A Good Night’s Sleep
“Damn this mattress,” Henry yelled, tossing and turning in bed again. It was an endless night of aches and pains. First, there was the jabbing in his neck. Then there was the prickling along his spine, the stabbing up his hips and finally, after settling restlessly, there was the nothingness that came with discomfort.
Much like everything else in Henry’s life, the mattress was old and soggy with years of resentment. Henry bunched up the remainder of the small pillows his wife hadn’t already hoarded for herself and wrapped himself up in the hand-patched quilt made some odd years ago. Henry poked his feet out and waited, carefully scrutinizing the room’s temperature with his big toe.
He heard a creaking sound from underneath him. He was sure it was the bed frame. It was as ancient as everything else in this room. But when it creaked again…
Monsters, he thought.
His childhood fears propitiated, built upon a lifelong love of comics and horror films. They increased the more he refused to think of them. I will not think of limbless, maggoty arms crawling from underneath the bed, Henry thought. Not of zombies or brain-thirsty, mossy, decaying corpses. Wolves. Rabid rabbits. Snakes, spiders, and scorpions. Henry’s mind raced, and he pulled his foot back underneath the quilt, back to safety.
But now he was hot and uncomfortable again.
I’d prefer a zombie over this, Henry thought and wrestled with the sheets once more. He turned onto his side, pausing to see if he was comfortable. No, he was not. He rolled onto his left side. No again. He turned onto his right side. No. Stomach? No. Half stomach, pillow wedged under the right arm, left arm under the blanket? No. No. And no.
With each adjustment, Henry raked in more heat and more claustrophobia. The blankets and pillows were gathering in like woolly tentacles, wrapping around his neck and squeezing until Henry boiled over. His face was a sweaty marshland, his nightshirt stuck to his underarms as if it were wallpaper and with a deep, earthy growl, Henry gathered all the bed things, save the quilt, into his arms and threw them over the side of the bed.
Obviously, he didn’t think this part through because the quilt caught on the edge of the nightstand and knocked everything on it to the floor. The subsequent crashing and smashing were terrifically loud. Stacks of magazines and books slid in one giant mass, tearing pages and breaking spines. Medicine bottles clattered and rattled like maracas. The ceramic lamp dangled precariously, teetering on the edge of suicide. It rocked, hopping side to side much the same way Henry’s wife did when putting on a too-tight pair of pants.
Henry reached for the lamp. He attempted to keep his lower body in the bed and extend just his arms. As the lamp dove he really did nearly catch it, but in so doing hit his head on the corner of the nightstand and knocked his nighttime glass of water into his bed. The lamp fell against the floor and shattered into a thousand slivered pieces. The lampshade rounded the corner of the bed, spinning away like a thrashed toy top.
Henry stayed very still, half in-half out of the bed and rubbed at the throbbing on the side of his head. He waited, expecting his wife to wake but, wonder of all wonders, she slept on, oblivious to the earthquakes and natural disasters happening on the other side of her.
The quilt soaked up the water now lying all around Henry and created a swamp within the bed. He lifted the quilt and pushed it aside to the floor where it fell down with a terrific floosh and a flurp. Henry’s socks were also damp, but he managed to settle once more by unbuttoning the collar of his nightshirt. The rush of stale, room air pressed against his skin, and he felt a little bit better.
Henry knew he must try and get some sleep. He breathed deep, taking large inhalations and exhalations. In. Out. In and out. He was the ocean. Wave upon wave. Gently crashing into the shores. Only the dead could sleep in an unbearable heat such as this, Henry thought and so he tried to convince himself that he, too, was among the dead. Dead at the ocean. Dead in the ocean.
But, unlike the waves drifting him away from the shore, his thoughts wouldn’t settle. They instead turned to the sleeping giant next to him, his wife. If he were to die, surely she wouldn’t miss him. Or was it the other way around? Wouldn’t he miss her? Henry thought of his wife alone without him and, surprisingly, he realized the truth of the matter.
She wouldn’t miss him. She would wear the veil of widowhood well. So well in fact, that she would probably even chastise him from beyond the grave. “Why didn’t you die sooner?” she’d say, fist raised to the heavens. “Life is so much better without you in it!” Henry knew she’d be thankful for his death and for the more time this allowed her to do her hobbies — cards with her friends, all the time in the world to spend at the fabric store without him standing around and touching things.
Henry sighed. Well, at least a coffin would be comfortable, he thought. His wife might not miss him but damned if he might finally be able to get a good night’s sleep. But here, Henry’s mind chose to tempt the unthinkable.“Ah, but what if it isn’t like that?“ his mind, that old sinister trickster, said and with this terrible thought Henry began to sweat. What had previously been a constant trickle was now rivets, bullets, and streams. Henry raked his hands shakily through his stringy, damp hair.
