Pic credits: Quinn Dombrowski https://goo.gl/xvum4C

Nyx tapping the heel of one trainer against the toe of the other. A chrome chain attached to his jeans pocket swings in time with his heartbeat. Big headphones with soft pigskin cushions over his gelled bleached hair, playing what? Some early folk-metal demo tape, Finntroll maybe, the beat sluggish, the cassette motor sticking and dragging the sound out. He’s wearing wraparound sunglasses that reflect the rest of the room: an old man with a piercing through his septum, plastic blinds thrumming in the hot breeze, a TV angled in a corner showing a line of dancing children dressed in yellow silk. He tells Diane that he wants to go. She puts her hand in his, squeezes it. When his number is called the guy on the reception desk (lipstick: Grenadine, Bobbi Brown) stares up at him a moment too long. “Hey, it’s Nyx,” he says. “Hey, I’m a fan. The Cephalopod Lounge, right? Phastijium? I used to go to all those places. Love your work, man. Seriously, big fan.” Nyx has learnt to adopt an aloof passivity in these encounters. The receptionist raises a fist expectantly. Nyx must reciprocate. When they bump, their rings clink together. “It’s not the same now, man,” the receptionist says. “I’m old school. Not the same any more, the whole scene’s dead. It’s all CG. Give me you and SiriuS any day.” Dream anticipation: how the receptionist will realise that Nyx in this airport-handy Lat Krabang brain joint is indicative of a certain hardening of circumstances. Diane drumming her fingers on the plastic desk top. She’s wearing white lace gloves like she’s in a Madonna video. “Can we get on with this?” she says. Finntroll or whoever rip out a very fast mandolin solo. The A string buzzes against the fretboard. The receptionist frowns into his monitor. “Sliver … sliver extraction, oh.” Messy expressions bleeding into each other: confusion, masked shock, practised and measured concern. “That OK?” Diane says. The receptionist smiles. His lipstick blisters. “No problemo, loved his work.”

At first he couldn’t read inside dreams. There were things recognisable as words, but which he couldn’t resolve. He taught himself to focus on the blackness of the line, the squirming boundary between ink and bare page, to squeeze the life out of it. From there to the letters, relearning the alphabet, sounding out phonemes in his mind’s ear. Words came slowly, then in a rush, uncoiling in chains of meaning. Now he can select a book and read enough to give him pause, some subtle truth to mull in the dreamworld.

Along the rear wall of The Cephalopod, rows of ruby octopuses. Their tanks illuminated from below in fluorescent colours that cycle to the audio: a deep-bass sawtooth which switches between 39 and 41 Hz every time Nyx’s heart beats and is supposed to affect the molecular structure of the brains of the sleepers, those dancing or just swaying, and the hardcore laid out on the beds, naked with electrodes suckered on their chests and the shaved parts of their heads. Sleepers sip cocktails containing naturally-occurring organic hallucinogens. The octopuses are all implanted too, their skin blanching a delicate almost invisible white before blushing like dark wine. They’re getting Nyx’s dream and outputting weird cephalopod brain activity of their own. The sleepers can dial up the blend using code words written into their implants. Nyx walks among them in a leather trench coat that flares behind him. He’s sleeping too. He runs his fingertips along forearms drenched in sweat, across parted lips, smooths closed eyelids. He tells them he loves them. “You are loved,” he says. “Feel the love. Embrace love. Seed love. The universe despises, but the dream loves.” People are crying, laughing. They will talk about this gig for the rest of their lives.

At night he reads a lost chapter of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, published as a cloth-bound chapbook not obtainable through conventional bookshops; it can only be “found” by those who need it most. Nyx picked his copy out of a trash can on Venice Beach and there’s still sand between the pages. It is entitled “A Curious History of the Hyperdreamers”. He marks passages in red pencil. And when we learned to distribute dreams amongst us, we understood that dreamers are not equals. The visions of the guilty are delectable; of killers, the most sublime. In his dream Nyx can read the original Latin. According to Lucretius, the hyperdreamers lived in secret compounds where they grew herbs to sustain their wakefulness while dreaming. They committed suicide at thirty.

