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The chipped wooden door swung open with such gusto that the rusted hinges barely had a chance to squeal. Mel hurriedly stomped the caked-on snow from his work boots and ripped the plaid flannel coat from his shoulders, leaving a dusting of white powder all around him. He was too excited to even notice.

“Kitty Kat!” he screamed from the entranceway as he tore his boots off of his feet and tossed them onto the black rubber floor mat. “Kitty Kat, where are you, baby?”

“Kitchen,” Kat shouted over the running sink water.

“Kitty Kat, oh baby, I got the best news. You ain’t even gonna believe it,” he said as he ran into the kitchen, threw his arms around his wife, and twirled her around not once, but twice.

“Whoa…” she bellowed. “You’re about to make me lose my lunch, Punkin.”

Mel planted a big, wet smooch on his wife’s mouth. He still got a kick out of referring to her as his “wife.” It had nearly been a year since they signed the papers at City Hall, but they were still in that honeymoon phase.

“The best thing happened today, Kitty,” Mel said. “You remember Billy who runs the house painting jobs for us, right?”

She nodded, trying not to head-butt him because he was holding her so closely.

“Welp, Billy went and got himself bronchitis. Ain’t that great?”

“It doesn’t sound too great for Billy,” Kat said. “Is he gonna be okay?”

“He’ll probably be fine, but that ain’t the good part, baby. They put me in charge of managing the crew over at the new Hudson place! That’s an extra five bucks an hour, plus possible bonus. I’m looking to pull fifteen-hundred bucks from this job, maybe more!”

“Oh, Punkin,” Kat swooned as she laid a hard kiss on his lips. “Looks and money. I knew I married right. Baby, we gotta celebrate. I’m gonna cook you up your favorite dinner.”

“Little hotdogs in spaghetti?” he asked excitedly.

“Like there’s any other way to celebrate news like this?”

Mel rubbed the palms of his hands together like a child awaiting an ice cream sundae.

“I just gotta run out and grab a few ingredients,” Kat said.

Mel’s excitement quickly shifted to concern. “Aw, Kitty, snow’s falling pretty heavy now. Looks like a blizzard’s on its way.”

“Oh, don’t you worry about me,” Kat said. “I’ll be no longer than two shakes of a lamb’s tail.” Kat flirtatiously shifted her backside as she walked past Mel.

“Oh, baby, don’t get me started,” Mel said as he slapped her behind.

“Meow,” Kat purred as she turned and gently stroked Mel’s face. “That’s your treat for later, Punkin.”

“Oh, Kitty Kat,” Mel said, nearly falling to the ground. “You hurry on back, now.”

Kat was nearly out the door when Mel yelled to her, “Don’t forget the Schlitz, baby.”

“Is it ever a celebration without some Schlitz, Punkin?” She coyly stared him up and down as she slid the door closed behind her.

#

A fierce gust of wind nearly pushed Kat through the sliding double-doors of Foodway, an eddy of snow following behind her. She let out an unintentional yelp as she entered the store and brushed the snow from her coat. “Evening,” she said to the greasy-haired teenage girl behind the store’s only register.

“We’re closing early tonight on account of the storm,” the girl said as she mindlessly twirled a braid between her fingers. The crooked name tag pinned to her bright blue, store-issued vest identified her as “Thea.”

“I’ll be lickety-split,” Kat replied as she reached for a shopping basket.

Kat found her way to the refrigerated section and picked up her usual store-brand hotdogs. She stopped, put them back on the shelf, and grabbed a package of Ballpark All-Beef Franks instead. Only the best for Mel on such a special occasion. 

Tossing the questionably minced beef tubes into her basket, Kat headed for the pasta aisle, where she pulled a box of spaghetti from the shelf as well as a jar of Ragu. She could hear a gust of wind outside and then the lights flickered. Kat startled and nearly dropped her groceries.

