I had a dream... that alarmed the ever-loving snot out of me.
I avoided the word “scare” for a reason. I seldom have good dreams, but I seldom have real wake-up-screaming-soak-the-sheets-with-sweat nightmares. I describe my nightly run-of-the-mill dreams as unnerving, uneasy, unreal, uncomfortable, uncanny. If you catch the point, they are best described by what they are not.
This one, at its core, was no different. I remembered it for more than my usual minute or two beyond waking because of how it unfolded in my mind. Usually my dreams are fragmented, plotless, non-linear; a mere collection of images melting together and oozing apart. Occasionally, my dreams will have a storyline, some linear sequence of events that I can name and follow; this one was one of those.
My first memory of the dream was of a supermarket. Garrett and Ann and I were shopping for food for a summer grill-party to celebrate Ann’s birthday. Garrett was showing less than his usual puppyish cheer. I figured he’d just turned inward and gotten quiet like he sometimes does, but I watched him carefully anyway. The further we walked through the labyrinthine aisles of the store, the less healthy Garrett looked.
Let me take a brief hiatus to mention that my M.O. in any kind of shopping excursion is and has always been “Let me get my shit and get out”. I make a detailed list beforehand so I do not have to wander and search for the items I need. Garrett, on the opposite end of the bell-curve, likes to enter a grocery store with only a vague idea of what he needs; he follows his nose and his stomach around and around the store with a contented smile on his face, enjoying the good smells and the endless choices. If left to himself, he would spend upwards of two hours wandering the food-stocked labyrinth.
In my dream, however, he did not so much as stray from the side of the buggy as we shopped. Outside in the parking lot, I asked him what was wrong. He mumbled something I couldn’t understand. I turned his face toward mine and realized, with dawning alarm, that he literally looked green around the edges. “You’re sick. We need to get you to the doctor,” I said. I told Ann to drive us to the hospital while I sat in the backseat trying my best to comfort Garrett, whose fever was ratcheting up by the minute.
By the time we got to the hospital (Motown General, the sign said, and I wish I was kidding), Garrett was drifting in and out of consciousness. Ann and I had to carry him in like a dead log. The receptionist, who looked and sounded exactly like Miss Hattie, the owner of the orphanage in the film Despicable Me, said to take him up to the top floor to room 1020, where a doctor was waiting. Oh and by the way, the elevator was broken.
I am not sure how my sister and I managed to carry my unconscious fiancé up nine flights of stairs, but we did, and now he rested as comfortably has he could have in room 1020, attended by nurses with dirt-stained uniforms and bug-like antennae. I knew that the uniforms were smeared with dirt because these nurses had climbed out of their graves for the express purpose of tending to my fiancé. While it made me uncomfortable, I accepted it with the uneasy resignation I only seem to find in dreams. The doctor, a hulking brown-furred thing with bat-like ears and a squidgy gorilla nose, came in and introduced himself in an alien language made even stranger by his voice, which sounded like a wolverine’s bark rendered verbal.
He told me (though the translator in my mind that, again, is only present in dreams) that Garrett had caught an extremely rare virus that causes little physical harm to a body but ruins the mind. If Garrett ever recovered consciousness, the doctor said around two sets of hippo-like tusks, he would be in a constant state of hallucination. To him, I may appear one minute as former President Gerald Ford, the next, a horrible manifestation of all his childhood fears and angers.
Struck numb, I thanked the doctor perfunctorily and he left. I told Ann to go home and tell our mother what had happened. She took the hint that I wanted to be alone with Garrett and so graciously left. I closed the door behind her and crawled into bed with my deathly-still fiancé. The first tear I shed hadn’t even hit the pillow when a nurse burst into the room, her filmy white eyes bug-wide and her mouth a pale blue O of surprise.
“The hospital is under attack,” she croaked in a dirt-choked voice. “There are zombies! Get out now!”
“But you’re a zombie,” I said, my own voice choked with tears.
“No, I’m an alien zombie; there’s a difference,” she said, pointing to her antennae. “You have to get out, miss, the zombies will kill you.”
“I’m not leaving Garrett,” I said simply and firmly.
“Then die like the rest of us,” she said with a sigh of resignation and went out, leaving the door open.
My cell phone rang; the caller ID said “Garrett Cooperman”. What? I held the phone to my ear and felt cold wet rat feet skitter up and down my spine.
