PHOENIX

ALEX LESLIE

We sit in this office by the front entrance, Dom and I, and a nurse goes in and out restless with the need to be useful. Dom’s the front desk guy and he never takes a day off. I’m the support worker, which means I’m jack-of-all-trades for the endless minutiae of needs of the people who live in this hotel. A spreadsheet pinned to the wall shows the list of the residents in Dom’s shaky hand-drawn lines. In careful columns: who’s woken up in the past eight hours; for how long; who’s passed the eighteen-hour mark of continuous sleep, in which case they need to be roused with the bell Dom keeps hanging on the hook above his desk. I often wonder where he got that bell – a fat battered thing like a ship captain’s bell. I go with Dom to the doors of the red-flagged sleepers and he clangs that goddamn bell until the person in the room rolls over twice. The nurse crouches and checks for breaths, fingers held to the side of the neck.

I can’t figure Dom out. He’s worked at the hotel since forever, since before this was just another place for sleepers, since before the public health emergency was declared, before the poster campaigns on all the busses, before I took the support worker job here because catering got unbearable, walking around conference halls holding spoons of cold turmeric-yellow soup like a metaphor for opulent uselessness. Now I can’t make myself quit, because when a sleeper wakes up and looks me right in the eyes, I see a world orbiting in their pupils, and for a moment I feel what it would be to never panic again. When our first sleeper died – a sweet Dutch guy who used to run a bike repair shop before he got ALS – Dom shrugged and said, “Water runs downhill,” and I watched him, waiting for the rebound smirk that never came. Sometimes he’s just life that, blunt and inscrutable. His black hair is gelled and combed straight back, and his eyes are hooped in purple like a flower in bloom by the ocean at twilight. I can’t tell how old he is. “I know why they don’t want to wake back up,” he’s said to me a few times, and I just nodded. I dodge invitations to his backstory. I think that he protects the sleepers because he wishes he could be one.

I work in one of those hotels full of the sleepers over on Clark Street. Not one of the nicer private ones, just one of those places where the people are curled on mats or hospital beds in rooms like stacked shoeboxes. Every now and then, they raise their heads and look around on the tiny monitor we watch in the office. We see their eyes in the static, the half-darkness of a failing celestial connection. In our daily afternoon meetings, we discuss the sleepers in batches, triaged according to acuity. The nurse speaks bluntly of a young woman who told her yesterday that she wished she could just fall asleep forever. “Suicidal ideation,” the nurse intones. “Evolving acute sleep disorder.” I nod. I’ve accepted that these terms are her way of dealing with the sleepers, their remote limbs, unreachable minds. The nurse won’t come apart and she can’t give up quite yet, so she hovers in clinical language like a wasp hovering over the deathly sweetness in a bottle. “Monitor for signs of progression,” she says. “Blood pressure, temperature. Blood samples for iron deficiency if she’s agreeable. Regular bed checks.”

Dom’s eyes glaze. “I’ll talk to her,” he says.

The nurse nods. She knows she cannot rescue, only maintain.

Next, we discuss the heat.

In the summertime, the hotel stifles, a grimy hand pressed to my mouth. There’s routine housekeeping, sort of, but it’s like dirty water is being dumped on top of the dirty floors and just sort of being sloshed around and it’s impossible to tell what colour the floor is supposed to be. The inside of this place is the colour of exhaustion, the plate at the bottom of the sink left there for years.

Dom tells the nurse that he’s heard from higher-ups that there might be funding for some industrial fans.

The nurse asks if there’s a timeline on that and Dom says, “Medium range expectations.”

I’m always surprised by Dom’s dismissiveness of the hierarchy and his contradictory loyalty, the way he widens his eyes into a smile and makes pronouncements like “Medium range expectations” as if he has just swallowed a master-key to the infrastructure, or like he’s making fun of us all, walking on the ceiling of our abjection. He spent a few years on the street before this job, before he “figured it all out,” he told me.

Since the sleeper crisis rocketed and families have started doing newspaper interviews about sleepers in their homes and the slow exile to hotels like this one (and for those who can afford it, private buildings with more nursing staff), the government has started to put some money into the hotels. Once in a while, one of our sleepers leaves for a treatment facility – this is rare, not just because there are only a handful of facilities in the country, but because the seduction of the sleep is so strong. Very rarely, someone goes into remission.

