Congratulations to Team WonderBra for winning the 2012 Readers’ Choice Award!
Character: Police station clerk
Action: Tightening a knot
Setting: A meeting for a subversive group
Prop: Decorative songbirds made from vinyl records
by Team WonderBra
I can’t stop kicking the leg of my chair under my seat. The clock says 2, and it’s the first moment today I’ve noticed the time at all. I can’t remember how many hours it’s been since I sat down in this chair. Hell, maybe it’s been minutes. Maybe the junkie sitting across from me has been here for days, drifting in an out of a fitful sleep as he pulls at his tattered Batman t-shirt. Maybe he knows the secret of rewinding time back to yesterday, and if I shake him hard enough and plead with him enough and tell him what a terrible and unfair thing has happened, his glassy eyes will soften and he will look at me with understanding and oblige me. But he only stares at me, letting me know he hasn’t slept for days and wants things to be normal too. I keep kicking back and forth into the chair leg, wanting it to punish me back.
“James? Esther James.” I’m jolted back into the police station, away from the chair and my nail biting by the hollow voice as it bounces it off the walls. My legs barely carry me to the clerk’s desk. She’s round faced and tired, the bags under her eyes heavy and dark. Her hair is pinned up as though she did it half asleep. I wait for her to speak. I swallow a lump in my throat and a thought crosses my mind that maybe she’ll declare that my husband isn’t dead, that my husband Kiernan is waiting for me at home, and that this was all a misunderstanding.
“You’re the next of kin?” she asks, her voice technical, jaded. It was like answering questions of a fat robot who dispensed the movie tickets. I’m no different than anyone else who walks up to her desk. Why did I walk up to this counter feeling like I would be? There would be no sympathy, no compassionate gaze that understood, no comforting embrace, no hair stroking. She merely produces a plastic bag from behind her desk and lists its contents after I nod.
“James, Kiernan. One wallet, one ID card, one cell phone, one watch, $26 dollars in cash, and one ring. I’m sorry for your loss.”
All that was left of my husband was slid to me in a plastic bag across a counter in a police station by a fat clerk who had said this a thousand times before. I wouldn’t get him back. The suicides were so frequent that bodies were collected and disposed of before families could collect them.
I decided not to reward her apathy with a thank you. I just folded the bag into my pack and gripped it tenderly, as if I was carrying him home.
The bus curved through town back to our home – my home. It passes by the prostitutes on Sedgwick Avenue. Some days they look tired, some days they look rested. They sell themselves to rich men with expensive prescription registrations for a few pills of Elysium, desperate to escape the torment that sleep brings. They smile and sigh, risking too much to have color back in their cheeks. Once they are desperate enough to walk the streets, they don’t last long. They are picked off by muggers or law enforcement pretty quickly.
I didn’t know what to do when I got home with him. I had the urge to take his wallet, his ring, and his watch and show them our wedding pictures. I wanted to show them our wedding video, replete with his drunk uncle who slurred something about tying the knot and my husband’s artful reply about our merely tightening it because we had been together for so long and had known each other so well. I wanted to tell them we were pregnant, that there was a baby on the way that would have his smile and my sarcasm, and he would be beautiful and wonderful and make him so proud. I wanted to make him remember these things, to hope for these things, to look forward to these things, so he wouldn’t feel like wrapping a rope around his neck and falling from a bridge. One second I was pleading, begging him to not lose hope and the next second I was furious at his betrayal and how he could do this to me. He left me here alone. The nightmares were easier to bear if I had him with me, and now he was gone, and I would have to face every night alone.
The mirror only screams at me, over and over again, “Why?” Why? WHY!?” I don’t know why I didn’t tell him sooner. I was already so far along. Maybe he’d be alive. Maybe he still would have hung himself from that bridge, even more hopeless. Going into the bedroom is unbearable. Those fucking dream catchers in every corner of the room to prevent his nightmares. It started with one for luck, one for money, one to catch bad spirits, one merely for sleep. As Kiernan had succumbed to his own mind, they had multiplied until our bedroom looked like a deranged shaman’s cave. But I march what is left of him into our bedroom and throw him at the dream catcher above our window. What slipped through their webs? What was so unbearable that he left me here alone? And I realize I’m talking to pieces of him wrapped in plastic and I scream, tearing each dream catcher from the wall. Luck is gone, money is gone, sleep is gone. It doesn’t matter anymore. My screams turn to sobs as I crumple to the bed, covered in hot tears and sweat . Dream catchers litter the floor, like dead birds, their bodies broken and contorted. I cry until there is no more moisture in my body, no longer resisting sleep since my mind couldn’t possibly come up with something worse then reality. I am wrong of course and at some point I drift off, plagued this time by the nightmares of what could have been.
