Afraid in the dark

The trail danced through shrubs and tree groves in a path that seemed to be modeled after the flight pattern of a butterfly. Broad palettes of colorful flowers were spread over the terrain while cloud shadows slowly marched over the terrain like lofty guardians patrolling their territory. I produced my map and began jotting the trail curves as I went, lest I forget the playful turns I had been rounding. 

After a half-mile, the soft grass and vibrant flowers faded to a rocky and muddy terrain, as if the grand paintbrush that enlivened the land had streaked out of color at the end of a long stroke. The trail gave a few more mischievous twists around some boulders before becoming soberly straight as it brought me down into a small valley. Clouds were gathering in the sky as though they found something of interest down below and had called to some friends to bear witness. Though it was midday, the daylight dimmed as I entered a canopy of leaves and branches. Seizing the light that remained, I looked down to sketch the latest developments in the trail on the map; the scratching of my pencil and the windblown leaves whispering to each other as I worked. 

Taking a glance over the top of the paper, I froze as my gaze followed the trail for a few more paces before colliding with a wall of rock interrupted by a round void of darkness: A cave swallowed the trail and its mouth waited in hunger for me. I looked back at the map and saw former portions of my path that were drawn straight for a length and then suddenly diverted, sometimes for miles, in wide arcs to avoid passing through previous caves and features of this kind. 

However, something was different this time. I wanted to follow this trail. I wanted to draw a straight line on my map. 

I pocketed the map and approached the cave. The wind, whispering moments before, was amplified into a low, damp breath as it heaved out of the mouth. I stooped to peer into the cavern and saw a pinprick of daylight at the end; a solitary star in a void of space. The invisible fist gripping my chest loosed a little and I took one last look about me; around me all was cold and gray, before me was darkness, ahead of me was life. I took a breath, entered the cave, and pursued it. 

I slept with the hall-light on until I was in middle school. My door and one eye were always wide-open while the 3,000 candle-power hallway light cast its all-protecting lumens in a circle bright enough to give a mole cataracts. I don’t know what age I was when this stopped but I was old enough to feel self-conscious about it and question if I was breaking some unspoken rule regarding age-mandated sleeping environments. 
I received a response to this question by a classmate in computer class. We sitting side by side on old computers that were cutting edge at the time and are probably now used only by non-conformist grandparents who need email and IT personnel who need an over-sized doorstop. The program we were using was a “get-better-at-typing” game that displayed a computer keyboard and a pair of beautiful translucent hands that were purple and poised perfectly over the keys like the fingers of a master pianist. My hands were not purple and resembled chickens sifting through the keyboard for grain, pecking each key sporadically with gangly index-finger necks that protruded from my fists.

Amid the uncoordinated tic-tac sound of 7th graders learning how to type for the first time, I contemplated my plight. Half of me was tethered to the nightlight with cords of fear while the other half was being pulled into darkness by chains of shame. I wanted neither. Despite the years of protection I had received under the nightlight, I began to resent it and the need I felt for it. I also resented the notion of sleeping in the dark. Whose idea was it anyway to create a culture of fairy tales, nursery rhymes, and movie trailers on daytime television that are rife with images of horrors that lurk in the dark, feed them into the sponge-like minds of society’s children, and then shame them for finding it difficult to sleep comfortably in the shapeless void where terror and madness lie in wait around every unseen corner? I felt as though I was expected to justify myself before a jury for breathing oxygen. My nightlight was not only rational, it was a basic living essential. If I had the proper legal authority at the time, I would have written an 11th Amendment declaring it illegal for anyone to question, criticize, or cock their eyebrows at one’s use of a nightlight.

Surely I was not the only level-headed thinker around. I decided to take this question to the authorities; to have them examine the illogical case being brought against me and boldly declare before the watching world that I was firmly in the right and should be spared any judgment or critique under penalty of being poked in the ribs.

I conveniently had access to such an authority in the 12-year old classmate next to me who was picking his ear with the pinky finger of one hand while limply swatting his keyboard with the other.

This was my big chance. I was ready. I was going to accomplish two things in the ensuing conversation:

  • First thing: Shuffle off the burden of hiding my nightlight dependency, thus kicking that nagging shame in the mouth. 
  • Second thing: Receive validation from a trusted source regarding how difficult it is to overcome said dependency…and maybe even permission to stop trying to overcome it because nobody else was bothering to try either. 

My mission was clear and my arguments were sound. I chuckled to myself as I imagined how I would strut out of the classroom with victory under my belt. Maybe I would purse my lips to one side, throwing my shoulders with each exaggerated step, winking and pointing at the cool kids with both index fingers.