He’s famous for his textures. He can dream the raised roller stipple on a painted wall, the teasing silky fibres of rice paper. A plain wooden box in a Nyx dream has dents and scratches from years of use; more than that, you can recall them happening in some fuzzy memory you’re barely aware of, the box falling from your fingers in a room you’ve never been in, stooping to pick up toys you’ve never touched but which you can remember buying from a shop that never existed. If you catch a leaf in a Nyx dream – which you will, it’s a motif – you’ll feel the spiky down of countless hairs and the smooth waxiness of the cuticle beneath, if you want to. And you will want to because Nyx drives your motivations hard. His dreams pilot your desires, make you want things and then give them to you, make you understand that the falling leaf is a symbol of the banality of death or of a life lived to a purpose and now properly discarded.

The ball bounced down the street towards him. A circle of red that grew exponentially. Cheap plastic moulding, areas of thinness translucent. He jumped and held on to it. This was the first dream he remembered. Once on the ball he found he could run along the surface scratches. He was shrinking until he was no bigger than an atom and finally he fell through the latticework of the plastic, inside the ball, into a universe of red light. Within the light he was able to make out shapes, though he couldn’t see them. A classroom. He sat at a desk and began to read. The light had a pure sound of three separate tones. He could eat the light and it tasted of freshly-moulded cheap plastic. The ball was from the real world. When he woke he found it and showed it to his mother and told her about the dream.

Sometimes Diane is French Canadian, sometimes British. Whenever they visit a new city, she says she grew up there and knows secret back alleys that cut past the tourists. Often he can’t see her directly. She’s just to the side or behind him. He gets a glimpse of mint-green hair, of red eyeliner. He’s learnt to stop looking because it upsets her and she can throw a sulk that lasts several days. She holds him at night when he’s dreaming, whispers to him, knows how to bring him half out of the dream without waking him so that she can join him, ride his dream for a while. Their implants are linked, their bodies knotted together. Sometimes she goes away for weeks at a time and he doesn’t know where or why or who with. If he tries to talk about it they argue, she in a guttural Quebecois. Her skin smells of a particular early-nineties shower gel that he can’t remember the name of. It is so intimately linked with his own smell that if he puts his wrist to his nose and breathes in he can imagine her beside him and recollect the subtle and fleeting sensations of her presence.

The usual checks no longer work for him. He spreads his fingers and counts them. He taps the desk, running a fingernail along the grain, testing the solidity of the wood. He picks up a coin, a penny, checks the date of minting – 1982, the discolouration is appropriate – and drops it. Gravity is sluggish in his dreams. Or there are lapses, tiny fragments of motion that seem to be missing in the fall. But everything is proper here, has the solidity of real life. The coin bounces and spins in the air like an acrobat.

Glare edging into vision, dawn after a sleepless night prepping for a gig. Sleepless days, saturating yourself on the raw material of the dream, on surfaces, textures, shadows. Reading Bishop Berkeley and Carl Jung. Watching Terminator on a loop, Fellini’s , Scooby Doo episodes, nature documentaries. Sleepless nights: fighting to stay awake, popping Dexedrine every couple of hours, microdoses of LSD, tiredness like a cleaver cutting through your consciousness, leaving each thought sharp-edged and pristine, and sometimes you settle into the spaces left between thoughts, into the white empty rooms, the featureless landscapes, to approach the state that is a sort of waking sleep.

Diane’s delicate white hand small in his. The surgeon shows slides of brain regions and blood flow, explains about the bloated hippocampi found in hyperdreamers, the state-of-the-art surgical tech with its ability to observe the cells active in dreaming, to isolate them. “Slivers.” He lowers his voice and talks in euphemisms about their value on the dark web, hyperdreamer slivers especially. “College kids splice this shit into their brains now. Crazy and not exactly legal.” A shrug. “In most territories anyway.” “He just wants to stop dreaming,” Diane says. The surgeon nods. “We can do that.”

