He awoke to a scream. Throwing the sheets off, he got out of bed and ran down the hall towards his daughter’s room where the sound came from. Bursting open the door he found her in bed, crying with her eyes still closed. “Vanessa. Vanessa, wake up!” he said, grabbing her by the shoulders. Her eyes opened and when she saw her father hunched over her, she screamed even louder. “Vanessa, it’s okay. It was just a nightmare,” he said reassuringly. But she continued to scream and crawled away from him to the corner of the bed.
“Get away! Don’t eat me!” she shouted. Her mother entered the room and came to her side. Vanessa crawled into her arms, still crying. He tried to say something else to her but again she leaned back and dug deeper into her mother’s arms. She was crying even harder. He left the room and waited outside, sitting against the wall with his head in his hands. After her crying stopped the mother came out, gently closing the door behind her.
“What happened?” he asked.
“It was just a nightmare,” she said.
“But why was she so scared of me?”
“I don’t know.” She said uncertainly. “Let’s go back to bed. She’ll be okay.”
He woke up alone the next morning. His wife had already gotten out of bed and he could hear her and Vanessa downstairs. After getting dressed and ready for work, he found them in the kitchen, eating a small breakfast.
“Good morning, Henry,” his wife said.
“Good morning, Dear. Good morning, Vanessa,” he said, looking down at his daughter. She let
out a soft-spoken greeting and didn’t make eye contact, her eyes glued to her half eaten food. Henry grabbed an apple from the kitchen counter and sat down next to her. “Were you able to sleep all right after that bad dream?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she mumbled, still looking down at her plate. Henry looked worriedly at his wife.
“Don’t worry,” she said, giving a half smile. “She’ll come around. It was just a dream.” Henry agreed and took a few bites of the apple before standing up and grabbing his belongings.
“Well, I’d better get going. Have a good day at school Vanessa,” he said, looking back down at his daughter. She made no noise back. He gave another look to his wife.
“Don’t worry,” she said again. “Have a good day at work, Hun. I love you.”
“Thanks, Linda. Love you, too.” Henry left and went to work.
Vanessa slowly returned to her normal self around Henry until another night came where he and his wife awoke to screaming from down the hall. They both rushed into Vanessa’s room, Henry again being the first to wake her from the nightmare. She opened her eyes and saw him staring at her, with the worried look of a father. “No. No, Dad. Stop!” she screamed. She jumped back in her bed and curled into a ball until her mother stepped in to hold her, pushing Henry aside. He stood there watching Linda comfort their daughter, feeling helpless.
The sun spilled into the kitchen the next morning. Henry sat at the table with Vanessa, who wouldn’t look at him. She stared at her plate, keeping still, not wanting to come near her father. “Vanessa?” he said. “Are you okay?” She mumbled something incoherent. He waited for a better answer, but she didn’t make another sound. “What was your nightmare about?” he asked. Linda, who had been making Vanessa’s lunch at the counter, turned to see if she would respond. Vanessa’s eyes crept up and met her father’s. Her eyebrows were raised with sunken cheeks.
“Nothing,” she said quietly, and stood up and walked over to her mother. “Can we go now?” she
asked, yanking at her shirt.
“Yes, why don’t you go get your backpack,” she said, and Vanessa ran up to her room. Henry stood up and grabbed Linda’s hand.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“Her nightmares are about you,” she said.
“About me? What happens in them?”
“She said that you turn into this sort of… lion monster.” She broke eye contact and fiddled with her hands. “She said you have the head of lion but the body of a man, and you… you…”
“I what?” Henry pleaded.
“You come into her room and rip her to pieces with your mouth.”
“Lion monster?” he repeated. “Where on earth would she get something like that?”
“I don’t know. That’s just what she dreams every time she wakes up screaming. I told her you’re not a monster, that you’d never hurt her. But I guess these dreams just seem so real to her. She’s only six, Henry. I’m sure this will pass.”
“I know, I know. I just can’t stand the way she looks at me. She looks so… scared.”
“It’s just a bad dream, Henry. I’m sure it will pass.”
She grabbed his hand and smiled. They kissed and Linda left to take Vanessa to school. Henry left for work. His wife’s hopeful words kept his thoughts away from his daughter's nightmare, and after a few weeks she seemed to be warming to him. But another nightmare put a stop to that. Vanessa returned to her timid attitude toward Henry and the nightmares occurred more often.
