Sal Wants to Sleep by Serena Johe


Serena Johe is an avid reader and writer with a particular interest in speculative fiction. Her stories have appeared in The Forge, Shoreline of Infinity, Typehouse, Five on the Fifth, FLAPPERHOUSE, and Waccamaw, amongst others.


Sal feels time the way other people feel a shower spray’s gradually escalating heat. It’s a sensation easily known, maybe by touch, maybe down to the snap of a hydrogen bond, but sensation is not something that can be taught by language. Hot and cold are meaningless words to the person unable to perceive the surreptitious shifts and incremental degrees. 

But the evidence slides across Sal, a ceaseless, irreverent battering. It proliferates in blooms of steam, surfaces in spotted diffusions of blood just under his skin. The spray collides with the back of his neck, or the slight meat of his stomach, or his palms when he still thought to raise them, as if he might keep himself from getting wet when the skin of him was already soaked. Droplets and seconds and rivulets and minutes and all their infinite aggregations slide down the drain without enough substance to form even the barest puddle at his feet. 

Sal can’t sleep. He wants to, though.

Time knows no man and no mercy and nothing. Sal knows most people are aware of this in some way or another, are reminded of it when people die, and children grow, and birthdays roll around. When “four decades ago” can suddenly be used to recall events in one’s own life. But there is relief from it, in its staggering. Days end, and they start, as if time moves as we move and stills under the heel of dormancy even when one knows it isn’t so. People can’t account for time they can’t perceive. But Sal is always perceiving.

Sal can’t sleep.

.  .  .

When Sal was a child, his parents invariably found him awake and dressed for school in the morning, lining up his plastic dinosaurs against the baseboard by his dresser as if they’d somehow escaped from their storage bin in the night. His parents attributed this to his studiousness. Sal’s enthusiasm for kindergarten left him itching to cross the threshold of his bedroom door, so small for his age the knob hung nearly out of reach, though he spent long nights staring at the shellacked wood and the brass handle. Sometimes he ran his fingers over them and became giddy at the thought of escape.

What his parents did not know was that Sal loved school because it ended the dark, insufferably boring isolation that marked the intermission of sunset and sunrise. He was not allowed to wander the house at night, so he lay beneath dinosaur printed sheets and felt the world turn. The stairs creaked. The air conditioner kicked on. Pipes knocked together and sounded to him like the thump of a tail, or the scaled feet of some large reptile pounding against the interior of hollow copper tubes. T. rex, he imagined. A herd of brontosauruses. Miniature velociraptors frantically navigating the tunnels. Headlights oscillated across his walls from the stray passing car, and he heard the whoosh and wondered why sounds got quieter when they got further, watched the lights and thought, I can’t wait until the sun comes up. I can’t wait.

Unfailingly, though, he did. He lay and stood, stretched, played quietly, listened for the dinosaurs in the walls, smelled the dust in the AC, felt the tightness of his muscles, the dryness in his mouth, the heaviness in his limbs, the gradual ache of hunger, the sheets against his skin and every itch, every spasm, every blink and every single inhalation and expulsion of breath.

“Can I watch TV at night?” Sal finally asked his parents. “I get bored.”

They smiled at each other, endeared. His father squatted down, put his hand on Sal’s head and lovingly mussed the wooly brown curls, down to his shoulders because he cried when they tried to cut it. “You can’t be bored while you’re asleep, Sal.”

Sal put his hands on his father’s and smiled. “But I don’t sleep.”

He spent a lot of time that year shuffled into and out of places made memorable by their oppressive austerity. Doctors bent to shake his hand with a formality he found flattering. He let them peer into his mouth, at his eyes, his brain. They taped him with wires. They pricked the soft skin in the crook of his arm and trapped his thin fingers in little plastic clamps. They lay him down in small beds, in warm rectangular rooms without windows but where a big mirror ran along the immaculately white walls, and they told him to sleep. They told him over and over until Sal cried, an open-mouthed, desperate sobbing born of agonized frustration and exhaustion of a sort that has nothing to do with sleep, “I can’t. I don’t know how!”

