By Erin Brookins
Art by Nick Flook aka Flooko
Published Issue 109, January 2023
“I had the dream about the spaceman and the giant squid again.” Peter shifted in his chair. It probably wasn’t the most helpful thing to be addressing in therapy. But then again maybe it was.
Dr. Bowers raised her eyebrows and dug around for a pen. “Ah, yes,” she said. “And they’re making love?”
“What? No! They’re fighting. I had the same one two weeks ago, remember?”
“Ah, ah. Sorry. Wrong patient.”
“Someone else had a dream about— ”
“I can’t divulge that.” Dr. Bowers said. “And that’s really all I’d like to say about it.”
A CEO-type had been in the waiting room once: slicked back salt-and-pepper hair, shiny Rolex, sneakers worth more than Peter’s annual salary. Those old money types always had indulgently perverse secrets.
Dreams without fear of consequence.
Dr. Bowers clicked her pen. “Let’s hear about this fight.”
“Right,” Peter said. “It’s almost the same as last time: it’s dark out, and there’s a man in a spacesuit. The retro white, puffy one, with the big, shiny visor— ”
“Are you sure it’s a man?” Dr. Bowers clicked her pen again.
Peter scratched his head.
“There’s a person in one of those old school spacesuits, and they’re floating in the middle of a giant lake. And the lake is deep purple, with swirls of blues and pinks and yellows. There are a million bright lights scattered across it, like fireflies in late summer.” Like back home. “I realize it’s reflecting what’s above me, so I look up. And …” Peter cleared his throat.
“Mmmhmm,” said Dr. Bowers. Click, click.
“And I can see really far into space and time,” he continued tentatively. “It’s incredibly beautiful. But terrible, also. Because I get this strong sense I’m not supposed to be there.” Peter frowned. “Then I hear a splash.”
“The squid?” Click, click.
“Yeah. I look back down at the lake and suddenly there’s an enormous tentacle wrapped around the spacema— the spaceperson. It’s curled around their waist like an inner tube. Though for a moment everything seems okay.” He swallowed. “Then the spaceperson starts to struggle.”
“I see.” Click, click. Swoosh.
“Anyway, they pull a knife from somewhere and begin to stab at the tentacle.” Peter brought his fist down hard onto his leg. “And then the tentacle releases the spaceperson. They’re just floating again. And I think it’s over.” His eyes widened. “But then it surfaces.”
“Right.” Scratch. Swoosh. Scratch, scratch.
Dr. Bowers’ pen was now dancing across the page. Unproductively, if you asked Peter. Aggressively. He leaned forward, peering over the cardboard edge, and it froze. Dr. Bowers tipped the notepad up and out of view and demanded with her eyes that he continue. Peter sunk back into the chair.
“Tell me about the squid, Peter.”
“It’s got this long, scaly body. Deep red, almost black. With one really big eye, that keeps moving, rolling around. And the sound it makes,” Peter curled his nose up, “not a normal predatory sound, not like a growl. It’s … laughing. Or maybe crying? Or something in between.”
“It’s laughing at you?”
“No! I mean, I don’t care if people laugh at me.” She had this all wrong. “It doesn’t make me angry. It makes me sick.”
“Anyway, it thrusts another two tentacles out of the water and wraps them around the spaceperson. One around their neck. And it starts squeezing. The spaceperson squirms a bit, but it just keeps tightening.” Peter looked down at his white knuckles and loosened his fists. “It’s horrible.”
“Yes, I’m sure it is,” Dr. Bowers said. Swoosh. Scritch. Scratch, scratch.
“I must start screaming at that point because it turns to look at me. With that big eye. And I start to feel like I’m on fire. That’s usually when I wake up.”
The pen paused.
“Yeah.” Peter rubbed his hands on his thighs. “Usually.”
“What happened this time?” Click, click. Swirl. Swoosh. Scratch, scratch.
“Um, well … Uh.” The sounds were triggering a shiver that rippled up and down the back of Peter’s neck. He flinched, rubbing his right ear on his shoulder. “There’s another tentacle. It comes out of nowhere, right at me. So I turn and run. I just keep running without looking back. Space and time start moving above me and I can’t see where I’m going, but next thing I know I’m in an airlock and everything is blurry and someone’s yelling at me.”
Dan Gunderton’s voice. Greedy, pathetic bastard. The majority of his waking hours weren’t good enough for middle management anymore.
“Then I wake up.”
