A Dream Deferred - Jun Tan
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
Arthur sat quietly at the small table, waiting patiently for his companion to arrive. The small restaurant was crammed with people, and the only vacant seat was the one opposite his own. Many already asked him if they could use it for their own purposes, to which Arthur politely declined, “She’ll be here soon enough.” Most just shook their heads in disapproval at the teenager and left him alone, but a few understood him, retreating with a slight nod or a twinkle in their eyes. The restaurant was quite dark, its interior only illuminated by the yellowish bulbs hanging from the ceiling. However, this perpetual twilight, compounded by the consistent chattering of voices, gave the place a homely feeling of warmth, and even a slight hint of romance.
Arthur glanced towards the entrance to see if she had arrived. She hadn’t. Instead, he was amazed to see a man violently waving his arms at the doorman, his fingers deliberately pointing in Arthur’s direction. One of the few unfortunate souls that forgot to book in advance, and thus left waiting outside in the freezing air. No doubt that he also wanted that vacant seat. Despite feeling a little guilty and some sympathy for the man, Arthur was too absorbed in his jubilant mood to care.
In fact, he felt a perfect sense of tranquility amidst the chaos around him. He was content, despite the humility of the crowded space. He was not bothered by the fact that it was his first time out without his parents, nor was he concerned by his guest’s lack of punctuality. To pass time, Arthur calmly took out the white handkerchief from his breast pocket, and began polishing his walking staff.
The walking staff was one of Arthur’s most recent yet most prized possessions. It was an elegant thing, made of an ancient oakwood that gleamed and radiated under the light. The handle was meticulously crafted into a golden eagle’s head -- the symbol of his school and the authority of the wielder. Passed down generations, this staff belonged to the Custodian Prefect, in charge of maintaining the school’s proud tradition. Now it was his, after months of arduous campaigns to achieve his dream. Arthur grinned to himself in satisfaction. Still cradling the staff, he suddenly noticed the pair of polished school shoes in front of him.
“Apologies for being late -- I was held up by the traffic,” she said in her angelic voice as she took the vacant seat opposite him. “Not a problem at all,” Arthur replied automatically, gazing dreamily into her startling blue eyes.
“You seem quite content with yourself,” she said gently, noticing the staff and the gigantic grin on his face, “is it the prefectship?”
Blushing, Arthur quickly removed the staff from his lap and leaned it against one of the table’s legs. “Well, it’s more than just that,” he admits, “I mean, I also finally managed to score a satisfying SAT score -- what a burden that was!”
“How wonderful. Then I can assume that you invited me here to celebrate your achievements?” she asked in playful mockery.
“No,” he replied quickly. After a moment of thought, he added, “You know, I felt that it has been a perfect day for me.”
“Do tell me about it, Arthur.”
He inhaled deeply, carefully choosing his next words. “As you may know, Olivia,” he spoke softly and slowly, articulating each syllable as precisely as possible, “my parents were extremely conservative, believing socializing is a waste of time and effort. They preferred me to be studying and reading during my free time. But for some reason today they decided to grant me full liberty to do as I please. That is how I was able to arrange this little meeting of ours. However, I thought it was very strange that it happened on the same day as I received my prefectship and SAT scores.” The coincidence of three of my dreams is just too perfect.”
As if all this was just a dream, Arthur thought to himself. Discarding the unpleasant thought, he continued, “I may never have this opportunity again. I just wanted to tell you one thing.” He could feel the blood rushing up to his head and how his face just became an irritable source of warmth. He thought he could hear his own heart, beating ever so loudly and so fast a speed.
“I wanted to tell you,” Arthur gathered up all his inner strength, ignoring the judgement and embarrassment that might follow, “that I …...”
He trailed off, unable to finish the sentence. It was not that he was afraid to disclose his true feelings, but rather that he had sensed something was not right. He could no longer hear the non-stop chattering in the background: everything was silenced. Then he noticed her unblinking eyes and eerie stillness that had enveloped the restaurant. It was as if time itself had stopped.
His hands started to tremble and a sudden coldness emerged out of nowhere, making his entire body shudder with fear. He had begun realising what was happening and a sense of desperation overwhelmed him. Arthur cursed himself for not being so stubborn: of course everything was too perfect!
“NO!” Arthur howled in frustration as the world around him started to swirl and dissolve into the void. “IT MUST NOT BE!” All his dreams achieved, and this was to happen! Was God Himself mocking his life and failures?
Out of the abyss a firm hand gripped his shoulders, shaking his entire body and forcing them out of that perfect world. But Arthur’s consciousness lingered, holding on to a last strand of hope, even as a familiar voice sounded in his ear. He could not let go of all this. He made one last attempt to take Olivia’s hand…
...and grasped at empty air.
