Megan leans into the bathroom counter, palms pressed between scattered bobby pins and globs of toothpaste and lotion bottles she never remembers to put back in the drawer. Aaron stands beside her, arms crossed.
“Listen,” she says. “Be really quiet. You can hear it best if you’re standing right here.”
He stares toward his own reflection in the mirror. She stares at him, watching his face for any sort of reaction. His jaw remains set, eyes blank. She waits another moment.
“Did you hear it?”
He crosses to the window and opens it. She pushes herself off the counter and reaches over his shoulder to slam it back shut. “What are you doing? It has to be quiet!”
He watches the closed window. “It’s just crickets or something. A bird. Something outside.”
“No.” She paces from window to sink, a five-foot path between him and the counter. “No, it’s too steady to be something alive. It has a rhythm. Like it’s mechanical. Didn’t you hear it?”
“Maybe it’s a pipe or a pump or something. Are there any pumps under the house here?” The thought crosses her mind that if it is coming from beneath the house, it could be from something broken, or about to break. “Is the water heater under here?”
“No.” He walks out and shuts the bathroom door behind him. Megan stands by the counter and closes her eyes. At first she only hears the usual symphony of the house—the buzz of the fan at the end of the hall to cool the bedrooms at night, the hum of the refrigerator, the whoosh of the white-noise machine they bought when James was first born and that he still, at nearly two years old, can’t sleep without. But then the noise rises above it. Whiiiiiine whir. Whiiiiiine whir. Whiiiiiine whir.
She stays a long time and listens.
She told Aaron about Nick two weeks ago. They were lying in bed just after turning out the light. For a few minutes she considered just lying still until he started snoring, but instead she whispered, “I have to tell you something.” And everything went from there.
“Nick from your softball team?”
She nodded, her hair swishing against the pillow in the dark.
“With the mustache—Nick?”
She nodded again. He sat up and grasped around on the floor for his T-shirt. He pulled it on, sat on the edge of the bed a moment, and left. She stayed, flat on her back, hands clasped on her stomach where she could feel the heat of her skin and the manic beat of her heart. She waited to hear something. The creak of his chair reclining. The front door opening, his car door slamming, the engine starting.
But then it was only his footsteps in the hallway, the brush of fabric on skin as he lifted the shirt off again, the gentle squeak of the bedsprings as he settled back into place.
She waited for him to say something, but he didn’t. That was two weeks ago.
Megan doesn’t notice the noise in the bathroom when she’s getting ready the next day. She spends the morning wandering the backyard with James, then drops him at the sitter and spends a few fruitless hours sketching in her studio before picking him up again. She makes dinner early so they can all eat together as soon as Aaron gets home from work, before she heads out to a concert in the park with some of her friends she met earlier that summer on the softball team. Not Nick.
One of the younger women sneaks in beers in her enormous purse, and they all sit far away from the stage, leaning on an elm tree and drinking. The band has at least fifteen people in it—banjo player and conga drummer and brass section and backup singers with tambourines—and Megan can’t keep track of when one song ends and another starts. Her feet start tingling after the second beer and she’s glad she’s close enough to walk home.
Aaron is already in bed, motionless, when she arrives. She leaves the hallway light on, changes into her pajamas and tiptoes into James’ room to lean over the crib and listen to him breathe. In the bathroom she brushes her teeth and washes her face and is about to turn off the light when she remembers the sound.
She hears it right away. Whiiiiiine whir. Louder than before, maybe. And not coming from under the house. It’s in the room. She paces the same path as before. The sound is loudest by sink, like she told him. Even louder when she leans into the counter. She looks up at the frosted-glass sheath covering the lightbulbs above the mirror. She braces herself with her palms and lifts her knees onto the counter. From here she can hear it perfectly. It’s coming from the light.
She examines the little brass knobs in the corners of the fixture and wonders what kind of tool she’d use to take them off. Maybe there’s a screw somewhere in the back? She presses her cheek to the mirror to look down the inside of it. Something moves.
