The Yellow Sweater
My wife and I had just moved into an elegant old three-story Victorian in Saint Louis during the midst of a cold, wet spring. The house was a bit drafty but otherwise in fine shape. We made our bedroom on the second floor.
The very first night in the house, I awoke—or thought I awoke—deep in the middle of the night, and glanced about, somewhat startled by the strange dark room in which I found myself, before remembering that we had just moved into our new home. I turned to see my wife, slumbering quietly beside me, then glanced in the other direction. I noticed an indistinct shape of some light color on the bedroom floor and tried to make out what it was. After a moment, I was able to determine that it was a sweater, of what appeared in the dim light to be a yellow color, lying crumpled on the hardwood floor, half over the bedside rug. The thought occurred to me to pick it up and hang it up in the closet, but I just as quickly shrugged off the idea, wondering why I should go to the trouble in my sleepy state rather than just wait till morning. I turned over and soon enough fell back asleep.
When I next awoke, it was light out and I found myself alone in the bed. I could hear my wife downstairs in the kitchen, making something for breakfast. As I rose from the bed, I noticed that the yellow sweater was not to be seen.
After washing my face, I joined my wife downstairs. “Morning, love,” I said, giving her a kiss on the cheek as she prepared French toast. “You sure are up early for Sunday.”
“Early? It’s almost nine.”
“Like I said, early for Sunday.”
“So how did you sleep?”
“Very good, actually. Only woke up once, for a few minutes. Speaking of which… I saw you picked up that sweater from off the floor. I would have gotten it myself, but it was the middle of the night when I noticed it and I was way too sleepy to get out of bed.”
“You know… that yellow one.”
She looked at me quizzically. “I don’t own a yellow sweater, honey.”
I frowned. “You sure?”
She chuckled. “Yes, I think I would know if I had a yellow sweater. You know I don’t even like yellow that much.”
I sat down at the table, the frown still on my face. “Well… did you pick up any sweater?”
“No, sweetie. Why?”
I shook my head. “I just… I could have sworn I saw a sweater on the bedroom floor when I woke up last night.”
“You were probably just dreaming.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I guess I must have been. It’s so weird, though. It really felt like I was awake.”
“Well, you know, that happens sometimes. I get dreams like that too, where I really think I’m awake, in my familiar surroundings, only to wake up for real and realize I had only been dreaming before. You’re right, it’s weird. That’s the human brain for you. It plays tricks sometimes.”
“I know, you’re right. It’s just a little bit freaky, you know.”
The next night I seemed to wake again at some unholy hour, finding myself in the dark bedroom. Like the night before, I turned first to see my wife, contentedly asleep, then turned the other way.
My breath caught. I saw what appeared to be a young girl, wearing the yellow sweater I had seen the night before. In my half-asleep, half-awake state, I felt the terrible urge to scream rising up in my throat, but then reminded myself I was only dreaming.
This isn’t real, I thought. It’s just one of those dreams.
I looked again at the girl. She was sitting on the floor, a few feet away, facing away from me toward the closet. I could not see her face, only her brown hair, tied in two braids, the yellow sweater, a dark-colored skirt, white socks, and black shoes.
Even though I knew she wasn’t real, the thought occurred to me to talk to her, to ask her who she was and why she was here. But I just as readily dismissed the notion. How silly… why converse with a figment of your own unconscious mind?
I listened. She seemed to be sitting silently, but after a minute or two I could hear, barely perceptibly, what sounded like crying. I then noticed that her shoulders heaved gently.
I suddenly felt sorry for her, a strange deep sympathy warming my heart. I closed my eyes.
Next thing I knew it was morning. I looked at the floor, feeling foolish for doing so, and of course saw no girl, and no sweater.
I did not mention the dream to my wife that morning before we both headed off to work. Why not? I asked myself after leaving the house. Was I afraid she’d think I’m losing my mind? Or is it just not worth giving her an account of every little strange dream that I have? She’d get bored by it very quickly.
