About the Feature
Scuttling and Creeping
Photo by Image Catalog
Through the dark one-way mirror, I watched a group of toddlers shoving squishy foam cars along a rug, their faces grim with concentration. Another group was piled in and around the lap of a sturdy woman reading a picture book. And in back, on a wooden loft, a lone toddler was trudging through cushions and pillows. He stopped at the top of a staircase and looked down at his classmates, glancing from group to group as though he hoped to get their attention but didn’t want to make a nuisance of himself by calling out.
My wife, Rachel, squeezed my hand. The daycare was at the university where she had been offered a position on the plant biology faculty. We were touring the daycare with Greg, its administrator, who had a loud but mellow voice and wore a bright red polo shirt with the university mascot on one side of his broad chest.
“If Beverly joins us next year,” Greg was saying, “she’ll be guided in her play by her caretakers, all of whom have degrees in their field. And on the playground she’ll mix with older children who model independent play.”
“Did I see tricycles?” Rachel asked.
“Indeed you did,” Greg said.
Greg smiled. “Of course.”
The toddler in the loft began stepping down the stairs. He had small, close-set eyes and straight blond hair cut in a bowl shape. I found myself watching him with the intensity of a person trying to will someone else to do something: in this case, to sit and slide down the stairs on his bottom, or to grab one of the handrails, preferably with both hands. But he was waving his hands like a drunken tightrope walker while staring longingly, almost dreamily, into the empty space above his head, as though he expected to be lifted by a giant caretaker he alone could see. Rachel’s grip on my hand tightened. The toddler was teetering. His arms made spirals in the air. He looked so unstable that when he fell the last two steps and started crying, I felt relieved, then guilty for feeling that way. Then he was scooped up by a young woman wearing athletic shorts and an oversized T-shirt.
“Who’s she?” Rachel asked.
“A student from the education department,” Greg said. “They get course credit for working here as interns, so on most days the child-to-caretaker ratio is effectively three or four to one.”
“Wow,” Rachel said, glancing at me.
The fallen toddler, soothed, joined the toddlers playing with cars.
The tour continued.
Next door, the older toddler classroom was similar except that some of the toddlers were sitting at tables, drawing or building ramshackle towers out of colorful plastic shapes that stuck together with magnets.
Further down the hall, the preschool classroom had actual desks, though the children (their long legs and articulated faces made it impossible to think of them as toddlers) weren’t using the desks; they were standing in a circle, playing recorders and tiny guitars while a silver-haired woman waved a glittery wand to keep time.
At the end of the hall, we went downstairs to the mezzanine level, where there was a waiting area and a little library of books that could be borrowed by parents. I expected to continue down the staircase to the lower level, but Greg stopped.
“Any questions?” he asked, smiling.
I raised my chin to indicate the stairs. “What’s down there?”
“The infant classrooms,” Greg said. He wasn’t smiling anymore. “It’s best practice to keep them separate.”
I wondered if the toddlers posed some kind of threat to the infants. Back when Rachel and I were considering having a second child, I’d read about toddlers striking and even smothering their baby brothers and sisters, but it wasn’t something I imagined being common enough to affect the layout of a daycare. The idea disturbed me. But Greg and Rachel had moved on to discussing meals and the diaper policy, so I turned my attention to the bookshelves. There were many books I hadn’t seen before, like a series about an elf named Murky who helps kids have adventures using yard waste and nonrecyclable trash.
The plant biology faculty had arranged our visit to make their formal offer to Rachel. This was her third year on the job market, so to me the visit was only a formality—she would take the job. In fact, I almost stayed home. I hadn’t wanted to leave our daughter, Beverly, with my parents, who drank wine and watched tv while Beverly played by herself underneath the kitchen table. But Rachel convinced me I should see the town before we committed to live there the rest of our working lives (it was a tenure-track job). In addition, Rachel had misgivings about living in the South.
By the time Greg showed us the daycare, we had already driven around with a realtor and gone on a campus tour led by a startlingly polished undergraduate. We were on our way across a grassy quadrangle to meet some plant biology people for lunch when Rachel told me she wanted to make her acceptance of the job contingent on Beverly’s getting a spot in the daycare, which was usually done by lottery. I was surprised. The daycare was nice, of course, but nice enough to risk the job? And was having Beverly in daycare so important?
“Worst case,” Rachel said, “they’ll say it can’t be done, and I’ll just back down and take the job anyway.”
