When I was younger, I used to get nightmares. Really bad ones. I say “used to” like I don’t get them anymore, but you have to understand it’s just a matter of tricky wording. They were the kind of nightmares that had me waking up screaming, which made my mom scream, which made the whole house scream until she came inside and rocked me back to bed.
“It’s just a dream,” she’d say, and I would nod and she would leave and the door would close and I’d be left in the bed, in the dark. She never turned the light on when she came inside, so I never had the chance to see her face, but I was sure it was lined with heavy worry that added at least ten years onto her actual age.
When just assuring me it was a dream stopped being enough comfort, she started asking me what I saw in these dreams. I didn’t have the words for it at six years old and I still don’t have them at fourteen, but there was a time and place when that stopped mattering for everyone. For me, it was then.
"Monsters,” I would tell her, because that was all I could have. For a kid with a pretty big voice, I had a tiny vocabulary. To “get rid” of the monsters, Mom liked turning them into jokes. She’d ask me if I could see them in their underwear. She’d ask me if I could see them making funny faces. And I could, oh, I could--but that was the problem. The monsters didn’t like that.
It came to a point where I was afraid to sleep. I would stay up, spending hours in my bed, wrapped up in blankets that often felt like they were strangling me. And I wouldn’t do anything but sit there. Me in that blackness. But it never worked, because the black would take one step and then another and another until it was close enough to snap my eyes shut itself. I think, looking back on it now, that I never really got any sleep then. I was never more awake than when I was dreaming.
When my eyebags became too heavy to carry around to school and back, my parents noticed. I spent a few nights in their room, but that did nothing. I never told this to my parents and I don’t plan to anytime soon, but the monsters stopped living in my head. The key to understanding this is while they stopped living in my head, they didn’t die. They lived in my sleep and my wake and they lived in me.
One time, I even went out of my own room and to my sister’s down the hall. My memories aren’t the clearest, but I remember running down that hallway because the shadows on the walls were almost as quick as I was. And my sister--she was always sleeping so soundly. She was two. There was always milk from the bottle clasped between her fists going in and her little snoring sounds going out. I was jealous. But I tucked myself into her bed anyway, even though it was too big for a two-year old and too small for a six-year old.
That was the night waking up was worse than sleeping. I woke up once in the middle of the night with the urge to pee and no rawness in my throat. I wasn’t sweating. I was(n’t) fine. The shadows on my wall didn’t follow me, and I them. I did my business and I went back. My sister wasn’t snoring when I got back into bed, but I didn’t think anything of it. Maybe I should have. It’s the first time in a while I’ve told any kind of story about this, but every time I realize there are more and more things I should have and could have and would have done.
So I rolled back into bed and I rolled back under the sheets and I rolled back into my sleepy mind, but there was something itchy and foul at the base of it, at the base of it all. This all happened before I put an electric clock on the table beside my bed, so there was one of those round, actual clocks perched on the wall. The hands were always clicking into place and they sounded like the mice Dad often found scampering around the skeleton of the house, sandwiched between the thin walls. Clickity clack. It was a lot louder without my sister’s happy snoring. The thin slice of light slipping in from the windows threw murky shadows over her sleeping body. Clickity clack. The itchy foul thing was swelling beneath my skin. Clickity clickity clickity clack.
My sister sat up in bed. I was sweating buckets then, buckets filled with sweat and The Feeling when my sister turned to look at me. She was looking, but I still don’t know if she saw me. I was too busy swallowing around the scream in my throat, anyhow. The darkness fell away and the scream lodged itself in the fleshy part of my throat, so shiny-sharp my mouth welled with the icky taste of metal. It was almost as if I’d mistaken a piece of silverware for an ice cream cone and taken a huge lick. And then I saw her eyes. They were kinda there and kinda not. but my sister--she wasn’t there at all. I didn’t know where she went, but the thing that sat up and just looked at me was only wrapped up in her skin. The best kind of present.
My mind was telling me a jumble of things and my heart was pumping really fast, almost like it thought if it went fast enough, it could run right out of my chest to somewhere safe. My legs were shaking and I was shaking and it was making the entire room shake, and as I ran I could feel them falling on me. It made me think of when I’d slammed a book on top of a fly and then lifted it up only to find a spectacular mix of fly mush.
What happened next is even blurrier, the kind of blurry that makes me doubt this entire thing even happened. My body was on autopilot. I fumbled with the kitchen drawer and I scrambled back to the room and the thing was still there, sitting proudly up in bed with a wide, wide smile. White teeth shone in the dark. I made my way to the bed where it just sat and waited. Like it knew I would come back. My hands were sweating so much it felt as if whatever I was holding was going to slip between my hands and slam right into the carpet. I don’t have any actual memory of it myself, but I must have been screaming, because my mom ran into the room in all her sleepy, messy glory. I froze where I was when the door slammed open.
“Are you okay?” she asked. “I thought I heard some--”--it took her a few minutes to realize I was in my sister’s room--”--thing.” The tension seemed to slide right off her. “Is it the nightmares again?”
“Yeah. It’s okay now, though.” Only one of those things was a lie.
“Alright.” Her face hardened into tight lines, and being woken up in the middle of the night by a screaming six year old finally took its toll. “Go to bed. It’s late, and you have school tomorrow.”
“Goodnight.” I turned back to the bed, afraid of what I would and wouldn’t see. My sister lay there, snoring away. The bottle in her mouth was empty.
“Night,” said my mom. A yawn changed it into a weird mutation of the word. “Sweet dreams.”“Yeah,” I said, but all I could think was: you have no idea. For once, I listened to her and got back into the bed. But I couldn’t sleep. There was another not-so-great feeling and it took me a while to realize what it was from. I looked at my hands beneath the covers. Clenched between them was a knife.