Monday, January 31, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 5.2

The Schoolhouse
            I stumbled along the halls, dragged myself up and down steps, never finding an exit, and never noticing myself slipping closer and closer to the floor.  I ignored my increasingly frequent yawns, and the heaviness of my eyelids, of my whole body. 
            When I eventually tripped and fell, sprawling at the top of a flight of stairs, I didn’t think twice about the musty smell of the heavy-duty rubber treads, or the coarseness on my face of the grit left behind by student sneakers.  The only thought that lingered was, “I’ll have to tell Lily.”  Then I fell fast asleep.
* * *
            My dreams were troubled and vague, scenes of the hospital overlaid with other times and places.  When I was just on the edge of waking, my eyes opened for a single terrifying moment to a fractured, whirling chaos of things that were almost objects but were really nothing but symbols of themselves.
            I blinked, and the vision was gone. I awoke fully to find that I was still stretched out in the stairwell of the impossible school. 
            I had slept.
            Refreshed wasn’t a strong enough word; I felt renewed, reborn.  The shadows, the dullness had fallen away; I had been functioning at a reduced level for so long that I hadn’t remembered what feeling normal was like. 
            My stomach growled.  Breakfast.  I needed food, and went scavenging.
            Rested or no, I had no better luck searching the school than I had before.  The same classrooms, the same bizarre sunlight.  I couldn’t tell that any time had passed, unless I’d slept for a full day.  Which was possible, I supposed.  The only food that I could find was the apple on the desk; it had somehow been replaced while I slept.  I drank tinny water from a hallway fountain.  I occasionally saw students in the hallways having their lunchboxes seized from them by bigger kids, but they vanished before I could steal their lunch for myself.
            So where was I?  Professor Harte had said something, right before whatever had happened... something about “aleph-two.”  I knew “aleph” was a Hebrew letter, that was about it.  I was putting some pieces together, though.  While I wasn’t dreaming, it was becoming clear to me that everyone else here was.  It was the classic anxiety dream, playing out thousands, hundreds of thousands of times. 
            But if this place, this “aleph-two,” was a dream world, it was still tangible to me.  I could get bruises from bumping into things; the back of my head still hurt from where the lock had hit it.  There was food and water that I could eat and drink, air that I could breathe.  There was continuity of a sort – I could sleep (I could sleep!) and dream, but I would still be here when I woke up.  And if I was someplace that was in some sense real, then maybe I was someplace that I could be found.  And rescued.
            I realized that I was best off just staying put until help arrived.  However long that might be.
* * *
Harkness University
The mahogany-paneled room was quiet.  Once, thought Dr. Timothy Harte, the silence would have had the grace to be broken by the ticking of a wall clock, or someone’s wristwatch.  No one in the room was wearing a watch.  Doubtless they would check their PDAs if they needed to know anything as prosaic as the time.
Harte himself was acutely aware of the time.  Six days since Matthew Larkin had first disappeared.
The president of Harkness University closed the manila folder, and dropped it on the table in front of him.  “Has he given any indication that he intends to sue?”
Harte shifted uncomfortably in his chair on the other side of the table, as the president, flanked by Harte’s department chair and the university’s chief counsel, waited for his answer.  The dark wood of the table showed the signs of heavy academic use, carved initials and careless scratches sanded and re-stained like a wooden palimpsest. After decades of the cycle of abuse and restoration, it seemed to Harte to have become an indelible archetype rather than a mere example.  It had a sense of permanence at the university which he sorely lacked at the moment.
“Well, Timothy?”  The president’s tone was edging from disappointed mentor to irritated employer.  About a point-two-five shift in the informational matrix, Harte estimated absently, and not in a positive direction.
 Harte shrugged slightly.  “I don’t think his, ah, condition, if you will permit that term, has left him capable of interacting with formal societal structures to that degree.  You see, he no longer perceives institutions such as the justice system as tangible realities, but only as symbols of the concepts behind those institutions.  While he doubtless understands the idea of justice qua justice, he does not...”
“So that’s a no,” said the chief counsel.  “You haven’t contacted his family yet, have you?”
“Ah...”
The department chair removed his glasses and covered his eyes.  The chief counsel leaned across the table, the furrows between her eyebrows deepening.  “Please tell me you haven’t talked to the family yet.”
“Well...”  Harte hated dealing with lawyers; their connotative index never correlated with their denotative index in a coherent manner.  “No, I couldn’t reach, I mean, I couldn’t get him to provide their contact information.”
The counsel leaned back.  “Well, that’s a small mercy, at least.”  She turned to the president.  “I’d suggest that my office coordinate that contact, Fred.  You’ll need to make the first call, but I’ll be in the room with you, and my people can follow up after that.  Maybe by that point Mr. Larkin’s condition will have improved somewhat,” the counsel shot a look across the table at Harte, “and this will blow over.”
The president nodded.  “Let’s hope so.  We should talk privately about what I’ll be saying...”
Harte coughed gently, aiming for a low-grade interruption; as tense as he was, however, it came out significantly sharper than intended.  They all turned to him.
“I should say that his condition is not entirely, well, stable at the moment.  In fact, unstable would be a much more accurate term.”
“He’s getting worse, Tim?  Are we going to lose him?”  The department chair clearly conveyed that Harte’s own situation could get no worse.
“No, well, not in the sense you mean.  To the contrary, he’s probably invulnerable while he’s in our care.  It’s just that he’s not here all the time.”
The president stood bolt upright.  “You let him go?” he shouted.  “You...you...”
Harte shook his head rapidly.  “No sir, no...not at all.  Of course not.  But we can’t keep him in the room any longer.”
The department chair frowned, and said sharply, “That’s no longer your call, Tim.”
Harte sighed.  The informational disconnect was approaching 1.0 on the Murdoch scale.  He made a last desperate attempt to resolve the confusion.  “No, Otto, it’s not a medical opinion.  We are physically incapable of restraining him at this point.  You have to understand, he is shifting between ontological states such that he frequently has no conventional presence in this...” Harte disliked the next word, it was so inappropriate, but it would have to do, “...reality.  He disappears without warning.  Each time, we have no idea when he’ll come back, or if he’ll come back here versus someplace else.”
The president, still standing, stared at him.  “I think it’s time we saw Mr. Larkin for ourselves, Dr. Harte.”
“That would probably be best, sir.”  If we can find him, Harte thought.
[Go to Chapter 5.3]

