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To dream, perchance to...
by Charles M. Bonanno
Charles M. Bonanno -- all rights reserved
 

"Steve!"

Holding the tattered remains of unconsciousness around him like a warm blanket, Steve Rambi tried to ignore the strident voice calling him back to the waking world. In a matter of seconds, there'd be no choice but to open his eyes and confront whatever the new day had in store for him. And, for the sake of his hearing, he might as well get up before his wife yelled again.

Too late.

"Steve!

"I'm up! I'm up! Give me a break, Susan!"

Her mission accomplished, Steve felt the bed rock as she climbed out of bed and strode across the creaking wooden flooring towards the bedroom door. Getting the kids out of their beds and ready for the school bus, no easier a task than getting him up each morning, would keep her busy for the next half hour. If he wanted something better than a bowl of cold cereal before running outside to catch his own bus, he'd better get hopping himself.

Tossing the bedcovers aside, he staggered to the bathroom and clicked on the light.

"AWWWWW!!!" he screamed when several Nova-bright bulbs came to life and stabbed daggers of light into his eyes.

"Damn it, Susan! Why can't you leave my bathroom alone and do your makeup downstairs! There's enough light in here to land airplanes!"

Blinking the tears from his eyes, Steve squinted at the overly illuminated mirror and his face. A deep sigh filled the tiny room.

"Well, it's me alright. Not a single feather, scale, or patch of fur in sight. Although, come to think about it, a little more hair on top wouldn't be all bad."

It was getting harder to conceal his growing bald spot. Yet, after a quick shave and shower, he would try anyway. Vanity, and a bad case of male pattern baldness, ran through the male line of his family like a gypsy curse. And Steve was no exception. He knew his efforts to comb what little remained over the ever-growing deforested clearing atop his head was a losing battle, and a constant source of amusement to his co-workers, but that wouldn't stop him from trying.

"Rugs are for floors, Marian! I'm not putting one on my head!"

Even now, he could still hear his mother laughing over his father's antics. Both had been dead for nearly a decade. Both had fallen victim to the first wave of the Martian Virus Flu to decimate the city. He missed them terribly. Whenever possible, he tried to bring them into his dreams.

"Steve!"

"Oops! Better stop wasting time!" Steve thought as he ran through the rest of his morning bathroom routine and raced downstairs.

His breakfast of bacon and eggs was getting cold on the table top by the time got there. With the voracious appetites of four, five, and six year olds, the kids had long ago made theirs vanish. Robby, the oldest, was rushing around the room trying to avoid the heavy winter jacket his mother was trying to force on him, while Linda, the baby, was crying because Tina had stolen her stuffed bunny rabbit doll. Ah, yes, a perfectly normal morning. Relishing every second, Steve smiled as his wife tried to coral the unruly bunch.

"Steve!"

"Oh, boy! The bus!"

Still chewing on a strip of greasy bacon, Steve struggled to get into his own jacket and overcoat. No fool, he took the time to give everyone in the room a swift peck on the cheek before rushing out the door. Last week he'd forgotten and been treated like an ax murderer upon his return.

Not today.

As he ran down the sidewalk towards the city bus standing by the intersection, he turned his head and looked back. His entire family was standing in the doorframe waving goodbye with a smile on their faces. Their faces did seem a bit blurry. Odd. He remembered getting new glasses only a couple months ago. Could he need a new pair already?

No time for stray thoughts. The bus was moving!

Jumping aboard just before the doors slammed shut, Steve sat in the first empty seat he saw. Being frequently late to work was a bad idea in these rough economic times. He'd gotten two warning from the boss last month and didn't even want to think about what might happen if he got a third. On his wages, getting a car was out of the question. Maybe later when the kids were a little older and Susan could go back her nursing job at the local hospital.

The hospital.

Something about that place jangled Steve's nerves. That's were 'they' were. The Scabs.

Sooner or later, everyone came down with 'the flu'. To one degree or another, by the time most people got to high school, they'd suffered through their trial-by-fire. Steve remembered his vividly. Locked inside the house his parent's had left him. Too sick to stand, too frightened to call for help.

Alone.

Even today, some people still jumped if anyone sneezed nearby. In the early years of the plague, it'd been immeasurably worse. Fear ruled the world. It was better to barricade yourself inside someplace and pray if you got sick. Pray that death would find you while you slept. Pray that you wouldn't wake up and find yourself... changed.

In panic, medicine's oldest tool was brought out of retirement: fire. At times it seemed the entire city would be turned into ash. In Steve's immediate neighborhood, several houses had gone up in flames destroying the bodies of the dead and dying. As often as not, the fires were set from within.

In time, calm returned.

For the most part, people learned to cope with the situation. As they've done since the beginning of time, humans would survive the worst Fate had in store and persevere. The time for cleaning away the mess and rebuilding would come. Life would return to 'normal'.

For others, the word had new meaning. A few were even sharing Steve's early morning commute.

Across the aisle a blind man was talking to his dog. And the dog was talking back. True, the dog's words were coming from a small device attached to his harness, but that didn't seem to bother either of them. The dog, a huge German Shepard, was telling the man to get ready to disembark. Their stop was coming up soon.

