The postage-sized ad in The Star Ledger simply stated that a major pharmaceutical company needed a subject for an experimental drug, and that it paid well. Wilson thought it strange that someone would be doing scientific tests in Elizabeth, New Jersey, but he was desperate. He had a wife and daughter to support, and things were getting uglier by the day. The car had been repossessed, the debts were growing out of control, and the rent was due. The only thing Wilson seemed to be good at was getting fired.
The center was located less than a mile from Wilson’s Elizabeth Port apartment, so he was able to walk there. From the outside, it was a simple brick building with no windows. The inside, though, was white and smelled of antiseptic. Dr. Hay was in charge of the “project.” He handed the applicants a ten page test along with a number 2 pencil. Wilson began to sweat; he had never been good at tests. He was tempted to walk right out, but then he remembered the rent. Why not give it a shot? he thought. He rushed through the test, then left. There was a message waiting for him when he got home: Please come back tomorrow.
“I did okay?” Wilson asked Dr. Hay the next day.
“You wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t,” he answered. Dr. Hay explained that they needed Wilson to stay at the center every night, for the entire night. They would be giving him an untested drug and monitoring his sleep. They didn’t know how long the experiment would go on for, nor did they know what the side effects of the drug would be, but they would be paying him $200.00 per day.
“Does that mean I have the job?”
“Yes,” Dr. Hay said, then smirked. “You have the job.”
“What is this experiment for?” Wilson asked.
“We’re trying to externalize dreams,” Dr. Hay began to explain. “We want to be able to see what people dream.”
“Why?” Wilson asked.
“It’s like exploring another world,” Dr. Hay said. He seemed to want to say more, but he didn’t. Instead, he gave him a “you wouldn’t understand” look. Wilson nodded his head, agreeing that he wouldn’t understand.
Wilson was happy during the walk home. He would be able to pay the rent now. And if the experiment went on for a while, maybe he would be able to pay off their debts. Then he thought of the test he had taken the day before. He couldn’t help but wonder why they had picked him. He hadn’t even applied himself. Were the other applicants that bad, or did he have something special that they didn’t have?
“Bill collector’s been calling all day,” Vanessa said as soon as he walked through the door. She had her arms folded in front of her and she was giving him the look she had perfected over the six years of their marriage. It was only a look, but it expressed disappointment, shame, embarrassment and disgust all at once. “You’ve been drinking, I’ll bet.”
“I got a job,” Wilson shot back.
“What kind of a job?”
“It’s a secret,” he said. “I can’t discuss it with no one.”
“Look at this,” Wilson said, then pulled the contract Dr. Hay had given him out of his backpack. Vanessa reached for it, but he pulled it away. “Now you know that drug dealers don’t offer no contracts.”
“What is it, then?”
“It’s for the government,” he said. “I can’t say much else. Top secret.”
She gave him that look again.
“This is all I’ll tell you,” Wilson said. “We’re a port city, you know. We gotta keep certain people from coming into the country. It’s an important job.”
“Security guard,” Vanessa said, then she walked out of the room.
Wilson heard the television turning on in their bedroom. It was one of the hundred ways she had to show him how disappointed she was in him. She preferred talk shows to him. Commercials, too. He sat down. He promised himself that he would improve himself. He would take the money from the experiment and do something. He didn’t know what just yet. But something.
* * *
For a while, the experiment went smoothly. Every night Wilson walked to the center, then into a room they called the observation room. He lay there while they connected wires to his head, chest and one arm and leg. Then they gave him his pill and dimmed the lights. The drug, they had told him, was part sleeping pill, so falling asleep was never a problem. In the morning, Dr. Hay asked him questions about his dreams. And at the end of the week, he would get a paycheck. It was the easiest money Wilson had ever made. Then one night it all began to change.
Wilson was having a dream that was becoming more and more typical; he was arguing with Vanessa. In this particular dream, they were in their living room. She was calling him a loser and he was screaming at her, screaming as loud as he could. He called her names he never would have while awake. He wanted to kill her. And then he stopped. A shadowy figure was lurking in the dark bedroom. He couldn’t make out its features, but he could see its bright red eyes staring out at them.
“What is that!” Wilson screamed.
“There ain’t nothing in there,” Vanessa said. “You’re stupid.”
“It’s there!” He screamed. “It’s there!”
For the first time since starting the experiment, Wilson woke up in the middle of the night. His body felt strange, as if ants were crawling all over him. He ripped off the electrodes, then sat up. Dr. Hay rushed in.
“What did it look like?” Dr. Hay asked.
“It?” Wilson asked. For the first time, he suspected that they knew what he was dreaming about.
“You were screaming.”