They stopped making him see doctors. They stopped telling him to sleep. They let him watch TV at night.

.  .  .

By the time Sal turned ten, the marathon of movies and television created a peculiar discomfort. His eyes ached somewhere deep inside his head, as if someone sat in the folds of his brain and tugged at the nerves behind his eyeballs like a musher yielding his dogs. The sounds of explosions and revving engines coalesced into one prolonged and painful note, a brass instrument played at his eardrum, so that even when he turned off the television, a tinny chime carried on in its absence.

The reading helped, for a while, until his ears picked up the creaks and groans of the house. He tried music. It inevitably tangled into nonsensical, unmelodious noise, and when he did nothing at all, just closed his eyes and lay in bed as he often did to escape the fatigue of his senses, he became overly alert to his own presence. The pressure of the mattress against his back. The itch between his shoulder blades. The pulse at the dip of his collarbone.

He woke his parents in the middle of the night when he could not withstand the malaise any longer. He did this most days of the week in his childhood, to complain of physical aches and mental exhaustion.

These would get worse over time, the doctors informed his parents, who did not inform Sal.

They woke and played with him or groggily suggested a new distraction. It was during one such night that he heard, for the first time, the refrain that preoccupied him for the rest of his life, a passive question that surfaces during still moments the way most people think, “What should I do today?” Only, it floated up to the outermost layer of his brain, and it said, “How do I distract myself from existing?”

He could not rest to cure his fatigue, could not sleep to soothe his pains, to forget his worries, to forget at all.

Standing over his parents’ bed in the slanted light of the opened door, his father still asleep and wonderfully oblivious, Sal did not ask the question, but his mother knew it like she knew the exact pitch of his voice and the weight of his small hand in hers. She looked at Sal’s helpless expression and understood, for the hundredth time, the suffering she gave him with his life.

“I’m sorry,” she said, the vowel elongated and high-pitched. The apology tripped in her throat and tumbled from between her lips like an urgent prayer. His father woke, found his wife with her hands over her face. It took him only the briefest moment to understand. He squeezed her arm and looked at Sal. 

They’ve talked about this before, Sal discerned quickly.

“C’mon,” his father slid the covers off his legs and made to stand. “You can teach me how to play one of those video games.”

But the comprehension settled everywhere in Sal, riding atop and just under his skin like the discomfort of any other manifestation of his constant awareness, and just as unforgettably. He shook his head. His father stilled with his sweatpants halfway on, squinting at him through a nebulous film of sleep.

“It’s okay, Dad,” he lied. “My headache’s gone anyway. I’ll just finish my book.”

He did not miss the relief on his father’s face. Too many nights without rest left him needing little reassurance. “You’re sure you’re all right?”

“I’m sure,” he lied again. He shut the door, pushed his thumbs into his temples, and silently promised not to disturb their sleep again.

Sal learned earlier than most about the profound grief, the self-afflicted iniquity that parents feel when they find themselves powerless in the face of their child’s pain, and he thought, I’m the one that should be sorry. I’m the one that’s hurting you.

.  .  .

Years from now, when time liquefies the ground beneath Sal’s feet, it’s shame that will push him to tread water. It’s guilt that will sting his eyes, and swell his tongue with salinity, and remind him that his pointless thrashing is not to keep his own body afloat. Every breath will become an apology for both the sinking and the swimming. “I’m sorry,” he’ll whisper to the tempestuous voices behind his parents’ bedroom door, and from inside the fissured spaces of his unraveling mind, and years later, when his mother finds him suspended in his closet, though not sorry for what he’d tried to do, but for failing to do it.

.  .  .

The morning after he woke his parents in the night, Sal asked his mother, “What is it like to sleep?”

“It’s like nothing,” she answered easily. Then, after a moment, she added, “but you don’t know it.”

