“Edwin, we’ve been working together for five years now. If you don’t quit with all that ‘Doctor’ nonsense, I’m going to stop bringing these fancy lattes you love so much.” She smiled and offered him one of the steaming cups.
“Hold on,” Edwin said, “give me a moment to rewire my brain.” He took a step back, shut his eyes, and slowly repeated the word “Jen” to himself. After a few seconds he nodded and said, “There, done.” He winked and took the coffee. “Why thank you—Jen.”
“No, thank you.”
Jen set her cup down and reached for a lab coat hanging on the wall, wrapping it around her petite frame. She paused to wipe her thick-rimmed glasses on the stiff fabric, and Edwin glanced sideways at her, appreciating not for the first time that although she was young, she conducted herself with maturity and efficiency beyond her twenty-nine years. Her devotion to science had often evoked in him thoughts of a daughter he never had.
“Looks like you came in early this fine Saturday morning,” Jen said, still poking fun at him for having added Saturdays to their schedule, not that she had any kind of social life she was missing out on. She paused to appreciate the lab’s flurry of activity: microscope illuminators, clunky computers, the sleep lab surveillance monitor, and of course, Edwin’s tiny radio tuned to his favorite jazz station. Coffee, jazz and science, he often said, were the only things that kept his “old butt” going. Not even marriage could compete with his unwavering goal to digitally photograph a human dream. With Jen’s help, he was almost there.
The two had already devised a serum capable of amplifying the electrochemical pathways in a dreaming, mammalian brain. In conjunction with a prescribed dose of the blue liquid, receptors on a tiny scanner implanted near the test subject’s secondary visual cortex (the imagination center of the brain) recorded and digitized the amplified brain activity and relayed it back to the central computer; there, data were filtered through a complex program and assembled into static images.
After nearly five years of calibrating various components, including an array of electrodes and other devices, the scientists had neared their goal of producing crisp, detailed images from a human dream, the implications of which would ultimately help unravel the mysteries of consciousness.
“So how’s the serum shaping up?” Jen asked, clipping on her University of Chicago badge.
“Oh, quite nicely. I think there’s a chance for optimal results by late morning.” The elder scientist handed Jen some papers scribbled with formulas and notes. “Just modify the serum as indicated here—see, at the bottom there—then we’ll run some tests before Jim gets in.”
“Jim’s in today?” Jen sighed. “Sometimes he makes me miss the rats.”
“We’ve come a long way from testing on rats,” Edwin said. “I for one was getting tired of endless dream captures of fuzzy maze walls and cheese.”
“I know, I know. I was only kidding. Really. I’m glad you found him after all. It’s just . . . well, never mind.” Sensing a slight flush in her cheeks, Jen scrunched her forehead and quickly flipped through the pages of the revised serum. “Wow, this could be the one we’ve been waiting for. This could work!” And although she secretly despised jazz, her fingers snapped along with the music as she approached her work station at the other end of the lab.
A short time later Jim Coal, their test subject, lay asleep in a dimly lit room down the hall, dozens of multi-colored electrodes webbed over his head.
“Dr.—er, Jen, come take a look at this.” It was Edwin calling from the computer table. Jen came up behind him and leaned over his shoulder, arms folded across her chest. “What is it?”
“That last batch of serum . . . well, here—just look.” He pointed to a slightly blurry, colorized image on the computer screen; a digital capture from Jim’s dream. “See that? Doesn’t that sort of look like—?”
“Jim’s father!” Jen gasped. “That looks a hell of a lot like Jim Sr.”
Edwin held up a black & white photograph from Jim’s file. It showed Jim in a Little League uniform, his father standing to his right, a possessive hand on the boy’s slumped shoulder. The man had a military presence about him.
Jen bit her bottom lip to contain her excitement. “I can’t believe it,” she said. “This is without a doubt the best image we’ve ever gotten!”
“The serum’s much improved,” Edwin said. “But I think we can do better.” He tapped the desk with his fingers and scrutinized the image. “Another hour or so of tweaking should do the trick.”
Jen grabbed his hand and squeezed it. “I’ll go see if Jim’s willing to stay a bit longer.” She turned and rushed out the door.
Edwin sat and further compared the man in the photograph to the one onscreen. The two images clearly showed the same person—a tall, imposing figure with broad shoulders, low cheekbones, square jaw, and close-set eyes.
