Insomnia bites deep, and her teeth are sharp. The edges of the world become blurred. Except the nights. The nights are deep and long, a fog of half-formed dreams and orange streetlights, noises that demand investigation and thirsts that water doesn’t quench. Prowling the house, keeping strange hours. But the only rewards for these hours are long and ill-made days, where words lack meaning and appetite.
John sat on the edge of the bed, rubbed a hand across his chest, tasted stickiness in his mouth. Glanced at the accusatory glow of the alarm clock. 00:00. Stood and walked to the hallway, feet silent on the soft carpet. The ritual. No one in the office. No one in the spare room. No one in the bathroom. Downstairs. No one in the living room. No one in the dining room – as if there ever was. No one in the kitchen. As if the emptiness could grant him sleep. Mr Sandman, he thought, bring me my dreams. He couldn’t remember anything else of the song, and squinted against the pool of harsh light the fridge spat out at him.
The lemonade was cool and sweet. Too sweet. He sighed with dissatisfaction and walked back upstairs, clutching the bottle to him. The empty, rumpled bed stretched like an unfriendly plain before him, and he regarded it with distrust. It wouldn’t grant him rest. But then, nothing did. He lay down anyway, and regarded the ceiling, watching the orange stripe of the streetlight sneaking through the curtains. Dawn stretched beyond reach, and he waited.
In the morning, the dimensions of his house were out of kilter. John brushed his teeth harshly, regretting the early morning lemonade in the fur on his teeth. His eyes felt gritty with the dirt of the night, and as he shaved the mirror betrayed him.
“Damn.” He dabbed at the blossom of scarlet blood, sighed and stuck a piece of toilet paper to it when it wouldn’t stop. He turned to go to the kitchen for coffee, bumped into the door painfully with his shoulder, and went downstairs feeling dizzy.
The coffee pot overflowed. The toast burned. He munched on it morosely, tasting carbon on his tongue despite having scraped the worst off into the bin. Which he’d knocked over. He felt like a thirteen year old again, barely in control of his limbs, unaware of the space they occupied. Now, standing, he moved carefully, clutching his plate and mug firmly, not trusting them not to throw themselves out of his grip onto the unforgiving tile. They remained passive, however, and he stacked them into the dishwasher, retrieved his overcoat from behind the door and stepped out into the dark frostiness of early morning.
The tube was crowded. Of course. He was carried in a crush of people and forced into the florid interior, smelling coffee, cigarette smoke and cologne. The gap looked large and hungry as he passed over it, and he almost stumbled, but the press of commuters held him upright. Inside, he waited, avoiding the eyes of those around him. He seemed lost in a carnival showhouse, leering faces vanishing just before he collided with them. He tried not to breathe too deep of the polluted air.
The buildings leaned over him threateningly as he scurried down the crowded sidewalks, watching the path of one slightly scuffed shoe after the other. There were coffee grounds on the hem of his trouser leg, he noted without surprise. He bumped and jostled people as he went along. It seemed impossible to find a clear path down the street in the suffocating morning. It was still dark, and cabs roared like dragons with horns and engines as they bullied their way through the crawling traffic.
Peace. John stepped through the doors of the old building, nodded pleasantly to the security guards, passed through the metal detector, knowing they were too polite to comment on the clotted nick on his chin and the bags under his eyes, but they would have seen both. Maybe even the coffee grounds, clinging like lice. Probably they thought he had been drinking. Maybe even doing drugs. Insomnia gave the same tinge of unreality to the world. He stepped into the elevator, ignoring the mirrors, scared of his own infinite reflection. He looked at the buttons instead, the softly glowing numerals counting their way upwards like the long hours of the night.
“Morning, Mr Knight.”
“Morning, Jean.” He moved through the room as if against heavy resistance. “Coffee, please.” The door to his office opened almost miraculously under his hand, and then he was inside, in the delicate hush of the dark walls and leather seats under the high windows. He put his briefcase down on the desk and sank into his chair. The door opened as he was shaking one of the pills into his hand. He barely looked up as Jean put the mug down – the comfortable, old chipped mug he favoured when he had no one else here.
