Welcome to the second of twelve short stories I will be writing this year: one each month. I hope you enjoy and feel free to leave comments below.
In my dreams, all that awaits is The Ocean.
That’s the only name I have for it. It’s a vast plain of water that extends as far as the eye can see. There are no landmarks, no terrain, nothing but blue forever. Far above, I can see shafts of light breaking through, but no surface.
But that isn’t even the strangest thing about it. During the dream, I feel peaceful and calm. I float without a care in the world. But when I wake up, I find myself drenched in a cold sweat, my heart pounding and my hands shaking. I’ve run into the bathroom so many times to find wild green eyes staring back at me, light brown hair damp with sweat. I grip the sink as hard as I can, usually so much so that my hands grow sore.
Then, it just stops. The terror fades and no trace lingers. I wipe myself off with a wet washcloth and return to bed, my wife Carrie still sound asleep.
Night after night this has happened for months now, the same dream over and over again. But it never impacted my daily life, just my sleep. I figured it would pass in time, that it wouldn’t be a problem.
I was wrong.
“Mr. Turner, the doctor will be with you in a moment.”
I raised my hand and nodded at the receptionist. But she had already gone back to her work, typing away at the computer. Her manner was blunt, unfriendly. She greeted people with about as much cheer as a rock. That being said, I couldn’t blame her. From the looks of things, she was about college age, which meant that she was probably working two separate jobs and going to school at the same time.
Anything to pay the bills.
Taking my eyes off the receptionist, I let them drift across the white plaster walls of the waiting room. Just a month ago I never would have thought I’d end up here, paying someone whose entire job was to listen to people whine about their problems.
Hubris, thy name is John Turner.
Looking back on things, it wasn’t even the dream that did me in. It was everything else…
The first time it happened I was on my way home.
I worked in the city and lived in a small suburban community just on the outskirts. Normally I could just drive on the main road into the city and get to work easily, but then they started construction and blocked off fourth avenue. So I was forced to take the freeway instead. It added about fifteen minutes to my drive, but I didn’t mind. The route took me through some countryside scenery that I didn’t get to see very often: green trees lining the side of the road, the sun streaming down from above…on days when it wasn’t cloudy.
In any case, I was on my way home from work. It had been a perfectly ordinary day where nothing interesting happened. I was ready to get back home, have dinner with Carrie, then sit down on the couch and watch some TV.
It started when I was fumbling with the radio. I was looking for a different station, adjusting the dial, when suddenly I could barely hear the radio. The music coming through the speakers sounded muffled and far away. Then the numbers on the clock and the radio dial began to shimmer and warp. They pulsed and waved like reflections in a pond. I would have considered it magical, if my heart hadn’t been beating at a hundred miles a minute.
The road grumbled beneath me. In a flurry of panic, I snapped my head up and jerked my car back into the lane.
That’s when I noticed. It wasn’t just the radio. It was the entire world.
The trees on the side of the road looked like quivering, amorphous snakes. Their branches and leaves were warping side to side. The lines on the road kept snaking left to right. A car passed me by. It might have been a dark green, but it was impossible for me to tell. All the colors in the world were dull, filtered through a strange blue haze.
Even in my impaired state I spotted a rest area off to the side of the highway. Without thinking I jerked the wheel hard to the right, streaking across the other lane of traffic. A distant beeping reached my ears, probably someone honking at me in anger after I cut them off. Speeding into the parking lot, I picked an empty spot just past the entrance. I jumped out of the car without even turning it off. As I ran down the grassy hill past the lot I tripped and fell flat on my face.
I rolled over onto my back and stared up at the sky. The clouds shimmered and shook. The world pulsed all around me and my stomach churned. I snapped my eyes shut, unable to shake the sensation that I was going to fall off the face of the planet.
And then it all stopped, just like that.
After a moment, I opened my eyes. The world had returned to normal, the sunlight now blinding and forcing me to squint. I got to my feet and brushed the grass off my pants and shirt. I slowly walked back up the hill and toward my car. With a grimace, I noticed the green stain on my leg. And on my good pants too, I thought to myself.
“Bro, are you okay?”
I stopped and turned in the direction of the voice. A little ways away, just a couple of spots from where I left my car running, was a young man kneeling by the side of his car. He looked like your typical dude-bro college guy: baseball cap, white t-shirt, baggy blue jeans. He was apparently in the process of changing a flat tire. His car was jacked up and he was holding a crossbar in his hand.
“Dude, do you need help or something,” he asked.
I was suddenly and acutely aware of everything I had done: cutting across lanes of traffic without signaling, parking haphazardly across two different parking spots, running and tripping down the hill in a frenzied panic. Embarrassment overwhelmed me and I was all but certain that my cheeks were bright red with shame.
I jumped into my car and drove off without saying a word.
I didn’t say anything to Carrie that night at dinner. She had been working overtime lately. The engineering firm was in the midst of a special project with power plants all around the state. Something about increasing efficiency I think. I can’t remember. In any case, I didn’t want to add more to her plate. She had enough on her mind.
I remember thinking she knew something was wrong, or at least suspected. Her deep blue eyes had scanned me from across the table, peeking out from under the bangs of her long, reddish hair. At work she keeps her hair tied up in a scrunchie, but at home she lets it hang loose around her shoulders.
I could feel her gaze probing me, searching for a hint, a clue as to what was wrong. She didn’t ask me outright. She’d never been one to pry. But I can tell she wanted to.
The events of the day had definitely taken their toll on me. I assumed that my strange incident was just a by-product of me not getting enough sleep, so from that night on I started going to bed an hour earlier than normal. The Ocean still haunted my dreams, but I felt a little more rested during the day.
Like a fool, I assumed that my incident was only a fluke…
The second episode happened while I was on my lunch break a week later.