Megan knocks the toothbrush cup and sends it clattering to the floor. She freezes and realizes the noise has stopped. This time, slower, she peers into the light cover. The lightbulb closest to her is burnt out. Something blocks the glare from the bulbs beside it—the silhouette of a little box.
She reaches in, careful not to touch the burned-out bulb, and taps on the box. It might be hot, she thinks. But it’s only warm and smooth. She gains the confidence to touch it again, this time with two fingers. It feels not quite like plastic, not quite like metal. She runs a fingertip around the top edge, which is slightly rounded, no sharp corners. As delicately as she can, she slides her fingers down its sides, lifts it over the darkened bulb and pulls it out.
The cube fits neatly in her palm, the size and shape of a ring box. It’s deep grey with the slightest metallic shine. She examines it for latches or openings, but it’s perfectly even on the top and sides. She inspects the bottom, and just as it reaches her eye level, it wiggles.
She jerks backward but manages to stay on the counter and keep the box in her hand. She shifts from kneeling to sitting cross legged, one knee crammed against the wall and the other hanging over the lip of the sink, not caring she’s sitting on the junk on the counter, probably getting some sort of goo on her pajama bottoms. She lifts the box again, and it wiggles again. Without meaning to, she laughs. The box wobbles, seemingly in response. She draws it close to her face and, not sure what else to say, whispers, “Hello?”
A tiny popping sound and eight legs emerge from the surface, two on each of the four sides. They’re delicate, spindly, long jointed tubes of the same grey material as the box. They sweep around Megan’s hands, pointed tips poking into her skin, but not enough to hurt. Then they stiffen, boosting the central box, which pops again as the lid collapses into the rest of the cube. From the resulting hole rises a smaller box, more rectangular and lighter grey. It spins, mounted on a tiny stalk attached to the body, then stops. A purple light appears at its center.
An eye, thinks Megan. It’s a robot.
As fluidly as it had unfurled, the robot springs from Megan’s hand. Its legs soften its landing and it navigates the counter and scurries up the mirror, effortlessly defying gravity. But instead of returning inside the light cover, it perches on top and arranges its legs for a moment. With a soft whistle a thin, shiny wire extends from its body, just beside the neck, spooling to four times the length of the robot. The wire flails, feeling around like an arm searching in the dark, then turns toward the inside of the light cover. Megan scrambles to her knees so she can see inside, and looks in just in time to see the wire slip into the thin space at the base of the burned-out bulb.
The robot is still. And then: Whiiiiiine whir. Whiiiiiine whir. Whiiiiiine whir.
Hours later, Megan lies in bed, awake. If she concentrates she thinks she can hear the sound of the little robot from down the hall. For a long time she had just watched it sitting there on top of the light, but after a while she couldn’t resist the urge to touch it again. She was getting tired, and instead of a gentle stroke she prodded it with an ungraceful finger. It flicked its wire back into its boxy body and scurried inside to its place among the bulbs. She thought about climbing back on the counter and pulling it out again, but decided that might upset it. So she went to bed.
She keeps replaying the scene in her head—the first glimpse, the way it felt, the awe of watching it unfold in her hand. The robot was such a remarkable experience that thinking of it feels less like remembering something she’s actually done, and more like recalling a movie she’s seen or a story she’s heard.
She rolls it across her mind again and again. Each time it feels less real.
James’ cry from his crib shakes Megan awake. She’s not sure how long she slept–doesn’t remember falling asleep, or the last time she looked at a clock. Could have been minutes. Hours, maybe, but not many. James shouts again and Aaron mumbles something into his pillow. Megan lifts herself onto her elbows but is shoved back down by the pounding in her head.
Aaron tilts his eyes out of the nest of his arms. “You OK?”
She presses her arms over her face, head still swimming. “I feel awful.”
“You sleep OK?” He sleeps so deeply he doesn’t usually notice if she’s up, even if she’s in and out of bed.
She squeezes her arms tighter and shakes her head. “I think I just need some rest.”
“Go ahead,” he says, and as he dresses he talks about calling the sitter and seeing if he can drop James off early, or maybe just taking him to the office for a couple hours. Megan doesn’t offer any thoughts. She just breathes deep and slow through her nose until she hears the bedroom door click shut and James’ happy squeal across the hallway. Then she falls asleep.
