“Am I asleep or am I awake?” I ask myself for the fifth time this week. I blink rapidly, trying to force my eyes to adjust to the dim lighting of my bedroom. Dark, blurry shapes come into sharper focus.
Now, I can see the foot of my bed, piled with the usual discarded sheets and blankets I’ve kicked off during the night. There is the TV mounted in its place on the wall, the basket of laundry I’d neglected to fold is still on the floor, the half full glass of water is there on the nightstand… everything is in its place. The details are so present and accurate; I almost think this could be real.
But I have to be dreaming again. Because the girl in the nightgown is back.
This time, she is perched on top of my dresser. Her knees are pulled up to her chin and covered by her white, linen dress. Her arms are wrapped around them, pulling them close. Her head is down, so I can’t see her face. I never can see her face. Her long red hair hangs loosely over her shoulders like a smoldering shroud.
She never moves; she never makes a sound; and I never see her face. But that will change.
Each time before, I would quickly dismiss her as a strange figment of a strange dream. Then I’d fade deeper into sleep as she faded away into blackness. And when I would wake up, I’d forgotten her entirely.
But tonight is different.
Is she moving? I think her shoulders are rising and falling. Like a child trying to hold back silent sobs. I push myself up to my elbows, trying to get a better look.
Her body is shaking with the intensity of her soundless cries. I look on with concern. I know this is only a dream, but her sorrow yanks at my heart. Something is very wrong.
The silence is destroyed in an instant by an ugly, loud ringing. My eyes open again, this time for real. It’s my alarm clock. I slap a palm down on top of it to turn it off. I suppose this confirms that it was indeed a dream. A girl in a nightgown did not break and enter my apartment in the middle of night to climb up and cry on top of my dresser. I laugh dryly at the absurdity of that notion.
I swing my legs over the side of my bed and head for the bathroom. Pushing aside the shower curtain, I turn the water on to a brutal hot. I brush my teeth at the sink as it heats up.
“Aaron Jakobs, you look like shit,” I say to my reflection. Uncharacteristic bags have camped out beneath my eyes like puffy blueish black bruises. My eyes themselves are as red as if I’d opted for a morning joint instead of my usual cup of coffee. I feel too tired to care much about it and slip beneath the welcoming stream of the showerhead. The scalding drops that roll down my skin feel heavenly.
Dreams usually dissipate as soon as the alarm clock nags me back into the real world. Most days, I couldn’t tell you the subject of my last dream if my very life depended on it. But today in the shower, I was surprised to find my mind dwelling on the scene from last night.
Looking back in the light of Monday morning, I suppose that I should have felt afraid. Possessed, little kids in the night are a tried and true staple of horror movies for a reason. But I don’t think she was really a little kid. Maybe thirteen- or fourteen-years-old. And there was nothing malevolent about her. The sight of her was heartrending. Even now, I feel sad for her.
My consciousness tells me to “shake it off, Aaron and get on with the day.” I oblige. I dry my dark hair roughly with a towel, comb it into place neatly, but not too neatly. Yank on dark grey slacks, button my shirt, straighten a tie around my neck, and flip down my collar. As I lock my door and walk to my car, I decide I might as well grab coffee and a bagel on the way to the office.
By now, the dream is about the furthest thing from my consciousness. My brain has automatically switched into Work Week Mode. Without realizing it, I’m already making a mental list of notes to add to my presentation before the mid-morning meeting. My thoughts are at work before my car even backs out of its parking spot.
The meeting goes smoothly, as usual. I’m doing quite well for myself at the company, especially for being only twenty-eight. I sit down behind the desk in my office and a feeling of unease settles on my shoulders as I attempt and fail to suppress a yawn.
I usually feel accomplished and satisfied after a successful presentation. Well, at least for a few minutes before moving to the next project. But today, it feels like something important is left unfinished.
“Alright, let’s settle this once and for all. I would like to be able to sleep through the night again,” I think to myself.
I turn to my computer and open the search engine. After a moment of consideration, I type in the phrase, “reoccurring dreams crying child.” 221,000 results in 0.52 seconds. Nice work, Google.
The first site is titled “The Official Dreaming Dictionary.” It seems good enough for me, so I click on it and scan through the page dedicated to the symbolism of children and youth in dreams.
