I had a child and then I didn’t.
That was their power, their strength. I didn’t just lose the baby, he was gone.
I combed the house, hoping I might come across formula, a pack of diapers, anything to disprove what I already knew, what I’d already accepted as truth. I took short, hesitant steps into his bedroom. The crib was gone, the Winnie the Pooh mural replaced by the dark blue paint from the previous owner. I then realized that they took his toys. I thought about the electronic monkey, the blocks, the stuffed octopus. That octopus, shit. It was his favorite, always wet to the touch from his slobber, a constant companion. I learned to sew just so I could repair a button eye that had popped out.
I don’t know why, but it’s then that I finally cried, like I was sadder to lose the octopus than to lose my son.
I went to see Nathan first. I couldn’t tell him over the phone, because it felt like too much.
“Annie, what the hell?” he said, answering the door in his boxers, his voice still filtered through a post-sleep croak. He looked good, thinner now that he hadn’t spent nine months joining me every time I craved McDonalds or Junior Mints or full jars of pickles. Standing in his doorway, seeing the way he looked, I instinctively pinched the skin around my stomach. It hadn’t changed. I already knew that when I looked, my C-section scar would still be there, as well. Because it was real, it happened to me.
“We had a baby,” I said.
“We… wait, what? You were pregnant?” Nathan said, shaking his head.
“They took it. We had it and they took it away from us.”
I couldn’t explain more, so I just cried while he held me, stroking my hair, kissing my forehead. Still, Nathan didn’t ask the age, the gender, what the child looked like. He didn’t even ask the name. It didn’t matter to Nathan that we’d named our baby Nathan, that he’d insisted, that it had mattered to him that his son share his name. Now, after the reset, he was sad, of course, but that was mostly because I was hurting, because he was sympathetic, because despite all his faults he did love me. But he didn’t know. There was a distance, it wasn’t his loss.
It wasn’t real for him.
I found the number online. A recording of a woman’s voice—slow, understanding—asked me questions. The voice asked about the birthday and the date of removal, which I expected, but also about everything else. My income, my diet, my politics. What did they do with the information people gave them? Was the government just keeping tabs on them, how many kids they erased? Not that it would do any good, not that you could stop them.
I wanted it to be a real person on the other end, someone who could answer the questions that I had, who could tell me everything the government knew but weren’t telling us, where they came from, why they were taking our children, what they gained from it, how they chose who to take.
But it was automated, so I listened to the recordings and answered the questions dutifully. Only later did I realize that it didn’t matter, I didn’t have to. Yes, technically it was illegal to not report resets, but if I didn’t say anything, the government wouldn’t know, nobody would.
That was the whole point.
I apologized to everyone. I didn’t think I would be the person who would, but I couldn’t help it. Cashiers, people on the bus. I felt like they could tell, that they could see the part of me that was broken, that was lost, that I had to explain. “Sorry,” I kept saying. I’m sorry for inconveniencing you with my pain.
I used to feel embarrassed for the women on TV crying over their removals, the sadness strangling their voices as they tried recalling the details of their lost child’s face so a sketch artist could draw them or telling a sympathetic talk show host about the hole that’s been left in their hearts as if the loss was something given, not taken. I remember one woman who had a daughter she swore was the same as another child who had been erased, that some kind of higher power had transferred souls. Honestly, at the time I didn’t even believe that the woman had experienced a removal at all, that she was faking to get on TV.
And maybe she was, but I see now what it does to you, staying the same while everything around you changes, how it’s relative, how the world’s change becomes the normal, and your inability to keep up becomes the change.
I spent the first eight hours after the reset wandering the city, without anywhere I wanted to be, anywhere I wanted to go. Eventually I decided to eat something. I went to a restaurant I’d never been to, a small diner that didn’t have any memories attached, that I hoped wouldn’t remind me of anything.
As I waited for my sandwich, I realized that my bank account must be different, all the money that had been spent on the baby returned, toys and medicine and doctor visits having been erased. I doubted that the difference was much, though. We learn to spend the money we have, fill in all gaps. I imagined there were things around: a new bag or decorative Le Creuset pieces lining my buffet or cosmetic improvements on the house that hadn’t been there before or first editions of books that I would never read. The spoils of a life without a child who eats up your money and time.
