The author of the short story collection Modern Manners for Your Inner Demons, Tara Laskowski makes her AHMM debut in the April issue, where she explores the eerie undercurrents of our everyday lives in her story “The Monitor.”
When my husband and I first started using our baby monitor, there was something about the grainy picture and the way our son’s eyes glowed greenly in the infrared light that used to always give me the shivers. “What would you do,” I asked my husband one night, “if you suddenly saw someone in the room with Dash?” That conversation evolved quickly into ridiculousness (What if it was someone crawling in the window? What if it was an old lady or a big cat? What if it was a child? What if Dash started hovering?), but there was something deliciously scary and also weirdly plausible about the whole thing.
Having a new baby around the house turns everything upside down—you’re already on edge, deprived of sleep, emotionally up-and-down. Throw something like a creepy baby monitor into the mix and all bets are off.
“The Monitor” was my first attempt at writing a story with supernatural elements, but even though I wanted to try something new (and found it extremely fun) I also wanted to incorporate some of the regular themes that I tend to obsess over in my other stories. What does it mean to be a family? How do people change when something violent or tragic happens to someone else they know? What happens when you realize you aren’t in love anymore? What is happiness? Can you ever really know another person?
The balance between the two turned out to be a tricky thing. I tried very hard to keep the supernatural elements in this story vague—I didn’t want the reader to know for certain one way or the other if the little boy Myra was seeing was real, a hallucination, a ghost, or some combination of all. I wanted the reader to draw his or her own conclusions on that point—but I also didn’t want it to seem like a cop-out. I didn’t want to make the ending too open-ended, but I also didn’t want to finish it up all neat and tidy.
After a dozen or so revisions, I felt satisfied with the story. And despite the supernatural pieces, I do think that ultimately the story is about motherhood, and about figuring out how to navigate those pressures. Pressure is very important to this story. Myra is feeling all kinds of pressures—the pressure to be a good mom, a good wife, a good neighbor. The pressures of keeping her own identity intact during a transition period. The physical pressures of sleep deprivation and breastfeeding.
Within the story, too, there’s also this idea of privacy and secrecy—how much can we really know about someone else? And how much privacy can and do we want to give up? I know as a new mom I suddenly felt more exposed in many ways—everything that goes along with breastfeeding, for one, and also the many acquaintances and strangers approaching me with personal questions or comments about my choices in pregnancy and afterward. The monitor here may stand in for some of those issues—with the monitor changing signals, Myra suddenly takes on a voyeur role, but is she herself also being watched? There are also her struggles with her husband, who not only cannot seem to empathize with Myra’s worries and fears, but seems to have secrets of his own.
Throw in a mildly menacing ghost boy, and I suddenly become a very mean writer!
When it all comes down to it, though, with or without apparitions in your monitor, being a parent is hard. Each and every day you struggle with real and imagined ghosts and fears, you take pressure and stress head-on. You may cry, but you’ll also laugh a lot, and have moments of such joy it’s unexplainable to anyone else. You make sacrifices, you survive. I think in the end, this story is about survival. I think Myra is learning to be strong. She’s learning to push through, to face the demons, to do what she needs to in order to make it work. And, in the end, isn’t that what all parents learn to do?