He was physically and emotionally abusive, Jim had said of his father. His mother had been too afraid to leave, and the whole town feared him; even the police kept their distance. Then one morning, as if by answered prayers, the man’s smoking corpse was discovered in the dark woods near the family home. Although the police had initially suspected foul play, a final report concluded that Jim Sr. had died of self-immolation. The cause: financial-related stress. Case closed. Things might have turned out okay for Jim had it not been for the nightmares, nightmares in which his charred father stalked him in every conceivable setting, nightmares that had grown more realistic and threatening over time.
These same dreams had been the source of Jim’s depression and sporadic employment as an adult. When Edwin first encountered him during a late night walk about town, the man was curled up on a heap of garbage in the yellow spray of an alley light, writhing in the clutches of a nightmare. Edwin shook the man awake and consoled him, then handed him his number. Jim called a few days later, and that led to his becoming a test subject for Edwin’s project, though Edwin did fudge facts a bit in the paperwork, choosing not to reveal the man’s occasional lack of dependability and frequent benders. But it was Edwin’s inclination that Jim’s participation would not only help alleviate his vivid, ever-worsening nightmares—in conjunction with weekly therapy, of course—but that it would also offer the best possible results for the experiments because his dreams were so vivid. In light of these factors, occasional tardiness and hangovers were tolerated.
Now, after several months of trial and error, Edwin found himself staring at a distinct image captured from the hidden realm of dream—the image of a man, standing in a sort of mist or smoke, his eyes aglow.
* * *
Edwin appeared at the doorway of Jen’s office around one o’clock, holding a bottle of cheap champagne and two disposable cups. Jen looked up and swallowed a bite of her sandwich.
“Edwin! Where’d you go, man?” She shoved a romance novel beneath a messy pile of papers. A few breadcrumbs tumbled from her lower lip. “Don’t you realize how creepy it is around here when no one’s around? I thought you were going to run another test before lunch.”
“I did, but this time I wanted to surprise you.”
Jen put her sandwich down and glanced at the champagne. “What’s that, the secret ingredient for perfecting the serum?”
Edwin released two quick grunts that more or less qualified as his laugh. “No, not exactly.”
“Good news then! Well pop that sucker and tell me all about it.”
The cap was popped, the champagne poured. Jen took her cup, and Edwin lifted his own, saying, “Well, it’s been five long years, but today—”
“So the serum’s at optimal performance? And you got a focused image in proper color?” Jen’s face lit up like a cat watching sparrows at a birdfeeder.
“Yes. Coupled with a larger injection, the upgraded serum worked perfectly. An image from Jim’s most recent dream came through crystal clear: his father again, though a bit monstrous this time.” He paused. “Hmm. It’s unfortunate he hasn’t been able to shake off these nightmares about his father. They’re getting worse, I believe.”
Jen nodded sympathetically.
“At any rate, everything syncs up now: the serum, the scanner implant, Jim’s electrochemical activity. The latest calculations are the magic formula, and we’re getting an image every three and a half seconds. When Jim returns from lunch we’ll do a full run, capture an entire dream cycle without interruption.”
“That’s wonderful, Edwin. We’ll get hundreds of successive images!”
“And, the first usable dataset for our big paper.” Edwin raised his cup and nodded. “We’ve done it, Jen. Here’s to us. Here’s to dreams.”
“Cliché, Dr. Aserinsky, cliché,” Jen said, clipping his cup, “but I’ll play along.”
Edwin raised an eyebrow, hesitant to drink. “Hmm, we should probably keep our heads clear,” he said, setting his cup on a nearby shelf crammed with scientific journals. Jen raised her cup even higher. “Ah, to hell with it, we deserve it.” She winked at Edwin and gulped down the champagne.
A deep, scratchy voice came from the doorway. “What do we have here, a celebration?”
Jen quickly wiped her mouth.
“Ah, Jim. Come in, come in,” Edwin said, gesturing with his arm.
A lanky man of thirty, with dark stubble and a prematurely aged face, staggered in through the doorway. His masculine presence filled the cluttered office.
Edwin clasped his hands together. “Glad to see you back. How was lunch?”
“Not par-tic-u-lar-ly interesting,” Jim said, glancing at Jen. He always looked at Jen, even when answering Edwin’s questions. “My headache didn’t take much of a break.”
