Introduction by Halimah Marcus
New parents in my life have attempted to describe to me those first few weeks after the baby comes home: the sleep deprivation, the chaos, the isolation, the intense responsibility and worry, the gulf between the books and reality. Or at least, that’s what I’ve gleaned from their wide-eyed expressions, their traumatized looks. Usually what they say is something more like, “It’s really hard.” The home, with a new baby inside it, that is at once a command center, a fortress, and a prison.
Sheldon Costa brings wry surreality and humor to this black box of child rearing. In “A Dependable Man” the baby arrives by delivery truck in a duffle bag, feral, fanged, and covered in fur. “This thing isn’t human,” Brian, the new father, protests. “Of course not,” says the deliveryman. “It’s a baby.”
“Getting a baby” as Costa puts it, was Brian’s idea. (“A baby is not an idea,” says the wise deliveryman.) Brian is grieving the loss of his friend and colleague, and the baby is supposed to help. Or something. His wife Patricia is away on business and isn’t very interested; she’s vague about when she’s coming home. As the baby tears apart the house, and Brian’s forearms, with his claw-like baby hands, Brian begins to believe Patricia will stay away on business forever, abandoning him for good.
This doesn’t sound like a funny story, but I promise you, it is. I laugh reliably each time I read Costa’s descriptions of the baby’s indifferent, destructive behavior, of Brian in oven mitts, holding him at arm’s length. But just when you think you know where the story is going, it takes an unexpectedly touching turn. By the end, readers who aren’t parents just might consider getting a baby, despite their better judgment.
– Halimah Marcus
Editor-in-chief, Recommended Reading
Things You Should Have Thought of Before Ordering a Baby
“A Dependable Man” by Sheldon Costa
The baby arrived as all babies do: screeching and struggling from within a duffle bag carried by a deliveryman from City Hall. When Brian opened the front door that Monday afternoon, the deliveryman thrust the thrashing bag forward with a relieved grin, as if he couldn’t wait to get the carrier as far away from his body as possible.
“Congratulations,” he said. “It’s a boy.”
Brian tried to peek at the baby through the mesh ceiling of the bag, but the creature was wriggling around too frantically to settle into any single shape. For a moment, Brian thought a fire alarm had gone off somewhere, but he quickly realized that this was only the sound of the child’s cries, as rhythmically desolate as an air-raid siren and just as distressing. He felt the distinct urge to run for cover.
“He’s a feisty one,” the deliveryman said, pushing his way past Brian into the house. “I think you have an athlete on your hands. A wrestler, maybe.”
It was still snowing—had been snowing, in fact, for days, the street a cluttered labyrinth of gray slush—and the deliveryman shook the gathered flakes from his hair with the good-natured vigor of a golden retriever. He looked like the sort of person who loved his job, which made things considerably more awkward when Brian fluttered a hundred-dollar bill in front of him and said, “It is indeed a lovely child. It would be a shame if something were to happen to it.”
Pity arrived on the deliveryman’s face like an old friend; it was clear he’d heard this request many times before.
“First kid?” he asked. “Everybody’s nervous their first time. But raising a baby is easy. It’s like jumping into a cold lake. Things go pretty much like you’d expect once you take the plunge.”
The deliveryman seemed so proud of the metaphor that Brain refrained from telling him he didn’t know how to swim.
“The baby was my wife’s idea,” he said instead, which was a lie. The baby was entirely his idea. Patricia had only agreed to parenthood, he was sure, because their marriage had been careening towards failure, and the baby had struck them both as a straightforward and diplomatic way to nudge their relationship back from the brink.
“A baby is not an idea,” the deliveryman said with great conviction. He removed a small package of vacuum-sealed gray squares from the side of the duffle and handed it to Brian. “Food for the first week. Just soak them in water.”
Then, the deliveryman gestured at the bag, still rocking from the baby’s frantic efforts to free itself. “I’ll let you do the honors,” he said.
“Couldn’t I just keep it in there for a while? Until it settles down?”
The deliveryman elbowed Brian toward the bag. His voice grew soft, almost grandfatherly. “This is one of the most important moments of your life. Getting to hold your child for the first time? You’ll never forget it.” He glanced back through the door at his brown van, humming tuffs of exhaust into the cold air. “Also, I need the bag for my other deliveries.”
