by Patrick Barb
After Hamilton Blanchard saw the girl of his dreams again, he began to suspect he was going mad.
It happened at the bar after work. Hamilton went with some of his co-workers. They were celebrating an intern’s last day. Or someone’s birthday or retirement. Hamilton couldn’t remember and didn’t much care either. More importantly, this bar sat near a subway stop for Hamilton’s train and the first couple rounds went on someone else’s corporate card.
Plus, it provided a better option than heating a Pepperoni Hot Pocket in an already cheese- and grease-splattered microwave, then washing it down with a six-pack of cheap beer from the Korean grocer around the corner from his apartment.
And so, Hamilton found himself sitting around a raised table-top with a handful of people he didn’t care about and an additional sprinkling of those he outright despised, flitting his attention back and forth between conversations about the latest product launches and gossiped tales from past office outings. He took sips from his third pint in a half-hour, since he’d managed to sneak an extra one in before the official cut-off of free drinks by the company card bearer.
“Take it easy there, Ham.”
The others laughed at the comment from the co-worker Hamilton knew as “the fat one with the acne (or herpes?) scars on his chin.” He ignored the remark. After all, if anyone deserved a porcine nickname it was that tub of lard.
Bored with the company and out of free drinks, Hamilton’s eyes swept across the bar. He stopped at the entrance. Then, he noticed her leaving.
Acting as fast as three pints allowed, Hamilton muttered excuses and slid down from his perch to the sticky floor. He hit the ground faster than intended. The toe of his brown wingtip slid across a puddle of spilled beer. He grabbed at the edge of the table for support. But doing so shook the whole thing and his co-workers’ drinks sloshed around a bit. He caught sight of beer and liquors splashing on the tabletop’s lacquered surface. By the time Hamilton got his bearings and turned back to look at the door, she’d gone.
He had a choice: sit back down, apologize to his co-workers, and go back to pretending to care about their inane conversations, before slinking back home to pass out before his roommate Charles got home. Or skip all that and go home now.
He chose the latter. Threading his way between the jackasses in their pressed suits and the other jackasses in Giants and Jets jerseys, he made his way to the exit. A roly-poly toad-man of a bouncer sat on a stool near the door. Hamilton watched the man splitting his time between checking IDs and ogling the asses of the teenage college girls whose crappy fake IDs he always let slide.
“Help you, pal?” the dirtbag bouncer asked.
“Did you see the girl who left? Did you see where she was headed?”
“Gonna need you to be more specific, chief. See a lotta ladies come in and out. This girl with you?”
The bouncer punctuated his last sentence with the type of smug, shit-eating smile Hamilton expected him to display. But then, it’s not like he knew how to answer the question. Yes, she’s with me. In the sense, she seems to have sprung from my imagination. You see, Mr. Roly-Poly, I first met this girl in a dream. No, not a sex dream. This girl, she’s different. She’s like no one I’ve ever seen before.
Instead, he said nothing. The bouncer hopped down. He poked a sausage link finger into Hamilton’s stomach, the grease of his fingerprint spreading across the front of Hamilton’s pressed dress shirt. “Look, pal, I dunno what the hell you’re expecting, but I ain’t here to play matchmaker.”
Hamilton shrugged and let the mini-tyrant have his way. Shoving his way out the door, his shoulder nailed the doorframe. It hurt like hell. Behind him, the bouncer unleashed a series of staccato grunts Hamilton assumed was the toad-man’s approximation of laughter.
Hamilton stepped out into a rainstorm. Round, thick bulbs of liquid dropped from the sky and shattered into smaller, recursive iterations on the sidewalk and against the exposed Hamilton. He cursed loud enough to make the fat tourist pawing through her fanny pack look up and glare at him. She shuffled away with a snort, her clear plastic poncho plastered to her wet skin. Hamilton guessed she was on her way to the overpriced tourist trap of a candy store a few blocks away.
Hamilton didn’t have an umbrella because he’d lost his on the subway a week ago—when he encountered his dream girl in real life for the first time.