The struggle was done. Arthur unwillingly opened his eyes to face the cruel reality. It was dark and cold, polar to the warmth and comfort of that little restaurant. His friend Luke’s grinning face beamed down at him, as if he understood Arthur’s plight. But he was smiling for a completely different reason. A soft whisper, inaudible in Arthur’s state of confusion, floated through the chilli air. He only heard two words and they sent a tremor of fear down his already shivering body.
It was, a dream deferred.
Arthur was lying on a hard and rocky surface. Quite uncomfortable actually, not to mention the cold wind harassing his exposed face. He was quite surprised by how real the dream seemed, despite his surroundings. The only comfort he had was the warmth of his trustworthy sleeping bag, but now he must leave it to embrace the cruel reality.
Groaning, he sat up and examined his whereabouts. Of course he knew where he was, but he wanted to make sure it wasn’t just another illusion. Rubbing his eyes, Arthur took a while to adjust to the darkness. He was in a clearing, surrounded by five other sleeping bags. All swelled like gigantic cocoons except the one to his left, which was unoccupied. Luke’s. Two huge trees stretched out from either side of the dreaming campers, sheltering them with their protective arms. Beyond the trees was a desert-like plain, littered with rocks of various sizes. A bit further, tall grass sprouted along what appeared to be a dirt track, their long tendrils swinging slightly from side to side. All this wilderness confirmed Arthur’s location: the Pilanesberg Game Reserve.
A fire crackled near the far end of the clearing. A lone figure hunched over it, stirring and tending the flames. The sight immediately reminded Arthur of his duty. He sighed and clumsily got dressed. It was quite a task in this darkness, fumbling through his clothes while shivering from the cold. In the end, he managed it, but only after he discovered that he was wearing a sock on his left hand. He stumbled towards the fire, desperately needing the warmth . His watch read 11:35 pm.
Luckily, Luke did not mind waiting for his friend and taking on a longer shift. “Did you have a good rest?” he asked as Arthur emerged from the darkness.
Arthur nodded, teeth chattering and unable to respond.
“Thought so,” Luke’s broad grin widened, his eyes reflecting the dancing flames, “You had this gigantic smile on your face when I woke up. Dreaming of her again?”
Arthur flinched in surprise, still suffering from the disappointing aftermath of that dream. But his friend was just joking. He gave Luke a friendly punch on the shoulders. Luke allowed the blow to land, ignoring it. He gestured toward the tin pot lying in the sand. “The water’s boiled. Help yourself with some tea.”
Luke stood up from the rock he sat on and dusted the dirt off his trousers. He handed Arthur a torch and an hourglass. He reluctantly accepted, already feeling the heavy burden of duty on his shoulders. His shift had begun.
It was his third night in the Wilderness Leadership School, but Arthur was still afraid. Night watch seemed straightforward enough: he just needed to stay awake for three hours, keep the fire alive, and watch out for any wildlife. Though it was no physical task, it was a mental challenge to test the candidate's bravery and endurance. He had been lucky the first two nights, doing shifts when there was still light in the skies. But now he was forced to face the fears and uncertainties of this perpetual darkness. Midnight had arrived to torture him with the three things he feared the most: darkness, isolation, and failure. Arthur switched on the torch, hoping its dim glow might grant him the courage he desperately needed.
The ray penetrated into the abyss, illuminating the savannah that seemed to stretch on indefinitely. Withered trees and strange rock formations scattered across the sea of dry grass, their shadows lurking beneath the torch beam. There was a malevolent feel to these stationary objects, as if they were alive and watching Arthur’s every move. A single tree caught his attention. Its gnarled trunks, twisted branches, and half-peeled barks seemed like a distorted face, smirking at him in the distance. This isn’t real, Arthur told himself, it’s all just images conjured by the unstable mind. He turned away, barely escaping his own paranoia.
Arthur finished his border patrol, relieved that there were no signs of wildlife. Not yet anyway. He had been warned that many animals would be active during this time and it did not help that a hyena was spotted near the campsite the previous night. He had no desire to encounter such hideous beasts at this time of the night. Deep down inside, however, Arthur was more afraid of what might be lurking in the darkness: the monsters of his own conjuring. Weary of the psychological torment, he retreated to the campfire. There was no more sand left in the hourglass -- an hour had already passed.
Trying to distract himself from the angst, Arthur proceeded to tend the fire. It was almost out, shrinking to one tenth of its former glory under Arthur's neglect. He dragged a log from the woodpile and shoved it onto the dying embers. Nothing happened. Cursing, Arthur grabbed a handful of dry grass and tossed them onto the log. Immediately, they burst into flames, hungry read tongues licking the dry wood. Arthur sat back and marveled at his handiwork.
