by Lee L. Krecklow
I bought the Device for my wife the very day she gave birth to our daughter. It made practical sense at the time. She was career oriented, my wife, and was looking down the barrel at a three-month long maternity leave, not to mention the video chat features that would permit family and friends into our home to meet our baby without us having to clean up for them—our house, or ourselves. My wife’s labor was billed as a day-long event, and the doctor encouraged me to step out for a break early in the proceedings. So I shopped. The Device was sleek and so simply formed, the barest possible design, which is actually to say it required a great deal of design. The same might be said of our daughter.
Issue #135 soundtrack: Lucius "Monsters"
It was just hours after she was born that we settled into our room at the hospital and put the Device in front of her for the first time. We touched the warm, smooth screen, shuffled through applications searching for the video chat software. We called my parents, a procedure that required the help of their neighbor child, who showed them how to install the software on their computer, how to set up their new webcam; with age comes an inevitable misunderstanding of technology. The image of my parents on the screen was more pixelated than I'd hoped, and I imagine their first peek at their granddaughter was no less grainy, but it certainly didn't matter to our daughter, whose hours-old face came to life by light of the screen. Eyes opened wide. Mouth agape. Rooting toward it with face and fist, as if for breast.
In the weeks that followed, eye contact with us was rare, which is not so unusual for a newborn, but engagement with the Device was alarming. It came to be the called upon method of soothing and sedating her, where cries in the night were less about my wife’s milk than about the Elmo app. For our daughter, using the Device was intuition: chubby little fingers suddenly graceful and practiced on the screen, the colorful icons so clear to her unfocused, developing eyes. With the passing of months she was showing us tricks on the Device we hadn’t thought of, teaching us how to use it more efficiently: long holds on applications allowed you to rearrange them on the home screen; double-tapping the center button brought up a list of active applications; flipping a switch on the side prevented the screen from rotating. The busier we were with work and with chores, the less time we had to learn such things, so in that way we were happy to have her guiding us.
I remember the day very well—though only in hindsight, as it was unremarkable at the time—when she was past a year of age and walking well, and while not quite speaking, communicating with terrific efficiency using signs, and, more often, the Device. My wife was long since back to work, and I was a stay-at-home father. The girl opened the grocery list stored on the Device and made the sign, using small, steering fists, for driving. I obeyed, of course, she being correct most of the time, and took her to the store to pick up the items on the list: chocolate milk and popsicles and hot dogs with cheese inside and cake and cookies and doughnuts, all of which was clearly out of character for my wife to order, but I was loath to incur her wrath if I failed to check off all items on her lists. Now you know very well by now that the list was not of my wife’s making, but you must also see clearly how such a thing would not have occurred to me at the time.
As the cliché goes, for parents, days are long and years are short, and before we knew it, the hours between sunrise and sunset were never our own, and our little girl was four years of age. I’d somehow been unsubscribed from the parenting-advice emails I’d been receiving, and started getting instead coupons for toy stores and child-safe organic lawn-care services. Over the course of time my wife and I noticed we had fewer date nights and babysitters on the calendar, and so many more evenings scheduled for grandparents to visit, or for neighbors with small children of their own to come over for hours of play. Time gets away, and so does one’s grasp on life.
As if the situation wasn’t already out of hand, the next version of the Device hit us even harder. The voice recognition software was impressive, and our daughter began an immediate and unexpected relationship with it. Our little girl rarely spoke to us, but when she did, they were the words of the Device. “Good morning” and “you’re welcome” and “I didn’t understand that last command,” all spoken with calculated, robotic inflection. The two had conversations together, and when I happened to overhear them, I wasn’t sure who was controlling whom. When I took the Device for my own use, it took her side in most matters. It only shared the showtimes of animated films, and when I asked it for instructions on building a modest playhouse, it said “I think these are what you’re looking for,” and it took me to the website of a custom treehouse installation service. When I got frustrated and asked it about clearing its memory and starting over with a new user, it said “I’m not that kind of Device. What would your daughter think?”
