How To Unravel Reality in Seven Easy Steps by Ryan Walraven

TW: drug use

She had introduced herself via text message as Amber Mary-Jane Dickinson the third, a fact which by itself seemed strangely ominous. Daniel Morimoto wasn’t the type to call someone by their online nickname, but somehow, now, on the brink of potential first-date disaster, it seemed appropriate.

“MJRainbowLlama?” he asked, his brow furrowing. It was already obvious that she was the right person. The green hair was a dead giveaway, but she was talking to another man at the bar and Daniel wanted to catch her attention. No, needed to. He needed to give this a real try.

“Daniel?” She pushed away from the other man as if he were an empty wine glass. “Danny Dan! Good to finally meet you, man!” She swung her arms around him and Daniel caught himself before he recoiled.

Dates, socialising, hugs – until recently, these had not been within his purview. But his sister had talked him into this and now here he was. Truthfully, it was Daniel who said he needed to get out, to have some adventures, but second thoughts were swarming his mind like alien invaders.

With a jangle of beads, his date held him at arms length and looked him up and down. “So you’re my latest victim, huh?”

“I know the feeling,” he said, though he didn’t, really.

“Come on, let’s grab a table.” She danced through the bar toward an alcove in the back and Daniel followed with growing trepidation.

The bar, Hops with the White Rabbit, was also not within his purview. It was located on the outskirts of Honolulu’s Chinatown, in what Daniel could only describe as an industrial park. The façade was spray-painted brick, while the inside was dimly lit and covered in tawdry tapestries. It smelled of incense and cigarettes despite the city’s smoking ban, but the owners brewed their own beer and kombucha, so it had that going for it.

They ordered from a surly waiter and, with great dismay, Daniel found that this woman – this MJRainbowLlama – was looking at him as if he should say something. Previously, they’d shared cat photos, traded book recommendations, exchanged links to Spotify playlists, but those weren’t options now, were they?

He took a deep breath and decided to take a stab at it. “Been here before?”

She leaned back and eyed him, then burst out laughing. “Man, you’re a kidder. I can tell. Half scientist, half psychonaut. I know the type.”

“Right, of course.” He forced a laugh out, aware of the tension building in his forehead.

“I get it, man. I know lots of smart people: psychologists, yogis, meditation instructors. That sort of thing.” She flipped her iridescent hair over her shoulder. “I’m trying to broaden my horizons, yeah.” She leaned in close, as if sharing a secret. “That’s why we’re here, right?”

“Sure, why not?” Daniel’s index finger bounced on the table as he waited for his drink. Where was he supposed to put his hands if they had nothing to hold?

“You do chemistry, your profile said. So you’re into, like, brewing secret potions and stuff?”

He laughed. “I’m not so sure about that.”

“Oh, come on. Don’t be modest. I’m sure you know things I could only dream of. You’ll be a doctor, right?”

Daniel could feel perspiration gathering under his arms, but he tried to ignore it. “I’ll probably stop at the Bachelors. I’m a chemistry student, but I’m hoping to go to law school.”

“Ohhhhh. Gonna fight the man? Repeal those drug laws? Makes sense.”

The drinks arrived, finally: a beer for Daniel and a cocktail for her. He could almost smell the FD&C Orange #1 wafting out of her glass.

Daniel averted his eyes, sipped his lager, and tried to relax. “I’m more of a con law guy, but I dunno.”

“Well, somebody has to get them out of jail.” 

“Excuse me?”

“Such a kidder.” She nudged him from across the table. “So you must have an interesting life philosophy, yeah? Being a chemist and all.”

“Life philosophy? I mean, not really.”

“Oh come on, Dan. Everyone has a life philosophy.”

He shook his head. “I guess I’m the exception. Chemistry is pretty boring, but my parents say it will get me job opportunities if law school doesn’t work out.” He stared at the bubbles of carbon dioxide nucleating in his beer.

It wasn’t clear why the dating app had chosen to pair the two of them, but like the gas molecules in his drink, they were stuck until he found a way to escape. If anything, he felt bad for dragging her into this oddly heterogeneous mixture.

“Chemistry, boring? Don’t say that, man. You learn about molecules tweaking our brains and atoms flying around in space. Imagine the possibilities if you went into research!” She tossed her hair and took another sip of FD&C Orange #1. “You sure grad school is out of the question?”

