By Bill Kte'pi
28 October 2002
"Beware the Minotaur."
The voice crawls across the damp bedsheets, asexual and low, breaking through a collage of dreams fanned out like a called bluff:
--pale brittle girl dancing with caribou, her feet crunching through blue frost--
--clouds with cherubic faces swallowing the sun--
--paved streets crawling across a barren landscape--
--old men walking painfully up walls and over ceilings, skin stretched over their bony joints--
Not sure which dreams are mine. Not sure whose head the voice came from. Waking up is like that, feeling blind around a stranger's closet until you find yourself, remember which one you are.
It used to be different. The past was quieter, drawn tighter like laugh lines.
No one ever really sleeps anymore. No one ever really wakes up. No one lives alone.
I grunt and stumble out of bed, the sheets sticking to my bare legs and dragging across the carpet until they snag and drop. The apartment is cool, central air conditioning and sealed windows keeping the New Orleans humidity at bay, but the sheets are soaked with chilly sweat. The dreams must have been particularly intense last night.
I have to step over seven-inch tall couples having sex on my bathroom floor to brush my teeth, and the mouthwash is filled with blinking floating eyeballs, optic nerves clinging in the green alcohol like tadpole tails. The eyeballs are mine, but I think the copulating couples have meandered in from the neighbors. The neighbor on the left was once a Catholic priest before his diocese dissolved, one of the casualties of the rapid attrition following New Mexico; the neighbors on the right are a young couple with a newborn. When I moved in a few months ago I used to have fun trying to guess which dreams came from which apartment -- but of course, it's not really supposed to work that way, the artifacts could come from anywhere in the world.
Still, despite what we're told about how it works, most bleedouts seem to stay local.
I glance at the shower and decide I can just hot-towel it today: there's a cluster of shadows moving across the translucent blue shower curtain, shadows with teeth and claws and barbed genitalia. Still pretty sure that one's from the priest.
Psychopompal iridescent bats cling to the coffeemaker, the sort of bats you can only see with peripheral vision, but whose leathery wings you can hear flapping anywhere in the room. I shake grounds into a filter and flip the switch, keeping my eyes on the pot until the bats go away. The morning's slow to shake off; coffee usually helps.
The bats are mine. I'll see them in the middle of the day sometimes, crawling across a cashier's face at the grocery store or nipping at my heels while I try to work. Sometimes they get tangled in my hair, or nibble on the faces I often see hovering in the air, plastered and rippling unnaturally against walls and doorknobs. No one else sees them because I don't let my dreams out.
The bats and the faces are my most frequent artifacts. Being able to keep my dreams in means I'm better at knowing which ones are mine: look for the things everyone else ignores.
I can feel wings beating inside my chest, the sort of thing you'd mistake for a heart murmur or muscle twinge if you didn't know better. Wings fluttering against muscles and bones, taking up space that isn't there, light touches that tickle and itch where I can't scratch.
Just as hot coffee is meeting my lips and I'm making the cautious face you make when you drink it before it cools, a horn blasts from the street, three long bleats which shake through the air, melt my windows like plunked sugarcubes, and slap against my still-bare chest, leaving welts.
Dammit. Running late this morning. Dan's here to pick me up, and I'm still so somnolent that the waking comes into my dreams and then back out again. Last night must've been rough.
I grab what looks like a clean shirt, shotgun the coffee and let my throat deal with the burn in the hope it'll wake me up, and grab my keys on my way out the door and through the courtyard to the street, waving at Dan and cartoon-exaggerating my grimace at him so he'll lay off the damn horn.
"You look like shit," Dan says when I get in the car, pulling out of the lot before my door's even shut. "She must've done a real number on you last night, huh."
I take one of his cigarettes from the glove compartment, relaxing my eyes and daydreaming of fire to light the end. He hates it when I do that trick, which is why I did it this time. Hardly anyone can bring out a dream like that, make it so real it affects non-sentient matter, and most of those who can have jobs with the Sops. "Told you," I mumble through a smokehole, "there is no she. But yeah, it was a rough night. I guess. I don't remember much of it."
