Cover

Contents

Cover

About the Book

About the Author

Dedication

Title Page

Epigraph

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Acknowledgements

Copyright

Black Moon

Kenneth Calhoun

This ebook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted inwriting by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

About the Book

Imagine a world without sleep.

A world driven to the brink of exhaustion.

A waking nightmare.

But few and far between, sleepers can still be found – a gift they quickly learn to hide. For sleep is now a rare and precious commodity. Money can’t buy it, no drug can touch it, and there are those who would kill to have it.

Matt Biggs is one of those sleepers. But his wife Carolyn – no stranger to insomnia – has succumbed to the epidemic. After six sleepless days and nights, Biggs wakes to find her gone. When he goes in search of his wife he finds instead a a ransacked world, divided between dreamers and insomniacs, where he must learn to discern fact from fiction, friend from foe.

Kenneth Calhoun’s dark, hallucinatory and brilliantly realised debut confronts one of our deepest needs – and fears – with style, vision and a very human heart.

About the Author

Kenneth Calhoun has published short fiction in The Paris Review, Tin House, and the 2011 Pen/O. Henry Prize Collection, among others. He has been awarded the Italo Calvino Prize for Fabulist Fiction and the Summer Literary Seminars/Fence Magazine fiction contest. He is a Graphic Design professor at Lasell College in Boston. This is his first novel.

Acknowledgements

I offer my gratitude and appreciation to the many people who were helpful in producing this book. I thank my parents for making books part of my childhood, and my brother and sister for a lifetime of support. Thanks to the many friends and fellow writers who read and commented on these pages, notably Laurel Goldman and her Chapel Hill workshop, Steven Gamboa, Ryan Griffith, Mona Awad, David Baeumler, Matt Salesses and the late John Harrelson.

Thanks also to the Millay Colony for the Arts and the Writers’ Room of Boston for providing much needed space and time.

I am forever indebted to journal editors who published my stories over the years. I’d especially like to recognize Whitney Pastorek, Andrew Tonkovich, Hal Jaffe, M.T. Anderson, David Milofsky, Adam and Jennifer Pieroni, Libby Hodges, Jeff Parker, Cheston Knapp, Nathaniel Rich and Christopher Cox.

My talented editors, Zachary Wagman and Parisa Ebrahimi, have my deepest respect and appreciation for their smart and soulful suggestions. And I owe the world and more to my agent, Claudia Ballard, who is a remarkably gifted shaper of story and a fearless believer that hard work will be rewarded.

Above all, I dedicate this book in infinite gratitude to Anya Belkina and Sophie Calhoun, who endured my excessive sleep requirements and inspired the plots of my most hopeful dreams.

One

BIGGS RAN IN bursts down the street, wanting to move quickly but without attracting attention. These dark blocks between their building and the ransacked drugstore were sketchy. He moved through the cold corridor of shade, relieved to find the streets empty, except for a few figures, stumbling in the distance like drunks. At the intersection, abandoned cars were stalled in a mad jumble and he had to squeeze through the gaps, pressed against the cool barriers of automotive gloss.

Shops were shuttered. Many had been looted – windows smashed, the shelves inside empty. The sidewalk was gritty with glass shards and spotted with ancient stains of chewing gum. A great splatter of DNA, blackened with urban grime.

He could hear distant wailing and the occasional shout or scream from the offices and apartments above. Protruding from one window five floors up, he saw an elderly man leaning far out over the street, teetering on the brink, his thin arms extended toward the sky. Beyond him, a few floors higher, someone was throwing fistfuls of paper from an open window. The sheets drifted and turned like leaves in the air funneling between the buildings.

Biggs crossed to the other side to avoid a stoop where, earlier, he had seen dogs tearing at an unidentifiable carcass – white bone shining through the marbled meat. He ducked down an alley. At the far end, a large woman in a Lakers jersey paced while shouting into her cell phone. ‘A lawsuit isn’t wanted by you at all believe me very fucking much,’ she warned, jowls quivering.

When Biggs neared, he could see that she wasn’t holding a phone. Even if she had one in hand, a phone call was an impossible feat. The sky was now without signals, the web of fibers dead in the earth. Networks expiring without sound human minds needed to maintain them.

The woman tracked Biggs with her bleary eyes as he shuffled past. ‘Wait one,’ she said into her palm. ‘Some asshole here like a rat.’

Half a block ahead, a flat-screen TV exploded on the pavement – tossed from several stories up. It fell like an obsidian slate, a tile of nighttime sky. He felt the impact in his teeth, the shatter in his chest.

A storm was gathering behind dark windows and closed doors. It could spill out into the streets at any moment. He jogged two blocks, keeping to the middle of the street, before slowing to a walk.

He could see the ruins of the drugstore now, on the other side of the park.

