Illustration: Ansellia Kulikku.

There had been little anxiety when she’d dropped him off for kindergarten. Only if he cried, keened, howled until he threw up. That had happened the first couple days. Then followed a period of relative calm, then national events, then the shelter-in-place drill. Their public school did not tell the children why. After school, he reported that they had filed into Miss Brown’s closet, and that Jo-Lisa and Soraya had won star stickers for being quietest. She nodded, offered a snack, ignored the chill branching from her spine through her shoulders and arms.

Now he was in third grade. Anxiety whispered past her ear each morning. As she walked away from his increasingly perfunctory goodbye hug, she detailed for herself what he’d been wearing: which soft pants, with or without big pockets, which t-shirt. Had he worn a sweatshirt, a windbreaker, some kind of a hat. How long his hair. How dirty. Loose or tied back. He had a red string tied around his wrist. She tucked that information, a snapshot, away in her memory. She had it. The information had multiple potential uses. In case the school called to say one had been lost on a field trip, could she provide a description. In case the police called to say shooting, evacuation, in case they summoned her to identify. Remains, parts, not whole children. She could piece together the parts.

The rest of the day, she did not think of herself as a worrier. She did work of this kind and that. She sold comfortable, affordable clothes to other mothers. Her business had a Facebook page and in-home parties. She made some money. Her husband made more money. She also did the work of the house: laundry, shopping, the invisible, at times satisfying labor of making the house a place in which people could live. Feeding them, clothing them, protecting them from want, disease, and extremes of weather. She wasn’t a worrier. An occasional disaster thought flashed across her mind (car crash, hurricane, fleeing to Canada, car crash with different plot trajectory), giving her a chance to pre-think how she might respond in an emergency. She had thought through shooter situations, armed insurrection, nuclear strike on the West Coast. Other than that, she was calm. She considered herself a calm person. Other parents referred to her as easygoing. None of those parents was her close friend.

But as her watch ticked past 2:45 to 2:50—a nice-sized slice of pie still left in the hour, in her day as not a mother—her pulse began to throb in her throat. Her breath hitched at her collarbones and wouldn’t push past to her lungs. In through the nose, out through her pursed mouth as she’d done in labor, she told herself as she gathered her phone and keys, put on her jacket, and began walking down the street. The anxiety had no rational basis. Repeating this to herself, in an increasingly stern internal tone, did not quell it.

One of these days, she feared her child would walk out of the school and she would not recognize him.

It was, granted, a sea of children, a swarm, rushing floodwaters of children. Boys and girls, every shade of brown and peach, their clothes different colors and patterns, emblazoned with various slogans, their hair long or short, styled or natural. Some were tiny, others big as parents, but most were in his general size range. She ran through the details of the outfit she’d memorized that morning, a mantra of articles of clothing and color names. What if one day she couldn’t see him because he’d taken off his sweater or pulled the elastic from his hair? Or worse, because despite eight years of living with him, she couldn’t pick out his face from a crowd? He’d come up, touch her sleeve, say, “Mom? What are you doing? You were looking right at me.” The longer it took him to bound out the front door, the greater the anxiety grew, till there he came, in the clothes she was expecting, with his huge blue backpack and the face she knew, and she settled down again. She generally sought to be a normal mom, but also a cool mom, on the walk home. Asking questions about his day that he couldn’t answer with a “fine” or a “nothing,” questions he’d have to think about, like what was the funniest thing another kid had said at school, what had he learned about space travel.

As she walked that afternoon to go get him, she saw that the weather had warmed up while she’d been in the house. She hadn’t gone outside since dropping him off. She took off the jacket, knotted the stiff fabric awkwardly around her waist. A girl with beaded braids brushed her shoulder as she skipped past, the beads making a satisfying rustle-thwack as she turned her head to say, “Sorry!” She didn’t see her kid. Many were still streaming out the door. His class hadn’t come out yet; she didn’t see any of his classmates either, and she’d known some of them almost as long as she’d known him. Trying to quell the anxiety with these facts was like trying to reason with a feral cat.

The thing was, she had wished a thousand times for a different child. In moments of crisis, she wished passionately that he could be someone else, someone calmer, or more adaptable, or more like her. She hated herself for these wishes because he was also precious to her beyond reckoning. She had never loved anyone with the kind of fierce, incandescent love she felt for him. Which was no doubt why he had a finger on her rage switch so much of the time.

