Two hours later, Brynn and I passed my old tree swing as we made our way to the front door of my house. She refused to let me sleep alone that night; when she’d initially insisted that she stay over, I’d rolled my eyes and told her I was absolutely fine, but we’d both known I was relieved.
After Lav’s shift had ended, we’d sat and talked about nothing, as we loved to do, until Drew had announced he would be meeting his uncle at the auto shop and needed to get going. Lavender had promised her mom that she’d spend some quality time with her that night, which had her groaning and whining throughout the entire walk to our vehicles. Lav couldn’t stand her mother.
“I don’t know what she’s playing at; the two of us couldn’t have a functional evening together if we had to,” she’d stated for the hundredth time. “She’s a nightmare, honestly, and I’m not going to sit back and placate her every time she pretends she wants to mend this joke of a relationship.”
We’d all kept our mouths shut, understanding that Lav’s need to vent required no verbal reciprocation. Nodding diligently was all she’d wanted from us.
As Brynn and I approached the porch, the old branch groaned, nearly inaudible, as the frayed ropes of my swing tugged in the slight wind. The air smelled of damp earth and pavement, the intoxicating perfume of summer rain. I leapt the two steps leading to my porch and smiled as I heard the familiar tapping of Mr. Darcy’s paws as he spun in expectant circles by the front door. As soon as my key touched the lock, he released an anticipatory whimper. I opened the door to find him mid-spin, and he caught himself, seemingly embarrassed to be discovered in this ridiculous motion.
“Hey, Darcy Boy,” I exclaimed, my voice multiple octaves above its usual gravelly register. I playfully massaged his ears, one black as coal and the other a black pepper combo that overtook the majority of his coat. His exhilaration was nearly palpable; then he spotted Brynn sliding through the cracked door and clicking it shut behind her. At the sight of her, he lost himself, his paws slipping in an effort to traverse the slippery wooden floors.
Before Brynn could turn around, Mr. Darcy was practically in her arms, his nose lightly grazing the tips of her brown coils of hair as he danced. This was always exceedingly impressive, as the Blue Heeler was gaining on twelve years old. Mom and I always joked, saying that Brynn’s presence served as Darcy’s cardiovascular exercise, which was surely what kept him so youthful and spritely for his advancing age.
“Wow, thanks, Buddy,” I muttered to his dancing backside. “Good to know I’m still your favorite.”
“You wish,” Brynn mumbled while leaning down to take a face full of tongue. “Hey, Darcy Boy!” she trilled. “Guess who’s keeping your momma company tonight? Yes, that’s right,” she responded to his wordless response, “Auntie Brynn has to protect her from the monsters.” At this point, she was employing the tone of an overly enthusiastic child. I rolled my eyes and slipped off my sandals.
In truth, I’d never liked sleeping alone. The darkness becomes an entirely different entity when the world around you is still, and your only company is your own breathing. I’d become accustomed to staying the night at Brynn’s when I was younger- my mom would often get stuck on night shifts at the hospital. As guilty as it made me feel, I was always elated when she would announce that it was going to be another week of these dreaded shift changes. I loved spending time with Mom, but my sleeping hours without Brynn were extremely difficult.
Even after the adoption of Mr. Darcy, I’d struggled to maintain complete serenity once in my bed. On the nights I was home, I would fall asleep on the phone with Brynn, unashamed of the tremble in my voice and the muffle of the covers surrounding me like a safety net. Any inexplicable or unanticipated sound would induce a silent tear to slip from my eye, and my loyal friend would soothe me from the other end of the line until we both fell asleep. Darcy’s warmth would radiate through my comforter, his breathing a soothing lullaby. My furry companion always kept the space next to me occupied and warm, even when Brynn couldn’t. Never leaving my side in the night, even now, he lay with his ears perked and his body tensed slightly, prepared to challenge anything that might disrupt me in my most vulnerable state.
The night terrors began when my dad left. Left. He died, but that word had been much too final for me when I was six. I supposed, now at least, the word left connoted his choosing to part from this world, but nuances hadn’t been on the forefront of my mind then.
Only the Faceless Man. He’d always found a way to slither back into my thoughts and plague my nights. Especially when the dark would descend.
My father, my nurturing, creative father, had been replaced by an evil that nearly swallowed my nights whole. He had been taken from me and my mom very tragically and without warning.
On his way home from one of his dreaded business trips, it had been assumed that an animal had crossed the interstate. It was such a common occurrence on that particular stretch of road that multiple Deer Crossing signs had become necessary. An effort to avoid the creature had sent my father’s vehicle reeling over the edge of a cliff. It was estimated that his beloved black Jeep had flipped at least seven times before finally breaking on the fatal patchwork of scree waiting at the bottom. The Jeep and his body had both been shattered irreparably.
His funeral had been closed-casket, and I remembered wondering if he was even really in there. How could my mom have possibly been sure? Maybe it had been someone else enclosed in that elaborate cherrywood tomb. Maybe Dad would come through our front door in a day or two, greet me with his usual “Nia Bear, why aren’t you in bed?” before settling down to read me to sleep. Maybe he’d wanted to surprise us.
