Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep by Edward Ahern
Charles Nestor woke up coughing and fighting to breathe. He cursed, knowing the coughs were death knells. He was a foundering hulk at thirty-six.
I’m not a thief or a murder or even a philanderer-why do I deserve to die of snot in my lungs? Cystic Fibrosis-close the file, no hope, sorry.
Angela had been tending to him for months. Charles appreciated the care but somehow resented that she was too nice, too unwilling to discuss his lack of a future. He winced, realizing he really resented her living on without him.
He dressed slowly, every effort leaving him short of breath. He checked his phone for messages, although few people called him anymore. There was one voice message, from an unknown caller. His life was so empty that he took the chance that the call wasn’t offering him an extended warranty on his car.
“Mr. Nestor, my name is Somnussi. You were referred to us by Frederick Tudor, who we believe you are close friends with…
More acquaintance than friend…
“Mr. Tudor feels that you could greatly benefit from a service that we offer. This is not end-of-life care, but life extension. If you have a half-hour available, I can come to your home and explain our treatment. Please call or text me back. There is no cost or obligation in listening.”
Charles snorted and hit the delete button, but seconds later pulled the number back up and hit redial.
“Hello Mr. Nestor, I appreciate you returning my call. Have you talked with Mr. Tudor?”
“Not yet, what’s this all about?”
“It can’t be gone into over the phone, but I promise you that you’ll be interested in learning about it.”
“Sorry, but this sounds really flaky.”
“Mr. Nestor I’m going to offer you the opportunity to live much longer. Isn’t that worth a half-hour of your time?”
Talking made Charles cough, sputum splattering onto his cell phone, and he wiped it off with his sleeve.
“Mr. Somnussi, can you be at my house at say 3:30?”
“Yes, I’ll make time for you, Mr. Nestor. I know where you live, so no need to give me the address. One thing—we rely on strict confidentiality. Should your wife ask, please tell her that we’ll be discussing estate planning. It’s true, in a way.”
Once he’d hung up, Charles pulled up Fred Tudor’s number and called him.
“Fred? Charles. Yeah, long time… No, no better… thanks. Listen, I was just talking with a Somnussi guy… Ah, you do. Is he legit? … Um. But why can’t you tell me specifics? … I see, so you really are sworn to secrecy? … You’re that strongly committed to him? … So he’s worth listening to? … Okay, thanks Fred. No there’s nothing you can do, but thanks for asking.”
Charles went down for a noon breakfast. He knew that loss of appetite was a sign of impending death, but could barely get down half a meal before gagging. He micro-stepped his way to the recliner in his study and dozed through CNN over-explaining minutia.
Angela answered the doorbell at 3:30 and brought Somnussi into his study. Somnussi was at least 6’5”, maybe close to seven feet, and linebacker bulky.
“Please, Mr. Nestor, don’t get up. I know it’s a strain.”
“Hello, Mr. Somnussi—do you have a first name?”
“I really just go by the one name.”
“Ah. What’s all this secrecy about?”
“If I only explain it, you won’t believe me. You need to experience it. First, I must ask you to swear by that which you hold holy, to not reveal the content of this demonstration. I’m going to show you how you can live a great deal longer, and in return must ask for your silence. Is this acceptable?”
“Is what you’re going to show me illegal?”
“Oh no, not at all.”
Charles mentally shrugged. “Okay, I swear.”
“Excellent. I’d like you to take a five-minute nap, right now, in your recliner. When you awaken, we can talk.”
“But I’m not sleepy.”
“Actually, you are.” Somnussi said nothing more, but Charles mind fuzzed, and his eyelids drooped. Seconds later he was fast asleep.
Charles felt himself violently wrenched, like being thrown to one side on a roller coaster. When he refocused, someone else’s memories had flooded in.
My God! I know this guy, everything, his good deeds, his secret little perversions, how he likes his sex. He’s young, younger than me, and he hates himself. Hates so much that—oh!—he wants to be dead. Wife’s bitchy, job sucks, but he doesn’t think he can change that. Decent looking, needs a different haircut. My God, so strong. And fast. Years since I was like that.
Charles felt like he’d spent a day with the man—Phil Ritter—but when Somnussi woke him, barely five minutes had passed.
“What the hell just happened? That was so real. Did you hypnotize me?”
“Encouraged you to sleep. The man you occupied is as real as you are. He wishes to leave us, but has religious hesitations about suicide. We can assist him, leaving a perfectly good vehicle available for another renter. That could be you.”
“You’re insane—that’s not possible.”
Without asking, Somnussi sat in an easy chair across from Charles.
“Bear with me, Mr. Nestor, while I explain. In early societies, and even some modern ones, there’s a belief that when someone dreams of an outside experience, his animus—his soul if you will—leaves his body. The soul could revel in a life outside itself, but if it wasn’t careful, it could be trapped outside his body.
“After millennia of passive facilitation, we realized that we weren’t utilizing the potential to change lives. In this case, to exchange your and Phil’s lives. For a fee of course.”
“Tens of thousands of people still believe it. And should. There’s a reality in that belief. Think what you’ve just experienced. You became another person, one who can live a long life. Isn’t that what you want?”