I assessed the tools I had available to me with which I would build the discussion. The conversational orbit between pre-teen boys is a selectively small one and tends to gravitate around the following:

  • Video games
  • Pokémon
  • Video games about Pokémon
  • Things pre-teen boys think are stupid
This last category is by far the most frequented subject of choice among conversing youngsters. It’s content is updated almost by the minute, ensuring that all participants can contribute something to the discussion. Entire friendships have been forged and broken on its grounds. Aware of this risk, I threw caution to the stuffy classroom wind and offered a cordial invitation to discourse:
“Dude, you know what’s stupid?”
His response dripped with the enthusiasm of an eager participant:

Without trying, I was able to conjure up a list of items to discuss and I was sure my classmate would agree. I would build his approval from the ground up, starting with the small things like lockers and algebra while masterfully building a rapport that could handle the nightlight issue. I could do it. I would do it. The time was now:

Me:        “Whaddya think about those lockers?”
Dude:     “Man, I can never open mine! Like, do I turn the dial left, right, left, left? Or left, right left,                   right?”
Me:        “Seriously! And what about algebra? Like, whose idea was it to mix-up numbers and the
                alphabet like that?”
Dude:     “I know right?! If you ask me, I think whoever thought of that should sit on a porcupine!”
Me:        “Yeah! And you know what else is a pain in the butt? Still not bein’ able to sleep with the
                light off at 12 years old!”
Dude:     “I hear you brother! With a blanky and teddy bear to boot!”
Me:        “You know it!”

This is the script that was playing on repeat in my head while we were talking. It came to a startling halt like a needle being jerked off of a spinning record right about the time when I realized my classmate and I weren’t on the same page about how confusing algebra was at its core:

Dude:     “Algebra’s not hard at all man. I think pretty easy.”
Dude:     “You don’t?

Something was wrong. That wasn’t on the script. In my brain, there were red lights flashing and sirens wailing while little versions of me scrambled around looking for a response, rifling through filing cabinets, and frantically flipping through databases to find a response that would get us back on track.

Me:        “So uh…I’ve always slept…with the hallway light on and…I um…still haven’t gotten used to
                sleeping with it off”
Me:        “Um…”  “Stinks, right?”
Dude:     …
Me:        “…know what I’m talkin’ ’bout?”

He kept staring at me while the purple hands on his computer screen were frozen in sharp contortions, as though they too had heard my secret and were in shock. After what felt like three-and-a-half days of silence, the corners of his lips began to curl and his eyes narrowed at their edges. I saw the tips of his teeth emerge in a cursive smile. He seemed to be assessing my situation as a lion casually considers the parts of a trapped gazelle he should like to nibble on first. All at the same time, the classroom slowly became a courtroom; either side of me surrounded by a jury of fellow students who tic-tac’d away on court-logs that were recording every detail of my depraved lack of coolness. His eyes flashed and I knew that he, as the judge, had come to his conclusion and was ready to pronounce his judgment. The lion was ready to pounce. The guillotine was about to drop. My pupils shrunk to pin-pricks; I could see nothing and was left only with ears that would not cease to hear both my pounding heart and the sentence heaved at me with a mocking, “poor baby” tone of voice:

“Aw poor Andy, can’t sleep without a nightlight?”

The courtroom disappeared. The judge and jury disappeared. The purple hands disappeared. Everything evaporated in an instant and I was in a black, formless vacuum. It was as though I had been preserved during a split-second rupture in the space-time continuum that sucked away the earth, the stars, the universe itself, and left me in its wake.

There is no air in space but apparently there is sound. Every inch of the expanse around me echoed with “can’t sleep without a nightlight” in haunting, mock voices that were speaking, singing, chanting, whispering, and wailing like a crazed choir of inmates. The sinister song reverberated over and over like an eternal record on loop.

Back in reality, my classmates had filed out of the room and it was time to go to lunch. I drifted out behind them like a wide-eyed toad on a lily pad being dragged about by a lazy current, carelessly bumping into things without flinching. The existential void of never-ending woe has a way of making you impervious to outside stimuli.

The darkness and the voices eventually faded away but I probably spent the rest of the day in a distant fog with a drooping jaw and a billion-mile gaze: cemented in the cafeteria, oblivious to the chaos-jungle of middle school behind me; glued to the bus seat like a dashboard bobble-head; frozen at the dinner table while my family gently placed french fries and chicken nuggets in my mouth, smearing in mashed potatoes as an adhesive if they fell out.

This isn’t exactly the picture I want to leave you with. You might say that this day was not my day. I wasn’t exactly on my A-game so-to-speak. Good grief, out of the vast encyclopedia of awesomeness I’ve been the cause of  why in the world would I share this excerpt with you? The truth is, things changed that day. They didn’t end then but they changed. That’s what this is all about. Sometimes I think God withholds the eraser on “bad” days in our life chapters because they change us. Remember how my fear of the dark dictated so much of my sleeping and waking life? Remember how desperately I sought my classmate’s validation? That pillar of anxiety lost a chip in its foundation that day. It took a while for the next chip to fall but it fell more easily than the first. Each one after that came more easily and more quickly than those before. As the years went by it shrunk, crumbled, and lost its power. The debris left-over from its destruction still clutters my life at times but its slowly being blown away in the breeze.

That night, I climbed the stairs while the hall-light watched. It’s electric glow and hum always seemed so warm, inviting, trustworthy. This time it buzzed and turned angry shades in a way I never noticed before, like a jilted bully whose target has become deaf to their taunts. I reached the top of the stairs and stared back. I smiled, dragged the dimmer switch to reduce the raging light to a dull glow, and got ready for bed.  


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