Brian, who shuddered at the thought of all the other babies prowling around their cages in the van, unzipped the duffle with shaking hands. The baby settled for a moment, as if calmed by the promise of escape, and Brian was able to get a good look at it: the smushed pig nose, the tiny fangs, the tufts of fur that sprouted erratically from its flabby pale skin. The baby’s eyes, two dark coals pressed into the folds of its snarling face, met Brian’s, and for an instant they seemed to glitter with some recognition, father and son united by their mutual understanding of this ancient pact. Then, the baby reared back, hissed, and sunk its teeth into Brian’s hand.
Brian jerked away, stumbling over his feet. The baby bolted free and slunk into the shadows beneath the living room couch.
“That thing isn’t human,” he said, suckling the blood that dribbled from the two puncture wounds on his thumb. The deliveryman gathered up the bag and headed for the door.
“Of course it isn’t,” he said over his shoulder. “It’s a baby.”
Brian tried to call Patricia to tell her the news, but she was in meetings all day, so he spent the next hour trying to coax the baby out from its hiding place. While he cooed and clucked on his knees in front of the couch, the baby just stared at him, pupils reflecting the beam from his phone’s flashlight like silver coins in the dark.
He took one of the food squares from the package and dunked it into a bowl of water, just as the deliveryman had directed. The square evaporated in the liquid, melting into an ashy smudge that smelled like mulch. He placed it on the carpet in front of the couch, hoping food might coax the baby out, but the creature didn’t budge.
Brian was ready to wait beside the bowl for as long as it took, already feeling a vague glimmer of pride at this proof of paternal commitment to his child. Then he heard the electronic chime from his laptop, a signal that a customer was trying to get in touch with him.
Brian worked as an online “building consultant” for a remodeling company. This mostly involved answering frantic messages from people trying to renovate their kitchens who’d somehow installed their cabinet doors the wrong way or torn down a wall in their bedroom without checking to make sure it wasn’t load-bearing. Today, the little text box on the webpage read SINK LEEKING PLZ ADVIZE, and Brian went about the mind-numbing work of getting the make and model number of the submitter’s utilities so that he could type out a step-by-step guide on how to rectify the problem.
He used to do this work in person, and he’d enjoyed it—the simple pleasure of encountering a problem and knowing exactly how to solve it. Day after day, he drove around the city with his partner Clay, entering people’s homes with all the pomp and confidence of Valkyries descending to the battlefield to collect the dead. There was something heroic about showing up at a young couple’s first home to replace the ugly teal carpet with wine-dark floorboards after they’d tried and failed to do it themselves or installing a screened-in porch for a widowed old woman who wanted to drink margaritas outside at night without worrying about mosquitos.
Most of their customers treated him and Clay with a sort of awe—these men who could step through the thresholds of their lives for a few hours and then exit, leaving sturdy granite counters and polished water fixtures in their wake. This was mostly on account of Clay. The man struck an imposing figure: just a little over six foot with the muscled arms and the potbelly of a silverback gorilla. There was something comical about watching the customers take him in when he and Brian first arrived—their eyes running fearful circuits over his greased-back mullet and the bestiary of tigers and serpents tattooed on his biceps—a terror that lasted only as long as it took for Clay to begin speaking. He had the gentle, innocent voice of a choirboy, and his insistence on ending every sentence with “sir” and “ma’am” put even the most suspicious homeowners at ease.
They’d been working together for nearly four years when, the previous winter, they’d been in a car accident, their truck slipping on some black ice, and Clay died. Brian had been at the wheel. As the truck swerved, he overcorrected and sent it spinning into the freeway’s shoulder. A rod of steel piping in the back of the truck pierced the back window and plowed straight through Clay’s head, killing him instantly.
After a few days off for his own minor injuries—a sore back and a cut on his forehead—Brian was expected to return to the houses alone, to tear up unwanted carpet and swap out old bathroom faucets as if nothing had happened. Except, when it came time to leave, Brian found himself struggling to open the front door. And when he’d finally forced himself out of the house and into his truck, he sat there for what felt like hours, hands clenched tight around the steering wheel, unable to move. That night, he asked the company if he could work from home.
The problem, he thought, was that he could no longer think about his work without immediately returning to that night and the unceremonious way in which Clay was transformed from a living, breathing human into a skewered cadaver. Though they weren’t very close, Brian had liked him. Their relationship was free of the insecure jostling he’d encountered with other men in his profession: the embarrassing tales of sexual conquest, the sad pride in one’s drinking prowess, the complaints about every unforeseen setback. In fact, they barely spoke to one another on their jobs, operating together with the silent, optimized efficiency of machines. On the few occasions when they stopped for a beer on the way home, Clay, who was in his early thirties, dropped ambiguous references to the time he’d spent in prison—never going so far as to explain what he’d done—and how his wife, a local veterinarian named Barbara, had helped set him on the right path. His quiet voice, and the slow, deliberate way he moved his hulking body, as though perpetually afraid of hurting those around him, struck Brian as the qualities of a man who’d just barely survived his own life and was thankful for whatever extra time he’d been granted.
