A Word for What We Have
The spiders always come just before I fall asleep. Not every night, but often enough, they erupt plague-like from the far corner of the bedroom ceiling, dangling overhead from invisible threads or dropping onto Carissa’s pillow. When I jerk away from the touch of their skittering legs, they disappear. The black and brown of their heavy bodies dissolve into shadow. All that’s left is the rasp of my breath in the dark and Carissa rolling heavily from her side to her back.
I used to think everyone saw spiders in that soft, slim threshold before sleep. Or not necessarily spiders, because even though the spiders come most often, they’re not all I see. Periodically silver orbs float from that same spot on the ceiling. They drift toward the bed like weather balloons, and even as I reach up to touch one, I know my fingers will make them all evaporate in a glittery puff.
It’s Carissa who lets me know that this is definitely not normal. She’s fallen asleep quickly, like always. I don’t know how she does it. I’ve never seen her fluff and re-fluff her pillow, never seen her get up multiple times to pee, or give up and pick up her phone. It doesn’t matter when we turn in; it’s as easy as flipping off a light for her. Her breath is already deep and even when I see the smoke. I should know it’s harmless since it’s coming from that spot in the corner, but it’s smoke, sudden and roiling and pouring across the ceiling toward the bed. “Hey!” I say, in surprise and also to wake Carissa, because the smoke is coming at her like a tide. I fling my hands toward the smoke, which is absurd when you think about it—there’s just so much of it—but it’s the kind of thing you do without thinking, and anyway as soon as I try to wave it away it’s gone.
“Jesus, Ani,” Carissa mumbles, flipping herself over. “What is it?”
“Sorry.” I’m sizzling with adrenaline, and I place a hand on my chest to calm myself. Even now, with my heart pounding and my eyes still searching for fire, I hold on to the sound of her voice speaking my name. It’s only when she’s half-asleep that she allows my name to roll off her tongue like that. “I thought there was smoke.”
“Smoke?” She’s awake now, too.
“No—there isn’t really. It’s just one of those things you see.”
“One of what things?” Her voice is no longer soft and sleepy. It’s wary, and also pissed off.
“You know. Like how sometimes you see, like, insects, or whatever? Right before you fall asleep. And then they just disappear? It was like that.”
She blinks at me in the dark, her eyes wide and white in the middle of her shadowed face. “You saw imaginary smoke?”
“I guess. That—doesn’t happen to you?”
Carissa doesn’t say anything for a long moment, which isn’t unusual. I can’t read her face, not in the dark. Usually not even during the daytime. We’ve been together long enough for certain things to become routine—the division of household labor, the foods we purchase and cook, the sex—but I wouldn’t say that I really know her. Sometimes I wonder if we’ll ever really know each other.
Then she turns her back to me and yanks the blanket over her shoulder. “Go to sleep.”
Within minutes she’s dreaming again. The echoes of the words we spoke are melting back into the night. I look at the spot on the ceiling, fuzzy and indistinct in the darkness but definitely whole and plain, definitely just a ceiling. My heartbeat is still rapid as a bird’s. I peer into the corner, looking for spiders.
The next day, Carissa texts me a link to an article. Read this, is all the text says. This is how we talk, particularly at this point in the semester, when Carissa is managing so many needy students, all of them stressed out and sleep-deprived and prone to fits of anger or tears. “I’m not there to coddle anyone,” she told me once. “I’m their professor, not their mother.” But it’s still hard on her, bearing all that emotional weight.
A couple of years ago, as a joke, I gave her a batch of pencils stamped with the words, I cried in Dr. Hanstroff’s office. She gives out so many that I have to order her a fresh pack each quarter. But the last month of the school year is the hardest. She’s so burned out on words by the time she gets home that she doesn’t want to hear any more of them. Instead, we communicate via email, and text, and post-it notes left around the house: Remember to buy milk. Staying late for a department meeting tonight. Or, an afterthought, I love you.
I work from home as a freelance technical writer, which means I’m starved for conversation most of the time. Each text, each sticky-note, is a morsel to savor.
I click on the link, which takes me to a Wikipedia article. Apparently, there’s a word for what I have: Hypnagogia.
Carissa hates Wikipedia. She must be exhausted if that’s the article she’s relying on. Her exhaustion is partly because of her crying students, but it’s also partly my fault—my hypnagogia’s fault—and the article is her way of telling me who she blames more.
Hypnagogia, according to the article, is the experience of seeing hallucinations, or dream fragments, during the transition from wakefulness to sleep. It’s rare, but some people—scientists, inventors, artists—are more prone to hypnagogic visions than others. There’s a whole paragraph, too, about prophets and saints.
