by David Parkinson
Never in my own wildest dreams did I think I would need to help my daughter this way. I guess I thought she would be able to take care of herself, even at the age of three.
Earlier that night, a client had spun his dream of a primary school into a sprawling maze of corridors and rooms containing huge, bellowing teachers hurling chalkboard erasers like they were baton rounds. It had taken hours to lead him out of there, and it had taken another hour to cool him down afterwards. Thirty years of that repeated nightmare was a testament only to his ability to function on a minimum of sanity, not to his ability to ask for help sooner.
“I can’t settle Kaia at all this time,” said my wife Jane as she took my coat. “I think you’re going to have to help her find her way out.”
“I know,” I sighed. “I’m just not looking forward to it.”
“Do you want anything first?”
“Better not, I’m still tired; it’ll be easier to get in. I’ll go up and see her now.”
I gripped the banister at the foot of the stairs and looked up past the dog-leg to Kaia’s room. I could hear her crying, but I knew she would be fast asleep; her brain wildly active while keeping her body shut down at the same time.
When I reached the top of the stairs, I could feel the tension rushing around Kaia’s room like a school of mad herring. With my hand on her door I could feel a thousand minds take on a collective conscience, slow down from their whirling, and take notice of my presence. I stopped.
I have pried people out of the complex mental twists of a car crash exaggerated in volume by the guilt of survival; led the grief-stricken out of memories of their childhood homes, only twenty floors high, while their parents burned; coaxed terrified children out of their bedrooms while monsters really did push claws up through the mattress and snap at our heels as we fled. I didn’t want to start thinking about what waited for me in my own child’s dream. Going in blank would be a distinct advantage, I thought as I opened the door.
Kaia, eyes closed, sat upright in her big-girl’s bed, bawling. Trying to push aside the oppressive charge in the air, I sat next to my daughter and shuffled her across as I wrapped her up in my arms. She calmed to a whimper and with her eyes still closed, seemed to recognize I was there – a good sign. I leaned back and she snuggled next to me, still weeping.
My tiredness turned to the familiar weariness I expected within a few minutes, and as I concentrated on the darkness behind my closed eyelids I saw a dark red thread drift in front of me. Following the routine of my training, I caught it with an imaginary hand and knew by twisting it around my finger that I would bind my imagination to my corporeal faculties.
I held on to the thread, which became a string, which pulled me tumbling forward as it thickened to rope. A moment later I saw Kaia sitting beside me, her eyes red and teary.
“Make it go away, Daddy,” she said with her whole heart pushing the words out to me.
“What is it?” I said, stroking her face and looking around us. I couldn’t see anything. There was nothing to escape from. Nowhere to escape to.
“It’s in the dark... said it make you go away.” Her clipped words suggested I should be looking out for a thing, but I knew that was often too simple an idea.
“Hey now. It’s okay.” Looking around I couldn’t see anything other than Kaia and our bed, apparently floating in a black void.
“Make it go away.”
How do I make it go away? I thought. I don’t know what to make go where. Worse, I don’t know where to start to get out of here.
I waited, and watched for a movement in the darkness, with Kaia’s face buried in my chest. Then, with a shudder I realised my child’s greatest fear had mirrored my own: hers, that her father couldn’t make her fears disappear; and mine, that I couldn’t help my baby girl as I had been able to help others.
I turned Kaia’s chin up with my forefinger. “Kaia,” I said trying to muster all of her three year old concentration. “You have to help Daddy find a way out, or we’re going to be here for a long time.”
She looked up at me with welling eyes, and I asked her the question I already knew the answer to: “What is it you’re scared of, honey?”
“It said it make you go away, said you no help me.” She started to sob in that escalating way that precedes a despairing bawl.
“Hey, I’m not going anywhere. What did it look like?” I needed her to start visualising something other than darkness. “Is it hiding from you? Tell me Kaia, where is it?”
She looked up at me for encouragement and then looked around, turning to scan over her shoulder.
“Good girl. Can you see it?”
She shook her head. “Take another look.”
She peered over my shoulder, and as she did I caught sight of something moving across my line of vision; completely black, a disproportioned stilt-walker of a figure pressed up against a sheer black curtain. I pointed in the direction of the movement.
“Look, there.” I directed Kaia at the figure, and when she spotted it details started to flicker across the chest and head like they had been picked out by tiny torches. The more she looked, the more details emerged on the figure, and the more she tightened her grip on me. “Don’t worry,” I whispered. “I’m here, keep looking.”
Ahead of us, the figure stopped to look back, slowly giving up the secrets of its identity as Kaia filled in the details from her mind’s eye. Captivated, I watched a child’s-eye version of myself become clear: my legs shooting up from enormous shoes, to a shortened body topped by a tired face, and arms from which big, aging hands hung down.
“Well done, Kaia,” I said, pushing her hair back from her brow. “See, it’s just me. Now, let’s see if we can follow me home.”
Copyright © 2006 by David Parkinson