Sleeplessness is the Insomniac’s Only Friend
"Sandman" from LESSER KNOWN MONSTERS OF THE 21ST CENTURY by Kim Fu, recommended by Kevin Brockmeier
Introduction by Kevin Brockmeier
I grew up in the age of B. Dalton and Waldenbooks. It was one of the great shopping-mall highs of my childhood to stand at those wooden shelves, select a paperback by a total stranger, read a page or two, and realize that a book that had been nowhere on the map of my life, not even as a wave-mark at the borders, was absolutely necessary to it. There I had been, a twelve-year-old kid in his windbreaker and blue jeans, walking around thinking he was complete, and then along came something that revealed a space inside me, a space it both created and rushed in to fill, and now I truly was complete, yet disrupted inside, stirring.
It is a high I experience much less commonly as an adult, not because fewer books are necessary to me but because fewer of them come as surprises. It was as a total stranger, though, that I came to Kim Fu’s work last year, when I received an early copy of Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century from her editor at Tin House, who, as far as I can tell, simply had the hunch I would like it. Reader, I am here to tell you: I felt like I was in B. Dalton again.
Fu’s imagination exists in kinship with a community of writers who express their pain, delight, and curiosity through the surreal, the monstrous, the transformatively symbolic: Kafka, Ballard, Angela Carter; or, more recently, Karen Russell, Kathryn Davis, Lesley Nneka Arimah. (Me, I hope.) She has an eye and a gift for phrasing that seems to kindle a light inside everything she describes, not transforming it so much as revealing it, so that it glows with its own exact oddity, the oddity it has always possessed. This is equally true whether she is turning her attention to the familiar, as she does in the following story, “Sandman”—“Kelly vividly remembered the pills she took, round and yellow, with a rectangular notch across the middle, as though to fit a very fine screwdriver”—or the strange—“The sky was an unnatural color, a collision of blues, indigo and electric, emanating a flat light absent sun, moon, or stars.” More than that, though, she writes the kind of story that will convince you you’ve deduced the inevitable conclusion it is pursuing—a pleasure itself: waiting for a story to satisfy its pattern—before it weaves to one side in favor of some other, better, inevitability.
In short, she brings her own dark dream magic to the page, her own aqueous logic. In “Sandman,” you will find these qualities amply displayed in the story of an office worker chasing the monstrous need of an evasive sleep. It is just one indelible story in a collection that’s full of them.
– Kevin Brockmeier
Author of The Ghost Variations
Sleeplessness is the Insomniac’s Only Friend
“Sandman” by Kim Fu
The person sitting at the end of Kelly’s bed wore a gray, hooded cloak. The hood hung over his forehead and drooped across his shoulders in an elongated oval, his unseen face recessed in the depths of the fabric. The hem covered his feet, even in his seated position, and wide bell sleeves covered his hands to the fingertips. One shrouded hand rested on her shin. Kelly was not afraid. The way he sat—his knees and hips facing out over the side of the bed, his torso turned toward her, his hand low on her leg—seemed parental, benevolent.
Monsters rarely figured in Kelly’s dreams. In her most frequently recurring dream, she was lost in a large building, looking for a specific room among hallways of endless doors. For most of her life, it had been an infinite, shifting school; recently it had become an infinite, shifting hotel, hosting a conference.
The figure climbed onto Kelly’s bed on his hands and knees. He traveled up her body until his face—where his face would be—hovered over hers, holding himself up with his hands by her head, every inch of him covered by the puddling fabric. In the darkened room, she stared into the featureless hole at the center of his hood. He carried the metallic scent of someone who had just come in from outside in the winter.
A trickle of sand touched her lower lip. Sand poured out from within his hood, in a thin, continuous stream. She parted her lips, opened her throat as if to sing. She still couldn’t see his face, but she sensed that the sand was traveling from his mouth and into hers, the matte gold dust glowing dully, catching the faint light that leaked around her drawn curtains.
