October’s Final Days, Second Runner-Up, Fiction
Owen Baker was never a good sleeper.
When placed in his bassinet, he squalled until his little wrinkled face was crimson, and his mother picked him up and soothed him. When he got older (when his head finally rounded out and his spindly limbs plumped and when he graduated to a crib in his own room), he still fought sleep. His screams pierced his mother’s heart, and though she was new to parenting, something about Owen’s night-cries always sounded worse than babies she had heard before.
His mother read every parenting book. She tried every method: the chair method, Ferber, feed-and-read. She let Owen cry it out, as his staunchly no-nonsense pediatrician suggested.
She tried everything. Nothing worked.
The cry-it-out nights were the worst. She would sit in her bedroom, tears coursing down her face, watching the clock on her nightstand tick each painful minute away. One minute. Two minutes. Three minutes. Ten. His cries were like little barbed hooks in her heart that dug a little deeper as time crawled by.
She always caved before the clock showed fifteen minutes had passed.
She would run down the hallway to Owen’s room as fast as her legs could carry her. She threw open the door and turned on the light to the same awful sight – her chubby-cheeked son lying in his crib, red-faced and shrieking. Pointing one plump finger at the shadowy corner of his room. The rest of his body was rigid, taut to the point that lifting him into her arms was difficult.
Eventually, the Baker household reached a sort of détente. Owen (by then a sturdy toddler) and his mother (by then a woman with deep circles under her eyes and a recurring fantasy of driving away and starting a new life under a new name) came to agreeable terms. She would leave a lamp on in his bedroom when she turned in for the night. Owen, in turn, could play quietly in his room. His mother trusted that he would sleep at some point in the night, though she never witnessed it herself. All animals sleep, after all. But Owen was always awake when she turned in at night, and he was always awake when she rose in the morning.
He missed out on some of the experiences of childhood, like summer camp and sleepovers, but it didn’t seem to bother him. He made friends easily as a child. Those boyhood friendships never seemed to suffer from the issues around his sleep. He found other bonds of boyish intimacy – through Little League, through elaborate world-building board games – to replace those formed around scary movies in basement rec rooms, tucked into acrylic sleeping bags lined up side by side.
Otherwise, he was a healthy child. He grew into a healthy teenager, and then a young man. He was tall, gawkishly thin, but his mother could see how he might yet put on some weight and fill out his frame with a few more years.
The puzzle of his poor sleep didn’t start to vex Owen until he went to college. Now he had to share a room. Until then, his entire life had been cossetted around his aversion to sleep: the lamp that burned all night on his dresser, the cross woven from Palm Sunday palm leaves that his superstitious grandmother hung over his window. Now, Owen had to rethink the constant light source at night. His roommate, a pre-law student jittery with nerves, refused to leave the light on.
“What are you, two years old?” his roommate asked one night early in their first semester. “Grow the hell up.”
For the first time since he was a baby, Owen Baker was plunged into darkness. It wasn’t complete darkness, of course – there were little bleedings of light from the digital clock on his nightstand, from the crack under the door to the hallway. But there was not enough light to push back the shadows that crowded at the corners of the room.
One minute passed. Owen wriggled his toes under the layers of sheets and blankets, and he squinted to see if he could make out the movement. He could not.
Two minutes passed. He sighed and raised his head a bit, shifted against the pillow.
Ten minutes passed. He felt the weight of the day make his eyelids heavy. He closed his eyes and felt a lax warmth course through his arms and legs. He sighed again, almost a little pleased. Sleep wasn’t some elusive creature after all.
There’s no saying how long it took, whether it was fifteen minutes or fifty or more. When Owen jolted awake, he could not turn his head to study the clock on the nightstand beside him. He was frozen stiff, with only his eyes open wide and staring. Unable to move.
Unable to stop the shadowy figure in the corner of the ceiling from peeling away from the rest of the shadows and descending onto him. She had been a new thing when he was new too, splintered off from something much older.
In his infancy, she had never been fast enough – the mother had always returned to turn on the light just as she started her creeping approach. When the light started burning all night, she had to make herself small, tuck herself into some dark space where the light didn’t reach. Under the dresser. In the narrow black space under the closet door. Behind the stack of books on the shelf.
But as Owen had grown, so did she. She watched, waited. Learned. Her lineage was ancient, and the nearly two decades she waited had passed in a blink.
The patience had paid off. Now, in the nearly-dark room, the roommate snoring in the bed across the room, she descended from the ceiling. Her reflection was visible in Owen’s wide eyes, but he could not scream. He could only lie there, rigid, as she sat on his chest and took what was hers.
Christine Boyer has been published in numerous literary journals, and her essay “Second Person” was named a notable essay of 2020 in the “Best American Essays” anthology. She lives in Massachusetts, and she can be found at www.christine-boyer.com.