Sleep State


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Chapter 1

- Emerson -

Day Five.

Outside the window of Northwestern Memorial Hospital, the sun rose in the east for the fifth time. Down it went at dusk and up it came as its natural light broke the horizon to welcome a new day. This day was no exception, but unlike the rest of the world who rose with the sun, she would not enjoy the hopeful mantra of what the morning held. 

For the past five days, Emerson Reed watched the beauty of the sunrise behind the counter as she scribbled notes, checked files, and counted down the minutes until she would be set free. A single check mark was made with careful precision next to the days on the desk calendar in blue ink. Silently, she congratulated herself as she swiped the ball point pen with a swish next to the current date. After much anxiety and trial and error, she had made it through her first week as a registered nurse.

And what a week it had been.

No matter how much training she had gone through nor the countless hours she had put in under the prerequisites of her major, she had not been prepared for the week she had just endured.

In the grand scheme of things, she had entered the medical field to help people. Her passion fell in hand with her compassion to nurse the ill and the unfortunate back to reality. She had not anticipated the constant weeping, mindless complaints, foul language, and vomit stained scrubs that came along with it. Not even in her clinical days had she dealt with such pity parties of one or even abusers of the system. All of it came with the territory of her occupation, but it didn’t mean she had to like it. Just the thought of being cursed out for simply doing her job made her cringe, and it happened on more than one occasion with more than one patient. Being a nurse was an exhausting job, but someone had to do it. Someone had to step up and be the punching bag every now and then. 

Upon the acceptance of her employment and her assigned station, she had been warned about the temporary, but frequent patients on her floor. The ones that kept coming back time after time with reasons that were downright shameful and self inflicted. She was happy she had been given proper warning diving into her first week, and yet, somehow she still felt mentally and physically like she had not been prepared for it.

Emerson moaned at the imprinted memories of the week and sighed with relief knowing in a few long minutes she could go home. She looked forward to her first, and only day off very much. A total of thirty-six hours away from the madness of her night shifts.

"Room 42." A blonde middle-aged woman named Sandy approached her desk and slammed a chart down. "Just never shuts up, even at this hour."

A veteran in the field, Sandy had been her mentor from the start and had seen and heard it all. Every horror story imaginable, Sandy had the front row seat. Under her big eyes, she carried dark circles. Emerson wondered if she would too one day. She patted the soft, tight skin under her lashes and prayed to stay youthful and vibrant for as long as possible.

Smiling politely in response, she braced herself for a venting session on Sandy’s behalf. The nurse’s station, better known as the “bitch station” was where everyone gathered. Along with the routine tasks, it was a chance to let some steam off if one of the patients was being troublesome. Most just passed on by with a quick mumble of annoyance while others cursed under their breaths. And then there were the ones that held nothing back like Sandy. After her first night, Emerson caught on quick and gladly joined in. The idea of talking behind one’s back never sat well with her, but in her case, if she didn’t vent she would explode. It was her only option and she was not about to let the pent up frustration follow her home.

“So, the first week on the job, how was it?" Sandy asked. 

"Interesting." It was the only word that came to mind and was surrounded with sarcasm.

"Hate to break it to you kid, but it only gets more interesting the longer you work here." Sandy laughed robotically. No sign of humor was behind it. As she fidgeted with the pile of charts stacked high in the tray next to her, she remarked, ”You did great though. I've never seen someone under so much pressure in their first week handle it as well as you did." Her compliment was genuine.

"Thanks." Emerson accepted the praise and bowed her head.

Out of the corner of her eye, a room number blinked on the computer screen followed by a corresponding beep. This was their alert system that notified a patient who requested assistance, whether it was seriously needed or not. Most of the time, it was urgent, but the few repeat offenders and big time abusers who pressed the red button made them all moan.

"Room 42," Emerson announced. The excitement in Sandy's face was nowhere to be found.

"What the hell does she want now?" She groaned and snatched the chart back into her hands. "Well, seeing as you're almost off, have a great day Emma. I'll see you back here on Sunday."

"Good luck with Room 42." Her girlish voice chimed.

Mumbling something incoherent, Sandy stalked off with her chart again and turned down the hall with a huff. Emerson’s gaze returned to the sunrise outside the window as the minutes ticked away until she was officially off the clock.

Saturday 6:35 a.m.

Emerson rubbed her tired eyes and let out a yawn as she climbed into her compact car and turned it on. Backing out of her spot, she was thankful for the first time all week she would not have to fight the morning city traffic due to the weekend. The lucid thought of her soft mattress beneath her and a fluffed pillow below her head sounded inviting. The faster she could get to her bed, the better.

