The weather outside is feral, and snow-clotted. And when the doctor says hold the baby, they do.
They’re in the emergency room. The baby had thrown a fever, and that’s why they brought him in, through the Oregon winter, at this time of night. Now, everyone is worried.
Hold him so he sits up, the doctor says. She is on one side of the hospital bed, and they, Sean and Clare, are on the other. The baby is between them, crinkling the hospital paper.
Earlier he’d been lethargic, ashen. But now he seems fine. A male nurse had given him sugar water from a plastic capsule, which had perked him up. He is alert and chirping now, moving his arms straight up and down as if practicing a swim-stroke, or signaling a truck on the road.
He seems fine, Sean says.
This is just a precaution, the doctor says. We’re worried about the things we can’t see.
The baby is five weeks old and has almost no hair at all. Little boy, his little head a little melon his body can’t quite support. He is so small. The room is curtained, and large impassive machines, pushed against the wall, bulk into the room like sleeping sentinels, powered down. He, Sean, assumes they are life-giving, used in emergency situations, but their screens are blank, so he doesn’t really know.
Ready? the doctor says. She had warned them about the needle but still it is a surprise to see it. They nod.
They prop the baby up so his back is to the doctor, and coo to distract him. They see the pain flash across his face and it registers as their pain before he cries out. But the squall passes quickly, and as soon as the doctor’s face relaxes they take him into their arms and bounce him around. He is their first, and hadn’t come easily. And now that he is here, in this hospital, they think only of losing him.
Is that hard to do? Sean asks the doctor. He means threading a large needle into the back of a baby, and finding the fluid that would give them the information they required. He means using a needle as a divining stick. He means causing pain in order to possibly prevent more, and worse, pain.
Not really, the doctor says. But she is sweating. When she leaves, another young woman parts the curtains and stands at the foot of the bed. This is how the hospital works: doors open and shut with no sound. Curtains part. She’s holding a clipboard.
Would you say the care you received today has been satisfactory, unsatisfactory, or exceptional? she asks.
Who are you? Clare says. She’s holding the baby, threading his arms back into his pajamas. The woman disappears.
The baby falls asleep on Clare. They wait and wait for someone to tell them what will happen next. Eventually the male nurse from earlier comes in.
Angels when they sleep, he says.
Do you have kids? Sean asks.
Oh, no, the male nurse says. He tells them to grab their stuff, and follow him to the NICU.
What stuff? Clare says.
The male nurse seems confused. He looks around and sees no stuff. He checks his clipboard. Yup, his head seems to say. Well, he says, follow me anyway.
The new room has a television, a small crib, and more sleeping machines. On the walls there are comforting paintings, fat ships in calm seas. In one corner is a large chair. With a flourish, the male nurse shows them how it folds into a bed. Voila, he says, and leaves.
They tuck their baby, still sleeping, into the crib. They’d followed the male nurse through empty corridor after empty corridor. They’d turned: left, right, left again. An elevator dinged. Left, left, right, and then he’d swiped the door with a card and they’d followed.
Where is everyone? Clare asks, now that the three of them are alone in the new room. There are no clocks or windows in the room and therefore it feels like there is no time in the room. In their hurry, they’d left their phones at home in the kitchen.
We should sleep, Sean says.
Sleep! Clare says. The lighting in the room is industrial and humming a fluorescent tune. Neither of them can find a switch to turn it off, but the baby doesn’t seem to mind. He’s decided on sleep. He’s powered down.
They know it’s morning when a doctor opens the door and says Good Morning. This doctor is a young woman, though a different young woman than the doctor they saw before. She’s holding a clipboard. The tests are going well, she informs them, but they are inconclusive. They will need to run more tests before discharge.
Why is the baby still sleeping? Clare says. Why isn’t he hungry?
It’s natural, the doctor says, and leaves.
More doctors come into the room, but no one will answer any questions about the baby. The only thing that anyone will say is that they will have to stay in the hospital for a little while longer while more tests are run. The baby sleeps through all of it. The male nurse walks in.
Whoops, he says. Wrong room.
Why won’t anyone tell us what’s wrong? Clare says.
Well, he says, these doctors? They’re also scientists. They believe in certainty. They don’t really like to guess at things.
How long have we been here? Clare asks.
The male nurse checks his wristwatch. Two days, he says.
It doesn’t feel like it’s been two days, Sean says.
I hear that a lot, the male nurse says, and leaves.
When they’re alone, Clare cries. I’m going to wake him up, she says. She means their baby. I’m going to wake him up and we’re going to leave.
I don’t think that’s a good idea, Sean says. We don’t know anything.