“I gotta lock up now,” the greasy-haired girl shouted from behind the register.

Kat hurried her pace and placed her few items on the conveyor belt. “Oh shoot!” Kat said. “I forgot one thing.”

“Make it quick,” Thea said.

“I ain’t gonna forget your Schlitz, Punkin,” Kat mumbled to herself as she quick-stepped it to the beer aisle. She grabbed a six-pack just as the lights flickered again and then the grocery store suddenly went dark. Kat froze.

After a few seconds, Kat heard a rumbling from behind the building as a generator kicked on and emergency lights irradiated the chipped linoleum floors like an airport runway.

“Hurry on up, now,” Thea called.

Kat opened her mouth to reply, but found herself speechless. Staring back at her from the far end of the aisle was a fuzzy-headed, footsy pajama-wearing baby, nestled into a carrier all by itself. On the ground next to it was a shopping basket filled with a carton of eggs and a gallon of milk. The cracked eggs oozed out through the slots in the shopping basket, the milk tilted on its side.

“Hello?” Kat called out, not really expecting the baby to answer as much as the child’s parent. “Anybody there?”

“I’m here,” Thea called. “Now finish up so we can get home while we still can.”

Kat ignored her and approached the baby slowly, as if it was going to bite her. She squatted down to get a closer look. “Aren’t you just the cutest little thing,” she said. She and Mel talked about having kids one day, and she secretly found herself flipping through the baby magazines in Target on occasion. She estimated this child was about six months old.

“Where’s your momma at, little baby?” Kat asked the infant before realizing the question was inherently sexist. “Or your daddy,” she corrected.

Kat looked up and down the neighboring aisles and realized she was the only one in the store besides Thea. A shiver crawled down her spine and the darkened store certainly didn’t help the creepiness factor. It also suddenly felt very silent. The store must have been piping music through the sound system—the kind you never really pay attention to, but it becomes glaringly absent once it’s off. The whole situation was freaking her out, so Kat grabbed her six-pack of Schiltz in one hand and the baby carrier in the other and high-tailed it to the register.

Thea rang up the beer and looked at the baby. “Didn’t realize we sold those here,” she said in jest, and she added a chuckle for good measure.

“Is there anyone else in the store?” Kat asked, looking concerned.

“Just us, as far as I know. I think someone came in right before you, but I wasn’t really paying attention.”

“Can you make an announcement or something? Someone lost their baby in the beer aisle.”

Thea rolled her eyes and reached for a public address microphone, pressed the button and they both winced as the feedback reverberated through their eardrums. “If anyone lost a baby, please come to the front register.” Thea shrugged and then added, “Thank you.”

They both stood in silence and waited for footsteps or a voice or any indication of someone else in the store, but there was nothing.

“I can call the police,” Thea offered, “but I don’t think they’ll get here too quickly on account of the blizzard and we’re about to get snowed in.”

“It’s okay,” Kat said. “I’ll just take…” she paused, looking down at the baby’s blue blanket. “…him with me and call the police later.”

“Fine by me,” Thea said.

#

Kat tentatively pushed open the front door of her tiny house, her grocery bags wrapped around one arm and the baby carrier around the other.

Mel called out from the family room, noise from a football game rumbling through the television. “‘Bout time, Kitty Kat. I just about figured the storm blew you away.”

Kat said nothing, unsure of how Mel would react to what she found at the grocery store. Instead, she put the bags on the counter and took a deep breath.

“Kitty?” Mel asked as he walked toward the kitchen. He stopped dead in his tracks the second he saw the baby. “Well, shoot,” Mel said. “I knew you been gone a while, but I didn’t realize it had been that long.”

“It ain’t mine, Mel.”

“Uh, oh. I know things are serious when you call me ‘Mel.’”

“The baby was just there. Right at the end of the beer aisle. No parent in sight. And there were groceries on the floor like something freaked this person out so much that they just dropped everything, including their baby, and ran from the store. Something’s going on here, Punkin. Something awful.” Kat appeared a bit shaken up, and Mel noticed. 

