This story weaves an unusual dream through several people's lives and you begin to wonder when the characters are living and when they are dreaming and just how connected people are with dreams.
The opening scene is in black and white: A man named Sean Pennington- a handsome, middle-aged, successful prosecuting attorney from New Jersey- is watching a TV program by himself about school violence. The local community had just experienced a tragedy at the high school where twelve students were left dead following a gas leak explosion in the cafeteria. Authorities suspected terrorism by unknown students. Sean has a drink—his preferred single malt scotch with dense glacier ice brought back from a recent trip to Alaska-- and then goes off to bed with his wife. Carol is a college professor who teaches social psychology.
Sean is on his third marriage and carol on her second. Her first husband died whereas Sean just seemed to have trouble picking the right people to marry. His first wife got high one night and ran off to find herself during the hippie age of the seventies. His second wife had some gender confusion issues and he thought he would give her the freedom to sort them out while he pursued his traditional heterosexual desires. Odd, he thought. He would have been better off marrying his first true love, Barbara. But that was another story all in itself. One which he often regressed to, at least lately.
The couple lived in a large house in a very upscale neighborhood in Cherry Hill. Carol had received a sizable inheritance when her wealthy parents recently passed away. The father was a best-selling murder mystery author and the mother was a highly successful talk show host. Sean had lost most of his earlier land investments and stock market savings in previous divorces. Not to mention some nice houses and cars. His favorite was the one of a kind red Z-8. 150 mph without any wheel shake. Oh well, at least he didn't bring much debt into this marriage—only a good mind and heart and of course a handsome face and great athletic body. He worked out at the local university health club where his wife taught. And nothing could damper his eternal optimism and good sense of humor.
After tossing and turning from the stress of a high profile trial—a double homicide involving a pregnant community leader by an estranged ex-husband who just happened to be on the police force. The trial lasted nearly a month.
Sean finally fell asleep and had a dream that somehow seemed very familiar even as he was dreaming it. The scene is now in color, but hazy/slightly blurred. He dreamed about how he, as a young boy, led his neighborhood gang to kill one of the kids they all hated. They were playing a game in the detached garage out back and this one kid was being obnoxious as usual. They told him to shut up but he kept going on.
One of the boys hit him on the knees with a shovel. He fell to the ground in agony and they all joined in kicking and pounding him to a pulp until he was obviously dead. Things had gotten out of hand before any of them realized what had happened and now that had a real problem to get rid of- a bloody mess of a limp corpse of an 8 year old kid. For a moment time stood still and then reality kicked in like a boom box blasting away all the silence.
Like it had already been well planned, everybody moved with precision. They quickly wrapped up the body in a large boat tarpon and then all helped bury the dead boy in Sean's back yard by the rose garden, where the ground was soft and easy to dig. It was just dark enough no one could see what they were doing. They then made a secret promise to never tell anyone or talk about what had just happened, even with each other. They put it in writing and all signed it before burning the note, after wisely remembering it would be evidence against them. They were almost too cool about all this. Little Sean was wondering if he was dreaming or whether this whole scene was all too real.
The sinister event was never discovered by anyone and the murdered boy's family never had closure on their loss. The dead boy's sister was exceptionally saddened, as they were very close. There wasn't much of an investigation, as the police had absolutely nothing to go on except a missing person's report from a family for which the town didn't have much respect or concern. The father was in and out of jail and the mother was an alcoholic. They were the family who lived on the wrong side of the tracks, so to speak. The brother and sister became close just for the sake of survival. Neither was very popular with the other kids at school. It was sad, but nobody missed the boy except his sister. And that was for her own selfish reasons.
Time goes on and two of the boys who were involved in the murder plot—Rusty and Skip— were later killed in Vietnam, as Marine Rangers, just as America had escalated efforts in the war. They had joined a few years after high school through the buddy system. They were both single, in dead end jobs and the draft was breathing down their necks, so they decided to do their patriotic thing. They were caught in an ambush just south of Nha Trang.
Fortunately Sean escaped his tour as an F-15 fighter pilot, unhurt, at least physically. There were still plenty of emotional scars over the bombing targets he was given. A fourth conspirator was later killed in an automobile accident during a college graduation party down at the Jersey shore in Sea Isle City. He had broken his neck when his Volkswagen convertible plowed into a telephone pole going 75 mph. He died instantly, but his girlfriend survived miraculously without a scratch. That only left Sean and Ken. But these two never saw each other again after they had all graduated from high school in 1962.