It had only taken me two weeks to figure out that this wasn’t the case, that he wasn’t coming back, and when this acknowledgement had finally settled within the very depths of my core, the night terrors began.
When my shrieks had first begun piercing the air, my mom had been horrified and nearly inconsolable. She’d later told me that my state of awareness hadn’t been clear during my fits, something that had understandably baffled her. She’d intimated that I’d appeared both awake and asleep, trapped in some purgatory between the two. She’d feared the idea of trying to wake me, for I seemed possessed by some otherworldly evil, demons birthed from the trauma of my father’s death.
When I was older, she’d admitted to me that, for some time, she’d truly believed that they were demons cohabitating my body in the night. She’d grown up Catholic after all.
After a third week of little sleep for the both of us, she’d rushed me to a pediatrician, who’d in turn referred me to a sleep specialist: an approachable, grandfatherly man who’d assured Mom that my symptoms would subside with time.
“Nia is coping with the loss of her father. Think of this as a child’s PTSD,” he’d said to my mother soothingly as I’d gaped at vibrant fish inhabiting a large tank in the room.
I could never forget her shaking her head back and forth as her body had rocked disturbingly.
“I, too, am trying to cope with his loss; I’m… I’m not sleeping,” she’d whispered. When I’d glanced over, I’d found her begging the specialist with panicked eyes. Further dropping her voice and glancing my way, she’d choked, “I don’t think I can do this. I can’t. I can’t..”
“What, exactly, are we referring to here, Mrs. De Atta?”
“This… I can’t raise my daughter the way she deserves right now. I’m alone. A single parent, a widow.. I can’t do this on my own...I’m a disaster.”
Her voice had been muffled as her hands covered her face. She’d continued to shake her head vehemently. I’d pretended to be preoccupied with the fish. I’d always known I wasn’t supposed to have seen her that way. Her taboo confession had haunted me then, the words leaving me acutely aware of the devastating effect my own trauma was having on her mental stability.
The doctor had taken on an expression of empathy mixed with that of stern authority.
“Your husband is gone, but, frankly, Mrs. De Atta, your daughter isn’t. She is still very much alive and very much in need of your strength and maternity. As far as your sleep is concerned, I have a few suggestions for you and your daughter both. I believe sleep is a practice, a study even, and I can show you how to treat is as such…”
Sometimes, our “practice” would prove to produce positive results, temporarily ridding me of my demon spells and granting us both a night or two of rest. My mom had begun putting me to bed at eight, so that she could wake me within my first ninety minutes of non-REM sleep and attempt to disrupt the spells. Lavender oil had been applied to my pillow nightly, processed sugars removed from my diet, and entertainment considered even remotely frightening banished from my routine. Mom had even offered to read me my favorite book before bed, a tomb of mythical children’s tales my dad and I had read religiously. Dad had loved the stories as much as I did; at least, it had felt that way. The enthusiasm he’d injected into his reading was palpable, and I’d relished our time together, traveling to foreign lands and meeting characters and creatures that couldn’t exist in my own world.
To my mom’s disappointment, I’d refused her offer, as this nightly ritual had belonged to me and my dad. While I’d missed the majestic worlds I’d come so used to traversing nightly, I’d simply been unable to imagine exploring them sans my dad’s perfect inflections and character voices. I’d feared Mom’s reading would lack passion and luster, that she would fail to feel the story and be a part of something separate from this world to which we were so cruelly confined.
She just hadn’t ever embraced or fostered imagination the way Dad had.
This hadn’t been for lack of trying; she just wasn’t wired the way we were. Mom had always been pragmatic and structured, trapped in a left-brain routine of procedures. This was why she had always made an incredible nurse. Dad, on the other hand, had felt fettered to the corporate world in which he’d made his living. He’d resented the hierarchy, the procedural structure, the stifling of creativity and freedom to grow.
I had been too young to understand, but my memories were filled with the sound of his sighs, the bags that were perpetually painted beneath his eyes, and his eagerness to simply be on the weekends. My fondest memories of my father consisted of messy, boyish hair, a shadow of stubble that would appear on Saturdays and be obliterated by Monday mornings, and a bare torso and torn jeans that had been constantly spattered with a rainbow of acrylic paints.
He hadn’t been designed for the world in which we’d lived. He had been a soul in dire need of adventure, uncertainty, and the ever evolving scenery the world had to offer. Upon reflection, I found that his ability to recognize, as well as create, beauty was a magical gift that hadn’t been adequately nurtured.
Mom had tried for twelve years to quell the guilt that blossomed after his death, certain that she was and is to blame for Dad’s confinement to a life he hadn’t been meant to lead. She’d always felt this need to assure me, to assure us both, that it hadn’t been meant to stay that way forever. That Dad’s position was meant to be temporary until they could afford to let him paint full-time. She’d never gotten over the fact that he didn’t die a man who was living his dreams.
The terrors had continued, but, with time, they’d evolved. The kicking and screaming stopped. I no longer woke up exhausted, yet completely oblivious as to the content of my nightmares.
It had become debatably worse.
