2018-03-30 18:07 fiction short-story Benjamin Brood

Circadia

I don't know if I'd call it stealing exactly, once you realize everyone is dreaming the same dream, who owns what? We haven't slept in several months. I know — you've heard this is impossible — to go several months without sleeping, it's fatal, right? I'm sure you know a lot about it. You've read things on wikipedia, you've seen things on television.

However, we do not die. There are a few of us, not many, but more than just a few isolated individuals. And there were support groups, in the cities, the big cities, not in the rural areas, God help them. But in this city we had a weekly group, less than a dozen of us. But enough of us.

Our symptoms were the same. Each of us detailed an unusual, persistent, sensation — a debilitating disjointedness, all knuckles and frayed wires, all uncoiled springs — it was best described as having to listen to a very loud drummer who has no rhythm whatsoever. It affects everything. Sometimes this manifested itself as anxiety, undeclared and free floating, other times as a misunderstanding of simple temporality. You could get confused about whether you had done something or you were about to do something. You could stare at the clock and have no idea what it means. When we describe it to friends or mental health professionals, the lack of comparable sensations leads to confusion, outright dismissals, or worst, misdiagnosis.

Invariably, due to the glaringly alarming absence of meaningful sleep — and I mean anything more than a few minutes of physical shutdown — most of us were put into sleep labs where we were hooked into monitors, then lay there in uncomfortable sheets for the next eight hours, futilely hoping something might be discovered. None of us were hallucinating or psychotic. The encephalograms were normal. Blood work was normal. CT scans, normal. The next step, obviously, was pills. In the end it's always pills isn't it. If we couldn't sleep naturally, then take a handful of pills to knock you out for the night. We didn't disagree with this treatment, although for my own part, I was not encouraged by the passivity of the medical profession's desire to understand a root cause. Why weren't we psychotic? Why weren't the brain scans abnormal? So, pills it was.

And I slept? No, sleep isn't the right word. I lay down and I closed my eyes and lost consciousness. It was not, however, anything like sleep. The other symptoms, that rhythmless drumbeat, the thin grasp of linearity, did not change. Maybe therapy would help, if there wasn't any medical explanation then it must be something psychological. The therapy was also not a treatment I disagreed with. Who doesn't need therapy these days? We're all a mess.

The sessions became a routine, and that's how I heard about the support group. And while my therapist didn't state it, I got the distinct feeling she believed this was an exciting and newly developing "modern" condition. She would ask a lot of questions about my use of technology — did I keep the phone by the bed? Did I spend lots of time following references and looking up irrelevancies? Did I find that hours had gone by and I couldn't really account for any of my time? Did I still read books and watch those serious sorts of movies that required attention and thought, or was it now just memes and short, funny clips of animals? She recommended a slow program curtailing connectivity. I now had "quiet hour" where I pretty much just stared out the window. The other people in the group were trying these things too. It didn't seem to help the specific problem, although I could pretend I felt great sometimes.

There were many obvious commonalities between the members of the group. But the majority of the data points could be discounted as irrelevant because we were urban dwellers, we tended to behave similarly because that's what a city imposes on you. You adjust or you crack, either way, you adjust. But there was one factor the therapist leading the group seemed overjoyed to discover, and immediately latched onto — we were all single. Just as my own therapist appeared convinced that the phone had damaged my brain, the group leader was convinced we were plagued by loneliness and social dysfunction. So we talked a lot about that. Although, like many of our fellow city cohabitants, the more we talked about it the less it looked like psychological dysfunction and more like environmental apathy and weariness. This frustrated the group leader. Why didn't we care about this more? Well, yeah, apathy.

