Gemini by Charlotte Morgan

Fork in a snowy road
Photo by Oliver Roos on Unsplash

When that technician pointed out two heartbeats and two precious teensy penises on the screen, I was over the moon. Buddy leaned over and kissed me and cried real quiet-like, like he wasn’t actually crying, but I knew he was. Right away the names Elvis and Jesse popped into my head—Mama raised me on Elvis—but I didn’t say that out loud. Buddy would’ve immediately made frying egg sounds and said in a high sissy voice, “This is your brain on baby.”

I’d been a total ditz when I was pregnant with Kayla, but so far I was much calmer this time around. No morning sickness, no baby heebie-jeebies. So I did like Mary in the Bible and kept the secret names close to my heart. Buddy might even go for the name Jesse if I didn’t make a big deal about the sad story behind it.

Twins had had this peculiar hold on me for years, ever since I’d found out that Elvis had a stillborn twin brother, Jesse Garon. Something inside me grabbed onto that, like those instant conversions on the religious channels my Mama watched. Living in Memphis, it was like Elvis was everybody’s cousin, but this one story is the one that grabbed onto me.

It struck me as the saddest thing that that precious child didn’t get to run around East Tupelo and play with his beautiful brother. I read somewhere that when Elvis was extra blue he’d talk out loud to his brother, like he was right there with him. I could believe that.

Course Elvis’s Mama was terrible overprotective with him—who wouldn’t be, after having that quiet, still baby born first?

I’d sit out in a lawn chair those hot June nights, after Kayla and Buddy were asleep, and look up at the moon and rub my huge moon of a belly and pray for two healthy baby boys. Buddy’s actual name was Walter Junior, which is a good reason why he went by Buddy all his life, so we never even talked about calling one of these babies Walter the Third. Kayla, I had to fight with Buddy over that one. Once I found it in one of those lists of baby girl names, and found out it means pure and strong in mythology, that was it. She was Kayla.

Jesse and Aaron. Jesse and Garon. Jesse and King (my one granddaddy’s nickname), Jesse and Rock, Jesse and whoever. I’d even let Buddy name the other one, if I could have Jesse. For some reason I felt like I needed to honor that boy.

“What would you think of calling one of them Elvis, Buddy?” I asked when I was fixing his coffee thermos. “How’d you like that?”

“No son of mine’s gonna be named after some guy who died on the toilet, Tammy.”

Letting him say no on Elvis made it so as I could hold firm on Jesse. I would never give in on that.

 

Almost eight months along my ankles started swelling bigger than tree trunks—chankles, my girlfriend Amy called them, for chubby ankles, and we’d laugh like crazy. But my O.B. said it wasn’t a bit funny. He claimed I was right on the verge of something scary called gestational diabetes. Just hearing those medical words took all the fun out of my swollen feet. He put me on home rest, which meant I wasn’t supposed to drive or bring in the groceries or even give Kayla her bath.

Mama started coming over right after work, around three, ‘cause she’s a teacher’s aide in a pre-school for children with problems. She claimed she could get all twelve babies to sleep in two minutes by singing Love Me Tender. That makes her a know-it-all where child care’s concerned, but right then I could put up with her never-ending advice, I was so bored and worried. She’d say “You oughta be up walking around,” despite the doctor telling me to stay still.

Mostly during the day I’d sit up sideways on the sofa, my swollen legs propped on two big bed pillows, and clip coupons or recipes and try to be upbeat and not worry. I was used to running and doing all the time—I couldn’t sit still long enough to look at a TV show—and I’d never been much of a reader, either. So I taught myself to do the easy sudokus and crossword puzzles to keep my jittery mind off all the stuff I needed to get ready for bringing home two precious baby boys.