We tell them: please don’t visit. Not this place. You need to be out there, in the world of eye contact and rainstorms and birds firing radar pulses through the sky.

Hans, a guy in his fifties on the fourth floor, has a gorgeous set of false teeth. “I got a mouth full of re-birth stones,” he told me when I started working here. He tried to explain the sleep to me once, back when I thought it was helpful to ask clarifying questions. I was like a cross between Siri and your most memorable seventh grade teacher.

Hans asked me three questions: if I’d ever shot up, if I’d ever been in a car accident, if I’d ever been in love. No, no, no, I answered, his directness tearing strips off my ability to think on my feet.

Then he roared in my face: “This is like trying to explain fucking to a virgin.” Then he took pity on me. “OK, kiddo, OK. Tell me about a time you felt totally…aaaaaahh…just free…you know…just out there…like nobody could ever find you.”

I shook my head, whitebread and useless.

“The best you can do is be harmless,” Hans said to me, and walked off, swinging his dog Ulysses’s sparkly purple leash in his hand.

I stood there, an imposter beside a door that said EAT PUSSY DIE YOUNG. I went back to the office, like I always did in those days, to hide.

When a sleeper goes, the paramedics come and perform their ballet, bag the sleeper like a fresh peach. I like the paramedics – their driven efficiency so united and cordial, footsteps as coordinated as thieves. Their starched uniforms and wide-eyed regard: “Are you the one who called?” They give dose after dose of the medicine that revives some sleepers, most of the time, usually after the third or fourth dose, but sometimes it takes seven or eight. The medicine is administered in a mist pressed down through a funnel placed over the mouth and nose. It was developed and released six months into the crisis; thousands had already died. Whether the person returns to consciousness is all in the timing, the course of the sleep, and little flickering coin-flips in the bloodstream, how cells gape their throats or do not, how a person’s lizard-brain lurches for the surface or does not and I sit in the office at the front entrance and I sort the mail and press my feet to the floor and feel the floating-away knowledge that another one of our residents fell asleep forever today like so many others who have been lost to the sleep this year, and that there will be many more, and I feel that we are in the midst of a tide with no visible limits. A vast surge and keening.

I lied to Hans. Yes, I’d been in love. A woman in my senior anthropology seminar, like a truck swerving toward me out of morning river-fog. I did nothing about it.

Hans’s three questions had been a challenge issued to me: If you could write a catalogue of moments of weightlessness in our life, what would they be? How precious were they to you, and what would you do to make that feeling continue?

The public health emergency was declared over a year ago now.

When a sleeper goes, it’s usually at night. We’ve lost so many that the shock of losing a sleeper lessens each time. The numbness is burnt off by the steady noise of emails, notes, the chorus of residents’ voices, the minor hum of the engine of countless small demands. The tinny music of dailiness and conversation with Dom keeps my brain going.

Months pass. The nurses quit, replace each other. Sporty nurses wearing stethoscopes and sneaker; palliative nurses who scan their iPhones during meetings; tiny-emperor nurses citing safety protocols; student nurses who linger at doors, knocking hopefully, treading tentatively as astronauts. I know they have never seen a place like this. Most people keep their doors closed, but it’s an ongoing debate: keep sleepers’ doors closed to reduce theft, or leave doors open to increase the chance of being revived? The nurses carry glass balls of the medicine; government-issued kits hang from their belts. Dom and I stay in the front room alone a lot, in a wordless workplace bearhug of solidarity or tacit professional suicide pact. My other company in the office is Ulysses, Hans’ dog. Dom sorts the mail and puts it in residents’ boxes. I answer the phones. For my first season here, I worried about contagion.

