Friday, August 4, 2023

"Have you been having trouble with your sleep?"

It's late. 11 PM says the clock. I'm hungry. Dinner hasn't happened yet. I wonder why not. Surely I would've heated something up by this point. I look down. A whole pie. Shop-brought, serves four. Meat. Not lamb or beef, just "meat". Still frozen in the middle. Charring around the outside. A whole pie, uncut. I look over. Another pie. The same deal, ice-ring leaking out onto the table. I look up. "Hey dad, what hap-" I start.

It's late. I'm hungry. Dinner hasn't happened yet. I look down. A whole pie. Meat. Lukewarm, fully defrosted into the table. "Hey dad," I start, and abort as my brain starts to tickle. "Thanks for making dinner".

Teeth, brushed, a concession to a shower untaken. 8 AM says the clock, already late for work. I should've taken that shower last night, my feet must have been filthy since the sheets are wrecked. The hell did I tread in last night? I don't even remember taking off my shoes. I don't even remember getting into bed. I'm so tired after work every day, I just crash.

Off to work. Late again, but not enough that anyone really cares. Home again. I should cook something tonight, it's not fair for dad to cook for the three of us every-

It's late. Almost 10 PM says the clock. Meat pie again, huge great slabs fully defrosted on the table. I look up at dad, then at the clock behind him. Something squiggles, ricochets in my head. A question I asked a little while ago. Yesterday? A week ago? What day is it? 10 PM says the clock. "Hey dad-"

It's late. Half past 10, says the clock. I lock eyes with dad. God he looks tired. When did he get so old. I look back at the clock again. I can catch it in the act, I know I can. "Hey-"

A deep breath and unsettling numbness clawing up my ankles from bare white feet. Puddles everywhere, the sky full of grumbling thunderheads that threaten "there's more where that came from". I'm sat at a bus stop, but not the one I get to work. Some kind of light industrial area? The sun isn't setting, it's rising, a crappy dawn. I'm wearing two filthy sodden jackets, no shirt, pockets full of used bus tickets. A quick thankful prayer when I've still got my wallet—but no cash, and all the cards are gone. Phone has a tiny new scratch in one corner, and blinks a sad little "no battery" at me. The first drops of the second round of rain start to plink off the roof of the bus stop.

When I get home, there's no clock in the dining room. It's all I can do to call in sick and go back to bed.

The birds are chirping, the sun is shining, my head is turning inside out with how much of the world there is out there, and someone is tapping at my bedroom window. She's dressed like any of the desperate office workers I slum it with on the train, but she isn't one. I can smell the blonde hair-dye from here, it's shower on stuff, not a shop-job. Her eyes are masked with a pair of cheap sunglasses, new enough to still have a sticker on one arm, but I can still feel them looking into my bare bloodshots. Appraising me. She's got the exact same expression plumbers make before they tell you something expensive.

"Listen, I know it's a Saturday and- hell, this is weird for me, it's probably even weirder for you. My name is Ingrid and, maybe you could come out here and, no, this is fine, are you fine with talking through the window? I won't take more than a minute of your time, I just need to check something, if you don't mind, if it's too much bother I can come back tomorrow or or a workday or later today? It's just that-"

She breathes.

"Do you ever, I don't know how to put this exactly." but I know exactly what she's going to say. We've had this conversation before. "Do you ever find yourself in weird places, and you can't remember how you got there?"

It wasn't great before, and after my little experiment, it gets worse. Each morning is gritty thoughts like bad porridge, a shard of dust in each eyelid, cracking ankles and jawbreaking yawns. Each morning is a gut-deep weariness that sickens, key drop clumsiness, a coarseness to the daylight that wasn't there before. I wash the sheets every day now, but it doesn't change how often they end up stained with muddy bootprints. Sometimes I wake up with my shoes still on, even when I took them off before coming inside. I don't want to think about it.

Dad doesn't question it, he just looks on as I teeter. I don't know what's up with him, he's so listless and pathetic. I've got no idea what happened to make him this way, but his attitude is doing neither of us any good. I leave him to whatever his deal is, and deal with my own problems day by day.

Problem number one: the day.

I used to glide through each week, sliding off and around obstacles in my way. Once the sleepwalking started, I had to put in a little effort, trotting around or over the problems that plague any normal working life: hardware, software, wetware, warehouse, awareness, war and peace. But I dealt with them all, just like always.

Now I stagger and stumble at the first hurdle, to face-plant directly into the second. I can't tell if people have started to notice or not. Everyone is watching me, but I can never catch them staring. I put twice as much effort into covering up mistakes than would've been required to avoid the mistake in the first place. They constantly ask how I am, if I'm doing alright, if I need anything. Probing for weaknesses. I brush them off with a quip or two every time. They know. They know I'm lying. They make me feel so paranoid all the time, like I'm losing my mind.

