On a frigidly cold winter night in 1976, my entire family had taken refuge at the lovely home of an aunt and uncle where my brother and I played often with our two cousins. Everyone had a place that evening. Our parents were all firmly ensconced in a marathon game of cards at the dining room table. My brother and our younger cousin were absorbed in the set up of an elaborate Hotwheels track in his main floor bedroom. And I tagged along with our oldest cousin in the rambling expanse of her attic floor bedroom.
I had just turned nine that winter, and she was a teenager, four years older than me. I was enamored of her antiqued blue four poster bed and its matching dresser where she sat and tried on make-up in the mirror . . . her walk-in closet full of bell-bottomed jeans . . . and her music. It was the era of Elton John and Sweet Emotion and a hit song by the Bay City Rollers called Saturday Night, and I had fallen asleep to her stereo light enough times to have memorized every word, every note of its upbeat tempo.
That night we were lying in the dark on my cousin's shag carpeted floor wrapped in blankets. Only the stereo light illuminated the darkness, creating dim shadows. Even my cousin right next to me was a dim, formless shape. It was getting late and we were tired, but we could still hear the raucous laughter of the card game and the muted conversation of our brothers going on below us. She was always kind to me, but her patient indulgence must have reached its limit because I remember her saying, "Aren't you tired?" . . . and she rolled away from me across the room. I wasn't offended. I just giggled and continued to pepper her with questions from across the dark expanse. And she asked again, "Don't you want to go to sleep yet?" I had answered, "I'm waiting for Saturday Night to come on." Eventually, she did fall asleep. I could hear her even breathing and see her still outline from the far side of the room.
But I still fought sleep, waiting for Saturday Night in the dark. And that's when it happened.
Just as I recognized the first notes of Saturday Night, the song I had been waiting for, someone . . . or something . . .from behind me . . . tapped me on the shoulder.
It was exactly the way someone would tap you on the shoulder to say, "Hey! Isn't this the song you've been waiting for?! Two quick taps. In the dark. Behind me. Where nobody was.
Even in that certain knowledge, I had instantly and reflexively sat up and turned around, scanning the darkness behind me. But there was nothing, nobody. I was paralyzed in terror for one second . . . two . . . three . . . until my flight instinct kicked in like a runaway freight train. I scrambled to my feet and launched myself in the direction where I knew the door was, bouncing off a wall or two before I found what seemed like a very long hallway that led to the staircase. My feet barely touched the steps as I half skittered half flew down them and I could hear my cousin calling behind me, asking me what was the matter. My momentum carried me straight down the main floor hallway into the bedroom where my brother and my younger cousin played. They only laughed at me in my terrified incoherence as I tried to tell them what happened. I switched directions and stumbled back to the kitchen, my heart still thumping in my ears. By that time my cousin had caught up with me from the attic and we were both talking at once to the adults . . . she was trying to explain from her perspective how she had suddenly awoken to me losing my mind upstairs, and I was fixated on the idea that there was someone ELSE up there STILL.
And they said and did what you would expect grown-ups to do. They were patient. They were reassuring and comforting. And they flipped on all the lights and showed me that there was nobody there. It was my imagination, they said. I must have been dreaming, they said.
But I remember that my dear aunt had looked askance even as she had smiled affectionately at me and pulled me close in an attempt to dismiss my fears.
And years later, she would quietly recall the family's earliest years in that house . . . when her first child was a newborn and her husband worked late. She remembered how, as she sat rocking the baby to sleep in the still of the night sometimes, that she could hear footsteps traversing the length of the attic. . . that was uncarpeted back then . . . back and forth . . . back and forth. . . and tried hard to ignore it.