Dream Yourself Awake
(A Sleeping Stone story)
by Alexa Snow

It was his first night in the rehab place, which had a long fancy name and two wings -- one for the people who were actually going to get better and go home, and another for the people who needed somewhere to stay while they waited to die. Jazz knew that the fact that he was in the 'get better and go home' wing should have been reassuring, but somehow, it wasn't. Somehow, being here seemed worse than being in the hospital had, and he couldn't even successfully tell himself it was because the hospital had been sort of home for a long time, because he'd been unconscious for most of it.

His mom, along with Chris and Richard, had helped him get settled in that afternoon, bringing stuff to make him feel more comfortable. Jazz shifted sideways on the bed, still upset about how hard it was to adjust to everything, even a simple movement, being so much work, and pressed his face into the pillow, his pillow. It smelled like home, like the laundry detergent Richard preferred, and he felt a wave of longing to be there, in his own bed with his loves, so powerful that tears came to his eyes.

There was a soft knock at the door, and he knuckled the moisture away and said, "Come in."

The woman who opened the door, Natalie, was the night nurse for his part of the wing. She stayed in the doorway, but when she saw his face hers softened into an expression of concern. "Settling in all right?" she asked gently.

He cleared his throat and nodded. "Yeah, thanks."

"Well, the lights go down in about fifteen minutes, so I wanted to warn you, just in case you took it into your head to wander around."

"Not much chance of that," Jazz said ruefully. He could only take about half a dozen steps before his legs started shaking.

"You never know. It can be difficult, staying somewhere unfamiliar. Some people find they have more nervous energy than they'd been anticipating." Natalie gestured toward the bed. "You know where the intercom is, if you need anything."

The room seemed even more quiet once she'd gone, and to his surprise Jazz did find himself considering trying to walk down to the day room they'd showed him earlier on the tour. But the thought of collapsing halfway there was more worrisome than the idea of staying where he was.

Eventually, feeling sorry for himself, he fell asleep with the light still on, and slipped immediately into a dream.

He wakes up in a hospital bed, flat on his back. Everything in the room, everything he can see without moving, is white: the sheets, the edges of the pillow in his peripheral vision, the ceiling. Well, okay, the IV pole off to the left isn't white, it's sort of metallic, but it gives that impression. Sterile, clean, boring.

A nurse leans down over him. She's wearing all white, too -- none of the brightly-colored scrubs that Jazz has gotten used to over the past week and a half -- and her face is expressionless. She looks like a person without anything inside, a shell, some weird kind of robot.

He tries to open his mouth to speak, but his body doesn't respond. Only his eyes move. He can't say anything.

"You're paralyzed," the nurse says. "From the neck down." Which doesn't explain the not being able to talk, and strangely Jazz doesn't feel scared, just numb. He knows this is a dream, at least. "You'll never walk again."

He wants to ask for Chris and Richard, for his mom. Maybe his eyes speak the questions for him, because the nurse answers.

"They're gone. Here, I just need to check something." She pulls down the covers and reaches for his penis, takes it in her hand, squeezes gently. He can feel it, which he shouldn't be able to, not if he's really paralyzed, which he isn't because this is just a dream. The nurse's hand slides lower and cups his balls, kneads at them. He can feel that, too, although his body doesn't respond, either because it's a dream or because he's paralyzed or because she's a woman and he's never been even slightly interested in women. She settles the covers back up over him and nods. "They said to tell you they aren't coming back."

That's when Jazz starts to feel afraid, even though this isn't real. He could do everything else, anything, but the thought of everyone going off and leaving him alone, like this, helpless and hopeless and useless, is just about the scariest thing he can imagine.

He wrenched himself free of the dream, gasping. There was sweat beaded at his hairline and pooled in the shallow space between his shoulder blades. He was, again, sleeping on his stomach, as if all those months on his back had been too much for his body to handle and now it wanted a change.

Heart racing fiercely, Jazz fumbled for the phone on the bedside table, the phone Chris had insisted on. He dialed home with shaking hands, dimly aware that it was the middle of the night and he was probably going to scare the hell out of Chris and Richard but unable to care right then. He pressed the phone to his ear hard enough to hurt as he waited for someone to pick up back at the house, his house, both of them in his bed where he should have been, where he wanted to be.

"Hello?" Richard said, voice thick with sleep.

"It's me," Jazz said. God, he was shaking and he couldn't make it stop. "I can't -- can you talk to me? Just talk, I need to --"

"It's okay," Richard said. He sounded awake now, and worried, but he managed to inject warmth into his voice, soothing Jazz with words and tone. "Hey, everything's okay. It's fine, I promise." Jazz could hear the sound of Chris saying something in the background. "What happened?"

As he began to calm down, Jazz started to feel guilty again. It was a new emotion to him, for the most part, and one he hoped wasn't going to stick around long enough for him to get used to, because he didn't like it. "Sorry," he said, licking his lips to moisten them. "Nightmare, I guess."

"Is he okay?" Chris asked.

