1 Tokens of Sleep
The noises began near the end of October.
The first time I heard them I was half-asleep. Just the wind, I thought muzzily. Maybe squirrels in the attic or branches rubbing against the eaves. The sounds of another autumn announcing its arrival with intention. No cause for alarm and nothing I could do about them in the middle of the night. Reluctant to leave the warm cocoon of my comforter, I groaned, rolled over, and sank back to sleep.
The next night, when those sounds shook me from a sound slumber, I told myself they were just a nightmare, end sounds from another unpleasant dream. I'd had more than my share of them lately, unspeakable terrors that left me sweat-slick and gasping, the roar of flames still in my ears and the taste of ash thick and sour in my throat. How much longer would the jagged teeth of night terrors rip at my peace? How many nightmares did one person deserve?
Light, I needed light. I groped beneath the covers, until my trembling fingers found a small, metal cylinder. I'd been taking a flashlight to bed with me all summer. A flashlight was the only thing that worked, the only light that could chase away the fear and soothe me back to sleep. A nightlight cast too many lurid shadows and the lamp on the nightstand always threw the room into too-stark relief.
I curled beside the flashlight, fingertips tracing the path of its beam. Comforted by its small glow, my thoughts wandered down more pleasant paths, until my eyelids grew heavy.
I drifted away and dreamed of trees, their slender trunks luminous as moonlight, their bark the same color as the glow beneath my sheets. A forest of secrets and strange treasures, though one that held no fear for me, its familiarity a welcome sight after the dark imagery that had plagued too many, more recent dreams. Long grass tickled my bare legs and branches, nodding in the soft breeze, seemed to beckon, 'Come in, come inside...'
What would I find this time? Giddy as a child, I plunged into the birch ring.
I awoke with twigs in my hair and muddy leaves in the sheets. Whenever I dreamed of the forest, something always came back with me. Leaves and twigs, sometimes flowers. Trifles, really. Nothing compared to—
'No, don't think about it. It's gone, just like he's gone, and there's nothing you can do.'
The nightmares stopped, but the sounds continued every night that week. I knew I couldn't be dreaming, because they were always the same: tap-tap-tap on the bedroom window, then, nothing. A nothing that was not an absolute silence but a charged emptiness, an expectant stillness teeming with untold terrors.
Tap-tap-tap and I'd bolt up, clawing at my covers and swallowing a scream. Tearful and trembling, flashlight in hand, I'd sit in bed and stare at the ceiling— not the window, never the window— until dawn bleared through the curtains and my arms ached from hugging my knees.
I cancelled my classes. Couldn't concentrate. Couldn't eat. The memory of those sounds lingered long into the next day, clinging to me like a second shadow, a darkness even the brightest daylight could not dispel, and one that always forced my thoughts back to the accident. The fire that took Stephan from me. Was his spirit lost? Was he angry? Instead of him that night, should it have been me?
I needed answers, but knew only one person in town who might be able to provide them. Luckily, she was also the same person who knew about my ability to manifest souvenirs from sleep and probably the only person in the world who wouldn't think I was a complete lunatic: my best friend, Aimee. A part-time professor and full-time medium, Aimee owned Ananke's Attic, Middleton's only occult boutique. We met in her shop the next day.
"You should've come sooner, and you're not crazy, Devon." Aimee shooed a fly away from her mug. She'd propped the door open to take advantage of the beautiful Saturday afternoon, as well as any foot traffic on Harker Street. So far, the fly and an Indian summer breeze were her only customers. "People living with loss sometimes experience these things."
"Stephan isn't haunting you, sweetie."
"No..." Aimee settled on the stool beside me and stared through the window at the falling leaves.
I tried to join her, but found the quality of sunlight too harsh, as if the motes drifting down inside its slanted columns were miniature whetstones and left the edges of everything that they touched razor-sharp. The flutter of reds and golds from a nearby maple fell like shadows across my heart. "What should I do?"
"Give it back."
I nearly dropped my coffee. "Back?"