Sean goes on about his successful life but is beginning to be bothered by this same reoccurring, familiar dream. The dream now appears in black and white. He is also bothered by vivid premonitions about getting his neck broken, but he is not sure how. His worry is so strong that he does special exercises at the gym to build up his neck muscles. He wonders if he can do anything to prevent some inevitable conclusion to his life. A big part of him felt that certain events were predestined to happen, regardless of what he wanted or what he did. He compensated for this lack of control by taking charge of all his court cases and over-researching them to eliminate any chance of losing. He had an incredible record of not losing a single capital case he tried—well into double digits now. He was a hero with the local PD.
Sean and his wife Carol have a turbulent marriage and they are always arguing, despite not having the stress of young children or money problems to worry about. It is a love-hate type of relationship that has a strong grip on them both. They both had unresolved issues coming into this relationship and they may have selected one another for all the wrong reasons. Sexual incompatibility was a key problem. Sean was extremely needy when it cam to sex, while Carol had a hard time letting go and being spontaneous. She was a bit over-controlling in all areas, which didn't help either. Their sexual activities were either contrived or sparse.
At the urging of his secretary Joyce (they have an exceptionally close work-social relationship), Sean starts going to see a psychiatrist named Beverly, to deal with his marital problems. Beverly is quite attractive, fashionable, smart and witty. She had just written a popular self-help book that was making her in high demand for appointments, and speaking engagements, but Sean had connections through his job. The two obviously had an almost mystical attraction at first meeting. Their chemistry lights up the screen.
Therapy continues weekly but his marriage doesn't get any better. The arguments become almost violent and carol has threatened to call 911, which would destroy Sean’s career. He was certain about going into politics all the way, but he certainly didn't want to risk doing anything that could come back to haunt him. He was the type of person who liked to keep doors open. He confides about the lack of progress with his best friend, Frank, a fellow lawyer and player on the office basketball team. Frank suggests that Sean tell the psychiatrist about his frustrations.
Sean discusses his sense of frustration about things not changing for the better and Beverly asks if he has any secrets that are bothering him. At first, Sean thinks that this is an odd question. Finally he works up the courage to reveal his reoccurring dream. He also tells her about his morbid fear of getting his neck broken. He has never told anyone about these things and it was quite difficult to do so, even though they have a fairly good rapport built up by now. The dream and fear of a broken neck had become almost subconscious realities for him. The distinction between reality and his dream world was beginning to blur.
When Sean tells the psychiatrist these things, chills run down her spine as she has an instant flashback about a haunting newspaper headline telling about a missing eight year old boy (her brother who is a year younger than her). At the same time she sees vivid images of the car accident she was in while driving along the Northern California coast on a foggy night, that broke her first husband's neck and killed him. At first she is panic-stricken, but quickly regains composure and then dismisses the possibility of any connections. She has a patient to deal with, who has finally worked up the courage to reveal a deeply hidden secret. Her own fears were secondary.
Beverly tries to help Sean with all sorts of interpretations of the dream and his fear about a broken neck. She first blames it on the his nightmarish experiences in Vietnam and later tells him it is probably just a guilt reaction to a recent affair he had with a reunited first love. Sean and his first love, Barbara, had accidentally met at a professional legal meeting after 35 years of no contact. She had become a corporate attorney, much to his surprise, as he never knew she had any interest in the law.
Back in 1968, Barbara's aunt had actually paid her money to break off the engagement because she felt Sean was a bad influence on her niece. The aunt was very controlling and devious, having lots of practice from a very unhealthy marriage herself to a merchant marine.
Barbara was living in New Jersey at the time and Sean was going to undergraduate school up in Boston. Previously they had lived together for about six months after first meeting up at the annual jazz festival in Rhode Island. There attraction was instantaneous. They were actually neighbors earlier, but didn't pay much attention to one another in school. Now they were one of those young couples who just looked like they belonged together from the very beginning.
At first, when Sean went off to school in Boston, they maintained a long distance relationship, with nightly phone calls, weekly letters and monthly visits, but the relationship was showing signs of strain. She had gotten pregnant, but since he wasn't in a position to get married, she decided to have an abortion without telling him. Eventually he did find out though, and that was a hidden source of the rift that was beginning to occur between them.
At her Aunt's urging, Barbara wrote Sean a "Dear John" letter, but he drove all the way back home one night just to get the news from her personally. It was a short, uncomfortable meeting between the two and she ended it by returning the opal engagement ring he had arranged her uncle to bring back from Australia on one of his recent trips there.
Sean was feeling both angry and hurt, but fought against showing any emotion. He thought Barbara had dumped him for another guy and later reacted by trying to single-handedly reduce the virginity rate at the college he was attending. He went on a rampage to get back at being rejected by his first love. It was only temporary relief though and he never got over her.
