Waking Sleeping Town

This idea came a few years ago and I love the idea (which is why I returned to this story a couple of times over the last year) but I do not like the story draft here. Parts, yes. Ideas, yes. But the idea deserves a better draft. Before posting I read through to think what I wanted to share about the process. Instead of front-loading my thoughts here, my responses are italicized. I recommend reading a third or half of the piece if you want, but don’t bother doing more than skim the rest. Friends, I promised drafts.


I am the only one awake now. Two days ago Mom said she was tired and that she was sorry. We were at the kitchen table. She was paying bills online and I was doing homework, physics. She closed her laptop and asked me to look at her. There was a tiny moment before I looked up from my notebook when I tried to guess what I was supposed to look like now, when I met her eye and said it’d be okay, I’d be okay. Really, I didn’t know what to feel when she said she was tired. I don’t know what my face looked like. Hers was crinkly and wet. This was harder for her. So we sat holding hands across the table and I absorbed what she had to say. I didn’t hear anything so I hope her words are hiding somewhere in my body, in a muscle or tooth, and I hope her words come to me when I need them because I will need them now that I’m the only one awake.

There are other families like ours, everyone but one sleeping. You’re supposed to report to county health or a hospital when you’re the last one awake but I haven’t done that yet. When I do, if I do, I’ll get a sticker to place on our front door or window so police and social services know to periodically knock, find out if the last one’s down too. I really don’t know what happens then. I think we get moved to a care facility. Our city won a state contract to build and staff a sleep center but it’s only a giant rectangular cut in land right now, ready for its concrete foundation pour.

I saw pictures in National Geographic of sleep centers around the country. Church basements, American legions, empty classrooms. One picture was of a triple stacked bunks, all you could see where the tops of heads resting on pillows and iv lines dropped from the ceiling. Another picture was of twin girls turned on their sides to face one another, their hands touching but maybe not feeling, feeding tubes running through their nostrils. I really don’t want to end up like that.

Mom went upstairs to wash her face and brush her teeth. She came back wearing a nightgown, carrying a sleep kit. She’d ordered one for each of us after Josh went to sleep. Mine is under my bed. I closed my physics text and notebook, slid both into my backpack. Mom opened the box. She found the catheter with its tiny accordion of instructions. I think it’s better if I do this now, she said, I don’t want you to have to do it later. I followed her to the living room where we surveyed the floor space and guessed what might work best. Dad, Josh and Bud were on the queen sized mattress Mom and I brought down from her room after Bud fell asleep too. Then Taylor went to sleep and we put her on the futon mattress. Mom could lay next to Taylor. She’d fit. Or she could lay next to Dad and we’d move Bud to share the futon. I guess the question is how you’d roll us, Mom said. She looked at me. You pick, she said.

I feel like you should be next to Dad, I said. So we moved Bud to the futon.

Looks good, Mom said. She unfolded the absorbent blue sheet from the sleep kit and laid it next to Dad. While she went to the bathroom with the catheter in hand, I sat on the couch and thought how I should check fluids or ports or turn everyone to the other side. I didn’t get up from the couch though. When people first started falling asleep, there were all these PSAs about staying awake. Exercise, eat healthy, get eight hours a night. It’s always that and it never quite works. Mom quit buying Cheetos after Josh fell asleep. She cooked again. We didn’t order pizza for three months until Bud knocked off and Taylor asked what was the point, really? Mom was running seven or eight miles a day, making Taylor and me bike to school while three bodies occupied a mattress between the couch and television. I was looking at that television when Mom came back downstairs.

Honey, you think you’re going to fall asleep, go to Mrs. Johnson, Mom said. Mrs. Johnson is a woman Mom knows from church. She’s a nurse. Mom laughed. She said, Don’t try this at home.

I smiled a little. Taylor and Mom would fight but Mom and I didn’t fight much. She opened her arms to me. I got up for the hug. We held on for a little while. She was warm. Tomorrow her body would feel cooler. She kissed my forehead, my cheeks. She touched her nose to mine. I love you, Chelsea, she said. I love you too, Mom, I said. She laid down in the space between Dad and Josh. She turned on her side to face Dad and sighed. This feels good in a funny way, she said, I’ve missed laying next to your father. She propped up on an elbow, leaned forward to kiss his dry, parted lips. He didn’t move.

Alright, she said, I guess this is it. They’ll figure it out, honey. Keep going to school.