For a while he and SiriuS had mashed dreams together. Contrasting styles. SiriuS’s dreams were clean: perfect gradients, precise aural loops, stripped-down surfaces arranged on mathematical grid structures. Watching SiriuS sleep was like observing some delicate new-born cub, a scrawny mass of bones and taut skin lacking muscle, his head gargantuan. He twitched and murmured, outward motion belying inner stillness. SiriuS’s dream fed into Nyx’s and that fed back into SiriuS’s and so on, sometimes through ten or fifteen iterations. But people got bored of mashes, same as they got bored of everything. And besides, SiriuS was too chaotic, would arrive late, drunk, dexed up or just plain not tired.

At the Phastijium, bodies writhing all over him, tongues on his naked torso, lips leaving slug trails of saliva. Thirty thousand sleepers all REM shaking and jogging, their limbs not their own, swaying mysteriously in sync, strobe lights cutting movement into slices like dream lapses. Clouds of weed smoke, the hot musk of pheromones and sweat. The strange communion of sleepers, the naked bodies, the pallid drenched skin. He steers his wakefulness back into a dream, a transition dream of speeding over water, breaking the surface with his fingers and making a V of spray which deepens, solidifies, becomes the slopes of a sunken path, beech trees budding overhead, dawn sun coppering the underside of the old leaves, making them shine like pennies. Accelerating, gliding round the corners on a blood-red Suzuki hoverbike, the frame shaking so hard he has a job holding it straight. He zips out of the forest on a strip of road through farmland, heading towards a mass of towers in the distance. Her hands on his torso, long shellacked fingernails digging into this skin. He normally keeps Diane out of performances but knows somehow that it’s impossible to steer her out of this one. She’s shouting in his ear, begging to be let go. They pass below towers of stained concrete with mirrored windows reflecting the neon signage at street level. They swerve between vehicles, pristine sports cars driven by models with slicked-back blonde hair and all wearing the same shade of lipstick (Crush, Bobbi Brown). Time slows on the swerve so the sleepers can admire the precision of everything: the steam rising off the engine, the heat haze, how the dew lenses the neon, the millimetre clearance between the bike and a special-edition Lexus Hybrid, piano-black, deep shine. “What is this video game shit?” Diane yells. “Fans need servicing,” he says, and the sleepers chuckle knowingly. Nyx is skidding to a stop beneath a vast oak. A leaf detaches and seesaws on the updraught from the bike’s exhaust. Thirty thousand hands reach up to catch it.

He’s in a long corridor, a bare 40-watt bulb swaying ahead of him. The walls are industrial pastel green (RAL 6019), peeling in strips where there’s been water ingress. A hum of insect activity coming from a ventilation panel. He places his ear against it. A ladybird crawls out of a crack in the plaster, vibrant cochineal wings like tiny shellacked nails, the colours queasy against the green paint. He chips at the plaster. Ladybirds fall to the floor in wriggling clumps, fly in confused spirals towards the light. He opens the doors which line the corridor. Dark silent rooms. It would be a mistake to enter, would counteract some deep rule of the dream, and this is the wrong dream for rule-breaking. A dry chuckling. SiriuS’s nervous squeaky giggle. SiriuS behind one of these doors, moving from room to room. Nyx starts again, stepping over the ladybirds, methodically leaving the doors ajar so that eventually there’s only one left. The laughter stops. A cell behind the final door, bare concrete walls. A high barred window admits a chute of sunlight and swirling dust. SiriuS is squatting in the middle like it’s his personal spotlight, a large shaved patch on the left side of his head, an old incision with crusts of dried pus on the stitches. He’s wearing a Tupac T-shirt with bloodstains around the neck. He looks up at Nyx. “Who’s that?” he says and bares his teeth. There are dry sores around his mouth, glossy dribble on his chin. His tongue seems too big, like some vestigial organ which now encumbers his speech. “Who’re you, mate? And how deep you in?”