His wife, Carolyn, was in bad shape. What was it now, six days? Almost a week without even a nod, her head always pedaling in place. She radiated exhaustion: a dying star. Soon what – a black hole?

Biggs had to take some kind of action but, before he did anything, he needed to clear his own head. In the effort to convince her that he too had succumbed to sleeplessness, he had deprived himself of any significant downtime. He had a plan that involved pills and some showmanship, but first some quick sleep out of view was necessary. He went into the park and looked around before pushing into the shrubbery. They used to picnic here, blanket spread on the lawn. Carolyn rolling up her sleeves to get some sun on her shoulders. In the thicket, he found the place where, only two days earlier, he had created a nest of twigs and grass. Curling up inside, it wasn’t long before his thoughts took on the lawlessness of sleep. Images and ideas now drifted, unmoored by reason. A heavier sleep soon fell over him like a rug and he saw nothing.

Two hours later, he had a dream: Carolyn shining light into his eyes from clusters of crystalline fractals she cradled in her hands. He returned to the slowly imploding world, blinking at shards of the sun through the weave of saplings.

He sat up, both astonished and relieved. Something inside him continued to hold firm. I still sleep. And dream.

Biggs believed that Carolyn, and perhaps millions of others, were responding to the epidemic psychosomatically. He held a desperate hope to cure her with a good story and nothing more than some aspirin, or maybe even some kind of generic-looking vitamin. Whatever. As long as Carolyn couldn’t identify it. The pill had to be an empty vessel that she could fill with the medicine of her mind.

He was banking on the climate of heightened susceptibility. The sleepless, in their total exhaustion, quickly lost their ability to distinguish fact from fiction. The unguarded gate in their heads was now propped wide open to suggestion and persuasion. It was a great time for storytellers, he thought, for magicians and, of course, advertisers – his abandoned trade. It was the ideal era for placebos: well-intended, white lies that produce truth in spite of themselves.

He made his way into the pharmacy. Only ten days earlier, a mob had formed in front of it demanding sleeping pills. They broke in, heaving a motorcycle through the window, and overpowered the few unfortunate employees that had reported for duty. They looted until the police arrived, some naked and others bristling with guns and knives. They chased off the mob. Then it was this tribe of cops themselves who shot out the surveillance cameras and aisle mirrors before snorting crushed pills off the floor and chugging cough syrups.

Biggs stepped through the jagged window frame into the dim cavern of ransacked space. The hall, stripped of its commercial order, was chilling in its silence and disarray. Pills and glass crunched underfoot. There were others there in the poor lighting, picking through the shelves, throwing unwanted items on the floor. He could hear them mumbling, an occasional cough. He avoided them, negotiating the aisles like a maze. In the darkness, he almost tripped over an elderly woman crawling on the cluttered tiles. She grabbed at his pants suddenly, startling him.

He swore and jerked himself free.

‘I’m looking and needing for tea,’ she said from the floor. ‘Can you point me to the tea in the packets?’

‘It’s all gone,’ Biggs said, annoyed.

‘They threw it in the harbor is that what they did to gone it?’

‘Yeah, that’s what they did to gone it,’ Biggs said, stepping around her like a snake in the path.

He continued toward the back of the store. He had been here many times before, for the usual items and, at least five times, for pregnancy tests. The shelves were empty but the floor was littered with capsules and tablets. He picked through the empty plastic jars and smashed boxes. The ground was fluffy with the cotton stuffing, remnants of snowfall in the dimness. He knelt and picked out a handful of pills. They sat in his palm like baby teeth. He carried them outside and quickly crossed to the sunny side of the street, like a kid who just made a grab in a candy store. Opening his fist, he saw that the pills were a variety of shapes and colors.

Some say this is what started it, he noted. All these drugs we take. These could be the seeds to our apocalypse. In his agency days, he had worked on a few pharmaceutical accounts, where the notions of truth and fact were never more elastic. Studies show. Ha.

God only knows what’s in this stuff.

He picked out five simple white pills – generic aspirin with no discernible branding – and put them in his left pocket. He shoved the rest into his right, thinking they could come in handy. You never know.

Coming home with five magic beans.

He started for the loft, but circled back to the drugstore. He went inside and was able to find two bags of tea, which he gave to the old woman on the floor.

Biggs took the stairs up to the sixth floor. The elevator still worked, but he was wary of being trapped, knowing that no one would come to his rescue. Because he didn’t want to encounter any of his afflicted neighbors, he took off his shoes and silently passed down the hall. He listened at his door before putting the key to the lock. Inside, the loft was dim, with the exception of a soft square of light on the floor cast from the open skylight. It was a tiny, book-filled space: table and chairs, a stylish leather sofa. The windows on the far wall hung over a narrow alley and opened to a building identical to theirs, a converted wool warehouse now crammed with dimly lit, book-filled lofts. There was no sign of Carolyn in the main room.

