I am someone who vehemently objects to the notion that dreams have any meaning beyond your brain creating a sequence of images from its own inventory. I absolutely reject the concept of paranormal. I am not spiritual unless you are referring to gin. But I knew my mum had died before I opened my eyes, before the phone rang seconds later, before the policeman on the line confirmed it. “I know this must come as a shock,” he told me in a professional, sympathetic manner. If only.
It was illogical given that she was literally dead in front of my eyes, but she still intimidated me. I inexplicably anticipated our usual conflict. This was my first time seeing a dead body and although I always heard dead people described as peaceful, her face was tinged with anger. Maybe it was due to her tinted eyebrows that had always looked unnatural and gave her an unfortunate but weirdly fitting pantomime-villain-esque appearance, or maybe disapproval was simply built into her very being. I wanted to leave immediately upon identifying her, but the coroner’s assistant stood waiting as patiently and solemn as you would when showing someone their dead mother on a cold metal slab. She was expecting tears and denial, not relief. I waited a few moments, back turned to the assistant, head down, to give the illusion I was privately grieving and possibly shedding a tear or two. I felt like an imposter of a daughter, but you don’t know the whole story. I was sad, only it was not in grief but in regret, regret that it had been this way between us. You’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead, and I wasn’t going to; but in my mind I affirmed that she was a bad person. It’s not like she deserved to die but it’s also not like I killed her. I left the room, glad to see the last of her.
I had been told to take the day off but was back at my desk by 11am. I needed life to resume but as hard as I tried to get it out of my mind, I saw her in people passing by. Her face on their bodies. I told myself that emotional stress made people susceptible to hallucinations. A trick of the mind. I just needed to calm down.
I jumped and elbowed my coffee cup to the ground, its contents spilling. I leaned over to pick up the cup and bumped heads with the person who called my name, who had looked like my mum just a second ago but now was clearly my boss. I fixed my stare on the coffee soaking into the carpet.
“Let me deal with this and get you another.”
She returned with her own face. “You’re clearly in shock. You shouldn’t even be here today.”
“I feel better keeping busy.”
“I know you weren’t on good terms, but I am sorry. Take it easy, okay?”
I took the fresh cup of hot coffee from her, “Thanks. As bad as it sounds, I’m fine. Really. I don’t know what’s up with me. I didn’t sleep well last night.”
“Something like that.”
“You want to try camomile tea. I swear by it. And I have some lavender spray that you put on your pillow. I swear, essential oils have changed my life.”
“Yeah, I’ll try that.”
I was walking down a dark but unassuming street and at first nothing happened, but I had a gut feeling that it was going to happen. I couldn’t seem to do anything but walk on as my heart began to pound so hard that I could hear blood rushing around my head. My mouth turned dry in an instant, tongue rendered a fat and useless husk. My body tingled uncontrollably. My skin erupted in goosebumps; its hair stood out on end. The buildings on either side of the street closed in on me and the road ahead stretched out ahead endlessly. Then the buildings on either side turned into walls and the road ahead turned into the hallway outside of my room and suddenly I wasn’t walking but laid up in bed unable to move at all. And that’s when she appeared; pale-skinned with purplish lips and limp hair. Not looking her usual turned-out self but still, unmistakably her. She looked like when I had last seen her and in my dreams before waking up to the news. I tried to move as she stepped closer, but I couldn’t. I tried to scream but no sound came out, not even a gurgle. She came closer still, with the same unchanged angry expression on her face. She didn’t speak a word. I wanted to talk it out with her, whatever she was angry at me for. I wanted to slam the door in her face and refuse to open it. I wanted to call for help. All I could do was stare helplessly as she finally reached me. I could feel her presence as if she was sitting on my chest, crushing my ribs and lungs, restricting my breathing. I wondered if this was how I would die.
“Kerry, Kerry, it’s me, it’s Lisa.”
My world jolted and I cried out in alarm when I opened my eyes and found someone hovering over me in the dusky light, one hand on my arm. But it was only my roommate, Lisa, with concern on her face. Her own face.
“You were having a nightmare.”
I sat up, shaking, heart pounding, adrenaline coursing through my body. “God, that was terrifying.”
“It was for me, too. Your head was strained forward, and you were making this strange stifled cry for help like you were possessed or something. Shall I make us both a cup of tea to calm our nerves?”
“Yes please. Make mine a camomile.”
