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Insomnia and Solo Missions by Zach McCrary

Shaking out the residue of the sleepless night before— a mixture of Mountain Dew, chocolate donuts and music—Caleb moved into the living area of his apartment. It was a pleasant little cove, well maintained by himself and his roommate. The walls were splashed in a cream color, allowing the room to seem more airy than it actually was; a nice illusion of space. Surrounding a television stand were a chair and loveseat of plushy pillows covered in soft, smooth leather. He found, sitting on the chair, his roommate. Jaron’s eyes shown brightly in the morning sun, and his body sat stiff as a board, yet extremely fragile, like a slice of balsam stood upright. This generally meant Jaron had been awake the entire night. He had recently purchased a videogame dealing with the killing of enormous zombie-bug invaders and spent nearly every waking hour that didn’t involve sustaining his life, talking to his girlfriend on the phone or going to classes playing that game. In truth, talking to his girlfriend often came simultaneously with the game-play.

“I’ve gotta save the world, dear,” he would tell her. It made Caleb laugh whenever Jaron said this, as he knew it infuriated Jaron’s girlfriend, Janice. She apparently did not appreciate the sounds of war and death ringing in the background as she tried to converse with Jaron.

“Good morning Night Owl,” Jaron said, smirking. “So how much did you sleep last night? Beat yourself at Monopoly again?”

“Maybe an hour…Could’ve been more, but some weirdo was playing videogames all night. All I could hear was machine guns and people dying.”

“Heh, that was me.”

Caleb sat down on the couch, plopping like a tossed carcass. He reached for a controller, hoping that some carnage would wake him up. Gaming generally helped him get focused. It was his mental coffee. Caleb had realized in High School: Where better to have a clear head than on the field of battle, where every breath could be your last? Ever since then, every morning consisted of some random act of violence against aliens, pro wrestlers, or sometimes eight year olds playing against him over the internet.

Caleb pressed the start button on his controller to join Jaron on his latest mission.

“No.”

Caleb paused, “No what?”

“No, you can’t play with me.”

“Well…why not?” Caleb remarked.

“Because when I play, I have a game plan. I go in, I strike with precision, and I get things done. No one messes with J-Murda,” Jaron smiled.

“What is it that I do exactly then, dickhead,” Caleb huffed.

“You hide behind anything that you can find, and barely use any ammunition, letting me kill everything. You’re useless and you slow me down. I’d rather you tried to be a hero and ran ahead, guns blazing. At least then you’d act as a diversion.”

“I play cautiously, and it pays off in the long run. I’m the thinking man’s warrior. I set traps with landmines, and I wait. I stay alive more often and for longer than you do. Dude just let me play!”

Jaron turned off his controller and put it down, leaving Caleb alone on the battlefield. Caleb watched as Jaron walked to the dining table and sat down, looking at a well organized trio of mail piles: One for graduate schools, one for bills, and the third for miscellaneous materials. Caleb threw the controller to the floor,“What’ve you got there, Jaron?”

“I’ve got a couple packages with information on grad schools. One from Idaho, uh…York College of Pennsylvania, Ole Miss. Things are going well.”

If anyone knew exactly who they were, and where they were going, it was Jaron. Since their freshman year in the same dormitory, Jaron had always planned to go on to a doctorate in History. He wanted to write books on European history, with an emphasis on Germanic tribes and their cultures. He wanted to teach at a University and be one of the finest history professors on that campus—which was a shock to any outsider who might see how often and for how long Jaron might sit in front of a television with a game controller in his hands. But he was a smart guy, who kept his priorities in line. He always made sure to complete his workload before ever treating himself to a round of, Big Time Football or Alien Death Hunters. Caleb admired that. He’d had to work ten times as hard as Jaron to be allotted the same free time, and even then found it hard to relax with so many more assignments looming on the horizon. Jaron put his mail down and leaned against the table, his dirty blond hair, perfectly spiked in the front, and his goatee, cut with precision. Jaron personified confidence.

“What about you? What’ve you gotten so far?”

Caleb hated this question. It seemed like the only thing anyone ever asked him anymore. He cleared his throat, “Uh, I got some information from Notre Dame, Mississippi, Harvard, and what not.”

Caleb knew what would come next.

“Who’re you going with?”

