The Weight of Night
I’D LOVE TO tell you the person I am now has nothing to do with the girl I was when I lived in Sandefjord, a quaint port town on the southern tip of Norway. I was born there, a place where the sun glinting on the navy-colored, foamy bay made you feel alive, and the crisp air gusting in from the North Sea ensured you never forgot your strong-blooded, Nordic roots. I lived a typical, healthy life with my family—skiing, sledding, skating—until everyone: my mother, my father, my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, the neighbors, my classmates, my teachers . . . quit trusting me. I quit trusting me.
It had been exactly five years and two months since the last time I had gone through a phase of my dreaded sleepwalking habit, when I was twenty-five. I have had what professionals call a REM behavior disorder—a condition that takes sleepwalking to absurd levels—since I was a child. Unlike most people who frame each day with an awakening from sleep and a submission back into it, I learned that the bracket on the slumbering end of my frame was seriously flawed. After a busy or stressful day when most people relish the thought of snuggling into their beds, wrapped in warm covers, their heads sinking into soft pillows and sliding blissfully into a world of dreams where time ceases to exist, I fear going to sleep—sometimes dread it.
But I had begun to think I might be over my syndrome—that I’d succeeded in prying myself away from my younger self, that treacherous girl, like I was a toy comprised of two plastic parts held
together only by stubborn glue. Unfortunately, I was wrong, and my disorder began rearing its ugly head again one warm summer morning in August. Later, my doctor would say it was the heat and the particlefilled air that acted as a trigger, but I came to see its resurfacing as much more fated—a deeper prompt forcing me to dredge up raw, unwelcome memories.
I woke up at my usual six a.m. alarm and noticed the light covers—a sheet and thin blanket—tangled and pushed to the bottom of the bed. I gave myself the benefit of the doubt. After all, it had been a hot night. All summer the temperature had hovered upward of ninety-five degrees and half the Northwest was on fire. Montana was no exception. Fires burned to the east, west, north, and south of the Flathead Valley, and the ones raging in and around Glacier National Park had started more than four weeks earlier. Now the thick smoke blanketed the mountains and choked the valley, making each day feel like an apocalyptic event lurked around the corner.
I’d closed the windows the night before because it seemed better to suffer the heat than to inhale the dense, toxic air. A fly had furiously buzzed along the windowsill, captive in the stagnant room. For a good half hour, I listened to its maddening buzz and its random, annoying flights. After I tried to swat at it when it flew too close to my face a number of times, it settled somewhere on the ash-covered sill and left me alone. I finally drifted off listening to the whir of the ceiling fan. Of course, I thought, such circumstances would give anyone a restless night. I’d probably just kicked the covers down to get some air.
I swung my feet to the wood-planked floor, pleased to feel the smooth slats under my soles, and sat for a second rubbing my arms. The morning light filtered through the smoky sky and stretched across the golden floor like gauze, turning it a sickly yellowish orange. I looked out the window, hopelessly wanting to see something wet—some freshly soaked pavement, leaves dripping with moisture, or soil darkened by rain. It was bone-dry, the grass in the small yard turned beige, the leaves on the tips of the bushes tinged yellow. The pine trees
in the side woods appeared diseased with reddish-brown needles, many already fallen and desiccated on the forest floor as if it were fall. There was no relief in the forecast.
I picked up my phone from the bedside table and checked for messages. There were none, so I headed to the bathroom to shower and get ready to go into the lab. Nothing too pressing was going on, but I needed to finish some paperwork on a deceased man—a young firefighter, in fact—from the day before. He’d been found separated from his crew, sitting still against a tree as if he were simply enjoying a peaceful moment in the forest, watching swallows diving in and out of branches or listening to the chickadees sing their songs, before continuing on his way. Only, in these fire-infested woods, there would be no birdsong. The ME determined that it was his heart—an arrhythmia—but we’d been called in before the ME made that determination just in case there was foul play.
I’d almost forgotten about my bedcovers when I looked in the mirror one last time, checking that my shoulder-length blond hair was secured neatly away from my face and that the small amount of blush I’d applied wasn’t on too thick. Not out of vanity, I just hated too much makeup. My fair skin didn’t take it well, so I picked up a tissue and gently wiped my cheekbones to dab up any excess color and lighten the effect of the already faint pink powder.
There were certain things you picked up from your mother whether you wanted to or not, and I could still hear her words: Amerikanske jenter bruker for mye sminke. American girls wear too much makeup. After moving to Seattle from Norway at age eighteen, I went for months painting on as much cover-up and thick mascara as possible just to separate myself from the au naturel Nordic girl that my family knew. Just to ensure that when I looked in the mirror, I could almost pretend I was Americansk and not notice the ghostly, nearly translucent skin and the treacherous blue eyes staring back, constantly questioning who I was and why the hell I was alive.
Eventually, I couldn’t fight reality anymore and gave up one day
after looking at myself and realizing I loathed the disguise just as much as I hated the girl underneath the raccoon liner, deep rosy blush, and mauve lipstick. That was the last time I wore heavy makeup.
I threw the tissue in the trash and headed to the kitchen to make some coffee. When I stepped into the living room, I stopped immediately. The shelves on the other side of the room stood vacant except for two cast-iron book weights formed in the shape of easy chairs. My books weren’t there. All of them, probably fifty—paperbacks, hardbacks, and all my forensic texts—had been taken down. Instead, four rows of stacked books, each slightly crooked, rose in columns before the fireplace. I glanced at my small dining room off to my right. Two dining chairs stood peculiarly on top of the oak table.
What else had I done? I, of course, considered whether I had left the house or not, perhaps walked down the street in my underwear in the middle of the night—maybe even peed on some of the neighbor’s bushes. But, even though I work in forensics, it doesn’t take a super sleuth to check out the scene. I had taken a look around, filled in a few blanks, and discerned I’d done nothing crazy.
All my doors were locked, my key still hidden in its jar above the refrigerator, unmoved since I’d set it there before going to bed. My doors require keys for both entering and leaving. Since I’m not particularly tall, no more than five-four, I would have had to have grabbed either a chair or my footstool to reach above the refrigerator. All signs indicated that I’d only set the two chairs on the dining table and not messed with the other two. This I could also tell by a slight film of dust that had collected on the floor, since I hadn’t eaten at my dining room table in months. And my footstool with its worn red, blue, and gold embroidered flowers and wooden lion’s feet was exactly where I’d left it: near my closet in the bedroom with a pile of dirty clothes draped across it.
When I purchased the house, the locksmith thought I was crazy for wanting key locks that worked both ways, but as I mentioned, I don’t trust myself. Not since I was exactly fifteen years and three months
old. My parents used to try to convince me that there were plenty of people in the same boat—those who felt like they couldn’t maintain control at certain times: alcoholics, drug addicts, people with anger-management issues. But my issue was different because I had always been fine during my waking moments. It was the nighttime that posed problems. Besides, I could see in their worried expressions, their furrowed brows and tear-filled eyes, that they didn’t entirely believe the logic themselves, especially my mom. She wanted to, but ultimately, she couldn’t. No one predicted that something as innocent as sleep could be lethal for me, for my family.
I pushed down the sickening feeling that rose inside of me. I marched over, grabbed each chair, and scooted it back under the table where it belonged. “Shit,” I mumbled out loud to no one. Herbal tea, I thought, something without caffeine. I need herbal tea before I put away those damn books.