This story is by Susan Keller and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Insomnia Haunts Me
I threw off the humid sheet. My husband’s happy-go-lucky snoring taunted me: Ha! I’m asleep and you aren’t. I fingered the sleeping pill, my trusty voucher to oblivion. How many of these Restorils had I swallowed? One thousand? Two?
Hours later I woke to my all-too-familiar plagued expression. I’d failed again to sleep without drugs. I used to sleep—before a hefty mortgage, a child, a commute, a pressure-cooker job that made Restorils a nightly crutch. I told my husband I had to get away to relax. I called my boss and took a week off.
I began my journey to ditch the stuff in the wilds of southern Utah, seven hundred miles from home. My destination was the lonesome summer house we’d inherited from my husband’s parents: the perfect venue for a red-rock detox—like a stay at a therapeutic spa without the cost, new-age frou-frou, or colonics.
I drove east from the Bay Area with one Restoril and Spirit—my rescue dog. I love her—a somnolent Shiba Inu—now eleven and as active as a rug.
Night 1. In Eureka Nevada I got a room in a played-out motel. For over an hour, I endured the rumble of highway traffic and the flash of headlights on the draperies. With every passing minute, my conviction to quit the pills became as trampled as the shag carpet. In the bathroom, I slid open the Restoril. Shaking half of the white powder into my palm, I licked it off. I loved that bite; I hated it. I looked away from my face in the mirror.
Sometime later, the roar of eighteen wheelers faded. I sunk into the void I craved.
Late the next day, I turned into the gravel road that led to the sanctuary where I would salvage my psyche.
Our only neighbor lived across an alfalfa field. I’d forgotten about this bordering-on-creepy neighbor when I’d concocted my plan to come clean. He was a knife collector.
Our place had always been rough around the edges but filled with family and laughter, it was a happy hubbub. Still, I’d never been here alone. Now the desolate house had an eerie silence and felt dangerous. I rolled in my suitcase and struggled with a box of Chardonnay. BYOB. This was Utah, right?
Once inside, I couldn’t move without being draped with spider webs. Mouse droppings littered the floor.
Great. There’s an army of spiders inside, hantavirus lurks in the carpet, and Jack the Ripper is next door.
Walking through each hibernating room swiping at the webs, tip-toeing around the waste, I turned on every lamp. Many of the light bulbs had died. The furniture was shrouded in white sheets. The house felt like a cold storage locker for ghosts.
I trembled at the calamity I’d created. My eyes burned.
Night 2. I swallowed the remaining half of the Restoril. Spirit wedged herself underneath the guest bed, but no amount of sweet talk convinced her to join me. Staring at the ceiling, I tossed and turned until the sheets were loose and rumpled. I shuddered at every creak and groan, each making me warier than the last.
I might have slept four hours. Or less. When the sky got light, the high desert glowed in saffron and gave me a burst of courage and optimism.
I can do this.
In the morning, I cleaned the house and bought groceries from the market, eight miles away. Then I locked Spirit inside and headed to Capitol Reef National Park. Solo hiking both thrilled and terrified me.
I paced myself up the switch-back trail. Massive red sandstone cliffs shaped the crimson canyon. My muscles loosened in the heat. Sweat dampened my back. I sat and took a deep breath of clean, hot air. This is what I’d come for. This peace. This power. My body and mind were calm and strong. I whispered: I can change. I will change. I threw my head back and cried out, “Yes.”
I drove home.
Home? No, not exactly.
With the dark, anxiety eroded my sense of peace and strength. I had nothing to ease my mind except the Chardonnay. Thank God.
Night 3. I listened to my “Relaxing into Sleep” tape over and over. My Restorils were gone. Terrified, I convinced myself that word had gotten out: The woman from California (me) was in the house alone. I could see the men from Deliverance crouched outside my bedroom window, planning their heinous acts of cruelty against my body. Never mind that there hadn’t been a crime in this tiny hamlet since before Brigham Young. The night was endless and gripped me between damp sheets.
In the morning, my head pounded. Edgy and irritable, I swore at the coffee for being too damned hot. Even the stunning new day didn’t raise my hopes that I’d accomplish what I’d come here to do, or even survive trying.
That afternoon I planted my shaky self on the porch and drank a bottle of Chardonnay. Was I a sleeping-pill addict? I wasn’t a bad person, just desperate for sleep. That wasn’t asking too much.
Night 4. Sweating in a fetal position, I was too petrified to open a window. As I gripped my arms to my chest, car tires crunched over our gravel road. Headlights flashed on my bedroom window. A car door opened and slammed shut. Hurried footsteps got louder.
Fuck. It’s the crazed, knife-wielding neighbor. He’s come to kill me.
I leapt out of bed and heard a cackle outside my window.
My chest. The pressure. I’m having a heart attack.
I cursed. I dressed. Tossed food into the outside garbage bin. Prodded Spirit from under the bed with a broom. Grabbed her and my suitcase, locked the door, and got into my SUV. The house across the field was dark. There were no cars anywhere.
As I tore down our road, clouds sliced across the moon. I flinched at every insect bombarding the windshield. An owl flashed out of the darkness, through my headlights, like a phantom. On the highway, I was terrified that I might hit a deer that would explode through the glass and kill me. I sped faster through the blackness.
I hurled down a steep grade through a stretch of road construction. Orange cones with reflective silver stripes flared like strobes in my headlights. I couldn’t breathe. I had gone insane.
Keep the car in the lane. Keep the fucking car in the fucking lane.
After some agonizing minutes, I came off the grade. At the bottom, a sign glowed on a one-story building: Emergency Room.
Please tranquilize me. Put me to sleep.
But Spirit, that useless loaf of fur, snored quietly behind me, her tranquility mocking my hammering anxiety. As unrewarding as she was, I couldn’t leave her alone for who knew how many hours. A day? In a hot car? I drove on, my deranged state of mind fixated on the road ahead. My back, neck, and arms were locked in a vice.
Don’t die. Don’t die.
In Parowan, a tiny town on Highway 15, a motel sign sputtered in neon—NO VACANCY. I stopped. A fleshy woman slumped at the reception desk in the garishly lit lobby. Her aging skin and hair had an oyster-gray cast. The air was sour and smoky.
“I need a room. I have a dog,” my voice quavered.
She tapped her cigarette, “Sorry, Sweetie. Don’t have nothin’.”
“Please. I can’t drive anymore. I’ll pay you.” I pulled my wallet from my daypack.
“Only have one, and some lady’s reserved it.”
“Please,” I begged, opening my wallet.
She eyed the twenties.
“Well, I guess you can have it. She ain’t showed up yet. Maybe she ain’t gonna.”
“Thank you.” I pushed four twenties across the counter, two of which she stashed in the pocket of her faded flowered shirt.
In the room, I shook out my arms. My muscles were concrete. Feeling faint, I lowered my pounding head between my knees and waited until my breathing slowed. Without so much as an aspirin to ease my anguish, I swigged the Chardonnay. Spirit hunkered down under the bed.
With the draperies closed, I sat for hours staring at the black television screen, unable to do anything, even cry. At six, I called my husband. Waking him, of course.
“I haven’t slept. I was going to die in that house.”
He rightly suggested that I had gone insane, but he would rescue me. “I thought you were on some vision quest.”
“I did describe it that way.”
“I’ll get on a plane.”
“Thank you,” I said then panicked. “Wait! Bring my Restorils. Please. Don’t forget.”
Now I know. Sleeplessness will haunt me forever. I don’t have the strength to change. But on night 5, my husband will bring me oblivion. I will devour my vouchers to the unconscious and admit that this monster insomnia has won.