“Seeing and/ or hearing a crying baby or child in your dream is a clear manifestation of a part of your inner self that is neglected. You must locate this part of you and nurture it in order to be whole again.”
I laugh aloud. “Why the hell is my inner self a pre-teen girl in old-fashioned pajamas?” I ask sarcastically.
Though I believe in dream reading about as much as I believe in tarot cards or Santa Claus, I must admit that there is a simple logic to this idea. It makes sense. Maybe tonight I will-
My thought is cut off by a small clicking sound as I hear my assistant Stephenie’s voice over the intercom. “Mr. Jakobs? Henrik Emerson is on line one for you. Will you take his call or shall I take a message?”
“Uhhm, yeah, patch him through. Thanks, Stephenie” I say. And that’s the last I think of the girl until I see her again tonight.
It’s almost 10:00pm by the time I unlock the door to apartment 814 and step into my home. I open and close the fingers of my right hand, trying to flex and stretch the soreness from my knuckles; I may have gone a little too hard on the punching bags at the gym. I open the fridge for a cool bottle of water.
Even after the drive home, my t-shirt is still damp with sweat and my muscles feel tight. I should probably stretch them out before I shower, but perhaps I can watch a few minutes of television in the living room before that. Yeah, a few minutes won’t hurt.
But the water and the stretching are quickly forgotten, because as soon as the back of my head touches the armrest of the leather couch, I slip into sleep.
And there she is. This time the girl is sitting at the bar in my kitchen with her back to me. Her red hair is almost aglow in the light of the television. Whatever program I fell asleep to is over. The screen is all static and snow now.
This is clearest view I’ve ever had of her. I can see her feet are bare; her skin is pale ivory like she’s lit by moonlight. Her toes are pointed to barely rest on the hardwood floor of the kitchen, making her look like a ballerina on pointe.
She wears the same nightgown she always does. Her hair is still long, almost to her waist. It’s wavy and sort of fluffy looking, like she’s just woken up from sleeping on it all night. I can see her elbows resting on the countertop; she must be covering her face.
And oh my God, I can actually hear her. Her cries are those of a kitten that got kicked in the ribs. A horribly pitiful, painful sound. I ache with it. It’s so real it hurts to listen.
Reacting without serious thought, I rise from the couch slowly, quietly- afraid that if I make a sudden movement, I’ll scare her away.
“Hello?” I ask softly. She doesn’t move, doesn’t respond.
I take a few light steps toward her.
“Hello?” I call again, “Are you okay?” I take three more slow steps, closing the gap until I’m right behind her.
I pause. It feels like her cries will drive me insane with the helpless sadness in them. I have to do something. Even if this is in my subconscious, even if this is a dream, I have to do something. I reach out and place a gentle hand on her shoulder and her body goes rigid. Her cries stop and I realize she isn’t even breathing. Oh fuck, I’ve made a mistake. A big mistake, something feels so wrong.
She turns her head in a flash to face me. And she screams so loudly, with such an inhuman ferocity, that I am cast away and I stumble backwards, relying on my hands to break the fall.
The girl in the nightgown rises and comes toward me, but she does not walk. She floats. She floats along the floor, the very tips of her toes brushing the ground in a way that that no real ballerina could ever manage.
She does not pause or bother to breathe. There is only screams. I clamp my hands over my ears for fear my eardrums might burst. I back away from her approach pushing clumsily with my feet to scoot backwards. I need my hands to get myself to my feet and run, but God- I don’t dare pull them from my ears. I swear if I do, I might die.
She comes closer and closer. Her mouth is pulled open wide, releasing hell from an empty darkness inside her. I stare stupidly, stunned like dumb prey. I can do nothing else.
Her lips are pale blue white, like those of a corpse pulled from ice. Oh God- what is that on them? It looks like they are smeared with thick, dark blood. A fat stream drips off her lower lip and falls heavily onto the pristine white of her gown. It’s obscene.
And her eyes. Her eyes are large and all black. They aren’t right. They aren’t round like real eyeballs, but flat on the surface. Like two deep pools of opaque, black oil. I stare at them and see the surface of the inky liquid moving and rippling. They quiver like the surface of a lake would in hailstorm.
