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CHAPTER 1: From darkness

Gunshots. Shouts. The roar of an explosion. Those were the sounds that came out of nowhere, and made me open my eyes.

The moment I did, my entire world was filled with shimmering arcs of color, each bursting out of a backdrop of a velvety black. I couldn’t tell what I was seeing, but my mind insisted on trying to decode the blurry images. Was I was witnessing a plane crash, or were those red, blue and yellow lights on some kind of crazy spinning Christmas tree? At that very moment, neither seemed impossible.

Teetering on the narrow edge of consciousness between being awake and not, I struggled to take in as many impressions as possible. There were occasional shouts, some whispers, and a variety of smells — mostly ammonia, alcohol… and maybe some iodine. Bright lights, some dimmer glows… and I could just make out a jumble of horns and whistles and shouts. And me — physically? That was easy to describe: I hurt absolutely everywhere.

As the colors popped and sizzled, I had to fight harder and harder to stay aware of my surroundings. But before I could make sense of what I was seeing, a silhouette of a man intruded on my Lite-Brite view, and, slightly panicked, my mind decided this would be a good time to surrender.

Before my heart could flutter even once more, I was awake. I opened my eyes to see tiny toes wearing Princess Pink nail polish pressing up against my ribs. My favorite five-year-old was sprawled sideways across the bed, snoring softly, deep in a sleep I hoped was more peaceful than mine.

 

CHAPTER 2: Back in the now

I know most people think of sleep as a soothing respite from a busy day. They’d say it was calming. Restful. Refreshing. That wasn’t the case for me. I got to put a big X in the “None of the above” box when it comes to describing my own experience of nighttime shut-eye.

For as long as I can remember, my dreams have been vivid — wild, strange and often stressful nighttime delusions. Those dreams always felt real when I was in them, but were totally surreal in retrospect.

But something got switched up recently, and I don’t know why. My dreams have gone from being normal nighttime sleep fantasies to feeling like actual, factual experiences, even after I wake up. Most of my impressions, though, have been hazy at best. Realistic, yes, absolutely — but muffled and faint, like my head was stuffed in a paper bag while the party was going on around me.

In the gentle light of day, I could translate certain aspects of the past night’s experience using common sense. The bright explosions were, in all likelihood, something like fireworks — and if that was correct, I was watching them through a window five or six stories high. And the overwhelming aromas? They reminded me of my high school chemistry class.

Of course I realized none of that was even remotely logical. Nobody had set off fireworks anywhere near here for months, I live on the second floor, and all the windows in this place look out over tall trees. The only kind of lab I’d visited during the past twenty years was to get blood drawn, and those places smelled more of bleach than anything else.

So far, though, nothing was ringing alarm bells, or making me think I should somehow take these sensations more seriously. These little bursts of fantasy were odd and notable even as just what anyone would have assumed them to be: dreams.

 

CHAPTER 3: Gone again

The smell would always hit me first, but the ammonia, alcohol and urine aroma subsided more and more quickly with each visit, thankfully. At least it was helpful as a confirmation I had arrived… even if I didn’t know where I was.

This day was hazy again, and although I was more alert to what was going on around me, I couldn’t open my eyes. I was doped up on something so crazy, I imagined hearing little tiny fairies tying even tinier weights to each one of my eyelashes, which is why my eyes were stuck closed.

Even though I was loopy, I could still feel some other not-so-pleasant things. It took me a while to realize I had a killer headache, and my throat was really sore. To make it more interesting, every time I tried to talk, I felt like gagging, and no sound even came out. Most of the time, though, the pain kind of stood off to the side and didn’t really get in the way of me dancing around la-la-land.

Somehow, I contentedly amused myself for hours on end — singing songs in my head and re-imagining various movie plots. I think I slept away most of the day, judging from the different intensities of light filtering through my eyelids catching my attention from time to time.

And then, blessedly, the dream was done, and I was back where I belonged.

 

CHAPTER 4: The Now: Dream or not?

I’ve often had recurring dreams, but this was getting to be something entirely different. Now, I was having a serialized dream — I only needed to tune into the sleep channel for a new episode every night.

Twice a week, there were three things I particularly dreaded about the mornings: Getting out of bed, putting on clothes, and forcing myself to walk down to the gym. The silver lining of the angst derived from my weird dreams was that I got all of that accomplished without even cursing the workout gods.

Upon arriving at the gym, looked around for Vivian, an old friend who had turned out to be the perfect workout buddy. The girl loved exercising, never met a weight machine she didn’t like, and wouldn’t let me escape this smelly place until I put in at least a solid hour of huffing and puffing.

She was adjusting her heart rate monitor when I sidled up to her. She glanced at me briefly before saying, “You look like crap.” Viv was never one to mince words.