I wake up choking and grasping my neck. This time it was about Kiernan and his throat. How I kissed it and curled up into it, inhaling his aroma with a hint of whiskey from an after work drink. How he wrapped the rope around it. How he told me he couldn’t take it anymore, about how no one would help us. How we were doomed. How he couldn’t keep going on with the nightmares. I kissed him and smelled his skin and he grinned, wrapping the rope around his neck over and over. He kisses me back and then he falls.
I had always been able to shoulder the burden of the nightmares better than he had been. Sometimes it was a monster out to eat our unborn children. Sometimes it was the feeling of falling or being trapped in a house fire. I could always shake it off, but Kiernan would meet me at breakfast, bleary eyed, panic stricken, unable to eat breakfast. He would hold me tight during his morning goodbye – tighter than I imagine someone who hasn’t been up all night with nightmares.
No one knows why the nightmares started. At first, it was just a group of people sharing their stories of bad sleep over office water coolers, full of sympathetic eyes, picking up each other’s slack. Then it became a pandemic. It happened to everyone. Mothers woke up to screaming in the night. Couples woke up to each other in a cold sweat, gripping each other tightly. Those who were alone…what did those who were alone do? Nightmare became synonymous with sleep. No one was safe. Not children, not people who believed in the power of positive thinking, not the yogis who ate vegan and ordered wheatgrass shakes. People blamed it on Wi-Fi signals, on coffee makers, on toasters, on computers, on environmental emissions, on the earth’s gravitational pull. Other people just blamed genetics. Nothing solved the problem. Nothing made the nightmares stop. People eventually had to sleep, and sleep was not met with peace, but the sense of impending doom and chattering teeth. It was a gene too many people possessed. The newspapers were wrought with caffeine and energy drink heart attacks and amphetamine overdoses. No one wanted to sleep. New York changed its tourism slogan from “The City that never Sleeps” to “Peace and Productivity” to drive out attractors that had been arriving in droves. When Elysium arrived to save the masses from their night terrors, it turned out too expensive to produce, and became available only to those who could afford expensive prescription registrations. It didn’t take long for the government to classify Elysium as a controlled substance. The rich, the elite – they sleep well, in beds with soft pillows and sheets never soaked in sweat. The rest of us grit our teeth, even with heavy eyelids, wondering what horrors await for us in the dark.
In the morning, I want to roll over and smile at Kiernan. His pillow is cold. I long for him to wrap himself around me, even if it’s with the arms of someone who has been awake all night with nightmares. All I have is a plastic bag. One wallet. An ID card. One cell phone. $26 dollars in cash. One ring. I play his outgoing message to hear his voice. I check his voicemail.
The first is my own, asking where he is. Why he hasn’t come home. The second is me too, asking where he is, angry. How dare he. The third is me, yet again, panic in my voice and tears choking over the phone. I feel the bile swell, thinking about if only he had heard me, if only he had checked his messages. The fourth is from a number I don’t recognize. It only says, “Hypnos. Call us back.”
Hypnos. Criminals. Dream traders. The “Purveyors of Peace”. How did my husband get a person high up enough to leave an unblocked number? I press the call back button, my breathing short. I’m almost sure they can hear me, as if every dream catcher scattered on my bedroom floor from yesterday was ready to betray what they had caught.
“Hello?” the voice on the other end commands.
I don’t know what to say. My skin is hot and tightening around my bones. I only stare at the songbirds Kiernan hung in our room made from old vinyl records our grandparents used to have. He treated that more like a dream catcher than anything else in the room. Little birds made from what was left of Eurythmics.
I can’t think of anything to say, so as I’m staring at the songbirds, I whisper, “Sweet Dreams.”
There is a pause on the other end of the line. I only hear blood pumping in my ears.
“Laundromat on Kirby Street. You need Malcolm.”
The click on the other end of the line ends our interaction.
My heart races and I feel sick. I can’t tell if it’s because of the phone call or morning sickness. It was the phone call. The number itself was dangerous to have. The phone had been in police custody – had they heard the message? They couldn’t have – I would be sitting in a stark room being interrogated right now if they had. Of course hadn’t bothered to check. Kiernan was just another suicide, just another name to add to the long list of victims to the nightmares.
