Some folks like to go to haunted houses or scary movies to get a thrill. Me? I've realized that all I need to get pants-browningly terrified is to clean my four-year-old daughter's room.
That's what I did the past weekend because I have become both that old and that boring. Working two jobs with a wife in nursing school means that literally sometimes you don't straighten up the house until the mess has gained sentience and tried to block off your escape. So I set aside three hours and dug through the multi-colored everything.
Everything I ran across gave me nightmares.
The Tell-Tale Heart: She got a doctor's kit for her birthday and she just loves it. One of the toys it features is a stethoscope which plays a heartbeat when you press the button... little did I know that it was being constantly depressed under a book, so I spent at least 20 minutes wandering up and down the room trying to locate this spectral pulsing that as far as I knew only I could hear.
Creepy Balloons: The kid always asks for balloons. They fascinate her. The problem is that they hang at head height when connected to those clips that they attach to the bottom of the string and silently float around the room on the currents from the air conditioning stalking you. You're picking stuff up, and suddenly a half-deflated vision of Spider-Man comes creeping up out of the corner of your eye.
The Hand Prints: My daughter isn't allowed to keep paint or markers in her room lest she frescoe while we sleep. There is literally nothing in there that should be able to transfer pigment. Yet, when I pulled her bed back to vacuum the wall was covered with tiny little Blair Witch Project handprints. Dozens of them. Maybe hundreds. What the actual hell? I'm scared to wave a black light over them in case a spectral message asks me to play with it forever.
The Singing Toy Everyone has his personal horror movie hell. For me, it's possessed toys. Nothing says unnerving like the light-hearted sound of play coming at you when you're alone in the house. Most modern kids' toys not only have some sort of happy, vaguely off-tone singing feature, but they have nice, big, easily to accidentally press buttons that suddenly and inexplicably mean something you can't see is screaming at you in Spanish from underneath a pile of toys you just shifted.
The Blob: You know what's always fun? Finding a forgotten sippy cup or food container. You have to open it, of course. Those things aren't cheap. However, usually when you do you are assaulted by some Lovecraftian entity that no longer resembles the evolution of entities from our reality. It's like opening the Ark of the Covenant if God fancied Yo Gabba Gabba motifs in his storage choices.
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The Binkie Time Bomb: Like a lot of parents we used a pacifier with our daughter because you can't take the batteries out of a child like you can with a malfunctioning smoke detector. One day, we told her it was time to put them away, and she resisted harder than Rick Perry when offered money to expand Medicaid except with more sensible reasoning. You never seem to find all of them though, and the discovery of one lone binkie just waiting to reawaken the screaming storm of a two-year-old's wrath was enough to have me diving onto it like it was a live grenade I needed to protect my family from.
The Doll Graveyard: I hate dolls. Blame it on growing up with a brother whose favorite horror movie was Dollie Dearest but man I hate dolls. They're empty plastic vessels just waiting for Satan to fill them with his evil. That's why I felt it was a perfectly justifiable response to scream and flee the room when I flipped her mattress and discovered the dismembered remains of a dozen Barbies she had shoved under the bed to be trapped against the metal grid work of the frame. Each plastic eye seemed to blame me for allowing them into the hands of a callous mistress who cared nothing for their broken forms.
The Mysterious Lights: You pick up a lot of swag in this gig, and one of the things that made it home with me was a microphone toy sent by the Barnum and Bailey Circus that I gave to my daughter. She was mildly interested in it for a couple of days, and then stashed it in the closet. Little did I know it had a setting on it that reacted to sound by sending out a strobe effect. So as I'm moving and hauling stuff in her room, I keep seeing this unearthly flashing coming out from under her door until I finally gathered up the courage to make sure that those aliens from the last season of American Horror Story hadn't set up shop in the same place I hang her nightgowns.
The Calls Are Coming From Inside the House: Did you know just how popular toy cell phones are? Or how advanced they've gotten? My God, some of them are more interesting than conversations I've had with actual real people. Like the singing toys I mentioned earlier, they're easy to accidentally set off, and in my case one of the ones my daughter has sounds exactly like my mother. I thought I was going crazy hearing her repeatedly saying, "Hello" and "That's wonderful," and more ominously, "Goodbye... I love you." Between that and the toy stethoscope I was basically living an asylum movie soundtrack.
The Reminder of Your Impending Loneliness: Kids outgrow their clothes so fast, and about three times a year we take outfits that no longer fit to a donation center. We hadn't done it for a while, so I decided to systematically sort through piles of laundry until only things she could actually wear were left.
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I came across her little rainbow sundress while doing it... I love that thing. It's been practically a shirt for over a year now, but I just couldn't bring myself to get rid of it. Whenever I picture her in my head, that's the outfit that she's wearing.
That's the scariest part of cleaning a kid's room. It's messy because you don't have time to do it a little each day, and that time is so precious and ends so very, very quickly. Three hours of jumping at weird things, and at the end of it the thing that terrified me more than anything else was the fear that sooner than I think this won't be necessary anymore. That my time with her is running out while I do other things.
That night while she was sleeping I took out the rainbow dress and lay it on top of her for a moment to rewind a couple of years. Then I kissed her and hid it back in a drawer. We all have to face our fears eventually.