The following is the original short story that my new book “The Kiss of Night” is based on. If you like it, you can find the book here.
A jolt of electricity slapped the dozing student between the shoulder blades, and he jerked in his seat. He shook himself, turned his head and looked up with bleary eyes at the uniformed man standing in the aisle next to him.
“Thanks,” he rasped to the guard, and smiled faintly.
“Almost lost you there,” the guard responded, then they both looked back at me standing in the front of the auditorium.
“Lost too many students,” I said. “We can’t afford to lose you too, Dennis. Why don’t you stand up for a while? That might keep you from dozing.”
Dennis nodded and shuffled sideways out of his seat and stood in the aisle, still obviously groggy from his sleepiness. I continued with my lecture for a few more minutes. Finally, I stopped, throwing up my hands in surrender.
“Well, I know that all of you are totally enraptured by William Brandeis and right of privacy versus right of publicity, but I think that’s probably all of the lecture we’ll attempt tonight. There are other things you could be doing that are a lot more interesting. Things more likely to keep your mind clear and focused. So keep busy and stay awake. I hope to see you all tomorrow night.”
I looked out at the nearly empty amphitheater. Dennis and a girl two rows behind him stood and groggily waved at me, then walked up and out the back door of the classroom. I noticed the third student, the only other one in his audience, on the far side. The student didn’t move.
“Jules,” I called out to the hallway, and the burly security guard poked his head in. I motioned to the still form, and headed toward it just as Jules rumbled down the stairs.
“Becca, wake up!” I shouted, walking quickly her direction. It was Becca Simpson, a top student, and she was sound asleep. Jules pulled out his cattle prod and zapped her between the shoulder blades. She didn’t respond.
Jules cranked up the amperage and zapped her again. When she didn’t respond, he unsnapped his radio. “This is Jules over in Hagen Hall, Room 212. We have a sleeper.”
The radio crackled back, letting them know that help was coming. We lay her out on the aisle and I checked her pulse and respiration.
“Is she in REM yet?” Jules asked. I didn’t respond, but pulled away slowly as the EMT team came forward. The man in front pulled out a syringe of adrenaline and proceeded to inject the student directly into the heart.
I pulled back and watched them futilely work on her for a long moment before walking back down to my briefcase, shaking my head. I didn’t even watch as they loaded her on the stretcher and took the still sleeping form out the doorway. Jules got up and started to follow them, but paused at the door.
“Too, too many,” Jules said. “When will it stop?”
I finished loading up my briefcase, my face set in stone. Finally I looked back at Jules. “Good night, Jules. Stay awake.”
Even at 9 p.m. the campus was usually bustling, and I had a hard time getting used to fewer and fewer students surging through the halls each day. Tonight it seemed awfully lonely. One or two students crossed the mall between Hagen Hall and library. In the distance, I could see the lights of the University Medical Center, its heliport busy with comings and goings.
I stood in the mall, trying to decide whether I should head to my office or head for home, when a voice called to me from behind.
“Dr. Grady,” the voice said. I turned to see a young Hispanic coed approaching.
“Dr. Grady, I have an appointment to see you tomorrow at 2, but considering all that’s been going on, and not knowing if—.”
“—not knowing if you or I would be here tomorrow,” I completed her thought.
“Right,” she said. “Anyway, I was wondering if you had a minute.”
“Sure,” I led her to some concrete tables and benches nearby. “How is your senior thesis coming, by the way?”
“Well, that’s just it. I’ve decided to drop out. I mean, what’s the point, anyway? Less than ten percent of the students I started the year with are still in class. Most of them are in there, or places just like it.” She nodded to the Pulsar Arena, where white uniformed medical personnel came in and out as they spoke.
I stared at her. “Anna, this—this condition—is going to go away. CDC says they hope to have a handle on it any day. And when it does—.”
“When it does, college life will make a lot more sense,” she said. “In the meantime, I need to do whatever I can to help.”
“Do you have a medical background?”
Anna shook her head. “I don’t even know how to put a band aid on right. But I can make deliveries, donate blood, or even serve as a guinea pig if they can use me.”
I continued to stare at the brave young woman. “You’ve probably got a better head on your shoulders than I do,” he said. “But teaching is all I know. It’s all I’ve have ever known.”
“And what does a teacher do when he doesn’t have any more students?”
I stared at her, realizing that I would be confronted by that question very soon.
* * *
Still undecided as to whether I should head home, I walked slowly over to the Arena. Then I remembered that Melissa had borrowed my car to drive to Benton Harbor and check on her mom. The massive building, built for basketball games, concerts and other special events, was filled wall to wall with what seemed like thousands of cots and a sleeping student in each cot. On the far end, I could see that about a third had IVs dangling above their prone forms, and realized that they were the first who had been brought in. After a week of sleep, the medical team had become concerned with their fluid and nutrition intake, and had started IVs. I wondered how soon the others would join them, then wondered who would maintain them all when The Great Sleep hit the medical team.
The university had set up tables by the entrance where volunteers distributed caffeine pills. Two days ago the line had stretched a hundred meters outside the Arena as the pills were distributed. Now it was only the occasional student who came to the table. Most of those who had asked for pills days ago were either asleep here on in their dorm rooms.
They were losing the battle, and losing it quickly.
I had purposely avoided thinking about the rest of the city. But I did know that cab service, bus service and schedule trains were suffering. Traffic in the city, even during rush hour, was beginning to look like 4 a.m.
