My blog I've ignored for 2 years while attending the Brandcenter
One day Katy Olsen will save the world.
But today, she’s just a girl that stopped sleeping.
When I’m still, I think about that night, the last night I slept. I wonder if I dreamt. I barely remembered my dreams when I had them, so I never gave them much thought. They were just smoke, floating around my eyes, which needed to be waved away on my way to my morning routine. I like to pretend my last dream was one of those that wake you up in the middle of the night. Not out of fear but ridiculousness. The kind that makes you sit up in a panic, you scan the room, your eyes trying to make sense of the darkness, moments pass, and the dream dissipates. You chuckle at the absurdity of what your mind conjured up, close your eyes and burrow back into sleep.
But I don’t remember what I dreamt about that night. The last night I slept. If I had known it would have been my last chance to dream, I would have paid more attention.
The only thing I remember now is how ordinary that day was: waking up, eating breakfast, school, practice, dinner, homework then bed. There was nothing about that day that was any different from the day before and the day before that.
I do remember how annoyed I felt. Annoyed that I couldn’t turn my brain off. It wasn’t the first time this had happened. I thought I just needed to relax. I remember lying in bed with my eyes closed, trying to synch my thoughts with my breathing, attempting to slow them both down and trick my brain into sleep.
Only I didn’t sleep.
Hours later my annoyance morphed into worry. Worry about how I was going to get through school and practice the next day. The concerns evolved into fear. Fear of exhaustion. Fear about collapsing in class or on the track during practice. But by the time the sun came up my fear was gone. I had made peace with it. I would go to school and eventually succumb to the sleep. Images of me sprawled out, drooling on myself, would be popping up online for the world to see. I accepted that fate.
Only, I never got tired.
Day after day passed and I continued going through the motions. Lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, for hours without even a yawn. The anxiousness never returned, but I remained the opposite of tired. I was alert, quick, and worst of all full of energy.
I binged Netflix first, watching everything I wasn’t supposed to see, anything interesting and eventually anything boring. Then I turned to the internet. I know the Internet never ends but spending eight hours a night for months does begin to dull.
One night, after pacing my room, I picked up a book. Reading was always a chore for me, something that I needed to absorb and regurgitate back in the form of a report or an answer on a test. I never enjoyed reading. My mind always wandered. The words on the page would stream into my brain but would scatter before forming a memory. I’d catch myself, pages in, not remembering what I just read. Instead, my mind fluttered back to earlier parts of the day, conversations I had with friends or something I watched on TV that now seemed necessary to ponder. Anything but the words I was trying to read.
But now things are different. My brain is focused. My eyes never tire, my mind never wanders to the minutia that once was a welcomed distraction. Now, when I read the world around me is muted. I am inside the author’s world where the characters and scenery are vibrant and alive.
Is this is how I dream now? How I escape. How I-
“What are you doing up!?” Even though I don’t sleep anymore my father’s voice startles me, not awake, but brings me back to my reality.
The sound of his voice makes me drop my book. His face is frozen in surprise at the sight of his usually sleeping daughter wide-awake before the sun has even risen. My father works downtown, and he wakes up at an ungodly hour to beat the traffic. He doesn’t mind; he’s one of those early riser idiots that love to get the day started. He likes to poke his head in my room before leaving. Some mornings he brushes the hair from my forehead and gives me a peck before heading out for the day. I have his morning routine memorized. I’ve been faking being asleep so not to alarm him. I make sure to turn my lights off and slip back into bed before he wakes up. Tonight I lost track of time. Sloppy.
“Everything alright pumpkin?” he asks still standing in the doorway to my room. His voice quivers as it nears the end of the sentence. Seeing me awake at this hour unnerves him. The door is still only half open, and his hand is gripping the doorknob. As if the only thing keeping this awkward moment from becoming permanent is his grip. Maybe he thinks if he closes the door and reopens it his little girl will be where she’s supposed to be – fast asleep.
“Yeah, I just needed to catch up on this for class.” I pick up the copy of Great Expectations I was feasting on and hold it up for him to see. It wasn’t a total lie. I do need to read this book, but it was just assigned to us yesterday. I have no idea why I lied to him. Part of me wants to fling the book across the room and run into his arms. I’d wrap my arms around his waist and squeeze him tight like he was about to lift off and I needed to hang on or be left behind. Through my sobs, I would spill my guts. Everything. The not sleeping. The not tiring. The pretending. The lies. I would tell him it all, and he would listen, pat my shoulders and say it would be okay. Because he was here now and he would take care of it. And then for the first time in months, I would feel, relief.
But I don’t.
I don’t have an origin story. There wasn’t any nuclear ooze that seeped into my home, a radioactive insect didn’t bite me, and I was never part of any secret government experiments. I am just a girl that woke up one day and never went back to sleep. Not exactly comic book material.
How do you tell someone that?
Hey, dad, just FYI I haven’t slept in months like I haven’t slept one second and it doesn’t seem to be bothering me. Let’s not make this a big deal, and we shouldn’t tell mom either? Okay? Cool, love ya!
He’s smiling at me now, sort of, it’s the nervous smile you give someone when you don’t understand what they’re saying and instead of asking them to repeat it you just nod and smile. I can tell he’s unsure if he should be angry, worried or proud that I’m awake, reading. His face scrunches in a forced half smile and tells me not to overdo it before closing the door.
He has no idea how funny a request that is.
The next day my father stops me. After some careful consideration, he’s decided he’s going to be proud of me for taking my schoolwork so seriously. And as long as I promise not to stay up that late again he doesn’t see the need to get my mother involved. I’m relieved and make a mental note to do a better job on Father’s Day this year.
