- by Kai Hudson -
“It’s a hearing aid,” Nina says with a careful smile.
She’s sitting on his bad side so the words come through faint and muffled, like there’s a scarf over her mouth. Robert frowns at the little device on the table. It’s innocuous enough: a silver teardrop roughly the size of his thumb—not brown? Aren’t hearing aids brown?—with a clear plastic tube part that wraps around the shell of the ear. It looks delicate, and expensive.
He wants to smash it to bits.
Wenxing lays a hand on his arm; the muscles relax, almost on reflex. She turns to their daughter with a curious cock of the head. “You got this without the insurance?”
That’s the excuse Robert has always used, anyway, every time Nina sighed when she had to shout three times to get his attention. We can’t afford it, Tian-Tian, he’d say, shaking his head. It’d be a thousand dollars even with insurance. I looked.
He hadn’t, but Nina doesn’t need to know that.
Now, though, she just looks triumphant. “I got it off the internet,” she says, tucking a lock of jet-black hair behind an ear. With the other hand, she shifts her grip on little David, fast asleep against her breast with his thumb in his mouth. “Although I guess technically it’s not a hearing aid, it’s a hearing amplifier,” she continues, switching to English for the new word. “It’s not, like, tuned to your ear by an audiologist or anything. It’s just supposed to make noises louder.”
Robert narrows his eyes. “How much did you pay?”
“Relax, Baba.” Nina flaps her free hand, then brings it down and strokes David’s fine baby hair, almost without thought. “You do remember I work full time now, right? I can afford to buy you nice things. Especially things you need.”
She’s right. Nina’s fully two years out of grad school now, putting her Ph.D. to good use at some big bioengineering company down in San Diego. She makes more than Robert did at her age, when his English was still halting and thick with residual Mandarin—Fang Shi-Liu printed in stark ink on his passport. He’s Robert Fang now, just turned sixty, already making vague retirement plans to take Wenxing on a trip to Europe. Still, he can’t help but look at Nina and see the tiny, squalling six-month-old they brought off the plane with them at LAX. The little girl who liked flowery dresses and who used to cry when he left on business trips, who has somehow grown into this confident young woman with a full-time job, an infant, and a husband with skin the colour of white piano keys.
“Besides,” Nina says, switching back to her American-accented Mandarin, “I got it off this website that sells high-quality used medical equipment, from hospitals and nursing—uh.” She rights herself with a dancer’s grace. “Private donors and the like. The stuff that only gets used once or twice, you know, so it’s practically new. It was super cheap, Baba. Don’t worry about it.”
Wenxing gives him The Look. Robert hides his sigh and smiles. “Okay, Tian-Tian. Thank you.”
She beams at him, which is when David wakes with a burp and a soft cry. Instantly Nina’s attention shifts, turning to make soft cooing noises at her son. Wenxing gets up to fetch the bottle. Robert stays where he is, staring at the hearing aid.
Well. If Nina went through all that trouble, the least he can do is try it. Maybe it won’t be so bad.
Wenxing giggles at the dinner table that night, when she asks him to pass her the bean curd and he does so without hesitation. “Look at that!” His wife beams at Nina. “It really works!”
Nina grins back, mashing boiled vegetables into a paste while David squirms in his high chair. Robert ducks his head, cheeks a little warm, but the hearing aid feels right nestled in his ear. “Now I can’t pretend anymore not to hear you when you nag.”
They both laugh. David joins in the fun with a bubbly squeal, banging puffy fists against the plastic tray. The sound comes through clear and unmuffled: whump, whump. It’s almost too loud, and Robert winces at the fireworks in his ear. Was this how it always was, before he started losing half his hearing more than a decade ago?
“Baba?” Nina’s smile has paused on her face. “You okay?”
“Yes, yes.” Robert flaps his hand—only vaguely aware it’s the exact same motion Nina used earlier that afternoon—and reaches up to touch the little teardrop. “Maybe I have it set too far up—”
Then he hears it. Far away, crackly like static, but growing steadily closer: crying. A baby crying.