Peter waited patiently for a reply, but it didn’t come. Dr. Bowers crossed her knee over her leg in the big leather chair, using it to balance the notepad as her scrawling became more frantic. She jabbed and circled and looped.
Peter didn’t like the look in her eyes.
He was suddenly terrified she might poke through the paper, right past the cardboard back and then the black cotton of her uniform pants, and straight into the flesh of her thigh. That she might keep going, blood and ink flying into both of their faces, coating the walls and the framed picture of a sunny garden sitting on the desk.
Peter leaned forward again, gently stretching his hand out towards her. His fingers grazed the cheap cotton of her sleeve and he froze, unsure of what to do next. Mercifully, Dr. Bowers stopped. She sighed and clicked her pen close. Peter slowly leaned back.
Dr. Bowers adjusted her glasses, which had slid down to the very end of her nose. “You don’t have to be an expert to see what your subconscious mind is trying to tell you here, Peter,” she said.
She raised her eyebrows at him and sighed. “This place has an effect on people, regardless of what our roles are. Look — I’m almost at the end of my two years and this is where I’m at.”
Dr. Bowers turned the notepad around to face Peter. He recoiled as he took in a crudely drawn image of a spaceperson, like the one in his dream, dangling from a hangman’s noose and pincushioned with knives, cartoon splashes of blood and dollar bill signs spurting from each wound. Marion Bowers was also scrawled in tight cursive all around the page, as well as deeply etched carvings saying “I grow and I grow” and what appeared to be the number 14 underlined multiple times.
“I’ve only got two more weeks and, frankly, I’m not sure I’m going to make it. I have nightmares about my job too. About this stupid office and this stupid chair and this stupid ship and, you know, all of you.”
Peter couldn’t stop staring at the bloodied spacesuit. He felt vomit pushing at the back of his throat.
“It’s because our conscious mind tries to block the painful things out — for survival or comfort or whatever. So our dreams become like a release valve.”
Dr. Bowers tossed the notepad aside and illustrated this concept with both hands, fingers springing outward into a small explosion.
“I wish I could tell you that what you’re doing is important,” she said. “That cosmic species control is a noble and essential effort, one that keeps humanity’s dream of space exploration alive. But we both know that won’t help.” Dr. Bowers pulled a sleek black vape pen out of her pants pocket. “Even if it were true.”
She took a deep drag. Her eyes closed and she appeared to be meditating. The moment was too private to watch, so Peter looked down at his hands and tried to stop the shaking. He pulled up his left sleeve and grimaced. The sucker mark-shaped bruise was still technicolor. It still hurt.
“Hung up on Valerie, eh?” Dr. Bowers had finally opened her eyes, and for the first time, Peter noticed they looked very tired. “It’s not your fault, you know. No one had ever seen one that big, much less that angry. There’s not really a safety protocol for being utterly fucked.”
Peter grabbed the small trash can placed conveniently in front of his chair. He heaved and threw up his entire breakfast. Dr. Bowers handed him a box of tissues, which he used to wipe his mouth. Then, he began to cry.
She’d put up an admirable fight. Even though she had to have known it was useless from the moment it surfaced. Even though she’d only had a few days training and still missed her dog and hadn’t stopped cracking jokes about the shit food yet. And maybe that’s what she was still doing: twisting and screaming and demanding to exist. Lots of rookies never made it past the first week, but only Valerie refused to let Peter get a good night’s sleep.
Dr. Bowers’ tone grew gentle. “I wish I had some lovely piece of insight to give you, or, better yet, a pill. But all I’ve got is this: endure. You’ve got to endure. Do your time. Get your money. Then get out.”
She paused, looking at him earnestly and taking another long drag. Peter nodded to show he understood.
“Nice touch with the crappy spacesuit, though, ” she wheezed as she exhaled a puff of smoke. “This company is cheap as shit.”
Erin Brookins is a writer living in Golden, Colorado with her spouse and a dog named Lou. Her first script about a cursed flannel and the search for purpose is now a ScreenCraft quarterfinalist.
Nick Flook aka Flooko is “the O.G astronaut painter” and takes his fans on adventures through original acrylic paintings and animations. This Toronto-based artist specializes in surrealism, space-themed work and impressionistic city and landscapes. See more of his work on his site and follow him on Instagram for more work.
This is Erin’s debut Birdy install. Keep your eyes peeled for more future work by this talented writer. Check out Nick’s December Birdy install, Housewarming, or head to our Explore section to see more of his work.