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FICTION
Someone Else's Sleeper
Chloe Clark

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“I have such common dreams,” a woman on the bus said into her phone. I tried not to look back at her, to stare too much. No one likes an eavesdropper. She had a nice voice though, smooth—I imagined that on the radio she would have no vocal fry. “Oh, you know, exams and mazes and shit.”

The bus stopped just as I was about to sneak a look. It was my stop and so I controlled the urge and got off. As the bus pulled away, I felt the shakes in my hands. I clenched my hands into fists, fingernails digging into the skin of my palms where the indents had left bruises that had begun to seem permanent, and walked the block home. 

The apartment was dark, Forest wasn’t home and I wondered if he would be. Some weeks I barely saw him, we lived such opposite lives. Our conversations, when we did see each other, circled around his boyfriend, his classes, his job as a research assistant. He never asked how I was doing, never noticed the darkness that hung beneath my eyes. I was alright with that.

I looked in the fridge and pulled out a tub of miso. Heating up some water, I thought back to the woman. A shudder ran through my skin. I leaned back against the counter, bracing myself against the feeling.

On the stove, the water began to boil. I watched the bubbles of water popping on the surface until the shudder had passed.

 

My sister called me that night. I sat on my bed, with the lights off, as she talked. If I couldn’t see anything of my room, I could imagine I was home and she was talking to me from across the bedroom we’d shared all through our childhood. I could imagine she was telling me secrets about the boys she had crushes on and the teachers she hated. 

“Harvey has been working doubles,” she said. “We barely ever are in the bed at the same time. Sometimes I have to go in and curl up by the girls, just so I can get some sleep, you know?”

“Will that last long?” I asked. I reached my free hand out, clenching and unclenching my fist. 

“He’s trying to get it switched. He knows I can’t sleep alone,” she said. “I’m not like you, Es.” I heard the tone in her voice: was it jealousy or was it knowing?

“How are the girls?” I asked.

She sighed. “They’re good. They take after Harvey so much. It’s strange sometimes to think they belong to me, too.”

I pictured them in my head: the twins, always in contrasting shades of identical outfits. 

“But you know, I wish sometimes they were more like us,” she said.

“You do?” I asked. She didn’t respond right away, but I heard her breathing, knew she hadn’t hung up. “Why?”

A longer pause still. “We’re strong, Es. We’re so strong.”

 

“Miss?” A man’s voice. I turned and he was leaning over the counter. Thirties, too snug t-shirt and jeans—showing off the curves of his muscles as if he’d put on clothes the right size and they’d shrunk during the day. “Can you help me find this book?”

I stood up, forced a smile onto my face. “What book?”

“I wrote the call number down, but I can’t find it on the shelf.” He held up a tattered slip of paper. 

“Of course,” I said. I stepped outside of the service area and followed the man deep into the stacks. He walked slightly ahead of me. The book’s call number was in one of the farthest back areas of the library. He stepped into the row and I followed.

“I can’t find it anywhere.”

“Did you look at the shelf above and the shelf below? That’s normally where they get misplaced. People always think they can remember the shelf, don’t look at the numbers, and put the book back on the wrong one,” I explained.

“No, I didn’t. Stupid of me,” he said. I heard a tone in his voice, a slight edge of amusement that I didn’t like. I could feel the spiders on my skin. He handed me the slip of paper and I bent down to retrieve the text.  As I did, he pressed himself against me.

I stood up quickly, spinning around and pushing him back into the shelf behind him. The look of amusement in his eyes switched quick to anger. 

“Hey—” he began.

I shook my head, grabbing ahold of his arm. I let my nails dig into his palm. “Do you take things from people?” I asked.

“What the fuck do you mean?” he asked. His voice came out ragged, a whisper, when I knew that he wanted to shout. I let the fear play across him. “I don’t take shit.”

“Well, I do,” I said. 

 

That night I dreamed of a bar, a woman dancing on the counter. I dreamed of heat and limbs and the press of her body against a wall. As she moaned, we fell backwards through the concrete and into a forest. Except the trees were only sculptures of trees. I looked up as leaves began to fall off of them. Paper leaves, dripping with green ink still fresh on them.

 

In the morning, I ate a bowl of cereal as I leaned against the counter. Forest stumbled out of his bedroom and almost jumped when he saw me. “Jesus, Es. I didn’t hear you get up.”

“I didn’t even know you were home,” I replied.

He nodded, taking a bottle of water from the fridge. “I got home late.”

“Explains it. I slept so deep last night,” I said. I tipped the cereal bowl to my face and let the cold milk pour into my mouth. It tasted so sweet and icy and creamy. It was the best thing I’d eaten in weeks because everything was heightened, fresh.

“You must have. You look really good,” Forest said. He sipped his water, studying me. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you had a really good fuck.”

