BECAUSE HE WAS ASLEEP IN his little car seat, Dahlia saw no harm in leaving the baby in the study where guests were piling their coats on a worn leather couch. Not that it would be a noisy party. Book parties were hardly ever rowdy, and this one—in Somerville, the author a middle-aged fellow named Isaac who wore tartly-ironed button-downs done up all the way to his Adam’s apple—looked to be a pretty sedate affair. Isaac was a friend from Dahlia’s childhood in Iowa.
Once upon a time outside of Ames, they had gotten terribly lost together in a corn maze. Dahlia could still recall the terror that gripped her as she called again and again for Isaac, and he answered, “Dahl, Dahl, I’m right here. I can hear you, but I can’t find you.” This made it funny, in a way, that they had lost touch and then randomly crossed paths running along the Charles, both of them recent transplants to the East Coast.
Kneeling down, Dahlia tucked the car seat between the leather couch and the wall, facing it away from the center of the room. She pulled the canopy and, after retrieving a muslin blanket covered in small blue bunnies from her purse, draped it over the top. She took one final peek. The baby was emitting an almost inaudible whistle while his chest delicately rose and fell. His fine blond lashes were feathered across the skin under his eyes, his cheeks big and slack.
Dahlia and her husband, Elmore, had established certain loose guidelines about the baby: If you were running into a convenience store for a caffeinated beverage and the baby was drowsing, it was ok to leave him in the car, provided it was not too hot; it was also fine to wander a little ways away from the stroller in the supermarket, particularly in the fruit and vegetable section where the aisles tended to be chockablock and one frantic, clumsy move could obliterate a pyramid of citrus. At several dinner parties, they had sequestered him in quiet upstairs bedrooms. The baby was an easy sleeper, and Dahlia, much to her surprise, had developed a weird sixth sense: Whenever the baby grew unsettled, her nose prickled as though she needed to sneeze.
Satisfied that the baby would remain undisturbed, Dahlia went down the short hallway and joined the party. The host, Angie, whom Dahlia had met just once at Isaac’s holiday potluck, had a gorgeous apartment. Her furniture was mid-century, her rugs were boldly graphic. There was a striking juxtaposition of abstract and realistic art on two of the walls. On the third loomed a formidable canvas of a bear. Dahlia studied it and then shuddered. Standing on his hind legs, the bear faced directly forward. His forelegs, which dangled casually and misleadingly at his sides, ended in ten tiny switchblade claws. More of the same shiny blades crowded his mouth. The artist was clearly trying to convey a bear’s magnificent capacity for violence. His eyes, smaller than the nostrils at the end of his prominent stout, were dark brown or even black and fanatically flat. Lusterless. It was disturbing to look at a creature that did not seem to be looking back, a creature that would blindly kill you.
“I see you admiring my grizzly.” Angie handed Dahlia a stemless glass of red wine and a purple cocktail napkin. “She’s the work of an Alaskan painter.”
“Powerful,” Dahlia observed and took a sip of the wine. Almost immediately the flavor bloomed in her mouth. Because she was still nursing, she drank only wine and tried to make a glass last the length of a meal. She liked beer too much to drink it slowly.
“Ever since I saw Lynn’s work twenty years ago, I’ve wanted to own a piece.” She laughed lightly. “By the time I saved up for one, we’d become dear friends.”
“So you’ve spent some time in Alaska?” Dahlia asked, mostly making conversation. Alaska was one of a handful of states she’d never visited. It was one of the first places she and Elmore planned to take the baby when he was a bit older and could appreciate adventure. They often discussed how special it would be to share firsts with him, especially if it was also their first. There weren’t too many places in the United States where this would be true, though, strangely enough, neither she nor Elmore had been to the Grand Canyon either.
“I have,” Angie said. “Just once. While we were there, I was almost eaten by a bear.” She laughed lightly again, though now the lightness of it sounded thin and slightly controlling. “It was a long time ago. I was just a little girl.”
“Oh my goodness,” Dahlia said while simultaneously thinking, Holy shit. She was slowly mastering the motherly art of swearing internally while saying harmless phrases beginning with Oh aloud. “What happened?”
“It’s funny, but I barely remember.” There it was again, that little artificial laugh. Angie didn’t even open her mouth to produce it. “I was four, or almost four. I’m not sure whether my memory is so hazy because I was so young or because the event was so traumatic. You know what they say about trauma…”
Dahlia didn’t, but she nodded anyway. People spoke in peculiar shorthand at certain gatherings. Dahlia wasn’t sure whether Angie really believed Dahlia would know, or whether it was one of those ideas that get very convoluted when you try to put them into words. Dahlia had recently gotten very tangled up trying to explain to Elmore why being a mother was both exhilarating and depressing. Perhaps she should have just said, “You know what they say about motherhood…” before passing the baby like a baton to Elmore and going for a pointless and restorative walk around the neighborhood.
