The Sleep Diet

by Ronald Van Sant

 

Doctor Callenger sat at his desk, watching the online news broadcast while he fondled his father’s World War II forty-five automatic pistol. The world was going to hell. Shit, the world had been going to hell since the fifties. There was no way they could blame it on him. The pile of reports, however, was irrefutable. It was all his fault.

The reporter spoke from behind a wall of riot police in New York. People were killing their fellow humans, just as they had been doing in London for the past five hours. The rioters had killed fifty-eight in New York, hundreds more in London. Both were cities where his diet clinics had large clienteles. Within hours, he expected the same trouble to break out in his city, Dallas, and then finally Los Angeles. He put the freshly loaded clip into the ancient gun.

A rapping on his office door saved him from his dark reverie. At that moment, however, he didn’t want company. “Go away!” The physician ordered, but the pounding grew more insistent. Doctor Callenger placed the pistol into his desk drawer, rose unwillingly to his feet, crossed the office, and unlocked his door.

“It’s you,” he said. “Come in if you must.”

“You’re in a mood.” The night nurse replied. “The patients have received their evening meds. It should have them sleeping soundly soon.”

“OK.” He closed the door, opening it again instantly. “Nancy?”

“Yes?” she asked.

“Tell Dailey I would like to speak with him.”

“Yes, doctor.” She turned and walked down the long hall, lined with doors to the patients’ rooms. It was his clinic, his treatment and he was proud of it. He discovered a way for the overweight to shed pounds harmlessly while they slept. It would have replaced liposuction. Mr. Daily, his research assistant, walked down the hall toward him.

“What’s up?”

“Come into my office please.” The doctor allowed the younger man to pass and then closed the door behind him. “Have you seen the news?”

“Yeah, the world’s gone a bit crazy.” Mr. Dailey had been on the floor, but had caught bits and pieces of news from the clinic’s patients; enough to know there were riots in New York.

“There are people dying, I don’t think ‘a bit crazy’ covers it.” Doctor Callenger moved back to his seat.

“Sorry sir, I was trying to lighten the mood.”

“Well, don’t.” The doctor leaned back in his chair. “I suppose you’ve heard about Rachelle Taylor?”

“The actress? Yes, it’s tragic.” The young research assistant couldn’t have avoided the story. The story broke that morning and was blanketing the news stations. Her pregnancy had been fodder for talk shows. She was a wild woman who partied to excess and no one seriously thought she would be a good mother, but no one could have predicted that she would awaken in the middle of the night and eat her own infant.

“She was your patient.”

“Yes, but you can’t be implying this is our fault. The woman had post-partum depression.” Mr. Daily took the seat before the physician’s desk.

“I discharged her yesterday, after her course of treatment was over.” The doctor said.

“Yes, and if I recall correctly it was a complete success. The patient lost over twenty pounds in five days.”

“Do you recall the side effects of our initial treatments?” The doctor looked at the young man intently.

“Yes, abdominal cramps and intense cravings for meat and particularly fat. Mixing the lipophagic virus treatments with sedatives alleviated those symptoms. Now the patients sleep through the night when the symptoms are the worst.”

“That was a very good idea you had. Losing weight while you sleep is our best selling point.”

“It wasn’t just my idea sir, you were the one to genetically engineer the virus that ate fat cells and passed the byproducts out through the urine. That was the real stroke of brilliance.” The researcher was gratified at such praise, but he felt it was best to show some humility.

“Don’t be so modest; learn to take credit for your accomplishments. That’s how we make a name in this field. I will personally see to it you get full credit for this breakthrough.”

“Thank you, doctor.” Such a credit on his record could make his career. He could just about choose any university in the world for his doctoral studies, any project he wished to pursue.

“Back to the Rachelle Taylor case. We released her from the clinic yesterday at eleven AM and at approximately midnight she ate her child, just tore into him with her teeth. You don’t see a connection?”

“She was diagnosed with depression. Who knows what could have set her off? Nothing to do with us.” The researcher didn’t feel like it was his place to defend the clinic from its head physician. “You don’t think there will be a law suit?”

“It would be difficult to prove. However, there is one point of concern. She was still asleep when she did it.”

“Pardon?”

“She was sleepwalking,” the doctor said. “Her subconscious was in control.”

“Even if that were true, it still couldn’t have been the result of the treatment. The final stage of the treatment was to inject the patient with the antivirus and kill it. I gave her the injection myself the day before we released her. The virus was dead and the sedatives wore off long before we released her.”

“I don’t think so.” The doctor pushed the file toward his young protégée. “Read. There have been similar cases in our London and New York clinics.”

The research assistant opened the file and looked it over. “The virus adapted, mutated. The antiviral serum didn’t kill it?”

“The sedatives put the conscious mind to sleep while the virus ate the fat away; the patients’ bodies craved the lost fat. The subconscious took over—driving the patients to look for what they needed. They sleepwalk. And in Mrs. Taylor’s case the virus drove her to consume the nearest source of meat and fat, her son.”

