The mirrors in my room are hidden under white sheets that hang like silent ghosts.
The nurses think they’ve contained him, but I still catch glimpses of Creepy John—watching, waiting.
His rotting teeth snap from the edge of the stainless steel sink. His rolling amber eye leers from the curve of the polished doorknob. His gnarled finger marks me from the window.
The surgery they tell me I’ve had has shaken my fortifications, vibrations of pain and drugs sending the stone walls of my will crumbling. He senses the weakness. He’s taking advantage.
I’ve held him at bay for years, but in my post-operative fugue he’s finally found a way in. Smooth as the scalpel that sliced my skin, he’s sliding through the cracks and probing through the fog that muddles my mind.
I know my brain is lost in a mist whose meddling tendrils are conjuring eighty years’ worth of wraiths.
Sometimes I catch my mother’s perfect auburn curls striding briskly past my room. Last night, my sister crawled into bed with me and traced the infinite lines on my face with a tiny finger. The church ladies who threw my bridal shower came by with scones so delicious and so filling that I cried when the nurses told me I had to eat my dinner.
I chat with all my visitors. I introduce them to my daughter, who squirms uncomfortably in her squeaky rubber chair while I talk to memories she can’t see.
“Don’t worry,” I tell her, pausing to pet the mangy mutt who shared my childhood bed. “Creepy John isn’t here right now.”
Laura frowns. “Who is Creepy John, Mama?”
I've forgotten she doesn't know.
I raise a finger to my lips to shush her questions and turn back to my invisible crowd of welcome guests. I wish they could stay longer before disintegrating into dust on the breeze of the sterile air conditioning.
Creepy John is different.
Creepy John is real.
He’s hovered in my reflection for as long as I can remember.
My earliest memories are of the tilted black cowboy hat that keeps half his face veiled in immortal shadow, of the three red scars that slash like fiery lightning from the darkness on the left through the coarse stubble on the right, of the gristly lip that twists in a downward spiraling pucker.
For reasons I never had the courage to pursue, he followed me for years. He appeared in ripples of sunlight on glassy ponds. He lurked behind my shoulder while I brushed my teeth. He flashed perverse grimaces from the candlelit bells of my mother’s wine glasses.
My parents coddled me with the feeble lie of nightmares and imagination, stroking my trembling chin and tear-stained cheeks with thoughtless thumbs.
My teachers noted confidential concerns on my school report cards, recommending therapy that we could never afford.
My sister retreated, bolting like a startled doe from every room I entered as if afraid of catching Creepy John like a cold.
Eventually I learned not to talk about him, to blink him away, and to pretend he didn’t exist.
I don’t know if I’ll be able to box him away like that again when the anesthesia finally loosens its lasting hold.
I’m tired. So tired.
Laura stops at the nurses’ station on her way out. A sweet-eyed nurse in rosy scrubs and a nametag identifying her as "Priya" is making notes in a binder thicker than War and Peace.
“Have you been looking after my mom?” Laura asks.
“Bella? Yes, I sure have.”
“Is this…Is it going to…will the confusion pass?”
“It should. Sometimes it just takes a while to recover. Especially at her age.”
“And the hallucinations?”
“Are a side effect of the anesthesia. They could last for up to a couple of weeks, but they’ll pass too.”
“You’ve covered the mirrors.”
“She was frightened.”
“Of Creepy John?”
“That’s what she says, yes.”
“Has she said anything more about who he is? All the other people she sees—they’re real. I mean, they were real people that she knew, that I knew.”
“No, dear. I’m sure he’s just a figment of her imagination. A scary dream that’s bled into her waking brain. Don’t worry, she’s in good hands with Dr. Webber.”
Laura’s brows draw together. The nurse is probably right. She can’t recall ever meeting or hearing about a John.
Still, the thought of it conjures goosebumps from her flesh. She thanks Priya and leaves the hospital for the day, praying that Creepy John won't be the last thing her mama sees, that terror won't be the last emotion she feels, and that she will return to her brilliant, beautiful self before the end.
“Oh, you’re still awake!” The night nurse—Patricia? Penelope? Pamela?—is making her rounds. “In that case, you’d better watch the fireworks!”
“Fourth of July fireworks! Always the best ones. And you’ve got the best view in the whole hospital! Lucky lady.”
Deaf to my feeble protests, she crosses the foot of my bed and tugs on the beaded string to roll up the blinds and then sweeps out of the room with a promise to bring me a cup of Jell-O.
Sparks dance in the black heavens beyond. Creepy John blinks in and out of focus, backlit by red and gold, blue and white.
Even after all these decades, my heart still wilts in fear when he appears, like a dead leaf that curls up in dry decay.
My compromised control falters.
Trapped in the railed cage of this bed, swimming through the smoke of these painkillers, there’s nothing I can do to restrain him from reality.
I squeeze my eyes shut and fumble for the call button.
The dark canvas of my eyelids scrolls through blinking reels of ancient film.
An explosion of showering lights in the sky.
Screams that cut the roar of a rollercoaster.
The tickle of soft grass in my ears.
His breath smells like cigars and sour milk.
His fingertips scrape the nape of my neck.
His whispers rasp like the hissing death of extinguished embers.
The reel stumbles and suddenly I’m stumbling too, lost in a funhouse, overwhelmed by garish music, surrounded by distorted versions of my frightened face and Creepy John’s warped scowl.
I fall to my knees, the heels of my hands.
A stranger’s arms wrap around my waist and pull me up. I bury my face in their shoulder to block Creepy John’s thousand staring eyes.
I’m returned to my panicked mother, rumpled and crumpled. She checks me over and coos at my scrapes without asking about my misadventure, simply relieved that I’ve been returned relatively unharmed.
Creepy John gazes at me from the rearview mirror the whole way home.
I’m screaming through the agony when the nurse bursts back in; I’m whimpering my way to sweet oblivion when she leaves.