Please Go To Bed
I'm not good with kids.
By Jonathan Kesh
July 24, 2021
I’m not good with kids. I’m not good with relatives’ kids. I’m not good with strangers’ kids. If I had kids of my own, I would be terrible with them.
It’s too difficult to speak with them. I spent my whole life learning etiquette, social norms, faux pas and taboos, all of that. Then suddenly I was expected to hold my own against a smaller version of myself who’s unbound from those rules, can fly free-flowing through a conversation in whichever direction they like. They might talk about what they did at school. They might talk about the cheaply made, surreal edutainment shows they watched. They might show me pictures of things they drew, and then point to where in the room they first saw those things. Sometimes these were strange things.
In spite of that, I was still babysitting my sister’s little toddler on a Friday evening, because it was short notice and there was a clear undertone that I was family and therefore wouldn’t need to be paid. I felt uncomfortable calling this child my “niece” because it implied a deep, familial connection that I did not share with her. I hardly knew the kid. But this four year-old girl — almost five, she insisted — felt differently. She imagined that she knew me extremely well. And this meant lots of personal questions.
“Are you Mommy’s best friend?” the girl asked as I lifted her into her bed. I fully believe she could’ve waddled up under the sheets herself, but she insisted her mother did this every night.
“Back in the day, maybe,” I said offhandedly, before straightening my posture, changing my tone, adopting a fake smile. I had to teach this child about the world, and not screw it up.
“What I mean is, we’re family. We’re not friends,” I said. The last word came out a bit harsh, maybe. Not my fault we didn’t talk much. Mostly not my fault.
The girl considered this, and I relaxed, believing she understood. And then her face turned so deadly solemn that it was nearly a scowl.
“I thought Daddy and I were Mommy’s family,” she practically shook her head, her world shattered. I’d been talking to her for less than a minute. Shit.
“When your Mommy and I were your age, we were family,” I tried to course-correct, and my voice was quiet, so she couldn’t see me grasping at straws. “Now we’re, uh, we’re extended family. We’re relatives.”
The girl nodded, her face still stone serious, deep in thought. But she seemed to accept that answer. She began the laborious process of lifting the bedsheets with her tiny hands and crawling beneath them. No more questions, and maybe I could return to the stained old couch in the living room.
My sister’s apartment — dimly lit because it was 7:30pm and that meant bedtime —
looked remarkably like the one we grew up in, in part because this furniture all belonged to our parents. In the beginning, before children, it still felt like a new space, the air was fresh and tranquil and it breathed in easy. But ever since the baby arrived, her apartment had gone stiff with an acidic smell, a mix of leftover baby powder, restless little legs, and deep adult weariness. Like any lingering scent, my sister had grown used to it and could no longer smell it. But it was pungent.
“A family lives in the same house together,” said the girl, a statement more than a question, the covers up to her eyeballs and over her nose. But I was expected to comment.
“Usually, yeah,” I said, playing it safe. “Not always, but usually.”
I realized too late that my careless “not always” just set her up for a million new questions. She pounced.
“What if something lives in your house, but they’re not family?” she asked.
“What, like a—” I cut myself off, not sure what to say. Like a dog? Like a teenage runaway? Like a couch-surfing old college roommate with a painkiller habit? I could only draw answers from life experience. What was a child-friendly, childproof answer? I didn’t immediately realize she meant something specific.
“Like the thing that makes the handprints,” she said, as if noting my confusion.
I studied the kid for a moment. She’d thrown me off-balance while I was already wobbling. Whatever this was, I’d have to humor her, but first I had to deduce what she was on about.
“What handprints?” I asked.
Her tiny arm rose from underneath the covers and pointed past me.
“In the hallway,” she said. “It walks around and puts its hands on the walls. I think it has trouble walking. It leaves fingerprints.”
I checked back over my shoulder, peering through the gap in her bedroom door. When I was that age, small and upbeat and more confident about whatever nonsense I spoke, I probably had similar, weird stories that vanished into some ethereal funk as I grew older.
