You need a clear night, all dead stars and Milky Way. After that, it’s just luck and persistence. At least, that’s what they say on the forums. I’m still waiting for my first sighting. Once a month my sister and I drive to the same viewpoint up the hill from her trailer outside Phoenix. No one ever comes here; no one reads the sun-bleached placards about the Apaches. You can tell because there’re no burger wrappers or coffee cups. Tonight we brought the 50 mm Celestron Travel Scope, a pair of lawn chairs, a six-pack, and some weed. Alma likes to “star stalk” just as much as I do, but more for artistic reasons. It can vary as much as the day sky in shade and hue, she says. Like the ocean: sometimes green, sometimes blue, sometimes black. She’s a painter and her favorite planet is Saturn—its skirt of rocks gliding through the viewfinder. She lights a bowl and the cherry blooms.
“Do you hear that?” she says, blowing smoke.
I do. It sounds like a desert banshee, lost and wailing. A pinprick of light shoots from her phone and we walk towards the cry. There, on the other side of the lot, by the locked bathroom huts, is a baby carrier. Inside, wrapped in a blue blanket, is a baby. Not a ghost or alien, but a baby.
“Mother of hell,” Alma says.
“Parents must be long gone.”
“He would’ve frozen out here.”
The highway below is dark in both directions.
Alma lifts the baby, rocks him. There’s a whiff of baby powder.
“I hate to say it,” I say, “but we should call the police.”
She doesn’t say anything—keeps rocking.
The baby’s cry takes on a droning rhythm, like an air raid siren.
Neither of us has service, so we pack the car. The baby cries and cries but I keep watching the sky, certain that this would have been the night. It’s irrational, but I come out here thinking I’ll see Dad.
Alma drives ten below the speed limit, squinting through the hail of night insects splattering the windshield with their yellow guts. She hates the police. When Alma was nine she saw a man peering in her bedroom window. His eyes were like pools of luminous gas set into the black of his ski mask. Dad thought it was a nightmare but the man’s ladder left little rectangular imprints in the dirt. The officer asked if she’d just gotten out of the shower, what color underwear she wore, did she play in the sprinkler out on the front yard? Dad played it down, but it seemed out of denial rather than to calm her. They never found the guy.
One of my worries is that I won’t be able to record it, when I do finally witness a sighting. Even with a video people insist there must be some earthly explanation—anything to preserve their current cosmology. But they can’t even admit it: that they don’t want to see. The records are more for myself than to prove anything to anyone, so the moment is fixed, like the North Star. That way, I don’t have to rely on memory.
Alma says to me, “Check the seatbelt. Make sure the baby is okay.”
In the police station parking lot we just sit there. Alma grips the steering wheel.
“Can’t do it,” she says. “Bad feeling about it.”
I know better than to point out she’s a little high.
“We can’t,” she says, putting the car in reverse. “They’ll lose him, he’ll end up trafficked or some shit.”
I know she’ll come around, but not tonight and not here. She pulls out onto the street and I count the number of dealerships rolling by. We stop at the edge of a giant parking lot, the glow of a Walmart sign in the distance. Alma sends me in with a list: bottle, diapers, formula, powder, binky, blanket, rattle, whiskey (for her), four different kinds of baby food, and a book for new moms. When I get back to the car the baby is asleep. I lie and say they were out of the book.
Back at her trailer, bat sonar pings off the aluminum walls. Scattered organ pipe cacti turned dark from the night populate the desert in all directions. Inside, it’s cool and dim, smells of Freon. The built-in furniture is covered in florescent light from outside and rows of watercolor-stained cups line the kitchen counter alongside stacks of oil paint tubes and turpentine quarts. On the wall behind the stove hangs a photo of Dad with me and Alma standing in front of a giant fiberglass brontosaurus. I want to ask her about our parents but never know how.
“Have you thought of a name for him?”
“I like Gabriel,” she says.
He’s awake now, quiet, eyes rolling around, searching.
“Do you think Mom was abducted?”
“Here we go.”
“Dad said they both were.”
“Evan,” she pops the lid on sweet potato. “Use your head—let’s say she was. Then what?”
“Use my head? I’m not the one bringing home babies off the street.”
She looks sober now.
Gabriel seems concerned, or confused, on the verge of tears as if somehow, impossibly, the realization is dawning. When something’s hard to believe, it’s easier to ignore. But night bedrooms keep filling with a blinding light. Sometimes I think I have a memory of it myself. Then it’s early morning and a mom lifts her kid from the crib. It looks like her baby, feels like her baby, maybe even smells like her baby, but she knows the truth that this one isn’t hers. What can she do? Maybe she has to leave everything familiar behind, because the familiar is no longer familiar. The real kid is somewhere else, somewhere past the hills, past the desert plain, or even further. A person could spend a lifetime figuring out how to get back there.
Dylan Brown‘s writing has appeared in Hobart, Gulf Coast, Entropy, LA Review of Books, and elsewhere. He’s a graduate of the MFA program at Oregon State University and currently lives in Los Angeles, where he works as a bookseller.