“Hold on, I’ve got some aspirin,” Jen said, her voice more feminine. She bent to the lowest drawer of her desk, exposing cleavage. A glint came to Jim’s eye, one that gave the impression he was imagining her in fewer clothes.
“Nah, I’ll be fine,” he said, still watching Jen as she returned the aspirin to the drawer. “This is what I get for sitting at the bar all night.”
“Jim,” Edwin said, coming between them, “we’ve had an incredible breakthrough. We’re finally getting the results we’ve been hoping for! Just a few more sessions and we’ll talk about extracting that device from your secondary visual cortex. We—”
“My what?” Jim’s eyes and mouth slid down together, as if connected.
Edwin put a hairy-knuckled finger to the back of his own head. “Your secondary visual cortex, remember?”
Jim rolled his eyes. “Oh yea, that. Gotcha.”
“I know we’ve kept you in the dark for a long time now,” Edwin went on, “so as to not influence the experiments, of course, but very soon we’re going to let you in on all the details. We’ve made a magnificent breakthrough, and its implications are going to greatly impact the scientific community, if not the world.” He paused for effect. “Don’t be surprised if you find yourself quite the celebrity.”
“Celebrity?” Jim cracked his jaw, pointing at his head. “Visual cortex, the golden fucking egg, right?” He glared at the ceiling, “Hey dad, you catchin’ this? These scientists here are gonna make me rich and famous. Did you hear that? And you never thought I’d amount to a hill of snake shit, did ya.” He snorted to himself.
“You’re more than welcome to attend the conferences with us, too,” Jen said. “You know, to tell everyone how we forced you to be our guinea pig.” She looked at Edwin and then at Jim, a smile on her face.
“Ah, guinea pig,” Jim said. “I like that. Much cuter than an ol’ ugly lab rat, right?” He inflated his cheeks, widened his eyes, and scratched the stubble on his chin. Jen laughed over her hand to hide one of her bottom teeth, which was crooked.
Edwin stepped up to Jim and held out the sleeping pills he’d produced from his lab coat. The young man raised his arms in mock surrender. “Alright, alright! Jeez, you scientists—all work and no play.” He popped the pills into his mouth and swallowed them without water, then wriggled out of his black leather jacket and dumped it on a nearby chair. “I’m all yours,” he said, winking at Jen.
* * *
“Wake him up, wake him up!”
Edwin was pointing and shouting as he and Jen burst into the sleep lab. Electrodes popped off Jim’s head in all directions as he thrashed around the bed. Jen ran up to his side, only to be knocked away by a wild arm, her glasses slipping off and hitting the floor. “Stay the hell away from me!”
Edwin pushed down on Jim’s shoulders.
“You’re burning in hell, goddammit!” Jim raged on. “You can’t hurt us any—”
His eyes flew open. “What the hell!”
Sweat darkened his wavy hair.
“You were having a nightmare,” Edwin said, catching his breath. He let go Jim’s shoulders. “We’ve never seen you so upset.”
Jen retrieved her glasses and assessed the damage. There was a small vertical crack in one of the lenses.
“Are you okay?” Edwin asked her.
“Fine, fine.” He tugged nervously at the side of his beard. “That must’ve been some dream, Jim. You’ve never reacted like that during REM sleep before.”
Jen put her glasses back on. “I think we should call it a day.”
Edwin rested his hands on the back of a nearby chair. “Could this have been a side effect of the serum?”
“I don’t think so,” Jen said, “but I’ll look into it.”
Jim labored to sit up, his eyes furtive and glossed over. He shook his head, pursing his lips to release a loud exhale. “He’s coming for me. The fucker’s coming for me, and he ain’t gonna stop. I need to get the hell out of here. I need a drink.”
“That’s not a good idea, Jim,” Edwin said. “You need to take it easy for a few minutes. And who? Who’s coming for you? Your father?”
Jim squinted and slowly rolled his eyes up at Edwin. “You know what? Maybe you could do me the honor of leaving me the hell alone for awhile. Seriously, I don’t need a fucking therapy session right now.”
Edwin backed off. “Alright Jim, we’re going. Take as much time as you need. But come find us as soon as you’re ready. I’d like to conduct another test or two while we’ve still got you here. Okay?”
Jen shot Edwin a look, but the scientist had already turned to leave.
“We’re going to help you through this,” Jen added, putting her hand on Jim’s shoulder. “We’re going to help you get better.” The man shook his head and stared down at the floor.