The family members are the hardest calls. I hear the voice shake – “Hi I’m Shania’s mom” or “Hi I’m Rocket Star’s son” – and I brace myself. I know all the sleepers at our hotel, but there are one hundred and twenty rooms, so sometimes I need remind myself with the master spreadsheet where I scrawl notes beside names – purple board shorts, yellow budgie, fisherman’s hat, tattoo of green rose, Irish accent, pink slippers, black guitar, jumping jacks, knock-knock jokes, scoopy limp. My fingertip on the name – oh yeah the shy guy on the fourth floor with the Rocky 2 poster and the fur coat – and I tell the grateful loved one on the other end of the line, “Yes they’re still awake.” It isn’t my job to give prognoses. It isn’t my job to inform next of kin about deaths either – that’s the hospital’s job, after the ambulance collects the body – but our hotel is a magnet for the bereaved anyway. Dom and I are always so busy that it always takes us a day or two to get to cleaning out a room when someone goes.

When a lover or mother turns up at the entrance, I buzz them in. I take the master key and Ulysses and lead the way up the stairs. The elevator is always broken. The elevator is a running joke. It strains and tugs, a spirit in an iron lung. The stairs are narrow, yellow, dank, up and down in claustrophobic geometry, and if someone comes rushing down at me, I have to press my body to the wall because the residents here, when they’re not sleeping, are always in a rush. They awaken briefly and insist to me about tasks relating to their tax deadline, storage locker, sick aunt on the island. I make way for the driven and the blind. I’m on this side of life, moving further and further away from them, the sleeping and the nearly-breathing. I hold their voices, fulfill their requests, scribble down their thoughts, micro-manage the dwindling dailiness of it all, but when I turn on the car radio every day at 5:37 PM there’s the report of the number of people who fell asleep today, the reports of the globes of medicine set over their mouths in increasingly potent doses, the public health experts and doctors calmly reiterating, “This is not enough, people will continue to die.” Many workers like me are quitting. There are reports that people are beginning to fall asleep in public too, found slumped at their desks with the signs: blued skin, white lips, shallow breathing – at the till in Starbucks, behind the wheel of the bus, in a leather jacket factory.

Dom stopped me in a hallway one morning last week and leaned very close to my face: “How are you doing?” I almost giggled at the honey note of concern.

I smiled at him, tilted my head to the side: “How can I support you today, Dom?” I cooed.

He punched my shoulder. “You’re good shit, kid,” he said, and walked away. I don’t know much about Dom, but I know he’ll last here longer than I will.

Anyway, when a family member of a recently-dead sleeper turns up, I lead them to their door and unlock it. Ulysses roams and stress-whines about the ghost-funk vibe, and I watch the visitor circulate, brush fingers on the mat, the windowsill, the walls. I used to feel shame about the filthy state of the hotel but not anymore – this is one of the only places for sleepers to come. Sleepers are brought here in ambulances called by their landlords or family members. Sometimes the visitor asks me questions about my job, which I’m skilled at deflecting. I understand I’m a screen for their disbelief, a repository for their guilt.

I learn to stand at the door while they walk around. I never go inside. I keep the master-key pressed to the always-tender spot in the centre of my palm, a toothy reminder that I can leave any time I want.

Before this job – before I clicked “Apply” on that online ad for “community support worker” – I had an anthropology degree, a bunch of ESL teaching experience, and a Serving It Right certificate for catering work on the side. I was planning to apply for a Masters or go to Japan or Korea to teach ESL, because since the recession set in there was no point going into debt I’d never be able to repay. I believed in the minutiae of my sister’s and friends’ life-admin problems; I listened to international news sitting in the centre of my own personal pink salt lamp; I knew my life would play out normally but had never really thought it through; I had never been in a relationship serious enough to make a hole in me (when my sister had fallen in love and married, I’d observed with surprise that felt callous); I thought the social safety net existed; I thought hospitals fixed things; I imagined people died with dignity; and I had never walked around a person’s room the day after their death, my skull frail and hot as a halogen bulb, knowing they were just one of many. Hurry to get the room ready for the next move-in.

I never wondered why the people around me chose to continue to breathe.

I do now.

Today on my commute I listen to a doctor, a politician and a journalist duke it out over the cause for the sleeper crisis. The doctor insists on environmental causes – generations eating meat ripe with hormones, vegetables in a permanent greenhouse afterlife, water spiked with disinfectants.

