The Sleepwalker

The night we moved to Glenmoor Farm Estates, there was a windstorm. The biggest, loudest windstorm I’d ever heard. It shook the windows, rattled the plastic shutters against the siding, thrummed against the door frames and snapped and tore through the flimsy new-growth trees in our front yard. And it blew over the empty dirt field around us in gusts so ferocious and powerful it felt like a living thing. Like a monster, a giant come down from the sky to wreak havoc and eat humans and spread chaos and destruction in its terrible wake.

My dad tells me it was just a little wind, but I remember it differently.

I was ten when we moved in. I was “too old” to be afraid of silly things like wind and giants and the dark, but then, you’re never really too old to be afraid, are you? We’d been living in a row house close to the city. My little sister and I had shared one of the two tiny bedrooms, and when my parents found out that we would have a new baby brother or sister – it turned out to be both, and they’re too young to remember the move – they told us it was time for a bigger place. So off to the suburbs we went, the four of us soon to be the six of us, out into the wild, as far as I was concerned.

Our old neighborhood was tight, close, and full of other kids. We’d walk to the basketball court, or the pool, or just around on the sidewalk, and we’d bring frisbees and yo-yos and chalk and cards. We’d play and talk and hang out until dinner, or until it was time to do homework or chores. I knew my neighbors, all of them by name, and all of them knew me, and the busy streets felt alive and awake and real.

The new house was different. It sat on a quarter of an acre, massive to us, on a street called Ashwood Terrace. It had more space than we needed, a kitchen larger than our entire row house, and granite countertops. You could turn on the fireplace in the second living room with a light switch. Wrapped in neat, white siding with dark blue shutters, and a small porch at the front, it looked like a quaint little farmhouse straight out of a storybook.

But to me it felt hollow and huge, like a cave. And like a cave, I imagined it was the perfect place for something monstrous to hide, to wait for you and grab you and drag you away.

“You’ll get used to it,” my mom said, as she unpacked boxes in my new bedroom. “It’s just different, but it won’t feel different forever.”

“But…”

“I promise. And please be careful not to talk like that in front of your sister. She’ll get scared.”

I was already scared. And it wasn’t just the house. The neighborhood was brand new, unfinished, and quiet as a graveyard. No cars parked on the streets, no kids running around to play with. No one had any interest at all in getting to know each other. Everyone just stayed in their houses most of the time, and no one talked to anyone else. I remember, once, trying to greet one of our very few new neighbors, a woman walking her dog near our front porch.

“Hello,” I’d called, and waved with the vigorous intensity only a child can muster for a stranger.

In reply, I’d gotten a stare. Just a blank, indifferent stare. And she’d walked away without even raising her hand.

Glenmoor Farm Estates used to be a family farm, an old one. The builders had demolished the old family home, the barns and sheds, had drained ponds and leveled corn fields, meadows, and pastures, and chopped down acres of forests. They’d eventually replace all of it with custom-built, luxury houses like ours, but they’d only finished six when we moved in, and the emptiness of it stretched out around us, an endless, bare landscape of brown dirt and blank space. I’d never seen the kind of dark it got at night, and in the dark, that empty space played tricks on me. Or, at least, that’s what my parents say.

It started the night we moved in, the night of the windstorm.

We were all tired from the day. We’d finished packing the last boxes that morning, had loaded the rented moving truck ourselves, and we’d spent hours unpacking. We didn’t have that much stuff, really, hadn’t had space to have that much stuff, and what we had didn’t come close to filling the rooms of the new house. But we’d all felt overwhelmed and exhausted by the time the sun went down. We ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches – we couldn’t find any restaurant that delivered to our new neighborhood – and went to bed early.

The wind picked up as my mom and I made up my bed for the night, my first night in my own room, without my sister, in six years. I couldn’t remember a time without her crib or her bed beside mine.

“It’s loud,” I said.

“I know,” she replied.

“It’s really loud, Mom.”

“It’ll pass,” she said. “Just try to ignore it. All new houses have funny new noises.”

I stared out the window as I changed into my pajamas. It was dark outside except for the scant light from a full moon, veiled in thin, wispy clouds.

In the moonlight, out in the field behind us, the wind kicked up whipping curtains of dirt and dust. And something else, something like a figure, dancing, twirling and turning in quick, fluid movements. And that figure became two, and then three, and they linked themselves together and weaved and twisted and bent themselves into sharp, unnatural angles.

