The Twin

Saturday, July 15, 2023

Ruby was the first one to use the word “twin.” It was a Sunday, and we were all home. I heard the telltale cries from Jace’s room, signaling that he’d woken from his afternoon nap. “Coming, buddy,” I called as I made my way upstairs to extract him from his crib. When I reached the doorway of the baby’s room, I became aware of a second cry, not so much an echo as a harmony. But my brain could not process this sound, not at first, and so it meant nothing to me. It was only once I stepped fully into the room and turned on the overhead light that I understood.

I must have screamed. Ruby and Troy appeared at my side. “What is it?” Troy asked in his worried dad voice. “Is he okay?”

“Look,” I said.

In the crib were two babies. Their crying had stopped now that we were all there. They sat side by side. They both looked at us with Jace’s glacial blue eyes, which always got him compliments. The babies raised their arms. They wanted to be picked up.

“Oh,” said Ruby. “It’s his twin.” She said it in the matter-of-fact way of young children. She was four, an age when everything in the world is either crystalline in its clarity or totally unfathomable. She went to the crib and reached through the slats for the baby who was not Jace. She squeezed his belly and he giggled. “Cutie-cutie,” she said.

We didn’t know what to do, except for the things that always needed to be done, so we did those things. We picked up the babies. We changed their diapers and gave each a bottle. I got Ruby her afternoon snack and turned on cartoons. We put the babies in the playpen and stared at them. They seemed content, as Jace often was on his own, to fidget with the toys and chew on the board books.

“Should we call someone?” I asked. “Should we call the police?”

Troy said no. What would the police do?

I agreed. There was no foul play. In fact, there was nothing wrong at all. The second baby seemed healthy, happy. And clearly he was ours, with his resemblance to Jace. He was fine in every way, except that he should not have been there.

So, we did what all good middle-class Americans are supposed to do when faced with a challenge. We went shopping. We needed another car seat, another crib, another high chair, a doublewide stroller. Ruby led the way, instructing us on our purchases.

“He likes green,” she said about crib sheets.

“He wants to feel like a big boy,” she said on the subject of how tall a high chair should be.

“He wants lots of shade but he still wants to see me and Jace,” she said about strollers.

We took her at her word and bought the things she picked.

Back home, I sat on the couch and held the baby who was not Jace. He was content to be snuggled, a pleasant surprise as Jace had grown wiggly once he’d learned to crawl, rarely allowing me to cuddle him for more than a moment. This other boy fit well against my body. His skin was soft and his hair fuzzy, same as Jace, same as Ruby when she was that size. As fine a baby as any. Ruby sat beside me, tracing an invisible picture on his back.

“Ruby, what’s this one’s name?” I asked.

“Nicholas,” she said.

She said it with the same certainty she’d said everything else about him, and so I took it as fact and shared this information with Troy. It was not a name he and I would have picked, too long and too formal for our tastes. But I didn’t feel we were in a position to argue.

“Shall we call him Nicky for short?” Troy asked.

“No,” Ruby said. “Nicholas.”


How? And from where? And what for? The first few nights, after the kids went to bed, Troy and I conferred in a frantic, breathy way, trying to make sense of him. Was he a glitch in the simulation? A government experiment? Had Jace cloned himself like an amoeba? Had Nicholas been there all along and we had simply forgotten? We googled things like “sudden identical twin” and “new baby who looks exactly like other baby,” but got no coherent results.

“Is he a miracle?” I asked, once.

At this, of all things, Troy laughed, accusing me of religiosity.

“Think of a better word,” I challenged him.

“Phenomenon, surprise, curiosity, oddity, wonderment, additional tax credit,” he offered.

“How will we decide?” I asked.

We never decided. We were stumped about Nicholas, and the stumpedness washed over us, rendering us victims of inertia. We went about our days. The many tasks we were promised to—working and parenting, cooking and cleaning, mowing the lawn—usurped everything else as they always do for everyone.

Early on, Troy did make a phone call—to the county records office, but only to say we had lost the birth certificate for one of our sons. This document arrived by mail without incident. Nicholas’s date of birth was the same as Jace’s, the time fifteen minutes later. After that, Troy relaxed. If the paperwork was in order, then so too was everything else, he seemed to believe. And for a while I think I believed it, too.


We were in a good place in our lives for keeping a big secret. We’d moved to Spokane just a year earlier, shortly before Jace was born. We’d been slow at making friends. Aside from a few acquaintances from Troy’s office, we hadn’t socialized much. When these people saw us with our kids, their reaction was something like, “Oh, I didn’t realize you had twins.” Then we’d laugh and say “yes, twice the trouble twice the joy,” and the conversation would move on. As for family, Troy was estranged from his parents and brother. My only relation was my mom, who had been living with early-onset dementia for several years and for whom the names and ages of her grandchildren were already a moving target.