“You’re saying thousands of people are dying because of … weed killer?” the politician says. She goes on about mental health coverage – the over-crowded hospitals, psychiatrist shortage, lack of research about the cause of the sleep, experimental treatments, alternative medications. “We have no etiology of the acute sleep disorder,” she says.

Then it’s the journalist’s turn and he begins, his rage a blizzard assaulting the microphone: “This is why so many died from AIDS – they were killed by indifference.”

“We know the people at highest risk have…difficult histories. We know this impacts our most vulnerable populations with the most complex presentations.” I remember the first time I heard a nurse refer to a person’s “presentation,” meaning the clinician’s impression. I thought of the sleeper’s face projected outside of himself onto the air, a slideshow organized into (1) Ignoble Birth; (2) Traumatic Childhood; (3) Shit Happens (4) Inevitable Descent Into Depravity; (5) Untimely Death.

I pilot my tiny hatchback through the rivering smog of commuter traffic and listen numbly, eyelids stiff with exhaustion. Yesterday, the paramedics had to be called to our hotel nine times to revive sleepers whose heartbeats had begun to stroll away into a warm retreating tide. They were all revived. Dom and I ate McNuggets, waiting for the ambulance to leave so we could.

The doctor continues. “We need consider carefully as a society – what do we mean when we say people are palliative? People who are electing to be … inactive … are these people palliative? Are we just waiting for them to die?”

Sometimes, lately, the thought has nudged itself uninvited against the interior shell of my ear: let them go. If they want to sleep forever, just let them sleep. Sing lullabies, dim the lights, hand out pyjamas.

The radio program ends; they didn’t interview anyone struggling with the sleep; they didn’t interview any workers like me. They call us “front-line workers.” I’ve always hated the military language.

When I get to the hotel, Hans is there chatting with Dom about the radio program. They listened to it together in the office (Hans has a way of always inserting himself into things, like honorary staff). Hans crosses his arms and says, “My big problem with research is that no professor knocks on my door in this slum and tells me my friend croaked.” He points at me. “Kid, you know how many people I know who’ve fallen asleep?” I shrug. I don’t want to be pinned by the facts of Hans’s life. “Guess,” he says.

“I don’t know,” I say.

“Ill-advised!” Dom shouts.

“Guess!”

“No!”

“Come at me, kid.” He’s sprightly, razory, this morning. He’s been sleeping for a few days, in full oxygen rebound, pupils lapping up my sweltering hesitation.

“Ten?” I say. Safer to guess wrong than to try for tragedy.

“Ha! Ten! Ten!” He points at me. “I won’t tell you the real number, kid. It’ll just fuck you up.” On his way out, he hugs me. His body is rock-hard and smells like rubber tires and garlic powder.

At the centre of an epidemic it is silent, it is still, there is the open mouth of the paramedic as he approaches, the cupped hands of the family, there is the empty space on the spreadsheet wiped of the name, there is the room after it is cleared and cleaned, there is the helpless gaze of the helper, there is the blank bullet at the centre of the eye again, the nearly imperceptible whistle of the dreamer and the dreamed.

It’s through no fault of their own that they’re sleepers. There have been so many editorials in the paper speculating about the cause for the sleep. Are these people more sensitive, more susceptible somehow than the rest of us? Can the sleep be transmitted? How does it spread? My older sister, an accountant, has called me up many times to tell me she worries about me. I started working at the hotel just before the sleepers started to edge their way into the news – and then the slow and then rapid build. When I hear the radio reports, I see the faces and hear the voices of our residents. When I read the newspaper, I see the doors and feel the sticky stairs on the bottoms of my shoes, that suck of neglect. The sour air fills my mouth. How do they end up here? When a person can’t hold down a job, the basic structures of life fall away quickly. A few months and the savings are gone; the unemployment insurance gets cut off; and then if they don’t have family, they’re in one of the hotels that will accept the government’s shelter allotment in exchange for a few nurses and mats and sandwiches. I try to remember that they all had different lives before – many had normal lives, lives with neither distinction, nor scandal. And then this – some stress valve embedded deep in them, virus or magic spell, and here we are, on different sides of the glass, and I watch today’s nurse mark times of waking beside their surnames, and I stand beside Dom as he clangs his bell and eyes rush open – I’m up I’m up I’m up. If the eyes stay shut, we call the nurse to administer the medicine, or we just call the paramedics ourselves when the lips are blue, which is often enough for my hands to shake by 10:00 a.m..

