A few days before Christmas, Alexandra Windsor, a lovely young woman about to turn seventeen, comes to visit Herschel Steinberg in his old white house at the end of Climbing Rose Lane in Carmeline Creek, a small town on the far north coast of California.
Herschel is seventy-two, a dream interpreter with spiky gray hair, his accent that of a person raised in Los Angeles by Yiddish-speaking parents. He shares his house with a scruffy Golden Retriever named Lorenzo, a sleek gray cat named Zorba, and several dozen potted cacti.
Alexandra and her few-years-older brother Conor have a movie company specializing in short fictional dramas and music videos, with seven thousand subscribers to their Windsor Montoya Productions YouTube channel.
Herschel recently starred in one of Alexandra and Conor’s movies, an eleven-minute film called The Dream Interpreter, in which he played a character indistinguishable from the actual Herschel. The movie is by far the most successful Windsor Montoya movie to date (over 10,000 views) and Alexandra and Conor are eager to make another movie with Herschel.
Alexandra and Herschel sit in high-backed armchairs in Herschel’s cozy den, facing each other across a coffee table, a fire crackling in the hearth, scruffy Lorenzo sprawled on the floor at Alexandra’s feet and sleek Humphrey curled up in Herschel’s lap.
Sipping lemon verbena tea and brainstorming about possible plots for the next movie featuring Herschel, Alexandra says, “What if I play the part of someone who tells you her dream, which we dramatize, and then you interpret the dream.”
“I like that idea,” says Herschel, sipping his tea. “Now we just have to invent a compelling dream and an equally compelling interpretation.”
“Actually I had a dream last night that might work,” says Alexandra, frowning. “It was kind of a nightmare, but… shall I tell it to you?”
“Yes, please,” says Herschel, closing his eyes to listen.
I’m in a car on a highway with a bunch of people who are much older than I am, and we’re stuck in a traffic jam. We’re really crammed into the car, and I can barely breathe, so I decide to get out, which means I have to climb over a man and a woman to get to the door, and as I climb over them, the woman says, “We’re so sorry. By the time we realized what was happening, it was too late to change the way we did things.”
I get out of the car and see the traffic jam stretches out of sight in either direction. The trees on either side of the highway are dying and the air is full of smoke.
I wander away from the highway into a deserted city and come to an intersection where a few people are sitting around a small campfire. A young man looks at me and says, “It’s not safe here. We won’t be able to protect you. Sorry.”
“Where is it safe?” I ask, wondering what I need protection from.
“I don’t know,” he says, shaking his head. “Everything’s been destroyed.”
Now darkness is falling and I’m running through a neighborhood of old houses. I see a faint light in the window of one of the houses, and though I’m afraid of what might be in the house, I knock on the front door. The door opens and a woman gestures for me to come in.
I follow her down a hallway to a dimly lit room where a dozen women are packing backpacks with food and clothing and books. Two of the women are teenagers like me, the rest are in their twenties and thirties, except one woman who might be sixty and seems to be the leader.
She looks at me and asks, “Are you strong?”
“I am,” I say, meeting her gaze.
“Can you fight?” she asks, putting her hand on my shoulder.
“Yes,” I say, nodding. “If I have to.”
“The packs are heavy,” she says, pointing to the one she wants me to carry, “but we’ll need everything we’re bringing with us.”
Now we’re walking fast through the city with the packs on our backs.
The woman walking beside me says, “God I hope the boat’s there.”
We come around a corner and encounter four men blocking our way. One of them has a gun, but rather than run away, we overwhelm them and kill them. I don’t do the killing, but I’m standing beside a woman when she stabs one of the men in the heart.
We arrive at a pier guarded by two men and two women with guns. They recognize our leader and allow us onto the pier where we board a large sailing ship. When we are safely aboard, the two men and two women who were guarding the pier come onto the boat, too, and we sail away into the darkness.
A young woman approaches me and says, “Come with me. I’ll show you where you’ll be sleeping.”
I ask her, “Do you know where we’re going?”
“To northeastern Greenland,” she says, nodding solemnly. “God willing.”
Herschel opens his eyes and says, “I’m sorry, too, Alexandra, that I didn’t do more to try to change things before it was too late.”
“Do you think it is too late?” she asks, frowning. “To save the earth.”
“Oh the earth will be fine,” says Herschel, wistfully. “But human society may soon come crashing down as the climate wobbles further and further out of balance. And the saddest thing is that we knew better, yet refused to change. We opted for convenience and ruined everything. And I really am sorry, my dear.”
“So you think my dream is literal. Not symbolic?”
“I think you saw the possible future,” says Herschel, his eyes full of tears. “And if you did, I hope with all my heart there is a place for you on that boat.”