And then he woke up.
He huffed out a breath and gasped. He was covered in sweat, even though the room was cool. His eyes were still shut, but he felt the wetness gathered at the rims of his eyelids. He squeezed and a tear rolled down from the corner of his eye and wet the outer rim of his ear.
Right away, he calmed. The intensity of whatever emotion he’d been feeling that brought him to tears just vanished.
He slowly opened his eyes. A drowsy frown formed at his brow.
He couldn’t remember the dream he’d been having. He couldn’t remember why he’d woken with a lump in his throat, soaked in sweat, on the verge of crying.
He took a deep breath and sighed. He was about to reach over to check the time when his alarm went off. He had hoped he would have time to close his eyes and try to re-enter his dreams.
He snoozed the alarm and lay where he was, but instead of dreams, his mind began to dwell on his agenda for the day. A couple of meetings, a report deadline, and he was out of eggs.
He snoozed the alarm a couple more times before getting up and getting ready for work.
That day, he forgot all about the sudden way he’d woken that morning.
That night he went to bed as usual, and the next morning, he woke without incident.
The same was true of the following morning, and the morning after that.
So by the time it happened again, the morning sweats, feeling his heart in his throat, wiping away the tears gathered around his eyes, he had forgotten all about the first time it had happened.
Again, he couldn’t remember the dream—or the nightmare—that had led to such an intense reaction. He couldn’t even tell if he was weeping because he was overcome with joy or because he was overcome with fear or sorrow.
This time, he didn’t shake it off as easily. He was frustrated. He’d woken up feeling strong emotions before, but he’d always remembered at least the last few seconds of whatever dream had caused those emotions. And he’d also woken up not remembering a single dream, not knowing if he’d even had any dreams before he woke. But in those cases, he woke with no particular emotion at all—at least not one that was carried over from dreams.
He mentioned it to a couple of his colleagues at lunch that day. They made the expected suggestions. Changes to his nightly routine he could take to ensure he got restful sleep, lighting something lavender-scented, meditating, reading something pleasant and positive, and so on.
He didn’t much like the scent of lavender, but he did decide to try meditating or reading a comforting story before going to bed.
And for the next few mornings, he woke up without incident.
Then the weekend came, and one night, he decided to give himself a break from the meditating and the peaceful reading. Instead, he watched a few extra episodes of this or that.
The following morning, he woke catching his breath. He swiped the back of his hand across his forehead. He noticed something different. His hands were wet. They were…sticky.
He rolled to his side, toward the window, and brought his hands up to his face.
He blinked and sat up, keeping his hands up, trying not to touch anything.
He used his elbow to push aside the curtain and let more light into the room.
He looked at his hands again, turning them over and back.
They were covered in blood.
He glanced around the room, at his bed. He didn’t see any blood on the sheets, on the pillow.
He went to the bathroom and looked at his face in the mirror, thinking that he’d maybe gotten a nosebleed.
The pillow was clean, but that blood was still wet, so maybe he had just gotten a nosebleed.
But his face was bloodless. Except for a think streak of red across his forehead from when he’d run the back of his hand over it to wipe away the sweat. There was no blood under his nose. He sniffed. There was no blood inside his nose.
He would have been worried enough if he’d gotten a nosebleed. He’d never had one before—not since he was a kid. It probably would have made him wonder if he had a brain tumor or something.
But not finding blood anywhere else in his bedroom provoked a different terror.
He was scared that he had…done something. He didn’t know anything about sleepwalking aside from what he’d seen on television. And he had never been a sleepwalker before. But maybe it was all related to those dreams he couldn’t remember.
He checked his apartment on his way out that morning. He didn’t see any evidence that he’d been anywhere during the night. But then, he wasn’t sure that he’d be able to tell.
At lunch time, he sat by himself, and having no appetite for his turkey sandwich, he finally checked the news, terrified that he’d find a story about a mysterious local death.
He found no such story.
At least not that day.
He decided it was time to tell someone, someone who could help him. Maybe he needed brain scans, or maybe he needed therapy. He thought about calling his doctor, but when he went over what he would say for the reason he wanted to come in, he kept thinking they would have one of two reactions. Either his doctor would dismiss his complaint, and tell him to call back if he started having actual nosebleeds or headaches or other symptoms. Or maybe…they would call the police on him.
So he decided to try something else first.
He messaged one of his friends and met her for dinner that evening. The relief of telling someone the whole story brought his appetite back. His ate his entire dinner. And he took down the information of a therapist that his friend wanted him to go see as soon as possible. He promised to make an appointment. And then he asked her for the huge favor that he’d been waiting to ask.
“I want you to come over, stay all night, and monitor me. It doesn’t have be tonight. I know you’ll need to prepare—“
“I’ll do it.”
He felt a swell of relief so overwhelming that he blinked and glanced around to confirm…to confirm that he wasn’t dreaming.
