Before I opened my eyes, I felt that Leah was gone.
I had been awakened by a scraping metal-on-metal sound like the slow opening and closing of a seldom used iron gate. I convinced myself it was only the end of a dream I could not remember. In our house, no one had been awake at 2:30 in the morning since Leah was a baby; she slept through the night since she was 3 months old. Nonetheless, to assuage my worry or confirm my fear, I jumped up and walked quickly toward her room being careful to avoid the three creaky boards in the century house we had been restoring for three months. If she wasn’t awake, I didn’t want to wake her.
Her door was open and her blankets were wadded up in the middle of her bed, as they often were on hot autumn nights, only usually she is curled around them.
I thought I saw a tuft of her feathery brown hair. She must have tunneled in. I walked toward her bed to pull the blankets away from her face so she could breathe. I glanced out her window and stopped cold. There was my tiny four-year-old daughter walking calmly down the middle of the empty street.
“Josh!” I screamed to my husband, who has always been faster than I am. “Leah is in the street!” Before I made it back to our room he was down the stairs. I silently prayed he was fast enough and that a drunk or a teenager didn’t pick this time to race down the brick-paved streets of the quiet neighborhood, as they sometimes did on weekends.
He was there in seconds, scooping her up without stopping and headed back toward the house. I was still running toward them as he pivoted again to put her down on the sidewalk. He sat down on the cool concrete beside her and buttoned the top button of her nightgown to protect her from the warm breeze that had suddenly gone chilly.
“No walking in the street, Monkey. Always use the sidewalk!” he said in a voice he only used for her. “What are you doing out here?”
“I had to get out.” Leah said. “Rachael told me to hurry.”
“Rachael is wrong to tell you that honey, it’s dangerous to be out in the street in the middle of the night.” He stroked her hair that was still messy from her pillow, it added static, now it stood in all directions as if she was touching a Tesla globe. Normally that would make me laugh but I was still worried.
“Don’t scare us like that.” I huffed as I caught up with them and then caught my breath.
“Who is Rachael?” Josh pushed himself up to stand. Leah was barely taller than his knee.
“She’s my friend.” Leah explained.
“I don’t know her.” I added.
My mother had been taking Leah to the park for an hour nearly every day that summer, as a favor to me. It was just a block away down our street of wrought iron garden fences and brownstones.
I was finishing my degree and I needed the time to study.
There were always several little girls and boys Leah’s age swinging on the swings or climbing one of the two newly installed climbing walls. We would often see kids, who were strangers a minute ago, holding hands or chasing one another as if they had known each other all along.
I didn’t know many of their names, only the children of my friends, and none of them were called Rachael.
“Let’s get you back to bed, it’s too early to get up.” I picked Leah up and sat her on my hip as we walked. Josh strode ahead a few feet so he could open the door. He pushed the heavy wooden door, it was silent as he opened it and closed it behind us. (Definitely not the iron squeak I had heard.) He pushed hard until we heard the click that meant the bolt had engaged. Then he locked the deadbolt above the handle and pushed and pulled the handle to be sure.
“How does she get this open? Damn thing is not easy for me.” He cocked his head to the side.
I started up the stairs but stopped when I comprehended his words. “Wait, what do you mean, “How does she?” Do you mean how did she or has she done this before?”
“Last night. She wasn’t in the street though, she was on the stoop.” Josh yawned. “Probably sleepwalking.”
Leah was looking at him lucidly, as she had since we found her, no sign of drowsiness or confusion. My face held both. She looked up at me and smiled. I kissed her face and walked her to her room. I straightened the blankets, tucked them under the mattress a little tighter than usual and turned to leave.
“Mommy, do you love me?” She whispered.
“Forevuh-evuh.” I whispered as I kissed her hair. I stepped back and accidentally nudged her toy box.
“Beep-beep!” went a plastic motion-activated toy car on top. I picked it up and tucked it against her door on my way out. If she opened her door even slightly, we would hear it.
The car did not make a sound through the rest of the night and we all slept soundly, without further adventure.
“Who is Rachael?” I asked my mom, as she sat down to eat lunch with us the next day.
“I don’t know anyone named Rachael.” She answered. She apparently had the same memory for names as her daughter.
“Wait, there is a woman at my church named Rachael. Rachael Stevens. She makes peach pies every summer for the rummage sale.”
“Does she spend any time at the park?”
“McKinley, down the street? No. She lives closer to Maple Street Park and I’m sure all her grandkids are grown by now.”
I tried to remember if mom had taken Leah to her church, but I knew that despite her protests to do so, my mom had not taken Leah to church since her baptism. Having both grown up in restrictive religious families, (I’m Catholic, Josh is Jewish.) we were hoping after acquiescing to the baptism that we could let her discover religion organically, and choose for herself when she was ready. So far, the subject had not come up. The closest we got to that was when she asked if people could walk on clouds.
Josh had said, “Only angels.” and Leah thought he was talking about the one at the top of our Christmas tree.
“They’re not real daddy, they are like dolls, they can’t walk!” she rolled her eyes and we waited for further questions that didn’t come.
