The Sleepers

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After we burned the beds in the backyard, I watched Bruce tie a rope around his wife to keep her from wandering off and falling asleep. After three days awake, he wasn’t the only one with frayed nerves. But Rachel was the only one of us ready to die.

“I keep seeing our son,” Rachel said, her eyes twitching. “I see him running around through the woods behind the yard.”

“It’s not real, Rachel,” Bruce told her.

When Bruce looked away, she leaned back in her patio chair and closed her eyes.

“Rachel, no!” he said, and jerked the roped connecting them. She cried out and covered her face.

“Stay with us,” I said to her and placed my hand on her shoulder. “Just a bit longer.”

I handed Rachel another Adderall and she flicked it onto the porch. Trying to stay alive this way seemed futile, but I knew I only needed to outlive Bruce.

“Rachel,” Bruce said. “Take the Adderall for God’s sake. We can’t die just yet. Our son is going to wake up any minute now.”

“He’s not going to wake up, Bruce.” Rachel said. “You felt his pulse. Nobody wakes up anymore.”

Bruce stood and threw his patio chair into the yard. He screamed into the dark and leaned over on the patio railing with his face in his hands.I stood and walked over to him. “Bruce, you can’t go on like this,” I said.

“You ever lost a kid, Greg?” Bruce asked me.

“No.”

“That’s right, you haven’t. Your wife left you alone and childless. So step the fuck off. Better yet, go find yourself a bed in one of these houses around here and fucking die already.”

After so much time without sleep, I had little reason not to pick up a brick and end his misery. But I needed to conserve what little energy I had left.I needed to stay alive for Rachel.

When I found Bruce and Rachel sobbing on their lawn three days ago, I knew they’d been up all night fighting.

That night before, I sat on my porch with a beer and listened to them scream at each other from across the street. It’s a wonder none of the other neighbors called the cops. They all must have been dead already.

I hadn’t intended to snoop on them; the insomnia had crept in after the job loss and I was still licking my wounds after the divorce. Keeping a finger in Bruce and Rachel’s life that night gave me an escape.

At dawn, they discovered their son’s body. When she had the strength to speak again, Rachel told me, “I can’t believe he slept through the night. We were only two rooms away, fighting like dogs. Bruce spent two hours trying to wake him.”

We three were the last alive in much of our town. Phone calls for help went unanswered and exploring our neighborhood revealed only silent houses filled with bedded corpses.

In spite of my friendship with Bruce, it was Rachel’s idea that we stick together and keep each other awake. But her hope only lasted until that evening. It wasn’t like her; I’d known Rachel for years to be a brave woman, a doctor who’d saved lives and a mother who’d raised a kind child. But it was these three disasters that broke her: the onset of the Sleep Death, the loss of her son to it, and surviving it while married to a man she despised.

Bruce checked his son’s body for life less often when he realized Rachel lost her will to continue on. He started watching her closely and tied the rope around her when his sanity frayed. When he wakes up, he can’t live in a world without his parents, he’d tell her.

I kept up my senses as well as I could. The insomnia prepared me for this, but these past few days had dulled my sense of morality. On day one, I just wanted to stay alive; on day two, I just wanted a final moment with Rachel; on day three, I wanted Bruce to die; in another day, I might be ready to kill.

“Listen, asshole,” Bruce said, rising from the railing and approaching me. I stared into his bulging eyes. My knees shook. “I know you’ve been eyeing my wife since the day we started dating. You’ve always been a sleaze bag. I saw you looking at her Instagram the day I caught you jerking off in the dorm. Fuck you, man. Your ugly-ass wife left you because you’re a fucking loser.”

Bruce was stupid. He was going to blow a fuse and collapse from exhaustion. I’d dealt with his abuse before. And even now, with him drunk from exhaustion, I knew it was useless to fight. There was nothing keeping him from overpowering me and killing me outright. But if my life was going to end, I just wanted it to end with Rachel.

