Dr. Ocan Kato stared at the bill and fought off a wave of bitterness—the compulsion to simultaneously laugh and cry and vomit his breakfast into the kitchen sink.
The bill was from the fertility clinic, the one where his wife’s eggs waited, frozen like miniature snowballs. Normally, they charged the annual storage fee to his wife’s credit card, but the number needed updating. A representative had called her cell phone, but she never answered.
“Please respond in a timely manner with a new method of payment to ensure your future is not compromised.”
Ocan read those mocking words four times. Future. Compromised.
He tore the letter in half and chucked the pieces into the garbage, the sweep of his arm knocking his coffee off the counter. As the porcelain shattered on the tile floor, the sound was almost gratifying; the house was always so quiet now.
Hot liquid splattered against his leg, the wall, leaving a dripping, Rorschach stain. He’d hated that wallpaper when she picked it out. All those silly, little blue flowers. But Eimy had liked them, said she wanted their first home to feel comfortable, even kitschy. His jaw worked at the memory.
Slowly, he gathered the pieces of the broken mug, careful not to cut himself on their perfect, curved edges. He sopped up the puddle. Then, with a clean dishtowel, he carefully–meticulously–wiped down the wallpaper.
After Dr. Ocan Kato changed his slacks, he called a car.
“Durham VA Medical Center,” he instructed as he slipped inside.
As the vehicle drove itself along the highway, Ocan opened his laptop and reviewed the files of the PTSD patients he was scheduled to see that day, throwing their medical records onto the windshield. First up was Capt. Eric Adams, who’d lost most of his Air Force squadron in the war with North Korea. He suffered from violent nightmares and sleep walking. He’d finally sought professional help when he woke to find himself strangling his own wife.
After the car dropped Ocan off at the hospital entrance, he headed to his office on the tenth floor. Although he preferred to dive right into seeing patients like Adams, he had a meeting to endure first.
“Major, welcome,” Ocan said as his 9 a.m. appointment arrived.
Major Claire Weissman sported a square jaw, a thick shock of white hair cut blunt to her chin, and a uniformed lackey who filed into the room behind her. Ocan didn’t know the purpose of this visit, but when you work at the VA and an Army officer with a PhD in neuroscience wants to speak with you, you listen.
“Dr. Kato, what do you know about unilateral sleep?” she asked as they took their seats.
Ocan hesitated. He hadn’t heard that term since comparative biology class.
“Unilateral sleep enables birds and some mammals, like dolphins, to sleep with only half of their brain at a time,” he answered carefully. “That’s how birds fly across the ocean without stopping. How prey keep an eye open all night for predators.”
“Exactly.” Weissman nodded. “And it wouldn’t be hard to imagine what that ability would mean for humans. The applications, for a solider. A pilot.”
“You’re not —” He squelched the urge to say the idea was ridiculous and merely frowned. “I’m afraid that’s the opposite of what I do, which is try to restore normal, healthy sleep.”
“And that’s exactly why we’re here.” She smiled with the indulgence of a woman who held a winning hand. “We’ve already achieved unisleep in fourteen subjects. I want to talk to you about the unintended side effects.”
Ocan gaped. “What…went wrong?” Aside from, oh, everything.
“Nothing. In fact, insomnia and other psychological issues improved. We want you to do a bigger study. We may have stumbled onto a cure for PTSD.” She nodded to the young man beside her. “Meet Sgt. Joseph Valdoni, our first successful unisleep patient.”
Ocan re-evaluated the solider to her right.
“Six months and counting, sir,” the young man said with a serious nod. “In fact, I’m half-sleeping right now.”
Holy hell. Ocan turned to Weissman. “Impossible.”
“People walk and talk while sleepwalking all the time, don’t they? And I’m sure you’ve heard of rarer instances of driving, cooking, eating. Well, the difference here is that half of the patient is consciously in control while the other is on autopilot. There are some personality changes, and reaction time does suffer, but it’s within acceptable limits.”
Ocan swallowed. “What about REM sleep?” Without dreams, people died, or at least went insane.