He tried to imagine it. No sound, no sight. No pain or distress of a brain enervated by constant exposure to sensation. Nothing.

When his parents went to bed that night, he left the TV running and snuck quietly into the kitchen. He opened the cabinet above the microwave, pulled out the bottle of melatonin his father sometimes took after long weekends—to keep himself on schedule, he said, another thing that Sal couldn’t understand—and emptied twenty-seven pills into a glass of water and drank it.

He buried the empty bottle in the trashcan in his bathroom. He got into bed. He did not sleep. He lay awake, disoriented and nauseous as strange spots of unnamable colors swam behind his eyelids, and thought about nothing.

.  .  .

In middle school, Sal noticed things changing. The nighttime aches began to bleed into his days long after the sun rose. The pain in his head stretched down his neck and pinched between his shoulder blades. It stopped mattering whether he built models, or listened to music, or did nothing. Even in perfect darkness and in perfect silence, with plugs shoved so far in his ears that he bought tweezers for the sole purpose of removing them, the world never ceased to exist to Sal, nor did it lessen. Not even for a moment.

He wondered if all people accumulated these constancies, or just him. Hours and days and weeks overlapped in inseparably thin layers like a brick of wet tissues. His mind gathered the passing moments of his life in an unending rain until time seemed to widen for him, no longer the continuum of a river, but an ocean, and he immersed in it, all of time touching him and all at once. He could not keep track of where he’d been or feel the current to direct him.

He heard doors open in parks, the whir of a fan he removed from his room years ago, saw clips of movies he hadn’t watched in months run across his unplugged television. Touch tormented him the most. At school, sitting upright and attentive at his desk, pressure built against his cheek with imperative urgency: the memory of his pillow pressed to his face. He lifted a hand and rubbed his jaw to disperse it, but it lingered still, crippling his concentration and turning his thoughts round in circles. 

It got worse. He swatted invisible flies from his neck. Picked at the scabs of injuries long healed. Flinched at the squeal of tires in the living room. Standing from his desk after class required an unusual focus, as if he had to pump the blood to his muscles by thought. The drone of his teacher and the sound of his classmates’ chatter compiled atop these phantom senses, sometimes with such intensity that he could not distinguish the real and the imagined. More and more often, he excused himself from class to hide in the stall of the bathroom. He sat with his hands over his ears and tried to drown out the world by his own internal entreaty, please, just stop.

When “more often” became every day, he asked his parents to take him to the doctor, the same one whose voice he still heard in spectral echoes as he lay alone in his bed. Go to sleep, Sal. You can do it. Just try

He did not admit why he wanted the visit until his parents agreed to leave the room. The guilt of their helplessness lived in every pain. When the door shut behind them, he took a breath, hating the tightness in his lungs and the disharmonious crackling of the paper-lined bench, and explained his symptoms: the weight atop his skin, his bones cinched in the vice of his muscles, the time lags and the distortions. “Like Alzheimer’s,” Sal told him. “Or, I think so.”

Dr. Katz listened patiently. The news did not surprise him. “The symptoms you’re describing are the result of prolonged sleep deprivation. I was hoping, since your condition is so unique, that this wouldn’t happen.” He leaned against the counter, stared down at the clipboard in his hands. “But.”

And then he explained all the benefits of a body in dormancy that Sal’s would never experience: reduction of blood flow to the brain, consolidation of memory, reprieve from complex reasoning, restoration of energy, increased resistance to infection, reduction of cellular breakdown, accelerated detoxification and regeneration of tissue—facts that only amounted to what Sal already deduced, and which could be summarized by a single sentence: He was running out of time.

It wasn’t a novel thought. He’d considered it before, as high school and adulthood were now rapidly approaching, but only distantly. He hadn’t connected the idea of time with the idea of awareness. He hadn’t thought about the fact that each second happens and happened simultaneously, that every sensation is proof of time passing and passed.