He went to her studio, where she had, until about a year ago, made painstakingly detailed stop-motion films. Along with a small alcove that they used as a bedroom, the studio was the only closed-off space in the otherwise open plan. The walls were padded with sound blankets. The small room was crammed with tripods and lighting stands, racks filled with props, and outfitted with heavy blinds so she could control the light. She was there standing with her back to him, staring out the window.

‘Carolyn?’

She turned and, at first, seemed unable to recognize him. She was ancient around the eyes, stooped with weariness and holding one of the articulated dolls from an early film. Her hair curtained her face. She was wearing a promotional T-shirt from a former client of his. It was far too large and hung off her thin frame like a shapeless dress. She had managed to find a slipper for one foot. The other – nails flecked with remnants of red polish – was bare against the wood floor. It gutted him to see her this way: even worse than when he left her, just hours earlier. He still entertained the hope that this thing destroying them would simply play itself out and stop, that he would come home to find her sleeping. He would press his lips against her closed eyes. He would feel her eyes moving as dreams unfurled before them, a churning kaleidoscope of stories.

‘Where did you what?’ she asked, her face now full of sorrow. ‘You don’t go for so long all around and around if you’re who you said you are.’

He assumed a smile, though it took a beat for his eyes to catch up with the curve of his mouth. With that, the show had begun.

‘It’s over,’ he said, taking her by the shoulders. ‘They’ve done it with a cure!’

He hugged her and felt her stiffen against him.

‘Do you understand this that I say?’

It was important to keep the pose of his sleeplessness going, to perform the lazy scramble of diction, the hint of slur.

She looked up at him suddenly and asked, ‘Where’s my mother is she?’

‘Your mother?’

‘Mom was here earlier,’ Carolyn said matter-of-factly. Her mother had been dead for almost nine years. Yet he was not surprised that she would make an appearance since she was a fixture of Carolyn’s dreams. Whatever lived there was now here, it seemed.

‘She told me that you should up the floor,’ Carolyn said, ‘if you think this is ever going to work so you can kill the scorpions there.’

What was this – some echo of old resentments, filtered and mutated as it passed through the sieve of hallucinations?

He led her to the couch and sat her down. The way she said thank you was distant and professional, as if he were a waiter seating her at a decent table. It got to him, but he pushed back on it and stayed focused. She was changing, slipping away with every hour. No one knew where all this was heading, but he didn’t want her going there. They had been together for nearly a decade, weathering his career change, her creative block and the resulting depression, not to mention the cosmic denial of their medically ritualized, vaguely carnal request for a child of their own. A project they had both abandoned. But all of that was preferable to what they lived with now.

‘Listen,’ he said, ‘everything’s going to be okay now because it’s over.’

‘Over?’ She looked up at him through her hair. She brought up her hand and traced the lines on his face with her fingers. He reached out to her other hand to remove the doll – an elaborate model of a moon goddess. She surrendered it without a word, allowing him to place it on the drawing desk.

‘Baby, look,’ he said. ‘This is what will fix us all.’

Now for the reveal. He showed her the pills in his hand, slowly peeling his fingers away. They looked pitifully inadequate in his palm, but smaller things have brought down beasts or ended empires. The smallest of things are the plot points of history.

‘Hey,’ she brightened, ‘what are those for doing?’ She looked at them with sweet wonder. The temporary absence of exhaustion made her suddenly so familiar – the real her surfacing from under the swamp of sleeplessness. He needed to hug her.

‘Big squeeze,’ she said in his ear.

He saw an opening and told the story he had been working on in his head, like a campaign for a new client. He had always been good in a pitch and he tapped those skills now as he set up the backstory, explaining that the government hadn’t completely disappeared, as everyone believed.

‘Representatives are in the city distributing experimental pills. They’re wearing such soothing blue suits, like they were cut right out of the sky. I mean, just seeing them makes you want to sleep. You should see the lines,’ he told her. ‘They wind all around the park – old people, families, everyone. And the pills work. They had people in a glass bus, sleeping in bunks. Just people off the street who volunteered to take the pills, neighbors even. Mrs Mineo from the third floor. Matt Rovogin, Marcy LeBreau. Bunch of other people from the building. You can see them sleeping in there, snoring away. Slobbering on those government-issue pillows. Someone has figured this thing out. Science is going to beat this thing. That’s what happens when we get our back to the wall, right? The answers come.’

He had ventured into wishful speculation now. Somehow, perhaps because he had yet to succumb, he had come to believe that the epidemic was merely a sticky little story of demise that moved like spores in the breeze and attached itself to the sides of people’s minds. His intention, with Carolyn at least, was to replace that story with another.

Carolyn listened, wincing as she stared at the pills in his hand. She managed to frown and smile at the same time, pained but believing. ‘I want to want to sleep so terribly, terribly bad,’ she told him, adding: ‘Those birds are circling way up but they never come down for the take.’

