Monday, August 15, 2016

Dream a Little Dream

The Amazon jungle is humid, heavy with moisture. Trees grow close enough to filter or even block sunlight. Moisture drips from leaves and vines. Creatures rustle through the brushy undergrowth, and close inspection will reveal myriad insects living their busy lives along tree trunks, branches, fronds, roots, underfoot, and overhead. Strange calls and sounds, different from those heard in a city or even a farm, vibrate all around, some from a distance, some from mere inches away. The jungle is alive and brimming with both the strange and the familiar. And it is an easy place to die.

It is thus also a desirable place to set up a lab focused on classified work, away from prying eyes, unanswerable questions, and the majority of investigative journalists. Some things are better not hidden in plain sight.

Dr. Marie Gomer and Dr. Lisette Esterly had grown accustomed to the razor wire-topped fences around the compound, the armed Marine escort when they walked just seven hundred yards from their living quarters to the drab concrete building that was the lab itself, the feeling of dense isolation and being at the ends of the earth. The entire place was routinely sprayed for insects, but that didn't seem to make much of a difference. Everyday they battled their way through swarms of small and irritating buzzing things, overnight webs, and the ever-present moisture in the air that left Dr. Gomer's hair in strings, and turned Dr. Esterly's to frizz. They were even used to that.

But things were finally falling into place. Even Sgt. Hanes, the huge, no-nonsense Marine who was their escort, was finally beginning to relax enough to smile at Dr. Esterly's daily cheerful "good morning."

The lab at the end of their short walk was air-conditioned and clean and quiet, and if it hadn't been neither woman believed she would have tolerated their situation for very long. But the research itself, categorized as micro- biophysiology, was fascinating, and in a matter of weeks they had both settled into a comfortable routine with each other and with their lab assistants.  Time flew and even though Dr. Gomer felt that she would like to leave as soon as her six-month rotation was up, she found herself wondering if she might re-up for the next session.

The afternoon seemed dark when they left the lab, carefully locking the door behind them. Their assistants had long since departed, and Dr. Esterly looked for Sgt. Hanes who was not waiting for them in his usual spot. She was about to call out his name when Dr. Gomer put a silencing hand on her arm and pointed. 

Several yards away, they saw the sergeant's cap lying upside down on the grass. That was not something that would happen if Sgt. Hanes had anything to say about it. As they looked further, they realized there were footprints in the intermittent patches of soft ground that was not covered over with the various greens of native foliage. They both crept up to the helmet, realizing something was wrong, not sure what to make of the soldier's desertion. Duty was his middle name: being absent from his post spoke volumes, none of it good.

When they reached the helmet, they were astonished to see one of his boots several yards ahead. In unspoken agreement, they began to follow what became a trail of discarded items: the cap; the boot; a glove; his sunglasses; and then most disturbing of all, first his knife and then his rifle. They looked at each other. The jungle noises seemed muffled to them, and a feeling of foreboding grew with the clouds that were threatening to swallow the sun.

Several more yards and they both stopped. Sitting on a camp stool, leaning against the wall of an outbuilding, were what looked like the rest of Sgt. Hanes's uniform. The camouflage pants and shirt, even the  socks and one boot looked as if they were left in place while the Sgt. somehow walked out of them. The shirt was buttoned. The belt was buckled. And then they realized what was holding the uniform in place.

Inside the clothing, as well as protruding up where his head should have been, the scientists saw Sgt. Hanes's skin. The skull-less face above the shirt collar looked like a collapsed flesh-colored balloon with holes where the eyes, nose, and mouth should have been. Boneless hands lay flaccid beneath the sleeves, still attached to the skin of his arms. His feet were equally deflated, the socks lying loosely around the flattened flesh.

The sergeant appeared to have melted. Dr. Esterly said it first, but Dr. Gomer frowned. No, she disagreed with her colleague. It's more like he molted...

This is the kind of dream I have when I'm not actively writing.  I have always wondered if other writers do this, too.

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