She is upon me now. She stands over me, still weightless on her toes. She looks down with a naked hatred that sparks panic in my chest to sputter like sparklers. The thick, clotted blood continues to drip from her lips. A single drop falls onto my cheek and burns my skin like dry ice.
Now, my own screams escape my lungs; they are frantic like they want to escape my condemned body and save themselves. The blood on my face burns so intensely that I pull my hands from my ears to scrape wildly at the drop. My ears ring and my fingernails tear wildly at my flesh, but I cannot stop. I can do nothing but react and then….
I am awake. I sit up on the leather couch; my skin is studded in goose bumps and chilled from a cold sweat. My chest is heaving painfully, my heart stammering.
I nervously look around the room. I am alone. Turning off the television, and yes- it was showing only static and snow, I make my way shakily to the bathroom.
God, what the fuck did I do to my face? A third of the skin on my right cheek is bright red, the top layers having been scraped away. It’s only bleeding in a few spots, but Jesus- this is going to look bad in the morning. I look down at my hands over the porcelain sink. There is skin and blood beneath my fingernails.
I feel sick. I turn around and hurl violently into the toilet. I wipe my mouth on the back of my hand and fumble around in the drawer for nail clippers. I cut my nails down as short as they can go, drop the clippers into the sink, and climb into a hot shower. Fuck- it feels like hell on my face. But I don’t care.
I curl up on the on tub floor and let the water wash the fear off of me.
The next day at work, I’m nothing but a bundle of raw, distracted nerves. I feel sick every time somebody mentions my face. I tell them all that I went over a rock on my bike and got road rash. “You should see what happened to the rest of my body!” I joke and try to laugh lightly.
But I don’t have a bike. I have a monster in a nightgown that pays me visits when I go to sleep.
That night, I keep the lights on. My coffee cup is never empty. I don’t want to sleep, to dream. I tell myself again and again it’s not real, but I don’t care what it is. I just don’t want to be afraid. Never in my life have I ever felt so rattled. I couldn’t even recall being this afraid as a child. Something is wrong. I feel it in my guts, an animalistic instinct.
After hours of fighting the inevitable, the clock on my bedroom wall reads 3:30am. My eyes are burning and heavy. There’s nothing left to watch but crime show reruns or the home shopping channel. I have to sleep some time.
“This is fucking insane,” I say. I turn off the television defiantly, daring something to happen. The room is now dark and quiet.
It doesn’t matter that I know she is not real; adrenaline pulses into my veins nonetheless. My heart thumps loudly. Once. Twice. Three times.
I sigh in grateful relief. And out of exhaustion, sleep comes quickly.
I wake early, before my alarm goes off. Dawn is breaking and the first grey lights are beginning to seep through the window shades. The feeling is blissful. I savor it. The fear from last night seems absurd now. Maybe I’ve been working too hard, taken too many hits to the head boxing at the gym? Last night was not like me.
Eager to forget the whole mess entirely, I smile and raise my arms over my head to stretch. Who knew you could feel so damned good on two hours of sleep?
Mid-stretch, I roll over to my left side. Then my blood turns to ice water in my veins. Because there she is. There she fucking is.
She is curled up like a fetus at the very edge of my bed. She is facing me and her eyes are closed- oh thank you, God; her eyes are closed.
At first, it looks like her cheeks are dotted with a spattering of freckles. But I know better than that. The spots are specks of dried blood.
Her crying isn’t over either; I hear a sniffling sound from her throat and then thick blood rolls from beneath her closed lids. It slides down her smooth, blue white skin to pool on my pillowcase. Another stream begins to flow from one of her nostrils.
Unable to think, my body reacts without instruction or permission. I thrash away from her in a frenzy of moving limbs and tangled sheets. In the panic, I feel my foot brush against her shin and the energy in the room goes cold.
Her awful eyes open and I see the hateful, black pools that fill her sockets. Her lips part and the initial force of her insane scream sends a mist of clotted blood out over my white sheets.
This is the last thing I see before I tumble over the edge of the bed, cracking my skull on the hardwood floor and dipping out of consciousness.
Days pass and I begin to unravel from the inside out. I see her every single night. Usually more than once. She never stops crying. Sometimes silently, sometimes mewing like a hurt kitten, and sometimes with blackish, coagulated blood drooling from her eyes in place of tears.
I no longer feel pity. I feel panic. I feel dread.