I watched Mom fall asleep. When Josh fell asleep we all thought he was just being lazy one morning. Then Dad took a nap in his recliner, watching the game, and didn’t get up. Bud said he felt weird at dinner one night. I think Mom knew what was going to happen because she gathered him in her arms and snuggled while reading the last four chapters of Mouse And The Motorcycle. Taylor asked for privacy while she fell asleep. But Mom doesn’t mind if I watch. She rolls her head to look at me, upside down. She looks like when I was little kid and she’d pull a face to make me laugh. I smile, she smiles. She shuts her eyes, relaxes her face and breathing. I watch her whole body go soft before I turn on the television.

I went to school the next day. At lunch, Ezra asked how the home fires burned. I shrugged and ate his potato chips. There are posters all over school that say Stay Awake! Find A Friend! A support group meets after school in the choir room. The bike rack is out front of the classroom. I unlocked my bike. I saw the kids arriving to the support group, taking places in a circle of chairs. I’d never gone but Taylor used to. She said it helped. It made a living room of sleeping family seem okay. A living room of sleeping family is not okay. A girl in the choir room saw me looking. She raised a hand. I got on my bike and pedaled away.

At the end of that first day, I sat cross legged on the couch watching television. On the futon, Taylor and Bud were still. I thought Taylor should be where I was now, she’d be better at this, she’d go to county health and get a stock of ivs and supplements, she’d check our temperatures and measure our waste and calculate just how much to adjust our fluid intake. She’d go to the support group and take tissues by twos and threes, lean on a friend’s shoulder while saying she missed tossing popcorn at Bud during family movie night.

For two weeks I only roll Dad, Mom, Josh, Taylor and Bud. I check the iv lines, swap empty bags for full, regulate the drips. I avoid checking the catheters, instead only unclipping the urine bags and taking them to the hall toilet for a flush. I know I’m supposed to check the catheters for irritation or infection. I know I’m supposed to wash the genitals but I don’t want to. I think about calling the number listed on all the Stay Awake! posters and asking county health to send someone to the house but I’m afraid that might result in everyone going to one of those quiet shelf spaces I saw in National Geographic.

Before Mom and Taylor fell asleep, they’d talk to Josh, Dad and Bud. Mom was on a lot of message boards. She’d forward articles to Taylor and me and Taylor would bring home pamphlets from the support group. Your voice and presence may have power to remind your sleeping loved one(s) that he or she is important to you. Talk to your sleeping loved one(s) as you would speak to him or her at the dinner table. You may want to pause as if waiting for an answer from your sleeping loved one(s). This may give your sleeping loved one(s) an opportunity to form a response in his or her brain. That sense of connection may be an important part of waking.

But no one was waking yet.

The longest sleepers were child refugees from Syria and Iraq. Three years ago BBC and CNN posted short articles, video links of kids temporarily resettled in Scandinavia who were running up and down sidewalks, eating unfamiliar food at a school cafeteria while their siblings were laid out on cots in small bedrooms. There was a photo of a mother sitting at the feet of her sleeping son, trimming his toenails. I don’t think anyone paid much attention until later, when people who hadn’t just barely escaped war fell asleep too. Then we all went to archives to read about these first sleepers who still hadn’t woken up, whose parents were learning Swedish or Norwegian now because how do you move a family who is half asleep? The mother clipping her sleeping son’s toenails, the entire time she was talking to him in Arabic. What are you saying, the reporter asked. She looked up, answered. The translation read, I am telling him about making his favorite food when he wakes. I am telling him about his sister learning to walk.

I tried talking to them. My voice sounded funny. A little too loud, bright. It has this shine on it like when Mom would wake us up early to load the car for a summer road trip and you could hear her tone trying to say this was going to be an adventure, a great fun day in the car, you could hear that in her voice. That’s how I am talking about eating lunch with Ezra. He shared chips! We studied for Spanish! After a month it’s easier to be quiet. How’s the ashram? Ezra asks at lunch one day. I glare at him but think it’s funny too. I can’t help but laugh. And after that, the name sticks. We call my house the ashram.

I like the story to this point. I like the idea of sleepers. I can picture the news coverage, the think pieces, the curated photo spreads. I can also imagine the panic, the screaming stupid. And I can imagine pretending this isn’t really happening.

I like Chelsea and I am glad Ezra is sticking around. I do not want to get bogged down in the medical stuff as the writer, so I let Chelsea skip over it too, for now.