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 5.1

Aleph-Two: Lily/Matthew
CHAPTER FIVE
The Schoolhouse
            Broken light was coming from somewhere off to my left, sending bolts of agony into my exhausted brain.  Cheap Venetian blinds.  I seemed to be sitting down.  That was okay.  Something big, square and hard in front of me.  Desk.  Stretch of empty floor beyond that.  I could deal with empty.  Then a row of desks.  Students in chairs, writing.  The word “classroom” surfed across the pain in my skull, with the word “exam” right behind it. 
            Tired, but the pain brought some degree of clarity.  Gaps, there were gaps in my memory.  I thought I had been in the Trask Center, though right now I didn’t know why.  Had I recovered, then blacked out later in a lecture hall?  Did they hold a test with me still sprawled in a chair at the front of the room?  The attempt to remember set off another round of explosions in my head.  Okay, Matt, let’s not do that again...just look around.
            Beyond the first row of chairs was another, and beyond that another, and beyond that another...I had to stop counting where the rows were blurring into one another in the distance.  Something odd about that.  Didn’t recall a class like that at Harkness.  Must be AbPsych.  They always taught AbPsych in big lecture halls, everyone took it as a gut to fill their Social Sciences requirement.  I remembered drowsing off in Professor Harte’s lectures myself, back when I still slept. 
            The name “Harte” swam around the word “insomnia” in my mind for a moment, before the two ideas were swept apart.
            Still, this room didn’t seem like any that I remembered at Harkness.  It was more like a grade school classroom that had been stretched out lengthwise to make room for another ten thousand students.  There was even an apple on the teacher’s desk.  Ugh, food, no.  Water, yes, I could use a drink of water.
            I knocked over the chair I was sitting on when I stood.  The students in the front row didn’t even look up as I clumsily replaced it.  They looked like they were having trouble with the test.  Not AbPsych then.  So many brows knotted in tight creases, sweat on foreheads, hands rigidly clutching pencils, pens...and one guy using a crayon.  There was something written on the blackboard: “Lead him unto us, that we might know him.”
            I made my way to the door, as quietly as I could.  
            As I was leaving, one of the students in the front row flickered for a moment.  Then there was a different person in the chair.  A mistimed reel change, I thought, someone needed to sync the projectors.  Wait, not a movie.  The flickering was happening every so often here and there throughout the room.
            I’d probably been drinking, right?  Hangover, dehydration, it all made sense.  Sort of.  What I needed was water.
            I wandered out to the hall.  Drab, dull, boring.  Didn’t recognize it; could have been any academic building in the world.  High durability flooring, gray metal lockers, harsh fluorescent lighting, no taste.  Functional and uninspired.  I felt pieces of my brain shutting down to protect themselves against the banality. 
            I surprised myself by yawning suddenly and hugely, something I hadn’t done in a long while.  You don’t realize how really amazingly good it can feel until you haven’t for weeks on end.
            Spaced along the hall were other classroom doors.  Wait, had there been a second door leading out of the room where I started?  They weren’t far enough apart for them to lead to different rooms.  I looked through the window of the next door down the hall.  It should have been a view of the chairs maybe seven or eight rows back from the desk at which I woke up. 
            Instead, I saw the front of another classroom identical to the one I had just left, right down to the teacher’s chair pushed back at an awkward angle.  Tilting my head, I could see that this room also extended row after row into the distance, well beyond the next door down the hall.
            I forgot about finding a water fountain, and walked along to the next door.  Again, the front of a classroom, same orientation, same sun shining in through Venetian blinds on the far side, same chair pushed back from the desk, same apple on the table.  Quietly, I opened the door and entered the room.  I expected to be challenged by one of the students, but they kept their heads down, not giving any sign that they knew or cared that I was there.  I took the apple off the desk -- no response.  No response as I left the room and closed the door behind me.
            This was all very wrong, but I felt compelled to complete the absurd circle.  I walked back up the hall to the original door, and looked inside.  The apple on that desk was gone as well.  I backed away, skin crawling.  I looked through the window of the door across the hall from the first one...and there was the room again, except extending in the opposite direction to maintain the same orientation to the door.  Same appleless desk.  And the same sunlight slanting in a lazy afternoon fashion through the blinds on the far side of the room.
            The sun was shining into opposite sides of the building at the same time.
            The compounded impossibilities finally made their way to somewhere in my brain that could think, because the next thing I knew, I was sliding down against a bank of lockers in shock, whacking my head against a combination lock in the process.  Wincing at the new pain, crouched on the floor, I thought that whatever drugged-out fantasy I was in, at least I knew I wasn’t asleep.
            The word “dreaming” surfaced in my mind, grabbed hold of the words “Harte” and “insomnia,” and began treading water and signaling for help.
            All the missing pieces fell into place at once.
            Oh.  Right.
            I slapped my face, willing myself to wake up, but all it did was amplify my headache from a dull throb to a full Keith Moon drum solo.  It seemed like I was awake as I was going to get.  But if I wasn’t dreaming, what was this place?
            I looked back into the ubiquitous classroom.  The students continued to flicker in and out.  I went in and stood in front of a guy in the front row, the one using a purple crayon to write his exam.
            “Excuse me?” 
            No response.
            “Can I talk to you for a minute?”
            He continued scrawling.  I clamped my hand over the hand with the crayon.  Touching him felt like a memory of physical contact, like déjà vu without the overlapping present sensation.  I snatched my hand back.
            The student looked up at me in anguish.  “Go away, I have to finish this.  No one told me the test was today!”  He picked up the crayon and kept writing.
            “Why are you using a crayon?” I asked.
            “No one told me the test was today, it’s all I have with me.”
            “Why don’t you borrow one from your friend here?”  I took a pencil off of the desk of the next student over and handed it to him. The guy with the crayon looked at me as if I’d pulled it out of my ear.  “I’m sure he won’t mind.”
            “Where did you get that?” he said, snatching the pencil from my hand.  “Now I can finish!”
            I blinked.  Could he not see the person sitting right next to him?  They seemed totally indifferent to me, and to one another...maybe they all thought they were alone here?
            I was about to ask, when the former crayon artist slammed his pencil down, and, with a brief look of triumph, disappeared in a flicker, leaving the stub of purple wax spinning on the desktop.  I picked up the crayon; as I did, a new student, this time a girl, appeared in the chair.
            I pocketed the crayon, and started looking for a way out.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 5.2]

