Aaron cracked open his eyes, the slate ceiling greeting him. Plain. Empty. A gray stream of light from the mostly shuttered window coated the room in a dull glow. Exhaustion washed back over him, returning as the curtains of the dream were pulled closed and reality crept back in. An anchor of lethargy weighed down on his chest. A breath of the chilly air ghosted from his lips.
“Have a nice nap?” the deep, austere voice asked, originating from the pale figure, a regular but unwelcome guest, in the corner of the room. He sat cross-legged in his usual spot, a rickety wooden chair. Bookshelves of trophies and photos stood behind him. Elementary school. Middle school. The trophies stopped a year into high school. The pictures showed dozens of kids dressed in uniforms, grinning and posing for the photographer. A new pair of ice skates hung from a nail in the wall beside the display.
Turning to the voice, Aaron placed his hands on the mattress and pushed himself into a sitting position, moving with painstaking agony, his muscles burning from the effort. Exhausted, he glared at the voice’s owner, Morpheus, who locked eyes with him. His eyes bore deep into Aaron’s own, a yawning abyss hidden behind them. The orange irises with streaks of black shooting through them flared with light, glimpses of other stars glittering within.
“No,” Aaron replied, breaking eye contact, “I did not.”
“Pity.” The word dripped from his tongue, thick with sarcasm.
“Why did you wake me up?”
“It’s snowing.” Morpheus pointed a long, lanky finger toward the window. Aaron turned his head to look. Chalky shadows fluttered back and forth in the glaze of the murky green window. “Thought you might want to know.”
“I don’t care,” he replied, turning back over in bed.
“Sure, you don’t. And I’m sure you wouldn’t give anything to be out there right now, practicing away into the wee hours of the morning, slamming puck after puck into the net.”
He was right. And Aaron knew he was right. He wanted nothing more than that.
“It’s a shame, really,” Morpheus commented. “Such a promising young player reduced to a cripple.”
“I am not a cripple,” he growled, anxiety rising in his voice. The thought lurked in the forefront of his mind, haunting him every waking hour. “I am not crippled,” he would tell himself. “I am not. This is only temporary.” Again. And again. And again. But that thought remained ever present, refusing to let him be.
“Oh, please, how ridiculous,” Morpheus smirked and pointed toward the bathroom. “You can’t even walk to the restroom. Just a mere ten steps, yet you lack the strength to do even that.”
“No, I don’t,” Aaron insisted. He dropped his legs over the side of the bed, hauling them over one at a time with his hands. Already sweating, he stood, trembling, before taking two wobbly steps. “See. I can do it.”
Morpheus waved him forward, urging him onward. Aaron took a shaky step before taking another, then another, gradually inching his way toward the bathroom. Upon reaching the doorframe, he grabbed ahold of it to steady himself. He sucked a deep breath in, preparing himself. He was almost there. Just one foot in front o—
The next thing he knew, Aaron was lying on the floor, body aching, knees crying out in agony, head being split in two from the pain.
“Aaron, honey, are you all right?” Mom cried from the stairs. Aaron heard the thuds of her feet as she ran up to his room, bursting through the door and running into the bathroom. Morpheus leaned against the wall, watching the situation unfold with smug satisfaction.
“I’m fine,” Aaron murmured. She hauled him to his feet, his face painted scarlet from embarrassment as she helped him over to the toilet.
“You hit your head!”
“I’m okay, Mom. Promise.”
“You’re supposed to call me when you need to use the bathroom—or move anywhere, for that matter. You know that. You’re not strong enough to do it on your own anymore.”
“I know, Mom.”
“Do you? Cause you are awfully stubborn about it.”
Aaron silently stared at the band of golden light stretching into the gloomy room from the open door. After a couple moments, the door was slowly pushed aside, allowing the light to fully fill the room, but a silhouette broke it up, stretching across the floor. He could hear the soft footfalls of someone entering the room. A small figure walked in, staring up in wonder at the rows of trophies decorating the walls and shelves.
“Hey, get out of my room, Dan!”
His brother yelped and darted back out of the room.
“Don’t yell at your brother,” Mom chastised him.
“I don’t want him touching my stuff. He’ll break something again.” Aaron still vividly remembered what occurred the last time Dan wandered into his room. He wasn’t looking for a repeat of that situation.
“I don’t think so. He’s old enough that he knows better than to grab something like your trophies off the shelf. He just wants to look.”
Aaron doubted that but didn’t reply. Mom helped him back to his bed and tucked him in under the sheets before walking toward the door. She moved to shut it, but paused, hesitating. Her brows furrowed as she searched for what she wanted to say while tapping her fingernail on the door handle.
“Ah!” she exclaimed, her face alight with excitement, “I almost forgot to tell you. Jill is coming home from college to visit for the weekend.”
Mom sighed. “I just thought you would be excited to see her, even if just a little bit. We haven’t seen her in five months, after all.”
“I don’t see anyone once they go off to school,” Aaron murmured. School was a foreign world for all intents and purposes.
