To celebrate Halloween like old times, the three of them met, now with their wives, at the Saxon house on the Pennsylvania-Ohio border to watch a horror movie. They gathered into the living room by the fireplace, Paul and his wife Ashley, Luke and his wife Erica, while the host and hostess lit candles on the three windowsills and the room came slowly to life by fire. An orange and black rug lay on the floor at the center of the room, and there was a bowl of candy by the door. “I hope you guys don’t mind a few interruptions,” Elizabeth said. “We usually get a lot of trick-or-treaters here.” They occupied the couch, two recliner chairs, and a portion of the floor. Huddled beneath blankets – the wind off Lake Erie was howling against the front of the house – they regarded each other not only through time but by the candleflame that guttered their reflections in each window.
Everyone settled in. When reminiscing over warm beverages served in porcelain cups fell to silence, they agreed to start the movie. The Shining. It began by chanting Dies Irae, a familiar dreadful melody they had heard before. Paul and Luke shared a glance and smirked, a gesture of familiarity. Neither of their wives, who were considerably younger, had seen the movie before and were teased about it to the point of becoming uncomfortable. They kept close to their husbands from the chair and the floor, watched the room with large eyes and waited for something to happen.
Jeff Saxon, homeowner and host for the evening, lay against his wife Elizabeth on the couch, a large comforter bunched between them, and watched his friends more than the movie. He saw in them Halloweens of the past: the year they’d fled down the railroad tracks when the flames rose higher than the trees; or, with a newly printed driver’s permit, took his dad’s silver Miata up the mountain road to Devil’s Elbow, where supposedly virgins had been sacrificed to small-town devils, and parked in the middle of the road and called on the devils to induct them there. Midnight was the hour to antagonize the life that had been endowed to them, a reckless endeavor to experience death and live. An hour he never wanted to see again, now boding images of chronic illness or poor mental health than old devious enchantments, now for crouching at the toilet spilling his guts than Devil’s Elbow or running those train tracks in the dark.
It was, in fact, the manifestation of those Halloweens that had contributed to Jeff’s recent mental collapse. His brokenness, like his breathing exercises, weighing down the room, which he and his wife agreed to keep to themselves. Paul was attempting to explain this part of the movie to the girls, something about supernatural force as a color scheme. Luke laughing at him like old times. But their faces glowing fireside coaxed Jeff further toward the memories he was most afraid of, a word that had been implanted in his mind while he slept that in fact he had never heard before. He tried simultaneously to recall the word and to forget. To speak it now, like discovering the corpse so the ghost can finally rest.
“Remember this part, Jeffery?” Elizabeth squeezing his leg. The wives gasped. The husbands were satisfied.
“It still holds up,” Luke said.
Paul agreed. “I love the solitude. Think about it, you’re snowed in, you have no way out. Help is not on the way. No choice but to dig deep and face your fears.”
Luke watched from the floor with a sheepish smile. “Like the time we parked at the tracks after work. Remember that, Jeff? We were gonna sneak out to that old farm. And you found Paul hiding in his car.”
Erica choked on coffee and slapped at his head.
“I remember,” Jeff said without looking at them. He was suddenly angry with them.
“He was pretending to be asleep!” Luke nearly fell over at the delivery.
Paul chuckled, red-faced at the attention. “That place gave me the creeps,” he said.
“What were you all doing there?” Elizabeth asked them.
“I can’t remember,” Jeff said. He could feel his wife watching him from her periphery, patting his leg beneath the blanket the way you would soothe a frightened dog, gripping the leash whenever his eyes would wander. He bent his entire body to look at her: caught in the act of trying to reconcile two images of her husband that were in opposition.
There was a knock at the door. Liz released his leg in answer, skipped from the couch past the windows, beneath the decorations. They could see the front door from the living room and watched. She held the bowl of candy to her hip when she opened it. “Trick or treat.” A lone child held out his sack in routine. Recalling a purchase that had been made in an earlier era. The porch light still burned; a car he did not recognize idled in his driveway. Sealed with a word. The ambulatory spider moved on its string.
The truth was tonight’s gathering had been her idea. He knew Liz was attempting not so much to get to the root of his mental crisis than to ward it off for another season. “You should get the old gang together,” she’d said to him one morning, with the residue of some previous deliberation. He didn’t know what she was talking about. “Halloweens have been so boring the last couple years. Remember when we first met, you were close with those boys and you said it was your favorite night. Maybe seeing them would do you some good.”