The arrows painted on the cement directed her from the second floor of the parking garage to main level, where she turned right on Huron Street. As she merged out into the light traffic, she felt her body relax more. Her prediction of her traffic report had held up. Only cabs filled the normally busy streets with the occasional business men and women behind the wheels of their fancy cars. Early morning risers in their fitness gear jogged up and down the now vacant sidewalks. Distant sounds of horns could be heard, but did not blare as they frequently did as the day grew on. This was the quietest she had ever seen the city and she soaked it in knowing it would not last long.

In the rearview mirror, she witnessed the final stages of the sun’s arrival over the horizon of Lake Michigan. While most said good morning, she said good night. 

Emerson cranked the catchy pop song on the local radio station louder in her attempts to keep her senses alert as she drove home. The electronic beats and auto-tuned voices were nothing short of cringe-worthy, but enough to keep her awake. She had never fallen asleep at the wheel before, now was not the chance to risk it though. Without the hassle of traffic to keep her mind off drifting, she opted for the next best thing, music.  

As she passed the highly commuted streets of Michigan Avenue and State Street, she pressed her foot on the accelerator with exceeding force, but not enough to draw attention of any watchful law enforcers. The quicker she got home, the happier she would be. That was all that was on her mind. Her destination was so close, yet so far. Only a few more blocks and a quick turn to her right and she was homebound. 

Emerson lived on the north side of the city with her best friend and roommate, Caroline. Their living arrangements was somewhat the size of a shoe box as the tiny, narrow brownstone barely accommodated their knack for obscure decorations and mini-mall of clothes, handbags, and shoes, more so Caroline than her. They had lived there only for a month and being immersed in the city culture was enough to make her miss the suburbs, where she was born and raised for most of her life. The slow paced, but still vibrant lifestyle of the suburbs were ideal to her, but after much persuasion and the desire to explore downtown in true fashion of no longer becoming a commuter from the outskirts of the city limits, Emerson decided to make the move. 

On a good day, which was rare, her short commute was tolerable. Most days were brutal though. Her compact car weaved in and out of traffic amongst the thousands of others who did the same. She fought for a parking space on a daily basis and sometimes, if she was lucky, she found one within a decent walking distance of her brownstone. Time after time she was advised to leave her car be and resort to public transportation. Now, after the week she had she would opt for it without hesitation. There was no sense in her driving when she didn’t have to.

With the hospital out of sight in her line of vision in the rearview mirror, she became lost in the sea of skyscrapers Chicago was known for. Emerson sighed. Who would have thought, a girl like her to land an open RN position at one of the best medical centers in the city? 

Fresh out of the pool of hopeful potentials in her graduating class, she had been the one to land the job of a lifetime. Her scores were great and she had proven her capability to handle the duties of a RN. Northwestern Memorial Hospital was without a question at the top of her list, but she never imagined she would be so lucky to be offered a position there at the rate she did.

Up ahead, the street signals changed rapidly and she slammed on her breaks as the yellow turned red without fair enough warning. Her body jolted forward and her seatbelt thankfully served its purpose as the edges dug into her thin material of her scrubs and irritated her skin beneath it. A great puff of air escaped her lungs. Public transportation was sounding better by the minute.

Not a single car was in sight as she scanned the intersection. Temptation coursed through her veins to run the light, but she proceeded to remain stopped. She knew better than to break the law, especially when every intersection was equipped with cameras ready to capture anyone who dared to disobey it. The hefty fine was not worth it though, and so she waited impatiently for the light to turn green.

In the cup holder of her car, her phone sat and her home screen flashed to life with a new notification. Two missed calls, both from Steven. Emerson rolled her tired eyes and slumped back in her seat. She maintained her focus on the street light as she multi-tasked and flickered her gaze at her phone to see what time the calls had come in. Oh, Steven, she groaned. Both calls had come in after midnight and most likely due to being intoxicated. It was not like him to call her so late, but she knew exactly why he had called at all in the first place. It was his attempt to mend the rift in their relationship he had so stupidly caused the night before.

What was supposed to be a night of take out dinner between friends had turned into an awkward situation.

Steven had come over for dinner to keep her company before her night shift at the hospital had started. Everything was fine. They laughed and talked about city life. They devoured a whole pizza from a local joint down the block, and then it got weird. 

In the kitchen, she cleaned up the dirty dishes from the night before as Steven stepped behind her. She felt the hairs on her arms stand up as he leaned in closer and the next thing she knew he had kissed her. Her cheeks flushed with a crimson red from his sudden gesture and she panicked. Emerson pushed him away in a hurry and shouted at him for being so brash. He was quick to apologize and he too became a shade of red she had never seen before. She should have seen it coming. All the signs were there. It was no surprise Steven had a thing for her, even Caroline called it from a mile away. But he was just a friend and always would be. She never saw him more than that, however, he saw differently. 

