[Author’s Note: This version of the story is now obsolete. A new and improved form will appear in my book Unearthlily. I leave it here because I like certain elements of the old version.]
It’d been a long day, I mean literally a day that had lasted months. I had disproven sleep in an internationally published and peer-reviewed paper and since then none of us had been able to get any rest. It turns out that sleep is a sort of trick programmed by evolution into our brains to keep from us getting too close to reality, a filter that drops down right when we’re only starting to really wake up. Once you understood my research, you saw through the trick, and suddenly you couldn’t sleep anymore, even when you wanted to, even when all you craved was just a minute’s peace away from your thoughts, which were building on top of themselves like playing-card castles, rickety and swaying, blown over by anything, only to leap up again in entirely different configurations.
I was about two months ahead of everyone into the great sleeplessness, and all things considered I felt pretty decent, had more ideas than ever, was just jittery, chaotic, off-balance. My mind was steaming on a little faster than I could handle. I’d started avoiding the lab. Keeping to myself. I guess I’d become isolated. I was in a constant conversation with parts of my head that I’d never met before, and I found I had to defend all my most basic ideas against chattering cruel voices that questioned everything I believed in, not just who I am or ideas like kindness or courtesy but all the way down to questions like whether being able to touch something is sufficient proof to believe in its existence. It was as if I had to define every last element of reality in order to keep experiencing that reality. Everything I thought I knew was dissolving, and I had to run around inside trying to put everything back into place, patch it up but stronger, and then dash off to the next leak that my personality had developed. It was exhausting but also exhilarating. I felt as if all the fat were being stripped from my mind. As though my mind was now all muscle and eyeball.
I spent a lot of daylight in parks. The nature soothed me. The voices never questioned the birds or the brook, and I could still summon up that old feeling of harmony from the days when I still slept, a harmony I hadn’t even known was there, a deeply seated and unconscious sense of the rightness of reality, an unquestioned faith in the hardness of the table and the familiarity of the face in the mirror, a face that had long since stopped hanging together and was just eyes, nose, mouth, wetly coexisting without acknowledging each other. In parks there were no mirrors and few other people, and it calmed me whenever my consciousness could spread out uninhibited, as if it no longer centered around my body. I liked to lie in the grass and watch the clouds.
Until the day when I noticed that the entire sky was infested with massive translucent worms swaying like things underwater.
I howled and sat up straight—and the worms swung with me.
They were in my eyes.
I had tests done. Lights were shined, samples took. The doctors didn’t find anything and I knew they wouldn’t. Our tests were obsolete: they couldn’t detect a reality that we had only just begun to discover. The worms had probably always been there, hidden from us by our brains, which after all evolved to generate offspring. You hunt and breed more successfully when you’re turned off to certain cosmic realities, the kind that make sex and paying rent look like pathetic distractions from the truth. Sleep had been protecting us, and now, without sleep there as a buffer, we would one and all slowly have our collective face pushed closer and closer toward the spinning grindstone of absolute reality, where worms lived in our eyes, objects held grudges, the sky talked endlessly, the atoms laughed until they almost split themselves, and everything that had been hidden was slowly sharpening into a clarity that was not supposed to fit inside our brains.
And I would be first. Or actually—the second. First was the woman who’d clued me into the true nature of sleep. I’d been putting off visiting her, but when the worms appeared I finally conceded that I needed her advice. The worms were waving sickeningly over everything all the time: over the sky, in the trees, on bus seats, in my cereal, on the backs of my hands, on the inside of my eyelids, over the face of my girlfriend—whose name, by the way, suddenly seemed oddly inappropriate. I felt that she had another and truer name and that when we could discover it everything about her would resolve suddenly, and she would be on the same plane as me again, and her face would come out of the fog, and I would remember what exactly she had meant to me before all of the hammering whistling needling voices constantly prying and picking had undone everything and made it so hard to concentrate on what had once made sense so easily. But through the fog I still had a sense of loyalty to her, and this loyalty had prevented me from consulting the woman who knew about the true nature of sleep, because the last time we’d seen each other she’d made a pass at me, I thought.
Now I was unlatching her gate. Now I was ringing her doorbell. She answered the door without a word and we looked into each other’s eyes. The translucent worms were crawling over her face and hair and the walls behind her, and I knew she could see them on me too.
“I just want to know…”
“What happens next?”
She laughed and shut the door.
Then she cracked it again.
“You mean after the snakes?”
She made us tea while she filled me in. She hadn’t made it through to the end herself. But she had stopped hearing the voices. They had intensified and heated up and gotten faster until they all fused. Now her mind was in a tunnel, she said, and the tunnel was made out of voices woven so densely they looked like black earth. I found it impossible to look at her. Her eyes were ten times brighter than the rest of her face. She had heavy eyes like sandbags on fire. I nervously picked up a book and flipped through it. The pages were blank. She said that she could feel her mind sliding and bumping down a tunnel, and at the end of a tunnel was a hole, and any day her mind would slide into the hole and fit into place and everything would twist like a key in a lock, and maybe then she’d have something more comforting to tell me, or maybe not, or maybe she wouldn’t even understand how to talk to me anymore, she said, and reached out like she was going to take my hand, but only stroked the back. I took away my hand and picked up another book. Blank. Same with the third and fourth and fifth book. And they were all so light. I felt if I blew on the page the whole book would crumble. She said my name—not my usual name, but my real name, one I hadn’t even known existed—and rubbed her knee on mine. Why was she still concerned with animal delights I’d long ago left behind? I blew on a blank page, and a wedge of words appeared. Then she said my real name again, and I shivered and understood that this would not end well. Talking to her had accelerated the process in my own skull. I could sense a tunnel’s mouth somewhere just behind my forehead. It made me aware of the furrows of my own brain. By now she had scooted her chair over and was leaning on my chest. I didn’t get why she liked me. Maybe I was just the only one she thought could understand. But I didn’t understand anything. It had all frayed and fallen apart. I could feel my skin unravelling, and underneath it I would be a giant white question mark made of cloud and quickly dispersing. Her breath warmed my ear. Her fingers climbed my neck. Her three cats were watching us and an omelette still in the pan was watching us, and suddenly I didn’t know if I had the neck or the hand, if I was flesh or wood; I was terribly light-headed and insubstantial, and so was she, and then my arms fell through her arms and our skulls merged and all her memories and thoughts moved through mine like two galaxies passing through each other, our language intertwined, and we flowered into higher consciousness.