Shortwave Magazine

Fiction / Short Stories

"The Baby Monitor"

a short story
by David Worn

April 19, 2023
4,943 Words
Genre(s):

The stomping came first. Michelle knew it well. The sound of her daughter getting out of bed, probably coming to ask for a glass of water or another tuck-in. But then the wailing started, long and plaintive, growing louder and louder as her daughter fled from her bedroom.

“Dan!” She patted the lump next to her, her husband didn’t stir.

Jumping out of bed, Michelle threw open her door and ran into the dark hallway. Their house was small and narrow, and the hallways always felt longer than they should be. In the dark, Michelle saw a small white shape advancing toward her. Her four-year-old dressed in her nightgown, her face wet with tears. She looked terrified.

“Honey, what’s going on?”

Clara didn’t answer, only climbed into her mother’s arms, and let herself be carried back to her room. Michelle nearly tripped over a stuffed animal, before sitting Clara down on the edge of her bed.

“Take deep breaths with me.”

Breathing together, Clara’s chest against hers, always helped calm her down. Michelle, however, found that her pulse still raced and, for once, she was too unsettled to think of her phone. To consider whether a video of her, consoling Clara in the middle of the night, might make for a good post.

Clara said, “Mommy, why did you say that?”

“Say what, Sweetie?”

“My name!” Clara looked up accusingly at her mother. “You said my name over the phone. I don’t like it!”

Over the phone? Michelle hugged her tight. “You were having a bad dream.”

Clara put her face on her mother’s chest.

A dresser stood inside a wide space that had at one time been the small room’s only closet. On top sat the baby monitor. The status light glowed red behind the black glass of the camera.

Someone was watching.

Back in her bedroom, Dan was stirring awake.

“What’s going on?” he asked.

Michelle climbed into bed next to him. “Clara got out of bed. Says she heard my voice over the phone.”

“That’s weird. I’ll check the video.”

Dan pulled his phone off the nightstand, opened the app, and clicked the most recent event. The screen showed a still image of Clara’s room painted in night-vision whites and grays. Their daughter stared into the baby monitor, her eyes glowing with the reflection of infrared lights.

Dan pressed play.

In the video, Clara stared at the camera, her head turned as if listening to something. Then her eyes went wide. She jumped out of bed and ran out of view. The room was empty for an interval, then Michelle entered with Clara who kept casting worried glances at the baby monitor. A cold shiver ran up Michelle’s back.

“Play it again from the beginning.”

Dan restarted the video and this time she cocked her ear towards the phone.

“Stop, go back!”

A low thud shook the camera’s image.

Did something bump her dresser? Michelle pulled Dan’s phone to her and played it again. It was just a bump.

Dan didn’t seem concerned.

“Maybe she was having a nightmare about her dear Mommy,” he said, with a hint of malice.

Michelle turned away on her side. “Clara doesn’t have nightmares.”

Dan went back to playing on his phone.

A few minutes later, Michelle unlocked her phone and scrolled through recent videos of Clara—looking through the scratched glass for something new to post.

The following evening, Michelle and Dan sat in bed, each on their phones, lost in their news feeds.

Thump.

“Did you hear that?” she asked.

“Yeah, hold on.”

Dan opened the app and switched to the live feed. Clara lay asleep in her bed, surrounded by stuffed animals. It still felt strange, to be able to peer through this glass portal into another part of their house. To see what was happening there in real-time. It sometimes reminded Michelle of security cam footage on the Internet. Of those mundane moments before some terrible accident.

Thump.

On the screen, the video shook, and the sound cut out momentarily.

A voice—glitched like streaming video on a bad connection—spoke a single trailing syllable.

“—ra.”

Michelle gripped Dan’s arm. “Tell me you heard that.”

“What the fuck?”

“Mommmmmmyyyy!”

Michelle threw open the bedroom door. She froze for a moment, startled by the sight of her daughter already on the other side. Clara’s body shivered and she breathed in big noisy gulps. Her eyes were fixed on the floor, avoiding her mother’s gaze.

Michelle picked her up and brought her to their bed. Dan skimmed through the video on his phone.

“Dammit, it’s motion activated.” He pointed his phone toward her. “It only started recording after she got out of bed.”

“No voice?”