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 4.4

Matthew
      I didn’t see Lily again until a woman told me I was supposed to be at the library. It seemed like something to do, so I wandered out in that direction.
      Lily was crossing the plaza in front of the library. I smiled, but she didn’t look happy to see me. She seemed to be about to walk away, but then looked at me again and approached, frowning.
      “Matthew? Why are you dressed for bed?” she asked.
      I said something back. I sort of remember Lily lifting my eyelids with her thumbs and looking into my eyes.  There was a break –
* * *
Lily & Matthew
      Lily slipped an arm under Matt’s shoulders.  He seemed lighter than he looked, and it took little more than a shift in her stance or tensing her arm to set him walking in the direction she wanted.  She guided him toward one of the emergency blue light phones, and pressed the call button.
      “Am I in one of your scenes or are you in one of mine?”  I asked Lily, but she was talking to someone else.
      A crowd had started to gather, people asking what was wrong, offering assistance.  Lily waved them away.  A few minutes later, a police sedan pulled up onto the flagstones in front of the library.
      “We’ve got to get him to the Trask Center,” Lily said as the campus police approached.   
      They took Matt from her, and helped him into the car.  “We’ve got it from here,” said one.  “Thanks for your help.”
      The other spoke to me.  “A little early for you, isn’t it?  We usually don’t run into you until after dark.”
      “Can you hear that typing sound?” I responded.  “I’m pretty sure this response was written before you asked your question.  Wait, no, it just changed.”
      “You don’t understand,” Lily said, pushing her way into the back seat with Matt.  “He’s a subject in a drug trial.  Call Professor Harte, tell him to meet us at the hospital.”
      They paused in the act of trying to pull her out of the car, their faces blank.
      “Forget it,” she said, taking out her cell phone and dialing Harte’s office number.  “Just get us to the hospital!”
      The cops clambered in; the car sped off.  I wasn’t sure whether they’d left me behind until later.
* * *
      Now it was later.  I was in a hospital bed.  Faces and voices moved around me, but they didn’t seem to connect properly.
      “I’m running his blood work now, but I’ve given him an anti-nootropic as a precaution,” Professor Harte said, the sound coming from Lily’s worried frown.  “His condition is fairly serious, but should be reversible.”
      Hector asked in David’s voice, “I assume we’re terminating his course of treatment in Stage Two?”
      Lily ran a hand through Matt’s hair without thinking, then pulled it away when she noticed Hector’s curious gaze.   “We’re putting the whole program on hold until further notice,” Dr. Harte said.  “Now, everybody out.  Let’s give Mr. Larkin a chance to rest.”
      Hector stopped Lily in the hall outside Matthew’s room, as the others walked off.  I realized that I was still inside, so I stopped listening.
      “I’m sure he’ll be fine,” Hector said, putting a hand on her shoulder.
      Lily looked anywhere but at his face.  “The counteragent should offset the Visulex to a degree that his normal perception can...”
      He interrupted.  “It’s not your fault.”
      “Of course it is!”  Lily snapped at him, turning on him a red-eyed glare.  “If I hadn’t pushed him forward for the next stage...”
      Hector pulled her into a hug, and her tears started to flow.  “Shh.  It’s okay,” he said.  “Everything will be all right.”
* * *
      Everything wasn’t all right.
      Lily paced the length of the lab, ignoring the calls from her mother on her cell. 
      Hector tried to calm his nerves at the billiards table, but his aim was worthless.  He hung up his cue in frustration.
      In his office, Professor Harte puzzled over the results of the third round of blood work, which persisted in declaring that there was no Visulex left in my system, despite my worsening symptoms.
      Captain Forrest stirred in his sleep.
      Now Lily was on the way up to my floor; David was already there, walking toward my room to check on me.
      I was in my room, which was also a museum.  Artifacts from ancient Egypt were piled up against the walls in no sort of order, so I started sorting them on the long display shelves which ran the length of the room. 
      David seemed upset when he came in, and sent a nurse running for Professor Harte.  I told him to watch where he stepped, but he managed to crash into a miniature sarcophagus, toppling it over.  The lid fell open, and the contents escaped.  They lurched toward David’s ankles, and he screamed. 
      The sound echoed in my head; my skull reverberated on the edge of shattering.
      Lily ran at the sound of the scream, turned into Matt’s room, and froze at the scene.  David, flailing at tiny mummies that were crawling up his legs.  Matt, in the full regalia of an Egyptian pharaoh, holding his head.  Strange items and new furniture and fixtures fading in and out of view.
      Harte appeared next to her.  His words were the last I heard before the light in my head burst forth and there was bright emptiness.
      “Good lord, he’s shifting into aleph-two...”
* * *
[Go to Chapter 5.1]

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 4.3

Matthew
            I surfed the Web until they locked up the public cluster; then I wandered around campus for a couple of hours until I found myself back in my room.  I tried to call my sister once, but the number I had was no longer working.  After participating in the study, I’d already lost the habits that let me get through the night.  I was thinking in terms of hours and minutes again, and I could feel the agonizingly protracted passage of each one.
            The next day I called in sick at the library; there was no way I could do my job.  Instead, I went to the studio and fooled around with my paints.  “East 54th was bothering me. I felt like I should have started with a larger canvas; something just out of sight was itching in my skull.
            When I got to Harte’s office that afternoon, Lily was nowhere to be seen.  Instead, the tall grad student, David, was there with the professor, glaring down at me as if I’d tracked mud on his carpet.  They babbled about ramping up my subconscious activity with the larger dose of the drug, inducing a hyperclear state of lucid dreaming.  David sneered slightly throughout.
            Whatever.  To hell with them.  I told Harte I’d do it.
* * *
            They checked my pulse rate, blood pressure, weight and other vitals, and rolled an EEG machine into my room.  The grad student hooked me up while Harte filled a syringe from a vial of violet liquid.  I didn’t feel anything much after Harte gave me the injection. David told me to lie back and relax.
            About five minutes later, I heard David say, “There’s the spike,” and then the room dissolved around me.
* * *
            Stage One of the project was drawing the thoughts and images my mind was spinning out; Stage Two was being thrust inside the drawings.  I spent every night of the next two weeks watching my own dreams from the inside, fully aware.  Sometimes I saw it from a first person perspective.  Sometimes I was outside myself, and could control my body like an avatar in an online world.  Often, I wasn’t there at all, just a disembodied mind watching the show of my own unconscious. 
            Every night, I saw symbols and patterns that I had discussed with Lily.  There were dark spaces as well, eerie vague shadows that I couldn’t quite discern no matter how hard I tried.  I desperately wanted to talk to Lily about those as well.  I met with Dr. Harte instead; it wasn’t the same.
            Even without Lily, though, the conscious investigation of my own dreams was compelling.  The rest of my days couldn’t compare.  I started coasting through my shifts at the library, and after the third night of Stage Two, I stopped going to the studio altogether.  Painting no longer held any interest for me; there was no need for me to translate the images in my mind into the real world when I could see them directly.
* * *
            Hector called me later.  He said something about someone having a seizure; it didn’t mean anything to me, so I hung up.  I vaguely remember looking at the phone after that, wondering whether it had just rung.
* * *