Angie looked expectantly at Dahlia. “Oh my goodness,” Dahlia repeated. “What a terrible, terrifying thing.” She tried to keep herself from glancing at the bear lurking behind Angie, but did not succeed. It seemed ready to lunge at them.
“It was,” Angie said. “We were out for a hike, or a walk—I guess we were more a family of walkers. I don’t think hiking was what it is today. My father was in Anchorage on business. He worked for an oil company.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Dahlia saw Isaac peel away from a scrum of people all dressed in somber colors and drift towards them. She frantically tried to think of something to say about his book, which she hadn’t yet found time to read.
“…because Marmar had just died. She took care of us three or four times a week to give Mother a break. Anchorage was meant to be a holiday for all of us.”
“Angie,” Isaac called out. “Angie, what a splendid party.” He took her drink, set it on top of a bookcase, grabbed both her hands, and kissed her three times: left cheek, right cheek, left again.
“Oh, Isaac,” Angie said, “No one’s more deserving than you.”
“Your book was amazing,” Dahlia said. She tried to move her lips into a genuine smile. She should have used the present tense. Is amazing.
“You’re too kind,” he said, kissing Dahlia once on each cheek. “That means so much.”
Dahlia felt Isaac glance over her shoulder. His eyes returned to her face. Then he did it again.
“Mingle,” Angie said.
“Yes,” Dahlia agreed, though she instinctively felt the sting of being overlooked.
“Well, if you insist,” Isaac said.
“I do,” Angie urged, hip-bumping him. “Go on. We’ll catch up later.”
They watched Isaac beeline for a youthfully handsome man wearing a pink tie with a red shirt. “Yikesy wikesy,” Dahlia accidentally erupted.
“Was I too bossy?” Angie asked. “Isaac and I have known each other a long time. He’s practically a son to me.”
“No. That man’s outfit.” Dahlia tipped her head toward the outlandishly dressed man.
“I wonder who he is,” Angie said. “I know almost none of these people. They’re friends of Isaac. Or friends of friends. He just sent me a list. It’s a bit strange, opening your doors to strangers.” She tittered. “I guess that’s a bit redundant.”
Dahlia found herself staring at Angie for several long moments. The bear was still very much on her mind and she wanted to leapfrog back to the conversation. That was the problem with parties. Random interruptions. But perhaps Angie was thankful for the distractions. “If it’s too painful to talk…”
“No,” Angie interrupted. “The funny thing about this part of the country is that people aren’t interested in bears. Too savage, I guess. No one has asked me about that painting in a long time.”
“Really? But it’s unavoidable.”
“The elephant in the room,” Angie laughed.
“So, you don’t mind telling me?”
“It’s just a story at this point,” Angie said. “If you know what I mean. I was four when it happened. My brother was eight. We’d been given shiny silver whistles on bright red cords to wear around our necks. We were supposed to blow them to scare away bears and also, I suppose, alert our parents if something happened. My parents were walking ahead of us. I was in the middle. My brother, his name is Angus though he went by Gus back then, brought up the rear. That’s what my father always said when he told the story. ‘Gus was bringing up the rear. We should have known better, though, because Gus was such a dawdler. A pile of interesting stones could occupy him for fifteen minutes. Gus always maintained that he didn’t let you out of his sight, but I think he stopped to pick cloudberries. On both sides of the trail were fruit bushes as far as the eye could see.’”
Angie paused and took a sip of her wine. She made a noise as though swishing it through her teeth. “It’s funny,” she continued. “I always imagined that cloudberries grew on very tall messy bushes, like blackberries. My father was incorrect in calling it a bush. It’s actually a low-growing plant, more like a strawberry. The fruit resembles an orange raspberry. When I try to remember what happened, I always picture walking through a tunnel of green; a bear suddenly comes crashing out of the bushes…”
“Like Blueberries for Sal,” Dahlia said.
Angie cocked her head to the right.
“The children’s book. Two mothers—one a bear, the other a human—lose their offspring in a blueberry patch. I read it to my son. The cub and the little boy get mixed up and follow the wrong mothers.”
“I hadn’t thought of that book in years,” Angie said. “I know of it, of course, but we didn’t have it. After the attack, my parents tried to keep any allusion to bears out of my life. Books with bears. Stuffed animals. I didn’t go to a zoo until I was in my twenties.”
