AN EXCERPT from XPERIMENT By DAN SKINNER
He felt heavy and enormous. Lifting his legs was an effort from the weight like he was hoisting boulders each time he took a step. The earth rocked beneath him as he plodded forward crushing strange colored, unfamiliar flowers that looked as beautiful as their thorns dangerous. The drone of pesky insects was everywhere, some moving in swarms like black clouds. Occasionally some would peck at the eyes he couldn’t reach and he’d blink them away. The world around was foreign, sweltering, wet from rainfall. It made the ground soft and thick beneath the wild overgrowth. Earthworms the size of serpents crawled around his feet. Every breath he took was an ocean of air in his lungs. Everywhere around him the vegetation blocked his view; he had no idea where he was or how long he’d been wandering. All he knew was he was hungry. It had been a long time since he’d eaten and he was tired.
He pushed easily through the trees, coming up on a swamp. The water was shallow, murky and steamy with the baking heat. There was nothing big enough for him to eat in its water but it could slake his parched t throat. As his tongue dipped into the water, before the rippling distortions, he could see the small opportunistic multi-colored lizards crawling over his large, scaled head. They ran through the sparse feathers and hair where bugs had hidden. The lizards knew where to find their dinner.
He could hear the calls and cries of all kinds of prey around him. Things that were more substantial to eat, but he was too big and slow to pursue those that ran on four legs. There were other predators more suited for the kill. He had to find the carcass just afterwards and move in to take it from them. His size and the ferocity of his roar was enough to scare them off, and then he’d have his food. He just had to keep moving.
The strategy was to watch the skies for the birds. They were scavengers like him. They could only feast at the food another provided. He walked deeper into the forest sniffing the air for fresh blood. Smaller things hid in the reeds fearfully eyeing his approach. They needn’t worry. He’d no interest in them.
As he moved closer to the edge of the forest he could see a long flat floodplain lay ahead. The forest surrounded it, but it was a miles long basin, wet and overgrown with brush. He caught his first whiff of blood and fresh meat. The circling birds with their leathery wings and angular, sharp-pointed beaks indicated it was only a short distance away. He needed to hurry before others like him would take their fill of the meat leaving only the bones to crush with his teeth for the soft marrow.
Then he saw it. It had been something large. Not nearly the size of him but perhaps half that, and not with his teeth; not a carnivore. It had been taken down by a sizable clowder of the large cats. They ripped and tore the hard brown skin away to get to the tender meat beneath it. They’d be nothing more than a nuisance to him. They liked to make a brave show with their low pacing, snarls and growls, but they knew one quick movement of his massive tail would end their boastful charade.
Picking up his pace he moved through the mud and rock and grass of the plain toward them. The earth quaked under his enormity catching their attention. The hair on their long necks bristled in a stiff trail down their backs. As expected there was a show of fearsome teeth. The noise was nothing in comparison to his roar as he whipped his tail widely behind himself. They turned and ran in separate directions dragging as much raw meat in their mouth as they could.
The carrion had already drawn a persistent flurry of flies. The cats had taken most of the beast’s legs and the tender meat of the neck and belly, but the bulk of the torso was still intact. It was dead but its nerves still had a few twitches and kicks left in it. Some of the more courageous birds had perched on nearby rocks, their dark beady eyes watching in anticipation for what they could snatch once he’d fed.
He ate, teeth ripping flesh away in large bloody chunks. He pulverized the bones with his powerful jaws. There was no attention to chewing. Others would smell the kill and be closing in. In this world one ate fast and warily. More of the large birds circled like beacons overhead. He’d torn through and eaten most of the creature’s back when the cats, realizing their numbers outranked his size, decided to attack. They jumped him from all sides.
With almost invisible speed one was on his back, teeth and claws tearing into his tough hide. Another had tried for his neck but he bucked his head tossing it back to the ground. Before it could turn back he stomped its head, crushing it beneath his massive three-toed foot. Another had gone for his leg trying to bite through a muscle to cripple him. He kicked the cat free catapulting him back into the wet grass.
