‘Twas the morning after, and all through the house nothing was stirring except waffle batter. Ten a.m. and I was the first one up. Except for the cats, that is; they’d let it be known in no uncertain terms that we humans were running late. Neither of my ladies ever expected me to take on household chores, but this morning breakfast was on me. I was still jazzed about being a married man and an expecting Dad. None of that baby daddy crap, though; I really wanted to find the idiot who started that fad and smack him or her upside the head with a dirty diaper.
Ruby cat–she couldn’t properly be called a kitten now–sat on the counter, watching me stir. Made me wonder, sometimes, what curious kitties thought of various human activities. Whatever I might guess, it was almost certain to be wrong. A cat, remember, will watch a mouse hole for hours on end. I didn’t have to guess when her head turned to regard the hallway, though. She had that look, the one she reserved for an approaching Umthnn. Diamond Paws had apparently decided to join us for breakfast; he was carrying a double armload of the finest kindling, sticks of Douglas fir, ponderosa pine, oak, and cottonwood, all mixed together in what might seem random order to a casual observer. It was anything but random, of course; the big alien created his wooden meals with the care of a top chef preparing the world’s fluffiest omelette.
He deposited the firewood carefully in the box reserved for his visits. “Girls not up yet?” His voice today sounded like…who? I should know that one…ah! Robert Mitchum. Classic.
“They’re thinking about it,” I said. “I told them breakfast would be on the table at ten fifteen.” They still had five minutes to go. Diamond and I spent those minutes in companionable silence, all three cats climbing on the seated alien’s horizontal lower limbs where they kneaded fur and purred loud enough to make the average lawn mower jealous. Dogs, our eight-limbed, four eyed friend had once explained, tended to detest him. Cats obviously had better taste.
The girls were dressed, more or less, by the time they made it to the table. Conversation was another matter. Personally, I felt pretty bright eyed and bushy tailed. They did not, though two cups of coffee and one waffle apiece seemed to bring them more or less back to life.
“Diamond,” Judi finally observed, “I do believe that’s the fastest I’ve ever seen you down a load of kindling. Don’t you usually eat through one mouth at a time, not all four?”
“Urg,” he replied, Umthnn for Hold on; my mouths are full. Jude was right; there wasn’t a stick left in our friend’s food bin. “Ah.” I wasn’t sure the big digger had any tongues, but he cleared his massive throat and explained. “Yes, I’m sorry if it came across as impolite, but I really have to eat and run. I’ve got to get back to my females as fast as I can.”
“Oh?” My eyebrows shot up. “Trouble on the home front? The Council find out where you’re nesting?”
He shook his basketball shaped head. “Nothing that bad. It’s just that even at this distance, I can feel my mates…distress, for lack of a better word. They need me to father the babies. We’ve all seen young Umthnn who had to grow up without a strong male in the tunnels. The result is never pretty. Some wither. Others become…twisted. Those who go too far have to be destroyed. Your human male babies need fathers, too, as I understand it, but nothing like our little ones do. Approximately half of the male infants who grow up fatherless become mass murderers, or attempted mass murderers, before their thirtieth year.”
Their thirtieth year? “How long will you need to be gone? Thirty years?”
He laughed, a Robert Mitchum laugh. We could use more of those, I thought. A lot more. “Not that long. I don’t have to be with my family nonstop. But…Tree, I’m sorry, more sorry than I can say. I’ve never had the chance to observe a human birth, but I won’t be back for at least two years. Maybe three. Unless you need me in a hurry for something. I’ve left a map in my access room. No, I still can’t write, at least not fluently, but I did manage that much. Just in case it’s ever discovered by our enemies, meaning the Council, it won’t take you all the way to our residence area, but if you go to the big flat rock designated on the map and camp there overnight, I’ll find you. I’ve got the long glass–telescope? The telescope you gave me. We’ll keep a lookout, check that rock every day, so we’ll spot you.”
“Thanks, big guy,” I muttered. There was something in my throat, choking me right up. Hopefully, we wouldn’t need him again for a very long time, but I’d grown used to having him around. The girls weren’t nearly as bashful; both of them jumped up from the table and hugged the oversized carpet mill without reservation.
After he was gone, gliding down the hall and out of our lives for a while, Sissy poured third cups of coffee and we got down to serious business. You know. Baby names. We had all day, and several more days besides, scheduled as our honeymoon. A little scary, leaving the office without its CEO, Office Manager, and Security Chief for what amounted to one full business week. Security was being covered by Jack Hill, Wayne Bruce, and Horace Tamblyn, though, and all of our key people had my cell number in case of an emergency. That only left the office itself, but this week wasn’t a pay week so…yeah, Rodeo Iron should be okay.
“How about Tara for a girl?” Judi suggested.
“Hmm,” I said, taking care to look interested. In truth, I’d heard worse, but the main thing was to never let the mother think her offerings were being disrespected. I might still be in my twenties, but I’d learned that much about women. “What do you think, Sis?”
“Absolutely,” the tall warrior woman nodded. “Let’s put it on the short list.”
