In the Before Times (something he always called it in his head but never out loud, at least not since that one time he said it and Doc Wendy looked like she’d take his head off) Henry had never been an early riser. His parents, his bosses, his professors, his coaches, they had all tried all sorts of crazy things to get him somewhere on time before ten o’clock. Alarms that were loud enough to tear a hole in his eardrum. Alarms that required he solve a math problem or a puzzle before they shut up. Cold buckets of water. Nothing ever worked for long. Henry just loved his sleep.
Now, in the…whatever time this was, he hadn’t given it a name, really, but now in this time he was sitting on the front porch of the Holly Biddy watching the dawn creep in. Spring in the mountains meant cool afternoons and freezing nights, and he was bundled up in a couple of sweaters and a blanket and watching as his breath came out in white puffs. The cold he could handle. The early morning, once his most hated enemy, he had come to love.
Because of the quiet.
Sleeping inside, spread across three rooms, were five kids. Two ten-year-olds, an eight, a six, and a three. Turns out, when all other alarms fail, half a softball team’s worth of kids who were all into Competitive Screaming will wake you up real fudging fast.
He was only nineteen when the Blues fudged it all up. Home from his freshman year of college, which, thanks to a combination of exhausting practices and underage drinking, he barely remembered anything of. Baseball scholarship. He’d really thought he’d go pro. Maybe he would have.
Mayby’s, as he often told his kids, were for babies.
They lived in Lakewood, so close to Denver they could hear the roars from the football stadium when the wind was right, so there was really no hiding. Maybe his sister had picked it up at cheer camp. Both his parents worked in the city, it could have been either of them. Or it could have been him, he was always taking the train to see a friend out in Golden. The two-week incubation period meant total anonymity. No blame for anyone.
He’d been one of the lucky. Stupid name, really. He’d had to sit there and watch as the same disease that had given him a fever and a headache for less than a week came back for his family and tore through them like they were made of pipe cleaners and tissue paper.
After it seemed like the whole world was dead and there was no reason to stay in the house and every reason to get out, he began walking around his town. Then the neighboring town. He was in the next town over when he heard what at first sounded like the cries of a small dog riding the wind. But as he walked he realized that it was a human, and it was a baby, and even though he knew nothing about babies or even how he was going to take care of himself, he followed the cries to the front door of Sunshine Daycare, a two story blue building with a yellow door and a huge playground in the back. The front door was unlocked and if the baby wasn’t crying on the second floor he would have run from that place and never stopped, at least until the sight of the dead in that first room was erased from his mind. There were eight dead on the floor, and if you added up the ages of the first seven it would be less than the age of the eighth, and the eighth looked barely out of college.
But the wails of the child were coming down the staircase in front of him and maybe the baby heard him because they seemed to get louder so up he went. The stairs were painted primary colors and the wall next to him painted blue with white clouds and he imagined the desired effect was to feel he was climbing a rainbow. At the top of the stairs he found a closed door. The baby cried behind it. The door said ‘Infants.’ And for the first, only, and last time, Henry thought about leaving Thea behind. He knew what he would find behind that door. The word on the door was plural but he could only hear one crying and he wasn’t sure he could take it, he was surrounded by death, he could smell it everywhere he went, but if just left he wouldn’t have to see it, he could go somewhere, anywhere, else.
The baby wailed and Henry heard his mother telling him to suck it up and he pulled at the handle and pushed open the door and kept his eyes to floor until he found the crib that was making the noise and dared to look. He knew it was a girl because she was wearing a pink jumper. She had dark brown skin and light brown eyes and a mess of black hair and he didn’t know babies but he could tell she was a little too thin but her lungs were still healthy because she was starting to hurt his ears.
“Hey…hey…baby,” he said. “God, I sound like I’m hitting on someone.”
The baby wailed louder. He picked the baby up, hoping maybe all the baby needed was to be held; that usually helped on TV. But the baby just kept crying and crying. For a few seconds he froze, holding a crying baby like he was holding a football, and then, over the shoulder of the baby, he saw a box of diapers sitting on a counter and he realized what he had to do. But he had no idea how to do it and became deathly afraid that he was going to do it wrong and the baby was going to get infected and it would be another dead baby.
There, on the other side of the counter, was a worn and beaten book covered in stains that promised to teach morons how to take care of babies. Desperate and unable to take the baby’s screams anymore, he put her down on the counter and flipped to a chapter that outlined changing a diaper in ridiculously minute steps.
It took him fifteen minutes and he had to go through three different diapers and an entire container of wipes, but by the time he had finished she had stopped wailing. She still made sniffles and was still clearly unhappy but at least he could think again.