Their eyes, when they do open, hold worlds. I stay for this, for those who awaken.

Their irises of variegated fern green, opal iridescent with tidal wash, impenetrable forest browns. Pupils tunnel to another place.

I stay for the few who leave this hotel. Groggy, aching from the first deep weeks or months of little movement, wasted limbs, always with family. It will take months of rehabilitation to live normally again. Most fall back.

They’ve told me the sleep is dreamless, without memories, a profound break, just so nice.

One afternoon, I ask Hans, “What can I do to help?”

And he answers, “Can you bring people back from the dead?”

That sure shut me up for a while.

Another time I ask him, “Why is this happening?”

He answers: “You know what none of you people ever talks about? How amazing the sleep is. How fucking amazing it feels. If something’s that good – why should I stop? Because I might not wake up? We all go. We all go sometime.”

“Wait – can a person stop?” I ask, suddenly desperate, my mind clear as a dead person’s wide-open porch at sunrise.

He doesn’t answer me, though. I’m useful for things like phone calls and food stamps but I’m not witness to the mysteries that happen beneath eyelids, in skulls adjacent to consciousness.

“Every day I wake up is a good day,” Hans says.

When I was a kid, I used to sleepwalk and now I dream every night about the people in the hotel. I know I care about them way too much. I dream about Hans, smoking out the window with one hand, dangling a shoe for Ulysses to snap at with the other. I dream of our youngest resident, Nomi, who drifted off permanently two months ago, she’s sitting cross-legged on the roof of the hotel and I am sitting across from her and she’s instructing me in the basics of meditation. Just let your mind go blank and try to observe your thoughts without attachments, she says. I dream about Lucifer, who always screamed at me on the stairs about the non-present elevator, and in the dream we meet in an afterlife boardroom aglow with fir and glass, and he has typed up all his complaints– three washing machines for over a hundred people and half the time all three are broken; five distinguishable breeds of cockroaches – and he moves his hand back and forth through the air like a small-town DJ. I dream about the living and the dead and, in between, I work in a building that belongs to neither and both.

I’m at the daily meeting with Dom and the nurses. There are three day nurses now; and one overnight nurse who leave notes in hieroglyphics interspersed with the phrase continue to monitor like a poem about breathing or an instruction manual for maintaining the spiritual lives of robots.

The nurse who’s been here the longest, maybe five months, Shay, says she has a safety concern. One of the first things she did when she arrived at the hotel was decommission Dom’s bell and put in a requisition for alarms, which are now installed in every room beside the cameras. Her eyes fixed on her notepad, she says this is a difficult subject and nobody likes to make accusations. But she walked in on Dom sleeping in a stairwell last Thursday at four-oh-seven PM and she feels that not bringing it up would be unfair to the people we serve here. I can tell she’s starting to burn out. I can see it in the unnatural rigidity of her late-20s body, the hardness in her eyes, like her grief has sprouted cataracts.

“Oh you want to be fair,” Dom says.

“Yes.”

“And objective too.”

A brand-new nurse who sips a smoothie through every meeting, glances between them and says, “Shouldn’t this be managed privately?”

“No,” Shay says. “This is a safety issue that affects us all.”

“I have submitted my version of the event to the appropriate channels,” Dom says. I have no idea what he’s talking about – we have ever-shifting management and zero day-to-day oversight. There are fifty hotels like this one now, just in this city. Dom likes to say, proudly, that we were the first.

“You’re the door guy,” she says, and in that moment she loses control of the conversation, because Dom is the veteran of this place, the only one of us who belongs. “What qualifications do you have?”

“I watched a lot of Dr. Phil and now I play with people’s lives for the government,” he says and smiles, showing white and gorgeous silver teeth.

Shay turns to me. “You’ve been here the longest, besides Dom,” she says to me. “Like, four years, right? What do you think?”

“I didn’t see Dom sleep,” I say.

“What?”

“I didn’t see Dom sleep.”