My workplace was nothing special. It was your typical cubicle nightmare, rows as far as the eye could see. Everything was nearly identical: each cubicle had a small desk with drawers, a brown coffee mug, and a computer. I didn’t mind it. I was never much of a creative or artistic person growing up. But I was always good with numbers. So it made sense that I ended up at an accounting firm, working a nine to five job.
When our lunch break came, I was relieved. Staring at the computer screen all morning was making my eyes hurt and I hadn’t slept too well the night before. So I took leave of the cubicle and made my way to the break room. Like everything else at the office, the break room wasn’t special: white tables and chairs, some cupboards, a refrigerator, a counter with sink and microwave, and a dishwasher.
For my lunch, I grabbed a small brown bag I had left in the refrigerator and sat down at one of the tables. It didn’t take long before I spotted Paul walking into the room. I had met him in college and he was one of my best friends. He had light brown hair, brown eyes, and a youthful look about him. He wore a blue polo shirt with black dress pants.
You could tell he was different even before he said anything. His eyes roamed around the room like someone who could never sit still. Even his gait was unusually bouncy, almost like a kangaroo.
“Hey John,” he called when he spotted me.
“What’s up Paul,” I called back. He took a seat across the table from me.
“What you eatin’,” he asked. I held up my sandwich: plain lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise with some meat and cheese.
“Same old, same old,” I replied. “You?”
“Eh,” he shrugged, “I’m not having lunch today. I’m fasting.”
“Yeah, choosing not to eat food for a couple days, that kind of thing.”
“You do realize that fasting is dangerous right? Like it’s scientifically proven.”
“Ah…that’s just what all those government paid scientists want you to think.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Oh really?”
Paul was an avid conspiracy theorist, the kind of guy who never believed the official story.
“It’s all a product of the food industry,” he said. “They want you to think you need to eat more than you need to so that you’ll buy more. I mean, have you seen the food pyramid? How in the hell am I supposed to get six to eleven servings of bread and cereal in a day?”
“I suppose next you’ll be telling me that physical fitness is a sham as well,” I asked.
“Don’t mock what you don’t know John,” he said with a smile. I teased him about all the conspiracy stuff, but he understood it was all in good fun.
“In any case,” he continued, “that’s the least of it.”
“What do you mean,” I asked.
“You know that road closure on fourth?”
“Yeah. Almost made me late last month. What about it?”
“What if I told you the closure has nothing to do with road construction? What if I told you that there was never any road construction at all?”
“You gonna give me a choice between the red and the blue pill next?”
“Laugh all you want,” he said, “but tell me, have you ever actually seen the construction workers down there do any work?”
“Well no, but I’m not exactly driving by during peak work hours. And besides, isn’t that the cliché, that you never see them working?”
“That’s exactly what they’re counting on.”
“Oh? And what, pray tell, is actually going on down there?”
Paul gave me a knowing smirk.
“It all has to do with that construction site down on tenth street.”
“The new high-rise? I heard something about that on the news last week. There was some kind of industrial accident that halted construction…a machine malfunction that caused a small chemical leak or something.”
“Oldest story in the book,” Paul said, shrugging it off.
“So what’s the ‘real’ story then,” I asked.
“Okay, get ready for this,” Paul said, rubbing his hands together like he was a magician revealing his secrets. He paused a moment before his big reveal. “Aliens.”
I scoffed. “Seriously? Aliens? Hey, speaking of oldest story in the book…”
“I’m dead serious. There’s some really shady stuff going on down there.”
“Moving in large amounts of equipment, more than should be required for a chemical spill. I mean you can see the place from the freeway. Haven’t you noticed anything odd about it?”
I had to admit, he did have a point. I took a glance at the area once while I was stuck in traffic. There were large black trailer trucks driving in to the lot, but I was never able to see what came out of them. They drove down into the pit and out of sight. Still, I was a long ways from believing that extraterrestrials were involved.
“You still don’t believe me, do you,” Paul asked.
“I mean next you’ll be telling me it’s the Illuminati collecting advanced technology to further their New World Order.”
“Oh please,” Paul scoffed. “Illuminati, Reptilians, New World Order…it’s all a bunch of nonsense invented by people who try too hard to be counter-culture.”
I guess some things are too crazy even for Paul, I thought to myself.
“So what do you think it is then,” I asked.
“Well, I think they did find something down there, some kind of alien technology or craft. That site has given off abnormal electromagnetic readings since…forever really.”
“You could get abnormal electromagnetic readings from a gas station in Toronto. Doesn’t mean there’s an alien ship parked in the garage.”
“You mock me, but do you have any better explanation for what’s going on there?”
“Oh I don’t know,” I said, “…a chemical spill maybe? An industrial accident?”
Now it was Paul’s turn to scoff.
“Real clever John.”
“Well fine then. Tell me your theory.”
“With pleasure,” Paul said, relishing the chance. “Due to the abundance of electromagnetic energy and the fact that strange, unidentified lights have been sighted over the area recently, I firmly believe that they found some kind of alien spaceship buried beneath the ground. I think it’s been buried there for hundreds, maybe thousands of years, from a time before humans even walked the Earth. The government wants to study whatever is inside so that-“
Suddenly, I couldn’t understand what he was saying anymore. His mouth was clearly moving, but the words sounded like they were coming from miles away. My hands started to shake. Paul was too engrossed in explaining his theory to notice.
Then his mouth began to quiver.
Then his whole face.
Soon enough, his entire body was warping before my eyes. The white walls of the break room grew dull, covered by an invisible shroud of blue. I stared, unblinking, into the wavy chaos that had taken over the world.
Reflections, I thought. Reflections in a pond.
I gripped the table hard, trying to stop my hands from quivering. Then I saw a blurry, nightmarish figure slinking into sight behind Paul. I stared in alarm at this strange apparition as it approached, wondering if I should shout and warn Paul. Closer and closer it came, a menacing shadow that warped and shifted before my eyes.
