Estimated reading time — 15 minutes
I see his edges. They’re there, and apparent. But he doesn’t notice them. He turns his head, and I look away before he sees me.
Riding the bus is always so hard. But with my car in the shop, it’s the only way to get around. It’s not even a real “bus”, but a big family van. It’s comfortable and cheap, but also brings you closer to them. Try as I might, I can’t look away. It’s just all so obvious, but no one seems to notice. Or if they do, they don’t let anyone know. It’s like we’re all playing this big pretend game.
I wonder what would happen if it fell apart.
I push the thought from my mind, and look out the window, concentrating on the view. We approach my stop, and I get off.
* * * * * *
When your sleep cycle is disturbed, even a little bit, things get strange.
It starts off small enough. You’re groggy. You stumble a bit. Thoughts and feelings seem misplaced.
Nothing serious. Nothing you can’t cure with a pill and caffeine.
But the problem can get worse. And when it does, no amount of coffee or medication is going to help.
Twenty-four hours without sleep is tantamount to being shitfaced. Your motor skills are gone. Everything moment is fleeting, bleeding into a continuous hour. Nothing is what it seems. Holding on to a thought is like grabbing onto a tree root when you’re neck-deep in a river.
Forty-eight hours without sleep, you can’t stand. Not without constant assistance. Operating a car, or anything other than a recliner, is a bad idea. Some begin to hallucinate. Exhaustion takes most by this point. They’ll be walking, and then collapse. Unconscious, and blissfully asleep.
Seventy-two hours without at least a few hours of sleep can kill you. You can’t go anywhere, or do anything. Because you can’t think. And because you can’t think, you can’t feel enough to care about anything. Except sleep. It becomes an obsession. Your body craves it, and begins shutting down most non-vital mental functions. With all cohesion gone, basic communication ceases. Most people can’t even lift their heads from the pillow.
You become trapped, a prisoner of your own basic needs.
The hallucinations at this point are different for every person. Sometimes they persist. Even after you’ve finally rested. Even after you’ve talked to someone about them. And yes, even after you’ve convinced yourself they’re not real. Because, try as you might, there’s lingering doubt. That doubt rests upon your chest as you sleep. Its toes dig into your chest. Its mouth mutters madness. Or so it seems, until you begin to listen.
* * * * * *
The sleeping pills my doctor gave me didn’t work. They never did. After the first month, I just stopped taking them. There wasn’t any point. I tried a couple of other remedies. The same old folk-medicine shit your friends tell you to do. Warm milk. Honeycomb. I tried over the counter supplements. I tried yoga, meditation and all that new-age crap.
But only one thing did the trick. It didn’t cure me. But it took the shakes away. It smoothed the edges on other people. And my own.
Frank’s house was just up the hill from the bus stop. Frank was 40 years old, with a potbelly and constant salt-and-pepper stubble. He smelled like sour beer and was always smoking horrid cigarettes. But he was a nice guy, and always had a good story to tell. He looked like what every D.A.R.E ad told you a drug dealer looked like. But he made you feel like his grandkid.
You could buy weed from worse people.
It was after 5 PM, so he was definitely home. And drunk. But that was fine. It just made this errand even shorter. I walked up the same cracked driveway Frank hadn’t fixed since I was in high school. I used the knock he told me to use the first time I visited.
I heard him stumbling to the door, cursing and sputtering. Yep. Definitely drunk.
Frank opened the door, face red as a fire truck. He gripped a beer and the door with one hand, with a joint in the other. A huge smile cut across his face, which I returned with my own.
“Hey, kid! How the fuck are ya?”
I laughed, and said, “Pretty good, man. Looks like you’re having a party.”
“Hell yeah, I am! Just me and the coon, and a case of beer. Hey, you want to come in? I promise I won’t card you for a can.” Frank laughed, and gave me a grimy wink. He told this joke every time he was drunk, which was every time I saw him. It still made me laugh. His inflection, coupled with his staggering happiness, made it a fresh delivery.
“Hell yeah, man. I’m still having trouble sleeping. You got any medicine?” I said, stepping in the door.