Still, we couldn't get a night's sleep. We each described the sequence of events that led to this condition in almost exactly the same way. First, when it all began, there was a low persistent tone in our ears, like tinnitus, but in some way more mechanical. This was easily discounted. Second, waking up at 3AM. No trouble going to sleep before that, but suddenly and absolutely consistently waking up at 3AM, on the dot. And instead of that feeling of exhausted doom that usually accompanies waking up and not getting back to sleep — understanding that you would only get sleepy again right before the alarm clock goes off and then be dragging your ass around all day long — instead of this, there was an often shocking sense of invincibility. We had an energy level that was sustainable until at least early afternoon. This lasted several months. But then, very quickly, 3AM became 1AM then 1AM became midnight — then no sleep at all. Not exactly sleep anyway. Every couple of days there was a period where consciousness just seemed… thin. Maybe for an hour. Like you weren't really there at all. But we didn't sleep. And we didn't dream.

When I asked everyone else what was the last dream they remembered, they couldn't say. Maybe something years ago? Nobody knew. This seemed important. It was the same for me, I couldn't recall a single dream for years. No nightmares, no sex dreams, nothing. How is that possible? Had we lost the ability to dream long before the other symptoms started? Perhaps, because we couldn't dream, sleep itself was now some useless appendage to the body, dreams were like people with tails, at some point the tails would just fall right off.

I wondered if we were now what everybody else would become. Why sleep? Why dream? My therapist ran down the fact sheet, saying the same things almost verbatim that I'd read online. Sure, sure, I get it, I said, it's a normal part of human consciousness. Most creatures sleep, certainly a lot of them dream. Creatures like humans, complex little fuckers, needed dreams.

But among ourselves, in the group, there was a feeling that something had changed. We didn't say "we are something new" but the sentiment silently underpinned many conversations. We knew this had happened in other cities too, and it wasn't just America, it looked like a dozen cities in the US, but also Japan, France, Norway, Brazil had meetups as well.

We still got together every week, but the vain speculations and psychological teasing by the therapist was tiresome. The group started meeting outside the lab and since we didn't have to observe the standard clock of civilization we would meet in the middle of the night, at a diner.

It's only when you're out and aren't sleeping do you realize the city has an entirely different population, one you can only see after midnight. Gone are the puffy-eyed morning coffee people, who stand in bleak attention grasping the subway poles with deft practice from day-in-day-out routines, clutching with dashes of misery and disdain. There aren't many smiles in the morning rush hours. Nighttime people smile and laugh, and yell and stagger and sway. Of course many of them will become the morning people the next day, but for the moment they're ecstatic and free and untouched by the carapace of the city — as if it were a giant armored thing, a living thing whose legs are subway tunnels and body is a concrete bunker. Then there are the others, their movements are slight and ghostly, always inhabiting a dark city, where a rare night breeze exists, and where you can pass without the baggage of the anxious office worker, the service component, the deadening ritual. There is, we discussed once, an unsaid connection between these people, like an invisible tether, a web-work between ourselves vibrating with untapped energy. We are going where we go, we are doing what we do, our motions were orchestrated by something more subtle than daytime things.

I met Ezra on the subway after a medically unsanctioned meetup. It was 2 or 3AM. He sat down next to me on a quiet train, not so many people on it, but enough that you didn't get your own bench. Ezra was wearing a motion capture suit. That's what it looked like to me anyway. I didn't know if it was, but it was black and it had a similar unflattering tightness to it, and he was wearing a stretch black cap over his ears, pulled fairly far down on his forehead, and there seemed to be several straps placed where they didn't make any sense. And there was a black on black pattern of the cloth itself — a kind of Mandelbrot pattern, dotted occasionally with raised white circles. This kind of outfit gets zero attention on the subway of course, you could be dressed like a giant chicken, it doesn't matter. While staring at somebody during the day is bad form, staring at night is entirely acceptable. I noticed Ezra's face was made up with a pattern of skin tones, blocky, geometrical. Perhaps he just came from a job acting for a video game, or a VR event. There are all sorts of things like that now I guess. I was staring, he noticed I was staring, but didn't look over at me.

"I appear in other people's dreams." He said.

"That's pretty good work if you can get it I suppose." I said.

