Content warning: ELEGY is a tough read, absent of hope. Do not read unless you’re feeling strong.

For Doselle Young

Six months before the world ended, I went to yet another doctor, shopping for a hypnotic that would find my off switch.

“I have bad dreams.”

“Do you think you could take your sunglasses off? They’re a bit off-putting.”

“I’m sorry. Photophobia. The light makes me weep.”

They were grayscale. Primary colors triggered the dreams. Black and gray and white were safe.

The walls were covered in pretty florals. I couldn’t risk their colors.

“I see.” The doctor said it kindly, as if she really did see.

“How old are you?”


She didn’t have to ask. She had my file on the screen in front of her.

“What kind of bad dreams?”

“The kind that stop me sleeping. I’m hoping you’ll prescribe me sleeping pills. I’ve tried warm milk before bed, valerian, meditation, Nyquil.”

Alcohol (disastrous), opiates (ditto), weed (worked at first, but then redoubled the dreams). Benzodiazepines turned me into a zombie. Nonbenzodiazepines, likewise.

I was here because I wanted to try the new class of soporifics. Their side effects were noncognitive: tremors, vomiting, hair loss. I could deal with those.

“You name it, I’ve tried it.”

The doctor believed me. She thought I was a junkie. They always did. But she didn’t judge. Her eyes stayed kind.

“The dreams are so bad they interfere with your sleep?”

The dreams were so bad that if you heard them they’d worm their way into you, and you’d be the one begging for drugs.

The bad dreams had been in me since I was five years old.

“They’re so bad I’m scared to sleep.”

“I’m sorry. Tell me about your dreams.”

No. These were someone else’s dreams. They had nothing to do with me. I was a red herring. These dreams ate my dreams.

“I don’t remember them.”

“Nothing at all?”

Wouldn’t that be nice? Not to have them lurking on the other side of my eyelids, making me afraid to blink.

“I wake up screaming, sweating, my muscles knotted.”

“Have you tried hypnotism?”

“Yes,” I lied, concealing my shudder. Putting myself under someone else’s control? Letting the dreams spill out? Not going to happen. “Didn’t work.”

“Would you mind trying again? I’m very good at it.”

I was sure she was.

“I’ve tried multiple times. I’m unhypnotizable. Sorry.”

“Well, then,” she said, “tell me what you think is causing the dreams. Were they triggered by a trauma?”

The dreams were the trauma.

I shrugged. “Maybe they have to do with my brother?”

A lie. The dreams were first.

Just give me sleeping pills, Doctor.

Dead brother, missing girlfriend.

Well, not girlfriend—though she might have been, if … well, if the dreams weren’t.

“What happened to your brother?”

“He died when I was young.”

“That must have been difficult.”

Difficult? It was my fault.

“Tell me about it.”

I couldn’t.

“Talking can help. I see someone myself. I don’t know how I’d cope without someone to talk to.”

For her, talking wasn’t a disaster.

She didn’t have bruises under her eyes; the whites of her eyes weren’t red-veined. She could eat.

All my favorite food tasted like the dreams. Mangoes brought back the sweet tang of bile. Chili peppers tasted like panic sweat. Dark chocolate coated my mouth with fear.

I ate only plain food: saltines, white rice, chickpeas. Grayscale food.

She gave me the drugs. They didn’t work.

I’d known, when the dreams first slid into my cells, whispering eschatological nightmares, not to tell anyone. Not ever. Not to whisper them into my beloved teddy bear’s ears. Not to answer Mom or Mama’s questions with anything more than a yes or a no or a smile or an I love you.

The dreams itched at me like chicken pox, begging me to scratch, to tell the world, to set them free.

I went quiet.

I’d crawl into Mom or Mama’s arms. That was the only time I felt safe. Though it was safest not to feel anything at all.

When I was ten I told my brother.

I had a fever. The dreams were screaming in my eardrums, dancing across my irises, pushing against my lips.

“Tell me,” my brother said, frantic with worry. “Tell me what’s wrong.”

I did. The dreams took him that night.

He burst into my room.

“This is where you went, isn’t it?” He tapped his head, eyes wide, red and crawling with them. Scratches across his face. “They’re the same as yours, aren’t they?”

I nodded.

“These are your dreams.”

I nodded, then shook my head.

They weren’t my dreams.

His face was mine. Same terror. Same knowledge.

“Don’t tell anyone else. Not ever.”

I nodded. I knew.

I’d been mute with every doctor, every therapist, every well-intentioned practitioner of herbs and crystals and cups.