When she wakes the house is still. She sits up slowly to test her headache and when no wave of pain comes, she smiles and stretches back out on the bed. She could still go back to sleep, she thinks. All day if she wants. But then her mind finds the robot again.
She rushes to the bathroom, greeted by the now-familiar noise. She bounds onto the counter but misjudges and kneels on a jagged lump—a pair nail clippers—the force of metal into the unyielding flesh of her knee sending her heaving back to the ground. Her first instinct is to just sweep everything onto the floor, but she catches herself. If she cleans the counter, maybe the robot will wander around on it. So she sorts things into drawers, scrubs up the soap scum and sticky toothpaste, leaving just the toothbrush cup, which she moves to the other side of the sink.
This time she is fearless and reaches into the light and plucks the robot out. She sets it on the counter and kneels on the floor, so the box is at eye level. “Hello,” she says, just like the night before. “Hello there, little guy.”
And again the box stirs and the legs appear and the robot is there. It scuttles forward to her, its purple eye sweeping across her brown ones. The light blinks off. She holds her breath. It blinks back on again and the robot retreats, right up the mirror and onto the light case. It sends out its wire, which this time does not search but instead threads directly inside to the burnt-out bulb. Whiiiiiine whir.
“Hey,” says Megan. “Hey, there. Don’t you want to go exploring?”
“I cleaned the counter for you. See?”
She supposes she could just leave it to do whatever it’s doing. It seems peaceful there, whirring away. But she can’t just leave it alone. Not now. Not when she has it and the whole house to herself and time to spare. She can’t help herself.
She eases up onto the counter, planning her strategy as she goes. She slides one hand up to the light first, blocking the robot’s entrance. Then she pokes it, a little less sloppily than last night but hard enough that she hopes it will react—and it does. But before it can duck back into the light, she grabs it.
Immediately the robot sucks into itself, becoming again a sleek, featureless box. Megan swears. She sets it on the counter, takes a step back, and waits. It just sits there, silent and lifeless.
“Oh, come on,” she says. “I’ll leave you alone. I just want to see what you can do. Come out.”
She realizes she’s not sure if it can understand her; if it’s been reacting to her words or just the sound of her voice. She touches its side, careful to barely let her skin slip along the glossy surface. Nothing.
She scared it. She moved too fast. She needs to give it space, give it time to feel safe again. Her heart wrenches at the thought it might be frightened of her. Can it feel fright? Maybe if she leaves, waits a bit, she can come back and be calmer, more soothing. She picks it up, trying to be swift but light, and nudges it back into the light fixture.
She closes the door and stands outside, her mind still on the robot. If she stays in the house, it’s all she’ll think about for the rest of the day. She decides to go to her studio, and on the way out the door stops. She wasn’t listening closely enough to Aaron’s mutterings to hear when he’d be home. She doesn’t want to bother him at work, but he’ll be worried if he finds the house empty.
She finds a piece of paper and scribbles, “Felt better, went out.” Not a lie.
A painting in progress is on her easel, a landscape of central Washington’s channeled scablands commissioned by a wealthy couple from Seattle. She has been struggling with it for weeks, trying to give brightness and movement to a swath of brown and desolate land pockmarked by columns of basalt and the thin, measly offshoots of rivers. It was carved this way, she knows, by the enormous movements of glaciers and winds and time. But the canvas doesn’t show it. She adds a cow, a tiny black-and-white Holstein, standing in a distant field, scraping tan and green around its legs for grass. She perches on a stool across the room and stares at the scene. It has no light in it. The cow looks ill.
With a surge of energy, she yanks the canvas off the easel and flings it onto a table in the corner. She pulls a fresh canvas from the cupboard and smears a clean palette with paint, grey and charcoal and blue and black and lavender and white.
The shape is easy: the perfect cube with its barely rounded edges. She swirls the colors together, laying down strokes of marbled pigment, darker at the bottom of the cube, brighter at the top—the reflection of the unseen light. She hasn’t bothered with a background, just created it alone in the bare white middle of the canvas.