Even though many years had passed during their separate lives and they had changed in significant ways, a certain love feeling was quickly rekindled at their surprise reunion. “You can’t step twice in the same river,” wasn’t ringing true for these two lovers. Sex was always easy between them and they started having an affair, as she was only across the river in Philadelphia. She was single now after 30 years of marriage to someone her aunt preferred. She had stored up years of fantasies about Sean and didn't waste any time trying to live them all out at once. They got together at least three times a week for nearly a year, with some occasional long weekends disguised as professional meetings.
Every meeting was filled with overwhelming passion in the most romantic settings possible. One weekend at a Victorian Bed and Breakfast in the quaint town of Gandy’s Beach, they never made it out of the canopy bed, not even for meals which they ordered in. Upon their departure, the boyish check-in clerk smiled with approval. He was a bit jealous.
Sean eventually broke off the affair as he learned the hard way that you can't really step twice in the same river and the overwhelming passion and true love feelings that were once there had dwindled to more of a memory. Both he and Barbara were entirely different people than they had been 35 years ago. Besides, the affair was definitely getting in the way of his present marriage, which he really did want to straighten out, as it was already his third one. He wanted to experience a healthy relationship for once.
The break-up was agonizing for Barbara, as she just couldn’t let go of the memories. Even Sean had a hard time letting go of the fantasies. They have many phone conversations that eventually help them to arrive at the friendship just on the other side of passion.
Sean seems to get better from the insights the psychiatrist helps him see and so they end therapy and go their separate ways, even though you can see they are having regrets about not exploring their mutual attraction. People often do that—not follow-up feelings with each other. However, they both know there is something there, but…wrong time, wrong place.
Then they both start having serious problems with their respective spouses. There is no communication, common interests or passion in either of their marriages. Both are miserable. Coincidentally, they each decide unknowingly to go away to a resort in Mexico- Puerto La Verta- at the same time, to clear their heads. One night they meet accidentally in the bar downstairs. They share stories and it doesn't take much time for them to end up in bed together upstairs in her suite. Their lovemaking is incomparable. Sean wondered if this was a dream, but there wasn't any disappointment of waking up.
Sean and Beverly return to New York and continue their relationship on the side, which eventually leads them to get divorces from their spouses. They then marry in a small quaint ceremony in San Francisco on a sailboat and move back to New Jersey to start new jobs. Sean uses his political contacts to land a job with a prestigious international law firm and Beverly has enough to do in writing a sequel to "Fifty-seven Ways Out of Madness").
Just by chance, the huge house that he had grown up in as a boy was on the market and within easy commuting distance of both their jobs. The house was greatly improved from when he had lived there. He hardly recognized it. They both fell in love with the house instantly since it had everything they had both ever wanted- a fantastic neighborhood of stimulating people, a big functional kitchen, a massive but comfortable living room with a central fireplace, a sprawling bedroom with a Jacuzzi overlooking a beautiful, perfectly manicured outdoor garden with every variety of flower, plant and tree you could imagine. The garden even had a small creek meandering through it.
Sean had always loved gardening. He had even developed a small landscaping business back when he was in the 8th grade. He continued the business in high school and made enough money to pay for a summer trip to Europe before starting college the first time.
Both Sean and Beverly become more successful in their careers and are happy in their marriage. They both had children from their previous marriages and all the kids got along fabulously. Sean's oldest daughter, Kathy, became especially close to Beverly in no time. Her own mother was mentally ill and there wasn't much of a mother-daughter relationship there. Kathy and Beverly could talk about anything for hours on end.
One day Beverly is digging in the backyard flower garden and discovers what appears to be a shallow grave. She hits a deteriorated canvas wrapping and goes no further. All sorts of images appear in her mind and she runs frantically into the house to call a therapist friend with whom she had told about the earlier "coincidences." Then she suddenly wakes up from this frightening dream and looks over at her new husband with a puzzled, worried look.
The scene then shifts to him as a young boy in his bedroom waking up from dreaming all this. He gets dressed and goes out to join his neighborhood group at the empty lot and they all rationally discuss how to deal effectively with the nerdy kid who has been bugging them all. This is the same kid that had been killed and buried earlier.
The boy returns home and his father, Sean, asks him what he has been doing. He looks at his father sheepishly and says, "Nothing much, just working on a short story for school." The mother walks in and she is an entirely new character. She asks him, "what is the story about?" He says, "About how to make sense out of your dreams." They all sit down and start watching a program on the epidemic of youth violence.
The next to the last scene is in black and white: Sean is being taken off by the police as a young boy. Beverly, as a young girl, watches nearby. The scene then shifts to a mental hospital where an older Sean is talking to his therapist, Beverly, about his dreams.
The last scene is in color. Sean's Son, Derek, is receiving an academy award for the year's best picture, The Dream.
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William S. Cottringer