He didn’t like how she referred to it as a mental crisis. Just as she didn’t like his current reading materials on the bedside stand, the self-help books and home remedies, the psychoanalysis. Isn’t it the redeemed who are allowed to bury the past, embrace a brighter future? They want to talk about the farm, why not mention the night it burned: twenty-five years of avoiding condensed into two minutes of remembering. At work of all places. He was wearing his lucky blue necktie, daydreaming, watching out his office window the urbanization of old rural areas, bulldozers poised, forests ready to fall, when suddenly he saw the smoke billowing from the mouths of horses and before he knew it he was being restrained by his coworkers, shouting into the crowded conference room the one word he still couldn’t remember, pinned down by many hands, forced into the back of an ambulance.
How many medications since that day? At first they had to be administered intravenously, now as a translucent bottle containing 60ml capsules of an unknown substance, that slowed his mind, erased memories, blurred identity into common routine. “This is for the best,” Elizabeth had agreed, sitting across from him in that sterile white room with all eyes on him like he was broken. “You’re not yourself. You’re not the person I married. These pills will make you better.”
As the scope of the movie opened into onrushing red, his thoughts like those of the hotel delved deeper, past old photographs on the walls, down vacant corridors of fragmented thought, and the lights began to flicker and his eyes grew unbearably heavy. It had been a long day preparing to see old friends, to keep his mental collapse from them, or questions he was too afraid to ask, and what momentum he had mustered rolled to a stop against his wife’s boney shoulder. He fell asleep to the long halls of patterned carpet, the opened door, and his friends breathing heavily pretending to be afraid.
During his seven-minute sleep Jeff had a vivid dream, what Sigmund Freud called Synchronal Dreaming (or Window Dream). Directly linked to the traumas of the vergessen (forgotten). This kind of dream occurs in real-time, that is to say, the time and space of the dream are the same as our current reality. Most dreams are not like this, of course: the dreamer can spend an indefinite amount of time in what only amounts to a few minutes of the present. Synchronal Dreaming, by contrast, runs parallel to our time and space. Dr. Freud called these Window Dreams because they tend to occur for those who are searching for something, who look through the metaphorical window to find it. Initiated by the subconscious, it is a process attempting to fill the void left by the vergessen with something just as substantial, an emotional purchase, such as physical horrors devised of your forgotten traumas.
All the candles have burned out.
Jeff sits up into a living room that has become void. The sharp string crescendo having woken him falls to silence, replaced with low humming of the television whose screen glows in distorted faces and static. The blanket he and his wife shared lies folded on the floor. The chairs too are occupied only by the sense of somebody, the angle of recline that would denote a person’s weight, the sound of him breathing, shifting nervously, but no one is there. The porcelain cups on the table and the floor, some contain coffee. He stands from the couch, turns to the wall clock for reference – it’s not even midnight. One of the chairs rocks slightly forward. In contemplating his abandonment, this subtle movement of the chair keeps him from calling out their names. The cushions on the couch seem to depress. He hears someone whispering behind him.
From where he stands, he can see movement through the front windows. At first mistaking it for his reflection (which he cannot see, nor the reflections of his friends) he comes to where the candles have burned out and looks at the movement in the street, trick-or-treaters perhaps. He holds the curtain to steady himself. Paul and Luke are standing in the street. Both turned to face him. On the other side the houses jut and withdraw, the glimmer of Lake Erie swells between a scalloped skyline. Trashcans having blown over litter the yards with garbage, the porch lights all extinguish at once. Unyielding winds off the lake batter the window where he stands.
His friends wave for him to come outside.
“Why are you out there?” Jeff asks.
Everyone will leave you here.
Luke points at something further beyond the houses, in the direction of the lake. He feels the low rumble of the locomotive in his hand that clutches the curtain, in the very walls and windows of his house, though there is no railroad track close enough to facilitate the nearness of these reverberations. The large clock issues true seconds from the wall. There is something rising between the houses, a massive purge. He thinks he knows it, but only by subsequent minutes that allow the thing to grow can he confirm it, the blob that expands black on black to render the sky indistinguishable. When it comes down again the stars struggle to fill the void and a great crashing shakes the town to violence. All three windowpanes rattle in unison, the porcelain cups spill their liquid to the floor. He knows her by the word, the enormity of her retching, that has by design left the lake and beached itself on the shore.
Jeff motions frantically for Paul and Luke to come inside but they’re already walking down the street for a better view. A few miles intervene, the entire north face of the town, yet clearly from the other side they can it see it, acidic amalgam made up of the bodies that had offered no deference to it, bodies of men newly risen from the wreckage of ships, of splintered attempts to harness it; men who were once strong now rendered no differently than the smaller bodies of children who accompany them, from fishing accidents, bad storms, or having fallen through the ice. Jeff can see it more clearly now: in union they form the arm, wide, unerring, in the slow process of reaching. One by one the houses will fall. Everything that stands between it and him.