“Keep your ears open for the name. Some little girl named Rachael has been giving Leah bad advice.” I handed Mom Leah’s jacket in case she needed it and pushed the heavy door closed behind them as they went off on their daily quest to conquer the “BIG GIRL” climbing wall.
An hour and a half later they returned. Mom was carrying our drowsy child with her head over her shoulder. I woke her up and gave her some orange juice. It felt cruel, but if she slept during the day she would probably be up late in the night again.
By the time her bedtime rolled around at 8:30 she was nodding off in her food.
At 2:30 am, after my own attempts at sleep had failed, I heard again the metallic scraping sound, and a few minutes later, the click of the front door. Josh was beside me, it had to be Leah. I wondered why I had not heard the toy car that I had, once again, carefully placed against the door.
I ran down the steps, allowing Josh to rest and found Leah heading for the middle of the street. As I approached her, she turned around, looked at me and then ran in the opposite direction as fast as her little legs would carry her.
“Wait!” I called out, “Stop right now.” But Leah kept running. It was all I could do to catch her but I did so just before she ran onto a cross street on which two cars, coming in either direction, were not slowing down.
I took her to the sidewalk as she kicked and hit at me, and tried to be as patient as Josh had been the night before, but I first had to catch my breath. As I huffed and wheezed, she stopped struggling. I looked at my little tow-headed moppet and saw a look of real fear in her wide green eyes that I had never seen before. I studied her arms and legs for scuffs or bruises that might indicate why she was so disturbed but found none.
“What’s the matter?” I asked, but she didn’t say a word. She looked behind me as if I wasn’t talking to her. I picked her up and trudged back toward home stopping along the way to retrieve one of my slippers that had flown off as I panic-bolted to save my reckless sprinter.
Josh was waiting at the door.
“Mommy is trying to kill me.” Leah said in an intense, serious voice and she waited for his reaction.
Josh laughed and winked at me. He had watched the entire episode from the stoop and seemed to find it comical. I did not but had to giggle too at the absurdity. There is no one in the world I love more than my miracle daughter. We had waited a long time for her finally conceiving her in our late thirties and we both sat at her side as she healed from three heart surgeries, during one of which she had technically died and had been resuscitated. She was our world. She had never heard a cross word and had never once been spanked or strictly corrected.
Leah held out her arms and I gave her to Josh.
“Sleepwalking for sure,” I quipped, “apparently into a nightmare!”
Josh put her in her room this time and when he got back to our room he looked concerned. “She asked me if I wanted to kill her too.” He shook his head. “Where does she get this shit?”
“I’m thinking we watch nothing heavier than Looney Tunes for a while.” I answered. It had to be tv, we had never even talked about the concept of death near her.
“Have you ever watched an episode of Bugs Bunny?” Josh asked. “A guy chases a rabbit with a gun and someone gets blown up at least once a week.” He wiggled his hands above his head like rabbit ears.
“Say your pwayers, Wabbit.” I said and I jumped on him.
“Why you wascally…shh” Josh put his finger across my mouth and we heard a slight plastic rattle sound. Leah’s little toy car was rolling down the hallway toward us. As it hit our doorjamb it beeped.
“Ok, that’s going to be dangerous in the morning. On the floor. In front of the steps. Before coffee.” Josh said as he picked it up and put it upside down on his tall dresser. “Tomorrow I’m going to get a little alarm for Leah’s door. She can’t be doing this every night. We mighty huntews need sweep.”
“West and wewaxation at wast.” I giggled and we curled up together until morning.
Leah seemed to have forgotten her fear from the night before and she held up her arms for me to pick her up when I went to her room to dress her for breakfast. As I neared the bed I slipped on something and almost fell. It was the toy car. At least it looked like it. I picked it up and went to our bedroom to confirm it was the same toy, I didn’t remember buying her two, but maybe someone else had.
Josh was still asleep. Three of his dresser drawers were open like stairsteps, the car was gone. I don’t know how she retrieved it without setting it off, but we had heard nothing. I removed the batteries and put it back on the dresser. It was still on my mind hours later.
“Mom, something is up with Leah.” I said in a quiet voice just in case she could hear me. “She keeps getting up in the middle of the night to go outside, she’s climbing around in our room while we are sleeping and last night, she thought that we were trying to kill her.”
I cut and ate half of a leftover cupcake and put the other half on a plate beside a glass of milk and a bowl of soup for Leah and went to find out where she was. She never missed her lunch with her grandma.
“Obviously you’ve got to stop trying to kill her, it may affect her self-esteem.” Mom laughed. “And maybe you should let me get her a swing-set.”
“It’s not funny, Mom. I’m a little bit worried.”
“You were a sleep-walker too, you know. You used to come into our room and take your pants down to pee on the bed. You thought it was the bathroom.”
“Those were the pre-coffee years.” I said. She had told that story to my friends several times and they always found it amusing. I was not laughing now that I was the parent. Leah’s sleepwalking was affecting everyone, but at least my comforter was staying dry.
I walked upstairs and heard Leah talking to herself down the hallway in her room so I paused to listen. She had a great imagination and I always loved her unique take on things. She called a cartwheel a star fish roll, and she called butter, bread frosting. Once she farted in a restaurant and said to the amusement of everyone, “Excuse me, my butt-dog is barking.”
