The screams woke her again. She knew where they were coming from, of course. From herself. It happened about once a week and had been for many years. She would wake in the middle of the night to the dieing echoes of her own screams. And she knew the cause. The nightmare. Same one every time. Well, not actually a nightmare, more of a memory, though she wished for the millionth time that it was only a dream.
It was the summer of 1964 and the weather was miserable. It was even worse in the house, so El had decided to take her young nephew, Danny out for a walk .. maybe to the store down the street and around the corner. Heaven knows, there wasn't much else to do in Johnston.
Chambers, the mill village she and her family lived in was just down from the Masonic Lodge and not far from the railroad tracks that led through the town. Sometimes you couldn't hear yourself think for the trains coming and going. Specially when they hit mid-town and started laying down on their whistles and horns.
Johnston wasn't a bad little town as little towns went. It had a movie theater, a drug store with a fountain, a Western Auto, and of course the shops and grocers where everybody shopped. Everybody that is except for those fortunate few who got to go into Greenville now and then. That was the Big City. Not far away as miles went, but a distant country when it came to accessibility.
El was only 15 at the time, but her mind and heart were far away, already. She had a beau. His name was Randal, or Randy as his friends called him. She preferred Randal. It sounded much more distinguished and important. And he was important, at least to her.
Randal had joined the military and was away. El missed him. They wrote back and forth, but never regularly, though she treasured the letters that she received. It had to remain just friends for now, anyway. Her Mother and Father would throw a hissie-fit if they knew how much she really cared for him. But she would get to see him when he came home on leave one of these days and that filled her thoughts.
She held little Danny by the hand. He was only 4 years old and rambunctious. He had his own ideas as to how quickly they should be walking and in what direction they should go. Sometimes it was difficult to control him, like now. At just that moment, as Danny tore his hand from her grasp and made a bee-line for the other side of the street, a driver desperately locked his brakes and tried to swerve past the flash of red that was Danny. He did not succeed. The sound that followed was unrecognizable, yet it came from El. Before her, in the street, a pile of rags and broken bones lay crumpled in an expanding pool of blood. Little Danny was gone. That quickly his life was extinguished and her life would never be the same. She cried and begged God to let this not be real, but it was.
Randal came home as promised in November. She had finally accepted that the world as she knew it would continue to turn and so would life. Randal asked her to marry him and she agreed. It should have been the most wonderful time of her life, and it would have been, if not for the nightmares. Those haunting, dark, miserable nightmares. They just wouldn't leaver her alone. They constantly brought to mind the same question, "Why?"
It was a simple question, but one with no answer. "Why? Why didn't she just stay at home that day with Danny? Why didn't she hold his hand tighter? Why did no one blame her for his death?"
No, no one blamed El, except for El. Of course she had seen the look that came over Danny's parents faces when they learned what had happened. When they saw her covered in Danny's blood. But no one had come right out and blamed her. Maybe it would have been easier if they had.
It was almost unbearable when people spoke about the tragedy. They would make over her and pat her and say how sorry they were that she had gone through that. It was as if they felt more sorry for her than for Danny. And that wasn't right.
But life did go on as the old folks said. And she and Randal made their wedding plans. Nothing fancy, just a small affair in the park with her parents and Randal's parents. She had invited Jim and Nora, Danny's folks, but they said that something came up and they couldn't make it. Just as well. It was better this way.
The years went by and the world continued to turn. Randal got out of the military and they settled down on the outskirts of Greenville. It didn't seem as much a 'big city' now as it had when she was younger. Seeing a bit of the world had changed her perspective a bit. But not her nightmares.
This particular night seemed different, though. It seemed in her dream that Danny stood on the far sidewalk. No blood, no torn clothes. The same gap-toothed grin on his face that he normally had. He was waving for her to come on, follow him, he had something to show her. He kept disappearing around the next corner, leading her farther and farther from the place where he died.
Finally, they came to a stop in front of an old iron gate, the one to the cemetery where he was buried. She woke up. This time she wasn't screaming. This time she felt differently. It was as if she were on a mission.
She checked the time .. 1:15am. She had been asleep for a couple of hours. She had made it her habit to go to bed about 11pm and let the sound of Randal coming in wake her when he got home from working the second shift at the mill.
This time his coming in hadn't awakened her. Matter of fact, she could hear the shower running and that meant that he had been extra quiet this time. She loved him more and more every day and he loved her.