Dahlia’s nose prickled and then she sneezed. She wondered if she should check on the baby? Her sixth sense never produced a sneeze, just the feeling of one coming. She groped around in her purse for her phone. “I’m just wondering whether the baby might be waking up,” she said by way of explanation. “Oh, just twenty minutes. He’s probably fine. And I want to hear the end of your story.”
“I need a nibble first.”
Dahlia followed Angie to the dining room table where there was a stylish spread of delicious yet predictable food: melon and prosciutto, stuffed dates, miniature quiches, pimiento olives, baked brie and baguette, a bowl heaped with red and green grapes. A small army of wine and sparkling water bottles stood at one end of the table. At the other was a cake decorated to look exactly like Isaac’s book, The Extraordinary Mundane. Dahlia personally found the title awkward and pretentious, but that was no excuse for not reading the book.
“I’m dying for a bite of that cake,” Angie whispered. “It’s from…” She named a bakery that Dahlia didn’t know. “I had to call in some favors to get it in time for the party.”
“Do you want me to bring Isaac over to cut it?” Dahlia asked, scanning the room for his blue button-down. But she couldn’t seem to find him among the three or four huddles of guests.
“I don’t think so. You know what they say, ‘It’s my party, I can cry if I want to.’ You’ll have a piece too, won’t you?” Angie cut two slices from the top.
Inside, the cake looked like a dress worn by a woman in a Klimt painting, the golden yellow crumb interrupted by lines, rectangles, and ovals of different-colored icing. Dahlia found it extraordinary. She had no idea how such a cake could be made. Angie used the tip of her fork to point to a pocket of something amber-colored. “This is cloudberry cream. I ordered one tiny jar of it from Sweden and asked the bakers to include it.”
Dahlia dipped her pinkie in. “This cake is out of this world.”
Angie smiled. “I don’t quite know how the bakers do it. This is the second cake I’ve bought; the other one was every bit as unusual and delicious, too. The problem with beautiful food is that it’s usually too refined. You can appreciate the technique, but you miss the fact that there’s nothing to sink your teeth into. This cake has both.”
“The bear…” Dahlia said as she caught sight of the painting of the bear through the doorway. She tried not to imagine its claws raking down tender skin.
Angie closed her eyes. Something passed over her face. Then she opened them. “The bear came from… I’m not sure. It’s hard for me to distinguish between what I remember and what my father told me. Maybe they’re one in the same… Anyway, suddenly there was a bear. Probably a grizzly, but we’ll never know for sure. Brown bears may also lose their sense of decorum, especially if there are cubs. I started screaming. Who wouldn’t scream? It turns out this is the worst possible reaction. As is running. You’re supposed to talk calmly to a bear. Establish rapport. State your intentions. If you must leave, back away slowly.
Out of the corner of her eye, Dahlia saw Isaac emerge from the hallway. He stared briefly in their direction, started to raise his hand in greeting, then shook his head and stopped.
“My father said he heard me. Shrieking. Carrying on. You know what it’s like to hear your own baby cry. Torture. This went on for three or four minutes. Then, suddenly, quiet. That was the worst part, my father says. The dead silence. And then my brother started blowing his whistle—bleat, bleat, bleat, bleat—I don’t think my father ever forgave him for this. They assumed we were together and ran right past where I was lying unconscious. The bear had dragged me ten feet off the trail. My shoulders and back were covered in deep gouges. The only thing I did right was to roll onto my stomach and play dead.”
“God,” Dahlia said. “That’s terrifying.” She felt a sneeze coming on, and Achoo! She pinched her nose.
“I can’t decide whether it’s good or bad that the memory feels so distant,” Angie went on. “I really can’t. My father always said I was lucky. Of course, I was lucky to have survived, but I think he meant that I was lucky to mostly not remember.” She rubbed her left earlobe. “But then I’m haunted by the possibility that I suddenly will.”
Dahlia’s nose prickled again. She pressed her hand in front of her mouth and nose just in case. Then she took them away. “I need to go check the baby. I’ll be right back.”
“Of course, of course,” Angie said. “I’ll put aside another sliver of cake for you.”
“You read my mind.” Dahlia turned. “Thank you.”
