The room was lit by the moon perched on the fence in the backyard; throwing long shadows over the toys scattered between the beds. I didn’t know what it was that had roused me from sleep that night, but I had been sleeping soundly in my bed. The house was still, except for the rhythmic breathing of my brother in his bed on the opposite wall.
I was five years old and it wasn’t unusual for my brother to wake me up in the middle of the night—either snoring or tussling about in his blankets. So when I woke up that night, I looked to his bed first, but he was sleeping comfortably. Before I could roll over and go back to sleep, fear crawled up my spine and settled comfortably at the back of my skull. I was frozen; there was no sound or movement, but before I knew why, I was looking toward the door. I turned my head only slightly and looked out of the corner of my eye; what I saw stopped my breath.
There was a woman in a bathrobe with a towel twisted around her hair. She was standing in the doorway with her hands hanging in front of her, fingers intertwined in a loose bowl shape. She looked to be a young woman; old enough to have had children, but not by much. She was looking right at me—the weight of her glare pinned me to the bed. She was standing there as plain as I was seeing her, but I could see through her into the room beyond; the door case of that room evident right through the middle of her. She was completely white, towel, bathrobe, skin, everything; from head to toe she seemed to be made of light. Except there was no luminescence—she didn’t light up the room or cast shadows, she didn’t glow; she just was.
A terrible feeling swept over me: I suddenly knew that I was supposed to be sleeping, that I was never meant to see this. There are moments among the hours of the night that aren’t meant for little boys to witness, and this was one of them. Rolling onto my side and facing the wall, I slammed my eyes shut. I tried to feign sleep; I willed my dreams to take me and get me away from this apparition. The silence roared in my ears, my heart pounding in its new perch in the hollow of my throat, my breath threatening to pack up and leave.
I lay there, desperate for something—anything—to save me. My mind seized on a memory from a time when I was even younger. My father had explained to me why my brother couldn’t sleep with me when he was a baby. He had said that people toss and turn in their sleep, and maybe I would rollover and hurt him without ever knowing. So, in my five year old mind, I knew I needed to rollover if I was going to actually seem like I was sleeping. With my eyelids quivering, squeezed so tight that the muscles of my face were starting to ache, I started counting to myself.
I counted to fifteen and rolled over, trying to keep up the ruse. Again and again, over and over, I counted. To a different number each time to make it more believable, seventeen this time, twenty-one the next; as randomly as my young mind could be, I counted. It seemed to soothe me, the numbers ticked away seconds and I had almost convinced myself that it had all been a dream. After endless minutes, I could take it no longer. I had to look. I opened my eyes just enough to see.
There she was, only now she was closer; halfway between the doorway and my bed. I hadn’t heard the slightest peep. No whisper of slippers or stocking feet; I hadn’t heard her move at all. She was in the same position as before with her hands held in front of her, but now I could see the veins on the back of her hand, I could see the smoothness of her face. She was still looking at me, but now that she was close, I could see that her eye sockets were dark. Every inch of her was as white as freshly fallen snow, but where her eyes should have been, there was nothing. I could see the night that filled the rest of the room in those eyes, and my heart stopped.
My eyes smashed shut like two cars colliding. My breath came in quick, desperate bursts. It took all I had to not grab my blanket and pull it over my head; that would blow my cover. I was desperate for this thing to think I was still sleeping; I needed her not to know I had seen her at all. I went back to my rollover game, clinging to the only thing I could think of that would get me out of this.
I counted, “one…two…three…” Don’t look, don’t look, don’t look!, “Fifteen…sixteen…seventeen…” Don’t look, don’t look, don’t look! “Twenty-seven…, twenty-eight…, twenty-nine.” Roll, start again. Don’t look, don’t look, don’t look!
But I couldn’t help it; eventually I had to.
I opened my eyes again, millimeters a second, begging them not to see her there, but she was. Standing motionless, just on the other side of my footboard, staring down at me. Her head was turned slightly, like she was studying me, curious. Her hands were no longer clasped together, one of them rested on top of the footboard, inches from my feet. I wanted to scream, to run, but I was frozen in place, my voice trapped behind the fear that was gripping me. I turned toward the wall and sealed my eyes closed again. The counting now abandoned, I lay there motionless, waiting for an icy hand to grab my ankle. I didn’t open my eyes again that night; I couldn’t.
Eventually, I fell back to sleep; maybe my mind finally just shut itself off. Maybe as the minutes wore on my need for sleep became too great to deny, no matter the circumstance. Whatever the cause, sleep took me and I awoke in the morning with a start. My eyes popped open and I remembering the vision from the night before, I had to be certain she was gone. I scanned my whole room before I could throw the covers back, but I was still hesitant to get out of bed. I might have laid there all day if my father hadn’t called me from the living room a short time later.
As they day moved on, I tried to let the images from the night before slip from my mind, but as I played with my brother, I would suddenly remember the figure standing at the end of my bed and chills would race down the back of my spine. I would walk into my bedroom by myself to get a toy and suddenly feel a tingle on the back of my neck knowing she would be there when I turned around. Sleep didn’t come easy for me for weeks afterward, but I never saw her again. She was an ever-present memory in my childhood—those dark eyes boring into my mind—anytime I would wake in the middle of the night. I will never forget the frantic counting as I lay there or the weight of the silence as I waited for her to snatch me from under my blankets and punish me for seeing her.