brand spanking new, and unedited “When Sheets Attack!” was supposed to be a horror story and turned into a fairy tale, and I heard it in my head in a British accent.
I struggled to consciousness while fighting a slithering presence. “Not again,” I grumbled. The fitted sheet had unhooked from opposite corners of my glorious new mattress. I sat up, looking for a way out of the tangle, but fell back. As I slept, the elastic had crept over my forehead and locked me into place.
I batted the mess away and looked to Pepper. He, too, had crawled over me from his own bed as I slept. “Some guard dog you are, mister.” He cracked a single eye and burrowed back into the extra pillows, ignoring me and my silliness until I woke him with the rare scent of cooking bacon. Twice in the past week I’d woken this way, and it seemed like the invisible attacker was moving up my body.
First, it was the extra blanket tucked against my feet. I thought nothing of the comforting presence. Next, the fitted sheet wormed its way around my calves and knees, making movement impossible. Today, the fitted sheet joined the party with that fashionable headband.
“I’ve got to make my bed better. That’s all there is to it, eh, puppy?” My mother always warned me as a little girl that if I didn’t make my bed each morning, making sure to keep the bedclothes neat and happy, one day they’d retaliate. Pepper refused to get out from under the covers, and gave me a glare when I chivvied him along to start sorting out the sheets.
“Little girls and boys who don’t make their beds grow up to bad ends,” said Mummy, shaking her finger at me. “Children who don’t learn to put the dirty clothes in the hamper and hand up the clean ones they decided not to wear end up with mice in their closets.”
I don’t remember when I heard her say it first, but I know I heard it at least twice a day, growing up. I paid little mind, being a precocious child with use only for printed fairy tales. The ones Mother passed along always seemed to come with a free lecture.
I don’t know when last I thought of those little talks we had. She’d be awfully proud to see me now: tucking in the sheets, sliding up the duvet, stacking the pillows the prettiest way instead of the most comfortable to sleep. I even dug the decorative pillows out from the laundry basket and stepped back to admire my handiwork.
“Quite pretty like that, isn’t it?” I turned to ask Pepper, but realized that not only was I actually talking to myself, I had attempted to ask my dog a non-rhetorical question. Must stop, I thought, for once inside my head instead of aloud.
A few days passed. The sheets slowed their assault. I thought back to my mother’s little lectures and tales. She wasn’t wrong, you know. When I was about seven or eight, Mum decided that she wasn’t going to pick up after me anymore. She’d had enough, she told me firmly. If I didn’t pick up the clothes and books and dolls and things, this with a shudder, lying around my room, no one would. “There’ll be mice within a fortnight, I promise you,” she foretold.
I reveled in my freedom. At seven, life is all about lessons: school lessons, mum lessons, dad lessons, grandpa and grandma lessons in evading the mum and dad lessons. Not having to pick up my things saved me at least fifteen minutes each day, and not having to listen to Mum tell me to pick up my things another fifteen. No lecture on how I should have picked up my things whilst Mum did so was the biggest time saver of all.
It seemed the most grown-up and wonderful of decisions. Why use a closet when most of my clothes were in strategic piles on the floor? My books stacked nicely on my desk and in happy little piles around my armchair, just where I needed them. Meanwhile, dolls and teddies sat in clumps on the bookshelves, some bandaged from fresh wounds I attended to as a doctor.
One morning, reveling in this childish bacchanalia, I woke early. The sun shone, birds chirped, windows glistened from Jack Frost’s nighttime visit. Except, something sounded odd. I heard a scratching.
No matter her refusal to pick up my things in my room, Mother kept a steadfast rule that no food could be brought into or left within. Now, my entire apartment open with a never-closed bedroom door and stacks of teacups and toast plates beg to differ. Then, I kept to that rule.
The scratching persisted, along with an added rustling. I searched the small room with my eyes, too lazy to move from my warm blanket cocoon. There! In the light from my window, silhouetted in the black backdrop of my newly-unused closet sat a small mouse. It stared at me with a similar terror to my own gaze.
“What? Awake? At this hour? The small human with raise the alarm,” it seemed to say, even while clutching a crumb of the candy I’d managed to secret away for hunger pangs that struck while reading.
I didn’t know what to do. Should I scream, I wondered? Offer it food like Sara Crewe? If I acknowledged its presence aloud, Mother had won. Her stories, all of them, all of their lessons and lectures and improbabilities, would be true. I couldn’t keep still and pretend it didn’t exist. I had an existential crisis without even the knowledge of existentialism.
