These days, Tolin looked forward to every morning.
She was always asleep when he woke up, and for those first few gauzy moments of the day he just liked to lay there, propped on one elbow, just observing the way her dark hair fell around her placid face, the soft rise and fall of her chest to the rhythm of her easy breathing, and he’d think about how damn lucky he was.
Somehow, she always sensed his gaze, because invariably minutes after he woke, she would lightly stir and drowsily her eyes would open. Tolin liked to think that the first object that fell into focus each morning was his face. But he suspected that was probably pushing things too far. Still, it was a pleasant thought, nevertheless.
“Mornin’,” he said to his wife. She made a small noise in response, turning over onto her back and stretching, brushing hair out of her face as she yawned and rubbed her eyes.
“Good morning,” she replied, pushing herself to a sitting position. Looking over at him and smiling, she asked, “Pleasant sleep?”
“Of course,” he told her, grinning. The sun was already shining in through the thin curtains, giving the room a washed-out appearance. Moving the bedcovers away from his body, he noticed the immediate temperature difference. Mornings were always chilly around here. That would change soon enough. Still, there was no need to hurry out of bed. The warmth of her closeness was good enough for him.
Smiling shyly back, she turned from him, absently adjusting some of the covers around her legs. Her hair fell forward to cover the side of her face, but it didn’t matter. He could sketch every feature and contour if he needed to.
“You’re always awake before me,” she said. “Don’t you ever sleep?”
“Well, I feel rested . . .” Tolin noted. “And you don’t seem to have any complaints about my . . . alertness.” That last was said with a wicked grin.
She laughed briefly, drawing her knees up and resting her arms on her legs. “No . . . no, I don’t,” she agreed softly. Reaching over to brush his face gently with the tips of her fingers, she added, “And I have to admit, it’s . . . nice. It feels like someone is watching over me. I thought . . . after a few years, you’d’ve gotten . . . you know, tired of it . . .”
“Hey,” Tolin said lightly, “what can I say . . . you still rivet my attention.” Sliding closer to her, he said, “And attention’s always nice, isn’t it?” even as his arm slid around her. Almost automatically she leaned closer to him, her face already turning toward his.
Inwardly, Tolin celebrated, as he did nearly every morning.
This morning, however, the air was split with a baby’s cry.
The two of them broke apart, surprised. The sound was coming from the next room, though distant didn’t seem to diminish the intensity any. His wife gave a sort of embarrassed smile, looking out the door in the direction of the baby’s room. “I guess we were forgetting someone.”
Tolin tossed the covers aside, already slipping out of bed. “Wait here, Jula, I’ll go check on him.”
But Jula was already beginning to join him. “He’s probably hungry.” Now it was her turn for a wicked grin. “And as handy as you are, that’s not something you can really help with.”
“I’ll go bring him to you, then,” Tolin said, having around come around the side of the bed and moved closer to the door. “Wait here, take the time to wake up.”
Jula yawned, and nodding, agreed, sliding back into the bed.
Leaving his wife behind, Tolin went into the baby’s room, which was next to theirs, separated by what sometimes felt like an extremely thin wall. It was a small room, not well-adorned by cozy enough. The baby’s crib sat in one corner and this was where the cries were emanating from. A few wooden toys were scattered about on the floor, as usual, and he had to carefully step around them to avoid breaking his neck. One day he’d straighten them out, but there seemed to be so little time these days. And yet Jula still wanted another child. Tolin wasn’t sure if it was worth trying to talk her out of it or not.
The baby was still crying when Tolin reached the crib. Through the rails he could see little arms and legs kicking. At least the baby was still on his back. He was starting to learn how to turn over and Jula was afraid that he’d do it one night while sleeping and suffocate. Tolin doubted this was going to happen but every time he thought he got her mind off of it, she came back to the subject. What did she want him to do, strap the kid in? That wasn’t likely, although it would be amusing.
