Our little Phillip had complained about his nightmares for weeks. Lisa suggested we take him to a doctor. I resisted. I had nightmares when I was his age. Awful ones – ones that, to this day, I still shudder to recall. It seemed poor Phillip was more like his old man than his mom and I had hoped.
After a particularly wretched night of his howling and shrieking, I caved. I couldn’t bear to see my son suffer from terrors he was too young to understand.
“Sometimes kids have overactive imaginations,” the pediatrician reassured us. “I know it’s hard for you guys. My Natalie had some pretty bad ones after she saw something on TV she shouldn’t have. But it passed. Absent any trauma in his life, and I don’t think Phillip’s endured any, I don’t think your son should be any different.”
Thanks, doc. Here’s your $65 copay.
We returned home and our days went as they had been. Our son would be kind, loving, and innocent during the days and once it got dark, he’d grow sullen. Brooding – if you can even apply that adjective to a four-year old. It was like he knew it was only a matter of time before terrible things would happen.
The other night, Lisa rushed to his room around 3:15am to attend to his screaming. It was her turn. I waited in the blackness for everything to quiet down and for my wife to return to bed.
Only this time it was different. Phillip’s screaming didn’t stop. In fact, it only intensified. It was because his mother’s screams had joined his own.
I bolted out of bed and galloped down the hall to my son’s room. The overhead light was on and my eyes hadn’t acclimated to the brightness. Everything was blurred and confusing for a few, dreadful seconds. But things came into focus. I saw Lisa clutching Phillip to her chest. He looked different. My breath caught in my throat.
My son’s dark hair was bright, silvery-gray. The contrast was shocking against Lisa’s dark nightgown.
“What happened?” I gasped, and rushed to join them.
“He was just like this,” Lisa sobbed. “We need to go to the hospital.”
I didn’t argue. We carried Phillip down the stairs, got in the car, and left.
The doctors were baffled. The nurses were disturbed. We were horrified. And Phillip… Phillip just didn’t understand.
That was the hardest part for us. The nightmares were bad enough, but at least they were finite. They ended when the sun came up. But here, in the hospital, it was a whole new level of fear for my son. Lisa and I couldn’t hold him when he was being tested by an army of confused doctors and fascinated medical students.
Phillip just sat and sobbed. His eyes never left ours. If he understood the concept of betrayal, I’m certain he felt like his parents had betrayed him by not taking him out of that place.
Hours dragged by. Physically, there was nothing wrong with our boy. The so-called experts couldn’t tell us what was happening to him.
At the end of all the examinations – and the end of all the poking and prodding and speculating – all they could recommend was a sleep study. With nowhere left for Lisa and I to turn, we agreed.
We took Phillip home and did our best to help him feel safe and comfortable. I was hoping he’d be able to get some sleep; he seemed so exhausted, and it was only exacerbated by the gray hair. He looked like a tired, frightened old man.
The stress of the incident only served to keep our boy awake. Lisa told me it was probably a good thing, since he’d have to be asleep for the test that night. I knew she was right, but his wide-eyed expression of horror was almost too much to bear.
Last night at nine, we headed back to the hospital for the sleep study.
The sight of our beautiful son with that awful array of wires and probes brought me to tears. Phillip, of course, was confused and frightened, but we could tell he was profoundly tired. The few words he spoke were slurred and his eyelids had started to droop.
Lisa held his hand until he drifted off to sleep sometime around eleven. I stayed in the control room with the two doctors, who watched the probe readouts..
“I don’t expect we’ll see anything until he reaches REM sleep,” he told me.
I eyed the digital display of Phillip’s brainwaves. “That’s my son,” I thought to myself. “That’s everything he is.”
Seeing the calm, lazy lines and the uninterested expressions of the doctors gave me a shred of hope. Nothing was wrong.
Lisa joined us in the control room and we chatted idly with the doctors about nothing in particular. An hour went by.
I started feeling like I might be drifting off when, on the other side of the one-way mirror, I saw Phillip twitch. My view darted to the readout. Spikes were forming in the brainwave activity.
“He’s entering REM sleep,” a doctor announced. He resumed talking to Lisa, still showing no indication that anything might be amiss.
I leaned back in the chair and slept for a few minutes.
I don’t know exactly what it was, but I think the change of tone in the background conversation caused me to wake up. The doctors were no longer talking with Lisa. They sat huddled around the monitors. The brainwave spikes were pronounced and erratic.
On the other side of the glass, Phillip began to scream.
I jumped to my feet and collided with Lisa as we tried entering the room where my son slept.
“No no no,” instructed a doctor. “Let him sleep. We need to get a good sampling of his brain activity.”
Grudgingly, my wife and I agreed and we held one another as we stared at Phillip thrashing and screaming on the bed.
The doctors were saying things to one another we didn’t understand. Medical jargon. They appeared far more interested than they had before, however. I’d been using their reactions to gauge how nervous I should be as Phillip’s nightmare went on. Seeing their eyes widen as they studied the monitor made me very nervous indeed.
After five straight minutes of screaming and sobbing, Phillip went silent. I let out a sigh of relief. He opened his eyes. I wondered if the test was over.
“He’s awake – can I go see him?” Lisa asked.
“No. No he isn’t awake,” one of the doctors replied. “The instruments are still registering REM sleep.”
“Oh God,” I thought. “I just want this to be over.”
“Look at that,” the doctor said, and pointed at something on the screen for his colleague to see.
“What is…” he started, and then all four of us gazed at Phillip through the glass.
His mouth started to open, as if he was ready to start screaming again. Except this time he remained silent. I saw his chest dip, like he was taking a deep breath. The waves on screen spiked wildly.
Phillip’s mouth opened wider. And wider. Lisa’s scream of fear accompanied an audible pop as my son’s jaw broke. Both doctors rushed into the room, followed by Lisa. I couldn’t move. I’d just seen something in the waveforms on the monitor.
Lisa and the doctors tried to rouse my son while I stared with disbelief at the screen. In the scrambled scribble of spikes on the monitor, there was a shape. It was changing and shifting and fading in and out of the chaotic lines of brainwaves, but its form was unmistakable. A hideous, growling face.