Struggling with a hostile work environment, Mark imagines the perfect hideaway, only to find it expanding into his real life.
Mark’s footfalls echoed into the distance. The hall had the dressings of a ballroom, and the length of a tunnel. No matter how far he went, the point at the end never changed shape. The banner beneath the ceiling must have stretched for miles.
Rays of light cut through the curtains, setting the tiles aglow. Walking with his eyes shut, he felt the sunshine on his nose. He could go on this way, counting windows without ever running into anything, or anyone.
The help was on holiday. There was no dust to polish, the sheets tucked themselves in, and the meals came out of their trays prepared. This gave Mark the freedom to ride the banisters down the stairs, to line couch cushions like dominos, to juggle Faberge eggs, ming vases, and leather bound first editions.
Wearing two story drapes like capes, Mark was a bachelor in a castle, an emperor of emptiness, the king of a kingdom known to no one.
The grounds were too vast to cross in a day. Mark had to set up camp in an uncharted guest room before finding the strength to press on. He had to traverse the deserts of the zen garden, the hilly expanse of the miniature golf course, and the pine highways of the bowling alley.
With each trek through the building, Mark discovered something. Feeling droplets on his forehead, he looked up to see water sculptures shooting streams through the chandeliers. He climbed staircases so wide, he mistook the steps for rows in a theater.
Crossing the library, Mark happened upon a fleet of fire engines labeled with the dewey decimal system. He didn’t understand their function, until he needed a ladder to get something.
To save time, Mark rode a dirt bike across the courtyard, weaving around gazebos, hedge sculptures of video game characters, and a pride of bronze lions covered in bird droppings. He could’ve used the field for crops, for football games, or as a landing strip for commercial planes; instead he filled it with street signs to give himself an idea of where he was going. There was always a new path to explore.
The estate was ever expanding, but there were no contractors, no designs to sign off on. Mark didn’t have to suffer the sight of plumbers’ cracks, the sound of catcalls, or radios blaring. This was his project. He was the surveyor, the engineer, and the foreman.
He didn’t break his back carrying the stones up the mountain. He didn’t run a wheel barrel full of mortar across the foot bridge, or dig the trenches to fill the reflecting pools.
Mark’s castle wasn’t built from the ground up, it was composited. The parts weren’t airlifted in, they materialized from it.
In the city, Mark’s studio apartment shared its walls with shouting brawls. Arguments echoed from floor to ceiling. He fell asleep to surround sound domestic disputes, quadrophonic make up sex, and the off tempo rhythm of creaking mattresses. Counting backwards on his pillow, Mark wasn’t sure if he ever lost consciousness.
In the morning meeting, Mark made the coffee hoping no one would call on him. His eyes stung every moment they were exposed to oxygen. They felt heavy enough to sink into his skull. Collecting cups, he was a satellite orbiting his coworkers.
Lee, his boss, followed close behind, tapping each employee on the shoulder, in a variation of Duck Duck Goose.
“So what’s your goal for the day?” Lee breathed down the staff’s necks until he got an answer.
Crouching, Mark cradled the cups in his arms.
Lee moved onto his next victim, “What do you aspire to learn today?”
Reaching for a napkin, Mark’s stack toppled over. His security blanket rolled across the floor. Panicking, he clutched for the cups.
There was a tap on his shoulder.
Lee smiled, he’d found his goose. “So Mark, what could you do differently to achieve success today?”
Mark looked to the ellipsis in his thought cloud. “Not drop the cups?”
Lee tossed him a line, Mark left him to tow it back in. Unlike the sales team, Mark had no figures to beat, no positive encounters to share, no acknowledgments to give.
Passing by a senior staff meeting, Mark heard Lee refer to him as an “Automated automaton. Good with numbers, but unable to compute casual conversation.”
Filling his thermos at home, Mark avoided the water cooler. He couldn’t understand emotional reactions to the weather, pride in parking spaces, or interest in other people’s children. He managed big accounts, but small talk went over his head.
When Lee mandated psychological assessments, Mark feared it was to uncover his glitch.
Sitting outside the therapist’s office, Mark paged through an issue of Home magazine, a catalogue of living room layouts, throw pillows, and patio furniture. Reading an article on Feng Shui, Mark scanned the waiting room.
Opening the door to her office, Dr. Jennings found Mark dragging a fern to the other side of the chairs.
Wiping the dirt from his palms, Mark only spread it around. When Dr. Jennings offered her hand, he went in for a hug, careful not to pat her on the back. When she directed him to a love seat, he lay across the armrests.
Dr. Jennings squint to hide her amusement. “Don’t worry. This is an informal chat, a way to gage the team’s overall satisfaction. Management thought this would be a little more personal than a survey.”
Nodding, Mark changed his position.
Settling in, Dr. Jennings read her chart. “How do you see yourself fitting in among your peers?
Mark shrugged. “The tall person in the back of the group photo.”
Dr. Jennings shook her head. “I’m not looking for a literal answer. Think of this office as a family. Which member are you? Do you see yourself in the driver’s seat, on the sidelines of a soccer game, or are you sneaking in a cartoon when you should be doing homework?”
Mark rolled his eyes, “I’m haunting the attic. I’m not sure if anyone even knows I’m there.”
Mark never had the courage to see a therapist. Now one had been delivered to him. He made the most of this captive audience. Thinking it essential to give Dr. Jennings the whole picture, he got abstract. Over-sharing, he linked childhood humiliation to emotional scars left by ex-girlfriends. Looking at Dr. Jennings notepad, Mark watched her fine script devolve into automatic writing.
Running out of pages, Dr. Jennings decided to switch mediums, inviting Mark to try guided meditation. She came up with the scenario, leaving just enough space for him to fill the holes.