At this, Frank laughed, long and hard. He laughed so much his beer spilled all over the place, and he started coughing. He set the beer on a nearby table, gripping it for support.
“C’mon Frank, don’t have a heart attack. That’d be a fucked up thing to tell the paramedics.”
He stopped for a minute, tears almost in his eyes. “Tell ‘em what?” he said, sweat breaking out on his head.
I smirked, holding up my hand like a phone. “Hello, operator? My drug dealer just geeked on me. Come get him. It’s the house that smells like skunk. You can’t miss it.”
At this, Frank laughed so hard, I really did think he was going to die.
* * * * * *
It’s a couple of beers later, and Frank his sitting in his recliner. His coon dog-an old Blue-tick- is sitting with its head in his lap. Frank’s got a smile on his face, and is rubbing the dog’s ears like it’s his kid. I’m sitting on the couch, downing the last can in the case. I toss it on the table, burp and look at Frank.
“Well, fuck me, man. We drank all your beer.”
Frank gives a warm smile. “Yeah, I guess we did, eh?” He laughs, patting his mutt on the head. “But that’s okay. It’s always better to drink with company. Even if they’re a customer, too.”
I nod, ears perking up, and say “That it is. So, business?”
Frank pushes the dog away, wiping his hands on his shirt. He gives a single nod, and says “Business indeed.”
He goes to the other end of the room, where a few garbage bags lay. He pushes them aside, and peels back a section of carpet. Then he grips a board, and pulls it up, putting it to the side. Frank pulls out a Nike shoebox, and walks back, placing it on the table.
“So, do you want more of the shit you had last time? Or do you want to try something new?”
I pause and think. “That stuff works pretty well. Puts me to sleep, for sure. But there’s a problem.”
Frank drops the smile, and looks concerned. While I’m not his best customer, I’m still a customer. And his friend, to boot. “Problem with my shit? Say it ain’t so, kid.”
I give a shrug and look at him. I say, “You tried it, right?”
Frank nods, raising an eyebrow. He says, “I try everything that comes through. You know that. Gotta make sure I’m not selling shit to people.” He smirks then, and says “Besides, that’s half the fun of what I do! Free samples!”
I nod. I’ve no reason to believe he’s lying, so I decide to tell him the truth. I rub my palms together and say, “So… nobody complains about… seeing things? Nightmares, anything like that?”
Frank starts laughing again, his potbelly shaking. He says, “I mean, fuck man. Every smoker sees something from time to time. As for the nightmares, well… this shit’s supposed to put you to sleep. Can’t attest to the rest, but haven’t heard any complaints. Just you and old farts wanting to rest use it. No offense.”
It’s my turn to laugh.
“Frank, it’d take a lot more than that to piss me off. But you’re sure? No complaints? Nobody flipping out hard or anything?”
Frank raises three fingers to his brow, giving me a goofy salute. “Swear on my old boy-scout credo!” he says.
I nod and smile. I reach into my jeans, and pull out my wallet. I tug out a few twenties, and hand them over to him.
“Gimme a dime, keep the rest as a tip.”
Frank smiles, palms the money, bags everything up.
* * * * * *
I didn’t know where Frank got his weed. I didn’t need to know, and didn’t care. My only concern was that it worked. A long drag with a slow, building hit that cradled your brain. Then it put you to bed, and tucked the world away.
Except for the last few months.
My doctor had warned me about trying narcotics. He said that it wouldn’t start my sleep cycle. It would just make me more exhausted than I already was. In the long run, he said, it could even build to a dependency. Then I’d be back where I was.
I asked him if he had ever had trouble sleeping in his entire life.
He didn’t know what to say at first. But then admitted that, no, he’d never had a problem. Got a full 7-8 hours a night. After that, I realized my doctor was probably full of shit. But I played along with him anyway.
People who get rest, they never understand. They don’t get the lengths you’ll go. They still think it’s as easy as closing your eyes, and slipping away.
