“She hasn’t been sleeping well the past few nights,” Elise said as she looked in on their sleeping six-month-old toddler.
“She’s probably just having nightmares,” her husband, George, said.
“Isn’t she a little young though?”
“Why else would she be waking up?” George said, running a hand along the doorjamb. “We’ve already checked the room to make sure it wasn’t anything else.”
They’d spent the whole morning and part of the afternoon to ensure that their daughter wouldn’t have any more of what the pediatric nurse had described as ‘nightly episodes.’ Babies, she’d said, were susceptible to even the slightest of stimuli. For that reason, the branch outside the window had been cut down, new curtains were freshly installed. The creaky doorjamb had been oiled and the flickering nightlight with the hummingbird heartbeat was gone. To Elise, the room was nothing short of perfection—picturesque in its pink hues and white trim, with its white cradle with pink down. Their daughter should’ve been fine. She shouldn’t have been waking up at night. She shouldn’t have been—
She’d voiced these concerns to George, who in turn had laughed and said that was ridiculous. They lived in a nice neighborhood in the middle of town, with a picket fence and a police station right down the road. There was absolutely no reason for anyone to break in, and even if anyone tried, it would’ve triggered the alarm system, which in turn would have scared the potential thief off and woken the entire household.
When she’d mentioned the possibility of someone looking through the window, George had only given her a doubtful look. It’s the second story, he’d said. How would anyone look in?
A ladder? she’d prompted.
George had assured her that it would be too much work for anyone to not only haul a ladder through their yard, but to prop it against the paneling in a manner safe enough to scale it to the second story. He’d even, to ease her worries, gone out and examined the paint, which remained undamaged and good as new.
Sighing, Elise ran a hand over her temple and tried to push back tears as she looked in on their daughter. Carla should’ve been awake, eating breakfast and watching cartoons, not sleeping like she was now.
Hard as she tried, she could not fight what days of stress had done.
“Hey,” George said, stepping forward and bracing his hands along her upper arms. “It’s ok. Everything’s fine.”
“No it’s not,” Elise said, melting into her husband’s grasp. “Our daughter should be awake, George. Not sleeping until nearly noon.”
“We’re going to get through this,” George whispered. “Everything’s going to be fine.”
Elise balled her hands around her husband’s shirt and closed her eyes.
Somehow, she knew this wasn’t over.
She just knew.
She woke at three AM to bloodcurdling screams.
She was out of bed before she could fully process it—passing through the open doorway and into the hall. George was right behind her: groggy, mumbling, not yet truly awake. Her mind was a constellation of thoughts as she entered their daughter’s room and took the baby into her arms. How? Why? What? When? The baby trembled in her grasp, nearly flailing from the exertion. George had just entered the room when Elise broke down in tears.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
“What’s wrong?” she replied. “What’s wrong is that we don’t know what’s wrong!”
George began scouring the room while Elise attempted to console their frightened child. Cooing, whispering, stroking the small of her back, holding her close to her chest—she tried to push back her own fears while attempting to nullify her daughter’s own and watched as George checked the windows and wireless baby monitor, peered out the curtains, scanned the walls for wandering shadows and jiggled the nightlight to ensure it was properly working. When he finally finished, and Cara was just starting to settle, he approached with a blank face and even blanker eyes, shoulders rising, then falling in a hopeless shrug.
What’s happening? Elise thought. Why is Cara crying?
She did her own quick search, mirroring her husband’s movements with her eyes and intuition, trying to gauge what, if anything, might be terrifying their baby daughter. She peered at corners, looked at crannies—tried, impossibly, to pull from sheets of wallpapering the monsters that lay hidden in the dark.
She could find absolutely nothing.
“Check the baby monitor again,” she said.
“We heard her loud and clear,” George replied, but started toward the dresser nonetheless.
“I want to know if we missed something,” Elise said. “If the room creaks or the passing traffic is too loud.”
“It looks fine,” he said.
“Is the battery ok?”
“I changed it right before we went to bed.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure,” he laughed.
“Was it new? Or the ones you pulled out of the drawer?”
“Honey,” George said.
“Just answer the question!” she barked. Cara mewled in response and Elise began to bounce the baby in her arms.
“It’s new,” George sighed, pressing a hand against his face. “Remember? We looked on the manufacturer’s website. The app specifically said AAA.”
“We bought it because they said it was the best Bluetooth monitor on the market.”
“I know, George.”
“And because it had the best connectivity and wireless streaming.”
He sighed, parting his fingers to look at her. “I don’t know how much longer I can keep doing this, Elise.”
“And you think I can’t?”
“Maybe we should take her back to the doctor, see if there’s something they can—“
“No.” Elise shook her head. “Nothing’s wrong with our daughter.”