“This is Garrett,” said the voice, which was not Garrett’s. It was as deep as the doctor’s, but behind it was a wheezing quality, like wind over the eaves of an old old house. “Well, at least the only part of him that’s still him. Listen carefully, Kate. The disease can’t touch me. Abandon the body you’re next to right now. There is nothing left of Garrett in there; I’m the last bit of him. If you listen to me and do what I say, you can get out of this safely. The zombies are not the real problem. I know it sounds ridiculous, but the things out there now are just like the slow, brainless things you’ve seen in movies. Do not be afraid of them. Be afraid of what’s down on the first floor.”
“What’s on the first floor?” I asked, my eyes riveted on Garrett’s pale, still face, knowing more fully with each passing second that the voice on the phone was him, was the thing on the first floor.
“Something you can’t possibly beat,” said the voice.
“Then how will I escape?”
A split second before the voice said it, I glanced at the room’s single window, looking out over more buildings and city streets. “The window. Open it and climb down.”
“Are you kidding? There are no handholds. I’m ten stories up. I’d fall and die.”
“That death is eminently preferable to the one you’d suffer if you met the thing on the first floor. Trust me.”
“Okay, I know you’re not Garrett. Garrett uses big words, but not that big, and not at a time like this.”
“Kate, you have to understand. I’m not wholly Garrett; I’m only a part of him. I guess I’m just the part who uses big words all the time.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Believe me or not, you will die anyway if you don’t get out of his hospital. Now.”
The line went dead. I slowly got up from the bed and went over to the window and looked down. While I had lain next to Garrett in the middle of this hospital gone to hell, the sun had disappeared behind clouds and it had begun to rain fat, no-nonsense drops. The water ran down the side of the building in thick rivulets; there was absolutely no way I could have climbed down even one story without slipping and falling to my death. So I turned around and faced the open doorway, Garrett lying white and still in the bed to my left. As I walked toward the door, I brushed his covered feet with my hand, transferring to him the promise I had just made to come back for him as soon as I found a wheelchair or gurney.
In the hall, I realized that my promise would be difficult to keep. Not only were there no wheelchairs or stretchers or anything in the hall, there were no doors either. The door I’d just come out of was the only door for miles and miles either direction. Yes, miles. The hallway went on forever, and I could have sworn it bent a little with the curve of the earth. I stood frozen with indecision and fear that perhaps Garrett’s door would disappear as soon as I closed it. The trill of my cell phone, painfully, drillingly loud in the choking stillness of the hallway, broke my paralysis.
“Ann?” I asked, prepared to hear yet another strange voice.
“Where are you? Did you leave the hospital?”
It was Ann all right, her voice edged with concern. “N-no, I’m... I’m still here in Garrett’s room.”
“Uh... no you’re not. I’m in Garrett’s room. And you’re definitely not here.”
“What? No... wait. I’m standing right outside room ten-twenty right now.”
“I don’t see you. Are you sure you’re not by one-twenty?”
The edges of my mind began to fuzz grey; a queer twinning began to split my vision. I closed my eyes and shook my head to clear it, but the cottony feeling still advanced and the doubleness in my sight got worse.
“No. Ten-twenty. Ann, get out of this place now. Something bad’s happening. Please get out.”
“What? You’re mumbling. I can’t understand you.”
“Get out!” I screamed as loud as I could, trying to drive the haze away. “Get out! There are zombies and bad things! Leave now, Ann!”
“I guess the connection’s bad. If you can hear me, I’m gonna go down to the first floor for a snack. If you’re there I’ll find you.”
“No! Not the first floor! Stay away from the first floor! Stay away from the first
And suddenly, I was there, back on the first floor, in front of the reception desk. And I looked out onto the scene with eyes that saw two completely different things, like chameleon eyes. The desk looked the same, the floor and the ceiling, but there were things that moved, things that crawled, only shadows when both my eyes were open. But when I closed my right eye, another world, an under-world, was thrown into such lurid detail that I stumbled back and fell flat on my butt.
Unable to open my right eye and close the left, I watched as the doctor, his formerly kind apelike face now twisted in a black-lipped snarl that cut his black eyes down to slits in his wrinkled face, shoved the fat, be-pinked secretary over the desk and began unceremoniously raping her from behind, eliciting piggish squeals of delight/horror from her.
