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Week #8: Creative Writing Challenge – Fast Friends

February 28, 2021

Write a story about two people meeting during unusual circumstances and becoming fast friends.

Photograph: Simon Frazer/SPL/Getty Images

The chair was digging into my back and making me fidget. I tried not to, but the man up in the front of the auditorium had been droning on for what felt like an eternity, and I was getting anxious. My mind flitted between thoughts at a million miles a hour. Had I really turned the stove off this morning after breakfast? Had I locked the car? What if my rent check bounced? What uncomfortable thing would my boss say to me next? Would my mother forgive me after I verbal diarrhea-ed on her last week? Why had I left my apartment this morning in the first place? What was I doing here?

“Dreams are a window into your unconscious. We need dreams to function in our waking lives. They help us deal with emotions, process events, increase creativity, and allow us to prepare for stressful events that could occur.” the man lecturing from the stage boomed out across the filled auditorium. He continued, “You have all been identified to be in the early stages of the disease that has been ravaging our world, Sigmund Syndrome. Left to its own progression, the disease has taken away the ability of hundreds of millions to dream and has resulted in a huge jump in mental illness, a total collapse of many creative industries, and social and political unrest across the world.” He paused for a dramatic effect. As I tried to figure out how he would get all us “unstables” on board, I realized that his flare for the dramatic had worked. He had my full attention.

“In the early stages of this disease, people have a decreased capacity to dream, but still have the ability. If we can create dream environments that enhance the impacts of dreaming, or increase the capacity to dream, we could help to bring peace to millions. That is why you are here…” Another long and dramatic pause. “To save the world!” He finished, along with a tentative but hopeful round of applause.

I assumed all the other people in the auditorium were just like me. I had had some shit happen to me, but I was dealing with it. That is, until I wasn’t. Over the past couple of months my anxiety had increased ten-fold and I had a hard time keeping my emotions in check. It hadn’t occurred to me that I might have “Sigmund Syndrome”, SS for short, until my doctor asked me if I had been dreaming. I dreamed occasionally, but not like I used to. My doctor prescribed me some Xanax and some sleep meds, explaining to me that if I slept better or for longer that I’d end up in REM sleep more frequently, and maybe dream more. She also told me that there was no cure, and things would likely get a lot worse as the disease progressed. She told me to put my affairs in order before I couldn’t anymore. Scary.

My therapist suggested that I might be a good candidate for some new dream research and sent me to investigate. My therapist was an ass, but I put up with him because he kept signing my stability forms so I could keep working at my stupid secretarial job and paying my rent. I was bitter about my situation, a common topic with my ass of a therapist. I had been an engineer at Boeing until they found out that I had SS and then they dropped me like bad habit. I wasn’t doing anything groundbreaking, but I was satisfied and made a good salary. But they didn’t want to risk SS instability within their ranks, so I found a shit job that would pay my rent but didn’t care about SS as long as my stability forms were signed. The world sucked.

So here I was, in an auditorium filled with “unstable” people just like me that the world had shunned and were waiting to put them into the homes so they didn’t have to interact with us any more. Ugh. People sucked.

The man on the stage was talking again, “There are several experiments and simulations we will be running today. You have been divided into groups based on your intake forms. When your name is called, please go to the location seen on the screen behind me where you will get further instructions.”

When my name was called, I headed out of the auditorium and followed the map I had been given to the “Palmer” room. There were already about 30 people sitting in folding chairs waiting. I was surprised at the age range, but puzzled that most of the people in the room were men. Before I could ponder it more, a tall woman appeared from a door in the corner. Every set of eyes swiveled in her direction. She was commanding with her white lab coat, clipboard, and glasses. She was the quintessential hot medical stereotype in the flesh. A thought flashed across my mind; was I already dreaming?

“Good morning everyone, ” she said clearly and confidently. “Today we will be doing some dreaming studies with the help of magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI. I cannot answer any questions about the goals of the procedure, but I can tell you all about what to expect from the setup.” She went on to explain. Basically they were going to hook us up to some electrodes and then stick us in an MRI machine while we hopefully dreamed. It didn’t sound too difficult and if I got some good sleep it wouldn’t be a waste of time.

