Numbers

     All the babies were crying. Alyssa had worked at the hospital for a long time and this had never happened.

     It started with number 12. He was generally an unruly child, prone to tantrums and moods so the sound of his sobs was no surprise. Alyssa had walked up to him and was gently rocking him back into a stupor when she noticed, in the corner of the room, a ghost.

     She didn’t realize that the man with the short-cropped hair was a ghost at first, but before the word “Sir…” left her lips, she saw right through him. Number 12 was starting to quiet down when Number 13 in the next row began to howl. Alyssa looked up at the ghost in the gray shirt, he stared back unmoved. Number 12 was now quiet. She put him slowly into his compartment. Nodding at the ghost, she walked conscientiously over to the next row and lifted number 13. The ghost began to move. Number 13 was easy to cajole into silence. The ghost was out the door. Alyssa put the baby down. Everything was suddenly very still. Then number 14 and 5 began to show signs of going off. The ghost was tapping on the glass outside of the gallery. Alyssa glanced at him, she noticed that his pants were tied with a ratty string.

     Number 5 would be quieted first – she was a tiny baby with a heartfelt cry. Alyssa’s shoes squeaked on the linoleum floor. The ghost was still tapping. Number 14 was still bawling. Alyssa scooped number 5 from her little bed and held the baby to her chest. Number 9 was now moving around, ready to go off at any moment. Alyssa looked up at the tapping ghost with a look so severe it gave the dead man pause. Number 14 was still at it. Number 9 was whimpering now. Number 5 was asleep in Alyssa’s arms. She put the baby down.

     Number 13 was getting restless again. Number 14 would not shut up. Number 9 was softly baying. The ghost was pacing outside the glass retying the string on his pants. Alyssa walked resolutely to number 14 when something ricocheted off her foot and hit the wall. The ghost looked up startled. Number 16 and 5 began to cry. Alyssa bent down to see what it was. How did a basketball get in here? She thought. Numbers 9, 16, 5, 13, and 14 were crying. Number 7’s shaking bottom lip was adorable. Alyssa, still in the possession of her faculties, marched to number 14 and gave him a sucker. He spit it out. She gave it to him again and this time he held it.

     Number 13 wasn’t as easy to quiet this time, but she managed to do it despite the general racket. Number 7 had begun to cry. The ghost, palms against glass, watched the scene unfold, amused. Number 8 took a hint from his darling neighbor and unleashed a beastly wail that woke the babies previously asleep. Hustling over to number 9, Alyssa discovered two ladybugs on her left cheek. As Alyssa’s hand drew nearer, the ladybug’s became fainter, so when she was close enough to brush them away, they were gone. Number 9 was no longer crying, but number 6 was.

     Alyssa went to babies 5-8, the first row (there were no babies 1-4), to see what she could do. Behind her, number 14 had spit out his sucker, number 13 was, what sounded like snickering, and number 10 remembered the comfort of his mother’s womb and began leaking nostalgic tears. Another ghost appeared at the window and was betting on babies with his compatriot. Alyssa was beginning to get annoyed at the intruders. Seven babies were crying, including all four in front of her.

     She picked up tiny number 5 and held him close. The baby went quiet surprisingly quickly. Alyssa’s hands felt oily and wet. She took the baby away from her chest and discovered nothing but a cold blanket. Startled, she dropped it into number 5’s crib, wiped her hands and arms using a napkin from the dispenser nearby and moved on to number 6. She gave the baby a sucker and it successfully shut its little mouth on the thing. The soundtrack was surreal. Number 13 was now blubbering. Number 7 could be in commercials, Alyssa thought as she wrapped the baby in the blanket. It became quiet. Cold was all, Alyssa thought.

     She looked up at the ghosts, there were three now; shoe-string belt man, his friend with a Yankees hat, and the new one, an obese older lady in a bath robe. Number 11 broke her silence for the first time with a shriek of dismay at the world. Alyssa ran over. Number 11 had no mouth. Her shrieks were coming from the middle of her head. Alyssa blinked twice. She looked up at the door, down at the missing mouth, up at the door. The door was gone. She reached down to where the mouth would have been, the baby mellowed very slightly. She stroked the baby’s head. The shrieks stopped.

