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                                                       Blood and Dreams                                                 

So long as no one was close by, the disguise was eminently effective. Stone was required to remove no more than four sec. guards from the company payroll in his sudden, silent manner. Each time, Mike almost -but not quite- managed to look away. And each time, Stone was a little grimmer, a little slower, and a lot less able to repeat the exertion. Trying to walk upright became an effort in itself, but a limping, bowed figure would draw eyes. Mike’s strength of will evaporated without a specific task, and she led him around corners and through service tunnels with a few soft comments.

Eternity passed and was replayed in the time it took her to gain an exit to the street that was not watched. Stone felt the deterioration of his condition as a draining of will. Slipping in and out of full lucidity, he remembered other journeys of escape and dreamed lightly of the end battle yet to come there. And the discovery beyond. It was pleasant to imagine that this time he would join his beauty in the quarry and death. Why was the walk from the car so long? Then the drift would carry him back and he would notice how far away the ground was, and how much smaller his companion seemed now than in the dark shed. And how for a good little techie, she seemed to know a lot about getting around unnoticed. Where did she find these places? One moment all corporate decorum, the next bitch-slapping him conscious, with bloody hands giving drugs like a pro. But no thought could stay cemented for long in the tidal pools between his ears.                                  

When she finally brought him to a break in the wall, he hardly understood her. She convinced him to stoop and shuffle through, and he realized he was in an alley on a less pleasant side of town. A beaten, rusted door squealed as she pushed it in, and she let him set a moment on the surprisingly clean stairs. Old, worn, but clean. A domicile. Gratitude was becoming a familiar thing as he sank and oozed onto the bent wood. She shouldered the door closed, and returned to him, anxiety pulling her face into new lines.

“You need to go a little further, and then you can rest. It is unlikely that we will be followed here, but what will be required to repair the damage you have sustained cannot be administered on the steps. You will have to manage three flights of steps, with my support, but they are not long stairs, containing no more than ten risers each. A total of maybe fifty footsteps all told will enable you to lie down where I can do what is possible. I apologize for the length of this walk, but I know of no other place where we cannot be tracked. Can you hear me, Mr. Stone?” Her hands sought his face, brushed hair out of the way and lifted his head. He breathed deeply, gathered himself, and opened his eyes again.

“I’m here. You count to three and pull.” His eyes closed and he sucked in sharply. Taking him at his word, she counted off and heaved with him, and then he was up and moving. Without the need to stand up, he allowed himself the luxury of slumping a good bit as he went. She slid under his left shoulder, (within reach while he slumped,) and he dragged himself along the rail on his left. Each riser was a tearing scream inside him, and again the effort to stay awake was lost to the effort of movement.

He was climbing his garden hill, knowing that She was there waiting for him, not how or what reception he would receive, only that it was possible to look her in the face one time as herself. Perhaps to kiss her when she knew she was being kissed, and beg forgiveness for all the wrongs he had committed in a very, very long life. To ask would be enough. Even if she threw him back down the hill, it would be blessing enough. But the hill grew steeper, and the flowers wrapped their stems around his ankles, drawing him down, weighting his body with remembered guilts. He could hear a voice begging him to try, he was so close… he couldn’t be sure it was hers. So little had been said. The flowers were swallowing him, tearing great gaping holes in his chest, reaching for his heart. A warm hand brushed his face, and he started, hoping she had come to him, to kiss or kill, happy for either.

A rattle close by took him to his safehouse, and he heard her whispered pleadings as something fell from somewhere onto something else.  He was lowered onto his almost respectable couch, and she slipped away from him, his finding her there to slip away a great surprise. Her hands were soft, pressing him back into the cushions, and he protested.

“It was the chair. I was in the chair last time. Not the couch,” he whispered to her, and she shushed him. What must have been her voice reassured him that she would return in just a moment. He was to wait, not move, and try to stay awake. “I await your return with every fiber of my being,” he promised sadly, “And I will not sleep, because you wish it so.” The remainder of his resolve bent to this, his voice petered out. Hoping she heard, he set himself to the task of being alert. Inside, the will turned to familiar work, and the habits of the deep took over. He was drawn away from his safehouse into an unfamiliar place, small and dark.

Looking around, he recognized the dream for what it was and some part of him regretted it’s passing. Better to die in a dream, eh? But the dreaming would be what killed him, also. There was nothing in the dream to force him into Theta or remind him to live. He could do much, but only so long as he thought to do so, and in delirium, the lack of doing would let nature go its way. Focus was needed. Find focus, study your surroundings, live on purpose.

