The Birthday Rooms
Timmy woke in an unfamiliar place. He usually went walking in his sleep, so for him this was a familiar thing. He could also climb in his sleep, and unlock bolts and latches in his sleep.
He sat up and looked around. He was in a little room with a wooden floor and whitewashed walls. A few objects were scattered around the floor: a book and a ball and a small wooden sword. These were familiar. These were his own.
He must still be somewhere in Uncle’s house, Uncle’s very big house. Timmy wasn’t happy about this. He always hoped to wake up and find himself Somewhere Else. At least this time he didn’t wake on one of the house rooftops. He’d spent most of the day trying to figure out how to climb down, that time.
Timmy picked up the wooden sword. “I guess this is my birthday present,” he said to himself, and tucked it into a belt-loop as he left the little room.
Outside was a long, dark hallway. In Uncle’s house there were many long, dark hallways, dust-covered. It was Timmy’s job on Tuesdays to sweep up the dust and cobwebs and straggly feathers on the floor, but the house was so huge that he could never find all the corners and crannies to sweep dust out of, and by the time he’d find the place where he started it had become all dusty again.
In this long, dark hall there were many doors, and a stairway, and one window at the very end, far enough away that it was just the size of Timmy’s thumbnail if he held it out in front of him. Each one of the many doors was made out of smooth, dark wood, and all of them were open, and some of them hung broken on their hinges.
Timmy had never seen this part of the house before. He’d never swept here. The dust was very thick underfoot. But it wasn’t Tuesday, and he didn’t see a broom anywhere, so the dust didn’t bother him.
He went down the hallway to one of the doors. He couldn’t tell if there were things moving through the rafters when he moved, stopping when he stopped, or whether it was just the house creaking around him and adjusting to his little weight. He pushed open the creaking, broken door with the tip of his wooden sword, and peeked into the room. It was just like the one he’d woken up in, but without any toys on the floor. There was a cot against the wall, and clothes too big for Timmy folded up in the corner.
A picture of an older girl hung on the wall. Timmy couldn’t remember ever having seen the picture before, or the girl before, though he spent a long time looking. Then he took a sweater from the cot and wrapped it around himself. It would hang down around his knees if he actually put it on.
Timmy went back out into the hall, and looked both ways. In one direction was the stair, and in the other was the tiny window.
Something moved in front of the window, far away and stooped and shuffling.
It might not have seen him yet.
He turned and walked away, slowly, not running because running would make too much noise, and draw attention to him. Moving slowly proved that he wasn’t afraid, not at all.
Once he reached the stairway Timmy ran, almost falling, down and around the winding steps to the floor below. He found another hallway, dark and with many doors. Most of them were broken, and all of them were open, all but one. Only one. Behind this door he heard a barking, snarling noise, and lots of banging around.
Timmy went and opened the door. The noise wasn’t as frightening as it was probably supposed to be, but he held his wooden sword ready just in case.
Inside the room was a smaller boy in a paper shark mask. The boy looked up, surprised, peering out from in between the teeth.
“Sharks don’t growl,” Timmy told him. “They’re quiet. They glide quietly through the water and sneak up on things.”
“It’s my birthday,” said the shark boy.
“Hold old are you?” Timmy asked.
The boy held up one hand with outstretched fingers, though he had to count them first.
Timmy swallowed, and tried to smile in some kind of encouraging way. He remembered the mask. He’d been five years old when he wore it.
“Why don’t I call you Five, then?” Timmy said. “And you can call me Eight, because it’s my birthday too.”
“How old are you?”
“…Eight,” said Timmy, carefully.
Timmy looked around the little room, which was exactly like the little room he’d woken up in. There was a book and a ball, which looked just the same, and a few other toys, which were different.
“Are you hungry?” he asked Five.
“Yeah!” said Five, and growled again.
“Let’s go find the kitchen.”
They went back to the stairwell to climb further down, and Timmy heard shuffling in the hallway behind them but he didn’t turn to look.
They found the kitchen. It had a low ceiling stained from fire-smoke, and it was warmer. Huge black pots and pans and cauldrons hung from the walls on iron hooks, and there were four ovens large enough to crawl into. Many, many people could be fed here, though the dust was thick on the floor.