Dan drives like a stunt-driver on the Autobahn. The wheels bump painfully as he clips the curb of a corner, the little Mazda bouncing along the craggy Gentilly roads. I live in one of those neighborhoods they repave exactly eighteen months after it needs it, like clockwork. "So you say. Me, I say anyone doesn't share his dreams, keeps 'em locked up tight like you, he's got a girl in there, some fresh ever-cherry he doesn't want popped." I don't bother to answer, we've gone over this before. Dan and I have worked together for three years, and since we don't hate each other that means we're supposed to be friends.
We pass each other Cards: his says "My name is Dan Lawson. We've worked together for three years. You owe me twenty dollars." It goes on to describe things we've done together after work, the time we rented a condo on the Gulf Coast with our girlfriends of the moment, and so on. Mine sticks to the bare facts: "My name is Tony Vargas. We've worked together for three years. I do not owe you twenty dollars, you write that on every Card. We've never slept together." I add the last sentence to every Card it applies to; some people think it's crass, but I find it practical.
We glance at the Cards, which have become a necessary and rarely ignored part of social etiquette since New Mexico, and nod. Generally the Cards are not necessary, but since New Mexico, since dreams went public, it's important to have a reminder of who people are to you in real life. Not everyone adopted them right away, but most people over thirty have an embarrassing "I kissed the woman I thought I'd slept with but had only dreamed about" anecdote, or the equivalent. Of such things is daytime television built.
As Dan's Mazda gets air off a pothole large enough to sleep in, polyhedral orange raindrops fill the sky and the heavy bass of nearby car stereos transmutes, notes becoming visible and glossy-electric, reconfiguring into a heavy, pounding beat which shakes windshields.
Most bleedouts are still just in your head: the wild dog someone else imagines might be able to bite you, because you can imagine the pain, but it can't dig up your flowerbed. This is different. This is like my cigarette trick. If the beats were heavier, the windshields would break, and even taking a hit of Lucidin or one of its pharmaceutical cousins wouldn't change that.
These beats don't come from ordinary dreams or daymares. They're the chorus which follows the Soporifics. I haven't seen them in the city for awhile: the Sops are federal, usually sticking to west coast cities. The West's wilder than the East since New Mexico because of proximity. Same reason this hemisphere's jumpier on dreams -- parts of Europe have hardly changed at all, although Australia's in the same boat we are. On the Discovery Channel they said it had something to do with the Aborigine belief in the Dreamtime, but mostly I think they say things like that on TV when they're not sure what's going on.
"Sops," Dan mutters, shaking his head. The reverberation on the Mazda's windshield echoes back small black clouds of red-winged hornets which buzz angrily outside the car and fly off -- that's Dan's doing, not the Sops.'
"Wonder what up," I offer, not wanting him to get in a stew thinking about how the Sops sent his kid sister to a federal hospital up north. Poor girl was twenty-one and woke up every morning to bloody sheets because she couldn't stop dreaming about cutting herself. That's the kind of thing they just medicate you for, but when the meds don't work and you've got a hallmate who wakes up with identical stigmata, they send you north.
"What, you didn't hear? Where you been, Sonny Jim?" This is good, he can laugh at my expense. He drives a lot better then than when he's stewing. For all that says.
"Told you, it was a rough night. Couldn't've been awake more than fifteen minutes when you picked me up."
He fumbles behind him, reaching to the back seat, and the car veers towards the neutral ground in the road. I push him back into his seat. "What, what do you want? Christ, drive the damn car."
There's a folded-over Times-Picayune under a McDonald's bag, and I grab it, knock spent ketchup packets off. The orange beats have dissipated, though I never saw the Sops; they must've been on a parallel street.
Dan unfolds the paper on the dashboard and points to the above-the-crease headline: "Three Deaths in Gentilly, NOPD Blames Dream Bleed."
I scan the particulars. It's the usual sort of thing you hear about on the national news or on Boston Soporifics, the new David Kelley show. Someone dreamed a little too hard, a little too rough, and whatever got out killed people. A lot of times, it just ends up in heart attack, so no one's got an estimate on how often this happens. Less often than television makes it seem, more often than you'd want.
