“Another F?” The smack of the test papers hitting the desk followed. I didn’t have to look over my shoulder to know Dad’s disappointment.
“Where’d you get that?” I mumbled out, the large, circled, red “F” glaring at me.
“Look, kiddo.” He gently pulled me by the shoulder, twisting my desk chair around, and knelt down in front of me. “You didn’t have to hide this from me. I’m here to help you.” His eyes looked sad. I bit at my short thumbnail.
“I know you are, Dad,” I said, turning back toward my open textbook. “I’m fine.”
I stared at the gibberish of some scientific equations, spitting out a piece of thumbnail. I hoped with all my might that he would leave. I grabbed a pencil and started writing anything important-looking down.
Dad sighed. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah. Umm, I got a lot of homework to do, so…”
“Got it.” He stood up and stayed there for a moment. I just kept writing whatever down. “You know I love you, son.”
“I love you, too, Dad.”
I heard his footsteps on the rug and finally the click of my door shutting. I immediately gripped the failed test, pushing it off my desk and into my small trash bin. I looked over what I had just written in my notebook, trying to decipher the scribbles. A pain shot through my head. Ugh. I couldn’t focus. Closing my eyes, I started rubbing my temples. I felt myself start to drift off.
I woke up with my head stuck to the page of equations, ripping it slightly as I moved. My head felt fuzzier than before. I couldn’t remember where I was or what I was doing. I looked at the clock, squinting the glowing numbers into view. 12:37 AM. Of course.
I blinked around, taking the rest of the room in as my mind transitioned to a half-awake state. Before I woke up too much, I decided to move to the bed. I got up, eyes ajar, and plopped onto the nearby bed, regular clothes and all. The bed was lumpy with a few small piles of clean and dirty clothes I had accumulated, but the pillow was soft. I felt myself start to drift.
Mr. Hinkley is not gonna like that.
How many times has he put up with your unfinished homework?
Do you wanna fail physics class?
You're already gonna fail math.
Why can’t you study for anything?
You don’t deserve to sleep.
My eyes shot open. My heart was racing suddenly with the pressure of everything. I turned to stare up at the ceiling. Crawling up it were the spindly and eerie shadows of trees lightly moving in the breeze.
Was that a shadow of a person just now?
No, you’re just paranoid.
Why can’t you just sleep already?
Why did you wake up before?
What’s gonna happen tomorrow?
You already know.
You’re gonna fall asleep to the words of Mrs. Brown.
The lecture of Mr. Woodward.
The discourse of Mrs. Riley.
The admonishing from Mr. Hinkley.
You’re gonna feel guilty.
Don’t you wish you could be a good student?
A good son?
I grabbed my head and shook myself, growling at the thoughts to go away. I didn’t feel comfortable. My head felt hot, and the bed was horribly lumpy. But I just laid there, the thoughts going round and round. I deserved this.
“Peter, wake up!” A girlish, hoarse whisper jumped me out of sleep. I stretched out my arms and saw the familiar pillow of my physics textbook. This time, I could feel it left a flat, red mark on my forehead. I looked to my right and saw my alarm clock for 1st period was Cass. I nodded a ‘thank you’ at her, but her face showed pity.
“He’s collecting the homework.”
I looked up and saw Mr. Hinkley collecting the sheets passed to the front from each row. A heat rose to my face, but I didn’t move. I knew what was on my worksheet. Nothing.
“Didn’t do it?” Cass whispered. She must’ve seen my reaction.
“Are you surprised?” I mumbled, looking down at the textbook. The cover had a lady running, some lightning, and those momentum balls that every CEO had on their desk.
Cass didn’t say anything before the guy sitting in front of me reached his hand back to grab my paper. After a few seconds, he started to shake his hand in impatience. I felt my body start to tense up with awkwardness, so I grabbed the slightly crumpled empty worksheet and put it in his hand, which he quickly ripped from my grip the second it touched him.
He turned toward me. “Took ya long enough!” He scoffed and faced forward again. I just stared at my textbook, at the running lady, blocking out the world. What was she running from? An unanswerable question. Also unanswerable was the speed of her running if she had gone 30 meters in 35 seconds, because who remembered these equations anyway?
The familiar drone of Mr. Hinkley’s voice came through. It was almost like he was talking underwater. How could my head be in such a fog already? But I couldn’t stop my body from becoming heavy. It felt like all at once, I had collapsed.
A sharp pinch shocked my body awake, and I let out a squeal. Everyone in the class turned and stared at me, most of them giggling or talking, probably about how ragged I looked. I must’ve looked it, because I certainly felt the pull of a foggy head and weak arms. And after a while, you start to get the frizzy hair pushed-in-one-direction kind of look. My tired body didn’t even let the blood rush to my face, since it was still trying to rush through my left leg, which had fallen asleep.
