by Kurt Fawver
|Illustration by Luke Spooner|
Nora and I moved to the suburbs so we could have a baby. We dearly loved our old downtown apartment, nestled as it was in the heart of a neighborhood brimming with trendy restaurants, specialty goods boutiques, and microbreweries, but after seven years of marriage our lives had grown too expansive for a one-bedroom shoebox that was already filled to bursting with memories and mementos. Our bookshelves bowed under the strain of our triple-stacked hardbacks. Our clothes spilled out of our closets and into plastic boxes that we hid under our bed. And our dogs—two short-haired Chihuahuas—engaged in territorial snarling and snapping at one another practically every day. The apartment itself had also fallen into ill repair. Its tile and carpet had suffered innumerable stains, the robin's egg paint on its walls had faded to a sallow off-white, and even the ceilings had begun to succumb to a creeping mold. There was no question that Nora and I needed a fresh home, a larger home, a home with rooms we could paper with new memories, a home a child could grow into. So, knowing that we would never be able to fully stretch out our limbs or our futures in the old apartment, we packed up and traded the energy of the city proper for the breathable sweep of the suburbs.
At first, the transition seemed smooth. We meandered about our new ranch-style house—in all its three-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bathroom splendor—without tripping over our dogs or stubbing our toes on cramped furniture. We entertained friends in our dining room and grilled our dinners on the house’s roofed patio. I cobbled together bookcases for a study in one of the spare bedrooms and Nora laid topsoil for a small garden in our backyard. We settled into our new home without the slightest hiccup.
Being so firmly ensconced in the gentle folds of domesticity, we began to try for the child we’d dreamed of conceiving. We had sex as frequently as possible—serious sex, passionate sex, with a purpose not just to please ourselves, but to join our futures into one perfect expression.
That expression—our beautiful, perfect child—didn’t arrive, though.
A month passed, then two, then more than we cared to count, and still no baby appeared. Soon, a year of collapsed expectation threw up dust behind us.
We began to visit an ever-rotating cast of faceless people in white coats and hospital scrubs. Our lovemaking slowed, then became a chore in which we engaged only when the ring of an alarm on one of our phones declared it was the appropriate time. We popped rainbows of prescribed pills with unpronounceable names and offered up our bodily fluids to all manner of vial and cup. We even prayed to whatever powers might listen, although we had always been of a skeptical faith. Still, no child found its way from the aether to our home.
For a brief time, we remained hopeful. We continued to talk of potential birth announcements and nursery designs, the conversations ending in drawn-out sighs. We read obscure books and websites pertaining to the scientific minutiae of a healthy conception. We made a nightly ritual of listening to a fertility podcast hosted by a woman whose advice leaned more toward the metaphysical than the medical. God help us, we went so far as to browse the aisles at Babies-R-Us, creating mental checklists of all the gadgets we might one day need. But still no infant graced us with its presence.
We sought out second opinions from doctors whose practice could seemingly conjure babies from dust and air, but even these embryomancers shook their heads in dismay. They pointed to bright red numbers on our charts and showed us diagrams of faulty cellular processes that all ended in bold Xs and blank spaces. They shook our hands, filled our pockets with colorful brochures, and, in the lightest tones possible, with placid smiles stitched across their placid faces, told us that medicine never surrenders no matter the odds.
Never surrendering, however, cost far more money than Nora and I could reasonably afford. The miracles of biotechnology, we discovered, were performed in gilded pockets—a luxury our chain-store clothing would never possess.
With hope receding toward the horizon, we spiraled into colorless places.
Nora started to spend most of her evenings soaking in the bathtub with the bathroom door locked and all the lights in the room turned off. When she did emerge from her steamy solitude, it was to wrap herself in a blanket and stare blankly at the television, regardless of what drivel was showing. Sometimes she’d even lie swaddled on the couch and throw her wide-eyed stare at our flatscreen when it wasn’t turned on. I tried to talk to her, to wrap her in words of love and encouragement, but she responded to me in distant, hazy tones, as though a part of her that used to be solid and true had turned to mist and escaped her lungs. She didn’t want to talk, she insisted. There was nothing to talk about. And even if there was something to talk about, she said, it wasn’t as though we could do anything about it.
