The first thing that registered in my fuzzy brain was the sunlight. It streamed in through the window instead of the skylight, which told me I hadn’t wasted too much of the day. Not that I had terribly much to do these days. Sleeping through one still felt like a waste. Just one of those things that stuck with me after I stopped listening to my parents.
It also prompted me to lay there for a few more minutes. This usually led to me dozing off for twenty or thirty minutes, sometimes an hour or more. Not this morning. My eyelids still felt heavy with sleep, but I knew they weren’t going to fully close again. Instead I lay there unmoving, watching the little slice of the sky through the bedroom nook window and listening to the sounds of the morning on the street below and futilely trying to cling to scraps of the dream that I’d been having. It was an unusually long one, as far as dreams go. I was trying to collect something from inside of people, some kind of energy or essence, so that I could escape…
I was already too awake for too long. It had all but slipping away completely. Just the basic idea remained.
As consciousness firmly wormed its way into my head for good, I realized that the fuzziness I felt wasn’t confined to my brain. It felt like my entire body had “fallen asleep” but without the tingling, just the numbness. Maybe it has something to do with me being on my stomach. I rarely slept that way. Usually I curled up into a fetal position. Not this morning. On my stomach, arms underneath my pillow, tangled up in the sheets and the nightshirt I’d been wearing.
Funny, didn’t feel like my sleep had been that restless. Except for the numbness, I felt like I’d gotten a pretty solid sleep, even if it was only a few hours.
Now that I was 100% certain I wouldn’t be going back to sleep, it was pointless to stay in bed any longer. I rolled over on to my side and swung my legs around and over the edge of the bed. I sat up and stretched, feeling around the floor with my feet for my slippers. Couldn’t find them. No big deal, probably on the other side. They weren’t a regular habit for me. I prefer to go barefoot, anyway.
I shuffled over to the window and stretched again, joints popping in their familiar ways. The weird feeling in my body lingered. Now that I was more or less fully awake, it didn’t feel like a numbness. More like a slight temperature, even though I otherwise felt fine. My skin wasn’t warm or clammy, just felt like skin. A slight headache too, but those are so normal for me that I put them off almost immediately.
There was something else I couldn’t put my finger on. A feeling I had in the back of my head plus the sensation of my body added up to something I just couldn’t put my finger on. I tried to dismiss it with the usual excuse of not enough sleep, but that didn’t feel right. And it only got worse as I looked out the window and onto the morning traffic below. Everything looked like it ought to, like just another day. Cars and people off to do whatever it is they did in the morning. But the more I looked…
“Something doesn’t feel right,” I announced to the world.
“What doesn’t feel right?”
I turned around to see her sticking her head out of the bathroom, running a brush through her hair. I shook my head.
“Dunno. Kinda what I meant by ‘something’,” I said, walking back over towards the bed. “I sleep okay?”
She shrugged and continued brushing her hair, stepping out of the bathroom. “Sure, far as I could tell. Maybe something you ate?”
I shook my head again. “Not a stomach thing, or a head thing. More like a body thing. Can’t really describe it.”
She nodded absently and brushed her hair out some more. I watched her for awhile; brushing her hair, walking over to the nightstand for her scrunchie, putting her hair up in a loose ponytail and softly humming the whole time. Even in her self-styled Laundry Day clothes, she had a quiet grace to her that I’d never thought much about before.
That thought irritated me for some reason. What irritated me more was that I don’t know why that irritated me. When she’d finished with her hair, I looked up at her and asked, “How long have we been together?”
She looked at me over her shoulder with a smirk. “Long enough for you to forget, apparently. Why?”
That answer perturbed me more. The odd numbness in my whole body flared up some. I stood up, and was greeted by a low buzzing in my head. No worse than the small headache, but definitely not helping my overall mood.
“I need a cigarette,” I announce to no one in particular, walking out of the bedroom nook and into the living room.
“Since when do you smoke?”
