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Sleep Debt

by Justis Mills

A man fell ill on the island nation of Ataxia. He fell ill suddenly, and in his sleep. He had an argument with his wife and fell asleep angry, and he never woke up.

The man was taken to a hospital and connected to machines in time to save his life. He continued breathing. His wife sat by him in a floral dress with her hands wrapped around his larger hand. The hospital attendants were optimistic. They established that his coma was not deep. It was no ordinary coma. The man was dreaming.

A week went by, then a month. The man was hooked up to increasingly complex machines. He did not respond to stimuli. Sometimes he would mumble in response to nothing. Sometimes one of his legs would twitch. His wife lived for the twitching of his legs. Her husband lived for things no one could see. Soon his wife had to squeeze between machines to kneel beside his bed. His body was a mess of wires and tubes, but his forehead was soft as paper.

His story piqued national interest. People brought flowers. Nationalized healthcare pumped more and more money, incrementally, into the body of the dreamer. His wife quit her job and lived off donations. She lost weight. She could not sleep near her husband without damaging the machines, so she slept in the maternity wing.

When his organs failed, ambassadors tapped into their respective black markets. A man on a long dock waited with a brown paper bag, and its contents were inserted. The machines processed on.

The dreamer’s treatment took over the hospital, then the island. Roads went unpaved as money was funneled into his thirteenth backup liver. Workers quietly quit, preferring to watch his face on their televisions. His wife grew fat from so much time sitting, and her hands were callused with the impression of his.

Only his wife knew, from tiny cues, that he was always close to waking. He was never more than a single breath from fluttering eyelashes. But with each breath, he was delayed. And as more time passed, as the weight of his dreams pushed the island toward the ocean, his wife faltered. She knew, those last few days before the gunman, that her husband’s good dreams had expired. She knew, though she told no one, his nightmares when they came.


Justis Mills edits First Stop Fiction. He has been published in Ampersand Review, Bartleby Snopes, and elsewhere. Find him, and an implication about his middle name, at

Lead image: “Emergency Sign” (via Flickr user Open Grid Scheduler)