DreamScapes, a short story written by Star LaBranche

Aisling Callahan weaved her way through the crowd of undergraduates, ignoring the girl she bumped into who announced an indignant, “Hey!” Bleary-eyed, Aisling pulled out a chair in the university’s library cafe and sank into it. Her backpack fell to the floor and for a few seconds, her eyes slid shut and she was asleep.

“Aisling?”

She heard the voice in the corner of her consciousness. It drifted pleasantly somewhere in her mind where it couldn’t hurt her and certainly wasn’t anything she needed to respond to.

“Aisling?”

Her eyes snapped open. Looking around, Aisling recognized her fellow graduate classmate, Clara, standing over the table.

“Were you asleep?” The young blonde woman asked, sitting down across from Aisling.

“I think so,” Aisling muttered. She had no interest in disclosing to over-achieving Clara that she hadn’t slept in four days.

“You’ve been working hard on Dr. Daniels’ paper, haven’t you?” Clara asked, observing the thirty-three year old woman with all of her twenty-one years.

“Yeah, it’s tough,” Aisling muttered. She had written, rewritten, and completely deleted her final paper for Daniels’ class about fourteen times. Aisling would start out writing about the history of Spanish-controlled Florida and before she knew it, she was writing out stream-of-consciousness begging for more than 20 minutes of uninterrupted sleep.

“Hey, I know you’ve been having trouble sleeping. My boyfriend works for the medical research lab last night and he said there’s a drug study going on. It doesn’t pay a lot, but it’s to help people with insomnia,” Clara said, smiling weakly. “The project is called Dreamscapes. You can find them on the university website.”

Aisling’s ears pricked up. She could get paid money to help her with her insomnia? The allure of cash was enough to convince her to take out her Macbook and quickly Google the site. Clara then recognized someone at the other side of the library and said goodbye to Aisling before grabbing her pink flowered backpack and leaving. Aisling didn’t even notice.

Looking over the poorly-designed campus website, Aisling blinked to lubricate her eyes.

Introductory study starting November 12, 2015.

Aisling looked at the date on her computer. That was three days from now.

Ideal subjects are in good health and suffering from repeated insomnia. They do not have substance abuse issues and have not been taken sedatives for a prolonged period of time, for sleep issues or any other health problems.

Yes, yes, yes, yes, Aisling thought to herself. She was perfect for the study. Scrolling down the page, there was an embedded box of medical mumbo-jumbo that she had neither the time nor the cognitive ability to comprehend. Skipping past the information, Aisling ticked the box that indicated she had read and understood everything she had just scrolled past and began to fill out her information.

Name: Aisling Callahan
Occupation: Graduate student
Length of sleep issues: 3-6 months
Type of sleep issues: Unable to fall asleep, unable to stay asleep.

Aisling filled out her personal information with Chrome’s autofill and sent off the form. She sat back in her chair and closed her eyes. It was a long shot, she realized that. She had just sent off some personal information into the ether and who knows if they would ever get back to her, let alone if whatever medicine they were testing would be able to help her. The woman’s burning eyes slid shut again and she fell into another one of her micronaps. It ended when an undergraduate, texting a friend about a party that night, bumped into her table and jolted her awake.

*

“Your heart rate and blood pressure are both fine,” the bespeckled doctor announced, looking over the chart the nurse had just filled out on Aisling’s vitals. “I think you’re a perfect candidate for this drug test,” he said, smiling broadly at her.

Aisling nodded. She had managed to sleep a total of four hours in the three days since she had filled out the form. She barely heard the doctor and moreover, didn’t care enough to realize she should have been concentrating harder on him.

“So, you’ve looked over the information we e-mailed you?” The doctor asked. What was his name? Doctor… K… His name began with a K. Kellogg? That’s a cereal. Kellen? That didn’t sound right. Keller. That’s it. His name was Doctor Keller. Aisling looked up and realized that he was wearing a Dreamscapes name tag with his name spelled out on it.

“Aisling?” Dr. Keller asked.

“Yeah?” She responded, fascinated by the downward sweep of the letter “K” on his name tag.

“I can tell that you’re exhausted,” he said, kindly. “But this is very important. You’ve read over all of the information about the drug, correct? This is our first trial run on a large test base and we want to make sure that everyone understands the risks.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I read it all,” Aisling lied. She didn’t understand half of what the information said and the rest of it was so uninteresting that between Daniels’ paper and Chen’s final, she didn’t have the time to devote to pretending to care about it. She just wanted sleep. Blissful, uninterrupted sleep which would make her feel human again. She was sure the drug was safe. Even if it wasn’t, what’s the worst that could happen? She wouldn’t sleep? She was already not sleeping.