Mr. Hinkley cleared his throat and continued his lecture about velocity or something, so everyone looked back at the front of the class and returned to their own little worlds.
“Peter!” Cass whispered harshly. “Stop falling asleep.”
I gave her an angry glance. “Were you the one who pinched me?”
“Yes, but you’re gonna get in trouble!”
“What do you care?” I turned toward the windows to the left. Most of the shades were covering them besides a small slit at the bottom. I could just barely see some bushes moving like light waves of the ocean, dancing with the breeze. The sun was bright. It casted a yellow sheen on the shades, but the bushes were dark toward the classroom. The sun couldn’t reach there.
“I can’t sleep well either.”
I turned toward Cass. “You can’t?”
“No…” She trailed off. “Have you ever heard of sleep paralysis?”
“What’s that?” I asked curiously. I started to feel the most awake I felt all morning.
“It’s, like, basically when your mind wakes up but your body is still sleeping.”
“That sounds freaky.”
“Yeah, and the worst part is that you see things. Things that aren’t normally there.”
I leaned in closer. “What d’you mean?”
“I mean like creatures. Demon-like creatures.”
I felt my breath get short.
“They watch you, stare at you while you lie there, unmoving. All the while, you could be screaming inside, shitting yourself with fear.”
I bit at my already-short thumbnail.
“The creature can walk toward you, stand at the foot of the bed, even sit on your chest, face inches away from yours, making it almost impossible to breathe.”
My hands started to shake. “No way. That can’t be real.”
Cass lightly laughed. “Of course, it’s not real. It’s all in your mind.”
I gave her an uncomfortable look.
“But it happens all the time to people.”
“Yeah, like who?”
“Like me, doofus. Why do you think I brought it up?”
I laughed awkwardly. “Oh. So that’s why you have trouble sleeping?”
“Yeah.” She smiled slightly. “What about you?
I hesitated, glancing back at the sliver of the outside world under the shades. “I dunno.”
“You don’t know?”
I turned toward her with a smile. “But I sure can sleep to the lovely sound of physics equations.”
She gave me a slightly concerned look but smiled back.
“And I don’t have creepy demon things staring at me while I sleep,” I joked.
“You laugh about it now,” she whispered. “Just wait till you find yourself waking up one day, and you can’t move. Then you’ll be wishing you had asked me how to break out of it instead of being Mr. Jokester.”
I chuckled lightly, but my hands started to feel clammy. “Well then, how do you stop it?”
She gave me a smug look. “Just think something like, ‘This is all just a dream. This is all in my mind,’ and stuff like that. Or try moving your fingers and toes around to wake up your body.”
I started wiggling my toes unconsciously, the left ones feeling a bit tingly, still recovering from their asleep state. The rest of my body felt tense, but my mind was waking itself up, almost like a protection mechanism.
“Well, I dunno if I’ll ever be able to sleep again, thanks to you.”
Cass laughed quietly.
I stared at the running lady on my textbook. I could only see half of her face, but she looked slightly distressed. Perhaps I had found what she was running from.
I couldn’t get what Cass said out of my mind. It was like I was actually paying attention to my classes and being a normal student. But my body felt tense. No matter where I was, I couldn’t relax. I think my mind was afraid of letting myself relax to the soothing lectures. If that happened, I would sleep. And maybe, I would see Them. My hands started getting clammy at the mere thought. They say imagination is always worse than the real thing. I didn’t want to know if that was true or not. And maybe sleep paralysis was one of those things that, once you hear about it, it’ll happen to you. Once your mind pictures it, envisions it, you’re fucked.
I started plucking the hairs out of my arms, one by one. It wasn’t enough to just be anxious, to get through math. Mrs. Brown’s voice was one like the comically monotonous teachers in cartoons or whatever. I had pushed up my sweater sleeves earlier after getting uncomfortably warm during my conversation with Cass. While listening to the droning sounds of Mrs. Brown’s musings, my eyelids threatened to close. Right in front of my fuzzy gaze were my slightly dark forearm hairs. I reached over with my left hand. At first, I struggled to grip one with my bitten nails shorter than I expected. But then I found the perfect angle. The sharp pain of the quick pull was harsh enough to pull me back into an awakened state. Mrs. Brown was talking about finding the sine of a triangle if you already have the cosine and tangent. I looked around at the other students, searching for any sign of comprehension. A few people seemed to be paying attention. I awkwardly met the glance of some girl I barely even recognized. As I faced toward the blackboard again, the fog was coming over me. Before it could get very far, I looked down and pulled another hair out. This time it felt even sharper. My body seized up slightly with each hair, pulling me into a more present state of consciousness than I had felt in a long time. I was able to listen to every word uttered by Mrs. Brown. I didn’t understand half of it, but I could hear every syllable without the urge to completely shut my mind down. This could work.
