by Joe Zabel
The Hunt building was a four-story office space in the commercial district of Wausau, Wisconsin. An impressive assemblage of steel and glass, the luster of newness had not yet worn off the ten-year-old facility. Originally built for some now-forgotten government bureau, the Hunt was ideal for the Vaughn Institute for Sleep Research, housing all the institute's facilities, and providing a convenient location (across from the stylish Bradley Shopping Center) with plenty of parking for visiting clients. Partly concealed from the street traffic by lush decorative landscaping and tall evergreens, the Hunt was in the center of things but rested securely within a pocket of semi-isolation.
At the moment, the roof, one side of the building, and the surrounding grounds were speckled with the first snowfall of the year, which continued to drift down in large soggy flakes. In front of the main entrance, two security guards were sweeping away the snow with brooms.
'You know, this is really kind of illogical.' said Steve, the younger of the two guards. 'In ten minutes there's just gonna be more snow covering the places we sweep up.'
Ignoring him, the older guard finished sweeping, in neat, evenly spaced strokes. He swatted the broom against a support column to knock the snow off. Then he walked over and touched up the area where Steve had swept, hitting a stray wedge of snow.
Inside, a tall, slender woman crossed the lobby and stopped at the information desk. The receptionist at the desk pointed the guards out to her, and the woman stepped out into the cold.
'Hello,' she said to the two guards. 'Is one of you Frank Lasko?'
'That's me,' said the older of the guards. He handed his broom to Steve, who stood holding the two brooms, puzzled about what to do with them. 'How may I help you?' said Lasko to the woman.
She reached out and shook the guard's hand. 'I'm pleased to meet you. My name's Kathy Swanson. You may have seen me walking around here the past few months, but this is my first week as full-time staff. I'm with the Reputation Office.'
'Reputation Office?' asked Lasko.
'It's an outgrowth of the old press relations department. But the Office will be playing a broader role, more, shall we say, integrated with the running of the organization. And that's in recognition of the fact that all of us, together, play a part in building the organization's good reputation!' She smiled like a good student who'd gotten her speech right.
'Umm... ok,' said Lasko.
'Now, the area of building security is a prime example of that,' went on Kathy. 'I wonder how much the organization recognizes that you men have direct contact with the public, all day long. I wonder if they realize how often you handle situations that might cause bad publicity.'
Lasko replied, dryly, 'I've attended many, many meetings with the board to discuss just that. We've got a book of policies to cover every conceivable situation. Would you like a copy of it?'
'I was given a copy, and I skimmed it,' said Kathy. 'It all looks fine to me, and anyway, it's not my job to dictate policy.'
'Well then, I'm not too clear where you're headed, ma'am.'
Kathy smiled nervously. 'Like I said, our office is striving to integrate with the entire organization. So, when something out of the ordinary is going on, I'd like you to keep our office 'in the loop.''
'You want me to CALL you?' asked Lasko.
'Then what's your number,' he asked, pulling a pen and pad from his pocket.
'Here, it's on this memo. And my beeper number's there too. Don't hesitate to beep me.'
'Ok,' said Lasko.
Kathy put out her hand to him. He looked at it, confused for a moment, but covering it well he smiled and shook hands with her again. 'Thank you!' said Kathy.
Before leaving, Kathy took notice of Steve. 'May I ask your name, sir?'
'It's Steve,' he said.
'Pleased to meet you,' she said, and offered her hand. Steve clumsily juggled the brooms he was holding until his right hand was free. Shaking hands with him, Kathy gave him her most charming smile, then turned and left.
'Now we gotta call her every time something happens?' protested Steve to Lasko. 'Why'd you cave in so fast?'
'What's the big deal?' said Lasko. "The young lady is just trying to do her job.'
Meanwhile, on the far side of the Hunt Building, an old and battered white van pulled in and parked at the farthest end of the parking lot.
A young blond-haired man in a heavy insulated sweater got out of the driver's seat and walked around the van to stare at the building.
The side door of the van slid open a foot. From the darkness within, a voice spoke:
'Yes, said the van driver, irritated.
'Steven has a question.'
From within the van, another voice spoke. 'Please ask the group leader if we may get out of the van.'
The van driver jabbed a finger into the darkness from where the voice came. 'It isn't time yet, Stephen! Look at Carla. Carla is patient. Model yourself after Carla.'
From within the van, many voices repeated, 'Carla is patient...'
The van driver slid shut the door and leaned against it.
'I came here about five years ago,' said Dr. Yang. 'I started at VISR after graduating from Harvard Medical School and interning at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center.'
'I see,' said Kathy to the young doctor. 'What attracted you to come all the way out here?'
Yang smiled. 'VISR gave me an opportunity to do substantial work in my speciality, dream research.'
Kathy nodded. 'In your research, Doctor, have you ever been able to determine what dreams really mean?'
Yang shifted in his chair and leaned an elbow on the table. 'That's kind of an open-ended question.'
'Try to bear with me,' said Kathy. 'I've got my work cut out for me in filling in my background knowledge. And I'm kind of role-playing here as if I were a feature writer or a reporter talking to you. My job is understanding their perspective and what they're going to see.'
Yang shrugged. 'I don't know if it's grist for a feature-writer's mill, but there are two major theories of the cause of dreams. I'm a proponent of the newer theory, but the difficulty is proving it. Neither theory, by the way, suggests that dreams necessarily 'mean' anything exterior to the dreamer's mind...'
'Just two theories?' asked Kathy.
