I walked home from school. I felt like a defeated disappointment to my friends and my acapella group, and deeper down, I was morbidly afraid of the rumors regarding what had happened. And here I was, walking willingly to my house, to where my abuser lived. The woman was always there, forcing herself through every crack in my life, finding ways to become even more invasive and intrusive. Not only had she found her way into my home, but now, into my school through my throat. I wanted to gargle mouth wash until the feeling of her hair left me – maybe even ignore the warning label and swallow a bucket-full. I tucked my chin against the cold breeze.
The trees around me bore evidence of winter’s coming, their gangly branches trembling. The air and clouds above were gray. Everything soon darkened further and further until night crept in all around me. The darkness swelled as though hours had passed by. Patches of blackness swelled between the homes of my neighborhood and back behind the trees. The pebbles at my feet scattered to the grass with my quickened pace as I hurried along.
Up ahead, the lights of my home glowed like lanterns. My mother was home. Her car was parked outside of the garage. I jogged the rest of the way.
Instant relief filled me as I stepped inside and closed the door. I called out, “Mom, I’m home!”
I received no answer. I hung my jacket on a hook and laid my book bag in the corner near my shoes after kicking them off. There were used utensils and a plate in the sink. My mother had eaten without me.
Turning at a bend in the wall, I stepped into the living room. On the far wall, the television spread bursts of light over the dark room in a shattered strobe. Static crackled loudly. My mother sat on the couch, faced away from me. I didn’t know if she had heard me come in. She was intent on the sputtering screen. Her head motionless. Her gaze stuck.
I stepped around the curve of the couch to say hi and ask comically what she was doing watching static, but as I did, my smile spoiled. The spattering light pockmarked my mother, hollowing out her eyes as she turned to me. Her face was flat and placid. She was splattered by the sporadic strobe, everything in the room tossed by gasping light. My mother patted the couch, signaling for me to come and sit beside her. When I hesitated, she said in a voice that was not quite hers, “Sit with me.” Something wriggled in her mouth, but she closed it again before I could see. She patted the couch again.
I said weakly, “I’m tired. I’m not feeling good.”
She nodded at my lie, then returned her attention to the television screen. I shuffled towards the stairs, wanting to escape to my room where I could at least lock the door. Above me, pattering feet thumped along the ceiling, like children scattering in a game of hide and seek. Fear climbed my throat. I remained stuck at the bottom of the stairs, staring upward.
A touch at my shoulder made me fall against the wall. My mother was there, her eyes black, having moved soundlessly behind me. I stayed tucked to my fallen position, frozen. My mother pointed up the stairway, her finger stretched out ahead of me to the darkness above. “Go to your room.”
Obeying her command, I hurried from her. My nerves were falling apart, even as I tried to stay composed. My legs moved awkwardly, shuffling and fumbling. My arms stayed wrapped around my torso in cautious fear, as though holding together my insides. I clambered to the top of the stairs. The long darkness of the hall stretched out ahead of me. I flicked at the light switch. It did nothing. I did so again, but still, the lights remained off. At the other end of the hall, the outline of my bedroom door suddenly glowed a dull yellow.
I stood there, trapped. There was nowhere I wanted to go, expect out of the home. My mother began walking up the stairs.
I moved through the blackened tunnel. At my bedroom door, my fingers shook as I pressed on the knob. Blaring light caused me to shut my eyes. When I opened them again, I saw a lantern hanging near the entrance, burning brightly.
I turned around, not wanting to go in. Something was wrong. Everything was wrong. But my mother was behind me, coming down the hallway, pointing ahead. I stepped inside and pressed the door shut, hoping my mother would be appeased.
There was a sudden slant to the gray wooden ceiling. This was not my room. The air smelled of mold and old sheets and something strange I did not recognize, though it made me think of a barn. The floor was splintered and wooden, not carpeted. There were no windows and no bedside light. Two rows of beds were lined on each side of the room, the headboards of which met at the slant of the ceiling. There were eight beds total. I noticed suddenly that the beds were filled with bodies. Children were lying beneath the covers. Gray woolen blankets pulled up to their chins. Little toes pointed upward. Each of them had covered their eyes with their hands, as though hiding from something.
One girl peeled apart two fingers to look at me. She warned in a whisper, “Get in bed. Hurry.”
