Bedtime, Age 6

I’m already moving as I bat down the light switch. The dark pushes the light back into the bulb and then swallows it, but I’m flying, my feet clearing any shadowy arms that might snatch from under the bed. Landing, I scramble to make sure nothing hangs over the edge. I know the rules for avoiding what lurks underneath. Following the rules keeps me safe.

All the monsters in the dark have rules, and six-year-olds know them instinctively. Light and grown-ups scare them away. Things that live under beds can’t reach up on top of them. Blankets protect whatever they cover. Things that peer in the window won’t come inside if you pretend you’re asleep. Things that live in closets can’t open doors by themselves.

Oh, no.

The closet door is cracked open — just a little bit, but enough. The opening is a black slash in the nighttime gloom. The watching darkness freezes me. I’m afraid to look, but terrified of looking away. I carefully sit up, trying to make no sound — and a bedspring’s creak sends a gasp to squeeze my throat. The shadows shift around me but I keep my eyes on the closet. The shapes that flutter at the corner of my vision want me to look at them. I know better.

I have nothing but my hands to push the door shut. I have to reach — to lean — over the edge of the bed. This is part of the rules too. If you forget to check before the lights are out, whatever happens is your own fault. That’s when they get you, when you make a mistake. Mommy and Daddy won’t always be there to protect you, you know. I reach over the edge, trying to watch both the dark slash and the shadowy floor, suddenly forgetting whether something will spring from where I’m looking, or from where I’m not. I imagine if I push too softly, the door will bounce on the latch and the crack will yawn open like a hungry mouth.

I forget about whatever is under the bed as I slam my palm against the closet door. It closes with a too-loud CLACK, and I dive back to the safety zone, burrowing into the warm covers, squeezing my eyes shut so I don’t see the fluttering things that want me to see them. I lie very still, waiting for my heartbeat to slow.

The danger fades, and feels a little silly; gentler dreams come out to play like wary mice. Secure in blankets, all I need to do is act asleep — until I am. I’m safe again for one more night.