Once this gray reverie held her in its grip, I couldn’t pry her from it with any amount of consolation or kisses. Flowers, bad jokes, videos of dogs dressed as people, ice cream in a mind-boggling spectrum of flavors and textures: nothing I offered provided her escape. All I could do was sit with her in dour silence, my hand in hers, and wait for the next sadness to roll over us.
As for my own methods of coping, well, I began to take frequent dips in whiskey’s deep amber sea. I liked the fire it set in my stomach. It was the only feeling I could count on to not flee from me, the only feeling that hadn’t become a shade of itself since we moved to the new house. Most nights, while I drank, I hovered over my laptop screen and clicked through an unending procession of online retail sites, ordering clearance items Nora and I didn’t need and couldn’t really afford. Like the whiskey, though, buying cheap merchandise filled me with a solace I couldn’t find elsewhere, a satisfaction of small accomplishment. I mastered the art of finding deals and I controlled the flow of goods. If I couldn’t solve our fertility problems, at least I could answer the question of which outdoor bug zapper was most energy efficient or which toaster oven had the fastest heating time.
Due to my drunken shopping habits, random packages piled perilously high on our front stoop and our bank account funds dipped ever more perilously low. Ironic lawn ornaments, T-shirts emblazoned with 1980s cartoon characters, books on ancient religions, artisanal cheeses from Switzerland, neoprene hiking boots, noise-canceling earbuds, juicing machines, custom dog sweaters, lamps shaped like flying saucers, hand soaps that smelled like well-known cocktails: all these objects and many others entered our house and claimed the space a newborn child should have occupied.
I thought I was spinning a protective cocoon for Nora and myself. I thought I was helping in some small way. But, in truth, I was only smothering us beneath a thick sediment of pointless merchandise that accreted into rubbish mountains on every flat surface we possessed.
As I filled our living areas with goods, the house somehow felt emptier than it ever had before. Cold drafts roamed our living room. Our dogs whined and bristled whenever they came close to the unused second and third bedrooms. Our voices echoed back to us from shade-stricken corners of the house where no echoes should have been able to spawn. Even the flush of our toilets and the patter of water from our showerhead seemed somehow muted, as though the flow in our pipes traversed many barren dimensions before reaching our property.
Our house, once ready to receive joy and excitement and the powdered electricity of a brand new life, felt cursed. We closed doors gently, so as to not offend any slumbering daemons, and whispered prayers of mercy to any divinities that would listen. Our every slack routine became a ritual of appeasement. A trip to the grocery store held potential as a strange fulfillment of a sacrament; a quiet evening on the couch with a movie might prove to be a powerful invocation. We felt an immense weight upon us at all times, and whether that weight originated from the stamping heel of a spiteful demiurge, the bungled weaving of our lives by senile Fates, or the simple density of expectation within our own minds, it bowed our backs and sunk deep circles beneath our eyes.
Nora suggested that we should try infertility counseling and I reluctantly agreed. Every Thursday evening, we journeyed to a therapist and, in the leather cloud of an overstuffed couch, discussed our anxieties with a woman who spoke platitudes soft as cashmere. At times it helped to hear a voice of reason and support, but, mostly, the therapy functioned as a warm blanket thrown over us during our session that was then harshly yanked away when we stepped back into the tundra of our home. We left the sessions unburdened, yes, but utterly barren. Even our sadness, which may have been the only firm ground we could cling to, was eroding, for better or for worse.
So our lives continued. We performed meaningless work, held halting conversations about inconsequential events, and engaged in ceremonies of intense purgation once per week. We made progress toward accepting an inevitable void—the progress of hell. Then, one night, in the chill, grasping aftermath of one of our therapy appointments, everything changed. On that night, Nora and I first heard the baby.
We'd just returned from a session on the ubiquity of powerlessness. As we walked up the stone path that led from our driveway to our front door, listing all the ways each of us felt powerless in our infertility as the therapist had instructed us to do, an infant's plaintive cry rippled through the darkness. My head swam—not due of the noise itself, twisting my heart though it was, but because I couldn't begin to locate its point of origin. It sounded so near, almost inside me, as if it had erupted from the wheeze of my own defeated lungs, yet it also seemed infinitely distant, an echo of the universe's own birth, extending from well beyond the fading stars above.