* * *
It was a Tuesday night. Right after work again, but this time no invite from co-workers distracted him from home. He’d snagged a seat on an otherwise crowded subway car. He sat with his legs spread wide, balancing his umbrella across his knees. He wanted people to recognize his space and understand they were not welcome. He liked to pretend the umbrella was an old-timey police cudgel. He closed his eyes amid the swaying sea of packed humanity and imagined his annoying fat pig of a co-worker kneeling before him. He pictured him begging. Pleading for mercy. Hamilton knew he’d answer those pleas with a blow right to the skull. He pictured blood, brains, and chalk-colored skull fragments everywhere.
An old woman cleared her throat, her watery eyes staring down at Hamilton and his umbrella. He lifted his eyes to study her.
She was thin. Sickly thin. Hamilton figured she wanted him to get up and give her his seat.
The “robotic boy caught in a well”-sounding voice of the subway driver spread through the car, interrupting Hamilton’s face-off with the old woman, signaling the arrival at his stop. He stood up—again, too fast—as the train rocked itself to a complete stop on the tracks. He reached out, grabbing for something to hold onto, something for balance.
Was it his fault if she didn’t move out of the way? After all, she’d seen him standing up. If she’d moved earlier, then she wouldn’t have needed to suck in a menthol-scented breath between yellowed teeth, as the tips of Hamilton’s fingers grazed the front of her blouse.
He pulled his hand back, disgusted by his fingers’ contact with the mole-like lump of what he assumed was a nipple.
He kept his head down and said nothing. The slight delay cost him precious time. New riders pushed their way through the already closing train doors, and trying to get off the train made Hamilton a salmon swimming upstream in rapid waters.
There was his chance. He used the flat end of his closed umbrella’s handle, poking it out to clear a path. As he approached the threshold of the closing door and swung the umbrella back behind him, his eyes fell on her.
She headed in the opposite direction, slipping through the crack of the closing door and onto the train. Hamilton stutter-stepped forward, unable to stop.
The umbrella fell from his fingers and back inside the train. The door closed with a defiant ring. Hamilton spun on his wobbling heels at the edge of the platform. He pressed a hand against the car’s fortified glass window. Inside the subway car, no one noticed him.
Not even her.
On the other side of the door, she turned around to look back at the train platform, looking right at Hamilton. But she may as well have stared right through his hand on the glass.
* * *
When Hamilton got back to his apartment after the second failed connection with his dream girl, he chain-smoked three cigarettes, leaning out an open bedroom window to blow smoke rings into the rain. Stripped down to his boxers, he sat cross-legged on top of his pillow. Halfway through his third cigarette, a gust of wind spit a fistful of rain into his face. It nailed the cherry out of his cigarette and onto the pillow.
Hamilton slapped at the orange, glowing ember as it burned a hole through the off-white fabric of his thrift store pillowcase. Once he’d put the miniature fire out, he flung the drenched and useless cigarette butt out the window and slammed it shut. He flipped his pillow over and went right to sleep, ignoring the pounding on his door and Charles’s complaints about how “we agreed, no smoking, dude. I don’t wanna lose our security deposit.”
* * *
She appeared in his dreams again. He followed her at a distance inside some medieval castle with spiraling stone staircases and elaborate tapestries draped down its walls. Even though she walked in front of him, Hamilton saw both the back and front of her head at once.
Hamilton found his voice sounded like that of the subway driver. The Escher-like stairs twisted in on themselves until they weren’t even stairs at all. They’d become a roller coaster—one of those rickety, wooden Coney Island specials. She sat two cars ahead.
The big drop came. She threw her arms up in an ecstatic release.
Then, Hamilton realized he wasn’t strapped into his car.
He fell past her. Her lips moved, saying…something. He couldn’t hear, but Hamilton woke up confident he knew what she’d said.
“I love you.”
He had no one to share the news with. His roommate had already departed for the gym, leaving behind a yellow loose-leaf sheet of “Apartment Rules” scotch-taped to the refrigerator door.
* * *
But then, the sightings of Hamilton’s dream girl stopped. None in his dreams. None in the drudgery of his day-to-day existence either. As fast as she’d made appearances in both spheres, her complete and utter erasure occurred.
Hamilton wondered if he’d tried too hard. Then, he suspected he hadn’t tried hard enough.
