A SHORT STORY
“Sleep, those little slices of death — how I loathe them.”
― Edgar Allan Poe
Isaac groans and flops onto his back in the tangled sheets. He doesn’t pull the sleep goggles from his face. He feels so leaden, so exhausted, that he can barely move.
The vivid and terrifying homicidal dreams are getting worse. Isaac tries to shake off the smoldering mood, the flashes of rage, and the image-fragments left over from last night’s dream.
What happened? Whom did he kill this time? Repelled and frightened, Isaac still cannot resist trying to reassemble the pieces into something clear and whole and loathsome.
But all Isaac can fish from the swirling darkness inside his own head is the image of a red-haired young man with a goatee, Isaac’s hands around his neck, and the sickening sensation as the Adam’s apple is being crushed––
The tablet on the dresser interrupts Isaac’s painful reverie with Mozart’s sweet “Eine Kleine Nacht Musik,” then the purity of Glenn Gould playing Bach. Only after the last note dies does Isaac raise his pale, plump hand to the sleep goggles that shield his still-shut eyes.
The goggles feel wet.
Isaac releases the goggles from his head, and reaches for his glasses on the bedside table.
Another anachronism. Like Mozart.
In a world where laser surgery and corneal implants have made eyeglasses obsolete, Isaac stubbornly insists on wearing horn rims and black owlish readers.
Once the glasses are on, Isaac grasps his paper-thin tablet and touches the screen.
The small Jane Austen avatar appears, her narrow mouth compressed into a frown, her small, white bonnet tilted at an impatient angle above her curls.
“You have shamefully overslept, Mr. Lee,” the Austen app scolds. “Have you forgotten your meeting with Chairman Jones in exactly 8 minutes?”
“No. Well, maybe. Some things are best forgotten.”
“It is indolence. Indolence and love of ease, a want of all laudable ambition, of taste for good company, or of inclination to take the trouble of being agreeable, which make men English teachers,” Jane Austen observes.
“I could use some ease,” Isaac says. “But I feel as though I haven’t slept for a week. Like somebody beat me up.”
Isaac swings his round, pale calves over the edge of the bed and walks stiffly to the adjoining bathroom.
The windowless, mirrored room fills with cool, white, diffused light, whose source is somewhere behind the mirrors themselves.
Isaac’s gray pupils contract into focus.
Isaac’s bulbous nose is smeared with dark, red blood. Blood coagulates on his moustache, on his forehead, chin and cheeks, where he––in his sleep––must have smeared it.
“I hear you,” Isaac calls toward his tablet. “I had a nosebleed while I slept and have to clean myself up.”
Isaac becomes annoyed the moment he stops speaking. He cannot cure himself of the stupid habit of addressing the icon on his tablet as if it were a real human being, and not an electronic algorithm, less real than his own shadow.
“Hot water.” The tap directs a stream of heated water into the large, transparent sink. Isaac bends until he is close and throws the water onto his face.
The water collects in the drain, first red, then pink.
Isaac ignores Jane Austen this time. “I look terrible,” Isaac says to himself.
Now that the blood is gone, a large gray bruise has become visible on his cheekbone, and a fine scarlet abrasion that travels behind his ear and down his neck.
“Now to be sincere: did you admire me for my impertinence?” Jane Austen calls from the bedroom.
“For the liveliness of your mind, I did—ouch!” Isaac says while dabbing a styptic pencil to the angry scratch. “So do me a big favor and kill some time with Jones while I pull myself together?”
“Two minutes,” is all Jane Austen says.
At exactly 9:45 A.M., a woman’s face fills the screen of Isaac’s tablet.
“Chairman Jones,” Jane Austen announces. “Good morning, Chairman Jones. How are you on this fine morning?”
“Okay,” Chairman Jones says, then, “Good morning, Isaac. ” The face that fills the screen belongs to an African-American woman in her fifties who wears a black turtleneck. Her salt and pepper hair is cut short. She wears contact lenses that turn her naturally brown pupils light lilac. The effect is strange but beautiful.
Visible behind Chairwoman Jones is a large screen on which is broadcast the logo of the university where Isaac is employed and where she chairs the Department of Humanities and Literary Studies: VCU. Virtual California University in blue on a gold background.
Isaac, still naked, has returned to the bedroom, two small pieces of tissue stuck to the spots where his scratch still bleeds.
Isaac sits down on the bed and covers himself with the bedspread. He picks up the tablet and gazes at the Chairman Jones inside the screen.