Most afternoons, Ezra walks me home from school even though it’s out of his way. Sometimes he comes in to say hi to the family, make microwave popcorn, help me with physics. He asks if I want to go to the homecoming dance and I close the front door, turn the deadbolt, and watch him go back the way we came, hands in his pocket. I stand at the living room window and watch him walk down the block, halfway down the next until he’s out of the frame. He walks on the balls of his feet as if he might skip or run at the next step. When I can’t see him anymore, I cry. This is the first time I feel how alone I am, thinking that if I went to the homecoming dance I’d have to find a dress and do my own hair and take a selfie. Later that night the phone rings and I jump. It’s Ezra’s mom. Lisa.


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It Had Been Revealed

One of my go-to fiction writing exercises is to write from a PostSecret prompt. Most weeks I read PostSecret but I only mine the site for a story idea when I want to write a story but don’t want to commit. So: lightly edited flash fiction. Extend this exercise by choosing a parameter(s) – POV, tense, word count, sentence/ paragraph length, syllables per word – for the piece. This week PostSecret included a video of spiritual secrets and I wrote down a few, including the prompt for the following:

I’m not religious anymore but listening to the Christmas story I grew up with is the only thing that stops my panic attacks.

A fuller piece I want to write is about where the church camp kids are, twenty years on, after we sang all the songs and cried about Jesus loving us, and shared inside jokes, wrote as penpals one summer to the next. I’m interested in why some of us keep the faith of our childhood, and others of us do not, and to consider where parental belief or church doctrine ends, and our own understanding and faith begins.

As I wrote this piece (maybe five or six hours, over four days) I reread the Christmas story account from Luke, the one read before opening gifts at my grandparents’ on Christmas Eve. There is assurance, peace and wonder, and I can easily imagine the words soothing a panic.


On the morning commute to Itaewon Julie could feel the clamping. She got off two stops early just to be out of the subway car, the smell of kimchi and garlic on skin. This happened sometimes, though it wasn’t the close space or the body smells of fellow commuters that bothered her. When it happened – the clamping, as she started calling her attacks when she was a child, before she knew there was a name for drowning in air and feeling her body go numb – Julie had a plan, and the plan had evolved as she did, from a childhood chanting in far bathroom stalls, to an adolescence resting in the spoken words of her mother, to an adult whose three years of therapy was helpful to understanding her panic attacks but did not offer an end to them. That had been a disappointment. Julie stood on the platform. She put her hands in her pant pockets and pinched the flesh of her thighs because this minor physical pain was often enough to shake the clamp loose. She pressed her fingernails into her soft flesh. Anyone looking wouldn’t know the tiny, perfect pain that spiked her brain. It was enough for this minute. Keeping one hand in a pocket she left the platform, walked up the stairs, through the turnstiles, up more stairs to the street, the fingers in her pocket playing with nubs of flesh to give short, bright pain, enough to regain her breath.

When she was in the middle of a clamping, she could not think to take exit four instead of seven, so on the street she turned around slowly to orient herself, and then began walking to work. Autumn in Seoul was gorgeous. The trees went red, gold. Platter sized leaves littered the sidewalks, dropping from shade trees cultured by the Japanese. The air was clean for a last month before winter smog settled the region. Julie pulled deep breaths through her nose, exhaled fully. She was feeling steady again. Julie took out her phone and earbuds.

What worked best was for someone to read to her. Something about the unrehearsed speech quieted her. When Julie was in middle school, home midday after throwing up in PE or dissolving in tears in the counselor’s office, her mom would tuck her into bed, bring her hot cocoa, and read, first from the Bible and then from whatever book Julie had dogeared on her bedside table. The words – and the pauses, mispronunciations and corrections, coughs, throat clearings, water sips – were just the cadence that brought Julie’s mind and body to rest. Her mom seemed to recognize this too, and began to read with Julie each evening before bed. When Julie went to college, her mom sent a box of audiobook cds along, and a couple of years after when Julie started therapy hoping to solve the clamping forever, she realized her mom understood a way to help even if she hadn’t understood a better way to help. And it had worked, hadn’t it, better than a gym membership or therapy or keeping a gratitude journal or praying fervently.

