Children in the midst of nightmare are an unnerving sight. You try to speak to them through their anguished wails, assure them with a touch, only to be pushed away by their flailing limbs. Even when they finally wake, they’re so dazed you can’t be sure they’re conscious. Can’t be sure they know where they are, or who you are. Their fear persists, eventually dying down to a whimper, which eventually subsides to sleep.
As unnerving as this display is, the opposite is more disturbing; rather than a gradual decline from terror to peace, their emotional shift comes abruptly. One second, screaming, the next? Smiling and quiet, or giggling and happy.
I had accepted this as nothing more than an addition to the list of the many bizarre things children do. Then a series of nightmares changed my mind.
We’ll start with my daughter.
Around two in the morning, I’m ripped from my sleep by her crying. Her range of cries, I’m beyond familiar with. A different cry for a different need. A cry for when she wakes up thirsty, another for after wetting the bed, one for fear.
This cry was fear, but it was more. Her screams were comparable to what I imagine mine would be if I were being torn apart.
So when I say her screams ripped me from my sleep I mean it. My body had carried me halfway across the house, at a dead sprint, before I realized I was up.
Adrenaline surging, I turn her light on, not sure what to expect. She’s screaming, clawing at her face. Her eyes are open, but she’s not awake. Unresponsive to my attempts to comfort. Her screams turn to quivering shouts of, “My chin, my chin! Take it off!”
Nonsensical. Child babble. I look at her chin and, so far as I can tell, there is nothing wrong, apart from what she has done with her little fingernails. So I tell her, “Your chin is fine, baby girl.”
It isn’t. She’s drawn thin lines of blood. But her screams stop, as does her flailing. “Okay.” Her single word doesn’t quiver with leftover fear. Instead it drips with an overwhelming but shallow joy. “I’m gonna go back to sleep now.”
And she does.
So, after cleaning her face, after waiting to make sure her sleep would remain peaceful, I return to bed. I wouldn’t have given it another thought, if not for the previous night. I’d not given the previous night much thought when it happened.
My oldest, my six year old son, had woken me with his steadily growing sobs. He was making his way across the house, to our bedroom. I woke. My wife didn’t. Nothing wakes her.
So I got up and met him halfway, in the den. His fear wasn’t so palpable as his sister’s, but he was clearly upset. Unresponsive as well. All he said, “I don’t have a spoon.”
More nonsense. I told him, “Wake up.”
“Alright.” His sobs ceased. He wasn’t joyful, but not fearful either. But he smiled. A forced smile. And went back to bed without another word. The only thought I gave it, That was creepy.
After my daughter’s dream, my writer brain went to work torturing me with possibilities I don’t believe in. Haunting. Possession. The like.
What could reside in my children, in their nightmares, to cause such fear. What could banish that fear so suddenly? Not banishing it. Hiding it. A flicker of my son’s forced smile, like he had a gun to his head, intrudes my thoughts.
As I attempt to sleep, my imagination continues building with blocks of my fear, convincing me that things aren’t alright. My paranoia isn’t uncommon. Always unfounded. So I jot the whole thing down as another story idea. Coping through writing.
The next day, well after my wife has left for work and I’ve put my son on the bus, my daughter sits in the floor working on her Disney princess puzzle, her back toward me.
Still, I’m puzzling over their dreams. I don’t let things go. I can’t help myself. So I say to her, “I know you’re in there.” More as an attempt to relieve my worries than anything else. Humoring my insanity to prove it insane.
She stops her puzzling, sits perfectly still. Slowly she turns her head to meet my gaze. Her lips are turned in a slight frown. Her eyes are cold, locked on mine. She doesn’t blink or look away.
Several minutes she holds her stare. Several minutes before I break and leave the room. I pace and torture myself.
That wasn’t my daughter’s face. It was, but it wasn’t. When I build up the nerve to go back her puzzle is finished and she has moved on to TV. She smiles at me but I can’t decide; is it her smile or not?
That night, things escalate… to say the least. My son’s sobs echo through the house. I go to him. Enter his dark room. His sobbing stops.
I ask him, “What’s wrong?”
The arm of his outline reaches out to me, a glint of light from the bathroom flashing off something in his hand.
I take the something. Cool metal with warm liquid. A spoon. I shudder, flip on the light. Dark gunk with red running from the spoon’s scoop to my hand.
Reflex has me toss the spoon away. It’s not until I look at him that I realize the blood had to come from somewhere.
He is calm, sitting upright on his bed.
His eye is missing.
“I got it out,” he says.
Frantic and in shock, I search for the eye for too long before taking him to the hospital without it. I still haven’t found the eye.
Over the next several days we, my wife and I, are out of our minds. Naturally. We spent the several days taking every small, potentially dangerous thing out of reach. Putting locks in places we never thought necessary to put locks. No spoons, not even our daughter’s plastic toy spoons. Most toys we took away, as precaution.
For several days, we didn’t sleep. I jumped at every little sound, rushing to investigate, though the children slept soundly.
We were placed under investigation by CPS. Of course we were. Our son scooped out his eye like it was strawberry ice cream. I remain surprised that both of our children weren’t taken from us immediately. The case stayed open, but they were satisfied enough that we weren’t abusing our children.
The third day after the eye event, we took the kids to their appointment with a psychologist. Long story short, after several weekly visits; an isolated incident, they say. Happy, healthy, well-adjusted children.
Despite our protests.
Despite my son having scooped out his fucking eye.
Was I the only one paying any goddamned attention? My wife was scared, but not to the extent events warranted.
They weren’t behaving normally. Our son spent the whole time in therapy not talking much at all. Abnormal for him. He also hasn’t stood on or jumped off of anything in days. Beyond abnormal. And our little girl, normally damned near mute, talked enough for both of them. Answering their every question. Giving them all the answers they wanted to hear.
And maybe I was wrong. Maybe they were right. I wanted that to be the case, and it seemed like it was. Apart from their behavior, and aside from one more event, life proceeded. Normal as could be. One night, several nights after the first therapy session, a whispering in my ear wakes me. I spasm away from the source, resisting the urge to kick and punch as some part of me realizes who it was.
My daughter. She’d somehow made it to our bedside, despite my light sleeping and despite our closed door.
“What do you need?” I ask.
“Can I have a spoon?”
I put her back to bed and then sat up all night. Aside from that, the following month was peaceful. I started feeling at ease around my children again, though I watched them like a sleep-deprived, anxiety-riddled hawk. Especially at meal times. No spoons allowed. Definitely no forks. All finger foods. For breakfast, I served their cereal dry with a glass of milk.
But time healed us. The CPS investigation closed. No more nightmares.
One morning, I found myself thinking all was well. Sounds of my wife and daughter playing and laughing from my daughter’s bedroom. My son on the couch, playing video games.
Even his eye patch was a welcome sight. It wasn’t outside of normal. He always had to wear a patch while playing games, to help strengthen what was once his weak eye.
Everything was back to the way it was before.
I’m there, listening to the sounds of my happy home. The clicking of my son’s fingers on the controller. My wife and daughter still laughing.
Then I blink, and everything goes quiet. Nothing has stopped, but there is no sound. My wife calls to me, “Baby, can you bring me a spoon?”