“Whatever you think is best,” I said, which was something I said a lot, but in this case Rachel knew better than I did. I hadn’t ever had, or been offered, the kind of job that required negotiation. I taught writing workshops at the adult extension of the university where Rachel was a postdoc, and I made extra money by editing manuscripts for my students. Most were wealthy retirees whose time, unlike mine, was too valuable to spend reading and revising their own memoirs and homey bildungsromans.
The faculty we ate lunch with, all of whom had children, agreed that the daycare was fantastic. “That Greg,” one said, “what a mensch. And did you meet Mr. Phil?” We hadn’t met Mr. Phil. They asked about our current daycare situation, and I pulled a long face and pointed at myself. I meant the gesture to be humorous. During the awkward pause before one of the faculty, a man named Dave who looked as though he’d stepped out of a catalog for outdoorsy casual wear, laughed a little too loudly, I decided that I would never be friends with these people and that my life here would be the same as ever, except my wife would be making more money and my daughter would be watched by strangers.
They gave us a spot in the daycare. Rachel took the job. And six months later, with fall semester about to begin, whatever struggles I’d been having with the move and my own prospects had given way to anxiety about the pacifier situation. The young toddlers were expected to get through the day without pacifiers. This was necessary, Mr. Phil had explained in an e-mail, because they were old enough to pluck the pacifiers from each other’s mouths and share germs that way. Over the summer, Beverly had been getting through most mornings and afternoons without her pacifier, but naptime remained a problem. I tried to encourage her to nap without a pacifier by rocking her without one until she fell asleep, or by driving her around in the car until she dozed off and then carrying her upstairs, catatonic, and placing her in bed without the pacifier. But she always woke up crying after fifteen or twenty minutes, and to soothe her back to sleep—because she needed to sleep longer than fifteen or twenty minutes if the afternoon was going to be tolerable for either of us—I gave back the pacifier.
We didn’t arrive on the first day until after nine o’clock. The designated parking spots were mostly empty, and in my mind this was because all the other parents had to get to their important jobs and couldn’t dawdle. I didn’t want Beverly to miss snack time on her first day, so to move quickly, I carried her instead of leading her by the hand. She clung to my neck with both arms. She may have suspected we were on our way to the doctor’s office, where she’d be given another battery of vaccinations, so I made brainless chatter about what interesting bushes we were seeing and how some workers were digging a hole in the sidewalk. Beverly said nothing.
When I entered the facility using the spousal id card I’d been issued, Greg was sitting behind the reception desk in his office. He came around the desk to shake my hand and introduce himself to Beverly, whose name he remembered. Then he asked me if I was “squared away.”
“Honestly? I’m a little nervous about the whole pacifier thing.”
“Pacifier,” Beverly repeated, and her head started making birdlike movements as she searched my torso for evidence of her pacifier.
“Yeah, Mr. Phil is pretty strict about that stuff,” Greg said. “But Beverly”—he turned to my daughter and pointed downstairs—“you don’t want a baby to sneak in while you’re sleeping and snatch your pacifier, do you?”
Beverly, who’d been watching Greg ask this question, buried her face in my neck.
Greg rubbed her back while, in a quiet voice, he told me I should discreetly hand the pacifier to Miss Amber, Mr. Phil’s lead assistant. Miss Amber was the one who monitored them during naptime, Greg explained, not Mr. Phil, God knew, so in pinch she could stick the pacifier into Beverly’s mouth and Mr. Phil would be none the wiser. Greg clapped me on my shoulder and walked us upstairs.
When we came into the classroom, Mr. Phil was singing and playing a primitive accordion while the assembled toddlers shook rattles that looked like tiny billiard balls. In his song, Mr. Phil welcomed each toddler and expressed his happiness that the toddler had joined him that day. I stood there anxiously, wondering if he would welcome Beverly, until a young caretaker (Miss Amber?) ushered us to the back where there was a row of tiny sinks and a cabinet full of toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes. The caretaker introduced herself—she was Miss Amber, and I wondered if now would be a good time to hand her the pacifier. But first I knelt next to Beverly and, with Miss Amber watching, fumbled in my pocket for her little toothbrush and a tube of travel-sized toothpaste, which wasn’t even children’s toothpaste; it was adult toothpaste, full of fluoride that was probably ravaging her microbiome. But I didn’t have time to worry about that, so I put a pea-sized dab of toothpaste on the toothbrush, which had Elmo on it, and wondered if Miss Amber expected Beverly to brush her own teeth. She never brushed her own teeth. But I gave Beverly the toothbrush, which caused her to smile and wave it around and then goofily pretend to brush her teeth by raking the loaded toothbrush across her lips and cheeks, until I, embarrassed, smiling to cover my embarrassment, wrapped my hand around Beverly’s and guided the toothbrush into her mouth. The brushing that ensued was next to useless (there wasn’t any toothpaste left!), but we brushed anyway, then rinsed her hands, then wiped her face.
