At the end of every day, when Jesse has finished teaching his classes, and the babysitter’s been paid, and Grace has returned from work at the museum and changed into jeans and a sweater, and dinner’s been eaten and dishes piled in the sink, they load Baby Emma into her stroller and walk around the Witherbee neighborhood. They are fixtures in Lincoln, that middle-aged couple out walking their baby around the tennis courts at Woods Park and past St. Elizabeth’s with its evening bells. That they have been doing this for over a decade now, and that at one time they were Internet famous, doesn’t matter much to their neighbors. If anything, Jesse thinks, it’s probably nice for their neighbors to see him and Grace and Baby Emma out for a stroll. It means everything’s right in the world. To see them sauntering up the hill on Woods Avenue, some golden late-fall afternoon, dappled sunlight in the last of the zinnias, a big Nebraska sky overhead, is to know exactly who and where you are, and to feel at home in your life. Jesse imagines that their stability—and its illusion of permanence—gives people comfort. Everywhere they walk, down every block and side street, their neighbors wave and say hello.
Jesse knows that they are lucky in some respects. Babies aren’t that expensive: milk and diapers, clothes, toys. Other kids grow out of new shoes in mere months. Teens wreak havoc on grocery budgets. And the staggering price of college. Baby Emma, on the other hand, is predictable. Year after year, the same clothes fit her. She drinks roughly the same amount of milk. In the lost year they worried about healthcare costs, thinking that she was sick. But she isn’t sick.
She isn’t growing—she is still, essentially, a six-month-old—but she isn’t sick. All in all, she’s a happy baby. She coos and gurgles and fusses and grins. And even after all this time, she’s a handful.
If he doesn’t watch her carefully, she’ll wriggle off any couch or chair and bump her head. There’s nothing she won’t put in her mouth: pennies, lost buttons, thumbtacks. Several years ago, he found a pair of spotted beetle wings in one of her stools. Fortunately, Baby Emma is a good sleeper. She can knock out for eight hours, no problem, and when she does wake up all Jesse has to do is hold her and she calms right down. Sometimes on those nights, he watches her after she’s fallen back asleep. Her little pug nose. Her soft eyes and the creases on their lids. He knows she will likely never look at him and say, “I love you, Dad.” And he’ll never walk her down the aisle, tears quaking on his cheeks. But a night or two a week, he holds her and feels her tense body soften at his touch, at the sound of his voice. It’s something.
* * *
The lost year is Jesse’s name for the year they spent going to doctors—blood work, labs, the skeptical furrowed brows of men and women holding stethoscopes to Baby Emma’s chest and listening hard. In the lost year, they worried too much. In waiting rooms, while Grace filled out paperwork, Jesse sat forward and rocked Baby Emma in her car seat, jingling the plastic keys on a ring that dangled over her face and delighted her. If she wasn’t growing, putting on weight, starting to pull herself up and crawl—if she wasn’t developing—something had to be wrong. Something had to be wrong, and they had to fix it. They thought that way in the lost year. Fourteen years later, they don’t know. They have read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. And they don’t know. Is it crazy to think doctors could find in Baby Emma’s genetic code some kind of fountain of youth breakthrough? Will Baby Emma live like this until she’s seventy-five then die peacefully in her sleep? Could she die tomorrow? Do they want to know? When her story first got out, religious nuts came out of the woodwork calling her an angel, a messenger, a Buddha, a Christ. Jesse couldn’t say, definitely, they were wrong.
In the lost year, all Jesse wanted was to be normal. Everywhere he looked, normal children ran and played and hollered, and normal babies hung happily gurgling in slings on their parents’ chests. And even the children with serious illnesses, the ones he saw in wheelchairs, big-eyed and bald in the oncology ward, seemed enviable to him because at least their parents knew what was wrong. With what was happening to him and Grace and Baby Emma—with Baby Emma reaching six months and then plateauing as one metabolic geneticist described it—what were they supposed to think? The comfort Jesse imagines that they now bring to their neighbors, that illusion of permanence, isn’t something he himself can partake in.
For Jesse, Baby Emma will always be a giant question mark. In his best moments, he feels as though this has all been a gift, that it’s purified his love and deepened his gratitude. And he wouldn’t change a thing.
