Awake by I. K. Paterson-Harkness

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Awake by I. K. Paterson-HarknessI punch at the yellow button with my thumb, trying to stop the bus. A siren is shrieking, coming from a speaker beside my head. I shout at the driver. “What the hell’s going on?” The driver’s posture doesn’t change. I look behind me at the back seats. I’m the only one in here. Everyone else has already gotten off. Out the window the street is crowded with men, women, and children dressed in dark suits. Their pale faces turn one by one to stare at me. “It’s Your Turn,” they whisper, lips shut. “Your … Turn.”


“It’s your turn. I did it last time.”

I rub my eyes with one hand while roving beneath my pillow with the other. I locate the muffled phone and turn off the alarm.

“Do you think?”

“Sounds like it,” Michael yawns and rolls over.

“Oh god,” I groan, heaving myself out of bed. I lean against the door frame to steady myself. For four nights we’ve done this. Four nights of getting out of bed every single damn hour to check if Tony is still awake. His light is on, I see.

I poke my head around the corner of his door. He’s sitting in front of his bed with all his toy cars lined up.

“Don’t you want to hop into bed sweetheart? You must be very, very tired.”

He looks at me, shakes his head. “Is it time to get up?”

“No. It’s only 4am. It’ll be another few hours until it’s light.”

He looks disappointed as I close his door. Michael is already snoring as I stumble back into our room. I set the alarm for 5am and shove the phone beneath his pillow, hoping the movement will disturb him enough so the snoring will stop. Shit.

“He will be sleeping,” Dr Chan had told me, four days earlier. “Look at him, Danielle.

He shows no symptoms of sleep deprivation. He’s a happy, healthy, energetic boy. His getting up and playing in his room wakes you and you presume he’s been up the entire night.”

“No, honestly. We put him into bed, but he’s only in there for a matter of minutes.

His room is right beside ours. We can tell when he’s awake.” Dr Chan had frowned, pursing her thin lips. “Honestly,” I’d mumbled.

But the possibility that I was deluded had crossed my mind. Even one night of broken sleep would usually mean a catastrophic meltdown the following  day, yet Tony has been his normal chirpy self.

“Monitor him then,” she had told me. “Make a record of when he sleeps and when he

doesn’t. I’m sure you’ll find it all adds up.” She had put a hand on my shoulder as we left. “I think it’s you who needs the rest. Why don’t you take a day off work? Spoil yourself a bit.”


“I want chocolate soy milk.”

“And what do you say?” I feel like a robot.


I open the cupboard above my head and nearly faint. I sag against the bench, my head


“At kindy I’m going to tell Reuben I want a red car for my birthday.”

“Mmm?” I pull down his blue plastic cup with the bear on it. It clacks as I place it

on the bench.

“Reuben has a red car, and Felix has a red car. And Polly told me her uncle is a fireman, and I want to be fireman, so Mummy can you remember that and get me a fire

truck, and also tell Nana I don’t want knickers this time?”


“What did you dream about last night, Mummy?”

“I dunno. A bus, I think. Can’t remember.”

“I dreamed about a sleeping boy.”

I pause, fridge half opened. “I thought you didn’t sleep last night?”

“I dream about him when I’m awake.”

As I pour the soy milk into his cup, I consider tranquilisers. When I was a kid we used to

dope up our dog Sally each time we took her on a long trip. Sally was probably about the

same weight as Tony.

“I’m going to take a shower,” I say, kissing his warm forehead. “When you finish your breakfast, see if you can get your shoes and socks on.”

I don’t bother waiting for the water to warm up before I step in. I thought the chill water would refresh me, but it’s damn cold. Wrapping my arms around my chest and gritting my teeth, I stare at the dust collected in the extractor fan. Okay, pack Tony’s lunch, take him to kindy, get through three and a half hours of work, pick up Tony… I can do this. Through the crack in the door I see Tony dawdling down the hall. He must have left his shoes in the basement again. He’s a good boy.


I cram my fingers into the tap, but the pressure is too strong. The water sprays out around my wrists and a puddle begins to form on the floor, getting wider and deeper. It’s too fast. My knees are already submerged, and the water is racing up my thighs. I try to pull away, but my fingers are stuck in the spout. Help! I scream. Help! But there’s no one around for miles.

There’s a tapping beside my head. “Excuse me Miss?”