Miss Amber asked Beverly if she wanted to use the potty, and Beverly stared blankly at the miniature toilet before following Miss Amber to the rug where the other children had dispersed and begun retrieving toys from the shelves. I followed at a distance, hoping Beverly wouldn’t look back at me and make a scene when I left, but when she didn’t look back and instead began browsing a shelf of board books, I wasn’t sure if I should say goodbye or leave without a word. I stood there watching her. Then I looked at Miss Amber, expecting her to be watching Beverly, but she had turned her attention to a little boy who was trying to climb a cubby where some clothes were hanging. I didn’t even get to slip her the pacifier!
On my way downstairs, lost in thought, I heard someone say, “Whoa, whoa,” and felt a big hand wrap around my upper arm, stopping my descent.
Greg was standing above me on the landing. Confused, I saw that I had passed the mezzanine and gone down a few stairs toward the lower level, where the babies were.
“Sorry,” I said softly.
“The first day can be tough,” Greg said. “What’s that you’ve got there?”
I looked down at my hand, saw the pacifier, and shoved it into my pocket.
Greg held out his own hand, smiling. “I’ll make sure she gets it.”
At home, alone, I made another cup of coffee and sat down to work. I was editing only one student manuscript, a memoir of Depression-era Fort Wayne in which a young woman is courted by a handsome Jew whom her parents reject, forcing the couple to elope and (surprise!) be happily married for sixty-one years. When I finished, I had no idea where I would get my next gig. Unlike the university where Rachel and I used to work, this one hired published writers to teach at its adult extension, whose thick catalog listed classes like Ekphrastic Poetry and The Lyric Essay for Beginners. Why had Rachel demanded a spot in the daycare as part of her offer but not token work for me, her husband? I wasn’t asking to teach undergraduates, just old people. I had a terminal degree in my field.
But did I really want to teach old people? No, I wanted to write. That was why Beverly was in daycare, or at least how Rachel had convinced me she should be. So I opened a new document and stared at the bright white screen. I felt as though Rachel was urging me on, Beverly too. Go for it! they seemed to be saying. You can do it! Start soon, though!
I washed dishes. I took a shower. I made a sandwich and ate it alone at the kitchen table. The stereo receiver had broken during the move, so I ate in silence. The new house was much larger than the apartment I was used to, and its quietness had a sort of depth that reminded me of the few times I’d been inside caves, where cool air wafted around and the smallest noises, like dripping water, carried powerfully. So when I stopped chewing and heard what sounded like the scuttling of tiny feet, I ascribed it to a faraway squirrel or mouse.
I went back to my office and stared at my computer some more. I wondered if I should start a new story or just jot down some thoughts about the move and my changing life, but instead I retreated from the blank page to the endless and colorful promise of the internet, where I read about strategies for weaning one’s toddler off pacifiers: alternative soothing such as bed- and naptime massage; making the pacifier revolting by dipping it in lemon juice; going cold turkey, which usually required only two sleepless nights and could therefore be achieved in a single agonizing weekend; and something called the baby-gift strategy. A favorite of mommy bloggers, the strategy involved telling your toddler she’s a big girl and doesn’t need the pacifier anymore, so she should give the pacifier to a baby who needs it. The pacifier gets thrown away, of course, but for the sake of the transition, a ceremony is enacted wherein the toddler places her pacifiers in a small box, wraps the box with the help of a caregiver, then gives the wrapped gift to someone with a baby. The last stage is optional; the gift can also be placed in a mailbox and disposed of during the night.
The next day, Greg listened as I described the baby-gift strategy. He had come around from behind his desk and was standing, arms crossed, with a concerned expression on his large face. For a moment I worried the idea was ridiculous or that I had made some kind of rookie mistake. I was convinced by that point that Greg, who wore a wedding ring, had three or four children and had mastered all of childhood’s difficult stages but hesitated to dispense advice for fear of alienating less experienced parents.
“Ha!” Greg said suddenly. The sound might have been laughter, but I was too startled to take it as such. A young mother came through the door, and Greg exchanged pleasantries with her before leaning toward me and saying, conspiratorially, “Why give a baby a pacifier when it’ll just sneak in and take it?”
