Lester and The Doctor
by H. C. Duncan
A disheveled, glassy-eyed man with a nine o’clock shadow enters a dimly lit office above a bank. Unlike the linoleum in the sterile reception area, the carpet is new, and he feels the urge to take his shoes off, to feel the wool, soft and lovely under his toes.
The Doctor, who isn’t wearing a white coat or stethoscope but is still a doctor, asks him with a pleasant smile to sit down. There are plaques behind The Doctor’s desk—not as many as Lester has seen in other offices, but enough to convey a sense of respectability.
Lester doesn’t know how he should sit. Maybe lying down will present itself as an option soon; it seems more natural in a situation like this. Maybe he’ll take his shoes off when he lies down so he can feel the carpet.
Lester takes a gamble and sits normally, maybe slumping a little too much, but The Doctor doesn’t do anything strange. He clicks a pen and goes to write Lester’s name, realizes he just unclicked the pen, clicks it again, writes with a flourish, looks up with a smack of his lips and says, “So!”
Lester wants to cry. The whole thing feels too real. Never in a million years did he think he’d be seeing a psychiatrist.
“When did the nightmares begin, Mr. Hill?” The Doctor asks.
Lester is chilly, but Doctor seems warm in his big leather chair. A patch of enticing sunlight is slowly sliding its way up the couch like a nervous teenager’s hand, but until it reaches him, he will have to suffer in air-conditioned discomfort.
“About a week ago.”
“So, September 6th?” The Doctor prompts.
“Tell me about them.” The Doctor looks down and flips through several sheets of paper.
All Lester gave the receptionist was his name, address, and an insurance card. Why does The Doctor need a clipboard? Is his whole history going to come out here? Hopefully not.
“All I want is some sleeping pills,” Lester says, one arm scratching the other.
“And I understand you went to your regular doctor to get some. Because of your behavior there, Dr. Townley asked me to take a look at you first.”
The Doctor smiles politely and looks up, like an inattentive father glancing over his newspaper after admonishing his 5-year-old son. He has a perfectly sculpted white beard that makes him look like Colonel Sanders, or an insane chicken farmer, or both, someone who seems nice and friendly, but also the kind of psycho that experiments on his dead¬—
“Mr. Hill, I understand you’ve been suffering from insomnia, correct?”
“It’s not insomnia,” Lester replies, “I just don’t want to go to sleep.”
“You refuse to go to sleep without sleeping pills, then, or some form of sleeping aid.”
“Call it what you like.”
“And you’ve been having nightmares. That’s the crux of what I want to discuss.”
“I have. And you’re going to try and determine what’s causing the dreams, I guess?”
“I’m just going to have a look at the whole of you to see what the matter is.” The Doctor paused. “Dr. Townley said that you mentioned some issues with your wife, as well.”
“He did? No, no, no. This has nothing to do with that.” Lester runs a hand through his sweaty hair before going on. “Sorry, I’ve never done anything like this before.” He hesitates, concentrates, and continues.
“A week ago, these dreams started. They were just regular nightmares at first. The first two nights, I’d be having a regular, you know, normal dream, holding hands with a girl, picnicking in the garden, whatever. Then something would change, and I’d be staring at a black hole, the middle of nothing, and there’d be a scream, and I’d wake up, drenched in sweat. It’s basically ruined my sheets.”
The Doctor waits for his patient to continue. Lester begins to notice the air-conditioner running in the room, its hum like something mechanical clearing its throat.
“But then, on the third night—this is September 8th—it seems like I went straight from regular nighttime thoughts to the black hole dream.”
“A black hole, you’re calling it?”
“Yeah. I’ve had recurring nightmares before, right? We all have. I used to have a clown nightmare that got me five days in a row.”
“But this is different. It’s like I have no choice; it just starts playing the second I close my eyes. I hear my wife call my name—this isn’t always the setup, just an example—I hear her call me, ‘Lester,’ then I turn around, and there’s a black hole where her face should be. It’s like the dream sets me up, it makes me happy, puts me in this happy place, and then it automatically ruins it.
“The black hole is a huge, colossal spiral that’s just twisting and sucking in air, with little blinking lights surrounding it, contorting everything. And it isn’t just contained to her face; it drips down to her chest. It’s like this living thing that eroded her whole head and it’s trying to suck me in with it.”
The Doctor nods silently, drawing a small black circle on his paper.
