I had always had trouble sleeping. It was a curse I endured as a lad, and one that followed me through into my adulthood. Most people couldn't begin to understand how hollow you feel when each night is filled with long empty hours and little sleep. There were nights when my exhausted, addled brain could almost imagine the thousands of people around me, all sleeping fitfully in their own rooms, in their own homes. In these lonely fantasies, I was the only human soul awake for miles, lost in an endless desert of quiet stillness, making my way by moonlight.
God, how I dreaded it. Each day, as the evening wore on, I could feel my stomach sink and my soul start moaning, knowing all too well what was in store for me in the hours ahead. For a short time, in my less experienced youth, I tried to drowned out the howling with alcohol, but it gave little relief, and I soon discovered it made sleeping even more difficult. I gave it up and lost myself as much as I could in reading and good conversation instead.
If it hadn't been for the friends I had made at the University, I wonder if I would have made it as long as I did. In a way, they were selfish—as most people are—so they little cared what I did or wondered why I was always the last to leave our gatherings. They took me as they found me, and I was grateful for it.
However, a new man found his way into our "gentlemen's club" (as we jokingly called our gathering). His name was Nathan Westcott. He had graduated recently with honors, mixing a study of medicine and other natural sciences. He explained, when asked, that he didn't intend to be a doctor, but that he wanted to spend his life in research. When we asked what he would research, he said with a thin, mysterious smile, "The entire human condition. It needs to be solved." We could get no more out of him, but I presume that was more because he perversely enjoyed being enigmatic and not out of any pressing need for secrecy.
I assume he meant it, though. He was ever one for asking questions. Bold, open questions that would make other people blush to think about them. Either he had never been taught to mind his own business, or he had decided research was more important and so ignored the counsel. I was amazed at his bravado. I was more amazed at how rarely he was told to stuff it. Some would squirm as they spoke, but often he got his answers.
I will never forget the night he turned his green eyes on me.
"Well, Stephenson, tell me, why are you always the last to leave?"
It wasn't as though I hadn't figured it might happen. I'd watched him grill all the rest of our company. I knew it would come to be my turn sooner or later, but it still was blunt enough to shock me for a moment. Then I smiled. "I don't have a wife at home worrying about me."
Three of our other friends were there to hear my glib reply. They scoffed and smiled, all of them happily married and amused at how it had changed their lives.
"Oh? Oh. Well, I don't either," Westcott said, pulling the cigarette from his mouth and waving the smoke away with a lazy hand. "And yet, I still manage to beat you out of here every single night I have the pleasure of your company."
"Perhaps he's an owl at heart," Dwight said cheerfully, his mouth half covered by the rim of a brandy glass.
"He's a strange owl if he is one," Styles remarked casually.
"You don't like my feathers?" I asked.
"No," Westcott said. His eyes narrowed into shrewd slits. "But I think Styles is right in saying you're a strange owl, because I distinctly remember you telling us that you got up at dawn to get to your work on time. I think owls sleep much later than the crack of dawn."
"Ah, face it, Stephenson, you're a failure as a bird," Dwight said.
I nodded to him. "It's a cross I'll have to bear." I looked up to Westcott, and a deep temptation to tell him about myself stole into my heart. Still, what real harm could there be? So, I told him, "Truth is, Westcott, that I'm an insomniac. I always have been. My first memories are of staring out my nursery window in the middle of the night. So I stay here until the fire has burned down and my friends have all gone. Then I go home to my books." I put on a manful smile. It cost me something to try and act as if it didn't matter. Worse yet, Westcott was watching me carefully, and I think he might have seen the dull ache that seemed to pull on me like gravity.
"Does it bother you?"
There was silence now.
"Some," I answered. The truth was there. At least I didn't squirm as I said it. My other friends remained respectfully silent. Perhaps they remembered how it felt to have their own truth drawn from them.
"Have you tried to treat it?"
"In a thousand ways or more. Some good and intelligent ways I would recommend to others, and some less intelligent ways I wouldn't advise to anyone. None of them have helped much."
"At all," I admitted quietly.
Now the others were curious.
"How much do you sleep a night?" Styles asked.
"On a good night I can get as much as six hours. Most nights I only get three."
"Good god, man!" Dwight said.
"I'd die in a month on that schedule," exclaimed Harmon Garnet. He was the quietest of our lot, but he was still drawn in by the shock of it.
"That sounds grueling," Westcott said sympathetically. "Do you feel tired a lot? Or is three hours enough for you?"
"It wouldn't be enough for any man!" Dwight said.
