Brian accepted the tiny paper cup filled with several pills of different colors. He poured them into the palm of his hand, then tossed them into his mouth. Accepting a cup of water from the nurse, he swallowed. The nurse clasped his chin in her hand as Brian opened his mouth.
“Let’s see under that tongue,” she said. “That’s a good boy.”
Brian finished the water, waiting for her to leave. Then he returned to his own room; dropping the pills into the toilet, he flushed.
“That’s a good boy.” Dave stood in the doorway, mimicking the nurse with a high-pitched voice.
Brian smiled. “You taught me well.”
Dave stepped up to the commode, tossing in his own handful of pills. “Sleight of hand. One of the oldest tricks in the magician’s repertoire. But it works.”
Brian plopped down on the bed. “You said something earlier about an experiment?”
“Just a hunch,” Dave said. “But I think it might be worth a try.” He sat his empty cup on Brian’s bedside table. “Okay, Champ,” Dave said. “I want you to knock it over.”
“That ought’a be easy,” Brian said.
“We’ll see,” Dave said. “I want you to knock it over with your mind.”
“Yeah. Using telekinesis. Mind over matter. If my hunch is correct, you should be able to do it.”
Brian looked at the cup. “Didn’t work.”
“You didn’t try.”
“Yeah, I did.”
“Concentrate,” Dave said.
“It’s still not moving.”
Dave sat down beside him. “Okay. It was worth a shot. So much for telekinesis.”
“Oh, well,” Dave said. “Any other dormant psychic powers we should explore?”
“Hell if I know,” Brian said. “You’re the one who’s convinced I’m ‘gifted’ or something.”
“You are,” Dave said. “You have to be.” He cleared his throat. “Tell me again about the first time you realized you were different.”
“I just got lost, Dave,” Brian said. “I was a little kid.”
“Humor me,” Dave said.
“Fine.” Brian sighed. “I’d been out playing, and I heard my Mom calling me, so I started to go in.”
“And then what happened?”
Brian hesitated. “I got lost.”
“Tell me what you told me the first time.”
“Okay,” he said. “It was, like, the yard changed. My house wasn’t there anymore. And there was this weird fog.”
“Go on,” Dave said.
“I could still hear my mother calling me,” Brian said. “But she sounded far away. And it had gotten really cold all of a sudden.”
“And you were scared.”
“Of course I was scared,” Brian said. “I was only, I don’t know, four years old. Anyway, I started crying.”
“And then?” Dave prompted. “You saw the man?”
“No,” Brian said. “First I saw the animal.”
“Yeah. A black panther. Big one.”
“Strange sight, in the city limits of—where’d you say you grew up? Deland?”
“Since you already know the story…” Brian began.
“Sorry,” Dave said, holding up his hands. “I promise, no more color commentary.”
“Anyway, I was so scared I almost pissed on myself. But I remembered hearing somewhere—in an old cartoon, I think—that if you play dead a wild animal won’t bother you. So I dropped and pretended to be dead. Except I was still bawling at the top of my lungs, but I didn’t take that into consideration.”
“The next thing I know, the panther starts licking my face. I had my eyes closed, but I felt its rough tongue. Finally, I figured out that maybe it wasn’t planning to eat me, so I got up.” Dave watched him. “You know the rest,” Brian said. “Then it wasn’t a panther anymore, but a man.”
“You described him as wearing African-style dress,” Dave said.
“I didn’t realize that at the time,” Brian said. “But I noticed how big he was. Tall, I mean. Even crouching down beside me, I could tell. And he was covered in tattoos.”
“Okay, Champ,” Dave said. “This next part is the most important.”
“When he spoke to me?” Brian said.
“Yeah. Try to remember exactly what he said to you.”
Brian rubbed his eyes. “I told you before. He said, ‘Not yet, little one.’ And that was it. I was back in my backyard.”
Dave exhaled, as though he’d been holding his breath. “That’s the most amazing account I’ve ever heard. First-person, no less.”
“I might have imagined it,” Brian said. “I was just a kid.”
“Uh-uh,” Dave said. “I don’t think so.”
“Okay, sensei,” Brian said. “Tell me. What happened, then? What does it mean?”
“Well,” Dave said. “The panther-man, he was your spirit guide. Your totem, your guardian angel. Six of one, half-dozen of another.”
“A spirit animal?” Brian asked. “Like the Indians have?”
“Not just the Indians, everybody,” Dave said. “Indians revere the natural world, so their spirit guides appear to them as animals. Others see them as guardian angels or some such.”
“Okay,” Brian said. “And the rest?”
“Sounds like you passed into one of the other planes by accident. That was a neat trick. Very few people can manage to do it while still in their physical bodies.”
“I’m not sure I’m following you,” Brian said.
“Anyone adept enough at meditation can project their consciousness beyond their physical being,” Dave said. “Heck, even I can do it. But it can be dangerous. Anyway, it’s very rare that a physical body can pass between planes. You did it, probably by accident, and your spirit guide showed up to nudge you back out. Like I said, it can be dangerous to go wandering around in the other dimensions.”
“Too bad I can’t wander out of here,” Brian said.
“Who’s to say you couldn’t?” Dave said. “If you only knew how.”
“I wish I was half as amazing as you seem to think I am, Dave,” Brian said.
“Scoff if you must,” Dave said. “But you were born with the potential to run, weren’t you? Only first you had to learn to walk. I suspect you have a good many potentials you haven’t learned to utilize.”
“Like telekinesis?” Brian said, grinning.
Dave shook his head. “You could move that cup if you really wanted to,” he said.
“Bullshit. I tried, just like you said.”
“But you didn’t believe you could do it,” Dave said. “I can’t lift my leg if I don’t believe I can.”
“Come on, man.”
“Why is it so hard for you to accept?” Dave said. “You can see into the other planes of reality, probably enter them, too. What’s so much more incredible about moving a simple paper cup with your thoughts? Is it because it requires deliberate action on your part? Because that would mean accepting certain things about yourself, things that scare the hell out of you?”
“Okay, okay,” Brian said. “I’ll work on moving the damn cup.”
“You do that,” Dave said. “As for me, I’m going to watch Wheel of Fortune. Later, Champ.” He slapped Brian on the knee as he stood to leave.
“See you.” Brian watched Dave exit the room, then turned his attention to the paper cup. He sighed, shook his head. Leaning over, he slapped the cup angrily, knocking it off the bedside table to send it rolling across the floor. Brian lay back on the bed, covering his eyes with his hands. Good luck getting any sleep in this place.
For an instant, he wished he hadn’t flushed all those pills.