A red light glowed inside a hole. Sam Spikone inched forward. The source of the bright light, as it turned out, was an almost blindingly radiant human brain inside a head whose profile he couldn't quite recognize, almost like someone had set off a roadside emergency flare inside a hollowed out pumpkin. Except it wasn't a gourd, it was a human head, there was no smoke, and the light was steady and unvarying in intensity the whole time he watched it.
An oddly bent figure walked past him and peered inside the brilliant opening in the side of the temple. Even though the other person's narrow shoulders were turned to him, the man's silhouette struck Sam as misshapen, distorted in a way he could not exactly articulate, as if the proportions were all wrong for that size body.
It was a reoccurring nightmare. It didn't happen with the same frequency and regularity as it did during the first weeks of school but when he had it, the dream was no less frightening than it was before. No matter how often he relived it, it always startled him. In the nightmare, like all students at Fortean College, he was confined to the infirmary for several days before he was allowed to enter the Tetragon. Wherever he went, he had to wheel around the squeaky metal frame from which his intravenous drip was suspended, which made it difficult for him to maneuver the empty hallways of the medical wing without giving himself away. In the room alone with the mysterious figure, he was afraid to move, afraid even to breathe, but he was also overwhelmed with an incredible desire to learn the identity of the man whose back was turned to him, and to discover whose head it was on the operating table with the illuminated brain inside it.
At one point it seemed to the young man as if the other person's arms were elbow-deep in the circular opening, as if there was a halogen bulb inside the patient's skull, and the other man was some kind of diabolical mechanic or plumber who strained every muscle to get at a difficult spot at the far back. Every once in a while he would swear and pull his arms out to exchange one cumbersome looking tool for another. They were piled willy-nilly on a stainless steel gurney. The figure would put one down, which would hit the table with a heavy metallic clank, pick another one up, and plunge his arms in with renewed vigor, his latest implement firmly gripped in yellow rubber gloves that went up past his forearms.
In Sam Spikon's nightmare his own image was usually doubled, but sometimes there were three and even four of him all mixed up in a mosaic pattern, as if he saw himself through the many-sided crystal of a kaleidoscope. All these four images, seemingly identical, repeatedly exchanged places with one another until it made him dizzy to try and follow them around. One, a picture of himself he recognized easily enough, was of a young man who melted away hours of convalescence at the college infirmary glued to a video game box. It was a slightly more innocent, pre-radicalized version of his present self. Another, a little less clear but a still very strongly felt picture, was of a sheltered suburban kid who had, with the help of a homicidal young woman, discovered another much wilder side of his personality. It was his past self. Of the third and fourth images, one that he could still barely make out was of a very unpopular, lonely kid who had all the latest toys and gadgets one could ever wish for but no one to play with. That self was almost completely gone. Try as he might to make out the last, however, it was an impenetrable mystery. If he strained to picture it he drew a complete blank. All he felt was a cold sensation, as if he had walked into a room he thought was twice as large, and discovered that the illusion of deep space was only a cheap trick created by a mirrored wall. That self no longer existed at all.
Every time he awoke from his dream within a dream he had the same disquieting sensation, as if he'd emerged from a circus tent. One clown in particular always frightened him most, its head too big and heavy for its thin neck and hunchbacked torso to possibly support. In the dream within a dream, the young man was left to sit alone in the big top and watch the painted freak with the huge head take center ring. The performance was always the same. There was another head much bigger even than the clown's. The kid watched as the deformed performer in surgeon's scrubs climbed a small ladder, unscrewed the top of the free-standing bust, took out the radiant red brain, and cut at it with the dull, toothy blade of a large handsaw until the pieces were all scattered about a table. Some parts were removed, others replaced.
He could never fall back to sleep after he awoke from the dream within a dream. He would swing his skinny legs over the side of the metal frame bed, slip his feet into his overlarge disposable slippers, put his robe on over his paper fiber hospital pajamas, and crack his door open to make sure no one was around. With one hand he would brace it against the wall and with the other he would shove the wheeled chassis that supported the intravenous drip forward. No one was ever on duty but the night watchman who always sat stock still in his booth in front of a monitor with his back turned toward the corridor. Every time he had the dream, Sam would push the noisy cart in front of him as fast as it could go, which wasn't so fast. He wanted to get to the surgery before the misshapen man did -- to finally creep up undisturbed to the head on the operating table with the hole in it, close enough to discover its identity.
Every night the dream within the dream was unchanged. The kid would watch in revulsion as the crazed clown under the spotlight in the center ring of the big tent stuck his arms inside a large hole in the side of a giant head and pulled out a glowing brain as though it wasn't a brain at all he was holding in his hands, but a jiggling gob of slippery, gelatinous, red colored goop he never quite got a good handle on. The brain would always end up splashed on the sawdust of the circus floor.
The nightmare invariably ended the same way. He woke up from the dream within a dream, followed the lane marked by a yellow stripe through the poorly lit corridors of the infirmary, and entered the laboratory while the anonymous tinkerer was hard at work on the glowing brain. However many times the kid had the dream, he inadvertently tripped into the table piled high with medical equipment, and flipped the gurney over. Everything always happened exactly the same way as it had the time before. He lay on his stomach on the slick linoleum floor helpless and death scared while the angry doctor in his blood spattered rubber apron reeled above him and stabbed at the air with a buzzing electrical, surgical saw.
In his nightmare, the head with the hole in it rolled next to him, and he was able to crawl up close enough to see whose brain it was Dr. Edward Vincent butchered alone in his surgery at night. At the end of the clown show, in his dream within a dream, as he exited the tent and followed the yellow line on the corridor floor to the government scientist's laboratory, he sensed something very significant was about to happen, something these unnerving visions he experienced in his sleep were meant to warn him against. No matter how often the nightmare repeated itself, the head he saw on the clinical floor had exactly the same features as the one he had previously seen on the giant, comic, stage-prop-bust spotlighted in the big top, circus center ring. Just before he awoke from his nightmare the last thing he saw after the metal-on-metal sparks from the doctor's spinning, motor-driven blade as it hit the side of a tipped over stainless steel shelf was always his own face beside him.
-- Daniel Mendel-Black, copyright 2011