The sound of approaching steps was coming down the hallway. I thought at first my mother was returning, but the footfalls were someone else’s, dutiful and deft. The flame of the lantern wavered, as though brushed by a breeze, causing shadows to wave around the room. I feared the light would go out. Waking me from my petrified trance, another child said with a voice that was tiny and sad, “Get in bed. Or she’ll punish us.”
Two empty beds were stationed at the far end of the room. I climbed into the one on the left, simply because it seemed to be the furthest from the door. I pulled the blankets up to my chin and placed my hand over my eyes, mimicking the other children in an effort to hide among them.
The door creaked open. An arm stretched inside, reaching for the lantern. Long fingers turned at the valve until the flame died out. Before the door was shut again, the woman whispered into the bedtime blackness, “Shhhhhhhhhhh.” A lock turned.
We were left there. I breathed in the old smells of the wool blanket that itched at my cheek, listening to the gasps of the other children, each of them fearful and quiet, not wanting to disturb the woman or summon her attention back to the room. I could hear mine as well. I was just like them. And I felt as though I always had been, as though this had always been my bed and my place to live. I began to cry, restraining my sobs as best I could.
“Please stop,” a voice said in the blackness.
Another child whispered, “Yes, please. We don’t want to be punished.”
I did my best to obey, smothering my mouth with my hand. Silent tears dripped down my face to the musty pillow beneath my head.
When I awoke, I had returned to my own bed. There were no other beds, no children. But the smells of old sheets and dust remained around me. There were visages of what I had seen, as though the nightmare had somehow interlaced with my reality, like two translucent photos placed on top of each other to form one distinct image.
I couldn’t move, afraid that if I did, I’d reawaken the alternate reality I had experienced. I called out to my mother, yelling louder and louder until she finally came.
“What’s wrong?” she asked from the doorway, eyeing me as I lay wrapped in my covers. She knew.
“I was having a nightmare,” I began. “But it wasn’t just a nightmare, Mom. There were other children. They were scared too. They were as afraid as I was. But they actually lived in that room. There was a woman. It was the same woman, Mom. The woman in the window.” I pulled in a deep breath. “I can still smell the other place! I can still smell it! Do you understand? Stop looking at me like that, Mom! Please stop. Please stop.”
My mother came and sat at the side of my bed. “I don’t know what to say, Sarah. If you’re having nightmares, then they’re nightmares. Even if they seem real, they’re just not. There isn’t a woman. And if there is, she’s only in your dreams. She can’t really hurt you.”
“Maybe she can, Mom.”
“Then why hasn’t she already?” she asked as though it should have inspired some measure of hope.
“I – I don’t think she wants to yet,” I attempted to explain. “I think she enjoys making me afraid.”
“Why would anyone enjoy seeing someone else afraid?” she asked as though such a notion was kept to movies with outlandish characters wearing black tuxedos and curly mustaches.
“She just does,” I said.
“It sounds like a nightmare to me. Look around, Sarah. You’re here, in your room. If it was real, wouldn’t you still be there, in that other place? Wouldn’t this woman of yours be here, in this home? Wouldn’t this woman of yours leave some evidence.”
“Stop saying that!”
“What?” she looked distraught and confused.
“This woman of yours! Just stop!”
“Okay, okay. I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine. Just don’t say it again.”
“I won’t.” She patted my hand in promise. “But again, Sarah, wouldn’t there be some way we’d know she was real and not just in your nightmares?”
“I – I don’t know.” She was right, but she wasn’t.
“You’ll get through this, Sarah. You will. These nightmares will end. They can’t last forever.” She shook her head, and I knew it was difficult for her as well, seeing what was happening to me. “What can I do to help?”
“I don’t know. I guess, just believe me.”
“Believe what? That there’s a woman in your dreams who can actually hurt you?” She looked confused again.
It was just that simple. “Yes.”
“Sarah,” she said, as though I’d asked for a unicorn for my 18th birthday and it was time for me to grow up. “How about this? I’ll believe that you’re having nightmares – nightmares that are vivid and awful. And that you’ll get through this.” She’d found a reasonable middle ground for us to agree on.
“No. It’s not enough. I need you to believe me, Mom.”
She shook her head subtly. “I don’t know if I can, Sarah. But I’m trying. This isn’t easy for me either. I think about you and about what’s been going on, with the nightmares and the woman, and it, well, it has me concerned.”
“I’m the one who’s going through this, Mom.”