Someone had already scuffed through the dust before them. A boy almost as tall as Timmy stood by the kitchen fire, holding an infant with one hand and a kettle with the other.
“Hi,” said the boy with the baby.
“Hi,” said Timmy.
“I’m five,” announced Five. “How old are you?”
“Seven,” he answered. “Today I’m seven years old.”
“Can I call you Seven?”
“Okay. If you want to.
“Did you get anything? I got a shark mask, see?”
“A yo-yo, but I haven’t figured out how to use it yet.”
“I can show you,” said Timmy. “I got one of them last year. When I turned seven.” He said it very quietly.
Seven set the kettle in place, and lifted up the baby. “I think he’s a year old, but he doesn’t talk yet so I’m not sure. I found milk for him, except he doesn’t like it cold so I’m trying to warm it up now.”
Seven stoked up the fire under the kettle of milk, and Timmy found bread and cheese for everyone else’s breakfast. Five wanted to help feed One, but the milk had gotten too hot and might burn him, so they set it aside to cool.
“I burned my tongue with hot chocolate once,” said Five. “Everything tasted funny for a whole day.”
“I remember,” said Timmy and Seven at the same time. They looked at each other in the dim kitchen light, and Seven poked Timmy’s arm, maybe to see if he was actually there or just an echo or a walking mirror-reflection. It was just an arm.
All the boys at once heard shuffling footsteps on the stair.
“We should go,” said Timmy.
“One hasn’t eaten yet,” said Seven.
“Bring the kettle,” said Timmy. “We should go.”
Seven hesitated, but the shuffling stair-steps drew closer. He picked up the kettle, using a kitchen rag to touch the hot metal with. Timmy lifted One up off the table, and One began to whimper a little as he breathed.
“It’s just Uncle,” said Five, glancing at the stair, and then away, and then back again. He growled softly.
“Sharks are quiet,” said Timmy. “Sharks are sneaky.”
He led the way through the kitchen to the pantry, where they crept along between sacks of flour and shelves holding jars of dried, shriveled things.
“Did you see the other rooms?” Seven asked, quietly so Five wouldn’t hear.
“Most of them were empty.”
Timmy nodded. He’d been thinking about the same thing. “Let’s try to get outside,” he said.
They found an outside door at the far end of the pantry, but it was raining. The trees and hills surrounding Uncle’s house were hidden completely in the rain.
One whimpered, and then flapped his arms up and down like wings without feathers.
“He’s hungry,” said Seven.
“We’ll feed him soon,” said Timmy.
“It’s raining too hard. We shouldn’t take him outside.”
Behind them the pantry door opened and closed again.
“He’ll be fine,” said Timmy, wrapping One in his oversized sweater. He breathed deep before bolting through the outside door. Seven and Five followed after, and hundreds of thousands of raindrops slammed into them like stones.
Timmy led them around a corner of Uncle’s huge house, and then they cut across an open field and into the barn.
Every part of every one of them was soaked, and One was wailing very, very loudly.
“I dropped the kettle,” said Seven, glaring, angry at himself and at everyone else.
Timmy rocked One back and forth and made shushing noises, which didn’t work.
“He’ll be okay,” he said. “He’ll be fine until the rain stops.”
But the rain didn’t stop, and One didn’t stop wailing. Five climbed ladders and rafters to get as far away from the baby as possible. Seven kept watch through a window, holding Timmy’s wooden sword, though he couldn’t see anything other than rain.
Timmy gave up trying to comfort the baby, who wasn’t impressed by any of his funny faces, or funny noises, or by tickling.
“Okay,” he said, standing up. “Okay. I’ll go look for the kettle, and warm it up again. The rest of you stay here.”
Seven glared at him. He’d intended to stay there, but he didn’t like being told to do it.
“How come you’re in charge?” Seven wanted to know. “It was your idea to go running in the rain.”
“I’m the oldest,” said Timmy, but Seven was not impressed with this argument.
“I think we should vote on what to do from now on.”
“Even him?” Timmy nodded towards One and his wailing.
“No. The other three of us.”