"They called the Sops in already on this?"
"S'what they said on the radio this morning," Dan says, cutting off an RTA bus with a sudden swerve into the next lane. "Hey, you know what else they said."
"They had one of those pie charts in the USA Today this morning, you know? One half of one percent of the population can hold their dreams in more than ninety percent of the time."
"Yeah?" I'm one of that one half of one percent, as Dan knows.
"You know how many of 'em actually do it, though?"
"You're gonna tell me, is what I know."
"Two percent. Two percent of one half of one percent, Tony Vee. That's how many. You know how many people that is? That's like, fuck, that's like two people. That's like, you and some chick in Montana, you're the only hermits crazy enough to do it. That's what it is."
"Dan, it's like . . . twenty-five thousand people or something. That's enough people for a large town. That's like, bigger than Houma. That's a lot of people."
"Yeah, whatever. A large town. Geez. Wouldn't you just love that. A whole town of crazy nutballs like you, hoarding their dreams up like it's all you got."
We drive with no sound except the Mazda's one working speaker playing the morning show and the thump every time Dan doesn't bother slowing down for a pothole, and after a while he adds, "I didn't mean it like that. I mean, you know -- man, she's nothing, you know that, don't sweat it."
He's talking about Jen, I realize halfway through his apology. We broke up, what, three months ago? Four? Hard dreams make it difficult to pinpoint time, because the remembered span of your life becomes longer. Is that what he thinks, that I don't dream out loud because I'm lonely?
It's what Jen accused me of, in different words. "It's something you won't share with me," that was the refrain between verses of dinner in the Quarter or flipping through bridal magazines to make nonspecific wedding plans. "It's one thing if you didn't have a choice, like it used to be, but you do. You could share it if you wanted to, at least with me, and you don't. How do you think it makes me feel? It's a part of you you won't let me touch."
I kept telling her that it had nothing to do with her. I think that made her feel worse, but don't ask me to explain why. It's not like I didn't share other things with her: I even told her how it felt when my mother left us, just left in the middle of the night without even packing a bag.
We don't say anything the rest of the ride to work, probably because we're both now thinking about how I'm going to see Jen there, and how awkward that'll be -- and me, I'm thinking it wouldn't be so damn awkward if Dan hadn't made a thing out of it, but "supposed to be friends" doesn't buy you much.
"Oh," Dan says as we walk into the building, headed for the crowd gathered around waiting for the elevator. "You gonna watch the 60 Minutes tonight?"
He gives the headshake again, and I shrug. "They're doing the special, man. The interview, this guy used to be an intern says he worked for the scientists. You know, the guys in New Mexico. Supposed to be, he's going to explain what they were working on when it all went . . ."
". . . the way it went."
"Yeah." We both remember the live broadcasts from New Mexico, after they were able to get camera crews in from other states. Orgies in the streets, cannibalism, people digging their eyes out with shards of broken store windows.
"I dunno, maybe I'll check it out. Lemme know about it tomorrow if I don't."
"You got it, buddy." We get in the elevator and stop talking, as my bats scatter around and play with the red-eyed goblins and purple-furred kittens dreamed by my co-workers.
Jen puts her Card down on my desk next to my computer, by way of greeting. I glance at it as I finish typing up a memo reminding people to check with their group coordinators for instructions on how to prioritize their weekly project outlines. "My name is Jennifer Jensen," it says, "and I hate being called Jen-Jen. We were engaged for two years, broke up in February, and already got the break-up sex out of the way. We're still friends. See reverse for specifics." The other side of the Card, I remember, lists dates like our anniversary, and the fact that her dad doesn't like me because the deposit he'd put on the wedding hall was nonrefundable.
"Morning, Jen." I take my Card-holder from my breast pocket, shake the one out for her; you always remember whose Card is where in the holder, just like you know which cabinet is plates and which is glasses.
She glances at it carefully, the way she always does with Cards. She used to complain that people never read Cards closely enough, that for all they knew they wandered around in a world they misunderstood because no one was who they remembered them as. I told her that would make a good poem: Jen writes poems sometimes for those squarebound magazines they sell on the bottom shelf at Barnes and Noble.
