At first, Bertrand thought, his nightmare started as it always did; the yelps of laughter and chaos of a school playground, followed by a sense of dread that all was not well. The sounds were jovial and yet the environment was distorting with every passing second: the grim pavement, covered in skewed, multicoloured chalk curved and began to wobble in Bertrand’s gaze, the children soon disappeared from sight and their cries became hollow and chilling. Death had arrived and he knew it. In fact, Bertrand could see the physical embodiment of the Lord of the underworld standing sheepishly over by the bus shelter.
Like a bloodhound finding its scent, the hooded spectre locked its invisible eyes with Bertrand’s. Where there should be a face, even merely a skeletal cliche, there was nothing but a void of darkness. Death did not carry a scythe, but a sword, 2 metres long and rippling with cold, blue fire. After the nightmare, Bertrand was unable to recall any sound at this point; as if someone had flicked the mute button on his dream. He mentioned, however, that, if his ears hadn’t been switched off, the blade, possibly to supplement his description of the malice he felt from it or just to textualise what he felt, would have emanated a crackling and fuzzy roaring, much like someone pressing fast-forward on two glacier sheets crunching into each other, or the destructive cohesion of a hurricane’s winds tearing into one massive sheet of scrap metal, peeling it endlessly off an impossible roof.
Ice filled Bertrand’s guts as Death began to walk towards him furiously, his flaming sword held firmly at waist-height. Bertrand was rooted in the spot, whether from pure, raw fear, or engineered by the nightmare itself. The fear was there, yes, but a portion of his brain felt uncharacteristically lucid and as such, he seemed to perceive the events of the dream happening to an avatar of himself, with he, the consciousness, floating a few metres above the avatar Bertrand’s head.
Typically, the rest of the nightmare would involve Death’s blade piercing Bertrand’s heart and exiting his body between his shoulder blades. Bertrand would then wake up screaming in a cold sweat, clutching his chest. However, in this particular iteration of the dream, things began to diverge.
In his panicky state, Bertrand perceived the alterations to his dream in stop-motion, with seconds of progress interrupted by his fear of staring down at his immovable feet, the undulating playground and the internal sound of his heart jack-hammering. A figure coagulated from a swirling particulate dust-storm in Bertrand’s peripheral vision, and, although his brain logically assumed another foreign body in this hellish tableau would be an antagonist, Bertrand immediately felt a warmth from the figure. This person was here to help, his floating brain told the Bertrand avatar. Nevertheless, Death was still barrelling towards him and so Bertrand could do nothing but will his hero to block the looming threat, his eyes as wide as saucers, his mouth slack-jawed with fear.
The figure was shadowy, intangible. He seemed to flicker in and out the environment as if he had difficulty staying in the dream. His jerky movements gave rise to a staccato teleportation in the direction of Death; their paths were on a collision course. It was only seconds before impact that Death grok’d the presence of the shadow; with an overextended lunge, the reaper hurled his blade of frozen flame towards Bertrand’s heart, hoping to kill his prey before he was intercepted. The shadowy figure instantly underwent a high-definition upscale and his pixelated blackness turned into textured skin, a face, a concerned expression, male, young, tired. Bertrand’s guardian brandished a sword swathed in snake-like thick vines of green water, its sound, Bertrand said later to his fellow patients, would have extolled a bright, glorious morning bell, a call to alertness, a harmonised eagle cry.
Thick arms of thrashing rivulets heat-seeked the hurled blade of flame, quenching its vibratory anger with a hiss. Another rivulet wrapped itself around Death, constricting the cheap personification into a gasping, frantic caricature of prey. The swordsman slowly walked towards his target, holding his oceanic sword at arms length, concentration livid on his gruff face as he struggled to control the torrential tubes that strangled the demon. Soon, Death was invisible beneath the wave and with no other warning but a bubble “pop”, the water lost any semblance of structure and became a slave to gravity. All the fury in the fire and flood trickled out innocently around Bertrand’s feet. He stared in confusion at-
“I’m your doctor. Why don’t you have a seat.” The Doc, now sword-less, wearing a slim black overcoat, was only centimetres away from Bertrand. He gestured to a chair that wasn’t there before. Bertrand looked down, touched the chair faintly, then sat down onto the slightly uncomfortable metal frame. Turning back, the playground had vanished and was replaced by a simple, boring GP’s cabinet. Magnolia walls, a dusty globe, a yellowish desk and coffee rings on donkey-eared magazines. The Doc was standing, shuffling through papers, presumably Bertrand’s.
“Yes, this is a dream. You are slowly coming into lucidity, so take your time.” The Doc’s eyes tracked his, cold yes, but not hurtful. His voice was meek, far from a baritone, almost feminine. Bertrand could feel the fuzziness of memory floating up behind him, prodding him and slowly chunking itself into place. He put his head in his hands, rubbing his temples.
“This is therapy isn’t it. We agreed this beforehand,” Bertrand said. Each word crystallised the statement further into reality. He looked up, squinting at the Doc. “So how does this work?”
The papers in the Doc’s hands dissolved into thin air, as he took a seat on a backless wheelie chair. He sighed, rubbed one eye making it slightly red and blotchy. “What’s your biggest fear, Bertrand?” He stared carefully into Bertrand’s eyes, the rest of his body static, focussed.
Bertrand snorted, made a few “um” noises and fidgeted in his seat. The room was beginning to swim – his eyes started to lose focus, as it tried to lock onto the movement. He felt a falling sensation in his stomach, he looked behind him, saw a copy of himself lying prone on a hospital bed. The Doc next to him, eyes closed. Wires dropped out of both their necks to a battered, off-white console on the bed. Bertrand looked back, anxiety prickling.