“What did I say?”
“It’s there,” Dr. Hay said. “You said it a few dozen times. Maybe a hundred times.”
“That can’t be,” Wilson said. “I only just now saw it.”
“Dream time doesn’t work like real time,” Dr. Hay said. “A dream that seems long can be just a few seconds in real time. And the other way around. A short dream can produce hours of tape.”
“Tape?” Wilson asked. “What kind of tape?”
Dr. Hay hesitated. “Video tape,” he said quietly.
“Can you see what I’m dreaming about?”
“That’s what we want to do,” Dr. Hay said. “But we’re far away from anything of value. We just get static, mostly.”
“What did it look like?” Dr. Hay asked.
“I couldn’t see it,” Wilson said. “Not really.”
“But you were afraid of it,” Dr. Hay said.
“I’ve never been so afraid,” Wilson said. He wasn’t used to admitting fear. In fact, he hadn’t done it since he was kid. And even then, it had been to his mother. But for some reason, Dr. Hay made him feel comfortable.
“Why were you afraid of it?”
“I don’t know,” Wilson said. “I just thought it was going to kill us.”
“Did it tell you that?”
“No,” Wilson said. He was getting frustrated. How was he supposed to explain his motivations in a dream? “It was just a feeling.”
On the walk home, Wilson felt a sudden urge to see the water. He walked down a dead end street that he used to visit with his father as a child. At the end of the street was a divider. Beyond it were rocks, then the water. He walked out there, then stared. He remembered being in this spot as a child, and it gave him the same feeling now. Unlimited possibilities. Eternity.
Afterward, Wilson went back home to Vanessa. She avoided him and he found himself alone in their bedroom, staring at the decaying walls. He felt desperate. This wasn’t the way things were supposed to be.
* * *
The creature appeared again the next night. Once again, he was in the living room with Vanessa. This time they were accompanied by his old friends from high school, Jimmy, Double D and Tommy. In reality, Tommy was in jail, Jimmy was long dead and Double D had moved away and started calling himself Donald Douglas (his real name). But in the dream they were still here, laughing every time Vanessa insulted him.
“You’re an idiot,” she screamed. Laughter, laughter, laughter. “That’s why they picked you! Because you’re so stupid!”
“I’ll kill you all!” Wilson screamed at them. Vanessa and his friends laughed at him. They found his anger funny. He took a step toward them, but stopped when he saw the creature. It was lurking in the bedroom. Again, Wilson could only see it’s deep red eyes. Then it began to move. It’s steps were lumpy and unsure, as if it wasn’t used to walking. As it came closer to the light, he saw that its leathery flesh was glistening. Wilson was terrified, but he didn’t run. He wanted to see it devour his wife and friends.
“What are you looking at?” Vanessa asked, then turned around. She froze when she saw the creature. His friends joined her. They all stood there like statues, caught in the unreality of the moment. The creature stood there for a moment, watching them watch it, then it made a sudden lurch forward. Its speed was impossible.
Wilson backed up as it began to tear them apart. He turned away and covered his eyes. He heard their raspy, high-pitched screams. Clothes ripping, bones breaking, liquid. Then the room went silent. Wilson wanted to see what it had done, but he was afraid. What if it was more than he wanted, too horrible to take? Then he heard a repetitious chomp-chomp. It sounded like a lion munching on a carcass.
“Can you hear me, Wilson?” a voice came from behind him.
“What?” Wilson asked. He was in the observation room. Dr. Hay was next to him. He looked frightened. Wilson wondered what he could be frightened about. “What’s wrong with you?”
“I’ve been trying to wake you up for ten minutes,” Dr. Hay said.
“I saw it again.”
“What did it look like?”
“A monster,” Wilson said. “Like something out of a movie. You know, like that movie with Kurt Russell.”
“Kurt Russell?” Dr. Hay asked. “What movie?”
“Ask the guy at Block buster!” Wilson screamed.
Dr. Hay took a step back. He was terrified.
“Why did you pick me for this?” Wilson asked.
“Plenty of people took that test,” Wilson said. “But you picked me. Why?”
“It was a personality test,” Dr. Hay explained. “You simply had the right . . . temperament.”
“Show me the tape,” Wilson said.
“I don’t know what you’re doing,” Wilson said. “But I know it’s important. You show me or I don’t come back here.”
Dr. Hay thought about it for a moment, then he nodded his head. “Get dressed. I’ll be waiting for you outside.”
Wilson took off his electrodes, then saw that his body was wet. It looked like perspiration, but it was slimy. It was like someone had rubbed Vaseline all over him. “What are you people putting on me?”
