Vincent VanAllen’s new story is an absurdist poke in the eye for egotistical super-parents.
[ IMPORTANT NOTICE: This story is NOT covered by the Creative Commons License that covers the majority of content on Futurismic; copyright remains with the author, and any redistribution is a breach thereof. Thanks. ]
The Baby Window
by Vincent VanAllen
Journal of Prenatal Psychology & Health
Artificially accelerated fetal development in Homo sapiens: what is the role of the baby window?
Authors: Ripley R.C., Hess N.J.
I. IMPLANTATION: The search for a guinea pig
Child psychologist Norman Hess clasped his hands and dropped to a knee. “Angela, please. Just think about watching our baby grow inside your womb, right before our eyes!”
“It doesn’t seem safe,” Angela said. She was six weeks pregnant with their first child, and already Norman insisted on treating the baby like another one of his lab experiments. “What if there’s an infection or something? I don’t know. It just seems so unnatural.”
“Baby windows have been installed during primate research for years. The monkeys down at the lab never get infections. We use antibiotics, anti-rejection drugs, tinted UV-resistant glass to protect the fetus from harmful light.”
“I’m not a monkey!”
“Honey, you don’t understand. We’re on the cutting edge of science here. This is—”
“I don’t want my stomach on the cutting edge of anything.” Angela tucked her legs beneath her on the couch.
Norman continued as if she hadn’t spoken. “An opportunity to become the first woman to bear a child with the IQ of a teenager on the day it’s born. The first woman to create a genius while it’s still in the womb. We’re talking about starting a superhuman race for God’s sake!”
Angela caressed her belly with her palms. She looked up at Norman, read those wild gray eyes of his. The same wild eyes that had seduced her in the campus library at Cornell University more than a dozen years ago. Eyes that had stayed open the entire time they made love between shelves lined with volumes of the New England Journal of Medicine.
II. INSTALLATION: Your very own, single-paned, weather-resistant, photosensitive baby window
Seven weeks after installation of the baby window, Angela was three months into her pregnancy. A baby boy developed within her womb, and she and Norman watched in awe.
The placental sack had been carefully slit and sewn around the edges of the oval window covering Angela’s lower abdomen. Through the Plexiglas, the baby could be seen sleeping, skinny legs folded against his chest, with tiny hands balled into fists at his sides. Amniotic fluid levels remained normal, the anti-rejection medication had been working fine, and no infections could be detected. Though still sore from the window installation—God, sometimes she felt more like a construction site than an expectant mother—Angela was pleased with Norman’s work. There would be no need for an amniocentesis; her baby was normal, healthy, and growing at an accelerated rate.
“I can’t believe this,” Norman said while shining a flashlight through the baby window. “Three months old, and he weighs at least five pounds. The growth hormone injections are working. This is incredible.”
Angela felt the baby kick and squirm.
“Whoa!” Norman said. “He doesn’t like the flashlight beam. You gotta see this, Angie. The little bugger’s pissed. He’s trying to block the light with his hand.”
“Give me the mirror,” Angela said. Her ripening belly made it difficult to see through the baby window these days. “Okay, leave him alone! He obviously doesn’t like the light, so turn it off.”
“Isn’t that remarkable? Our son blocked the light with his hand. It’s intelligent behavior.” Norman clicked off the flashlight, his own face beaming.
“What’s so remarkable about that? Even a dog will turn away if you shine a light in its eyes. Don’t torment the baby for science, sweetheart.”
“Yes, but dogs don’t raise a paw like a tool to block an irritating light.” Norman reached for his notebook to document the event. “It’s intelligent behavior. I’m serious, Angie.”
“Our baby’s hand is not a tool.” Angela pulled her maternity shirt back down and reached for her milkshake. “You’re not Jane Goodall, and this child is not Baby Flint.”
