The following is the first scene in my free novelette, Hypnic Noir. It is included in my collection of short fiction, The Distant Edge of Perception. If you would like to download the ebook at no cost, click the button below.

*Warning: Adult Language*

Cass recoiled from the blue pill held between Tick’s inked finger and thumb. Her own fingers gripped the sheets underneath. She rolled and squeezed the fabric as if it would make the pill disappear. The bed was Tick’s and Ophelia’s. Sleeping in a bed, a real one, off the ground, was the single good thing about being on sleepwalk duty. No crashing in the common bedroom with the other girls, even if it was still work.

With a shaking hand, Cass pulled the slip’s strap back onto her otherwise bare shoulder. The silky thing fit Ophelia’s taller frame. Tick’s main girl used to work the corner, but now all she did was manage the rest of the girls on Tick’s behalf. She taught Cass the johns liked it when she tried to look adult.

“Can you get one of the other girls to do it?”

“You’re still the new girl.” Tick closed his fist around the pill, taking it out of sight, but not out of Cass’s mind. “The new girl does sleepwalk duty, and if you don’t wanna, you gotta find me another new girl.”

“Sleepwalk gives me nightmares.” Her jaw shuddered.

“You told me you can control your dreams. So, no prob, right?” Tick had ‘pillar’ inked over his right eyebrow, his middle finger to society Cass guessed. The tat of the eyeball on his adam’s apple, with a pair of wings out the side, stared her down. That one must have hurt like a bitch when he got it.

Cass’s mind dragged her back to those monsters on top of her, the monsters of dream, no doubt a shade of the ones in the real world. “Not always. Not last time.”

“Well, shit. Too bad, ’cause we’re doing this now.” The pill reappeared in front of her eyes. “You want my roof over your head? Take the sleepwalk.”

Cass held out her trembling hand below his. Tick dropped the blue sleepwalk into her waiting fingers. She braced herself for the coming onrush of drug-induced sleep and tossed the pill into the back of her throat. The little saliva she had did nothing to help her swallow.

Tick straightened up and put his hands on his hips. “We’ll take care of you while you’re out.”

The sleepwalk hit the acid of her empty stomach. It fizzled and burned as the juices tore it apart.

“Good girl.” Dude’s wife-beater showed his wiry muscles, not an ounce of fat on him. Had to be cut to survive in the brutal heat of the Californian sunshine.

Tick’s safe was still open. It was one of those cheapies they sold at PriceCo, not built into the wall or anything. The safe sat at the bottom of his closet. In front of the stacks of green bills was a clear plastic bag where he kept the rest of his sleepwalk, hundreds and hundreds of doses. There were also a couple bags of eddies on the lower shelf, the same sky blue as the sleepwalk, diamonds instead of ovals.

Something thin and flat poked out from underneath. He stepped between her and the safe, closing its latch with the spin of the combination lock.

“See you in the morning.” He shut the door, blocking the lightbulb in the hallway, the lone source of light. Cass was in total darkness. With little else to do, she fell into the sheets. The beings of her subconscious prepared for the onslaught of nightmares.

***

Flakes of dried blood sprinkled the off-yellow of the recycled toilet paper crumpled in Cass’s hand. She sat on the grime of the unwashed seat. Her crotch hurt like something was pulling on her insides. Cass strained to focus on anything else but the ache. The sleepwalk hangover smeared her thoughts, the edge of one spilling over into the chaos of hundreds more.

The military had used sleepwalk to keep the soldiers up for days at a time in Iran. They took a fraction of Cass’s dose the night before. Those veterans brought the drug back with them after the fighting was done, and the underground economy found its own uses for it.

She dropped the paper down between her legs, the filthy water surrounding its edges. Cass flushed. The specks of rust disappeared into the whirl. A wave of exhaustion overtook her.

Someone was supposed to clean the bathroom, and yet again, someone didn’t bother to. It wasn’t her turn. There was no way she was about to after a night of sleepwalk. Cass shuffled out of the bathroom doorway, its hinges sticking out. Maybe the bathroom had a door at some point. That must have been long before Cass got wrapped up with Tick and his crew.

Only Estelle, older than Cass, more experienced and higher on the teen whoring totem pole, lay on her side on one of the mattresses in the common bedroom, enraptured by her phone. The light distracted her from the sickness, the need for more chemicals. Once Nia, her partner in crime and addiction, got off the night shift, Tick would supply them both with their synthetic opiate inhalers. They would plunge into sleep, as they did the morning before and the morning before that, since mornings immemorial. If the drug had a name, Cass didn’t know it. There were far too many daysleep maintainers out there to keep straight, and she wasn’t about to pry.

Estelle ignored Cass while she dialed in the combination of her locker. It opened with a click, sending a mini dopamine rush through her neurons. Cass peeled Ophelia’s slip off her skin, letting it fall to the floor. Her underwear was gone, the trophy of whatever john slipped it by Tick. Should’ve taken it off before she took the sleepwalk. Cold crept up her spine, a seedling emerging from the soil, the fear of what else happened during the sleepwalk. Cass pushed the thought back down below the dirt.

She pulled out her last pair of work panties, cotton with a star pattern covering them, something a high school girl would wear. The notion to order more fluttered through her mind, dissipating before she had the chance to pull out her tablet. Cass reached in and grabbed her dad’s shirt, brown and tan flannel, the thick fabric thinning under the arms. Her fingerprints brushed the material.

