Zai stood guard outside of the hospital creche, keeping her eye on the hallway that could have stood in for any hospital hallway in any movie she’d ever seen. She hardly knew what to watch for as nurses and techs went from room to room as quietly as they could. Even though it was the middle of the night, no-one had slowed down, they’d only dimmed the lights.
The odd quiet and low light of the maternity ward made her nervous, but she didn’t want to leave Leah’s new baby in the hands of the hospital unsupervised, however willing they seemed to be to care for the little squid.
With one last glance down the hall, she turned and pressed her face to the glass of the viewing window. Leah’s little boy was easy enough to spot, sleeping like a tiny swaddled buritto in his plastic baby bucket.
She smiled to herself, a fond little smile. Where the other babies were had scrunched skin and ugly little faces, he had violet skin - the rich color of darkness and the chasm - and gently twitching tentacles that sprouted from his jaw to curl around his chubby arms and grip at the edges of his blanket.
“Some guard you are.” Leah startled Zai as Georgia wheeled her chair up to the window. Trailing them both, a rather dazed looking Nikki completed the quartet.
“Sorry.” Zai apologized, her gaze returning to the window and the baby beyond. “Have you decided what you’ll name him?”
Nikki spoke up when Leah shook her head. “She was trying to decide between something bog-boring that won’t get him teased, like Henry, and something weird enough to fit his face.”
Georgia tried to hide a smile and said, “Nikki suggested both Taicarilon and Cthuhlu.”
“Really, Nikki, really? You’d saddle a kid with Cthulu?” Zai gave her a look.
Nikki shrugged, her dangly earrings reflecting the green from one of the exit signs, “I was brainstorming. I only said that they share the whole ‘chintacles’ thing, so it would be more or less appropriate.”
“I might go with Zane. With a Z or an X. I haven’t decided.” Leah said, pressing her hand to the glass and staring off into the middle distance.
Never taking her eyes off the baby’s crib - Number #16. It had been a busy night for births - Zai teased Nikki, “The hell did you find Taicarilon? Was it in the glossary of one of your fantasy novels?”
“I made it up, if you must know. I told you, I was brainstorming. If you want something truly weird, go with something old and British.”
They all chuckled quietly at Nikki’s indignation, except for Leah. Zai was the first to notice the ripples in the glass radiating out from where her friend’s hand met the pane.
“Leah. Not here, sweetie.” She wrapped her fingers gingerly around Leah’s wrist and pulled her away, the ripples and tiny spiderweb cracks disappearing the moment her skin left the surface. “They’ll probably let us break protocol for him if we ask. He can sleep right next to your bed. I can bring him.”
“Sorry.” Leah began to cry and Nikki was on her knees next to the wheelchair with tissues as soon as she heard the tears in the apology. “Ask. Zai - ask, please. I don’t want to be this far from him right now.”
Zai nodded at Georgia, sharing a glance, and Georgia slipped away to find the doctor. Placing her hand on the glass beside her, Zai ran her fingers over the pristine surface. “Don’t worry.” She said. “Don’t worry. We’ll tuck squidbaby right into your arms and you can drift off to dreamland holding him.”
“Xavier.” Leah said, laughing as she blew her nose, producing the most unholy noise. “I’ve decided. Not squidbaby, but Xavier.”
Nikki made a small sound of approval. “Xavier.”
Just under 600 words. For my writing group. I promised not to write about aliens.
Shelving books in a corset only worked when it was extra loose. Bitta stood on her tiptoes, breath held, to slide a heavy volume on to the top shelf. There. Dropping back to the floor, she turned and slammed into the young man walking past. Her former armload of books narrowly missed her toes, and he caught her by the elbows before she followed them down.
He released her. “Are you alright?” He wore a threadbare t-shirt that proclaimed ‘It’s dangerous to go alone’ and depicted a kitten in an open palm. “I didn’t mean to run into you.” After an awkward beat, he amended, “Well, I did, but not so literally. I didn’t hurt you did I?”
“No, no I’m fine.” Bitta knelt, unable to bend at the waist, to collect her books. Crouching with considerably less grace, he helped her gather and stack them.
For an awkward minute, they did a bit of silent, coordinated reorganization, retrieving books from the ugly burgundy shag of Madam Lorella’s Bookshop and Burlesque Cafe.
When they finished, Bitta asked, “You were looking for me?” She offered him a wary smile, feeling suddenly vulnerable.
“I-” He took a breath and introduced himself in a rush. “I’m Leo and I saw you at the screening of Blade Runner at the scifi club at the college.” He gasped and finished, “So- um- hello!”
“You followed me to work?”
“I asked your friend where would be best to talk to you?” He made it a question.
“Oh.” Bitta fled behind the register, putting the espresso machine between him and her, and occupied herself tidying. Leo came over to claim a stool and lean, arms crossed, on the countertop.
As he settled, she paused mid-wipe, the counter half covered with crumbs. “She thought here was best?”
“I have no idea. She just said that you work here and if I wandered over on a Thursday, I’d probably get to see you dance.”
“I didn’t want to be a creeper.”
Bitta laughed. “Hands up.” She instructed, gesturing with her cleaning rag.
“I surrender.” He told her, wiggling his fingers in the air and lifting his elbows clear as she scrubbed up a splotch of half-dried jam. His scraggly moustache quirked at her as he smiled hopefully. “Do you want me to order something so I have an excuse to stay and talk with you?”
She tapped her chin in an over-exaggerated ‘thinking’ pose. “Sure. But only because you helped me pick up the books.”
“Then- a cup of coffee.” He passed her change. “I hope none of them - the books - were damaged.”
“Are you actually worried?”
He look surprised that she had to ask. “Of course?” Another question, as if he were uncertain his response was acceptable.
Bitta reassured him. “Bonus points, then. I don’t just work here for the tips.”
He smiled at her. She smiled back.
Sipping his coffee black, he said, “I was too busy looking for you not to run into you. How’s that for mad skills?” He looked like he wanted to ask for milk and sugar but didn’t want to push his luck.
Bitta leaned on the counter and nudged creamer his direction. “I am wearing a corset. Were you expecting me in a corset?”
Grateful, he flashed her another smile. “Well - no. She said you danced on Thursdays.”
“Also Wednesdays. You could stick around and watch?”
“Can I take you for dinner after?”
“We’ll never know unless you try.” Bitta agreed just before she was called away to make a double mocha frappuccino.