A monster, come to devour our souls.
“John, you all right,” a voice said, clear as day.
And with that, everything snapped back into place. The monstrous shadow figure was revealed to be nothing more than another one of our co-workers named Adrian. Paul had stopped rambling. He glanced at Adrian for a second, then turned back toward me.
“John…what’s wrong,” Paul asked, squinting at me. “You’re sweating like crazy.”
I got up from my chair and looked at my hands. I flexed them for a moment as I tried to concentrate on my breathing.
“Sorry…I just…I have a bad headache,” I mumbled as I ran out of the room.
I stumbled into the single-person bathroom and locked the door behind me. My hands were still shaking and I couldn’t make them stop. I took a step and the floor swayed under my feet, causing me to crash into the sink and nearly bang my head against the faucet.
“This can’t be happening,” I muttered to myself.
The blue tint came back and permeated everything. My breathing was muffled and distant. The same sensation from the rest stop overtook me. It was like some unseen force was trying to carry me away into the ether.
“This can’t be happening…”
I collapsed to my knees, shaking and weak.
“This can’t be happening!”
An unearthly wind nipped at my heels. The world quaked. I gripped the white porcelain of the sink like my life depended on it. I was convinced that everything I ever knew and loved would fade away if I let go. My eyes closed.
“Stop…stop…stop,” I shouted.
Somehow, it worked. My ears cleared, the world stopped shaking, and the wind vanished. A moment later I opened my eyes again and got to my feet. Although it had subsided, I felt that something still wasn’t right. The lights were too dim and none of the familiar sounds of the office reached my ears.
“Hello,” I wanted to shout, but my voice came out as nothing but a faint croak.
I looked under the door and noticed there was no light spilling in from the bottom. The only thing beyond was an inky blackness, like a wall that prevented me from escaping. I turned back toward the mirror.
And I knew it was wrong. It was all wrong.
It wasn’t my reflection. I seemed fine aside from the traces of panic and sweat on my face. But the mirror itself seemed…off. The more and more I stared into it the more certain I was. I squinted as hard as I could, but I found nothing that would explain my irrational feeling.
I finally saw it when I leaned to the side.
At an angle, the inside of the mirror looked stretched, as if the surface now extended an impossible distance behind it. My mind had trouble grasping it all, but it didn’t appear solid anymore, like the glass had morphed into a thick liquid.
My heart beat in my ears.
My hands shook.
My breath was ragged and uneven.
An irrational compulsion took over, making me reach toward the mirror. My hand drew closer and closer to its surface. When my fingers were less than an inch away, I stopped and flinched. What the hell am I doing, I thought. This isn’t real. None of this is real. It can’t be…
But I forced myself to continue. After a moment my hand went through the surface and I gasped. It was cold…frigid even. I swished my fingers around, trying to get a sense for the world beyond. But a few seconds later something grabbed me and pulled with incredible strength. I screamed and tried to withdraw my hand from the mirror, but to no avail. I was being dragged into it.
“NO NO NO,” I shouted at the top of my lungs. “Somebody, anybody, for the love of god, help me!”
But I was alone, trapped in this nightmare world. There was no escape.
It wasn’t long before I was up to my elbows in the mirror. I fought it as hard as I possibly could, but it did nothing. Every time I struggled, I was only pulled in faster and faster. I forced my eyes shut, praying that it would all be over.
My face broke the surface, the icy world beyond now caressing my entire body. I opened my eyes-
-and found myself on the bathroom floor, looking up at the ceiling. I could hear hushed voices nearby.
“Hey, he’s awake!”
“Is he okay?”
“Why was he screaming?”
A moment later Paul’s face appeared above me with an expression of alarm. I turned my head and saw people crowded around the open doorway. The bathroom door was now laying in the middle of the hallway. Apparently they had to bust it down to get inside.
“John, are you all right? What happened,” Paul asked.
I had no answer for him. I had no answer for any of it.
My boss told me to take the next couple of days off, get some rest. I kept telling him I was fine, but even I knew that was a total lie.
I wasn’t fine.
I was terrified. I had no idea what was happening to me. And no matter how much I wanted things to return to normal, it just wasn’t happening.
Reluctantly, I took the offer. When I exited the building, the sun was shining bright and the birds were chirping in a nearby park. It was a peaceful day, but that did nothing to soothe my soul. I hopped into the car, turned the key into the ignition, and started my way home.
Normally the sights of the countryside were calming, but not today. The trees seemed to bend over my car with malice, greedily hiding the truth…
I arrived home half an hour later. Carrie and I were by no means rich, but we were able to secure a nice spot in a suburban neighborhood just outside the city. It was the spitting image of the American dream: two-story white house, white picket fence, flower garden, and a front porch with screens to keep the bugs out.
I pulled into the attached garage. As I turned off the car I looked over at the empty spot beside me. Carrie wouldn’t be back from work for at least a few hours.
Walking into the downstairs bathroom, I almost didn’t recognize the person in the mirror. He looked haggard and weak, dark circles underneath his eyes. I had kept telling myself that I could handle things. But the episode at work today was a clear indication that I was wrong.
I turned on the faucet and splashed some water on my face. Deep down inside I knew I should tell Carrie about what happened, but I kept coming up with reasons not to: she’ll leave me, she’ll call the police, she’ll commit me to a mental asylum. Scenario after scenario swarmed around my brain like a bunch of insects.
I’ll just take a couple days off and rest. Everything will be fine, I told myself.
The rest of my afternoon was spent on the couch watching daytime television. I had never thought about it before, but there was nothing worthwhile to watch during the afternoon. The vast majority was talk shows about cute animal videos or people mouthing off about the latest political hoopla. They talked and they talked, but said very little. It was like a massive echo chamber.
But as a proud American, I performed my duty by continuing to watch. Because…well what else was I going to do? Besides, it was a good way to take my mind off of everything.
