I’m not sure where I’m falling from. That’s not part of the dream. I just find myself plummeting through the air toward the crowd below.
The crowd looks up at me. Men and women, young and old. It just seems to be random people. They’re all talking. I can see their mouths moving but can’t hear any words. The dream is silent.
My body tenses up as the ground flies up to meet me, but at the last minute I slow down. It’s like coming to the end of a dive in a deep pool. My body just sheds momentum into the air. I step down onto the pavement as if I’m hopping off a bus.
The crowd surrounds me. They’re all still talking. I still can’t hear them.
No, not a crowd, a mob. A horde. They claw at me. Grab at me. Tug and pull and yank. One of them has my hair, because in the dream my hair is long and shaggy, like the hero on the cover of a romance novel. A pair of arms wraps around my neck like a bony scarf.
They want me.
The people are not well. They’re lepers or burn victims. They have gray skin, like sand at the beach. Many of them are injured.
There’s a woman with curly blond hair who looks like she’s been throwing up blood. One man has a long gash across his bald scalp and is missing an ear. A teenage boy holds up an arm that ends in a dark stump. An older, well-dressed woman is coated in blood, as if she works in a slaughterhouse.
And then, even though I’ve been looking at all of them since the dream began, I suddenly notice their eyes. All of them have the same dull, chalky eyes. Blind eyes. Their gazes don’t settle on anything. I see one man whose eyes drift off in two different directions.
The people keep grabbing me and I realize--in that way you sometimes realize the painfully obvious in a dream--that this is a bad dream. A very bad one. I’m not surrounded by hurt people. These are things. There are monsters all around me. Sightless, sickly things.
A woman with a battered face opens her jaws wide and bites down on my arm. I can feel it and I wince, but her teeth can’t make it through my leather jacket. Her mouth opens again and two of her teeth drop out.
I know I’m in a dream, but I also remember teeth falling out means this is a stress dream. Is that true for other people in your dream? Why is my mind so clear on some things and so fuzzy on others?
I throw a punch and one of the monster-people flies back into the crowd as if I’ve smacked it with a baseball bat. The physics of the dream seem a bit off. I grab another monster by the wrist and pull. It flies into the air and swings around me in circles. I’m making it fly, like a father spins a small child by the hands. I’m doing it with one hand.
If this is a flying dream, does it mean it’s about sex?
The spinning monster strikes some of its companions and knocks them down. Then I let it fly free. It soars off into the crowd. Something moves near my feet and I stomp on it.
I hear a hiss of pistons and the whine of electronics. The dream isn’t silent, I realize. There’s been a sound here all along, a white noise I’ve grown used to and blocked out. And before I can think what the noise is, the ground shakes. Heavy thuds come from behind me.
I ignore the monsters and turn around.
A tan wall stretches out in either direction. Looming over me is a double archway and a pair of iron gates. It looks like a fortress. I’ve seen it before, but I can’t remember where.
Stepping through the gate on the right is a giant robot. Blue and red armored plates accent its silver body. It must stand close to ten feet tall. It’s shaped like a person. I’m sure it’s female, in that odd way you just know things in dreams.
The robot looks at me with huge white eyes like tennis balls. Its metal skull nods once and then it holds up its hands. Electricity arcs between the thick fingers. It brushes its sparking hands against the monster-people and they collapse to the ground.
One of the creatures sinks its teeth into my shoulder like a vampire with bad aim. I shrug it off and knock it away with another physics-defying punch. The monster slams into another of its kind and they both tumble away.
The robot turns back to the gate and bellows, “Bring it out!” It has a woman’s voice, like I suspected. It raises an arm and waves something forward.
A truck rolls through the gate. A big one, like the ones used by movers and film crews, but this one has been decorated with wide swipes of red spray paint. It crushes the monsters under its wheels. There are people in the back of the truck. They wave at me and poke at the creatures with long spears.
The monsters that look like people are all around me. For every one I push away, three more push forward. There is nothing to the world but pale, gaunt faces and grasping hands. They have my arms, my collar, my hair . . .
With regret, George admitted he was awake and squinted up at the ceiling.
It had been another rough night. It led to one of those mornings that felt like hell from the first moment of consciousness, and he tried to push coherent thought away one last time even as he buried himself back down into the pillow. The alarm had gone off early. He’d slapped the clock twice, and each time he hoped for another ten minutes of peaceful sleep. Just enough to make the day bearable.
The ceiling fan had other ideas.
The fan’s beaded chain had come with the apartment. It wasn’t the standard string of tiny silver balls. Someone, the rental company or a previous tenant or just a cheap repairman, had replaced it with a line of blue plastic crystals.
The crystals were just light enough to catch the subtle motion of the fan. The long strand built up momentum after a while and began to spin in an arc. The arc lifted the top two crystals high enough to scratch at the side of the fan. Again and again. The noise was loud in the quiet apartment. For a man trying to get back to sleep for a few precious minutes it was like Chinese water torture. He glared up and willed the beads to stop moving. They ignored him.
When George was happy with the fan, he liked to tell himself it was a line of Mardi Gras beads. At the moment, he thought about taking a kitchen knife to them and cutting the string in half. Stringisection. Stringicide. He was an easygoing guy, for the most part, but the string needed to be punished.
He turned his head and his hair rustled against the pillowcase. It was long enough that he could feel it bunch up around his ear. He needed to get a haircut.
George rolled over and stretched his legs out. At six feet he was just tall enough that his feet hung off the edge of the mattress. On the plus side, he was thin enough that the bed was spacious enough for two, even though he hadn’t shared it with anyone in a while.
