When the portal opens in my bedroom ceiling, I take it as proof that my brain is finally broken.
It’s the only reasonable explanation. I mean, I’m familiar with how bizarre those early morning hours can get. Any veteran insomniac is. But this is a new low.
I used to just struggle getting to sleep. But lately, I’m up from 2:00 to 4:00 a.m., no matter when I go to bed. And every time I turn over and check the clock, it’s exactly 3:33. Which is when all the worst things I’ve ever done, all my goofs and gaffes—especially one mistake in particular—play on an endless loop.
3:33 again. But this time my favorite spot to stare at—a patch of beige paint illuminated by the street lights outside my window—is blurring, shifting. I rub my eyes. Did I forget to take my contacts out again?
Out of the blur comes a bright orange rectangle. A door, shimmering into existence right there in my ceiling.
It slides open with a whoosh, revealing a familiar scene.
My old apartment, decorated with vintage Misfits posters and an ever-growing pile of pizza boxes. Rain streaks the darkened windows as Lex and I argue, tossing the hot potato of blame back and forth. Her magenta forelock flops into her eyes as she avoids mine. Resentment radiates off me in waves; her limbs are slack in collapse. And yet, even awash in this tension, Lex still exudes that same old charisma. Anyone could see how it nested in the crook of her elbow, collected along the arch of her brows, the tilt of her mouth. Those dickheads in her new band certainly could.
Now this fight is playing out in hyper-vivid real time. Dislike. Do not want. Why is banana-brain shoving this in my face?
Who knows. Maybe I’ve ruminated about that night so many times, I’ve worn a hole in the universe.
Loud beeping. My eyelids glued together with the sleep that finally came five minutes before the alarm, after lying awake for hours. Because my brain is legit trying to kill me.
Stagger boneless through my morning routine: brush the yuck out of my mouth, linger in the bliss of a steaming shower. Avoid the mirror, the creases etched into the face reflected there.
Put pants on backwards. Try again.
Stuff toast into my face while pouring a huge cup of coffee. Spill it while running for the bus. Good times.
Persecuted by the harsh overhead fluorescents in the office. More coffee. Pile of crap in my inbox, and the phone’s already ringing. But work distracts me from the worst of my suffering.
I feed itineraries into the Xerox machine while reflecting on how that Fight Club “insomnia makes everything a copy of a copy of a copy” meme fails to capture the nuances of this hollowed-out quality. Maybe because I have millions of ways to describe fatigue (like that stupid hundred-words-for-snow myth): tapped like a keg at a frat party. So faded I’m transparent. Dulled like an overused knife. Leaden eyelids, limbs like sandbags. Adrift on a sea of nonsense and white noise, jittery and restless. Dissociated robot mode.
The day is hellishly long when you’ve been awake for most of it. I’m sprawled under my desk after lunch—that postprandial period when all the caffeine in the world won’t prop me up—when my work spouse, Nora, strolls up with a stack of new pamphlets for our travel agency.
“On the struggle bus today, huh?” She peers under the desk as she dumps the stack in my inbox.
“Say that I look tired again, and I’m officially filing for divorce.” I flail angry little T-Rex arms of irritation at her.
My urge to kvetch rises as she walks away laughing, so I prop myself up at my computer. After logging on to the insomniac’s forum, I automatically check for new responses on the thread I started last week:
SUBJECT: Annoying Advice: Hall of Shame
Don’t you just *love* getting ‘helpful’ suggestions from well-intentioned Sleepers? Gimme your worst, folks.
Sleepers. The jerks who drop off the moment their heads hit the pillow, who peacefully snore their way through long flights (usually right next to me). How I loathe them with every shriveled molecule of my being.
◘ambien_walrus – “have u tried melatonin? what about valerian?” GIRL PLEASE, when strong-ass sleep meds barely knock me out, weak-sauce herbals ain’t gonna cut it
◘delicate_flower – “Wow, I’ve only been sleepless since I was an infant, please tell me ALL ABOUT how that cup of chamomile did the trick for you during finals!”