And so I settled into the couch. At about a quarter to six I heard the familiar clunk of the garage door rising and the chugging of Carrie’s car as it eased into its spot. When she entered into the kitchen, she found me leaning against the living room doorway.
“Hey you,” I said with a smile.
“Hey,” she replied. “How was work today?”
“Oh…fine. Same old, same old.”
And for a fraction of a second, I saw her lips purse into a slight frown. As always, she saw right through me. She knew something was wrong, that something had happened. Perhaps she saw a flicker of shame in my eyes. Maybe something in my voice gave it away.
Or maybe it was the noise of the television in the background, which I never turned on until after we ate dinner.
Whatever the case was, the frown vanished almost immediately.
“Well that’s good to hear,” she said, trying her best to stay calm. But even I could hear the slight tremor in her voice.
For a brief moment, my mouth opened like I was ready to let the floodgates open and confess everything. I felt a powerful urge to tell her, to reveal the cracks that were forming within me. But my stupid pride won, as it always did. So my mouth shut as quickly as it had opened.
Carrie never noticed it. She was too busy emptying things from her purse.
“Hey, can you take care of the dishes,” she asked, pointing to the stack of plates next to the sink. “The dishwasher’s still on the fritz and the repairman can’t make it out until Friday.”
“Sure thing,” I said as I walked over to the sink, thankful for anything to occupy my mind.
“I’m gonna head outside and water the flowers. I’ll be back,” Carrie said. A moment later I heard the front porch door open and close.
I flipped on the faucet and got to work. For how monotonous it was, cleaning was a good way to clear the mind. And for a while, it worked. My mind was taken up by the slow swishing of the water and the dull circular motion I made with the sponge. I lost myself in the rush of water spilling out from the faucet.
I stopped. The plate and sponge hung from my hands as I stood like a statue, never moving. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I couldn’t even blink. And then…it was like time itself started to break down. I could actually see the individual droplets falling into the sink like rain drops. The air around me warbled, and my ears were filled with a distant ringing.
My heart thundered. My eyes quaked.
The sink, the plate, the faucet, even my hands became blurry, shifting figments of their former selves. Feeling the panic rise in my chest, I stepped backward and dropped everything from my hands. The plate made a muffled, distant clank as it fell into the sink.
My breathing was erratic. I felt like my chest was about to explode. I clenched my hands together, closed my eyes, and fought against the urge to scream.
It’s not real
It’s not real
It’s not real
But no matter how many times I told myself that, the nightmare wouldn’t fade. I could feel my entire body shaking and it wouldn’t stop. I knew I had to open my eyes, but every fiber in my being was telling me not to. The warbling grew louder and louder.
I had to do it.
I opened my eyes.
The world was a vast blue expanse as far as the eye could see-
-and then there was light. A blinding light. I had to shield my eyes as I sat up.
“What,” I mumbled, my vision still blurry.
I was on the living room couch. But how? My eyes whipped about the room…
…and settled on Carrie, who was slunk down in the armchair across the room. She was staring at me, a disconcerted look in her eyes. The TV had been turned off, so a long silence passed between the two of us.
“John,” she said finally as she sat up, “what in the hell was that?” Her cheeks were puffy and her eyes were red.
“No, you are not going to brush this one off,” she said, her voice rising to a near shout.
Her sudden burst of anger took me off guard and I was silent for a moment. Then she settled back into her seat and waited for me to speak.
“I…I don’t know what happened,” I began. “The last thing I remember is standing in front of the sink. I was cleaning the dishes when…when,” I paused, searching for the right words, “when suddenly the world…went away.”
Carrie’s eyes narrowed. “What are you talking about?”
“I can’t explain it very well,” I said. “Everything around me…was like an illusion that wasn’t really there. I closed my eyes and tried to tell myself it wasn’t real, that it wasn’t happening. When I opened them again, there was nothing but…water.”
“You don’t remember screaming?”
My eyes went wide. “What?”
“You were screaming John,” she said. “You were screaming and shaking and you fell to the floor and I didn’t know what to do and I-” She stopped, averting her gaze and trying not to cry.
I lowered my eyes to the floor. It was the office all over again.
Carrie took a few deep breaths, the expression on her face one of calm and determination.
“I knew something was going on with you. You’ve been waking up in the middle of the night a lot recently. And then there was that night last week at dinner where you were evasive whenever I asked you about your day. I knew the moment I came home that something else had happened. I should have pushed you, but I didn’t. I didn’t…and now this happened.”
I looked up into her eyes. And that’s what finally broke me.
“Oh god,” I moaned, burying my face in my hands. “Oh god, I need help.”
I heard Carrie get up and felt her sit down next to me. A second later her hands were on my shoulders, gently massaging them.
“John, it’s going to be okay. You’re going to be okay. I know someone who can help…”
Leaning back in my seat, I cast my eyes along the white plaster walls. A painting of a log cabin on the shore of a lake sat just opposite from me. To my left, a series of tall windows looked out over the city. We were on the thirtieth floor of a high-rise building. Most of the other floors were for accountants, business people, and the like. But some were for specialized professionals, like the psychiatrist I was going to see.
Carrie said the doctor’s name was Silas Lavoie. For some reason, the name “Silas” made me think of a snake. I had to push the image out of my head. I was never very trusting of psychiatrists. My stint with daytime television certainly hadn’t helped matters in that regard.
“Mr. Turner?” I turned toward the reception desk. “Head on in. The doctor will join you in just a moment.”
I entered the office. The moment the door closed behind me, all the noise of the reception area ceased to exist, as though I had walked through a portal into another world. The walls were made of a charming, varnished wood. Thick white blinds adorned the sides of a massive window looking out over the city. I could see the coastline in the distance.