After getting dressed, he followed Dr. Hay into a control room. A technician was sitting behind a consol. He looked surprised that Wilson was in the room. In front of him was a bank of television monitors. One of them had a live feed into the observation room. Another one was displaying static. “What’s that?”
“That’s a feed into your brain,” Dr. Hay said. “It’s still catching up.”
“The dream you just had may have seemed like five minutes to you,” Dr. Hay explained, “but it’s playing out like a two hour movie.”
A dark image suddenly appeared on the monitor. It wasn’t clear, just static that was darker than the other static. But it was clearly the creature. Wilson jumped back, startled.
“What is it?” Dr. Hay asked.
“It’s there,” Wilson said. He watched the dark spot moving slowly. “It’s walking.”
Dr. Hay looked at the monitor, but he didn’t seem to see anything. “I can’t make it out. Are you seeing it now?”
“It’s there!” Wilson said. As hazy as the image was, it was a thousand times more frightening that it had been in the dream. It was as if the creature had gone from the world of the make believe into reality. It was now in the physical world. It was with them.
“It’s all right,” Dr. Hay said.
“You made it real,” Wilson said.
“It’s not real,” Dr. Hay said. “It’s only a tape of a signal sent to us by your brain. It’s just a recording.”
“I’m going home.”
“It’s the middle of the night,” Dr. Hay said. “We still have some time to go.”
“I’m not going back to sleep,” Wilson said. He walked out of the room and to the entrance. Dr. Hay followed him the whole way. He seemed to want to say something, but instead he only walked behind him. Wilson turned around. “What do you want? What is it?”
“You . . . you should stay here for the night,” Dr. Hay said. He looked afraid. “Until the drug wears off.”
“You’re scared,” Wilson said.
“Your signs aren’t stable,” Dr. Hay said. “It would be better if you stayed here for at least a couple of more hours.”
The last place Wilson wanted to go was back into the observation room, but he could see that the doctor was genuinely worried. For the first time since starting the experiment, he wondered about the side effects. Would they give him a bad heart? Would they take years off his life? “Okay,” he said. “But I’m not going back to sleep.”
Wilson went back into the room, then let Dr. Hay put the equipment back on him. He said it was to monitor his signs. After Dr. Hay walked out, Wilson heard the door lock. He wondered if Dr. Hay was worried about more than Wilson’s health.
* * *
Wilson spent all of the following day thinking about the creature. Though he had seen it plainly in his dream, it was only a vague, shadowy figure to him now. The only thing about it that he remembered clearly were its red eyes. The very thought of it left him feeling uneasy and dirty, but he couldn’t shake free from it. It was like it was part of him.
“What’s wrong with you?” Vanessa asked. “You’ve been acting all weird since this morning.”
“Nothing,” Wilson snapped.
“What are they doing to you over there, anyway?”
“What do you mean over there?” Wilson asked. “Did you follow me?”
“Someone told me where you’ve been going,” Vanessa admitted. “It doesn’t sound like a security job to me.”
“Don’t you worry about it,” Wilson said. He was furious with her. He was finally bringing home some decent money and she still wasn’t satisfied. “It’s money.”
“What are they doing to you?” she asked.
“Nothing!” he screamed.
Vanessa jumped back. For the first time ever, she looked afraid of him. “You’ve been different.”
“Since this started.”
“I’m trying to take care of you and the kid,” Wilson said. Her referred to their daughter as “the kid” because she had been born before Wilson had ever met Vanessa. “I’m trying to be a man.”
“I know,” she whispered. “But it’s not worth it.”
“What are you talking about?” he asked. He was raising his voice again. From her expression, he could see that this was what she was talking about. For his whole life, he had held his frustrations in, but now it was coming out, and never at the right times. His own wife was frightened of him.
“Wilson . . .”
“I’m going to take a walk,” Wilson said. He went outside, then walked to the water. He sat there for hours, watching the boats passing by. He knew that Vanessa was right, and that the experiments were doing him harm, but it was the best thing that had ever happened to him. How could he walk away from the money they were giving him when the alternative was making no money at all? As usual, he felt stuck. And desperate.
“This is what I have to do,” Wilson said. After watching the sun go down, he walked back to the center, ready for another night of dreams.
* * *
Wilson’s dreams were strange that night. There was no logic, nor any discernable storyline. It was only he, alone, moving through a labyrinth of colors and shapes. Everything seemed wet. It was as if he was crawling through the insides of a giant. When he awoke, he found himself on a street. He looked around and immediately realized that he was close to the port.
“What am I doing here?” he asked. He had no memory of leaving the center. He was dreaming one moment, here the next. He realized that his hands were sticky. When he looked down, he saw blood. It was on his hands, shirt and pants. “Jesus!”