Caleb was quiet for a moment, wishing he could just exit and not answer. But he had lined himself up for the response, “Well I don’t think I’m going to do the whole ‘Law School’ thing.”

“What? Why not? You busted your ass to get there.”

“I don’t know. I just don’t want to? If I could get some real sleep I would be able get back on the horse and ride. But I’m in this rut right now.”

“What are you going to do then? Go to some other kind of graduate school?”

Caleb looked at the clock and realized it was time to make his way to their bus stop. Class would be starting soon, “Gotta go man. See you later.”

Jaron called out as Caleb went for the door, “You’ve done all of this work, you took the test and plowed through it…what more do you need? Do you want God to come down here wearing a t-shirt that says, ‘Caleb Wentz is supposed to go to Law School’?”

Going out the door he put his headphones on and walked into the morning chill. As he walked through puffy clouds of his own breath, Caleb shook his MP3 player and pressed the play button. The first song that came on made him want to burrow his head into the ground like an ostrich in old 1960’s cartoons. It was a dreary song, written about a lost love. The guitar seemed to cry in his ears as the lamentation rang out, rumbling his eardrums and turning him into mud. Caleb hit the skip button. He might not have been weeping over a failed love affair but he was definitely not in the right frame of mind to deal with someone else’s problems either.  The next choice was what he needed. It was loud, it was angry, it would keep him awake and keep him from feeling. Metal was his medicine.

As he neared the stop, Caleb noticed that a bus was already loading. He sprinted to the door and started up into the cab.

“Whoa buddy,” the bus driver said. “I’m sorry, but I can’t have anyone beyond this line. Gonna have to leave you behind.”

Without a word, Caleb rolled his eyes, sighed, and stepped back down to the sidewalk. It would be fifteen minutes before another bus picked him up. He would be late to class again, and his grade would be lowered because of it. Due to his inability to sleep at night, once he finally found slumber it was becoming increasingly difficult to rouse him from it. This had taken its toll on his grades. If he wasn’t in class, he was sleeping. If he did manage to be in class, he slept anyway. So his attendance and participation points were taking a nose dive.

Caleb grumbled to himself as he sat down on a nearby bench. The bench was made of aluminum and it felt like ice against his back, the cold burn stabbing through his clothing. Caleb sat anyway; it was his own form of self punishment for tardiness, and the cold helped him stay coherent. Fifteen minutes of soul cleansing couldn’t hurt. To keep himself occupied, he pulled a book from his backpack that he was supposed to have read by that day. Of course, he had never even cracked the spine. The text was Dante’s Divine Comedy; more specifically The Inferno. It was all old news to Caleb. He’d read the same texts in every world literature class for as long as he could remember. When he couldn’t remember a factoid, he just Googled it. However, seeing as he had a few minutes to waste, Caleb opened the book to its beginning:

Midway upon the road of our life I found myself within a dark wood,

for the right way had been missed.

Caleb snickered at how appropriate that line felt. He peered down on to the page and read the scenes from Purgatory where all the great minds of the pre-Christian era were kept. He smiled and snorted indignantly as he read a line from Virgil to Dante, concerning following his lead. He wished he could find someone to lead the way for him.

For the first time in his life Caleb was completely on his own. His decision affected no one but himself, and so no matter what, the ending result was all up to him. It was terrifying. Especially considering how much his choices had already been destroying his life; he had no direction, and his inability to sleep was causing problems with every facet of his existence. Caleb would remain awake, all night long. Some nights he would try to write essays, or read full books for classes, but he always found himself just laying and starring at the ceiling for what seemed like ages. He had memorized the entire Blackwater Park album from the band Opeth— from the lyrics, to what key the band was playing in— and had now moved on to a collection of 80’s metal he’d found online; looking for a hidden message to him from Iron Maiden that would somehow change his life. It never presented itself, and the lack of REM sleep continued to show its effects.

*  *  *

“Okay, so we have a clear view of Mr. James holding the cellular phone owned by Mrs. Grace, and using it to place a call. He states that he had simply found it in the department store a few hours earlier, and felt that it would be better if he contacted the owner. He claims that this was not theft. However, he is caught using the phone to call his friends, and there are text messages used as well. This, the Prosecutor believes, shows that Mr. James was not planning on…”

Dr. Martin’s voice was a low murmur in the back of Caleb’s head. His mind was at Michigan State, it was at Notre Dame, it was at Duke, it was at Harvard. All of these places, in the past two weeks, had sent him offers, hoping that he would be attending their law program. Caleb couldn’t help but smirk. He had always hoped to go to school at Notre Dame if he could not get in to Harvard. Now, here he was, with the ability to pick whichever he wanted, and he was going to turn both down. He would never wear the crimson “H,” unless it was a parting gift from visiting the campus gift store. He had laid out his glorious plan for years, but now when it was time to put up or shut up, Caleb was shutting up.

