I remember when I used to play with dolls. I had just turned seven, and my life had still been a sheltered cocoon that shielded me from all evil. It was a happy time. The world was an orchestra filled with every sort of instrument I could imagine, and I was determined to learn to play them all. One thing I remember so vividly are the parties. The lavish events were held in my Uncle’s mansion, and they often made me wonder about the true nature of having fun. I was never allowed to go, of course, but my mother always came back with the faint scent of alcohol and a dozen caramel candies for me. Those were the days of quiet excitement; I never had to tell my mother how I felt. Our house was always filled with a tinge of energy; unspoken, animated elation carried itself through the thick walls and into every room, creating a sense of light and wonder that was unparalleled. And it stayed that way for a few years, before I realized that evil did exist, and it was indeed closer than I believed.
The first time I visited my Uncle’s mansion was when I was eleven years old. I had heard of my father’s brother, but I had never seen him. When my mother dropped me off in front of the red brick road that ascended to black steel gates suffocated with slithering vines, I envied the fact that I didn’t live there.
From a young age, I was always fascinated with extravagant things and excessive spending. It was most likely due to the way I was raised. My mother had married my father when she was only seventeen, and it was considered to be the most advantageous match for her. Father was the grandson of a duke, and his inheritance made him the most eligible bachelor in our small town. Ever since I was a baby, I’ve had everything I’ve ever wanted and more. But buried behind the mask of a wealthy and happy family, my parents’ marriage was hanging on by a thread. Mother had told me that I was to sleep at my Uncle’s on the weekends; I suspected that she didn’t want me around to witness the fights between her and Father.
The only oddity was, that whenever I slept at my Uncle’s mansion, I always had nightmares. Images of wild animals scratching and clawing at my skin would paralyze me with fear, and I would awake in a sheen of sweat, screams bubbling in my throat, heaving. But stranger than the dreams were the reddening claw marks I would find along my neck and arms. The trauma of discovering that my nightmares had been brought to reality would make me dread those cursed nights, but my curiosity would only fuel my decision to keep coming back.
Mother used to scold Father for letting me stay at his brother’s estate, but my father brushed it off with a wave of his cigar-holding hand.
“Will knows what he’s doing,” he’d say, puffing smoke clouds from red cigar butts that reminded me of fire breathing dragons, “and that’s all that’ll be said on the matter.”
If Mother wanted to intercede, she didn’t show it. I never realized that she was genuinely afraid of him until a year later.
I had continued to visit Uncle Will, and the nightmares never stopped. I tried everything I could to stop the marks from appearing on my skin. I stayed awake until the crack of dawn, but when I closed my eyes briefly, the frightening images torn through my head, jolting me awake; and when I looked at my arms, the marks were there; red and fresh and burning. I would even hear the snarls of the wild animals shake my eardrums, as if they were in my bed, and the cackling groans of sinister voices echoed in my skull in a way that made me want to pry them out. I wore long sleeves everyday, not wanting to worry my mother. One night, while I was getting into my bed, my Uncle came rushing in, grabbing my arm and pulling me towards the door. He hurriedly explained through gritted teeth that something had happened at home, and that we needed to get there as quickly as possible. My Uncle was a spritely man in his late forties, and I had never seen him look so grave as he did in that moment.
When we arrived at my house, police cars were littering the front drive. Men in uniform were speaking to my mother, who was handcuffed and trembling with every sound of the sirens. I ran from my Uncle’s car, pushing past moustached men in blue hats, reaching for Mother. She looked at me with frightened brown eyes and smiled. I’m sorry, her eyes said. My face was cold and wet as I stepped tentatively into the house. There was a sense of depleted urgency in the dark sitting room, and I stared at Father, slumped over in his reading chair, an ashy cigar buried in the folds of his dark green suit. I couldn’t take my eyes off his blood drenched shirt, and I sat in front of him until his body was covered with a white sheet and two officers had to drag me from the cold marble floor.