“It’s okay, Kitty.” Mel rubbed his hands along Kat’s arms to calm her. “We can take care of the baby for now. What’s its name?”

“I don’t know, Mel.” She sounded on edge. “It ain’t a dog. It’s not wearing a collar. And it’s a ‘he,’ by the way.”

“Now, you don’t know that, Kitty. It’s a new world. We don’t know what this kid’s pronouns are. Could be ‘he,’ ‘it,’ ‘they.’ Heck, could even be ‘she.’ I ain’t one to judge.”

“Very funny,” she said. “I called the police from the car. No one reported a missing baby. I left my number in case anyone does. They said Social Services will reach out on Monday if no one calls sooner.”

Mel thought for a minute before a big smile scrolled across his face, exposing his crooked yellow teeth. “What if we just keep it—er—him?”

“We can’t keep him, Punkin,” Kat said, her nerves abating slightly.

“Look,” he said, grabbing Kat’s arms and leading her into a kitchen chair. Mel sat next to her. “We always talked about having a baby. Sure, this one may not be ours, but maybe it was fate, you know? Maybe we were meant to raise this baby, so the good Lord just dropped him off in the beer aisle for us. Wait,” he stopped, “you got the Schlitz, right?”

“Yes, I got the Schlitz.” Kat bit her lip as she looked down at the cooing child. It almost looked like he was smiling at her. She unbuckled the straps from the carrier and gently pulled the child out. She snuggled him over her shoulder and sniffed his fuzzy, little baby head. She instantly fell in love. “Well, maybe if no one claims him, we can see if we qualify for adoption.”

“There you go, Kitty Kat,” Mel said, leaping to his feet. “There you go. We’re going to be one big happy family. Me, you, and the beer aisle baby!”

“Oh, Punkin, we certainly can’t call him that.”

Mel contemplated for a moment. “How about ‘Oasis,’” Mel offered. 

“What, like the band from the ‘90s?”

“No, like he’s our own little oasis in this world. Something pure and wonderful and magical.”

“Oasis…” Kat thought about it. “It’s perfect.”

“Even better,” Mel interjected. “How about Li’l Oasis?”

“He’s not a rapper, Mel.”

“But he could be. Make Mommy and Daddy some sweet moolah. Or maybe he can be one of those TikTokers,” Mel said before reaching in and tickling the baby’s stomach. “What do you think about that, Li’l Oasis?” The baby babbled and smiled. “See, Kitty Kat, he loves it!”

“All right, Punkin,” Kat said, handing the baby over to Mel. “Let me cook up our dinner. You introduce Li’l Oasis to football, or whatever it is you’re watching in there.”

Kat’s mind was torn in too many directions as she filled a pot with water, and put the beer in the refrigerator. Yes, she always wanted a baby, but she also knew this child wasn’t hers. Someone out there must be worried sick about their missing infant. Unless this was one of those situations where the mother just couldn’t handle the crying, feeding, and sleepless nights so she just left the baby, hoping he would find a good home. She and Mel could provide a good home, right? She just wasn’t sure. She would call the police again in the morning and see if anyone reported a missing child. She thought about the dropped eggs and milk and she felt a knot in her stomach. Everything about this whole thing just seemed wrong and she trembled. 

“Shoot,” Kat shouted. “Punkin, I was just at the store and I didn’t think to get diapers or baby food or anything.”

Silence.

“Punkin?”

No response.

Kat dropped the spaghetti into the boiling water, ran her hands through a towel hanging from the dishwasher handle, and walked toward the family room. “Punkin, did you hear me?”

In the family room, the TV was still on, the remote control was on the couch cushion, Li’l Oasis was sitting in his baby carrier on the floor, and Mel was nowhere to be found.