In his worst moments, when his grading has piled up, or when Grace is irritable with him, or Baby Emma is colicky and impossible to please, loss spears him between the ribs. Baby Emma should be fifteen and a half now. He sees her, a spitfire, equal parts book smarts and horse sense. She has a learner’s permit, and he takes her across the street to Wyuka Cemetery to practice driving on the wide brick lanes. He jokes that teaching her to drive in a cemetery is his way of reinforcing the consequences of carelessness behind the wheel. He tells her about Charles Starkweather the infamous mass-murdered buried there, a piece of Nebraska lore. She rolls her eyes at him, and he loves her for it. Loves her long red hair blown by the rolled-down window.
* * *
In bed at night, propped up by pillows, reading by lamplight while Baby Emma sleeps in her crib across the hall, Jesse and Grace chat about their days, and Jesse tries to keep things light and easy, the way Grace likes.
In the last week, she has begun work on her yearly “Painting and Poetry” contest at the museum. Fifth-graders from all over the state—from Boy’s Town in Omaha to the otherworldly dust and flatness of Ogallalla in the panhandle—choose a painting at the Sheldon and write a poem inspired by it.
“Listen to this,” she says.
I play piano in my orange dress.
I play one single note.
My husband’s tie is very tight
In the knot around his throat.
“The Hopper?” Jesse says.
The Hopper painting—“The Room in New York”—is probably the museum’s most popular work. It’s a night scene, a peak into an apartment (as though you, as the viewer, are floating right outside some penthouse window, unobserved by the man and woman inside. They are dressed for a night out, he in a black vest and tie, and she in an orange party dress with a little bow on the back. For the moment, they are each thinking about something else. He sits at the kitchen table, staring intently at his newspaper, lost in the story he’s reading—about the stock market, maybe. She sits at the piano, torso twisted, ever so lightly pressing a finger to one of the keys.
“A fifth-grader wrote that?”
Grace tells him some fifth-graders can be very precocious when it comes to language and poetry—the way some can play Bach on the cello or recite state capitols or the names of the Presidents. She lays the poem face down in her lap and picks up another, reads in silence, over the top of her glasses.
In the lost year Grace had typed up a manifesto of what they would and would not talk about in regard to Baby Emma. It was honest and eloquent and angry, and shared widely across social media. Especially the line that said, “Your concern for our well-being is noted and appreciated up until the point you start telling us what to do or what to think or how to feel. That kind of ‘concern’ can fuck right off.” The manifesto—and the strangeness of Baby Emma’s story—had led to film and book offers, and for a time Jesse thought they should consider it. He was twenty-six then, a doctoral student in Sociology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln making $16,000 a year. He had never been around money, had never really thought about money. In the heat of Baby Emma’s story getting out, however, he felt obligated to. But Grace said it wasn’t them. They weren’t money people. Or fame people. And Jesse knew she was right. Even the fame the manifesto brought made them uncomfortable and eventually they took it down. The only reminder now are the stories that still sometimes surface online. ‘Where Are They Now?’ stories. ‘Medical Mystery’ stories. Jesse doesn’t read them. Grace doesn’t either—or only after someone on Facebook, well-meaning but stupid, posts one to her wall.
Jesse watches her and wonders who they would be now had life gone according to plan. Would they have aged graciously and deepened into their gentleness and love for each other? Or would too calm a life have caused them to drift apart, start picking at things that didn’t really matter, like who put the milk back in the fridge with nothing left in the carton? Or worse? Jesse remembers the day they found out Grace was pregnant. They went for a walk out in the country. It was March. A snowsquall kicked up. A dozen steam-breathed horses stood perfectly still in a far pasture, blinking snowflakes out of their long eyelashes. He remembers feeling young, full of hope, and thinking that the baby might be a painter, paint scenes like this.
“I used to think Emma would paint,” he says. “I just thought that for some reason. Do you remember me thinking that?”
“About Emma. Painting.”
“We thought a lot of things,” Grace says, unimpressed by the poem she is reading, setting it aside. It is late-September, cool now at night. Attracted by the lamplight through their blinds, a moth taps at the window.
“We were cheated.”
“I can’t go there tonight.”
“I said I know,” Jesse says. “Sorry.”
They have had this conversation, or some variation of it, hundreds of times over the years. They both have regrets, feel cheated, powerless, broken. In low moments, Grace has said, “I hate my life.” And Jesse doesn’t want to trigger her tonight. He tries to think about something else, something better. Last April, for the first time in years, they took an overnight trip without Baby Emma—out to the Rowe Audubon Sanctuary in Gibbon—to watch the sandhill crane migration from a photo blind. Curled in a sleeping bag against the night’s icy breeze, they listened to thousands of cranes in a nearby field—their trilling and purring—and held each other. In the morning, they watched the cranes, their black silhouettes, rise into a pink sky over the Platte.
