Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Last Night's Nightmare

When I was a child, my nightmares were much more vivid and exaggerated. Large monsters or animals were involved, as well as treacherous landscape features (icy hills, broken staircases, narrow ledges far up on mountains or buildings, &c.) or else my body was somehow hampered, whether my limbs were slow to respond or my voice was mute.

Now my nightmares are much more subtle and play on social fears rather than physical horror. The bad dreams have to do with being on a road trip of some sort. If I'm alone, I'm seeking out a specific object in a certain small town that no one's ever heard of, and the dream is full of misdirection and mistrust. If I'm with friends, we travel to a large city and undertake some shopping before an important event, but I'm holding everyone back. I want to look at things and learn more when everyone's ready to move on, and their muttering escalates to face-to-face confrontations in which they litanize how much I disappoint them.

But last night was a full-on nightmare. This is how it went.

My wife and I were visiting my mother. We had finished dinner and were seated before her a fireplace, indulging in light conversation. Mom was doing crosswords and Rebecca was trying her hand at crocheting, while I was only relaxing with a mild scotch. It was a winter evening, so the cozy setting was especially valuable.

I got up to get some water from the kitchen. Before I could fill my glass, though, I heard some activity in the dining room. We should have been alone in the house so I went to check it out. It didn't sound like anything big, as though some small item had shifted where it rested.

The dining room table had not been completely cleared from dinner: two placemats, one plate, some silverware, and a juice glass remained on the table. I was about to enter--there was a baby gate in the doorway, though there were no infants in the house--to collect the remaining dishes when the juice glass moved slightly. (My wakeful mind goes back to the baby gate in my sister's house, where I babysat my niece the night before.)

It skidded with a quiet grating noise and stopped immediately. My eyes flicked to it at the first movement, so I stared at it while it stood still. I knew that sometimes a glass resting in moisture might trap an air bubble, upon which the glass might glide. The grating noise told me the glass was not wet, however. I began to attribute it to my imagination when the glass slid again, slowly and steadily, as though a team of ants were carrying it toward one of the dinner plates. My mind grasped at another explanation: the deep rumblings of any nearby truck could disturb the table and anything resting on it, but there were no trucks going by.

The glass slid toward the plate, then slowly traced a U-turn, as though following the path of a medium-sized circle.

Alarmed, I stepped away from the door and looked into the living room for stability: my wife and mother were chatting quietly, the fire still looked comforting and good. I turned back toward the dining room, and the glass was still grating drily across the shellac of the table, still revolving in a circle. I checked to see if anything else was being disturbed: some Doritos crumbs on the pale gold carpet were slowly congregating toward some unknown point, though the bag itself was motionless, precluding the possibility of a breeze. A couple loose wood screws were also rotating and beginning to roll towards that certain point. (My wakeful mind recognizes this as a Quay Brothers reference.) I wondered whether it was being guided by a ghost, and tried to blow a cleansing breath at the glass. If successful, the glass would fall still; instead it continued its perambulation. Perhaps it accelerated slightly.

I turned from the doorway and hollered into the living room: "We've got ghosts."

Mom looked at me blankly and insisted we did not. My wife laughed and asked me what made me think so.

"There's a glass sliding across the table," I said. "Come see."

"That could be anything," they said.

"There are some wood screws spinning around on the floor, too."

"Why are there wood screws in the dining room?" my mother demanded.

"I'm sure I have no idea. Just, come here and look at this."

Rebecca refused, on the grounds that she had just gotten her blanket underway and didn't want to interrupt her stride. Mom got out of her chair with some effort and joined me at the doorway to the dining room. Just like I was afraid the scene would not repeat itself if I looked away and back again, I was now afraid everything would stop moving by the time any other witness could be produced. But mom saw the glass and the screws and the chip crumbs, and she was also upset.

"That's strange," she said. "What do we do about that?"

At last, action. "I don't have my laptop with me," I said. "Do you have a computer I can use? I can research this online, probably." She went upstairs to get her home computer, and I searched around the kitchen for anything that might be useful: sage, first and foremost, or else some salt and a small bowl to hold soapy water. It was the nature of the dream that I could not find these simple items.

