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The table had been laid lavishly with a delicate white table cloth, full of frills and intricate patterns, and the dishes that lay on top were the best set of china that the Michaels family owned; they were fragile and pale pink, the color of a sickly rose or the thin sunrise. Henry looked down at his plate, a golden pancake boat floating in an amber syrup sea. Two strips of bacon sat on the edge of the plate, watching the occurrence with vague interest.
Ellen emerged from the kitchen with Anne running about, a sock monkey cradled in her tiny arms.
“How’s breakfast,” Ellen asked, refilling Henry’s coffee cup.
“Wonderful,” he said, his voice a little shaky.
Ellen helped Anne into a chair, then sat next to Henry.
“What’s the time, dear,” Henry said as he dug into his pancake.
“There’s a watch on your wrist, Henry.”
There was. Henry looked down and saw he had a few minutes to finish his breakfast.
He chatted with Ellen, nervously, then Anne, then he laced up his polished back shoes and put on his red tie.
And then he was leaving, and he walked outside and got into his blue sports car. A small shiver of nervousness passed through him. When he arrived at his office building, he would now be Henry Michaels, Chief Financial Officer. It sounded good. Henry smiled and stepped inside his car’s leather interior. He started the engine and tuned the radio to a jazz station. Then he backed up slowly and drove out of the gated neighborhood with its high houses and landscaped lawns. He drove into the streets and merged into the traffic, weaving throughout the concrete buildings that rose from the earth, scraping the glaze of light blue like the fingers of God.
The city was beautiful. The streets were clean, free of debris and dirt. Tall oak trees lined the sidewalk, monolithic in nature, and the sun beat down and bled golden light. People walked the streets and they were happy; children ran and licked ice cream cones and dropped them and then cried; and there was laughter, and it ruptured the sky.
And then something happened. The world vibrated. Pulsed. But in a second it had past.
He arrived at his office, and parked in a space marked EMPLOYEES ONLY. He walked inside and flashed his I.D. to the woman at the desk. She nodded, and Henry walked past her with a slight wave of his hand. He strode to the elevator and pushed the white button on the wall marked ‘12’. The doors closed slowly, and the elevator began to move up.
Like water in a pond, the world turned into a rippling, unfocused mess, distorted and shimmering, and Henry was reminded of a carnival mirror. His eyes grew distant as he watched the sight in front of him, dizzying and unbalanced, as if his entire equilibrium was. Then it was gone again, as quick as it had come. But the angles of the elevator still seemed off. Distantly, he wondered if something was in his eye.
The doors (pulse) opened with a great clanging, and Henry stepped out onto the floor. He headed to his office, room number (pulse) 121. The doorknob felt cold in his hands. Henry himself felt rather disconcerted and (pulse) wobbly, and his mind seemed out of focus, like he was wearing someone else’s glasses. He stepped drunkenly to his office and finally made it into his black chair. He collapsed into it, and suddenly it was not his office but a dark room with a cupboard filled with bottles. The scene dissolved (pulsed) and the office was back. Henry felt his wedding band heavy on his finger and looked over at the shelf where he kept a picture of his wife and Anne. They weren’t there, but then they were, and then they (pulse) weren’t again. The office spun around him and the papers on his desk flew upwards in a ferocious whirlwind. His mind strayed to Anne and something tugged at his heart. The wedding band was no longer on his finger. It was flying in the phantom wind. Henry jumped and (pulse) tried to catch it. But the (pulse) wind was too strong, and it flew mockingly around and around. He fell to the (pulse) ground and stared at the (pulse) sky and the wind and the papers, and that (PULSE) minuscule speck of gold. Something dropped on top of him as the world shimmered ferociously again.
And the office began to crack and rupture like glass, and pieces flew across the dark void that was behind it. And Henry Michaels flew with them, and in his mind he realized that he was returning. He swept through the jagged pieces of the office, and there was a hard sadness that pierced his heart. He was almost there; he felt it. As he grew nearer, he came to realize that there was something still on his chest. He picked it up and stared at it. It was the picture of Anne, hos Anne, his daughter, smiling shyly, a gap where she had recently lost a tooth. As he flew through the whirlwind, he smiled.
He shivered once, twice. And then he woke up.
He was lying on a bed, and he was cold. Every inch of his body was frozen and surging with intense pain. His eyes were open, and yet he could barely see. Gradually his vision focused, until he was staring at a glaringly white ceiling, a twisted fluorescent light shining down, trapped in its curved fixture. Henry felt weak and starving, which was strange, since he had only just eaten breakfast. And where was his office? Shouldn’t his secretary be to his right, tapping away at her laptop? He looked over and saw a metal stand tangled with a multitude of wires and bags. Many of them lead to Henry himself. He touched his nose and found a something there, and two IVs were attached to his wrist.
