Dale W. Glaser
I'm picking up Isabel's toys in the living room when I find a weird fiber I can't identify. It looks like a single bristle from a broom, except that it's dark-red rather than a woody yellow-brown. I try to visualize our broom and whether its bristles are a uniform color or if there's a scatter of earthtones. It's not coming to me. I should check the broom later, figure out if it's getting so old that it's shedding bristles on its own, or if Isabel just capriciously decided to start plucking them out while I wasn't looking. And if it's not from the broom, I should figure out where it came from. On second glance it reminds me of the shaft of a feather, with all the soft barbs stripped off. The last thing I need is to find out Isabel's been digging around in animal nests in our yard without me knowing about it. Or to be accused of failing to be aware of it.
"Mommy," Isabel sings out to me from the dining room, interrupting my train of thought. "I'm bored!"
When Isabel was younger the bristle might have set off choking hazard alarm bells in my brain, but she's three now and doesn't put everything in her mouth as a matter of course, so I stick it in my back pocket and immediately forget about it. I reach the dining room and find Isabel sitting on the floor with her head all the way to one side as she stares up at me expectantly.
"You're bored, Iz?" I ask.
"And what is Mommy supposed to do about it?"
I look at her for a couple of seconds and don't do a very good job hiding the indecision on my face. She takes my hesitation for something else, flashes me her best smile, tiny perfect teeth making a grin so big and wild, adds a "Please?" Her gorgeous thick eyelashes spread wide; when she learns how to bat them we are all doomed.
Josie and I are trying to teach Isabel manners, now that the novelty of her speaking English rather than pointing and grunting has worn off, so I find it hard to say no to her when she remembers the magic word all on her own. Politeness wasn't the reason I paused to begin with, but never mind that now, as she reaches out for my hand and guides me toward the kitchen table, the same way I've guided her toward countless meals ever since she got too big and independent for me to carry her.
As always, a pile of paper and a box of crayons await on one corner of the table. I sit down and lift Isabel up onto my lap. "Okay. What kind of monster?" I ask.
"Green," I agree, shaking that crayon out of the box. "What else? Big? Small? Skinny? Fat?"
"Ummm . . . small. And fat. And big ears."
"Big round ears?"
"No, pointy," Isabel insists, a note in her voice implying that it was a pretty dumb question. Of course the monster should have pointy ears.
I brace my left hand on Isabel's chest and start drawing with my right hand. I've learned by now that if I don't hold Isabel back she'll lean so far forward I won't be able to see what I'm doing, and I'm good but I'm not that good. So I hold her against me and draw with the green crayon, something that looks like a half-melted dollop of pistachio soft serve, with pointy ears that reach up to the top edge of the paper.
"How many eyes?" I ask.
"Four, no, five! Orange eyes!" Isabel informs me. I swap crayons and start filling in little orange orbs inside the crown of the green blob, at the points of an upside down pentagon. I'm tempted to sketch in a pentagram to connect them while Isabel decides on the next detail, but I know that Josie would take that as a provocation. Which it kind of would be, as if this little game between Isabel and me weren't enough of one already.
Isabel saves me from myself by yelling out more instructions. "Do the arms, Mommy!"
Since she hasn't specified I decide to make the arms blue, and draw them as stubby little appendages that don't even clear the width of the monster's ample hips. "Longer!" Isabel giggles. I extend the limbs, one straight out to the side and one bent at the elbow as if it's waving at us. "Now do the claws!" Isabel commands.
We're not exactly making monsters who live in a sedate multicultural neighborhood on public television here. Isabel is into what she calls "real" monsters, the scary kind; she probably has more synonyms for claws and fangs and barbs and spines in her vocabulary than most pre-schoolers. Well, her mommy is pretty into scary monsters, too. One of her mommies, at any rate. I give the monster three needle-sharp light blue talons on one hand and a single wicked meathook on the other.
"Don't forget the mo-outh," she admonishes me, sing-stretching out the last word, ding-dong. I dump all the crayons out to get at the black one, as always the most worn down, hiding at the bottom of the box. I give the monster a big frowny maw.
"Do you want this one in your room?" I ask.
"Yeah!" she agrees. "Can we put it up right now?"
