Parasomnia

Selena turned over for what felt like the millionth time. From the nightstand, the alarm clock mocked her with its dull LED glow. She had downed two coffees and a diet soda in the densest part of her dissertation writing earlier this evening, and now she regretted it. She turned over defiantly, away from the alarm clock, and tucked the blanket up under her chin.

Selena was unsure if hours or minutes had passed, and she was less sure of what had awakened her. Her first instinct was to turn towards the clock and see how many more precious minutes of sleep she might steal, But as she tried, she found that her muscles refused to turn over. She tried to blink, but her eyes too rejected the motion. Selena felt that her chest was tight, and breath bellowed out from her lungs in sharp gasps. In the darkness, the familiar environment of her bedroom seemed foreign. The edges of familiar items were there — chair, vanity, half-opened sliding doors leading through the closet to the bathroom — but they were fuzzy as if shrouded in mist. Squinting at the dense shadows, her eyes picked out a shape standing among her hanging clothes.

The shape took a step forward, silhouetted against the dim moonlight creeping under the bathroom door. It was inky black, a fall of lanky hair and a slight frame suggested a woman. Selena took a desperate breath as the figure took another step towards her bed. The first few steps were twitchy and halting, but by the time the shadow stood over her bed its movements had smoothed, and Selena saw her mother staring down at her. 

‘He is the conduit. There is only one way to quiet the screaming.’ She bent over Selena and smoothed the hair from her forehead, before turning and running from the room. 

The pressure suddenly released and Selena bolted upright in bed, sweat soaking through her night clothes. She tripped, tangled in her sheets, and hit the floor hard, but she barely noticed as she sprinted for the stairs, following her mother. She rounded the corner into the kitchen and watched as her mother knelt over Jason’s small body. 

‘The dark radio is silent. Now I can finally sleep.’ Her mother was smiling as she stroked the ruin of Jason’s face. Her face and clothes were splattered with gore and she was breathless from the effort. She had gouged out his eyes, leaving Jason a lifeless doll adrift on a growing lake of blood that spread slowly around him. Gibbets of flesh eddied in it. With a wet gurgling, Jason lurched once, twice. Then he sat upright, mouth open in a silent scream, empty eye sockets accusing Selena. 

+++

Selena screamed herself awake. It was minutes before her heart stopped pounding and she caught her breath. She was standing in the middle of her bedroom, bedsheets wound around her body like a funeral shroud. Her alarm clock was blaring. She was seventeen minutes behind schedule.

+++

‘Good morning, Doc.’ How’re we feeling today?’ 

Selena made her way across the small quiet waiting room to where Marcia perched behind the big desk like a mother hen, watching the waiting patients. ‘Morning Marcia.’

 

Marcia liked to dress up for the clinic and her eccentric style was always a hit with patients. Today’s outfit was a choice of teal and purple houndstooth skirtsuit and a smart black silk blouse. She was partial to silk blouses. 

‘Oh you know, living the dream?’ Selena laughed, rubbing her tired eyes.

‘Is the dream a poor skincare routine and lack of sleep?’ Marcia raised an eyebrow, fiddling with the gold wedding band she wore on a chain around her neck. She wore it, Selena knew, to keep the memory of her husband close at hand.

‘I guess it must be, I haven’t quit yet.’

‘Of course not, you’re tougher than that.’ 

Marcia handed a fresh cup of coffee to Selena before picking up a retractable pen to sign a stack of intake forms, clicking the pen after each sheet. 

Click-click. Click-click.

‘Behind you’.

‘Hm?’ Selena was still shaking the snow from her coat when Dr. Richards entered the psychiatry fellow’s office. 

‘Burning the candle at both ends, eh? That’s what dissertations are made of Evenden’. Dr. Richards never called her Selena, and never insisted that she call him Erik, as most of the attending physicians did. She supposed it was his European training, and not that he particularly disliked her. Even if he did, he was the world’s expert on disordered sleep, and his mentorship alone would support her career.

‘I have a 9:45, male, twenty-two-.’ Selena shuffled through the patient file as she stood up.

‘With a history of multiple parasomnias and recent progression to sleepwalking.’ Dr. Richards finished for her. ‘All are quite interesting, but the labs you’ve requested-’

‘We can use the funding from my fellowship award for the genetic testing.’ Selena had gathered her files, recorder, and most importantly, her coffee, as she followed Dr. Richards out of the fellow’s room toward the outpatient clinic.

‘I’m less concerned about the funding and more concerned about the patient population, Evenden.’

‘I’m not sure what you mean.’

‘There is a surprising lack of diversity in your choices.’

‘My hypothesis is-‘

‘Nothing suggests it would be specific to this area, and even if it were, I don’t think the studies you’ve outlined are adequately designed to detect the genetic component, nor are they properly controlled.

‘What I mean to say is-’ Selena stammered, unsure how to explain her need to understand, characterise, and clearly define the pathology of night terrors. 

