Simon Barton woke to his own scream at 3:47 AM on a cool October Thursday.
It’s been a few years since I wrote those words. I’m still amazed I managed to write a sci-fi short story, even though most readers think it should be in the “horror” section. Anyway, I’m reposting my first real attempt at non-spoof, non-sardonic, non-Trek science fiction.
SIMON BARTON AND THE STRANGE CASE OF SYMBOSIS
Brian Richardson – 2 June 1999
“Just lie back and relax, Mister Barton. The doctor will be in shortly.” The sweet sound of the nurse’s voice drifted through Simon’s head as he stared at the light fixtures. Relaxation was a little hard to achieve sitting on the hospital’s vinyl-coated bench.
Simon Barton didn’t like to going to the doctor’s office. He prided himself for his health, which he achieved through good food and plenty of exercise. Jogging, swimming, weight-lifting, basketball … basketball, the reason he was here today.
Through the freakiest of accidents, Simon had injured his right knee, sending him to a sports medicine clinic for orthoscopic surgery. There he received what was referred to as “quality medical care.” Simon was pleased that he could walk again without that hideous contraption they called a knee brace. Simon insisted that knee braces were a torture device left over from the inquisition. Metal rods, straps, buckles, odd hinges that groaned when he moved … it was too much to bear.
But worst of all were the scars. Two pin-point holes had to be drilled into the cap of his knee for the surgery. His friends thought he overreacted at the size of the scars. The doctor explained that he would have done much worse with traditional methods, and that the two “tiny blemishes” on the cap of his knee were barely distinguishable. But Simon hated the idea that his body had been opened. The body he kept fit through work, sweat and careful diet. His body violated by metal and exposed to the world.
Which is why the news following the knee surgery was even worse. Simon’s follow-up visit for x-rays and physical examination had revealed an odd mass in his right thigh. Now his doctor wanted to do a biopsy. Biopsy … the word so associated with cancer. The thought was revolting. Simon Barton, a man of ideal fitness … with cancer? Doctor Johansen reassured Simon that it might be benign, and that a biopsy is the only sure way to find out. Much to his disappointment, Simon’s doctor scheduled an appointment for the biopsy.
That is why Simon Barton again finds himself in the hospital room he dreads so much. Lying on his back on a vinyl bench, looking at a bland drop ceiling with white light fixtures while a blonde nurse attempts to use her sweet voice and pleasant bedside to calm the profusely sweating presence of Simon Barton, personal trainer.
And it’s not working.
The room door opens, and Simon turns to see Doctor Johansen. Tall and confident, clad in a traditional white labcoat. Doctor Johansen walks over to Simon and begins the meaningless banter required by the doctor-patient relationship, seemingly unaware of Simon’s apprehension.
“Good morning, Mister Barton. Glad to see you again. I hope the nurse explained the procedure adequately.”
Simon mumbled an acknowledgement, slowly nodding his head.
“Good. I’ve brought Doctor Forbes along. He will be your anesthesiologist today. This procedure will require you to be put under for a short period of time. I hope you don’t mind.”
Simon sighed as a slight smile appeared on his face. This is an experience he would be glad to omit from his conscious memories.
Doctor Johansen gently rested his arm on Simon’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, this won’t be a big deal. We’ll have you out of here before lunch.”
The doctor’s bedside manner slid away as he prepared for the operation. Quite simple really … knock Simon out, cut open his leg with a stainless steel blade, forcibly remove part of his leg that isn’t supposed to be there, sew him up, and stick parts of Simon Barton in a test tube for further analysis. It was right about now Simon wished he had stayed in bed.
But time moved quickly as the doctors prepared for the procedure. Soon tanks, tubes, lamps and trays of sterilized surgical instruments surrounded Simon. It looked somewhat like a torture chamber had been invaded by a pack of marauding interior decorators. The doctors were a blur in his peripheral vision, as he lay prone on the operating table. Then Doctor Forbes placed a mask over Simon’s face and spoke in a calm, unwavering tone.
“Simon, could you please count backwards from ten.”
Simon began the countdown in a low, quivering voice. He began to feel drowsy. As his eyes became heavy, Simon drifted into unconsciousness. But instead of an empty void, Simon Barton’s mind conjured an image of his childhood home, staring at the mobile of sports cars that hovered above his oak bed frame.
Simon knew this image well. It was the start of the dream.
“Oh God,” Simon thought, “not now … not the dream.”
It was the dream that haunted him as far back as he could remember. Since he was young, Simon Barton dreamt of faceless men, watching him as he slept. No features, no smile, no sense of emotion. Menacing in their simplicity, shrouded in the ambiguity of the shadows. Their presence, without words or action, haunted the adolescence of Simon Barton.
