I will Wake soon, and that means the dreams begin. They usually come on slow but this year feels different.
The floor of a small airplane rumbles my feet, high above the mountains. Pine needles shouldn’t be visible from this height, but there they are, blowing in the breeze on the lakeshore.
“Go on, jump,” someone says.
“Who packed my parachute?”
“Does it matter? Are you scared?”
“I’m not scared. I’m disappointed.”
They shove me out the open door. The burning wind whips against my skin.
The lake is coming upward fast. Deep beneath the water are mounds of restless skeletons. Wait. No. They aren’t moving. Something is crawling all over them. Eating what remains.
The ripcord is at my chest. Nothing happens when I yank on it. Who packed my parachute?
I will Wake soon, and that means it is time to open my eyes. I try to force them but they are crusted over. My arms are still needle numb so I can’t rub the gunk off yet.
I will be 19 this year, but if I think about it another way I will be 109 this year. I’d rather not think about it that way.
Flexing my fingers makes the tingling flare. Progress.
Ubik will be eleven this year. I hope he remembers me. We aren’t allowed to bring cats with us to Sleep.
Around the burning in my arms is something solid: the plastigel mold. Nothing happens when I yank them up. Not enough strength yet.
Lila will be.. or rather Lila would be 26 this year. There’s no other way to think about it.
Arms now free, my hands are on my eyes rubbing as hard as the leftover sleep will allow. It feels like the ecstasy of scratching a mosquito bite hard before the skin goes bloody and raw.
I can never remember how old Mom and Dad are, especially after Dad got out of sync with us for a while, but I think they’ll be fifty-something.
Mom is on the couch already, watching the forecast.
“…emissions expected to level out this year thanks to record tree growth and the lowest active population since the 20th century…”
Mom smiles and looks up at me, “Good morning Skip! You hear that? Our Sleep is letting the trees breathe.”
Some people don’t realize that sleep is a form of consciousness. They probably never had money troubles like my family. They probably never had to Sleep.
Until I was nine I was Awake all the time. Every day of every week of every year. My life had continuity. Flowed like a dam-less river. Grew like an uncut tree. Took like a never-ending breath.
Then something started happening to my sister. There is one night, all those years ago, burned like steam into my memory. It was raining outside but that doesn’t really matter.
Lila had just got home from wherever she’d been, so thin I remember thinking her clothes should just slide off her. I found her in her room, at her desk, with two stout ceramic cups in front of her.
“There’s bugs under my nails, Skip. This cup cleans them out and this cup washes them away.”
“Can I see?”
She turned and with her thumb pulled back the skin of her index finger, “Look close and you’ll see ‘em moving.”
But all I saw was pink skin so raw that some red blood was coming through.
“Lila I know about drugs. I know how some make you not eat and not sleep and not see things that are really there.”
“This again? I’m not on drugs, Skip. Remember last time it was just your imagination?”
The angry stain on her voice was painful, but that day it made me push forward rather than pull back.
“Nuh uh, I was right. Mom said she found a little baggy in your purse.”
“You always think you’re right about everything Skip, but you’re just a dumb kid. Look into my eyes, I’m telling the truth.”
But she kept her eyes forward as she dipped her bloody fingers beneath the rim of a cup and winced.
“Doesn’t that hurt?”
“No Skip, what hurts is having my little brother not trust me. What hurts is that you keep accusing me and I keep having to defend myself from you, a kid. You don’t trust me,” she said, anger now splotched with the sound of persecution. “Get out Skip, just leave me alone.”
The fumes from the cups began burning my eyes and Lila went blurry as I backed out of her room for the last time.
That’s the whole memory, but the smell of antiseptic brings it back strong a hundred years later.
Once the heaviest of the fog wears off, we leave the Somnocenter and drive home to the old house-share. Before our share-mates head home they catch us up: a fire burned down my old room years ago, Ubik ran away, and the garden had to be downsized due to water restrictions.
The tin of the cat food clangs against the concrete in the shrunken garden in the backyard beneath the empty space where my window would have looked over a bigger garden.
What will be here next year? Will the garden shrink even more? Will Ubik return, battle-scarred and father of one hundred and one spotted kittens? The few stars in the sky are hard to pinpoint among the countless chains of satellites. There were fewer last year.
“That for Ubie?” Mom asks as she steps out of the sliding door.
“I hope so.”
“He’ll be back, I know it. I set up a cot in the basement for you,” she says softly.
“So what are you going to do this year? Think you’ll go back to school?”
“I hadn’t thought about it. Maybe.”
“You wanted to be a marine biologist when you were a kid, remember?”
“The oceans are dying, Mom.”
“Oh they’ll be fine they always are. Or you could be a firefighter, there’s lots of demand there these days. Jill’s son Sean just finished a Fire Science degree and he’s starting next year.”
“You mean ten years ago. I saw online he died in a fire.”
“Oh no, I’m still orienting myself to now. That’s awful. Shoot I should call Jill,” she said while hurrying back into the house.
I take a deep breath, hold it, and open the door.
“Hi, they said I could just come in?”
“Ah yes you must be my 9am. Please have a seat. If you brought a resume I’ll take that.”
My breath escapes into a simple office: a desk, two chairs, and a computer. A painting of a tree hangs on the wall. The woman behind the desk has dark hair and eyes behind glasses that reflect the glow of the screen. She takes my resume and glances at the top of the page.
“Skip?” Her eyes light up. “I didn’t know you’d be waking up this year!”
“Sorry, I uh ..”
“Oh of course I must look awful and so old. Its Sneha!”
I should have known. When I last saw her a few weeks ago her dark eyes shone bright without the help of the gleaming spectacles. We almost kissed when we said goodbye. I blush at the thought.
