ReaLife

Prompt: "The alarm clock buzzed in the dark"

The alarm clock buzzed in the dark.

Rachel Ulrich's eyes flew open and she shot straight up in her bed, panting, hand slamming down on the clock's buttons. The darkness of the night inside her room stifled her, and refused to comfort her as it had always done. She gazed around in terror, trying to distinguish the familiar features of her attic hideaway, but at midnight all the furniture seemed masked in shadow, each precious artifact of her life shrouded from her eyes. She sighed and lay back in her bed, drawing the quilts up against her chin, feeling as if she were four years old and afraid of the boogey man.

Shocked violently out of the dream, Rachel shivered. Bright white lights…the noise of total silence, broken only by little sounds, little pattering sounds…these were the few things that she could remember of her nightmare upon waking. It seemed so different from every bad dream that she could recall. Sometimes snakes made her wake in the night, or spiders or dinosaurs, but never this terrifying fear that had no memory. She tried to dissect the parts of the dream that she could still see in her head, but all she could come up with was an image that wasn't very frightening at all—a plain white ceiling, checkered with industrial tiles.

It was the sounds that had frightened her so badly. The silence of her dream had been so complete it was unnatural. And still there were those little insignificant sounds…it seemed almost silly that she should be so afraid.

Rachel turned over and curled her legs up to her chest. The glowing red numbers of her digital clock read 12:30. She must have left it set from yesterday. Damn. Only five more hours till she would have to get up again. Sleep was precious to a high school student, and with the late nights she had been keeping recently, Rachel knew the value of a good night's sleep. Stupid nightmare.

()()()

Stupid alarm clock. What made it so irritating anyway? She groaned as she turned over and fiddled sleepily with the buttons along the side. Instead of the buzzing noise, it shifted over into blasting radio. Wrong way. Rachel yanked the little dial all the way to the other side and all the noise finally stopped. She flopped back against her pillow and tugged the covers up to her chin.

"Rachel, I think you need to look at the instruction manual for that thing."

The teenager sighed and tried to pull her quilts up closer. "I can't think when I've just been woken up. Machines hate me anyway."

Her mother sighed and leaned against the doorjamb, her face featureless in the darkness of the morning. "Well, I won't be around to be your human alarm clock forever. College next year, you know."

"Go 'way," Rachel whimpered sleepily.

"Oh, no," her mother replied, crossing the room and yanking all covers off her daughter's curled up form, "you woke me up, and you get to go back to sleep? Go shower, young lady!"

She squealed as the cold air met her bare legs, but, glaring daggers at her mother, she grabbed her towel off the floor and tiptoed across the cold wooden boards in the hall to the shower in the bathroom next door. She turned the dial in the shower all the way to the darkest red setting, but the water that came out was icy, shifting slooooooooowly to tepid as she held her hand underneath the spray. In thirty seconds, when the message about the cold water finally reached her brain, she leaned out of the bathroom door and shouted, "MOM! Furnace is out again!"

Her father's heavy footsteps echoed in the cavernous hall as he trundled groggily down the stairs and into the basement. Rachel sat on the toilet seat, wrapped in her towel and shivering furiously as she heard the warm water start flowing again. Of course, the water would only be really hot again in fifteen minutes, so she went back to her room and curled up under her blankets, keeping her face towards the bright numbers of her clock.

"I must not go to sleep," she murmured, wishing that she had the ability to stop time to get just a little more time in for napping.

"No you mustn't," her mother quipped, the light from the hallway now illuminating the edges of her robe. "Water's hot."

"No it isn't," Rachel groaned, "fifteen minutes."

"It was just a flare-out. Now, shower."

"Will never, ever wake up early when I'm an adult." Rachel made the fervent promise as she brushed past her mother.

"Wait until you have children." Her mother's voice was wry. "I left your breakfast on the table."

Rachel turned and pecked her mother's cheek. "Thanks, mum."

"Hmm…"

()()()

Rachel fell asleep on the bus that morning. The darkness of early winter enfolded her, and before she knew what was happening, the girl in the seat across from her was shaking her, concern on her face, and she was the last one off the bus. The driver smirked at her, looking back over the seats through his mirror, and she scoffed as she stumbled down the stairs onto the cold pavement.

