The Friend

It had been several years since I'd last seen my friend.

The ferry passed through a thick bank of fog and when it emerged, trailing tentacles of mist, the sun broke through the clouds overhead and illuminated the receiving dock with a shaft of golden light. It seemed auspicious, but I dismissed it as coincidence. I was far too jaded to believe that random acts of nature held any sway over my life.

My friend met me at the arrivals gate, and he was the only person standing there. The handful of other departing foot passengers had found their own ways to their final destinations. Some boarded a waiting bus and others disappeared into cars that had been left in long-term parking.

We embraced, as long-parted friends are often wont to do. He smelled faintly of wood smoke and beer, and he'd gained enough weight to notice it in his face. I considered making a joke of it then thought the better, to not sully the moment with an off-handed remark.

He led me a short ways away from the dock to a small pub inhabited by old men with gray beards and even grayer sweaters. A woman I could only describe as a lifelong barmaid served us tall frosted beers in chipped glass steins and left us alone. My friend waited with an expectant air, as though anything I'd have to say about my adventures in the time since we'd last seen each other paled in comparison to whatever he'd had to say. And perhaps he'd been right, though I'd never know.

So I told him what was happening in the world.

It took less than an hour, and there was still a swallow or two of warm beer left in our glasses by the time I finished. Throughout all the tales of terror and horror that I'd relinquished from memory my friend had remained impassive, the same bemused grin on his face that he'd wore when we'd met at the terminal. An air of patience emanated from the man. It was a calming aura that was usually reserved for folk of the cloth, or other spiritually-inclined people. It unnerved me to expel my dark tales from abroad and receive nary an aghast gasp or exclamation from my partner. Only quiet sips of beer, the occasional smacking of wet lips, and the return of the grin.

There was a minute or two of silence between us after I finished with my report. My friend held my eyes with rheumy determination, and seemed to swim deeper into my head in an attempt to suss out the truth behind my words. At last he nodded and leaned closer, close enough to whisper beer-stained words across the table that only I could hear.

"I don't live in those worlds anymore, Jack. You must understand that I came here to get away from all of that. And though I can tell by your incredulous glare that I should be deeply affected by all that you've told me, I regret to inform you that I am not. I can not.

"I inhabit a different place, now. The thing you learn when you escape one form of reality is that there are many others to flee to. Realities to ascend or descend through, like the layers of an infinite onion, with each layer being no more or less sour than the other, only different. And that all along we've had the choice of what to acknowledge and what to dismiss; of which wars to fight, which battles to join, which celebrations to partake in, which words to use, which loves to ravage, and which conquests to pursue. All of it... all of it choice.

"And I've made different choices than you. You who've remained behind, like the hobbit's compatriots who could not or would not follow him to the Grey Havens. I've gone across the Sea and all I've found is another reality, but it's one that's far more conducive to my mental health than the one you're still in."

Had he just made a Lord of the Rings reference? Was he drunk? I shook my head and clapped a hand down hard on the table, hard enough to jostle the glasses and vinegar bottle and water-spotted silverware. My friend didn't even blink.

"Is that it, then?" I asked. "You've gone and fled reality, replacing it with whatever you've defined as more copacetic? Shut yourself off? Do you deny the problems of the greater world?"

"You misunderstand me, friend," he said, and smiled. It was a smile of such warmth and compassion that for a moment I honestly believed that I'd misunderstood, made some terrible mistake of reasoning, and I felt the hot burn of embarrassment creep up my collar and flood my face. "I'm not denying your reality, nor your interpretation of events. They're as real as you wish them to be. And therein lies the rub. I've no wish, no desire to manifest those particular nightmares, and I've come far enough with this belief that—yes... it's become a form of dogma, or brainwashing if you wish to be dismissive—that I've embraced a whole new way of thinking that may seem wholly foreign or alien to you. And in this I've found my peace, and I do, in my heart of hearts, weep for the world you've described, as it truly seems a place of nightmares! But it's not a place that exists for me. Not anymore."

"Reality isn't something you can just switch on and off!" I shouted, and jumped to my feet.


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