At 3:13 on Wednesday morning, I heard Tess coming downstairs and into our bedroom. "Mom," she whispered, "Daniel needs his covers back on."
My kids sleep through the night 98% of the time, but once in a while I have a mission like this handed to me. I followed Tess back upstairs, covered up Daniel, assured him that yes, he could sleep, and went back downstairs.
As I was climbing back into bed, I froze, because I suddenly realized that the dryer was on.
I went from half-asleep, Mom-task-completed status to fight-or-flight/DEFCON 1/Red Alert in a millisecond.
We have a walk-out garage/basement with a door from the driveway to Patrick's office and French doors to the (dungeon) workout/food storage area. When Patrick is out of town, you can bet that I check those locks compulsively, but when he's home, we are less than vigilant about security. We live in a tiny town with a National Crime Index of 8 (out of 100); we've always felt pretty confident of our safety.
The washer and dryer are in the area of the basement directly under our bed, and there's an air conditioning vent right by my side through which I can hear laundry cycles completing themselves. Before we went to bed Tuesday night, I sat for an hour on my bed writing with no TV or music on, so if the dryer had been on then, I definitely would have noticed it. The last time I'd turned the dryer on had been at 5:00 earlier that evening, and the cycle runs about an hour at most.
So why was the dryer on at 3:17 a.m.? Had Christian been sleepwalking (something he hasn't done for years) and gone down and turned it on? Not likely: a) as good a kid as he is, he never does laundry of his own volition; and b) if he'd gone downstairs, it would have awakened me, the way Tess's footsteps on the carpeted stairs woke me up. The basement door is right outside our bedroom.
I couldn't figure out how to explain it away and let myself go back to sleep. I hated to do it, but I had no choice: I woke up Patrick. "Honey, the dryer is on," I whispered. He sprang into action, recognizing that something was very wrong. "Are all the kids still in their beds?"
Is there a DEFCON Negative 23? If so, I attained it in that moment. I knew Tess and Daniel were safe, but what about the others? Patrick went to check; I sat on the bed and tried to come up with a viable hypothesis for the dryer situation. We'd had a spectacular thunderstorm during the night; had a power surge somehow tripped the dryer's electronic brain? But it would have to be a power surge tiny enough not to affect the clocks, which were perfectly normal.
"The kids are fine," Patrick reported, then took his uber-manly self downstairs to scope out the basement. He had our giant flashlight with him, which I'm sure would make a fine bludgeonly weapon, if needed.
I began rueing my many hours spent in the virtual company of Mr. Stephen King, because all the lessons he has ever taught me came flooding back in vivid detail:
1) The scariest stories are always set in peaceful small towns of uncommon natural beauty.
2) Only foolish, peripheral characters who end up dead (or undead) ignore or try to explain away strange phenomena like household appliances starting up of their own accord.
3) The protagonist usually loses a loved one (or six) in the battle against evil.
4) There is no help available: not the folks at the other end of 9-1-1, not neighbors, not faithful household pets. All these potential allies can end up being worse than the perceived threat.
5) Never, ever split up. The one who ventures out/up/down alone, flashlight in hand, is almost always the character who exits the stage first.
"You okay, Honey?" I tried to keep the quaver out of my voice. I heard Patrick open the dryer. "These clothes are still wet," he called up--the clothes I'd put in to dry at 5 o'clock. He started the dryer again, locked all the downstairs doors, and came upstairs.
He checked the front porch, providing us with a Hitchcockian moment of comic relief when he accidentally rang our very loud doorbell in the process. An electronic rendition of the classic Westminster Chimes melody blared through the house. Tragically, we knew we'd now awakened our neighbors across the street; they have the identical wireless doorbell, and any visitor to either house always sets off both devices.
After laughing with shame over the plight of poor, innocent John and Mary, we lay in the dark for at least another half hour trying to figure out what had happened. Then Patrick went downstairs again, only to find out that the laundry hadn't gotten any drier during our obsession session. "I think the heating element is broken," he said. Great, I thought, Not only is it possessed, it's gonna need a $200 repair to boot. Repairman or excorcist: which should I call first?
Now it was after 4:00. Fear had worn me down; adrenaline abandoned me and let me crash on my own. I was too tired to fight. Patrick fell asleep first, and I eventually drifted off myself.
What else could we do?