The Sleep Serene

Submitted into Contest #127 in response to: Write about a character learning to trust their intuition.... view prompt

3 comments

Speculative Fiction Science Fiction

Dublin, 2018

His lips pull away from a woman’s cheek, cake-soft with makeup. Her citrus perfume reminds him of his dead mother, of being home. Somehow, deep in his core, he knows this is where he should be. The feeling of security quickly evaporates as he watches the woman turn her back to him as he proceeds to walk backwards out the open front door. He pulls it shut in front of him, pockets the key already in the lock and moonwalks up the steep, gravelled driveway.

As he comes out on the footpath of a hilly housing estate, a man moving backwards, but in the opposite direction brushes by and instead of nodding, dips his head at Will. The man appears to be wearing a blue surgical mask, but Will cannot think of a reason why. He watches as the man he has never met is sucked into the house beside the one he has just come from. They are neighbours, apparently.

Will watches his unresponsive, suited body as he walks backwards in through the centre doors of a bus, falls up the stairs and is pulled into a seat as though it were magnetic. The seat beside him is empty except for yellow warning tape draped across the backrest. In fact, every second row of seats is the same and, even more haunting, the lower portions of the passengers’ faces are covered with blue surgical masks. They glare at Will. He turns suddenly in his seat and watches as the bus reverses into the sea.

***

Will opens his eyes to a dark figure pouring a frothy liquid over his face. He hopes it’s beer. The drowning sensation explains the sea part of the dream but little else.

‘Deco, come on ta Christ,’ someone shouts in the distance.

The man towering above Will curses and shatters the bottle against the wall Will is using as a headrest. There is a scurry of feet as the two shadows retreat into the damp night. Christ, what a night! He isn’t sure whether he should be grateful or annoyed at the men for waking him. The dream had started out as hopeful. Hell, he had a beautiful wife and a place to call his own, beats sleeping in a dirty alleyway, that’s for sure. On the other hand, the rest of the dream had been all nightmare.

He forces himself to stand. But where to clean his face? The edge of his sleeping bag will have to do until morning. Someone might throw some spare change his way come sunrise and he could get himself some baby wipes, although he knows he shouldn’t hold his breath on that one. He walks up the alley and back, stretching his legs. Not the safest place in the world to sleep but better than O’Connell Street. That’s the real nightmare! But he knows he shouldn’t dismiss what he’s just experienced either.

As far back as Will can remember, he has dreamt of futures, both genuine and illusory, although it’s impossible to tell which ones will come to pass and which ones won’t. And always, always, his dreams play in reverse. On countless nights, he has watched his crippled body reassemble itself in mid-air as a speeding car repairs itself and careens along the road in reverse. He has seen hoodlums appear to stitch up his oozing neck with the edge of a carving knife. Over the years, he’s foreseen his death in a myriad of other parallel calamities but so far, they’ve all proven unreliable.

His childhood visions of financial ruin had proven reliable, however. As a young boy, he watched his older self lose his basic administration job at Anglo Irish Bank during the future downturn. He watched as he got evicted from an apartment he would rent with his one day girlfriend and, most devastating of all, he bore witness to his own inevitable homelessness and isolation. His dreams then were largely nonsense to his young mind and were around twenty years in the future, making them easier to dismiss. That number has been slowly winding down ever since, the reels of his life’s cassette losing tape.

He doesn’t know what will happen when his dreams finally catch up with him and he’s not sure he wants to. Screw it though, it’s too late or early, whatever time it is, to think like this. He lies back on his soggy sleeping bag and rests, too wound up to do anything else.

He stares up at the jagged city skyline and thinks about the woman from the dream, the woman with the citrus perfume. There was something about her that seemed so real, so honest, an aura she carried with her. The look in those swimmable eyes was one of genuine love, he knows this for sure. Something tells him he’ll be seeing her again soon.

When morning eventually comes, it’s chilly and dull with the mossy hint of rain. The usual route of scrounging around town doesn’t appeal to him today so instead, he wanders along by the Quays. He sees Ken sitting by the courthouse, a battered Lucozade bottle in his hand.

‘Alright, Willy?’ the young, gaunt man with more than a few days stubble asks.

‘Alright Ken.’

Ken stands up and they start walking. ‘Not been having any more of them nightmares, I hope?'

Will shrugs and kicks a pebble down the street.

‘Too many mushrooms, that’s what I think,’ Ken says with a chuckle.

The fact that Will has never touched a drug in his life always eludes his friend. He’s probably on too much gear himself. The thought brings a smile to Will’s face.

‘How about we don’t do too much talking today?’

‘Jesus,’ Ken says and lets out a whistle. ‘Musta been a bad one.’