He looked down at his body. It was the color of a fish-belly, pallid and white. The sight was unfamiliar to him; he recalled that he was quite tan. He was also thin, so thin that he could count every bone in his body. And his fancy Armani suit was gone, replaced by a loose-fitting white shirt and large pants. Everything was bone white.
What had happened? He had been standing in his office, ready to work… and then the spinning, the fragments, the pulsing. Henry shook his head.
So it had all been a dream.
For a half hour, he cried.
A nurse found him, but Henry wasn’t sure what time it was. He called out to Ellen, asking if she knew, but Ellen was gone, locked away in some imaginary dreamland, and the nurse was calling in doctors and wheeling in machines, the phone was ringing and people were yelling excitedly, and it was all about him, because he had woken up and everything was painful and hard, and he sobbed as he looked for Anne, remembering he was getting her a Barbie Dreamhouse for Christmas, but she wasn’t real, there was no Anne, no Ellen, he was alone he was pale he was tired he was awake he felt sick.
And then it was quiet.
Then the doctor came over to him, speaking gently, and telling Henry he had been asleep three years. A car accident that had resulted in a coma. His wife was coming now, she was on her way and ecstatic that Henry had finally woke up. For a moment, Henry lit up, for Ellen was coming, and the doctor said no, it’s Jamie, your wife, your Jamie.
Henry stared ahead blankly and leaned against his pillow.
She entered the room, escorted by the doctor. They were talking quietly, Jamie’s face slowly losing its excited glimmer.
“Henry?” she said, watching him stare at her. She started to cry and walked over to his bed, and she grabbed Henry’s hand and grasped it tight.
“You’re awake, you’re awake, everything’s going to be okay now.”
She cried and bent over and hugged Henry, but he couldn’t remember her. Jamie couldn’t be his wife. He would have remembered.
Jamie talked to him and cried for two hours, and then she got up and spoke to the doctor. Henry could hear them, discussing when Henry would be let out of the hospital. He was weak, the doctor said, and would continue requiring food intravenously until they could wean him off. There were medicines and pills to give him, and he’d need to be watched closely, at least for a month or two. Jamie wrote everything down.
And Henry watched. This was his wife. A few memories were filtering in; sunlight on the lake, a girl throwing flowers as Henry stood next to a lady dressed in white…and he saw a flash of Jamie’s face beneath the lace veil.
Jamie was worried. Worried that he might slip back into a coma if he went back to sleep, but the doctor was saying things to reassure her, but Henry couldn’t catch it. Then Jamie came over to him again, and she said that she was taking him home soon, and just sit tight until his release was all fleshed out. He nodded.
He wasn’t tired, but he did fall asleep that night. He had a dream, but it was shallow and silly, involving dancing polar bears and stand-up comedy, so unlike the deep, intricate piece of art he’d been living for five years. He almost wished he could slip back into it, see Annie and Ellen again, continue work as the new Chief Financial Officer. But it didn’t happen.
He didn’t know how many days it had been, but one day the nurse told him that the release forms had been signed, and he’d be going home that day.
Jamie came, and she wheeled Henry out in a wheelchair. He was stunned when he was brought outside. And then he was put in a large van with a ramp.
Jamie drove Henry, and she was always smiling. This was his wife.
Henry looked outside the window.
“Why…why is everything so dirty?” he asked. His voice was thin and wobbly.
“Oh, it’s the city life. Cars and pollutants and trash everywhere,” Jamie said, happily. “It’s not so bad.”
But it was. The streets in his city, in his dream, they had been so clean. Jamie talked for the rest of the car ride home.
Henry had solid food for the first time in three years that night. He gorged himself and vomited afterwards, retching and coughing it all up. He could walk easier now, but his body was still sore and weak. Like she had been at the hospital, Jamie was afraid of what would happen when Henry went to sleep. Still, he couldn’t stay up forever, but Henry noticed she tossed and turned with worry all night.
Sometimes when he slept he experienced glimpses of his past dream. There would be a flash of Ellen’s face, or maybe Anne’s, and they were both so happy. He saw fragments of his job, and his car, of the beautiful city. And then he would wake up next to Jamie, only a shade compared to Ellen, to his dream.
But all the memories were coming back now. He could recall almost all of his life, and began to cry more often because of it. He remembered their wedding, their honeymoon, Jamie’s miscarriage.
He remembered that it was a girl, and they were going to name it Anne.
Every waking hour was pain. He was growing stronger, but nothing brought him joy. Jamie took him to a play one night, a musical about a prisoner who became a mayor and went to some barricades, but it did nothing. There was only pain here. Everything was dirty.
