Chapter One: A Dream of Old Leaves
"Daddy," his son whispered, and Paul shot open his eyes. "Daddy, I had a dream."
His son stood next to the bed, only a shadow in the dark of the bedroom, but Paul knew the shadow, the outline of the head; the hair, he could make out in the thin light from the night-light in the hall, stuck up in places like strands of twisted wire. He could see his neck, too, the soft curve of it down to David's shoulders. "Daddy?" the boy whispered.
Paul rolled over onto his back and touched his wife lying next to him, her arm and shoulder warm with sleep.
"Kate?" he whispered. "Your turn."
She mumbled something he could not make out, and rolled over away from him.
"Daddy?" his son whispered again.
Kate and Paul tried to alternate nights bringing David back upstairs to his room, one night Paul's turn to pick him up, slowly move up the stairs in the dark toward the light of another nightlight, this one in the bathroom at the top of the stairs; the next night her turn. But Kate's side of the bed was farthest from the bedroom door, and their son's first stop was always Paul's side.
"Daddy," his son whispered again, "I had a dream that woke me up."
Paul sat up in bed, careful not to wake Kate, though he could not be certain why. It was her turn, after all, but he only let his feet slip out from beneath the quilt and sheet, touch the floor. His son backed up a foot or so and held out his hand, ready, Paul knew, for the ritual of being picked up and carried back to bed. Slowly Paul stood, his eyes nearly closed, his mouth thick and dry.
He hoisted David up, and in their routine -- the boy as completely in rhythm as Paul -- he settled in on Paul's hip, his legs gently wrapped around Paul's waist, his warm head on Paul's shoulder. His arms were limp, draped over Paul's shoulders so that he could just feel his son's fingertips between his shoulder blades, the touch almost nothing, a simple dance across his skin as David's hands moved, jostled with each step Paul took up the staircase.
David had started sleeping through at ten weeks, a fact Paul and Kate often shared with other parents, proud that their son slept while some infants and toddlers were still waking up one and two and three times a night. One couple they knew had a two-and-a-half-year-old girl who still got up twice a night, though she'd stopped nursing a year ago; her parents, Paul knew, promoted the practice, insisting the child sleep in their own room, the girl in a crib in the corner so that any move she made during the night woke the parents, which in turn, Paul imagined, set off the kid. It had to do with sleep rhythms; he had read in one of their books about how babies, like adults, had their own sleep patterns to work out, and that if parents kept interrupting babies when they came out of sleep during the night, the kids would acclimate themselves to their parents, and neither would get any sleep.
But two months ago, a week or so after his fourth birthday, David had started waking up. The first night Paul and Kate had both awakened to David's whimpering upstairs, his quick breaths and high-pitched but quiet gasps, and Paul had rolled out of bed, stumbled up the stairs, Kate just behind him. The two were strangely silent, Paul thought as they rushed into the room, David sitting Indian-style in the middle of the bed. And just as they reached him, Paul stooping to touch him, Kate's hand reaching out right next to his so that the two touched their son at the same moment, David let out a choked squeal. At that moment Paul wondered if their son's scream might not have been caused by the two of them whirling into the room, ghosts in the midst of the boy's dream as they touched him, spoke his name in gentle, hushed tones. Kate sat on the bed and took him in her arms, Paul still standing, his hand on the boy's head, in his hair, caressing him.
"I had a dream," David had whimpered that first night, and Paul had whispered right away, "What was your dream about?" thinking only that, perhaps, he wanted to talk, and that talking about the dream would help him get it out, forget it.
Kate was slowly rocking the boy, one hand making slow circles on his back. She looked up at Paul, and in the dark he could make out her expression, the eyebrows knotted, the mouth pursed. When she whispered "Shhh," he knew precisely what she was telling him: Don't ask about the dream. Talking will only bring it back.
But David, his face against Kate's shoulder, said, "It's old leaves in my room on the floor," and Paul could only shrug at Kate. He kept his hand on the boy's head, stroking the hair, until a few moments later Kate moved to lay him down. She slowly pulled the sheet and comforter up to his chin.
They watched him for a few moments there in the dark, and then Paul felt Kate's arm around his waist, felt her lean on him. "His first bad dream," she had whispered almost too quietly to hear, her words moving up to him like ghosts themselves, like old leaves scattered across the room, and he had shivered in the darkness. "It's sad," she had whispered.