This was not his couch, but could easily have been. It was ancient, faded and comfortable. The room was a box, with a smaller box or two inside for separation. A single window informed him of the passage of time while he’d dozed. The coming sunset was going to be glorious to all who had souls. Most of the light came from the smaller room to the right of the window, however. A kitchen? Sounds emerged of various activities, and he guessed at the makings. A table sat in the right angle of the two ‘walls’, and beyond the kitchen box was a narrow bed heaped in blankets and a small side table. Nothing decorative, nothing more that he could see in the waning light. He waited, watching the colors change in the sky, and their reflections on the wall, and hoped she’d hurry with whatever she was doing. Trust aside, he had worries about strength and was not sure of his reserves.

He’d not slept for … how many hours? Today had been spent running, last light gathering data, the day and evening before with Ricci, when he’d intended to sleep, the previous night in his ‘garden’, and then, yes, he’d slept before going to the bar to enrich his lover. Truly, it was time, and this was a test he might fail. A weight pressed against the back of his head, coaxing him to close his eyes. It wanted to roll forward, but he held his head high to resist. The weigh was happy with that too- it tried to pull the back of his head down to meet the couch. Gently, oh so gently. The return trip was misery. Upright again, he saw Mike hurry out into the coral sunlight, and arrange an armful of objects at the far end of the couch.

A table unfolded, and was filled, then overflowed onto the floor. An economy of motion, she set a small tray near him, ran back, and returned with softer things, then a third trip away to choose blankets. Here was the decoration he’d missed. Soft and richly colored, they were stretched the length of the couch on the floor. He was curious, but did not inquire who was to sleep on the floor. And now she turned her attention to him, looking into his eyes, yet somehow not at him, feeling the texture of his skin around the patches, on and on.

“I have a stimulant to give you before I attempt to close the wounds; I am afraid to give you a pain reliever in view of your lowered body temperature and dilated pupils. If you will allow it I will begin what little I can do here. I feel the most effective course will be to close the surfaces, bandage, then feed you and let you rest under a mild local anesthetic. If you do not become feverish within the next four hours, and you strongly desire, I may risk a general, but I would not advise it until we are certain you are not in immediate danger.” She busied herself preparing bandages and tools while she spoke. Though she might look at his chest to eye-out the right amount, she avoided his face. “I cannot say that your chances for surviving the night are good, but ,” here she stopped, and almost looked at him, shying away just short.

This passive attitude after the capable face she had worn before intrigued him, and he felt better for the distraction. “It is doubtful I would have survived this far if you were not so unfailingly efficient. Few corporate employees are so well versed in so many non- job related areas. If you have any question of my faith in your ability, please put it to rest. I place myself in your hands with no qualms,” he offered. Her face remained tight, and she reached for the hypodermic.

“You should not be alive. It follows that to survive what should have killed any human being, you cannot be a normal human being. This supposition is supported by what I saw you do to normal human beings, and the fact that they were defenseless.”

“It scares you. It does most.” He nodded, understanding.

“It does not frighten me, I merely needed to define and confirm what I saw. It in no way effects what occurs now,” she told him. Her hands were busy, and after the sting came the feeling of well being. Strength seeped back into him and the pain increased slightly, but he could survey the damage and close off the sensory nerves there. Not running, not drugged, he took full stock and found the damage as bad as he’d feared, but she was right. If it had been anyone else, well, let’s hope you had a nice suit. He isolated part of this and that, started the regrowing. Breathing came easier. When he returned his attention to the outside world, she was waiting, spray can in hand.

“I need to remove the patches and give you an antibiotic. It may be painful at first, but it will pass quickly, and then you can eat. The stimulant will not last long, and when it goes, I cannot in good conscience give you another. It is not an artificial chemical, but it will give you only so much. Much like eating a candy bar, it is real energy, but short-lived.” She began to work, so he watched while the patches dissolved and his clotted blood was left to jiggle forlornly on its own. A second hypo stung him around each hole, and the nerves quieted under it.

“Horizontal or vertical,” she asked him, and he drew a blank.

“Pardon me?”

“It will not be possible to avoid scarring, given the rough edges and amount of skin lost. I can pull the sides in evenly only so far, after which it will be necessary to pinch them together to meet at the center. Would you prefer the pinched line to run your length or width? On a positive note, if the entry site had been from the front, you would have lost significant amounts of your latissimus dorsi on exit, leaving you unable to pull back or down with your arms, even given your unexplained tolerances. I am uncertain why you have not lost function of your major organs, if they were hit, or why they were not if that is the case. You seem to vary from the norm in several instances, so it is possible that the placement of your organs follows this trend.” She seemed to expect a response, but he had none to give, and was left trying to remember the original question.