III. NEW AGE MESSIAH: Our Lord and Savior, Hugh Hess (not to be confused with Rudolph Hess)
Three weeks later, Norman’s parents stopped by for a visit. Half a dozen strings of Christmas lights flashed around an eight-foot fir that Norman had hauled in from a tree farm. On the mantelshelf, sixteen-inch ceramic figures of Mary and Joseph knelt before a wooden box full of straw and baby Jesus, and at the base of the Christmas tree, a desk lamp cast yellow light across a King James Bible opened to the first chapter of Matthew. Angela had never understood how a scientist of Norman’s caliber could revere a religious holiday. Considering how much they both touted logic as the quintessential element for a life of fulfillment, she would’ve expected her husband to be a faithful agnostic like herself.
By now, the baby regularly gazed out the oval window with crystal blue eyes that absorbed the world. They’d named him Hugh, simply a play on the letters in the word huge; Norman was always doing things like that. Hugh slept a good eighteen hours a day, but when awake, he was sassier than a salmon wriggling upstream to spawn. He kicked and thrashed, repositioned himself constantly, and pushed his face against the window with a yearning for discovery matched only by his father’s quest for knowledge.
Angela stacked presents around the tree as Norman’s parents brought gifts in from their car. Baby Hugh perked up when Grandma Hess sat a plate of chocolate-covered pretzels on the coffee table. He rocked back and forth within the confined space of Angela’s womb. The motion made her queasy.
“Look!” Grandma Hess said. “He’s pointing at the pretzels.”
Angela grabbed the hand mirror and positioned it so she could see. “Yeah, I was wondering about that. I’ve felt him slap the window when he sees something he wants, and he smiled for the first time yesterday.”
“No, he’s been smiling for about a week,” Norman said. “You just haven’t seen him.” Norman knelt beside Angela’s chair and waved to the baby behind the window. “Did you see that? He waved to me! Less than four months in utero, and my son is waving to me!”
IV. COMPLICATIONS: Big baby in a small box
Shortly after New Years, complications occurred. Hugh weighed more than eleven pounds now, and he had outgrown his home. Norman wondered how much longer he could give Angela anti-contraction drugs to delay birth.
“It’s the only way, Angie.” Norman wrung his hands and paced in the doctor’s office. “Your organs can’t take it. The womb wasn’t meant to bear this kind of load.”
“Can’t we just deliver him Caesarian now?” Angela asked. “His elbows and heels are driving railroad spikes into my uterus!” She moaned and winced.
“And risk everything we’ve worked for? I don’t think so. And I’m not sure if he would survive outside the womb yet.”
Angela scowled at him and squeezed a pillow against her chest.
“I’m sorry! Okay?” Norman closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “I know I screwed up. His lungs were supposed to develop faster than they did. I don’t know why they grew so much slower than the rest of his body. His brain is fine, his heart seems large enough. I got the GH titer wrong, or maybe I hit him with the wrong protein sequence. It doesn’t matter! I can fix it.”
Dr. R.C. Ripley appeared to have overheard their conversation when he entered the office. “The two of you have to make a decision,” he said. “We either go for the baby now, or we expand the womb somehow—give Hugh a little more time to develop. And Angela, this baby’s coming out Caesarian at some point anyway. Natural birth is out of the question. Your pelvis isn’t large enough.”
Norman had known all along this was likely to happen. He’d seen pregnant lab chimps experience similar problems; the womb couldn’t keep up with the accelerated growth of the fetus. Adjusting the hormone level was risky, and it really wasn’t an option this late in the game. Maybe he could sell R.C. on an alternative therapy. Back when they were undergrads at Cornell, R.C. had developed a reputation for taking chances; he’d never let the boundaries of conventional medicine hold him back before, and hopefully wouldn’t decide to start now.
“What about creating an artificial uterus?” Norman directed the question at R.C., but the back of his skull tingled under what he was sure to be Angela’s disapproving stare.
R.C. shrugged and let out a weak laugh. “What you’re suggesting has never been—”
“Yes it has!” Norman interrupted.
“Not on humans. The closest thing to an artificial uterus would be the marsupial pouch, I believe.” R.C. washed his hands at the sink while he spoke. “Your wife is having a baby, Norman. Not a kangaroo.”
Angela cocked her head to the side and smirked, bending her arms and cupping her hands downward in a kangaroo gesture.
