When you sleep, you tend to forget your surroundings. When you wake in a strange white room, empty save for a hospital bed and your own confused self, it's natural to panic. But this isn't my nature. I am lulled, observing a foreign reality with the eyes of a prisoner. I wake in this merciless, finite space for an immeasurable quantity of times over the course of an eternity. I forget that I am existing, breathing, moving. My mind is numb as I welcome a familiar, involuntary urge to resume my slumber.
On one occasion, my mind was awakened with my body. I was no longer observing; I was living. I sat upright and saw that the white wall across from my bed was now a glass barrier; behind it lay a familiar hospital bed with a sleeping body inside. It was not me inside that bed, however, it was a man about a decade my senior. But, as he sat up and met my gaze, I saw that we shared dark hair and matching eyes. Only, trying to remember my own age and face was like wiping rain from my eyes in the middle of a thunderstorm.
He walked to the glass wall and touched it, staring at me expectantly. I shakily got to my feet, feeling the cool white tiles beneath my bare toes, and met him at the wall, watching this stranger with caution. When the barrier restricted us from hearing each other's questioning words, he began to pound the glass with his fists and roar inaudibly. I backed away, eventually stopped by the back wall, and I slid down to the floor. I held my head, feeling sluggish, fighting a familiar groggy feeling. When I looked up with an unsteady gaze, the man was stumbling backwards, looking just as sleepy. I let unconsciousness overtake my busy mind.
When I began to wake once again, I wasn't lying safely in my hospital bed, adorned by a papery gown, suspended in time. Instead, I was in fairly normal clothes, my face pressed against maroon carpet. The walls were a stale yellow with flower silhouettes decorating the wallpaper and furniture. I sat up and leaned against the tan sofa, my head heavy. I noticed that man lying next to the door, and, within a few seconds, he stirred awake. Again, my presence didn't startle him. He asked me for my name, but I had no appropriate response. My voice came out hoarse and unused as I claimed that I didn't know. He said he'd call me Tate—said he'd always wanted a son named Tate. He said his name was Hayden, and not to ask him questions, he's just as confused.
That was when the crying started, an infant's muffled wail from beyond the door. When I shot Hayden a puzzled look, he turned and opened the door, making the cry unfiltered. I followed him through the dark hallway and into an open room. A soft blue light washed over us, and the cry was at its peak. There was a tiny baby in a crib, kicking his short legs and screaming with a flushed face. Hayden and I stood over him, trying to hush his cries. Just as the baby began to quiet down, some mechanical whirring started.
Beep beep! it said, and a toy car rolled from under the crib. We stared at the red car as it buzzed back and forth, its occasional beeping eventually disturbing the baby. He began to whine softly, and I couldn't blame him. Independent toys had always frightened me as well. I wasn't sure how I'd come up with that fact, but it felt real. It was a solid thought. I held on to it, liking the feeling of just remembering. It gave me hope to know that, at some point, I'd had . . . a life.
Hayden pinched the bridge of his nose, complaining about how it wouldn't shut up. I thought he was talking about the baby, but, luckily, it was the little toy car that he stomped to death. It wasn't the first time Hayden had made me a little frightened of him. He seemed irrational, almost. Impatient. I hoped that, in my far-away life, I wasn't like him.
Once the car was silenced, the child relaxed, resting his eyes and heaving little breaths. When all was quiet, the blue nightlight in the corner of the room flickered and dimmed. The darkness wasn't frightening, it was the creak in the hallway—the soft, distant noise I didn't recognize. I watched Hayden, my heart speeding. He met my gaze, but his eyelids fluttered and he cursed softly; I soon understood. My head suddenly felt heavy. I tried to speak, but my mouth was numb. I remember hearing a footstep in the doorway; my mind was reeling into panic mode, but I didn't react. I slipped into darkness.
This time, when I woke up, I wasn't even lying down. Instead, I was sitting in the passenger seat of a car. I found myself calling upon a god I never knew existed as I opened my eyes and saw the road flying past us. It was daytime. I turned to Hayden in the driver's seat. He kept one hand on the wheel and half his attention on the road. When he saw I was awake, he smiled, a strange look for his worn face. He glanced at me and said I'd slept longer than he had—don't worry about how he got a car, just look at the outside world. Our lives in our hands, he said. He smiled again. I muttered about his sanity, but I was relieved, in a way. Were we free? It was far out of the ordinary, yet comfortingly normal. I rested in the passenger seat, folding my arms and closing my eyes, letting myself relax for once.