“I didn’t ask you that,” she says, and I force my eyes blank, to match hers. “I asked you what you think of my report. I’m concerned.

What do I think? I think I’ve seen hundreds of people sleep here and lots of them have died but I haven’t seen Dom sleep. Here we are. This is it.

“I heard – I heard on the news last night that six thousand people have fallen asleep in this city since January and you’re – you’re worried about fucking Dom? He’s nothing. Do you know that this is a public health emergency with no new medicine, no plan, no cure, no nothing? Nothing. Do you know? You’re fiddling while Rome burns. Fiddling while Rome burns.”

“Thanks kid,” Dom says, sips his coffee.

And then, because there are no more items on the agenda, the meeting ends.

Dom and I sit around in the office, write up a few notes, shoot the shit, watch the sleepers on the monitors. A few stir. The psychiatrist who’s interviewing sleepers for a research project comes by. He’s a nice guy in his sixties, relaxed in his casual blazer, and always takes the time to ask us how we are, how things at the hotel are these days, but it always feels staged, like we’re part of what he’s researching. I want to interview everyone who lives at this hotel, but I would ask different questions. I would ask them: where were you the first time you woke up from the sleep, when you allowed yourself to surrender? I would ask: how has the sleep made the edges of your life more beautiful, or bearable? I would ask: are we awake together right now? Why can’t I go where you go?

The way a body goes.

Signs of premature drowning.

Drowsiness in the core.

Heart slugging, dropped electric threads.

Electric surge and wander.

Water creep around the eye sockets, lips.

Blue sweet give over.

Limbs tremble distant.

Doors thump closed one by one through the whole house.

Edge of mind, cooler.

Lungs go cloud.

The brain is the last refuge, hums dark computer.

For a long time, neural whisper.

Cells kick the current.

But who really knows.

I’m not in there.

Neither are you.

One morning I pull up to the hotel and a crowd of people is on the sidewalk.

I jump out, find Dom as fast as I can. “Fire?” The worst case scenario – the sleepers trapped, drugged by smoke as the papery old building wicks in a purple haze with a voiceover by a local anchor about another dark curiosity for the public collection.

Dom shakes his head. “Gas leak. Nurse smelled it.”

“Where?”

“Fourth floor.”

Residents I haven’t seen on their feet in weeks blink at the sky, birds waving their shining arms down at us. Our people mill around like a small sidewalk convention of serene monks, off-kilter with fragility and wonder.

The gas safety people roar up in their van and charge inside.

“How BOUT a SONG,” Hans bellows.

There he is – standing on top of a newspaper box.

He leads us in an arrhythmic version of Kumbaya, then Country Roads, then This Little Light of Mine.

Dom joins in and a few minutes later is bellowing like a devout choirboy.

Hans conducts, arms raised in the pure May light, his khaki coat lit from behind, drawing out notes and stomping flourishes on the newspaper box, which groans the emphasis of a subwoofer speaker.

Paramedics carry out a few sleepers who couldn’t get up and lay them on the curb.

The gas guys come back out of the building and roar off.

They didn’t find any gas.

We all go inside and the day goes on as if none of this happened.

People crawl back onto their mats and leave the world.

Later in the day, a nurse tells us that it was a durian. That huge stinky fruit. A sleeper had stored one in their room, forgotten about it. Smells just like gas.

When I catch Dom napping – once in a stairwell, curled up like a chubby cobra in his sweatpants and leather jacket; once on the floor under our shared desk, cap balanced on his face; once in a dead resident’s room, on their mat, when I thought he was cleaning up – I wake him gently, ask him how long he’s been out, give him a few blasts of the medicine, and walk him to the bathroom to splash water on his face, rinse the wrinkled towel on his brain. I need him. The nurse who ratted him out quit soon after that meeting and Dom and I toasted her departure with mason jars of rum and coke in the office. “Ding dong the bitch is dead!” we chanted, laughed. We were the survivors.

After Dom rouses himself and slurps ginger ale he keeps in the minifridge in the office – goddamn sleep is dehydrating, he laments – we sit together and say nothing for a long time. I won’t report Dom. Having someone is better than having no one.