After a full night of facing my demons in a state of silence, a paralysis of the vocal cords smothering my shrieks, I would come to find myself in an unclear wakefulness, the line between sleep and consciousness blurred.
Recollection of my invariable visions of terror would travel my constricted throat and settle in the base of my stomach. The trauma of my new sleeping routine had overwhelmed me; I could hardly bear the thought of the approaching nightfall or, even less so, bed time. Mom was getting more sleep, my screams and thrashing limbs no longer interrupting her; I was getting less. I would be haunted before I ever closed my eyes, and my attempts to keep them wrenched open were always futile.
One night, my fear had become so excruciating that, upon finding myself awake and aware, I’d simply turned and lost my dinner on the floor next to my window. I’d sobbed uncontrollably. Mom had come in and cleaned the mess before consoling me. Tears had spilled down both of our faces as we’d clung to each other and grieved our losses. I’d eventually returned to a lying position, Mom knocked out beside me, emotionally exhausted. I hadn’t known much then, but I had sensed that my mom had reached her breaking point; guilt had washed over me in a storm of brutal self-blame. Nearly six months of endless torment had taken its toll on the both of us.
That’s when he’d shown up, as unexpected and welcome as a cure for my emotional ailment. This time, it wasn’t the Faceless Man, whom I’d grown “accustomed” to, for severe lack of a better word.
I had been lying pressed against Mom’s back, listening to her heart beat and counting each thrum against my cheek. My sleepovers with Brynn had become less frequent, as Mom had done all she could to snag day shifts at the hospital; I knew this had been an act of love, but Brynn’s absence at night was achingly difficult for me. Nevertheless, I had been grateful for this time with my mother; it had reminded me of nights she would fall asleep beside me as Dad read aloud.
I’d become lost in appreciation of my mom’s nearness and the life I could feel emanating from her chest. I’d startled when I heard a small tinkering sound from the hallway. My guts had clenched and begun weaving into familiar knots. I was certain I was awake; of course, I’d always felt that I was awake when he found me, but this was different.
Never, never had he come inside.
The Faceless Man’s torment had always been slightly muted by the separation granted me by my bedroom window. He couldn’t touch me. Only stare up at me, an action made much more ominous by his lack of eyes.
The urge to wake my mom was thrashing against my ribs, but, inexplicably, I’d chosen to avoid calling out. I don’t think I could have summoned enough strength to shake her.
I was then met by a very odd, unfamiliar sound. What should have been the sound of footsteps was replaced by a slight clicking against our wooden floors. I’d gripped my bladder, expecting a familiar warmth to begin traveling the sheets around my legs. A whimper had managed to escape my lips, as my slightly opened door had begun to shift. He’d found me. My window no longer formed a boundary between us.
I’d stared at the empty space of my open door so hard that I’d begun seeing bright hues of green and fuschia.
And then a face had appeared. But it wasn’t the haunting visage I’d been anticipating. It was the face of a boy. A boy who was staring at me. In my house. I hadn’t known how to react- at that point, my muscles were still wads of knotted rope, and my vision was still blurred. I’d blinked a few times, hard, trying to comprehend the appearance of this new presence.
The boy’s face was soft, and his amber eyes playful; he began beckoning me with a mischievous arm gesture, and I froze again. I’d wanted to follow him; I’d needed to. And for some reason, I’d found it imperative that I not wake Mom.
Gently, I’d slid my legs from the bed, followed by the rest of me. Being six, I literally hopped on my tip toes across the floor, my face one of determination, my insides buzzing with thrill. The boy’s face had disappeared from my doorway.
I’d reached the hallway, only to find it empty save for the family photos lining the walls. Intuition led me down the stairs, and my calves had begun burning from gripping my toes so tightly in my endeavor. The lights were still on downstairs, and with no sign of my visitor, I began wandering the house.
The front door was open.
Mom never left the front door open. My heart had begun to hammer against my ribcage. I couldn’t go out there. That’s where he had always been, waiting for me in the darkness. I’d determined that this was a trap.
The boy was leading me to the Faceless Man.
After what felt like a decade, I’d gathered my resolve, deciding to race to the door and close it as quickly as I could. That’s when the boy’s face had appeared in the doorway, followed by the rest of him. In a state of utter shock, I’d gasped, my mind a hurricane of confusion.
Only in my overly active imagination had I ever encountered such a being; I’d been introduced to many otherworldly creatures during my dad’s readings; I’d made many journeys to lands unknown.
But…. this had been real. At least, I’d believed it was at the time. I’d since determined that my brush with nonreality had been a byproduct of delirium and a psychological need to break from my nightly terrors.
The boy’s amber eyes had been framed by a warm, golden face and deep copper hair that fell to his shoulders, which were bare. He had been shirtless, causing him to appear somewhat wild and feral, yet strangely kind and gentle, innocent.
But his upper body had been of little interest to me; as I’d gaped at him, I’d forced my mind to take in the length of his torso and where it met the chestnut withers and backside of a horse. Instead of standing on two legs, the boy stood on four.
Observing my observing him, he’d lightly clicked his hooves, an almost human gesture of nerves. If humans could have hooves, of course. His smile had been uncertain.