By M. C. Tuggle
Sounds travel farther in the cold December air, especially ominous ones. It’s three in the morning, and I’m walking the dogs. Duke and Bear flinch at every tortured moan from the upscale bungalows we pass. They whimper as they search both sides of the street, taking short, nervous sniffs. I’d worked late at the hospital again, and hoped I’d hear fewer cries of helpless terror from my neighbors tonight. No such luck.
I shiver, but not from the cold. “It’s all right, boys,” I say, but the dogs twist their heads at me, eyes narrowed. They know when I’m lying, especially to myself.
I stuff the earbuds in and quicken my pace. The news reports are right. Our miracle cure isn’t working anymore.
The Center for Disease Control calls it mass anxiety hysteria, a bland term for nightmares that jolt people upright in their beds. Not ordinary nightmares, but the vivid nightmares of childhood. Early on in the outbreak, Maggie, our elderly neighbor in the adjoining condo, woke me and Erin at two in the morning. We rushed to her place and pounded the door, but Maggie kept shrieking, “Momma, run!” over and over. When she finally let us in, she sobbed that a man with pig ears had slinked out of the shadows and taken her mother, a recurring dream from the first grade she’d forgotten decades ago.
Or so she thought.
The talking heads on TV assured us it was temporary, even as the nightmares claimed more victims each week. Even when over ninety million people were sleep deprived and crazy with fear, the on-screen experts kept nodding at each other, calmly predicting worries about the economy, war, and pandemics would diminish, and things would soon return to normal.
A month later, millions reported fewer nightmares. Of course, the experts claimed vindication.
Funny thing, though—it turned out the people who were sleeping better had been posting apologies to the people they’d skewered online. In less than a month, the internet transformed from a shooting gallery to a platform for apologies and healing. The experts rolled out fancy new terms. Their favorite was delayed-onset PTSD. Demonizing others, they proclaimed, caused long-term trauma for both parties. Who could’ve guessed?
But when the number of debilitating nightmares started to rise again, no one knew what to say. Or do.
The dogs and I return to our condo. As soon as we enter the hallway leading to our unit, groans and occasional shrieks from the doors we pass make Duke and Bear shrink and turn their eyes up at me for reassurance. I have none to give. Erin is in bed, and I can’t blame her. Her schedule’s as bad as mine. Maybe worse. Neither of us suffers from the nightmares, but we’re still affected. In the following weeks, Erin and I work double shifts and sleep when we can.
I wake up. It’s a Sunday morning in April. Erin is staring out the bedroom window. I pull the ear plugs out and shut off the white noise machine.
She turns to me, eyes shining with moisture. “You have to see this. The TV says it’s happening all over the country, and now it’s here.”
Puzzled, I gaze out the window. A block away, past the white blossoms of dogwood trees, people crowd around Honey Monk’s restaurant.
Under young oaks nodding in the breeze, people hug and shake hands.
“They’re apologizing to people they attacked online. Maggie—from next door?—told me about this when I picked up the mail this morning in the lobby. Remember how angry she always got about wearing a mask? She used to argue about it online.” Erin sobs, and my heart begins to hammer.
She wipes her eyes. “People didn’t realize they were hurting others. They had the right idea several months ago when they texted apologies, but now it’s face to face. See?”
I take another peek. More people congregate at Honey Monk’s front door, and I hold Erin’s hand in mine and wonder where this could lead.