As mom thumped around upstairs, I beseeched Rebecca to please come and observe this supernatural phenomenon. She is quite psychic (in real life) and I would have valued her impression of the situation. Any additional information might have been useful to me.

"I'm not getting up, Christian," she insisted. "I'm doing this for the first time in my life and I'm really good at it. You're just mistaken. Why don't you come back and have another drink," she added with more acid a tone than I liked.

"Then how do you explain all this?" I said, my voice rising as I stormed into the living room. "Even if you can't trust my perceptions, how do you explain, entirely in its own context, a glass moving around on a table without any breeze or any environmental vibrations to move it?"

She rolled her eyes. "I have no idea, but I'm sure that's not what's happening."

"If you'd get up and look, then you could see! Isn't it worth getting up, if for no other reason than to prove me wrong?"

She sighed with irritation. "I know you're wrong already, so I don't need to spend any extra energy to prove it."

Mom returned to the room before I could form a rebuttal. On an ottoman by the fireplace, she set down an appallingly ancient workstation computer. It was a self-contained unit, one badly yellowing beige case that housed the keyboard and monitor, reminiscent of the Apple IIe. The monitor was a tiny 600x400 green screen and the keys were worn down to a smooth polish: the home key nubs were almost completely gone and many of the letters had at least partially rubbed out.

But it worked. (The dream construct did not involve a power cord or modem.) It booted up quickly but its processing was bogged down with an inundation of windows. "You were the last one to use this computer," my mom informed me, looking away politely: there were dozens of windows showing images of nude and partially nude women who ranged from 25 to 100 feet tall, interacting with buildings and tiny people. My cheeks burned as I systematically closed all the windows, which took some time, and opened a fresh browser.

I began experimenting with keyword searches, trying to locate any Web sites that covered ghost behavior and how to exorcise or banish ghosts. I knew a couple rituals of my own but lacked the material components to perform them. I hoped to find any spoken invocation that would ward off the ghosts until I could obtain the resources to banish them for good. Rather than anything useful, I uncovered hundreds of message boards in which blue-collar families related their own experiences with the supernatural and how their own particular religions assisted in alleviating the problems. The HTML had been abused as badly as the written language; there was a lot of proselytizing and Comic Sans, but no useful information whatsoever.

Rebecca still refused to look at what the ghosts were doing. I tried to appeal to her wifely duties, as she has invoked my husbandly duties to complete some onus. She returned a stream of June Cleaver-esque rhetoric and remained planted on the couch.

Now my fear of the supernatural gave way to the irritation and resentment forming after my wife's obstinance. I turned this anger back toward the ghosts and, setting the computer aside, closed my eyes and issued an appeal to the general domain of spirituality.

The front page of a newspaper flashed in my mind, with the headlines:


 There it was, my answer, and I knew exactly what to do with it. I rolled up my sleeves and stormed back to the dining room. I planted my boots in a strong horse stance, threw my arms up, slashed them down viciously into an X-shape, and bellowed, "Great Master Poison!" I swept my left foot forward and pushed an invisible wave of energy to the left, yelling, "Out!" I moved my right foot forward, grandly swept my arms to the right and yelled, "Out!" I brought my left foot next to my right again, pushed the wave of energy forward, and hollered, "I banish you from this room! You are unwelcome here!"

The juice glass flew from the table and shattered against the wall to my right, but the pieces fell motionless. The crumbs and the screws also ceased movement.

Emboldened, I went to the next room and summoned up more fury for the Great Master Poison banish. I forced the ghosts out of each room systematically, sometimes having to repeat a room if my shouts were not emphatic enough. In the living room, my wife chuckled and rolled her eyes at what an ass I was making of myself. My mother followed some distance behind me, timidly asking what it was I thought I was doing, timidly peeking into each room after I finished with it.

I began to open new rooms that I didn't know about, and I cleansed these as well. I wound my way around the perimeter of the house and had to go back into a hallway to do the rooms in the core of the building. I was running low on righteous fury, partially due to my elation at being so effective, partially out of physical exhaustion, when I opened one door in the center of the house.

