by Jack Tyrrell
ALEX SLOWLY OPENED his eyes. He could feel soft, cool air cresting his cheeks as he soared through the sky, dipping and weaving between the cloud vapour as it refracted the warm sun in a vitreous spectrum of every colour he knew, each one more electric and beautiful than he had ever seen before. He gazed up at the darkened, thinning atmosphere, the stars shining like pin pricks in a blanket, eclipsed in their brilliance and sheen by a colossal golden planet, orbited by several fantastical rings ranging from the darkest of blues to the lightest of greens. He realised he was floating, as in an invisible liquid, and stared at the majestic view like a mystified child.
He felt free again.
After a few minutes of basking in its heavenly glow, he looked at his wrist. A shining watch encrusted with masterfully-cut emeralds, diamonds and rubies dazzled in the sunlight. He tried to read the time, but instead of numbers he saw odd symbols, and the hands were confused and erratic. He let out a chuckle as he attempted to make sense of what he was seeing. Suddenly, he felt a great compression over his chest, accompanied with a distinct feeling that his body was evaporating. All the beauty he saw started changing; the vibrant colours melting into grey nothingness until only a black void was left.
A few moments later, he opened his weary eyes and looked around to orient himself. He was slumped on a plum leather settee, surrounded by a disparate mish-mash of immobile bodies. He scoured the room. A harsh, pale face was grinning at him, sat on the other side of the room at a wooden table.
“Alright sleepy?” said Sonny, his face wrinkled with interest.
“Hi…” mumbled Alex, wearily rubbing his eyes. He realised he had a large plastic bottle in his hand and put it neatly on the table, next to a handful of small glass vials. ‘How long was I out?’ He heaved his wrist in front of his eyes. Unfortunately, the numbers and hands on his watch were their usual, boring selves.
Sonny looked down at his hands as he slowly rolled a cigarette. “About four and a half hours.”
Alex sat upright, and stretched. “That was a good one,” he said with a satisfied, smiling sigh. He patted the front pockets of his jeans, to make sure his wallet and mobile phone was where he left them. He pulled out his phone: 2am. He had missed several calls and texts, and his face grew mournful.
“Got to go,” he said lazily, as he got to his feet.
“So soon.” Sonny muttered, looking up at him. Then, in a deeper tone of voice: “You know you owe me fifty quid for that Dreng.”
As he started to sober up, Alex felt the familiar feeling of emptiness as he remembered the weight of existence bearing down on him. He reluctantly pulled over his coat, opened his wallet and handed Sonny a clammy wad of notes. Without saying a word, he zipped his coat up to his neck, left the flat, and braced the stabbing winter air as he trudged home through the snow.
Some time later, as he lumbered through the door to his flat, he was met with the familiar scowl of his girlfriend of six months.
“Where the bloody hell have you been? I was about to call the police,” Lydia snarled, her arms crossed and her blue eyes flaring. “You were at that dealer’s flat again weren’t you.”
Alex shuffled past her, ignoring her false outrage.
“Every day for weeks you’ve been going there. We can’t afford you escaping every day. Am I really that horrible to live with?”
Alex looked back at her slender frame and golden tresses. He shook his head slightly. “It’s not you, its…”
“It’s what? Spit it out.” Lydia sighed, her interest starting to wane from her daily interrogations.
Alex looked at her and felt uneasy. “I dunno.” He responded, his voice dull and weary. He carried on walking in the direction of his favourite chair as he pulled out a glass vial from his pocket, leaving Lydia sour-faced and alone.
“First you were sacked, now this…” Lydia whispered, her voice trailing off, as she suddenly became aware of the tear running down her face.
HEAVY FINGERS SLAMMED onto the keyboard. Alex looked at the clock at the bottom right-hand corner of his computer screen, the digits achingly passing by. The time was 16:56, he only had to endure a further four minutes of this tedium, then he could leave.
“There he is!” beamed a familiar voice coming toward his small office cubicle. Harry and Alex had known each other for years, ever since they were kids. Alex sometimes wondered how much of a shell he would be if he hadn’t known him; a question he wasn’t in a rush to have answered.
“I’ll be done soon. These spreadsheets are a nightmare. Why didn’t Grayson get one of the temps to do this?” His frustration was seeping through his usually calm demeanour.
“Because Grayson’s a prick.” Harry snapped, as he loosened his tie. “He’s never liked you. You need to be more assertive, bosses respect that.”