“If… you say so. Lattice mus? And they are…” He felt a bit overwhelmed, never having given much thought to such details. To humor her was the best he could do.

“You have two- the wide flat muscles of the back. The problem remains, long or wide?” She had done all she could on the front before the ‘pinching’ and was pulling a box of small black somethings from the collection of objects. He paid no heed to the illusion that they moved oddly, passing it off as exhaustion-based hallucination.

“Long. Wide would make me look fat, wouldn’t it?” he grinned darkly, but again, she missed the joke.

“I do not believe the marks left would be long enough to give visual aid to such an illusion. However it is a matter of personal preference, and the difference is minimal to functionality once healed.” She slid a small panel on one side of the box open and shook out a very few of the black dots; at first he thought they were rolling, then he realized they were in fact crawling away. The thought was a shocking one, and when she picked the first one up with a long tweezer, he protested loudly.

“If you move before the skin has been secured, the wounds will re-open and I will have to start fresh. We do not have that kind of time. To create problems for someone who attempting to help you is antisocial. Please be still.”

Again she aimed the tweezers at him, and he saw the prisoner waving tiny legs in helpless rage. A huge black ant with massive looking pincers glared up at him, and he doubted his earlier words of trust.

“I apologize for the difficulties I am causing you,” he hurried, “but I am uncertain as to the intended purpose of your current tool.” He found himself leaning back against the protests of his tight skin.

This apparently was the first amusing thing he’d said, and she held most of her straight face while forming her reply. “I intend to put a big bug on you, let it bite you really hard, and then leave it there while I bandage you up.” The straight face cracked, and she chuckled at a joke he didn’t get, while he was struck dumb. Seeing this, she broke into a full laugh. “Oh, oh my, oh what a face. You are afraid of a bug less than the length of your pinky nail, after today? They do look fierce, but I assure you, it is in the interest of healing, or I wouldn’t terrify you so.” She caught an ant that had strayed too far, and returned it o the box. “The purpose of the ants is to replace stitching with a needle and thread. They< are ‘warrior’ ants, and once they bite down on the edges of the skin, they will not let go. The skin is not punctured, causing further trauma, and the scarring is less. It hurts less than stitches, trust me.” She paused, and when his doubts were overridden by decisive will, she positioned the skin, then the ant. And it bit HARD. He felt it through the numbness, and he ‘hey’ed a bit before relaxing. Not really painful, just a good firm pinch. But it was a bug. On him.

The front finished quickly, and she attended his back. He felt the sinking before she was done, and the sensation was returning to his skin before she re-patched him. His indrawn breaths and groans were matched by her sympathetic ones, and when she at long last pressed him back into the soft reception of pillows, he was falling out of wakefulness at high speed. The need to eat was a distant concern compared to the siren song of sleep. She poured and stirred a bowl, and bullied him upright enough to spoon him a warm, meaty paste.< The dull texture was not enough to spoil the richness of the meal, and a beast he’d not known slept inside was awake and screeching for a second serving before the first was half gone. She obliged, but refused a third, and his half- made protests died being born.

Without meaning, his head was in her lap, and his weight held her on the couch. Unable to slide free, she sighed, and pulled the blanket from the floor. The multicolored satins and velvets of the patchwork faded against the sanguine stains he’d added to her upholstery, and she sighed again.

“I knew there was a reason I’d never had anyone in here. My first visitor, and look at the results.” He rumbled in his sleep, and she accepted that as a reply. A soft beeping in the dark tried to remind her it was time to leave for work, and her face emptied as conflicting imperatives warred in her. The inability to move became the deciding factor, and she closed her eyes as her old life slipped from her grasp. A last thought for the sacrifices she’d made to get the job flickered though, and the quiet desolation that had been her companion for years embraced her like a lost child. Then the patient stirred under her hand, and she stroked his hair, soothing him as she remembered someone had soothed her in the dim past.

His forehead was warm, and she reached for the card table and the rags there. Wetting one, she spread it across his eyes and cheeks, and he mumbled in his sleep about gardens and breezes. The absurdity of such a merciless murderer dreaming of gardens was the last oddity she could bear in a single day, and she closed her eyes again and aimed for the caliginous shores.

