Insomnia (A Short Story)

INSOMNIA

(Dedicated to the “Albatross”)

“Roland, what the hell is this?” Ethan is glowering. “I’ve got that SamCorp account meeting in fifteen minutes, and this is what you give me to work with?” He shakes the blue folder like it’s covered in bugs.

I snatch the folder from him. Inside is the report I’d printed out and slipped into Ethan’s inbox early this morning. My eyes blur as I looked over the numbers, lids as heavy as wood. “Give me a minute. I can fix it,” I say, turning to my computer.

“You’d better not screw this up.” He storms off. I take a huge gulp of double-caff coffee, my second one this morning, and get to work.

At lunchtime, I doze off mid-conversation and wake up to find that my coworkers have returned to their cubicles, and my girlfriend, Haley, has sent half a dozen angry texts, the last one canceling tonight’s dinner plans. Great. I toss my half-eaten meal into the trash and hurry back to my desk before Ethan notices I’m tardy.

Greg, my neighbor from two cubicles down, stops to say hi and catches me mid-yawn. “You’re not coming down with something, are you?” He frowns as I rub my bloodshot eyes.

I shake my head. “Just a little insomnia lately.” Understatement. Lately, I was lucky if I could get four straight hours of sleep in one night. Unisom stopped helping. Herbal remedies were useless. Meditation, white noise, no electronics before sleeping…I’d tried it all. And still, I lay awake in bed, my mind a carousel of thoughts.

Greg holds up a finger. “Say no more. Let me send you a link for this new sleep aid, called Doz-Z. My brother-in-law tried it, and now he sleeps like the dead.”

I snort. Sounds like a gimmick. A few minutes later, the link shows up in my inbox. I ignore it.

By the time I drag myself home that evening, I feel half dead. I heat up a carton of leftover Thai takeout, then wash it down with a glass of cheap pinot. Haley calls, and I’m all apologies and promises, so she agrees to go out with me this Friday night. At least, I think we said Friday. My brain feels so sluggish right now, I can’t really hold anything. We hang up, then I head off to bed.

My room is completely dark except for the dim blue glow of my alarm clock. 10:15. The minutes stretch on as I close my eyes, twisting one way, then another. Somewhere across my room, Alexa pumps out the soft, soothing sounds of rain and wind.

11:15. 12:15. 1:15.

Just after two o’clock, I’m sitting up in bed, laptop powered on. I open my work email and find the link Greg sent me. Click. Posted on the website is a photo of a guy snoozing in his bed, unlike me.

TRY DOZ-Z AND GET THE BEST SLEEP OF YOUR LIFE

Underneath this, there’s a bunch of stuff about the science behind the product, and potential side effects. I skim over this and look for the price.

30-DAY FREE TRIAL. GUARANTEED 8+ HOURS OF SLEEP EACH NIGHT.

It sounds way too good to be true. But I’m sleep-deprived and desperate. Before I can change my mind, I fill out the form and send it.

When I get home from work two nights later, someone rings the doorbell. “Roland Zabinski?” the guy asks. I nod, and he hands me a small package. I close the door and tear open the package. I’m not really sure what I’m expecting – pills, maybe? A powder you mix into a smoothie? Instead, I dig out a pair of button-like wireless earbuds and instructions on how to download and sync them with the Doz-z app. You’ve gotta be kidding me.

I get it all set up, press the earbuds into my ears, and sink into bed. “Activate sleep mode,” I say aloud.

“Welcome to Doz-Z,” a soothing female AI voice says. “Would you like to dream tonight?”

I blink into the dark. “Uh…yeah, sure,” I say.

“Okay,” she says. “Dream will begin in three, two, one…”

*

I’m searching everywhere. Around the car. Next to the house. Behind the big round bush at the edge of the lawn. Nothing. I’m heading back when she suddenly scrambles out from under the front porch. Before I can do anything, she pelts right in the face with a snowball.

“Hey!” I sputter, wiping away cold, wet snow. “Not fair!”

