By J. L. Thurston
The world has turned. People now have the option to avoid sleep indefinitely. A simple pill puts part of the brain in a sleep-like state while the conscious mind continues. People spend more time enjoying life, being with family, working more. On average, most only sleep once or twice a week. The manufacturers of the Awaquen pill are formulating a pediatric version of this for children over two. This will introduce night schools and better education opportunities. The world is now much more productive and fast-paced. It is a better world for everyone.
Except the Sandman.
He’s dying. Occasional sleepers are not enough to sustain his life force. He needs something more constant. He begins to steal sleep. Four times. Four humans kept in perpetual REM. Now he can relax. Now that his energy has returned, he can think clearly. Thinking brings guilt. He has done a most terrible thing. He acted like a force of Darkness when he stole the four humans’ sleep. It is not his normal way. He has always been a neutral entity, a spirit of slumber that feeds from willing hosts. But with the turn of the world, the Sandman has become a predator. He will not allow it any longer. He goes to the four.
One: Sandra breathes the crisp, fall air. Autumn was her favorite season, so beautiful and lovely that she named her baby after it. Sleeping peacefully in her stroller, Autumn seems to fulfill her mother’s wishes and sports wisps of fire-colored hair. The stroller wheels crush dried leaves beneath, the neighborhood is quiet and full of sunshine. Sandra stops to rest on a bench near the park, watching squirrels bury treasures for next spring.
He appears quite suddenly. “Do not be afraid,” he assures, knowing that, by simply showing himself to her, she would be. He does not look human, with his unusual height and incredibly thin body. His face is youthful, like a young boy’s, and he glows with celestial light. He wears strips of white that humans would register as clothing. Nothing about him is natural to Sandra. Without explanation, he reaches forward and touches her forehead. She disappears from her beautiful fall world.
Two: Mica hasn’t caught one, yet, but it never was about the amount of fish, it was about the experience. He hasn’t fished in so long, he can’t help but grin to himself with just the pure simple joy of standing by the shallow river with a pole in his hands. The smell of the water, freshly rejuvenated by a recent rain, and the squish of clay-ridden mud under his boots. This is living. He pats the stogie in his pocket, to be lit after the first catch of the day. Family tradition. The water ripples with unusual patterns and Mica turns to face the Sandman. He stumbles and falls backwards into the mud.
“Please, don’t be afraid,” says the Sandman, touching Mica between the eyes and making him disappear.
Three: Paint is splattered everywhere. All colors in all shapes and patterns. An unlimited supply of canvas and all the mediums she could ever want are at her disposal. The room is windowless, lit by bare yellow bulbs above. Hannah creates masterpiece after masterpiece, delighting in the peace and quiet this room of creation provides her. When he appears, she flinches but does not cry out. Her bravery impresses him, but he sends her away all the same.
Four: The library is the last place to visit. Leon reclines in a cushy chair with his feet up on a coffee table. A stack of read books has been growing beside him, and in his hands rests an old leather-bound. He jumps when he hears the voice, and drops the heavy book. “Do not be afraid.” Leon barely catches a glimpse of him when he feels the cold touch of fingers on his forehead.
The four are collected in an empty airport terminal. They sit in hard, plastic seats with equally bemused expressions. The terminal has only two gates, with a plane at the end of each one.
Sandra is the first to break the silent confusion, panicking for her baby.
“Autumn is safe, I assure you,” the Sandman says to her. The four turn to see him standing nearby, with tall windows of white light behind him. “Please, remain calm. All will be well in a short time.”
“Are you an angel?” comes the awed voice of Mica, who still has cold mud on the butt of his jeans.
The Sandman shakes his head. “I am the Sandman. Since the invention of the Awaquen pill, I’ve been dying. You four have saved my life. But I have been using you most unfairly, and for that I am deeply sorry. The time has come for me to give up my selfish ways and enter into hibernation in an attempt to outlast this sleepless trend. I hope, one day, humans will return to their natural sleep cycles, but until then I shall go into dormancy. In order to survive in such a state, I only need to keep two of you.”
The four exchange glances.
“It was unfair of me to keep you like this,” the Sandman continues, remorse dripping in his voice. “And it is still unfair of me to continue to keep two of you, but I will allow you four to vote which two will stay and which will go home.”
“Wait,” Leon’s hand shoots up, his face contorts with an expression close to anger. “Are we… alive?”