“No.” Dan looked thoughtfully for a moment and added. “Assuming it was there at all.”

“Don’t do that! We both heard it.”

Clara’s little heart raced against Michelle’s chest.

“I don’t like it when you talk to me through my baby monitor.” She looked up at her mother, a combination of fear and anger on her face.

“Honey, it wasn’t Mommy. I was here with Daddy.”

She gave Dan a look. Go with me on this.

“Sometimes speakers, like the one in your baby monitor, can pick up radio stations.”

“What’s a radio?”

“It’s like. . . music you can tune into.”

“Like Alexa?”

Despite the situation, Michelle smiled. Clara had never known radio. Even in the car, they used their phones for music.

“So,” Clara continued, “is Alexa saying my name?”

Dan looked at Michelle with a shit-eating grin on his face. She scowled at him.

“It’s complicated, honey, but yeah. . . something like that.”

Clara accepted this.

“Mommy, can I sleep in your bed tonight?”

Dan shook his head.

“Yes, honey, Daddy can sleep in your room.”

Dan threw up his arms and mouthed, 'fuck.'

The next morning, Michelle ruffled through the drawers of Clara’s dresser for an outfit. Normally, she loved being in this room. It brought her back to those first few months before Clara was born. Back when the anticipation of meeting their baby permeated everything. When they spent each night working on the tiny bedroom: painting the ceiling, removing the closet doors to make space for the dresser, putting away all the infant clothing they had already acquired. They were happier back then. Dan wasn’t glued to his phone all day, and she hadn’t yet. . . What, Michelle? Can’t you admit it?

Become ensnared by social media.

She gazed at the camera. Behind its dark glass, the status LED was off, but this did nothing to dampen the feeling of being watched. Would they even know if it was hacked? They had argued about it earlier that morning. Dan assured her everything was encrypted. That this brand was the safest one. That he’d done his research.

Michelle wasn’t buying it. Last night, they both heard. . . What? A voice? A glitch in the app? If it was a glitch, it was a very specific one, as she was certain they caught the voice in the middle of saying her daughter’s name.

What about the thumping? Michelle examined the dresser; it was old and heavy—made of solid wood. Feeling a little foolish, she tugged at it. It didn’t budge.

So then, what made the sound?

Dan called for her from downstairs.

“Hey, honey, come down here. Bring your phone!” 

Music played from downstairs. Clara must be doing something post-worthy. Michelle hurried, holding onto the banister as she ran down the stairs.

She found them in the kitchen. Clara, still in her sleeping gown, strutted on the island countertop. Her long blond hair swung through the air as she wiggled her hips and wagged her finger at her father to the chorus of We don’t talk about Bruno.

Seeing her mother enter, Clara stopped. She looked back and forth between her parents, trying to figure out if she was in trouble for standing on the counter.

Michelle’s phone was pointed at her.

“It’s OK, honey. Pretend I’m not here.” Michelle stopped the recording, deleted the botched video, and started a new one. “Alexa, play We don’t talk about Bruno.

Clara stood still. The moment had passed.

“Come on, sweetie!” Michelle gestured at her with her hand. “Do your dance!”

As the chorus came, she resumed dancing, wagging her finger to the words, and exaggerating her movements. Clara was always good about hamming it up for the camera. Videos like these tended to be her most popular.

After a minute, Michelle said, “Alexa stop. That was great, honey. I got enough.”

“You going to post it?” Dan asked.

“Just as soon as I trim it a bit.” Her fingers danced across the screen as she shortened the clip, applied her favorite filter, then clicked on the textbox. Her fingers hovered as she thought of something catchy to say.

She typed: Our daughter putting on a dance show before work is one of our favorite traditions. #momlife #workingmom #momfluencer.

“Clara!” Dan yelled.

Michelle looked up just in time to see Clara walk off the edge of the counter. Dan threw his arms out and caught her waist in his hands. She spun around his arm like it was a monkey bar; her head stopping inches from the floor.

“Jesus Christ!” Dan flipped her back onto her feet. “You could have really hurt yourself.”

Clara giggled and toddled off towards the sofa. Michelle went back to her phone, checked for typos, and posted the video. She watched for a minute as it gathered a dozen likes, then went to get her daughter ready for preschool.

