Horror & Dark Fantasy

HiddenPictures_Lightspeed_728x90

Advertisement

Fiction

The First Year

When you were inside me, I knew you were mine. Now, I’m not so sure. Cradled in my arms, you are an assemblage of parts I recognize: Noah’s cleft chin and narrow ears, my heart-shaped lips and upturned nose. But your eyes are something else.

I angle you this way and that, your milk-drunk mouth smearing saliva across my hospital gown while I search your slumbering face for the pull of attachment, waiting for the surge of affection to wash through my brain in a chemical flood and drown me in longing, in love.

“Stop that,” Mother hisses. “You’re going to wake him up.”

I thought maybe the eye contact—but it would sound silly, said aloud. As if seeing those flat, cold mirrors again might trigger the lightning strike of emotion that I crave. That I somehow missed the first time. I don’t know this baby.

“Smile!” Noah, smartphone in hand. He leans over the bed, squeezing into the frame beside me, and I feel you shift—seven pounds, nine ounces—a weight on my chest like lead, crushing the air from my lungs as I drag my lips back from my teeth. Mother snatches the phone from Noah, clucking about newborns and flashes, then angles the lens at our new family and spools her finger in the air. Streaming. Live.

Tears prickle my eyes. Of joy, I tell myself. A quiet desperation cinches my throat closed. I can’t speak, not with 4.2 million followers watching, searching my frozen rictus for cracks to explore. They’ll find them empty, untouched by the motherly glow that rushed from my body with yours. And they’ll tell—

“—everyone!” Noah is vibrating with energy, while I sag into the pillow. “It’s Olivia and Noah with some very exciting news. We’d like you to meet our son, Liam Arthur Grant.”

Mother steps closer, teeth bared in a grin. Their enthusiasm crackles like electricity. I smell something burning, a faint whiff, there and gone. When I look down, your eyes are opening—gray, though Mother assures me that could change, and blank. I wonder if that will change too. Your eyes reflect the phone in Mother’s hands and you stretch, reaching a pink hand toward the flat, shining lens. Here, I finally see a resemblance.

Between you and it.

• • • •

I’m jolted from restless dreams by the sound of an alarm—a loud, insistent trilling coming from the nightstand. Beside me, Noah is snoring. My hand fumbles over polished wood, knocking the baby monitor to the floor, and the trilling rises in volume. In my urgency to silence the racket before it wakes you, I ignore the tug of resistance from my smartphone and pull back, yanking the charger’s plug from the socket, cord trailing from the phone like a torn umbilicus as I squint at the screen. There is no alarm set.

“Hey—wake up.” I shake Noah. “Turn your alarm off.”

He grunts, and his hands move over his face, eyes to cheeks to tousled hair. Shadows rubbing shades. “What?”

“Your alarm. Turn it off.”

Rustling, and then: “Liv, it’s Liam. He’s crying. Do you want me to—”

I’m already pulling on my bathrobe and stumbling down the darkened hallway, trailing confusion like smoke. The trilling mutates into a digital cacophony, the sound of malfunctioning electronics blasted through speakers at high volume, and I clamp my hands over my ears. Flick the wall switch in the nursery with my elbow. Warm yellow light illuminates vines and leaves; wild animals peek out from the painted jungle surrounding the crib on four walls. Six months I spent on the mural, belly ripening under paint-splattered overalls, while Noah snapped photos and filmed progression videos, uploading to our YouTube channel, to Facebook and Instagram.

Looking down at your pinched face, turned crimson by the force of your cries, I’m reluctant to move my hands from my ears to comfort you. Liquid heat spills into my palms, trickles down my wrists. I don’t know how much time passes while I stare into the shrieking hole below your nose, like a speaker with the mesh poked out, blaring that awful, inhuman noise. My toes curl; my nails dig into my scalp. Noah’s hands are on my shoulders, gently squeezing. “Liv? What are you doing? He’s crying, you have to—”

I have to. I shake my head to clear it and wipe my hands clean on the fabric of my robe, red blending away into red. Raise you to my breast, nodding, humming, soothing. Noah slips my phone into the pocket of my robe, kisses my forehead, and goes back to bed.

