Imagine that when the evening comes you feel there is something deadly wrong.
You know that sooner or later you will die.
You are in a room in a house you like. People you know are here with you. There are lamps lit all over in this big hall-like room. There is music, talking. It should feel good.
You know you are close to them, connected, safe. You usually love the sound of their words and when they stroke your hair.
And then there is the first hint of the deadly wrongness.
You can’t see anything outside the windows. It is like the house is enclosed in this big black night, and there is nothing out there but night. But when you try to talk about it – to make the people here notice, you can’t find the words.
And the people around you don’t seem to understand or sense anything.
Outside you can feel something approaching. Something … hungry. You don’t know why or what, only that it’s true.
You can no longer control your panic. You look for a weapon, something to fight with. But you only have your voice, all you can do is scream, to make the people around you see. But they don’t.
Then the lights go out one by one and darkness fills the house. It is thick as tar. It closes in on you. It smells of blood, earth, and ash.
It fills your nose, eyes, throat. It becomes you and you become it, and you are aware of every terrible second, as a caught gazelle being eaten on the savannah and being alive for too long to experience all of it …
Is that how it feels?
We can’t really know, can we?
And you will not be able to tell us.
You can barely talk as well as a child eighteen months old.
You are six.
And now you can only scream.
Carrie felt the jolt in her body when she heard the first, muffled cry from her son up in his creaky bed.
She had been sleeping poorly on the mattress beside his bed since she took over ‘guard duty’—sleeping in Michael’s room to improve chances that he could sleep and stay asleep all night.
She had been waiting for Michael to wake up and panic, and now when she could see the embers of light through the blinds, she knew she had triumphed over the night, but it was a hollow victory. Her body had been ready to fight all night, and it had not slept.
She had been awake often, listening to his breathing, trying to discern if the weighted blanket was in the correct position under Michael’s chin, or if it had slid down. Or if his feet were exposed. All of which could cause him to wake up.
And begin screaming and crying until, maybe, they got everything done in the right order to calm him. As they had been doing before bedtime and during the day:
– the iPad which she had put on his shelf to plugin for power need to be placed on his nightstand quickly,
– her old phone which counted down endlessly and also needed power, had to be unplugged ASAP and also be placed on the nightstand
– she also had the two empty cartons of milk that Michael had taken a liking to because he liked the words in the advertisements printed on their sides. They needed to be placed correctly in his bed, near his pillow.
– and the blinds …
Fuck. She had to get them up, too. Michael hated when the blinds were down. It would take even more time to calm him down.
Michael sat up in bed and began crying. He also began tearing his clothes and scratching himself.
“Don’t—” Carrie started.
“Can I help, Mom?” Emma was in the doorway, looking bleary-eyed.
“Quick, the blinds. I’ll take the gadgets.” Carrie unplugged the iPad and found the correct app that had to be on the front screen.
Before Carrie could return with the iPad, Michael got all the way out of bed and ran past her, into the hallway, crying “door”.
“Emma, open the door to the bathroom and to your room.” Carrie quickly switched on the last remaining lights and ran after her son. On the way, she opened the kitchen door and the door to the living room fully. They were already half open to get some air circulation but she needed them to be 45 degrees.
“Mom, I think he wants the door to the street open, too!” Emma was already there, but she had frozen. Michael was falling to pieces beside her, not even noticing his sister.
He kept pumping the handle up and down and crying ‘door’ but he didn’t open it. Emma, or someone else, was supposed to do it. Carrie had never figured out why.
She had done everything to perfection, only a few minutes after Michael had woken up. And now … the street door. This was new. And he still cried like somebody had whipped him.
“He has a panic attack, Mom,” Emma said.
“It is not a panic attack,” Carrie snapped. “Not yet. He just invented something new to do.”
“Shall I open the street door, too?”
“No. He will wake up the neighbors.”
“But he is screaming. My ears hurt.”
“Let me.” Carrie grabbed some wipes from the bathroom and began drying Michael’s eyes one by one, while counting after his special system. “Zero-two-four-”
It usually helped. But she could see how red his face was. There was something in this morning’s wave of panic that just would not subside.
“Emma go pee. And wash up.”
Carrie tried again and again, but Michael kept flailing back and forth in the house to different places where he wanted things done in a certain way, but he was crying so much they could not understand him. He always ended up by the street door and always appeared totally crushed that they would not open it for him.
After fifteen minutes of bursts of screaming and crying that always died down only to erupt again at the least, unknowable disturbance, Carrie stopped in the hallway. Michael was back at the door pulling the handle for the nth time.
With stiff steps, Carrie went over to her son and squatted down in front of him. “Darling—it’s okay. You are okay. But like I keep saying, we can’t open the door unless you calm down.”
“Calm up!” Michael cried. And Carrie felt like she had been kicked in the head.
She had forgotten, but of course, it had to be like this. One of the latest rituals Michael had invented, or whatever the hell you wanted to call them – he would correct you.
Invent his own way of talking, often arbitrarily. And then correct you, if you didn’t guess what ‘his way’ was.
Carrie loved her son with all her heart. But right now she also wanted to bust his head in.
“Honey, we can’t open the door.”
“Door!” Michael cried. “Door-door-door-door-”
“All right.” Carrie opened the street door and hoped it would help. But instead, Michael just ran back into his room and began banging the bedside lamp. “Turn on-turn on-turn on.”
“It is turned on!” Carrie yelled, exasperated.
“I think it’s because he didn’t see you turn it on,” Emma yelled from the bathroom.
“Fuck!” Carrie kicked a children’s book that was lying on the floor in the hallway. “Why didn’t Jon clean this up? It was his turn.”