The flames rose higher and higher, mesmerizing Arthur with its furious dance. He stared deeply into it, but his mind had already drifted off. Gone was the fear of darkness and isolation, replaced by distant thoughts of his past and future. He could still vividly recall the dream and how it abruptly fell apart. He wished that he could have lived longer in that alternate reality, fearing that he might never achieve his goals in real life. A sudden agony overcame him, its familiar grip tightening on Arthur’s shoulders -- the burden of failure. He thought he could hear the voices of his parents, angry and disappointed, criticizing his carelessness. Moreover, he felt a silent rage at the injustices of his miserable life, having absolutely no freedom or autonomy. He was just a boy! Why can’t he have what others take for granted?
Then, as if responding to Arthur’s melancholy, a distinct voice echoed throughout the eerie silence: “Arthur, you are a failure.”
Arthur turned around, startled by the voice. It sounded so familiar yet he could remember to whom it belonged. He shone the torch into the darkness. Nothing. All the sleeping bags were occupied and unmoving, so it could not have been one of his fellow campers. Besides, how could they possibly read his thoughts? Was it simply a hallucination, just like that dream?
“You are a failure, Arthur.” The voice sounded again -- it came from the fire! He picked up some parts of a nearby bush and tossed them into the campfire. To his astonishment, they did not burn up. Instead, they lay unburnt among the ash in perfect stillness.
“And no, this is not a dream.”
The flames rose higher and higher, blazing so bright that Arthur had to shield his eyes with his hands. Was this the fabled Burning Bush of God Himself?
“Who are you?” Arthur demanded, though he was quite frightened of this unnatural inferno looming before him.
“I am who I am,” the Voice chuckled, amused by his own quotation,” It does not matter. What matters is why I am here.”
“To mock my miserable life?”
No, Arthur!” The Voice was annoyed, “Have you ever wondered why you always fail, no matter how hard you tried? Take the SAT, for example. You still haven’t reached your goal, even after two attempts! Why?”
Arthur winced painfully at the facts, but said nothing. He was both ashamed and amazed by how the Voice knew all this.
“It wasn’t just carelessness, was it? What about your ‘grand plan’ to run for Custos? It’s merely two months away from the election and you’ve done nothing! Do you call that sloth?”
Again, Arthur was too ashamed to admit his faults. He lowered his head in embarrassment, not knowing if his fellow campers can hear all this. What would they think of him?
“Not to mention your so-called ‘long-distance relationships’ over social media. Why can’t you just tell your parents about it? Coward!”
Enough had been said. Arthur could not bear the insults any longer. He clenched his fists in defiance. “What do you want?” he snarled through gritted teeth.
“To educate you!” the Voice cried. Then it softened,” it’s for your own good to listen to what I have to say. It is true that your parents demand highly of you, but you can’t blame them for all your follies. You will never succeed if you just daydream all day and not change your ways.
Firstly, you need to change your attitude. Be optimistic and believe in yourself. Just remember, everything is possible only if you try.”
He is right, Arthur thought to himself as he silently nodded in agreement. He sat up and listened intently.
The voice continued, calm as ever, “secondly, acknowledge your own faults. No one is perfect, but the only way to improve is to correct your mistakes. So blame yourself the next time you fail to succeed.
Lastly, persevere in everything you do. There are always obstacles on the road to success. Conquer them and you will conquer your dreams.
“Who are you?” Arthur asked again, this time in admiration and thankfulness.
“You really want to know?” the Voice smirked. He nodded.
The Voice sighed, “Very well, then.”
The flames slowly died down, revealing a figure sitting opposite Arthur. He was in his mid-thirties, but his appearance tells a different story. Half of his jet black hair was lined with silver, not by age but by hardship. A neatly trimmed moustache -- one that Arthur always wanted -- hid his mischievous grin. But his eyes were sad, staring at Arthur through pain and regret. Although twenty years had passed, his face was unmistakable.
Arthur gasped. It was his own.
“This is impossible! Physics wouldn’t allow…” Arthur trailed off as his older self motioned him to be silent.
“I need you to promise me one thing -- that you will take my words seriously and carry them out in real life. Only then will you escape my past,” he paused, “and your future.”
Arthur nodded. He could already feel the impact of this encounter on his entire life.
“Good. Then I shall be on my way, if physics allows it.” Arthur Senior grinned, standing up and wiping the dust off his clothes.
A cool breeze drifted through the clearing, twirling leaves in a circle around Arthur Senior’s feet. His body began to fade, becoming transparent and dissolving into the empty air. The process was so subtle that it was as if he was never there. The only trace of his phantom presence was a strand of silvery hair left on the rock he sat on.
Arthur picked up the hair, only to see it slowly disappeared into oblivion. A new surge of determination surged through him. For the first time in five years, he had hope. He will change his ways. He could achieve his dreams. He was the master of his own fate, and he will not fail himself.
He stood up as the first rays of dawn crumpled the darkness around him. He grinned to himself: he has a call to make.
A new day. A new life.
It was not a dream deferred, after all.