[Go to Chapter 4.4]

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 4.2

Matthew
            The hallucinations had been less frequent since I had started the Visulex treatments, but now they returned with a vengeance.  More than once, I had to stop and think about how to get to my own studio, when the paths across campus sprouted new branches.  A rhythmic murmur of meaningless syllables, almost a chant, faded in and out in the distance.  I turned the sketch over when Lily’s eyes seemed to follow me. 
            When I reached Ware Hall, I tucked the page away in my locker so that it wasn’t just sitting out there when Lily walked in.  My latest painting was still on its easel, and I spent the time before she arrived pacing back and forth in front of it, trying to get my nerves and my senses under control.
            I stopped paying attention to the phantom knocks at the studio door, especially after I left the door open and the raps continued unabated.  When Lily cleared her throat behind me to get my attention, I jumped three feet in the air.
            “Sorry to startle you.”  Her voice was soft as well, as if she were in a library or a museum.  Some people were like that around art; I liked it.
            She looked around the studio.  “Is this where you paint?  I don’t think I’ve ever been in here before.”
            “Yeah,” I said, standing there without a clue what to do next.  “Welcome.”
            “Thanks.”  She approached the easel.  “Is this one of yours?”
            “Um, yes.  My latest.”  Sort of, I thought.  The colors vibrated on the canvas.
            She looked at it for a moment.  “It’s very active, almost frantic.”
            “That’s kind of what I’m going for,” I said, looking away and blinking to clear the afterimages from my vision. 
            “What’s it called?”
            “East 54th.”
            “After where you lived when you were younger?”
            “Sort of.  Well, no, not really.  I don’t quite know.”
            She nodded, and turned to face me.  “Do you have something for me?” she asked gently.
I nodded, and went to my locker.  Again, I felt a sudden urge to start babbling an explanation for the sketch, and once again I quashed it.  She would see whatever she saw, without me trying to influence her.  I took the page out, my back to her.
Still, it would be unfair to spring it on her without any warning.  “Lily ... I don’t think that this is exactly what you expect,” I said before turning around. “It’s sort of personal.”
“It’s okay, Matt.  It really is.  I know that everything you draw has special meaning to you.”
“No...I mean, it’s sort of personal to you.”  Ah, well, nothing for it, I thought.  I brought the sheet over to the easel, and stood it in front of the painting.  I swear it winked at me.  Then I watched her reaction.
Lily’s eyes widened as she looked at the image of herself, and then she looked down, spots of color blooming on the sides of her pale face.  After a moment, she gazed at the drawing again, then turned to look at me with a curious, almost puzzled expression.
“So,” I said, my heart pounding in my chest, “what do you think?”
“It’s beautiful,” she said, and I was startled to see tears start to form in her eyes.  She closed them, and turned her face away.
“Lily,” I said.
She flinched away.  “It’s not unusual for certain feelings to develop between patient and therapist.  It’s not...real...”
“You know that’s not true.”
“I... I’ve got to go,” she said, and moved toward the door.
“Lily, please wait.”
“I can’t... I...,” she said, then broke off with a sob and fled from the room.
I carefully stored the drawing away again, revealing the chaotic frenzy of red and blue and yellow on the canvas behind it.
* * *
            When I got to the hospital that night, Hector was waiting for me in the fifth floor lobby.  I wasn’t entirely surprised. 
            “Come on, let’s take a walk.”  He said, moving to lead me back to the elevators.
I held my place. “What, I’m being kicked out of the study?  I was just doing what I was supposed to do, it’s not my fault what comes out.”
“Matt.  Calm down.  I don’t know what you’re talking about; you’re not being booted.  But we need to talk.”  He looked over his shoulder at the duty nurse.  “Not here though.”
            I tried to get my irritation under control as we left the hospital, and walked down the long path leading toward Harkness University’s stadium.
            Hector looked uncomfortable when he finally spoke again.  “You made your move with Lily, then.  Went badly?”
            “Yeah...I don’t know,” I said, and explained what happened with the drawing and the studio.
            “Poor Matt,” he said.  “Betrayed by your own subconscious.  She was probably just overwhelmed, though.  You could come back from that.” 
I knew he was trying to be encouraging, but he sounded distracted.  “You didn’t come here to ask me about Lily, did you?”
            “No.”
            “What’s going on?”
            He stopped walking, and let out a long exhalation.  “Tomorrow, when it’s time for your session, you’re supposed to go to Professor Harte’s office instead of the usual place.  Harte’s going to offer to move you on to Stage Two of the project.  Lily’s reports on your progress were glowing.  I guess the whole art thing impressed them.”
            “Why do I think this isn’t a good thing?”
            “Dude, we weren’t even supposed to discuss Stage Two outside of the lab until all of the data from Stage One came in.  I’m almost certain it’s not covered by our FDA approval.”
            “Why?  What’s Stage Two?”
            He looked around.  “You can’t tell anyone about this conversation, okay?  I’m not supposed to tell you, but what the hell.  Increased dosage of Visulex, administered by injection.  You’d be monitored by EEG instead of doing the drawing thing.”
            I laughed bitterly.  “That’s it?  Too bad they didn’t start yesterday.  Would I still be meeting with Lily?”
            Hector rubbed his forehead with one hand and closed his eyes.  “Más loco que un cabra... Matt, forget about your crush for a minute, and listen to what I’m trying to tell you.  I don’t know why Harte’s rushing you into Stage Two, but you should turn it down.”
            “Is it dangerous?”
            “Maybe.  Who can say?  That’s the problem.  We don’t have the Stage One data yet.  And...”  He paused. 
“Spit it out.”
“You really can’t tell anyone I told you this.  Two of the other volunteers from the study dropped out.  Both claimed that they were having hallucinations during the day.”
I shrugged.  “That’s nothing new to me.  It isn’t because of the drugs.”
“Do you know that for a fact?  Do you know it won’t get worse?  ‘Cause I don’t.”
“If I say no, would they let me keep taking the Stage One dosage?”
“I doubt it.  They’ve apparently already gathered the data they need from you.  But they’d give you the money anyway and set you up with standard talk therapy to close out the treatment cycle, they’d have to.”
            “I’ll think about it,” I said.  The money wasn’t so important to me.  Well, it was, but I had other things on my mind.  “So, do I go back to Trask tonight, or what?”
            Hector sighed.  “No.  I’m supposed to tell you to take the night off.  Actually, Lily should have been the one to do it, but now I know why she begged off.  I’m covering for her.  I thought it would be a good chance for us to talk, though I’ve got the sneaking suspicion I didn’t get through to you.”
            “I said I’d think about it.”
            “All right.  I’ve done what I can here.  You know where to find me if you want to talk more.”
* * *
[Go to Chapter 4.3]