She was now sitting on her floor singing “Old McDonald” and she didn’t know the words. “Arney Farmey had a farm, e-i-e-i-o and on his farm, he had some cheese, e-i-e-i-o.” Suddenly she stopped singing and I heard her feet pattering across the floor. She peeked out at me as if she expected me to be there. “You’re right!” she called back across the room.
“About what?” I asked.
Leah was silent for a second, then her face dropped. “Nothing.” She answered. “Is it lunchtime? Is Gram here now?”
“She’s waiting for you in the kitchen.” I peeked into the room and looked around half-expecting to see a tea party set up and a stuffed animal or a doll she may have been talking to but her toys were neatly put away.
“Bye!” she yelled to her empty room as she ran down the stairs.
Mom wore her out again and brought her back asleep. Even at that, at 2:30 am, just like the previous two nights, there was the strange metallic noise and Leah was out of bed and running like the devil to the front door. Josh had put a new lock on it, too high for her to reach, so she scrambled to get a chair from the kitchen and was dragging it back just as we reached the bottom of the stairs.
“What are you doing?” Josh asked. He was a bit perturbed from two nights of interrupted sleep.
“I’m sorry.” Leah cried and she sat on the floor sobbing and shaking. “Please don’t burn me alive.”
“Jesus! I thought you were not letting her watch tv.” Josh turned on me and picked Leah up from the floor. She sobbed quietly in his arms.
“She hasn’t BEEN watching tv!” I defended myself. I had spent two hours playing “Go Fish” with her that evening instead of letting her have screen time to keep her awake until bedtime. “Leah where do you get these ideas?”
“Rachael told me.”
“Who is this Rachael?”
Leah went silent and almost immediately fell back to sleep on her dad’s chest.
“Do people sleep talk too?” I asked Josh.
“She does.” He took her to her room and tucked her between the sheets.
The next day I decided to go with Mom and Leah to the park to see if I could identify this disruptive Rachael. I listened to the mothers as they instructed, cajoled or chatted with their kids. Among the girls there was Jerisha, Emma, Tondi, two Sophias and three Bellas, but no Rachael. Perhaps she was home for the day.
“Excuse me.” I asked a group of mothers congregated near the bathrooms, “Do any of you know a little girl named Rachael?”
The mothers looked at each other and shook their heads.
“No Rachael here, is she missing?” one of them asked.
“No. She’s ornery. She told my daughter I was going to burn her alive. I’m trying to find her to tell her to knock it off.”
An older lady accompanying her grandson stared at me with shocked eyes. It was a gruesome thing for a mother to say or a child to worry about, and it must have been odd to hear it stated so bluntly in a park. The mothers all stared at me as if I had done it. I wished that I had worded it more delicately.
Some children came running in a small herd to use the bathrooms. Others needed help with the drinking fountains and the mothers dispersed without another word.
The older lady continued to stare at me intermittently but she said nothing as the children played. As Mom called for Leah, the lady put her grandson in his stroller and buckled him in. When we walked down the sidewalk on our way home the lady followed. She waited while mom walked up the stairs. I hesitated and, as I expected she would, she called out to me.
“Excuse me Miss, do you have a moment?”
“What can I do for you?”
She waited until Mom went inside and I closed the door behind her. “Do you live in this house?” She pointed to the soot-coated brownstone my husband and I had spent the last three months restoring. It had been empty for 15 years before we bought it so we still had a lot more work to do.
“I do. Did you know the people who lived here?” I asked.
She was of the generation of people who knew all of their neighbors. I had been hoping to find someone like her.
“You know, I meant to talk to you when I saw you were looking at this place, I almost did when you came back for the second time to look it over, but I doubted myself.”
She looked down at her shoes as if ashamed.
“I didn’t know the people who lived here, but I know about them. 15 years ago, they were all anyone talked about. The last people who lived here had a little girl the same age as your daughter.”
“Oh really?” I said, as a car full of teenagers drove by much too fast. It occurred to me that this was going to be a sad tale, probably of a hit and run accident. I braced myself for it and quickly resolved to talk to the city planners about getting a “Children at Play” sign or a speed bump.
“Yes.” The old woman continued. “One day that sweet little girl, whose name was Rachael, stopped coming to the park and people began to ask about her. The parents were going about their business as usual and when anyone asked about her they always said she was inside sleeping or at her grandparents. Months went by like that. Rachael was just gone without explanation, but the parents were still here. Someone must have called Children’s Services. They came and when they couldn’t locate her they called the police. They found the remains of little Rachael in the furnace downstairs. She had been burned to death.”
Suddenly I knew what the metal on metal sound was: the rusted hinges of the ancient coal furnace in the basement. I knew why Leah wanted to get out. I wanted to get out too. We scheduled movers and moved in with my mom that weekend. We found a new house a few months later and never went back.
No one wants to live in that house anymore. It’s been 16 years and it still sits vacant. Leah has completely forgotten about the house and her friend Rachael.
I wish I could.