She was no stranger to insomnia, struggling with it her entire life, especially over the last year. Early in the crisis, they had joked that she was sleepless before it was cool. Now she stared out at him from inside the catastrophe, hoping he could tug her out of the maelstrom. He grabbed her, pulled her close, adoring her. She squeezed his arm with both hands, as if wanting to wring answers out of his flesh.

‘You will sleep. You take one of these pills and you will. We both will.’

‘I want to take one of those pills,’ she said, awestruck by what it offered.

She was buying it. The story itself might prove to be enough. Yet he was prepared to play his ace, if needed. To provide a testimonial that she could believe in. It was risky – dangerous for both of them – but it was the ultimate argument. He would show her that the pills worked.

He would sleep for her.

They swallowed their pills and sat looking at each other. Biggs watched Carolyn’s eyes dart around, as if she expected the cure to descend upon her, dropping like a net from above. He had made a big show of dressing in pajamas and coaxing Carolyn into her nightgown – items they rarely wore. Everything should be enlisted to urge along the suggestion. The stage was set for a theater of sleep.

In bed, Biggs lay on his side, next to Carolyn, watching her face. His plan was to see if she would drift off, then follow her up into the clouds. His demonstration would be held as a last resort. He also wanted to make sure she didn’t leave the bed and start pacing around. This was how she would pass the night lately: walking about the loft or standing in corners mumbling a litany of regrets to one of her doll actors.

He would get out of bed too, and sit at the table in the middle of their studio, urging her to at least lie down on the couch. Early in the crisis, they watched TV, but now only the words ‘no signal found’ appeared on the screen.

He wanted very badly to sleep on those nights, but fought it off for the sake of convincing Carolyn that he was also afflicted. He had no idea why he had been spared, at least so far. In fact, he was constantly wondering if he had somehow succumbed and had taken to sneaking off for power naps to test his fears. It was rest he sought, but also proof that the capability persisted, sitting like leaden silt in his veins.

Unlike Carolyn, he had never had trouble sleeping. Early in their relationship, his ability to drop off anytime, and anywhere, had been a point of occasional contention. It offended her not only in that she felt he was using sleep as a means of avoidance, but also because she held sleep so precariously. The slightest noise or change in the light could wake her. Her mind, roaring in the chassis of her skull, pounced on painful memories and worries about the future or the challenges of her studio work, batting them around for hours as she tossed and turned. Meanwhile, he snored at her side. They had decided that sleep was his super-power, just as causing computers to crash or pens to run dry were hers. And not getting pregnant, she sometimes added.

Sleep, or rather dreams, had played an important role in their story, he often felt compelled to remind her, especially when she was critical of his afternoon naps. Soon after they first met, at a forty-eight-hour film festival at school in which writers and filmmakers were randomly paired, Biggs had what they now called The Dream. It wasn’t as though they had taken special notice of each other. They weren’t even teamed up for the festival. So the fact that Carolyn had been the subject of a particularly intense dream seemed significant to Biggs and, later, to both of them.

In the dream, Biggs was standing on the shore of a vast lake or sea. A dark storm hung low over the water, dragging along curtains of rain and stirring up the waves. A young woman – that film nerd Carolyn from school, he recognized – ran past him, into the water. She leaned her small wiry frame into the current. Her black hair, wildly animated by the wind, was slicked down, tamed, as a wave crashed over her.

She was calling out, but her words were garbled by the wind. Biggs noticed a small boat, a rowboat, drifting out to sea. The riptides pulled it out into the waves as Carolyn struggled to make her way toward it, waist-deep in the churning water. He could see her struggling to stand. The current was tugging at her legs beneath the surface.

He could see, as the rowboat tilted up the side of a wave, that there was someone in the boat. Someone dead. A body lying lengthwise, wrapped tightly in white cloth. The boat rose up the face of the waves, hanging nearly vertical – the shrouded body practically standing on the water – for an instant before flopping over the crest. Carolyn, however, struggled through the wash before her as it rumbled whitely up the shore, knocking her off her feet and pushing her back, then dragging her out in green-black churn.

She screamed after the boat and fought on, but it was clear to Biggs that she would drown. She was already beginning to panic. Then he was in the water reaching out to her, telling her to stop flailing. Lie down in the water, he yelled over the crash of waves. Pretend to sleep on the water facing up at the sky. She followed his instructions and leaned back until her toes surfaced. She drifted within reach as the rowboat continued to travel beyond the waves. He saw it in glimpses as the horizon shifted, now small and close to forever gone.

He was able to grab a fistful of her black hair and draw her into his arms. She clung to him as he carried her back to shore and held her, restrained her, until the rowboat dipped behind the horizon.

