The recurring nightmare that caused Alexander’s sleeping phobia – even his dread of bedtime – took place in a car. He never could remember how he got in the car, only that he’d be in the back seat of a moving vehicle, careening down a street at a speed of forty miles per hour, weaving in and out of traffic. His dream became a nightmare the moment he realized that no one was driving.
Each time the car was different. Sometimes it would be a large Cadillac, other times it would be an old Ford truck -once it was a school bus. It would be different cities, all unidentifiable – but always filled with people walking here and there. Alexander would be panicked as he looked out the windshield, watching the near misses of pedestrians as they dove out of the way; the headlights of oncoming traffic swerving out of the way to avoid collision.
He would try to climb into the front seat, hoisting a sweaty and limp leg over the unreasonably high bench that kept him from the steering wheel. The other leg would follow and Alexander would then try to reach the foot pedals with his uncooperative feet, always bending at the ankles or getting caught on tissue boxes or old coffee mugs on the floor. In the chaos, he could see other cars on the periphery, all obeying traffic laws as his runaway car threatened the otherwise peaceful road. There would be swearing and heavy breathing as he tried with all his might to situate himself in the driver’s seat. As he felt the bumpy red steering wheel in his hand, there was always the feeling that it was all his fault.
He would awake with a start, usually bolting up - right before he hit a tree or ran off a bridge or hit another car, causing great bodily injury. He would be breathless in the dark, trembling and sweating as if it all had happened – there in his room. Filled with fear, then relief and finally guilt, he only had one question: How could he have let this happen again?
Being a man of research, Alexander Ewald Gross had researched the field of recurring dreams and nightmares and even watched films on how to stop the recurrence. None of the touted methods worked. The mind control techniques were for the weak minded or newly haunted subjects, not for him – someone who had been plagued by the same nightmare since he was a boy.
He had tried everything. Alexander had even become an expert on the wide array of available sleep medications, both prescribed and over-the-counter. That tea? Yes, it was good, but it was very light and didn’t take away the active mind in sleep. That pill? It was successful to knock the subject out, but the dreams continued in a surreal fashion, with the car becoming a melted mass of steel and the steering wheel resembling a Remo drumhead. Alcohol only worked if it had to be the very fine or expensive stuff, like Tanqueray Gin or Bowmore whiskey. Both had been distilled so beautifully that Alexander hoped they would be the cure; they only caused more of the same.
Doctors he consulted as an adult were a confederacy of dunces. As a teen, his mother mentioned his nightmares to his pediatrician, which made Alexander blush deep scarlet, but the doctor proved to have the wisest solution: lots of reading and plenty of football. Alexander found a home in both books and sport but the hellish repetition continued each night as REM sleep set in.
“You look weary, Gross,” his boss told him one morning at the coffee machine. “How are you sleeping?”
“I don’t really sleep,” Alexander answered without thinking.
“Really?” His boss leaned forward and tapped him on the elbow. “Why not?”
Alexander explained weakly about his dream life keeping him awake. Before he could finish his boss announced, “I’ve got just the thing!”
Alexander looked at him through his sore, dry eyes. Could this little round man who did nothing for him other than check his reports actually have an answer? He decided to ask him.
“What do you have?”
“Serena!” His boss raised his eyebrows up and down, suggestively. The thought of his boss entertaining a woman made Alexander nauseous. He had to be sixty years old – ugly as sin and woefully out of shape. “A young guy like you? You should have no problem at all sleeping! I’ll bring her to your desk by the end of the day.”
Alexander returned to his desk with a steaming brown mug, careful not to trip and lay himself flat between the impersonal grey cubicles that constituted the hallway. He wondered if he looked well enough to meet a woman that would “help him sleep”. The thought made him nervous and for the rest of the day, he could barely concentrate. He made simple mistakes in sentence structure, printed reports to the mainframe printer (he had to descend two flights of stairs to retrieve them) and spilled coffee all over his beige tie.
At four fifteen, his boss appeared in his cubicle, suddenly. “Gross!”