No one knows anything, Clare says. She’s not crying anymore. She picks the baby, who is still sleeping, up from the crib and puts him to her breast. His eyes flutter but he won’t open his mouth.
Come on, Clare says. A small alarm goes off and suddenly there is a nurse with red hair in the room, looking at Clare disapprovingly.
We get signaled when the babies leave their cribs, she says. There are sensors in the mattress.
When does he eat? Clare says.
This is a hospital, the red-haired nurse says. She takes the baby from Clare and eases him back on the crib’s mattress. The alarm stops. We’ll take care of that, she says. You should try to relax.
Are you a mother? Clare says. Are you asking me to relax?
You’re not here for nothing, the nurse says. If you need to hold a baby, we can get you a baby to hold. But this baby needs to stay on this mattress. She looks at Sean as if to say, this is your responsibility too, to keep the baby in the crib.
Sean nods as if to say, Roger that.
When the nurse leaves, they stand near the crib and watch the baby. He’s sleeping with his arms over his head like he’s stretching things out.
I don’t like any of this, Clare says.
Maybe we should turn on the television, Sean says. But when he picks up the remote it doesn’t work. He pushes all the buttons he sees but still nothing happens. Finally he finds a different remote and uses that. Christmas music comes faintly and tinnily through the ceiling speakers, but the television remains cold and off. Silver Bells, Sean says. He recognizes the song because he sung it in school when he was younger. He has a memory of his grandmother in the audience, listening to him sing with her eyes closed, and crying.
Please turn that off, Clare says. It’s not even Thanksgiving.
The door opens and in walks four doctors. They are dressed exactly alike, as if they are in a movie called Doctors. One of them is the young woman they saw in the emergency room. An older doctor nudges her forward, and says, Go on.
I’m sorry, she says. But I need to use the needle again.
Why? Clare says.
I didn’t do it right, the doctor says, and we need to be sure.
Well, Clare says, that’s not happening. But Sean talks to her in one of the corners of the room, and then holds her as the older doctors instruct the younger doctor, who is holding a needle that looks different from the first needle. All four of the doctors are hunched over the baby’s crib like crows looking at their own reflections in puddle.
Oh, the younger doctor says. I get it now.
This is outrageous, Clare says.
I understand why you feel that way, the older doctor says. But she needs to learn.
Do something, Clare says to Sean. But by the time he turns to face the doctors they are gone. The baby is still asleep, though undressed. His face signals calm weather ahead. There are two small pricks of blood on his ribcage like punctuation marks. Clare threads his sleeping arms into his pajamas, checks his diaper (clean), threads his legs, then zips him up and sits down heavily on the chairbed.
Why is our baby sleeping so much? Sean asks the male nurse when he comes in again.
All babies sleep, the male nurse says. They have to. It’s how they recharge to face a complicated world they know nothing of.
That’s condescending, Clare says from the chairbed. She’s lying down with a napkin over her face like she’s trying to keep a headache from spreading.
The male nurse notes something on his clipboard and clicks his pen closed. You’ll have to talk to a doctor, then, he says, and leaves.
I’m in pain, Clare says. She’s holding her head. I’m having thoughts I’m not proud of.
I’ll go get us some food, Sean says. When Clare says nothing back, he takes that to mean that food is a good idea.
The nurse at the large desk near the locked door is wearing blue scrubs that have the word Tuesday printed all over them. There are Christmas lights hung haphazardly on her computer. On the screen little toasters with wings flap around in diagonal patterns. Is there a cafeteria? Sean asks.
And good morning to you, she says without looking up.
Hallways give way to hallways give way to sucking doors that give way to elevators. Every wall is beige. All the doctors he passes look bored, and stand at computers like they are waiting for something. I’m definitely lost, Sean thinks. Just when he is about to give up hope he sees a McDonald’s.
You look tired, the McDonald’s guy says when he places his order.
Sean eats two cheeseburgers next to an enormous Christmas tree that sits atop a mountain of perfectly wrapped presents. Outside the snow is waist-level. The line for McDonald’s is filled with blank-faced people who are getting their food in an orderly way. It seems to him that he’s been here before. Or that they’ve been in the hospital for a very long time. Two doctors, one old and one young, sit down next to him.
And that’s a conversation you never want to have, the older one says to the younger one. Sean strains to listen, but the doctors notice and clam up.
Where have you been? Clare says when he gets back. She is frantic, with the light of great knowledge in her eyes.
What’d I miss? Sean says. She gestures to the baby. He’s hooked up to a large machine. A small tube is taped to his arm. One end of the tube is fixed to the machine, the other end goes into his armpit.