Though, he understood he wasn’t unique in that respect. Everyone is running out of time, but most have the benefit of a more methodical chronology. Days become a series of gapped stepping-stones that can be taken in measured order, not the broad ocean and perpetual drizzle of which he could never stop being aware. There was no one else on Earth like Sal. No one had ever lived as long without sleep. His brain failed to orient him by ever widening margins, and he could not compare his deterioration to any scale or chart or person, but obscurity did not hide his inescapable ending: insanity, or death come too soon, or some state in-between, awake but gone and his parents forced to endure it. 

“Lack of sleep correlates with shorter lifespans,” Dr. Katz finished. Then, almost apologetically, he added, “It’s miraculous that you’re still alive. The fatigue on your body must be incredible.”

“At least it doesn’t make me sleepy,” Sal joked, hoping to lighten Dr. Katz’s burden at having to be the one to deliver the verdict. “Can you imagine? That would be so much worse than this.”

It seemed to work. Dr. Katz smiled and congratulated him for his optimism, though Sal shortly regretted making any efforts to soothe the doctor’s discomfort. Despite his emphatic request, Dr. Katz told his parents the news.

Guilt soaked through Sal like grease on paper. His mother’s expression ripped the seam he’d sewn across himself with the needle tip of acute compunction, unthreading the stitches of the promise he’d made to keep his problems to himself. The weight of the doctor’s unalterable premonition crushed them all beneath a future set in stone and just as senseless. He wished his parents didn’t love him. He wished he were never born.

But mostly he wished for nothing.

“You’ve got plenty of time, Sal,” his father announced. He rolled his shoulders and let the heaviness slide off him like water off a duck’s feathers, his skin oiled with ignorant sanguinity. “Just don’t think about it.”

Do you know me at all? Sal thought, bewildered by the suggestion. As if he could ever stop being aware of the way the world condensed and expanded in his mind like a hot star, the clamp around his brain. The advice inspired a self-hatred that clotted the gash his mother left, and Sal put a hand over his ribs as if to seal it. He could never meet his father’s simple expectation. Keeping that failure hidden was as close to making him proud as Sal would ever come.

“I’ll try,” he agreed, and he didn’t mention that he’d given himself that same advice countless times, preempted always by the same question, how do I distract myself from existing right now, tomorrow, for the rest of my life?

.  .  .

As time homogenized into one indistinct blur, Sal found brief moments of peace in possibilities. Talking in one’s head makes no sound, and imagining what hasn’t happened felt as close to nothing as he would ever get. He spent many hours trying to simply think and nothing else.

What would it be like to be a jaguar? To only grow taller and never wider? What if humans were cold-blooded?

Because Sal could never help but notice things in his eternal vigilance, he developed a talent for discovering the absurdity in everything. He unearthed the answers and questions of the world in blades of grass and alarm clocks and wind. Or, at least, he imagined he did.

When this method failed, he used others to ward off his apparitional sensations and keep himself in the present. He approached people recklessly and without restraint, talked to everyone and anyone in an effort to evaporate the long gone itchiness of the chicken pox or the tenderness of sunburn from last summer. Sal found that people liked him for that, when he could stand to be around them. He made friends by his indiscriminate and heedless approach. They expected nothing less than the loud and ludicrous from him, and they never dug deeply enough to find his mounting intolerability of existence beneath it. Which was good, he thought. He didn’t want to hurt them, too.

In the last month of eighth grade, his algebra teacher spoke at length about the relative importance of math in one’s life. “What do you want for yourselves, in the future?” she asked. The class’s attention had waned considerably. Nobody answered. Her eyes found Sal, always outspoken, always cracking jokes.

Sal shrugged. “Nothing.”

“You don’t want anything at all?”

“I didn’t say I didn’t want anything,” Sal corrected. “I said I want nothing.”

