Poor little Jackson struggles with his words as I tuck him in and reach for the light switch. “Mommy….” He shakes his head. His eyes swim. Better keep the light on a little longer. The way he stares across his bedroom at the closet doors, there must be an imagined monster lurking inside.
“Don’t worry, buddy, it’s all right.” I walk over to the closet, slide the wooden doors wide open, and make a show of investigating the interior. Just bins of toys on one side and clothes on the other, all with picture labels on them so he can learn where things go. “No big deal.” I close everything back up and flash him the reassuring smile that every monster-outsmarting parent has mastered—until I see the worry lingering on Jackson’s face. It’s fear, really. My smile fades. I haven’t solved the root cause disrupting our otherwise unfailing bedtime routine.
“I do not like the tree eyes,” he says, crafting each word deliberately.
Wow. That’s got to be the biggest sentence I’ve heard him string together yet. He’s really motivated to get his point across. He gestures toward the closet, slides off his big-kid bed, and follows his outstretched finger with timid steps until he’s nearly touching one of the double doors. His hand shoots out to tap a large knot in the wood surface, then he turns and bolts back to his bed. He grabs the nearest teddy and squeezes it against his chest, his eyes as big and round as the bear’s.
I study the closet doors and notice for the first time the knots scattered across them in wavy, bulbous outlines. They look like alien heads or, I have to admit, eyes. And not the cute, glassy eyes of my son’s stuffed animals. These wood ones seem to move with the grain’s haphazard patterns, watching you as you watch them. My neck prickles.
“It’s okay,” I say, totally to my son. I’m about to comfort him with the fact that he’ll have his nightlight on when I realize that it’ll only let him see the “tree eyes” in dimmer light. That’s a sight even I don’t want to see. Aren’t monsters supposed to hide behind doors? I didn’t expect to have to protect him from the doors themselves. They’re wedged onto their tracks pretty tight, and I’m not that handy.
“I know,” I say, “we’ll cover them up!”
He looks skeptical, but he follows me out to the kitchen junk drawer for a roll of tape and some scratch paper. Back in his room, I make quick work of those doors. I cast each hideous, accusing eye one last glance before sealing it behind a rectangle of plain white cardstock. I rush through the process because we’re already running late on Jackson’s bedtime, and certainly not because I’m a grown woman who shouldn’t feel nervous in my own child’s bedroom at night.
I tuck Jackson in with forced calm and avoid looking at the closet anymore because the tree eyes have been blindfolded but not blinded. I have so little faith in my own solution. When I exit his room it feels like I’m retreating.
Half an hour later, I tiptoe toward my son’s bedroom and press my ear to the crack where each night I set the door against the frame. I listen for his steady breathing. Good. The paper covers have worked and allowed him to fall asleep. I turn to go when a sudden fluttering from inside the room turns my blood cold. It sounds like a deck of cards thrown carelessly in a game of 52 Pickup. The papers have fallen! More than one, probably all of them, as if they’d waited for me to bear witness.
My back presses against the hallway wall as I sink to my haunches, hands cradling my temples. My precious babe slumbers unsuspecting while all those tree eyes watch him! I’m too weak to go in there. Besides, I can’t protect him. I can’t protect him. They’ve invaded one of our most intimate spaces. They stare with cruel, bloodshot insomnia. And they’ll wait and watch and hover through the daytime haze too.
I pull myself back to my feet. I can’t protect him tonight. But first thing tomorrow, I’ll get a can of paint. After all, that wood colour always looked so drab. I’d just never realized until now it always looked.
Katherine Quevedo was born and raised just outside of Portland, Oregon, where she works as an analyst and lives with her husband and two sons. Her short stories and poetry have appeared in Last Girls Club, Triangulation: Habitats, Coffin Bell, The Common Tongue Magazine, Fireside Magazine, Best Indie Speculative Fiction Vol. III and IV, and elsewhere. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys watching movies, singing, playing old-school video games, belly dancing, and making spreadsheets. Find her at www.katherinequevedo.com.