by Joshua B. Lehman
"You'll be productive while we're gone?" The tone in my wife's voice indicated that she doubted I would be. I shifted Julia, our precocious 3 year old, to my right arm and smiled reassuringly at the love of my life.
"It pains me that you think I'd be idle." I put a touch of mock indignance into my voice.
Steph rolled her eyes as she finished stuffing an insane amount of toiletries into her oversized suitcase. I smiled at the size of the bag she selected for the weekend trip to see her mother. Did she really need to pack a hair dryer?
"I know you John, if I don't ask, you'll spend the weekend playing video games and eating pizza."
I winked at Julia and again feigned indignation, spreading my arms wide. "Whaaat? Who has time to play video games around here?" Truth be told, my XBox had sat untouched since the day Julia was born. That habit was long gone. "I'll be watching action movies and eating pizza."
"John, I'm serious." Steph gave me a moderately severe look. "You have the whole weekend to yourself. Do you realize how much work I could get done with no distractions?"
"Yes, sweetheart, I do. I assure you, I will finish the honey do list." I handed Jules off to her and hoisted her bag from the ground, nearly throwing out my back as I set in in the trunk. "You sure you have everything?"
"Don't be a smart aleck. J's stuff is in there too."
"Ah, of course." I shut the trunk and scooped Julia back into my arms, giving her a tight hug. "I'm going to miss you Jay Bird, be good for your momma."
"I will Daddy." She answered with a heart meltingly adorable smile. "And Daddy?"
"Watch out for the bad things while I'm gone." Her little face showed a concern that didn't belong on a 3 year old.
I sighed and shared a look with Steph. We were trying to wean Julia off of sleeping in our bed at night. Lots of folks told us to never start with the co-sleeping, but sleep deprivation will drive the most determined parent to try anything to get some shut-eye. So we became a co-sleeping family, and dream time had been restored, sort of. It took a little time to adjust to tiny feet kicking my kidneys every night, but the lack of J's crying brought us blessed slumber.
It also brought a dearth of intimacy. Plus, as Julia grew, her restless tossings were becoming almost as intolerable as the incessant crying. So we were trying to get her to sleep in her own bed in her own room. It was going pretty well, we praised the hell out her on the few occasions that she actually made it through the night without my having to tromp up the stairs to bring her down to our bed. But more often than not, our noise activated baby monitor kicked on and we were woken by, "Momma, I want to sleep with you and Daddy." When we tried to refuse her, she invented the "bad things" that were scaring her. I am a sucker for a scared kid, having been one myself, so I caved. Now the "bad things" were another problem we were trying to eliminate.
"Honey, there aren't any bad things in our house." I assured Julia, but her big blue eyes regarded me with pity.
"They're in the walls, Daddy. And they don't like us. But they can't go in my closet. You'll be safe there." She patted me reassuringly on the arm.
I smiled at Julia and raised my eyes to Steph, widening them with a bit of exasperation. "Okay, Jay Bird, I'll remember that."
Steph looked at me with mild disapproval. "Jules, Daddy will be just fine because there are no bad things in your room."
"Okay momma," Jules placated Steph, but cast another knowing look in my direction.
I placed Julia in her carseat and made sure the straps were nice and tight. I put her favorite stuffed cat in her lap and kissed her on the forehead. "Have fun with Nanna and Gramps, pretty girl."
I closed the door and enveloped Steph in a warm embrace. "I'm going to miss you."
"Right," she scoffed, "You're going to get two nights of uninterrupted sleep!"
"True," I kissed her on the mouth lightly and pulled back to continue, "but I'm still going to miss you."
"I'm going to miss you too." She hugged me back, tight. "I wish you could come with us."
"That's one of the drawbacks of being married to a judge," I lamented, "Sometimes I'm on call and have to stay close to the wagons."
"We'll see you Sunday," Steph smiled and playfully slapped my rear. "I'm not kidding about that list!"
"I know, I know. I'll make you proud."
I stood in the drive and waved goodbye. I watched until the car was out of sight, then smiled. Two nights of uninterrupted sleep and two days of zero distractions, hell yeah! Most of the things on the honey do list were things I wanted to do anyway, fixing the fence, installing a dog door, organizing the garage. Yep, this was going to be a good weekend.