Sitting on the other end of the bus, a white furred rabbit sighed loudly at the news.

Roughly the same size, but much more human looking than the dog that'd once been a man, the rabbit nervously watched every movement the other plague victim made. Ready to flee at the slightest sign of danger, the roughly half-rabbit half-human Lapine-morph twitched his nose and wagged his ears continuously. The inner battle he was waging against his prey instincts was nearly audible.

Speaking of stops, Steve's was coming up fast.

Nodding his head, he let the blind man go first. The dog looked up and gave Steve a cheerful 'Thank you!', while calmly telling the man holding onto his harness exactly where to place his feet and how far above the curb they were standing.

His final destination was only a few yards away: Linton-Marcus-Drover Accounting. By today's standards it wasn't the largest accounting firm in the city, but none had as high a reputation. It was rare for the IRS to find even the slightest fault with any tax papers they prepared. People wanting anything less than completely honest work done knew better than to bother LMD.

Next year would be Steve's sixth with the firm. With his love for numbers, he'd applied for a job the day after graduating from high school and was accepted into the apprenticeship program. At the remarkable age of nineteen, his life-long dream of following in his father's footsteps had come true.

Until the moment of his death, his father had been a much admired, and sadly missed, senior member of the firm. As a mid-level manager in charge of several important brokerage bank accounts, Steve's future seemed assured.

If he didn't get fired for falling asleep at his desk, that is.

With every passing day, it was getting harder to concentrate. It didn't matter what he was doing, whether he was talking on the phone, or working at his computer station, the world would fade away for a few seconds.

The company doctor was at a loss. A full battery of test had come up negative. After declaring Steve as fit-as-a-horse, the equinemorph physician handed him a bottle of aspirin and told him to get some rest before he'd have to shot him. They'd both laughed at the joke and Steve returned to his office.

An hour later it happened again!

He was typing a letter when someone screamed his name and the screen suddenly froze. Fearing the worst, an attack of the dreaded Windows 2015 orange screen, he turned to see who'd called him just before the computer system crashed. He got the shock of his life.

Everyone, and everything, around him was frozen too.

It only lasted a few seconds, but Steve seemed to be the only one moving.

Nearly as fast as it started, it finished. The world lurched forward like nothing had happened. After the third strange look he'd gotten in reply, he quickly stopped asking if anyone had noticed time stopping. Since insane people generally make poor accountants, he made fun of his little 'joke' and went back to work. Hopefully, that would be the end of it.

Not again! It was happening again!

Almost as soon as he sat in his chair, an incredibly loud male voice yelled 'STEVE!' and the world came to a grinding halt.

Jumping up, he ran out of his office. It was the same everywhere. He walked around people who were frozen in mid-step or mid-word. None seemed to notice his passage, and none seemed to be able to respond to his evermore frantic attempts to communicate.

Except for himself, the world seemed frozen like a bug in amber. Doorknobs wouldn't turn, cabinets wouldn't open.... even a single piece of paper lying on a desktop couldn't be lifted no matter how hard he tried. None of the people or mechanical things around him could be moved even a tiny fraction of an inch.

Almost killing himself in the process, he raced down five stories of dimly lit stairs... the elevators, like everything else, weren't working... to reach the main lobby. Running between a couple that'd just opened the front door, he found the street outside no improvement: Cars, buses, people... even a jet plane high overhead... were frozen as if stuck between the passage of one second and another.

No sound. No movement. No life. Only him.

"Am I going mad?! It's like a bad dream!" he yelled fearing for his sanity.

The word 'dream' barely escaped his lips before the world lurched back into motion. Without warning, movement of all kinds surrounded him. The sounds of every kind of vehicle motors, even the jet disappearing in the distance, filled the air as a bus came to a brake-squealing-stop an inch away from where he was standing.

The same bus that took him to work in the morning. The same bus that carried him back to his family every afternoon.

"My family! I've got to check on my family!" Steve nearly screamed out loud as the bus doors slid apart.

Wearing nothing more than a long sleeved shirt to protect him from the chill of winter, Steve boarded the bus and dropped every piece of change he had into the toll machine. The driver waved him on and Steve took the same seat he'd used just an hour before. This seemed appropriate. As far as he could tell, everyone he'd seen back then was still sitting in theirs.

The crowd looked as faceless and unremarkable as any, but several of his traveling companions were unmistakable: Over there, the lapinemorph, still fearfully clutching a grocery bag filled with carrots between his paw-like hands. And over there, the blind man, still deep in conversation with his faithful companion, the talking German Shepard.

"How can this be?" Steve thought as images of brain tumors filled his mind. "This is a nightmare!" he mumbled just loud enough for the woman sitting next to him to overhear. She promptly got up and moved several seats away. It never hurts to keep an eye out for the crazies.

Steve didn't even notice.

At this point he was planning how best to sue his doctor. The quack must've missed something important. Maybe... maybe this very second... he was laid out in the back of an ambulance after suffering a stroke at work. It happens, doesn't it? It's rare, but even people his age get them, right?