Days with Kayla in daycare and Buddy working at the station dragged like mud going uphill. Buddy would leave me a pitcher of water and peanut butter bread on the coffee table, and I’d drink and clip and fill in the blanks, but I couldn’t help worrying myself sick about the bitty little babies. They were growing okay—when I stood up to go to the bathroom I’d have to hug my arms under them, to keep from wetting my pants. I tried to wait till I was about to pop before I’d go, ‘cause I was supposed to stay off my feet. My doctor told me it’d be way better if the babies got to grow a few more weeks. I kept picturing a teensy baby just like Jesse Garon, still as a stone, and I’d get all weepy and lonesome and scared.

Buddy would stop by during his lunch hour with something easy for my lunch. Even though I was supposed to watch my salt and stay away from sodas, he hardly had time to do more than stop at one of the fast food places and get me a chicken meal or tacos or Wendy’s chili and a potato. Mama would fix me something when she got here for a snack before supper—something I loved like banana pudding or zucchini bread—‘cause she was a big one for a woman eating for two—in my case, three—and she wanted me to have something nourishing and homemade so the babies would come out all pudgy. She’d even go outside for her cig break without a fuss, ‘cause she’d seen on Oprah how bad secondhand smoke is.

One morning I was feeling so bored I wished I knew how to knit, when somebody rang the doorbell, making me jump up before I even thought about it. I should’ve sat right down again, ‘cause I did feel kinda woozy, but I was already up, and even though I knew it had to be some Holy Roller or a salesman, I waddled to the front hall.

Outside the screen door a little boy was standing there, quiet as a church. He only came up to my shoulders. I don’t know if it was from standing up too fast or the sharp sunlight, but I couldn’t see this child’s features right away. He had a sorta bright glow all around him.

“Ma’am?” He hadn’t gotten his big boy voice yet.

“Uh-huh?”

“Ma’am, I’m sorry to disturb you, but I’m collecting so my class can win a prize and go to Dollywood.” He held a piece of yellow paper up against the screen.

“Don’t you have school today?”

“No ma’am, I go to Catholic. It’s a teacher work day.”

I squinted at him. His little blond head had a part and his hair actually swooped to one side of his forehead, like the boys in old-timey movies.

He pressed the paper to the screen. “This tells you all about our project, in case you’re worried I’m one of those people who take advantage of shut-ins. My mama’s back there on the sidewalk,” he indicated with his head, “and I’ve got some catalogs of the delicious candies we have for sale, if you’d like to see.”

Over his shoulder I could see a small woman in glasses standing under one of the maple trees the city planted.

“I’m sorry. I’m not supposed to be up and about, and I don’t have any idea where I put my pocketbook.”

“That’s perfectly all right, Ma’am. I hope you have a happy day.” He held out a candy bar and, stunned speechless, I had to push the screen and take it. He turned and started down the front porch steps.

“Son?”

He looked over his shoulder. “Yes Ma’am?”

“What’s your name, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Joshua. Bye now.”

That sweet child gave me the greatest comfort. His name, Joshua, struck me as perfect. From the Bible and all. Strong and helpful and God’s own miracle.

 

Mama’d stay with me till late afternoon, until Buddy got home with Kayla, when she had to go home to feed her cats. I didn’t tell her about the little boy this morning, mostly ‘cause she’d be mad when she found out I’d answered the door for a stranger. I thought about telling Buddy, but he’d be grumpy ‘cause I’d jumped up to answer the bell. All afternoon I couldn’t get that sweet Joshua out of my mind.

Buddy wasn’t much for cooking, though some nights he’d make scrambled eggs with cheese and toast. Mostly while I was flat on my back he brought in Kentucky Fried meal deals or Chinese or pizza; I’d get my vegetables that way. We’d sit around the coffee table and eat together, and he’d act all goofy and happy, but I knew he was worried sick. How that man managed to lose weight while I was bloating up like a blowfish I’ll never know. Kayla would snuggle down beside me, after we ate, and rub the babies and we’d sing songs—I’m a Little Teapot and In a Cabin in the Woods were two of her favorites. We’d play naming the boys, silly names like Jeremiah Bullfrog and Horton Who or Babar and Tabar; Buddy would offer sports names like Michael J. and Kobe. I still kept Jesse secret. And Joshua, too. I could sing to them myself when nobody else was around. How Great Thou Art. The Elvis version.