“Well, I just wanted to let you know. Goodnight.” She shut the door, engulfing the room in darkness once more. Aaron’s eyes, already heavy, began to close. Morpheus stepped out of the shadows and returned to his seat, a sickly-sweet smile across his face.
Just as he drifted off to sleep, Aaron thought he heard a deep voice whisper, “Yes, have a good night. And sweet dreams.”
The glistening orange rays of the sun warmed his back as Aaron walked, practically skipping from excitement because of the tournament win. A slight wind chill bit his skin, but he could hardly feel it. A young woman leaned up against a tree on the sidewalk leading to the boys’ dorm. As she noticed him approach, she waved, moving out from under the tree’s awning.
“Congratulations on the win, Aaron,” she said, flashing him a smile.
“Thanks, Hilda,” he replied. “Say, are you free sometime this week for a quick meal?”
“I’ll be free Thursday night for dinner.”
“Sounds like a date.” He smiled.
Waving goodbye, he rushed over to the dorms for the victory celebrations, bolting up the stairs and pounding on the door. His teammates threw the door open, welcoming him inside. A familiar face, a dear friend, embraced him in a hug, saying,
“Thank you for coming to eat dinner.”
Jill smiled. “Anytime. I missed you guys down south, and I was really looking forward to this during the semester.”
“We are so proud of you, honey,” Mom congratulated Jill as she sat down at the table.
“We know how you’ve excelled in your studies and how hard you work. We truly couldn’t be more proud of you,” Dad said, echoing Mom’s praise. “Look at you. Making the President’s List just a few years after that horrible surgery. Incredible.”
Jill didn’t reply. She just excitedly ate her food instead, trying to keep the smile from breaking out across her face.
Aaron stared at his food, flipping his broccoli over with his fork, letting the conversation fade into the muffled background. He desperately tried to push all thoughts of school from his mind.
“You want nothing more than to return to your room, don’t you?” Morpheus nagged. “You don’t want to be down here, taunted by what you desire but cannot grasp.”
Aaron glared at him. Shut up! He was already miserable enough as it was.
A hand nudged his shoulder. “Hey, Aaron, did you watch the Junior A League hockey finals this year?”
“Please, just leave me alone,” Aaron muttered, shrugging Dan’s hand off his shoulder.
“But I just wanted to know if you had or not. I think one of your old teammates from school was on the team. It was that guy who you hung out with all the time.”
“Yes, what about your dear friend?” Morpheus taunted. “The one who left like all the others.”
Dan continued, “So I thought you might ha—”
“Shut up about hockey, Dan! I don’t care about that junk!”
He realized the table had gotten very quiet, the conversation at the other end falling silent. The heavy rasp of his panting as he tried to recover his breath was the only sound to be heard.
“I don’t want to be down here. Just take me back to my room.” His face burned with shame. He could feel Mom’s eyes on him. Perhaps they were filled with anger. Maybe pity. Or disgust. He didn’t want to know.
“Okay,” she finally said, her voice barely a whisper. “I’ll help you back to your room.”
“No, Mom. I got it. I’ll take him up,” his sister interjected, pushing her food aside.
“Are you sure, honey? What about your leg?”
“Of course, I’ll be fine. That surgery was years ago. And Aaron shouldn’t be that hard to lift.”
Mom looked at Dad, face laden with concern, looking for support. He shrugged his shoulders in response. This was her domain. Mom nodded. “Just be careful.”
Wrapping her arms around him, Jill hoisted him up, eyes wide at the ease of the action. Aaron could imagine the surprise flooding through her mind. Just two years ago she could barely manage to pick him up due to her own surgery. Now it was effortless.
Jill flicked the light switch at the base of the stairwell on with her elbow. She cradled him against her chest as she carefully carried him up the stairs and into his room. She gently laid him back down in his bed. His forever home. His prison. His ivory tower. Morpheus would love the comparison.
“Hey, what’s going on? Are you holding up okay?” Jill asked as she sat beside his bed, staring into his eyes, resting her chin on the wrinkled bed sheets.
“No,” Aaron replied. Jill silently waited for him to elaborate. The silence stretched out in long bated breaths before Aaron finally continued, “I’m stuck here, Jill. Life has dead-ended for me. There is nothing for me to do, nowhere for me to go.”
“You don’t have to have everything in life figured out already, you know? It’s okay to be wrong and to take time to figure things out. Sure, life goes by in a flash, but you don’t need to rush through it.”
“You can say that, though. You’ve made it to the other side. You recovered and got to return to life as normal. I have no guarantee of that ever happening. I could be stuck in this dumb house for the rest of my life.”
“I understand that feeling. It reminds me of a conversation I had with a teacher about getting stuck in a rut. We talked about how life is bigger than the present, than the immediate circumstances you see in front of you. It really helped me shift my perspective, and I started looking at life a lot better.”
“I don’t see how a single conversation could ever change anything.”
“You’d be surprised by how much the little things in life can cause change.”
