Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 1.3

Matthew
            Some of the questions were uncomfortable to answer.  I decided to leave the section on medications blank; I had been prescribed pills for the insomnia, but I never filled the scrip.  My health insurance had long since lapsed, a fact I had been keeping from the University so that I wasn’t forced to pay for their mandatory, and expensive, student coverage.  Filling out my family history was awkward as well.  Both of my parents had died in a car accident when I was young, and I hadn’t seen my sister in so long I had no idea what to say about her.
            The questions about insomnia (fill in “1” for “Not at all” and “5” for “All the time”) made me feel like someone had been spying on me.  Do you have difficulty being on time for appointments or work commitments?  Kathleen, my boss at the library, would have had a volume to say about that one.  To what extent do your social relationships suffer because of your condition?  How often have you overstayed your welcome at a nighttime event?  How often do you use alcohol to induce sleep?  I just filled in the “5” column all the way down.
            When I finally got to the multiple choice questions, though, I realized that they weren’t like the ones on the SATs.  Those had right answers.  These questions read like the drafter had suffered a psychotic break in fourteen-point Courier New:
1.     APPLE is to YELLOW as SERENITY is to:
(a) MOCKINGBIRD
(b) LOUIS BRANDEIS
(c) HELLO
(d) ADVERB
Next:
2.     In the paragraph above, was the narrator:
(a) your cousin’s ex-girlfriend
(b) my best friend in the whole wide world (I’m just
saying that, you are, really, I mean it)
(c) the owner of a small parakeet that answers to the 
name Lucrezia, except on Tuesdays, when it is dead
(d) Salvador Dali’s older brother, Salvador
            I double-checked – in my state of mind I could have missed something like this – but there was no paragraph above Question 2. 
            The next eighteen questions were no less bizarre.  I stared at the page for a minute, looking for that tell-tale flicker that would indicate that my eyes were playing tricks on me.  Nothing.  Had I done any drugs recently?  Didn’t think so.  I already felt disconnected enough with the world, thanks to the insomnia.  Not that I hadn’t tried hallucinogens, there was that brief and foolish period when I thought it might enhance my creativity and prove me to be a “real artist.”  All it actually resulted in were some pointed questions from law enforcement after my impromptu naked traffic cop performance piece. 
            I stuck to the studio for my creative urges after that.  Recently, though, I’d been hearing things every so often, random voices or snatches of sounds that didn’t have a source.  Just in the past day or two.  Like I thought I’d heard a sudden burst of classical music just a few seconds ago.  And my vision had started to play up a little, corner-of-the-eye kind of stuff. 
            I had already been losing track of time by that point; without sleep, the hours bled together like spilled paint.  Kathleen was just about out of patience with me always showing up late.  With the noises and the sight thing on top of that, it was beginning to be just a bit scary. 
            But I had no idea what to make of these weird questions.  I spent time trying to figure out what they were getting at.  Then I spent a minute feeling like an idiot for trying to make sense out of them, and decided I wasn’t going to answer at all.  Then, I thought that this must be a joke, or some bait-and-switch stress test, and considered telling whoever was behind the glass that they could shove their questionnaire.  Finally, I decided they wouldn’t pay me if I didn’t play along, so I filled the answers in at random: (a) for Question 1, (c) for Question 2, and so on.
            I didn’t know if she was watching me through the mirror, or if it was just a coincidence, but Lily came back into the room almost as soon as I put my pen down.  That was another reason I didn’t like being a test subject – the feeling that I was being manipulated.
            “All set?” she asked, sitting back down.
            I flipped the form back to her, and she started looking through it.  “Just tell me.  Are you studying insomnia or not?  I came here for help, not mind games.”
            She put the paper down.  “Professor Harte is testing a cutting-edge treatment for sleep-related disorders that relies heavily on examination of the patient’s cognitive function during a dream state.  In order to select the best participants for the project, it’s necessary for us not only to evaluate your medical condition, but some aspects of how your conscious and subconscious perceptual systems work.”
            “Wait a minute...how are you going to study my dreams when I can’t sleep?”
            “That’s the cutting-edge part.  Professor Harte can explain that better than I can, and if you join the project, he will.”
            “And all of this has to do with nonsense questions how?”
            “Did you notice that in all of the questions one of the answers mentioned a bird or an airplane or something to do with flying?”
            “I guess I’m out.  I just filled in the answers randomly.” 
            “Don’t be so sure.”  She handed the form back to me.  “You picked the flight-related answer in nineteen out of the twenty questions.”
            I looked through the test again, and found the only question where I didn’t answer “correctly”:
          14.  I’m sorry, did you just say something?
(a) Don’t talk to me that way, Gerald!
(b) Which one was it with General Zod?  Superman II 
or III?  Wait, wasn’t he in the first movie for a 
second too?  Zod, I mean, not Superman.  Well, 
yes, obviously Superman was there too.
(c) 2009 Driving to Connecticut Productions, all 
rights reserved.
(d) Six points!  That’s heavy, heavy enough to kill 
it, in fact.
            I had picked (c) instead of, I guess, the one about Superman.  Artists can be sensitive to copyright.  But the rest of it was eerie as hell.
            I looked across the table at Lily, and she nodded.  “Those questions were carefully calibrated so that there was only one pattern throughout,” she said.  “Everything else really was nonsense, complete static, to see if you’d either consciously or subconsciously pick up on the pattern.  And you did.”  She sounded impressed.  Good, impressed is a good start, I thought.
            “So does this mean I’m in?”
            “Well, Professor Harte gets the final say, but I’d say the signs are encouraging.”  She smiled again, and I thought I could get used to it.  “Congratulations.”
            Lily let me go, telling me that someone would be back to me within a day with the final decision on whether I’d be accepted.  She gave me a sheet describing a little more about the time requirements for the project.  For the duration of the study, I’d need to report to the hospital by 10 p.m. each night, and would stay there until 8 a.m. the next morning.  There were also supposed to be one hour counseling sessions every three days.  There wouldn’t be a problem with the schedule...it’s not as if I had other pressing engagements.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 2.1]