“There’s someone out there!” I pointed straight ahead. “Mom, there’s people out there!”

She looked out the window with me and said, “That’s just dust, honey. It’s okay. It’s okay to be scared in a new place.”

The wind blew again, a powerful, heavy gust, and I heard a scream in the distance.

“Mom,” I shrieked.

More screams echoed my own, high and sharp, like frightened children. Like me.

“It’s foxes,” my mom answered. “Remember we told you there used to be lots of foxes here?”

“It doesn’t sound like a fox. It sounds like a person.”

“Okay, bud,” she said. “I know you’re scared. I know this is different. But you’re going to have to be a big kid tonight and be brave. I promise there’s nothing out there. It’s just your imagination.”

She put a firm hand on my back and ushered me to the bed. She tucked me in, kissed my forehead, and turned off the lamp on the side table.

“Mom,” I said, “can’t I leave it on? Just for tonight?”

“Okay, sweetheart. But just for tonight.” She blew a kiss as she stood up and walked out the door, pulling it half-closed behind her. “I promise you’ll feel better in the morning.”

I listened to the wind for hours. Every time I closed my eyes, I imagined the figures dancing in their wild circle, or the screams that sounded like murder victims. I tossed and turned. I counted sheep. I finally drifted off at what I thought must be after midnight, and I dreamed. I dreamed of the dirt field in the dark. I dreamed of voices and dancing, and of foxes. And I dreamed of a white ball of light, a solitary flame out in the middle of the darkness, and the light wanted me to come to it, to meet it and to follow it.

I woke up to bright sunlight and a quiet, still morning. I pushed my covers away and lifted my feet out of bed. I saw brown smears on my new white sheets, streaks and spots where my feet had been. I lifted up one foot onto my knee, cradled it in my trembling hands. I think I knew what I’d see. The bottom of my foot was caked with dirt.

Looking back, I think that was the first night I sleepwalked. It wasn’t the last.

I told my parents over breakfast what I thought had happened. I told them about my dream and the dancers and the screams, and I showed them my filthy feet. My dad found a strip of jingle bells in a box marked “X-mas,” and he hung them on the door handle outside of my room.

“This way,” he told me, “if you open the door at night, we’ll hear it. Don’t worry, kiddo. If you sleepwalk again, you won’t get far.”

“But I don’t want to do it again, ever!”  

“You’re just getting used to the new place,” he said. “I bet it stops as soon as you’re settled in.”

“But what if it doesn’t?” I bit my bottom lip, looked up at his face.

“Then we’ll take you to the doctor. It’s going to be okay, buddy.”

I didn’t feel like it was going to be okay.

Over the next week, we learned to live with the constant hum of construction noise. The rhythm of hammers and the keening of table saws became our alarm clock. Not that I needed an alarm clock. I didn’t want to go to bed at night, begged to sleep in my parents’ room, and I got up each morning as soon as I saw the first hint of sunlight.

“You’ve never been a morning person,” my dad said one day, as he drank a quick cup of coffee before work. “New habits for a new place, huh, kiddo?”

“Yeah,” I muttered into my cereal.

Down our street, yellow wood frames sprang up like weeds. Rows of bright green sod blanketed sections of the ground. The deep technicolor of the new grass looked wrong against the barren dirt behind us, but my dad said soon there’d be houses back there, and probably plenty of kids to play with, and that we were lucky to have bought in so early.

“We get to see it all happen,” he said, with a big smile. “We’re like pioneers.”

And I suppose we were, in a way. Out alone in this desolate landscape, waiting for the promise of new life and new adventures. I understand why it all made my dad excited. It made me uneasy, to look out my window and find only a dark, empty void. 

For the first time in my life, I noticed dark circles under my eyes. I couldn’t focus on anything. I fell asleep at my desk on my first day at my new school. The teacher sent a note home, and my mom sat down on the edge of my bed that night.

“Do you want me to sleep in here with you?” She looked tired herself, and worried. A deep wrinkle carved itself into her forehead. She brushed a stray bit of hair away from my cheek.

“Okay,” I said.

“I know you’re scared, but you need to sleep. I promise nothing’s going to get you. Okay?”

“Okay,” I said again.

“Okay,” she answered back, and snuggled in beside me.

