Rachel Evangeline Chiong

Short Story - Insomnia

Insomnia

(2013) / Published by the Poetry Institute of Canada / Winner of “young writers of canada: manuscript contest

The businessman balanced the poppy-seed bagel on his thigh. In its skin-tight plastic it rocked like an upturned raft to the rhythm of the train heading towards his hometown, where his sister’s wedding would take place that weekend. He began to tear the wrapping off the bagel, while he watched with increasing impatience as the loading screen on his phone continued to pirouette. Cursing the train’s incapable wi-fi, he folded the plastic back, jammed the bagel in his pocket and got up.

The businessman held his phone outstretched like he was taking pictures of the ceiling. Great, they probably think I’m a tourist, he thought as he paced past rows of couples and three-piece families eating the same plastic-wrapped sandwiches and bagels. He monitored the corner of his screen so intently, waiting for the connection bar to light up, that he didn’t notice his foot catch, until the world turned upside down and his shoulder met the ground in a violent embrace. At first the pain throbbed dully where his arm had protected his phone, but then he felt a dampness start to seep onto his stomach. …am I bleeding? IS THAT BLOOD, AM I BLEEDING?! He forced himself to glance downwards, and his lungs emptied in relief to see that it was only blue paint soaking the front of his suit.  

“Oh, I’m so sorry!”

A girl, dressed in overalls bruised with red and blue paint, was whipping out a rag from an oversized pocket. “I shouldn’t have left my stuff out in the open.” She couldn’t be older than a college student.

“No, no, it was my fault.” It was, and he should have also insisted that it was all right, but the paint continued to drip off his lapels and he had only brought two suits for the trip: a two-hundred dollar Moores for his sister’s wedding and this one. So he hung his head apologetically and handed it to her upturned palm.

Unsure what to do with his hands while waiting, he played with the lock and unlock on his phone, and glanced around the car.

His thumb faltered against the switch.

His head spun in a momentary vertigo, as he tried to make sense of his surroundings. From the ceiling to the floor the boxcar had been so thoroughly painted he wondered if he had stepped into a storybook. Against a backdrop of bursting fireworks, slender, ruby-scaled dragons slithered onto the walls. From their golden, filmy lips smoke streamed and fanned their thick lashes. Below them in a desert, painted so yellow he could feel the sun glaring off it, camels strutted in single file. Their shadows stretched across the sand so far they looked like giraffes, and their turbaned riders like giants. The miniature men wore cotton guarding them from the acrylic sun and silks to stave off the heat.  

Jungles sprouted from the wall next to him. The lush, deep foliage draped with vines and carpet moss surrounded the monkeys, parrots, azure macaws, jeweled butterflies, and emerald pythons, which curled around sturdy Amazon branches. Their forked tongues flicking so realistically, the businessman almost flinched backwards.

On the low ceiling, lanterns hummed warmly, their red bellies radiating off the walls, and yellow tails swishing underneath them like skirts. Smaller lanterns hid behind them, creating the effect of a nonexistent ceiling and a night sky with dotted stars that continued forever.

A frothy blue washed up underneath his black loafers. The floor was a mix of hues, from shadowy blue in the corners where crabs lurked to a cheery aqua in the middle of several, shiny schools of fishes, hazy jellyfish, manta rays, bubblegum octopuses, and briny starfish inching above a party of corals. The painting faded, like waves lapping against a shore, in front of the girl. She sat with her legs folded and the jacket lying like a limp body on her lap, while she rubbed at it thoroughly.

“This is quite a project you have here,” the businessman observed. “Are you an interior designer?”

“Nope.” She shook her head and wispy blonde bangs escaped from underneath her bandana. “I was just preparing this car for a ceremony.”

“What kind of ceremony?”

She smiled. “A special one.”

The businessman nodded, unsure how to respond and covered up his silence by pretending to be interested in his phone. Finally, he said, “I didn’t get your name.”

“It’s ‘Sonny’.”

“Sorry about spilling your paint over, Sonny. Here…” He slipped out the poppy-seed bagel that had been wedged into the pocket of his dress pants. “The bagels on this train are pretty good…but you probably already know that.”

She took it and thanked him, smiling. It was not a flirtatious smile, God knows she was a decade too young,but it was a friendly one that oddly made him feel happy to be alive. In exchange she handed him his jacket. The light, blue stains were still as faint as a 5 o’clock shadow, but a trip to the dry cleaners would mend it easily. He slung it over his shoulders, debating whether he should leave, as Sonny put away the rag and tied back her hair.