He shrugged, the movement of the dots highlighting the gesture. "Not as great as you'd imagine, it has some benefits of course", he said. "Part of the problem is I no longer dream myself." Then he did turn to look at me, I saw the lines of his makeup slightly irregular and courageously applied in a straight line over a raised mole. His face showed no emotion or reaction at all.

And I got a chill. I thought, OK, now I must be hallucinating, it was bound to happen. I looked around the train quickly, nobody was looking at us. I could not confirm if he existed. But that didn't mean anything, that could be perfectly normal. And I looked back at him, he was staring at me now, waiting.

"What do you do instead of dream?" I asked.

"I collect things. From the dreams, I collect stuff."

"What sort of stuff?"

"Weird things. Things that you wouldn't be able to get outside… Like this, for instance."

He reached around casually and pulled out a modest roll of money out of some pocket in the suit. He deftly peeled one sheet off and handed it to me. The bill was square and colorful. However, I didn't recognize anything about the denomination, about the markings on it, or the personae depicted. I looked hard at it, realizing there were areas of the bill that were fuzzy, places that I was sure should've been writing or numbers or something, but were things I was unable to see physically. I squinted.

"It's money from Circadia." He said.

"Oh? I've never heard of that country before."

"Sure, of course not — it doesn't exist."

He put the roll back. I was still looking at the bill he'd handed me, unable to comprehend what I was looking at, but what I was holding was nascently familiar.

"That's OK," he said, "you can keep that one. Not going to be much use anyway."

"OK thanks."

There was a pause where I was acutely aware of the train rocking back and forth as it sped between stations.

"I'm not the only one that collects." He said.

"Really?"

"A bunch of us collect. You'll probably collect too. When you don't dream on your own you're bound to collect."

"I see."

"Well, my stop is coming up. My name is Ezra. If you want work, get in touch with us." He stood up, awkwardly shifting one shoulder in the costume, and walked to the door between train cars.

"Wait… How do I contact you?" I asked.

He didn't wait, he grabbed the door but he said in voice loud enough to be heard above the train noise, "You're holding it". And I looked down and the square bill that was money was now a fairly conventional business card. A trick I thought. The kind of tricks they make fun of online, the impossible transformations or reveals delivered haphazardly with solemnity and the slightest raised eyebrow to the overreactions of a small crowd.

The card was gray on one side, black on the other. It was covered with a geometric design. I thought it looked a little like Ezra's suit, which I guess made sense if you're properly branding yourself. On the gray side of the card was printed "Circadia" and below that "sleep://circadia". I could no longer see Ezra, the opposite train car door had closed. We started to slow down, pulling into a station. As passengers emptied out I looked out onto the platform but didn't see him walk by. This was ridiculous, I thought, this is some guerrilla marketing campaign, for something called "Circadia". I wondered if it was an energy drink or a tech startup or a tech startup energy drink. I put the card into my purse. There was a buzzing in my ears, like when this whole thing started, a buzzing like gears. I walked home and didn't sleep.

The following week at our group meeting I grew bored. Once you've declared the same things more than twice it becomes boring, no matter how serious the condition or entrenched the opinion. But things had changed for me. I'd repeatedly taken the Circadia card out to see if it had changed back into currency. If I couldn't dream could I at least be a part of other people's dreams? This thought became a weird euphoria. In the background I heard a group member talking about the isolation of having a second life at night, but I wasn't sure it was so difficult anymore. I felt strangely resentful that I was attached to the group, rehashing their inadequacies. If I never slept again, I wanted to know what other people dreamed. I realized there was some desire there — if I was lacking a thing I could seek that thing out from other people. Was I a thief? Was I a thief by nature? Would I be a thief of sleep?

When I got home and I typed in the address on the card I was presented with a map. It was the country of Circadia. It was a static map, hand drawn, maybe on the back of a napkin. Hovering or clicking on it didn't do anything. There was a street address in a large, unstyled font at the bottom, a Brooklyn street address. I knew the neighborhood. It was once industrial, now becoming developed, but was known for having an art scene. OK, this started to make some sense, I thought, this is a performance. But I still intended to find out by going there.