She catches me up on her life. She has a partner now and they are applying for a child. She was promoted (obviously) and they may be able to afford it without giving up time. My weeks are her years and I feel a sort of upward pulling sensation as she talks.
“Well of course the company will hire you back on, they own your contract after all. Lets go over the questions quickly. But before we begin I should let you know the role has changed.”
“Its nothing to be worried about. Its basically the same for now while we train the new system.”
“I see. I’m not really caught up yet to be honest.”
“Yeah no job is immune it seems. They get smarter every day. Instead of finding and flagging controversial online content about the company, you’ll be training an emulated mind how to feel about the content it finds.”
“Are the hours and pay the same?”
“Yes absolutely. For now.”
“The company is hosting a fundraiser for refugees of Hurricane Billie and Wilma. What does that make you feel toward the company?”
“The company was found to be lobbying against protections for people misgendered at their place of work. How does that make you feel toward the company?”
“The company is naming their new virtual reality space after Rosalind Franklin. How does that make you feel toward the company?”
“Who is Rosalind Franklin?”
“A chemist whose work was vital in our understanding of DNA. Until the 21st century she was largely unknown for her role because of her sex. How does that make you feel toward the company?”
“Oh yeah I remember Watson and Crick from school. Supportive.”
“The company was found to be forging the number and duration of sleep contracts purchased to stay under the Beijing Carbon Agreement threshold. How does that make you feel toward the company?”
“What is the Beijing Agreement?”
“That is irrelevant.”
A knock on the door interrupts my reading. My parent’s are out so I answer the door.
“Hi there you must be Skip. My name is Paula and I’m a social worker for the state. Can I come in?”
“My parents aren’t home right now.”
“Hm, well I’d rather meet with all of you but I’m busy all week and I’d rather this didn’t wait.”
“Okay come on in.”
Paula walks in on tennis shoes and finds her way to the kitchen where she sits down at the table and places a folder in front of her. I take a seat across from her.
Opening the folder she says, “Lila will be coming out of a long sleep next year.”
My breath freezes in my chest. Shock is not something my body is used to, and it takes a second to force an exhale along with, “what do you mean? How long was she asleep? Why is she sleeping?”
“Lila was found unconscious in a house across town,” she looks at her notes, “exactly one hundred years ago. She was found with drugs in her bag and was sentenced to punitive stasis. Her records were released last week.”
“How old is she?” I know the answer as soon as I ask.
Lila is alive. Lila, my sister, is asleep. Lila, my best friend, is waking up.
“I’ll be sleeping next year,” I say weakly.
I examine the tree painting while waiting for Sneha to return. The tree is floating in empty space, its roots exposed, or maybe the dirt is invisible. The roots are made to look like the veins of lungs. I remember it from the commercials back when they were trying to sell Sleep directly to consumers, “all those trees are ready to help us! We just need to give them the time and space to do it. Why not give our Sleep a try, and let the trees breathe!”
Sneha walks in and I stand, “Morning Sneha.”
“Hey Skip, shouldn’t you be in your cube?”
“Yeah I’m about to head in, can I talk to you for a second?”
“Sure I have a few minutes. Whats up?”
“I just found out my sister is alive but we’re out of sync. I was hoping to either get a raise so I could buy an extra year, or maybe I could renegotiate my contract?”
“Oh wow Skip thats great! What was her name again? Leela?”
“Thats great, that really is. How about I look into it and get back to you?”
I could tell that was a no.
Mom is excited I’m going back to school.
“First day of school! Let me take your picture.”
I meet my counselor for orientation.
“Have a seat.”
Another office. Another person that might be able to help me see Lila.
“What are your goals for returning?”
“I’d like to join a continuous program that can help me out of my contract.”
“I see. Let me pull up your records,” she clatters on the keyboard for a bit and then frowns. “This is embarrassing. I’m sorry to tell you this but your records were lost years ago in a ransomware attack on the school. Which program did you say you were part of?”
My heart somersaults. “I was a second year climate sciences major,” I lie.
“Ooookay let me just enter that here. Alright looks like you qualify to have your contract purchased by the school. You’ll be awake the next three years while you finish the program.”
I am waiting for Lila in her chamber. I can tell she’s trying to open her eyes. She’s never come out of Sleep before.
“Here, let me rub them for you.”
“Its Skip. Lila, its me Skip.”
I scrape crust from her lids and she manages to open one eye.
“You’re not Skip.”
“I am, just.. older.”
She pushes herself out of bed and makes her way to the couch. I sit beside her.
“I was having a funny dream. I drove us to the store to get candy but they were all out so we got sugar and salt and mixed it together and ate it out of our hands. Remember we used to put sugar and salt on our popcorn for movie night?”
“Yeah and we’d fight over who got to lick the bottom of the bag.”
“You’d fight. And Mom would get mad at us and throw away the bag.”
We fell quiet for a while and Lila’s breathing got stronger as sleep left her body.
“Why’d you lie to me Lila. I knew you were on drugs but you convinced me I was the crazy one.”
“I’m not on drugs.”
“Lila. They found you unconscious and searched your purse.”
“Skip I’m telling you they’re lying. Whatever they said its a lie. I’m your big sister you have to trust me.”
“I’m older than you now Lila.”
“You always think you’re so smart Skip, you’re just a kid. I’m not on drugs I’m just sick. There’s these bugs under my fingernails look.” I looked at her clean fingernails, then into her empty eyes.
The room blurs through my tears. I go home, walk past my share-mates into the basement and fall asleep on my cot.
I will be 20 this year, but if I think about it another way I will be 110 this year.
If she was still alive, my sister would be 27 this year. Its the last time I think about her that way.