Crinklebottom had been passed down in my family for the past couple of generations; a nighttime companion to help ward off bad dreams and those pesky monsters who live under the bed. In his first incarnation, he was a stuffed brown bear with button eyes that my great grandmother sewed for my grandfather when he was a boy. When my mother was old enough to be afraid of the dark, Grandpa gave her a sock monkey with a bright red fez to sleep with. When it was my turn to inherit my own Crinklebottom, Mom tucked me in with a small blue bunny.
It didn’t matter what form Crinklebottom took, his story was always the same: he’d been sent by The Sandman, King of Sleep, to watch over us. Although he might look small, he was a fierce warrior, loyal and courageous and always ready to protect his friend. Having a Crinklebottom helped all the kids on my mom’s side of the family sleep soundly throughout their younger years and it became a cherished memory as we got older. It would be no different for my own five year old daughter.
The first morning Alexia even hinted at being afraid of the dark after a particularly bad dream, I dropped her off at school and immediately set off to the toy store. I was excited to share a piece of family history with her, something maybe she would in turn share with her own children in some far distant future, and spent a long hour going up and down the aisles of stuffed animals. I wasn’t going to settle on just any old critter; it had to speak to me.
I passed by the Disney and Pixar section, found nothing amongst the rows of brightly colored bears, and couldn’t find any blue bunnies that looked close enough to mine for me to be satisfied. Eventually, Alexia’s love for the bovine kind (she’d been obsessed since she saw some commercial pushing cheese with a talking cow) drew me to a bean filled cow with soft black and white fur. I picked it up, studied its dark, twinkling eyes, and knew I’d found the newest member of Clan Crinklebottom.
Maybe it was a bit silly, my wife certainly thought so, but I pulled out all the stops when it came to getting Cow Crinklebottom ready for Alexia. A colorful gift bag, a couple flowers, even a card from The Sandman himself, explaining her new friend. I laid it all out on her bed, garnished it with a few chocolate coins wrapped in gold foil, and stood back, pleased with my work.
“Couldn’t you have just given it to her like a normal parent?” Marta asked from the doorway.
I scoffed at my wife, “This is not just any toy! This is-”
“Crunklebutt, yeah, you’ve told me.” She teased.
“Crinklebottom.” I said, folding my arms over my chest and sticking my tongue out at her, “And Alexia will love it.”
“Oh, I’m sure.” Marta agreed with a smile, “But I doubt she’ll love getting it as much as you’re going to love giving it.”
“I’m not giving her anything! It’s from The Sandman.”
When Alexia climbed into the car that afternoon, I had to really bite my tongue to keep from saying anything. I hadn’t realized I’d be quite so excited to pass down the family tradition! Before I spoiled the surprise, I asked her how school was and she was off, recounting every minute of her day with as much detail as she could muster. It was much easier to keep quiet while she went on and on, barely pausing for breath, and all I had to do was make the occasional “Ooh” or “Ahh”.
“And then Maddie told Miss. Spring that Danny put the booger in her hair, but he didn’t!” Alexia threw her hands up as if this was the most scandalous thing to ever come out of kindergarten.
“Yeah! And Miss. Spring believed her, but then I said she was a big, fat liar and then Maddie started to cry, but I didn’t care because she was being a big, fat liar and Danny didn’t do that!”
“Well, it’s good to be honest, but next time, why don’t we avoid name calling, ok? Looks like we’re home, kiddo; why don’t you go change and then we’ll take a look at your homework folder.”
She ran inside, shouting a hello to her mom as she passed, and disappeared into her room. I had to quickly hide the grin that spread across my face when she squealed loudly and came racing back out, the gift bag crushed to her chest.
“Daddy, Mommy, look!”
She clamored onto the couch and bounced eagerly in her seat while she waited for us to join her. When she was sure she had our full attention, she opened the bag and pulled Crinklebottom from it with a dramatic flourish.
“Oh, wow! Where did that come from?” Marta said. She winked at me over Alexia’s head.
“I dunno! It was on my bed!”
“Was there anything else in there?”
Alexia dug around in the bag and came up with the card. She tried to offer it to me or her mom to read, but we told her to try it herself. She gripped the card tightly in both fists, her little face wrinkled with deep concentration.
“Alexia,” She read slowly, “this is C-C-Cri…” She frowned and looked up at us.
“Crinklebottom.” I offered over her shoulder. It wasn’t fair to try and make the kid read a made up word.
She giggled at the name, “Crinklebottom. He is your new friend.” She went on with the slow, monotone precision of someone still learning to read, discovering Crinklebottom’s purpose and, much to her delight, that she didn’t need to be afraid of the dark anymore. She was absolutely thrilled with the little cow and his story and spent the rest of the evening parading him around, introducing him to all of her other stuffed animals.