Noise and faces filtered past her as she walked through the lobby, towards the glass faced cafeteria where she and her friends hung out in the morning before class. Swinging her backpack down against the wall, she slumped down and promptly faded out again.

Maria was staring at her when she drifted awake again, smiling much like everyone had smiled at her this morning. Rachel was really getting tired of that semi-sarcastic, semi-condescending glance.

"What?" she gritted out, irritably, shrugging off her friend's hand.

"Well pardon me for being concerned about your stuff being stolen." Maria said, leaning against the wall beside her. "You've been in a foul mood recently. What's up?"

"The sky." Rachel was still grouchy, made even more so by the fact that Maria was right.

"Ha, ha. Did you backtrack into elementary school?" Maria poked her on the arm, an irritant in the best of cases, and sighed, letting her head bang the glass so that the dull echo reverberated in Rachel's head as well. "Getting enough sleep?"

"As a matter of fact, no." Rachel replied, wrapping her coat around her even tighter. "I keep having this really bad nightmare, and I don't ever seem to get a night without it recently."

"What's in it that's so bad?"

"Oh, come on. Don't tell me you're into dream interpretation now too."

"Hey," Maria quipped, lightly poking her again, "I've been practicing recently. French class."

"Wha—"

"Don't ask. Made no sense to me either."

"School's screwed up."

"You'll get no argument here." Maria acknowledged, shrugging. "But seriously, what's wrong?"

"I just told you!" she flared, "No sleep and nightmares! God! What do I have to do to get people to leave me alone?"

"Hey." Maria said, glaring. "Chill out. I was just worried about my friend. Forgive me if I don't have the right to do that." She turned her head upwards and looked steadily at the ceiling. Rachel saw that she'd pushed too hard. But she relished the silence, and she did not want to apologize.

Kim found them two minutes later like that, both stewing in their own irritation. She whistled softly and sat down, also leaning against the glass, careful not to break the silence. Several moments passed, tense with the quiet.

"Is this some kind of new game we're playing?"

The tension broke, and both Rachel and Maria laughed.

"Nah," Rachel said, staring at her palms, glad that she didn't have to stare into florescent lighting any longer. "I was just tired."

"Mmm…" Kim murmured, knowing not to push at all. "Neither Jess nor Michael are coming in today. He bought her tickets to a musical for an early Christmas present, and they went to see it today."

"Lucky." Maria said shortly.

Rachel jerked her head in an affirmative fashion. Kim noticed that her subject change had done no good, and she glanced at her watch. Five minutes remained till the start of school, and she began to count the seconds, as she did on many days when her friends were out of sorts.

Rachel decided not to wait. She was too upset, what with no sleep and her friends' incessant questions. She stood, swinging her backpack up onto one shoulder and stalked off.

Kim sighed, watching her retreating back. "What did you say this time?"

"Okay," Maria snapped, "this time, I swear to God, I said nothing. She's just a touchy bitch, that's all."

"If she's not sleeping well…"

"Shut it, Kim. I've heard all your excuses for her. I don't think that even you still want to be friends with her. Not really."

()()()

A morning was officially made ten times worse if it began with math. Math was not her subject, and that was putting it lightly—it was no one's subject. Even the teacher was bored. She watched listlessly, letting her mind drop away from the voices and the sound of the chalk on the board…

…laughter woke her, unfortunately, and that was never a good sign. As she sat up, a piece of loose-leaf crumpled in her hand, and she read the note from the teacher that assigned her detention for falling asleep in class. The bell for second period had long since rung, and the English teacher who had taken over the classroom had decided to make an object lesson of her. Some freshman kid, though, had apparently spoiled it for them.

She didn't even hang around to listen to anything that anyone was saying. Her mind was still stuffed with cotton, and trying to hear would be just an irritant. She swept out of the room, hoping that the side of her cheek did not show the lines of her binder's edge.

But at least it was time for her free period. She hadn't earned another cut, or worse, another detention, by being late to someone's class.

And the library was a quiet spot, where none of her friends would be in this period—they usually shared a table in the cafeteria—and she could get a little quiet. Absently, she wondered if she should draft an editorial to the school newspaper…something about sadistic teachers and the unfair starting hour of school. But when her notebook was out, her focus wandered, and she found herself, twenty minutes later, still diddling with her pen over the blank sheet of paper. Her mind had skipped a whole twenty minutes in time.