Alex’s eyes remained glued to the screen as he typed. “Hmm. Maybe…Or he should respect the fact I’ve worked harder than everyone else in this dump for three years and I haven’t been promoted…but you have.”
Harry wasn’t listening; engrossed in his phone. “Five o’clock, the weekend’s here!”
Alex let out a large sigh of relief. As he picked up his bag and he got up to leave the office, a woman sauntered towards him. Her hair was like spun gold shining in the summer sunlight, a beacon of energy and life in an environment of grey blandness.
“Who’s that?” said Alex, his eyes transfixed on the woman’s regal body.
“That’s Lydia, she started today. Lovely, isn’t she?” replied Harry.
Alex didn’t answer. He was spellbound. He’d never seen a woman so beautiful in his life.
“Ask her out mate, what have you got to lose?”
Alex meekly nodded as he tried to hide his staring eyes from the angel as she walked past, her perfume effortlessly dancing around his face as it lifted the stuffy office air. Harry could sense his friend’s frustration as he packed his things away.
“You know, we always go to the pub after work. I think we should try something different this time.” he said, with a hint of mischief in his voice.
“What do you have in mind?” His friend’s words sounded beguiling.
“An answer to boredom,” said Harry, with a look of whimsy in his eyes. “There’s a party tonight at a mate’s house. He’s a bit… different, but he’s alright. Also…” Harry leant in closer. “I think Lydia’s coming.”
SONNY WAS STARING out of his flat’s window down at the hustle and bustle below. So many people, he wondered, as he took a drag of his cigarette. They were like ants, thinking they had control over their little mounds of earth. Did they know anything about themselves? Did they realise they were living such insignificant lives? He heard a deep thudding at his door.
“Sonny. It’s me, open up,” howled Harry, barely audible over the thumping bass of the music. Sonny stared at the ants below for a few more seconds and stubbed out his cigarette. It took him a while to open his door. The sound of metal clanging echoed down the hallway as he unlocked it.
“Hey, how’re you doing… and you bought a friend,” sneered Sonny as he sized Alex up.
They both stepped into the flat. The music was unlike anything Alex had heard before. It was so loud that he could feel it in his chest. He looked back at the door, as the clanging metal intrigued him. Adorning the large door were several heavy-duty locks. Sonny was obviously a very private person he thought, as he watched him take a few minutes to re-lock the door.
They made their way through the thick smoky air. Sonny’s living room had been cleared to host a large ensemble of people, dancing and laughing as they drank and smoked. They made their way past the jubilant bodies, in the direction of a turquoise-dimmed room, which Alex assumed was a place to relax and unwind, away from the din of the party. Alex’s heart skipped a beat as he saw, in the throng of unfamiliar faces, a face he couldn’t forget, unnaturally lit in the darkness and chaos of the party. Lydia was flanked by a handful of friends and admirers attempting to stir her attention. Alex stood bemused—how could such a creature exist in this place, surrounded by such ugliness?
Her sapphire eyes turned and fixed their gazes at him. They stared at each other momentarily before Alex looked away, as if stunned by blinding light. He quickly re-scanned the room to find his friend and host, before scurrying after them into the room.
As Alex went inside, he saw that the electric turquoise hue was emanating from a light fixture holding an odd-looking bulb. Sonny swiftly turned up its brightness with a remote before slumping down to the floor.
“I’ve got a fresh batch in recently,” he said with a mischievous smile, “I was gonna make this lot last throughout 2037, but I need to shift it. I spend too much time getting high on my own supply, especially in the summer,” he chuckled.
Alex watched as Sonny pulled open a cardboard box from under his bed. He saw a discordance of paraphernalia: Strewn joint papers, grinders, straws, tobacco packets and translucent containers filled with white powder. Sonny sat on his bed and ruffled through the amalgamation like a child at Christmas, opening a much sought-after present.
“Here they are.”
Alex remained standing as Harry sat next to the shaven-headed man. Sonny pulled out what looked like a black tool pouch, and opened it. Inside were more than forty small cylindrical glass vials held neatly in four straight lines by individual straps, with colourless liquids inside them.
“Holy smokes.” Harry leered at the vials. “There’s got to be hundreds of pounds worth in there.”
“What are they?” Asked Alex.
“It’s Dreng.” Sonny took a sip from a lager can that was resting near a large knife on his bedside cabinet. “It forces you into a lucid-dream state where you can control the dream. Anything you want to do, anywhere you want to go, anything you want to feel is inside these little tubes.”
