21 By Damon Norko

For me, sleep was always functional.

Fragments of the day sorted and reorganized.

No symbolism, but random juxtapositions.

No narrative, just a jumble.

No dreams – until now.

She came last night.

And, as I do not dream, I must accept her as real.

I must follow her, elusive as she is, into the dark void.

It’s unfamiliar territory.

The fragments seem to have aligned themselves into stepping stones, one after another, leading me on. I think she may be dead. I see her under water. I am driving my car over a bridge and I look down and there she is, shimmering in the waves. I feel very bad that she is down there, but there is nothing I can do.

In the morning, everything is fine. But I do have a lingering feeling of guilt, like I had something to do with her, like I should have known who she was. I have some coffee, dress, and drive to work. I’m a waiter. I serve 21 tables and fold about a million napkins. It takes eight hours. Time flies when you’re having fun.

It’s only 6:30 when I get home, and I go right to bed. Fluff my two down pillows and pull up my comforter and turn off the light.

I can’t wait to get to the bottom of this . . .

And there she is! Only this time she’s happy – we’re both at a party. Shag rug. Streamers. Some sort of brandy-based sweet drink and cold ice cubes. Lots of people, noise, the scent of pot in the air.

Where’d she go?

Lost her – darn.

I hope she stays away from the water.

Next day – 42 tables – very busy. I’m really glad I folded enough napkins yesterday. I’m completely exhausted when I come home. I realize that I am stuck in a rut. I feel like I have been waiting tables forever. I’m not in the mood for the girl. I take a shot of Jack Daniels, watch a Netflix movie, and fall asleep 21 minutes into it.

I have a completely different dream. This time I am over my parents’ house. They are talking about the girl, whom they refer to as my sister. This is very surprising because a) I had no idea that I had a sister, and, b) I never knew my parents.

But it’s a dream, and there they are, talking about a girl I don’t know. I play along.

She will miss her twenty-first birthday, Mom says, dabbing her eyes.

So will he, says Dad.

How could I have forgotten about him! says Mom.

It’s been a long time, says Dad, ever gentle. Twenty-one years . . .

They both died so young, she says.

But he never had a chance, Dad remarks.

“Who are you talking about?” I ask, as lightly as possible, considering the situation.

I receive no answer.

I wake up at this point. I feel like I need to pee, but nothing comes out. I sit like a woman on the seat. It doesn’t help. Back to bed. My mind is grasping into the subconscious, trying to find that dream . . . all I need is a piece of an image, a hook, a something . . . ah, there it is!

The drowned woman is at the hospital, hooked up to tubes. She’s fretful; tossing and turning. Where are the damn doctors! No one’s around!

“There, there,” I say.

From behind me comes the sound of curtains parting. A doctor and a nurse come in. He has a stethoscope. She has an electronic notebook.

“The patient’s moving again,” the doctor observes with calculated impassivity. “First time in twenty-one days.”

The nurse wants to show some emotion, but then she reins herself in and matches the doctor’s cold sterility.

“They do that once in a while,” she says. “But then they always calm down.”

“The brain begins to die,” says the doctor.

“Sad,” says the nurse.

Do something! I practically scream at them, but they don’t seem to care what I demand.

The doctor shakes his head. The nurse gazes at me like I am part of the wallpaper.

I am tired of the dream. It is too much of a burden.

Thrashing and turning in my own bed I wake up. Maybe I can pee now.

I don’t allow myself any more dreams tonight. If I start to fall asleep, I turn over and open my eyes to keep myself awake. The rest of the night becomes a light meditation, not sleep. Of course all I think about is her. What happened? Where do I know her from? Why am I involved?

I wake up way too early for work the next morning. Two minutes to one. I don’t have to be in until six! I lay in bed for a while, but that’s the same thing as dreaming, so I get up and put on my waiter clothes. Still, two hours to kill. I decide to take a drive.

Out of the city, hit the highway, get out and do something different for a change. The early morning air is crisp and clean. I open all the windows of the car. Maybe I will drive and drive and never come back! And, suddenly, there is the bridge. The very bridge where I saw the girl! Honking horns behind me remind me that I have slowed perceptibly in the highway. Almost caused an accident. I speed up, slowly approaching the bridge. I begin to cross, finding it hard to look down into the waters and to keep my car between the white lines. Let’s see, she should be . . . about . . . there!

But she is not. There are just waves of a river swelling and cresting with the current. I can’t see the bottom. How would anyone know she was there?

They call it distracted driving. That’s what happened. Looking down at the water I missed the stalled seafood delivery van in the left lane. Instinctually I swerve to avoid it, but the tires strike the curb sideways and bounce, and then the car flips, up and over, and, after a glancing blow off the truck, my car is airborne . . . heading for the water.

Time slips by very slowly, dream-like.

Indeed, all the images seem to fragment, just like my dreams.

Maybe it’s me hitting the water.

And then I am here, in the hospital, with the girl.

Her tossing and turning has ceased; she’s as still as a porcelain doll.

“I’m here!” I tell her. “Wake up!”

Her eyes open. Color floods her cheeks. Her lips purse to form words.

“I knew you’d come,” she says.

“You knew I would crash my car?” I ask.

“I’m sorry that you had to go through that, but it was the only way,” she says, sitting up a bit and leaning over. I feel her breath on my cheek.

“I brought you back,” she says.

“No,” I tell her gently. “You didn’t. This is my dream. If anything, I brought you back.

“Are you sure about that?” she asks.

“Of course,” I answer.

“Then, who are you?” she says.

It’s a simple question, but, I must admit, she’s got me stumped.

But it’s a dream, strange things are supposed to happen. Maybe I have amnesia. Who knows? You fill in the blank.

“I need this to be a dream,” I tell her. “Otherwise, I might be dying. It was a pretty bad car crash.”

“I brought you back, brother,” she insists. “So I won’t let you die.”

Not to be outdone, I answer, “I won’t let you die, either.”

She smiles again and says, “Then does it really matter who created whom?”

I think for a moment.

“No,” I say. “It really doesn’t.”

“This patient is coming back from the brink!” came the doctor’s voice.

“They do that sometimes, too,” said the nurse.

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