“Hey…” he started. No, you have a spreadsheet due next week. You won’t have any time to work on it when you get to your sister’s. “…do you need help?” Ah, screw it. “I mean, my stop’s not until tomorrow night, and I’m an all right artist. You can let me paint the ocean…”

Without speaking she dipped a paintbrush in the can of thick blue, wiping the excess off the edges before handing it to him. “You can start there,” she said and motioned to the edges of the unfinished ocean.

Evening crept on, and the toxic smell of fresh paint stung their nostrils and stuck to their skin, as they sat with their backs to the wall on the dry side of the car.  With their legs outstretched, the businessman felt as if they were two aliens pasted onto a portrait by accident.

Nighttime seemed to fall over the worlds on the walls, and everyone, from the monkeys, camels, and crayfish were asleep but them. Sonny, who wouldn’t stop talking when they filled the floor with ocean water, was suddenly quiet. The moonlight that shone from the windows made her cheeks and shoulders seemed ghostly, like she was going to fade away. He held out his arms, which were exposed from his rolled-up sleeves, and wondered if he was going to fade too. Aware how silly he looked; he quickly put his arms to his sides again. But Sonny didn’t seem to notice.

“You know…” the businessman said, his voice hoarse from not speaking for a while and unattractively loud as it pierced the train’s monotonous rumble. “Your painting scared me for a second.”

Sonny stirred, but continued to stare out the window across from them. “Hmm?”

“It reminded me of these stories my grandma would tell me about. When she was younger she went to all these places, like the Sahara, South America, the Pacific coasts, and even back to her hometown in China. She’d describe all these festivals and how the lanterns looked like stars and she promised to take me there one day.” He tipped his head back and felt his body grow weightless as he lost himself in the never ending sky Sonny had painted.

“Haven’t you seen those before?” Sonny’s voice was so soft, he felt like she was speaking in his head.  

“Not in person, no,” he replied. “But this is the next best thing. I feel like I could fly away.” The blood rushed to his cheeks, and he hung his head back down. “Sorry, that sounded stupid.” He hurried his words, trying to erase his embarrassment. “Anyway, when my grandma died it sort of sobered me. I didn’t want to waste my life dreaming, so I settled down, took my studies seriously, and here I am now. I have a steady job, good enough to pay for a decent suit and support myself. In a month’s time, if I play my cards right, they’ll promote me to a managing position. What about you? Are you an art student?”

“No,” Sonny shuffled her legs upwards to hug her knees. “My name isn’t even ‘Sonny’.”

“Oh?”

“My real name is ‘Somnus’. It means ‘sleep’.”

“Huh…” The businessman let his tongue brush against the back of his lips as he thought. “That’s an interesting name. And you don’t find it morose at all? Sleeping, I mean.”

“There’s nothing morose about it.”

“To you, maybe. But when I asked my relatives what happened to my grandmother, they told me she was only ‘sleeping’.”

“Maybe she is,” Sonny said. “She’s just enjoying a dream that she’ll never leave, that’s all.”

The businessman sighed. He supposed it was only right for an artist to romanticize things. “Did your parents have a reason for naming you that?”

“No one named me.”

“Hm…But…” His voice trailed off. He watched the skinny, industrial trees pass by the same window she stared out of, and noticed how their silhouettes created lines, like they were bars and he and Sonny were in a cage. Without looking at her, he continued. “It’s a nice name on you. At least I think so.”

In the corner of his eye, he caught her hide a smile between her overall cut-offs. He got up and gathered his jacket, his shadow stretching across the ocean and towering over the sandy hills of the dessert. “I better be going now. It’s getting late.”

“Wait.”

He looked down and Sonny seemed so small, curled against the wall. When she lifted her head, he felt uncomfortable as she met his gaze with a look like she wouldn’t see him again. He decided to reassure her with a broad smile. “Don’t worry, I’ll see you tomorrow morning. I’ll bring some food too.”

Then he left and entered the sudden warmth of the passenger car where people had vacated to move to the sleeping quarters. He remembered that she had hardly touched the bagel he had given her, and thought, I better see if she’d like a ham-and-cheese instead for tomorrow. But when he turned to ask her, he met a bright-yellow sign marked ‘EMPLOYEES ONLY’, which blocked the entrance to a maintenance closet and no boxcar in sight.

He woke up instantly. He couldn’t tell if he was dreaming or not, but his heavy feet swayed out of bed, and the moment they touched the carpet, he began to run. The train cars melted into a blur on either side of him and a murky, skinny cloud floated ahead, like the twisted end of a q-tip. He reached out and tugged it, following its trail until it led to Sonny’s boxcar. The cotton dissolved into dirty air between his finger tips and mixed with the smoke that bellowed out the mouth of the boxcar. Inside the walls were blazing bright from fire and timbers were falling in exhaustive groans where the flames had licked at their foundations.