After fixing Clara’s hair in twin braids, she took a selfie of the two of them. Holding the camera high, Michelle put on a practiced smile and took a moment to adjust her appearance, angling her face to the right—her good side. Next to her, Clara did the same.

“Everybody say pigtail braids!”

“Pigtail braids!” Clara exclaimed.

Michelle was in the middle of her bedtime routine when she heard Clara yell out, “Mommy, why are you saying that?”

Dropping her toothbrush into the sink, she ran to Clara’s room.

Clara stood on her bed with her eyes closed and her hands over her ears

“I DON’T WANNA DANCE.”

The camera’s light glowed red.

Who the fuck is watching?

Michelle’s entire body tensed as she passed in front of the baby monitor. The thought of someone watching Clara. Watching her sleep. Watching her play. Watching her get dressed. It made her skin crawl.

Picking Clara up out of her bed, Michelle hurried from the room, her body recoiling as she went past the camera. As though, if she lingered, its ring of red infrared lights would sear her skin.

In their bed, Dan was on his phone with his earbuds in. He hadn’t even noticed his daughter screaming. As Michelle approached, he took one of the earbuds out.

“What’s up?” he asked.

“I want that camera disconnected. Someone is watching our daughter!”

“What?” Dan sat up and turned off his phone. “How do you even know?”

“Because the recording light was on.”

“Listen, Michelle, we’re not being hacked.” His voice took on the patronizing tone he used when talking to her about technology. “She’s just having nightmares. The light was on because the baby monitor records when it detects motion. It’s motion activated. Do you understand what that means?”

“I know how the fucking camera works, asshole.”

Clara buried her face in her mother’s chest and made herself small.

Michelle continued, “Someone is talking to Clara. She wasn’t sleeping. She was standing on her goddamn bed!”

“Fine.” Dan unlocked his phone. “Let’s check the video.”

Michelle sat down on the bed with Clara still clinging to her. They watched together as Dan pulled up the last recorded event.

Clara stood in her bed and stared directly into the camera. Her lips trembled. Then, she threw her hands over her ears and shook her head.

“Where’s the sound?” Michelle asked.

Dan turned off his earbuds and raised the phone’s volume to maximum. Digital noise and the humming of Clara’s humidifier filled the room.

“This is after you told me to dance,” Clara said.

On the screen, Clara dropped a shaky hand from her ear and wagged her finger like she did that morning. She awkwardly jerked her hips left and right. Tears streamed down her face. Then she stopped.

“I DON’T WANNA DANCE.”

Dan let out a long breath. “Weird.”

From her mother’s lap, Clara said in a firm voice, “I didn’t wanna dance, Mommy. Why did you make me?”

Michelle pulled her daughter into a hug. “Sweetie, I don’t know who’s talking to you, but I promise it’s not Mommy.”

“Just saying.” Dan raised his hands defensively. “But there’s no one speaking in the video.”

“Play it again from the beginning,” Michelle demanded.

This time, with the sound on, they all heard it.

It was just a snippet. Someone caught speaking just as Clara’s movement triggered the baby monitor to record. Though distorted by the phone’s speaker, there was a strange hissing quality to the voice. It was a woman, of that Michelle was certain, but it was raspy and metallic. Like a Zoom call gone bad.

The words themselves sent shivers of recognition down her spine.

“Do your dance.”

Dan stopped the video. Nobody spoke.

Clara watched her parents for an interval before speaking carefully.

“I don’t like when you tell me to do things like that, Mommy. I’ll be good. I’ll make better videos. Cross my heart and hope to die.”

Michelle shook her head. This is so fucked up. She glared at her husband, furious at him for bringing that damn baby monitor into their home.

“I want that fucking thing turned off right now!”

Michelle and Clara sat next to one another at the kitchen table, each lost in their own world. It had been a week since Dan unplugged the baby monitor and there had been no recurrence of Clara’s “nightmares” as they decided to call them.

However, for Michelle, the feeling that someone was watching still lingered. She looked at their smart devices with suspicion. What about the doorbell cam? The smart speakers? For the first time in her life, Michelle closed the privacy shutter on her laptop’s webcam.

