Francine Cunningham | Issue 16
"Asleep Till You're Awake" from God Isn't Here Today: Stories
Asleep Till You’re Awake
I went to the walk-in clinic because I’d started falling asleep in weird places. The first time happened in a grocery store. I was holding two boxes of cereal and I got tired, so I sat down in the aisle. I’d never thought to just sit down in a grocery store, but when your eyes are burning and the blinks come slower and slower, it becomes impossible not to. So, I sat. And then I leaned. I should never have leaned. I should have sat up straight, like someone who does yoga, but I don’t do yoga. I don’t even stretch, really. So, I sat, then leaned, and then a man with a brown coat and black sneakers started shaking my shoulder, asking me if I was dead. Okay, he was asking if I was fine, but basically that’s the same thing. So, he asked me if I was fine and I said no. And then he just walked away. Like, who does that? I said no, you’re supposed to help, but he walked away. I got up. I didn’t even buy any cereal. I just went home.
My days kept on like that. Being shaken awake by strangers with glasses, or lumpy sweaters, or stinky breath, or frizzy hair, or dry patches of skin. It was annoying. I went to a doctor. I sat in the waiting room for, like, forever, and then I sat in the doctor’s office for another forever, and then she was shaking my shoulder, the doctor, waking me up. I mumbled an apology that I didn’t mean. How many of those do you think we give in a year — apologies we don’t mean? I must do a hundred. Or maybe more, maybe more than three hundred, even. I don’t know. I could track it like a food diary addict tracks calories. But I know I won’t.
This doctor, she was in my face and asking me questions — like, I just woke up lady, give me a second. But you know how it is in those clinics, staff are like little rats, scurrying from one beige office to the next, five minutes staring into the desperate eyes of a person wanting to feel better from a cold, and knowing there’s nothing they can do. Like, have you never seen a bus ad before? Fluids and rest, stupid. But no, rich people don’t take the bus. They never see the ads us poor people do.
Oh, I should mention that I didn’t go to the walk-in clinic by my house. No, I went into the neighborhood with houses that were all one home each, not ones that were sectioned off into many different apartments and suites like mine, overflowing with kids learning to play the trumpet and clothing strung out on balconies. I’d decided that for this sleeping thing, I needed a real big-shot doctor. But guess what? This doctor had the same dead-eyed look as the ones near my house. Like they were staring at you and thinking about roasting a chicken for dinner. Anyway, she told me that it was probably nothing, that I was overreacting, but she would order a blood test anyways because it couldn’t hurt. And I assumed she only offered that because maybe she made extra money if she sent people to get blood drawn, that maybe she only got paid if she did something other than say two sentences in this small office with its one window and hard bed covered in tissue paper. But I don’t know. I never went to the blood drawing place. I don’t like needles. When I came out of the doctor’s office, I saw her. My mom. No, I should say, my dead mom. She was sitting in a chair reading a magazine. A boring magazine too. One she would never have read when she was alive — about gardening, or, at least, it had a flower on the cover. But anyway, she was reading it, and she had her legs crossed just like I remember her always sitting, one foot caught behind her calf, her big toe keeping everything in place. Her hair was the same as always, a short burgundy dyed bob cut on an angle up her jaw.
The tiny hairs on my neck stood up. I was seeing a ghost and no one cared. No one moved even. I started to laugh. It was this belly laugh kind of thing. It spewed out of me, all over the waiting room. But she didn’t even look up. My dead mom. She just kept reading her magazine about rotting plants and bugs that trample all over yard work. And I kept laughing through the cracks in my teeth. She was wearing the same sandals and shorts she wore the day she walked away from me for the last time. We were in another place then, a town, a dusty kind of beat-up-houses-and-scraggly-brown-grass-with-garbage-just-thrown-out-of-windows-and-dogs-roaming-free kind of place. My dead mom lived there with her fiancé, what’s his name. I went to visit because I needed to leave the sounds of the city digging into my brain. I could tell he didn’t want me there. He’d already claimed my dead mom as his own; he’d even put a tarnished brass ring on her finger. The skin under it was this sickly green that leached into her. So that even her once-blue eyes turned from clear ocean water to muddy, stagnant, moss-covered pond. He was like an infection that can’t be treated with antibiotics, sores oozing white pus. I stayed because I knew he wanted me gone. But I couldn’t not fight with him. Or her, by the end. I don’t even know why. I just couldn’t hold the words in. I tried. Really, I did, but when someone is just so wrong about everything, you have to say something, right? And when alive. Maybe in death you get to choose your smell from the expensive perfume aisle.