‘You’re an excellent scientist, Evenden, And an even better clinician.’ He laid a gentle hand on her shoulder, stopping her just outside of outpatient psychiatry. ‘Your future patients will be lucky. You are uniquely suited to understand and sympathise with them. But I caution you to not let that passion cloud your judgement.’ Richards stopped just short of crossing the threshold into the outpatient clinic.

‘The sheer volume of cases over the past three decades are-‘

‘On par with incidences of disordered sleep. Occasionally there are what seem like… bursts, or epidemics if you will. Not just in the Northeast, but all over the world. That suggests a non-genetic component more than anything.’

‘Dr. Evenden, your patient is in three. He was early and asked for coffee. Marcia called from the front desk across the outpatient waiting room, spotting Selena and Richards in the doorway outside the suite.

‘Thanks, Marcia.’ She smiled; Marcia always looked out for the fellows. 

‘You’re not approving the genetic testing.’

‘No’

‘Because you don’t think there is strong enough evidence for my hypothesis?’

‘I think you need more, and varied data points.’

+++

‘You look quite young for a doctor.’ 

Joshua Sleight looked much older than his own 22 years. He had a nervous nail-biting habit that left his cuticles raw and bleeding. He was holding a small styrofoam cup of instant coffee.

‘I’m not technically a doctor yet.’ 

Selena settled into the high-backed armchair on the other side of the coffee table, crossing her legs. Patients were seen in small, starkly modern sitting rooms. Dr. Richards insisted that playing the role of television psychiatrists put their patients at ease. People are comfortable with the expected, he’d told her. If they see you in a lab coat, loading a syringe then they know how bad it is

‘You mean you haven’t finished med school?’

‘I’ve done two years of med school, and this is my final year of the PhD. When I’ve graduated with that degree, I’ll go back to the clinic to complete the final two years of medical school. ’

‘That seems unnecessarily hard. You must sleep less than I do.’

‘It has its share of sleepless nights.’ Selena laughed, uncrossing and then recrossing legs and taking up the pen and notepad from the side table. ‘But we’re here to talk about your sleepless nights. So how have you been sleeping Josh?’

‘Not any more or less than usual.’

‘Which is to say not much?’ Selena scribbled.

‘I mean that’s why I’m participating in this trial. My nightmares keep me up.’

‘You have to sleep to have nightmares, Joshua.’ Selena clicked her pen. ‘I wasn’t asleep last night.’ He fidgeted, clearly uncomfortable. 

Selena looked up from her notepad to see Joshua’s million-mile stare into the rippling surface of his coffee. 

‘There’s nothing you can say that will surprise me. I promise.’ Selena waited.

‘It’s happened before, but it’s happening more and more now, sometimes three or four times a week. I open my eyes, but I can’t move, my entire body is paralyzed. I’m trapped there on my back, gasping, like a fish out of water. It feels like there’s this weight on my chest, pushing, no, holding me down.’

‘Sleep paralysis is a very common occurrence for people who suffer from nightmares.’

‘It’s not the paralysis that scares me.’ Joshua mumbles. 

‘What is it that scares you Josh?’

Joshua’s sudden silence surprised Selena, who stopped writing. Uncrossing her legs, she leant forward to try and meet his eyes, but he recoiled back into himself.

‘You wouldn’t be the first person to report odd things to me.’ Selena softened her tone. ‘Some people see monsters. Little grey men. I had one woman tell me that her tormentor was her third grade teacher’.

Joshua smirked and nodded his head.

That’s crazy’.

‘So in your own words. What scares you? Nothing would surprise me’.

‘It’s… Sometimes he is sitting on the side of my bed. The room goes blurry when he visits. It’s like everything has soft edges, except him, he’s got a clean silhouette. Solid black. The darkest darkness you could imagine. Sometimes he’s wearing a hat, I think, sometimes not. His eyes are bright white spots in the empty shape of his face.’

‘Psychiatrists think our sense of self is distorted by sleep paralysis- that the parts of our brain that tell us where our arms and legs are in space get confused and our brains  sometimes project a type of shadow body.Do you think that could be what you’ve experienced?’ Selena tries to keep the edge of excitement out of her voice.

‘That thing is definitely not me. When the others are there it’s worse.’ 

Josh’s hands are shaking so badly he has to put down his small styrofoam cup of coffee on the table between them and rub his palms dry on his pants. 

‘I can see others walking around the room. Short dark shapes. Their eyes are less bright. I can hear them… talking. It’s like they’re in my head. But full of static and screaming, like I’m listening to the world’s darkest radio.’

 

The dark radio is silent. Now I can finally sleep. 

 

Her mother’s tranced-words send a chill up Selena’s spine. All sense of coincidence evaporated.‘I get the impression they are fighting over me and there’s nothing I can do.’

‘You feel powerless?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Have you ever done a sleep study?’