Henry brought the entire family to therapy. It had been months since Vanessa had spoken more than a few words to him. Vanessa’s schoolwork suffered due to lack of sleep. Linda was blaming Henry for Vanessa’s problems and her own sleepless nights from the screaming, though she wouldn’t admit it to him. He knew by the way she didn’t smile at him anymore.
They sat in a small office room. All three family members were on the same couch with Linda and Vanessa together on one side. The therapist sat across from them in a long chair with her legs folded neatly. “All right, so what brings you in to see me today?” the therapist
asked. Henry looked over at Linda who was looking at the ground.
“Our daughter’s been having a nightmare,” Henry began.
“What kind of nightmare?” the therapist asked.
“It’s that…” Henry gave a concerned look at Vanessa. “That I’m this lion monster who… who
comes into Vanessa’s room and eats her.” It felt awkward saying it aloud. Vanessa leaned into her mother, who put an arm around her. Henry’s head sunk into his shoulders, feeling alone on the couch built for three.
“I see,” the therapist said. “And has this been a recurring nightmare?”
“Yes,” Henry said.
“And how has this affected things for you?”
“Well, Vanessa hardly talks to me anymore. She’s scared of me.” When Henry said this he
looked at Vanessa, who was nearly fully swaddled by Linda. The therapist gave an understanding nod.
“And how has this affected you, Mrs. Canter?”
“We’ve all been losing sleep,” Linda said, “and Vanessa’s been struggling in school.” She
sounded annoyed. The therapist continued to get more information about the dream, which Linda filled in for her. Henry didn’t feel like any progress had been made until she asked to speak to each of them individually. Vanessa went first, followed by Linda. But Vanessa refused to wait in the hallway alone with Henry so she stayed with Linda when it was her turn. When Henry went in he sat down on the couch feeling uncomfortable. The watchful eyes of the therapist rested solely on him.
“So Henry,” she said. “This must be very troubling for you, having your daughter react the way
she has been from this dream.”
“It’s been pretty hard,” Henry said.
“And you were close with your daughter before these dreams began?”“Yeah, we were best friends.”
“I see. Can you think of any incident that could have caused Vanessa to have these dreams?”
Henry thought hard.
“No,” he finally replied. “Her nightmares just started happening out of nowhere.” The therapist
wrote something down.
“Well after speaking to Linda and Vanessa, I have an idea to try and help this situation.”
“Anything,” Henry said.
“I think it might be best if you distance yourself from Linda and Vanessa for a little while. Not
seeing you every day might help Vanessa overcome this nightmare and be able to move past it.”
“Distance myself?” Henry asked. “What do you mean?”
“Maybe if you stayed with some family or a friend for a month or so it could help Vanessa
subconsciously keep you out of her dreams.”
“I’m not leaving my family,” Henry said. His voice was firm. “I wouldn’t do that to them.”
“Linda already agreed that this would be a good idea.”Henry thought for a moment. “No,” he said, and stood from the couch. “This was a waste of time. We’ll figure out how to deal with it on our own.” Henry walked out of the office and slammed the door behind him. Linda and Vanessa sat in the waiting room outside watching. “Let’s go,” he said to them. They stood up and followed Henry out of the building, keeping their distance.
That night when Henry and Linda were in bed he asked her if she thought he should leave like the therapist recommended. “I don’t know,” she replied. “We need to do something about this, though.” She rolled over and pretended to sleep, leaving Henry lying on his back, staring at the ceiling waiting for the inevitable scream from down the hall.
Vanessa’s nightmares didn’t stop. Now nearing her seventh birthday they occurred almost every night. Henry stopped going to check on her when he heard her scream, he knew it only made things worse. All he could do was watch his sleep deprived wife check on their daughter, feeling as though he was to blame for it all. After Vanessa’s birthday he moved out, renting a small room near his office. He couldn’t bear his fearful daughter and distant wife anymore. “It’s only for a few months,” he told himself. “Just until the nightmares stop.” He would call Linda every
day to see how they were doing. Linda was always short and disinterested on the phone, but after a month she said the nightmares weren’t happening as often. They agreed that after another month Henry could come back home and see Vanessa. The last days of the month dragged on and all he thought about was Vanessa’s face, happy and smiling, hoping he would come home to see it.
On the first day of the next month Henry got off work early and waited in the house for Linda to return home with Vanessa from school. He sat at the kitchen table folding and refolding a dirty napkin. He was nervous. When he heard the door open he stood up. Vanessa walked into the room, her mother behind her. She seemed to have grown, just slightly, he thought.