David woke up every night after that, and for the first few nights they had done the same thing: hurry from bed up to the room, hold David until the whimpering died down. Each night David said, "I had a dream," then Kate laid him back on the bed, his stuffed koala bear under one arm, the sheet and comforter up to his chin, and the boy would fall asleep. Each night they stood next to the bed a moment less, and by the fifth night Kate's arm was no longer around Paul's waist as they looked at him. By the end of the first week they no longer stood over him, but as soon as he was covered up the two of them were headed out the door and down the stairs where, no matter how short a time they had been away, the sheets had become cold, and the two of them would have to nestle into one another to regain what warmth they had had before David had drawn them from sleep.
They debated nightly over what to do: Should they call their pediatrician? A sleep specialist? Put off doing anything for another week or two? And they pored over their books, reading more about children's dreams, about sleep and about waking up in the middle of the night: six books said to let the baby cry, five said to comfort the child immediately. They tried both tactics, but neither seemed to work. David still cried whether they let him sit by himself or took him up in their arms, and Paul and Kate, both more exasperated than when David had been an infant waking twice a night, woke each morning with bloodshot eyes.
Finally, after a month of his waking up, Kate and Paul lay in bed, listening to the whimpering. "This hurts," she said to the ceiling, but she made no move to push back the sheets and start up the stairs.
Paul knew what she meant: It was as if the two of them had suddenly sided with the books that said let the child cry, get back to his own sleep patterns. From where Paul lay, he could see the red numbers of the digital clock on the nightstand, and he started keeping track of how long David would cry. He whispered, "Three-eighteen."
Kate said nothing. She didn't move, and Paul said, "Three-nineteen."
Twelve minutes later -- the longest, Paul knew, they had ever let him go, each minute seeming a day long -- David finally stopped, the whimpering dying away to silence. Paul gave the quiet two minutes more before he moved onto his back, tried to see Kate in the darkness. Her head was turned to him, and he could see a smile on her face. "We did it," he whispered.
And then he had felt a tap at his shoulder, quickly turned to see the shadow of his son standing next to the bed, his hair as unruly as ever, one hand to his eyes and rubbing away. "I had a dream that woke me up, Daddy," David had said.
Paul made it to the top of the stairs, David already asleep, his cheek on Paul's shoulder, the arms on his back even more limp. His own eyes still nearly closed -- he had, he realized, almost acclimated himself to this new sleep pattern -- Paul went into the boy's room and to his bed. Just before laying him down amid his stuffed animals and the bunched-up sheet and comforter, Paul gave his son a small kiss, his lips touching David's wild hair.
He laid his son on the bed, and then, just as he was pulling back the sheet and comforter, David whispered, "I have to go to the bathroom, Daddy."
Paul felt the smile leave him, his face giving over to some piece of small anger. He said, "But you went already. When Mommy and Daddy went to bed."
"I have to go," David said, and on the edge of his whispered voice Paul could hear the movement toward crying, toward tears that he knew would be hard to stop in the middle of the night.
He put his hands on his hips, closed his eyes tight for a moment, then let out a heavy sigh. "Let's go," he said, and held out his hand.
Once at the toilet, David pulled up his pajama top and tucked it under his chin. Everything in the small bathroom -- the towels on the rack, the dinosaur shower curtain, the toothbrush holder and cup, even himself and his son -- was bathed in a hazy brown thrown by the night-light next to the medicine cabinet, that brown seeming so bright in the room that both Paul and David were squinting, David leaning against the toilet, Paul next to him, pulling down the boy's pajama bottoms.
Then David peed, and Paul watched through eyes still half-closed as his son stood before the toilet, the sound of water into water filling the room. When the sound had stopped, Paul watched for his son to give the one last shiver, his whole body momentarily filled with a quick tremble that signaled he was through.
And David did shiver, just as he had every night Paul had brought him to the bathroom, and there was something in the fullness of that movement, his son quivering just an instant, that reminded him of being a boy himself, and of nights like this one when his own father took him to the bathroom, his father's hair wild, too, his pajama bottoms loose and baggy as he stood next to Paul and waited, he remembered, for him to finish.
David let the pajama top fall from his chin, and Paul leaned over, pulled the bottoms up to his waist, then picked him up again, carried him back to the room.