But, when I opened my eyes for a moment, we were turning a sharp curve, and we were too far in the left lane. A little silver car was coming fast, and I didn't even have time to scream or tell Hayden he was speeding. The world became a blur of spinning images and loud crashing noises, skidding, and screeching. When our vehicle shook and stood still, I was breathing heavily. I turned to Hayden as he recovered from the airbag's punch. He met my eyes briefly before getting out; I followed him. We stood by our car, watching as a teenage boy got out of the passenger seat of the silver car. His face was scrunched up and flushed. He kept his distance but released his frustration immediately.
It was hard to understand the words in his throaty wailing, but they came to me in pieces: "You killed her!" He fell to his knees, pulling at his short brown hair. "She's dead!" He screamed, giving me chills. I turned to Hayden as he stared at the woman in the driver's seat, her head slumped over as blood trickled from her scalp. We were paralyzed. I wanted to help the boy and yell at Hayden for not already doing so, but my tongue was heavy in my mouth and I was swaying. I told myself not to give in—don't fall asleep again . . . But I was soon on the asphalt, staring with half-lidded eyes at the boy as he rocked back and forth, sobbing.
When I woke up, Hayden was already awake and sitting in the square, white room. It was small with only the two of us inside. I rubbed my eyes, leaned against a white wall, and watched Hayden fiddle with a small bottle. He didn't meet my eyes as he spoke. He said, "Funny how life gives us exactly what we need, when we need it." I watched him, feeling both angry and strangely sober. Once again, I hoped that, in the magical land of my past, I was never like him. I didn't like the way his smile fell short of genuine—the way his eyes looked like they lied by habit.
He gave me a strange, animalistic expression. I thought his eyes were wet, but I wasn't sure. He put the short, orange bottle to his lips and downed the contents: maybe fifty little white tablets. I was new to life and all its wonders, but I felt that I knew what he was doing. It was like a sore wound being reopened, in a way. I reached for him, realizing my arms weren't moving. My eyes were wide yet fluttering. I couldn't help myself as I quickly resumed sleeping, screaming inwardly at my helplessness.
And, I finally woke up. Life was set in motion. My past was my present and I was alive. I opened my eyes to see a nurse standing over me, her eyes lighting up as I awakened. I was sore everywhere, as if I'd never moved a muscle before. When I did move, I was tugging at tubes and wires sticking out of my vital points. The nurse helped me sit up; when she walked away, I noticed an elderly man approaching my hospital bed, his smile relieved and genuine. I gave him a questioning look, feeling as if I knew him from somewhere.
"Do you know what happened?" he asked in a gruff, aged voice lined with kindness.
I shook my head, wondering if Hayden was alright.
He nodded. "Do you know . . . who you are?"
I shook my head.
He seemed sad but handed me a scrapbook; he was expecting this reaction. After a few pages, I saw a familiar room with a baby inside a crib. My eyebrows furrowed. A few pages later, there he was . . . that teenage boy . . . that woman . . . that dead woman . . .
"She's dead," I whispered, like a child reciting facts.
"That's right. You remember. Your mother died about twenty years ago, in the accident."
I stared at him gravely. I shook my head, words eluding my lips. Not my mother . . . she was that boy's. Wasn't she? I flipped through the scrapbook quietly, and there I was at the end. I recognized my own face, young with dark hair and matching eyes. I suppose it was during my high school graduation. I shut the book and handed it back to the man.
"What happened?" I asked in a whisper, staring at my hands.
"You overdosed a few days ago. Your wife, Rosalyn, had died the night before. Your son was stillborn . . . I'm sorry to make you relive these things, but it's what happened, son. You couldn't take it . . ."
That name meant something to me, opening another wound and pouring in salt, but I wasn't sad. I couldn't remember a wife or a son; I was confused. I interrupted him.
"I need to go to the bathroom."
With some assistance, I stood up and staggered to the bathroom near my bed. I closed the door and looked into the mirror. What I saw was not myself. It was the face of Hayden. I stared into those weary eyes, trying to comprehend. I didn't understand, and I didn't want to. I looked down at the white, porcelain sink to find an orange bottle of white tablets.
Funny how life gives us exactly what we need, when we need it.