“Wow,” said Alex, as he leant in for a closer look. As he thought of all the things that he could do, his imagination ran wild.
“How much?” asked Harry.
“Tenner a tube. The whole tube will give you around twelve minutes of pure, unlimited ecstasy in the dream, but you’ll spend an hour asleep in the real world. Better buy a few, will save you from coming back.” Harry immediately handed Sonny a few notes and collected his purchases.
“You in?” inquired Sonny, looking at Alex. He pulled out his own wallet and handed Sonny a ten pound note. “It takes decades to master naturally, and is never as controllable or vivid.”
“What’s the catch?” asked Alex as he received his vial.
“Well,” Sonny enthusiastically replied, “There’s no side effects. You wake up feeling fresh as a daisy—the only problem is that you need to keep doing it again and again if you’re gonna get any good at it. But…” His voice trailed off, as if thinking twice about what he was going to say.
“But what?” probed Alex, as he stuffed the glass tube into his pocket.
The three followed Sonny as he shuffled past them and into a room across the hallway. As soon as he opened the door, they were hit with a putrid wall of sweat and unwashed clothes. As Alex walked into the dark room he saw twenty or more people, all either slumped on the floor or on plum leather settees, as if they were all dead. The walls were adorned in beautiful patterns of fluorescent paint, glowing luminously in the dark.
Sonny left the door open to let in some light and air. He moved toward a man in his early twenties who was lying on the floor on his side, and lifted up the man’s shirt. He was emaciated, his ribs hideously poking out of his chest and his sallow skin stretched out over his skull. “It’s easy to lose yourself,” Sonny said morosely.
Alex was disgusted, but incredibly curious at the same time. A drug that affected people like this must be amazing—it was an avenue that he needed to explore to escape this boring life. Nothing bad would happen to him though, as he possessed greater willpower than those druggies. He was special.
They quickly moved out of the room as the smell was becoming too much. Alex was aching to experience the drug, but not here. Not with these people. Not while listening to this racket. He was about to let the others know he was going home, when he felt a delicate touch on his shoulder.
“Hey Sonny, you gonna introduce me to your friend?” Lydia beamed at Alex with a perfect smile.
HARRY CLUTCHED HIS arms as he made his way through the dense December snow. He hadn’t seen his friend for months. Any attempt to contact Alex had ended in a brick wall. He breathed a sigh of relief and swept back his hair as he made it inside the imposing, grey tower block. The lift hadn’t been operational for weeks, and he cursed under his breath as he remembered how many stairs he had to climb. After lumbering up the winding stairs, past grey walls decorated with graffiti, he eventually made it to the door. He hesitated before he thudded; what had become of his old friend?
His pupils dilated as he was greeted with a beaming smile. “Hey!” said Lydia, as she embraced him. “How have you been?”
“I’m fine,” Harry mumbled. “Where’s Alex?” He tried to shuffle past the woman to see his friend but was blocked by her regal frame draped in a silk gown, and dared not advance without her say-so.
“He’s been getting worse. I’ve tried everything I can, but he’s abandoned me.”
She raised her hand and cradled Harry’s cold jaw with her warm fingers. “I’ve been so lonely lately. All he does is take that horrible drug and sleep. He barely eats. I feel empty.”
Harry gulped as he stared at her mesmeric features. “I know how you feel… He’s abandoned me, too.”
Lydia led him into the small flat by his shirt, as if he were a dog on a lead. He saw his old friend slumped on his settee, his eyes half-open and glazed over. Shock washed over Harry, and he was suddenly rooted to the ground. He remembered something his mother told him—about how a person’s memory of someone remains fixed in time; that we remember people exactly as we last saw them, unchanged, unblemished. His friend’s face was gaunt, and his usually well-kept hair was haggard and filthy. His skin was colourless, his clothes were baggy, and his previously muscled arms had wasted away. It was as if his friend had died; but unusually, he felt no sympathy for him. How could Alex leave such a woman alone? How could he think that a dream was a healthy substitute for reality? That was not his friend anymore. That was someone else, inhabiting his friend’s flesh.
Lydia slowly ambled toward her once-shared bedroom and gazed back at Harry. She dropped her gown and stood silent, like a naked statue made of the finest golden marble. She then turned, and made her way to the bed, as Harry hypnotically fawned after her.
ALEX GAZED THROUGH the crystalline blue waves, his body caressed by the undercurrent of the ocean, hushed along by a muffled crashing of the surf. The lunar light pierced the satin water as he lay motionless, the cool water caressing his atrophied frame.