She winced as she sat up—the wooden chair back had been digging uncomfortably into her spine, and her neck felt terribly cricked. She sighed. Fading in and out of reality was not a good sign, no matter who you were. Rachel wanted to go home.

()()()

"What do you mean you can't pick me up?"

"I mean," her mother's irked voice told her over the fuzzy phone connection, "that I don't have the time to come pick you up just because you're tired."

Rachel leaned against the cold tiled bathroom wall and rubbed her forehead. Some little kid brushed by her to get back to class, and Rachel was irritated enough almost to smack the girl. "I'm not just tired, I'm falling asleep and my brain is not

working. I think there's something wrong with me—this isn't a typical sign of sleep deprivation, is it?"

"Actually, it is."

It just wasn't fair that she had a nurse for a mother.

"Please mom, get me out of here."

"Sorry, baby, I just can't…" the phone connection hissed, "it's hell down here, two of our volunteers are out sick and it's flu season. We're swamped. Go to the nurse and tell her you've got my permission to sleep there. I'll call later if it gets less busy."

"Mom, wait…"

The line stopped. Rachel sighed. The school nurses were sadistic, much like the teachers, and refused to let you sleep unless you had a fever, or you had no class that period. Otherwise, you had to go to class.

The bell rang. Third period.

()()()

Rachel dumped her schoolbag on the table and trudged to the living room, stopping before she collapsed on the sofa to throw the two detention slips she had been given into the fire. Her father's heavy footsteps made their way out of the study.

"Bad day?"

She looked up at him with baleful, red eyes. "No. Was great. You?"

Her father sighed and went back to his client.

Rachel fell asleep.

She dreamt she was waking up, but her body felt strange and heavy. Bright fluorescent lights gleamed down on her, and she squinted and jerked to one side, trying to get away from them. Sudden pain shot through her skull, ricocheted around and settled to a dull throb. There were two dark shadows creeping around her bed, and one of them was holding her hand, while the other hovered directly over her face. She wanted to scream at them to get away from her, but her tongue was thick and the only thing that would come out of her mouth was a groan.

The two dark imps crept closer, their shadows drowning and smothering her.

Rachel woke up in a panicked cold sweat. As she sat up, the tasseled afghan slithered off of her. She crept into the kitchen, where a note had been left on the table. Her parents had gone out to dinner and were bringing something back for her. The note was dated 7:52. She looked at the clock. It was 8:00.

"Thanks for waiting," she grumbled, stalking her way over to the fridge. She wasn't waiting for them to come home, and she knew that there was a pint of ice cream left over from her dad's birthday sitting in the freezer. She grabbed a spoon from the drawer and plopped down in front of the TV in the living room, where she wrapped the afghan around her again.

Of course, there was nothing good on TV. Why should there ever be?

Frustrated, she jerked her feet up underneath her to get them warm again, and the same pain she had felt in her dream twinged back into being in her skull. She gasped, dropped the carton of ice cream, and massaged her head until the pain stopped. She touched the edge of her hairline, right above her ear—it was irritating enough to be one of those ingrown zits—but this time she felt nothing. The back of one of her hands hurt too, and the crux of her elbow, almost as if she had had a needle stuck through in those places.

"I don't care what she says," Rachel growled, shoving a dollop of ice cream in her mouth, "I am not going to school tomorrow." The chocolate ice cream comforted her somewhat, and she sighed, smiling suddenly.

"I'm being moronic, I know," she sighed to herself, "nothing's really wrong with me, and in a week or two I'll have gotten more sleep and I won't be feeling these hypochondriac sicknesses. I'll just take my detention and get back to it. I'm just going through a low spot. I already feel better for napping." And truth be told, aside from the weird pains that she still felt ricocheting around, she felt more energetic. She put aside her ice cream and crouched next to the entertainment center, selecting one of her favorite movies and sliding the DVD into the machine. When her parents went out to dinner, they were splurging. She could count on another few hours to herself.

()()()

Another week saw Rachel much as she had predicted. She had slept the day after her minor crisis, and woke up feeling so much better that for the first time in a month she seemed like her normal, amiable self. Her parents' tension levels went down, as did her own, and after her one detention in school, she was right back on track.

