A noise woke me. A strange noise. Not a rustling in another room, or the creak of a bathroom door. Not the clink of coffee cups in the kitchen down the hall from where I slept alone. It was something else entirely.
I listened for it, blinking sleep from my eyes. But there was only silence, not even the hum of insects in the overgrown azalea bushes outside my window. I tried to see, but the room’s darkness refused to give away any secrets.
Maybe I had dreamed it. I closed my eyes and eased back into the pillow, allowing myself to breathe. Then I heard it again. A growl—beginning softly, growing louder, and abruptly ending. It was in the room with me. I froze, gripping the sheets as if they were a wall between me and whatever lurked in the dark. A few seconds later, it began again, louder, louder, then dropping into silence, leaving my heart throbbing in my ears.
I glanced toward the windows, but I couldn’t even see the drapes that hung heavy to the floor. I pictured the marsh beyond, the overgrowth of cattails choking the banks, the oak trees with Spanish moss twisting in the night breeze, bending toward the murky waters. Every time I came to visit my grandparents, I would peek out from those drapes, looking through the hedge of azaleas for a swamp monster to creep its way up the slope toward the yard, melting into the shadows of the house, hiding in the closet of my room.
In the dark, my senses sharpened. The growling grew louder, the sheets fell heavy against my skin, the stale smell of my grandparents’ house filled the air. It wasn’t a musty smell like in most old houses with mold beneath the floor and layers of dust on frames of pictures and crusted into curtain folds.
This was different, as if years of life had seeped into the walls, mixing and mingling into a scent that could only be found here, in this house where my mother grew up—chicken boiling for giblet gravy, Christmas candles burning in June, reams of starched fabric unrolled for homemade dresses, black coffee with too much sugar, butter beans cooking in fatback for hours, shoe polish on combat boots, Lucky Strikes crushed in pewter ashtrays, Chanel No. 5 splattered on a vanity, whiskey spilt on broken glass, bleach in bathrooms never clean enough, antiseptic on cuts and welts, sap from switches picked for punishment, tears, yelling, hushed voices, slamming doors, silence.
I squinted, trying to make out the dresser I knew was against the far wall, the other twin bed with its perfectly tucked sheets near the door, the desk by the closet where an old typewriter sat unused year after year. With every visit, I noticed that nothing on the desk ever changed. Not the typewriter or the cup of pens and pencils. Not the calendar, forever fixed on November. Not the paper still in the typewriter, rolled to the top as if a letter were about to be written but never started. It was always the same, untouched, forgotten except when dusted, as if it were in a museum.
I had to see what was in the room, there in the dark. It was torture not knowing. My fingers hurt from gripping the sheets, and the sweat on my warm skin had turned cold, making me shiver. I braced myself, and when the growl was loudest, I reached for the lamp’s cord next to the bed and pulled. Light flooded the room. I blinked, my eyes adjusting. I saw nothing. No lurking monster at the foot of my bed. No claws about to reach for my throat.
The growl sounded again, this time not so loud, as if the light muffled it. Then I saw where it was coming from. There, across the room, on the bed near the door—a body beneath the covers. It hadn’t been there when I went to sleep. I was always alone in this room. The growling coughed into silence as the body twisted around and I found myself looking at my grandfather’s wrinkled and angry face. His eyes narrowed as he glared at me.
“What do you think you’re doing?” he demanded like a drill sergeant waking soldiers at O-dark-thirty. Not waiting for an answer, he jerked the blanket over his shoulder. “Turn off that damn light.”
I pulled the cord and the light snapped off, plunging the room back into darkness. I lay there, frozen again as if the imaginary beast were still in the room. Why was my grandfather here?
He had his own room down the hall, with a double-mattress bed, a fan in the corner, framed medals hanging on the wall, military magazines piled on a desk, and a bedside table covered in pill bottles and half-empty jars of Vick’s ointment. He always slept in that bedroom, always alone, having left the room he shared with my grandmother not long after he returned from World War II. My grandmother once mentioned he had nightmares. They never slept together again. I had never even seen them touch.
I closed my eyes, and to the sound of my grandfather’s steady breathing, I tried to find sleep again. It eluded me. It hid behind oak trees cloaked with vines and ran along the shores of dark, froth-covered marsh waters. It sneaked along the edges of my grandparents’ yard, darting among night shadows cast by the summer’s full moon. It slipped between giant tomato plants my grandfather tended with more care than he ever showed to family. I followed, almost catching it several times, but it slipped from my grasp as the grumble of my grandfather’s snores chased it away.
Hours later, as the first touch of morning light seeped through the blinds and onto my blanket, the snores stilled. My grandfather stirred, and in the shadows of dawn, he slipped from the room as silence stepped in behind him. Slowly, I relaxed, my cheek pressed into the downy pillow. I let myself breathe, comforted by the soft shapes of the quiet room. The thick drapes kept most of the room dark, but from between the corner folds light streamed onto the desk, casting a glow on the old typewriter with its empty page.
I looked at it for a moment, then closed my eyes to sleep. Why had my grandfather slept in this room? The answer never came, and the question faded into dreams of twisted paths running through a smoke-filled forest, distant voices skipping over marsh waters, Spanish moss hanging low from gnarled branches, and someone ahead of me, always just beyond my reach.