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Chapter Thirty Eight

June 26, 1998

Orlando, Florida

“In what world is 2 o’clock the morning? Didn’t she say he wanted you in the office in the morning?”

One thing I’ve learned about Nick is that in times of crisis he does one of two things. He totally withdraws or he never shuts up.

This is the never shut up mode.

“You know, whatever they say, we should really get a second opinion. I mean who can’t notice a twin right away? It’s not like there’s a lot of room in there to play hide and seek.”

I press my head against the car window. I’ve been up all night. There’s a chunk of Nick’s memories and my own that neither of us remember. What if this is it? What if Ben had a twin all along but she died?

The feeling of popcorn popping only grows worse the closer we get to the office. I imagine Ben in there saying ‘mom, we need help in here!’

“Yeah, I’m sure he was trying to figure out the whole third leg thing and didn’t take the time to count everything.”

I want nothing more to scream at him to shut up, but I can’ do it because I know he doesn’t even realize how the constant babbling is getting on my nerves.

“The parking lot isn’t even full. I bet the guy just wanted to go out to lunch first. If this was a real emergency they would have seen you as soon as they opened.”

As soon as Nick parks, I am out of the car. I gulp in air and the momentary silence like it is precious metal. I hear Nick’s door close.

“Car sick?”

I shake my head. He walks towards me and takes my hand.

Annoying chatter aside, I am at least glad that I’m not alone for this. I wonder if I’ve already gone through this alone…

The walk up to the office feels like a death march. Nick holds open the door and I head inside. I prepare to walk up and sign in, but a nurse intercepts me.

“They’re waiting for you in the office,” she says. I notice a flush to her cheeks. The flush deepens as she smiles at Nick.

The Nick worship has happened every single time we’ve come in. They all know he’s not the dad and I think the way they see him treat me gets all their ovaries pumping. But today...today this nurse looks like she’s going to explode.

Nick presses his hand against my back and we navigate the hallways. The nurse worms her way in front of me and pushes the door to the ultrasound room open. A rush of cold air greets me first.

Brian’s terrified eyes greet me second.

“What are you doing here?”

It’s not my question. It’s Nick’s. Brian gives him a look that could melt ice. He looks ten times healthier than we saw him just a few weeks ago.

“I got the results yesterday. I came down to talk to Dr. Hassel personally and he told me…” Brian’s words fade away.

“While the amniocentesis results are without question, admittedly, the surprise twin called the thoroughness of the rest of the ultrasound into question,” Dr. Hassel says. His voice is calm, but not comforting. He almost sounds bored. Why do scientific minds always seem so detached? “Upon further examination I discovered some limited views that raised concerns. After talking with Brian and examining his own history, I am even more convinced that we need to do a fetal echocardiogram on both babies and a more extensive ultrasound.“

“What kind of concerns?” Nick asks for me.

“A potential heart defect.”

I let out a sound that was half dying animal.

“Courtney, do we have your permission to conduct these tests today?”

I look at Nick. He looks like he’s been slapped.

Brian looks even worse. His head is in his hands and his scrawny legs are spread out, ending in giant tennis shoes that are bobbing up and down with the nervous tick of a man that can’t sit still. Someone has to hold themselves together.

But why does it have to be me?

“Yes, you have my permission.”

“Ah, they’ve moved around a bit. Here we can see the boy much better.”

“Is that an arm? Is he---” Brian leans closer.

“Touching his face,” the doctor finishes.

“And that’s all happening right now.”

Brian is in awe. Nick looks like it is killing him not to scoot up close to the monitor and join him. Instead he squeezes my hand, pressing his cheek against the fleshy part of my palm.

“Right now,” Dr. Hassel confirms. “It’s going to get a little less defined now as I concentrate on the heart.”

The room is so quiet you could hear a pin drop. The breathing of the nurse sitting near Brian is the loudest thing going on in the room. It’s the same one that looked like she was going to pee her pants when we walked in. Now I realize why.

The Littrell effect.

“Okay, I have a good view.”

Another machine is brought over and I lay as still as possible. The sound of a heartbeat fills the room and relief washes over even though just the sight of the baby touching his own face should have convinced me that he was alive.

The test goes on for ten minutes.

“Alright, now we find the little girl.”

If any woman has ever had some sort of fantasy of being pregnant and having the two hottest Backstreet Boys in the room while she’s getting an ultrasound, she needs to listen to me: there is nothing remotely sexy about it. I need to pee, Brian’s in prayer position and Nick looks like he’s going to dig his main vein in his arm out.

“Roll slightly.”

Rolling slightly when you have to pee is not an easy thing to do. I shift to my side, and instantly the pressure makes me want to curse.


Like hell.

Again, the silence descends while the doctor studies the screen. Every now and then a little glossy sheet of paper descends from the machine. I feel the additional pressure of the other machine.

The sound of a heartbeat fills the room. I don’t know if it is because I am already prepared for the worst, but it sounds different.

A bad different.

“Alright folks, it’s going to take a little while to get the official results.”

I am sandwiched between Nick and Brian. They haven’t said a word to each other.

“In your opinion, what is the unofficial result?”

“Atrioventricular canal defect.”

Brian sinks back into his chair. Nick leans forward.

“And that is?”

“ACD is caused by a poorly formed central area of the heart. Typically, there is a large hole between the upper chambers of the heart (the atria) and, often, an additional hole between the lower chambers of the heart (the ventricles). Instead of two separate valves allowing flow into the heart (tricuspid on the right and mitral valve on the left), there is one large common valve, which may be quite malformed.”

I blink rapidly. All I hear is ‘dead, dead, dead...’

“If the results agree with your diagnosis, what can be done?”

Dr. Hassel looks at me. I want to dig his eyes out. All of a sudden I’m angry. Incredibly, irrationally angry.

“Right now, both fetuses are relying heavily on you for major life-giving functions. The true danger is if the defect worsens in utero. This could result in a stillborn child and may put the other fetus in danger.”

“How will we know?” Brian asks.

“What’s this ‘we’ stuff?” Nick asks.

They look at each other.

“These are my,” Brian pauses. “my children. Courtney and I need to figure out what can be done.”

“It’s going to be more difficult with twins. One of the key signs is monitoring movement, but there’s no way to distinguish the activity when two are in such tight quarters.”

“And the baby boy could die too?” Nick chokes.

“It’s a risk.”

Nick slams back in his chair.

“This is your fault, Brian.”

“Excuse me? My fault? I’m sorry, but I find it creepy you’re so obsessed with a woman who is pregnant with my children.”

I don’t see Nick get up, but I hear the chair slam against the wall. A split second later, Brian’s chair hits the wall and there is a rush of blonde.

“NICK!” I scream, moving out of my chair just in time for it to go skittering across the small office.

All I can think of is that Brian’s going to end up dead, a mass of stitches split open.

Except, the scene playing out in front of me is vastly different.

Brian is beating Nick’s ass.

By a mile.