"Because you didn't, did you?" Her green eyes bored into mine.
"No, because, I thought— oh, come on, it was just a coin, Aimee!"
And an old one, at that. A small silver disc with uneven notches all around it and strange markings on one side. Crude symbols, etched upon its face that grew smaller as they spiraled down to the square hole at its center. I didn't know how I'd made it real or why it seemed to frighten Aimee as much as it did.
"An object that you manifested from a dream, only it wasn't a dream. You went somewhere, took something that didn't belong to you, and now..." She tapped the counter with her long black nails. "I was afraid something like this might happen. How many knocks have there been, Devon? In total, I mean."
"A week's worth."
"Always in threes?" When I nodded, she said, "Your birthday's coming soon."
"What does my turning twenty-seven have to do with anything? Remember when we used to think that was positively ancient?" I nudged her.
Instead of chuckling, Aimee pulled her thick purple sweater coat tightly about her. As her gaze shifted back to the window, she began to rock slightly on her stool. "Knock, knock, knock, comes a stranger in the night, to steal your breath and snuff your light. Three times three and times three more, and when the knocking stops, you'll be no—"
"Stop trying to frighten me!"
"You should be frightened."
"I came to you for help, not to hear some creepy Halloween rhyme!" The stool screamed against the wooden floor. I started away, only to feel Aimee's cold fingers clamp around my wrist.
"I'm serious, Devon. This is serious," she pleaded, as she pulled me back to my seat.
"Then help me."
"Only if you'll promise to listen, this time," she said, putting particular emphasis on the last two words. "If you want this to stop, you have to do exactly what I tell you."
"Okay, I'm listening." I slid back on the stool, though its padded cushion felt a rock. The sun slipped behind a cloud, plunging the room into shadow. "What do I need to do?"
"Where's the coin now?"
"I made it into a pendant."
"Please tell me you haven't been wearing it, all this time!" Aimee groaned.
"It's cursed, isn't it?" I took a sip of my coffee, which had gone cold.
"All the more reason to give it back," she said.
"You keep saying that, but even if I wanted to, I couldn't. That was the pendant I told you about, the one I gave Stephan for our anniversary, only I told him that I found the coin in the woods behind our house." I could still see the way his eyes lit up when he saw that coin. He'd worn it every day. For luck, he said. "He was wearing it the night we... the accident." I buried my face in my hands. "I don't have it anymore! I'm screwed!"
"No... shh... it's okay, it's okay." Aimee hugged me. "There still might be a way for you to return it."
I looked up, but her face blurred through my tears. "How?"
"Maybe you can return it in a memory. No, Devon, hear me out. I think, if you go back to the place you found it— even if you imagine yourself there with coin in hand— as long as your intentions are true, I think its owner will meet you halfway."
"But a memory isn't... the thing... itself," I said between hiccoughs.
"As above, so below: fair exchange. Fair enough, anyway. What other choice do you have?" She reached for her mug, but I noticed the color had drained from her cheeks and her hands were shaking.
"Do you think it will be enough?"
A display of metal chimes inside the door jangled. Startled, I looked up but saw only a flurry of dead leaves in the doorway, an autumn dervish, driven by the wind.
Aimee shivered. "There's your answer."
I left her shop more shaken than convinced.
Once home, I stoked the fireplace, sat cross-legged on the rug, and stared into the flames, but the cheery colors and the snap-crackle of their dancing flames could not chase away the dread cold that had clamped around me like a vise. If Aimee was right, I had just two days to return a coin that I found in a dream— two days! The more I replayed the original dream in my head, the more the strange coin became intertwined with Stephan, my memories of him. Surrendering it would be like losing him all over again.
When the moon rose, my strange caller came knocking again. This time, I ran across the bedroom and flung open the window. On the lawn, a solitary figure stood amidst the shadows beneath the trees. I knew from the long coat and his stance that it had to be Stephan, but when I called out, an icy gust whisked him away in a whorl of fallen leaves.
