Often times at night when I’m lying in bed, I find myself drifting back to the joyous days of childhood. From those days long ago I can recall a memory that has stuck with me all these years. In those days, I was just a little boy resting on my back while my mother read fairy tales and bits of poetry. All the while, I would stare blankly at the light hanging from the ceiling fan. This bright orb of radiance gave me comfort, and helped my imagination venture deeply under the spell of my mother’s words.
When she would see the heavy hand of sleep roll over my eye lids, her lips would give me a kiss on the forehead and she would take her leave; turning off the lights as she left. Like most children, I dreaded the terrors of the night. In my mind, the creaks and groans of the old wooden house were the footsteps made by a monster of unspeakable horror. The wind whistling through the crevasses of the warped window sill were the plaintive cries of the mournful damned calling me to join them. A tingle on my skin was the feeling of spider legs; and poisonous fangs waiting to sink into my flesh should I dare to make a sudden move. The dark void of the open closet door was a gateway to hell; and legions of the dark prince’s army stood fast and waited to catch me off-guard.
Despite what I would imagine, and despite what terrified me, I could still find comfort. Even after the light of my room had been switched off, I could still see the light burned into my retinas. To me it was a dear friend that stood guard and kept every terror at bay. My imagination would distort the image and mold it into something I wanted to see, just like a potter shaping clay. Eventually, I would form a face with it. Usually, I would see my mother, father, or a strange mixture of the two. Less frequently, I would see a friend, or someone that I looked up to.
It didn’t matter what person I made; anyone of them gave me comfort for a time. But then, some thing terrible would happen. It didn’t occur suddenly, but very slowly, like leaves changing colors in the cold grips of fall. The person that I had imagined would begin to fade, like the darkness itself was consuming them into its endless abyss. Their expression would change from a smiling, confident face to one that was concerned, and eventually terrified. In a way it was like a mirror, but not one that gave a direct reflection of my own features. Rather, it was exact copy of my mood.
I could see the very distinct eyes begin to sink away into dark pits. The pearly white teeth vanished and left behind a black crescent. Then, as the face began to fade farther and farther away as if being pulled by some unseen force, I could see the black tears running down the cheeks.
My hands would reach out to touch the fading image. I wanted to take it into my arms and forever hold it close to me. I wanted to keep it safe by my side. Above all, I wanted to place my hands against its cheeks and wipe away its darkened tears with my thumbs. No matter how hard I tried, I could never touch it. It was just a vison of what should be, but could not be. It was an image that was always fading away, and always out of reach.
Even as a grown man, this memory is just as relevant as it was when I was just a little boy. Like a birthmark, this habit of staring into a light before bed has stayed with me.
As I lie here on the edge of sleep, I can still see the light I turned off only a few moments ago, and just like so many times before, my mind begins to shape it into a face, but the face is not one that I wish to see. It’s her face.
Desperately, I drown out the forming image with my surroundings. My eyes drift down to the foot of the bed. Along the wall, I see the grandfather clock slowly and rhythmically count off the seconds with every quiet tick. Its long, bronze pendulum sways back and forth into the faint stream of light coming from the window. As a result, the room is flooded with beams of pale light just for a fraction of a second.
A voice inside of my head is saying, “Wake up Daniel. It’s just a dream.” My ears listen, my mind comprehends, but my body does not obey. I know it’s a dream. That clock is a decorative heirloom. An heirloom that hasn’t worked in three years.
The persistent movements of the clock make me roll over onto my side, so to look at it no more. I now see the side of bed that is empty and awaiting her to lay upon it. My hand rolls underneath the sheets to caress the smooth, cold, and vacant space. Even after countless washes and new sheets, the mattress is still stained with her scent. It’s a sweet smell that crawls into my nostrils and violates my senses, but at the same time, it conjures up memories of happier times. The times when the taste of her lips and the warmth of her skin could make my heart skip a beat.