"I never knew this was here," I told my mom.

"Neither did I," she said, mystefied.

It looked like it may have been a bedroom at some time in the past. It had no windows, obviously, and no working lights: illumination spilled in from the hallway. Mom and I cast long shadows on a single bare mattress pushed into the corner of the room. It was so old that even its stains had begun to fade. One wall behind it had been ravaged: grey wallpaper had been stripped away in spots, lathe had been broken off, and old wool and newspaper insulation spilled out here and there. Beside the mattress was a small doll, a humanoid rabbit sewn out of socks, with buttons for eyes. The socks were filthy and the doll had been slashed and mutilated. To my right, behind the door, there was a battered and sealed armoire.

My chest went cold, and my mom fled down the hall for the safety of the fireplace; I could hear my wife ask her if there really were anything going on. Her tone presupposed an answer, but my mom refused to say anything for a while, hunching by the fire.

Dark energy hung in the air in this room. My mind tried to weigh whether I'd pushed all the ghosts into this one last room, or that this had been the central font from which all ghosts issued. There was nothing else in this room besides the mattress, doll, and armoire, and nothing outside of their age and damage from which to hypothesize a history. It was palpably obvious that something horrible had occurred here, leaving a psychic pool to generate a seemingly limitless supply of terrible energy.

I drew a deep breath, revisited in my mind the resentment of my wife's lack of faith in me, and felt a fire form in my chest as I prepared the final banishment.

But I took one step inside the room and my leg felt chilled and infected, as though I'd stepped up to the knee in a diseased bog. I began to bellow my chant but could not complete the first word. My voice turned high and weak, and the syllable strangled in my throat. I tried to collect myself and take a deep breath, but my ribs refused to expand. I could not even whisper the words, the air would not come out of my throat.

I fled. I slammed the door and rabbited away back to the living room, to the fire, to the other living people. Mom was swooning in her recliner, muttering her own prayers. Rebecca was in the kitchen, having fixed herself a snack. Across from her a large window showed the black night sky, the darkened field of snow, and a huge wolf looking around. It spotted the house and loped heedless toward us. It was five feet high at the shoulder, with a bristling mane of steel-grey fur running from behind its ears all the way down its spine. Its head glowed with the light from the kitchen, its wide golden eyes surveyed the room. I knew that the window was not nearly strong enough to hold it out, if it really wanted to get in.

I turned to warn my wife, however unlikely it was she'd listen, and then there was a large Irish wolfhound standing beside her. As she scraped food off a plate into the trash, it craned its head into the trash bin and wolfed down any food it could find. When it sensed me behind it, it turned to look at me with its head lowered out of shame or fear. Its eyes were glowing a bright wintery blue. I turned back to the window, and the wolf was pressed up against the glass, its breath escalating into an hysterical rasp, and its own eyes changed from yellow to blue as I watched. Two more wolves trotted by in the distance, turning as one to look at the large dire wolf pressing itself against the brittle pane of glass, beginning to crack.

I lost my concentration on the banish and sensed that all the ghosts had been released back into their rooms, vengeful as bees stirred up in a hive. We'd have no place to hide once the wolves broke in, and I didn't know whether the wolves or the angry ghosts would be worse. I yelled at my wife for not believing in me and for inviting such danger into our home. She seemed a little repentant about the wolves but claimed she had no way to predict this would have happened.

At this point I woke up abruptly. I tried to cuddle my wife but she was overheating in the bed and protested sleepily. I threw back the covers and climbed out of bed. When she asked what was wrong I muttered that I'd had a nightmare. She asked me to come back to bed, but I left the room.
I sat at my laptop in the sunroom (it was 4:30 in the morning, very dark out), running through a routine of checking e-mail and updating Facebook games, trying to fall back into my familiar life and distance myself from the dream. I was too badly shaken, however, and ended up turning on all the lights in the living room and curling up on the futon with a large blanket, reading a book on the history of Japanese cuisine until my wife woke up at 6:00 AM. It wasn't until three hours after sunrise that the fear finally dissolved from me.

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