Lanni leaned face-first against her flimsy bedroom door, waiting for the scream. The phony wood grain pressed shallow lines into her forehead and flattened nose, and the ghost of two-year-old paint haunted her with a faint odor.

She relaxed her grip on the door handle just enough to let the prickling flow of blood return to her fingers. Each sensation became an anchor, something to cling to against the rising tide of pressure behind her eyes. Though they distracted her from the dull, but constant pain she already felt, they were not an inoculation against what she knew would come.

Any second now…

Pain was seldom worse than the anticipation of it, but Lanni knew exactly what to expect, and it scared her. Her neck and shoulders leached tension from the thick air, making the pressure in her head even worse. She hated waiting almost as much as hearing her mother’s screams rip through the thin walls of their mobile home.

The continual sounds of her mother’s suffering weren’t easy to bear, but some of her screams were different; they reached right into Lanni’s soul. She knew it was crazy, but they had a physical, painful effect on her.

Alex, her twin brother, felt it too. They had both been plagued with sudden, odd headaches for weeks, but for the last two days the pain had been relentless. And this morning, when the screaming started, it grew magnitudes worse. Now, with her mother wailing in agony only a few paces away, the pain was climbing to new levels.

They found the situation easier to deal with when they were together. Even though they didn’t discuss it, her pain was muted in his company, and she could tell it helped him, too.

At that moment, however, she was alone with nothing but the feel of her cool bedroom door against her warm face, and the faint smell of paint to help her tune out the throbbing pulse in her temples.

Oh God, here it comes.

The long, moaning cries from the end of the hall settled into a quicker rhythm of higher pitched barks. It was the same pattern every time, and it meant one of the big screams was imminent. Even the already tense air knew it was coming. It coiled around her, tighter and tighter, a giant, invisible snake squeezing the air from her chest, until finally…

The scream.

It’s just a sound. It can’t really hurt me.

But thinking that didn’t make it true. It did really hurt her. It bashed into her tender head like a Louisville Slugger. Even when the scream finally died down, the pain lived on, and it got worse every time. She didn’t know how many more she could take.

Where is that ambulance?

With luck, she’d have a two-minute reprieve before the next bad contraction. That was more than enough time to walk a few feet down the hall to Alex’s room.

Despite an overwhelming sense of urgency, she couldn’t afford to give in to her fear, not even a tiny bit. She walked calmly down the narrow hall and tapped on her brother’s door. The “Barging In” rule surely wouldn’t apply at a time like this, but sticking to her routine helped her keep a grip on her self-control, so she waited for him to answer.

“Alex?” she called. It was barely more than a whisper.

More than anything, she wanted to be out of the hallway before the next scream. She glanced nervously at her parents’ door, now only a few feet away, as though a monster was about to smash it down.

There’s no such thing as monsters, dummy. This is perfectly normal. All pregnant women scream and cry.

Something in those screams scared her, though, and whatever she tried to tell herself, it was not normal. She recognized the gasping and whimpering, already starting again, as the air coiled tighter around her.

Oh no. Not yet…

“Alex!” She was louder this time and a bit panicky.

Her father’s deep voice rumbled softly through the walls like distant thunder, muting her mother’s exhausted panting. But despite his almost magically soothing tone, her mother panted faster and louder. The snake was still coiling.

Screw the “Barging In” rule…

She shoved the door open, but it bounced off of something on the other side and snapped shut again, knocking her backwards.

“Ow! Dammit!” a guy’s voice said. It wasn’t Alex.

The door opened about two inches, and a vertical slice of a wide freckled face peered through the crack. It was Alex’s enormous friend from their football team.

“Jacob? What are you doing here?” She pushed the door, but neither he nor it budged. “Move. I need to come in.”

“Not now, squirt,” he whispered, and closed the door.

Anger and disbelief overpowered her fear.

Squirt? Did he just close a door in my face? In my own house?

Her father’s voice grew louder as he tried to talk over her mother’s intensifying groans.

“Okay. Okay. You’re all right. Squeeze my hand. It’s all right,” he said in a continuous litany.

“Oh… Ohhh NOOO,” her mother cried in a trembling, high-pitched voice. “It’s bad, David. It’s so bad. I don’t want… Don’t… Please don’t let me die!” Every word sounded forced. She was struggling to keep up the fight, to live.

The door opened when Lanni tried it again, and she slipped into the smallish room, ready to punch Jacob in his big nose if he got in her way. Alex was at his desk, sketching on an oversized pad with colored pencils, as if nothing else in the world mattered. His haunted face was nearly as pale as his paper. He looked so much worse than he had just a couple of hours earlier.

“Look, pipsqueak,” Jacob hissed, standing up from the edge of the bed, “he won’t talk to you right now. You know how he gets, so just go back to your little lair and let him draw.” He grabbed her shoulders and spun her around to face the door.