Weissman pressed her lips together. “Good question, and I’d be happy to answer if you sign onto the project—it’s all classified at this point. Between Korea and Syria, we spend a billion dollars a year treating PTSD. If there’s a way to cut that, even partially, it would represent a tremendous victory.”
Ocan blinked. It made no sense. Patients should need more sleep to process the horror they’d been through, not less. Perhaps…
Ocan glanced up and realized several minutes passed while he daydreamed explanations. He went to apologize but stopped at the smug look on Weissman’s face.
He was hooked, and she knew it.
The next eighteen months flew by in a storm of study design, approval and execution. Ocan oversaw the secret clinical trial, following 117 PTSD patients for 12 months. The results were better than he’d hoped: Nearly 80 percent of patients reported a significant reduction of PTSD symptoms.
He called his mother with the news, a first. They’d never talked about why he went into sleep disorders as his specialty, nor why his parents had fled their beloved, war-torn Uganda when he was just a baby.
“We all carry ghosts. You are a good son, to wish you could have made your father’s easier to bear,” his mother said quietly. Then she added, “But you work too much. Darianna says you don’t even return her phone calls?”
Ocan stifled a sigh. His mother was always using his sister-in-law to try and check on him.
“I’m fine,” he said tightly and ended the conversation as soon as he could. He didn’t expect her to understand, what with her four children and six grandkids scattered across the United States and United Kingdom. Family was her everything, but work was all he had left.
So, he went all in. A few weeks later, when it was time to go public with the study’s results, Major Weissman insisted Ocan handle all the interviews, even though she was the one who had developed the unisleep protocols.
“They’ll trust a medical doctor more than a military scientist,” she reasoned. “Plus, you’re a professor over at Duke. That buys instant credibility.”
He thought she was paranoid. Then the news hit.
The first week, the feeds went nuts, pumping out headlines like, “The End of Sleep” and “U.S. Government to Create Zombie Army.” A week later, the mood shifted. Listicles touted the “Top 10 Reasons to Dream Like a Dolphin” and cheered the NASDAQ, which soared on speculation that unilateral sleep would allow people to work, shop or eat 24 hours a day.
Ocan smiled through such craziness. The science behind unisleep had existed for years, he explained to the public, and was just being used in a novel way.
“First, a neurotransmitter cocktail, originally developed to treat epilepsy, is injected into the patient. This quiets their corpus collosum, the part of the brain that helps the two halves communicate. Then, the patient sits under a magnetic brain stimulator, which sends out pulses to stimulate the right half to stay awake for three hours while the left sleeps. Then vice versa, followed by induced REM.”
Of course, it was more complicated than that. But by then, his 30-second soundbite was up, and there was barely time to mention the next phase of research, an even larger, long-term study.
“This,” he promised the pundits, “is just the beginning.”
The weaver is naked, and the cobbler is barefoot.
It was an old saying of his grandfather’s, and it never rang truer as another marathon workweek came to a close. Between all the media attention and his regular workload, Ocan couldn’t remember when he’d last had a full night’s sleep. So, thank God his last patient no-showed and he could leave early for the first time in a year.
He stood outside the hospital, about to climb into a car, when a woman called out.
He pretended not to hear.
“Doctor Kato, please!”
He glanced up to see a woman dragging a sheepish-looking husband across the parking lot. Ocan sighed and signaled for the car to move on without him.
“Thanks for stopping,” the woman huffed, breathless in a Southern accent. “I just wanted to say thank you.”
Ocan couldn’t place her. She had strawberry blonde hair and a sunburn across her nose. The man looked vaguely familiar, your average middle-aged white guy.
The man extended his palm. “Eric Adams. Sorry we’re late for my follow-up. I gotta say, it’s been like a miracle.”
Adams. The Air Force vet who’d almost strangled his wife in his sleep.
“This is Jenny,” Adams said.
“A pleasure,” Ocan replied. His eyes flitted to her neck for a split second before he forced them back to her face.
“…it’s just meant so much to us,” she was saying. “Eric doesn’t like to talk about how hard it was–me afraid, and him not trusting himself. But everything’s changed.”
She placed a hand over her belly, then reached out and gave Ocan a squeeze with the other. The gesture’s meaning was obvious; she was pregnant. Adams wrapped an arm around her shoulder, chest swelling.
