The sleep lab’s in an annex, the hospital receptionist — a warty man — had told Celia, in the quadrangle, can’t miss it, pointing her down the white-lit lobby toward the back doors, but under the tarp of late evening she’s probably taken a wrong turn.
The quadrangle seems deeper than it is wide. Limber pines reach high into the gloom like animals on their hind legs, and now the annex looming up with its moss-bearded brick is larger — colossally — and surely older than the gleaming hospital that’s shrunk to a pinprick of light on the path behind her.
She’s dreaming maybe, fallen asleep somehow between hospital and annex, everything its own opposite since the ability to sleep stood up and ran away from her.
Celia’s nights are days now — wide-eyed, scream-mouthed days spent staring at the bedroom ceiling — and her days are just hell. Her stumbling, fumbling life. Dream on, princess.
No, she’s awake on her feet.
It’s like you’re asleep on your feet. Jared’s voice, like their marriage, had altered at some point, cut up by rust, wet brakes grinding. You should get it checked out. You were never clumsy when I knew you. The oddness of his word choice had made Celia frown at him. I mean when I met you.
Sleep is food, babe.
When you’re starving it’s all you think about.
You’re home during the day now. You could take naps.
You could try harder.
From their teenage sons lately even less verbiage, only the exasperated Mom when she drops things, forgets their appointments.
And Celia’s doctor, large-headed, mansplaining, at his very oak desk: Impossible, that’s a layman’s myth. His lips like baloney. No one doesn’t sleep.
The door to the sleep-lab annex stands open. At the threshold she trips on a broken flagstone and almost falls in, catching herself with a little dance, a choreography of exhaustion.Inside, at least, it’s hospital-looking.
A man in his fifties just stepping from one of the rooms into the hallway stops short at the sight of her. His white coat is awry. He strikes Celia as flustered in the coat, as though he’s just assumed — or re-assumed — the trappings of a doctor.
“Are you a sleeper?” he asks.
Their lingo for patients perhaps.
Of course it’s the opposite, Celia thinks. She wants to be snarky. You come to a sleep lab because you can’t, now don’t you, because your daytime being has become a tawdry fog, wisps of consciousness tendrilling out to perform only the most necessary tasks before retreating again.
“My GP said he’d booked me in for a night.”
After weeks of argument.
“Um,” the man says. He glances back at the room he’s just exited. Celia’s awake suddenly to the yawning silence in the sleep lab, the rows of other doors, all shut.
Surely she’s not the only patient.
In the open room behind the man, a woman crosses the doorway surreptitiously, in what Celia is certain is a white bathrobe or floor-length gown, luminous — but when the woman passes back a moment later it’s become a short white lab coat over stocky legs.
Otherwise, grand silence.
“I’ll — uh — we’ll need your details. Your problem.” The doctor glances again at the room containing the vanished woman, then leads Celia to a different room, a kind of cubbyhole office, where he paws through papers looking for forms.
If this guy’s in charge, she’s screwed. They sit on the cramped chairs while he writes.
“Let’s talk about your symptoms. Microsleep?”
“I don’t even get that much. Nanosleep maybe.”
“I mean, do you often find yourself asleep at the wheel?” The doctor reminds her of Jared, she realizes, who has always reminded her of her father. “At work?”
“I find myself awake, at everything.”
It flusters him more. How can she explain it?
Once upon a time there was a dreamy child and that was a problem, though only for others. Not a problem for the child, who grew to be a dreamy twenty-something, happy enough if not ever after. Aware gradually that it was a curse to want to dream her life away.
Jared had broken through, woken her with a kiss, long ago now, but at some point the blessing of being awake forevermore wore off. The noise-making of attending to her life, the attention to and from all sides, the possessions, the people who talk to her, with her, for her, walk through her: Kept awake she is a being built by others. Even if sleep were nothing else, it would mean she could be in her head, follow sweetmeat dreams down a road, to a mirror, watch the being in the glass transform back into herself.
Her skin tightens with the longing.
Yet she doesn’t know how to voice that to this man.
“I keep forgetting my name. Is that a symptom?”
He lowers the pen from the form, softening, ruminative. There’s a spark of power in his eyes Celia doesn’t like. “I’m sure I can help you.”
“Yes, he’s the king of sleep.” The woman in the lab coat with the stocky legs has swept in, as far as the cubbyhole allows.
Up close the woman oozes the fierce loveliness of a fairy queen, pale beneath black upswept hair, dueling impressions of dark and light. A drawing in vine charcoal. Up close the stocky legs are hairy.
The woman places a hand on the man’s shoulder and he’s abruptly wooden again. Hello, tension.
“Doctor,” she says.
“Doctor,” he says.
Two doctors then. For how many patients? Just one? Too many doctors spoil the broth, or the plasma, or something. Celia flashes on an image — these two in the other room, disrobed, as spiteful in their merged skin as her parents, the sexual power struggle she only understood much later in life, and she wants to scream I don’t care if you’re fucking, I just need help.
Help me sleep.
“Come with me,” the woman tells Celia. The voice is spellbinding, motherly and vicious at the same time. It’s a voice to follow, to scamper behind down the corridors to oblivion.
The king of sleep seems to shake off his woodenness. “I’m sorry, doctor,” he explains. “This one’s mine.”
Like a snake darting away in foliage, the woman’s hand slithers from his shoulder. Celia can smell the viciousness now, bad honey in the air. There are sides to be taken here, decisions to be made.
“You’ll come with me,” the woman tells her.
“Will there be needles?” Celia stands, still unsure.
“You can’t do this.” The man has stood with her. “She’s mine. It’s all mine, doctor. My methods.”
Jared and her father stand there, their demands of wakefulness. When her parents divorced, Celia learned this about men: that they could pout and that their pouts looked like anger.
There’s a ligament taut across Celia’s ribs, tugging her in both directions. She wants the sleep, to be again, before she becomes a nobody. She can steel herself to needles, tests, the pricking of her thumbs, yet the fairy queen’s hate terrifies her and it’s in that moment, as she hesitates, the nanosleep of indecision, that she’s made her decision.
The fairy queen sees it. She touches Celia’s face and Celia is air, a nothingness floating inches from the floor. Her shoes are gone.
“You see?” says the fairy queen to the king. “Nothing’s yours.”
Celia floats down the hall behind the queen, and the king of sleep chases them until he fades into the white walls, his coat going first, only the buttons and a bemused face left for seconds, like a child’s smear, before it too is cleaned away.
In the room with the bed the queen undresses her.
“King of all he surveys. Except he overlooks women.”
There’s a camera high on the wall, pointed at the bed, its face marred with splotches like a foxed mirror. Will she be watched through the night? The epitome of attention. If Celia had any hope left of finding sleep, she sees it receding down that lightless eye.
“He thinks he’s good at this.”
The queen pastes wires to Celia’s head, her breasts, her thighs, weaving a sticky web about her through which she can no longer breathe, then positions her supine over the bed, suspended inches above it, the opposite of repose. Everything its opposite. The air on Celia’s back is cold.
“Doesn’t recognize us. I’ll teach him.”
If she can make clear the terror of her symptoms, of not being. Perhaps there will be pity.
“What does it mean,” Celia asks, “when I look in the mirror and see no one?”
There is no answer.
Before leaving the room the queen bends to whisper in her ear. “He should have recognized me. He won’t cure you, I’ll see to that.”
The wires hum as if alive on her skin, sentient briars. She lies, awake still, watching the dark mirror of the camera, waiting a hundred years for someone to come and put her to sleep.