Anne had no idea how much time had passed since she’d closed her book. It still lay in her lap, her hands pressed against the dust cover. The gathering sweat under her hands felt so unpleasant against the gloss, yet she could not bear to move them. Any movement might break the silence, the one that had caused her to look up, sharply, and slowly shut the book in the first place.
The rhythm of the monitor was so familiar. Click to turn on, wait for the signals to catch, and there. A series of lights began dancing up and down as sounds registered. Many children slept in silence, but not Charlie. His sleep was punctuated by sawhorse breathing, unevenly catching against the swollen passages of his nose and snapped in places by choked coughs of mucous. It was the nature of his condition. It was the nature of Charlie.
Except today, when his breathing hitched up three times in increasing intensity, and then . . . silence. True silence. The kind where the emptiness of the line echoed.
Those kinds of gasps were common, so common that they took place in her dreams, or were registered there, without her doing any more than rolling over and sighing back to sleep. But that echo caught her attention. When had her world been silent in the past three years? After Charlie’s arrival, her life filled with doctors and therapists and classes, each day’s events ushered along by a cacophony of gibberish grunts and labored breathing. It was the auditory equivalent of flailing arms and trundling steps.
She stared at the monitor, stationed as always at her right hand, and waited. Thirty seconds, then a minute, then two. She expected the noise to resume, but a heavy weight spread across her chest as time stretched on and on. He could just be sleeping very deeply. Waking him would only ruin what was obviously a good nap. Or . . .
These thoughts kept her frozen, feet planted so that her rocking chair couldn’t swing backwards, staring at the strangely even green light. The silence was so unfamiliar and pleasant that she couldn’t bear to break it.
Charlie was her first child, her only child, born of a boyfriend who had disappeared as quickly as he’d come. He came out with a full head of blond hair and a lopsided grin. People described him as angelic. It was one cliché they paired with another: I hear those people are SO sweet. But what was that supposed to mean? Sweet like honey, stings like a bee? Sweet was a euphemism. Eternally childlike, perhaps? Innocent? But innocent like a very young child, who knew nothing of his actions.
Those actions could still cause pain, certainly, physical and otherwise. He often clawed at her face in frustration and had once thrown a small chair so hard that it broke her nose. But it was more than that. Anne had lost so much already. Each step she’d taken with Charlie left something behind: family, friends, job. She gave up everything, tolerated anything. Simple things like a trip to the library or the grocery store became a trial in energy and patience. Before her loomed a murky future that filled her with fear. How would she deal with him as he got older? Who would take care of him when she was gone? It was so much to bear, day in and day out, that for a moment she imagined this silence stretching forever, the feeling weightless as flight.
Yet how could she leave Charlie behind? He was her baby boy. His face held her features — her nose, her green eyes, albeit closer set. When he laughed it was a great big belly laugh that shook the room. Her laugh. He may have brought with him a larger than average set of challenges, but he was still her son, loved beyond all her expectations. His success with clothes, food, and even words depended on her help. She’d see him struggling and want to be there, not just to help him, but also to help others see him as a person instead of a stereotype. Anne would take him by the hand, kneeling, and concentrate on sending the message that she saw him, really saw him, and that she understood him, too. Then she would gently remove the glass bowl from his hand, or the popped balloon, or the aggravating spoon, and wait for the frenzy to start again.
She glanced up at the clock, finally, and was horrified to see the time. Charlie should have woken up by now. They would be late for the park; she would be late making dinner. The afternoon suddenly appeared to her as a compacted stretch of swinging, throwing, fussing, and fighting. But she couldn’t wait any longer.
At the end of the hall, she paused with her head half cocked. Nothing. The air was hot and still. She should have turned on the house fan, but hadn’t. Charlie would be sweaty, and sweaty meant angry, and Anne absentmindedly removed both earrings as a precaution. What if it didn’t matter? With the heart defect and sleep apnea, the doctor had told her to be careful. She had been careful. But anyone could get lost in thought, especially in this heat. She wanted to believe that was what it had been, but the sinking of her stomach told her it was a lie.
One foot over the creaky board, then down. Hard. And nothing. It seemed awkward to be standing there, the spot she always avoided, on purpose. Still nothing. The silence grew, turning an echo into hollowness, and for a moment she pressed her hands over her ears to drown out the roar. Then she exhaled hard. The sound was a whisper, but enough. Silence broken.
The doorknob clicked loosely as she turned and swung the door open. There Charlie lay, his towhead looking so small against the curve of his pillow. His shoulders slumped, one arm out of sight and the other swung against his cheek. That soft cheek that she’d kissed so many times she could imagine its peach-fuzz against her lips.
“Oh God,” she choked. He was so still, so very still, her baby boy. A suffocating mixture of love and guilt welled up in her throat. She threw herself onto her knees at the side of Charlie’s bed, crushed by the thought that she’d waited too long. She had been wrong to enjoy that silence, wrong to even think that it was ever worth this moment. “I’m so sorry,” she said. “I’m so, so sorry.”
But at her touch he started and opened his eyes.