Last Man Waking

by R.G. Summers

My sister was the first in our family to contract it. I was the one who found her. It was back in April, about a month after the epidemic had already exploded in Turkey and China. There wasn’t much footage of it on the news. Reporters were too scared of getting infected to go film it overseas, and air travel was restricted anyways. In the end, it didn’t matter. It came and spread like the plague. The virus was airborne, and there was no cure, no treatment.

Valerie, my sister, was twelve. She was a middle child, younger than Oliver and me, older than Matilda and Ruby. Her room was at the top of the stairs at the very start of the hallway. When mum and dad called us, she would rocket out and be the first one downstairs. She had curly hair, just like our grandma. We were buddies. My other sisters were littler and whined often, but Valerie climbed trees and played video games with me, so we forged a strong relationship on that.

Valerie was a notoriously light sleeper. That was why she didn’t have to share a room like Matilda and Ruby did, or like Oliver and I. The little girls whined about the injustice of it, but Valerie always had her own room. She never stayed the night with her friends—she claimed they all snored.

If left undisturbed, Valerie was liable to sleep until noon. She was always disturbed though. As soon as the rest of us woke up, we would make enough noise to rouse her. We were a loud family. Dad tromped down the stairs, Oliver and I fought, and the girls giggled and yelled everything that they wanted to say. Valerie woke up with the rest of us and didn’t complain.

The morning that she didn’t come down to breakfast, it took us a few minutes to notice that she was missing. She was always quiet in the morning, and everyone was so preoccupied with their own waffles, no one really noticed until mum demanded I go upstairs and rouse her. I figured she was on the computer or something. I knocked on her door, expecting her to tell me that she’d be out in a minute. Ruby and Matilda had literally raced each other to the kitchen table that morning. I knew she couldn’t have slept through the commotion.

No answer came when I knocked, no response came when I entered. I called out her name when I saw her cuddled up in bed still. I thought she must have been having a bad day. Even then, I did not think that she could still be asleep. I left the door to her room open. Oliver’s voice carried throughout the house. Matilda was pounding on the kitchen table. Dad was yelling over the noise to ask mum for more coffee. I reached out and touched her shoulder.

Wake up, Valerie.

Her chest went up and down with deep breaths. Her eyes even flicked back and forth beneath her eyelids as if she was quickly reading. I shook her by the shoulder. I pulled the covers away from her. I leaned beside her and yelled her name right into her ear. She didn’t so much as stir.

It was hard to believe that the sleeping sickness had made its way into our home. Creeping, invisible, invasive…just like every epidemic before it. I went downstairs and stood in the kitchen doorway like a ghost. I told everyone all at once, my voice like a pained whisper.

Valerie can’t wake up.

No one wanted to believe it. Mum shot up the stairs and ran to her bed. Dad kept the rest of us away, as if that would prevent us from coming in contact with it now. Our parents put her in the car. Limp and sleeping in the backseat, Valerie was taken to the hospital. There was nothing the doctors could do for her though. No medication they could force feed her, no surgery to spark her sleeping mind back into consciousness. My little sister became just one more comatose causality.

Mum tucked her back into bed and cared for her as if it were a passing illness. She put warm washcloths on Valerie’s head to break a fever that wasn’t there, and spoon-fed her food that she could not eat. It was hard for us, as a family and as individuals. We weren’t supposed to go into Valerie’s room. Our parents didn’t want us to come in contact with her sickness, but that was a vain effort now. I would slip into her room and listen to her breathing at night, perplexed and horrified by how alive she still was.

Eventually she wasted away. Her skin became dry and white, her body thin. When mum combed her curls—as if nothing was wrong—her pretty hair began to fall out. Valerie died, but not before Ruby contracted it.

Matilda was the one who found Ruby, naturally. They always woke up together and thundered out of their rooms as a unit. They didn’t thunder once their older sister had gone to sleep, but they still worked as a pair, closer than ever now that some very grownup realities were descending on them.

Matilda didn’t tell us, she just waited beside Ruby until we came for them. She was crying and holding her sister’s hand when we walked into their room. Mum and Dad moved Ruby into Valerie’s room. There was no talk of recovery or treatment as there had been when Valerie had first contracted it. By now the sickness had overcome our whole community, the whole country. The Prime Minister had announced a nationwide state of emergency, but that declaration was deceptive. It was a global emergency. All over the world people were falling asleep, unable to wake up.

Any time anyone was late to breakfast, Mum panicked. About once a week, someone was violently shaken awake by our terrified mother. Right when the government rationing was enacted, we lost Dad. That morning, the rest of us woke up to Mum’s screaming. Half of her family unconscious, Mum stayed awake, but became catatonic. The fear paralyzed her mind in a way that the sickness might have otherwise. Oliver and I suddenly felt the weight of the household shifted onto us.

No one seemed immune to it, and anyone who was researching the phenomenon was just as susceptible to it. Doctors could do nothing but offer to terminate patients. Mum wouldn’t hear of euthanizing our family. She waited patiently for Ruby to stop breathing, for Dad’s heart to stop beating. The rest of us felt as though we were living with corpses in the house. Every sleeping breath came with a sick sort of hope.

Maybe they would live.

They never did.

It made Mum crazy, waiting for her husband and daughter to wake up. She stopped eating and withered away the same as half of our family. The only difference was that her eyes were open.

She finally caught it after it killed Ruby. Oliver, Matilda, and I gathered around our parents’ bed and watched them sleep. Matilda and I didn’t know what to do in the wake of this, but Oliver did. Solemnly, silently, he pulled their pillows out from under their heads and placed them over their faces. In that way, we killed our parents. There didn’t seem to be a trace of doubt in Oliver’s mind; this was the right thing to do. When he caught it, I did the same to him because it was what he had wanted. Oliver didn’t want to be a corpse before he was dead. He told me that, and I honored it.

Matilda and I don’t go upstairs anymore. Our bedrooms are upstairs, but we haven’t been to them in weeks. Sometimes we leave the house together to raid other houses for food, but we don’t want to be seen. Whoever might be left out there scares us. We’re stockpiling food, but in all reality we probably won’t need it. Water no longer comes out of the tap. The lights went off days ago, and we both know they aren’t coming back on. It has been months since the epidemic struck, but it is still too soon to call ourselves survivors.

It’s hard to sleep, knowing that every time you close your eyes you might be killing yourself. It is dark at night, and when I slip into sleep on the couch my dreams tell me that I am already asleep for good. What I imagine is life may well be my final dream. Will I know that I am trapped in a sleeping body, or dream normally? I remember how Valerie looked in her sleeping sickness. Her eyes moved beneath gently closed lids, and I know she was dreaming then. It might nice to dream one last, long dream. Maybe it makes the transition into death easier. Maybe I never should have let Oliver rob our parents of that, or rob him of it myself.

I watch Matilda when she sleeps. Her breath is rhythmic, deep, and untroubled when she sleeps. I count hours as I listen to her breathe, fearing more with every hour that this is her final sleep. I’m making myself mad the same way my mother made herself mad, and Matilda isn’t even really asleep yet. I keep hoping that I’ll slip away next. I just don’t want to be the last one. I don’t want to be the last one listening to the breath of this sleeping world.

The End