➤ ◘ambien_walrus – HAVE SOME TEAAAAAAAAAA lol
◘zombie_mode – “you just need to relax. have you tried meditating?” *slow claps* wow, you’re a genius! never occurred to me
➤ ◘dead_on_the_inside – “But not sleeping gives you cancer!” GEE THANKS, that’s doesn’t stress me out or anything
◘hooty_hoot_hoot – Related: this new sleep clinic booked me for an appointment at EIGHT AM. No joke. And the doctor bounces in all super cheerful, because she’s totally a morning person, FML 🙁
➤ ◘ambien_walrus – oh lord. did u get the sleep hygiene lecture?
➤ ◘hooty_hoot_hoot – Sure did. After “Nothing in psychiatry works well for sleep”
➤ ◘ambien_walrus – the FUCK it doesn’t!!!!
Thank God for the Complaints Department.
I compose a new post:
SUBJECT: Obnoxious new pattern
Shit sure is getting CRAZY now that I’m lying awake from 2-4am every freaking night. I think I broke my brain, y’all. Too bad about that, it was an OK brain. (Except for that whole trying-to-kill-me thing.)
No way I’m getting anything substantial done today, so I go fetch a depth charge before returning to read the responses:
◘delicate_flower – Ack, me too! My MD says that’s typical in perimenopause and is testing my hormone levels
➤ ◘dead_on_the_inside – really? I heard it was high cortisol
◘witching_hour – NO these hours are spiritually significant!!! The veil between our world and other planes of existence is thinnest then, so we can communicate with spirits and angels and explore higher realms
➤ ◘hynapogic_jerkoff – *eyes rolling down the street*
➤ ◘witching_hour – Not everybody here ^^ is primed for metaphysical growth
◘nocturna – hey princess, that both sucks AND blows. but what’s getting so crazy, exactly?
My fingers hover above the keyboard, tempted to spill. But instead I log off without responding.
2 a.m. grips me, pinching me wide awake.
Unsettled and restless, too warm, kicking at my blanket. The sound of my neighbor sawing logs through the paper-thin walls reminds me that the rest of the world is in peaceful repose right now. Hateful Sleepers.
Banana-brain slides back into looping my history with Lex. We’d been close since back in the day, sneaking into punk clubs with flasks in our pockets. Then we started playing music together. I was a mediocre guitarist—still am, honestly—but Lex’s voice was compelling; sometimes growling like Johnette Napolitano fresh out of bed in search of a cigarette, sometimes flat and sardonic like when Liz Phair gives zero fucks. Bar patrons looked up from their watered-down beers when she started singing.
3:33, and here we go again: ceiling square shimmering, a door appears and opens. But now I’m traveling through that door into a dark corridor. My hands brush up against the walls, moist and soft as moss. There’s a metallic taste in my mouth, like chewing on tinfoil.
Then my bare feet step onto the dingy carpet of my old living room, and the reek of wet socks and damp mold hits my nostrils. It’s raining hard, flooding basements all over town.
Lex and Past-me sit on my ratty couch, polishing off a bottle of cheap Merlot while we debate braving the weather for our favorite dive’s open mic. But the vibe is off; Lex isn’t her chatty self, and I’m all up in my feelings about how withdrawn she’s been lately. After yet another noncommittal response, I snap.
“So let’s have it.” I pour the dregs of the wine into a mason jar. “You wanna tell me what the hell’s up with you?”
Lex shrugs. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She rubs the shaved parts of her head, the remaining tufts flopping in her eyes.
Another few rounds of pulling teeth. Finally, still avoiding my gaze, “Reverse Jackpot asked me to join.”
This stupid indie band recently lost their singer to rehab, and they’d been sniffing around Lex. A stupid band with more than enough guitar players. Past-me chokes on the thick syrup of her own envy as this news sinks in.
Lex always defused our little scraps and scrapes by grabbing hold of both my shoulders and murmuring, “Hey. I’m on your side, OK?” in her most soothing register. But was she, really? Had she ever been?
The shock wears off, and I come out swinging. “That’s just great. Nice to know I’m so utterly disposable.”
We toss good ol’ Blame Potato around. You always. I never. If you hadn’t, I wouldn’t have. Don’t you remember when you said? That’s not true, stop putting words in my mouth. But how could you? Why doesn’t our history matter? Don’t you get it? Why can’t you be happy for me?
Lex vibrates like an overtightened guitar string. “You know I want more from my life than just dinking around at these open mics forever.”
“Wow. Social climber much?” Past-me huffs, and I cringe in anticipation. “All that matters to you is getting ahead, not whose face you step on in the process.”