I knew then what I had to do. The heart's reach is as long as its cry is loud and when its ache runs so deep, no measure to reclaim what has been lost seems too extreme.
'Leave it and don't bring anything else back, promise me!'
Aimee's parting words reverberated through me.
'Knock, knock, knock: it's not a dream!'
She'd been so frightened by the coin, by my gift— because it was a gift, I now realized, a mystical ability that belonged to me.
'Listen to me, Devon... do exactly as I say.'
Why should I listen to someone so intent to prevent me from developing and strengthening a singular power? My power. Mine, not hers! If I could dream a coin into existence, why shouldn't I use that same power to reclaim what death had stolen from me?
It seemed so simple.
On the eve of my birthday, emboldened by this new plan, I lit candles for luck and willed myself to dream of the place where I'd found the silver coin. Colors shifted and darkened behind my eyelids, but soon, I felt the sting of frostbitten grass beneath my feet.
When I opened my eyes, I found myself in the same strange forest, amidst the same circle of ghostly birch trees. Overhead, bare and white as bones, branches interlaced, forming curious symbols and portents of mystery. Papery bark whispered, as they swayed in the wind.
I turned to the sound. "Is that you, Stephan?"
Eyes veiled behind a hank of hair as dark as the starless sky, a figure emerged from behind the trees and crept to the edge of their phantom ring.
"Stephan! I've missed you so much!"
In a voice that sank like a stone in my chest, he said, "You shouldn't have come. You don't belong here, Devon."
"Neither do you." I ran to him, pulled him inside the circle, and held him fast. "I'm not leaving without you!" The wind rose with a scream, lightning flashed, the ground shuddered open, and we fled the dreamlands on a swell of thunder.
When I opened my eyes, Stephan was lying next to me. His face looked softer, more youthful than I'd remembered, though perhaps it was just a trick played by the row of candles that still flickered beside our bed. Our bed! My heart leapt at the thought, but when I rolled over and tried to kiss him, he turned away. "What's wrong? I'd thought you'd be...happy," I pleaded, stricken by the rebuff. Could death have changed him so much?
"You've no idea what you've done, Devon," he said, hollow-voiced.
"Death took you, I brought you back: fair trade." The moment I said it, my arms broke out in gooseflesh. "Don't you want us to be together again?"
He heaved himself out of bed and went to the full-length mirror by the bedroom door. "Come here," he said. When I joined him, Stephan positioned me in front of the mirror and stood behind me with his hands on my shoulders. "Tell me what you see."
I stared into the shadowy glass, admiring his strong chin and the thick black hair that cascaded over his shoulders. "I see the only man I've ever loved." The love I stole from death. Our eyes met. Mine were wide and blue, but his possessed a strange glint.
"Look again," he whispered.
As I gazed once more into the long rectangle of silvered glass, my wavy hair flattened and its once auburn waves began to turn white. "I don't understand! Is this some kind of trick?" I stammered, barely recognizing the voice in my ears, which had turned thin, reedy. "What's happening?"
When I glanced back at his reflection, I could barely stifle a scream. Standing beside me was a youth who looked eighteen instead of thirty-three. No longer towering over me, Stephan had somehow shrunk to my height. His hair, curling beneath his ears, was much shorter than it had been only a moment before, and his face was rounder, softer. Wheeling on him, I screamed, "Why, Stephan? Why are you doing this to me?"
"Not me." One hand, disappearing in his pocket, returned holding a familiar object. Pressing the silver charm into my wrinkled palm, he said, "Death's due. Oh, Devon!"
The window shattered and the candles guttered. Horrified, I watched Stephan become a toddler, a babe, and then, a glowing seed. While he receded, I rushed forward: my hair whitening, skin wizening, cracking, and collapsing.
As my last breath escaped, something silvery, insubstantial as smoke, arising from its bony cage, was snatched by an unseen hand and spirited into silence.
Here, suspended in night's cauldron, I am still waiting, waiting, waiting...