As the Sun began to set, Howard Rutherford walked home from the surgery towards his small cottage nearby. The surgery would be closed over the next few months and Howard was carrying a large bag of supplies with him as he would be using the cottage as a makeshift office until the Waking Time.
As he opened the creaky front door of the cottage, he found his partner Derek lying rather uncomfortably on the sofa, with food remnants all over his shirt and a sleep apnoea mask over his face. The TV was on, showing the Prime Minister handing over control to the interim government.
‘I think I’m going to die this time Howie,’ wheezed Derek through the mask.
‘You’re not going to die Derek,’ sighed Howard, putting the bag of supplies down and walking over to the sofa. ‘Nobody dies of sleep apnoea during the Long Sleep.’
‘But what if my airways collapse in the middle of winter!’ moaned Derek, ‘I’ll just be lying here, a rotting corpse until spring – food for the cockroaches!’
Howard bent down and ruffled Derek’s hair.
‘I’ll be here the whole time,’ he said soothingly, ‘and besides, hardly anyone dies of anything during the sleep. It’s one of the many things about it that we don’t understand.’
‘Including why some lucky sods don’t sleep at all!’ poked Derek.
‘Well quite,’ conceded Howard. ‘The whole thing is a mystery. Every year the researchers continue to try and understand why it’s happening. One year they decide it’s a virus, the next, some kind of mass hysteria. But from what I’ve heard, the phrase they only use between themselves, usually in hushed tones over a late night pint, is outside influence.’
‘Thanks Howie, now I’m going to have nightmares for three months!’ complained Derek.
‘Perhaps you’d like me to take you to one of the sleeper zones where you can have twenty-four hour surveillance,’ suggested Howard, knowing full well what the response would be.
‘Oh Howie, you know I couldn’t bear that!’ griped Derek. ‘I need to be here, at home, with you looking after me.’
Howard smiled and kissed Derek on the forehead.
‘Come on then,’ he said, ‘let’s get this silly mask off your face and then I’ll tuck you into your cocoon.’
‘Will you read me a story Howie?’ asked Derek as Howard helped him up from the sofa.
‘Of course,’ said Howard. ‘How about Alice in Wonderland?’
Sophie was sitting in the dark now. The librarian had been forced to give up and leave her alone, locked in the library. The lights had gone out ten minutes earlier and now Sophie continued to read by the light of her smartphone. She decided to stop for a moment, and lay back on the soft carpeted floor beneath her. There was a large skylight over the children’s section. As Sophie looked up through it, and through the darkening sky above, she began to see the stars emerging.
The power grid was being systematically switched off around her and the streetlights in the area had already gone out, allowing the full beauty of the night sky to become visible. For a moment Sophie thought she saw a flash of light in the sky – a passing satellite perhaps, its solar panels being reflected by the Sun. But there seemed to be something more to it, as if the satellite was talking to her directly.
Then she fell asleep.
Ryan sat cross-legged next to his girlfriend Holly at the sleeper zone as she made herself comfortable in her cocoon. He finished sending a ‘goodnight’ text to his Mum and other friends and family, making sure he sent it before 10PM when all of the mobile phone grids were switched off for the winter.
He looked around him across the crowded school sports hall which had been converted for use as a sleeper zone. Rows and rows of colourful cocoons filled the space, with families sitting gathering around each other, swapping early Christmas presents before snuggling themselves into their over-sized sleeping bags. It was like some kind of massive indoor camping trip.
It never ceased to impress Ryan how wily marketers would always find a way to make money out of something, even something as strange and inexplicable as the Long Sleep. In just the twelve years since the phenomena had begun, a whole industry had grown up around it, selling ‘cocoons’ of all shapes and colours to willing punters who wanted the most comfortable winter sleep of their lives.
‘You look distracted,’ said Holly, peering up at Ryan from within her large pink padded cocoon.
‘Oh, I was just thinking about money,’ said Ryan.
‘Quelle surprise,’ said Holly sarcastically.
Ryan smiled and looked down at her. Her pretty hazel green eyes had that strange tired look about them which he had come to recognise as the final stages. He leant over and kissed her on the lips.
‘Good night sweetie,’ he whispered.
‘Good night sexy,’ replied Holly. ‘Don’t get into...any...troub...’
Then she was gone. Gone for the winter.
Shortly after, the lights in the sleeper zone went out. Ryan sighed and lay back on the sports mat that he had been sitting on. He stared up at the darkened ceiling of the hall and found himself thinking about his time in the forces, and the things he had seen and done there – the same things that he thought about every night before he fell asleep...
Ryan suddenly woke to the sound of gunfire. He sat up straight but soon realised that the gunfire had only been in his head, as usual. He looked around and was relieved to find that the only true sound was the ambient gentle wheezing of seven-hundred sleepers surrounding him.
He stood up, brushed himself off and then, before taking one last look at Holly, made his way out of the sleeper zone. As he exited the building, he took in a refreshing breath of early morning air. The smell of dew was tangible and Ryan relished in the total silence around him. There were no voices, no cars, no electrical hums of any kind, just a few early morning birds, twittering as the sun rose up over the trees.
Ryan opened his arms wide and smiled. The Hibernation had begun.
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