This is what you do. You wake up, you remind yourself that nightmares aren’t real, you turn on a light, toss the blanket back, rotate yourself on the bed, put your two feet on the floor, stand up, and put some clothes on. Then maybe you sit at the computer for a bit, or sit in a comfortable chair and read your book, or fire up Netflix on the television and watch something lighthearted. What you do isn’t terribly important; what’s important is finding something interesting to swab out the residue of whatever ugly thing formed the core of your nightmare.
At about 4:15 this morning, the ugly thing was a simple 55 gallon drum in the corner of an old barn.
I’ve mentioned before that I have occasional nightmares. Not the usual nightmares, but nightmares that revolve around things I’ve done or seen. Or, in this case, something I didn’t actually see, but something that was there anyway. Here’s what happened: years ago I was hanging around a courthouse, waiting to see if a case I’d worked on was actually going to go to trial that day (this is where I should mention I used to be a private investigator specializing in criminal defense work). Another defense lawyer told me his client was going to trial that morning–some drug-related charge–but the client hadn’t shown up and wasn’t answering his phone. He said he could stall for a while, and asked me to go to the defendant’s home and roust him. Since it didn’t look like my case was going to go forward, I agreed.
This sort of thing happens occasionally. Sometimes there’s a valid reason for a defendant not to show up for a court appearance. Not often, but sometimes. Usually all you have to do is show up at their door and remind them that if they don’t get their ass to the courthouse right damned quick, an arrest warrant will be issued and their bail would be forfeited and they’d be even more fucked. That’s assuming you can find them, of course.
This guy lived in the country on what had once been a farm. At some point in the past the farmhouse had burned down (distant past–nothing to do with the defendant), but the barn was still standing. The client lived in an old Airstream trailer beside the barn.
The barn door was partially open and I could see a moderately battered pickup parked inside. I knocked on the trailer door a few times. No answer. I walked around the trailer banging my fist on it, just to let him know I was there. No response. I tried the door. It was unlocked and it opened, so I yelled my name and identified myself as working for his lawyer. Nothing. I decided not to go inside. If he was in there, he clearly had no intention of coming out; if he wasn’t inside, there was no reason to enter,
I did, though, decide to do a quick sweep of the barn. I don’t know why; the barn was no different than the Airstream. He’d have heard me arrive, so if he was inside the barn he had no intention of coming out. But I yelled a hello, identified myself again, and went in anyway. I checked the truck; the hood was cold, so he hadn’t been driving it recently. I generally nosed around, but aside from a couple of old 55 gallon drums in a corner by the door there wasn’t much to see. The drums were out of the ordinary; lots of folks in the country used them to burn trash. I noticed these drums still had their lids on, which was odd, but I didn’t think much of it.
I decided I’d done enough. I wrote ‘You were supposed to be in court today’ on the back of a business card and stuck it under the windshield wiper of the pickup. I wedged another card in the door of the trailer. And I went back to the courthouse.
A week or so later I got a call from the State police. The local police had found my business cards. They’d also found the guy stuffed into one of those 55 gallon drums. Without his head.
I wasn’t a suspect or anything; the Staties were just being thorough. They asked the questions you’d expect them to ask, I gave them the answers I could, and that was it. I don’t know why the guy was killed, when he was killed, or who killed him. It was likely a drug thing, but It wasn’t my case, so I didn’t pay attention to it. The last time I spoke to the guy’s lawyer, he told me they’d never found the guy’s head.
I have no idea why this figures into an occasionally recurring nightmare, but it does. I didn’t know the defendant, I never met him and I don’t even recall his name. I didn’t see anything scary, I didn’t do anything frightening or dangerous. I just walked around and made noise. There’s no reason this should be in my nightmare lineup. But there it is.
I dream I’m at that farm. I walk around the trailer banging on the sides as I go. I open the door to the trailer, but don’t go in. I go into the barn and noodle around, and with each scene in the nightmare I get more and more anxious and scared. In the nightmare I know there’s something horrible in those 55 gallon drums. I don’t know what it is, and I don’t know how I know, but I know it’s there and I know it’s horrible. In fact, I’m not even sure I actually see the drums in my nightmare. But there’s something in that barn, something I don’t want to see, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to see it.
I don’t have this particular nightmare very often, and usually I wake up before it gets too bad. Usually, I’m able to go back to sleep. But not this morning. This morning I was too unsettled to even consider going back to sleep.
It’s ridiculous, isn’t it. These sort of nightmares used to be a common occurrence. Now I have them three or four times a year. The ones that wake me up and keep me up, I mean. So it’s not a big deal. I usually forget about the dream after a bit. The only reason I’m still thinking about it this morning is because I became curious why and how 55 gallon drums (or 200 liter drums if you’re European, or 44 gallons if you’re in the UK) became the standard size. (Spoiler: the Iron Clad Manufacturing Co. patented a process for making stackable steel storage drums in 1904; but what’s really cool is the fact that the company was owned by Nellie Bly.)
I see old 55 gallon drums with some regularity when I’m out noodling around. They don’t bother me; I don’t associate them with that incident. There’s nothing spooky or scary about them. But still they sometimes show up in my dreams and wake me up. When that happens, I remind myself that nightmares aren’t real, I turn on a light, toss the blanket back, rotate myself on the bed, put my two feet on the floor, stand up, and put some clothes on. Then I find something to distract myself.
Thar’s what you do.