You worry about the eye, the microphone in it that gathers and transmits daughter sounds. Her infant coos, the soft rustle, cry, unrecoverable gasp—the dread deep stillness. Every day with her in your new life is a scratch of light in some future impenetrable darkness. You and this little plastic receiver downstairs, the monitor the size and shape of a bar of soap, navigating invisible extremes, soaking up the impulses of her room. As if this will prevent anything bad from happening.
You wipe the baby monitor off with a wet cloth, you turn the volume of her sounds up or down a little. You want to throw it away, but you don’t dare.
Okay, so you and Charlotte started late. You probably won’t have another child, won’t try. The little girl, even before they told you she was a girl, she’d screened well in all the tests, the proteins in the blood, the DNA strands, all the months leading up. Whole, promising. The testing told you just enough to see that it told you too little. It promised only the next step of unknowns. Doctors kept reminding you of risks, their tone mildly punitive—you’d started so late. Risks that leave you ignorant, risks mysterious and risks misunderstood, strands of matter that have no premonition, blindsided, fuzzy matter which a microscope can’t possibly clarify. The geneticist’s statistics, her mousy little blood tubes and protein swabs, the vast open darkness beyond her dots and dashes, percentiles, and ratios. Life extended beyond spreadsheets and pie graphs, beyond age based probability curves. Your life ends. Everyone knows everyone’s life ends. But how life begins, and how life continues—you are in your forties. The freight of a few decades. And it has a curve, viability. Risks. This is what the geneticist said. Not in so many words. What did she know about you?
You have the eye, the little microphone.
It’s one of the newer ones: the video screen switches from color in the daylight to an underwater infra-green when the room is dark. Charlotte is due, a week they say. She’s a little late. The room remains empty. Upstairs, the eye draws the bedroom’s foreign agents into its little optical chip, the clicks and scrapes and ambient smudges. What’s there before the baby. The eye hears the world beyond the window, pushing through the window glass: cars pass, trees bristle—they sometimes seem to whisper words you can make out, their nonsense all the more lifelike. A branch ticks with a frequency determined by gusts against the glass, birds chirp when the sun rises and sometimes scream later in the afternoon, the same passing siren, the same passing shout, the same passing shudder of a truck, the unnameable passing—what the tiny monitor speaker duplicates, its doppelgänger transmitted downstairs through the window beside you. The natural and artificial world, as one, fused with your infant daughter’s empty room. At night, or very early in the morning—sitting there awake downstairs in the dark—you have to resist believing the screen is a projection of the afterlife.
And then she’s born. Charlotte and the infant pass through the birth, 8 hours of uncertainty, though it moves steadily and without surprises, and they’re okay, it’s all okay. Two days’ rest in the hospital and you pack her up and bring her home. To her room. You and Charlotte have many books which promise to help guide you, help you understand. You’ve learned, for example, that she cannot yet produce tears. Tears come later. Your daughter is unusually quiet the first few weeks, and despite the books and assurances from the pediatrician, you worry. The only truth is the voice inside your soul, a universal father-worry, an instinctual ache. The silence keeps you up at night, waiting for her to cry, to need a changing, a feeding. And then soon when the sounds do come, they satisfy this minimum fatherly threshold of concern, so good, fine. And then she’s making a lot of sounds, the squeaking and gurgling and the occasions when she laughs. Your daughter fills your sleeping and waking lives, she populates the dark matter of your unconscious world as much as lit oculars and saturated colors of your conscious life. Weeks pass. She develops tears. Months pass, and one day Charlotte says, What if we tried?
Tried? you say.
To have another baby, she says.
The coffee is set on a timer, finishing its final clucks and gasps just as you come downstairs each morning. You can hear it as you pass your daughter’s room, step into the doorway and peek in at her sleeping natural shape, then leave the doorway and descend the stairs. You write, you are a writer, it’s a peaceful time, this time of the morning. Even before the kid, this was the peaceful time. Even in the summer, when the morning light comes much earlier, you wake in the yet dark. The birds are still sleeping. You glance over, your daughter asleep and green in the night vision of the camera, her tiny body a shadow cast in a wash of gray-turquoise as if underwater, as seen through some bathyscaphe with a limited hold for oxygen. She’ll stir and a sound will come from the speaker, a heightened sort of murk and static and you’ll check the screen: the green shape twists and settles. And when the infant begins to cry, you hear Charlotte rise from bed upstairs—you hear her. You hear her feet on the floor above padding into the infant’s bedroom. And on the green screen, two shadow arms reach down and lift the glowing shape of your daughter away from the screen, and all that is left is that impossibly empty clutter of space. Only the sound of your wife now, cooing, comforting in the static of the eye. You suddenly understand every animal.
An early morning. Downstairs, at the kitchen table in the dark, same as any other morning. The light outside begins to flush out the sky. You feel the quiet, the lack. The suggestion that something is wrong. But you have this feeling. It’s just the silence. In the screen, a glowing angelic green framed in the dark light. You return to your work. The usual birds wake and sing, their song transmitted in the monitor’s tinny unison with the window beside you.