Norman ignored her. “Chimpanzees in my lab have carried their young full-term. The offspring were quadruple their normal weight.” Norman spread his fingers out, holding his hands apart for emphasis. “Look, R.C., we both know a C-section right now is very risky. Hugh’s lungs aren’t fully developed.”
Angela was too disgusted to join the conversation. Norman had really screwed up this time. She couldn’t believe she had let him talk her into this mess. Sure, she had bought into the whole baby genius in utero concept, but more out of her passion for Norman than anything else. No, that wasn’t altogether true. A PhD in Biology herself, she’d let ego get in the way—to be the mother of the first superhuman baby! But now Angela entertained second thoughts, and the only contentment she derived was from watching Norman and R.C. sweat it out. Those two men had been inseparable in college, writing grant proposals together, high-fiving in the lab, tampering with nature. In reality, they were monsters, but still, she wouldn’t have wanted to be under the care of anyone else. Yes, Norman had royally screwed up, but he and R.C. were probably the only two men in the world with the talent to fix the problem. She had to trust these two mad fools.
R.C. shook his head. “I can’t believe you’re asking me to do this.” He dried his hands on a paper towel. “Of course, it would have to be hush-hush.”
Norman took Angela’s hand and nodded.
“And the hormone therapy has got to stop. No more GH for Baby Hugh. It’s going to be one hell of a remodeling job as it stands. I don’t want to build a condo for a baby that’s going to need a mansion.”
V. ARTIFICIAL UTERUS: If kangaroos can do it, so can we
Per R.C.’s request, the surgery had been shrouded in secrecy, performed in a laboratory in France as opposed to a hospital back in the States.
“Easy,” Angela said. “It’s very tender.”
R.C. gently palpated around the fringes of the new, larger window. No signs of infection, no swelling or heat. And Baby Hugh still slept from the narcotics that had worn off Angela only hours ago. Thank God for an intact placenta. The fetal/maternal blood barrier made the transition a lot easier; he could keep the baby sedated until the artificial womb healed enough to support Hugh’s robust, prenatal movements.
Impregnated with anti-rejection drugs, the gray plastic molding of the artificial uterus expanded Angela’s womb to roughly three times its normal volume, giving the baby plenty of room to grow for the remainder of the pregnancy. Cadaver flesh covered the outer surfaces of the box-shaped organ, creating a lightweight, durable womb that provided a sterile environment where the baby would continue to thrive. As for the new window, it was rectangular and had the same dimensions as a thirteen-inch television screen. And once again, the placental sack had been slit and sewn into the window for an exceptional view of Baby Hugh floating in his clear, amniotic bath. The only tricky part of the whole procedure had been the bone graft required to secure the plastic molding of the new uterus to Angela’s pelvis and spine. Awestruck by his own work, R.C. pinched himself to make sure he wasn’t dreaming.
Norman smiled and handed Angela a mirror.
“Oh my,” Angela said weakly. “My tummy looks like an EZ-Bake oven.”
“We’re baking a gingerbread man,” Norman said.
R.C. grinned, baring all of his perfect teeth.
VI. GROWING PAINS: I want it, you eat it. Or else…
Seven months into the pregnancy, Norman estimated the baby’s weight at twenty pounds. Hugh was twenty-eight inches long, the hair on his head looked like a thick crown of flowing black seaweed, and most of his baby teeth had broken through the gumline—residual effects of growth hormone left over from the early pregnancy, according to R.C., but Norman knew different. He had been cheating a little, sneaking doses of GH in with the routine injections of anti-rejection drugs R.C. had prescribed for Angela. If R.C. were to find out, he would be furious.
Surprisingly, Angela had been the one to suggest throwing the growth hormones back into the equation. Norman had found a way to slip the hormones past the placental barrier, so both mother and baby acquired the benefits. Also, he’d nailed down the amino acid sequence that sparked new growth in Hugh’s lungs, allowing them to catch up with the rest of his body. And Angela said she felt better when receiving the injections. She claimed to have more energy, developed a stronger womb, and experienced less pain as the pregnancy progressed. She averaged ten pounds of weight gain every week now, and Norman worried that it would be tough on her back and knees, but the GH helped bolster more muscle mass to support the additional weight. He was sure the increased mass put additional stress on her heart, but that was unavoidable.
