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The Sleep Worm by Shaylen Maxwell

He comes into my kitchen, placing himself before the table setting and picking at his nose, smearing his greenly-yellow snot on the spread – a hand-knit tablecloth my grandmother left to me in her will.  “I’ll rid you of your nightmares for a hefty price,” he says, his little green finger still up his green nose.

“I thought you said you were a sandman,” I reply, unable to take my eyes off of the remnants now stuck to the cloth.

The spread’s an heirloom, one my mother had eaten upon as a child, behaving far better than this miscreant.  A fact I cherished all the more, given my mother was long dead too.  She cut off her own head, twelve years earlier.  When I was just a child.  I remember it well.  First she got shortened legs, a limb disease.  She was sitting on my bed, and it frightened me.  The doctors managed to fix her.  But it didn’t last.  Soon she was at the kitchen sink with one of our watermelon knives, hacking away at her neck.  No blood.  It was surprisingly clean for such a horrifying sight.  She didn’t even care that I was watching.

“Mommy,” I said, tugging at her apron.  Apparently one puts on an apron when deciding to cut off one’s own head.  I should have asked why Daddy wasn’t yet home.  It was a work night, and the table was set.  A roast, he liked roasts.  “Mommy,” I said again.  “Are you dead yet?”  Not, Please dont die.  Not, Mommy I love you.  No, no.  Just, Mommy, are you dead yet?  Question.  Silence.

“Not yet, pet,” she said, barely bothering to look at me.  She had one of her compact mirrors sitting on the edge of the windowsill, propped open there so she could see what she was doing.  I gleaned this by the way she dropped her eyes to it.  Quick like the slice of her knife.  She kept on cutting.  I continued to converse with her until I knew she was good and dead.  It took about fifteen minutes.  Afterward, my father refused to let me attend her funeral.  Said it would be too disturbing for me.  Yes, too disturbing to go to her funeral, closed casket, but not too disturbing–in my mother’s eyes–for me to witness her very medieval suicide.  (Oh, such was my parents to have two entirely different ideas on how to properly rear me!)

“It’s about my mother,” I tell the worm, as he props open his notepad to take notes.  “But that was just the start of it…”

There has to be a damn good reason, he explains, for me to request for such services.  He claims he’ll need proof of my suffering before he rids me of my ability to dream altogether.  The sandman, (man – that is, not worm!) came to give children dreams.  Obviously the man came to me with a bad batch, I reckoned.  But the worm could undo it, if due cause was given.  And thereby he would require a list: of every nightmare that had ever plagued me, and a detailed account of how this affliction had impacted my life.  With enough persuasion, he says, he can help me.

I point at my eyes.  “How’s this for persuasion?” I ask, running my index finger along the skin beneath my eyes, black in color as though someone has rubbed charcoal across it.

He shakes his head.  “Won’t do.”  Apparently my eyes, tired as they might seem, were merely subjective proof.  Some children are born with blackened skin there.  It’s genetic!  And for all he knows, it might even be makeup!  “Silkworms have a very poor sense of smell, so I can’t be sure.  And I certainly am not going to lick under your eyes to find out.  I need facts, substantial proof, to be convinced.”

I resignedly begin to rack my mind as the worm picks at the coleslaw set before him.  My dinner, leftovers from the lunch I’d had at work.  Friday’s we order out to the local deli, and I always saved the slaw for my supper.  I admit it’s superstitious too: coleslaw before bed rarely gave me bad dreams.

“You can always have an apple,” he says, his tongue flicking into the greens.  I cringe.  Not because it’s disgusting–watching him (though it is).  But apples were proven to increase your chances of having nightmares – anyone knew that, most certainly a worm sent to abolish bad dreams!  “You mentioned–” he continues, between bites, “in the email… something about last week?”

“Yes.  I was meeting with my therapist.  The boyfriend and I both.”

The worm scratches at the notepad with his pen, swallowing as he writes.  “Does he sleep well?”

“Sleep aids.  Nothing prescription.  It all started after he got shot.”

The silkworm puts down his pen and studies me.  I nod, “Shot in the head, he was, while face down in the cement.  It was at the carnival, downtown.  We happened upon a madman with a gun and single bullet.  He selected a handful of people from the crowd to play Russian Roulette, asking us all to stick our heads in the fresh cement while he fired at each of us.  I screamed-”

“Stay with me, child.  Don’t lose yourself to the dream.”

I return my eyes to the coleslaw, “Sorry, it’s hard sometimes.”

He gazes at me, somewhat sympathetically, “Understood.  Continue…”

“He cheats on me a lot too-”

“With hotter women?”  He seems bemused by this.

“Puppets,” I snap.  “The Jim Henson variety.”  The worm drops his eyes, solemnly.  “Not so much now, mind you.  The therapist, and the conception of self-esteem abolished a lot of that.  But sometimes, from time to time.”

