I sit at my desk, tapping my fingers as my leg trembles in an anxious panic for the day ahead. A week ago, I applied to be a subject for an experiment that is supposed to cure sleeplessness in adults. Night errors have kept me awake since adolescence, afraid to sleep or else the monsters of my grim imagination will torture me for what seems like hours, and when I die I awake to scream in a soaked bed. I cry until my alarm rings and reminds me that no matter what mental state I’m in; I exist in a world where I must go to work and perform to the best of my ability.
The application said to arrive today, any delay and the government will force me out of my home and rewrite me as a prisoner subject, which forbids anyone from leaving the facility after they completed their initial experiment. This experiment is risky considering a large percentage of volunteer subjects die before the scientists’ desired results, but desperation leaves me no choice. Food has not sounded appetizing in weeks; the shower water is too harsh for my bruised skin; my movement has slowed from the pain of walking or using my arms; every time I think, demons stalk in every image, even in childhood memories when I know they did not yet exist—this experiment could not come at a better time.
Last night, before crawling into bed to stare at the ceiling until sunrise, I put today’s outfit on to avoid a possible injury or the risk of not having enough energy to dress myself this morning. All it takes is a phone call to the lab and someone will pick me up. I dial the single-digit number to the lab on the phone on my nightstand; they already know it’s me. The operator lists a few available time slots. I choose the one at the bottom of the hour and sit and ponder until the doorbell rings.
It’s best to get it over with. No sense in pretending I have a list of family to bid farewell or friends to have one last night out with. The purpose of this experiment is to cure me so that one day I may experience human interaction without the need to explain why I haven’t slept in days or why I’m much paler and thinner than everyone else. It could take years before I have normal dreams again, and I might not be the same person in the end, however; years of debilitating migraines and falling asleep at random in public, above everything else, is no way to live. If I find a cure in death, at least it will be from helping myself rather than letting it kill me, or succumbing to my own dark thoughts.
Not a second later, the bell followed by my name and the driver announcing his presence is heard over the speaker box. No possessions needed. If I come out alive, these meaningless things will serve no purpose, as I will be reborn and free of my past.
The door to my home shuts behind me for what could be the very last time. A tall man in a dark brown trench coat and dark glasses shows me to the sleek black car parked on the street.
The sun’s warmth is tolerable on this day.
The quiet car ride ended in less than an hour. I was tempted to sleep but didn’t want to scare the driver with one of my random panic-induced screams. As I exit the car, the driver informs me that I am a part of group 12B. He waves goodbye and drives away, leaving me alone in the private lot. The laboratory’s vastness intimidates me; my hand trembles on the door handle, my thoughts second-guessing. A sharp buzzing noise erupts from the building, and without my doing, the door opens, unveiling a bright hallway. At the end of it is the receptionist, and like the phone call, they already know who I am and what I am here for. I am handed a dark blue and gray jumpsuit and told that if it does not fit, I will have to wait until another one is manufactured—the current one was made in reference to the measurements I wrote down on the application—and that I am free to enter the elevator at my convenience, so long as it is before the start of the next day.
Apparently, there are no bathrooms in the halls, only in the offices. The elevator is available to change in but at the cost of being watched by surveillance. I prefer privacy, however; I fear my privacy was compromised the moment I signed my life to this place. As the elevator doors close, I undress. It hurts like Hell to move so quickly. The suit has no zipper or buttons; it is a tight fit, cozy, and offers a coolant to the rising temperature. My body no longer aches and I feel relaxed; honestly, the best I have felt in years. If the suit is supposed to be the cure, the scientists have created a masterpiece. I can wiggle my hips and stretch my arms without excruciating pain, move my toes without the sensation of needles digging in my shins. Perhaps, the experiment will be a short one.
My nerves unsettle when the elevator comes to a stop. Dozens of tired and hollow eyes stare back at me as the doors open and the strangers’ chatter comes to an abrupt halt. I keep my head down, walk through the whispering crowd in search of a vacant standing spot. For once, it doesn’t hurt to brush against someone or lean on a hard surface. From this side of the room, I see every perplexed face. Loud conversations resume; it is difficult to pick out any concise words, and as much as I would like to ask these people what they’re doing here, the strange looks I received indicate this is not a social gathering. Although I am not the only loner, everyone appears to be in their own circle, which is perhaps for the best. We are not here to make friends but to get better. That should be my sole concern, too—getting better and leaving this place.