I laughed, not because I thought the comment was funny—I found it confusing, honestly—but because I hoped to continue to develop a rapport with Greg.
“Why give a baby anything,” Greg said, “those little thieves.”
I mustered another laugh and said, “I don’t know. I think it might encourage in Beverly a generosity of spirit.”
“You know what encourages generosity of spirit? Growing up.”
“Maybe you’re right,” I said, but only to be congenial. I didn’t like the idea of simply waiting for difficult stages to pass, even though what really ended the tantrums of toddlers was the end of toddlerhood, just as what ended the crying of babies was the development of language. Waiting, to me, was like wishing away time. I wanted to savor every moment. Didn’t I? But there were times I wished Beverly could tell me what she wanted, or could dress herself, or could manage to keep her eyes closed while we washed her hair so she wouldn’t scream about having water in her eyes.
“Look at that one,” Greg said, pointing to a window that overlooked a patch of grass where babies from the infant classroom lay on blankets and crawled after balls and plastic toys. A bald baby wearing corduroy overalls had crawled to the base of a tree and seemed to be chewing, or gumming, the bark.
“The little animal,” Greg said, smirking.
“Should we say something?” I asked.
Greg shook his head. “Better the tree than another kid.”
I prepared the materials to enact the baby-gift strategy, and when Rachel got home we went upstairs with Beverly to wrap the pacifiers. Rachel and I sat down on either side of a small brown box we had placed in the center of the bedroom floor. Beverly, who seemed alarmed by the incongruous box, began to creep toward the twin-size mattress that served as her bed (we’d sold her crib before the move). Two pacifiers were in their usual spot next to the mattress, atop a stack of books. The third, from daycare, was in my pocket. I placed this pacifier inside the box and asked Beverly to place the other two in there. “For the baby,” I repeated for the hundredth time. Beverly grabbed the two pacifiers and clutched them to her chest.
“You’re a big girl,” I said lamely. “You don’t need those. The baby does.”
“My pacifiers,” Beverly said reasonably.
“But the baby needs them.”
I reached out to pluck one of the pacifiers from Beverly’s clutched hands, but she twisted away from me. “Beverly . . .” I warned.
“Sweetie,” Rachel said to Beverly, lowering her head to make eye contact, “don’t you want to help a baby?”
“No!” Beverly said.
“Babies take toys,” Beverly added, as though to explain her firm stance.
Rachel glanced at me. I shrugged.
“Do you mean on the playground?” Rachel asked.
Beverly said nothing.
Rachel said, “Did you read a book where a baby took a toy from a big girl?”
“Naptime,” Beverly said.
Rachel squinted, confused.
“Beverly,” I said, “are you telling me that while you sleep—while you and all your new friends are asleep during naptime—a baby sneaks into the darkened classroom and crawls around taking your toys?” I had meant the question to be ridiculous, to amuse Rachel and maybe lead to a joke, later on, at Greg’s expense, but as soon as the words left my mouth, I imagined the scene I had described: Beverly and the other exhausted toddlers lying on their little cots, blankets tucked up to their chins, while a gremlin-like baby crept through a sliver of open doorway and gathered their toys. And when Beverly looked at me, refusing to answer my condescending question, it was hard not to take her silence as confirmation.
“Let’s try again later,” Rachel said softly, and I nodded. By now Beverly had stood up and was sticking her last two pacifiers under her pillow. But who was she hiding them from? Us or an unseen, menacing baby?
I wondered how to broach the subject with Greg: The other day you made a comment, and I thought it was joke, but I don’t know, I mean, do you think it’s possible that babies maybe sneak into the toddler classroom to take toys and stuff? And then, off Greg’s bewildered expression: It’s just that my daughter said something to that effect. Kids! Right? Greg: I have seven children and not one of them has made up a frightening story like that. Maybe this daycare isn’t the right place for Beverly. On second thought, I decided not to say anything. The subject might never have come up if I hadn’t run into Greg outside the daycare.
At the end of that week, Rachel and I went out to dinner with a sixtyish couple, the male half of which was a full professor in plant biology. Topics ranged from department politics to the undefeated football team. The female half was a lawyer with her own family law practice, and while Rachel and the professor discussed grant proposals, the lawyer asked me what it was like to be a writer. I almost told her I wasn’t a writer. I had published only two short stories and one article about teaching creative writing to adults, and I barely wrote anymore. But instead I talked about how the flexibility of writing made it a great complement to my wife’s more demanding career. The lawyer nodded and offered thoughtful comments, but at some point a conversational swap was made, and I found myself being grilled by the professor about how bad these kids were at writing nowadays and what could we do to fix that?