The sand flowed faster. She felt the grains coursing down her throat, entering her abdomen, entering a cavity she hadn’t known was there, a cathedral emptiness where her organs should have been. She swallowed without gagging, almost without breathing. The sand filled her, weighing her down. She could feel the sand spreading, swelling her belly and traveling into her limbs, pinning her body slowly to the mattress, too heavy to lift under her own power. She had never felt so full, so satisfied.
The longest Kelly had ever gone without sleeping was four days and three nights, when she was thirteen. The details were fuzzy to her now. She remembered that she had begun to hallucinate bugs at the periphery of her vision, white moths and sparkling, winged beetles dancing along her hairline and jaw, and she knew that the streak ended with a visit to the pediatrician. Yet she couldn’t recall talking to her parents about her insomnia—not then, not ever. She remembered the doctor saying she wasn’t getting enough exercise and stimulation during the day; she must be sitting around idle, watching too much TV, eating too much sugar. A friend of Kelly’s, a doctor herself, later told her that sleeping pills were almost never prescribed to children, then or now, but Kelly vividly remembered the pills she took: round and yellow, with a rectangular notch across the middle, as though to fit a very fine screwdriver.
Kelly no longer thought of her insomnia as remarkable or pathological. Her friends who had children often complained of their “problem sleepers”—the elaborate bedtime routines, the seven-year-olds still in their parents’ beds, the songs and books and glasses of water and white-noise-producing, vibrating, oscillating gadgets. Kelly’s parents had locked their bedroom door at night. As a child, Kelly had frequently climbed out of bed to wait for morning in the hallway outside her parents’ room. She’d start out sitting or kneeling and eventually slide to the floor, lying on her side with the cool linoleum against her cheek. She’d wake there, the narrow windows framing gray predawn light, her neck kinked from the hard floor, and hurry back to her room before her parents got up.
In college, everyone stayed up all night to party or to cram. She’d look up from her library carrel in the small hours of the morning and see her fellow students wandering by in pajamas. She’d spent the nights before a project was due in a twenty-four-hour café, ordering a double espresso every two hours, watching the barista wilt and disappear into the back for covert naps, his eyes reddened and shadowed in tandem with hers. She was often the last one awake at the end of a house party, alone with the full force of daylight on a fire escape.
Now, in adulthood, everyone complained about not sleeping enough, not sleeping well. They stayed up to work, they stayed up to worry, the baby kept them up, they got caught up in a TV show or fell down an internet rabbit hole, who could rest in these troubled times? In her twenties, Kelly had had bursts of middle-of-the-night productivity, where she scrubbed the overlooked crevices of her apartment—the tops of the baseboards, the ice trays, the overflow drain in the bathroom sink—or cooked large batches of soup, reorganized her closets. In her thirties, these spikes of energy faded, but sleep didn’t replace them. She just rolled over to the side of the bed and reached for her phone, the portal of light that made the room around her disappear, the articles and videos and jokey, self-deprecating reassurance that millions of others were doing the same. When she went to the doctor, she ticked off “trouble falling asleep” and “trouble staying asleep” on the check-in form, but it was never the reason she’d come, and her doctor never mentioned it.
These unbroken stretches of consciousness, days sometimes blurring into one another, seemed just a feature of modern life, not worth complaining about.
A week before her first visit from the man in the cloak, as Kelly was getting coffee from the break room, her coworker Thibault came in and asked, “Did you sleep well?” as a greeting. Thibault was originally from Belgium and retained an accent. His job title was one level below hers, on a team that worked with the one Kelly managed. Not her direct subordinate. Technically. He had wispy blond hair and large, shallow-set blue eyes, and the broad-boned, sunken, two-dimensional look of someone too lean for his frame. In a vague, lackadaisical way, Kelly wanted to sleep with him.
She answered honestly, in her calibrated office-small-talk voice. “No, not really. But that’s not unusual. I’m not a great sleeper.”
Thibault lit up. “How’s your sleep hygiene?”
Everyone else in the office found him tedious. They dreaded hearing why he was putting butter in his coffee or why his latest cleanse had lent him a sickly, herbaceous smell. His schemes and diets seemed, to Kelly, driven by a misguided belief in the perfectibility of the human body. His dumb optimism made it impossible to imagine him fucking, to imagine a shadow of brutality crossing his face, that any part of him wanted to split another person in half. It felt like a challenge.