Angela stepped onto the bathroom scale and asked Norman to read it. She had ballooned to over two hundred and sixty pounds.
“This is depressing!” Angela said, wiping a tear from her plump cheek. “I’ll never fit into a size eight again.”
Norman sighed and patted her on the shoulder, wishing he could find a way to placate her. Fat chance! Baby Hugh’s accelerated metabolism required an extraordinary amount of nutrients, throwing Angela’s appetite into overdrive. It was a simple, biological phenomenon.
It didn’t help that every time the baby looked out the window and spied another high-calorie confection—a gallon of chocolate ice cream, a box of custard-filled bismarks—he pointed his finger and stomped until he got his way. When Angela picked up the sweets, Hugh would clap his hands and grin, his fat little form taking on a full-body shiver. A few minutes after she downed the sugary foods, Hugh’s demeanor would noticeably change: the sugar rush would keep him wired for half an hour, then his eyelids would become heavy, and he’d let out a series of watery giggles.
Over the next two weeks, Baby Hugh grew another three inches in length and packed on another four pounds. Norman was thrilled one morning at breakfast when the baby let out a muddled “Dada.” Hugh learned to play patty-cake with his hands against the window, and began imitating words when Norman spoke to him. Unfortunately, the amniotic fluid diluted his speech into gibberish.
When Norman suggested hiring a speech therapist, Angela threw the recipe book she’d been reading at him.
“How about you just fly us to SeaWorld and toss me into a pool with a bunch of dolphins. That would be therapeutic! Hugh could goo-goo and gah-gah with them, one aquatic mammal to another. He’s floating in a bag of water, Norman. It’s not time for him to talk.”
“Well, what if we teach him sign language?”
Angela’s eyes narrowed and she ground her teeth while clutching the ebony curls on either side of her head.
Norman didn’t have to be told to leave the room.
Angela now spent much of the day on the living room sofa, wooden t.v. trays grouped around her in a semi-circle, a one hundred and eighty-degree buffet of Hugh’s favorite foods. In the mornings, they watched the local news, and by nine a.m. they were on to Sesame Street, reruns of Mister Rogers, and a variety of game shows. During lunch, soap operas engrossed them. Angela knitted or folded laundry on top of the window to keep the baby from seeing the sultry love scenes.
One afternoon, Norman came home early from the lab and discovered their routine.
“What are you doing, Angie!” He snatched the remote from the sofa and turned off the television. “This is not what we had planned! Game shows and soap operas—do you want our son to be born with attention deficit disorder and grow up to be a porn star?”
Angela rolled her eyes and kicked over a t.v. tray. “Norman, I’m tired! I’ve been reading to Hugh for hours on end—books like Moby Dick and Paradise Lost. I want our son to be born a cultured genius just as much as you do, but I’m overworked! He’s awake more than twelve hours a day now, and it feels like I’m playing full-time teacher.”
Norman took Angela’s hand and stroked it. “You’re right. I was asking too much. There are alternate methods—I can buy some books on tape, he can watch video documentaries on the Treaty of Versailles—”
“Okay, okay. Take a break. I’ll make dinner tonight, and then we’ll take in a movie or something.”
VII. TEENAGE ANGST: Baby wants to rock
Angela fought Norman daily over Hugh’s in utero instruction. Exasperated, she demanded they adopt a simple routine: Norman tutored Hugh for three hours each morning while Angela relaxed and listened to music through headphones. Afternoons were free time for Angela to do whatever she wanted, and in the evenings she would read to the baby for half an hour.
Hugh, however, seemed to have his own agenda. During Angela’s afternoon free time, the baby insisted they watch MTV, HBO, and Showtime. If he didn’t get to watch his shows, he got nasty, and Angela would suddenly wind up with a bizarre craving for a sixteen-ounce jar of jalapeno peppers. Hugh would punctuate his displeasure by performing a rain dance in the womb. Within an hour, Angela would end up hugging the toilet, jalapenos burning on the way up worse than they had on the way down.