I froze. Beside me, Nora did the same.
I listened hard, caught the chirrup of crickets and the crashing waves from my excited pulse, but heard no coda to the baby's wail.
I turned to Nora, whose eyes had suddenly gained a depth that might swallow the world.
"Did you hear that?" I asked.
"Where did it come from?" I wondered aloud. "Did someone leave their child outside?"
Nora grabbed my hand and squeezed hard.
"It doesn't matter," she said. "It's not for us. Let's just go inside."
She tugged on my arm, but I waited. I stared into shadows, hoping joy—or at least answers—might come crawling out. But nothing stirred. Nothing spoke to our sorrow.
Nora tugged again, with desperate force. "Come on."
Into the house we fled, discovering our dogs cowering under our bed in the usual huddle they made when they were terrified by a powerful thunderstorm. It took the remainder of the evening to coax them out and calm them.
Later that night, long after Nora had disappeared into the flowered fields of sleep, I laid awake, the cry still rattling in my bones. I couldn't shake the feeling that something had been watching us for a long time and was watching us yet, its indifferent gaze directing tragedy to our doorstep.
It's easy to write off a single brush with the paranormal as an error of the senses. Optical illusions, hallucinations, and pure wishful thinking all have the ability to render the mundane extraordinary. But when the paranormal seeks you out more than once, when it finds every unlocked door and window in your life and sneaks through time and time again, belief in the unbelievable becomes less a choice than a necessity. After we'd heard the baby's cry that first night, I hoped our situation might fall into the former category rather than the latter.
Nora said little about the incident other than "it must have been strange acoustics from one of the neighbors' houses." She didn't believe her own rationalization, though—a certainty I became aware of after I twice chanced upon her standing on our patio in the middle of night, head cocked to the side to catch as many faint sounds as possible. I tried to dredge up logical explanations for the experience, too, but found every potential answer lacking. The cry I'd heard had swept like a comet around both the curves of my ear and the circumference of the moon, so intimate yet so remote, so soft yet so loud. I read of no aural phenomenon that presented with similar features, and that fact gnawed at my confidence in a sensical world.
Perhaps it was this same waning confidence that drained almost all my surprise when, a few weeks after we heard the cry, Nora broke into a scream during one of her lightless soaks in the bathtub.
Her scream was loud, terrified, relentless—the kind of scream that's meant to rend death's silken robes.
In a flash that I could barely recall later, I rushed to her side and supported her as she slipped, naked and dripping wet, from the cavern of our bathroom to a corner of our living room, where she stood with her back to the wall, hyperventilating.
"What's wrong?" I asked, trying to coax definition into the situation. "Are you okay?"
She trembled like a city on the edge of an expanding fault line. I wrapped my arms around her but she shrugged me off and pointed to the gaping bathroom doorway.
"The faucet," she managed. "The tub faucet. It came out of there. It touched my leg."
I stared into the unlit room, but saw nothing. "What came out of the faucet?"
Tears pooled in her eyes. "A hand. A tiny, pudgy hand. It was so soft."
With only the most marginal hesitation, I accepted the proposition that a living, grasping hand could emerge from a plumbing fixture. It seemed more reasonable than our broken biology, in any case.
"Did it... did it hurt you?" I asked.
She shook her head. "No. Not in any way you're thinking."
She slumped into a ball and hid her face in her crossed arms.
"It was so soft," she said. "So soft and so warm."
During one of my shopping binges, I'd purchased a discounted pipeline camera for seeking out and inspecting leaks or clogs. I had never used it—big surprise—but in this instance it was precisely the tool for the job.
"I'm going to check," I told Nora. "Just stay here and stay warm."
I grabbed a towel from our linen closet and wrapped it around her, then snapped up the tubular camera from amongst a pile of random gadgets and broke for the bathroom. Finally, here was a way I could help Nora. Finally, here was a way I could make something right for her, for us.
