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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ZELLA (A Short Story)

When one is born with the gift of storytelling, one’s purpose is to offer those stories as gifts to the world. I hope that you enjoy this gift.



ZELLA

It took exactly seven minutes for me to figure out that there was something seriously wrong with Lake Vista High School. It took me just two more to figure out that it had something to do with Zella Marks.

 I don’t mean wrong like street gangs or drug problems (though I did wonder for a while there). I mean horror movie wrong. Buffy the Vampire Slayer hell-mouth wrong. It had all seemed normal for a moment. Familiar. The strips of lawn surrounding long, low stucco buildings. The clusters of students standing around, chatting in the corridors before school, dressed in the usual department store jeans and sweaters. The boring, cookie-cutter classroom that didn’t look any different from my math class back home.

 Home. I had to stop thinking of Rocklin as home. Lake Vista was home now, thanks to my parents, who thought it would be better, healthier for my younger brother, Jack, and me to grow up in a small town.

 “Smell that fresh air!” Dad had said when we arrived at or new house – a sprawling ranch-style with a sprawling yard that was big enough for horses, but would never have horses, thanks to Jack’s pet allergies. We all took a deep sniff of the clean, fresh air that smelled like the lilac bushes next to our new house, and vaguely of cows. Jack broke into a fit of sneezing. Dad cut down the lilac bushes the next day.

 “Welcome to Lake Vista, Sadie,” said Mr. Gordon, my first period teacher. “You may take your seat right behind Cassidy Price.” He pointed to a girl in the second row, who grinned at me as I slid into my seat.

 “You’ll like it here,” Cassidy said. “We all do. I can show you around at lunchtime, if you want, and introduce you to some – oh!” She had been grinning the whole time she was talking, but now, her face fell as her eyes flickered down to my clothes. I glanced down, too, certain that I must have a huge stain on my shirt or something. She dropped her voice to a whisper. “You’re not wearing any blue.”

 “So?” I had picked out a pair of black jeans and a plain, olive green t-shirt. Clasped around my neck was a slender gold chain, from which dangled a tiny heart-shaped pendant. My dad had given me the necklace when I turned sixteen, and I’d worn it every day since.

 “But we’re supposed to wear blue.” Her eyes were round. “Where’s your blue?”

 I blinked. “What is this – Smurf Day?” I looked around the room. That’s when I noticed that everyone was wearing something blue. Blue jeans, blue baseball caps, blue flannel shirts. One girl even had blue streaks dyed in her hair. It would have made sense if Lake Vista’s school color was blue instead of green and gold.

 The bell rang, and everyone fell silent, eyes facing the front of the room. Mr. Gordon made no move to start class. He stared back at the class, occasionally reaching up to tug on his blue necktie. I was tempted to raise my hand and ask what we were supposed to be waiting for, but just then classroom door swung open.

 “Hell-o-o!” A girl sang out. She strode to the front of the classroom, her blue corduroy pants rubbing together with each step. “Ooh, I love all these blue clothes! It’s like swimming in the ocean.”

 “I like your clothes, too, Zella.” A boy with blonde curls gazed up at the girl with a fawning expression.

 “Aww, Prentice, you are so sweet.” Zella ruffled the boy’s hair like she was petting a loyal dog. “Mr. Gordon, I think we’re ready to begin,” she said. As she turned back toward the rest of us, I leaned forward, wondering just how math classes in Lake Vista began their day. I was expecting Zella to rattle off some dull announcements, or maybe to lead us in the Pledge of Allegiance.

 What I did not expect was for the entire blue-clad sea of students to burst into song. Especially the chorus of an old Michael Jackson song, Heal the World. As they serenaded, Zella swayed from side to side, hands lifted high in the air. My mouth hung open as I watched the spectacle. Nope, I definitely wasn’t in Rocklin anymore.

 As the song ended, Zella spotted me. “Hi there, new girl,” she said, bending over and totally invading my personal space. Her breath smelled like peppermint gum. “Where’s your blue?”

 I shifted away. “Umm…guess I didn’t get the memo.”

 “Oh, you’re funny!” She laughed – a way too loud, guffawing type of laugh. “Listen, here in my school, everyone wears blue.”

 I snorted. Was she kidding? “Why, is it the law?”

 Her eyes bore into mine. “It is because I will it so. Starting tomorrow, you will wear blue. Every. Day.”