Later that week he sought her out on campus, eventually finding her in the dark cave of editing suites. She was cutting together an animation she had made with an origami dove. He watched through the sliding glass door as she composited the dove over a still of an unidentifiable city. Its wings flapped as the city slid slowly by. He had to knock several times to cut through the noise in her bulky, ancient headphones. She turned, frowning. Even as a student, she was capable of a furious degree of focus and hated interruptions when in the zone.

He slid open the door. ‘Do you mind if I come in?’ he asked.

It was clear that she did mind, but manners overrode her impulse to say no. It was pretty, he thought, how her mouth and eyes weren’t in agreement.

He entered and sat on the console table as she pushed the headphones down and wore them at her throat. ‘What’s up?’ she asked, even as her fingers hit the keyboard shortcut for saving her file to the hard drive.

‘Hey, it’s Carolyn, right?’

‘Right.’

‘I’m Matt. Matt Biggs? We were introduced at the festival? That forty-eight-hour thing?’

‘Oh, yeah. Yeah, I remember. You’re a writer.’

‘Well.’ He smiled sheepishly. ‘Not really.’

She looked him over, waiting. Her eyes eager to return to the screen.

‘Okay, look,’ he said. ‘I know this is going to sound really weird, and I’ve tried not to bother you with this, but it’s been a few days now and I can’t shake it.’

She smiled and shook her head. ‘I have no idea what you are talking about.’

‘Okay, well, yeah. Basically,’ he said, ‘I had a dream. A dream about you.’

She couldn’t help wincing. He saw her brace herself for something inconvenient and potentially embarrassing for both of them.

‘Not that kind of dream,’ he reassured her. Then he told her about the waves, the rowboat and its cargo, how she almost drowned.

Her expression went from a thinly veiled impatience, to skepticism, to a long gaze into the nowhere that hung between them. Tears came to her eyes and he stopped talking.

‘Oh, hey,’ he said. ‘God, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.’

She covered her face and cried hard into her hands.

‘I should go,’ he said. He stood and was reaching for the door when she said, ‘It’s my mother. She’s dying and won’t admit it.’

He stood, staring down at the pale part in her hair, then sat back down.

Now in bed, trying to feel the pill working, she sighed, a hint of frustration already present in this wordless utterance. He wanted to use The Dream, to reference it as a source of authority. He wanted to say, I had a dream that these pills would cure you, just like when I had a dream that your mother was going to die and you would need to be rescued from your despair. But he had never used The Dream that way. It was a sacred text in their own domestic religion.

She mumbled to herself.

‘Shh,’ he said softly, as though she were a restless child. Imagine what it must be like, he thought, feeling a dull crushing in his chest. He almost said out loud, It’s a blessing that we never brought a little someone into all this. His thoughts flashed quickly to his brother and his wife, together with their newborn in their suburban home. A kind of hell had happened, even out among those quiet streets.

She looked at him.

‘Close your eyes,’ he told her.

She let her heavy lids drop and pressed her cheek into the pillow.

He felt her rubbing her small feet together – a kinetic mantra, a physical focal point that she sometimes employed. She was trying and he loved her for it. He wanted to tell her to quiet her mind, to let the pill do its job, but he knew that would only cause her to think too much about it. The best thing to do was keep still and quiet. No touching, no singing, no counting of sheep. Just let the story do its job. Let it work its way in.

Minutes passed and she fell still, even her feet coming to rest. Could it have worked already? He studied her face, allowing some hope to spark. But it was immediately snuffed when she clapped her hand over her mouth. She squeezed her eyes tightly shut, crushing out tears.

‘Baby,’ he said softly. ‘Carolyn.’

She shook her head, refusing to open her eyes.

‘Come on, don’t quit now. I can feel it working in me, that pill in my blood.’

She covered her eyes with her hand, concealing her mounting skepticism.

Now it was time, he recognized. Time for the stain to magically disappear, the hair to grow back on the barren scalp. Time for the blind to suddenly see, the dead to emerge from the cave. Show her.

‘Look,’ he said, providing an introduction, as if a new actor had arrived on stage.

He yawned loudly. Hearing it – that ancient intake of air – her eyes snapped open between her parted fingers. She stared into his mouth as his body put itself in that obsolete mode. Eyes glazing over, blinking slowed.

She watched, her eyes now wide and intense, her mouth gaping. Was she trying to mimic his yawn? He wasn’t sure that this was the reaction he hoped for – this expression of astonishment she now wore.

‘See what’s happening?’ he said, knowing she hadn’t seen him yawn in days. Hadn’t yawned herself in almost a week. He shut his eyes, let his head sink into the pillow, and spoke to her in whispers: ‘It’s working. It will with you too but just might take a little longer since you’ve been without for more.’

