I’ve never been much of a man. I barely crack 5’6”, can’t handle my liquor, and I’ve never been in a fight in my life—but when Lainie got pregnant, I decided it was time for a change. I started working out. I learned how to change the oil and tires on the Buick. Hell, I even bought a pistol. I was going to protect them, Lainie and my unborn child both, whatever it took.
I could tell Lainie thought it was all a little silly, my newfound quest for manhood. It was easy for her to say. She was doing her part. Carrying the burden of life inside her, while all I could do was hold her hair, in the early stages of pregnancy, as she puked into the toilet—and sometimes I even fucked that up. She seemed to think she could do it all herself, and she was probably right. When I brought home the gun, she was livid. All we needed, she said, was a baseball bat. And someone strong enough to swing it, she might have added.
I took it back the next day and bought a Louisville Slugger instead.
The baby came without a hitch—little Annika, looking just like her mommy—and what we lacked in protection, Lainie made up for with near-neurotic preparation. She had it all; the books, the vitamins, the breastfeeding techniques. But perhaps her favorite new mom-toy came in the form of a Kiddos Baby Monitor that she got at the baby shower. I can’t remember who gave it to her.
It gave off a small hum, scarcely a whisper, every single night. Vague static; white noise—interrupted, only on occasion, by a cough or hiccup or whimper from sweet Annika. She wasn’t a fussy baby at all. The monitor rested on Lainie’s nightstand, securing my wife like a second quilt. A small red dot, indicating the device was alive and well, dimly bathed the room in crimson, and an optional display provided a blue-tinted camera feed aimed at Annika’s crib. We could hear her, we could see her, and all was well in paradise.
Oh, there were tough times, sure. The jaundice was bad and it led to things even worse. Pneumonia. Strep. Infections no fun for an adult but an enormous goddamn deal for a baby. We spent plenty of time in the hospital. The nurses all loved Annika. They always remarked on what a well-behaved baby she was.
The marriage grew stale, but what marriage doesn’t? The sex was rare and forced, just another thing for Lainie to check off her to-do list. Was it ever really not that way, though? I tried to remember, but life before Annika seemed trapped in a cloudless haze. Becoming a father seemed to alter the very structure of my brain.
The first year came and went. The Kiddos Baby Monitor ran out of batteries, and we never bothered to replace them. Annika was crawling. Then walking. The first word, spoken at the dinner table, which Lainie and I were both there for: Mango.
The words kept coming. Mommy. Diaper. Full. They were all expected, yet all met with excited applause from her mother and me. And then, one day, while Lainie was at spinning class and I was doing the newspaper crossword on the couch, Annika piped up from her playpen with a word I did not expect.
I sat up, straining silently to listen, sure I had misheard. But then it came again, even clearer than before.
Most dads would be thrilled. I was confused, and frankly, a bit unnerved. I had no idea where she’d learned that. I was always ‘daddy.’ In fact, as far as I’d seen, nobody had ever so much as breathed that word in front of her. Yet there she sat, squawking away, giving voice to a word uncomfortably formal as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
Father. Father. Father.
Lainie didn’t seem as interested as I did. In fact, she seemed more than a little bit miffed—Annika had been growing more distant from her lately. This was the age children usually clung tightest to their mothers, yet Annika seemed to have no such proclivity. One doctor theorized that Annika might be having her needs met through another source—did she have a stuffed animal she was particularly attached to? A blanket, maybe? We could think of nothing.
We had her tested for autism. Hell, we had her tested for everything. Nothing could explain her level of detachment from us, nor her remarkably tame behavior. The professionals had never seen anything like it, but didn’t seem to think it much cause for concern.
“Count your blessings, friend,” one of them told me in a heavy English accent as he escorted me from his office. “Between you and me, nine out of ten kids her age is a right little shit.”
Still, we couldn’t shake the feeling that something was wrong. One night, Lainie had decided she’d had enough. She dug the old Kiddos Baby Monitor out of a box in the attic. She put new batteries in it, rewired the camera in Annika’s room, and for a few hours, the white noise hummed beneath our sleep once more.
I awoke to the sound of Annika babbling away in her crib. I turned toward the monitor, and my eyes swam, barely open, in the sea of crimson from its light. She was repeating the same word, again and again.