You’ll recall this later, the quiet just before the scream, jet burst of infant. The little body framed in green begins not to stir so much as fall into a throttle of cries and gasps. Charlotte’s feet above on the ceiling pad into the room. You wait for the usual quieting, glance at the baby monitor. Your wife’s arms extend into the frame and the baby is lifted, and now there is only that pregnant space. At that moment the screen switches from infra-green to a faint color. You hear your wife pacing in the room. The screaming doesn’t stop. You turn down the volume of the baby monitor. You get up and pour another coffee. The screaming grows convulsive. You continue to reassure yourself. You’re a father; this is uncertainty. Then you hear her, your wife, say in a dead and distracted moan: Oh God; and it’s the voice a stranger, as if a stranger has entered the room.
Upstairs, the dry light in the room glares at you. It’s as if you’ve never seen this room before. What room is this? A room where blood is on your wife’s hands, all over the t‑shirt she’d been sleeping in, on the floor. Your wife holds your daughter, blood flowing from her nose, washing her face. Call them, she says, and you don’t know why you say who, call who? and she says, are you fucking kidding? She hands you your daughter and you hold her while she dials the pediatrician’s office. An answering service answers. It is too early. The person on the phone forwards the message to a physician, who calls back quickly, perhaps, though every second has expanded something inside you. Your wife is describing the moment. She’s talking, listening, repeating what the phone is telling her. You set the infant in the bassinet and lean over her, watching the rise and fall of the screaming, and then you lift her and she goes quiet in your hands. Your wife speaking, mediating space: she repeats what you can barely hear from the little voice-coil in the phone: nosebleed, nothing to be concerned, generally, dry air, the season. Fever capillaries in her nose. More sensitive. And you’re holding your daughter.
What? you say. What? —now she’s just listening.
Your daughter is silent and now the bleeding has stopped. Then, quite suddenly, she begins convulsing. Charlotte sees this. She throws the phone on the floor, a piece of the plastic spat out from the receiver like a lip from the voice scratching now against the floor. You notice the eye. It’s still staring at the bed. Your daughter, in your hands. You want to smash the plastic eye. But your daughter, she’s in your hands.
At the hospital her fever drops, rises a bit, then drops and steadies. The doctor says it’s just a fever. The doctor explains a nosebleed, as the physician on call had on the phone. The seizures too, these happen, she says. It is just the fever, a certain predisposition, but it happens all the time. Really, it does. We’ll wait until she stabilizes, then send you home. They’ll keep an eye on her. The doctor admits, nothing is one-hundred percent. But this is common, there’s so little worry about.
The doctor leaves you there staring through a window at your daughter. There she is, inside a tiny plastic bassinet—a transparent shell covering it like a pill, a line running down from a half deflated bag of saline, passing through the pill, taped to her ruddy arm. Everything in miniature. She’s wrapped in a warming blanket that recalls the same blanket they’d wrapped her in after she was born. You stand with your wife and watch. You take her into your mind now like the eye would. You feel no impulse to ever move again.
That evening Charlotte suggests you go home for a while. A couple of hours, she says: You go first. Let’s take shifts. Maybe take a nap, sleep for a while. But really, just get out a bit. You first; we’ll be okay.
On the way home you pull into the lot of a convenient store. The light in the store shines into the car, the florescence fragile and brittle, ticking.
You quit smoking so many years ago that you’d almost forgotten you ever had a habit. But here you are, asking for a pack of smokes, the old kind, the Luckies. You glance up at the security camera, then see, behind the clerk, your own fish-eyed image on an old grey television monitor. In it you are a stranger, you look old, somehow childless. You take a free pack of matches, then buy a lighter for its reassurance. You step outside and stand in the lot, staring into the dark beyond the light of the store. You light the cigarette and inhale, smoke passing into your throat and lungs like a ghost, its taste your throat. You move from the light, to a darker patch in the lot, beside a propane cage and a row of weed bushes. Above, attached to the overhang of the roof of the convenient store, there is a camera pointing down at the parking lot. The smoke rises around your head a blue grey: now several ghosts circulate inside you, a series of memories triggered by some mnemonic of sensory re-introduction, fragments of your past: a drunken argument with a stranger outside a bar in New Orleans, a failed sexual encounter, sand singing as it’s compressed underfoot at a Hamptons beach, the moment at a high school dance when you leaned over and tasted the perfume on the neck of the girl beside you. All of the cells that compose you begin to shift and muddle and dizzy, rearranging your blood and oxygen and memory. You smoke the cigarette half down and feel a little sick. So you toss the cigarette onto the sidewalk and scrape it under your shoe. You stand there, dizzy. You’ve forgotten where you are and why, and here in forgetfulness your daughter and wife are at home, safe, and you feel guilty for smoking. The camera above, watching. Then the fear remembers you, draws you back to the moment. You pass through the parked cars, cross the lot to your own car, open the door, climb inside. You sit for a moment and smell the cigarette lingering in the silence. Then you turn the key and pull out of the lot.