A small body sat in a hard chair, surrounded by white coats with faces floating above them. They did not like her to stand, because she was as tall as they were. They were old, and she was not, but then she was, too, but they could not explain it to her. They taught her what they wanted her to know. She thought what they told her to think. She could remember a time when she could not think, and so she was happy enough to think anything. When there was conflict between them, they came in secret to tell her to think their way, and she learned to think many ways about the same thing. And when the screaming started, she did not know she was frightened, or that she should cry.

Two faces were there more than any for a long time, and she knew how they sounded and smelled and looked, even though they put on new faces from time to time and got smaller. She wondered if she should learn how to change faces and shrink, but the coats with faces never finished with the lessons that they kept written on hard plastic boxes, and that was not one of them. In time she saw that some coats got taller and took a long time learning to shrink, so she assumed it would be a long lesson. She stayed the same, although the faces made reference to her being small at one time, so perhaps it had been taught and forgotten in the vague space before. She did not question, nor did it occur to her to be concerned about any of these things that would have upset another. The faces took care of things. All things.

This was peace. This was void, but void was also a lack of discomfort and discontent, so the balance was made, and she lived to continue in it. Eventually the faces gave her thoughts beyond the void’s limits, and she understood she should want, and strive. And she did, and the two faces smiled and disappeared. Somewhere, in a vague place, she was disturbed by the lack of them, and she discovered a hint of the meanings of the words she was fed. Eventually all of the faces were gone, were replaced by new ones, and she continued as before. Things happened, and she felt things she did not understand; they were new, yet familiar, and she was pleased. Other things followed, unpleasant, and faces left, and changes were made. New ideas were put in her memory as important, and she was different. The peace was leaving, and she learned sorrow.

FEAR! FEAR! FEAR CRUSHING AND OVERWHELMING, THE WORLD WAS FALLING, AND SHE/ HE /THEY WERE BENEATH IT. DARKNESS, STRANGE SURROUNDINGS, TORTURED TREE, DEAD LAND- the nightly dream was swept away by a torrent of thought, and she knew it for an outside influence. This was not new, but it was not instruction; someone was sharing the inmost. She turned her attention to it, confused by the unstructured nature of it, and found herself in a dark tunnel-like hall. A lean, long body walked beside her, the source of the sending, convinced that she herself was the source, and desperate to escape it. Now she understood better. This was a memory, but he was unaware of the fact, and endangered by the unknowing.

There was power here. If the link was strong enough for her to know him, she could act on her own. And she was lucid, if he was not. This must be a deep fear to hold such power over him; it was so easy to overcome such things here, why did he do nothing? He cowered before it, and she considered.

The dream walkers had reached a large room, and he was stumbling in it. She looked at it a moment, and decided, and the darkness dispelled. She preferred forests, and trees appeared, but the fear would not give in so easily, and a hodge-podge of cavern and thicket emerged. She smiled, not displeased at the strange blend, and knew the dreamer confused and wanting. In the shadow of his own unknown making, a young (so young)man with dark hair falling in waves across his shoulders and down his back stood confused by the sudden changes, awareness of himself filtering in. His dark eyes, sharp and clearing, glared at her from beneath his sculpted brow, marking her as a new threat, and she recognized this boy for the man who’d stolen and re-programmed her last night. A second wave of change swept the scene, and the boy fluttered and grew, his face and chest filling out, features becoming sharper, colder, finding maturity beneath the weight of some great sorrow. Shadow filled the glen, and she was saddened by the passage of the beautiful boy, regretting the life that had created this powerful, pained being now before her. She made compromise with his action, and filled the space with moonlight and fireflies.

Looking up at what should have been a roof, Stone found stars, and clouds backlit by the moon. This was not what had happened, and he could not explain it to himself. He looked back at the pale figure behind his couch, and at the monstrous fern growing where his table should have been, as a glowing mote landed on his arm flickering intently. “Where am I?” The ghostly shape floated closer, and he retreated.

“That is a sensible question. You are dreaming,” a smooth, soft voice informed him, “the next is- where did you believe yourself to be?” It was hard to be afraid in such peaceful surroundings, and he let slip the reins a notch, and the clouds left the moon. His companion was visible, and the look of compassion held him against his will as she came closer. She was Mike, and she was Her, and he knew it was not what should be, but he could not separate the two in his mind’s eye. “Dreaming is a singular experience,” he replied, striving not to be lulled.

“For the most part, you are correct,” she answered. “However, I did not initiate this, so I must assume you did. This has not occurred before?”