I sink into the oak rocking chair beside the window. Two months you’ve been home, the rock in a shoe I can’t take off. I’ve made countless missteps trying to wiggle you in, to make you fit so it doesn’t hurt when I try to move forward. But you won’t quiet, filling your lungs again and again, rattling the window in its frame. Your mouth refuses my nipple, a simple offering that only seems to anger you further, turning your face from crimson to bruised purple, and a familiar urge creeps in, lending tension to the hands that hold you, the slender fingers dimpling your fragile, writhing, screaming flesh. The urge to lift you and just—

Buzzing, in my lap. I fumble for the phone, shifting you into the crook of my arm to tap on the text message notification. It’s seven-thirty in the morning. Light fringes the green curtains, prying at the blinds. Except for the ringing in my ears, the nursery is silent, and I feel my nipple stiffen, your lips cold as glass on my skin. Wet suckling drains the warmth from my breast, giving none in return. Your tiny fingers are curled around the edge of my phone, pressed to the screen, and it lights up in response to your touch. Starts recording.

• • • •

Through the screens, you come alive. One hundred thousand new followers on Instagram; three times as many on Facebook. I try to break the numbers down, portion and assign them to each of the five months of your life to make them less daunting. To make them make sense. They love to watch you. It doesn’t take more than a cursory scroll through the comments to see that. It’s there in the numbers, in words and emojis.

“Are you ready?” Noah’s triumphant grin widens as his gaze drifts over the living room of our three-bedroom house in northern California. Boxes clutter the floor, the coffee table, the couch, their flaps spread wide—a cardboard flock preparing to take flight. I’m sitting on the carpet amid sheets of bubble wrap, foam flakes clinging to my hair and clothes, and I gesture at the colorful offerings that surround me, bewildered. Toys and baby clothes for you; bath and body products, jewelry, and clothing for me. Name brands. White envelopes with hand-signed letters imploring us to try the products, to promote them on camera to our swelling number of followers.

Over the last decade, your father and I have carved out our place in the world of social media—home-improvement hacks and custom automotive work for him, modeling and painting for me. Ten years of marriage subdivided into squares, confined to rectangles. Press play to see how far we’ve come; click pause to freeze us in time. We’ve enjoyed success, but nothing on this scale. This is . . . I picture boy kings of Egypt, entombed in gold. Child emperors draped in jewels and silk and fur, borne high on the bare shoulders of faceless men.

“Liv? Come on, get dressed. I want to get everything edited and uploaded by five.”

You’re rolling on the playmat in the nursery, wearing a head-to-toe outfit that probably costs more than my first car. Noah beams down at you, a proud father seemingly oblivious to the strange sounds that pour from your mouth in a near-constant stream. Technobabble, I think, listening to the notification chime you make to get my attention. Your laugh is a perfect mimicry of my ringtone, your cooing a tabletop vibration of plastic on wood.

I’m pulling on a designer nightgown when a strand of hair slides free from my scalp, strawberry blond and lace entwined. There is no pain, no tug of separation as I separate my hair from the strap and raise my limp tresses to examine the follicle specks at their ends. My hands are trembling.

“Maybe you should see the doctor,” Noah says. My eyes flick to the phone in his hand, wary, but he’s not recording. His head swivels back to the play mat, following the invisible gravitational pull that you exert on him, on everyone. Except me.

“Maybe,” I echo.

When I watch our videos, I can almost feel it—whatever it is that draws them to you—a sweetness like the lingering dreg of honey at the very bottom of a cup of tea.

But I’m fading; of that, I’m certain.

It started with a slight blurring at the edges, my delicate ears reduced to flesh-toned lumps of clay, the curve of my arms melting into the jungle background of the nursery. Noah retouches the photos, zooming in where I point at the computer screen and shaking his head. He doesn’t see it. Muttering under his breath, he wipes away the smudges left by my finger. So when I watch today’s video and glimpse the spindles of the rocking chair through my chest, I don’t say anything.

They see me in the comments, though. Every miniscule detail, flaws magnified in text.

You look tierd.

When u gonna lose the baby wait?

Gross.

• • • •

I light the candles on your half-year cake and smile into the camera, wondering where the time went, not with an air of sweet nostalgia, but with a sense of looming dread. Taking it all in. Rainbow dots on a number six candle, a flickering flame, molten wax retreating from the blackened wick . . . I try to cement this moment in my mind, every detail. Knowing that when I watch the footage—hours, even minutes later—this memory will have already joined the others in gray obscurity.

I’ve been losing time. Do you know that? Is it visible in my expression when I’m playing with you, nursing you, changing you? I’ve watched the videos repeatedly, searching for signs that I’m absent, unaware of what’s happening. My responses are perfectly timed, my eyes clear and present, even while the rest of me fades into anonymity, a faint corona hovering around a bright, burning sun.

“Make a wish,” Noah says. And I do—one that I bury deep.