     Alyssa hustled around to where number 16, with a little mole on his cheek was harmonizing with the chorus. He had peed and was quickly changed into silence. Number 9, the ladybug kid, was crying. Alyssa surveyed the scene and felt in control of the situation. She slid down the row to number 14, who she picked up. A look at the window revealed a crowd of ghosts gathering. 14 became quiet and was put back into his compartment only to have number 6 take up the cry. 13 was next, but no matter what Alyssa tried, she could not quiet the baby. Oh well, Alyssa thought as she moved on to the next row, she’ll cry herself out. As the nurse approached number 9, number 10 heard and demanded attention. Number 9 had no ladybugs this time, just high volume. Number 12 was down with the same affliction.

     Alyssa looked number 9 in the eyes, and something about the nurse’s big head calmed the child. She moved back to the first row, the fifth compartment still contained a blanket. The lights blinked. Alyssa paid no attention as she re-adjusted number 8’s linens. Number 8 became quiet. Number 7 just needed a hug. Number 6 need changing after a number two. Alyssa turned around to number 10, but number 11 caught her eye, the baby that had no mouth was blue. The ghosts were banging on the window. The lights began blinking in rhythm. The baby was blue. The baby was blue. The baby was blue. The baby was gone. The ghosts quietly looked on. The lights were normal. Alyssa gave number 10 his sucker. Two babies were crying.

     Alyssa passed the blue baby without looking. Number 12 didn’t notice anything odd as he was silenced with a hug. Only number 13 was left crying, but that baby would not stop. The ghosts were slightly sullen at the turn of events. Alyssa took a deep breath. The basketball was put away into a corner. The clock opposite the window had stopped two hours ago. Alyssa sat down on a chair near the first row. Maybe number 13 is hungry, she thought. But it wasn’t time to feed the kids yet. What time was it anyway? Number 16 was sniffling. Alyssa wiped her brow and walked over. Number 9 made a peep.

     The nurse picked up a colorful noisy toy and shook it for the last baby of the last row. Behind Alyssa, number 9’s peeps inspired number 10 who ejected his sucker and dug into the relative quiet with a nasty howl. The toy was beginning to do its work when a thud was heard from the glass. Number 8 objected to the flat sound and began to cry. Alyssa put the toy down and looked to the glass. A shirtless ghost with a tattoo on his neck had wrapped a tennis ball in his shirt and, using it against the window, got Alyssa’s attention. Number 7 ran out of love from the last hug and demanded more. Another thud against the window.

     “What?” Alyssa spat. She wiped her brow again and, looking at the sweat, realized it was very hot. The ghosts of the crowd were murmuring to each other, but it was not audible inside the room. Alyssa walked to the glass.

     “What?” She requested again. The glass was beginning to develop a film of condensed moisture. Another thud. They must be joking, she thought, irritated. Number 15 was crying now. The glass was becoming so fogged that the ghosts were nearly invisible. Alyssa pulled off her floral nurse’s shirt. The babies don’t care if I’m wearing my undershirt, she thought, noticing the wet sweat spots already present on the cotton a-shirt. The thud brought her back to reality but it wasn’t the same. It was so hot the walls were sweating. Number 6 and 12 were sweating too, and crying. There was no door out of the room. Alyssa looked around, the walls appeared to be undulating. There was a faint thud. The nurse turned towards the babies, all were crying except for the one directly in front of her, number 14. Strange, Alyssa thought, all were bawling except for this one. She picked up the sleeping baby, who appeared normal. He opened his eyes.

     A faraway rumbling began. The babies’ crying intensified. The rumbling was nearing. Number 14 was in Alyssa’s arms, calm. The ground began to shake softly as the noise grew louder. Alyssa could not see the ghosts through the glass. The shaking was harder now, the rumble was a quake. The ghosts appeared inside the room, confused. Alyssa held number 14 tightly. The babies’ screamed. The ghosts shriveled their faces tightening their jaws. Things went all over the place, though the babies stayed safely inside their cribs. It was the height of the violence. Alyssa shut her eyes. Seconds passed. Everything became still. She opened her eyes. There were no ghosts, no walls, nothing except the orange desert with mountains on the horizon. It was still hot, but the only sound was the babies crying. She put number 14 into his compartment, took the suntan lotion from her pocket and applying the lotion to her face, ears, neck, arms, hands – any part that was uncovered – gazed at the unstoppable horizon, the sky stretching forever, the sand beneath her feet. Number 14, so quiet through the whole mess, now began to cry.

     Alyssa had worked at the hospital for a long time and this had never happened.

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