Frank’s weed allowed me to do that. Slip away from here. Slip away from a failing body, and an alien world. At least, it did at first. But the last few months had gone strange. I figured it was my bodybuilding tolerance, so I stopped for a few weeks. I slept a total of 14 hours over as many days. When I started smoking again, the effects lingered into my dreams. I’d never had vivid highs. I’d never had visions. But something had changed with the smoke, or with me.
Sometimes, when I woke up, I couldn’t tell if I was still dreaming. It all seemed like a dream within a dream, which happened a few times. It was as I was attending a masquerade ball as myself. Everyone had their parts and lines, and did them well. But around the corner of my vision, I could catch them smirking and nudging. Laughing. Waiting for the reveal.
Look at us. We fooled the new kid. We’re so clever.
That’s the one thing I never told my doctor. That’s something I never told Frank, either. And even though it could all come crashing down in moments, I rolled a joint and lit up.
The hit was familiar, creeping and warm. My brain wrapped itself in a dense fog. I trudged my way to my bed, throwing my body down upon it. I didn’t even kick my shoes off before I blacked out.
* * * * * *
It was, without a doubt, the best sleep I’d had in months.
When I awoke, I didn’t feel tired. I didn’t have a headache. Nor did I feel any of the familiar pangs. I felt good. Rested. I smiled and rose from the bed.
I looked at my alarm clock. Not that it was going to go off-it was the weekend. But just to see how long I’d been out. I counted down the numbers.
Eight hours. A full eight hours, with no nightmares. I couldn’t remember the last time that happened.
I walked down the hall, into the kitchen. My stomach was rumbling. Weed munchies made me ravenous. Shoving anything down my throat would suffice, but I wanted to celebrate. Eight hours. I hoped it became a regular thing.
I pulled out a pan and greased it. I turned on the heat and grabbed some hash rounds and eggs from the fridge. Breakfast for dinner was my favorite.
I scarfed it down, and then put the dishes in the sink. I opened my fridge, putting everything back, grabbing the orange juice carton. It was a day old, but I didn’t care. I tipped it up and drank it down in a single gulp.
Now full, I waddled into the living room. I sat on the couch, grabbed the remote, and turned on the TV.
Salt-and-pepper filled the screen. I flipped through the settings, but to no avail. I got up with a curse and walked across the room. I checked the cables, but every one of them was snug. Fine. I turned off the unit. I grabbed my phone, and decided to see if anyone was up.
Being an insomniac means making friends with night owls. They’re night-timers for a reason, too. And the reason is never good. But everyone needs a friend, so you get to know these people. You embrace them, and learn their role in the great game surrounding you. All because sometimes, you just need to talk to someone, and you don’t care who.
I spent an hour hitting people up. Through texts, through social networks. Nothing. Not a single person responded. This wasn’t unusual. And, despite the fears tugging on my brain, I knew it could happen. I almost believed that, but then I noticed something strange.
Every status update, every tweet or big-brother feeding share, stopped after 7 PM. Right after I’d smoked and went to bed. I refreshed the pages, but nothing changed.
Weird, but not without plausible explanations. All of which I was too tired to entertain at the moment. Boredom was a much more immediate concern. I decided to stalk the streets for a bit. Even random strangers were better than an empty room. I grabbed my coat, and told myself I’d be back within an hour.
It was three in the morning. It’s not like I’d just stumble into someone and start talking to them.
* * * * * *
The wind whipped my hood, howling down the street. Then it died, just a moment later. Fleeting. Brief. It was an odd thing, but all things felt strange at this hour. When you can’t sleep – and haven’t for a while – things go topsy-turvy. The absurd becomes acceptable. You cease caring about how strange things are, because you lack the energy to observe them.
Except for the important things. Those become the center of your attention, a momentary roaring obsession. Then, they’re gone. The passion dies, brief and fleeting.
I snapped back into reality. I didn’t know how long I’d been staring at nothing. I shook my head and started walking down the street, casting one last glance over my shoulder.
Save for the lamps and shadows, the street was empty. Even the derelicts had tucked in. The city had gone to rest. Even the familiar dirge of ambulances and cop cars had died off. The only sound was the soles of my sneakers scuffing across the walk. I was alone.
