“Leave the light on, Daddy.”
I freeze with my hand over the switch, finger trembling. Breath is hard to come by, words even harder. “It won’t come tonight.”
“It will. The red hand comes out in the dark.”
“The light can’t be on all night,” I say. I don’t say that I wish it could be. I want to give him—and myself—a peaceful night’s rest. I want to banish the fear from those eyes of his, those big eyes, his grandma’s eyes.
“Look,” I say, walking to the closet and swinging the door wide, “There’s nothing in here.” Next I go to his bed and kneel down so I can peer underneath. “Nothing down here, either. Nowhere for it to hide. You’re safe and alone. What about a night light?”
He shakes his head. “The night light makes weird shadows. Besides, it doesn’t hide in here. It hides…” He directs those big eyes of his beyond my shoulder, to the bedroom door and the hallway outside. “…Somewhere else.”
I don’t let myself turn around. Instead I get close to him and whisper, “Honey, I want you to know that it’s not real. It’s just in your imagination, and that’s where it’ll stay unless you let it out. So here’s what we’re going to do. I’m going to turn the light off, and you’re going to keep that thing locked inside your head where it belongs, OK?”
I kiss his cheek and head for the door. Once more I reach for the switch, but his voice stops me. “Daddy, please.”
I can’t do it. My finger brushes the switch, but the light’s still on when I go to bed.
I was six years old. Father was at work. I was playing in my room. Mother was preparing supper in the kitchen.
That sound. The most horrible sound. It pulled the earth from under me, and nothing would be alright ever again. Not if my mother could make a sound like that.
I’m awake, but it feels like a dream. Light creeps in from the hallway, and there’s a small voice making unintelligible noises. But I left the light on, I think. Why’s he still scared?
Did I imagine it? Did the light just flicker?
My son’s voice gets louder, and I hear the terror. I feel it. My wife’s warmth is a tether; I cling to it because I know what’ll happen if I get up to check on our boy.
The light from his room flickers again, no mistaking it this time. His chanting turns desperate, and I recognize the lullaby he sings to himself. It won’t do him any good. Tears ride his voice, corrupting the melody’s soothing purpose. He doesn’t need lullabies; he needs a firm shoulder to curl against, a strong arm to ward off his nightmares. He needs his father.
I relinquish my wife’s warmth and cross the hall. My son’s door is halfway open, as I left it, and I can see the child in his bed. The lamp on his dresser buzzes like a fly in its struggle to stay alive. The strobe effect deceives my eyes and causes the blackness to creep in at the edges, and my son sits at the center, staring across the room at something I can’t see as he sings pitifully to himself.
He hears my footstep, turns to face me. “Daddy—”
The light goes out.
That sound brought me running to the kitchen. It echoed again and again, high-pitched, vulnerable. A cry of pain that revealed the ordinary girl beneath my mother’s super-human façade. The only thing worse than her cry was what I found when I got to the kitchen.
“It’s alright,” I say as I rush into the bedroom. “Just a burned-out bulb.” I sit on the bed and put my arm around him. “Lie down, close your eyes, and you’ll be asleep before you know it.”
He doesn’t seem to hear me. He’s stopped singing, and now he says, “Red hand’s coming.”
“There’s no such thing. It’s all in your head.” It’s all in your head.
“Red hand’s coming…”
All in your head.
“Red hand’s coming…”
All in your head. I realize I’m squeezing my boy too hard, that my thoughts are escaping my lips in a growl. I let go and whisper, “Just your imagination.” But I still don’t follow his gaze across the room. “Want me to stay with you until you fall asleep?”
After a few minutes I feel his chest rise and fall, slow and relaxed. I stay a little longer to make sure. Across the hall, I hear my wife roll over in her sleep. I hear the heat moving through the vents. I hear water dripping from the leaky bathroom faucet. I hear…I hear…
I get up and return to my own bedroom, to the warmth of my wife. I hear my wife roll over in her sleep. I hear the heat moving through the vents…
A half-chopped carrot rested on the cutting board. The knife was on the floor, as was Mother. She had the phone in her hand, but it kept slipping out whenever she tried to dial. There was too much blood.
She saw me come in and pushed the phone toward me. Her fingers were red. “Call 911,” she pleaded, “hurry!”
I stared at the phone, glistening crimson. I stared at the pouring gash in Mother’s wrist. With each beat of her heart the scarlet pool swelled, and with each pulse I could hear that awful cry, the cry that had destroyed my sense of security. Parents felt no pain. They knew no fear. They were titans, invincible, all-knowing. Yet here was Mother, wounded and splayed out on the kitchen floor, her life running out over her hand, staining the phone that she kept trying to get me to pick up.
And then she stopped.
I hear the heat moving through the vents. I hear water dripping from the leaky bathroom faucet. I hear Mother cry out—
My eyes open to the weird, pre-dawn twilight. I’m thinking of Mother, of her end. I think, as I did at my wedding and at my son’s birthday, of everything she missed because of her early demise. She never got to see me graduate from high school, never met her daughter-in-law, never held her grandson.
Ice floods my chest, and I feel stupid for not having made the connection sooner. I jump out of bed and run to my boy’s bedroom. The light is on, the bulb glowing strong and bright. Not burned out at all. I nearly vomit my heart out when I see the bed is empty, the blankets tossed about and the pillow lying on the carpet. Then I step inside and there he is, fast asleep and curled on the floor by the closet.
My pulse returns to normal, and I scoop him up without waking him. It’s all in your head. I return him to his bed and pull the sheets over him, careful to hide the crimson handprint on his pajamas from view. It’s all in your head.