It was only nine fifteen when we parted ways with the couple, and we had told our sitter we would be home at ten, so we decided to get a drink. We walked to the nearest bar that didn’t advertise dollar shots or peach-a-ritas. The inside was low-ceilinged and dimly lit, with crocheted wall hangings. The dozen or so patrons were all men.
Rachel went straight to the bathroom. She was annoyed at me. Though I’d made an effort during dinner to smile and ask questions, she could tell I hadn’t enjoyed myself, so I expected her to come out of the bathroom with a speech about how we had to make friends, and this was how it’s done. I didn’t want to fight, so I got ready to accept her points and reassure her I liked the lawyer, Sheila (or was it Sharon?), but then I saw Greg. He was hunched over a beer at the bar, dressed the same as he did at school except that his polo shirt had been replaced by a very tight T-shirt that emphasized his softening muscles.
“Greg?” I said.
His face, when he raised it from his beer, was mirthless and slack.
I said my name to save him the embarrassment of having to ask. “Beverly’s dad?”
“Beverly! What a cutie.”
“Cute at school, maybe.”
“Get ready for three.”
I laughed. “How old are your kids?”
“Oh, I—I guess I assumed . . .”
Greg turned back to his beer, which had an empty shot glass next to it. “He wants them,” Greg said, sliding the bottle back and forth between his hands, and from the somberness of his voice I understood that the “he” was a significant other. Greg was gay. Also, I was in a gay bar. I glanced around, as though to make sure no gay men were approaching me, but of course they weren’t; they were sitting at tables and gathered around the jukebox, absorbed in their conversations. Suddenly I worried I might be intruding, but Greg looked so sad. I didn’t want to leave him like that. So in an attempt at levity I said, “You’ll never guess what Beverly told me the other night.”
“My man, I’ve heard it all,” Greg said, “but try me.”
“She said a baby sneaks into her classroom while she’s sleeping and takes the toys.”
Greg’s face darkened. “If it were up to me, we wouldn’t have any children under two. But the university, well, we can’t have that now, can we?”
I was confused. “Have what?”
“We can’t have the talent taking two years off.” Greg gulped his beer and waved at the bartender, a skinny older woman with bright blonde hair. I wondered if I should feel judged, but Beverly had only just turned two, and it was Rachel’s idea that she be in daycare, not mine. Greg said to me, “You know changelings?”
The bartender approached, and I ordered Greg another round, along with pints of beer for Rachel and me. Then Greg proceeded to lay out his theory that changeling legends evolved as an explanation of baby behavior; that babies are possessed by an alternative, nonhuman consciousness centered on mischief-making and greed; and that this alternative consciousness (or “elf consciousness,” as Greg called it) falls away with time, or with the addition of human language, and is replaced by human consciousness.
Rachel approached midway through Greg’s monologue and didn’t interrupt, but when he noticed her, his tone lightened. Moments later he concluded, “And that, y’all, is why I don’t want a baby in my house. But Alfonso won’t listen!”
Rachel laughed, as if the whole speech had been the elaborate windup of a joke.
“I tell him I’ve got twenty babies already,” Greg said. “Why do I need more?”
“I suppose that’s true,” Rachel said, and I wanted to tell her not to patronize this man. Couldn’t she see he was feeding her a line to mask his true feelings?
“Babies aren’t as bad as they seem,” I said.
“Babies are wonderful,” Rachel said, confused.
“Babies make no sense,” I said. “It’s like living with an alien, but the thing is? The phase passes quickly, and when it’s over you kind of miss it.” This was an understatement. There were elements of Beverly’s babyhood that I missed desperately, like the weak grip of her tiny, fleshy hand around my finger.
Greg nodded, raising his beer to his lips. I got the sense he had more to say on the subject but was holding back, in deference to Rachel, whom he’d met only once, whereas he and I had developed a rapport. And so when Rachel and I left Greg and began drinking and chatting alone at a table, I found myself a little annoyed at Rachel for interfering with my potential heart-to-heart with Greg. Then the whole drive home she talked about how she never would have guessed Greg was gay—he seemed like such a football guy, and sure, maybe football guys could be gay, but wouldn’t it be hard to be gay in a town this size?
