Fiction by Evan James Sheldon
The baby began sleeping under our bed right after he learned to crawl. He would scream and bawl when I turned on his nightlight and set him in his brand new, shiny-white crib, and not stop no matter what we tried—rocking, feeding, burping, reading a book, singing his favorite songs (baby shark and one his mother made up that consisted entirely of where is baby?, where is baby?, where is baby?). One night just after two a.m., in my exhaustion, I set him down on the carpet and took a couple steps back, clicked on a lamp.
He screamed and screamed, then rolled over, and still screaming crawled into our room— I guessed to seek his mother after I hadn’t soothed him properly—but he didn’t go to her side of the bed and raise his little hands to be picked up like I expected. Instead he crawled beneath our bed and stopped crying. To my shame, I left him; the screaming night after night had worn my nerves into brittle, sparking wires, and it was finally quiet, so I left him.
My wife and I slept for what felt like the first time: deep, dreamless, dead-to-the-world. When we finally woke it was after ten the next morning. I jumped up searching for the baby in his crib, my mind still gummy and thick from all the sleep. I looked throughout the house before I remembered and found him, squinting out from beneath the bed, still quiet. The sight of him caused me to back up involuntarily. It was off-putting to see him there poised as if to crawl but not moving, crouched like a predator, eyes little slits in the dark.
My wife came with a bottle to lure him, but he wouldn’t come out. I tried coaxing, pleading, joking, demanding. My wife tried to grab him, but he snapped at her hands. He only had a few teeth, but still she recoiled. I set the bottle down and he darted out, grabbed it, and returned, sucking in the dark.
He wouldn’t come out. We didn’t know what to do. We were surrounded by blessed silence but it felt wrong. I tried to tell myself he was happy under there, if he needed something he would come out, but that was only part of the truth. We had glimpsed a version of the time before his arrival, a time we had thought lost. So we indulged. We ate wherever we wanted, we cleaned, we drank into the night, we watched violent movies, we licked honey from our fingertips.
That night I heard him beneath us, scratching at the bedframe. I imagined him staring up through the mattress, unblinking in the dark. I imagined him there, always.
My parents sent us toys to help with brain development—rings and rattles and zippered bags and more. Among the toys they sent were some clear plastic cylinders. We were supposed to put balls inside and tilt, designed to show the baby how things move inside other things, or how gravity never relents. He didn’t show any interest until one morning all the cylinders were missing.
When I looked under the bed, strange, distorted faces stared back at me, hideous things, mangled and ill-wrought. I fell away, scooting until I pressed my back against the wall, unable to move any farther, and my brain finally caught up with my instinct and recognized what I was seeing. The baby had shoved his teddy bears, his lambs, his lions, all his plush toys into the cylinders. They reminded me of heads soaking in formaldehyde jars. He watched me watching him, taking in his creations, and then slunk further beneath the bed at whatever he saw on my face. I thought to collect the cylinders, but was afraid to reach under the bed, afraid of his quickness, his new sharp teeth, his eyes.
When I told my wife about the incident, she broke down. She’d been in the throes of post-partum and this new turn pushed her too far. She started crying, then yelling, nothing specific, not directed, just yelling in bursts. She rushed back to the bedroom, dropped to the carpet and swiped at the baby. She was trying to get him to come out, that’s what I told myself, but soon he was screaming too, and I pulled her away.
She wept for a bit and then left for her mother’s without packing anything. I didn’t know how to feel about her leaving, I didn’t know what it meant for her, what it meant for me, or when she’d return. And then I was alone with the baby.
That first night, I set the bottle in its usual spot on the floor and climbed in bed. I lay there listening to the baby suck below me and then scratch at the underside of the bed. I couldn’t sleep with him beneath me. I moved to the couch.
The next morning I made him a bottle and set it in its usual spot, trying to make a plan. It hadn’t actually been long that he’d been under the bed, though it felt long, like we’d been doing this forever. I thought maybe I would try to catch him when he darted out, and if that failed I would dismantle the bed. With my wife gone, this new possibility opened up and I wondered why I hadn’t seen it. I wondered what else I hadn’t been seeing. But the baby didn’t come out from under the bed. I leaned down and looked but couldn’t see him. I flicked my hand underneath but nothing snapped at me. He was gone.
I didn’t know what to do. I called for him. I begged and yelled. It was the same as before. My panic rose, my mind spun. I couldn’t imagine calling my wife and what I would tell her, what I would tell myself if he wasn’t found. I sat down on the couch and stared at my hands, trying to piece together how I ended up here, utterly helpless. I called my dad and hung up before he answered. And then I heard it, the small scratching beneath me.
He was underneath the couch, nearly pressed flat to occupy that space. He’d followed me. He’d wanted to be near me. I lay on my stomach and looked at him. Something in me broke. I tried to reach for him but he scooted away. I had an idea.
I waited until the sun had set and then, instead of turning on all the lights, I left them off. I put a bottle out in the middle of the floor. He crawled out, he drank, he played. He put things inside other things and took them out again. I approached him, attempted to pick him up, and he let me. I went to the bathroom and took off his ruined clothing, ashamed of myself like never before, and I showered us both off in the dark. I lotioned him and put him in one of my wife’s t-shirts. She wouldn’t always be gone, and I thought the smell of her would be good for him when she came back.He snuggled into me and we dozed.
After a while, I took him outside. There was no moon that night and as the stars blinked through drifting clouds, so did my son, eyes wide for the first time, taking in the whole dark world.
Evan James Sheldon‘s work has appeared recently in American Literary Review, the Cincinnati Review, and Lammergeier. He is a senior editor for F(r)iction and the Editorial Director for Brink Literacy Project. You can find online at evanjamessheldon.com.
Photo by Jay Mistry on Unsplash