Sleep was tugging at him now, pulling him toward the edge, away from her. He let it happen, tumbling off the summit of consciousness in mere minutes. A black honey spread warmly in his mind, smoothing over any cautionary murmurs from the reptilian part of his brain: vague warnings about Carolyn’s sudden focus, the clenching of her fists.

He had only slept for what seemed like seconds when his skull exploded.

A lamp had come apart in her hands, but she continued to swing it at his head. His arms came up instinctively, covering himself briefly, then striking out to bat away her blows. He yelled for her to stop, but nothing seemed to get past her animal grunts. He threw himself at her, wrestling down her arms, shaking her. It was as though she was the one asleep, attacking him in a trancelike state. He pinned her to the mattress and she screamed.

She spat out a stream of words from underneath him. She tried to buck him off a few times, but he held fast, pinning her arms behind her head. Eventually she went limp and only the words came at him. The jolt of adrenaline seemed to have provided a window of clear diction, of proper syntax. He listened, pressing the gash on his brow against the sheets and printing a scarlet wound there. He tried to distinguish those utterances that were true attempts to communicate with him from those that seemed to be received from some far-off transmission.

The yawn, she told him, was like a paper lantern or a bag that had opened in front of his face, forming a pink tunnel through his head and revealing his contents. There was shiny stuff in there, and ignorance like charcoal.

When she was a child, she told him, she had seen a man suffering a heart attack on the street. He was a clerk in a liquor store and his co-workers had sat him against a telephone pole on the sidewalk as they waited for paramedics. The man clutched at his chest, doubled over with pain. Carolyn never told her mother this, but she had seen a large spiderlike creature on the chest of the man. Instead of claws, it had drills and it was boring through the man’s sternum. No one had ever said anything about this detail, though she was sure everyone, her mother included, had seen it.

I tried to make dreams that would change real dreams, replace them, she told him, adding that this was a great sin, like bringing back the dead.

I’m like the bottom of the ocean inside, she told him, crushing submarines.

Then she broke down, sobbing, ‘I’m so tired of animals and their fucking secrets. Who gives them their orders?’

He rolled off her, releasing her hands.

She cried into them and he was moved to gently squeeze the back of her thin neck. ‘Baby,’ he said. ‘I’m right here.’

‘What do you know about it?’ she mumbled. ‘Nothing has ever died inside you.’

She talked into the night, her logic and language gradually falling apart, reverting to a scrambled state. His story, with all its props and stagecraft, had failed to save her.

The next morning he started tying her to a chair.

Two

AS PLANNED, CHASE drove up to the cinderblock dumpster corral behind the Sunrise Pharmacy and put the car in park, but left the engine running. The white trash bag was slouched in the corner as Jordan said it would be, soft from the heat. Chase scooped it up, backhanding flies, and was quickly back in the car, the bag riding shotgun like some kind of prop for a companion. He drove off, glancing once in the rearview mirror down the strip mall service road. There was no sign of anyone anywhere, just some litter twirling in his wake. He hadn’t been seen, he was pretty sure. Great. Now he too – just like that – was stealing drugs from the pharmacy with Jordan.

He took the most direct route home even though that brought him past Felicia’s cul-de-sac. He couldn’t help glancing up at her parents’ house. She wouldn’t be there until her birthday visit later in the month. What if he did catch a glimpse of her car in the driveway as he shot by? I’d probably freak out and crash, he thought. Get found dead with a stolen bag of trash in my lap.

He noticed he was speeding past the tract houses, the residential rhythm of manicured yards, driveways, and personalized mailboxes ticking by. Whoa, slow down! He was giddy from the heist, and paranoid, constantly checking the rearview. Yet he made it home without incident, pulling into his parents’ garage. The automatic door closed slowly behind him, lowered by the creaking winch overhead. The space going dark. He grabbed the bag and went inside the quiet empty house.

They hadn’t discussed what he was to do once home. Just sit and wait for Jordan to get off work, he supposed. But meanwhile, here was all this incriminating evidence sitting on the low shag of the family room. Chase stared at the bag. Jordan had packed it earlier, mixing stolen drugs with trash, then setting it in the corral for Chase to pick up. Jordan had been doing this alone all spring. This was Chase’s first run. Maybe he should fish out the pills and burn the rest of it.

Probably better to just wait. Try to be cool for once, he told himself.

Still feeling the jangle of nerves, he went to the living room window and peered out at the quiet street. All was in order. Summer had only started and the world was still weeks away from an irreversible transformation. There was no hint of crisis in this suburban scene: the neighbors’ low houses, the pale sky. The sun poured down on the neighborhood, baking the tongue-colored Spanish tiles of the rooftops, yellowing the grass. Dusty leaves hung limply in the parkway trees. It was too hot for anyone to be out. Kids would emerge in the evening and couples walking their dogs. Someone would wash their car, sending suds down the gutter. He studied the sky for a hint of the mountains that loomed over the valley, but they were concealed by the dirty gauze of smog. He had been away for a year, studying at a university on the coast. Yet it felt as though he had never left, despite the fact that the house was completely empty, his family gone.