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 1.2

            The owner of the voice let the door swing free and cleared some papers from a table squeezed between two chairs in the tiny space.  Lush, dark hair, and a face that echoed Mancini’s Resting; subtle piercing eyes reminiscent of Bouguereau’s bathers.
            “Matthew?”
            I blinked.  Get a grip on yourself, Matt.  You’re drifting again.  “That’s me.”
            She sat down, gesturing toward the other chair.  “Have a seat.”  She started riffling through a box of papers next to her chair.  “Just a moment,” she said, and pulled out a folder.
            I slid into the chair, looking at my reflection in the long mirror that occupied one wall.  One-way, I assumed, for observation of subjects.  I made a mental note not to scratch anything untoward while I was in there.  The reversed image of my face seemed all right.  Dark under the eyes, but that was to be expected.
            She put down the folder, then looked up at me.  “I’m Lily Breckenridge.  We spoke on the phone.  It’s nice to meet you.”  She offered her hand. 
            I shook it, and summoned the energy for a smile.  “I remember your voice.  The pleasure’s mine.”
            She smiled slightly as well, then took a set of stapled pages from the file and handed it to me with a pen.  “I’ll need you to fill that out for me,” she said.
            I looked over the form.  Most of it was pretty standard, vitals, medical history, family history, symptoms.  The final part of the form was odd, though.  There were a series of multiple choice questions, the kind designed to test vocabulary and language comprehension.
            I looked up at Lily.  “For a sleep study?”
            “I can’t really tell you more than you saw on the flyer.”  She looked slightly embarrassed.
            This whole situation was weird, but if they could help me, I had to try and see it through.  I turned back to the first page.  “This might take a while.”
            “Take your time.”  She picked up the box of documents from next to her chair.  “I have to file these away anyway.  I’ll be back in a few minutes to see if you have any questions.”
            I started writing. 
* * *