What does this say about me as a person, he pondered, while the instructor prattled on. Throughout his life he had never finished much of anything. He bought a guitar and managed to learn half of a song from The Deftones before putting it away to collect dust. When Caleb was sixteen he decided to play football in high school. He played for all of four weeks and then decided it wasn’t for him. I don’t even really like football. It seemed like the mantra of his life was, “quit while you can.” The only way he could avoid failing was to stop before he ever did.

His senior year, Caleb tried out for the musical, South Pacific, and, to his surprise, earned the key role of Luther Billis. After two weeks of practice, Caleb quit the production, citing that it simply took too much time away from his school work. He only half believed all of these reasons. The class had emptied when Caleb snapped back to the sound of his cell phone ringing. The caller I.D. read: Dad. The last time they had talked Caleb had announced his uneasiness about going to Law school. He never told him, but his father was the main reason. Caleb’s father was a lawyer in their hometown, and was visibly worn by it. He despised what he did, but had completed Law school because Caleb was born, and he wanted to provide for his family. Caleb couldn’t understand why his father was trying to push him to enter into a world that he himself hated.

“Well, what’s the problem son? You’ve got more talent than I could ever dream of. You could be a great lawyer, making six figures in no time flat.”

Caleb couldn’t take listening to it anymore, “I don’t want the straight and narrow path of law school. I don’t know what I want yet, but I know that money isn’t everything to me anymore. Hell, for all I know, my happiness could be bottling guava nectar at a factory in Mexico, Dad.”

“Well that’s just unreasonable, Caleb. You’ve got to do something with your life, and your clock is running out.”

After that altercation Caleb started losing sleep. He didn’t talk to his family for weeks, so as to avoid a sequel to their previous encounter. He sighed and reluctantly answered the call. I guess it’s time to face the music.

“Hi Dad.”

“Caleb? How are you? We haven’t heard from you in a month!”
“Yeah, sorry. I’ve been really busy lately.”
His father kept a very understanding tone. Caleb could hear the smile on his father’s face,             “I’m sure you’ve been busy. Making your choice for higher education can be almost like a full time job.”

That hurt. He didn’t know how to respond. Should he just tell his father the truth? I wouldn’t know. I haven’t even applied to any. Caleb closed his eyes and listened to the fraud fall from his lips, “It sure is. It takes up all my free time.”
You’re such a fucking coward.

“Well, you’ll get your letters, and you’ll pick a destination. So don’t let it get to ya. Remember, your deadlines are coming up soon, kiddo. So get them all in, or else you’ll have to wait a whole year to get on track.”

Caleb looked at his watch and saw the date. He only had two more days to accept an offer, if that was the path he would take.

*  *  *

Caleb awoke on decision day. If he did not accept an offer that day, he would have at the least another year before he could again gain entrance to any school. The time was four thirty in the afternoon. He had missed all of his classes for the day. Unfazed by this fact, he stood groggily out of his bed and moved towards his bathroom. Unconsciously, he groped for his toothbrush and scrubbed his teeth, eyes barely open.

Caleb starred drearily into the mirror, his mind still coming out of the cloudy fug that sleep brings. He took in the image before him with a hint of uneasiness, thinking that the person looking back could not possibly be himself. No. This was someone else completely.  This person looked like something that would come out of a 1950’s classic monster film. His eyes were surrounded by dark circles, giving the appearance that he might be half raccoon. The rat’s nest upon his head, too, was responsible for the wild exterior of this character; hairs jutting in every direction, barely managed. His skin was far too pale to have ever been cooked in the warm summer sun, and his deep, brown, scraggly beard was something only a Viking mother could love. Caleb had no idea who peered back at him. But whoever he was, he looked lost.