I ate my sandwich quietly, still feeling it—that I was being looked at—so much so that I called my mom, asked if I could stop over, telling her I had to ask her something.
“Is everything okay?” she asked, but I didn’t know how to answer that.
“You saw a doctor?” Mom asked, rinsing and re-rinsing dishes, wiping down her kitchen counter, anything to keep busy, to not have to look at me.
“He did a head to toe,” I said. “But didn’t seem too concerned. Maybe he gets a lot of us in, like it’s routine now.”
“Just think about the doctors and nurses in labor and delivery. That has to be weird, knowing that some of the babies they bring into this world won’t even exist in a few months.”
Mom and I had a way of talking to each other, parallel but never crossing, two separate conversations, mostly tangentially related.
“A grandson, I can’t believe it. Nathan, Nathan, Nathan,” she said, kept saying, like she was trying to conjure the child, speak him into existence.
“Mom, there was something I wanted to ask you.”
She stopped cleaning. “Do you want to stay for dinner?”
“Sure, Mom, but can we talk first?”
She sat across from me, still not looking in my direction. “The doctor said that if someone had a child erased, it was more common for their family to experience it, too. So, I was wondering…”
Mom sighed, deep, exhausted. At that moment she seemed so skinny, like there was just so little of her.
“How old, Mom?” I asked, not wanting to know what I already knew, what I came to hear.
“Four,” she said.
I nodded. “I had Nathan for eight months.”
“No, Annie, not four months. Four years.”
“Four… They took your child after four years? How is that even possible?”
The cut off was almost always under a year, and maybe a few extra months in extreme cases. I’d never heard of a reset after that long.
“Don’t know,” Mom said. “The government didn’t either, they had me come in for interviews, some testing. They thought that maybe the time frame meant something, maybe I had somehow resisted the reset for a long time, that it was a skill to be learned or maybe something in my genetics.”
“Did they find anything?”
“One day they just stopped calling me, so if they did, they didn’t tell me,” she said. “No, I wouldn’t think so. Just an anomaly, an outlier. They let me keep my child a little longer than most, that’s all. Not sure if they were rewarding me or punishing me.”
“You knew him, yes.”
Him. A brother. “How old was I?”
“He was born when you were two, I think? And before you ask, I didn’t see any good in telling my six-year-old daughter that she used to have a brother. I wanted to tell you when you were older, but…”
“No.” she said, defeated. “No, I didn’t.”
“Does Dad know?”
“Because he didn’t need to know either?”
“Because it wasn’t his.”
I could feel phlegm blocking up my throat, stopping me from replying.
“A bartender, unplanned,” Mom continued. “It’s not like your father was the most faithful, either. And anyway, I don’t need to justify it to anyone.”
“But did you let him think it was his? In the other… time, I mean. Before the reset.”
“No, I told your father it was Craig’s baby,” Mom said, a slip of pride pushing the corners of her lips out and up. “I told him the same day I told him that I was leaving him for Craig.”
“Oh. Oh, God. He was my stepdad, wasn’t he?”
“Well, we never officially got married,” Mom said. “But yes.”
“Close? Well, yeah. I mean, he was the only father you ever knew.”
I could see Mom’s ring finger shake, the adrenaline, fight or flight churning in her blood.
“So much time,” I said.
“I was kind of pathetic after the reset, to be honest with you. I went back to the bar where he’d worked, hoping to see him, knowing he wouldn’t recognize me. I was sort of hoping he wouldn’t be there, that he’d gone on to something better. Before the reset, he was in his last year of nursing school. Not exactly his dream career—he was always a little too macho for his own good—but he did it to make good by you and your brother. He did it for our family.”
“Was he there? At the bar, I mean.”
She nodded. “I guess we both got a shit deal out of the whole thing. He just doesn’t know about it.”
Mom seemed to notice the shaking, how it was migrating to the rest of her hands. She put her hands out in front of her eyes, fingers splayed out, her face disappointed, like she was scolding her hands for not being still.