Alexander was startled and spun around quickly, hearing a small air bubble pop in his neck. “Yes?”
His boss put a small, square-bottomed, brown paper bag with twisted paper handles in front of him. It looked like nothing – Alexander peered inside. It was a small stainless steel radio box, resembling an old alarm clock with a black cord that plugged into the wall. He looked up, wearily, at his boss.
“May I present Serena.” His boss waved his hands at the bag. “The woman I told you will help you sleep.”
“I’ve tried white noise, sir…”
“Oh, she’s not white noise!” His boss shook his head and reflected in quiet homage. “She will whisper your name and chase those dreams away. Now take her, read the directions and use her tonight.” His boss looked over his shoulder and then leaned forward, speaking in a hushed voice. “I expect an update tomorrow. If she is who I think she is, you’ll soon be sleeping like a baby.”
Alexander watched the small man waddle down the hall, waving goodbye to some of his co-workers. Looking inside the bag once more, Alexander saw the worn set of instructions – a pamphlet typed in English and Japanese. He decided to give her a try.
After a dinner of ham and eggs, Alexander pulled out the stainless steel box and read the instructions, desperate to achieve rest. Through the fog of listless distraction, he managed to concentrate enough to bring the box into his bedroom and plug it into the outlet closest to his nightstand. He read how the unit must be programmed by first clearing the memory.
Whispering the instructions aloud to himself, Alexander murmured: “Press start button until red light stops flashing.”
He pressed the only button he could see, a nickel-sized button on top of the box. A red light suddenly flashed in the digital display, blinking for fifteen seconds before it stayed on. Alexander nervously returned to the instructions.
“When red light stays on, say your full name into speaker.”
There was no visible speaker, so Alexander leaned close to the unit and spoke clearly: “Alexander Ewald Gross.”
The red light shut off suddenly. Did he do something wrong? The instructions continued: “As soon as the name has been recorded, the light will go off and you are ready to sleep serenely.”
Alexander read the entire set of directions again. He looked at the box and wondered if he had programmed it properly. He wasn’t sure if it was an electric placebo meant to influence his subconscious or if it was a cheap rip-off unit manufactured by new age nuts. Either way, he decided to unplug it.
As he bent over to do so, he changed his mind. If his boss asked about it tomorrow, he needed to be able to honestly say that he had tried the box and that it hadn’t worked. If by some miracle he didn’t have the nightmare, he could tell his boss he was right. Either way, he’d need to answer in a way that would foster good relations or perhaps enhance his chance for promotion.
Pajamas and toothbrush routines successfully completed, Alexander climbed into bed and began reading his latest mystery novel, now and then glancing at the box. It wasn’t until he was in the car, careening down a road with oncoming headlights did he realize he was sleeping and dreaming.
Alexander breathed heavily in the back seat, his green pin-striped pajamas were sticking to him he was sweating so much. Suddenly, in the middle of his panic, he saw her. There, in the driver’s seat was a woman – a real woman with red long hair and milky white skin. From his vantage point in the back seat, Alexander could tell she was beautiful, even though he couldn’t see her face.
“Hello,” he said.
She turned to him, glancing carefully and then returning her gaze to the road. “Hello!”
Instead of climbing over the seat, Alexander decided to sit where he was. He realized he wasn’t wearing a seat belt and reached for it.
“You don’t need a seat belt, Alexander,” Serena said softly. “This is a dream.”
He sat back and let go of the buckle, placing his hands on his lap. He watched the road for a short while and then stared at the back of her head. “I guess you know my name because I told you, huh?”
She laughed a little. When she did, Alexander realized she was supporting him, not making fun of him. “I love your name,” she looked back at him again. Her thickly lashed eyes were a pale green, just like his own. “I was wondering if you could tell me how you got your middle name.”
“Ewald?” Alexander realized there was no hiding; she knew everything about him. He didn’t know how or why, but he knew she knew everything. “You know that Ewald was my mother’s father, remember?”