The minutes went by as excruciatingly slow as one arm hair per second. Each class seemed to pose an even harder struggle, with even more boring subjects and monotonous lectures. I think I had forgotten to blink unconsciously as I focused so hard on the words coming out of each teacher’s mouth. But when I finally did blink, I was home.
“Hey, Petey!” Dad’s booming voice erupted through my ear drums.
I jumped. “Ow!”
“Sorry, son,” he said, pulling me into a bear hug. “I got excited.”
“Talk about sappy,” I mumbled.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” He pushed me an arm’s distance away. “I forgot we’re men! Men don’t hug or show emotion!” He flexed his biceps. “Me strong man. Me tough man! Me hunt deer with bare hands!”
“Okay!” I whined, pushing him lightly.
Dad wrapped his arms around my waist and lifted me off the floor. “Me love son!”
“Put me down!” I scrambled to push his arms off, but they were too tight.
He set me down with a chuckle. “Phew! That was easier when you were about fifty pounds lighter.” I rolled my eyes. “Did you have a good day at school?”
“‘Bout the same at work, but whaddya gonna do, eh? At least I get to see my favorite person!” He got into the grabbing stance again, but I flinched. “Got a lot of homework?”
He gave me a concerned nod. “You got it tough! I’ll have dinner in the oven, an’ you can come an’ get it when you’re ready. You want pizza tonight?”
“Sounds good, Dad.” I started pulling at my hoodie string.
“Alright.” He patted me on the arm. “Good luck with homework.”
“Thanks,” I said softly and headed to my room, backpack on my shoulder. I rubbed my forearm lightly. All the pulling had made it sensitive to touch. I was glad Dad hadn’t seen it.
Standing in the doorway to my room, I noticed it felt different than before. My desk, my bed, my chair, even the floor, were not safe places anymore. Every plush spot bore a threat to my wellbeing, my sanity. I stood there, examining with my eyes every place that could be a wrong move. My mind was frozen. It was like all reasoning ability had stopped. Tears came to my eyes. I curled up on the floor and cried silently into my jeans.
I had done it. I had managed to stay up till midnight. Dad had said goodnight hours ago. I was sitting on a pile made up of my dirty laundry and a few textbooks. It felt so uncomfortable and lumpy that there was no way I would fall asleep. Dad did look at me funny when he saw it but didn’t question me too hard. I said I had finished all of my homework, and just felt like sitting in a weird way. I had managed to stay up with this seat and the help of some reality TV on cable. At this late hour, they allowed swearing, and I swear I saw porn on another channel. I had the volume low, so I didn’t wake up Dad. But that volume, it started to sound comforting. My eyelids had become heavy. I unconsciously rubbed my forearm but the slight stinging pain did nothing. My body moved on its own. It moved to the bed. I stared up at the ceiling, the same one I stared at almost 24 hours ago. The shadows were the same spindly and eerie shadows of trees lightly bouncing in the night breeze. My mind could barely focus on anything. I could only view like I was looking through someone else’s eyes. They closed.
Was that a shadow of a person just now?
My eyes jolted open. I stared intently at the shadows. One of the trees looked like it had grown a lump. A head-sized lump. I feared blinking or it would move. But my eyes were so dry and strained. My eyelids dropped.
I think it’s coming closer.
My eyes shot open. The trees shook in the strong wind, but there was an unmoving shape. The stretched-out shadow of someone’s head and shoulders stayed frozen on my ceiling among the windy background. My mouth opened slightly. I wanted to scream. I couldn’t tell if it was real or not. I couldn’t trust myself. So I held back, almost wanting it to move, to prove to myself it wasn’t a dream. I didn’t fight my tired eyes this time as they closed.
What are you doing?
You saw him!
I let my eyes open gradually, feeling acceptance for whatever the outcome. I stared at the sprawling shadows on my ceiling. Only trees. A smile spread across my face, and I started to chuckle. It wasn’t real. It was all just my imagination on sleep deprivation. I glanced at my window to see the trees and gasped. A tall, dark figure with a wide-brimmed hat was peering in. I furiously closed my eyes and repeated, “It’s not real. It’s just my mind!” softly to myself. After three or four times, I opened my eyes and saw the figure opening my window. Fuck! My body felt frozen. But this didn’t feel like sleep paralysis. I wiggled my fingers around on the bed and I turned my head side to side. It wasn't a dream. It wasn’t my mind. But I couldn’t think. I could only watch as the figure climbed through my window. My whole body was shaking. It inched closer. It didn’t have eyes. It didn’t have a face, only black.
And then, only black.