She fought against the pull toward consciousness, preferring to bask in the vague happiness that lived in the gauzy space between wakefulness and dreams. She held the glow, which was already slipping away, for as long as she could before succumbing, inevitably, to the pull of the world beyond her own mind. Gray, she thought as her eyes fluttered open. It was always the first thing she noticed. It was one of the only things to notice really, the grayness. The walls, the floor, the ceiling, her clothes, all of it the same lifeless shade. She struggled to sit upright, her head heavy and filled with fog. She pressed her palms into her eyes, trying to rub the sleep away. Is that what it was, sleep? She was never really sure. She pressed until she saw spots swimming behind her eyelids, color at last.
She looked toward the window, as she always did, a small frame to the outside world, the world beyond this place. The bird stood at its usual perch on the sill, staring in, its head cocked toward the side, its small yellow breast glinting in the morning sun. Or was it evening? She supposed she’d have to wait and see. They stared at each other, the woman and the bird. She gazed at it blankly, her eyes confused and unfocused. It pecked once against the reinforced glass, its standard greeting, before taking flight. She stumbled from her bed, as if to follow it through the small window. She watched it fly toward the forest, shrinking to a speck on the horizon until even that speck was gone. She wasn’t worried, it’d be back.
She noticed the trees in the distance, dormant and bare. Her head throbbed as she looked at the gnarled branches clawing at the sky. Hadn’t they been full and green last she’d seen them? She shook her head in frustration, unable to remember. This was the place that didn’t make sense, the hazy place where the world always shifted beneath her.
Everything hurt. A dull, imprecise hurt that seemed to come from everywhere at once. The woman surveyed her aching body, surprised to find her arm in a cast. Her head throbbed, and uncertain fingers probed the bandages on her forehead.
The loud clang of the door pulled her from the window. It swung open on screaming hinges. The mousy faced girl, the one with the downcast eyes, entered with a tray. She smiled meekly at the ground. “Hello, Mrs. Campbell,” she mumbled, more to herself than to anyone else. The girl moved to set the tray down on a small table, the contents rattling in her shaky hands. The woman stared at her, but the girl masterfully avoided the probing gaze, eyes glued to the floor.
“Where… where am I?” The woman asked, her voice scratchy and foreign in her own mouth.
The girl hesitated, her eyes flitting up for just a moment before returning quickly to her shoes. “The hospital, Mrs. Campbell,” she answered, shifting her weight from one foot to the other. “You’re here to get better, remember?”
The woman did not remember, or maybe she did. She looked around the small gray room. It seemed she’d been here a hundred times before and yet none of it was recognizable, familiar but distorted. “I…” she began haltingly, “I’m not sure,” her voice had grown strained, had shifted a half octave higher as panic bubbled within her. Something about the girl, the room, the bird, it struck some familiar, dissonant chord that rang loudly from a place deep within her.
“It’s alright, Mrs. Campbell,” the girl said in a well-practiced imitation of reassurance. “Your husband is visiting today, remember?” The woman stared at her blankly, unsure of how to respond, her heart hammering in her chest. She wished the girl would stop using that word, remember. The girl fidgeted in the silence, her eyes shifting toward the door. “I’ve brought your breakfast. You’ll feel better once you eat something.”
Breakfast, the woman thought, so it is morning. She just nodded dumbly and looked at the bowl of brown mush resting on the tray.
“I’ll leave you to eat, then,” the girl said hurriedly as she stepped through the door, swinging it shut with the howl of neglected hinges.
The woman walked toward the table, her legs feeling unsteady beneath her. She picked up the spoon and pushed around her breakfast, if it could really be called that. She chanced a bite and found it bland, empty. Her stomach growled, suddenly overwhelmed by the most intense craving for waffles. It passed with a sharp pain in her temple and a sudden wave of nausea. Next to the bowl of mush was a glass of water and a small plastic cup with an impressive assortment of pills. She shivered when she saw them, a profound disquiet building within her. Something was wrong with this place, she couldn’t understand what, her mind cloudy and unfocused, but she knew it deep in her bones. She didn’t belong here.
She scanned the lifeless uniformity of the room, searching for anything to latch onto as reality spun unsteadily around her. Her eyes came to rest on a burst of color beside her bed, a valiant protest against the unrelenting sameness. She walked to the bouquet, drawn to the brilliant orange fighting against the sea of gray. Marigolds, she realized, tracing her fingers gently across the velvet petals. She looked down at her hands, perfectly clean, fingernails neatly trimmed, not a speck of dirt or grime. This was the clean place, the sterile place.