“So . . . you hungry there, little fellow?” he asked the crying baby, who was already starting to quiet down. He started to slide his arms under the child in order to pick him up. “You want something to eat?”
“I guess you really are friendlier to things that can’t talk back to you . . .”
Tolin nearly dropped the baby.
Not crying anymore, the child looked up at him with little eyes. Its arms and legs still flopped around with the usual baby movements and it made a small gurgling noise, as if trying to prove to him it was still a baby.
“Excuse me . . .” Tolin said quietly, not sure what he had just heard.
Then the baby’s face scrunched up again and it clearly said, “But don’t take it too personally, it’s not like I’m one to judge people or anything.” Its voice was a high-pitched drawl, as if it couldn’t completely wrap its lips around the words.
And just like that it occurred to him what was happening here. Bastard, he thought viciously, suddenly tempted to drop the baby just to see if he’d feel any of it. “What the hell are you doing?” he seethed, doing his best to keep from shouting.
“Hey the only other thing around was a dog . . . or your woman there . . .”
“You stay away from my wife, you hear me?”
The baby made a burbling sort of giggle. “Heh, like I’d go anywhere near that wasteland.” Its expression turned into a near parody of seriousness. “But you want me out of your hair? Cut the crap and let me get down to business. This isn’t exactly how I want to spend my morning either, you hear?”
“Yeah, okay . . .” Tolin muttered, gently laying the baby back down into the crib. Turning away, one hand still on the crib, another pinching the bridge of his nose to ward off a headache, he said, “What is it, then? What do you want?”
“We’ve got company coming, and you’re elected to head the welcoming committee.”
Tolin turned sharply, eyes narrowing. “What?” he asked. “What do you mean? Who’s coming?”
“Who else?” The baby blew a raspberry. “Turns out the scary stories had some reality behind them, after all. Makes you wonder what other stories from back then were true.”
“I don’t . . . this is . . .” Tolin broke off and leaned on the crib, his face looming over the baby’s, who didn’t seem all that impressed. One tiny hand seemed to wave at him. “How do you know?”
“Ol’ Eyes an’ Ears spotted them coming up the road, and her word’s good enough for me. And before you ask . . . I looked and could only find one of them, even though she said they were moving close together.”
“So that means-“
”That means they’re exactly what we’re afraid they are and that means we’re got to do something. More specifically that means you have to do something.”
“Why me?” Tolin asked evenly. What did he do to deserve this? “And why wasn’t this discussed, we can’t just-“
The baby waved his arms in a rapid, jerky fashion. “Argh, I wish I could reach out and strangle you . . . listen . . . you want to call a damn meeting, go ahead . . . and while we’re all sitting around debating they’ll just burst in and collect us in one swoop . . .” the baby was breathing faster and had turned a pale shade of red. Tolin wondered if it was possible for babies to have heart attacks. It was obviously attempting to shout, but its voice only became higher and more congested. The effect was somewhat comical, if not a little disturbing. “We’re sitting ducks as it is, why don’t just go and make their jobs even easier.”
“But we don’t even know what they want . . .” Tolin ran his hands through his hair, trying to get his thoughts together even to think. It was too damn early to deal with this stuff. And the morning had been going so well, too.
“Well it’s not to shake our hands and bring us cake, I can assure you of that . . .” Tolin hadn’t thought it possible for an infant to sound sarcastic.
“Dammit, I know that but . . .” he ran his hand over the lower portion of his face, found his palms were slick. “What if this is just . . . just an advance guard? What if there’s more . . . waiting for us . . . you know, for us to stick our heads up and then . . .” he smashed one fist into an open palm, letting the gesture speak for itself, not even sure if the baby could see him.
“We’re not saying go set them on fire,” the baby said plainly, sounding vaguely irritated. “We just need someone to watch, okay, and, if necessary, to do something. If necessary.”
“I . . . see,” was all Tolin said.