Ocan wavered, like a candle burning next to the sun, realizing how faint he flickered. Why had he wanted to go home early? There was nothing to go home to.
He forced a smile. “Congratulations.” Then after an awkward pause, “Why don’t you two come inside for the evaluation? No sense in making another trip just because you’re a little late.”
The wife hesitated. “It’s not too much trouble?”
SportsCenter and greasy takeout–that’s all he had to look forward to tonight. “No trouble at all.”
And it wasn’t. It took only thirty minutes for Ocan to complete the exam, enter everything into Adams’ chart, and say goodbye.
All too soon, he stood alone under the sickly glow of the exam room’s fluorescent lights. He’d dismissed the staff, and now the room was icy and silent. He stared at nothing.
Well, not nothing–at the ‘dream machine,’ as everyone now called it. Ocan slumped into the leather chair, over which the magnetic stimulator hung. The device–a helmet filled with magnetic coils–was originally designed to treat depression, but had fallen out of favor as cheaper, more effective drugs became available.
The dull ache in Ocan’s chest eased as he pondered why the device worked so well for PTSD. One old study had documented the “first night effect”–people’s tendency to sleep poorly on their first night in an unfamiliar place–and suggested that humans retained and occasionally used old, unilateral sleep pathways when they felt threatened or uneasy. It followed that PTSD patients felt uneasy all the time, so perhaps unilateral sleep was what their bodies craved.
But there was a catch. Ocan suspected humans had forgotten how to use these ancient pathways correctly. PTSD patients, left on their own, might routinely try and fail to enter unilateral sleep, never fully resting one side of the brain or the other. Worst of all, this would block REM sleep. The result: trauma lingered, even amplified, rather than fading with time.
Patients receiving the treatment, however, sustained periods of both unilateral and REM sleep. In fact, patients reported incredibly vivid dreams. Some described out of body experiences in which they relived battles, sometimes with far different outcomes, their terror replaced by peace or, at least, acceptance. Others swore they had conversations with lost loved ones, during which they were able to say goodbye, to let go.
Ocan’s stomach twisted. To see Eimy again? What would he give for such a thing?
In answer, he lowered the device over his head and turned it on. Before he lost his nerve, he injected the neurotransmitter cocktail into his arm.
This was foolish. Stupid. But screw it. Everyone had gone home. He wanted to go home, too. To her.
A warm wave washed over him as the drug kicked in. The polysomnogram recorded the peaks and valleys that meant his brain had entered slow wave sleep. He smiled and reached for his laptop. He could do paperwork while he waited…
He smelled her first. It was the lotion she’d always used, shea butter scented with vanilla and cashmere extract. Then came her footsteps, soft on the linoleum. Followed by the tingle of her hand on his arm.
“Hey, baby,” she murmured.
He opened his eyes, and the sweet pain of her pierced him as she gazed down. Those brown eyes. Those tight curls framing her face. And her smile, the gap between her teeth, where her pink tongue had always teased him as she spoke. She’d never known, and it had driven him crazy, even when they used to have their stupid little fights. Especially then.
“Hey,” he replied, stirring. His throat was dry. It hurt to talk. To breathe. “I’ve missed you so much.”
Then she was gone. Just like that, gone. A high-pitched ringing filled his ears. He winced, sat up and glanced around the frigid exam room.
Ocan groaned. “What do you mean they’ve asked for another revision?”
Three months in, and the long-term study threatened to go off the rails. First, he’d had trouble recruiting test subjects, who balked at coming into the hospital every other night for two years, no matter how promising the treatment. Then, his research budget was cut by 15 percent, thanks to the political geniuses in Congress.
And now, more headaches, curtesy of a bureaucratic tangle of institutional review boards. They couldn’t even agree on the language to put in patient consent forms.
“Do I even want to know their reasoning?” he growled at the hospital staffer bearing the bad news. “Never mind. Just email it to me. I’ll stay late and resubmit.”
Then the phone rang. It was the secretary for the dean of Duke’s College of Medicine, calling to say he’d missed their meeting. Again. Ocan cursed silently, apologized and promised to see the dean tomorrow. Then, glancing at the clock that said it was time to head home, he dove into the glut of final exams he needed to grade.