He looks at his friend. ‘I’m just getting the feeling that something is headed my way but I’m not sure if it’s good or bad. In some ways, I want it to happen and in others I don’t, you know?’

‘Hey look, someone just dropped a packet of ciggies.’

Will watches as his friend runs ahead and collects the dropped loot. He lets out a sigh. Ken looks like he’s just won the lottery, he can’t stop smiling.

The day passes painfully slowly, like all the others, as he listens to one crackpot conspiracy theory after another. Ken is a good person but heavily misguided. They do one circuit of town and go their separate ways once they reach Temple Bar. Will thinks there’s more to be made there with all the tourists milling about. Ken wants to try his luck elsewhere.

Temple Bar is as slimy as ever with a dozen or so drunks clawing their way through the caffeinated, tourist-filled streets. He doesn’t want to stay here too long, something feels off about the place today. Probably just the remnants of last night’s dream.

As he walks by The Temple Bar pub, he feels the world tilt ever so slightly. For a moment, he thinks he might collapse but steadies himself against the brick façade. He looks around, no one seems to have noticed his little episode. He rights himself and is about to move forward when he catches his reflection in the window of a building under renovation on the opposite side of the street. Except, in the reflection, the birds flying overhead are sucked backwards through the sky, like dust motes through a vacuum.

He approaches the tinted glass slowly. In the reflection, he doesn’t appear to move backwards. He waves his hand over his head and the reflected Will copies the movement but the crowd bustling behind him bustle in reverse. He goes to the window and stands in front of it. He thinks he sees the woman from the dream pass behind him twice, a glimpse of ponytail, the glint of a bright smile. He looks around, gone. He faces the glass again, drawing his eyes upwards and studying the cathode sky, clouds dissipating into nothing.

His dreams have never permeated reality before, this is not good. His heart is beating faster, faster. Is this what a panic attack feels like? That’s when things go black.

***

Will knows his dreams are unusual and unhealthy so why is the doctor talking to him likes he’s a child? He’s been awake for an hour or so while they’ve been keeping him under observation. He realises he shouldn’t have told the nurses what happened. He’ll be institutionalised if he’s not careful.

‘I’m serious, Mr Fitzmaurice.’

‘I’m sorry I ever mentioned it, doctor.’

The tall, blonde-headed doctor looks down at him in his hospital bed.

‘You could really benefit from some psychotherapy along with some drug treatment. The hallucinations will only get worse,’ he says.

‘You gonna pay for it?’

‘Well no . . . but it is subsidised by the state.’

Will sighs. ‘Unless it’s fully paid for, I’m not gonna get it. I think it’s no secret that I’m broke.’

‘If you don’t do something now, you’ll pay the price later.’

‘I’ll consider it, doctor. Thank you,’ he says, lying through his teeth.

He’s discharged an hour later, at five in the afternoon but it may as well be night. The weather is even worse than earlier. He finds himself back on the streets, stomping up Grafton Street in the pouring rain when an idea materializes before him. Why does he have to be a victim of his own visions, what if there was a way to take control of them? The thought has never occurred to him before.

If he wants the future of security and love he’s dreamed of to come true, he’ll have to work for it. Who knows how much longer he’d have to endure this life of destitution otherwise? Surely if he concentrates hard enough, he can control the dreams, find out who the citrus lady is and somehow track her down in the real world, ensuring that possible future becomes a definite one.

But if he does that, doesn’t that also mean the nightmare reality of the surgical masks will also come true? Then again, it would mean he’d have a home and a wife and a chance at happiness. Yeah, screw it, he isn’t responsible for the fate of the world. Someone has to look out for numero uno.

For the next month, Will takes mental note of every dream he has. He begins to dream exclusively of the perfumed lady and their home. He attempts to take control of the dream world every night but every time he tries, something goes awry. Whenever he tries to speak to her, his words come out jumbled. She either ignores him or looks through him. He’s not sure what the significance of this is but his feelings for her are only growing stronger.

‘What is your name?’ he tries to ask one night but the words come out as nonsense. The woman beside him turns on her side and switches out the light. Not exactly going well.

Will rolls over and attempts to get out from beneath the leaden covers. It feels like his whole body is suspended in a thick molasses; every movement a thousand times heavier than normal. He stands as the door in front of him opens by itself.

He trudges through it and finds himself on the sun-drenched hallway. He looks over his shoulder into the bedroom he has just come from. Still night there. Weird. He moves forward, there must be some piece of identifying information in this place. Even a scrap of paper would do, something that would allow him to find her in the real world.

