Ice clogged his veins. His heart pumped fruitlessly in fear as wings swarmed his head; talons latching into his skin summoned blood to the surface. He swung his arms, desperate to stop the pain. His legs carried him away, hoping to escape.
My eyes flew open. Droplets of sweat coated my forehead and arms. The vivid memory of whatever dream had shocked me into consciousness was draining rapidly from my memory like a plug pulled out of the bathtub.
My heart stabilized as my eyes adjusted to the predawn darkness. I glanced at my phone.
I would need to be awake in another thirty-five minutes anyway. No use in trying to go back to sleep, not with the remnants of adrenaline still making its way through my system.
I wiped the cold sweat off of my brow and laughed. It was actually ridiculous how my body reacted to whatever chemicals it had made itself for this dream. The state of peril my body had put itself in, all because of a dream.
My brain had nothing to fear but my brain itself.
I threw the covers off, reaching for the bedside light to brighten the small bedroom. I didn’t have much, but this small one-bedroom apartment was a palace all my own. After deciding to move away from my small hometown and follow my girlfriend into the city, I had the option to move in with her. I certainly wasn’t opposed to the idea considering we had been dating longer than any of my previous relationships, but that wasn’t saying much. Ultimately, seven months was not that long in the grand scheme of things. And it wasn’t long enough for me to pull the trigger on moving in together in a new city. Krysta is a good person, more deserving than most, and didn’t push me at all, even though she was ready. I found this cheap, barely 600 square foot apartment close to my new job and absolutely couldn’t have been prouder.
I never had anything completely my own before. My parents provided for me first and then the army after them. But after a few years in the service, I was back and seemingly had the whole world in front of me.
So this tiny rundown glorified studio may not look like much on the outside, and sure, if silverfish were made of actual silver, I’d have a steady second income, but no matter the condition, it was mine (at least until the end of the lease), and I was damn proud of it.
I took my time getting ready as the sun’s influence just barely began to creep across the window. Freshly showered and dressed for work, I walked into the kitchen grabbing a coffee pod and mug. I pressed the button on the coffeemaker a few times, but all it would do was flash its lights in red anger. A cold shiver ran through my body contrasting the lukewarm frustration that was beginning to brew. The stubborn lights seemed eerily familiar, even if my cheap coffee maker had never broken before.
I shrugged off the untethered feeling, thankful that I’d woken up earlier than usual so I could grab a coffee on my way to work. I drove to a local chain and found an obnoxious line of cars filled with fellow addicts. Instead of joining them, I pulled my car into the small lot and stepped into the line inside. I thought I might as well get a muffin if I was splurging on a cup of coffee already. I was browsing the display of baked goods when a warm voice greeted me.
“Penny?” I replied, shocked to see a hometown face.
“I thought that was you! You look smart,” she said, gesturing to my collared shirt.
“Oh, just heading to work. I had no idea you lived here?”
“Yea! I moved here for school. Go Coogs!” She raised her fingers into the city university’s hand sign. “I just started a new job. Didn’t want to move too far. When did you get here?”
She flipped her long brown hair over her shoulder as we crept closer to the counter. That shiver went through my body again, like something was gently blowing cold air over my forearms. I looked up, unable to remember what she had just asked me.
“How long have you been living here?”
“Oh, almost five months or so. My girlfriend was already here so I kind of followed her here after I left the army.”
“That’s amazing. Honestly, it’s so much better than back home. Never a dull moment here. The other day, I was walking by the riv—“
“Next in line!” the barista called.
“Oh,” Penny said, “can I buy your coffee? You served the country. Least I can do is get your coffee.”
“I mean, I really—“
“It’s no big deal.” We stepped up and placed an order for two uncomplicated lattes, forgoing the muffin I had been considering. While we waited, we asked about each other’s respective families and caught up on all the usual gossip that two high school classmates from a small town might have missed in the intervening years since graduation.
As we caught up, the cold chill never left my body, and it wasn’t until she began talking about her new cat that I could finally put my finger on it.
“Woah,” I interrupted, “I just got déjà vu.”
Penny thankfully wasn’t offended by my outburst.
“How weird? What am I gonna say next?” she teased.
“You know what? It felt like déjà vu but actually I think you were in my dream last night.”
