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Authors: Mark Howard

Sleeper Seven

BOOK: Sleeper Seven
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Copyright ©2013 Mark Howard

All rights reserved

Published in the United States of America

First Publishing Date: August 2013

To my wonderful wife Jean,

for always being infinitely supportive

of my latest ridiculous obsession.


And also to our wonderful daughters,

Mia and Dhara.

~ 1 ~

he feeling was always the same.

It happened with a random regularity — not every time, maybe only a few times per month, but always at the same places. It could be on the Brown line between Chicago and Sedgwick, the Red line between Fullerton and Belmont, or the Blue line between Jefferson Park and Harlem. Anywhere there was more than a mile or so of open track between stations, where the engineer could hammer the throttle down — if only for a few seconds.

It began with that familiar little twinge from deep in her gut. Whatever currently absorbed her attention — thoughts of the days work, her snail-like Kindle progress on
Infinite Jest,
the latest
This American Life
podcast — all of this, along with the entire meaning-making infrastructure beneath, suddenly cleaved off like limestone into the sea. The unstoppable autonomic chain of events began: heart rate and respiration increased, pupils dilated, muscles tensed, and attention became laser-focused, to the exclusion of all else, on one thing: the movement of the train. Because the twinge told her the train was out of control.

More terrifying was the isolation imparted by this knowledge. Absorbed in their own bubbles, nobody else knew the engineer was almost certainly slumped over the controls with the throttle open; any future application of the brakes no longer guaranteed. They weren't conscious of the subtle, nauseating cues of maximum speed: the smallest grade changes amplifying into reverberating bounces, the oppositional swaying of the cars over the twisted track, the wind whistling through the rubber window seals.

How much further, actually, could those coiled steel springs compress until they lost their absorption ability entirely? How close
the wheels from vaulting over the inch-and-a-half steel lip of the track? Just how much brutality could this aging snake of loosely interlocked seventy-mile-per-hour steel shoeboxes take, before one weather-corroded, or out-of-spec, or hairline-stress-fractured link in the chain gave way to a mechanized death?

Inevitably, of course, came the pull: the signal of disaster averted, this day at least. Even a hard pull didn't matter — some engineers seemed to almost relish being abusive with the brakes — but to her, it only meant a faster stop. In just a bit longer than it took to tear down, the foundation of her reality reconstructed itself. The book, the podcast, the looming meeting: all were levitated and placed back on their pedestals as she retook her throne amongst these binary amuse-bouches and carefree analog thoughts. By the time the doors opened and the station announcement bells rang, all was well and forgotten. Until the next time.

She knew enough about psychology to understand a feeling isn't the germ of a thought, rather, it is the reverse: a thought generates a feeling. Most people would object, believing emotions to be things unto themselves, projected and identified amongst folks at turns like a game of amygdalic hot potato; utterly clueless about the underlying socio-cultural belief systems from which they spring forth. In her case, she reasoned, the twinge was her subconscious mid-brain generating a feeling within her body as a way of alerting her conscious forebrain about some impending disaster. The triggering, unthought thought:
Something is wrong. We are going far too fast, for far too long

She wondered about the ultimate source of this odd hypothalamic wiring, having never previously experienced any plane, train, or automobile-related trauma. And though utterly terrifying, the emotional fuse impotently burned itself out within about thirty seconds, so like the old dog who lay growling on top of the exposed porch nail, she was never motivated enough to get off her ass and do something about it. When it came, she let it play itself out, knowing at a meta level that, similar to a panic attack, it was not
The End,
and would be over soon enough.

It came as a shock to her, then, given her fine-tuned attentional and emotional predispositions in this unique arena, to discover she wasn't the first person to notice, the day it all came true.

~ 2 ~

tan wasn't especially concerned; his total cholesterol was well under two-hundred — one-fifty exactly — and his bad cholesterol was a crazy-low eighty-seven. The problem was his good cholesterol, the one that cleans out the pipes, the HDL — that was too low as well, around thirty. Between them, the ratio was good, so not an emergency situation or anything, but these days the docs say you gotta be at forty or higher on the HDL regardless. He had already landed a blow against his couch potato lifestyle the previous year by starting to jog, which is supposed to help bring up the HDL, so now he just had to get the blood draw and wait for the results to come back confirming it.

What was killing him was the required "fasting lipid profile", meaning a minimum of twelve hours of nothing to eat or drink, except water, beforehand. As his appointment was late in the afternoon, in the interest of getting a good test, he not only skipped breakfast and lunch, but also dinner the previous night — giving him a good twenty-four-plus hours of fasting going in. It was worth it to him to get an accurate number — the last time, he forgot and ate breakfast beforehand, and always wondered if that had screwed up his numbers.
If I'm gonna base my whole lifestyle on these numbers,
he thought,
I can survive a few more hours being hungry to get a more accurate reading, right?

The other thing he dreaded was telling them about his condition. He used to just say he had a history of fainting after blood draws, but one time, after he told the nurse, he overheard her tell the doctor he had "Sing-co-pee". So he Googled that when he got home, and ever since, every time he got a blood draw he made sure to tell the nurse he had
so that they knew right away. Also it sounded better than just saying he's a fainter.

