Peggy and I were alone in our bedroom, later that night, when she asked me about my reactions to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Adam and Amy had already been put to bed. Peggy and I were getting into our nightclothes.
“I’m just going to come out and ask you this, Steve. Why were you freaking out over that damn cartoon? Is there something going on here that I should know about?”
In that instant, I briefly considered telling her everything. But how could I, after I had kept my secrets for so long?
Peggy and I have been married for more than thirty years. In that time, I have hidden almost nothing from her. There are no secret bank accounts in the Caymans. There have been no women on the sly. (I haven’t even been inside the walls of a gentlemen’s club, believe it or not. Why would I go to one of those places?)
But I have never told Peggy about what happened in the summer of 1976. By the time we met, as college students, those traumatic events were over. I was focused on moving on with my life.
And so Peggy—who knew more about me than any living human being—was completely oblivious to that one crucial chapter in my history.
“I’ve just been stressed at work,” I said. I thought of my earlier conversation with Dr. Beckman.
But Peggy knows me better than Dr. Beckman ever will.
“Steve. You’ve been employed at Covington Foods for thirty years. You’ve always handled work stress well. I’m thinking that it’s something else.”
She’s guessed it, I thought. Somehow, Peggy has put the entire story together.
I was wrong, however. “I think you’re worried about Adam,” she said.
“Well,” I said—and this time I was being completely truthful—”I’m always a little worried about Adam.”
I mentioned earlier that we call Adam our “miracle child”. Shortly after Adam was born, the pediatrician—and later a pediatric cardiologist—informed us that Adam had been born with a serious heart defect.
Adam was less than a year old when he underwent open-heart surgery. That’s right. The surgeons had to cut him open, and invade his tiny ribcage in order to fix one of his heart valves. There was no other option, they informed us. Without the surgery, Adam would not have seen his first birthday.
Those tense weeks Adam spent in the hospital were, in their own way, almost as jarring as that summer of the Headless Horseman. At several junctures, we almost lost Adam.
To make a long story short, Adam pulled through. But he wasn’t completely out of the woods. The doctors said that he would likely need another surgery before he attained full adulthood, possibly before he reached adolescence.
And even with the second surgery, there would be no guarantees. Adam would never be like other children. He would not be like other adults—assuming he lived to become one.
“I understand that you’re worried about Adam,” Peggy said now. “I am, too. But we have to let Adam be a kid, not just a kid with a heart condition. Mark and Laura understand that. That’s why they let him participate in normal activities—within reason…What I’m saying is, Steve, I get that you didn’t want Adam to watch that cartoon because you thought it might be too much for his heart. But we can’t think that way. We can’t shield Adam from everything in the world.”
So Peggy thought that my reaction to The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was rooted in my usual concern for Adam. I felt a fresh wave of guilt wash over me.
“Adam is going to be fine,” I said, with as much bravado as I could muster. In that moment, at least, I was no longer thinking about Bicentennial quarters and ghosts from long ago. I was thinking about my grandson, and the lot that he’d been given in life. “Adam is going to outlive us all.”
Peggy put a hand on my cheek. “Steve, we don’t know that. Not for sure. We have to be prepared for any eventuality. I mean, we can hope—we can pray—and Mark and Laura are taking Adam to the doctor every two months. But we can never really be sure of what the outcome will be. And we have to get used to that.”
“I know,” I said. “But it doesn’t seem fair.”
“No,” she agreed. “It isn’t. But we both know all too well that life isn’t always fair. And if we don’t know it by the time we’re pushing sixty, then I guess we never will. She smiled and kissed me. “Good old Steady Steve. Anyway, let’s call it a day, huh?”
“If you’re suffering from stress,” she said, “maybe I could help you with that.”
“Yes,” I said. “Yes, I think I’d like that.”
I leaned over and kissed her. One thing led to another, and soon we were both undressed, and I was lying atop her, her legs entwined in mine.