He flipped farther through the book and found how to give a baby a bottle. The electricity was still on (it would survive for another three weeks) and he found a bottle in the door of the fridge. He almost stuck it in the microwave before the book told him not to and just fed it to her cold. She killed the bottle and belched and then the baby was asleep in his arms and he didn’t know what to do. That is until he looked around him and realized that at the very least he could get the hell out of there and figure out the next step later.
He realized he’d been watching Birdie walk toward him all this time without really seeing her.
He smiled at her as she climbed the stairs of the porch. “Hey, Bird. Sorry. I was out of it.”
Birdie shrugged. “Haven’t had that first cup yet?”
He chuckled. It had only recently become funny again to joke about coffee. Now that none of them could really remember the taste.
Birdie leaned against the railing. “Kids asleep?”
“For a few more minutes, anyway. What about you? Where’s your shadow?”
She raised any eyebrow. “Is that what people are calling him?”
“I don’t know about people,” Henry said, avoiding the answer. He ran a hand over his face, the rasp over his hair making him shiver. “How’s he doing? Better, I assume, since he isn’t here.”
“He was still sleeping.”
“What if he wakes up?”
“He won’t freak out or anything. He’ll just stay in our room until I come back.”
“Cool, cool. Birdie?”
“Kind of sort of feels like you want something.”
Birdie smiled at him and shuffled her coat around in front of her. The sun was finally coming up behind her and it was warming up fast. The little puffs of breath in front of them were fading to afterthoughts.
“What gave it away?” she asked.
“That it’s six in the morning, my guy. I’m usually the only one up. Well, sometimes I can see Myra up in her window, staring at me, but time doesn’t seem to have any meaning for the woman.”
Birdie crossed the porch and sat down in the rocking chair next to his. “How do you do it?”
“What, wake up at the butt crack of dawn?”
“No.” She gestured toward the house. “Take care of the kids.”
Henry gaped at her before slowly putting a hand over his still open mouth. “Birdie Godzilla Brownhair, are you coming to me for advice on what to do with Z…June?”
“Did you just full name me without knowing my name?”
“I do it all the time with the kids. They think it’s hilarious. And,” he interrupted her with a hand up, “Before you say anything else, I do not have any advice for you.”
“Why not? How? You’re successfully raising five kids-”
“Is that what it looks like from the outside?” He sat back. “That’s kind of a relief, actually. It doesn’t feel that way. Honestly, Birdie, you know what it feels like? It feels like trapped in a house with a bunch of hyperactive kittens. And they’re all balancing on spinning plates. You know, with the music going and everything. But they’re also all running around, somehow, and I constantly have to keep them rounded up and fully cleaned and dressed and get whatever it is they found out of their mouths, and if I even look at them wrong I’m going to fuck them up so bad, for the rest of their life, they’ll need therapy. But, hey, guess what? There aren’t therapists anymore, so, good luck, kids.”
Henry let out a soft giggle before running his fingers through his hair.
“No, it’s okay. I’m okay.”
“I mean…are you?”
Henry looked around at the rest of the Biddies, all quiet and sleeping. Myra in her attic prison. Marietta getting ready to walk the fields. John sleeping off the couple glasses of scotch he thinks no one knows about.
“Are any of us? Whatever level of ‘okay’ everybody else is, I’m there, too. And please, don’t think…I love them, okay? I love all five of them. It physically hurts me sometime, like I actual get some kind of weird ache right here, when I’m trying to sleep I’m just thinking of all the goofy shit they did that day. But…when they piss me off? Or tire me out? All I can think is, ‘I’m twenty-two. I’m supposed to be drunkenly bringing home one night stands, not be the only human standing between five other tiny humans and their ugly deaths.’ Oh, hey, you want advice? Someday, you’re going to want to push him out of a window. Don’t.”
“Any tips on how not to?”
“I find going into a dark closet and screaming into a body pillow very soothing. You just…see, you just hold it horizontal, and you take one end in each hand, like this, and then you…you just wrap it, just wrap it around you head, all the way around.”
Birdie was laughing behind a hand, and Henry could feel the knot between his shoulders relaxing. He’d come too close, that time, to thinking thoughts he’d successfully avoided for three years.
Standing in the crack of the front door, rubbing at his eye, was Liam.
“Good morning, buddy. Are the others awake.”
Liam shrugged the way kids do, bringing up his shoulders all the way to his ears and dropping them so dramatically you’d think the world was ending. Again. Henry gestured for him and Liam padded across the deck in cold feet.
“You’re going to freeze your toes off. Say hi to Birdie.”
“Hi. Where’s Zombie Man?”
Birdie gaped at Liam, and then turned her gaze to Henry.
“Oh, look, a kitten just fell off a plate.”