The woods by my childhood home are host to something rotten.
When I was younger and still incredibly scared of the dark, I would take the long way home from football practice during autumn and winter – across the train tracks, and past the wheat fields – because the sun would set at 5 pm and I hated how dark and looming the trees looked. Hated the ominous feeling that something was watching me from beyond the shadows. And whenever my best friend at the time would sleepover, we would dare each other to walk to the edge of the forest and touch the old gnarly tree that was right by the start of the path. It was the ultimate test of bravery.
There were lamps lining the opposite side of the street, so it wasn’t actually that dark, but somehow the forest just seemed to swallow all of the light. Even when I was walking underneath those lamps I always found myself sprinting back to the front porch – as if I was being chased.
I remember there were times that our dog, a large Labrador Retriever, would go still in our backyard and stare into the treeline, with his ears flat and tail between his legs, as if he could sense something lurking behind the trees that remained invisible to us.
As I grew older my fear of the dark dimmed and the forest seemed less daunting, but my little brother didn’t seem to grow out of it the same way I did. Most nights he would come to me and ask if we could have a sleepover. My mom would then carry his mattress into my room and let him sleep on the floor next to my bed, letting us siblings bond through this nightly ritual. When I entered high school though, I started having to get up early in the morning to take the bus to school and my mom wanted to make sure I didn’t stay up late talking. I remember how much my brother cried when she told him he couldn’t sleep in my room all the time anymore. She asked why he refused to sleep in his own bed.
He replied, “Because there’s a monster that looks through my window.”
He was only seven at the time, so it could easily have been his overactive imagination but… his room was also the only bedroom with a window facing the woods.
Eventually, my parents decided for us kids to switch rooms.
Which brings us to the first night I spent in my brother’s room.
Keeping a flashlight on and pointed towards the ceiling, I just sat and waited – staring at the window. It was past midnight and I was about to chalk up the whole monster thing to my brother’s imagination when the flashlight started to flicker.
On and off. On and off. Onandoff. Onandoff. Onandoffonandoffonand-
I wanted to reach for the light, to maybe check its batteries, but the way it had flickered gave me a strange feeling and the blanket felt like an armor of sorts. If I stayed under the blanket, nothing could touch me.
Nothing could touch me – but it could see me.
Because through the pitch-black window, I saw eyes. Just the whites of the eyes, glowing in the darkness. Then I started to hear scratching, similar to a cat pawing at a door, coming from the direction of the window.
Lightning-fast I pulled the blanket over my head, praying it would go away. Praying that it couldn’t get in, that the window will keep it out. The air was stuffy and I couldn’t breathe, but I didn’t dare remove the blanket. In my mind, I kept thinking if I ignore it, it will go away.
But it didn’t go away.
The scratching went on and on and on.
The noise grew louder and higher in pitch, like nails being dragged across a blackboard.
On and on andonandon.
I couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t see. Couldn’t hear over the sound of my pulse in my head beating in time with the grainy sound of something dragging over the window pane. The blanket was protecting me, but it was also weighing down on me, suffocating me.
It still is. My eyes firmly shut, I tell myself stories. I turn this into a story, desperately trying to downplay whatever is happening as childish imagination. If I pretend it isn’t real, maybe it disappears.
Then it stops. I try to slow my frantic breathing, I try to hear. Maybe it’s gone.
Please, let it be gone.
Let it be –
A tight grip on my foot. A scream smothered by the blankets. The grip tightens.