Timmy took a deep breath. “But we’re all Timmy,” he said,” and I remember being the rest of you, because I used to be. But none of you remember being me, because you haven’t been me yet. So I’m like all of us put together. Whenever I make a decision it’s already like a vote, only faster.”
Timmy didn’t actually think this was true. He didn’t like the things he used to like, when he was five years old, and he didn’t remember ever being as small as One.
Seven said nothing. Timmy held out his hand for the wooden sword, but Seven didn’t give it up.
“I’m the one who dropped the milk,” he said, and went out himself to fetch it.
Timmy let him go, and kept trying to comfort One, and nothing worked.
Time passed, and then more of it, and the rain grew worse and Seven didn’t come back.
Timmy looked out at the rain, holding One, and he took a deep breath. Then he called Five down from the rafters, and together they lifted the baby up into a hayloft with a rope and a bucket.
“I hope he falls asleep,” said Timmy. “I hope that he can’t walk yet, just so he won’t go sleepwalking like we do. Stand guard while I look for Seven and the milk, okay?”
“Okay,” said Five.
“And try to be quiet if anyone else comes in.”
“We need a password,” Five told him, solemnly.
“What should it be?”
“Okay,” said Timmy. “Sharks. Good. Stay quiet unless someone yells ‘Sharks.’”
He went outside.
The rain pounded into him, and kept on pounding. He didn’t run. He didn’t want to miss the kettle. He still had to cross between the barn and Uncle’s house three times before he found it and went shivering inside, opening what he hoped was the pantry door. He couldn’t be sure. There were many doors in the outside wall. Uncle had a big house.
Timmy shut the door quickly behind him. It was dark inside. When his eyes adjusted he examined the kettle, and found that the lid was still on and the milk was still inside. It was cold, though. He looked around, and saw that he wasn’t in the pantry.
There was a fireplace with only grey ashes inside, and a tattered carpet, and a sagging chair. The wooden sword leaned up against the chair, beside a yo-yo with it’s string all unwound. Folded up inside the chair was a very old man, who was watching him.
Timmy took a step backwards, and brushed up against the door.
“Don’t look so horrified,” the old man rasped. “I’m not so old as I was moments ago. I feel much younger. Seven years, at least.” Grinning, the old man stretched his arms and pushed up from the chair. He wavered, swaying back and forth while standing.
“Hi, Uncle Tim,” said Timmy, and swallowed. His throat was still dry, so he swallowed again.
“Hello, child. Would you be so good as to bring your friends back in from the rain?”
Timmy shook his head, and Uncle sighed.
“Your companion would not do so either,” he said. “The one who came with the sword. But I am far older than you. I remember your age, though you don’t remember mine. You should listen.” Uncle began to shuffle forward. “The sword was an eighth birthday present, was it not? And a shark mask for the fifth. I remember both. Though I cannot now recall any presents from the sixth or seventh birthdays. Can you?” His toe nudged the yo-yo aside as he shuffled.
“No,” Timmy said. “I don’t remember.” On the wall behind Uncle was a tattered and familiar portrait of a man, still young. Timmy pointed at the portrait. “I don’t think he’d be doing this,” he said.
“Possibly,” said Uncle, without turning away to see the picture. “But I swallowed him a very long time ago. Just a few of us left, now.”
The old man moved across the carpet, never lifting his feet off the ground to take a step. When he drew close enough to reach out with a thin, long-fingered hand, Timmy faked to his right and then ran around to his left. He ducked underneath the snatching fingers, and reached his sword where it leaned against the chair, and spun around to strike the old man hard in the shin.
Uncle Tim howled, and lifted his foot up off the ground, and as soon as he did so his skin began peeling away. There were feathers underneath the skin, old and ragged feathers. A shrieking bird climbed up out of the tattered skin-pile, and flapped its wings and flew into some distant corner of the house.
“I won’t be you!” Timmy called after it. “I won’t ever be you.”
The bird shrieked in answer. It might have been angry and it might have been laughing.
There were matches on the hearth. Timmy dragged the fallen skin-pile into the fireplace, and set fire to it, and used it to warm up the kettle and the milk.
It had stopped raining outside. The grass was sopping wet, and his shoes made squelching noises while he went walking back.
“Sharks!” he yelled up to the hayloft, once inside the barn.