In Brimfield Massachusetts, the February days were snowy, and it wasn’t yet warm enough for the spring ice to form. The antiquers and flea market enthusiasts would come in noisy throngs in the summer, but for now there was snow-dampened silence. The sky was rarely seen through the constant heavy cloud cover. No crocuses showed their bright heads through the powdery snow. The world slept in winter, but people did not.
Just out of sight from Wales Road was a trim three-story colonial, and Marilyn McCoy was not asleep. She was preparing to brave the snow flurries for some much-needed groceries.
“Dave, be sure to give the kids the mac and cheese for lunch, try to get them to eat some steamed broccoli, and please clean the living room,” Marilyn said, picking up her wool overcoat off the rack by the door and shrugging into it. “The baby’s milk is in the fridge.” She started running through her usual checks, which she went through every time she left the house.
“Of course, Mrs. Daniels,” said Dave, a part-time nanny and tutor she and her husband Doug had hired to manage their 4 young children. Dave was playing peek-a-boo with baby Doug Jr, while checking little Goldie’s math workbook. She wasn’t going to school yet, but Marilyn and Doug didn’t think the school system did enough early education.
She checked the locks on all the windows and doors, turning the latches three times each and pushing on the windows three times to make sure they were locked. She went to every window on the first floor and did the same thing, then checked the basement door under the stairs and the sliding glass doors to the backyard with the same process. She would check the windows on all three floors before going to bed, but she was comfortable enough just checking the ground floor during the day.
Satisfied, Marilyn grabbed her purse, checked it three times for her wallet and keys. They were there the first time, but it was much faster to just do the ritual than to examine the logic of it. She kissed Goldie and Dougie three times each. “Maddie and Shelly will be home soon, don’t let them watch more than a half an hour of TV please. And don’t—”
“I’ve got this, Mrs. Daniels,” Dave said gently, smiling at her as he put a gold star on Goldie’s work. The little blonde girl squealed and clapped with joy. She grabbed the book and thrust it at Marilyn.
“Gode star, mommy!”
She smiled and bent down to hug Goldie, ignoring the whispering at the back of her mind that said ONE star wasn’t right, it should be THREE. “That’s wonderful, honey. Keep up this good work, and it’s the Ivy Leagues for you.”
Goldie didn’t have any idea what that meant, but she had heard Marilyn say it many times and knew it was good. She beamed, then ran off to the bathroom yelling “Peeee peeeeee! Peee peeeee!"
Marilyn laughed, then smiled at Dave. “I’ll be back in an hour or two.” She headed for the front door, emerging into the bitter cold. Snow flurries blew past her face, getting in her mouth and nose. She turned the key in the lock, one, two, three, and turned the locked door handle, one, two, three. Turning to the car, she took in the weather around her. It seemed that visibility wouldn't be much of a problem; the flurries were light. She got the squeegie from the bucket by the garage and cleaned the windshield, then got into the car.
She picked an 80’s rock station on her phone and warmed up the engine. Simply Red’s “Sunrise” started playing over the car speakers and she turned it up. Pulling out of the driveway, she sang along, “It should be me, it could be me, forever, forever…”
Two songs later, Marilyn was getting concerned. Visibility was getting worse and worse, until all she could see in front of her was her brights reflected off the snow. She flicked them off, and turned the radio off so she could concentrate. She was moving at a snail’s pace. She cursed the Weather Channel for telling her to expect light flurries; this was a full-on Nor’easter. It was longer to go back than to go forward, however, so she forged ahead. She could barely see the lights on Main St.
She had been planning on going to Shaw’s, but Micknuck’s grocery was closer. The winds blew hard, rocking her Volvo to the left, but allowing her to see the sign just up the road. She hadn’t seen anyone else on the road, which she attributed to the townies being much smarter than her. At least, about local weather.
She pulled into the Micknuck parking lot. All the lights were on, which was a good sign. She pushed her door open against the wind with some difficulty, and it slammed shut on her coat. She yanked it open again, cursing, and let it shut again. After locking it three times, she hurried into the store.
The warmth inside was such a relief that Marilyn just stood with her eyes closed for a moment, resting. She opened them and was greeted by cheery light, deli counters, produce and meat. She walked to the deli counter and called “Hello!” expecting that Martin, who usually worked the deli counter on Wednesdays, would call back “Just a minute!” as he usually did.
There was silence.
Shrugging, Marilyn decided to pick out her vegetables first, grabbing a cart. Having done that, she returned to the counter.
“Hello, Martin!” she called.
Marilyn looked around, noticing for the first time that the store seemed completely empty. It was a small store, so it didn’t take long to look around the aisles. No one.
She felt a creepy-crawly sensation in her guts, and realized she was tapping her thigh rhythmically—one two three, one two three—which was one of her many nervous habits. She took a deep breath and yelled, “HELLO!”
Feeling frightened, Marilyn abandoned her grocery cart and was about to flee the store when the thought hit her that someone might be injured, or maybe Martin had had a heart attack or stroke. He was only in his 40s, but her husband Doug had done bypass surgery on many patients who were under 50 so it wasn’t out of the question. Or, she thought as her heart jolted, someone could have a gun to Martin's head and they were just waiting for her to leave.
