Adam Stier is a writer and editor that resides in Portland, OR. He is an established columnist and contributor to websites and publications.
It Starts As An Annoyance
Howard, Howie, Dresden couldn't sleep. In bed, he faced the small nightstand that acted as a perch for his mobile's charging station, the screen said five forty-five in the morning. He had been waking up at that time for the past three nights. This was mildly irritating since Howie was a night owl, he started work when others were ending and he ended when those same people had just begun. However, he was on vacation and he had been trying to catch up on his sleep debt, so now he fears that he has played saboteur to his own circadian rhythm.
The previous night he had tried to compromise and went to sleep around one, now at ten to six, he was blurry eyed and confused, but, most of all worried. Most wouldn't be concerned with only three days of poor sleep. all the same. Howie had been plagued by insomnia in the past. Severely so. The fear of it happening again was enough to incite worry in him, enough so that a trip to the doctor was merited. Even in his fog, Howard planned out the phone call to happen at precisely eight a.m.
Two hours later and on the dot, Howie is dialing his doctor's office, scheduled an appointment, argued enough to get it upgraded to that afternoon, and all within five minutes. Howard was a Sales Manager and had a way of speaking that influenced minds from the weak to the strong. If sales had not been his landing then acting or secret agents would have been close runner ups. Like a chameleon can change its color to adapt to the environment, Howie could do that with his personality. Not just in how he talked to people, everything changed. His demeanor, body language, and tone, infliction and sometimes accent metamorphosed into whatever the customer was most receptive to. Howie could instantly become the perfect friend to anyone, all while a wolf watched from behind his dark brown almost black eyes.
Howard always went the opposite of popular trends in psychology, when it was said not to trust a man with facial hair, he walked around with a full beard and sold more than his shaven brethren. When it was said people responded better when there was appropriate physical contact used, such as a quick squeeze of the shoulder or pat on the back, Howie never touched a single customer and again sold more than anyone. Is feeling was that most customers have shopped at least two other places and noticed salespeople have suddenly become a little touchy, despite what popular statistics suggest, people don't really like being touched, Howie knew that. So, when customers noticed he wasn't grabbing them or trying to give a half-assed shoulder massage, they instantly liked him.
He rolled over and let out a sigh. After years of sales, finally, he was in a top level position that not only paid him six figures a year but it was online and he could work when and wherever he wanted. Howie sat up and rubbed his eyes as if there had been any crust to remove and lumbered towards the bathroom. He knew the pattern, wake up and in vane try and return to sleep, laying in bed for hours thinking it was right around the corner. The danger of relapse was real. That frightened Howie most of all.
My Eyes Have Seen The Whole Day
A few weeks later, Howie is only sleeping a few hours a night and sometimes not at all. Insomnia, no matter what the doctor said, it had to be. What else would keep him up like that? The battery of tests and medications failed to find fault or relief for Howard and frustration grew. It erupted like an ancient myth volcano; apocalyptic and catastrophic. It ended with the doctor writing him an open prescriptions for barbiturates to take "as needed", however after Howie's reaction to the notion his trouble might be psychological, the doctor may have been suggesting take as many as you like, please.
Consequently, the pills once again failed to work and Howie laid on his back staring at the back of his eyelids, flesh in darkness. Under the belief that keeping them shut would induce sleep, then from belief to hope, from hope to begging, from begging to barter. Finally, acceptance and the downtrodden that accompanies it. Suddenly, his mobile phone chimed as if an inbound message had been received. Howie rolls over to look and saw no message there, the small envelope icon not present, although he did notice it was exactly three in the morning.
This, to Howie, was the worst time to be awake. It was so silent compared to the other hours of the day, it was foreboding to stand outside and hear nothing. No cars passing by, no footfalls of running children giggling while chasing each other, no cacophony of chatter from the flow of people up and down the streets. As if you were the only one awake, or even alive. As if the earth had been evacuated and you were left behind. Imprisoned for crimes unknown, punishment is life on an abandon rock floating through an endless void. The thought had depressed Howie further, yet he continued dwelling on the feeling of the 3am. For some reason the song 'Moon River' always popped in his mind. This confused him more than he liked.
The few remaining hours before the sun would violate the darkened space that was instigating hope of sleep were horrible all around. But, three, that was the beginning of the end. The final countdown to realizing you had lost another battle in the fight for sanity. When the sun brightened the room enough to illuminate the eyelids it was pointless to continue the pursuit. Howie would get out of bed and begin the routine of the "maybe this will make me feel better" ideas like, showers, food, alcohol, exercise, work, and even marijuana from time to time.
Howie knew it was insomnia, had to be. There was nothing else it could be, unless, what if it was Insomnia Familia Fatilia? The one that kills you? Howie scoffed at the thought, he had known it was a genetic condition and his family was thoroughbred, well stocked. Only the poor and inbreeds had problems like that, them and of course lesser races. But they were generally both of the aforementioned, so to Howie it made sense. He had been driving to the office when the accident happened. He wouldn't remember what had happened but there were plenty of witnesses and later, when the situation would escalate and gain national attention, the review of the doctor's record will say it was microsleep.