It became clear to Angela that Hugh was developing a sense of the world based on his MTV heavy-metal icons. He would swoop his long, black hair into a watery Mohawk, bang out imaginary licks on his umbilical cord as though it were a guitar, and bonk his head against the window in time with the music. Angela thought it was cute; Norman called it appalling.
About this time, the baby began the peculiar habit of pinching his nose, his ears, and his nipples. Whether he did it for sexual gratification, out of stress, or just to garner attention, Angela was at a loss. Often the baby would throw a fit, screaming and slapping his hands against the window between bouts of pinching himself, and Angela grew more and more concerned.
Norman felt there was nothing to be done about the behavior. There were no physical injuries to the baby, so he focused on Hugh’s continuing education. With a few modifications, the rectangular baby window was converted into a translucent touchscreen that interfaced with a laptop computer. Norman administered a battery of cognitive development tests. The baby touched the window to arrange virtual blocks into formations, picked out numerical answers on digital flashcards, deciphered cryptograms, and completed crossword puzzles.
Though Hugh had reached the intellectual level of a gifted fourteen-year-old, Norman wanted more. So, with his son’s best interests in mind, not to mention the possibility of a Nobel Prize, Norman gave his son access to the Internet.
It started out innocently enough. Norman enjoyed watching Hugh surf for hours each afternoon during free time, blasting through Web pages, speed-reading vast quantities of text, scouring the Internet for information. Then one evening Norman caught Hugh hacking through the parental controls in an attempt to gain the ultimate knowledge: the knowledge of good and evil. When Norman discovered the favorites menu overflowing with internet porn sites, he pulled the plug on the touchscreen baby window. Once again, Baby Hugh resorted to the frustrated window pounding-screaming-nipple-nose-ear pinching. Only this time, the baby made a final statement by hanging upside down in the womb with his butt cheeks flattened against the window.
Now that several months had passed since the installation of the artificial uterus, Angela told Norman that much of the pain from the procedure was gone. After a candlelight dinner one evening, Norman coaxed her into the bedroom. The lengthy pregnancy would soon be over, but he couldn’t suppress his desire any longer.
“No honey, he’ll see!” Angela said when Norman stripped off his clothes.
“Relax. He’s asleep, honey.” Norman crawled onto the bed and approached his wife.
“No, I’m serious! Put a towel over the window so Hugh won’t see your thingy. You don’t want him to develop an Oedipus complex, do you?”
Norman laughed and retrieved a towel from the linen closet. “All right, you win.”
Working around the square mountain of skin was awkward—a pillow under here, a leg stretched up there—but the two of them managed to put the puzzle pieces together. Less than a minute into their passion, Angela sat straight up and screamed.
Alarmed, Norman immediately withdrew and started groping for his underwear.
Angela grabbed her knees and leaned forward, trying to look through the window. “What the hell is he doing in there?”
The towel slipped off, revealing Hugh’s contorted face. He mule-kicked the walls of the artificial uterus, completely out of control. Angela moaned and gritted her teeth against the pain.
Norman thumped the window hard to get the baby’s attention. “Stop it!”
Hugh responded by grabbing his crotch, gyrating his hips, and giving Norman the finger.
Norman got the message. There would be no more hanky-panky until after the baby was born.
VIII. DELIVERY ROOM: “Mom, Dad, I hate you.”
After an eleven-month gestation, the day of birth finally arrived. Norman smiled triumphantly; the baby had tested at high-school level proficiency in math, English, and social studies. He set up a tripod with a video camera in the delivery room to record the event. Soon, the world would witness the eruption of a baby god from a rectangular box covered in the flesh of the dead. Spawned from the loins of his wife, a techno-Eve, a superhuman child was about to be born.
Angela lay flat on her back on the operating table. There were no contractions. Sedated, she slept comfortably. Baby Hugh slapped a hand against the window, let out a few garbled curses that were almost discernable, and pinched his nose.
