Where Fear Sleeps
I believe that it was spring when we began as churchgoers. Mom would wake her three daughters and two sons run a wet comb through each head of hair and stuff the stray ends of our shirt tails into our pants and skirts and usher us one by one into the family car. Week by week, I sat in the pew drifting in and out of day dreams, with the words of our stern and elderly pastor echoing in the tiny church house. I remember wiping a runny nose on my shirtsleeve every week, for mine is a nose that starts to gush at the slightest sensation of boredom. When my attention did return to the sermon, it would seem as if Bible verses about wickedness or sin or retribution or eternal judgment were in perpetual ricochet from pulpit to pew.
Sunday afternoons were filled with casual snacking and family movies, but bedtime was strictly enforced. I remember Mom tucking me into the blankets of my bed. I’m closing my eyes and listening to the soft din of crickets and peepers and field mice, the wilderness coming alive as it grows dark. Everything was as it should be. Yes, I believe it was spring when we began as churchgoers.
I don’t know when but, some time after we started with church, I began to feel that something was lurking in the black of my bedroom, just past the edge of my bed, waiting for me to let my guard down. The Devil was calling me, offering eternal life or unlimited dessert or whatever the Evil One offers an eight-year-old. The kind of temptations you find in thick tomes bound with leather, in horror-movie encounters with evil where children play games with Ouija boards and séances.
I was in my bed and the crickets and peepers and field mice seemed so far away, and I found myself saying again and again, like a chant, the answer is no and no and no and no and no and no and no. As if the silence itself could accept his offer. I whimpered and cried and wailed and when my mother came rushing in I begged her to stay beside me until I fell asleep, and she gave in, the way mothers do.
But it was the same every night for months.
Matthew, Mom would say, what am I going to do with you? I can’t do this forever.
Late one night, months later, I threw off my corduroy quilt and climbed down from my loft bed and opened the door to the kitchen. I stepped onto the cold slate and into the waves of blue light that emanated from the television set in the living room. As I crept, the heavily trodden carpet gave way under my bare feet. My parents were curled together on the couch, watching a movie I had never seen but remembered from last year’s trailers.
Crocodile Dundee II. I perched myself just outside the doorway and tried to watch the movie from a nearly impossible angle.
During a commercial break, Mom finally noticed me.
“What are you doing?”
“Can I stay up and watch the movie?”
Mom paused, deciding.
“Okay. Come sit with us. Just for a bit.”
I climbed onto the rough and wooly couch and planted myself between them. Mom asked if I was hungry. I nodded. She tiptoed down to the kitchen and came back with two pieces of bread slathered in something white.
“Sour cream sandwiches,” she said. “Is it okay?”
Mouth full, I told her they were good.
We watched as Crocodile Dundee took his big-city girlfriend to the Outback to protect her from wicked men. He used wilderness traps and Outback secrets to save his love. With the sandwiches and the movie and my parents planted on opposite sides of the couch, it felt like evil was far away and improbable, a mere half-formed imagining, like chocolate that travels through time to arrive when you need it most, or a melody that dazzles your sense of smell.
When the movie ended, Dad stood at the television and said, it was time for bed, for real this time, the way fathers do. And Mom led me down the stairs and asked if I wanted her to stay with me until I fell asleep.
I said yes, but already it seemed the fear was gone or going and, as it went, I could hardly remember where or what or why it was or what it wanted.
Mom helped me into bed and let her hand move softly across my shoulder until my breathing became heavy and rhythmic. Somewhere between sleep and waking, I felt her soft, slight arms begin to pull away.
It was winter then, this I know. The crickets and the peepers and the field mice had disappeared into the blankets of snow and earth. That night there was only the moan of the wind and, from the kitchen, the sound of the propane heater coming on: click, click, click, clack..