Joe Boggs still felt a touch groggy. The aesthetic from the operation was strong but had to subside eventually.
24 hours ago it had all been so different.
Joe had been on the waiting list for a transplant for as long as he could remember due to an inherent condition that only really started to affect him in his late teens. He had experienced a few false alarms, when a donor had become available but it all fell foul due to an emergency admission or some other last minute hiccough. He’d become used to the slow starts on cold days , the overprotective medications whenever there was a slight risk of a cold doing the rounds, the fear of hearing someone sneeze in the same room and the ever present fact that at anytime his weak and struggling heart could just give in.
Then came the phone call.
Then came the few words that changed it all.
“Mr Boggs, we need to admit you as soon as possible, a donor has become available but we must act now.”
He felt a slight tension, a hidden concern in the voice.
“Of course. I have my things pack. I always have a bag ready just in case…Well, in case this happened.”
“Mr Boggs, there’s one other thing I need to be very clear about this time.”
This was it. This was going to be the let down again.
“What’s the problem doctor? What’s the hold up this time?”
Ok, he was a little tense, maybe even curt but he had due reason.
“Mr Boggs there’s no problem as such. Well, not from our end but it’s… Well it’s a moral thing.”
Moral? Moral? What in God’s name was he blabbering on about now?
This was life or death, well life or better life really and Joe had no time or, damn it, no need for morals now.
“Whatever it is doctor, I’m not about to say no. Let’s just get me in and get this done.
Within the hour, Joe was in the operating theatre and counting down from ten to a big sleep. He woke many hours later but it had seemed to him, as to any patient, only minutes.
The surgeon was due to inspect his handiwork in just a while and nurses were fussing around him like hyperactive flies.
Joe was feeling oddly no different. Sure, he had aches and pains from very intrusive surgery. You’d have to be dead not feel a bit sore after your chest had been forced open, your heart torn out and a new, still beating organ thrust in its place.
Ok, he was maybe exaggerating a little but he was feeling better than he had anticipated.
He’d have to wait to see what Doctor Roberts said but, all told, he felt fine.
Two weeks later and he was already taking a few tentative steps, leaning on a heavily built nurse, but it was still incredible progress. The new procedure involved taking a live heart instead of a technically dead frozen organ and transplanting it while it was still beating, kept alive by machine but essentially beating and living.
The success rate had been staggering, cutting recuperation times in half, doubling the rate of survival beyond the sixth month and trebling the rate amongst longer term survivors.
Joe was soon back at his own desk and living, breathing and sucking in every minute of activity that passed, treasuring every single flicker of a birds wing.
He took glad to be alive to every extreme.
It was over a year before the dreams came.
Joe now regularly ran, swam and climbed. He boxed every Sunday at the gym outside of town and he never missed the chance any charity event gave him to promote the success of the new procedure and what it had meant to him.
He usually slept like a baby, not waking to cough and splutter as he used to every night, nor to gasp for air or grab a drink when the panic hit him.
He’d come to believe that every thing was so perfect he tried to ignore the occasional bad dream, confused and sometimes terrifying that they were but they were becoming more and more frequent.
He’d resigned himself to the fact that as everything had been so wonderful, something going slightly, well not wrong but, different was the price you paid.
After all, that was all that was wrong.
At his last check up, Doctor Roberts had noticed the bags starting to show under his eyes, the paler skin tone.
Joe thought better than to mention the weird dreams so just admitted he’d been over doing things and agreed to ease off a little.
The Doctor, feeling his point was made, left the subject and sent Joe away with a clean bill of health.
He had other people to see and, mainly due to Joe’s enthusiastic promotions, hardly enough time to see them all.
Joe went home and lay on his bed. It was only mid afternoon but he needed to sleep. Last night had been rough and the dreams were getting more and more vivid now. Last night he’d seen a face. A scared face.
A victim’s face.
He’d had trouble sleeping right through the night for a few weeks now, putting it down to a host of causes. The heat, the cold, the lack of air in the room, the noises from the street. He’d tried not eating things before bed, drinking warming sedative drinks, but every night for the last fourteen days, he’d had a disturbed night. Disturbed was a little too accurate.
He was getting used to suddenly sitting bolt upright in his bed, shaking, sweating and stifling a scream.
He went through the same routine every night, sleeping well for the first few hours, dreaming eventually, the soft hazy nonsense dreams that slowly merged into a real story, like a news report. It would start with a first person view of a street; the viewer looked up and down the street, walked along and stopped to lean against a low wall. In his head, Joe was seeing this as if it was happening to him, he was the person walking and sitting. This was, in his dream, him, his view. At first, this was all that happened. The glance, the walk, then sitting, waiting. But as the days and nights progressed, so did the dream. After the first week, he was walking further up the street, following some shadowy figure, passing drugstores and late night takeaways.
