“Jessica,” her mom’s voice materialized by her ear, causing her to jump. She spun quickly to see her mother bundled in a pink robe, smiling down on her with eyes that crinkled in the corners as she grinned. Jessica was so focused on her dilemma that she hadn’t heard her mother walk down the hall.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost, sweetheart. Why are you standing out in the hall?” her mom asked.
Jessica cast her eyes to the ground and fidgeted, hooking her right big toe around her left heel. Long, shiny blond hair that hung in her eyes was gently cast away in a billowing curtain as she let out a shaky breath. She hadn’t considered the possibility of a ghost lurking around her bedroom, but her mother’s poor choice of words added the possibility to the monsters she’d already conjured up in her mind.
“Are you scared of what’s in the closet?” her mom asked.
Jessica hesitated. She hadn’t thought of her closet either, but she shook her head no. “It’s the bed. Could you please turn on the light and check?”
Her mom’s smile tightened and grew harder. This was a game they played every night and her patience was slowly being chipped away over the weeks. Months. She had even dared to hope for a slightly different variation of the phobia. Like daughter like mother - the woman blew out a gusty sigh, causing a wave of light brown hair to momentarily feather away from her face.
“Sure,” she replied through gritted teeth and flicked on the light to Jessica’s room.
The woman made a show of folding the blankets away from the floor over the bed to look underneath, even going so far as to reach into the darkness. Jessica cringed, waiting for her mother’s arm to be grabbed by some unseen force and nearly shrieked when her mother made a face. Unharmed, her mother stood up clutching a wayward toy and brushed imagined dust from her robe. When she turned to Jessica, she was smiling a little too brightly at the child.
“See? Nothing’s there!” She made a dramatic sweep of the room with her arms.
Jessica was anchored in place. Her freckled nose wrinkled; arms stubbornly crossed. Her little voice squeaked, “Can you check the closet?”
Her mom’s patience was pushed to the limit and anger briefly flashed across her face. She strode briskly to the closet, muttering, “I guess I brought that one on myself.” Brittle fingers violently shoved the closet doors apart in opposite directions. The hinges squeaked loudly in protest and one of the doors caught before folding.
“What the....” Jessica’s mother bent over and retrieved something from the floor. “I just don’t understand how this little guy always gets crammed in here. Don’t you like Mr. Elderberry anymore?” Her mom held the hideous marionette puppet up by the control bar, flexing her hands so the strings moved his disproportionately small arms and legs, his giant mouth gaping open and close like a yammering drunkard.
Realizing that her mother was waiting for a reply, the small girl looked up with wide eyes and benignly nodded. Satisfied, the woman put Mr. Elderberry back on his hook overlooking Jessica’s bed. While her mom was distracted, Jessica took a flying leap across the floor to avoid any lingering shadows and landed on her bed. The headboard gently tapped the wall as her slight body shifted the bed frame on impact.
“Jessica,” her mother knelt next to her bed to tuck her in. “I know you’re scared of what’s under the bed, but the more you think about it, the more power you give it. If you choose not to believe in it, it will go away.”
The little girl’s face scrunched up as she considered what her mother said. “You mean, it’s only there if I think it is?”
Her mom’s face softened as she leaned down and gave her a quick kiss. “Yep. You can make it go away by telling it that it’s not there.”
Jessica looked skeptical but a small smile tugged at her rosebud mouth as she snuggled down into her blankets. “‘Night Mom,” she said quietly. Her mom hesitated as she stepped out of the room and turned off the light. “Can you leave the hallway light on at least?” Jessica called out.
“Nope. Just remember, it’s not really there unless you think it is,” her mom called over her shoulder as she went towards her room.
Frowning, Jessica squeezed her eyes shut and muttered, “It’s not really there.” She moved her legs around in her blankets, feeling the crisp cool sheets against her knees and toes. Something shifted in her room, making a sound like branches hitting together. Her breath caught in her throat as she pushed her blankets over her head and pinned them against the headboard. Seconds passed with a gentle tapping that slowed in rhythm. Remembering what her mother said, Jessica forced herself to slow down her breathing and pull the sheets back beneath her chin. She slowly opened one eye and then the other. Mr. Elderberry was gently rocking against the wall, its weight finding a balance on the perch.
As Jessica relaxed and began to settle into her pillow, she froze and frowned.
“Shoot,” the little girl whispered. She had forgotten to use the bathroom and her bladder was full. She looked around the room watching the shadows dance with the turn of her night light. She started when a face jumped out on the wall, but calmed when she watched it shrink back to the source. Mr. Elderberry.
“You are not real. This is my bedroom,” she said quietly.
“You are not real,” she said again a little louder.
Feeling empowered, Jessica decided to take advantage of her new found bravery and swing her feet to the ground. She stood up with sudden conviction and even took the time to stretch before continuing on to the bathroom. Two cold hands clamped down on her ankles like vices and pulled her to the ground, knocking the wind out of her before she could scream.