TGIF. That day at school, I was tardy, which I had never been in my life. Even worse, from class to class, I was no better than an absent pupil. People talked to me. But their words only came and went at a distance. My automated responses were no better than two or three word sentences that may or may not have actually fit the short-lived conversation. Teachers would call on me, waking me back to lectures and discussions. I’d lift my chin. But it would sink again. I was so tired. I had other things on my mind.
Between classes, friends asked what was wrong. When I said, “I haven’t been sleeping very well” the dark circles under my eyes proved I was telling the truth.
“You should get some rest.” I probably heard that thirty times.
“I know,” was what I said.
Emma actually tried to find out more. But when she asked if it was because of Sam, and I told her it wasn’t, she just assumed it was actually because of Sam but that I didn’t want to talk about it.
It was my own fault. I never had a problem helping my friends through their struggles, but when it came to my own issues, I lived on my own island. Like when my dad and mom separated, no one knew for weeks, not even Emma. And when I finally told her what happened, she was hurt by how long it took me.
I wanted to tell Emma about the woman. I owed it to her. I needed to. But what could she say? I feared the worst, that Emma would respond with something similar to what my mom had been telling me. Oh, you’re having crazy-awful nightmares? I’m so sorry! But hey, at least they’re only nightmares, right?
So, I let Emma believe what she wanted to believe – Sam had broken my heart.
When I got home from school, I turned on every light in the house. Skimming through the house in the late afternoon, I kept my back to the walls to make sure nothing could sneak up behind me. I was jumpy at unexpected shadows and noises. But when my eyes darted to the slightest suspicion, the woman was never there.
I went upstairs before the sun could set. I stopped at the entryway of my bedroom, the open hall behind me. My room felt like it was no longer mine. I could barely step through. Yet the open hallway behind me was just as ominous. I could feel the woman. It was like she was in the walls.
I went to the bedroom window where the cold air flowed in (my mother had opened it for me, knowing it was something I had always enjoyed). I shut it hastily. Latched it. Goosebumps rose up my arms and climbed to the back of my neck. I knew it had nothing to do with the cold.
I walked backwards towards the bathroom, keeping my eyes on the window. After shutting and locking the bathroom door, I washed my face in the sink, feeling as though I had aged two hundred years. When I finished, I assured my reflection with a determined nod: “She’s…not…real.” My reflection mouthed the words. Then she blinked at me.
I climbed into bed, wanting to catch up on sleep, which could easily have taken three or four continuous days. I stared at the ceiling, still doing my best to convince myself that none of it was real.
Why was I in bed? you might ask. It’s simple. I didn’t know what else to do. The fear made me shortsighted, almost to blindness. Also, I knew that any explanation of why I was awake when my mom got home would make her paranoid, and if I had been sleeping in her bed, then she would have thought things had gotten much worse, which would have made her right.
But lying there, every sound stole my attention. If a board creaked, I imagined it was the woman stepping closer. If anything rustled, I imagined her brushing against it. There were sounds and strange buzzing, which I couldn’t if they were really there, or if my horrid imagination was creating them for me because it didn’t know what else to do anymore. I felt crazed. The more I told myself to stop being crazed, the more crazed I became.
I dragged my bedding downstairs.
I snuggled up on the couch. It comforted me. The change. I had made a choice (why hadn’t I thought of it earlier?), and I almost felt smart, as though I had outwitted the woman (it sounds so stupid to admit now). Yep! I had foiled the woman in the window by sleeping downstairs, completely outthinking her, causing her to shake a fist of defeat at me from the window. Darn that Sarah!
My mother came home after eleven. Her presence centered me, bringing me out of my mind like the gentle tug of a magnet.
I kept my eyes closed and let the breaths flow deep and even from my nose, trying to mimic how I might look and sound if I was in a deep sleep. My mother dropped her keys onto the kitchen counter, then commented to herself with a hint of frustration, “Why are all of the lights on?”
I was afraid she’d try to wake me. But she stopped when she saw me, then tiptoed to my side. She whispered my name like she was sorry for me. “Sarah. Sleep well. You need it.” Her hand touched my shoulder. A kiss was placed on my forehead. Then she snuck upstairs. She even left the lights on for me.
From the lavender cushions, I thought about the woman in the window, like a homework project to solve, as I considered her invasion into my life. I wondered how long she had been there. Had it been years? Or had it all begun that very first night? I wondered why she came for me. Was there something I had done? Something I deserved? I racked my brain over that question, trying to remember anything I may have done to anyone. Was I her first, or had she haunted previous children? I didn’t think I was her first. It didn’t seem likely. She felt so – eternal.
I fell asleep in those thoughts. If an answer or clue ever came, I never remembered.
In the morning, I woke up in my bedroom in my own bed. The sheets and blankets had been tucked tight around me, done so with care. Clothes had been laid out on my dresser for the day, a color-coordinated outfit for the day. My shoes had been placed neatly side-by-side near the door.
When I went downstairs, my mother was in the kitchen. I didn’t ask her when she brought me upstairs during the night. I didn’t thank her for picking out my clothes. I knew it wasn’t her.
That day, I traveled the minutes and hours feeling a different kind of tired. The hopeless kind.