The alarm went off again. His ten minutes were up. Sunlight was creeping in through the blinds. If he delayed any more, he’d be late for work.
He sighed and rolled out of bed.
George made it to his car right on time--parked a block over from his apartment because of street sweeping--but somehow he’d caught the edge of rush hour. Traffic was piled up all along Beverly and he hit every light between his apartment and campus. The crosswalks were packed with people strolling along and taking their time. There was always someone in the road when the lights turned green and it always delayed him just enough that he missed the next light.
It’s early morning, he thought to himself. Shouldn’t anyone out at this hour have somewhere to be? Somewhere they need to get to?
He couldn’t find any music or news on the radio. The only thing coming in was some self-help show. A man with a thick Spanish accent was talking nonstop about old relationships. George tried to tune it out for a while and then just shut it off.
Traffic got worse the closer he got to work. There were a lot of extra cars on the road, and while he sat at a red light he noticed a fair amount of them were packed full of boxes and gym bags. There were a fair number of pillows and stuffed animals, too.
All at once, his mistake hit him.
It was moving day.
He’d heard that different schools had different names for it, but the principle was the same. Three days after freshman orientation, all the returning students . . . returned. All at once, all on the same day. Thousands of them. With their families and cars and pickups and sometimes even moving trucks.
There wasn’t going to be a scrap of parking anywhere on campus. Nowhere near where he needed to be, anyway. He’d have to find street parking and hope for the best.
How the hell had he forgotten it was moving day? That was why he’d set the alarm early, so he’d have time to take the subway.
He tried to turn and his car fought him for a moment. The transmission growled and the wheels felt like they were turning in mud. The last time he’d been at the garage the mechanic had mentioned tie rods, which had something to do with the wheels. George hoped that whatever they were, they could stay tied for a little while longer. His next paycheck had to go to rent, but the one after that could be car repair.
Three blocks from campus he found a space on a permitted street. He’d have to move it before four o’clock, which would mean ducking out early and asking someone to cover for him. The door stuck as he tried to get out. Extra repairs weren’t in the budget, so he begged the latch to work and the door opened on the next try.
It took him another ten minutes to get to campus. He checked the time on his phone twice while waiting for the light to change at a crosswalk. The crowds of people pressed in around him. A man on his left grinned at him and showed off a mouthful of smoke-yellowed teeth.
The light changed and the crowd surged across the street. George pushed past most of them. According to his phone, he had five more minutes. He broke away from the crowds on the sidewalk and cut across the swath of grass.
A man headed across the lawn away from the physical plant and toward George. The man had a severe limp, or maybe he was just stumbling-drunk. His headphones blared so loud George could hear the tok-tok-tok of the bass line ten yards away.
After another few steps, George realized the man’s clothes were dotted with stains. The stranger’s face was pale, as if he’d just thrown up. He was probably homeless, which meant George was supposed to call campus security.
He glanced around. Most of the students and parents were back toward the dorms. Maybe he could just give the man a warning and save him getting hassled by the rent-a-cops. “Hey, buddy,” he said, “I think you need to get out of here.”
The man staggered straight at George. He didn’t say anything, but the dull click from his headphones got louder and louder. George still couldn’t hear anything except the bass line.
“Seriously,” George said, “if security finds you here they’ll toss you off campus, and some of them are kind of jerks.” He pointed over the man’s shoulder. “Head back down into Westwood and they can’t touch you.”
The man kept limping toward George. The bad leg dragged behind him, like it was too heavy to move. A bruise on the side of his neck stood out against his pale skin. He was trying to talk, moving his jaw up and down, but he wasn’t making a sound. Nothing George could hear over the bass line from the headset.
“Man, come on,” he sighed, “don’t make me . . .”
The headset cord swung away from the man’s body with the next lurch. He didn’t have an iPod. It wasn’t plugged into anything. His eyes were chalk white. Three of his fingers ended in dark stumps. He bared yellow teeth at George and took another lumbering step forward.
George jumped back with wide eyes and raised a fist.
The man stumbled back, too, and held up his hands, fingers spread. Ten fingers. “Whoa,” he said. “Calm down, dude.”
George blinked. The man stared back at him. His eyes were pale blue, not white. His headset cord hung low and looped back up to the phone holster on his belt. The spots on his clothes were a subtle pattern in the fabric.
“Sorry,” said George. “It looked like you were . . . Sorry.”
The man shrugged his backpack higher onto his shoulder and shuffled past. One of his shoes had a double-thick heel, the kind to correct an uneven leg. It gave him a shambling gait.
George watched him go. The man looked back over his shoulder once and didn’t look pleased to find George staring at him. He shuffled a little faster.
The physical plant still used an old-fashioned time clock. Someone in accounting typed up new cards for them every week and set them out Monday morning in alphabetical order. He ran his finger along the rack of cards. Tuesday morning and they were already a mess. It took him just under a minute to find his.
His parents had been wonderful in so many ways. It never crossed their minds what he’d go through every December. Or every time he filled out paperwork. Or every time he introduced himself.
He got a moment of satisfaction from punching in five seconds before the clock ticked over to make him late. The card shuddered as the machine stamped down on it. He glanced at the red, sticky time code before he tossed the card back on the rack.
He slipped off his jacket and clipped on his ID. The jacket went into his locker and the tool belt came out. A few moments later he was getting his assignments from Jarvis. The shift boss had a dark beard shot through with white and silver.