“That’s excellent. I’m going to give you your first week’s dose of Suendol and what we like to call your Dream Journal,” he said, chuckling. He handed Aisling a white handled bag from the line of them that were situated beside the sink in the tiny exam room. “The instructions are on the bottle, but I want to go over them with you,” he said.

“Okay,” Aisling nodded. She was ready. She could remember how to take this miracle drug that was going to make her sleep.

“You take Suendol with food. You’ll need about three hundred calories, so have a nice snack. Go to sleep after you finish your snack. Do not try to stay up, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Now, it’s very important that you get to bed within twenty minutes of taking the pill. This drug is similar Ambien in that it will produce an altered state or “high” if you stay up after you take it. Before you go to bed you need to record what time it is and then when you wake up, you need to record the time as well,” Dr. Keller pulled out a spiral notebook opened it for Aisling. Each sheet had times for entering the hours you slept, quality of sleep, and other information that impacted your sleep cycle.

“Yeah, that seems pretty straightforward,” Aisling said, accepting the journal from Keller and flipping through it.

“In a very small part of our first private sample group, some people had nightmares while on Suendol,” Dr. Keller said, his lined face turning serious. “There was also a reported incidence of someone losing time.”

“How small?” Aisling asked, in a brilliant display of pretending to care. She would gladly take any nightmare in order to just sleep. She had never dreamt a great deal before these sleeping problems started.

“Very small,” Keller nodded. “The numbers are in the information we sent to you. I’m really just telling you as a precaution.”

“That sounds fine,” Aisling said, flipping to the end of the Dream Journal where she was supposed to rate her overall satisfaction with with drug and her experiences with it.

“Okay, I think this is really going to help you,” Keller said, smiling warmly. “If you have any problems, don’t hesitate to contact us, okay?”

“Sure,” Aisling said, sliding the journal back into the bag with the medication. She grimly thought that if something didn’t help her, at this point, she was going to end up in the hospital. This had to work.

*

Aisling deleted the last sentence she wrote and sunk back into her chair. She hated Florida right now. She hated the Spanish Conquistadors, she hated history, she hated Dr. Daniels for assigning this paper, she hated her decision to go back to grad school, she hated herself for every choice she had ever made in her entire life which had led to her sitting in this chair, trying to write this paper about the history of Florida.

She rubbed her burning eyes. She had taken her first dose of Suendol about a half hour ago. She had had every intention of going to sleep at the prescribed time, but then she realized that her first draft was due at nine the next morning, not the following day as she had accidentally written into her calendar. She just had to push through and and finish this draft. Then she could go to sleep.

Drumming her fingers lightly against the keyboard, Aisling thought about what to write next. Her introduction was solid. It had taken what felt like years to write it and she could not absolutely no flaws in it at all. But after she had stated what she intended to do in the paper she had no idea how to do it. Feeling an itch on her arm, Aisling mindlessly scratched it while looking over her last sentence. She had to link it to the next paragraph.

Wet. Aisling looked down at her arm and realized that she was bleeding. Pulling her fingers back she gasped in horror when she discovered that she had scratched her forearm open and a chunk of her skin fell to the floor.

“Shit!” She muttered, grabbing the hunk of flesh off the floor and trying to put it back into her arm. She placed it into the missing spot, just over the bone, and clamped her hand over it. She would stop bleeding in a few minutes and heal, Aisling assured herself. She looked back at her paper. She was only at 500 words out of 2500. She needed to keep working.

Blood from the wound dripped onto the floor surrounding her computer desk. She examined her situation. How could she work without her hands? Aisling needed to wrap her wound up and get back to typing. Aisling stood and started towards her bathroom and the small first aid kit she kept in the back of the linen closet. Miscalculating just how much blood was on the floor, she slipped in the spreading puddle and fell hard onto the wooden flooring.

Aisling touched her head with her good hand and groaned. She hoped she didn’t have a concussion. She didn’t have time for that. She tried to use her arms to prop herself up but fell back. Aisling looked down, the bloody stump of her arm greeted her gaze.

“Aisling! Aisling! Aze!”