She had also wished at intervals that they’d never chosen to have a child, looked at the options and said, “No.” She would have had her own boutique by now, selling her own designs, if it were so, instead of spending a frantic few hours packing and mailing mass-produced stuff each day between drop-off and pick-up and the work of the house. As soon as she thought this, each time she thought it, she hurried through prayers to a god she didn’t truly believe in, asking him/her/it not to snatch away the gift he/she/it had so generously bestowed upon her. A gift that could be taken forever by illness, accident, gunmen, fairies. If she believed anything at all about a higher power, it was that he/she/it was vengeful, swift to justice, and without mercy. She kept the red string around his wrist to keep the evil eye away, not fully believing in the evil eye, yet unwilling to state unequivocally that it didn’t exist, lest it prove her wrong.

To the handful of mothers she knew at her son’s school, she dared not voice these concerns. To say, “I hate my child,” to say, “I regret the decision to have children”: statements such as these called down punishment. They would also make other parents dislike and mistrust her, consider her weird, think she was doing a bad job. She wanted to be the easygoing person she was able to act like most of the time. She wanted them to invite her child to do things.

Mrs. Arroyo’s students began to appear: Hector, Isaiah, Claire. She took a deep breath and waited. He always came out with his class, all of them clumped together. Other classes now jostled out too. The clots of children thinned as parents, grandparents, and babysitters snatched theirs out of the flow. Maybe a dozen kids were left out of the five hundred in the school. She didn’t see hers. Her ears started to ring; she tried to calm herself. Now the school door was shut. They were all out.

At the last moment, he might have realized he had to pee or that he’d forgotten his lunchbox in the classroom. Those were reasons why he might still be inside. She continued focused breathing, although it had done little thus far. She said hi to another mom who passed with her three daughters swirling around her, one struggling to control their pit bull puppy as it strained against its leash. When she checked her watch, only a few minutes had passed. Then she saw his backpack.

His blue backpack, a blue water bottle straining out of its mesh side pocket, the tiny stuffed owl dangling from the zipper pull. The outfit she’d clocked that morning. But the child with the backpack on his narrow shoulders did not appear to be her child. She looked again, as if, after eight years with him, she might be mistaken about this. There were the stretchy black pants, gray t-shirt with a tiger on it, black Converse. The worn red string on his left wrist. But this child’s hair was paler than his, a little longer, less frizzy. His nose was . . . different. How do you describe a nose? This child’s had a scattering of freckles. The pants were hitting the backs of his shoes, when this morning she had been sure they almost grazed the ground.

The child felt her looking at him and turned. “Oh, hey, Mom,” he said. “I was wondering where you were.”

He shambled over as kids carrying heavy backpacks do. Eyes brown, but wider, less almond shaped. A maybe pointier shape of chin. Or maybe he had grown since yesterday, so his face looked thinner.

“I didn’t see you.”

“I was right there, behind Ramahi.” He poked a thumb toward the other kid.

She nodded. They began walking toward their, or her, home. “What was your special today?” she asked, since she couldn’t ask who he was.

“Art.”

“What did you make?”

“Kind of a pot. We’re throwing pots.”

“It’s still ceramics?”

He nodded the shaky nod of someone who thought your question was foolish but knew it was impolite to say that. Kind of a pot. Was that something her son would say? He could be a legalist, a nit picker. Kind of a pot was non-specific. But it also sounded like something kids said. She was overthinking this.

They passed the house where the neighbor tended a feral cat colony in her garage. The ammoniac stink of cat urine wafted over the whole block in warmer weather. Now it hung only over that house and the one next door to it. A calico kitten stared at them with big saucer eyes, then ran away.

At home, he looked around as if to take stock of the house, then sat down on a stool at the kitchen counter, pulled a thick packet of math problems and a glittery rainbow pencil out of his backpack, accepted and wolfed down the snack she slid toward him: hummus, mini carrots, milk. He still had his sneakers on. Her son usually, but not always, remembered to take them off. Was his gaze inquisitive? Mocking? Sly? She didn’t know. Children were hard to interpret.

“I put together something like fifty orders today,” she told him.

He nodded, smiled. “That’s great. That’s a really good day.” Gratitude, unease: His interest in her work, like many of his other moods, came and went.

She said, “Thanks. But I’m tired now. Do you mind if I lie down on the couch for a few minutes?”

“Sure, go ahead.”

“You’re okay with your math?”

“I guess so?” When she didn’t do what he wanted or expected her to do, her child at times challenged her, took umbrage. She waited for his outburst, then felt the unspooling ease of its non-arrival.

In the living room, she lay down on the couch and turned toward its high back. At once, one of the cats jumped up and nestled behind her knees. She reached her hand back to pet it and could feel from its thick fur that it was the weirder one. At least she had long pants on if it decided to bite. She didn’t need to sleep, but it was good to rest her eyes and brain. She heard the boy’s pencil scraping laborious answers to the problems, and the cat’s manic purr as it butted its head into her knee pit. It often loved her hard like this until it changed its mind and attacked her.

