“What are you?” I ask the little green man at the foot of my bed. There’s something different about my voice, my intonation—even the way my tongue moves in my mouth. I’m certain I’ve been here before.
He doesn’t answer, but a merry gleam in his eye tells me he’s heard me. The corners of his lips, which are pale green like lichen, curl up toward his eyes. His dimples spiral around themselves like the head of a fiddle. His face is covered in fine, mossy hairs. His pupils are slit like a cat’s.
“Where have you come from?” I ask. I am transfixed. I cannot tear my eyes from his.
His answer is an almost imperceptible shake of his head.
I want to fill the silence, so I ask, “Why are you here?”
He doesn’t move a muscle. This time there is no twinkle in his eye. I worry he thinks I’m not ready and that he might go away. To calm myself, I take a deep breath, then another. I wait for him to speak. Gradually the ice beneath my temples begins to melt, my eyes taking in the fullness of him. He’s tiny, no bigger than a baby, yet the mattress sags beneath him with the suggestion of tremendous weight. I picture him walking with tectonic steps, his feet pounding the floor to dust.
“Listen, you.” I can’t keep the anger from my voice. “This is my apartment. This is my bed. You tell me why you’re here.” I fold my arms across my chest and lean forward, trying to loom over him, but it’s no use. Once more I am frightened.
Without moving, he seems to grow, or else the walls close in around us like an aperture. On my end table, the ticking clock is like a pulse. Minutes pass away, and a strange tension grows in my chest. His eyes flash like backlit emeralds.
There’s never enough time.
“If you think you can keep your—”
My sentence hangs in the air, unfinished, as the green man stands up. With leaden steps he moves to the edge of my bed, and then he glances back, still smiling, before jumping to the floor. The building trembles. I hesitate a moment before I throw back my covers and swing my legs out into the darkness. I stand. He passes like a thunderstorm across the room, and I follow, eager now, and poised for revelation. When he reaches the door, he pulls it open. His green fingers wrap around the wood from underneath. He pauses to look back, still smiling, but now his eyes are half-closed. Eagerly I follow as he stomps into the hall.
With every step he grows taller. By the time he’s reached the stairs his neck is bent, and his shoulders press up against the ceiling. The air is viscous, like static electricity, when he turns to me again. His eyes have closed completely, and eyelashes like pine needles fan out against his cheek. He speaks without moving his lips in a voice that’s wide with rapture.
“Time’s up,” he says. “It’s over.”
“Étienne, time’s up. Hey! Étienne. Time’s up.”
Étienne’s eyes shudder open like a stubborn old window. “How long was I out?” His voice is a faint murmur, as if the wind’s been knocked out of him. It’s not always like this.
“Half-hour,” Nancy says. “A little longer.” She’s wearing black overalls. A name tag on one of the straps says ALISON in balloon letters.
Étienne points to the name tag, and she follows the direction of his finger, frowning down at her chest.
“What’s with the name tag?”
Nancy shrugs, and Étienne silently reprimands himself. Trying to make conversation again. He regrets it every time, but he always reaches out in some way after waking to her indifferent face.
He rubs at the corners of his eyes to dislodge a bit of crust. Nancy is already pulling the weighted blanket off him and bundling it up around her hands. He shivers, remembering the green man as he swings his legs out of the chair. It creaks as he stands up. Here and there, the chair’s tan leatherette is patched with black vinyl.
Nancy folds up the blanket and adjusts the headrest while Étienne fiddles with his hands. He sweeps his eyes across the store, unsure whether he should head for the front counter or wait for her to finish. It’s just the two of them now. Heavy shelves of products stand like hoplites in tall rows. The shop’s only movement comes from an electric fan in one corner.
Nancy, he thinks. He wonders now if it’s really her name. For all he knows, she sheds names like a snake’s skin. He wonders what else he has taken for granted. She doesn’t even look at him, she just brushes off the armrests with her hands.
“I was thinking. If it’s not too much trouble, I’d just do one more. One more for the road,” he says, laughing feebly. She stares at him, expressionless, so he adds, “I mean if it’s not too much trouble. I just thought I might have time and it’s not that….”
“Look, it’s almost seven. I’m about to close up.”
He tries not to wilt like a neglected houseplant. He can imagine Nancy getting home and telling some roommate about him. He can almost hear them laughing as they twist the cap off a bottle of wine, rolling their eyes at the lanky creep who still comes in to use the dream machine. “It’s just that even a quick one would be really—”
“Yeah, um, that’s not going to work. Come back tomorrow.” He must have flinched, because she adds with a pitying smile, “For now, you’re officially cut off.”
“Sure. That’s fine.” Étienne scrubs his eyes again. Already the green man is fading, and his longing for the machine is almost too much to bear. He sometimes feels he is the only one who can’t get used to dreamless sleep.