The audiobooks were not the same. The first months of freshman year were a disaster. Julie went home at Thanksgiving and spent two days in bed listening to her mom read Psalms and Harry Potter for an hour or so at a stretch, listening to her family cooking, eating, playing board games downstairs. Julie’s older sibling, Matthew, brought his girlfriend to meet the family, a biology major named Taylor who, when Julie joined the family on Friday, said quietly that student services offered counseling and that might help. Julie nodded and thought to call when she returned to campus. She didn’t call until her junior year. And then, sitting in a tiny campus counseling office with platitude posters on the walls, she wondered why no one saw what Taylor had seen, that Julie needed. But at age nineteen or twenty, Julie couldn’t have said what she needed. For a decade the clamping had been a part of her life and sometimes it was okay, and sometimes it was not.

Julie found the album she liked. Last Christmas she flew home from Korea to surprise her family. She moved to Korea a year after graduating college, at the end of her third year of therapy. The college therapist recommended a woman Julie might continue her work with, and so Julie stayed in her college town, kept her job at Starbucks and picked up more shifts, and talked her way to deciding to move to Korea to teach English. This was an apt fit for Julie. The move itself was a series of clampings but once in a rotation of lessons, Julie was surrounded by such beautifully unrehearsed speech as her elementary students read from slim books about sport games, trips to the zoo, and eating at a restaurant. She often left the brightly lit hagwon feeling relaxed. She went home that first Christmas because while she liked teaching the elementary students to read and write English, she was lonely. Her workday began at two in the afternoon, and finished at nine in the evening. Five of the other teachers had arrived together the previous term and there was no breaking into that group, and the rest of the teachers had been living in Korea too long to care about meeting a new expat. Everyone was nice, but no one was kind. When she went home at Christmas, she wasn’t wholly certain she would return to Korea.

The first Sunday home she went to church. Since leaving for college, she’d only gone to church on the weekends home. Julie thought she still believe in God. But she had prayed for the clamping to go away. Beginning as a girl in elementary school when her prayer was as uncomplicated as, Please, God, make me feel okay. And Julie prayed in middle school and high school, with her mom, or alone, praying for this sensation and the fears to leave her alone.

Julie pressed the arrow and adjusted the volume to hear her mother’s voice. At church that first Sunday home, she listened to the advent reading, watched the candle flame waver. She almost prayed, or prayed in a way she didn’t know was prayer. Her parents wanted to know about Korea and Julie made the move sound like the right choice. It was as right as another. They were happy she was happy, and she was happy, but also lonely and the thought of returning to lonely kept her in bed for a day, which she passed off as jetlag. She made her whole body tense, and then let go. She tracked her breath. She pinched her inner thighs, she burrowed under the heavy quilts. On Christmas Eve, Julie sat with her parents in the living room. The tree lights were on, and Christmas music, and they drank hot cocoa or eggnog and briefly Skyped with Matthew and Taylor who were in South Dakota where her family lived. Her dad took his Bible from a shelf and opened to the book of Luke. He began to read and Julie felt her chest open for a full breath. Wait, Dad, she said and found her phone charging in the kitchen. She opened a recording app and pressed start. He began again. In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.

After her dad read through the angels and shepherds, Julie asked her mom to read the same passage and she did, continuing to tell of Simeon and Anna the prophetess, and the holy family’s return to Nazareth. Julie began to cry a little. She could return to Korea and she could make a friend. Julie saved the recordings and pulled one up when she needed to listen to someone read: on the plane returning to Incheon, during break her first day back at the hagwon, through the smoggy spring and humid summer. She walked more now and that was helping too, to be outside with sky and trees, the rivers and hills. The clamping was less frequent now and Julie thought of the recordings as her talisman.

Now she stood on a residential street, a short cut to work, and listened to her mom read. Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. Julie took her hand from the pant pocket. She tucked her hands instead into her jacket, closed her eyes and continued drawing steady breaths. When she was a girl she thought the Holy Spirit was like wisps of fog on country roads and when her pastor prayed that the Holy Spirit be present here, now, she peeked to see if the aisles of church were misty here, now. Someone bumped by her, and then another someone. Julie listened again to the story. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. Julie’s phone rang, pausing the reading. She answered. She’d lost track of time. She was coming in, yes. Julie removed her earbuds. One day she thought she might understand Simeon, his certainty at seeing the Christ child because of a whispered promise, but she could not now imagine carrying such hope for so many years. She walked along, scuffing leaves, thinking, like a child.


Nine of thirty-nine. 1699 words.