An empty city. The sky was a twisted ribbon of blue high above, bound in by the thickly packed buildings. Ladders, thin stairways, and lashed together scraps spread up and down the walls like lichen. The makeshift structures filtered out most of the light and heat so the air felt cool after the baking sun outside. He looked at the rickety poles that spanned the street fifty feet below.
So far they had all held, even ones more frayed and worn than this. He scanned the windows around the archway where the bridge met the building on the opposite side. They were as empty as all the rest so he moved onto the walkway and hurried across.
Pupils dilated until he could see. A complicated room, lacking in right angles, shaped like the inside of a geode. Nothing like the soft weathered corners and tan buildings outside. These walls a shiny and translucent black material. A low platform raised in the center supported an immense featureless lozenge. A sarcophagus.
He walked toward it, stood looking down at the smooth top. It was cold; emanating cold like an oven does warmth. The heat was sucked from his palm and made a wavering shape outlining the hand he placed on the perfect surface. The moisture instantly froze and began tracing crisp, white crystals across the lid, onto his hand, his arm, neck, across his face, into his mouth nose and eyes, suffocating yet reassuring him, then nothing.
The doctor forces himself back into the present. His patient had been describing a dream, in which she was lost in an empty city. As it became clear it was the same city he had spent the last week of nights also wandering in, his eyes had glazed over and he had relived his own experience there.
He struggles not to leap up and pace, knowing this would upset her. He wants to get as many details as he can before she goes back to her usual teenage and reticent self.
“I see, and that is where it ends usually, at the room with the “big coffin thing”?”
“Yeah, sometimes I wake up before I get there or whatever, it’s the same thing though pretty much.”
“And it’s the same sequence of events and setting?”
“Yeah totally, its always the same place.”
“Hmm, been going on for the last week you said, every night?”
“Not every night, one night I was…um…really tired…when I fell asleep and didn’t really remember any dreams.”
“You were really tired…”
“Well I might’ve been drinking, but we stayed at my friend Carli’s the whole night and didn’t drive anywhere…”
He chuckles softly.
“You know I’m not going to tell on you. It’s not uncommon to be unable to recall your dreams if intoxicated. I’m more interested in whether you’ve had the dream before, or did it start recently?”
“Ok yeah… no I mean, I don’t remember having it before, just the last, like week or so. But…”
She frowns and fidgets
“You know, sometimes there’s another person there, but I can never see anyone clear, just sometimes I might see some, like, face or something in a window or from a doorway…”
She is quiet for a moment.
“The face, can you describe it?”
“Oh yeah, I was just trying to picture it again… It’s random, but the only way I can describe it’s like, the Virgin Mary on those candles in Mexican restaurants…but black eyes, like totally black. It creeps me out…”
On the wall behind her there is a pyramidal Zen Alarm Clock. The base begins to light up. It could be set to also emit the recorded tinkle and burble of a mountain stream, but this feature is disabled as to not disturb the clients.
“Well, I don’t want you to worry about it. If it starts to affect your being able to sleep we can look at something for that, but for now just work on the other things we talked about. Even so, the next time you have the dream I want you to try and write down as much as you can remember, or even draw something, as soon as you wake up. Bring those in next week and we’ll talk again. ”
“OK, I’ll try…”
“I know it seems a bit silly, but just do it to humor me. There might be something here and I want to explore it.”
“I’ll do my best, really.”
“Great! I’ll see you next week at the same time then.”
He walks her to the doorway and she hurries out, extricating her phone from her bag and poking at it.
He closes the door behind her, walks back to his desk and leans against its edge. He sighs, removes his glasses and polishes them with his tie. Thirteen patients today, each with an hour-long appointment, and each have reported various versions of this same dream. So had almost every other patient he had seen that week.
He had been working sixteen-hour days to try and get a sense of the scope of it. It had been hectic at the center but it was better than the big empty house waiting for him, and it gave him something to latch onto in the dark hours of the morning. That face that had haunted his thoughts in daylight and flickered at the edges of his vision at night was manifesting in other’s dreams as well. Almost all his patients, and he had even heard one of the local morning news anchors mention it during their strained, interstitial banter. Why?
The question had been niggling at him all week, but for now he must reluctantly put it aside and think of more corporeal matters. Nothing to eat since a sticky bun with coffee. He puts his glasses back on and looks for the Baba’s House of Curry menu.