Cass checked over her shoulder. Estelle still gave her no mind, preferring the diversion of her phone. Pressing the shirt to her face, Cass inhaled the musty smell that had long since replaced her father’s scent. She pretended it was his anyway.

Without undoing the buttons, she slipped it over her head, guiding her arms through the holes. It hung off her boney frame. She left the room, almost dragging her feet along the grubby carpet, the dirt and whatever else in it brushing against her bare feet. She should have cared but didn’t.

In the space by the front door, behind the living room couch, Grey was on her hands and knees, with a sponge in her hand, taking soapy water from the bucket beside her and massaging it—no—almost caressing the carpet. She had recruited Cass into Tick’s little crew and was one step higher than Cass’s bottom rung. Cass kept her distance. Grey seemed normal enough when she was selling the desperate, homeless, starving teenage girl a place in Tick’s household. The weird came out later.

The soap suds had a pinkish tinge. Grey dropped the sponge in the bucket and pressed it into the carpet. She let a moan escape. More pink flowed up.

Like her thoughts, Cass’s words blended into each other. “What the hell happened last night?”

Grey jerked her hand away, hiding her fingers in her fist like a teenage boy after his mom walked in on him jerking off.

Sylva’s voice, an American drawl tinged with somewhere Eastern European, came from behind. “Your last john got a little rough last night, so Tick got a little rough with him.”

A portion of the wall beside Grey was clean, an oasis in grime. Whatever went on, Grey must’ve soaped it down.

“It was so fucking awesome.” Grey tried to play it off like she hadn’t been caught letting her normalcy mask slip. Wrong projected from behind her eyes.

Sylva gripped Cass’s elbow, pulling her away around the corner, by the counter—the kitchen with Tick’s bench and weights inside—getting a little bit of privacy from Grey.

Cass almost tripped on her own two feet. “What did the guy do to me?”

“That’s the thing. You don’t want to know what happens on sleepwalk.” Sylva managed days, both Grey and Cass, but she wasn’t one to dish out orders. The underage veteran of the corner was the closest thing to a friend Cass had.

“How do you know?” Cass pulled out of Sylva’s hold.

Sylva chewed her lip. The muscles on the side tensed, and she paused, one hand playing with her dirty blond hair as if debating with herself whether or not to mention something. “When it was me on sleepwalk duty, I was getting sick of it.” She shifted to one side to check if Grey was still washing the carpet, that she wasn’t listening in. Her voice lowered. “So I did a bit of sleight of hand, pretended to take my dose. Those fucking creeps, man. I should’ve taken it.”

Cass leaned in. Her voice quieted to match Sylva’s. “What did you do with the dose?”

“It’s my memento. Reminds me sometimes it’s better to not know. Ain’t ever getting rid of it.”

Cass and Sylva were as close as two girls in Tick’s crew got, but there were some levels of privacy a friend shouldn’t ask about.

“I can’t do another night of this.” The memory of the night before made her back quiver.

“Then you gotta find another girl that’ll do it for you. One Tick’s willing to take on, and, uh…”

“And?”

“Well, one that ain’t gonna run and leave you hanging.” Sylva might have told Grey the same thing before she recruited Cass. “Do it so I can go on nights finally. And if you want some more advice, I’m thinking it might be a good idea to thank Tick.”

Cass bit off a hangnail. Her finger had been playing with it the whole conversation. Something within made the decision to rip it off with her teeth like the sleepwalk was still segmenting her consciousness. “Maybe you’re right.” Red seeped out of the new hole in her skin.

Grey was still working the soap into the carpet, pouring all her attention into the bloodstains. Past her, Cass waddled down the hall, the ache still weighing on her bowels. Beside the bathroom was the only door, Tick and Ophelia’s bedroom, the lone bit of privacy in the entire place. She knocked.

“Yeah?” It was Tick.

Cass opened the door and stood outside the doorway. Tick sat on the bed, shirt off, showing the hodgepodge of tattoos on his chest. His inked skin showed every ripple of muscle he had. He was at least a head taller than any of the girls. Only Sylva came close. Scabs covered the first two knuckles of each of his hands. The light above cast shadows over his eye.

One of his arms was draped over Ophelia’s shoulders. She had her arm around his waist. Tick’s main girl was the oldest of them all, even a bit older than Tick himself. Might have been the only actual adult in the place. Cass’s manager had a pair of panties on and nothing else. Above the stretch marks on Ophelia’s belly was her own tattoo, black on her dark skin, of a hand holding a smaller one, a child’s fingers grasping its mother’s. Beneath was “August 8th.” It didn’t need the year. The date was two days after Hurricane Winifred landed, two days after the superstorm killed her father. Didn’t matter who you were; Winifred took someone from everyone.

“What?” Ophelia glared at her.

“I wanted to say thanks,” Cass held the door, balancing herself, “for last night.”

Ophelia slid over Tick’s legs and rushed to the doorway. “You should get yourself done up. Got work today.”

Cass’s mouth opened enough to let out a sound of protest. The door shut in her face.

Through the pandemonium of the sleepwalk haze, Cass swore she’d be in Ophelia’s place. She’d be Tick’s main girl, and Ophelia could go get fucked.

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