
“Why do you do this, then?” Alleyah said eventually. “Don’t you want friends, relationships? A home?”
My chest felt like a still block of marble, pulling me down. “What’s the old line?” I said wryly. “‘Ecstasy in the handclasp of a comrade’? I’m fine. I’ll sleep on the train.”
We passed more statues: Make Way for Ducklings, the Pillsbury Dough Boy, the Budweiser Clydesdales, the Starbucks siren . . .
“We’re going in circles,” I said. “Like our compass is spinning. Whatever is in the Common, it’s deeper. I think we have to get less liminal to approach it.”
Alleyah paused, then took my hand. “I’ve got you,” she said, but she sounded like she was saying it to herself.
With effort, we crossed Charles Street into Boston Common. The lawns of walking-moss were manicured, the public vegetable plots neatly mulched for winter—but something felt dangerous, contaminated, like the edge of a pit. We spiraled in and down, descending the rings of the psychic quarry. At the bottom, the dreamscape closed over us like a fog, a waterboarding shroud. We were numb to the sights and smells of the waking world. Lucid, but with the VR all the way over our eyes.
I knelt and touched the frozen ground. It was smooth ice now.
“Tracey . . .” Alleyah said. “What’s, uh, all that?”
I looked up. Across the plain of ice was a mass of shifting figures. Dozens of eyes glinted angrily, hungrily out of strange silhouettes: animals and objects, symbols and spokesmodels. An army of vestigials, standing between me and their king.
“Let’s go back,” Alleyah said. “Wake up. Regroup. We can find another way. You don’t have to do this.”
I took a deep breath, smelling the cackling laughter of the mob.
“It’s fine,” I said at last. “Let’s just get it over with.”
So I strode forward into the mob. There was no posturing this time, no banter. Just spitting and hissing and animated innards spilling out of primary-colored chests. I ripped the mustache off the Pringles man. I broke the neck of the Nesquik bunny. I stomped on Mario and eye-gouged Mr. Clean and tipped the Kool-Aid Man out onto the frozen ground, red sugar water mixing with hot vestigial blood. I strangled Tony the Tiger, headbutted Cap’n Crunch, and impaled Mr. Peanut on his own cane. Then I stole Captain Morgan’s sword and popped the inflated Michelin Man, and I kept cutting—through Ronald and Mickey and a dozen mascots I barely knew.
And then it was over. I was on all fours, panting, shivering, my hands almost slipping in the corn syrup bile. Alleyah ran up to me, put her hands on my shoulders, and I felt a little strength and connection return. Then, another chill—for from beyond the killing ground there came a deep belly laugh.
Across the sunken plain there was now a towering, conical spruce tree, rootless but propped up by a bulk at its base. Hot coals glowed in its crown.
Alleyah and I approached the tree. Grisly shapes dangled from the branches. I didn’t recognize any of them, but I knew they were the carcasses of unworthy mascots, those not even fit enough to be cannon fodder. Some were made of torn upholstery or warped plastic or stripped to bare wires. Others were 3D models that glitched and clipped. All were fake and lifeless, turned to ornaments.
Sitting at the base of the tree was a huge man. He looked like bloodspatter on fresh snow.
“So, you’re the King of Brands,” Alleyah said. For the first time that night, she seemed genuinely angry, pissed to see this cancer oozing in the heart of her city. “I thought I’d know you, but your brand recognition must suck. Who are you?”
His next laugh was a carbonated hiss.
“Who am I, little girl? I am a bit of a riddle, I admit. I am the generous judge, the creeping season, the gift that takes. I am the father’s voice before the father, the clutcher of children. I am the comet in the longest night, the unsleeping morning. I see all and learn nothing. I am the forgiven slave master, the decadent saint. I am the one who does not knock, and I am coming to town . . .”
The king came into focus. He was bedecked in stringy furs and crimson velvet, worn thin. But his cheeks were flush as cherries, and his smile was toothy white. One plump hand rested on the head of a docile polar bear, while the other held a sweating glass of Coca-Cola.
“I say you’re a mental health hazard and a third-eye sore,” I said. I had to find the wit and imagination for one last fight. “We’re evicting you from this common, Mr. Claus, and remediating this whole nightmare. I don’t care what delusion you go to, but you can’t stay here.”
“Leave?” Santa’s jolly chuckle came out of the ground, methane bubbles popping from the permafrost. “But naughty child, it’s almost Christmas. So many brands depend on me to make the black!”
“For us, it’s just the solstice,” Alleyah said. “Whatever made you manifest in the public subconscious now, there’s no path forward for any of this.”
Santa stroked his cotton ball beard. “It’s true you’ve tried to forget me. And that did hurt my feelings. After all my years of service, all the gifts I delivered—tossed aside like so much paper wrapping.”
“And that justifies this?” She pointed at the macabre spectacle of the spruce tree, and the fading massacre of the battlefield. “What do you want? Why put on this ‘King of Brands’ charade?”
