You haven’t slept in three days.
It’s this new job. Hospitals are unsettling at night. The dark seeps in from outside, sharpening the echo of your footsteps and muffling voices already muted in the quiet. You feel wan, leached by the fluorescent lighting, awash with confusion and bile.
Moira gives you a commiserating grimace as you pass her in the hallway, coming out of Mr Talbot’s room. “You OK? You look like shit.”
“Can’t sleep. Just… can’t switch off. I lie down – nothing happens.”
“You want coffee?”
You try to shake your head but it turns into a shudder that seems to take over your entire being. On the first night after no sleep, you wanted coffee. You would have sold your mother for coffee. You would have sold Moira’s mother for coffee. By the second night the nausea was boiling through you from what felt like everywhere at the same time and where the ripples overlapped they made you wish you’d been able to drink something just for something to throw up and even hearing about coffee was too much to bear. On the third night – now – you are so tired you’re not sure you even remember what coffee tastes like, but you are sure you don’t want it.
Your bad luck that Moira is obsessed with the stuff.
Hey,” she says, “you get used to it, OK? Your cycles are all out of whack, it just takes a while to, you know, get back into a rhy-th-m.” As she says ‘rhythm’ she does a little wiggling dance move that is like an electric shock to every one of your tortured atoms.
“Could you… could you maybe not… do that?” you wince.
“Sorry, honey. I forgot about the nausea. My first night shift was so long ago I hardly remember not being used to it.”
You try to smile. “Well, that gives me hope.”
The look she gives you in return is heavy with the atrophied sympathy of someone who has been through it, but forgotten most of it. “Hey, why don’t you sit with Mr Talbot for a while? He’s awake, and-” she leans in close, “-I don’t think he’s got more than a couple of days, and there’s no family. He might appreciate the company.”
Sitting down seems like a very appealing idea right now.
“You don’t have to sit with me just because I’m dying.”
Mr Talbot, it turns out, is highly afraid of death. He doesn’t want to talk about what’s wrong with him, but that’s OK, that’s not what you’re here for anyway. You’re here so he doesn’t have to be alone with his fear.
“I don’t mind if you don’t,” you say. “I can’t sleep and Moira’s tired of seeing me drift around the corridors, I think.”
He huffs a humourless laugh. “Wish I had your problem. Got the impression from the docs that I’m on the way out so now I’m scared to blink in case I fall asleep while my eyes are closed and never wake up.”
This is the opposite of the problem you have, of course, but not quite in the way that he believes.
“It’s OK. To sleep, I mean,” you say.
He snorts. “Easy for you to say.” Huffs a laugh again. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”
You won’t, you think, but all you say is: “I think you’ve got time.”
“You ain’t a doctor.”
“Yeah, but Moira said as much.”
He raises his eyebrows even as his eyelids begin to droop. “And she should know?”
“Yeah, she should know.”
“Humph,” he says. “She ain’t a doctor either.”
“She’s been on the night shift a long time though. I guess you get the hang of it after a while.”
He’s definitely on the verge of nodding off now. You lean forward, like a parched man watching someone else drink, as if sleep might be as contagious as a yawn. You’ll take second-hand sleep if you have to.
“I’m so tired.” His eyelids flutter twice and don’t move again.
You sit for a while and watch the rise and fall of his chest. He might have a foot in the door but he’s not through it yet. You wish you could tell him that you felt just the way he does, you know, before, but it turns out it’s really not anything to be afraid of. Yeah, the insomnia’s not the greatest, but Moira says you get over that and she’s been on the night shift a long time, so she should know. And you miss coffee, although possibly not as much as Moira misses coffee. You miss breathing, which is an odd thing, given that you never really noticed it when you could do it. You miss daylight. This colourless, empty feeling, which you suspect is where your body used to be, is probably not going to go away. But there is still life here, even if you haven’t quite got a handle on it yet.
You could tell him all of this of course, if it were part of your job, which it isn’t. You’re not here to guide him. You’re just here so he doesn’t have to be alone with his fear. Like Moira was for you.
The rhythmic hiss and sigh of his breathing lulls you into a semi-hypnotic doze. Maybe it is catching, because you feel as if you could really sleep. You tune out your awareness, riding out the accompanying lurch of distortion. His breathing sounds as if it’s coming from a distance. Maybe the end of a tunnel. You wonder if he’s dreaming. That’s a thought. Once you can sleep again, will you still dream? Do the dead dream about being dead, or only about being alive?
As you drift towards the precipice of deliberate awareness you make a mental note to ask Moira.
Moira’s been on the night shift a long time.
She should know.