I looked at her finger. The green sickness was gone, her skin was bare. She had left the human garbage man. She was finally free. I wanted to vault into the air and scream in glee, but I sat still instead. I didn’t know the rules for ghosts. I was afraid a breeze might blow her over and melt her away. So, I leaned back in the chair and waited for her look at me. A nurse with crinkled skin shook me awake. Her face was right in mine and her hot breath poured into my nostrils. I recoiled. She was saying something about me needing to leave. They were closing. I reached for my dead mom, but I was alone in the room with the crinkly nurse. My heart hammered, like, for real, hammered in my chest. It hurt. Where was my mom? Why hadn’t she woken me up before she left? Why had she walked away? Why hadn’t she turned around?
The next day, I couldn’t stop thinking of her sitting in the doctor’s office. I’d found her, but I had let myself fall asleep. I was stupid. And dumb. An idiot. I should have reached out to her. I should have whispered into her ear. I should have said I was sorry. But I didn’t. The thoughts were burrowing by then. They’d nested in my frontal cortex and now they were burrowing and taking over all the other pathways of my brain. I couldn’t stop myself from going back. I headed straight to the doctor’s office. She had to be there, right? What would you have done? Just not gone back? When you knew there was a chance your dead mom would be sitting in a chair waiting for you?
Francine Cunningham is an award-winning Indigenous writer, artist and educator. Her debut book of poems On/Me (Caitlin Press) was nominated for 2020 BC and Yukon Book Prize, a 2020 Indigenous Voices Award, and The Vancouver Book Award. She is a winner of The Indigenous Voices Award in the 2019 Unpublished Prose Category and of The Hnatyshyn Foundation’s REVEAL Indigenous Art Award. Her fiction has appeared in The Best Canadian Short Stories 2021, in Grain Magazine as the 2018 Short Prose Award winner, on The Malahat Review’s Far Horizon’s Prose shortlist, in Joyland Magazine, The Puritan Magazine and more. Her debut book of short stories God Isn’t Here Today ’is out now with Invisible Publishing and is a book of Indigenous speculative fiction and horror. You can find out more about her at www.francinecunningham.ca
God Isn't Here Today: Stories by Francine Cunningham Invisible Publishing, 2022
Join Francine Cunningham in conversation with Nadine Bachan on her debut collection of short stories at Shelf Life Books Event on May 25, 2022 at 7:00pm (MST)
For fans of Chuck Palahniuk, Joyce Carol Oates, and Karen Russell, the stories in Francine Cunningham’s debut collection God Isn’t Here Today ricochet between form and genre, taking readers on a dark, irreverent, yet poignant journey led by a unique and powerful new voice.
Driven by desperation into moments of transformation, Cunningham’s characters are presented with moments of choice—some for the better and some for the worse. A young man goes to God’s office downtown for advice; a woman discovers she is the last human on Earth; an ice cream vendor is driven insane by his truck’s song; an ageing stripper uses undergarments to enact her escape plan; an incubus tires of his professional grind; and a young woman inherits a power that has survived genocide, but comes with a burden of its own.
Even as they flirt with the fantastic, Cunningham’s stories unfold with the innate elegance of a spring fern, reminding us of the inherent dualities in human nature—and that redemption can arise where we least expect it.
Issue #16 of Send My Love to Anyone
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