Interlude; The Effects Of Sleep Deprivation
Howie believed in the idea he had insomnia, however, he had no idea exactly what insomnia was. Many think it's just not sleeping and that the one overcome by it is simply tired. The truth was that insomnia is very dangerous and can cause lasting effects and even chronic diseases and death. Besides the obvious agitation, stress, and zombie like state, insomnia can cause diabetes, blood pressure issues, permanent psychological issues, depression, schizophrenic like symptoms and even heart disease or attack and stroke.
There are side symptoms too. Sleep debt is the idea that when you miss any of your mandatory seven hours, you owe those hours. For instance, if one were to sleep only five hours one night, then in order to be out of debt, they would need to sleep nine hours the next. Howie was so far in debt, he would have to sleep for two months straight to be debt free. Hypnagogia, is the half awake, half asleep state an insomniac can fall into to. As if walking in a dream, neither awake or asleep, people in this state will do exceedingly strange things from writing nonsensical letters to driving for miles and returning home with no memory of the event.
In short; Insomnia is no joke.
The Sliding Scale
Howie stood in front of his high rise penthouse staring at nothing. Howie wasn't even aware of what he was doing, in a trance, hypnagogia, he merely stood as if waiting for something to crash through the window and grip his frail frame, and drag him through the shards of glass towards the only cure Howie believed would work; death. No matter the pain, no matter the method, it would beat the current state of his affairs.
As in a b-movie paranormal number, where the creepy character just stands watching, Howie had stood in that position for four hours. It would have actually been creepy had anyone ever even visited Howie's home. At the magical time, 3 am, Howie became aware again. He moaned as if in extreme pain, mainly because he was, when the short echo of agony died off it was replaced with a short laugh, then a smooth voice singing;
Moon river -- wider than a mile, I'm crossing you in style -- someday--
"Hiya, Howie! How's the hammer hangin'?" the jovial voice asked followed by another playful giggle.
"Who?" Howie asked in a dreamy voice. He tried to turn around and look towards where the voice was coming from, but, he found not purchase in his mind to issue the command. He was not concerned with social etiquette and felt almost certain that he had never invited anyone in.
"That's OK, Howie. You don't want to see me anyway, you have enough trouble sleeping!" another creepy giggle, "However, you want to hear me, and hear me well. I have an offer, well, more of an arrangement, for you, Howie my boy. How would you like to not only sleep like a baby, but, have the energy when awake to accomplish a week's worth of work in a single day? The power to change the minds of the masses in the blink of an eye? Making all that money and never having to be awake at three again. What do ya say, Howie?"
"Gee, that sounds swell." Howie's half dreaming voice replied. "What's the catch?" Still shrewd enough to know there's always a catch however.
"Oh, that's not a pleasant cliche, no, no. Not at all. I prefer payment for services rendered. All I want is your energy when you die. Physical energy is potent stuff and I am going to need all the power I can get for my new steam engine factory! It will reduce greenhouse gases and my carbon footprint!" The last barely escaped the voice before the laughing began in erst.
"My energy? But, they'll shut the power off when I die. What's that good for?" Howie, missing the point in his sleepy state, responded.
"You got that right, bub!" laughing before continuing, "They shut it off pretty quick, but, trust me, you're not using it anyway. So, it's not going to matter. Besides, you'll be dead. You won't care, in fact, nothing will bother you!"
"Wait. You want my energy? My body's energy? You mean, you want me to sell my soul?" The distant dreamer asked.
The robust voice scoffed, "Soul, energy, tai kai, whatever you want to call it, one in the same and the rest are too. It's not what you apes think it is. No, I am not the Devil before you ask, just a member of order. Part of the balance. No matter, do not trouble your pretty head over such matters that are far above the chimps! Power over others, power to accomplish any task in a matter of hours, all for the measly price of something you won't even miss when the time comes. Do we have an accord, Howie?" The voice, which had started as jovial had slowly gotten darker and serious as it finished.
"If it's so measly, why do you offer so much for it?" Howie was coming around at that point, however, not enough to question whom he was speaking with.
"Well, you'd be surprised how attached people are to it. So, it's something that requires strong first pass to forego negotiations or times of second thought. You see, Howie, the truth is that no matter what, there is no good and evil. Nature, The Universe, they don't even know the word let alone the definition, look around. It's all about balance. Both positive and negative must exist or there would be chaos, either a complacent one or one steeped in anarchy, which would do either side no good. Howie, there is a caveat to this idea of grey harmony. In order for a negative to be such it must do what makes it so, ergo, negative actions. Just as positive must play its part, the negative plays its part. Even though both know their efforts are usually in vain when it comes to eradicating one or the other, they must simply for the sake of being what it is. Otherwise, there would be no need for either and that would mean oblivion.
So. Howard. Do. We. Have. An. Accord?"
It had been a good sales pitch and Howie should know. A half smile crossed his face. So, this is what it felt like. This is how countless people have felt upon "drinking the Kool Aid" This is how it felt to be sold. "Yes, Mr. Negative. We have an accord."
