I drag each deadweight forward, my feet like two concrete bricks plodding me across the room. I have no spare energy to remove my shoes, so they clump against the floor with loud, disapproving sounds. It has been eight days since I last slept. Every shuddering muscle, fragile bone, aching beat of the heart suggests I do so. Treacherous counsel.
I had watched her each day from the counter of Mother Fool's. Caroline enjoyed books. The same order, the same table, one ponderous tome of eminent literary quality after another and reams of paper filled with her swooping penstrokes seeping across the laminate like a glacier of paper. Nothing really distinguished her from any other bookworm who curled up in that aroma of caffeine and stale baked goods. Merely her consistancy fascinated me. I approached her less out of attraction than curiosity.
The book lays open on the corner desk, just as I left it. Sometime yesterday she stopped in to shoot me an infuriating grin before leaving again. I could have sworn I had grabbed her by the neck and strangled her, that grin plastered across her face in defiance as she turned strange colors and gurgled, but there was no body lying in the hallway. Just the sound of laughter and the door closing. I must have stood dumb, staring at her.
Every evening I locked the coffeehouse while she stood at the window and admired her reflection in the dim glass. We would hold hands and stroll past the smoke-spewing power plant stacks, whispering rushed, hissing little words about symbols and signs and daring feats of lexical acrobatics. When we made love, her sighs and quickened breaths spoke volumes. As I fell asleep inside her, I would drift into strange uncharted dreamscapes. Some were childish fantasies fulfilled; I was an astronaut, a rock star, a professor standing before a class of eager, reverent students. Others were mind blowing stampedes through the looking glass, sensational realities where sounds, sights, and scents interwove to maim common sense and replace it with pure wonder. Rarely I remembered nothing but a night-long torrent of ecstasy. And in the morning, I always awoke to her smile.
They are dancing in my peripheral now. Shadows of thoughts, unprocessed and dumped raw into the corners of my field of vision. My mind does not have the capacity to filter the real from the unreal anymore, flailing about as it tries to plug the holes in the wall dividing them. The dreams rumble behind my crumbling dam, spraying through cracks and staining my eyes with their flash traces.
By chance I had found her book. Red leather-trimmed and ancient-looking, she always carried it in her satchel. She thought I didn't notice. I was drunk, belligerent. She was mildly annoyed. Leaving me to tidy herself up in the bathroom, I fumbled through her bag and snatched the book, storming out with my prize. Beneath the fluorescent light of the bus stop I summoned enough focus to start reading. There were hundreds of chapters in her own hand, each two or three pages long. The style was sweeping and poetic, infectious in its enthusiasm. A rare chapter took an entirely different tone, before a blank of a few pages and a return to more pleasant prose. Those nearest to the back struck my booze-dulled mind as familiar.
I trip on an untied shoelace. I do not really notice until my head hits the floor. Two or three seconds later my body makes a depressingly half-hearted attempt at an adrenaline rush before conceding defeat. There are dull, thumping pains in my forehead and shoulder. Lifting my head from the floor is a comical exercise in exhaustion. I let it sink to the wood again. If I could bring my hands to my eyes, I could stave off the shadows. My arms won't move. Even panic won't rouse the muscles from their obstinate stupor. I can manage a few frustrated tears.
When I got the hospital records, my stomach tightened. After two sleepless days it had been a little difficult to read them. Jeffrey Baxter - comatose. Sarah Kilzer - comatose. John Hughe - comatose. Eric Kilpatrick - comatose. Only half the names had yielded any information, either missing or comatose. "I always write my own endings," she had said with clinical calm as she closed the door on me. I picked the lock a few days later and found that fucking book laying open across her desk, taunting me. When I tried to tear the final page out, it was an orchestra of forks etching glass plates and nails screeching across chalkboards hooked to a billion amp speaker whose feedback echoed about the inner surface of my skull. "No one has ever read theirs before," she had said. "This should be interesting."
My lids drop. For a moment, I flood with relief. Then the stream runs dry.
The nightmares are coming.