They took us all into separate rooms with our own MRI machines and arrays of electrodes and whole displays of flashing lights. The engineer in me took a moment to be curious, until the realist took over with the bitterness of knowing that I would never be an engineer again, so what would being curious ever get me. A nurse with kind eyes carefully placed electrodes all over my head with gloved hands. They were pretty sure that SS wasn’t spread by contact, but no one could be too sure. That little fact definitely made dating difficult.

Once I had been hooked up, they placed a pair of headphones over my ears and wished me a good nights sleep. As I slid into the MRI machine a brief flash of hope made me feel good about coming today. Feeling good was an unfamiliar feeling, and it surprised me to know that it was still possible in this shit of a world.

I couldn’t pinpoint when exactly I fell asleep or when I started to dream, but I suddenly found myself walking along a beach. Was this a dream? I felt myself starting to get anxious. A soft voice said, “Just try to relax.” It sounded like it came from everywhere and nowhere all at once, but just the reassurance made me a bit more calm. I was surprised that I had slipped into a dream state so readily. Had they injected me with something? The paperwork I signed let them do pretty much anything they wanted short of doing permanent damage. “Remember to take deep breaths if you start to feel anxious,” the voice reminded me. I suspected that I had been chosen for this experiment because I was one of about 10% of the population that had lucid dreams before SS. They said it would make it easier to gather results. Whatever.

Well, here I was at the beach. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do so I just started walking. Storms or natural erosion had created a wall of sand to my right. It looked ragged, like it could fall at any moment, like a bank getting eroded by a fast moving river. But then I noticed a line of conch shells at the bottom of the wall, suggesting that it was more permanent than it appeared.

“It’s beautiful isn’t it?” A voice suddenly asked. I whirled around to find the source of the voice, because this wasn’t the same soft anonymous voice as before. It was a decidedly male voice, and with a hint of kindness. About 5 feet away was a man, about the same height as me, but where I was white as an eggshell he was black as the night. His hair was close cropped and he appeared to be a bit lanky under his cargo pants and tan shirt. It was the shirt that really caught my attention. On it was a kiwi (the bird) being dissected and the inside showing a kiwi (the fruit). My engineering mind was instantly attracted to the notations around the figure and I was giggling in my head about the kiwi pun.

I gave the man a wide smile, already recognizing a kindred soul. “Yep. Love the shells. It looks so permanent, but as soon as the tide gets here it’ll just collapse. It’ll be like it was never here in the first place.” What the hell was I saying. I never opened up to anyone, let along a stranger. Dreaming. I reminded myself that I was dreaming.

“I’m Mark.” the man said.

“Will.” I responded. I nodded my head down the beach in a silent invitation to join me on a walk. As I looked down the beach I noticed a sand castle. A very real life-sized castle, all made of sand. Lots of people were milling about near the waters edge, looking like they were selling stuff.

“What an interesting piece of architecture.” Mark said as we stared at the creation. That sparked a great conversation about how the fully functioning drawbridge made out of sand might work and if the moat was replenished by the high tide every day. I told Mark about my engineering background at Boeing and he told me that he had worked for Northrop Grumman for a couple years before quitting to start his own small design business. Mark had been tired of the constant microaggressions of his coworkers and continually getting passed over for promotions, so he struck out on his own.

I found myself lost in conversation, never really getting nearer the castle in the distance. As the conversation waned, the castle appeared before us. I had always loved the way dreams were able to jump around in time and space. There was never any time wasted on transportation.

I had been correct about the people selling things on the beach before the castle grounds. Mark and I moved easily among the people and continued chatting about our lives. Despite both being engineers, we had very different lives. It was fascinating to hear Mark chat about his large and boisterous family, while he was in awe of the peacefulness of my small broken one. He had children, I had a cat. But for all the places we were different, it became clear that we had one big and overarching shared feeling; a feeling of being trapped in lives we had no control over.