A voice speaks through an anonymous source and silences the room. “If you are in group 12A, please move to the left side of the room. If you are in group 12B, please move to the right. All of you participants have signed legal documentation forfeiting your bodies to this experiment. Once you have entered your respective chambers, you will enter a deep form of sleep called the dream state. It is a level beyond REM sleep in which you have more freedom of choice with your actions than in regular dreams. The purpose of this is to get to the root of your insomnia, which, from the statistics of your applications, is largely because of night terrors. The suit you are wearing is to stabilize your physical body in case you come across any difficulties while in the dream state. As you were informed of our policy, experiments can take months to years to complete and upon completion, surviving participants are more than welcome to return to society. The dead or severely injured will remain in the laboratory for further testing if necessary. This concludes the overview of the experiment. The conductors will meet with you shortly.”
There it is, “dead or severely injured.” No one is talking now. The reality is sinking in. We are all to make the ultimate sacrifice in search of a better way of life. With this suit on, I could run out of here, keep going and never look back. The consequences of being caught must be far worse than whatever they can do to me. I do as told and move to the right side of the room. We’re a smaller group than 12A, I wonder why that is. None of us bother to make eye contact or small talk. What is the point if the next step is a possible infinite slumber?
Not much time to ponder the information. The glass doors open, and in walks a small group of lab coats with their clipboards and pens at the ready. “Stay in your groups and follow us, please.”
The herd follows. We enter the freezing experiment room. The temperature is almost unbearable, but the scientists assure us it is to prevent the machines from overheating and we likely won’t experience it in the dream state. Each chamber is a dark green, narrow tub with wires and cables going from the walls of the tub into the glowing green glass floor.
“Please stand in front of the chamber that has the same number written on the inside of your sleeve,” says a woman from the other side of the large window towering above the experiment floor. “12A’s chambers on the left. 12B is, of course, on the right.”
“12B – #7” Mine is in the final row. I stand and wait for further instruction and try to be positive about the situation. Everyone else looks as lost and worried as I do. Their awkward smiles are filled with false hope and trepidation.
“Do not be afraid,” she continues. “What you are doing today will provide access to medicine specific to your affliction for future sufferers. If the experiment proves to be too much for you, your death will not be meaningless. All subjects, no matter how far you get in the process, help us get that much closer to a cure. Everyone deserves a good night’s rest, because without sleep we make mistakes, and not all mistakes are… reversible. We are going to free you from the suffering, one way or another.”
She’s right. My driver’s license was revoked a couple of years ago because I fell asleep at the wheel. The road was empty that night, so no one was hurt on my way to crash into the median. The fire department found me the next day, and I awoke in a hospital with a handcuff clasped around my left wrist and ankle. I was deemed a danger to myself and others, told I was to never purchase a vehicle or drive in the state, and forced to remain in my apartment under six months’ supervision. I never want to go through that again.
People in hazmat suits come from the back of the room to help us inside the vats. A warm liquid soaks my body. A few pricks in my arms and thighs relax me. The chamber glows red, then yellow, and bubbles form in the water as it rises. My original reaction is to reject this feeling, so close to sleep with fiendish spirits at bay, waiting for me to fall deeply asleep so they can chase me or taunt me. But now, I welcome sleep because I don’t have any other choice.
“Is this… the dream state?”
I awake in a world no different from the Hell in my nightmares. First, there is the pure darkness I must walk through. If I stand still, the darkness will last forever and I will never wake up, or the seething mouths of vicious demons will gnaw at my flesh and devour me alive. I fear the third death, so I run, run until the red sun rises and shrouds the world in red paint. But that is when the demons show their faces and chase me out of their world. They always catch me. I know I do not belong here. I question, every night, why I am brought to this evil place.
I know they are coming. Their tiny claws scratch against the solid ground and their incomprehensible whispers grow louder. I don’t know what to do. I am stuck in this position. Have I stayed awake too long and forgotten how to move inside my dreams? My own voice tells me to run, now and fast, sprint further into the darkness and keep my eyes forward. My voice tells me if I gaze into their eyes, I will remain bound to them for eternity. Was I asleep when I learned that? Is that really my voice? A scratch at my ankle causes me to run, and as I predicted, the crimson sun rises in the distance. I ignore the urge to see behind me and listen to my guide. My questions go unanswered, but I am assured that soon all things will come into the light.
The demons rise with the sun, out of the ground that transforms into the sand beneath my feet. I sink into it. Obscure creatures devoid of human characteristics stalk me like prey; eyes in the sky cast blue beams that burn off my skin, then my flesh, leaving nothing left except my brittle bones to traverse the otherworldly plane. If I manage to outrun them, I gain my flesh, and I can continue to my destination. A force pulls me out of the suffocating sands and saves me from drowning in the deep underworld. I have seen the hungry eyes at the bottom. Below the sand awaits buried evil; my secrets and fears, dead family and friends I wronged or was too prideful to forgive, insecurities I let swallow my confidence, and my deviant thoughts in the form of hideous creatures my voice tells me can only be vanquished by my ultimate self.
