Steve was pretty sure he would have loved the library even if it weren’t his Dreamscape. Every book was a possibility, he felt; with each one, he could tune out the world around him and escape, or learn something, or — as in the case of Jules Verne — both at the same time.
So the New York Public Library would have been a place he loved to go anyway, but when he was sixteen, it took on another, deeper significance.
Not everybody had a soulmate; all things considered, about half the people in the world did. There wasn’t any particular rule about who got one and who didn’t — white people, black people, men, women, city, country, rich or poor, there were folks with soulmates everywhere. There were some people who said that there were more folks with soulmates in the country, or among the rich, but that was just rumor... Just like the people who said there were more soulmates than there used to be: rumor.
But there was one group that everybody knew for sure was less likely to have a soulmate, and that was all the folks who were as sick as Steve. Doctor after doctor had told him that he would be lucky to reach adulthood, lucky not to die of one of the dozens of fevers that ripped through the neighborhood; certainly, none of them had ever thought that Steve would have a soulmate.
Apparently, the universe didn’t care, because when Steve was sixteen, he dreamed himself into the New York Public Library— the downtown branch, in Manhattan.
The first dream, he didn’t even notice. It wasn’t like he’d never been there before; he’d gone up there with his school, once. Another time, he and his mother had visited after a Labor rally. So finding himself standing in the middle of a nearly-deserted street outside the library wasn’t really that bizarre, and he had started just ambling about, as you do in dreams.
The street really was nearly empty, although a lot of the folks who were out seemed awfully nosey for New York. The oddest part about the dream was the sense of urgency: there wasn’t one. Usually, Steve’s dreams — especially the ones he remembered — were purposeful, full of dire messages to be delivered, or damsels to save, or wrongs to be righted. This one, though, was just... a street. There was no plot to this dream.
It lasted five minutes, and Steve was nonplussed for all of them.
Here was how it worked: Not everybody had a soulmate, but if you did, you could meet them in the Dreamscape.
Sooner or later, you’d meet them in real life, too. Mrs. Johnson, down the street, had always laughed about the fact that her Dreamscape had been Ellis Island, and as soon as she got off the boat, there her Michael was!
“That was how I knew I had to come to America,” she would tell them in her thick, thick brogue, which had never vanished even after all her years in Brooklyn. “I had met my man Michael in the Dreamscape, and my Dreamscape was here; there was just no question of it!” So Mrs. Johnson — then Katie O’Leary — had gotten on a boat, crossed an ocean, gotten off, and run straight into the only familiar face.
Mr. Johnson, she always told them, had been smiling.
Mr. Fitzpatrick, from the apartment next door, had told Steve once about his Dreamscape, too. “When I was a young man,” he had said tiredly, propping the stump of his left arm on the arm of the chair, “It was just a field.” He pressed his lips together, shaking his head. “It was just a damned field. I couldn’t know... Well.”
Mr. Fitzpatrick had eventually met his sweetheart on the remains of a battlefield in World War I. She had crawled right on top of him, trying to search his body for rations, only to recognize him and drag him to safety, allowing him to recover. She nursed him all the way back to health, only to be killed when the war swept back over them.
Mr. Fitzpatrick never said her name, but even so, the whole neighborhood still knew she’d been German. Steve had always tried not to hold it against him; it wasn’t Mr. Fitzpatrick’s fault who his soulmate was.
The second dream, he had a strong sense of deja vu. The nearly-empty street, the large house—mansion, really — on one side, the library on the other... The aimless way nothing was happening...
This was definitely familiar.
Well, he wasn’t going to break into somebody’s house, not even in a dream. He took the steps up to the library, instead.
It was just as lovely as he remembered it: soaring ceilings, row after row of warm wooden bookcases... He sighed, happily.
But why was he here? Was there something he needed to be doing...?
Panting and thrashing in confusion, he woke up.
Here was how it worked: If you had a soulmate, sooner or later you would meet them, face to face, in the place you’d dreamed of — and if you didn’t have a soulmate, well, then, you just never entered the Dreamscape at all. Personally, Steve rather liked that his Dreamscape was the Library; he thought maybe it meant his soulmate would be smart.
By the third time, he was sure it had happened before. Looking around— almost glaring at the otherwise-inoffensive pavement — he knew this was not the first visit.
This was the moment when it hit him for the first time that maybe this was the Dreamscape. He was so startled by the idea, his poor, irregular heart started beating hard enough to wake him right back up again.
There were certain well-known rules of etiquette for the Dreamscape. First, one didn’t enter private spaces: people who met their soulmates in houses, or dormitories, or such, just occupied the part of the Dreamscape outside of the private area, like the street or yard (for houses) or the common rooms (for dormitories). There had been a famous court case a few years back where a policeman had caught a thief casing a house in the Dreamscape, and when they’d prosecuted the thief, he’d gone to jail.
Second, it was considered extremely rude to try to break the Dreamscape. Things like pounding on walls, throwing rocks through windows, and so forth, while obviously they wouldn’t do any permanent damage — those who had tried it typically found the walls and windows magically restored the next time they visited — were just as distracting as they would be in the real world, as well as carrying the implicit rejection of the idea of having a soulmate.
And third, it wasn’t polite to stare, because in the Dreamscape, people found it difficult to look away from their soulmate. Mrs. Johnson, for example, always talked about how she’d known Michael was the one for her because “it was almost like he’d been shining!” In the ‘Scape, she had always just looked right at him, and he had looked back. (When he was very young, Steve had thought that sounded awfully boring.)
So staring at someone who wasn’t your soulmate, obviously, would give a bit of a mistaken impression.
After the third time he had the dream, Steve was certain. He went around smiling for a week straight, only to get into a fight with Matty Wilson because, in Matty’s view, Steve Rogers just didn’t have anything to smile about that much.
Shows what you know, Steve thought as Matty’s first smashed into his cheekbone. I’ve got a soulmate!
Here was how it worked: if you had a Dreamscape, then you were going to meet your soulmate. There had never, as far as Steve knew, been an exception.
He wondered, as he watched the ocean getting closer, how exactly he’d managed to mess that one up.