So yesterday I spent the better part of the day with Boodles. Even though it was what most people consider to be a perfectly good, sunny, Southern California day she wanted to spend it inside playing with Legos and binge watching shows on Netflix. No arguments here.
What we ended up watching was R.L. Stine’s The Haunting Hour on Netflix. If you’re unfamiliar with R.L. Stine, he’s been called “Stephen King for kids.” He writes books and stories like the Goosebumps and The Haunting Hour series aimed at kids and teens. In these stories the violence and death are kept to a minimum, but that doesn’t mean that things don’t get a little dark. The Haunting Hour series is like a junior version of The Twilight Zone for a generation that may not have ever seen The Twilight Zone.
Like you do with Netflix, we were watching one episode after another. I started predicting the endings: “The evil doll is going to try to change places with the girl.” “The monster that’s trying to kill the family is actually going to bring the family together, and that’s the twisted answer to the boy’s wish.” After I was right for a couple of times she said, “Daddy, how do you do that? Have you seen these before?” I said that I hadn’t. “I’m a writer, sweetie, so I know how these people’s minds work.”
“I didn’t know you were a writer,” she said. Hmm. How to explain to an eleven year old how I moved to LA in the 80s to become a Hollywood screenwriter, got frustrated, gave up, and decided to go back to school and become a social worker…who writes a secret blog under an assumed name. Well, I gave her the quick and easier to digest version: “Well I don’t write for a living, but I’ve written some stories. Remember some of the stories I tell you?” That settled her curiosity and we went on to some more episodes.
Boodles is not a stranger to fantasy and pre-teen friendly scares. She is a huge fan of the Harry Potter books and movies. These stories were mostly in the same vein. Good usually triumphs over evil, but not always. After one episode we both remarked that we didn’t like that it didn’t have a happy ending. A picked on kid made a Faustian bargain with a mysterious kid to take care of some bullies, as with any Faustian bargain it didn’t end happily. I explained very quickly the classic tale of Faust, but not with too many details so as not to cause any more bad dreams than she might already be getting.
After a while we took a break and played Hungry Shark and Heads Up on my smart phone. When my battery started to die it was getting close to bedtime, but she wanted to watch one more episode. I said “OK, but if it starts to get too scary we’ll turn it off.” Well, sure enough it turned out to be about a couple of kids whose grandfather is a very successful psychologist who relieves his clients of their greatest fears…by manifesting the fears and locking them in a special box…that the kids find.
Yeah. We turned it off. After tucking her in and saying our nightly blessing, I asked Boodles a question that I knew I might regret. “Sweetie, what’s your greatest fear?” I was so afraid that she was going to say something about losing me again. About me moving away again for four years and only talking to me on the phone. It turned out to be that she saw Jurassic Park a while back and was afraid for a while of a big tree outside her window that cast a dinosaurlike shadow in her room. But she said that she was pretty much over that.
That was a big relief…for a minute. “What’s your greatest fear, Daddy?”
How could I say it? To her? My greatest fear is losing you. Of going crazy again and having to move away from you…again. Of the years of therapy that this would cause both of us. Of you not having a Daddy. Of me losing the greatest gift God has ever given me because I’m such a fuck up.
Fighting back the tears I said, “Not being the Daddy that you deserve.”
Without missing a beat, she said “Well you don’t ever have to worry about that.” And she hugged me. I couldn’t control the tears as I held her close and said, “I’m not perfect, Sweetie. I’ve made a lot of mistakes.” Then an amazing thing happened. She started giggling.
“You’re whiskers are tickling my neck,” she said while laughing. I pulled back and she said, “Do it again!” I rubbed my unshaven cheek on her neck, then her cheek, then her tummy. After her fits of laughter subsided she said, “Only a perfect Daddy could do that.”
Like any good horror story, life is complicated. Good doesn’t always triumph over evil. Bargains made in the heat of the moment come back to haunt you. And your greatest gift can sometimes be indistinguishable from your greatest fear. But then her laughter cuts through that fear like a floodlight banishing the shadows, and she once again reveals herself to be your greatest gift.