Sam Minitz opened his eyes in that spasm of mobilized desperation which sometimes helps claw back to wakefulness from a nightmare too awful to be borne.
But the tension was still pressing down on his body like an armor of leaden plates; he could hardly move as yet, only groan desperately at the menacing figures all around.
It took endless seconds for his brain to catch up with his waking. When it did, the looming monsters and intruders resolved into mere dark folds in the drapes. He was alone in his room, alone in his apartment.
Just him, tightened like a coil ready to snap.
God, I’ll have a heart attack one of these days, thought Sam, as it became apparent to him that he was indeed awake, that the nightmare had been indeed a dream, and that he indeed was not yet having a real physical seizure.
Although incredibly tired, muscles stiff and powerless, Sam knew that nothing could make him close his eyes again anytime soon.
He groped for the bedside lamp, looked at the display of his cell phone – half past three in the morning – and changed his position to vertical, sitting dazedly on the edge of his bed. He reached for the two crumpled shapes that were yesterday’s socks, pulled them on, decided against dressing for real, and instead threw on his bathrobe and went to the kitchen.
By the table stood a tiny TV set which promised some grounding through advertisement jingles, upbeat voices, fictionalized shootouts, and sexy women. But as he skipped through the channels he was bluntly reminded that only a few of the things offered by the little screen took away from the power of the nightmare – many others seemed to amplify it and to threaten to bring it back to the surface again.
Finally he settled on a harmless drama talk show, leaving the sound at just the correctly low level to be soothing yet incomprehensible.
Sam filled up the kettle and opened the window. Bracing night air helped him get his thoughts together. He fished in the drawer by the stove for a lighter, lit up a cigarette, and looked meditatively at the hulking shapes of dark apartment towers.
Only a dozen windows, glowing white, yellow, and two of them green, for some reason, were alight in the neighboring buildings. Everyone else was asleep.
As the huffing of the kettle subsided and it clicked off, vague far off noises of cars and people could now be heard through the window.
Sam stabbed out his cigarette on the base of the dish drainer, mixed himself an instant coffee with a double sugar kick, and lit the next one.
Even with the help of television, coffee, and nicotine, the terrible visions of his dream had not disappeared completely. Every minute or two they would come around for another bombing ran, making his whole torso tense as he saw again the insane figures tearing at each other’s flesh, screaming and gurgling in an inferno of intertwined pain and desire.
And him there too – afraid, running, resisting – and then suddenly submerging into the same insanity and chasing, biting, tearing.
This has been going on for two straight weeks now, ever since he had stopped taking his prescribed mood stabilizers. Perhaps he had been a bit rash with his desire to unhook himself from the pharmaceutics. Perhaps being a pill addict was better than being a sleep deprived madman.
No, chill out, he tried to convince himself, giving his head a confident shake, that’s just the withdrawal. You’ll be right as rain in another week or two.
Unfortunately Sam did not believe himself even for a second.
Sam parked half a block away from work to give himself one last chance to settle down before attempting to submerge into everyday reality. The physical act of walking had in the past helped him regain some obscure biochemical equilibrium – he had even walked off hangovers and mild headaches.
Everything was going fine until he saw the fire hydrant across the café. Something about it caught his attention, something deep and buried, as if it was some important object from his past, perhaps even from childhood.
Which was absurd, since he had grown up two thousand miles away in a small town with very few fire hydrants, of which not one had played any important part in his life. He hadn’t even danced in the spurting water during the hottest summer days.
Yet the very sight of this one made his heart lose its rhythm. His legs shook as he approached the object. In one corner of his mind was a watchful voice warning him to not act too weirdly out on the street in full view of everyone, and he did try his best. But a second later the world around him grew to be a blurry fluid that wobbled thunderously and terribly.
All outlines lost their sharpness, pedestrians became contorted like ghosts. The fire hydrant was real, stable, and firm. But although a center of solidity in a world which had suddenly turned to oppressive jelly, it did not inspire safety in any way. Rather, its stability seemed as evidence that it was the evil source of everything that was wrong now, and which had gone wrong with Sam in the past months.
Two distorted figures with male voice stopped for a second by the hydrant. One of them raised an object to his head and appeared to bite into it. The smell of warm hotdog reached Sam’s nose and then a few drops of ketchup fell to the pavement by the hydrant.
Sam lost his balance and swooned, but even as the ground tilted up, images flashed through his head, very similar to the ones from his nightmares, maybe even the same ones, and this time not jumbled and obscure, but clear and in sequence.
People – men and women and children – faces twisted into grimaces – attacking an elderly couple from all sides – bringing them down – tearing at their clothes – tearing at their flesh.