“Really?” Her cheeks flushed a little as she broke eye contact and giggled. “Was it a good dream at least?”
“I don’t remember. I woke up in a cold sweat but immediately forgot the dream.” I strained to recall why an old high school classmate, who I haven’t seen in at least five years, would suddenly appear in a dream.
The barista called our names and offered the drinks at the counter.
“Well, I won’t tell your girlfriend.” She laughed as she handed me my coffee. I chuckled and thanked her for the drink.
“Of course! It was great to see you. If you ever want to hang out, get to know the city, send me a message. Your girlfriend too, of course.”
“Thanks. I will.”
We said our goodbyes as I got in my car and continued towards work. The drive was thankfully short, but I couldn’t help but distract myself thinking about how weird it was that Penny was definitely in my dream the night before. I could specifically remember the way she flipped her hair when she approached the counter.
I pulled into the lot surrounding my office building and flashed my ID at the gate, smiling at the ever-present security guard. He offered me the same, slightly too enthusiastic wave he showcases every morning. I pulled forward into the lot, aiming towards a middle-section where I could usually find a place to park.
As I thought about it more, perhaps boosted by the injections of free caffeine I kept sipping into my empty body, the part of my dream with Penny in it—the Penny Part you might call it—definitely was in a coffee shop too. Was it the exact same shop? The layout did vaguely seem similar. I strained to remember details as they simultaneously crashed in and receded like waves on the gritty sand of my grey matter.
“Shit!” I yelled as my foot extended as far as possible into the brake pedal. I didn’t see the car which had parked crookedly and was backing out to straighten out. I plowed into the back tail light of this car, not going fast enough to seriously damage the frame, but enough to certainly rattle both vehicles and shatter the protective red plastic covering the light.
I threw my car in park and got out, meeting the other driver who was rushing around to examine the damage.
“I am so sorry. Are you all right?” I asked.
“I’m fine. Did you not see me?” they accused, not yet raising their voice, but clearly this wasn’t the way they wanted to start the day.
I didn’t specifically recognize this person but that wasn’t suspicious by itself when compared to the thousands of people who work at my company, and I only really knew a couple of dozen by name.
“No, I absolutely missed you pulling out. I wasn’t even on my phone. I just wasn’t paying attention. I’m so sorry.”
We exchanged information so I could pay to fix the tail light. Maybe I could get some overtime to help cover the cost. As I walked away, my shoe flexed over a shard of red plastic, and as I moved my foot over it, the sound of the shard scraping against the concrete sent a familiar icy pulse through my body. The feeling returned just like it had talking with Penny in the coffee shop, the feeling like this had already happened and I had been here before.
I caught my breath, unaware that my lungs had stopped their essential function. Before they could begin overcompensating and drawing unnecessary and anxiety-filled shallow sips of air, I got back into my car and practiced some control over my lungs; remind them who’s in charge. I took my unscathed car down a full dozen feet before resting it in an empty spot.
My lungs had now restored to normal function by sheer force of will. My mind on the other hand was unruly as ever.
What was happening this morning? Strange event after event were stacking up, and it wasn’t even eight o’clock in the morning. I had never put a dent in another person’s car, let alone hit it with my own. And why would I run into a person I hadn’t seen in years in a city that contained millions of unique persons within it?
And all of these events had been familiar in some way, like a chain of déjà vu that I kept pulling on to see where it would end.
As I stepped out of my car, grabbing my lunch, I couldn’t ease the uncomfortable anxiety that today was not normal and nothing good was going to come out of it. I tried to start the workday like any other, forcing a sense of normalcy to appear. I chatted with my teammates as general small talk and chatter bounced from one desk to another in the large open collection of cubes. I participated as best I could, even sharing the sudden collision that had occurred in the lot that morning, a fresh dose of secondhand adrenaline for these office workers who fought valiantly to not recognize the boring repetition our jobs provided forty hours a week.
But when it came time to actually focus on the monitor in front of me, all I could think about was the icy flow of apprehension that threatened to evolve into full-blown irrational panic. The biggest problem was I couldn’t even yet put a specific accusation on why this feeling persisted. Sure, it had been a weird day, but not wholly improbable. The déjà vu that accompanied these moments was weird, but déjà vu itself is weird. And it was for some reason affecting me significantly more today than the usual, “Oh, I think I just had déjà vu” or “You know, I had a dream like this last night,” and then moving on with the rest of my day. For whatever reason, this was sticking with me, and I had to know why.