After a minute of awkward silence, she politely asked him to leave and he did not hesitate to evacuate the scene of the crime. And like that, Steven had changed everything between them.

The frustration grew inside of her at the thought of it. Now was not the time to dwell and so she chose to ignore his calls. She did not want to think about the Steven situation any longer. She did not even have the energy to face it. Her long night shifts were a good excuse to put the distance she needed from him. It allowed her some time to think before she would have to confront him about his poor choice that shifted their friendship. For now though, all she wanted to think about was the back of her eyelids.

As the light turned green, Emerson let off the break and drove through the intersection. That’s when things became unclear. The world around her moved fast, violently, and into a jumbled mess. Her tired eyes shot open only to quickly snap shut without warning. Was she slipping away? Had her exhaustion finally won? No! It could and would not win. She had to stay awake. She had to get home. No matter how hard she fought the urge, the wave of exhaustion grew stronger. A dark mass surrounded her and dragged her down deeper. Energy and consciousness ceased her, and soon she could not protest any longer.

When she awoke, the uncertainty followed her. 

A volt of energy shot through her veins and her motor functions began to work again as she jolted up right. Emerson gasped for air and halted her spasms as something violently constricted her and cut into the exposed skin on her neck. “Ah!”, she moaned and peeled what appeared to be a seatbelt across her chest. A seatbelt? She was in a car? Why?

Suddenly, it became very aware to her she didn’t know where she was at all.

Emerson unlatched the seatbelt to relieve her imprisoned body and sighed. Her hands ran over the smooth console of the vehicle, including the steering wheel, and then slowly back to her thighs. She could not make sense of the situation. Why couldn’t she make sense of it? Why couldn’t she remember? Like an empty canvas, she was blank. Everything had been erased. Not a single memory prior to this point could be illustrated and no matter how hard she tried to think of something, nothing was all she got. 

“Holy fuck!” Emerson exhaled. Holy fuck was right.

 A cloud of thick fog lingered in the depths, corners, and cracks of her mind. The more she tried to find logic in her absence of memory, the more the fog spread. There had to be a reason she couldn’t remember, right? A cause and effect. Whatever it had been, she desperately wanted to know and why. 

It wasn't every day you awoke without your memory. It was not a pleasant state to be in and soon her worry sent her into a spiraling frenzy of chaotic panic. Tiny gasps of air filled her lungs as she hyperventilated. She felt like a fish out of water seeking to find its way back home, but where was home? Not a clue to where she was, why she was here, or what was going on, it was next to impossible to find peace. With each breath she took, it reminded her that at least she was alive. If she was breathing, it had to be real, but that did not stop her maniac state. 

With the sudden urge to bolt, her fingers trembled for the keys in the ignition, but only found nothing. No keys? Emerson slammed her back into the seat and huffed loudly. Not entirely sure of where she planned on going, all she knew was she wanted out. She wanted to run. Maybe it was the adrenaline or the fear of the unknown that haunted her, but she needed out of this car. The longer she stayed in it, the longer she felt suffocated. 

As she closed her eyes tight, she tried to reason with herself. She chalked up her situation to a bad dream and nodded her head to assure herself that it was. Soon she would wake up and feel silly for ever being so irrational to think that a thing was possible, but when she reopened her eyes again in hopes to awake, she found herself back to square one. 

"God help me." She prayed.

Outside the confines of the vehicle, she saw lonely streets hiding in the shadows of the tall buildings that rose many feet above her. Was she in the city? What city? And where was everyone? Where was the madness that thrived in a place like this? Emerson carefully opened the door of the car and stepped out half expecting the ground to crumble below her. Anything seemed possible right now. To her surprise, the ground was sturdy and solid. She stomped her foot on it to make sure. When it didn't move, she breathed a sigh of relief.

Stepping away from the car, Emerson inspected the middle of the intersection. Nothing was out of the ordinary besides the obvious. Her thoughts felt like a game of ping pong as she moved from one worry to the next. One moment she examined the car she just exited it to make sure it wasn't made of cardboard and the next she poked and patted her body from head to toe to make sure she was intact. Everything seemed to be pieced together. 

On her body, she took notice to her strange attire. The material was thin and it resembled what she would best describe as nurse's scrubs. The pale blue short sleeved top coordinated with the pale blue sweat pants she wore and it appeared her uniform had not been washed either. Why was she wearing this? Was this her first clue? Was she a nurse? It would be silly of her to be wearing such an outfit otherwise. Just another thing to ponder over.

