Baby in the Basket
By Cecil Castellucci
18 May 2009
Danielle always knew that the baby had returned when she stepped through the front door of the building. The smell, a mixture of vanilla and smoke and sour diaper, would hit her when she slid her key in her mailbox.
Whoever left the child left him in front of her apartment door (no. 39) on Tuesday afternoons at 5:51 PM. He had a full diaper whenever he came back to her, and they never sent along any clean diapers with him.
This Tuesday, the smell hit her as her hand was in the mailbox pulling out the useless circulars and offers for unlimited credit. When she knew he had arrived again, she could feel her heart beat faster. She couldn't help it. She loved that little boy. She had become attached. Danielle grabbed the mail and ran up the stairs. Five flights. Breathless. She didn't stop running until she was sure he was really back.
When she reached the landing, there he was. He was not a fussy child. He was quiet.
She couldn't help creeping forward, fearing that he was dead, and not just sleeping. In a basket. Like he was Moses or something.
The boy was small. Sure, he was a baby, but he looked like the runt of the litter. She could see his little chest moving up and down, and found that she had been holding her breath in anticipation of the worst, so she exhaled and then inhaled. She gingerly picked up the basket and was about to put her keys in the apartment door when Len opened it. It was as though he knew the package had been delivered.
He said nothing. He barely looked at the baby in the basket. He barely looked at her during these times.
"I'm going out," he mumbled, and pressed his way past her and the sleeping baby.
Danielle noticed that he never dealt with this part of their life very well.
Danielle had met Len six years ago at a rock show. Her roommate's brother was playing bass in the opening band. Danielle didn't want to go but it was one of those stay-in-and-feel-pathetic-or-go-out-and-at-least-be-doing-something nights.
She had needed a beer to get through it.
The music was terrible. The guitar was out of tune. And although she was convinced that smoking had been banned from bars at least ten years ago, it seemed as though everyone was smoking.
There were even ashtrays on all the tables.
Details like that were always changing slightly.
For example: for a while, right on red would be legal, or there would be no mailboxes on the streets and you'd have to go to the post office and wait in line, or buses would be back to taking tokens.
Danielle likened the small shifts in reality to the change in the value of world currencies.
She pulled out a twenty dollar bill from her wallet. As always, she checked the number carefully because she could never trust the face on the bill to tell what the value was. She could have sworn that they kept changing, as well. Often she didn't even recognize the person depicted on the sometimes green, sometimes colorful dollars.
She leaned over the bar, tits out, to attract the bartender.
The bartender didn't notice. But the guy standing next to Danielle, glassy eyed and perplexed, did. He looked like he had just woken up from a winter hibernation.
"What's this place called again?" he asked her. His voice cracked, like he hadn't used it in days.
"The River Run," she said, then finally caught the bartender's attention and ordered a beer. He slid it over to her and she cringed. There was too much foam and she knew that it was going to leave a mustache on her upper lip. She took a careful sip but she could still feel the foam. It was tickling her. She wondered if this guy talking to her would even notice.
"It used to be called Tad's," he said. "Back in the day."
"Not in your day," she said, wiping the foam off her upper lip with the back of her hand in the most ladylike way she could. Tad's had been closed for 18 years. It was a neighborhood legend. This guy couldn't be more than 23.
"Can I come home with you?" he asked. "I don't have anywhere to go."
That was the moment. In her mind she said no. She wasn't going to let a guy she didn't know stay at her house. She didn't even know his name. She was opening her mouth to say no. But this tidal wave, this force, this tsunami inside of her forced her to agree. She nodded her head.
That was how she knew that this whole thing was bigger than her.
The baby had started arriving when Danielle left home at seventeen. She had rebelliously dropped out of school her senior year, left the cush confines of the family home in Yreka, and moved into a punk squat in the garment district in downtown San Francisco.
The squat was twelve people living in a dilapidated Victorian nestled between two buildings. It cost $5 a week to live there, except when the value of the currency suddenly changed and it cost a few bucks more or less. Danielle occupied the little room in the top of the house, which she thought of as a crow's nest, like the lookout point on a ship. It was hot in winter and cold in summer, which made it the perfect space and the best room in the house to have. It was bright and yellow with black words scrawled all over the walls, notes left behind from those who had lived in the room before her.
She started adding onto the wall, notes to herself, only after the baby started showing up. She would write a little something about him in the corner next to the water pipe. Notes like, "Blowing raspberries." "Doesn't know how to blow raspberries yet." "Crawling." "Rolling over." "Crawling."
It was the only measure of how the baby moved back and forth in skills. If she hadn't had those notes with a date next to each entry, she would have thought that she was crazy.
Every time the baby came back into her life, he always had to learn everything all over again.