“My what?” She stirred her coffee longer than necessary.
“The things you do to improve your sleep quality.” He sounded pleased she didn’t know the term. He reeled off a list of prescriptions: sunlight, an empty bedroom used only for sleep, no caffeine past noon. “Like everything else,” he concluded, “it’s about trying to live the way we were evolved to, back in our caveman days. I’ll send you some links!”
When she next saw Thibault that week, he asked if she’d read the articles he’d emailed her, and she lied that she hadn’t yet. Showering at night, trying to find time during the day to go outside, eating an earlier dinner, not bringing her phone and laptop and snacks into bed with her, removing all traces of work and clutter from her bedroom, laundering her gritty sheets, hanging blackout curtains, giving up her afternoon coffee—it seemed like a lot. Thibault’s manager overheard, and later, when they crossed paths in the ladies’ room, asked if Kelly wanted her to intervene. “You can’t give that health nut an in,” she said, in a tone that was only half-teasing. “He’ll never let up.”
Kelly was slow to answer. “I am tired, though.”
“We’re all tired.”
That Saturday, Kelly sat in one of the dented, unused chairs in the overgrown courtyard of her apartment complex, her head throbbing with caffeine withdrawal. She closed her eyes as the sun hit her face, forcing herself to stay awake—no naps allowed. In the evening, she took a picture of her emptied bedroom from the perspective of her clean, neatly made bed, one of her bare and freshly showered legs at the edge of the frame. She’d done everything except the blackout curtains. She texted the picture to Thibault, hoping it came off as flirty but indistinct.
He texted back, “Good for you!!! Sleep well!!!”
She plugged in her phone in the kitchen, out of reach. As usual, once she turned off the light and crawled under the covers, she felt the muscles in her face and back tightening, snapping alert. As usual, the room felt bright, the snow-white duvet cover aglow, and she longed for her phone. She tucked her fingers into the boxer shorts she slept in and got herself off in a few minutes, her mind blank, unable to fantasize about anything in particular, and felt no more relaxed. She closed her eyes, counting the seconds, her thoughts interrupting and jumbling the numbers.
When she opened her eyes, the man in the cloak was there.
Afterward, after he’d filled her, after he’d rearranged her internal workings and made her swell and buried her from the inside, she discovered that it was late the next morning. She’d been in bed for fourteen hours straight.
For the first few hours of her day, Kelly felt both sharpened and dazed, her spine lengthened, her eyelids pulled back, the contrast on the world turned up, black shadows and startling edges to every surface. Her feet felt in looser contact with the floor, a floating ballerina brush-step as she walked, her neck a loose, springy tether on her head’s helium drift. Her face looked different in the mirror—younger, wide-eyed. Credulous and undamaged.
She had lunch with Gillian, a friend from college she rarely saw, as they lived in different boroughs with an infrequent bus between them. She showed Gillian the picture of Thibault from her company’s online directory. Gillian’s nose squished up in distaste. Kelly expected Gillian to say that she didn’t think he was cute, but a more disturbing phrasing rolled out: “Is this really your best option? Is this the best of the men you know?”
“I’m not marrying him,” Kelly said. “I’m not even dating him. It’s just a work crush.”
“It’s a waste of energy,” Gillian said. She looked closer at the photo on Kelly’s phone. “He kind of looks like Brendon.”
Brendon had been Kelly’s college boyfriend. He could be described in the same broad strokes as Thibault: slim, sandy-haired, blue-eyed. But unlike Thibault, Brendon had been unequivocally, conventionally beautiful, in the manner of a teen idol—delicate features, long eyelashes, large white teeth.
When Kelly thought of Brendon, she pictured him asleep. He’d slept deeply and easily, snoring the moment the lights went out. Asleep through fire engine sirens, through jackhammers and leaf blowers, through neighbors’ radios and drum kits and dogs. Through heat waves, as Kelly sweated and thrashed beside him, as Kelly got up and left the room, as she jangled her keys and clomped around in her shoes and banged shut the front door and went to wander the empty streets. His jaw slack and a small, tender smile on his lips. Kelly had spent many hours watching him sleep, directing the fury of her wakefulness in his direction, willing him to join her in the hot, noisy, agitating realm of the conscious.