She crouched behind the counter, making herself small in case there was an intruder still about, and shuffled along the ground to the door that led to back offices and storage. She tried the knob, and it was open. She pushed it gently, wincing at the creak it made.
There was only blackness beyond.
Marilyn stood slowly and reached inside the doorway for the light switch she was sure must be near the door. Her skin crawled, watching her hand disappear into the dark beyond. She steeled her nerves as her hand grasped, until her arm was lost in blackness up to the shoulder.
Her hand found switches, and she flicked them on. The back rooms lit up, and she pushed the door open all the way.
No one in sight.
She heard a small whuffling noise, and then a small grunt. To Marilyn’s ears, it sounded almost like the complaint of an infant. She hurried into the room. “Hello?” she called, and began searching around the attached office when she got no response.
When that shed no light on the current situation, she hurried around a dividing wall where there were rows of shelves and boxes of back stock. She almost ran down the first aisle, turned the corner and began to head down the second when she stopped short.
There was a bundle of blankets nestled in the middle of the aisle, on the floor, right where it could be stepped on. A tiny hand reached above the blankets and grasped at the air.
Marilyn was there in a second, looking down amid the blankets to see a beautiful swaddled infant. It had jet-black hair, big almond eyes, and slightly brown skin. Asian, perhaps. She swept the infant up in her arms. “There, little one, who left you here?” she said, looking around again for anyone. Whoever the irresponsible party was who had left this baby here, they were long gone. She thought of Martin, and figured she’d have a few choice words for him the next time she saw him.
She looked down at the infant, who hadn’t made any noise since she’d turned the lights on. It looked up at her with huge, solemn eyes, and farted.
She laughed, and hushed immediately. The sound was too loud and disconcerting. She began to move, thinking about which authorities would be the best to contact, when she looked down at the baby’s face again. She noticed a slight red mark on its forehead.
“Did baby get a booboo?” she said, and kissed the mark.
The baby seemed to wince, and a third eye opened on its forehead where she’d kissed it.
Marilyn almost dropped the infant.
Unfazed, the little one smiled at her, reached up and touched her face. She heard a very small voice in her head:
“I am for you.”
Marilyn looked at the three eyes. The bottom two were blue, and the top was a soft, lovely gold. She felt her anxiety melt away, as the baby touched her face with both hands. Tears fell from her eyes.
She hugged the infant close to her, put her forehead to its tiny one. The infant stroked her hair and cheeks, with purpose, it seemed.
She pulled gently away, and looked at the beautiful infant in wonder.
“I am for you,” she heard again, although no one was speaking.
“Maybe you are,” Marilyn agreed.
Marilyn opened the door of Micknuck’s, the infant tucked into her overcoat, against the heat of her body. She smiled at the baby, who had closed its third eye for the time being. “I guess I should look for your parents,” she said reluctantly, and she would, but she was almost certain she wouldn’t find them. Just as she was certain she would never have to do anything three times again, or fight her agoraphobia every day for the rest of her life, or worry about a thousand things needlessly and compulsively.
“Doug will love you,” she whispered to the infant, who cooed quietly. “Goldie and Dave and all your siblings will love you. And you won’t cause a bit of trouble, will you?” She smiled at the placid baby, who smiled back. “I have to think of what to call you. And there will probably be legal issues, I’ll have to fight to keep you, but I promise I will protect you no matter what comes, okay?”
“My name is Erlang Shen,” whispered the wind.
“Erlang Shen…that’s very unusual. May I call you Earl?” It occurred to her that she was asking questions to a person not old enough to speak, but it seemed quite natural at this point.
There was a pause, during which she started to think she’d gone off the deep end, but then heard, “It is well.” Then, “It is also very cold.”
“It is,” Marilyn said, and got into her car. The engine started right up, and she drove home with her strange new child bundled on her lap. It occurred to her that she hadn’t gotten any groceries, but she could get them tomorrow. They were well-stocked on diapers and formula, and Earl could sleep in the crib the crib with Doug Jr. until she could get him his own crib.
For the first time, she faced the future, unafraid.
Three days later, Doug returned from his medical conference in California. The house was dark, even though it was late afternoon and all the kids should be home from school. He could hear Dougie in his crib, making soft sounds. He made his way toward the crib, calling out, “I’m home, Mary!”
As he was lifting the baby from the crib, he heard Marilyn behind him, and turned to smile at her. She flipped on the light. She was smiling, but her eyes looked sad. “Where are Dave and the kids?” he asked, and turned to kiss the baby in his arms. He froze.
“What—whose baby is this, Mary?”
“Mine,” she responded quietly. “I’m so sorry, but he’s mine.”
“Wh—” Doug began, but then the baby opened its eyes and looked at him. Then a third eye opened in the middle of its tiny forehead, and Doug was gone.
Earl floated gently back into the crib, where he was now the sole occupant. Marilyn fell to her knees and cried.
“It will be well,” said the voice in her head, and she nodded, but did not believe.
“It will be well,” the voice repeated, “It will be well.”