Howie had snapped out of it. Suddenly, he was enlivened. Filled with energy he began accomplishing task after task. By four in the afternoon he had accomplished a weeks worth of work and even made himself over two thousand dollars. However, the bonus was even better, Howie slept like a rock that night. This continued for months. Howie quickly rose the ranks and by June of the following year, he was the CEO of a fortune 500 company.
He had been sitting in his high rise office, reflecting on his accomplishments when he suddenly had fallen asleep. From the corner of his office, Mr. Negative, if you need a name, watched with a smile. It started whistling, a tune some would have found familiar, Time Is On My Side.
Hold fast I tell myself, but, I have nothing to hold on to.
Ten Years Later
Howie was a shell of a man. Shriveled and weak, if anyone ever saw him, they would have called him a liar, having just signed his 65th birthday card, since this man was obviously over ninety. He cackled while he looked at the latest merger, the latest takeover, and another round of layoffs. While reviewing the paper his fingers start tingling, a minor annoyance, nothing more. He had to finish his work quickly, the time was approaching for slumber. Then a damned waste of eight hours, sleeping! If only he had negotiated, asked for the need of sleep to be striped away, to never waste time again, business, that's what mattered. A man's legacy.
"Oh, Howard. You are in serious trouble." A gentle voice said from behind the pale raisin in a dark suit. Howie turned around to see a lovely looking woman standing there. She was wearing a simple shirt and plain pants. Her short hair was perfectly cut, giving her a childlike look. However, her face was forlorn. She was deeply disturbed by something and for once in Howie's life, he felt concern for another. He simply had to know what was the matter so he could fix it. Make it better for her.
"What do you mean, sunshine?" The shaky voice inquisitively asked.
"What you have done. The deal you have made. I had hoped, in time, you would have come to the realization that what you had done was a grievous mistake, something that could have been altered. Had you only come to the proper conclusion, there is no balance if one side or the other holds more weight. To believe that both sides were forced to stay in balance would imply perfection, a perfect system. While balance is the factor, there is no perfection, that means, the system can be razed. People like you, Howard Dresden, are the reason we plunge in free fall through the darkness. You, Howard Dresden, are responsible for the trap door opening and sending everything tumbling in this darkness. You have committed the ultimate act of treason, you have turned on your whole world, every one and everything. Sentenced us to death, method of execution unknown, time soon enough. However, judging by the tingling that is creeping up your left arm and now, the tightness in your chest, you will not be here to witness what you and others like you have done. What have you to say, Howard Dresden, think carefully." The lecture ended with a pleading tone.
Howie stumbled for words, he felt ashamed. Like he had committed a horrible atrocity. His heart felt heavy, maybe from a sudden rush of guilt, more likely the oncoming cardiac arrest, no matter. He had to say something; "I don't know what offense I have caused, whatever it is I am sure I am more than sorry, my pixie. Please forgive me?" Howard begged, it was a night of firsts for him and lasts.
The woman just shook her head with the saddest expression on her face Howard had ever seen. "Wrong answer, Howard. Hurry! Please? You have a chance! There's an escape clause, Howard! Think about it!"
Howard thinks, all the business, no children, no wife, no contributions to society besides what was mandated for PR. He had remained in shadow, the greenback is goal, the corporation, his legacy. He would be remembered. He swayed people with his power, he could have been anything he wanted, he had ruled as if a king. What had he done wrong? It was only business, the ebb and flow of commerce. Then, like thunder, the memory of the jovial voice and their accord erupts across his mind. "The voice and my energy? Is that what you mean, my pixie? If so, I renounce my bargain! I will not allow my energy to be taken! There. Is that what was needed?! Tell me, please!" He grabbed at his chest, suddenly aflame as if heartburn had come on from drinking a bottle of hot sauce.
"No. It's too late. You have missed the forest for the trees, as you people say. You failed to see beyond your own world, you cared only of yourself, your namesake. No matter if it was uttered for thousands of years, a million more would pass and it would be heard no more. Eventually everything fades away. Everything dies for good. There is no fluffy heaven, no firey hell below, only the cold darkness and the warm light. Positive and Negative. Balance at war. You have betrayed all for selfish fleeting things, stuff, ego, power. All along not seeing your things rust away, your stuff is divided and sold, your ego has gained you nothing, and your power was always faulty, relying on the people under you to show up every day and work. You have done nothing, Howard Dresden, you have accomplished nothing worth noting. You changed only hearts, and forced minds to follow suit. You caused families to break up, people to commit murder, and even suicide. Alcoholism and drug use supported via your suppliers and pharmaceutical companies. Howard Dresden, your energy is you. You are along for the ride. You selfish old fool." With that the woman wept silently.
She watched has Howard Dresden crumpled to the floor. He knew now the price of greed, of selfish pursuit. As the darkness closed in and the temperature dropped, Howard Dresden felt another new sensation. One he had not felt since childhood, when he had stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon and imagined falling all that way. Howard Dresden felt fear.
© 2016 Adam Stier