After trying to work for thirty minutes and accomplishing nothing except mistyping my login and password three times and half-heartedly answering a couple of emails, I went into an empty room and called Krysta because I realized I hadn’t sent a message to her all morning like I usually did. I tried to voice a light-hearted concern for the strangeness of the day so far, and she politely listened without much distress since it was really just a bad dream.
“It’s just so weird like I can’t get it out of my head.”
“So why has this dream got you so unsettled,” her voice crackled through the poor signal impeded by the old building. “What was the dream even about?”
“That’s what I’m saying, I can only remember bits and pieces. My coffee pot was broken, and Penny was in a coffee shop at some point, just like this morning. I must have gone to work in the dream because I remember seeing the broken tail light. And then I was awake at some point. I kind of woke up suddenly.”
“Do you remember what woke you up?” she asked.
“I…” I stopped to concentrate on the early morning hours I had awoken to this morning. The cold sweat clinging to my body had been my only companion when I opened my eyes, that and something…pain? Pain on my arms and face. A loud crash.
“I think I died.”
“In your dream?” she clarified.
“I was being hurt when something happened, and I woke up.”
“Well, that’s always scary, but it’s just a dream. Your brain is just messing with you.”
I laughed, “That grey matter bastard.”
“Just try and let work distract your shitty brain. It can only handle so many things at the same time anyway,” she chaffed.
“Oh, ha ha,” I chided.
“Hey, why don’t I make dinner tonight? I can come to yours?”
“That sounds good.”
“Ok, see you after work. Love you.”
We disconnected, and I returned to my desk, adamant that I get some real work done and quit fixating on whatever combination of chemicals my brain had served last night. I did allow myself a quick google for how common it is to die in dreams. Based on the hundreds of thousands of results, the answer was, common. This certainly comforted me as I began the day’s work in earnest.
After a few hours, I was reminded that we had a team meeting in a conference room today. I took a seat towards the back of the conference table with my notepad as my supervisor walked in.
“All right, we knew it was coming, and there is no use in fighting it. Here is the new process going forward.” She continued reading from her notes, outlining the new, completely needless bureaucratic hurdle being added to our workflow.
As I scribbled the necessary notes, that same frigid feeling crept through my limbs just like it had sporadically this morning. I hesitantly looked around the room, hoping to see something unusual that might be responsible for the feeling. But nothing was unusual except for the meeting itself, which we rarely had in a conference room. When we needed to communicate a change or something new, this was usually accomplished with a quick gathering around someone’s desk, and then back to work.
But here I was, every detail of the room and people mimicked completely as I had seen the night before, and the déjà vu flooded in. A pit sank, stretching the lining of my stomach as my pulse anxiously increased. Nausea, a constant companion to my anxiety, arrived dutifully, and I was unable to hear a single thing my supervisor was covering.
“Hey, Sue?” I interrupted.
She looked up and I continued, “I need to take a break. I’m not feeling well.”
I stood up as she stuttered, “Oh, ok. I’ll give you the rest later.”
I quickly left the room and headed straight for the elevator, not worrying about grabbing my bag at my desk. I went directly to my car where I sat for a few minutes, trying to keep my fear from overwhelming me.
Four separate events. Four completely random and improbable things happened to me today. If I had dreamed about pouring a coffee in my kitchen, then that would mean nothing. That has happened at least a hundred days before today. But I didn’t dream that. I dreamed that my coffeemaker refused to brew, forcing me to go to a coffee shop where I saw someone I hadn’t seen in five years.
And then it happened exactly as it did in the dream.
I hit someone’s car and had a conference room meeting all on the same day that I had a dream with all those exact and highly improbable things, leading ultimately to my death somehow.
I failed miserably to contain my anxiety. I started to frantically look around my car and the surrounding lot, to see if anything might be familiar. Well, of course, it was familiar to me; I had worked there for months.
It became apparent that there was a basic solution. Since my brain couldn’t recall all of the events between now and my predicted demise sometime later today, I needed to avoid anything that seemed remotely like a normal day.
