I’m feverish. Beads of sweat slip from my temples and down my pale, oily skin. My hair is knotted. I’m not sure if I’m able to stand, and I fear testing it would only make me faint. I reach over to my end table, grab two sleeping pills that I’ve been saving for an advanced level of misery, and swallow them dry. I feel one get stuck in my throat, burning the skin that coughing has already made raw. I grab the smudged glass cup that holds the last of my water and try to sip without sitting up, just enough to get the pill down. In my weakened state, it doesn’t take long for the pills to kick in, and I slip off into a different dimension of misery altogether.
“Coral! Sugar, are you listening to me?”
I stare up at the anesthesiologist. In reality, I haven’t been paying a single bit of attention to her, but I’ll pretend I am for safety’s sake.
“Okay, now that’s better.” She takes a moment to remove the small whiteboard from the wall and uses her blue marker to write something on it in big, semi-cursive letters.
“I’m about to give you a dose of medicine that’s gonna knock you out cold, and there’s a chance you gonna stay that way. This is a new technique we’ve been trying with patients who need stronger anesthesia. It’s called a Trigger Question. It’s the same question for each patient.” She reveals the board to me, showing me the letters.
“Can you wake up?”
An innocent enough question, seems like it would be easy to answer.
“Now, right before I put you completely under, I’m gonna give you the answer to this question. If you wake up and you can’t remember, then you need to keep on trying, because that means you not really awake. Okay?”
I nod, only absorbing about half of what she says as she slowly depresses a syringe full of medicine into my IV bag.
“Coral, your answer is…”
The room is dimly lit. I’m sitting in a recliner, watching a puppet show. A raunchy accordion song plays in the background, stirring unsettling feelings from the depths of my chest.
“Now, Aunt Nancy, what could you possibly be looking for?” the ventriloquist asks. She’s a rather thin young lady, and it’s apparent from here that she has a lazy eye. She wears a long jean skirt, her hair up in a bun, and stands behind her puppet, pulling strings attached to its wrists. It’s an eerily lifelike mannequin, with curly gray hair and a hospital gown, and eyes of stone that stare straight ahead.
“I’m looking for my marbles,” exclaims the puppet, with a dramatic hand motion, “because I think I’ve lost them!”
I’ve heard that joke a million times, on countless Family Guy reruns and an 80’s sitcom or two, so I don’t laugh, but her attempt at humor isn’t wasted on the people around me. Their chuckles ring through the room, and I look around at them. There’s something about them that makes me uncomfortable. Perhaps it’s the lifeless look in their eyes, or their slumped posture, or the fact that they only look vaguely human. Worse than any of these things is the grayish tinge of their skin. On some of them, it’s barely there, but others have skin the color of the sky before a thunderstorm.
It takes me a moment of examining them, an old man, a middle-aged women, and a few others of various ages, before I can tear my eyes away and look back at the puppet. However, this does nothing to relieve my anxiety, serving only to make it worse. It takes me another moment of cursory examination to realize that the puppet is not, in fact, a puppet, but a corpse!
I gasp, flinching from my chair. The middle-aged woman to my left shakes with laughter at my shock, and the others all seem amused as well.
“Now, you’ll get used to the puppet. Trust me, once you see what else qualifies as entertainment around here, you’ll be thankful for these nightly puppet shows.”
I don’t respond, just sit back down stiffly, trying not to make contact with any of the beings. They’re cold, I feel it emanating from them,and goosebumps are already prickling up on my skin.
“It’s almost over, anyways.” The lady says, nudging my upper arm with her elbow.
True to the lady’s word, the woman stands her puppet up, and they both bow.
The puppet looks up. The ventriloquist almost seems surprised at this, but she does a good job of hiding it. The puppet stares straight at me, an intense, cold, lifeless gaze boring into me, and I squirm in my seat.
And them, so soft and low I scarce am sure I had heard it, she says
“Can you wake up?”
before dropping her head back down to her chest.
I feel my heart speeding up at these words. They evoke something familiar in me, but I can’t place what it is, what the answer to these words might be.
“I’m Helga.” says the being sitting next to me. She points at the old man to my right.
“That’s Petey.” Then, gesturing at the puppet master, “Susan,” and goes around the circle, naming all of the beings.
“I-I’m Coral.” I say, my fingers crossed none of them will want to shake my hand.
“Well. Coral, I have a question for you.” Helga asks, staring into my eyes.
“Can you wake up?”
I give her a perplexed look, and she sighs.
“I didn’t think so.”
The beings all stand up, and head in a different direction. I follow after them, sticking close to Helga.
I walk through the house, realizing that there are other beings too, in other states of semi-human. I try not to mention it or ask questions, but when I see one of them melting into a puddle on the floor, I finally turn and ask.