Lex’s mouth gapes open as I hit that nerve, cross that line, double down. “You need take a good, hard look at your shit, Lex. Stupid stunts like this are why Quinn refuses to deal with you anymore.”
Those words. A lightning bolt striking a tower, the world we’d created together crumbling in its wake. Lex’s face reddens as she throws her notebook into her backpack and beats a retreat for the door.
I drink another bottle of wine while smoking cloves on the crumbling balcony, rain gushing into the gutters below. Good fucking riddance. You wanna hang with those Reverse Jackpot jack-offs so bad, have at it. Y’all deserve each other.
I pass out in my clothes, motionless in one final night of solid, dreamless slumber.
A chirping phone blasts me awake late the next morning. On the other end is our friend Casey, nearly incoherent. “There’s no good way to say this.” I almost hang up on her stalling and stuttering.
“Lex was killed in a hit-and-run,” she finally croaks, “on her way home from the open mic last night.”
That couldn’t possibly be real.
Nope. No way.
A plexiglass dome of silence shudders down around me, swaddling my consciousness in a thick cotton that muffled the sounds of the cosmos.
And when that dome lifts a year later, the world had moved on. And I was still right there where I’d been, holding the phone.
I lie awake awhile longer after getting booted from the portal, curled up like a queasy pill bug as the room spins. Even though I think about that pivotal moment—the inflection point where my fragile ego and poisonous tongue ruined all that was good in my life—every day, watching this immersive re-enactment renews my ache for a redo. An undoing of what’s been done.
What would a universe with Lex still in it look like? Maybe we could have put our disagreements behind us, reforged our connection. Maybe that dumb band would have gotten famous; maybe she’d have changed the world. It could happen, right?
I get up and flip open my battered laptop, unable to resist the siren call of a little internet self-harm. I navigate to Lex’s memorialized social media account and click through the pictures: Lex as a tiny punk kid holding a mic, me sulking in the background. A close-up of her glittery eye makeup and a mouth full of Oreos. Both of us dressed like KISS at a costumed bar crawl.
I make the mistake of scrolling through the pages of comments:
I miss the hell out of you and can’t believe that you’re gone 🙁
You lived more in your short life than most could ever hope to accomplish. A TRUE LEGEND
You were one in a million and although the world will be a less fabulous place without you, you’ve touched and inspired so many. Sleep well, rock star <3
The enormity of Lex, fixed in place and frozen in time on the stupid interwebs. And did half of these fuckers even know her? I can’t even.
I toggle back to the insomniac’s forum to wallow in my usual litany of complaints. But what comes out instead is:
SUBJECT: Portal to the past?!?
OK, this is nuts, but…has anyone else seen the ceiling portal, or is it just me? (Told you things were getting pretty crazy in those early morning hours, LOL)
Then I trip over my guitar stand on my way to the shower, where I hide out and second-guess revealing this new level of insanity to strangers. Half an hour later I peek at the replies:
◘zombie_mode – whoa, sounds like some pretty vivid dreams, what the HECK are you eating before bed?
➤ ◘delicate_flower – Yup, reminds me of my sleep paralysis episodes *shudder*
◘nocturna – hey princess. check your DMs
Sure enough, a message pops up:
◘nocturna – sending you a link. delete your post and come on over there OK?
I do as I’m told. The link takes me to a private page, The Travelers Network, which makes me instantly paranoid that this is all an elaborate prank pulled by one of my coworkers. (Nora, was this you all along?) But then I scan the pinned threads:
What the Hell is This Place, Anyways?
Dark Circles: The Sign of the Traveler
Using Lucid Dreaming Techniques to Direct Travel
3rd Time’s a Charm
I click on What the Hell is This Place, Anyways? The room starts to spin again as I read the time-travel-versus-parallel-universes debate. I get up and pace for a minute before returning to message my new ambassador.
◘princess_and_the_pea – WTF. Do people *really* think this is an interdimensional portal? Like, not just a hallucination or some bad clams?
◘nocturna – well, not like any of us are scientists or anything, but yeah, why not?
◘princess_and_the_pea – Because it’s nutter butters, that’s why!
I mean, those explanations are just as cogent as ruminating a hole in the universe, but still.
There’s a Try Not to Kill Yourself thread further down the page, which no one needs to explain to me. Any insomniac that claims to have never wished for death—to stop the endless cycle of madness—is straight-up lying.
