The Nest thinks there is danger afoot. "Heads up. Smoke in the hallway," she purrs every five minutes in her cool contralto. But there is no smoke. Not even steam from the shower. It is past midnight. I have fetched the stepladder and set it up in the hall. I climb up and change her battery, but she does not change her story. She keeps ringing her warning chime, designed to save a family of five from flames and asphyxiation. "Heads up. Smoke in the hallway," she insists.
My wife emerges from the bedroom and leans against the door frame, yawning. "Maybe there's something in the kitchen?" She means I should check.
I check. There is nothing in the kitchen. It is dark and peaceful. I pull out my phone and research the Nest's symptoms online. I find no information but plenty of fear, uncertainty, and doubt. I pocket my phone and head back upstairs, wondering if our Nest has been infected by some malware. I wonder if it has been hijacked for nefarious purposes, if some hacker out there is watching me struggle with the zombified device and laughing himself sick. I eye the enemy in the ceiling with suspicion.
"Emergency. Smoke in the hallway," the Nest reports with the same sang-froid as before. Now she is blinking a bright red light and the warnings come every 30 seconds.
It's one in the morning and even the kids are awake. They think it is a pajama party. They are waving towels at the idiot box. They have opened all the windows and all the doors. It is a warm night, the neighbor's cat wanders in, and my son turns on some music. Suddenly it is a pajama party, my wife and kids are laughing and twirling to some disco retread, and for a second I forget what's broken.
Then the madness spreads to the second Nest. "Heads up. Smoke in the bedroom," she reports calmly. Usually serenity is a sign of sanity, but in this case? There is no smoke. There isn't even any fire left in the bedroom after nineteen years of marriage and three children. Nothing. Perhaps that is the danger. Like carbon monoxide, emptiness is odorless, undetectable. I switch off the music and move the ladder into the bedroom.
The Nests won't quit. No one can sleep. The children are crying. The cat has fled the premises. My wife is huddled on the living room sofa with her fingers in her ears. I climb the ladder again and snap the Nests out of their ceiling installations. I carry them down the stairs like babies and out into the garage. Cradled in my arms they keep warning me. "Heads up. The sensors have failed in the hallway. The sensors have failed in the bedroom. Alarm may sound."
I leave them babbling in the trash, spooking the cans and bottles, rattling the newspapers. By the time I return upstairs, my wife has tucked the children in. We get in bed too.
"Crazy contraptions," I say. "I guess anything with a modicum of intelligence can go insane." She laughs and snuggles close.
It is two in the morning and I am not a bit sleepy. I am wired, remembering the old thrill of wakefulness in the forbidden hours. "Heads up," I whisper to my wife. "Smoke in the bedroom."
Then suddenly I detect it swirling all around us, feeble but persistent, like the wraith of some ancient coal fire that still smolders deep underground.
An unopened letter in a commercial #10 envelope rests on the top of my cherrywood dresser. It has lain there nine months. Every week a woman comes to dust it. She flicks the long envelope with a whisk of turkey feathers, raises it, and flicks under it, before squaring it again by my jewelry box. A clean letter in a clean envelope come clean across the country to ask for a decision. I have not cut the seal but I know what is inside.
I believe—or pretend to believe—that if I leave the womb of the IOU sealed up forever, my three embryos will continue to hover between potential and oblivion in their dreamless deep freeze.
A week after I first hid the letter in plain sight, my husband and I were shopping at the newest upmarket grocery in our neighborhood. Browsing for an exciting new tipple, I spotted a vodka named "Schrödinger's."
"Huh. Look what the cat dragged in," I said.
My husband raised an eyebrow and said, "Shouldn't that be in a box?"
"Yeah. So you can't tell until you open it whether someone's killed the bottle," I agreed.
Then my husband pointed to the shelf below and said, "Well, what do you know! There's a Heisenberg Vodka too."
We grinned at each other, revelling in our shared sense of knowingness.
The woman who supervised the liquor section came hurrying down the aisle. "Oh, Heisenberg," she said with a deprecating wave of her hand. "It's named after the meth dealer on that old tv show. But if you're looking for something that's up and trending, can I suggest this aged gin, made locally?"
We ignored her. My husband turned to me. "Let's get Schrödinger and Heisenberg and and set up a double-blind taste test!"
"I don't know," I said, laughing. "I'm uncertain whether we'll observe a difference. Isn't all vodka in principle tasteless, odorless, and colorless?"
This story is no reflection on our marriage. We have a good marriage. It is entirely my own issue that after nine months, I still have not told my husband about the letter, even though the embryos are half his. The letter was addressed to me alone. The "mother."
I know he will not let me dream on in this poetical way. He will put his arm around my shoulders and say, we are in our 50s now and we need to make a decision. Option 1: donate to others. Option 2: research. Option 3: destruction.
What about none of the above? What about quantum superpostition? What about the force that drives the flower?
As the months tick by, I wonder if the cryobank has written us off yet as deadbeat parents. The Visa we gave them five years ago has expired. The embryos are not paying the rent on their cold-water flat. By doing nothing I am doing something and it's not what I would wish to do if I could wish. But it seems that I am frozen too.
Most nights I wait for my husband to come through the door before pouring the ice-cold shots of Heisenberg and Schrödinger. From time to time I wonder if the embryos are already dead in their sealed envelope. I will bear the blame. I am the mother. If I open it.
Anne Cheilek is a writer, editor, and musician living in Silicon Valley. Her work has appeared in Catamaran Literary Reader, DMQ Review, The Sand Hill Review, Daphne Magazine and elsewhere. She is currently working towards her MFA at San José State University.