There’s still time to subscribe to the newsletter and get your Turkey Day mailing of the first 30 pages of my forthcoming YA fantasy, The Dream Palace. The first one page chapter titled “The Door” that I posted yesterday sets the mood, takes you to the threshold of The Dream Palace and introduces our first protagonist and the story’s narrator, Chris Sullivan. The second chapter, “Daisy” brings you into the Sullivan household and kicks off the action.
A bit of backstory here: I began The Book of Paul two years before I met my wife, Ariane. At the time, I had no children nor any interest in becoming a parent. But all that changed when we connected and…presto!…we had a son, Nicholas, followed eighteen months later by a baby girl, Emma. I LOVE being a dad, and love my family more than anything, as anyone who knows me well will attest. Nonetheless, I came from a very dark place and I continued to write about all the creepy, traumatic, highly sexual and violent material that fans of The Book of Paul have come to love and loathe. But as my children grew, it became increasingly clear to me at bedtime that I wouldn’t be reading any story of mine while they were still children. So, I decided to write a book for my kids that they could read before they were old enough to vote.
The theme of the story and the impetus to write it came when our daughter turned 4 years old, two years after she had been diagnosed with autism. Like many parents who receive such news, the “experts” inform parents about the “tragedy” of autism — and basically scare the shit out of you. I knew nothing about autism at the time, so I dug into the internet while Ariane read every book ever written on the subject. The news was not good. No one knew what autism was, what caused it, or how to alleviate the more difficult manifestations (I never use the “cure” word anymore for reasons I’ll go into at a later date). At this point, Emma had lost most of the language she had, was making very little eye contact and had obsessive/compulsive behaviors that could be dangerous to her.
However, all the experts were convinced that Emma would be “mainstreamed” by the time she was old enough for kindergarten, meaning her speaking abilities and language comprehension would be restored though intensive learning and speech therapies so she could attend a regular public school instead of a special ed school. That didn’t happen. On her fourth birthday, she spent most of her party sucking her thumb while laying inside the guitar case of the entertainer we had hired, whom she completely ignored. Shortly afterward, I went on antidepressants and formed a parent support group, while Ariane spearheaded out relentless quest for a miracle cure which continued for the next six years — until we realized that Emma didn’t need to be “cured”, that her neurology was part of who she was, and who she was was perfect and wonderful.
One day while Emma was napping, I went into her room and sat on the edge of her bed, watching her sleep. Suddenly she woke up and spoke in a long perfectly formed sentence, something she was seemingly incapable of doing at the time. I still can’t remember what she said, but I know it was strange, mysterious and very interesting. What was also very strange, so strange you might think I’m off my rocker, is that by the time I told my wife about it, I couldn’t remember if the entire incident had actually happened, or if I had been dreaming. Regardless of what actually occurred, the experience raised a question in my mind that became the central theme of The Dream Palace: What if Emma could talk and do other things in her dream world that she couldn’t do in the real world? My exploration of these ideas about the nature of consciousness and perception gave birth to the story you are about to read — and became my way of processing all the emotions I had around my daughter’s autism. My family, as I said, means more to me than anything, as you are about to discover as you enter The Dream Palace:
Daisy’s smile is as bright as…well, a daisy. As soon as I come awake inside my dreams, like Dad taught me to do, I think about Daisy and I start looking. As soon as I start looking, I find myself at the door of the Dream Palace. I know she’s inside. Somewhere.
Daisy is my little sister. She’s eight years old now. In my dreams, Daisy talks in long, perfect sentences. I love hearing her voice. She doesn’t talk much in the other world, the world I call the Outside.
Dad thinks Daisy was always different. When I was born, Dad caught me in his hands, “Like I was wearing a catcher’s mitt.” It’s a gross way to say it, but that’s Dad. I’m not much different I guess, which is why I laughed so much when he told me. He said I looked right at him as he held my red, slimy body.
It was different when Daisy was born. “She didn’t look at me at all. She seemed upset to be out in the open, exposed like that.” Dad had a hard time calming her down when she cried, and she cried all the time. Even when Mom nursed her, she squirmed around like she wanted to escape.
Mom used to think that Daisy changed gradually, between her first and third birthdays. Now she’s starting to wonder. And me? I can’t say for sure, but something happened one night and nothing was ever the same again. Not for Daisy. Not for any of us.
We had spent the day at a huge mansion on the Hudson River. My dad is a scientist at a big bio-tech company called Vertigen, which is part of an even bigger pharmaceutical company called Becker-Bloch Chemicals. The CEO is Dalton Becker, a big guy with a red face and a thick southern drawl. Every summer he invites all the people who work for him to come upstate for the annual company picnic. Dad had only been working for Vertigen about six months, so it was our first time at the picnic. The mansion was so big it even had a name – Kingsview.