Aisling awoke with such a start the arm that had seconds ago been missing flailed and struck her partner in his face. He howled in pain and staggered back as Aisling took stock of what was going on. She was at her desk. Her arm was attached. There was no blood on the floor.

“What the fuck, Aisling?” Connor demanded, taking his hands away from his face.

“What time is it?” She asked, rubbing her eyes.

“It’s time for you to apologize for hitting me,” Connor snapped back. Still in his boxers and t-shirt he walked over to the fridge and grabbed a POM Wonderful.

“I’m sorry, babe,” Aisling muttered, looking back at her computer. She felt different. She felt rested. Aisling looked at the clock on her computer. It was 5:53am. Seven hours after she had taken the medication. She had slept for at least six hours, she figured.

“Does your sleep medication make you hit people?” Connor asked.

“Look, I’m sorry, you startled me,” Aisling said, turning and looking at him. “I was having a nightmare and my arm was missing and, I don’t know, you just surprised me. It wasn’t on purpose.”

Connor’s face changed, his anger subsiding. “How is your paper coming? Your draft is due today, right?”

“Yeah, that’s what I’m looking at,” Aisling said. Falling asleep on her keyboard had caused chaos on her Macbook. She found the file she had been working on and gasped when she saw the word count was 2,800 words. “Oh no, I must have written it while I was high on the Seundol,” she said in horror. “I bet none of this makes any sense.”

“You wrote an entire paper and you don’t remember it,” Connor asked. “Even if it’s crap, it’s only a draft and you have something to turn in.”

“Not to Daniels,” she muttered. “He says that drafts should be a B. The final should be an A.” Aisling read over the conclusion paragraphs and raised an eyebrow. This was coherent. Not only coherent, it was well-written and concise.

“How bad is it?” Connor asked, sitting down at the tiny dining room table.

“It’s…” Aisling trailed off, looking over the rest of the paper. “It’s okay. It needs some polishing, but it’s not bad at all.”

“Really? You wrote a paper while high on a sleep medication and it’s actually usable? That doesn’t happen to people, Aisling,” he laughed.

“I know, right?” Aisling agreed. “I have a few hours before the due date. I can clean this up and make it work.” Aisling got up and grabbed her Dream Journal. She filled it out and closed the book with satisfaction. This medication is amazing, she thought happily.

*

Aisling looked down at her final exam for History of the Polynesian Islands class and tried to focus. Two days after taking her first dose of Suendol she had slept a combined 13 hours. This was more than she had slept for weeks but with Professor Iona’s final now on her desk, she felt as if she had nothing to celebrate. Aisling looked down at the exam.

What is the significance of the Hokulea discovery?

She knew this. Aisling knew all of this material. She loved this class. It had been her favorite class the entire semester and possibly the favorite of her entire grad school career. But as she stared at the paper her mind went completely blank. What was Hokulea? Who had discovered it? Why in the world was it even remotely important?

“Hey.”

Aisling looked up to see Parker, the only undergrad admitted into the class, gesturing to her. She looked at him incredulously. They were taking their final exam. There was no talking. Everyone knew that.

“What did you get for number 3?” He asked, in a normal speaking tone.

“Aisling?” Professor Iona set down the book that she had been reading and stood up from the small desk at the front of the room.

“I didn’t–” Aisling started to defend herself when she felt a burning sensation at her feet. The scent of smoke wafted past her nose. Aisling looked down to see that her boots were on fire. The smell of burning leather mingled with the already present smell of smoke. Screaming, Aisling tried to unzip her boots, but the metal zipper was entirely too hot for her to touch.

“Help me!” She screamed to Parker. Trying the zipper on the opposite boot. It also burned her fingers.

Parker grabbed both of her arms and pinned her to the desk. “You have to burn,” he said, simply, as if he was giving her directions to the financial aid office.

“Let me go!” Aisling shouted, thrashing against him. “Someone, help me!” She called out to the rest of the class. The other graduate students continued working on their papers as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening. Professor Iona nodded to Parker and sat back down at her desk, picking up her book again.

“Help!” Aisling screamed as the fire started to consume her ankles. “Help me!”

“You have to burn,” Parker repeated. “Burn.”

Aisling awoke with a start. She looked around and saw that the classroom was empty and Professor Iona was still sitting at her desk, reading her book.

“Sleep well?” she asked, turning the page as if nothing out of the ordinary was happening.

“What happened?” Aisling asked, looking down at her feet. Her boots were intact, there was no smoke in the air and that bastard Parker was long gone.