Oh no, but what if he didn’t find death comfortable either? Oh god, what if it wasn’t like what they say it is? He was truly scaring himself now. Monsters, zombies, and heatwaves be damned. Here was the real horror. What if you didn’t lose brain activity when you die, but instead are fully conscious? Your mind wandering, wondering and turning over everything but your eyes refusing to open? What if the physical body was all that died? Your conscious being, your soul, your WHATEVER still intact? And all you can do is lie there, thinking you’re still you, but you’re just a puddle of mush, a floating conscious thing, in a dark box for all of eternity.
“Oh no, no, no,” Henry muttered in the darkness, “that’s simply the worst thought of all.”
His mind raced, struggling to come up with some explanation of where he had first thought of this. Had he seen it on television? Read it in the newspaper? Or was it even more terrifying than that?
Was it a subliminal message that spoke the truth? Perhaps death had stopped with the advent of modern funeral practices. Because, now, instead of decaying into carbon and nitrogen and eventually turning into a plant, dog shit or whatever else it was you believed in, you’re just a mess in a coffin because the coffin is impermeable. Two inner linings, steel outer shell, metal casings, dual-action locks, water seal, fireproof, doomsday survival ready — the technology of death too far advanced for the afterlife.
And what if, because of this, you just lay there until some future day when some balding, overworked, archaeologist happens to find the cemetery where you’re buried, and he just happens to decide to excavate it. And he just happens to choose your grave, and he opens it up with all his other colleagues, and they shine their shiny, silver future lights onto your puddle and say, “Ew. There’s not anything left. Hardly anything at all, really.”
And they poke at the puddle they find, which is of course you, and they try to sort out what sort of person you were. But none of this fucking matters because now you can finally escape. They’ve unlocked the door, and your conscious can seep away into the sky or the air, biome, space or whatever it is at that point and then you’re finally free. And it only took spending two gazillion years in an impenetrable box that you didn’t even get to choose, thinking about your life and wondering what sort of monsters really are under the bed. And you’re doing this over and over again until you’re not even really sure what’s real and what’s not.
Because you now remember that the only recent thing you recall is when they dug up your grave ages and eons ago to bury your wife next to you. And you find that you missed her, just a little, and you remember wanting to tell her you actually do love everything about her, and god knows you’ve missed her, but you can’t talk to her because she’s too busy weighing fabric patterns in her mind, wondering if perhaps she should’ve used the red thread on the stockings for the kiddies instead of the blue that Christmas nearly thirty years ago.
And you’re over there, lying next to her screaming and yelling, pounding your consciousness against the box, trying to get her attention, trying to say you want to talk to her, but she’s content. Happy to lie there, talking to herself of soaps and creams, grandchildren and dreams, ignoring you, sleeping next to you while you turn circles in your grave.
And there’s no light. Jesus Christ, there’s no sunlight! Eternal darkness forever. No birds. No wind. Just the terrible sounds of rotting and creaking from the coffins you know are perfectly lined up behind and in front of you. Possibly even under and on top of you, because you remember reading that cemeteries were running out of space, so they began stacking them together like shelves of old, moldy phonebooks.
And soon you start to wonder if you ever existed at all. Was this all there ever was? The darkness and the silence? The heat and the emptiness? The coffin never quite comfortable enough. The jabby parts of wood stinging against your back and the underground all too hot because you’re buried in the wrong clothing.
None of it seems quite right now because all you remember is knocking over everything on the nightstand, not because of the quilt but because you rolled from the bed. Smacked your head against the sharp corner of the nightstand and bled to death on the floor. The lamp falling and smashing onto your head, the cord bundled around its base and all this means is that your wife found you in the morning and chose to bury you in wool clothing and with the quilt you hated. But how could anyone have known this? How could anyone have known that you don’t actually die when they bury you?
So you’re just stuck replaying one last night over and over and over again. Thinking you know the truth, but it’s muddled and mushy now after so long. And you’re drifting in and out of sleep, unable to rest because there is no rest. Then you remember that something is leaking, a broken sprinkler line, a puddle, somewhere near your feet and the water keeps trickling in, bit by bit, day by day and you try not to think about it too much because it will surely drive you mad.
“Damn this mattress!” you scream, but only because you can’t stop thinking about how your socks are wet and the heat is unbearable, and because you realize that there’s not a single damn thing you can do about any of it. There’s not a single damn thing you can ever do about damn near anything at all.
Not ever again.
“Good lord, I won’t do it!” Henry yelled.
“Do what?” his wife said, finally stirring next to him. His mutterings, musings, lifelong and seemingly endless had finally woken her and brought her to admitting knowledge of his existence.
“When I die, I want you to cremate me,” he said. “For the love of god, whatever you do, do not put me in the ground!”
His wife sighed and pressed her hand softly against the side of her coffin. “Oh, well now, Henry dear, don’t you think that’s something you could’ve thought about a bit sooner?”