Flash Fiction Contest Adult Division Winner

Old at Night
By Alicia Zuberbier

She pats the pillow with her once slender fingers, and the dust of come to bed puffs out from her yawn. She already has her eyes closed when I slip under the sheets, but she is not sleeping.

Carolyn does not sleep at night.

I count the seconds between her breathing. Too fast for dreaming, too fast like the trains outside our window at three a.m. I’ve heard their passing for the last week, a deep rumble in the throat of night. And so has Carol.

I do not know why she watches me, but I can almost feel her fingers inside my mouth, counting my teeth; I can sense her stare, watching me inhale then exhale then inhale again. I noticed it one night a few weeks ago, the cool evaporation of breath on my neck. Carol breathes on me while she watches. She must be tallying up the hairs I’ve lost, the winkles I’ve gathered, and the weight I’ve gained.  In the mornings, she says I snore, that my airways are blocked, but I just say that people who sleep, snore. Carolyn does not snore.

Her arm lies across my chest. When she was young, it felt like a small cat curled up above my heart. Now I’m sure she is checking my pulse while I sleep, her hand on my chest, rising and falling with my ribcage.  She always says I cannot die before her.  What will she do, she says. Who will she watch, I think.

Trying to sleep is like having my whole body be a funny bone, one that twinges constantly.  The sheets are too heavy. The darkness is too black. She is selfish, putting this feeling into my brain so I cannot enjoy the night anymore. I used to stay up for hours with her. The yokey color of a sunrise reminded us that we had spent the whole night awake, talking about our future and quoting the bad movies playing after midnight on TV.  Now I stay up because of her. When I look over at my wife, expecting to find her eyes stuck to my skin, Carolyn is folded up neatly inside herself, making me doubt my convictions.  Her lids are purple curtains, drawn over the eyes I once fell in love with. She pretends to sleep at night the way I pretend I am awake in the day.

The window is open, letting in cool September air. The leaves whisper to one another outside, likely planning their escape to the ground before mother tree notices. Our children have gone too. Not even in the state anymore, but like red wings, they migrate around, and we aren’t sure if they ever really come home. Carolyn used to wake at two so they could be fed, and even after they outgrew their bottles, she would still wake to check on them. Her attention is now on me at night. I’m sure of it.

The stars are pretty. Carol used to be pretty too. Little flecks of light once flickered like flames in her eyes as hair poured down her shoulders–dark like merlot.  Now the crust of age outlines her forehead. Her hair is always pulled back. She is old to me.

I must also be old to her.