“So when did you start staying up all night? Was that to combat the dreams?” The Doctor’s voice is hoarse, like he’s been shouting loudly into a pillow.
“Three days ago, when I saw Dr. Townley. That was the first night I didn’t sleep.”
“Perhaps your sleeplessness contributed to your irritability,” The Doctor says without looking up.
Lester sighs and looks out the window to the beach. “Every time I try to sleep, the nightmares start. I think the lack of sleep is making me delusional. I’ve started seeing things, even when I’m awake. That’s why I’m here.”
The Doctor’s hand stops spiraling, hesitates, and continues, the pen easily pressing an indentation through several sheets of paper.
“What kinds of things?” The Doctor asks, his voice catching in his throat.
The hum of the air-conditioner is louder. It’s no longer an undercurrent of the conversation; Lester feels he actually has to actively speak over it. He doesn’t speak of it, though. Drawing attention to the noise would look paranoid.
“I work at a cafe near the beach—”
He points to the window. “That one. Beachview.”
The circle is larger now, the outline of a new shape encompassing the first one, black ink filling in the gaps.
“I’ve been there.” The Doctor clears his throat again. “Good, uh, coffee.”
“I do regular dishwashing stuff, serving customers, you know, the usual. The other day, we were closing up early, around three. Business hasn’t been so great lately.”
The Doctor’s heart rate is rising, and beads of sweat are starting to appear in his hairline, the air conditioner hums onward endlessly, He tries to mouth, “Of course.”
“I was taking a breather, standing on the footpath outside. I was tired and my eyes were stinging, so I wasn’t really paying attention to the world, but I saw something on the beach that didn’t look right to me.”
The Doctor widens the path of the circle, starts holding onto the pen so tight the plastic gives way a little, bending in his hand.
“There was this woman out in the surf, standing still. If I hadn’t been watching her, I wouldn’t have noticed that she wasn’t moving. Does that makes sense?”
The Doctor gives a noncommittal grunt, his voice a little higher than natural, and Lester continues.
“The woman was just standing there with her back to the sea. She’s wearing a real big dress, black and lacy, like a wedding dress or something. And I’m standing there watching her, wondering what the deal is, and slowly, she starts moving towards land.”
He looks up to see if The Doctor wants him to keep going. Lester has chills running through his body, remembering the woman and the way her face looked, the black lipstick and dead eyes.
The Doctor isn’t even looking at him; instead, he’s ferociously writing something in his little notepad, his breath audible. Annoyed, Lester continues.
“It’s like the other people on the beach can’t even see her. They get out of her way to allow for some room around her, but it’s unintentional. She’s wading toward the shore, and I don’t know how she’s moving through the waves. I couldn’t work it out, but they weren’t blocking her path at all.”
Lester thinks that maybe The Doctor is engaging in some sort of radical psychiatric treatment where he ignores the patient, who’s lying there, incredibly fragile, getting him to open up out of spite. He pushes on through the discomfort and the annoyance, through the sound of the machine humming and groaning.
“And I mean, this isn’t a dream, I’m watching this happen right in front of me, maybe fifty feet away. There are cars going by, people walking past, and people in the water with her. Do you know what I mean?”
The Doctor doesn’t answer. He’s stuck, his neck stiff and vibrating slightly, his eyes wide and starting to tear up, glistening in the low and dusty light.
“Do you? I mean, I understand that the dreams are just something in my subconscious, but if I’m starting to hallucinate, I’m in serious trouble. And if it wasn’t a hallucination …”
The Doctor’s eyelids start to tremble and the pen snaps. He goes on drawing with the nub of it, thick black circles around and around, harder and harder. The scratching of the pen is audible over Lester’s talking and the air conditioning, which is as loud as jet engine now. The sun hasn’t moved in five minutes and the temperature is dropping considerably.
Around and around, the scratching continues.
Lester stands up, eying the silent man whose eyes won’t follow him. They’re stuck on his former position on the couch. Lester puts an arm on The Doctor’s shoulder, shaking him lightly, trying to bring him back to reality. The air conditioner screams on full blast, sending out sheets of icy air coupled with a noise that neither of them have ever heard before.
The Doctor comes to, looks up, and screams. Lester sees the terror in his eyes, in his mouth, in the spiderweb of spit hanging between his teeth.
Instead of Lester’s face, all The Doctor sees is a spiraling black galaxy of darkness, moving slowly towards him, swallowing him up.
Copyright © 2014 H. C. Duncan