All the project participants had gathered together for the morning meeting and were sitting expectantly in one of the psychology department’s larger classrooms. Connor had occasionally passed a few of his fellow participants in the hallways, but this was the first opportunity he’d had to study them close up. Most were academic types looking to add one more item to their resumes. A few struck Connor as science fiction aficionados who had read of dream control and were intrigued by its possibilities. Then there were those who seemed to have wandered in off the street for lack of anything better to do with their time.
Marguerite sat alone in the back row. Too absorbed in her own thoughts to make eye contact with anyone, she had lowered her head and was staring intently at the desktop before her. Connor waved his hand to attract her attention but had no luck.
“Thank you all for coming,” said Elicott from the lectern at the front of the room. “I want first of all to tell you how much I and the other staff members appreciate the efforts you’ve put in to making this experiment a success.”
Only one individual – a graduate student in suit and bowtie – applauded. None of the others so much as glanced at him.
“We’ve come to a critical juncture in this project,” continued the professor, “and we’ll soon be narrowing down the number of participants needed to go forward. Though you’ve all shown tremendous enthusiasm, the next stage will involve fewer subjects. Only those who have shown the greatest aptitude in controlling their dreams will be encouraged to remain. The others will receive full credit for the work they’ve done and will be acknowledged in our final report. But before we reach that point, we have one final dream assignment that we hope you will all agree to take on, one that will be of great help to us in deciding who is to continue in the program.”
There was a moment’s silence as everyone looked up in anticipation.
Elicott paused long enough to allow the suspense to build. “We would like each of you, in your dreams, to take up playing a musical instrument with which you have had no prior experience. A lack of musical education or even the inability to read music should not be seen as obstacles in making this attempt. In fact, those among you who have already had musical training should choose an instrument that is not your own. The whole point, you see, is to acquire expertise solely through the dream experience.”
“Is that it?” someone asked. There was a sense of anticlimax.
“That’s the basic premise,” responded the professor. “Now let’s get into the details.” He then proceeded to give a long winded explanation that thoroughly confused everyone.
Connor caught up with Marguerite as they were leaving the classroom along with everyone else.
“How are you today?” asked Connor.
Marguerite gave a weak smile. “Well, I’m still here as you can see. I don’t know for how much longer though. I doubt I will be one of those invited to take part in the next stage of the experiment. I think I have upset the powers that be with my fears, fears which they all are so anxious to insist are completely baseless.”
Connor was sympathetic. “I’m sure they’re taking you seriously and are genuinely concerned for your well being. It would be unethical for them not to be.”
“Yes, but I know they think I’m slightly insane. Or maybe very insane. No one else has experienced such problems or reacted the way I have when dreaming.”
“Perhaps no one else is as sensitive as you are.”
“Is that it? Am I just being sensitive?” Marguerite stamped her foot. “It does not sound much different to me from being insane.”
“Are you still having the same dream you told me about.”
“Yes, and I am still unable to control it. Dr. Reicha has instructed me to take charge and to seek out the beings I find so upsetting. He said that if I confront them, then I will no longer be afraid of them.”
“Did you try doing that?”
“Oh, no.” Marguerite shuddered. “I am much too frightened to want to meet those awful things face to face. I think I would die if I ever actually saw them.”
“It doesn’t seem like such a great idea to me either. You would think a trained psychiatrist like Reicha could come up with something better than that.”
Marguerite gave a bitter laugh. “That’s pretty much what I told him myself.”
“And what did he say?”
“He told me that was the method the researchers at the prior experiment in Moldova had used when a similar situation occurred there. He said it had been quite effective.”
“Elicott discussed the previous experiment when I was first being interviewed. He didn’t go into a great deal of detail about it though.”
“Dr. Reicha didn’t seem that anxious to talk about it either. Actually, he seemed to regret saying as much as he had. It was as if he had let something slip he shouldn’t. As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he tried to change the subject.” Marguerite shook her head. “It makes no difference. How could whatever happened in East Europe have anything to do with what I’m going through now?”
Connor was at a loss. “I wish there were something I could do to help.”
“You’re doing a great deal just by listening to my silly problems. I don’t know what you must think of me.” Marguerite’s expression softened as she reached out and touched Connor’s sleeve. “Why don’t you come with me to my place for dinner? I’d feel less alone if you were there beside me. Talking to you helps me put things in perspective.”
“Sure,” said Connor. This was taking a turn he hadn’t anticipated. “And I can tell you about my own dream experiences. Some of them have been pretty bizarre.”
“Let’s do it now then. I have a sublet on West Moore Street in Tribeca. We can get there by subway.” Marguerite regarded Connor critically. “And I think a home cooked meal would do you good. To be honest, you don’t look the type who eats regularly.”
“No, I live pretty much on takeout. The truth is I never learned how to cook.”