“Ho, ho, ho!” Santa’s eyes twinkled with black holes. “No one ever asks me what I want for Christmas! I suppose that all I want for Christmas is you. I want you to let me out. Out of this town, out of this sad, sleepy fantasy. I’ll call off my all my helpers, leave your dreamers in peace—if you help me be real once more. Let me fly again to every house and chimney, so people can once again feel the spirit of Christmas warming their stockings!”
Alleyah and I exchanged a long glance. This was no normal intellectual property defense mechanism. This was something new, or perhaps very old, dredged out of the mud by some strange current in the zeitgeist.
“That’s not going to happen,” I told the hulking mascot king. “Maybe the real Santa could make a cultural comeback, but not you, not this corporate caricature.”
“Too bad.” Santa shook his head. “Then I’m afraid it’s coal for you this year!”
The tree exploded into hearthfire blaze. Red hot cinders shot towards us like shrapnel. I grabbed Alleyah and dodged deeper into the dream.
We waited in line at the mall. We were holding hands, brother and sister, loomed over by some parental force we couldn’t see. I didn’t want to be there—the colors looked like medicine, the ceilings were too tall, the crowd hurt my ears. The line shuffled us forward, until arms picked us up and set us on Santa’s lap. He had a different face, a haggy paunch, but it was the same man.
“And what can I get you, Tracey my boy?” the Santa said. “What do you want? Any dream in the world!”
I started to cry. I didn’t know what I wanted. Alleyah watched me, interested, and then she started to cry too. The Santa grimaced. His robe turned to musty fur, his hands to dull hooks and black pads. His lap distended, and then we were wrestling with the King of Brands’ bear, scrabbling away from its yellow jaws.
“Did you know that polar bears are one of the only creatures on the planet that see humans as food?” Santa’s voice boomed as the bear snapped at me.
“Did you know that polar bears are extinct?” Alleyah said, trying to get her toddler foot to connect with the bear’s jaw.
She was right, I realized. I rose to my full adult height and grabbed the bear by the scruff of its neck. With a heave, I shoved it out onto a melting ice floe, no land in sight. Its black eyes looked at me mournfully, its bulk shrunk to starving bones.
The mall’s fluorescent lighting warmed to an incandescent glow. The ceiling gave way to stars. The crowd milled around a holiday market.
“We’re back in the park! I think we’re out!” Alleyah clapped her hands. The icy quarry had melted, and holly-wreathed shopping stalls had taken over the Common lawn. “Come on, I visited one of these in Finland once.”
Some part of me understood that lucidity was slipping away, but it was hard for me to object. We bought wood-carved mulled wine and browsed peppermint kitchen goods, smiled at the sponsor booths: Dunkin’ Donuts, Capital One, Xfinity.
“Do they do this every year?” I asked.
“It’s tradition,” Alleyah said. “You gotta come out to see them put up the tree.”
Alleyah pointed. “Look!”
Onto the lawn rolled a festively painted semi-truck. On its flatbed was a tall bristling spruce, laid out sideways. Santa waved to the crowd from the cab.
“That’s the tree from my high school!” I exclaimed. I turned, grinning, but she was gone.
I spun around, looking, then ran through the market, calling, “Alleyah? Alleyah?” The crowd danced around me, turned me back to watch the tree. It rose on cables till it stood upright. Then it began to grow taller and taller, sickening tall, until I was a mouse, then a flea, then a germ.
“Where is she?” I asked Santa, who was supervising the stringing up of lights.
“She loves this town.” Santa sagely tugged his fur lapels. “And her town loved this ritual. Don’t worry, son. Your local gal may have run off, but I can still guide you.”
“Well, where do you need to go? We’ve got a nice partnership with JetBlue. Might I ask, when was the last time you were home for Christmas?”
I had never been home for Christmas. It sounded nice.
Home was a Hallmark house glowing in the center of a friendly wood. I opened the door to smiles and scented candles.
Since becoming a hypnocath, I’d stayed on the move, from job to job. In a way, this had been empowering; I was welcomed everywhere and obligated to stay nowhere. But the house drew me inside, sat me in a La-Z-Boy by the fire and the tree, which glittered with memorabilia.
Santa was there too, handing out packages to my half-familiar loved ones. A little boy tore one open and excitedly pulled out a vintage iPhone.
“The best part about Christmas,” Santa said, “was everyone got to be rich. Even if you were destitute every other day of the year, Christmas called on you to pretend for just one morning, to open your heart and pocketbook. People are Scrooges, but for Christmas they spent like there was no tomorrow!
“I know what you’re thinking,” Santa winked. “‘But they were poor and exploited the rest of the year! Christmas never fixed that.’ Well, you think your commoner’s paradise doesn’t have lies? Doesn’t it ask you to pretend you aren’t miserable, for the sake of a social compact? History is a dream you’ll never wake up from.