Of course I clicked on it, because I’m a ghoul like that. But it’s actually about navigating the tunnels safely. (Apparently it’s just me who wants to get off the wheel, then.) Turns out that staying too long can degrade the tunnels’ structural integrity—sounds like they get squishy? And a couple folks claim that sleep meds make everything exponentially weirder and harder to navigate, which can also put Travelers at risk.
I’m wondering if I just took an Ambien, because everything is starting to feel thick and surreal, like that plexiglass dome is back around my head.
I get another DM ping:
◘nocturna – hey, i know it’s a lot to take in
◘princess_and_the_pea – OMG ya think? Wait, does this mean ◘witching_hour was right all along?
◘nocturna – lol no, that one’s still cray-cray
The room is less spinny and the dome seems to have retracted, so I poke around a bit more on the pinned threads. And as I read the stories in 3rd Time’s a Charm, some desiccated organ of hope—smaller than an appendix, tinier than a bile duct—begins to inflate.
I’m staring at that spot on the ceiling, waiting. Ready. Open up, let me in.
And there it is. 3:33. Whoosh. Here I go.
I step back into the darkened mossy corridor. This time the ground is soggy, making squelching noises under my feet; the walls feel like they’re breathing.
I’m gagging on that intense tinfoil taste as I enter my decrepit apartment, where Lex is shrugging, hair flopping, avoiding my gaze. She confesses, “Reverse Jackpot asked me to join.”
As Past-me is digesting this news, I step into her place. I’m driving now.
I turn to Lex and take a deep breath. “I think you can tell I’m having a hard time with this. Maybe because I’m imagining this means our friendship doesn’t matter to you. That I don’t matter to you. And that hurts.”
The air around me tingles. I’m doing it. I’m finally saying the words I’ve rehearsed in my head for all of eternity.
“And I’m also afraid that I’ll be nothing without our duo, that you’re the talent holding everything together.” I keep all the recent evidence that confirms this fear to myself. “But that’s just my insecurities screaming at me. Let’s figure out what this means for us, OK?”
She blinks several times; her lips part. She didn’t expect this from me.
“And here’s what else I need you to know: I’m proud of you. You’re freakishly, stupidly talented and I don’t want my big-baby fears to stand in your way. I love you.” I take both her shoulders in my hands. “And I’m on your side.”
Tears wash down her face; I wrap my arms around her.
Everything slowly dissolves.
I stare at that spot on the ceiling, now blank again. No more nausea, no tinfoil. Champagne-bubbles of joy well up inside me, spilling over, splashing onto my blankets and sheets, flooding the room.
Can’t wait for morning. I spring out of bed and make a beeline for my laptop, guts fluttering in anticipation of what I’ll discover as I head right back to Lex’s profile.
Which is still in memorial status.
What the actual hell.
I’m still in the wrong universe.
Back to the Traveler’s page. Re-reading the 3rd Time’s a Charm thread threatens to induce shrieking, so I ping my new friend, who seems to be online, of course:
◘princess_and_the_pea – Hey are you there? I just re-did my redo
◘nocturna – wow, congrats! not everyone gets completion on their third encounter
◘princess_and_the_pea – Yeah but my friend is still dead, WTF!
◘nocturna – oh shit
◘princess_and_the_pea – RIGHT? What happened?
◘nocturna – well i get it, i had the same reaction to my redo results
◘princess_and_the_pea – What are you even talking about
◘nocturna – i was pretty delusional about how much control i had in my situation, too
◘princess_and_the_pea – 0_o
◘nocturna – there’s a thread here for redo debriefing, maybe that can help?
I slam the laptop closed. I do not hurl it out my window.
What flaming hot garbage. I wish I had a fist big enough to punch the entire planet in the face.
I got it right this time, so why hasn’t anything changed? But apparently I’m delusional now. Thanks for nothing, Travelers.
So…wait. What did I believe was my fault, exactly?
My head swirls and empties out like someone pulled the plug out of my drain. Gotta lie down again.
Boneless with exhaustion, fading. I roll myself up in blankets like a cocooned caterpillar and conk out as soon as my eyes close.
I’m still the world’s coziest cinnamon roll when amber light streaming through my curtains wakes me from mercifully deep, luxurious sleep.