The class laughed. She sent him to the administrative office, finding his honesty disrespectful, but future is a word that flattened underneath the weight of an ocean of time. The noises and smells and sounds of people both present and past only grew more excruciating so that, by the middle of ninth grade, Sal missed most of his classes for most of the week. The unremitting sensations far surpassed unbearable, though he bore it, but when his parents dropped his homework on his desk, he spent as much time staring at it as completing it. He marveled at the futility. If I’m like this now, what will I be like in ten years? Will this matter? Does anything?

By sixteen, Sal could struggle through just a few problems a night, with great strain, before the swamp of time in his mind overtook him. He held thoughts for the briefest moment, and then he heard the wind in his ears, roaring as if he’d stuck his head out the window of a car on the highway, or felt his fingers throb from when he’d caught them in the front door. The pain behind his head that anguished him without reprieve, that he’d begun to feel in his neck and shoulders, now traveled the full length of his spine and permeated his skin. It filled him so completely that he wondered if he was more pain than blood and organs and tissue. More illness than man. 

But what makes a man? He asked himself. What unmakes one?

For his parents’ sake, he struggled to ground himself. They stared at him when they thought he wouldn’t notice, watching as if he might fade from existence like an afterimage in the dark. When he couldn’t bear to leave the house, he caught them leaning over the kitchen table, their faces creased with emotion, or heard the whisper-shouts behind their bedroom door.

“There’s no point in worrying. He’s fine!” his father argued. He’d fully resolved himself to this conviction, wedged it between himself and his son with a tenacity born of desperation. He often chastised Sal for not pushing through the cacophony in his head or the tormenting pain behind his eyes, as if he could easily choose to ignore the way the world inverted around him and simply elected not to.

“He’s not fine,” his mother argued back. They debated over positivity and pessimism and personal responsibility until there was nothing left to say, because nothing could be done. At times, it felt like neither of them could stand to be near him at all, though Sal hardly blamed them. He couldn’t stand himself either.

But he tolerated his guilt, his pains and his impermanence as he always had. There were no other options. In fact, Sal thought, he had very few of those in the shortness of his long run to nowhere. He took the bus to school but walked straight to the park, or found relative solace under the empty bleachers. Anywhere he didn’t have to endure people or force others to endure him. He found that his fragility disturbed them. When he could not convince them to forgo their pity, he functioned as more of an omen than a person, a missing link between life and death or a reminder of how lucky they were to not be him.

He passed most of the school day in his outdoor refuge. Even in the shadows under the bleachers, he felt sweat drip from his hairline and down his neck, imagined he were a snowman that would melt to blissful nothing. He blinked and saw his mother leaning against a metal beam, blinked again and she was gone. His lungs burned like he’d taken a long drag of a cigarette, but he exhaled nothing, and over and over, he heard someone call his name as if all other sounds muted for the duration of that single syllable, and he knew—or at least he imagined—that this ghostly breath emanated from the throat of an ending that loomed always behind him.

It was during one such time that he opened his eyes to find his father approaching from across the soccer field. Are you real? He wanted to ask, had been fighting imaginary sounds and sights for nearly an hour. He squinted against the sunlight. The shrinking distance did not help elucidate the answer, only the disappointment on his father’s face.

His father halted just outside the shade and sighed. “It’s six,” he said flatly.


“School’s been over for hours. The soccer coach called to let us know you were still here.”

That’s impossible, Sal thought. It felt to him that only an hour had passed. He did not share this thought with his father and wordlessly retreated to his bedroom as soon as they arrived at home, but despite his reticence, he felt the mattress dip as his mother sat beside him. Sal tried to face her, but the muscles between his ribs cramped and stilled him, and finally, he spoke his first admission of pain since his visit with the doctor years before. “I can’t do it anymore.”

His mother stiffened. Lines scalloped her brow. “What do you mean?”

Sal pressed his fists into his eyes and didn’t answer. How could he explain? Even now, the sensations bombarded him. The dust in the AC smelled like childhood during the nights when he heard the dinosaurs run through the pipes and television vacuumed his eyeballs backwards into his skull and his spine pinched as he sat over his desk the snap of pencil lead against homework his hands shaking and words repeated like fractal shapes until his head ached for hours or is hurting or will hurt forever and so on and so on and so on. 

