Sleep Tight IV

Continued from Sleep Tight, III.

I’d tucked my feet safely in beneath a blanket fold, just as I’d done all those years ago in my childhood bedroom. I’d mostly convinced myself that cloth was a sufficient barrier between me and potential insects, questionable mattress stains, and lingering dust.

Watching dancing shadows cross the ceiling and recalling disturbing memories did little to assure my hypersensitive mind against other possibilities, however.

If not for the exhaustion of traveling hours to arrive at these “free” lodgings, I would likely not have even thought to sleep in the house. If not for cleaning the upstairs all afternoon, my aversions to physical impediments (like vermin) would have sent us scuttling to the car. If not for an evening spent in emotional stress over a broken leg and the physical labor of hoisting an eight-year-old boy up a large, dusty, winding, creaking staircase –

Nope. Exhaustion alone was only working to frighten me more, as my body complained of serious physical limitations to action. My mind said, Why was the door moving? There was no wind; no breeze. It sent panicked shivering down my poor, sore limbs. They, in turn, responded with, Can’t move; need sleep.

A face had looked at me from beside my son’s reflection in the mirror this afternoon. We need to move; take action; freak out! screamed my anxious brain, but exhaustion was winning out.

Doors and faces slunk from their corner memory spaces to dance and moan amidst feverish dreams. Background creaks and groans from the house itself accompanied them, unbeknownst to my snoozing consciousness.

Daylight came, with my usual three alarm clocks: Sam, Jonny, and Ollie.

“Mo-o-o-om!” All three called, in asynchronous cadence. They pounded into my bedroom; Sam hopping to do so. Though not all able to walk precisely the same, all three faces bore the same looks of terror. I sat up, fully awake. Not-too-distant dreams haunted my perceptions as I nervously waited for their answers.

“What?!”

Sam spoke first. “Were you downstairs this morning?” His face had settled somewhat more than his brothers’. Clearly, he expected an affirmative answer.

Instinctively, my ears strained to listen for any noises from the floor below. For once, I heard only us, and a bit from Nature just outside the single bedroom window. It was glowing innocently in the morning sunlight, beyond our meeting around my antique bed.

I looked up at my children’s faces. They were so trusting. “Why?” I asked them carefully, needing to hear the answer but knowing I didn’t really want to.

Ollie spoke first. “Dere was clunking,” he said, in the typical manner of a three-year-old.

Clunking?” I wondered aloud.

As if on cue, something dropped to the floor in one of the rooms downstairs.

Sleep Tight, III

Continued from Sleep Tight, Continued.

“Mom, Sam said I need to get you.”

I screamed and turned, then calmed at the surprised, corporeal face of my son. It was only my son. My muddy, messy son who looked about ready to cry. I breathed in deeply, turning off the faucet of the claw foot bathtub. The water had barely cleared anyway.

“Sorry, Jonny,” I said, turning, standing, walking over to him. He pulled away from me slightly. “What?” I asked.

“Don’t do that!” He responded, affronted. Of course.

I wiped a sweating arm across my kerchiefed forehead. I thought to wash the cleaner from my hands, then remembered the current state of the house’s water supply. Maybe my dear old grandpa would spring for an actual plumber. I considered, then thought my chances would increase significantly if I contacted the city, instead.

I looked out the bubbling glass behind broken boards at the end of the darkly musted hallway. I could just make out a clump of roofs and roads a few miles away. The local town, I amended; maybe even local neighborhood.

A creaking sound came from my bedroom; a groan responded from the hall. “What’s that?” Jonny asked me, grabbing at my jeans with his mud-encrusted hand.

“It’s just an old house,” I calmly told him, my thudding heart, and the goosebumps on my arms and neck. I added, in attempted lightheartedness, “Old houses do a lot of settling, especially in the wind.”

“But, it’s not windy,” Jonny told me, looking up to study my face.

“Let’s go outside,” I said, starting forward despite his continued grip on my leg. I couldn’t push him along till I washed my hands. Maybe the pump in the yard would be sufficient.