Just outside the kitchen window, movement catches my eye. Noah blows out the candle and I make a similar sound, watching as a disheveled woman roots through our garbage bin in the driveway. She withdraws something white with a printed pattern, plucking at it like a greedy crow until it folds open in her hands. Ratty brown hair obscures her face, lowered to the stain at the object’s center, and my stomach turns. I’m going to be sick.

It’s Mrs. Gunderson, from the next street over. I recognize her from our walks. She used to wave from her porch and say good morning with a smile, but in recent weeks, Mrs. Gunderson has taken to trailing along behind your stroller, either unaware of my polite attempts to move on, or ignoring them altogether. Yesterday, she followed me to our front door, eyes fixed on you so intently that she almost walked into the screen when I closed it behind us.

Carrying your diaper, Mrs. Gunderson rounds the hedge and keeps to the sidewalk, shuffling down the street. My heart is hammering in my chest. Noah shrugs me off and dabs blue icing on your nose, capturing some final shots of the cake before moving it out of your reach. The cake is just for show, a prop. No one eats it. I’m not even sure that you can.

“How about a game of ‘Where’s Liam?’” Noah says.

Inwardly, I cringe. The simple game of peek-a-boo is a viewer favorite. They never seem to tire of it and neither do you. I wipe the icing from your nose and carry you into the backyard, where Noah has unfurled a blanket on the grass. You’re lying on your back, clouds in your eyes, and I bend over you, shielding my face with my hands.

I say, “Where’s Liam?”

You make a series of electronic chirps, and I peek through the slivers of space between my fingers, noting the pink flush of your cheeks, the spastic way you try to clap your hands together in anticipation. This is the part you enjoy: when I’m hidden from your view.

“There he is!” My hands fly apart to reveal your mother, and that’s when your face loses all expression, goes lifeless as a plastic doll’s. Hands back up, and you chirp with glee. It sticks in my chest like a barbed arrow, one that I don’t dare yank out in view of the camera. I’ll wait until later to cry, knowing that once I’m safe behind the locked door of the bathroom, the tears won’t come. Because I won’t be able to remember this either.

“Where’s Liam?” And I pray to anything that might be listening, to whatever had a hand in this duplicitous switch, to take you away and give me back my baby. Are you thinking the same thing, on the other side of this ten-digit wall between us? In these few seconds, have I vanished from your mind? A wish come true—is it yours too?

• • • •

The play group was a mistake. All those mommies sitting cross-legged on pillows like planets orbiting the cheerful instructor at the circle’s center, babies held close like little moons. Singing nursery rhymes, adult voices mingling with baby sounds that I’ve never heard you make, not once.

We were running late. A frazzled-looking woman left the circle as we entered, her baby howling in red-faced indignation, while the other women exchanged sympathetic smiles in her wake. But when she passed us, the woman stopped so abruptly that her feet tangled together, nearly spilling her to the floor. She gaped at you, this woman we’d never met. Her baby stopped crying, eyes gone round and wet. Saliva dribbled from her lower lip—the woman’s, not the baby’s. Uncomfortable, I glanced over her shoulder at the circle as if to say, Are you seeing this? This grown woman, drooling down the front of her shirt?

They were all staring at us, slack-jawed. Vacant expressions; bright, feverish eyes. Babies sagged in their laps like marionettes with their strings cut, too-heavy heads drooping on weak necks. One by one, the women stood up. Their children rolled to the floor, discarded, left behind with the pillows as they came for us—for you.

I held you to my breast and ran.

• • • •

“We should have started these months ago,” the doctor says in a sing-song voice. Perhaps it’s meant to take the sting from her words, but the shrewd look she gives me over her glasses cancels out the effect. The cheery tone is for your benefit, not mine.

“I know, I—we just—” I stammer as she swabs your arm and reaches for the first of the syringes. “There’s been a lot going on, and my husband wasn’t sure, with all the online stuff about vaccines . . .”

I didn’t bring anything to distract you with. The way you’re eyeing the doctor and leaning into me—fists balled up in my hair, face screwed up as if she’s twisting your nose—I can tell you’re about to throw a fit, and a part of me wants you to. Maybe then she’ll see it, hear what I hear, this professional woman with her lab coat and stethoscope, her silver hair pulled tight in a bun. She looks like a woman who’s seen everything.