By midafternoon, having consulted who knows how many online baby name references and having consumed an entire apple pie without realizing we were nibbling constantly, we’d settled on just one absolute: No common everyday name would be considered. If the child was a boy, no Chuck or Bob or Jack or Michael or David or Whatever. For a girl, no Susan or Patricia or Linda or Janice. On the other end of the scale, nothing completely off the wall, either. We could have taken a break, but we didn’t.
It was shortly after sunset when we finally called a halt, amazed at the marathon session we’d just devoted to such a seemingly simple task and further amazed that we’d settled, finally, on specific choices: Willow Jewel Jackson if she turned out to be a girl, Douglas Jude Jackson for a boy. We’d let my uncle know about the boy’s middle name, of course, but not until after the baby was born. The first names were, duh, plays on my nickname, trees of renown, the willow and the Douglas fir, both of which we had in plenty in this part of the country. Thankfully, it wasn’t me who came up with that idea; blame it on mischievous Judi with fellow female Sissy backing her up all the way.
Though in truth I didn’t mind one bit. We all wanted to see how old the kid would get before he/she figured out that part.
It wasn’t until the next morning that I found the book. Diamond Paws had become a voracious reader; this volume, with the map to his flat rock contact point lying on top of it, must have been one of those he’d ordered using my credit card. Really, it was more his credit card than anything. Issued in my name, but I never used it. I’d told him to go ahead, be me any time he wanted to get in some new reading material. I’m all for alien education. Okay, maybe not illegal alien in the southern border sense, but Umthnn education, definitely. We’d picked up a number of his packages at the Post Office over the past several months.
But I was not prepared for the title. Faerie in Trvth. Legend? Medieval fantasy? Certainly the book was old, leather bound, the cover well preserved but the pages yellowed with age and delicate in the extreme. Leafing gently through the volume, I felt a shudder ripple down my spine, the hairs on the back of my neck rising in counterpoint. Diamond had come to understand the human fascination with many things that might or might not be real. He had a natural ability to differentiate between fact and fiction, too, a surprising talent I could wish more of us homo sapiens possessed. And yet he’d read this book, cover to cover, likely more than once. He was finished with it or he would have taken it with him. Clearly, he meant me to find it, and that was the most disturbing aspect of all. The digger had little use for flights of imagination, firmly believing that there was far too much “real stuff” he needed to know. That meant he accepted this tome as truthful. Which wouldn’t have meant much, except that it seemed to deal with such Hollywood nutjob topics as witches, werewolves, vampires and, um, other assorted nasties.
No dragons at least; that would have strained my brain a bit too much. But…if Diamond Paws took some version of wizard Harry Dresden’s world at face value, could I ignore that? After all, my girls and I lived a life most suspense fiction writers couldn’t even imagine, one of our best friends was a giant alien who lived underground and ate nothing but wood like a freaking termite, I knew for a fact Soul travel and reincarnation and karma were all real, I’d time traveled to some degree when watching the mammoth riders live out their last days, we’d proved the existence of mutant wolves packing human DNA, and so on and so forth. Were fanged undead who lived on nothing but blood that much of a stretch? Witches weren’t even a question mark; anybody who’d ever looked into it knew there were such things as spells that could be cast, though the broom riding sounded a wee bit hokey. Shape shifters like werewolves, well, a whole lot of cultures including some Native Americans accepted shape shifters as pure dee fact.
So, say the Umthnn also knew such things were real. Why would he bring that to my attention by leaving this book here now? I asked myself the question. Myself answered in a heartbeat. Because he felt you needed to know. To be aware.
To be able to protect the baby when he/she was born.
“Tree,” Sissy called from the front door. “We’re ready to go!”
Oh. Yeah. We were driving to Butte to catch a movie matinee, The Longest Ride. I hadn’t paid much attention when Sissy suggest that particular flick. There was a bull rider in it, and flashbacks to World War II or something, and the bull rider gets smashed up in the trailer with people trying to convince him to quit. Good enough for me if it was good enough for my girls. I hadn’t been to a movie in what? No, wait, really? Yes, really. Not since leaving Hartford. Whoa.
“On my way!” I yelled back, snagging the Pontiac’s keys from the hook on the way by. The Walther .22 was in its usual small-of-the-back holster and Jack’s wedding present, the new Taurus Curve .380, rode easily in my right hand pants pocket. I didn’t figure the old Protector gave us those just for the fun of it; for whatever reason, he wanted us packing a little extra close quarters heat. Maybe the movie would take my mind off things for a couple of hours, but I was going to have to think about that. Our baby was going to be extra special; I just knew it. We’d have to stock up on garlic and charmed wooden stakes if the supernatural world was going to be part and parcel of the threats facing our child. That should take care of the vampires. Witchy spells…maybe the midwife would know about counteracting those? Now, as I recalled, Winchester had Silvertip hollow point ammo, 85 grain Super-X. If we could pick up a few hundred rounds of that, we’d be ready for the werewolves, too, especially with the Curve’s built-in light and laser sight. Boo, wolfie!
Man, Judi wasn’t even into her third month yet, and already this upcoming fatherhood thing was getting to me.