Fiction: Race You to Sleep

By E.M. Chapel

She flipped off the light switch and invited in the dark–the gunshot signaling the start of the race. 
The race to sleep.
An arm’s length away, her lava lamp dimmed minutely with each collected particle of spring dust. And in the dimming, the knockdown texture of the bedroom’s lavender walls molded shadow puppets of fangs and faces, of eyes and eyes and eyes. Her parents were awake downstairs–mom and dad, whispering down the hall and down the stairs and down at the other end of the house. Her brother, in the room next door, had already found sleep, his peaceful inhales and exhales not quite snores. Not yet, but they would be soon. From the hallway beyond her open bedroom door, a light, so far away, but still illuminated, stretched its tendrils into her darkness. But it was only a matter of time before it was extinguished. And from the corners of her room, in the unseeable dark, she felt them biding. Only a matter of time. She needed to reach sleep. Before they woke. 
Scrunching her eyes shut so they watered, she wondered how many thousands of sheep the other kids count. How often they raced the darkness. Did they ever wish someone would come in after the race was lost, that someone would what? Save her? No. But verify, confirm, witness. With fingers intertwined on her chest in the same way as the night before the night before the night before the night bef–her eyes snapped open at a rustling from the corner. 
She sat up, her heart pounding along the edges of her beating eyes. 
Music from her boombox strummed throughout the room, acoustic notes seeping into the darkness, saturating almost every corner. Almost. 
Another rustle. And she turned the music up one notch, one notch higher than usual. Maybe it would help. Then she restarted the song (one). With only the smallest movements, she peered into each corner of the room where the guitar didn’t quite reach. Where the light didn’t quite reach. Where they waited. Didn’t they?
“Your mom said you have some pretty vivid nightmares.”
It was the same conversation as the previous week, just in a different office. As he tapped his pen on the notebook, which was balanced on his knee, she could feel the scrutiny. “Nightmares.” It was always paired with “vivid” or “life-like,” one of the therapists had used “fantastical.” She had discovered therapists ago that it all translated to “delusional,” to “irrational.” 
“Crazy” seemed to scratch itself onto the blank page he still hadn’t touched–not even to write down her name. It was okay; she wouldn’t learn his either. If she told him everything, which she didn’t bother with anymore, he would react the same way as the others. Recommend the same futile strategies. Raise an eyebrow down at her in the same manner. Have you tried…? Are you sure…? Sometimes dreams seem so real… 
“Yes,” she responded eventually. It seemed unfair for her chair to be so high off the ground, she thought, as she swung her legs back and forth, unable to touch the floor. She was twelve, not five, and she should at least have stability underfoot if she couldn’t find it anywhere else. 
“It’s a bad dream,” he said, looking down at the empty page, “It’s not like you’ll die.”
Her eyes weren’t heavy, head didn’t fog with impending unconsciousness; her ears pounded with the strain of discovering the source of the rustle, of listening for movement, for any slight stir. She surveyed her arena. Other sounds, sounds apart from her heart beating in her ears and her breath thin and focused, vibrated with the music: muted conversation from downstairs, so far, far, far down the illuminated hallway. Her parents had said goodnight to her an eternity ago. They would not come back to her room tonight. They wouldn’t see. Was it all in her head?Swishing, swooshing, tree limbs shimmying leaves in the wind. That was outside the window. Sleep and shifting from her brother’s bedroom next door. On the other side of the wall. Rousing stirring stretching in the shadows, breath. In here. 
“Have you been eating well?” This new professional must have asked already knowing the preteen’s answer could only be ‘no.’
This one looked her in the eye at least–the last two hadn’t–and then cocked her head to the side in the cultural symbol of empathy. Or something. “You may want to cut out sugar.” 
“Okay,” she said, not bothering to add that as many days as possible, she cut out everything. Sometimes, it helped her beat the dark to sleep. Not always. 
The woman smiled. There was no lipstick on her teeth, but she wished there was. “You might lose some weight too. It will help.” The doctor added encouragingly, closing the empty notebook, standing up, and opening the door. 