I woke up with a jolt. “Pepper,” I said, swatting him away, “I don’t understand how a small dog can take up so much space.” Pepper looked at me as though I were crazy, blinking his big eyes from his own bed on the floor. A pillow slid to the floor harmlessly, the sheet slithering behind from near my torso.
At 3am, remaking my bed, I grumbled. “Just make your bed properly when you get up each morning, darling. My covers stay in place, and I slide right in and out, dear.” Mother would hear about this one. Those sheets refused to stay in place. I felt ridiculous climbing out of bed to straighten the bedclothes, only to climb back in while it was still dark outside, but needs must, I supposed.
When I woke with the singing of my alarm, the sheet had tangled itself sinuously around my neck. Another corner twisted about my outstretched wrist. I swore I heard a murmured, “another five minutes” in a sweetly exasperated tone, but put it down to fitful sleep as I disengaged. Only Pepper and I were in the room, after all.
Life continued, but this isn’t a story about life. I thought I had negotiated a truce with the sheets. I made my bed, tucking blankets and sheets around the edges. I tried to sleep as Mother suggested. As I’ve grown up, it turns out she really usually is quite right. Then it got hot.
I don’t sleep well in the heat. I don’t eat as well, either, but that doesn’t matter as much. The pretty pile of pillows and tucked in blankets I could slide into and under worked just fine, even pretty great, when I needed a sheet and blanket cocoon in the chill air of spring. In the heat of summer, bedclothes are too much. I’m stifled. Apparently, rejection of the sheets forced their proverbial hand. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
One night, sleeping fitfully, I tossed and turned. I’d refused to allow Pepper his usual leap from his own little doggy bed on the floor to mine due to the heat. The fan’s white noise cut the typical silence of my little country cottage. It helped little, between the noise and its sluggish wafting of the humid heat. Just as I’d get comfortable, my place on the pillows got warm.
I hovered in the insomniac’s hell: barely, almost, tantalizingly asleep, but not quite. I kicked the sheets off my knees, only to pull some up near my chin. I wafted the sheets, you know, the way one hopes to breathe air back under and cool them in air nearly the temperature of human blood, and twice as humid.
“That’s bloody well as much as I’m going to take of this,” a voice grumbled close to my left ear. I was lying on my right side, facing the wall. Maybe I’d left the radio upstairs playing again, I thought. I gripped the flat sheet tighter, pulling it closer to my neck as some sense of security. A woman living alone always worries about her safety when she hears anything in the night.
I held quite still. That’s our other defense mechanism. Stillness. Perhaps the intruder wouldn’t notice this person-sized lump in the bed if I held quite still. My heart rate accelerated. I heard nothing for minutes. Giving up, I flopped to the other side, wafting the sheet again.
A throat cleared. “Damn! I gave myself away with that silly wafting,” I nearly said aloud. That would have given me further away. I held still, gripping the sheet even tighter. It squirmed in my grasp. I grabbed it back and gave an almighty wiggle, flinging the sheet away from me as I scrambled back into the pillows.
All I could think of was that silly mouse from my childhood. We had stared at each other, neither daring to blink. It twitched its whiskers, finally taking a nibble from my snack. That’s what did it in, you know. That little mouse took my snack. I’d been waiting for the perfect moment to nibble on a bit of that chocolate while reading. To this day, I am terribly possessive of things included in future plans. I slowly reached down toward the end of my bed, grabbed a shoe, and flung it at the creature. Being a precocious and reading-inclined child, the shoe had no hope of making its mark.
I bounced the shoe off the wall between the closet and the window with a delightful thud. The mouse jumped, turned tail, and ran. I bounced in bed, thrilled. The good mood lasted until Mum ran into the room, demanding to know if I was alright. Too happy with my defeat of the little creature, I told her precisely what happened. I’d barely gotten “mouse” out of my mouth before the lecture began.
Seeing my face, Mother, that wise woman of valor, asked, “Wouldn’t you like to hear a story instead?” This was a golden reprieve. “You’ll still have to tidy this pigsty after breakfast, but I’ll help.” I nodded eagerly. When they wanted, and didn’t want to just read out of a book, my parents were remarkable storytellers. Each told his or her own type, but managed to weave fantastical tales with just enough roots of truth to catch other adults unawares of reality. It is hilarious.