By the time he finished, the hospital wing was silent. He stood and stretched, walked out into the adjacent research lab, then peered into the neurodiagnostic clinic down the hall.
Empty. Finally. He headed to Exam Room 2, locking the door behind him.
It’d been a whole week since he’d used the device. That was the rule he made for himself: Only once a week, and only at night when no one was around. If he got caught–it was ridiculous, really, but a fact nonetheless–they would pull him from the trial.
Ocan slid into the chair and, heartbeat rising, pumped himself full of the drug. Then he turned the machine on and pulled the helmet over his head.
OK, so it wasn’t ridiculous that someone might question the validity of his results if they knew he was using the device. In fact, he would have once done the same. But unisleep enabled him to get extra work done, work vital to keeping his head above water as his studies grew more complex. And then, during dreams, well, it was all so fascinating…
Each time he went under was different. Sometimes the dreams were just snippets of memory played like a movie on a screen. Other times, he glimpsed what seemed like alternative versions of the future, including ones in which Eimy never got sick: A trip to Hawaii they’d always talked about taking. A rained-out picnic by a lake he didn’t recognize.
As he sat typing on his laptop, working on a proposal for an at-home machine that would make treatments more accessible, half his brain cycled through unisleep, then the other. But his fingers moved slower and slower. As the hours slipped by, the proposal didn’t seem so important. Only one thing did.
And then, there she was.
She looked so young, wearing tattered jeans and her favorite T-shirt emblazoned with the red and blue of the Dominican flag. No makeup. She played with a delicate gold chain around her neck as her forehead furrowed.
“Hey baby,” he whispered, voice thick, the words having become a kind of charm, a prayer, at the start of each session.
Then he watched himself walk into the room beside her.
“Hey, so I was wondering. What do you want for your birthday?” his young-self asked.
Ocan’s stomach twisted at the memory, but he couldn’t look away.
His wife shrugged as she gave an uneasy grin. “You’ll think it’s stupid.”
“It’s your birthday.”
She peered down at her hands. “I want to get my eggs frozen.”
His younger version faltered. “Is this about your sister?”
She scowled. “No.” Then jutted out her chin. “What if it is?”
Her sister had been trying to get pregnant for forever. Low egg quality, the specialists said.
“She’s only three years older,” Eimy said. “What if, when we finally have the money and time to have a baby–”
“You’re only turning 33.” Plus, they’d barely been married a year, and she’d just gone back to school to get her master’s in occupational therapy. “We have time.”
“We don’t know that. I’ve already done the research. There’s a clinic only twenty minutes from here.”
So she’d already decided. His younger self rolled his eyes. “Then why are we even having this conversation?”
“Because, I don’t know, you’re my husband?!” Her nostrils flared. “And hopefully, one day…” Her face crumpled as tears welled.
Ocan’s younger self rushed to her side. “You’re right.” He took her into his arms. “I’m sorry. I’ll go with you.” And because she still held herself stiffly, he nuzzled her ear lobe.
It worked. She pulled him into a long kiss. When she came up for air, she gave a little smile and murmured, “In the meantime, we could start ‘practicing’ more.”
“Hello, Dr. Kato? This is Melissa Polasky with The Washington Times. I’m calling about an article I’m working on, about Unisleep.”
Ugh. Reporters. The more successful he became, the more they were an occupational hazard. Especially now that he headed the neurological research division for Foster Pharmaceuticals International.
Ocan forced cheer into his voice. “How can I help?”
Although he’d stunned colleagues at the hospital when he left two years ago at the end of his phase II clinical trial, he had no regrets. No more panels and politics, no more wrangling for grant money or enduring endless delays.
Instead, he possessed a large staff and an even larger research budget. Already, the company had taken his design for a portable unisleep machine and gotten it to market. Use of the device had exploded across the United States.
Of course, nothing was perfect, which was why the reporter was calling. As with the larger unisleep machine, there were some rare side effects: Dizziness, confusion, hallucinations. And, as with other popular treatments, some people abused it, which the media seized on for an easy story.
