The night winds are fierce, and the shadows cast by tree branches shake and tremble across my blue-tinted room. But it’s not the howling wind or the golf ball-sized rain that wakes me up. It’s the sound of the engine rumbling outside in the driveway…the engine in the ’67 Chevy Impala that he’d spent literally years of his life restoring. I remember the day he had finally installed the rebuilt engine in the car. He lowered it softly and gently into the cavernous hood, his eyes darting back and forth between the car and the hydraulic hoist from which the engine hung. I remember thinking he looked the way Dr. Frankenstein must’ve looked in his world of make believe…after he’d found the perfect brain for his monster.
This engine’s rumble…cut right through you. It was one of the most powerful I’d ever heard. It literally shook houses and other structures that were unfortunate enough to be close by. It rattled windowpanes and doors. And if you happened to be lying in bed at the time, very still, you could even feel it ricocheting off your heart.
It’s this engine that wakes me up. So, like I’ve done a hundred times before in this nightmare, I crawl out of bed and over to the window. I peer down into the driveway. The sight below is consistently foreboding, and it never changes: The black-as-night Impala sits, headlights on, engine idling. The driver’s side door hangs open. But there’s no sign of him—no sign of my long-dead best friend, Mike.
But that’s only because he’s in my house now. I hear his footfalls on the steps, one at a time. Very slow and very deliberate. Mike does this on purpose because he knows it scares me to death.
I’m old now. Not old-old, but old enough that running and jumping back into bed and yanking the covers over my face is decidedly uncharacteristic behavior for someone my age. But that doesn’t keep me from doing that exact thing.
I try to keep my quaking body under control and my breathing in check, even when I hear the squeal of my bedroom door opening. For a moment there’s no sound at all—no footsteps, no storm, and no engine. It’s as if I am in a vacuum, and all sound has been stolen and sucked into some unseen world.
His footsteps break the silence as he continues his walk toward my bed. They come closer and closer. And though I am still under the blankets, I know it’s him. I can tell because I smell his dead, rotting flesh—flesh that had decayed over the four days his body lay at the bottom of Wardman River. People say you can’t smell anything in dreams, but there’s never been anything less true.
He steps close to the bed now and through the blankets separating us I can sense his dead eyes burning holes into my own. I silently beg and plead for him to walk away, and after a while, he does. He doesn’t leave, though—he doesn’t leave the room because his footsteps are heard all around me.
I don’t know how long I remain under those blankets – it’s always hard to remember time in dreams – but I finally remove the covers to confront the sight that I know will be before me: Mike standing in the dark corner of my bedroom, hidden in the shadows so that I cannot see his face. As the window’s curtains sway in the wind and obscure his face – windows, mind you, I was sure had been closed – Mike simply stands and stares at me. That’s all he does. He never speaks, never threatens me—never even moves. He just stands in the darkness for the duration of the night and judges me with eyes I thankfully cannot see; and as the night skies are chased away by the raw pink of the early morning, he vanishes. He doesn’t fade away like smoke from a smoldering candlewick, but disappears entirely like someone flicking a switch. And outside I hear his driver’s side door slam, the car shift into gear and back out of my driveway…back to wherever it is he waits to visit me again.
Mike and I were friends all during our high school years, but once I went off to college three states away, life changed dramatically for him. He got into things he shouldn’t have; he associated with people that were no good for him. And once this new life of his had gotten to be too much, he killed himself. He drove his car off Key Bridge sometime after midnight on his 19th birthday—a day he had spent alone, and I had spent studying, sharing drinks with my roommate, and selfishly forgetting about the people who made me the person I am.
The nightmares have slowed considerably over the years – sometimes they come only twice or three times a year now – but they have never stopped. And I trust they never will. And on those sleepless nights when Mike comes to me, I try desperately to keep him in my heart—to will him to remember that I loved him, and still love him, and I wish that he would just forgive me. But my heart does not fill with the reciprocating feeling of forgiveness like I hope—or with Mike’s own sense of recognition, or pity.
All that fills my heart is the unending and muddy rumbling of his engine.