Nia woke up trembling. She reached for the lamp switch in a panic, toppling over the glass of water on the nightstand. Murmuring a silent curse, she picked up the alarm clock so it would not get wet. It read 4:07 am. She sat still in the darkness, holding on tightly to the duvet, beads of sweat forming on her forehead.
It was a fierce dream! The fiercest she had had so far. Moreover, it was the eleventh dream. This was bad news. Her mom, an actuarial scientist by profession and an enthusiastic numerologist by choice, had first tried to dismiss the whole thing as a “figment of insecurity” when Nia had told her after the third dream. Upon Nia’s insistence, her mother had done some calculations for her and said, “These dreams will be significant only if — not when, Nia, if — you have eleven of them.”
Nia had had her tenth dream two nights ago. The same pattern of a beautiful, romantic beginning leading into a ferocious, heart-wrenching sequence of events that often left her gasping for breath — sometimes literally.
Nevertheless, her dreams were her only chance of being with the love of her life, her fiancé, Alec — a healthy Alec, a talking Alec, a loving Alec. In real life, he lay in a coma for the past four weeks on the pale blue sheets in the ICU of the Artemis Hospital. Nia knew that the prognosis for a long coma was not good. Alec was already passing the mark of hope according to the doctors. But he had not caught an infection and was maintaining his vitals steadily. In Nia’s books, that still counted as hope.
Despite all her positivity, Nia’s dreams had started to make her weak. The more she had them, the more she despaired. Normally, she would spend all her visiting hours talking to Alec about hope and passion, crying to him, laughing to him, patiently whispering sweet nothings in his ears, telling him how much she loved him, willing him to open his eyes and continue with their wonderful life, just the way it had all been before the accident. But as she was getting nearer to the eleventh dream, she was becoming more and more anxious and fearful.
Now she had started to feel a sense of urgency. She felt as if the dreams were eating her up on the inside every waking moment. She could not fight any longer. Not by herself anyway. So, when she had taken her seat by Alec’s bedside yesterday morning, wearing the visitor’s gown and mask, she had taken a deep breath and for the first time said, “Alec, I am scared. I feel like we are in danger. We are being hunted by something or someone — something powerful, that is demanding our love, our togetherness, our blood, our life. I am trying hard, Alec, but I have lost ten times already. If it happens again, I am afraid we might have run out of time.” And she sobbed like a child.
That evening, when she went back at the usual visiting time, the nurse, Eileen, lifted her tired face from her desktop and looked grimly, as Nia signed the register. Eileen gave a small cough and said, “Alec developed a fever this afternoon.”
Sudden panic gripped Nia. She jerked her head towards Eileen. “When? What does that mean?”
“Temperature was okay until the 11 o’clock round. By the 2 pm visit, he was recorded at 39.4.” Eileen was looking at the charts. “Dr. Lu was informed right away. He ordered blood work to be sent to the lab. Dr. Lu had come in himself at… let’s see... 3:45 pm. He thinks it is most likely an infection.”
“No, no, no”, Nia repeated as her eyes eyes welled up. “I should not have told him about the dreams.”
Eileen’s face softened. “Nia, I know I told you that sometimes patients are able to hear until the very end, even if they are not responding in any way. But honey, it does seem like a long shot in case of Alec. Don’t blame yourself. His condition did not worsen due to your telling him anything. He has been in a coma for way too long. This does happen.” She came over on the other side of her desk to give Nia a gentle hug.
