“Thanks a lot.”
“Of course,” the bot replies with a tilt of its blank, feature-less face. “We aim to make our Sleepers comfortable.”
Kora sips the glass of blackberry water offered and shudders as she glances out the glass wall to the seventy story drop. Silver buildings crowd the crossword of streets, huddling against one another for warmth. The river crawls between, lazy and black, a sheen of ice sweating on the surface. White air buses hover in the air like frozen coughs. An endless winter, a long and sunless scream, encapsules the city of Chicago.
The glass trembles as Kora sets it back down on the steel tray in the bot’s waiting hand.
“You seem nervous,” the bot comments, as though it isn’t silently scanning every fluctuation in Kora’s heart variability.
“I’m fine. It’s just…” Kora swallows. “Do you have any…is there anything I can take?”
The bot shakes its head, a gentle whirring from side to side. “I’m sorry, but the agency does not permit any additives that could affect the process. We prefer a natural experience.”
Funny, Kora thinks, when she’s pretty sure there is more than just blackberries in her water. Her head feels light. Her thoughts are starting to drift farther and farther apart, as though they can’t catch their own tail.
“You will feel more relaxed once you lie down,” the bot says in what Kora imagines is supposed to be a sympathetic tone. “The sleep session begins in approximately seventeen minutes.”
Seventeen minutes. It almost sounds like a joke. Then Kora remembers reading somewhere that it takes the average person ten to twenty minutes to fall asleep. Wouldn’t that be nice.
She is beginning to regret lying on her application.
But then she sees the bedroom. Or the session room, as the bot calls it. Whatever makes you feel less weird about being here. But Kora can’t help feeling weird, because it all looks so normal. Blackout curtains, a King size bed, white silk sheets, goose feather pillows that melt under the weight of your head. Even the temperature of the room is ideal—not too warm, not too cold. And from somewhere in the walls, a hum of white noise plays.
Kora tries not to fixate on the wooden bench next to the bed.
The bot leaves her with a reminder that it will return at the end of the session. Six hours. Kora can’t remember sleeping that long since she was in grade school, exhausted after a day of tag. “Just fake it,” her friend Angela advised her, a regular Sleeper back before she moved on, got married and had kids. “You’ll be asleep before you know it.”
Kora didn’t point out that it was easier said than done. Angela sleeps through everything.
She’d even slept through that night. The one that changed everything. When they’d both fallen asleep on the train station bench. It was Kora that had woken her up.
Much good it did.
Kora picks up the neatly folded set of rose pajamas. They fit her perfectly. Of course.
There’s something too intimate about the way it catches on her skin, like silken fingers tracing her protruding bones, her awkward elbows and knees. Like a gentle but invasive inspection. She tries not to think about what is to come. She’s heard every scenario and imagined the rest. It isn’t hard. What’s hard is pretending to sleep in a bed that isn’t yours, wearing pajamas that probably belonged to the girl before you, waiting for a stranger.
No, not a stranger.
She slips under the sheets. They fold like cool water on top of her. Then she closes her eyes and waits.
The man slides the fox skin gloves over his prosthetic hands. His mechanical fingers flex appreciatively, and he swears he can imagine feeling into them. He’s always loved the feel of gloves.
He smooths back his thinning hair as he looks down into the swirling, dizzying winterscape. Human specks rush through the sleet swept streets. Lights sizzle and dim in the hive of windows. Moving shadows drifting through obscurity. He admires the anonymity of the city, where you can move undetected, unnoticed. Where you can disappear without going anywhere. Where you can change your name, your age, nowadays even your face.
He’s been waiting to be found. He never is. No one ever looks in the right places.
“Welcome, sir,” the bot greets him.
“Is everything in order?”
He nods and steps into the bedroom.
It’s silent, except for a withdrawn rhythmless sound. It’s dark. But he doesn’t need light. He knows the way. He crosses the room in five steps, running a hand across the top of the wooden bench. He imagines the texture of it rough in his fingers. With a pleasured sigh, he settles himself into it.
“Proceed,” he commands.
The bed before him illuminates. He remains in darkness.
Every week they allocate him a new young woman. He lets the agency choose. Although some are better sleepers than others, less restless, he is fascinated by each and every subject. The twist of their limbs, the curl of their backs, the cycle of breath.
An exclusive display for a price he’s more than willing to pay.
But today the bed is empty.
A pillow is missing.
It is then that he feels the force of stuffed fabric pressed against his face. He cannot breathe. He tries to wrench it off but his hands do not respond. They have been disconnected.
The anticipation of the moment before is replaced by a panic in his chest. The part of his chest that still resembles the human he used to be. Blackness trickles into his good eye. The other is already blind. He is already half dead.
She has found him. He’s not sure which she it is.
He has stolen the sleep from so many.
Kora opens her eyes and slowly sits up in bed.
The wooden bench is still there. Fashioned exactly after her memory.
It is empty.
Was it always empty? Goose feathers float around her, on her sheets, in her hair. The detritus of a distant dream. Strange.
Her hands tingle. Her pulse twitches. But for the first time, she feels….rested. She feels revived.
The blackout curtains open slowly, automatically, letting in cold sunlight.
The bot enters the room.
“The session is now complete,” it informs her. “Please submit your payment at the processing station.”
“Wait,” Kora says. Her mouth is dry. Her throat is raw, as though she has been screaming all night.
The bot waits expectantly.
She doesn’t know what to ask. How to ask. It’s her first time, after all.
“Is that it?”
“Your dream series will remain confidential. As you have optioned for gold membership, you may access your dream series at any time for review,” the bot says, delivering the answer it assumes everyone wants. “Please submit your payment at the processing station and schedule any future appointments with reception. Thank you.”
Kora steps out of bed, smiling. “No, thank you.”