As I nestled within my white, four-post bed it was just like any other night in the Florida winter. Non-natives always underestimate our winters. They don’t realize that the high humidity at forty degrees can cut through the thickest layers of clothes straight to the marrow of your bones. My mom gave me a plush, heated blanket, which I turned to the highest setting. My room was a mishmash of construction projects gone by. The carpet was a knotted, burnt orange, no doubt the original carpet from the 1970s built home. The carpet had long been replaced by another that was deep blue throughout the rest of the house, expect the bedrooms. Each, including mine, kept their rusty orange matted naps from years of wear with a well defined dividing line clearly cut out at the door jam.
Half-heartedly, my parents attempted to make my room more feminine by adding frosty pink wallpaper covered with minuscule white dots. Water damage from a brutal hurricane season warped the end wall, the largest wall of my room by far. They nailed up thin wood paneling of a sky blue and gray faux marbling on that wall alone to hide the brown, dried water stains that seemed to bleed from atop the ceiling. The clash of colors and design was epic.
I always slept with my simple white ceiling fan on. It had two speeds: off and ready-for-take-off. It kept the room as cold as a walk-in freezer. I sometimes stayed awake at night trying to see my breathe while looking up at that fan. Its rapid gyration brought with it both a soothing whoosh of white noise from the jet stream of downward air, while simultaneously creating the ever-present risk that it may come crashing down on me at full speed, as it wobbled too and fro in its hectic pace, chopping me to even smaller child-sized bits. Every night before I drifted off to sleep I wondered if that would be the night.
I clutched the stuffed monkey my grandparents gave me while my brother was in the hospital recovering from yet another surgery on his legs and hips. I was too young to understand why he always received so many presents when it wasn’t his birthday or Christmas. My monkey was a consolation prize that I held firmly by the neck every night. I snuggled under my pile of blankets and pulled them over my entire body, warm and cozy, protected from the cold on the other side, except for my nose and forehead. I had to breathe. I wrapped the comforter tight and fell into a sleep that must have been a close cousin to death.
I’ve always been a hard sleeper never stirring for fire alarms, gun shots or sonic booms. I occasionally slept in my brother’s room on his top bunk, but, somehow, always woke up the next morning on the floor feeling as rested as ever. The fall never woke me. My father finally felt the need to nail a long two-by-four to the top bunk as a makeshift railing to keep me firmly in place. Since learning to speak I’ve also chatted the night away in gibberish, more often than not. My family was rather used to the occasional stray call from my room at night regarding the elephants caught in the strawberry patch, of which I had neither.
Before this night I may have mumbled some, randomly kicked at my sheets and turned clockwise in my bed, but I always stayed in bed. However, this night, whether from the cold exterior of my room or from the sauna created under my covers by the new electric blanket, this night I got out of bed in hysteria.
I ran towards the hall leading to my parents’ room at the other end of the house, but stopped immediately short, right at the door jam. I just couldn’t make the transition from my rustic orange carpeting to the brilliant blue of the hallway that seemed to ebb and flow like an ocean before my feet. My perspective slowly narrowed so that the kitchen in the middle of the house looked like a mirage miles away from me.
“Buddy!” I shouted through my brother’s open door, which was adjacent to mine.
“Buddy!” His name is not Buddy; it’s Richard after my father, but I call him Buddy to this day, a privilege he allows only family members and our remaining childhood friends. Finally, Buddy appeared in his doorway and stopped at the door frame, which he held onto for balance. He’d learned to walk four times now. It would require another two times before his surgeries were complete.
“What?” he replied sleepy and annoyed.
“Go get Dad!” I screamed at the top of my lungs.
“What is it?” My sudden alarm brought his senses out of the night.
“Look!” I screamed pointing down at the newish blue hallway carpet.
“What?” He looked in the direction I was pointing confused.
“I can’t…” I began to say as I lifted one foot and kept it in the air, hovering at the door jam. I jerked my foot back to my side.
“What is it?” Buddy asked examining the hallway with more intent.
“Don’t you see? Go get Dad!”
“You go get Dad,” he retorted in a more probing fashion than an antagonistic one.
“I can’t!” I shouted looking down the daunting hallway in front of me as the walls collapsed and reconfigured as if at once breathing while daring me to try to make a run for it.
It was at this point that my older brother, smarter than I ever gave him credit, realized that I wasn’t fully awake, a favorite time of his. He held countless conversations with me in the night through our wall while he was in body casts up to his chest that were entirely lost to me the next day. Sometimes I wonder what he confided in me while I was sleeping.