And on top of all that, the smell of his mother’s perfume, the infuriating feel of fabric against his skin, the creak of floorboards as his father paced the living room, and him thinking, always, always.

“We’ll find a way to make it better,” his mother whispered. She put her hand on his and squeezed as gently as if he were an overripe pear. “We’ll take you out of school, and you can do whatever makes you happy.”

No, I can’t, he thought, though he loved her for pretending to believe it anyway. I can’t do nothing.

But school was an extra burden he would gladly shed. He accepted her offer and regretted it almost immediately. His parents argued for days.

“What about his future?” his father shouted, as if school might alter the sum of his condition.

“If nothing changes,” replied his mother, “he won’t have a future.”

It was the fighting and this conclusion that drove Sal to the kitchen once again to seek the impossible. He opened the cabinet above the microwave and extracted his father’s prescription sleep aid, the melatonin abandoned for more powerful cures—his father worked too many hours, he told Sal, had to drink too much coffee, that’s why he got them. Not because the thought of his son breaking apart, awake and alone in the room next to his, kept him up at night.

Sal emptied the bottle into his hand. He put the pills in his mouth and swallowed them all at once before retreating to his room. He lay in bed and closed his eyes, pretended, as his limbs grew heavier than the muscle he had to lift them, that it might work.

It didn’t. He vomited on top of his comforter two hours later. 

When his father approached him about the missing bottle, Sal smiled wide, his eyes alight with private laughter directed solely at himself. “Doesn’t hurt to try now and then, right?”

.  .  .

At seventeen, Sal made a decision: Time’s end approached like the floor during a long fall, and with the inevitability of impact, the only thing left to do was cope with the falling. He even developed a schedule of sorts, though his symptoms dictated it more than he did. When the sun felt like a single magnified beam on the back of his neck, or the slam of a door might nearly bring him to tears, he sequestered himself in his room to hide from the constant disharmony. Then, when the pains and the velociraptors in the pipes and the thump of his own heart brought him to a certain bewildered lunacy, when he could think of nothing but the throb in his head and joints, he engaged in bursts of activity as he’d done at school.

He went out anywhere he could get to. Usually bars. He looked at least twenty-five with his long hair, tired eyes and generally ramshackle appearance. Years of playing the jester to his friends taught him to diffuse suspicion in the same reflexive way people exchange greetings on the street. On the rare occasions bartenders turned him down, he charmed others into buying his drinks for him. His willingness to talk to anyone about anything, fueled as it was by his endless quest for distraction, turned him into the sort of person that people liked to know, who made one feel a little more lively by proximity to his vast imagination and reckless appetite for activity, and who afforded others a dose of his own mysterious charm simply by association.

Acquaintances nudged their friends, singled him out in crowds. “That’s Sal—last week he got the whole bar to sing the national anthem when the Skins won.”

He made a point to keep his distance despite people’s interest in him. He could not explain his long periods of isolation without incurring their pity, and permitting a relationship of any substance would only hurt them in the end anyway.

He lived this type of physical and emotional vagrancy for two years. It both maintained and exhausted him—the staying, or the going. The existing. The days no longer bled together but merged entirely. He did not know a year passed until his mother wished him happy birthday. For many days, or weeks, he heard a steady dripping by his ear like the rhythm of a leaky faucet. He had meals and frequented bars and talked ceaselessly with two dozen people only to jerk upright, finding purchase on some present sound or pain, to realize he’d been in bed the whole time and only ten minutes had passed since he lay down.

His father tried to convince him to stop going out. “You’re going to hurt yourself,” he said, electing not to say the rest. “You should be more careful. You’re getting worse.”

But what difference did it make if he suffered at a bar, or in his room, or talking philosophy in a stranger’s tool shed? One place felt as good or bad as any other. He’d live this way until he couldn’t anymore, Sal decided, and on his nineteenth birthday, he recounted a story to a group of friends outside a drug store, his retelling animated and vigorous until he caught his foot under the ledge of a shallow gutter and cracked his head against the curb.