"Sure," I tell her. She slides off my lap without being asked, so I can get up and grab the tape. She carries the drawing of the monster, held out in front of her, admiring her prize. We go up the stairs, me following her.
Her bedroom closet door is covered and surrounded by drawings, a few by her, most by me, all crazy monsters. She walks up to the closet and holds the drawing against the wall where she wants it, and I tape it in place. "Okay?" I ask.
She nods, but she's already communing with the menagerie in her own way, touching each monster in turn with her thumb and humming a little song I don't know the words to. I'm not sure if she does, either. I leave her to it, head back downstairs to see what we have in the house I can make a reasonable approximation of dinner out of. I think there's ground turkey in the freezer, and hopefully the peppers in the crisper I'm thinking of stuffing haven't gone mushy.
"I see Isabel has a new beastie in her collection," Josie says that night as we're both getting ready for bed. Isabel's bedtime was hours ago, and Josie was the one who spent twenty minutes getting her settled and tucked in, asking her questions about her day, answering questions about whatever popped into Isabel's head in the moment. It's something like the fiftieth night in a row that goodnight detail has fallen on Josie, per Isabel's request. Josie and I used to take turns until one day Isabel started asking for Josie every night.
"She sure does," I answer. I try to make it sound casual and not passive-aggressive, but as soon as I hear my own voice I know I've failed and basically begged Josie to come at me.
"Mel," Josie's voice takes on the timbre of someone convinced they're being the reasonable one and wishing her irrational partner could admit that. "Don't you worry that she's getting a little bit . . . fixated?"
I shrug. "Not really." That's twice now I've spoken without even trying to look at her, so I force myself to meet her eyes, standing on opposite sides of the bed, neutral creampuff expanse of duvet between us. "She's three, babe. She'll be on to something else before too long."
"And if she's not?" Josie throws back. "I mean, do you even try to guide her, even a little bit? Do you ever say, hey, why don't we draw cats or airplanes or . . . or . . ."
"What is the big deal, drawing things that aren't real?" I ask. "So Isabel has a big imagination, isn't that a good thing?"
"Not if she's imagining frightening, violent things." Josie shakes her head, looking down as she ties the drawstrings of her pajama pants.
"She's not going to turn into some psycho killer," I shoot back. "When I was little I wanted to be the dragon from Sleeping Beauty, and I don't go around burning things down now."
"No, but . . ." She cuts herself off as her eyes flick guiltily toward me. I hold my tongue somehow, turn away, disappear into the bathroom and start brushing my teeth. There's a little blood in the toothpaste when I spit, because scourging my gums is better than venting my spleen all over Josie. I clean up the sink and splash my face with cold water. By the time my face is dry and I'm back in the bedroom, Josie is in bed, under the covers, her back to me. I know we won't talk any more until morning, and even then it won't be a continuation of the conversation that just imploded.
I turn off the light and slide into bed on my back, not letting any part of my body touch any part of hers. She knows better than to hope that I don't know what she was about to say. No, I don't live out violent fantasies, but I still get a kick out of them. I like horror movies and action movies where people get shot and stuff gets blown up. I like the really old comic books from back before most grown-ups were paying attention, with the axe murderers and the cannibal ghouls. I find Scandinavian death metal bands with complex Satan-worshipping systems included in their album liner notes hilarious. I always thought Josie accepted that as harmless fun, my little mental release valve.
Harmless for me, but not for her daughter. Our daughter. Ours when she needs disciplining or gets sick or outgrows the clothes we just bought her three months ago. Certain other times, Josie's and Josie's alone.
The next night Josie works late and doesn't get home until Isabel's already in the bath. Josie stops in the doorway of the bathroom as I'm leaning over the tub and washing Isabel's back with my hands, while Isabel carries on a conversation with her purple unicorn-shaped washcloth.
"Oh, are you and the unicorn taking a bath together? Does the unicorn like getting clean?" Josie asks.
Isabel turns the washcloth around to face Josie and says, "I like bubbles!" in a high-pitched voice that's supposed to be the unicorn's.
"Aw, that's nice, I like bubbles, too," Josie says. I know this is being put on for my benefit, Josie's demonstration of her own appreciation of whimsy. She's not merely into realistic vehicles and animals, no, she's totally down with unicorns, very open-minded. "I forgot we even had that washcloth," Josie addresses me, finally.
