Ants and the Highway
A Short Story by Jeremy Benjamin
Written using the suggestion "Step"
Originally featured on 11-07-2007
As part of our series "Journey To A New Word"

If you could sell time, you’d be the richest man in the world.  Roy was pretty sure he’d heard that expression in passing at a SynaptoTron orientation luncheon.  Or maybe it was on the wall of a church bathroom.

Roy sold time.  Roy made fifty-eight thousand dollars a year bottling and marketing time.

He strained his eyes to focus on the name printed on the diploma on the plaster wall, but every time he blinked or glanced away from it, the name swam away from him.

"Mr. Saberdine, are you all right?  Do you need to compose yourself?"

"I’m composed."

"How long have you been awake, Mr. Saberdine? No need to look at your watch. I want an approximate answer."

"I would say…one hundred and eighty five hours."

"And how do you feel?"

Roy tried to focus on any object in the room except for the diploma above the doctor’s desk.  The office had a damp smell, but that may have been the shirt he was wearing.

"Mr. Saberdine?"

"To be honest, I feel that I am talking to myself right now."

The doctor’s eyes swelled to larger ovals behind his glasses than Roy remembered them being a moment ago.  "Do you believe that you may be dreaming at the present moment?"

"Yes."  The word sprayed out of his chest like a puff of compressed air.

"How is that possible?  Wouldn’t you then be contradicting your thesis?"

Roy was aware of himself growing angry before his blood temperature rose.

"You can relax, Mr. Saberdine.  I don’t detect any slurring in your speech or irritation in your- well, any abnormal irritation for you, that is.  Although your emotional patterns- I don’t have anything conclusive to posit on that matter, although- we’ll be in touch."

It was raining and Roy was driving under the overpass where the 241 converged with Sun Valley Highway.  His eyelids did a fluttery dance.  His head lolled for an instant, and then rolled back up to its alert stance.  His eyelids had buoyancy; they did not stick closed, they just bounced, having no preference.

A white Porsche honked as it passed him in the travel lane.  He stepped on the accelerator and kept up with it for the next mile.  It did not seem to matter what he did.  He could not remember where he was going.  It wasn’t like those moments on long road trips where the lulling monotony of highway makes the brain skip on itself like a scratched cd.  It was not a matter of nodding off or of thoughts digressing.  Roy had no destination; the fact that he was driving on a highway seemed to be enough.

Maximize your life, the sultry female voice had whispered, was always whispering.

The white Porsche was not a white Porsch.  It was a green Ford pickup.  And then it was nobody, just Roy driving alone in the rain.

The doctor, what was his name…

“I want to stay awake with you.” Sara nuzzled her chin against him cattily.

He was sitting up in bed, fully dressed, with his Dell laptop on his stomach, revising a report for the department. Sara was not supposed to be up for another hour and a half.

She swam her upper body around to his left side through the tangle of covers and bit him at the base of the spine, disheveling his shirt with her teeth. “Pay attention to me, stupid.”

Her voice had that jellylike quality of half consciousness. As if sensing the sudden contempt it aroused, she stretched languorously and rubbed up against his back, looking over his shoulder. Her black curls tickled his neck and sent flickers of static electricity to his groin. “Can I, pleeeease?” She puckered up to his cheek. “It’s lonely in this bed.”

He finished formatting the Excel graph, set down his laptop on the night stand and worked his way under the covers. “All I want to do is sleep with you, and all you want to do is stay awake with me. How can we solve this problem?”

He slid a hand between her thighs. She tensed, shivered a little. “Not now, Rascal. Just lay with me.”

“Are my hands cold again?”

“Do you need an empirical reason to explain why I don’t crave sex every minute, scientist?”

“Yes, I believe I do.”

“Rascal, what time is it? What? What’s so funny?”

He wanted to explain to her why the question was absurdly silly to him. He wanted her to be evolved with him. He also wanted to wake up with her. He had no desire to sleep, but watching her wake up, she was a hundred miles away from him and the distance was out of his control.

Thomas Edison had a famous quote about sleep being a waste of time.  Roy could not recall where he first heard the expression (and he wasn’t positive whether it was Edison or Franklin who said it—it may have even been a Renaissance painter), but the mantra repeated itself to him at disjoint moments throughout his youth.  Every time he was battling himself to crank out a lab report or paper at four in the morning, a ghost would creep up behind him and whisper in his ear.

Sleep is a waste of time.

That was why Roy Saberdine sold time.  He founded SynaptoTron to industrialize sleep suppression, which was not as lucrative as he had hoped, but had a steadily growing market. The television commercial that still aired between old reruns of Boy Meets World on KBTV after eleven faded in on a smooth montage of middle-aged professional men and women with bags under their eyes straining behind the wheels of their cars and jerking awake to the sound of horns.  An overture of synthesized music cued the female voiceover: "Are you having trouble staying awake with the demands of a career and family?  Want to get the most out of your day?"

