Last night, Maddie was out of bed at bedtime (as opposed to the middle of the night), claiming that she was scared. When questioned, she could point to nothing specific, just a general sense of childhood dread. We sent her back to bed with an extra stuffed animal.
A while later, I thought I'd check on her, so I poked my head in the room and climbed the first step of her ladder (she has a loft bed). She was wide awake, so I chatted her up a bit, asking if she was still scared. Indeed she was. Trying to pin down the source, I asked:
"So, are you scared something's going to happen, or is anything running through your mind?"
"Well," she said, "I'm kind of afraid that big hands are going to grab me."
"Where would they come from?"
"I don't know. Through the ceiling, I think. They're probably in the attic."
"I was just up there," I said, and I had been, getting Christmas decorations. "There's nothing up there. I saw for myself."
Now, a lot of people would just blow off a fear like this, with a "tough up" kind of speech. But I remember what it was like to walk up the stairs in the dark, and being able to actually feel that nasty horrible Something crouching on the landing behind me, waiting until I wasn't paying attention to attack me and drag my body down to the basement. Running just made it worse.
Maddie likes a lot of the same kind of stuff that I did when I was a kid. She's a "maker", meaning that she likes to engineer her own stuff. Puts on plays. She's into fantasy (Harry Potter, LOTR, Narnia, etc.). Loves to read, of course. Now, she likes Barbies and princess stuff, too, whereas I did not, but she's a girl, and I'm not, or at least I pretend not to be when I'm not at bars. Not counting the Barbie stuff, though, I'd contend that the brain centers responsible for those sorts of tastes are also responsible for the degree to which you are susceptible to wild flights of frightening fantasy.
So instead of saying "just go to sleep," and based on the theory above and on the notion of visualization devices, I said:
"Mad, during the day, it's fun to believe in magic and fairies and stuff like that. But at night, it's not so fun. Maybe you can pretend that you have a switch inside for believing in magic that you can turn off at night. During the day, you can have it on, and you can have all the fun you want believing in that stuff. At bedtime, though, you can switch it to off, and that way you'll have an easier time not thinking that scary stuff is just around the corner."
"I don't know," she said, frowning. "It's just... like, a quarter of me believes in magic and monsters, but at night it's worse, and that quarter of me makes the rest of me scared."
I was half-inclined to let her get out of bed and watch cartoons all night just for gratuitously referencing fractions regarding her mental state. But alas.
"And now I'm getting a headache," she continued. "That switch thing is making my head hurt. I don't like it." She was getting teary.
"Okay," I said. "Forget it. Don't worry about the switch. If you can't get that sort of thing out of your head, then just close your eyes and think about good magic things like fairies. Fight the bad imaginary with good imaginary." It's what worked for me as a kid.
I kissed her forehead. "Okay?"
"I'll try," said said.
And that was that.
Most of us probably had all kinds of irrational fears as children. As we grew older, our intellectual selves exerted their supremacy over the gut-based reactions and fantastical wanderings of the juvenile mind. Or did they?
I had stayed up late that same night, programming (Geek!). It was almost midnight when I came upstairs. The house was dark and quiet. I put on shoes, as I needed to take the dog out one last time and unplug the Christmas lights. As I grabbed the dog's leash from the key rack by the door, I thought I heard a voice from behind me: "Hey Roland."
Assuming it was Joy, who had long since gone to bed, about to remind to take out the dog, I replied "What, hon?"
Several seconds of silence elapsed. It hadn't been her. Playing the sound back in my head (I'm really good at that - I can often reconstruct conversations verbatim, and can count "shots" from TV characters guns by playing the sound back in my head in slo-mo) I realized that it hadn't been her. It had been my own voice. Which meant that the "Hey Roland" had only been a fart of my imaginative brain.
But all at once, I was struck with the absolutely ludicrous notion that there was an evil clone of me in the kitchen, just out of sight, and that it was going to smite my ass the second I walked over to investigate. I remembered then, viscerally, the feeling of walking up the stairs as child, preparing for the strike from behind. And I felt even worse for Maddie than I had previously.
The evil clone flash was gone as instantly as it came, but it left an aftertaste of fear that made me laugh at myself. Twenty-five percent? Not for me, anymore. But it was obviously still hanging around. Maybe one percent of me? One half of one percent? It seems that it doesn't matter. Even that one half of one percent is capable of temporarily overriding the rest, and making a rational fully grown man speculate for a moment that an evil clone of himself lay in wait, just around the next corner.
Or, possibly, I'm still hanging at twenty-five percent as well, and I've just been lying to myself all these years. Or, less likely, this is the evil clone writing this, just to lull all of you into complacency, so that when you
hear the voice in the kitchen next week, you suspect nothing as you go to investigate, until you come face to face with your own evil self. And then it will be too late. And that's how we'll take over the world. Or not.