Scientists, artists, saints. I am none of the above. Formulas do not manifest on my ceiling; angels and swirling atoms don’t hover over my bed. I can’t see the future. I just see smoke and spiders.
What I want to know, and what the Wikipedia article doesn’t tell me, is where the visions come from—or at least, where my visions come from. When it comes to people like Beethoven, Salvador Dali, and Isaac Newton, hypnagogia makes sense. All of those symphonies and light bulbs and melting clocks were obviously incompatible with the streets they walked each day. Only when they entered that no-man’s-land between wakefulness and sleep could their muscular brains relax their grip, spreading everything out on the ceiling where they could bear witness. Is that the case with me as well? Is there something inside me bursting to get out after all?
It just doesn’t seem likely. I’m not a very imaginative person, and unlike Carissa, I don’t hold things inside. I spend my days writing employee handbooks and drafting company procedures. When I do fall asleep, my dreams tend to be laughably typical of the forgetting-my-locker-combination or the doing-a-big-presentation-naked variety—nothing that would suggest vanishing spiders and hovering silver orbs.
One thing is for sure: that shifting shore between waking and dreaming is a threshold. I’m not a saint or a prophet, but when I’m in that space, I can feel a connection being made, like two wires sparking.
If Carissa thought that naming my condition would release its power over me, she was very much mistaken. I begin to recognize the exact moment when I’m almost dozing, when my conscious mind has relaxed just enough to see the shapes beneath the shapes, the figures hiding behind the air: beings that float through the room, and don’t disappear even when I blink my eyes, not until they’re close enough to touch. Tiny spaceships that crawl beneath the paint on the ceiling like robotic vacuums. Shimmering, gel-like liquid dripping down the walls.
The visions come every night, like a friend stopping by for tea. Meanwhile, Carissa, who falls asleep like a stone sinking into a pond, never even stirs. The night cradles me in a bubble that she can’t enter. The visions aren’t meant to be shared.
It’s been weeks since I’ve seen the spiders, or the smoke, or even the silver balloons. That was confusing at first, but I’ve come to believe those were tests: flares sent out to see if I was paying attention, wrapped up in a language I’d understand. Now that I’ve proven myself, whatever is hiding—lurking above the ceiling, pushing against the realm of my reality, maybe even poking around inside my own brain—is revealing itself to me in its own words, teaching me a new syntax.
Still, those moments of connection are frustratingly brief—seconds only. A gelatinous amoeba reaches its many arms toward me before melting back into paint. A metallic vessel, shimmering with lights, drifts overhead and hovers above my fingertips, but for just a few blinks. Then, I’m fully awake, and the room resolves into normalcy: the precise angles of the walls, shades of gray and shadow. I’ll only enter that liminal space once each night; that’s all I’m allowed. The next time I drift off, I’ll slide straight through it into sleep. If I try not to, I’ll work myself up so that I’m awake all night.
I don’t tell any of this to Carissa. It’s a new experience for me, keeping quiet. Normally I want to tell her all about the minutiae of my day when she gets home. The funny thing is, my days are usually pretty boring; this is the first time I’ve actually had something exciting to talk about, and it’s the first time I’m deliberately not sharing things with her. I thought I’d have to hold myself back from blurting everything out in a regurgitation of truth, but it turns out I’m pretty good at staying quiet. It’s surprisingly easy, not telling her things. I wondered if she’d be suspicious that I wasn’t attacking her with stories and questions and random thoughts the second she walked in the door. But if she even notices the change, she doesn’t care. Or maybe she cares but she doesn’t want to jinx it. Broaching the topic of my unnatural silence might encourage me to break it.
Part of me is hurt that Carissa doesn’t ask me about my day, now that I’m no longer volunteering the information. Maybe that’s why I keep looking for the visions. To prove to her that I’m interesting. To be someone worth talking to.
Carissa keeps sending me information about hypnagogia, via text, email, and sticky note, and once even a printout of an article she found in an academic journal at the university library; that one she slid onto the kitchen table just before she left the house in the morning, so that I’d find it when I came down to breakfast. Our conversation happens line by line, staggered and disjointed. When we’re together at home, though, she says nothing; she’s exhausted, and she has a headache, and all she wants to do is curl up on the couch and watch bad TV and then go to bed. I feel like I’m an astronaut, revolving in outer space, and she’s back home living her life, and everything one of us says takes hours to reach the other.
But I read the articles she gives me.
One of the articles says that people who experience hypnagogia are also prone to sleep paralysis: at the moment of their hallucination—either just before sleep or just after waking—they find their body rigid as death, unable to move, unable to rouse. They’re stuck there in that narrow passageway between wakefulness and sleep. It sounds terrifying. It also sounds completely unlike my experience. I do not feel trapped, or squeezed into stillness. When I stand in that threshold, in those brief moments, everything expands and unfolds: time, space, my own mind. Infinities hover just overhead.