Lily
            Lily watched the latest subject as he worked his way through the questionnaire.  She was a little impressed; not that he’d noticed the one-way mirror immediately, most everyone figured that out, but that he hadn’t forgotten about it.  Usually, once people on the other side of the glass got started on whatever task they had been assigned, it was only a matter of time before they started picking their noses – even if they’d actually asked about the mirror beforehand.
            Matthew Larkin, though, glanced up at the mirror every minute or two.  She didn’t think it was vanity; he wasn’t that stunning to look at.  Sort of cute, she supposed, in a bohemian kind of way, but definitely not someone who preened.  No, it was as if he was trying to look through the glass. 
            Lily jotted a note in Larkin’s file.  Attentive to detail, suggesting defensive attitude.
            She let him get on with it, and checked her messages on her phone.  Gloria, one of Dr. Harte’s other graduate students, had invited her out for Thai with the rest of the project team.  Lily sighed inwardly.  Gloria had been after her for a while to get out of the lab, but there was simply too much to do to get ready.  Phase One of the project was supposed to have begun a week ago, but they’d had problems recruiting the number of subjects they needed for a valid sampling.  Orientation had been rescheduled for tomorrow, and they were still down one.  With luck, Matthew Larkin would fill in the last slot.
            Lily hit reply, but wasn’t sure what to say.  She was too busy, really, but she hadn’t gone out much since the whole Ian thing.  And the last line of Gloria’s message said, “Don’t make me come get you.”  She knew her friend would actually come down with the rest of the team and drag her bodily out of the building if she tried to beg off yet again.  Lily rubbed the bridge of her nose.  Maybe it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to take a break after all.
            She tapped out a terse yes, scanned the rest of her messages to make sure there was nothing urgent, then looked up at the mirror.  Larkin was flipping back and forth through the questionnaire, looking puzzled.
            Lily smiled.  He’d reached the multiple choice section.
            Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4, 1st movement (Allegro) suddenly played brightly from her pocket.  Cursing, she fumbled to shut it off; she’d forgotten to mute her ring tone.  Larkin didn’t seem to be disturbed by it, and knew she was there anyway, but it was still bad form.  She looked at the screen. 
            Her mother.  Quickly, she switched the phone to vibrate.  Not five seconds later, it buzzed in her hand as her mother tried to call again.  It was either talk to her quickly now, or have half an hour of voice mail to wade through later.  She answered it.
            “Hi Mom, I can’t talk now,” she whispered.  “I’m in the middle of something.  Can I call you tonight?”  No, stupid, Lily chastised herself.  Don’t make it a question, she’ll just say...
            “I just wanted to talk to you quickly.”
            “Mom, I am right now sitting in an observation room at work.  I can’t talk.”      
            “He’s been asking about you again,” her mother said. 
            “I can’t talk to Dad right now, I’ve got to get back to work.  I’ll call soon.”
            “He’s asleep right now.  I just wanted you to know that he’s thinking about you.  I don’t understand why you couldn’t come home this summer, you know I need your help with him.”
            “Mom, we talked about this.  The project is full-time, I can’t get away.”
            “I’m sure your professor would let you come home for a little while if you explained.  Have you tried explaining to him?”
            “Yes,” Lily lied, “but we’re at a really sensitive stage, I can’t leave now.”
            “Give me his number, I’ll call him.”
            The thought of letting her mother talk to Dr. Harte gave her an icy shiver.  “Mom, I’ve got to go, I’ll call later, I promise.  Love you, give my love to Dad,” she said, ending the call over her mother’s last attempt to squeeze some guilt in edgewise.
            Lily checked her urge to throw the cell phone across the room.  Instead, she shoved the phone back into her pocket, and tried to calm down.  It wasn’t easy.  Lily took a deep breath.  She’d just make herself angrier running another circuit around those old arguments.
            “Focus, Lily,” she whispered to herself.  “We’re working here.”  Larkin had put down his pen.  Time to go back in.  She took another deep breath, put on what she thought of as her professional face, and headed back into the examination room.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 1.3]

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 1.1

Aleph-One:  Matt + Lily
CHAPTER ONE
Matthew
            After my shift at the library ended, I hiked out to the Trask Center on the edge of campus.  The training hospital was brand new, its glass-and-marble construction in sharp contrast to the red brick architecture that dominated the rest of Harkness University.  I couldn’t decide if it was a blight on the classical theme of the college or a bold counterpoint enabling the school to embrace both extremes of the academic temperament.
            As I walked in, I caught sight of the flyer in the lobby that I’d seen a couple of days ago. It wasn’t visually impressive; just black lettering on lime green stock.  The content had caught my attention, though.
Volunteers Sought for Research Study
on Insomnia and Related Sleeping Disorders

Free Treatment & Counseling Available

Qualified participants earn up to $3,000 for 
completion of six-week course of study beginning July 15th. 

Overnight hospital stays at Trask Center required. 
Call x7780, or e-mail lbreckenridge@trask.harkness.edu.