He landed face up in the parking lot. The streetlight directly above him burned with celestial intensity against the darkness of two-in-the-morning, searing coherence from his brain, or perhaps it oozed from the fracture beneath his hair and dripped into the gutter with his blood. It made no sense: The sun in the night sky, the unyielding pavement, the ache in his bones and the pain in his head on top of the pain always in his head. His mind congealed and suspended his thoughts in gelatin. He could not remember where he was, or why he felt the way he did, or what he was doing, and like a toddler who split his knee on concrete, Sal screamed.

He wailed over the exclamations and reassurances of his friends, over the sirens. Each breath produced a cry both mechanical in its consistency and primal in its agony. It took him two days to understand he’d been put in the hospital. Six stitches he could not remember receiving ran above his right ear. Dear God, he thought in one garish moment of clarity, I hope I never have to get surgery.

“He has a concussion,” the doctor informed his mother. He listed off the symptoms. Sal wasn’t concerned. It didn’t sound any different than any other day of his life. “It may take longer to heal,” the doctor added, glancing fleetingly at Sal, “with his condition.”

His parents took him home. His father could not summon more than quiet frustration, having spent too long untangling himself from his son in preparation for his looming demise, and so they drove in silence. Sal tried to think of something to say. He wanted to impersonate himself well enough to relax his mother’s white-knuckled grip on the steering wheel. He stared out the window of the minivan and attempted to dismantle the logic of the world—what if water evaporated all at once instead of a little at a time? What if mosquitoes were beautiful like butterflies? Would we still eat cows if they could talk? But all he could think about was time. When will the next time be? How soon until he lost his mind again? How much time?

No time at all. That evening he bid his parents goodnight and appeared at their bedside three hours later.

“Mom,” he woke her as a living ghost, the past reverberating through his ever-disintegrating reality. “I can’t sleep.”

She woke in tears. Her body rattled under the sheets. She put her hands over her eyes and did not sit up. “Sal,” she groaned, another echo of a time gone. “I’m sorry.”

But Sal was not ten, he realized, standing in the same slant of light from the same bedroom door, but nineteen. He had nothing to pad the anguish this time, no strength left for resolution or hope to buffer the lack of it. Sal reached for his mother but recoiled halfway—I’m just hurting her, he thought. All I’ve ever done is hurt her.

“It’s okay, Mom,” he mumbled. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

He left his mother to cry in peace. He prayed she’d fall asleep and imagine it was just a dream. Sal returned to his room, opened his closet, looped a silken tie around his neck and thought, I want, and then, rising to the top of the cacophony of words—to get better, to not hurt, for Mom to be happy, to live—was nothing.

He knotted the other end of the tie around the metal bar that held his dress shirts, put his feet up on the shelves by the door and let his body go limp so that he hung suspended by his neck. He could breathe, but barely. It took several minutes in the cluttered darkness of his closet to register the swelling murkiness in his mind.

Oh my God, he wanted to say, but the pressure of the loop under his jaw kept his mouth shut. Is it working?

The click of the heater muted to the distant sound of raindrops. Splotches of dichotomous colors, black and red, blue and yellow, bloomed against the blackness. The pain in his head and neck felt like another man’s pain. His heart sounded in the distance, a faintly ringing alarm, as the sensations and agonies of awareness liquefied into something, not quite nothing yet, though he felt they would become so soon.  

He would have gotten his nothing if not for his mother. She must have noticed some look on his face, or the foreshadowing in his posture as he left her bedroom. Instinct guided her down the hall and warned her that Sal had not left the house. She wrapped trembling fingers around the closet handle and pulled. No sooner did she recognize the sight before her and feel the horror tighten every muscle than she knocked his feet from the shelves. She lifted his limp body and struggled for distended seconds to untie the cloth, at last setting him down on the floor, and she standing, staring at his face.