She had no hope of resisting him, but she defiantly planted her feet and made him push, anyway. At six-foot-two, with arms like a teenage Hulk, he had little trouble. He was only a year ahead of her, but even for an eighth grader, he was a veritable giant.

“What’s the matter with you? This is my house,” she said in disbelief. “Let go of me!”

“Just knock it off and get out of here, okay? I don’t want to hurt you,” Jacob said. Something in his tone sounded odd, less sure of himself than usual.

“Hurt me?” It was the last straw. Whatever his reasons were for acting like this, she had had enough of it. She kicked his shin with her heel and stomped down on his sock-clad ankle.

Ow! What the…”

As he reflexively hopped onto his other foot, she jammed her shoulder into his chest and shoved. Sensei Rumiko always said “Distract and destroy.” It worked. He stumbled backwards and fell on the bed.

Her racing heart pumped more pain into her head, but it didn’t keep her from noticing the rage boiling up in Jacob’s face.

“That’s right. Get up and grab me again, because I do want to hurt you!” she said. She felt like she was watching the situation unfold from a tiny room in her mind. She had every reason to be upset, but this lust for violence wasn’t like her. It wasn’t like Jacob to be so forceful either.

He jumped back up, looking like he wanted to tackle her.

Was this really happening? Couldn’t he hear her mother screaming and pleading for her life in the next room? Had the entire world gone crazy?

“Jacob, get out of my house! You shouldn’t even be here.”

“Alex told me to come over,” he growled. “He said it was important, and I’m not leaving until he tells me to. So get lost, and quit bothering everyone.”

She gasped as his iron-like fingers clamped onto her right shoulder. As his other arm reached past her to open the door, she reached up and pinched the thin skin on his triceps, just above his elbow.

He jerked his arm back with an angry yelp, while Lanni took advantage of his distraction and grabbed his other hand. She twisted until his pinkie was on top, and in a single, fluid motion, she rolled his fingertips toward the ceiling and pressed toward his chest. He dropped to his knees like a bag of rocks, leaning forward to relieve some of the painful pressure on his wrist.

Lanni’s rage was in full swing. “Are you seriously making me do this?” she asked, red-faced with exertion and anger. “My mother could be dying, my twin brother is sick and no one knows what’s wrong with him, and you still think this is the time to mess with me?” She pressed harder on his wrist, forcing his face closer to the floor.

“Lisa… Lisa-Ann! You’re… you’re gonna break my wrist!” he stammered.

“Yeah, I think I am,” she growled. “And it’ll serve you right. Are you ‘roid raging or something? You come into my house and push me around? Listen to that! That’s my mother!”

“I’m… Ouch! I’m sorry! You can let go now. You made your point.”

She slapped the inside of his elbow, bending his arm and putting even more pressure on his wrist. “If you ever put your bigugly hands on me again, you won’t get them back.” She gave him a final shove and sent him rolling sideways into the bed frame. “Now get out of here!”

Alex never even looked up from his drawing. It was the local high school mascot: a knight in full armor with his sword raised high and a bold red S emblazoned on his shield. He could draw that one in his sleep, and that’s just what he seemed to be doing.

Jacob winced as he stood up, cradling his hand. “You know I let you do that, squirt. You’re getting pretty good, though.” He was embarrassed and trying to sound tough, but the real anger was gone from his voice.

“Bye, Jacob.” She sat in the chair next to Alex and watched his hands dance across the sketch pad. His talent for tuning out the world was epic, but as their headaches had grown more intense, his focus had become more than a little trancelike. His glassy eyes leaked at the corners, and if he even knew she was in the room, he showed no sign of it.

“I’m real sorry I grabbed you, Lanni. I don’t know what I was thinking. It’s just… all this is really freaking me out. Alex is being weirder than usual, and your mom… is she having problems? I know she’s in labor, but she doesn’t sound good, and Alex hasn’t said a thing.”

Lanni turned and stared at Jacob, dumbfounded. “Labor? She’s only four months, so, yeah, I’d say she’s having problems.”

Jacob’s face went red, and he looked at the floor. Despite their little melee, he wasn’t trying to be mean. Saying the right thing just wasn’t one of his strengths. He was usually a pretty gentle guy, even though he tried his best to hide it. 

“She sounds bad,” Lanni said, “but she’ll be all right. Being pregnant hurts, doesn’t it? That’s all it is.” She sounded less confident with each word. What she knew about being pregnant wouldn’t fill a thimble, but despite her words, she suspected that this was anything but normal.

Jacob nodded confidently. “I’m sure you’re right, Lanni. Maybe she’s having triplets this time. That could be it. And what mother wouldn’t scream with three or four kids like you in her belly?” He was trying to be funny, reassuring, and comforting all at once but couldn’t quite pull it off.

It wasn’t his fault, though. With all of the dire news on TV, very few people had anything to be cheery about. The stories ranged from deadly pandemics, to biblical prophecies of last days coming true, and everything in between. Something was obviously very wrong in the world.