The memories of the other man’s life still washed through Charles—so real-seeming.
“But my family, the people I love are here.”
“And our estimate is that you’ll be leaving them in the next few weeks.”
Charles pushed himself up from his recliner and shuffled over to Somnussi.
“Get out of my house. I don’t know what sick bastard put you up to this, but if you don’t leave right now, I’m going to call the cops.”
Somnussi grinned. “That’s the common reaction. I didn’t expect you to be convinced after one brief experience. But think about it. Relive the experience you’ve just had. You have three days to call me back. If you do, I’ll arrange for you and Phil to change places for a two-day, no-obligation trial, so you both can get comfortable.”
“Of course. Thank you for your time, Mr. Nestor.”
Somnussi stood, towering over Charles, and walked out without shaking hands.
Charles, wheezing, dropped back down into his chair. Crazy, just crazy. But God, how good it felt to have a body that could run and a mind that could focus for more than a few seconds.
That night was bad. Charles needed oxygen and even then couldn’t sleep. Real pain mixed with imaginary aches, and he sweat his sheets into sodden wrinkles. His only relief was reexperiencing Phil, who hated himself and wanted to die. But Phil pulled in air like a racehorse and moved at sprinter speed.
The next morning, Charles called Somnussi back.
“It’s all crap, but tell me the details of this con you’re trying to pull.”
“It’s quite simple. While you’re both asleep, we arrange for you and Phil to trade places for two days. You live Phil’s life completely and he yours. After two days, if you’re both agreeable, we make the change permanent, charging a modest fifty-thousand dollar fee each, really just shipping and handling.”
“Ah, sorry, my little joke. You proceed living having both your and Phil’s memories.”
“That a terrible deal, he’s suicidal.”
“No, no it’s your temperament, your personality, just his experiences. You make a new life as Phil, Phil dies in a loving family without going to hell for committing suicide. Quite neat, actually.”
Charles’ breathing was ragged. Between coughs and gasps, he asked, “And of course you want the money upfront.”
“Of course not. That would be extortionate. We ask for the money after your two days in each other. However, there are no refunds.”
“What if I do report you to the cops?”
“That would be most unfortunate. We would make your life, here and hereafter, most unpleasant. And we would physically terminate you earlier than scheduled.”
“Don’t threaten me.”
“That’s not a threat, it’s a condition. Secrecy is non-negotiable.”
A remnant of Charles’ analytical ability came into focus. In a sarcastic tone, he commented, “You’d make a lot more money if you leapfrogged these exchanges—replacing me with someone other than Phil, moving Phil onward to another, an endless chain.”
Somnussi’s tone was amused. “We’ve thought of that, of course. But it creates a Ponzi scheme of souls that would eventually crash. Just imagine how ugly it would get if everyone had to revert. No, we’re content to be matchmakers. Shall I make arrangements?”
“Phil is a twisted guy. How would I know he would treat my family lovingly in my, er, his last days?”
“Yes, Phil is an unhappy man. But he abuses himself, not others. Remember there is no commitment until after your two-day test drive—sorry, another of my little jokes. Phil is already willing, so if you decline, we’ll find another.”
Charles could feel Phil’s strength and speed. The urge to be that again was irresistible. “No, no, please make the arrangements for the trial.”
The next Friday morning early, Somnussi returned and was brought into Charles’ den.
“Should I be lying in bed?”
“Oh, no, you’ll both be off and running quickly. Sorry, another bad joke. Just relax in your recliner.”
Charles did, and in less than thirty seconds, was in Phil’s body. He jumped up and down, then ran outside and around the block. He returned to the house to see Phil’s wife staring at him.
“Sorry dear, just excited.”
He quick-stepped out to the kitchen, whipped up a three-egg western omelet and downed it with strong black coffee. Then he drove off to a golf course, rented clubs and played a full round. That night, with guilty excitement, he made love to Phil’s wife.
And two days later, much too soon, he was back in his own body, coughing and retching. Somnussi had left a note. ‘Will be back this afternoon to conclude matters.’ Charles sat reabsorbing his chronic pain for four hours before Somnussi arrived.
“Well, Mr. Nestor, would you like to make the change?”
Charles nodded. “It will take me a couple days to get the money. Would that be all right?”
“Of course.” Somnussi handed Charles a slip of paper. “Here’s the account it should be deposited to. We’ll arrange the shift as soon as your deposit clears.”
I’m volunteering for a suicide mission. But it’s a sort of suicide if I don’t.
“Okay. I’ll transfer the money today. Tell me, Mr. Somnussi, how many people turn you down?”
Somnussi smiled. “Very few. Humans hate to say goodbye to themselves. We’ll transfer you immediately after you transfer to us. Sorry, just my last little joke. Before the transfer, we would greatly appreciate you providing the names of three persons you feel might benefit from our service. We live and die by referrals.”
After Somnussi left, Charles realized he’d never delved into why Phil felt forced into suicide. He’d find out soon enough. And perhaps return to Somnussi for release.
Ed Ahern resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and international sales. He’s had over three hundred stories and poems published so far, and six books. Ed works the other side of writing at Bewildering Stories, where he sits on the review board and manages a posse of six review editors. Find him on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.