Kelly virtuously refused the end-of-meal coffee she wanted and parted ways with Gillian. On the way home, she bought cheap polyester blackout curtains and a pair of fabric shears. After she’d cut them to size and attached them to her existing curtains, she stood back to admire her efforts. She considered sending another picture to Thibault. Gillian’s question troubled her. The best of the men you know. Like Kelly should put all the single men she knew into bracketed tiers until only one remained, worthy of her love. More distressing was the thought that Thibault might actually be the best of them. He meant well, he took care of himself, he had that accent. She didn’t text.
She slept in the nude that night, moving quickly from the warm steam of another nighttime shower through her bedroom to slide under the weight of the duvet. She had almost forgotten about the new curtains, and when she tugged the pull-cord on her bedside lamp, the purity of the darkness startled her. She couldn’t see her own arms as she extended them in front of her. She had to trust a kinesthetic sense of where they were, that they remained attached to her. Her palms and the pads of her fingers tingled, as though she were standing on a high cliff and looking down. The dark seemed to have substance, a pudding-like resistance that slowed the movement of her invisible arms. When she pulled the duvet back, the darkness seemed to descend upon her, cool to the touch, making her conscious of the highest peaks of her body: the tip of her nose, her toes, her upturned nipples.
Lying dead center on the mattress, Kelly could neither see nor reach any edge of the bed, like it went on forever. She lay surrounded by empty, eternal, starless space.
She felt him in the room with her.
The skirt of the cloak brushed against her bare legs, the fabric heavy but soft. As he had the previous night, he hovered above her, his hands out to the side, not touching her. There was a long, suspended moment where he might have been observing her, except there was nothing to see and nothing to do the seeing—no eyes shone in the cavernous hood, both of their forms submerged in the dark.
She parted her lips and exhaled a purposeful stream, like she was trying to cool a cup of tea. It was the only way she could think to ask for what she wanted. This time, he lowered his face onto hers, the hood coming down around her ears and the top of her head, enclosing her in a smaller, closer, even richer darkness. A kiss, at first not unlike any other good kiss. Then she opened, as she had the night before, widening inside her throat, her chest, her gut, her pelvis. That sensation of being enormous and hollow on the inside, as though she contained acres of open field under a prairie sky, as though she contained a cenote that descended to the center of the earth.
Deep in their kiss, the sand flowed from his throat and down hers. She moved around experimentally, as more and more of her body became immobilized: first her core grew leaden, then she could no longer move her limbs, then her twiddling fingers and toes ceased. Lastly her mind. The sweep of sand like a veil draped over her mind, her thoughts dissolving into wordlessness, an inner silence as total as the darkness of the room.
The spritely, elongated feeling lasted longer the next day, until almost two p.m. When she felt it fading, she went to buy a coffee from the cart downstairs, in the office lobby, breaking the rule against afternoon caffeine. She was determined to finish the documentation she’d been working on. She brought her work laptop home and gave up around midnight. She hadn’t bothered to turn on the lights as the daylight had faded, and her living room was now illuminated only by the computer screen. She rubbed her strained eyes and the afterimage of text and figures swam across her vision.
She streamed reruns of a 1980s sitcom on her TV. As she lay on her side on the couch, the speckled image and spackled makeup and canned laughter were like landscape passing through a car window. She thought of the man in the cloak, imagined her body heavy and powerless, and under her strumming fingers she came as she hadn’t in years, ropes of electricity whip-cracking through her.
She returned to the report and wrapped it up quickly, a little shoddily, emailing it to her team at three in the morning. Some of them would be awoken by the vibration of their phones, the demanding growl as the devices convulsed in place. They would mutter about it to their partners, in bed beside them, and to one another the next day: Kelly is always working, Kelly doesn’t sleep, Kelly doesn’t have a life, does she expect the same of us? Kelly hit the send button and sent a ripple of anxiety and spite out into the city, into the night. She felt better. She put the TV show back on and dozed, the volume low, so familiar she could almost see it through her eyelids. Morning light replaced it, penetrating the thin layer of flesh, the backlit blood vessels glowing pink.
