I have nightmares where I’m trapped in a shower. The drain is plugged, and the water won’t stop pouring down on me. Water rises to my ankles, to my waist, and then over my head. The shower curtain turns to glass, and my screams turn to gargles. A dark figure presses its face against the glass on the other side, and it watches me. I plead, but it won’t let me out. I swallow water and flail helplessly in my glass coffin.
I wake up gagging.
I know where the nightmare came from - I never have to dig deep. The incident is never far from my subconscious. Finding it is easy.
Getting over it is not.
It was the summer of my 12th birthday when the Hudsons moved in across the street. Three people, one of them a really old woman. She was tiny, frail; skeletal almost. Thin white hair; faded, blue flowery dress - her head hung from her neck and it wobbled as the man pushed her up a makeshift wheelchair ramp into the house. At the time I couldn't figure out if she was alive or dead.
A few minutes later she appeared in an upstairs window, sitting in her wheelchair. She was directly facing my bedroom, and I cautiously peered out from behind my curtains. Her head was upright now, and she stared at me. Just stared, without moving her head an inch.
I closed my drapes.
For days she sat at the window. She watched the cars putter down our suburban road and gazed at the neighborhood kids scurrying through their yards. I never saw anyone else in the room; never saw her move from that wheelchair. At night I’d nervously peek through the crack in my drapes. Her silhouette was still in that window, lights off, staring out into the darkness at my bedroom. I couldn’t tell, but I knew she was watching me.
The stories about her cropped up pretty quick amongst my friends in the neighborhood. That she was a witch. That she was just a doll. That she was actually dead. But I knew she wasn’t dead. Sure, I never saw her move from that window, not once. And I never saw her head turn. But I felt her eyes move as they studied me. I could feel her watching me. All alone in my bedroom, in the middle of the night with my drapes firmly shut, I’d wake up and shudder. Her eyes were on me, I just knew it.
I began sleeping on the floor. The lower I was, the better. Maybe she couldn’t see me if I was on the floor.
I told my parents that the old woman across the street was creeping me out. I pleaded with them to talk to the Hudsons and ask them to move her to a room without a window. They laughed and told me to let her live out her twilight years in peace. She was just watching the street, they said, and that probably made her feel happy and feel younger.
“Are you just going to stick me in a windowless room when I’m an old lady?” my mom laughed. “Remind me to move in with your sister when I’m in a wheelchair!”
A week later there was some commotion at the Hudsons'. I watched from my bedroom window as the man ran out of the house and opened up the double-doors of his van. He jogged inside, and he reappeared minutes later pushing the old woman in her wheelchair down the ramp. She looked frailer than before. She couldn’t have weighed more than 70 pounds. Her head was flung to the side, resting on her right shoulder. Her body jostled in the wheelchair.
But her eyes never left me. Watched me the whole time.
The man picked her up and placed her in the car. He folded the wheelchair and stuffed it in the trunk. He quickly hopped into the driver’s seat, the younger woman pounced into the passenger seat, and the man put his foot to the pedal.
The old woman’s limp head still faced me. It bobbed up and down as the van reversed down the driveway. I studied her face. It was expressionless, emotionless. Her tongue slightly hung from the right side of her mouth. But her eyes were on mine, and they stayed on me.
The van accelerated down the street, and it was gone.
My parents heard the news that afternoon from other neighbors: the old woman’s condition was getting worse, and the Hudsons had taken her to some sort of a home. She wouldn’t be coming back. I went straight to my bedroom, and I looked across the street. I smiled. Her window was finally empty.
The Hudsons didn’t come back the next day. No van. That night I looked out towards the old woman’s window. There was no one there; no wheelchair. But the bedroom light was on. I remember telling my dad I thought it was strange, and he just shrugged and said, “Must be on some sort of timer or something.”
I woke up in the middle of the night and nervously peered out my bedroom window. That bedroom light was still on. It suddenly flicked off, and I ducked below my window frame. I slowly rose and looked out, expecting to see the silhouette of that tiny, skeletal being. I watched for ten minutes, pinching and straining my eyes. The lights quickly flickered on and then off again.
I slept on the floor again, clutching my pillow close.
