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San Francisco, August, 1977
"The dark! It's watching me–make it go away!"
Wrenched out of sleep, Kate sat up in bed. From across the hall, Sara screamed again. "Mommy! Make it go away!"
Throwing the covers back, Kate glimpsed the glowing numerals on the alarm clock–one thirty-five in the morning. Nightgown tangled around her hips, she dashed into Sara's room and snapped on the light. Her daughter sat up in bed, rigid, her eyes wide, shrieking, "The dark! The dark!"
Blinking in the sudden glare, Kate sat on the edge of the bed and put her arms around Sara. The child's slender body felt as stiff as a mannequin. Stroking her hair, Kate found it damp, plastered to her scalp with sweat. Sara gave no sign of seeing, hearing, or feeling anything. She screamed over and over, emitting a siren wail like nothing Kate had ever heard. Shaking, she murmured Sara's name and massaged the tight knots of her shoulders under the Winnie-the-Pooh nightshirt.
Night terrors. Now, with her panic fading, Kate remembered reading about this phenomenon, a nightmare-like seizure so extreme nothing could break its grip until it ran its course. She'd never expected to see it in Sara, though.
She set her teeth, her own pulse pounding in her head, and waited for the attack to end. After several minutes, Sara abruptly fell silent and slumped back, eyes shut. Kate eased her onto the pillow, tucking sheet and quilt up to her neck. She looked sound asleep.
Kate watched for ten minutes before she could force herself, still trembling, to stumble back to her own bed. She lay awake for over an hour, straining her ears for anysound from the other room. Sara had never before expressed any kind of irrational fear, certainly not of the dark. Was she sick? She didn't have a fever. Was the stress of having no father and a working mother taking its psychological toll? I can't believe that, not when she's always handled it so well. And if I did believe it, what could I do about it? A succession of worries chased each other around Kate's skull like hamsters on a wheel until exhaustion stilled them.
* * * *
The next morning, she considered asking for the day off from work. To her surprise, though, Sara didn't mention her panic attack. She dressed herself and ate her whole-wheat raisin toast as calmly as ever. When Mrs. Pacheco, the widowed grandmother who lived upstairs, arrived to baby-sit as usual, Sara welcomed her with no apparent reluctance. Rather than upset Sara all over again, Kate left at her normal time.
When she came home that afternoon, though, Mrs. Pacheco greeted her with the whispered remark, "I don't understand what's gotten into Sara this afternoon. About an hour ago, she started acting, well, nervous."
"Nervous?" Kate kept her voice low, glancing from the foyer into the living room, where Sara sat on the rug in front of the TV, watching Sesame Street.
"It's not like her, Mrs. Jacobs, that's why it worried me," said Mrs. Pacheco. "She said something about a dream she had last night."
"A nightmare. She's never had one before that I know of." So she hasn't forgotten it, after all. Kate gnawed on her lower lip as she shrugged out of her jacket and hung it in the entryway closet.
Mrs. Pacheco whispered, "She said she didn't want you to leave tonight."
"But how could she possibly know–" Kate herself hadn't known until half an hour before quitting time that her boss had an assignment for her this evening. She stifled a twinge of guilt about having to go out. This is the 1970s; mothers are allowed to have careers. As if I had a choice, anyway!
Recalling last night's hysterical outburst gave her an almost physical chill. It contrasted so sharply with Sara's normal behavior. No mother could ask for a more self-possessed, composed four-year-old. The child probably got her competent manner from associating so much with adults. Now Kate didn't know how to cope with this sudden change. Could it come from the strain of acting older than her age? Did Sara think she had to act grown up because of her mother's job? Cut out the amateur psychology, Kate told herself. One nightmare does not mean a breakdown.
At that moment Oscar the Grouch finished his trash song, and Sara leaped up to run into the foyer. "Mommy, you're home!" she cried in a surprised tone as atypical as the fears. She flung her arms around Kate's waist.
"Of course, just like this time every day." Kate let Sara clasp her hand and tug her to the couch.
Barefoot, dressed in lime green shorts and T-shirt, Sara perched cross-legged on the couch, with her elbows resting on her knees and chin supported by her fists. "Please don't go out tonight. It's real important." Now she wasn't screaming or crying, just making a statement she obviously saw as plain fact.
"I have to. I promised." Sara usually understood about promises. Kate stroked her daughter's honey-colored, shoulder-length hair. "I've worked late plenty of times, and you didn't mind." She glanced up at Mrs. Pacheco, waiting in the entry hall. "I'm awfully sorry about the late notice, but could you possibly watch her this evening? Starting about six-thirty?"
"Of course, Mrs. Jacobs, no problem," said the older woman, though her worried frown didn't relax.
Copyright © 2003 by Margaret L. Carter