Nancy sighs with a weariness that makes her seem old. “You know, Revericade is open twenty-four seven, and it’s like way nicer, honestly.” She gestures to the shabby dream machine, half-hidden now behind its stained grey curtain, an unloved bride with a hand-me-down veil. “It’s like, five blocks from here, on Dundas.”
Revericade. The word is a curse to Étienne. He doesn’t see how anyone can relax in that kind of place. It’s nothing like this outdated dream machine tucked away at the back of the store, a little rusted and ugly but still full of personality—the experience and scars that real dreams cannot do without. Revericade, by contrast, is all gleaming enamel and digital displays. He’s visited twice but never signed up for a membership. The dreams would be as sleek and inert as the machines themselves. What recondite secrets could they possibly reveal?
“They put you in cubicles,” he says, his mouth twisting around the sour word.
“Yeah.” Nancy could not sound less interested as she tucks the blanket behind the curtain, but Étienne can’t stop himself.
“They’re like stainless-steel coffins, like stepping into a microwave. No sound gets in.”
“I mean, I guess so.”
Étienne shakes his head. His eyes keep darting back to the name tag. “It’s like a barracks or something. I don’t know. You just can’t relax there.”
“I mean, I don’t know what to tell you. I just sleep to sleep, you know?”
“The employees there wear lab coats,” he mutters.
“Yeah, well, people love that stuff.” With the sole of her shoe, she rubs ineffectually at a scuff on the floor. “Nobody comes for our machine anymore. Don says it’s not worth the maintenance at this point.”
“He’s not getting rid of it, is he?” Despite himself, Étienne has pressed a fist to his chest. If he has to start going to Revericade, he will never find out what the green man wanted—or any of the rest.
“Doubt it. He’s always saying that, but it’s been here longer than me.”
Étienne lowers his hand and turns away from the dream station, and Nancy follows him toward the front counter. She stifles a yawn as she steps behind the till.
“One dream,” she itemizes, “thirty minutes.” With quick fingers, she hammers away at the touchpad. “Anything else?”
“I’ll take these as well.” He grabs a package of snack cakes and tosses it onto the counter. “And a vial of the menthol, too.”
Étienne stuffs his wallet back into his pocket as he steps outside. The door swings shut behind him and he finds the sun has set. Although the outdoor heat has enfolded him, he can’t shake the feeling that the whole city is indoors—one giant building with halls that connect at right angles and opaque, polluted blackness for a ceiling. For a moment he stands on the sidewalk as the sweat starts to bead on the back of his neck. The concrete glows with the pinkish colour of uncooked meat, reflecting the neon sign that shines down through the store window: Dreams, Vapour, Cold Drinks.
Mechanically, Étienne begins to walk. His thoughts turn inward, and he taps his thumbnail on the glass vial he bought from Nancy. He remembers the first dream he ever paid to have at the shop. It had been vivid and strange, seven massive towers that filled with smoke as they fell. He had been on a terrace when the first one toppled. Silently, he had fled toward the spiraling stairways as a thin cloud of panic constricted the air. Hundreds of people—thousands, maybe—had crowded onto the stairs, but when the rats swarmed from below, he was the only person who remained. As large and strong as lions, the beasts rushed at him with their square teeth bared and their eyes full of cunning. It’s all fuzzy now, as if moss has grown over the images, but Étienne can still feel the rats’ velvety bodies pressing down on him. He can still feel the wet heat of their breath. It was the end of the dream that had sparked his addiction. Just as his vision began to go dark, one of the rats had spoken in a deep and slurring voice, the tantalizing gleam of revelation just beyond his grasp.
He had woken up before that first dream could reveal its secrets, but after hundreds of its cryptic iterations, Étienne is sure he’s close to the truth. By now the rat wears the green man’s skin. He is always getting closer.
A languid breeze sweeps along the boulevard. It picks up empty chip bags and crumpled flyers, swirling them together in a half-hearted dance and cooling the sweat on Étienne’s neck. His shirt billows behind him like a white sail, and he turns the corner onto Dundas.
“’Scuse me,” says a voice. A man is standing in a doorway with pale blue jeans and a tarnished halo of curls. His eyes are the colour of antifreeze. His lips part slightly and reveal a set of perfect teeth. “I lost my wallet, man. I’m just trying to get a bus ticket.”
The man tags along beside Étienne, capering sideways like a crab.
“Come on, buddy. Help me out.”
“Sorry,” Étienne murmurs. His fingers curl around the vial in his pocket. He sets his eyes on the streetlights straight ahead.
The stranger follows for a few more paces then drops off abruptly. For a while, Étienne can still hear him muttering about the city’s coldness. The beggar grows smaller and smaller, the antipode of the green man. Étienne’s shoulders relax as the distance grows. Stifling a yawn, he wonders where and how the stranger lives.