*Apt image, Clicky, considering this is my second Stranger Things post… /pats snout… well done…*
As promised, Dear Reader, a second post about the hit TV show ‘Stranger Things’, but this time in regards to a short story by my friend Leggy. H.K Hillman has a rare talent for writing tales that linger long after you’ve finished reading them. His tale ‘The Imagination Virus’ also ‘synced’ with an experience I had in 1985 when I was 17. I mentioned it to him when we first became friends in 2014…
… So it was weird to see something similar played out on ‘Stranger Things’. Another ‘sync’…
*Yeah, it was like that, except purple, Clicky…/lights up…*
… Another ‘reality’ appears…
… So I asked Leggy if we could reproduce his story here at the LoL. He agreed, so settle back, Dear Reader, and enjoy ‘The Imagination Virus’. Meet you for a Song at the bottom 😉
The Imagination Virus
by H.K. Hillman
As Dale walked beside Julie, his nurse, he saw the other world again. The crisp, white hospital walls faded into the damp, mould-encrusted bricks he had come to know well. The flicker of tallow candles replaced the bright fluorescent lighting, their odour wiping out the smell of disinfectant. He didn’t want to look at Julie. He knew what he’d see; he knew how she would look to him now.
“Dale, are you all right?”
He stopped walking, the muscles in his face twisted in disgust. Julie put her hand on his shoulder.
“Dale,” she said. “What is it? Are you seeing it again?”
“Yes. It’s awful.” He couldn’t help looking at her. He shuddered at the patchy grey hair, the hunched shoulders, the sore-ridden, wasted body clad in soiled brown cloth.
She smiled, showing her few remaining teeth, black and rotting, and he could smell her graveyard breath, the breath of something that had feasted on decay. He closed his eyes, tight. “I don’t want to see this anymore,” he said. “I want to see the real world, the clean world. Not this – this monstrosity!”
Julie took his arm. “Come on,” she said. “I’ll guide you the rest of the way to the doctor’s office. It’s just a little further. The doctor will know what to do.” She led him as if he was blind, slowly moving forward until she stopped him with a hand on his chest. “Dale,” she said, “open your eyes. What do you see now?”
“I don’t need to look,” he said. “I can smell the candles, feel the damp. I know I’m still hallucinating.”
“Look anyway. For me.”
Dale opened his eyes. “I can see a doorway, in a wall of cracked plaster, showing bare bricks. A battered door is hanging in the frame and I can see light through the gaps in the boards. There’s a symbol, a cross, drawn in red on the centre of the door and some markings below it, which I can’t quite see…”
Then, abruptly, everything changed. He was facing a white-painted door with a frosted glass panel. The light showing through the panel wasn’t flickering, it was the focused light of a reading lamp. The tallow-smell had gone, replaced with the ubiquitous disinfectant smell of the hospital. He looked at Julie and smiled. “You can see the hospital now?” she said. He paused before replying, savouring her long black hair and perfect smile, the crisp white uniform that showed off her shape so well.
“Yes,” he said. “Everything is fine now. I see the door as it really is, clean and white with a frosted window.” He drew a long breath as Julie knocked, then released it slowly as she opened the door.
The doctor stood, smiling, then walked across to Dale, his hand outstretched. “Dale,” he said. “How are you today? How’s that other world of yours?”
Dale winced. These attempts at humour always sounded flippant to him, as though his condition were some kind of joke. He knew the doctor meant well, but sometimes Dale wondered if the doctor believed a word he said.
“The other world is Hell,” he said, not accepting the doctor’s handshake.
The doctor’s brow creased into a frown. “Had another visit recently?”
“Just a moment ago,” Julie said. “His hallucination is consistent, he always sees the same things in the same places. Where there’s a door, Dale sees a door, but it looks very different to him.”
The doctor looked at Dale. “And it’s always the same?” he said.
“It depends where I am,” Dale said. “It’s always the same for a particular place. It’s as if the hallucination is overlaid on reality, permanently, and sometimes I can see it.”
He thought for a moment. “You know,” he said, “I’ve been trying to remember what things were like outside. Before I came to the hospital. I can’t. I can’t even remember what I used to do or where I used to live. It’s as if I never existed outside here.” He buried his face in his hands.