I should give her credit for trying but I can't help myself. "Yeah, I was actually looking for the kraken washcloth, but I couldn't seem to find it."
"Nice," Josie rolls her eyes. I'm not looking at her, I'm pouring a cupful of water down Isabel's back to rinse her off, but I can hear the eye-roll all the same. Josie walks away and I know that by the time I have Isabel out of the tub and dried off and in her jammies, Josie will be changed out of her work clothes and ready to take over the bedtime ritual. I also know once Isabel is down for the night, her mommies aren't going to have a very pleasant bedtime conversation between them, if anything ends up being said at all.
Isabel was conceived from one of Josie's eggs and IUI, but sometimes, and I'm not proud of this, sometimes I wish Isabel had been IVF. Because sometimes I wish I could throw that in Josie's face, that for all we knew Isabel was the result of some mix-up at the lab and no more biologically Josie's than mine. Not that I'd be able to make a convincing argument beyond that. Isabel looks like Josie, at least some reasonable combination of Josie's DNA and our kindly anonymous sperm donor's. She has her mother's protruding blue eyes, the same pout to her lips, the same dainty bone structure.
Isabel has Josie's temperament, too, and likes a lot of the same things, although that argument could come down to nature versus nurture. Bottom line, though, Isabel is even more outwardly girly-girly than Josie. Isabel wears her hair long with naturally curly bangs, and every day when she gets dressed has to pick out clothes that either have ruffles, bows, sparkles, or shades of pink or purple, preferably two or more in combination. I think left to her own devices, Josie would want to present in the exact same way, but her job dictates a more sober wardrobe and sensible grown-up haircut. Josie's hair is still feminine, of course, and nowhere near as short as mine.
For a long time after Isabel was born I didn't know how to bond with her because I didn't know how to relate to her. Sounds stupid to talk about relating to a newborn who can barely focus more than eighteen inches away from her own face, but I couldn't help but feel the absence. There's an animal love that human beings feel for their family, their children, and I never felt at a loss for that with Isabel, not from the first moment I held all six trembling pounds of her in my arms in the hospital. But then there's another level of connection, or sometimes there is anyway. Mutual understanding and respect and common interests, all the things that determine if you would consciously decide to like this other human being if she weren't directly related to you. Newborns don't have any interests except what their parents project onto them, and I suppose I felt guilty that Josie had been through nine months of pregnancy and twenty hours of labor and so I stepped back and let Josie chart the course. If Josie wanted to make Isabel her precious little princess doll, and she so clearly, so desperately did, then I didn't have boo to say about it.
And I didn't see how Isabel getting older would necessarily change or solve anything, once the groundwork had been laid. I did my share of midnight feedings and rockings and diaper changes the first few months, and when Josie went back to her old schedule at the firm it was just me and Isabel at home together five days a week. I read to her, I played with her, I kept her from licking electrical sockets when she learned to crawl. I did not watch horror movies while Isabel played with stuffed animals in front of the TV. I did not crank up my Sepultura and Morbid Angel albums in the car when we drove together to the store. Much as I loved her, I didn't think we'd ever have anything in common. It was like she was a porcelain trinket of Josie's that I was entrusted with while Josie was at the office, and I was always half-terrified of breaking her.
I finally relaxed one day when I was reading Isabel a big picture book of wild animals, and I put a little extra something into making the animal noises: the hooting gorilla, the roaring lion, the hissing snake. Isabel went crazy for it, I had a blast doing it, and she didn't have night terrors about being lost in the jungle or anything. I realized maybe she wasn't as breakable as I feared.
But still, the very first time my daughter came to me wanting to draw monsters, I was so thrilled. Because it came out of nowhere, or more to the point it came from her. I wasn't projecting anything. She came to me.
"Come sit down for lunch, baby," I say as I pull the folded-over paper towel out of the microwave.
Isabel sets down her family of dolls, none of which have forked tongues or horns. She steps lively to her chair, because she's enthused about what's on the menu today: chicken nuggets, normally a treat reserved for special occasions. Today I bribed her with them. I took her to the store in the middle of the morning and she alternated between trying to run away and grabbing random things and throwing them in the shopping cart until I offered her favorite for lunch in exchange for good behavior. Maybe not the moral high road, but it worked.
