The ultrasound screen flickers into life.
At first, there’s nothing; just an eddying swirl of white mist on a black background, abstract and meaningless. Dr Clark steadies the wand, slick with gel and cold against my abdomen.
“Look,” she says.
I look. There’s an empty black space, and within it, two smudges, indistinct at first, but as she moves the wand, you come into focus. Both of you. You’re facing each other, curled up in identical little balls, and my heart soars; finally, you’re real. I had known it all along, of course; there was no doubt in my mind that this time you’d survive. Call it instinct.
“They’re perfect,” I say.
Dr Clark is beaming. I’ve never seen her look so excited. In a way, you are her children too; you are her project, her theory come to life, and as she inclines the wand this way and that way and your tiny limbs come into focus, I see her eyes light up. She looks, I think, like an expectant mother should; rosy-cheeked and breathlessly happy. The ironic thing is she’s awful with children.
“Les Enfants Terribles,” she says, mock-dramatically. “It seems unfair to call them that. They don’t even have functional cerebral cortices yet.”
We stare at the screen in reverent silence as you float side by side in the darkness, unaware of how important you both are, even at this early stage. It must be so silent in there, so safe and warm, like a cocoon. Like nothing can ever hurt you.
After a time, Dr Clark switches off the screen, and hands me some paper towels, and I clean up the gel – already, my abdomen is swollen and rounded and I feel, for the first time, like this is actually happening. I’m actually going to be a mother.
I see my private thoughts echoed in Dr Clark’s bright smile, in the fire of her eyes.
Adam’s come to see me.
He doesn’t know where to look. It’s like he’s never seen a pregnant woman before. And I really do look pregnant now. My stomach is a great round protrusion; I can’t hide it with clever dressing anymore. He looks at my face, the floor, the wall, anything but my stomach. I can see he’s feeling awkward, so I invite him in, and he mutters something in thanks.
He’s brought a big bag of ice, and he leaves it on the kitchen counter, where it slowly thaws in the afternoon heat. It’s a strange gift, but I accept it with good grace. I remember being told once that it's considered bad luck in Russia to give a pregnant woman a gift; perhaps this not-present is his way of circumventing that superstition. Or perhaps he's just relentlessly practical.
“How are you holding up?” he asks.
I laugh, just a little; I don’t want to hurt his feelings. “I’m pregnant, Adam. I’m not dying.”
“I know,” he grumbles. His hands are shoved in his pockets, and his gaze hovers in the space between us. “I just…I don’t know. It looks…uncomfortable.”
“It is,” I tell him. I collapse back into the sofa; the springs creak beneath my unexpected weight, cushioning my descent. “You try lugging around two little people all day, every day.”
Adam quirks an eyebrow. “There are two of them?”
Now there’s a surprise. He didn’t know? No, that can’t be right; although Adam has been on the periphery as far as this project is concerned, he has always made a point of keeping himself informed. Sometimes, I think he knows more about it all that I do. Apparently, I was wrong.
“Twins,” I tell him, and pat my belly. The gesture makes him flinch a little. “Did Clark not tell you?”
“Clark doesn’t tell me anything if she can help it.” He sounds almost annoyed about this, and I sense there’s something more to his negativity than just being left in the dark. I know Adam has some degree of emotional investment in all of this. He wanted John’s genes to continue along with the rest of us. At least, that’s what he said. I know Adam isn’t always honest.
He’s still standing there, staring into space, his expression vague.
“She probably just forgot.”
“Mhm. Perhaps.” There’s a long pause, in which we stare wordlessly at one another and I know he’s looking past me, at the wall, purposefully avoiding my gaze. In all the time I’ve known him – even in Groznyj Grad, when he treated me like an inconvenience – I have never felt quite so distant from him.
And then he straightens up, dusts some imaginary speck from his coat. “I should go,” he says, without even a hint of apology. “Just…take it easy, okay?”
I watch him leave.
By the time I get to the ice, it has melted; a big bag of water, sitting on the kitchen counter, all that remains of Adam's strange gift.
John is gone.
Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. He’s not gone, not really, but he has left us. Left the Patriots. It’s been a long time coming, I think; him and Zero, those petty squabbles and long, philosophical discussions about The Boss and what she wanted, which would always end in some kind of altercation. I don’t think John took it very well. He idolised The Boss in the same way Zero idolises him. They have different ideas; each convinced they are better qualified to speak on The Boss's behalf.
So he’s gone, and I don’t think he’ll be back.
I knew he had not given his personal agreement to the project, but hadn’t thought he’d object so strongly. I had been under the impression that he’d given his DNA over willingly.
