Karen hasn’t slept since that afternoon in May when the Army chaplain knocked on her screen door. There had been something on the television about a hurricane in Florida or Alabama, just enough of a story to give her cause to sit up and listen a little harder to the weatherman -- then the knuckles-on-door sound. It's a sound that often wakes her in the middle of the night. “Died in honorable service to his country...” is all she can remember now, as she lies in their bed wishing for Phil’s warm body to be there when she reaches for it. She hasn’t slept in over a month. What’s worse, she knows she isn’t going to any time soon. She is afraid of Phil; she is afraid of dream-Phil. She is afraid he will be there, flesh rotting, eyes nothing but sockets, waiting for her on the other side of sanity. Dread slips between her sheets.
_ _ _
This is Karen’s endless barrage of days and nights:
1. The sun slowly fills her bedroom and she turns off the television just as the good-morning shows are starting.
2. Karen makes coffee. She stares, unblinking, into the Folgers crystals for what feels like an eternity. She waits for something to snap her out of her daze and, more often than not, it’s the dreary silence that reminds her that she is alone again.
3. Karen goes for a jog. These last anywhere from ten to forty-five minutes. By the time she returns, the caffeine inside her has burned off and she makes another cup.
4. Department stores distract her. She finds solace in the appliance aisles, the power tools (Phil’s favorite), and has had more than one sobbing, hacking, sneezing breakdown in the aisle with the picture frames filled with temporary couples in temporary wedding garb.
5. Karen returns home and can’t help but feel her house trying to squeeze her back out through the front door like the last bit of toothpaste in a long-forgotten tube. She turns the TV on and forgets to eat dinner.
6. The bedroom grows dim, then dark, as Karen becomes afraid of dreaming of Phil and seeing his face somewhere else besides the picture she keeps on the dresser. Today creeps into tomorrow and more of the same.
_ _ _
She finds it while going through the garage. The white noise machine Phil used to sleep with after his first tour in Afghanistan. A small, white box designed to drown out the world and trick your mind to slumber.
At first, Karen tosses the thing into the pile for Goodwill. Then she thinks twice about it and immediately brings it into the bedroom and sets it down next to the picture of Phil in full Ranger regalia. She cleans the rest of the garage out with a sense of purpose.
_ _ _
Karen, ready for bed, plugs the machine in next to the lamp. She dials through the settings in order: Rain (soft or hard), Beach, Crickets, Fan, Wind, and White Noise. It’s the last one that Karen leaves on, a continuous sound like air through a funnel of paper.
Ffssssshhhhhhhhhhhsssssssshhhhhh. Something about it causes her to kick her slippers off and pull back the covers. Karen pauses, as if in a trance. She glances at Phil’s photo. She climbs into bed. As the noise fills every space of the room like cement, Karen’s eyelids grow heavy for the first time in months and she... sleeps.
She has many terrible dreams she will not remember, and then Karen wakes.
_ _ _
This is what she hears as her eyes flutter open. Interspersed within the continuous eclipse of white noise. At first Karen thinks it to be residual from her dreams. Some leftover thing that followed her into the real world.
Karen notices it’s daylight out. She’s been asleep for nearly twelve hours. And the white noise, a cinder block over her ears, drowns out the world. Karen stands amidst the static and puts her feet back into her slippers. Now her first groggy task is to turn the machine off and get going--
“HEY. KAREY. HEY.” Drum beats through the noise. Karen glares at the photo of Phil and he smiles right back at her.
She reaches for the switch and has to dial through the presets: Wind (HEY), Fan (YOU), Crickets (HEY), Beach (HEY), Rain (KAREY), Silence.
“Hoooooowwww wasssssss youuuuuuuuurrr nnnnaaaaaaaaaaappp?”
It asks her. It really asks her.
She wants to begin the day. Outside seems inviting to her. The sun will probably feel wonderful against her pale skin. But some part of her also wants Phil. So deeply, desperately wants Phil. “I slept great, baby,” she says. “Best sleep since I can remember. Do ya wanna join me?”
The white noise machine does not respond. It is off.
Karen slowly, methodically, turns the power back on--Ffssssshhhhhhhhhhhsssssssshhhhhh.
She removes her slippers and tucks herself back under the covers. She lets the din fill the room, closes her eyes, and waits for a response.