'I'm referring to the theory proposed by Sigmund Freud; he believed that a dream is the manifestation of an unconscious wish. He thought that the reason dreams are so bizarre is in order to disguise their true meaning, to protect the conscious mind from recognizing forbidden desires.'
'And you think Freud was wrong.'
'Well, Freud knew nothing about the dramatic changes in brain chemistry that take place during sleep. In fact, the sleeping hours are a period when the brain is involved in an incredible range of activities that we believe help it to store long-term memory, refresh its coordinating abilities, and even maintain its ability to reason.
'The theory of dreaming I favor is called the Activation Synthesis model. According to this theory, the cause of dreams is the brain's awareness of its own activation during sleep.
'To oversimplify, if you dream about something that happened to you today, it might be because your brain was attempting to store that experience in long-term memory. If you dream of something from childhood, perhaps your brain is stimulating that segment of recollection, for its own strictly utilitarian purposes.'
'And If I dream about bicycling on the moon?' asked Kathy.
'It could be because your sense of balance and coordination were being stimulated, and at the same time a sense of weightlessness was stimulated.'
'But dreams tend to make sense, in their own weird kind of way...'
Yang knit his fingers together. 'That's because your active, thinking brain seeks to rationalize the stimulus. I am balancing, so I must be on a bicycle. I am weightless, so I must be riding it on the moon.'
Kathy smiled. 'That's fascinating! Tell me, doctor, are you familiar with the work of Dr. Roger Hollister?'
Yang frowned. 'I know who he is.'
'I was just wondering,' said Kathy, 'because he's got something like five published books in print, and it turns out he lives in Wisconsin.'
Yang said, reservedly, 'Ms. Swanson, I don't know how familiar you are with Hollister's work...'
'I just skimmed one of his books,' said Kathy.
'...but I must state, emphatically,' continued Yang, 'that this organization should have no contact whatever with him. He's a charlatan and a fraud-- regardless of what Oprah thinks of him!'
Kathy explained, 'I was just asking...'
'If you want to buy his theories that dreams are telepathic messages from the dead, that's your business. But I'm in favor of science, not sophistry, and there's nothing I detest more than seeing the two mixed together.'
'Please,' said Kathy, 'I'm sorry I brought it up!'
Yang sighed. 'Let me apologize if I seem to be getting hot under the collar. But guys like Hollister try to establish a veneer of scientific respectability over the hokum they're peddling. And believe me, Hollister's kind of fakery is far from harmless!'
Kathy nodded and smiled tightly.
Walking back to her office, Kathy was still smarting from Dr. Yang's censuring remarks.
The space apportioned to the Reputation Office resembled the other quarters in the Hunt Building. The outer walls were glass waist-high to the ceiling, so one could see from the office to the hallway and into the other offices. It created a hall-of-mirrors effect.
'Any calls, Jen?' Kathy asked her secretary.
'No,' said Jen. 'I did call all the department heads to politely remind them of your presentation at 10.'
''Politely' is the operative term!' thought Kathy. 'I can use all the good will I can get!'
Kathy hung up her jacket, sat at her desk and frowned. She glanced at a granola bar poking out of a snack jar. She reached for it, then changed her mind and picked up a travel pack setting next to the jar.
Down the hall in the ladies room, Kathy unloaded toothpaste and brush from the kit and began brushing her teeth.
As she was rinsing, two secretaries entered. 'Hi, Kathy!' said the taller of the two. 'How's your first week?'
'I'm learning a lot fast, Estelle!'
'Late morning?' said the other secretary, pointing at the brush.
'Oh, this?' said Kathy. 'No, this is a gimmick for keeping your weight down. You know, Carol, a lot of the reason people snack between meals is because they crave oral stimulation. With this,' she held up the brush, 'I can get stimulated without taking in any extra calories!'
'Hmm... that's a really good idea, Kathy,' purred Carol.
Kathy left the ladies room, and stood for a moment outside. Was there something wrong with that conversation? She'd felt like she had been placed on exhibit...
Then from inside the ladies room she heard an outburst. 'HAWHAWHAW!!' came the laugh from Carol. 'She'll need to give out plenty of 'oral stimulation' if she wants to keep her job!' remarked Estelle.
Kathy walked back to her office, crestfallen. She sat at her desk with her head in her hands, then gathered her papers together to get ready for her 10 o'clock presentation.
Shortly before ten, the parking lot had begun to fill with cars. The white van still set at the back of the lot with its doors closed.
An old, converted school bus entered the lot and steered towards the back. It parked side-by-side with the van.
The van driver went over to the school bus. The bus driver got out, and the two had a short, whispered conversation. Occupants of the loaded bus watched them through the windows.
The van driver returned to the van and opened the side door.
'We're ready now. Unload the signs and carry them over to the bus. Then line up single file. Let's move, faithful!'
Ten men and women got out of the van. They were dressed in ordinary street clothes-- jeans, sweaters, flannel shirts. They each carried an armful of signs with stick handles nailed into the backs.
An obese teenager came up to the group leader, holding out her hand. 'Group leader,' she said, 'I got a splinter from one of these wooden handles.'
The man ignored the outstretched hand. He put his forehead to hers and held her head briefly. 'We share your pain, Carla,' he said. 'Now go line up with the others as you were told.'
The van's occupants lined up, each holding a sign, with their backs towards the bus. The bus driver motioned for his passengers to get out. The van driver stood next to him, a pile of signs beside him, ready to hand each of the bus passengers a sign.
All of the signs said the same thing: 'RETURN TO THE FOLD!'