I open my eyes and am startled by a man’s face pressed up against the car window.

“This park is for visitors only,” he says.

“I’m sorry,” I fumble for the keys, still in the ignition. “My son goes here. I must

have fallen asleep…”

The man is already walking away. My cheeks feel hot. I look at the time on the dashboard.

Shit. Already forty-five minutes late for work.

Pulling out of the car park, I don’t know which way to turn: left for work; right for home. Across the road pigeons are asleep, pressed up against the sheer wall of the university medical school, lined up on their narrow ledges. I turn right. I’ll call work, tell them that when Tony and I arrived at kindy he threw up. They know he’s not sleeping. I can already feel the softness of bed beneath me as I drive. A cup of tea? Maybe read a book? Nah, just sleep.


The banks of the river rush past. Figures watch me from in front of their houses, blurring into one smooth line. I look ahead. Whiteness spreads across the sky, tiny black spots fluttering through it. Pigeons?

Someone slaps my shoulder, and I turn. His face is grey, and his thick spiny tail coils behind him on the decking. “Pick up the phone,” he says.



The sing-song voice of Star Wars’s Yoda disjointedly advises me I have a call. I really have to figure out how to change this stupid ring tone. Oh god, I stuck it under my pillow, what an idiot. I should have turned the damn thing off.

“Hello?” My voice is scratchy.

“Danielle, where are you? I got a call from kindy. You never went to pick up


“What? What’s the time?”

I yank off the covers and leap from the bed. The hall clock reads 13:10. Shit!

“Don’t worry. I came from work. We’re on our way home. I’ll probably have to work a little later tonight because of this.”

“I’m sorry! I fell asleep!”

“Wish I was so lucky.” He’s trying to sound jovial, but he’s peeved.

“See you soon,” he says, and hangs up.

In the kitchen I turn on the jug and lean on the bench, stomach churning. The hallway clock is unusually loud. I feel the tension in my jaw and actively try to release it, breathing out deeply. Why didn’t I set an alarm? My eyes feel dry, and I rub them, making them worse. I spoon coffee into a mug then reach for the sugar. I don’t usually have sugar with my coffee, but I think I can cut myself some slack for one damn day. What’s a spoonful of sugar going to do? The smell of the coffee begins to revive me, and I take a tentative sip. Sweet, but good.

I wander around the empty house, picking up toys, smoothing down the places where the rug lumps up. The doorway to the basement is ajar. Oh, Tony. He knows we like to keep it closed, otherwise the breeze catches it and the door knob makes a dent in the wall. I’m about to shut the door when I notice a lamp shining at the bottom of the stairs.

I hold on to the rail as I descend. I’m sure one day my socks will slip on the polished wood and I’ll break my neck. Tony has left several toys down here. One of his books has been thrown down so the cover is bent beneath it. His Winnie the Pooh lamp is plugged into the wall socket next to the stairs. Been busy during those wee hours; that boy of mine. As I try to bend the book’s cover back into shape, I pause. There’s a rasping noise: quiet but distinct … like somebody breathing. The lamp suddenly seems too dim. In … and out … in… Boxes, still left unpacked, take up most the space in here. There’s plenty of room to hide.

“Who’s in here?” I whisper, feeling foolish. It’s probably one of Tony’s remote-control cars stuck in one of the boxes, the wheels spinning around and around… I start shaking the boxes, stopping every so often so I can listen and locate the sound. Could a cat have snuck in? A sick hedgehog?

I pull aside a large box and gasp. Behind it, curled up inside a deep box beside the basement wall, is a sleeping shape. One of Tony’s fluffy blankets has been tucked around it, leaving only the top of a head showing. It’s so small – surely only a child. Has Tony taken in some homeless friend? The thought seems ludicrous. Hesitant, I reach down inside the box and give the shape a nudge. It doesn’t stir. I push my fingers into its side, giving it a jab. Still the thing doesn’t wake. Grabbing the edge of the box, I drag it out into the middle of the room. I should call the police. The constant sawing in and out is reassuring. Whatever else, it isn’t dead.

I reach down and pull the blanket away. What the hell?! No! Oh God no, this isn’t right. It’s Tony. Jesus Christ, it’s Tony! I reach down and pull him up into my arms. His head lolls against my chest, his limbs hanging limply.

