Sleepless in St. Louis

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I didn't choose this. That's what people with powers say, isn't it? Only, it's not quite right for me. I'm not even sure if this can be called a power. After more than five thousand days, it feels like a curse.

Five thousand days without sleep.

You've heard the story of the man who is granted a single wish. He can have any one thing he wants, he just has to name it. A genie from a lamp granting wishes with a catch. There's always a catch.

My story involves no magic. There is no modern-merlin, no blue genie, or wizard behind a curtain. Just a man in a white coat who told me he could make my dreams come true. If only I'd known that meant I would never dream again.

I did choose this. Some days, I wish I hadn't.

People always want to fly. They love their cliches. Super strength or some such. Everyone wants to be just like what they see on TV. I just wanted more time.

I needed some extra cash in college. Yeah, I was one of those. I saw a flier for a sleep study. Paid thirty-five bucks. That wasn't bad, fifteen years ago. I could get paid to sleep. And so I did.

The wires and the electrodes were annoying, but I managed to sleep pretty well enough, despite the fear that I would accidentally strangle myself. Maybe that wouldn't have been so bad.

I got a phone call a couple weeks after the study, I still hadn't gotten my check, so I was hoping this would be it. They asked me to come back in, one of the doctors wanted to talk to me first. Had I managed to fail even that test? I had always been a bad test taker, so I wasn't sure if I would ever achieve anything. Maybe my dad had been right.

I met with the doctor, I don't remember his name now. Something Polish. He told me I would be a perfect candidate for something new they had been working on. Some medical mumbo jumbo about my brain waves and the signals in my neurons. He told me that my life would never be the same.

Brain surgery had never been on my bucket list, but as a sophomore in college, I went under the knife. And the drill. And the circular saw. It's a good thing I was single because my new hairdo certainly wasn't impressive.

After the surgery, they glued my noggin back together and told me to go home and sleep. They said I would probably sleep for two or three days straight on through, and that would be it. Forever.

I slept for four days straight. When I woke up, I realized I had soiled my bed in more ways than I care to remember. And good heavens was I hungry. I took my thirty-five bones and went straight to Denny's. Ordered the first all-you-can-eat meal I saw and ate plate after plate. The manager actually came and cut me off, said I'd eaten far more than they'd ever bargained for. "All-you-can-eat," my foot. I left no tip.

The first couple of years were the most productive of my entire life. I finished that semester of school and then took as many hours during summer school and the subsequent semesters as the school would let me. It only took two more semesters, plus that summer to get my bachelor's. Without sleep, I had plenty of time to study.

I finished my master's degree in another year, and just for the heck of it, spent another year getting a doctorate in philosophy. I didn't know what I wanted to do, but I had more ambition than I'd ever had, and I was ready for anything. Take that, dad.

I published books, taught in schools, did the public speaking circuit, heck, I even started a band and recorded an album.

Then, the headaches came.

Every day as soon as the sun went down, it felt like a knife piercing from my eye all the way to the back of my neck. After three nights in a row screaming myself hoarse, I couldn't stay in my apartment anymore. I began walking the streets just to keep my mind off the pain. It was then that I saw how dark the world really is. My pain was nothing compared to what others were experiencing.

The first night, I heard screaming in an alley across the street from my place. A woman in trouble. I couldn't just let it happen. I ran across the street into the inky maw between two tall buildings and found a man in gray holding a woman on the ground. By the time I got to the alley, she had gone silent—from shock or death, I wasn't sure. I pulled him off and threw him against a nearby dumpster. He yelled at me like a feral animal and leaped at me. His shoulder caught me in the middle and knocked the wind out of me, but I managed to keep my feet.

I wrapped my arms around his neck and kneed him in the stomach as hard as I could. He grunted and I kneed him again and again until I felt spittle hit my shoe. I lifted him up to level a punch to his nose, but he head-butted me first. I wanted to sneeze, cry, and cuss, all at the same time. The jerk had broken my nose.

It was my turn to rush him. I speared his gut and picked him up. I kept running until I ran him into the brick wall of the building. The collision hurt me, but I heard a sickening crack, like a carton of eggs dropping to pavement. The man went limp in my arms and I tossed him to the side.

I heard a whimpering behind me—the woman. I checked on her and she cowered away. I tried to reassure her but she wasn't having it. Probably still in shock. Poor gal. I pulled my flip phone out and called the cops. They would be able to help. As I waited to be connected, I looked back toward the assailant.

Empty pavement. I turned in circles looking for the man and saw nothing. No sign of him. No blood on the ground or on the wall, not a single bit of evidence that he had ever been there. I finally reached the dispatcher and told her the address. I hung up the phone and ran down the alleyway, looking for the man.

I emerged on the next street over to find a mostly empty street. A homeless woman lay huddled against a mailbox to my right. To my left, at the nearest intersection, another man crossed the street. My heart quickened—behind him, a figure in gray rushed up, crashed into the man and stole his wallet. He pushed the man down and ran down the sidewalk—directly toward me.

He wouldn't get away again.

I stepped into the shadow of the alleyway, trying my best to act like I hadn't noticed. I waited until I could hear his footsteps and then lunged out of the darkness, catching the figure around the waist, trying to wrestle him to the ground.

He went down easily. Probably weak from our earlier bout. I sat up, straddling his middle, and punched him in the face. Once. Twice. Three times. Cartilage disintegrated and teeth cracked under my knuckles. The man's face became ground beef as I pummeled him with my fist. My own face must've looked wild, still dripping blood from the broken nose he'd given me. He would be far worse off by the time I was done.