Trying to bolster his argument, the baby continued, “We may be blowing this all out of proportion . . . maybe they’ll just hang around for five minutes and leave, maybe a little slight of hand will have them looking somewhere else, maybe we’re completely and totally wrong about this. But you know what Tolin, at the moment, we don’t know and that means anything can happen. And yes that includes any number of unpleasant things. But it’s better to panic now and later go `Ha, ha, wasn’t it funny how we overreacted’ than curse ourselves for not paying enough attention. Do you see now? Do you?”
Tolin looked down at the closed fist of one hand as he massaged his wrist with the other hand. He wasn’t looking at all at the cradle. In a quiet voice, he said, “Why me? You didn’t answer that. You didn’t say why me.” His throat was suddenly dry. It wasn’t his observation skills they wanted. With a cold certainty, he knew that.
The baby gave a laugh that sounded more like a weak cough. “Why? Because you’re the closest. Because you’re the fastest. And because if it needs to go bad, well, frankly, wasn’t that your job?”
The infant gave a sputtering laugh again. It sounded like he was choking. Tolin knew it wasn’t. He closed his eyes, massaging the area just above his eyebrows with a finger and a thumb. All this before breakfast. It just wasn’t fair.
“I’ll go,” he said finally. His voice was distantly harsh. “But I don’t want to be out there alone. One of you better be coming as well. You bastards better not be hanging me out to dry.” He knew his voice was rising but he didn’t care to stop it. “Do you understand me? Because if you are I’ll-“
A cooing giggle interrupted his words and he broke off, not bothering to continue. “Damn you people,” he whispered, keeping his fists tightly clenched at his sides. Why this? Why now? This wasn’t the sort of thing he wanted to deal with. Too many things that could go wrong. That’s why they had left to begin with. All the variables weren’t lined up, but nobody wanted to see that. The risks were too great to stick around, given the consequences. And it looks like they had been right. The great change hadn’t come, life had gone on as usual.
But now they were coming. So much for being on their side. Tolin wondered how many other lies they had been fed. Those idiots had accepted all of it. Maybe they had no choice. But chances are they were all dead now.
Maybe he would soon be dead, as well. That thought bothered him a great deal. There was still too much to do, to enjoy.
“Dammit,” he rasped, gritting his teeth in frustration. Now he found himself filled with a irrepressible tension, now that the task had been put before him, he wanted to get it over with as soon as possible. Just leave soon, he silently prayed, although he hadn’t suspected the gods of listening in years. Let this just be a passing thing and life can go back to normal.
Tentative footsteps dropped him out of his malignant reverie. “Tolin . . .” a soft voice called out from the hallway. “I thought I heard you shouting . . .”
“It was nothing . . .” he said, raising his voice. “Go back to bed.” The last thing he needed was to explain himself further.
“Are you sure, you sounded . . . angry, I hope it wasn’t-“ Her shadow curled around the doorframe, as if checking to make sure the way was clear. Tolin found himself staring at it as if the void was some sort of slime.
“Just go, Jula . . . don’t trouble yourself with it . . .” he told her, somehow maintaining a semblance of calm in his voice. I don’t need this now.
“But if there’s a problem . . .” she said, stepping into the doorway, wearing only her nightclothing. The sunlight in the hallway shone on her pale skin.
“Woman, go to bed!” he snarled.
At his words her eyes widened and Jula immediately turned and slammed face-first into the wall opposite the door with a sickening crack that might have been the wood or it might have been her. Slowly she slid to the floor, making no effort to halt her descent, leaving a thin smear of blood trailing erratically down the wall. One hand almost reflexively caressed the wall before curling claw-like as she slumped to the ground and lay there unmoving. The whole time she never made a sound.
Giving her only the barest of glances, Tolin strode out of the baby’s room, his steps light and purposeful. There was too much to worry about now. He liked things simple. Distantly, he hoped the woman wasn’t dead. With all that was going to happen, he didn’t know if he was going to have the time to find another.