It had only taken him ten minutes to move in a few nights ago, reclaiming the house from the renters. His parents wouldn’t return from Boston – where Chase’s dad had accepted a visiting faculty position – until the end of summer. They weren’t thrilled about Chase moving in early, hoping he would find a summer job near the university instead. ‘But there’s no furniture!’ his mother had tried. He assured them that wasn’t a problem. He’d bring his own.

As soon as classes ended, he packed up his meager belongings, tossing most of it into the massive move-out bins set up in front of the dorms. He was looking forward to putting some distance between himself and the campus, not to mention his roommates. The experience had been a hollow one. Next year, he would try living alone, off campus. It was one of the things he needed to discuss with his parents. He hadn’t told them about breaking up with Felicia and they would assume he intended to live with her. The thought of having to explain himself made him queasy. Maybe he wouldn’t even go back, he thought. Just work at the music store again.

His first night home, he had explored the rooms in the darkness, feeling very detached from the space, uneasy about the emptiness. He didn’t like being alone, not here. There were no curtains and a yellowy light seeped in from the street, casting skewed squares on the floors. Without furniture, the modest ranch-style home felt weirdly vast. In the bathroom his sneeze rang out as he studied his face in the mirror. How had he changed? He had gained some weight in college and now wore his hair cropped close to his head. His dark eyes looked wet in the glass, peering out from under his hooded brow, and his beard scruff framed his narrow face with shadow. This same glass had witnessed his pale youth, his scrawny chest and thin arms; his white, clenched ass and hairless groin. How did it recognize him now? What remained?

Something in the eyes, he knew. An uncertainty that he had thought would be gone by now. A childish worry, too, about being alone in the house – directly tied to his old anxieties about random violence and home invasion. An escaped prisoner, maybe, breaking in during the night, like what happened to that family in Chino years back.

He found that his own room had been transformed almost beyond recognition by the absence of his childhood possessions. The walls had long been stripped of his concert posters and gig flyers, but most absent was the mural he had painted on the room’s only unpaneled wall. The renters had requested it be papered over, since they had intended to use the room as a nursery. The imagery, featuring a life-sized tiger and the jungle-infested ruins of a post-nuclear city, was too disturbing for an infant. Now the wall was covered with a pattern of cartoonish butterflies.

That first night, he had set up his small, archaic TV and unfolded two beach chairs that sat lightly atop the low, sand-colored carpet. He slid an old microwave, flecked inside with the remnants of exploded burritos, onto the kitchen counter. The renters had canceled the alarm service and he wished they hadn’t. He chained the front door and fell into his old habit of touring the house, making sure all the windows and doors were locked. He rolled out his sleeping bag in his room, threw a black trash bag of clothes in the closet, then called it a day. From the floor, the familiar ceiling looked impossibly high. He was exhausted, so it wasn’t long before he started to drift off with hopes of seeing Felicia in his dreams. But the sound of a soft fire crackling in the closet caused him to sit up abruptly.

It was only the trash bag, decompressing in the dark, slowly blooming like a monstrous black rose.

Now, three days later, a white trash bag sat in the family room, smelling of bandages. Chase was standing at the kitchen counter, staring at the bag, when he heard Jordan’s car pull up to the curb. He waited for the sound of the door and, after minutes passed, he went to the window. Jordan was still sitting there, frozen behind the wheel of his weathered Tercel. By the time Chase opened the garage, Jordan was walking down the driveway in his blue Sunrise Pharmacy smock and nametag. He was leaner than he had been in high school, with sinewy arms and a face going prematurely gaunt. He had always worn his hair short and spiky, and sometime during the last year he had pierced his ears. The holes in his lobes now held thick black cylinders.

‘What were you doing?’ Chase asked.

‘Working.’

‘No, I mean now. Sitting in the car.’

‘Oh, yeah, that.’ Jordan nodded as Chase slapped the switch and the door descended behind them. ‘That was one of the few mainstream media stories I’ve heard about the crisis. I had to hear the end.’

‘On the radio?’

‘Yeah. NPR.’

Chase studied Jordan as he walked past, stepping into the house. He didn’t believe there had been a story about insomnia on the radio, nor did he believe in the so-called sleep crisis that was Jordan’s apparent obsession. Yet, for reasons he was reluctant to reveal, he was helping Jordan steal sleeping pills from the Sunrise Pharmacy. The end of sleep was near, Jordan had explained two nights ago. The human species will die in a fit of hallucinations and devastating physical and mental exhaustion. The drugs, he believed, would not only ensure that he would continue to sleep when no one else could, but they would be a powerful bartering tool when cash, even gold, would mean nothing. He speculated that pills would be the new currency.