"It has been known to happen," Westcott said. Dwight blushed a little at the contradiction. It's probable he remembered that a degree in literature and an extensive knowledge of poetry didn't quite make him an expert. Westcott turned back to me. "Well?"
"I'm always tired."
There was another awkward pause. Perhaps my friends were trying to imagine what I might be like if I had more sleep. What would become of the still, sensible, lackluster man they knew? Maybe one or two of them had thought I was dull by nature, but now it was as if they were trying to see below the surface—trying to see the exuberant man I might be, if only I had the rest humans so desperately needed.
"And yet, you're alive. You function impressively well, even to the point you can work as an accountant and study math as a hobby!" Westcott noted.
At last, my smile became real. "Yes, well, numbers have always been easy for me."
"You're lucky," Dwight said with his own, far more rueful, smile.
"That's still amazing. Does your work ever feel muddled or hard?" Garnet asked.
I shrugged. "Sometimes. Especially if I hadn't slept at all the night before."
"Does that happen often?" Westcott asked.
"Far more often than I get six hours of slumber."
The room as a whole seemed to breathe out and think for a while. Cigarettes and cigars were lit or stumped out. Brandy was passed around. Each man took a precious, quiet minute to think of their own life and their own problems. Maybe one or two of them were glad they weren't me. I felt a curious closeness to my friends then, as if they were finally seeing me as the person I was, so we could at last get to know each other. Only Westcott still stared at me. For some reason his thoughtful face made me feel uncomfortable.
"Anything else you wish to know?" I asked, with far more carelessness than I actually felt.
"Yes," he said, with no carelessness at all. His voice had dropped into a grumble with the weight of his seriousness. "Have you tried counting?"
Styles barked out a laugh. "Is that some kind of a joke? The man's an accountant! All he does is count."
"It's no joke; it's a simple and effective technique that has helped many people, no matter how childish it may sound to those who've never needed it."
"I'm afraid I don't understand," I admitted.
"It's simple. You count up to some impressive number—a hundred or a thousand, say—and then you count back down."
"I presume you mean while I'm laying it bed, waiting for sleep?"
"Yes, yes," Westcott said irritably, as if annoyed that his question had been derailed over a detail. "Well, have you tried it?"
"No," I said simply. "I've never even heard of it before."
Garnet grumbled, "That's a surprise. My own mother told me that one when I was restless as a child."
I was intrigued. "Did it work?"
"Like a charm." He looked down into his glass and laughed a little. "As a matter of fact, it still does. I don't have anything like the trouble you do, but once every month or two, I'll count myself to sleep."
I looked from him back up to Westcott. "And you think I should try it?"
"I don't know. I'm sure you know better than I do what you should or shouldn't bother with, but I'll tell you, I'd be very interested to know how it would go for you. As you said, numbers have always been easy for you. It certainly couldn't hurt."
I let my eyebrows rise and gave a half shrug in acknowledgement. If my reaction was less than enthusiastic, it could be blamed on my eternal exhaustion. In truth, I was giving it a great deal of consideration.
"Well, you will tell me how it works out if you try it, won't you, Mark?"
The sound of my Christian name pulled me out of my head. "Yes, fine. I think it'd be a crime to leave you curious."
Westcott smiled. "I don't know that I wouldn't hunt you down for the answers."
That night I retired at the ridiculously early hour of midnight. I had been sitting in my customary armchair by the lamp, but my open book sat lifelessly in front of my eyes. My mind was so far elsewhere, I hadn't turned a page for over an hour. When I heard the clock chime from over my fireplace, I counted.
I counted to twelve and felt the world turn around me.
Midnight holds some mystery. It's where the numbers of time meet up with the artificial re-setting of the day. It says twelve by the mechanical hands, but the mind knows it's really zero hundred hours. If ever there was such a thing as an impressive number, surely that would be it. At zero hundred, anything felt possible. I could feel the night creeping through my skin and into my bones.
The others seemed as drawn to the chiming as I was. Perhaps it was the rhythm.
I stood up before I fully realized I had made the choice to try Westcott's new trick to manage my curse. I walked to my bedchamber, followed closely by the darkness and the others that lived in it.
I had long ago learned how to manage my reaction to feeling their presence...but I know why men fear the dark.
I changed my clothes and laid myself down on my cold bed. A minute later it was warm enough, but still I stared out the window at the rim of the moon, just coming into view. I knew the face of that celestial body better than I knew my own. It was the quiet reassurance that the sun was there somewhere, and it would be coming back.