“I’m not saying there is, but—“
“You’re saying we need to take her to the doctor. Therefore, you think something’s wrong.”
“I never said—“
Elise turned, unable—or unwilling, she wasn’t sure—to look at him. Now that Cara had calmed down, the initial panic was beginning to fade, dissipating into tendrils of anxiety that wafted about her body and set fire to her every nerve. Though her baby had calmed, she had not, and with each passing second she felt even more like she was failing as a mother.
This isn’t how it’s supposed to be, she thought. This isn’t—
George set a hand on her back.
Though she tensed at first, she soon relaxed beneath his touch.
“I think,” he said, “we should at least call the nurse and see if she has any advice.”
“Ok,” Elise replied.
“She’s still crying?” the pediatric nurse, a lady by the name of Lupita Hernandez, asked.
“Yeah,” Elise replied, glancing at her daughter out of the corner of her eye—who, though tired, was more than determined to fit a square cube through learning block’s circular fixture. “George and I don’t know what’s wrong. We’ve already fixed everything we thought might be causing the problems. Now he’s contemplating sound-proofing the rooms.”
“It may just be a phase,” Lupita replied. “She’s perfectly healthy, so there’s nothing to indicate any health problems that may be causing these outbursts. You said you feed her before she goes to bed, and you normally don’t have to change her diaper until early in the morning, so she shouldn’t be hungry or waking up screaming because of an accident.”
“So what’s wrong? What are we doing wrong?”
“You’re not doing anything wrong, Elise. You and your husband are doing just fine.”
“She shouldn’t be having nightmares though. She shouldn’t—“
“Just out of curiosity,” Lupita cut in, “do you let her watch TV?”
“Yes,” Elise replied, taking a moment to process the odd and unexpected question. “But only the cartoon channels.”
“Do you watch them with her?”
“Sometimes, yes. Why?“
“She could be dreaming about something she’s seeing on one of her shows,” Lupita said. “Or it’s possible that she’s picking up on stress in the household.”
“The only stress we’re having is over this,” Elise sighed, pushing her hair back from her face.
“I would recommend turning the television off for a little while; see if that does anything for her nightmares. I’m sorry you and your husband are having to go through this, Elise. Being a parent is tough.”
“I would know. I’ve raised three myself.”
Elise smiled as her daughter successfully fit a cube through a square receptacle and screeched in approval. “Thank you so much, Lupita. I really appreciate it.”
“It’s no trouble, Elise. Have a good day.”
“You too, Mrs. Hernandez,” Elise said.
She ended the call and set her smartphone on the table beside her—content, at least, that she’d found a potential solution to her daughter’s problems. She’d never considered that the nightmares could be inspired by the cartoons Cara watched, but it made sense, in theory. It was even possible that her fears were manifesting in the shadows that played across the room from passing cars. She’d watched the monitor feed from her smartphone to try and validate these concerns, and though she hadn’t seen anything, that didn’t mean her baby couldn’t, nor wouldn’t.
With that thought in mind, she picked the remote up, turned the television off, and settled down on the floor beside her daughter, who looked up at her with a confused expression.
“It might be scaring you,” she said, pointing at the TV.
The baby tilted her head to follow Elise’s finger, but was distracted and looked down as a triangular learning piece fell from her hand.
“Let’s go eat lunch,” Elise said.
The baby laughed as Elise lifted her into her arms.
“So we have a potential solution?” George asked as he loosened his tie and popped the first few buttons at his collar.
“Possibly,” Elise said, smiling as she saw Cara reach out to her father from her place at the kitchen table.
“I take it you talked to Lupita?”
“That woman’s a lifesaver.” George lifted Cara from her booster seat. “Hey sport. You keep Mommy busy?”
The baby replied with an enthusiastic smack of her slobbery lips.
“Someone’s a little messy,” he laughed, lifting a washcloth to wipe her mouth.
“There’s dinner on the stove,” she said, accepting the baby as George passed her off, much to Cara’s disapproval. “I would’ve waited a little longer, but she was fussing and I figured I’d start.”
“No trouble,” he replied, starting toward the kitchen sink. “Everything else go ok today?”
“The usual. Taxes. Paperwork. More taxes. More paperwork.”
“Only when I get to leave the office, babe,” George laughed. “Oh, that reminds me.” He reached into his pocket and set a pack of brand-new AAA batteries on the countertop. “So we can change ‘em before we go to bed.”
“I take it you were having seconds thoughts?” she asked.
“A little,” he sighed, his eyes indicating possible guilt or remorse. “I mean, yeah—I hate that I can’t sleep, but I hate that she can’t sleep even more.”
“Lupita suggested we keep her from watching cartoons for a little while. See if she’s having nightmares from something she’s seeing on TV.”