It's not fair.

"Errands?" I look at dad like he's as mad as I feel. "What do you mean, going on errands? I've barely got enough time to get through work in the day and sleep. If you need me to do something just tell me and I'll, I'll get to it on the weekend. Which is- tomorrow. It's Friday already. Right. Tomorrow, errands."

He looks at me with that kicked puppy expression. Says something. And walks away. "What?" there must be something in my ear. The buzzing is back. "At night? Errands at night? Dad, what are you talking about?" but he pretends he doesn't hear me, then pretends we weren't talking just a second ago. I hate it when he does that.

My ceiling has more cracks on it than I remembered. My eyes are dry and feel like they've dry-stuck to the back of my skull. My room smells like batteries and manure. My bed has a box underneath it, a cardboard shoebox with a piece of newspaper limp across it. Was that meant to... hide it? I'm a naturally curious person by nature. No matter what, I would've opened the box. Or at least, tried to. It's Saturday, long past noon, I'd normally wake up around 9 AM. Half the day is gone, and there's a mysterious box reeking under my bed. I don't want to waste the rest of the day to [them] messing with my head. It's not worth it. I can see a loop of wire slipping out the end of the box. I won't try opening it. It's not worth it.

The next morning, the box is gone, but the stench of battery acid and fertiliser stays with me, along with a flicker of complicity. I make a point to not watch the news for a while.

It's becoming more obvious now. I'm sleepwalking out of the house and "doing errands" each night, back in time to track mud through my sheets and wake up in time for work. Sometimes [they] mess up, I can feel myself "fall asleep" while I'm still standing up, or if I just stand next to my bed for a few minutes. I wake up under the covers either way, neck cricked. All six pillows are on the floor next to me. [They] keep me busy, every night I'm off doing... something. Anything. Am I committing crimes in the dark? Just walking around? Spying on people? I don't know. I'm not sure if I want to know.

There's an old woman at the end of the street, standing under the only other working streetlight. My back aches from lugging all my bags home, my keys are in my hand, the front door is directly ahead of me. I should just go inside and be done with the day. But somehow, I stand and watch a while longer, watch myself being watched. I don't feel threatened, not particularly. Am I being creepy?

Eventually, my morbid curiosity gets the better of me. The salesperson at the tech shop looks thoroughly uncomfortable, but eventually sells me the tiny video camera after I mumble through some anecdote about racoons in the bins. It sits, nestled in the corner under some clothes. The insectile eye watches me while I get undressed. I feel exposed, even though the only person watching is myself from the future.

I strangle myself awake as the garbage truck crashes through the roof. That's what it sounds like, and my sweat soaked sheet has looped in just the most absurd way. The hiss-grumble of ancient hydraulics reverberates up my spine. Sunday. Right.

The spy camera is gone. Not under the clothes, the charger hanging flaccid from the wall socket. Not under the bed, need to clean under there, wow that's a lot of dust, reeks. Focus: camera. Not in my room. Not near the computer.

I sprint, pyjama-clad, out to the garbage truck, just as it starts to lift our wheelie bin.

I spend the rest of the morning apologising, explaining, getting odd looks, and whiffing faintly of garbage. The camera has been stomped to pieces, and the SD card has bent slightly. Reading the data directly off the card costs as much as the camera did. I'll just have to wait and see what I, or [they], was doing last night.

Three calls from my boss, two texts, one email. Five calls from my co-workers, and one text. One call and one email from the nice HR lady. I don't know what I've said, what I've done. It must've been bad. It must've been truly appalling, but not enough to get me arrested. I don't really want to know what [they] made me do, it's not worth losing—sleep over it.

My skin is so thin. Nicks and cuts have stopped clotting. Thoughts won't stop sticking. Every morning the shakes get worse, but I dread the day when the shakes stop. Some animal part of me knows what it'll mean when the jitters stop. The creature that looks out at me from the mirror is flinch-worthy, a hollow cheeked warning for the kids: stay in school, eat your veggies, get to bed on time, or you'll end up like that thing in the mirror, the horrible squirming hair like shredded worms, the bags under the eyes full of every bad mistake, the wobbling teeth, the itchy flaking skin on the back of one hand that has split and swelled and metamorphosed into a crimson splatter throbbing in time with my heart. But the physical symptoms are a delayed knee-jerk. I've felt as bad as I look for weeks now. The rot rises up from inside, as the outsides shut down bit by bit. Third wind is long exhausted, emergency stores depleted, cutbacks and quarantines have stretched and failed, last-ditch sacrifices have been tossed on the pyre to stave off the day. This day. Today. I'm not going to die today, but this is the last day before the point of no return.

