AFTER COLLEGE, MICHELLE HAD DIFFICULTY sleeping. The problem started when she was a freshman sharing a room with a girl from the coast named Miranda. One night, at a party, Michelle drank several cups of a fruity drink served out of a bucket placed in a bathtub. There were chunks of mushed, pulpy fruit floating around the bucket’s edge. Michelle did not remember going to bed, but she did remember waking up hours later to Miranda’s slender fingers wrapped around her neck. In the darkness, Miranda’s black hair covered her face like a mourning veil. She gripped Michelle’s throat, squeezed tightly, and wailed the same two words over and over again.
Wake up! Miranda screamed. Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!
Michelle took a semester off from school after that, living with her parents, and later learned—during the university’s investigation into the incident—that as a child, Miranda was raised by members of a pantheist cult in Idaho. The members believed that reality itself was a manifestation of an immanent God. All things were God, they believed, and God was in all things. They prayed to trees and tires and desk chairs.
As a teenager, Miranda escaped the compound where she had been raised, but the memory of that place remained in her dreams. She developed night terrors. She sleepwalked and screamed in her sleep. She claimed that the night she attacked Michelle, she had been dreaming and had no control of her own body.
A university official asked what it was she had been dreaming about at the time.
Miranda said, The faces inside of everyday objects.
No one knew what to make of this answer.
Ultimately, the university left the decision up to Michelle. Did she feel comfortable going to the same school as her attacker? Michelle said no, she did not, and Miranda was expelled.
On the day of her graduation, Michelle received an anonymous letter that contained only a black and white photograph. The photograph was of a dark-haired woman walking down an empty street. The woman’s face was not visible, and Michelle thought possibly that it was a photograph of herself, taken without her knowledge. On the back of the picture were a few lines and circles she believed were meant to resemble a smiling face.
Months after graduating and Michelle still couldn’t sleep through the night. She had just started a new job, in a new city. She lived alone in a simple apartment. She paid the landlord a small fee to install additional locks on both the front and bedroom doors. Still, in the night, she woke up sweating, unable to breathe, unsure even if she was alive or not. Sometimes, she screamed herself awake.
Because of her new job, for the first time in her adult life, Michelle had her own health insurance, so she scheduled an appointment with a counselor. During the phone call to set up the appointment, the receptionist asked if she would prefer a male or female therapist. She didn’t want to sound impolite, so she said she didn’t care.
A week later, she shook hands with a man in a nondescript building. He introduced himself as Weller. She wasn’t sure if this was his first or last name. One of the walls in his office was made of brick, while the others were beige. She wanted to touch the bricks, to determine if they were real or not.
There was a painting on the wall behind the chair where Weller sat. The painting showed a door in a shadowy room opening onto an oceanscape. Through the open door, seagulls could be seen drifting over water and white sand. He asked her a series of questions about her parents and the buildings inside of her dreams. He took notes and blinked with incredible frequency. She told him about what had happened with Miranda, about her continued inability to sleep soundly.
“You seem too old to be scared by nightmares,” he said. “They’re only as real as we allow them to be.”
He had a soft, slow control in his voice that made these things sound true. He suggested that she try exercise and white noise.
She drove to a part of the city she’d yet to visit and found a small home goods store in a strip mall. She purchased the cheapest white noise machine she could find. It was the shape of a UFO and had several different audio options including thunderstorm, ocean sounds, and human life. The man at the checkout counter appraised the white noise machine’s packaging.
“Trouble sleeping?” he said. He smiled at her in a way that made her rethink if she understood what emotion smiles were meant to convey.
Reflexively, she smiled back.
“When I can’t sleep,” he said. “I like to imagine what it would be like to be a different person. I tried to imagine myself inside of their lives. But I don’t pretend to be them exactly, I remain myself, but I live inside of them … as a passenger. They still get to make all the choices they want to make; I just tag along.”
“Okay,” Michelle said.
She paid him and he put the machine in a bag. She drove home, where she plugged in the sound machine, tested its various modes and decided the white noise was the most palatable. In bed, she read a magazine article about how Octopi don’t have skeletons—they can squeeze their bodies through a hole the size of a quarter. She learned too that these animals sometimes create shelters for themselves out of human refuse.
When she finished the article, she turned off the lights and turned on the white noise machine. It produced a low static-laced hissing sound, which was somehow pleasant and calming. She stared up at the ceiling, watched as lights from passing cars slid through the blinds. The white noise made her brain feel fuzzy. She thought about the man at the home goods store, his strategy for falling asleep. She let the static sit in the back of her head, and she imagined what it would be like to ride along through someone else’s life, and as she often did, she thought of Miranda. Michelle imagined herself as a passenger inside of Miranda during the night of the incident. She imaged choking herself with a pair of hands that weren’t her own.