Nothing on the drive home looks the way it was. The windshield, as if viewed through the baby monitor. You mistrust your eyes, the familiar things about your neighborhood as if they’re new: these sycamores, maples, and oaks are dim and foreign, the yield and stop signs, the turnoff, the shops, and even the houses. You pull into the driveway and the house has been empty for months while you and your wife were away, vacationing.
You take a shower, avoiding the baby’s room as you pass it upstairs. You recall the blood. The shower passes through your skin, and then you turn the water off, dry yourself and dress, and come downstairs. You toast some bread and fry an egg, then sit down at the kitchen table and eat. You don’t feel tired, not at all, and this sends a pang of guilt through you. You light another cigarette, tap the ash on the empty mess of the plate. Outside it is dark still. You glance over at the time on the little digital display of the coffee maker, then turn away before taking it in. The kitchen is silent and then you concentrate on the silence and the refrigerator begins to hum, and you think you hear water flowing, the thermostat ticks, and the hot water boiler rumbles alive below you in the basement.
And then you hear her. In the baby monitor. In the room upstairs, stirring. The solitary chirp and tick of a sparrow comes distorted inside the speaker along with her, distant, drawing out the space of the room. But you hear her, too, before the room falls silent. You can’t look at the monitor, as if there’s some kind of curse living in this, and instead you sit there, stare at the ash and yolk on your plate, and see now that you hadn’t eaten anything. You recall eating this egg, this toast. But there they are, untouched, the yolk and a patch of butter peppered now with cigarette ashes. A blackbird laughs in the baby monitor, and then a twig begins ticking against the air conditioner in her window. And you hear another stirring.
You hear your daughter. She cries out upstairs, the sound captured in the eye, the microphone, passed through the baby monitor. Her familiar cluck, then a gurgle. Now you look at the green screen, and you see her shape, the imprint of her body on the mattress. Just a slight dip, a blank of her prior shadow, one of her blankets twisted at the edge of the green frame. The birds, chirping now. Sparrows. The blackbird, farther, calls. You hear another blackbird respond. Laughing at you. The doctor said something about one-hundred percent, that nothing was. Your daughter rustles again in the crib—no differently than when you’ve sat here any other time, alone in dark, while the morning eases forth. She lets out a little singsong. She’s waking. A truck shudders past, here, and there.
The green screen of the intercom’s receiver is lying. As if whispering to you. There in the little green frame: the imprint of her body, her twisted blanket.
You pause at the top of the stairs, where there’s only a dry silence ahead, down the hall. A few more steps and you pause now outside her door: she has gone back to sleep, that’s what you think. Her door is half shut. You are caught in a liminal space. You press it open.
The room is empty. The air is still and smells like nothing, smells not even like your daughter. She is gone, her unmistakable scent—which you only now realize has ever existed—has left with her. The sheets of the crib, the imprint of her body, the twist of blanket. You think to strip the bed to put the sheets in the laundry, to do something useful. But then you’d lose the imprint of her body. Blood on the floor and on the bassinet. You strip the cloth cover of the bassinet, the sheets have dried and held a stiff shape, the blood. You bring these to the laundry down the hall, then return to her room. A little wind picks up. The branch ticks against the window like fingertips. Once she gets better you’ll weatherize the glass. Her things, are gathered and scattered around. Little toys. She’ll outgrow everything here. A pacifier has fallen out of her crib. You pick it up from the floor. A delivery truck shudders past outside.
You return downstairs holding the pacifier. You put on your shoes, your coat. You open the front door, step outside and lock the door behind you. You drive back to the hospital.
Later, when your daughter is released from the hospital, the event of her illness will begin the slow process of fading, if not ever leaving, memory. It will remain just beyond the liminal space you occupy. A constant, quiet anxiety, on the other side of clarity, of immediacy. Your anxieties will learn and adapt. The crows laugh as they laugh, and the sparrows age and die, replenished like everything, like the seasons. Your hair is thinning, greying. Her voice on the intercom grows a morning older, every morning. The vowels and hard edges, then soon, her words find meaning—language softens and turns fluid. A wife and daughter, you think. A wife and daughter.
Until some time later you don’t think about what you once heard coming from the eye, don’t think so much about that early morning when she was in the hospital. When you heard her whether you wanted to or not. Now, she’s outgrown the crib, and you’ve bought her a bed, and this too she outgrows.
You took down the baby monitor long ago, donated it to a local charity. What do you see now? You have a mind’s eye. Sometimes you see her gone off to college, you imagine her wedding. These haven’t happened, not yet, but you know they will. You imagine the house, empty. You watch these iterations of her leaving and the moment before each—this is what you feel, that moment just before when she still was. You see the moment before, each was, as a gift, a premonition in which again she is fine, she’s okay.
Everyone has told you to cherish these years. The early ones. The years gone before you know it. And then, sooner than you believe, everything you heard was true.
David Ryan is the author of the short story collection, Animals in Motion (Roundabout Press). His fiction has appeared in Esquire, BOMB, Tin House, Fence, Electric Literature, No Tokens and elsewhere. You can find out more about him at http://www.davidwryan.com.