“I see,” I said. “And those definitely aren’t your handprints, right?” That still counted as humoring. I used a negative, I was agreeing with her.
“No,” she said. Her tone was soft but her face lurched forward with an expressive punch. “That’s what Mommy says. But the fingerprints are too high above the ground! I can’t reach them.”
“Well, then I guess you couldn’t make them, could you?” I said, getting ready to wrap up, getting into a rhythm. All I had to do was agree with her.
“I didn’t make them,” she repeated. “It did. It doesn’t even belong here.”
In another life, if I was an experienced parent, I would’ve known to bow out there. I would later learn my sister bowed out at this point when she heard this story. But I kept humoring.
“Then where does it belong?” I asked, not entirely understanding.
“Somewhere else,” she shrugged under the covers. “But it’s not family.”
“Have you ever seen it?” I asked. I should not have asked.
Her eyes lit up at the opportunity. “I saw it! It was really tall. Taller than grown-ups. It was bending over, and it was still the tallest thing I’ve ever seen. It was wearing a black robe that’s really dark, like it was empty. One time it looked into my room and I saw its face. It had a gray mask with black holes where its eyes and mouth go. The mask looked sad. But usually it just looks down, putting its hands on the walls. Its fingers are really long.”
She looked at me expectantly, a fire underneath her, no longer ready for bedtime. I checked back over my shoulder, more uneasily that time. Finally, a stock answer came to me.
“I’ll keep an eye out for any funny business,” I assured her, if not myself. “Nothing’s going to hurt you.”
“I don’t think it’s mean,” she shook her head, not needing my reassurance. “I think it’s just looking for the door.”
Now it’s important that I make something clear: in that moment, I told myself that I would absolutely not ask about the door. I would finish putting her to bed, go back into the living room, grab the free beer my sister promised out of the fridge, and watch TV for the next few hours. The girl would soon forget this entire story, it would float off in all the chaos of a toddler’s unstable, untethered memory. She would grow up, and it would be gone. And I would spend the rest of my life without ever knowing anything more about this door.
“What door?” I asked, like a fool.
“The door in my room,” she said, all casual. Like this was an unfortunate fact of her otherwise simple life, and she’d made peace with it. I tried to hide the chill it gave me.
“Do you want me to shut your door tonight?” I asked her, completely genuine. Did I need to shut her door tonight?
“Not that door,” she scolded me. “The secret door.”
“The secret door,” I said, not a question, just repeating her.
“It’s only there when I wake up and it’s dark, before the sun is up,” she said. “It’s really hard to see, because it’s in the really dark corner next to my door. But if I look really hard, I can see its doorknob.”
“And what’s behind the secret door?” I was in too deep now to drop the subject.
“I don’t know,” she shrugged.
That was easily the worst answer she could’ve given me. The fact that she was here telling me she didn’t have all the answers, as if I were the toddler asking absurd questions to some exhausted adult who just wanted to go to bed, was not comforting. I needed to turn the tables over, regain control of this conversation. In ten years — in fifteen years — she’d be allowed to turn conversations back on me the way my sister does. But not yet. I was the adult.
“I’ll keep an eye out. It’s time for bed,” I smiled. It was a fake smile. She saw right through it.
“It’s okay,” she assured me. “It never goes in the living room, so you’ll be okay.”
“Well, that’s just great,” I said softly.
“Sometimes it looks into the living room,” she said. “I think it’s scared to go in there.”
“Okay, it’s time for bed now,” I said as damn softly as I could.
“I don’t know why,” she kept going. “But I’ve never even thought about going in the living room at night.”
“That’s good. You should go to sleep now.”
“Who knows what could be in there?”
“Goodnight,” I said a little more firmly than I meant to. She made one last gesture, a little shrug of the shoulders, and settled into bed. A tiny little clone of my sister.
I exhaled — a harsh, exhausted noise — and I stole a glance at the corner of her room before I flicked off the lights. No secret doors. Yes, I knew the secret door wasn’t supposed to show up until after the lights were out. No, I didn’t check after I turned off the lights. I checked before I turned out the lights, and I didn’t see any door.