“Makes sense,” George shrugged as he began spooling lasagna onto a plate. “Want me to clean up when I’m done?”
“That’d be great,” Elise said.
“Cool. That’ll give you time to put Cara to bed and for me to finish eating.” He paused as he turned, plate in hand, to look at her. “Maybe things’ll go back to normal tonight. Then it’ll have been the perfect day.”
“Yeah,” Elise smiled, hopeful. “The perfect day.”
They changed the batteries in the baby monitor and laid Cara down for the night in the hopes that everything would be all right. After lulling the baby to sleep, they opened the bedroom doors, turned off the lights, crawled between the covers, and eventually drifted off to sleep.
Everything was fine—perfect, even.
That was, until Elise thought she heard something.
She initially thought she was dreaming, given that she’d fallen into a deep sleep and had woken slowly at the sound of what she assumed were the dream people in her head. Soft, barely audible, speaking in a whisper clouded by distance and with a voice distorted by white noise—it began inconsequently enough: with a hello, repeated once, a, How are you? and then a pause, followed by another hello. She rolled over, vaguely thinking the voice would stop once she ignored it. Then she heard the words that ripped her from sleep.
Her eyes shot open instantly.
It was the middle of the night—three-thirty to be exact. The room was dark, the air chill, the blankets askew across her midriff. Her husband had not stirred and made no signs to indicate that he’d sensed or heard what she had. She briefly recalled her childhood—when, during her teens, she’d experienced bouts of sleep paralysis that had left her trapped in the most agonizing states possible—and thought for a moment that this was simply one of those cases: that regardless of the years that had passed without them, they had returned, and with it the sense of dread that could only come when waking suddenly and being unable to move. Slowly, however, her breath returned and her joints creaked with life. She was just about to rise—if only by second nature—when she heard it again.
Baby, it began. Baby.
Within seconds she was airborne—literally flying from the bed and across the room and into the hall. She estimated that it took only seconds to run from their room to her daughter’s, but each felt like hours—millennia, even, with the knowledge that someone had broken in and was now standing in their daughter’s room.
She came to a complete halt at the open threshold and stared.
There was nothing there.
She watched—waiting, in complete and utter terror, for the figure to appear from behind the door with a knife or a gun and aim it directly at her.
But there was no one there. No one at all.
She was just about to turn when she heard the slight, mechanical creak of the baby monitor’s wireless camera turning to face her.
Hello Mommy, the voice said.
The fear returned—crippling, without notice, a shock to the system like whiplash when thrust from one emotion into another. This time, she knew that someone was there. They just weren’t in the room. They weren’t even in the house. They—
The sound of the mattress shifting, then the bedsprings squeaking cut through the silence of the night.
Someone’s coming, the voice said.
The camera shifted, its black eye winking as it caught the light from the nearby nightlight.
“Elise?” George asked, stumbling forward. “What’re you doing up this late?”
Her trembling wrist—her staccato breath—spoke for her.
Her husband had just stepped up alongside her when the camera adjusted itself again.
Hello Daddy, the voice said..
“What the fuck?” George asked.
The phantom intruder—who was now, and had apparently been watching them for the past several days—laughed.
“It’s coming from the baby monitor,” Elise said.
“Your phone,” George replied. “Your phone!”
He hurled himself into their bedroom just as Elise found the strength to step into the nursery.
The camera—still focused toward the upstairs hallway—lifted to view her face. She’s quite pretty, the voice, which Elise was more than sure was male, said. How old is—
The voice cut off.
The blue lights around the lens blinked out.
Cara began crying.
George walked into the room—Elise’s smartphone in her hand—and looked at her. “We’re calling the police,” he said.
They used George’s smartphone—for fear of reactivating the wireless device—to contact the authorities. An officer was at their door within minutes.
“You say someone was inside your house?” the older, portly man said, sweeping the living room from entryway to stairwell with his eyes.
“Someone was looking into our house,” George clarified.
“Through the baby monitor,” Elise added.
A second, younger officer stepped through the open doorway and turned his flashlight off. “I didn’t see anything, Cliff,” he said.
“There apparently wasn’t anyone to see,” the older, white man named Cliff replied.
“Sorry?” the younger black officer asked.
“Someone was looking into their daughter’s room through the baby monitor.”
The second officer—whom Elise could identify only by his last name, Collins—stopped mid-step. “What?” he then asked.
Elise quickly recanted the tale while George led the older officer up the stairs, trying her hardest not to tremble in the face of what was undoubtedly a frightening and unusual occurrence. The younger man—who couldn’t have been much older than his early twenties—nodded the whole time, all the while glancing around the house and at the curtained windows.
“I’m… not sure my partner and I will be able to do anything,” Collins said just as Cliff and George began to descend the stairs. “This sounds like something the guys in tech would have to look into.”