“Bruce,” snapped Rachel. Her voice took on new life. “Shut the hell up.”

Bruce looked at her, dumbstruck.

“Marrying you was the stupidest thing I ever did,” she said. “Now our son is dead. I don’t understand any of this shit, but it all seems like your fault.”

“My fault?” said Bruce. “Rachel, what the fuck?”

“You’re just mad because Greg wants to fuck me,” she said. “And maybe I want to fuck him, too. Maybe I already did. At this point, who the hell cares?”

“Bruce,” I said, shaking my head. “It’s not true.” In all our years as friends, I was never able to be honest with him when it mattered.He lunged at me with the rope connecting him and Rachel and looped it around my neck. I stopped breathing and my vision faded with each of Bruce’s punches. I started to think he’d put me to sleep himself there on the porch. I saw glimpses of a struggle brewing behind him. Then there was a thwak! and the pressure released from my neck.

Color re-entered my world and I rolled over onto the patio. The rope loosened and what little energy I had left came seeping out in bloody coughs. When I looked up, Rachel was standing over her husband holding a brick, shaking. Bruce was on his knees, gripping the back of his head and wincing.

“Honey,” said Bruce. “What did you do?” He lowered his hand and saw blood. He looked up at Rachel like a dog that’s been kicked and she looked back at him with horror.

“Oh God, Bruce. Let’s get you inside,” she urged. “I can fix this.” Rachel gripped their connecting rope and dragged Bruce to the patio doorway leaving a trail of blood. When they crossed over inside, I watched her drag him into the bathroom and close the door.

I rose to my feet there on the patio and rubbed my throat. The rope burn left severe scratches and I saw specks of blood on my hand from the patio light. Part of me regretted involving myself with Bruce and Rachel’s life, forsaking my marriage with an obsession for theirs, but I knew there was no point in regrets anymore. Many of them had been absolved with the arrival of the Sleep Death. The ex-wife probably died along with that terrible boss who’d fired me. Now there was only Rachel. It’s as if the whole world had conspired to grant me the one thing I wanted most.

I sat on a patio chair. It was comfortable, and the night air smelled of pine and ash. The adrenaline had settled into a boozy mixture, and the muffled struggle coming from the bathroom inside concerned me no more. I was, all at once, content to let it go.

Just for a moment, I thought.I closed my eyes.

Then I crossed a threshold.

My eyes opened as Rachel stepped back out onto the patio. Sunlight lit her face and the blood that had once covered her hands and blouse was gone. She was smiling for the first time since this mess began.

“Rachel,” I said. “You came back.”

She walked over to me and sat on the patio chair arm. She wrapped her arm around my shoulder and looked at me with an affection I’d craved since our last encounter. I reached up to touch her face.

My fingers caressed her lips and her cheek. But when I went to hold her, she turned to sand in my arms. It flowed between my fingers onto my lap and settled on my feet.

And with that, my final, peaceful dream came to an end.

After a period of silence, I gained a feeling of control and rose up out of my body, hovering over the patio. I saw the trail of blood leading to the door. I saw the Adderall pill lying next to the chair where Rachel had been sitting. There was only my body in the patio chair, alone in the dark.

And then I saw Bruce standing in the patio doorway. His hands were shaking, his head still leaking blood. He rushed over to my lifeless body and shook it.

“You son of a bitch!” he said. He punched and kicked my body and screamed until blood trickled from his mouth. But I felt nothing but pity. I drifted down and settled into his body to see what was there.

My dear friend. I saw the events in the bathroom, just minutes before. I saw Rachel’s panicked face and the rope around her neck. She wanted to live, after all.

I knew his rage and pain would keep him conscious for longer than he hoped, and he wouldn’t find the peace that others had experienced—that shifting, darkening, painless fade into a dream that kills.

About the Author

Brian Phillips is a software developer and former financial writer who spends his evenings writing fantastical fiction. Want to learn more? Visit Brian's website!

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