The next night—Tuesday—Kelly went to her twenty-four-hour gym at two a.m., empty save for a janitor pushing his vacuum between the machines. She slept on a recumbent bicycle while still pedaling, the resistance at zero, her legs spinning free and her head lolling. A cable news anchor barked from a hanging TV overhead.
On Wednesday, after work, she napped in her apartment building’s courtyard, sleep with the texture of tattered lace, frayed threads of dream woven into reality’s edge. She noticed a neighbor watching her from his window. She waved.
On Thursday evening, she gathered all the food wrappers and papers and mostly empty bottles and unread books and dirty clothes that had gathered in and around her bed, as though they’d washed up there in the tide, and tossed them onto the kitchen table for later sorting. She re-tucked the sheet corner that had come loose, shook the dust and crumbs out of the duvet, changed the pillowcases. She vacuumed. She drank a chamomile tea. She left her phone in the kitchen again, facedown. She did a series of stretches on the floor. She took a hot shower. She drew the blackout curtains and tucked herself in.
The man in the cloak didn’t come.
Once Friday morning had firmly arrived, Kelly went to an all-night diner. She ordered fried eggs, bacon, sausage, hash browns, white toast. She curled up in the booth, her feet tucked under her on the bench and her head pushed into the corner between the booth and the wall. Her eyes closed, she listened to the scrape of cutlery on plates, the hiss of the flattop grill. The waitress shook her shoulder, not unkindly. “You can’t sleep here,” she said. Kelly nodded. She ate everything, cutting it into small cubes, chewing each one at length, drawing out the meal as it consumed the last of the night, the bites turned lukewarm and rubbery. Her dozen refills of coffee seared in her gut as she left for work. By the diner wall clock, shaped like a sunburst, it wasn’t quite seven.
Thibault stood alone at the bank of elevators as she came in, still in his comical-looking biking gear: helmet, fingerless gloves, skintight jersey and shorts, the melon-bulge of his calves and crotch. They hadn’t spoken since the week before. She steeled herself for another cheery conversation about her sleep habits, the text she’d sent.
Thibault looked uncommonly lost in thought, and he didn’t notice her until she was right beside him. They both said hello, the o’s drooping and lost, like there wasn’t enough air in the room. He was visibly sweaty, but her own smell was stronger, the diner coffee gone even more acrid.
“You’re still not sleeping well,” he said.
She shook her head.
“And you tried . . .” He went through all the things she’d done the day before and she confirmed each one, until he reached things she hadn’t. Giving up caffeine entirely. Giving up sugar, meat, dairy, alcohol. Meditation, hypnosis, acupuncture, massage, nasal rinsing, tinted lenses, melanin. How much cardiovascular exercise did she get in a week? There was a conscious relaxation app he could send her. And she shouldn’t expect it to work all the time, right away. It might take weeks or months of consistent—
“Fucking ridiculous,” Kelly said. Her voice was low and clipped, almost a whisper.
“Working this hard at relaxing. Turning rest into work. Making it stressful, making it a competition, another way you can feel like you’re better than everyone else. Can’t you see how absurd that is?”
Thibault rubbed his hand along the side of his bike shorts, a seemingly unconscious gesture, the slick spandex stretched over his sinewy thigh. “I don’t think I’m better than you,” he said. “I was just trying to help.”
The elevator pinged, opened, swallowed them. In the brushed steel of the elevator doors, she could see their warped, impressionistic reflections, two smudges of color.
Moving slowly, as though through water, Thibault reached toward her. He cupped her face with one hand, turning it toward him. His thumb stroked the curve of bone at the bottom of her eye socket, slid down over the puffy, bruise-violet skin, his gaze following.
The elevator pinged their arrival. He stepped back. She waited for him to speak. When he didn’t, she strode out the elevator doors, already starting to close.