“Would you like me to make an appointment with the doctor, sir?”
“No. Why?” He washed the pill down with a gulp of bitter coffee, aware as he did so that it would only sustain him for an hour or so.
“Because you have insomnia again, don’t you?” The older woman’s face was faded at the edges, and her hair surmounted her head like wings.
“Sleeping pills do nothing, Jean. I’ve tried them.” True insomnia bows to nothing. Pills are good for those suffering a few sleepless nights. Insomnia is a tidal wave that swallows all else. The pills only people the darkness with half-formed hallucinations and confusion, while the bedside clock sounds like a deathwatch beetle as it ticks through the midnight hours.
“Maybe you need to try another type.”
“It doesn’t work, Jean. I just have to wait for the crash.” And it couldn’t be long now, surely. The days had taken on the blue-tinged and unreal quality that always came before the body gave out and swamped the mind, and the sleep tasted of the simple unconsciousness of a child.
“It’s been going on a long time this time, though, sir.”
“Thank you, Jean.” He picked up the reports on his desk, shaking them out sharply, and he felt her sigh as she left the room. When the door notched closed behind her he replaced the papers and rubbed his painful eyes. The room swooped and blurred, and he downed the coffee.
00:00. He turned the softly glowing clock face-down on the bedside table and tried to find a more comfortable position. The house creaked and moaned, but it was an old house, prone to troubled conversation. Eventually he gave up the fight. Some nights it was easier to do so. Sleep was as distant as a foreign land. He padded from room to room, pulling an old sweatshirt on as he went, looking at the unaccustomed angles of the once familiar rooms with no real surprise. Downstairs, he boiled the kettle and found a herbal tea, switched on the tv and sprawled into the soft arms of a chair. There were music videos on – gyrating bodies that didn’t arouse him and pounding beats that sounded muffled and distant. He watched without interest.
The music videos had stopped. A new picture shimmered into view. John pinched the bridge of his nose and squinted at it. The man on the screen squinted back at him. He sat upright. So did the man on the screen, leaning forward in his comfortable chair. John waved. So did the man on his screen. John looked around involuntarily. Jesus, someone was taping him. He must have somehow switched onto the frequency they were broadcasting on. Mustn’t look like he realised. He sank back into the chair, regarding himself. The camera must be in the tv or nearby. He was looking straight at himself. He raised the remote to switch channels, and froze. The tv-John was getting up. He walked forward until his face filled the screen, and reached up, pushing a finger against it. John licked his lips. The tv-John was looking at him. He was sure of it. Tv-John pushed his finger harder against the screen, and then suddenly his hand was easing out into the room, familiar long fingers, with the scar that wrapped around one knuckle. John got up and left the room, walking upstairs to the bedroom. Too much coffee, too many pills. He lay down on his bed and heard the music videos come back on. There, you see? Just his errant mind messing with him. He closed his eyes and ignored whispers of movement as he waited for the dawn.
He got lost going to the bathroom. He stood on the threshold of the spare room, one hand going to his mouth in confusion. He turned and went through the bathroom door, finding himself in his own bedroom again, looking at the scattered sheets. He pivoted in the doorway carefully, looking across at the painting on the wall, which he didn’t remember buying. He turned to his left and took three quick steps. There it was, of course it was. He turned the shower on and stepped under the water while it was still cold, trying to shock himself awake. Through the water running over his face he could see himself in the corner of the mirror, as if he were watching himself drowning.
The coffee was in the wrong cupboard. So were the cups. He closed the doors gently and picked up his briefcase. He’d wait till he got to the office. Opening the door, he watched the outside world for a moment or two before venturing out. It was raining, but only lightly, so he didn’t bother with his umbrella, just turned the collar of his coat up and started striding for the tube station.
He looked up through the deepening drizzle, towards the familiar underground sign, and frowned slightly. It must be something to do with this rain, but the colours looked wrong. He looked away, feeling his cheek twitch, and clattered down the stairs, jostled by those around him. Another man slammed into him as he went through the stiles.