* * *
Back in the main lab, the scientists prepared to scroll through a series of incoming images, each a digitized slice of Jim’s recent nightmare. Jen opened her notebook.
The first image revealed a woman bathing inside what appeared to be a very large, horizontally-severed cactus. “Oh my god, is that me?” Jen squinted at the screen. “Shit. How embarrassing.”
Edwin didn’t know what to say, so he remained silent on the matter.
Jen focused on the oversized breasts. “Well, at least he compliments me.” Her face reddened as she took notes:
IMG-5800: Dr. Jen Benson bathing nude inside top of large, horizontally-severed cactus in desert landscape.
IMG-5801: Water in cactus has turned red. Is this blood?
IMG-5802: Hundreds of fissures shooting out from base of cactus in all directions.
IMG-5803: Entire image appears to be engulfed in flame.
IMG-5804 to 5806: Dark box suspended in space.
IMG-5807: Inside a black room (inside box?), stars and galaxies visible through transparent floor, walls, and ceiling.
IMG-5808: Blurry, human-like figure curled up in far corner, heart and veins visible through skin, fire spread across bottom of transparent floor.
Jen pointed at the figure. “That looks like a child.”
Edwin pulled at his beard as he waited for the next image.
IMG-5809: Entire image has the appearance of fire again.
IMG-5810 & 5811: Bluebird on charred wooden floor in an odd “courtship dance”—its wings extended forward.
“This dream is much more vivid than his recent ones,” Edwin said, “and the symbolic imagery quite chaotic and random. Something very interesting is going on with Jim today.” He glanced at the video monitor. Jim still had his head drooped between his shoulders.
IMG-5812: Bluebird lifeless, its body twisted in two directions as if mutilated by invisible hands.
“Ew, that’s not nice.” Jen grabbed a can of soda off the table and cracked it open.
IMG-5813: Inside black room again, figure now standing in center, appears to be an adult, flames still visible beneath transparent floor.
IMG-5814: Figure closer, resembles a young Jim Coal, looks frightened, small gun in right hand, red gasoline can in left.
IMG-5815: Jim standing at edge of woodland with items from previous image.
IMG-5816: Entire shot composed of flames.
IMG-5817 to 5819: Jim smiling (maybe crying), floating in space with hundreds of white butterflies spiraling around him.
Edwin touched Jen’s arm. “Look at this one,” he said. “See the time here? This is when he got upset.” IMG-5820: Jim’s mouth open as if screaming, butterflies on fire, trees burning in background.
IMG-5821: Close-up of Jim Coal Sr. (Jim’s deceased father) taking up entire frame, eyes bright yellow with red pupils.
“This is turning horrific!” Jen said.
Edwin’s eyebrows shot up. “I know, it’s fascinating!”
IMG-5822 & 5823: Image blurry and unrecognizable.
IMG-5824: Another close-up of Jim Sr.’s face, seemingly angry.
IMG-5825: Image blurry and unrecognizable.
The images continued to switch between the blurry and angry close-ups of Jim Sr., representing nearly fifteen seconds of dreamtime.
IMG-5830 (last image before test subject woke up): Another close-up of Jim Sr.’s face, bordered by fire, mouth wide open and full of sharp teeth.
Jen dropped her pencil. The computer started beeping.
“Edwin, a new set of images is coming through!”
They both turned to the video monitor. Jim was thrashing around on the bed again. “Dammit! He must’ve dozed off.” Edwin jumped to his feet. “Jen, you stay here and get this data saved to the external hard drive, and keep recording the sleep lab. I’ll go help him.”
“Edwin, be careful!”
The scientist nodded and took off down the hall. Jen wheeled herself in front of the computer and clicked on the window of incoming images. The first revealed a dark, broad-shouldered figure in an ember-colored haze. The figure materialized as she clicked ahead, its close-set, red and yellow eyes seeming to glare through the receptors of the tiny scanner in Jim’s brain. The figure broke forward with each successive image, by degrees becoming the distorted physiognomy of Jim’s father. Then, without warning, it took on the gruesome aspect of an archetypal demon.
Jen gasped and knocked over her soda.
Trembling, she continued to click through the images, watching in horror as the creature lurched out of frame, then reappeared a few frames later dragging a person, dragging Jim, toward a now visible pit of fire. It raised the man high over its head, then tossed him carelessly into the pit with an image-by-image eruption of flame.
