I awoke with a start. No idea what the time was, only that it was still dark outside the bedroom windows, and the room was dark except for moonlight sifting through the blinds. I lay still, listening. The silence was deep, so I knew it must have been those hours of the morning which did not exist. They did not exist because normally a person slept through them. But they existed this night.
My wife was asleep, her soft breathing barely audible since she was probably rolled facing away from me. We slept that way, facing away from one another mostly.
A strange sensation slowly grasped me, a chilling, cold feeling. Cold despite that fact that it was late summer and the nights had been very warm. It seemed to flow across the sheets that covered the bed, and our bodies, penetrating into my very bones. I shivered suddenly, and rolled onto my back. I could see my breath in the shafts of moonlight.
My mind registered this, but I knew that it should not have been possible, and wondered for a moment if I was dreaming. I didn’t move my head, only my eyes. I could feel the cold air tracing over my cheeks.
Finally, I rolled again, facing my wife’s back, her blonde hair cascading across her pillow, and the sheets pulled up over her slender shoulder. She was sleeping peacefully.
My breath froze in my throat, as I sensed something else in the room. What I thought was the darkened form of one of the housecoats hanging on the back of our closed bedroom door moved ever so slightly. It was not a housecoat. The figure rose up to its full height, as if it had been bent over slightly, looking at my wife as she lay sleeping. It was hooded, and I could see no face within that space.
Terror filled me, and I struggled to sit up. The figure did not move away.
I watched, and it watched me back. Had whoever or whatever it was touched her?
My eyes flicked to her for a split second, just enough time to see her side rise with a breath. She was sleeping, unaware of the presence next to the bed. I managed a shuddering breath.
“What are you doing in my house?” I asked quietly, trying to keep my voice steady and firm, despite my terror.
There was no answer, and the thing just seemed to continue watching me. Now I began to become angry, my fear being supplanted at the knowledge that someone had had the nerve to break into our home.
“Get out,” I commanded, keeping my voice low to avoid waking my wife, who would most certainly react very badly to someone standing over her in the darkness.
But again, no response.
I began to get up, but the figure moved, raising what looked like one of the sleeves of its cloak in my direction. A sleeve without a hand that I could see.
I tried to move, but could not. It was as if my muscles were no longer under my control. I stopped trying, and could only sit there on the bed, frozen in some sort of paralysis. This should not be happening, could not be happening. Fear returned, cascading into my brain and wiping out any other thought, with the exception of one: I must somehow keep this person away from my wife.
It was not a person, not human, and the realization of this alien idea brought on a fresh round of panic.
What the hell was in here with us?
The thing turned its hooded head back toward her for a moment, and my blood ran cold.
For the love of God, stay away! Don’t you touch her!
I tried again to force my body to obey me, trying, straining with all my might to move.
The figure reached its other sleeve toward my wife, and my mind threatened to come unhinged as I saw what emerged from it. It was its hand. Not flesh and blood, but bone. Skeletal and terrifying.
I suddenly knew what it was, and what is was doing here. It had come for her. Fear and panic gripped me as my thoughts traced back, trying to lift the shroud of memory from stories or legends of the thing standing at the edge of our bed.
“Don’t touch her!!” I screamed, hoping that I would now wake my sleeping wife, and she would be able to get away from the figure’s outstretched claws of bone. But she remained asleep somehow.
My eyes were wide, and cold sweat stood out on my face from the pure exertion of trying to get up, to move, to do anything.
“Take me instead!!” I blurted it out, loudly. The thing hesitated, and it looked back toward me. I was no longer afraid, wrestling back the control of my emotions at least, determined to somehow protect the love of my life sleeping soundly beside me.
I could feel the unseen eyes boring into me, and time seemed to stop.
The room began to change. I was no longer in my bed. Warm, radiant sunshine shone on my face, and my eyes adjusted to green grass and children running about, playing happily. Young people were nearby, and although I could not see their faces, somehow I knew that they were relatives.