 

Why would it happen at night, when it’s dark and scarier than daytime?

“Buddy, I’m cramping up fast, like the babies are about to pop out.” I had to breathe hard to get any words out. “My head’s about to explode.” He sat up, confused. “Call the rescue squad. We don’t have time to drive.” I’d had Kayla natural; my water had broken, I’d taken a shower, four hours later at the hospital I had a plump pink baby girl. This was way different. It hurt lots more. And I hadn’t even packed my bag yet. Thank the good Lord Buddy’s MeMaw walked in right ahead of the EMTs, so we didn’t have to wake Kayla.

 

Buddy was standing over me in the clean, clean room; where did all this sunshine come from? I knew, then, knew by his stillness, that something was way wrong.

“They’re both okay, Tammy. I swear. You remember you saw them in the delivery room?” He said these words but his face and eyes said something different. “I been with them every second till just a minute ago.”

“Tell me. Tell me now.” Had I really seen them? I sorta remembered one tiny quiet baby all covered with whiteish stuff.

“They’re wee small; the one’s only a little over two pounds. The other’s barely three.”

“They have names, Buddy. Don’t you dare call them ‘the one’ and ‘the other’. It’s little Joshua—he’s the tiny one. And Jesse. ”

“They both have some blood problem, they think.”

Something inside a me started to scream.

A beautiful lady walked in right then. She barely came to Buddy’s shoulders. I reckoned she was a nurse.

“Mrs. Petty? I’m Dr. Wholinger. Neonatal Intensive Care. I want to talk to you about your boys. I’ve already spoken to Mr. Petty.”

There. She’d called them boys. I already trusted this lady. I couldn’t so much as say hello, back, though. Mama came in behind her, looking all drawn and old.

“Could you two pull up those chairs, please?” She looked at Buddy and Mama. Her calm voice was a bit of a comfort, but still my fists were clenching the sheets.

All three of us stared at her. “I need your permission to take some blood, and to transfuse, Mrs. Petty, Mr. Petty. But I have to tell you that even pricking their feet right now is risky. But we’ve got to do it. We need to figure out what’s going on with them as quickly as we can.”

“What’s wrong with them?” I asked.

“That’s what we need to find out. They’re both covered with petechiae, tiny broken blood vessels. We need to pinpoint why. To prevent hemorrhaging. Which is why taking blood is, well, more problematic than usual.”

Buddy sat there like a stone. For once my mother didn’t say a word.

“Have you been typed?” She looked right at Buddy. “We may need you, Mr. Petty, in case we need emergency blood.”

Finally, “What about me?” from Mama and me at the exact same time.

“Ms. Petty, you can’t give blood right now. And you…” she gave Mama a quick direct look, “if you’re blood related then, yes, it would be good to type you, too.”

I hated Mama for smoking right that minute. What if hers was the only blood that worked? After making her smoke outside wouldn’t it be something for her nicotine blood to be inside my little baby boys?

“Right now, your children are stable,” the doctor said. “That’s all I can tell you. My job is to find out what’s going on and take care of it. When I know something specific I’ll tell you.”

Another woman in a blouse with pink pigs on it came in, pushing a computer. A huge guy with a cart of test tubes pushed along behind her.

“Nurse Thompson will get the permissions. We’ll take a look at the blood work and be back as soon as I’ve checked the babies.” At the door she stopped and looked back. “Oh. We’re pretty sure they’re identical.”

Before Nurse Thompson could say a word I asked, “When can I see my babies?”

“Soon as the doctor okays you,” she answered, smiling a chipper smile. “He’ll want to check your stitches first. Soon as possible, I promise.”