“I mean, those PhD programs are really competitive. Besides, grad students are basically slave labour.” He scratched at the back of his neck. “You like school that much?”

“Not at first. All the memorisation, the rules, the praying, the uniforms, the blah blah blah from the teachers – it was so boring. But then I forced my parents to send me to normal school and things got better. I realised I had to, you know,” she twirled her hand in the air as she took a large sip of her drink, “study what I wanted. That I had control over what was going into my brain.”

Daniel couldn’t help frowning. “‘Normal school’?”

“You know, as opposed to Sunday school, bible reading, church camp, Baptist colleges, and all that jazz. Cuckoo Christian stuff that my family was into. I managed to convince the ‘rents to put me back in public high, har har–” she elbowed him playfully. “Then, they paid my way into university. You know: tutors, SAT prep, the works. Feels good to have that other stuff behind me.”

“That makes sense. But how did you end up so, uh…” He winced at himself.

“So crazy?” She pinched her tie-dye blouse. “Lots of reading, man. I filched every book I could from the school library until my parents had me banned.”

“Your parents had you banned from the school library?” He chuckled.

“It was more a mutual thing. They freaked out when they caught me reading Lolita and Animal Farm, then the school freaked out when the ‘rents threatened to sue.”

“Jesus.” His fingers relaxed around the cold mug.

“That’s what they said. Now I’m an English major. Books are amazing, right? I love books. That’s where I get half my ideas from. Have I told you about my reality checks? Or my checklist? Of course I haven’t.” She laughed. “That’s why we’re here.”

“A reality checklist?” As quickly as it had vanished, the tension began to build again in Daniel’s forehead. He had the sneaking suspicion that she was recruiting members for some sort of cult.

“Yeah, my checklist to escape benign reality. It helps with mindfulness and breaking outta funks, stuff like that.”

“Mindfulness, right.”

She grinned and leaned forward with a single eyebrow raised. “I call them, The Seven Steps to Unravel Reality.”

Daniel blinked. “Why would you want to unravel reality?”

“Have you ever felt trapped? Depressed? Lost? Like you’re not in control of where you’re going? Sometimes, man, you just need a hard reset.” She lifted her drink and gulped a significant fraction down.

“Sure, sometimes, I guess.” He had, in fact, often felt that way, but it wasn’t something he wanted to discuss on a first date.

“So okay, here we go. Number one – you’ll like this one I think: question everything. Totally scientific, right?”

“Right.” He glanced over his shoulder. He was questioning things, alright. A trip to the restroom might be in order.

She frowned, reached over, and placed her hand on his. He was so startled that he nearly spilled his beer.

“Are you okay, Danny?”

“Yeah. Of course.” He could feel his veins pulsing under her hand. What had his sister said? If you don’t poke your head out of your shell soon, you never will.

He cleared his throat. “It’s just, this is the first date I’ve been on since senior prom. You’re not, well, uh…”

“Not well, huh?” She let go of his hand and crossed her arms.

“No, no, no.” He waved his hands frantically. “I mean, you’re not the type of person I normally hang out with.”

She doubled over laughing and spilled her orange drink everywhere. “Duhhh, Danny. So who cares? Question it, man.”

He gawked as she smirked at him over the spreading orange flood. Finally, the waiter came to clean off the table.

Dan sighed. “Hey, it’s okay, you don’t have to humour me.” He rose from his seat, but she put a hand on his wrist.

“When you messaged me, you said you were looking for new experiences.” She let her hand fall away and there was a sticker of a rainbow dinosaur there on his wrist. “Let’s start with this.”

Daniel blushed. She seemed so committed to their adventure. “It’s true,” he admitted, “I got a little carried away. I’m just out of my element here.”

She tugged him back into his seat and he plopped down. “I mean, isn’t that a good thing? Should we only stick to our element, whatever that means? Like, I get it. I grew up in the Christian Theocracy known as Texas. I’m a weirdo. So are you. So what?”

He nodded, though he felt like his weirdo cred was far from adequate.

“This–” she gestured to indicate the room, then the table, then him and the whole date situation. “This doesn’t matter. Pretend we’ll never see each other again. Who cares?” He hadn’t noticed when, but a neon green martini had appeared in her hand.