Then, up ahead – a back, shoulders, a head upon them. Someone else was out. They stood, hands in their pockets, facing the street. Though their features were concealed, it was a person. Someone I could speak with. That’s all that mattered.
I weighed the chances of them being a drug dealer. Or a bum. Or worse. And yet, my feet still pushed me forward. Our distance closed. A yard away, I cleared my throat and said, “Nice night, ain’t it?”
The stranger didn’t turn. They didn’t move an inch. They just stayed there, facing the street. Staring into the shadows. I walked a bit closer, but stayed back. I counted the number of blocks back to my apartment. If there was trouble, I could race back. Then again, maybe they just didn’t want to be bothered.
I pulled out a pack of cigarettes from my pocket. I flipped the top and pulled one out. I felt around for my lighter, and then realized I left it with my pipe. Back at the house. Several blocks away.
“Hey, um… do you have a lighter?”
I tapped them on the shoulder. “Hey, do you-”
The stranger fell face-forward, slamming into the pavement. I’d barely touched them. I was shocked, standing there, hand still poised. But as the adrenaline flooded my body, I noticed something. Something odder than the wind, or the feeling the hour gave.
The stranger had crumbled. Pieces lay scattered about, but it looked like a pot had been smashed. A life-size person pot. Complete with clothes and hair, which lay crumbled and wilted. There wasn’t any blood. They’d just fallen over, and broken into pieces. Just like that.
I stood there, hand quivering, cig still on my lips. Then I heard the scuffling of feet behind me.
A hand gripped my shoulder and wheeled me around. The hand (and scuffling feet) belonged to an older man. He was wearing a baby blue uniform, complete with a hat. Beneath the brim, a few white hairs told of more. He didn’t look happy. He didn’t look happy at all. And as I stood there, gripping a cigarette, I began to pray.
This was officially the weirdest high I’d ever had. Oh lord, I’d never smoke again. Ever.
The man’s grip tightened, and he wagged an index finger in my face. His face contorted in rage, and he spat words so hard spittle flew.
“Just what the hell do you think you’re doing? YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO BE ASLEEP!”
* * * * * *
He made me sweep it up. Not just that one, either. Dozens of them all over the city. And the entire time, I’m too afraid to question him. Too afraid to talk to him. I just push the broom. I move the piles of people-shaped bits into a dustpan. Then I empty them into this bag he’s brought along. And I don’t dare ask questions. Not because I don’t want to, but because I’m trying not to think.
This is a hallucination. At this very moment I’m writhing on my couch, or in an alleyway. Frank sold me bad weed. None of this is real. It’s not important. None of this is.
It’s around the tenth pile when he looks me straight in the eye. He just stands there, staring. He picks his cap up, scratches his brow and lets out a sigh.
“You’ve been on the fritz a lot. They all have.”
I don’t know what to say to him. He sighs again, shaking his head and starts walking. I do my best to keep up.
“I told them your model was wrong. That it was unneeded. That you’d just cause problems. But noooo, nobody wants to believe the maintenance guy.”
He points to a pile. I move over and begin sweeping. Like the other piles, I catch fractures of who-or what-this was. A single shard-the iris of an eye-reflects in the moonlight. I stifle a gag and sweep it into the dustpan, beneath the rest. The man just stands there, watching me.
I walk over, ready to empty the dustpan, and he says “See, these disposables? No problems. No matter what kind of shit you throw at them, or they throw at themselves. But you? Everything’s long-term. And that’s what’s really horrible about your kind.”
I nod and empty the pan.
We do another eleven piles. After the last one, he smiles and adjusts his hat. I hadn’t noticed until now, but he looked like the Maytag Man.
He claps his hands together, and smiles. “Great! Clean up is finished!”
Holding the broom and pan, I force my jaw to move.
“Can… can I go home now? Please. I just want to go home.”
The man nods. “Sure, absolutely,” he says, knocking dust off his knees, “but only after you help with the restock. Then we’re done, and you can go home. And hopefully, not remember any of this.”