"How are you?" she asks, her voice timid in a way which would be strange if I didn't recognize it as the "I don't know whether to feel sympathetic or yell at you" tone. Three years since we first started dating, I'm still wondering if it's a tone she uses with everyone, or if there's something special about me, you know?
"Fine, Jen." Except that you left me because I couldn't give you something you should never have wanted. "Long night, you know. One of those."
"I remember." Jen's got this theory, I dream harder, faster, stronger, because I don't let it out. Like compressed gasses held in under pressure. The shrink I saw before I could get promoted -- standard policy -- said there wasn't enough data yet to support that conclusion, but he couldn't refute it, either.
I stop typing, click Send, look up at her over my glasses. "What's up--" I have to stop myself, look at one of the motivational posters on the wall -- it's a blandly happy pastel office worker leaning back in his chair and holding a thick sheaf of papers victoriously over his head, with the motto "Good work is its own reward" -- because I was about to add "hon" or "babe" or "sweetheart," so the ellipsis hangs in the air, covered in bats no one sees but me. A turtle with horn-rimmed glasses swims through the air, one of Jen's most common bleed artifacts.
"I heard the news this morning. You know, the deaths, the Soporifics. It was right by you. I still don't like that neighborhood." Jen lives on the Westbank, where we used to live together, and hasn't been able to understand why I'd move into the city. I like being closer to work, closer to the stuff worth being close to. Rent's cheaper, too.
"I don't think it's got anything to do with the neighborhood. This isn't a race riot we're talking about. Hell, you know what they say, the dreams might not've even come from there. Could be from California, all we know, or . . . I don't know, London. Prague. Could be Prague."
"It isn't Prague. Would the Soporifics be here if it was Prague? You sure you're okay? I mean -- you didn't get any--"
I shake my head, resist the urge to touch her hand. I want to stand up, look at her levelly instead of directing my gaze upwards across her breasts to her face. But if I stand up, then the office sees it's Tony and Jen talking, not just a casual co-worker conversation. Not that they likely think it's the latter anyway. "Nothing happened, ba-- Jen. Seriously. We're cool for school over here. I had a rough night, but nothing that much out of the ordinary. Could be I had too much," to drink last night, "coffee, or something. The usual goblins of unsteady minds." I grin at that, cause it's meant to be a joke -- it's the phrase I've used with her for my most troubling dreams.
She doesn't smile, and for the rest of the day she seems to walk by my desk more often than is usually necessary. In the prison of my ribcage, trapped wings beat against my heart.
. . . The girl is as pale as double cream, as brittle as first frost, her feet leaving bare prints in the snow as she dances naked in a glen thick with caribou which circle around her, bowing their heads, stamping their hooves. Together they call storms from the heavens, sweeping the snow away. . . .
. . . Faces form in the clouds in the churned happenstance of windflow and shadowcasting, mouths materializing in the damp greys where sun doesn't touch, cumulous eyes splitting open in a gust of stormy air. One by one the clouds grow faces and surround the sun, wet monochrome stamping out the color until nothing gold remains. . . .
. . . The world is dead and empty and even the buildings are gone, even the cars are gone, even the cities are gone, black eye sockets left staring out at space as the planet slowly revolves, but the streets remain, from cobblestone European walkways to massive sixteen-lane highways, and they begin to wobble, they grow sinuous and snarling, like miles of snapped whip. The Earth turns inexorably and the streets crawl across it, snakes hungry for something to tempt. . . .
. . . The room is empty and yellowing, wallpaper shaking off at the baseboards from steamy jungle humidity. Old men wearily walk up the walls, stumbling because they lack the muscle for steadiness. Their shoulders are sharp and birdlike, elbows sharp points sticking out of their arms, legs scaly with wrinkles. When each reaches the joining of wall to ceiling he steps across the divide, dirty grey hair hanging floorwards from gravity which affects nothing else. . . .
"Beware the Minotaur."
I wake up with a start, hair plastered to my forehead with sweat, the couch cushion damp behind my head, my work shirt cold and wet under my arms. I must have fallen asleep after work, on the couch watching television.