            I wasn’t ordinarily one to sign up for research projects, even for the extra pocket money.  I was short on funds, but volunteering to be a test subject seemed just a bit desperate.  That, to me, was one step short of selling bodily fluids for cash.
            But I had to admit that desperate was a pretty good word for how I was feeling at the moment, and “free” was always a good word when applied to medical care.  And the compensation was excellent - which probably meant that they’d only take a few people for the project.  Still, it was worth a shot, so I’d sent an e-mail from one of the public computer clusters last night after I finished up at the studio. 
            No, I don’t own a computer.  Even today, it is in fact possible to get an education without one.  I had two objections to buying a laptop.  First, I couldn’t afford it.  I had been scrambling since my scholarship ran out last year, and was already working through the summer to round out my financial aid package.  Sure, Harkness would subsidize the cost of a computer, but I had other things I needed to spend the money on.  Between studio fees and equipment costs, visual arts was an expensive major.  And, of course, there was alcohol.
            My second objection was aesthetic.  It’s too easy to get addicted to using computers, and I worried that it would dull my sensitivity to color.  There are hues that you just can’t get on a computer screen.  I’m a bit more sensitive to distinctions between shades than most people; sixteen million colors isn’t enough when the specific color you need to use is one of the billions of others falling between the cracks.
            Okay, I’ll admit that this second explanation was more or less bogus.  I used it when someone asked about my aversion to silicon and I didn’t want to think or talk about my cash flow problems.  But I did sort of like being the only guy in the lecture hall who looked human while everyone else was staring blankly at their screens, washed out to a zombie pallor.  I usually killed time in class by figuring out my escape routes for when one of the undead scented my brain.
            I took the elevator to the basement of the Trask Center, and looked for Room B202.  The white hallways were punctuated with doors painted a dull cadet blue (#819F9F or thereabouts, if you haven’t weaned yourself from your own screen yet).  Trask was still too new to have accumulated the layered posters and overfilled bulletin boards that served to decorate most walls at the school; this level was more like the floor of an office building with space left to rent.
            A sudden splashing noise from behind me nearly made me turn, but I managed to ignore it.  There wouldn't be anything there if I looked; it was just another hallucination.  Hopefully, I would be able to get some help before crossing streets became too much of a challenge.
B202 turned out to be next to Professor Harte’s office.  After my experience in Harte’s lectures, the thought of being a subject in a study that he was running gave me pause.  Not that he was incompetent or anything like that, but he had some strange theories.  He kept talking about interpretations of sensory input, and the charting of understanding and meaning on different scales and axes; a psychological disorder was supposedly “a disconnect between the interpretive matrix and the signifying elements of the perceptor’s surroundings.”  I had to memorize that for the final.  It was odd how things like that stayed clear in my mind, when so much else had been effaced by the flow of sleepless hours.
But then again, if this study was anything like Harte’s class, I’d see him only in passing from a distance while I dealt with his grad students.
I knocked on the door of B202.  From the other side, a voice said, “Just a minute.”  I recognized it from when I’d called earlier to schedule my appointment.  At the time, in my typically pessimistic way, I had assumed that it was just some blue-haired secretary with a deceptively sexy voice.
            The door opened.  I had been very, very wrong.

[Go to Chapter 1.2]

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Matter of Dreams: Prologue

Prologue

     The horizon was so straight that it could threaten one’s sanity.
     The man on the boat felt a powerful need to see a bend in that unbroken edge, where the ocean met the sky in every direction; but no matter where he looked, it was an utterly straight line running from one edge of his vision to the other.
     In his meditations, the lone sailor let his gaze rest on the horizon, not that there was much else to occupy his attention.  The vanishing point where blue met blue seduced him with images of infinity.  At times, his brain’s desperate efforts to find dimension twisted the line in his eyes, dizzily yawning up or down or towards him, and he would struggle to find the still point where above and below would again be equal.  Sometimes he thought that the line curved away, as if the globe of sea and air in which the boat was perfectly balanced was being inverted; in those moments he let himself experience the sensation of the world being emptied out into the endless void.  But in the end, it all came back to the undisturbed blue of the water, the utter blue of the sky, the boat, and the straight line.
     The man occasionally imagined that the line was time itself, running its course in the undefinable distance while he floated untouched.  Certainly, the place seemed timeless; no sun passed overhead to mark his days, and no moon turned in the night to mark his months.  There had, he believed, been a beginning to his existence on the boat.  He possessed vivid memories of his prior life, memories that lingered despite his desire that they fade.  It was that very desire to forget, he knew, that caused his memories to remain strong; desire was, as ever, a powerful and devious enemy.
     A more basic desire, that of sustenance, he could battle in a more prosaic manner.  The ocean held an improbable number of fish. 
     It was while he was fishing that the event occurred, the first event of any distinction.  Its occurrence reverberated through his mind, as different from his normal experience on the boat as the number one is from zero.
     The man watched the dark spot in the sky for some time after its appearance, feeling time reasserting its hold on him once the event gave time someplace to stand.  Eventually the spot grew, and the man recognized something falling.
     It hit the ocean not far from the boat, sending up a plume of water nearly as high as his head.  The man leaned over the railing of the boat and watched the area where the object had struck; soon, a figure bobbed into sight, a man floating face down.
     The man on the boat smiled.  Finally, he thought.

[Go to Chapter 1.1]