Graham sat in bed reading while his wife, Lauren, slept beside him.
She thrashed, kicking Graham in his shins. Her face contorted and relaxed. Then, all at once, she sat up straight, opened her eyes and let loose a blood-curdling scream.
Graham flinched, knocking the back of his head into the bedpost and dropping his book. With one hand, he rubbed his sore skull, reaching for his book with the other. “What happened?”
“I just had a horrible dream. I dreamt a hundred gibbering goblins were ripping me apart, pulling my intestines out through my bellybutton.”
He put his arm around her. “Don’t worry, it’s all over now.”
“I don’t want to go back to sleep.”
“Come on, it’ll be fine. Your dreams can’t hurt you.”
“How do you know? You’re not inside my head.”
“Do you want me to call Dr Sheldon?”
“No, no more doctors.”
“What then? We can’t go on like this.”
She pulled away. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Well, it’s okay on weekends, but I need my eight hours during the week otherwise I’m a zombie at work, and I’ve only got a small window to get them in.”
She turned to face the wall. “My apologies.”
“Look, I’m sorry. It’s—”
“Maybe you should sleep in the guest room.”
“Don’t be like that.”
“Or I could go sleep there.”
“He leant against the headboard. “How about we try something new?”
“I’ll tell you something to imagine and you drift off to sleep.”
“What are you? A hypnotist?”
Perhaps it would be better to sleep in the guestroom. “Do you want me to help you, or not?”
Lying on her back, she shrugged.
Her lips and eyelids relaxed.
“I want you to imagine a river. A long river, stretching to the horizon. The water’s deep and dark-blue. It flows gently past. You dip your fingers in and it’s cold.”
Her face remained completely still.
“Are you asleep?”
“Keep going,” she murmured.
His pulse increased and he smiled. “Now, I want you to step back from the water and lie down in the grass. A breeze blows through your hair. Feel yourself drift away. It carries you off to a placid void. Nothingness.”
She twitched and took deep breaths.
Pleased with his amateur sleep therapy session, Graham pulled the duvet up to his chin and turned out the light.
The next morning, breakfast tray in hand and mugs of coffee steaming, Graham re-entered the bedroom.
Lauren stirred. When she opened her eyes, it was like someone had come in during the night and polished them up. “I had the greatest night’s sleep of my life. Whatever spell you spun worked wonders.” She accepted a cup of coffee. “I can’t remember the last time I woke up when it was already light. There’s none of the drowsiness like when you wake in the dark.”
They finished their breakfast in silence.
Downstairs, they discussed his gift, deciding the next step was to try it on someone else, to see whether or not last night had been a fluke.
Graham peered over Lauren’s shoulder as she flicked through her address book.
After a lifetime of sleep disorders, she had an array of acquaintances: support groups, sleep problem social networks and insomnia workshops.
Lauren ran her bony index finger along the list, picked out a dozen or so names and made the calls. Of those she contacted, four still had problems and were willing to give Graham a try. Lauren chose the second name on the revised list, Felicity Norris.
That night, Graham stood alongside Lauren on the doorstep of Felicity’s house.
Felicity answered the door in dressing gown and slippers. She had a large round face and bushy grey hair that hung down over her patchy cheeks. Her beaming smile lit up the enormous bags under her eyes.
Felicity hugged his wife. “Lauren! So wonderful to see you, it’s been such a long time. And you must be Graham: the dreamweaver.”
Graham scratched his arm. “I suppose.”
Felicity waved them in. “Don’t just stand out there in the cold. Come inside.”
An Aga stove dominated much of the kitchen. Blouses and shirts hung from a clothes line which swooped over their heads. Several cats lay about, stretching and washing.
Graham’s nose tingled and he sneezed.
Felicity raised an eyebrow. “Oh dear, you’re not allergic to cats, are you?”
He managed a nod before another sneeze erupted.
“Hang on a second,” Felicity shooed each cat out and then said, “Please, take a seat.”
Graham and Lauren squeezed up together on a bench.
Felicity asked, “Would you like some tea? The water’s just boiled.”
Steadying himself on the table, Graham snorted back the mucus. “Yes, please. “
With her back to them, Felicity busied herself placing teabags in mugs. “So, Lauren, what does he do to you?”
A film settled over Lauren’s eyes. “I don’t know. It’s like a kind of hypnotherapy. He just tells me about a place, gets me to imagine being there, makes me think about the smells and relax. It worked last night.”
“I see,” Felicity said. “Still in beta-testing?”
“Something like that,” Lauren said.
Felicity poured out the cups and brought them to the table.
Graham was glad to have something warm to drink. It soothed his ticklish throat and relaxed his taut sinuses.
Eyeing them over the rim of her mug, Felicity said, “I have to tell you, I’ve tried just about everything on offer. As I remember things, Lauren was one of the worst sufferers in our group.”
“That’s right,” Lauren said. “Night terrors.”
Felicity continued, “So I imagine anything that works for her will work for me twice as well.”
Graham sniffled. “I hope so.”
“You’re so lucky your husband’s stayed with you, Lauren.”