The “handprint” was four black smudges on the wall, but it was faint and the wall was dirty. Three smudges all beside each other in a row, like Orion’s Belt, while the fourth lay several inches below and off to the side. It was possible to look at this collection of blots and see fingerprints — three fingers and a thumb. As a child, it would be extremely easy to see it. A child could watch the fingerprints and just as easily create the hand that placed it, slender and bony, filling out the rest of the creature as they kept staring. A child could imagine how it walked, what it wore, what it wanted. Hobbling, dressed in a cloak and mask, chasing after a secret door that you guard in your room every night.
I didn’t know what made these blotches. My sister didn’t know, and blamed her daughter. The girl knew, and she blamed a shadowy figure who would stand in this very spot. It could’ve been behind me at that very moment for all I knew, reaching out its hand for balance. That image stuck with me, and it made me abandon the phantom fingerprints on the wall, and I jerked my body toward the living room and my stride smoothed out as I steadied my nerves.
I pulled a can of cheap beer from the fridge — knowing my sister, there was a craftier brew hidden in the back, but the bottles out front were a clear message not to go digging for them. And I looked over my sister’s living room. Half the lights were out, so the girl could sleep with her door open, just a simple dim lamp by the couch that cast shadows over the space. Just a few years ago, this room would regularly be bright and lively at 7:30pm on a Friday, but a child sucks up so much energy during the day that the spaces they leave behind are drained for the adults who could still use them. And the adults are also drained.
Like the bedroom, a good chunk of the furniture here was passed down from the folks. I used to run by this stained floral couch and dusty oak table when I was four, almost five, the girl’s age, seeing strange things of my own. It had been wiped clean from my memory until that very moment, but an image from toddlerhood flooded back to me. I’d been put to bed at 7:30pm by my parents, but I woke up in the middle of the night, hungry. The lights were all shut off, my parents had long since fallen asleep, and everything was still. I remembered there was some food that I wanted in the fridge, though I couldn’t tell you what that was anymore. I untucked myself from bed and lowered myself to the floor, and wandered through the darkness into the hallway. My hands were stretched outward to feel for walls and furniture, though I certainly bumped and brushed against all of it anyway.
When I reached my childhood living room, a powerful sensation stopped me, goosebumps on my arms and a sudden sick feeling in my rumbling stomach. There was something in the living room with me, something large, an enormous shadow that spread across the entire room and reached the ceiling. Perhaps it was translucent, but it was so pitch black that there was nothing to see behind it anyway. There was a low breathing and subtle movements. Two dim yellow beams must have been its eyes, rising several feet above my diminutive head, flickering in and out of the living room. I remembered that I knew immediately what I was intruding on, though it’s lost to me now. I scrambled back into my bed and hid there until I fell asleep, human instincts overtaking toddler impulses.
Recalling it now, it was shapeless and vague. But that night, I could fill in every detail about it, describe exactly how it looked if anybody asked. But I never told anyone, and nobody asked, and I forgot, and now I suppose nobody knows.
In a few years, my niece might remember some vague, uneasy feeling about the hallway, about fingerprints or dark smudges, but she probably won’t remember the figure. If she ever does, the specifics will be washed out, a shapeless feeling from an imagination that’s moved on and grown more in tune with the outside world. Whether or not the smudges will still be there is another matter, and it’s not a question I can answer. You’d have to ask her.
I made one last attempt to visualize the shadow from my childhood, place it next to the same couch and table where it appeared, but I’m not sure I could and I’m not sure I wanted to. I took a sip of my cheap beer. At that moment, a power surge knocked out all the lights, and I jumped so far out of my skin that my drink flew clean across the room and clattered against the hardwood by the front door of my sister’s apartment, a rogue splash of beer adding another stain to the mosaic on the old floral couch.
Jonathan Kesh is a writer and editor from San Jose, California, who is currently based in Brooklyn. He is pursuing his MFA in fiction at The New School, and his articles have appeared in The Rumpus, Mashable, and Content Magazine. You can find him on Twitter at @keshception.