“It will be okay.”

It wasn’t okay.

My brother couldn’t sleep. At all.

If you go long enough without sleeping, you die.

He died without telling. He was braver than me.

After my brother’s death, I searched everywhere, read everything, trying to find a description of anything like my bad dreams. Searched online and off. The librarians thought I wanted to be one of them, I spent so much time there.

I found nothing.

I was relieved.

I was gutted.

I was utterly alone.

I avoided people’s eyes.

I went to the store. I went to school.

I talked to Mama—Mom was long gone. “Pass the toast. How about the Liberty? Is spring ever coming?”

Not my thoughts, not my aspirations, and definitely not my dreams.

I was careful.

So careful it pulled my skin tight.

I pushed the dreams behind a wall. They stayed there; they did not squeak through.

I got stoned every night. Until it stopped working.

Many days I didn’t make it to school.

I knew I wasn’t going to college. It didn’t matter. I worked at a hardware store. I could talk to people about rivets, tape measures, primer without ill effect.

Ill effect.

My brother had tried to scratch out his own eyes.

When Janey flirted, I shut her down. She didn’t talk to me at school, but at work she was all, “Take those dark glasses off. Just for once. I bet you have the prettiest eyes.”

I walked away.

I don’t like to think about my eyes. I know what lies behind them.

I stopped researching.

I fended off gossip. I fended off friendly chatter. I didn’t join teams or clubs. I didn’t read the school paper. Or our town’s. I didn’t go online. I didn’t date. I didn’t make eye contact.

I was a loner.

There used to be whispers about why I kept my head down. When I was fifteen I was voted most likely to shoot up the school. They were joking/not joking.

They didn’t know I could kill them all by opening my mouth.

After that I was called into the school counselor’s. Again.

People don’t like people who don’t engage. Silence makes them nervous.

Sometimes the urge to share the dreams was so strong I had to go to the bathroom, close the door, cover my face, scream.

I always dreamt after that. Sometimes I’d wake up vomiting.

 When I was fifteen, I succumbed to kindness.

“I know,” Janey said as we were closing up the store. I was exhausted after five nights without sleep. “What it’s like. You’re trying to make yourself invisible. There’s no trace of you online. You’re trying to disappear. I used to want that too.”

She traced my cheekbone with her thumb. I felt that touch in every cell.

“Is it your dad? It was my dad,” she said, concern dripping from every word. “You never look at anyone. You can look at me. You don’t have to hide.”

Her eyes were wide with sympathy.

Tears pushed at mine.

She hugged me. No one had touched me but my mama since Mom left.

My fault. Mom couldn’t live in our house with traces of her dead child and her taciturn, insomniac living child everywhere. It hurt too much.

Janey took off my glasses.

Color. Her eyes were golden brown. Her dark hair had a red shimmer. Her skin—

She pressed her lips to mine.

Our mouths opened. Warmth and pleasure suffused me. I tasted cloves.

I unraveled.

We sat in her aunt’s car. I cried and cried and cried.

The dreams grabbed the weakness and poured out.

The next day Janey was gone. Her aunt too.

Not at school, not at the store.

I went to her aunt’s ramshackle house, climbed in a half-open window. I checked every room. No one. The closets were half-empty.

They’d left in a rush.

My only kiss.

Sometimes, to keep the dreams at bay, I would touch my lips to remember.

But not too often; I can’t feel too strongly.

In February of the year I turned sixteen, Ranveer didn’t come to school. The most popular boy.

By the end of the month, twelve other students were missing.

Extra counselors were brought in.

If you’re feeling sad, it helps to talk about it. Together as a community we can get through this.

In March, I glimpsed another student’s eyes.

They were my eyes: dark circles and the bad dreams crawling under the surface of her contact lenses. I had never said a word to her about the dreams. We had never spoken.

I had never said a word to any of them.

(Except Janey.)

I’d never said a word to anyone.

(Except my brother.)

The next day, that student was gone too.

There were rumors the school was going to close.

But it was the world that was closing.

Mama left in the night while I stared at the world’s implosion online.

I love you. Sorry.

She left money.

Parents shouldn’t leave children.

Dreams shouldn’t colonize our minds.

I went to school. I didn’t want to be alone.

Each day there were fewer students and teachers. All the counselors were gone. The custodian kept her eyes down and headphones on.

We went through the motions. Teachers didn’t mention assignments or exams. Students didn’t ask questions.

One day in April, Ralph Wooten sat next to me in history. There were only four of us in class. The teacher didn’t meet any of our eyes.

