When I was very, very small, I had a dream. In this dream, a bad man was executed. First, his skin was peeled off. Then, his muscles were boiled off. His skeleton fell apart, and so he was nothing but veins and teeth and eyeballs.
He didn't die--in fact, he managed to escape into the woods.
I've always been prone to recurring dreams, and as I watched and rewatched the bad man's unsuccessful execution, he watched me. In perfect dream-logic, I knew he was angry at me for witnessing his humiliation and escape. And that when he got better, he would come for me.
It took a couple of years, but I dreamt of a house. A giant, ancient, four-story house where the rooms were connected by balconies overlooking a central great room. I was in my early teens at this point, and Antiques Roadshow was pretty much the greatest thing ever. So while the adults argued over boring legal stuff, I went exploring in rooms untouched for years.
He was following me.
Not obviously, but lurking in shadows and flitting out of the furthest reaches of my field of vision as I turned my head. He was keeping some distance, so I pretended I didn't see him. I slowly began making my way back to the great room, where the adults still shouted. I still stopped in several rooms--my curiosity was unabated, and I didn't want to blow my cover. As I got closer to the stairs, I realized: He knew I knew. He was teasing me, luring me into a false sense of security.
I abandoned a trunk of clothes and toys and hurried to the door, trying to look casual. The staircase was a large stone spiral, and the sound of my footsteps was so much louder than I wished--not casual at all. I abandoned that tack and ran. The man--all in black, with a hoodie or jacket pulled up so I could never see his face--his footsteps echoed above me, gaining on me.
I missed the door to the first floor, which would have led me to the great room, to my family. It was too far from the stairs to that huge room, and he was too close behind me. I'd never make it. I kept going down.
There were several basements, and all of them were twisty and confusing and damp and cold and dark. It seemed I could keep going down those stairs forever. But he was very close behind me now, just around the bend of the spiral. Desperate, I ducked into a room and hid behind the open door.
There was immediate silence. Had the man in black run past me? Or was he standing on the other side of my door, relishing my fear while he waited for the perfect moment to grab me?
I wake up at this point.
I've had this dream so often now that I know that house backwards and forwards. I know all the basements now, and where the kitchen is (on the far side of the house on the first floor, with a large table for prepping), and what the exterior looks like (large tidy lawn, bushes below the first floor windows, six stairs leading to the heavy double front doors, columns holding the balcony above).
But the man in black isn't trapped in this house. He lurks in dreams about my job, about grocery shopping, about cupcakes and any other crazy thing that swirls through my sleeping brain. In these other dreams, he's at his scariest--he waits.