And that tiny speck there is your little baby girl’s heartbeat...
The words float through my head like fluffy clouds on a warm summer day as I step into the bookstore, my legs passing in front of a sensor that lets off a pleasant ding, letting the attendant know a new customer has arrived.
I’m going to be a dad. The idea causes my stomach to flip as my pulse quickens with a mixture of excitement and fear. I’m going to have a baby girl. I blink to stop a tear from leaking down my cheek and move further into the store. Daisy had to go back to work after our appointment. She’d been dressed in her uniform; her blouse rolled up over her stomach so that the sonographer could cover it with warm gel and use a probe to find the little blueberry sized foetus inside of her.
Together we had cried, held hands, and asked so many questions that the sonographer struggled to follow along. Afterwards I had dropped her back at the office, where she’d jokingly chastised me for letting her ruin her make-up with tears, then kissed me goodbye and called me dad.
It was then as I watched her disappear inside her office that the first wave of panic hit. We could barely make ends meet now. How would we afford a baby?
Now here I am an hour later, caught somewhere between the elation of seeing my daughter’s heartbeat and the crippling anxiety of knowing that I can’t afford to provide Daisy and our little girl the life they deserve.
I approach the counter, the index finger and thumb of my right-hand pin-rolling an invisible thread; a nervous tick I’ve had ever since I was a boy. A salesperson waiting at the counter welcomes me to the store; asking if there is anything he can do to help. I pause, taking in his features; his chin, his eyes, and the way that his hair recedes slightly more on the left side of his cowlick than the right take me by surprise. He’s my perfect mirror; an apparition so alike myself that a feeling of discomfort settles into my stomach.
“I need a journal,” I say, the confusion at our similarities evident in my tone. “My partner is having a baby. It’s our first, and I want to get her a journal.”
The salesman smiles a smile just like my own, and says he has two options that would be perfect for me. He asks me to wait at the counter, and disappears down an aisle of shelves lined with books. When he emerges a few minutes later, he resumes his position by the register and places two journals down on the counter between us.
“I don’t have much money,” I confess, my eyes tracing the intricacies of the two journals. Their black leather covers are beautiful beneath the store’s warm overhead lighting. “I’m not even sure how I’m going to afford having a baby to be honest. It’s kind of stressing me out. I’ll take whichever one is cheaper.”
The salesman nods his head with sage-like wisdom, curling the corners of his lips into a smirk just like I do when I know something that I shouldn’t. Reaching towards the counter, he picks up the larger, more expensive looking of the two and rests a palm across the rich cover as he hands it to me.
“Then I believe that this is the journal for you.”
“I don’t think I’ll be able to afford this one,” I say honestly, the uncertainty caused by his familiar appearance mixed with the worry of how much a baby will cost, causing my stomach to ache.
“Sure, you can. It’s cheaper than you think. In fact, this journal will make you wealthier than your wildest dreams. You can give your family anything they desire. All it will cost you is time.”
I stare across the counter at the salesman, trying to see through his recognisable features so that I can glimpse what lies underneath. How can a journal make me wealthy? How can it help me provide for the daughter whose fragile heartbeat I can still hear pulsing pleasingly in my ears? And what the hell does he mean about costing my time?
“Go ahead,” he urges, as though reading my thoughts and understanding the curiosity plucking at my heartstrings. “Open it up.”
Taking the journal from his grasp, I use my thumb to flip open the cover, feeling the suppleness of the leather against my calloused skin. Someone has taken a ruler and a pen, dissecting the first page into a series of columns and graphs that are filled with acronyms and numbers that grow increasingly larger. The handwriting looks familiar; the swooping construction of the number two, and the severe angle on each number seven remind me of my own.
Confused, I raise my eyes towards the man who looks just like me as he smiles my smile.
“If you take this journal, then all of your financial concerns will disappear. There are stock symbols for companies listed on the page which will explode in value. If you invest the $1000 you have in savings you will be able to sell them for just over $20,000 in a few weeks. You’ll land a new high-paying job; one where you’re invaluable to the company. They’ll work you hard, but they’ll compensate you well. You’ll never have to worry about money again.”
I flip through a few more pages, noting that each includes numbers that continue to grow. But then, around six pages in, the columns and graphs vanish, replaced by a glossy photograph glued to the rich, creamy paper. It’s Daisy. She’s smiling, and she’s dressed in the most beautiful dress I have ever seen. She’s standing on a rolling green lawn beside an inflated balloon with the number one on it, a little girl I’ve never seen before held on her hip.
