Will Bear is a man with so many aliases that he simply thinks of himself as the Barely Blur…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Sleepwalk by Dan Chaon, a high speed and darkly comic road trip through a near future America, out now from Henry Holt and Co.
Sleepwalk’s hero, Will Bear, is a man with so many aliases that he simply thinks of himself as the Barely Blur. At fifty years old, he’s been living off the grid for over half his life. He’s never had a real job, never paid taxes, never been in a committed relationship. A good-natured henchman with a complicated and lonely past and a passion for LSD microdosing, he spends his time hopscotching across state lines in his beloved camper van, running sometimes shady often dangerous errands for a powerful and ruthless operation he’s never troubled himself to learn too much about. He has lots of connections, but no true ties. His longest relationships are with an old rescue dog that has post-traumatic stress and a childhood friend as deeply entrenched in the underworld as he is, who, lately, he’s less and less sure he can trust.
Out of the blue, one of Will’s many burner phones heralds a call from a twenty-year-old woman claiming to be his biological daughter. She says she’s the product of one of his long-ago sperm donations; he’s half certain she’s AI. She needs his help. She’s entrenched in a widespread and nefarious plot involving Will’s employers, and for Will to continue to have any contact with her increasingly fuzzes the line between the people he is working for and the people he’s running from.
“So… I think you might be my biological father?” she says.
I’m still sitting in the parking lot of the Red Hot Truck Stop in the camper of the Guiding Star, and I can feel my mind unbuckling and unfolding into several minds as I sit there with the phone against my face. Dissociation, I think it’s called, but I’m very focused. I’m aware of floating outside my body, slightly above and to the left, and I hear myself speak.
“Anything’s possible, I suppose!” I say, and I see myself pick up my crossword pen and a napkin and my hand writes clear connection no static and I say, “But what makes you think I’m your dad, honey?”
And this seems to fluster her. I reckon “honey” is an awkward and somewhat aggressive choice on my part, but I’d like to think it’s intended in a fatherly rather than a creepy or threatening or condescending way. But anyways, it puts her a bit off balance.
“So…” she says, “…so, I know this must be very uncomfortable. It’s very uncomfortable for me, too, so maybe I’ll just lay out the information I have and we can proceed from there?”
My hand is writing in cursive in blue ballpoint on the napkin: female voice—approx. 18–25 yrs with childlike affect—slight lisp when pronouncing esses—vocal fry.
“My name is Cammie, by the way,” she says. “I can’t believe I didn’t even introduce myself. I’m sorry, I guess I thought I was better prepared than I actually am.”
Actress? CIA or corporate intelligence?
Somehow she’s gotten access to one of the aliases I used back in the early days. When I hear that old pseudonym, my hair goes on end, and it stays up straight as she cites the name of a fertility clinic in Evanston, Illinois, where Davis Dowty had contracted his services.
It’s true: I did sell a lot of sperm back in my younger days, back when I didn’t know how important privacy was. I’d thought I was anonymous with my Davis Dowty alias, and since masturbating was a skill that I’d gotten reasonably good at, I’d figured out a way to game the system so I could make a living wage traveling from clinic to clinic. It’s not completely unlikely that a child might have been produced.
But how did she connect those fertility clinic records to the Barely Blur, how did she come by the numbers to various phones that were supposedly anonymous and untraceable and unconnected, right down to the Chinese one I haven’t used in eighteen months? How would she know they were all the same person?
She doesn’t offer that information.
It was probably a mistake to engage in the first place. I probably should have just kept tossing those burner phones until I was able to figure out how to slip away and hide again, but I imagined it was smarter to find out what exactly I was dealing with. Now I’m not so sure.
She’s a hacker, that’s my main thought, likely some kind of independent contractor, using me to trace her way toward one of the bigger fish in the network of associates I do jobs for. There are plenty of public and private entities who would like to get hold of me—a number of med-tech corporations that I have done business with over the years, for example, who could have gained access to those old medical records and DNA, maybe just as a tool to blackmail me. But I also have enemies among the Raëlists and Los Antrax and the 14/88, and there have been members of the Kekistan Liberation Front trying to trace me, and I’m pretty sure I’m on the Gudang Garam Corporation watch list as well. That guy Adnan who worked as a middleman for Hezbollah would like to eliminate me, probably. I could make a spreadsheet out of the many who wish me ill. Point being, this could be the bait for some kind of Rube Goldberg trap and I just can’t see the larger machinery of it yet.