A pit forms in my stomach as I imagine what had happened if my husband had received that voicemail – if he had waited one more day to give up, or if he had known that he could find peace at a Laundromat on Kirby street. We’d be lying here, staring at the songbirds as he stroked my belly and we thought of names.
Going to Kirby Street was an impossibility. Mothers didn’t take risks. Mothers didn’t raise their children in prison. Mothers sang lullabies and rocked their children to sleep.
Sleep. It had eluded my husband for so long and now, his child. Once everything changed, once research and tests and experiments and labs and patients shuffled through clinics had been seen, once the newspapers published what they knew, a baby’s kicks were no longer a welcome sign of the life growing inside you, but a painful reminder that kicks were found to be from a fetus having nightmares in the womb. Now every mother not rich enough to register for an Elysium prescription felt her heart ache every time her child moved violently inside her. Mothers would wonder if their child would suffer from intolerable nightmares and eventually begin the process of breaking from reality, losing their grip, unable to sleep peacefully for nights on end. Mothers feared their children would end up like my husband – and the thousands of people just like him. Giving up. Letting go. Finally going to sleep for just one night’s rest. Tightening the knot. Pulling the trigger. Swallowing the pill.
Mothers rich enough to register for Elysium didn’t have these problems. Instead of kicks, their children slept peacefully, the movements in their belly a soft undulation of a child who will never suffer from night terrors, and whose mothers will never find them hanging from a bridge or visit them through glass in an asylum. The movements of the baby determined his fate.
I thought about the women on Sedgwick Avenue, in the alley. About risk. About kicking. So I threw Kiernan’s things in my pack and head to Kirby Street.
The street is filled with half humans, exhausted and thin, their skin like paper. Everyone is always so tired. The Laundromat is busy, full of people folding and hanging and drying, doing anything to avoid the terror of sleep. Stay busy. Stay awake. Watch the tv. The sound and glow of a television screen was propped up everywhere, and the Laundromat was no exception – commercials for the latest energy miracle product, sleep labs, expensive, rejuvenating resorts flash across the screen. I touch my palms to the heat in my cheeks. I didn’t know how to find what I was looking for, let alone know what I was looking for in the first place.
The old man at the counter has silver hair and pink cheeks. He looks rested. I imagine he would be the best person to ask. Or I could just turn around and run — run home to my empty house and the dream catchers on my bedroom floor and Kiernan’s cold pillow. But I was too tired. Growing a child was exhausting. The baby kicks and I pace my breath.
“Malcolm?” I ask the old man. He looks up from his newspaper and eyes me up and down, taking in the sight of me.
“Sorry,” he responds, flipping the paper back up into his face. “Don’t know a Malcolm.”
I pull Kiernan’s phone from my pack and press it up against the paper.
“I got a phone call.”
The man gently rests his paper down and stares at the number. He holds the phone to his ear and presses play on the message. I waited for incredulous eyes like mine when I listened to the message, but they don’t appear. He shrugs and hands me the phone back and steps out from behind the counter.
I follow him through horde of half humans folding and washing and smelling of soap. He opens a door in the back and continues down a corridor, punching numbers into a keypad at the end of the hall. It’s too late to run home. I have to keep following him.
Two men look up from a television set in a dim room and stare at me. I’m a panicked, tired…widow, who has no idea what she’s doing.
The silver haired man closes the door behind us, jerking the handle to ensure its shut.
“And another one,” he hushes.
One of the men stand from his seat and towers over me. I had expected more grandeur from a group of people known as Dream Traders. But it was just the four of us standing in this small room behind a Laundromat, old crime drama reruns lighting up our faces.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
“We were expecting your husband. Where is he?”
“Dead.” I looked at my feet in shame, as though Kiernan’s death had embarrassed me — maybe if he had been stronger, or more patient, or anything at all, he…
“I’m sorry. That’s the problem with these things. They take a long time. We would have called him back sooner, but he wanted two. Two takes twice as long. And even though he dropped the money for two, I’m not giving you two. You’re getting one.”
“One?” I didn’t understand.
The man pulls a bag from under his chair and produces an envelope, shoving it at me.
“It’s all there. Papers are good, so don’t lose them. You can’t come back here for another one.”