‘It’s coming,’ Jordan said. ‘Even the clueless are picking up on it.’

He followed Chase into the family room and they stood looking at the white plastic trash bag. Jordan greeted it. ‘Hello, little dude.’

‘What did they say?’ Chase asked, testing.

‘Who?’

‘The story on the radio. Did they say what’s causing it?’

Jordan reached into the loose pocket of his smock and produced a box cutter. He snapped it open and shook his head. ‘They’re not there yet. They can’t afford that kind of honesty. They still have to disguise it as a story about the stock market.’

Chase smiled and nodded. He could see that this annoyed Jordan.

‘Don’t believe,’ Jordan said with a shrug. ‘Hang with the sheeple.’ He had a dead eye that was fogged and streaked with a jagged scar, the result of a childhood accident when a defective hammer shattered in his face. When he glared, which he did now at Chase, the wound amped up the menace.

Jordan dropped to his knee and grabbed the bag. He bleated like a lamb, then punched in the blade and slashed out a long stroke, revealing the contents inside.

Chase wasn’t ready to let it go. ‘I bet they didn’t even say the word “sleep.”’

‘When they talk about Big Pharma still raking it in, they’re talking about sleep,’ Jordan said as he sorted through the trash. ‘This is what they’re selling. I’ve seen it in the store with my own eyes. Shit’s flying off the shelves.’

He arranged a number of sleep aid products on the floor – boxes that held plastic bottles stuffed with cotton and pills, foil-backed sheets bubbled with capsules. This was his evidence of apocalypse: the anecdotally observed spike in sleeping pill sales combined with online rants of conspiracy sites. He had shown Chase a few, which Chase wrote off as typical Web-based hysteria.

‘They say anything about Bigfoot plotting to kill the president?’ he had joked.

Jordan, as far as Chase was concerned, had become some kind of conspiracy geek. He watched Jordan stuff the litter back in the bag, then stand, looking down at their take. Not bad. He nodded and raised his hand for a fist bump. Chase obliged.

‘Hold on a second. Be right back,’ Jordan said, grinning. He slapped Chase on the back as he headed for the front door, moving like a man with a plan.

It was the first time he had seen Jordan smile since he had serendipitously reconnected with his old high school friend three days earlier. Chase had gone to the Sunrise Music Store, hoping to talk his old boss Sam into giving him his job back, if only for the summer. After learning that Sam had been out sick for a week, Chase exited the back way, through the service road, wanting to avoid the coffee shop where Felicia used to work. They would ask about her. They would hope to hear that she had left him. All those assholes were in love with her. Walking along the back of the stores, past the dumpster corrals, he was happy to encounter Jordan on the pharmacy loading dock, slicing up boxes.

That first conversation was pretty one-sided, with Chase explaining that he was only back for the summer. He was sure Jordan would ask about Felicia. After all, he had known her longer than Chase had. But he didn’t. He was aloof, remote, eyeing Chase as he continued to hack up the cardboard. Strange, because they had been close once, before Chase ditched everyone to be with Felicia.

Maybe this coolness was about college, Chase had thought. Maybe he still resents that we went off to school and he’s here, working his high school job. Jordan had had the grades to go. In fact, he had been accepted to several good schools. It came down to money. His mother, Chase knew, had squandered whatever they had won in the lawsuit over Jordan’s eye injury. She lived like a movie star for a few years, driving an expensive car and dating an army of men, before landing her and her impaired son back in a shady apartment complex. Everyone had known this at school. It was always under the surface, especially when the topic of college became central to their conversations.

Fuck college. You’re not missing much, Chase wanted to tell him. His freshman year had been a disaster, as far as he was concerned. With Felicia dumping him and making new friends while he shut himself alone in the dorm room and struggled to pass his classes. She blossomed in every school setting – in the classroom, intramural sports, at the parties – and was offered a coveted lab assistant job for the summer. He found himself with nowhere to go but back home. Now he was finding that even connecting with an old friend was a challenge.

Jordan eventually did look up from slashing boxes and engage, but only after Chase mentioned that he was living at his parents’ empty house alone until they moved back from Boston.

‘Maybe I’ll swing by tonight,’ Jordan had said, snapping his blade shut. ‘There’s a lot you should know.’

That was three nights ago.

Now here he was, returning from his car with two more large plastic bags on his back, like some kind of junkyard Santa. It was a matching set to the two already on the premises: one black, one white. Jordan untied the white bag to reveal his entire stash of stolen sleeping pills.

‘Check it out,’ he said. ‘That’s a month’s worth.’

‘A month’s worth of sleep, or you’ve been doing this for a month?’ Chase asked as Jordan scooped up the day’s score and added it to the mix.

‘Doing it for a month. It’s an eternity’s worth of sleep if you take them all at once.’

‘What’s in the other bag?’