She steps back. It’s not right, not at all. It’s not smooth enough. It looks too cold. It doesn’t look light enough, not like it could sprout legs and walk. Not like it’s alive.
She swaps the canvas for the channeled scablands again. She paints over the cow and feels her headache creeping back, and goes home.
Aaron and James greet her with sloppy kisses and stir fry half made. They have a good night, a normal night. After dinner Aaron tells Megan to take a break, read a little or play on her phone, he’ll give James his bath. Megan almost insists on doing it herself, even though she finds bathing the baby one of the most stressful parts of her day—the tub so slippery, the boy so willing to test his small, fat feet on its slick surfaces. He howls when she rinses the shampoo from his hair, and she hasn’t figured out how to cover his eyes the right way and convince him to tilt his chin. But she thinks about the robot before forcing herself to sit down with a book.
When James is in bed Aaron asks if she wants to watch a movie or play a game or something. She suggests a card game and teaches him Egyptian War, which she hasn’t played since high school. The game involves racing to slap certain cards, and he laughs when he’s faster than her and her palm smacks the rough, warm back of his hand. After a few rounds her hand stings, and she says she’s tired. She falls asleep before 9, while Aaron is still cleaning the kitchen.
For days they go on like this: the morning routine, the rituals of childcare, the rites of bedtime, the liturgy of breakfast, work, dinner, sleep. At home Megan forces herself to avoid thinking of the robot. It has not made a sound since she frightened it.
But in the studio, she returns the canvas with the little box to her easel, adding black and yellow, smudging on new shadows, the brush swishing across the layers of paint below.
After a week she can’t contain herself. She wakes one night when Aaron and the baby are sleeping, checks her phone and sees it’s just past midnight. She goes into the bathroom, wipes down the counter and rises onto it. She holds her breath and moves slow, keeping her body pressed to the mirror.
When she’s hovering just below the light fixture she opens her eyes and is stunned by her own reflection. She does not normally look at herself this close up. She doesn’t spend much time looking into the mirror at all, really, just stands the counter’s width in front of it a few times a day to brush her teeth or wrangle her hair into place. She has never been a woman to gaze at her own image, but now she’s started by the freckles and pores, the tiny scar on the left side of her nose, the wispy pale hairs on her upper lip, the smooth curves of her cheekbones.
She sits back and looks at herself. She is wearing a dingy white tanktop and blue zig-zagged sweats, the same pajamas she wore the night she discovered the robot. But she’s happy with the gentle curve of her hips, the breadth of her shoulders. She hadn’t realized how thoroughly the wilted looseness of having just had a baby has worn away from her body. She looks young, she thinks, and strong.
That was the whole idea behind joining a rec league softball team earlier this summer. She’d enjoyed the sport enough in high school but hadn’t picked up a bat in years. But it would be good for her, Aaron had said, and she’d agreed. It would get her out of the house, into the fresh air. Get her moving. Let her meet some new people outside her usual, and often half-hearted, relationships with other artists and mothers of small children. She seemed, Aaron said, to need something new.
And she’d met Nick, green-eyed and lithe. Younger than her by six years, still practically a kid at twenty-three. An accountant. Not actually that great of a center fielder, standing behind Megan’s post at second base, cracking jokes and whistling at the batters. She stretched and turned during a slow inning once and saw him, glove loose in his hands, watching her. He didn’t turn away.
Megan realizes she does not look like she did when she was younger. She looks like she never has before.
And suddenly there’s an electric snap and the second light bulb in the fixture just inches from her head burns out. She hears it, bright and sharp and louder than before. Whiiiiiine whir. Whiiiiiine whir. Whiiiiiine whir.
She peers into the light fixture and the robot is there, perched on the very edge, its wire in the second light socket, its purple eye on her.
Aaron never says anything about the burned-out bulbs in the bathroom, which is odd. Things like lights and fire alarms and door locks are his territory, a “man of the house” tradition left unchallenged. Megan can’t remember the last time she changed a lightbulb, actually. But the late-summer mornings are bright, and showering in the warm morning sunlight through the window rather than in harsh electric rays is kind of nice. Brushing their teeth in the fading evening lit by the lone bulb is soothing. So maybe he just doesn’t care.