I also wondered why I should have such similar dreams two nights in a row. I did not usually have recurring dreams, but I suppose anyone could. That’s it, I told myself. Just a bizarre recurring nightmare. Who can explain it? The mind is indeed a mysterious thing.
But why did I say nightmare? Were the dreams really nightmares? The first one wasn’t scary at all—it was actually rather banal—and the second one, though alarming at first, soon gave way to curiosity and even pity. And yet… as embarrassing at it might have been to admit, and against my better judgment, I felt a slight apprehension about going to sleep that night.
I lay awake for awhile, well after my wife had dozed off, watching TV, but not really able to pay attention to the shows. Why are you so nervous? I asked myself. I knew it was utterly irrational, but I couldn’t seem to help it. There’s no reason, I said to myself, to be afraid of a dream. Besides, you don’t even know you will ever dream about it again. Maybe that’s it, just those two.
Eventually, I drifted off to sleep.
In the wee hours, in the dark, I found myself once more lying awake—or seemingly awake—in the bed. As before, I first turned to make sure my wife was there. She was. I didn’t want to look the other way. I tried to control my breathing.
Don’t you realize how silly you’re being? I thought. This is only a dream. Yes, it feels quite real. It feels like I’m really awake. But it… is… only… a dream.
My heart froze. I heard, ever so faintly, the sound of a girl quietly weeping.
I did not want to look. And yet… and yet… I again found my fear overcome by pity. And a searing curiosity. Who was this girl? Why did she seem almost… familiar?
I summoned my courage. The knowledge that it was only a dream, combined with my sympathy, finally overturned my trepidation. I sat up and looked.
I was startled to see her sitting much nearer the bed, this time facing me. I still could not see her face, however, since she hung her head as she wept. I noticed for the first time how incredibly pale and thin she appeared.
I gathered up all my nerve and spoke. “Why are you crying?”
She didn’t look at me at first. My heart became even less frightened, more soft.
I tried again. “It’s okay, I’m your friend. Why are you so sad?”
She slowly turned her head upward and looked at me. Her face appeared, like the rest of her, wan, emaciated, and sad. I felt nothing but compassion for this strange nightly apparition.
“Don’t you remember?” she said, her voice soft and somehow—I don’t know how else to describe it—hollow.
“Don’t you know?”
I gazed at her seriously. “No, I’m sorry. I don’t.”
She sniffed. “I’m you.”
I stared at her, uncomprehending. “Wh—what?”
But she only hung her head and started sobbing again, soft and quiet as before.
“What do you mean?”
“Never mind,” she said, and stood and walked out of the bedroom.
I heard her walk down the stairs.
When I awoke, I did not remember the dream at first. It did not come back to me until I was on my way to work. Even then, I did not find it so much disturbing as strangely fascinating. What on earth was my mind doing? What was this all about?
The words haunted me throughout the day. What the hell did that mean? Perhaps it didn’t mean anything. It was just a dream, after all. Who can make sense of them? Why look for rhyme or reason in the brain’s unconscious nighttime scribblings? Why look for logic or sense?
And yet… and yet…
Of course I am not the type who believes in ghosts, or anything supernatural for that matter. I know it is all just a dream, if a troublingly reoccurring one. The disquiet I felt had mainly to do with my own mental state. Was I going crazy? Sliding into some dark psychosis? Why is my brain obsessing over this bizarrely random image of a poor sad girl in a yellow sweater? The same yellow sweater every single night? If only I could understand…
The fourth night in the house arrived, whether I wanted it to or not. This is really getting ridiculous, I thought. Isn’t three nights in a row enough? And it keeps getting weirder each time. What could possibly happen next?
I, of course, realized in the same moment that was a very foolish question to ask.
As the night before, I stayed up late watching, or more accurately not really watching, late night TV, knowing full well that I was going to regret it when the alarm went off in the morning. This is so stupid, I told myself. I mean, you have to go to sleep. Just don’t get so worked up about it, man. It’s only a dream.
Then, laughing at myself, I turned off the tube and lay down in the dark.
Once more, in the dark and lonesome hours in the middle of the night, I seemed to wake up. My first emotion this time was frustration, almost anger. I kept my eyes closed. Enough of this, I said. I’m going back to sleep.