It’s for food, Clare says. The baby is still sleeping like an angel. Sit down, she says to Sean. He sits and watches as she closes her eyes and then opens them, closes and opens them again.
What am I looking for? Sean says.
Just then a box of Kleenex lifts off the counter behind him and hovers slowly across the room. Are you doing that? Sean says, but Clare doesn’t answer. The Kleenex box comes to a floating stop just in front of Sean’s face. Then it drops from the air into his lap.
I’ve developed a power, Clare says.
I can see that, Sean says.
One of the paintings comes off the wall and glides gently around the room. Cabinets open and shut. The remotes spins like a top on the side-table. Does it hurt to do that? Sean asks.
Yes, Clare says. No. It’s too complicated to explain. I can tell you it’s exhausting. She walks to where he is and sits down. She lays her head on his shoulder. It feels like a huge rock of some kind. He puts his arm around her and gives her back a small double-pat. They’ll figure things out, he says.
I don’t know about that, she says.
The machine connected to the baby beeps and comes to life. It purrs and hums and they watch as a heavy beige liquid is pushed through the coiled tube. The baby raises his arms and drops them. He’s not smiling, but he’s not frowning either. His small face is perfectly relaxed.
I had some food for you, Sean says, but I don’t know where it is now.
Who can eat? Clare says.
The male nurse walks in with a young girl who could be his child. Who moved everything around in here? he asks when he opens the door.
The child is holding a clipboard. Would you say your stay here has been satisfactory, most satisfactory, or leaves something to be desired? she asks.
What a winter we’re having, the male nurse says. He has a beard, now.
Where’d that beard come from? Sean asks.
I lost a bet, the male nurse says.
I imagine you did, Clare says.
When Sean sleeps, he dreams of a huge cathedral bell that has no tongue. He can see it perfectly. He knows in the dream that he’s in Rio de Janeiro, and that the swinging bell will never sing because he has the tongue in one of the bags he’s left at his hotel. Clare is in the dream too, but she won’t turn to face him. They’ve been walking through mountains for months, and now here they are, at the top of this cathedral. Some monk in the lower level of the cathedral is tugging on the rope, confused. It’s his job to ring this bell but no matter what he does he only hears the wooden joists creaking with the bell’s movement, a sound that announces nothing to the city, whose people depend on the bell to tell them when to leave their houses and when to stay.
When he wakes up, a trashcan is hovering over his legs. There is also a new machine near the crib, but this one is connected to the baby’s foot.
Sorry, Clare says, and the trashcan bobs gently back to its place under the sink. She’s standing in front of one of the paintings, looking through it like a window. We’re not supposed to touch him anymore, she says. Just so you know.
In the hallway outside their room there is a sudden commotion. It sounds like a drawer of forks being emptied on a marble countertop. Sean leaves the room to investigate. He’s come to know this hospital very well. At the far end of the corridor near the nurse’s station a large group has gathered. What’s happening? he asks when he joins the group. The man next to him is dressed like Santa Claus. He points to a young doctor who has her hands over her flushed cheeks and is crying. It’s the doctor they saw when they first came to the hospital with the baby.
She’s getting married, the man says. Finally.
The doctor is hopping up and down with happiness. She is trying to address the gathered crowd but everyone is cheering and clapping too loudly for Sean to hear what she is saying.
She’s not a very good doctor, Sean says.
The man dressed as Santa Claus gives him a hard look. Everyone is entitled to his opinion, he says, and continues clapping.
Sean looks around and sees that everyone’s there. The older doctors, the younger doctors. The male nurse and the child with the clipboard, the guy who works at the McDonald’s. Other parents with other babies. Some of these babies are grossly deformed. Some are hooked up to portable machines. All of these people! Every door on the hall is open.
How did you hear about this? Sean asks Santa.
It just sort of occurred, he says.
Then a strange thing happens. As Sean looks around, he discovers that above each person gathered he can see a floating green bar. He’s seen these bars before. In video games, they tell you how much life your character has left. At the beginning, the bar is full and humming. As you progress, and take hits, the bar gradually goes down until your character dies and you have to start over.
Are you seeing these green bars too? he asks.
I think I’m done talking, the man says.
This is horrible knowledge to have, he thinks. But he can’t make the bars go away. Most of the bars are at least half-full, but there are some that are very low. The male nurse has about a quarter full energy left. The young girl with the clipboard has a full bar and it pulses over her head with fluorescent benevolence. The joyous doctor who is getting married has only a sliver of blinking red hovering above her flushing face, which means that very soon she will be toast and will exist only in the minds of the people who loved her. Everywhere he looks are babies in tiny hospital gowns being held by their tired parents.