I had a late baseball practice the next evening. When I got home, my house was empty. My parents were at my little sister’s softball game. I headed to the shower to rinse off.
About three minutes into my shower, I felt cold. The hot steam was escaping the bathroom somehow, which didn’t make sense because I had shut the door. I wiped the shampoo from my eyes, turned my head, and I heard a strange noise that would haunt me in nightmares for years: the metal rings of the shower curtain being dragged across the shower rod. Someone was slowly opening the curtain.
The shampoo stung my eyes, and through the stinging I saw a dark figure behind the curtain. Long, pale, bony fingers gripped the curtain as it slowly opened. I instinctively backed up in the shower, and the curtain opened completely.
There stood the old woman. I must have only looked at her for one, maybe two seconds, but at that moment, time stood still. All these years later I can still draw you a vivid picture of the horrifying image in front of me. Disheveled white hair, crazy in her eyes, bones jutting out from under her stretched skin, stark naked. Blotchy skin, warts all over her body, skinny breasts hanging to her waist. Hair where I didn’t know people could grow hair.
She smiled grotesquely, and I felt the shower tile against my back and the hot water pound my face. In her other hand, the old woman held a letter opener.
“August,” she mumbled. “August, August, August.”
I leaped past her, knocking her tiny body to the floor. I ran downstairs, naked and sopping wet. In my panic I somehow remembered I was nude, and I yanked a pair of shorts out of the hamper in the laundry room, sending the hamper crashing to the floor. I high-tailed it on foot down the street, eventually winding up at my friend’s house.
When the police arrived they found the old woman, crumpled to a heap in the bathroom. The shower was still running. The policemen were all really nice to me, admiring me for my bravery. I told them what she said to me - “August” - and asked if they knew what she could have meant.
“It will be August in a few days,” one of them shrugged. “And you can never fully understand old and crazy, son.”
The Hudsons only came to our street once more to retrieve their stuff. The “For Sale” sign was up in days. My mom told me they couldn’t face the neighbors for what happened. Apparently they had taken the old woman - the man’s mother - to a special home downstate. Somehow, someway, the woman managed to escape the home and caught a bus back to our town. It never quite made sense to me - she was so old, so frail, so helpless. She could barely move those weeks she lived in that house. How had she managed to travel hundreds of miles on her own?
Anyway, you can imagine what this did to me. I didn’t shower for 21 years. I took baths, which I suppose aren’t that different - it’s still a tub, and it involves hot, soapy water. But a shower, with its closed curtain, water peppering the tub floor and steam climbing the walls - you get lost inside your own head in the shower. Thoughts consume you, and it feels so utterly safe. For a few minutes, you are alone from the world. It’s your own private, misty kingdom.
But that’s what makes the shower dangerous - you’re enclosed, vulnerable, naked.
I talked to people about it - my parents, a shrink - but mainly I tried to push the incident deep down into places where I couldn’t find it. I didn’t talk about it with anyone since I was a kid - life carried on. Besides the baths, I was pretty normal.
A few months ago, something inside me clicked. I felt the urge to re-examine the incident; it was almost like a voice in my head was telling me to do it. My head wanted closure.
I spent hours online one night, trying to track down any information on the Hudsons and the old woman. I finally found what I was looking for - an obituary for the old woman. She had died four years ago. Somehow that walking skeleton hadn’t checked out for another 15 years. The obituary photo was a black-and-white picture from when she was a young woman - it was a photo of her and her deceased husband on their wedding day.
His name was August.
And he looked exactly like me.
I closed the browser and stared at my computer desktop for ten minutes. It finally made more sense: why she called me August. Why she was obsessed with watching me. Maybe she used to write letters to her husband, and that’s why she was clutching the letter opener that night.
For a small moment, I felt a little better. Things always feel better when they make more sense.
“Honey, is everything okay?” It was my wife.
“I think so,” I said.
I took the first shower I had taken in years that night. I didn’t even jump when the curtain rungs dragged across the shower rod and my wife entered. But as she embraced me under the hot water, one question wouldn’t leave my head:
How come the young woman in that wedding photo looks exactly like my wife?