My bones tiptoe across the red sand. My flesh slowly regenerates. I must be slipping away from them. Near the sun on a bluff sits a person with outstretched hands. That is my destination. I reach my hand out to touch them, and as my fingertip connects with the shadow, my own face turns around and stares at me. “We have a lot of work to do,” my spirit says.
“How do I—we get out of here?” I ask.
My other self stands up and points to the sun. “The crimson ball of light has always been the answer. Your fears are what keep you from it. I can never leave this place. Without my existence here, your demons will escape and you will no longer have control.”
“Yes. Control. It’s what stops you from being the real you.”
“Why would I not want to be the real me?” I question.
My spirit smiles and replies, “Because you are capable of things the world is not yet ready for. The lack of freedom is what caused this. Your entire life, you have been stuck in a bubble, told how to move by a higher power, not yet realizing that you yourself possess a higher power. And in turn, it has made you sick. Once you reach the sun, it will all make sense.”
“How do I get to it? It’s far and in the sky.”
“It’s simple, let go of your fears,” my reflection whispers.
It fades away, and I am left to confront my demons. My inner screams echo across the land. I see them behind me, the monsters that tore my flesh, devoured me whole, and bleed me dry night after night, standing still, waiting for me to either go to them or just off the bluff. Below, a beast’s open mouth waits to swallow me. Faced with brutal death on either side, I would rather bang my head against the ground until my skull breaks. What is this experiment? Am I being tortured inside a machine? “Stop staring at me, damn you!” I scream. Their taunting eyes infuriate me.
The sun shines down on me. It stings my eyes when I look to it for answers, but my gaze is unwavering, fixated on the red circle of light. Its ominous beauty captivates my soul, traps my mind in a foreign world of colors and scents of nature. A bright blue ocean beneath my feet, a golden sky with dark red clouds speeds by as the day transforms into night in an infinite loop, the wind is like soft petals on my skin, enormous trees grow out of the ocean then perish from centuries of aging—I watch myself bask in this new atmosphere. I reach out to touch myself on the shoulder. My own puzzled eyes stare back at me. “Is this real?” My reflection speaks as I do. The vision from before was all-knowing, but this version of me is less complex and more human, closer to myself than I could imagine. It mirrors my movements and upon our hands touching, its mouth opens wide and unveils glowing red veins that sprout from the mouth and into the world. As the veins grow, the skin of our bellies unravels like yarn, and more veins sprout from our guts and intertwine to blend us together.
They grow in my brain and out of my eyes. The veins consume the world around us and create a new one. Snow falls from the sky and I awake on a sheet of ice, alone, and in the distance, a house made of wood beckons me. It beckons me, demands my presence. My bare feet slide across the ice and glide over the snowbank. Now that I am faced with it, it no longer calls for me. In the window I see myself, lying unconscious in a pool of other failed subjects. I peer at the shadows watching over me, then back to my vacant expression. “Don’t worry, I’m going to get you out of there.”
I am the ruler of my mind. For so long, I let the monsters in my head scare me into hating my thoughts and myself. I cast fire on that world and watch the demons dance in the flames as I float to the sun, float to my soul that dwells in this cold plane. The demons’ deafening screams dissipate in the devastating aura of the sun. Inside, my burnt body continues to float through a dark void until it descends from the white sky and appears before me. For years, I buried versions of myself I deemed unfit and let it eat at my insides; held my tongue when I should have screamed, accepted ridicule when I should have fought back, and forced out a version of myself that everyone else wanted to see. Those demons I burned are my internalized darkness.
My burned spirit and I morph together. I breathe in its essence and feel more alive. I connect with this world on a godly level. The sky changes color at the blink of my eyes, a geyser bursts from the ice river cracks when I snap my fingers, the snow falls at the pace of my breath, as I think of objects they appear—this newfound gift is what dreams should be.
“I see you’ve done it.” My all-knowing spirit returns in the shape of a blood-red fox. “Are you ready to return now?” it asks, sitting elegantly in front of the window of the wooden shack.
I imagine a knife in my hand, and a golden one appears in my hand. In here I flourish, yet they discard me like trash. I will show them just how well the dream state works and how free I have become. “Yes. I am ready.” With my new power, the walls of the house crumble as my hand balls into a fist. I reach into the chest of my unconscious body and transfer through a portal back to reality.
You can incinerate them now. It’s been days, their brains are dead,” says a familiar voice.
