In the beginning, it was a quiet thing. Barely even noticeable. School was tolerable despite boring him to tears for the most part. Riflery, photography and theater classes were the bright spots in his existence those days. Summers, with few exceptions, seemed to last for years. Life was pleasant and reasonably care free. At least that’s the way it seems when looked back upon through the prism of middle age. There were some dark days, he called them the Gloom, but generally most were bright and life was pretty good. Then, as it inevitably happens, he grew up. Somewhere along that journey the Gloom went from being a distant neighbor to taking up residence in a corner of his bedroom closet.
At the age of 50, he was tired. The kind of tired you feel when you pulled a double shift at the restaurant, spent the next two hours cramming for a test and then fought to stay awake and remember enough of what you studied to complete the test and scrape by with a passing grade. Bone tired. Hard as he tried, he couldn’t remember the last time he had a restful night’s sleep. Weeks? Months? It was difficult to think about it. The focus just wasn’t there anymore.
The days seemed to blend together, a never ending blur since … Christmas? Maybe it was Thanksgiving. All he knew was one day he was sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner at his parent’s house. His brother and sister were there. There was football, but no guns this year. Shooting guns had become part of the holiday tradition with the family over the past few years, but this year, no one seemed interested. The next day, today, it was February 12. Where did the intervening days go? Filled with the day-to-day minutia, they seemed to have just … disappeared into the ether.
Driving through the night he concentrated, trying to remember when it all started slipping, but then the radio would switch songs or go to commercial and break his train of thought. He was always driving it seemed. He loved driving. It was the being alone, he thought. No one to talk to, no one to fake interest in, nothing to disturb the quiet except the music wafting out of the speakers.
Some days, when his mood was just right, a song would come on the radio and he would get the urge to leave everything behind and just keep rolling down the highway. He imagined he might just do that one day. He was afraid, though, that when he was finally forced to stop, it would be with the Pacific Ocean swallowing the setting sun, turning the world a varied shade of blazing colors.
As beautiful as that sounded, he knew he was fooling himself. He would never do that. He had responsibilities: responsibilities to work; to family; to friends … or maybe that was just the Gloom whispering those things in his ear. It was hard to tell these days. The Gloom had become his constant companion. Ever present, its influence touching every corner of his life like tendrils of fog spreading across an empty field.
Tonight he tried not to focus on that, but it was hard. He needed to pick up his son and get home in time to eat dinner before 8 o’clock. He and his wife always ate late. Every since they had gotten married dinner never hit the table before 7 p.m. It’s just the way things were. And because you can’t go to bed immediately after eating, there would be a few hours of television afterwards. If lucky, he would be in bed by 1 a.m. but that would still not bring rest. Because when he closed his eyes, the Gloom rushed forward to take over.
He felt like there was a thrum of anticipation when he lay down. The Gloom knew it was only a matter of time until he succumbed to unconsciousness. There was not sleep as anyone else might describe it. He didn’t slip into unconsciousness as much as crash. One minute he was awake and the next he was in the Gloom. No peace but rather a state of oblivion where the Gloom ran wild taunting him, twisting dreams, sowing discord and planting thoughts that would influence his mood until the next time he tried to sleep. He would not remember these thoughts clearly, only in snips and snatches: “Let me …”, “… hate you?”, “… rest in me …” The mood a night wrestling with the Gloom left him with was a seething anger.
He had been angry for months, possibly years. Certainly as long as his impaired memory could recall. The anger seemed to grow and intensify with the passing of each night. It wasn’t fair to those around him, but he didn’t know how to stop it. It depressed him that his anger was hurting those he loved more than anything in the world, putting up a wall between them. Then depression turned back to anger and fed upon itself like an out of control fire in the forest, increasing the size of the wall and starting the cycle over again.
Last night’s experience had been the worst in a long line of ever worsening sleep cycles. He held off the Gloom for half the night but at 3 a.m. finally gave up and crashed into the darkness. There was no more rest today than on other mornings when he dragged himself out of the fog, but this day there were two feelings that persisted through his first cup of coffee. The first was a fear he was familiar with. It had been almost as constant a companion in his life as the Gloom had been; as comfortable as the ratty old t-shirt he wore to bed each night. The fear was a feeling that some event, some happenstance, was charging toward him. It was like a train just over the horizon but coming fast. He heard the whistle getting closer. When it arrived, it would crush him and his life would never be the same again. It was a feeling of impending doom and dread.
The second was a longing. A deep desire to be rid of the Gloom and all the discord it created in his life. He yearned to rid himself of the anger that plagued him daily and turned his waking hours into long stretches of misery. The anger poisoned him. He was decent at hiding it in public, but he wanted it gone. Oh, to sleep, to sleep, perchance to dream. Shakespeare had penned that line and, to a man haunted as he was, it was the most beautiful line ever written in the annals of literature. But that was not for tonight. Tonight he needed to get home.
On the road, as was usual, he had the radio on. Just white noise to try and drown out the thoughts running through his brain. He realized he had been carrying on a conversation with himself in his mind. Actually, it was less a conversation than a mumbling, really. Nonsensical phrases just under his stream of consciousness.
That wasn’t it.
He hadn’t been talking; he had been listening, lulled by the soft singsong phrasing — the same phrases — over and over again telling him it would be alright; he would be safe and that he would sleep. Not the sleep he had experienced up until now, but the deep sleep that refreshes body and soul. He would have the sleep that cleanses the mind and makes one feel alive and ready to seize the day and squeeze every drop out of it.
All he had to do was close his eyes.
As he turned the final corner he blinked, and when his eyelids touched he … saw? No. That’s not right. He felt the sudden overpowering presence of the Gloom. So comforting, so unlike the malevolence he normally felt when the beast came forward. This time, the constant companion was welcoming. He felt warm and safe in its presence. He felt it beckoning, its thoughts softly echoing: “Come and be at peace, friend. Your journey is almost done. In here you will find comfort. Put away the anger and rest with me.”
He considered pulling back, but the thought of letting go was just too powerful. Resigned, he embraced the Gloom, his oldest friend, and watched as the sun sank slowly into the Pacific Ocean bathing him in an explosion of oranges, reds, purples and pinks. It was more beautiful than he had ever imagined. A tear slipped silently down his cheek and when the darkness came, the peace he had longed for his whole life gently embraced him … and he slept.