I rubbed against her, our complimentary body parts at the appropriate angles and contact points. This was a maneuver that I knew fondly and very, very well.
I, however, was not responding as I should have—as I always had, in thirty-five years of marriage.
I tried to make it happen, rubbing against her more vigorously than normal. I think my extra effort may have done more harm than good.
“What’s up?” Peggy finally whispered in my ear.
But the point was—something wasn’t up.
“I—I’m just having a little trouble tonight, is all.”
“Do you want me to…” she whispered the rest in my ear.
While that sounded quite enticing, I knew that I would only humiliate us both if nothing happened as a result. I rolled off her, as gently as I could, onto my side of the bed.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Hey, it’s all right.” She rubbed my chest. “These things happen, you know.”
“They’ve never happened to me in the past—to us.”
“Well, there was bound to be a first time. Like I said earlier, we’re both pushing sixty. We’re not the same two horny college kids who met in Intro to Accounting at UC, back in the seventies.”
“No, I suppose not. But in any case, I can assure you that this will be temporary. I really am under an unusual amount of stress…at work.”
“No worries,” she said. I both heard and felt her roll over. “I’m sure that Steady Steve will be back tomorrow night—or the night after.”
I awoke from a horrible, incredibly vivid dream. In the dream I found myself in the middle of a grassy field. The sky was pitch-black, and there were fires burning on the horizon.
In the dream I watched helplessly as a headless man on horseback ran down and murdered the people I love. There were people from both my present and my distant past.
The horse, just like the rider, had obviously been dead for a long time. But still they were up and moving around with lethal efficiency.
My loved ones ran in vain—none of them fast enough to escape the rider and his blade.
I called out in the dream for the creature to stop. I couldn’t make my feet move, however.
Then, when the Horseman had killed everyone in sight, when the field was strewn with mutilated corpses and severed heads, he came charging for me.
That was when I woke up.
I awoke with a start; and as is often the case with exceptionally realistic dreams, some time passed before I fully realized that it had been a dream.
My back and my chest were moist with a light coating of perspiration. The blanket and sheet on my side of the bed were wrapped around my feet. I must have been thrashing about in the dream.
I turned my head and saw that Peggy was still asleep. Her eyes were closed, and her chest was gently expanding and contracting as she breathed. At least I hadn’t woken her up.
I looked over at the digital clock on my nightstand. 3:22 a.m. Too early to get up, but would I be able to get back to sleep…after that dream?
I heard something move on the other side of the room. It might have been the house settling. But it might have been something else.
Even in the darkened bedroom, I could see that the closet door was open—just a crack.
I was certain that I had closed it the previous night, after I had done a full sweep of the contents of the closet. I had closed the closet door until I both heard and felt the tumbler click.
And now the door was ajar again.
There were possible explanations, of course. Peggy might have accessed the closet last night, and left the door partially open.
I didn’t think so, though.
I lay awake for a while and thought about Dr. Beckman’s advice.
Write it down, Steve. Write it all down.
The time was 4:02 a.m. when I slipped out of bed. I was not going back to sleep. Not this morning.
The mattress creaked a little. I was careful to avoid waking Peggy. I stood up on the carpeted floor and looked down at her.
I slipped into my shorts and pajamas. (I had discarded them on the floor in our unsuccessful attempt at lovemaking.)
Then I kicked on my slippers. Once again, I was careful not to awaken my wife.
I turned away from the bed and took a step toward the hallway, when I heard it.
The sound of a half-formed word, not quite a breath, and not quite a complete syllable.
The sound had come from the closet.
Perhaps. And perhaps not. The furnace had kicked on around 3:45 a.m., so perhaps I had heard nothing but an anomaly in the normal wheezing of the house’s heating system.
I couldn’t be sure. I couldn’t be sure of much of anything, after the past week and a half.
That was why I needed to carry out the decision I had just made.
I turned away from the closet, and walked quietly out of the bedroom.