My parents divorced when I was young, and I stayed behind with my mother in our house while my father temporarily moved to a nearby apartment complex. He remained there for roughly six months before moving out in a hurry. It was many years later that he told me about the strange occurrence he had experienced while living there.
His immediate neighbors were the Thornes, and they consisted of a young woman and her newborn baby. The father of the newborn did not appear to be in the picture. In the first month he lived there, he saw Ms. Thorne and her baby frequently, as they were both in and out of their apartment every day at the same time, apparently maintaining a steady schedule. The baby was always in her arms, cooing away and grasping at the air with tiny hands. My father would smile and nod at them, and he always received a warm greeting right back.
One day, for seemingly no reason, Ms. Thorne broke the routine. She and her baby no longer came and went each day. In fact, several weeks went by – which soon turned into months – and my father had not seen them a single time. He knew they hadn’t moved out of the apartment—he could hear the baby crying through the walls. He had learned for himself after raising a son that infant babies cried often—at all hours of the day and night, and for almost any reason. Because of this, he was patient with the young woman. He did not feel the need to go banging on her door and demand that she quiet the baby’s cries, like some other neighbors would have done. Despite his patience, the crying grew more and more intense over time. He began to wonder if perhaps the baby was ill, and because he was a doctor – he had worked for years in family medicine – he grew concerned. He wondered if maybe the young mother could not afford to take her baby to see a doctor. However, he did not want to intervene, recognizing that it was not his business.
One day at the nearby corner market, my father happened to run into the Thorne woman, who held her baby in her arms. My father approached her under the guise of saying hello, but really wanted to see if he could ascertain just what illness – if any – might have been plaguing her child.
He described the young woman as cordial, if a bit fatigued, and her voice was strained and weak. He made small talk with her, and she politely answered the questions he asked, though she did not volunteer any additional information about herself. Her baby was wrapped in a blanket and a pink knit hat covered her head. She told him her baby’s name was Jessica, who slept soundly as the two spoke. My father explained that he was a doctor and offered to periodically perform check ups on the baby to save her time and money. The young woman thanked him, but graciously declined, telling him she did not trust the care of her daughter to anyone with whom she was not already very well acquainted. My father told her that he absolutely understood, and after a while he bid them goodbye and went back to shopping.
Several more months went by and my father continued to hear crying through the walls. The tiny voice had become hoarse from the constant wails, and my father began to wonder if the child was not ill after all, but perhaps being abused in some way.
One night, the crying grew especially intense. It was full of anguish and he had deduced that the baby must have been in great pain, so he decided it was time to intervene. He placed a call to the local police and explained the situation, requesting that they also dispatch an ambulance to the woman’s apartment. They assured him they were on their way, but after hanging up, he decided to go to the apartment himself.
He walked to the Thornes’ apartment door and knocked several times. The young woman did not answer, and the crying continued. He knocked again, louder this time, but still she did not answer. Finally he tried the knob, and seeing that it was unlocked, he entered. A smell he described as foul and sick hit him in the face—the kind of smell that infests a place not touched by sunlight for months on end. He could smell body odor and rotting garbage. He retched almost immediately.
He followed the crying to a back bedroom, which was large, and most assuredly the master bedroom. He tried flipping the light switch on the wall, but was greeted with an empty click—the lights did not come on.
“Ms. Thorne?” he called into the darkness. “It’s Dr. Jesper from next door.”
The crying in the room continued, but the young woman did not answer him.
“Ms. Thorne?” he called again. He heard rustling on the bed in front of him. He took one step closer and barely in the darkness he could see the baby. She lay on the bed, blankets draped across her small body. He recognized the pink knit hat that he had seen the infant wearing months earlier. As he crept closer, the crying continued. Finally he reached the baby and picked her up. He brought her out into the hall to examine her under the light.
It was only after he noticed that the baby’s crying seemed to stay behind in the bedroom when he realized he was not holding a baby at all, but rather a child’s doll. Its glassy eyes stared up at him, and in shock, he dropped it on the floor.
“No!” screamed a voice behind him. Ms. Thorne hurtled out of the darkness and pushed him aside. He fell back against the wall as the young woman scooped up the doll in her arms and cradled it. “She won’t eat!” she cried. “No matter what I do, she won’t eat!” She fussed with the baby doll for a moment, shoving a bottle of yellow, sour milk into its plastic mouth. She then turned and looked at my father. She opened her mouth wide. And the cries he had been hearing since moving in – cries eerily similar to that of a baby – assaulted the apartment.
On the wall behind the young woman was a photo of a baby—the kind taken at hospitals immediately following arrivals of newborns.
“Baby Jessica” was inscribed on the photo.
And on a small shelf below the photo sat a tiny, golden urn.