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Insomnia

Six hours and seventeen minutes to sleep.


It’s all Nina can think as she looks at her phone screen. 12:34am. White numbers glaring at her over a picture of her and her sister Valerie taken a few months ago. She heard somewhere that falling asleep takes fourteen minutes, so technically she only has six hours and three minutes. Given that she’s been lying in bed since eleven o’clock, she’s starting to doubt that.


She did everything right. She was up at half-seven, she didn’t touch caffeine all day, she ate dinner hours before bed. She did her daily meditations and listened to a rainfall soundtrack on her phone. She even tried counting down from ten thousand, getting to nine thousand, seven hundred and fifty before she got distracted. Her body is still awake and alert. If someone asked her to, she could get up and run some laps.


She sits up and opens a window. The outside air is hot, but it’s a small relief. Sweat pools in her armpits and trickles down her nightdress. She knows that a cold room and a warm bed is the ideal combination for a good night’s sleep. Shame she can’t control the weather.


She picks up her phone again. Four minutes have passed.


Well, she can’t just sit here and do nothing. She gets up and leaves her bedroom, tiptoeing because the floor creaks. She should ask her parents whether they should get that fixed, whether it’s something that can be fixed. She stops outside Valerie’s room, listening. Deep breathing. When she mutters something, Nina tenses, but there’s nothing else. Valerie talking in her sleep was something to get used to again when Nina moved back after college.


She moves as quietly as she can to get downstairs.


*


The kettle reaches a boil. Nina pours the water into her mug, then covers it with a plate to maximise the steam. Kayleigh taught her how to brew different kinds of tea. You should drink it more often, might offset all the coffee you have. No wonder you can’t sleep. Nina had rolled her eyes and smiled as she took her first sip. That was green tea. Good for the stomach.


Kayleigh would approve of this. She’s always liked the more natural way of doing things, while Nina would take heavy-duty tranquilisers if she could. Lavender tea is best, but she doesn’t have that. This is camomile, which is good for anxiety. The anxiety has been working overtime this week.


It’s not just a mental thing. It crawls all over her skin, drenching her in sweat regardless of the weather. On the inside, it pumps too much blood to her limbs and not enough to her stomach. In first year, she and Kayleigh went to a mental health seminar that the college was offering. Nina brought a notebook to write down what the woman said. Thanks to a leftover response from the Stone Age, the body assumes that any bit of stress must be a life-threatening attack. Nina likes knowing that. Dealing with concrete realities is easier than trying to battle her own mind.


The interview is concrete. It’s a real thing with real consequences that’s really happening in twelve hours and thirty-nine minutes. Her alarm will go off at seven, giving her time to do her makeup and make coffee and get to Kent Station in time for her train at 9:25am. According to the website, she’ll be arriving at Heuston at 12:06pm. The last time she was in Dublin was on a weekend trip with Kayleigh and some other girls from college. They spent most of it either drunk or hungover, so it’s just as well she has the hour and thirty minutes to plan out her route to the office in Grand Canal Dock and maybe sit down to look over her notes. At 1:30pm, she’ll go in and hopefully convince them that she’s the best data analyst that they could ask for.


Don’t think about all that now.


She opens Instagram on her phone. The app shows her profile. She last posted nine months ago, when she graduated. Ten pictures: some of her on her own, some with classmates. The whole family is in the last one. Mam, Dad, Nina, Valerie. Arms around each other. All smiling.


She switches to her feed. People’s lives in beautiful snapshots: lunch, walks in the park, nights out. She scrolls, liking most of them. Sometimes she considers unfollowing half of them – how many of these people has she spoken to in the last year? – but times like these make her grateful for how liberal she’s been with the follow button. There’s something satisfying about seeing what everyone else is up to.


She stops when she sees Kayleigh’s face. Like her, Kayleigh isn’t a frequent social media poster. She has her arm around a man with thick black hair and stubble, smiling at the camera while he smiles at her. Her red hair is back to brown and it’s shorter. Caption: it’s been a minute.