Sometimes, when he was alone, he thought about Anne and Ellen, and wondered why he had ever married someone like Jamie. She was always next to him, talking and chatting about how grand everything was now. But it wasn’t, and Henry knew it. Here people died. They drank away their sorrows and puked them back up on the streets. They cried and killed because they knew nothing better.
But the food was good.
And then he’d remember Ellen’s cooking, and it was times like those that he thought of things.
They were strange, and often alarming. But as the days ticked by, the more Henry found his mind dwelled on them.
And one day it came to him, and he knew he was right. He could even feel it at times, like a phantom piece of himself moving, but not where Henry stood. Elsewhere.
He came to the conclusion that some part of him was still there. With Anne. With Ellen. Moving about and going to work. And it was looking for him.
Henry slept that night, willing himself to return to that dream, that wonderful, clean dream. He found it one night. He was watching himself talk with Ellen and Anne, in the kitchen, and all three of them were happy. He reached out, extending his hands in hopes of diving deep into that dream once more, but then he woke with Jamie next to him.
He began to go to bed earlier, try to sleep whenever he could. All he needed was time, but there never seemed to be enough.
The days became bleaker, and Jamie’s optimistic attitude was growing thin, stretched by the depression that hung over Henry like a noose. Henry noticed it, and he felt a disturbing sense of satisfaction; maybe now she’d know how it felt to have something, only for it to be thrown away.
But she was always around him, still, and sometimes she cried in front of him. Henry looked away and remembered Ellen and Anne.
Then it happened one night. Henry dreamed hard, and he fell back inside his old dream, if only briefly.
Anne was standing in her footie pajamas, holding her sock monkey. She was crying.
“Mommy,” she whispered, her voice tremulous. “Where’s daddy? Isn’t he coming back?”
Ellen was not there and then was. She turned, and was facing Henry.
Her image flashed, and she was nothing but bones and sagging flesh.
“He’s there,” Ellen said, normal again. “He’s there but he won’t come back in.”
The dream shattered, and Henry woke up. They needed him.
He got up out of bed, careful not to wake Jamie, and walked down the stairs into the kitchen. There was a small flashlight on the table, and he picked it up.
Above the stove was Ellen’s medicine cabinet, filled with all her prescriptions and medications. Somewhere in the assortment she must have something to help one sleep.
He opened it up and rifled through the miniature bottle. He found a good assortment of vitamins, and then some antidepressants. Finally, in the back depths of the cupboard, sleeping pills. The bottle was half-empty. He pulled it out and closed the cupboard quietly.
From upstairs, Henry heard a sound. There was a creak of bedsprings, and then the sound of footsteps. It was Jamie, obviously having noticed his absence.
Henry froze for a moment, then turned to the bathroom. He could hear Jamie coming closer, taking deliberate yet quick steps to his location. Henry grasped the sleeping pills tightly and fumbled with the lid. It was screwed on tightly, and barely budged.
“Henry?” Jamie said. She was suddenly there, in front of the bathroom doorway, her eyes lined with deep worry. Henry shut the door with a clang and fumbled with the antique lock. Jamie’s fists banged on the other side of the door, and before he could lock it, the wooden frame moved inward.
Jamie was staring at Henry, and then saw the pills in his hand.
“Don’t do that,” she said, her eyes filling with horror.
It was funny, really. Henry watched Jamie with subdued enthusiasm. She thought he was going to kill himself? Ridiculous.
He finally managed to unscrew the cap, and Henry raised the bottle to his mouth. But Jamie was there, screaming and running forward, and she knocked the pill bottle from his hand. Henry cried out and fell to his knees, his eyes searching for the pills in the dark.
“Henry!” she screamed, and she was crying. “Henry!”
He found the pills and stood up. Henry looked at Jamie. She would only stop him again. He grabbed onto her shoulders and pushed her back.
Jamie fell to the floor without a cry. He looked at her for a moment, now drifting in a dream world herself. She looked more peaceful now, as she lay unconscious on the floor.
Henry sat down in a comfortable place, placing a towel over himself, and then dropped six pills into his mouth. He swallowed them dry, then closed his eyes.
He drifted, followed the stream as it propelled him forward. Then he was there. He was in the dining room and the light was on. He smiled and watched. Overhead the light flickered like a luminous lightning bug, and a splatter of vivid yellow circles obstructed his vision. He reached out and pushed the light away, and then the light went out.
He walked toward the kitchen. He felt a flash of black, but he continued forward. In the doorway to the kitchen, Henry saw shadows. They danced against the wall, their arms and legs grotesquely disfigured, but they smiled and were happy. They danced wildly and without apprehension, the figures in a puppet show, pulled by invisible strings that went on infinitely until they stopped. He wanted to touch the shadows.
The lilting sound of jazz wafted to his ears, and he walked into the kitchen, and he danced with the shadows.