"Eh-oooh," Julia said, sitting in her playpen.
Dan could hear her sloshing the juice around in her sippy cup from across the room as she waved and attempted to say hello.
"Hi, baby girl," he said, lounging in the recliner next to the fireplace and looking intently at his laptop. He gave a half-hearted wae back, still reading the news.
As he switched between his multiple open windows, from a comic to stock listings to a news site, his daughter tossed the juice up over the dge. He heard it hit the ground, glanced up quickly, but decided to deal with the cup later. Then he heard the rattling as she picked up one of her toys.
"Eh-oooh," she said again, her wave communicated to her father by way of rattling.
"Hi again, beautiful," he said, offering a half-hearted wave back in the general direction of the playpen. He couldn't remember being this tired since Julia had been born. Despite the loss of sleep, the general frantic energy his adorable ball of joy seemed to possess was contagious. With Lisa gone for the weekend, though, the girl was taking her toll on the young father.
He'd spent that morning trying to teach her to play catch, her still-developing arms reacting on a significant time delay from reality. Then they'd gone to the park for a picnic after an hour and a half of preparation, only to have to rush back home when it started raining. Some ridiculous series of videos featuring badly computer-animated insects dancing to Mozart had dominated her afternoon and, by extension, his. Anytime he wasn't shaking his booty to Wolfgang's phat beats, Julia would start crying. She'd gone down for an hour-long nap around 4 PM, but that seemed to supply her with more than enough energy to try talking for the next four hours.
Now, at 9 PM, Julia was up later than some teenagers. If Lisa were home, Dan knew the girl would already be sleeping soundly in her crib. But Dan took the whole 'electric razor' approach to bedtime: once in a while, let the batteries run out completely. The only catch was his batteries were running out, too. He hoped hers went first.
He closed his eyes for a moment and thought about calling Lisa. As the home's main breadwinner, she had her district meetings a couple times a year, but he knew that the events tented to be half-vacation. He didn't want to bother her...
He jerked his head back up. No. he was not going to pass out before his toddler. Maybe Julia could recharge his batteries a bit, though.
Slamming his legs down to shut the recliner and jumping to his feet, he turned on his play voice.
"Hey there, girl! Wanna try--"
"Eh-oooh!" she cried, standing against the side of her playpin and gleefully waving her rattling, psychedelic-colored stuffed butterfly.
He shut up and stared at her, his dumb happy dad look frozen on his face. She wasn't looking at him and she wasn't waving at him. She was facing the hallway to his right, on her end of the room, that led to the bedroom, nursery, and bath.
"Um, he there," he said. "Over here! Hi, baby girl!"
She looked at him for just a moment, smiling the smile of someone who was already happy before you showed up. Then she turned her attention down the hallway.
"Eh-oooh!" she squealed, waving again.
He frowned, glancing at the hall from where he stood, even though he couldn't see down it. Then, looking back at the rapt joy on the toddler's face, he stepped closer.
Julia's attention down the hall seemed to fade as he got closer, and she plopped on her bottom and picked up a doll as he stood in front of the playpen and stared down the unlit, but obviously empty, hallway.
As a childproofing measure, they always shut the doors in the hallway - the nursery on the left, the bedroom on the right, and the bathroom at the end. They all looked to be quite closed.
But Dan, who had always valued paranoia over false security, strode back to the mantle and grabbed the fire poker from its stand then returned to the hallway.
Holding the poker in his right hand like a truncheon more than a baseball bat, he didn't bother with stealth as he approached the nursery. He flung the door open, flipped on the light, and did a quick sweep of the room, even behind the door and in the closet.
Leaving that door open, he went for the bathroom next. With slightly more hesitation, he opened that door and flipped on the light. The bathroom was small - efficient, Lisa said - and the only possible hiding place was behind the shower curtain.
Remembering a horror movie cliche so universal it was almost part of the human brain stem, he slowly stepped to the bath, held the poker with both hands, and hooked it around one side of the curtain. He forced it open.
He rolled his eyes as he stepped back out of the bathroom, leaving the door open and light on. Now, just one room left.
Now that he was this close, he realized he'd been wrong. His bedroom door was definitely ajar, if only by a touch - just enough that it didn't latch. He didn't imagine he would have done this.
He closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. He opened them and lightly kicked the door open. His left hand gripped the poker while his right scrambled for the light switch.
Finding it, he bathed the room in incandescent safety. There was nothing apparently out of place in the room, but he gaped at the opposite wa..
The window was wide open.
There was a moment of blind, frenzied, spiders-crawling-through-the-brain terror and he held the poker up and spun around the room quickly, sure he'd missed something terrifying. Then, as he saw the damp floor and realized it hadn't been raining for hours, he remembered.
He'd opened all the windows earlier to save on AC. When they came back from their aborted picnic, he'd shut them all due to the rain - except this one. Julia had started crying for her movie just as he'd reached the hall and before he'd gotten to his bedroom, he was out there turning on the classical music-loving bugs and dancing with them.
He quickly stepped onto the soggy carpet, went to the window, and shut it, for all the good it did now. He needed to get some rags and towels.
Leaving the third door open, he started back down the hallway, eyes locked on Julia playing in her pen. The next thing he knew, he was walking much more quickly down the hallway to Julia.
"Baby girl, what is that?" he asked, unable to maintain a play voice this time.
Julia was grinning, eyes wet and shining, clutching to her chest a teddy bear. She didn't seem to be bothered by the bear's missing button eye, split leg seam, its dampness, or the smell of years of mildew, mold, and rot.
Dan thought his face was going to fall off and hit the floor. He barely mouthed a swear word, then out of some programmed parent response didn't finish it.
"C'mon baby girl. We're getting out of here," he said, scooping her up and being enveloped in the bear's stench. He wanted her to let go of it, but didn't have any intention of sparing the time to fight with her.
He held her with one arm and fished in his pockets for the keys. They weren't there. His already fiery panic almost consumed him before he remembered he'd left them on the bench by the front door.
He made it to the door in three long strides, grabbing the keys and forcing his feet into some already-tied shoes, not bothering to pull the backs out from under his heels. He threw open the door and slammed it behind him. He didn't even consider momentarily to lock it.
As he approached his car, almost running, he hit the keyless entry button and heard the reassuring clunk. His head hit the roof as he slid into the driver's seat, Julia still over his shoulder. Screw the car seat just this once, he thought.
Keys were slammed into the ignition, car whipped into the road in reverse, all thoughts of seatbelts or possible destinations driven from his mind by the singular, overwhelming need to get as far from his house as possible.
A block down the road, he exhaled for what seemed like the first time in ages. And he realized Julia was breathing steadily, her cheek rested on his shoulder, arm pressed against his, the hand still clutching her new toy.
Despite everything, he laughed - one shrill, almost bark-like release of adrenaline.
Her breathing changed immediately, of course, as she woke back up.
He felt her shift her head, propping her chin up, her view now over his shoulder. A moment later, he felt her arm lift from his. In his peripheral vision, he could see the foul bear swinging wildly as Julia waved into the back seat.
"Eh-oooh," she said.