Angie’s story clung to Dahlia as she made her way down the hall. How odd it must feel to be the protagonist of a story you could not remember. She shrugged her shoulders, trying to loosen the feeling of unease. Near the room where she’d stashed the baby and her raincoat, all was quiet. Good. He was probably still sleeping. The baby looked so perfect when he slept. He was such a sweet big-headed bald baby. He had Dahlia’s thumbs and Elmore’s heart-shaped lips that a friend had declared “obscene” because of the way they dominated his face. Young women even flocked to Elmore, ostensibly to ooh and aah over the baby’s lips. Young men did not flock to Dahlia. She had changed in some way she could not entirely perceive. This was another thing she could not quite put into words.
His little car seat was just where she’d left it—tucked between the leather couch and the wall, facing away from the center of the room. She drew it towards her and began to gently rotate it. She lifted the blanket to peek in. But the baby wasn’t there. Her heart thudded. She couldn’t make sense of what she was seeing. The baby was gone, but the baby couldn’t be gone. There had to be an explanation. He’d just started rolling over, but only from tummy to back. Like many babies, he complained at being on his stomach. It was too much work to hold his almost unnaturally large head on his thin neck, and no one liked lying nose down. Her eyes skipped around the room. She dropped down to the floor and peered under the couch. Nothing. She shoved a pile of coats on to the floor. This was ridiculous. He was barely four months old; he wasn’t playing hide-and-seek. She went to recheck the car seat because what if he was actually there, and the whole thing was the result of a hiccup in her perception. It could happen. She’d had some wine. But he wasn’t there, but he’d been buckled in. She was sure of this. She’d brought the carrier straight from the car. They always buckled him in. They didn’t have to discuss that, didn’t have to make a rule.
She rushed back into living room. “My baby,” she said, but she was out of breath and the words did not come together properly. “My baby,” she said, now a bit louder. What was wrong with her? “The baby…”
Angie rushed to her. “What? The baby? What’s wrong?”
“He’s gone,” Dahlia said. “He’s not where I left him. In the room. With the coats. I left him there.”
“There must be an explanation,” Angie said. “Someone heard him fussing and picked him up.”
Everyone in the room was staring, but no one was holding a baby.
“Where’s Isaac?” Dahlia asked. She couldn’t see him. “Isaac,” Dahlia called.
They went into the kitchen. Bottles crowded the counters. Carrot tips and green tops lay scattered across the island. Someone had dropped a lime-colored parka on the floor. Angie picked it up. Dahlia almost yanked the coat out of her arms. This wasn’t the time to worry about such things. They went back through the living room, where people were murmuring with their elbows pressed to their sides and their wineglasses like weapons. The baby was so small. He could fit in a woman’s handbag, Dahlia blindly followed Angie down the hallway and into the bedroom. But there was no obvious sign of the baby. Look under the bed? Nothing, except a fine layer of dust. A single black sock. Check the closet? How would the baby get into the closet? Unless someone stuffed him there. Dahlia couldn’t entertain this idea. She shoved aside the hanging clothes. She saw nothing, only that the baby was not here.
“Are there other rooms?”
“No,” Angie said, “it’s a one-bedroom.” Something passed across her face. “There’s the bathroom.”
They tried the door, but it was locked. Angie knocked. “There must be an explanation,” she repeated. “There must be. This doesn’t make any sense.”
They seemed to stand at the door so long that Dahlia saw Angie’s lipstick bleed into the tiny lines around her mouth. A crumb of cake clung to her chin.
“The baby has to be here somewhere,” Angie cried.
At the last, the door opened, and a woman came out, smoothing down her hair. Her eyes were red, as though she’d been crying. None of it made sense. “Have you seen my baby?” Dahlia cried. “He’s gone missing.”
“What?” The woman pressed her palm to her mouth.
“He was there.” Dahlia pointed down the hallway. “I left him sleeping there.”
She had woken repeatedly in the first month of the baby’s life convinced that she’d brought him to bed and then fallen asleep. Where’s the baby, she tried to say to her husband, but more often than not, the words were jumbled. Or she thought she saw the baby lying between them, and she went through the motion of trying to unswaddle him, except she couldn’t find the beginning of the blanket, and until she could find the beginning, it was impossible to unwind. When something shook her free from these visions, oh! oh: It’s just a pillow. Then: the sweet relief of remembering he was sleeping safely in his bassinet.
Dahlia misjudged the corner and banged into the wall as she was going to the study to look one last time. Maybe he had been returned. She pictured him lying in a nest of coats on the couch, his legs and arms in perpetual motion like an overturned beetle. She would rub her lips and the tip of her nose against his lightly fuzzed head. He smelled shiny and new, even when milk dribbled into the folds of his neck and soured. (It was nearly impossible to tip the baby’s chin back enough to scrub there.) But the room was just as it had been, except for his car seat flipped over on its side. She didn’t remember leaving it like this.