The next day I navigated a couple of subway lines and got off on a broad deserted street. It was damp and neutral outside, the day lacked detail. Around me were large, low brick and concrete buildings with few windows. The windows that were there had old wire screens and bars on them. Small signs, maybe now wrong, I don't know, were attached haphazardly, declaring metal works, plumbing supplies, chemical storage, etching services and so on. There was a small amount of lazy, uninspired graffiti as well.

The building that was my destination was no different. There was however a wooden stairway on the side of the building which was questionably secure. The address was painted on tin, with an arrow sloppily pointing upwards. The tin was fixed to the side of the building with a rusty nail. The stairs shook as I walked up them. At the top of the stairs was a white door, mismatched from anything else on the building. Screwed onto the door was a menu holder, the sort found in cheap neighborhood restaurants, half full with folded paper. Picking one out I saw, again handwritten, not particularly neatly, "WELCOME" and below this "NEXT EXPEDITIONS" then two lines "sleep://nh982h3a" and "sleep://cvnh9nsd". At the bottom of the paper, scrawled in pencil, was "need a suit? check below the stairs". Then I knocked on the door. Quietly at first, then harder and louder. There was no answer so I added a couple utterances of "Hello? Hello?" in ascending volume as if that would make any difference, it probably never does. Then I paused, in case someone was making their way to the door. Soon I gave up.

I went back down the stairs. I kept the paper. I looked behind the stairs and sure enough there was a large plastic bin, a big plastic box with a blue lid. From the street you couldn't see too much under the stairs anyway. I took the top off the bin. Inside were stacked, neatly, several suits wrapped in clear plastic. There were labels on each, "L", "M", "S". I took one marked "S". I glanced around cautiously, to see if anyone had seen me because I had the feeling I was doing something wrong, or illegal, or forbidden.

When I got home I placed the suit, in its wrapping, on the dining room table. What now? There must be a relationship to the addresses on that paper. I waited until it was dark out. I unwrapped the suit and struggled to put it on. I should've gotten an "M". I propped up my tablet on the table and entered the address on the paper. Maybe I'm a particularly self-conscious person, I don't know, but the constriction of the suit, my commitment to this experiment only exacerbated that off-center feeling, the background syncopation which had so thoroughly set in over the last few months — discomfort was now inevitable and acceptable. So I carried on.

The screen of the tablet repeated the same generative sequence as the suit, as the business card, as the currency, and there was an ambient sound playing — it wasn't music, but a cyclic sound. I sat there in the suit, looking at the screen, waiting for something, I don't know what, when I became dizzy. A sudden swamp of it, dizziness and nausea. I closed my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose, I flipped the cover onto the tablet, suspending it and stopping the droning. When I opened my eyes I wasn't quite sure where I was. Didn't I leave the kitchen light on? Perhaps there was a power outage.

This wasn't my house at all, I realized in a panic.

I could hear hushed voices from another room. Investigating my surroundings didn't interest me in the least for whatever reason, I was paralyzed, listening. Despite the darkness a door became visible — highlighted and important. I had no apprehensions. I walked over to the door and opened it. A young man was standing in the middle of a bedroom. The bedroom was particular — it had the style and fixtures of the 1970s. The music posters, the ceramic lamp, a shelf of books — there was no computer or games or screens, just a small cheap turntable and speakers. The young man was likewise dressed in the period, the shirt was a soft velour material, the jeans flared at the bottoms.