I’m extra careful now. I set the alarm on my phone to alert me when it’s time to get in bed and pretend to be asleep. My dad hasn’t poked his head in since. I can hear him walk down the hallway and pause in front of my door. I picture him placing his ear to the door. When he doesn’t hear anything, he continues down the hall and off to work. Maybe he knows there is something different about me now. Maybe he’s afraid of what he’ll find if he opens that door. Maybe he’s scared of me.
Months pass, and I’m pacing my room again. I’m out of books. Not just in my room but the house. I’ve read everything, cookbooks, owner’s manuals, dictionaries, everything. Even Wikipedia is boring me. I’m restless. I want to do something. I want to talk to someone. I want to…
No, I need to run. I run cross-country every day after school yet I know this is what I must do. I need to move. I need to expel this excess energy. Not what I do at practice. At practice, I’m a liar. I pretend to be tired when I’m not. I slow down when others in front of me slow down. I let them set the pace and try not to draw attention to myself. I do well enough just to give my ego a taste. I’ve moved from one of the faceless extracurricular activity seekers to one of the better distance runners at my school. Not the best, but one of the better ones. I’m careful not to get carried away. I don’t ever win; a third or fourth place finish is fine with me. My parents love the progress I’ve made. They’ve even started talking about a track scholarship for college if I keep improving. I’ve decided, next year, I’ll win a couple of races. A scholarship should be worth at least a new if not newish car. This not sleeping thing needs to amount to something.
I just wish I could sit still.
I decide I can’t take it anymore. If I don’t go for a run, I am going to explode. I thought about sneaking downstairs and using my mom’s treadmill to burn off this extra energy. But the sound of feet hammering away on that old machine would wake them for sure. If my parents bust me running in the middle of the night that’ll freak them out and only lead to more questions.
So I wait.
I wait until I know they are asleep then slip out my window. My bedroom window faces our backyard. Our property backs up to a hill that leads to a tree line obscuring the neighbors behind us, allowing me to drop my emergency fire ladder out the window. The retractable aluminum separates until the last rung is dangling a couple of feet from the ground.
The ladder was a gift from my grandmother. As a child her family home caught fire trapping her on an upper floor. She ended up leaping out of a window to survive but broke both of her legs in the process. Her legs healed better than the emotional scars. When she decides you’re old enough to handle the responsibility of an emergency fire escape ladder she gets you one for your birthday/Christmas/Easter. Everyone in my family has one. I got mine when I was ten, and it’s stayed under my bed ever since. She’d be pissed if she knew I was using it to sneak out. Or proud, it’s hard to say, Nana is an odd lady.
I climb out my window gripping the sides of the ladder. I realize that this is the first time I’ve ever tried this. I have no idea if I’m doing it right or if it will even hold me. The first step down my weight pulls the legs of the ladder taut against the windowsill. I can hear the rungs below me jingling like an empty park swing swaying in the wind. I’m not breathing now. Another step and I listen to the window sill creak. The treadmill is starting to sound like a better idea. The window sill holds, and I get to the last step and hop into the soft grass of my backyard. The crickets near my landing spot pause their singing for a moment, unsure of my intentions. I creep towards the back fence, and they return to their serenade.
I jump the fence and tiptoe through the space between the neighbor’s house and ours. I hit the sidewalk, turn and jog away quickly. I work my way out of my neighborhood. I don’t need any night owl neighbors telling my folks they saw me jogging down the street at 3 am.
When I’m away from my street I slip on my earbuds, do a quick stretch and begin to jog. I start off slow. Just like at practice, a warm-up then I’ll increase my speed as my body warms up. Then I remember, I’m not at practice. Tonight I don’t have to pretend. I stop running and give the neighborhood another quick scan, nothing but dark windows in evenly spaced out houses sitting on perfectly manicured lawns. Everything is still, the only sound, the hum of a streetlight in the distance. I stare at the light for a moment. A moth bewitched by the glow freely gives itself to the light only to bounce off the plastic covering and be redirected back into the night.
How disappointing for it I thought.
The only sound I hear is my feet on the pavement. The sneakers scrape across the asphalt, propelling me forward. I look ridiculous; sprinting down the street as if my worst nightmare is chasing me.
It’s dolls, by the way, my worst nightmare, those large old porcelain dolls with fancy dresses and eyelids that open and close. I was given one for my eighth birthday; she came with a name already, Genevieve. I remember being annoyed that she already had a name. I definitely wouldn’t have picked Genevieve. I wanted to call her Violet, so I renamed her. Then Allison Johnson, from class, told me that if I change the name of a doll she’d come to life and suffocate me in my sleep. That night I remember watching Genevieve/Violet, with the covers, pulled over half my face, waiting for those eyelids to flick open and for her to try and kill me. The next night I put her in the freezer. She almost gave my dad a heart attack when he went for a late night snack.
Holy crap!? Did my mind just wander? That hasn’t happened in a long time.
With each step, I drive my legs into the pavement and propel myself forward down the street. There are no cars on the road. Only streetlights in front of perfectly maintained houses. Each the same and humming its siren song to lonely confused moths. I pass through the illuminated sections of the sidewalk in a blink. The only evidence I was ever there the is my fading footsteps as I haul ass down the street. I count my steps before reaching the next light. Eight. It’s always eight. I’m not tired, but I’m only as fast as my legs will carry me.
I’m pushing myself tonight. Pushing myself to tire, forcing my body to ache, struggling to feel even the slightest twinge of exhaustion.
But I don’t.
Next Chapter –> (Coming soon)
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Mr. Fenske is a professor at VCU Brandcenter in Richmond VA. The site is an extension of his efforts in the classroom, except for the cartoons, which seem to grow out of some disaffection he feels with the world. Thank you for visiting. © Mark Fenske
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