In the warm cocoon of her arms, I finally slept deep and sound for the first time in days. And I dreamed.

I dreamed of women in delicate white dresses. They swayed and whirled in a tight circle, their hands laced together, and they yelped and cried as they danced, and those cries became screams. Screams like frightened children. In the middle of their circle, the light shone bright and steady, and it beckoned me, called to me the way a mother calls to her children, welcomed me. And I listened. And as I made my way to it, the women stilled and turned, their eyes as black as the night around us, their mouths stretched into thin, hungry smiles. They waited. I kept moving. I needed to reach them, to get to the light. I needed it as much as air in my lungs and food in my belly.

I woke up to my mother’s arms around me, to her panicked face and her frantic cries.

“I woke up and you weren’t there! Oh, honey, I was so scared!”

We stood in the back yard, right at the edge of the grass. The field loomed in front of us.

My parents argued constantly for the next week. They tried to hide it behind closed doors, but I heard them.

“…need to see a doctor, as soon….” My mom.

“…going to be fine…settle in….” My dad.

“…not normal…not safe….” My mom again.

They compromised. They installed an alarm system. It would sound the second any exterior door opened, and it was loud. It hurt my ears when they tested it.

“If you sleepwalk again, you’ll wake the whole neighborhood,” my dad said. “And it’ll probably wake you up, too.”

We’d lived in the new house for two weeks at this point. All of our boxes were unpacked, and my mom had started filling rooms with new furniture, with decorations and pictures and scented candles. She’d chosen expensive curtains and had painted most of the rooms in warm, calming colors. To anyone else, it would have looked like a home. To me, it still felt foreign and hollow.

“We’re going to paint your room tomorrow,” she told me, on a Friday night after dinner. “I picked your favorite color, and I have a surprise for you, too.”

I crawled into bed that night wondering what the surprise might be. Maybe a TV. Or a bean bag chair. I’d always wanted a bean bag chair, and she’d always told me we didn’t have room. At least that wasn’t a problem anymore. I wonder, now, if she’d planned something nice all along, or if she was only reacting to how scared I was, how much I was struggling.

I turned my lamp off and closed my eyes tight. I willed myself to sleep. My mom had installed a nightlight to help me feel safe, and it shined steady, like a beacon. Outside, the wind began to blow. I kept my eyes closed, counted down from ten over and over, and eventually, I fell asleep.

And I dreamed. But tonight, the dream was different. The dancers stood straight in a line, their black eyes fixed on me, their arms outstretched and their palms turned up. The white light flickered in front of them, dim and uneven, but still calling, still pulling me in, beckoning me out.

I woke up in the field.  

The women stood in front of me. They were there, and solid and real, and I knew if I reached out and touched them, my hand would meet solid, real flesh. And I knew that to do that would be dangerous, deadly even. The light went out, and they stepped toward me, reached for me with fingers as crooked and mottled as tree limbs. I could hear the wind blow through their hair, crackling, like dry leaves in the fall. I could hear something else too, something high-pitched, artificial.

The alarm. I could hear the house alarm, just faintly, but I could hear it. Home wasn’t out of reach, if I could just make my legs work. But I couldn’t. I just sat there, frozen, whether from fear or something else, something even more powerful, I don’t know.

The women moved around me, encircled me, and I screamed. I screamed and it matched the pitch of the alarm. They locked hands, began to sway and bend and stomp, and move closer and closer, until they became a wall between me and the world, between me and home. And as they danced, they hummed. The hum mingled with the sound of the wind.

And then it stopped. All of it. Arms wrapped around me, lifted me up.

“…scared us to death,” my father said. “Let’s get you inside and get you warmed up.”

Wrapped in his arms, my chin propped against his shoulder, I looked out at the field as he carried me home. It was empty, save for one wood frame, the beginnings of a new house, the first of many.

I didn’t sleepwalk after that night, and I haven’t in all the years since. The neighborhood grew, and more grew around it, and soon the whole area became a sea of roads and houses, of traffic and people and noise. There are no old family farms left.

I wonder, now, if it was all in my imagination. But it doesn’t really matter. The things we fear, and the things we remember, all of our stories, they’re real to us. Whatever happened to me, those first days in that new house, it’s no less real than anything else, and whatever it was, it didn’t get me.

My dad says the night we moved to Glenmoor Farm Estates, I scared myself into sleepwalking. I remember it differently.

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