“So what next?” He had the sneaking suspicion his sister would like this girl.

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“Let’s start over. New drink. New date. Pretend were in a play or something.” She offered her hand. “I’m MJ.”

He shook it, laughing a little. “I’m Daniel, the chemist.”

She sipped the green cocktail, then gave a satisfied sigh. “Heya Dan. So, I know this a new date and a new experience for both of us, but somehow we’re already at step two of my checklist, which is going to help.”

“Incredible!” He mimed a surprised face and stifled a laugh.

“Bear with me here.” She leaned in close and the beads around her neck jingled. “Step two is to drink.”

Now he laughed out loud. “That, I can do.” He took a gulp from his beer and felt his whole body relax a little into the booth.

“See, we do have something in common. This train wreck isn’t on fire yet.”

“You’re a hippie, right? Why put drinking on the list? It’s bad for us, right?”

“Ah hah, now you’re being real.”

“Sorry…”

“Whatever. I’m teasing, man. Don’t worry. You’re right, and I can see you get step one.”

He nodded and finished his beer. The creeping warmth in his brain was enhancing his enjoyment of the conversation. “Right, so why drinking? Not that I don’t like it.”

“I can see that! Waiter, another brew for this dude.”

The waiter looked over from the table he was helping and gave the sort of exasperated sigh that said I can see where this is going.

She tapped her chin. “So I mean, yeah, it’s not always healthy, but it opens the door.”

“The door?”

She made a rectangle with her fingers. “The door of perception. It’s already slightly ajar so we get a little peak at Narnia. And we use chemistry to help us open it further. That’s what drew me to you.”

Daniel tilted his head. “So, drugs?”

“Everyone uses drugs, Danny. They just pretend they don’t. Painkillers, sleep aids, caffeine, sugar, alcohol – you’ve tried those, right?”

“Of course, I agree, but those things aren’t illegal.”

“Some of them used to be and maybe some of them should be. But whatev’s. The point is, you start with beer, then liquor. You feel good. You realise reality isn’t as simple as what we see, hear and feel. That what we get told by our parents and teachers and televisions isn’t always true. Alcohol is the first step to thinking differently. You realise that you have ways to control the way you feel.”

“Yeah, I guess that makes sense.” The waiter set down a new beer and Daniel savoured the first sip. It tasted of ale, wheat and cream. Could such a simple thing really change his life? Thoughts of AA and the homeless camps on King Street flitted through his mind.

She tapped the top of his hand and ended his reverie. “So that’s step two. Learn to drink. Step three is simple. I got it from a scientist friend like you: pay attention to details.”

“That’s it? It’s not, like, do a bunch of acid?”

“You’re getting ahead here, man.”

He laughed again, then realised she was serious.

“This step is important if you want to make the most of the other ones later.”

“I mean, I try to pay attention to detail when I’m studying.”

“Right, me too. But this is different. It’s like, look at the wood grain on the table.” She ran her hand over the flowing, wavy lines. “Or the gritty texture of the brick.” She draw her hand across the wall. “The last time you looked closely at this stuff you were probably a kid stuck at the bank with your mom.”

He had to laugh. “That does ring a hazy sort of bell.”

“I know, right?”

“So, step four?”

She grinned. “I’ve got you hooked now, haven’t I?”

He shrugged nonchalantly. “Maybe a little.”

“Step four. ” She raised her index finger in the air. “Record your dreams, man.”

“Like a dream journal?”

“More like a novel of your night-time exploration.”

Daniel snorted beer out of his nose. “A sex dream book?” He couldn’t believe the words coming out of his mouth.

She pretended to scoff. “That’s not what I said! You boys are all the same.”

“Right, sure.” He feigned an eye roll and took another sip of his beer. Nearby, one of the bartenders was lighting candles and the room’s warm glow began to fuse with the buzz of the alcohol.

“Such a kidder.” She shook her head. “The dream journal helps you remember the stuff you do while you sleep. Like, what did you do last night?”

“What did I do?” Daniel scratched his chin. Vague images flickered through his mind, scenes of falling through darkness, of teeth falling out, but they were just glimpses. “I’m not sure.”

She put a hand on his and, again, he had to restrain himself from pulling away. This was all natural, part of the whole dating thing, right?