Marguerite’s apartment was one of those shoebox spaces that exist only in Manhattan. It was a fifth floor walkup at the top of a twisting narrow staircase illuminated only by one bare lightbulb placed at each landing. The studio itself was almost as dark. There were only two windows and both faced a brick shaftway. A Murphy bed stood raised against one wall. When it was lowered, it would take up almost the entire floor space. The only other furniture was a rickety table and chairs just outside the alcove that contained the kitchen.
“It’s no wonder you have bad dreams if you have to live in a place like this,” said Connor as he took in his surroundings.
“I’m used to it by now.” Marguerite disappeared into the kitchen. Connor heard the hiss of gas as she turned on the stove. “They are planning to tear this old building down soon anyway. The landlord has already given us notice.”
“This is New York. What else is new?”
To Connor’s surprise, Marguerite turned out to be a gourmet cook. “I used to make dinner every evening for my husband,” she explained as she watched Connor finish his dish of pierogi. “He didn’t care. The first chance he got, he went home to Poland and left me stranded here on my own.”
“If he was that kind of guy, you’re definitely better off without him.”
“Yes, I figured that out too. It doesn’t help much, though, when I get lonely.” Marguerite shook her head. “What about you? Why aren’t you married yourself?”
Connor had come to trust Marguerite. He saw no reason now not to tell the truth. “You and I are in the same boat. My wife dumped me last year.”
“Don’t be.” Connor finished his beer and put the bottle back down on the tabletop. “I don’t feel bad about it, not most of the time anyway, so why should you?”
“Would you like another beer?”
“No, one’s plenty, thank you. This is the first I’ve had in weeks. I’ve realized there isn’t much point in being the sober sister any longer. I’m probably not going to be in the project anyway once the next stage begins.”
“Why not? From what you’ve told me about your experiences, you seem to have done better than anyone else in controlling your dreams.”
“Yeah, but I’m too much of a pain in the ass. That always was my biggest problem.”
“Was that what your wife told you when she left?” Marguerite lowered her eyes. “I don’t mean to pry, but you sounded pretty bitter just now.”
Connor debated with himself just how much he wanted to tell. “I got myself into some trouble with the law,” he finally said. “It was my wife Jocelyn who talked me into getting involved in the job in the first place. Then when I got busted and sent away for a few months, she decided she decided she didn’t have time to wait around for my release.”
Marguerite regarded him evenly. “You don’t look like a criminal to me.”
“Thanks for saying that. I wouldn’t want to be sitting here if I thought my having been in prison really bothered you.”
“No, it doesn’t. Everyone makes mistakes. I’ve certainly made enough of my own not to hold yours against you. I’m sure it wasn’t anything really bad you did anyway.”
“B&E – breaking and entering,” Connor explained. “I had a clean record, so I caught a break and the D.A. dropped the burglary charge. My lawyer pleaded down what was left to a misdemeanor, and I only ended up doing six months on Rikers. It wasn’t much fun but it could have been a lot worse.”
“You were lucky I guess.”
“Yes, someone tipped off the cops to where I was and what I was doing. They got there too quickly for it to have been a coincidence. Whoever called them didn’t mean me well, but he at least put a stop to my life of crime.”
“You never tried to find out who called the police?”
“What would be the point? I’m not out for revenge. That would just get me sent away again.”
“So what are you doing now?”
“I go out every day looking for work and respond to every classified ad I see. No one is looking to hire in this economy, though, so really all I’ve got in my life at the moment is this damn dream experiment and the few dollars it brings in each week. When I started, I thought it would get my mind off my problems and give me something positive to think about. But I wasn’t expecting all the weirdness I’ve been coming up against. If I’d known what lay ahead, I’d probably have passed on it.”
“What about your family and friends? Can’t they give you any help?”
“I don’t really have any family left. Both my parents are dead. As far as friends, there’s only this one guy Gallagher who’s stuck by me. I’ve known him forever, but it’s only since I’ve gotten out that he and I have begun hanging out together regularly. I don’t really know why he’s staying so close, but I’m damn grateful to him for being there.”
Marguerite reached out her hand to Connor. “Well, now you know you have one more friend at least.”
Connor was touched by her sympathy. “That’s decent of you, Marguerite, especially since you really don’t know anything about me.”
“I know enough. Women have great intuition when it comes to seeing inside a man’s heart.” Marguerite laughed bitterly. “Even so, it is amazing how often we end up giving ourselves to men who care nothing for us.”
Connor looked away in embarrassment. “I should give you a hand with the dishes.”
“You don’t have to, but it would be nice. Afterwards, we could open the bed and lie down with one another.”
“I’d like that,” said Connor. It was only then that it hit him how lonely he’d been himself these past weeks, how much he’d dreaded returning to his apartment in Brooklyn to spend another night on his own.
“You’re a kindhearted man, and it would make me happy to be with you.” Marguerite reached out and ran her fingers through his hair. “Besides, I would feel safer if I were not alone when I fall asleep. Perhaps being with you will keep the bad dreams away.”