I have a recurring dream. It starts like normal. My alarm goes off, and I wake up to the sunlight coming into my room through the gap in the curtains. It’s late in the morning and bright, and I can see dust floating around in my room where the light shines. The room is too warm, and I wonder why I don’t sleep with a fan on. It doesn’t matter that this room is colorless, and my actual room is blue or that I do sleep with a fan on—one of those old ugly metal ones that points directly into my face and collects dust as it spins and oscillates white noise all night.
The thing that matters is that I get up and I get ready for work. I get up, and I go, and I leave my room to make coffee in the kitchen, and I stop in the hallway that leads out of my room.
It’s blinding. There’s too much light. It’s too bright.
It isn’t the hallway that normally leads out of my room.
White is technically a mix of all the colors of the spectrum, and I know that’s the only way to explain this. I know because I can feel it once I step out of my room in this dream. I’m surrounded by colors and I’m not at the same time. Iridescent circles float around me, are plastered around on the walls like decals, sparkling like they’re catching everything that exists wherever this place is.
There’s a white-cloaked figure blocking my path, and I can only tell that he’s glowing because it makes sense that he is in the dreamworld. His face is shadowed under his hood—the only thing in this place shrouded in darkness. He’s somehow phosphorescent even here, hovering and eclipsing my view of whatever it is that lies beyond him. All I know is that he has always been and always will be standing here, at the end of my hallway, at the end of my dream, like he has been since the first time. I was eleven years old then, and I’d fallen from the roof of the house while putting up Christmas lights, and he’s been with me ever since.
Whenever I’m close enough to hear him floating, he speaks to me.
“Where’s your box?” he asks, and his voice pierces my skull, echoing into the morning.
Sometimes I don’t even reach him. Sometimes I wake up before I can get to him, and everything is fine. I wake up, and it’s the middle of the night, and it’s cool and dark and comforting to not see what’s in front of me. I hold up my hand, and I can’t even tell it’s there. I can hear my own breath and the fan next to me and know I’m alive, and that’s enough.
Not every time, but often, there will be a radio sitting on a white pedestal halfway between me and the figure. One of those old, wood-cased ones. They’re antiques now.
My mom had one just like it when I was a kid—it was a tombstone style radio, and I used to play with it like a toy before she died. She kept the thing in her bedroom all the way up until she got sick, even if it didn’t work. It reminded her of when she was a little girl and she wanted to grow up to be a Foley artist. She told me about it, mourned the radio heydays, when we laid together on the days she was too sick to do anything else. The one I dream of still doesn’t play when I pass it. If any words get strangled out between static, the voice sounds like hers.
She used to give me oranges in my lunch when I was a kid. They taste like home. It’s always a comfort when I dream of one. They show up in different spots. Sometimes in place of the radio—sometimes just lying on the floor in my path if the hallway is exceptionally long that night. They’re always sweet and juicy, making my hands sticky when they spritz onto my fingers as I peel and eat them. Even when I wake up, I can still taste citrus, and it keeps me thinking about my dreams all day. Even when I go to work. Even when I have an appointment at the hospital, or I have lunch with my sister.
I have been dreaming this dream for years, clinging to my mother’s voice in the dream-radio and the little dream-oranges she leaves for me. I’m comfortable with the figure at the end of the hall and the inevitability of his question.
But one time, right after my car got totaled, I had the same dream except as soon as I opened the door, there was a dead bird lying in the middle of the hallway. It was bright yellow, its beak a sunny orange. It could have fit in the palm of my hand. But it was dead. Its eyes were hollowed out by bugs.
It looked at me without eyes. I could feel it staring at me.
“Where’s your box?” it asked.
I couldn’t even take a step out of that room. I could have walked past it, but I didn’t. I woke up shaking, in the same hospital I’d visited my mother in years before. There was an IV in one arm, and my leg was hiked up in a cast and a sling. A privacy curtain hung around the bed I was in, but the lights were white on the other side. Colors reflected on the ceiling in flashes. A television must have been muted somewhere on the other side of the screen, but I heard quiet voices without being able to tell what it was they were saying. I couldn’t go back to sleep until they drugged me.
That was the only time there was something other than the floating, cloaked figure asking me where my box was in all our years together.
Every other time, it’s been him. It’s always been the same, and I thought it always would be until then.
So, when something is different this time, I know something changed in my waking life, too. I was taking a nap after an appointment when I woke up to the white of my dreams. It’s a short walk to meet the man at the end of the hall. I can see him as soon as I open the door—he isn’t floating. He’s just seated lightly on the floor with no shadow below or around him, the sound that normally accompanies him gone. He’s waiting for me, like usual, but this time when he looks at me, he cocks his head.
“Oh,” he says.
It’s unusual, and it feels like the world is turning as he looks at me sideways through the darkness underneath his hood.
“Where is your coffin?” he asks.
I wake up to the buzzing of my phone. I just missed the doctor’s office. When I listen to the message, the doctor is asking me to come in to talk about my test results. I call my dad. I call my sister. I tell them what I know—what we all knew was probably coming.
It’s six months later, and I’m in the hospital when I dream again. My sister is sleeping in the chair next to me, her head tilted back and her mouth hanging open. I fall asleep watching her, committing her image to memory. The two of us knew at least one of us was likely to die like our mother. I’m sorry it will be me. I’m sorry she will have to witness it twice.
When I wake up in the dream, I leave the room, as I always do. It’s white, as it always is. The bubbles float around me, reflecting the light and refracting rainbows onto the walls. The bird flits around the hallway, alive. It stops to peck at the orange sitting next to the radio. Today there is no static on the radio, but when I pass by it to see the figure waiting for me, my mother’s voice drifts out of the system, clear as day.
“I love you.”
I keep walking. When I meet the figure, he sits still. Maybe all the years of floating finally tired him out. The two of us look at each other.
This time, I speak first.
I know I will not wake up.