“Hey, look at me,” the Doc said. “Which way is the room spinning? Quick, quick,” he clicked his fingers.
“Um,” said Bertrand, “anti-clockwise.”
“Okay, get up, start spinning clockwise. You’ll feel a bit sick, but do it.” He added a “Now” when Bertrand hadn’t moved.
Bertrand got up and started spinning opposite to the room’s rotation. Instantly, he felt a headache coming on, but simultaneously, everything in the room came into focus. He hadn’t realised how blurry it had been before. “Okay, that’s better”, he took a seat.
“Okay,” the Doc said. “So, what are you afraid of.” A beat.
“Dying, I’m afraid of dying.” Bertrand said it quickly. Another beat.
“Yes, that’s clear, given what we just saw,” the Doc paused, “Okay. The point of this is to help you sleep better, Bertrand. I’m not a psych, but I can give you the tools to beat this thing, in your dreams.”
“Okay, but you’ve done this before, right?” said Bertrand.
Beat number 3.
Bertrand expected more to come, but there was just silence. “What tools, then? Can I get a sword like yours?”
“You’ll do that yourself. We start now.”
“Haven’t we already started?”
“The training, no. First, I needed to see the node.” The Doc didn’t expand. “Now, keeping your eyes open, I want you to try materialising.”
“I- I can’t. I’ve tried a million t-“
“Okay, but this time I’m going to guide you.”
Bertrand adjusted his frame, held his hand out and started to think about conjuring a weapon of some sort. It looked like he was searching for invisible fibres in the air, plucking and parting them.
“Stop,” the Doc held up his hand, shaking his head. “Not like that. You’re searching for something that’s already there, but it’s not there yet. You need to make it first. What are you going to make?”
Bertrand dropped his hand, defeatedly, “A sword?”
“Will that kill death?”
“No, I did, not the sword. The sword was just a personification of the deletion. I could have used my shoe, but it would have been harder to focus on that.”
“I dunno man, I just- I need a gun or something.”
“That’s your fear. You don’t seem like a violent person, Bertrand. Play to your strengths.” A minute or so passed while Bertrand deliberated in silence. He didn’t know much about weapons, nor did he even like holding something that could kill. He remembered one of the patients kept a mat-inventory of various guns and ammunition forever in the back of their head. A simple sleight of thought and a machine-gun or a sniper rifle would be in their hands. He grimaced. No, not a gun then. Maybe he could run. Maybe something like speedster sneakers, or possibly a hoverboard… No. He sighed aloud. A memory of him playing football in school came to mind, yes, he always played left back. Defence, waiting for the attacker, closing in on him and protecting the goals, like-
“A shield,” Bertrand said, uncharacteristically confidently. The Doc’s eyes lit up.
“Good, good. A shield. Describe it to me.”
Bertrand closed his eyes. “No!” The Doc shouted, causing Bertrand to jump. “Never close your eyes for more than a few seconds in a dream. You can either be kicked out, or fall deeper. You can never be sure what drug you’ve taken to get here in the first place.” Bertrand nodded carefully.
“Okay, it’s red, with golden, flames engraved on it,” Bertrand began, staring at his hands. “It’s one handed, with two straps for my left arm,” he raised his left arm, showing the Doc his forearm, strong and unmoving. “It’s perfectly circular, with a crest of an eagle diving towards its prey. It’s big, big enough to cover me from my knees to my head, but it’s light, lighter than air.” The air a few feet in front of Bertrand began to shimmer and thrum with a hot, vibratory energy. He was becoming more and more animated, his words coming thick and fast now, his eyes wet, “the red is blood from my fallen enemies, and it’s so hot, it’s burning. Anyone who touches it is burnt to a crisp, but the inside is cool.” The Doc looked on, his mouth stuck in the slightest of grins. “The shield screeches when I form it, an eagle cry of fury and war.” The sparkling outline of the shield materialised around Bertrand’s arm. He carefully touched the edge and instantly the whole thing solidified, the straps wrapped themselves around his arm and the weight jolted him to stand up, glorious shield in hand. The eagle on the front cried and screamed hatred at the Doc, it’s golden, enamelled body snarling and undulating in its urgency to free itself from the metal. Bertrand laughed loudly, his eyes like saucers again, but this time not with fear, but with joy. He banged the shield with his free fist and it sang, E major, harmonised.
Without warning, the Doc erupted from his chair, a sword of ice and snakes bearing down on Bertrand and his shield. Instinctively, Bertrand cowered behind the shield, but held it strong, one knee falling to the ground. A shower of sparks exploded on the surface, steam geysering diffusely as the Doc’s waves were expunged on the red hot metal. The dream started to wobble and suddenly everything twisted into a distorted vortex rollercoaster. Bertrand felt his vomit reflex kicking in and then-
He was awake, lying down on a hospital bed, white scrubs. His heart was jack-hammering, his hands empty. He focussed on his breathing, bringing it down to pace. To his right, sat the Doc, detaching cables from his head, a neutral expression on his face. “Hey-” Bertrand’s throat was dry, “Do-” The Doc placed his hand on the side of the bed, calmly stopping Bertrand in his tracks.
“That was good. Rest now.” The Doc moved off and went over to another bed, where a woman lay, her frizzy hair wild and untamed. She was mumbling about something, but Bertrand couldn’t make it out. His limbs ached and his head began to swim. He tried again to focus on what she was saying, and he heard the Doc’s quiet voice chime in, but before another thought entered his head he saw darkness, he saw an eagle’s wings wrap themselves around his dream, and then, he saw nothing.