“Not wholly uncommon,” the silkworm says, adjusting his spectacles and returning to the slaw.  Fingering the strands of lettuce and cabbage, he laughs then, “I had an eighty-nine year old woman call me the other day.  She dreamt her husband of sixty two years had left her.”  I make a face.  “He’d been dead fourteen years.  The mind regresses.  And given your abandonment woes… well, I’m sure that’s the only explanation for dreams like those, that’s all I’m saying.”

I grimace.  “Does that mean it isn’t due cause?  Because I have worse.”  The worm yawns.  “He decapitated an alligator while it was still alive, being fried on the stove top!”

“Oh dear,” the worm replies, jotting notes once more.

“The alligator was on the burner.  Our therapist was on the couch–her couch, from the office, except in our living room–all the while, he was making strange noises.  ‘Dook, dook,’ he was saying.  I couldn’t understand him.

Our therapist chuckled and I cried, ‘No!  Not more unintelligible noises.  We’re supposed to be serious, Baby!  Sorry, Fiona, he’s just started doing this.’

‘Are you teasing him?’ she’d asked.

He laughed until red in the face and I said, ‘Yes.’  I have often been teasing him in our sessions, it’s true.  I’m not sure why I do it.  And it’s begun to make me a bit uncomfortable, worrying perhaps my jest might be misunderstood.  Even if he laughs most times, and it seems harmless, I’ve worried Fiona thinks me wicked for it…”

“Child, your point?”

“It’s then that I hear this voice.  It’s my dog.  ‘Yes, my daddy makes bird noises to tease me,’ the beast has interjected, ‘He’s abusive!’  He’s a sporting breed; a bird dog.”

“And then?”

“Fiona cooed all sympathetically. Then my boyfriend ran back to the stove to finish off the alligator and my therapist noted that it was a strange choice for dinner, given I don’t eat red meat.  And it’s true.  I don’t.  I have a digestive disorder.”

“IBS?  Colitis?  Diverticulitis?”

“None of your business, you’re not my gastroenterologist!”

“Fine, fine, continue…”

“Well, he just couldn’t kill the thing.  It was squirming, trying to gnaw off his arms.  My boyfriend, I mean, not the dog.  So he called in my mother.  She did the honors.  Found a massive plastic funnel from the pantry and stuck it round its skull and hacked away.  My boyfriend, rather astutely, said she should do it because she’s so detached from reality already; or he murmured something about that.”

“This pattern of decapitation and death, it’s obviously connected, I presume, to the loss of your mother?”  He glances at the framed picture of her gracing my countertop.  I liked to keep it there, next to the sink.  In remembrance.  “Pretty woman.”

“And vain.  And tortured.”

“Like you.”

“I suppose.”  Though I didn’t like the comparison.  I was sane.  My mother, surely not!  And I hadn’t a watermelon knife in my kitchen for good reason.

“That all?” the worm asks.

“Afraid not.  The next night I dreamt of my mother again.  She had me over for the evening meal.”

“… And beheaded your father?”

“No, Worm!  Don’t be ridiculous!  She had prepared a feast of foods I couldn’t digest.  And when I got upset about this, she suggested I could satiate myself by eating my napkin.  I went ballistic.  Nearly thirty, and still reduced to hysterics by my mother’s failing to meet my needs.  Like I’m stuck, in my head, in some infantile state of wanting and weeping!”

“As I said, the beheading of things, animals, food, herself, it’s all very symbolic of this,” the worm concurs.  “But, to be clear, Mommy issues aren’t enough proof for me, child.  I’m going to need more.”  He paused then, his gaze flittering about the room.  “Mind if I smoke while we do this?”

It’s then he removes a pipe from the pocket of his vest.  The vest is green, like his skin, but the pipe is neon pink.  He lights it with the help of a box of matches from my silverware drawer.

“A venous fly trap once appeared in a banana I was eating, and stabbed my tongue and killed me.  Well, actually, first it paralyzed me.  Then it slid down my throat–the fly trap–and asphyxiated me…  I also get terrible claustrophobia, having to crawl through tunnels before becoming lodged in them.  Someone always has to come and feed me.  Not my mother, obviously.  Soon enough I am like Pooh Bear, in his first Disney feature, stuck in the door to rabbit’s house.  I become so fat that I’m destined to stay lodged there forever…  I fall a lot too – from buildings, skyscrapers, planes, hot air balloons, and get thrown off cliffs…  I get chased, but my legs they move in slow motion.  It’s not so much frightening as it is frustrating as fuck.”

“Mind your words, silkworms don’t appreciate swearing,” he says.

Well I didn’t much appreciate him puffing away at a pipe in my kitchen either, but at least I wasn’t rude about it.  “I also see celebrities,” I say.