Megan has concluded the bulbs aren’t burned out, anyway. They’re the coiled energy-saving kind, installed when they bought the house when James was six months old, and shouldn’t have burned out by now. The robot has been diverting power from them, sucking their sockets dry. She’s decided it was attracted here, wherever it came from, by the three bulbs burning hot in a row. It was hungry, or thirsty, drawn to the lights like a honeybee to a flower. If it could reason on the level of knowing to camouflage itself—and Megan is somewhat sure it can—the long, opaque light cover must have appeared to be a perfect hiding spot. But that sound gave it away.
She hears it constantly now, the whiiiiiine whir always in the back of her brain. Sometimes she stops thinking about it, but she never completely tunes it out. Sometimes she hears it even when she’s in the backyard or at her studio or in the grocery story, imagining it so perfectly it’s indistinguishable from reality, the way she used to imagine James’ newborn cry and rush to him, only to find him sound asleep.
It doesn’t distract her, exactly, just keeps her from putting her attention fully on anything else. She dozes through television shows and books, stares into space as she hands puzzle pieces and plastic animals to James, finds herself frozen at the cutting board, the knife poised and unmoving above the carrots she’s chopping for dinner. And every moment she finds herself free and alone in the house, she runs to it.
The robot doesn’t make the noise when it’s with her, of course, out of the light. It stays out much longer now. Maybe it’s stronger or less afraid. She isn’t sure. It never sits on top anymore, but is always at the edge of the fixture, as if waiting, when she looks in. It scales the mirror and wanders the counter and even, if she carries it, will climb around the tub and shower, prodding the faucet and soap and razors with its legs. She takes it to the kitchen and lets it skitter around the sink and scurry up the window. She lifts it to the light over the stove to see if it might be interested in tasting a different stream of electricity, but it just crawls up the range hood, disinterested.
She wonders if she can teach it tricks and sets up an obstacle course of towels and bottles on the bathroom floor. From the hallway she calls to it. Its purple eye swivels to her, but it takes a straight route over and between, refusing to follow the path. A game of fetch with a paperclip fails, too. She does manage to convince it, though, to perch on her shoulder like a strange metallic bird.
One morning, when the climbing tricks are beginning to lose their luster, she decides to take it out in the backyard. She cups it in her palm and slides the door open. But the moment her foot crosses the threshold, it whirs loudly, sucks into itself and becomes an expressionless box.
“What,” Megan says, “you don’t like that? There’s sunshine out there. Isn’t light kind of your thing?”
The robot stays in box-mode so long she stuffs it back into the light and goes to the studio for the rest of the day. She fixed the channeled scablands painting by adding a distant waterfall and has since started another landscape, this one of an easier and more pleasant lake scene in Montana, but whenever she tires of crystal water and stately pines she practices painting the robot. She hasn’t attempted its legs or eye stalk. The mix of color and shadow to replicate the box is getting better, though. Almost exactly right. She paints it over and over again, watching the strokes of color blend into the familiar shape. She finds herself gazing at the painted creature and remembering the flushed, awed moment she first saw it in real life.
Aaron stops by the studio one day, without warning, the baby in tow. When he turns to admire the Montana painting, James dives for an open tube of Prussian blue. Aaron whisks it away just in time and crosses the small studio to hide it on a tall shelf. Megan sees something else catch his eye—one of the robot paintings, leaning in a pile against other rejected canvases. He picks it up.
“What’s this one?”
“Just an abstract I’ve been working on.” She’s amazed at how easily the lie comes.
He holds it out in front of him, arms stiff, brow furrowed, teeth anchored between lips, for what feels like minutes.
“I don’t like it,” he says, and offers it back to her.
He’s never criticized one of her paintings before. She pulls it from his hands and stashes it back across the studio, turning the painted surface away from him so they can only see the back, the rough canvas stapled to wood. “Sorry,” he says. “I just like your landscapes better, is all.”