“All these gadgets,” the older man said. “Fancy, shmansy wireless shenanigans.”
“We may have to contact your service provider,” the younger cop explained, “though I’m not sure what all we’d need until we report this to our cybercrime division.”
“Until then,” Cliff said, patting the baby monitor at his side, tucked under his arm, “you probably won’t mind until if we keep this.”
“No,” Elise and George both said at the same time.
“We don’t,” George finished.”
The following morning—after the roughest night of sleep she’d ever had—Elise stared out her daughter’s bedroom window and at the street that bordered the front of their house.
Who? she thought. Why?
It didn’t make sense. To hack into someone’s baby monitor, to watch a complete stranger’s house—to look, without permission, into not only someone’s personal lives and intimate affairs, but at their baby? She knew there were some sick people in this world—knew, without a doubt, that predators would use any tools necessary to get what they wanted—but what kind of person what do that? Did they want to rob them, kill them, or worse—abduct her daughter?
A series of knocks sounded along the doorjamb, drawing her from her thoughts. “They still haven’t got back to us,” George said as he entered the room. “Are you all right, honey?”
“I’m just trying to figure out why someone would want to do this,” she said.
“Honestly,” George replied. “Who knows?”
“You checked the house, right?”
“None of the plants disturbed, no scuffs or marks along the paint or siding?”
“Nothing,” George said. “Which I feel is the most disturbing thing of all.”
“So someone hacked the baby monitor without even knowing where we are,” she said, then paused, a flicker of trepidation crossing her heart. “Right?”
“I wish I could answer that, honey.”
“We did everything the instructions told us to,” she continued. “We secured the network, we password-protect our phones, created a new password for the app. The only thing I can think of is that someone hacked the device.”
“Because it hung when we set it up,” George nodded. “Because we thought it was a network error.”
“And it defaulted to a regular password,” she said. “Or didn’t set a password at all.” Elise sighed and crossed her arms under her breasts. “I mean… it’s not like we named the monitor ‘baby monitor’ or anything like that.”
“Whatever sick fuck did this probably has a list of device names written down and memorized. We didn’t do anything wrong, Elise.”
“I know. It’s just…”
“What?” George asked, wrapping his arms around her shoulders.
Elsie blinked as she watched a car pass by. “It feels like we failed our daughter.”
“The feeling’s mutual,” he said.
Elise closed her eyes and reached up to set her hand across her husband’s.
“They said they’ll get back to us as soon as possible,” George whispered, bowing his face into her neck. “Until then… we just wait.”
“Yeah,” Elise said, once again staring back out the window.
“What do you mean you couldn’t trace the hacker?” George asked.
Elise froze where she knelt playing with Cara in the living room and waited for her husband to continue—her breath drawn, her chest tight, her fingers trembling around a pair of dolls in both hands. Cara—who couldn’t understand a word of what was happening—batted one of the dolls with a plastic dinosaur and scared Elise so bad she nearly jumped to her feet.
“So you’re telling me,” her husband finally continued, after what had to have been at least five minutes of silence, “that there’s absolutely no way you can find out who was looking in our house?”
Another bout of silence came, but this time was punctuated by the sound of her husband moving around the kitchen, brushing papers off the mail station and fumbling through pens in the plastic cup atop it. When he finally spoke again—when he finally, truly stated, with clear authenticity, the word that would finally end this conversation—he said but three simple words: “Thank you, officer.”
He then hung up the phone.
Elise allowed the dolls to fall from her hands as she rose and crossed into the kitchen—anticipating, but not expecting the severity of, the sheer unease upon her husband’s face. Sweat beaded his brow, and his eyes—narrowed at the blank piece of paper he held in his hands—were but two empty pits of darkness.
“George?” she asked, unsure how to approach.
“They can’t find them,” he said.
“What?” she replied.
“They had some kind of… jammer. IP blocker. Something that kept the police from tracing the hacker’s location.”
“How is that even possible?”
“Something to do with remote viewing. The furthest they got was to the application’s last login, which was after we went to bed. With a default password.”
Elise’s heart stopped beating. “The password we entered,” she began.
“Didn’t take,” George finished. “All because we thought it was a network error.”
“So there’s nothing we can do,” she said.
“Other than uninstall the app? No. There isn’t.”
Elise closed her eyes and felt every one of her anxieties come crashing down.
“The officer in the cybercrime division told us that we shouldn’t worry,” George said. “That this was likely only a one-time thing.”
What if it wasn’t?
What if, whoever had been watching them, now knew where they, and their daughter, lived?
She couldn’t know. George couldn’t know. And, most frighteningly, the police didn’t know.
Elise looked out the nearby window—at the street and the big, wide world outside.She’d never felt more afraid of being in her own home.