Nina’s glimpses into Kayleigh’s life have lately been limited to the occasional text and her private story. Last month Kayleigh posted a picture of her coffee with a man’s hand on the table. Nina messaged her with ooh who’s that?? and Kayleigh replied this guy gary I met on tinder, it’s going well I think! Nina meant to respond to that. Now Gary has graduated to having his face on her public profile. About as close to updating her relationship status as Kayleigh is likely to get.


She clicks Gary’s profile – full name Gary Moore. He’s twenty-five, studying sociology in NUIG and plays football. Two minutes ago Nina could only give his first name. Before Kayleigh dropped out of college and moved back to Galway, Nina would have known all these details and more before Kayleigh’s own family did. The loss of these little things stings more than she could have imagined.

She likes the picture. She types, so cute!! in the comment box, then deletes it before sending. It’s too late at night to be commenting on posts of people she hasn’t seen since Christmas.


“Shit.” She flings the tea bag into the bin. She probably left it in for too long, but who cares? Maybe it’ll work twice as well now.


*


Five hours and sixteen minutes.


She drops her phone on the bed. Time passes slower when she’s trying to sleep. Logically, that doesn’t make sense, but it’s the only thing that explains this.


She sits up. The tea didn’t help, but lying in bed will only make her more frustrated. She sits next to the radiator, where her outfit for tomorrow is resting. White blouse, black blazer, black pants. She thought it projected the perfect image of professionalism when she decided on it. Now she wonders whether she looks like she’s going to a funeral. Does she have another suit? What screams intelligent, put-together (future) software engineer? It took her forever to find the job and they’re only hiring two candidates. She doesn’t want to fuck it up before she’s even sat down by picking the wrong clothes.


When she and Kayleigh lived together, Kayleigh would always complain about job applications. Name a time where you “showed initiative”. No one talks like that. Nina’s thinking about one night when they had met in the kitchen of their flat, the fairy lights they’d hung up giving a warm glow. Kayleigh’s laptop screen illuminated her face as she rewrote her CV, muttering about how ridiculous capitalism was on top of all its other flaws. It was the one area of life with which Kayleigh was more disillusioned than Nina.


She thinks about Kayleigh and Gary again, Gary Moore with the stubble. She wonders what he’s actually like, whether she’d know anyone who knows him. She’ll check his following list on Instagram at some point. Does Kayleigh go to his football matches? Does she make him herbal tea and tell him about the health benefits? Nina used to slag her about how she pushed the herbal tea onto everyone. You’re like a drug dealer but with tea. You’re not even an exciting drug dealer.


If Kayleigh hadn’t dropped out of college halfway through second year, Nina wouldn’t be thinking like this. Probably. Their late-night meetings were a semester-time staple, but during holidays they called each other at half-three in the morning on the regular. Nina talked about her family, Kayleigh talked about how she was dreading going back to college to study a degree she barely liked. They’d keep their voices down, but pretty soon one would make the other laugh and that’d set them both off, gasping for air and trying not to wake anyone. During the first few weeks after Kayleigh moved back to Galway full-time, things didn’t change that much. They had still texted every day. But the late-night phone calls did disappear fairly quickly.


Her mother told her she was being dramatic. She said it in a nice way, but Nina could tell that the week of trying to get through to her was frustrating her. “Nina, you were less upset when Damian dumped you.” She put her hands on Nina’s shoulders. “I know it’s rough, but you can visit her. And sure, it’s not like it was in my day at all. You can FaceSkype her or whatever it’s called and it’s like she’s in the room with you.” She was smiling, so keen on this reassurance working that Nina couldn’t correct her on her mistake. “And besides, I’d say she’s much happier now that she has all that worry off her shoulders.” Nina nodded and told Mam she was right and the two hugged, even though Nina was thinking that obviously it was different to when Damian dumped her, because they were only together for six months and he was a bit of an arsehole anyway, while she and Kayleigh lived together for a year and a half of their college experience. She felt bad about how ungrateful she was being. Her mother was doing her best.


Nina wonders whether Kayleigh’s happy. The picture with Gary would suggest she is. Still, that might not be the case. Nina’s last post was a picture of her family smiling and wasn’t that an optical illusion if ever there was one. The day before the graduation, Dad was trying to get the day off work because he hadn’t booked it in advance. Mam snapped at him for not being bothered his arse thinking ahead – “for your own daughter’s graduation, Larry, could you not even get that right?” – and one screaming fight later, he drove off to the pub. Mam seemed so upset and Nina asked her what was wrong, feeling guilty for her initial thoughts: why can’t you hold off on the fighting for one day? Is that so hard?