‘You mean sleep with wires glued to my head?’

‘I was thinking of something a little more… outpatient.’

 

+++

Selena hammered at her laptop, grateful for splurging on the soft touch keyboard. She might be able to make a dent in her dissertation while Joshua slept, but she needed to transcribe her clinical notes first. 

‘So I just sleep?’ Joshua asked.

‘The sedatives will help. Just close your eyes’.

Next to them on the table the tablet pings gently, wirelessly recording data from the polysomnographic devices attached to him. Selena flips through her notepad, pen in hand, anxiously clicking. Click-click. Click-Click.

‘You’ll be here the whole time?’

‘Yes. I’ll be taking notes’

‘Okay. Okay. Okay.’ Joshua repeated, trailing off.

The polysomnographic data can’t lie, and the sedative Selena administered can’t be resisted. Joshua’s brain activity swiftly transitions from the random noise of conscious thought to the spiked waves of early sleep and then into the smooth undulations of dreaming sleep. These are interrupted with peaks of intense brain activity unlike any Selena has ever recorded. She watches as his heartbeat settles into an easy constant rhythm, picked out by the monitor as pleasant little pings. Beep-beep. Beep-beep.

Selena listens as Joshua quietly drifts to sleep.

Beep-beep. Beep-beep.

She closes her eyes, focusing on the rhythmic tones.

 

+++

BEE–EEE-EEE–EEE-EEE—

Selena wakes to the angry pinging of the tablet, pulling her focus back. Joshua’s brain waves have changed, peaked wake-like patterns disturb his slower sleep waves. His heart rate is dangerously high,the monitor emitting an almost constant wail. He is still dreaming. 

An overwhelming sensation of dread grips Selena, and she finds herself stuck in the chair, feet planted, unable to move. Straining her eyes she sees it —  a monstrous black thing bent over Joshua, hands working in the flesh of his torso as two more shadows lurk in the periphery. Selena strains to look directly at them, her thoughts filled with a scratchy, stinging noise that makes goosebumps erupt on her arms and back. The sound pressed in on her thoughts, wrapping her brain in barbed wire and drowning any coherent thought in a cacophony of screams. 

The fractious black-thing works, digging its hands further into Joshua’s ribs and Selena’s own chest tightens in horror. She can feel herself hyperventilating. With a jittering turn, the figure stares at Selena. Where its eyes should be, there are only . It reaches out, its long-fingered hand stretching across Joshua towards Selena. As the rigid fingers wrap around her face, all Selena hears is static.

 

+++

‘Hello Selena, how are you feeling today?’ Dr. Scheeran asked, taking a seat at the far end of the long table and flipping to a clean page in her yellow legal pad. At the other end, Selena sat clad in thin hospital trousers and a tattered jumper. 

Nylon over-the-lap wrist restraints kept her hands held tight to her lap.

‘I’d be better without these.’ Selena shrugged, unable to lift her hands.

‘The restraints are for your safety and mine. You know that.’

‘I know all sorts of things.’

‘Let’s focus on the positive things. I think we’ve been making great progress these last few weeks talking about your dreams of graduate school-’ Dr. Scheeran uncrossed and recrossed her legs.

‘Why won’t you let me talk about Joshua.’

‘Joshua-’

‘-They visited him. I saw it. They got their hands in him.’ Selena tugged at her restraints. ‘Where is he? Is he all right?’

Dr. Scheeran clicked her retractable pen and scribbled on the notepad. She clicked the nib away, fastidious about preventing ink stains and smudges. Click-click. Click-click.

‘I already told you this. How many times do I need to tell you the same thing?! They were killing him – he could hear the broadcasts. Like my brother! We’re not the only ones! My data, my patients, Dr. Scheeran-’

‘You’ve never had any patients, Selena. And you’re not in graduate school, or medical school. You know this is the truth. And you know you can call me Marcia.’

Selena stared at the woman across from her. Seeing her for the first time. She took in the pressed, silk blouse, the pen in her hand. Click-click. Click-click. She took in the delicate gold chain around her neck and the plain gold band hanging from it. No. ‘Dr….Dr. Richards knows, he can tell you-’

‘Was Dr. Richards a conduit too?’

What? Where is he? He can explain. He told me to get data. To get patients’

‘You’ve never had any patients, Selena-’

‘Joshua-’

‘-You are a patient.’

Selena blinked away the tears clouding her visions. She wanted to wipe at them but the restraints made it impossible. She felt the familiar oppressive weight of terror binding her and making every breath a struggle as she hyperventilated. Similarly her thoughts fogged and became staticky, as if her brain were a car radio suffering interference.

About the Author

E. Nicole Gary received her PhD in microbiology and immunology from Drexel university college of medicine and studies vaccine design and immune responses. When she isn’t writing scientific manuscripts, she’s reading, watching, and writing sci-fi and horror. She loves wine, crochet, chaos, and laboratory mice.