No, it won’t, she thought, too tired to argue. It never helps. 
She took a frantic breath, shook out her head and restarted the music (two), allowing the minor key to wrap around her like a thick ribbon. 
Shifting back down into bed, the sheet up to her chin, she turned slightly. It had been dry that afternoon, and the air in her room was stale, but her shuddering chest neck throat, quaking arms feet fingers toes had beads of sweat forming, everything sticking to the sheet. She turned her head to the left, her right ear alert. The lights flickered. She blinked. Maybe tonight someone would come in. Maybe tonight, she thought. She thought it every night. Someone would see them too. Maybe tonight. The lights blinked. It had only been her blinking. Right? And the window, door, corner, corner, corner, were all in sight. Blink. Her body pressed hard against the wall, and she breathed in security. She needed to sleep.  
And soon.
“Have you tried journaling? If you get the images out of your head and onto the page, you may find they’ll disappear. How about drawing?” He asked, bushy eyebrows furrowed, pen to his chapped lips. 
“Yes.” She hadn’t heard the whole question, but they all began: ‘Have you tried’ and the answer was always yes, I have, and the answer was no, it didn’t work. Yes, no, yes, no. Did you really try, they would wonder? Yes. Then why are you still having dreams? You haven’t tried hard enough. 
Her eyes burned. And she was tired. 
“It takes time. Keep trying. They’re just nightmares and they will go away.”
After restarting the song (three), she recrossed her clammy hands on her chest in the same way she had the night before and waited for the correct downbeat before reciting the words in her head. There was no way of knowing where her wishes for peace and calm and lifeless dreams floated. Somewhere to somethingthat could bring easy sleep. Something that would see them too. Or nothing. It’s all in your head. Or no one. She recited the same words same words same words that she always had. 
And missed the beat of the music.
She opened her eyes. 
This time.
This time. 
She released her intertwined fingers, shifted her body, leaning on her elbows, the air from the hallway fan shivering over the beads of sweat on her body and she restarted the music (four). And breathed a shaky inhale. One more time. Please, just one more time. Before they come. 
Another new office. Another new face. The same sympathetic half-smile, the same tapping pen on what could have been the same empty notebook. “How has your meditation been going? Do you still have nightmares? Still have bad dreams? Are you still scared of nothing?”
She looked out the window.
“Only you can do the work. Keep trying.”
The music played and her desperate plea–let me sleep–hit the notes in all the right places. Let someone come and see. The wish exhaled, catching the rhythm from her boombox. Inhalation precise. Her petition, her waking dream of sleep, sleep, please someone give me dreamless sleep, ended on the final note and she released her hands to her sides before sitting up again to replay the song (five). 
The lights might have flickered, and she opened her eyes and scooted closer to the wall. Her left arm was sore from gym class that morning, and for a moment she turned, just for a moment to her right side. 
She wouldn’t be able to see them that way. And rolled back again.
She restarted the music (six).
Her eyes drooped, body relaxed into each chord, mind cleared, and sleep rounded the corner extending a hand. She reached.
“What are you scared of?”
In the room next door, her brother snored. 
“I don’t know.”
The hallway light went out. 
Maybe tonight.
It was only darkness. 
She had been so close. 
The sound of them solidifying from the shadows in each of the three corners of her bedroom felt like cold muscles stretching. 
She lost the race.
She restarted the song, (seven) one, two, three four, beat her heart. Her lungs convulsed, muscles tensed, and blood pulsed in her temples neck wrists, the pressure causing her vision to blur, head to cloud. From the furthest shadow, from the far corner, he emerged with a crack like a fracture to the soul and wafted out of his darkness. He tipped his black, smoggy hat toward the two other corners of the room, an invitation, and drifted toward her.
In the room next door, her brother snored. 
The house was silent. And no one would come tonight. No one would see.
Everyone was asleep. 
Not her. 
She was sure. Pretty sure. 
Was she asleep?