“Relax, Dale,” the doctor said. “You did have a life, you know. You lived over on the West Side, alone, and you had a job. I’m afraid it wasn’t glamorous. You were a cook in a small cafe. It’s the virus. It’s affecting your brain, causing these hallucinations and amnesia about your previous life.”
“Can it be cured?”
The doctor smiled an indulgent smile. “We’re doing everything we can.”
“But can it be cured, or not? How long will I be here?”
“When you see the hospital all the time, and don’t see your Hell at all, then you’ll be ready to leave,” the doctor said. “You’re already seeing it less often. Only once today.”
“So far,” Dale said, curling his lip.
“That’s good enough,” Julie said. “The day’s nearly over.”
“That’s right,” the doctor said. “Time for Nurse Davis to take you off to bed. We’ll meet again tomorrow.”
Dale started to rise, but stopped halfway. He looked at the doctor. “Is it contagious?” he said. “It’s just that Julie – I mean Nurse Davis – and the other nurses spend a lot of time around me. Are they at risk?”
“Not at all,” the doctor said. “The virus is very hard to catch. The nurses are safe with you. Now, off to sleep with you.”
Julie led Dale back to his room. He climbed into bed, and she handed him his sleeping tablets and water. He had taken them every night without question, but tonight he felt like a change. He wanted to think, not to sleep. Dale didn’t want to offend the nurse so he put the tablets into his mouth and took the water. Instead of swallowing, he trapped both tablets between his cheek and gum, throwing the mouthful of water back as usual.
“Well done, Dale,” Julie said. After her routine of fussing with his bedclothes, she left the room, turning down the light.
Dale picked out the tablets with a finger and put them under his pillow. Sure, the staff would find them in the morning and they’d be annoyed with him, but so what? He was a patient, not a prisoner, after all. He lay back, enjoying the warm, clean sheets of the bed, and tried to remember his life before the hospital. He had been a cook, so if he could think of something, a recipe perhaps, maybe something would come back. Still trying to think, he drifted into sleep.
He was woken by the creak of a door opening. His bed was uncomfortable and his sheets felt rough and dirty. He could hear voices, talking quietly as if to avoid waking him. He opened one eye, just a little, and saw the doctor and another man. Both were wearing rough sheets of brown cloth which were draped around them like cerements.
Both were hunched and looked malnourished, both were covered in sores and stinking of decay. Oh great, he thought, another hallucination. He closed his eye and pretended to be asleep.
The doctor was speaking. “He’s making good progress. He sees the clean world most of the time now, he only sees the decaying world intermittently.”
“Good,” the other man said. “When will he be ready?”
“A matter of days.”
“The fundamentalists haven’t found out?”
“No. As far as I know, they don’t even know about our work.”
The unknown man grunted. “We have to be careful. They have spies everywhere. They won’t approve of what we’re trying to do here, they would consider our work blasphemy. Interference with God’s punishment, or something like that.”
“I know,” the doctor said. “Our staff are carefully checked, and no visitors are allowed.”
“Very good. What about the others, are they seeing the same things?”
“Yes,” the doctor said. “The other patients all show the same hallucinations as Dale here. We’ve kept them separate so we can be sure they’re not comparing notes. They all report exactly the same visions. The virus, it seems, works the same way on everyone.”
There are others, Dale thought. Others like me, with the same virus, the same hallucinations. Dale squirmed on his bed. It felt as though he was lying on a coarse sheet laid directly on the bedframe.
“Careful,” the doctor said. “Best not wake him.” The two men left, closing the door quietly.
Dale opened one eye. All clear. He opened the other. Bare-brick walls surrounded him, lit by a single guttering candle on the far side of the room. He put a hand onto the mattress – there was no mattress! He sat up, examined the bed, and found that it was no more than a few planks of wood with a coarse blanket thrown over it. A similar blanket covered him. His pillow was a sack stuffed with straw. On an impulse, he lifted it, and saw the two sleeping tablets he had put there earlier. So they were still
there, even in his hallucination. He hoped that was a sign he was getting better, that small pieces of reality were filtering through his nightmares.
As he held the pillow, Dale noticed his arms, bare in his filthy, coarse night-shirt. His skin was grey, his muscles wasted, and red sores oozed pus that dripped onto the bed. His left hand was missing two fingers, their stumps black with infection. Feeling an itch on his right forearm, he turned his arm to look at it and screamed. A large sore had burst, purple flesh was exposed and maggots wriggled in the wound. Still screaming, he beat his arm against the bed.