Serena didn’t answer him. Instead, she continued to drive and Alexander could see that the road was changing; it became sparsely populated. They were leaving the city and going into the country, he could see apple orchards in his periphery. Serena gently spoke, he voice like a cloud of feathers over his body.
“You called your mother’s father Grandpa. I didn’t know his name was Ewald.”
Alexander felt five years old again. He looked at his hands, folded in his lap and realized that he actually had become five years old in his dream. Was Serena taking him to Grandpa’s house? His grandparents’ house used to be out behind the apple orchards, where the old farmer’s market was held. A canning plant and a packing station used to be in full swing during the autumn. Alexander remembered going there….
“Are we going to Grandpa’s?” Alexander heard his voice and was moved with emotion. He was a young boy, at the mercy of the driver, going to a familiar place. Why was his heart beating so fast?
“No, we’re not.” Serena was quiet for a moment and Alexander breathed deeply. She spoke again, this time looking over at him for a long time. Alexander was not frightened as she took her eyes off the road for an extended period. Instead, he looked deeply into them and listened to her. “You don’t ever have to go to that place again. There is never a need for you to feel guilty about what happened there.”
Alexander nodded at her. His eyes clouded with tears. “What if Grandpa comes looking for me?”
Serena continued to look into him and reassure him. “There will be no way he can find you.
Besides, he can’t find you because he’s dead. He’s in another world now.”
Before he could digest this fact, he realized that they were there – at the packing plant. The big wooden boxes that held the apples were stacked up to the roof of the hangar, giants against the small car they had driven to get there.
Standing outside the car, Serena held his tiny hand in hers. Alexander’s pajamas were now covered in trains. He remembered the slippers he wore with them as a boy, but when he looked down his feet were bare. The ground was dirt, hard and compacted by years of wear. All around him was the dark glow of the orchards, the packing plant was closed, but the smell of red delicious apples was in the air.
“You see this place?” Serena was asking him. “This place can’t hurt you. This memory can’t hurt you. You are now safe and you have no need to worry.” He felt her hand squeeze his and he leaned against her, hoping to hug her legs. Instead, the roar of a tractor woke him suddenly and he sat up in his bed, bolting upright. Instead of sweat, Alexander was covered in wonder. His eyes, opening to the morning light turned toward the box, buzzing like a tractor in the distance. The digital display was blinking: “6:30”.
At work, Alexander served himself coffee, still taking in the events of the night before. He felt remarkably rested, even though the dream was still very clear in his mind.
His boss entered the break room, whistling. “Gross! Good Morning!”
Alexander turned to him and unwittingly smiled. “Good morning, sir.”
His boss’ expression was fast and perfect, as if he knew that something had transpired. “How was your night with Serena?”
Alexander feigned confusion, blinking as he tried to maintain a dim expression. “Oh, yeah… I forgot to use that thing you gave me.” His deceit was plain, but for some reason, Alexander’s boss decided to play along.
“Oh, really? I was just about to tell you that you look rested.”
“Well,” Alexander stirred his coffee. Two ladies from shipping and receiving came in, talking about a show they had both seen on television the night before.
His boss poured himself a cup of coffee, ignoring the women and continuing with Alexander. “If you decide to use her tonight, say a different name into the speaker.” He poured carefully into his mug and then turned to Alexander. “It will be even more magnificent.”
For a moment Alexander wanted to confess, but decided to continue his charade of ignorance. “I don’t know what you mean, but I’ll try that.”
Both men walked out of the break room and down the row of cubicles in awkward silence. It was finally no use.
“Where did you get it?” Alexander suddenly asked.
His boss continued to walk, not even looking at him. “It was given to me by my boss after I told him I had problems sleeping.”
Alexander stopped walking as soon as he got to his cubicle. He watched his boss keep walking, eventually turning the corner that led to his office. Alexander sat in his chair and turned on his computer. Rested and fit, he now realized he might eventually have to part with the box. He intended to find another one just like it somewhere. Somewhere there was sure to be one. One that could be his to keep. Keep forever. Without worry of parting with her. Without her, his Grandpa Ewald might raise from the dead and find him somewhere in his REM sleep.