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Safe Spaces

Throughout childhood, my brother was haunted by night terrors. But something darker followed him into adulthood.

My Brothers Childhood Nightmares Turned Darker When He Returned From War
Illustration by África Pitarch

The sofa in our house was neutral. Not neutral as in beige — the thing was a mid-’70s assault on the early ’90s, any color welcome as long as it began with burnt, a hideous palette to those of us aspiring to Esprit pastels — but neutral as in untouched by evil. If you woke in the morning to find a parent on the sofa, it meant they had been kicked out of the waterbed for coming home a little too loaded up on G&Ts from the duckpin bowling lane. But if you woke to a kid on the sofa, it meant something malevolent had come for them in their sleep.

Connecticut is thick with houses destined to serve as sets for horror films: old farmsteads and colonials on roads with names like Witches Rock and Satans Kingdom. But my family lived in a late-1960s rectangle constructed of hollow-core everything and held together with matted carpeting that may or may not have begun its life the soul-deep brown it was by the time we arrived in 1990. It was a structure that resembled military housing in its nothingness, not the kind of thing likely to be narrated about by Robert Stack on Unsolved Mysteries, but it was without a doubt infected with evil. And Michael — Michael with glasses like safety goggles, Michael who called soda pop and couldn’t ride a bike without the neighborhood kids humming the Miss Gulch theme from The Wizard of Oz — was naturally its primary target, because he was naturally everyone’s.

Michael was ripe for haunting. He was the first of my mom’s boyfriend’s four kids to move in (he had been kicked out of his own mother’s house after trying to protect his sisters from their mom’s boyfriends — men equally violent when strung out or jonesing), and when he first arrived, totally unaccustomed to rules or order, he was as feral as a raccoon, the only kid I knew who’d been suspended from school for fighting a teacher. But once he realized he was no longer being chased by the Department of Children and Families, which was threatening foster placement, or his mom’s boyfriends, who somehow saw a skinny nine-year-old as competition for his mother’s limited care, he actually found that the relative domestication of his new home suited him just fine, and he grew into the kind of southern–New England kid who lived his life in Umbros and various shades of chino. Trauma wasn’t a thing back then, not in our world, anyway; bad things happened, and then hopefully bad things stopped, and you were supposed to be grateful if they did — and that was called recovery. If you got a new wardrobe and the top bunk out of it, all the better.

So I was confused when I found him asleep on the sofa instead of in the safest bed he’d been tucked into in years.

“I heard horses,” he said, when I asked him what he was doing out there. “Horses running past the window all night.”

My siblings and I — Michael’s three sisters moved in not long after him, joining me and my biological brother in a house barely big enough for four — considered the dinky town we’d moved to fairly Little House on the Prairie compared to the industrial-Connecticut cities we’d been raised in, but really it was just a fledgling suburb. The only horses for miles were plastic and balanced on rusted springs in neglected front yards.

“It had to be deer,” I suggested, and I’m sure we spent the next several days convincing ourselves that that was more likely than the undead cavalry it obviously was.

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At school, my class spent all year investigating the town’s history. I learned that back when the land had been Algonquin territory, the great chief Potuccus would trail deer, then trap them in a circle of flames, until one fateful day when he trapped himself instead, falling victim to his own predation. This seemed like something more likely to have happened to one of the modern-day yokels who dirt-biked the trails beneath power lines and carried with them accelerants of Colt 44 and sparks of Camel Lights, but whether or not the legend was true, it soon became very clear to us that we were living on accursed land. It was the most plausible explanation for the otherwise impossible occurrences in that ranch house, like the time the radio in my would-be stepdad’s workshop blasted on at maximum volume at 3 a.m., despite the switch being toggled firmly to the OFF position. Potuccus, it seemed, was a fan of WHCN’s late-night classic-rock programming.

Or the time we played a Pat Benatar LP backward on the turntable and all of us heard, very clearly, the words There is no evil. Clearly there was evil, or else Pat Benatar would not be speaking in that devil’s voice.

Or the many times that specters taunted Michael in his bed. First the laughing would wake him — quiet, ugly laughter, the kind that suggests the opposite of funny. He’d open his eyes, but his lids were the only part of him that could move. He had no choice but to look at the figure beside the bed, just a silhouette, something like a man but nothing human, because nothing human could be that menacing, not since he’d gotten away from the awful flesh-and-blood men who’d come for him in the places he used to live. He’d try to scream but couldn’t make a sound solid enough to break through our oldest brother’s soft snoring on the bunk below. The thing would laugh more, feeding, just as the horror tropes told us, on fear. And Michael was afraid, more afraid than he’d been ever. Or almost ever.

And then, somehow, he’d finally conjure the strength to break through the spell and sprint to the safety of the sofa.

He told me what happened only once, and I was too chicken to hear it again. After that, when I’d find him in the morning, tucked beneath the kind of afghan that could only be, and had been, crocheted by a French-Canadian nana named Gertrude, I didn’t want to ask what had happened.

I also didn’t try to convince him, as an adult would have, that he’d just had a dream. There were things he would lie about, like having met former President Reagan at a 1984 rally in Hamilton Park, and things he wouldn’t lie about, like that kind of terror, especially among siblings who would not hesitate to be merciless about it in order to advance our own social standing. Although really, I don’t remember ever telling the others what he’d told me. A fear of yellow jackets, or Libyan invasions, or whatever sequel to Nightmare on Elm Street was in theaters at the time — those all seemed like something to laugh at someone over. Michael seemed stricken with a fear I understood had hit deeper than the guttural syllables from a Pat Benatar record. It was the kind of fear even a sibling would find too terrible to laugh at, even when he really deserved it, even when he ripped apart my Dirty Dancing soundtrack and streamed the cassette’s innards like confetti to celebrate never having to hear “She’s Like the Wind” again.

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Once we became teenagers, different things kept us up at night, mainly boyfriends and girlfriends, or in my case, the lack of them. Michael eventually joined ROTC and went off to the University of Connecticut, where he earned the nickname the Jackalope, the origins of which I’m still not clear on. He became an adult brother, someone you see only on holidays and talk to sometimes and write letters to when they ship off to war. You don’t know what goes on with them in the night.

So I didn’t learn that Michael had been having nightmares until after he took his own life. They were described as a symptom of the PTSD he’d recently been diagnosed with after returning from his tour in Iraq, and I imagine the things he saw at nighttime had more in common with the kinds of horrors he’d witnessed in-country than the kinds of horrors a child’s psyche could conjure, but still. But still.

There is an awful lot of what-if-ing that goes down when someone you love does something like that, but the dreams are the things that make me feel like I messed it all up the most. The dreams make me feel like I could have understood and reached out to him if I’d known, even though, really, if I’m being honest, I know I could not have understood, and I do not understand, and I will never, ever understand, no matter how many of my own dreams I’ve had about it. I have had many dreams since then featuring Michael: the good ones are like a visit, the sad ones wreck my day, and the bad one was singular but untranscribable.

I now know enough to call that kind of thing a night terror, those paralyzing nighttime visitations that started for me in my twenties. Even as an adult, I feel in the morning as if I have barely survived each one, and I’m not entirely convinced there’s nothing supernatural about them. I’ve never managed to get the courage to charge straight past evil to the safety of my sofa, maybe because mine doesn’t have the same sacred properties as that stained plaid one in our old living room had, maybe because I’m not sure one place is safer than the other. Maybe that’s what Michael decided, too. But it’s funny, because if I could, I’d still try to convince him of that one safe place, because maybe just wanting it to be true is a kind of amulet.

Xhenet Aliu is the author of the novel Brass and the short-story collection Domesticated Wild Things.