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 4.1

CHAPTER FOUR
Matthew
            I had developed a habit, after waking up in the hospital, of flipping through the prior night's sketches to look for the patterns that Lily and I had been discussing.  The ritual helped to moderate the bizarre sensation of the Visulex wearing off, so that I wasn't stumbling out into the day.  Sometimes the drawings were startling, sometimes disturbing, sometimes downright funny.  By now I was used to the dreamlike imagery.  But I absolutely wasn't prepared for what I saw one morning almost three weeks into the project.  
            It filled the whole of the seventh page of the sketch pad.  It was stunning; I couldn’t believe that I’d drawn it.  Calling it a sketch would be demeaning.  It was without question the best work I’d ever done, if I could really be said to have done it.
            It was an image of Lily, as I saw her, transferred to the page with all my barriers of self-awareness removed.  In her lifelike face I could see the intelligence, and the ever-so-subtle humor.  Her pose and posture conveyed her knowledge that she was physically attractive, while the clear tension in her limbs made it equally clear that she wasn’t comfortable with the attention she received.  But the overall impression was of tentative kindness, and gentleness.
            My hand involuntarily reached out to brush against the side of her face, but I stopped myself before I smudged the pencil.  I should take care of the picture, get a fixer on the graphite to preserve it, get it framed, or at least matted...
            And then, with a cold shock, I remembered what I was supposed to do with it.  I gazed at the empty chair where I was supposed to leave the pad.  For Lily to collect it later this morning.
            The adrenalin of panic flushed the Visulex from my system, and I had to take a couple of deep breaths before carefully pulling the page out of the spiral-bound sketch pad and removing each and every one of the tiny tabs of paper caught in the rings.  I closed the pad, settling the remaining pages together to obscure the excision.  I left the Trask Center, carrying the page flat, carefully avoiding both the staff and the other volunteers for the project whom I sometimes saw in the halls. 
            I made it back to my dorm room without incident, and propped the picture up on my desk.  I suppose I could have ditched it somewhere along the way, or in the hospital for that matter; but looking at it again, I realized there was no way that I would destroy it.
* * *
I was a mess for the rest of the day.  Without thinking about it, I’d misfiled a donation of rare volumes in the open stacks, and only avoided disaster with Kathleen because one of my co-workers caught the mistake before anyone else did.  He covered for me, but after my shift ended I realized I’d also put this week’s newspapers on display in locked cabinets in the rare books room.
So when the phone rang in my room that afternoon as I was preparing to go over to the studio, I grabbed the receiver gratefully.  There was only one person who called me regularly.
“Hector,” I began.  “Man, do I have something to tell you...”
“Um,” said the voice on the other end of the line, “I’m sorry, Matthew...it’s me, Lily.”
My brain threw a breaker.  For an irrational moment I had the urge to start explaining about the drawing, before I clamped down on my tongue.
“Matthew...?  Are you there?”
Speak.  Have to speak.  “Um, yeah.  Hi.  I thought you were someone else.”  Not brilliant, but under the circumstances, I’d take it.
“So I gathered,” she said, with a slight twist of humor – but only a slight one.  She sounded worried.  “I wanted to talk to you about your sketches from this morning.”
My eyes darted to the drawing on the desk.  How...?  I closed my eyes and tried to settle down; I didn’t know what she knew.  “Ah.  Sure.  What’s up?”
“You know it’s important that you let me see everything you’ve drawn, right?”
“Sure, of course.”
“There was a page missing from your sketch pad this morning.”
“Um, really?”
“There are twenty sheets in each of those pads, Matthew.  Except there were nineteen in this one.”  Her tone changed then; I couldn’t tell if she sounded hurt, or if she was trying to reassure me.  “You don’t have to worry about showing me what you’ve drawn, Matthew.  I know that you’ve been dealing with a lot in our sessions, and that some of what you’re seeing must be very disturbing.  But for this to work, you need to trust me.  I’m not going to judge you.”
Oh, if only, I thought, even as I was parsing the fact that she was counting the pages in my sketch pads.  She wouldn’t pay that much attention if she wasn’t into me, right?  Man, I was totally gone, wasn’t I...
I thought momentarily about making something up about a defective sketch pad, but sighed and let it go.  “I do trust you,” I said.  “Can you meet me in my studio?  Second floor of Ware, in about half an hour?  I’ll give you the page there.”  For some reason, I felt showing it to her with other works of art around might help.
There was a pause on the other end.  “I’m glad you still have it,” she said, finally.  “I’ll see you there.  And thanks for being honest with me.”
* * *
[Go to Chapter 4.2]

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 3.4

Lily
            Lily opened the door to Dr. Harte’s office.
            It had taken her a while to become comfortable with just walking through Harte’s door without knocking, but he wouldn't respond if she had.  As he had explained to Lily when she had first tentatively tapped at his door, he found knocking to be “an unsatisfactory method of communicating a request to enter, lacking in information necessary for a decision on that request.”  Lily often wondered whether he actually just wanted people to give up and go away.
            Dr. Harte was crouched over session reports and photocopies of the subjects’ drawings, oblivious to her presence.  She stood quietly in front of his desk, waiting for him to notice her.
            Eventually, his hand wandered across the desk, independently searching for something.  Lily reached over and moved Harte’s glasses within range of the questing fingers.
            Putting them on, he looked up and blinked.  “Ah, Ms. Breckenridge.  Are those the Week Two summaries?”
            “Yes, Doctor.”
            “Place them on the chair to your left.”  She did so.  Another thing Dr. Harte didn’t approve of was unnecessary linguistic posing; if he wanted you to do something and was in a position to require your cooperation, he wouldn’t ask you to do it or suggest that you do it, he’d order you to do it.  Not out of any disrespect or intent to demean, but because he wouldn’t want you to be uncomfortably confused about whether you had a choice.
            Still have to work to get him to say “please,” Lily thought.  She placed the reports on the seat of the chair, and moved to leave.
            “Ms. Breckenridge, could I speak with you for a moment?”
            She stopped in her tracks, a shiver of fear running down her spine as she turned back to face the professor.  Had she done something wrong?  Had the supervisor seen a problem in her relationship with Matthew?  Lily was sure she hadn’t acted inappropriately in the last few sessions; it was just that he was so interesting.  As a subject.  They’d become closer, of course but she was certain she hadn’t crossed any lines.  Wasn’t she?
            “I received a telephone call earlier today,” Dr. Harte began.
            “Honestly, Doctor, I’ve got it under control,” she jumped in.  “I haven’t deviated from protocol.”
            Harte tilted his head to one side.  “You have a set protocol for interactions with your mother?  How interesting.”
            For a second or two, Lily only felt relief that this conversation had nothing to do with Matthew.  Then she realized what Harte had said, and her scalp prickled with horror.
            “My mother?”  She felt the warmth rising up the sides of her face.
            “Yes.  She called by telephone and asked me a number of unclear and often ambiguous questions with regard to your participation in this experiment, apparently in the context of certain unidentified psychological ailments suffered by your father.  I explained to her that without further information, I could see no connection between the experiment and your father’s medical condition.  At that point, she engaged in a degree of invective and ended the call.”  Harte’s face softened.  “I apologize if I misinterpreted what she was asking.  I hope that I did not complicate a family situation.  If there is anything I can do to assist, please let me know.”
            A single thought drifted atop Lily’s mind, circling a whirlpool of embarrassment, fury and dread:  I can’t believe she actually called him.  Eventually, she found her voice again.
            “No, Doctor, I’m sure everything’s fine,” Lily said almost levelly.  “It’s just a misunderstanding.  I’ll give her a call tonight.”
            “As you wish.”  Harte started to return to his work, but raised his head again.  “I know that many people think of me as socially awkward, Ms. Breckenridge, and I will admit to some difficulty in that regard.  I do, however, care about the well being of my colleagues and students.  If there are issues that you would like to discuss with me, you should consider me a resource.”
            “Um, thank you, Doctor,” Lily said, and ran from his office.
* * *
Matthew
I invested my alcohol budget in better sketchpads; but after two nights of bringing my own paper, I arrived at the hospital to find the brand I preferred waiting for me in my room.  Lily didn’t say a word about it. 
Often I thought about asking Lily out after our sessions, but I hesitated.  Lily and I had something, or almost did, but I couldn’t figure out what it was and didn’t want to screw it up.  And every so often I got a weird vibe from her, usually when we were talking about my parents...I wanted to ask what was going on, but each time I had the inescapable feeling I should leave it alone.
Hector got in touch a couple of times to check in on how things were going, on both a professional and personal level.  While he tried to teach me to play pool better than the average dorm rat, I told him about the dance with Lily.
Hector nodded sagely.  “She’ll keep you on that edge forever, dude,” he said, as he gradually but surely cleared the table, flowing from one shot to the next like he was practicing the forms of a martial art.  “You’re going to have to make the first move.  But you knew that, hey?”
“Should you be saying that?” I asked, still trying to figure out how he got the backspin on the 6. “Isn’t it against the therapist’s code or something?”
“This isn’t therapy?  Look, all that will happen is that you’ll get switched to another counselor.  We’ll still make sure you get the help you need.  If you still want to be part of the project, that is.”
“Some reason I might not want to be?”
 “No.”  He had paused just a bit too long.  “It’s just, if you get somewhere with Lily, maybe you’ll have accomplished your real reason for participating.”
That bothered me.  “I’m participating because I can’t sleep.  Nothing’s changed.”
“If you say so.”
“Besides,” I said, “I still think she might come around on her own.”
“What are you trying to do, play hard-to-get?”  He laughed shortly.  “Think about it, man. She’s got an intimate relationship with you, while she still has her professional distance, satisfying her duties to Saint Harte.  Why change that up?” 
“I don’t know.  Some twinge of human feeling?  Lust?  Lust would be good.”
Hector looked at me, one eyebrow raised.
“Right, right,” I sighed.  “So, what are you telling me?  I’m stuck?”
Hector grinned.  “Did you know that when people see themselves as being stuck, they’re almost always facing a real choice instead?  It’s when they’re rolling down a road with no exits that they think everything’s fine.  Funny thing, people.”
Yeah, I thought.  A regular riot.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 4.1]

