I sat on the edge of my son’s little bed. I thought how I would be hard-pressed to sleep on it without most of me spilling off the edges. He was only five so he had room to toss and turn. Many mornings I would find him sleeping upside down or diagonally and I had to wonder what he did in his sleep.
We were in the process of putting on his pajamas. I had just pulled the top of his favorite Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle jammies over his head. His blonde hair stood up from static electricity.
He wrinkled his face with the effort of pushing his arms down the sleeves. He had just finished producing his left hand when he asked me, “Daddy?”
“Yeah, buddy,” I said.
“Are we in a story?”
I tilted my head like a cartoon dog and looked at him in confusion.
“What do you mean?”
He finished getting his right hand out of the end of the green, fuzzy sleeve and his eyes searched his room for something to look at. Children often don’t look an adult in the eye when they talk but my kids usually did.
“Well,” he started. “I think that we are in a story. Like we are maybe in a book or a movie or on the TV?”
My first instinct was to laugh. Both of my kids had a fantastic imagination but my son was full of stories.
However, with the last couple of words, his eyes finally found mine. His eyebrows moved together in a little volcano shape above his nose. His eyes were brilliant and blue. He was not messing with me or telling one of his jokes. This was serious.
“I don’t know, little man,” I said and scribbled my fingers through his ionized hair. “I’m pretty sure this is real life. The stuff we see on TV and read in books is not real like we are.”
He looked down at his toes, which were digging into the fibers of the carpet. Around his feet were scattered remnants of the day’s play. Army men, ninja turtles, and cars of numerous makes and models were strewn about as if a bomb had gone off in the toy aisle of a department store.
“I know that they’re not real like us,” he nudged a small, orange pickup with his big toe. “But, I thought maybe if we were in a story there is someone watching us and we’re not real like them either.”
I could tell he was uncomfortable. What he told me was either hard for him to put together or the idea made him uneasy. I scooped him up and put him on my lap. He was small for his age and I could wrap my arms completely around him until he was cocooned.
He pushed against my chest and pretended like he wanted to get away so I squeezed him harder. It was a game we played whenever I cuddled him after a scraped knee or when his feelings were hurt. A moment of tender closeness ending with a squeal and giggle while he fought against my grip. It almost never failed to break the gloom and when I set him down he would usually run away, laughing.
This time when I set him down, he started to run and stopped suddenly. He turned and looked at me over his shoulder.
“Daddy, are you sure?”
I squinted at him and said, “Sure I’m sure. Besides, who would read our story? Its not exactly a page-turner.”
I pointed down the hall, towards the kids’ bathroom, “Now go brush your teeth.”
He bolted down the hallway with the stride of a video game action hero. Moments later I heard the sink running full blast like he wasn’t supposed to do and his sister was yelling at him to turn it down.
Later that evening, after tucking in the kids, some TV I didn’t really watch, and some conversation I don’t really remember, it was time for bed. My wife had been fighting a cold and went to ahead while I put the dog in his crate and locked the doors. I was not surprised when I came to the bedroom to find her snoozing. Her iPhone laid on her chest and displayed an unfinished game of Sudoku. I set the phone on her nightstand and plugged it into the charger.
I turned off the bedside light and kissed the softness of her cheek. I whispered into her ear, “I love you,” and walked to my side of the bed.
I lay on my back and stared at the textured ceiling while my son’s words echoed in my head and the concerned look on his face floated in my thoughts. The logical side of my brain knew that the life I was living was real. My two kids, my beautiful wife, could not be characters in a book. Our life was nothing like a movie. Not one anybody would pay to watch anyways. But for some reason I could not get that question out of my head.
Are we in a story?
I was less sure than earlier.
The light from a passing car seeped through a gap in the blinds of our bedroom widow. The dim blade of yellow light swept across the ceiling, briefly illuminating the tiny stalactites that hung there. The light faded as the car took the corner out of our cul-de-sac. I realized I had been laying there a long time, silently contemplating my existence. I realized how absolutely exhausted I was and how heavy my eyelids had become.
I rolled onto my side to minimize my inevitable snoring and I allowed my eyes to close. While I drifted into unconsciousness, while the world outside my eyelids floated away, I imagined I heard… No, I actually heard, if only faintly, the distinctive sound of someone turning the page of a book.