He would wake suddenly in the night, screaming for help. His mother would come to his bedside and hold him softly. She would explain how it was only a dream, a vision in his head. She told young Simon of her nightmares, dreams that faded at first light. Falling forever, drowning, visions of strangers taking her family in the night … none of which ever came true, since she was still here to comfort her son.
As Simon grew, the dreams seemed to be less frequent. But they came, they came with a vengeance. Roomates despised them, girlfriends left because of them … Simon’s life was constantly shattered by the vision of the dream. Silent, faceless voyeurs … never moving, never speaking … just watching over the sleeping moments of Simon Barton’s life.
But as Simon drifted deeper into the realm of chemically induced unconsciousness, he noticed a change in the dream. His phantoms were not still … they moved. They were animated, agitated, somehow alarmed. Simon thought his phantoms were talking, but the words came to him as strange sounds, odd whispers that seemed to fade into the background. Soon their agitation escalated into a panic, a panic conveyed to Simon without words. Without facial expression or outward emotion, the phantoms of Simon’s dream spread their fear to Simon.
Simon’s pulse quickened. His breathing was rapid and uneven. Words formed, but were lost in the gasps of air. The gasping words came as moans. The moans progressed to sputters and random phrases. Soon Simon was screaming, yelling to anyone who could hear. Simon screamed into the blackness, screamed at the presence of his watchers who scrambled in a wordless state of alarm. Simon felt sweat on his brow and throbbing of his heart. Simon lunged at his phantoms in a mindless rage, screaming at the top of his lungs.
And then he was there, in the room. Not in his bedroom, but the operating room. Groggy from the anesthetic, Simon was barely aware of the noise and activity alive in the room.
Simon tried to move, but his arms resisted. He looked to see his limbs strapped to the operating table, restricting his movement. His eyes wearily focused on the blurry shapes of men in white coats, hurriedly working at his feet. A large shape was holding his legs as men shouted instructions. Words and noises randomly flew past his ears.
“Dammit Forbes, put him back under!”
“I don’t know why he came back up!”
“Doctor, can you get to it?”
“Clamp! Somebody hand me another clamp!”
“How is it attached?”
“Hold that clamp right there. The damn thing keeps moving!”
“Somebody shut that man up now!”
Simon suddenly became aware of the loud shrieks he was producing. His mouth was making an awful noise he could not control. He was a prisoner of his body, no longer under control of his senses or reactions. Words came randomly from his mouth, his arms and legs strained under the leather restraints, his brain still burning from the image of the faceless men watching his every move.
As the nurse stifled his screams with the anesthesiologist’s mask, Simon’s panic increased. He turned his body, twisting under the strain of the restraint straps. Simon Barton’s weakened body tried to resist the gas that penetrated his lungs. His strength faded, his voice weakened, but the panic followed him into the black void that slowly encompassed his waning consciousness.
then fear …
fading into the black …
nothing to see …
nothing to hold …
the long black void …
And then, he awoke.
Simon Barton woke to his own scream at 3:47 AM on a cool October Thursday. His dreams of menacing, faceless men were now replaced with a more confusing vision. Simon slowly rose from his bed, slowly wandering to the bathroom in the dim light of his suburban home. He tried to shake the image of his dream. Not the childhood dream of faceless voyeurs, but the dream of his day in surgery.
To this day, it was not clear what happened in the hospital room. Doctor Forbes only remembers Simon’s panic attack. The nurse, the cute blonde who’s name Simon could never remember, swears that Simon’s malignant growth tried to crawl out of the sample tray. And the physician, Doctor Johansen, was a guest on a late-night radio show touting the “alien nature” of the item removed from Simon’s leg.
Simon didn’t know what happened, and he really didn’t care. He contemplated these things while sleepily searching for the bathroom light switch. His reflection appeared suddenly in the mirror as soft light replaced the darkness of Simon Barton’s bathroom. He looked at himself in the full-length mirror. He examined the clean lines of the body he spent so many hours tuning to perfection. The layers of muscle, the soft hair, and the scars. The two scars in his knee were insignificant in comparison to the long line that now besieged his thigh.
But he didn’t mind the scars now. The scars were a reminder … not a reminder of the trauma of surgery, but of the dream. The dream of faceless figures standing in darkness, watching over Simon as he slept. The dream that Simon had for the last time the day of his biopsy. Looking back over his memories, the dream was sort of comforting. Simon’s dream was the one true constant in his life, the one thing he always counted on.
Wherever his watchmen were today, Simon Barton quietly wished them well.