He comes to the head of the stairs and before he can think, he’s turned around and bouncing down them like an astronaut in zero-g. By the time he’s at the foot of the stairs, it is early morning, and he can see the pink sky of dawn through the clouded insert of the front door. He is starting to feel nauseous and guesses the longer he tries to control the environment, the sicker he will feel.

He passes through the tiled hallway and past a coatrack with a beige overcoat flung over it – presumably hers - and comes to the kitchen door. He freezes in the doorway because in the kitchen sits his future wife with an older version of himself. She is busy spitting food onto her fork and making a mound of steaming food on her plate. Eating in reverse is repulsive to watch but Christ, she is still gorgeous. She is wearing a pleated purple blouse. He tears his eyes away from her, past the wall clock, its hands spinning anticlockwise and tries to focus on the fridge.

Bingo. There, on the stainless-steel door hang some official looking letters. He leans forward, as though against a gale and props himself against the cold metal door. Right in front of him a letter reads:

Dear Mrs. Fitzmaurice,

Jesus, that’s no good, that’s his name! He wakes up in a sweat, rolls over and vomits onto the pavement.

Maybe it’s just not meant to be.

***

Time chugs along, the seasons change and each time Will takes control of a dream, he gets sicker and sicker. He has spent dozens of night searching the house and has yet to find a single piece of information about the woman who alone can save him from his current reality. He has even ventured out onto the streets in his dreams but the neighbours never again acknowledged his presence.

He knows now that he’s got to give it up. He’ll lose his sanity if he does anything else. And so, Will finds himself doing the same things he’s done since being on the streets – having smokes and pointless arguments with Ken, his only real friend. Winter becomes spring, with no hope of a secure future ever happening for real. Just another of his unrealised futures. Yes, the surgical masks are frightening but a whole lot less frightening than the possibility of freezing to death on the streets of a busy city.

What else is there to do than sit with Ken under the awning of a newsagents on Aston Quay and talk absolute nonsense anyway?

‘You’ll be all right, yeah?’ Ken asks, lighting another cigarette.

‘Why not?’

‘Maybe you should see someone about the dreams,’ he says and hands the lighter back to Will.

‘I’ve had this conversation with you, the doctors, the nurses, my ex. Nothing can be done, okay?’

Ken shrugs and takes a drag of the cigarette.

Will looks at the pavement, he knows there’s no lower than this. Rock bottom. Maybe it’s better this way.

‘Wow,’ Ken says suddenly. ‘Look at your wan.’

‘Who?’

Ken points out a woman walking by in an open beige overcoat with a purple blouse underneath. Will’s eyes follow Ken’s finger and focus on the woman and, and . . . there she is. The woman from his dreams.

‘I know her,’ Will says.

‘Yeah, right. In your dreams, mate.’

In his dreams is right. She crosses the road with a lightness and perk in her step despite the drizzling rain.

Here she is and here is his future along with her, laid out for him already. True, the future might bring some unknown disease and destroy all life, it might bring war and teargas, but Will is convinced of one thing. In the future, he is happy, happy in the life he will make with the woman who has just passed him by. How many times are impulses properly acted on? Intuition fully listened to? Far too few. This is his destiny. He’s got to follow it.

Sure, he could shout his warning of an oncoming emergency all over the city, but would anyone honestly listen to a fortune-telling homeless man? Will knows the answer to this one and for the first time ever, doesn’t feel paralyzed by fate. He’s going to be selfish for once.

‘Hold my bag,’ he says to Ken, handing over his sleeping bag. He stands up tall.

‘Where’re ya going?’

‘After her,’ he says and winks at his friend.

‘What? Why?’

Will doesn’t reply, he doesn’t need to. As he walks after the woman he knows to be his wife, he realises he has finally caught up with his dreams. Tonight, his life will be fully wound, and he will finally sleep. He keeps walking and doesn’t look back. 

January 07, 2022 21:04

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

3 comments

Kristin Gartner
20:30 Jan 12, 2022

Wow. I really like the imagery at the end of this piece. His life being fully wound and him finally able to sleep. There is power in that ending. I also found it an interesting role reversal, the man looking for the woman to "save" him. Nicely done.

Reply

Mark Jackson
20:56 Jan 13, 2022

Thank you, Kristin. Encouragement very much appreciated!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Daniel Hafertepe
12:14 Jan 11, 2022

Kind Stranger, I am an American reader and I sense that you are Irish. I will not comment on spelling, colloquialism or slang. But I will give you an honest appraisal. First impressions: I liked the premise - man dreams backwards until his life catches up to them. I think it is definitely fitting for the contest prompt. Very clever, too. I liked how the lady (wife) hooked me into the story, and like bookends, helped tie it all together in the end. It was a satisfying ending. Feedback: There were up to five passages in the story that I ...

Reply

Show 0 replies