I twisted the knob but hesitated to open the door. His cries were strong, desperate. Not high-pitched squeals like a baby’s cry for milk or to have his diaper changed, but deep in his gut, a low, steady moan like a dying man, as if he already knew, already sensed that his mother was gone, and that sudden awareness was slowly killing him.
The front door slammed shut, startling me, and I quickly snatched my hand off the knob.
“Oh, Stephan’s crying,” he said and brushed past me into his room.
Stephan. His name was Stephan.
I lingered at the threshold, watched as he took the boy from the small Hot Wheels bed and rocked him.
He was much bigger than I had imagined; his feet dangled over his father’s crotch. I couldn’t remember if he’d ever told me the boy’s age. There were only the pictures in his phone from when he and his ex were still together and living in Philadelphia. Stephan was only five or six months old then. Old enough to sit up, utter single syllables, and possibly even stand—if he held onto someone’s leg, or a flattened cushion on the couch, or the dulled corner of an end table—but not quite able to walk. He was still too top-heavy; his body needed time to grow into his head. Time lost when his mother took him in the middle of the night and disappeared.
I wasn’t allowed to see Stephan when they moved in—the consequence of dating a man with a child and a selfish baby momma who could vanish without a trace. However, his baby pictures stayed with me. Even when I knew how fast children grew in year, I still dreamt of him as a red-faced newborn wrapped in a blue blanket, wearing a blue cap on his head, and lying on my chest. As in infant, I pictured the tiny little body that could fit snuggly in my arm—his head resting on my shoulder, his bottom in the crease of my elbow, his pudgy feet in the palm of my hand where I could curl my fingers in and tickle the bottoms of his feet until he laughed so hard, he passed gas.
Watching how he bounced Stephan up and down against his chest, I realized that round, cheery bundle of joy was what he had hoped to reunite with when he received the email from him ex promising to give his son back. He was expecting to hold his baby boy again when he left me to meet them at the Greyhound station. Instead, he found his ex standing alone, and a toddler, taller than his knees, walking without the assistance of inanimate furniture, who looked up into the eyes of his father and failed to recognize them.
“I didn’t know he was here,” I said.
“Where else would he be?” he said over his shoulder as he tucked Stephan back under the covers.
“Maybe a neighbor’s house. A friend’s.” I could’ve taken care of him, I wanted to say. It would’ve come natural to me, like sex. Even without the experience, you still knew exactly what to do once it was in your hands, right? How to position your bodies so that you were both comfortable. I could’ve kept Stephan for however long he needed. Fed him sweets and teach him songs so he’d feel comfortable with me. Tell him stories of an important trip his mother was about to embark on, so that neither of us grew suspicious of her sudden disappearance. All the while, unbeknownst to Stephan or me, his father would solicit the help of someone else, maybe a co-worker or drinking buddy, with a similar baby momma issue, who could sympathize with his actions and help him get rid of the body. And then, once all evidence of her was erased, we could get back together, I’d move in, and the three of us could be a family, pretending there was never a fourth person in the equation.
That way was less messy for me.
“I mean, what if he found her?” I asked.
“Watch him until I get back,” he said, dodging my question. He left to retrieve the box spring and drag it down to the dumpster.
Stephan’s eyes were still open, though not enough to signify that he was conscious. His heavy eyelids hinted at being on the brink of sleep, but the furrow in his brow suggested he was questioning who I was and why I stood in the doorway staring at him. Did he think he was dreaming, or had he heard what I’d said about his mother and wanted to understand. Could two-year-olds comprehend the meaning of death? Did they know it was final? That death meant someone was never coming back?
Before I could talk myself out of it, I let myself in and sat at the foot of his bed. The mattress was thin and sunk down to the floor under my weight, bringing my knees level with my chest as if I was squatting.
“Hi.” I reached out and touched his leg. He didn’t flinch or draw back, but the room still felt cold. Maybe it was the ice blue coat of paint on the walls, or the fact that his eyes still looked open although I was sure he’d fallen asleep by then.
“I’m a friend of your—” The permanent frown on his face stopped me from saying “dad’s.” It was the same frown, I imagine, he gave his father when they met again for the first time—a look of disbelief that he or I could be anything but strangers.
“I’m a friend of your mother’s,” I said, and a sudden draft sent a surge of electricity through my body and raised all the hairs on my arms so that I searched the room expecting to find his mother’s angry ghost. Instead, his father leaned against the door, having returned from outside.
“Let’s get this over with,” he said.
“Are we taking him?”
He shook his head.
“We can’t leave him here alone. Who knows how long we’ll be gone? What if he wakes up again?” What if he woke the neighbors? What if they called the cops? What if the cops came and found Stephan home alone? No parents, no babysitter, but an ever-present stench of something recently dead that had been decomposing for days.
“We’re just dumping the suitcase.” He rolled his eyes. I could tell he was getting annoyed with me. I was being too worrisome. “You’re such a nag,” he used to joke back when our relationship was less complicated. Naggy, an unwelcomed nickname he gave me when I complained too much about his hot apartment, or the fact that he never wore more than a robe and boxers whenever I visited.
Sometimes I wondered if my constant whining was the reason he never made us official. Now that I knew his secret, held the power to send him to death row and take his son from him, again—this time permanently—did he regret inviting me back into his life? Did he regret introducing me to his mess now that I was making it too difficult to clean it up?
“We can’t just dump it anywhere,” I tried to rationalize. “Doesn’t she have family?”
“She doesn’t have anybody. Nobody knows she’s here. She said she was renting some guy’s basement before she moved down.” He shrugged his shoulders and sighed. “But she lies, so I don’t even know.”
I looked down at Stephan, still asleep or at least pretending to be. “Well, regardless, your neighbors have seen her. If we just dump the suitcase anywhere, the police will eventually find it, and if they show her picture on the news, it could lead back to you.”
“So what do you suggest?”
“We go far. Virginia, maybe. Or at least the border. That’s about an hour drive.”
“This late?” he asked.
He turned into the hallway, swinging his arms back and forth and pacing in a small circle. “Fine,” he finally said. “I’ll get the suitcase. You take him. We’ll drive my car.” I wanted to protest taking his car, but he raised his hand to silence me and left before I could say anything else.
Stephan was breathing heavy, though I feared if I lifted his chin, I’d find his eyes still partially open, staring down at me with distrust. I tucked the comforter around him like a cocoon and scooped him into my arms. It felt too natural to lay him on my chest, position his head in the crook of my neck, as if I’d done it many times before. His steady breathing paused for a moment, as if he’d noticed a change and needed investigate the new environment to be sure it was safe. Eventually, his body relaxed, and his soft snore returned. Looking at his face—his smooth skin, his rose-colored chubby cheeks, his flat nose, slightly bigger than my knuckle—I wondered if he was still young enough to forget his mother. If I stayed around long enough, held him more, kissed him the way she did, sang sweet lullabies until he fell asleep, would he start to believe that I was her, that I had always been a part of his life?