Daycare was closed for a teacher development workshop and Michelle took the day off to spend time with her daughter. Clara ate cereal and watched toy unboxing videos on her tablet. In one video, a mother and daughter removed pieces of a toy unicorn from an overpriced surprise egg. The mother held them up to the camera, and—in that twee sing-songy voice kids seemed to love said, “This must be the unicorn’s mane! See how pretty it is?

Clara squealed with joy at each new reveal. Glancing over her daughter’s shoulder, Michelle grimaced. This ridiculous woman had 180k subscribers.

With everything that was going on, Michelle’s post rate was way down, and she worried about losing followers. Staying home with Clara for the day would give her plenty of opportunities to generate some new content.

She sipped coffee and scrolled through her feed when the air in the room changed. She looked up to see her daughter staring at her, her lips silently opening and closing. Clara had something important to say.

“What is it, honey?”

On the tablet, the daughter giggled with delight as her mother assembled the unicorn parts.

“Mommy. . . can you play with me today?

“Of course, sweetie.”

“With no phones?”

The request was simple, and yet it took all of Clara’s courage to make it. Michelle exhaled a deep sigh. She looked down at her phone. One of her posts received a new like. She looked back at Clara. Her daughter’s hair was disheveled, and she wore an enormous milk mustache. Normally, these were mistakes to be fixed before shooting a video, but in that moment, Michelle saw them as endearing and beautiful.

She held down her phone’s power button until it shut off.

“OK, honey, no phones today.”

“Hurray!”

“So!” Michelle leaned in conspiratorially. “What do you wanna do?”

A torrent of words spilled out of Clara’s mouth.

“Let’s do finger painting, then bake chocolate chip cookies, then play Play-Doh, then we can have tea and triangle sandwiches for lunch, then we can do dress-up games. You can wear my tiara and use my favorite wand. Then we can go outside—”

Michelle snorted—something she never did on camera—and smiled at her daughter. “Whoa there, one thing at a time.”

Clara and Michelle laughed. Soon, she was forced to wipe tears from her eyes and Clara found that so funny that they started laughing all over again.

Thump.

It was during their second round of Candyland when Michelle felt that familiar pull. The pressure building up inside. She so badly wanted to check her phone. Make a post. So much of what they’d done today would make for great content.

The phone sat on the counter, just a few feet away, dark glass reflecting the ceiling lights. She could tell Clara she had to go to the bathroom, it would be so easy to grab it on the way.

She stared at it for a long time. When she turned back, Clara’s smile had disappeared.

Jesus Christ, get it together Michelle.

“Sorry, Sweetie, but Mommy is. . .” She picked up the dice. “Totally going to beat you to Candy Mountain!”

Clara squealed with joy.

“I love no-phone-mommy!”

In a tiny whisper, she added, “I don’t like the other Mommy.”

On the next turn, Clara shook the dice for what seemed like an eternity and Michelle took in the room. Flour on the counter, the smell of cookies cooling on the rack, dried Play-Doh on the floor, unfinished tea and sandwich crusts on the dining room table. The place was a mess. The chaos of Clara’s happiness was everywhere.

I want to freeze Clara just like this. So beautiful and so full of life.

Michelle tried to burn this moment into her memory. The joy on Clara’s face. The careful way she rolled the dice. How she counted out the dots one by one on her little fingers.

That’s when she realized her mind had already begun stitching these images into the beginnings of a “story” post. Just the thought of it opened some mental valve in her and ideas for image captions popped into her consciousness: “I just got crushed at Candy Land by my four-year-old. When is it wine o’clock? #momlife”

Shaking her head, Michelle felt a sudden sadness. A mourning for all the moments when she hadn’t been paying attention. She was already nostalgic for what was happening right in front of her. Could she just stop? Delete her profile? Turn off the outside world?

In that moment, as Clara looked up at Michelle, her small face radiant with happiness. Her little feet spread out under the table. Her tiny toes tickled Michelle’s knees. She believed she could do it. She pictured herself opening the app, avoiding her profile, avoiding the like counters, and going straight to settings: Are you sure you want to delete your account?

No, Michelle thought.

Thump. Thump. THUMP.

A crash above their heads made the ceiling shudder. It reverberated down the stairwell.

Clara gave out a cry and sat on her mother’s lap.

In the silence that followed, they listened, their eyes glued to the ceiling. Clara’s bedroom was directly above them.

Michelle was just beginning to calm down when they heard the pounding of footsteps running along the hardwood floor of Clara’s room.

