He held his wife’s hand as she lay on the exam table, her shirt rolled up to her breasts. The obstetrician spread a nickel-sized glob of jelly onto his wife’s stomach. It was strange seeing his wife exposed like that, watching someone else touch her in such an oddly intimate way. It made him feel warm and uncomfortable, and he shifted his gaze to the dull, minimalist paintings on the wall.
The obstetrician explained that it was too soon to perform a true ultrasound — that would wait until the next visit. For now, they would use “the doppler.”
The doppler turned out to be a sort of handheld device: two pieces of plastic connected by a cord. She pressed a button on one end and the thing clicked to life, hissing static in the small office. The other end, the one that looked more like a wand, she pressed onto his wife’s naked, greased belly.
“Think of it like a radio,” the doctor told them. “Now we’re just trying to tune into the right station. W.O.M.B. in Cincinnati.”
She chuckled at her own joke, staring at the floor the way people do when they’re concentrating on something they don’t need to look at. As she gently traced the wand around his wife’s abdomen, the static hiss was replaced by a whooshing sound, rhythmic and deep.
The sound of blood in her veins, he thought.
Then, quicker than he expected, the doctor dialed into the right station. Instead of static or the rushing of blood, the room filled with the staccato of a steady, rapid drumbeat. More hummingbird than human, but most definitely a pulse.
“Oh my god,” his wife gasped.
“Is that it?” he asked, in the way people, when confronted with the extraordinary, often ask the most obvious, mundane questions.
The obstetrician nodded, a patient smile on her face. She seemed to be counting the heartbeats against the clock on the wall.
“It’s going so fast,” he whispered, afraid to interrupt her concentration. “Is that all right?”
She nodded again. “Perfectly normal at this stage.” She moved the wand around a bit more, as though to listen from all sides, then removed it from his wife’s stomach and placed it on the table. She handed his wife a towel to wipe herself with. “Everything is looking very healthy and on-target so far,” she told them. Then she picked up a clipboard and made a few notes.
His wife squeezed his hand and beamed at him, then let go so she could wipe herself clean. Once she rolled her shirt back down over her swollen belly, she said, “Can we pause for a moment?” She smiled shyly. “Sorry, I need a bathroom break.”
The obstetrician chuckled again. “Also perfectly normal at this stage. Follow me.”
She put down her clipboard and led his wife out of the exam room.
Alone now, he stretched his legs. He sauntered around the room, gazing at the various paintings on the walls. But he couldn’t concentrate.
None of this was news: they’d known for a while, had planned for it even longer. But to hear that heartbeat, for himself, actually in there… He smiled.
He almost didn’t hear the doctor come back in the room. She winked at him and picked up her clipboard again. She started making short, brief jots on the paper — check marks, maybe. Then the phone in the front office rang. She rolled her eyes.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “My office manager went home early today. Normally, I’d ignore it, but since we’re waiting anyway, would you mind if I…?”
“Of course,” he said. “Go ahead.”
She smiled. “When everyone’s back, we can talk about what we’ll do next visit.”
She left the room, and the door swung shut behind her. He was alone again. He began pacing once more.
Dad. That would be a strange one to get used to hearing, to responding to. Everything was going to be much different now.
The obstetrician had left her clipboard on a stool in the corner. Out of curiosity, he went over and glanced at it, but her handwriting was a scrawl. Just a bunch of abbreviations and symbols.
The doppler device was still on the table. It was an interesting gadget. He liked gadgets.
Was it just a simple, high-powered microphone? Or maybe it used some other kind of technology to pick up that faint, distant heartbeat and amplify it so it filled a room, filled the people in the room.
He took a closer look. Both pieces of the device were housed in sterile white plastic. Clean-looking. The cord connecting the pieces was coiled rubber. He picked it up.
The wand was heavy; it had a heft to it he hadn’t expected. It was built with a slight curve so it fit nicely in his grip.
On the piece in his left hand, his thumb automatically found the power button. He glanced at the door and listened for a moment.
He turned it on.
Static again hissed through a tiny speaker in the piece in his left hand. He waved the wand back and forth in the air, listening to the static change pitch and tone.
Feeling somewhat silly, he placed the wand at his abdomen, over his sweater. That same whooshing sound came through the speaker. Faintly, he thought he could also hear the churn of his guts.
He moved the wand upward toward his chest. His own heartbeat now filled the room: slower, deeper than that of his unborn child’s, but essentially the same.
There was another sound too, though. He could just make it out in the background. His fingers found a volume knob on the piece in his left hand and he slowly rolled it forward. The sound got louder, more distinct.
A voice. He couldn’t make out all the words, but it sounded like a confession.
The wand began to pick up other sounds from within him. There was a low moaning. A scream that sounded like a rusty nail being dragged across a pane of glass. The slaps and whines of a dog being beaten. The click of a bullet entering the chamber of a gun.
The wand picked up the sounds of rape, of hatred and betrayal and torture. Bones breaking, fires burning. And over it all, through it all, that voice, unmistakably his own.
There was a noise behind him. He spun around. His wife and the obstetrician were standing there, staring at him, the same stunned expression on both of their faces. The doppler dropped from his hands and clattered to the floor, but it was too late; they had heard everything.
Matt Galletta lives in upstate New York with his wife and daughter. A collection of poems, The Ship is Sinking, is forthcoming from Epic Rites Press. Find more of his work at www.mattgalletta.com.