The doctor pushes a form across the desk. “Acknowledgement that we’ve outlined the risks, sign there, next to the cross.” Thin pink and yellow carbon copies beneath. Diane’s head on his shoulder. “No more dreams,” she says. “And sign to give consent here.” The doctor indicates with his middle finger, nicotine stained, the nail cut to a point.

Diane kissing his fingers, her hair falling on his hands, her face hidden. She’s telling him how they first met, but the story keeps changing. Eventually she settles on some sleazy dream bar on Saint Catherine where she was working as a hostess and he was looping sex dreams for American businessmen. “Was it romantic?” he says. “No, it was nothing special. We just liked each other. Afterwards we walked down to the river, you remember?”

He’s conscious and no one seems to care. They trim square patches of hair on both sides of his skull. A nurse shaves them with a safety razor, wiping the cream and stubble on a towel across her shoulder. The surgeon spins around in a motorised wheelchair, drilling tiny guide holes in each patch then sawing from hole to hole, laughing and smoking a joint laced with some evil strain of heroin. He parks the joint between Nyx’s lips and makes an incision on three sides, prizes the bone free so that it hangs down on a flap of skin. When they take the first sliver of hippocampus, Nyx clutches Diane’s hand. It’s the only thing he’s got. Fear starts to pulse through him. He’s falling but his body stays where it is. He braces himself, but his waking is easy, slipping down a chute into the world, his landing soft. He’s in a hotel room with the glare of harsh morning light through a gap in the curtains, his body drenched in sweat. Diane stirs beside him, dark hair messy on her shoulder, a different Diane. He remembers all the solid details of his life. Diane turns towards him but her face is covered with hair. She reaches with her fingers and closes his eyes, and he wakes with his head on a desk, a copy of The Tempest open in front of him, eyes still heavy with sleep. Late afternoon, Thursday, summer. The walls peel away to reveal day-glo colours, but these peel too. He’s stuttering through dreams, falling. He wakes at the wheel of a car that is too small for his bulk, speeding into the back of a flat-bed lorry, crashing through the wall of The Cephalopod into a sprawl of sleepers, all executed with a single bullet to the forehead. Cuttlefish squirming on the wet floor tiles. Falling into the perfect circle of a bullet hole with its petals of ragged flesh. Jolting quickly through a series of waking dreams like cards flicked from a magician’s hand: waking in beds, corridors, on trains, in rooms he doesn’t remember ever falling asleep in. Dreams cascading into dreams. With every startled jolt awake he undoes something of himself. In this orgy of awakening, entire lives are erased and forgotten. Diane whispers goodbye. He wakes on a sunbed on the Adriatic with an inexplicable sense of loss. The dreams unravelling so quickly that his eyes seem to blink awake in delicate slo-mo while the world mutates. Then, suddenly, empty space: silence, a vastness which contains only his flailing arms and a speck that grows inexorably. A vast surface hurtling towards him. A leaf.

A monochrome world: walls, sheets, a cupboard, a jug of water, sucked of colour. There’s a clock on the wall above him and the interval between ticks remains constant. Tick. Hours. Tick. Days. Nurses come and take readings. If he stares long enough at the objects around him, he detects within the greys faint hues, remembrances of colour.

Tom Heaton

About Tom Heaton

Tom Heaton's stories have been published in Ambit, the Mechanics Institute Review, Confingo and Dream Catcher and have been performed by the Liars’ League. He was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize 2017. He lives in Hampshire.

Tom Heaton's stories have been published in Ambit, the Mechanics Institute Review, Confingo and Dream Catcher and have been performed by the Liars’ League. He was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize 2017. He lives in Hampshire.

Leave a Comment