When she is with me, I can manage nothing else but to stare wide eyed until she fades. “Don’t touch her,” I think over and over again. “Whatever you do, don’t touch her. Don’t touch her. Don’t touch her.”
When I pull up to my apartment after work, I pause before turning off the car engine. I recall the night before, trying to sleep at my office. But she was there too. She was standing on the very tips of her toes, facing the corner of the room like a child in time out. She sobbed, but she did not move.
I’ve tried to stop it. Exercising to the point of exhaustion, leaving all the lights on, staying up until dawn, alcohol, sleep aids… Out of desperation, I brought a woman home from a bar on Friday night. Even this didn’t grant me reprieve. The girl in the nightgown was under my bed. I woke up around 4:00am and when I reached to the bedside table for my glass of water, her ember red hair drew my eyes to the floor. Her flowing waves were spread out from beneath the box spring like a fan.
I know it won’t matter where I go. If I fall asleep she will come.
Still in the car, I sob dryly for a minute. Quite soon there is nothing left.
But now that the tears are gone and I am empty, a strange sense of ease flows over me like a gentle, warm ocean wave.
Tonight I will do something- anything. And either I will survive or I will not. The only thing I know for certain is that I won’t live like this any longer.
Inside the apartment, I quietly go about my nightly routine. I am not afraid. I feel numb, detached. Is this what happens when you give yourself over to fate.
I brush my teeth and slip a grey, cotton t-shirt over my head. Without ceremony, I climb into bed and pull the covers to my chin. There is no fuss, no fear. Only sleep.
There is no sense of time when I am asleep. I don’t know how many minutes or hours of peace I have before I am looking around my dark bedroom. That bright hair of hers glows like the last bits of dying coals in ash. Again, she is standing on pointe. Facing away from me, appearing to stare at the wall like an insane asylum patient.
I slide out of bed, letting the blankets and sheets fall away. The air feels cold without them. I have socks on my feet and my steps toward her are almost entirely silent.
As I get closer, I hear soft crying and a wet spattering sound. There is a growing puddle of clotting blood at her feet. As I stare at the blackish pool, another sticky drop splashes into it, sending out sluggish ripples.
I know I cannot touch her without bringing the screams. Without seeing those ungodly, wet, liquid eyes. But what else is there to do?
I stop only inches away from her back. The sound of her thick tears turns my stomach. I slowly lift my arms toward her neck. My big hands hover on either side of her for a few moments. Then quickly, I close them around her pale, delicate throat. Her skin is surprisingly warm, soft. Like a real person’s. Her reaction is anything but.
As expected, she stiffens. Her crying ceases and the scream begins. It’s an unnatural screech, a skull-splitting howl from something not meant for the world.
My grip is strong and I squeeze so hard it feels as if the very bones in my hands might snap from the sheer force. But the soft tissue of her throat does not give beneath my pressure. Nothing happens.
I drop my hands to my sides in defeat. I’m ready to let her do whatever it is she is here for. She rotates slowly on her pointed feet until she faces me.
Her hair falls over her shoulders and reflects the little light in the room like countless polished strands of copper. Her mouth is stretched open and a mucousy line of blood connects her upper and lower lips. The line bends out toward me with the intensity of her scream. I watch it, wondering if it might break. If it might touch me and burn my skin like acid.
I’m going to let it happen. Give up to fate, not bother to fight. But then I see her eyes again. Those impossible eyes. And my numbness shatters. Hysteria teetering on the edge of insanity takes hold.
The dark, oily liquid in her sockets boils and rages as if in a hurricane. There is no doubt in my mind that I would lose my tremulous grip on reality if I had to look at them any longer. I fling my hands at her face, at those godforsaken puddles of eyes, as if to gouge them.
And something happens as my fingertips break the cold surface to sink inside. I feel something give way and snap; then the liquid eyes dribble out of her skull in black streaks.
Her screams rise in a deafening shriek that bursts my right eardrum. I steel my hands over my ears and my own eyes water from the sudden sharp pain.
The girl in the nightgown lifts her face up to the ceiling and the back of her head bursts. Inky blood sprays against the wall behind her and for just a moment, it looks like she is wearing a delicate, black halo. A dark angel with no eyes and a crown of dirty blood.
Then she collapses in a heap and screams no more.
Lilith with Love