Clara's eyes snapped open suddenly, and she lay there in the dark, not moving, listening intently. A few minutes ticked by, and she was starting to doze off again when she heard the sound: a shrill scream, followed immediately by a series of yapping barks, until they became a simultaneous chorus. Then they stopped, then started again; stopped, started.
This was the third night of this phenomena, and she was REALLY getting curious now. The first morning it happened, John had talked her out of stumbling out of bed and dialing 911. "That doesn't sound like a scream for help, it's just some kid playing with his dog," he reasoned. Still, there were too many questions. Why did it happen in the pre-dawn hours? Weren't there any parents around? Why didn't they stop the noise? She rolled over to look at John in the pre-dawn glow coming in from the window over their bed, and watched him for a while, breathing deeply as he slumbered. The sound was also coming in from that window, and seemed as if it were quite close. Not able to fall back to sleep, she got up, jumped in the shower and prepared for her day, with the strange song playing over and over in her head, starting up again during her 11:00 sales presentation, again during yoga, dinner, and finally, just before she drifted off to sleep the next night, with a plan of action forming itself in her half-asleep brain.
Saturday, day four, and Clara woke up with a start, far earlier than normal. She glanced at the clock and was relieved to see that it was only 4:30 AM. The weird sounds hadn’t started before 5:00 in the past few days, so that gave her plenty of time. She jumped out of bed and threw on a sweat suit over her pajamas, then donned heavy socks, boots and a hooded parka. She glanced down at John, whose sleeping face was illuminated by the moonlight filtering in the window over their bed, to make sure that he was sleeping soundly. She wasn’t going to answer any questions, and she didn’t feel like arguing with him about irrational behavior and butting out. Dammit, she had to know. Slipping down the stairs and out the front door, she closed it as quietly as she could, hoping that XiuXiu wouldn’t wake up and come sniffing over to investigate.
She had the house pinpointed. She knew that
was next door, and the strange sound HAD to be coming from the house next to his. She had never seen the husband, but the woman who lived there, pale and thin but muscular, with luminous brown eyes and long flowing black hair, was very mysterious. She had spoken to her on several occasions and was met with a mistrustful, almost hostile, glare. Bitch. Wayne
She slipped through the front yard and quietly unlatched the gate leading into the strange woman’s back yard. Crouching low, she came around the corner of the house and poised beneath the first window. Slowly, she raised herself up to eye level to peer in. The room was illuminated by the same moonlight that shone down on John, and she saw a huge 4-poster bed with a woman sleeping soundly on top of the covers. Her long black hair was spread out like a halo around her face. At her feet lay the large black German Shepherd dog that lived in that house. She was familiar with the dog, having seen the woman and dog out walking on many occasions while she was out with XiuXiu. Nothing unusual here. Crouching again, she slipped over to the next window, and slowly raised herself to eye level. The room was decorated for young children, with nightlights and colorful murals painted on the walls. There were identical cribs on either side of the room, and in each one, a small occupant slept. Now that’s weird, thought Clara, who had didn’t remember ever seeing children before. Why didn’t she ever see them outside? She found herself hypnotized by the scene, and gazing around the room, took in every detail. The murals depicted joyous childish scenes of duck ponds, carnivals, picnics and trees. Balloons danced across the ceiling. The room was so enchanting that Clara could feel herself slipping back into her days of innocence, until she could actually hear the tinkling sounds of children’s laughter.