"Nightmare," Richard said, muffled, then, "Do you want one of us to come down there?"

Yes, Jazz thought, but he didn't let himself say it out loud. "No, it's okay. Maybe it's just being in a new place, you know?" His teeth were chattering -- he sat up and grabbed the fleece blanket his mom had brought, clutching it to his chest.

"Tell him to talk about it," Chris ordered.

"Chris says you should talk about it," Richard said obediently.

"I heard," Jazz said. "I don't know." There was no way he could put it into words, no way he wanted to.

"Look, we're coming down," Richard said. "We'll be there in half an hour, okay?"

"You don't have to," Jazz protested.

"Fifteen minutes," Richard said, and hung up.

Jazz tried to tell himself he could wait that long, that all he had to do was look at one of the magazines his mother had brought or something, just for a little while, but instead he found himself reaching for the intercom button.

"Mr. Stone? Do you need something?" Natalie.

"Jazz," he corrected her, not for the first time. "Um."

She must have taken his silence as a yes, because she said, "Hang on, I'll be right there."

In less than a minute she was opening his door.

"Sorry," he said. "I don't really. Um, sorry."

Natalie came over and stood next to the bed, looking concerned. "Can't sleep?"

"I could," Jazz told her. "I had, well. Sort of a nightmare." It was one thing to admit it to his partners, but another to say it out loud to this woman he'd just met, and he felt himself flushing.

"Well, what would you like to do? I could make you some tea. You could go to the day room and watch TV, if you don't mind sharing with Mr. Malozzi, who I'm pretty sure is watching a Dark Shadows marathon."

Jazz winced at the thought. "Um, no. You know, I'm fine. My partners are on their way."

"We have fold-out beds," Natalie told him. "One of them could stay, if that would help."

"I feel guilty," Jazz said. He was surprised to hear the words out loud, but once they'd come out, more seemed to follow. "I put them through so much, you know? And now I can't even let them get a decent night's sleep in their own bed. I tried to tell them not to come, but..."

"I'm sure they want to be here," Natalie said. She patted his shoulder. "Maybe I could just sit with you until they arrive?"

"Thanks," Jazz said gratefully. "That'd be good. Thank you."

"Well, I am being paid, you know," Natalie said, with the first touch of playfulness he'd heard in her voice. Pulling a chair closer, she sat and rested her hand on the mattress near his. It was, he thought, a way of offering to touch him without saying so, a way of offering comfort that he could take if he chose to do so. "What was the nightmare about?"

Jazz swallowed and licked his dry lips. "I was paralyzed, and they said, um, that Chris and Richard were never coming back to see me."

Natalie made a sympathetic noise and handed him a water bottle. "Not to be a downer, but it'll probably be a while before you stop worrying about things like that. Subconsciously, at least."

"You aren't one of those people who read dozens of self-help books, are you?" Jazz asked, eying her suspiciously and then taking a sip of water.

"No," Natalie laughed. "It's just, being sick, especially for a long time, can really mess with your head. We see a lot of insomnia and nightmares, things like that, here."

"I never should have tried to ride that bike without a helmet," Jazz said. His chest felt tight just thinking about it -- he could just as easily have been dead, splattered all over the pavement with a hundred broken bones. "I just wanted to see. I was only go to go around the block."

"There are people here with permanent brain damage," Natalie told him. "Not all of them from motorcycle accidents, of course, but it's not uncommon."

"I could have died," Jazz said.

She nodded. "But you didn't. And you're here, and you're going to get better."

"I'm lucky they didn't leave me." He squeezed a fold of the fleece blanket between his fingers.

"Now I'm starting to think you are brain damaged," Natalie said, and Jazz looked at her, surprised. "I've already heard about how they look at you, how they talk about you. Hey, what kinds of gossip do you think go on behind the scenes in places like this? We can tell when people's families, or spouses, or friends, love them, and when they're just going through the motions. You've got the real deal."

It was too easy to dismiss the opinion of someone who hadn't even met Chris and Richard yet. "That doesn't mean they might not have decided to wait and see what happened."

"It wasn't that long," Natalie said. "I mean, you're right -- if they'd been looking for an excuse to ditch you, this would have been the time. But they didn't. All they want is for you to get better and come home. Don't get so wrapped up in your head that you forget that."

Jazz sighed. "I know. I know, I just..."

"It's okay," she said, and now she did take his hand. Her fingers weren't warm, but the gentle strength in her grip made Jazz feel better. "You're entitled to be kind of freaked out, considering. Just try to remember that they love you."

The door opened, and Chris and Richard came in as Natalie stood up, obviously ready to relinquish her seat to one of them.

"Hi," Chris said. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah. I'm sorry -- you guys shouldn't have to come down here in the middle of the night. I shouldn't have called. There's no --" Jazz stopped when Natalie gave him a severe look. "Sorry."

"Don't be sorry," Richard said. He came around the other side of the bed and sat down, his ass bumping Jazz's thigh in a wonderfully familiar way. "We were happy to come, weren't we, Chris?"

