Eyes Under the Bed
What is the scariest thing in your house? In this case, it’s the kids.
I never thought Germaine would forgive me. Her house had burned down while I was investigating a ghost there. She always thought the fire was my fault. At the time she threw me out of the house and out of her life. I was not spoken to for quite some while. But several years later a Christmas card arrived, and then a couple more and time past further and somewhere in there, we met at the Commons
“Marlene,” she said as she grabbed me in a hug.
I was desperately looking for the exit as she did. There are no real exits in a park. But she released me with a smile and said “It’s so good to see you.”
I was wondering if this person just looked like Germaine and had mistaken me for someone else. But she asked, “Are you still reading as a psychic?” Nope. Same Germaine.
The world is too complicated to start wars where there are none. If she didn’t want to fight with me, there wasn’t going to be a fight. If she wanted to pretend the past away, I could do that all, at least in front of her. It didn’t make her my friend. That was broken. There was no need to be unfriendly to a stranger, though, and the passage of time makes us strangers to each other. I decided Germaine was a new person I was meeting. If she met me with friendship, that would be what I returned. She smiled at me, a smile that used to be quite dear. Maybe I did still know this woman.
“Yes. I’m in charge of the tea room now.”
She smiled and nodded. “I have two kids now!”
“Two? You must have pictures.”
She nodded. I realized we were far from Cambridge and her new home. The penny dropped. “Were you looking for me, Germaine?”
“Uh, I didn’t quite know where the tea room was.”
“Come on. I’ll make you a cup of tea.” I grabbed her arm and we ran across the street to the tea room.
Moments later we sat sipping tea and flipping through the baby pictures on her phone. It had been a while. A chubby four-year-old sat on the floor in a circle of Legos. “That’s a cute boy.”
“That’s Jonathan.” She continued to flip pictures of Jonathan at the park, with his ball, asleep in his bed, smeared with birthday cake. Standard family happiness.
Then she showed me the picture, new baby in her arms, Jonathan and her husband leaning over the bed. More pictures of the baby sleeping, crawling, being held. Some pictures of Jonathan at soccer. “That’s our Benny.”
“They’re darling,” I said handing the phone back to her. “Are you happy?”
She gave me the of-course grin. Then it slipped off her face a bit.
“So why did you come see me?” I asked.
“I’m worried about Bennie. We think he’s seeing some kind of spirit or ghost.”
“How old is Bennie now?”
“Just on three.”
“What is concerning you?”
“Well we got through the two-year-old night terrors a couple months ago. He’s not quite perfect on the pottie yet, but his accidents are fewer, and he seemed to be sleeping steadier. Of course, we had a monitor in the room. Then he started screaming night after night, about a half hour after we tucked Jonathan in bed. No one sleeps. We’re all on alarm mode. Jonathan is such a tough little soldier, you’d never know. He sleeps through it somehow. But Benny is a mess.”
I have mixed feelings about night terrors and children. There’s a fair amount of it that seems simply to be developmental. We do ask children to sleep alone, away from us, in a dark room.
But I remember terrors at night that were real psychic threats. I was blessed with Nona who knew how to fight the devil and the weather at the same time. And who would never have let me down. Even if I felt some rancor over Germaine’s old accusations, I would go check it out for the children’s sake. “Does your baby monitor tape what’s going on?”
“Not that complicated. We didn’t think we’d need one that did.”
“Never mind.” We air kissed. “Is Friday night early enough? I’ll come and talk to the children and see what I can see.” She grasped my hand like it was a life line.
So, Friday night saw me with a bag on the transit to Cambridge. Her apartment was right near the line. The building had been built to look like a rev war tavern, but it was in fact a new construction. Of course, the ground under it was ancient. Who knew what angry lurking thing could be there in wait? But it looked harmless. It felt inert. There was nothing here but brick dust and garden soil. I rang the bell. Charley let me in.
Charley had aged a bit, more by growing into fatherhood. Dockers now instead of the bib overalls which really were a fashion statement all in themselves. An Izod shirt replaced his tea shirt. An eight-year-old boy sat mesmerized by the television. The baby, between two and three tackled his brother from behind in a football hug that tipped them both over. Johnathan looked at his brother with deep disdain. “Dad, he knocked me over!”
His father just smiled. “Knock him back over yourself.” Charlie and I left the room as they wrestled for supremacy on the floor.
“Come in!” he hollered. “Germaine is back in the kitchen.” I walked back to find Germaine with a chicken in her hands. We air kissed to avoid the chicken.
“Thanks for coming!” she said over the sound of the running sink. I sat at her table as she prepped the chicken. She told me more about what she was concerned about.
“We just don’t like Benny’s response to all of this. The doctor says it’s normal. Whatever that means. But he howls like a banshee, and then can’t sleep afterward. If he doesn’t sleep, none of us do. No matter how much cuddle time or story time before bed. Lavender bath time, no red dye, no sugar after 4 PM. It’s not making a difference.”