“But Sarah.” My mother made a pained expression. “There’s no woman. Not in real life.”
“Yes, there is, Mom! How can you say you’re trying to believe me when you won’t believe what I tell you?”
“Sarah. Please. Your room is on the second floor.” She presented her hand out towards the window, showing me how high up we were. “That woman would need a ladder to get up here. And she’d have to be able to unlock the window from outside. It’s just not possible.”
I hated my mother’s lack of belief. Yet in a strange way, it felt good to talk about it. I tried to maintain my composure while I explained, “The first night, when I touched the woman’s hair in my window, I heard owls and could see trees when she stepped away. It was as if there was a different world, the world she comes from, I think. And in the nightmares, they’re so real, I can feel them. Like, I’m not really sleeping, but I’m not really awake either. And then sometimes, I’m in other places, but those feel real too, even though I’ve never really been to them. And then in this dream, the one last night, it was the worst. The other children felt like they were real children. When they talked to me, they were talking to me. It wasn’t my imagination making up things for them to say.”
I had been so engulfed in my explanation, I didn’t realize my mother had started crying. On instinct, I stretched for her and asked, “What’s wrong?”
“What’s happened to you, Sarah? You were never like this. What happened to school and acapella and spending time with your friends? I get calls from your teachers now. They’re concerned. Your grades are dropping. They say you haven’t turned an assignment in for weeks. You haven’t followed up with any colleges, even though they want you to commit so you can attend next fall. They’ve all accepted you, you know. But all you talk about is this woman.” She stopped herself from saying this woman of yours.
“I guess all those things don’t matter when you’re running for your life!”
My mother oriented her body to face me completely, then shook my hands in hers, trying to will me back to reality. “Sarah! It’s not real! She’s not real!” She threw a hand at the window again, as though the empty glass in that instant was proof that a woman had never been there at all.
“Then what is it, Mom? If it’s not real, then what is it?” I yelled.
“It’s – it’s got to be something else.” She then asked, “Did you read that article I put in here the other day?”
My stomach tightened. “You mean the one about schizophrenia?”
I smirked sadly. “I’m not crazy, Mom.”
“I know you’re not, I know.” She brushed my cheek. “And I don’t want to jump to conclusions. But she – this woman – she can’t be real. It’s just not possible. Look at it from my perspective. You say this woman has been in your room, but again, there’s no way she could get up here. Think about it. There’s no way this could be real.”
“I don’t want to believe it either, Mom. But it’s real. And it’s horrible. You don’t know what it’s like to be so afraid every second of the day. You don’t. At night, I do my best to stay awake. But you can’t stay up forever. And right before I fall asleep, there’s this tiny bit of hope that she won’t come. That she’ll leave me alone. Then she doesn’t.”
“I’m not saying they don’t feel real, Sarah. But there has to be an explanation. I mean, have you ever believed in all of the other things kids believe in, like Santa or the Easter Bunny?”
“Maybe a little, when I was a lot younger.”
“Sure, of course. But not as you got older. And why did you stop believing?”
“I don’t know. I guess I just knew they weren’t real.”
“Okay, so maybe this is your imagination simply going through a growth spurt or something.”
“I never stopped having an imagination, Mom.”
“I know you still have an imagination.” She chuckled dryly. “I’m not saying that. But maybe your imagination is just really growing right now. They say the adolescent brain goes through these intense periods of development.”
I still wanted to find that middle ground. So did she. “If I agree to believe that, that it has something to do with my brain growing, will you stop thinking I’m crazy.”
“I never thought you were crazy, Sarah.”
“You definitely said I should consider the possibility.”
“That’s not what I mean. But I wanted you to stop thinking it was really happening, you know, like really happening. In real life.”
“Oh, great then.”
“No need to be sarcastic, Ms. Sarah.”
I brushed her hand away as she touched my nose playfully. When she did it again, I couldn’t help but smile. It felt like we were ourselves again, just for a moment. It felt nice.
Wanting to be a good daughter, I said, “Sorry for being such a mess lately.” I wiped my eyes. “I’m sorry, Mom. I am. Believe me, I know it’s not easy for you either.”
“Oh, Sarah,” my mother pulled me into her arms. “There’s no reason to apologize.”
I hesitated. “Can I sleep in your room tonight?”
She didn’t say anything right away. “Sure. But just for tonight.”
“Yes, Ms. Sarah?”
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”