His friend was, like him, a night owl. Except she wasn’t working a typical day job those days, so she wouldn’t have a problem staying up all night and then taking the next day off. She offered to come that very night.
“It doesn’t always happen every night,” he warned. That night of all nights, he might sleep as carefree as a kid on summer vacation, and wake softly, stretching and yawning to the sound of birds chirping merrily in the morning.
“I can do more than one night,” his friend said, pointing to his phone, “as long as you make that appointment first thing Monday morning.”
He mimed an “x” over his heart with his index finger.
He gave his friend instructions. If he should get up in the middle of the night and not respond to her calling out to him, she shouldn’t try to get in his way, but just follow him, take pictures and video, and call for help if it looked as if he was about to do something that could hurt someone—or hurt himself. She didn’t believe he had blood on his hands even after he told her that he woke with actual blood on his hands. But she also didn’t dismiss his concerns. He could trust her to take the task seriously. He could trust her not to be dozing on the couch come morning, even though they had set up a camera in his room pointed right to his bed. And he could trust her to be quiet enough to let him sleep, even with his bedroom door wide open.
And she was quiet. But he still couldn’t sleep at first. He was too nervous about what might happen. Half a dozen times, he thought about getting up and just sending his friend home, worried about what might happen if he actually was sleepwalking. He actually did get up once and head to the kitchen to put all his knives in a different position. His friend was at the kitchen table, drawing sketches for some upcoming projects. When she saw what he was doing, she took the knives and offered to hide them till morning. Then she gently urged him to go back to bed.
He felt slightly better after that.
And though he tossed and turned a few more times, he eventually drifted off into sleep.
The next morning, he woke with a start. He barely stopped himself from crying out, coughing and groaning instead. He wiped tears from his eyes, but then gasped and looked at his hands, relieved when he saw that they were not bloody. He pulled aside the curtains again, just to be sure. His hands were not bloody, but they were also not clean.
There were words written on the palm of his right hand.
Don’t Try To Remember.
He walked out to the kitchen, where he found his friend making herself some coffee and toast. He would make her some eggs, after he gathered himself. He plopped down on a chair at the kitchen table and show her his hand with the message.
She said that she peeked in on him a few times throughout the night. He was always in bed. They took a few pictures of his hand before he washed them. They checked the playback on the camera they’d set up in his bedroom, and sure enough he was in bed all night. His friend thought that he must have written the message himself, even though the handwriting looked unfamiliar to him. She pointed out that writing on a squishy surface while asleep or half-asleep could explain the handwriting.
When they scanned through the bedroom footage at the highest speed, they didn’t see him writing on his hand. So he wanted to slow it down and check. His friend needed to get some sleep, so she headed home. She offered to come back that night, and told him to look on the bright side. If he didn’t go anywhere the night before, and he still woke up from a dream he couldn’t remember, he was likely not sleepwalking. And he was most probably not out there murdering people. Something else was going on, and she vowed to help him figure out what that something was.
After she left, he scoured the video. He didn’t see himself writing the note, and his friend never came into the room. He knew she wouldn’t play a cruel trick like that anyway, but in case anyone else casted that doubt, the video proved that no one else had come into the room that night.
He wondered. Maybe he was being haunted. He’d heard that one of the elderly neighbors on a different floor had passed away a few months prior. That was about the time he started waking up in a sweat. Maybe he was being gaslit by a ghost.
He was trying to remember, and someone didn’t want him to remember.
Is that someone me? he wondered. Or is it someone else?
He had been trying to practice lucid dreaming. But either he wasn’t doing it right, or couldn’t do it right.
He continued meditating and practicing good sleep hygiene. He ramped down the stimulation to his mind before he turned in for the night. When he woke up, he wrote down anything he remembered of the dreams he had before waking. He did still have and did still remember the occasional normal dream.
Despite his calming bedtime rituals, he started waking up with that intense feeling every other day. He developed an aching tightness in the middle of his chest, as if his heart muscle was sore. His mind wandered at work, and not in a creative, daydreaming way. It drifted and sunk, and drifted and sunk, like a piece of shipwreck floating on aimless waves.
A few weeks passed. He didn’t wake up with any more notes on his palm or blood on his hands, or anywhere else. He never did have his friend over again to watch him through the night. He never did make that therapist’s appointment. He’d only wanted to go to find out whether or not he was hurting anyone other than himself. He was fairly certain that wasn’t the case.
One morning, he woke up lying still on his back and just weeping. He wasn’t sweating. His heart wasn’t beating fast. He was just quietly weeping, and he didn’t know why.
All that day he felt drained. It was a work day. A colleague asked him if he was okay. He just said he didn’t sleep well the night before and thought he might have had a bad dream. His colleague suggested a sleep aid. But he’d been avoiding going that route, worried that he’d be groggy and unable to get up. But more worried that any kind of new chemical or drug in his system would make it worse.