This time David merely rolled onto his side, took the koala bear in his arms, and settled his cheek against the pillow, Paul pulling the sheet and comforter to his chin. The room seemed immensely darker now, and David's features, his face and ears and his hair, were lost to him. Beneath him was merely a child, his own, under covers, already moving into sleep.
Paul turned and started back to the door, imagined Kate in bed downstairs. At least the sheets would still be warm, he thought.
Then he heard noises, something he could not name coming from somewhere he could not see, and for a moment he thought he had imagined the sound, had dreamed while walking through his own home in the middle of the night. He stopped, listened, heard what seemed to him a scratching of sorts, a rustle and static break of sound from outside his son's bedroom window.
He went to the window and pulled back curtains that in daylight were decorated with colorful teddy bears, but which in the darkness held only gray shapes and silhouettes.
Paul saw outside first the half-moon, bright and crisp, so bright that he could see no stars. Next he saw the trees behind their house, limbs filled with moonlight, each moving in its own rhythm to the breeze out there. Movement, he realized, that made the sounds he heard: leaves against leaves against leaves, sounds that entered the room like ghosts and fell into the ears of his son to give him dreams of old leaves.
Paul turned from the window, still holding the curtain to let in moonlight. He could see his son in the bed, and he thought of the courage a boy might need to make his way down a set of stairs in a dark house, while up in his room stirred sounds that brought him bad dreams. And the light of a starless, moonlit night made him remember an evening months ago, long before the dreams had begun, when he and Kate and David had gone out to dinner rather than face an empty kitchen at the end of a long workday, Kate's boss riding her with a specs deadline, two of Paul's clients backing out of appointments at the last minute. They had picked up David at the day-care center, then driven straight to Quincy's, where David had insisted he push his own tray and knife and fork and spoon along the railing toward a cashier who asked him how he would like his kid steak cooked. "Hot," he had answered.
Afterward, the sun just beneath the horizon so that only two or three stars shone through the blue above, the three started across the parking lot toward their car.
Suddenly David stopped, let go of Paul and Kate's hands. His feet set apart as far as possible, he made a fist with one hand, pointed his arm straight and stiff before him, his fist jutting out into space.
"Mommy, Daddy," he said, and they had both stopped, turned to their child in the middle of a restaurant parking lot. "There's danger out there," he said, "and I'm going there."
He posed a moment longer, his face with a forced grimace, and then David seemed to fly apart, his arms gone mad, his legs taking him in wild circles, his head shaking back and forth, eyes open wide, his crazy smile of teeth together and lips parted.
"Whoa," Paul had laughed, and Kate had said, "You nutbox," and then they had done their best to steer him toward their car, and toward the short ride back home, where they would bathe him and dry him and brush his teeth and read to him a bedtime story, either Make Way for Ducklings or Hop on Pop, his two favorite books.
Paul let the curtain fall, and the room grew dark once again. In the darkness he thought of David's words, the truth uttered by a four-year-old for whom facing danger and heading into it meant, perhaps, nothing more than looking to the first stars in the sky of a restaurant parking lot and putting a fist into the air.
And he thought again of when he was a child, back to when danger meant to Paul looking beneath his bed before going to sleep. He remembered his father coming into his bedroom in the middle of a night just like this one, just like any other night, still wearing only his pajama bottoms, his hair still tangled with sleep, his eyes squinting back the light as he switched it on. He remembered his father slowly, patiently lifting the mattress and box spring, then dismantling Paul's bed frame and moving everything underneath it out to show him once and for all that nothing was there. The frame in pieces on the floor, the mattresses on their sides and leaned against the wall, his father had put his hands on his hips, slowly shaken his head, and whispered, "Nothing. See?"
Paul tried to remember any nights after that one when he had been afraid of what was beneath the bed, and he could find nothing in his memory, only nights filled with sleep, and the good knowledge that, in fact, beneath his bed lay only a couple of board games and a flat, long box filled with his winter clothes.
He went to David's bed. Gently he pulled back the comforter and sheet, and eased himself under the covers, amazed at the warmth given by his son, Paul's feet cold but already growing warmer as he pushed them down to the foot of the bed. There was not much room, but then David, still in his sleep, moved closer to the wall, giving his father just enough room to fit beside him.
Copyright © 1985, 1986, 1987, 1988, 1989 by Bret Lott