This time, the journalist explained, it was an 8-year-old boy from Texas.
“He was secretly using his father’s device to stay up all night for months, playing video games. He started experiencing delusions in school–that he and his fellow students were all players trapped in the game. Later, his parents found him unconscious in his room. He’d drunk a bottle of Windex, convinced it was slurp juice, a healing potion from Fortnite.”
Ocan shuddered. Poor kid. Poor stupid kid.
“Thankfully, the ER doctors saved him,” the reporter continued. “Any comment?”
Ocan sighed. By now, he’d memorized his safety spiel.
“This technology treats insomnia and PTSD,” he recited. “Although it is sometimes prescribed off-label for depression and minor parasomnia, it has not been approved for use in children. Patients with the device in their home must exercise adequate supervision of minors.”
“Perfect,” she said. “Thanks.”
He sighed again and hung up. He’d always wanted to be a father, but he’d never really considered the thousand different ways you could screw it up. It wasn’t hard to imagine himself, passed out after a hard day, his own child sneaking onto the computer. If he and Eimy had kids before she got sick, he’d be parenting all alone, and that boy in Texas could have easily been his.
So perhaps it was all for the best. Still…
Without realizing it, Ocan reached for the unisleep device hidden in the credenza to the right of his desk. He was using it more lately, ever since his dreams changed.
The first few times, the dreams had confused him. Instead of starting with the usual smell of vanilla and shea butter, they began with the sound of laughter. Then, one day, there she sat: A giggling toddler playing in a sand box at a nearby park.
“Time to go, mija,” Eimy had called to the little girl in his dream. When she didn’t respond, his wife had added, “I already gave you a five-minute warning, Dembe. Come on, Daddy’s waiting.”
Ocan’s breath had caught. Daddy?
The next night, he dreamed of Eimy cheering from the sidelines of an indoor gym as their daughter, suddenly a preteen, played volleyball. A week later, an older version of himself–gray where he still had hair, a flabby pooch hanging over his belt–dropped an impossibly grownup version of the girl off at a brick-clad university.
He glanced at the clock on his office holoscreen. It was 3 p.m., too early to go home without raising eyebrows. But if he hooked himself up to the machine, the nice buzz that enveloped him during unisleep would improve an otherwise tedious afternoon of emails. By the time the dreams hit, everyone would have gone home. He could lock his office door, and, as usual, no one would be the–
A knock interrupted. His boss, Richard Zhou, poked his head in.
“Afternoon!” Rich was always unnaturally chipper, probably from all those zeros on the end of his salary. “I was just talking to Maria. She mentioned you were on the phone with a reporter?”
Really? Rich was checking up on his calls? Ocan hid his annoyance. “She just wanted a comment on a minor incident.”
“You’re too important to waste your time with that.”
“Sure. Hey, did you see the Parkinson’s study that came out yesterday?”
Rich shot him a look. “I’m serious. Run those calls through media relations. This comes from Myers.”
Odd. The CEO never got involved. “What’s happened?”
Rich’s mouth pinched. “A lawsuit. We can’t comment.”
“So, what you’re saying, Dr. Kato, is that your company doesn’t actually know if your product is safe to use,” the lawyer said.
Dear God, just put him out of his misery. The 8 a.m. deposition was supposed to take two hours, but they’d been sitting at this giant conference table for five.
“No.” Ocan willed his voice even. “What I’m saying is we’re still in trials.”
“Trials? You’ve already sold tens of thousands of units for home use.”
Careful. His lawyers warned him about this. Most people assumed all medical devices went through exhaustive testing. “The technology is similar to those larger models used in hospitals. So we obtained expedited PMA from the FDA, contingent on post-approval studies.”
“But that was over a year ago. When will the studies be complete?”
“That depends on recruitment and other–”
“Recruitment?” The lawyer’s head swung like a bear catching scent of salmon. “You haven’t started recruiting yet?”
Shit. “No, we’re past that stage.” Technically. A pool of patients waited somewhere in Asia, where research costs were cheaper. They just hadn’t started testing yet.