A long, terrible scream echoed from down the hall.
Jen jumped up. “What the—!”
Movement in the sleep lab caught her eye: there, in pulsating laboratory light on a blood-soaked bed, lay Jim’s contorted, lifeless body, a frayed hole where his face used to be. At his side, covered in sizzling chunks of gore, stood the hairless, seven-foot tall demon from his dream, wisps of steam rising off a naked, bluish gray body. Seething red and yellow eyes danced in their sockets, while black, human-faced worms slithered maggot-like around its limbs. A grotesquely oversized mouth, with lips rolled back to expose an overabundance of sharp teeth, snapped at the air. By the time it turned to the camera and spoke, Jen had already left her chair.
“Not for mortal eyes!” it snarled. And then, with a swipe of its hand, the video feed went to static.
“Oh my god—Edwin!” Jen ran to the door, peered sharply down the hall. There the demon burst through the swinging doors like a rogue tank, its muscular, bluish gray arms spread to the walls, fingers setting them ablaze. Edwin stumbled out behind it and fell to the floor as smoke billowed from the laboratory. Not seeing Jen, the demon entered another lab and could be heard destroying it. Jen bolted from the doorway and ran up to Edwin, who got to his feet and fell against her, clutching at her lab coat. “Our data!” he whispered harshly, balancing himself. “I’ve got to save our data!”
They sprinted back to the main lab, their voices hushed.
“Edwin, we need to get out of here! That thing’ll kill us!”
“No, Jim’s the one it came for. It didn’t touch me!”
“What the hell is it?”
“Jim’s father. Something. I don’t know. It just burst out of him and grew. From where, I don’t know. But we’ve seen too much, Jen. We’ve seen too much and it’s going to destroy everything!” He peered down the hall, his eyes frantic. “You get out of the building, call for help! I’ll grab the hard drive and catch up. Go!” He turned and ran into the lab.
The demon came up behind her.
As she spun around in defense, Jen lost her balance and fell against the computer table. The demon charged her like an angry hog, only to be blasted across the face with the expellant from a fire extinguisher. It was Edwin, flames rising up his arm from having brushed against the creature. Jen shot to the right and maneuvered along the wall, holding her breath as waves of heat assaulted her from the doorway. There she paused beneath the billowing smoke as sprinklers rained over the roaring flames.
Edwin ripped off his lab coat and made a second dash for the computers. The demon, now a few steps ahead, pulled the human-faced worms off its body and flung them at the equipment. Wriggling, they burst through the hardware with their grotesque heads and slithered inside, sending out sparks and smoke from the holes.
The demon spun around, sneered, got down in the man’s face. “Not for mortal eyes,” it hissed, inhaling hot saliva through its blue-gray teeth. Then, with a sharp crack of its jaw, the voice turned into that of Jim Sr.: “Tell anyone what you saw today, and I’ll haunt you and that fucking whore for the rest of your lives. Got that?”
Edwin turned from its sulfuric breath and coughed. The demon laughed repulsively, then stepped past him and slogged its way back through the smoke-filled hallway to Jim’s body. There it shrank and climbed into what remained of the man’s splattered head.
Meanwhile, Jen groped her way back to Edwin, locked arms with him as they sped toward the back exit. Moments later they stumbled from the building into the flashing lights of emergency vehicles. When the paramedics came running, she pulled Edwin close.
“Only keep the data prior to this afternoon,” she said quickly, her voice trembling. “Okay? Destroy the rest!” Coughing, she pulled the hard drive out of her lab coat and pushed it into Edwin’s hands. He stared at it blankly.
“Promise me!” Jen snapped.
Edwin flinched, his fingers gripping the device. “You did it, Jen! You saved our data!” His face and beard were covered in soot.
“Promise me,” Jen repeated, still coughing. She locked onto his bloodshot eyes, tears in her own as she thought about Jim. “Because what if next time, that awful thing comes for us?”
Edwin watched as long arcs of water disappeared into the glowing inferno of the research building, smoke rising into the passing clouds. He managed a tired but affirmative nod. “I promise,” he said, placing a hand on Jen’s shoulder. She smiled weakly, and they embraced.
As the paramedics pulled them apart and helped them onto the ambulance, Edwin grew silent and clutched the hard drive tightly against his chest. At no point did he feel the black worm coiled around his left shin.
First published in Issue 5 (June 2014) of Disturbed Digest.