It was different on the other side of the door.
Leading up to Sarah’s birth, the hospital room had been so chaotic – nurses running about, lots of yelling, overall panic on his part – that he hadn’t noticed the hours pass until he held his baby girl in his arms. This time, however, Joel could do nothing but sit outside.
Dina had started feeling contractions in the morning, but sure that they were false contractions just like yesterday, she had powered through and neglected to tell anyone. Around sunset, her water had broken in the middle of the mess hall, and Ellie had practically carried her all the way back home. As soon as Maria told him the news, he had dropped everything to rush over. The clinic didn’t have many beds to spare, especially in the winter conditions, so Dina and her mother, Shoshana, had settled on a home birth.
Dina’s grandparents had turned in for the night, seeing as they were getting on in age (a rarity these days), and it was clear this labor would last a long while. Tommy had gone to send someone after Jesse, who was in the middle of a three-day patrol. Several chairs had been placed outside Dina’s room where Joel, Maria, and Shoshana waited. Shoshana had initially been inside with Dina but was so concerned over her daughter that she became more of a hindrance than a helping hand, and the doctor made her leave. Joel could empathize with that.
Joel only caught glimpses of Ellie whenever the doctor poked her head out to request more rags or water. There was also the occasional Ellie-certified cuss through the door. He restrained himself from barging in to check up on her and Dina. Barely. Another scream filtered through the wood, and Shoshana clenched a fist. Clearly, she was holding back too. Joel liked Dina’s mother. She was a kind woman with a good head on her shoulders.
Shoshana saw Joel notice his reaction and shot him a weak smile. “It’s different when I’m not the one in there. I feel like I should be used to it though: technically, being my third time around.”
Joel huffed, “Still ain’t easier.”
“Not in the least,” she trailed off, her eyes becoming glassy. “Talia was born just two years after the Outbreak. Just me and Marcus alone in an old restaurant. I was scared outta my mind.”
“The scariest and best moment of your life.”
Shoshana hummed, more to herself than to Joel, “She’d be so proud of Dina.”
That was something the two had in common: a first-born daughter taken too soon – a pain that birthed a fierce protectiveness for their second. They had a mutual understanding in a loss that no parent should experience. Not that many even knew about Sarah. It didn’t hurt as much to talk about her, framing the photo from her soccer game in his house and answering Ellie’s questions on the rare occasion they arose, but Joel didn’t go out of his way to tell people. An old ache started up, as he had the briefest vision of Sarah being a big sister to Ellie and aunt to her child. He rested a hand over his watch.
“I’m sure she would. Dina will be a great mother.”
A bittersweet smile graced her weathered face. “So will that girl of yours. I’ll be honest. I didn’t know what to think of Ellie at first, but she makes my daughter happy. And, that’s all I could ask for.” She smirked, “Took long enough though. Thought Dina would drive us all crazy with how much pining that went on.”
“So I’ve heard,” Joel chuckled. “Well, at least, they found each other eventually.”
“And now, all that’s left for us is to pamper this grandkid. Bet I can spoil ‘em more than you.”
He raised an eyebrow. “Alright, you’re on.”
“Oh, c’mon, you old coots,” Maria interrupted.
“I’m younger than you,” Shoshana muttered, which went thoroughly ignored.
“The miracle of life is happening in the next room, and you two want to make bets on who’s the better gift-giver?”
Joel avoided his sister-in-law’s gaze and scratched at his beard. Shoshana had the decency to look sheepish.
“Twenty bucks says it’s a girl.” That garnered both of their attention. Maria crossed her arms and looked smug. “That’s the real money-maker.”
Spirit renewed, Shoshana countered, “Thirty bucks it’s a boy. I’ve had two girls already and would love a grandson.”
They turned expectantly to Joel, who was unprepared for the sudden attention. It wasn’t like these bets meant anything, considering paper currency has been obsolete for years. “Uhh…”
Luckily, he was saved from picking a side when the crash of a door echoed from below followed by heavy footsteps on the staircase. A frantic Jesse rounded the corner with dirt on his face and sweat on his brow. He still wore his backpack burdened with gear. He must have run straight from the gates. Tommy appeared behind him out of breath.