A cat wandered in and brushed itself against Felicity’s legs.
Seeming to forget his allergies, Felicity picked it up and cuddled it. She continued, rubbing the cat’s stomach, “Walter left us three years ago now, didn’t he, Snookums?”
The cat purred loudly.
Graham felt another sneeze coming on.
Felicity scratched the cat behind its ears. “He’d had enough. I don’t blame him, in a way. It’s hard enough to find someone who understands and wants to share their life with you, let alone have them put up with your problems.”
Lauren clutched Graham’s hand and met his eyes. “Yeah, I’ve always been lucky, I suppose.”
After they’d finished the tea, Felicity led them up to the bedroom.
A strange vision flashed across Graham’s mind, like he was about to take part in a bizarre intergenerational orgy, or something. He erased it quickly, wanting to concentrate on whatever it was he did and get out.
Felicity propped herself up in bed with a couple of pillows. “I have to tell you that I’ve tried just about everything.”
“He’s the real thing, I’m sure,” Lauren said.
“We’ll see,” Felicity said and then snuggled down. “I usually sleep with my cats, but I don’t want them to bother Graham while he works his magic.” She turned to Graham. “When you go out, could you leave the door open? Else, they’ll scratch at the wood until I wake up, undoing all your good work.” She withdrew a set of keys from her bedside table drawer. “Lock up when you go out. Just push them through the letterbox.”
Lauren kissed Graham on the cheek. “I’ll leave you two to it. Hope it goes well, Flick.” She shut the door, leaving them alone.
Not quite knowing how to act in a strange, elderly woman’s bedroom, Graham hovered at the entrance.
“Okay then, magic man,” Felicity said. “I’m ready when you are.”
“Lie back. Make yourself comfortable.”
She did as he said, the same grin lining her face.
“I want you to imagine a forest.”
“Night or day?”
He grimaced. “Please relax. Just think about what I’m saying.”
She made a motion as if zipping her mouth shut and lay back.
“So, there’s a big forest, dark green. It stretches as far as the eye can se—”
Once more, she opened her eyes.
He gritted his teeth.
She held up her finger. “I’ll tell you what I’ve forgotten. I haven’t fed the cats. They’ll be up and about if I don’t give them something.”
“It’s okay, I’ll do it.”
“Oh, thank you. You’re so kind.”
“Close your eyes. Good. Under your feet is luscious grass, thick and warm between your toes. You can smell it on a gust of wind.”
She sighed. Her chest rose and fell evenly. “Don’t stop.”
He cleared his throat. “You walk closer to the forest and its dark, comforting. The moist wood and pine needles on the trees are familiar and welcoming. Closer and closer. You reach the rim and step—”
She let out an enormous snore.
Still marvelling at his apparent gift, he headed out the door. A cat passed through his legs. He pinched his nose to stop himself sneezing.
Lauren sat at the table in the kitchen with a fresh cup of tea in her hands. “How did it go?”
A tingling feeling clambered inside his chest. “She’s asleep.”
Lauren got up, downed the tea and set the mug in the sink. “Let’s go. I think we’re done here.”
He walked into an adjoining room. “One second, I have to feed the cats.”
Graham located a tin, examined it in the half-light coming from the kitchen then peeled off the top and tapped a meaty mess into the food bowls.
Over the next few weeks, the phone rang itself off the hook. Felicity seemed to have spread the news to anyone who’d listen.
Graham accepted all requests. Some people wanted to pay him, but he declined. It didn’t feel honest. Pretty soon, every evening after work, he ventured out to some stranger’s house and put them to sleep.
One morning, on his way to the office, Lauren collared him at the door. “Gray? They’re taking advantage of you. You’ve got to charge them.”
Graham scratched his head.
“Why not say, from now on, you’ll only take payment?”
“Kind of like a prostitute?”
“You’re not having sex with them. At least I hope not.”
He winked. “Whose idea was this in the first place?”
She rolled her eyes. “All I’m saying is, if you played your cards right, you could quit your day job.”
“I don’t know. I’d feel bad taking their money.”
“Don’t. Take it from a former sufferer, these people spend their entire lives paying money to frauds to fix their problems. They’ll spend it anyway. Why not have them pay that money to you, someone who actually does what they claim? What can it hurt?”
He swallowed. “But I don’t ‘fix’ their problem. All I do is put them under for a night.”
“Is that what you’re worrying about? Please, do you know how much I’d pay for your services, just for one night of peace and quiet? You don’t realise how lucky I am to get it for free every night.”
“Maybe I should charge you.”
She slapped him playfully.
That morning, at the office, Graham placed an advertisement in a local paper. When he got home from work at night, he had over a hundred new voice messages. All new clients.
Months drifted by and he was able to quit his job. In many ways it was the perfect life. He would do whatever he wanted all day: adding to his model train set, going for daytrips with his wife and then, at night, he’d head out after dinner and get back just before ten—a mug of hot chocolate and a book ready for him.
Lauren took on the role of manager and agent. He did whatever she said, merely knocking the addresses into his GPS and then driving out.
