The third time I died was early on a Monday morning, a week after Labor Day.
I was working third shift at the Flatiron Depot on Arapahoe Ave, one of a small chain of twenty-four-hour convenience stores in my hometown of Boulder, Colorado. It was just after three in the morning, and I had spent the last two hours building an elaborate promotional display out of twelve-packs of soda, pushing the boxes in or out to spell the word “Welcome.” I’d used brands of soda that came in black, silver, and gold for the lettering. The whole thing was a not-so-subtle attempt to kiss the asses of the incoming University of Colorado students, who would be stopping in for school supplies and all the weird little objects you find yourself needing whenever you move: box cutters and screwdrivers and lots and lots of chargers for assorted electronic devices. We’ve got it all at the Flatiron Depot, or at least that’s what my boss makes me say when I answer the phone.
I was just standing back to admire my work, hands on my hips, a little sweaty from hauling the twelve-packs around, when I heard two people bickering in the baby aisle.
“Why would I have any idea what brand to get?” a female voice whined. “You think just because I’ve got tits, I know everything about diapers?”
I winced at the florid use of the word “tits” at such high volume, although it wasn’t like there were a lot of minors in the store in the middle of the night. An exasperated male voice replied, “I dunno, let’s just get the generic, then. What size do you think she needs?” Their accents sounded East Coast to me. Tourists, probably.
“She’s what, like a year old? Is there a one-year-old size?” she said, frustrated.
No, there is not. I sighed as I left the soda display and trudged toward the voices. How do you have a one-year-old baby without knowing what size diapers to buy? They were probably used to using cloth diapers or something, I decided.
I was still an aisle away when the male voice said, “Look, it goes by weight. How much does she weigh?”
“Um . . . maybe like twenty-five pounds?”
I rounded an endcap display of neck pillows and saw them: a huge man and a woman about my size, both of them a couple of years younger than my thirty-one. They were huddled around a box of diapers, and sure enough, there was something distinctly non-Boulder about them. If cities were high schoolers, Boulder would sit at the trendy-hippie table in the cafeteria, along with Madison, Berkeley, and Portland. But the people in front of me were dressed in expensive jeans, black leather jackets, and leather boots. The woman’s golden hair was highlighted six ways to Sunday, and the man had a tighter buzz cut than I’d seen since I was discharged from the army. Yes, they definitely looked new to Boulder.
Behind the man’s legs I spotted a baby carrier, the kind that clips into a base that you leave in the car. They’d set it sideways so the baby was facing the wall of diapers too, which I found kind of funny, like they were hoping he or she might recommend a brand.
“Can I help you?” I said, keeping my tone polite.
The couple looked up, both with startled expressions on their faces like I’d conjured myself out of the air. “We’re fine, lady,” the woman said sullenly, at the exact same time as the guy said, “We don’t usually buy diapers, is all . . .”
“No problem,” I said, glancing between them. I was trying to sound sympathetic. My manager, Big Scott, had recently criticized my “approachability,” suggesting that in the last ten months I had begun to give off a “hermit vibe.” “Cloth diapers can be great,” I continued, “but it’s definitely worth it to have a couple of disposables on hand too, for emergencies.” I stepped closer. “Do you know how much your son or daughter—” I automatically glanced down into the baby carrier, and just like that there was a pained roaring in my ears, as though everything in the store had been suddenly sucked into my chest. The baby in the car seat was about a year and a half old, dressed in warm fleece pajamas, and covered with a light cotton swaddling blanket. Uneven tufts of dark brown hair stuck out in funny whorls all over her head, which was crooked to one side, practically resting on her left shoulder. Her eyes were closed, but I knew they would be bright blue.
Just like her mother’s. And just like mine.
“That’s not your baby,” I said almost absently, taking an unconscious step closer. Was I nuts? It can’t be Charlotte, I told myself. That was just stupid. My niece was two miles away, fast asleep at her father’s house. I had to be imagining the resemblance. Lots of babies look alike, don’t they?
But even though it seemed impossible, I knew I was right. I had bought her those pajamas myself, and the swaddling blanket had a purple stain from when my mother had given her grape juice. I remembered myself and stood up straighter, glaring at the couple. “That’s not your baby,” I said, iron in my voice now.
“Of course it is,” the woman insisted. “This is our daughter, Sally.”
“No.” Currents of fear for my niece were racing through my body like rats in a maze with no exit. There was so much space between them and me, and no space at all between them and Charlie. Without realizing it, I had loosened my stance, readying myself for a fight. “Her name is Charlotte Allison Wheaton, and she’s my niece. Turn around and walk away from her. Now.”
They both stared at me with empty, alien eyes. They didn’t look outraged by my kidnapping accusation, or even all that concerned. Instead, they gazed at me with cold, distant curiosity, like I’d just performed an interesting card trick.