She goes to the sink and begins scrubbing paint-caked brushes. She slams the faucet off and looks over to Aaron, still standing there, holding James. He shifts the baby to his side, strokes James’ hair, cups his cheek and ear in his hand as if to keep him from hearing what he’s about to say.
“Is it over?”
For a moment Megan thinks he’s talking about the painting. But no. She knows what he means. “I haven’t seen him.”
Aaron nods and turns to leave, James waving over his shoulder.
A week later the Montana painting is nearly done, but Megan hasn’t bothered to pick it up again. The ash-colored pits under her eyes grow deeper as she begins waking nightly to sit in the bathroom and watch the robot wander what must feel to it like an expanse of tile and glass and porcelain. Sometimes she only sleeps during the day, while Aaron is at work and James is with the sitter. She tries, three times more, to take the robot outside, and each time it refuses. Once she tries to coax it out a window and it disappears into itself for four days, leaving her blank and exhausted, waiting.
She starts talking to it. She always has, in some ways—a few sweet words to encourage it, a running commentary of the things it touched as it explored her house—but she finds herself now emptying her mind, letting the words melt and rush out, a snow-swollen stream in spring. One day she lies on the kitchen floor and closes her eyes and lets the robot roam while she speaks. She tells it about Nick, about the clear apple green of his irises, the scrape of his cheek beneath her palm, the sound of his voice when he said her name. All the things she can’t tell Aaron; all the things Aaron has never asked her. The moment in the studio was the first time they’d spoken about it since she told him. And she told him the truth, too. She hasn’t seen Nick, hasn’t heard a word from him.
She bathes in the twin sorrows of loss and shame: Nick won’t speak to her, and maybe never should have; Aaron won’t hear her, and maybe never will again; she’s sorry, but maybe not as sorry as she should be.
She tells the robot that, too. She relishes the way her words echo through the room, the way they mingle with the click-click-click of thin metal feet on the floor around her.
The sitter calls in sick one morning. Aaron has meetings. He furrows his forehead and asks whether Megan might be willing to skip her studio to spend the day with James. He can miss his meetings, he says, if she needs him to. But he doesn’t know she hasn’t been to the studio in days. Painting the robot has ceased to be satisfying. Even as she perfected her replication of its colors and shadows and silky sheen, it was never real. And she could be with the real thing whenever she wanted, and it would bob around the house, just listening, just letting her watch it move.
She considers telling Aaron she really needs to work on the Montana painting, but James is in a bright and burbling mood, chattering away to his bananas and Cheerios in his booster seat at the kitchen table. The robot has been in high spirits lately, too. She was up half the night as it sprang across the counters and tested its ability to walk straight up walls, finally whirring with what seemed like joy just before dawn when she placed it back in the bathroom so it could slurp the last lightbulb through its wire. Maybe, she thinks, it’s time the two should meet.
“No, no, I can stay home with him,” she tells Aaron. “We’ll have a fun day.”
She decides to wait until an hour after Aaron is gone. She checks the fridge to ensure he’s taken his lunch with him, his dresser to make sure he’s remembered his wallet and phone. Nothing remains, she thinks, to draw him back to the house. She and James stack blocks as she waits. The baby uses his fists and feet to knock his towers over, giggling at the clattering wood. Megan laughs at his laughter, helps him restack the blocks high and counts down “three, two, one!” before he batters them again, but she keeps turning to check the clock over her shoulder.
Satisfied finally that they have the house to themselves, she sweeps the blocks behind her and takes James’ butter-soft cheeks into her hands. “Are you ready to see something amazing, buddy?” she asks. James leans away from her at first, searching for the blocks, but she holds out her hand and he grabs it. “Come on, let’s go see Mommy’s surprise.”
In the bathroom she hoists him onto the counter. He presses his palms to the mirror and smiles at himself. He and Aaron play a game sometimes, talking and making faces at James’ reflection like it’s an unfamiliar child. “Baby?” he asks.
“No, bud, not the baby in the mirror. This is way better, I promise.” She points at the light fixture, from which comes the roar of the robot’s whirring. He follows her finger with his eyes and tilts his head, listening.