“I haven’t been sleeping well,” I said, and she nodded knowingly. “I told you: Too much caffeine.”

“No, no, no — that’s not it. I’ve been having dreams…”

“How is this news?” she cut in. Stopping people mid-sentence is just one way she amuses herself. “Have you never had a dream before?”

“I didn’t finish that sentence, Schmivian,” I laughed as I laced up my right (way too expensive but supposedly fabulous) shoe. “I have been having really intense dreams. Wild dreams. Dreams that seem every bit as real as what we’re doing right now, even when I wake up.”

“Oh, those kind of dreams,” she said, nodding. “You’re single, Robin. Not surprising to have a little nighttime fantasy action.”

“No, not that kind of dream. You have a one track mind, you know that?”

She put out her hands in a “What can you do?” gesture. Then she gave me her real answer. “Hey, well, yeah — you’re an intense person, and I’m sure your dreams are intense most of the time. You just don’t always remember them, that’s all,” she said, with a shrug and a wave of her hand. “I know what it’s like! I’ve even fallen in love in a few of my dreams, and for a few days, I can’t stop thinking about the girl.” She downed the last of her water, then tossed the bottle into her bag. “Usually the girl is some beautiful soap star, so there’s not any question about whether or not it’s real.”

I forced a smile. She doesn’t get it, and I sound like an idiot who can’t stop talking about herself. And then talks to herself about herself.

Fortunately, before I got too meta, Vivian interrupted my train of thought. “So what do you think it means?”

Maybe she does get it. A little.

I squeezed my foot into the left shoe and bent over to tie it. “I guess that depends on how I am going to think about this. Either I just have a wild imagination, or it’s a message or something. Like there’s something I’m supposed to learn.”

“My money’s on the first one,” Viv snorted, then raised her eyebrows up and down a couple times. “Or maybe those little pills you’re taking aren’t just multivitamins. Hmm?”

For the next half hour, as I labored to jog nowhere on the treadmill, I also obsessed. Could it be something I was eating, or related to something in the environment? The whole Bay Area was often more smoggy than foggy. Maybe those days where I walked in the “fresh” air from place to place were hurting more than they helped.

So what about my food? I loved ethnic cuisine — the more authentic the better — and happily devoured everything from sushi to Tandoori to some lovely gooey Camembert. Therefore, ingredients from several different continents had made their way into my body, along with, erm, more than a couple extra pounds.

The more I thought about these possibilities, the more my intuition told me to dismiss them, because the most likely (though admittedly least exotic) culprit was probably my typical stress level.

Before I had kids, a colleague — himself a type A+ personality — said that on a scale of 1 to 10, I could be about a 12 in terms of intensity. It seemed true enough at the time, and I wore the label as a sort of badge of honor. Motherhood had tempered it a bit, and the divorce tweaked it some more. Still, there were days I got so wound up, it seemed like I was carrying around two fifty-pound weights on my shoulders.

Now was one of those times. The irony was that the whole exercise thing was supposed to help me manage my stress levels… but to be honest, it was a diversion at best. Today, nagging the crap out of me constantly was the need to decide if I was dreaming, or if something else was going on here.

Believe me: I wasn’t trying to make this into something it wasn’t. I was just trying to understand. Since I’d never been able to steer or otherwise control my dreams, I didn’t particularly want them to become real. I just hoped they would gently fade away like usual, and, if anything, leave me with some lingering sense of happiness or purpose, or solve some problem. In my book, that’s what dreams are for.

And if that wasn’t the case… well, I’d cross that bridge when I had no other choice. Because right now, to consider there was something more to this situation might mean a panicky, overwhelming feeling would start to crawl into my chest… and that was something I’d do almost anything to avoid.

 

CHAPTER 5: The third day

As usual, the first few minutes were really fuzzy — a lot like when you wake up slowly and you’re not sure if a sound you heard was real or imagined. Then came this terrible strong whiff of ammonia, which snapped me awake in an instant. And there, not three inches away from my face, was one absolutely enormous eye. I gasped, shut my eyes, and everything faded to black.

Hardly a second later I was awake once more, overwhelmed again by the horrible ammonia smell. Though I didn’t really want to look around, curiosity got the best of me, and my eyes cooperated by actually opening.

Asleep or awake, I didn’t know, but I did see four people hovering over me. Three were young women, wearing white dresses and matching caps, and one was a short and paunchy man — probably about the age of all the girls put together — who had a white coat on over his clothes.

It felt like I was flat on my back and didn’t have any strength to speak of. Without even moving my arms, I could feel the edges of a mattress, so I could tell I was on a really narrow bed. Was it a kids’ cot? Military issue?

“The smelling salts worked that time, doctor.”

“Indeed,” the man grunted. Without looking up from the chart in his hands, he asked, “What do you remember?”

I couldn’t tell if he was talking to me, so I didn’t say anything.