I stooped in my tracks and threw her a scowl. The look on her face wasn’t accusatorial, nor was it playful. It was genuine curiosity. Calm, non-judgmental curiosity. And for no good reason, it made me that much more out of sorts.
“What do you mean, since when?” I asked, not bothering to keep the edge out of my voice. “Since I was a kid, but now only when I really feel like having one. And I really feel like having one, okay?”
She frowned slightly, but not in any way that made me feel like she disapproved of my answer. “Well, it’s been awhile since then, I guess. Want me to run downstairs and get you a pack?”
I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. It didn’t help whatever I was feeling in my body, but it took the edge off of my emotional outburst. “Yeah, sure,” I said, adding a faint smile to my words to let her know I wasn’t angry. “Wallet should be in my pants.”
She nodded and found them at the edge of the bed. She took out a ten and shoved it in her pocket, stepped down from the nook and over to me. She slipped a hand around my waist and kissed me on the cheek.
“Don’t wait up for me, okay?” she said with a grin.
I grinned back and shook my head as she walked out. The corner store was right across the street. I’d have to worry about going to bed without her for quite a bit longer, longer than it would take her to get back. But it did give me enough time to myself to try and sort things out.
I walked over to the kitchen area in search of something to shove into my face. There was no coffee made, but that wasn’t shocking. I rarely drank it and she usually only made enough for herself. Opened the fridge and found a soda. No diet, though. Must’ve had the last of it last night. Oh well. Maybe the caffeine-sugar bomb would be enough to jolt my system out of whatever funk I was in. Found a granola bar, wolfed down half of it in two bites and washed it down with a healthy swig of soda. It rumbled a bit on my empty stomach, but it didn’t feel like there was any danger of it coming back up.
With something resembling food in my stomach, I walked back into the living room. The sun hadn’t hit the skylight yet, which was nice. Gave the one-room apartment a bright light without the added heat. Perfect working time in Summer, and the perfect excuse in Winter to stay snuggled up beneath the covers for a couple extra hours.
Thinking of work, I shoved the rest of the granola bar in my mouth and shuffled over to the canvas set up in what was supposed to be the dining nook. Neither of us were the type for a traditional sit down meal, and this saved me from having to rent out a studio somewhere.
At first I’d come over to stare at the half-finished piece and perhaps gather up the mental capacity to whack at it some more with my brushes. But the longer I stared, the worse I felt. And it wasn’t the sugar overdose ‘breakfast’. What started out as a mild numbness had become something akin to a hangover without the nasty headache that usually came with it.
Then it finally hit me full force. I had no idea what I was looking at. I didn’t recognize a single stroke on the canvas. I couldn’t remember putting a single one down. I couldn’t even remember being an artist.
Confusion was having its way with my brain and panic was not far behind when the front door opened and closed behind me. I turned around and watched her put the change on the kitchen island I suddenly couldn’t remember having ever made a single meal on and then walk over and sit down on the couch I couldn’t remember having ever sat on.
“What… the hell is going on?” I asked, not sure if the shakiness in my voice was just in my head or not.
She gave me a quizzical look and answered, “I went to the store to get you smokes, remember? I wasn’t gone that long, was I?”
I was standing on the other end of the couch from her now, looking down at her and the cigarettes in her hand. Another wave of confusion and numbness washed over me. I’d never seen that brand before. I was far from an aficionado of cigarettes, but I recognize most of the brands available and I had never seen this one before.
“What the hell are those?” I demanded.
She furrowed her brow, looking confused herself now. “You want me to get you something else?” she asked, genuinely worried.
“No!” I shouted, making her cringe a little. I instantly felt like shit for doing it. I sat down, tilted my head all the way back against the top of the seat and covered my face with my hands. “I just… want to know… what the hell… is going on….”
She didn’t answer right away. I took several deep breaths and the numbness subsided a little. I slid my hands away from my face and finally looked her in the eye. She was looking back at me with the same calmness as when I first snapped at her about my smoking.
“What do you want me to tell you?” she asked just as calmly.
I scowled again and said, “Just tell me the damned truth. Like, who the hell are you?”