The young man held a gun. He didn't appear shocked at my presence, more like he was expecting me, or somebody anyway. I didn't even know who I really was. He looked at me, with a pained expression, and he looked down at the floor, ashamed. "I've tried but I just can't do it", he said. And he raised the gun and pointed it at a large poster on the wall I didn't notice when I came in. It was different than the others, muted, larger, not the same juvenile type from that period of time. In large white letters at the top it said "LEAD" and at the bottom, in the same way, "CIRCADIA". Between the writing was the picture of a man, in uniform, facing forward, hair slicked back, the uniform peppered with pins and emblems that had no meaning to me. He had an aggressive quality, his eyes were direct and confrontational. Since the other posters in the room were mostly of rock stars, I assumed this too was a rock star. But depicting a role, or maybe having taken a role? The young man pointed the gun at the poster and I heard the "click" of the trigger as he pulled it, but no shots were fired. "See?" he said. Then he turned the gun around and held it by the handle, offering it to me. "You try" he said.

I took the gun — I had never fired a gun in my life. I held it up, pointed it at the poster on the wall and pulled the trigger. A shot rang out. It hit the poster almost in the center, and the center of the image of the uniformed man. The image changed. Instead of the man appearing boldly confrontational, there was now a wide patch of blood on his chest and the man's face was pale, his eyes shut. Whoever he was, I understood he was now dead. "Thank you", the young man said, relieved. I turned and left the room, holding the gun.

I don't know how I got to the subway. But I remember passing through the car doors and sitting down. I was there for some time before Ezra sat down next to me.

"So how'd it go?" he asked. He was still wearing his suit and I was still wearing mine.

"I don't know. Who was the young man? The teenager?"

Ezra shrugged. "Beats me. You take anything?"

I looked down at my hands, I was holding the gun. No, I wasn't holding the gun. I wasn't sure. I handed it to Ezra. It was a rock, a black shiny rock almost like coal but as heavy as a gun.

"It's a gun." I said.

His eyes grew wide. "Wow, first time out." He asked, "you used it?" He turned the rock over and over.

"Yeah. I think it was somebody important. I don't really know."

"OK, OK. It's not always easy to tell."

"What are you going to do with it, the gun I mean."

"I'm going to put it with the other stuff. You never know when you're gonna need something like this."

"I don't remember getting on this train."

"You're sleep walking."

"Oh."

"Look, you might need this, for next time." He handed me a small leather wallet. Inside, trapped in a transparent plastic window was a sequence of images, flipping quickly. "It's ID," he said, "official Circadia ID." Or was it a short stack of tree leaves that I carefully clasped my hands around.

"Thanks." I said.

The next night I went out again. There was no reason not to. However, I believed there was a logic and purpose to it. What this could be I would need to decipher, I thought. It was compelling.

That night I had to show my ID at the border. The guards were very serious and very strict, they checked everything over a few times. I was supposed to go to the station, they told me. When I got there it turned out to be a party, fancy, and formal, and I wasn't wearing the right clothes. I was in my pajamas, so the guests kept giving me disparaging glances. All the guests were serving hors d'oeuvre to one another, like it was a game. There was a book at the front, a guest book as big as an elephant and I spent a lot of time filling in the names. Eventually I just made up nonsense. Who would know, I thought, but I felt embarrassed none the less. Then I left, and I took the pen with me. A nice pen, a fountain pen full of red ink. It has to be an antique, I thought.

When I handed the pen to Ezra it was a bone from a bird's wing. "You're doing great," he told me, "this will be a nice addition."

"How many things have you collected? So far."

"A lot of things. You really wouldn't believe how many things." He said.

This seemed like a sufficient explanation to me. I'm not sure what other justification I would've required. He handed me a photograph, a kind of Polaroid or whatever they called it in Circadia. It had that thick black back that I remember about Polaroids, however this one made the sound of crickets as I handled it. It was a picture of a woman sitting in a cafe, a middle eastern cafe with white tile and small dirty tables.

"If you give me a thing from Circadia and I only return a thing from Circadia you will always have the same number of things."

"You're smart. Not all the things we give you come from Circadia, some are fakes, things we've made with the other things. For instance, with the pen, we could write a letter. And so on."

"I see."