The first time it happened, Danielle had come home on a Tuesday after her shift at the vegetarian co-op. She had brought home the vegetables she'd rescued from going into the dumpster, and she was going to make a chili for the family-style dinner.
"Hello?" she said, bringing in the green fabric grocery bags. She looked at the face clock on the wall. It was almost six o'clock. "Hello?"
She put the bags down and started pulling out groceries. There was a weird smell. She thought that someone had probably left something in the oven. Either food or some kind of art project. You never knew at the punk house.
She checked, but the burners were off.
There was a note on the fridge that said, "Punk Rock BBQ over at Randy's 5 PM."
That's where everyone was.
Danielle didn't want to go to Randy's. She'd lost her virginity to him a few months earlier and he hadn't treated her right. Like, he didn't call her until six days later, and then when he did, he made out like the whole thing wasn't a big deal, and it was. She had thought that they had had a real connection, that he was her one. He said that he just didn't want the hassle of having a girlfriend and that she was too intense and so she had gotten drunk at a show and swung a beer bottle in his face. And that made things weird in the scene.
She would just make the chili. People would eat it later. They'd be happy for the late night snack.
She was humming along to the music player when she heard it. The crying. At first she thought it was part of the song, and she thought that was a bad choice on behalf of the musicians. But then the wailing continued when the song was over.
It definitely sounded like a baby. She followed the sound. She nearly tripped over the basket, which was on the floor in the mudroom.
There was a baby in it, who was crying.
"Hey there little one," she said. "Hey there, where's your momma?"
The baby cried harder.
Typical of her housemates. Someone was probably at the BBQ and had left their baby at the house because they wanted to party. Dumb kid. She took the basket with her to the liquor store on the corner, which had recently shifted to become a combination liquor store, Babies "R" Us, and florist shop, and bought some diapers and formula.
Later when everyone came home, no one claimed the baby. No one knew anything about it. But everyone loved the chili.
She wanted to ditch the baby, pass him on to someone else. She didn't want to be responsible for him. Babies were hard to take care of.
At school, before she had dropped out, she had failed the whole taking care of a baby exercise. She'd lost the key and the doll just kept crying and crying.
But this child liked her. He was sweet.
Two weeks later, just when she thought she could bear it no more, because taking care of a baby was so hard, the basket was gone and she was free. But instead of being relieved, she felt sad.
She thought maybe it was a dream. Except for the note she had left herself on the yellow wall that proved the baby had been there. It said, "Babies cry. Deal with it."
She locked herself in her little crow's nest room and cried for a whole day.
Six months later, the baby was back.
He was the same age. A tiny little thing. She knew it was the same kid because he had the same constellation of beauty marks that looked like a small dog on his back.
More weird than that, Danielle kind of thought that the baby knew her. As though he were just as happy to be reunited as she was.
Cooed when she lifted him out of his basket.
Curled his little finger around her hand.
It was love at first sight. Again.
The baby was always six months old whenever he arrived at her doorstep. She knew this because she had to take him to a pediatrician once for a rash. She played dumb, said she was the babysitter and didn't know the exact age of the kid, so the doctor had estimated. She was lucky; it was one of those times where the doctors were treating everyone for free with a health card, no questions asked.
When she left the punk house, she was sure that she'd never see the kid again.
But two weeks after she had moved into her first real apartment, he showed up at her door.
That baby followed her wherever she went.
She could not shake the baby in the basket.
Sometimes the baby stayed for only a few days; that wasn't so bad. But sometimes for weeks, or months. It bugged her for a while—she was getting older, going to college, now that you could get in without a GED—but then she came to look forward to their time together.
At first she didn't name him, because she thought that would be weird. But then she started calling him Joe, because that was a regular name.
No one knew about her relationship with the baby. She would tell her roommates, when she had some, that he was a cousin or a nephew. That she was just caring for him while the real parents were away. No one seemed to mind and everyone always applauded her for being such a nice girl.
When Len came over that first night, and they had done it, it was dark and she was drunk and she didn't really see anything. He was a good lay and she enjoyed him. After a couple of weeks, she wanted to mix it up. He was sleeping when she had come out of the shower. He was on his stomach. Danielle pulled the blankets off of him and started kissing his back. She made it all the way down to his lower back when she noticed the beauty marks. They were in the shape of a small dog.
That's how she knew that Len and Joe were the same person.
"What's wrong?" he said. Turning over. He was erect and ready to go.
She wanted to puke.
"I'm not feeling well," she lied.
She didn't want to say to him that she thought she was his part-time mother.
She didn't get the courage up to do him for another month. She kept saying to her girlfriends that she needed to kick him out, but she couldn't explain why she never did. Instead, she always picked up a plate of food for him from the restaurant she worked at, and made sure that he had enough blankets.