“Forgive me for being late. I’m a bit unwell today.”
Chairman Jones nods. “I’m sorry to hear that, Isaac. We have some serious matters to discuss. From the look of you, I wonder if you’re up to it.”
“Of course,” Isaac says. “Just a bad bout of insomnia. This is the last time I drink a hyper-latte after dinner.” Isaac forces a smile.
Chairman Jones’s face appears to relax, satisfied with any excuse for Isaac’s disheveled appearance.
“Those Starbucks hyper-lattes can be lethal, Isaac. But let’s get right to it. We’ve reviewed your student evaluations and––especially after our conversation last semester––I have to tell you that we are very disappointed.”
“I don’t understand,” Isaac begins. “I altered the syllabus as you suggested. I cut two of the Shakespeare plays, four of the short stories and fifteen of the long poems. No more Yeats, Wordsworth, Keats or Emily Dickinson. And I assigned only three two and a half-page papers, not the three five-page papers I required before.”
“I know,” Chairman Jones says. “But the students do not feel that the coursework as you present it is relevant to their interests. And many of them feel that your lectures are dry––even dull.”
Isaac stares at the VCU logo on the screen behind Chairman Jones. The letters on the wall-sized screen are the university, if you can call a network of online courses a university, or if you can suspend disbelief long enough to think that the VCU website with its stock photos of students carrying books on brick pathways represents an actual campus. For all Isaac knows the easily bored and dissatisfied students in his Composition 101 and Introduction to English Literature courses last semester were not human students but merely their tablet’s avatars.
He’d seen the screen in Chairman Jones’s apartment once in person. Oddly she lived and worked in a building only a mile from his, but Isaac had only been there once, three years ago, at a new year’s gathering for humanities faculty and staff.
Either Chairman Jones stopped giving parties, or she stopped inviting Isaac over.
“I don’t know what to say,” Isaac says quietly. “I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry, too, Isaac,” Chairman Jones says. “I’m going to give you a day to submit a revised syllabus for the Intro course. We’ll deal with the comp course later. Think relevance! Maybe tie in video games to the texts. And sports. And fashion. Sports and fashion are always popular. Do you see where I’m going? Students aren’t going to purchase a VCU course unless they feel they will get something out of it. Unless it’s fun.”
“Thank you,” Isaac says glumly as Chairman Jones’s lilac eyes fade to gray and the screen goes black. “I’ll do my best to come up with something fun.”
Isaac has trouble falling asleep. Reading Coleridge and drinking three glasses of scotch don’t smother the panic he’s felt since his screen chat with Chairman Jones.
And he’s using up the scotch. Tonight’s astringent and smoky glassfuls have almost depleted be the dusty bottle he’d found after his father died. Now that odorless and tasteless neuro-pharmaceuticals had replaced alcoholic beverages, this would be the last scotch Isaac would ever taste.
His adjunct teaching job at VCU is nearing its end, too. He can feel it. If Isaac couldn’t hold on to his two shitty introductory lit courses, he’d be finished. His meager VCU salary for the two classes barely covers his nutritional liquids, the power bill, and the rent for his suffocatingly tiny living chamber on the seventieth floor of an aging high-rise across from the defunct Los Angeles County Art Museum. The sprawling “Black Blob” hadn’t been rebuilt after the 8.6 earthquake of 2035 leveled it and most of the city.
Isaac thinks about revising his syllabus, then about grading the hundreds of papers he will scroll though on his tablet if he is able enough to please Chairman Jones.
These thoughts make him feel as though something heavy and huge has fallen across his chest.
Breathe, Isaac tells himself. Breathe.
But his chest tightens.
Isaac touches a red icon on his tablet, “Doctor Berg.”
Is he having a heart attack?
Isaac puts his head down on his bed and, in the empty dark, listens to the pounding of his blood and to his own breath being squeezed in and out of his lungs. He holds the tablet in both hands, the way you’d hold the shoulders of someone who was saving you from drowning.
“This is Dr. Berg,” a male voice says. A male avatar’s face appears on the tablet’s screen. He is intelligent looking, late middle-aged, with kind eyes and an upturned mouth. The crisp shoulders of a white doctor’s coat are visible, with “Doctor S. Berg” embroidered above the pocket.
“I’m having a panic attack,” Isaac says.” Or a heart attack. I can’t tell which. Maybe I’m dying.”
“Touch the screen, please,” Dr. Berg says evenly.
Isaac places his palm on the screen, his plump hand completely covering Dr. Berg’s face.