I look beyond the bed to the nightstand. My eyes trace all along the furnishing until they stop at the picture resting perfectly under the lamp. The frame is made of ebony, a beautiful, rare wood used to solidify the rare picture it holds of a wedding. The groom is a younger version of myself. He’s less of a man, and more a stupid child. A boy stupid enough to fall in love with the woman named Abigail that stands at his side.
Just before my eyes focus on her face, they dart away. I can’t stand to look at her. I can’t stand the pain. It’s then I hear the sound of a shower two rooms away. My heart immediately sinks into my chest and I pray that she doesn’t come into this room.
I try not to think about the sound of running water and the air becoming heavy with moisture. My eyes then stay focused on the nightstand across from me. I have left my briefcase open next to the lamp. Catalogs and sales brochures are scattered all around and a puddle of spilled whiskey stains them from a tipped over bottle. It’s all just a reminder of my time spent on the road over all these years. My career as a traveling salesman was once a burden because it kept me away from her. Now it’s a godsend.
Suddenly, the running water stops and silence prevails in the house. I listen carefully for what I fear might happen next. The sound of a towel ruffling through her hair keeps me on edge, but the sound of her footsteps puts panic in my heart.
The old floor boards creak and grown as she slowly steps out of the bathroom and into the hall. If they become quieter, it means she’s walking away, but if they get louder as they are now, it means she’s coming into the room.
Her wet feet make a sticky noise with every step, like duct tape quickly being pulled away from a smooth surface. It gets louder and louder, until finally, it stops just before the bedroom door. I look down at the gap between the door and the floor to see the shadows of her feet stretching into the room.
The night is still and is as silent as the grave. Not a gust of wind whistles through the seams of the house and not a cricket chirps its song, but the sound of my beating heart increases as she begins to hum a song. The melody is familiar. I’ve heard it time and time again.
Her voice is soft and very feminine. The melody is like a cotton sheet hanging out on the line to dry. The pitch increases slowly as a gust of wind raises it up to a high-pitched crescendo. It then falls slightly before quickly being thrusted higher again. Finally, as quick as it came, it flutters wildly all the way back down. And it repeats all over again.
The rattling sound of the old door knob echoes in my ears and I see it shake and twist. Pressures from the ancient, warped frame suddenly throw the door forward ever so slightly. Her song is then accompanied by the squeaking hinges as the door slowly sways open, and a gentle wave of cool air washes over my face. Along with it, the fragrant smell of lilacs creeps in closer, and grows in strength.
Her dark silhouette stands at the door and I can see her full figure wrapped up in a towel, with her hair wildly tangled in all directions. She then reaches her arm beside the door to flip the light switch and the hallway goes dark, leaving her hidden for only a moment.
The floor boards creak again as she walks into the room. She isn’t supposed to be in this room. I don’t want her to come in here.
She takes a few more steps and stands before the dresser. The towel falls from her body and hangs loosely in the palms of her hands. Her face moves closer to the dresser mirror until her nose is nearly touching with her faint reflection. She runs a hand through her wet hair and pushes the coils past her ears.
Still humming the song, she begins to sway her hips side to side. I don’t want to look, but the sight of her nude body keeps my eyes fixed on her beautiful form. She continues to examine her vanity as she reaches into the dresser drawer for her white cotton gown; a garment I should have thrown out a long time ago.
I watch the sleepwear fall down her body and stretch just past her knees. At any moment she’s going to turn to look in my direction. I don’t want to look at her face. I can’t stand to look at her face.
My body rolls over onto the other side so to put my back towards her. There in front of me sits the opposite wall and the window. The window shouldn’t be there; at least, it should be boarded up. I remember nailing the planks into it three years ago. No, I’m dreaming, I think to myself. The window isn’t really there. She isn’t really there. It’s all a lucid dream.
I try to imagine the window being boarded up. I picture the wood being placed over the frame and the nails being sunk in, but still, the window still exists and I can’t cover it up. All I can do is look out of it and see the ground below.