The truth was, she couldn't bear to kick him out. Not as a baby and not as a man.
She loved him.
Len never said anything, just kept sleeping on the couch and staying out of her way. He didn't seem to do anything---he had no job, and never left the house--but contributed by being exceptionally handy. Even without proper tools, he knew how to jimmy things in the apartment somehow so the shifts didn't affect them, which made life easier. Sometimes she would come home and see him staring out the window.
"When did they build that building?" he asked.
"When did fire hydrants start being blue instead of red?" he asked.
"When did the city start using wind power?" he asked.
"I just try to go day by day," she said. "As long as everything is pretty much the same, I try not to pay attention to what's different."
Dissatisfied, he'd do what looked like a complicated computation with his fingers and then go back to staring out the window.
She stood next to him and stared, too. Today she noticed that there were fewer streetlamps, more graffiti, shorter buildings, and a dog park on the corner.
By the end of the week, all those things were gone. Because of Len, she couldn't help but begin to notice every little change.
It was getting harder to keep track of the shifts, they were speeding up. Len crashing in her apartment was a constant. She liked that.
"You can stay," Danielle said one night. Len looked away from the window and turned to her. She knew his eyes better than her own.
She went to him and leaned her head on his chest.
As complicated as things were, he was her most favorite person in the world.
And one night, after she'd had a little too much wine with her girlfriends, she slept with him again.
Len understood something once the baby arrived the first time.
Danielle brought the basket into the apartment and asked him to watch over it while she went to get some diapers.
Len looked at the thing and said, "Oh."
Then he got up and went to the bathroom and didn't come out.
"Are you alright?" she asked.
"Do you need anything from the store?" she asked.
"I'm just going to leave the baby on the table, if he cries, just pick him up out of the basket, but be careful, his diaper is full," she said.
When she got back home with the baby supplies, Len was still in the bathroom.
"Come on out, babe," she said.
After an hour, she pressed her ear to the door, wondering if he had climbed out the window. He hadn't, she could hear him moving around in there. She put on some soothing music and rocked Joe to sleep. She fixed herself dinner and left Len a plate in front of the closed door. She went to bed and fell asleep listening in the dark for some sort of noise.
Len came out of the bathroom the next morning. He looked transparent. She could see hints of the objects behind him through his body.
"Is there anything that you want to tell me?" she asked.
"No," he said and then poured himself a cup of coffee. It was difficult to look at him. Eventually she got used to it.
"I thought that time fighting had been banned thirty years ago," she said.
"Sometimes," he said. He rubbed his face with his hands. He looked tired.
"Are you in trouble?" she asked.
"I'm on the lam. And I'm stuck here."
"Do you want to hold the baby?"
"No. I hate that thing," he said. "Keep it away from me."
A week later the baby was gone.
For six years the baby came and went but Len always stayed.
Len never warmed to himself.
He was just as stubborn as a man as he was as in infancy.
He never once changed his own dirty diaper.
He never once gave himself a bath.
He never once fed himself a bottle.
Danielle had the flu and couldn't get up out of bed when the baby arrived. She knew that the baby had come because she could smell the sour diaper, and after half an hour, Joe started to cry.
"Len," she croaked. "You have to get the baby and bring him to me."
Len didn't want to. He was resistant. But eventually he went and brought the baby inside. She thought that he would bring it straight to her, but instead he placed the basket on the coffee table and sat on the couch and stared at it.
From her vantage point on the bed she could see Len looking at the kid. He looked frightened. She didn't like the way he was looking at himself. Then she saw Len put his hands in the basket.
Danielle was afraid that Len was going to strangle himself. She tried to cry out, tell him to stop, but she started coughing. She tried to get up out of the bed, but she was too weak and fell on the floor. She crawled to the doorway in time to see Len pull something out from the basket. Something that she had never seen before. An airmail envelope, with an unblinking eye stamped on the back.
"It has your name on it," he said, then gently helped her to the couch and threw a blanket over her. He could be so tender with her sometimes that it took her breath away.
Danielle carefully opened the envelope and pulled out a folded blue index card.
The card read, "Future France. 114 rue du cherche midi. Knock twice. Code name L'un."
They came right after that in the middle of the night. They were wearing ninja suits and their faces were covered. They were stealth but Joe heard them and started crying.
Danielle pulled the baby to her chest from the bassinette next to the bed. Joe had only been with her for two days this time.
The two figures lifted their guns and trained them onto Len.
"You thought you could hide in the twenty-first century?" one of them, a woman, said. "So pathetic. We've killed you in every time. You'll never get away."
"What is that?" the other masked figure, a man, said, pointing at Joe.