"Beware the Minotaur," is what the chick on television says, crossing her arms over barely-covered breasts and looking at me. She's one of those what you call 'em, pop tarts, one of the blonde ones. I can't tell 'em apart.
Effete dancers synchronize their moves behind her as she ignores the music and continues talking to me. "The Minotaur," she explains, "was born because the gods punished a king, making his wife fall in love with a bull. The Minotaur is a sexual error locked away in a maze, to whom the king sacrifices the unlucky."
"Right," I say, because when you're all by your lonesome there's not much harm in talking back to your dream bleeds. Wings beat inside my chest, struggling for air to fly in. "We covered mythology in junior high. Have I been dreaming of a Minotaur?"
"Maybe the Minotaur's been dreaming of you. He's tired of the maze, Tony. He misses the sun."
It's been a long day; who needs this? I change the channel, and 60 Minutes is on, and this guy about ten years older than me, he's talking about when he worked at the lab in New Mexico, and how he got out alive because he was at a funeral in the Midwest when it all went crazy.
"I was just a kid," he says, and I strip my shirt off as I get up, tossing it into the pile of laundry which I keep reminding myself to put in the basket. "I didn't have any serious responsibilities, I was mostly collating data. But I can tell you this. They were studying the Minotaur. The Minotaur is a dangerous creature. He doesn't like being locked away and forgotten."
Christ, some days you just can't chase your dreams away.
It's raining in the apartment now, but nothing will be wet-for-real unless I let it. That's not the kind of thing I do by accident or while sleeping--
There was a new girl at school today, Tony. She looks just like the girl in that movie we saw last week, remember? The hot one in the horror movie, running from the guy with the knife. Weird thing? No one's sure where she came from. She just showed up. Keeps talking about you. Says she had sex with you last night, doesn't remember anything before that. Except a guy with a knife.
Tony, what I need you to do is look at these pictures and tell me the first thing you think of. Can you do that?
Daddy, I had a nightmare that Mommy went away. Daddy, where's Mommy? Why isn't she in bed with you?
--only when I try really hard. Guys like me, control like we've got, we're the kind of guys other people think should be Soporifics, but only because they don't know just how good the Sops have to be. I'm strictly middle-management as far as that kind of skill goes, if you see what I mean.
There are sirens somewhere in the prime-time night, and as I recognize the sound I picture the image and as I picture the image the rain swirls in melting streams, rippling up and down in the air, blues and reds like paint dripped into a puddle and oil-slicking the surface. Dwarves the size of my thumbs crawl out of the red-and-blue-not-mixing-to-purple slicks, dwarves with red skin and blue hats, who join hands and dance in a circle in the shadow of the raindrops as though worshipping them.
I go to the kitchen to make dinner, and stop, looking at the refrigerator. I've put about a third of the poetry magnets up. There's so damn many of them, it's a chore to lay them all out. A third is plenty for the occasional pornographic haiku to pass the time: "A whispering girl / sucks the warm velvet from his / trembling sausage."
None of my little pornku are there; what it says -- over and over and over and over again -- is what I should have expected.
"Beware the Minotaur. Beware the Minotaur. Beware the Minotaur."
There's no "Minotaur" magnet included in the set, of course.
Underneath the sound of the rain and the sirens I can hear orange pulsating beats not far away.
I decide not to open the refrigerator. I picked up McDonald's on the way home, I remember, and the bag is sitting on the counter behind me. I microwaved it after coming into the kitchen, I remember, and it's still warm. The refrigerator just distracted me for a moment, I remember, because of what the dreams made the magnets say.
So I take the bag and sit back down on the couch and eat my hamburgers and fries, and I remember that I had left the vanilla shake on the endtable, where condensation has softened the cardboard cup and left a ring underneath.
I change the channel again, and Richard Simmons tells me that sweating to the oldies won't do me any good against the Minotaur.
Flame flares at the end of a cigarette I suppose I must have taken from Dan's glove compartment and secreted in a pocket, and there's a knock at the door. You know how on television knocks have a language all their own? There's the knock for the next-door neighbor when he bothers to knock at all, and there's the cop knock. Everyone else uses the doorbell.