Nia’s streaming eyes tried to wash over the guilt she was feeling. However, she only felt worse. She thought about what she had told Alec that morning. She had described the pleasant part of the dream in detail. She had told him how he had caressed her face with loving hands, pulled her close and let her head rest on his chest, enjoying companionable silence. But then she had told him how the dreams always took an ominous turn. She described how she had cried out loud as the raging waves hurled her into the ocean, tossing her into the ocean’s frightening turbulence. The roaring sky lashed torrential downpours into the crackling waves, as darkness engulfed the ocean. The only light came from the flashes of lightning that seemed to appear every time Nia screamed. Alec meanwhile, was transfixed into the ground. He stood on the shore, unable to move, looking helpless. Sometimes he flapped his hands frantically as if lashing out at an invisible being. Gradually, Alec had appeared tinier and tinier until he was just another one of the countless specks of sand by the ocean. Even through his disappearance, Alec had let out a piercing cry, which had woken Nia up.
She was now sorry that she had narrated all of this to Alec. She had no doubt that it had gone through to him and somehow led to the fever. By some small measure, did this amount to any hope that he was actually listening and that this was his way of responding?
That night Nia had to take a sleeping pill.
And then the eleventh dream had happened. This time it was Nia that had been defenseless, while Alec tried to battle with a shape-changing monster who was playing nasty tricks on them. Swording his way through the surreptitious caves, Alec went farther and farther. For what seemed like an eternity, Nia chased them but an invisible current at the entrance of the cave wrapped around her like a noose, constricted her and tightened until she could no longer breathe. Gasping, she had come back to reality.
Nia got out of bed and stared at her dishevelled appearance in the oval mirror in the washroom. Another day to get through. It was getting harder and harder. She wept silently as she pulled on a pink turtleneck over black slacks, getting ready for work. After two weeks off work, the physiotherapy clinic had let her return on a modified schedule, so that she could visit Alec twice a day. Work was actually a nice respite and helped her get through her stressful days.
After squeezing in three clients early in the morning, Nia drove to Artemis. The moment she looked at Alec, her dreams and desires came flooding back, like every time. Their love story was beautiful. And that made it painful. She might have heard Bob Dylan sing it a hundred times in Not Dark Yet, but it was different to hear it than to feel the pain that beauty causes.
Nia looked at her motionless lover in front of her and thought back to his strong arms that wrapped her snugly, the hiking trips on which he had held her steady, his gentle lips that brushed against hers softly, his second-day stubble that made him look even more handsome, his light brown eyes that twinkled when he smiled — the memories were too much to bear.
She looked at the charts hanging by his bedside. Last night’s entry at 8:02 pm was 39.4. Seeing it with her own eyes consumed her with extreme sadness. She kept going down the chart. The recordings were done every four hours, a few minutes up or down. Even with the medication, the fever was still high. At 12:10 am, it had been 39.2. And then her heart almost stopped. There was an entry for 4:07 am. The same time when she had woken up and grabbed her clock! And the fever was 37.2! Normal. For how long had it been normal? All through her dream? Then by 8:05 am, it had shot back up to 38.8.
Her heart thudding at the connection, she looked at Alec. She could almost hear his laboured breathing through the ventilator. The visitor chair had been pushed far back. She was glad it was not just through the glass window that they allowed her to see him. Perhaps they thought that no harm could be done anyway after a patient had been in a coma for so long and was showing further signs of weakening. Maybe this was their way of giving a chance to say goodbyes.
But she had no time to think about that. Alec was fighting. He was fighting with her. Nia just knew it. When she had been experiencing the terrors of losing him last night, it was clear that he had stood by her, had become stronger and tried to brave it with her. Nia uncrossed her legs, leaned slightly towards him and said, “Thank you Alec. Let’s go get them. And then, let’s get outta here.”
Then she described everything that happened in her eleventh dream. The scenes of love, she recounted as much for herself as for Alec. She described how they had walked through the narrow street lined by the quaint shops, holding hands and rubbing their shoulders against each other. He had leaned down to kiss her in the middle of the street. Leading her into a small cottage that seemed like their home, he had stroked her hair, held her chin, undraped her scarf and one thing had led to another. Even though Nia did not want to relive the horrid experience that had followed, she took a deep breath in and described it all. And then she said, “Listen Alec, tonight if the dream is back, promise me you will try to stay close. We have to stay bonded together, no matter what. There will definitely come a moment when we will be pulled apart. But we will unite like a boulder, so that it will be harder to get separated. Promise? I will come and remind you of this plan again this evening.”
