After that, I was so scared of seeing that zombie face again, I stopped watching any TV until Halloween was over and the movie was no longer playing in theaters. Seriously, I stopped watching TV completely—
how scared I was!
Not too long after that, I was on a playdate with some kid whose name I don’t even remember. And this kid was really into Harry Potter, so we started watching one of the Harry Potter movies (I’d never seen any of them before). Well, when I saw Voldemort’s face for the first time, the same thing happened that had happened when the Halloween commercial came on. I started screaming hysterically, wailing like a total baby. It was so bad, the kid’s mother couldn’t calm me down, and she had to call my mother to come pick me up. My mom got really annoyed at the kid’s mom for letting me watch the movie, so they ended up getting into an argument and—long story short—I never had
another playdate there again. But anyway, between the Halloween zombie commercial and Voldemort’s noseless face, I was kind of a mess.
Then, unfortunately, my dad took me to the movies at around that same time. Again, I was only about five. Maybe six by now. It shouldn’t have been an issue: the movie we went to see was rated G, totally fine, not scary at all. But one of the trailers that came on was for
, a movie about demon fairies. I know—fairies are so lame!—and when I look back I can’t believe I was so scared of this stuff, but I freaked out at this trailer. My dad had to take me out of the theater because—yet again!—I couldn’t stop crying. It was so embarrassing! I mean, being scared of fairies? What’s next? Flying ponies? Cabbage Patch dolls? Snowflakes? It was crazy! But there I was, shaking and screaming as I left the movie theater, hiding my face in my dad’s coat. I’m sure there were three-year-olds in the audience who were looking at me like I was the biggest loser!
That’s the thing about being scared, though. You can’t control it. When you’re scared, you’re scared. And when you’re scared, everything seems scarier than it ordinarily would be—even things that aren’t. Everything that scares you kind of mushes together to become this big, terrifying feeling. It’s like you’re covered in this blanket of fear, and this blanket is made out of broken glass and dog poop and oozy pus and bloody zombie zits.
I started having awful nightmares. Every night, I’d wake up screaming. It got to a point where I was afraid to go to sleep because I didn’t want to have another nightmare, so then I started sleeping in my parents’ bed. I wish I could say this was just for a couple of nights, but it went like this for six weeks. I wouldn’t let them turn off the lights. I had a panic attack every time I started
drifting off to sleep. I mean, my palms would literally start to sweat and my heart would start to race, and I’d start to cry and scream before going to bed.
My parents took me to see a “feelings” doctor, which I only later realized was a child psychologist. Dr. Patel helped me a little bit. She said what I was experiencing were “night terrors,” and it did help me to talk about them with her. But I think what really got me over the nightmares were the Discovery Channel nature videos my mom brought home for me one day. Woo-hoo for those nature videos! Every night, we’d pop one of them into the DVD player and I’d fall asleep to the sound of some guy with an English accent talking about meerkats or koalas or jellyfish.
Eventually, I did get over the nightmares, though. Everything went back to normal. But every once in a while, I’d have what Mom would call a “minor setback.” Like, for instance, although I love
now, the very first time I saw
Star Wars: Episode II
, which was at a birthday sleepover when I was eight, I had to text my mom to come get me at two a.m. because I couldn’t fall asleep: every time I’d close my eyes, Darth Sidious’s face would pop into my head. It took about three weeks of nature videos to get over that setback (and I stopped going to sleepovers for about a year after that, too). Then, when I was nine, I saw
Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
for the first time, and the same thing happened to me again, though this time it only took me about a week to get over Gollum.
By the time I turned ten, though, all those nightmares had pretty much gone away. Even the fear of having a nightmare was gone by then, too. Like, if I was at Henry’s house and he would say, “Hey, let’s watch a scary movie,” my first reaction wasn’t to think,
No, I might have a nightmare!
(which is what it used to be). My first reaction would be like,
Yeah, cool! Where’s the popcorn?
I finally started being able to see all kinds of movies again. I even
started getting into zombie apocalypse stuff, and none of it ever bothered me. That nightmare stuff was all behind me.
Or at least I thought it was.
But then, the night after I met Auggie Pullman, I started having nightmares again. I couldn’t believe it. Not just passing bad dreams, but the full-blown, heart-pounding, wake-up-screaming kind of nightmares I used to have when I was a little kid. Only, I wasn’t a little kid anymore.
I was in the fifth grade! Eleven years old! This wasn’t supposed to be happening to me anymore!
But there I was again—watching nature videos to help me fall asleep.
I tried to describe what Auggie looked like to my mom, but she didn’t get it until the school pictures arrived in the mail. Up until then, she’d never really seen him. She’d been away on a business trip during the Thanksgiving Sharing Festival, so she didn’t see him then. On Egyptian Museum day, Auggie’s face had been covered with mummy gauze. And there hadn’t been any after-school concerts yet. So, the first time Mom saw Auggie and
started understanding my nightmare situation was when she opened that large envelope with my class picture in it.
It was actually kind of funny. I can tell you exactly how she reacted because I was watching her as she opened it. First, she excitedly slit open the top of the envelope with a letter opener. Then, she pulled out my individual portrait. She put her hand on her chest.
“Awww, Julian, you look so handsome!” she said. “I’m so glad you wore that tie Grandmère sent you.”