So had Adam.
I understand now why Adam had been so subdued last time we met. He’s conflicted. On one hand, he understands the importance of John’s genetic legacy. On the other…
Well. Adam never knowingly does anything to hurt John. And here he is, participating – however loosely – in a project that John is vehemently against. And worse, knowing that the DNA sample my sons are built from was not given, but taken; they took it from John when he was in a coma, and never thought to tell him.
Part of me sympathises with Adam. I know why he’s angry. I should be too.
But I can’t be. Not while I have you both. Not while I can feel you moving and shifting within me, heavy and burdensome and yet somehow so very precious.
You are my priority now.
I haven’t heard from John in weeks, and Adam seems to have disappeared too. It’s starting to feel a little lonely here.
Dr Clark checks up on me every few days, and although her presence is welcome, I’m starting to feel as if she sees me as some kind of incubator. A host for her prize project. Maybe that’s unfair of me; I’m overly sensitive these days. Blame it on the hormones.
Zero comes with her occasionally. He’s the very embodiment of good cheer, and it’s contagious. He talks about the odd films Clark has been showing him (I have heard of none of them, but that barely seems important; the distraction is welcome) and the weather, and while he’s around I can almost forget that this group is on the verge of falling apart, and I’m at the centre of the schism.
You are both in perfect health. That’s what Clark tells me every time she checks, and every time I feel my heart gladden, and I can push down that glut of uncertainty for a little while. Because my sons are healthy, and that is all that matters. I no longer care that there is not a shred of my DNA in either of you because I have carried you and nourished you all this time. It is my body that keeps you safe and warm, and my body that takes the strain as you grow ever bigger.
I would not change it. This is the closest I will ever come to forging a bond with John. Mother to his unwanted children. Unknowing conspirator against him at Dr Clark's behest.
I try not to think about how much he must hate me now.
It’s finally happening. With every searing pain, every pull and push. The contractions are like a hot spear through my middle. But it’s okay. I can do this. You’re ready to come into the world, and I’m ready to hold you in my arms for the first time.
My hair is stuck to my face; I am coated in sweat, and I am panting like a dog, and I am screaming and clutching and searching for respite. Dr Clark is a calming presence, and when Zero fretfully tells her it’s too early, she fixes him with an ice cold stare – “It’s fine,” she tells him, “this is normal for multiple births” – and he’s silent again. I order him out of the room, and he goes to sit with Don, who is squeamish and wants nothing to do with this part of the process.
I desperately wish John or Adam were here. I wish with all my heart to have that familiarity, but I know they won’t come, and I am alone, and the pain is suddenly too intense and I cry out. I want this to stop. I can’t do this anymore. I am alone, and I am afraid, and Clark is administering something through a syringe, into the IV, and after a moment everything seems very hazy. The pain recedes until it is on the very edge of everything, and I am somewhere high above it. I am distantly aware of a coolness on my forehead and I realise a nurse is pressing a damp flannel to my face, wiping away the hot sweat and the tears. I want to thank her but the words don’t come out right, and she smiles a tight-lipped smile, and then she is gone.
I am ready for you now.
Even from this distance I feel a sudden sharp flare of pain, a burst that radiates outwards until it tingles in the very tips of my fingers.
“You’re doing great,” Clark tells me. In her surgical scrubs and blue paper cap, I barely recognise her; there is a coldness in her eyes that frightens me in a way I don’t understand. “Just one more push. Can you do that?”
I nod. And I push with all my might.
There is a cry. A high pitched wail that sounds barely human, a shuddering vibrato that reverberates deep inside. And then I know. This is almost over.
It takes everything I have, every last little drop of will and energy and being, to bring you both into the world, but I do it; I don’t know how. I don’t know what was in that syringe but it’s sending me somewhere I don’t want to go. I’m fighting and clawing at it, but I can’t resist; I sink further and further away, and by the time I see you, bloody and pink and perfect, your brother is already swaddled in a towel and disappearing out of the door. Away from me.
I reach out my arms. They feel like they’re made of lead. Clark lowers my hands gently. She looks sternly into my eyes.
“We’re just making sure they’re okay,” she says. “You can hold them soon.”
Somehow, I already know she’s lying.
I strain for one look before they steal you from me.
You have blue eyes, and a thick tuft of dark hair, and your face is screwed up in an expression of complete confusion; you wail from the very depths of your lungs. I know you’re crying out for me.
Hush, my baby. My beautiful little boy.
We’ll be together soon.
Even if I have to fight for you.