“Did we miss it?” Jesse asked.
“Whoa, there,” Maria said, holding out placating hands. “She’s only been in active labor for four hours.”
“Told ya. Nothin’ to worry about,” Tommy panted, still recovering from the sprint here.
“Your age is showin’, little brother.”
“Shut it, Joel.”
“Only?!” Jesse repeated.
Shoshana nodded. “That’s usual for first-time mothers. Talia’s birth lasted nine. Dina’s was only four.”
Jesse seemed to deflate, and Tommy laughed. Maria just rolled her eyes and patted the chair next to her. Both moved to take it. She rolled her eyes again when they bumped shoulders. After some fumbling, Jesse sat beside Maria, and Tommy sat across, next to Joel. Jesse let his pack drop with a dull thud. An especially loud scream had five heads whipping toward the bedroom door. Jesse’s leg started to anxiously bounce.
Maria laid a comforting hand on his knee. “Hey, it’s gonna be okay,” she said.
The young man swallowed thickly and nodded. Joel and Shoshana shared a look. That was a feeling they knew well. Even decades later, Joel could never forget the moment he became a father. He wouldn’t be the first to say it made him the happiest man on Earth, but there simply wasn’t any other way to describe it. Here, now, from a grandfather’s perspective, it was different but no less overwhelming. Different but the same. This time, he felt anticipation for Ellie’s sake rather than his own. He was excited for Ellie – and Dina – to experience the same joy he had.
Just a couple more hours to go.
“So, Jesse, Tommy,” Shoshana spoke up. “How much you bet it’s a boy?”
December 10, 2038 at 4:18am, newborn wails rang throughout the streets of Jackson.
By the time Ellie opened the door, everyone was on their feet. Shoshana was the first inside, Joel hot on her heels. The other three crowded in the entrance since the room was small enough already. Inside, the source of the wailing came from a high table against the wall where the doctor cleaned a squirming pink mass. Joel couldn’t get a good look. In bed, Dina looked utterly exhausted, her chest heaving, but she gave her mother a beaming smile, as Ellie used a washcloth to blot the sweat on her face.
“How you holding up, sweetie?” Shoshana smiled back.
“Y’know, just spent seven hours pushing a tiny human out of my body,” she wheezed. “What’s up with you?”
She huffed, “Try doing it twice.”
“Yeah, I don’t think so.”
The doctor finally approached with a small bundle in her arms. She addressed Dina, “Congratulations on a perfectly healthy boy.”
(“Ha, I win,” Shoshana said to the grumblings of Maria, Tommy, and Jesse. Joel had abstained.)
Dina cradled her newborn son, whose cries quieted upon contact with his mother’s warmth. Ellie peered down at his little face, poking out of the grey blanket. All Joel could see was chubby, red cheeks and a tuft of black hair.
“Strong set o’ lungs on the little fella,” Tommy said.
Joel added, “Rest up ‘cause you won’t be seein’ sleep for a couple months.”
“So supportive,” Ellie said dryly but grinned up at him.
“Oh, hush, Joel,” Shoshana scolded from across the bed. “Better not scare her off too early.”
“Not a chance,” the redhead said, maintaining the lighthearted exchange, but Joel didn’t miss the approval shining in Shoshana’s eyes.
“Ellie, here,” Dina said softly, offering the swaddled infant.
The other girl startled. “Um, are– are you sure?”
To which Dina scoffed, “Don’t be ridiculous. Come hold your son.”
Ellie still looked unsure. She extended her hands awkwardly. “I don’t…”
“Like this, dear,” Shoshana instructed and repositioned her arms.
Apprehension flitted across Ellie’s face, but her hold was steady, as she let Dina place her son down. Joel watched how that apprehension transformed into a tenderness he’d never seen her wear before. Her lips curled up in a smile that relieved the pinch between her eyebrows. Her face became softer, younger. An innocence returned to her eyes, glinting emerald in the candlelight. Pride swelled within him. He thought this rejuvenated youthfulness looked good on her.