But tonight I was going to sleep! After a moment of internal debate, I turned myself away from the window and looked instead at the darkness.
Yes, they were still there.
I closed my eyes and began to count.
Numbers had always been easy for me. When I was introduced to them as a boy it was as if someone had taken my soul and dipped it in a clear river. Numbers were sense and logic, precise and perfect: a total foil for the nameless horror of the night. At the time I thought they were the most real thing I had ever found. I latched on to Pythagoras' postulation that "everything is numbers." It was only later I came to understand that they were a construct of man, and less real than the others that my mother had scolded me time and again to never-mind and stop pretending were there.
When I realized that numbers had been invented and that many men lived their lives without them, I was seized with a despairing curiosity. I went to the University to uncover this history of mathematics. I suppose I had hoped that the history of it would be a reflection of the process and order of the thing itself. Instead, I found a story—a tale!—born in the belly of ancient Samaria and Babylon, carried through wars, the rising and falling of whole Empires, lost and found, bartered and controlled, tied to the hands of mere men who were very human.
My counting had already reached five hundred.
But the moment that most touched my probably too dramatic soul was when I had been idly speaking of my research to one of my friends, and he, being an archeologist, was happy to show me into the back of the museum where they had recently uncovered "a strange artifact" I might be interested in.
It was bone. This most intimate material had been scoured with lines—tally marks. Arguably the first evidence of man's counting.
Even as I continued to count, I could picture in my head, as I had that day, a man curled over the bone, striking it again and again with his weapon, in a pulse like a drum calling through the air. The numbers I knew so well started as a rhythm. We took our days, created time, and then chopped that time into pieces with the swinging of our arm, the strike, the noise, the mark left behind. Now, millenniums later, my clock strikes the same rhythm, the endless echo of our fist drum, our first counting.
And I counted. Using numbers to drive away the horror of zero hour when nothing reigns and sane men would be better off asleep.
Did the others come to the rhythm the same way we did? Did they thirst for order, but lacking their own, they had to tangle themselves up in ours? I could still feel them in my room, drawn to the cadence of my counting, just as they had been drawn to the chiming of the clock. Or did we create numbers to keep them at bay? To hold fast against the part of our mind that has no reason?
Was the pulse of my mind a bait, or a shield?
I had reached a thousand. There was a momentary hush. Then I began my numerical retreat, counting back down through the hundreds, one by one.
I soon felt compelled to close my eyes. It was a childish gesture that had never helped. Indeed, it had been many years since I had done it to try and keep the others away. It was worthless to close your eyes to try and fend off the ones who live in the darkness. When your eyes are squeezed shut, you discover your own darkness—a darkness you carry with you, that snaps through you each time you blink. It made the others that much closer.
But still my eyes pressed closed, because I felt the others moving nearer. I could usually only sense them in the room, even though it felt as if they were also separated by countless veils of reality. That night, as my counting reached back down to seven hundred, I could sense them closing in on me. They were only an arm's distance away, though it still felt as if there were layers of eternity between us.
At five hundred, the most terrible idea whispered in my head.
What would happen when I reached zero? What was I counting down to?
I fought with my desire to stop counting, throw off the blankets, and once again seek the face of the moon. I told myself firmly that the ideas in my own head couldn't hurt me, as I had been told by my parents a thousand times before. I tried to focus on the numbers as they fell like a waterfall toward nothingness. I tried to feel sleep closing over my senses.
All I could feel was the layers of eternity peeling away as I counted down, one by one. The veils between me and the others were being shed as fast as the numbers.
At one hundred I almost stopped counting, but by then the tempo of my counting had become a mental habit and I, an unwitting metronome. Even if I had tried, I doubt I would have been able to stop my mind's parade.
At ten, I glimpsed again the image of the man carving a beat into the bone. Did he look up when he felt them, wondering if it was an echo of his work that disturbed him?
At five, I could barely breathe.
Then three. Then two. Then one.
I didn't bother to think zero. The silence from counting was nothingness in its last and real form. It didn't need a name.
I opened my eyes.
The other had a head with two black staring eyes and a thin, sharp nose. The rest of its face was smooth, bereft of a mouth, lips or ears. I don't know if the thing truly was gray, or if I could only see it where the moonlight met the shadows. It was at the edge of my bed, its long, thing fingers curled into my covers. Noiselessly, it crawled up onto the bed, laying over me, as close as my bedclothes. After a moment, it lifted its arm and used two fingers to pry open my mouth. Then it crawled into me, tasting of nothing and feeling like mist.
I slept at last and never woke again.