Sunday, March 23, 2008


Time: 1977
Place: Camp Montvale, TN

My first week as a camp counselor at an overnight camp, I was put in charge of a cabin of eight and nine year old boys. They had endless energy and needed constant supervision. Every night, I went to bed exhausted. However, I never got a good night’s sleep that week.

Billy was the reason that I didn’t sleep well. His screaming always woke me up.

Billy was one of my campers. During the day, he was a typical eight-year-old boy. He played well with others, got into occasional mischief, and did his best to avoid contacting cooties from girls. During the night, he became a horror victim.

The first night was the worst. I was jolted out of a deep sleep by desperate screams. My first thought was that a bear had gotten into the cabin and was eating one of the campers. I fumbled for my flashlight. My bunk was at one end of the cabin and the boys’ bunks were lined up on the other so that I could face them. I trailed the flashlight’s beam across the boys expecting to find a bear with blood smeared over his snout. Instead, I found Billy trying to climb the cabin wall.

Billy was trying to dig his fingers into the wood planks so that he could climb away from whatever nightmare demon was after him.

“Billy!” I said. “Wake up!”

The second Billy heard my voice; he stopped scratching the wall. His arms went limp at his sides and he fell back on his bed. His eyes were closed the entire time. I went over to his bunk to check on him. He was sleeping peacefully.

I went back to my bunk. I was almost asleep when Billy started screaming and climbing the wall again. I pointed my flashlight at him and called his name, which had the same effect as the last time. His arms went limp and he fell back on his pillow. A long time passed before I was able to fall back asleep, because I was sure the screaming would start again any second.

In the morning, I stopped Billy from joining the other campers on their way to the mess hall.

“That was some nightmare you had last night,” I said.

“Nightmare?” Billy said. “I didn’t have a nightmare.”

“Then what was with the screaming and climbing the wall?”

“Who was screaming?”

“You were.”

“No, I didn’t.”

“Yes you did.”

“Are you sure it was me? I know Chris peed in his bed.”

“Never mind. Go on to breakfast.”

Every night for the rest of the week, Billy woke me up two to three times a night screaming and climbing the wall. I got into a routine where the moment he started screaming, I would shine my flashlight at him and order him to go back to sleep. Each time, the second Billy heard my voice; he fell back down into his bunk. Despite the repetition, his screams always unnerved me.

At the end of the week, the campers’ parents arrived to take this group away and make way for the next week’s group of campers. Part of my job was to tell each camper’s parents how delightful their child was. After telling Billy’s parents what a good camper he had been, I asked them what I had been wondering for days.

“How long has Billy been having nightmares?” I asked.

“Billy doesn’t have nightmares,” Billy’s father said.

“He never has nightmares,” Billy’s mother said.

“He had plenty of nightmares this past week,” I said. “He woke me up two or three times a night, screaming like he was being eaten alive and literally climbing the cabin wall.”

“Well, at home,” Billy’s father said, “Billy’s room is on the other side of the house, so even if he were screaming, we wouldn’t be able to hear him.”

“Really?” I asked. “He’s somewhere where you can’t hear him. So, he could have been having nightmares for awhile.”

“If Billy was having nightmares, he would have told us,” Billy’s mother said.

Billy’s parents gave me that smug smile that said I only spent a week with Billy, so how could I possibly know him better than them? That was true. I didn’t know Billy very well, but unlike his parents, I could hear him at night.

I wondered what sort of parents put their child far away from them so that he doesn’t disturb their sleep? What if the child needed them? He could be sick. He could be attacked by a bear. He could be having a terrible nightmare and not even know it.

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