The doctor waggles a stuffed rabbit with floppy ears. You shrink into my stomach, pulling at my hair. When she’s not looking, I pry a loose strand from your fist, stuff it into my pocket, and readjust my knit beanie to hide the bald patches. We shift your position, and you release a deafening squall that fills my head with pixelated flashes and error codes, error codes—I fumble my smartphone from the pocket of my sweatshirt, tap in my password, and hold it in front of your face. Instantly, you quiet. Your hands unknot, fat fingers smearing the glass screen.

“He’s only nine months old,” the doctor says, a hint of disdain in her voice.

But you’re holding still. The needle punctures your flesh, and you don’t react. Not so much as a twitch when she pricks you a second time, then a third, your chubby face illuminated by the erratic light and color of some random video. The doctor peers at the screen, eyebrows raised. I don’t look. Whatever you’re watching, I didn’t choose it.

“All finished.” The doctor runs through a series of developmental tests, and I nod when it’s required of me, looking out the window at the first snowflakes drifting to the ground and welcoming the winter cold. Eager to feel as numb outside as I do within.

“And how’s Mommy doing?”

The tip of my tongue explores the backs of my teeth. Wiggling the loose ones, poking into empty sockets. For every new tooth that’s erupted through your pink gums, I’ve tossed two of mine into the wastebasket. Mommy’s falling apart, I think.

Tight-lipped, I say, “Fine. Just fine.”

• • • •

You’re on the move, straight from sitting to standing. No crawling for you. Using the furniture for support, you begin to explore. For the past eleven months, these rooms have been above and beyond you, but you’re a part of them now. Your curiosity drives you in ever-expanding circles, leading you under and past windows crowded with the faces of our neighbors, their noses pressed to the glass and fogging every square inch with their breath. I don’t know if they leave when it gets dark. After I’ve drawn the curtains, I can’t bring myself to check.

“They just want to see the baby,” Noah says. “Everyone loves Liam.”

And it’s true. I haven’t posted a solo video or a snapshot of my old paintings in months. There are no new paintings. One question fills the comment section of any post without you in it: Where’s Liam? Our followers—your followers—their numbers climbing by the thousands, daily.

WHERE’S LIAM???

How many of these men and women would abandon their own children for a chance to hold you, to make you their own? I don’t want to think about it. It’s an hour before sundown, but I pull the curtains closed.

• • • •

Your first words come within minutes of each other. Not “Mama” or “Dada.” It’s your own name coming from your lips, and I shouldn’t be surprised, because Liam is the word you’ve heard the most.

The second word is your own invention. I wouldn’t know how to write it, couldn’t imitate it if I tried. Its meaning goes over my head and into your father’s ear, burrowing like a worm, beckoning him from my bed and into your room, where he sleeps curled up on the floor beside your crib. After posting the video of your first words to Facebook. To Instagram. To YouTube.

You’ll be a year old tomorrow. I fight the urge to scream.

• • • •

Our driveway is clogged with strangers. They’re packed shoulder-to-shoulder on the front lawn, pressed against the sliding glass door in the kitchen as more people scramble over the fence and jostle for position in the backyard. Unblinking eyes peer through every window, seeking a glimpse of your face. I’ve tried calling the police. I can see the red and blue lights down the street, the officers wading through the crowd until there’s no space left to move, then simply stopping to stand and stare with the others.

Noah’s slumped over the table in the kitchen. He dressed you early, bundled you up in a special outfit sent by our biggest sponsor. You’re lying on the kitchen floor, baby snow boots kicking, dinosaur print shirt riding up over your belly, the ruffled edge of your diaper showing above the waistband of your matching pants. And I’m pacing back and forth in front of the sliding glass door, muscles rigid, anticipating the crash and rush of bodies tumbling into the warmth of our kitchen. He put the puffy coat on you—your father—with its hood shaped like a Tyrannosaurus head and lined with fabric teeth.

I press my fingers to Noah’s neck, feeling for a pulse. It’s there, slow but steady, and I breathe a sigh of relief. I wasn’t sure how much to give him. He drinks his coffee black, so he didn’t notice the bitter taste. Lucky me, lucky you.

I had to. He was planning to take you outside.

“Okay, Liam.” I kneel on the tile with my phone at the ready. “I need you to say the word for me. Can you do that?”

I try to approximate the sound, and your eyebrows slam down to shadow your eyes. Your mouth puckers. I’m doing it wrong. Always.

“Please, Liam. Please.” I hear ticking, not from the inexorable creep of the second hand around the wall clock, but from the sliding glass door. There’s a crack. It’s spreading. A woman is sandwiched between the glass and the growing crowd at her back. Her cheek splits open, blood and bone smashed flat as if she’s a specimen on a slide. I don’t need a microscope to see her nose break. Tweaked sideways, there’s a muffled crunch. I look away as the crowd continues to press her into a paste.