She came to me in my dreams every night for a week and Lisa got so tired of being woken by dry-throated groans of terror and coming to my aid that she started sleeping in my bed with me. But I knew that her being there wouldn’t stop the dream happening, only cut it short, and I feared enduring even another second. Instead, I watched Lisa sleep and stayed awake until morning, going to work jittered on caffeine and so tired that I felt out-of-body. My colleagues noticed the change in me immediately. I was a workaholic and a perfectionist. It wasn’t like me to knock over coffee mugs or send emails to the wrong people or forget a meeting marked down in my diary. My mother had ruined so much of my life when she was alive, and she was ruining it still. I couldn’t let this happen.
My mum made it very clear to me from a very young age that I was a burden to her and a disappointment. Nothing I did was right; she was hypercritical of everything, and any speck of praise was always given with a backhanded slant. I looked too much like my dad for her liking and she blamed me for having traits we shared, like our left-handedness, as if it was something I had chosen just to spite her. I was part him and she hated me for it. I was what bonded her with the man who had treated her terribly and left her heartbroken. She blamed me for him leaving. She made it clear that her raising me single-handedly meant that I was indebted to her in a way I could never repay. When I moved away to university, she was furious and told me that I was ungrateful for leaving her all alone just like my dad had and I was making a fool of myself thinking I was smart and capable enough to get a degree or a good job. When I did get a good job, she didn’t praise me, but would just ask for money. And worse yet, I gave in to her every time. I always knew that this wasn’t how mothers treated children and yet I craved her approval and did my best to please her. If I ever complained about my treatment, she would gaslight me. I feared her calling me – always out of the blue but there was hell to pay if I didn’t answer – to talk about herself and find ways to criticise or belittle me with anything I had to say. But I couldn’t let go. She told me we were all each other had. She told me I needed her. She told me that the point of children is so they can look after their parents when they’re old and as she was old, I owed her. I hated her but mostly I hated that she was gone and yet she still had a hold on me. My exhausted sleep-deprived brain wondered that maybe as she had died young, she wasn’t done with me. She still wanted more from me. But at what cost?
“It’s sleep paralysis.” Lisa told me as she spooned tagliatelle into my dish. “Parmesan?”
“Please. What’s sleep paralysis then?”
“It’s a sleep disorder but it’s actually fascinating. I’ve read up on its history. In Scandinavian folklore, she’s depicted as a mare, a cursed woman who brings nightmares. In North America she’s described as a hag who sits on their victims’ chests. It’s exactly as you’ve described.”’
“Why do women get blamed for everything?”
“Society is built on blaming women.”
“But it is a woman, right?”
“Well yeah, I guess.” I hadn’t told her it was my mother. “But I don’t know if it is sleep paralysis.”
“Well, what do you suggest otherwise? A ghost? A demon or something?” She laughed at the idea.
“Maybe.” I reached for more parmesan and caught her staring at me in disbelief. “Well, not literally. But maybe like, metaphorically.”
“Yeah. I don’t know.” I shrugged the idea away, “Did you find how you stop them in your research?”
“No. Sorry. But I don’t mind bed-sharing with you until you’re over it.”
“I can’t ask that of you. Plus, you snore. I have a plan.”
“What’s the plan?”
“I’m going to see it through to the end. When it happens again, don’t wake me.”
“What, you’re going to do battle with this thing? In your dreams?”
“Yep. I’m just going to face this thing head on. What’s the worst that can happen?”
I found myself walking down the dark but unassuming street again when a wave of dread came over me and the buildings closed in. I let the buildings blend together to form smooth walls and the path stretch thin until it turned into my hallway. Intense fear coursed through my veins, filling my body to the brim with adrenaline. Fear weighed my body down, stupefying me. My heart beat fast and hard against my chest, the chest so taut with fear it bared down as if to squash my heart as easy as juicing an orange. She appeared in the distance, same as ever, eyes on me, inching closer and closer. If I could have moved, perhaps I would have abandoned my plans and stopped her, but as I couldn’t, there was nothing to do but wait. This was usually around the time that Lisa woke me from this nightmare. I stared at Mum. She stared at me. We were touching now. She bared down on me, skin on skin, her body like a lead weight even though she had always been a slight woman. The pressure got more and more intense until it peaked, and I swear I saw surprise in Mum’s eyes. We both realised in that instant that there was a limit to what she could do, and she had reached it. The intense fear that had washed over me since this nightmare began started to fade away. Her grip on me dissipated as she disappeared. That was when I woke up.
I never had a nightmare again.