Broken Sleep

by Michael C. Keith

For some offenses, there is only retribution.

                                          – Dennis R. Miller


Quinn Myer woke up in the middle of the night to relieve himself, but mostly because his legs were on fire. “Peripheral neuropathy,” the doctor had said, adding, “Like Restless Leg Syndrome.” Restless indeed, thought Quinn, unable to go back to sleep once he had iced the insides of his thighs and calves.

“It’s no goddamn use. I’ll never get back to sleep now!” he growled in the darkness of his bedroom.

This situation had been going on since the accident, although he could not see a connection.

Why would my legs start burning because of what happened? I couldn’t help running over the guy walking along the highway. No, actually walking on the highway . . . not the shoulder. He was obviously drunk. The guy weaved right into my car, for God’s sake.

Quinn had stopped and gone to where the victim lay. It was immediately clear to him that the person was unconscious, but he wasn’t sure if he was dead. The idea of having to make a determination by direct physical contact with the person repulsed him. In the end, he had returned to his car with the intent of calling for help but then remembered that he’d been drinking himself, if only moderately. They’ll think I hit him because I was under the influence, he thought, as he was about to dial 911. Three beers . . . just three lousy beers. Ridiculous. After briefly considering his situation, he drove away from the scene without reporting the incident.

* * *

The next day Quinn heard the news that a 32 year-old male had been struck and killed on Route 7, exactly where he’d been the night before. The television broadcast indicated the victim was wearing a blue shirt and khaki shorts but had no identification on his body. While Quinn was upset that the incident had resulted in a death, he reasoned that it was the victim’s fault and not his. He was drunk, and staggered into my car. There was nothing I could do about it. It wasn’t my fault he died, he told himself over and over again, until what mild sense of guilt he felt had faded.

It was only a couple of days later that Quinn began experiencing the burning in his legs. A visit to the doctor identified his condition as nerve damage, which he was told might have come from his early days as an avid trail biker.

“You’re pretty young for this though, but that’s the only thing I can figure out. Everything else looks perfectly normal, Mr. Myer. It should go away in a week or two. In the meantime, there are a few things you can do to help relieve the burning sensation. Take a warm bath before going to bed, massage your legs, put ice on them. A couple Tylenol before you turn in may help. If your condition continues, you might need to see a specialist . . . a neurologist.”

Quinn had tried what his doctor suggested but with little positive effect. He was beginning to feel desperate for a full night’s sleep. Over-the-counter sleep aids worked only to put him under, but not to keep him there. For nearly two weeks now, he had found it impossible to get back to sleep once he was awake.

“My life has become The Late, Late Horror Show,” he grumbled, putting on his robe and heading to the living room.

As before, he sat staring at the television without feeling the slightest bit drowsy. He then went to the terrace of his apartment and stood gazing out at the woods that were illuminated by a lamppost. I can’t keep doing this every night. It’s going to catch up to me, or maybe it already has. Sleep deprivation causes weird things, thought Quinn, suddenly struck by a blast of cold air. What the . . .? It’s August, man.

Another bracing wave of freezing wind hammered him, momentarily taking his breath away. “This isn’t normal,” he choked, trying to determine the source of the frigid gusts. It’s coming from the woods, he concluded, leaning over the deck’s railing for a closer look. Again, icy air accosted him, but he noticed that the only part of his body feeling the effects were his legs. And they were no longer burning.

Whoa, what’s that all about? Quinn wondered, running his hands across his upper thighs. They felt neither cold nor hot to the touch. It always perplexed him that despite how intense the heat was in his legs, they did not reflect it on their surface.

He remained on the terrace a few minutes longer, and as he was about to go inside, he noticed something stirring among the trees. At first he thought it was an animal, perhaps a coyote or deer. As he watched with keen interest, another frosty gust swooped down on him. This time it was strong enough to push him against the glass slider. Damn! What’s going on?

Quinn moved back to the deck’s railing and refocused on the tree line and its odd disturbance. While the low brush shook violently, its cause remained a mystery. Got to be something really big to make that kind of movement, thought Quinn, cupping his eyes to reduce the glare from the harsh streetlight. Why’d they have to put high crime bulbs in the damn light posts? What the hell ever happens out here?