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 3.3

Matthew
            By the time I got back to my dorm and cleaned up, my senses had more or less returned to normal, but the feeling of being refreshed stayed with me.  It was like the drug allowed my body to rest, while keeping my brain and my drawing hand separately occupied.
            I even surprised Kathleen by showing up slightly early for my shift at the library.  The enforced overnight schedule had helped me keep track of the time.
            There would be less time for the studio, of course.   I was going to have to squeeze in my painting in the afternoons and make up the lost time on my days off.  But if I continued feeling as good as I did that morning, I figured that my output would improve significantly.
            As good as I felt, though, I was still anxious when I returned to the Trask Center that night.  Maybe the intense experience of the prior night was unusual, the result of my first night with the drug.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized I wanted to repeat the experience.
* * *
            The clock read 7:23 a.m.  My left hand ached; I’d apparently switched during the night.  And the pad lying in front of me was once again full, every page full, of my mind.
* * *
            By the time I had my first review session with Lily on the fourth day of the project, I was very eager to talk to her.  Her in particular, of course, but at that point I would have settled for talking to anyone.
            We met in a small, isolated reading room in one of the older buildings on campus.  The walls were lined with bookshelves, and we were seated in a pair of overstuffed chairs.  It was a relaxing atmosphere, less harsh and clinical than the hospital – which, Lily told me, was why they had selected it.  Not that this wasn’t still a formal part of the study; she also assured me that, for my protection, a member of the psych faculty would be monitoring us via a concealed microphone.  I couldn’t spot the bug.
            Lily had brought my sketch pads with her, and I thought we’d start talking about them immediately.  Instead, she set them to one side, and turned to face me.  God, she was pretty.
            “So, Matthew, how are you feeling?”
            “Oh, can’t complain.  You?”
            “Any adverse effects from the Visulex?  Unusual fatigue, soreness, anything like that?”  
            It always irritated me when therapists ignored my questions.  The social workers who evaluated me after my parents died did the same thing; it made me feel like they were blowing me off.  You’d think it would kill them to admit they had lives of their own.
            “No, not really.  Actually, I’ve felt better than I have since I stopped sleeping.”  I gestured at the sketch pads.  “Except for cramped hands.”
            “I’m not surprised.  Most of the others are still on their first notebook.  How are you feeling about the project?”
            “I’m getting used to it.  There’s this really weird thing that happens when the Visulex wears off in the morning.  I mean, you’re in this hugely clear state of mind, and then it all fades away in a few seconds.  It’s sort of like falling asleep, or getting anesthesia, except you’re still awake after it happens.  But you know this, right?”
            Her forehead creased.  “From what we’ve seen the experience of it is highly subjective.”
            I remembered the faculty member eavesdropping on us, leaned forward, and whispered.  “Have you tried it?” I asked.
            She paused.  She wanted to say something, I could tell, but the moment passed.  She took a breath, forced a smile, and said, “We should really focus on your experiences.”
            I settled back in my chair.  “Well, for me it was...weird, but not uncomfortable.  Uncomfortable was seeing page after page of sketches I could barely remember drawing.”
            “Are you saying you're experiencing memory lapses?”
            “It’s not amnesia, exactly.  I sort of remember doing them.  Actually, it’s more like I remember remembering.  Like I had the entire memory in my mind, but I didn’t have enough room in my head to hold on to the whole experience.  I just retained the impression of having drawn them.”
            “So, are you perceiving that your cognitive function has improved under the influence of the drug?”
            “Uh, no, but I feel like I’m smarter.”
            “That’s what I...”  Lily blinked.  “You’re teasing me,” she said.
            I grinned.
            “Whatever am I going to do with you, Matthew,” she said, shaking her head in mock despair.
            I was tempted to ask her out, right at that moment.  But whether it was because of some leftover touch of Visulex clarity, or just a long-dormant reserve of common sense, I knew that move would be a mistake.
            “Well,” I said with an abashed smile, “why don’t we talk about my sketches?”
* * *
We got down to work after that.  If I was impressed by how seriously she took her job, I was stunned by how much effort she’d put into analyzing my drawings.  She drew connections between images that I would never have picked up myself, but which made perfect sense when she explained them.
I was surprised to find that I enjoyed reviewing my own thoughts, with Lily’s assistance.  I pulled pages from the sketch pad, and arranged them on the floor, to better see the patterns that were emerging.  We moved around each other and around the room, talking about whatever we saw.
At one point Lily stopped, in front of the image of the tower struck by lightning, the one that could only be seen by folding over the rips on the page.  After glancing at some of the other pages, she turned to me, and in a gentle tone, asked if my parents had argued much when I was younger.
The question caught me completely off guard.  How could she have known?  I sat down, and after a confused moment, told Lily about the constant fights when I was a kid.  It was difficult at first, but it got easier after a bit.  Then I talked about my sister, Betsy.  She was six years older than me, and was always there to tell me everything was going to be all right.  Whatever happened later between us, I still remembered that.  When I used to hide under the covers in our bedroom when our parents started shouting or throwing things, she’d come in with a flashlight and a comic book, or, when it was really bad, just hug me.  I worshiped her, back then.
Lily just listened attentively until I stopped.  “I know we’re in the middle of this,” she said when I finished, “but we’re going to have to break for now.  Are you going to be okay?”
I nodded, my head hanging.  My entire body felt heavy. 
“I’ll see you again in three days,” Lily said at the end of the session.  “But I want to ask you to think about something before then.  You said that you hid in your bed when your mom and dad were fighting.  Do you think about your bed as a place for rest and sleep, or a place to hide and escape?”
I blinked, as all sorts of things started clicking in my head.
“See you next time,” she said.
“Yeah...see you later,” I said, as I walked out the door with my head spinning.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 3.4]

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 3.2

Matthew
           I sat on the bed and watched the two pills, in case they made an unexpected move.  They looked like oversized cold & flu capsules, transparent ovals of amethyst purple.
            I picked them up.  They were slightly rubbery to the touch, and seemed a little heavier than they should have been.
            Ah, well, I’d taken stranger things.  I popped them in my mouth and took a sip of the water.  I coughed as the pills lodged in my throat, and I took a longer gulp of the water to get them down.  Then I waited for my hands to melt or the walls to change color or whatever was supposed to happen. 
            After a few minutes without any noticeable effect, I picked up the pad, and examined the paper.  Newspaper stock; how inspiring, in its gray drabness.  It had its place, but not for this.  I looked at the pencils they had given me. Dixon No. 2’s.  Maybe they expected me to take the SATs after all. 
            I was going to have to ask Lily about getting some real supplies; how was I supposed to work with this?  With ten hours to go, though, I’d have to make do.  I checked the tips of the pencils; all three were sharp.  I closed the pad and rubbed the point of one on the cover until it was blunted with a nice rounded tip.  That would have to do for pinpoint shading.
            I flipped open to the first page.  So, I was supposed to sketch whatever came to mind.  Why is it that whenever someone asks you to do something like that, you always draw a complete blank?  What was a complete blank, anyway?  How could a blank be less than complete?
            My right hand was idly doodling; I looked at the page, and saw that the doodle was a sort of cloudlike shape.  I drew a few circles next to it, and turned it into a thought bubble.  A dumbfounded face went below that.
            I noticed that the shadow of my hand was particularly sharp on the paper; the light seemed brighter in the room.  The fluorescent strip on the ceiling must have warmed up.  I moved the incandescent lamp on the nightstand closer to warm up the cold blue glare. Switching between the sharp and blunt pencils, I drew a hand casting a shadow drawing a hand casting a shadow drawing a hand casting a shadow.  How Escheresque.  I chuckled.  It was an optical allusion.
            The pencil felt odd in my hand; I could feel the woodgrain through the yellow paint.  I drew a house.  Someone stomped by in the hallway outside; I added an ogre approaching the house, with a big spiked club in hand.
            Whatever else the pills were supposed to do, they had a nasty aftertaste – like paisley would taste if it were ice cream – so I took another swallow of water.  It was flat and metallic; I could almost smell the fluoride in it.  Still, it helped to clear the flavor of the capsules.  It really was bright in here; the table lamp was more than enough light, so I got up and turned off the overhead.
            Lamp.  Returning to the pad, I flipped the pencil in my hand sideways and shaded the area around the ogre’s legs, transforming him into a genie springing forth from an oil lamp.  The fragile, musty surface of the paper was smooth; I dropped the pencil and began smudging the graphite with my fingertips, creating great gouts of smoke around the genie.
            I looked at the blackened fingertips of my left hand.  I’d only been fingerprinted once.  My right hand sketched a man behind bars.  God, bars, I could use a drink; the acrid tang of the water was getting to me.  Did they still use lead pipes here?  I kept doodling.
            Or the rope or the knife or the revolver?  In the Conservatory or the Study? 
            Or the study of conservation?
            Of conversation...?
            Of conversational French kisses off side start five yard penalty box lunch counter culture shock and awe shucks corn nuts and bolts for cover before striking distance between two points is a straight flush beats four of a kindness of strangers on a train of...something...borrowed something blue moon sun tower world fool and his money are soon parting of the red sea weed killer apply twice daily to affected area fifty-one fifty forty-niner excavating for a mine all mine shaft ya damn right who is the man who would risk his neck and neck around the final turn over your papers and begin...
* * *
            SNAP.
            I blinked...the pencil was broken in two.  My right hand was so cramped, I had to remove the fragments with the left.  The remnants of the other two pencils were on the floor.  Sunlight was streaming in the window.  The clock on the table read 7:42 a.m.
            I tried to remember what had happened to the last nine and a half hours, but the memory felt like it was receding from me, growing more distant as I tried to grasp it.  I felt slightly numb and deaf, like I was swathed in gauze, and my vision seemed dim.  But except for the fuzziness and my aching right hand, my body and mind felt more rested than they had in months.
            The pad was lying open in front of me, flipped to the last page.  The linen bedsheets around it were smeared with graphite dust.  The pad itself was a mess, rips and tears throughout, every page covered front and back with images that seemed dimly familiar – including a pretty good portrait of Richard Roundtree, if I do say so myself.  Sometimes the rips seemed intentional; on one page, I folded in all of the torn edges, and found that they obscured everything except a hidden image of a pinnacle struck by lightning.
            I closed the pad and carefully placed it on the chair.  It was spooky as hell.  But damn, it was good.
* * *
[Go to Chapter 3.3]