I was eight years old then, and Daisy was only two and a half, so nobody noticed she didn’t talk much, except maybe the other kids who she wouldn’t talk to at all. All of us had a really nice time anyway, hangimg out together, swimming, eating hot dogs and playing on the gigantic lawn. At the end of the day, we took the train back home. We were all exhausted, but Daisy didn’t fall asleep until Dad carried her upstairs to bed.
That’s when it happened. After she fell asleep. She didn’t fall out of bed and hit her head, or run a high fever that wouldn’t go away. It happened in the Dream Palace.
It was dark. Not stormy. I was alone. At least I thought I was. I fumbled my fingers along the door, looking for a switch. I couldn’t find it.
Suddenly, the lights went on. I was in a big library. I knew I’d been there before, but I didn’t know where it was or how I got there. I didn’t know anything about the Dream Palace back then. I wasn’t able to figure all that stuff out until Dad and I talked about it five years later. At the time, I only knew I had been to that library before. Many times before. It wasn’t a scary place. I always felt safe there, until that night.
I heard the sound of footsteps above me, on the balcony lined with bookcases. I couldn’t see anyone, but the feet sounded small. Then they stopped.
“Chris!” shouted the voice above me. It was Daisy. She was holding a book. The title and the picture on the cover were covered by her small white hand.
“Are you okay?” I yelled up to her. Her eyes glazed over like she hadn’t heard me. Like she was looking through me. There were two stairways on either side of the balcony, but the closest one was still twenty feet away. “Wait right there!” I shouted, running as fast as I could.
“Help!” she cried, her eyes coming back into focus while the rest of her started to fade. She was disappearing.
“WAIT! I’m coming!” When I reached the balcony, the book was lying on the floor. There was a picture of a princess on the cover. Daisy looked as white as the princess’s dress. “Daisy!” I shouted, her ghostly outline even more blurry at the edges.
“Chris!” she cried, reaching for me. Her voice was so faint I could barely hear it.
“DAISY!” I shouted again, racing to grab her hand. It was barely visible now. By the time I was close enough to touch her, Daisy was gone.
I fell to my knees, crying. The book Daisy dropped was right in front of me. The letters on the cover began moving around and I couldn’t read the title. The picture was changing too, from a princess to a dragon. I was still trying to read it when I heard the sound of footsteps below. Heavy footsteps. I jumped up and leaned over the balcony just in time to see a tall blond man in a bright colored robe walking out the door. I ran down the staircase after him, but my feet slipped and I knocked my head against the railing.
I woke up screaming. When Mom ran in to see what happened, I frantically told her about my dream, because I knew, I knew for sure something really bad had happened to Daisy, not just in my dream, but in the real world too. I was so convinced Daisy had actually disappeared that Mom led me by the hand into Daisy’s room so I could see she was still in bed, safely sleeping. I caught my breath and nodded my head and she walked me back to my room. I made her lay down with me until I fell asleep.
When I woke up the next morning, the first thing I did was go into Daisy’s room to check on her. She was still sleeping, the bulges of her corneas moving back and forth under her eyelids. Dad told me it was called REM, Rapid Eye Movement. It meant she was dreaming. She kept on dreaming, just like she kept on sleeping, hour after hour, her eyes rolling back and forth like the waves of the ocean, over and over and over.
She had never slept that much before, even when she was sick. At one point, Mom crept into her bedroom, pressing her hand against Daisy’s forehead as lightly as she could, not wanting to wake her if she was sick or just needed the extra sleep. When Daisy didn’t have a temperature, we became even more worried, especially me, my radar on extra high alert, on the lookout for any problem Daisy might have after my horrible nightmare.
When she finally woke up, it was almost suppertime. I was the first to notice. Something even more bizarre happened next. She didn’t get out of bed. Daisy never, ever, ever stays in bed after she wakes up. She’s the household alarm clock, always the first to wake up, at least half an hour before anyone else, running from room to room, making sure everyone understands that sleeptime is over and we all need to get out of bed and make pancakes right now!
But there she was, still in bed, the covers pulled up to her chin, sucking her thumb, rubbing the lime green blanket she calls Cokie against her cheek, staring blankly at the ceiling.
“Daisy, are you okay?” I asked, sitting next to her. She had no reaction — didn’t turn her head, didn’t flinch. She just kept looking up at the ceiling like she was watching something else, something more important and compelling than anything I could ever say or show her.
“Daisy’s awake!” I called out.
Mom bounded through the doorway seconds later. “How’s my baby? Are you okay?” she asked, vaulting over me.
“Mommy came! Mommy came back!” Daisy replied, her eyes electric with excitement and intense relief, like the cavalry had finally come to rescue her.