In the middle of the room was a glass table. On one side of the table was the typical brown couch that you always see in the movies or on television. On the other side was the armchair I presumed the doctor sat in. Knowing my place, I sat down on the couch.
In the couple of minutes or so before the doctor entered, I imagined what he would look like: balding, glasses, stuffy suit and tie. He would speak with an overblown air of intellectualism, because he wanted to sound smart. But when the doctor finally entered with a clipboard in hand, I found that my assumptions were way off-base.
He wasn’t wearing a stuffy suit. He had on a pleasant red polo shirt and cargo slacks. Instead of balding, he had nicely cropped brown hair. When we shook hands and introduced ourselves, I noticed that he had a charming French Canadian accent.
But he was wearing glasses, so I got something right.
“All right John, let’s get started. I see you were referred to me by…” He flipped the paper on the clipboard over. “Ah! Your wife Carrie. I treated her sister you know.”
“Yes, Isabelle. She had serious postpartum depression after she gave birth to her twin boys…Carrie never mentioned that to you?”
“Oh uh…no she did. I guess it just slipped my mind.”
“These things happen,” he said as he began writing something on the clipboard.
“So…how much has Carrie told you,” I asked.
“Not a lot. Something about nightmares spilling over into real life.”
“Yes. I’ve been having the same dream for about four months or so now.”
“Then perhaps that’s the best place to start. Tell me about this dream.”
I described it as best as I could.
“And it’s endless? No landmarks? Nothing specific?”
“No just…blue. Like I said, I can see light coming from above but that’s about it.”
“How does this place make you feel?”
“Peaceful. Serene. Like I belong.”
“But when I wake up I…panic. I run into the bathroom and I find myself drenched with sweat. My hands are shaking and my heart is pounding. I can practically feel adrenaline coursing through my body. But then minutes later it’s all gone.”
“I see…” The doctor scribbled on his clipboard for a moment.
“Doc, how long is this going to take,” I asked.
Lavoie chuckled. “Oh if I had a nickel…I’m going to give you the same answer I give everyone. You won’t like it, but it is what it is. It’ll take as long as it takes. You can’t rush these things John, nor can you predict them. You could be done tomorrow or next week or two months from now. I really can’t say.”
“I understand…thanks for being honest.” Lavoie nodded, then wrote some more on his clipboard.
“Okay, next item: describe your workplace.”
“Not much to say really. Cubicles, computers, pens, and coffee mugs. Lunch break at 12:30. Just your typical nine to five job.”
“Run me through your daily routine.”
I spent the next five minutes going over it in as much detail as I could.
“Hmm,” the doctor mused once I had finished. “And it’s like that every single day?”
“Pretty much,” I said. “Every once in a while we get a special project, but most of the day yeah it’s just spreadsheets and numbers.”
“Hmm,” the doctor said again, jotting down some notes. “Well, my initial hypothesis would be that you feel trapped.”
“Yes, in your life, in your job. But more importantly, in your routine. You do the same thing every single day. When was your last vacation?”
“It was…god I can’t remember. Ten years ago maybe?”
“Well there you go. I would hypothesize that your dream of being in an ‘endless ocean’, as you describe it, hints at some desire to be free. That’s why you feel so at peace in the dream state. But when you wake up, you realize on a subconscious level that you’re trapped once again. So you panic.”
I shrugged. “Makes sense I guess. Sounds a little too Freudian to me though.”
“Don’t worry,” Lavoie said, “We’re not about to drag your mother into this.”
I had to admit, I laughed.
“Although it still doesn’t explain why you started slipping into that dream while you were awake,” Lavoie continued, his pen moving rapidly across the clipboard. “Maybe some kind of fugue state? Does your family have any history of psychiatric disorders?”
“Not that I know of,” I replied.
The doctor was silent for a moment as he continued writing. I shuffled in my seat, uncomfortable with the silence.
“I have another hypothesis,” Lavoie said after a moment. “Can you humor me for a bit?”
I shrugged again. “I suppose I could.”
“Good. Tell me about your childhood.”
And so I did. But I only got a minute or so in before a timer went off. Looking around, I spotted it sitting on top of a wooden dresser: a tiny, round white thing.
Funny, I thought. I hadn’t noticed that before.
“Oh well, looks like our time’s up,” Lavoie said.
“It’s been half an hour already?”
“Time flies when you don’t pay attention. Well I’ll see you next week John. Just keep patient,” he said as I stood up. “Keep at it, and you’ll get through this.”
The following session went by without much progress. I had no idea why Lavoie wanted me to go over my childhood again and again. Nevertheless, I entertained his request, playing along in the hopes that it would lead somewhere. But I started growing restless and irritated.
Fortunately, during our third session together, there was progress. I was in the middle of recounting my childhood when he raised his hand.
“There,” he said.
I shrugged. “I’m not sure I follow.”
“John you have a meticulous memory. You are able to tell me your exact daily routine at work and the events of your childhood. But around age nine or ten, your memory is suddenly spotty, full of holes. There’s a strange lack of detail.”
“So? I was a kid.”
“Yes, but you’re able to tell me quite a bit about that time you got lost in the grocery store when you were eight. Or about the time you accidentally trampled the neighbor’s flower garden when you were twelve. In fact, you can tell me a lot about your entire life. That’s just how your memory works. But at age nine or ten, there’s almost nothing.”
I hadn’t thought about it before, but he was right. I was stunned.
“What does it mean,” I asked, a little afraid of the answer.
“If I had to guess, I would say that some kind of tragic incident occurred when you were nine or ten. Your mind buried that memory because it was too troublesome for you. And now, I think that memory is trying to come to the surface.”
A snake slithered into my mind’s eye. I shook it off.
“So what can we do?”
“John,” Lavoie said, “I’d like to put you under hypnosis and try to recover that memory. Confronting it is the best way to deal with it. Do I have your permission to try?”
“Sure,” I said. “When can we begin?”