“Watch it.” Exhaustion made him irritable.
“Sorry mate. I didn’t see you there.” The other man looked at John with sudden confusion, and stepped back. “After you.”
John walked ahead without comment, and joined the mass on the edge of the platform, checking his watch and feeling his stomach rumble.
The tube hissed to a halt, doors sliding back as people shoved forward anxiously. John let himself be carried with them, as always, the jostling, sleep-blurred mass of humanity. For one instant he felt the familiar fear of not making it, of being wedged in the door as the train accelerated for the grasping tunnel walls, or worse, of vanishing through the gap into something that was more than just the gravel base of the tunnel and the electrified rails. Then he was inside, trying to make room for another man’s briefcase against his shins. Someone else’s elbow was in his face as they clung to the overhead rails, and he snarled at the claustrophobia of it all. Looking around the carriage, he could almost see the steam of simmering resentment rising off the commuters. Shadows moved behind carefully blank faces, like demons sliding behind glass. John looked away, unnerved, but they were everywhere, distorting features into picasso masks.
“Jesus,” he breathed, and the man whose elbow was in his face sent a glance of fury towards him. John closed his eyes and waited.
The tube disgorged him at his normal station, although he had to elbow his way out, afraid that at any moment the commuters might explode from behind their masks and descend on him. Outside the station, he gulped the cold, dirty air gratefully.
The rain had become even heavier, and he thought of catching a cab to his building. He took half a step towards the edge of the road, then turned away and started hurrying down the sidewalk. The thought of stepping inside one of the dragons filled him with horror, and what if one of the masked beasts were behind the wheel? Or it could be no one, and the dragon would merely swallow him. He kept walking, feeling the rain starting to force his hair flat against his skull.
He hesitated at the door, despite the shivers starting to run across his body from his wet hair. The gold plaques by the door were illegible. It must be the rain. He pushed through into the lobby finally, and stood shedding water on the mat. The security guards moved forward as one.
“Can we help you, sir?”
John glanced up, startled, from shaking off his coat. Unguarded for a moment, he saw monsters sliding through their eyes, and flinched.
“No, I’m fine.”
“Ah, who are you here to see?”
He scowled. “I’m wet, cold, and this isn’t funny in the least.”
The two guards exchanged confused glances, men trying to remember the name of a maiden aunt at a funeral.
“Mr Knight? You know, the one that pays your damn wages?”
“Ah.” The two men still looked uncomfortable, and eventually the older one spoke up.
“May I see your I.D. card, sir?”
“Your I.D. card, sir. It’s just a precaution.”
John stared at the two men he walked past every morning, every evening, most lunchtimes. And dug in his pocket for his wallet.
“Sorry, sir.” The security guard passed the card back. “It must be the rain.”
“Yeah.” He scowled at them and pushed his way into the elevator, leaving shoe-shaped puddles on the glossy floor.
He walked out of the elevator and into the reception area without meeting the eyes of his reflection.
“Sir? Are you alright?” Jean had risen to her feet in alarm.
“Well, you recognise me, at least.” He shed his coat irritably, running a hand over his hair.
“Of course I do.” But she sounded unsure. John felt the full weight of his tiredness, yoking him like a beast.
“Coffee, please, Jean.”
In his office bathroom, he dried his hair as well as he could, changed into a spare shirt. The reflection that looked back at him was gaunt and hollow-eyed, unfamiliar. His suit jacket was wet also, but he had no spare, and he walked into the office shivering. Jean stood next to his desk, wide legs anchoring her firmly.
“You need to go see a doctor.”
“You do not give the orders around here.” He met her eyes suddenly, relieved to see no aliens there. There was hurt, though. “I’m sorry, Jean. But I’m too tired to deal with this.”
“Will you at least go home for the day, then?” She frowned at him. “You’re shivering, and you look terrible.”
“I have work to do.” He sat down in the chair, running his hand through his damp hair.
“You’re in no condition.” The woman didn’t move from his desk, and he slammed his hands down irritably.
