I saw the first one in early January. A thaw had made slush from the rimes of ice. Towers of dirty snow still sopped in wet piles around town. Christmas lights remained on a few trees and rooftops. I noticed that she had no eyes; that’s how I knew of course. The woman who blocked my way as I exited the spiced warmth of the coffee shop nursing my latte was eyeless.
I finished my submission earlier in the day to a smaller, lesser-known cog-psych conference Holloway was chairing. He’d eat up a whole weekend with fish neurons, but if I could have my presentation ready it would be a good place to dry run it before I took it to a bigger conference.
I didn’t touch her, thank God, although who knows how; I should have just bumped into her, somehow I didn’t. Was she solid? The eyes that weren’t there, empty sockets staring wetly back at me, red as if someone had just pulled the orbs out. Those sockets and their wet shadows suggested that she was matter. She was looking at me from inside those empty spaces, I could feel her gaze. She turned then and walked away. The drugs weren’t working. I had been very cautious with them. Sertraline. Buprenorphine. Paroxetine, phenobarbital, a very careful and considered combination, only specific amounts, only as I needed them. To stop dreaming when I had to.
She was a half-awake dream. No possible way she was real. I remembered dreaming her in the lab: She was a dream, nothing more or I should say ‘another’ dream. I had crossed a line. I was dreaming while I was awake, though usually these types of hallucinations were auditory, this one clearly was not. A new problem, and the drugs weren’t working to stop it. An alpha state can encourage a vivid recollection of a prior dream, so that was a possibility, or some medication interaction. I had seen her there in the doorway to the coffee shop, clearly, and eyeless women didn’t walk around coffee shops; so she was a dream. I prefer that to the term ‘hallucination’.
When you dream, your eyes of course see nothing because they are closed. But the brain thinks it does, it behaves as if it does. The operation of dream visualization is like sight, even in the blind. My work for many years has centered on this activity; the visual cortex during phases of sleep. Others in cognitive psychology have done foundational work, developing proxies for the content of dreams; machine learning algorithms hovering over databases, matching brainwave patterns recorded by a fully awake subject’s visual processing to the same patterns if they occur in sleep. These A to B mappings can result in useful research.
All interesting work. All by scientists I respect, but mine is different.
In sight, the brain creates an ‘image’ from stimuli received first into the eye, then converted to signals in the optic nerve. My research surrounded reversing the process. Taking visual cortex information and turning it into discrete signals, interpreting these with software I’ve designed, and then outputting them. Photographing dreams, is what a grad student called it last year, and I adopted the shorthand. Sure. I was photographing dreams. I was the only human subject thus far. I wouldn’t allow another, due to the nature of the work. One afternoon in the lab I dreamed of the eyeless woman I saw that January in the coffee shop blocking my way. The blurry image 202210091722-a, which printed on my LaserJet, and was stored in my online project files. I’d photographed my dream, and now I was dreaming her while I was awake.
I upped the phenobarbital and started using cannabis compounds to sleep on my regular—non-lab—sleep periods. I can’t say nights because often it was during the day when I could get real sleep for myself, rather than sleep for my project.
I never saw the eyeless woman again. I thought that was the end of it. My work progressed. The conference date neared. Holloway called, personally, his nasal Appalachian twang the last thing I wanted on my phone. Yes, work was nearly completed. Yes, I’d be ready for the conference. Yes, a first-up slot on Sunday was fine. That was the lowest attendance slot, and he knew it. We hung up. Holloway acts like his little get together in Atlanta is the annual Stockholm Lectures for Christ’s sake. But I was ready.
It was only early that morning, so early that it was the night before, that I had done it again. Photographed another dream.
Children. Children who followed me, that’s what I dreamed. They did have eyes, coated and empty, their cheeks blank and soft. In the dream I could never get away from them, one of those dreams where you can’t run fast enough. People call it a stress dream. I awoke in a spasm of myoclonic jerk, sweating, struggling to inhale. I’d only been asleep for moments. I pulled off the electrodes and ran to the workstation and printer where I would find the output.
202302241777. A JPEG image sequence, many of which were muddled indistinct shapes, but -jj, the thirty-sixth, was the children. Black and white, statistically inferred pixels.
I did it.
Holloway was going to bring up his cognitive bias arguments, that the only verification possible for the images was from the person who supposedly dreamed them, the confirmation bias. Fuck Holloway. I did it.
I drove home early that evening, not long after I spoke to him on the phone. I stopped at a liquor store, parked around the back. I’d been working long hours, odd hours, for months now and if there was a time to celebrate this was it. I had low enough levels of the drug cocktail in my system; besides I deserved it. Vodka. An expensive Swedish import. Thinking of Stockholm later in the year, I cradled the bottle in its paper sack. Outside, a late winter chill turned the fading daylight blue. I turned the corner to the parking area, and the five children were coming my way down the sidewalk. Twenty yards away, their pace insistent, seeking, hands out searching. Their clothes were plain, homespun broadcloth, too tight at once and too large, their clean faces pasty, without expression. Slack mouths slightly open, lips wet and undulating, a sound escaped, like a hum. Like bees.
The bottle slid from my grasp as I turned and ran. I heard the crash when it broke but I was already halfway down the next block, the primal scream of the nightmare coming back, taking over, autonomic blood-tang in my mouth, the coil of dark winding tighter in my middle, reaching up, choking me, closing off my sight. I stopped, panting and exhausted. I wasn’t in great shape for my mid-fifties, and this was all I could do. I looked back the way I’d run. There were no children. Just early evening on a Friday. Cars, streetlights, a couple of stores closing and a gay bar opening up into the fresh night, pulsing music out to the dusk.
I got another bottle of the Swedish vodka. I was going to drink some of it, frozen cold, and I was going to sleep. I wasn’t going in tomorrow. And I wasn’t going to dream anything. I hesitated before turning the corner to the parking lot again. But the sidewalk was empty. Just the sad pile of wet paper bag and broken glass from the first bottle. I pushed it aside and went to my car.
I almost didn’t notice them. The tiny handprints that covered my car door. Pink sodium glare from the streetlamp hit the gloss black paint and pulled the prints up like a Polaroid. All across the door, the handle, the driver’s side window. Small, waxy handprints, matching lefts and rights, repeated over and over.
Hands searching, for a way in. Searching for me.
Chris Grebe is a freelance writer living in Birmingham, Alabama in the US. His work was recently published in Every Day Fiction. He is an IT executive in his other life and dabbles in mining and industrial archaeology.