  The visual then cut to a sweeping shot of the SynaptoTron lobby with the first module door open, revealing a glass bathtub filled with saline solution and networks of pipes with a dial pointing to the ceiling, reverberating about a convex, shiny pan.

"Ever wish you could pack a full night of sleep into a bottle, take one swig and feel refreshed?”Roy walked into the frame sporting a blue lab coat and a clean shave. The blonde narrator put her arm around him and said — half to him and half to the camera — “Dr. Saberdine, when’s the last time you slept?”“Four days ago.”“And how do you feel?”He inhaled and smiled at the same time while raising a fist. The picture faded with triumphant guitar-driven music.Roy said “Double your productivity” and the narrator said “Maximize your life” and both phrases echoed over each other in an intricate web of audio magic.

Roy was sitting on the couch and the light at the window was orange.  His pulse beat steadily.  He wondered if he could make himself feel tired if he tried.  Closing his eyes was just like shifting his weight to the left.

“Rascal.” Sara was angry. She only used that nickname when she was cuddly and when she was angry. She stood beside the television with her arms crossed.

“I would give my left nut to articulate to you how surreal this moment is.” He didn’t speak. He exhaled and words came out.

The rest of the argument faded into shapes without words. Sara was a pulsar, a red supernova on a digital display of the universe. She passed out of the room like she had never been there. The door slamming shut made his flesh jump and then recede back into the couch.

Doctor…what in the hell was his colleague’s name?

Maximize your life. Roy spoke that phrase silently to himself whenever he was in danger of losing an erection.

"Roy, I don’t know how to say this."  The doctor had the expression of a high-school guidance counselor, standing hunched beneath that hazy diploma on the wall, as if all his power and energy were supplied by that piece of paper by some concealed electrical cable wired up his butt.  That conceited prick, what did he know?

They said you couldn’t read written words if you were dreaming, wasn’t that right?

"Listen, Roy, you need to stop this."

"Stop what?"

"You're not in control."

Roy laughed.  He pictured the Newtonian spring constant of whatever machinery in his chest caused the harmonic vibration that was laughter.

"Are you hearing me, Roy?  Do you believe that I’m in the room with you?"

Roy stretched his face back into a serious expression, stared at the doctor for a moment that may have been several minutes and may have been a fraction of a second and then poked him on the nose with his thumb and said "Boop."  Both men continued to stare at each other.  The doctor shook his head.

Roy got up and pulled the doctor out of his chair.  "Walk with me."

As they made their way through the cafeteria, Roy grabbed half eaten sandwiches and cups off coffee off tables and ignored all reactions.  At one point he made to grope a lab technician’s breast.  The doctor stopped him and shoved him against a wall.

"It is my professional opinion that this experiment- no, forget it. I’m not going to talk to you like a rational person.""I have no idea what you're talking about.""Look at yourself. Nine and a half more days, I don’t want to think about what that'll- I’m pulling the plug. Do you have anything to say?"

A school of tiny fish swam through his brain for a moment and then went still.

"You're not hallucinating.  It feels like it, but everything is real.  It’s the transitions, the seams- Your short term memory is getting cooked.  I’d like to have Dave run a CAT scan."

Roy was shaving and making monster eyes at himself in the mirror.  Sara’s alarm clock had one more snooze period to go.  The newscaster on the radio was talking about some species of ant that the town was infested with.

He was naked except for a towel. Sara was in another time zone.

"You don’t remember getting in your car.  You don’t remember the walk from my office to this cafeteria.  Your brain is sequencing events in a completely random order, and so naturally none of it feels real."

The doctor was speaking over the radio.  His voice had a washed out rust sound.

"I don’t know how a sedative would react with the induced charge, but if this continues beyond another day, I guarantee there will be permanent brain damage.  Do you understand what I’m-"

An ant crawled out of the sink hole and onto Roy’s toothbrush.  He yelped.

"Dreams have a psychological function.  You can manipulate circadian rhythms, you can give the costumer eye drops to lubricate their pupils for up to six nights, but there’s a reason we’ve never gone beyond a hundred forty-four hours, and you're proving that.  Dammit-"

Roy shut off the radio and buckled his jeans.

The sky was clear as he pulled out of his drive way, which looked unusually green and sharp.

Somewhere on the highway before him was a white Porsche.

Sleep was a waste of time. Edison, Michelangelo, Socrates, whoever the fuck said that was right.  And Roy Saberdine was offering the world time in mass quantities.

Roy hadn’t slept in twenty-three days. He wondered if the sensation of being the richest man in the world would feel any different.

Read More By Jeremy Benjamin

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Portland Fiction Project

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