He lay alone in the house they had made together, burning.
It had started as just a cough and nausea, but before long, he’d awakened on Sunday morning with a temperature, sweating bullets. He had called in sick to work and dragged himself to the fridge to get orange juice and oranges and whatever else he could remember you were supposed to get. Actually, he couldn’t remember anything good, except oranges and the juice that comes from oranges. She would have been able to tell him what to eat.
Bread. Bread because it didn’t taste too bad on the way out again. And there was a lot of that happening. All of Sunday he sat watching Netflix and eating bread and oranges, and throwing up bread and oranges. Water? She would have told him to drink lots of water a day. Eight glasses. Or cups? Was there a difference.
He woke up early on Monday because he had forgotten to turn off his alarm. He awoke soaked with sweat. A sick feeling in his throat, his gut. His head pounding, hot. He groaned and whacked his phone with his hand until it stopped ringing. Nine minutes later the snooze alarm went off, and this time when he slept, it was different.
The first of the newest fever dreams. The ones he hadn’t had in years so that he’d forgotten what they were like, but these ones seemed to have grown older and wiser with him. A long corridor with too many doors, dark and encrusted with dream logic. A corridor that he walked through for far too long. Time beyond time. Nobody lived behind the doors. Or was he really certain of that?
When he awoke, he was disoriented and reached for her. His hand on a cold fat pillow. Where there should have been coils of black hair. Or grey hair, had it been, at the end? He remembered and lay flat on his back, eyes closed. Running over all the details of her that he could remember in his mind. Were they becoming fewer? He hoped not. He feared so. How can one stop that long volcanic flow of forgetting? That flow that leaves smooth round tunnels bored in the rock of the brain. Where she had once burned through.
He got up and looked at pictures of her on his iPhone, which his granddaughter had showed him how to use, but which he didn’t really know how to use. He pawed his way to the fridge and drank orange juice, standing, from the carton. Ate bread, gruellingly. Then he went back to bed and thought about sleeping, though he didn’t really want to revisit the tunnels inside his brain.
But he did sleep, of course. And saw the old house he had grown up in, his parents’ house, waist deep in water beside a long grey beach, the windows yawning open like the jaws of lampreys. And inside, corridors upon corridors and bleak, dusty staircases. And so many rooms, and these rooms were occupied, each of them, by creatures he had known, but whose faces were long gone. Now there were only the low moans they made in the dark.
But in the backyard, he found her. And the sun was there. How could it be there? She was on a tire swing. He saw her face.
Then he woke. Blind, practically, reeling in a sea of sheets. Hard to tell the sweat from the tears. And the sweat was everywhere. He was soaked to the bone, his sheets and clothes no less wet than if he’d been swimming in them. Thirsty, he extended a trembling hand and took his glass of water and drank greedily.
Limned by sunlight, as she had been. Every detail just as it had been in life. How? How was that possible? For light to shine upon her face once more?
It was four in the afternoon. He got up and stumbled to the bathroom, his skin hurting. His hair hurting. He vomited in the toilet and then looked at himself in the mirror, a grey, weather-worn man. He drank more water and forced down some dry bread. He mused that at this rate, he might have to take another day off work.
He went back to bed, this time with no reluctance, and slept, and dreamt again.
Reptiles in a long concrete ditch. The innumerable legs of insects and spiders in the corners of badly lit kitchens. Tongues, long and black, flicking over the horizon of the world like the sky was a mouth ready to close on him.
He woke in darkness, frigid, completely soaked again, shivering. He was cold; everywhere he moved his body, he was cold and wet. He curled into fetal position and slept again.
Now came the sun in a green garden. With the dew heavy upon drooping leaves. A garden from his memory, or made up of all the gardens he’d known. The flowers, all of the ones that she had loved, but whose names he did not know. She had known them all. It was here he saw her again, as young as when they had met, and it was here that she spoke to him for the first time, in this place. She said his name, and he had never heard it said quite like that before.
When he woke up again, he didn’t know the day. It was dark out, and the clock said six. But six in the morning or six at night? It was winter and it was growing dark early. He looked at the clock for a long moment, the slender red digits losing meaning and becoming shapes.
There were the dreams where there was light, and the ones where there was none. What was the difference? And how to find the ones in the light? All he knew was it was the first time he had seen her face in eight years, except in photographs. It was new. Like a new memory, not like simply remembering what she had been. It was like seeing her once more.
He took a sip of water and sat, bone-weary, on the edge of the bed, thinking.
Then he slept for what felt like weeks.
Sometimes he found her and sometimes he didn’t. Sometimes she was snatched away behind horrors and walls, separated from him through a haze of gloom. Echoes of her voice or her smell fading away down long hallways with no lights. But when he did find her, she was fresh, new. She had things to tell him, and she was always outside, in the garden, or in a meadow, beaded with rain.
He must have awakened several times in a row now and gone back to sleep each time. He had a vague impression of touching his glass to his parched lips and finding no water inside it. He was not sure when he had last eaten, but he didn’t really think about it. He woke shaking with cold, but in his dreams, he was warm now.
In moments of lucidity, he thought he was trying to find her permanently. To dwell only in the dreams in sunlight. To land each time in the proper place. Could there be a trick to it? Each time he awoke it was dark outside, or appeared to be. He wasn’t sure if day had come and gone, and come and gone again, or if the world had gone permanently dark. Gradually the waking world grew darker and the dreams grew brighter. As though he dreamed more vividly than he lived. When he dreamed, he forgot that he was alone in a room with his eyes closed, burning away inside his own brain.
When he saw her next, she was sad. Or bittersweet. She looked at him with reluctant eyes and touched his arm.
He told her that he had to be here when it was time. He had to find her and hold her. He had to be in the right one.
She said it wasn’t time, but he said that it wasn’t up to him. He just had to find the right dream.
He was fighting through the nightmares with a new strength, and now his waking moments were just snatches, memories of pain and weakness. As he grew weaker in reality, in the dreams he could leap and bound where he pleased. Battering down the walls of mazes with his bare hands and shattering them with a shaft of sunlight from his heart. Wrought-iron graveyard gates sloughed and melted white-hot before him.
Then he fought through a last grey thistle, breaking from the ash desert, leaving the mire behind him, and found that he had forced his way through to a place of clarity where he could see and perceive. He no longer had any sense that in another world, he lived behind closed eyelids.
She was there on the beach before him, waiting with a picnic, watching the breakers roll in, below the huge white clouds and the calling of seagulls. He knew that this time he could stay forever.