“Right now, in fact. That’s what the old pocket watch is for,” he said, proudly patting the golden watch sitting on the glass table.
“Has that always been there,” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, puzzled. “I always have it out during my sessions.”
“Huh,” I mumbled as I stared at it.
“Anyways, let’s get started. Lie down and put your head back. I’m going to start counting down from ten…”
John can you hear me?
Can’t breathe. Can’t see.
John, where are you?
Blue. So cold. Can’t breathe. Light. Light from above.
John, calm down! You’re going to be okay!
Can’t breathe. CAN’T BREATHE.
It’s not working!
We can’t stop! We’ve come too far to give up now!
Something’s coming. Breaking the surface.
Reaching for me.
Coming for me.
When I count to three, you will awaken.
So tired. Sleep.
And with that, I jolted awake. I was still in the psychiatrist’s office. My hands were shaking and my face was sweating.
“What,” I panted, “what happened?”
“I hypnotized you. Don’t you remember,” Lavoie asked.
“I don’t…I remember you saying to lie down but I don’t really remember much after that except-“
An image of blurry hands reaching flashed by my mind, making me flinch.
“After I put you under, I tried to bring you back to a time when you were ten years old,” Lavoie explained. “But the closer we got to whatever happened to you, the harder you started to push back. You started mumbling at first. Then later, you started screaming.”
“Yes. It was admittedly quite disconcerting.”
I rubbed my face with my hands and groaned aloud.
“In any case,” the doctor continued, “I think that will be it for our session today. It appears that hypnotism only made things worse.”
I stared ahead at the wall, a blank expression on my face.
“John? John are you okay,” Lavoie asked.
“I had a pool as a kid, didn’t I?”
“Yes you did. You’ve mentioned it to me each time we went over your childhood.”
“It was an outdoor pool set in the ground and surrounded by cement,” I continued, lost in thought.
“Yes. I don’t understand where you’re going-“
“There was a diving board. An old one. My parents were gonna get it replaced. But then it happened.”
“John…you never mentioned the diving board before. Why are you mentioning it now?”
I turned and looked at him.
“Because I remember.”
It had been one of the hottest summers on record. I was ten years old, playing in the backyard and I wanted to go for a swim. My dad told me to wait until he could be there to watch me. But I was impatient. I threw on my swim trunks and headed right over to the pool.
Even though I knew I wasn’t supposed to, I hopped onto the diving board. For a moment, I remembered my dad saying something about it getting old and being unsafe. But I shook it off as I approached the edge. I stared into the water. It shimmered white under the bright sun. It looked cool and refreshing. All I wanted was to dive in.
But when I started to bounce the diving board didn’t bounce back like it should have. It bent at an awkward angle and snapped, a large crack appearing in its surface. I slipped, the back of my head slamming down against the board. My skull vibrated and my head burned. I hit the water like a ton of bricks and sank down toward the bottom of the deep end. I tried to swim, but the shock of what had happened made my whole body numb.
I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t think. I was frantic, trying with all my might to force my muscles to work, to force myself to swim to the surface. But it was no use.
Then, it all started to fade. The fear vanished and a strange calm took its place. I felt tired. I just wanted to sleep. Everything seemed peaceful and right. I barely even noticed how the world started to fade away.
Something broke the surface. A pair of hands frantically reached for me. But they were so far away. So very, far away…
“The next thing I can remember is waking up on the grass, my father’s terrified, wet face looking down at me. Later, at the hospital, I asked him if he was mad at me. He just smiled and said he was glad I was okay,” I finished.
“A near-death experience like that as a child can be fairly traumatic. I imagine your brain suppressed the memory as a way of coping with it,” Lavoie explained.
“But then why now?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why did the memory surface now,” I asked.
“With things like this it’s almost impossible to say. Maybe your monotonous work routine triggered it somehow. Maybe the sight of something knocked it loose in your brain. Or maybe…it was time.”
“So…is that it then,” I asked.
“I imagine so,” Lavoie said. “Your dream should no longer trouble you now that you’ve confronted the memory.”
“Oh thank god,” I said with relief. I stood up from the couch. “Well thanks doctor. For everything.”
“My pleasure John. It is my job after all.”
I had to admit, I was wrong about Lavoie. He was a genuinely nice person who really cared. And to think, I was ready to brush him off as nothing more than-
The blood in my veins chilled. I stood rigid, my eyes fixed on Lavoie’s face.
“Carrie never had a sister, did she?”
Lavoie’s eyes narrowed in confusion. “John, I don’t understand. Of course Carrie has a sister. I’ve met her. I’ve treated her.”
“No, she doesn’t. She’s never mentioned her. I’ve never met her. She doesn’t exist.”
“Don’t you lie to me,” I suddenly screamed, growing angrier with each passing second.
“You’re obviously confused. Please, sit down for a moment. I’m afraid you might be having a relapse.”
“You’ve been lying this entire time,” I said, my voice low and sinister. “You never had any intention of helping me. Carrie never had a sister! I never had a pool as a kid and you never-“
With a snap, the world blurred. The blue shadow fell over everything. The ringing returned. This time, it was so loud that it caused me to cry out in pain and fall back onto the couch. I held my head in my hands as the noise assaulted my ears.
“Make it stop! Make it stop,” I shouted. My voice was so far away.
Gradually, the ringing faded. I looked up and stared at Lavoie. All traces of friendliness had vanished from his face. Instead, he fixed me with the cold stare of someone who was a complete stranger. His demeanor had changed, like he had become callous and mean in the span of the last few seconds. He was an entirely different man.
I stood up. Lavoie glared back at me with the same, unflinching look.
I dove at him, hands outstretched. But Lavoie rolled out of his chair and my hand fumbled uselessly against the fabric. The doctor got to his feet and was running for the door, but I was too fast. I grabbed him by the collar and dragged him backwards. He stumbled and fell into the glass table. It shattered with a crash, shards of glass littering the floor.