Wilson ran down to the dead end street which led to the water. Once there, he washed his hands. He tried to get the blood off his clothes, but only some of it washed free. His mind raced. Something horrible had happened. He thought of the creature. Was it more than an image on a video monitor now? Had it somehow come alive?
“God, no,” Wilson said. Though he knew this wasn’t his fault, he still felt responsible. This monster was his creation. It came from his mind. But what was it? Something he had just dreamed up? Or was it some part of him?
Wilson walked along streets that had fewer working lights, and tried to blend into the darkness as he moved along. He wanted to go home to his wife and kids, but he also wanted to see what had happened at the center. He needed to know if his creation has killed everyone.
“What happened to you?” an old man called out. Wilson jumped, startled. The old man was sitting in the back of a pick up truck which was parked on the street with four flat tires. He had an almost-empty bottle in his hand.
“You part of that thing over on Third?” the old man asked.
“All these people been killed,” the old man said. “It’s on the news. They say some animal did it. Police been up and down, looking for it.”
“Animal?” Wilson asked.
“That’s what they said,” the old man said.
Wilson changed his mind about going to the center. They were dead there, and the creature was alive. He thought of a phrase Dr. Hay had used during their initial interview: externalized dreams. This is what they had been trying to do all the time. Take a man’s thoughts -- or nightmares -- and make them real.
“Witchcraft!” Wilson hissed. “That’s what this is.”
Wilson arrived at his building, then went inside and up the six flights to their apartment. He pulled out his keys, walked to his door, then realized that he didn’t know how to use it. It was the strangest thing. He knew that the key was used to open the door, but he had no idea how they worked together. Was he becoming stupid? Was this one of the side effects?
“I’ll kill them,” Wilson said, but then he remembered that his creation had already done that. He pushed on the door, heard a snap, and it opened. He walked into the dark apartment. He heard the television in the bedroom.
“Va . . .” Wilson grumbled. He had tried to call out his wife’s name, but his mouth didn’t cooperate. He tried again, but it didn’t work. It seemed to be lagging behind what he wanted it to say, and instead of words, he only heard unformed growls. It was as if he was on some kind of drug that was slowing his motor reflexes. He brought his hand up to his jaw. It didn’t seem broken and there was no pain.
“Is someone there?” Vanessa called out.
“Yrrrrgh,” Wilson said.
“What is that?” Vanessa asked. She opened the door and looked out at him. She stood there for a moment, still. Then she let out a loud, high-pitched scream. She slammed the door shut. Wilson heard her lock it.
“Varreegghhh!” Wilson said. He didn’t understand why she was reacting like this. Did he appear angry? Had they had a fight and he just didn’t remember it now?
“Stay away from me!” Vanessa screamed.
Wilson heard the window in the bedroom opening. He pushed on the door and it flew open. He walked in and saw Vanessa at the window, clutching her daughter. They both looked terrified beyond reason. Wilson took a step toward them.
“Jump, sweetheart,” Vanessa said to her daughter, then helped her out the window. A scream followed.
“Whaaaaghh?” Wilson said, then ran toward her.
Vanessa jumped before he could get there. She did not scream, but he heard her hit the pavement below.
Wilson moved his hands up to his face, then saw that his hands were changing. Claws were sprouting at the end of his slimy finger tips. Wilson tried to scream, but coughing grunts was all he could muster. He raced to the mirror that was over their dresser. Staring back at him was the creature he had dreamt about. His creation. He jumped back, startled and terrified.
“Exgggrrrllll dggghhhhh,” he said. He had tried to say “Externalized dreams.”
* * *
Wilson didn’t know if he would become human again. As he went down the stairs of his apartment building, he realized that he didn’t have much of a memory of what being human had been like. What he did remember was vague and seemed detached from him.
A crowd of people were gathering around the twisted, bloody bodies of his wife and the kid. A passerby saw Wilson. “What the hell is that thing!” he screamed.
Wilson hissed back at them, then ran. He walked along the dark streets. He heard sirens. They were hunting for him. Then he remembered the dead end street that led to the water. Home.
Wilson arrived at the water, then stared out at it with longing. He could hear the whales and dolphins calling to him. His memory of being human was almost completely gone now. He regarded it with disdain. A weight that he no longer had to carry. Now he was home.
The air felt thin to Wilson. Without giving it a thought, he walked into the water until he was submerged. He afraid for a moment, but then he inhaled the sea water. It felt natural to him, as if he’d been breathing water his whole life. He went farther down, into the darkness. He was no longer human. He had no memories, worries, plans or thoughts. He was just instinct, movement, hunger. An animal.
For the first time, Wilson was happy.