She thought about putting her head in the bathroom door and letting him know what she was doing, but she knew that he would try to talk her out of it. Not that he could, she was pretty strong willed when she wanted to be. And besides, it was only a short distance and she would be right back. It was always easier to ask forgiveness than get permission.
She grabbed the car keys and headed for the door.
The silkiness of the night air brushed against her and the stars shown with a brightness that lent a lie to the dark. She knew that it was not normal to go out like this in the wee hours, but she felt compelled. Not frightened, just that it was important. To her. She backed out of the drive before turning on her headlights, knowing that they would cast their light on the bathroom window. No need to startle Randal.
The drive was a short three miles and in what seemed only a moment, she pulled up to the gate, the same one in her dream. Old and a bit rusty, the black paint chipping and peeling a little from the wrought iron, it swung open with an unexpected quiet. She half thought that it would screech like in the movies, it should, right? Rusty iron gate to an old cemetery in the middle of the night with the moon full? Oh, well.
As she made her way along the cement path that had been installed a couple of years ago, she began to question hear reasoning for coming here at this hour. Was it just because of her dream, or had Danny reached out from the grave to pull her here? Her musings had no answer before she was startled back to reality. A light was glowing from just beyond the old, gnarled oak next to the path. It wasn't a bright light, just a glow, like the luminescence from one of those light sticks the kids get at the festivals or concerts. Just a glow.
She pulled up sharply as she rounded the tree to find Danny's grave with Danny sitting Indian style on top of the stone! Her breath left her lungs as if she had been sucker punched. The stars that had been so bright just a moment ago, now seemed to swim in the heavens and the m\om danced. But only for a minute. She closed her eyes, shook her head and truly believed that when she opened them it would be to see her bedroom and realize that she had just experienced a dream within a dream. her eyelids parted just the tiniest space and she peeked out to find Danny still sitting on the stone, still wearing that "Boy, I sure scared you", grin.
"Hi, El," he said in way of greeting. "Where ya been?" Okay, this was getting a little weird. Wait a minute, it was already weird. There was absolutely nothing normal about this scene. She was not going to carry on a conversation with the ghost of little Danny, who really wasn't here and this was definitely just a part of the dream within the dream within the .... oh, never mind!
"Hi, Danny". Well she had to say something. "Long time no see."
"Not really. I stop in to check on you every once in a while. You sure do cry a lot." It was true, each time she had the nightmare, she cried. Each time she remembered the accident, she cried. Each time he crossed her mind, she cried.
" I just wanted to let you know that it really wasn't your fault. I was being a brat., I'm sorry that you've hurt all this time because of me."
El could be still any longer. "Because of You?! I'm the one that was supposed to watch after you. I'm the one that decided to go after ice cream that day. I'm the one that didn't hold on to you tight enough. It was me. It was my fault!" El's voice had risen a full octave as she spoke.
"Calm down, you know I'm right," Danny said from his perch. "Anyway, I'm way more happy than you. I don't cry 'cause there's nothing to cry about in Heaven. I don't have to worry about none of the stuff you do. And, guess what? I know a lot more stuff than you do, now. Can't tell you what it is, but I know things that you just wouldn't believe!"
Right now El thought that she would probably believe just about anything. She started to smile in spite of herself and lowered her head to hide it. When she looked back up, he was gone. The glow, Danny and all. Had it been real? She hoped so. It would be wonderful to know that Danny didn't blame her for his death.
She turned and made her way back to the path and then, the gate. As she closed the gate behind her (This time with a haunted house type screech!) she could have sworn she heard Danny say, "Yeah, it was real."
Thankfully the drive home was uneventful and El was almost in a state of euphoria when she glided in the door to see Randal sitting on the couch waiting for her. The expected questions from Randal about where she had run off to gave her the opening she needed to tell him all that had gon on that night. Amazingly, he
accepted her story at face value and didn't question her sanity. His only statement was that he hoped it helped her.
Randal and El were married another twenty-nine years before she passed away and in all that time El never again woke screaming in the middle of the night. Never again haunted by the memory of little Danny and his death. Never again haunted by guilt. A God fearing woman that stood with her husband day in and day out, El lived a great and wonderful life. One thing that many said after meeting her for the first time was that she seemed to have a peace about her that few had. El would have told you that it was due to her faith and maybe just a bit because of something a little boy named Danny had said.