He made his way into the kitchen. Pouring himself a glass of orange juice, he noticed that Jaron sat alone in the living room, in his typical pose. Caleb never could understand how Jaron could keep his work so well organized as to have hours available each day for videogames, but he felt like it was a good idea. Sitting down quickly, he pressed the start button and joined in the game.

“Hey asshole, I was on a solo mission,” Jaron wined.

“You’ll live. Probably a lot longer now that I’m here,” Caleb growled. He barely recognized his own voice anymore. When he looked at his reflection the words coming from his mouth never seemed like his own. They were foreign, and so was the voice. It was deeper, and somewhat unsettling. There was a rasp that came along with his inability to reach a solid stage of slumber. Some days he would steer clear of speaking all together so as to avoid hearing himself. Not that this was a difficult task. He slept most of his days away.

The characters they played were enormous brutes: Huge, hulking men, covered in ludicrous amounts of muscle, who carried so much armor and ammunition that if it were all strapped on the average joe, he’d fall over. Of course, in this suspended reality, they moved like lightening. The area was despondent. What once looked like a proud city was now a paralyzed orphan in comparison. The fighting began quickly, and a veil of calmness was lifted off of Jaron and Caleb.

“Did you apply to your schools?” Jaron said, with eyes never leaving the television.

“No.”

“Well, why not? You couldn’t have gotten a better score on your LSAT man. Are…were a lot of doors open to you?”

Caleb didn’t answer. He continued focusing on the violence in front of him. His goal had always been: I want to make money. I want to make a lot of money, be rich and successful, and happy. It was law that was supposed to take him there. But things had changed, he had changed. He was no longer the youth who saw cash as the factor that would make him happy, and Caleb realized then, that becoming a lawyer was not going to bring him any form of joy. Sure he’d be able to buy whatever he wanted, but at what cost? Was it worth it to be miserable in a field just so he could eventually have all the things he desired? Or was it better to find something that truly lit a spark in you, no matter the revenue? Success isn’t money. Success is happiness, and sometimes they don’t coincide.

In recent months, Caleb found himself simply wanting to live. No flash. No glitz. No glamour. He figured that this new found yearning to be free was due to four years of nonstop academics, great amounts of stress, and hundreds of sleepless nights even before his problem ever began; but Caleb had changed. His outlook on happiness and success was the antithesis of what his freshman-self had sought out by enrolling as an undergraduate.

Then the questions came: “Well if Law isn’t in your future, then what is?”

“I don’t know what I want anymore. My plans made so much sense before, and now they feel like too much. It’s like emotionally and mentally I gained twenty pounds and now my clothes don’t fit. I want so much more out of life now. I look at these applications and I see twenty lines for a writing sample, asking me what I want from life. Twenty lines…to sum up an entire life. It just seems impossible. Then I realize that that is what is going to be expected of me. You decide what you’re doing and then you follow it ‘til you die. Twenty lines to death. That just isn’t going to cut it for me. It all has me so stressed out that I can barely sleep anymore.”

“You’ve got to get past that, Caleb. You have all of these possibilities. You’re just scared. Everyone gets scared at this point…you’ve just gotta choose a path and walk it. Make it your own,” Jaron said. “How can you get to all of these things you say you want out of life, if you aren’t even willing to reach for them?”

Caleb remained stoic. He had no decent retort for his roommate.

“You’re going to wind up a nobody. Is that what you’re hoping for, to just disappear and pay off your heavy school debt working at some franchise restaurant? You’re my best friend, and I don’t want to see that happen to you. What a fucking waste, man. Seriously. You need to at least accept an offer and see—”

Caleb found himself slightly irritated by the brash words of his roommate. It always seemed like he knew exactly what to do, and for that matter, exactly what to say.

He shot Jaron in the back of the head.

“Dude, what the fuck, I’m your partner,” Jaron yelled.

“Oh, sorry about that.”

“This is why J-Murda only does solo campaigns, for this exact reason. Goddamn it,” With that, Jaron stood and trudged off to his room; ending a four hour stream of martial exploits.

Caleb lost interest in playing. He looked down at his watch. He had exactly two hours before most of the top tier schools that he had once been interested in would be closed to him for another three hundred and sixty-five days. He hadn’t even placed his name on any of the applications- the twenty lines of life, bearing too deeply on his soul. This was supposed to be a victory for him. He’d made a decision. But if that was the case, then why was he so miserable? There was a huge weight lifting slowly off of his shoulders, but yet he felt empty.