I see the yard light standing tall over the property. The light is almost eye-level with me, if not higher. Down the long wooden pole sits a dog house in the pale florescent light. A long heavy chain is encircled around the light post. It snakes and curves around in a long loop before the end of it disappears into the darkness of the dog house. With clenched teeth, I think to myself, you don’t have a dog Daniel. You don’t have a dog. The thought races through my mind over and over again, as if merely thinking about it will make it all go away, but like the window, it too fails to fade away.
It’s just a dream.
My eyes drift away from the dog house and survey the rest of the yard. The yard light shines down in a large circle around the property and uncovers what would normally be hidden under the veil of night. I see gravel driveway stretching away from the house, through the grassy fields, and ending at the county road in the distance. Where the driveway and the road meet is where the perimeter of the light ends. All things beyond that point are black silhouettes only made visible by the crescent moon and the sea of a trillion stars in the sky.
I hear a faint noise amidst my wife’s song. It’s outside. It’s distant. It’s the sound of metal squeaking against metal. I see a red dot traveling across the county road.
Taillights. They’re taillights of a car worn out from years of grueling service. The odd thing is, the car’s headlights aren’t on. Only a cloud of dust made red by the taillights approaches where the driveway and the road meet. Even odder, the red cloud seems to slow down in speed as it draws nearer to the driveway, as if the car is going to turn into it. It slows down to a crawl. A crawl so slow it seems as if the car has stopped, but it soon picks up in speed once more and continues down the road. The car and the red cloud that follows close behind soon disappear.
I take a deep breath and let it out slowly in relief. My attention then shifts back to the other problem I’m facing; the woman in my bedroom. Oh, how I wish she’d go away. I wish she would ignore me the way I’ve ignored her these past three years. To think there was once a time when I hated my life on the road. Now I’d give anything to hear the sweet lullaby of tires humming on the asphalt instead her damn song.
As soon as the thought crosses my mind, her tune stops, as if thinking about it has commanded it. A part of me imagines that she has faded away and the dream has come to an end, but I hear her footsteps again. Her stride is short and her steps are soft, like she’s tip-toeing closer to the bed. Suddenly, the dull moan of a bottle rolling across the wooden floor creeps into my ears. I know her toes have accidentally kicked one of many that I know are littered across this room.
I feel my heart begin to quicken in pace as I feel a slight tug on the bedsheets from them being lifted. A cool gust of air quickly creeps in and chills the skin on my back. The mattress begins to sink from the advent of her weight. I squeeze my eyes shut at the realization that she’s climbing into bed with me. This isn’t supposed to happen. She shouldn’t even be in this room. This is just a dream.
The bedsheets fall back onto my body once more and I can feel the heat returning, but this time it’s warmer than what it was before. The scent of her lilac shampoo is strong in my nostrils as I feel her body shifting closer to mine. Before long, her body runs in line with my own. Her damp coils of hair fall onto my face and I can feel their wetness beginning to seep into my skin. One strand rests on my cheek while another lock drapes itself between my nose and upper lip. I am reminded of a time when the sight of her curly wet hair filled me with desire; a desire she knows would bring us ever closer than what we are now.
My eyes stay fixed on the bedroom window. Far in the distance I see the red cloud from the taillights returning again. This time they come from the direction that they last went, like the car made a U-turn somewhere down the road. Just like before, they slow down to a crawl as they approach the driveway; almost appearing to be stopping. A few minutes pass before their speed gradually increases and they fade into the distance with the metal frame squeaking all the way.
Meanwhile, I feel her nose piercing into the back of my skull as she moves in closer. Her fingers touch the top of my shoulder before they trace their way down my arm. The nails comb over all the little hairs and the tickling sends shivers through my body. Eventually her fingers hover over the top of my hand before they wiggle and writhe their way between my own. I then feel my own arm being pulled against my chest and the contact between us becomes tighter. It becomes so tight that I find myself at the point just before pain, but not quite there.
With the feeling of her heart hammering against my spine, she begins to talk to me. Her voice is quiet, soft, and very tired. “Daniel,” she says, “are you awake?”