Even on the day, when Dad called in sick, they slept in and Nina spent the morning trying to make sure they got there on time. Just before the ceremony, she dashed to the bathroom to get sick. She re-applied her lipstick and went back out to meet her course, checking herself in her phone camera for any signs of what had happened. Her legs didn’t stop shaking until after she’d walked across the stage and accepted her scroll.


Nina thinks over the people she knows. She’ll meet friends from college for coffee or go out with her workmates for a drink, but the thought of telling them anything seriously personal makes her throat close up. There’s Valerie, but she’s just turned fourteen and Nina knows that at that age she couldn’t have been paid to talk to an adult about her feelings, even if the adult in question was her sister. Kayleigh’s halfway across the country. Human beings are social animals. That was another thing she learned at the seminar. The woman said that that’s why not having friends can impact mood, because people need each other. And here’s Nina, sitting on the floor of her childhood bedroom at this Godforsaken hour with no one to talk to.


God, I’m fucking miserable. It hits her out of nowhere. Not a great epiphany to have when she desperately needs to sleep.


*


Three hours and fifty-eight minutes.


Nina knows that the best thing to avoid when trying to fall asleep is a screen. The blue light tricks the brain into thinking it’s daytime. It’s got lasting power too, so the brain ends up being way too awake even when the screen isn’t there anymore.


It can hardly make things worse than they are.


She’s just typed i can’t sleep into the search bar on her phone. The first result is a website about kids’ health, which feels weirdly insulting. As if insomnia is something people grow out of when they hit puberty. That was around the time she started falling asleep in class, which her parents blamed on her smartphone. But one of her earliest memories is of lying in bed and staring at the Sleeping Beauty digital clock that she got when she was six, staying as still as she could in the hopes it would help. Her parents fought a lot – there was a year or two after Valerie was born when that calmed down – but that night was quiet. It was the possibility that their raised voices would start up again that kept her awake.


“We’re all tired.” Nina’s mother said that to her once, when she was around fourteen. Nina was sitting on the couch, forcing her eyes to stay open because she knew if she let them close, she’d fall asleep. “I’m working twelve-hour shifts and then I have to come home and put Val to bed and have dinner and do just about everything else. Are you on your phone in bed still? If you weren’t, you might be less tired.” Nina rolled her eyes and that pissed Mam off even more. “Are you even listening to me?”


Her mother’s voice can always make her sit up. Even when she’s halfway to nodding off. Even when she’s annoyed at her. Trying to understand her mother has been a recurring theme of her sleepless nights. She used to spend hours going over conversations they’d had, wondering exactly what her problem is. That was before, though, and this is now.


She clicks on a headline about insomnia. She skims through most of the article, past the psychological causes and underlying medical issues. There’s a lot of long-term advice but she needs something that will help now. Right when she’s considering making a cup of warm milk – her stomach turns – she spots it.


If you’re worried about something, write it down. Getting your anxieties on paper is a good way to get them out of your mind.


As good an idea as any. She opens her laptop and starts it up. It’s been so long since she’s written anything by hand that she can’t even remember whether she has a pen or where it would be. After opening Word, she types, I’m stressed about my job interview. I really want it.


It looks pathetic. Everyone has unsuccessful job interviews. She still has the job at Costa to fall back on, even if it isn’t quite enough to pay for a good flat in the city. Her parents haven’t shown signs that they’ll kick her out anytime soon, so it’s not like she’s destitute without this job. She’ll be okay. She knows the routine.


The e-mail will come through, we regret to inform you that you have not been successful, we wish you luck in the future. She’s read that e-mail a hundred times before, but maybe they’ll include some feedback, or she can ask for some. She’ll look at Indeed again and try and find another job opening. Something else that can take her away from the town she grew up in where she works all day scalding her fingers on coffee and getting screamed at by customers who are way too busy to remember that she’s a person. She’ll keep doing that.