Halfway through his reply about the sink, he heard a slurping sound behind him. When he turned, he saw his baby squatting on its haunches over the bowl of gruel, its snout stuffed deep in the sludge.
“You’re eating,” Brian said. “My son is eating!” He stood quickly from his chair, fumbling with his phone to take a photo for Patricia. But the baby, frightened by his sudden movements, squealed and tipped the bowl over, splattering food all over the carpet as it retreated beneath the couch.
Later that night, when Patricia finally Facetimed him, Brian brought the phone down under the sofa and turned the camera toward the baby.
“Are you sure it’s ours?” she said.
“Look at the face. Those are my eyes,” he said. “And those hands. Builder’s hands. Nice and strong.”
Only after he said the words did Brian realize that connecting himself to the baby—and its unquestionable hideousness—might not be the most successful tactic for putting Patricia at ease. When he flipped the phone around, he found his wife frowning at him from the little screen. Even now, with her face weary and worn at the end of another long day, the sight of her unmoored a tender vessel within him.
“You look beautiful,” he said.
“I feel like a toilet.”
“Meetings went well?”
“Who knows. These people carry themselves like Grecian friezes. Totally inscrutable.”
Brian didn’t understand Patricia’s job. He knew that it involved large sums of money and companies so massive their financial maintenance required more bureaucracy than most small nations. She’d tried to show him once, presenting him with a dozen or so Excel spreadsheets on her laptop, each page stuffed with numbers which added and subtracted and divided themselves when she pressed different keys. It had only served as further proof to him that he’d been lucky to marry her—that fate had dealt him a fortuitous hand four years ago when he arrived to install a new shower head in her old apartment. After he’d finished, she slipped him her phone number along with a check, as if romance were as straightforward a transaction as any other.
He refrained from mentioning that he’d offered the deliveryman a bribe. This, he knew, would not inspire confidence.
“Have you decided on a name?”
“I was thinking Clay.”
Patricia looked at him as though he’d recommend Adolf or Lucifer. Brian wasn’t surprised. Clay’s death, after all, was the primary reason they’d decided to get a baby. After the accident, some fundamental mechanism within Brian gave way, and he’d found himself incapable of talking or thinking about anything else. For weeks he wouldn’t even leave the house; the outside world seemed suddenly full of incalculable danger. Even a brief trip in the car filled him with white-hot dread, every curve and bend in the road a possible disaster.
And then there was the matter of Barbara. He trembled at the thought of running into Clay’s wife while he was at the post office or waiting in line at the movie theater. Though she had been kind enough to send him a note after the funeral—which Brian had been too much of a coward to attend—thanking him for the flowers he’d sent along, and lamenting the fact, with excruciating politeness, that he’d been unable to come, he was still terrified at the prospect of seeing her in person.
After a month Brian noticed that whenever he mentioned Clay’s name, Patricia’s eyes glazed over, not from cruelty, but from exhaustion. She’d heard him describe dozens of times how different the day might have been if he’d taken another route home or tied down the pipes more securely. She had said all the things one might expect a good partner to say—allotted him the largest possible parcel of her care and attention—but eventually she’d been reduced to platitudes: It’s not your fault. There’s nothing you could have done. You have to keep living.
Grief, he learned, was like a two-way mirror: you could peer out at someone else, gesturing frantically to convey your own unraveling, but after a while all they saw was their own frustrated reflection.
Patricia started traveling again, her time away from the house lengthening from a few days to a week at a time. At a certain point it became clear to Brian that a crisis was imminent. So one night, after yet another of Patricia’s short, joyless visits home, he asked her if they should get a baby.
“I think it would be good for me,” he’d said. “To have a project.”
She’d never shown any interest in children—neither of them had—and he’d expected the question’s outlandishness to be the terminal crack that sent their whole marriage careening down the hillside. But she’d surprised him by agreeing that, yes, a baby might be a good idea. She treated the suggestion with the same matter-of-fact certitude with which she treated her business dealings—she would not change her work schedule, she said, so the day-to-day necessities of child-rearing would be left to him.