“Have you chosen a name?” Jesse asked, still hovering in the doorway looking nervously excited. He was soft-spoken, none of them willing to disturb the baby’s slumber.
Toward the middle of Dina’s third trimester, Joel had asked Ellie, whether she and Dina had a list of names yet. She had shrugged and vaguely mentioned they were thinking about it. He honestly wouldn’t be surprised if they preferred to wing it.
“JJ,” Dina whispered reverently. “For the two most important men in his life.”
The breath was knocked out of Joel. In a good way. It had been so long since he felt such mirth. As though reacting to his own name, the infant – JJ – let out a tiny yawn, reaching an equally tiny hand toward Ellie, who let him grasp her index finger. Tears pricked at his eyes. One glance at Jesse, and he would probably be in a similar state, but Joel couldn’t bear to tear his gaze away from his daughter and new grandson. Dina herself, despite her tired state, was staring at the image of her family with such adoration.
Miracle of life was right. Not even an hour old and JJ has already captured everyone’s rapt attention.
“Jesse?” Ellie motioned him over.
“Not you, too.” Dina rolled her eyes. “Get over here, ya goof.”
Jesse imitated the way Ellie held her arms, so she could gently pass JJ to him. His whole face lit up. By then, Tommy and Maria were starting to gather around to get a good look at the newest member of the family, while Shoshana sat on the other side of the bed to brush at Dina’s damp bangs. Joel drew Ellie away to give them some space. Only to the window, of course. He didn’t think Ellie would be leaving this room for a long while. She appeared a bit dazed. Dazed but happy.
“You okay, baby girl?”
“Huh?” Ellie blinked at him.
“Your hand’s shaking.”
“Oh.” She looked down, as though just realizing the trembling limb. The second burn on the side of her palm glinted silvery in the moonlight. “I think Dina broke it during labor.”
Joel released a hearty laugh, “Yeah, I remember that feelin’.”
Ellie’s eyes shifted from her hand back to JJ, who was currently being fawned over by Maria. In any other circumstance, he would’ve poked fun at her dreamy expression. Though, it would be very hypocritical of him to do so.
“You okay?” he repeated.
A shaky breath. “I’m a mom.”
“A fucking mom, Joel,”
“So I’ve gathered.” He nodded.
A low chuckle caused him to turn and find the doctor cleaning up the mess of rags. He had completely forgotten she was there.
“Ah, the gift of motherhood,” she said, washing her hands in a water basin “Your daughter’s a tough one.” She dried her hands on a towel and gestured toward Ellie, who remained transfixed by the sight across the room. “Not many can stand having their hand crushed for seven hours straight.”
The doctor released the pins keeping her salt and peppered hair in a neat bun. “Phew,” she sighed, shaking her hair loose, so it hung around her shoulders. “I’ve delivered a lot of babies in my time, but this one was a noisy little guy.”
Joel hummed in agreement. Even Sarah hadn’t cried so loudly, and she had been a very fussy baby.
“Thanks for everythin’, uh...” He realized he never caught her name. What was with his aversion to learning doctors’ names?
“Esther,” she filled in, extending a hand.
Her grip was strong, but her palm was soft.
“I know,” she said and grinned at his bewilderment. “I commissioned a wall ornament last year.”
“Sorry, ma’am.” He awkwardly tucked his hands in his pockets. “I get a lot of orders nowadays, so I begin to lose track.”
She waved him off. “Oh, I’m sure. You’ve become quite the popular interior decorator around here. The only one really.”
“Passes the time,” he grunted. “Mind joggin’ my memory?”
Esther leaned her elbows on the table behind her. She was short enough that she barely had to bend down. If Joel had to guess, the top of her head probably came up to his mid-chest.
“My order? A shark cutout.”
His eyebrows shot up. Animals were popular requests, but sharks weren’t usually among them. “Right, it’s comin’ back to me now. I don’t get many o’ those.”
She was clearly amused by his awkward response. “It’s for the San Jose Sharks. My husband and I used to attend all their hockey games before he passed.”