He could not answer. He recognized his obvious part in the gesalt. It meant power without intent or control. He could do unimaginable harm acting unconsciously. But she was here, as a free agent, interactive and at ease. As though it were natural to have visitors in her sleep, and she was unconcerned beyond his bad manners at not calling first.

“You do not wish to answer either question, and you do not seem comfortable with me. As the nightmare has passed, and you are awake within the confines here, would you prefer I return to my own space and allow you to explore on your own?” She began to thin, and the clouds to return, and he was reminded of the previous place he’d been. Walls began to thicken around the glen, and he felt his fear solidify between him and the moon

The walls reversed their trend, and she asked again, “Should I leave, or are you not in sufficient control of your space to be comfortable?” Her desire to help was tempered with the need not to intrude, and she was less than thrilled with the conflict.

He wanted to escape the walls and the memory. He needed to understand this situation. He wanted, more than any of these, a drink of cool water and to remove the coat he was wearing. Had he been before? It was hard to think. He pulled it off, dropping it to the ground, and wiped his face. She watched, frowning, and he turned around, looking for the remains of his kitchen. There was cold water in the Cool-all, he remembered. Fishing it out, he drank long and deep, unable to quench the desert he’d become. Frustrated, he tossed the decanter away, and pulled at the blanket around his shoulders.

“Stay still. I think I understand the problem you are having. It should take no more than five minutes, and you should feel better, though it will seem like more while you’re here. If you wish me to return, you will have to bring me in. Stay quiet” and she tilted her head back, and was gone.

Alone again, the heat and thirst consumed him, and he wished for a bath. It appeared for him, and surprised, he stepped in. But the water was warm, and he rolled out onto the sand. Shifting from thought to thought, place to place, he sought comfort but was denied. Whispers above him urged him to hush, and promised relief, but the speaker was unseen. Cool hands brushed him, and a soft cloth slid across his face. He grabbed for it, and missed.

A soft weight settled on his front, and he attempted to push it away, then felt the blissful cold seeping down from it. He felt pinned, but didn’t want to disturb the something resting on him, so he lay still. A hand slipped under his head and lifted, his lips finding a cup and eagerly pulling at it. Before he’d come close to finishing, it was taken away, and in his struggles to re-capture it, he had a glimpse of a small dark room, and a pale face above him; he remembered for a moment where his body lay, and who his benefactor was. He resolved to be less trouble, then he was drifting again.

A sharp sting at his wrist brought him back for a moment, and she moaned in sympathy for his pains. The cool cloth returned, she shifted a bit, moving things, and he realized he felt better. He whispered thanks, took the cup again when it was offered, and fell back beneath the waves that pulled at him. This was paradise, the soft floating, the cool cloth and gentle hands, the sounds made to soothe him ancient as race memory. The oft- replayed tableau of need and comforting filled him and he was a thousand men cared for by a thousand wives, mothers, and slaves over countless millennia. Did he travel to join the ones who’d lived on, or those who’d perished in the strong loving arms they’d lain in?

The garden was in twilight when he opened his eyes on the hillside. He could feel her stroking his face still, cooling his forehead, and he was lonesome for her without cause. He sent his gift out, trying to pull her to him, but met resistance from a conscious mind. Her hands paused, and he fancied she felt the tug. She continued, and he sighed to himself. Awake in his dream, he felt out of place, and sat picking flowers from around his feet. Time passed slowly, and he was left to drift from hill to dale, looking at the blooms he’d arranged over decades. When finally the hands slowed and stopped, he was unaware for a good while, and wandered into the trees grown on her last visit. Here was this done, and there I saw that. He was lonely and bored, and his want went out of it’s own will again, and this time he stepped out of forest into white halls of marble.

“Hello again. I’d thought you had decided to do for yourself this time, but here you are. How do you feel?”

He looked around an immense hall, columns with gold streaks deep inside holding up nothing, a canopy of branches spread high above to keep out a rain he could hear falling outside. Sunlight shone through to create rainbows in the mist far in the distance, and moss colored the floor in a carpet of deep greens and blues. After a long search, he found a pair of slippered feet waving behind a sleeping tiger’s back, and gingerly stepped over it to find Mike stretched out on the ground, her fingers in the waters of a creek that ran through and out. He had not seen it before, on the other side of the column, so he suspected it did not run all the way across, as it appeared to when viewed from this side. A small splash, and she waved a silver crayfish at him.

