Do you know that feeling when you’re lying in bed, with the covers pulled up and your legs stretched out, and your feet seem impossibly far away from the rest of your body? It’s a very vulnerable sensation. That’s why I always sleep curled up like a fetus.
It happened when my family moved to a new apartment. I was eleven years old. It was a garden-level unit, half-buried in the damp soil of upstate New York. As we marched down the short flight of stairs for the first time, our arms laden with boxes, my dad joked that it was like we were moving into a grave. He often did that, made little jokes to tease me and my mom. They were always friendly, and they never bothered me—not at the time, anyway.
I remember lying in bed that first night, trying to get used to the different shadows. Our last apartment had been several floors up; we didn’t get tree branches throwing their twisted silhouettes across the walls at night, like we did in this new place. It was very disorienting, but I wasn’t afraid. Not yet.
After a week at my new school, I came down with a fever. I should have been thrilled at the chance to skip class, but I was too fog-headed to care. My mother came in from time to time to make me drink something and check my temperature, but I spent most of the day lying in bed, trapped in a limbo between sleeping and waking, sanity and madness.
Your brain, when suffering the heat of a fever, walks strange paths. That’s what I tell myself now that I’m grown and have children of my own. Add to that my unfamiliarity with my new bedroom, and I guess you could say I was ripe for hallucination. But as with the difference between dreams and consciousness, there is in my memory a realness to everything that followed. A realness that laughs at all attempts to rationalize it.
My bed was situated so that if I looked toward my feet, I could see out the window. The curtains were drawn against the sunlight, but the day was bright enough to penetrate the fabric. My room was suffused with a hazy, midday twilight. From my strange, underground angle, I could peer up into a blurry parody of the branches that cast twisting, crooked patterns over my room. One branch seemed different from the others. Perhaps it was broken so that it hung vertically. It was a very thin branch, swaying back and forth…
My eyes slid shut—maybe the oscillating motion of the rope had a hypnotic effect on me. Did I just call it a rope? Of course, I meant that broken branch. Anyway, with my eyes closed, I felt I was drifting off. Finally going blind to the uncanny, diffused shadows. Finally going deaf to the…the scratching?
I opened my eyes and looked down. All I could see were the two lumps of my feet under the covers. Beyond that, the blank wall beneath the window. As I waited for the noise to repeat itself, I noticed the plaster under the window was stained, a big, discolored patch halfway between the sill and the floor. I hadn’t noticed before because…because it hadn’t been there before. I blinked, and it was gone. A trick played by my eyes in the weird light.
I stared toward that end of the room for a few moments longer, searing the image into memory: the pale window behind the curtains, the blurred web of the black tree, the sick haze of afternoon sunlight—and the mounds of my feet, like a pair of small, shivering animals.
No, only one of them was shivering. The other was still, because—
I realized something. I didn’t notice it at first because I’d lain in that position long enough to be numb to it. It was the feeling I mentioned earlier, when your feet feel so far away that they hardly seem like your feet anymore. One foot stretched out to my left; the other was curled under my knee. My heart quickened. Only one of the lumps at the foot of the bed was mine.
I wiggled the toes on my left foot, watching as the left-hand mound danced in response. I did the same with my right foot, just to make sure. As my toes tickled the back of my knee, the right-hand lump stayed cruelly motionless.
Just a wrinkle in the blanket, that’s what it was. I uncurled my right leg to smooth out the covers. Slowly. My foot burrowed its way down, down, down—
I stopped inches short. Something warned me. Something about the scene. That broken branch, that stain on the wall that now refused to vanish no matter how I blinked. The intelligence of that errant lump. Make it go away, I thought. And I moved my foot those last few inches…
Only to violently withdraw it, pulling both my legs up against my chest as I screamed. My mom came in a few seconds later. I pointed to the lump at the foot of the bed, practically bursting with incomprehensible descriptions of what I had heard, seen, and felt. My mother calmly strode to the foot of the bed and placed her hand on the abhorrent mound, flattening it with ease and smoothing out the wrinkles. She offered a few words of comfort, told me there was nothing to be afraid of. After asking if I wanted a drink, she left.
In the end, she didn’t understand. I couldn’t blame her, not when my perception was distorted by the fever. Not when the thing had vanished upon her arrival. She hadn’t felt the cold flesh or the thin patches of hair. She hadn’t felt five toes like sponges pressing against her own.