Our daughter’s nightmares began after Alex bought her that stupid gift: a stuffed bat with skeletal wings folded over its front like a cape. When we saw it at the toy store, he said its glass black eyes were cute.
“Oh come on. Let me give it to her.” He wiggled the bat against my neck so I was forced to cup it between my cheek and shoulder. “It’s different than everything she owns,” he said. “She’ll know it’s from me.”
He tucked it in her bed, nestled between Grover and Pooh. I wanted to believe this marked his path back. He’d find his way across the distance that grew after she was born, when our expectations of parenthood were met with reality.
At first, after she was born, he tried. She’d cry and he’d leap to grab her. He’d bounce, his body stiff. I’d wait with arms folded over leaking breasts, willing him to succeed in calming her. As soon as her screams turned shrill, he’d shove her at me to nurse. When she quieted, he retreated behind his phone.
After her nightmares began, the bat kept its position in the line of animals propped at attention along the wall of her bed. Cracked kiddie cups, stickers that had lost their stick, ripped pop-up books: our 3-year-old insisted on keeping everything.
Her nightmares followed the same pattern night after night: me up at three, awakened by her screams. I’d climb into her bed, and she’d feel for me in the dark, orienting her way up my arm to my shoulder. I’d try not to cringe when her snot smeared my neck.
Each night as I left my bed, I’d stare at Alex’s back and remember life before when we slept as close as a kiss. Now the nightmares had further wedged us. I was on one side of the “V” alone with our toddler and he was on the other and there was nothing but blank space between.
One night as I lay in her bed, with the safety rail pushing into my back, I stared at the moonlight reflected in the bat’s glass eyes. I got up, grabbed the bat by the neck, and carried it downstairs. I flipped on every kitchen light and found the shears in the drawer buried under knives. I snipped the bat’s wire-boned wings. I sliced off its feet. I pried out those glass eyes. I autopsied its body along the seam, extracting stuffing until it was only a pelt. I considered tucking it under Alex’s pillow as a surprise. Instead, I buried it in the trash.
“Where’d she go?” My daughter woke me the next morning to ask.
“She left.” I pointed to my bedroom window.
“She didn’t belong in this house.”
The bat came back, of course. It hovered over my bed. Wings, translucent in the moonlight, stretched to opposite walls. Without my glasses it appeared crisp while the rest of the room blurred. No matter where I turned, it glided, hovering just above my nose. Alex slept inches away, but absent. He woke early and left before we saw him at all.
Sleep became so scarce, I never felt awake. Everyday noises made me jump: closing doors, beeping cash registers, playground laughter. Bats floated in the corners of my vision. Simple words like peek-a-boo sounded so foreign, they became impossible to recall.
Without the comfort of the sun, my nights were lonely. I waited for my daughter to call, but her nightmares stopped. Every morning my daughter dragged me to her bed, pointed to the hole in the line of stuffed animals, and begged for something to replace the bat. We made it to the toy store one Saturday after her nap. She picked a plush bunny. I hugged it to my chest. I didn’t want to buy it.
“It’s too expensive, ” I said. I dropped it back in the wicker basket on top of the pile of bunnies. I searched for another bat, but instead I found a stuffed rat sitting alone on a high shelf. “This is what we’re getting.” I twisted its bottlebrush fur, rubbed my thumb over its glass eyes.
“Bunny,” she said. She crossed her arms.
“It’s this or nothing.” I carried the rat to the cash register. She stomped as she followed.
That night, after she fell asleep, I tucked the rat under her covers with the leather nose kissing her chin. When she woke screaming, I was already at her door. In her bed, I cradled her. When she rolled away, I combed her cheek with the rat. The fur reddened her skin like a fever. She awoke with a shiver and curled into me.