After switching on the lights and checking the corners of the bathroom for devils I didn't discount, I snaked the camera into the tub's faucet and sought out a baby hand. I saw nothing except a serious problem with lime buildup, but I kept twisting the camera deeper. More lime, more mineral deposits, a few patches of rust, and then, from a fever dream, an eye, its pale blue iris swirling like midday sky in a drain.
Startled, I bobbled the camera and nearly dropped it into the still-full bathtub. I regained my grip and stared into the eye. Everything outside our interlocking gazes fell away. I don't know what the eye glimpsed through the camera—maybe nothing, maybe all the untapped futures of the world, maybe just a small man with aspirations too heavy for his slight frame—but I know what I saw from my end. I saw my daughter, my son, so near, mere feet from my hand, yet impossible to reach. The eye blinked once, twice, then vanished into darkness.
I tore the camera from the pipe work and threw it against a wall. I stumbled back to Nora, collapsed next to her, and hugged her tight.
"Is it in there?" she whispered into my shoulder.
My throat swelled from holding back tears and my chest burned with an expanding absence. I said nothing.
Already knowing the answer, Nora cried then—a healthy explosion of love and pain and all our compacted experiences of defeat. In silence, I wrapped myself around her and swallowed hard. I hoped that one day, if I swallowed hard enough, maybe, just maybe, I might be able to digest the emptiness that surrounded us.
I already mentioned that our dogs had come to avoid the second and third bedrooms in our house, but after the disturbance in the bathroom their avoidance turned to abject fear, especially with regard to the second bedroom. If Nora or I didn't pick them up and carry them past that room's doorway—which lay between the rest of the house and our master bedroom—they'd stand in the adjoining hall, well out of reach of the entrance, and shake and whimper until they made themselves vomit. Because we loved them—and because we didn't want to constantly clean the carpet—we toted them across the netherspace without hesitation. Even so, their behavior concerned us. Nora chalked it up to a sympathetic feeding off our frayed emotions and said it was natural. I wasn't so sure.
Understand, the second bedroom had been our planned nursery. But cozy crèche it was not. Save for unblemished white shelves upon which rested innumerable stacks of board books, it stood empty, its sunshine yellow walls brightening only motes of dust. Whenever we walked about the room, a quicksand of beige carpet dragged against our tread, trying to halt our progress. And the temperature in the room, we found, never fluctuated, remaining a constant 85.5—just warm enough to raise a sweat and drain energy. All in all, it was more mire than nursery.
These were cosmetic and aesthetic deficiencies, though. What truly disturbed me about that room was that time seemed different there. It seemed less eager to move either toward us or away from us, as though the sediment of years past and years to come was too thick in that would-be nursery, too viscous for time to flow, and had accreted to form an island of eternal waiting, with Nora and I its lone, castaway inhabitants. I didn't care for the feel of it, the heaviness, the sense of an ever-impending and immobile something, so I limited my trips to the room as much as I could.
Nora, on the other hand, took to sitting on the room's floor and paging through the books we'd collected for our missing children. In lieu of her void baths, she read to herself, mouthing words without making a sound, her fingers tracing the illustrations on the pages the way she might gently trace the nose and ears of a child nestled in her arms. She even fell asleep on the floor one evening, a book cradled to her chest. Unlike me, she snatched up her unease and embraced it, tried to reshape it. For her, the second bedroom represented a challenge of strength which she was willing to endure.
So, while I distrusted the room and the joys it safeguarded behind such thick walls of pain, I refused to close it off from the rest of the house or repurpose it. Nora needed it as therapy of a sort and, in truth, I couldn't bear to see it shut away or reimagined, either—at least not yet..
Well over a month had passed since we'd heard the infant's mewl outside our house—long enough for us to relegate the experience to personal mythology. We called it an anxiety attack when we talked to our therapist, just as we called the high strangeness in our bathroom a depressive episode and our dogs' bizarre behavior simple skittishness. If we could neuter these incidents of their inexplicability, we could try to forget them.
We consulted more doctors—these from distant cities—but the answers we received always began with a colossal dollar sign and ended with a shrug.
