Bodies & Spirit

“Sometimes when I close my eyes and it’s there, my heart and lungs both stop working. Like I die a little more death every night.” A short story wherein fear-induced insomnia forces one to consider their relationship with death…

by: Will Hagle

“An angel, or God, or something, hovered over me. Over our actual bed. And I was about to die.”

This is what I tell Henrietta when she asks if I remember what happened last night. 

“Well you woke up screaming again and then you grabbed me.”

That wasn’t a grab, I think, but a gentle touch. The ghost, or spirit, was going to grab me. And not gently.

The being had what my human brain perceived to be “arms” spread wide, but they weren’t arms, they were thick white sheets. Ready to flutter down atop me like the covering the EMTs put on those motorcycle bodies last week in Oahu. Like those bodies, my definition was about to be changed from human to corpse, as theirs did midway through a first-place-at-the-X-Games-worthy triple backflip onto the face-rearranging concrete. The thing was going to erase my face next, and my brain and all its memories. Once it kissed me with its lipless, orb-like head, gone would be our KFC dinner last night, or moonwalking across the stage at high school graduation, or Henrietta’s brother, the off-duty firefighter, breathing pointless air through the lips of the motorcycle bodies, sharing the taste of death with a balloon animal that can no longer inflate. 

“It was a grab. I don’t want you to hurt me or my baby.”

Her baby. It is in there. In her. Our baby. It is our baby. I don’t want to hurt our baby either. But I can’t feel it, in my body, like she can. I don’t know it. Him. It is a him, the doctor said. I don’t want him to die but as importantly I don’t want to die either.

Henrietta grabs, not touches, the almond milk bottle. Dumps it atop granola. Swirls the mixture around with a spoon. I grind coffee beans. The noise is loud enough that we can’t talk over it. We have to think.

Two thousand years ago, I might’ve believed an angel really came down to swoop me away. Maybe I’d have told other people about it. They would have listened, and followed me around the desert to tell other people. In 2023, I can’t do that. No one would believe me. No one except me cares if I die. Not even the mother of my baby. Of her baby.

“You need to go to Dr. Slumber.”

I don’t need to. I don’t have to. I have to want to. I won’t do anything just because someone tells me to do it. I do what I want. Marriage is supposed to be a partnership. We are equals. She is her baby’s mother, not mine.

“Not for me,” she says, tapping her belly. “For him.”

I make an appointment.

The Burbank Sleep Institute is on a dense slice of Magnolia Blvd., in between a 90s nostalgia VHS rental store and a year-round Halloween costume shop. A decorative ghost dangles in the next-door window, beady red LED eyes flickering on and off. That is not what a real ghost looks like. Not even close.

“I think the joke is that they try to put you to sleep in the lobby,” says the other person waiting on the plush chair across from me. 

I glance over the full-page spread on hibernating fat-tailed dwarf lemurs in my 2004 National Geographic. She sits, finger pads tapping an engorged belly. It would be rude to ask the obvious. “So you’re sleeping for two, er, not sleeping for two,” would be the impolite joke someone would make if Henrietta were here. She hears it everywhere, this commenting on her body. 

The music is boring, but I don’t think I could fall asleep in a doctor’s lobby.

“I wish I could fall asleep somewhere.”

Yeah. Me too.

“But my problem isn’t that I can’t fall asleep,” I tell the nurse when she finally calls me back. She adjusts the scale I’m standing on and scribbles on her notepad. “I just don’t want to, because the being shows up. Sometimes when I close my eyes and it’s there, my heart and lungs both stop working. Like I die a little more death every night.”

“Okay, buddy. Let’s get your blood pressure.”

I wait again in a room with no magazines or music for twice as long until Dr. Slumber and his assistant barge in and straddle the backs of hard plastic chairs. They face me, like the spirit.

“Well, we all know what Freud would say,” Dr. Slumber bellows, in a low vibrational bass that would stir a hibernating fat-tailed dwarf lemur. 

A high-pitched chuckle from Roger, the assistant, forms a melody of elitist mockery.

“And don’t get me started on Jung,” I say. 

Their faces solidify into serious stone.

“Can you draw me a picture of this…thing?”

Roger hands me his notepad. At the top, he’s written: “Night Terrors. 32-y/o Male ” — as if this is the most concise and accurate summary of my own being, which is all-consumed with the one that visits me in bed. 

I scribble a few curved lines and connect them and show it to the two like I’m a Venice Beach caricaturist pulling a horrific prank. My drawing looks identical to the cartoon ghost hanging in the Halloween store window. 

“Maybe stop watching horror movies,” Roger shrugs. 

“I don’t know what to tell you except that sleep is not death,” Dr. Slumber says, sighs. 

“No, but according to Nas, sleep is the cousin of death,” Roger says.

Dr. Slumber asks who’s that, then shakes his head. He hands me a prescription for sleeping pills. He tells me I look healthy enough for middle age. The receptionist charges me one hundred fifty dollars. I walk back outside and a father and son are pointing at the Halloween prop in the window. “Dog,” the boy says. “No,” the father says. “Ghoooooooost.”