She found that the white noise changed occasionally. Depending on which side of her body she slept on, she could hear different things inside of the static. They were sometimes rhythmic, almost like electronic music, looping over and over again, but only barely there. And other times the sounds beneath the static were sonorous and rich—haunting like whale song. These noises came and went without explanation, and whenever Michelle sat up—tried to identify the sounds exactly—they disappeared, and she was left with only the white noise again.
The white noise did not help her sleep, in fact, it made things worse, but when she told her therapist this, he said she needed to keep trying.
“Do you expect to be a master painter the first time you pick up a paintbrush?” he said.
She thought this was a bad analogy. She didn’t want to perfect a skill—she only wanted to stop her mind from running. The painting on the wall in Weller’s office was different than she remembered. The waves in the ocean scene were wilder now, they were cresting and white-capped, whereas before, the water had been calm, or at least she thought it had been.
“I don’t think we’re addressing what’s happening below the surface,” Michelle said. “This issue had subconscious origins and you’re just treating the symptoms.”
“Here’s what I want you to do,” Weller said. Sometimes clear liquid seeped out of his right eye and he had to remove his glasses and dab at it with a tissue. “I’d like you to try a natural supplement—a sleep aid.” He wrote down the name of a supplement on a piece of paper and handed it to her. “Are you exercising?” he said. His eye began to leak.
She went home without purchasing the sleep aid. She read an article about something called Locked-In Syndrome, in which coma patients were fully conscious but unable to move or communicate. In one case, a man was believed to be comatose for seven years before a family member recognized something odd about his eye movements. Later, he was able to use a specialized computer to communicate. He said he’d never forget hearing his own family discuss whether or not he should be kept alive.
She turned on the white noise machine and slept fitfully, waking to new sounds mixed in with the static. Once, she thought she heard something like chanting—the sound was deep and repetitive, but she couldn’t quite make out the words. Another time, she thought she heard the sound of a man whispering. When she sat up, the sounds went away, and when she laid back down, she couldn’t locate them again. She imagined what it would be like to be locked in your own body. But then she thought, isn’t everyone already?
This pattern continued, and her waking life took on hazy quality. Her work suffered. She sometimes forgot to eat. This meeting happened already, she thought as she listened to her supervisor drone on about something he called Emergent Advertising.
“I want our ads to occur so naturally our customers don’t even recognize they are being advertised to,” he said. “I want our ads everywhere, mixed into the fabric of their lives. I want our customers to want things they don’t even know they want.”
She had trouble keeping her eyes open as he spoke. She thought she could hear the sound of static in his voice. Her eyes slipped shut and things went black and then she felt the pressure of hands around her neck. A violent spasm passed through her body like an electric shock.
“Michelle,” her supervisor said. “Do you have something you want to contribute?”
Everyone in the meeting room was looking at her. There was a constant hum in the back of her head.
She took the rest of the day off and drove to a part of the city she’d yet to visit and found a dietary supplement store in a strip mall. She handed the man at the counter the slip of paper with the name of the sleep aid written on it. He took a bottle of pills of the shelf and punched commands into his computer keyboard.
“Trouble sleeping?” he said, smiling.
She did not respond.
“When I have trouble sleeping,” he said. “I imagine myself in places I know by heart. I walk through the rooms of my childhood house or try to picture the basement of the home where my grandmother lived. You can never remember them exactly, but the point is to try your hardest.”
She bought a bottle of wine on the way home. She drank two glasses in bed and then took the sleep aid. The light in her room turned soft; she felt as if her bed were alive and holding her tightly. She turned off the light and closed her eyes and imaged her childhood home. She walked through a plain building with wooden walls. The beds in the bedrooms were stacked on top of each other. There were several bunked beds in all of the rooms she visited. The house had more rooms than she remembered. The house was less like a house and more like a bomb shelter. There were no pictures on the walls; there were no windows.
She wondered why she had chosen to remember this place. When she thought about it hard enough, she couldn’t quite remember if the house she had in her head was actually the one she had grown up in. In fact, she wasn’t quite sure the house in her head was a house at all.
In the morning, she woke up with a headache. When she turned off the white noise machine, the white noise did not go away. She continued to hear the static even after the machine was unplugged. She called in sick to work and then called Weller. She asked if he could see her right away.
“You’re experiencing what we call a ‘subliminal hallucination,’” he said. “You’re perceiving connections where none exist.”
She worked her jaw around and popped her ears repeatedly to try to get the noise to go away. “These are often brought on by stress or lack of sleep.” In the painting on the wall, there were so many seagulls flying above the ocean that the sky was almost completely white. “I’d like you to try a natural supplement—a sleep aid.”
“I don’t think that’s the problem,” Michelle said. Hadn’t she done this already? “You aren’t listening to me.”
“Tell me what you think the problem is,” Weller said.