Jeff calls for his friends to no avail, and so chooses to save them by invoking the name of the thing, saying it aloud not in worship but to warn of its coming. His friends halt dead in the street. For a few seconds the synchronicity breaks and they’re running the tracks again, stamping like hooves, spitting out smoke, eyes dripped red from having looked into the firelight. Then the glass breaks and there’s screaming in the room.
Medication has run out.
Jeff woke from the floor. The old woman in the movie was cackling but not anymore. Orbiting faces of Elizabeth, Luke and Paul, and the girls behind them, as if he were seated in that sterile white room under their rigorous examination and not lying here bent beneath the window.
“He’s awake,” Paul announced, releasing his grip on the pulse.
“That was crazy,” Luke said to him. “You okay?”
The rest were speechless.
“I think I fell asleep,” Jeff said.
Questions lingered in the living room as Elizabeth took Jeff by the arm and pulled him upstairs. She led him into the bathroom, turned on the bright light above the sink and locked the door. Sitting on the toilet he saw the blood. He wiped his brow and it slicked over the backs of his hands. Hot water running, she washed his face in coarse strokes. “Did you forget your pill last night?” she asked while scrubbing.
“I think I was dreaming,” Jeff said.
He saw vague images like blurred faces on the living room chairs. She told him it wouldn’t stop, referring to the blood from the crooked gash along his hairline. He washed his stained hands in the hot water in the sink.
“Will you tell me why this is happening?” she asked.
After the bleeding slowed, she peeled and taped a bandage across his forehead, on the edge of his frayed hair feeling sticky and loose. He used his hand to hold it in place.
“I think we better get back to them,” he said, motioning downstairs.
“We’re not leaving this room till you tell me what’s going on. I’m so embarrassed, Jeffery, I don’t think I can face them. Do you even know what you’re doing anymore?”
He had no answer.
They left the bathroom and stood at the top of the stairs. His guests were quietly discussing him.
“You were laughing but I was freaked out.”
“I thought he was joking.”
“The worst thing was I could see his eyes in the window…wide open.”
Jeff and Elizabeth came downstairs together. The television had been turned off, replaced by the glow of a tableside lamp. In what had become a silent cove the intermittent wind rang warnings like a pack of wolves.
“Sorry, everyone,” Jeff said. “Sorry about the movie. We can finish it after we get this mess cleaned up.”
“No, that was more entertaining,” Luke said, standing to pat his friend on the shoulder. “Your Halloweens do not disappoint.”
Of the window nearest to the door, they took turns looking at the large crack in the upper pane, the spiderweb glistening in fine detail. Tiny pieces of glass glittered in the carpet. Spots of blood on his white socks.
“Jeffery’s been going through a stressful time at work lately, and…well, you can tell them. But I think we should talk about it. Here’s your opportunity to finally talk about it.”
“How weird was I?” Jeff asked.
Paul laughed nervously. “Like old times.”
“You stood up,” Luke said, “right when the movie got good, and just stood there. We thought you were kidding around. Then you staggered over to the window, said some weird stuff, and tried to put your head through it.”
He held the bandage onto his throbbing gash as the adhesive was already beginning to fail and searched the room for a way to isolate the three of them from the women, to become young again, without formality or courtesy, to truly understand what was controlling them or being controlled by them, to talk like friends again. But that could never happen; the wives pressed in around them. Their presence helped to define friendship as an uncomfortable afterthought, older faces nearing middle age, unable to read one another anymore, incapable of discussing the past or trying to correct the future.
“You said Huldah. Huldah’s her name. You kept saying it. Remember that?”
Jeff turned from the window to look at them.
Near the end of his dream they had laughed at it along the tracks. A name that meant nothing to him, yet somehow knowing it could be traced back to early American lore: she who threw herself into the lake to die, or of biblical portents: she who spoke the Lord’s promise of disaster. By her design he would say her name to acknowledge the pain of every one who had died needlessly, in water as by fire; every one, animal or human, he would somehow know and remember. Being redeemed didn’t matter. Their sufferings became his own. Even worse, she had tricked him into believing he was somehow the cause of it all.
As Freud says: you must follow your dreams to the finality of your own derangements.
Jeff absentmindedly smeared fresh blood across his face, the bandage having fallen away. He slicked back his hair with it and nervously paced the room. His anxious wife hovered in the doorway. One by one the fathers and sons were dragged into the lake. Jeff climbed the stairs and reentered the bathroom. He studied his battered face in the mirror. At that moment the rest of the glass fell from the downstairs window and the women screamed. He emptied the pill bottle into his mouth and swallowed hard and grim, with a bitter taste.
Jay Charles is a writer out of rural Pennsylvania. He won multiple awards for his undergraduate writing at Penn State University. Post-academic stories concern the speculative and the horror found in chilling regularity throughout history. His work has appeared in Kalliope, Liquid Imagination, and will be featured in the upcoming Medium Chill 7. Twitter: @JCharles000