She knew Jon had to go to work at five. But she didn’t care. It was an insult he hadn’t removed that book from her way.
Michael kept crying. Perhaps it was his stomach acting up again? How would she ever know?
Carrie felt something like granite harden in her chest. “Emma, go to your room. Get dressed. We have the car today so we leave—now.”
“But I haven’t had breakfast,” Emma lamented, flushing the toilet.
“Finish up and get your things,” Carrie said, steel in her voice. “You can eat in the car. We’ll stop somewhere and buy some breakfast. You know driving calms him down.”
Carrie saw her hands moving when she pulled clothes from a laundry basket and quickly dressed Michael, in the hallway. Fresh diaper, too.
Michael bit his clothes, peed through his diapers, and usually needed a new blouse for every chocolate cookie he ate (one of the only things he ate), and Carrie hated washing so she hadn’t exactly kept up this week. Now it came back to kick her in the ass.
But against all odds, she managed to find some clothes that Mrs. Webb over at kindergarten probably wouldn’t comment on, and then get everything else packed and get the kids in the car.
Michael wasn’t screaming anymore, but he breathed like he had been running away from a tiger, and occasionally he burst into tears. On the backseat, Emma tried to start a game on his iPad, while Carrie worked the key to get the engine going.
She was still in yesterday’s clothes, the same clothes she had slept in. She had used a deodorant she had in the glove compartment but that was as far as her morning toilette went.
As she started the Honda, she hoped it was worth it to go out now. It wasn’t that bad every morning, and most of the time they could stay in the house, until Michael calmed down, even if it was like staying in your own little purgatory.
But Emma was right. There was something different about Michael this morning. She had a gut feeling that it wouldn’t stop until they had driven several big fat rounds in Villa Chaparral, with a view to the bright desert, and then they could consider going for breakfast and … kindergarten. And Emma’s school, of course.
But the timing was shit.
Backing the car out of the driveway, Carrie almost brushed Ms. Hanson from next door, as she was collecting another glossy printed magazine. Carrie had the inkling that her neighbor took special pride in her morning ritual, checking her real mailbox for all to see.
Why the fuck was she standing so close to their driveway?
Carrie quickly rolled down the window, even though Michael was still crying.
“I’m sorry, Beth. Need to get going quickly this morning.”
Beth Hanson was not old, probably younger than Carrie. In her early thirties. But she had an aura of aloof timelessness around her, with her perfect-as-new 70s saffron skirts, curly hairdo, and a colony of pearls around her neck from some indefinable oriental past.
She was single, worked as a wedding planner, and often held late-night garden parties with plenty of white wine for her up-and-coming friends in the somewhat barren South-West fashion scene.
“Yes, I could hear it all quite well.” Ms. Hanson held her pristine copy of Cosmopolitan in front of her, like a shield. “You really need to remember to close those windows.”
Carrie clenched the wheel. “It’s 75 plus outside at night. We’ll cook if we close the windows.”
Mrs. Hanson shrugged. “They invented air conditioning, didn’t they?”
Carrie cast a glance at Michael, who was only breathing like it was a leopard chasing him now. Progress. She put on her sunglasses. “Aren’t you late for your morning meditation, Beth?”
Before the other woman could answer, Carrie backed all the way out on the street and put the car into gear. Then they were off.
It only took about ten minutes of driving and Michael was himself again, playing happily with a digital LEGO figure on his iPad. Carrie even got some bread and milk in him and then set him off at the kindergarten without any problems. It had only just opened, but apparently, miracles were still allowed to happen. And they still had time before school.
“We’ll stop at Daybreaker’s,” Carrie said to Emma. “I’ll buy you some pancakes for breakfast. The ones you love.”
With only Jon earning real money, Carrie could hardly afford to go to any kind of cafe, but it was barely 7 AM, and she was exhausted. The sun was already up and not merciful. She could think about the consequences later. Emma was more than willing to go along.
So at last things were still, aside from the morning buzz in the café. Carrie sat by a table at the far end of the establishment with her pitch-black coffee and watched Emma happily munching her pancakes.
Until she paused and looked up at Carrie. “I was thinking, Mom… maybe it is not because he is afraid of the dark that Michael wants the lights on and the doors open all the time.”
“Oh yeah? Why then?”
“Maybe it’s because he wants to … be able to run away?”
Carrie frowned. “I don’t understand. We open the doors and he doesn’t go anywhere. He just wants it to be like that.”
Emma chewed thoughtfully. “Well, if something happened. He could see where to go. And there would be a way out.”
“But it’s daylight, honey. And maybe with the front door, sure, but why would he go into the living room or kitchen?”
Emma shrugged. “I thought that maybe he feels … trapped?”
“You shouldn’t be thinking about this. You should eat and then we are off to school.”
Emma’s face darkened. Carrie instantly regretted talking about school. But they had to go, didn’t they?
“I just want to explain it,” Emma said. “I’m sorry that Michael is feeling so bad all the time.”
Carrie was about to tell her nine-year-old daughter that she had thought about lots of explanations, and in the end, she always came to the same conclusion:
She could never fully explain it, only act to contain it. And sometimes she couldn’t even do that.
Then all they could do was bear it. Until Michael came back to them, so to speak.
Yes, she wanted more than anything to explain to her little girl that it was so natural to want explanations and solutions, Carrie herself being a repeat offender in that regard.
But sometimes all you could do was wait until the leopard had passed. She had to teach Emma to accept that. It was now or never.
Carrie downed her black coffee. “Eat your pancakes, honey. If you can’t finish them all, we’ll put the rest in your lunch box.”
Last edited 5 Aug 2023