“Wow. He’s raring to come out of there, isn’t he?” The wrinkles at the edges of R.C.’s eyes suggested a smile hidden under the square patch of blue cloth covering the lower half of his face. “Norman, I’m absolutely amazed at Hugh’s growth. He’s healthy and bright. You realize we are going to have to publish these findings, even if it means our careers.”
Norman nodded and adjusted the camera focus. Great minds of the twenty-first century. No one would understand them; no one would believe in their cause—at least, not at first. It would be difficult to persuade the public and the legions of physicians who would view the whole project as deviant, risk-taking, child endangering. But none of that mattered. Now they were about to watch a ground-breaking, medical discovery unfold, and Norman would be the one to document the baby’s first words outside the womb. He pushed record and zoomed in on the baby window.
A pair of nurses entered the room, each taking a station on either side of the operating table. R.C. positioned himself between Angela’s outstretched legs.
Norman panned the camera to take it all in. He smiled when the male nurse muttered, “sacre bleu,” his trembling hands rattling a tray of steel surgical instruments. The other nurse appeared more relaxed as she swabbed Betadine along the edges of the baby window, staining the cadaver flesh a rusty orange.
“Scalpel,” R.C. said, reaching out with a gloved hand. The fingers of his free hand explored the fringes of the window, searching the scar tissue for a suitable entry point.
R.C. held the scalpel above the window and showed it to Baby Hugh. “We’re coming in to get you now.”
Hugh tilted his head back, extended his arms, and curled his fingers inward a few times as if to say, “Bring it on.”
The scalpel descended upon the thick layer of skin, creating an incision underneath the window that backfilled with blood as the blade moved along. R.C. glanced at Angela, then over at Norman. “She looks peaceful,” he said. “The anesthetics are working fine. Of course, she wouldn’t have felt much discomfort had she been awake. The cadaver flesh wasn’t innervated.”
Norman nodded, and R.C. made a vertical incision on either side of the window. The flap of skin above the window was left intact to act as a hinge. Removal of the window and reconstruction of Angela’s lower abdomen would require a completely separate procedure, and right now the main concern was getting the baby out safely.
R.C. slipped his fingers under the lower edge of the window and gently lifted up, exposing the bulbous placenta. He carefully slit the sack where it connected to the edge of the window. Amniotic fluid rushed out as the bag withered. Hugh’s tiny fist burst through the slit in the sack. The nurses gasped, and R.C. jumped back.
“Feisty little fellow, isn’t he?” R.C. said as he stepped forward and grasped the baby’s extended hand.
Hugh’s forehead bumped against the window when he crawled out of the womb naked, soaking wet, still attached to the umbilical cord. He jerked his hand away from R.C., then grabbed the IV pole next to the operating table for support. Kneeling on the table, he dug his fingers into his nose, coughed, sneezed, and spit out a wad of gunk. He sucked in his first lungful of air. Then he stood, wobbling on unstable legs. Gaining his balance, he grabbed a pair of scissors from the male nurse and clipped his own umbilical cord. Both nurses ran out of the operating room.
R.C. retreated a few paces. Hugh yanked up the white towel lining the bottom of the sterile instrument tray. Steel implements rained down in a shower of clinking metal. He wrapped the towel around his waist, pointed the scissors at R.C. who still held the scalpel, and said, “No circumcision!”
Baby’s first words! Norman grinned and clapped his hands beneath the tripod. Hugh had spoken in polysyllables about a surgical procedure. What knowledge, what divine truths, would spill from his lips next?
Hugh spun around and sneered at Norman. “And you! Don’t you get it?” The baby shouted in agony while pinching his nose, his ears, his nipples.
“Huh?” Norman’s jaw dropped.
Hugh stamped his foot and clenched his fists. “I want a nose ring, Daddy!”
[ IMPORTANT NOTICE: This story is NOT covered by the Creative Commons License that covers the majority of content on Futurismic; copyright remains with the author, and any redistribution is a breach thereof. Thanks. ]