She kneels on the counter behind him, bracing him to her with an arm around his stomach, and gently taps the glass covering the light. The robot appears.
“Oh,” James whispers as it crawls down his mother’s arm. “Ohhh.”
Megan slips off the counter and swings James onto her hip, holding him as they watch the robot dance across the sink and down the vanity and onto the floor and out the bathroom door. It seems to know it is performing for a new audience, scaling every appliance in the kitchen, scampering across the tops of the sugar and flour containers while James continues to point and laugh and make sounds of awe.
Before long, though, Megan’s arms grow tired of holding the boy. Her head rings and her eyes ache. The robot is a novelty for James, but she watched it do all this just last night. This morning, really. She slept two, maybe three hours? James’ naptime isn’t until early afternoon, but if she gives him a pile of books and blocks she can buy a twenty-minute nap.
She tucks the robot into the light and leaves James and his toys in his crib. She drifts off to sleep hearing the baby babble gently to himself, backed by the robot’s steady, comforting whiiiiiine whir.
She wakes to silence. It is so stunning she lies still for a moment, trying to process it. All summer now she’s listened to the robot, counted on its presence, let it seep into her days and nights. There have been times she’s been distracted and failed to listen, but it has never before stopped unless she made it, unless she earned it by drawing the robot out of the light.
And then, a sound from James’ room. A small, startled cry.
She leaps from her bed and crosses the hall, her eyes taking a moment to adjust to the dim light through the thick curtains. James is there, sitting up in his crib, as she left him. But the robot is there, too. It perches on the baby’s knee, its legs puncturing the fabric of his sweatpants. One front leg is lifted, outstretched, and as Megan creeps closer she sees it: a thin line of light glinting off glass. A tube extending from the robot’s leg to James’ inner elbow, piercing the thin, pink skin.
James is still, stiff, watching it, his lips dropped open in a silent oh. For a moment, Megan is frozen, too.
It begins, barely perceptible at first: whiiiiiine whir.
James whimpers, and his eyes, glassy with tears, dart to Megan. Whiiiiiine whir.
An intangible cold rises up her neck, across the crown of her head, through her ribs, down her arms, into her stomach. She fumbles, flails, dives across the room, swooping her arms into the crib. She rips the robot up and back, her fist tightening around its legs before it can retreat inside itself. She torques her wrist and slams the robot into a wooden slat of the crib, then raises it and beats it against the thick top rail. James screams but Megan keeps bashing the slight grey box against the thick oak. She doesn’t stop until James gasps from exhaustion and buries his head into his blankets, and she realizes the sound is gone.
She takes the body of the robot to the kitchen and retrieves a brown paper sack from beneath the sink. Somehow the box is undented, the legs unbroken, but the robot is limp and silent. She drops it into the sack and rolls the top tight.
In James’ room she tugs the blankets off his head. His face is pressed to the tear-damp crib sheet, and she runs her fingers through his knotted hair. He rises, raw cheeked and puffy eyed. She smiles at him and he smiles back. “Want to go for a walk, buddy? Just you and me.” Before she puts on his sweatshirt and shoes, she digs a bandage out of the bathroom cupboard and sticks it over the faint red mark on his arm—a mark she knows she will watch until it’s gone, but he seems to have already forgotten about as he plays with the velcro on his sneakers.
Outside they walk and she listens to the distant rumble of traffic across the city, the neighbor’s bellowing sheepdog. James twists in his stroller to get a better look at a crow calling high in a cottonwood tree. They pass an apartment complex with a dumpster and Megan drops the sack in. Its thud echoes as it hits the empty steel bottom. She slams the lid and they walk away.
That night, she climbs into bed as soon as James is curled in his crib. She closes her eyes and listens to the slow, delicate rise and fall of her own breath. She is nearly asleep when Aaron comes in and flicks off the light. He gets in beside her, scrunching his pillow and shifting until he settles on his back. They’re quiet for a moment.
“That noise you were hearing in the bathroom?” he says. “I think it stopped.”
Originally published in Moss: Volume Three.