*

The child continued to sit at the counter while she prepared pasta with red sauce and broccoli for dinner. He completed the homework packet and read twice through a science magazine, glanced up at her every now and then, his face in unreadable repose while he watched her work. When asked, he set out three paper napkins, laid forks on them. Her own son sometimes did this, other times not; she couldn’t predict when or why. She felt glad for the help—glad that this time, he did not seem to expect her to wait on him—then chided herself that there was no “this time,” this was the only time, as this was not her child. This was not her child. She couldn’t point to any one thing and say, “This is the reason, this is how I know.” Yet somehow, the whole child was different, as in a four-color newspaper photo with one color printed off register.

Her husband arrived home as she dumped the pasta into the colander. He said hello, how were their days, asked the child a few questions, which the child answered only semi-convincingly. Her husband looked like his usual, composed self: not “taken aback,” definitely not “aghast with horror.”

He washed his hands, poured glasses of water; they took their seats at the kitchen table like a family. She tried to give him a meaningful glance over dinner, but he wasn’t good at innuendo. He smiled, nodded, asked about percussion lessons and her packages for the day, told them stories about an email mix-up at work and some good feedback he’d received on a project. Did the care with which he chewed, rested his fork against his plate, used his napkin—did these indicate wariness? He was waiting to speak until the boy was out of earshot, she decided.

After dinner, they all cleared the table. This boy, a whisper of an inch taller than her own boy, nevertheless now seemed tall enough or maybe it was mature enough to rinse dishes in the sink, then stack them in the dishwasher. The cleanup took five minutes. Her husband praised his helpfulness; they used specific terms with their son (helpfulness, kindness, caring) to help him know what he’d done right. She did LEGOs on the living room floor with him. She followed the kid’s directions, helped him find small, specific pieces, pried apart a long thin one from the piece it was stuck to. She leaned close to him as they worked, to catch his scent. There was a spice, or school lunch. An underlying, foreign odor. Not a shampoo or a soap, just the smell of a different person.

Soon enough it was time for pajamas, toothbrushing, books, and bed. Her husband supervised the teeth, then crawled into bed beside the boy to continue reading the long novel they’d embarked on. If the boy felt confused by the story, she couldn’t see this from the doorway. He listened with apparent interest. She curled up in the living room armchair with a memoir she was reading, a new one about a woman overcoming adversity. In this case, the author had suffered catastrophic mental illness, abuse, and a series of nervous breakdowns, yet with the encouragement of her partner was now able to write, teach, own a house, care for a dog. She loved these books, she couldn’t say why. She went through one or two a week. The librarian, himself a writer by night, put new ones aside for her when they came in.

A while later, her husband creaked down the stairs. “I almost passed out myself,” he said. “That was a long day.”

She folded a finger into her book. “Did you notice,” she began, then groped for a word. “Did you notice anything?”

He looked her up and down. “Did you do something to your hair? I’m sorry, I didn’t see it.”

“No, not recently. Maybe it’s just dirty. Did you notice anything about our son?”

“He kind of needs a haircut, speaking of.” His expression registered that he saw that wasn’t it. “What?”

“I don’t recognize him.”

“Me, either. He’s getting so big.”

He didn’t see it at all?

“Next thing, we’ll be packing him up for college,” he went on.

He couldn’t be playing her; he tended to be straightforward, aboveboard. He didn’t see it. She had to drop the subject, read, sleep on this. She reopened her book and cracked the spine to hold it flat. She took a deep breath. The calmer cat leapt up to be petted, nuzzled its damp, pointy snout against her palm.

*

Various disturbing dreams about flooding and lost cars woke her at intervals during the night. One time it was the cats’ engagement in a turf battle, another time the weirder cat (victorious), nipping at her ankle under the sheet. The next time she wakened, the sky was light and her watch read 6:30. She felt she was owed another few hours of sleep, not that she could say by whom. The cat sprang off the bed, ready to play now. It compressed like an accordion, shaking with anticipation, its eyes wide. It sprang at a shadow on the bedroom wall. She walked down the creaky stairs, found her husband standing meditatively at the coffee maker as it popped and hissed the final dribbles into the pot. “How’d you sleep?” he asked.

“Not that well,” she said, then added, “not sure why,” as if that were adequate cover, as if she had something to cover, and maybe she did. “You?”

“A little better, actually.” He’d had laproscopic surgery for a knee injury the month before, and at times still woke in the night with stiffness or pain.