She had never asked him what they were. Because it didn’t matter what or why or who or how. They never spoke anyway. Not in voices she could understand. And they won either way. Eyeless, gloaming umbras, their humanoid shapes stuck to the night as they slid like miasmic fumes from the corners of her bedroom. He always surfaced first because he was the first, backbefore when the race had first begun, before the doctors and doctors and–the other two swirled along the walls, collecting shadows and building their forms before joining him. 
Eventually they grinned toothless black steam, their gaping mouths darker than the shadow of their bodies. He, the first–it had been just the two of them before, she and him, no therapists, no parents walked in her room, no brother, no one but her and him. That was before–now there were three, and her–before she was so tired, before–he reached into what must have been a breast pocket, removing the shape of a pen. The other two watched with empty eyes, breathless, still, enraptured. Then he drew within the shadows, a small set of stairs leading up three feet above her immovable immovable immovable ashen face, where there he added in the darkness three chairs and a round laden table. She wondered when a fourth place would be set. Wondered if anyone would ever see–witness, anyone but her. It’s all in your head. They were always formal: a bow to one, curtsy to another, shadowy chalices already in hand, which they dipped deep into her chest as they ascended the airy stairs up to the table. 
“What are you scared of?”
He restarted the song (one). 
And they drank.
With each sip, they grew. Their hazy forms seeping into her, replacing what they drank with cold, black fear. Her body shook, heart beating so quiet she wondered whether it had stopped altogether. Whether it would as they kept drinking drinking drinking her. Whether that would be so bad. To be a shadow too. Her lungs were fire and close to bursting and she couldn’t catch a breath; they were heavy sitting on her, so heavy. Laughing their brumous laughs. Clinking glasses of her as the void they widened with each refilled drink grew colder and colder and colder. 
They restarted the song (two). 
But there was a rustle, and they looked up suddenly, glasses halfway to their lips, laughter sticking in their sable throats, and she made a sound like a choke or a squeak, the only thing she could get from her strangling lungs. 
Her dad walked into the room, and she started, slamming her eyes shut as fast as she could. Please see them.
He was in red, plaid pajamas, a toothbrush sticking out of his mouth, and he looked around the room sleepily before walking over to her bedside. See them. “Are you still awake?” He asked, surprised. “You need to turn this off before you go to bed or else it will overheat,” he said before clicking the lava lamp off. See them. “Go to sleep now. G’night, and turn that music down. You’ll wake up your brother.” Please see them. He left the room, colder now than before he had come in. 
They grinned empty smiles before drinking again. It wouldn’t be so bad to be a shadow too. Pressure built behind her eyes as she shook, her lungs straining to intake breath–it’s all in your head–to intake anything.
“It’s not like you’ll die.”
They restarted the song (three).
As the sun rose, they dipped their cups one last time, only a drop or two filling the bottom of each chalice, before nodding shadowy heads to each other. A tip of the hat, a kiss of the hand before descending the staircase, which disappeared beneath their feet. 
He restarted the song (one hundred and nine) and all three rejoined the fading shadows in the corners of her bedroom.
Sounds of stirring wafted through the house. The microwave chirping Folger’s from downstairs, her brother’s panicked shuffle to finish homework. Energy depleted, muscles exhausted, the hours of tension deep in their sinews and cells, she reached up to turn off the boombox and hauled her body out of bed. It protested stiffly. Body, mind, spirit reached desperately for something, for anything left within. But there was nothing there. She was a shadow. 
She shuffled out the door, the sounds of the day unable to penetrate the smoke of her mind. Brush teeth, wash face, get dressed, off to school, interactions, interactions, lunch, dinner, homework–she inhaled deeply, her lungs were sore–then the race would begin again. It’s all in your head. The sun beamed morning into her empty room, illuminating the lavender bedroom walls.
What are you scared of?

E.M. Chapel is a Colorado-born author and educator based in Seattle. Author of the dark fantasy novel, The Weight of Silver, her writing delves into themes of belonging, identity, and complex relationships. She is currently working on her MFA at Emerson College as well as her second novel. Follow her writing adventures on Instagram @e.m.chapel.


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