From her lap, Clara whispered, “The other Mommy.”

Michelle looked down at her daughter. What did she say?

The phone! Michelle put Clara down and ran to the counter. She held the power button on her phone until the screen flickered back on.

Come on, come on, come on.

Once it booted up, she called Dan. It went straight to voicemail. Dammit! She left a message.

“Dan, there’s somebody in the house. Come home right now!”       

She went back to Clara and put her arm around her. Everything was still, save for the humming of the refrigerator.

They sat there a long while.

Had she imagined it? Maybe something fell. But the footsteps? Something could have toppled off the dresser and bounced on the floor a few times. That made sense. Their house was old and noisy, the floorboards creaked and groaned in every room. For someone to be up there now, they would have had to be hiding all morning and all last night.

Unlocking her phone, she opened the app for the doorbell camera and scrolled through the recent events. The mailman, a package delivery, Dan leaving for work that morning. The previous day’s events were the same. No intruders.

“Clara, stay here, I’m going to see what that noise was.”

“No, Mommy!” Clara clung to her.

“It’s OK, sweetie, something probably fell off your dresser.”

She had to pry herself from Clara and sit her back down in her chair.

“I’ll be right back.”

Clara started crying.

Michelle headed towards the stairwell, then paused.

“Mommy loves you so much, Clara.”

With their bedroom door closed and Clara’s curtains drawn, the upstairs hallway was dark. Halfway up, Michelle stopped and listened. Nothing. She was being silly. No one was in the house. So why did every part of her feel like a live wire?

The door to Clara’s room was open. Everything was in its place. There was nobody there.

As Michelle crept closer the rest of the room came into view, and she saw what had made all the noise.

Clara’s dresser lay tipped over onto the floor. The various objects that had been sitting on it lay strewn around the room. The baby monitor was also there, plugged in and pointing in her direction. The status light glowed red.

Someone was watching.

In the back of Clara’s closet space, on the wall where the dresser had stood, there was a scraggly patch of darkness. At first, she thought it was a patch of black mold, but as Michelle got closer, she understood that she was looking at a hole in the wall.

The drywall was torn, and white powder gathered in piles. Shards of thick dark glass lay on the floor, spreading out from the opening. Michelle stared at the hole, uncomprehending. With a thud, her phone slipped out of her hand and fell to the floor.

Maneuvering between the hole and the fallen dresser, Michelle was careful to tiptoe over the broken glass. Inside was nothing but inky blackness.

This didn’t make sense. On the other side of this wall was the bathroom. She should see plumbing or the inside of the cabinets, but instead, the darkness stretched on and on.

A flowery scent brought Michelle out of her reverie. It was her perfume. Except, I’m not wearing any.

Behind Michelle, the bedroom door closed shut with a soft click. Goosebumps rose along the back of her neck as her whole body recoiled at the realization.

I didn’t check behind the door.

Unable to stop herself, she turned.

A woman stood in the corner of the room.

She wore a fitted black dress, and in the dim light, Michelle saw the glint of metal bracelets. My bracelets. As her gaze moved upwards, she saw the woman’s jet-black hair. The expensive earrings Dan had given her. The crow’s feet that had haunted her since Clara was born, were gone. Its skin was smooth and taut like plastic stretched over a mannequin head.

It stared at her with wide, dilated eyes. Watching. Its chest heaved rapidly as it breathed in and out in rapid bursts.

Michelle’s voice trembled as she spoke. “Who are you?”

It didn’t reply. Instead, it smiled as if posing for a photo. All teeth. It was her smile, the one she used in selfies. Its face froze in that position for a moment, then the smile changed into a smirk, and it rolled its eyes. The expression was a grotesque mockery of the one she used when posting under the #momlife tag. Then, it leaned forward and turned its head, showing Michelle its profile. My good side.

Her skin crawled as she watched this other Michelle play back her mannerisms. She wanted to scream at it to give her back her things, to give back her expressions.

The woman walked towards her in slow, halting steps. It stopped at her phone and crouched to pick it up, its eyes never breaking contact.

Working automatically, it unlocked her phone, its perfectly manicured nails dancing across the screen in short mechanical bursts. Only then did it pull its gaze away from Michelle to look down at the device.