By this exact hydrant. Blood falling where the ketchup was now. The similarity was what had triggered this terrifying flashback: him, shouting for everyone to stop, then running into the melee, pushing people away, trying to get to the victims and save then, and then suddenly already holding an arm and biting at the puffy hand with whines of impatience… Unbearable urgency and a sense of utmost wrongness rolled into a shattering–
Blackness. Far off sounds.
Sam opened his eyes. There was a woman standing above him. “Mister, sir, are you all right?”
Two-three more people were standing further off, also looking at him with indecisive mild concern.
At least he was seeing straight again.
“Yes, ma’m, thank you. Must have been a drop in blood pressure,” he said with surprising fluency, waved away with a smile a proffered hand, picked himself up, straightened his suit jacket, dusted off his elbows and knees, nodded his thanks at the woman again, and was off.
Good thing I’m shaved and in a suit and middle-aged, he thought grimly, too well-groomed and mature to be a passed out junkie or a drunk or a homeless mental patient.
People had actually been almost prepared to help.
The incident on the street was, in a way, cathartic. Although the images from his recurring nightmares became even more real now, his reaction to them stopped being so taxing. Shard after familiar shard passed in front of his inner eye without him having to tense up and grind his teeth.
He was now comparably calm as he entered the elevator.
Inside he smelled the croissant the fellow to his left had just eaten and the thick perfume of the stumpy woman to his right. He looked at their reflections in the chrome doors and mused that whatever it was that kept them all from suddenly attacking each other was invisible and intangible and not all their clothes and postures and perfumes could save them from…
The lift doors opened. He stepped out.
Inside the office Diana Pengler smiled at him and her thin green pullover heaved together with her impressive breasts as she breathed in after a husky ‘Hi’.
Sam nodded at her and then a fresh, previously unknown terrible image flashed through his head. Two men attacking Diana: one holding her legs, biting at her calf, the other tearing at her left breast.
This time the vision was controllable. Sam didn’t black out, he didn’t even lose his footing. Only his nose jerked into a quick wrinkling spasm. But he knew now with a terrible certainty that the vision was not a fantasy dredged up from some seething abyss below his conscious control.
It was a memory.
“Diana,” he said and faltered. There was nothing he could add, in spite of her obvious readiness to hear the rest of his question. What could he say? ‘Did anyone try to eat you alive lately?’
But he had to know. He had to know now, if he was to keep what little remained of his sanity. “Listen,” he leaned in over her desk and pointed at her left breast, feeling his nose wrinkle again, “has anyone, ever, uh…”
Something like worry began to appear on Diana’s face. She leaned back as far as her swivel chair would allow and gave him a nervous smile, “Excuse me?”
“Look, I have to… I have to know!” he said suddenly, rounded the desk, and began pulling up Diana’s pullover.
“Hey, er… whoa…” stuttered Bob Morton as he came over uncertainly.
“Sam – but Sam – but Sam – but Sam!” whimpered with a little strangled voice a suddenly deathly pale Diana.
Sam pinned Diana’s right hand, turned to give Bob Morton a smack on the face just to keep him from getting in the way, then gave Diana a weaker smack to hint at possible stronger smacks if she didn’t behave, and finally bared her flesh.
Impatiently he pawed at her breast until it finally fell out of the bra cup.
“I knew it! What is this? What is this!?” he snarled at the shaking Diana, poking with his finger the ragged scar which ran down the side of her left breast. Exactly where the man in his vision had been biting into it.
He wasn’t crazy after all.
Then his whole body went into a spasm of pain and he stopped breathing.
Sam sat on a chair with black upholstery which squeaked every time he moved a muscle.
In front of him, in another chair, sat Dr. Sneider. Between them was a small glass table on which stood two glasses of water and the doctor’s notepad. As yet unopened.
“Security had to tase you,” said Dr. Sneider, “and I had to pull strings to have you delivered here out of custody, instead of into some godforsaken institution for evaluation.”
“Thanks, I guess,” said Sam and gingerly brushed away a lock of hair from his forehead. The chair squeaked.
“Now, what’s all this about?” the doctor looked at Sam with reproach. “You’ve obviously stopped taking your pills. I should have never believed you when you phoned that excuse to miss your monthly check up. What’s up?”
Sam shrugged, “I just… I just thought it wasn’t right.”
“Wasn’t right…” repeated Sneider. “And why did you assault Mrs. Pengler and Mr.Morton?”
“I didn’t assault them,” said Sam and looked away.
“They say you did. You groped Mrs. Pengler and you punched Mr.Morton in the face.”
“No, no, that’s not the way it was,” Sam moved uncomfortably. The chair squeaked again. “Bob was just in the way and Diana… I didn’t attack Diana. I just had to make sure.”
“Yes?” prodded the doctor.
“I have these nightmares, doc. Nightmares and visions.” Sam licked his lips. “People attacking each other. Biting each other like beasts. Like demons.” He leaned forward. “Sometimes it feels like something bad has happened some time ago, but we have all forgotten it for some reason.”