He finally went limp again, and I threw two more blows just to make extra sure this time. I ripped the wallet out of his slack hand and stood to show it to the man who owned it. He was running toward me, screaming. I walked forward, holding the wallet out, unable to hear what he was shouting.

"Stop that man!" I could finally hear him say. Surely this punk couldn't have gotten up again? I turned around and sure enough, he was gone. I spun, looking for any sign of him. When I turned back to the man whose wallet I was holding, I felt a sharp crack in my face. That man had hit me. He must've been confused. I tossed his wallet to him and backed away. He picked it up off the ground and cursed at me. He tried to kick me, but I managed to back out of the way before the foot landed. I wasn't sure what else to do, so I ran.

I wondered about this creep. The guy just wouldn't stay down. I was no fighter, sure, but he was fast, too. I circled back around to my apartment. The cops were across the street, and I considered talking to them, but I wasn't in the mood for answering questions anymore. I was exhausted. Of course, I would never sleep. But some rest sounded pretty good. I didn't notice until I got home that my headache was gone.

After that night, I became addicted to the adrenaline. Every time the sun went down, my splitting headache returned and I took to the streets. Every night, I found some street urchin and beat him to a pulp. And every night, he disappeared. I started to wonder if maybe it was the same person. I could never get a good look at his face.

Occasionally I would try following him, or try to watch people during the day to see if I could find the guy, but I never did catch him.

Maybe my power did have a purpose. I had never imagined myself being a superhero, but I had a supernatural ability and I spent my nights being a hero. I had more reason to call myself a superhero than Batman, anyway.

After a couple years, I ended up moving. I bought a house in the suburbs, hoping to bring a wife home someday. I thought that moving outside of town would make my nights a little less climactic, but the opposite was true. I joined the neighborhood watch and took just about every available shift. Almost every night I would catch some fool trying to break into a car or house. I never imagined the St. Louis suburbs would be so dangerous.

The headaches persisted, and the only cure was to spend my nights fighting crime, as cliche as that sounded. I wondered at that. Was it just the adrenaline? Or something else going on. I finally resolved to seek out the doctor who'd played with my head and see if he had any answers.

I headed back down to the old college and found the building a few a blocks down. Empty. I asked a few people who worked nearby and nobody knew anything.

I went to the school and asked the dean of medicine if she knew anything about the sleep study some fifteen years ago. She didn't. I felt pretty dejected and was ready to head home when I finally found a lead: a nurse tech who'd helped out in the lab overhead me asking about it. She said the doc was opening a new lab in Portland. She was invited to go with, but she didn't want to leave her family. Looks like I would be heading to The Pacific Wonderland.

I drove straight through, never mind the twenty-eight hour drive time from Portland. When you don't have to sleep, the world gets quite a bit smaller. The headaches made half the drive a spell of absolute misery, but I was getting used to the pain.

I arrived at my hotel downtown just about lunchtime. I checked in, grabbed a quick bite, and decided I wanted to find this doctor as quickly as I could. I went to the address the nurse had told me about and found myself standing in front of a one-story building off Lincoln Street. Now or never. I wondered if he'd recognize me after fifteen years.

I walked in the front door, surprisingly unlocked, and waited for a receptionist or anyone to come to the entry. None came. I heard a man talking to himself somewhere in the back, so I decided to just go back and see.

The first two exam rooms I found were empty. Completely bare, with sheetrock stripped down below the plaster. The hallway ended with a large, gray door standing partially ajar, so I pushed it open and walked in.

The man was standing with his back to me, working with something on the counter. I couldn't tell if it was him or not from the back, but the size seemed about right.

"Hello?" I said softly, taking care to not spook the man. He jumped anyway and snapped his body around. His eyes jumped from me to the doorway and back, before settling on the doorway behind me to my right.

"What are you doing here?" he said past me, not at me. As soon as he spoke, my head exploded into showers of pain, hot knives carving their way into the deepest recesses of my skull. I felt my knees waver and I grabbed the counter for support. It was the middle of the day, I shouldn't be having headaches like this.

"You should leave," the doctor spoke again, still talking to the doorway behind me. I turned to the doorway to see if he was going crazy or if someone had followed me in and my heart simultaneously stopped and pumped harder than it ever had before.

The figure in gray.

And this time he was holding a gun. I reacted without giving myself time to think. I pounced on the man, grabbing his arm and throwing it to the side into a cabinet. He yelped and the gun flew across the room.

With his other hand, he boxed the side of my head, disorienting me and causing my ears to scream. He pushed me off him and dove for his gun. I charged him and knocked him against the cabinet, spilling everything on the counter. He flung a wild backhand that hit me in the side of my head. I felt bones crack against the hardness of my skull and knew the blow hurt him more than it hurt me.

I punched him in the ribs and felt his frame shatter. He loosed a shrill yell and kicked me with everything he had. My own ribs split under his boot and I found myself laying on the ground against the far wall. Before I had time to consider my next move, he was on me, landing blow after blow to my face. Try as I may for any sort of hold, he had the better of me. My face was hot fire for a few moments before going completely numb from the barrage.

He let up for just a moment—just long enough to brandish a knife. He held it high, ready to bring it down on my throat. I raised my hands in a hopeless defense against the steel. I would finally sleep once more.

As the knife dropped, a gunshot ripped through the air and the gray figure's head exploded. In that instant, my headache disappeared. I felt the weight slide off me. Not just the weight of the gray figure, but the weight of fifteen sleepless years drifting away. The doctor stood with the gun still pointed at the dead man on the ground next to me.

I realized that I felt very tired. For the first time in fifteen years, I wanted to sleep. And as my vision faded, the world around me slipping into black, I slept for the last time.