“At the edge of my bed, the outline of a little boy.”
I woke from a nightmare. The red light from my digital clock reads 3:44 a.m. The only sound: an electric fan slowly panning left to right.
I’m not alone.
He has a bowl haircut. He sits silently, near my feet, watching me.
I dreamt I lost my younger brother Michael in a shopping mall. Searching, I stumble upon an empty arcade. Approaching a video game, I watch as an 8-bit dinosaur ambles on screen and says, “You’re going to burn in hell.”
Am I still asleep? Is the boy at the edge of my bed my brother? His stillness is unsettling.
I blink my eyes, turn first to the clock, then to the fan. I take a deep breath and turn to the foot of my bed.
He’s still there, unmoved. A shadow.
“Hello? Michael? Is that you?”
I knew it wasn’t my little brother. He lives with my parents, 60 miles from here.
The Shadow Boy doesn’t answer.
The fan hums. The clock registers another minute.
Another deep breath. I gather my courage and hesitantly reach my hand out to the boy. As my fingers reach his tiny body, he begins to dissolve, evaporating before my eyes.
Years later, I’m sleeping next to my wife in a rented Bed-Stuy brownstone.
I wake to find I can’t move or speak.
As I struggle with my frozen body, my chest heavy with a terrible weight making it impossible to breathe, a pair of disembodied hands appear in front of my face.
The hands are gloved in white, making theatrical gestures, like a magician.
I try to yell, but no sound can escape. Every muscle rigid.
They begin to contort, as if trying to communicate.
My wife sleeps soundly. I try to yell, but no sound can escape. Every muscle rigid.
The fingers contort as if creating shadow puppets, animal shapes, resting on the outline of two dogs facing each other.
The hands transform into actual dogs, the heads of two floating dobermans. Though they are elegant, and unsnarling, I feel threatened, as if they could bite.
It feels very real. I can see the rest of my apartment as clear as day.
Then, I feel a release. The dogs fade, and I can breathe and move again. I’m free to start my day, but making coffee seems a little anticlimactic.
Another time, following a 14-hour writing binge at a remote artist’s colony, I awake alone in an unfamiliar bed to find my dream projected on the bedroom wall. I watch a half-remembered Fourth of July parade from my youth, like it was a movie. I’m both delighted and terrified as the phantasmic film unfolds for over a half hour.
Returning to bed the evening of the Shadow Boy incident took all of my fortitude. I started the day nervously jubilant, basking in the attention as I recounted the extraordinary event to anyone at my favorite dive bar who would listen. At this point in my life, there wasn’t much going on. An aimless college drop-out, waiting tables, waiting for something, anything, to happen. As the hours passed, and night fell, this feeling slowly transitioned into dread. I considered staying at a friend’s apartment, but realized I would eventually have to come home.
I’m both delighted and terrified as the phantasmic film unfolds for over a half hour.
I crawl into bed. The fan whirs. Every nerve ending in my body is on edge.
The moment I turn out the lights, an unremarkable landscape painting left by the previous tenant crashes to the floor.
The Shadow Boy never returns, but he’s never far from my thoughts.
When my lease ends, I decide to confront my landlady.
“I was wondering. Have you had any complaints about my room?”
“What kind of complaints?”
“Has anyone ever reported anything strange happening?”
“Well, the guy who lived there before you told me he’d seen the ghost of a little boy once or twice.”
The ghost boy story had become a minor urban legend in my hometown. I’ve had friends of friends ask me to recount it when they meet me for the first time.
If phantom children can appear on the edge of your bed, that leaves the window open for other things, a life after death, maybe even a God.
Part of me clung to the story, relished it, because it represented the last small island of faith and magic that remained in my life. As I grew older, my world narrowed. Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, Sasquatch and the Abominable Snowman, Nessie, the Devil, God, one by one, exit stage left. If phantom children can appear on the edge of your bed, that leaves the window open for other things, a life after death, maybe even a God.
After a handful of similar incidents and doing my own research, I discovered a phenomenon known as Sleep Paralysis. It’s a relatively common disorder that occurs when the deep REM states of slumber carry over into your waking life. Some of the hallucinations sufferers experience are incredibly vivid and disturbing. People report demons, ghosts, feeling like they are in the presence of evil, or the unworldly. The episodes are often joined with a temporary inability to move or breathe.
With that, my island is now uninhabited. The stage is empty. The cold and unblinking stage lights full, as the curtains close.
“But what about your landlady?” you ask.
“How do you explain that?”
At bottom, it’s just an unreliable story from a second-hand source. An unlikely coincidence at best.
We all die. The end is the end. We don’t get a second act to appear on the edge of people’s beds. We desperately want there to be more because we can’t stand the pressure of this one life we squander so thoughtlessly.
We’re fragile, finite beings given senses, consciousness, and imagination in a vast universe where these qualities are rare, possibly unique. The complexities that aligned for us to even exist should be magic enough for anyone who stops to think about it.
For all I know, the boy on the edge of the bed was me. A younger self warning me not to waste any more time.
Ruben Carbajal writes for stage, screens, and beyond. His published theatre works include the 1980’s high-school comedy The Gifted Program; the minimalist love story Portland; and the one-act anthology HOLD and Other Short Plays. Follow him on Twitter.