The woman was suddenly overwhelmed by the need to escape. She ran around the small room frantically searching for a way out, her injured body forgotten in a rush of adrenaline. She tried the door first, pulling with all her strength, it didn’t budge. She ran her hands over the gray walls. They were smooth, strong, unyielding. She thought of the window, of the bird just beyond the glass. It had beckoned to her, shown her the way from this place, the way back to where she belonged. She slammed her fists hard against the glass, pounding furiously in a frenzied beat, throwing all her strength behind each desperate blow, even as she knew it wouldn’t break, even as she knew she’d tried this before. She panted heavily in defeat, sweat beading on her forehead. She stared at the world beyond in agonized frustration.
She froze when she heard it, the metal clang of the lock. She whipped around, eyes wide and panicked, as the hinges began to scream. “Mrs. Campbell,” said the man, the one in the white lab coat with the weathered face. He looked at her quizzically when he entered, one bushy eyebrow arched, the faintest hint of surprise on his otherwise inscrutable countenance. “Is everything alright?”
The woman struggled to formulate a response, her head heavy, her thoughts moving slowly, as if through water. She willed her breathing to slow and arranged her features, as best she could manage, into something she hoped resembled calm. “Yes,” she mumbled, her eyes coming to rest on the laminated badge hanging from the man’s lapel. “Yes, Dr. Harper.”
“Hm…” he responded incredulously, his lips pursed. “You’re not dressed. Did you forget you have a visitor today?”
The woman looked down at her wrinkled nightgown. It was two sizes too big and hung off her shoulders loosely. She shivered, suddenly feeling exposed.
“No matter,” the doctor said, sitting down at the table with her untouched breakfast, “I’m sure your husband won’t mind. Mr. Campbell, would you join us please?”
The woman looked toward the door, which hung ajar, a sliver of a fluorescent hallway beyond discernible. For a moment, she thought about trying to escape, about bursting through the door and taking her chances, slim though they’d be, with whatever lay beyond. The moment passed in an instant as a man stepped into the room. The door slammed shut behind him. His shoulders were hunched, he bit his lower lip as his eyes flitted around the room appraisingly. He frowned when his gaze came to rest on the woman, but just for a moment. The shadow quickly retreated from his features as he rearranged them into something pleasant and vacant.
“Hello, Valarie,” he said, sitting next to Dr. Harper at the table. Something in his voice cut through the haze. She floated toward him, transfixed by the shock of blonde hair fighting against the baseball cap that sought to contain it, by the blue of his eyes which sparkled in some far off memory. She found herself sitting at the table studying the face of the man, the features so familiar but the face they composed so thoroughly unrecognizable. She considered the bruise on his cheek, the bandage over his left eye, his arm was in a sling.
“Mrs. Campbell,” Dr. Harper said, his voice full of disapproval. The woman tore her eyes from the man and felt her pulse quicken as she saw the source of the doctor’s consternation. He was frowning at the metal tray, annoyance etched across his face. “You haven’t taken your medication.” The doctor shook his head, pushing the small plastic cup of pills across the table.
“I don’t want them,” the woman said, dread snaking through her veins and coiling deep in her stomach. “They make me... confused.”
“Confused how?” Dr. Harper asked calmly.
“They make everything… cloudy. I don’t want them, I won’t take them.”
“They will help you feel better, Mrs. Campbell,” Dr. Harper said patiently, but with a sternness that suggested he had navigated this impasse before.
“No,” she said, shaking her head frantically, strands of hair falling loose from the untidy bun atop her head. “I can’t.” She closed her eyes, burying her face in her hands. “This isn’t real, this isn’t real.” Somewhere in her mind she saw the glint of sunlight through foliage and heard the sound of laughter in the distance. That is where she belonged.
“Valarie, please…” The man’s voice pulled her back. He reached across the table, gently touching her hand which was clenched tightly into a fist. The woman recoiled. Hurt danced across the man’s features before he quickly buried it someplace deep, his face again an image of empty tranquility. “It’s okay Val,” he said again, his voice steady. She looked into his eyes, blue and tired. She had seen them somewhere else, on someone else, eyes she couldn’t refuse. She took the pills.
“Mrs. Campbell,” Dr. Harper said gently, “What do you mean, ‘this isn’t real’?”
“I…” the woman stammered. She felt a warm tingle in her chest, her brain felt fuzzy. “There’s someplace else,” she said confusedly, “someplace better.” The man with the blue eyes looked sad.
“Are you still having the dream?” Dr. Harper clicked his pen, bringing the tip to rest on the papers before him.
“Dream…” the woman repeated. Yes, that’s what this feels like, she thought, a dream. Shifting and uncertain, soft around the edges.
“Yes,” Dr. Harper continued, “the dream about your son.”
The world shifted. The woman suddenly felt dizzy. Sunlight, the smell of grass and earth, the laughter more distinct, shrill and full of childish discovery. “Our son,” she said to the man. He smiled a sad smile. Strange that smiles can be sad, she thought, the difference is in the eyes. “I have to get back, I have to get back to him,” the woman said, pushing back from the table.
