Content warning: ELEGY is a tough read, absent of hope. Do not read unless you’re feeling strong.
For Doselle Young
Six months before the world ended, I went to yet another doctor, shopping for a hypnotic that would find my off switch.
“I have bad dreams.”
“Do you think you could take your sunglasses off? They’re a bit off-putting.”
“I’m sorry. Photophobia. The light makes me weep.”
They were grayscale. Primary colors triggered the dreams. Black and gray and white were safe.
The walls were covered in pretty florals. I couldn’t risk their colors.
“I see.” The doctor said it kindly, as if she really did see.
“How old are you?”
She didn’t have to ask. She had my file on the screen in front of her.
“What kind of bad dreams?”
“The kind that stop me sleeping. I’m hoping you’ll prescribe me sleeping pills. I’ve tried warm milk before bed, valerian, meditation, Nyquil.”
Alcohol (disastrous), opiates (ditto), weed (worked at first, but then redoubled the dreams). Benzodiazepines turned me into a zombie. Nonbenzodiazepines, likewise.
I was here because I wanted to try the new class of soporifics. Their side effects were noncognitive: tremors, vomiting, hair loss. I could deal with those.
“You name it, I’ve tried it.”
The doctor believed me. She thought I was a junkie. They always did. But she didn’t judge. Her eyes stayed kind.
“The dreams are so bad they interfere with your sleep?”
The dreams were so bad that if you heard them they’d worm their way into you, and you’d be the one begging for drugs.
The bad dreams had been in me since I was five years old.
“They’re so bad I’m scared to sleep.”
“I’m sorry. Tell me about your dreams.”
No. These were someone else’s dreams. They had nothing to do with me. I was a red herring. These dreams ate my dreams.
“I don’t remember them.”
“Nothing at all?”
Wouldn’t that be nice? Not to have them lurking on the other side of my eyelids, making me afraid to blink.
“I wake up screaming, sweating, my muscles knotted.”
“Have you tried hypnotism?”
“Yes,” I lied, concealing my shudder. Putting myself under someone else’s control? Letting the dreams spill out? Not going to happen. “Didn’t work.”
“Would you mind trying again? I’m very good at it.”
I was sure she was.
“I’ve tried multiple times. I’m unhypnotizable. Sorry.”
“Well, then,” she said, “tell me what you think is causing the dreams. Were they triggered by a trauma?”
The dreams were the trauma.
I shrugged. “Maybe they have to do with my brother?”
A lie. The dreams were first.
Just give me sleeping pills, Doctor.
Dead brother, missing girlfriend.
Well, not girlfriend—though she might have been, if … well, if the dreams weren’t.
“What happened to your brother?”
“He died when I was young.”
“That must have been difficult.”
Difficult? It was my fault.
“Tell me about it.”
“Talking can help. I see someone myself. I don’t know how I’d cope without someone to talk to.”
For her, talking wasn’t a disaster.
She didn’t have bruises under her eyes; the whites of her eyes weren’t red-veined. She could eat.
All my favorite food tasted like the dreams. Mangoes brought back the sweet tang of bile. Chili peppers tasted like panic sweat. Dark chocolate coated my mouth with fear.
I ate only plain food: saltines, white rice, chickpeas. Grayscale food.
She gave me the drugs. They didn’t work.
I’d known, when the dreams first slid into my cells, whispering eschatological nightmares, not to tell anyone. Not ever. Not to whisper them into my beloved teddy bear’s ears. Not to answer Mom or Mama’s questions with anything more than a yes or a no or a smile or an I love you.
The dreams itched at me like chicken pox, begging me to scratch, to tell the world, to set them free.
I went quiet.
I’d crawl into Mom or Mama’s arms. That was the only time I felt safe. Though it was safest not to feel anything at all.
When I was ten I told my brother.
I had a fever. The dreams were screaming in my eardrums, dancing across my irises, pushing against my lips.
“Tell me,” my brother said, frantic with worry. “Tell me what’s wrong.”
I did. The dreams took him that night.
He burst into my room.
“This is where you went, isn’t it?” He tapped his head, eyes wide, red and crawling with them. Scratches across his face. “They’re the same as yours, aren’t they?”
“These are your dreams.”
I nodded, then shook my head.
They weren’t my dreams.
His face was mine. Same terror. Same knowledge.
“Don’t tell anyone else. Not ever.”
I nodded. I knew.
I’d been mute with every doctor, every therapist, every well-intentioned practitioner of herbs and crystals and cups.
“It will be okay.”
It wasn’t okay.
My brother couldn’t sleep. At all.
If you go long enough without sleeping, you die.
He died without telling. He was braver than me.
NOTE: The rest of this story can be found in Foreshadow.