1st Place 14-17


by Sophia Ma



I used to be able to sleep without the curtains drawn. The moonlight was once upon a time my purple crayon, and with it, I could draw anything I wanted on the blank canvas in the back of my mind that I reserved for dreams.

But things have changed. We are estranged now, the moon and I. When she’s with me, the tides are my blankets and she tucks me into them only to periodically pull them away, leaving me exposed and insomnious in her light.

And so every night I deadbolt the blinds and lock the curtains, equip my window with AlarmForce Security Systems. Still she tugs the strings of my mind. My brain becomes a crazy life factory, churning out things like what did I have for breakfast on Friday crap were the library books due today when is my Biology test oh my God is it tomorrow no it is next week okay phew what was that sound oh it’s just Dipper go to sleep go to sleep go to—

My bed is far too close to the window, that’s what it is. The moon’s tentacles pick the locks to my eyes, shoot the sentries patrolling my skull and end up in the auditorium of my mind, dancing, dancing, under the one burning spotlight that keeps me awake all night.

The next day, I go swimming. I take a bubble bath. I do yoga. I consult a feng shui specialist. I put on a Debussy CD and lay in bed listening.

No good. It’s the moon again, damn it. But no. Today I will not lose. Today I will fall asleep. And I won’t just fall asleep; I will fall asleep like Franz Liszt played the piano, with ecstasy and madness and with such style and obvious genius that it will become the stuff of legends, everyone will gasp and toss roses and in the morning, Cirque du Soleil will call and beg me to join (it will be hard, but I’ll have to turn them down); I will fall into sleep as if into the arms of an adoring crowd, I will fall into sleep headfirst like some fall into love, my heart bound to my sleeve with Velcro and the parachute billowing behind.

I get an hour and a half of sleep that night, and in the morning, I look like I have been mauled by a leopard seal.


So. This is how it starts. It starts innocently. It starts with warm milk with honey. It starts with buying NeoCitran on my way home from school. After that it’s Sominex. Lunesta. Sonata. Such soft, lullaby names. My brain dims and whirs but the sweatshop there never stops. But when I discover Ambien, the overworked underpaid child labourers there unionize, and I—at last!—fall asleep.

I did not expect the dizziness, though. I fall down the stairs. Trip over nothing. My fingers become lacerated with paper cuts. I buy band-aids and shrug it off. Once, out of the corner of my eye, I see my teddy bear playing Stella Stella Ola with my Simba toy, which proves how stressful midterms are. Everything is fine until the morning that my dog barks as I am leaving for school. I turn. There he is, eyes as big and dark as grapes, tongue lolling, fur glowing in the light. I stare at him. My stomach drops. What is his name? And then it comes back to me—Dipper!—and I am opening my arms, and he is licking my face, and I am off to school with my eyes clenched against the morning sun.

Halfway through the dissection in Biology that day, I fall off my stool and hit my head on the floor.

When I wake up, it’s in a hospital bed. The doctor who comes in gives me a look that says Don’t bullshit me. I swallow my story about how dissections make me queasy. He says: lucky, life-threatening, hallucination, addiction. He knows a guy who tried to hang himself from his balcony after taking Ambien. I don’t really hear him because little green men are dancing on his shoulder.

“What’s Ambien?” I try.

He shows me my test results and I feel his eyes close down on my face like a clamp.

Goodnight Ambien, good morning America.


Now there are two clocks in my room. I love these clocks, these friends who have marched me off to sleep night after night after night. Tonight, one is a wounded soldier, limping, with one leg dragging behind, and the other is pensive: quiet for a few beats and then suddenly clear and precise—a heartbeat, fading in and out, in and out.

Once, together, they discovered jazz.

I used to think clocks were like bombs. Ticking ticking ticking ticking ticking as if toward some unseen Armageddon. Now I know the only bombs that really exist are strapped to our ribcages. They start the moment we start. They have been preset by an invisible hand, ready to detonate at any moment. These bombs are the only ones that ever really explode.

Now I listen intently to clocks everywhere. Their breathing shallow and snagged in the corners of rooms. I can always, always, sniff out a clock.

The ticking of my clocks is never the same. I close my eyes. Slide into their senza misura rhythm. Only then do I forget the spidery light telling knock-knock jokes at my window. Only then does my hyper brain calm down. I listen. And when the silence becomes so dense that it seems like it is the sound and the ticking is merely the space between, I know I am almost there.


This is how I fall asleep.


The story was inspired by a bout of insomnia I had around December of last year. Originally, it was more of a tribute to John Cage (it was exactly 433 words) and focused heavily on my clocks. However, around the time I found out about this contest, I began having trouble sleeping again, so I decided to change it to tap more into my personal experience.
– Sophia Ma


8 comments on “1st Place 14-17

  1. Mira

    Wow…I always find myself coming back here and reading this–it is truly exhilaration, dynamic, and provoking, all at once. Some feelings I’ve deemed ineffable were captured so perfectly. Truly one of my favourite pieces on this site.

  2. Sana

    This is a gorgeous piece! I love your writing style.

  3. Smriti V

    This is beautiful. I can’t even say anything. This story is unbelievably good, the writing is wonderful. Just wonderful.

  4. Duha

    Wow, this is truly amazing. You should try to write a book and get it published, because this is really good!

  5. Rainbow

    You are incredible. I was completely immersed in your writing.

  6. This is FANTASTIC. I love your style and I hope keep writing! :)

  7. Hannah

    wow this is absolutely lovely! I hope you keep writing, you have talent :)

  8. Katy

    Your style is gorgeous, like an elegant woman dressed in moonbeams and stars, cold and distant, and completely unreachable. But oh, how beautiful!

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