He grabbed around blindly, and a heavy sheet found its way into his hand. He ran at the entrance, beating at the flames. His skin sizzled and he couldn’t breathe, but he didn’t care. I have to put those out. We worked so damn hard on those paintings.

But a hand grabbed at his shirt and pulled him back. He flailed, kicking backwards at the person behind him. Over the roaring and crackling fire he heard someone screaming, “No! No!” It wasn’t until his throat burned that he realized the screams were his.  

He scrambled around and found Sonny clinging to his pajamas, wringing them between her knuckles like mourning rags.

“But, Sonny, all your paintings,” he gasped.

“No, its fine, it’s all right,” she pulled him closer, and he realized that she was crying. “Everything’s all right. You can go to sleep now.”

He hoped that she wasn’t upset because he couldn’t save her paintings. His arm, blistered and seared went around her shoulders and a calmness overcame his body. Instinctively, he put his cheek over her head and rubbed her shoulders to comfort her. He wondered momentarily if his mother had felt like this, when she held him as he cried over his grandma’s death.

He woke up again. He felt disoriented, like the times he went over his entire morning routine only to discover that he had been dreaming and had to repeat everything in real life. He remembered the fire and sat up, needing to check if Sonny was fine. But she was sitting at the edge of his bed, the morning light reflecting off the neat, silver buckles on her overalls.

So many questions clamored over each other in his head, but before the thoughts created words on his lips, she placed a shovel in his hand and led him to the engine room at the front of the train. Beside the furnace was a wheelbarrow overflowing with coals. Wordlessly, he knew what he needed to do, and his fingers tightened around the shovel’s handle.  

The coals clinked against the shovel as he jammed it underneath and scooped them into the empty, slumbering furnace. His body felt new. His back bent with painless flexibility and his arms didn’t strain under the weight. Morning exchanged places with nighttime without his notice, and the moon was shining brightly by the time his shovel met the end of the wheelbarrow in a tinkling kiss.

He sat back on the bench, the window panes cold on his sweaty, damp shoulders. In the moonlight, he watched Sonny light a match and toss it into the furnace. As the flames grew, she slipped her hands inside.

He rose from his seat to stop her, but she cupped the fire and drew it out. The tiny flame grew inside her lotus shaped hands, then began to beat  into a glowing paper ball.

His eyes widened in recognition. “Isn’t that?”

Sonny smiled knowingly and unclasped her hands, revealing the lantern, which she held out towards him. It illuminated the car with a vibrant red making him feel for a moment like they were inside a heart.

The fire that had started as kindling in the furnace burst into flames. The businessman’s shoulder bumped against the wall as the train jerked and groaned onto the railings.

Lanterns were streaming past the shivering panes behind Sonny. He turned and watched mesmerized as they danced out of his own window. This isn’t happening, he thought, yet his fingers rushed to the latch, clicked it open, and slid the window upwards.

The fresh night air filled his nostrils and life seemed to rush into his body. The lanterns made the evening bright, as they bubbled out of the train’s smokestack. Dragons slithered between them, their long, golden whiskers coated with dust, and gleaming eyes glancing at him through heavy, threaded lashes. He reached out to touch their scales and a thrill shot through his fingers when he brushed their cold, coin-like sides. Above them schools of fish swam together in unison, their bellies shining like stars, while the toucans and macaws trilled, bumping against the lanterns, making the glowing lamps bob like balloons. A parrot landed on the turban of a long bearded sultan, who led the rest of the march on their strutting camels. They waved as they passed the businessman’s window, their scabbards and jeweled fingers ringing into the air, mixing with the monkey calls and octopus’ gurgles.

Remembering the lantern in his hand, he held it out the window, freed it from his grip, and watched it float upwards past the starfish and bright-eyed pythons that clung to the train. The train disengaged from the tracks and it rose higher and higher, the wheels continuing to turn incessantly in the air, and the parade following it. The businessman felt a thrilling plunge as the world below grow smaller and the parade fly into the air with the train. Fireworks whistled from the ground, and the sky glowed with exploding stars that died in a crackling applause.

Inside the car, Sonny sat across from him, her skin glowing with the same warmth as the lanterns outside her window. This time she wasn’t crying. In a fleeting moment of sadness that was soon overcome by the excitement around them, he understood.

His lips moved, forming the one question that he knew he had been meaning to ask her all this time. “Am I dreaming?”

But he already knew the answer.

“Yes, you are.”