After today, all that I've got left is waiting for the shakes to stop.

It's the old woman again, the one I saw staring down the street. Up close, she's fucking huge, seven feet tall at least, clad in some kind of robe that might be leather, might be matted fur. She looks down at me, but not down on me, with the most heartbreakingly pitiful expression. No, not pitiful, full of pity, not for her, but for me.

With what I'm about to tell you- you don't have to believe me. Hell, I wouldn't believe me if I said I met the goddess of sleep and booze in the street outside my house. But you don't have to believe me. I don't have to believe me. But just so we are all on the same page: I absolutely believed her.

She looks down upon me, my hands are open, and my eyes are sunken, and falling under her gaze. She speaks, and it's like blood-hot water rushing down my spine.

"A little man at a bar takes a shot, wishing to be loved by all his fellows, to be treated like a king, if just for an hour. I tell him "buy them all a round of drinks, and ask them what they do outside of work". He doesn't, and buys himself another drink instead. It's still a good idea though."

"My name is Obol Kana. Have you been having trouble with your sleep?"

Why the hell did I buy two frozen pies? What kind- meat. Just, meat? This is bizarre. I hate eating the same thing twice in one week. The house feels so empty. I should buy a clock. Some ticking might fill this silence. I could turn on the radio, but the thought of being talked to is, somehow sickening. The oven is running hot, it's not like me to preheat it and then forget. Whatever. I'm so tired after work, it's no wonder I forget these little things.

Yup. Just me, and a Meat pie, and the Silence, sitting around the dinner table.

Kana reaches out, holds the back of my head, touches two fingers to my forehead, and lets out a sigh (symbols and ancient chanting fill the sigh, but only for those that can read such signs, you don't need to worry about that sort of thing). I can feel my knees turning to lovely jelly, sliding me down gently onto the floorboards. Ingrid reaches for me, to try and prop me up and stop me slumping all the way to the ground. Kana holds her back, the two of them watch me topple like a tree in jello. My head touches down like a ship tapping the pier, eyes closing, soft darkness reaches out and wraps around my thoughts. Sleep, actual sleep. I'd forgotten entirely what falling asleep felt like, like forgetting water in the desert. I could be hung upside down from my ankles right now and I'd still be snoring.

Outside, the lights and sirens fire up.


The flashing lights pulse behind my eyes, echoing off the back of my skull.


The wail of the siren, air-raid, baby-cry, truck-horn, jackhammer. To call it ear-splitting doesn't do it justice.


"This is the Committee!" comes the megaphone from outside, another layer over the warning siren. "Open up or you will be fired upon!". Kana kneels down beside me, hands on both temples. I can feel her trying to draw back the spell, stop it from curdling like forgotten milk amidst the lights and sirens. She tries to pull it out, but my brain is like wrung-out tissue paper used to mop up a hundred spills from the months of Occult Sleepwalking: It's torn and ragged, wetted and dried out a hundred times, flimsy. And absorbent. I can feel the spell going fully awry, twisting down deep away from Kana's panicked patch-spell, RED BLACK RED BLACK RED BLACK, yelling from Ingrid to bar the door, they can't let them get Kana, screaming from the officers outside to open up, the sirens over and under everything, but I don't care, I can't care, I'm falling asleep.


The cold breeze wakes me up again, hours or seconds later. RED BLACK RED BLACK RED BLACK RED BLACK go the lights from outside. There was no way to hear the tinkling of breaking glass, but I can see the spreading corpse of the window refracting the flashing, turning it into strobed frozen blood on the floor. Thick black boots crunch down, equally silenced by the overwhelming noise. The assault rifle draws the eye, panning above my head. Kana must be standing behind me, and Ingrid too. The officer holding it is almost an afterthought, after the gun, who has a thought to spare on the grunt keeping it pointed? The officer is yelling something, but at this point the buzzing in my ears is louder than anything else in the universe.

I point two fingers at the officer by the window, thumb up. If I had a gun, I'd shoot them all. RED BLACK RED BLACK RED BLACK RED BLACK reflects off the insectoid helmet, absorbed by the slide of the officers assault rifle. I squint one bloodshot eye closed, take aim, flick my hand back, "bang" under my breath, sleep clawing back up my spine, months of being ridden by [them] slice back, something gently "pops" behind my open eye. The officer inhales, to yell again or to scream in agony, I'm not sure, and the back of his helmet bursts open like a pimple full of brains and eyeball. Fluids splatter the brown hanging curtains. The assault rifle clatters to the floor. It's lucky it had the safety on. Someone could've gotten hurt.