We went back and forth as my brother tried to coax me out of my room and into the hallway. I tried sliding my feet slowly, but that didn’t work. I jumped in circles, jogging in place at the junction of that dividing line of carpeting. I tried getting a running start, but always lost my courage. He managed to get me to hang my body over the hallway carpeting like a maiden carved into the front of an ancient ship, but I couldn’t command my feet forward. He almost persuaded me to jump, except that I realized I would then be completely engulfed by blue and there was no way I was doing that.
“Nothing there,” he laughed, holding onto his door frame more from laughter than for balance.
“Nothing there, again,” he continued with each of my failed attempts to rally myself to this seemingly insurmountable task. I wasn’t stepping foot on that carpet. His laughter brought him sliding down the door frame as his body no longer had the strength or will to hold itself up any longer.
His laughter horrified me as ferociously as the hallway with its mishmash of mismatched carpet preventing me from moving my body pass the break in color continuity. Our exchanges went on in an alternating chorus of shrills and laughter until my brother collapsed to the floor holding his tummy full of giggles no longer willing to try to stand back up.
Finally, my father, surely poked awake by my mother from all the commotion, came barreling from their room toward our end of the house. Before he left the safe confines of the kitchen linoleum I held my palms out screaming, “Stop!” He did right where the linoleum met the blue carpeting. I watched his feet intently protesting loudly anytime they neared the threshold of the hallway. If my father tried to start down the hallway I would shout, “Nooooo,” so emphatically it would stop him in his tracks every time until he was marooned on that linoleum island. I felt that it was my daughterly duty to save him from taking that one, last, unseen step off a formidable cliff face into the churning blue abyss below.
“Buddy, what did you do to your sister?” my dad barked as debacles such as this were usually his fault anyway. My brother couldn’t breathe in any orderly fashion to present his defense, still writhing on the floor, face red and contorted from his attempts to stifle his laughter now directed at my father for complying with my demands in the first place.
“Look!” I began again.
“Look at what?” my father’s head and body bobbed and weaved, turning in all directions as if dodging a killer bee. This only made my brother burst out again, though he finally managed to get the words out:
“Dad! She’s still asleep!”
“What,” my father exclaimed. “Are you serious? This is not funny, young lady!”
“Yes…it…is,” was all my brother could muster in-between gasps for air.
In that moment my father realized that as sure as I was standing there, screaming at him with eyes wide open I was, in fact, asleep.
Being cut from the same cloth as my brother, the entire “conversation” began again, yet this time it included the curiosity of my father. He walked straight to us down the hallway leaving me dismayed by his escaped from the confines of the island kitchen. His bravery awed me silent. Determined to find a rational explanation for my agitation he started with logic. He asked me arithmetic questions, which I answered correctly. He asked what day it was, but that one stumped me. It was then that a mischievous smirk started across his face finally acknowledging my brother out of the corner of his eye as the master detective.
This time, as a team, my brother and father tried to convince me out of my rusty room. My father offered to carry me back and forth down the hallway to prove that I was imagining things, but my eyes and mind never met his. I was far too consumed by the pastel flower vines growing out of the wallpaper on either side of him. He sat down Indian-style next to my brother, now resting his back against the door frame. I got down on my hands and knees to examine the carpeting closer convinced they were both floating there just waiting for me to plunge head first into nonexistence. They stared at me. I stared at the magic they somehow possessed.
They would be satisfied if even a single toe touched the deep blue carpeting of the hallway; but none would be satisfied that night. I no longer had any reason to go down the hallway as my father had somehow made it safely to me. Finally, after all their efforts of reasoning and mutual enjoyment, my father sent my brother back into his room, both now laughing at their utter defeat. He simply turned to me and said, “Honey, go back to bed. And for God’s sake, turn off that blanket. You’re fried.”
And so I did.
I don’t remember the trip back to bed and it’s likely my father turned off the blanket himself, but I woke the next morning to the bright sunshine and ever-present whirl of my ceiling fan. As I walked toward the kitchen, pass my brother’s room, he jumped out at me with an, “Ah ha!” I looked at him like he’d lost his mind and kept walking without thought or consequence of carpeting, linoleum and wallpaper. He must have been waiting there all morning for that moment. His laughter after I passed could have echoed around the world.
I never slept with an electric blanket again. I can only wonder in the thirty years that have passed, living alone for most of them, how many door jams in the mishmash of life I’ve stood at, toes halted at the dividing line, in false fear or hallucination.
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