The birds flapped their broad wings noisily. He turned from the carcass to see three more cats crouching low, moving through the reeds to him. He had his teeth and tail. Between the six of them there were enough claws and fangs to make it a bloody, painful fight. They sprung at once from all directions. Teeth bit his tail, more were on his legs, and one had jumped his back to sink all its defiance and anger into his neck…
The scream in his head awakened him. He clutched his throat still feeling the teeth that had torn into it. His fingers found it smooth, no scales or feathers or coarse hair. No wound. No blood. But the residual of pain still quaked through his body. He’d been sleeping on his side with his face to the back of the sofa, and even before he turned, he had that peculiar feeling of being watched; of the room being crowded with more than his roommate, himself and the furniture.
There were two of them. The white, smoke-like creatures stood over him, staring with their blank, iris-less, icy eyes. The apertures that should be their mouths wriggled back and forth between invisibility affording him only the briefest of glimpses of the long fangs hidden in them. Their wraithlike arms posed as if they conversed but all Geoff could hear was the humming noise vibrating like a toneless tuning fork in his skull.
He wasn’t asleep. He wasn’t dreaming. He could only suspect one of two things: either he was hallucinating …or, they were there.
The pain in his throat was slowly subsiding where he’d been bitten in the dream. It’d been a dream but it felt real. Could these phantoms have escaped his dream and only be playing with his vision? Were there hallucinatory properties to the new supplement making illusion seem more than that? He stared at them quietly observing the ebb and flow of their inconsistent form. Slowly, he reached forward to touch the one closest to him. That seemed to startle the two of them. They slid backward suddenly. Both of them appeared to face each other. The persistent buzzing grew louder as they quickly dissipated into sparkling molecular dust motes. Then the noise ceased abruptly. The vacuum of soundlessness was almost as disturbing as the noise had been.
He sat, the uneasiness clinging to him. Across the room his roommate slept undisturbed. Everything in the room was as it should be, but the nightmare feeling trapped inside his head wouldn’t shake itself free.
There wasn’t any question about it: the side effects from the new supplement were the worst yet. There was no other explanation for what he was experiencing. He didn’t like struggling to sleep, having dreams that bordered on waking nightmares and feeling restless and agitated most of the time.
He did what he always did when he felt like jumping out of his skin. Quietly he slipped into the bathroom and ran a full tub of cool water to relax. He perused the videos of his idol looking for something in them that would either give him some semblance of an explanation of what was happening to him, or solace knowing that all great things came with a price. The thing was… he’d no idea what he was looking for. It would take an act of providence for him to stumble on it. He was confused.
He was talking to himself. “Okay boy genius, gimme a clue here. Why am I seeing ghosts and dreaming I’m a goddamned, freaking dinosaur? I don’t like being dinner in motherfucking Jurassic Park, if you get my drift?”
“Pardon me?” It was Chris. He hadn’t heard the door open or his friend enter. Arms extended in front of him as he plodded barefoot into the room toward the toilet. “I don’t mean to interrupt you but I have to pee. I promise I won’t look.”
Geoff needed the levity. Like his music, Chris somehow always knew how to break the tension. He laughed, watching as the man made his way to the john and carefully lift the lid. Apparently he wasn’t modest. “No problem. Just talking to myself,” he said.
Chris nodded. “I hoped that was the case. It would be totally embarrassing for me to walk in and totally not see who you were talking to in the bath.”
Geoff shook his head. The jokes never ceased.
“Incidentally I should probably warn you that I pee sitting down,” he said as he dropped his boxers and parked himself comfortably on the toilet. “I’m as good at playing darts as I am peeing standing up.”
He chuckled again. He certainly had missed his calling as a comedian.
“If you don’t mind me asking, simply so my voice can cover the embarrassing sound of my bladder emptying, why did you call the conference with yourself?”