Dr. Jennings chose her words carefully, “I want to give your thoughts a beginning, middle, and end.” placing an emphasis on the word “end.”
Hesitant to sacrifice his hour, Mark was a reluctant participant. Entering the wilderness of his imagination, he was told to picture an animal jumping into his path. He described a badger sniffing the air, climbing up his leg, and settling on his shoulder.
The badger said, “How do you feel about your output today? Is this your finest work, or could you aspire to do better?”
Dr. Jennings suggested Mark keep his answers to himself until the end of the session.
Leading her patient to a clearing, Dr. Jennings instructed him to fill it with something. “A treehouse, a log cabin, a beached submarine, it doesn’t matter, just the first thing that comes to mind.”
Watching a breeze draw circles in the grass, Mark felt it against his cheeks. Smelling the dewdrops, he took in the steady drone of the grass hoppers, rustling trees, and chirping birds.
Clouds rolled across the landscape. Their shadows morphed into geometric shapes, getting darker as they got smaller. Realizing why, Mark acted in the knick of time. He leapt from his position just as a support beam crashed down where he was standing.
A row of metal rained across the field. The dirt shift, propping the beams up, aligning each one into place. The ground embraced whatever the sky had to throw at it.
Staring into the sun, Mark watched its rays transform into amber arches, saffron spires, and scarlet shingles. Sprouting in spring-like formations, vines caught pillars on their way down. Bricks fell into perfect stacks. Leaves popped out from between them. Overgrowth ran up the building, before the roof had even come in.
In another world, Dr. Jennings continued giving her directions. She told Mark to go inside, she said something about a cup, its size and shape having some importance, but Mark didn’t hear her. He was busy moving in.
Crossing the estate, Mark bent time and space, moving from the top of the world to sea level without going down a single hill. One door spat him out in a tropical climate, while another spat him out in a snow covered forrest.
The porch overlooked a mountain range, while the parlor overlooked a beach front.
Each session took him someplace new.
Mark lay in a hammock as long as a fishing net, high up in the meditation chamber, a glass dome, with a view unpolluted by city lights.
Star gazing, he found the Andromeda galaxy, then the long streak of the Milky Way. Dimming the lamps, he waited for the Northern Lights to make an appearance.
Mark found his way to the dream house on his own. Pacing the apartment, he crossed over with his eyes open. Flicking the kitchen light, he watched torches spark to life. The banquet hall stretched out before him. Running the tap, he watched streams rise from the great fountain, feeling bubbles and coins beneath his feet. Taking a shower, the steam cleared to reveal the heap of coals in the palace sauna.
The real world was full of secret passageways to the other one. Smelling oak barrels the moment he stepped into the cubicle, Mark discovered a wine cellar beneath his desk.
Waiting in line at the bank, Mark listened to the Christmas music playing over the speakers. Closing his eyes, he overlooked his estate from the bell tower. It had grown from a mansion into a metropolis. He’d yet to eat a meal from every kitchen, sleep beneath every canopy, or relieve himself in every washroom.
Mark’s stays in the dream house grew longer.
Charging through an obstacle course, he stepped through tires lined across a balance beam, two stories above a ball pit. A few cartwheels later, he was safe on a platform. Running up a springboard, he leapt for a ring. When he grabbed it, it made a sound like a keyboard tapping. Moving hand over hand, he heard the clicking of a mouse button. Dismounting, he listened to the slow hiss of a seat release.
Although the gymnasium lights were the same color as his desk monitor, Mark’s work was far away from here.
Fearing his workout had pulled something, Mark felt a pinch on his shoulder. Turning, he found Lee’s talons squeezing into his tendon. Lee pulled Mark out of his trance and into his office.
Lee couldn’t wait for Mark to take his seat, before launching into his prepared speech.
“Mark, I know you’re not one for small talk, that’s why I’m going to give this to you straight.” Tenting his fingers, Lee tapped his lips. “Your numbers are down, my bosses want to put them out of their misery.”
Mark reached for the pen set on Lee’s desk. Tilting one toward him, the room shook, rumbling with a sound like cranks from a drawbridge. Lee spun around, opening the blinds to search for the source of the noise. Mark tilt the other pen in the same direction. The rumbling returned. Dust spilled from the ceiling. The tiles moved toward the window, fleeing the scene.
Shielding his face, Lee ducked behind the desk.
Moving onto the next accessory, Mark pinched a ball from the Newton’s Cradle. Lifting it up, he primed the pendulum. Thunder struck as it came down.
Cracks zigzagged across the support beams. The air was thick with sawdust. Lumber crashed down on the desk. Looking up, Mark found darkness where a corner office should be. A flash of lightning revealed the distant bricks of a vaulted ceiling.
The desk still had a few more toys for Mark to play with. Flipping a sand timer, he felt the chair sink out from under him. The carpet broke into tiny grains, sinking through the floorboards.
Lee shrieked, jumping out from his hiding place. Sand trickled through his fingers. He looked to Mark for an explanation.
Vaulting over the desk, Lee charged through the door with no mind for glass.
The staff shot up from their cubicles.
Ignoring his wounds, Lee spun around to find the ceiling tiles back in place, the desk free of debris, and the carpet in its proper shape. The chair was still spinning, but Mark was gone.
In the room with the vaulted ceiling, Mark listened to the rain tap on the glass. Cranking the window open, he peered over the edge, trying to figure out his location. In the dark, he couldn’t tell if the gargoyle on the roof was a chimera or a griffin.
Lightning flashed, revealing a part of the dream house he’d never been to before: a spiral steeple wrapped in a water slide. Stepping out on the gutter, Mark knew this would be a good night to explore.