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Matter of Dreams: Chapter 3.1

CHAPTER THREE
Matthew
            I ran my butt off to get to the Trask Center on time the following night.  I didn’t quite make it. 
            Lily was standing in the lobby, looking at a folder.  “Mr. Larkin.  You’re late,” she said, without looking up.
            “Well...you never...want to be the first one...at the party, right?”  I said, smiling and trying to catch her eye.
            “Try and be on time tomorrow.  Come on, I’ll show you to your room.”  She led me towards the elevators.
            “Something with a view and a minibar, I hope.”
            Lily ignored that, and pressed the up button.
            “Oh, at least tell me it’s a non-smoking room.”  No reaction.  Come on, give me something, I thought, I’m dying here.
            It had occurred to me that Hector might have gotten himself in trouble by helping set me up with Lily; she was supposed to be my counselor, after all.  But when I asked Hector about it, he just laughed and said that my chances of anything happening with her before the project ended in six weeks were so vanishingly small that he wasn’t worried.  At the time, I had taken that as a challenge; now I was beginning to see what he meant.
            Lily didn’t actually look at me until we were in the elevator.  Then she turned her head slightly, and said, “You didn’t tell me that you knew Hector.”
            Uh-oh.  “Well, yeah, I mean...”
            “It puts me in an awkward position, you know.”
            “Uh, really?  Sorry...”
            “That could have affected us accepting you for the project, you know.”
            “I didn’t realize...”
            “We selected you all with specific patient/therapist relationships in mind.  You were supposed to be paired with Hector.  Dr. Harte wanted it that way.”
            “He did?  Oh...”  Some part of my mind noticed he was “Doctor” Harte now.
            The elevator opened at the fifth floor, and Lily strode down the corridor.  I hurried to keep up.
            “It’s no wonder the two of you were friends, your interpretive matrices seem to be virtually identical.  Why didn’t you say anything?”
            “Well, I didn’t realize...”
            She stopped suddenly in front of a closed door, catching me by surprise.  I pulled up short, inches before I knocked her down with my excess momentum.
            Lily turned around, and I saw a flash of surprise as she found me directly in front of her.  She dropped her voice to a whisper, but she didn’t back off.
            “Hector was very embarrassed about the whole thing.  He said he kept quiet because he wanted you to get the help you need, but he made me promise I’d look after you.  We’re going to have to work hard together at this.”
            “I can do that,” I said, grinning inwardly.
* * *
            It was a private room, I was glad to see.  Standard uninspiring decor, white walls, metal frame hospital bed, black and white checkered linoleum.  The only unusual things in the room were the two pills next to a glass of water on the nightstand, and the 11” x 14” pad of paper sitting on the bedside chair with three yellow pencils.
            “You’ve been assigned this room for the duration of the project,” Lily said, standing in the doorway.  “You can come straight up here when you arrive tomorrow; everything will be set up just like this.”
            “Will you be here tomorrow?” I asked.
            “No, but you can ask the duty nurse to call me if there’s an emergency, and I’ll come right over.”
            “Oh.  Okay.”  I walked over to the table and picked up one of the pills.  “I take it this is Visulex?”
            “I see Hector’s been telling you some of our secrets.”  She smiled, ever so slightly.
            “Not quite everything,” I said.  “So, what do I do?”
            “It’s really simple.  Visulex is a nootropic; it enhances your senses, and allows you to visualize what you’re thinking more clearly.”  She gestured at the pad of paper.  “All you do is take the pills, try to relax, and write down or draw whatever it is you’re thinking about.  Do as much or as little seems appropriate.  In the event you actually feel like sleeping, go ahead, but try and sketch whatever you can remember from your dreams.  In the morning, you leave the pad behind and check out with the nurse.”
            “So, when do we get started?”  I tried to let a little eagerness show, but just a little.  She wanted to be professional, I could do professional.  Hector had given me an opening, I had to make the most of it. 
            “Your first counseling session is in three days.  That’s when we’ll start trying to get to the bottom of your condition.”
            “I’m looking forward to it.”  And I realized that I really was – both to see her again and to hear what she had to say.
            She stepped out of the room.  “Well, good night, Mr. Larkin.”
            “Um, if we’re going to work together, I’d really be more comfortable with Matt, or Matthew.”
            She smiled, the first real smile that night.  “All right.  Good night, Matthew.  I’ll see you in a few days.”
            “Good night, Lily.”
* * *
[Go to Chapter 3.2]