He looks at David, but his grandson directs his loony grin at Nina, a glob of drool meandering down his chin. He glances next at the sliding glass window, which they’ve opened to let in the cool night air and dispel dinner’s heavy soy sauce scent. Maybe there is a baby out there? But all their neighbours are their age or older, with adult children. They would’ve heard about a new grandchild.
The crying grows louder, a high-pitched wail rising to a shriek, then a series of wet gurgles. Almost like . . . water? Another shriek, but this one sounds more urgent somehow, like the baby is in pain. Is someone’s child in trouble? The community pool is only a few blocks down—maybe someone went swimming with their baby and it doesn’t like the water, it’s the water, the water—
“Shiliu.” He blinks, turns to see Wenxing frowning at him. Across the table, Nina has paused with a spoonful of brown-green goop halfway to David’s lips. She’s watching him, though, ignoring her son’s impatient whines. Whines, not cries.
“What’s wrong?” Wenxing asks. “You look like you saw something terrible.”
Robert swallows, looking down at his bowl of rice. The half-eaten meatball atop the white grains stands out stark, like a tiny brain. He clears his throat and nudges the bowl away. In his ear—his left ear—the crying continues, a half-scream now, interspersed with those terrible gurgling noises. “You don’t hear that?”
Nina and Wenxing exchange confused glances. “Hear what, Baba?” his daughter asks.
Robert shakes his head and reaches up to pop the hearing aid out of his ear. The crying stops.
“I think this thing is broken.” Is that common, for them to generate their own sounds?
“That can’t be right.” Crisis averted, Nina turns back to feeding David. Robert can’t hear his happy murmurs, but he reads them in the up-curve of chubby lips. “The website has a money-back guarantee. And they check all the equipment beforehand.”
“Maybe it’s too good.” Wenxing smiles at him. “Maybe you’re hearing whispers from next door or something. All our neighbours’ secrets. What is Baba thinking?”
That gets another short laugh out of Nina. Robert smiles and tucks back into his food. Maybe it is tuned too far up. Maybe someone a few blocks down is giving their baby a bath. Yes. That’s all it is.
David always gets cranky after eating. Just like his dad, Nina likes to say. Robert has never seen Milton go down for a nap after dinner, but he seems the type.
He gazes at the white cardboard box in his hand, the hearing aid nestled inside. Wenxing’s voice drifts in and out from across the hall, a lilting lullaby for David. Da xiang . . . da xiang . . . ni de bi zi zen me na me cang . . .
The rest of it fades out to now-familiar muffled emptiness in his left ear. Some things never change; Wenxing sang the same song to Nina as a baby. He pulls open the top drawer of the dresser and sets the box down. Maybe he’ll call the company tomorrow, see if they take refunds. Or maybe Nina will have to be the one to call, since she bought it?
Something hums in his left ear. Robert shakes his head. No, it’s best his daughter doesn’t find out. How heartbroken would she be, discovering her gift was defective? Maybe he won’t even call. He’s fixed lots of things around the house, hasn’t he? He can handle one little hearing aid.
Nina stands in the doorway of the master bedroom. She’s tilting her head, frowning at his left shoulder. “Baba, you’re . . . dripping.”
Chill wetness along the left collar of his shirt slowly seeps down his shoulder. Robert blinks and hurries to the bathroom. He squints at himself in the mirror there, touching the growing dark patch. It feels like . . . water?
Nina’s voice drifts through the door. “Is your ceiling leaking or—oh, Mama. Is David asleep?”
“Just put him down. He naps more than you did as a baby!”
“It runs in the family, I guess. You know Yeye always . . .”
He doesn’t catch the rest, leaning forward for a closer look. Yes, his shirt is definitely stained at the shoulder, he can see the dark splotch. Well. He hadn’t thought the roof had any holes, but they haven’t checked in a couple years at least. He’ll go out tomorrow and—
Coldness gathers in his ear. Robert stares as a slow, deliberate drop of water gathers in the outer shell, then plops down onto his shirt.
What in the world . . .?