Mercifully, he had only a trivial awareness of her and of what happened. He could not fully make out the depth of grief in her expression or define the strange jerk of her hands, a resistance to a primitive urge, the desire to strike him. Sal could not compose himself enough to speak until she had as well. Sight and sound and all the others skulked back into the crevices of his consciousness and filled him entirely, bloating him from the inside out with miserable sensation once again.

A familiar apology rose from his diaphragm and died in the bruise of his throat. The way her face loomed over him felt like judgment, though he knew better. She’d watched him grow and change and suffer for it. She valued the life she’d given him more than Sal himself, or his father, or anyone he’d ever met, and she felt bad for it, probably. The giving.

But he knew now that she didn’t regret it. She could have told herself that he’d gone somewhere, or that he’d hidden himself in some dark corner of the house, under the living room couch as he sometimes did when things felt too huge and potent, and gone back to sleep. It made him feel worse, in a way.

I love you, he thought, noting her slow breaths and the lines around her mouth, so damn much, and I wish you hated me.

She sighed. “We’re going to take a trip. Somewhere quiet. Or,” she amended, knowing better than to think anywhere on Earth was quiet for Sal, “somewhere different.”

She seemed energized by this thought and offered him a hand off the floor. Maybe she needed the escape just as much, to get away from what had become the chronic antagonism of her husband, or perhaps because Sal had hurt her once more, and would again and again in the drawn out death of his life.

Or maybe she just needed to stop thinking about it all, and Sal was good at distractions. “Okay,” he agreed.

.  .  .

They end up in Delaware. The strip of beach is indeed quiet, at least in October, though they kill a few hours enduring the racket of the boardwalk arcades. They opt against wading into the ocean.

“It’s too cold,” his mother insists, and they both think: What would happen if his body seized or his mind regressed while he was out there? No swimming, then, to add to a growing list.

Grains of sand scrape against his feet as they walk the shoreline. They make Sal think of hourglasses and decomposition, but out loud he says, “Would you rather be a human or a drop of water?”

His mother’s hand stills halfway inside a bag of popcorn. “What kind of question is that? A human.”

“But, no, wait,” Sal steps in front of her and throws his arms out, gesturing emphatically, “Don’t you think it would feel really good to merge together with stuff? Like if you sank into dirt or fell into the ocean or someone drank you, you could become part of anything, and then you’d eventually just wind up back in the sky—you could fly! Don’t you want to know what it’s like to be a cloud?”

She covers her mouth with her hand and laughs at his enthusiasm, “Okay, maybe you’re right.”

By the end of the day, Sal’s joints shudder when he walks. The food in his stomach proves indigestible to his lethargic organs. They return to the hotel and his mother gives him twenty dollars, tells him not to go too far, if he decides to wander, and that she’ll see him in the morning. She waits for him to say it back.

“See you in the morning,” Sal agrees.

The ache in his body becomes urgent at three in the morning. His lungs dawdle and leave him incapable of drawing full breaths. Wind trapped in the balcony slices his eardrums. The distant sound of the ocean registers muffled and strange, like putting his ear to a glass of soda and listening to the bubbles pop. His mind begins to slip, so Sal rolls stiffly out of bed and takes the elevator to the ground floor, waves at the concierge but doesn’t stop to chat.

He finds the boardwalk mostly empty. Storefronts illuminate the wooden planks under his sneakers, worn smooth as glossed paper by the summer crowds. He pulls his shoes off and steps onto the sand. The lights are not so bright by the ocean, though the slap of water against the pier distorts into something disconcertingly mechanical, the rattle and clank of machinery. The solidity of the world beneath him pushes into his legs and lower back as if it sat atop him and not the other way around.

If gravity reversed, how long would he fall into the sky before he died? If he swam out into the ocean until he could no longer read the big “Boardwalk Fries” sign behind him, could he make it back? How much time does it take to drown?

Sal laughs, thinks, a lifetime.