“Mrs. Campbell,” the doctor said, rising to his feet, his hand outstretched in what must have been intended as a calming gesture. It wasn’t.
“This is a dream,” she screamed, “I need to wake up. I need to wake up. I need to wake up,” she chanted over and over again, her voice pleading and unhinged. It echoed off the unyielding gray walls, filling the narrow room.
“Val, please,” the man said, but she could not hear him over her own furious refrain.
“Wake up,” she screamed, “wake up, wake up, wake up!” She slammed her fists into her head, trying to rouse herself from apparent slumber. She didn’t hear the cry of the hinges as the door swung open, or the hasty footsteps of the orderlies rushing into the room. She thrashed when their coarse hands grasped her arms, screaming madly as they secured her to the bed. Her eyes grew wide when she saw the needle. “Please,” she whimpered as she felt it pierce the skin on her shoulder. “I just want to wake up,” she whispered, focusing on the man whose eyes were shining with tears.
“I know,” he said, as the warmth coursed through her veins and the world slipped away.
The light glowed red through her eyelids, her skin felt warm in the sunlight. Boyish laughter filled her ears, pulling her from the hazy world of semi-consciousness. Her eyes fluttered open, squinting against the early morning light that slanted in through windows.
“Wake up, wake up, wake up,” the boy called through fits of laughter, jumping up and down on the bed with unbridled excitement at the start of a new day. His shock of blonde hair glinted in the morning sun, the curls a chaotic tangle, his blue eyes sparkling with amusement.
“We’re awake, we’re awake,” came a voice from beside her. She rolled over and saw another pair of blue eyes, different but the same. He smiled when he saw her, before a yawn overtook his face. “Are you alright, Val?” He asked, propping himself up on his elbow, reaching out with his other hand to check her clammy forehead. “Did you have that dream again?”
“I…” the woman said, straining to remember the place that was slipping from her mind like sand through a sieve. “I don’t remember.” She winced and rubbed her throbbing shoulder, but found it perfectly whole, the pain receding quickly away.
The man looked at her curiously, a hint of concern flickered across his face. They did not have time to dwell on the ephemeral matters of dreams, however, as the boy jumping up and down on their bed demanded they join him in wakefulness. He drew them into his world with the sheer force of his boyish will, into the world which shimmered in morning gold. The woman’s mind was clear and sharp as she followed him joyously into the day.
He pulled them from the house as soon as they stumbled downstairs, as soon as he managed to pull shoes onto his little feet. He did not even wait for someone to tie the laces, he seldom did, the world too thrilling, time too fleeting to be wasted on anything so trivial as loops and knots.
The woman surveyed the trees of the forest behind the house. The leaves were a deep green, an emerald that suggested the sweltering throes of summer. The man was beside her as she dug in the garden. He watched the boy rush about the yard with boundless enthusiasm. She saw him smile, a happy smile, one that reached the eyes. She grabbed the flowers, still in their nursery pots, loosening the dirt around their roots before securing them neatly in the holes she’d dug. Marigolds and asters and black-eyed susans, the colors so vivid and rich. She glanced down at her hands, hands covered in earth, dirt caked beneath the nails. This was the place with dirt, the place with life.
“I want waffles,” she announced, suddenly overwhelmed by the most intense craving, her stomach growling. “Who’s with me?” she inquired loudly, ensuring the boy could hear her, even over the sound of his own raucous din. The man shot her a look, one that held exacerbation and amusement in equal measure.
“Me!” the boy screamed, rushing over and tumbling into her lap. “Me, me, me!”
“I thought we agreed to cut back on the sugar,” the man said with a nod at the squirming mass of energy before them. His eyebrow arched in an unconvincing imitation of disapproval.
“But we love sugar,” the woman declared, looking at the boy in her lap. “Don’t we?”
“Yes!” He squealed, settling the debate with a fit of renewed laughter.
“We better get going then,” the woman said, “before they stop serving breakfast.”
They piled into the car and pulled out of the driveway. The woman squinted through her sunglasses, the sun shining brightly as she drove in pursuit of their syrupy prize. The radio played some mournful song about a place with gray skis filled with loss. But the sky was blue and her heart was full as she sped onto the main road, the song so discordant to her own perfect moment. She glanced down to change it, glanced down for just half a breath.
She heard the man yell, she felt her heart leap into her throat, she looked up just in time to see the truck rushing through the intersection. The boy screamed, then silence. The world shifted beneath her and then slipped away entirely.
When at last her eyes fluttered open, the world was once again gray. She sat up and looked toward the window. The bird sat upon its usual perch, its head cocked, its feathers glinting and golden. It tapped once against the window before taking flight. She watched it shrink to a speck on the horizon before disappearing altogether. She wasn’t worried, though, knowing it’d return to her, just as it always did.