I rolled over toward Lainie. She was still asleep—Annika wasn’t being very loud. I stumbled out of bed, wiping my eyes, and picked up the monitor. My fingers fumbled for the switch on the back, and when I flicked it, a dull blue glow sprang from nowhere. I squinted my eyes to see into Annika’s crib, and I let out a strangled cry. The monitor slipped from my hands and crashed to the floor. Lainie woke with a start, mumbling.
But I couldn’t speak. Someone was holding my daughter.
Without a word, I ran into the hallway, not even bothering to grab the Louisville Slugger from the closet. The door to Annika’s room was open. My socks slid out from under me and I crashed to the wooden hallway floor as I reached it, and as I lie prone I had a clear view into the bedroom.
Annika sat up in her crib, crying wildly for a change, startled by the noise. Nobody was holding her.
“I swear to God, honey—”
But Lainie wasn’t having it.
“The first night we start using the monitor again, and it just happens to be the night an invisible man breaks into our house? And leaves her placed all neat in her crib where he found her?”
“He wasn’t invisible, and I can’t explain it, Lainie, I’m telling you what I saw.”
“Alright,” she said, as though humoring a child. “What did he look like?”
At this, I drew blank. I couldn’t exactly describe him—I hadn’t looked long enough. I felt that I had seen him before, though. Somewhere. I felt that seeing him at all, even in a completely non-threatening context, would have made me deeply uncomfortable. But I didn’t know how to explain this to Lainie, this vague recognition. So I just shrugged. She scoffed.
“Jesus. What am I supposed to do with this.”
But the whole thing had her spooked, I know it. That night she told me—if you hear anything from the monitor, anything at all, you wake me up right away. So I did.
Father. Father. Lainie’s voice rang out above the dead white noise.
Lainie snatched the cooing monitor from her bedside table less than a second after I’d woken her. She sat up and flicked the switch.
Lainie shrieked a horrible sobbing shriek. She flung the covers from her and leapt from the bed in one fluid motion, leaving the monitor face-up on the sheet behind her. On it I could see the man, cradling Annika with a light bounce, more clearly this time. And in a flash I knew exactly who he was. And this time, I stayed right where I lay.
It took Lainie a long time to calm Annika down—that scream had put a good scare into her. I don’t think Lainie even noticed that I never came in. By the time she got back to our bedroom, the lights were on and I sat on the bed, spread out with a couple of her old college photo albums.
She walked into the room and stopped in her tracks. She looked at me, at the albums, and back to me. I think in that moment we both knew it was over.
“He wasn’t in there,” she said after a long pause. “I know what you’re thinking, but it wasn’t him. Nobody was in there.”
“Fine,” I said. “But he was on the monitor. You know he was on the monitor. Why, Lainie?”
She looked down at the albums, at the old pictures from which Will Harding’s dumb fucking face grinned up at both of us, feigning innocence.
She looked at me, and the guilt shone in her eyes.
“Will’s the father. Not me. Will Harding.”
She started to cry. I stood up and walked out of the room, pausing a few inches from her face to say, softly, almost sweetly:
“You’re a real bitch, you know that?”
Then I left the house and never walked back inside. Lainie brought all my stuff to my new apartment a couple days later. The divorce went through quickly; she didn’t want it but she understood. She, of course, got custody of Annika, having the tremendous advantage of not only womanhood but of actually being Annika’s biological parent. I didn’t fight it. It’s amazing how quickly I stopped loving both of them.
Will Harding was a big, brash man. He had tattoos, muscles, and watched football and drank beer and got mean when he did. That’s why Lainie left him, after two passionate, terrible years. She once told me she married me because I was everything Will was not. But it wasn’t long before she realized that by the same token, Will was everything I was not. I guess old habits die hard. And three months after Annika was born, so did Will. He found out that Lainie had had a baby and came to the house. She shut him out, screaming at him that he wasn’t the father, he wasn’t, he wasn’t. But he knew—she was lying. So he got real drunk and real mad and didn’t put on his seatbelt and on his way back to our place he sped his fucking Camaro up a curb and into a big brick mailbox.
Lainie went to his fucking funeral. She told me she was getting her teeth cleaned.
She sent me a Christmas card last year—she and Annika, smiling underneath a hearth in cheesy red sweaters, stockings hung on either side of them. I looked at the little girl I used to call mine, now seven years old, and felt nothing. I wondered absently if I should feel guilty, and if I’d somehow failed as a dad. But those thoughts, often though they came, never lasted long. She didn’t need another father—she already had one, after all, and she seemed to like him just fine.