I said nothing to Denise about the grave, and that was my second mistake.
Elijah and I had found the perfect tree, a blue spruce just over eight feet tall. Denise was really excited when she saw it, clapping her hands like a schoolgirl. We managed to get it standing in a corner of the living room, rearranging the furniture around it. By the time all the work was done, neither of us had the enthusiasm to trim it. I was still too preoccupied with what I had heard and seen, and Denise—as much as she denied it—was still not feeling well. So we passed a quiet evening in front of the fireplace, watching out the windows as the flurries began to fall again.
By ten o’clock, the snow was coming fast and heavy, fluttering against the glass like a cloud of tiny white moths. It seemed like a living thing, something aware and watching. I found myself staring at it for quite some time before I realized Denise had dozed off again, her held tilted back and mouth open. It sounded like she was still havy difficulty breathing.
I tried to wake her. She mumbled something unintelligible and brushed my hand away. After a few repeated attempts, I gave up. Instead, I brought in a pillow and a heavy blanket from the bed, trying to make her as comfortable on the sofa as I could. Lying down, she seemed to be breathing much better, but her lips were moving, and I could see her eyes rolling behind closed lids. I wondered where she was in those dreams.
Reluctant to leave her, I sat on the carpet beside the sofa, holding her hand. Outside, the snow was really beginning to pile up, forming a low mound against the glass of the French doors. I could feel the cold burning its way through the glass.
This was, I realized, the first real storm of the season. I watched the snowflakes dance, seeming to form shapes and patterns, hinting at concealed images and secret forms. I thought, again, of the grave lying under that tree.
I am not usually a sound sleeper, but that night I remember a heavy drowsiness coming over my limbs. I started to have trouble keeping my eyelids open. Maybe it was the hypnotic kaleidoscope of snow, or the heat of the fire, or the events of the day final exhausting me. Resting my head against Denise, listening to her breath, I started to cross that no-man’s-land between waking and dreaming.
At first, random images flashed through my mind. The red tractor out in the barn. The surface of the pond on a summer evening. A stone wall in the upper field. An open grave. But after awhile, all these images, and others, started to settle.
Were my eyes open?
The room was dark around me, the fire dead. Still, the snow swirled. Somehow, I could see it even in the absence of any light, as if it possessed its own luminescence. I thought I was dreaming, the blizzard I had watched carried over with me into sleep. The patterns the flakes made seemed more definite, more solid, like figures emerging from fog. Distinct shapes now moved out on the back patio, just beyond the glass.
Partially veiled by darkness and snow, I caught only glimpses. Faces. Pale hands. Watching eyes. I thought I could see Maria, or some other old woman, peering through the window. Her breath left no mist on the glass.
A whole row of faces now, silent and watchful. They stood there in a line, heedless of the storm, motionless and unblinking. I thought I could make out the face of a young boy, and a very pretty girl. And it seemed to me that I could see the snow falling right through them, as if they were made of smoke, or just reflections of people on the window glass.
A dream. I was dreaming.
One of these figures seemed larger, denser. He had no features, just a dark silhouette standing slightly apart from all the others. His presence was palpable, immediate.
Then I realized he was inside the window, standing just a few feet away. When he took a step forward, the floorboards creaked under his weight.
Panic rose in me, but before it could break the surface, it sank back down, curiously weighted. A calm washed over me, stilling the rapid acceleration of my heart, soothing my mind. My thoughts seemed to go out on the tide, drifted away from me. The undertow was carrying me down into a deeper, and dreamless, sleep.
My eyelids fluttered (my god are my eyes open) a last time, and I thought I could see him stepping over me, joining Denise on the sofa (wake up wake up). I could hear her groan suddenly, whimpering in her sleep (wake up WAKE UP). There were wet sounds, sloppy, like a kiss gone wrong, and Denise making frightened sounds in the back of her throat (this is not a dream).
The last thing I heard, before the darkness took me, were sucking sounds.