"I'm not a baby," Isabel announces proudly as she pulls the chair away from the table. "I'm a big girl." She climbs onto the chair from the side, stands up on the seat, then turns ninety degrees toward the table and lowers herself onto her butt, which today is covered in a flouncy pink skirt with silver sequins.
"You are," I agree, setting a small plastic plate in front of her, bearing a half-dozen chicken nuggets and a small pool of ketchup. "You're mommy's very big girl, and I'm glad you were good at the store for mommy." Eventually.
Isabel grabs an oblong nugget, dips it in the ketchup, and takes one dainty bite from the end; one of the reasons she likes this meal is because it's no-silverware-required. I turn away from her and start trying to figure out what I'm going to have for lunch. Soon I have my head buried in the fridge but nothing particularly appealing beckons.
"Mommy, look!" Isabel calls. I straighten up and turn around, looking over the counter to see Isabel holding up a chicken nugget that looks like a solid figure eight, or a snowman. Isabel opens her mouth wide and bites off the head. She dunks the remainder in the ketchup while she chews, then holds the nugget up again. Her eyes and mouth open wide and she fake-screams, while making the decapitated chicken nugget run back and forth in midair, its neck stump a gory mess of red no. 5.
I clap my hand over my mouth way too late, after I've laughed. Isabel is supremely pleased with herself and takes yet another big bite of nugget. As she chews and swallows a contemplative look spreads across her face and finally she says, "Mama wouldn't like that joke, would she?"
There was a time when Josie and I wondered if we needed to come up with different names for Isabel to call us, and introduce them to her, to avoid the confusion of our daughter calling us both "Mommy". But in the end, Isabel came up with the distinction on her own; Josie has always been "Mama" and I've always been "Mommy". "No, Mama probably wouldn't," I agree.
"But you think it's funny," she beams. "And Mama's not here. So it's okay."
"Iz, honey," I hear myself saying, "Maybe . . . maybe you shouldn't do things Mama wouldn't like, even if Mama's not here. Okay? You just . . . if you know Mama wouldn't like it, try not to do it."
Isabel barely processes the idea before she gives me a chirpy "Okay." and gets back to devouring her chicken nuggets. I return to the fridge and grab the first yogurt I see, feeling like there's nothing in particular I want for lunch, feeling like it usually matters much more what someone else wants than what I want.
"Did you hear Isabel get out of bed last night?" Josie asks me at twenty past six the next morning. Isabel wakes up any time between five-thirty and seven-thirty lately, according to no predictable pattern. Josie and I get up at the same time every day no matter what, and when Isabel's up with us I supervise some combination of playtime and breakfast while Josie gets ready for work; when Isabel sleeps in, Josie and I get to enjoy a little leisurely adult conversation over coffee. Or at least, we enjoy it when things between us aren't tense as hell like they are now.
"No," I answer her.
"We must have both slept through it," Josie says.
"Slept through what?"
"I don't know," Josie says. "I peeked in on her before I came downstairs and the carpet just inside her door had all these pulls and loose threads sticking out. A couple of inches were almost down to the backing. I don't know what in the world she could have been doing."
I'm expected to answer for this because of course it's my fault, the slippery slope from drawing five-eyed fiends to sleepwalking and destroying parts of the house and all manner of antisocial acting out. "Did Isabel look all right?"
"She was asleep in bed," Josie admits. "She was sucking her thumb, had the other hand under the blanket. I didn't want to disturb her."
"I'll check her fingernails when she comes down," I offer. "I'll ask her what she was doing."
"Oh, I doubt she'll tell you," Josie says. She clears her throat right away and tries to recover. "I mean, she wouldn't tell either of us, assuming she even remembers . . ."
"I need to get those alternate layouts for the brochure covers done this morning, the sooner the better," I announce, standing up from the kitchen table. Josie doesn't say anything, not even goodbye. I head into the home office, fire up the laptop, and start opening files, but it's not until I hear the door slam behind Josie as she leaves for the day that I can actually start concentrating on the tasks.
Isabel wakes up on the late side and has breakfast, then heads back upstairs to get dressed. I putter around the main floor, cleaning the kitchen and straightening the living room. After a while I notice Isabel's been upstairs much longer than it takes to put together a tunic-and-leggings ensemble.