“If you can agree to those terms, I’m game,” she said. “We certainly aren’t getting any younger.”
After they filled out the paperwork, hope tentatively roosted in their lives. They went for long walks around the neighborhood, discussing who their baby might become once its fur turned to hair and its fangs plopped out of its mouth. Would it have Patricia’s confidence? Brian’s eye for detail? Would its little muzzle grow to resemble its mother’s aquiline nose, its bushy brow sloping into Brian’s handsome forehead? Their dreams gurgled and giggled with hypothetical babies. Baby politicians and baby poets and baby submersible pilots.
But the border between dreams and nightmares is a tenuous one, and it wasn’t long before Brian was imagining the baby’s body crushed under falling bookshelves, smothered by pillows, pierced by clumsily dropped knives and scissors. He’d never considered himself an anxious person—had always been a bit proud of how easily he fell asleep each night, freeing himself of the day’s worries as easily as he kicked off his boots at the front door. Yet after he and Patricia decided to become parents, he kept himself up late thinking of all the ways a baby might be murdered—how, even after it had grown up, danger would skulk at the edge of every action. A bullet for the baby politician. A heroin addiction for the baby poet. A slow, drowning demise for the baby captain in his underwater tomb. By the time he realized the baby had only exacerbated his new anxieties, it was too late. They’d signed all the necessary documents.
Naming the child Clay, then, was perhaps not the best way to extricate the baby from thoughts of death. But it was the first name that came to Brian’s mind.
“Maybe,” he said. “We could name it when you get home? Which is when, again?”
“Should be soon,” Patricia said. “This weather is cause for concern.”
Brian looked out the window to the backyard, where the snow continued to pile itself into sloping hillocks, their curves burnished to gold by the porch lights. The sight might have once elicited feelings of homey comfort if not for the miles of iced runways and clogged airports it now implied, the hours Brian would have to spend alone with the baby.
“Well, don’t take too long,” he said, adding with an attempt at conviviality that sounded only a little deranged, “Your family misses you.”
“I’m sure you two will do just fine without me,” she said.
“We can handle a few days to ourselves,” Brian said, trying not to put too much emphasis on “days.”
Patricia sighed. “I’ll probably be back by Friday. I need some sleep before I face the friezes again tomorrow. Not that they’ll be able to tell the difference. Best of luck.”
Brian turned the camera to face under the sofa again. “Say goodnight to Momma!”
The baby, still coiled in the corner, bared its teeth.
“Right,” Patricia said. “Love you too, kid.”
Brian swiveled the camera back to himself. “A real firecracker.”
“Please get your baby into a normal bed tonight.”
“Our baby,” Brian corrected. But Patricia had already ended the call.
Brian used a pair of rubber oven mitts to extract the baby from under the couch. It struggled in his hands, gnawing and clawing at the gloves, but the material was too thick to pierce. Brian rocked him at arm’s length, a movement which only increased the baby’s rage, its wails growing so loud Brian’s temples began to throb.
“It’s alright,” he whispered.
He carried the baby down the hall to the nursery. The room was unfinished, it’s half-painted walls and piles of stuffed animals a pitiful echo of his early weeks of preparing for the infant, when he’d decided to convert the office into a playroom. As his fears proliferated, he’d spent less and less time on the room’s aesthetics and turned his attention instead to building the crib: a hulking structure of plywood and plastic, with heavy legs bolted to the floor so the baby couldn’t knock it over in the night, and an interior puffy with padded walls and cotton blankets. He’d even installed a latticed lid that could be clasped shut to stop the baby from escaping at night, when it would presumably try to drink all the chemicals under the kitchen sink.
The baby didn’t like the crib. The moment Brian set it inside, it began to scramble up the walls, its claws surprisingly proficient at climbing. When Brian shut the lid, the baby gripped the wooden bars, a jeering prisoner.
“Wonderful climbing, Baby,” Brian said.
The baby, as if sensing the sarcasm in his tone, launched a glob of spit upward, the sticky fluid striking Brian in the cheek.
“Great aim,” he said, gagging.
The baby continued to cry. Brian tried a number of different tactics to make it stop, singing “Old McDonald Had a Farm” in a cracking falsetto and dropping colored foam blocks into the crib for him to play with. The baby refused them all: drowning out Brian’s voice with its shrill squeals, tearing apart the blocks with its teeth until they resembled curdled wedges of feta cheese.
“Sleep,” Brain pleaded. “Please sleep.”