I approached Lavoie, ready to drag him to his feet. But he grabbed a piece of glass, got to his feet, and took a swing at me. I jumped back, but not quick enough. A jagged edge of glass caught the back of my hand, slicing it open. I gasped in pain and stumbled backwards.
Blood dripped down from my open wound, staining the floor.
I held my uninjured hand over the wound and turned my attention back to Lavoie. He had adopted a fighting stance, bouncing back and forth in front of me like some demented cartoon dancer. It was obvious he had no formal training in something like this and was winging it as he went along.
I glared at him. I wanted to kill him. My entire being seethed with hatred.
Lavoie stepped forward to deliver another swing. But I was ready this time. I ducked under his swing, the clear shard of glass singing just above my scalp. Moving quickly, I grabbed his arm and twisted as hard as I could. Lavoie’s demented howl of pain reached me from like miles away, a distorted bubbling that sounded inhuman and monstrous. He released his grip on the glass shard and it fell to the floor.
I grabbed him by the shoulders and threw him against the wall. Before he could recover I grabbed him the back of his head, and slammed him face-first against the wood. Then again. And again. He hit the wall so hard that it began to splinter and crack.
There was only darkness beyond: an endless, inky abyss.
I grabbed him by the shoulders and ran toward the large window overlooking the city. I threw the both of us against it, the hard glass exploding outward like confetti.
We emerged into a sunken world, an underwater metropolis.
The watery expanse from my nightmares had taken over. The pinpricks of light inside the skyscrapers looked like tiny, turquoise lanterns. Down below at street level, the people walked along the sidewalks as if nothing was different, their feet gliding over the twisting, warping shades of gray concrete. Distorted rays of light reached down from above, piercing the watery veil.
Lavoie wriggled in the water, trying to swim away. But I wasn’t going to let him. I grabbed him by the ankle and dragged him back down. My hands found his throat and began to squeeze. His eyeballs seemed to bulge out of his head and he struggled against me but to no avail.
I squeezed harder. Bubbles of air shot out of his mouth and nose.
Blood rushed to my face, making it swell with rage.
I squeezed and I squeezed. I wanted him dead. I wanted him to pay for what he’d done. He beat my arms with his fists, but I barely felt anything aside from blinding anger. I wanted to feel his throat collapse under the weight of my hands.
I wanted to see the last bits of life drain out of his body. I wanted to-
I snapped awake, a familiar clicking and ringing reaching my ears. The glare of the computer screen made my eyes hurt for a second before I realized where I was: back in my cubicle at the office.
“Hey John, get enough sleep there?”
I turned to find Paul standing nearby.
“Paul…how did I get here,” I asked.
“What do you mean,” he asked back with a laugh. “I mean, I would guess you drove your car, but for all I know maybe you flew here. The government’s been doing secret genetic experiments for a long time after all.”
“No seriously, how did I get here? I don’t remember coming in this morning.”
“Man…you must be more tired than you thought.”
My eyes darted back and forth around the office.
“Paul, you have to listen to me. The last thing I remember is being in the psychiatrist’s office,” I said.
“Psychiatrist’s office? A little on the nose, don’t you think?”
“I don’t know what’s a dream and what isn’t anymore.”
“Okay, don’t get all philosophical on me there Socrates.”
“Damn it Paul! I’m serious!” Several people looked over their cubicles at us.
“Okay okay!” Paul took a step toward me. “Just…calm down. We’ll figure this out. What’s the last thing you remember?”
“Like I said, I was in the psychiatrist’s office. We were talking about my childhood. And then…” I paused, searching for the words, “…something happened. I can’t really explain what, but it was almost like reality itself broke down.”
“John,” Paul said, his voice reassuring, “you know as well as I do that dreams can feel like they take place over days or hours. You’re probably just groggy and confused.”
“I am not confused. Something is happening here,” I insisted.
“Look, let’s just get back to work and we can talk about it over lunch.” He turned to leave.
“Paul…what day is it?”
He froze mid-step.
“Paul, what day is it today?”
He turned around to face me. He shook his head and shrugged his shoulders. “John…I don’t understand what-“
“You don’t know, do you?”
“You have no idea what day it is. And you never did.”
The warbling came from an incredible distance away. Paul’s expression sank into something familiar. It was the same vacant, hostile look that Lavoie had. Paul was no longer my friend. He was looking at me like a stranger.
The lighting flickered, becoming a dull shade of blue for a split second.
I stood up. I had to get out. I had to get away.
But Paul growled with anger and shoved me backwards. I fell back into my seat and stared at him in confusion. He moved toward me, but I reacted first. I reached out with my leg and kicked him in the chest, his entire body crumpling from the impact. I jumped up from my seat, grabbed him by the shoulders, and threw him against the desk. Before he could react, I grabbed the coffee mug and brought it down against his head. It shattered, pieces of brown ceramic exploding all over his face.
Then I ran. I dashed out of my cubicle and ran. All noise had disappeared: the ringing, the clicking, the talking. There was nothing but me, Paul, and the frantic hollow sound of my feet pounding across the aisle.
“Get back here,” I heard Paul roar from behind me.
I didn’t dare look back. I just kept running. I thought about using the elevator, but something about being trapped in a little box made my stomach churn. No, I was going to use the stairs. I spotted the door and rammed my shoulder into it, shoving it open-
-and then I fell, the world spinning about my head. Swirls of brown and red crisscrossed my vision as I tumbled end over end. I hit the landing with a hard smack, landing on my back. I groaned, closing my eyes for a second and rubbing the back of my head. Then my eyes registered where I was.
“What the fuck,” I said aloud.
It was the kitchen…the kitchen in my house.
“How in the hell…what is going on,” I shouted to no one in particular. I jumped to my feet and began running around the house in a panic.