It was a birthday party. My birthday. But even though everyone around me was smiling and happy, I could feel an immense sadness weighing on my being. My wife was nowhere to be seen, and I knew that she was gone. My heart sank, even though it was supposed to be a joyous occasion.
The cloaked figure appeared, beckoning to me. Perhaps it was my turn now, and perhaps I could finally be together with my love once again. I moved toward the darkened visage in front of me, but instead of it taking me, it simply waved a skeletal hand in front of me, and the scene changed again. I was lying flat, looking up at white tiled ceiling, and finding it difficult to breathe. Then the beautiful face of my wife leaned over me, a look of concern on her pretty face, tears in her eyes. She was saying something to me softly, too quiet for me to hear. I realized that I was lying in a hospital room, and looked down at my body hooked to machines that seemed to be trying to keep me alive.
At the foot of my bed, the grim figure stood, the depths of its cloak hood veiled in darkness.
It was a choice, I suddenly realized. It was making me decide. The decision was simple. Me or her. My life or my wife’s. It wasn’t fair. We hadn’t yet lived long enough. Not long married, no children yet to replace us. But it was here. It had come to take her, and now it was offering me the choice. In a cruel twist, I was to decide which of us would take our place in death.
It was an easy decision. I had already made it. The figure did not move, and the room went dark.
I was back in our bedroom, sitting up in bed. Cold sweat drenched the bed sheet, and I looked around, bewildered. I wondered if it had been a dream. The answer came swiftly and painfully with my next breath. It hurt. It hurt in a way that told me something was very wrong with me, an invisible force gripping my chest as I tried to calm my breathing down. The figure had disappeared, and I glanced quickly to the other side of the bed, where my wife lay. She was breathing softly, peacefully asleep. She was safe.
I struggled up and out of bed, trying to be silent as I rounded the bed and opened the bedroom door to the hallway, and the bathroom beyond.
Running the cold water in the sink, I wet a nearby towel to wipe the sweat from my face. I looked at myself in the mirror, thinking that I already might look older than I should. But I was the same. My breathing was still laboured, and my face was pale as a sheet of paper.
I made my way slowly back to the bedroom door, hesitating for a moment before opening it again. Would our dark guest be back tonight? Tomorrow? A year from now? My thoughts raced. I had best do what I could to ready myself, to prepare things if it were possible. Again I could feel the bite of pain, and my breath caught in my throat for a moment. There might not be much time.
I opened the door, and the light from the bathroom shone into our room, illuminating my wife sitting on the edge of the bed, looking at me groggily with confusion and concern in her eyes. She sleepily asked me:
“What’s wrong sweetheart, you look like you've seen a ghost.”
No, not a ghost.
"I'm fine, just had to use the bathroom," I replied, trying to steady my voice.
I glanced around the room as I made my way around the bed again, laying back down. I didn't bother to get under the sheets, feeling as though I were on fire. Sleep finally claimed me once again.
The sunlight streamed in my eyes as I opened them in the morning, and I sat up quickly. I waited to feel pain in my chest, but there was nothing. The other side of the bed was empty; my wife must have already risen. It was Saturday morning.
I got up, heading for the bathroom again. I washed my face in cool clean water, bent over the sink, and thought of the night before. It must have been a dream, I almost chuckled to myself. I felt just fine, and as a matter of fact, felt rested.
I stood up, looking at myself in the mirror. My breath froze, and I could feel my chest compress in pain. Standing behind me in the silver of the mirror, was the dark figure I had seen last night, its cloak as black as a moonless night.
My wife entered, setting a cup of coffee on the edge of the vanity in front of me. She arranged the towels, and seemed to walk right through the apparition as it stood there, motionless.
"You were so sound asleep this morning that I thought for a minute you were dead!" she said.
My eyes flicked to the grim visage standing behind me in the mirror, unmoving. I could feel its gaze upon me.
"No," I said simply. "Not yet."