She stood up and walked out.
That night, Nia went to sleep in Alec’s apartment. Last time she was here, it was only to pick his piling mail. But then, she had gone to his bedroom and slept in his bed, hugging his scent, feeling his presence. That is where she had had the first dream.
Tonight, Nia and Alec’s laughter resonated as they ran through the woods. Nia was sprinting to fill the distance between them, when Alec looked over his shoulder and said teasingly, “Slow pokes not allowed beyond this area.” “Speak for yourself, mister”, said Nia with a large leap, climbing on his back, making him fall to the ground. He laughed and rolled over, facing her and squeezed her close. She cupped his prickly stubble in her hands and let his mouth find hers. For a few long moments, the sunlight beaming through the branches witnessed two bodies breathing as one.
And then, a monstrous tree started to come alive, slowly taking the form of a sinister creature. Its snarled branches reached out towards them while a strange, savage wind made its way into the miniscule recesses between their bodies. It shoved and heaved them apart. Nia threw all her weight at Alec even as she noticed him starting to drag with the wind. The monstrous creature inched closer. With a crushing blow, it lashed itself at Nia. She tried to stand up straight and spread out her arms in front of her. In a fraction of a second, she realized she did not stand a chance against the evil monstrosity as it threatened to descend on her with all of its vile power. Her knees buckled in fear and she knew that perhaps the time had come to say goodbye. She should already have said it before the wind had engulfed Alec.
She let a wail of sorrow escape her lips, just as she noticed a weak pull at her left leg. Something had snaked itself around her leg. Nia did not have any more strength left to fight against all these forces. She let herself be tugged by the pull. The gap between Nia and the tree monster increased by a few centimetres as the rope-like tug dragged her slowly. It was all the same, either the monster or the wind — one of them would get her eventually. Alec had already been taken away. She did not have the strength to fight. She should have given up a long time ago. She was up against nature’s will. It was never going to work. She was powerless. She always had been. She had been a fool to believe that she could change anything.
The pull at her feet became stronger and stronger. Nia’s hair flew as she was whipped through the forest, leaving the monster’s snarled hand flailing for a piece of her, now unreachable.
Nia braved herself to look down at her foot that was in the solid grip of tonight’s potent force. She gasped. She was expecting to see nothing — just the invisible clutches that had a mind of their own. Instead she saw a hand. A tangible hand. A hand she could feel and touch. The hand that she had held a thousand times. The hand that had held a ring for Nia in the backdrop of a sunset by the lake a year ago — the very ring which gleamed in the sunlight on her finger even at this moment. It was Alec’s hand.
Nia could see that Alec had somehow got a handle on the wind, and was now riding it, taming it and guiding it like a funnel away from the forest. Oh Alec. He had found a way to hold on to Nia tenaciously. He was taking her with him. He had managed to stay close to her.
Within minutes, they were at the edge of the woods. The wind seemed to be losing its power. In seconds, it was completely flaccid. Nia and Alec came crashing down on the ground. Nia let out a cry as Alec hit his head on a rock.
Whrrr. Whrrr. She woke up to the strong vibration on the pillow next to her. It was her phone.
She sat up bolt upright, reeling from the shock of the dream. She had slept longer than usual. She reached to turn off the alarm on the phone, but realized it was not the alarm. Someone was calling her. At 7 am? “Please God, no!” Her heart started to sink. This could only mean one thing.
She swiped the green button but could not find the courage to say anything. She heard an urgent voice at the other end. “Hello? Nia? Could I speak to Nia please?”
“Eileen?” Nia’s voice was lower than a whisper.
“Nia? Nia! Listen, Nia. Sorry if my call scared you. It is good news. Alec opened his eyes for a few minutes this morning.”