“That’s great.”

The strange boy came down the stairs; she heard his feet slip and thump on the loose runner at the bottom. He had fallen, but didn’t complain, unlike her son, whose sensitivity to discomfort might have made him howl, mournfully demand an ice pack. She shivered. When he appeared in the kitchen, obviously unfazed by his stumble, she saw that the pajamas were too small, as had happened before when their son had become ready, overnight, for the next size.

“Hey, buddy,” her husband said. “What would you like for breakfast?”

“Eggs, please.” He sat down at the counter, waited to be served.

“Bacon?”

“No, thank you.”

Her husband beamed up at her while he crouched to take a skillet from the cabinet. “Our good work is paying off,” he said. Though not specifically with this child, she would have countered, had it seemed okay to do so. “A please and a no thank you.”

Their child would ordinarily have said yes to bacon, as anyone would. What she was really thinking about was, who had time to prepare bacon and eggs on a weekday? Not her husband, as a matter of course. On occasion he offered—he liked to do nice things for them—but most of the time was in too much of a rush. She would have directed the child to the late capitalist assortment of cereals available.

In the mornings, their own son dawdled. He would sullenly, or even with a kind of stabbing anger, waste as much time as possible before brushing his teeth and hair, so that by the time he finished his morning routine, there was seldom time left to play. Sometimes this led to a tantrum, others to mere whining or a complaint. The whole thing made no sense to her, this acting against his own best interests. She’d explained it to him time and again. She’d pointed out the flaw in his logic. Though perhaps all he wanted was to make her yell, ruin her morning. If that was his goal, he had a good success rate. They’d made a wall chart listing the things he had to do to get ready in the morning, reminded him to check the chart, praised him for following the chart.

This morning, after eating his eggs and drinking his glass of milk, this boy walked the dirty dishes to the sink, rinsed and dishwashered them again, and tromped upstairs. She packed a sandwich, an apple, and carrot sticks in his canvas lunch bag, emptied and refilled the water bottle from his backpack, checked the outer pocket for permission slips. None. Would they have showed someone else’s name? Whose spiky, uneven handwriting was this on the ill-folded math homework? When she went upstairs, no dillydallying. He had already changed into clothes and was brushing his teeth. She scanned the floor for pajamas, but found them in the hamper. Bubbles of elation fizzed in her chest before she reminded herself that the fairies or the gypsies or God or, who knew, Immigration and Customs Enforcement had stolen her son and left another in his place. Her greatest fear had come to pass. The fairies or the gypsies—was it even supposed to be the gypsies? Weren’t gypsies just Roma people, discriminated against in every country as her own ancestors had been?—had stolen away her broken, difficult, beloved, irreplaceable only child, not under cover of night but under cover of the public school’s negligence. Though in truth, how could they watch over five hundred rowdy children with perfect watchfulness every moment of each school day? She should alert the principal. She should call the police—her son had vanished!—but what could she tell them if the boy’s own father didn’t see it? He had disappeared in broad daylight. In public school! An institution she believed in as passionately as democracy itself!

This boy, this changeling? He had good habits. Did this make him a replacement for her son? Her son, unique and particular in all his magnificence?

While she put her clothes on, she scrutinized the weirder cat as it sat in the open window. Had it suddenly gained weight? Had it been taking more than its share of the dry food? It chattered to itself, scanned the backyard for prey it would never be allowed outdoors to catch. After ten years in captivity, it had likely forgotten how to hunt. The thought filled her with sadness, she couldn’t say why. The cat didn’t know. It harbored its dreams.

*

As they walked to school, she was alert as the cat, watching to see if any of his friends or their parents would recognize him, or recoil. Some kids exchanged hellos in the noncommittal way they did; none called each other by name. Because they were on the early side, few parents were walking back their way. She catalogued his clothes as usual: striped pants, a t-shirt from the nature center, black hoodie, Converse. After she dropped the boy at school, she paused in the tumult. Two girls were running toward the open door, their ponytails swinging in rhythm behind them. Another child carried a clarinet case in one hand and a lemon Danish from the bodega in the other. She took careful nibbles as she walked. Two moms stopped under a shady tree to chat, one cradling a fluffy black dog in her arms. Loneliness overtook her like a sudden gust of wind blowing at her back, lifting her fine hair. Those women were not her friends. Over the summer, her best friend had moved across the country for a teaching job, and only then had she realized how much she’d depended on her companionship. Scanning the parents coming and going, she saw the flannel-shirted back of a dad she liked, riding away on the tandem bicycle he’d used to transport his daughter to school. Her helmet swung from one handlebar. Some of these kids running toward the open door had to know her son, even some she didn’t recognize. But could she ask if they’d seen him? Ask if they’d noticed the change? She didn’t know how.

