Kathy watched the small digital clock change from 3:45 am to 3:46 am. A scream down the hall caused her to kick her blanket off.

Well, she thought, I’m not sleeping anyway, better get up.

Kathy got out of bed and stretched, then put on the plain blue robe provided for her. She opened the door to her room and stood in the doorway. A few more women were standing in their doorways, too, looking with mild apprehension down the hall. A nurse and an orderly pushing a small wire cart rushed past Kathy’s room. She got a sickening whiff of hospital disinfectant as they went by.

“Can’t sleep either?” asked Eileen, whose room was across from Kathy’s.

“Nah,” Kathy replied. “Think I’m going to raid the fridge.”

Eileen yawned. She rubbed her messy brown hair. “I think I’ll go back to bed. Nothing to see here.”

“Sleep tight.” Kathy said.

Eileen snorted, then shut her door behind her.

Kathy passed the women standing in their doorways with a small nod to each. She reached the room of the unfortunate screamer, and looked inside. Lila, a small redhead, usually quiet as a mouse, sat up in her bed and hugged the nurse. She babbled and cried as the nurse rocked her.

“Nothing to see here, ma’am,” said the orderly. He blocked Kathy’s view of the room.

“Nope.” said Kathy. “Another bad dream. We all seem to get them these days.”

“Yup.” said the orderly. His tone was light, but the look in his eyes was cold, analytical.

Kathy yawned. “Raiding the fridge, want anything?”, she said.

“No, thanks,” the orderly’s attitude changed to almost casual.

Kathy walked on without comment. She passed through the ranch’s massive living area and looked out the window. It was pitch black outside except for a few light poles that illuminated the few other buildings and the main cattle pen. The dark shadow of an armed guard passed through the orange cast on the side of the barn. The sight made Kathy uneasy, even after 6 weeks here.

Kathy passed through the double doors to the kitchen, and found Valerie sitting at the main island. She had a cupcake on a plate in front of her, and a lighted birthday candle stuck in it. Kathy shuffled up, and Valerie smiled, almost embarrassed.

“Hey,” Kathy said. “What’s the occasion?”

“Couldn’t sleep,” Valerie said. “So I thought I’d get a jump on celebrating.”

“Yeah? Celebrate what?” Kathy was genuinely curious.

“I’m 10 years sober today,” Valerie said with pride.

Kathy smiled. “That’s great! Good for you.”

“Thanks,” Valerie said. “Not many of the ladies around here would understand.”

“Hey, you’re off the stuff, and bettering your life, step by step. That’s all that really matters, in my book.” Kathy said.

Valerie nodded. She blew out the candle and put it aside. As she peeled off the wrapper, Kathy went to the fridge and peeked inside. Nothing caught her eye, or interested her stomach, so she closed it again.

She took a slow circle of the kitchen, trying to wear herself out.

“Something wrong?” Valerie asked through a mouthful of cupcake.

Kathy giggled. “Not really. Another screamer. Can’t sleep, either.”

Valerie nodded. She finished off the dessert, then took a drink of water from a glass she had nearby. “Me neither. It’s those damn dreams.”

Kathy leaned on the counter. “You get them, too? Wow.”

“Yeah, it’s weird. Ever since we hit the first month, nothing but strange dreams, almost like nightmares.”

“I don’t get it.” Kathy said. “Why would we all start having weird dreams all at the same time?”

“Who knows? We’re all carrying secret government experimental babies. We knew it was going to be weird when we signed up, right?” Valerie said.

Kathy shrugged. “Yeah. I guess you’re right.”

“Um-hmm. It doesn’t pay to ask too many questions.”

Kathy grunted. “Nope. It sure doesn’t.”

Valerie was quiet for a moment. Kathy sensed her hesitation.

“Yeah?” Kathy asked.

“Oh, I was just curious. I mean, I know why I’m here – the money. It’s a good nest egg to start over with. I’m wondering… why are you here?”

“Oh. The money, too, I guess. I want to go to college, but I’m from a poor family in a tiny, poor town. My folks sent my sister through college all the way to a PHD. No money left for me.”

“Oh, sorry to hear that.”

“Nah, it’s OK. I’d rather do it on my own anyway. The money was good, and it’s like you get a year’s vacation from life, you know?”

“Yeah, exactly. What do you want to study?”

Kathy blushed. “It’s going to sound… silly, I guess.”

“No, really, what?” asked Valerie.

“Library Science. I want to be a librarian.” Kathy said, looking down.

“That’s cool.” Valerie said. “No, really. I think that’s awesome. I’ve always loved libraries. Somebody needs to save them.”

“Yeah, and literacy, too.” Kathy said. “We don’t want to devolve into nothing but text-speak and memes.”

“Amen to that, sister.” Valerie said.

Kathy stood up and stretched. Valerie yawned loud.

“I think I’ll head back,” Valerie said.

“Me, too,” Kathy said. “Hopefully, everybody’s settled down.”

“Yeah, see you later today,” Valerie said.

“See you,” Kathy said.

Kathy got some rest, but no real sleep. She got up at 8:30 am and went to get some coffee to start her day. Then she remembered: she was scheduled for blood work that morning.

“Crap,” she mumbled.

She dragged herself to the hospital wing of the big ranch house. The day nurse – was it Ray or Tommy – welcomed her and took a few tubes of blood. Kathy’s stomach growled halfway through the procedure. The nurse barely cracked a smile.