The benefit of slumber, Brian realized, was a lesson he would have to teach the baby. The thought overwhelmed him; he’d forgotten just how much rudimentary knowledge was required to become a functional human being. Before the baby learned language, or math, or geography, it would first need to be taught how to properly wield utensils, how to stand upright, how to keep one’s eyes averted from the sun. If Brian failed to impart the importance of these things, the baby would remain feral. He would end up like one of those parents who is awoken in the middle of night to find a tiger-sized child on their chest staring at their soft bodies with hungry curiosity.
He stayed up for hours trying to calm the baby down. He walked to one corner of the room and ignored the baby, thinking it might wear itself out, only to find that it was capable of a constant pulsating scream not unlike the screech of some terrible predatory bird. After a while, the noise was so loud Brian worried that the baby’s little vocal cords would snap, and he hurried back to the crib, removing the baby with the gloves and rocking it again. He repeated the process more times than he could count, until he and the baby seemed locked in a delirious dance, time passing like a tarry sludge, slowing and calcifying in places and dripping with unexpected speed in others.
Before long dawn peeked under the blinds. Brian marveled at himself for having passed this test—already, he could hear himself explaining to Patricia over the phone how, despite his exhaustion, he kept watch over their child all night. He opened the shades and let the morning light flood orange warmth into the room. “Look, Baby,” he said. “Your first sunrise.”
The baby, though, had finally gone quiet. Brian’s mind cycled through all the violent events that might have silenced the baby: a heart attack, an aneurism, a screw Brian hadn’t properly secured, which the baby had choked on while its father admired the dawn. Brian flung open the crib’s lid, already expecting to find a tiny corpse. Instead he found the baby squatting in the center of its sheets, a wet stream of shit piling up between its legs.
Brian told himself the baby’s disposition would improve. This was, after all, what he’d been expecting: the sleepless nights, the endless crying, the time spent untangling dried feces from the fur around the baby’s ass. It’s no different than fixing a house, he told himself. Hard work, certainly—but once it was all over, you could step back and admire what you’d built with your own hands.
But if the child was a house, it seemed always on the precipice of collapse. It proved itself an endless reservoir of stinking excretions: mucus dripped from its weeping nostrils, forming a glistening mustache above its sneering lips; urine spurted forth at random and inopportune times from the frightening device between its legs. Diapers proved laughably ineffective. The moment Brian secured one around the baby’s waist, it wiggled free, an act of contortion Brian might have been impressed with if it didn’t mean he’d spend the afternoon on his knees spraying the rugs with carpet cleaner.
Worse than the baby’s behavior, though, was Brian’s growing disdain. He expected to become weary with the child—it was the much-beloved lament of every parent, how tired it all made them—but he didn’t expect to hate it with such visceral conviction. He found himself glaring at it all afternoon, gritting his teeth as it gobbled up its food, burning with the knowledge that it would wait until the moment Brian picked it up later to puke the meal’s sloppy remnants onto his shirt. This was the only time, vomit strung about its lips, the baby did anything like smiling, contorting its features into an unpleasant smirk and burping in a manner that suggested wet mirth.
He scoured parenting forums online, typing out questions with the frantic urgency of his own customers. BABY WON’T SLEEP. BABY WON’T BE QUIET. BABY CLAWING THE FURNITURE. His pleas for help, if they were answered at all, elicited condescending responses from people who told him this was all part of the process. No one said raising a child would be easy, they wrote. Others reminded him he should be grateful, that not everyone was lucky enough to qualify for a baby.
During his nightly Facetimes with Patricia, Brian tried to mention these problems in a casual way that might suggest—though he was handling things just fine on his own—he needed her help. But while he recounted his harrowing episodes with the baby, she only nodded her head absently, as if listening to a song she found increasingly annoying despite its catchy tune.
“I’m just not sure what to do with it,” he said Wednesday night, gripping the baby firmly in his lap with gloved hands. “I’ve tried playing, and singing, and watching TV. It just cries. I think it hates me.”
“Why don’t you go for a drive? Maybe it has cabin fever.”
“You know I can’t do that,” Brian said. He hadn’t driven a car since the accident. Every time he got behind the wheel, he froze. He couldn’t even turn the ignition. It felt as though someone had carefully scooped out the section of his brain responsible for tricking him into believing that controlling an explosion-fueled death trap was just another mundane human activity, no more suicidal than brushing one’s teeth.
“So, what, you’re just never going to drive again? What happens if you need groceries? What about soccer practice, parent-teacher conferences? Will you just keep it locked in there with you until I get home?”
