Alice hated nighttime. She hated bedtime and waiting because that's when it always came.
When her parents read her a bedtime story she fought to stay awake. She could see it waiting in the corner of the room behind the sliding closet door: dark figure, dark purpose, shining eyes. It breathed in sync with her and she did not know much yet, being so new to the world, but she did know that the thing in her closet didn’t smile out of kindness or to try and make her laugh like the others. She didn’t know why it smiled, with stretched out teeth on a stretched out face, and she didn’t want to know. Alice screamed and cried and twisted in their arms, pulling at their clothes and biting: anything to keep them or make them take her with them.
Her parents held her close and gave her kisses and hugs and reassurances that they didn’t know were lies. “Please don’t cry baby girl. It’s okay. You are fine. You’ll feel so much better after you sleep.” The thing hissed to her.
“We’re right outside the door and you are safe and sound little bug.” The thing curled its fingers around the corner of the door. Alice screamed harder. Tears coursing down her chunky cheeks.
“Maybe a few more minutes,” the father whispered. “Shhhh shhhh shhhh she’s worked herself up again.”
The parents stayed whispering about teething. It must be teething. And the thing waited. The only difference was that Alice was getting more and more tired.
Every time she blinked it became harder and harder to open her eyes again. She thought that the longer they stayed in the room… maybe, just maybe, they would be enough. But she always got tired and one moment they were both there, holding her pudgy hand and her mother’s voice was lulling her to sleep with a tale about piggy pirates, and the next she was alone and the nightlight was casting elongated shadows over her crib. But she wasn’t really alone.
The parents were downstairs, when she started crying again. They immediately picked up the baby monitor and saw her standing and shaking the crib bars. Her hands weren’t stuck, there wasn’t anything in the crib, she wasn’t splayed out like she was hurt, there was no way she was hungry and it had been too short a time for a diaper change. They could see all of those details. What they couldn’t see was something standing just out of the camera view, leaning towards the crib breathing into Alice’s face with that horrible smile.
They comforted each other as they watched her screaming towards the closet. “This will help her,” one whispered as they held each other close. She wailed this time facing the camera. Her eyes looked white on the black-and-white screen.
“This is to teach her to fall asleep on her own,” the other offered. It was so hard watching her face contort with fear, and they reasoned that it was separation anxiety. Hearing her screams get louder and gruffer was heartbreaking. Their friends had all said it was hard to let them cry, but you get used to it.
“How do we get used to this?” The mother buried her face in her husband’s chest as he wrapped his arms around her. Alice’s screams reached a new octave and they both closed their eyes, wincing at the sound. After a moment, they looked into each other’s eyes and away from the baby monitor. “If she isn’t asleep again in five minutes we will be up there and holding her and rocking her and kissing her sweet little face.”
“Listen.” They stood still, looked upstairs towards her door with the red letter “A” on it, and smiled. “She stopped crying.”