In this fashion, I swish-clumped my way down the hall to the top of the staircase. The sound echoed in the empty house, disturbing dust motes from their determined slumber. All I needed was a ball and chain to complete the old horror movie trope. A structural piece somewhere, maybe in the parlor, complained noisily. I hadn’t heard anything from the main floor before then, but maybe I’d been preoccupied with my sanitizing attempts.

Jonny was certainly occupying enough at the moment. Thank goodness, or else I would have noticed the additions to our reflections in the mottled mirror immediately, in passing.

Instead, my brief glance memory of the anomaly stored itself snugly into my subconscious, ready to suggest itself at a more appropriate time. Like, bedtime.

Jonny and I stumbled together down the solidly creaking stairs, following various dust-drawn outlines of shoes and bare feet. We limped together past the parlor entry, intent on the front door to outside. The parlor door swung slightly in my peripheral vision, but Jonny tripped just as it happened.

The movement therefore joined my mirror memory, to be enjoyed later as well.

For now, I could see that Jonny was right in that Sam needed me. We had made it out together, his grip still certain on my dirtied jeans. We had clumped down the old wooden stairs and down to the old well.

Sam was lying on the ground just beside the pump, cradling a leg. Their younger brother stood sentry at Sam’s shoulder, crying nearly as much as Sam should have been.

It was no wonder, I told myself that evening, that I hadn’t noticed a few things in the house at the time.

I had carefully piled three filthy children into the old sedan my grandfather was also “letting” us borrow, and found out the neighborhood really did qualify as a town. It had a doctor’s office. Edensville also had a restaurant of sorts.

We hadn’t gotten back to the house until dusk. I would have put Sam on …something downstairs, if my nerves had settled, and if a suitable something existed. Instead, twilight found me straining to lift him up the winding staircase to the bedrooms as his brothers clung as closely as possible.

Just after dark found us chancing the murky bathroom water for brushing and hand-washing. It hadn’t looked so red in the dim glow of our camping lantern. Everyone piled into beds -into blankets on the beds- exactly as dirty as we’d been since after lunchtime.

And that was when my disloyal brain remembered.

After curling up safely in my old blankets and assuring myself that bedbugs biting was just a cute saying, after telling the boys I’d swept away all cobwebs so spiders wouldn’t want to be in their room, and after exhaustion finally conquered imagined fears -then, my dear brain remembered.

As darkness truly settled in and the house settled noisily down, it remembered that swinging door this windless afternoon, and that extra face behind my son’s on the stairway landing looking-glass.

Keep reading to Sleep Tight, IV.

Sleep Tight, Continued

Continued from Sleep Tight.

I can only blame my grandfather. “You like antiques,” he’d told me, smiling. He didn’t smile often, so that should have clued me in. He also loved a bargain; to the point of renting the discounted room, that smelled of everything used, if the motel clerk knocked the price down so low that most people would smell a rat. Literally.

“You need somewhere to live for a while,” he’d added. “I won’t even charge you rent till you get back on your feet.” Being my own grandfather, most people would see this as generosity. In my present, stressful circumstances, I think I convinced myself of this as well.

“You like antiques,” I mimicked, as I re-tied the kerchief around my sweating hairline. I checked it in the hallway mirror, which returned a distorted, musty outline of my strained features. I heard Sam yelling outside, but he was calling his brothers to play in the mud pile. It was better than the potentially-poisonous foliage.

I sighed. I would clean the bathroom next.

The bedrooms had made my skin crawl. Well, they’d made it feel like something was crawling on my skin. My hesitant inspection of the bathroom, safely conducted from the doorway, had the added sensation of my stomach reacting. I never could handle mold. That was one reason why I would sleep in the car over the discounted motel room option. Grandpa would say I’d get used to it, but I didn’t. The mold would grow in my mind the way it was surely growing inside the walls, entering the air sacs of my children’s lungs and poisoning them for life.