Radios and TVs in the Arena continued to broadcast the latest information from the Centers for Disease Control. Their reports, he realized, didn’t include anything new and were obviously directed at keeping the public as calm as possible. Six weeks after the insanity had started, the virus had spread throughout the western hemisphere. Europe, Asia and Africa had embargoed traffic from the infected countries as soon as possible, and so far had been successful in containing it. Not that it mattered to the estimated millions who had fallen victim to this epidemic.
Interestingly enough, the only fatalities were those who fell asleep while operating equipment, traveling, such as flying or driving, drowned while bathing, or died because they had no one to take care of their bodily needs while asleep. The unspoken question that kept coming up was: If everyone is asleep, who will take care of them?
* * *
Watching the medical teams work, having promising students drop out because they saw no future, and having an empty classroom to lecture to left me feeling depressed and discouraged. I walked out to 61st Street and tried to hail a cab, but after fifteen minutes without a single car driving by, I gave up. Instinctively, I pulled out my cell phone and called Sara, my wife, at home, but no one picked up. Then I remembered that she was my ex-wife. I started walking north along King Drive, then cut across to Lakeshore Drive, where I thought I would find more traffic. It was 10 p.m. and usually Lakeshore was bustling this time of night, but I felt more and more alone. The one consolation I felt was that in normal times this would be a dangerous place to walk alone at night. Now I wondered if I was the only person in South Chicago not sleeping.
It was late when I found an L-station that was not chained and locked. I bought a ticket at the kiosk and waited for the train. It appeared, miraculously, in ten minutes.
It was after 11 when I arrived at an empty house. I regretted letting Melissa take the drive to Benton Harbor all alone, but in this day and age, driving was one of the least dangerous things you could do. There were hardly any other cars on the streets, and so far Melissa had shown no symptoms of the virus. I wondered if somehow she had actually inherited some of my genes.
I looked at my own home, then down the street at the other brick houses. It was close to midnight and lights blasted out of each house in 100-watt glory; every TV and radio blared at full volume. Curfew, peace and quiet and the dark, still night had become a thing of the past.
I thought of Melissa again, then of Sara. I saw Sara standing next to me on the front porch, a loose red satin housecoat wrapped around her, an iced tea in her hand, a smirk on her lips.
“Dale, why didn’t you pass on your genes to your children?” I heard her say.
I shrugged. “I wish I knew. I wish I had. I wish I had studied genetics instead of media law.”
* * *
I got some tomato soup and warmed it up in the kitchen while Sara took a bath. I insisted on a cold bath, much to Sara’s objections, knowing that a warm bath always put Sara to sleep. As I sat in the living room watching the news and eating my soup, I heard Sara head into the bedroom to change. A minute later, there was a knock at the front door.
Instinctively, I looked at the clock. 1:15. I started to become indignant that someone would be knocking this late, then realized that bedtimes had become a thing of the past. If you slept, the doorbell or the phone wouldn’t interrupt you. It was safe in this day and age that you were awake at any hour, or you weren’t.
I answered the door and found two young men in dark suits facing me.
“Dr. Dale Grady?” the one in front said. “I’m Dr. Bill Hodgins from the Center for Disease Control. Mind if we come in?”
I hesitated, then stepped back and let the two come in. I picked up the remote and switched off the TV.
“How goes the war?” I asked, a hint of sarcasm in my voice.
“Not good,” Hodgins said. “If the public knew how bad, there’d be panic. But we are trying something new.” He looked in my eyes. “That is, we will if you are willing to help us.”
“Me?” I echoed. “I lecture on media law. What can I do to help?”
Hodgins opened a manila folder he was carrying. I noticed a photo of me stapled on the front panel, and realized it was a dossier.
“I understand you suffer from Morvan’s syndrome.”
“I did. I had Morvan’s syndrome when I was 8.”
“Morvan’s syndrome is extremely rare; it affects one person in 100 million. It’s also genetic, which means you still have it.
“I understand, Dr. Grady, that you went for quite a while without sleep when you were 8. In fact, you were written up in the local paper. How long was that?”
I blinked. “Three—three and a half months,” I stammered.
“It must have been fascinating, not needing to sleep.”
“It was the longest 14 weeks of my life. Do you know what happens when you don’t sleep? Hallucinations, tremors of the extremities, extreme pain in the fingers and toes.” I shook my head. “Fascinating was not the word.”
“Nevertheless, it is a genetic disorder. Are you saying you don’t have any problems sleeping now?”
I looked up the stairs toward my bedroom. “I sleep about one to two hours a night. Any less than that and the hallucinations come back.”
“And how do you accomplish this?”
“I’ve taken a strong tranquilizer since I was 8. Actually, a variety of them.”
Hodgins closed the dossier and looked at me. “You have a family, Dr. Grady. Don’t you want to help them?”
I stared back at Hodgins. “If it’s genetic, why doesn’t my daughter have it? Why didn’t she get the gene that would save her?”
Hodgins stood up and looked at me. “To tell you the truth, Dr. Grady, I haven’t a clue. But with your help, I’d like to find out.
“Please help us.”
I looked at the two men standing above him, and then looked again back at the bedroom. Sara had been very quiet for several minutes. I had a moment of panic: was she okay? Then I remembered that I was experiencing another hallucination, that my ex-wife and daughter were safe in Benton Harbor. But for how long?
Hodgins cleared his throat. “We’ll make sure that your wife and daughter get the best of care.”
I stared at the men, thinking about Melissa and Sara. After a moment, I nodded.
“I’ll give you whatever you need.”