“And you know all about that?” Aaron asked.
“Please don’t give another speech again,” Aaron grumbled. “I am tired and want to go to sleep.”
Jill smiled through an exasperated sigh. “Yeah. I’m done. Sorry to drone on.”
“Actually, I think she’s onto something,” Morpheus taunted him. “Maybe she should keep on going. It might put you to sleep even faster.”
Jill stood up, walked to the door, but hesitated at the threshold. “One last thing. I know this is hard for you, and I’m sorry that you lost the life you had. But you need to open your eyes. You can’t continue to look down at life from your tower prison. I know because I’ve been there.”
“Thanks, I feel so much better now. This one conversation has changed everything. Now I’ll magically go back to normal, right? Right?”
“If it were only that easy,” Jill softly replied. “Goodnight, Aaron.”
The door shut behind her, closing with a soft click.
“Finally, peace and quiet,” Morpheus mused. “I do like the comparison to a tower, though. You really do have quite a smart sister.”
“You too? You got a big, long spiel too?” Aaron snapped. The room remained silent. No response. He settled back under his covers. “Okay, Mister Sandman, where are we going tonight?”
A heavy blanket of sleep washed over him, carrying him away into the swirling sea of dreams.
The hockey puck flew into the net’s outstretched fingers, catching in the web with a satisfying thunk. Aaron scraped another puck onto the ice in front of him. He eyed his next shot and swung.
He grabbed another one.
The stacks of ebony disks by his feet quickly shrank as the pile at the base of the goal grew. The chilly air nipped at his fingers as they rigidly gripped his hockey stick. The small patch of ice was bathed in a murky blue, the streetlight’s phosphor coating having long since worn away, indicating the need for repair. But the streetlight had been that way for years, the city unwilling to repair one so far out in the sticks.
The last puck thunked into the net before falling into the heap below. His muffled breaths echoed in the helmet. He straightened up, eyeing his handiwork and looking around. The ice stretched in all directions. It was just him, the flickering lamppost, and the net. Always the net.
Morpheus strode out from behind the lamppost. “You’re going to be here forever. You know that, right? Only able to dream, noth—”
Aaron’s eyes snapped open . The room itself sat deathly still.
The knock was accompanied by the echo of someone scratching at the knob, struggling to turn it. The door creaked open, inching forward as brilliant light poured into the room. A small pale face peeked around the cracked door, watching him curiously.
“Oh, look, a guest,” Morpheus called.
“What are you doing?” Aaron sternly asked the short figure tiptoeing into the room.
“I just need to ask you a question,” Dan whispered.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Aaron groaned. And Morpheus chuckled before settling comfortably into his chair, clearly taking great delight in the situation. The crimson numbers of the clock read 4:26 a.m. Much too early to be up. And for as much time as he spent sitting in bed, still desperately needed his sleep. “Do you see what time it is?”
“Then please go back to bed.”
“But I really need to ask you a quick question. It’s bugging me so much I can’t sleep.”
“Fine. Okay.” Aaron propped himself up on his pillows. “What is this burning question?”
“Mom said you had an old hockey trading card collection before you actually started playing the sport, and when I asked about them, she said you hadn’t touched them in years.” Dan plopped an old musty box on the bed.
“Oh, those old things.”
“They were up in the attic, but Mom got them down for me. I just wanted to ask you which ones were the best.”
“That’s not quite how it works.”
“Could you show me how it works, then?”
“I guess so.” Aaron propped himself up and began arranging the cards across the bed sheets.
As Aaron finished sorting the cards, Dan turned and asked, “Do they have a card for you?”
“I don’t think so.”
“They are really missing out then. I’m sure yours would go for tons.”
“I’m sure it would.” Aaron gave a soft chuckle. He glanced at the clock. “It’s really late, Dan. We both need to go to bed and get some sleep for tomorrow.”
“Okay,” Dan sighed, disappointment in his voice. “Thanks, Aaron.”
“Run off to bed before Mom finds you.” Aaron gave his brother a light push toward the door.
“Okay. Thanks for answering my question. Goodnight, Aaron,” Dan whispered as he crept back to his room.
“Goodnight, Dan,” Aaron replied, smiling despite himself. The door closed with a gentle thud. Relaxing, he leaned back into the soft embrace of a warm pillow, the crimson digits of the clock flashing lazily. The trophies adorning his shelves shimmered in the moonlight, casting reflections across the walls and ceiling, entwined in a mesmerizing dance.
The room seemed a little brighter now, less gloomy, more warm. He lay on his back, staring at the slate ceiling for a moment in silence, enjoying the stillness of the room, the silent cacophony that drove him to speak to himself at night, the exhalation of the dark. Silence? No quirky remark? No snarky comment? How odd. Aaron’s eyes roamed the room; it was clear Morpheus was gone. But he would return as night terrors do, accompanying the valleys of life, following in their wake, never far behind. For now, however, there was quiet. And Aaron closed his eyes and drifted off into a dreamless sleep .