“Better,” I said. “Dreams.”

 

I walked to the coffee shop that I liked best for a treat. I wanted a raspberry latte when I could taste it. My favorite barista, Conor, was at the counter. He’d been working there as long as I’d been going, two years or so. I liked his voice, the way he moved when he made coffee, his laugh. He smiled when he saw me and I felt my heartbeat a step quicker.

“Es! I thought you must have found a better coffee place.”

“Nope, just off coffee for a bit,” I said. 

“We don’t encourage that. Caffeine’s the one addiction I highly advise people to stick with. You don’t want to be a quitter, right?” He studied me as he spoke. Perhaps he was trying to pinpoint whatever was different about me. He wouldn’t guess it.

“I’m definitely not a quitter. Make me the largest raspberry latte you’ve got,” I smiled and it felt natural for the first time in weeks.

“On it.” He spun around towards the espresso machine. All of his movements were practiced and easy. I wondered if he recreated the motions in his sleep, even. He had lovely hands, I could see the muscles and tendons moving under his skin as he twisted knobs, pulled levers. 

And he made the latte too quick, spinning back to me before I could avert my eyes and hide the fact that I’d been watching him. He held my gaze as he placed the cup into my hands. Our fingers brushed. It sent a shiver up my skin, but one that felt like dipping into a cold pool on a hot day.

“I wanted to ask you for your number,” he said. I liked the directness of it. He didn’t build into it, didn’t try flirting. “I’d been wanting to and then you disappeared for a while. But I even had a dream about it.”

I didn’t even flinch at the word, I was so full. “A dream about asking for my number?”

“I like dreams when other people are in them. Sometimes I like to dream things so I know how to do them when I wake up,” he said.

It sounded strange, but strange in the way that other people’s dreams often did.

I wrote it down for him. As I left, I took a sip of the latte and the raspberry tasted sweet and tart and warm under the coffee. 

My phone buzzed in my pocket before I was even halfway home. He asked if I wanted drinks later and so I responded yes before I could remember to say no.

 

“You have a date? Like a date with a person?” Forest practically shouted his questions, as if I was hard of hearing instead of hard of relationships.

“The barista, Conor, from the coffeeshop. And it’s just drinks,” I said.

“Oh, him,” Forest said. “The one who you’re always comparing to a dancer in your head?”

I glared at him. “I never told you that.”

“I’ve watched you watch him. I practically can see you reciting ballet terms.” He chuckled for a second. “Remember in undergrad when you dated that guitarist?”

“Yes, why?” I played impatience.

“You dreamed of guitar riffs for weeks. Will you dream about coffee now? Just steamy, steamy milk?” He laughed, delighted with himself.

And now I didn’t need to play. “I won’t be doing that.”

Forest saw the change in my face and shrugged. “You used to be more fun.”

“I used to be a monster,” I said. I left the room.

 

I dressed simple. Tights, dress that was short in the right places, but not too short. He’d chosen a bar not far from where I lived, so I walked. I never felt worried walking at night. People usually knew not to step too close. 

The bar was small, fairly well lit, blues on the stereo. It felt more inviting than I’d expected. Conor was already there, at a small table tucked in the corner. He stood up when I entered. I walked over to him.

He pulled out my chair, which felt too quaint. “I don’t know why I did that. I’ve never done that.”

I laughed. “Thanks, though.” I took my seat and he sat back down across from me.

Someone came over and took our order. 

“So, is it weird to see me outside the café?” he asked.

“Well, I mean, no. I kind of realized that you didn’t live there,” I said.

“Fair point. It’s just I’ve never asked a customer out and it feels strange?” he said.

“In a bad way?” I asked. I wondered if he was seeing what he should have seen in me—the emptiness hungering its way through my body.

“No, no, definitely not,” he said quick.

And then the conversation eased. It was like he had tested the ice on a lake, found it was solid, and then the walk across became easy. He was a grad student, which I’d never known, studying Modernist literature. He was delighted to find out I worked in a library. “Why have we never talked about books?” he asked. And then we did. We talked about which book made us love them when we were young, the authors who we cyber-stalked to find out when they’d have new books coming out so we could order them months in advance, the physical aspect of books that we liked best—he was for the smell and I was for the feel, the weight of certain books in my hands.

I wanted him, wanted to take him home and fall into him so easily.

“Hey,” someone said and snapped us out of the shelter of words we’d been building around ourselves. I turned and my body jolted. It was tight clothes from the library. He was paler, drawn around his eyes. After only once. What weakness, I thought and then I pushed the thought away. It was something the old me would have thought.      

“Do I know you?” Conor asked him.

But he wasn’t looking at Conor. He stared at me. “You’re from the library right?”

I nodded. He didn’t remember me. How deep had I dug into him? How greedily had devoured?

