When my daughter was about 3 or 4, we lived in a normal suburban house, pretty much on Middleclass Street, Could-be-anywhere Town. The kids' bedrooms were down a fairly long hall from ours, and she slept in one of those little toddler beds, with her older sister across from her room at the end of the hall.
It wasn't all that unusual to be woken up by a warm little body trying to crawl into bed with us, because of monsters under the bed, or thunder, or sore bellies, or just - well, because sometimes. This would be once or twice a month; no biggie. Other times, I would hear her sleep talking, even sleep laughing from the other end of the hall. I'd heard about kids sleep walking and the dangers they could get themselves into, and didn't think much more of these noises beyond being glad she stayed in one place. Besides, it sounded like she was enjoying herself.
The visits started to become a couple of times a week, then almost every night for her, and even if she didn't come in, I would be woken by the sound of her half-hearted crying, which would slowly rise and peak in half-formed words then fall back to grumbles and eventually stop. Thinking it was just bad dreams, we didn't make a big deal about it and assumed it was a phase which would work itself out. But as time and this 'phase' went on, I decided enough was enough. Over dinner one night, I asked her what woke her up.
"It's the people," she replied, as if this were the most normal thing in the world. "They sit on the end of my bed."
No one spoke to fill the silence around the scraping of the cutlery and her words. Her father and I looked at each other.
"And they not friendly," she added.
I noticed my older daughter looking at her sister worriedly, biting her lower lip. When she caught me watching her, she became very focused on chasing the last of the peas across her plate.
Without wanting to seem anxious, I tried to get more information out of her about these visitors, but she lost interest in the topic and wanted to talk about Ponies and Princes and Frogs instead. I think there was a part of us all that wanted to talk about those things too, and the conversation skipped across happier topics for the rest of the meal.
The next day, as I was wandering through the shopping centre idly thinking about what I needed from the supermarket, I passed one of those stalls that are set up randomly in the centre court, hawking the oddest arrays of wares from flourescent Jesus clocks to skull belt buckles. Hanging to the side of the stall was a stand with Dream Catchers hung all around it, their feathers dancing in the small slipstreams created by other shoppers rushing past so as not to catch the stall-keeper's eye.
I bent down to my daughter in the trolley. "Look - see those pretty things? They're called Dream Catchers. They make sure that nothing bad can get near you while you sleep."
She looked where I was pointing and reached up for the nearest feathers.
"If we hang this over your bed, those people won't be able to come anymore. They'll get tangled up in the web, and only good dreams will be able to come to you."
Pleased with my flash of inspiration and her faith in me, I let her choose a small purple and red one, all the while explaining seriously about the special properties of those colours. She took the tissue-wrapped package carefully, and held it close while we finished the shopping and went to collect my oldest daughter from school.
When my older daughter unwrapped the dream catcher, she smiled and admired it loudly, but then her face fell. "Only one?"
"What?" I replied distractedly.
"But then they might come bac-I mean, can I have one too? They're really pretty..."
I stopped watching for a spot to pull out into and looked at her in the mirror. She was trying to smile, but the way her eyes slid away from mine said more. We went back to the shops and she chose a larger one, the brightest on the stand, carrying it as reverently as her sister had all the way home.
We hung them over the beds that night, and everyone stayed in their own beds. There wasn't even any muttering, let alone giggles, and there haven't been since then.
Now, a few years later, we have a 15th month old third daughter and a new house. The past week or so, I've been staying up late, scrolling through Reddit or studying long after everyone else has gone to sleep. Every night, she's been waking up for no reason I can tell.
That may not seem strange to other parents of 15 month olds, but the thing is, she doesn't cry, or call out for me. Her room is dark, as the door is shut and the only light is a thin stripe from the hall light outside her door. Despite this, I can hear her babbling and moving around quite happily in there. She even sings a little - the opening to Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, or the chorus to Old MacDonald.
I never hear anything else from the room, but she leaves pauses and then will sing again, or laugh, or talk some more. Every night, for about a quarter of an hour, while I sit here at my laptop with my head cocked to one side, listening.
So far she seems happy enough with whatever it is she woken up by, but I'm not so sure I can say the same for myself. I haven't seen that stall for a while, but I have a feeling I'm going to be paying more attention when I shop from now on.