Maybe that’s exactly what happened. Daisy jumped up and down on the bed like Scrooge on Christmas morning. It was all just a dream! Mommy came back! And so had Daisy.
The rest of the evening was business as usual. Daisy had a good appetite and polished off her pancakes in record time. “She’s okay,” I thought, trying to convince myeslf. But something was different. It wasn’t like she’d been chattering away at the picnic, like the other kids her age, and when she woke up, she never spoke again. For the last year, she’d been talking less and less, like all the language was being siphoned out of her brain. So the difference wasn’t in the way she talked, or how much she talked.
At first I couldn’t figure out what had changed. Then one day, when our awesome black cat Merlin curled up on the couch next to her, she got right up and moved across the living room to another chair. She just sat there, sucking her thumb, glancing at Merlin once in a while like she wanted to make sure he hadn’t moved – that he wasn’t coming closer. Daisy? Afraid of Merlin? I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. She used to lay down for hours with him, on the carpet under the big windows, soaking up the sunshine, Daisy rubbing his sleek, black fur while Merlin purred like he was in heaven. Now she was afraid of him?
I tried to tell myself that Daisy just wanted to be alone, but when Dad came home from walking our dog and Sharky ran over to her like he always did to slobber all over her face, she jumped up and stood on the chair screaming, “Mommy! Mommy come!”
Mom came rushing downstairs. “Daisy! What happened?” she shouted, cutting Dad off as they both ran to Daisy’s side. “What’s wrong? Did Sharky bite you?” Mom asked, as Daisy leapt off the chair and into the safety of her squeezing arms.
“No!” Dad yelled back, like he’d been accused of biting Daisy too. “Sharky ran over like he always does and she just started screaming her head off!”
Mom glared at Sharky and then Dad and me like we were in a conspiracy to terrify Daisy. Her frown didn’t soften one bit as she carried Daisy upstairs to safety.
After that, Daisy avoided Sharky whenever she could. No more sunbaths with Merlin on the carpet either. When Merlin came near her, she walked away. Whenever Sharky ran over, she started screaming again. We would have had to keep Sharky in another room whenever Daisy was around, but after the third time it happened, Sharky got the idea and slinked away, his eyebrows raised like sad dogs do. Now when he comes home and sees Daisy, he looks at her, whimpers a little, and runs to me instead.
Daisy’s new fear of dogs wasn’t limited to Sharky. Whenever someone walked a dog anywhere near us, she would get as far away as she could, repeating, “It’s okay! It’s okay!” until she knew the dog’s leash wasn’t long enough to reach her. With cats, she wasn’t as much afraid as she was indifferent, which suited most cats just fine. If it was a really furry cat like a Persian, she might even go up and pet it.
Daisy changed in other ways too. When we called her name, she usually ignored us, staring blankly ahead, watching whatever it was that captured her attention so completely, safe and content in her own private world. When she did try to connect with us, it was as if some kind of static or white noise was interfering with whatever she tried to do, making everything harder¾talking, playing, making eye contact, paying attention to what we said¾like she was tuned into another channel and only once in a while the channel switched all the way back to us again.
She was happy though, with a big grin on her face almost all the time. I suppose that’s why it took us so long to accept the truth. She was so happy.
People told us not to worry. Even her pediatrician said Daisy was fine. She said a lot of kids don’t talk until they’re even older.
“But Daisy was talking before,” I pointed out to Mom after she told me.
“Yeah, I know,” she said with a still-worried frown. Dad was nodding too.
Later that summer, we went to Cape Cod on vacation like we used to do every year. By then, Daisy was barely looking at anyone. She began acting weird too. Flapping her arms like a bird. Spinning around like someone was making her do it. Things got really scary when she began running toward the street like she didn’t see the cars coming, and jumping into the huge ocean waves even though she couldn’t swim. She was still afraid of dogs — but she wasn’t afraid of anything else.
When we came home, Mom and Dad had her evaluated by some specialists. They said Daisy was autistic. By then she was speaking less and less, if at all. When we talked to her, she wouldn’t even look at us. If it weren’t for her reaction to music and loud noises, you’d think she was deaf. She wasn’t deaf. She still danced. She still sang (just the melodies, not the words). She still laughed. But even five years later, after all the therapy and the miracle cures that never worked, she’s still in her own little world. And I can’t help thinking that her little world is the same place where I watched her disappear that night.
Hope you enjoyed the chapter and my introduction to our real life family. Whether you subscribe or not, we all wish you a wonderful Thanksgiving — perhaps my favorite holiday, because it actually concerns the most important aspects of out humanity. Gratitude. Love. Family. For all the subscribers, keep your eyes peeled and junk folder scoured for the newsletter coming your way. And once again, as always, thank you so much for all your support. There is no way I can fully express the gratitude I feel, so I’ll simply close with wishes of joy and happiness and very pleasant dreams.