Turning her attention back to the world around her, she searched for a sign of life as she observed the deserted four-lane road. No human, no animal was in sight. She wondered if anyone even existed at all. What if no one did? Depression rendered its ugly head. There was no way she was alone. It wasn't like everyone could just walk off. It wasn't like they all could just disappear, could they? Emerson's arms circled around her body and braced herself for the possibility that she was very much alone. The likelihood of her coming in contact with another form of life seemed unlikely. At least, it seemed like it at the moment.

What had she done to deserve this? She wanted, no, she needed answers.

Up in the sky, the sun hung low in the west. Soon it would be dark and she didn't want to be stuck out here all by herself. Her curiosity led her and encouraged her unstable legs to move toward a diner perched on the corner of the intersection. Just like the rest of the place, it appeared dead. No light, no people, no life. Dark and unwelcoming, she settled on it as her safe haven not wanting to continue her venture. Her stomach growled in response. It would have to be her first choice and luckily she could salvage the hunger she felt once inside.

The door to the diner swung open and echoed a friendly chime. For all she knew, she could be walking into a trap, but she would take her chances. When it came to her line of defense, she was her only weapon. She doubted she would have to worry about that though. While the place creeped her out, she was alone. No one was going to intimidate her. 

Her eyes began to swell with sorrow at the reality that sunk in. Vulnerable and alone, Emerson hated the constant reminder. She prayed for a sign to tell her what purpose she served here, but she came up empty handed. Did this alternate universe even have a God? Apparently not, since none of her prayers had been answered yet. None of this felt right to her.

Over the counter, a bag of salty snacks caught her eye. Her stomach pleaded with her to satisfy her hunger, but she didn't feel right taking it without pay. With no money in her pockets, she would have to steal it. Fool!, she internally screamed. She was alone. Who would stop her from taking one bag of chips? No one. Not even a voice of reason but her own to prevent her from doing it, and so Emerson leaned over the counter and snatched the bag. She pulled on the sides, popped it open, and shoved her face with the toxic treat as her stomach thanked her.

Soon a vicious cycle formed as she sank to the ground, placed a chip in her mouth, and wept. Eat. Cry. Eat. Cry. Her self-pity continued onward as she could not control her tears or devouring another bag.

With her butt placed firmly on the ground and her body hidden out of view from behind the counter, she contemplated all the reasons for her existence in this mysterious world. Nothing came to mind though. She had nothing to base her reasons on since she didn't have a clue to who she was. She assumed her track record was clean. She hoped she had been kind and noble before all this, but she honestly didn't know. All she had were assumptions, which only led her to believe that some how she had royally fucked up somewhere down the line to end up here. 

This was punishment. A sentence of eternity alone without her memory. How depressing. Just as she was about to lose all hope, something startled her. A noise from outside the walls of the diner made her jump to her feet. Her eyes scanned in the direction from where it came and her heart nearly stopped. Just as she had left it, her car remained, but another had arrived. It hadn't been there before, had it? She could have sworn there was no other car, but there in the middle of the intersection another one stalled. It was like it had appeared out of thin air with no explanation or warning. What the fuck was going on?

Quickly, Emerson ducked around the counter and crawled her way over to the nearest booth to get a closer look. Like a wild animal, she stalked the situation. She observed it carefully and she was happy she did. She covered her mouth as she gasped and widened her eyes. The noise had come from something, someone. Wait, there was someone else here.

From behind the car, a head of dark, disheveled hair emerged. Her hand trembled in front of her mouth. It was a man. Immediately, she sunk lower in the booth to stay out of sight. While the excitement of discovering another person was thrilling, she didn't know if he posed as a threat. She wanted to know more and so she watched secretly from the safety of the diner. 

Step. Step. The man appeared dazed and confused as he walked away from the car. His white button down shirt he wore was wrinkled horribly and half of it stuck out of his black pants. He ran his hand through his hair only to mess it up more. His skin glowed like the sun had treated him well, and he worse a five o'clock shadow that gave the impression he was older. He was a beautiful disaster and she made note it.

Emerson watched as he spun around with a crazed look in search for something imaginary. He was just about as clueless as she was, at least she wasn't alone in that sense. As he continued to scratch his head and stick out his lower jaw in frustration, her short period of admiring from afar came to end as he locked eyes on the diner. Shit! Had he seen her? She didn't have time to wonder if he had or not because he was headed in her direction. The panic from before had returned and Emerson slid out of the booth with great stealth and hurried her way back to behind the counter. Once there, she drew her knees up to her chin and listened to her heart race in chest. A few seconds later, the door to the diner chimed as it opened.

She was definitely no longer alone.

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