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.
Sweetie, she says, I know your mom’s asleep.
Yeah, I said.
Sweetie, I’m so sorry. Honey, Ezra wasn’t thinking about what a girl needs to go to a dance.
I can take you shopping. I can make a hair appointment.
Please let me. You’re all he talks about. Lisa laughs at a muffled voice and says, Is so. To me she says, I don’t have a girl. I’d have fun. Can I pick you up Saturday at ten?
On Saturday, Lisa parks in the driveway. I am out the front door before she steps out of the car. She gets out anyway and walks toward me, arms open. The last hug I had, the last real hug I had was the night Mom went to sleep and Lisa’s hug feels real, a warm mom hug comfortable enough I slouch a little to rest my cheek against her shoulder. She pats my back and calls me Sweetie before pulling away and promising we were going to have absolutely the best girls’ day out, starting with a Starbucks.
She doesn’t let me pay for anything. At first this makes me nervous. I have my debit card out at Starbucks when Lisa turns to me and says, And what’ll you have? Then at the mall I find a pair of boots I like and there isn’t a parent around to ask if one hundred and thirty one dollars is too much. I look at the boots on my feet and think of Josh, Bud and Taylor who don’t need shoes at all this year and think even Mom who finds deals online and won’t shop unless it’s a sale would probably say yes, just this once. Before I’m at the cashier, Lisa takes the box from my arms, says she’d love to treat, waves a hand when I say it isn’t even for the dance. I haven’t been to the mall in ages. Taylor used to go with friends but I never really got into that. But now, walking around with Lisa, I get the fun of it. We zigzag one end of the mall to the other. Lisa veers into a store just to touch the velvet on a collar or lift the hem of a silk skirt. We stop at a table of candles to smell Crisp Autumn Air, Winter Sparkle, Nutmeg & Honey. She taps the Nutmeg & Honey. I love that, she says.
The mall is busy. It doesn’t seem like anyone is asleep. If you don’t look at the Stay Awake! or county health boothes you could pretend everyone is awake. You could pretend Mom is on weekend errands and Dad is home raking leaves for Bud to bag while Josh is hiding upstairs in his room. Taylor might be somewhere in the mall right now, eating a pretzel and hoping she won’t run into her big sister, what a loser. We find two dresses I like. One is short, boxy with an oversize bow at the waist. The other is long, whispery fabric that flutters when I walk. We go for lunch, sit in a corner booth. We are both a little tired. I look across the table at Ezra’s mom who is nothing like my mom but is still very nice and for a moment I almost say something about Lisa meeting Mom. Or something about how glad Mom would be to know Lisa was helping me. But I can’t open my mouth. I can’t really breathe either. I hold myself still, gripping the open menu, all the names of dishes blurring. Lisa suggests a burger she’s had before and the sweet potato fries and I nod when the server inclines his head to take my order, nod at Lisa’s drink selection, nod at an offered refill. At the end of lunch there is an empty plate in front of me and I can’t remember opening my mouth. Lisa looks at me, carefully like just looking might shatter me – I realize that her just looking really might shatter me – and she reaches a cool hand to feel my forehead before moving from her side of the booth to mine, pulling me to her like any mother might hold her child and she’s got me in an embrace stronger than she looks, whispering that it’ll be okay, it’ll be okay, it’ll be okay.
On Monday Ezra says he heard I found a dress. After lunch Lisa and I walked through the mall, hand in hand, straight to the shop with the two very different dresses and bought the boxy one with a giant bow, matching shoes. Neither of us spoke. The sales assistant who had only just oohed and ahhed when I stepped out of the dressing room, when I’d twirled and giggled, smiled brightly at us but only Lisa managed a smile, quick like a jab.
Mom says it’s bad luck for me to see your dress before the dance, he says.
I think that’s just about weddings.
Still. I’ll wait. I won’t even ask what color.
Mom had a nice time. She really likes you.
I like her.
She cried when she got home.
I don’t think you’re supposed to tell me something like that.
I don’t mean it to be mean. She just really cares about you is all. Like – Ezra pauses. It is autumn now and soon the days will be too cold to sit outside during lunch. Soon we’ll have to find a space of wall to lean against, maybe near the history rooms where no one goes at lunch. Ezra reaches for my hand and I let him hold it. I hold his hand back. He squeezes, I squeeze. He squeezes twice, I squeeze twice. We play this game for a little while. It’s the first time I’ve held his hand and it is the easiest thing in the world to not let go. Finally, Ezra says, I care about you. I’m afraid. I don’t want you to – to. Fall asleep? I finish his thought. He squeezes my hand. One, two, three.
Later that week Ezra and I stop by the ashram to check on my family and then we walk to his house for dinner. Lisa is in the kitchen making enchiladas. Sweetie! she pulls me into a hug and kisses my cheek. To Ezra she says, Set the table, please. Nice glasses. We have the kind of night that makes me almost forget. After dinner we play Scrabble. When it’s time to go home Lisa walks me to the door, then takes her keys from a dish on a little table. I can drive, she says. I get in her car and find a song I like but Lisa doesn’t say anything. The ride is only five or ten minutes depending on lights. At an intersection, Lisa turns off the music and clears her throat. Honey, she says, We need to talk. My belly drops.
I don’t invite Lisa inside. Instead, she parks in the driveway. The whole bubbly evening goes away. Neither of us know how to have the conversation and that’s a kind of comfort, to understand this is difficult for her to say, whatever it is she needs to say. The air is empty. The whole neighborhood is quiet, inside from the first nips of cold, or sleeping or away now. When I walk to school in the mornings I see For Sale signs in front lawns, many of the houses sleeping tidy as their owners left them – there are communities, communes around the country inviting the awake to stay awake – and many of the houses left in the regular middle part of living as their owners nodded off. All the properties are cheap. Honey, Lisa says, and I look away while I listen. She is gentle but firm. I think if Mom were awake, she and Lisa would probably have a coffee together and talk about boundaries to set for Ezra and me, and Ezra and I would about die thinking about our moms talking about us kissing or how much time we spend together or what to do if schoolwork suffered or what about sex. Lisa says what my body knew she would say. It’s like I was here for the conversation once before, and maybe I was. Lisa only echoes what I have thought, usually late at night when I’m in my bedroom above the living room where the rest of my family is unmoving, softly breathing. She suggests I pick a time by which I decide to ask for help. Ask for help means committing my family to a sleep center and registering as an Independent Minor. I would need a sponsor family or foster family. I can sponsor you, Lisa says, You could live in your home or take our spare room. It’s just, sweetie, it’s just that it’s time. No one knows how long this goes on. She puts a hand on my shoulder. I move to open the car door and she lets her hand fall. Neither of us say goodbye.
So this where I recognize the world I have created is just a little (lot) beyond my reach. When you write way outside what you know – I do this, but this kind of story, with the sleeping premise and the centers, and a teenage protagonist, and a world I have never lived in: what would Lisa do? What would Chelsea do, really? I’m not a fan of making this a dystopian piece. How many dystopian societies have people lived through without the name romancing the trauma and hunger? I really really really do not want this to come off as teen dystopian romance shit. But it might be.
Oh, and I keep changing the tense. I do this when I draft.
The next day I tell Ezra I need to make up at Spanish quiz at lunch. I spend the lunch period sitting in the girls’ bathroom closest to the weight room. Taylor found this bathroom the summer before her freshman year when she was on campus for volleyball practice. She was cut from the team, didn’t want to go back to the locker room where her bag was, but needed a good cry. She came home that afternoon and whispered she found a new hiding spot, probably the best on campus, and the next day we biked over to check it out. There were only two stalls and a tiny sink. Water pipes snaked the ceiling. The fixtures were old, the tile cracked or missing in places. Taylor said, I don’t think anyone knows about this bathroom. Then she said, Don’t tell. This is my spot. Yours too, if you want. For a year she and I left one another little notes taped under the sink, like we were kids playing spy or detective. The Monday after Josh fell asleep, I passed Taylor in the hall and she looked so distraught I took her arm and guided her past our classrooms, down a corridor that reeked of sweat and rubber, and opened our bathroom door.
I sat on a toilet lid and cried until I couldn’t cry anymore. Then I cried again. I wasn’t sure where the tears were coming from. I would think this was the last jag, and then my chest would crack and I’d lean against the cold wall and cry some more. Finally I was done. I looked at my phone. Third block was nearly over. My screen was full of messages from Ezra.
Where are u?
I’ll tell M your late dont worry
I opened my phone and messaged back. I’m fine. Cried my eyes out. Two seconds later, from Ezra: You can have mine. I laugh which starts the hiccups. I stand at the sink, splash water on my face, reach for a rough paper towel. I take a tube of lip gloss from my bag, run it over my lips. The cap rolls off the sink ledge, under the sink, and when I bend over to pick it up, I see a note taped to the bowl of the sink. For a moment I just look at the folded square, the crisscross of tape. I know this is from Taylor. I cap my lip gloss and pick up my bag, go to the counselor for a late pass. She looks up at me, tilts her head, and asks if I need to talk. I shake my head, hold my hand out for the pass. She squints and asks if I’m sure, but hands me the pass anyway. I make to class in time to hear Mr. Marcus say words like economy value free market trade open tarif agreement macro, and I look over my shoulder at Ezra who is tapping furiously on his laptop. He glances up, winks. Before the bell rings he sends me a copy of his notes.
That afternoon Ezra walks home with me. We both skip the conversation about why I was crying in the bathroom and I wouldn’t really know what to say if he asked anyway. If Mom were awake, and she asked, I might have an answer. She would ask questions like stones crossing a river. Ezra comes into the ashram for bowl of popcorn. We eat at the kitchen table. He picks up a flier that arrived with the mail, points to a number. You need to call, he says. I know, I say. The county health office can send a nurse to clean sleepers, check and change catheters, advise on nutrition or temperature or muscular atrophy. Ezra takes out his phone. I can call, he says. Wait, I say, I think I have an idea. I pick up another stack of mail on the counter and flip through the envelopes until I find another flier, this one for a private health service advertising discretion. I hold it out to Ezra. I would be okay with this, I say. He reads the services. He calls and asks about costs, writes a few numbers down on the paper and says thank you. Chels, he says, This is too much. County health is free or nearly free. I shake my head. Chels, he says, What’s this about?
I can’t be an IM.
Why? You’d get help with your family.
They’d go to sleep center. That’s not help. That’s just taking away. No, I don’t want to do that.
Chels, this could be years.
I can’t even remember what IM means. This is the problem with drafting a (short) piece in small chunks over the course of a year. I much prefer flying through a first draft and then putzing with revision. I stay with this story because I really like the idea. I do not like writing from a teenage girl perspective very much but chose Chelsea because too many of my pieces are about women my age and that gets boring, to always go to the easy source.
I remember being a teenage girl. I did not have an Ezra.
I think everyone imagines being alone. When I was eleven or twelve I was afraid my parents would die and my siblings and I would have to figure out growing up on our own. And when I was a teenager I thought growing up on my own might mean I could do a little more of what I wanted – like wear spaghetti strap tank tops, I guess. But writing Chelsea is lonely. All I have to do is keep her from offing herself.
Ezra picks up the paper with his notes. He sets the paper down. We both know this is too much. I have my parents’ credit cards. Mom left me all the account numbers and put my name on her bank account. But keeping my sleeping family a secret isn’t going to work. I have one more year of high school. And then university, maybe, or whatever comes after. We sit without speaking for a long time. I know what to do, but don’t want to do it. Ezra pushes his chair back from the table and pours us each a glass of water, then rummages through the fridge for something to eat. We have peanut butter sandwiches and vanilla pudding cups. Those were Bud’s, I say. Ezra peels the plastic lid off, licks it. They’re probably expired, I say, but Ezra eats the pudding anyway. He tells me his mom is going to Costco Saturday morning. She can pick a few things up for me, or we could go grocery shopping together, tomorrow after school. I shrug. Before he leaves, Ezra pulls me to standing and holds me in the longest hug I can remember, so long that we melt together a little, so long that when we part I feel off balance. After he leaves, I go to the living room and tell my family the plan. No one stirs or wakes. I roll Mom to face Dad, and I arrange Josh’s hand to touch Mom’s shoulder. I link Bud and Taylor’s arms.
The next morning before I go to first block I make an appointment with the counselor. My stomach is fluttery just at the thought of saying my plan out loud, of saying anything about my sleeping family to someone not Ezra, not Lisa. Through the morning blocks I wait to be sent to the counselor. Finally, during last block I get the pass, pick up my bag and walk through the empty corridors to the counselor’s office. Ms. Gomez smiles at me when I arrive, and gestures for me to sit. The space is cozy. The fluorescent lights are off, replaced by the warm light of lamps. I sit on the couch and hug a pillow to my chest. Ms. Gomez tells me to get comfortable. Would I like tea? Hot chocolate? I shake my head and she says she wants a hot chocolate, and just to let her know if I change my mind. Right then I’m wondering if Taylor came to see Ms. Gomez. Probably. Ms. Gomez was one of the teachers who led the after school support group. Yes, I said, I think I would like a hot chocolate. Ms. Gomez grinned. She swiveled her chair and took a small carton of milk from a little fridge, poured two mugs full and microwaved one at a time. While we waited for the milk to heat, Ms. Gomez said she was glad to see me, she thought of me often.
Taylor is asleep now, I said.
I know. Your mother called the school. If I’m correct you are the only sibling awake now, right?
How are you doing?
I can’t think what to say. I can’t swallow. The microwave dings and Ms. Gomez opens a packet of hot cocoa mix and adds the powder slowly. She winks at me. No lumps this way, she says. She stands and brings the cocoa to me, setting the mug on a small end table. She sits nearer now, on a little stool, and leans forward. She says, How are you doing?
I think having a drink of cocoa will help. I pick up the mug, take a small sip. I take another sip. I drink to swallow. When I look at Ms. Gomez she isn’t smiling or frowning, only waiting. I say, This cocoa is perfect. She smiles then, and waits. I think of Taylor sitting here after Bud went to sleep. That was the worst for her. I want to ask about Taylor but when I start to speak I say what I practiced that morning, what I practiced in my mind during class. I tell Ms. Gomez that my mom is asleep now too, that it’s just me awake in the house, and that I am afraid to be an IM, and afraid of my family being sent to a sleep center. Ms. Gomez remains still. I continue, telling her I have the accounts, that I think I can pay for their care, but I don’t know how long they will sleep. Has anyone woken up yet?
Ms. Gomez shakes her head no.
We sit in silence for a moment. Ms. Gomez shifts on the small stool, clears her throat. I drink more hot cocoa. She says, You understand I cannot ignore the information you’ve shared with me. I look at her and nod. She says, You understand I must report that you are now an independent minor? I nod again. She puts a hand on my arm and asks again, How are you doing? This time I can answer. Better, I say.
Ms. Gomez makes her own mug of hot cocoa and we talk about what the next few days will look like, the logistics of moving my family to a sleep center, what my responsibility will be as an IM, how she and the school can support me through graduation. I go a little numb listening to what I set in motion. When Ms. Gomez picks up the phone to call county health, to report my sleeping family and request assistance, I say, Stop. Please. Ms. Gomez sets the phone down. She looks worried. Can we just – can we just wait until Monday? I ask. Please? For a moment I think Ms. Gomez will reason with me. I think I should have waited until Monday to speak with her but I needed to know this was real, this last weekend was a last weekend. Ms. Gomez writes her phone number on a piece of paper and hands it to me. We agree that on Monday we will meet and call county health.
I leave the office light headed. There are only twenty minutes left of last block and I have a pass but I don’t return to class. Instead I go to the tiny bathroom by the weightroom. I sit against the closed door and slouch so I can see Taylor’s note taped to the underside of the sink. The bell rings and I still don’t move. I hear footsteps on the other side of the door, muffled conversation. Then pulsing bass as athletes start to lift. My phone dings. It’s Ezra.
C u tonight?
Family movie night
: ) call me after
I’m cold from sitting on the tile. I scooch toward the sink and take the note. It’s thick, tightly folded. Taylor has been asleep for nearly three months. I open the note and start to read. It’s memories, mostly, and a couple of directions. Where she’s hidden her diary, what to tell Mom. At the end there is permission. It isn’t easy to watch sleep, Taylor writes, I think that’s why I want to sleep now. I don’t want you or Mom to sleep though. Don’t watch us sleep. Paint my nails nice and send us off. XOXO, Taylor! I fold the note again, stand, stretch.
I walk home the long way and pick up a medium pizza with green olives and mushrooms, and at home I make popcorn before sitting on the couch and starting family movie night. I put on The Princess Bride because Dad and Josh love it and Taylor and I would speak with Buttercup. Farmboy. Fetch me that pitcher. That pitcha. And Mom would roll her eyes. Later, when Wesley tumbles down the hill, Bud would yell, As
So I sat on the couch and said Buttercup’s line, and threw a handful of popcorn at Bud when he should have yelled Wesley’s line, and when the movie finished I said goodnight to everyone, but stayed on the couch, drifting.
Lisa called in the morning, surprising me with a spa day, and drove over to pick me up. We passed a sign for Edgewood Sleep Manor and Lisa said, Ezra told me you two talked about how to care for your family. I nodded and then said yes. There wasn’t much to say, except that I’d seen Ms. Gomez and we were calling county health on Monday. Lisa was quiet. I thought she might be relieved or say something bright about how I can now concentrate on my own studies and future, but she didn’t say anything and when I glanced over, she was crying. She took a steadying breath and sighed. I’m glad for you, she said, And sad for you. We were quiet again, at a stoplight. Then Lisa asked, Have you ever seen a sleep center?
No. I read about them.
My best friend since elementary is at Edgewood. I go sometimes.
What’s it like?
Not terrible but not at all what you want. You know, for – just not what you want.
Lisa is right. Edgewood Sleep Manor isn’t terrible and it isn’t what you want. The receptionist recognizes Lisa and smiles. We sign in, give the guest’s name. I don’t like that the sleepers are called guests. The whole place smells antiseptic like a nursing home, which it is, but for people of all ages who are asleep and unable to eat or go to the bathroom or roll over or clean themselves. We walk down a corridor toward Lisa’s friend and I peek through open doors. Beds are small. The essential amount of space to hold a body. Some beds are inclined or reclined. Some are flat. The bodies are secured by three straps though I know from watching my family that no one moves after they are asleep. IVs hang from hooks. Music plays, softly. Windows are open for sunlight. I see a nurse speaking with a sleeping woman as he raises her limbs, moves the body through motions. I see another nurse pat the arm of sleeping child. Lisa’s friend Kelly shares a room with four other sleepers and Lisa jokes about the fight it was to move Kelly nearer the window. Those two especially, Lisa jokes, pointing at elderly sisters laying as still as dead. I laugh a little. The place isn’t too bad. I don’t know where my family will go. Edgewood looks full. Lisa talks to Kelly for a few minutes, rubs her limbs, brushes her hair. She finds a lipstick in her bag and applies it carefully to Kelly’s pale, chapped lips. There! Lisa says, That’s better. It’s intimate, watching Lisa care for her friend. One time when I was in middle school I walked upstairs to see Joshua arranging his stuffed animals on his bed, gently kissing each one. He saw me and we both looked away. That’s what this feels like, like I shouldn’t watch.
Lisa drops me back home with a sparkly manicure and intricate updo. She offers to come in, to help me dress, but I say I’m okay. It’s still a couple of hours before the dance and I want to slouch, eat leftover pizza, and show Mom my hair. When Mom and I were awake, or Mom and Taylor and I were awake, we could talk to the sleepers like they heard. Now I stood in the living room and lifted the pile of loose curls off my shoulders to show the intricate braids twisting up my head. It took nearly two hours, I said. No one answers. I held out my hands to show my sparkly nails and promised not to bite hangnails. No one pretended to be blinded by the shine. I go to the kitchen and eat cold pizza. I think about something Ms. Gomez said, that I should expect a range of feelings about my decision to place my parents and siblings in a sleep center.
Here the whole story is getting to be a little much. I could see some author writing a proposal and turning this into a bestselling trilogy because it’s too much to cram in a short piece. Some parts skim, some parts clunk. What to keep, what to cut?
Whenever I do revise this, I want to keep it short. Ten to fifteen thousand words at the most. I do not want to spend a book length of words on this story. But looking at what gets published, I think could get away with dragging Chelsea and Ezra around a sleeping world for three hundred pages. Also, I remember George Saunders talking about revising a short story that was at one point two hundred pages long. So maybe I should draft on and on to cut later.
When Ezra rings the bell I’m still not dressed. I’m still sitting at the kitchen table, the empty pizza box in front of me. Hey, he says, You okay? I look up at him. I don’t want to cry my makeup off, I say, and he laughs so I can laugh too. I go upstairs to dress and when I come down, he oohs and ahhs. He takes my hands and we stand like a bride and groom. I can’t help thinking that. Then he takes out his phone and we do selfies. Serious. Hot. Silly. Smushing hugs. Adoring looks. Laughing. Behind us my family sleeps and when we scroll back through the dozens of snapshots I see how weird we look, like we’re uproarious at a kill, joking at a funeral, but I don’t care. Not caring might be a feeling from the range I can expect.
At the dance we join a group by the snack table. Someone asks about Taylor, if it’s true she’s sleeping. Yeah, I say, She’s sleeping. Wow, the girl says, I can’t imagine. And then the group who was talking about tv and music are now talking about sleepers they know personally or tangentially, and conspiracy theories about the sleepers and sleep centers, and a group of EU scientists who think this is the latest evolutionary turn for humans, and some prophet in Texas who believes sleepers are unredeemable sinners who cannot wake to their need for Jesus. I eat handfuls of salt and vinegar chips and drink soda. Ezra leans over to whisper that we should probably actually dance, and we do. We dance and dance and dance until we’re both so hot we crack a gym door to the parking lot, stand in the cold air that feels so good. Ezra tells me I look beautiful and for a moment the night will end when I go inside to my parents who are waiting up. Dad will make a mug of hot chocolate for me and Mom will kiss my cheek and say how grown up I am. I shiver a little and we return to dance again, this time slowly, and I think how glad I am to not be alone right this minute.
Ms. Gomez and I made a list for the weekend. I wake up on Sunday in my own bed upstairs. The house is so quiet. After Bud went to sleep, Mom would play the tv shows he liked to watch just to have the noise. And when Taylor went to sleep, Mom started listening to Taylor’s playlists. Now that Mom is asleep, I leave the house quiet. I can’t think of any noise I want to hear except what I can’t have. I lay in bed for a while, with my eyes closed, imagining Dad making pancakes and Mom arguing with Josh about tucking his shirt in for church. Our pastor was one of the first to sleep, and the elders soon followed. For a few months we met with another family to read the Bible and sing from old hymnals, but after Josh went to sleep, and then Dad, sleep felt like it might be catching. It’d been nearly a year since I’d gone to church but one of the things on my list was to give my family a benediction. I got out of bed to find my Bible. I thought it might be under my bed, but it wasn’t there so I went to my parents’ room. The last time I was in their room, Mom was awake. It was a Sunday morning shortly after Taylor went to sleep, and Mom was crying but pretended she hadn’t been when I knocked. Come in, she said. I crossed the dim room and she lifted the duvet to let me lay next to her. She wrapped her arms around me and kissed my ear, my cheek, my shoulder. She whispered, I love you so much. She held me tightly and I could tell by her breathing she was trying not to cry again. It’s okay, Mom, I said, You can cry. Now I opened the curtains and sat on Mom’s side of the bed with her Bible, looking for a benediction.
Later that afternoon Ezra called. I’d explained my plan to him, about spending the day with my family, and expected him to call to make sure I was okay. He offered to come over but I said no. As long as you’re okay, he said.
I am, I said, Actually I’m just picking out clothes for my brothers. Like what they liked to wear. I want everyone to have their own clothes to wear when they wake up.
I didn’t think about that, Ezra said.
Yeah, I mean, they’ll be in hospital gowns I guess. But if they come home – I don’t know. It might be stupid. The center would call me, I could just bring clothes. I just –
I think I get it. I think it’s nice.
I still have to give a benediction. And paint Taylor’s nails. I’ll do that first.
You’re sure you don’t want help?
When are you calling the center?
Tomorrow morning. Ms. Gomez will be with me. I guess we have to make an appointment for transportation to the center, you know, for the family.
And you’ll be an IM?
Yeah. I don’t really know what that means yet. I think I can stay here. Maybe not.
Does anyone remember what IM stands for? Oh! Independent Minor. Okay. Now I can quit thinking about swimming events. If I’m having a problem with this (and I wrote it!), maybe I need to change the acronym.
I don’t tell Ezra what Mom talked with me about when she gave me a typed page of all the account numbers and passwords and billing cycles I needed to know. She said if no one woke up within six months I should sell the house. But no one is buying houses right now, except well below an already low market. I know that from the news. What I don’t know is what it means to be an IM with another year of school left, and college after, living alone in a house built for a family of six. These practical concerns keep me from falling apart when I sit next to Taylor and take her limp hand in mine, to paint her nails a bright glossy coral. It’s a little like when my grandma died and a month later Dad sat at the kitchen table with a dusty cardboard box of papers he had to make sense of before her estate could be settled. We all knew he was sad but he didn’t look sad. He made a spreadsheet and spent an entire weekend sorting the papers into piles on the table and columns on the document. But when everything was accounted and he’d called his sister to let her know what to expect, and after he’d put all the papers back into the dusty cardboard box, after he closed his laptop and stretched, he sighed. Mom walked by him then, patted his shoulder, and he turned to her and cried all over again, like he’d just heard. I sit next to Taylor dreading the top coat (does she need a top coat when she won’t chip a nail?) because once the last pinky is painted, she’ll be ready for the center.
I practice the benediction in my head that night while I’m brushing my teeth. Downstairs my family is quiet. I turned each of them, checked IVs, kissed foreheads or cheeks, held hands for a moment. I might have then given the benediction, and gone upstairs to bed, but I didn’t want to speak our parting words before parting. I stood in front of the bathroom mirror thinking what I would say in the morning, before the county health people arrived with gurneys and release forms, and it was like I could see Josh and Bud and Taylor standing in front of the sink on their last nights awake, brushing their teeth, maybe knowing how it would go when they closed their eyes to rest. Most of the medicine cabinet is full of Taylor’s face masks and washes and creams but on the top shelf Josh kept his razors and on the middle shelf is a box of cartoon bandaids only Bud used. Maybe each of them spoke their own benediction before going to sleep. I rinse my mouth, turn the light off and go back to my sleeping family downstairs. Tomorrow morning I will not remember what to say because I’ll be too afraid and sad. Or Ms. Gomez will call, or Lisa and Ezra will come by. But right now I can say it in the dark and maybe my family will hear. If you can, I whisper, Come back. But if you cannot –
I stared at the doc trying to think of a good benediction for the family. I don’t want a sap of a goodbye. The parting is unavoidable. And so many people in the world are doing the same thing: saying goodbye to sleeping family, starting again with a different dynamic. Grief is universal. How do I show that with a small scene?
There is a smell, or the absence of a smell. Maybe a month after county health relocated Dad, Mom, Josh, Taylor and Bud, I came home from school and the house smelled different. I opened windows to let the air through, to pull out the last sweet chemical smell their bodies gave in sleep. I ask Ezra about the smell, if he noticed it before. I didn’t want to say anything, he said, Or ask. I wasn’t sure until I saw something on Reddit about the bodies, the sleepers. I guess we do that if we sleep without waking or eating or moving. Kinda a weird perfume.
When I visit my family that same smell is in the halls and rooms of the center. There is also a lemon scent. I packed a small bags for each of my parents and siblings when the county health arrived to transport my sleeping family. I meant for the nurses to dress Mom in her nightgown, put Josh’s socks on his feet, but the few belongings I sent along are still folded into the bags, tucked in bedside drawers or under the bed. I expected to see my family looking as my family. I expected Bud to be blanketed by his baby quilt he still snuggled at bedtime. But my family are as anonymous as any other sleeping family. The center divides the sleepers by gender and age so no one in my family is in the same room. I start with Dad who shares a long room with ten or fifteen other men, and then find a whole wing of middle-aged women. I have to look at name cards because all the women are gaunt faced and short haired now, and Mom only barely looks like Mom. She might have only barely looked like Mom when I called county health too, but then she was in her home which also looked like her, and I couldn’t tell the incremental change of each additional day of sleep. Josh and Bud were on the same floor, in rooms across from one another. I recognized a few of the other names on charts. Probably I should have kept my eyes down but I looked at these boys who played soccer or jostled in the lunch line or sang lead in the spring musical, and probably I should have known already they were sleeping. But who wants to keep count. I go to the center twice more and each time my family is more unrecognizable as my family. And each time there are more names I recognize or think I recognize, and the rooms are crowded.
I am taking their color. I see this one morning in the mirror, in spring when the days are just starting to go a little longer, and the early sun falls in a square near my bed. When I stand up and walk toward the door, I see me in the vanity mirror. I am bright, rested, wide awake. My face is full, my cheeks flush. I look strong. I look like I am ready. After that, I can’t go back to the center. The flesh is gray. The bodies are weak. One night at Ezra’s we watch the news and there’s a segment about what to do with the bodies and I catch the slide from sleepers to bodies. My skin prickles. All the bodies alive asleep in centers around the world. Flesh, bone. Brains that scan activity. Unmoving muscle. Ezra asks am I okay. You look pale, he says. For a moment I am afraid why I am still awake. I am afraid for the bodies. I am afraid for my family whose brains still light up like they are playing piano or reading a mystery or laughing. I am afraid they will not wake or die. All the bodies. They will know if we come to kill them because you can’t keep a secret like that.
I just can’t go on right now.
8405 words. Ten of thirty-nine. This is taking forever.