She was so lost in daydreaming that it was a minute before she realized that one of the children had sat up. She could make out the form of one tiny had rubbing an eye, while another one gripped the crib rail. The child stood up in the crib and looked around. A tiny girl with long dark hair and pale skin. She could see her dark eyes scanning the room, and the child’s head raised slightly as if she were sniffing the air. Suddenly, the girl lifted her head and screamed. Loud and shrill. Clara jumped but continued to watch as the bundle in the second crib stirred, then bolted upright. She wasn’t sure what she was seeing, it couldn’t have been, but here it was. It could have been a little girl with long black hair, but she had sharp pointed ears sticking straight up out of the hair. Long muzzle with a dark shiny nose at the tip. Big, luminous brown eyes that were every bit as bright as the other child’s. As this child righted itself onto its furry legs, steadied by what appeared to be paw-feet, it let out a sharp bark. Scream, bark. Clara watched. At this point she wasn’t sure if she were really witnessing this or whether or not she were still home snug in her bed having a nightmare, so she decided to ride it out. Suddenly there was a light under the door, and it opened, and in swept the mysterious dark woman. Opening her robe, she grabbed one child with each arm and settled into an oversized rocker. One tiny pink mouth, and one black-lipped furry muzzle each attached themselves to a nipple. The big German Shepherd padded into the room, and sat before the woman and her offspring, panting lightly, watching them. The woman smiled at him with a look that Clara knew well. It was a look of intimacy. It was a look of love and adoration, one reserved for the person you love and share your life with. The dog affectionately licked the woman’s leg, and Clara snapped. As reality hit, Clara said out loud, “Holy Shit!” As the woman and big dog’s eyes darted to the window, she took off running, ran out the yard slamming the gate, and as fast as she could she ran across Wayne’s yard and her own, scrambling for her house key. She let herself in, locked the door and felt the tears roll down her cheeks. Running up the stairs, she shed her sweat suit and dropped it on the floor, then crawled back into bed and quietly sobbed herself back to sleep.
When Clara woke up again and looked at the clock, it was 9:30 AM. Late. She could smell coffee brewing and bacon frying. She lay there for a little while, staring at the ceiling fan twirling lazily over their bed. Her logical mind told her that she had experienced a whopper of a nightmare, and of course, that’s exactly what had happened. Of course. As she convinced herself of this, she gathered her confidence together and jumped out of bed. She went straight to the shower, brushed her teeth and felt refreshed and well-rested as she came out of the bathroom and headed over to make the bed. A black bundle at the foot of the bed caught her eye, and she bent down to pick it up – a sweat suit. A clanging alarm set off in her head, which she quickly extinguished. She had had a nightmare. She justified it to herself by saying that she had set the sweat suit out on the foot of her bed to wear today, and had kicked it off in the night. She slipped into it and padded downstairs to have breakfast with John. XiuXiu sidled over to her, tail wagging furiously, for her morning cuddling, and as John handed her a mug of steaming coffee she allowed herself to erase all traces of the nightmare from her head.
Weeks went by, and with the first signs of Spring came Clara’s urge to dig in the dirt. She cleaned the leaves out of her flowerbeds and started digging around and spreading fertilizer. The nightmare that had happened two months ago was but a tiny dot lurking in the back of her mind, that would pulse bigger from time to time for reasons unknown, but she always managed to quickly squish it back. One Saturday afternoon while she was filling the whiskey-barrel planter in the front with huge yellow marigolds, XiuXiu padded to the screen door and, looking out at her, gave a little whine of boredom. The sun was just starting to set, and Clara agreed with XiuXiu that they had just enough time for a leisurely evening stroll before dusk set in. “Okay girl,” she said, standing up and shedding her gardening gloves. She put all her stuff away and grabbed the leash, and yelled at John, who was on the back deck with a magazine and a beer, that they would be back in a while. They headed quickly down the hill with XiuXiu stopping at every tree and signpost, pulling her slightly. Clara was enjoying the light breeze and the feeling of her legs stretching out to meet the dog’s steps, when that tiny dot started pulsing and the images started coming back to her. Scenes of picnics, carnivals and tiny boats on lakes. In each scene, two tiny black dogs romped gleefully. One in a tiny yellow dress, one in a tiny blue dress. No. As Clara and XiuXiu approached the grassy area where they would linger before heading back up the hill, a movement at the corner of her eye caught her attention. She turned to her right, and saw her pale neighbor, black hair flowing around her wiry shoulders, sauntering along holding a red lead that held the big black German shepherd. Clara stopped to let XiuXiu sniff intently at something, and met the woman’s gaze straight on. A shudder passed through Clara as understanding passed quietly but materially between them. She met the dog’s eyes and felt the same sensation. They knew. She knew; at least a part of her knew. They also knew that THAT part of her would never be allowed the light of day. Clara’s sanity was at stake. She smiled at the woman and said pleasantly, “Hi.” The woman smiled and nodded. The dog appeared to smile. Clara and her neighbors parted, and went in their opposite directions. Bitch.