“I told you already. I can’t sleep because of what Miranda did to me.”
“You mean what you did to Miranda?”
Something wet slid from the corner of his eye. He removed his glasses and wiped the liquid away with a tissue.
“I know that your life in the compound was damaging, Michelle. And I understand that you had no control over your body at the time, but you did serious harm to that young woman, and until you reckon with that fact, you’ll never be well.”
The static in her head grew louder.
“Why are you doing this to me?” she said.
“I’m trying to help you,” he said. He blinked and blinked and blinked.
She drove home and tried to drown out the sound of static with the radio. She turned the commercials up so loud the speakers shook, but still, the sound in her head would not go away. At a stoplight, a man in a car smiled at her with his teeth.
The sun was still up but she needed to sleep. She finished the bottle of wine and shook out four sleeping pills into her palm, took them all in one go. She closed her blinds and laid down in bed.
They were all working against her. What Weller had said was not true, she knew it with absolute certainty. There was a secret web that tied all men together, an invisible thread that ran through all of their hearts.
It was Miranda who had been raised by a cult. It was her who lost control of her body at night.
To make the white noise go away, Michelle decided it was necessary to dismantle the electronic contents at the heart of the white noise machine. The machine was turned off and unplugged, but somehow it still projected the sound into her head. The sleeping pills were beginning to do their work and her limbs felt heavy, like fleshy bags filled with water. She got out of bed and found a screwdriver in a drawer in the kitchen. On the underside of the sound machine were four small screws. She unscrewed them and pulled the machine apart.
When she looked inside the machine, where she expected to find circuit boards and wires, she found a man’s face. He looked like every other man she’d ever seen. He had eyes and teeth— only his skin was pulled tightly toward the plastic body of the machine, the edges of the skin disappearing beneath the white plastic. The skin had the appearance of cellophane wrapping stretched over the top of a dish. The man’s eyes were open and moving around.
“Hello,” said the man in the white noise machine.
“Hello,” said Michelle. “This is very strange.” The pills and wine had her feeling warm and hollow.
“I live here,” he said. “It’s strange that you think it’s strange.”
“I don’t think that’s right,” she said.
The face grimaced. There was no tongue or throat behind the lips, only teeth and black space. “If you’re going to call me a liar, I prefer if you replace my cover and put me back as you found me. I was perfectly content as I was. We all are, in fact.”
“Who’s we?” Michelle asked although she wasn’t sure if she really wanted the answer. She was sitting upright in her bed looking down at the face.
“The other faces,” the face said.
“What other faces?” she said.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you people all knew.”
“Take a look at the underside of your lamp,” the face gestured with his eyes to the lamp on her bedside table. Michelle placed the sound machine face in her lap and reached for the lamp. On the underside of the lamp, she found the same man’s face.
“Hello,” said the lamp face.
Michelle put the lamp back down. She wondered how she’d never noticed these faces before.
“Try your chair,” said the sound machine face.
Michelle got up and flipped over the chair at her desk. Here she found the same face as the one in the white noise machine.
“Hi,” said the face. “I’m your chair.”
Michelle went back to her bed and tried to understand what was happening.
“Everyone else knows about this?” Michelle asked.
“Oh yes,” said the sound machine face. “You’re the only one who doesn’t.”
“When did this start?”
“It’s always been this way. God imbued all of creation with aspects of himself. He’s inside of all things.”
Outside, the sun had gone down. There was no light beyond the windows.
Down was the only way.“Why did no one tell me?” Michelle asked.
“If I had to guess, I’d say people think you’re a bit too fragile for the truth.”
“All I want is to be able to sleep,” she said. Her mattress felt as though it were floating on an ocean, as if she were being carried out to sea.
“Oh!” said the face. “That’s all you’re after? I wish you would have said something sooner.”
The sound of static in her ears became a distinct feeling on each side of her head. The sound was like a pressure pulling her in opposite directions. The feeling moved down the length of her body, through her arms and legs; it hovered in her fingertips and toes.
“Falling asleep is so easy!” said the face.
Michelle felt her extremities multiplied, her fingers doubled, her limbs began to move without her willing them to. She wasn’t alone, she realized. There was someone else inside her body.
“You’ve come to the right faces,” said the face, smiling widely. “We can help you fall asleep; it’s the waking up that’s hard to do.”
Gently at first, hands that were and were not her own began to squeeze.
“Wake up!” said the faces, all of them in unison. “Wake up! Wake up! Wake up!”
She gripped her neck and the neck of someone else. She felt someone swallow beneath her hands. She had no control over her own body. It became harder and harder to breathe.
Dan Stintzi received his MFA from Johns Hopkins University and was a member of the 2019 Clarion Writers’ Workshop. He lives in Wisconsin. Find more of his fiction at danstintzi.com.