At the threshold of Isabel's room I pause and look down to see the damage to the carpet Josie was talking about. It reminds me of when I was younger and my family got a puppy, which my brother Mark accidentally trapped in his room when he closed the door on it once. Eventually we heard Bandit whimpering and let him out, but not before he had peed on the corner of Mark's bed and tried to dig his way under the closed door. Isabel's rug looks a lot like that, but Josie and I have never gotten a dog. She's a cat person, I'm allergic to cats, not much room to compromise there.
Isabel's been busy rearranging her room a bit. She's pushed the kid-scale table and two chairs that usually sit in the corner of her room to the middle of the floor, and cleared all the random toys off, replacing them with her tea set. Josie's old childhood tea set.
"Whatcha' doing, Iz?"
"Tea party," she answers, without looking up, because she's legitimately concentrating on arranging the cups and saucers. Thank God she's too young to be passive-aggressive yet.
"Oh yeah? Who's invited?"
"Ah." My eyes go to a picture taped up at the top of her closet door, one of the first ones I drew for her. Red Screamy. Part vulture, part demon-bat, part alligator, all bloody red. I've toned the pictures down a bit since that one, which even I admit is about as overtly horrific as Crayola monsters can get. Josie tried to take it down once, with no objections from me, but Isabel threw a Kong-sized fit. The picture of Red Screamy stays.
Sometimes when Isabel gets wound up and hyper and runs around yelling to hear her own voice, I call her Red Screamy, which only eggs her on. I'm well aware that Josie hates that, but lately I'm understanding just how much, and on just how many levels.
"Do you want me to get him down for you?" I ask, reaching toward the drawing. "So you can set him in his chair?"
"No, Mommy!" Isabel screams at me, going from domestic Zen to genuinely distraught in a heartbeat. "The chair is for Red Screamy, not for a picture of Red Screamy!"
I hold my hands up like she's a cop who caught me messing with a locked window. "Okay, okay," I say. "He can sit in his own chair. Okay?"
Isabel just nods and I take that as my cue to leave. Poor little thing. At least she didn't try to have her imaginary tea party on the weekend, with Josie home. She'd probably try to guide Isabel away from offering plastic cupcakes to her favorite monster, for fear of . . . whatever it was that Josie's so afraid of. I wish Josie would just drop the whole thing, for Isabel's sake. We both know our daughter will always be an only child. She'll never even have a pet, most likely. It's going to be hard enough for her as it is, without discouraging her from her fantasies, even the weird ones. Especially those.
Another late night for Josie, and she misses bathtime, and bedtime. Isabel's been down for a couple hours at least when I finally hear the garage door. I'm working in the office, trying to get ahead on a few different assignments, so I don't get up to go greet her or anything. At least, that's my excuse.
I sense her behind me, at the threshold of the office. "Hey," she says.
"Hey." I don't turn around. "Have you eaten?"
"Yeah, we sent out for Thai." She sighs. "Mel, here's the thing. This . . . you and Isabel, you drawing things for her . . . don't you think that's stifling her creativity, to some extent? She might very well show some talents of her own someday, but not if you always do things for her. She'll always compare her developing talents to your adult ones and . . . it's just not good for her self-esteem."
My eyes are locked on the laptop monitor.
"Do you disagree?" Josie asks.
"I'm kind of in the middle of something right now," I answer. "Can we talk about this tomorrow or something?"
"Fine," Josie says, in a register that is the diametric opposite of fine. "Good night."
I'm not sorry that she's gone. I know sooner or later we have to have it all out but I don't know where to even start. There's so many things I want her to know.
I want her to know that it wasn't a choice for me, when I was a kid, not that much older than Isabel. I was the way I was and I couldn't just go along to get along. I didn't choose to be an iconoclast because I was so daring and so into upsetting the order of things around me. I had no choice.
I want her to know there's a world of difference between what I went through and what Isabel may or may not be going through. I gravitated towards the monsters and mutants, the creepy-crawlies and things that go bump in the night, because they were freaks and I felt like a freak. It gave me a focal point for my feelings of disconnection. It was never something I bonded with anybody over, it was just a mental lifeline I grabbed onto by myself. If Isabel is into monsters and wants to talk to me about monsters that means we're making a connection, and the superficial details of cloven hoofs or bloody entrails could not be more beside the point. I want Josie to realize that she's hung up on the trappings and that's all wrong.