I almost told her it was hard to be anybody in a town this size, but I only nodded. I wanted to ask Greg to hang out sometime, but what if Alfonso took it the wrong way? I pictured Alfonso as a younger, darker, harder-bodied version of Greg. If we did hang out, I would urge Greg to have a baby. Beverly had been a bad sleeper and frequent crier, but my memory of the panic I used to feel in the middle of those sleepless nights had faded with time. What hadn’t faded were sensations like the weight of her little body as I lowered her into her crib, tightly swaddled, and raised her from it the next morning, and the slow and pendulous feeling of rocking her in the nursing chair while dozing off to an audiobook. But the nursing chair, like the crib, had been sold before the move. We’d decided not to have another child. Rachel struggled to balance the demands of motherhood with her career, and both of us were almost forty.
Suddenly I was desperate to get home, where I could see Beverly on the video monitor, rendered in grainy black and white but with just enough detail to detect the rising and falling of her back as she breathed. What were we doing apart from her, anyway? We were away all day, Rachel in her office and I in the dark, empty house, the house where right now Beverly was sleeping alone while a nineteen-year-old stranger fooled with her phone on the couch. What happened when Beverly woke up crying and the stranger tried to comfort her? At least my negligent parents weren’t strangers. Why had we been so quick to leave them? To leave everything?
“You’re speeding,” Rachel said.
At home, the babysitter told us Beverly hadn’t made a peep, so I was surprised when she woke up crying at three in the morning. Although Rachel and I took turns going into her room, I didn’t know whose turn it was, and I was out of bed and putting on my pajama pants before Rachel was fully awake.
Inside her dark bedroom, Beverly was sitting up in bed and crying hard. I rubbed her back with one hand and used the other to comb the tousled surface of her bed for the pacifiers. Not finding them, I hefted Beverly into my lap and rocked her as best I could while sitting cross-legged. Hunched over her, I could smell the detangler we’d started using to help us comb through her lengthening hair. And beneath that cloying, floral smell was another—not a babyish smell or an odorous adult smell but a salty smell that was, to me, inseparable from thoughts of my daughter, from the very name Beverly.
Though her eyes were closed, she hadn’t stopped squirming. Now she was muttering to herself. I thought I heard something about a baby or babies.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” I said, but her face was wrenching in and out of agonized expressions.
“Go away!” she cried.
Startled, I tried to reassure her that it was only a dream. Beverly had started having bad dreams around the time we moved, and after calming down she would sometimes mention what she thought she’d seen, like a mean dog or “weird people.” But I couldn’t help imagining the baby. The elf baby. Scuttling across the ceiling on spidery feet.
When I showed up at daycare on Monday, Greg was chatting with a young father, and I was glad to be able to pass by his desk without stopping to talk. I suppose I felt a little embarrassed, not because I saw Greg at a gay bar but because he had opened up to me and I wasn’t sure what to say.
We had washed Beverly’s naptime blanket over the weekend, and now I folded it and knelt to place it inside her cubby while she brushed her teeth. All I had to do by that point was remind her to brush the tops and bottoms, and sometimes guide her hand back to her mouth if she tried to stop too soon. When she finished, Beverly ran off to play with the small group I had come to think of as the readers, who lingered near the board books, idly playing but ready to drop whatever they were playing with and be read to. As usual I did a quick check of her cubby and diaper bin to make sure there were backup clothes, enough diapers, and diaper cream. Everything was in place except the secret pacifier, the one I’d given Greg to give Miss Amber. I checked again. No pacifier. I looked around for Miss Amber, but she was busy carting the morning snack into the room, so I had no choice but to interrupt Beverly, who was playing with an alligator hand-puppet.
She looked up at me, and the surprise on her face was tinged with something like annoyance. It was an expression I could imagine maturing with age and gaining nuance.
“Beverly?” I said.
“Yes,” she said flatly.
The other toddlers were staring at me.
“What happened to your pacifier?”
Beverly said nothing. I glanced at the others, as though to ask them the same question, but they neither answered nor returned to their toys in a conspicuously abrupt way that might have suggested they were in on whatever Beverly was keeping from me.
I told Beverly to have a nice day and that I would see her later, but she had turned back to the hand puppet.
Outside the classroom, I watched her through the one-way mirror. She was using the alligator to tickle her own armpit. The gesture was so sweet, so innocently curious, and yet the darkening effect of the half-silvered glass made it sinister. I imagined an elf baby creeping into the classroom and disguising itself among the toddlers, mimicking their rocking toddler gaits, their chubby, imprecise toddler fingers.