It was Wednesday morning. She was in early, to meet with one of her teachers about a quiz that she had missed for her little mental health sojourn, and the school was mostly abandoned, save for the jocks who had to come in at five for captain's practices. They looked as tired as she had felt. Rachel shook her head, depositing her house keys in her purse, and rounded the corner.

She thought she had gone insane.

Her school hallways, long, white, and antiseptic, had always resembled the wing of a hospital. But what she was seeing was impossible!

The image of her school, familiar and cold, had been suppressed under a ghostly, superimposed picture of a hospital's intensive care unit. She saw the filled cots, above which teams of doctors and nurses were frantically working and calling to each other. Phrases, specific phrases, did not reach her ears. But the body on the table nearest her twitched grotesquely and thrust out one arm, upon which a metallic watch with a blue face happily ticked away the hour.

Rachel reeled back, but as quickly as the image had rushed upon her, it as quickly receded. She shook her head, feeling the familiar pain return, pushing and invading upon her consciousness.

"No," she said firmly, "no."

She was tired, still painfully tired from her overexertion, and this was just a not-so-subtle manifestation of her physical state. She chuckled half-heartedly at her body's blatant way of stating things. It lacked subtlety, but at least her conscious mind had gotten the message.

"All right," she whispered, "I'll get more sleep."

Someone collided with her shoulder, and she turned quickly to apologize, but the body of the student, as well as the others who were crowding their ways through the hall, formed a solid, massive wall that absorbed all sound. She was startled, to say the least. There should not be this many people in the school at…

…7:24.

When she had come in, it had been at 7:05. Buses hadn't even shown up yet.

She felt the cold terror gripping her heart. She was missing time again. Had she just stood in the hall while the world passed her by? Hadn't anyone tried to wake her?

"Either way," she thought brusquely, pulling herself firmly together, "either way I have to make it to class on time now. New leaf, remember?"

The day passed swiftly, and she just made the bus after apologizing profusely to her teacher; before she knew it, she was home again. The house was silent—her father had told her that he would be gone for the next few days. Business trip to Pennsylvania, she remembered was what he had said. She was free until her mother came home whenever her work shift ended: that could be as early as 6 and as late as midnight. There was always a nice stack of TV dinners in the freezer for occasions like this.

Rachel swung her bag down onto the kitchen table and dumped her purse next to it. God, how she wished she could drive! Then she wouldn't have to sit bored at home at times like this. However, now her father's DSL connection was free…

She chatted with her friends for a while before the sun finally went down and hunger drove her off the computer. Popping a Siesta Chicken meal in the microwave, she turned on the TV to see if there were any movies playing. Ugh. Her father had left it on the news station. There was a sick image of a girl about her age connected to full life support. Apparently, a car accident had left her in a coma, but since there was still brain activity, her parents refused to let her go. Her parents were beside her, looking almost as ill as she did.

Rachel flipped the channel. She hated hearing about other people's problems. She felt she had more than enough of her own. Still, she couldn't help thinking about it. What was it like, stuck in your own mind? What was it like, drowning in the dark recesses of a coma? She shuddered and opened the microwave, peeling back the plastic and stirring it aimlessly with her fork. Something about the idea just would not leave her alone.

Even as the aroma of food assailed her and made her hungrier than ever, her body felt the familiar crushing waves of tiredness. She looked at the timer on the microwave, her eyelids already feeling heavy as sandbags. Rachel did not want to fight her body; it was too weird and unpredictable. She ignored the incessant beeping of the microwave and rolled up on the sofa, burrowing beneath her afghan and fell asleep.

()()()

This time, her dream was much more clear. Her eyes opened in the same chamber that she had usually seen, but this time it was dark. She sighed in relief, having expected the harsh fluorescent lights again—the darkness was a mercy to her. She wanted to manipulate her dream self, but she was entirely incapable of sitting up. So she lay still, examining the room as she did.

The darkness was only partial; there was still some ambient lighting in the room, filtering through the window where the moon was half full, and there were still bright lights in the hall outside her door. Bright yellow light created patches of illumination on her ceiling and floor. The silence was total this time. But even as Rachel sighed in relief over the benign face her nightmare was now assuming, she became aware of something horrible.