“Hey, we’ve all lost people,” she cut him off. “Sorries won’t do us any good now. Besides, a drunk driver got him months before the Outbreak, so you could say he dodged a bullet there.”
Joel didn’t quite know what to say to that.
“Now, we just need to cherish those we still have.” Her gaze wandered to the small crowd of people, JJ at the center of it all.
That was a sentiment he understood all too well. “And, keep fightin’ for ‘em.”
She hummed, “People like you and me have to look out for the younger ones. Make sure they don’t experience the shit we have.”
“Oh, I intend to.”
Esther studied him from the corner of her eye. “Good.” Then, she walked over to Shoshana and Dina on the bed. “If you need anything, you know where to find me.”
“Thanks, Esther,” Shoshana said. “You should go get some sleep.”
A laugh. “You too, baby mama,” she directed at Dina.
She gave a two-finger salute. “Sure thing, Doc.”
Joel watched Esther depart, pulling on her winter jacket and flashing him a grin over her shoulder as she went. When he turned his attention back to the room, he was surprised to see Ellie standing before him with her arms crossed and head cocked to the side.
He joked, “Look who’s finally back to the land of the livin’.”
Her eyes narrowed, scrutinizing him.
After another second of silence, “Nothing.”
He blinked. She still had a curious glint in her eyes.
Tentatively, he asked, “You sure?”
“Yup!” She turned on her heel and sat by Dina’s side, taking her hands and giving them a kiss.
Okay, then. Maybe, this baby finally caused Ellie to crack.
“Hey, Grandpa,” Tommy said, holding JJ. “Your turn.”
Maybe, it’ll cause him to finally crack. Joel tried not to appear too eager, as he walked over to them, his heart pounding. The newborn was still asleep and only fidgeted slightly when he transferred arms. Joel had forgotten how small humans started out as. He estimated JJ weighed no more than ten pounds. He was afraid to hold him too tightly. A sense of déjà vu washed over him. Different but the same.
Joel wanted to promise this baby everything but felt he couldn’t express the sentiment properly. He would give this baby everything. He would provide Ellie and Dina with whatever they needed to give this baby everything. He assumed his daughter would be responsible for teaching JJ guitar, but that didn’t mean Joel couldn’t be the one to make the instrument. His grandson simply… deserved everything.
He didn’t even notice the time pass until the hall clock tolled on the hour.
“If you’re done passing my son around like a hot potato, I think Dina needs some rest,” Ellie spoke up.
Joel carefully passed JJ back to Dina’s awaiting arms. Ellie ensured the blanket was securely tucked around him. Yeah, she’ll be a great mother.
“Aw, man, already?” Tommy whined, Maria elbowing him in response.
Shoshana ushered everyone to the door. “JJ isn’t going anywhere, and my daughter needs her rest, you hear?”
Joel was the last to go, facing Ellie and her new family one more time to catch Dina mouthing, “Hot potato?”
“What? You don’t think he looks like a potato?”
She weakly batted at the redhead’s shoulder. “He’s not a vegetable.”
“Yeah, he’s a baby, but I already call you that.”
Dina blushed. “You’re infuriating.”
“I’ve heard that before, babe.”
For some reason, that only made Dina blush more. Joel would never fully understand the nuances of young love in the apocalypse. The couple were still playfully bickering as everyone exited the room. He briefly interrupted to place a steady hand on Ellie’s shoulder.
“Hey, I’m proud of you, kiddo.”
Ellie glanced away, her ears turning red. She was never good at accepting compliments. Dina gave a fond smile at the other girl’s sudden bashfulness.
“Y’all sleep well now,” he directed to both of them.
They replied with a collective farewell before returning to the rigorous debate over Ellie’s choice of nickname. Off to the side, Shoshana tutted and shook her head. He tipped an imaginary hat to her. “Ma’am.” She nodded back.
Ellie and Dina’s conversation faded, as he reached the stairs. He could just make out a “Why not?”
“Anything but potato please.”
“Well, I think it’s… spud-tacular.”
Joel stifled his laughter on the way out.