Although we didn’t usually allow her to bring toys to the dinner table, we made a one time exception for our guest of honor to celebrate his first night on the job. When it came time to go to bed, she apologized to Lord Watermelon the lion, her oldest and best loved toy to date, and moved him aside to make room for Crinklebottom.
“So, you think you need a nightlight tonight, kiddo?” I asked.
She chewed her lip uncertainly but finally nodded, “It’s Crinklebottom’s first night here. He’s a little nervous.”
“Of course; he still has to learn his way around.”
The nightlight only lasted a couple more nights and, soon, Crinklebottom took Lord Watermelon’s place of honor atop Alexia’s pillow during the day and at her side when she was sleeping. The poor old lion was sent to The Bin with all the other has-been stuffies and he wasn’t seen again. Marta was a bit upset about that, Watermelon had been a gift from her late mother, but she understood that a five year old’s attention could only be held for so long.
Crinklebottom became more that Alexia’s nighttime protector; he became her best friend. She would hold entire one sided conversations with him, take him everywhere she could, and spend hours playing with only him. Marta and I didn’t think much of it, little kids had imaginary friends all the time; our girl’s just happened to have a cow body. And then her teacher called.
Miss. Spring and the school counselor, Mr. Bellstein, sat across from us with a grave air. They had a small pile of papers stacked face down in front of them and, when they asked if Alexia had been behaving oddly at home, I was put on edge. I could feel Marta stiffen beside me.
Mr. Bellstein picked up the papers and fanned them out across the desk, five in total, and sat back, watching us closely for our reaction. Marta and I exchanged an uncomfortable, uncertain glance and leaned forward to see what had caused such a display.
“Alexia has been drawing some rather…unsettling things.” Miss. Spring said, adjusting her pink framed glasses.
Each paper had a large, black creature taking up most of the page. In the childish scribbles, I could make out what looked to be a pair of curved horns, two overly large yellow orbs for eyes, and a giant mouth lined with jaggedly drawn teeth. In one, the creature was holding the hand of a little stick figure girl with a purple triangle dress and blonde hair, like Alexia’s. In another, it was sitting on the end of the blonde girl’s bed, its yellow eyes staring flatly out at me. In the third, the beast was clutching a smaller monster, all black except for lines of red spurting from what I assumed was its neck.
“Have you asked Alexia about these?” Marta’s voice was shaky.
“Yes,” Miss. Spring said, “she said that its her friend. She called it Crinklebottom?”
I sputtered, trying to mask my laughter behind a cough. Marta didn’t look nearly as amused, “It’s just a character from a story that Adam’s family tells. Crinklebottom protects kids while they sleep.”
“Is there age inappropriate imagery included in this story?” Mr. Bellstein asked.
“No,” I said, swallowing my smile, “she’s just got a very active imagination. She walked in on me watching 300 last weekend; I’m sure that didn’t help.”
They advised us to keep an eye on her, monitor her for any unusual behavior, signs of withdrawal or avoidance. We agreed, apologized for her pictures (which I had thought were pretty good for someone so young), and signed the papers saying we’d been made aware of the situation. On the ride home, Marta looked back at Alexia, who was humming quietly and staring out the window.
“We saw some of your art today.” Marta said.
Alexia perked up, “Did you like it?”
“It was great, kiddo!” When Marta frowned at me, I added, “But why did you make Crinklebottom so big and scary?”
“‘Cos he is big and scary!”
“I thought he was a cute little cow.”
“Nope,” Alexia looked out her window again, “he’s big and scary and he eats the bad monsters. He likes the crunchy ones the best.”
Marta sighed and shook her head. “No more scary movies with Daddy for you.” She muttered under her breath.
We tried to ask Alexia to avoid drawing Crinklebottom in the future, at least at school, but she was a stubborn child and she wanted to draw her friend. Crinklebottom started making appearances on the backs of worksheets, in all of her arts and crafts projects, she even drew what she claimed was his handprint, three long clawed fingers on a fat palm, on her desk. We got another call over that one. No matter how much we tried to dissuade her, she kept drawing. Sometimes it seemed innocent enough, just a girl and her monster hanging out, but those were becoming fewer and far between.
The more we told her no, the more prominent Crinklebottom became. And the more violent. She said he liked to eat, so many of her pictures depicted him mid-meal, usually dining on a smaller creature with plenty of red crayon slashed across the page. Sometimes, he’d be picking up cars and throwing them into fiery buildings. Other times, he’d be hiding under another child’s bed while they cried big, blue tears.
When I saw that one, I pointed to Crinklebottom, “What’s he doing under there? He only protects kids!”