I didn't feel reassured. But I visited the Brooklyn location again for addresses, this time the paper listed three — and at the bottom, heavily underlined twice, were the words "LOOK ABOVE THE DESK".

At night I entered a Victorian study. It was done in dark wooden hues and heavy drapery, several portraits in ornamental gold frames hung on the patterned wallpaper. One of these I recognized, it was the man I'd shot previously. His costume was the same as last time, vaguely military. The gas lamp on the wall gave the room a soft, warm quality. I smelled lingering pipe tobacco. I was alone in the room, although I felt that the portraits were conscious. Had I always felt that way about portraits, generally, I realized I did. The awareness of my own awareness suddenly made me frightened. I did not belong here. This was not my dream. I felt like a thief, which I guess I was.

There was a desk in the corner of the room. The roll-top was closed. Above the desk — I remembered, look above the desk — was a small clock. It was similarly ornate, well made, areas of the mechanism exposed which I could see moving quietly and smoothly. Was it full of milk? It was, I think. And as I tried to make out the time I realized there were too many sets of hands. A dozen or more. So, I would take the clock.

But when I got to the desk I had an irresistible urge to open it. Inside, on the broad leather padded surface, was a bright red notebook. Next to it was a hand held voice recorder, one of those digital sticks that people recite memos into, verbal notes. This object was odd to me, in part because I couldn't imagine using it, but had never known anyone to use such a thing. Business men? This was the real anomaly in the room, whereas the milk clock and the bright red notebook made sense to me. I picked up the recorder and pressed play. I believe the voice was the young man, from the other night. But it wasn't entirely clear, there were intermittent sounds of movement, clicks, and footsteps. He said, "the borders of Circadia will be closing. Too many things have been taken. There are gaps, what is a dream without a clock, or a pen, or a photograph? Eventually we would be nothing but dreams of deserts, or of open ocean, nothing but stretches of symbol-less expanse. You can help, if you want to. Take the clock because you have to, but also take the red notebook. Write down everything you can in the red notebook, write down a description of where the things from Circadia are kept, write down your meetings, draw a map for us, we can use this to make everything work again."

I picked up the red notebook and flipped through it, it was blank. I put it into the pocket of the long flannel bathrobe I was wearing.

Later I handed Ezra the clock, which was a bundle of wool tied with twine. I did not give him or tell him about the red notebook however. The notebook remained a notebook and that night I wrote down everything that had happened. As the dreams went on and I collected more items, Ezra trusted me enough to bring them directly to the storeroom. Behind the door at the top of the staircase, there were hundreds of shelves filled with sticks and leaves and piles of soil, with toadstools and feathers, with bark and desiccated worms.

These too I wrote down.

When I finished the notebook I went back to the Victorian study, the room was identical with only a couple of exceptions. The clock of course was missing since I had taken it, and the portraits appeared subtly altered. They maintained their perceptive qualities but had the faces become older? Were the wrinkles and gray hair I saw now not there before? I opened the desk, the well crafted slats of wood crinkled pleasantly as they rolled up. The digital recorder was there. I pressed play and heard a different voice this time, a woman's voice. "Thank you. Please leave the notebook on the desk. The rest will be taken care of by morning." And I took the notebook out of my robe and put it into the desk, in the same place where it first was. I left empty handed.

I went to Brooklyn later that day. I was cautious, even though I'd been there many times now, I'd never seen anyone, even on the street. The bin under the stairs was gone. When I got to the top of the stairs I saw that the slot holding the leaflets was gone too. I opened the white door and a cold empty air was released, an absence.

The shelves were empty. As I left I expected to see Ezra, or the young man, I expected to see someone — but I didn't.

That night a strange feeling came over me. My eyes were tired, I told myself. I felt heavy, like gravity had been turned up, and I sank into the couch. My thoughts drifted. And for the first time in months I fell asleep, I fell asleep and I dreamed, silly dreams, none of which mattered or made much sense.