“Dammit, Jean – “
“You’re barely even recognisable. Go home.” She turned and left the office, taking the steaming mug of coffee with her. “I’m calling you a car.”
John looked at his hands, shaking like frightened animals on the desk in front of him, and admitted defeat. There were flashes of lights behind his eyes like the on-set of a migraine. He retrieved his jacket and walked downstairs. Let himself be swallowed by the soft seats of the car while the rain turned the world outside unreal.
The house felt startled by his return. He clattered his keys onto the table and opened the fridge without real interest. There was little in there anyway, and it all seemed unfamiliar. He climbed the stairs instead, found the neglected bottle of sleeping pills, and shook one into his hand. Things couldn’t get much stranger. He returned to the tv and the drone of a daytime movie, pulling a blanket over him and waiting.
He was looking at himself on the tv again, while the dvd player blinked midnight at him. His eyes were blurred and unfocused, as the pill unravelled the edges of his mind, trying to give him unconsciousness. The tv-John had his hand against the screen again, pushing it through as the surface twisted and distorted. John yawned. The drugs never worked. Things just got weirder. The tv-John had his whole arm through now, and was pushing his other arm past it. He grasped the dull silver frame and pulled. John could see the top of his head, forcing against the swirling mercury surface like a baby in the birth canal.
My hair’s not that thin, John-on-the-couch thought. Tv-John pushed his chest through, and twisted around so he could roll onto the floor on his back. He pulled his legs through after him and stood, smiling. John-on-the-couch smiled back. This is a very real one, he thought. Tv-John extended a hand to John-on-the-couch, who reached a lazy hand up, smiling at his own illusions. Tv-John’s hand was warm and fleshy, free of callouses, and he was strong enough to lift John-on-the-couch to his feet. He half-carried him to the tv, and pushed him through the screen with a gentle grunt of effort. John rolled across the tv-floor, thinking that it felt much the same as his own. Lying there, he watched tv-John stroll through his living room, thinking. yes, this is very real indeed, with a twist of unease in his gut. He tried to stand as he watched tv-John leave the room, but the floor felt curved and unsteady under his feet. He crawled instead, blinking at the odd, blue tint that seemed to edge the furniture and the outlines of his own hands. He decided he should crawl to the kitchen, where maybe he could find some coffee, because he wasn’t liking this trip. Not at all. The door was seamless, the knob fixed to the wood too firmly to turn. Well, he could go upstairs. He crawled up the first two stairs, and then his hands vanished. He yelped and jumped backwards, looking up. The stairs didn’t go anywhere. There were four, then they stopped. After that was a wall of static, black and white and glowing. John considered this for a moment, then turned and crawled to the phone. Even if he just punched the numbers in and didn’t talk, 999 would still get him help.
He couldn’t lift the handset out of the cradle. It was a sealed unit of plastic. He picked it up off the table and shook it ineffectually, then sat with it in his lap for a long moment. Well, this was a dream – dream-logic still applied. If he came in through the tv, he could go out through the tv. He crawled shakily towards the reflective screen, seeing tv-John walking across the living room towards him. He sped up, panic suddenly gripping his throat. But the man striding towards him was moving quicker, and in his hand he was swinging the hammer from John’s little-touched tool bag. John threw himself at the screen, a scream tearing silently out of his throat. Tv-John wagged his finger gently as John’s hands pushed through the screen, and swung the hammer. On the other side, John screamed again, jerking his hands back as the tv shattered into nothingness. Silence bred around him, and he looked around fearfully. The room was crumbling as the last pinprick of life in the tv faded. The far wall was already gone, and as he watched the couch flickered then blinked out. The carpet peeled away in front of him, falling into darkness as he clawed at the last remaining wall, his screams unheard in his own ears. The last that he saw, before everything faded out, was the wall vanishing into pixels under his own flickering hands.
Tv-John smiled at the wreckage of the tv, and turned towards the kitchen, swinging the hammer at his side and whistling cheerfully. The house subsided around him, rearranging dimensions to accommodate him. He opened the cupboards unerringly for the coffee and a mug, and when he opened the fridge, smiled broadly at the familiarity of the contents.