One day I get this weird feeling while I’m checking Twitter on my phone in the lobby and I run down the hall and he’s grey-lipped in the bathroom. I administer seven doses of medicine, my hands sweating and slipping on the glass. I pour cups of water down his throat until he gargles and hacks and water sprays on my chest. I pour water on his shirt and back and hair and knock his head gently against the wall, make sure his airway is clear, and for the first time since my childhood, I pray. Wake up.

His eyes open and he hisses, “You’re too young for this shit.”

“I’m not quitting.”

“Oh kid. Don’t stay for my sake. I’m the burnout phoenix.”

I want to persuade him to apply to one of the treatment centres but I don’t because I know from my years at the hotel that’s not how it works, it’s not about what or me or nextness.

“Figure it out, kid. You gotta figure it out.”

“Let’s go to my car,” I say. I help him walk out through the back door, down the alley, and sit with him in the backseat of my car for an hour or so, and then we go back to work.


The day Hans goes to sleep for the last time, I’m running up the steps and a dice is sitting on the step at eye level with me and I capture it in my palm as I pass. I pocket it. I’m always finding little things like this all over the hotel and know I’m the only one who’ll pick them up.

The ambulance comes for Hans’s body and leaves. I take the dice out and set it on the computer monitor. I pack my bag and go to Hans’s room. I put Ulysses on his leash and take him to my car. I tell him he’s mine now. Hans had told me how many times Ulysses had saved his life – no doctor can smell when the sleep’s too heavy but that dog can. As I turn the ignition and the car’s engine gives me its reliable vibrational bearhug, I squeeze my eyes tight shut. I hotbox the car with my tears. I spread fingers over my face and shutter myself into this place. “Fucking idiot,” I say over and over and over. The pain floats in jagged pieces in my sternum. Somewhere in this, I think, how perfect, how fucking appropriate, that I will die in this little pod of my car in this underground parkade just as the people in the hotel die in their pods, lined up one after the other. They’re just sitting ducks for the sleep. Oh, the spaces between the swells of pain are widening and sagging like rotting floorboards where there used to be ribs. It isn’t Hans – it’s all of them. All the dead ones I’ve known in the years since a chunk of the population started to slip into unending unexplained slumber – not enough people to interfere with the grind of life, but more than those lost to cancer, more than heart disease, more than car accidents. Many of the sleepers never die. They are subclinical.

Hans had teased me – like trying to explain fucking to a virgin. I hadn’t known. My not knowing had changed me. My innocence had been a clear space for something else to grow. Like love for this world and also like horror against this world. The two doubled together within me, wrestling for control. I bend over and vomit, reach down to mop it up with my sleeve. I take off my shirt and toss it in a stinking ball into the back seat. I think, Hans is gone and everyone will go and then I feel scraped empty, and oddly weightless, my arms loose as they return to their original positions, the same and dislodged. I had worried about Hans’s judgement of me – he had seen I had no clue and let it slide – and now he was gone and what was the purpose of any care that I had put into our conversations, my management of his impressions of me, the story he told himself? Any expectations of me he’d had were irrelevant now. Not worthless, just stale-dated. I don’t believe in ghosts. That’s what I’ve learned from the sleep hotel. The body is the only real thing. The sugar in the blood, our only proof. The radio doesn’t play yesterday’s death toll twice. Somehow, I have fallen into this work with the continuously-dying and this is its nature: I am in competition with time. My car stinks of what’s inside me. I start the car and roll down the windows. I drink water and spit it out. I’m all acid and tendon, taut bone and fluttering nerves and names. I drive myself out of the carpark into the night.

ALEX LESLIE has published two collections of short stories, People Who Disappear, shortlisted for a Lambda Award for debut fiction, and We All Need to Eat, shortlisted for the 2019 Ethel Wilson fiction prize from the BC Book Prizes, named one of the Top 10 books of the year by NOW Magazine and a fiction pick of the year by 49th Shelf, and currently shortlisted for the 2020 Kobzar Prize. Alex has also published two collections of poetry, The things I heard about you, shortlisted for a Robert Kroetsch Award for innovative poetry, and Vancouver for Beginners, which was published by Book*hug in October 2019. Alex is currently writing a novel. Website: alexleslie.wordpress.com.