The Sandman gives a nod, his hands clasp together. “You are all alive, kept in a deep slumber so that I can live. You will decide who stays asleep, and who can wake up. The two chosen to wake will take a plane ticket and board an awaiting plane,” he extended a long arm and indicated a desk between the gates where two blank plane tickets rested. “The two chosen to stay will return to their place of paradise I have devised and live out the remainder of their lives. I will give you unlimited time to make your choices.”
The Sandman makes himself disappear, but he does not leave. He goes to the farthest corner of the room and remains out of sight. He cannot bear to hear their debating, but it felt wrong to leave them unattended. They all have so much to lose. It is the guilt he is feeling, the guilt from knowing everything he made them give up, everything they’ve lost because of his need.
It does not take long for angers to flare. Leon is young and full of spirit. He runs to the gate, attempting to take a plane for himself. Sandra bolts after him, but he is physically unable to cross the gate without a ticket bearing his name. He hits an invisible barrier and is pushed backwards. Sandra puts a hand on his arm that he flings off. They go to return to their seats. All he can think of is his college career he’d barely begun, the parents who’d believed so much in him they spent their life savings on his education. Sandra’s eyes couldn’t be wider as her body and soul prepares to do anything to return to her baby. Mica is silent during this, but it does not take long for him to strike up his own fight. He is used to fighting. He’s battled brain cancer for years before the Sandman took him under.
The only one who keeps quiet in her chair is Hannah. She is the youngest, lounging in tight black pants and picking dried paint from around her fingernails. The others catch on to this and ask her about it, her answer stuns them into some kind of unified civility and they settle into their seats. Their debating remains intense, but mature, like world leaders readying to change laws.
Their discussion continues for an unbearably long time, yet draws to a close in a sudden way. The Sandman never looks away from them for a moment, and is surprised when two of the humans rise from their chairs in stiff resolution and take a plane ticket each. They move a bit closer to their terminal with timid expectations, amazed when their names appear on their ticket.
The Sandman walks closer to them before showing himself. Mica grips his ticket firmly in his fist, while Sandra holds hers to her chest. They have won their freedom, while the other two sit in their plastic chairs. Hannah is attempting a bored expression, while Leon cries silently into his palms.
The Sandman appears. “The choice has been made. Sandra, Mica, please board your planes.”
They practically run through their gates. The engines to the planes begin to warm up. The Sandman turns to Hannah and Leon. “Are you ready to return to your paradise?”
“I have conditions,” Leon’s muffled voice comes from behind his hands. When he raises his head, his eyes are full of rage. “I don’t want to remember this. I just want to go back to thinking that I’m dead and just waiting for my family to die, too, so we can be together. Knowing that I’m a prisoner would be torment.”
The Sandman nods. “I understand.”
“Also, I want more than just a library,” Leon continued. “I was happy, but can’t there be more?”
“I’m afraid I won’t have the energy.”
The Sandman has counted forty-eight tears so far. “I will have strength enough to give you a courtyard with changing seasons.” He turns back to Hannah. “Anything for you?”
Hannah shrugs. “I’ve spent my time in that art room knowing I’d been rescued. No one can touch me in there. I like it. I could go for some music, though.”
He tries not to smile and gives her a nod. “I can manage that.”
The three of them look out the windows to the airplanes that are now racing down the tarmacs and lifting into the whiteness of the world beyond.
“Will they be alright?” Leon asks.
The Sandman does not respond. He touches his two humans on the center of their foreheads and send them to their upgraded paradises. He is not omniscient; but he knows enough to guess at the fate of the two who are now waking. Sandra had been his first victim. A car accident put her in a coma that he’d held her in for eleven years. She no longer has a baby, but a pre-teen who does not know her. Her recovery will be endlessly painful. Mica’s brain tumor has become so engrossed that the doctors cannot remove it all. He will pass from the living in less than a month.
Hannah and Leon will serve him well for a long time. When their bodies age and die in the waking world, the Sandman will have to collect two more sleepers and feed on them until they, themselves, pass on. So it will go on, and on, and on until mankind decides to sleep again.
He was weary, already, with Mica and Sandra gone. He secured the worlds for his two sleepers and folded away to dormancy. His last conscious thoughts were heavy worries for humankind, but that was not something he was unaccustomed to.