“You may remove you hand,” Dr. Berg says.
Isaac lifts his hand.
“You are experiencing anxiety. Your blood pressure is elevated. Your respiration is accelerated. Was there a trigger, or was the onset of this episode of anxiety unprovoked?”
“Trigger,” Isaac says. “I think I’m going to lose my job. The job I need to survive. The job I hate.”
“Yes,” Dr. Berg says.
“Also I woke up with a nosebleed. And I’m having nightmares. Bad. Really bad. When I was a kid, I used to sleepwalk. I don’t want that to start again.”
Dr. Berg nods his virtual head slightly to acknowledge Isaac. After a moment he blinks and says, “Refrain from drinking any aspirin- or non-steroidal analgesic-enhanced meals. These can exacerbate nosebleeds. And for the next ten days, switch from the number four liquid meal to number five. Five is sodium-free and contains a mild tranquilizing agent. I have made a notation on your electronic file. You can expect delivery of the new nutritional liquid meals within 12 hours.”
As Dr. Berg fades away, Isaac relinquishes the tablet to the bed.
The apartment is dark. The only light now that the tablet is extinguished is the soft glow from the mirrors in the bathroom. Isaac moves to the window and looks down.
Wilshire Boulevard is empty except for the occasional Amazon.com drone making deliveries, and the LAPD surveillance airship on its hourly crime patrol. The thick glass blocks out all sound and its tint makes the black sky even blacker.
Isaac sighs and his breath forms a moist cloud on the window’s surface. He wipes it away and sits on the edge of the bed and pours himself the last of the scotch.
Isaac doesn’t remember falling asleep.
He finds himself in a deep and silent darkness that makes him feel as if he is falling down a well. But he struggles awake. He fights for consciousness the way a diver struggles to the surface when he hasn’t any air left.
Isaac rests on the bed and gasps. His skin is damp. A throbbing pain in his elbow becomes insistent. He touches it and feels that the skin is open, ragged.
The bottoms of his feet ache. Especially his heels.
Then flashes of his nightmare appear beneath his eyelids:
He stands over a human form and punches it until his arms are too tired to lift. Until the body feels soft under his fists. Isaac feels or maybe hears the ribs cracking.
But most powerful is the sensation of human flesh under his hand. The feel of soft skin under the dizzy whorls of his fingertips. Then the way the skin seems to harden and to cool.
Isaac becomes dizzy as another image from his nightmare begins to take shape––
“––9:30 A.M.” The Jane Austen avatar says. “It’s Monday, October 28. To sit in the shade on a fine day and look upon the verdure is the most perfect refreshment. And by the way, your revised syllabi are due today at 9:45 A.M.”
Isaac’s heart thumps as he reaches for his tablet.
“Shut up.” Isaac says and presses an icon on the screen. Jane Austen decomposes into a cloud of pixels and disappears. “Shut. The. Fuck. Up.”
“Light.” Isaac says. The ceiling of the tiny, suffocating room brightens. Isaac surveys the tangle of sheets on the bed, then notices his lacerated knuckles.
He steps unsteadily into the bathroom.
“Light.” Isaac pushes his face close to the mirror, then washes and smoothes his hair and moustache.
Quickly he returns to the room and removes a perma-clean shirt and a pair of pants from a drawer under the bed. He puts on the shirt and straightens his glasses, then sits on the bed, holding the tablet in his trembling hands, and waits.
9:45 arrives and then passes away in silence.
10:00 comes and then vanishes.
At 10:45 Isaac taps the tablet, types in a code and waits. The screen reveals the VCU logo, but there is no Chairwoman Jones sitting before it.
Isaac grips the tablet. Sweat glistens on his face and darkens the armpits of his shirt.
“Scan,” he says. A camera in the ceiling of Chairman Jones’s apartment begins a sweep.
The apartment is as he remembers it: A black leather sofa. A desk with a computer. A door to a tiny bedroom.
“Back.” Isaac says.
The camera reverses.
“Stop. Down.” Isaac commands. The camera stops, then tilts down at the floor beneath the VCU screen.
A dark shape.
The camera tilts some more.
Then Isaac sees it––a fragment of his nightmare fleshed out, made real and complete.
Chairman Jones is on the floor. Her soft brown skin looks ashen, but she stares straight at Isaac with her strange, beautiful, dead lilac eyes.
---Cover photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Poster;_%27Goggles_Save_Eyes%27_Wellcome_L0026431.jpg