Jonathan peaked his head out from behind the door jam. He came into the room dragging Bennie who was clinging to his brother’s left leg in a death grip. “Now Jonathan is my brave heart!” she said. She caught both boys in her arms as Jonathan clumped forward, dragging his brother. “Do you think there’s anything under the bed, Johnathan?” she asked him.
“That’s silly, mom.” Jonathan held himself apart from his mother as Bennie snuggled into her side. “You and Daddy always taught me that the only thing under the bed was dust bunnies.”
“Dust bunnies, and dirty little-boy socks.” Germaine completed their litany. She tickled him and he giggled into her arms.
Charlie came in. We plated up dinner, got the mop, and ate together as only a family with children can. Johnathan had built a significant mashed potato castle that Bennie smashed his fist in, while we weren’t looking. Johnathan responded by refusing to eat anything else, and sulking until he was dismissed from table. Bennie ran after him. I heard Jonathan scream, “Get off me, Bro!” as the both crashed together on the floor. Germaine went in, turned on the television and we heard nothing but the sappy music that goes with children’s entertainment.
With the children fed and quieted, we talked about what they’d observed. “Why do you think this is more than just night terrors?” I asked Charlie.
“I hate to say this. I’ve seen it.” I watched Germaine’s eyes pop out of her head. Evidently, he hadn’t told her. “I was on howl duty, and when Benny started to cry I came piking down the hall. The first thing I saw in the dark was a blinking red and green light, way under his bed. When I got there, Jonathan was trying to comfort his brother. I turned the lights on and we both went under the bed, looking for what it might have been.”
“A power strip? A night light? A reflection from outside?” I asked.
“Nothing we could find. Nothing that made sense. Just red and green blinking light and a kid terrified out of his mind. And some very odd noises down the hallway. Almost like animal voices. Do you know what that could be?”
“It’s way too early to tell. Do the boys know why I’m here?” I asked.
“Oh no!” Germaine said. “We don’t want them more frightened. You’re just a family friend here for a nice weekend.”
“That’s perfect. I have something I’d like to try.” I pulled out a nanny cam in a stuffed bunny. “May I set this up in their room?”
“You’re going to spy on the ghosts?” Germaine asked me.
“I just want to see what’s going on inside.” Charlie led me quietly to the kids’ room where I put up my camera bunny and set up the computer in the room next to it.
I disappeared into the other room as the parents went through the night preparations, the baths, the stories, the last cookies and the good night kisses. All that accomplished, they left the boys in bed, tucked in, doors shut, lights off.
That didn’t matter. Nanny cams are meant to be for night vision. I heard rumpling in the bed. And then “Okay, Squeak, are you ready?” from Jonathan. I watched as Jonathan crawled out of his bed and rolled a ball outside the door. Bennie was rapt in attention, watching his older brother. An odd moo came out from the door, then a list of several animal sounds: cats, dogs, goats, horses, with the click of something hard rolling across the floor. I saw Jonathan walk over to Benny’s bed and reach under. After a click I saw two lights strobe. Then Jonathan said to Benny, “Do your best, Bro. Nice and loud!” The little boy opened his mouth and let out an ungodly peel. Germaine and Charlie both hit the door running as I watched Jonathan kick something off to the side with his foot. Lights were flung on, children comforted, parents left clinging to Bennie’s bedside to bring him comfort. Jonathan was off in the corner looking sleepy. But at one point, I saw him smile sneakily at the tableau.
I pulled Johnathan off to the room where I had the computer feed playing. I sat him down and turned on the rewind.
“Why are you doing this to me?” he yelled. “I’m a person. I have feelings!” It was quite a show. Germaine and Charlie were too involved in the other theatrics to stop me though.
“This is the most amazing tape. If I didn’t know better, I would say that you and Benny have been working on this together for some while.” I ran the footage. “What is that amazing noise toy?” I asked him.
“It’s a babble ball,” he said with pride. “It makes all kinds of noises. Gramma gave it to me when I came to visit. I just didn’t show it to my parents.”
“Really!” I said. I was between being in awe and being appalled. “Is that what you kicked away from under the bed?” I asked him.
“What?” I demanded. He was beginning to get that I didn’t think it was as cool as he did.
“We got some glow in the dark balls for Halloween. They look like eyes. I start them up and then I kick them into the corner past the dresser. I just roll the babble ball down the hall. They never look there.”
“Did you do this to scare your brother?” I asked him.
“No! Bennie’s not scared. He thinks it’s fun. It is fun. He’ll do anything I tell him anyway. They have this lame bedtime and I have to go to bed early because he’s little. It’s not fair!”
“So many things aren’t,” I answered. “Like scaring someone who loves you a lot for attention. Like making them think they’re crazy or they’re doing a bad job of being parents.”
“They’re lame parents anyway. All they care about is Benny. They keep telling me I’m the big boy and I need to be responsible. And wait my turn. And take care of myself. And take care of my brother.”
We were to the core of it. Jonathan had found a way of getting their complete attention, even if it was focused on Benny.