In a moment, her arms are around me. “What’s not fair? The part where I won?” She kisses me, her full lips warm against my frozen mouth. “Poor sport.” Her round eyes twinkle like dark ponds reflecting the moonlight.

I take the snowball I’ve been holding and stuff it down the back of her shirt. She yelps and leaps away. “Oh, that was dirty!” Her eyes are narrowed, but she’s still smiling. “You’re in trouble now, buster.”

“Oh, am I?” She’s giggling as I chase her across the lawn. When I catch her, my arms encircle her waist, and I pull us both to the ground. She’s dusted with snow, like powdered sugar, her face electric with joy. My heart does a backflip.

“Marry me, Marley.” I smooth back her hair with a gloved hand.

She stares at me intensely, trying to see if I mean it. “Yes,” she whispers. Then the world around me fades to gray and dissolves.

*

I bolt upright in bed, gasping. “What the hell was that?” I say aloud.

“Your dream has ended,” says the soothing AI voice. “You have slept for nine hours, thirty-two minutes.”

Nine hours? “Shit.” I dig the earbuds out and drop them on my nightstand. I’m late for work.

“You missed the meeting with marketing.” Ethan’s pissed.

“I know. God, I…had some car trouble.” Still a lame excuse, but sounds better than sleeping in. I work extra hard for the rest of the day to make up for it. I feel more focused than I have for a long time, except for brief moments when Marley’s face would swim across my thoughts. She was just a dream, I remind myself, shaking the thoughts away.

“Would you like to dream tonight?” asks the AI when I’ve settled into bed that night.

“Yeah.” I countdown with the voice. Three, two, one…

*

“I feel like a cow.” Marley pouts and rubs her swollen belly. “A big, fat cow.”

“You’re not fat.” I place my hands on her belly, too.

“I’ve got a name idea.”

“What now?” I cock an eyebrow, waiting. Marley’s ideas to name our first baby have ranged from terrible to atrocious so far.

“If it’s a girl, Leia.”

I groan. “Vetoed.”

“If it’s a boy, Han.”

“Why not Luke? At least Luke sounds normal.”

“Who wants a normal name? This baby is special, and deserves a special name.”

“I still like the name Catherine, after my grandmother.”

Marley gasps, her eyes wide. “Did you feel that?” We both stand very still. Then I feel it. A thump from somewhere inside her belly. The baby – our baby, is kicking.

“See?” I say. “She likes the name, too.”

*

I’m late for work again. This time, Ethan doesn’t notice, but I know I need to figure out how to wake up on time. Maybe the app has an alarm feature.

“Your free trial has ended,” says the AI when I lie in bed two nights later. “If you commit now to the one-year plan, your credit card will be charged. Shall I proceed?”

I think of Marley and our daughter, Catherine, waiting for me at home. Our dream home. My dream family.

“Yes,” I say.

Each night, I hurry home from work, eager to fall into dream mode. And each morning, I reluctantly remove the Doz-Z earbuds and head to work.

“You seem more chipper lately,” Greg remarks one day. “Things going better with your girlfriend?”

Girlfriend? Oh, her. “Haley and I broke up.” I left out the part where she had accused me of cheating and said she never wanted to see me again. I mean, I technically was cheating, since I kind of have a wife and family, so I didn’t bother to correct her. “It’s that Doz-Z app,” I say. “It’s really helping me get some good sleep.”

“Glad to hear it. My brother liked it, too, but he had to quit. Too expensive.”

The truth is, I haven’t even looked to see how much the service is costing me. When I get home, I call the credit card company for recent transactions, and learn that my payment in the amount of $10,000 was declined.

$10,000! My head is spinning. I was expecting maybe a couple hundred. There’s no way I can afford to continue using the app. But Marley, and Catherine…

*

That night, Marley and I take Catherine to the beach. It’s her first time seeing the ocean, and she squeals in delight as the waves wash against her pudgy toes.