“I know you run hither and thither, only to be chased out for doing your job. I could help you, you know. I’ve seen the demise of ten thousand brands. A few more is nothing to me. I can do the dirty deeds for you, let you take the glory without the exile. All you have to do is take me into your heart, let me ride your mind like my sleigh. Let me ask you—are you happy?”
I was cozy in the armchair, feet pointed at the fire. There were presents and eggnog, tipsy relatives and laughing children. In the next room was a soft down bed, waiting for me. Outside, snow was packing in around my still body. But I could get used to Boston weather, if it came with a hearth. Why not stay home, where it was warm?
But there was satisfaction to a morning in the cold. Often I slept in the open air, woke up to a job well done. And I was free. I had housing, healthcare, and three hot meals—every day, not just once a year. Maybe I couldn’t stay, but I got to leave knowing that strangers, comrades, would rest better and live happier because of my work. I got to serve, and that was priceless.
“Yes, actually.” I got out of the La-Z-Boy. “I am happy.”
I grabbed Santa by the beard and dragged the King of Brands to the fireplace. With surprising ease I stuffed the old monster up the chimney.
I flew through the ceiling to finish him. In the chill air above Boston we tumbled. My fists pummeled Santa’s rosy cheeks. Santa’s teeth tore at my flesh. We fought like this for a long time, falling into forever.
“Tracey, I’m giving you the stim.”
The radio reverberated through the sky.
“Tracey, wake up!”
With final effort, I flung the King of Brands into the firmament. The stars parted for him, and he was gone, banished—leaving only the twinkle of his eye.
I opened my eyes. I was lying in the slush of Boston Common, Alleyah shaking my shoulders. Of course she had woken up when we got too deep. The morning above us was starting to lighten.
“Did you get him?”
“Merry Christmas,” I said. “Let’s go get coffee.”
The public cafeteria clattered with yawning workers, brewing tea and serving themselves toast and fruit. Folks complained amicably that drawing their once-a-month early shifts on the solstice might as well count as graveyard. We poured coffee, sat, sipped. We didn’t talk, just let the caffeine buzz away the DMT hangover, the sleepwalker exhaustion, the stim-crash. Everything was pleasantly solid and mundane. The walls were straight, the colors were fixed. The coffee just tasted like coffee.
“When does it start?” Alleyah asked eventually.
“Look around,” I said. The cafeteria had gotten packed, but we were alone at the longest sharetable. Bostonian eyes refused to meet my stranger gaze.
Alleyah seemed about to wave for everyone’s attention, but thought better of it. Instead, she got us metal to-go cups and tugged me out the door. We took the bus south and out to the end of City Point, to the little blue duplex where her parents lived with their best friends.
Alleyah’s family treated us to another, fuller breakfast, talking of council politics and pride in their daughter. Then came tea in the sunroom, then lunch, then watching their housemates’ kids snake a model train from room to room.
“You know,” Alleyah said. “You’re a lot more boring in real life. It’s been hours and you haven’t eaten anyone or done any backflip wrestling kicks.” She nodded at the playing children. “I bet they’d like to see some moves.”
I laughed. “Maybe in another generation we won’t need to imagine ultraviolent heroic bullshit as the solution to our problems. But for now, I guess it’s still rooted too deep, just like the brands. People need catharsis, I suppose. I like being able to give them that.”
Southie was a ways from Back Bay, but by midafternoon I could feel the avoidance creeping into my hosts’ body language—a wave of exclusion, rippling through the city. Still, it was dark again by the time we pried away, their hospitality pressing on where solidarity had failed.
“I don’t feel anything yet,” Alleyah said. “If you want to stay, maybe I can help others get over it.”
I shook my head. “Your subconscious will win that battle eventually. But I wouldn’t say no to you walking me to the train.”
The bus wouldn’t stop for us this time, so we trudged through the cold the couple miles to South Station Terminal. Along the way, I saw Alleyah start to waver, felt her edge away from me, compulsively check her watch. I wasn’t sure if this was the exile setting in, or something on her mind.
I liked train stations. The web of hypnogeographic connection was looser here. No one was your friend, but everyone was friendly. I had my bag in a locker; I’d learned not to return to where I stayed after a remediation.
On the platform, Alleyah’s gaze darted, but I could feel her trying to master herself. She took a deep breath and looked me in the eye.
“Do you think Santa will be back next year?” she asked.
“It’s a deep pit he left. He’ll return eventually if we don’t fill it in. You should pull some of those council strings, get new feast days on the calendar. Maybe we can give people new celebrations—while they find a better way to dream.”
Alleyah nodded, then clasped my hand. For a moment, I almost imagined I could stay.
Boston was a blur of lights from the near-empty bullet train. I lay back, watched the skyline blend and shift, like I was back in liminal. My eyes got heavy. Though I was alone, I felt myself multiplied into every house and window. When I slept, I didn’t need to dream.