Since it was already evening, I decided the list could wait until the morning. I ordered a supreme pizza, a special treat for me as Steph and J are vegetarian and hate onions which means I usually eat vegetarian and avoid onion. I checked pay per view for the latest superhero movie. Oooh, Mad Max. Not a superhero, but it'd do. I cracked a beer and settled in for a night to myself.
An hour into my movie, Steph called to let me know they got to her mom's place without incident. I paused the action and we chatted for a short time, J got on the phone and we joked around a bit, then it was time for Steph to put her to bed. I gave them my love and said good night.
I went to bed at 10:00, luxuriating in having our pillow-top King size all to myself. Well, mostly to myself, the two cats and one of the dogs curled up near me, but there was plenty of room. I was out in no time.
It was just after midnight when I woke up. The damned baby monitor kicked on. I listened to the blessed silence of J's room, the only noise was the rhythmic ticking of her alarm clock. What the fuck? Why was my light on? I sat up in bed, clearing the cobwebs from my mind. Steph and I each had a pendant light above our respective side of the bed, for reading. The switch for mine was on the wall just above my nightstand, and it was on. That's weird. The baby monitor timed out and switched off. The dogs were sound asleep, the cats were off prowling.
"One of the cats must have brushed the switch." I assured myself, talking aloud to ease my fear. It didn't work, the sound of my own voice in an empty house after midnight just made things seem eerier. I tried again, "Stupid monitor needs to be replaced." It was true, it was old and on the fritz all the time, but I didn't want to shell out the money for a replacement. My voice still didn't calm me.
The dogs were sound asleep. If someone was in the house, both would have raised bloody hell. And that is a fact. I slipped out of bed and did a walk through of the first level. I stood at the bottom of the stairs and listened. Nothing. I went back to bed and slept until morning.
I finished the entire honey do list on Saturday. After making my own version of an egg mcmuffin and taking my sweet time to enjoy a hot cup of coffee, I busted my ass tackling each project. At 7:30 PM, I was done, and it was time for a beer.
"Mexican food tonight!" I announced. "And Jurassic World! Perfect."
I called Steph before starting the movie this time. I told her about the light and the monitor. She agreed that it was one of the cats that flicked the switch, and that the monitor is a piece of crap. She praised me for finishing her list and we small-talked for a bit before exchanging I love yous and goodbyes.
"Oh wait," Steph interjected as I was about to hang up, "Here comes J. Say goodnight to Daddy honey."
Jules got on the phone and her sweet little voice warmed my heart. "Sweet dreams, Daddy! Don't let the bad things get you."
"Don't you worry honey, I have the animals to protect me!"
"No Daddy, the dogs don't notice them," she intoned seriously. "And Alley Cat and Romeo just run away. They won't protect you. You'll be safe in the closet, Daddy. I love you!"
They hung up and my blood went cool. That was fucked up. I shook it off. Kids say some crazy shit. I started my movie and Chris Pratt's dino wrangling took my mind off my daughter's creepy comment.
I hit the sack at 10:30 that night, a little sad that it was my last night alone. Then I felt a little guilty. I decided I'd return the favor to Steph at some point, and give her a night away from our normal nocturnal distractions. I fell to sleep immediately.
"Daddy, daddy, help!" I jumped out of bed and ran to the stairs, I took them two at a time and burst in Julia's room. It wasn't until I was standing over her empty bed that I remembered she and Steph were gone. The hair on my arms stood on end and ice tingled throughout my body. I always was a sucker for a frightened child, and I had been lured with extreme effectiveness. The muffled sound of a young child's laughter came from the wall, a passable impression of Julia's joyous giggle, but it sounded malicious. The door to Julia's room slammed shut, leaving me in perfect darkness.
I ran to the door, but it wouldn't budge. I kicked it, hard. Nothing. I could hear a scuffling in the walls and more giggling, the resemblance of the laughter to that of Julia's was slipping, turning sinister. I dove into Julia's closet and slammed the door. There came a tapping.
"Let me in Daddy, I'm scared."