05 Mar Waking Sleep
“Waking Sleep”Written by Ryan Harville Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 8 minutes
I have slept six hours in the past eight days. Time is beginning to slow to a crawl, dragging my perception behind it like an anchor that just won’t pull out from the mud. The more I try to organize my thoughts the more muddled they get. I’m not going to lie here, I have had some brief hallucinations, but those came after. What started this was no hallucination, no dream. It’s real and I don’t know if there’s anything I can do about it now. I’m so tired that the thought of death doesn’t scare me anymore.
I don’t know if I can explain how this started in a way that doesn’t make it sound ridiculous. The day was normal, mundane. I went to work, I came home. Nothing out of the ordinary. I fell asleep on my couch while watching TV, which happens often. I’m a single man, and in a lot of ways a simple one. I make myself a small dinner, watch some TV, and drift off by nine or ten. All typical for me.
The TV was on a timer and had long since shut itself off. All was quiet except for the low hum of the cold air blowing from the air conditioner vents. I stood and stretched, then made my way down the hall to my bedroom. I pushed the door open and fumbled for the light switch, finally flicking it upward. Light flooded the room. To my credit, I did not scream, but went into a sort of silent panic.
There was an old man in my room. He was sitting in an aged chair, well-worn and patched in places. He faced toward my bed, so I could only see his profile. His red flannel shirt was tucked into his belted tan slacks. I remember the way the cuffs of his pants were high, showing his black socks. Liver spots stood out in contrast to the pale skin of his hands, and the only hair on his head was his thick, gray eyebrows. His head was back, as if he were looking upward, the skin of his face drooping slightly.
I stood there, unable to comprehend what was happening.
Because I lived alone.
Because I didn’t know the man.
And because the chair he was sitting in was on the ceiling.
The roots that seemed to be holding my feet in place fell away and I ran, fleeing back to the relative safety of the living room. I leaned on the back of the recliner, breathing heavy. Not from exertion, but because it felt like my lungs had just decided to start working again. After a few minutes I was nearly normal again, convincing myself that I’d dreamed it, that I’d been half-asleep when I got up from the couch.
I walked back through the hall, shaking my head and feeling like an idiot. I passed the threshold into my room.
He was still there.
He turned his expressionless face towards mine, his loose skin hanging upside down, then tilted his head, like he had a question.
My chest tightened as I backed away slowly, his eyes following mine. I grabbed the doorknob in my sweaty fist and slammed the door shut.
I didn’t run down the hall again, afraid that if I gave in to the panic that it would get worse. I walked steadily, feeling teeth and knives and stares on the skin of my back. That sensation you can only get when you wake in the dark and have to walk to the bathroom alone, when you’re trying to find your car in a lightless parking lot, when you’re fumbling your house keys on your front step.
You know that feeling. It’s dread and terror threaded together into a shawl you wear over your shoulders when you’re being chased. It must be what prey feels like.
I made it back to the living room and bathed in the relief of safety. I turned on every lamp, the overhead lights, the TV, then flopped down on the couch.
I thought sleep would elude me for sure, and it tried, but I finally dozed off. My sleep was thin, just a veil I could see through. I dreamt the man hung over me, watching and waiting.
When I woke, sunlight shot from between the curtains. I called my boss and apologized for not being at work and told him I was sick. It wasn’t a lie, exactly. There was something wrong with me, I just didn’t know what it was.
I went into the kitchen and he was there on the ceiling. I screamed and fell against the counter, staring up at him.
His face began to shake, the vibrations melting his features together into a blur of motion. The chair shot forward, tearing tracks into the ceiling and raining powder and debris across the tiled floor.
I cringed harder against the counter, waiting for the attack.
But none came. I opened my eyes and he was gone. I dropped down to my knees in relief, my cheeks wet with tears that I don’t remember making. The relief didn’t last long as I noticed the gouged lines in the ceiling. I got to my feet and ran, only stopping long enough to grab my shoes and car keys, my wallet was thankfully still in my pocket from the day before.
I drove around aimlessly for a while, my mind blank, unreality all around me. People came and went in cars, buses, or just walking down the sidewalk. These people were normal, no old man was creeping toward them every time they closed their eyes. An odd combination of jealousy and fear bloomed within me. Why was it happening to me and not them?
I drove for hours, becoming more relaxed as the miles went on. There was a heat behind my eyes as I struggled to keep them open. I knew I had to pull over, but the thought was far away, and sleep was right here. It was right behind my eyes if I’d just let it take over. I fought harder, shaking my head from side to side and growling. I glanced in the rearview mirror at my bloodshot eyes. If I closed them for a quick moment that would probably help. Just for a second.
I woke and shot straight up in my seat, a death-grip on the wheel as I pulled the car back onto the road, my tires squealing across the asphalt. My breath came and went in short bursts as my fingers thrummed with excited energy from the sudden infusion of adrenaline. I slapped myself hard across my cheek, relishing the sting.
I passed a sign that read the next exit was four miles out. I steeled myself, muttering reassuring words that I’d make it. I’d find a motel, a parking lot, anything, if I could only sleep.