Alexia shook her head adamantly while coloring in one of his eyes, “Nope, only me.”
I sat across from her and laid my hand over her’s so she stopped drawing, “Crinklebottom is a good guy, kiddo.”
“Yeah, good to me. He doesn’t like the other kids. They’re mean.”
“Mean?” This was news to me.
She told me that the other children had started to take notice of her art and were telling Miss. Spring and their parents that she was scary. They didn’t want to sit next to her because they were afraid of her pictures and Crinklebottom. It was the first time I’d seen my baby girl cry over something other people had said and it broke my heart. I took her into my lap and stroked her hair while she hiccuped and sniffled, wondering aloud why people didn’t like her or her friend.
“You know what? I know how we can make this better.” I said, falsely bright, “Why don’t you bring Crinklebottom to school and show them he’s just a sweet little cow? Then they won’t be afraid of him. And then, maybe, you can start drawing him as he really looks, huh?”
“But, Daddy,” her lower lip wobbled with the threat of more tears, “I do draw him like he really looks!”
“But he’s a cow, honey.”
“Nu uh, he’s like in my pictures! When I asked him how come, he said it’s so the other monsters are scared of him.”
That was pretty well thought out for a five year old. I swallowed hard and kissed the top of her head, concern crowding like storm clouds in my head.
It took some convincing, but Alexia finally relented and brought Crinklebottom to school with her for Show and Tell. I thought that having to explain that he was actually a cow would help her shake the Crinklebottom she’d created in her mind. I learned later, however, while sitting in the same office with Marta, Miss. Spring, and Mr. Bellstein, that she had barely managed to say his name before Miss. Spring asked her to sit back down. Alexia had refused and argued that she wanted to share her friend. Miss. Spring took the cow and sent Alexia to time out.
“It’s disruptive.” Miss. Spring told us, “The more she brings it up, the more upset the other students become. I can’t allow it.”
“She was just trying to show her stuffed animal.” Marta said quietly.
“This Crinklebottom nonsense has to stop.” Miss. Spring said sharply. Even Mr. Bellstein seemed surprised by the usually soft spoken woman’s tone. She was glaring at us, wordlessly blaming us, “Alexia’s behavior is effecting my entire class.”
“We’ll talk to her.” I said coldly. To see the teacher that Alexia had been so fond of speaking with such disdain raked against every protective parent chord I had. Marta placed a hand on my arm and gave it a squeeze.
“We’re sorry she’s been disruptive.” She said, “But if a few pictures from an otherwise well behaved student is enough to have this effect on you, maybe you should reconsider your career choice.”
We left, slamming the door in their gaping, stammering faces. At home, Alexia went straight to her room, where we could hear her muttering to herself, or maybe to Crinklebottom. I’d never heard her sound so angry.
“Do we give her space?” I asked Marta helplessly, “Do we go in? This is new territory, Captain.”
She shrugged, equally at a loss, and we sat in the living room, listening to our daughter’s upset. When her grumbles and stomping faded into silence, we crept to her room and peeked in. She was lying on her stomach on her bed, entirely engrossed with her drawing pad and box of crayons. I knocked softly.
“How you doing, kiddo?”
“Ok.” She said without looking up.
“What’re you drawing?” Marta asked.
“Crinklebottom and Miss. Spring.”
“Oh? Can we see?”
She nodded and sat up, holding out the pad to us. There was Crinklebottom, same as always, but this time he was holding just the triangle outline of a stick figure woman’s dress. Around him, the stick figure’s limbs were scattered across the ground in deep red circles. Featured prominently up front, directly at Crinklebottom’s feet, was the stick figure’s decapitated head. It was wearing a pair of pink framed glasses.
“Alexia, what is this?” Marta sat beside her and I could see the fear and worry flashing in her eyes.
“Crinklebottom.” Alexia said.
“But it looks like he’s done a very bad thing. Why would you draw this?”
“Because it’s what he did. He told me so.”
“What?” I crouched in front of Alexia, her words echoing in my ears.
“After we left. He was mad at her; he said she was a very naughty monster and he had to protect me.” She said it so dismissively that I knew she didn’t truly grasp the meaning of her words, “He waited until she was alone in the classroom and he punished her for being so mean to me.”
“You shouldn’t say things like that, Alexia!” Marta was trying very hard to sound in control and undisturbed.
“But it’s true! He even brought me a present!”
“Alexia…” I didn’t know what to say. We had leapt from new territory to being entirely out of our element and it was happening way too fast for me to find any kind of footing.
“I’ll show you!” She slid off the bed beside me and reached underneath it. She felt around a bit and, for a brief moment, I was sure she wouldn’t find anything. How could she? It was impossible.
And then she held up a pair of broken, bloodied pink eye glass frames.
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