Rifling through the contents of the envelope, a small plastic card falls into my hand. Smoothing my hands over the computer generated letters and turning it back and forth in my hands to watch the hologram mark shine in the tv glow — it’s a prescription registration card, belonging to Esther James.
I want to throw the card in the man’s face and scream and hit him and ask him why he didn’t call back sooner. A day sooner, an hour sooner. Sooner. I want him to produce Kiernan from his case so I can hold him and tell him he doesn’t have to hold on anymore and that it would all be okay, and that this was real. This is the worst nightmare of all, happening while I’m awake and standing on my feet.
I can’t even make a sound. If I wanted to yell, nothing would come out. I’m suddenly terrified of these men and being caught in this room with them. I’m an interloper in this secret world of rooms behind Laundromats, and I doubt rules here apply. I grip the card in my hand, its plastic edge digging into my palm hard enough to leave a mark.
“That’s it, then. We’re done. There’s a clinic on Hartford Street, which is the closest one. I don’t think I need to explain what happens if you start telling your friends where you’ve been or where you got that card. Sleep well.”
I left the Laundromat expecting to join the swarm of half humans, as I always had, and trudge home, as though nothing had happened. It was the kicks in my belly that had me turn left towards Hartford Street instead of left towards my bus stop.
The small piece of plastic passed through more hands in the next hour than anything I’d ever given anyone. First, to the security guard at the door. Then to a woman at the front desk. As a new patient, I was asked to produce my paperwork. I handed her the envelope with dread. I realized I hadn’t checked the paperwork myself and had only rushed straight there, greedy as anyone else for Delta waves. I didn’t even think about where Kiernan had got the money for the cards. And now as the woman reviewed my paperwork carefully, I had plenty of time to ask the questions I should have in the Laundromat. Even at a fraction of the price of a legal registration, it was still more than we could afford. How many people with illegal cards had been arrested here this month? If something was off, something was wrong – how was this handled? Would I be arrested on the spot?
No police came. My card was handed back to me, I was given a bottle with enough Elysium for a month of sleep without nightmares, and escorted back out of the clinic.
“Do you need me to walk you to your car, ma’am? We tend to get a lot of muggings outside the clinic,” the guard asks.
I didn’t want to let him know I took the bus there. I might as well have blurted out that I didn’t have a car, that my dead husband had somehow saved up enough to buy an illegal card, that would could never afford the authentication process, and I was a big, fat, pregnant fraud.
I gripped my pack on the way home tighter than when I had left the police station with Kiernan inside of it. I wanted to keep checking to make sure the blue bag from the clinic was still inside, but I didn’t dare let anyone on the bus know I had it. My eyes remained focused on my stop, my breathing finally slow. I think about Kiernan. I think about seeing him later in a dream, where we laugh and he kisses me wildly, and we are young again and don’t need as much sleep.
The curtains are pulled tightly and I check the door again, making sure its locked. Usually the windows are shut tight to keep out the screams from other apartments. Tonight it’s because I don’t want anyone to see me committing the crime – I think for a moment that maybe it’s not because I’ll be arrested, but so that I don’t have to feel the guilt of no longer having some terrible thing waiting for me in the dark while the apartment floors below me fend it off.
Three days later, I can eat. I wolf down my sausages and oatmeal and ignore the coffee pot. I’ve rested. I’ve slept. Kiernan visits me with smiles as he presents me with the vinyl songbirds. There is no rope. We pull the covers over our heads and fall asleep together, curled up in each other’s warmth and rest to the sound of each other breathing. No one awakes with a start, and I imagine what a snore sounds like. In my dreams, Kiernan snores loudly.
The dream catchers hang back up in our bedroom. One for luck. One for money. One to catch bad spirits. One merely for sleep.
On the fourth night, I swallow my pill as usual, still uneasy, but the excitement of seeing Kiernan every night is quickly quelling any guilt I might have had when I started taking them.
Again, I see Kiernan and we talk about the baby, about how he will have his eyes and my sarcasm, and he holds my belly and laughs a deep laugh of a healthy man. He squeezes tighter and tighter until it hurts. His face changes, brow furrowing and his laugh getting more shrill. He’s clawing at the baby, trying to break through my belly and pull the child inside out, his lips curling around his teeth in rage. I awake with a start. There is no feeling a baby undulating as he slumbers peacefully inside of me.
The baby – won’t stop kicking.
© 2012 Danielle Nichols and Nathan Davis