We Live in Dreams and All the Dreams Are Dying
by Michael Haynes
It’s simple as this — if Stephanie stops dreaming, we die.
There’s me, Hez, and Lil. We play the roles in Stephanie’s dreams. Last night I was a tiger, Hez was a cobra, and Lil was the ballerina who tamed us while Stephanie watched from a throne.
As the tiger I eyed Lil hungrily, circling her. I felt the flow of the dream pulling me closer toward her, urging me to fall on her, to devour my friend. Hez, I was sure, was being drawn by the same compulsions, or perhaps he was supposed to have a taste for tiger. And I knew that he, too, would be fighting against the dark mood of Stephanie’s dream, as we had so many recent nights.
Lil watched us impassively, throughout. Whether she is just that stoic or simply resigned to the horrors we’ve faced so many nights and the end that we know awaits us, I don’t know.
This night, we’re strong enough to avoid tearing each other apart. This night, we all survive until the morning.
In the waketime, between dreams, I look for Lil. I yearn for her but cannot find her, no matter where I search. I give up at last, curl around myself, and try to remember happier days.
Tonight in Stephanie’s dream I’m a loud man — yelling, angry, lashing out a literally-faceless crowd of mostly women. The crowd and I are on the television in a waiting room, Stephanie sits in the room’s only chair.
Hez is the receptionist. “The doctor will see you soon” is the only line he has tonight. He says it each time Stephanie approaches him, three times in all. We all feel the tension rolling off our host as she sits and waits. Finally Hez ushers Stephanie back to a chilly examining room.
I’m a nurse now and I hand Doctor Lil implement after scary implement as she silently examines Stephanie.
“I’m afraid it’s gotten worse,” Lil says. And the room bursts into flames.
Hez comes to me in the waketime, tucks himself beside me as I float aimlessly. We’re half-real here and I almost feel his fingers as they try to brush against my skin. I imagine they are real. That we are real and that we have lives which are entirely our own to live. I turn to him and for an instant our lips meet in a kiss before passing through each other, insubstantial as ghosts.
I want to love. I want to live.
Lil plays the angry man on the TV tonight. He’s yelling but also laughing and this time the faceless crowd is mostly men and they’re cheering and chanting. This is just a backdrop, though, as Hez and I sit down with Stephanie for a family dinner. These roles, mother and father, are ones we’ve played as long as we can remember.
Stephanie sits with her back to the television. She passes the potatoes to me and I fight to hold back tears. The crowd roars, Stephanie flinches, and I stand and cross the room to turn the TV off.
“Thank you,” she says.
Hez keeps looking up at Stephanie as if she’s about to say something but no words come out. At last she reaches across the table and takes Stephanie’s hand. She stiffens briefly but accepts the touch.
I sit and carve the roast.
Some dreams don’t need all three of us. Tonight it’s just Hez and Stephanie in her old college dorm room. Hez is Jacob, her boyfriend for a time. They’re sitting cross-legged on her bed, heads close, studying. He puts a hand on her back and she scoots over to close the gap between them. Soon their books are thrown to the floor.
I want to be her roommate Caroline and burst through the door. But the flow of the dream is strong, Hez/Jacob looks happy, and so does Stephanie. I give up the fight and let myself slip away.
As I drift in the waketime, Hez approaches slowly. “I’m sorry,” his lips form the words and I read them.
I try to reach for him, to brush his face with my fingers. “Don’t be,” I silently say.
And then we’re gone.
Stephanie limps across her apartment to a table covered in papers. On the television Hez and Lil argue, each on their own side of the screen, while I try to rein in their conversation. Stephanie picks up one set of papers, DENIED stamped across the front in huge red letters. She throws them to the ground.
“Hope!” I scream. “Fight!”
Stephanie pays no heed. I try to say more, but Hez and Lil just get louder and then I send us to commercial and Hez tells the world that in these troubled times, you should be buying gold and if you call in the next ten minutes your shipping is free.
Tonight she’s back in the waiting room; this time in a wheelchair. We’re all other patients, sitting nervously, reading from magazines. The angry man we’ve played in dreams is on the cover of all of them. We sit and wait and wait.
There’s little form to this dream, no flow. I think about trying to encourage Stephanie, but it feels hopeless. I’m able to make myself stand so I cross the room and sit by Hez and intertwine my fingers with hers. She puts her head on my shoulder.
After a while a faceless nurse comes for Stephanie and the dream begins to fade. Before we go, I lift Hez’s head and kiss her as we slip away.
There’s no real waketime anymore. As one dream fades out, there is only the briefest pause before the next one starts. I’m a gravedigger, now, standing in the rain, resting on my shovel. Stephanie walks through the cemetery with Lil, who’s dressed in a long dark coat. They stop at an empty spot near the base of a tall oak.
“This one,” she says and hands Lil a wad of money.
Lil nods and beckons me to where they stand.
I start to dig.
Now Hez and I are mom and dad again, standing in a hospital room, listening to machines beep while in her dream Stephanie lies there and sleeps. Lil, as the angry man, rages silently on the television, gesturing violently, his face turning red.
Why can’t his anger be directed at this?
There’s no way we can know for sure how real these dreams are but as Hez reaches out to hold onto me I have little doubt. When Stephanie stops dreaming, we die. And none of us have long to live.
I can’t tell if this is a dream or waketime but there’s no one here, no Hez, no Lil, no Stephanie.
Time seems to pass but nothing changes. I can’t move. I can’t see or hear and I wonder if this is what death feels like.
But then a dream forms around me and I see that Hez is here. We’re lying in bed, strips of early morning sunlight coming through the blinds. He rolls over and embraces me.
“Were you in blackness?” I ask.
His arms, insubstantial as they are, feel warm around me and his breath tickles my skin. After a long moment I feel him nod.
He pulls me closer. The light through the windows begins to fade and the corners of the rooms drift into shadow.
Hez’s fingers lightly stroke my back. I close my eyes, not wanting to watch the ending come, and wish we had more time to dream.