"It's my girlfriend's kid."
Joe was crying so hard that his face was squished and looked like a wrinkled pea.
"Shut that baby up," the man said.
Danielle stuck her finger into Joe's mouth. He quieted down right away. She hoped he would not become a thumb sucker because of it.
"You think you can lay low here like a regular Joe, and play house with a girlfriend and a kid, and elude us?" the woman said.
"You found me," Len said. "This time you found me."
"You'll never make it to forty-five. Never," the woman said.
"This time we got you," the man said. "This time we're going to kill you."
"I'm relieved, really," Len said. "I've been here for six years."
"Screw your revolution," the woman said. "With your death, the times you want are dead from this moment on."
Danielle noticed that the world began to flutter and bend. There was a warble around the two figures. She had seen this before, when she was buying a newspaper from a boy on the corner, but then everything bent and instead, she was standing at a newsstand.
She never talked about it, even to Len, but she knew that these moments must happen whenever there was a shift.
"Time's up," the man said. "Gotta go."
"Goodbye, Danielle," Len said. "Merci beaucoup."
And before the warbling settled, the two shot Len in the head.
Clutching onto the baby, Danielle screamed and screamed.
When the police came, she claimed she had forgotten everything.
They called it traumatic amnesia.
But really, she just suddenly understood everything.
The stealth ninja people would never know that they hadn't completely killed him.
Joe never disappeared again and just like that, Danielle was now the bona fide mother of a growing boy. She tried to do the best she could by him, but the world sucked. There was no food. No money. No green. It was as though the world itself and everyone in it had just given up.
Before, people had projected a more hopeful future. But back then everything always seemed to change. You couldn't trust projections back then. Now Danielle noticed that everything stayed the same.
Her friends would lament about it. They would subtly reference the time shifts that didn't happen any more. But they didn't seem to want to do anything to make things better. No one mentioned the revolution. No one knew where it had gone. No one believed that it existed. She could hardly believe that they were all punks once.
Danielle was convinced that someone must still be out there. Underground. In hiding. Maybe in France. Danielle wanted to get in touch with them, let them know she had their boy. She saved up all her money and took Joe to France, to the address on the blue index card.
It was a construction site next to a twenty-four hour café.
Danielle and Joe ate every meal at the café, including around the clock midnight snacks, the whole week they were there, but she never saw anything or anyone remotely revolutionary go to the site.
They went back to America. Joe treasured his French comic books and preferred soccer to baseball from then on.
The only clue Danielle had to the revolution was its symbol. The unblinking eye.
She started small, running classified ads with the eye in them. Putting posters up around town. Doing everything she could to get someone with authority to contact her.
Over the years people would get in touch with her, and she would set up discreet meetings with them, but it was never anyone from the actual organization. It was always people who were looking to join the Revolution of the Eye but couldn't find it either.
Eventually Danielle knew a whole network of people who all had the same goal: find out where the revolution had gone.
Danielle didn't understand how time fighting worked. But she began to think that maybe the revolution was something that hadn't even started yet. Times were tough and she had to get a second job just to stay afloat, so she gave up on looking for the revolution and decided to wait for it instead.
In the meantime, Danielle proposed to everyone who had contacted her that while they were waiting, they all do what they thought would best help the cause.
Danielle did her part by raising Joe, starting a community garden, and meticulously documenting everything around her so she would notice if there was ever any change.
The night before his nineteenth birthday, Danielle overheard Joe talking with his friends on the balcony. They had come in late from a particularly inspiring Time History course. They were marveling at the possibilities that Time Fighting had caused.
"Professor Monrich says someone must have won. The future must be set now because nothing has changed for years," Joe said.
"I wonder what the future looks like," one of his pals said.
"I bet it looks better than this," Joe said.
Danielle went into her bedroom and opened up the hat box in the closet where she kept mementos from Joe's childhood and Len's time with her. She sifted through until she found the note on the blue index card.
She went back downstairs to Joe and his friends. He was embarrassed that his mother had joined them on the balcony. He wanted her to go away.
"Time is a tricky thing," Danielle said.
"Mom," Joe said, and then made a movement with his arms indicating that she was not welcome and that she should leave.
"I think you're old enough now," she said. "I think you'll make it this time."
She handed him the blue card.
"I don't understand," Joe said.
"I'll buy you a ticket to France for your birthday, Joe. Just go knock on that door and see what happens."
"Just knock on the door? And then what?"
"Win?" Danielle said.
Joe left that summer with his friends for a backpack tour of Europe.
She hoped that he would knock on the door, but she didn't want to push him.
When the farmers' market and solar panels showed up again, she knew that he had.
And Danielle knew that she had been a good mother.