“Oh dear,” the worm replies once more.  “That is troublesome.  Like, in sexual situations?  Sex symbols you mean?”

“No, worse!  Has-beens.  Craig T. Nelson, the guy from Coach.  I know, weird huh?  Jamie Lee Curtis, hosting the Oscars.”  The silkworm snickers.  “I’m usually really sympathetic because I sense it in their tone that they’re sort of uncomfortable by how their careers have atrophied. I mean, Jamie Lee is doing probiotic commercials and stuff now; while her True Lies co-star was the governor of California.”

“No kidding.”

“My teeth fall out a lot too.  Like in handfuls.  All the time!”

The silkworm says he hasn’t that trouble and can’t imagine the fuss.

“Teeth would have helped you eat that slaw,” I say, “and kept you from sucking it back like spaghetti.”  He shrugs and flicks the ash from the bottom of his pipe onto the cloth.  The sooner this is over, I think–glancing again at how he’s desecrated the fabric–the better.  “Can you please stop flicking ash about my flat,” I cry.  I never even had friends over.  Let alone a large pipe-sucking sand-worm.

Again he shrugs.  “Make this quick then.”

“A few days ago a bunch of jewel-bellied Trolls ran the world and I had to work in their shop and sell their food, stuff made entirely out of cedar chips.  The boyfriend was hungry so I stole a few chips to take home for supper, and, as punishment, the trolls had to rape us!”

Again, he yawns.  “Fantasies about swinger parties aren’t evidence either, darlin’.  Try a furpile, they’re always fun.”

Disgruntled, I shout, “My brothers are always getting stabbed!”  I declare it as though it’s an epiphany of sorts.


“Gangs.  Robbers – with butter knives.  They get hit by cars too.  They’re always small.  That’s because with Mom dead, they ran amuck.  My father wasn’t the parenting type.  Limits were something he didn’t really get and most certainly didn’t set.  I’d have held it against him if he too hadn’t had it so rough in there.  Dad got stabbed in the leg, his leg fell off, and he had countless heart attacks.”

“The poor amputee,” the worm sighs, patting me on the arm this time.  “May I have some milk?”

“Lactose intolerant,” I tell him.


“Which reminds me, a whole line of maids–like the maids a’ milking kind–came down into our basement once, all donning checkered smocks, and stabbed me, mercilessly in a corner.  I screamed, ‘I’m dead, I’m dead.  You can stop.’  And still they stabbed.”

“You have a very unsightly imagination.”

“My mind is a scary place,” I agree.  “Can’t you see how badly I need you?  I’d not have called you, resorted to this, if it weren’t necessary.”

“Perhaps a lobotomy is in better order for you.  Your memory is too strong.”  He takes another puff of his pipe and again flicks the ash onto the cloth.  “How you can retain all of this heinousness – well, it astounds me.”

I purse my lips.  “It’s not all memory.”  I go to the closet then, and pull out the massive binder.  It’s red, full of paper, thousands of pages at least, front and back.  My dream diary.  Eight years of meticulously recorded dreams.  Starting with the first one I ever wrote down, way back in ‘95.

“Woah, woah, woah!  You wrote them down?”

I wonder if I crossed a line, broken some sort of sacred sleep oath.  “What?  Why?” I ask.

He opens the binder, running his little green fingers over page after page.  “No!  I can’t help you.  I can’t.  No.  You kept them, wrote them down, like you wished to retain them.  You say you hate these dreams, but you put them to paper, wrote life into them.  Into them all.  Here the one of your father’s amputation.  And this one, of your best friend’s daughter turning into a frog and dying of neglect under your less-than-watchful eye?  The poor thing got lost in the mess of your cluttered bedroom.  I cannot believe you wrote that one down?”

“No worse than my youngest brother being run over by a snowplough?”

“Oh well that one was worse!  But no, I can’t!  It’s over, child.  You’re looking for meaning in them even.  Look, you even wrote in the margins,” he says, this time pointing at the ink.  That tells me everything I need to know.  You wanted to keep them.  You reread them!  You kept these nightmares alive!”

“But–” I protest.  “But, that’s not it.  You have it all wrong!”

“For stories like these?” the worm demands, “like the one being written now?  For fodder.  It’s not just that you’re deranged.  Surely anyone who records their dreams so meticulously, with such discipline, for so many years must be deranged, but for fodder, well that is even sicker!”


“I’ve heard of people practicing, trying to manipulate their dreams.  It’s like an art.  And even the odd person picking up a dream decoder book…”

“I have those,” I say.  “See, I was just trying to understand.”

At that I run into the next room, retrieving a stack of books, dream dictionaries of various sizes and girths.  I stack them on the table before the silkworm.  The worm’s mouth falls open in disbelief.  “That’s not one book.  You have hundreds!  Hundreds!  No, no!”

“What are you saying?”