“Should I call the police?” Angie said.
“What will they do?” Dahlia said. “He’s not here.”
“Well, then someone has accidentally taken him.” She paused. “Or stolen him.”
This enraged her. “How will that help? You don’t even know who’s at this party,” she shouted. “We have to find Isaac. He is the only one who knows.”
But Isaac had still not turned up. Angie went out the front door and called, “Isaac, Isaac,” in case he had snuck out for a cigarette, though no one knew him to be a smoker.
A woman in a pink dress loosened herself from the knot of people in the living room. “Are you sure you brought him here?”
“What? What do you mean?”
The woman tried to smile, but she then thought better of it and scowled. “I just mean, maybe you left him at home, and forgot. He was sleeping. You could have just brought in his seat. They’re not very heavy at this age, and my God, I remember how tired I was. When my daughter was three months old, I fell asleep at the dentist’s. He was drilling a cavity.”
Dahlia wanted to punch her. “He weighs fifteen pounds. His weight has more than doubled since he was born. He’s a very big boy. He eats all the time. He’s probably hungry right now.” Her cell phone was in her purse, which she’d somehow lost. “He must be starving.”
And then, as if on cue, a weak cry came from the kitchen. It was pitiful. Angie and Dahlia rushed in just as Isaac was coming through the door to the deck. He was trying to cradle the baby, but the baby was not cooperating. He was rigid, his arms and legs ramrod straight, his fists contracted into balls as big as walnuts, his head thrown back. “I think he’s hungry,” Isaac said.
Dahlia scooped him up. He felt cold, and he was bright red with his crying. He paused for a second or two and looked at Dahlia, finding her eyes with his, and then he opened his mouth, exposing his toothless gums, and shrieked even louder.
Angie took a step towards Isaac. “Where have you been, Isaac? Dahlia has been frantically looking for her baby. Didn’t you hear us calling.”
“He was crying,” Isaac said. “I thought he needed some air.”
“What?” Dahlia demanded. “You should have asked.”
“You and Angie were so deeply engrossed in conversation. You looked like you were enjoying yourself. I saw no harm.”
It took a moment—the baby was still going off like a fire alarm—for Dahlia to understand that Isaac was saying he had walked by with her baby while she talked to Angie. It seemed impossible. In fact, she was certain she saw Isaac right before she went to check on the baby. It didn’t make sense. She was shaking—with rage? fear? relief? She could not think very clearly. “Shhh,” she cooed. “Time for milka, milka,” she said speaking in their private silly language that was deeply pleasing to her. “Mommy’s going to feed you very very soon.”
A tingle shot through her breast from her armpit to her nipple. “Motherfucker, you should never take someone’s baby without asking them.” The baby screamed. She palmed his head and shushed loudly in his ear.
“I just thought… I don’t know.” Isaac wrung his hands. “I thought I was doing a nice thing.”
“Motherfucker,” she said again.
She went back into the study where all of this had started and gathered her things and awkwardly—for she was carrying the baby in one arm and the car seat and her purse in the other, with the diaper bag hanging diagonally across her body and her coat draped around her neck—made her way to the car. In the back seat, she piled two blankets on her lap and wedged her coat next to her hip, and while she cradled the baby in her left arm, she unhooked her bra with her right, and then, after settling the baby on her lap, she gripped the baby’s head (his ear sometimes got bent back while she was doing this, but it didn’t matter because the cartilage was still soft), pulled him swiftly towards her, and got him latched. The car was cold. She wished she’d switched on the heater and even the radio. It might take the baby fifteen or twenty minutes on each side, though he seemed to be sucking eagerly right then. She thought about the bear, his desperately flat eyes. I almost lost you once, she might tell her son. Back then, Daddy and I would a find a quiet spot for you at parties. You were still so tiny, and you slept all the time. You were a very good baby, very easy and adaptable. She stopped. What would she tell Elmore about the baby’s disappearance? That Isaac had stolen him? That she’d been so engrossed in a conversation about a grizzly bear that she’d failed to notice a stranger—well, not quite, but almost—she hadn’t really known Isaac in a very long time—passing with the baby into the night. It was best, perhaps, to say nothing.
STEPHANIE REENTS is author of the short-story collection The Kissing List, an Editors’ Choice selection in The New York Times Book Review, and I Meant to Kill Ye: Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (forthcoming from Fiction Advocate). Her fiction has appeared in Best of the West, the O. Henry Prize Stories, and many journals. She teaches at College of the Holy Cross and lives in Providence, Rhode Island, with her husband and son.