 I could feel a pool of anger ooze toward the surface, like lava. I didn’t care for people giving me orders. “Look,” I said, my voice like steel, “It’s obvious that you’ve got some kind of god complex. But I’m not one of your little worshippers.”

 A slow smile spread across her face. “Not yet.”

 The rest of the day was just as weird. It was like the entire school was a Zella Marks fangirl, decked out in blue clothing, following her around like the paparazzi. It would seem more normal if she fit the typical mold of cute popular girl. But cute was not the word to describe Zella. Her face was too horsey, her chin too sparse, her eyes too small and beady to resemble anyone’s standard of beauty. Her sense of fashion was Walmart chic, at best. So what was this bizarre hold she had over everyone?

 The answer occurred to me in the middle of lunch. Cassidy had abandoned me as I was now on the Great Zella’s hate list, so I was sitting alone at one of the outdoor tables, watching a group of guys (and a couple of girls) flirting with Zella.

 “Please go out with me this Friday night,” said one of the boys in a pleading voice. “I’ve got tickets to an Imagine Dragons concert.”

 “Well, I will cook you a five course Italian dinner if you go out with me on Friday,” said another boy.

 I was too shocked to eat my lunch. It was like they had all been brainwashed. Or hypnotized. Or…or…I grasped at ideas. Enchanted. That had to be it. Zella Marks was a bona fide witch. It was a crazy theory, but it was the only thing that could explain all of this. Every single person at Lake Vista High School was spellbound. Except for me, of course.

 I’m not sure why Zella’s witchy ways didn’t work on me. But as the days ticked past, it became obvious that I was immune to whatever kept the others on her leash. I noticed with some satisfaction that my unwillingness to submit to her command caused her some frustration. Since she had no direct power over me, she used the rest of the student body to lash out toward me.

 “Freak,” kids would mutter as I passed in the halls. “Go back to where you came from.” They left nasty messages scrawled on my locker, shoved books out of my hands. My teachers were in on it, too, granting me grades much lower than I deserved, closing their ears when I contested.

 “Adjusting to a new school can be rough at first,” was all my parents would say. Just give it time.” It’s wasn’t like I could tell them my real theory about Zella Marks. They would have me in 72-hour psych evaluation faster than I could say the word witchcraft.

 I would have to get proof.

 That’s why, on a chilly Saturday night, I sneaked onto the Marks’ property. The moon shone full and round, lighting up the grassy field like a helicopter spotlight. I skirted through the shadows past the line of trees, around the edge of a pond, closer and closer to the small house. I wasn’t sure what I was hoping to find – Zella dancing around in the night, throwing toads and newts into a bubbling cauldron?

 A loud sound cut through the silence, and I jumped. But it was only a horse, nickering from a stable a few yards away. I let out my breath, weak with relief.

 Then a voice spoke from behind me. “I knew you would come, Sadie.”

 I whirled around, heart pounding in my throat. There stood Zella. She wasn’t wearing a peaked witch’s hat or carrying a broomstick or anything, but somehow she still looked scary in her too-tight jeans and shapeless t-shirt. Her expression was victorious, like she’d won a bet with someone that I would show up.

 “Now what?” I glared at her, fists clenched. “You drag me off to some ritualistic sacrifice?”

 She guffawed. “You have quite the imagination! I don’t need to sacrifice anybody. I just need you to fall in line.” She stepped closer as she spoke, until she was again invading my space bubble. The moon reflected off her eyes, until it was all I could see as I looked at her. “That’s a lovely necklace.” She reached out and fingered the tiny pendant. Stop! My mind was screaming. Don’t touch that!

 “No,” I said. But my voice was weak. The moon in her eyes grew larger, a bright, mesmerizing light.

“You want to give me that necklace,” she said. Her voice had changed. The words rolled over me like cool waves of water on a warm day. Give her the necklace. It felt so easy, so right to unclasp the chain from my neck and place it in Zella’s outstretched hand. It looked much prettier on her, I realized, as she flashed me a smile and sauntered toward the pond. Tomorrow, I should cut some fresh flowers from my family’s garden to place on her desk. Bluebells. She would like those.

Zella undressed, then began to split open at the seams. Her real skin was smooth and gray, and slick, like a dolphin. As she dove into the pond, flippers splashing against the black surface, I dreamed of Monday morning, and her pleased smile when I wore blue, as she willed it.