On my 30-min therapy Zoom call Eliza tells me that I need to accept death is a possibility. An inevitability. 

“You could live to 100 or it could be sudden and quick.” 

Like the motorcycle bodies? Maybe it’s one of them, one stuck in purgatory unable to rest because I was the one who witnessed that spirit leave that body, and it wants revenge, or to pass on this curse, this curse that is in me regardless of whether or not the being gets any closer.

“Are you still ruminating over that incident? Let’s meditate. Concentrate on your head. Identify the tension. Do not judge it. Try to breathe into it. Now let’s move down to the neck. Hold this next inhale. That’s it. A few more seconds. Now let it go.”

I stare at her, wide-eyed, camera-off, for the duration. Breathe automatic, without intention. Focus on nothing but how fake she looks, like an actor in a horror film Roger told me not to watch.

“Good job,” she says when it’s over. “How did that feel?”

“I’m going to kill the fucking demon,” I say and walk out the door, get in the car, and go straight to Gun World. I pace the aisles, ignoring the moans of my Democrat ancestors. “A gun is how your grandfather died,” Henrietta texts. “The only threat in our house is you putting that thing to your own head.”

I tap a case which feels like a skin-shielded placenta and the saleswoman pulls out a glock. She asks if I want to test it. Sure. I aim it at my head, barrel against temple. Pull the trigger. It sounds quiet and empty, like a mechanized whimper. My head is still full. The being is in there, I believe, although I only ever see it outside of me, when my eyes are closed. 

The security guard chuckles and grabs his protruding tummy, jiggles it up and down. The saleswoman points to the range in the back. I wave off the waiver and move toward the exit as fast as possible.

Henrietta’s right. You can’t shoot a ghost. You can’t tase one, either, despite the trotting saleswoman’s plea that I consider the store clearance sale on non-lethals.

The spirit returns again that evening, and I come to screaming, punching the air. Human fists have no effect either. Except of course to wake me up. The being never comes when I am awake. When I am in control. When I exist.

Henrietta flips and blocks the baby with her arms. The pregnancy pillow forms an impenetrable fortress between us. Daisy leaps up and launches into a sniff investigation, licks a bead of sweat off my legs, then settles into the curvature of Henrietta’s. 

I lay awake all night staring at my phone. Refresh, refresh, refresh the Honolulu news sites, yearning to attach a name to the motorcycle bodies. To know for certain that they have survivors, who loved them and still do, who found out much later than we did that the angels came down to take them away. 

“I’m just going to sleep on the couch tonight.”

“You don’t have to.”

It’s not about hurting her, though, or her baby. It’s that maybe the ghost won’t show up down there. Maybe it lives in our bedroom. It can’t kill me downstairs.

I pour a Manhattan and pass out after two sips. When I wake up the Friends marathon is still on TV. The characters are all as pale as the being’s arms, and the laugh track is a ghost of television past, but no entity haunts me.

I sleep on the couch downstairs until the baby comes, spirit-free except for the Manhattans. 

We bring him home and everything the annoying new parents before us said is true: our old lives are over. Daisy seems different. We are real parents now. Not dog ones. We must channel our energy in one direction. We are terrified and we know nothing except that Freud and Jung might say we’re traumatizing this little developing human with every thing we do but we’re trying our best, better than our parents could, with more research and data that somehow makes it all harder, but we are alive, we are all alive right now and we will die, either at separate times or all together and it’s impossible to say which could be worse, because we exist together but also for each other, but separately, like the Holy Trinity suddenly makes logical sense —The Father, The Mother, and The Son — except in this case there is still the Holy Spirit, with its orb-head and sheet-arms and it comes again in the night, except it is not hovering over me but above the bassinet staring at my baby, her baby, our baby.

I jump out of bed and open my eyes and the being is still there and it doesn’t move but it doesn’t come closer. We exchange no words but I think them: You can get me but you cannot get him. I will never sleep if I don’t have to. I do not exist and never have. I will be where you are, where we all go, with the motorcycle bodies, but it won’t be now. It can’t be because I need to stick the bottle of formula in his mouth and let him suck, suck, suck, suck like I thought my life did before he came into it. To let his natural survival instincts take over like mine are now. You can haunt me forever as long as you leave him alone.

I close, reopen, and it’s gone. 

Henrietta sleeps through it all. 

I lay back down and relish the fifteen minutes of complete nothingness until the boy wakes up screaming. I want to ask him if the ghost came back. No. He just shit his pants and wants to eat. He is learning to live and I am the being hovering over him. I have to know when to be there and when to disappear. I have to show him how to deal with bodies and spirits.


Will Hagle is a Los Angeles-based writer and the co-host of the Connecting The Classics podcast. A great deal of Will’s work can be found on the webzine Passion of The Weiss. He is also the author of the excellent 33 ⅓ book dedicated to MF DOOM and Madlib’s album Madvillainy

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