The Vale

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It was still dark the next morning when the alarm went off. He turned it off diligently and pulled on some clean clothes. His jeans were a little worn at the knee, and he wondered if they were due for another delivery of clothes today. He’d find out. Deliveries came after the newspapers, but since there was no school today, his brothers would probably try to sleep through it. He crept down the hallway in his socks, past his brothers’ rooms, and past dad’s wide open door. Dad rarely slept in his bed these days, preferring to fall asleep on the sofa in the living room, his feet up on the coffee table and arms folded over his chest, watching old movies on the TV set in their tiny living room. After the daily broadcast, Dad would always switch the channel to old black and white westerns, with cowboys fighting indians, or war movies where soldiers would perform daring deeds like blowing up bridges to prevent enemies from infiltrating the land, or treasure hunters, searching for dangerous artifacts in booby trapped temples. Cole liked the movies, but he still felt like something was missing, just like he felt with the old storybooks, like a piece of the story had been taken out. An important one. As Cole slipped down the stairs, he could see the soft blue glow of the TV set, and hear the soft Hrrr of static, since the broadcast day had ended hours ago, and the next one didn’t start until seven with the morning weather report. Cole didn’t know why they bothered to report the weather. Inside the walls of the city, it was just grey clouds, day in day out. Sometimes it rained. Outside the walls, fierce winds and hurricanes blew constantly, so Don’t leave the city.
Not like anyone knew how. There weren’t any gates in the walls.
Cole clicked off the tv, and put the sofa’s throw blanket, an old knitted thing with a checkerboard pattern, over Dad, who stirred in his sleep but didn’t wake up. Cole put on his shoes and slipped out the door, heading back around the side of the house to the shed where his bike was kept.
The cloudy sky was pink from the streetlights as Cole pedaled down the street, the bike’s gears clicking softly as he made his way to the dispatcher for his delivery.
There were a number of boys already there, mostly younger than Cole, still bleary eyed and tousle-haired from sleep, standing beside their bikes as if they wanted nothing more than to ride them home again. The dispatcher, a balding man with a permanent frown, handed out the heavy newspaper delivery bags in exchange for yesterday’s bags. Cole handed his empty one over for a full, and slung the canvas thing over his shoulder.
“Hey Cole, I hear you’re done at the end of the summer,” said a boy, about 15 years old. Cole grunted in reply, mounting his bike and preparing to kick off.
“When you’re out, can I have your bike? This one’s falling apart.”
“Take it up with the dispatcher.” Cole responded, flying away down the street towards his neighborhood, as the sky turned grey above him, preparing for the sunrise.
He rushed through the deliveries of the day, anxious to get back home to see the Stork deliver his new brother. When Charlie was delivered he had only been 8 years old, and he’d only been 3 when Michael had been delivered. Babies weren’t delivered like ordinary packages, they were airlifted by big drones, called Storks. Huge black things with propellers who gently placed each child’s box in the yard besides all the ones stocked with supplies. They never made a mistake. He didn’t remember much from Charlie’s delivery. Just waiting nervously besides a crying Michael, 5 years old, who kept saying he didn’t want another brother. Dad had brought in the box, and they’d looked in on a tiny kid, wrapped tightly in a blanket, with a number of things arranged around him, folded, wrapped pieces of clothing, a supply of disposable diapers, several plastic bottles and a box of powdered baby formula. Cole and Michael had helped dad prepare the formula, and it had smelled really bad.
“It’s the same stuff you boys drank when you were babies.” Dad had said. “So mix it carefully. It’s got all the things a growing kid needs.”
Despite Cole’s rush, the sun was well risen by the time Cole made it back home, and the Stork was descending slowly on the house, like a bird of prey, lowering one of the boxes from its storage compartment with a mechanical arm. Dad picked up the box, reading the label, and froze, looking at Cole, who stood beside his bike in the street, gaping at the drone as it flew away again.
“Cole, come take a look at this.”
“What is it, Dad?” Michael asked, craning his neck to see the label on the box. Dad ignored him, holding the box out to Cole, who rested the bike on its stand, and came over to read the label.
“Name: James Anderson
Father: Cole Anderson”
“There must be a mistake.” Cole said. “I’m not even 18 yet.”
“The Storks don’t make mistakes, son.” Dad said, pushing the box toward Cole again. “They must think you’re responsible enough to handle this. So open it, and accept your responsibility.”

Cole gulped and opened the box slowly as Dad and his brothers unpacked the rest of the delivery, new clothes for the four of them, cans of fruits and vegetables, boxes of pasta, and a few cases of bottled water. Cole didn’t pay any attention to the rest of the activity in the kitchen as he stared into the big, dark eyes of the child in the box. James’ eyes were brown, and they stared at Cole with interest. His nose was the same, barely-there nose as all babies, and his mouth was thin and small as well. He looked like a little alien, with a shock of sandy hair like Cole’s already growing thick on his forehead. After several seconds of staring, suddenly, James smiled. He had no teeth, only pink gums, that opened wide to reveal his pink tongue, and it changed his whole face from a confused alien, to something that Cole instantly liked. He was wearing a pale green one-piece outfit that had snaps all the way from his neck to his left ankle.
Dad looked down at the baby, and patted Cole on the back. “Congratulations,” he said. “You’re a dad.”
“Sweet, I’m an uncle.” Michael said, cracking open a water bottle and drinking half of it in one go. “What’s Cole gonna do with it when he’s at school?”
“He will have to take it to the children’s center,” dad said. “I’ll show you the way, son. Then it looks like you’ll have to walk back to the school from there. It’s unusual for young men to be delivered their first kid while they’re still at school. You must be special.”
Cole just stared at the kid. “I only wish I felt special.”
“You’re not alone, Cole,” dad assured him. “Your brothers and I will help you, until you start your own life at the end of the summer.”
As if on cue, the infant began to cry, and dad laughed. “I’ll show you how to do this stuff.”
They first walked through mixing up the formula and heating it up. It had to be hot, but not hot enough to burn. Dad walked Cole through how to test the temperature on the sensitive skin on the inside of his wrist, then how to hold the baby as he fed him, supporting his head in the crook of one elbow, while holding the bottle with the other. James ate greedily, eyes wide open as his tiny mouth worked at the weird rubber top of the bottle.
“There you go, you’re a natural.” Dad said with a smile. “Now, when he’s done eating, you’re going to have to change him.”
He laid out an old blanket on the floor, and Cole put the child in the middle of it. Dad got out the diapers and the wipes from the box, and they worked on undoing the snaps on James’ little outfit.
“It takes some practice,” Dad chuckled as Cole fumbled with the tiny buttons. They eventually got his legs out, and then were confronted with the diaper. A small bundle of some kind of tissue paper wrapped around the child’s middle. Cole stared at it for several seconds until Dad pointed out the small tabs at the side. Cole pulled on them, and the bundle came loose.
“Um, something’s wrong.” He said, looking down at the infant. Dad looked over.
“What is it, Cole?”
“I dont know.”
Michael got up from the couch where he was watching an old tv show. He looked down at the baby with a 14-year-old’s expert eye.
“Your kid’s a female.” He said, and went into the refrigerator for a bottle of soda.


Edited: 11.02.2019

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