On the home screen was a photo of Clara. It smiled its fake smile.

Claaaaraaaa,” it said in that sickening metallic hiss.

Michelle rose to her feet.

The other Michelle snapped back up to look at her. Its face went slack, and it sprung forwards, stomping across the floor in broken footsteps.

Clara cried for her from downstairs.

But it was too late, the other Michelle slammed her backward. Her mouth snapped shut with an audible clack as her head hit the wall. Pain shot out from the back of her head and her legs gave out from under her. Dazed, Michelle slid down and fell into the hole.

The back of her head throbbed, and she let out a groan. The sound came out muted and short, as though there was nothing for it to reflect off of in that dark, nowhere space behind the wall.

Turning around, Michelle saw light spilling in from the hole. Steadying herself, she crawled towards it. At the opening, she carefully put her head through, hoping it was gone. Placing a hand onto the floor of Clara’s room, she was hit with a blinding pain as a shard of glass sliced into the skin of her palm. The low screeching of heavy furniture being moved made her look up.

It was staring at her, smiling that fake smile as it righted Clara’s dresser in one swift movement. It pushed the dresser towards her, fresh scratches appearing on the hardwood as it gained speed. Michelle scrambled to get through the opening. There was a loud thud and her body crumpled as it was slammed back into the hole.

 Darkness descended over as heavy footsteps descended the stairs.

Michelle woke up to find herself surrounded by darkness. Her head ached, and her body was cold and stiff. The wound in her hand pulsed. The silence in this place was so absolute that she could hear her heart pounding in her chest.

Above her, glowed a faint light.

She reached towards it, but her hands hit something cold and unyielding. A wall.

“Clara!” she yelled.

From the direction of the light, a muffled voice spoke.

Clara’s words came back to her.

The other Mommy.

Michelle heard it speak in that broken metallic voice, “Let’s take a video of Mommy singing you a lullaby.”

Rage welled up in her and she stood on unsteady legs, pushing herself along the smooth surface and towards the light. Peering through, Michelle realized the wall was made of glass. All around she saw deep grooves, as though an animal had been scratching for days, trying to get out.

Pressing her face against the dark glass, she peered into her daughter’s room.

Clara was under the covers, holding on tight to her favorite stuffy.

Dan was there too; he was shooting a video with Michelle’s phone. It sat on the edge of the bed stroking Clara’s hair. Its hand moved in quick, jerky motions and its dead eyes fixed on Clara’s.

Dan smiled at the creature.

It wore her clothes, her makeup, her jewelry. When it spoke, its jaw twitched unnaturally, and after every fake smile, its face returned to that same slack, lifeless expression she’d seen earlier. Like a toy whose batteries had run out.

How come they couldn’t see it? How could Dan not see it wasn’t her? How could he hear that voice and not know?

Clara was the only one who appeared afraid of it. She performed for the camera, adopted the smile Michelle had taught her, but whenever it looked away, Clara’s terrified expression slipped through.

Michelle screamed and clawed at the glass. One of her fingernails snapped and the wound in her hand bled fresh blood.

Beyond the wall, the other Mommy raked its long fingernails through Clara’s hair. Leaning over, it pursed its lips and moved to give Clara a goodnight kiss. She recoiled, but it held her hair and pulled her close. On the other side of the wall, Michelle pounded against the glass and screamed for her daughter.

It grabbed Dan’s hand and led him towards the doorway. Dan followed sheepishly behind it, staring at the back of its dress with a hungry look on his face.

Michelle didn’t care about Dan, all she wanted was to be back with Clara, to get her away from that other version of her.

“Clara, my baby. Mommy is so sorry. I shouldn’t have left you.”

On the dresser, the baby monitor’s status light flickered on, and the speaker crackled. Clara’s little body jerked up, and she stared into the camera.

A hopeful smile spread across her face.

“Mommy?”

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About the Author

David Worn is a Neuroscientist and Canadian expat. His short fiction has recently appeared in Howls from the Dark Ages: An Anthology of Medieval Horror and Dark Matter Magazine. When not writing, he enjoys patching Modular Synths, and playing lightsabers with his kids.

worncassettes.com
twitter.com/WornCassettes

Copyright ©2023 by David Worn.

Published by Shortwave Magazine. First print rights reserved.

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