The following week, Kelly, the other managers, and a selection of senior employees went to a two-day seminar at their corporate headquarters in Indianapolis. Her hotel room, otherwise unremarkable, was freezing, cold air blasting from an unidentified source despite the tepid weather. She fiddled with the digital thermostat, turning it up and changing the modes to no effect. No one answered the phone at the front desk. She took all the extra bedding out of the closet, piled it onto the bed, and burrowed underneath, her socks still on, her knees curled into her chest.
She alternated between tucking her head under the heap to warm her nose and cheeks and coming up again for air. She’d arrived at the airport too early for the short flight and had had to endure hours of chitchat with her colleagues. Then a group dinner, where she’d nursed a single glass of white wine and maintained a bland, thin-lipped smile. The beige furniture and beige walls of her hotel room, punctuated only by a single two-toned color-block painting, were a relief.
Her fingers caught at fabric that differed from the rough coverlet and scratchy sheets and spongy, fire-retardant blankets. She pulled the fabric toward herself. She knew by feel that it was the cloak. He was lying behind and beside her, one arm wrapped around her waist.
She reached into the sleeve and felt for his hand and forearm, surprised to find it was just that—five fingers, a veiny wrist, and the tender depression at the inside of his elbow. She wasn’t sure what she had expected. A skeleton, a claw, the featureless flipper of a dolphin. She realized then what she’d hoped for: an empty cloak, held up by spectral magic. A bodiless force. She drew her hands back.
They lay together in a bubble of space, the blankets tented overhead by unseen supports, a dome-like roof she could sense but not see. Without touching her skin, he lifted off her loose nightshirt. She rolled and settled on her back. She opened and closed her eyes and found there was no difference. She couldn’t see anything at all, no shadows or the suggestion of motion, no variations in the darkness.
She felt sand trickling across her right arm, accumulating slowly, each pinpoint as barely perceptible as a snowflake. This was new: he was burying her arm from the outside, an increasing mound of sand that left her hand and shoulder exposed. The sand had a nighttime cool, the faintest suggestion of damp. He moved to the other arm. He was precise, few grains straying from the tight pack around her arms.
More sand, poured at a faster clip, blanketed her feet and her shins. A heavy collar of sand pressed down on her throat. She was like an animal with markings that show where it’s the most vulnerable, her face and underbelly left exposed to the air as the rest of her disappeared.
The hotel bed was no longer at her back, the pillow no longer cradling her head. She was lying on a stretch of sand, a midnight desert. She was sinking. She let her hands fall, slip under. She relaxed her shoulders and felt them vanish. The sand made a soft, shushing sound as it gathered, as hillocks formed and collapsed. Soon she was craning her head back, just her face floating above the surface of the dunes. His kiss descended on her, the same comforting, crushing pressure of the sand that surrounded her, and she was gone.
Kelly sat up in bed. Past her hotel window, dawn rose over the clustered skyline, the sun doubled on the canal running through downtown. She could hear stirring in a neighboring room, water in pipes, twittering birds on the concrete sill. She looked at the bulky armoire in the corner, stern-looking wood with a reddish finish, and felt a sudden conviction that she could lift it. She could lift anything in the room. She felt superhuman.
In the T-shirt and sweatpants she’d slept in, her card key tucked in the waistband and her feet bare, she stepped into the hallway. She knocked on the door she knew was Thibault’s. With the same heightened clarity, like it was a movie she’d seen many times before, she envisioned herself pushing past him and into the room, crowding him to the edge of the bed, shoving him onto his back, stripping them both while he gaped, straddling him and fucking him senseless, not a word exchanged.
It was a long time before she heard footfalls on his side of the door. A pause while he must have been looking at her through the peephole. He opened the door a crack, then pulled it back and stepped into the gap so they could face each other.
She started forward and he held out a hand, level with her shoulder, stopping her. He shook his head, his eyes downcast and his lips slightly curled, an expression of pity, politeness, gratitude-but. He held the handle as he let the door shut again, slowing its swing so the closure was almost soundless.
Kelly stood there, stunned. A door opening down the hall finally sprung her into motion and she scurried back to her room.
