Todd stood outside in the snow holding a half-full garbage bag as he looked into his brightly-lit house. His wife, Susan, sat on the couch nursing their four-month-old baby. His mother-in-law, Patsy, sat next to her, wine glass in hand, her back straight, legs neatly closed.
And his father-in-law, Bill, slouched in a chair too small for his large, sloping frame.
Todd’s breath broke into an angry mob of articulated white curls as it hit the window. Patsy was carrying on about something when Susan suddenly looked up, right at Todd, and though he knew she couldn’t see him through the reflection in the glass, he jerked back, an involuntary motion that caused him to stumble into a small, leafless bush.
* * *
“What took you so long?” his wife asked as he removed his boots in the hallway.
“I was–it’s snowing.”
“Oh no!” Patsy said.
Todd placed his boots on the pile of boots that lay under the coat hooks. “Not hard. Just a little.” He grabbed a beer from the fridge and joined them in the living room. “Any requests?” he said, pulling out his phone.
“You play music on that?” his father-in-law asked.
“Yeah. I stream it right to that speaker over there.”
Bill looked in the direction Todd was pointing. “That looks fancy.”
“He got it for his birthday,” Susan said.
“He bought himself a birthday present?” Patsy said, her wine glass paused at her lips.
“No, mom. I got it for him.”
Todd cued up some mellow Neil Young. His in-laws were baby boomers. They liked that kind of thing.
“Keep the volume down,” Susan said. “We don’t want to over-stimulate the baby.”
“She looks half-asleep,” Todd said.
“It’s not good for a baby to hear music right before bedtime,” Patsy said.
“Really? That’s a thing?”
“Oh yeah yeah. They say to never play music for a baby. Not before bed.”
“Todd,” his wife said, sharply.
“Fine. I’ll turn it off.”
“You don’t have to turn it off,” Susan said. “Just lower it.”
Todd turned it off. A short triad of beeps filled the living room followed by an uncomfortable silence. One-by-one, everyone’s attention turned to the baby. Her eyes were half-closed, her mouth still latched and sucking–but only reflexively now–at Susan’s full breast.
“I think she’s ready, Todd. Can you bring her up?”
“Sure.” Todd put down his beer and lifted the baby from Susan’s arms.
“Oh. Careful,” Patsy said, her hand darting out to support the baby’s head.
He carried the baby upstairs. She was still awake as he lay her down, but she did not protest. “Nighty-night,” he said, kissing her before he turned off the light.
“Is she asleep?” Susan asked as he re-entered the living room.
“So she’s still awake.”
“You can’t leave her up there alone.”
“But she’s fine.”
“Oh no no,” his mother-in-law said, “Susan’s right. You can’t leave her alone.”
“Whatever,” Todd mumbled as he swiped his phone and beer from the chair. He trudged back upstairs and slumped into a chair in the nursery. Veronica looked at him. “Hey kid,” he said, as he plugged a pair of earbuds into his phone, “it’s time for you to sleep.” Veronica spread out her little fingers and rolled them into a fist. “Oh,” he said, smiling at her as he pressed his earbuds into his ear, “Defiant. That’s how you’re going to be.”
Todd found some basketball highlights on his phone. When the clip faded to a commercial, his eyes flicked up to Veronica. She was still conscious, but just barely. Her eyelids were low–three quarters and falling. She’d be asleep in seconds. He remembered the earlier sight of his wife’s exposed breast as she handed him Veronica. Susan had caught his lingering eye and with a quick, efficient motion covered herself. But the image of her breast stuck with him. Since the baby, his wife had been remote. She’d also never looked so beautiful. Fuck it. He opened a search engine and entered a short list of her most salient features followed by the word “porn.” Options flooded the screen.
Todd was five minutes into a video when the audio went dead. What the hell? He tried pushing in the jack, but it was already secure, so he pulled it out and inserted it again. Still nothing. He whacked the earbuds against his palm. Again nothing. Maybe it’s muted, he thought. He pressed his finger down on the volume control and watched the volume bar rise. It was not until it hit its maximum that he heard the noises coming from downstairs–a barrage of quick sharp exhales, punctuated by an occasional husky grunt.
