Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: Up and Down (04/02/09)
TITLE: Afraid of Everything But Dinosaurs
By Jan Ackerson
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I click off the news report and join Gabe on the floor. Picking up his T. Rex, I shake it near Gabe’s freckled nose and make it talk in a ridiculously high-pitched voice. “Hey, Gabe,” squeaks T. Rex. “Want a snack? I do!” T. Rex nibbles Gabe’s nose until he swats it away with the tiniest possible smile.
“Don’t eat my nose!” Gabe takes T. Rex from me and sets it behind his back. “Can I have peanut butter apples, mama?”
Happy for Gabe’s rare little smile, I take both of his hands and pull him to his feet. “I’ll go make your snack, Dino Boy. Will you go down to the playroom and put T. Rex and his friends away? After your snack we’ll go for a ride.”
Gabe’s eyes widen when I mention the playroom, and he shakes his head. “No, mama. I don’ wanna go downstairs.”
I put down the jar of peanut butter, about to scold this uncharacteristic defiance, when I see that Gabe’s face has drained of color, doubling the number of his freckles. “Why don’t you want to go down to the playroom, sweetie?”
He has twisted Boo so hard around his pudgy index finger that I can see one knuckle purpling. I kneel beside him and he cups my ear with his other hand, whispering a single word: cricket.
I remember…yesterday we were in the playroom together, looking for Gabe’s triceratops, when a strange noise had sent him flying into my arms. I’d searched for a long time, hampered by this chubby five-year-old who was clinging, monkey-like, to my neck. When I’d finally located the cricket, Gabe refused to look at it, and he nearly pulled me up the stairs in his panicked determination to escape.
“Okay, little one,” I say, and I try to imagine how I will fill this day and the next and the next and the next with activities that will not worry my little boy.
Troy has worked a few extra hours today, so Gabe is already sleeping when his daddy walks in the door. I linger in Troy’s embrace for an extra beat, reveling in his smell: clean sweat, wood dust, linseed oil. Several seconds into the hug, Troy lifts his head from my hair. “Why isn’t Gabe upstairs in bed?”
I turn around and look with Troy at Gabe, asleep on the couch with Boo tucked under his chin. “He wouldn’t go upstairs. There’s a shadow on his bedroom wall that looks like a clown.”
Troy smiles. “I guess that’d bother me, too. What else worried him today?” He perches on the arm of the sofa, one hand resting on the curve of Gabe’s back.
“Let’s see…” I count them off on my fingers. “Going down the stairs, riding in the car with the window down, eating the lollipop the bank teller gave him, Mr. Soames at the post office…”
“That the guy with the nose hairs?”
“That’s the one.”
Troy nods. “Me too, son,” he murmurs. “Anything else?”
I continue enumerating Gabe’s fears. “Cheez-Whiz, the billboard for Stokes Realty, the knife I used to cut his chicken, and going up the stairs.” I sigh. “What are we going to do? He’s afraid of everything these days. He won’t go up, he won’t go down—pretty soon he won’t go out, either.”
“It’ll pass, Julie.” He gathers Gabe in his arms and carries him up to his bedroom. I stand in the doorway and watch as Troy undresses our sleepy son, then manipulates his floppy arms and legs into dinosaur pajamas. Gabe stirs for a second, whispers papa, and somehow manages to find Boo on his pillow, even with his eyes closed.
Troy tucks the blanket around Gabe’s shoulders and sits on the edge of the bed. When Gabe’s breathing becomes deep and slow, Troy reaches out with one thumb. Tenderly, my husband smoothes the furrow between his son’s troubled eyebrows.
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