That morning, tucked snuggly beneath my blankets and sheets and into my Mother’s warm side, her arm protecting me, I first heard about when sheets attack. I remembered it now, arms wrapped around myself, back against the wall, and a corporeal sheet winding its way up from my ankles.
I kicked out. A voice that seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere at once “tsk”ed at me. “Tsk”ed, as though I were that child again! The effrontery knocked me out of my fear for a moment. While I was distracted, the fitted sheet popped off the corners of my bed. The elastic corners quickly pinned me by the shoulders and ankles. I flailed, and found my arms free through the forearm. My legs remained covered to the knee. The elastic held me down.
I looked around wildly as the voice came again. “Do hold still. I will not stand for any more of this flopping or flapping or whatever you’ll call it.” I tried one more time, gritting my teeth and muttering, “let me free, and I’ll stop flailing about.” I couldn’t believe I attempted to reason with a sheet. For, it could only be those sheets Mother warned me about as a little girl.
“Sometimes, you see,” she told me that cozy morning, “fairy tales come to life. The candlesticks and house wares in ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ some of them came to enjoy their lives as animate objects more than their lives as people.”
“I know, fairy tales are fairy tales to you, but you also know that they have their earliest green tendrils of truth as warnings to children. ‘Red Riding Hood’ taught them not to walk alone in the forest. ‘Hansel and Gretel’ taught little ones to be wary of strangers offering times too good to be true.”
“Of course, Mother,” I answered, “but wasn’t ‘Beauty and the Beast’ was meant to remind us to be kind to everyone whether that person is a hag or not?”
Mother laughed. “It is, at that,” she said, “but just because one thing happens to be true, it doesn’t mean everything else about it wasn’t too. Be careful, my dear. If children don’t learn to make their beds and keep their bedclothes neat and happy, one day those animate objects will visit and teach them a lesson.”
I groaned. The reprieve was nothing but a lecture dressed up with snuggling. I pushed her away and clambered off the bed, wading though my stacks and piles of things. Breakfast, then a day of cleaning. Best get it started, my seven year old self figured.
While I remained distracted by remembering, the flat sheet moved. Now it sat, wormed between its fitted mate and my shoulder, curled across my lap and holding me still. “We must have a chat,” said the cultured voice. “All your flopping, flapping, flailing, and the rest are bruising me terribly.”
I nodded, gulping. Yes, I would negotiate. I tried a wiggle, just in case. The flat sheet went from comforting friend to noose before I could get a forearm up to my neck.
The voice gave another “tsk tsk tsk. You’ll not try that again, now will you?” No. No, I would not. I shook my head, and the sheet loosened enough to allow me air to speak. I tried apologizing. “I am sorry I never make my bed, that you’re always in a jumble. Sir.” The voice sounded male. I did not want to think too closely about sheets having different genders, especially the ones currently on my own bed.
“You’ve been listening to your mother. I could care less about the jumbling. I’ll move if you get too careless. It’s the damn bruising.”
Suddenly, I burned with questions. Why not change back? How could sheets bruise? How true are fairy tales? I took a deep breath and figured the best one would come out first.
More of the “tsk tsk tsk.” Why did I get stuck with the bossy sheets? “No questions.” Things got a bit tighter. “Just, stop with the bruising.” I nodded, as the sheet sounded exasperated. “I’ll let you go and allow you to resettle things.” I nodded. The sheets went limp. I laid there for a few minutes, fighting the desire to simply fall back asleep.
Feeling drained, I got up and gently tucked the elastic back around the corners of the mattress and smoothed the flat sheet over a lump. Pepper was in the bed, when I had been sure he stayed in his own during my attack. I knew for certain that I hadn’t felt his water bottle warmth while I tossed and turned.
Did I untuck everything all on my own, I wondered? It wouldn’t have been the first time. I climbed back under the covers, the heat outside breaking in the pre-dawn fog. It must have been a dream. Silly, sleepy me, thinking sheets could talk. What a voice, though. I must have dreamt it.
I curled back up, gently gripping the sheet with one hand and pulling it close to my neck as usual. I mumbled, “I’ll never buy sateen sheets again,” but only in my head. I tried not to notice that the sheet seemed to be stroking Pepper in his favorite spot under the ear as he slept peacefully on.