When Mr. Phil appeared with his accordion and the toddlers began to muster, I took out my phone and called Rachel, who was surprised to hear from me.
“Everything okay?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I lied, “but do you think you could stop by the daycare around one thirty to check on Beverly?”
“During naptime? Why?”
I passed the reception desk, where Greg was sitting, and raised my hand at him and smiled. He smiled back. All was well between us! I went through the door and stood outside.
Rachel said, “You don’t think she’s napping well?”
“I’m just curious about the whole napping situation.”
“But why? I don’t—”
“Really, Rachel? You’re going to give me a hard time about one little visit to check on her during naptime when I’m the one who drops her off and picks her up every day?”
“Okay, sorry, I just wish I understood what’s going on.”
“I want to know if she’s using her pacifier.” This wasn’t a lie. I did want to have it confirmed that she wasn’t using her pacifier. But I also wanted to know if the caretakers were too busy whispering and browsing social media to notice that the toddlers were being menaced in their sleep.
Rachel said, “Couldn’t you just ask if she’s using her pacifier?”
“It’s a touchy subject. Mr. Phil doesn’t know about it.”
“What do you mean Mr. Phil doesn’t know about it?”
“We’ve been there three weeks,” Rachel said, “and you’re already breaking the rules?”
“Greg said it was okay.”
“Greg isn’t the teacher. He’s just a guy. He doesn’t even have kids.”
“On the contrary, he has dozens of kids. Our kids.”
“Greg is strange.” She laughed. “That thing about elf babies?”
“Will you just drop by the daycare? Please? It’s two blocks from your office.”
At home, instead of writing, I read online about changelings. In Irish legend, changelings were fairy children and could be detected by odd physical characteristics, such as long teeth and unusually articulated fingers, or by uncanny insights. When it thinks it’s alone, a changeling might celebrate its good fortune by dancing or producing a musical instrument that it plays with virtuosic technique. Fortunately, simple charms, such as an inverted coat next to the bed, often ward them off. Baptism may also help, at least in case of Nordic troll changelings.
Rachel called at two o’clock to say Beverly was sleeping like a baby.
“Did she have the pacifier?” I asked.
“I don’t think so.”
“And you were there until just now?”
“Yeah. Calm down.”
Rachel was right. I needed to calm down. The fact that Beverly was still sleeping soundly at two o’clock confirmed what I already knew, which was that she could sleep without a pacifier, so what was my problem? This was good news. It meant I didn’t have to worry that Mr. Phil would discover the secret pacifier and chastise Beverly or, worse, quietly take me aside one day during pickup to tell me Beverly wasn’t welcome back at daycare until she was completely weaned. Now I could worry about potty training. Most of the other two-year-olds used the potty and wore underwear, and Miss Amber told me Beverly had begun expressing interest in the miniature toilets.
I hadn’t eaten lunch, so I went to the kitchen and began washing lettuce. When I turned off the water, the cave-like silence seemed to envelop me. I wondered if with practice I might be able to bring my mind into sync with it. But the silence was spoiled by the scuttling sound. I tried to imagine a squirrel outside the window, gathering the pecans that had begun to fall from the shaggy, diseased tree in our neighbor’s yard, or a mouse making its home in the warm crawl space, but the elf baby was too strong in my mind: creeping across the wooden floor above my head, out of Beverly’s bedroom and into the hallway, down the hallway and onto the stairs, where instead of walking down the stairs, it swung its body over the lip of the floor and onto the downstairs ceiling. Slicing cheese, I convinced myself I could feel its eyes on the back of my head, my neck, my adult body. I imagined telling it to get out of here. Beverly wasn’t home. But No, it would say, you’re the one I want.
I left my sandwich materials on the cutting board and went to my office, where I stared at the blank computer screen and tried to force myself to type, but I could still hear the creepy little voice. You don’t write and you barely parent. Why not let me use you? Imagine the mischief I could make! With a quasi-Freudian logic I tried to convince myself that the heckling elf baby was my own guilt made manifest as the baby Beverly had been, or the baby Rachel and I decided not to have. You think your daughter will notice? Your wife? Ha! How Rachel would love for me to take her in your mannish arms and use her the elf way, which is to say, horribly!
I rose from the computer and went upstairs, where for good measure I inverted a coat to place at the foot of Beverly’s bed. That’s when I noticed the little brown box. I had set it on the shelf furthest from the bed, next to the bedtime books that weren’t in heavy rotation. I knew without opening it that the box contained the pacifier from school; I’d brought it home to enact my stupid baby-gift strategy.