“Stitches?” I looked from Buddy to Mama. Buddy was rolling up his sleeve while the big guy was tapping a needle. All three of us were crying.

 

I don’t remember answering any questions, but I must have. I had an IV going and a lot of machines hooked up to me. Mama was praying and Buddy was talking real quiet to the nurse. Otherwise the room was still as a tomb. I had the shakes so bad I wanted to jump out of my skin, but my arms and legs felt like logs. And my breasts were swollen and sore, but I didn’t care. I wanted my babies. I tried to sit up but it was like I didn’t have any muscles at all, and this weird tugging down deep in my belly kept me flat on my back.

“Buddy? Where are the babies?”

He leaned his body over to mine. “Honeybunch, they’re in the intensive care for newborn babies. The doctor came by a minute ago, remember, said she didn’t have any news yet. Don’t you think no news…”

“Did she tell you what’s wrong?”

“No. She said she’d be back. Right now your Mama’s gonna go on home to talk to Kayla and get you some clean clothes. There’s not a thing we can do.”

“I need to see my babies!”

“They’re gonna bring a wheelchair,” she said. “Soon as the doctor looks at your stitches.”

I thought I might start screaming right that second. I knew those baby boys needed me, same as if they were still inside me. I was ready to crawl if I had to.

“Pastor Jon came by, too, while you were in recovery. He prayed with us.”

“You can tell Pastor Jon to kiss my ass. Praying ain’t the answer here. I need to see my boys.” I didn’t mean to yell at Buddy, but being stuck in this damn bed was not gonna help me or my babies or anybody. “I need to get to my boys. They need me right this second!”

 

A nurse came hurrying in and started taking my blood pressure and making those tut tut noises people make when they think they’re helping you.

“I need to see my babies, do you hear me,” I screamed at her, loud enough to wake the dead.

“Miz Petty, Doctor Mac’s on the floor. He just got out of delivery. He’ll be right here. Just stay calm. You can’t get all upset…”

“Stay calm yourself—I have to go see my babies.” I struggled to sit up, but she and Buddy held me by the shoulders. I was crying so hard by now that snot was running onto my gown.

The tiny lady doctor and Dr. Mac both came in right then. I searched her face to see if she’d brought me bad news, but all I could see was exhaustion. Dr. Mac stepped in place of the nurse. “Be still, Tammy, let me take a look at your incision so you can get upstairs.”

Dr. what’s-her-name started in talking. “The boys are holding their own. We think we’ve isolated the problem—an unusual blood disorder. Not hemophilia, we’re pretty sure.”

I thought hemophilia was something made up to do with the Russians; I couldn’t believe it was really some disease that my boys could’ve had. “That’s a big relief, isn’t it?”

“Right now, Mr. and Mrs. Petty, we think they aren’t making platelets. That’s what we’ve identified so far, which narrows the possibilities.”

“What does that mean?” I whispered.

“Right now we need to find platelet matches.”

Buddy was standing. “What about me?”

“Essentially their platelets were destroyed by yours in utero, ‘cause Mrs. Petty’s blood identified them as foreign. I’ll tell you more later.” She looked at me. “And of course you still can’t give blood.”

She hurried off again; I was glad to see somebody moving fast. I was aware of Dr. Mac checking me over, but it was like that bottom half of my body belonged to somebody else. “Buddy, did she just say that my blood was killing my babies? Is that what she just said?”

“Okay, Miz Petty, the wheelchair’s coming. This may hurt a bit, a pinch, hold still, we’re gonna give you a little something for the pain and let you go on up. But you MUST stay calm; you lost blood yourself.”

I don’t think I even spoke to my doctor. I only remember Buddy and the nurse helping me off the bed—I was no use, like a sack of sand—then him pushing me in a wheelchair onto an elevator and hitting a button for the fifth floor. Upstairs? I remember Kayla was on the same floor as me. I had the shakes all over.