I took the keys out of the ignition and got out of the car. I looked past the orchard of cars towards the street, where I knew a bus stop stood. I made my way towards it, sending a quick message to my supervisor saying I was leaving for the day—definitely not the usual routine—as I waited for the bus to arrive. When it did and I scrounged the change for the fare, the bus headed deeper into the city. I felt better already when that glacier presence in my subconscious did not reappear.
I rode the mostly empty bus for many blocks. A few people came aboard and departed in that time, but I refused to absorb any detail about them, afraid it would trigger another recollection from my terminal dream.
However, as the bus approached a major thoroughfare, I took an opportunity to continue shaking things up. I got off the bus and walked towards one of the city’s light rail stations. I purchased a ticket and waited on the slightly busy midday platform for the next train to arrive. I could see its glossy red body cruising along a few hundred yards down the line.
I glanced thankfully at the bus as it drove through the block, continuing on its service. That bus had been a life raft for me, even if all it was doing was chasing the same trail of concrete it did every day. The train arrived, and I squeezed my way to the back of the last car where I found an empty seat. I took it and kept the same successful strategy I had on the bus: avoid eye contact.
We rolled down the tracks stopping every few minutes to let more of the lunch crowd in and out, while I remained steadily planted in my seat. Towards the end of the line, a sour-smelling man took a seat across from mine and joined me in my silent passage. I waited for some déjà vu to trigger, and I was relieved when it never did.
When we reached the end of the line, I obediently got off and crossed to the other side of the platform to get right back on. I found my seat again and rode on. The sour smell reached me again, so I knew my journey companion had returned, though I didn’t look up to confirm it, afraid that I might remember his face.
It took almost an hour to reach the other end of the line where I got off again and began heading south again on the turned-around train. I did this two more times. I did nothing except sit in silence, letting the buildings and bridges and parks float by my window. I stayed despite the continual protestations of my body which had yet to receive any real food. I began to feel really tired by the third trip, the grumblings of my stomach lost as the wheels of the train rolled across the tracks in the afternoon sun. I didn’t even realize I had fallen asleep. It was such a disorienting day, I might have even passed out. But, I woke up when a young boy, maybe four or five years old, was staring at me from the seat in front of me. He smiled as my eyes opened, and I cautiously returned it. His mother turned around when she noticed him staring.
“I’m so sorry. Turn around, Daniel,” she chastised.
“Oh, it’s ok. He wasn’t bugging me. It’s just been a long day.”
Daniel didn’t turn around as his mother had asked, but instead proudly announced, “We’re going to the zoo!” I laughed, my guard broken down by the simplicity of the boy’s happiness. I looked out the window and saw that we were in fact heading towards the zoo. I replied, “I wish I could go to the zoo.”
“My favorite animal,” the boy offered, unprompted, “is the sea lion, because it does tricks and swims really fast!”
“Whoa, that is cool!” I replied.
“What’s your favorite animal?” Daniel asked before his mother turned again and rebuked him, “Leave the poor man alone, Daniel.” She turned to me, “I’m sorry.”
“It’s really no problem,” I laughed, “My favorite animal is the giraf—“
I couldn’t finish the word before ice flooded my veins. Instead, my memory saw the sentence completed just as it was in my dream the night before. My face fell as the train slowed.
“Are you ok?” the boy’s mother asked.
The doors opened to the platform, and I stood up and rushed through them, desperately looking around to see where I could go. The train rolled forward, and I saw the boy’s inquisitive face looking through the window at the crazy man who had just rushed off the train. My pulse quickened at the familiar face as it confirmed the seemingly deadly dream’s events.
Broken down, sweat coating my forehead, I pulled out my phone and requested a ride to my apartment which was at least a mile away. I sat down, eyes threatening to break under the weight of the day’s constant anxiety and inevitable conclusion.
A red sedan pulled up as promised, and I shuffled into the backseat, avoiding eye contact with the driver.
“Please don’t talk to me,” I pleaded with the driver, perhaps more abrasive than I intended since all I received in reply was, “No problem, guy” the driver groused.