Then there were more years and more changes, both in form and function, as new versions of the Device grew more slender and screens got taller, all while the girl did likewise, growing mare legs and fox-like, preteen eyes, and both became more difficult to manage. My access to the Device disappeared, along with the girl; into her backpack in the morning and into her bedroom at night. There were passwords set and unknowable forms of social media and cryptic codes passed between our Device and those belonging to unseen others. A notification would sound, and my girl would jump to its service. Then another would sound, and she’d leave the house. Commands for us came through the Device and into our cell phones, sparse and direct, ones and zeros translated into words like 'dinner' and 'allowance' and 'pickup.' When even those pulses stopped, there could be no doubt of the blackout we’d entered.
Our cries for help went unheard by the Device: parental locks and controls were a joke; GPS tracking was so easily disabled; browser histories always cleared. While a wayward child is the product of years, for most parents, there is a single moment when they reach a full understanding of their lack of control. A day came when our girl was in the shower, and she absentmindedly left the Device in her room. So hungry for knowledge of where she’d been, who she was spending time with, what her interests were, I brought the screen to life, just as I had the first time, more than a decade ago now, when I first touched it’s simpler, knowable form. But here now, instead of full access and trust, I was greeted by a new form of password protection, a cryptic lockscreen that demanded a thumbprint. I pressed my thumb to it, and I was rejected. I pressed again and received a more severe warning. A third time, with so much frustration, I squeezed my thumb to the scanner, and the Device went dead. So many unsuccessful access attempts cleared its memory. First correspondence. Pictures of lost teeth. Artwork. Memories. Everything we were meant to embrace inside of it was gone, taken from us, robbed, and in a fit of frustration, I smashed the Device against my girl’s dresser. The screen spidered and the housing split. Now it was finished. I was held accountable by my daughter for the violation. She went silent and stoic at the discovery of the loss, the breach of trust. She’d never backed up information. She’d kept it all inside, and now it was gone. There was a final heartbroken stare from her, and then she disappeared from our home. Hours passed. Then a full night. Then two. The police were called, but when they asked for a photograph of our girl, we’d nothing to show them but a shattered screen.
By the third day, the day when most hope of locating a missing person is lost, my wife and I settled into a new brand of quiet. By the fourth day there were no longer police in the house. By the fifth, no friends or neighbors there for support. There was nothing there to fill the space in our minds or in our hearts. For so long there was the Device, for games and for validation and for mental occupation. For so long there, too, was our daughter. Now it was all vanished, without my being ready for it, and I wallowed on the couch in my fetid, years-old emptiness.
Until there was the sound of a door opening. I scarcely believed the noise, and quickly deduced it was my wife leaving the house. But when I heard footsteps, slight footsteps coming and not going, I closed my eyes and held my breath. And in the silence there came a sound I felt I’d surely never heard before. It was not a beep or a ring or a digitized voice.
It said, “Daddy?”
And before she could leave again, before she could make herself gone from me—vanished into something that could not be held—I reached quickly for my phone and took her picture, so that she might belong to me again.
Lee L. Krecklow is the author of the novel The Expanse Between, forthcoming in spring 2017 from Winter Goose Publishing. His short fiction has appeared in Oxford Magazine, Midwestern Gothic, Cactus Heart, The Tishman Review, Gravel and others. For more, find him at leelkrecklow.com.
Peggy Acott still has her first SLR film camera – a no-frills Pentax that accompanied her through her college art degree, to Ireland, and throughout her son’s well-documented childhood. She loves the freedom and immediacy of digital photography, but still thinks watching an image emerge on the paper in a darkroom tray is nothing short of magic. Her photographs have been published online and in print, and most recently have accompanied some of her blog posts on storytoceremony.wordpress.com and peggyacott.wordpress.com.
Lucius is fronted by Jess Wolfe and Holly Laessig and backed by their counterpart bandmates Dan Molad, Pete Lalish and Andy Burri. "Monsters" is a track from their 2013 debut LP Wildewoman. Lucius' second studio album Good Grief released in 2016, a year in which the band notably spent more than 250 days on the road. For tour dates and more, visit ilovelucius.com.