We saw less and less of our friends, our tales of ongoing struggle becoming too stale for conversation, our depression a foul sackcloth we wore at all times. Our parents held long pauses during phone conversations with us, as if mutual silence was the proper platitude for our condition.
Every facet of our lives putrefied.
Late one night in the midst of this putrefaction, after Nora had retired to bed, I heard shuffling in the ceiling. Still awake and browsing online stores, I thought it must be a mouse or—worse—a rat, so I trailed the sound as it shifted from spot to spot. As I meandered about the house, the hair on my arms and the back of my neck rose. A heady scent reminiscent of baby powder, fresh cotton, and wet lilacs drifted into the house—the fragrance of swaddled newborns in tiny knit caps.
The shuffling continued, moving into the crawlspaces above the second bedroom. I followed as far as the threshold, but stopped short of entering. The baby scent grew fog-thick. I wanted to tear through the plaster and plywood, to reach out for what I already knew was hiding between its beams. But I waited. And I heard a cry, the cry, the cry from nowhere and everywhere that I'd heard weeks before. Its shrill, needful call rushed from the ceiling like water from a burst pipe. It went on, relentless, imploring me to find it, to comfort it, to provide the caring touch that might make it stop.
Nora, apparently woken by the sound, rushed past me, into the second bedroom. She clenched my hand in an iron vice and pulled me in behind her.
"Where is she?" she asked. "Where is my baby?"
Her eyes had gone wild, fierce, fiery. I thought of lionesses searching for their cubs, wolves bristling as they defended their pups. I'd never been afraid of Nora until this moment. I'd also never felt quite as close to her as I did right then and there.
I pointed to the ceiling. "We'll reach her. Him. Them."
The cry continued without pause for breath. It slid beneath my skin and superheated my bones. I felt a pressure building inside myself, a volcanic instinct whose explosion was the very essence of life.
I ran to our hardware drawer in the kitchen, took a hammer from it, and returned to the second bedroom. Nora saw my intention and smiled.
"Do it," she said.
I jumped and struck the ceiling with the hammer's clawed end. Plaster chunks went flying. The cry did not abate, did not even waver. I felt like a lit stick of dynamite, a shaken bottle of nitroglycerin.
"Do it," Nora said again, more forceful, more commanding.
I jumped and swung again. A sheet of plaster fell to the carpet, revealing layers of pink insulation. This I tore through easily, the bedroom dissolving in a cotton candy blizzard.
I pounded and hacked and slashed at the ceiling until only a skeleton of joists remained. As soon as the last fiber of insulation drifted to the floor, the cry dissipated.
Nora and I stared at the broken hole above us. No child hid between the beams or clung to the wires. No child grasped for us from a hidden alcove.
We stood shin-deep in a disemboweled room, with no reward for the violence.
"Where did she go?" Nora pleaded. "We have to find her."
A single, gleeful infant chortle bubbled from within one of the room's walls.
Then, nothing. No further gurgle or coo. No shuffling within the wall. Just silence, as always.
I hurled the hammer at the wall from which the laugh had sprung. Striking firm and true, it opened a thumb-sized hole before tumbling to the floor.
Nora leaped upon the newly-formed breach. She tore at it with bare fingers, scraping off layers of flesh and breaking away bits of plaster. The opening grew wider, bloodier, her fingers seeping misery. I grabbed her waist from behind and hugged her to me, slowly drawing her back from the madness.
She slouched to the floor, her crimson-slicked hands reaching out for a tiny body that wasn't there. An ancient rage welled up within me. I couldn't provide. I couldn't protect. I loved dearly, tenderly, as best as I knew how, but it wasn't enough. I stepped to the wall and kicked it so hard that my entire leg broke through it. I lashed out again and again, until the wall—and my fury—had disappeared. When I finished, my feet felt swollen, maybe even fractured, but the wall was gone.
Behind it snuggled emptiness.
Nora was suddenly beside me. She laid a torn hand on my chin and turned my head. My face met hers. We shared a long, exhausted, thankful kiss, and then, with diced palms, she led me, hobbled, to our bedroom so that we could bandage each other's many wounds.
The following evening, the cry came again. And the next evening. And the evening after that. And so it went, for many weeks thereafter.
