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A Special Preview of ‘Sleepless’

Louise Mumford

Chapter One

There was already a gridlock of cars stretching away behind the accident. Her accident. Thea felt a weird ownership over it, like a cat licking at her poor dead kitten.

Her fault – no doubt.

It had to be. In total, she’d probably only slept for four hours . . . that week.

Behind her was the three-vehicle sandwich in which her car was the crushed metal filling. She staggered back and tried to close the mangled door.

Someone pulled at her elbow: a man, dragging her back from the road where she stood gazing into the traffic. He was uninjured but shouting something, and Thea couldn’t focus, her mind slipping off him in the same way his glasses slid down his sweaty nose.

The actual moment of impact had been strangely soothing. Thea couldn’t remember any sound really, so there had just been this lovely, pillowy-white cushioning as the airbag deployed and then – whoosh! – like a fairground ride, she was spun around.

She hadn’t done it on purpose. She’d thought about things like that quite a few times, in those dead, red-eye hours of the night when she felt like the only person left on earth who was still awake. Ironically, as her car smashed into the one in front, she had actually been congratulating herself that she’d got through the day, that she could do this living thing, even without any sleep, with just a cold sponge for a brain and sandpaper balls for eyes.

She could do it.

But clearly, she couldn’t.

How many years of sleeplessness? Too many. Too many achingly long nights that then smudged themselves into joyless, grey, listless days before lights out and another eight hours of frantic panicking. Too many nights etched into the bloodshot spiderwebs in the whites of her eyes.

There was a woman with the man now and Thea looked for blood on her, expecting broken limbs and jagged wounds, but there was nothing, not even a torn blouse. The both of them worked their mouths madly, like gulping fish, expectantly looking at her and then the cars and then back to her again. She should respond, she thought, but she didn’t know what to say. The words were there, but they were busy dancing in her brain, enjoying themselves – shaken loose by the impact and free to partner up however they chose.

Her car was concertinaed. It was a shock, how impressively the whole thing could crumple, yet keep her whole as a seed inside its tattered fruit.

But, if she was fruit, then she was the rotten kind, she realised with a gulp that turned into a choking gasp. She could have hurt that man and woman staring at her now. She could have killed them. Up until that point, the only damage her insomnia had done had been to herself – her social life, her concentration, mood, skin, memory and general joy in living. It had never affected someone else, never nearly crushed them in a smoking metal box.

There was pain now. Her nose, a tender, pulsating blob, her knees suddenly shakier than they had been, blood on her collarbone where her seatbelt had taken a bite.

Abruptly, she sank to the cold ground at the roadside. Soon there would be flaring emergency lights and sirens; there would be gentle fingers prodding at her and questions asked and, dimly, she realised she would have to get herself together for all of that. More people gathered, but from her viewpoint sat on the ground, they were just feet, their voices so far above her they may as well have been stars.

There would be so much to do after something like this, Thea thought: the forms and phone calls, appointments and claims. The effort. She didn’t have it in her. She felt so light there was nothing left of her and dealing with all of this needed solidity; it needed heft, a person who felt like they left a footprint when they walked. If someone blew on her she would simply dissipate, like dust on the wind.

Idly, she watched liquid seep from under her car and with the same blankness with which she’d thought of everything else, she wondered if the liquid was flammable, or if it was merely water.

She should have cared, one way or the other.

At that moment her hand buzzed. She blinked. Maybe it was an injury of some kind, she thought slowly. She would probably need to get it checked out, once she got up from this really rather comfortable bit of damp ground. It buzzed again and this time her eyes managed to get the message over to her brain that she was still clutching her phone. Looking down at it, a notification flashed up, some advert from one of her apps, something she’d probably seen a thousand times before. At first, she thought it was the universe’s idea of a cruel joke. But then, as she sat there amongst the twisted metal and shattered glass, she came to think of it more as salvation:

Morpheus. Dream your way to a better you – one sleep at a time.