Still, claiming to be my daughter seems like a weird game to play. I have to admit there’s a small part of me that would like to believe there’s a child of mine out there who wants desperately to find me. There’s something inside me that swoons a little, half enchanted by the idea. I’d like to know what she looks like, for example, if we resemble each other. If she’s my daughter, does she take after me in some way?
I picture her in pigtails, and maybe there’s a touch of pink or turquoise dye at the tips of her hair. She’s got freckles, no makeup, and I imagine that she’s one of those young women who likes vintage clothes with whimsical patterns on them, and her eyes are green with gold flecks, intense eyes, reflecting the blue glow of her computer. It’s dark in her apartment, just a string of little Christmas lights above her bed. Where is she? Brooklyn? No. Portland? Ann Arbor?
Maybe she’s in some basement office in Quantico, dressed in a pencil skirt and sensible shoes, hair short and severe, and she’s fiddling with buttons as she records my voice.
“I’m sorry that this is so creepy and stalker-y,” she says. “I wish I’d figured out a better way to make contact.”
“Well, it’s pretty impressive work on your part,” I say. “Tracking me down couldn’t have been easy.”
“Yeah…” she says. Her voice is modest, circumspect, almost regretful. “And I know you’re wondering how I found you. Obviously, you’re a very private person, and I’m sure it’s kind of alarming to be—breached?”
“I’ll admit,” I say, “it has caused me some concern.”
“Well sure, yes, of course,” she says, and most of all I’m impressed by the balance she strikes between awkwardness and poise. It’s a disarming tactic. “I mean,” she says, “you’ve got to be worried that I’m working for someone or that I’m going to try to blackmail you or scam you or rip you off. I get it, you know?”
“Unfortunately, trust is an issue,” I say. Flip is sitting by the door of the camper waiting, and I go over and let him out and then I sit down on the stoop and light a j, the phone pressed tight against my ear. Flip paces thoughtfully, deeply immersed in the question of where best to sprinkle his pee.
“I have to tell you,” I say, “the idea that you’ve been hired by somebody, or that you’re running some kind of scam—honestly, that seems a lot more likely than the idea that you’re my daughter and you just happen to have hacker skills like somebody who works for an intelligence agency.”
I’m trying to keep this conversation light and bantering, I don’t want to sound paranoid or panicked. I look out across the parking lot and imagine that there’s a sniper there, a mercenary assassin in a camouflage jumpsuit crouched atop the trailer of a semi. I can almost feel the red light of laser crosshairs crawling across my forehead.
“Well, then!” says Cammie. “I guess my first job is to convince you that I’m for real, right?” There’s a bright, deadly earnestness in her voice that makes me suddenly think that actually, she might be unhinged. The hairs on the back of my neck prickle.
“S-u-r-e,” I say. I parse my words carefully, letter by letter, like I’m filling out a crossword. I realize I should be trying to draw her out, I should be trying to get her to drop some bits of information so I can figure out who she is, where she’s calling from, what her objectives might be. How she might be vulnerable.
“I… well. I think it might help if I had a clearer idea of how you went about finding me?” I say shyly. “If I knew your process, it might ease my mind.”
My face smiles hopefully and earnestly toward the screen of the phone, even though I don’t think she can see me, and Flip turns from his patrol of the Red Hot Truck Stop parking lot and wags his tail.
“I hear what you’re saying,” this girl says sympathetically. “And I really believe that we’re going to get to a point where I can walk you through the whole thing. Once we get to know each other better. But at this time, I have to be kind of stingy about what I tell you.”
“Because you don’t trust me, either.”
“Exactly,” she says, regretfully.
“Well, that’s a screwed-up place for a relationship to begin,” I say. “If we can’t be honest with each other, what’s the point of it?”
“We could start by just having a conversation, maybe?” she says. “Like strangers sitting next to each other on a plane, right?”
“That’s just role-playing,” I say. Flip has finished his patrol of the periphery of the Guiding Star, and he comes back and sits beside me. He noses my hand and I scratch his ear. “Look,” I say. “If you’ve come this far, you must know what kind of person I am. What are you after?”
“I just,” she says, “I just want to make a connection. I want to get to know you. We’re not so different, you know—I’m not on the grid, either. That was one of the reasons I decided to reach out to you. If you’d been, like, a high school principal or the owner of a Buffalo wings franchise, I probably wouldn’t have been interested.”
“Uh-huh,” I say. “So what exactly are you interested in?” “I think we might be able to help each other,” she says.
“I don’t need any help.”
“Yes, you do,” she says. And then she hangs up.
Excerpted from Sleepwalk, copyright © 2022 by Dan Chaon.