But I didn’t make it. I fell asleep and the exit passed untaken. When I woke it was late afternoon, the trees casting long shadows across the highway. I shook my head in disbelief. I’d driven miles, a lot of miles, completely unaware, my brain on autopilot and keeping me between the lines. I was scared, terrified at the thought that I could’ve killed someone, and with that came shame. I was an idiot to be out on the road, but my mind was so muddled it felt like I didn’t even have a choice.
Now I was awake enough to do something about it. I reached over for my phone, to use the GPS to find the closest place to stop. My hand fell on a different hand, its dry, papery skin cool to the touch. I looked up and was face to face with the old man. He stared ahead, unblinking, unmoving.
I pulled my hand back with a scream that echoed from every angle of the car’s interior. I made myself small against the door, still screaming, feeling outright terror for the first time. It wouldn’t end, my breath was infinite, the scream making my throat shake and my eyes bulge.
He slowly turned his face to me, his lips drawing back into a shiny smile of coal-black teeth. His face shook once more, blurring and shifting. Darkness crept into the edges of my vision and I began to fade, fainting, trying to escape into myself.
I don’t remember everything after that. I don’t remember the car flipping, but I recall being weightless as I tumbled through the sky, remember the force of the airbag as it erupted from the steering wheel and broke my face.
My next fragments of memory were quick snapshots of riding in the back of an ambulance, the EMTs talking over me. And then in the hospital, as I fought with people, doctors, nurses, someone. I fought and cried for them to keep me awake, to not let me sleep. It must’ve gotten bad because when I did wake sometime later my hands were bound to the hospital bed.
I sat up in bed with my face throbbing in time with my heartbeat. Within moments a nurse was at my side, asking how I was feeling, did I remember anything. I shook my head and wished I hadn’t. She listed off my injuries: two broken fingers, broken nose, fractured orbital bone, multiple abrasions on my face and chest. Apparently, my left hand had been in front of my face when the airbag deployed, smashing the two together. I’d essentially punched myself in the face hard enough to break everything and I wanted to laugh but I couldn’t. I was afraid of the pain, but I was more afraid of losing control, of laughing without stopping until I cried or screamed or both. But mostly, I was scared they’d sedate me.
I gave her a halfhearted smile, to show I was sane, to prove I wasn’t a threat, and apologized for my outburst earlier. She took it in stride, saying pain can make you do all kinds of things, to not worry about it. She freed my hands and I thanked her.
The trouble didn’t start until I asked for coffee and was promptly told that I could only have water until the doctor said otherwise. Asking became begging, pleading and all of a sudden, I was on my feet and yelling. Security was called. I lashed out, crying that I didn’t want to sleep, to please, please, give me something to stay awake. I was forced onto the bed and restrained again. They held me as a nurse stabbed a new IV into my arm, as I’d torn my first one out during the struggle. I bucked against my restraints still screaming as she attached the syringe and pushed the plunger down. Everything slowed and I still was begging when the drugs took hold and I was asleep once more.
If I dreamed of anything I don’t remember.
I came awake slowly, my head turned to the side, drool leaking from the corner of my mouth. I was in a different room, the door closed, one window leading into the hall where people would occasionally walk by, looking at tablets or charts.
For a while I didn’t move or couldn’t. I counted the slow beep of the monitors for some indeterminable amount of time. I felt surprisingly good. Sore, but rested, the meds keeping the pain at bay.
I turned my face to the ceiling.
He sat in his chair, staring at me, his drooping, wrinkled face just a few feet away from mine.
A whine formed in the back of my throat then escaped my lips, the sound like a chastised dog who’d done something wrong but didn’t know what.
He smiled down at me, his black teeth nearly glowing with the reflection of the fluorescent lights. I watched in silent horror as his face shook and split, his mouth opening wide, the skin of his face and neck rolling away in opposite directions, his body flowering, opening like a mouth into petals of dark red flesh.
Its interior was exposed, a mass of cobwebbed tissue and tendon, shriveled blood vessels tied in strange knots, all leading umbilically to another head hanging in the middle of the mess like a swollen uvula. The head twisted and lunged, its jaws snapping toward me, showering me its rancid spit.
I screamed up at it, the foulness falling on my tongue, but I could not stop. It screeched in return, and we held that terrible harmony until black stars sprang newly formed in my eyes and I was gone again.
I did eventually wake up, and yet another new room, this one with gray, padded walls.
And here I am still.
My doctor is having me write all of this out, trying to reach the middle of the trauma, find the center so that it can be cleaved open, its secrets spilling so I can finally start on the road to recovery.
He just doesn’t get it. There is no secret, no hidden closet with rattling skeletons, no sexual abuse, no mommy issues, no daddy issues, no nothing.
I was having a typical day, and something bad happened. Something terrible happened. There is no reason. Bad things don’t need a reason. Kids get cancer, mothers die in childbirth, and I have an old man who is not an old man who waits for me to wake so it can slowly drain my sanity away. He sharpens my terror like a pencil, always turning the blades around and around, shaving away until you can draw blood with its point. But the wood grows shorter until finally there’s nothing left.
That’s where I am now, hoping and praying that I’m close to the end, that my fear can’t get any sharper, that I just break under the strain.
I have slept six hours in the past eight days, and I wish more than anything that the thing hanging above me would just kill me now.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available