The words Manifest Destiny glowed on the white screen.

The windows were shuttered.

“You were numero uno, weren’t you?” Ralph said. “That’s why you wear those dark glasses all the time. Since … at least the seventh grade.”

He yanked them off me, far less gentle than Janey had been. Color didn’t explode into my vision. The room remained gray and dull.

He held my face in his hands, staring at my eyes. I didn’t struggle. Ralph had always been scary.

“Yeah,” he said. “They’ve been in you for a long time. They barely move.”

The dreams were in his pale gray irises too, busy, in motion.

Ralph let go of me, rocked back in his chair, put his feet up on the desk.

“You shouldn’t talk about it,” I whispered.

Ralph laughed loudly.

Everyone ignored him.

“Look around you. Too fucking late for that. Way too fucking late. Who’d you tell first?”

I shook my head.

“I’m running out of people to tell. Nothing funnier than watching their eyes get big. Oh, oh, oh, oh. I’m so scared. Fucking hilarious.

“Told my sister—she cut her eyes out. Yeah, I know. Everyone’s doing it. Not me, though. When Wash told me the dreams, I laughed. They’re hilarious. People are hilarious.”

He looked around the near-empty room.

“Or turning into zombies like this bunch. Hilarious.”

Ralph waved his arm at the two other students. One was staring at their textbook. The other at the teacher.

“Sir,” he said, not bothering to put his hand up, “anyone told you the dreams yet?”

The teacher looked down. He had no fingernails.

“Told ya,” Ralph said to me. “Everyone knows.”

I looked into Ralph’s eyes again.

The dreams were happy in him. They were dancing.

I went online.

The dreams were in every kind of media: social, antisocial, official, underground. From haiku to comics to vids to million-dollar murals.

Epidemics of cutting, of murder, of end-of-the-world cults.

Exaltation. Ralph wasn’t the only one who embraced the dreams.

Even so, whole towns and cities were dying.

I went back to the beginning. When did this start?

Not with me. Please, let it not have started with me.

A year ago was the first recorded case.

In a small town in a different country on a different continent.

Not my fault.

A girl had gone mad.

They found her ranting and raving and her aunt and her cousins dead. She kept raving, screaming out the bad dreams to anyone within earshot.

The villagers killed her and everyone who might have heard.

Well, not everyone. Someone ran away and told more people. Fool.

I read everything I could find on patient zero. I was twelve articles in before I found a photo.

I knew that face.

We had kissed.

I touched my lips.


My fault. All of it.

I returned to the kind doctor.

The front door was unlocked. The reception was empty.

She was at her desk, staring at her computer.

“Hello,” I said.

She looked up. Her eyes were haunted, not kind.

A pistol rested beside the computer. Strips had been torn from the floral wallpaper.

“Bad dreams, you said.”


“But they’re not, are they? They’re the end of the world. You could have warned us.”

I shook my head. “I couldn’t.”

“Not without sharing them. They don’t affect everyone, have you noticed?”

The Ralph Wootens of this world were dancing.

“They’ll take over,” she said. “But it won’t last. There’s no one to follow their orders.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

She nodded.

On Monday, the stores were closed, the kind doctor wasn’t in her office, the school was empty.

So were the streets. Except for cars stopped in the middle of the road, abandoned.

I wasn’t surprised.

I had always known if I opened my mouth, it would all end.

I should have done what my brother had done. Stayed awake. Gone to my grave in silence.

I should have known I couldn’t defeat the dreams.

This is how the world ends.

Not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with the lights snuffed out one by one by one.


Many adults believe young adults need happy endings, that all stories for them must be hopeful. Obviously, I disagree.

I wrote the first draft of “Elegy” deep in depression and filled with thoughts of self-harm. I poured all my despair into it, and writing some of the worst things I could think of—destroying humanity—was extraordinarily cathartic. That first draft marked the turning point in that depressive episode. Alongside counseling, its bleakness helped pull me out of the gray, into seeing in color again.

When I was a teen, bleak stories were a lifeline. Those unhappy endings gave me hope. I needed them, and over the years since I first published, I’ve heard from many teens who also needed to see others suffering as badly, or even worse, than they were, to be told: You are not alone.

Depression is very common; you truly aren’t alone, you can get help. If you are struggling with thoughts of self-harm or suicide, please consider reaching out. The U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, at 1-800-273-8255, is free, confidential, and available twenty-four seven. In Australia, find help at

{ Edited by Denise Conejo. }