He hasn’t gone swimming in ages, but the feeling is the same: that weird, fluid sensation in his ear, something that doesn’t belong wriggling around in there. Robert frowns, leans over the sink, and taps the other side of his head with the heel of his hand. A couple more drops leak out.
Wenxing and Nina’s conversation drifts in and out, voices garbled and alien. He tries to concentrate on their words but gets only echoey tones. What’s going on?
He taps harder. More water comes out, and it’s—those aren’t drops, it’s a steady flow. It splashes into the sink, splatters over the granite counter and the mirror. He freezes, but the water doesn’t. It keeps gushing from his ear. Robert gapes at the reflection of the faucet that his head has become. A thought drifts to him from far away: his brain is going to come out next, little grey gloops oozing out into the sink like the cornstarch mixture Wenxing uses to thicken her sauces—
Something moves in the middle of the flow, a flicker in the water. Robert moans, staring at the little grey worm wriggling out of his ear canal. Dear God, there is a parasite in his head and it’s eating him alive, except no, it’s not a worm, it’s . . .
A finger. A tiny, bloodless infant finger attached to another wriggling finger, then another, and then a tiny palm. His ear throbs, sharp needle pain, but Robert barely feels it, unaware of the high noise he makes as he stares at the dead baby coming out of his head—
Something grabs his arm. He cries out, jerks sideways—Wenxing does the same. They stand there for a moment, facing each other down like opposing armies. His wife’s eyes are very big. Robert discovers suddenly that he is panting, gasping for breath as little shudders run through his whole body.
Wenxing’s throat works as she swallows. “What’s the matter? I walked in and you were just staring at the mirror like . . .”
Robert gasps and snaps back around. He actually sees it for a moment—the tiny hand attached to an arm, flailing out from his head in horrible, watery birth. Then he blinks: the sink is empty. The mirror and the counter are clean. He feels nothing in his ear.
Fingers shaking, he reaches up to touch his left shoulder.
“Shiliu?” Wenxing approaches slowly, each step careful and deliberate. “Husband, please. You’re scaring me.”
She hasn’t used laogong—husband—in many years. Should he tell her? What if she doesn’t believe him? What if she and Nina think he’s—
From Nina’s bedroom, the sound of a baby’s cries.
Wenxing blinks and turns back toward Nina’s bedroom. “Oh, dear, I just put him down . . .” Out of habit, Robert turns his head to the right, and there: the sound of a baby’s cries.
He doesn’t want to follow her out of the room. He stares into the mirror: the paleness of his lips, the terror in the whites of his eyes. There is no water, not now—but there had been, and if he leaves now he’ll start telling himself it was just a hallucination, stress from work or something. But he knows it wasn’t, he can still feel those fingers clawing their way out of his head . . .
David’s cries rise to an ear-splitting pitch. Robert hurries to the other room.
Nina’s already there, her son tucked up against her chest as she pats his chubby back and walks him back and forth. Wenxing stands next to her, frowning down at the crib. But that’s not what catches Robert’s attention.
He blinks stupidly at his daughter. “He’s wet.”
Damp, more like. He can see it even from here: the translucence of David’s pyjamas, the thick shininess of his hair. A drop of water forms on his big toe and falls to the carpet. Nina meets his eyes over David’s shoulder, and he sees himself there: she’s pretending at calm, but there’s fear underneath because she doesn’t know what’s going on either.
David gurgles a little, and Robert shudders. Wenxing shakes her head. “Shiliu, come here.”
He joins her at the crib. His wife nods down at the bedding. “Touch it.”
His wife turns to him, face pale. “Husband, what is going on?”
It takes forever to get David back to sleep. They change him into new clothes, but he refuses to even approach the crib, descending into screaming protest every time Nina gets him close. In the end, she takes him to bed with her. Robert can hear her even now, unintelligible murmurs drifting down the hall.
He feels like an adulterer, sneaking out to the living room to make a phone call. But Wenxing already feels guilty enough, trying to figure out how she might have gotten David wet before putting him in the crib. Nina tried to reassure her, and Robert knows better, but even now his wife is sorting laundry in worry, shaking her head and muttering to herself between whites and colours.