“You finished your exam and fell asleep,” Professor Iona observed. “Any other student and I would have woken you up, but I’ve noticed you’ve been having trouble lately and you looked like you needed to finish your nap.”

“I’m sorry,” Aisling muttered. “I’m on a medication for sleep. This is the first time I’ve fallen asleep during the day.”

“You’ve had a lot on your plate this semester,” Dr. Iona observed. “If you need more time for your exam, just let me know, okay?”

Aisling looked down at her forgotten exam and flipped through the pages. The answers were filled out with details and insight into the subject matter. Her handwriting even looked neater than usual. Aisling flipped to the last question she remembered trying to answer and was stunned to see that the significance of the Hokulea discovery was described in perfect detail.

“I think I’m okay,” Aisling said, flipping through the rest of the flawlessly-answered questions.

“Well, you’re done with my class then,” Professor Iona said, smiling. “Take care of yourself over break and I’ll see you next semester.”

“Okay, thanks,” Aisling said, rubbing her face. “I really appreciate it.”

*

“Aisling Callahan?” Dr. Chen said, poking his head out of his office and motion for Aisling to enter.

“Thanks for seeing me so late in the semester,” Aisling said, taking her seat across from his desk. It was finished. Her exams were done and now she needed to register for her new classes the next semester. “I understand you’re very busy.”

Dr. Chen raised an eyebrow at Aisling and didn’t respond to her statement. “I don’t recommend that you continue the overload you’ve been taking,” he said, simply.

“Uh, yeah,” Aisling said. In the small history program, she knew that people must be talking and, of course, her advisor would have heard what had been going on with her.

“You need four more classes for your degree. I suggest you take two during the spring semester and two over the summer, one in each summer segment,” Dr. Chen said, looking over Aisling’s file.

“I really wanted to graduate in May,” Aisling said, softly.

Dr. Chen turned and looked at her and took off his glasses. “Aisling, I understand your drive and I admire a student who pushes themselves to reach goals. However, you have been suffering all semester and your professors will not be able to keep making exceptions and working around you. You need to relax your course load or your GPA will suffer and you won’t be able to graduate anyway.”

Aisling nodded. Connor had said something similar to her a few days before. If only she could get her insomnia problem figured out then she would be fine. Overload had never bothered her before. Aisling stared at the tip of her boot. She needed to get her life sorted out. She was only going to grad school, after all. Some of her classmates were working as well. It wasn’t she had other things in her life right now.

Out of the corner of her eye, Aisling saw the glint of the silver letter opener flying towards her. By the time reality registered Dr. Chen had stabbed her in the shoulder. Aisling screamed as Dr. Chen looked for another item on his desk to attack her with. Furious, Aisling pulled out the letter opener, without feeling any pain. She gripped it underhanded and struck Dr. Chen in the chest.

He had always hated her. He had always given her that sideways look, those cutting comments, those subtle hints that he thought she wasn’t good enough for the program and didn’t belong there. In her rage, Aisling pulled out the letter opener and stabbed him again. Then again. She screamed at him that she was taking her full course load during the spring and graduating in May as he held his hands up to defend himself. The letter opener went through the web between his thumb and forefinger.

Screaming at him, she yanked out the letter opener and then stabbed him in the head. That’s what he gets for hurting her. That’s what he gets for trying to stop her from finishing her degree ahead of time. That’s what he gets.

“Hey, get up!”

Aisling stirred. She found herself clutching her hands against her chest and stared at her fingers. That was a weird nightmare. And so vivid, She thought to herself. The student looked up, expecting to see herself in Dr. Chen’s office with him angrily staring at her. But instead she was staring at an angry woman dressed in jeans and a torn shirt.

“Get up, bitch. That’s my spot,” the woman snapped.

“That ain’t your spot,” Another voice said. “You just got here. You can’t be claiming spots.”

“Where am I?” Aisling muttered.

“Where do you think you are?” the woman standing in front of her barked, pointing off in the distance. Aisling looked over and saw bars. She gasped and sat up, looking down at herself. She was wearing a bright orange jumpsuit.

“This is wrong,” Aisling said, tugging at the uncomfortable shirt. “I was just dreaming. I was dreaming all of those things.”

“Baby, you wasn’t dreaming nothing,” the other voice announced. Aisling looked over to see a woman sitting on a bunk, her feet bare. “I heard what you in for. Whew, I heard about you.”

“That’s my spot,” the first woman insisted.

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