When I was a girl, I had a nightmare. At least, I think it was a nightmare. Sometimes I think it was real. I was staying at my grandmother’s house. The place wasn’t old and it wasn’t big: just a kitchen, a sitting room, and a long corridor to the bedrooms.
One night I got out of bed to go to the bathroom, and I saw something in the hallway. It was shaped like a man, but bent, twisted, and furred with oily hair. It had no eyes, only a mouth and two holes where a nose should have been.
I learned the finality of death in that moment. I arrived at certainty with the cold clarity of dream logic: no one sees a creature like that and lives. Then I blinked, and it was gone.
My grandmother died of cancer six months later. Sometimes I think the beast I saw was the cancer. That the fabric of daily life split for a second and I saw one of the strange, ugly things that lurk a moment behind us, out of step with time, invisible. Things that rush out of the darkness and past us when we blink.
I think of that dream often now. Harry and I used to sail “Bessie” on nice summer weekends. We never intended to live on her year round. Harry did most of the sailing. I made us meals and kept her tidy.
We were already underway; coffee was brewing, and I started to make up the bunks. That’s when I found the necklace. I recognized it at once.
It belonged to Gail Carter, our neighbor, who had never been out on the boat with us. I thought then about how the things that happen when we aren’t there are like alternate worlds. When we’re not there we cease to exist even to the people we are close to. Like I must have ceased to exist to Harry when he brought Gail Carter out on the boat sometime last winter.
The coffee burned, and I hardly noticed it. And when Harry came below we drank our burnt coffee. I had the necklace in my pocket. I probably wouldn’t have brought it out if he hadn’t complained about the coffee. I just kept thinking that the necklace was like the monster I saw in Grandmother’s house. It was a manifestation of something real, and horrible, that I normally couldn’t see.
But Harry complained about the coffee so I just held the necklace out between us. I didn’t say anything. It was Harry who got upset, and started yelling. Told me to come right out and say it. Accuse him. I said I didn’t have to, the necklace did it for me. And I went up on deck and started to cry. It was evening by then. And I could see all the lights on the neck, and I just wanted to be alone, but Harry followed me up.
He shouted at me to stop crying, but I couldn’t. Then he shook me hard, and I still couldn’t stop. We were standing by the mast, and finally he shook me so hard I hit my head, and finally I stopped crying. It didn’t hurt very much, but I knew it would raise a bump. But somehow I didn’t care. Then Harry stopped yelling and started crying, and I told him that it didn’t much matter, because he’d brought Gail to the boat when I wasn’t there, and if you thought about it, things that happened when you weren’t there weren’t real to you.
Harry seemed distracted and upset the whole rest of the night. I went below, dumped out the rest of the coffee and turned in for the night. Harry stayed up on deck late into the night. I could hear him getting out a spare sail. He wrapped something heavy in it, I could hear the canvas flapping against the deck, and then threw the roll overboard, and then I could hear him washing the deck.
When he finally came to bed he just sat there looking at me, but wouldn’t speak. I said goodnight, but he ignored me. It was a terrible trip. We stayed the whole weekend, all the while not talking, until Sunday night Harry tied Bessie up at the yacht club, packed up and went home. I decided to stay out on Bessie while I thought this through.
Well, there’s really everything you need on a boat like this. And I didn’t need to sail her. I just lived on her at the dock. The Marbleheaders who tied their boats up nearby weren’t very friendly, but I wasn’t in the mood for company anyway.
Like I told Harry, the thing about Gail Carter didn’t bother me very much, because it happened while I wasn’t there. But I guess Harry didn’t understand. Because he brought Gail back to the boat with him next weekend.
I was in the cabin, still reading the same book I’d brought with me when we came out last weekend, Rebecca. I’m still reading it now. Harry didn’t even bother to call out. I just heard them board, and then they came down and threw their bags on the bunks. The both of them just went on ignoring me. They talked about me as though I wasn’t there. Then they talked about me as though I was dead. Fallen overboard, that’s what he told Gail.
Bessie’s a small ship. There’s no mirror on her. I suppose Gail probably has one in her bag, but I don’t think I want to look. Because I know now that I’m not really here with Harry and Gail. I’m a second behind them. I’m there when they blink. Something they think they see out of the corner of their eye. A creature they see when they dream.