Christine Boyer, “The Ghost Pushes You Down”

Owen Baker was never a good sleeper.
When placed in his bassinet, he squalled until his little
wrinkled face was crimson, and his mother picked him up and
soothed him. When he got older (when his head finally rounded
out and his spindly limbs plumped and when he graduated to a
crib in his own room), he still fought sleep. His screams pierced his
mother’s heart, and though she was new to parenting, something
about Owen’s night-cries always sounded worse than babies she had
heard before.
His mother read every parenting book. She tried every
method: the chair method, Ferber, feed-and-read. She let Owen
cry it out, as his staunchly no-nonsense pediatrician suggested.
She tried everything. Nothing worked.
The cry-it-out nights were the worst. She would sit in her
bedroom, tears coursing down her face, watching the clock on
her nightstand tick each painful minute away. One minute. Two
minutes. Three minutes. Ten. His cries were like little barbed hooks
in her heart that dug a little deeper as time crawled by.
She always caved before the clock showed fifteen minutes
had passed.
She would run down the hallway to Owen’s room as fast as
her legs could carry her. She threw open the door and turned on
the light to the same awful sight – her chubby-cheeked son lying in
his crib, red-faced and shrieking. Pointing one plump finger at the
shadowy corner of his room. The rest of his body was rigid, taut to
the point that lifting him into her arms was difficult.
Eventually, the Baker household reached a sort of détente.
Owen (by then a sturdy toddler) and his mother (by then a woman
with deep circles under her eyes and a recurring fantasy of driving
away and starting a new life under a new name) came to agreeable
terms. She would leave a lamp on in his bedroom when she turned
in for the night. Owen, in turn, could play quietly in his room.
His mother trusted that he would sleep at some point in the night,
though she never witnessed it herself. All animals sleep, after all.
But Owen was always awake when she turned in at night, and he
was always awake when she rose in the morning.
He missed out on some of the experiences of childhood,
like summer camp and sleepovers, but it didn’t seem to bother
him. He made friends easily as a child. Those boyhood friendships
never seemed to suffer from the issues around his sleep. He found
other bonds of boyish intimacy – through Little League, through
elaborate world-building board games – to replace those formed
around scary movies in basement rec rooms, tucked into acrylic
sleeping bags lined up side by side.
Otherwise, he was a healthy child. He grew into a healthy
teenager, and then a young man. He was tall, gawkishly thin, but his
mother could see how he might yet put on some weight and fill out
his frame with a few more years.
The puzzle of his poor sleep didn’t start to vex Owen until
he went to college. Now he had to share a room. Until then, his
entire life had been cossetted around his aversion to sleep: the lamp
that burned all night on his dresser, the cross woven from Palm
Sunday palm leaves that his superstitious grandmother hung over
his window. Now, Owen had to rethink the constant light source at
night. His roommate, a pre-law student jittery with nerves, refused
to leave the light on.
“What are you, two years old?” his roommate asked one
night early in their first semester. “Grow the hell up.”
For the first time since he was a baby, Owen Baker was
plunged into darkness. It wasn’t complete darkness, of course –
there were little bleedings of light from the digital clock on his
nightstand, from the crack under the door to the hallway. But there
was not enough light to push back the shadows that crowded at the
corners of the room.
One minute passed. Owen wriggled his toes under the layers
of sheets and blankets, and he squinted to see if he could make out
the movement. He could not.
Two minutes passed. He sighed and raised his head a bit,
shifted against the pillow.
Ten minutes passed. He felt the weight of the day make
his eyelids heavy. He closed his eyes and felt a lax warmth course
through his arms and legs. He sighed again, almost a little pleased.
Sleep wasn’t some elusive creature after all.
There’s no saying how long it took, whether it was fifteen
minutes or fifty or more. When Owen jolted awake, he could not
turn his head to study the clock on the nightstand beside him. He
was frozen stiff, with only his eyes open wide and staring. Unable
to move.
Unable to stop the shadowy figure in the corner of the ceiling
from peeling away from the rest of the shadows and descending onto
him. She had been a new thing when he was new too, splintered off
from something much older.
In his infancy, she had never been fast enough – the mother
had always returned to turn on the light just as she started her
creeping approach. When the light started burning all night, she
had to make herself small, tuck herself into some dark space where
the light didn’t reach. Under the dresser. In the narrow black space
under the closet door. Behind the stack of books on the shelf.
But as Owen had grown, so did she. She watched, waited.
Learned. Her lineage was ancient, and the nearly two decades she
waited had passed in a blink.
The patience had paid off. Now, in the nearly-dark room, the
roommate snoring in the bed across the room, she descended from
the ceiling. Her reflection was visible in Owen’s wide eyes, but he
could not scream. He could only lie there, rigid, as she sat on his
chest and took what was hers.

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