“Hi, Vanessa.” His voice excited but nervous.
“Hi, Dad,” she said, looking up at him unsurely.
“How was school?”
“It was fine.”
“Hi, Linda,” he said, now looking at his wife. She replied without looking at him. The rest of the night was awkward and uncomfortable for everyone. Things were different now. Linda and Vanessa acted like they didn’t need him. Like they didn’t want him there. When Vanessa went to bed Henry asked Linda if he could stay the night. She agreed reluctantly. Even though his family was cold to him, it felt good to be laying in his own bed. He thought it would take time, but everything could go back to the way it was. Vanessa could learn to love him the way she did before the nightmares. Linda would come around once Vanessa was doing okay. These thoughts put him to sleep.
He awoke to a scream. Still in a daze he saw Linda get up next to him and scowl. “I knew you shouldn’t have come home,” she said and ran down the hall to Vanessa’s room. Henry sat up. He felt like he broke a rib. The hope of returning home vanished. He got out of bed and dressed in the sliver of light coming from Vanessa’s room. He left out the front door without saying good
He hated the room he was renting. It was cramped and humid and he felt trapped there. He still called Linda every day but she began answering less. She told him that Vanessa wasn’t having the nightmare as often and had been doing better in school. That was the only thing keeping him going while he stayed in that small room. He made a surprise visit home for dinner one night without telling Linda. Vanessa was still scared when she saw him and Linda made him leave. She had the nightmare that night.
Vanessa would be eight soon. Linda told him he could see her on her birthday. He hadn't seen her in six months. Henry bought an enormous doll house for her. He wanted her to have a perfect birthday. When the day came he pulled up to the house and navigated his way inside holding the giant, wrapped box. He set it on the kitchen table and spoke to Linda, who stood near the sink.
“That looks expensive,” Linda said.
“I wanted this birthday to be special for her.” Linda looked unapprovingly at Henry as he
flattened out a piece of wrapping paper that stuck off the box.
“It’s been a while since she’s had the nightmare.”
“I know,” Henry replied. “That’s good.”
“Yeah,” Linda said flatly. “Well, I’ll call her down from her room.” Henry heard Vanessa’s light
footsteps trail down the stairs and when she turned into the kitchen their eyes locked and he gave a big smile.
“Happy birthday, Vanessa,” he said.
“Thanks,” Vanessa said coolly. Her eyes wavered from Henry to the big box on the kitchen table.
“Can I open it?” she asked.
“Of course,” Henry replied. The box was as big as Vanessa and she tore through the wrapping paper, making her way through the layer of cardboard hiding the present. Henry watched happily. When Vanessa reached the doll house buried inside the box her eyes lit up. Henry saw her smile. He hadn’t seen that smile in a long time.
“What do you say?” Linda said to Vanessa.
“Thank you. Thank you, Dad!” Vanessa said, still smiling. “Can I play with it now?”
“I suppose so,” Linda said. “Henry, why don’t you take that up to her room for her?” Henry
nodded, picked up the doll house, and followed Vanessa up the stairs. Toys covered the floor of her room and Henry noticed every little change. There were new drawings and paintings Vanessa had done hanging on the walls, and new purple and white bedding. He set the doll house in an open corner and sat next to Vanessa, who gathered some of her toys to place inside.
“Do you like the doll house?” Henry asked.
“Yeah,” Vanessa replied excitedly. Henry placed a hand on her arm when she went to put one of her dolls inside the house and Vanessa turned and looked at him. Her eyes grew big and her pupils dilated. Henry watched the look of fear fall over her face and she screamed.
“No, it’s okay,” Henry said, waving his hands trying to calm her down.
“Get away! No lion man, don’t eat me!” she yelled. Linda ran into the room and grabbed Vanessa, sheltering her from Henry.
“What did you do?” Linda snapped at him.
“I… I didn’t do anything.” Henry said helplessly. “Vanessa?” But Linda shot him a dark look, one where the brow almost goes below the eyes. Henry stood up and walked out of the room, looking back over his shoulder at his wife holding his daughter, telling her not to worry.
Henry was late paying his next month’s rent. The landlord knocked on his door. There was no answer. She pulled out a few keys until she found the correct one and unlocked the door, pushing it open. His legs were swaying back and forth. On the nightstand was a note:
Now you can live without fear.
About the Author: Jay Tanji works as a Financial Analyst in Boulder, Colorado. His work has previously appeared in Dime Show Review. In his free time, he enjoys snowboarding, playing guitar, reading, and writing.