The man in the cloak didn’t return for nearly a month. Day bled into night into day. She slept in a bathroom stall at work. She slept on the bus. She slept while getting her hair cut. She slept during conversations. She slept upright with her eyes open at her desk. At best, she slept for the first or last couple hours of the night. None of it was sleep, exactly—she could perceive how much time was passing or when the bus was nearing her stop; she could appear to be listening and catch the gist of what was being said. She lost small shards of time, a few seconds or less, the film reel of the world stuttering forward.
One night, she walked to a movie theater across town that had midnight showings of old movies on weekdays. She settled into a seat at the back, upholstered in worn green velvet, her feet sore from the hour-long walk in flats. The movie that night was Singin’ in the Rain, and before the opening credits were over, the loud, jaunty orchestration and yellow typeface over umbrellas, her eyes fluttered shut.
When she opened them, the theater was empty, and her first thought was that she’d slept through the whole film. Except the house lights remained off, and the screen was still glowing without a picture, just a lit gray rectangle.
The man in the cloak sat in the seat beside her, his sleeve spilling over the armrest.
She spoke directly into the sagging, empty hood. “Why am I like this?” she said. “Why don’t you come to me every night, like you do everyone else?”
She reached inside his sleeve to take his hand. Her fingers found only a loose configuration of sand. She recoiled. A thin, anemic stream of sand ran out onto the floor.
Above them, the glass of the projection booth shattered, an explosive change in pressure. The booth had been filled with sand, now gushing down onto their heads through the hole. Sand burst open all the theater doors, front and back.
Waves of sand as high as the doorframes cascaded down the aisles, piled up over the seats, higher and higher. She jumped out of her seat. The sand was up to her knees, too yielding to run on, making her stumble as she tried to escape. Up to her waist in an instant, the theater filling fast, corner to corner.
The empty cloak floated by on a current of incoming sand, flat as a paper doll.
She clawed and fought and tried to stay above it, in the vanishing air, trying to protect her stinging eyes, the sand coating her mouth, sucking the moisture from her. The doorframes burst, the walls caved in. The world beyond the theater was made entirely of sand, eager to occupy the void. A torrent of sand knocked her sideways. She was quickly covered under a choking, scraping blanket of darkness.
Kelly opened her eyes. Everything was quiet and still. She was back in the desert, but this time she could see: undulating dunes stretched in all directions, curves snaking to the horizon. The sky was an unnatural color, a collision of blues, indigo and electric, emanating a flat light absent sun, moon, or stars. She was sitting upright and naked in a wide, high-backed chair sculpted from sand. A throne, decorated in an intricate pattern of whorls. She picked up a handful of sand and let it run through her fingers, the texture unnervingly different from before—powdery as flour, no grit.
She realized the man in the cloak was sitting at her feet, facing away from her, his back against the base of the throne. His head—through the hood—leaned lightly against her knee. When he spoke, his voice seemed to come from all around her, from nowhere in particular, directly into her mind.
Do you think, he said, I come to everyone the way I come to you?
He rose to his feet, turning around, like a column of sand rising out of the ground before her. The cloak sleeves settled over her hands and arms, facing up on the armrests of her throne. His hidden hands cinched around her wrists and locked them in place.
He leaned forward. A pinch of sand sprinkled across her brow, sparkly as craft-store glitter. She blinked it away. He released her wrists and stood upright again, turned as if to leave. And she understood, though he was silent: There, now you’re like everyone else.
The hood was angled over his shoulder, as though he were looking back at her, expecting her to call him back, to beg for his occasional, ecstatic visits between long seasons of wakefulness. To keep her secret knowledge of the workings of the universe, of every hour of the night, the changing shadows across the sleep-softened faces of friends and lovers. She said nothing. She craned her head back and rolled it side to side across the top of the throne’s backrest, to carve out a cradle for her skull in the soft-packed sand. At the edges of her vision, the desert blew away, curling in the wind like ocean surf, dissipating into the air. She closed her eyes and slept the dreamless, nourishing, ungrateful sleep of the innocent.