I was eating some ice cream at the kitchen table, and just smiled and nodded at her.
Then I watched her take the class picture out of the envelope. In lower school, every class would get its own picture taken with its own teacher, but in middle school, it’s just one group picture of the entire fifth grade. So sixty kids standing in front of the entrance to the school. Fifteen kids in each row. Four rows. I was in the back row, in between Amos and Henry.
Mom was looking at the photo with a smile on her face.
“Oh, there you are!” she said when she spotted me.
She continued looking at the picture with a smile on her face.
“Oh my, look at how big Miles got!” said Mom. “And is that Henry? He looks like he’s getting a mustache! And who is—”
And then she stopped talking. The smile on her face stayed frozen for a second or two, and then her face slowly transformed into a state of shock.
She put the photo down and stared blankly in front of her. Then she looked at the photo again.
Then she looked at me. She wasn’t smiling.
“This is the kid you’ve been talking about?” she asked me. Her voice had completely changed from the way it sounded moments before.
“I told you,” I answered.
She looked at the picture again. “This isn’t just a cleft palate.”
“No one ever said it
a cleft palate,” I said to her. “Mr. Tushman never said that.”
“Yes he did. On the phone that time.”
“No, Mom,” I answered her. “What he said was ‘facial issues,’ and you just assumed that he meant cleft palate. But he never actually said ‘cleft palate.’ ”
“I could swear he said the boy had a cleft palate,” she answered, “but this is so much worse than that.” She really looked stunned. She couldn’t stop staring at the photo. “What does he have, exactly? Is he developmentally delayed? He looks like he might be.”
“I don’t think so,” I said, shrugging.
“Does he talk okay?”
“He kind of mumbles,” I answered. “He’s hard to understand sometimes.”
Mom put the picture down on the table and sat down. She started tapping her fingers on the table.
“I’m trying to think of who his mother is,” she said, shaking
her head. “There are so many new parents in the school, I can’t think of who it might be. Is she blond?”
“No, she has dark hair,” I answered. “I see her at drop-off sometimes.”
“Does she look … like the son?”
“Oh no, not at all,” I said. I sat down next to her and picked up the picture, squinting at it so my eyes wouldn’t see it too clearly. Auggie was in the front row, all the way on the left. “I told you, Mom. You didn’t believe me, but I told you.”
“It’s not that I didn’t believe you,” she answered defensively. “I’m just kind of … surprised. I didn’t realize it was this severe. Oh, I think I know who she is, his mom. Is she very pretty, kind of exotic, has dark wavy hair?”
“What?” I said, shrugging. “I don’t know. She’s a mom.”
“I think I know who she is,” answered Mom, nodding to herself. “I saw her on parents’ night. Her husband’s handsome, too.”
“I have no idea,” I said, shaking my head.
“Oh, those poor people!” She put her hand over her heart.
“Now you get why I’ve been having nightmares again?” I asked her.
She ran her hands through my hair.
“But are you still having nightmares?” she asked.
“Yes. Not every night like I did for the first month of school, but yeah!” I said, throwing the picture down on the tabletop. “Why did he have to come to Beecher Prep, anyway?”
I looked at Mom, who didn’t know what to say. She started putting the picture back into the envelope.
“Don’t even think of putting that in my school album, by the way,” I said loudly. “You should just burn it or something.”
“Julian,” she said.
Then, out of the blue, I started crying.
“Oh, my darling!” said Mom, kind of surprised. She hugged me.
“I can’t help it, Mom,” I said through my tears. “I hate that I have to see him every day!”
That night, I had the same nightmare I’ve been having since the start of school. I’m walking down the main hallway, and all the kids are in front of their lockers, staring at me, whispering about me as I walk past them. I keep walking up the stairwell until I get to the bathroom, and then I look in the mirror. When I see myself, though, it’s not me I’m seeing. It’s Auggie. And then I scream.
The next morning, I overheard Mom and Dad talking as they were getting ready for work. I was getting dressed for school.
“They should have done more to prepare the kids,” Mom said to Dad. “The school should have sent home a letter or something, I don’t know.”
“Come on,” answered Dad. “Saying what? What can they possibly say? There’s a homely kid in your class? Come on.”
“It’s much more than that.”
“Let’s not make too big a deal about it, Melissa.”
“You haven’t seen him, Jules,” said Mom. “It’s quite severe. Parents should have been told. I should have been told! Especially with Julian’s anxiety issues.”
“Anxiety issues?” I yelled from my room. I ran into their bedroom. “You think I have anxiety issues?”
“No, Julian,” said Dad. “No one’s saying that.”
“Mom just said that!” I answered, pointing at Mom. “I just heard her say ‘anxiety issues.’ What, so you guys think I have mental problems?”
“No!” they both said.
“Just because I get nightmares?”
“No!” they yelled.
“It’s not my fault he goes to my school!” I cried. “It’s not my fault his face freaks me out!”
“Of course it’s not, darling,” said Mom. “No one is saying that. All I meant is that because of your history of nightmares, the school should have alerted me. Then at least I would have
known better about the nightmares you’re having. I would have known what triggered them.”
I sat down on the edge of their bed. Dad had the class picture in his hands and had obviously just been looking at it.