She wipes more sweat off her forehead. She minimises the Word document and goes back to Indeed, where she found the job offer. They’re looking for someone with at least a Bachelor’s in Computer Science. She knows all the programming languages they need plus a few more. They want someone with networking skills, with a “can-do attitude”, who’s driven and goal-oriented. Every time she sees these words she wants to put her foot through the computer screen. It’s like Kayleigh said, no one on this planet actually talks like that, but somehow these people know this weird language and she needs to brush up on her knowledge of it fast because the interview’s in ten hours and twenty minutes. Dad practised interview questions with her yesterday, but when she asked for tips on how she did, he couldn’t give specific feedback. “I’m no good at that stuff, Nina,” he said. “But you answered them very confidently, I’m sure they’ll be delighted to have you.”


Confident might not be enough. All the can-do attitude and networking skills in the world won’t help her if she doesn’t know what she’s talking about. She needs to look at her notes again. She opens the Word document and starts reading. She makes it halfway through when she realises she’s absorbed nothing and isn’t even sure that she remembers anything from her earlier study.


Her stomach twists. She knows this feeling, she gets it in the morning when she hasn’t slept enough. Her body’s just getting it in ahead of time. Once she convinced Kayleigh to pull an all-nighter with her. They both had loads of college work to do and no real hope of getting it done in time while still sleeping. “Your first class isn’t until noon. We’ll work until five and then you can get a couple hours’ sleep.” They fell asleep on the couch in their flat, sleeping way past either of their classes, but when they woke up they laughed it off and started washing their mugs, scrubbing out the tea stains.

Three weeks later, Kayleigh dropped out.


Nina stares at her computer screen. Her eyes are burning. She slams the laptop shut, puts it on the floor and throws herself back onto her bed. Her legs are screaming, restless, desperate to get up and move and burn off this energy somehow. She thinks she can hear her blood pumping in her ears.


*


Two hours and forty-four minutes.


Nina’s pacing around the kitchen. If she did it in her room, that might wake Valerie: they share a wall. Sometimes pacing makes her feel better, especially while listening to music. Usually she’ll pick something upbeat and do laps around the room until she’s calm enough to sit again. She tried music tonight but by the first chorus of the first song the low volume was unbearably loud, like a knife scraping at her brain. The only sounds are her breath and her feet hitting the floor.


She feels like she’s coming out of her skin.


She picks her phone up and goes back to Instagram. That picture of Kayleigh and Gary is still there. She’s still smiling and it feels like she’s looking right at Nina. She’s so happy, she made the right decision dropping out and moving back, she’s moved out of home now anyway and now she has a boyfriend and it was all worth it while Nina has her degree that’s given her nothing but a fancy piece of paper and failed job interviews, like the one she’s going to do in seven hours. Something about it feels like it’s choking her.


It’s too hot.


*


Two hours and thirty-one minutes.


Half-past four in the morning and Nina is tying her shoelaces. She waits for her body to give in, to finally decide that it’s finished with its nonsense and will let her sleep. No need to resort to this.

Her phone lets her know it’s now four-thirty exactly. She’s still ready to go.


She takes care to close the front door quietly, key in hand. The sky is still dark, although indigo rather than pitch-black. She walks down the street, past the other houses and their sleeping inhabitants. She wonders whether anyone else is awake. She wonders whether they’ll look out their window and see her. That Nina one’s fully lost it, sure it’s hardly a surprise with all that’s going on. The thought makes her smile.


She speeds up as she turns a corner. It’s far too dark. Her brain feels like it’s on low-power mode but this still registers. But the estate has never even had a break-in and anyway it doesn’t matter.

She’s always gone for walks instead of sweating it out in the gym. If she’s going to exercise, she might as well enjoy it. During the Leaving Cert., she went for walks with her mother in the evenings. Not every day: it was something they did when Mam was off work and Nina wasn’t at night study. But when they did, Nina talked to her about exams and what was going on at school and Mam would listen and give advice, or tell a story about something similar that happened when she was Nina’s age. They’d come home, make tea and chat in the kitchen before it was time to go to bed and it’s only now that Nina’s realising she never had trouble sleeping on those nights.


She woke up at half-seven this morning – yesterday morning, it was yesterday. She gave herself the best chance. She’s been up for twenty-one hours and her body’s only meant to be awake for sixteen. Why does she only think of these things at night?