There was a pregnant pause before she answered, “Who do you want me to be?”
I finally lost it. With a hoarse shout that filled the apartment, I flung the cushion across the room and into the painting. I stood up and stomped over to the step up to the bedroom nook and clutched at my hair with both hands, hyperventilating.
I don’t know how long I stood there like that. All I knew was that I couldn’t face her in that fit of rage. Whoever she was, whatever all of this was, I knew deep down that she wasn’t the cause and didn’t deserve my anger. When I finally calmed down enough, I turned around. She was still sitting at the end of the couch, looking back at me. She hadn’t been crying and there was no moisture in her eyes, but her expression was one of infinite sadness that damn near broke my heart.
Slowly, I walked back over to the far end of the couch and just stood there, my body as numb as ever. “I’m sorry,” I said. “Just… you can start by being someone who doesn’t answer my questions with more damn questions. Who. Are. You?”
She didn’t answer right away, simply looking at me past my eyes and into my soul. Finally, she spoke in just above a whisper, “I don’t know.”
Her answer shocked me more than any other thing she could have said, I think. All I could do right then was sit down on the far end of the couch, looking at her watching me.
When I found my voice, I asked, “What do you mean, you don’t know? How can you not know who you are?”
“Because you never told me.”
Her answer made my head spin. A firm grip on the top of the seat kept me from standing up and stomping off again in confusion. “Just tell me…” I said through gritted teeth.
“I’ve been with you from the start,” she answered in a quiet but steady voice. Almost soothing. “Whenever you had an idea that needed me, I was there. Sometimes to play a part, sometimes to be the lead. But it was always me. Speaking the words you wanted me to speak. Doing whatever it was you wanted me to do. Being the girl you needed me to be.”
She looked down at her hands, now clasped over her stomach. “You used to talk back to me, when you were younger. Play out your ideas together. And sometimes when you just needed someone who would listen. You rarely do that anymore. I don’t mind. Like I said, I’m what you need me to be.”
I stared at her for quite some time in silence. I knew everything she said to be true, even though I’d never heard it before. I looked around the apartment, then back to her. “So where are we?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know that, either.”
“Because I never told you…”
“No, that’s not it,” she replied. “I’ve always known before. It was always somewhere inside of you, no matter where we were. Not this time. I was with you here, so as far as I knew that’s where we were.”
I furrowed my brow. “When did you figure out…”
“That it wasn’t inside you?” she finished. “When I stepped outside. Because there was an outside. Not just an abstract idea of what outside would be wherever we were, but a real outside. At first I thought it was something new you were trying…” she looked back up at me, a hint of sadness still in her eyes . “…now I know you’re as lost as I am.”
The numbness in my body had mellowed to a mellow buzz, like a caffeine high without the energy. Whoever she was, I knew she was telling the truth. I trusted her. But there was one more question I had to ask. “Am I still asleep?”
Again, she shook her head. “No, you’re awake. I know that much. Do you… remember anything about before you went to sleep?”
I leaned my head back and thought for a moment. “Nothing especial. I’d been up all night, trying to get something out but nothing was coming to me. It was morning when I finally laid down and still morning.” I looked up at the skylight, and the sun was just starting to peek through it. “Still morning here, so I figured I was only out for a couple of hours…”
I looked back down at her and blinked. She had a faint smile on her face, but I could tell she wasn’t joking. “A whole day?” I asked, and she nodded. “That’s… never happened to me before. But you said I’m not still dreaming, so that still raises the question as to where the hell I am.”
“We are,” the two of us corrected simultaneously, making us both laugh and ease some of the tension.
She sighed and looked around the apartment. “I really have no idea. But it is nice, wherever it is. I wouldn’t mind staying here as long as we can.”
I nodded and smiled my first genuine happy smile since waking up. I had no idea how any of this had happened, how long it would last or if it would ever happen again. I had been given a gift, and I intended to enjoy it for as long as I could, and enjoy the memory of it for much longer.
I never did give her a name. Didn’t feel the need to.