Slowly I walked across the living room, body numb. My legs moved me, one foot in front of the other, but I couldn’t feel the floor under my feet. Confusion clouded my swollen face, eyes red and bulging. The tears had dried to my cheeks now. The salty stains were throbbing and raw. A complete sickness gripped me from the inside, clawing its way out through my gut, my chest, the place where my heart should be. I gazed into a gold framed mirror hanging on the wall as I passed and did not recognize the person vacantly looking back at me. A hazy stranger, unfamiliar, with an insurmountable ache seeping through eyes so lost that I felt the hurt in my soul.
I startled at the reflection, wanting to pause, but was compelled to continue walking through the living room into the front hall where a dark wood table with an antique-looking lamp rested at one end. I turned right into a small room, a den. The walls were mustard; the floor dark wood. On the far wall of the den sat an oak cabinet, front panels covered in glass. Reflected in the glass was the stranger, and through the stranger rested three hunting rifles. I used the key gripped in my hand to unlock the door. I didn’t know where the key came from, only that it was cold and hard, an answer to a question I didn’t know I had asked. I reached in, my shaking fingers clasping the hard lethal object. I couldn’t remember how to use it, couldn’t remember if I ever had known how to use it. I only knew that it belonged to my father, a souvenir from his childhood hunting trips he spent with his father on brisk, frosty mornings of Novembers past. I tried to smile as I remembered the stories he told me of the days walking through the woods searching for a quick, elusive animal and of their time together. And though the memory warmed me momentarily, a smile would not appear. The increasing pain weighed down on me. I was surprised at the ease with which I took a bullet from the nearby box of shells and loaded the chamber; a skill I didn’t know I possessed washed me in a sense of relief.
The rifle accompanied me back down the hall through the living room to a sliding glass door. Gun in one hand, the other pulled at the handle, less shaky and more sure as the door slid open. I stepped out into warm, salty air. Spring was always my favorite time of year. It smelled of grass and warmth and promises of the summer to come. I stood on the deck at the back of the house, scanning the view one final time. The ocean rippled in the distance, the vista almost obscured by the trees that enclosed the yard, parting slightly to let a small blue fragment shine through. The lawn was sloping, declining to a flat spot that had held kickball games and flashlight tag on sticky summer nights. Yet, I stood alone.
Alone was the only emotion that registered in me, occurring as both a curse and a relief. The isolation left me with no interruptions, but also without witnesses. I felt relief at that thought, and then pain. The pain inside me burned with a blackness like nothing I had felt before. It was all consuming; it was terrifying; and it was the last thing I would ever feel. My path was chosen, my mind was set. The rifle in my hands became a heavy reminder of the mistakes I had made. I turned the barrel upward, pressing the cold metal to my lips. I was alive enough in this one last moment to feel warm wetness fall down my cheek. The anguish was too much to comprehend. There was nothing for me in this world. I closed my eyes, inhaled deeply, and pulled the trigger.
The flash was loud and bright, and I knew I should have felt pain, but I did not. For the briefest second I wondered if I had missed. My lips tried to scream for help but there was nothing there. No lips to scream, no connection to anything that could control a scream. And it was real. The sensation washed over me in instant regret. I wished immediately to take it back. To take it all back. I tried to yell for my mother, Oh God My Mother! What would she think? What would they do? How could I do this to them? The physical heaviness kept pulling me down, like a dark undertow in a black ocean. Like rocks on my chest, like something evil sitting on me, laughing in my face, taunting me for my foolishness. I could see nothing but black. I could feel nothing but black, a blackness I deserved.
And suddenly I knew that someone was there, someone warm and familiar. Someone I wished would not see me like this. The screaming sounded distant. So far away it was like an echo. I wasn’t hearing it with my ears, I just knew it to be there as I suddenly felt light and looked down to see myself, in a pool of my own blood, in the arms of the person dearest to me in all the world. Everything became hazy. The black swirled around the light. The ocean and the dark and the evil all crashed upon me simultaneously. And I thought, “What have I done?”
I awoke with a scream, high and quick, my pulse bursting through my chest. The darkness around me felt reminiscent and terrifying as I fumbled for the lamp to end the disorientation. The light shone so brightly in my dark room that I squinted, trying to gain composure over my pulsating body. My pillows were wet from my tears and the moisture that poured from my head. As my eyes adjusted I checked myself over, looking at my hands and then moving them over my face, my lips, my head, my chest full of my throbbing heart and exhaled with relief. I threw myself back into the wet pillows and stared at the ceiling. My room was as I had left it when I had crawled into bed. Walls still a rich plum; pictures of my family still neatly arranged on the corkboard above my desk. The clock on my nightstand read 3:17. My sheets and blankets were a bundled matted mess, clear evidence of the restlessness my sleep so often produced.