 

When the elevator doors opened a sign said Neonatal Intensive Care: No Entry. But the nurse pushed us right through the double doors into what looked like a sterilized kitchen. Through a big glass window I could see rows of little baby containers, but I couldn’t see any babies. They were all surrounded by machines and nurses.

“Step right over here,” the nurse said. “And I’ll show you how to cleanse your hands. You’ll do this each time you visit.”

I was numb while me and Buddy washed and put on robes and masks, but that nurse was just as calm as if she was selling me a pair of shoes.

“You’re welcome here any time of day or night. Now put on these gloves—you’re not going to be able to touch the babies just yet, I’m sorry.”

She began pushing me through some double doors down a long corridor of baby beds. Some looked more like spaceships. Buddy didn’t say a word. I reached my hand behind me so he’d hold onto me. “Why aren’t the babies crying?” I asked the air in front of me.

“Here we are; next time you can stay as long as you like, or until the doctor needs them, but your doctor wants you back in bed quickly, Miz Petty.”

Both boys were together in the same little bed, sorta like a clear plastic wash bin with a white towel under them. I could see their tiny chests breathing in and out, but otherwise they weren’t moving at all. Like two rubber dolls somebody had deflated. And they had wires all over them, like E.T. in the movie. Their eyes were closed, and they just breathed in and breathed out these tiny breaths like baby kittens. Their little mouths didn’t even move. Right that second I wanted them back inside me so bad I thought I’d vomit. They weren’t ready; they just weren’t ready.

“Aren’t they beautiful?” Buddy whispered.

I stared. “Why do you think they’re making tiny fists? Do you think they’re mad I sent them here too soon?”

“Oh, Tammy, honey, those boys aren’t a bit mad. They’re fighting their hardest is all.”

I noticed little signs on both corners of the bassinet: Petty, Baby A; Petty, Baby B. “Oh, Buddy,” I was full out crying now, “please get somebody. Please. Make them write Jesse and Joshua. Right this second.”

Photo of stars on sky avove a tree
Photo by Erwan Hesry on Unsplash

Later, when I woke up again in my room, I was groggy but I knew with total clearness that something had changed. I was alone, but a sure knowing in my gut told me this wasn’t a peaceful quiet. “Buddy? Where are you, Buddy?” I pressed the buzzer for the nurse. I had been scared before; now I was terrified.

A different nurse came in. “Can I help you, Mrs. Petty? Could I get you some water?”

She bustled over to my bedside but she didn’t look me smack in the face. “What’s wrong? Something’s wrong. Where’s my husband?”

“Dr. Wholinger will be here any minute. She asked me to let her know as soon as you woke up.”

Buddy came in then, his face pale and tracked with tears. “Hey, Honeybunch,” he said, his voice cracking. He laid his head on my shoulder and cried full bore. “I’m so sorry,” he said between sobs.

I didn’t ask; I didn’t want to know. Dr. W. walked in and looked me right in the face. “The smaller boy, the one you called Joshua, he just wasn’t strong enough.”

 

Fall evenings after Buddy and Kayla are in bed I bring Jesse outside for his night feeding. I sing to him and tell him all about the stars, how his Daddy sent away and got one named special for his twin brother, Joshua Walter Petty. If he looked real hard for the shiniest star up in the sky he’d see Joshua there, bright and brand new every night.


Charlotte Morgan

Charlotte Morgan’s first novel, One August Day, was nominated for the Library of Virginia’s annual Fiction Prize. The Pushcart Prize Collection includes one of her short stories, What I Eat. Most recently she has published stories and poems in Appalachian Heritage, Green Hills Literary Lantern, and Artemis. Her MFA is from Virginia Commonwealth University, where she studied with Lee Smith, Paule Marshall, and Tom De Haven.

Morgan says that “Twinning/duality has fascinated me since I was a child. Twins show up in my novel Protecting Elvis, not at all suggesting ‘good twin/evil twin,’ but rather considering the fragility of seeking balance and wholeness in a complex, confusing world.”

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