The jingling music in his ear—his right ear—cuts off, replaced by a tinny voice speaking so fast it sets his teeth on edge. “MyertonMedicalSurplus thisisRachel howcanIhelpyou?”
“Yes, hello. I have question about an order my daughter has placed.” He gives her the required information, and waits through the clacking of her keyboard.
“Ohyes herewego. Klear Hearing Amplifier, purchased by . . .” The name slows her better than an elephant tranq. “Zoo. Tane. Fan. Correct?”
Not even close, but he’s used to it. “Yes. I like to know the origin of this, ah, machine.”
More clacking. Robert peers out at their darkened yard through the sliding glass door. Wenxing would call him crazy if she knew. They’ve never been superstitious people; the only semblance of belief they have consists of occasionally visiting the Buddhist temple to donate money and burn some incense. Fast-talking Rachel with the terrible pronunciation probably won’t be able to give him any information, much less anything useful. Wild goose chase, that’s the English term Nina taught him for this sort of thing.
Call it process of elimination. He’s just trying to get rid of one suspect, however odd. Then he and Wenxing can do a full inspection of the roof tomorrow, and he can look more carefully at the crib, and Wenxing will be able to remember that ah, she actually did give David a quick bath before she put him down, how could she have forgotten—
“Okay. Hm . . . ah, you’re lucky! This particular Klear device didn’t come from a hospital. It actually came from a private donor, a man who . . . oh, that’s sad. The note says the device was donated by the family after his infant grandson accidentally drowned. Something about the grandfather running a bath and then forgetting him there, and being unable to hear the baby’s cries—ahem, mygoodness I probably shouldn’t’ve told you suchahorriblestory wouldyoulikearefund? . . . Sir? Are you still there?”
That’s when the screaming starts.
He nearly smashes into Wenxing in the hallway, eyes wild. “What—”
“Mama! Baba!” Nina’s screeches echo from the bathroom. “For God’s sake, help me!”
Robert bolts after his wife, heart thumping rabbit-wild in his chest. What’s happened? The water—has the water gotten in?
The bathroom door stands ajar, spilling stark yellow light into the hallway. Wenxing gets there first—and wails. “What are you doing?”
Robert shoves past her into the bathroom and gasps. Nina crouches by the bathtub, which is full to the brim. Her pyjamas are soaked and she’s up to her elbows in water, hands closed around a squirming dark shape. A baby-sized shape.
She’s drowning him. Dear God, she’s drowning David—
Nina keens once more, and reality smashes back in. Robert blinks and sees the muscles and tendons in his daughter’s arms bulging with effort, her feet planted firmly against the tile, her tear-streaked face painted in desperation and terror. She’s not pushing down. She’s pulling.
“Baba!” Nina yells again, high-pitched and panicked, and Robert dives forward. The water is ice cold as he plunges his hands in, wrapping already-numbing fingers around his grandson’s tiny chest.
He turns to Nina, stares directly into his daughter’s terrified, ghost-white face. “Pull, Fang Zhutian, pull with Baba.”
It is as if a spell breaks. They yank David out of the water—only later will Robert think it is more like the water spat him out—and collapse back onto the cold bathroom tile. Wenxing makes a high, reedy sound and rushes to Nina as her daughter lays David on the floor, fingers flitting over his limp body. His eyes are closed, mouth half-open, and Robert doesn’t need to be told. Nina chokes on sobs, wraps her hands around David’s ribcage, and begins pushing down on his sternum with her thumbs. Robert darts down the hall for the phone.
None of them notice the innocuous white box sitting on the bathroom counter.
It takes the hospital three hours to get an interpreter. It gives the ER doctors time to stabilize David after Nina and the paramedics brought him back. She’s with him in the room now, talking with a tired-looking resident about things like deoxygenation and hypothermia. Robert only needed to stay long enough to hear the words He’ll recover.