I rest my hands at my side, still clutching the broom. For a moment, I think about hitting him with it. I imagine his head exploding into shards of dust and clay. My hand grips the broom tighter, and he says “Don’t do that. Don’t even think about it. I promise you, it’s a bad idea.”
My entire body goes cold, and an unsettling feeling sinks into my bowels. “Do what?” I ask, feigning innocence.
He smirks. Wagging a finger, he walked towards an intersection. I followed.
* * * * * *
“Restocking” was even odder than clean up. And all the while, I just did as I was told.
He’d known I’d wanted to hit him. He knew the moment I thought about it. This had to be a dream. Any other explanation was inconceivable and terrifying. I kept my mouth shut. I “restocked”. And didn’t dare think about anything.
“Restocking” involved going to an old, battered truck. We opened up the double doors in the back. Then, very carefully, we carried bodies out. Firm, rigid bodies. Lifelike and warm. But unmoving, at least for the moment.
We went back to where we’d swept. We placed a body upright at each location. Then, the body came to life. It went about its business, as though they’d momentarily forgotten what it was doing. The “maintenance man” would pull out a clipboard, and make a note. Then we’d move on to the next location.
Not even once did any of the bodies-people, for all purposes-notice us.
We arrived at the corner. The last body, the one I’d knocked over. We pulled a body out of the truck and positioned it. It faced out, towards the street. Hands tucked in its pockets. Like nothing happened.
The maintenance man smiled. He clasped my shoulder again, and said, “All done. All better. Ready to go home? My shift is over. I’ll walk with you.”
I nodded, and we turned, walking the blocks back to my house. I dared to speak again then, but only later did I realize I’d asked the wrong questions.
“Who are you?”
The man looked at me, smirking. “Oh, you know,” he said, adjusting his hat, “I’m just the repair guy. I do touch-ups. Cleanups. Restocking. Nobody important.”
We walked in silence. As we neared my house, I stopped and said, “This isn’t real, is it? I’m dreaming. I’ve got to be.”
The man stopped, looking me in the eye. Then he reached out, grabbing me by the shoulders. He studied my face for a moment, thinking of what to say. He gave a slow nod, and said “Yeah, kid. It’s all a dream. So go back inside, and go back to bed. Okay?”
I bit my lip. “Okay, I will.”
As I ascended the steps, I heard him cry, “Hey, kid!”
I turned, looking down the steps at him. He stood still, hands tucked in his pockets.
“Just ignore the seams. If you do, you’ll sleep better. And you won’t have this dream again. And, even better… you’ll save me a lot of paperwork. Okay?”
I nodded, turned my door handle, and went inside.
* * * * * *
I come home one day, and my phone is blinking green. I’d left it here on accident, but only had one call. From Frank, of all people. It’d been months since I’d talked to him. I call up him and chat a few minutes. I tell him I’ve found a solution to my sleeping problems. Then, quite bluntly, I tell him I’ve quit smoking. He sounds hurt, but tells me to come over. He’s got a case of beer he wants downed. I smile and tell him I’ll be there this weekend.
I wasn’t lying to Frank. Nor was I lying when I told my Doctor I no longer needed my prescription filled. I’d slept great the last few weeks. I’d gone back to feeling normal. Not on the fritz, not anymore.
I didn’t pay attention to the small things. Like the empty Juice carton and greasy pan the morning after. But I stopped caring about the important things, too. I took a book with me whenever I rode the bus. I stood far enough away from people that I couldn’t see their every detail.
Especially their seams. After a while, I convinced myself the seams were never there. That it was all a fancy, the by-product of being over-stressed. The few times I thought I saw something, I didn’t sleep. I’d toss and turn in bed for hours. Then, after I’d given up, I’d grab my coat. I’d step outside, and I’d sit on the stoop.
From there, I’d sit and wait. I didn’t care how long it took. It was all worth it, just to be sure. Just for a solitary glimpse of that baby blue uniform.
But, as with all good repairmen, he evaded me. His work went unnoticed, but all things in the city kept moving. Every “model” went about its work. And nobody ever stopped to think. Nobody dared to dream of what would happen if it all just stopped. If they saw the seams, and at last, it all just broke down.
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