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Baby bumps and senior slumps

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Joel Miller has survived the collapse of modern society, done plenty of things he wasn’t proud of, embarked on a year-long journey halfway across the country, could smuggle contraband in and out of the Boston QZ blindfolded, was proficient in an array of weapons, and knew ten different ways to kill a man with his bare hands. So, why on God’s green Earth was a simple crib causing him so much strife?

“Damnit!” he cursed, as his frustration offset his aim, causing the hammer to land on his finger. He cradled the wounded appendage.

He had finished all the components, but putting them together was proving to be a more complicated task. For the fifth time that day, he contemplated whether it would be worth burning the whole thing and be done with it. No, Joel promised Dina he would make one, and he’d be darned before he let her down. His future grandchild deserved a well-crafted crib. He had cut out stars in the headboards and everything. Maybe, he was getting a little ahead of himself. It was several months before Dina’s due date after all, but he was a man on a mission.

“I’m no expert, but are the legs supposed to be uneven?”

Joel looked over his shoulder to see Ellie leaning in the doorway. She wore a shit-eating grin on her face.

“Har, har, very funny.”

She pushed off the doorframe to come closer. “Ok, but seriously, do I have to worry about my kid rolling out of this thing?”

“If you’re gonna critique my work, mind helpin’ out?”

Ellie shrugged and plopped herself on the floor next to him. She picked up a guard rail, studying it closely.

“I swear IKEA would be easier at this point,” he muttered.

“What’s IKEA?”

“It’s– ah, nevermind. Pass me a nail?”

As she handed one to him, she said, “Y’know, you could expand your business to furniture after this.”

Despite being the brother of Jackson’s leaders, Joel didn’t want to be given handouts. It had started as a side hobby – carving miniatures for his neighbors seeking decorations – and next thing he knew, half the town were knocking on his door with requests. Once he had gotten a handle on it, he also added guitars to his repertoire. It gave him something to do on his off-days.

Joel chuckled, “Oh, I’m sure people will just love rickety tables.” He hammered the nail.

“Aha, so you admit it! My child’s just your furniture guinea pig.”

“I admit nothin’.” Another nail.

“Whatever you say, old man.”

Joel began to nail the fourth and final leg.

“What’s caviar?” Ellie suddenly asked.

Without missing a beat, “S’that Dina’s latest craving?”

At twenty weeks pregnant, Dina had been cycling through a bizarre craving phase. Two weeks ago, she single-handedly went through their beef jerky supply. Beef jerky she drowned in strawberry jam. Ellie and Jesse were often the people subjected to retrieving and watching the consumption of said bizarre cravings. (“They’re food crimes, Joel!” she told him once.)

“Yeah, and I have no clue what that is. I don’t even think she knows what that is!” Ellie waved her hands frantically.

Another nail. “Uhh, caviar is fish eggs – salt-cured, I think.”

Ellie made a face and looked off into the middle distance. She whispered, “What the fuck?”

He shrugged. “Caviar was very expensive. Made rich folks feel fancy. They’d put it on crackers or some sort.”

“That sounds disgusting. The Old World was a weird place.”

Joel couldn’t disagree. He took the guardrail Ellie was still holding. “So, whatcha gonna do? Hey, could you hold this in place?”

She pushed the pieces together, as he worked on attaching one side. “Oh, I told Dina I didn’t know what caviar was, she got upset when I asked – again, I don’t think she knows either – and then, she ‘suggested’ I go spend time with you.”

“So, she kicked you out of the house?”

Temporarily. Ugh, what do I do?”

Another nail. “Maybe, get ‘er something salty as a substitute?”

She looked at him like he had brought a Bloater home as a pet. “Do you want me to die? She almost strangled Jesse when he brought blueberry jam instead of strawberry.”

“Better find some salt-cured fish eggs then.”

She flipped him off, dropping her end of the guardrail in the process.

“Agh, Ellie!” He lunged to grab it.

“Dick.”

“Oh yeah? You’ll be the reason why my grandkid sleeps on the floor.”

“Like you would let them, Gramps.” She gripped the rail again. “Maybe, I should swing by the fish market to find something similar.”

“What happened to not wantin’ to die?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she spoke with a lofty tone.

“Mhmm, whatever floats your boat.”

After that, they worked in silence, aside from the few instructions Joel gave. It became much easier with a second pair of hands. The process was methodical, therapeutic even. There was surely some sort of metaphor in the fact that he and his formerly estranged daughter figure were building a crib for their future, but Joel was never the best in English class. Half an hour later, they were looking upon the finished product.

Ellie said thoughtfully, “Not too bad. The stars are a nice touch.”

Joel circled the crib, ensuring each side was even. He ran his hand along the edges to check for splinters. He tested the guardrail and was pleased to find it slid up and down with ease.

He nodded in satisfaction. “Yeah, this’ll do.”

Ellie proceeded to shake a headboard, causing the whole frame to rattle and creak.

“Whoa, careful there!”

“What? It’d be a pretty shitty crib if it breaks the second the baby rolls around.”

“I think you overestimate a baby’s strength.”

“Not Dina’s kid. That baby will be strong as hell.”

Joel hummed in agreement, “I jus’ hope they won’t inherit your recklessness.”

Ellie chuckled nervously. While Dina always made sure she felt like a proper second parent, and Jesse never overstepped, Joel knew the redhead still had her moments of doubt. Fleeting glimpses of insecurity that danced across her face. But, the night she told him of Dina’s pregnancy, he could tell she would love and protect that child as much as he did her. Blood alone didn’t make a family.

“Better yet, let’s hope they aren’t twice as stubborn,” Ellie said. She joked, but she shot Joel a thankful look at his off-hand reassurance.

“All of Jackson wouldn’t be able to stop ‘em.” He pictured a toothy four-year-old running rampant.

Ellie was lost in her own imaginings when she suddenly remembered to ask, “You’ll be able to help with the farmhouse, right?”

“The what now?”

“Y’know, the farm?” A blank stare from Joel. “The farm Dina’s always talking about? Well, technically, the farmhouse and the barn… and the fences... and the barricades.”

Rationally, he knew Ellie couldn’t live in his backyard forever, especially as she started a family, but it still felt bittersweet to see her go. Maybe it was his old age, or maybe he wanted to hang onto those moments a little longer, but Joel could only vaguely recall the mention of a farm outside of Jackson.

“Oh, right, that plot o’ land a couple miles north.”

If Ellie noticed his lapse in memory, she chose to ignore it in favor of saying, “Great, then we can start building tomorrow. I’ll let Dina know!”

“Ellie, wait a min–”

“You’re right. Fish market, then Dina. Thanks, Joel!” She was gone by the time he blinked.

Joel glanced between the empty doorway and the crib and back again. All he could do was release a deep, deep sigh.