The first time I heard them; I was half-asleep. Just the wind, I thought. Maybe squirrels in the attic or branches rubbing against the eaves. Reluctant to quit my comforter’s warm cocoon, 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 an unpleasant dream. I’d had enough of those to last two lifetimes, unspeakable terrors that left me sweat-slick and gasping, the roar of flames 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?
Light, I needed more light. Fingers trembling, I groped beneath the covers for a small, metal cylinder. I’d been taking a flashlight to bed all summer, despite the candle I always kept burning in my bedroom window. The flicker of a single flame was never enough to keep the shadows at bay. A nightlight cast too many lurid shadows, and the lamp on the nightstand threw the room into too-stark relief.
I traced the edge of its beam with my fingertips. Comforted by its warm glow, I let my thoughts wander down more pleasant paths until my eyelids grew heavy. Drifting away, I dreamed of trees with slender trunks as luminous as moonlight. A forest of secrets and strange treasures, though this forest held no fear for me. Its familiarity, a welcome sight after the dark imagery that plagued my other dreams. Long grass tickled my bare legs. Branches, nodding in the soft breeze, seemed to beckon me to 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, he’s gone, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
The sounds continued every night that week, and 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, I’d sit in bed and stare at the ceiling—not the window, never the window—until dawn peeped 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 brightest daylight could not dispel. Sounds 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?
Only one person in town might have the answers I needed. One who also knew about my ability to manifest souvenirs from sleep. One 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.” Aimee shooed a fly away from her mug. She’d propped the door open to take advantage of the beautiful Saturday afternoon, and any foot traffic on Harker Street. “People living with loss sometimes experience these things.”
“Stephan isn’t haunting you, sweetie.”
“No…” She stared through the window at the falling leaves.
“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.
“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 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 you manifested from a dream, only it wasn’t a dream, and it didn’t belong to you.” She tapped the counter with her long black nails. “How many knocks have there been?”
“A week’s worth.”
“Always in threes?” When I nodded, she said, “Your birthday’s coming soon.”
“What does turning twenty-seven have to do with anything?”
Aimee pulled her purple sweater coat about her. “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—”
“I came to you for help, not to hear some creepy Halloween rhyme!” I started away, only to feel Aimee’s icy fingers clamp around my wrist.
“I’m serious, Devon. This is serious,” she pleaded, pulling 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, do exactly what I tell you.”
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.”
Aimee groaned. “Please tell me you haven’t been wearing it all this time!”
“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.
“Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t. I gave it to Stephan for our anniversary, except that I told him I found the coin in the woods.” He’d worn it every day. For luck, he said. “He was wearing it the night he…” I buried my face in my hands. “Oh, God, I’m so screwed!”
“No, it’s okay.” Aimee hugged me. “There still might be a way for you to return it.”
“How can I return something I don’t have?”
“In a memory, perhaps? No, Devon, hear me out. If you go back to the place where you found it, and imagine the coin in your hand, as long as your intentions are true, I think its owner might 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.
“Will it 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. 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 and 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 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 it has lost seems too extreme.
Leave it and bring nothing else back with you this time, 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 solely to me.
Listen to me, Devon…do exactly as I say.
Why should I? This was my power. Mine—not hers! If I could dream a coin into existence, why couldn’t I use the same power to reclaim what death had stolen from me?
It seemed so simple…
On the eve of my birthday, I lit candles for luck, then willed myself to dream of the place where I’d found the silver coin. Colors shifted and darkened behind my eyelids for what felt like ages, but then, 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. Their papery bark whispered as they swayed in the wind.
Behind me, twigs snapped. 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!”
“You don’t belong here, Devon,” he said, in a voice that sank like a stone in my chest.
“Neither do you.” I pulled him inside the circle and held him fast. The wind screamed, lightning flashed, and the ground shuddered open beneath us. Falling fast as fading stars, 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 of candlelight. A row of votive lights still flickered beside the bed. Our bed! My heart bounded at the thought, but when I tried to kiss him, he turned away. “What’s wrong? I’d thought you’d be happy,” I pleaded, stricken by the rebuff. “Don’t you want us to be together again?”
“You’ve no idea what you’ve done.” He heaved himself out of bed and went to the full-length mirror by the bedroom door. “Come here.”
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,” he said.
I stared into the shadowy glass, admiring his firm 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.
As I gazed into the long rectangle of silvered glass, my wavy hair flattened, plastering thin strands to my forehead. Wiry grey strands, where fiery auburn used to be. “I don’t understand! Is this some kind of trick?” The voice in my ears sounded thin, reedy. “What’s happening?”
Glancing back at his reflection, I now stood before 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. “Why, Stephan? Why are you doing this to me?”
“Not me, this.” 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 shriveling, cracking, and collapsing.
As my last breath rose like smoke from its bony cage, an unseen hand snatched up the last wisp of that silvery essence, and spirited it into silence.
Here, suspended in night’s cauldron, I am still waiting, waiting, waiting…
Nurse, night owl, lover of all things that go "bump" in the night, and a 2018 Wattys short-listed author, Antoinette McCormick's novel and novella-length works include 'The Idoron,' 'Ghost Music: The Haunting of Sky Hollow,' and 'Dead of Winter.' Her short stories and poems have appeared in many journals, including Halfway Down the Stairs, Mad Scientist Journal, Page & Spine Magazine, and the Vermont Literary Review. She lives in Vermont.