“We’d probably have had more than one,” Jesse says, regretting the words as he says them but somehow unable to stop himself. They have had this conversation hundreds of times, too. Had everything been normal with Baby Emma she wouldn’t be an only child. Everything would be different.
“Sorry,” he says.
“Do you want to talk?”
He is upset with himself, and sad, embarrassed. “All I really want,” he says, “is for Emma to be Emma. You know?”
“She is, Jesse.”
“Jesse,” Grace says. “She is.”
Before he can say anything else, Baby Emma cries out as though startled by a dream. Jesse sits up, ready to go to her but Grace holds out a hand. They listen and wait. Soon Baby Emma’s breathing, which had quickened and gone breathy, evens out again. Grace picks up another poem. Jesse eases back. His vigilance can’t keep his exhaustion away, can’t keep the gloom inside him from seeping out.
* * *
In the morning, while Grace dresses for work and does her makeup, Jesse gets Baby Emma dressed and changed and fed. He feels bad about last night. As disappointing as everything with Baby Emma has been for him as a father, it’s that much more difficult for Grace. A recurring theme of the articles that show up on Facebook is how they attempt to pin the blame on her, insinuating things about her diet during pregnancy, her sexual history, what she felt in her heart about Baby Emma. Grace has a mantra: “I’m cold steel,” she says after reading one of the articles. She wipes away tears. “Cold steel.” The last thing Jesse wants is to add to her burden.
So in the morning he is extra sweet to her. He makes her toast. Packs her a salad for lunch. Compliments her dress, an artsy black and color print. Pecks her on the cheek in passing. Cheerfulness is his apology.
Grace stands by the door about to leave, tote bag slung over her shoulder, travel mug of coffee steaming in her hand.
Jesse opens a bag of yogurt melts and scatters them on the kitchen table before Baby Emma in her high chair. Baby Emma babbles, slaps at them. Grace asks him again if he’s okay. He looks at up her and says he’s okay. Before leaving, Grace kisses him quick, and kisses Baby Emma. Then she slips out the door to her car and pulls away down the street. In her absence, the house is suddenly quiet, filled with morning sun. Baby Emma captures a yogurt melt on her fingertip and brings it to her mouth, smudges her lips pink. She smiles at Jesse, beaming, proud of herself.
It breaks his heart.
When breakfast is over, he rinses the dishes in the sink and loads the dishwater, then wets a rag and gently wipes Baby Emma’s face. Then he takes her to the living room and lays her on her stomach on a blanket in a square of sunlight, sets Sophie the teething giraffe before her. She fusses and squirms on the floor but soon is entranced, intent on grabbing the giraffe, chewing its head. Every few years she cuts a tooth, and then a few years later it comes loose and falls out.
Jesse watches Baby Emma a second to make sure she’s okay, then goes to the bedroom to get dressed himself. He puts on clean jeans and pulls a shirt from the closet that doesn’t need ironing. Baby Emma has a doctor’s appointment at 10—for a nasal spritz of the flu mist—and he has cancelled classes. And even though it’s a routine appointment, an easy one, he’s not looking forward to it. Baby Emma has been to so many doctors, has been pricked for blood draws so many times, that she screams the second they hit the waiting room. In the night, when he knows she needs him, her crying isn’t a bother. But in front of doctors and nurses, he has to fake a smile and make small talk while she wails, and act as though it doesn’t bother him. And the last time he went there was a new nurse, one who didn’t know anything about Baby Emma and him and Grace, and thought Jesse was just another squeamish father. “Having a hard time, Dad?” the nurse condescended. “It’s okay, Dad. Just a little blood, Dad.” His face got hot and he felt himself shaking. He wanted to choke her. It scared him.
In the lost year, when they thought Baby Emma was sick and might be dying, death had been the enemy. And Jesse could forgive himself his feelings when he was up against death. Rage was an appropriate response to the wrongness of death. But the enemy isn’t death anymore. It’s indifference, boredom, monotony. After the millionth diaper change, he could stop seeing Baby Emma. If instead of a person, she became to him a very lifelike doll, he could never forgive himself.
He pulls on socks and shoes. He sits on the edge of the bed. He loves Baby Emma, and he hates her too.
Outside, when it’s time to go, he buckles her into her car seat and pulls the straps tight but not too tight around her chest, and gives her her blue pacifier. Up front, he tunes the radio to KZUM. They play 50s rock and roll in the mornings. Chuck Berry. Buddy Holly. Carl Perkins. This morning it’s the slick and dirty guitar riffs of “Train Kept-a-Rolling” by the Johnny Burnett Trio.