Instead she went home to check her email, the news, and her Facebook page, wait for her new shipment of clothes. Most days she spent in relative peace until the time came to pick up her son. But now she felt as if she’d drunk an entire pot of coffee: electrical, buzzing with delight, worry, and the self-hatred their combination brought on. She walked around the house without being able to settle down. She gathered some LEGO pieces and reunited them with their kits, returned some stray blocks to their bins, dumped two cars in the car bin and refiled a knight in his correct location, tucked a stuffed owl into the bed she was making. The delivery truck rumbled up early, which was good news, giving her something else to focus on.

In the happy midday light, she ripped open each plastic sleeve, refolded its pair of leggings, draped it over her decorative backdrop, and took a picture, two, three for her Facebook page. The overall pattern, the close-up. Women liked leggings, it turned out. They would not have been offerings if she produced her own line, but they were her biggest sellers.

The school would have called by now if they suspected anything. Her husband—there had been other things he hadn’t noticed over the years, small things, almost stereotypically male things: a new sweater or coat or pair of dish towels. He was observant, but human; things slipped past him. She would not have guessed their own child could be one of them. But he might never notice, she saw. Meanwhile, her hands were shaking; she had to concentrate to take the photos, though this box of clothes seemed to be draining of importance by the minute.

A purple and green geometric print. She couldn’t guess who would wear them.

She missed her son with such intensity. She ached to see the curve of his calves, smell the little-boy milk smell he exuded while sleeping. He might never come home again. Was this the worst thing she could imagine? She wasn’t sure. Her answer was complex. Knowing this about herself filled her with shame.

She dropped her phone on top of the ugly leggings, ran up the creaking stairs to his room, and nestled into his bed. She curled the stuffed owl in toward her chest. When she inhaled, she smelled the faint smell of the other child, and the chemical odor of unscented laundry detergent. Nothing more. He was gone. Was it all bad, if he never came home again?

She lay there until she couldn’t smell even those things anymore. The sun shifted toward the front of the house. Then she went back to folding and photographing leggings, liking some more than others and none very much, missing her son, dreading the moment when she’d have to go pick the changeling up, wondering what more she’d come to know about him in the days and weeks ahead.

*

You used the word “stolen” when you described our actions re: children, re: your specific child. This means there is something you didn’t understand. Did you use the word theft? Stolen, theft: strong words. Theft implies the inevitability, the inviolability of ownership. It implies that a thing can truly belong to a person. Theft: The idea that a commodity can be the chattel property of one rightful owner, that another, who asserts her right to it under a different code of law, cannot claim it as her own. Do you mean to assert that your child is a thing? We didn’t think so.

Theft implies taking something without giving anything back. (To take one thing and give another, barter. To take a thing in exchange for money, commerce.) We have stolen nothing, though we have replaced something that was not working with something that, we believe you will agree, is. This is our methodology.

You could think of it as liberation, emancipation, redistribution, or tipping the scales of justice. We would call it making things right, or at the very least, making things better.

You also don’t seem to understand who we are. But we can let that go.

Look. Everyone is sentimental about children, we as well as you. We see their soft cheeks, mouths lax with wonder, lips bitten in concentration. We see our loneliness in them. We see our fragility, our innocence, our once buoyant laughter, our hurt. We see lost time. We see our life after death, and the afterlife of the departed we still love. Perhaps it’s that to which we grow so attached. Or that above all. That and a glimmer in the eye, an idiosyncratic gesture, a scent. But it is ludicrous to think one’s own dear child’s soft cheeks are dearer, softer than some other child’s. If, when you prayed and prayed to the god you mostly don’t believe in for a child, that god had answered your prayer by leaving a baby on your doorstep, would you have loved that child less than the one to whom you ultimately gave birth? Would you?

Your individual best beloved deserves the same chance as any other person: a very good chance. Your individual best beloved deserves to be loved in totality. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps you can bestow a better chance, the best possible chance, elsewhere.

This is not, at any rate, yours to judge. We decree that it is ours.

Emily Barton

Emily Barton is the author of Brookland, The Testament of Yves Gundron, and The Book of Esther. The latter two were both selected as New York Times Notable Books of the Year. She has received grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Sustainable Arts Foundation. Her essays, short stories, and reviews have appeared in Story, Conjunctions, The Massachusetts Review, Tablet, The Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times Book Review, among many other publications. She teaches writing at Oberlin.

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