Stumbling through my mind, I recalled the vividness of the dream. The feelings of heaviness, of despair, of confusion lingered in the pit of my stomach. My dreams had a tendency to sit with me, sometimes for days, tainting my mood and the way in which I acted and reacted. Some people perceived me as moody or sullen. They didn’t understand I was simply heavy with someone else’s pain.
As I tried to sort through the gory details of this night’s horror, a soft knock on my door startled me, though it shouldn’t have. My scream surely woke the entire house, but my family was accustomed to them after 17 years of living with me. My nocturnal shrieks were ignored by everyone but Camilla.
“Everything ok, Alex?” Her frightened face peeked in my door.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” I said rather unconvincingly. “Go back to sleep. I’m sorry I woke you.”
“Can I come in?” Before I could answer, my younger sister tiptoed in the door, closing it softly behind her, and in a silent bound leapt onto my bed. She glanced around the mess of blankets and pillows, looked carefully at my sweaty, tear-stained face, and said, “Wow, looks like this was a good one.” I exhaled a sarcastic sigh and rolled my eyes at her understated words.
Camilla climbed to the head of my bed and embraced her ritual of rearranging the covers into a tight, neat shape over our bodies, then folding the sheet over the top of the comforter, formed a flap down under our chins. She looked at me with satisfaction, wanting the neatness of the blankets that safely tucked me in to create order in my world of chaos. This was Camilla’s role, one of many roles she played for me: one of calm, one of patience, one of empathy. True understanding was beyond her grasp, but she attempted whatever little gestures she could in hopes of easing my confusion. Folding the blankets was all she had to offer.
“There, that’s better,” she said with a smile, pleased by her effort. I was pleased, too. I smiled back at her, though I knew it wasn’t convincing. “Do you want to talk about it?” Her curious voice wanted to understand. She reached up to untangle a piece of hair that had escaped from my ponytail, tucking it gently behind my ear, once again trying to create order.
“I don’t know if I can yet,” I replied. “It was totally messed up.” I tried to regulate my breathing and recompose my pulse. Camilla pondered my response. I could see her searching for something reassuring to say.
“You mean messed up like the night that Grandma Wells showed you the day you were born?” She tried to lighten the mood, and I appreciated her effort. I exhaled a laugh as I remembered the dream: in an attempt at showing her pride at my birth, my father’s dead mother had walked me through my own delivery. She had been there to see it, but died a short time after. She wanted me to know of the special connection she held with me. It was like some twisted version of the Ghost of Christmas Past. And there it was, my own birth, stuck in my psyche forever. Thanks, Grandma.
“I don’t think anything will compare to that,” I laughed a bit, “tonight, though…” I paused, tormented. “This one was on an entirely different level.” I didn’t know how much I wanted to share with Camilla.
I was still digesting the acrid taste left behind by the nightmare and was embarrassed to share the story for fear that it said something horrible about myself. But of all the people who could handle it, I knew Camilla would be the one. Though only less than two years younger than me, Camilla’s coping skills with my oddness were way beyond her years, certainly way beyond what our older sister, Gabrielle could handle, even beyond what our parents were able to accept. Camilla was the only one I could turn to, could really talk to, and who would love me despite it all. My fingers pressed into my temples, trying to erase the memory of what had transpired inside my head just moments before.
“It really was horrible,” I said softly. Camilla’s eyes reacted with concern.
I was no stranger to abnormal experiences. Ghosts, spirits, apparitions, hallucinations, things that go bump in the night, whatever you wanted to call them; they had been a part of my world for as long as I could remember. I was sensitive to their feelings, thoughts, and voices; all of which had tormented me, haunted me, causing a terrified response and stunting my ability to cope. By day I worked tirelessly to feign normalcy, using my conscious mind to try to block out the psychic assault. However, at night under the blanket of sleep my mental barricade failed me, and I was helpless to their intrusions.
It hadn’t always been so all-consuming. As a young girl I knew there was something different about me, but the things I saw and felt weren’t quite so scary. My dreams were mostly visits from loved ones: faces I had never met but recognized from family albums. These visits were infrequent, maybe once every few months for as long as I could remember. It wasn’t until recently that the experiences were becoming commonplace and included figures I didn’t recognize. Although I could discern their faces with details absolutely clear, I often never knew to whom they belonged. Some nights the figures literally showed up. Their presence in my room, in my head, was apparent even after stumbling out of unconsciousness. Awakening to a figure passing through my peripheral vision, catching glimpses of traits, features, feelings usually produced a scream that alerted the house to my plight.
“Alex, does it seem like it’s happening more often?” Camilla deduced my musings. Her voice was thick with anxiety as her eyebrows squeezed together tightly. Camilla had an angel’s face: soft, clear, and always carrying a large, contagious smile. She was the typical third child, full of life and mischief, a social butterfly. It was concerning to see her always-happy face so troubled.
