Did you have nightmares when you were a kid?  I did.   According to WebMD, nightmares are most common in preschoolers (children aged 3-6 years) because this is the age at which normal fears develop and a child’s imagination is very active.  Nightmares may involve disturbing themes, images, or figures such as monsters, ghosts, animals, or bad people.  Yep, I had those.   How about recurring nightmares?  I had those, too. There was the Aquaboo Elephant, a miniature elephant with electric eyes who hid behind my bedroom door and woke me long after my parents went to bed with its signature call … aquaboo, aquaboo, aquaboo.  Sounds funny now, but some nights I was afraid to sleep for fear of those eerie eyes.  Are you still with me?  How about nightmares that occur exactly once a year on exactly the same day, the day your creepy Uncle Will died?   Nightmares that leave a memento hanging from your bedpost, the scariest dog tags in history?   Remembering those nights still quickens my pulse and ices my blood, even though the dreams stopped fifteen years ago.

I don’t know why Uncle Will’s ghost decided to show up at my bedroom door the night he died.  Sometimes, I wonder if he thought I liked him because I was the only nephew to visit at the VA hospital and because I tried hard to be nice when I was there.   Maybe once he was dead, he could read my mind and it ticked him off that I only went because Dad made me.  Either way, he scared the hell out of me.   I do know that the yearly nightmares started when I found Uncle Will’s dog tags with the ruby-eyed skull hidden away in my Dad’s dresser drawer.   I know that nothing I did could prevent those dog tags from appearing on my bedpost the morning after Uncle Will’s icy hands touched my face at midnight on the anniversary of his death.  That Uncle Will no longer haunts me is little solace, since he moved on the year my son, Aaron, found those dog tags in my hiding place.  I can feel Aaron’s midnight terror as if it was my own even if he won’t let himself scream … and I know, the next day he’ll be returning the tags to their place in our storage bin.

Last year, I thought I could bring it to an end.   A client had asked me to assess the viability of a small engineering firm in Hartford, Connecticut.   The day I was to tour the plant was Uncle Will’s Death Day.  I became obsessed with the notion of making things right with my Uncle, the only question being how.   The day of my trip I stopped at our storage bin on the way to the airport to retrieve the dog tags and tucked them into my pants pocket, which elicited a few strange looks from airport security but nothing more.  I dream-walked though my business, more interested in my evenings at the Rocky Hill Veterans Hospital, where a helpful clerk found what I was looking for, the location of Uncle Will’s grave.   When my plant tour was done early in the afternoon of Will’s Death Day, I stopped at a florist for a large bouquet, then drove to Rocky Hill Cemetery.

The cemetery was a small, flat field of brown grass on a narrow, wooded road, surrounded by a decaying wrought iron fence.  The entrance gate had rusted off the hinges, so it opened easily in spite of the large padlock and chain.   The grass beside the narrow road between the graves was nearly as high as my rental car windows, so had to stop periodically and climb out to read the names on the gravestones.  Many were cracked and leaning to one side or another, and some had fallen, overgrown with weeds.  By the time I found the simple white cross etched with the name Will Townsend, the sun had slipped behind the trees.   A few peepers and crickets were making weak attempts at song while a bullfrog groaned mournfully in a nearby pond.  Several bats fluttered in and out of sight.   I pulled several viney weeds from the foot of the cross and did my best to groom the faded grave site with a pair of scissors from my briefcase.   I placed the flowers against the bottom of the cross and hung the dog tags over the top.   And I prayed, if you can call talking to a long dead uncle praying.   And, when, as darkness rolled across the graves and fireflies began to twinkle, I rose to leave, I felt a tug at my leg.   Then nothing.

It was morning when I awoke looking up at the cross, my head pounding.   I touched my forehead, finding the crimson on my fingers matched a smudge on one corner of the cross.  The dog tags were gone.   I struggled to my feet, still shaky, but made my plane home, picking up a few odd stares at my rumpled clothes and bruised face.   I managed to clean up before anyone came home, and I’ve never mentioned this to anyone until now, except to ask my son if he’d dreamed of Uncle Will the night before.   He hadn’t and hasn’t since.  Neither have I.

You’d think that would be the end of it and for everyone but me, it is.   But I’ve spent days trying to convince myself that it was a weed, not a cold boney hand that entangled my ankle that night.  And I’ve told myself again and again that I haven’t changed.  But I have.  Because tucked away with my own memories of a pretty good life are less familiar ones.   Memories of days in a trench in Germany surrounded by fallen comrades, too injured to do anything but paint a frightening skull on a set of dog tags.   Memories of years alone in a hospital room painted a pale institutional green.  Memories of a boy who came to visit, his politeness belying the heartbreaking terror in his eyes.  And once in a while, I recall dying alone under a single incandescent bulb.

You see, I am who I always was but I am also Uncle Will.


This is the third of my Uncle Will Stories.  The first two, Uncle Will (here) and Good Will Haunting (here), were posted in October of 2010.

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7 Comments on “Nightmares”

  1. cherperz Says:

    That is positively creepy !!! But just perfect for Halloween. Great story, Bud.

  2. I remember this story!! Super creepy!! HAPPY HALLOWEEN!!!!

  3. territerri Says:

    You really have a knack for the scary story. I’d love to see a collection of Uncle Will stories in the future. Just think… by next Halloween, you could have a short novel (or more) on the bookshelves!

  4. Aw… does this mean no Uncle Will story next year?

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