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NOT ALL BABIES are created equal.
Some gurgle and coo.
Some demand unconditional affection. These are the ones whose tiny hands are drawn to your fingers like a magnet, and curl around them with a grip like a gorilla.
Then there are those other babies. The very rare, perhaps only encountered-once-or-twice-in-a-lifetime babies; they seem to have been born thinking, calculating, evaluating, making judgments.
These are the babies who stare.
You've seen one. Surely you have. Think back. It might have been on a bus or in a supermarket. A lone, strange child surrounded by adults murmuring the appropriate noises.
What a darling!
She has your eyes!
Such delicate ears! I forgot how small ears can be!
No one, however, will comment on the baby's beautiful smile.
The baby doesn't smile. Not at all.
And the baby doesn't cry. Not at all.
The baby stares.
You stare back, mesmerized by the tiny mind behind the tiny eyes.
Your eyes lock.
You are captivated.
Something is happening between you and this tiny, helpless infant.
The baby holds your eyes for five seconds. Ten seconds. A lifetime.
Then the infant releases your eyes and moves onto something else.
The bond is broken.
Your brain does a double take.
What just happened?
You walk away from the baby carriage. Away from the admiring adults.
But feeling as though you had somehow made contact with an alien life force.
Of such stuff and substance was the baby who lived in the ugly house-for that is what the townspeople called it-just beyond theintersection of Mabel Newton Road and Route 18 in the village of Sojourn.
"SHE'S SO QUIET, that one. Sometimes I don't know if she's alive or if she's gone and died on me."
Words to that effect had been spoken on many occasions in the ugly house by Edith Tuttle, the mother of the infant, whom, from a discreet distance, we have been observing.
After giving birth to this child, Edith occasionally was overheard making off-hand comments that indicated she was at least marginally aware that her new baby was in some respect different-more like a changeling than anything she and her husband, Wilbur, could have been expected to produce.
"Hell, there's so much to do around here, a body's got to make herself heard if she wants to get my attention. Never a peep out of that one, though. I swear, if it weren't for Gabe and Minna, it'd never get fed, never get its diaper changed. Them two fuss over her like they was her ma and pa instead of me."
The "Gabe" in question was Edith Tuttle's youngest son, Gabriel Cotter Tuttle. Gabe was a freckle-faced youngster with hair the color of apricot jam and eyes that crinkled when he liked you-and he liked everybody. Gabe was the kind of a boy who would be likely to carry around a toad in his pocket because he loved animals and to jump off the garage roof because he thought he could fly (he wanted to be an astronaut when he grew up). He had a voice like a golden thread stretched out in the sun, so pure and pretty that it inevitably doomed him to playing the angel whenever Christmas plays were performed.
Minna, his sister, was much plainer. She was the only one of Edith and Wilbur's children who hadn't been given a middle name. Minna was a sweet, nondescript child, tall and lanky for her age. She had long, mousy brown hair, blunt bangs, and a please-like-me smile that should have gone right to the heart of any adult who happened to cross her path, but somehow didn't.
It was Gabriel and Minna who got their sister up in the morning. Dressed her. Fed her. Bathed her. Loved her. Without them, she probably would have starved to death long before she had reached her first birthday. Because of them, she made it. But just barely.
When Edith Tuttle was enthroned against the pillows on her bed in the maternity ward, she had been given a form with an empty slot provided where she was to fill out her newborn's name. Instead, she wrote the words BABY TUTTLE, and told the nurse that she would think of a "real nice name" later.
But she never did.
Sometimes Edith called her "the baby," almost in the same tone that a person would refer to "the refrigerator" or "the mail box."
Sometimes, she would refer to her youngest as "it," as in "did anybody remember to feed it?" or "I'm sure it was in the bedroom before I came downstairs."
Usually, she didn't refer to it at all.
Baby Tuttle was quiet, pensive, and judgmental. She had a habit of linking eyes with a chosen few adults.
And physically, she was precocious.
She was crawling at two months, walking at six, and climbing before she was eight months old.
Wherever she was, she wanted to be someplace else.
She was active without being hyperactive. A small, determined, ambulant universe unto herself opting to endure the ministrations of her brother and sister as if she knew that she had to be fed, clothed, bathed, and groomed in order to be launched.
A moment of docility was the price she was willing to pay for the reward of movement, freedom, self-determination, and escape.
And those who had seen her in action speculated that it was probably this particular characteristic, more than any instinct for survival or unconscious response to danger, that saved her life.
Yes. She did walk, tumble, toddle, or fall out of the ugly house's front door and down the steps to the gravel and dirt driveway.
Yes. She did flee the fire that killed Minna and Gabriel.
But she would have escaped anyway.
With or without the fire.
Because leaving the ugly house was the one ineradicable constant of her existence.
That is all that she had ever wanted to do.
Copyright © 2005 by Shelly Reuben
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