When he went home that day, he felt the urge to just lie down and close his eyes. Instead, he went to his bathroom sink and splashed his face with cold water, hoping to revive himself. He looked at himself in the mirror.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
But he didn’t know why he said it. And even though he was looking at his own face, he wasn’t sure who he said it to.
That night, he let his mind drift, and he drifted into sleep.
He found himself lying softly and peacefully in a black cloud.
This is the life, he thought to himself, nestling into the cloud.
But then the black cloud began to thin out and lighten, and he realized that he was sinking through it. He landed on his feet on concrete. He glanced up. Above him was an overcast sky. The air was cool and smelled like imminent rain. He was on a walkway. Before him was a high-rise building, some kind of hospital. People were going in and out. Some of them greeted him and waved to him. As he started toward the entrance, he returned their greetings.
He passed the stone slab that bore the name of the hospital, but he didn’t look at it. He knew its name.
He walked past the entrance, smiling at the young woman behind the front desk, Etty, who nodded to him. He made his way past people in sky-blue scrubs, and people rolling carts full of instruments, past doors marked with room numbers and symbols, to the elevator bank at the end of the hallway. He pushed the button for the seventh floor. He checked his watch. He was early.
He was always early.
The elevator dinged and the doors slid open. He was greeted by a smiling nurse, Ben, who said, “You’re early.”
He shook his head. “Too bad I can’t carry that over to waking. I’m always late in the morning.”
“Is it getting worse?” Ben asked, as they both began to walk toward the suite at the opposite end of the hallway.
“I’m getting tired—not physically—but tired of not knowing.”
Ben sighed. “I’m sorry, J.”
He—J—waved a hand. “You’ll figure it out. It would be nice if I could just remember. You know, for recruitment purposes.”
“But if it’s easier to have me forget everything altogether that would work too, I suppose.”
“But if I can remember just enough to feel satisfied that I know why I feel so strongly, then I can just accept it and move on. I need something, you know?”
“Anyway, how have you been?”
Ben smiled. “The same.”
“Boo. Someday I’ll get you to tell me everything.”
Ben chuckled. They stopped at the suit and Ben swiped his card at the entrance.
The door slid open.
He—J—walked into the donation suite. He glanced at the bank of reclining chairs, and at the other donors. Most of them were already hooked up, the top half of her heads obscured beneath the half-helmet siphoning device.
But a few were just getting set up for the night. Familiar faces, all of them. J had been sharing this shift with them for half a year. He waved to a few, winked at one. A chorus of greetings replied.
J waited while Ben did the final checks on his chair. He did what he usually did while he waited.
He looked behind the bank of chairs, through the windows into the chamber beyond.
To the hospital’s sole patient. Or part of them anyway.
Only the back of the patient’s skull was visible. The skull spanned maybe fifteen feet across. J had never seen their face. The top of the skull passed beyond the ceiling of the seventh floor to the higher levels. The patient’s neck and everything below their neck passed below the bottom of the seventh floor. J had never seen those parts of the patient either.
Cables of varied colors dropped from sections of plate that were attached to the seventh-floor portion of the skull. Each of those cables led to the back of one of the chairs in the donation suite.
J’s color was dark orange.
He raised a hand and touched his fingertips to the glass.
“Hello,” he said, as softly as he could manage.
He knew the patient’s name. But if he spoke it, even in his dream, he might remember part of it, and it might shatter his waking mind, because his waking mind was contained within his physical brain. It just couldn’t conceive as much as his sleeping mind could.
But even his sleeping mind was not expansive enough by itself to rival the patient’s massive mind.
“We appreciate your help, J,” Ben said, as he said every session. He waved his hand toward the chair, indicating that it was ready. “We know how much this takes out of you.”
J turned away from the window and settled into the chair. “Aww, I bet you say that to all the donors.”
This was their usual exchange. Before they got to the real conversation.
“Ben, what happens if we can’t get to threshold?” J thought he knew, but he had never asked Ben out loud before.
Ben pulled the helmet down over J’s head, and J looked at him through the orange-tinted visor. Ben smiled down at J. “With the help of donors like you, we’ll get there.”
With the helmet on, J could see the truth. His eyes saw Ben smiling. But Ben wasn’t smiling. He looked worried.
J winced as he watched Ben make adjustments to the helmet. He paid especial attention to the auditory feedback readings on the visor. He remembered what happened the last time the calibration was off. His ears had started hurting. He’d clapped his hands to them by reflex just as they started bleeding. Ben had jumped into action. He’d pulled up the helmet and wiped off J’s ears to assess the damage. But he hadn’t had time to clean J’s hands before J spontaneously woke up.
Somehow, he had carried over that blood into waking. But he hadn’t carried over the memory of how the blood came to be on his hands.