The door opened and the hag he knew was really Julie came into the room, followed by the doctor. Pushing him back on the bed, the doctor held him still while Julie tried to calm him. “Think, Dale,” she said. “Think of the hospital. Try to see it.”
“Why is he awake?” the doctor said. “Didn’t he take his pills?”
“Yes. I saw him take them. Dale, come on, concentrate.”
“Maggots,” Dale said, his voice a childish whine. “In my arm. Maggots eating me.”
“No,” Julie said “Don’t see them. Look at me, Dale. You can do it.”
“Yes,” Dale said. “Hallucination. Virus. Not real.” He stopped struggling, closed his eyes and tried to control his breathing. He waited until he could smell disinfectant, then opened them. Julie smiled down at him, long black hair covering part of her face. The doctor released him and stood up.
“Feeling better now?” the doctor said.
“Yes,” Dale said. “It’s gone.”
Julie was looking at him, her brow furrowed. “What happened to your pills?”
With a sheepish expression, Dale lifted his pillow and brought out the two white pills. Saying nothing, he handed them to Julie.
“I thought as much,” she said. “I’ll get you some more.” She left the room.
“You really should take the pills,” the doctor said. “We can’t have you screaming all night, you know. You have to get some rest, and so do the staff.”
“I know,” Dale said. “I haven’t done this before. I don’t think I’ll do it again.”
The doctor smiled. “With luck, you shouldn’t need to for much longer. We think you should be okay within a week.”
Dale looked up, hopeful.
“There are other patients with your virus. Some of them haven’t seen the terrible world in days. If you follow the same pattern, one more week should do it.”
“That’s great news. So I just have to hold on for a week?”
“No guarantees, but I hope so.”
Dale lay back on the bed, grinning, just as Julie returned with a plastic cup and a glass of water. “Here you are,” she said, holding out the rusted tin mug. No! Plastic cup, plastic cup, concentrate! The mug wavered, became the cup again. Dale took it and swallowed the pills even before Julie handed him the wooden goblet. Glass! Glass of water!
“It’s starting again,” Dale said.
“Don’t worry,” Julie said. “The pills will take effect in a moment.”
Dale looked into her clouded red eyes and fell asleep.
When he woke, Doreen sat beside his bed. With her red hair in a tight bun, her lips in a tight smile, she was pretty, but nowhere near as pretty as Julie. Still, at least he could see her, at least he wasn’t seeing some rag-clad monstrosity.
“Good morning, Doreen,” he said.
“So you’re awake. I’ll get your breakfast sent in,” she said, standing and walking to the door. She paused as she opened it. “I hear you refused your medication last night. I hope there’ll be no such nonsense on my shift.”
As if he would dare. “No,” he said. “I’ve learned my lesson.” He had a fleeting vision of her as a twisted, infected horror as she left. Damn, he thought, the hallucinations are strange today, flashing in and out. That hasn’t happened before. He would have to ask the doctor about that, ask if it had happened to the other patients, the ones who had recovered. An orderly brought his breakfast and he sat up to eat.
Doreen returned just as he finished. “Up you get,” she said. “The doctor wants to see you.”
Dale’s eyebrows rose. “So early? He doesn’t usually see me until the afternoon or evening.”
Doreen pulled the sheets back. “Well, today it’s the morning,” she said. “Don’t ask me, I just do what I’m told.”
Dale slipped his legs off the wooden bed and climbed into the sackcloth garment. He clutched his head. Mattress. There is a mattress. I’m wearing jeans and a shirt. He took a deep breath and followed Doreen out of the room, along the white bare brick corridor. Gloss-white paint overlaid damp, mildew-covered stone. Fluorescent lights fought tallow candles for illumination. Dale shook his head.
“What is it?” Doreen said. “More hallucinations?”
“Worse. I’m seeing both now, one on top of the other, like a double exposure.”
“We’d better hurry along to the doctor.”
Doreen propelled him along the corridor, past white-uniformed staff with faces ravaged by infection, past roughly-made wooden doors with frosted glass panels, into the doctor’s room. She hadn’t knocked. The doctor looked up, surprised.
“He’s seeing both at once,” Doreen said, guiding Dale to a chair and pressing him into it.
“Oh dear,” the doctor said. “This could be serious. You’d better get a sedative ready.” Doreen nodded and left the room.
“What?” said Dale. “What’s serious? What’s happening to me?”