Later he balances four Styrofoam containers in one hand and reaches over to the passenger seat to grab at his overflowing leather suitcase with the other. He contorts his body to exit his Mercedes while juggling the containers of take-away Indian food.
It would be easier to walk around and get them from the passenger side, but he always does the same thing, wrestling with handfuls to avoid the walk round the car.
Someday I’ll throw my back out doing this and get stuck here, sprawled half-in and half-out of the car door, covered with cooling Palak Paneer…
That fantasy was not in store for this night. He exits the car without damage. He trudges across the garage and up the steps to the door leading into the kitchen. There was a lady who came in to clean once a week; but she wouldn’t be here until tomorrow.
He puts the boxes on the counter and opens the refrigerator. It is a beautiful refrigerator, a Miele, it sits ensconced in the wall like a prized statue, and it is a shame. It deserves to be filled with fresh and exotic ingredients, not Styrofoam and condiment bottles. The food in the boxes is less edible the further back on the shelves it gets.
Someday I will cook something in this kitchen…
His weekly mantra.
He takes a bottle of wine, a large tumbler, and the food to the kitchen table, sits down, reviews his notes until the food is quite cold and partially eaten, then stumbles off to his bed.
It is the city again. Night and the stars dimmed only by the full moon close to the horizon. This time he is floating above the buildings. The sandy roofs below have become the color of bone in the moonlight. He can see the ragged edges of the city, barely visible in the distance. The sand rises up in small ripples and great dunes, swallowing the periphery of ramshackle shops, houses, and streets.
Faint whispers of movement around him lift the hair on the back of his arms and neck, and now the sky is filling with undulating swirls of light. They give off a pulsing, ringing tone, and each has a unique note that joins with others to make modulated harmonies. The swirls seem to wander until they come too near the center of the city where they are caught and sucked down into the shadows. The swirling tornado of lights grows larger, louder, spins faster as more are added to it. He is being drawn inexorably in. He does not fight it but welcomes it and even wills himself to move faster into the center. The stars and moon and city whirl faster and faster, until they are hidden behind the hurtling masses that surround him. He hangs for a moment on the cusp of the descending spiral then slides over the edge and shoots down into the eye of the whirlpool of lights.
There is a millisecond of pain, a spasm that shifts the spinning lights and desert sky to a red dimmed view of the walls and door of his bedroom then back again, an instant of crushing pain and fear, then expansive release and relief. It feels as though he has been dissolved and injected through a syringe-needle. The ringing of the lights washes over him, through him, until only pounding silence roars in his ears.
Gradually the blackness resolves itself into a pair of eyes, pure and shining black from lid to lid, set under a pair of perfectly curved eyebrows.
“There is more of you here than the others.”
Her voice is quiet and her consonants seemed to have extra sounds in them. Her mouth is curved ever so slightly into the hint of a smile.
He tries to answer, opens and closes his mouth, cannot speak through the tightening in his throat.
“The others, they are just shadows, like footprints, echoes after the people have gone away. They amuse me and then they are gone: less but still whole. But you are here, just one, yet so complete…”
He struggles to form words but she places a finger on his lips. It smells of mint, cool stone, and snow; mountain winds that have spent their rage and come to rest here in the desert night, bringing with them a little of every herb and flower they have touched on their way. He lives in that scent, would breathe only it forever; it nourishes him as no common breath has before. He gives up answering, gives up wanting, needing, and caring. Gives up all and releases himself into that scent and into her.
He opens his eyes and sees his bedside clock. The blue glowing numbers show 5:17am, and past it out the bay doors the predawn sky is almost the same color. The trees below are still dark and the house is silent.
He feels light, insubstantial, as though the sheets and down are the only things keeping him from floating up and bumping against the ceiling like a lost balloon.
He enjoys this feeling, half-awake, before the concerns and worries of the day intrude.
He thinks of that scent, that face. He had been ready to stay there. To renounce his life and never wake up. He probably should be heartbroken to be back in this grey and utterly predictable world. But he isn’t. Instead he feels pretty good, and also very hungry.
Now his thoughts shift to that beautiful refrigerator, with its matching gas range, and hanging on a hook nearby, a large ceramic-coated fry pan…