I didn’t care though. All I wanted, after spending the day avoiding routine, was the comfort of the usual and supposed normal. When we arrived at my apartment, I got out of the car and nearly sprinted up the steps to my apartment. I breathed a sigh of uneasy relief to be home, even if this was where I had woken up in a cold sweat this morning. I got in the shower, hoping to wash off the apprehension that stuck to me. It was already late afternoon when I left the shower, feeling slightly better, softly inebriated by the scent of the soapy concoction. Wrapped in nothing but my towel. I collapsed on my worn couch. The day’s events and lack of food had taken more of a toll on me than I anticipated since not even the couch’s uncomfortable frame kept me from falling asleep instantly, unafraid of whatever my subconscious might showcase this time.
A gentle hand pushed on my shoulder. My vision cleared to recognize Krysta standing above me, a bag of groceries clutched in her other hand.
“Are you ok, babe?” She placed her hand against my forehead.
“I’ve had a weird day.” I sat up as she moved to put the groceries in the kitchen.
“It seems like it, though I don’t mind you greeting me in a towel,” she teased, “But you left your door unlocked which isn’t like you.”
“What time is it?”
She tapped her phone screen. “Nearly a quarter to six.”
“Oh shit. I slept for two hours.”
“You must have been out. I sent you a couple of messages when I was at the grocery store. I figured I would just go with the parmesan chicken you like.”
“That sounds good,” I replied, reminded of how empty my stomach was, “I actually haven’t eaten all day.”
“God, Neil. Are you sure you’re feeling ok?”
She set down the potatoes she had been rinsing and dried her hands.
“Not really.” I got off the couch. “Let me actually put clothes on so my balls aren’t on display.”
Krysta laughed. “I’ve heard a lot of problems can be solved by putting on clothes.”
When I returned fully clothed, she had finished preparing the food and the oven chimed to announce it was ready. I offered to help, but Krysta politely told me to go sit down, her dark black hair tied into a ponytail meaning she was ready to take over my apartment. I was extremely grateful for this quality of masterful management that she brought to our relationship, not to mention it made her phenomenal as a paralegal. Perhaps my small town roots or military training had formed this dependence, but I found it much better if I just followed orders.
“So tell me what’s going on? Is it anything related to what happened this morning?”
I looked down, slightly sheepish to admit how much a bad dream had affected me, a twenty-three-year-old man.
“Spill the beans, boy,” she commanded as she vigorously seasoned vegetables on a tray. I filled her in on my day; how I thought my unpredictable strategy worked for a while until the dream seemed to anticipate every juke and remind me that I had already been there in my dream.
“Well, what about now?” she asked, “Is anything I’m doing remind you of the dream?”
“No, nothing so far. The nap definitely helped me, I think, because I don’t feel as on edge as I did before.”
“You mean compared to riding the rail up and down for hours like a hobo? Hmmm, I wonder why you feel better now…” she teased with a wry smile.
“Look, I was freaked out!” I laughed.
“And you were freaked out because you died at the end of a dream and everything has been lining up to what you could remember from the dream, right?”
I nodded and she continued, softening her voice, “I can see how that would freak you out. What do you remember about the end of the dream?”
“Not much. It’s hard to pinpoint anything until after it happens like déjà vu. It’s not déjà vu until it happens. But I do remember pain, like being scratched and cut all over my head and arms. And I remember running before something happens and I woke up.”
“Ok, so this chicken probably isn’t going to kill you, right?” She smiled, knowing that the easiest steps forward were usually small ones.
I chuckled. “No, I think it’s probably safe.” I stood up as she began filling my plate with the fragrant parmesan-crusted chicken with roasted potatoes and broccoli. She handed me the meal, my stomach grumbling in thanks. I thanked her with a kiss and sat down, cutting into the chicken hoping she would forgive me for not waiting.
The powerful flavor of the bite exploded in my salivating mouth as I graciously broke it down into pieces. But where relief and satisfaction should have arrived, instead that cold feeling of realization appeared, so alien in contract to the relative comfort I had been enjoying the past thirty minutes.
My brain began recalling the newest scene from my dream; I sat there chewing while Krysta joined me at the small table with her own plate.
“What is it?” Krysta asked, “Is the chicken not done?”
I stood up in a panic, unsure about what possibly could come next but I know I didn’t want Krysta hurt in the process.