I not only smelled mold, I could see it. Someone, somewhere along the line (probably another victim of a well-meaning patriarchal relative) had installed more modern plumbing in this room and the kitchen. By the looks of things; that person had cleared the space needed for improvements, installed them, then left them victim to whatever time wished for decades. I assumed that was the reason for the water damage.

Browning spots, circled darkly then fading to the middle, were splashed around the crumbling plaster walls. The floor looked sound, at least. It was filthy like the rest of the house, but whole. There were probably creatures holing up under the sink cabinets, but we weren’t going to fall through to the basement.

I didn’t see the bathtub until I was brave enough to stick my head in farther. It sat very solidly against the door-wall, and the sight of it was the first time I considered a word like haunted. Then, of course, I told myself I was too old to feed my phobias and I’d watched too many scary movies about bathtubs (two, to be precise).

Whenever I saw a free-standing antique tub, I couldn’t help but hyperventilate a little. My mind would detach just slightly from the concrete world at hand and, instead, see hands groping the air above the too-deep water as a murderer shoved a helpless body down into the porcelain depths where no human had strength to prise the ancient stopper from the drain.

Laughing and yelling, the sounds of play, the sunlight bravely glancing in through bubbled glass, all helped to bring me back to the crusted, spotted ground on which the tub sat. “Just a tub,” I told myself. I kept telling myself.

This mantra sustained me through sweeping, dusting, bleaching, and scrubbing. It barely hummed when I first turned on the water, though. “It’s just rust,” I added, for good measure. I impatiently watched the dark liquid splash around the bathtub I’d just sanitized. “Just a tub. It’s just rust.” I told my mind to stop seeing what the water really resembled, even as I couldn’t help but glance over my shoulder or around the room.

Maybe it would have helped me to know they didn’t like the bathroom, either.

Keep reading to Sleep Tight, III.

Sleep Tight

I never would have slept in that bed, normally. In fact, why stop at the bed? The house, alone, was a bad idea: dilapidated, creaking, practically condemned. Faded, peeling, nondescript paint hung tenaciously from the wood slats and window frames. Fresh air hung tenaciously from without, occasionally sneaking in through assorted gaps.

Mostly it was the vermin that made me nervous. I looked around the dusty, filthy floor and was certain I heard scuttling everywhere. Pieced sunlight streaming through the boards across the window played across the litter at my feet and rested on the bed I was meant to sleep in: an antique metalwork frame straining to hold its own lumpy mattress. Its own lumpy, dusty, filthy mattress.

Good thing we brought our own blankets. Too bad I didn’t bring my own house, or bed.

The boys’ room wasn’t much better, in terms of cleanliness. Peering carefully through the door, my hands twitched as I imagined crawly things attaching to my hair. I slapped and scratched at sudden, suspicious itches on my body and scalp.

The boys were going to have to play outside till I could fumigate this place. For a few days. Hopefully they wouldn’t fall in the old well, land in the winding creek, or swim through possible poison ivy in the tired old forest that clothed most of the hill on which the house rested.

I should have realized that insects, mice, cobwebs, repair, and dirt were not the biggest problems.

When the warm, friendly sun penetrated most of the house, I saw only that the physical problems were significant.

Looking at the spots on the bedframe and its mattress, I’d told myself that sleeping would be uncomfortable, if not impossible. I’d slept in a basement in my childhood, in a much newer house, and refused to lay under the covers for fear of night things crawling up my legs. Memories of this had crossed my mind briefly as I’d studied my sleeping arrangements.

Still, I hadn’t actually felt the nighttime. I hadn’t experienced cocooning my tired body carefully in the middle of the old mattress, nor staring up at the dark ceiling. I didn’t watch imagined movement wherever my imperfect vision blurred at the edges of clarity.

Most importantly, I had never considered who else still lived there. Well, more precisely, who else lingered. I’m certain they were no longer alive.

Keep reading to Sleep Tight, Continued.