“Okay,” I said. “You set this up. You’re a smart guy. A tough guy. What should I do with you?”
“Are you going to tell?” he asked me.
“I think that depends on you. It’s one or the other of us.”
“You’re not my mom! You can’t make me do anything,” he snarled.
“Legally true,” I answered.
I could force the thing, drag him down the hallway, show his hand to his parents in a pageant of shame and rage. That depended on all of us actually being awake to do that. I wasn’t even sure what that would do. It seemed like all too much. I let him slip back into bed.
I woke in the morning, breakfasted with the family and left to collect a few things. Germaine and Charlie whisked the boys off to a fun museum day, out and about, after quietly handing me the keys.
When they came home, I was waiting in the same set up room with the nanny cam in place.
They went through their bed time rituals. Germaine came in to check, and dragged Benny off for a potty stop.
When it was quiet in the hall, I hit the button that started up my little presentation.
It’s amazing what a tea room had around for Halloween decorations. We had a most thoroughgoing collection. I started up the CD of thunder crashes and lighting strikes. Then blended in another tape of dreadful moans and noises. Lights started flashing throughout the room in rapid fire configuration, showing ghosts, skeletons, zombies, and mummies. No cute images here. Hard core horror with dirt and blood left clinging to the bones. Flash, revealed. Then gone into the darkness. It was set not to repeat in any real pattern.
Jonathan’s screams were real enough. Charlie was shaking at the door in laughter. Germaine was half furious, unsure whether what I’d done was too cruel. Charlie put on the lights and I walked through the door.
“You’re mean!” he yelled at me. He ran towards me fists balled up ready for a fight.
“I told you either you or I would tell your parents. You declined. I remember you telling me there was nothing I could do about it. As you can see, that wasn’t exactly true.” He butted against me, but he really couldn’t get up enough steam to hurt me. And I deserved it.
“Do you have something to say?” I asked him.
“You’re mean!” he repeated.
“Other than that?” I asked him. “How does it feel to be really scared.”
“I’m not scared.” No, he wasn’t, judging from his balled up fists. He was furious, now that he’d seen the trick.
“I know you aren’t scared now. But it didn’t feel good, did it?”
“His chin raised at me like a fist. “No.”
“We have an old tradition in my family,” I told him. “We don’t get mad. We get even.”
“That’s not fair! I’m just a little boy.”
“You are? You don’t act like a little boy. You meant to hurt your parents and scared them. Little boys don’t do that. How fair is that?”
Something in that was not what he expected. His head turned as if he’d clearly heard me wrong.
“Unless someone made a mistake, or didn’t mean to hurt anybody, we get even.”
“What if it’s a mistake,” he asked me.
“Well, then you tell the person about it and say sorry. And it’s over. Did you mean to hurt anyone one with this?”
Germaine was caught between rage and hilarity. She couldn’t believe her smart, sneaky little boy.
“I know you didn’t hurt or scare Benny, but you had your mom and dad worked up into a panic. How do you think they feel?”
It was clear that Jonathan hadn’t explored other people’s feelings very much, but it struck me as the time to start.
“Not good,” he whispered. Charlie picked up his son in his arms.
I let Charlie finish this one. I’d cleared the surface to a level playing field. They were going to have a time with their kids. But they were all theirs.
The next morning, I ate breakfast with them. Johnathan was spelling out words with his alphabet cereal and had just written “Bennie is an ass” in the letters. It was just as well Bennie couldn’t read yet. Bennie spilled his milk and Jonathan snatched a paper towel and ceremonially wiped the table, leaving streaks and drips everywhere. Then they both ran outside to the swing set where Bennie sat screaming, “Push me!” Jonathan gave him a look of bored exhaustion while his brother yelled, “Higher!” And pushed him again and again, until Bennie hollered stop.
Germaine and I watched and lingered over tea. Germaine asked me, “Do you remember that bit about our house in Watertown?” Well we had now uncovered the elephant.
“I was there. I remember.”
“You insisted we had a ghost.”
“That was how I saw it.” I was almost burned in the fire the ghost set at the house. I can still smell the smoke. I don’t think it will ever go away.
“I remember being a bit skeptical about all that,” she went on, “I couldn’t wrap my head around it at the time.”
“It’s always a shock for people when they see a glimpse beyond the veil.” I said charitably.
“We really did have a ghost, didn’t we?”
“Yes. A seriously dangerous ghost. I did all I could to keep you both safe.”
“You could have died.” She looked like I might hit her. Like she might even accept it if I did. I didn’t, of course.
“But I didn’t die. Do you think I burned your house down, Germaine?”
“No.” The word squeezed through a little hole in her throat. “Does the word sorry work?”
I reached for her hand. “It does. Could we use the words, ‘that was then?’”
She smiled and nodded.
“Do you forgive me for not believing you?” Germaine whispered.
“Did you make a mistake?” I asked.
“I think so,” she said softly. Sorry.”
I hugged her tight.
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