Each night, we tracked the cry from room to room, its destitute caterwaul biting at our parental instinct to soothe like an itch on the underside of our skulls. Some nights we'd break apart sections of our house's ceiling and walls in a fervor of hope. Other nights we'd simply stand and listen as the cry yanked our hearts from our chests and carried them away, to whatever untouchable dimension it inhabited.
In no time, our house fell to ruin. Splinters of wood and chunks of plaster lay strewn amongst the piles of random merchandise I'd purchased. Exposed wire and pipe decorated more of our rooms than family photos or interesting art. Nora bought a dozen mobiles and hung them throughout our house as offerings. I pulled up the carpet in the would-be nursery and replaced it with a patchwork of baby blankets. Our home became a post-apocalyptic landscape in miniature, and we the weary scavengers forced to survive therein.
Just like end-time wanderers, Nora and I found our grips on sanity loosening. Anxiety over every next inevitable wail set us to scratch at our skin and pick at our blemishes—acts that left our bodies bruised and cratered with sores. We slept little, our dreams interrupted by far-flung rattles and the echo of infant burbles. I ordered cans of powdered baby formula and sprinkled it in every room of our house once per day—whether as bait or as protection I wasn't sure. Nora held one-sided conversations with the walls and sang them lullabies on stormy nights. Our actions, however, didn't cause a tiny figure to materialize and take ownership of the cry. Instead, it grew sharper, more plaintive, driving spikes into our future and bleeding dry our aspirations. We knew we couldn't carry on this way, but we had no means of course correcting. So we settled into torture, for better or for worse.
One night, during the cry's endless appeal, Nora asked me if I thought it would ever stop. I wasn't sure whether she was referring to the cry itself or the crushing sense of failure and loss infertility dragged in its wake—not that there was much difference between the two.
"I don't know," I said. "I think it might always be here, somewhere, under our breaths."
Her eyes narrowed. "Then we should do something about it."
She went to the kitchen, clanked about inside a closet, and came back holding out a pack of matches.
I understood what she wanted.
We had to move on, move forward. We had to try to rebuild, but not on this cursed rubble heap. Once a dream is broken, it spills memories and curdled might-have-beens on everything it's touched. Our house was no longer a home; it was a waste site filled with hazardous emotions and toxic thoughts. Perhaps the cry had been born out of that psychic miasma or perhaps it was simply drawn to the stench of our pain. It didn't matter either way.
"What if it follows us?" I asked. "What do we do then?"
Nora shrugged. Her shoulders slouched under a tremendous weight, but she held her head high.
"There are always more matches."
Later that same evening, with the dogs in the back seat of our car, we watched from the end of the block as flames shot from our house's windows and roof. We heard no cry as the blaze climbed higher, only roaring fire, crackling beams, and the popping of so many useless gadgets and gewgaws.
We drove away long before the fire trucks arrived.
This story has no happy ending. In fact, I'm not sure it has an ending at all. A year later, we're still without a child. We've begun to save money for treatments or an eventual adoption, but both of those options are no more certain than the search for a spectral baby within our walls. We moved into a new place—a rented, two bedroom bungalow—and although the dogs have calmed considerably the cry is still with us.
It's not as loud as it used to be, not nearly as urgent, and it no longer comes every night. But we do hear it. And when we hear it we search the ceiling, shine lights into the air vents, knock on walls and mutter nursery rhymes to the empty spaces in our home.
Nora asked me again, just the other week, whether or not the cry would ever leave us.
She already knew the answer. I didn’t even have to whisper, "No."
Kurt Fawver is a writer of horror, weird fiction, and literature that oozes through the cracks of genre. His short fiction has won a Shirley Jackson Award and been previously published in venues such as The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Strange Aeons, Weird Tales, Vastarien, Best New Horror, and Year's Best Weird Fiction. He's the author of two collections of short stories—The Dissolution of Small Worlds and Forever, in Pieces—as well as a novella, Burning Witches, Burning Angels, and two chapbooks, Pwdre Ser and Problems in River Heights. He's also had non-fiction published in journals such as Thinking Horror and the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts. You can find Kurt online at www.kurtfawver.com or www.facebook.com/kfawver.