The sky is lightening. Just the tiniest bit. Maybe it’s not even and she’s hallucinating. She laughs to herself. Valerie would definitely think she’s nuts. It’s bad enough Mam and Dad have gone insane, now you too? She can hear it, even though she and Valerie have never been the type to fight. They’ve hardly been the type to talk. Nina always saw Valerie as her baby sister, cute but barely a person, now she’s fourteen years old and as pissed-off at everything as Nina was at that age. Nine years is a big gap.


Nine years. Valerie is fourteen, Nina is twenty-three. Twenty-three and running around her estate before the sun rises. Twenty-three and trying to tire herself out to sleep before an interview for a job she’ll never get anyway because they’ll take one look at the state of her and think no. They want people with their shit together who don’t stay up the whole night thinking about friends who moved away and separating parents and social media and Nina is twenty-three years old and trying to get her body to do what anyone else’s does with no bother and the irony is that her mind is fucking exhausted.


Her house. She’s done a full lap. She goes around the back. In the kitchen she sits at the table without turning on the light. She checks her phone. It’s 4:47am. It’s 4:47am and her family are fast asleep and she has two hours and thirteen minutes before her alarm goes off.


The tears come before the actual crying does. She sobs, chest heaving, hands pressed over her mouth, body shaking with the weight of it. Desperate, frustrated, useless weeping. It goes on for longer than Nina can remember ever crying for. It’s like a thunderstorm after a heatwave breaks.


*


One hour and one minute.


A light switches on upstairs. Nina hasn’t moved and her back aches. She’s staring at the fridge. Family pictures, artwork from primary school, gift shop magnets from holidays.


Footsteps. The kitchen light turns on. Nina turns her head. Valerie stands there in her pyjamas, staring at Nina like she’s a stranger who wandered in off the street.


“Jesus, Nina.”

“Morning.” Adding the ‘good’ in front of it might finish her off.

“How long have you been up?”

“A while. Couldn’t sleep.”


Valerie opens her mouth, then closes it. “I’m making tea. Want some?”


There’s nothing she wants more. “Yeah. Please.”


She watches Valerie boil the kettle. She’s used to seeing her sister in ripped jeans and the fake leather jacket she saved her pocket money to buy. She wears more makeup than Nina does and Nina always wants to tell her that her skin is nicer now than it’ll ever be and she’ll only ruin it with foundation. Now, with her bedhead and no eyeliner, she looks younger than fourteen. She’s wearing the Lilo & Stitch pyjamas Dad got her for her birthday a few years ago. The pants barely cover her knees.


“Don’t you have to be on a train in, like, two hours?” Valerie pours the tea and goes to the fridge. “You’ll pass out in the interview.”

“I’ll sleep on the train.”

Valerie puts the mugs on the table and sits across from her. Nina says, “You’re up early yourself.”

“Yeah.” A pause. “Couldn’t sleep either.”


There’s dark circles under Valerie’s eyes. Since she went to secondary school, Nina’s seen less and less of her sister. She goes to town with her friends until it’s dark, then she comes home and listens to music in her room. If anyone asked Nina, she’d say they have a decent relationship, yet this is the first time she’s seeing those dark circles.


“Any plans for the day?” Nina asks.


“Who knows.” Valerie rubs her eyes. “Might just go back to bed.”


Nina smiles. It takes nearly everything she has left.


They drink. Nina burns her tongue but the pain barely registers. Her mind feels like a CD that’s been played too many times and is scratched to oblivion. If she makes it through this interview it’ll be a miracle. Maybe when she gets home, she’ll ask Valerie to go for a walk with her.


She stands. “I’m going to get ready.”


“Okay.” When she’s halfway down the hall, Valerie says, “Good luck.”


Nina doesn’t reply.


 

Ally Keegan

Ally Keegan is twenty-three years old and lives in Cork. She studied English at University College Cork before going on to do a masters in Creative Writing in Trinity College Dublin. Ally primarily writes short stories but has ideas of a novel for the hopefully-not-too-distant future. As well as reading and writing, she enjoys listening to music, rewatching the same four TV shows and drinking way too much tea and coffee.

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