I don’t answer her. A part of my hopes that my silence will make her go away. Whether she knows I’m awake or not, it doesn’t stop her from trying to carry on the conversation. “I saw in the paper that they’re hiring down at the paper mill.” She pauses as if she is expecting me to respond, but I refuse.
Undeterred she continues on. “Daniel, I think you should apply. I hear the people that work there make some decent money. And they’re home every night.”
The way she has phrased it is typical of the woman I’ve known. It’s indirect as if she’s too afraid to say what she really means, but I know what she’s implying.
As my silence continues, she moves into the next step of her mind games. Even before she says anything more, I know that the words are going to creep into my soul. Their spiked claws are going to wrap themselves around my heart and pull it right out of me.
Before she does, I feel her nose brush across the back of my skull before it holds itself in the crevasse behind my ear. Her lips part and I can feel her teeth gently graze the very tip of my earlobe. “I make you happy, don’t I Daniel?” she asks. “I know you make me happy when you come home from a business trip.”
With squinted eyes, I continue to stare out of the window. The red cloud has returned. Like it has twice before, it slows to a crawl at the end of the driveway before speeding back up and disappearing down the road. I think to myself, why doesn’t he just get it over with? Why won’t he finish off this damn nightmare that I’m living in?
She then says to me in a more direct tone, “Why won’t you talk to me Daniel? Don’t you love me anymore? I still love you. I want to make you happy. I want to be the wife you can’t wait to get back home to.”
I first feel the tickle of her toes rubbing against the back of my ankle where the tendon meets the heel. Then her leg slides over the top of mine and I can feel the prickle of tiny hairs that have gone maybe three days without the razor. Her whole body shifts and rolls over the top of mine until she lays face to face with me. I close my eyes, as to not look at her.
The tip of her nose touches with mine. Her lips connect with my own; I can taste and smell the mint toothpaste left over from her last brush. “I just want to be the one you love.” She says.
The muscles in my arms feel as if they’re possessed by a mind other than my own. They begin to reach out and around her body. With my palms on the soft cotton of her night gown, I pull her in. An old familiar feeling sweeps across my body as I begin to feel her full form. It’s a burning sensation, like coals at the base of a dying fire. Red lines spread all around each ember and glow intensely, like a sudden gust of wind has given each the precious breath of life. Could it be what I’ve been trying to forget? Is this love?
On a whim, I could let it grow beyond my control. The flames could rise high into the night and brighten my world like a new dawn approaching. I could let the rays of heat beat down and warm me once more, but it could burn me up all the same, as it has before.
Her lips fall from mine. They then reconnect at the base of my neck before she buries her entire face between the pillow and myself. The scalp of her wet hair chills my chin and I at last feel brave enough to open my eyes again knowing I will not have to look into her face.
I immediately look towards the road. Like so many times before, the red cloud slows to a crawl as it approaches the end of the driveway. I patiently and hopefully wait for them to go away, but they don’t. Instead, the car creeps onto the driveway.
It’s just a dream Daniel, I tell myself as my arms wrap tighter around the warm body in front of me, it’s just a dream.
Between her breaths growing longer as sleep washes over her, I can hear a new sound. It’s the sound the gravel being crushed under the weight of rubber tires, and it grows louder as time inches onward. I then see the vehicle come under the glow of the yard light. The body is crimson with rust. A spider web of cracks sprawls over the front windshield, like the way thin ice shatters under the weight of a boot.
I’m not the only one to notice this intruder coming onto the property. The sudden noise of a ferocious beast howls in the night. Below the yard light, a dog flashes from the opening of his shelter. He races towards the now parked car with his teeth boldly exposed and ready to sink into soft flesh. Through its blind rage, the creature has forgotten about the heavy chain tethering him to the light post, which becomes tighter and straighter as he rushes towards the car.
As expected, the chain becomes a straight line between the dog and the light post, if only for a moment. The sudden jerk on his neck silences his war cries for only a fraction of a second. Undeterred, he rises to his hind legs in a desperate attempt to close the gap between the vehicle and him. As I see the creature foaming at the mouth, a voice inside of my head is saying over and over, “You don’t have a dog. This is just a dream. You don’t have a dog.” No matter what my thoughts are telling me, the image of the furry creature still exists as a figure emerges from the vehicle.