“We can go for a drive when you come home,” he said. “Friday, right?”
“Yeah, Friday’s looking good,” she said. “Though, with this weather, it’s hard to be certain.”
“It’s just a little snow.”
“Right. But you never know.”
“Never know what?” Brian made a sound like laughing. “If you’re coming home?”
“All I mean is that you need to get used to operating without me around. That was part of our arrangement, as you’ll recall.”
“I know that. But aren’t you excited to meet your baby?”
Brian held the baby aloft, hoping this might be the moment it chose to reveal some hidden grace—that it might stare at Patricia with surprising candor, or murmur the word “Momma.” The baby showed no interest in helping him, though, choosing instead to unleash a particularly powerful belch, the smell of which made Brian wonder if fish was the primary ingredient in its food squares.
“Not really,” Patricia said, grinning. Brian laughed. It felt good to hear her say it—to know he wasn’t alone in his distaste for the baby. Maybe, he thought, this was how parenting really worked: a mutual loathing that slowly blossomed into something like love.
All Thursday, he thought of Friday. He repeated the word in his mind as he struggled to wash the baby in the sink, suds splashing into his eyes. He chanted it like a mantra while he typed answers to customers’ questions about sagging floorboards and slanted porches, turning his head every few seconds to ensure the baby hadn’t spontaneously combusted.
On Friday all of this would become manageable. Patricia would return and set things straight. She was not one to be bullied.
When Patricia was fifteen, she’d been in a bicycle accident. As a result, she spent an entire year wearing a rigid plastic brace around her torso. Her parents were in the midst of a grueling divorce at the time, a separation that reduced Patricia’s role in the house to another possession over which they might ruthlessly struggle for ownership. She’d explained this all to Brian on their second date.
People started to treat her differently around this time, she said. They tempered their expectations, talking about her future like it was a crystal figurine so delicate it might break if handled too long.
She told him about the pain of that year, how it stalked her so doggedly that it seemed to imbue certain objects—a yellow rubber ball in the backyard, a pair of raggedy sneakers beside the door—with a kind of resonant hostility, as if the objects were directing a pulsing, red hatred in her direction.
“That’s terrible,” Brian said when she told him this.
“No, it isn’t,” she replied. “It taught me a very valuable lesson.”
Her unwillingness to elaborate on this lesson had lent it, in Brian’s mind, even greater authority. He’d faced no such formative trials in life, gently ushered into the world by kind, affable parents, who nurtured his love of building by allowing him to tackle odd jobs around the house, even if this often meant hiring an actual professional later on to fix the damage he’d done installing crooked flood boards or failing to reassemble the AC unit after taking it apart. He had spent so many years certain that every problem had a workable solution that when he met one that didn’t—Clay’s death—he’d crumpled with all the grandeur of a papier-mâché sculpture left out in the rain.
He asked Patricia once why she’d chosen him—why she, whose mind was as sleek and decisive as a fighter jet, had spent five years married to a clumsy handyman who still used his fingers to count.
“You’re dependable,” she said without a trace of irony.
Since then, he’d clung to that verdict. He tried to be, above all else, dependable. When Patricia was away, he kept the house in working order, installing stainless steel appliances, replacing the shingles on the roof, oiling hinges and swapping out lightbulbs. He made certain that she returned to a home free of all evidence of decline, as if the structure’s sturdiness might remind her of their own firm foundation.
He’d stopped doing these things after the accident. While Patricia was away, their home fell into disrepair: the door leading to the garage began to creak, a lip of water dribbled from the bathroom’s faucet, one of the burners on the stove took longer and longer to reach optimal heat. Patricia pretended to ignore these things, but Brian knew she must be keeping track, tallying up the home’s imperfections so she might one day present them all to him in a laminated folder.
Which was one of the reasons why he’d asked to get a baby. What better way to prove his dependability than to raise a child? Yet here he was, terrorized by a creature barely bigger than his foot.
Patricia would not be intimidated. He knew that once she arrived the baby would civilize itself whether it wanted to or not. Brian would help her drag it, snarling, into the realm of childhood, where they’d shape it into a bright, beautiful boy who knew the difference between right and wrong, who said please without being prodded, who understood that the world, though beautiful, was also painful and arrived at sorrow with all the necessary protections.
That night, when he called Patricia and listened to the phone ring, he found himself so overwhelmed by the image of their child, cherub-faced and docile, returning from school with macaroni paintings and report cards praising his good behavior, that when the ringing ended and Patricia’s voicemail began to play, he started talking immediately. It was only when he finally stopped speaking and was met with silence that he realized she hadn’t answered the call.