One evening, returning from putting a local vicar to sleep, Lauren showed him a monthly bank statement. “Look how well we’re doing.”
Through bleary eyes, Graham read the form. “Jesus. I’m earning more than I did full-time.”
“You’re earning twice what you did. At this rate we’ll pay off the mortgage this decade. To think you wasted so many years of your life scratching about for pennies.”
He sank into an armchair and picked up his book.
“Are you okay? You look a little glum.”
“I’m all right.”
“Do you want more hot chocolate?”
“No, thanks. The sugar gets me wired. Makes it difficult to sleep.”
She sat on the sofa opposite. “Now, Gray, I’ve been on the phone with some people today. Publicists. They’d like you to write a book.”
He blinked. “I don’t know how to write a book.”
“Easy, relax. You don’t have to write it. Someone comes to interview you and then they go away and write the book on your behalf.”
“Five figure advance plus royalties.”
“Okay, I’ll do it.”
She cuddled up to him. “I knew you’d see sense. There’s something else too.”
“It’s a conference. They want you to go along and give a talk.”
His book flopped onto the carpet. “Are you crazy?”
“Gray, at least think about it.”
“What’re they paying?”
“A thousand a day.”
He exhaled. “And when does it stop?”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t want to do this anymore. It’s sending me around the bend.”
She narrowed her eyes. “What’re you talking about? It’s easy.”
“What I’m doing doesn’t seem honest. I don’t like taking their money.”
“We’ve been through this. I thought you’d reasoned it out.”
“Don’t you think visiting people’s rooms is a strange way to make a living? Selling a book about a subject I have no idea about? Giving talks to God-knows-who?”
“I think you do whatever you can with what you’re given.”
“Still, I’d like to stop, just a week, maybe. It’s been months now without rest.”
Her brow creased. “Oh come on, Gray. It’s not like you’re working twelve hours a day, is it? You just have a simple two, three hours max, one-on-one, and you’re free to enjoy the rest of your day.”
The irony of the best sleep therapist of his age was that he’d stopped sleeping. He turned to face her, trying his best to accentuate his bloodshot eyes and the dark bags. “That’s easy for you to say.”
She threw up her hands. “All right, I’ll make the calls. They’re not going to be happy. Imagine how you’d feel, if you’d been expecting to sleep and someone said you couldn’t. Sounds kind of like torture, don’t you think?”
After a few nights of long and deep sleep, Graham was fully-refreshed. Now he only used his gift on Lauren. Both his conscience and health were restored.
One evening, the phone rang. Graham answered. “Hello?”
“This is Felicity Norris, do you remember?”
His stomach sank. “Of course.”
“I know you’re running a big operation now, but I was wondering if you might be able to come over and work your magic, just one more time.”
“Sorry, Mrs Norris, my wife runs the book—”
“Yes, I realise that, but I was just calling on the off-chance that you might be able to help me out.”
“Well, yes. The problem is we have lots of bookings.”
Her voice firmed and any trace of the friendliness vanished. “I haven’t slept in days, do you have any idea what that’s like?”
“I’ll pay double the rate. No, triple!”
He ran a hand through his hair. “Tonight?”
She brightened. “That’d be perfect.”
He hung up and sighed.
Lauren walked into the room. “Who was that?”
Lauren grinned and embraced him. “Oh good, so you’re back on the wagon?”
With the money from Felicity’s session in his jean pocket, he shoved open his door and wiped his feet on the mat. He felt dirty. Why wouldn’t Lauren listen to his feelings?
He hooked up his coat and trudged upstairs.
Lauren lay in bed, huddled up in blankets, asleep. He waited, counting out the seconds, and then minutes, in his head.
Sure enough, after about twenty minutes, she tossed and turned. She grunted louder and louder until she broke free with a glass-shattering yowl.
He sat on the bed and held the hair back from her face.
Her forehead wrinkled. “Gray? Please, help me. I can’t live without you.”
“Don’t worry, Law, just shut your eyes and I’ll send you way.”
She smiled and sank back. Her dark hair spread across the pillow.
“I want you to think about a great lake, its water icy-blue. Alongside there’s a sailing boat made of fine wood. Step inside. It bobs gently under your weight, sending ripples across impossibly still waters. You push out into the lake.”
She breathed profound breaths.
He could stop now, if he wanted. She was asleep. But, if he walked away, was there any guarantee she wouldn’t come after him and the money? He needed that to start his new life. “In the middle of the lake you notice a ripple underneath the boat. Soon it transforms into a patch of choppy water.”
Her smile transformed into a frown.
His heart beat faster. “The wind picks up and blows the boat about, almost capsizing.”
Eyelids twitching, she sucked and spat air.
“Water under the boat breaks into a whirlpool and sucks it down. It spirals around and around until . . .”
Her hands clamped the covers.
“It plunges under.”
She convulsed over and over. A trickle of blood dribbled down from the corner of her mouth and she was still.
Graham reached out and felt her pulse. Nothing. He draped the covers over her face then walked downstairs and out the front door.
Bio: David lives and works in Bogota, Colombia, where he spends his spare time writing and reading speculative fiction.