The shadowy outline comes into the light and I can see that it’s a man, and a big one at that. He’s narrow at the shoulders and wide at the hips, but his arms are solid with muscle. He wears a ball cap and a bandana over his face. In his hands he holds a long, heavy pry bar. He brandishes it over his shoulders as he quickly walks towards the dog.
Abigail quietly whispers, “Daniel, the hound. Is someone on the property?”
I don’t respond.
My eyes can’t look away from the scene that is about to unfold. Now the trespasser is standing just before the dog; merely inches away from the white teeth. The stranger puts one leg behind him, his arms raise over his shoulders. Despite the strong urge to watch, I force my eyes shut just before plaintive cries of my dog echo through the night.
I can hear the savage onslaught continue. The cries grow louder. The sickening thuds of steel hitting flesh shakes my soul. More painful than the sound is the silence. My dog ceases to cry out for help, and the thuds stop. I don’t even need to look to know that the animal is dead.
Abigail, now in a more concerned voice asks me, “Daniel, are you awake?” She says this as her body moves away from mine. I feel her shifting into a sitting position on the bed. She gasps, and my eyes spread widely open. I see her staring out of the window with her hands clasped over her mouth. My gaze then shifts to see what she sees.
The man has disappeared into the shadows of night, but the dog, the dog lies motionless on its side. A dark pool of liquid spreads around its head, like a halo depicted in old Roman Frescoes.
Abigail suddenly leaps off of the bed and to the door. I hear the lock rolling into place just before I see the man pulling the main breaker switch on the light pole down. The whole yard goes dark.
I feel Abigail leaping back onto the bed. She puts her arms on my shoulders and shakes me. With a hushed yell, she says, “Daniel! Wake up! Someone is here! He killed the dog!” She tries so desperately to get response of out me; a response that I will not give her. A response I couldn’t give her before. Her elbows jab into my chest. Her knees bash into my spine. Her hands clutch my scalp and she tosses my head all around. “God damn it Daniel! Wake up!” she cries.
She continues her assault on me until a noise puts her in a frozen state of fear. It’s a sound so menacing, the faint shockwaves traveling through the air are able to shake the very soul. It’s the sound of a window being smashed.
Her words fall silent and she dares not to move a muscle; save for the death grip she keeps on my skin. Her shrill gasps and heavy breathing fills my ears as the sound of creaking floor boards are heard coming from downstairs.
I hear the footsteps carefully skulking all around. The man is looking for something to steal. Whether it’s an accident, I can’t be sure, but the sudden crash of a dozen china plates sends Abigail over the edge of caution. She screams.
Her screams are loud enough for the intruder downstairs to hear. Like as if she said a magic spell, the nightmare seems to end, if only for a few seconds. The house becomes deathly silent.
I feel her body turn away from me. I open my eyes again and see her sitting and facing towards the bedroom door. I know what’s going to happen next. I’ve seen it so many times before. I now know that if I haven’t awoken from this dream by now, I will have to see it through to the end.
I sit up and inch my way towards her. My arms wrap around her body and hold her tight. We both hear the stranger say in a low, raspy voice, “Is someone home?”
Abigail starts to softly sob, “Daniel, please do something. Please.”
Memories from that time long ago race back into my mind. All of this has happened before. I wasn’t there to witness it like I am now. I was off on one of my sales trips. I was sleeping comfortably in a motel when all of this happened.
I rest my chin on her shoulders and respond with the most soothing voice I can muster, “I couldn’t do anything about it before, and I can’t do anything about it now, Abby. This is just a dream. You’ve been dead for three long years.”
We hear the first groan of the stairs. The man is coming for her. Her heart races and every beat trembles through my arms.
Before long, the man has made it to the second floor. The door knob rattles and shakes as he tries to open the door. Abigail tries to escape my grasp, but I won’t let her. “Don’t fight it Abby,” I say, “that man is going to come into this room. He’s going to take you from me.”