“Eight hours a night, gone. Doesn’t it bother you that a third of your life – poof!–” she made an expanding shell with her fingers “–it just disappears as if it never happened?”

“It is a bit weird,” he admitted, “but sometimes I remember.” There had been the dreams about the dentist when he was little. “Nightmares especially.”

“Of course, but what if you could remember the good dreams? The sexy ones and the adventures.” She arched an eyebrow at him, then downed the last of her drink and called for another. “What if you could practice dating in your dreams? All you have to do is write them down when you wake up.”

“That simple, huh?”

“There are other tricks, but that’s the first step, yeah. Eventually, you can become lucid and do whatever you want while you sleep.”

A thought popped into Daniel’s head: that he could use the extra time to practice his calculus or compose his papers for the morning. It was just a thought, but somehow it disappointed him. He could do anything, why would he choose calculus?

He peered into the froth at the bottom of his beer glass. Some of the bubbles had never escaped, but maybe that was okay. He downed the last sip and ordered another. He hadn’t planned on three drinks, but it was obviously that kind of night.

“So we’re up to number five, right?”

She nodded matter-of-factly. “You’ve been waiting for this one.”

He chuckled. “I have?”

“Mind-altering drugs.”

He laughed so hard that he nearly knocked over the empty beer glass. “I knew it would come to this. So, what? LSD? Mushrooms?”

He’d always been curious.

She wagged a finger at him. “Well yeah, but not all the time, silly. After tonight, hmmm,” the beads on her wrist jangled as she tapped her cheek, “I recommend some occasional weed. It expands your mind and helps you sleep.”

He let out a sigh and a fresh stout arrived. He could use a good night’s sleep. He would have to sober up a little before driving home, but the alcohol was certainly helping. He could almost feel himself melting into the booth. “So, wait, are we seriously planning this?”

“Hypothetically, yes.”

Daniel narrowed his eyes. “Was that a yes or a no?”

“Number six!” She grinned manically then gulped from her drink. “Meditation.”

He choked and coughed on his beer. “Meditation is number six? After drugs?”

She nodded. “Mindfulness helps us change patterns in our lives. It gets us out of the grind and helps us improve our personalities.”

“I already meditate. My parents taught me.” Daniel tried to imagine his father’s personality changing as he sat in front of their Japanese altar, but the man’s face stayed stern and calm.

“So that’s one step taken care of already.” She swirled her drink and swallowed the last of it.

Daniel took a gulp of the heavy stout. He felt he’d had enough to drink, but he wanted to see her list through to the end. “What now?”

She grinned. “Now the adventure begins!”

Before he could respond, there was a swirl of colour and she stood up to call for the check.

“You’re taking off?” He got woozily to his feet. The beer was hitting harder than he expected, but somehow money exchanged hands.

“I expect it’s about that time.” She smiled and her eyes danced in the flickering candlelight.

“Time?” The word echoed out of his mouth.

“To walk through the door.” She took his hand and he could feel the warm blood throbbing in her veins. “Together.”

She tugged him along, up through the murky underworld of the bar, past the leering patrons, the goblins behind the bar and the faces peering out from the tapestries.

And then they were there, at the door. It loomed before them like the drawbridge of a castle as Daniel swayed in place.

“What’s going on?”

She smiled, let his hand go, and embraced him by the shoulders. “Remember when you messaged me the second time?”

Images of the texts danced before his eyes. “Sort of.”

“You said you were ready to try something different.”

The laughter spilled out of him like bubbles. “Well yeah, but I never imagined…”

“You were very specific.”

She pushed the door open and there beyond its gaping maw lay the world, wet and raw and breathing. She beckoned him out and with a deep breath he followed.

About The Author

Ryan Walraven is a writer and physicist who studies neutrinos: nature’s most boring
fundamental building blocks. He has had stories published with TL;DR Press, eFiction,
and Stardust Review and is working on his novel ‘The Dark Star Paradox’ in Chicago,
where he lives with his cat Jiffy.

Bandit Fiction is an entirely not-for-profit organisation ran by passionate volunteers. We do our best to keep costs low, but we rely on the support of our readers and followers to be able to do what we do. The best way to support us is by purchasing one of our back issues. All issues are ‘pay what you want’, and all money goes directly towards paying operational costs.

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