Now he and Wenxing stand in the hall under stark, flickering fluorescent light. The bawdy illumination paints the face of the stubbled social worker in waxen, washed out colours. He introduced himself earlier, but Robert didn’t catch it and it’s too late to ask now. The interpreter stands between them like a referee.
The social worker sighs and scribbles something on his clipboard. “Okay, so you’re sure there was no one else in the house,” he says.
The interpreter says nothing. Robert nods. “We have a state-of-the-art alarm system. It would’ve gone off the instant an intruder got in.”
The interpreter rattles off some English. The social worker frowns. “Then that leaves only one person.” He drops his voice, as if they are now sharing a big secret. “Now, Mr. Fang”—and the way he says it is so sharp, so foreign, fang like twang instead of fong like strong—“I know this can sometimes be hard, seeing as how much you both clearly care about David’s mother. But I’m sure you both want what’s best for David, now. So if there’s anything you’re not telling us, anything at all that you’re choosing to leave out . . .”
He trails off, probably on purpose, hoping they will leap on the gap like eager schoolchildren. Wenxing frowns. “Zhutian loves David.” She speaks slowly, as if even in Mandarin translated to English the social worker needs some help. “She was trying to pull him out of the tub, both my husband and I saw that. She would never hurt her son, or any child.”
The social worker nods. “Yes, I know that,” he says, though his expression doesn’t change. “But you have to understand the way it looks, especially for David’s mother.” Robert can’t help but frown at this—is this what his daughter has become now? Not Nina or Mrs. Brandt, not even Fang Zhutian—just David’s mother. “No one broke in, and you all claim that no one heard anything until David was already in the tub, screaming. How do we explain that?”
Robert clenches his fist. The social worker has a point. Nina was sleeping right next to David; she would’ve sensed his movements when he wriggled out of bed. Someone certainly would’ve heard the thump of him hitting the floor, too: if not Robert, then his daughter or his wife. Why didn’t any of them notice?
The social worker shakes his head. “Maybe you people are just prone to deafness,” he mutters, writing something else on the clipboard. He seems to have forgotten the interpreter was only translating half the conversation. Robert has time to think, Oh no, before Wenxing’s face pinches with rage.
“Don’t talk us like that!” his wife snaps, her voice pinging down the hall, drawing several curious gazes. “You think we do this? We don’t do this! You stop ask us stupid questions!”
“Mama,” Robert says, but Wenxing is having none of it.
“You go home!” she yells as the social worker gapes. “You keep saying we do this and I will sue! I sue your ass till it light on fire!”
The social worker flees. As Wenxing shakes her fist at his retreating back, Robert turns to the interpreter who looks like she can’t decide to run or applaud. “I’m sorry about that.”
She just smiles and shakes her head. “Nothing to apologize for. Now, will you and your wife be all right? Do you need anything else?”
Recovered, Wenxing falls quickly back into the role of caring older lady. “I’m so embarrassed about yelling, please forgive me,” she says. “You’ve been very helpful. Please go home, it’s late and you must be tired.”
The interpreter nods and leaves. Robert shakes his head, but can’t dislodge the social worker’s last words. Prone to deafness. Why does that . . .
Nina trudges down the hall toward them, looking at least ten years older than she did that afternoon. Wenxing meets her first, reaching down to grasp her hands. “Oh, Tian-Tian. How is he?”
“Okay.” She heaves a shaky breath, and Robert’s throat tightens. His daughter looks so small. “He’s asleep now. The doctors say he should be better in the morning.”
Robert nods. He looks for how to comfort his daughter, but he’s never been great at physical affection; in the end, he settles for patting her awkwardly on the shoulder. “He’ll be okay. David’s tough, like his mother.”
That earns him a weak smile. It vanishes when Nina turns to glance back down the hall. “I just wish I could’ve helped him faster. I don’t even know how he got in there . . .”
But Robert does. Rachel’s voice drifts to him, hissing through static. Accidentally drowned . . . a horrible story . . .
It’s crazy, it is, but. The sound of a baby crying during dinner. The gurgling noises. That wet, flailing demon hand. The thought when he first heard the screams: Has the water gotten in?