Five years back was the worst: he had blood drawn by this medical company that comes in to the main office once a year and tests everyone who wants to for cheap. So they drew, band-aided him up, gave him an orange juice, and sent him on his way. He got on the elevator with another guy, and about ten floors down he's confused, cause this other dude is asking him, real loudly and nervously, "Are you OK, man? Are you OK?"

Looking down, he notices that he is slumping against the side of the elevator — still standing mind you — but leaning heavily and bent at the knees, his orange juice spilling onto the elevator floor. For a few seconds there, he was gone, man, just
. But his body still had some capacity to stand and hold a drink — to a certain extent — which was kind of weird, when he thought back on it later. Anyways, elevator dude is all concerned, and so to make the guy
be so concerned, he goes and sits down outside the elevator — by now they are at the first floor — and he waves dude off, saying he had a blood draw, and that this just happens to him, no biggie, and he secretly hopes he's speaking English, and he guesses he is, because dude leaves him alone to his embarrassment.

But it hadn't happened, not that bad anyway, since he was fifteen and had a blood draw for school, and in the bathroom a few minutes later he starts sweating, and sees tunnel vision creeping in for the first time in his life, and there is only a small circle of reality left, and all that remains outside it is a furiously buzzing darkness.

That time too, he was standing, and never during this tunnel vision meltdown did he think to himself
Gee, I should probably sit down so the blood can reach my thinkin' parts easier,
so he stood and made it worse, because when you don't have enough blood in your brain there's no thinking your way out of it, now is there?

So nowadays he has a lay down when the nurse draws, and today this nurse starts having him breathe in and out quickly while it was happening, and she told him later she does it to keep nervous patients or children from focusing on the draw, which she could've kept to herself, because he wasn't a kid, and he wasn't scared or nervous, he just has
as he already told her, so he just needs a lay down and a few minutes to rest afterwards, is all.

The doctors office is pretty convenient, too, only a few blocks from the Damen Blue Line stop, so he called in beforehand to arrange a swap-out on the 431. Only he was late now — he had rested too long afterwards, and
now he couldn't even get that coffee and donut he planned as a reward for himself. Hurrying to the station, he looked down the track and saw the 431 inbound already, rising up out of the tunnel, and it's rush hour now, so it's packed. He would catch hell for making a Friday rush hour train even a minute late, so he skipped the elevator and bounded up the stairs, running to meet the first train car at the far end of the platform just as it stopped.

Squeezing through the passengers, Stan nodded slightly to the departing driver — no high-fives during rush hour, now — before sidling into the six-by-three foot cab and locking the partition door closed behind him. This is where the work of driving the train is done, the tight space consisting of a small metal seat that folds down from the wall, large buttons for the recorded station announcements, the door controls, and a master panel under the windshield. The panel's got a cluster of large red and green buttons, a speed indicator, and finally the throttle: a steel handle with a black knob on top, worn from years of daily usage, that rotates up to increase speed.

Reaching behind his head, Stan pulled a clipboard from a hook on the back wall and updated the shift sheet to note the driver change. After setting it back, he slid the small side window down and stuck his head out while simultaneously pressing the button that triggers the door-closing announcement. As he waited for the crowd to squeeze back in after releasing the disembarkees, Stan relished the late April evening air for a few seconds before his fingers automatically felt for the door close button. Pulling his head back inside the cab, he slid the window upwards till it clicked shut.

Only after coming in from the cool air did he realize how hot he felt — beads of sweat had suddenly started to form on his brow. The chair stayed folded into the wall; standing while driving was a new lifestyle habit he had chosen as part of his fitness overhaul. So he stood, and slowly brought the throttle up and around, giving the customary salute to the friendly yellow spaceman as the serpentine train rolled out towards the Western Avenue stop.

He had gotten up to about twenty-miles-per when he felt a surge of heat throughout his body. The beads of sweat coalesced and rained down his face as a wall of fatigue slammed into him. The only thought he had time for was:
Not good, buddy,
before the roiling, spinning emptiness started to encroach upon the edges of his vision.

Slumping forward over the console, he purposely relaxed himself to buy more time. Keeping his hand firmly on the throttle under his chest, he raised his head just enough to keep his eyes fixed on the track. He could see the edge of the Western station a half-mile ahead in his diminishing circle of vision, and focused what was left of his consciousness on keeping that red tile roofline in sight, lest he pass out and force his hundreds of passengers to walk the trestle all the way back to Damen, forty feet in the air at that.

Twenty seconds and another quarter-mile later, his vision had degraded to a shivering blackness, punctuated with a stubborn dime-size circle of color that remained in the center. He knew he wasn't coming out of this quickly, but still kept his focus on that red tile —
Just another quarter mile,
he told himself,
then I can let go
. When the circle of color finally collapsed fifteen seconds later, he had a few hundred milliseconds to convince himself he could guide the train into the station by sound alone, but that thought — along with all the rest — extinguished as a loud buzzing arose in his ears.

BOOK: Sleeper Seven
9.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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