“Mel, baby, where are you?” Kat checked the bedroom, the bathroom, even the den. There weren’t many rooms in their modest house. She poked her head outside into the snow. “Mel?” she shouted, her voice quivering in fear. 

Kat slid her cell phone from her back pocket and tapped on the contact labeled “Punkin.” She could hear Mel’s muffled ringtone echoing from the family room. She followed the sound, reached in between the couch cushions, and pulled out Mel’s phone. The screen showed a picture of Kat dressed in a sexy feline costume from last Halloween. She ended the call, and nervously tossed Mel’s phone back onto the couch. With her cell, she dialed 9-1-1.

The line was dead.

The same shiver that crawled down her spine in the dimly-lit, empty grocery store found its way back to her, but it was now magnified ten-fold.

“Something ain’t right here, Li’l Oasis. I can’t wait until morning. Come on, we’re going to the police station.” Kat turned off the stove, grabbed her keys in one hand, and the baby carrier in the other.

#

The snow was falling harder now, and Kat worried that her 2010 Toyota Tercel wouldn’t make it all the way to the police station. She felt the back wheels slip as she took a turn a bit too fast. She slowed down, but the nerves were getting the better of her. She anxiously tapped her fingers on her worn steering wheel. There’s no way Mel would have just up and left. It was certainly possible that someone could have snuck into the house without her noticing, but wouldn’t she have heard some sort of struggle? Wouldn’t the baby have cried? Come to think of it, this baby hadn’t cried once. Not completely unheard of, but certainly a bit odd. Maybe she would just wake up tomorrow and find Mel in bed beside her, no baby in their home, and everything set back the way it was. Maybe this was all just a long, strange, vivid dream. 

Kat’s Tercel skidded as it hit an ice patch and plowed into a fluffy snow bank, white powder flying everywhere. Kat screamed as everything went white. This was a mistake, she thought. I should have kept trying the police from home. I was just so freaked out, I had to get out of there. What if whoever took Mel was still in the house?

There were no other cars on the road, but Kat spotted the light from a 7-Eleven across the street. “Well, we can’t stay here and freeze to death. Can we, Li’l Oasis?”

Kat pulled the carrier from the back seat and trudged toward the convenience store. The streets were partially plowed, but the snow on the side of the road was now up to her knees. The wind blew into her face, stabbing her with a million little needles of ice.

She managed to push herself toward the glass doors of the 7-Eleven, fighting against the gusts of wind to pull them open. “Hello?” she called into the empty store. “Anyone here?”

Nothing.

Kat placed the baby carrier down next to her, and brushed the snow from her coat. She rubbed her hands together to try to generate some warmth. “This is not our night, Li’l Oasis.”

She looked down at the baby, and suddenly became alarmed. The infant’s eyes looked bloodshot. “Are you okay, little baby?” she asked as she squatted down close to him. The red in the baby’s eyes deepened, and then focused toward the center of his pupils. A beam of flaming bright crimson shot from the child’s eyes, lifting Kat off the ground. She tried to scream, but was rendered silent. She flailed her arms and legs in the air in a desperate attempt to find solid ground. Her gut began to retch and her muscles became very tight. Her bones ached as if some enormous force was pressing against them like a vice grip.

In a sudden jerking movement, her entire body shrunk down to the size of a peanut and dropped into the open mouth of the patiently waiting child. The baby swallowed and in an instant, Kat was gone.

The infant let out a satisfied burp as a skinny, middle-aged man in a 7-Eleven uniform emerged from the restroom. He stopped as soon as he saw the baby alone in the middle of the store.

“Well, aren’t you just the cutest little thing,” the man said, squatting down to get a closer look. “Where’s your mommy and daddy?” he asked, looking around the store. He checked up and down each aisle, but found no one. He checked the women’s bathroom. Empty. 

He unbuckled the straps of the carrier, and held the child in his arms. 

He instantly fell in love.

July 27, 2020 01:38

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