A-ma used to shake her finger at him, with his nose pressed to the window of their little apartment in Taichung, staring out into the night. “Don’t you go out there,” she’d cautioned. “Yo gui.” There are ghosts.
Except the gui is already inside. And he’ll be damned if he lets it hurt anyone in his family.
Nina sniffles. “Anyway, I-I need to go back to the house, get some of David’s things . . . oh, and I have to call Milton . . .”
“Nonsense, you stay here,” Wenxing says. “Baba can go for you.”
“No, I . . .” Nina shakes her head, but says nothing more. Her eyes seek out Robert’s, wide and helpless, and he understands immediately. When Nina was two, she came down with a terrible case of pneumonia. Robert stayed away from the hospital for two days; Wenxing gave him hell for it, but having to sit there in a cold, sterile white room and stare at his daughter, his precious baby girl all drawn and pale and hooked up to a thousand machines . . .
“Okay,” he says. “Tian-Tian and I will go together. Mama, you stay here and watch David.”
“But . . .”
“It’s okay.” Nina smiles, and it’s her best one so far. “We’ll be right back, I promise.”
Reaching for the car keys, Robert wonders whether that’s a promise she can keep.
Five minutes later, as he pulls the car out of the hospital garage, Nina turns to him with an uncertain look. “So. I, uh. I called the hearing aid company.”
“Mm.” He looks carefully both ways before turning onto the street.
“They said someone else already called asking about where the hearing aid came from.”
“ . . . You’re not going back to help me pack David’s stuff, are you?”
“You’re not going back for David’s stuff, are you?”
He’s watching the road, not Nina, but all the same he hears the small smile in his daughter’s voice. “That’s good,” she says, even though it’s not really an answer. “That’s good.”
The house is quiet when they pull up. Robert can only imagine what the neighbours must’ve thought just a few hours ago, watching as two police cars and an ambulance came careening around the bend of their quiet cul-de-sac.
Hopefully they aren’t about to repeat the scene.
The front door looms like it’s never done before, a silent sentry. Robert pauses, and glances back at his daughter. “Are you sure?”
Hunched in a little behind him, Nina gulps. “Let’s just get this over with.”
The door creaks when he pushes it open. He doesn’t remember it ever doing that before. Their bare feet sink into the carpet, and Robert allows himself a soft chuckle. They’re facing down an infanticidal ghost, but of course they take their shoes off first.
Nothing moves as they creep up the stairs. The bathroom door stands ajar, vomit-yellow light spilling out into the hall. They both duck their heads and hurry past, which is probably why they don’t see the empty counter.
The master bedroom is just how he and Wenxing left it, neat and clean and prepared for bed. You could almost hit the rewind button on the entire evening and find them back here, with Wenxing saying they should take Nina out for dim sum tomorrow, Robert nodding and already planning how he’ll pass the time during the inevitable shopping that comes afterward—
There’s cool wetness beneath his toes. He looks down, watching his feet sink into the off-white carpet.
“What the?” Nina scrunches her nose and flicks her foot. “It’s soaked.”
The smell hits him full-on: softly sweet with a vague chemical odour. Baby shampoo? He shudders and casts about the room.
“Where is it?” The wet squelching of Nina’s footsteps trails him, her voice a mix of determined and scared. “Baba, where did you put it?”
Robert frowns. “I thought . . .”
That came from the bathroom.
Nina’s eyes go wide. “Did you—”
The bedroom door flies open with a bang. The windows do the same, glass exploding inward in a shower of glimmering shards. Robert throws his hands up as Nina screams in sudden pain.
He spins. His daughter sprawls on the ground, clawing at the carpet as an invisible force drags her back toward the hallway—toward the bathroom. Her mouth forms a gaping hole, eyes white with terror. “Baba! Help me!”
“Zhutian!” He rushes forward—which is when he sees it. Footprints. Infant-sized, one after the other making wet stains in the carpet, walking up from the bathroom and into the bedroom, toward Nina who is still screaming—
His daughter jerks mid-cry. Her spine shoots straight, eyes rolling crazily in their sockets. And then she gurgles.