“Oh my God,” his mother-in-law said, “What is that?”
Oh shit. Oh shit. Todd started hammering away at his phone until he hit the pause control. After a triad of beeps, the video stopped. “Fuck,” he mumbled, pulling his hand through his hair: the audio from the porn had synced to the downstairs speaker.
“Now it’s gone,” his mother-in-law said. “Susan why did it just keep getting louder and louder?”
“I don’t know, mom.”
“Did somebody break into your internet?”
“Mom, I don’t know.”
“Bill do you think somebody broke into their internet?”
Todd sunk back into his chair. He wasn’t going to go downstairs. Not now, anyways. He had to come up with a plan first. After ten minutes of wracking his brain for a plausible explanation, he decided that he could not pull off a lie. If pressed about it, he would confess.
“Okay, sweetie,” he said, addressing the sleeping Veronica as he stood up, “wish me luck.”
Todd stood in the doorway to the living room. His wife glared at him.
“Did you hear those sex noises?” Patsy asked, addressing him.
“Those sex noises. From the speaker. You heard them. They filled the house.”
Crap. Todd wondered if it would be better or worse to tell them that he had searched for a porn star that looked like Susan, but before he had decided on a course of action, his father-in-law stood up.
“Todd, you look like you need a drink.”
“That would be…” Todd started.
“Oh my god,” Patsy cut-in. “You were watching pornography on your phone. In the room with the baby.” She turned to her husband. “Bill he was watching pornography with the baby.”
“On second thought,” Bill said, “maybe it’s too late for a drink.”
“I’m exhausted,” Susan said.
Patsy addressed Todd with a lipstick snarl. “What kind of pornography were you looking at?”
“Susan he was up there alone with the baby.”
“I’m going to get your coat, honey.”
“Were there children in it? Were you watching children in your pornography?”
“Oh my God! Mom!”
“Well were you?”
“No. I was watching…,” Todd hesitated. Everyone was staring at him. “It was a video with someone that looked like Susan.”
“A video with Susan in it?”
“No. Like Susan. Someone that looked like her.”
“Like Susan? I don’t understand. Bill do you understand?”
Bill held open Patsy’s coat for her. “It’s late, honey. We’re all tired.”
“Is this normal Bill?” she asked as she slipped an arm into the coat.
“Is what normal?”
“I don’t know. Todd. Those sex noises. He was in the bedroom with a baby Bill.”
Todd was surprised to see Bill cast him a glance. “It’s not not normal,” Bill answered cautiously.
“So it’s normal?”
“No – not, not normal.”
“Bill that makes no sense. You’re saying it’s normal.”
“I think you’re misunderstanding me.”
“Oh my God. Bill. Is that what you’re doing on your phone all the time? Watching pornography?”
Susan popped up from the couch. “Mom. Your wine. Don’t leave without it.”
“Is it Bill?”
Susan swept in with kisses. “Mom. Dad. I love you. Goodnight.”
“Here. Let me get the door,” Todd said. Bill guided Patsy onto the front porch. “Watch out for the ice,” Todd warned as Patsy started down the steps in high heels.
“Dad, help her!”
Bill gripped Patsy’s elbow to steady her.
“Bill why don’t they plow the sidewalks here? In New York they plow the sidewalks.”
“It’s a small city, honey.”
“What about people in wheelchairs? How are they supposed to get around?”
Todd pressed the front door shut, severing his father-in-law’s reply. He immediately looked at Susan. “I am so sorry.”
“Holy shit,” Susan said laughing. “Todd, what the fuck?”
She drew close to him. Laid a finger on his lips. “Were you really watching a girl that looked like me?”
Jeffrey Tonn lives in Winooski, VT with his wife and two boys. He is an electrical engineer with a second degree in the liberal arts from New College of Florida where he studied philosophy and literature. This is his first published story