“Build a castle, Daddy!” Catherine holds out her pink pail and shovel. I kneel in the damp sand and begin to dig as Catherine dances around me. The sun is warm on my bare shoulders, and the air is fresh and salty. I glance back at Marley, who waves from her beach chair, her free hand resting on her belly. She is pregnant again.

“There!” Catherine places a sand dollar on top of the mushy castle I’ve built. “That’s the princess who lives there.”

“Princess Catherine,” I say.

*

It’s becoming harder to wake up from the dreams. “Ten more minutes,” I murmur to the AI. Ten minutes becomes thirty, then grows to an extra hour of sleep. I creep into work later and later each morning, often unshaven, wearing wrinkled clothes from the day before. It was just a matter of time before Ethan calls me into his office, expression grim.

“I need employees who take their jobs seriously,” he says. Security walks me out of the building. I head home, clutching a cardboard box filled with my belongings.

“Would you like to dream?” asks the AI.

“Yes.”

*

Catherine is growing. She curls in my lap as I read her stories and stroke her soft curls until she falls asleep. Then I join Marley as she places baby Luke in his crib.

“Our almost perfect family,” she says as we gaze down on our son.

“Almost perfect?”

She sighs. “We’re missing one important piece.”

I kiss her forehead. Catherine and Luke. The perfect house. The perfect wife. What could possibly be missing?

The next day, Marley shows up with a squirming bundle in her arms.

“A puppy!” Catherine is ecstatic. She reaches up to pet its silky brown fur.

“I have a few name ideas,” Marley says with a mischievous grin.

I groan. “Oh great.”

*

The Doz-Z bill arrives in the mail. We were unable to charge your credit card. Payment is due immediately.

I toss the bill on the growing pile of unopened mail, wolf down a piece of burnt toast, then return to bed.

*

Catherine plays her first soccer game. She runs up and down the field in her adorable blue uniform, ponytails bouncing.

“Go, Blue Lightning!” Luke and I cheer, though he says it more like B-you Yighting. Aladdin, who is now a fully grown lab, barks and tugs at his leash, eager to join the game.

Marley laughs and pats his head. “Not this time, you scamp.”

*

“I’m sorry, Roland. I am unable to activate sleep mode until your balance has been paid in full.” The AI’s soothing voice only irritates me further. “Would you like to hear your options?”

“Come on,” I beg. “I’m going to miss Luke’s birthday party. We’re taking him to Bounceworld, and Marley baked his favorite cake.”

The AI doesn’t answer.

“Activate sleep mode,” I say again through gritted teeth.

“I’m sorry, Roland,” the AI starts again. I let out a frustrated grunt and pound the bed with my fist. “Would you like to hear your options?”

“Yeah. Fine.”

“You may pay your balance in full right now.” Out of the question. My credit card is maxed, and I haven’t made a payment in over a month.

“If you are unable to pay, but would like to continue using Doz-Z, then you can commit to six months of service as a Doz-Z staff member.”

“Staff member? Is this a job offer?”

“Yes. I can send Doz-Z agents to collect you tonight, and you can begin your service immediately.”

I think of the stack of unpaid bills covering my dining table. I think of the 72-hour warning from the electric company. I think of Catherine, who just lost her front tooth, and Luke, who started Kindergarten last week. I think of holding Marley in my arms, the sweet fragrance of her scented shower gel, her round, chocolate-brown eyes looking back at me with so much love. I can’t abandon them. They are my life.

The Doz-Z agents arrive two hours later. They take me to the corporate building and show me to my desk. “Look over these numbers and have a report ready for me by 10AM sharp,” says the new Ethan, a stern-faced woman with graying hair pulled into a severe bun. I turn to my computer and get to work.

Hours later, they release me, and I take the elevator down to the dormitory, where I share a room with half a dozen other staff members. No one speaks as we change into matching pajamas and climb into our cots. One by one, we all insert a pair of Doz-Z earbuds into our ears and say, “Activate sleep mode.”

“Would you like to dream tonight?” asks the soothing voice of the AI.

“Yes,” I say.

“Dream beginning in three, two, one…”

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