Geoff turned off the phone and sat it in the empty soap dish. He reclined in the water trying again to relax. “Nothing really. I had a bad dream. “
“I had one of those once myself. I was driving this car along this winding cliff road…”
That brought a belly laugh. “I should take you to the Improv and just let you get it out of your system; you know?”
“What was the bad dream?”
The question took him back to his dilemma. He considered the answer. He knew no other way to say it: “I dreamt I was a dinosaur.”
“How fucking cool!” His audience clapped with approval.
It wasn’t the reaction he expected. “Not really. I was killed in the dream.”
“How fucking uncool!” Chris amended his evaluation.
“Tell me about it. The thing is I could feel the dream. Everything in it like it was real. Like I was experiencing it, or I had experienced it. And when I woke up I could still feel the pain.”
“I know. I think that’s part of what’s bothering me about it. Mostly when I dream… I’m Me in the dream, and I see things as me in the dream. I shoulda been me seeing the dinosaur in the dream but I was the dinosaur. That’s never happened before.”
Chris flushed the toilet and rose, tugging his boxers up. He washed his hands. “I don’t know that dreams are supposed to follow any particular rules.”
He watched his roommate at the sink. In his boxers, the top of his legs were white and narrow. He had very little meat on his frame. He reminded Geoff of what he used to look like. It seemed like yesterday. Now he was a specimen of health and muscularity. A bad dream and a hallucination seemed a weak complaint for what he got in return. But the feeling of displacement nagged at him.
He dried his hands, turned and leaned against the sink facing Geoff. “I dreamt I could fly a few times. I believe someone told me that everyone has a dream of flying. No one has a clue why we all have the same dream about something we can’t do, unless of course, you believe in reincarnation?”
So close. But it wasn’t the answer he was looking for or trying to find in Seuther’s videos. “See that’s what I was trying to look up. But it’s not reincarnation. Nothing to do with any religion or myth. I was looking through the lectures of a scientist for some kind of logical explanation of how we could remember or seem to recall something from a time we didn’t live in. I mean… I was there!”
“What you’re talking about is called genetic memory,” Chris said it matter-of-factly
Geoff was quiet, stunned. Water dripped ostensibly from the faucet into the tub.
“PBS was my babysitter in the orphanage. I was terrible at Dodgeball during recess.” He felt his way to the tub and sat on the edge of it, sunglasses pointed toward Geoff. It was almost as if he could see. “It’s the theory of inherited memory. That somehow our genes pick up and store information from our predecessors. It’s pretty much how they explain genius and savants. They believe Mozart’s musical ability was a product of genetic memory.”
Geoff shook his head. “Yes. That’s what I was looking for. How can you explain seeing and knowing and feeling something that isn’t a memory because it’s like millions of years impossible?”
“There’s one small problem with that theory and your dream though. If you’re thinking your dream is a product of genetic memory, Homo sapiens evolved from primates. Not amphibians or reptiles. To dream you were a dinosaur would mean somehow someone injected you with the DNA of another species, like a crocodile, or lizard… or, even a bird which are hereditary descendants of the big boys from back then.”
The water in the tub felt colder as Geoff sat in silent thought, mind numbed with the million things wandering through his imagination. He barely noticed his friend had moved closer and bent toward him with his hands outstretched.
“Do you mind? Could I?” He was reaching for his face.
He looked up at the earnest, young face and then the delicate hands in front of him. Lifting himself up, he moved forward until the hands found him. Both palms pressed against the sides of his head. The thumbs found the length of his cheeks and measured their breadth. He closed his eyes as he touched those. Hands cupped his chin, traced his lips with both thumbs. It tickled, made him feel like he’d sneeze. Then he started with his fingers from his forehead, softly dragging them down the center for more tactile exploration. Finally he back away.
“Nope. I can positively say you don’t feel like a dinosaur,” he said.