“I have to go,” I announced walking towards the door, not stopping to put on shoes or grab my phone or address Krysta’s questions and protests as I continued out the door.
I hustled down the steps and out to the street where I walked more than four blocks, unguided and without direction. The rough concrete scratched the soles of my bare feet with each step, the general debris threatening to break the skin.
My heart hammered in my temples so hard that I thought the veins would surely explode with the pressure. I stopped at a corner waiting for the light to protect my crossing. The orange dusk sky was nearly beautiful, and I only wished I had time to appreciate it. I looked around the corner; nestled behind a wall of tall bushes was a restaurant or bar. I could just make out the laughter and conversations of normal people enjoying the patio, going through their completely normal days on the other side.
But most of the noise was coming from the massive flock of medium-sized birds searching for a last meal inside the bushes before the sun truly set. I peered to look inside the bush when the light still hadn’t changed. They hopped from branch to branch, hunting insects and looking for seeds.
Ice clogged my veins.
I had found the end of the dream.
My heart pumped fruitlessly in fear, and I screamed in terror.
The patio of customers went silent while the birds launched out of the bush, their wings and talons cutting deeply into my head and arms as they swarmed over me. I swung my arms, desperate to stop the pain. My legs attempted to carry me to safety. I felt them take me off the smooth curb into the rough street.
I woke up as a jolt of pain in my lower back shocked me into consciousness. Red lights flashed in the light grey sky. A paramedic tried to get me to speak, but all I could register was the pain. Like something wasn’t where it should be. It flattened me in waves, and I stopped fighting it as they carried me onto the stretcher.
Krysta rushed into my hospital room just after the nurse took vital signs later that night.
“Jesus, Neil! How are you feeling?” she asked.
“I’m doing ok. Slightly better now that I’m drugged up and not dead,” I attempted to joke.
“You idiot,” she huffed as she sat down in the chair next to my bed, clearly exasperated.
“I’m sorry. I think I honestly lost my mind today.”
“Seriously! Why did you run out of the apartment?” She paused and grabbed her bag, “Here’s your phone by the way.” She pulled it out of her purse while I explained my irrational decision to walk so many blocks barefoot.
“I hate to say I told you so, but obviously none of this would have happened if you had just gone about your day like normal.”
“You love to say I told you so,” I corrected.
“You’re right, and I told you!” She laughed before asking, “How long will you be here?”
“They’re waiting on the x-rays and stuff to come back. When the truck hit me, a vertebrae may have slipped or possibly something broke in my pelvis, I can’t remember what they said. I’m so doped up right now, I can barely feel anything. I’ll prove it. Give me a kiss.”
She smiled and bent over the bed to give me a light kiss.
“See, didn’t feel that at all.” I smiled.
“What did your mom say?”
“I was waiting for my phone.”
“You haven’t called her yet? Why the hell not?!”
“Because I don’t know her number…”
“Are you telling me you don’t know your own mother’s number?” Krysta admonished.
“I’m just glad I left my phone at home and you answered when I called.”
She signed, “If the law of nature is survival of the fittest, then you aren’t going to survive.”
“Hey!” We laughed before Krysta got up.
“I’m gonna go home and we’ve got a big case in the morning, but I’ll be back around lunch tomorrow if nothing else changes. Call me if you need anything or if anything happens.” She headed towards the door before she stopped and added, “And when you tell your mother what happened, you better tell her I tried to save you from yourself or she’s gonna blame it all on me. She may do that anyway.”
“My mom loves you.”
“She does not love the girl who took her sweet baby to the dangerous city that’s trying to kill him.”
“Love you!” I laughed, trying not to move too much.
The nurse returned to the room telling me to get some rest. Helped by the drugs coursing through my body, I dutifully closed my eyes and drifted to sleep almost immediately, relaxed for the first time in the past twenty-four hours.
The flames stretched their fingers toward his body as he laid on the bed unable to leave it. They lapped at the sheets he threw at them, hoping it would smother them. Instead, the fire grasped hold of the hospital gown wrapped around his body, brushing against his skin, letting the burning grip crackle over his whole body. He screamed in agony.
My eyes flew open to see the half-lit fluorescent light of the room. My hospital gown, soaked in sweat, clung to my body, and I couldn’t forget the heat that had awoken me.