The doctor frowned. “Stay calm,” he said. “It’s the virus. Your body is rejecting it, cleaning itself. How are you feeling?”
“Scared. And confused. You said I used to be a cook. I wasn’t. I remember – something. I remember a laboratory. I was a scientist, wasn’t I?”
The doctor played with a pencil then put it down abruptly. “Yes, Dale, you were.”
“I worked with viruses. This virus. I was infected. What was it, an accident?”
The doctor stood, his crisply-ironed sackcloth flashing white, then brown, his strong, wasted frame striding, limping, to the window. “It wasn’t an accident.”
“What do you mean?”
“It wasn’t an accident, Dale. You infected yourself deliberately.” The doctor turned to face him. “You infected the others first, then yourself.”
“No!” Dale stood, knocking over the wooden box he had been sitting on. “No. You’re lying.” His hands bunched into fists as he faced the doctor, then he felt a sharp pain in his back. Turning, he saw Doreen holding a syringe, her red hair becoming a mottled grey as his consciousness fled.
He could smell iodine. Forcing his eyes open, he saw that he was lying on straw, damp and foetid, in a bare room. With a groan, he stood and walked to the door. It was barred from the outside. “Hey,” Dale shouted, banging on the door. “Let me out.”
“I’m afraid that’s not possible.” The doctor’s voice came through the door.
“Doctor? Is that you?” Dale paused. “I remember. You’re Simon.” He spoke slowly, dragging the words from the deepest pits of his memory. “Doctor Simon Morgan.”
“Yes, Dale, it’s me.” The voice wavered.
“You’re my brother.” Dale leaned against the door. “You didn’t tell me.”
“It would have interfered with your treatment. Your memories have to recover on their own.”
“Why am I locked up like this?”
“For your own safety.” The last word was choked off by a sob.
Dale could still smell iodine. He looked at his arms. They were thin and grey, the red welts oozing pus. The wound on his right arm, which had been full of maggots, had been cleaned and was stained yellow. That was where the iodine smell was coming from. Why had they treated it? It wasn’t real. He banged on the door again.
“Let me out, Simon,” he said, “I’m hallucinating again.”
There was a long silence. “No, you’re not.”
“Yes I am. I’m covered in sores and this room is vile. There’s only stinking straw to sleep on.”
Another long silence. “It’s not an hallucination, Dale. This is the real world.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. This is the rotten world of my hallucination. The virus—”
“The virus causes illusion and forgetfulness. Those infected don’t see the real world any more, and don’t remember it. They see the world as it was before the war.”
“What war?” There had been a war, he remembered vaguely.
“The final war. The chemical and biological weapons war. You were working on antidotes for the weapons, but you were too late. The war took us all by surprise. So you worked on a new virus. This one.”
“Yes, yes, I know. The hallucinations are all my fault. I need help now, Simon. I’m stuck in my hallucination.”
“No, Dale, you’ve lost your hallucination. Your body has rejected the virus, so you don’t have hallucinations any more. You’ll start remembering more soon.”
“What do you mean?”
There was a deep sigh from the other side of the door. “This is it, Dale. This is reality. The war killed most people and those few of us who survived are dying slowly, hideously deformed by the weapons that were used. Your virus is our only hope. It won’t cure us but it gives the illusion of normality, of cleanliness, of life before the war. The other patients are fine, they believe they’re in a clean, wonderful hospital in a beautiful world. We’ll begin injecting more people with the virus soon.”
“What about me? Why not just inject me again?”
“It won’t work, Dale. You’re immune now. The virus won’t work on you.”
Dale slumped against the door. “So what next?”
“Soon we’ll all be seeing the clean world of your hallucination. Thanks to you, your work, your virus, we’ll all be able to enjoy life again. Oh, life will still be short, but it’ll be better.”
“You mean everyone will see the illusion of a clean reality.”
“Yes. Well, almost everyone.”
“Everyone but you, Dale. Everyone but you. That’s why I’ve hidden you here, to stop the authorities killing you as they did the others. Those who the virus failed to infect. I can never let you out. You represent too great a risk, the risk of remembrance.”
Dale sank to the floor, sobbing, as his brother’s footsteps echoed among the drips from the damp walls.
*That’s a cracking collection of short stories, Clicky… /smokes… sum times I fink the man’s on a nuvver plane…*
Dear Reader… Have a Song ❤