The doctor glanced at me then yelled to the nurse standing two feet away, “Smelling salts!” The woman started to move her hand toward my face and my arms decided to start working. I grabbed her before she got the ammonia stuff near my head again, telling her in a tiny voice, “Please, no! I’m awake!” Unsaid: Stick that god-awful stuff in my face one more time, and I’ll hurl it across the room.

Dismissing the nurse from that duty with a curt nod, he looked at me and asked me again, enunciating each word very clearly, as if deafness was the issue here. “What… do… you… remember?”

I had no idea what he was hoping I’d say. If it was about the last thing I remembered, well, did he honestly want to hear about my kids dropping a metric ton of glitter on the carpet last night?

I gave in and asked the stupid question. “About what?”

The dude actually rolled his eyes. “As to why you are here, of course.” Just to underscore his impatience, he added a little huff at the end of the sentence.

In addition to the worst headache in the history of ever, I felt odd and floaty and had a hard time stringing two thoughts together. Whatever meds they had me on provided a nasty reminder of some surgery a few years back — especially the slow and incredibly queasy recovery period.

As if on cue, I felt my stomach lurch. More now than ever, I was in no mood to play twenty questions — especially in my own dream.

“I don’t know,” I croaked. “Get to the point.” Every word I spoke felt like a spear tip was being sunk in my throat.

His eyes bugged out a little bit, and the nurses looked away… but I swear I saw one of them trying to hide a smile.

Given that there was no reply to my question, I realized I’d have to coax information out of these people.

“Please. What? Don’t remember.” Again, the truth. I looked around the poorly-lit room to see lots of beds, about half of them with people out like a light and tucked up tight. “Where?”

I was pretty sure I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.

“The police brought you here. This is a hospital of sorts.” Now that made sense, though this place was pure retroville. It had been designed in some throwback style that wasn’t really half bad, if a little clinical. The bland white tile walls and gray floors were accented only by gauzy drapes hanging from bars suspended from the ceiling between the beds. The whole setup was probably cheap to build and maintain — cheap, of course, being the requirement for everything nowadays.

The doctor drew himself up as tall as his squat little form would let him, and gave me a chilly look from over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses. “You took a nasty fall, and suffered head injuries.”

When the last of his words tumbled out, I was still processing the first statement. I fell? How? Where? Had my daughters been there? My thoughts were so muddled, I forgot it was just a dream, and started to feel a little panic attack coming on.

He just looked at me as I was starting to hyperventilate, and decided to ignore me. He handed the chart to one of the nurses and said, “The ladies will answer your other questions. I must tend to my other patients.” With that, he chugged off.

The nurses looked nearly as happy to have the old guy gone as I did.

The three of them weren’t wearing ID badges, but, too tired to bother asking their names — I would just forget them in about five seconds, anyhow — I decided to secretly dub them Sabrina, Jill and Kelly. The doctor could be Bosley, and I’d be Charlie.

“Fell?”

Jill answered. “That is correct, Miss. You were found at the foot of the stairs in your house.”

“House?”

“That’s right,” she said. “Your home on Clayton Street, here in San Francisco.”

With as much volume as I could muster, I told them all, “This is just a dream.” The words came out loud and clear.

Kelly, who had been reading my chart, looked up and did the Nipper the dog head tilt.

“No stairs,” I explained to the three angels, ripping my throat to shreds just to make my point. “No house. Live in Oakland. Apartment.”

Then it was Kelly’s turn to chime in. “Miss, it’s understandable that you are confused. But you have been with us for two months now. You hit your head, and have been asleep for a very long time — what we call a ‘comatose state.’”

As bizarre as it seems, my mind kept frantically searching for memories. It simply could not accept this was only a dream. It felt absolutely real. Over and over I reminded myself each thing I was seeing, hearing, smelling and feeling was imagined.

The three nurses looked at me expectantly, probably hoping I’d signal my acceptance and understanding. But I wasn’t ready for that. I knew I’d regret using any more words, I had to say one last thing. “No coma. Dream.”

Sabrina — apparently accustomed to crazies in her ward — was quick to dismiss me. “Be that as it may, dear,” she said, “right now, it’s time to change your napkin.”

What a completely random thing to say.

“My what?” Was it lunchtime or something? It was then I realized the other two nurses had quietly ducked out.

Without a word, Sabrina closed the gauzy curtains around my bed, turned back around, then and folded down the bed sheets. Still without an explanation, she purposefully lifted my nightgown all the way up up to my belly button. I started to get a little nervous, as I was not at all sure what kind of party she was planning. Before I had the chance to wonder too much more, I noticed that — wrapped neatly around my hips and between my legs — was the hugest cloth diaper anyone could possibly have the misfortune to see.

Worst. Dream. Ever.

 

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