I haven’t slept in days. I can’t. I want to, in fact. I would love nothing more than to pull my weighted blanket up to my chin, put one arm under my pillow, and let the other rest on my steady breathing chest. My heavy eyes could finally collapse shut, and I could fall into a deep, deep slumber for so long that bears in the winter time would be jealous. Only that’s not the case when I try to sleep. It might be for normal people, but I’ve never been a normal person.
When I was eight, I stayed up for four days straight, and no one noticed. Not my mom, who had a knack for only noticing the things she wanted to. Not my dad, who only focused on my mom, whether she was around or not. Not even my older brother, who left for college shortly after he found my unconscious body sprawled across our kitchen floor. I guess I passed out from over exhaustion. John told me not to tell anyone, it was probably nothing. I didn’t know sleep was a necessity at the time, I only knew I would close my eyes and bad things would happen. Bad things that still happen eight years later.
Sometimes I can sleep no problem, it’s a gamble like that. My mind playing tricks on me. But there always comes a time every few months I get bad. There’s no way I can close my eyes without the world ending around me. I blink for a second and my heart stops.
My clock taunts me. My room stays dark during all hours of the day. I can’t see the sun begging to shine through, but I know it’s there. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe I’m dreaming. I touch my face to make sure I’m not. It’s hard to tell these days.
One minute that feels like an hour passes, and my dad pokes his head in my room like he always does every morning,
“Carter, honey, time to wake up!”
I roll over and pretend to act sleepy. Dad’s been a lot more attentive ever since mom left two years back. I resented him at first, not wanting him around just because I was the only thing he had left. Then I noticed he stopped sleeping. His big brown eyes drooped lower than mine would, and his hands shook violently when he poured his morning coffee. He’d doze off when cooking us breakfast, and I would eat the burnt sausage and extra burnt toast while I watched him twirl his fork in his eggs, one hand under his chin. And when I would say, “Good breakfast today, Dad,” he would smile a genuine smile and reply, “Anything for my little girl.”
So I figured it was best for Dad to see me only as his little girl. Not his problem daughter that can’t sleep. Or can’t control her sleep? I don’t know. Plus, I like him finally paying attention to me. He stopped obsessing over whether or not mom was coming home every night, and he didn’t have John around to play catch with anymore, so it was just me and him, living separately together. Both happy as can be.
“Carter! You gotta get to school, you haven’t been since Monday.” His voice sounds more stern than usual, so I pull my blanket over my head. I don’t even know what day it is. My guess would have been Monday. I don’t even care.
I feel the blanket get ripped off me, so I squeeze my eyes shut. It can be fun to give Dad a hard time, sometimes.
The air falls stiffly quiet, and goosebumps creep up my arm. Oh no. Am I in my room? I’m afraid to open my eyes. Heavy panting hovers over my face. It reeks of tuna and cow manure. I can taste it. I know this isn’t Dad. I feel thick saliva drip off the beast and onto my cheeks. The scent of death suffocates my nose, burning my tightly-closed eyes. The panting gets louder until I realize it’s my own, forcing my gag reflex to let loose all over my bedding.
I open my eyes and see nothing. No ravenous beast looking for his next meal, no vomit covering me and my bed, not even my dad in the doorway. Not even my doorway.
I rub my eyes and look again. No doorway. No door. No window either. No desk in the corner holding all my neglected school work. I slowly look down to my body, terrified.
Okay, at least I still have my body.
I pull myself out of bed and look around. I’m standing in complete darkness. Not the darkness I’m used to either, this one feels heavy. Permanent, even. I keep looking. No bed. No clock.
“No, no, no, no, please, no,” I mutter, pulling at my tangled black hair. Wake up, Carter. This isn’t real. I touch my wide-open eyes that stare into the nothingness. It’s too real. It’s too fucking real. I cover my eyes with one hand and my mouth with my other. I scream until it hurts. My chest screams at me to stop and breathe–I ignore it.