“Your daughter. At her first birthday party. You won’t make it there. There will be an emergency at the office. You’ll miss the presents and the cake. But because of you, she’ll receive more gifts than any child could ever want.”
I flip through more pages, each containing photographs of Daisy and the girl I’m told is my daughter. She’s beautiful. She has her mother’s eyes, and grows in age with passing photograph glued into the journal. After a while I arrive at a picture of her dressed in a uniform.
“Her first day of school,” the salesman says. “You’ll miss it because of merger talks at the office followed by a meeting with your broker. “Daisy will be upset. But because of your hard work, your daughter will get the best education that money can buy.”
I can see her at the edge of the photograph, watching on as our daughter readies herself for her big day. She’s dressed in another stunning outfit. But her smile is different this time; it’s become somewhat hollow, and less pronounced.
My fingers begin flipping through the pages lined with photographs faster now, my heart thumping in my chest as I watch the daughter I’m still yet to meet growing up before my eyes, her mother’s happiness fading with each progressive image. The salesman is talking fast, itemising each image with a cold proficiency that crushes down on me and makes me feel sick.
“First sleep over. First broken bone. Getting braces to straighten her teeth. Her first date. Graduation. Moving out of home. Her engagement party, her wedding…”
“…I’m not in any of these photos,” I breathe, the journal clutched within my shaking hands as I stare down at a young woman in a wedding gown who looks remarkably like her mother had the day we first met. “Not even the ones from her wedding.”
“You won’t be invited,” the salesman says, his tone so emotionless it cuts through me like a knife. “Your daughter will say that she barely knows you. You won’t have spoken to each other in years. Besides, you’ll be at work. But you’ll pay for the event. You’ll call it a wedding gift, and even though her husband’s parents will find the grandiosity of the gesture to be off-putting, eventually they’ll come to understand that’s just who you are.”
“I don’t want this,” I say, closing the journal and setting it down on the counter between us. “I don’t want a life like that. A life where I lose my time and my family in pursuit of money. I just found out that I’m having a baby daughter. Why would I ever want to risk losing something so precious?”
“Then perhaps I was wrong about you,” he says, pushing the wretched journal to the side. “Perhaps this journal is more suited to your needs.”
He hands me the second journal. It’s smaller than the first; its black leather cover slightly worn and less intricate. I hesitate, not wanting to see what lies within. He tells me to open it, and when I do, the pages are empty.
“If you buy this one, you’ll use the $1000 you have saved to buy a crib, and have enough left over for a pram and a stuffed bunny with floppy pink ears. You’ll never get offered that high-paying job. Instead, you’ll work a normal forty-hour week, clocking out as soon as you can each day so you can race home and spend time with Daisy and your daughter. You’ll never be rich. Your daughter will never go to the best schools, or have the most expensive wedding. But you’ll be there for every event, and every special moment in her life.”
“Why aren’t there any photographs of that?” I ask, a tear snaking down my cheek and splashing onto the open journal. “Why are all the pages blank?”
“Because if you choose this journal. It is up to you to create those memories yourself and to fill the pages however you see fit. You won’t suddenly come into money-”
“-But I’ll live a life of happiness instead.”
The salesman nods his head once and rings up the sale in silence, scanning the barcode sticker attached to the back of the second journal and accepting my money as payment.
“Who are you?” I ask as he hands me the journal once more.
“I’m you,” he smiles that familiar smile. “I’m the voice in your head telling you not to worry about money right now. In a few months’ time, you’re going to hold your daughter in your arms and fall in love in a way that you never thought possible. When you do, you’ll realise that money means nothing compared to her. She’s not going to care whether you can buy her expensive things, or send her to the best schools. She’s going to want a father who loves her and who spends time with her. Because time is the most valuable gift you could ever give. And the best parents aren’t the ones with the biggest bank accounts. They’re the ones with the biggest hearts. You being here, buying this journal for Daisy, shows just how big your heart already is.”
I nod my head, running my hand over the leather cover as a smile crosses my face and I close my eyes. I’m going to be a dad…
“Excuse me Sir, can I ring that up for you sir?” Opening my eyes, I raise my head again and catch sight of a woman standing at the counter waiting for me to approach and pay for my journal. To her left, a large mirror hangs and my own reflection smiles back at me, no longer fretting about money, but excited about the future instead.
“That would be great,” I say. “It’s for my partner. We just found out that we are having a baby girl.”