Turn off, he says. He hits his cheek with the palm of his hand. Restart, he says. Everyone is looking. Turn off! he yells, and hits his ear with his fist.
Sir, the male nurse says as he approaches with caution. He moves like he is testing his weight on young ice.
One more hit does the trick and shorts the circuit. The life bars are gone. Many happy returns, Sean says to the young doctor, who nods graciously.
Where have you been? Clare says when he returns to the room. I figured out the lights.
He is relieved to see no bars above Clare or above the baby. I don’t know, he says. Is he still sleeping?
Yes, Clare says. They took away the machines.
He looks and sees that it’s true. It’s just the two of them now, and the crib. And, of course, the baby.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Sean asks.
They wouldn’t tell me, Clare says. She’s crying. I think it’s better, she says. She takes his hand and leads him to the chairbed. She blinks her eyes and concentrates and the lights in the room dim. A blanket floats from one of the cabinets above the sink and covers the two of them. Watch this, she says.
The television flips on and on the screen comes the story of their life together.
I’ve seen this before, Sean says. He’s joking, of course. He’s never seen anything like this.
Shhh, Clare says.
On the screen, two actors with a passing resemblance to Sean and Clare meet at a supermarket. They go on a date. They fight and have misunderstandings and make up. They have sex and they laugh. They leave their families to move to a new state where they know no one at all. They take pictures of a growing belly and then they are at a hospital very much like the hospital where they are now.
We were good looking back then, Sean says.
Weren’t we? Clare says.
On the screen Sean is feeding Clare ice chips in the hospital. She is bouncing on a large exercise ball and is in a great deal of pain. Then she is on her side and the baby is coming. The camera cuts to the waiting room, where two old people are pacing holes in the carpet.
Here we go, Clare says.
The baby appears like a gasping fish, and the two actors open their arms and welcome him to the world. They take turns holding him. A purple cord is cut, a car seat is fitted, a freshly painted nursery. There is blood in the shower and residual pain in the room. There are nights so long they feel like months. The baby holds a finger. The baby takes a breast. The baby pees in a perfect arc directly onto his own face. The actors do a marvelous job. There is the first walk into the neighborhood, the calls to the grandparents, the perfect happiness that comes only from feeling the weight of the baby falling asleep on your chest.
Sean feels Clare stiffen slightly beside him, but they keep watching. On the screen, the days fall from the calendar. The actors bundle for winter, take pictures in the snow. Then: a mild cough. Then: a waxen complexion. Then: a small fever. Then: a worrisome fever. The actors bundle the baby and rush him through a winter storm. At the hospital the young doctor is still alive, and tries her best with the needle. They follow a male nurse down beige hallways, and the baby is hooked up to machines. No one will give them the answers they want. The actors break character and address the camera. The old film begins to deteriorate, reverse, and play forward. The time stamp evaporates. There are no more exterior shots, no sweeping boom cranes, no tracking shots set to music. The doctors talk to one another in hushed tones and come to decisions. There is nothing but pity and love and suffering and hard facts delivered dispassionately, new machines and old machines, the sound of rubber soles on polished floors and gurney squeaks. They see souls enter the world and souls drift slowly away from the world. There are no windows in the building. The air is thick and clean-smelling. The actors squeeze together on a small chair that folds into a bed and watch on the television the movie of their life and then the television turns off.
The room goes fully dark. Someone is trying the door from the outside, but the door is locked. There’s a tentative knock, the sound of a knob being twisted back and forth.
Should we watch it again? Sean says.
No, Clare says. I just want to stay like this.
There’s a louder knock at the door, and muffled talking. The baby is sound asleep.
If you could take someone else’s life, and give it to him, would you? Sean says. Clare says nothing. What would you trade? That’s what I’ve been thinking about.
The dark in the room has taken on weight. The sounds at the door are getting louder.
I would murder everyone in sight, Clare finally says. Car crash upon car crash. There is nothing I wouldn’t do.
Everyone in the hospital is outside now, trying to get in. The male nurse. The young doctor, and the child with the clipboard. The two older doctors, ready now for the conversation they’d been putting off. It sounds, now, like someone is hammering at the door with a mallet. The hinges are starting to pull from the frame.
We don’t have much time, Sean says.
I know, Clare says.
Across the room, the crib begins to shimmer, and glow. The baby floats up and away from the mattress until he is above the rail. He hovers briefly in space before bobbing slowly toward them to nestle in the crook they’ve made with their arms. When he settles down he is heavier than either could imagine. His breathing is regular. He’s having the dream of dreams. He is thinking of fat ships on a placid sea. Hello? Hello? someone is shouting from the hallway. Don’t wake him, Sean says. Boo, Clare says. And the baby opens his eyes.