This is the first of several stories I have written as a reward for Red Wedge's annual fund drive, which promises a weird flash fiction story about or inspired by anyone who donates fifty dollars. The story below is for Joe Macare and Megan Groves, both longtime friends and supporters of Red Wedge and sometime contributors. It is greatly influenced by both a recent re-reading of Marshall Berman's All That Is Solid Melts Into Air and research on the politics and science of sleep. If you'd like to find yourself trapped in one of my weird tales then donate to the fund drive!
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City streets take on a certain quietude at 4am. It isn’t just the lack of people. Something fresh and the slightest bit moist turns over right around the time the clock strikes four. Why isn’t it three? Why not five? It’s not clear. Four o’clock in the morning just seems to be the time when everything becomes new and still, when the strenuous, anxiety-inducing motions of life finally cease long enough to give you time to take one precious breath so you can shore yourself up against whatever slow-simmering trauma might we waiting for you.
This is what Meg thought every morning when she went to the window. For two straight weeks she had been rising at 3:55 exactly and walking straight to the window so she could stare at the liminal daylights that were starting to peer out over the rooftops of their neighborhood. Something about the gray-bluish illuminations made the previous night’s trash recoil, as if it were almost ashamed that it hadn’t dried up and retreated to a corner out of respect for the light.
Of course, there was absolutely no human in sight, but this didn’t seem to characterize the impenetrable silence so much as organically spring from it. As if everyone instinctually obeyed and revered the city street’s demand for nothingness. Everyone, of course, except for Meg.
Meg had no idea why she did this. She hadn’t set her alarm to 3:55. It didn’t matter whether she went to bed early or late, or how tired she was. After she started noticing the pattern she had experimented with her sleep schedule. One night she took a bunch of melatonin at 5pm so that she could get a full nine hours in and get up at 2am. She nodded off at around 5:45pm; the next thing she knew she was wide-eyed, rolling straight out of her bed on the way to the window, the red numbers on the clock reading 3:55.
Another night she had attempted to stay up through to 4am so that she could investigate. Was there something unexplained happening in the apartment that was causing her to get up at 3:55 every morning? That too ended up a failure. As it happened she fell asleep on the couch at 3:50 exactly and woke up five minutes later, that same gravitational force pulling her toward the front window.
She tried everything. Different types of prescription and non-prescription sleep aids. Coffee, energy drinks and caffeine pills. None of it worked. No matter how late she stayed up, no matter how early she went to sleep, she was awake at exactly 3:55 and was at the front window at 4am, just in time for the flecks of pale blue to begin dancing across the sidewalk. She had no idea why. But as every morning passed with the same routine, she had become more unsettled, more anxious about what it might mean.
* * *
It was the stirring that woke Joe up every morning at 4:05. He knew why of course; that’s when Meg came back to bed. This in itself didn’t bother him. Truth be told, he was glad to be awoken, because the dream was what always put him on edge. Joe’s dreams had never been of the odd variety, and prior to the past two weeks he had been able to count the number of nightmares he had had on one hand.
What really unnerved him though was that the dream wasn’t so evidently terrifying. In fact, the dream itself was quite pleasant, but there was always something so unreal about it as to make him wonder what was underneath it. Something told him that it wasn’t anything in his own mind, and that’s what made him wake up feeling like he had an anvil on his chest. What made him scared wasn’t the dream, but the fact that he was scared of the dream.
Meg would ask Joe absent-mindedly whether he had the dream again; Joe would mumble something to the affirmative before then asking whether Meg had been at the window. She would answer yes, and both would eventually nod off, hoping the ethereal silence from outside could be kept at bay long enough for them to get back to sleep. Was it the ever-present din they longed for or the crushing noiselessness? Neither of them knew, and neither would ever find out because that was as far as they were willing to take the conversation.
As Joe nodded off he would have that imperceptible moment of relief knowing that the dream was gone again for at least one more day. There would be no more formless shimmering pale yellows and blues that floated him over the asphalt and concrete and bounced off the windows he could never make out. No gorgeous tranquility that made him feel both wonderfully lost and as if he were a piece of nocturnal flotsam so hopefully out of place. No certainty that the world’s eyes were bearing down on him from some prismic entity he couldn’t quite make out.
None of those feelings would return. At least not until the next night. It was new and it was enough to freeze their stomachs solid. In the midst of an ever-fluid city, Joe and Meg were privy to the most motionless moments. Why them? What made these two chosen to see when everything stood stock still? It was enough to keep them up at night. But by 4:15, they were both fast asleep again.