by Steve Allen
He saw only the shadows of trees & gravestones, nothing more. What did he think he'd seen?
|He jerked awake, drenched in a cold sweat. Like so many nights before his limbs felt drained and weak, his mouth dry and parched. Trembling, he reached for the glass of water and took a long drink, grateful he'd started keeping it next to his bed at night, and with yet another nightmare, was saved from having to make a long trip down a creaky and poorly lighted flight of stairs to fetch it. Mrs. Evans had made it clear when she'd rented him the upstairs room of the old house that she was a light sleeper and wouldn't tolerate any noises after 10:00 PM. Barely a month into his lease and already she'd chewed him out for awakening her once for grabbing a midnight snack. Man, her advanced age hadn't dulled her hearing any, he thought, but it sure had made her a testy and controlling old bat. After his divorce he'd just needed a convenient place where he could forget the past, get on with his life and finally get his degree. The rent had been cheap, and it was close to his new job and the college, those had been the deciding factors when he'd taken the place, not the old lady's adorable personality, nor the second story room's award-winning view overlooking an ancient cemetery.
Agitated, he got out of bed trying unsuccessfully to shake off traces of foreboding lingering from the intense nightmare. Though mostly unremembered, the dream always shook him, temporarily debilitated him, so he had to concentrate to order to remain sure-footed. He didn't want to stumble, fall and wake the old woman, that's all his nerves needed right now. When he finally felt more stable, he yielded to his growing compulsion and gingerly walked over to the window in the darkened room and stared down at the night-cloaked graveyard. He saw only the shadows and silhouettes of the elderly trees and weathered gravestones that were dimly illumined under an October half-moon, nothing more. What had he expected to see, he wondered? Leaning heavily against the windowpane he continued scanning the gloomy vista below and asked himself, as he often did post-nightmare, if it was his close proximity to the cemetery that was causing them. He didn't remember ever having them before he moved here. Yet if it were the cause, he thought, why was he drawn to it after his nightmare, wouldn't he avoid the sight of it? Wouldn't seeing it cause panic? Instead, looking down on it post-nightmare seemed calming somehow. It couldn't be both cause and cure. Imagine that, he derided himself, the idea of too many bones next door causing my nightmares.
Two nights later he bolted from sleep again, not only drenched in sweat and shaking, but breathless as well, as if he'd been running, trying to get away from something that terrified him. After thirstily draining his water glass and taking several deep breaths to calm himself, he carefully stood and performed what was fast becoming a nightly ritual by once again walking unsteadily to the window and studying the graveyard. However, he found no peace or calm this time, only emptiness, despair. Remnants of overwhelming dread from the dream clung to him, unwilling to let him escape as easily as he had from the world of sleep and that frightening dreamscape. He wondered then if the graveyard had ever really calmed him at all, but had instead been only some sort of sick fixation he'd developed, but why? Just childish superstitions or irrational fears, he reasoned, or maybe I'm just losing it, he nearly shouted! Yet in spite of his deepening frustration he remained at the window transfixed, scrutinizing the cemetery and puzzling over his dilemma, no longer in complete control of himself. He tried recalling more of the dream, to determine the cause of his distress, but memory and the answer remained elusive. All he could remember was that it was bleak and dark, fear clawed at his emotions, and he thought he could hear a rattling noise in the background. Thinking now of the rattling sent an uncontrollable shiver through him. He desperately wanted to know what this all meant, but regardless of meaning, he thought, he had to figure a way to stop these nights of interrupted sleep and increasing physical and emotional trauma. It was killing him. His grades were dropping and he was doing poorly at his job. He wondered if maybe he should move, but then he'd lose the low rent and convenient location. Damn, this was all ridiculous anyway! He was an adult! And even as a kid, bones and graveyards had never bothered him! He'd always loved scary movies and horror novels! He'd never been the kind of person who was squeamish! So what the hell was going on!?
He was self-conscious and on edge, but anyone would be walking alone in the cloying darkness, he thought, the only ghoul out amongst the tombstones. It was about a quarter 'til 10:00 PM, so he still had a few minutes before he had to get to his room in time to not cause trouble with his landlady. He felt moronic aimlessly walking around the cemetery at night, but he was hard pressed. A friend at school who was studying psychology had suggested that if his dreams were stemming from irrational fears or superstitions because of the graveyard, it might help to go there after dark, confront his fears and prove to himself there was nothing to be afraid of. There certainly was something to be afraid of, he thought, his presence here proving he'd lost his sanity by listening to a first year psych. student. What was he thinking? He stopped and nervously checked his surroundings, nada. His solitude in the darkness was unthreatened. There was nothing to fear, as of course he'd known all along, "at least consciously". Now suddenly remembering what his psychology friend had told him about the sub-conscious mind, he recognized the potential value of this little night visit. If his sub-conscious now understood what his conscious mind did, maybe his nightmares would cease. He was about to head back, feeling suddenly optimistic, when he heard the rattle.
He stopped cold, his heart drumming in his chest, his breathing coming in fast, hard pants of fear. He didn't dare move, only listen, hoping that maybe he'd only imagined it. Then it came again, louder, closer. A blood-chilling rattling was right next to him, yet he couldn't see its' source. Then realization hit him like a hammer: the cause of rattling in a graveyard. Bones, skeletons, lying underground, in their graves, inside their coffins - until they leave them! He started to run, but didn't move. Something cold and hard-edged grabbed his shoulder - a bony hand?!
His head snapped up and he nearly fell out of his chair. The textbook pages were soggy with sweat where his head had rested when exhaustion from his long cram session had finally won out. When through his shaking and ragged breathing he grasped what had happened, he began to laugh, though it was a nervous laugh, without humor. Oh man, he thought, he'd never been more grateful for a nightmare in his life. For a minute he thought his life had actually become a nightmare. Maybe he was superstitious after all and the graveyard did have him spooked. But he was too exhausted to worry about it now. With or without nightmares, he needed sleep, in his bed this time. He got undressed, took a long drink to wet his parched throat and fell asleep almost instantly.
He was safe back in his room, just before his landlady's curfew. He hurried to the window, but the graveyard looked still, peaceful, as always. But he'd been sure something had.....rattle, rattle, rattle. Instantly he was awake, sitting up in bed. Just another nightmare, he realized with relief, but two in one night!? Maybe he'd just stay awake for the rest of the... Abruptly, loud rattling inside his room shattered his thoughts. This can't be, his mind screamed! I must still be asleep! I just need to wake up! Then a screeching sound all too familiar and real rose above the rattling din. "What's all that noise going on up there?" Mrs. Evans yelled angrily up the stairs at him. "That rattling racket has got to stop, for good. It's awakened me for the last time, or you're out!" No dream! Real!
All the fear and dread he'd felt lately hit him in an instant, engulfing him, choking him speechless. He lost control of his bladder and sitting in urine-soaked sheets, shook uncontrollably as realization finally came. The graveyard and his sub-conscious had merely been tools, catalysts for the real cause of his nightmares, which was worse and much more personal than he'd imagined. He gulped hard, trying to swallow his fear, then slowly turned towards the loud and insistent rattling, to face - the skeletons in his closet.