But of course, I’m already asleep. This is just another of those weird little dreams. Why won’t my brain just give it a rest already?
But my brain would not give it a rest. I heard her.
Not sobbing this time. She only sighed gently, then said, “I lost my ring.”
I opened my eyes, the sound of her sorrowful, empty voice somehow, again, causing my heart to soften. I turned and saw her, some feet away, near the closet, wearing the same outfit, the same yellow sweater, so thin and pathetic, gazing toward me plaintively.
“Won’t you help me find it?”
“It was my favorite. It was Grandma’s ring, you know.”
I stared at her for a moment. “How do I find it?”
“You know where it is.”
She turned and left the room. I heard her walk upstairs to the third floor.
That morning I woke early, well before the alarm. The light was still dim but the dark was already beginning to be dispelled by the dawn. I looked around and saw no girl, no sweater. My wife lay peacefully beside me.
I recalled the latest dream—what the girl said about her ring. I remembered that she had gone upstairs.
Part of me wanted to go up there. Part of me most definitely did not.
I did not go up there.
However, I could not stop thinking about it. Despite myself, I felt intensely eager to go up to the third floor, which we were using only for storage, still filled with unpacked boxes, to look for the girl’s ring. The rational part of my mind told myself how utterly laughable that would be.
My wife customarily left for work a little earlier than I did. When we kissed goodbye that morning I did not tell her my plans. How could I? I justified it to myself by explaining that I only wanted to prove to myself how very fantastical and silly the whole thing really was.
The thought occurred to me to research the history of the house. I brushed it off—as I thought, because of the simple ludicrousness of the notion—although, if I had to be completely honest, it was as much because I did not want to know.
I ascended the stairs to the second floor. I surveyed the bedroom, the floor, the closet—not a yellow sweater to be seen. See? I said. It’s all in your head. Of course. Why do you even need to be reassured of that?
Feeling bolder, confident in the light of morning, I ascended the stairs to the third floor. When I reached the door I hesitated. Why? Don’t be an idiot.
I turned the knob, peered in.
Of course it was empty. Well, except for all the boxes.
I stepped in, leaving the door open behind me.
After a minute or so, I shrugged. The boxes surrounded me, silent and unmoving. I chuckled silently. Why are you even up here? You’re so pathetic.
And then I had a strange thought. I don’t know where it came from. I suddenly had the uncanny notion that there was a certain cabinet in the room, and in that cabinet a box, and in that box…
I felt a chill. Must be the draft, I thought.
I turned to look behind me, nearer the door, at a certain corner of the room—the corner I had in mind. There was a set of cabinets there, but I already knew that. Just my mind being stupid.
Nevertheless… okay, god damn it, just get this overwith. Prove it all wrong. Expose it to the light of reason, the light of day…
I walked over to the cabinets. The topmost one… that was the one that some completely irrational, superstitious part of my brain was prompting me to look in.
I put my hand to the knob… hesitated… opened it.
I gasped involuntarily. I felt myself, against my will, begin to tremble slightly.
There, inside the cabinet, was a little wooden box.
Still, I told myself... just a coincidence. I mean, the odds are pretty good there might be an old box around in one of these cabinets, right? It’s an attic, after all.
I reached in. I stopped. Why? Did I not want to know? Wouldn’t it be more rational to just leave it to be, to resist the temptation to open it, to justify these silly senseless urgings arising from some deep, childish part of my psyche?
But no, I said. Of course that is only a rationalization. It’s because you’re scared of what you’ll find. Good God, just open the box and get it over with and have a good laugh at yourself. No one ever has to know.
I grabbed the box and pulled it out of the cabinet.
I held it in my hands, staring at it, my skin tingling.
Just open it!
I took a breath, then opened the lid.
I lost my breath. There, sitting inside the box, was a small silver-colored ring.
My mind whirled. I tried to calm my nerves, tried to understand—
Just then I felt as though someone were behind me. I heard a girl’s soft, hollow voice.
“You found it!”