“Good, then your attorneys won’t mind our request for documents pertaining to…”
As the two sides argued, Ocan’s mind churned. Forty-two people had died while using the portable unisleep machine. His lawyer assured him he had nothing to worry about. She said that because most of the cases were suicides, it would be near impossible to prove the device was the cause of death, rather than the underlying illness.
Still, Ocan felt like he’d swallowed something sharp and sour.
“You did well,” the company lawyer told him when the deposition was over. “You stayed calm. That’s the important thing.”
“That’s the important thing?” He snorted. Without waiting for her reply, he rose and headed home.
Sleep called to him as soon as he slammed the front door. The needle slid into his arm like silk. The scalp cap cradled his head like a pillow as he laid down on the couch. He closed his eyes, willing the hours to fade, waiting to hear his daughter’s laugh.
Instead: A beeping. A piercing tone that stood his hair on end. He knew this memory, this room, too well.
Eimy lay in her hospital bed, a bandana covering her head. She’d pulled the covers up to her chin but still shivered.
“Hey baby.” His voice broke.
“Come here,” she beckoned, her hand splotched with bruises from too many IVs. “It’s time to say goodbye.”
He’d hated her for that. Hated and loved her. She was stronger than him, even until the end.
“I only have two regrets,” she said. “One: never having a child. And two: that because of me, you might miss out. I know I have no right to tell you how to live once I’m gone, but I want you to marry again. Love someone.”
“Shh.” He crawled into bed with her, careful to avoid the morphine drip. “Don’t talk like that. We’re going to make it through this, together.”
A few months after the lawsuit was filed, a judge dismissed it–although not because the product was safe. The ruling centered around a technical motion, something about suing in federal versus state court.
The company lawyers claimed a victory, then quietly advised Foster Pharmaceuticals that they had won a battle, not the war. Now that allegations had been made, the FDA would call for the post-approval studies sooner, rather than never, and the device would get a tougher review. In the meantime, ambulance chasers would lob legal grenades their way, probing for weakness.
Ocan wasn’t sure how to feel. His mind buzzed. He went home early again. That’s when he got the phone call.
“This is Mrs. Adams. Eric’s wife.”
Oh God, the widow. He’d been instructed to avoid contact with any plaintiffs, but Ocan remembered the praise she’d showered on him in the parking lot.
Now her voice dripped venom: “The lawyers just told us the news. That you can keep killing patients and there’s nothing we can do about it. Congratulations.”
When Ocan first saw her last name on the lawsuit, he couldn’t help researching why. He’d learned her husband had a relapse. Jenny woke to him beating her with his service pistol. She’d begged him to stop, their young son asleep only a few feet away in the same bed.
He hadn’t. When Adams finally came to, he thought she was dead. He called 911, told the operator he was sorry. Then he barred himself in his bathroom and shot himself.
Ocan reeled at the agony in Jenny’s voice. It didn’t seem possible he could feel both wrongly accused and remorseful at the same time, but there it was.
“Ma’am, I’m sorry for your loss. Your husband was a good man. But unisleep helped him for a long time.”
“Yeah, in the hospital–until your trial ended, you disappeared, and the only other specialist who would see him had a seven-month wait for an appointment,” she spat. “Did you know his symptoms returned? He thought it his fault, because supposedly ‘everyone else’ was cured.”
“His doctor eventually wrote him a script for your home kit. It didn’t work well, but now it’s all insurance will cover. So, he started using it more and more and then…”
Ocan shook his head. “I’m sorry, but those decisions weren’t made by my company. We are very careful to–”
“To cover your asses, yes. Imply one thing in your commercials with smiling faces and inspirational music, then mutter a bunch of horrible side effects that you think no one will notice. And, why not? Because the politicians let you get away with it, your hands stuffed so far up their–”
Enough. “Mrs. Adams, I understand you need someone to blame. But this device has helped thousands of people. The law is on our side.”
“He was your patient, once.” Her voice cracked. “You’re supposed to be on his side.”
Someone pounded on the front door. But if Ocan ignored them, they’d go away. Same with phone calls and texts, like little birds. They’d sing and sing, but eventually settle down in their nests for the night.
This person was persistent. How nice of them. How annoying. It was probably Rich, wondering why he hadn’t come to work in a week. Or was it two?
