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Excerpt

“Blue Light, Red Light”

J. Robert Lennon

April 12, 2021 
The following is excerpted from J. Robert Lennon's latest short story collection, Let Me Think, about the quotidian realities of marriage, family, and work. Lennon is the author of nine novels, including Subdivision, and three story collections. His fiction has appeared in Paris Review, Granta, Harper's Magazine, and New Yorker.

The boy was five. For some time—his whole life until recently—he had been an only child. But then there came a baby. The baby was a girl. The boy was initially inclined to dislike the baby, as upon its arrival it became the center of other people’s attention, attention that had once been his alone. But as the months passed, he found himself increasingly compelled by the baby: its face, its small hands and feet. The way it was willing to stare at him for hours. Or what seemed like hours to the boy, for whom time was malleable and uncertain. And so, after long consideration, the boy grew to like the baby.

*

One evening soon after the baby arrived, when the boy couldn’t get to sleep, he was permitted to stay up with the mother and the father and watch television. The parents nodded off, and a new show came on: a true-crime show. The boy watched it. On the show, a criminal had broken into a house and killed a family, including a baby, with a knife and a club. Neighbors, friends, and relatives told police that the family had recently experienced problems with a crazy man in their neighborhood. The crazy man was addicted to drugs and had intended to rob the family to buy more drugs. But instead of merely robbing them, he killed them. The police found the man hiding under a bridge in another town, surrounded by the family’s possessions.

*

Among the images displayed on the true-crime show, over a soundtrack of ominous music, were photos of the dead family members with their faces blurred, lying on their backs in pools of blood. The boy saw these photos. When the show was over, the boy went to bed. He didn’t tell the mother and the father what he’d seen.

*

It seemed to the parents that the boy had forgotten the show. But he expressed worry about the baby. He asked the mother and the father if they locked the nursery door at night. No, of course not, they said. You should, the boy told them. Well, we can’t, said the parents— we’re always going in and out of there, in the dark. The boy didn’t argue. One night he locked the nursery door from the inside, then pulled it closed, before he went to sleep. This made him feel better. When the baby cried in the night, the parents couldn’t get into the nursery, and the boy heard a lot of shouting. The father eventually got the door open with a screwdriver. The boy was punished the next day: treats were withheld. He didn’t lock the nursery door again.

*

He pondered the crazy man more and more. This was a real person— he had actually killed a baby. The police said they had caught him, but what if the man escaped? The boy lay awake at night. Sometimes he cried. He would get out of bed and go into the nursery to make sure the baby was still there. One night, it wasn’t, and he screamed. But the mother had merely taken the baby out of its crib to feed it. The parents were angry at the boy again, and punished him again. But the boy didn’t care about treats anymore.

*

The boy checked, surreptitiously, the locks on all the doors in the house before he went to bed each night. He disguised this behavior by explaining that he was looking for a lost toy, which he would then “find” in his bedroom. Soon he began locking doors during the daytime as well. When the boy remembered that the crazy man on the show had gained entry to the house by climbing through an unlocked window, he found the window lock mechanisms, and added those to his security routine. He wasn’t tall enough to reach every window lock, but he had a plastic stool that he could carry from window to window, for the high ones.

*

It was hard to do all this without being detected. The father said, “Who in the hell keeps locking all these goddamn windows!” “Not me,” the mother said. The boy also denied it.

“Well, it can’t be Emily, can it,” the father said. Emily being the name of the baby.

*

The boy overheard conversations between the parents that he understood were about him, and about his fixation on the door and window locks. He was taken to a doctor and asked why he performed this “locking behavior,” but the boy did not want to tell anyone about the crazy man under the bridge. So he told the doctor that he was afraid of monsters. The doctor wanted to know what the monsters looked like, and the boy, thinking quickly, said that they looked like the father, except completely covered with hair.

The parents did not bring the boy back to the doctor after that.

*

Instead, the four of them—the mother, the father, the boy, and the baby—visited a department store at the mall, where the parents bought an object in a white cardboard box. In a photo printed on the side of the box, a baby slept peacefully in a crib while, in the foreground, a large, featureless globe emitted a calming blue light. At home, the father opened the box. The globe was inside. It was made of white plastic and rested on a small white plastic pedestal. But when you plugged it in and turned it on, it glowed blue.

*

The boy could read a little, and he knew from the box that this object was called Baby’s Calming Globe.

*

But the boy was to learn that it had another function. That night the father sat on the floor of the baby’s room with the boy. The boy wore his pajamas and the father smelled pleasantly of beer. The father said, “What this thing does is, it scans the house constantly, making sure everything is safe. It’s blue now, see? That means the doors and windows are locked, and there are no monsters inside or outside. Blue means safe. If anything is wrong—and believe me, it’s really sensitive, with top-of-the-line technology—it’ll turn red. You got that? As long as this light is blue, everything is fine, and you don’t have to check the windows and doors. We only have to worry if it turns red. Okay?”

*

The boy said okay. The father clapped the boy on the shoulder, then told him it was time for bed. When the boy’s mother came in to say goodnight, she asked if he felt safer now, and the boy said that he did. Later, the boy heard the parents talking in low voices, and then he heard them laughing. And then everything was silent, and the boy lay alone, staring into the dark of his bedroom.

*

The boy had lied to the parents. He did not feel safe. In fact, as he understood the situation, the parents had just confirmed, with their purchase of Baby’s Calming Globe, the existence of the very dangers that had frightened him. That the parents had alerted him to the true nature of the device indicated that they trusted him to help them protect the baby. And now, instead of staying awake to monitor the light, they had gone to sleep.