The tip of the pry bar snakes its way through the crack of door just above the latch. Abigail starts screaming wildly as the wood begins to flex and crack. Yet still, I hold on tighter and tighter.
The door suddenly bursts open.
Without breaking his stride, the man sprints towards us. He knocks the old clock to floor. Abigail kicks and continues to scream as the man wraps his hand around her ankle. Viciously and jarringly, we are pulled from off the bed and onto the floor.
As we are being dragged out of the room, my feet catch on the door frame and I hold them firmly. The man continues to pull on her and I’ve found myself in a sort of tug-o-war.
In the struggle, Abby manages to rotate herself around in my arms. For the first time since this nightmare began, I see her face. It’s just as I remember it. The little freckles on her nose, the brightness in her eyes, the tapered cheek bones; it’s all there.
I’ve never wanted to look at her again in these damned nightmares; it only makes the ending so much worse. But there we were staring into each other. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the stranger winding the pry bar back behind his shoulders like he had before.
Abby’s head suddenly presses into mine as the steel connects with the back of her skull. She screams and my ear drums pop from it. The bar retracts only to come crashing down once more. Her grips loosens from my body, but a little bit of her is still holding on.
Another strike comes and I hear her skull crack. My mind expects another blow to come. A hit that would end her life as I know it. But instead, I see the stranger frozen in place with the bar at the ready. He’s giving me a choice: either I let go, or he’ll finish the job.
I let one of my arms free. I use it to tilt her head upwards so I can look into her face, but everything about it has changed. Her cheeks are shriveled tightly against the bone. Her eyes are dark and hollow with tears streaming down from them. And her nose, her nose is only a rotted out pair of holes. Solemnly, I tell her, “I have to let you go, Abby. I have to let that man take you away.”
She no longer cries. Instead, she speaks with a voice that is angry and vindictive, “Why Daniel? Wasn’t I good enough for you to stay with me?”
As my other arm loosens its grip, I respond, “No, I wasn’t good enough to stay with you.” The man violently pulls her away and they disappear into the shadow of the door.
I finally awake holding a clump of bedsheets to my chest. My body is covered in a cold sweat and the tears begin to run down my cheeks. I shuffled my way over to the nightstand and reached for the lamp. After filling the room with light, I reached for the whiskey bottle lying on top of the sales brochures. Just before the burning liquid touched my tongue, I pull it away.
What was I to do? Let it all drain down and add the empty bottle the collection on the floor? No, I didn’t want that. She wouldn’t have wanted that.
I throw the bottle against the wall and watch it crack the drywall before it falls shattering on the floor. I did the same with the damned sleeping pills by the lamp. The little white tablets scatter all over the place as I dumped what was left of the bottle. I’ve come to the conclusion that there isn’t single chemical on this planet that can erase what I want gone.
I whip my head around and see the window boarded up. A sign that my nightmare is indeed over.
I lie back down and look towards the nightstand again. Underneath the lamp shade, I saw our wedding picture enclosed in a frame of ebony. I saw the beautiful woman glowing with radiance and the man standing beside her. The man is a younger version of myself. He’s a more stupid version of myself. He was a man stupid enough to fall in love with a woman he didn’t mind leaving alone. He was man stupid enough not to realize what he had until it was taken from him one night while he was away on business. He’s a guiltless man that is undeserving of the woman he holds in his arms.
I can’t stand to look at it for much longer. I kill the light and adjust myself to fall back asleep.
Just like it was one I was just a little boy, I can still see the light of the lamp burned into my retinas. In a way, the afterimage gives me comfort and solace. My imagination morphs it into a shape. It’s the shape of her face. I smile at her and she does the same. But then something changes. Her face begins to fade into the darkness. She is no longer smiling. Instead, tears begin to run down her cheeks as she drifts farther and farther away. I want to place my palms on her face and wipe away the tears with my thumbs. I fully know that it’s just a vision of what should be, but cannot be; and it’s always out of reach.