“You don’t talk much, even when you can,” she observed. “The option is there, and you should feel free if you so desire. However, if you express no preferences, I will continue to enjoy myself as I choose. It does create a difficulty in that I am essentially a hostess while you are on this side, and I don’t know you well enough to entertain you properly. And your side contains issues you have not dealt with, and I cannot assist you if you are uncommunicative.” She frowned lightly to herself, and then sighed. “Would you like one?” she asked, holding the champing crawly up to him.

Taking it from her, he was cautious, but it pinched his finger anyway, and he dropped it quickly. She caught it, and lifted an eyebrow at him, then flicked it across it’s tail. It froze, and she returned it to him. He looked at it, and she scooped another from the streambed for herself. “Have a seat,” she offered. “I was considering a swim, but wanted to be sure you would be alright on your own now that the fever is under control. Would you care to join me, or did you have a better idea? Something new would be nice, but I really can enjoy almost anything.” She reached for a second crawly, this one metallic red, set it against the first, and took a bite of both, sandwich style. Neither protested, and he looked at his own again. It glared back at him, and he doubted he could eat it as easily.

“I appreciate the intent, but I generally like my food dead and cooked before I get it. Dead at least.” He thought for a moment, and handed it back to her. “I have killed and eaten on the run, but it’s not my first choice.” He wanted to say something more, but nothing came to mind.

Are you hungry? What you have here won’t do anything for real hunger, and I can go back and feed you, but if not, then this is just for fun. I like food, and find I like the idea of different shapes. If you like, we could do the feast thing, or a restaurant , or a campfire. Whatever. Or we could skip it completely, and ride horses, or dragons, or griffins, or chickens… or swim, or fly, or have an orgy, or meet the Kennedys, there’s no limits. I did intend to stay awake originally, to watch you. Not that it would make any difference. If you’re going to die, my staring at you won’t make one whit of difference. But it would be unsettling to wake up and find you dead on my lap. No offense meant. What would I do with you?”

The practical manner in which she moved from dinner to death to disposal was humorous, and he found himself smiling. He handed her one of the many flowers he’d picked (but didn’t remember carrying) and she smiled in return, a warm, side- quirked smile that welcomed him. “If I had any other options, I would gladly have avoided the trouble I have caused you. I apologize for the inconvenience, and hope you will forgive me at some point. If I can make reparations when all this is done, please know that I will attempt to do so.” She got the joke this time, and threw a petal at him before biting a chunk out of the rest. He was reminded of an old movie, and laughed out loud. “No thank you, I’ll eat them here?”

She raised her eyebrows primly. “Sorry Semour, I already have plans,” she replied, and he fell over in the moss holding his sides.

“No one I’ve ever made that joke to had the reference point,” he gasped through his guffaws, and she shrugged.

“So I guess I ain’t as young as I looks,” she quipped. “It’s funnier because you’re on ‘stuff’ right now, but I’ll take what laughs I can get. Even here.” The smile faded a bit, and she was serious a moment. “I never had company here or there before. I think I could enjoy it. But I worry about the rest of you back on the couch. And do you generally remember your dreams? Will I wake up and find you forgot everything, and we’re strangers on your end again? Not that that’s all bad. I could misbehave and there’d be no consequences. Physically or socially. No rules broken, no barriers breached. One of the advantages of the sub/semi conscious world here. If no one remembers, no one complains. But then, no one’s been here to do anything but me.” The face she wore was heartbreaking, pain, sorrow and acceptance, weariness beyond words. He reached out, and she took his hand, casually, and kissed the fingers like a lover of many years. “I sometimes fill it with people, for company, and if I forget I’m dreaming, it’s lovely. I’m me here, if you can understand that, and I can do and be and enjoy it. But they’re all facets of me, and after awhile I remember, and then I know I’m controlling it all, and it seems so pointless. If it’s not real, it’s worthless; does that make any sense to you?” she asked, looking to him.

“I…” He had no words for it, the feeling of complete empathy. He squeezed her hand, and she kissed him again, absently. Then she stood, and pulled him up.

“Enough bummin’. I don’t want to be low. What shall we do, sir? And what will you remember of it?”

The desire to keep this moment was strong, and knowing he probably would forget it, and this feeling of kinship, of understanding and being understood, he resisted. “Not enough, and then only if I survive the night. Stay here. Talk. You may be the last person on Earth I see: will you remember it?” She smiled wryly.

“I remember everything, always, though I don’t always have access to it. But that’s a looong story, and depressing as hell. So let’s do what we can while can. Carpe Diem, no, wait, what would ‘seize the night’ be?” It was hard to resist her energy, and he gave her another flower. It followed the first, and she seemed to enjoy it, so he tried it. It tasted like a flower. She laughed at him, and told him the trick, so that the next tasted like roast beef and gravy, rare and juicy. He’d always said he needed a vacation from the concerns of the world, and he took it now.

