NIGHTMARE ICE CREAM
Nerve thrum and screaming blood, wild and churning and chasing and devouring and terrible and terrible and terrible—
A voice. Bright light, and Eliza fell awake. That’s how it felt: like falling and landing hard. “It was a dream,” she heard herself say. “It was just a dream. I’m okay.”
How many times in her life had she spoken those words? More than she could count. This was the first time, though, that she’d spoken them to a man who had burst heroically into her room, clutching a claw hammer, to save her from being murdered.
“You… you were screaming,” said her roommate, Gabriel, darting looks into the corners and finding no sign of murderers. He was sleep-disheveled and manically alert, holding the hammer high and ready. “I mean… really, really screaming.”
“I know,” said Eliza, her throat raw. “I do that sometimes.” She pushed herself upright in bed. Her heartbeat felt like cannon fire—doomful and deep and reverberating through her entire body, and though her mouth was dry and her breathing shallow, she tried to sound nonchalant. “Sorry to wake you.”
Blinking, Gabriel lowered the hammer. “That’s not what I meant, Eliza. I’ve never heard anyone sound like that in real life. That was a horror-movie scream.”
He sounded a little impressed. Go away, Eliza wanted to say. Please. Her hands were starting to tremble. Soon she wouldn’t be able to control it, and she didn’t want a witness. The adrenaline crash could be pretty bad after the dream. “I promise, I’m fine. Okay? I just…”
Shaking. Pressure building, the sting behind her eyelids, and all of it out of her control.
Damn damn damn.
She doubled over and hid her face in her bedspread as the sobs welled up and took her over. As bad as the dream was—and it was bad—the aftermath was worse, because she was conscious but still powerless. The terror—the terror, the terror—lingered, and there was something else. It came with the dream, every time, and didn’t recede with it but stayed like something a tide had washed in. Something awful—a rank leviathan corpse left to rot on the shore of her mind. It was remorse. But god, that was too bloodless a word for it. This feeling the dream left her with, it was knives of panic and horror resting bright atop a red and meaty wound-fester of guilt.
Guilt over what? That was the worst part. It was… dear god, it was unspeakable, and it was immense. Too immense. Nothing worse had ever been done, in all of time, and all of space, and the guilt was hers. It was impossible, and with any distance from the dream Eliza could dismiss it as ridiculous.
She had not done, and nor would she ever do… that.
But when the dream entangled her, none of it mattered—not reason, not sense, not even the laws of physics. The terror and the guilt smothered it all.
When the sobs finally subsided and she lifted her head, Gabriel was sitting on the edge of her bed, looking compassionate and alarmed. There was this pert civility about Gabriel Edinger that suggested a better-than-fair chance of bow ties in his future. Maybe even a monocle. He was a neuroscientist, probably the smartest person Eliza knew, and one of the nicest. Both of them were research fellows at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History—the NMNH—and had been friendly while not quite friends for the past year, until Gabriel’s girlfriend moved to New York for her post-doc and he needed a roommate to cover the rent. Eliza had known it was a risk, cross-pollinating life hours with work hours, for this exact reason. This.
It wouldn’t take much digging for an interested party to ascertain the… depths of abnormal… upon which she’d built this life. Like laying planks over quicksand, it sometimes seemed. But the dream hadn’t troubled her for a while, so she’d given in to the temptation to pretend she was normal, with nothing but the normal concerns of any twenty-four-year-old doctoral student on a tiny budget. Dissertation pressure, evil lab-mate, grant proposals, rent.
“I’m sorry,” she said to Gabriel. “I think I’m okay now.”
“Good.” After an uncomfortable pause, he asked, brightly, “Cup of tea?”
Tea. Now there was a nice glimpse of normal. “Yes,” Eliza said. “Please.”
And when he ambled off to put on the kettle, she composed herself. Pulled on her robe, rinsed her face, blew her nose, regarded herself in the mirror. She was puffy, and her eyes were bloodshot. Awesome. She had pretty eyes, normally. She was accustomed to getting compliments on them from strangers. They were big and long-lashed and bright—at least when the whites weren’t pink from sobbing—and several shades lighter brown than her skin, which made them seem to glow. Right now, it chilled her to note that they looked a little… crazy.
“You’re not crazy,” she told her reflection, and the statement had the ring of an affirmation often uttered—a reassurance needed, and habitually given. You’re not crazy, and you’re not going to be.
Deeper down ran another, more desperate thought.
It will not happen to me. I’m stronger than the others.
Usually, she was able to believe it.
When Eliza joined Gabriel in the kitchen, the oven clock read four AM. Tea was on the table, along with a pint of ice cream, open, with a spoon sticking out. He gestured to it. “Nightmare ice cream. Family tradition.”
Eliza tried, for a moment, to imagine ice cream as her own family’s response to the dream, but she couldn’t. The contrast was just too stark. She reached for the carton. “Thanks,” she said. She ate a couple of bites in silence, took a sip of tea, all the while tensed for the questions to begin, as they surely must.
What do you dream about, Eliza?
How am I supposed to help you if you won’t talk to me, Eliza?
What’s wrong with you, Eliza?
She’d heard it all before.
“You were dreaming about Morgan Toth, weren’t you?” Gabriel asked. “Morgan Toth and his pillowy lips?”
Okay, so she hadn’t heard that. In spite of herself, Eliza laughed. Morgan Toth was her nemesis, and his lips were a fine subject for a nightmare, but no, that wasn’t even close. “I don’t really want to talk about it,” she said.