We watch the baby’s chubby thighs kick and wiggle from the metal bucket on the kitchen counter next to the sink. Although we can’t see the baby’s face, we can hear the infant giggle and coo from inside the pail.
I glace over at K and T, who stand less than 10 feet behind me by the open side door, mute, probably eager to make a hasty exit.
I look back at the baby. His feet continue to dance against the air as I grasp him by his ankles. I think I carry him upside down as I walk over to K and T, but I can’t quite recall.
“See, I told you something is wrong with this house,” I say to them.
Like something isn’t also wrong with the baby. It wasn’t always human. It was a mere doll before it was placed in the bucket. Not a Baby Alive, which mimics a real-life newborn, but a plain old, motionless, plastic toy. Yet somehow it sprung to life, begging to be comforted and cuddled.
They don’t acknowledge him or my words.
We abandon the baby, and we move to the stoop as I reach back inside to retrieve the key sticking out the knob. My intent is to hurriedly lock the door, but I freeze as movement catches my eye. A slender vision dressed in a vertically-striped red and white ensemble is strutting down the dark runway of a hall top-model style, ankles criss-crossing with each stilettoed stomp.
Pat, tap, pat, tap, pat, tap…
I fish for the key although my hand only circles the outer edge of the knob. My fingers can’t stretch and contort enough to reach the key.
The apparition drifts closer. My hand continues to orbit the knob, still bypassing the gold key resting in the center.
I gasp as we make eye contact. The hair on my right arm rises like the magnetic shavings in the original Wooly Willy. I instinctively kick at this disembodied soul as it walks through my hand and leg and makes a sharp right into the wall at the end of the imaginary stage.
I awake in a startle. My heart pounds in a series of rapid kicks to my chest. I wonder if this is how people die in their sleep.
A chill travels down my right shoulder to my side as I replay and analyze the last scene, noting that a key doesn’t normally secure a door from the inside. If anything, all I needed to do was turn the little lock. Or better yet, just run.
However, all of my dreams have a few flawed details that seem normal while I’m asleep but in retrospect make no sense if I happen to remember the details later after I wake up. But then they only serve to detract from the real issue at hand: All of my dreams about my childhood home resided on the corner of night and terror.
It’s a quaint, three-bedroom house situated in the middle of five similarly-constructed homes. This one is mint green with black shutters, back then flanked by bushy red azaleas along the front and once draped by the tangled, pastel Morning Glory vines that a pre-teen like me didn’t know would uncontrollably frame the same side door I couldn’t lock.
I have fond memories of our home. There’s the third bedroom that was converted into a den and housed the Barbie accessories that would’ve cluttered the pseudo-runway hallway that held my three-level Barbie townhouse. S, C, or I would block the path for hours redecorating the townhouse floors with its contemporary furnishings or chauffeuring Crystal Barbie in her bubblegum pink Benz.
Then there were the large dinners that drew crowds on Sunday afternoons: chit’lins doused in black pepper and apple-cider vinegar; five-layer buttery cakes; the sweet and tart cranberry crumble topped with vanilla ice cream; wings that more resembled sautéed chicken than the intended deep fried but finger-licking nonetheless.
And I can’t forget my Saturday afternoon videos “streamed” to the old school color television through the antenna that was bolted to the side of the house. The station was actually a Baltimore one – four hours away from our town – so most weekends the picture was a kaleidoscopic, grainy mess. But I immediately recognized the songs I bounced to on our nearest R&B radio station. The same ones I recorded on cassettes and maintain in an overhead bin in my closet today.
But something happened after my mom died.
I’d open the door to our home only to be greeted by an onslaught of discomfort and heaviness attacking my arms, neck, and back as they tingled in electrical static along my journey from the kitchen to the bedrooms. My heart raced. I was on edge. But otherwise the house was quiet and lethargic. No bouts of nostalgia could resume the vibrant warmth it once held. Perhaps it recognized the dynamic had changed; someone had gone, and the former duo had become one. It seemed to subliminally tell me “You no longer belong here.”
I’d run in and right back out.
And when the house wasn’t occasionally stirring my subconscious with a hybrid of science fiction and horror, it was teasing me with visions of my mother, facilitating mother-daughter conversations with abrupt endings because she suddenly needed to go somewhere without me.
The house was reminding me she was never coming back.
And neither was I.
I sold the house after 16 years. I wasn’t guilted by the gift of an inheritance, asset, or a legacy. I didn’t even allow the idea that this was the last thing I have that my mother owned to infiltrate and consume my thoughts. My only concern was that I didn’t leave anything valuable or sentimental hidden in some crevice of the house.
For months I drove by the house without a glance in its direction. I didn’t want its mere sight to trigger anything.
Yet my recurring dreams never ended.
I often wonder if I made a mistake, a rash decision, even if nearly two decades have elapsed. Perhaps I misread the cues, and none of my visions were intents to invoke fear or warnings to stay away. Maybe in the midst of my panic and haste, unprocessed emotions refused any message or invitation my mom tried to send. What if she’d been trying to tell me something important yet simple? Or show me something believed yet still unknown? What if the only purpose of her nocturnal visits was to assure me there is indeed another realm, and that she’s ever-present because the unseen part of her has never really left?