Quinn remained fixed on the strange scene at the edge of his complex’s parking area and was both baffled and intrigued by it. Why can’t I see what’s doing that? It’s like a battle between invisible forces, he surmised. And then everything became still, followed by a preternatural silence. He thought he could hear his heart beating, but what he noticed most was the satisfying coolness in his legs where there had been such intense heat.

Come out, come out, whatever you are. Is the show over? I guess so, said Quinn to himself as he walked inside from the terrace.

He returned to his bed, and to his great relief, he was finally able to sleep.

* * *

“Damn! This has got to stop,” complained Quinn, rubbing his burning legs. “Two in the morning again.”

He climbed from bed and wrapped his slim body in his robe. Just as he was about to plop down in front of the television, he recalled the events of the previous night–how the cold breezes had taken the sting out of his legs. Maybe we’ll see what was out there making all the ruckus in the woods, he thought, heading to his deck.

All was calm for the moment, and Quinn began to wonder if last night’s experience was an isolated event. But then the high, grassy growth at the tree bottoms began to flutter and jerk wildly as it had before. Here we go. Time for another episode of the Twilight Zone, he muttered, just as he was hit by a frosty current that immediately quelled the roaring flames in his legs.

“Yeah! Hell, yes! Blow on . . . please!

Quinn luxuriated in the relief provided by the streams of glacial air while keeping his eyes on the woods for any more strange activity. It wasn’t long before he saw something very unusual, if not surreal. Two trees, each about fifty feet tall, bent to the ground as if bowing to him. They then returned to their upright position as quickly as they had genuflected. Quinn hardly had time to absorb what he’d just witnessed before something even stranger occurred.

He could make out what appeared to be several tiny figures dancing around the trunks of the trees. Soft music, reminding him of an old-world madrigal, accompanied their bobbing movements. It took a while for Quinn to realize they were dwarfs. What the hell is this all about? I’m hallucinating from lack of sleep. That’s what this must be. I’m freaking seeing things now.

More cold air pressed against him as he watched in disbelief the fantastic scene unfolding on the other side of the parking lot. Okay, your legs feel fine now. Go back to bed. Sleep this craziness off, he told himself. Before he made a move to return inside, he was startled by the sudden disappearance of the little dancers and the appearance of a normal size figure that moved from the woods to the pavement’s edge. Who’s that? Quinn wondered, attempting to discern any features. It’s a man and he’s . . .

Before he could establish a clearer identity, the shadowy visage turned and vanished into the forest. Get some sleep before you start seeing Bigfoot, too, he chided himself, passing through the terrace’s glass doors and hastily returning to his bedroom. Only seconds passed before he was in a deep sleep.

* * *

As Quinn fully expected, the following night his burning legs ruined his sleep once more, so this time he went directly out to his balcony to seek relief. But none was to be had, and his discomfort grew worse. “Come on. Blow, for Christ’s sake,” he blurted. “Where are you? I need you.”

As he rocked back and forth in increasing pain, he heard the music that had accompanied the dancing dwarfs. He looked toward the woods, but this time the little people were not to be seen. What stood at the edge of the darkness was the same full-size figure Quinn had seen the night before. Who the hell are you? Why isn’t the cold air blowing? My legs are killing me.

“God damn it! What do you want?” he bellowed at the apparition, which was now beckoning to him. “Yeah, you bet I’m coming, you bastard!”

Quinn’s thinking had become completely addled by the agony in his legs, and he ran from his apartment out to the parking lot. Not fifty feet from the specter, Quinn recognized who it was. Blue shirt and shorts, he thought, horrified.

“You’re the guy I hit. But how can you . . .? No, that’s not possible . . .”

The dwarves suddenly emerged from the woods, and the man Quinn had rundown pointed at him and let out a thunderous laugh. At that moment, Quinn noticed that his pajama bottoms were on fire, and he screamed. As the flames began to consume him, the diminutive figures renewed their dance.

When the police questioned tenants of the apartment building about what had happened, several reported hearing what they believed were children’s voices chanting, “Myer, Myer, pants on fire.”


Michael C. Keith teaches college and writes stories . . . lots of them.

Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing