Waking Nap. “Like being too full after dinner, you just need to take a long nap. That’s all I wanted, to sleep it off.” 2127 words. Original fiction written for a challenge at the writing forum In Revelations. Thank you to those who edited for me!
Sometimes silence takes everything over. As if nothing matters, and life’s simple pleasures fade away. If you try to force yourself to breath, if your chest rises with the smallest movement, the silence breaks (it’s the same result as if you were to blink or sneeze). This silence, this immovable moment, feels like a gift of time. Time to rethink your latest schemes of violence; time to rekindle some sort of hope; time to simply tire yourself out so that you don’t do what you felt you might.
Alison wakes up late one morning, and by the time the tall, ice-blond 23-year-old makes it to the cafeteria, the eggs are cold. She takes her plastic plate and her sippy cup – she stopped rolling her eyes about drinking from a sippy cup weeks ago – back to her spacious single room and eats. Stale toast, orange juice without pulp, three differently colored pills. The extra dose of Paxil – to match her evening dose – to keep her energy up, a sedative to keep her mind relaxed – though often it just countered-acted the Paxil no matter how many times she tried to argue this with her in-house shrink – and a drug called Effexor which had been described to her as time-released MDMA (she smirked when they told her, her years as a fiend for ecstasy coming back to her in a rush that put her in the hospital the first time she took the pill). Her doctor – whom she called Michael Bolton thanks to his high forehead and dreadfully over-combed long, wavy hair – would be proud of her today. Eating on schedule, taking her pills without fuss, and she’d successfully avoided wandering into the library on her way through the quiet corridors.
Curling up into bed to let the pills do their work, she stares out the window at the slight rain coming through the hills of West Virginia, vaguely aware of someone coming in and cleaning up her dishes, taking her dirty clothes from the night before to be washed. The cleaning service, the quiet, well-lit halls, the easy access to every pill you might possibly need, the House – as those who worked there and marketed the place called it – was a surprisingly pleasant place. The staff was at times obnoxious in what they considered humor, and Alison’s New Hampshire ears cringed at their thick Southern, Appalachian accents, but overall they behaved themselves and took good care of the patients. All were long term – Alison looked forward to at least a year from her start date seven weeks earlier – and all were heavily medicated for addicted and violent histories. Alison had been recommended (committed) by her mother, an appellate judge in the New Hampshire state court. She had been a fairly normal twenty-something, saving up to move to New York City and work in the publishing industry, working at the University of New Hampshire and surrounded by books and academics. One day, she’d been sitting, reading a particularly disturbing poem from World War I era Prussia, just before the empire died, and something about it had touched her.
Before she can think beyond the words on the paper, she’s woken by someone else coming into the room, someone she doesn’t know. She sits up automatically, dully rubbing sleep from her eyes, and gives him a curious – though not piercing – look. He gives her a wide grin and takes a seat near the door on a folding chair he must have brought in with him. Alison can’t help but assume he’s another yokel looking for an easy paycheck. She was always surprised by how little actual work went into the care of the mentally deficient.
“I’m Nick,” he says, out of nowhere, his arms crossed against his thick chest. He’s still smiling and it makes her squirm a little bit in her seat on the bed, buried under gray covers.
“Alison,” she mumbles, her voice a little bit hoarse from disuse.
“You’re young, I’ve never had to guard someone so young before,” he didn’t look much older than she was, but the way he said ‘guard’ gave her the feeling he’d been around the block a time or two. His accent was thick but not at all like the other workers – he sounded like he was from Brooklyn, with a heavy emphasis on his vowels. His thick, curly black hair – unruly as if he couldn’t brush it if he tried – and olive skin told her her was probably Italian. She imagined his mother suddenly, she would be a big woman, always ready with a hug or a tongue lashing depending on the young boy’s behavior that day. Alison smiled at this and Nick questioned, “You all right?”
Shaking her head she tries speaking again, her voice stronger this time, “You’re guarding me because of last week, aren’t you?” Her eyes can’t quite focus on him and her lungs feel pressed down upon thanks to the drugs taking full effect (normally she’d be asleep right now).
He shrugs, “Lock yourself in a library closet with books and matches, yeah it makes sense they put you on watch.” Alison supposed, looking back, it did seem insane. The thought that something she would do – in a mental institution, declared incompetence by her own mother’s court – would ‘seem insane’ and she laughs out loud.
Nick looks up again at her cackle, “You didn’t really want to hurt yourself, did you?”
She shakes her head, calming down, “They don’t let me have books,” she says, as if it explains everything. Taking a deep breath, she looks at him again, paying more attention. Very dark brown eyes, an easy posture, he doesn’t hold himself like a guard. Faced with the first peer she had seen in months, Alison’s thin, nimble fingers go to her hair, which she has brushed for her every other day. “You’re young, too,” she says, unsure why she’d try to make conversation, part of her just wanting to roll back over. When all he does is shrug, she does just that and wakes up just before dinner and her second daily installment of medications.
When she wakes in the morning, he’s there again, to walk her to the showers and escort her back to her room. Alone in the bathroom she takes the time to pay attention to the heat from the water on her skin, the thickness of the steam when she’s finished. She stares harder into the mirror through the gloom and wonders if life will always look like this – gray, stuffy, heavy.
In the mirror, she’s standing there, dressed to the nines for a night out in Boston. Her long pale hair is swept up in a haphazard updo, her Grecian dress black and flowing. She’s wearing high heels and taller than her date, they joke about it all night and when she throws her head back in a laugh that rings true just like it had that night, she notices her surroundings again, the sound hollow.
This version, the present Alison, is drained of color. The mirror shows a white girl, in a gray bathrobe and pale blue slippers, thick circles under her unfocused eyes. She reaches up, the mirror reflecting the same foggy gray that surrounds Alison every day, and she pushes on it. Pain shoots up her arm before she can figure out why; she’s put enough insistent pressure on the mirror to push her hand through, old glass cutting into her, bringing a foreign, dark red to the colorless landscape. She smiles, and then the door is bursting open and she’s being carried, sedated, and wakes up bandaged in her bedroom once more, the red gone, Nick on his perch near the door.
As she slept, the New Yorker hadn’t been able to help watching her. He’d never particularly watched his wards before, being told to stand at the door and make sure they don’t hurt themselves or anyone else. She sees this change in him now, as he gazes curiously at her hand, bandaged past her wrist. His eyes are softer than they’d been before she’d gone to shower. It’s evening now, and she wonders what has happened to him in the period of a sunrise and sunset to make him so new. Alison swallows thickly and rolls on to her side, “I’m not insane, you know, it’s just easier to keep me sedated,” she doesn’t add the ‘my mother thinks…’ that she’s temped to.
“How is that easier? Seems to me you give everyone here a run for their money pretty often.”
“Well, at least they’re doing something for their money.” She says, cracking the smallest of smiles. Suddenly, she adds, “that’s the first joke I’ve told in months,” and that makes him chuckle slowly.
“Why are you here then?” He asks when the quiet settles back over them. She is lying on her side not quite watching him as he sits with his arms still crossed over his chest, his gaze on the wall just in front of the folding chair he rarely leaves. After he asks, he makes a concerted effort not to look at her, worried that eye contact might be too intrusive – if she is willing to talk at all, he wants her to feel comfortable with the idea.
“I read a poem one day, and after a million poems just like it, tried to jump off a bridge. I had actually jumped off of the bridge a million times before, diving with friends in high school, but there wasn’t any water under it anymore.” Alison’s voice cracked but her explanation was matter of fact. She stared, wide-eyed and focused now, at the ceiling. Even Michael Bolton himself couldn’t get this honesty from her and she wasn’t sure why Nick could. “It just felt like too much, so suddenly, and I needed it to stop weighing me so much. I just…” She shakes her head, tears escaping between the crease at the edge of her right eye as she did so. “I just let it get to me, I couldn’t turn it off.” She can’t turn off her brain, can’t stop herself from feeling the agony of those who had been writing angst and romance for hundreds of years.
There was something so simple about it, really, if you thought about it. “It’s easy, actually,” she said repeating the voice in her head, her voice becoming more animated, her breathing picking up, “to just feel everything that ever comes at you.”
Alison looks at him now, back on her side, her gaze penetrating from the other side of the room. Hearing her shift on the bed, he turns to look at her, his hands coming to rest on his thighs. “Growing up they told me it was artistic, so I wrote,” another small, wry smile splits her lips and looks almost just right but still out of place, Nick thinks, “but you can only do that so long. It all comes in, but you can’t ever really get it out. Like being too full after dinner, you just need to take a long nap. That’s all I wanted, to sleep it off.”
“That’s why they keep you away from the library,” he ventures after a moment.
Nodding, she explains, “Imagine keeping the person who’s too full away from food, though,” and Nick smiles, an easy thing she noticed, and it lit up his dark features and changed the feel of the room immediately. Scooting over, she says, “You know, you’re welcome to sit over here, that seat looks like hell on Earth,” and he sits at the farthest edge of the bed, worried slightly about propriety.
Nick shrugs, his eyes on her bandages again, and sighs. “Alison, it’s time for your pills,” he sounds regretful but she nods.
“They’re my nap, aren’t they?” The smile almost – almost – reaches her blue eyes this time and Nick sees the day that it might happen, that maybe they’d be sitting exactly like this, she bandaged and sad and him nervous and tense, and maybe she’d smile so genuinely he would love her in that moment. Nodding in answer, he stands briefly to retrieve the evening medications from a locked cabinet, and pour a glass of water from her pitcher. Handing her both as she awkwardly sits up to swallow, he puts the discarded glass away when she lays back down. Resuming his position in the front of the room, leaning back in his folding chair, Nick crosses his arms and closes his eyes, waiting only to hear Alison’s deep, steady breaths before allowing himself to nod off as well.