I’d gotten lost when I was five years old. Just up and wandered out of our unlocked house during the night. A mistake my parents still blamed themselves for. But our household was a full one, and it could have been any of my older siblings who’d left the door open and unlocked.
A mistake that still haunted our family, even to this day—ten years later.
There was a patch of wooded area within a mile of my house—not enough acreage to call it a forest but big enough to call it home to coyotes, the occasional bobcat, deer, and snakes. And it was where I’d ended up. I shuddered, thinking about a five-year-old drifting through the woods alone at night.
No wonder I still had nightmares.
Those few days were still a massive blank in my life. My lost time. I didn’t remember anything except for the frightening visions that assaulted me in the middle of the night.
Nighttime. The time when my bad dreams rose up, unwanted and unbidden, like stomach acid in the throat, to assault me. My heart would burn. My lungs would clog. And my mind would race. It happened often. Even when falling asleep with the light on. I’d tried sleep aids, playing white noise in the background, and deep breathing, falling asleep with earbuds in, listening to music, but nothing ever stopped the dark visions from creeping back in.
They were always the same: I was trapped in a dark, cramped space, terrified and blind. I couldn’t breathe. The air was too thin. There would be a flash of red, like fur, or hair, or blood … and then sharp, feral teeth snapping—a wild animal attacking me—eyes flashing with eyeshine, and I’d wake up panting and sweating, my own blankets smothering me, holding me hostage.
Tonight was no different.
I woke, sitting up ramrod straight in bed, with a cold hand pressed to my forehead.
“Shh, shh, shh, Zo. I’m here. It was only a bad dream. You’re okay.”
I blinked, my vision sliding in and out of focus, gulping in a lungful of air, willing myself to fully wake up out of the foggy haze, the last of the flashes passing across the backs of my eyelids. Dark eyes. Red hair. Sharp teeth.
“You were screaming again.”
My mother. She was sitting next to me.
You’re awake, Zo.
I could see her worried and strained face in the soft golden glow coming from my bedside table lamp. The creases around her eyes had deepened. She looked so much older and more fragile, and for a second, I felt bad that I’d woken her up. And then her smile returned, and she was sitting back, her facial features softening. It was one of the only times I’d ever let her comfort me—when I was half out of my mind from the lingering aftereffects of a vivid nightmare.
I was fifteen, too old for being coddled or tucked into bed, and yet I was still terrified of being left alone—to be sucked back into those chilling nightmares all over again. Taken. Drifting into the scary black void, feeling helpless and afraid.
“How bad was it this time?” my mom asked. Her voice was soft and low. “You need anything?”
I shook my head as I raked a hand through my hair, sweeping it off my damp forehead. “I’m okay. Thanks.”
I felt the full weight of her concerned gaze on me. “Do you want to talk about it? Was it the same nightmare?”
When she tried to slip her hand into mine, I pulled away, feigning an apologetic grimace. I just wanted to go to sleep. I wanted to forget about the debilitating fear and solitude. I didn’t want her to psychoanalyze me. I didn’t want anything from her. This was her fault.
I thought I saw a flash of hurt cross her face as I tried to explain. “It’s just late. I’m going to try and get some sleep. It’s nothing new … the same thing over and over again. A strange creature and a flash of red hair, like fur … I’ll be fine. Now that I’m awake, I know … it’s silly … it’s nothing.”
Those words sounded hollow in my own ears.
She didn’t quite look convinced, and I could tell she wasn’t going to drop it. After a second, she cast her eyes down and pressed her lips into two thin lines, seemingly thinking. “If you do ever want to talk about it … about that night—”
“I’m good.” I let out an angry breath of air. That was all we’d ever done: talk about it. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore.” And with that, I rolled over and left her sitting on the side of my bed.