“That’s not possible.”

“People have driven cars while asleep, and some have even cooked food and eaten while under the influence of sleep medications.” Callenger said. “There have been other incidents. Most cases have been simple assaults. The patient awoke, unaware of their actions.”

“You’re serious.” Daily could feel his newfound career faltering with each word his mentor spoke.

“The mutation went unnoticed and a batch was sent to all the clinics. They started using the new serum today.” The doctor picked up the television remote and turned up the news. The newswoman was reporting that the rioters appeared to be in a murderous trance, attacking and attempting to eat whoever they met.

“Dear god, no.” The researcher felt the enormity of the situation fall on him, he wanted to vomit. “We’ve treated and released over a hundred patients worldwide. What about them? We have to stop the treatments immediately.”

“It’s too late for that.” The doctor said. “The virus’ mutation was more radical than just immunity to the antiviral treatment, it’s gone airborne. Our patients became carriers, spreading the virus to all the general populace. Don’t you think it’s a bit coincidental that all these riots have been breaking out in cities where we have clinics? And that they start in the middle of the night?”

“I didn’t make the connection.”

“I did.” Doctor Callenger raised his hand and took back the file.

“What do we do?”

“Drink lots of coffee to stay awake.” The physician said. “We’re both probably exposed.”

“The antiviral won’t work?”

“No. When we go to sleep tonight there is a chance we’ll go into the same kind of feeding frenzy.”

The researcher thought of the patients in the rooms down the hall. “What about them?”

“Soon the virus will cause the sleeping patients to rise and engage in cannibalistic attacks,” the doctor said.

“Aren’t you going to do something?” the researcher asked.

Doctor Callenger reached into his desk and pulled out the newly loaded gun. “Yes.”

“You can’t mean to kill them.” Part of the young researcher wanted him to do it, before they infected him even further. “They’re your patients for christ’s sake.”

“Killing patients wasn’t my intention.” The doctor stood up as sounds of smashing equipment merged with the terror-filled, and soon silenced, scream of the night nurse echoing down the hall. “It begins.”

“Nancy!” Dailey ran into the hall as Doctor Callenger moved to the door as his assistant pushed the blood-soaked bodies of his sleepwalking patients aside to get to the nurse. Once he cleared them away, the doctor could see blood still gushing from her ripped throat. He shut and locked the door and walked back to his desk.

“They killed her!” Dailey shouted from behind the door. “Let me in!”

“Go away!” The doctor pulled his briefcase out from below his desk.

“What?” Daily cried. “They’re coming.”

“Then run, you fool.” The doctor pulled out a pile of files and replaced the ones on the desk. You’ll get the credit you deserve. 

“You’re insane,” the assistant pounded on the door.

“No. Thanks to you, however, I’m going to become extremely wealthy.” Doctor Callenger put the new files into the cabinet. “This plague will spread, carried on the wind. The overweight people of the world will lose those pesky inches they’ve long struggled with. Then they will go to sleep and awaken and seek out the only readily available source of human fat available to them, other people. It’ll be horrible, and I’ll have the only cure.”

“No.” The young researcher screamed. “Help me, let me in. They’re coming.” Outside the door, he could hear the growing groans of hunger that emanated from his patients and the wail of pain and terror from his research assistant as they tore his flesh apart with fingernails and teeth.

The doctor retrieved the file and virus samples. In his hands, he held the only samples of the improved retrovirus. The files he left behind meticulously documented the project research. They detailed how the sample was inadvertently corrupted by an overly ambitious research assistant who died, ironically enough, at the hands, or more accurately teeth, of his victims. Yes, he would indeed give the credit for the discovery to his dead protégée while he himself kept the credit for discovering its cure. The scientific community would soon be praising him as the next Curie.

Sleepwalking patients began to bang on the office door, moaning in primal hunger. The doctor put the files into his briefcase and grabbed his pistol. Although he couldn’t see them, he fired several shots through the door until he heard a body drop. That would give the cannibalistic monsters something to snack upon while he made his way out the window.

Old bones creaked as the physician twisted his body and dropped to the grassy lawn. He grabbed his case and moved nonchalantly toward his car in the parking lot a few dozen yards away. His gray Mercedes waited for him under a streetlight. The doctor, intent on making a clean getaway, failed to notice the lumbering, groaning, blood-soaked mob that came around the building until it was too late.

Reaching into his frock pocket, Doctor Callenger pulled out his father’s gun and emptied the pistol into the crowd. The noise from the weapon failed to awaken the sleepers, the virus was too strong. Two fell, but the group continued toward him unimpeded. They continued toward the physician, intent on live flesh. None of the victims were his patients, apparently the virus had spread more rapidly than he could have imagined. He turned and ran toward the clinic. They were on him in seconds.

“No! Stop! I’m a doctor. I can help you…” He screamed as the teeth tore into his arms, legs and finally his neck causing his blood to spray across the clinic entryway. When the sleepers finished eating, they went back toward the main strip to find more animal fat, intent on easing the insatiable cravings.

 

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