Jeez, thought Kathy, only 8 more months of Mr. Congeniality to go.

Kathy went straight to the kitchen and finally had a cup of coffee. She finished breakfast and joined Valerie, and another woman, Gwen, on a short walk around the ranch. Gwen was African-American, and was good, although quiet, company. They stopped by the main cattle enclosure and watched the ranch manager wrangle some cows.

Gwen reached down and grabbed something out of the dust. She put it immediately to her nose and took a big sniff. She sighed. “Too old, nothing left.”

Kathy looked closer and saw that Gwen had picked up a cigarette butt. Kathy smiled. “Bummer that.”

“You’re not kidding,” Gwen replied. “I should’ve quit before I got here.”

“Yeah, you should’ve,” said a deep male voice.

Kathy and the others turned to find Bud Weaver, the ranch manager, standing at the rail with a coil of rope slung over one shoulder. He was the epitome of what a cowboy should be. Older, with squinty eyes that see everything, dusty clothes and a crusty persona.

“Just don’t get caught smoking around here,” Bud continued.

Gwen dropped the butt and wiped her hands on her pants. “I don’t intend to,” she said. “The money’s too good.”

Bud grunted, noncommittally. “It may already be too late.” He looked behind them and tipped his hat to someone. Then, he moved away.

Kathy turned and saw the garish pink alligator book cover before anything else.

“Oh, crap,” Valerie groaned. “Here comes the hall monitor.”

“Hi, Gracelyn,” Kathy said with false cheer.

Gracelyn was a blonde of average height, dressed in her best yuppie sweater set, with a grim look on her face. She flounced up to the women and surveyed them with keen displeasure. The only thing that kept Kathy from actually being afraid of Gracelyn was the fact that she always carried her Bible with her encased in a bubble gum pink faux alligator skin book cover. Kathy could not fear someone capable of such a silly fashion mistake. Although Kathy had to admit, the alligator skin matched her personality perfectly.

Gracelyn zeroed in on Gwen. “You know that smoking is strictly forbidden by your contract, ma’am,” she said in an arched, superior tone.

“Yes, I know that,” Gwen replied, exasperated. “I wasn’t smoking, only wishing I was.”

Gracelyn didn’t believe her, it seemed. “You can explain it to the doctors, and may the Lord have mercy on you.”

Valerie groaned and rolled her eyes. Gracelyn looked at her sharply, then at Kathy, expecting a fight. Kathy shrugged. “She wasn’t smoking. Really.”

Gracelyn puffed herself up. “I’m reporting this.”

She turned on her heel and marched back to the house.

“Well, better report for my ass whupping,” Gwen said. She sighed.

“No,” Valerie said. “Let’s finish our walk first. Let them wait, for a change. I’m sick of Ms. Holier-Than-Thou’s crap.”

“I agree, let’s go,” Gwen said.

“Yeah, I’m in,” Kathy said.

It took them 15 minutes to get back to the ranch house. Kathy wanted to go back to her room and try to get some more sleep, but an orderly told her that Dr. Arden wanted to see her. Kathy felt a twinge of alarm, but she shook it off.

Dr. Arden was a smart-looking woman with an easy smile and approachable manner. Kathy actually like her. Kathy sat  opposite Dr. Arden in her office, which was arranged like a small living room.

“So, how’s it going, Kathy?” Dr. Arden asked.

“Fine. My sleep’s still off a bit,” she replied.

Dr. Arden nodded in sympathy. “Sorry about that. I think we’ve found a sleep med that can help, and not affect the pregnancy. Would you like to try it?”

Relieved, Kathy said, “Absolutely. Just as long as I don’t dream, that’ll be great.”

Dr. Arden frowned. “You too, huh? What’s with these dreams?”

“Oh, I don’t know. They’re kinda freaky, some of them.”

“Freaky, how?”

Kathy fidgeted.

Dr. Arden leaned close and put her hand on Kathy’s arm. “It’s Ok. You don’t have to worry; everything’s fine. I’m only curious.”

Kathy took a deep breath. “There’s all this purple light,” she began. “It feels safe, at first. Then, there’s falling, being thrown around. Heat. Terrible heat. I’m so scared, but I’m helpless. Then, a bright flash and horrible pain… and I wake up, covered in sweat. That was the first one.”

Dr. Arden scribbled in her notes. “Um-hmm. There’s another one?”

Kathy nodded. “Yeah, the second one makes even less sense. It’s more about sensations – trapped, wet, pain, anger, dark, can’t breathe…and sadness. So, so sad.”

“Sadness?” Dr. Arden said. “That’s different.” She scribbled more notes.

“Weird, huh?” Kathy said. She tried to smile.

Dr. Arden closed her notebook. “Yeah, weird. Nothing to worry about, though. Hormones, you know.” She gave Kathy a genuine smile.

Kathy managed to smile back. “So, when can I expect those sleep meds?”

“Tonight,” Dr. Arden replied. “Take it easy today.”

Kathy was a bit disappointed. “OK, then.”

Dr. Arden led Kathy to the door. “Oh, and I almost forgot: no smoking, OK?”

“Neither I nor anybody I know is smoking,” Kathy said. She put her hand over her heart. “Cross my heart and everything.”

Dr. Arden laughed. “Got it. See you later.”

Kathy left feeling better.

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