And maybe, maybe on some level I want Josie to acknowledge what I've given up for us, for our family, for Isabel. I used to make art, all the time, every day. I used to take my nightmares and my insecurities and my anger and frustrations and, yes, sometimes my hopes and happiness, and I used to bring them out of my head and onto a canvas or a wall. And that was how I first started connecting with people, including Josie, if she'd ever care to remember that. But that doesn't pay the bills, so I do freelance work from home designing the trade dress for technical manuals, and the closest I get to creative artistic expression is deciding if behind the title of Organizational Paradigms for Property Management there should be a free-floating teal trapezoid or maybe just a blue rectangle. And it sucks and it's soulless but it does help pay the bills. But sometimes Isabel wants me to draw a silly monster and for one brief shining second I can flex some artistic emotional muscles and make somebody happy and it feels good. I'm not doing it to warp Isabel into my image and I'm not doing it all for myself but I'd be lying through my teeth if I said there wasn't a little something special I was getting out of it myself.
But that's the sticking point. I want her to know these things, but I don't want to say them out loud. I don't want to tell her, I don't want to have to tell her, I just want her to already know. I feel like she should already know. I know in my head that's not fair, but in my heart I want her to already know. And she doesn't. She has no idea.
So I just keep working on the latest assignment from the publisher, moving a stock photo of street fair attendees back and forth from the upper right hand corner of the layout to the lower left hand corner, trying to figure out which placement truly captures the essence of Maximizing Human Capital and Recruiting. Eventually, very late into the wee hours of the night, I give up and save both versions and decide to let the publisher choose. Nobody cares what I think.
I turn off all the lights on the main floor and mount the stairs, and by sheer chance I'm right outside Isabel's door when I hear the heavy thump of weight hitting the floor coming from inside her room. I remember Mark breaking his collarbone falling out of bed when he was little, even though that was within weeks of him moving straight from a crib to a full-sized bed, and Isabel's been in a low toddler bed for almost a year. The differences between the situations don't matter at all as I throw open her door and rush in, not even bothering to turn on the room lights. Which is why I stumble directly into the tea party table and chairs still sitting in the middle of the room, and I fall ass over elbows to the floor, and I'm lucky I don't break my neck while I'm at it.
I roll onto my side and I look to Isabel's bed and I see the blanket-covered outline of her still safe and sound in bed. But I also see a shape beside her bed, too big to be a pillow or a stuffed animal, bigger even than Rangoon, the huge Gund orangutan Josie's parents sent when Isabel was born.
The shape moves towards me.
I still have one leg half up on the tea table, and I slide it off so that I can get my feet under me and stand up, but that only makes the shape move faster. It's dark in Isabel's room, blackout curtains on the windows so she can go to sleep at her bedtime even in the summer when the sun's still up at eight. The door's partially open but I hadn't bothered to turn the hallway light on as I climbed the stairs--the whole house is dark. My eyes are adjusting, not fast enough, the shape is solid shadow against the other indistinct shapes in Isabel's room. Before I know it the shape is all I can see, taking up my entire field of vision, practically on top of me.
It's alive. My brain is very slow to fully process the fact that there is a living thing in the room with us, but my stomach drops from a great height into an ocean of darkness. And the alive thing is not human, it's some kind of animal, but not any I've ever known. It's close enough now that even in the darkness I can make out some of the details. The snout, nearly touching my chin, glossy beetle-black, the edges of the upper and lower mandibles serrated, edges interlocking like the teeth of a bear trap. A tongue undulating in and out of the open snout, ropy and raspy, like the wayward arm of an octopus. A smell of rotten meat rolls off that naked tongue in waves, propelled by growling exhalations. Eyes triangular, sharp and narrow, watchful, resentful. Segmented legs jutting upward from the body, bending almost double back down to the floor again, insectlike but covered in dense bristly fur, hard to tell the color in the darkness but it looks red, blood-red, it's Red Screamy, Red Screamy as big and ugly as life is in my daughter's room and now I'm the one who's going to scream . . .