I open my eyes and gaze into oncoming flames. Fire no longer terrifies me. I clutch my knife, let the flames burn my hair and skin as I climb up the ladder and push my way through the opening. I remove the suit and let the natural air embrace my once brittle skin. An unknown voice laughs in my mind. Excruciating pain in the back of my head becomes unbearable. I no longer have control over my head. “What… is this?” A laugh burst from my mouth.
“Idiot. I told you, if I ever left the dark recess of your mind, you would lose all control,” I say to myself in a burst of hysterical laughter.
My back bends backward. I scream and wince as my bones break. The inside of my body burns like there’s a fire inside. I envision my body still lying on the ice and question I truly escaped. I wanted the dream state to cure me, and I imagined it did. I saw what I wanted to see, and within the realm of my dreams, I was the composer. But in reality, I brought out the real demon that cursed my mind. In my darkest hours, my subconscious created a devil, and the dream state helped me force it out.
I hear footsteps behind me. “How the… how the hell did you get out? Guards! Gua–”
I shut him up with my knife in his throat. Others dare to attack me. I cut them down, break their legs, gouge their eyes, split their bellies, and make them beg for mercy. Room to room, I unleash my wrath on the weak. Their skulls break against my knuckles. The walls are painted in their blood. For years, the urge to slaughter lay dormant. Deep down, I yearned for liberation through death, which I thought meant my own, but now, I know I seek it in the death of others. No one escapes my blade. In the corner of my eye, I spot someone hiding under a desk. “I conquered my fears and now I want to show you what a fearless person can achieve.” Their legs tremble the closer I get, and when our eyes meet, I see a lone deer faced with a hungry wolf. “What do you see when you look at me?” I ask the panicking scientist. I crawl to them and plant my face up against theirs. “Tell me what you see. When I was in the dream state, I saw a god that looked just like me.” I slide the knife across their face and smile at their wince. “Do I look like a god to you?” Their quivering head nods. I stab my blade into their heart and thank them as their last breath escapes.
I breathe in the death of the bodies around me. “This is freedom. Gone are the days of living like a weak and pathetic victim.” I return to the experiment room. I choose a chamber at random and examine the specimen inside. Most of my life has been in isolation. Today, I end that trend. I press my palm against the subject’s chest and smile as their eyes open and they regain their energy.
“Is… is it over?” she asks.
I dry her face with my hands. “What were you hoping for?”
“Well, when I was inside… I…” She looks down and frowns. “I think my memories are gone. I can’t… I don’t remember my name. Who are you?”
I stare at her deep brown eyes and explain that I am the new god of this place, and I demonstrate my power by describing the visions in her dream state. She, like myself, was kept awake at night by not realizing her true potential, but instead of finding herself, she panicked in the dream state and, as a consequence, her memory was wiped clean. “You are capable of great things. Allow me to show you what I accomplished a few moments ago.” Her hand falls into mine and I help her out of the vat. Her legs are weak, so I carry her and together we roam the bloody hallways.
She places her head on my chest and asks, “What happened to these people?”
“They helped a god fulfill their destiny.”
The place has served its purpose. I will take my new companion on a spiritual journey and teach her my philosophies and the secret to conquering her subconscious. And over time, I will become all she knows. Dozens of guards meet me in the lobby as I exit the elevator. Their blades and guns can’t harm me. As we walk through them, my chest shields her face from the blood splatter of enemies I cause to explode using my mind. On my command, forceful energy emits from my body and opens the front door of the laboratory. I step into the light on the hot pavement and gaze at the sun. She asks our next destination and if we can go somewhere the air is cool. I assure her we can go wherever she wants. All she has to do is think of it, and I will make it so.
“Hey! They let you out here without clothes?” shouts a man running toward us. I place my companion on her feet and face him. “Oh, wait! I remember driving you here a few years ago. You’re covered in blood, not that I’m looking at your body or anything…” He blushes. “I mean, I’m talking about your face, of course! I am the only driver for the lab, and I’ve never seen the same person twice. And this time, there’s two of you. It’s a miracle! Maybe the lab scientists aren’t so bad, after all.” He runs back to the car and opens the door.
I carry my companion to the car and lay her down on the backseat. “You aren’t afraid?” I ask the driver.
His eyebrows raise, a bead of sweat forms on his temple and I can hear his racing heartbeat. “Look, I won’t ask. I’ve only heard the horror stories about the inside of that place. It’s just good to see someone finally make it out.”
He enters the car after I sit down on the passenger side. “Take us far away from here. None of us will ever return to this place,” I say.
He hesitates to start the car, then chuckles and says, “You got it. By the way, do you have names? I rarely ask, but like I said, I’ve never seen a subject leave the lab in one piece. I’m Arch–”
I place my bloody hand on his lips. “Where we’re going, names aren’t important. But you can call me God.”