A woman approached from the beach with a black box full of rings. “Take a ring to remember this day,” she told us both. I didn’t question her, just looked at the box and picked one that called to me. It was silver and was shaped into a tree that spread up past the first knuckle of my index finger. Mark picked one too, a collection of golden waves that spun in circles around his thumb. They were beautiful and we both thanked the lady and made to carry on, except that we suddenly couldn’t move.

Panic set in as my feet sank into the wet sand. At the same time, the ring on my finger expanded so that silver branches enclosed my whole hand and were slowly working their way toward my elbow. Mark was experiencing the same thing as waves encircled his bicep and started to creep toward the kiwi on his shirt. “What do we do?” I frantically asked Mark. “I have no idea. This is super freaky.” Mark responded while contemplatively studying the waves across his chest.

“Do you think we’ll be trapped forever?” Mark asked calmly.

I took a deep breath and considered his words. “Might be better than reality.” I responded with some snark in my voice. “At least we’ll have a friend if we get trapped.”

The gold and silver encompassed us both until it reached our necks and stopped. Mark and I were both quiet while we studied our predicament. I don’t know how much time passed; it could have been a couple of seconds or a couple of hours. It’s always hard to tell in dreams. Suddenly I giggled, almost hysterically. “Mind sharing?” Mark asked with a smile on his face.

“Well, we just spent who knows how long dishing our life secrets to a total stranger. We are so different, but we both feel trapped in our lives.” I paused for effect. “We feel like we have no control.” As I said it, I glanced pointedly from the neck down to indicate our current positions.

Mark stared at me and then started laughing hysterically. So did I.

I’d love to say that we worked through our darkest feelings and figured out a way to get un-trapped, but dreams are unpredictable and the laughter faded to the loud whir of machines as I was being rolled out of the MRI machine.

“Good morning Will. Did you sleep well?” The nurse from before asked kindly. “Pretty well. How long was I asleep?” I replied. I felt curiously rested and happy, which were both weird feelings for me. “You’ve been asleep for four hours.” She responded politely. I wasn’t sure I had slept that long at a stretch in the last 4 months. How glorious.

As I was being unplugged from the electrodes, the quintessential hot doctor strode in. “You did wonderfully, and we got some really great data. What do you remember about your experience?” She asked me. “I remember someone telling me to relax and to take deep breaths if I was feeling anxious. I’m guessing that was someone here trying to communicate with me. I remember being at the beach and talking to someone and there was a castle and a ring.” I shook my head trying to remember, as it all seemed to slip away. “Do you remember anything about who you were with or what you did specifically?” the doctor asked as she wrote notes on her clipboard. “No. Sorry. It’s all pretty fuzzy or already gone.” I told her. “Not a problem. I know you already told the nurse how you feel. Is there anything you want to add that you think we should know about?” She stared at me as I considered. Finally I just said, “I feel lighter than I have in years. Like everything sucks, but I’m not alone”.

“We would love to have you come back next week for another session. We will of course compensate you for your time.” With that she handed me a check, to which I could only nod. There were more zeros than I expected. While I stared slack-jawed at the check, the doctor nodded to the nurse and whispered “Five minutes”.

Five minutes later I was being led to the elevator at the end of the hall and left with a promise to see them next week. As I waited for the doors to close, a patient and nurse pair yelled from down the hall to hold the elevator. On instinct, I threw out my hand to trigger the elevator sensor and keep the door from closing. The pair jogged toward me and the patient joined me in the elevator.

The man was about my height with close cropped hair and dark skin. He appeared to be more lanky than muscular, but it was really his shirt that caught my attention. I smiled at him as I said, “Love the kiwi shirt. Where’d you get it?”

** This post was inspired by recent research that just came out about being able to have two-way communication with people who are lucid dreamers. Here is the summary NPR article and a link to the original article in the journal Current Biology. The figure is from the original article showing how researchers actually communicated with and interpreted responses from sleeping people. It was also pretty cool reading all the hypotheses about why people dream.

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