Her heart was not beating on its own. She could not understand how she was conscious without that rather important piece of physiology, but the muscle was lying in her chest. The weight that she had considered unimportant at first was the very thing that was keeping her alive. It sent electrical pulses to her heart, contracting it sharply. Rachel began to gasp in terror, the breath echoing through her limp lungs and reverberating loudly in the room. Her arm jerked, and sent a sharp jab of pain through her chest. A shrill alarm pierced the silence, going off right next to her ear. Shapes darkened the doorway, and Rachel was so afraid suddenly, without knowing why…

…someone was shaking her awake. The room was dark, darker than her dream, but the face hovering above her was familiar. Her mother stood above her, telling her that she needed to eat before she went back to sleep.

Rachel stood, her ankles and legs unsteady, and glanced around. It was still her living room. She felt her chest. Her heart was giving solid, comfortable beats. The smell of stale chicken and lukewarm, slightly soured tomato sauce was in the room. Her mother led her to the table and then dumped out the mess she had left on the counter. Rachel's eyes were having trouble focusing, but she could read the display on the oven. 10:37.

Her mother had stopped at a fast food place for dinner, and Rachel shared her meal, devouring one cheeseburger and more than her fair share of fries. But just as soon as she had finished, lethargy gripped her again and she could hardly make it upstairs in time to fall into bed.

She woke up at 3:30, and sat straight up. Reaching over to her bedside table, she flipped on her lamp and gathered her blankets around her. She had felt, no, she had known that there was someone else in the room with her. She shuddered, wanting nothing more than to just bury herself in the covers or call for her father to check for this boogey man. But she was old enough now…she could do those things. Creeping out of bed, she made the rounds of her room, being careful to check in all the nooks and crannies. She even was so bold as to examine her closet, which common sense had told her not to investigate for the past 5 years.

There was no one there. Of course there would be no one there!

()()()

The next afternoon, her mother got home early. When she breezed in the door, there was a bright yellow letter clutched in her hand. Rachel looked up from the table where she had spread out her homework, trying to keep her mind of the odd things happening recently, and her heart leaped. Had they finally replied to her?

"Look what was in the mailbox!" her mother sang, "I think it's from you-know-where!"

Rachel had to calm herself down first, before she could even move. Nonchalance was important. After all, this competition and its $500 prize had really meant so little to her. She had hardly thought about it during the six months it had taken them to reply to her entry. In fact, this math assignment was more important than any response from some magazine that took half a year to reply to a submission. However, she decided, it was just common courtesy to open letters. After all, someone had bothered to stick it in the envelope. Yes. She might as well get it out of the way.

During her deliberations, her mother, smiling, had left the conspicuous envelope on the edge of the table. Rachel picked it up and examined it. Such a cheerful color, she grumbled to herself. I suppose that makes the rejection easier to take.

Dear Ms. Ulrich:

Congratulations! We at LiteraryStar magazine are delighted to inform you that your story ReaLife has been named the grand prizewinner of our 2004 Autumn Authors competition.

It was unreal. It could not have actually happened. No one entered competitions expecting to win first prize.

There was much celebrating that night. Her mother declared it a familial holiday and forbid her father from working. They spent the night at the local diner, enjoying ice cream floats in December.

That night, she woke up for the first time in her nightmare.

It must have been summer, for she felt deliciously warm. Someone had opened the window, and her fingers twitched to feel the warm breeze on her skin. Her head shied away from the pain of the needle, as it usually did, and she could hear voices.

"Oh, my God, Mark, look at her!"

There was the face of a very handsome man floating above her. Someone's finger's entwined with hers.

"Jessica honey," his voice was warm, but heavy with suppressed hope, "can you see me?"

Jessica?

She shook her head. Or tried to. The pain stopped her. The moment her body moved she felt the sharp convulsions of the needle in her skin—and now, this time—there was a new pain. Her heart was battling the machine that was beating it for her, and she was winning.

"Laura," the man continued, looking over his shoulder, "go get the doctor. Jessie's awake!"

Her tongue felt too heavy to contradict him. Her eyes fluttered closed for a moment, and the grip on her hand tightened.

"No, Jessica, come on! You did it once, you can do it again. Wake up!"

She moaned, the sound disproportionately loud in her throat, and her eyes were open again. There was a man in green doctor's clothes standing over her. He had a nice smile.

"Well, Miss Mitchell," his smiled looked like it was going to split his face in two, "you have certainly surprised us all."