He took off “sick” from work for a week. He sat in a stupor. Wasting the hours on the couch, alternating between water-piss domestic beers, cigarettes, and candy-flavored cold medicine he didn’t need. Nothing, not vices or over-the-counter meds, took his mind off his strange encounters with the dream girl. He left the TV on so the voices of tanned and overexcited infomercial hosts leaked into his dreams.
In his dreams, he didn’t see or hear her, only half-heard snippets and sightings of Charles (“Dude, where’s the rent…can’t do this . . . kicked out…”) cross-blending with the exhortations of Ron Popeil.
Hamilton pulled himself back together on a Sunday. He ran his fingertips over the patches of hair growing on his cheeks. He picked out his least dirty clothes from the piles left on his bedroom floor and headed out.
He jammed white earbuds into his ears, with the cord running down to the pocket of his black hoodie but connected to nothing. He walked for miles. His soles slapped against the pavement. No direction, no eye contact. He’d look up to study blinking crosswalk signs and then return his gaze to the pavement cracks. He walked until he found himself in Central Park. He kicked at falling leaves, as he walked across cobblestones.
She peeked out from behind an oak tree. Her hair touched its gray bark, reminding Hamilton of those pictures of nymphs in the books of Greek mythology he’d traced on loose-leaf paper in his middle school library.
She was the sprite-like, untamed dryad and he was the one who’d dreamed her into existence. As a result, Hamilton began to think of himself as a god of sorts.
And he wanted his creation.
He intended the words to come out like a command spoken with a voice booming down from the heavens. But they didn’t sound that way at all.
She turned her back to him. Hamilton couldn’t shake the feeling that not only hadn’t she heard him but she still hadn’t seen him either.
Hamilton’s brain broke some more. He wanted to run over there, pulling her behind the tree.
But she was already walking away.
Ahead of her, the park’s nearest exit beckoned, and she spilled through it like a drop of rain into a storm drain, flowing into the whirling, swirling puddle of the crowded sidewalk. Hamilton followed, determined not to lose her this time. But, she merged with a swarm of rowdy teenagers.
Hamilton ran across the street, trying to catch up. A car swerved away from him. The long, angry bleating of its horn followed. On the other side of the street, the teens took a moment from their cultivated nonchalance to point and laugh.
* * *
Hamilton’s self-imposed “sick” week lasted far longer than five days. He hadn’t checked his phone in weeks. Several voicemails waited for him. He didn’t listen though. He imagined what they’d say.
“Message Number One: Hey, it’s Gary….”
“Message Number Two: This is Gary. Your supervisor….”
“Message Number Three: Hello, Mr. Blanchard, this is Maddie from Human Resources. We understand you haven’t….”
“Message Number Nine: Listen here asshole, your half of the rent’s late…again… dammit, I know you’re in there!”
Hamilton wanted to focus on more important matters. The most important matter of his twenty-some years on Earth. He monitored and patrolled the perimeter, following a path several blocks in either direction from his office to his apartment building. He kept his eyes open for as long as possible, walking the route over and over, day and night. As he walked, he’d try his damnedest not to blink, waiting until his eyes watered and then turned so dry he’d want to claw them right out of his skull. Then, and only then, he allowed himself to blink.
* * *
Even when Hamilton covered the route in full, she still managed to elude him. She’d always appear out of range: getting into cabs, stepping out amid departing movie theater crowds and into larger crowds of holiday shoppers, climbing stairs, and taking elevators.
* * *
It happened at the tail end of a fever dream.
Hamilton stood on another subway platform, one he didn’t recognize, waiting for a train. He looked down the gaping mouth of the tunnel. The train’s lights shone back at him, as they widened across the inner walls upon approach.
He was alone.
Then, the train arrived.
Its doors opened.
Hamilton was still alone.
He stepped into the subway car. He didn’t hear her step in behind him. But he felt her there, and he knew she wanted him to wait for her. She walked onboard and pressed her forehead into the space between his shoulder blades.
He wasn’t alone anymore.
* * *
In the days following, Hamilton studied every subway train schedule and map he got his hands or eyes on. He viewed every platform from every possible angle. For the longest time, no platform matched the one from his dream. He’d even tried asking Charles about it. But the jerk wouldn’t look at him, standing outside their old apartment building helping a new roommate shuttle their boxes inside. Only after Hamilton dropped to his knees begging, pulling at the frayed cuffs of Charles’s jeans, his roommate relented and said, “That doesn’t exist. You made it all up.” But what the hell did he know?