Alien bugs crawled along the walls and the ceiling, some sleek, sinister black, some still a horribly human shade of pink, their bald flesh still dripping the green goop of birth. I crab-walked backward, still with my right eye screwed shut, the muscles ringing the closed eye beginning to ache.
I hit something hard and metal, whirled around. It was a rolling stretcher. I hauled myself upright, using its cold steel struts as support. A nest of misbegotten caterpillars squirmed on top of it. I swept my arm across the surface, spilling the bugs onto the floor. They burst on impact like sick water balloons, spraying my jeans and shirt with hot yellow-grey guts and a stench like roadkill boiled to near-liquidity in the summer sun. I grabbed the gurney and bolted for where I remembered the stairs being; if I had to haul this gurney up nine flights to get to Garrett, then goddamn it I would. I found the door, slammed myself against it, through it, and right into Pennywise the clown, complete with a bunch of loudly colored balloons gripped in one white-gloved hand.
“Oh fuck,” I said. “Are you the bad thing on the first floor?”
“None other,” he said in the gravelly, wheezy voice that had called itself “Garrett” on my phone. “Want a balloon?”
“NO I DO NOT WANT A FUCKING BALLOON! I WANT TO GET TO MY FUCKING FIANCÉ AND GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE!”
“They float,” Pennywise continued in a lilt, heedless of the epic echoing scream I’d just let loose in the stairwell. “Garrett’s floating now too. Everybody floats down here on the first floor.”
“Yes yes, I know your spiel, dude. I’ve read the book. Floating and death and dismemberment, et cetera. Look. Compared to that back there,” I pointed to the reception area, where Doctor Gorilla and Miss Hattie were still going at it surrounded by bugs, “You are actually pretty tame. So actually yes, I’ll take a balloon. And I’ll tie it to this gurney so it’ll float all the way up to the tenth floor so I don’t have to drag it up.”
“Didn’t you listen to me? I said Garrett’s floating. Since you read my book, you know what that means.”
“Open your other eye and see for yourself.”
I realized my right eye was still closed. With effort, I opened it, experienced a twinning in my vision that nearly unhinged what was left of my mind, then quickly shut my left eye.
Now I was standing in front of room 1020, in a normal hospital hallway of normal length and with its normal set of doors every few feet. Inside the room, Ann had curled herself into a chair, her knees to her chest, her eyes wide open and glassy, staring at nothing. Two nurses, sans-antennae, hovered over Garrett’s hospital bed. I couldn’t see his face. His feet twitched spasmodically. I rushed into the room screaming his name. The nurses turned and stared at me, which gave me a shock. For some reason, I had not expected them to see me. I shoved the closest one aside, nothing but boobs and butt between a head and drumstick legs, and leaned over Garrett’s face. He looked paler, greyer. My heart lunged for my throat, pushing a sob in front of it.
“Garrett Garrett Garrett Garrett Garrett,” I breathed, willing him to stop twitching, stop looking so grey, stop dying goddammit.
My cell phone rang again. I knew who it was, from the icy coldness of the phone to my touch, from the low insane buzzing that began in my head when I brought it to my ear, but I couldn’t not answer it.
“Is he floating yet?”
“He won’t. Not for a long time. Not until he’s old and grey.”
“He’s grey right now, sure enough.”
“Fuck off, you stupid clown.”
A grating, dirty, bubbling chuckle reached my ear, as if a tar pit had found something mildly amusing. Then the line went dead. I threw my phone across the room and opened my left eye at the same time.
The room spun violently; I felt the phone come back like a boomerang and clip my left cheek so hard that my eye watered. I fell in the middle of an indoors tornado and curled up to just wait it out.
It stopped; I opened both eyes. Harsh white light drilled into my head and made it pound in time with my thudding heart. I smelled the soft, tangy smell of milk gone sour, which, after the sick death-smell of the hospital, was positively wonderful.
I sat up in front of the milk coolers in the grocery store. My cell phone rang.
“I forgot to ask you to pick up dog food while you were out. You know what kind, right? The Alpo...”
“Ann... my sister.”
“You mean my sister? I guess she’s still in Nashville. Why?”
“N-no reason. Bye.”
I sat there for a minute, my mind blank. I closed my right eye. Nothing happened.