“Ah, a conspiracy to suppress people’s memories,” said Sneider sotto voice.
“Look, I know how this sounds,” said Sam, “But she did have the bite marks on her breast, just as I had seen it in my vision. She had been attacked, doctor, I saw it with my own eyes!”
Dr. Sneider pursed his lips and sighed, “Your co-worker is a breast cancer survivor, Sam. You saw scars from a tumor removal intervention. She hasn’t had a follow up cosmetic yet.”
Sam’s head span. Cold sweat broke out on his temples. “No – no – what? Are you sure? Cancer?”
The doctor didn’t answer. He looked at Sam for a few seconds and said, “Let’s get back to the mood stabilizers. Why did you stop them, really? Did you think they suppress these so-called memories?”
“No, I just…” spread his hands Sam and then, as the doctor tapped his left leg with a pen, another vision unfolded. Sam saw the doctor, face warped by fear almost beyond recognition, desperately stabbing at an assailant’s head with a pen even as the man bit a chunk out of Sneider’s thigh.
“Sam, what’s wrong? You’re shaking,” said the doctor carefully.
Sam swallowed hard, and stood up. “Your leg, doc, do you mind showing your leg?”
“I just had a vision of one of the madmen taking a bite out of your leg. Show me! Please.”
The doctor smiled and didn’t stand up. Instead he leaned forward, “But I do have a mark there. Car accident. Years ago. You see, I have a barely noticeable limp, and your unconscious mind has noted it, and embellished it with your frankly pulp fare stories.”
Sam looked at the doctor indecisively, then his ears registered new sounds floating in through the open window. Familiar sounds which conjured up again with perfect clarity the nauseating thick air of that animal state of longing and biting and tearing and drooling.
Heart thundering, Sam stood up without a word, crossed the room, and leaned out of the window. His breath caught in his throat, and an odd combination of terror and triumph hit him when he saw what was happening down on the street. Three stories below, on the street, two men and a girl were attacking a pedestrian, stripping away his clothes, trying to bite him.
“Look, doctor, look!” said Sam and then gasped as a needle pricked his arm.
The doctor was standing by him with a syringe in hand.
“Hey,” Sam rubbed his arm and pointed through the window, “see for yourself, I was right all along.”
Down on the street five uniformed men had appeared. Blue sparks flickered as the attackers were subdued by shock batons. In seconds all three were down on the pavement, handcuffed, yet still they bended and snarled and snapped at the policemen and at each other.
One of the policemen was talking to the shaken victim. An ambulance arrived and the man was quickly escorted into it.
A soft lethargy spread over Sam. He rubbed again the place where he had been injected and looked at the doctor.
Sneider gazed sternly back, “I didn’t see anything down there and neither did you!”
“But, but I…”
“No buts! Look into my eyes, Sam.” The doctor’s eyes suddenly seemed like magnets. Sam couldn’t look away, didn’t want to look away. He felt very light and calm. The sharp agitation from seconds ago had suddenly lost its solidity and merely tickled softly the edges of his mind like a shawl thrown at a tree by the wind.
“You only saw a purse snatcher grab a lady’s handbag, nothing else,” said the doctor firmly. “I will now count to three. When I reach ‘Three’ and snap my fingers, you will have forgotten all this nonsense. There are no flesh eating maniacs and there never were.”
“One,” he said, and Sam heard a nice soft buzzing flare up somewhere just behind his ears.
Sam smiled, all clinging remains of fear dispersed by those warm, understanding, protective eyes.
“Three!” Sneider snapped his fingers.
Sam exhaled and blinked, “Ah, sorry, doc, I tuned out for a second there. You were saying?”
“That’s all right, Sam.” The doctor went to his desk, and Sam followed. “I was telling you about your new prescription. These are new pills, developed in Europe, and they are supposed to have very few side effects, if any, so you needn’t worry about that. The nightmares will stop in no time, as will the mood swings. Just don’t go deciding for yourself when to change the dosage, be so kind as to consult me first.”
“Thanks, doc, I will, promise,” said Sam as he pocketed the slip.
Sneider opened the door, “Now you make sure to buy poor Mrs. Pengler some flowers and a cake or something, and a bottle of wine for Mr. Morton. Tell them I guarantee this will never happen again.”
They shook hands.
“Thanks again, for everything,” said Sam earnestly and went out.
He bought Diana candy instead of cake and got a bottle of Chilean wine for Bob.
He went past a fire hydrant. Something about it bothered him. He threw it a second look.
There was nothing wrong with it.
Focus, man, he told himself, you have to show you’re all right now. Enough with the crazy stuff. Just dreams.
He shrugged, lit a cigarette, and continued on his way.