Infected – D. Atkinson

Airport expansion in the South East

I studied abroad nearly four years ago, now. Fall of 2014. Has it really been that long? It’s become part of my script whenever I’m on first dates, right in between what my bachelor’s degree was in and why I moved away from home. “Public relations. Yeah, I studied abroad in England. It was the time of my life.”

Clichés are cliché for a reason, but I wish there were better words for it. I mean, I could find the words to describe that not only was it the time of my life, but it was the only time in my life I felt content, like I belonged. However, such passionate claims were best suited for later dates, and I never risked explaining it to my friends and family lest I fall into the rich-kid-misses-European-vacation stereotype. How can I complain when I’ve been so fortunate to have the opportunity in the first place?

I almost stayed. My trip only lasted a term – less than three months – and at the end of it, I wasn’t ready to leave. But my money ran out and the thought of being an illegal immigrant wasn’t a romantic one. And it was around Christmas and I missed my parents. I wanted to talk to them in person about how amazing of a trip I had. But after the holidays passed, that…feeling introduced itself. It started as just simple longing. Being homesick for a home I had had for only ten weeks.

Then there were the dreams.

I was back. Sometimes in my old dorm room, sometimes in a flat with Charlie, sometimes in a flat by myself. The dreams weren’t the same each time; the details were different, but I was back. And it wasn’t like I was reliving my earlier time there. No, my dream-self knew that I had left, but I had come back. I had finally come back. And each time, I would think: “I’m not leaving this time.”

I nearly cried when I woke up. It had felt so real, my passions amplified, my determination to return turned against me.

When the next dream came, I remember my dream-self thinking: “I’m not leaving this time,” and then, suddenly suspicious, wonder if this was real. Lucid dreaming has never worked for me. The moment I start to question the dream I…

I wake up. Okay. That one wasn’t so bad. It hurt, but I had thought of a way around it. It’s like Inception, right? I just have to doubt my surroundings.

This dream is like a virus. It keeps coming, and I keep fighting it off with the vaccine of reality. I’m starting to get the hang of it. They are hurting on a subconscious level, but I feel a little satisfaction that I’m not being tricked like I had been before.

Until that dream virus adapted and mutated.

I looked around. Oh my god. I’m going back. The plane ticket is booked. I’m leaving tonight. I should call Charlie, I should…

Wait. Is this real? This isn’t real. This is a dream. I’m going to wake up now.

Oh my god. I’m not waking up. This is actually happening. I’m going—

I did cry this time.

Then they stopped.

Life started moving quickly. Graduation was nearing and I didn’t have a job or a plan for life after school. Sleep became more difficult to find, so I started taking pills to help. Dreamless sleep. I moved back home to my childhood house with my parents. Started a serving job. Started a retail job. Started an overnight job. Applied and got rejected for “real” jobs. I didn’t need the pills anymore; pure exhaustion and depression knocked me out. I finally got my break. A real job, across the country. I was starting my career and moving out of my parents’ house at the same time. Win-win.

It’s been seven month since I started my new life. While my thoughts will drift during the day back to England, it never overcame me like before.

Until last night.

I had trouble falling asleep for some reason; seems like it always happens when I have to wake up early the next day. When I finally did, my dreams were surreal and unnatural, nothing that could be misinterpreted as reality.

My best friend, Bradley Cooper, and I were in a bookstore, celebrating my debut novel. I called out his name loudly to get his attention, immediately regretting my decision as people started to take notice he was there.

“Sorry,” I said.

“Don’t worry about it,” he said, smiling. “When are you leaving?”

“Tonight,” I said. “I don’t think I’ll be coming back this time. That reminds me, I need to call Charlie…”

Wait. Wait. I’ve said this before. I’ve thought this before. No, this is different. I looked at my hands, clinching them together so tight, I could feel my fingernails biting into my palms. I could feel the pain. This is real. This isn’t a dream. This is happening. I’m successful, I’m a writer, I’m going back to…

I didn’t cry when I awoke. Despite the pain and red marks in my palms, I laughed. A sleep-deprived, maniacal laugh.

It got me again. This virus. This disease. Of which, there is no cure.

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