“I thought so. You’re real familiar. Were you there yesterday? I fainted or something and like I couldn’t sleep all night. It was like I had nothing in my head and that sounds like a good thing right but, like, it was more like I wanted to have something in my head but I just couldn’t find it.” His voice rattled out. 

Conor studied him. Maybe trying to figure out what the guy was on.

“Oh?” I said. “You should see a doctor.”

The guy stared hard at me. “Can books like infect you? Like mold?”

I shrugged. “You really should see a doctor.”

The guy nodded. He turned and began to walk away. I felt my body ease. Conor smiled at me, he was thinking about something.  “Weird, huh?”

“Yeah, weird,” he said.

And we returned to talking. 

 

It was almost midnight when we walked back to my apartment. Then inside to my bedroom. Then onto my bed. We were kissing and his mouth tasted warm. His hands were on my thighs, under the skirt of my dress. I pushed up his shirt, felt his chest, his heart beating under the skin, under the muscles and bone. He pulled down my tights quickly. His hands moving with as much precision as when I watched him making coffees. I undid his jeans, ran my hands up and down him. For a second, I thought about pushing him away, about not making this mistake. But I wanted him so much and so just kissed him harder.

After he lay next to me and I felt the sweat cooling on my skin. I shivered with it. “You can’t sleep here,” I said.

He took a second to respond. I heard a catch in his breath before he did. “You don’t want me to stay.”

“No, I do. But. If you sleep here, you’ll regret it,” I said.

He turned onto his side, watched me. “What do you mean?”

“I won’t mean to do it. But I’ll take your dreams. I’ll do it while you sleep, pull them from your body. I can’t help myself.” I couldn’t look at him.

He laughed for a minute, saw that I wasn’t breaking, wasn’t smiling to show him that it was a joke. “You’re not kidding? You think you’ll take my dreams?”

I turned to face him. “I don’t have my own. So I take them. And I don’t want to take them from you.”

“Explain,” he said. “Please.”

So I did. It started when I hit puberty. My sister had done the same thing before me. I’d had insomnia for weeks. Then I was at a sleepover and I’d had the best sleep of my life. All the other girls’ dreams feeding me all night long. It had felt so good and I’d been so greedy, I’d pulled their dreams without knowing what I was doing, so hungrily that one of the girls never dreamt again. She withered away. Every day at school, she’d look more and more like a husk. Until she just didn’t show up for school anymore. I’d done that. My parents assured me that I hadn’t known what I was doing and I hadn’t. But that didn’t mean I didn’t blame myself. I learned to go without dreams for months at a time, sleeping the bare minimum for survival. Such emptiness always awaiting me when I closed my eyes. It was so cold and so dark without anything to fill the sleep. In college, I’d date off and on, just a dream here and there. Enough to sustain. And then I fucked up. The guitarist. I let him sleep over too many times. I dreamed his dreams. They were filled so much sound and I couldn’t get enough of them. It was only when he stopped playing music, started staring too long off into the distance as if he saw something there that he didn’t quite recognize, that I realized that I had gone too far.

So I stopped altogether. One dream every three months. I’d take them from Forest because he knew I needed them, because he agreed. It wasn’t easy. A state of constant exhaustion, heaviness. I fought the sleep with pain, fingernails into skin.

And, of course, the occasional accident. Only they weren’t accidents. The man at the library, the stranger in an elevator once who called me a bitch under his breath because I didn’t want to talk to him, the woman who walked her dog by yanking his leash so harsh. I’d dig my hands in and take the dreams right out of them, even when they were awake, even when they were staring at me in such terror.

“What if I say I don’t believe you? That I want you to prove it to me?” Conor said.

“You’ll regret it,” I said.

“Try me.” He touched the side of my face, ran a finger down the curve of my face. “I’ve always been good at dreaming.”

 

In my dream that night, I was walking through a city I’d never been. Everyone was dressed for summer: women in sundresses and little girls in bright pinks and purples. A man was selling ice cones at the far end of the street. He handed one to me, drenched in bright blue syrup and I sucked it as I walked toward the far end of the street which opened into the ocean. I kept walking until the water was lapping at my feet. The sun felt so warm.

“Es,” Conor said from behind me. I turned to him and he was wearing a shirt that was the exact same shade of blue as the sky.

“You’re in your own dream,” I said.

“It’s our dream,” he said. He took my hand and I felt electricity, felt cold water on a hot day. We walked into the ocean, until it was up to our waists. He put his arms around me.

“Do you trust me?” he asked.

And I did. 

He dunked us under the water. Everything above shimmered and shook with the waves.

 

And then we both woke up.


Chloe N. Clark is co-EIC of Cotton Xenomorph. She can be found on Twitter @PintsNCupcakes.