Maybe it was his mother. No, he hadn’t told her anything. She was busy enough, retired from nursing but practically running the Ugandan American Community Center in Waltham now. Last thing she needed was–
The front door flung open. Ocan half expected to see a burly police officer kicking it in. Instead, his tiny sister-in-law barreled forward.
A dream? These days, it was getting harder to tell.
“Darianna.” His voice croaked from disuse.
She turned to him on the couch. Her eyes widened as she cursed, “Coño.”
She made him take a shower, laid out some clean clothes. She shaved off his beard, which shook him from his stupor.
“Why are you here?” he asked as she stood in the kitchen, making him a ham and swiss cheese sandwich with groceries she’d brought. “Seriously. You don’t need-–”
“Shut up.” She pointed the butter knife at him. “Shut. Up.”
“Fine.” He gritted his teeth. He hadn’t heard from her in months, since he’d stopped answering her phone messages that she was ‘just checking in.’
They didn’t talk for a while. Turned out the ham sandwich she’d made was for her. The next one, his, was turkey. She remembered he didn’t eat pork. His face grew hot as they ate in silence.
“I’m sorry,” he finally blurted. “I…thank you.”
“You don’t need to pretend.”
“You heard about the lawsuit? Don’t worry. We won.” Bitterness filled his voice.
She frowned. “This isn’t about the lawsuit.” Her eyes wandered to the living room, where the unisleep machine sat on a side table. She walked over and inspected it, almost reverently.
“You know everyone is using this now,” she murmured. “Poor people who need to work double, triple shifts. Executives scheming to get ahead. But mostly, it’s the dreams everyone likes. The dreams that keep everyone coming back.”
Ocan stared, horror spreading across his face.
She gave a small, sad shrug. “I can see the appeal. Who wants to walk through this world totally awake? Who wouldn’t love to live in a fantasy of their own making?”
She put the device down and looked out the window. From the way she crossed her arms, wrapping them around her middle as if holding in a wound, he knew she wasn’t talking about him. Or even Eimy. She was thinking about the children she would never have.
She turned and glared at him, fierce as an eagle.
“I’m not asking you to forget Eimy,” she said. “All I’m asking is for you to see: Whatever life we have, it’s one she didn’t get. So do something to deserve it. Hiding behind this?”–she held up the device–“It’s disgusting.”
Darianna was right. He told himself he’d do it only one more time. To say goodbye.
He did everything as usual. He waited through both unilateral cycles, then waited some more. But it seemed stuck. Had his sister-in-law sabotaged the machine? How dare–
His daughter stood smiling. She looked about 6, clinging to a raggedy stuffed penguin.
“Uh, hi, honey,” he answered. He looked around the dream. “Have you seen your mother?”
Her eyes flew wide and her mouth made a surprised “o,” then quivered as tears threatened. “That’s not a very nice thing to ask.”
She screwed up her face, about to bawl, then stuck out her chin in an expression of defiance so like her mother, his chest hurt.
“Tell me about how you made me, Daddy,” she said. “How you made me special.”
His skin prickled. “What?”
“Rose at school says her mommy carried her in her tummy for nine months. I told her Mamá died before I was born. Rose wanted to know how I got here. But I couldn’t remember it all.”
Ocan’s breath stuttered, but his daughter continued:
“I’m glad Tia Darianna carried me in her tummy, since Mamá couldn’t. But how did Mamá put me in there?”
Ocan didn’t waste any time when he returned to work. He called a meeting with Rich and Meyers and stalked into the executive office.
“We have to pull Unisleep from the market,” he said as the two men stood to greet him.
Rich’s jaw dropped, but the CEO appraised him with amusement, almost as if he hadn’t spoken. “Welcome back,” Meyers said. “How was your vacation?”
When Ocan didn’t answer, Rich edged between them with an uneasy grin. “Don’t let that lawsuit get to you. It’s over.”
Bullshit. Just this morning, there was a newsfeed about another death, yet another widow he’d created. “This isn’t about lawsuits,” Ocan said. “It’s about what’s right for patients.”
Meyers rolled his eyes.
Ocan pushed on: “We need to do studies–long-term studies–on side effects. We need to educate physicians, so it doesn’t end up in the wrong hands.”