Because you’re saying it, finally. I press the button to record. There.

Clambering to my feet, I race down the hall and pull down the fold-up stairs that lead into the attic, taking the steps two at a time. From the small window, I can see the people streaming towards our house from all directions. I don’t need them gone, just out of the driveway. Maxing out the volume on my phone, I quick-edit the sound recording to loop and push the attic window open. Lean out. Press play.

As hard as I can, I throw the phone into the neighbor’s bushes.

• • • •

We’re passing through Oregon into Washington when you disappear.

I wake to an empty bed and tear back the blanket, swishing my hands over the sheets, stripping the bed down to the mattress. Under the bed, maybe. But no. Not in the closet or the cramped bathroom, either. Not here, not here . . .

Your diaper bag is with my purse, lying beside the door where I dropped everything last night. After I pulled the truck over and checked into a roadside motel, planning to rest my eyes until morning. My father owns a cabin up in Washington, an off-the-grid place, so I thought we’d—

The door. My hands flutter over the lock—deadbolted—and the swinging latch above it, even as my mind insists that you couldn’t reach the knob. You’d never be able to swing this door’s weight alone. Winter light seeps through the dingy curtains, and I rip them open to squint at the road and the tree-lined field beyond it, blanketed in snow. A line of footprints stretches from the door to the road, too large to be yours. Staring at those footprints, I can’t breathe. I don’t pause to put on my shoes and coat.

I’m staggering through the snow, parking lot gravel biting into the soles of my bare feet. Numb—they’re numb—and I’m numb, and this is what I wanted, what I wished for, so why does it feel like I’m the one who’s lost? Like I’m the one who’s disappeared, sucked into the vacuum of this black hole that’s opened in my chest, consuming light and sound and taste and smell, and my vision’s narrowed to a pinprick, focused on the trail of prints that’s reeling me toward the distant field.

A horn blasts. I pitch forward into the ditch on the other side of the road as a pickup truck swerves across both lanes. I don’t hear a crash, just another horn blast.

The field unfurls before me. There are other prints leading into the field from the road, radiating inward, various sizes drawing closer together by the dozens. Converging on a central point. The tracks I’m following are faint, partially erased by snowfall, but these other tracks are newer, distinct pock marks stamped into the fresh powder.

Soon, the original tracks become lost among the others, but it doesn’t matter because I’ve reached it—the place where the tracks stop and fan out to complete a circle that must have been four, five rows deep when they gathered here. There’s a depression at the circle’s center, a toddler-sized snow angel. I sink to my knees.

Am I wailing or laughing? I can’t tell.

• • • •

I’ve been sitting in this motel room for hours, replaying the video on Noah’s phone. I brought it with me, thinking we might need it if there was an emergency. Twenty-three missed calls from Noah, close to thirty from my mother. I haven’t listened to the voice messages, haven’t read the texts. They’ll blame me.

I blame me.

My hands flex on the phone, squeezing. Either my fingers will break or the phone will. I can’t watch it again. But I do. I press play.

In the video, my face fills the screen. There’s a thud as I prop the phone up against the lamp on the nightstand, and then I move to the bed where you’re fast asleep. Gather you into my arms. Push through the door into the night. Fifteen minutes and thirty-seven seconds later, I return alone.

Do my eyes seem vacant? When I pressed record last night, was I conscious of my actions, of what came after? Hunched over the screen, I watch it again, searching for answers that aren’t there, turning a tooth on my tongue until I spit it out and let it fall to the carpet.

They’ll want to know why.

Noah’s phone chimes, signaling a notification. For a second, I thought it was you. I never thought I’d miss your strange electronic noises, but—

Likes are pouring in on Instagram, and the phone keeps chiming, vibrating in response to a new video posted to my account. Thirty seconds ago.

You’re alive.

• • • •

The videos are uploaded nightly from locations all over the country—from all around the globe. You look happy. Your two words have developed roots, branching out to form a language beyond my comprehension, that only your followers can understand. Something deep and older than the ground beneath my feet.

I don’t know where Liam is, I tell the police. I don’t know who has him.

I know that I lost my son the day he was born.

I know that in your absence, I’m starting to take shape again.

And I am relieved.

R.L. Meza

R.L. Meza is an author of horror fiction. She lives in a century-old Victorian house on the coast of northern California with her husband and the collection of strange animals they call family.