Eventually, she brought him back to his hill, and then to his lair. In the dark tunnel, the claustrophobia crept in on him, not his, but refusing to leave with Her.

“How do you feel?” Mike asked him, and he figured it was not an emotional readout she was requesting. He took stock a moment, and decided he was achy, and itched under his patches. He breathed deep, told nerves to sleep, skin to knit, and found a rib badly cracked just below the sternum. It would take more than a night of effort to repair, and he aimed the necessary proteins at it before answering her.

“I am repairing well, but there are areas that I cannot mend without further replenishing my reserves. The required parts will be easy to place once the main damage has been serviced.” He considered, and mentioned, “You did a wonderful job, but I never did get the trick of replacing skin without scarring.”

She stared at him a moment, unsure whether he was serious or not, and did not ask the obvious. “It will be interesting to see, then. I hesitate to state absolutes, but I believe you will live. Is the fever gone?” She did not argue that he could or could not know, and he responded with a straightforward no.

“Do you wish to repair this as well? You have definite problems which could be dealt with here better than on the outside. If you fail here, the consequence is a bad dream, literally. There, you have to know it might kill you.”

She was right, and thought it meant confession, he could not refuse the opportunity. “I will have to explain something,” he began painfully. How to address what she shared with Her? “Do you know what made you let me into the office? The way you were coerced?” She looked at him without expression, and he felt no need to detail it for her. “I was then the boy you saw before. I was running, and ‘took’ a ‘hostage’ of sorts to escape the city. I was less careful then, and discovered she was claustrophobic only after she was in here. She had a strong will, and might have killed me in my stupidity. She died, and it’s her fear I was fighting, that fills my dreams now.” It left a lot out, and Mike was no fool here in her domain. He hoped it was his imagination that left him this feeling that she guessed what more there was to the story.

“You could have… Perhaps not, then. So guilt plays a part, and it is yourself that you fight here. Understood. How much power have you given this guilt, that should be the concern. How much can you retrieve now, and can you forgive yourself, since she is not here to forgive you.

“Do you know the origins of claustrophobia? And would it help to know?” She looked at him, and in the gloom, he saw Her again, and the fear sprang free. The memory was stronger than he was, and he knelt, sure the ceiling was on his back. Mike stepped close, and took his hand.

“May I assist? I believe I can make this easier, if you will allow it.” He wanted so badly to tell her no, to deal with and overcome it on his own, but the words stuck fast, and he choked on them. His only recourse was to stretch out his hand, and she embraced him like a recovered friend. She put his head on her shoulder, and made the soft crooning he’d slept to earlier. The fear did not pass, but a protection of sorts was here in human contact, and he wept with the strain’s lifting.

“Stay with me, follow where I lead. It will be bad at first, but on the other side is the release from this. What she needed, you will receive, and beyond that, it’s you and your soul. Are you with me?” She was his height now, then bigger, and she was strength incarnate. He nodded, his young self restored, and the walls changed.

“Remember.” They/he were in a warm place, where all was peace and no danger was known. A rhythmic pulse beat in his ears, and what would have been deafening elsewhere, was now merely a drowning out of all cares. Nothing mattered beyond this moment. “Feel” came next. The floating was as of a sea, a gentle shifting, and he moved with it, blissful.

“Prepare,” she said, and kissed the top of his head. Now the ease of his warm place disappeared, and an urgent fear replaced it. Wordless, screaming, he felt weight, a pressing all around, suffocating, constricting. He was pulled, stretched, crushed, and bruised, all the while searching out the pulse, finding it, losing it, needing the peace he’d had before. Pain everywhere, he was dying. And certain it was over, he surrendered, only to find that there was escape, somewhere ahead, he could feel cold air on his skin. Yet he cried out against living if it were to be in that world of icy pain. Better to die in this warm one. But the choice was taken from him, and he was forced into a place of bitter cold, where there was no comforting touch all around. He was blinded by a painful, uncaring brightness. And the pulse, the pulse was gone! How cold life continue without that reassurance that all was well?

A pale excuse for the warmth he’d enjoyed forever wrapped around him, rough and dry against his skin. An pathetic attempt was made to hold him closely, and his cheek came up against a hard surface. He was shifted, and shook, and finally brought to rest against something less hard, and as he despaired of his existence, he heard it. The pulse. Distant and muffled, it was the pulse that dominated his life and senses, finding him in this hell. He was comforted, and in time, he opened his eyes to find the light greatly lessened, so he could see.