They are not half a mile down O Street when Jesse glances in the rearview and sees Baby Emma has fallen asleep. Her head is slung to one side. The pacifier hangs from her lips like a cigarette. It’s all the reason he needs. Hell with it. They can reschedule the flu mist. At a stoplight at 33rd and O, he hits his signal and makes a U-turn. He’s tempted to go home but knows what’s waiting there: the dishwasher to unload, Baby Emma and her blanket on the floor, and the tooth that may be coming, and the terrible quiet of that square of sunlight climbing the wall all afternoon, and the thought of last night with Grace, those horses blinking snow from their eyelashes.
Up ahead on O Street, where lately he’s been imagining teaching a fifteen year old Baby Emma how to drive, he sees the wrought-iron gates of Wyuka Cemetery. Without even thinking, he signals and turns in. He slows to a crawl, rolls down the window, cuts the music. All around him oak trees with leaves just starting to turn make dappled shade over gravestones and miniature obelisks.
In the lost year, the thought of ending up here terrified him. Looking around this morning, however, it doesn’t seem bad. The red bricks in the lane—some of them are so dark and smooth they look blue.
He hangs an arm out the window, watches the trees. In the cemetery’s far corner, he stops before a little sign.
He had seen the murderer Charles Starkweather’s gravestone here once, years ago, when he and Grace came for a walk and happened upon it. For some reason, it was in the Babyland section of the cemetery, a place of simple flat stones marking the names and dates of those who died in childbirth or from the great flu. Maybe Starkweather’s family owned the plot. Jesse doesn’t know. In some ways, he guesses, it makes sense he’s here. This is where you bring the incomprehensible.
In 1957, at age nineteen, Starkweather killed a gas station attendant who wouldn’t sell him a stuffed animal on credit. Then later he shot his girlfriend’s mother and step-father, and strangled their two-year-old daughter, Betty Jean. He and his girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, a fourteen-year-old, fled to Wyoming and along the way dropped a string of bodies in what became one of the most notorious murder sprees in American history. Back before Baby Emma came along, Jesse’s graduate study had given him any number of explanations for someone like Starkweather. He was a sociopath. A psychopath. But now none of that seemed to matter. Explanations never really explain. If someone can shoot you over a stuffed animal, or if your beautiful six-month-old just one day plateaus, your pain stretches out farther than understanding ever will. The grieving parents, Jesse imagines here in Babyland, decades and decades of them, huddling together against some winter wind, brutalized by life, inconsolable—he envies them. Their grief had a starting point. Baby Emma died at six months old, and yet she’s still here.
He glances in the rearview. She’s snoring softly, her chest steadily rising and falling. The pacifier has slipped from her lips and lies glistening in her lap. She is utterly alive. He studies the wisps of curly, very fine reddish—almost white—hairs on her head. She should be fifteen now. Really fifteen.
From what he remembers, Starkweather’s stone is near the lane. He looks out, scans the rows. The markers all look alike. He glances in the rearview again at Baby Emma, the soft rise and fall of her breath.
He doesn’t hate her.
None of this is her fault.
Sure that she’s asleep, he slips out of the car and into the grass. Dew soaks the toes of his shoes, climbs the cuffs of his jeans. He paces a row of nearby stones, working his way back, expecting each name he reads to be the one he is looking for. But it’s not. Again and again, it’s not. He feels like he’s misplaced something—a set of keys, his glasses—and can’t stop looking until he finds it.
He picks up the pace, ranges wider. Then finally he hears something and looks up at the car, small now in the distance. Shadows of wind-blown oak leaves lap like fire on its roof and hood and on the dark, almost-blue bricks in the lane. He thinks it’s a jay at first, shrieking from one of the oaks. Then he hears it again and knows. Inside the car, Baby Emma is crying. She’s woken alone in a strange place. She’s wet and afraid. Everything inside him propels him toward her the way it has on countless nights when she’s woken up in need of the comfort of his arms. But for now he doesn’t move. He listens to her crying. He makes himself listen. He needs to really hear it.
Steve Edwards lives in Massachusetts and teaches writing at Fitchburg State University. He is the author of a memoir, Breaking into the Backcountry, the story of his seven months of solitude as the caretaker of a wilderness homestead in Oregon. His essays and short stories can be found in Orion Magazine, Electric Literature, and The Rumpus. He tweets: @The_Big_Quiet.