“That’s the very last stage of greying out.” Helga responds.
“I know you’ve seen it. The way our skin turns grey. Once you’ve been here a little while, yours will too. We’ve tried every way to fix it. Lotions, pills, chants. Nothing helps. When it starts, it’s just a greyish hue to the skin, but soon, you begin to lose lucidity. You become unable to remember anything, walking around in circles and muttering to yourself until you finally lose all rationality. That’s the worst part. That puddle you see on the floor there? Her name was Gretchen, and she’s much happier now than she was when she was still alive. A pitiful excuse for life, it is, in the latent stages of grey. You find yourself like them,” she says, pointing at a group of people walking in a circle, hands on each others’ shoulders. The closer I get to them, the clearer I can make out what they’re saying.
“Can you wake up? Can you wake up? Can you wake up? Can you wake up?”
I shiver at the way those words reverberate through me, striking a chord that I can’t identify the notes for or remember how to play.
“I was hoping you’d be here to save us. I was hoping you’d know the answer.”
With that, she slips into a room, and crawls into bed.
I get no sleep that night. Anytime I try, I get shaken awake by desperate, hollow faces in various shades of grey, bearing me the same question.
“Can you wake up?”
To my horror, I find that my inability to answer results in the death of anyone who asks me.
The next day begins with another puppet show. If I pretend my original hypothesis was true and the puppet isn’t a corpse, the shows are a little less than mind-numbing.
My daily routine consists of wandering around aimlessly, enduring the random puddles of people, the constant questioning in my ear, and the oblivion that consumes this place. The puppet shows, horrifying as they are, become my only respite, so you can imagine the dread that wells up inside me when my only source of entertainment wakes up with grey skin.
Steadily, the puppet shows become less distracting and more pitiful as she loses her train of thought every couple of sentences, and eventually, the shows consist of her staring me in the eyes, her hollow stare delving straight into my soul as she asks me over and over and over again, the dreaded question.
“Can you wake up?”
Then, during one of the shows, Susan melts right before our eyes. We sat there silently, staring at the puppet and wondering why Aunt Nancy has yet to melt. A question that would’ve interested me in the beginning now means next to nothing compared to the one that decides everything.
The next morning, I walk into the main room, and the combination of shock and dismay on the few remaining faces tells me everything I needed to know. I’m turning grey.
Helga sighs, takes a deep breath as if she was about to ask me again, but decides to spare me this time. By now, it’s only Helga, Petey, and a few remaining people whose names I’ve long forgotten, most of whom were never lucid enough to remember mine.
The weakness hits me quickly, begins to consume me steadily. At the beginning of the day, I’m worn. By the end of it (or maybe it’s been longer- time doesn’t really feel the same anymore), I can’t rise from my chair. So we all sit around, staring numbly at the walls, attempting to form coherent thoughts but usually failing.
Occasionally, weak and garbled voices break the silence to ask me the question, and sometimes I even echo it back, unable to form any other words.
Our remaining companions melt. When it comes down to it, only Petey, I, and what little was left of Helga are still there, sitting on the sofa, rotting away between shades of grey.
“Can you wake up?” Petey asks, one last desperate time.
I sigh, the gears turning at snail-like speed in my mind as I attempt to form a response and save the old man.
“Can you wake up?”
Finally, he lets out one final breath, and melts before my eyes. Just as it happens, a spark forms, burning the trees of my jumbled brain like wildfire, putting a single word at the forefront of my mind. The answer to this awful, Godforsaken question that has haunted and plagued my very existence.
“Goodnight.” I whisper.
And so my world collapses around me, and I closes my eyes.
I awaken with a gasp that quickly turns to a sigh of relief.
“Jesus Christ.” I mutter, looking up at my ceiling. I’ve heard about fever dreams before, but I’d never experienced anything like that in my life. I stay shaky for a few hours, but the pressure on my chest eases after awhile, and in a few days, my fever breaks.
It doesn’t take long for me to be back on my feet, and I quickly put the dream behind me besides a cursory mention to my best friend, who suggests I lay off of the Stephen King novels.
The last I think of the dream is a few months later. My boyfriend and I are at a restaurant, enjoying luxuries we rarely get, eating caviar and discussing our upcoming plans, when I suddenly find myself remembering the circumstances under which we met. When I finally went to the doctor, I found out that there was scarring on my lungs from the untreated pneumonia, and had to have a surgery to transplant some of the scar tissue. I met a handsome nurse, and we had a whirlwind romance that quickly became serious.
We’ve been through some ups and downs, but deep in my heart, I know he’s the one.
Still, nothing could’ve prepared me for the way I feel when he drops to one knee and pulls a ring from behind his back. He stares into my eyes, and the entire restaurant turns, breath suspended as he asks one single, determining question.
“Can you wake up?”