“I was just thinking the same thing,” I sighed with defeat. Camilla was always enchanted by what I saw. When she heard me in the night, I often thought she was listening for it. She would creep in, as she had done tonight, so I could fill her in on whatever had penetrated my sleeping mind. She loved to hear the stories of our grandmother and family, loved helping me decipher what I had seen, like fitting together pieces of a puzzle. It was only recently that the dreams became more removed from our lives, darker in nature, and filled with more abstraction. They had come to involve strangers, usually sharing the cause of their passing and snippets of their lives that made no sense to me. Their presence was extremely frightening, and I was too afraid to stay connected with them long enough to find out what they wanted.
Camilla once asked me if I was sure I wasn’t just dreaming like everyone else dreamt. That the visions I saw weren’t just random noise from my subconscious. It had taken me a long time to answer her, as I often wondered the same thing myself. I did dream like everyone else, most nights. I had the same dreams of flying, of falling, of forgetting my homework, of complete nonsense — garbled images floating through my brain as I slept. But the dreams that woke me in the night, the visions that weren’t mine, were distinctly different in nature. They were sharp, clear and precise, viewing events through someone else’s eyes like watching a life that wasn’t my own. I could feel the difference with every fiber of my being. Especially since the dreams didn’t just manifest while I was sleeping. The visions pressed in on me during the day while fully conscious, and that terrified me. I didn’t want to admit it, to admit the abnormality within myself, especially as it confused and frightened me more and more.
“I just don’t understand how I could imagine these horrible things.” I could ponder out loud with my little sister because she never judged. What she viewed with intrigue I saw as a curse, a misfiring in my brain, a twisted imagination that must signal something wrong with the consciousness behind it. I never really knew exactly what to think of these visions: should I rely on them as telling some sort of truth or was I just plainly and simply demented? Camilla thought I was some sort of magician, but I knew there was something wrong with me down to my core.
She tried one more time, “Alex, you know I’m here for you if you need to talk.” I knew that she meant it. I also knew that she was incredibly nosy and the suspense was killing her.
“I know and I love you for that.” I took a deep breath as I mustered up the courage to speak the memory. “Let’s just say that someone wants me to know that he killed himself. I don’t know who it is, and I don’t know where he came from. But it must mean something, and I wish I didn’t have to keep his memory in my head.” I knew she wanted gory details, but she was also smart enough to read from my tone that this was all she was going to get for tonight, maybe forever. I couldn’t picture a time I would be able to retell this vision in its entirety. Having the words come out of my mouth seemed like an admission of doing something horribly wrong, and I certainly didn’t have the strength for that tonight. Camilla nodded her head, and I knew she would leave it alone.
“Are you scared? Do you want me to sleep with you tonight?” Often she had stayed in my room, or I had tiptoed into hers. Her warm, breathing body on the pillow beside me while I slept always comforted me, as though she served as guardian to my disconcerting nightscapes. And though I was scared tonight, I wanted to be alone.
“Nah…thanks. It’s late. We’ve got school in the morning, and I’ve got to write some of this down.” Camilla was the only one who knew I kept a dream journal, which I seemed to be filling more and more frequently. Though I was sure she was tempted on many occasions, I trusted that she would never betray me.
“Ok,” she conceded. “I’m right across the hall if you need me.” She slid quietly out of bed and crept back to her room. Though my nerves were still a bit shaky, I was glad to be alone and to not have to share the experience. I quietly pulled the journal and pen out of my drawer and began to write, careful to record details like colors, scents, arrangements of furniture, scenery and background, any little thing that I noticed seemed worthy of notation. It might mean something someday. I tried so hard to remember the face reflected in the mirror, but it was hazy. I knew he was a young male, but the features were indistinct this time. He hadn’t allowed me to get a close look.
I also recorded the sequence of events, and most importantly, the feelings. Sometimes the feelings were clearly my own response to the events in the dream. I wasn’t sure of a lot, but I was clear on what was my own and what was not. And in this case, in this night, I was absolutely positive that these feelings were not my own.
Though I had been trying to deny the revelation, it became clearer to me that my night visions could not be the workings of my inner, subconscious mind. That no matter how dark or twisted I had perceived myself to be, no matter how much I doubted my own sanity as these stories unfolded in my head with greater frequency, tonight’s experience made it abundantly clear that something in me was open to someone somewhere out there. And that someone was screaming to be heard. The flaw within me that was able to hear him defied all logic, all reason, and was inexplicable in the face of common sense. But, nonetheless, it was there. I wished with everything in my being that I could assign the knowledge that came to me as an overactive imagination, as anything but what it really was. And it was there, in the middle of the night while writing furiously in an attempt to sort through the horror of my vision, I realized that the horror belonged to somebody else and he was giving it to me. Trusting me with it. Burdening me with it. And whether I wanted it or not, it was mine now, and I had to figure out what to do with it.