It is the waking world that feels bounded and limited. Daytime seems interminable, hours and hours of harsh sunlight that renders the world opaque and self-reflective. I do my work, I eat, I see Carissa’s echoes in the butter knife she left on the counter and in the note she left on the fridge: I left you some bean salad. You can have it for lunch. There are more notes and texts lately, all of them brief and terse and carefully neutral, but neither of us acknowledge this when we see each other.
I call the Neuroscience Department at Carissa’s university and ask to speak to one of the professors. I’m a journalist, I tell them, working on an article, and I give them a fake name so it doesn’t get back to Carissa. They connect me to a postdoc who agrees to talk to me over the phone during lunch. She tells me about brain activity, which can be measured by an EEG. The brain, she says, has a steady background noise that lets the scientist know a person is awake. But when a person is falling from wakefulness to stage 1 sleep, that background noise erupts into a chaotic symphony—a million instruments all playing different songs at once.
“What does that mean?” I ask her.
“It means the brain is extraordinarily active. Electrical connections are being made all over the place. And what’s even more fascinating is that the reading we get from an EEG? It’s really limited. It’s from the scalp, so it’s just a surface-level scan. What’s going on inside must be absolutely explosive—we just can’t see it.”
I take pages of notes. All the while I can feel the way my waking life presses against my mind, containing it within the confines of my skull—keeping it docile, and quiet, and sterile. That night, when I open my eyes at exactly the right moment and see the tentacled shape drifting across the ceiling, I can feel my mind break through those barriers and flare to life.
I’ve been filing away all of my notes and the articles, keeping them in the same box where I store the notes Carissa leaves me. But there’s something missing from all of my research. Everything I read describes hypnagogia as delicate and fleeting: the visions come in flashes, and you have to grab them quick or else they’re gone forever. But whatever is showing itself to me is becoming more vivid over time, not less. It wants more than just moments. And it’s getting stronger, because I’m letting it.
One morning, I get rid of all of it: the sticky notes, the photocopies, my handwritten notes from my own research. I even delete the original text Carissa sent me, the one linking to the Wikipedia article. There’s a word for what I have, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right word.
After dinner, we sit in front of the TV. Neither of us is watching; Carissa is grading a stack of papers, and I’m counting the minutes until bedtime. I keep thinking about what the postdoc said about the electrical connections in my brain, that burst of activity just before I fall asleep, and I think that I’ve just been afraid of it. What would happen if all of those wires connected? What kind of energy would flow through them?
Right now, the electricity flares and fizzles, a brief and glorious firework show, and it would be easier to keep it that way. The visions—wherever they come from—can’t break through on their own. They need me to meet them, to push through the barrier that divides us, and I’m not used to pushing.
But I think I’m ready to try. I’m ready to see what’s next.
“Do you want a glass of wine?” says Carissa, and her voice makes me jump. It’s the most she’s said to me in days, outside of texts and notes, and her words sound stiff and forced. A couple of weeks ago that invitation—to talk to Carissa, to share even a brief moment—would have meant everything to me. Tonight, I can feel the weight of another world pressing its gentle fingers against the night.
“But,” I say, gesturing at her papers, “you have grading. And I have a lot to do in the morning. We should probably get some sleep.”
Carissa looks at me. The light from the lamp reflects off her eyes. Then she gathers up her papers, rapping the bottom of the stack against the coffee table to align them. It signals the end of the conversation, and I take the opportunity to spring up off the couch and head toward the stairs.
“I’ll be up in a minute,” says Carissa, and if I were thinking about it, it would strike me as strange. She gets ready for bed in the downstairs bathroom, and I get ready in the master bathroom upstairs; this is our pattern each night. It’s not Carissa’s habit to make a point of stating the obvious—not out loud. Not to me.
But I’m not thinking about it. I’m already halfway upstairs, and Carissa might as well be on another planet.
I’m sliding toward sleep, and I can feel them hanging overhead like a sky full of heavy clouds. Instead of individual gelatinous entities or blinking spacecraft, tonight the full weight of an entire universe pushes against the slim, translucent barrier that divides us. And, for the first time, there’s sound: a light hum, delicate as a spider web, branching into complex harmonics. Music.
They call without words, or maybe just without sounds I recognize as words. I reach a hand up toward the ceiling, hesitant, wanting so badly to touch something else’s outstretched fingers but afraid that my attempt will make them disappear once and for all.
The hum of their voices breaks through the barrier first, billowing down around me like smoke, flooding my nostrils and my mouth and my ears. I breathe it in, and it tastes like something I almost understand. My breath and the smoke coil and snake around each other, as if our voices had weight and heft, straining to reach each other. My exhalation is a sigh, a whisper, a piece of myself that I’m sending out.