Brian reminded himself that this wasn’t the first time Patricia had missed one of their evening check-ins. Some nights she was simply too exhausted to talk. Brian made three more calls, just to be sure, and then texted her a series of question marks. When she failed to respond, he put the baby to sleep—or rather, its approximation of sleep, which involved an hour or two of hostile silence in the crib, followed by an eventual outburst that would bring Brian sprinting into the room—and tried to go to bed.
Patricia was due to arrive in the morning. Daybreak brought nothing but a glittering landscape of ice outside. She didn’t call or text to tell him she’d be late. Maybe her phone had died, he thought, or she’d accidentally left it in her client’s office. There were all kinds of reasons she might not arrive on time, all of which avoided the awful possibility swirling in Brian’s mind: that Patricia wasn’t coming back at all.
Brian often had this thought when Patricia left for one of her trips, especially in the months following Clay’s death. It was an unfortunate side effect of what he loved about her: the sense that he wasn’t essential to her life. He found it deeply romantic that she—whose wardrobe was composed of four or five formal outfits she could easily fit in a carry-on, who sometimes even forgot to unpack between trips—had decided Brian was worth settling down for, however briefly.
Even after they got married, she insisted on keeping her own bank account. She’d seen how disputes over money turned her parents’ divorce into a bloody campaign, where every fork and spoon, every roll of toilet paper, was accounted for and divvied up. “Better to keep certain things separate from the start,” she told him, and he found no reason to disagree. Only later did he consider the broader implication of her words: how she took for granted that sometime in the future they’d need to disentangle themselves.
Now, he imagined her dipping into that account to prolong her stay at the hotel. He thought of her taking careful stock of their relationship, running her algorithms, with their vague numerical mysteries, to decide just how high her marriage measured up in the balance sheet of her life.
As the hours passed and she failed to walk through the door, he began to wonder if the baby had been his final test. His chance, after the accident, to prove he was capable of self-sufficiency. Perhaps that’s why she’d agreed to it so readily. She’d watched him floundering through the week, heard the baby waling on the other end of the phone, and realized her husband had changed. He was no longer a dependable man.
While Brian paced through the house, the baby mimed his anxiety, sprinting from room to room, scrambling up onto counters and knocking off everything that wasn’t screwed down. Eventually it bumped Brian’s cup of coffee off the kitchen table, sending scalding fluid and shards of ceramic across the kitchen floor. Brian grabbed the baby, not even bothering with the gloves, and hurried it out the front door.
Brian tried to tell himself he fled the house because he needed to get the baby away from danger. Some other voice inside him, though, suggested a more disturbing explanation: that the moment the coffee cup shattered against the floor, Brian wanted to harm the baby, hurling its body against the wall or stuffing it in the trash. He’d felt some primal need to silence the baby at any cost. So he’d escaped, terrified of what he might do if they stayed inside any longer.
A cold gust buffeted Brian and the baby the moment they stepped outside. The street sparkled with fresh powder. Standing there, gazing up at the clouds, as gray and unyielding as cliffs, Brian felt strangely at ease. He hadn’t left the house all week—hadn’t smelled anything but bodily stink, hadn’t squinted his eyes at the bright reflection of sunlight on the icicles hanging from the edge of the roof. He stood there, overwhelmed by the silence of this crystal world, the only sound the quiet shuffling of the snow that crested, in lacey wisps, off the lips of the dunes in the front yard.
The baby, he realized, had stopped crying.
When he looked down, the baby’s dark eyes stared skyward in wide astonishment. A snowflake slowly drifted onto its snout. The baby snorted softly to dislodge it.
“Outside,” Brian said. “We’re outside.”
Patricia, even from afar, had known exactly what to do. All the baby needed was a walk.
He carried the baby down the street, his crunching footsteps plowing a path in the unblemished sidewalk. They crossed over the road into the park, where the boughs of the pines bent stoically beneath their snowy burdens. While they walked, Brian whispered words to the baby: tree, sky, bark, stone. The baby peered up at him, as if in understanding, and Brian wondered if it could be this simple; if just a few monosyllables were all the baby really needed to know.
When they came to a bench, he wiped the snow off its iron seat and sat down. He watched the flakes gather in the baby’s fur, caught in the thick follicles like tufts of cotton.
“I don’t think I’m very good at this, Baby,” Brian said.