“That’s such a long time, Mom,” I said. “I can’t even imagine adjusting to that.”
She laid her hands on the table, palms down. “It was easier than I would have thought. I had the same job, same apartment. I tried to find differences—the butterfly effect, you know? I looked up everything I could think of, anything I could remember. All the same elected officials, all the same movies had come out and won the same awards. Not that that’s surprising. Why should my life have affected any of that? But then I learned that your Aunt Helen had died the same way.”
“The car accident?”
“Same accident, same day, killed by the same driver. I know we don’t talk much but… she was my sister. How could I have mattered so little?”
She stopped as if wanting an answer no one in the world could possibly give.
“So… what did you do?” I said.
“Do? About what?”
“I don’t know. Everything, I guess. You lost your son and your partner.”
“Didn’t do anything, really. Nothing to do.”
“But I can’t, I need to… everything feels like it went in fast forward and I’m still here, dragging behind.”
“You’ll catch up. Or you won’t. You’ll survive either way. And as for that brick in your chest that I’m sure you’re feeling, you can stay as busy as you want and take classes and go on dates and read more and meditate and get a full eight hours of sleep every night, but it won’t help. That brick will stay until it’s ready to leave.”
I could feel my own hands starting to shake. “Is it our fault? Why did this happen to us?”
She put her hand on mine, firm. “I was a superstitious kid. Counting steps, that kind of thing. Whenever something bad happened I used to always trace the steps back, look at the small decisions that led to it, get mad at myself for making those decisions. Does that make sense?”
“Yeah, I think so. Like, do you remember when I broke my arm falling off the monkey bars in like fourth grade? All I could think about after was that I had jumped with my left foot forward, that if only I had jumped with my right, I wouldn’t have missed the bar, wouldn’t have fallen, wouldn’t have had to wear a cast to Dani Gibbons’ birthday party.”
“Exactly. But now, I can see the web, how dense it is, how unknowable. If you had jumped with your right foot maybe you wouldn’t have broken your arm, but maybe you would have fallen a different way, broke your neck, maybe died. You’ll never know. We can only see things one way.”
We didn’t speak for a moment before Mom let go of my hand and stood up, rocking back and forth to find her ballast like a buoy risen to the surface of the water. “Dinner?”
“I’m not hungry.”
“You will be,” she said, pulling out eggs, beans, green chilis, whatever else she could find and throwing it into a frying pan.
I used to like watching my mom cook, the serenity she found in it, a passion I didn’t inherit. Now she just looked alone.
“Mom,” I asked over the hiss of oil, not sure if she heard me. “Was she better?”
“Was who better?” Mom asked, but I didn’t elaborate, and she didn’t ask for clarification. What I meant was: the other me, the one before the reset. But that was the point, it didn’t matter, nothing changed, we are who we are. The other me made the same mistakes, missed the same lessons.
She was me.
Mom tried to keep up a conversation while we ate. I replied as best I could, but mostly I couldn’t stop thinking about the other me. Mostly, I hoped that maybe the little difference, small choices made, would add up to something, a different path, that out there in some pocket in the fabric of the universe, she was happy, that things turned out differently for her.
On the way home from Mom’s, I stopped at Target, not realizing why until I was already holding the stuffed octopus, finding it on the same shelf, in the same position it had been when I’d bought it for Nathan the first time around. I brought it to the self-checkout, paid for it, leaving the receipt behind so I wouldn’t be tempted to return it.
When I got home, I crawled into bed, already made because this version of me still cared about making a bed, about the way her room looked. I dipped under the covers, held the octopus close to my face. I thought about the woman I’d seen on the news who believed her daughter shared a soul with another child who’d been erased. Could objects be like that too? Is this the same octopus? Did they destroy the original and recreate it or just take the displaced toy, wipe it clean, return it like nothing had happened?
I fell asleep holding the octopus close, trying to believe that it was the same toy, that there was a part of Nathan in it, his scent, a single hair or cell, something left behind, that they couldn’t erase him completely.