"Of course," Chris said. He smiled at Natalie and offered his hand. She shook it. "Hi, I'm Chris, and that's Richard."

"Natalie McKie. Well, now that you two are here, I suppose I'll have to go back to my desk and catch up on my paperwork." Natalie sighed dramatically. "You take good care of him, now. And let me know if you need one of those fold out beds." This last was directed at Jazz, who nodded.

"I will. Thanks."

She left, and Jazz turned toward Richard and let himself be folded in a warm but crooked embrace.

"Thanks for coming," he said, his voice muffled against Richard's knee. He could feel Chris' hand on his shoulder. "You didn't have to, but I'm glad you did."

"You're crazy," Chris said with affection. "If we didn't have to do things that should be totally unnecessary, like sleep and work, we'd be here with you all the time." He paused, then added, "That nurse seemed nice."

"She is," Jazz said. "Really nice. She even has a sense of humor."

"Points for that." Richard lifted his face and kissed him. "I'm glad you called. We missed you."

"You were sleeping," Jazz pointed out. "I don't think you were missing me then."

"We always miss you," Chris said. "Even when we're sleeping." He took advantage of the fact that Jazz was only taking up half the bed to crawl in behind him and hold him like that. It felt so good that tears welled up in Jazz's eyes again. "What was your dream about?"

Jazz closed his eyes and didn't say anything.

"Come on," Chris said gently. "Tell us."

"We love you," Richard added. "You can tell us anything."

"It's stupid," Jazz muttered.

Chris tightened his arm around Jazz's waist. "Say it anyway."

They both seemed willing to wait however long it took. After a minute, Jazz took a deep breath, but he still couldn't find the strength to do more than whisper, "I think I'm scared you're going to leave me."

"Never," Richard said.

"I know," Jazz said. "I mean, consciously, I know. But I know how much I put you through, and how much worse it could have been, and... I still can't promise I'll be different. I don't know how to be anyone else."

"We don't want you to be," Chris told him.

Jazz turned his head and looked at Chris, even though it was awkward. "I do. Well, part of me does."

"So you dreamed we were leaving you?" Richard asked. Somehow, his hand had ended up cradled between both of Jazz's.

He nodded slightly. "I was paralyzed, and I couldn't talk. And you were never coming back."

"No wonder you were freaked out," Chris said.

"I used to dream you were dead," Richard said suddenly, eyes fixed on the bed. "The hospital would call in the morning to tell us. The phone would ring, and you'd died during the night, just... stopped breathing. I was afraid to answer the phone in the mornings in case it came true."

Chris reached out and tangled his own fingers with Jazz and Richard's. "You never said."

Shrugging a little bit, Richard blinked but didn't raise his gaze. "Why depress both of us? There wasn't any point."

"Except that I wanted to help you," Chris said. "And you wouldn't let me. You wouldn't let me in." He sounded so sad, his voice shaky and uncertain.

"I couldn't," Richard said. "I couldn't talk about any of it -- it was too fucked up. It wasn't about you." He did look up then, at Chris, over Jazz's shoulder. Jazz found himself holding his breath, not wanting to interrupt this thing between them that they'd obviously been avoiding for too long.

"It felt like it was about me." Chris cleared his throat slightly. "It was bad enough losing Jazz, missing him so fucking much, but I lost you, too."

"You didn't," Richard assured him. "You wouldn't. Jesus, Chris, I love you, with or without Jazz. I was a mess, I know that, but you wouldn't have lost me, not for good."

"Promise?" Chris asked, and Richard nodded.

"Promise," he said solemnly.

"Kiss him," Jazz told Richard, and Richard and Chris both laughed, the spell broken. They did kiss, though Jazz didn't have as good a view as he would have liked.

Richard grinned and kissed Jazz, too. "We were supposed to be making you feel better."

"You did," Jazz said. "Weirdly, I'll admit, but I do feel better."

"I think we'll have to stay for a couple of nights," Richard said to Chris. "Until he's settled, at least."

"Neither of you has to stay," Jazz protested, not very convincingly.

Chris shifted his weight up onto his elbow. "Or one of us could stay and the other could sleep at home." He sounded even less convincing.

"Or," Richard said, "we could stop arguing about it and just accept the fact that we're both staying, and I could go ask Natalie about one of those chair-bed things. That's what I'm doing. You two can keep arguing if you want." He smiled good-naturedly and got up and left the room.

"We should probably listen to him." Jazz turned onto his back, frustrated again by how much effort it took, but more relaxed now that he knew they were staying.

"Probably." Chris brushed gentle fingertips along his hairline and asked, "Think you'll be able to sleep?"

"Yeah," Jazz said contentedly. "Yeah, I think I will."

Many thanks to Jane Davitt for the help and encouragement, as always.
Chris, Jazz and Richard make their first appearance in Alexa Snow's Sleeping Stone.
Click here to order Sleeping Stone from Torquere Press.