“Nothing, nothing.  It’s useless.  I have to go, I have other clients.  Children cursed who never wrote their nightmares down.  Adults who have one book, not three dozen of them.  Troubled people, not the mentally ill!  You, dear girl, you are very sick.  The sickest I’ve ever seen.  And this is no fault of the sandman.  If I were to take this to Mr. Sandman, he might very well come back and curse you even worse.  You should be lucky, very lucky that I won’t do that.  I won’t tell him.  But I must go.  I really must go!”

“But you wanted evidence?”

At this the worm stands, putting his pipe back into his vest pocket and shaking his head.  He points accusingly at the binder again.  “Evidence yes, but what kind of person goes to their therapist with a binder of misdemeanors, without being thought psychotic.  I bet you did that too, huh?”

I sigh heavily, unable to deny it.  Of course I did that!  It just made sense.  What good was arguing a point, without literal proof on paper?  Evidence was in the words.  Words were an arsenal. Words were weapons.  They always were.  And words could win wars.  They could-

“It’s over, child.  There’s nothing I can do.”

“But I can’t sleep,” I plead then, falling to my knees before the slimy green creature.  “Look at my eyes,” I say.  “Lick them!  I’ll even buy you a fresh batch of coleslaw from our all night supermarket, if you taste just sweat on my skin.  I’m desperate!”  The worm looks disgusted, so disgusted he might hork all over my nightgown.  “Please,” I beg, with tears in my exhausted eyes.  “Please.  I’ve even suffocated, in my sleep.  It’s like that condition.  I saw it on TV once, it can kill you.  I’m afraid if left unmanaged I’m going to die of this, die from sleep deprivation.  Die in your sleep, die in real life – isn’t that what they say?  You know best.  Please, please!  I’ll pay anything!  Anything!  I won the lottery in ’89 and it did terrible things to me; our family was held hostage by robbers, and people always tried to kidnap me for ransom.  My dad blamed my mother’s suicide on that too.  Money doesn’t bring happiness, Sandworm, it brings violence and suffering!  You can have my entire trust fund.  Please!

“Alright, I have to be honest…” he says, clearing his throat. At this the worm offers out his hand, helping me to my feet.  I dry the tears from my cheeks and throw my arms around him.  He is not amused by this either.  “I can’t help you.  I should have just told you this when you set the place setting…  It’s a bit of a mirage,” he finally confesses.  “A façade, I am.  In fact, I’m more an apparition of your mind, a figment of your subconscious if you like.  To say I’m real, well… you should have had some sense with the silkworm stuff.  The sandman is a song, child, a song your father used to listen to.  Sandman is not real.  And me?  Well that’s fucking lunacy!”

“But the mask?” I ask, looking at the spun silk blinder.  It’s lying on the counter next to my mother’s picture.  The worm had instructed me to wear it at night, while I slept, to keep the dreams away.  He promised it would help me.  He’d brought it with him, and handed it to me after I let him in (he’d been forced to show it to me, just as soon as I’d opened the door, as proof he was who he claimed to be.  After all, the website hadn’t anything but an email address and phone number, and certainly no pictures of his slimy form).  I hold up the mask, examining it once again.  It looks so authentic, white, with a complimentary purple and teal trim.

“Props,” he says, and then he plucks it from me, tucking it back in the pocket of his little green vest.

“So, what?  You’re just some stupid caterpillar?”

“Afraid so,” he sighs.  “But thank you, at least, for the coleslaw.”

“No, this can’t be!” I cry again, as he starts back toward the door.  “You can’t go yet, you can’t.”  He doesn’t stop, doesn’t even try to humor me any longer.  “Wait.  If you can’t help me, if you’re not going to rid me of my dreams, can’t you at least tell me how this ends?”

He scoffs, opening up the door and stepping out into the hall.  “The cheapest way, child,” he states sympathetically.  “… You wake up.”


Shaylen’s fiction has appeared in over a dozen publications, most recently: Flashes in the Dark, the New Flesh, and OG’s Speculative Fiction. In her spare time, she created a word puzzle game currently being developed into an iphone app. She resides in exile with her menagerie of wild animals: two dogs, two cats, four rabbits, a Beldoe, and a Sneaky. She also edits this publication.

“The Sleep Worm” is an homage to my insomnia. Yes, I’ve had a dream in which my mother cut off her head– it still terrifies me to this day. No, I’ve never been visited by a green worm who picks his nose, eats coleslaw, or smokes a pipe. And yes, I kept a dream journal for five years (with no greater insights besides a stack of paper and a heightened ability to recall my slumbers.)

One Comment leave one →
  1. 04/02/2011 04:17

    “Apparently one puts on an apron when deciding to cut off one’s own head. ” That line sold me. This is quite a rollick through an off kilter terrain of dreaminess and reallyness. Thank you for the coleslaw indeed 🙂

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