The basement felt warmer than the garage. Down the Kagwa boys went. The basement sat as one grand open plane. In the far corner stood the boiler—a large white cylinder with a blue control panel, copper pipes running up into the ceiling and a silver tube running outside through the wall. It looked like something from the set of James Whale’s Frankenstein. The boiler rumbled now as if reanimating life.

In the opposite corner sat the washing machine and the dryer, and beside the two machines lay cleaning materials, shovels and rakes, and paint cans showing rust. The third corner of the basement was cluttered with children’s toys that had been sitting down here for a decade or four. Plastic dolls gone nearly gray and their dresses threadbare. Toy trucks overturned or dismantled. Teddy Ruxpin looked like he’d died in hibernation.

In the corner closest to the basement steps lay seven cardboard boxes. Maybe the garage had been too full to accommodate them. Apollo went down on one knee. He sniffed his son’s head. Didn’t even realize he’d done it until the smell made him smile. A moment later Brian wriggled and squirmed.

The fluffy blanket came out of the diaper bag. Apollo spread it out right beside the boxes of books. He set Brian down on his stomach, and the boy lay there, eyes wide, opening and closing his mouth, small gasps trickling out. Brian’s feet wriggled, and his hands swam over the blanket. In a moment he set his hands out flat and with a push he raised his head.

“Tummy time!” Apollo shouted, as if Brian had just successfully pi­loted an airplane.

A moment later Brian dropped his head back down onto the blanket. Apollo rolled him onto his back, and the baby looked up at the boards of the ceiling. Apollo left him to it and scooted forward to the first of the cardboard boxes. As he opened the flaps, he looked back at Brian.

“My father, your grandfather, disappeared when I was four years old. I used to have a nightmare about him leaving. His name was Brian West. We named you after him.”

Brian wriggled his head from side to side and threw his hands out wide.

“I didn’t hear anything about him, nothing from him, until I turned twelve years old. Then, out of nowhere, he left a box at my front door. It had the tickets to the movie he and Grandma saw on their first date. The headshot of the woman who testified against the shady businessman Grandma worked for. The thing was like a time capsule.”

Brian lifted his chubby legs, then dropped them back down. He rocked his body slightly and looked like that turtle once more, trapped on its back and trying to turn over.

“I always wondered why he did it. Why’d he leave the box and then disappear again?”

Apollo helped roll Brian back onto his belly.

“Now that you’re in my life, I understand. He wanted me to know how much we’d meant to him. He didn’t want me to go my whole life thinking we just didn’t matter. I don’t know what kind of situation he was in at the time, I don’t even know if the man is still alive, but I don’t think he could have been all that different from me. And I’m so happy with you already, little man. If I was trapped on Saturn, I’d still find a way to send a message and let you know you were loved.”

Apollo stopped moving, even breathing, and watched his baby boy labor to his lift his head. This small act, working to develop the muscles of his neck, would someday lead to sitting up, crawling, stumbling, sprinting. All that began here and now, in this basement of a Riverdale home. Apollo felt so fortunate to witness it. With the baby only two months old, Apollo was a mess of raw nerves. He got back to work just to keep from crying.

The books in the first box were worthless, so Apollo moved on to the second. The second box had as little to offer as the first. The third box, too.

“Brian left a book behind. A children’s book that he used to read to me. It’s called Outside Over There. I know it from memory by now.”

The fourth box had nothing good in it and neither did the fifth. Brian’s head lowered, the muscles exhausted, so Apollo turned him over again. The baby whimpered there on his back, so Apollo came closer to check him. After pulling off socks and shoes and pants, undoing the snaps on the onesie, he found the cause. As he changed Brian’s diaper, he spoke to his son again.

“‘When Papa was away at sea,’” Apollo recited. “That’s how the book begins. That’s the first page. Papa is gone and Mama sits out in an arbor. I had no idea what an arbor was. It’s basically a small wooden structure people put out in their gardens, like a trellis. They sit on a bench under­neath the arbor. So dad is far away and mom is outside in the garden.”

He wrapped the boy back up, slipped the piss diaper into the special pouch provided in the diaper bag, and put away the wipes and the tube of coconut oil.

“But inside the house there’s a little girl named Ida. She’s very young, but she’s left to take care of her baby sister all on her own. She plays a horn for the baby to try and help it sleep. But she’s looking out the window while she makes music. She’s in the same room, but even she’s not watch­ing the baby. And that’s when the goblins sneak in.”

Brian fell asleep. Apollo scooted backward quietly. Two more boxes to go. When he opened the sixth, a cloud of fungus funk entered the air. Every book in this one, all hardcovers, showed black spots on the endpa­pers. Worthless. Ruined. Only one box left.

Brian sighed in his slumber. It looked like contentedness, comfort. The seventh box could wait. Apollo took out his phone. Emma would want to see Brian like this, the holy vulnerability of their sleeping infant. He snapped eleven pictures and sent all of them to Emma’s phone, even the blurry ones. He couldn’t bear to erase even those. Then he went on Facebook and posted all eleven again. Lillian joined Facebook the day Brian was born, and she always wanted more images of the kid. This is how he justified what he did even as he knew what kind of parent he’d become, the kind that used to make him gag as recently as two months ago. The ones who blithely assumed their online friends were gluttons for punishment. Here’s my baby lying on his back! And here’s my baby also lying on his back! And how about this one: blurry baby on his back! Good God, the vanity of it all, the epic self-centeredness. He knew all this, and still he uploaded eleven pictures of Brian. Decorum be damned, he was in love. Then he hit “post.”

While Brian slept, Apollo turned back to the last box in the basement. He decided he’d go slow with this one. At the very least it would save him from checking too quickly for likes on all Brian’s photos.

Excerpted from The Changeling by Victor LaValle. Copyright 2017 by Victor LaValle. Published in June by Spiegel & Grau. All rights reserved.

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