"Mommy?" Isabel says sleepily. She's standing at the foot of her bed, between the bed and Red Screamy. She has one arm draped around Red Screamy's spiky ruff, as lovingly as if it were a golden retriever.
"Yeah, Iz," I manage to answer her.
"Is it time to get up and go downstairs have breakfast?" she asks, not quite believing it herself.
"No, baby," I tell her. "I just came in your room . . ." The reasons have flown from my mind. "It's still night-night time. You go on back to bed."
"Okay," she sing-songs, drawing out each letter. But she doesn't move. "Did Red Screamy scare you, Mommy?"
"A little," I admit, because a gibbering part of my reptile fight-or-flight brain insists that Red Screamy will know if I'm lying. Know, and feel displeasure.
Isabel pats the top of Red Screamy's skull, and it lowers its head submissively. It turns in place with bug-like microsteps and retreats to Isabel's closet, squeezing impossibly through the small gap in the doorjamb. When Red Screamy is gone, Isabel and I are left looking at each other, our eyes level, me still on my backside like a helpless turtle, her standing. I'm concentrating on taking soft, quick breaths so my daughter won't see me shuddering in the grips of an epic freak-out. She's about three-quarters asleep, swaying with unbothered tranquility.
She breaks the silence first. "Don't tell Mama," she says. It's not quite a request, or an admonition, or a plea for guidance, although it's also kind of all of those things at once.
"Don't worry," I stage-whisper. "I won't tell."
I finally feel like my limbs have stopped trembling enough that I can get to my feet without pitching over again. Isabel waits patiently for me to put a hand on her shoulder and gently guide her back to bed. She climbs in willingly enough, and I wait for her to settle herself, rolling onto her stomach and changing the positions of her arms and legs a few times, before I pull the blanket over her. Her eyes are already closed, her breathing steady.
I close the door of Isabel's bedroom behind me as quietly as I can, then let go of the doorknob as if it's electrified. I slump forward, not far since the hallway isn't that wide, ending up leaning my weight against the opposite wall with my cheek flat against the relatively cool and totally mundane surface of buttercup-yellow interior latex. I hitch a deep breath, hold it in, then let it out with an involuntary "nuuhh" sound. I do that again, and again, I lose count how many times, and I only push myself away from the wall when the hallway stops spinning.
I'm as existentially certain as I can be that I'm in the upstairs hallway of my home, that I'm awake and lucid and not hallucinating thanks to a stroke or nervous breakdown or marijuana tea flashback.
I have just seen a monster in my daughter's bedroom, an unnatural abomination that can only exist to spread destruction and terror and has confined itself to her closet.
And I've left my daughter with a promise that I would not tell Josie about Red Screamy, which means not telling anyone else, either.
How long has Red Screamy been here? Does the monster have some independent existence, and was it drawn to Isabel by her nature, and her nascent interest in monsters? Or did Isabel somehow bring Red Screamy into existence by force of will, using my crayon renderings for focus? What about the other drawings, do they have equivalent carapace-and-viscera versions cohabitating in the closet with Red Screamy, and how many of them are there, a pack, a small army? Or are they just variations on the theme, an incidental decorating motif inspired by a singular pet horror? What is Red Screamy capable of, and what does it want? Can Isabel really control it, or was I simply lucky? I have a million questions and exactly zero answers.
The uncertainty in and of itself spells danger, if not doom. If Red Screamy, or any other monstrosity, harms anyone, especially Isabel, then that will be on my head, if I knew the threat was present and real but did nothing about it. My daughter is basically harboring a supernatural weapon of mass destruction, I know she is. And she's asking me to help her keep it a secret.
But she did ask me. She trusts me. On some level I understand what she sees in Red Screamy, why she wants to keep it close, just between us, and why Isabel instinctively knows that I have the capacity to understand. She doesn't think that Red Screamy will hurt her, could ever hurt her, and honestly, deep down, neither do I.
I ponder that some night Josie might enter Isabel's room unawares, and trip over Red Screamy, and shriek and wail until Red Screamy rips out her throat with its claws and fangs.
I think, on the other hand, she might not. There's really no way to know.
I say quietly, mostly to myself, "Don't worry. I won't tell."