Hamilton let Charles put all his stuff on the curb for the sidewalk vultures to pick apart. He had the clothes on his back and enough change for laundry in his pockets. Finding a way to sleep outside on grates or in the darker corners of subway stations turned out to be easier than expected. None of that mattered anyway, not compared to his quest for the girl.
Then, one day, Hamilton’s search bore fruit.
He stood, hesitant but not retreating, on the landing of the station’s entrance stairwell. Every time a sleeve or the handle of a paper bag filled with groceries grazed his elbow, he’d inhale. “Is that her?”
None of them were. Until…
Hamilton got a clear view of the platform.
There she was. He didn’t know how she’d got past him. Not like it mattered. She stood at the platform’s edge, the toes of her flats placed past the yellow warning stripe. She waited.
He took the stairs so fast.
It felt like flying.
He watched her, leaning out and turning her head. She bathed in the light of the approaching train.
“I’m almost there.”
He’d touch her soon enough. The train’s light already touched her. It filled her. It made her holy.
“I’m almost there.”
The train was coming.
“I’m almost there.”
Hamilton reached the platform’s edge, feet skidding past the yellow warning line. “No passengers past this line,” it said.
And she was gone. But the train kept coming.
“I can’t stop.”
* * *
Meredith’s therapist leaned back in her chair. Doing so, she closed the spiral-bound notebook she’d read in silence. A look of deep, meditative contemplation crossed her features. Then, she scratched her nose and brushed aside a strand of silver hair (like Meredith’s Meemaw’s hair, making her so easy to confide in).
Meredith’s chair was less impressively upholstered than Dr. Freedman’s. But it was a tall chair, and since her feet didn’t reach the carpet, she swung them back and forth. Like she’d done in other doctors’ offices in days gone by.
Dr. Freedman opened her eyes. She focused on Meredith in her textbook perfect way. Then she passed the notebook back to her client. “Please, Meredith, how many times, after all our sessions, do I have to tell you to call me Diana?”
“Diana….” Meredith tried the name on like a dress she was sure wasn’t her style and knew wouldn’t fit her even still.
“I think the dream journal’s been good for you. Don’t you agree?”
“The boy—the young man—you swear you’ve never seen before except in your dreams?”
“My nightmares. The rollercoaster one, where I told him, ‘Leave me alone?’ That’s the sampler platter.”
“Tell me again how the last one ended.”
Meredith flipped open her dream journal notebook. But Dr. Freedman placed her palm across the open pages and shook her head. “No. I want to hear you say it. Here and now.”
“I was back in New York again. But I haven’t lived there since…for years now. Yet all these nightmares, they’re all set there. I don’t know why. On the subway, at sports bars, even in Central Park, all these places from before. Some feel like dreams you know, but others…it’s like I’m walking inside someone else’s lived experiences.
“And then there’s the boy—the man, he’s always there. Even when I can’t see him, I still see him. Ya know?”
The doctor gave a quick nod in reply.
“But in the last one, I stood on a subway platform. There was a train coming. I knew…I knew he was coming to get me. But the train was almost there too. I remembered thinking ‘You can’t die in your dream.’”
Meredith was crying. The doctor reached behind her desk and came back with a box of tissues. She passed them to Meredith.
Meredith pulled out a tissue and dabbed it under both eyes. “After you woke up, how’d you feel?” the doctor asked.
Meredith sniffed, and then shrugged her shoulders. “I fell right back asleep.”
The crumpled tissue unfolded in Meredith’s hand. “It was my best goddamn sleep in years.”
Patrick Barb is an author of weird, dark, and horrifying tales, currently living (and trying not to freeze to death) in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is the author of the dark urban fantasy novella Gargantuana’s Ghost (forthcoming from Grey Matter Press, October 2022), the talking animal/cosmic horror novella The Nut House (currently serialized in Cosmic Horror Monthly), and the collection Pre-Approved for Haunting (forthcoming from Turner Publishing, October 2023). In addition, he is an Active Member of the HWA and a Full Member of the SFWA. Visit him at patrickbarb.com or follow him at twitter.com/pbarb