He never carried over the memories.
The helmet engaged fully. The calibration looked good. J relaxed as his mental energies flowed through the cable at the back of the chair, and up into the giant skull that lay behind him.
Drink up, my friend, he thought. His dreams danced before his eyes across the visor.
Some of them were fun and frivolous. He found himself chasing after runaway puppies. Some of them were sorrowful. Some were frightening. And some were adventurous.
When the session was done, Ben returned and pulled up the visor. Other nurses were helping the other donors wrap up their sessions. Afterwards, the chairs would be cleaned and reset for the next shift.
J sighed a breath of relief. He would be waking up peacefully. He knew this because all the times he’d woken in a sweat, not knowing what he had been dreaming, not knowing what emotion had brought him to tears, it was because he was still in the chair, and he’d woken before his session had ended. His abrupt waking didn’t hurt the patient. There were buffer processes programmed into the chairs to make sure of that. It was only disruptive to the donor.
He noticed that two of the chairs were already empty. Those donors must have woken before end-of-session.
J had nothing unusual to report for that session, so he expected they would bypass the interview rooms. But Ben lingered by the rooms. Sometimes the rooms were used to give donors updates or new instructions. But Ben guided them back to the elevator banks.
The other patients had already left.
J got on the elevator, waving to Ben, surprised when the nurse hopped on with him. Ben stopped the elevator between floors.
“I’m allowed to tell you truth, because you won’t remember it,” Ben said. “But you’ve been trying to remember because of what I’ve told you. And you’ve been suffering. I’m sorry for that. But they need you. They won’t punish you, even if you…even if you bend their rules a little.”
J frowned. “Who? The hospital admin?”
“I’m the one who wrote the note on your hand. I’m sorry. I thought it would work for some reason. It’s like I wasn’t thinking. I mean, I know you better than that.” He dropped his gaze.
“You asked what would happen if we don’t reach threshold.” Ben took a deep breath and looked up at him again. “I’m sure you already know.”
J peered at his nurse. “We lose the patient.”
“There aren’t enough people these days,” Ben said. “Not enough volunteers.”
“Okay, well, I know a couple of people who might be compatible and who would probably do it.”
“It’s too dangerous. It’s too dangerous to remember everything. But you were right. You should be able to remember enough, enough to do something, change something.”
J shook his head. “Ben, I don’t understand. What are you trying to tell me?”
“They don’t want the patient to recover.”
J glanced up at the camera in the upper corner of the elevator. “Who? Why?”
“I’ve seen the data. I’ve asked some questions. Gotten no answers. So I’ve just been watching, watching everyone and everything.”
Ben’s words sounded paranoid, but he spoke them so calmly and deliberately that J said nothing, but only listened.
“They’re afraid of the patient waking,” Ben said. “They’re afraid of losing control. We’ve been the only sentient species on the planet for a long, long time. As far as we know anyway.”
“What…? Then why bother with the hospital and—“
“You know why.” Ben reached out and touched my forehead. “You’re a donor.”
An image flashed through J’s mind, not something he’d seen, but something he’d experienced. Something he’d experienced, but could not have experienced. No human could have. He was standing on the moon, admiring the glittering rings and gleaming moons of the planet Saturn, with his naked eyes.
J’s eyes widened. “I’m also a recipient.”
“Of knowledge and memories and experiences that are being taken and hidden behind the phenomenon of dream amnesia,” Ben said. “It’s normal for us to forget out dreams. Most of us don’t think twice about it. But have been these past couple of months.”
Ben pressed a button and the elevator continued downward. When the doors opened, J peered out cautiously, as if some authority would bear down on them both and drag them away for speaking of things that should remain unspoken.
But the first floor looked the same as it always did. People in sky-blue scrubs rushing past. People rolling carts full of instruments. Etty at the front desk waving goodbye.
The only difference was that Ben was walking him out.
They walked out some distance from the hospital. Ben took J’s hand as if to shake it. J felt something in his palm.
“Take it, once you’re on the cloud,” Ben said. “And if I don’t see you again, it’s been a pleasure. Maybe…maybe in the waking world?”
“Am I not coming back?”
J squeezed his hand around whatever Ben had given him. “Ben, if this gets you fired, or…”
Ben waved a hand. “I’ll be fine. And it’s your choice. We’re good either way, you and I.”
The clouds were gathering, grower grayer, darker, drifting lower.
J backed into one as he waved goodbye to Ben. He felt the cloud condense around him, soft and cool. He lay back into it. And as it grew black and as it rose into the upper sky, he finally looked at what Ben had put in his palm. It was a piece of taffy. He unwrapped it. It was a rainbow swirl, bright and vibrant against the calm black cloud.
J lay back. He put the candy in his mouth and started chewing as he closed his eyes.
And then he woke up.
And this time…he remembered.
Copyright © 2020 Nila L. Patel