A sound, related to the pulse by having joined it on many occasions, was finding him as well. It was soft, and lulling, and it was closer as the pulse was farther. He had migrated. And he could see the source of the sound, as it leaned down to him, and placed a warm soft kiss on his forehead. A face swam into focus for a moment, as his god made itself known to him. His god had dark eyes, and brown hair, though he would not call them such for years. It also had a soft voice that sang to him, and touched every part of him reverently. How good it was to see one’s god come to save one from such an ordeal as he’d had.

“Happy birthday, beautiful.” A different sound issued from across the distance, and he trembled. Other gods? “Sorry, honey. Happy birthday, Stephen.”

To know, intellectually, is not the same as knowing in your gut, or heart. It is a detached knowing, and gives little feeling about the known thing. So it is with birth, and with death. We all know we will die, and we all know we were born, usually getting the gory, guilt-filled details from our mothers directly. We look at the facts, so separate from our daily lives, and feel nothing, really. Because in a real way, it did and will happen to someone else. The person we were born as has been literally stretched out of recognizable shape, and the person we imagine will do the dying is much shorter, with wrinkles and thinning hair. They look nothing like us, and it’s hard to feel that much for such a total stranger.

BUT, once is all it takes, one truly close call, one time to say “I died there, just now, and this is a dream I had as I died” to make that shriveled person so important to us, so vital to our everyday lives, that we long for them as for a childhood comrade when all friends are proven false. We cannot imagine being deprived of them/us, we feel cheated at the very concept of being denied the chance to know/become them that every minute thereafter is altered in our perception. Life becomes a battlefield full of threats and enemies bent on removing us from our future. Every second spent on tedium is begrudged and resented as being stolen from an already limited sum.

So what of birth? Should it not follow that to feel the origins of our first selves is to find a friend we forgot in the melee? To discover that we lost something, and didn’t know it ‘till now, and be able to truly appreciate it now that it’s found, that would be a goodness unbounded. So few will find it, as it is hidden behind years of lessons, encrypted in feeling and impressions before we could interpret, much less examine, and so it is lost.

This, then, is what Stone found on the ‘other side’ Mike had spoke of. And he lingered there, looking up at the face he’d forgotten half a century before, split by memory and dream- into the being he’d been, feeling the love of his mother and the cold of his father before he could put names to either, - and the creature he’d become, so twisted by conflicting commands that he lived in and yet apart from his entire species to avoid feeling anything. But to remember, and to feel…

He’d forgotten why he’d come here. There was nothing worth remembering badly enough to think just yet, and Mike watched from close by, unseen, to be sure he did not forget himself entirely. When he began to scratch at his chest, she found music and colors to draw him away, and joined him in his garden. Time had passed, and she was aware that she would wake soon when the dawn shone in on the couch and into her face. He might sleep a while yet, but it was important to her that he be secured in a pleasant place to make his final peace with this issue before she left him. He was reflective, and quiet, and she prepared to take leave of this side of reality.

“I have enjoyed you immensely,” she told him amid the blooms, “but tomorrow I will be who you saw me as before. Please do not assume that things will change there, as they have here; memories of dreams mean little in the daytime, and there is no guarantee that this was shared, or that either of us will remember it. It being an anomaly, I cannot give any predictions as to the nature of the consciousness we have utilized here.” The face she’d worn earlier had returned, and Stone wished for words to remove it.

“I will endeavor to remember you as you are now, and if possible, to rejoin you at the first opportunity. I have enjoyed this as well, and I thank you for what you have given me.” A thought slipped in, and he looked up at her. “If I don’t remember tonight, how will it have helped me with the dream? Will I keep the healing if I lose the cause?” His eyes narrowed as he considered the loss.

“This… this is the deep places inside you; you use this for what you ‘do’, and it retains all it collects. Be assured it will keep what you found tonight, and you may loose the clear reality of it, but the essence will remain. And if you remember to look for it, you can return whenever. Every night, if you so desire, though I would recommend clearing out a few more ghosts rather than replay one success continually. This is just a start.

“I envy you…..” and she was gone, the thought left unfinished, as dawn crept in and claimed her. He wondered what she envied, then wondered who she’d be when he woke.

He set his mind to the final repairs he could make, and hoped for the fever’s passing soon. He would try to wake and eat soon, as his body needed supplies if it was to rebuild itself. It was the oddest night’s sleep he’d had in memory.

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