“Carrie? Carrie!” She didn’t answer.
After checking all the rooms on the first floor I darted up the stairs, taking them two at a time. I kept calling for her, but received no answer. I checked the upstairs bedroom, the study, the bathroom, everywhere. I even pulled down the ladder to the attic and looked in there.
But there was nothing, and no one.
Mopey and defeated, I made my way back down the stairs. I had no control over anything anymore. It was as though I were subject to the whims of an invisible master, a callous child who was dragging me around just for the fun of it. I couldn’t fight back. I couldn’t win. Back down in the kitchen, I took a seat at the table and buried my face in my hands.
“I just want it to stop,” I moaned aloud.
I felt it before I saw it. A blue haze descended upon the world, dimming the bright yellow light of the sun. I stood up and looked out the kitchen windows. Shafts of light stretched down from above, casting a diluted glow upon the neighborhood. The houses drifted in and out of focus as I stared at them.
Then I looked up at the sky. My mind balked at what I saw.
I dashed out the front door, letting it slam shut behind me. There was no wind. Cars and houses lined the street, but there were no people. I stood next to Carrie’s flower garden, my head craned upward and my mind trying its best to comprehend what I was looking at.
The best comparison I could make was to a snow globe.
My house and the street beyond were normal, just empty. But all of it was surrounded by water, thick and blue and dark. It was everywhere, at the ends of the street, in the sky…all around me. The street seemed to carve out a small bubble of existence in this strange place. And an invisible force held the water back, kept it from consuming my little haven.
I walked out into the street, looking both directions. Empty and barren. I could hear the warbling of the water. I could see it moving, swirling around the invisible barrier keeping it from entering.
And then, the levee broke.
Water fell from above and water worked its way down the street toward me. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t think. I was terrified. But at the same time, I had to know. I had an inexplicable feeling that the answers I was looking for lay beyond that impenetrable ocean veil.
So I let it come.
The water snaked through the streets and reached down from above. When it finally hit me I wasn’t knocked off my feet like I thought I would be. It just surrounded me. My feet left the ground and I began to float higher and higher. The black asphalt of the street vanished beneath me: cars and all. The houses faded away, one by one, until only mine was left. It stayed there for a moment, almost like it was clawing at me, trying to prevent me from getting away. But then it too faded into the gloom, faded into nothingness.
And then here I was again, The Ocean.
It was just as I remembered it, endless and blue. I floated there for what felt like an eternity, enjoying the peace that came with it. I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t frustrated and confused. I was content to just be.
But then, a new sound reached my ears. It was a kind of beeping, one I wasn’t familiar with. And slowly, voices came along with it.
“Keep trying! We have to keep trying!”
A mysterious, curved object appeared in front of me. At first, I didn’t understand what it was, but then I realized I could see beyond it, like a window. I swam forward and peeked through.
Through the window, I could see into a room filled with pieces of computer equipment. People were running around in a panic, their eyes darting toward me every now and then. In the far back, next to some massive metal door, stood two people in black. They were wearing heavy Kevlar vests and held large assault rifles in their hands. Both of them had a stoic expression on their face, although I could tell they were afraid. I don’t know how I knew it, but they were gripping the rifles in their hands tightly. I could sense it.
Then I looked to the right. And what I saw only confused me more.
On a small computer screen there were rows of orange text, like bullet points. It was a list of ages: one to three, three to five, five to seven, seven to nine, and so on. I couldn’t grasp what it was all about, but then I saw the whiteboard next to it. It was a flowchart, with various branching bubbles.
And it all started with a large bubble in the center that read “pool accident”.
What the hell is this, I thought. Are they cataloging my whole life?
I scanned my eyes over some of the bubbles. One of them read “saved by” with two offshoots reading “mom” and “dad”. The one reading “dad” was circled three times over.
No, they weren’t cataloging my life. They were creating it.
It was only when I turned my attention back to the people that I finally noticed. I recognized them. Not just some of them. All of them. They were all people I knew from work, from my personal life, and so on. I even recognized the dude-bro college kid from the rest stop, although I realized he was much older than I had initially thought.
Then I saw Paul running around with a clipboard barking orders.
“I don’t care what it takes,” he was shouting. “Keep this under control! We cannot lose containment!”
I saw Carrie, a young-faced woman sitting at one of the computers. Whenever her eyes darted to me, I didn’t see any familiarity in them, although I may have recognized a trace of pity.
But why? Why were all these people here? What the hell was this?
“It keeps failing,” Carrie was explaining to Paul. “We don’t know why. No matter how far we get into the simulation, it keeps breaking down and we lose control. It’s only luck that we managed to regain stability the last few times.”
Paul slammed his clipboard down on the desk next to them, visibly frustrated.
“Why damn it,” he asked no one in particular. “Why does it keep failing? Why isn’t it working?!”
“You’re wrong. It is working,” a voice said.
And out of the darkness stepped Silas Lavoie, dressed in a sharp black suit. I couldn’t explain why but when he came into view, flanked by two armed guards, my heart jumped. His accent was sill there, but his voice held a trace of coldness I hadn’t expected. He carried himself with an almost tangible air of authority.
“Lavoie, what the hell are you talking about,” Paul asked.
“In fact, the simulation is working too well,” Lavoie said, almost like he was ignoring Paul completely. He stopped forward and squinted at me.
“It thinks it’s human.”
His words were like a shot through my brain. My mind raced, trying to come to terms with what he was saying. And then, from an impossible mental depth, a revelation started to surface. I felt like I could reach out and touch the closure I had been seeking for so long. I felt like I was on the verge of understanding not only who, but what I was.
But it didn’t matter. The window vanished into the gloom and my eyes were forced shut. The deep blue gave way to an impenetrable blackness. I sank into an endless oblivion, my mind going blank…
In my dreams, all that awaits is The Ocean.
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