This is a cop knock. An impatient but polite rap against wood.
As soon as I answer the door the first of two officers hands me a Card. His is laminated, of course, sturdy like a driver's license. "I am a police officer in the city of New Orleans. I serve and protect and I am backed by the law. My presence is not an inherent threat to you." Too many people spin paranoid fantasies in their dreams.
"I understand the Card," I say, which PSAs on television request that you say. "What can I do for you, officers?"
"Mister Vargas?" the first one asks. "I'm Officer Thompson. This is Officer Thibodeux. Did you hear anything tonight?"
It's raining outside so I step aside, gesture for them to come in. Thompson's foot squishes in the puddle on my carpet, and he glances down at it, shaking water from his shoe.
"Hear anything?" I ask, not thinking about how his foot shouldn't be wet because that's supposed to be from one of my dreams.
The officers exchange glances. "Sir, your neighbors were murdered tonight. The security guard called 911 when he heard the screams. How long have you been home?"
"Wait," I say. "Which neighbors? The couple or--"
"All of them, sir. Unless there's anyone else in your apartment, you're the only one alive in the complex. The rest were . . ." He shakes his head, making the cop face, but his partner goes ahead and tells me.
"They were impaled, Mister Vargas. Gored by horns of some sort. Would you mind coming down to the station with us?"
I can hear them talking from the interrogation room. I shouldn't be able to, but one of the tricks I learned as a teenager was daydreaming about what people were saying in nearby rooms, and my accuracy is close to perfect.
They're saying that when they searched my apartment they found Jen's body in the shower but that they've confirmed that a Miss Jennifer Jensen, who shares the corpse's fingerprints, is still very much alive. They're saying that my refrigerator is completely empty, and nothing is in the cupboards. They're saying that the aforementioned Miss Jennifer Jensen confirms that none of the furniture or appliances in the apartment are from our shared home, and that there are no receipts in my file cabinet; they're waiting to hear back from my credit card companies and bank to see if there's a record of purchase.
It isn't a crime to own furniture you have no record of purchasing, but if certain factions in Congress get their way, it might become a crime to have the ability to dream furniture into permanent existence without revealing this ability to the proper authorities: the Soporifics. It's a misdemeanor to consciously subvert the psychiatric evaluations administered in an attempt to detect such abilities, and they're saying that if charges are pressed, a psychiatrist appointed by the federal court will determine whether I have done this.
I can feel wings beating in my chest, feathers stroking my ribcage from the inside.
There's a bottle of whiskey in my right hand and I try hard to remember how that's possible, why on earth the cops would let me have a bottle of booze in the interrogation room, and when I can't come up with anything I just open the top and take a long molten gold swallow from it. The wings splash around in the whiskey, and I take another drink, wanting to drown them.
I watch myself in the reflective surface of the one-way glass, with eyes blearier than I think of mine being, with hair matted and cowlicked, with a mouth twisted and working like a cow chewing its cud.
I watch myself in the mirror and like Narcissus become entranced at the sight of the bottle rising to my lips, whiskey pouring over my lips as I swallow and swallow. The bottle disappears, and I reach for a breast pocket that isn't there, extract a Card from a holder which isn't there either, and hold it up. I shouldn't be able to read it in the mirror, it should be written backwards, but I can and it isn't.
"I am the Minotaur. I'm tired of the maze. Free me or I'll kill everyone who enters."
When the cops come back, when they bring the Sops with them, they'll get something like a confession from me, but that'll just be the afterbirth. Wings flutter in my chest and I can feel my ribs spreading apart as feathers seep through skin and muscle, and I fall back against a floor suddenly covered with blue-frosted snow as a dove cries out and soars to the ceiling.
Copyright © 2002 Bill Kte'pi
As the creator of Ben and Jerry's The Full Vermonty and the roleplaying game Santa's Soldiers, Bill Kte'pi has the oddest low-paying career of anyone he knows. He's a New England expat living in New Orleans, where he misses Moxie and the Red Sox, but little else.