Still wondering how much a good lawyer would cost... Steve IS an accountant after all... he was jolted back to reality when a voice as loud as thunder screamed his name

"STEVE!!"

With no appreciable sensation of deceleration whatsoever, and in direct defiance of every law of physics he could remember learning about in high school, the immensely heavy city bus had come to an instantaneous standstill as if God himself had pulled the power running the universe and gone away for eternity. Once again, all movement around him had ceased. It was madness!

If not for the driver's partially open window, Steve would've been trapped. None of the other windows or doors could be opened. Nor could they be damaged in the slightest. Yes, he had tried. His bruised hands and feet were proof of that.

Likewise, his ungraceful tumble from the bus was anything but painless. The soft-looking snow covering the pavement had felt as hard as concrete. Groaning softly from the bruises he'd just added to his collection, Steve ruefully concluded that gravity, unlike time, was still working just fine.

No matter. His home was only couple blocks away. He'd be safe and warm inside within a few minutes.

Step by step the houses and people surrounding him became more familiar. House he'd visited often. Neighbors he'd known for years. Or had he? Why couldn't he remember the address of his own home? Why couldn't he put a name to even a single face he saw? Was his brain that badly damaged? Would he be little more than a vegetable if he ever woke up?

As his front door came into view, his terrified inner conversation became a clearly audible babble: "Over there! Home! The kids will be long gone to school by now, but Susan will be there. She'll know what to do!" If he ever got inside, he'd be sure to ask her.

As of now, that possibility seemed rather remote. He couldn't even get his key into the lock!

The inner workings of the well-worn device were steadfastly refusing to move aside and allow his key entry. Likewise with every other door and window he could reach. For all the good they were, he might as well throw them away and climb down the chimney.

"Wait! That's it!" Steve yelled at the top of his lungs.

Well, not exactly the chimney, but someplace nearby. Several tiny windows towards the back of the building brought light into the basement. One had fallen off last week during a storm and it was still waiting upon his workbench for a new set of hinges. It would be child's play to crawl through the opening and drop into the basement. The door leading into the kitchen was bound to be open too. Susan never closed it in wintertime. She loved the way the ancient oil burning heater down there made her kitchen feel nice and toasty.

"Child's play. Right." Steve remarked sarcastically as he groaned in pain.

Flat on his back on a concrete-hard packed earth floor, he looked up almost nine feet at the opening he'd just fallen through. In his rush to gain entry into his home, he'd forgotten how deep the basement of this old house was. Gravity had been happy to remind him.

Feeling strangely safer on his hands and knees... at least it wouldn't hurt some much if he fell down again... he crawled up the stairs towards the open door. Never in his life had he felt such pain. Every bone and muscle in his body was screaming in protest.

Even suffering through a bad case of 'THE FLU'... like most people Steve though of those two words in capital letters... had been a relatively painless affair. He vividly recalled sleeping through most of it. As one of the fortunate able to consciously control their dreams, he'd spent the worst of it just imaging a pain-free fantasy world populated by friends and family.

And it worked.

A couple days later he awoke felling as good as new. A short trip across town to the free clinic, and a complete physical performed by a rather scary looking insectmorph physician, only served to confirm his self-assessment. Normal. Human. Unchanged.

Not that he'd be stupid enough to argue with a man-size cockroach in any case. Back then the only thing going through his mind was getting on with his life. Right now he'd be happy just to find his wife without falling down again.

"This is gonna hurt!" Steve mumbled as he prepared to stand the second he reached the kitchen. Susan would never stop laughing if she saw him like this.

He never had the chance.

She was standing just a few feet away looking down in his direction. Or, rather, at the spill she'd been moping up when the world came to a dead stop. Frozen in mid swing, she'd nearly finished cleaning up the mess the kids had made this morning eating breakfast.

"STEVE!!"

The entire house shook when the bomb-loud spoke his name again. But this time it was different. He could tell from what direction it was coming. Outside! In front of the house! Only a few feet away! All he'd have to do is look out the large window in the living room and the mystery would be revealed.

Inch by inch he crawled past his wife towards the other room. With every step his mind became more focused. More awake. Soon his questions would be answered. Safety and order would return. Life would be good again. The nightmare would be over.

Sadly it was not to be. The nightmare was only beginning.

A human eye the size of a basketball was looking through the window. Nearly frozen in fear, Steve stared back at the giant looking down at him and screamed. A single loud sibilant reptilian hiss of terror and defiance. This was his home! His mate! His hatchlings! His territory! Go away! He yelled wordless.

Soon the human words coming through the glass would gain meaning. It didn't matter. The true extent of his situation was becoming clear with no further explanation necessary.


"I told you to find a way to access his mental state, not scare him to death!"

"What can I say? It worked. He's still human."

"Is that why you put all that stuff in there?"

"You mean the plastic house, cars, dolls, and such?"

"That's correct. And all those sound effect tapes too."

"They made him feel comfortable. They gave his human subconscious the focus it needed to win out over instinctive iguana behavior patterns. To break through the dream state his conscious mind was hiding behind. I've done it before at other hospitals. It works more often than not."

"Tell me, doctor. How many of your patients have ever said 'thank you'?

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