Meyers face hardened. “What’s happened to you, son? This is your baby, and here you are, reacting out of fear. You’re supposed to be a man of science.”
“The science was never completed,” Ocan said. “You know that better than anyone. And by the time it is, it’ll be too late. They’ll all be addicted.”
“Addicted?” Mock surprise crossed Meyers’ face. “And how would you know that?”
The threat lay there between them, writhing like a snake. They knew about his habit. They’d always known. And now, so did he, with utter certainty: The company would never pull the product, never give an inch. He’d been half-asleep for two years, and if he took his concerns public, they’d ruin him.
Meyers’ smile spread like oil. “Look, there’s no need for all this. You’re overworked. Take another few weeks off, get your head straight. When you come back, everything will be waiting. Your salary, your position–or a new one, if you like. We have an opening in senior management. Less work, more money. How’s that sound?”
As Meyers spoke, he wheeled out a unisleep machine, the updated version, smaller and sleek. Ocan stared. Did the old bastard really think that was going to work?
Yet, his mind itched for it. Despite everything, the thing he wanted most was to lie down and hook himself up. To be with Eimy and their daughter.
And, with that thought, finally, he understood. There was only one way he could make at least part of his dream come true.
Ocan stared at the linoleum floor of the hospital waiting room. A line of green tiles led to surgery, a magenta stripe to maternity, and yellow to the emergency room.
So many paths to choose from. Had he taken the right one? He turned his gaze from the lines on the floor to those on his palms and muttered, “The program works if you work it.”
It was a stupid saying the counselors had recited at his first unisleep addiction meeting, a motto he’d immediately hated. It was trite, clichéd, and—to his chagrin and eternal gratitude–also true. He hadn’t used the device in well over a year.
Still, his hands shook. An echo of old symptoms or just nerves? Either was understandable, considering that after he quit Foster Pharmaceuticals and went public about the device, the company launched a smear campaign and sued him for disclosure of trade secrets. Now no research institution would touch him.
“Dr. Kato, they’re ready to see you.”
Ocan shot to his feet as he turned toward the nurse. He flew down the hospital corridor, following the magenta line, but when he reached the doorway, he faltered.
Inside, his sister-in-law beckoned. She lay in the hospital bed, her dark hair slick with sweat. She beamed. “Well, come on now, come hold her.”
He rushed forward to cradle his daughter. She was teeny, head pointy from the birth canal. She took one look at him and screamed.
“Just like her mama,” he chuckled. Then, with a glance at his sister-in-law, he quickly amended, “Both her mamas.”
Darianna laughed, loud and easy.
“Sounds like a party,” her husband called as he bustled into the room. Mauricio carried a brown bag from a local bakery and a stuffed penguin, behind which trailed five pink balloons. He pecked his wife on the cheek and, with a flourish from the bag, presented her with a golden empanadita dulce dusted with powdered sugar.
“Ask, and ye shall receive,” he boomed.
“A-men,” Darianna said, holding Ocan’s gaze.
Ocan marveled at her, hoping both she and Mauricio would one day take him up on his other offer, if they wanted it: Eimy’s last gift.
With an outstretched finger, he caressed his little girl’s cheeks, traced her shoulders, wrinkled toes. Already, she had Eimy’s large eyes and his long, skinny feet.
Oh God, what was he thinking? He was going to ruin her. He’d spent an hour installing that damn car seat, but it was still all wobbly. He was too old for this, 41, for God’s sake.
And too broke. After the scandal, he had to start his psychiatry practice all over in a dingy little shopping center on the rough side of town. True, it had been gratifying when the FDA finally finished its investigation, issued a recall, and Foster Pharmaceuticals’ stock plummeted. Still, between legal fees, insurance and Darianna’s IVF treatments, he’d barely made payroll this month. So how would he save for college?
“Breathe,” his sister-in-law murmured, catching his look of panic. “All we have to do is show her we love her. You just stay in the present. The future will take care of itself.”
The present, yes. Here he would stay. No more reliving the past and regretting a lost future. Instead, he would make a new one. He snuggled his daughter close and smiled.