I cannot sleep.
No, that's wrong.
I must not sleep.
I've been awake the last three days. My coffeepot has been perking nonstop. I ran out of sugar last night, but that's not important. The caffeine is.
I've stayed in my room a lot, mostly because I'm afraid of the nurses. They'd see how tired I am, and make me take some sedatives, and then I'd sleep...
I've had a long life; I taught for forty years, the kids are grown, Joanna's gone, and now I'm alone here in this nursing home. They call it a "resort", but since when did resorts have nurses?
I haven't kept much on the walls since Joanna died. There's a framed Renoir print the kids gave us, and a wedding portrait of Joanna and me.There's a couple of pictures on the desk, of the kids when they were little, and their kids. They all blur now. It's hard for me to remember which ones are mine. They all flow together, lives passing quickly through reality into whatever Heaven or Hell lies beyond...
It's been a rough year here. Not because of the boredom or the staff; we've learned to cope with the boredom, and the staff is smart enough to leave us alone as much as possible. It was rough this year because of the deaths.
I can barely keep my eyes focused on our wedding portrait. She's so fragile. Always was. I guess I wanted to try to protect her. And I did. Gave her a home, security, even supported her when she wanted to work as a secretary. Can't protect anyone against viruses, though.
I remember teaching "The Masque of the Red Death" to unappreciative high school seniors. It came here, decimating a good third of the home. They called it influenza, but it didn't matter. The vaccines they'd given us didn't work, for some reason. Most of us got sick, a lot died.
Coping wasn't easy for any of us. The empty spaces didn't help. There's a couple of negligence lawsuits in the courts right now, so not too many people want to come here. But the staff here at the home are good people. They'll pull through.
It's funny how some things stay in your mind, undiluted, on a big screen and in quadraphonic sound. The first time I ever kissed a girl, after a Charlie Chaplin movie, on her front step. I can't remember her name, but I can see her face, slightly upturned as she waited for me to kiss her. Looking into Joanna's eyes, tearing as she whispered "I do." Or the last words I ever said to her.
There's a grandfather clock down the hall chiming three a.m. It had just chimed four, I suppose, when I stood over Joanna's hot, frail body as her life dripped out of her, slowly replaced by the IV. Her eyes opened, still the same eyes I had looked into fifty years before, but shiny with fever instead of tears. I could barely hear her say, "Joe. Be with me, Joe. Swear that you'll come to me."
Even as she drew her last breath, I swore that oath by all that I held holy.
As the doctors pushed me out of the way, trying their futile efforts to bring her back, I kept repeating that oath. On the night she had agreed to marry me, I remember saying, "Joe and Joanna. We were meant to be together. Forever."
That night, the dreams began.
I stood at the top of a long stone staircase, descending in the mossy, torchlit stairwell, ending in a wooden door, cracked inward just enough so that I could see part of the doorframe peeking through. I looked behind me, where a marble antechamber stood, all four walls unbroken by door or window. I took the torch at the top of the stair and spent several minutes exploring the room, its marble columns scattered like trees reaching for the arcing ceiling, high above.
Finally, nothing remained except for the stairwell and the door below. I held onto the torch and stepped down upon the first step
and awoke. It bothered me, the clarity of the dream, and my perfect recollection of it. I usually only have foggy memories, if any at all, of my dreams, but this stood out like a diamond in a coalpile of memories, as perfect as the memory of my wedding. It was with great difficulty that I put it aside and went on with the daily ennui of bridge, t.v., and repeated recollections of childhood.
That night, I dreamt again.
It was the same, although the torch I had been holding lay extinguished three stairs down. But this time I felt no need to explore the marble room again; instead I felt drawn toward the door. I stepped upon the first step, expecting to wake, and lost my balance as my foot jarred on stone, causing me to stumble down onto the second step
and awoke. It continued that way, one step at a night, for a month, until I finally went to go see the home's resident psychologist. He muttered something about how I visualized my limbodic something or other and gave me some stress-relieving exercises to do.
They helped cope with the stress of having the same dream every night, but little else. When I went back in two weeks, he was gone, due to budget cuts in the home. They had to pay for lawyers somehow, I guess.
I just reached for a cup of coffee, but my hand was shaking uncontrollably. I didn't try to drink it. I read somewhere that caffeine does nasty things to your body. But it's either the caffeine or sleep...
After two months I was halfway down the stairs. I couldn't help but walk down them; my legs wouldn't listen. People in the home started to avoid me because I kept talking about my dream. I tried to tell them that it was different, that it wasn't the same dream every night, but like the Buck Rogers serials we used to watch, continuing on where the last one left off. But I had to stop talking about it, so that somebody would stay around me.
At the end of the fourth month, three days ago, I was at the last step before the landing. I managed, somehow, to keep myself from stepping on the landing. I had to know what was behind that door! All I had to do was lean forward and push on it, and I could see, so I did, losing my balance and stepping onto the landing.
Joanna loved to tell me "curiosity killed the cat" whenever I'd poke my nose into things, like fixing the car or trying how to figure out how to run a VCR. I'd always remind her that I wasn't a cat. Now I just think somebody got the quote wrong.
There was a split second between when I pushed the door and stepped onto the landing, waking screaming in my sweaty sheets. A second when I was able to see a dark lake of fire, straight out of Milton, the cold of the flames chilling my skin. I saw the insects, with their leering human faces crawling over Joanna's body chained spread eagle over the fires. I saw the insects eating away at her skin, her flesh, her eyes, and it all resealing behind them as they tunneled deeper into her.
And I saw her turn to face me, and smile, her half-eaten eyes reforming as they were eaten again.
I am trying to stay awake. I know that if I sleep again, I will dream. And I know that I will not be able to slow my legs again. I swore that I would join her, and I will, if I sleep.
I don't know what she did, my Joanna, to deserve that Hell, but I will join her eventually. I have prayed, for the first time in twenty years, begging God for my soul.
Joe and Joanna, forever.
It's getting harder and harder to keep my eyes open. I have to stay awake. I must not sleep. I must not sleep. I must not sleep. I must not sle
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