Faces, figures, were blurred, unrecognisable. In his mind, his subconscious, that did seem to matter. He just slowly, purposefully strode behind this mysterious figure.
As the dream filled out, after nearly a month, he noticed the route was always the same. The people were the same, acting and moving the same way, night after night.
He tried to remember, during the day, any film or book he may have seen or read that could be replaying in his psyche, anything that could have lodge in his memory and if there was something triggering the recall time and time again. He changed his work patterns, starting later finishing earlier. He gave up coffee, chocolate, and even alcohol in an attempt to isolate a possible cause but the dreams continued. At times he tried to stay awake all night, thinking that maybe breaking the cycle could shake the monkey off his back.
He stayed awake from Friday morning until Sunday evening, staggering around his room like a zombie, talking to himself in a vain attempt to resist the lure of slumber. When sleep finally caught him he slumped on his leather sofa and fell into a deep sleep almost instantly. Once again though, the walk, the slow pursuit returned.
He realised by now, that’s what this was, a pursuit. The walker was following what now clearly showed to be a girl. A youngish woman, mid twenties maybe.
Judging by the light, it was about three in the morning. He didn’t recognise the actual location other than the same one that appeared every night now.
He thought about mentioning it at the check up but dismissed it. It was just a bit of sleep trouble, nothing more. No need for tranquillisers or sleeping pills. He’d vowed to keep off any but the most vital medication since the op. The doc wouldn’t want to hear about a trifling matter like a bad dream. Besides, his health was fine, in fact startlingly good. Protocol meant he’d never know where or who the donor heart had come from, but Joe thought it must’ve been some sort of athlete because he had more energy and more stamina than ever before, more so than most of his healthy born friends.
Joe just ignored the nagging feeling in the back of his mind during the day, concentrating instead on his job, his sports and his newly growing circle of friends. The gang at the gym were always very welcoming, waiting to see what new limits he’d push his body to. The lad’s and the girls down at the park had since replaced the bunch of chain smoking beer hogs in the bar and he felt great for it. A few of his old pals from the bar had tried to follow his lead, coming along to the gym on a couple of occasions but most found it too hard to keep up. Even the town’s track star had take to training different days now, since he was being overshadowed by the new local hero.
All this acclaim was wonderful, praise indeed and all the trimmings to boot. Only one thing, the fly in the proverbial ointment, left him cold. He couldn’t ask a girl back to his, to stay over, or accept any of the many invitations that now came his way. Should he risk it, and then fall asleep, how could he explain away the night terrors?
He decided to face his fear, fight the demon and either win or end this forever.
He popped into a couple of drugstores on the way home from a particularly heavy gym workout.
A quart of milk, and the maximum amount of sleeping pills he could buy without raising suspicions. He picked up the same amount of sedatives from the second store, adding a pack of aromatic candles and a lavender pillow this time.
Sleep was going to come easily tonight and this time he would make sure he didn’t wake too easily.
He was determined to get to the end of this dream and see what was there.
At half nine, after a very dull documentary about the life cycle of the mayfly, he could keep his open no longer. Heading for his bed, he set three alarms for half hourly intervals, to be sure he would be able to shake himself awake in the morning. He’d made arrangements for the following day, so if the worst happened , he was a little scared about the stories regarding sleepwalkers and waking them, someone would notice he was missing.
Sleep, as planned, came on swift wings. He was out like the proverbial light in less than five minutes and slowly drifting towards his date with his own terror, his own nightmare.
He started his walk as he did every night, leaning against the wall, seeing her, the girl. Yes, she was there tonight, familiar now yet he had no recollection of who she really was. He knew the face, tried to convince himself it was just because he’d dreamt her so often now, but he knew that wasn’t it.
He tried to search her face but she kept moving, running, staggering backwards away from grasping hands. They were his hands, he could sense that. But these were rugged, rough edged paws. Big mitts of hands. Boxers hands maybe?
These were not the hands of a professional athlete. They had that ugly yellow staining of a habitual smoker, coupled with a faint blue stain, no, not a stain but the remains of a poorly applied tattoo. A panic shot through him. He knew those types of tattoos. These were needle and ink markings from an institute, a marking that showed every ex con you were one of the boys.
He had seen the single line bluebird, the scrawled letters on gnarled knuckles.
So, he was an ex con. A hardened criminal. That was a new twist. He’d often dreamt of being a fireman, a truck driver, even a dancer when he was a child but a hardened criminal, a social pariah had never really slipped onto the list of ambitions.
That might explain why the girl was scared. He was probably an ex boyfriend or some pimp out for his money.
He drifted in and out of his nightmare for a while. In dreams you can never really estimate time. There is no point of reference. Everything is on its own scale .
Joe felt his fantasy foot steps moving him to that street again, sliding him off the wall, crossing the street.
He knew what was coming, right up to the point when he always woke up, to the point when his hands found the throat of a young girl and started squeezing….