Wanderer Finally Sleeps
Shannon Barber
It's maybe three in the morning and I'm roaming. I can't sleep as usual, and my apartment feels too much like a tomb in the small hours. Nobody fucks with you if you look like you belong. After all these hours of missed sleep, my eyes are ringed with enough madness. I look like I belong.
Most of the homeless guys and the other night people don't bother me at all. For a while they didn't say anything. Now when I make my circuit the fellas say hello. Sometimes I'll sit around and bullshit with them, or split a six-pack. Occasionally, if I'm feeling particularly flush, I'll buy food and we'll have a little picnic.
Tonight, tonight feels bad and strange. I feel mean, ugly, and crazy. Maybe the sleep deprivation is finally making me as nuts as the doctor at the free clinic keeps telling me it will. It's unusually warm and clear, quiet too as I step into the alley that runs back behind my place. I spot a guy everyone calls Book.
"How are you doing darlin'?"
I realize that I've never heard him speak and he has a beautiful voice. Bass and gravel authority that sounds perfect. I shrug and take too long to answer. My tongue feels slow and stupid from exhaustion.
"I'm okay I guess. Can't sleep. In—"
That first syllable of the word I hate hangs, an ugly buzz in my mouth. I'm so tired I am stuttering. My eyes, fists, and jaw all clench shut against the stutter, trying to force past it, get out the enemy word. He says it for me.
I just nod.
"I had some of that myself a while back."
He puts a big hard hand on my arm and squeezes. It hurts a little and stupidly my throat closes with impending tears. This is worse than embarrassing. For the first time in my adult life I am fucking mortified.
"I have to go. Bye Book."
"You could. But you could also join me and my puppy for a little toke, a beer, and some conversation."
At this point any thoughts above my reptile-cockroach-survive-at–all-costs brain are non-functional and I watch myself curl under his arm. He's big, still and solid. Feels the way your father ought to feel. He smells like a combination of clean worn clothes, beer, cigarettes and the kind of steadiness someone you call Daddy should have.
He leads me to a locked steel door a few steps down from street level. It opens on a concrete room like a little bunker.
Inside the walls are lined with carefully balanced over-burdened bookshelves. Paperbacks of all sorts perch in loving disarray. Clothing is stacked neatly under an army cot. A red-nosed pit bull puppy sleepily digs himself out from under the blankets, blinking, trying to wag his tail, but he's too sleepy. I take off my coat and climb into the cot like an over-tired toddler.
"There you go, don't forget your boots."
The insomnia cloud has descended and whatever bit of sanity I may have had two days ago is gone. I obey, my fingers clumsy and shaking, my vision blurred and tinged with violent colors, but I manage to get my boots off before I curl up with the fat warm puppy nestled against my breasts.
I have one clear, devastating thought that shatters my cement calm. I feel home. It is huge and terrible, a horrifying thing to realize that I have found home in a place that for all intents and purposes exists as nowhere.
I am holding my breath, my eyes huge and unblinking, thinking I can stave off the inevitable. Book just looks at me when he turns. It's his expression of compassion and understanding that breaks me. He pulls a camp chair over and lays his big hand on my head.
I let out sound and air that sears my throat. The puppy whines and I try to comfort him. The tears and snot flow and puddle under my face. I want to tell Book I'm sorry for losing my shit but I'm sobbing so hard I can't even see much less speak.
I want to stand up and run. Hide from this new broken girl. I can't move and I can't stop crying. I'm bawling so hard I gag and vomit into a bucket Book has made mysteriously appear under my face. Oh god, this is worse than anything I've ever experienced, and I just want it to stop.
I am a monster. A drooling, gape-mouthed beast. This isn't even crying anymore— this is fucking bloodletting and it just keeps coming as if I'm channeling it rather than doing it.
It's a massacre and I'm killing myself.
Then there is cool water on my lips, a cloth against my head. Book is saying something, has been saying something for ten minutes, and I just now catch a little of it, a low rhythmic susurration...
"...it's all right now. All right, go on, get it out."
I heave again, let out one last gurgling moan. I think these are my death throes but they're not.
Sleep and darkness don't steal over me gracefully. There is no gentle goodnight. Sleep drags me down, an evil tide of stinking black water. I don't fall asleep, I drown.
I fight for another minute, try to find some consciousness, clawing against my inert body to hear the last of Book's words crooned like the blues...
"...it's all right now. You go on to sleep. Have a good dream."
Shannon spends most of her time searching for coffee flavored coffee and gazing at shiny things. She has been published in Scared Naked, Frequently*Felt, Zygote in my Coffee, and several other publications. She is also a blogger and terrible at crocheting.