“Tony!” I shriek, squeezing him to me. He’s so thin! His face is all gaunt, like he’s

suffered from a terrible illness. His ribs are showing. There’s barely anything left of him to

hug. “Tony!”

“He looked cold so I gave him a blanket.”

I turn. Tony is standing at the top of the stairs, looking down on us.

“Michael!” I scream. “Michael, for God’s sake come here now! Help!”

“What, what?” Michael runs to the door. He’s holding a sandwich. I’m crying now, squeezing my little bundle to my chest. “He won’t wake up.”


‘Sleeping Tony’ is lying on his bed. I’ve tried spooning porridge into his mouth but he’s not swallowing any of it. I’ve wiped down his body with a warm cloth and changed him into clean pyjamas. I’ve shaken him, shouted at him … even smacked him. He won’t wake. His skin is nearly transparent, his hair damp with sweat. He’s sick; very, very, sick. How long did he lie there, alone in the dark?


Michael has kept ‘Awake Tony’ busy in the lounge. I can’t look at him. It’s past midnight. ‘Awake Tony’ has watched five DVDs in a row and is becoming restless. It’s like he’s pumped full of adrenaline, he never stops moving and talking. I’ve spent all evening beside ‘Sleeping Tony’s’ bed. I haven’t done this since he was a tiny baby – really watched him, carefully taking note of each line on his hands, each tiny hair on his soft cheeks. He really is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

“Who are you?” I ask ‘Awake Tony’. I pull the remote control from his hand and

place it back on the shelf.

“I’m me: Tony.”

“Are you an impostor?”

“What’s an impostor, Mummy?”

“An impostor is someone who is pretending to be someone they’re not. Is that what you’re doing, Tony?”

He frowns. “Mummy, tomorrow at kindy, can you pick me up because Daddy came after all the children had gone home, and Katie told me she was already late for lunch and she seemed grumpy.”

“You won’t be going to kindy tomorrow.”

“Why not?”

The front door closes. Michael comes in. He looks harried.

“Did you get it?” I ask. He nods.

“Get what?” ‘Awake Tony’ asks.

Michael and I ignore him and head to Tony’s room.

“This is highly illegal,” Michael says. “Cassey told me she’d get fired if her boss

knew she’d given this to us, so please don’t say anything to anyone.”

“I know that,” I snap.

“I can’t remember the name of the drug. Cassey told me, but,” he shakes his head. “She said it’s strong … experimental. We need to inject it.” Michael pulls out a small black pouch, unzipping it to reveal a syringe and a phial of clear liquid.

“Do you know how to do this?” I ask.

Michael fumbles with the needle, eventually screwing it on. He pokes it into the phial, drawing up the liquid.

“I think you have to tap the needle part,” I say, “before you inject it.”

“No shit.” Michael stops and looks at me. We lean into each other, pressing our foreheads together. I feel something against my hand and look down to see ‘Awake Tony’ trying to join in.

“Out of the way,” I say, and push him back towards the door. I sit down beside ‘Sleeping Tony’ and gently smooth his hair away from his forehead. Michael pulls back his pyjamas.

“Where are you going to inject it?”

“His stomach? Like a diabetic?”


I hold ‘Sleeping Tony’s’ shoulders down, like he might struggle, as Michael pushes the needle deep into his stomach.

“Oh god.” I feel tears welling in my eyes.

Michael slowly pushes the plunger, and the liquid disappears. We wait for a second.

“Tony?” I say, giving his thin shoulders a shake. “Time to wake up, sweetheart.”

His eyes pop open, and he looks up at me. Crying, I scoop him up, hugging him close. He begins to laugh – a strange high pitched laugh – one I’ve never heard before. I try to join in, but it feels wrong.

“Where’d he go?” Michael asks. I look up, following his gaze to the door. ‘Awake Tony’s’ pyjamas lie in a heap beside the door, the tops of his slippers poking through.

Still laughing, ‘Sleeping Tony’ grabs my neck. His fingernails dig deep into my skin.


AUTHOR BIO:  I.K. Paterson-Harkness writes from her small home in the center of New Zealand’s largest city, Auckland. Nobody can visit her because her collection of musical instruments clog the doors and windows, but she has learned Morse code with which to communicate. Her poetry and fiction has appeared in Writing Tomorrow, The Kiwi Diary, Haunted Waters, and a NZ speculative fiction anthology.