The hum increases in intensity and becomes a keen. The keen becomes louder in my right ear than in my left; it hitches and stutters.
It’s Carissa, who ought to be asleep.
Carissa, who is crying.
For a moment I’m furious, because she’s pulling my attention away from the smoke, away from the creatures and planets and star systems hanging inches overhead, away from everything I’m moments away from understanding. But then I hear the way Carissa’s weeping harmonizes with the hum of alien voices. They’re not identical, but they’re not that different either. The more I listen to Carissa’s crying, the more I hear the hum—and the more I listen to the hum, the more I hear Carissa’s voice, see her terrible handwriting on notes left all over the house, recognize the phrasing that comes through her emails and texts. They’re two halves of a song, two voices calling out for contact.
Without realizing it, I’ve let my hand drop back down onto the mattress. It would take nothing for me to touch her arm. It would take everything.
The visions—my visions—still hang above the bed, but now Carissa lies beneath the same ceiling. I inch my hand across the gap between us, edging closer. It’s a delicate thing. I imagine her evaporating into pointillist pixels that sink into air. I imagine the house without her, filled with her absence. I imagine a universe that doesn’t contain the two of us.
Her fingers wait to tangle with mine. I reach for them, and the moment I touch her everything solidifies. The walls that we painted three times when we moved in, trying to find exactly the right shade. The blanket I knit last winter, full of snags and missed stitches, draped over Carissa. Carissa’s body, warm and musky and distinct from the shadows. The ceiling still hangs heavy above us, but I can feel it retreating, melting into the room, our room. I don’t even care, because everything inside me is already lit up. I pull her close. Our breath mingles and our tears run together. We create our own energy, like two wires sparking.
When I stumble downstairs the next morning, Carissa is sitting at the kitchen table with her coffee. Her eyes dart toward me and then slide back down, but there’s a smile peeking out from behind her mug. On the table, on my place setting, is a sticky note that reads, Good morning. Next to the note is a pencil: I cried in Dr. Hanstroff’s office.
I look at her and grin. “Good morning.” My voice meets her silence and holds hands across the table.
Jennifer Hudak is a speculative fiction writer fueled mostly by tea. Her stories have appeared in PodCastle, Daily Science Fiction, and the Flame Tree Press anthology Endless Apocalypse. Originally from Boston, she now lives with her family in Upstate New York where, in addition to writing, she teaches yoga, knits tiny pocket-sized animals, and misses the ocean. For more info, visit jenniferhudakwrites.com.
Author of “A Word for What We Have”
1) What inspired you to write this story?
Like Ani, I’ve had hypnagogic hallucinations for as long as I can remember. Also like Ani, I assumed everyone saw spiders skittering across their pillow in the dark. I only learned a couple of years ago that this isn’t the case.
As I’ve learned more about hypnagogia, I’ve stopped fearing the hallucinations. I’ve also found that I don’t see spiders as frequently; instead, I see spaceships—a speculative fiction writer’s (literal) dream!
2) What do you hope readers take from this story?
This story is all about communication. At the beginning of the story, both Ani and Carissa are craving connection, but each of them communicate in very different ways. It’s only when Ani realizes that Carissa has been reaching out all along that they’re able to realize what they mean to each other. They don’t magically start communicating the same way after this realization, but they make tentative steps toward accommodating one another in the end. That, to me, is the heart of the story. Different people have different comfort levels with spoken and written communication, and I hope that readers will be inspired to look around them and search for people who might be reaching out for connection in unconventional ways.
3) To give other writers hope, would you mind sharing with us how many edits and/or submissions this story has been through?
This story racked up rejections all over the place. Editors responded to it very favorably, and it came heartbreakingly close to publication several times, but ultimately it just didn’t quite fit anywhere—not quite fantasy, not quite science fiction. It was rejected 10 times before I submitted it to Apparition Lit’s Euphoria issue. Needless to say, I’m delighted that my odd little story finally found such a wonderful home.
4) Recommend something to us! This could be a book, a short story, a video game, a project you’ve heard about, something you’re working on, etc. Anything that has you excited and that you want people to know about.
I’m currently writing a portal fantasy, and I’ve recently read two that made me swoon:
* C.S.E. Cooney’s Desdemona and the Deep, which is the strange, dark, queer, goblin-girl book I didn’t know I needed, but which I DESPERATELY NEEDED.
* Alix E. Harrow’s The Ten Thousand Doors of January, which has so many of my favorite things: multiple strong female characters (and female friendships!), vivid settings (both fantastical and historical), a book within a book, words/writing-as-magic—and a very, VERY good dog.