He was struck, now, by how foolish it was that the baby still lacked a name. He watched the slow rise and fall of its naked chest. “Maybe I’ll call you Snow,” he said. “Can you name a baby Snow?”
The baby responded by curling in his lap. Seeing it there, eyes closed, a single claw tucked tenderly into its mouth, filled Brian with sudden warmth. He didn’t even feel the cold wind anymore, just a flash of heat. Odd, given how much his arms were shaking.
“Clay loved the snow,” Brian said. “On the night he died, he was talking about the snow. When he was a kid he used to drive up to a cabin with his mom every winter. She’d try to get him to go outside and play—to build snowmen with the neighbors or sled down the driveway—but all he wanted to do was sit inside and watch the snow fall.”
Brian stared at the trees while he spoke, pondering their sturdiness—how defiant they appeared, bark stark against all the white. “He wanted to build a cabin just like that out in the country and fill it with babies. He wanted a bunch of kids. Talked about it all the time.”
Someday, Brian thought, he would tell the baby about Clay. About how his death proved that the world was not a solid thing—not a rigid bit of plaster or wood one could repair at the first sign of failure—but something far more unstable. Something you could drown in, if you didn’t have the foresight to learn how to float.
And maybe, when enough time had passed, and Brian could talk about it without feeling like the ground was crumbling beneath his feet, he would tell the baby about that night. The way Clay’s blood pooled dark on the dashboard, as if impenetrable to the light. How the steel pipe was lodged so deep and firmly in his head that it looked like it had always been a part of him. Brian could tell the baby what it felt like to sit there, the world so quiet he could hear the snow plinking down on the hood of the smoking truck, and realize that he’d passed a certain threshold; that he would never feel safe again.
The snow was falling so heavily that the trees had transformed into vague shadows in the distance. Brian didn’t know how long he’d been sitting there, but the baby’s body was swaddled in a few inches of powder. When Brian went to wipe it off, he discovered the baby’s body was cold. Much colder, in fact, than he thought a baby’s body should ever be.
He gave the baby a nudge, but it didn’t move. He shook the baby, but it remained still.
An immense calm settled over Brian. The baby was dead. In a way, he was relieved. The worst possible thing had happened, and it felt like proof of a fact he’d known since Clay’s died: that he could no longer be trusted. He did not deserve the responsibilities that came with being alive.
Then, he felt the baby’s heartbeat. It was weak, but it was there—a faint pulse beneath its thin skin. Brian rushed to his feet but lost his footing almost immediately, slipping to the ground. His legs were unnaturally clumsy, as if they were receiving signals from his brain one second too late. He fell two more times before regaining his footing.
A figure was marching towards him through the snow, arms crossed in a puffy blue parka. Brian briefly wondered if it was god, or maybe one of his angels, the disappointment in their voice the final sound he would hear before he was consigned to hell. But then the figure stepped closer, and he saw that it was Patricia, frowning from underneath a knit cap.
“What are you wearing? It’s freezing.”
Brian looked down: he’d left the house in nothing but his thin pajama pants and a t-shirt. He hadn’t even bothered with boots. The soaked gray fabric of his socks clung to his toes.
“The baby,” he said, holding its limp body out before him. “It’s freezing to death.”
Just as he spoke, the baby began to cry. Loud, horrible sobs that blended with the howling wind, as though the baby had hijacked the atmosphere to give voice to its displeasure.
“Sounds alive to me,” Patricia said. She reached out and plucked the baby out of his hands, stuffing it under one arm and hooking Brian’s armpit with the other, like her husband was an elderly woman who needed to be escorted across the street. “Let’s get you two back inside.”
“Where have you been?”
“Flight was delayed.”
“You didn’t return my calls.”
“Forgot my phone charger at the client’s office. Didn’t think you would go all Jack London on me if we didn’t speak for a few hours.”
They trudged back to the road. Brian couldn’t feel his feet.
“You came back,” he said. “You actually came back.”
Patricia stopped and looked at him. Brian thought of what she saw: her husband, drenched and trembling beside her, eyes sunken from lack of sleep. He’d barely made it a week without her, and he could tell, from the question struggling on her face, that she was performing her private equations, adding and subtracting the variables, estimating the odds of whether she might raise a human being with this man. But then her expression changed. Brian was wrong: there was no calculation there. Just disappointment. And hurt.
Their child wrestled in her grasp while they stood there, desperate to flee whatever these two people planned to do with it.
“Of course I came back,” Patricia said, her voice weary with all the miles she’d crossed to arrive here, at her home. “Where else would I go?”