Slowly, the lights fade on as if I was the lead role in a bad play. I blink two, three, four times. I’m sitting in chemistry class. Bodies sit around me, all holding boiling chemicals in various-sized test tubes. No one I recognize. But everyone smiling at me. I pick up a pen in front of me and stab it in my hand. I’m bleeding, not knowing what’s real and what’s not. The red liquid oozes rhythmically out of my palm, and I feel nothing. I take my finger and slowly smear the design of a broken heart. Red was always my favorite color.
My name is yelled like an insult, and I look up to see all bodies facing me, gripping their brewing chemicals. All bodies. No heads.
The voices are louder than the thoughts in my brain. They chant my name like some sort of ritual I didn’t ask to be a part of. The bodies begin to close in on me and my bloody hand. I squeeze the puncture wound, desperate to feel anything other than overwhelming fear. Pain. I need pain.
In the blink of an eye, I’m sitting in an indie coffee shop. Low murmurs fill the room along with The Goo Goo Dolls’s “Iris.” I smell pumpkin spice and cinnamon and immediately know something is wrong.
I’m sitting in a secluded booth near the back of the place. I try to get up and feel my body physically glued to the leather seat. I rub my eyes, my hand no longer bleeding but filled with sweat.
“Darling, you made it!” A tall blonde woman slides into my booth, flashing a wide smile and some flashy jewelry. I only recognize her from the gold bracelets and necklaces. My mom has never called me darling before.
“How was the drive?” she asks me, and I blink five, six, seven times. It’s been two years since she left me with nothing more than a dull yellow sticky note as goodbye. My dad with nothing. I still hide the tiny yellow paper under my pillow. It keeps me up most nights.
Mom cuts me off the way she always used to. “Still got that stutter, I see,” she giggles, and I bite my lip in response.
“Here, let me do the talking,” she begins, and I can only stare at the shiny, blurry figure across from me. “I know how to keep things short and sweet.”
“You see, I need your help, darling. I got myself mixed up… with the wrong crowd, as your father would like to say.” She picks at her freshly-red manicure as she speaks, not even meeting my eyes.
“And I owe them something…” She finally meets my gaze. “Or someone.”
My heart picks up in my chest and my shoulders shrug even lower. What? I feel the blood in my veins start to exhilarate. I pinch my thigh as hard as I can to wake myself up. It doesn’t work.
My mother’s smile never leaves her face. “I’m saying you have two options, Carter.”
My name doesn’t even sound real coming from her ruby lips. She pulls out her Michael Kors purse and sets it on the table.
“One, you can be a good little girl and rob this rich cafe for Mommy.” My mom gestures towards her bag, and I notice the silver shine of a tiny pistol. I don’t get a chance to speak.
“Or two, you can come with me.” She’s holding the pistol now, her voice dropped three octaves. Her smile still shining as bright as ever.
My fight or flight tells me to get up and sprint, but my numb body stays glued to the seat. “And option number three?” I croak, halfheartedly.
My mother’s smile finally drops from her lips. Her boney fingers wrap tightly around the gun. I give her the smile she raised me on as she raises the pistol to my face.
Not doubting that she’d pull the trigger, I ask her the one question that’s kept me up at night the most. “Why did you leave?” I don’t realize I’m crying until I taste the salt on my tongue.
Without taking her eyes off mine she asks, “Why would you stay?” And pulls the trigger.
It feels like there’s a ton of bricks on my chest, and I recognize an annoying screeching sound as my sobs in the darkness. I open my eyes to total darkness. I have no idea where I am. I feel water slosh from underneath me. My water bed? Or the middle of the ocean? I close my eyes and beg for my bed. I open my eyes again to see the familiar sight of my clock taunting me.
My dad opens the door to my dark abyss and chirps, “Come on, Carter. Up and at ’em!”
Jordyn Damato attends Central Michigan University where she double majors in English and Broadcasting and Cinematic Arts. She was recently accepted in CMU’s accelerated masters program and is set to graduate with her MA in English in Spring ’24. Her fiction, poetry, and art have been published in CMU’s literary magazine, Central Review.