*

So the boy gathered up his blanket and pillow and stationed himself on the floor in the hallway outside the nursery. Blue light glowed through the crack under the door, and the boy could hear the baby turn over and babble in her sleep.

*

In the morning, the boy found himself back in bed, underneath the blanket, his head on the pillow. He leaped out of bed, alarmed. But his family were all fine—awake, and sitting at the breakfast table. They gazed at him with what looked to the boy like disappointment. They didn’t mention the previous night’s activities. The boy said nothing, just sat down and ate his cereal.

*

The next several nights were the same. The parents went to sleep. The boy reported for duty at the nursery door. Then, at some point, the boy woke up in his own bed. Clearly the parents were moving him there, perhaps when the mother rose to nurse. At times throughout each day, the boy would steal into the nursery to have a look at the light, to make sure it hadn’t turned red. Sometimes, incredibly, it was switched off, and the boy would switch it back on.

After a few days, the parents got the message and left the light on all day.

*

The parents’ unconcern was puzzling, even alarming, to the boy. They never seemed to monitor the light themselves, day or night. And when they expressed dismay, it was not at the danger they all faced but at the boy’s preoccupation with the blue light. “Buddy, look at it,” the father said, in evident frustration. “It’s blue. It’s always blue.

That means we’re safe.” The boy nodded, as though he understood.

*

Were the parents stupid? Did they believe that the light itself protected them? The boy’s fears deepened. The parents were incompetent.

*

Weeks passed. The boy’s vigil continued, and the parents did less and less to dissuade him from continuing it. Indeed, they seemed resigned to it. Meanwhile, the boy began to wonder by what mechanism, exactly, the monitor light worked. How could the machine tell the difference between safety and danger? Perhaps it could distinguish a stranger from a family member—like the mother’s phone, which worked only when she looked at it—or violent motion from ordinary movement. While the father was at work, and the mother had the baby in the kitchen, the boy performed experiments. He dressed up in his Darth Vader costume and presented himself to the light. He seized his stuffed Chewbacca and staged a mock fight. He could not trigger the red light.

*

Perhaps Baby’s Calming Globe was more sophisticated than the boy had originally believed, and was capable of distinguishing pretend violence from real violence. But this seemed unlikely. The boy was growing concerned that his parents had been deceived. It would be necessary to test the device. To present it not with fake danger, but real danger, of a sort that the boy could control.

*

There wasn’t much time. It was late summer, not long before school was to begin. The boy formed a plan. He waited until the mother had experienced a sleepless night, rising at all hours to tend to the baby. After a long morning of sitting in the neighbor’s weed patch playing his handheld video game, the boy was served lunch. Then his mother said, “I’m going to feed your sister.” She went into the living room, slumped on the sofa with the baby, and nursed it. Soon both of them were asleep, the mother sprawled face-up with her head thrown back and breasts exposed, and the baby sprawled face-down on the mother.

Their postures reminded the boy of the dead family from the true-crime show.

*

The boy hurried to his room and pulled out from under the bed a cardboard box of old newspapers and wood shavings that he had collected from the shed. From a kitchen drawer he retrieved the butane lighter his mother used to light the often-temperamental oven. He placed the flammable-items box on the nursery floor, checked to make sure that Baby’s Calming Globe was switched on, and set fire to the shavings and newspaper.

*

The nursery filled with smoke. And now, to the boy’s surprise, the flames leaped high into the air and licked at the lacy cloth that covered the baby’s changing table. The lacy cloth caught with a gasp and was quickly consumed. The fire then moved to the curtains, which had been made by the mother from a fabric printed with bumblebees. And now the smoke began to pour out the door and into the hallway, and the flames began to darken the ceiling.

*

Baby’s Calming Globe was still blue.

*

Everything happened fast, after this. The fire alarm in the hall emitted a shrill squeal. The mother appeared, holding her blouse closed with one hand and clutching the baby in the other. She screamed, ran down the hall, and returned with a fire extinguisher in place of the baby. But she couldn’t seem to get it to work. She told the boy to get out of the house. He obeyed, running out into the yard, and the mother followed seconds later, holding the baby and shouting into her phone. The boy heard her shout at the fire department, and then at the father. The nursery window filled with fire: indeed, it looked as though the house were going to burn down. By the time the fire department arrived, the flames had consumed the nursery, the boy’s room, and the parents’ room. Firemen unrolled their hoses and aimed them at the fire; when the father arrived, it was all over. Half the house was black and smoking, and the corner of the roof was caved in.

*

Some time later, crouching in the yard in front of the boy, the father said, his teeth clenched, his face red, “Why? Why did you do this?” And the boy, understanding that he had done something very wrong, but still convinced that there was a larger issue at stake, the issue of the parents’ deception at the hands of the unscrupulous department store, said, “It didn’t turn red. I was watching, and it didn’t.”

Surely, the boy thought, the father would react with anger, or at least concern. Instead, he merely appeared confused.

“It didn’t turn red,” the boy repeated, “it didn’t work.” He knew that this was not the right thing to say, that it would not make anything better, but it was the only thing he had, so he kept on saying it, with increasing desperation and in between sobs, until the father loosened, at last, his angry grip on the boy’s shoulders and took him into his arms.

__________________________________

“Blue Light, Red Light” from Let Me Think. Copyright © 2021 by J. Robert Lennon. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, www.graywolfpress.org.




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