The nightmares stopped for a few days; mostly because I wasn’t sleeping. As closest relative, my Uncle gained custody of me, a fact that seemed to anger me more than it did him. He never asked why I always wore long sleeves; he never asked if I needed anything or if I was all right. He assigned me a nanny even though I was twelve and had long ago learned to take care of myself. He never spared more than a few dollars for my necessities, instead wasting his money on the ostentatious parties that I was never allowed to go to. Once a pampered, affluent child, it took time to adjust to this common lifestyle. He locked me up on the third floor of his porcelain palace, and I never saw his face after the night my father was murdered. But at night, if I listened closely, I could hear his faint snores from the hall, and it reassured me.
A few months of living with Uncle Will made me realize that I missed my mother. For all I knew, she was still in jail, but my Uncle never spoke to me about it. He never spoke to me at all. Every morning I would be woken up by Nanny and walked down to breakfast. Per my Uncle’s orders, I was to be supervised at all times. But I had a secret. Every night, when Nanny turned out the lights and closed my door, I snuck out and watched the parties from the bannister in the hall. I could just imagine dressing up in diamonds and feathers, extending my hand as a greeting to all of the suitors who would covet my attention. I was madly envious of those who could dance the night away, and wondered if any of them had an inkling of the child who was held prisoner on the third floor.
When it was time to return to bed, I pulled my sleeves up to reveal the scars left by the nightmare marks, reminders of snarled growls and red hot pain flashing through my mind. Nanny knew better than to comment on them when I was bathed. The first time she did, I attacked her, screaming and thrashing until she had to call for the cook to restrain me. They were to be kept secret from my Uncle at all costs, I told her, and that was final. He would never know of the demons that haunted my dreams, I would make sure of it.
One night, when the winter winds blew through my window - my only way to see the outside world - I decided to investigate. I had been fed up with the medicines that coated my arms every night, and knew that it was time to put a stop to the nightmares. I had lived with my Uncle long enough to know the lay of the estate, even if I wasn’t allowed to see most of it.
There was a party in full swing downstairs, and the music wafted up through the floors and under the crack of my door, beckoning me with curling fingertips. I slipped on my cover up and tiptoed through the halls. Shadows seemed to hide behind every corner, sinking into the walls and sliding along the carpeted floors. It frightened me, but Curiosity pushed me along, whispering in my ear. You have to find out why Uncle doesn’t want us in these parts of the mansion. You must know. I decided that the voice was right, and wiggled the doorknob of the first brown door. Locked. Creeping along the hallway, I saw a glimmer of dim light peeking underneath a red door. A turn of the knob deduced that it was, indeed, unlocked. Slipping inside, I saw a single lamp sitting in the corner of the room. Even though there was a beacon of light, the room gave off a dark, eerie mood, making goosebumps crawl up and down my body.
I stepped out of where the light touches and advanced into the darkness. There was a figure in the corner of the room, and just thinking about what it could be made the hair stand up on my legs. It was cold, and my nightgown swung in the wind that seemed to be coming from the open window. I looked at the full moon that shone in the sky, and I wished that the figure would give me some answers. I stopped walking when I heard an ear-splitting growl that shook the whole house. The creature rose to its full height and I fell back onto the floor, clutching my arms that burned worse with every growl. I shut my eyes, and when I opened them back up, everything was black.
I blink rapidly. Moonlight radiates from the corner of a frostbitten window and a cold breeze filters through the vents. Blue gelidity wraps the pale walls like a stiff blanket. Lightning flashes, illuminating the room in washed out brilliance. I try to raise my arms, to get some indication of where I am, but they are strapped to the bed. My pulse screams in my ears. Frantic, I thrash out. Where the hell am I? Attendants rush in at the sound of my deranged wails. They hold me down until a man in a white coat saunters in the room, holding a clipboard and smiling faintly.
“Well, how is my favorite patient today? Did you have another nightmare? Remember what I told you: None of it is real.”
I try to read what it says on the whiteboard behind him through my erratic tears.
Patient #546. Bipolar Disorder and Night Terrors. No family on record.