I carried the box downstairs to the kitchen, where I opened the foot-pedal trash can, fully intending to pitch the box into it with force, but then I imagined it lying there among the damp coffee filters and wadded tissues. I imagined it trundling inside a stinky garbage truck to a landfill where it would molder for eternity. I opened the box.
Inside, not one but three pacifiers were nested atop a crinkled piece of pink tissue paper I’d put in the box to make it more like a gift. Had Rachel put the two bedroom pacifiers into the box? Not likely. She never cleaned or tidied Beverly’s bedroom.
Had Beverly put them in there?
Now that the box had taken on the valence of my daughter’s generosity, I could no longer throw it away, of course, so I carried the tiny box into my office, where, for lack of a better idea, I shut it in the drawer where we kept envelopes and stamps. And somewhere behind me or in my confused imagination, the elf baby, who’d been cackling, went silent.
After going through the afternoon in an unproductive daze, I was late in arriving at the daycare. By the time I got inside, Mr. Phil was coming out of the upstairs hallway with Beverly and another little girl. They were on their way to Greg’s office, where the girls would wait for their delinquent parents. There was a jar on Greg’s desk in which such parents were expected to stuff cash that would be used to buy decorations and prizes for the Halloween picnic. Mr. Phil noticed me standing beneath him, and I got ready to smile and apologize, no matter what kind of snarky comment he made. But just as he opened his mouth, I felt a big hand come down on my shoulder.
“Here’s Daddy!” Greg said right behind me. “Now, why don’t you two hold hands and walk down the stairs like big girls?”
Mr. Phil, who’d missed his chance, set the other girl’s hand on the handrail and watched her for a moment before heading back to his classroom. The other girl, whose name was Nisha, was smaller than Beverly and had thick black hair and large, forlorn-looking eyes. Beverly took Nisha’s other hand and began with confidence to lead the younger girl down the steps.
Greg and I watched them from the bottom of the short staircase, and when they reached us, I fought the urge to lift Beverly into my arms. Instead I let her hug my leg, and when I mussed her hair, she looked up at me and said, “Nisha go’d down!”
“That’s right,” I said.
Greg took Nisha’s hand and led her into his office, which was small and windowless and lined with chest-high file cabinets. On the fronts of the cabinets, stuck there by magnets, were childish drawings and sheets of construction paper covered in glitter and smears of brightly colored paint.
“What happens now?” I asked Greg, who had plopped down on the floor next to Nisha and was making a game out of sticking his finger in her ear.
“Oh, her dad’ll be here any minute,” Greg said. “He’s always late, unlike you.” Then Nisha fell backward, giggling, and Greg started growling and tickling her sides.
I was about to say sorry and thanks and I’d see him tomorrow, but Greg smiled at me, red faced, and said, “This is the age I like, when you can joke around and wrestle with them. It gets better and better, doesn’t it?”
“Yes, it does,” I said.
By then, Beverly had sat down with Nisha, so I sat down too. Greg got out some construction paper and crayons for the girls to draw with. Then he told me, in the same soft voice he’d used when he told me to give Miss Amber the secret pacifier, that Alfonso wanted to pay a surrogate to carry their baby. Alfonso was a professor at the business school, so money wasn’t a problem, but Greg wanted to go through the foster system.
Greg leaned back on his palms and watched the girls, hunched over their drawings. “Kids this age,” he said, “they’re capable of actual kindness, you know? Think about the stairs just now, the way she took her hand,” and I thought about the stairs. But I wasn’t thinking about the way Beverly took Nisha’s hand, though that made me proud; I was thinking about the moment before, after Mr. Phil left, when Beverly stood at the top, alone. She’d been smiling slightly, and with the haughty, upturned chin of an adventurer surveying a new landscape. It was a landscape full of promise and pitfalls, I imagined, but I couldn’t quite see it. I was somewhere behind her, sealed up in the quiet, empty house. The house that would one day become her childhood home, made hazy by memory. The house where I type and read and creep through time, connected to her by a tether of thought that stretches on and on.
About the Author
Bradley Bazzle is the author of the story collection Fathers of Cambodian Time-Travel Science (C&R Press, 2020) and the novel Trash Mountain (Red Hen Press, 2018). His stories appear in the Missouri Review, Epoch, Beloit Fiction Journal, and elsewhere. He lives with his wife and daughter in Athens, Georgia.