There were three reasons why I wasn’t allowed to hold the new baby. One was because it was sleeping, two was because my sister said I would drop it, and three was because we didn’t know whose it was. The doorbell had sounded when we were playing optometrist upstairs and it took us several seconds to set down our handmade eye charts and answer it. I stood at the banister like I always did after the doorbell rang and listened attentively to the voice that should have come but didn’t. I suspected the work of ding dong ditchers. But then my sister walked in clutching a Peter Rabbit diaper bag and a baby carrier with a thin blanket draped over it, and I just knew we weren’t going to get to keep playing optometrist. She tried calling our mom at work, but she didn’t answer and we were both too nervous to call the police because neither of us wanted to go to jail for kidnapping babies, even though we hadn’t. A minute later, my sister looked in the baby’s diaper, scrunched up her face and named him Dusty. She said it was such a boy’s name. So, Dusty it was. He had straight black hair and a little cashew mouth. When I asked what things looked like in the diaper, she said: a squished caterpillar.
The thing I was most excited about was showing Dusty to my mom when she got home. My sister said she was going to let me hold him in his blanket when our mom walked through the front door, but I thought it might be better to hold him out by his armpits, hands cupping their pudgy hollows. I’m not sure what effect I thought this would have in comparison to just a regular cradling, but I imagined it’d be great. Something like that scene in The Lion King where Rafiki holds up Simba and Nala’s lion cub for all of the Pride Lands to see. The circle of life. Maybe like a good surprise instead of a bad one.
My mom didn’t usually leave us alone like that while she was at work. Actually, she didn’t. One of our neighbors, Mrs. Sharp, a woman who had worked at the public library for half a century and had the body odor of a steamed carrot, watched us when my mom was gone. But Mrs. Sharp was strange and old, or at least seemed so during our early childhood, and left us unattended for long stretches of time. She insisted on using her own restroom whenever she had to urinate or check her blood sugar levels or redraw the eyebrows that she had accidentally blotted off while wiping the sweat beads from her forehead.
So we were left alone to study Dusty and try to learn all that we could. His left ear is slightly larger than his right. He has the tiniest feet in the world. Little hairs grow on his forehead. His fingernails are the size of fish scales, depending on the fish. When he’s asleep he looks like he’s dead, and so on. Mrs. Sharp was taking her time and it soon seemed that we knew everything about Dusty’s body that there was to know.
The way we played optometrist is that we would take turns replicating one of those vision charts in a spiral-bound notebook and see which one of us could read it all from the furthest away. The loser had to sit on our wooden toy box while the winner got to wear mom’s long white cardigan, pat the loser on the arm and, hardly attempting to conceal a smile, tell them that they were going blind and that there was no cure. My sister won most of the time.
You’ll never drive, she’d say.
So? I never wanted to.
You’ll never be able to swim in the deep end of the pool, either.
I can still walk though.
Not without a cane.
I’ll have one of those dogs that helps blind people then.
But he’ll never love you. Not really.
I had the urge to tell Dusty that I loved him. I stared at his carrier and mouthed the words under my breath. But when he woke up from his nap and began crying, shrieking really, I thought better of it. My sister seemed to know what she was doing. She took an empty bottle from the diaper bag that came with the baby and filled it up with fat free milk from our refrigerator. Even so, the milk was quickly rejected by Dusty whose crying only intensified as either one of us came towards him clutching a rattle in one hand and the cold, flavorless beverage in the other.
He cries more than he breathes. The back of his throat looks like the inside of a clam. He opens and closes his mouth like a suffocating fish. He is fifty percent tears and fifty perfect slobber. His face is so red now that it looks like his head is going to explode.
The longer Dusty was awake, the more anxious we began to feel. My sister was still worried that we would go to prison. I despaired over the dwindling possibility of presenting him to our mom in a way that would somehow be regarded as a pleasant surprise. His diaper was saturated with urine. Mrs. Sharp, whose presence generally went unappreciated by us, was now nowhere to be seen.
When my sister sat at the bottom stair and put on her shoes, I didn’t know if we were thinking the same thing, but I put mine on too. I imagined her, in a desperate move to avoid punishment, doing something that could actually land her in such a situation that she would be deserving of it. Something like throwing the entire baby carrier with Dusty in it into the nearest body of water. Sorry, Dusty, she might say, conjuring optometrist's glee.
I guess we weren’t thinking the same thing though because we just ended up leaving him on a doorstep just like the person before us had. And we didn’t say anything to him as we walked away. No Goodbye Dusty. No goodbye nothing. The porch we left him on was four streets over and was heavily decorated with wind chimes, bird feeders, a variety of handmade dragonfly shrines. And when Mrs. Sharp caught us walking home at the same time that she was returning from her prolonged restroom jaunt, she made sure to scold us indoors, to pull me into the kitchen by my ear and declare that we could have been killed. To tell me that she should grab me by the nape of my neck and skin me alive. To slap my sister on the back of the head and tell her, “You should have known better. Dis-grace-ful.”
For dinner we had bologna sandwiches and potato chips. Mrs. Sharp, when looking to dilute her evening coffee, asked which one of us drank all the milk and why we didn’t save any for her, to which we responded with a silence that Mrs. Sharp likely mistook for idiocy.
Later, when our mom came home and Mrs. Sharp departed, we pretended that it had been an ordinary day. Mrs. Sharp smelled like cottage cheese and broccoli, we said. And she wants us dead. Every day is a boring day, we said. My sister pretended to be fighting off sleep. I don’t want a story tonight. And so our mom turned out the lamp, leaving us dimly illuminated by the conch shell night light.
So, what became of Dusty anyway? He was probably discovered and given a new name. He probably stared at the inside of his blanket for hours before he was found. I have to think he was. Maybe he got stamped and passed on like one of those Where’s George? dollar bills. Or made it all the way to the Canadian border. Maybe he was passed around so many porches that he regained his original name again and nobody ever knew it, not even him. He made something of himself. Yeah. He grew up on porches, had his first kiss on a porch, got drunk for the first time on a porch swing, went to a porch college and became a porch doctor, had porch kids. He wrote a very successful book on the importance of a good porch, a sturdy welcome mat. I bet he is so happy now. He always was. I mean, how couldn’t he have been? Dusty was the happiest baby in the whole wide world.
NICOLE RIVAS is a CSUSB alumni and M.F.A. candidate at The University of Alabama. Her fiction has been featured in Per Contra and Black Heart Magazine and is forthcoming in Kansas City Voices.