Water sloshes out of her mouth.
“No!” Robert dives for her, but his fingers slip off, everything wet. Her eyes fix on him even as she chokes, and there is a message there, a desperate plea: Find it.
He sprints for the dresser. Yes, that’s where he put it—it’s here somewhere! Drawers vomit their contents—clothes, socks, old watches, wallets. Where? Where is the gui?
More gurgling noises. He whips around to see Nina still paralyzed on the floor, water oozing from her mouth, her face turning whiter by the second. The baby footprints circle her, then slowly begin making their way up the wall toward the ceiling. In the bathroom, the faucet turns on, a solid rush of water into the tub. Moaning, Robert throws himself back into the task. He has to find it, he has to—
Hearing aids spill out of the top drawer, a cascade of brown scattering across the floor. He gapes down at the cruel sea of devices. No. No, it can’t be!
From the direction of the bathroom: an angry cry. A high-pitched squeal. Then gurgling noises, the sound of drowning. Except no, they’re not coming from the bathroom anymore. They’re coming from Nina.
As Robert stares her eyes roll up and she slumps to the floor, water still trickling onto the carpet. He doesn’t even hear his own scream. His daughter, his little bao bei, who only acted out of love, who only bought the hearing aid to help him—
“Amplifier.” The word is strange and foreign on his tongue, but now he says it like a blessing, a prayer. “It’s not hearing aid, it’s amplifier!”
And just like that, he sees it: the single grey teardrop amidst the countless dull brown. A powerful, painful jolt shoots up his arm when he grabs it, but he only tightens his grip as he turns to face the footprints now halfway across the ceiling. The gui that doesn’t belong. The monster that is killing his daughter.
“This is my house.” The words shiver up from deep inside, where he is not Robert, or Shi-Liu, or Baba, or laogong, or the ten thousand other names he carries from the bonds in his life. Now he is just a man, facing down a vengeful beast who sees in him only what it hates. “And I am not your grandfather. Ni gei wo guen!”
He slams his palm into the wall with all his might.
The footprints pause. Water drips from the ceiling.
Piercing cold springs up against his palm. He snatches his hand back, but aside from a damp patch in the white paint, there is nothing there. No plastic, no rubber, not even a dent. Did he . . . did it . . .?
Then, abruptly, something lifts. The footprints vanish. The bathroom faucet turns itself off. The entire house falls silent.
Nina slumps on the floor, unmoving.
Something makes a high-pitched wail. It might even be Robert as he skids to his knees, hauling his daughter into his lap. She flops limp as a wet facecloth, eyes closed, cheeks pale. “Tian-Tian?” His throat has closed up; he is the one not breathing. He doesn’t know how to do what she did for David earlier. Her torso is too big for him to wrap his hands around. “Tian-Tian, please.”
Please so many things, and it seems so silly now, that he let all those chances go. That he didn’t embrace her every time she smiled, or touch her hand at dinner, or take out his phone and record her victorious, guffawing laughter every time she scored a mahjong win. He didn’t even hug her at the hospital, when she needed him most.
He has raised his daughter, educated her, disciplined her, funded her, encouraged her. But he has never said he loved her.
Whatever kind of father he’s been to Nina, he will be a better grandfather to David.
He freezes. In his arms, Nina jerks once more—then coughs.
“Tian-Tian!” He rears back in time to see his daughter give a great heave, coughing up what looks like a gallon of water. Her eyes fly open and lock on his—that beautiful deep-earth brown—then roll back up as she collapses, gasping. Alive.
Something has given him his little girl back.
The tears flow free. Robert laughs through them and curls over Nina, pulling her close. Her hand grabs hold of his with a firm grip, solid and strong. He will never let go. Whatever is behind this chance, he will take it.
He closes his eyes and lets himself cry, listening to his daughter breathe.
The wind outside carries the echo of a soft murmur, the shape of an infant’s pleased coo.
© 2018 by Kai Hudson
Kai Hudson is a clinical psychologist living in California.