The Man Who Disproved Sleep
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 no one had gotten any rest.
It turned out that sleep was a sort of trick programmed by evolution to keep us from getting too close to reality, a filter that dropped down right when we were only really starting to wake up.
But this discovery had a side effect unknown at publication.
Once you understood my research, you gradually lost the ability to sleep, even when you took bottles of pills, even when all you craved in the world was just a little oblivion, just a minute’s peace away from your thin sharp thoughts building on themselves like playing-card castles, rickety and swaying, blown over by anything only to leap up again in bewildering new configurations.
At first I had more ideas than ever, was just jittery, chaotic, off-balance. But over months my internal monologue, yakking and free-associating 24/7, began to drown other people out. Then it split into dialogues and trialogues, and all of a sudden I was embroiled in a neverending debate with parts of my head I’d never met before—chattering cruel witty voices that systematically attacked all my theories and convictions.
These voices questioned everything: not just higher concepts like who I was or whether I really knew my girlfriend, but also axioms like whether being able to touch something was proof it existed.
And the voices never wearied, never faltered, never shut up.
Everything I thought I knew was dissolving, and I had to leap around inside myself desperately defining, patching holes and then rushing off to the next leak my personality had sprung.
It was as if all the fat were being stripped from my mind.
As though my mind were now all muscle and eyeball.
The next phase hit me in a park.
It was a slow-motion summer morning, all sky and palatial clouds and leaf-shadows. For once I had relaxed, my head was almost quiet, and I was savoring the rightness of reality, the stoniness of stone and the familiarity of my own face.
I’d been a little… indistinct. Facially tenuous, somehow.
In the park the only mirror was the lake. I jogged there hoping to recognize myself, but when I leaned over the water, I saw no face—
Only a cubist mist of eyes, nose, lips.
And when I returned to cloud-watching, the upper sky shifted subtly, and I saw all at once that the highest blue 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 taken.
My colleagues didn’t find anything, but I knew they wouldn’t. Our tests were obsolete: they couldn’t detect a reality that we had only just begun to discover.
fThe worms had probably always been there, hidden by our brains. After all, we hunt and breed more successfully when we’re turned off to certain higher-dimensional realities, the kind that make sex and paying rent look like pathetic distractions from the truth.
What else had our brains suppressed?
Sleep had been protecting us, and now our faces would be pushed toward the spinning grindstone of absolute reality, where worms lived in our eyes, where objects held grudges, the sky babbled endlessly, and the atoms laughed until they almost split.
And I would go first. Or actually—second.
First was the woman whose sleeping disorder had inspired my experiments. I wanted or even needed to visit her, to ask for her advice, but during our last talk she had made a pass at me, I thought.
And I was still loyal to the concept of my girlfriend.
But now the worms, slithering over sky and trees, sinks and soupbowls and the insides of my eyelids, swarmed most thickly over my girlfriend’s increasingly abstract face; and every time I spoke to her, many voices in unison yelled my name.
Not to mention that her name, when I could recall it, seemed oddly inappropriate, as if she had another, truer name—a name that would bring her into focus, that would clarify her face from the fog and remind me just what exactly I had felt for her before the hammering whistling needling voices constantly prying and picking had deconstructed all my thoughts and feelings.
I needed the advice of the original insomniac.
And then I was unlatching her gate. Then I was ringing her doorbell. She opened the door halfway; the worms wriggled over her face and hair and the wall around her, and I assumed she saw them too. “I just want to know…”
She smiled. “Yes?”
“What happens next?”
She cackled and shut the door, then threw it wide open.
“You mean after the snakes?”
She made tea while she filled me in.
The voices had intensified and sped up, she said, until they fused around her consciousness. Now her mind was in a white tunnel made of voices woven so densely they looked like molten wire.
I found it painful to look at her. Her eyes were ten times brighter than the rest of her face. She had heavy eyes, like sandbags on fire.
Nervously I picked up a book and flipped through.
The pages were blank.
She said she could feel her mind sliding and bumping down the tunnel of voices toward a radiant hole, and any day now her mind would glide through the hole like a key into a lock—or like a key that becomes the lock, if that made sense.
I said it didn’t.
She laughed. Maybe after the transition, she said, she’d have something more comforting to tell me, or maybe not, or maybe she wouldn’t understand how to talk to me anymore.
And she reached out and caressed my fist.
I flinched away and picked up another book. It was blank. Same with the third and fourth book. And they were all so light. If I blew, surely the books would crumble.
She breathed my name, rubbing her knee on mine.
Why was she still so concerned with animal pleasures?
I blew on a blank page, and a wedge of words appeared.
Then she spoke my name again—not the usual one, but one I had never suspected—and I shivered and understood that all this would not end well.
Talking to her had already accelerated the process in my own skull: a tunnel’s mouth had opened just behind my forehead, along with a strange rubbery creased sensation that was a growing awareness of the furrows of my own brain.
She scooted her chair over and leaned on my chest.
I still didn’t get why she liked me—maybe she thought I could understand.
But I couldn’t understand anything, I was all frayed and fallen apart. My skin was unravelling, and underneath I would be a giant white question mark made of cloud and rapidly dispersing.
Her breath steamed my ear. Her fingers climbed my neck.
Her three cats were watching us, and an omelet still in the pan was watching us, and suddenly I didn’t know whether I had the neck or the hand, whether I was flesh or word; I was terribly light-headed and insubstantial, and so was she, and then my arms fell through her arms and our skulls merged and her memories and thoughts moved through mine like two galaxies passing through each other, our language intertwined, and we flowered into higher consciousness.