Even people who should have been alarmed by Nicholas were not. When it was time for one-year check-ups, I called the pediatrician’s office and requested appointments for both Jace Olsen and Nicholas Olsen, expecting confusion. But the receptionist’s only question was, did I want separate times, or would I prefer to bring both boys in at once. On the day of their appointment, the doctor, who had been seeing Jace since he was a newborn, spent a long time staring at her computer screen. When she finally looked away, it was just to ask if I had any concerns about either baby. And I didn’t, not yet. She examined each boy, showed me a chart with their height and weight, and explained which shots they were due for. All this information she put into her computer, and I read it later online at home as well, Nicholas’s name a surprise each time, even though he was sitting in my lap at that very moment. 


Ruby had named him after a rabbit. I didn’t make the connection right away, but once I did, I thought it sweet. Nicholas the bunny was from her favorite book when she was a baby. In it, the cute and dapper Nicholas, dressed in a button-down shirt and overalls, observes the habits of his animal neighbors in the forest. She’d outgrown that book, preferring now Pete the Cat or Elephant and Piggie. It had been a long time since we’d read it. When I went to her room to retrieve it, it was much as I remembered. The big, bright illustrations; the earnest, curious bunny. But something about it unsettled me. On each page, Nicholas watches what other critters are doing, but in this, he is conspicuously alone. No rabbit parents or siblings keep him company. He is the only rabbit at all, in fact. Certainly the only character in clothes. He seems a creature out of place, an interloper and an outsider all at once.


Just as Ruby was the one to state his name and his place in our family, so too did she give shape to my anxiety. It had been creeping, amorphous and untethered, ever since the day Nicholas arrived. But by speaking aloud, she made it manifest. And after that, I could not escape it.

“When will he go away?” she asked. A casual conversation, not a vindictive one. She was playing roll-the-ball with the boys in the playpen. The ball was in Nicholas’s hands. He squeezed it heartily before sending it back to her.

Not Will he go away? but When.

Another fact of Nicholas: He was not ours to keep.


I told Troy what Ruby had said. He understood my worry, but did not share it.

“Where would he go?” he asked.

“Back to wherever he came from,” I said.

Troy shook his head. “I don’t think that’s how this works. I don’t think people can just disappear.”

I countered that we clearly had no idea how this worked. If a person can just appear, why couldn’t he just disappear? What was there to keep him tethered to us?

“He’s okay,” he said. He said it in the same way as when Ruby was a newborn and he would catch me standing over her bassinet, my hand on her chest to feel her breathing. She’s okay. And she always was. I hadn’t done that with Jace. The first one had lived, so I trusted the second to do the same. Now I saw how naïve that logic had been. I should have been pressing my hands to all their chests at all times.

Troy offered practical solutions. What about a baby monitor with a camera we could operate from our phones? What about a home security system? What about sewing Air Tags into Nicholas’s clothes? All good ideas, I told him. But it wasn’t just that. It was so much more.

The bunny is so blissfully naïve. He thinks butterflies are for chasing, flowers for picking, and toadstools for playing under.


What, exactly, was I afraid of? It is difficult to fear an abstraction. Because Troy was right. In our experience, people did not just disappear. My mind needed something familiar to fear instead. Illnesses, injuries, kidnapping, car accidents, food allergies, mass shootings, choking, poisoning. Pesticides on strawberries, toxins in plastic sippy cups. Flame retardant on pajamas. It can be hard to know where the dangers are coming from, but it’s easy to know there are a lot of them. I never wanted to parent in that way – to be a mother octopus who tends so obsessively to her eggs that she no longer eats or sleeps. We were all entitled to our lives, myself and the children equally, I’d felt even from the beginning.

But Nicholas really was a miracle, wasn’t he? A vulnerable, inexplicable miracle. I did not understand him, and so I could not trust the world with him. He needed my constant vigilance.

I couldn’t allow myself to be apart from him. Ruby’s preschool also had daycare, and we’d been talking about enrolling Jace, but once Nicholas came along, those conversations stopped. The cost! I lamented by way of explanation. I also stopped seeking out help from our usual sitter, or the teen neighbor girl who, for ten dollars, would walk the kids to the neighborhood park for an hour. This left me totally alone with both boys during Troy’s work hours. It was exhausting. But even still, I made excuses most nights to sleep on the floor of Nicholas’s bedroom, claiming he had a cough, or was just in a really needy mood, and I had to stay nearby. At the end of the book, the bunny curls up in a hollow tree to sleep until spring. But I looked it up, and real rabbits don’t hibernate. There was something particularly ominous about this to me. A warning and a threat.


“Is it possible you’re suffering from postpartum depression?” Troy asked one rare evening when I was sitting on the couch with him and not lying on Nicholas’s floor, listening to him breathe. 

“But I didn’t give birth to him,” I said. “There’s no partum to be post.”

“You gave birth to Jace. It wasn’t that long ago.”

No, I insisted. This was not hormonal, it was not physiological. It was existential. 

I knew, when it came to Nicholas, I was being too much. But I also knew I wasn’t wrong.

I turned the question back to Troy.

“How can you just go along like normal? How do you live with When will he leave?”

Troy sighed. “I get it. I do. And I appreciate that you like to take Ruby seriously. But she’s not exactly an oracle. Half the time she doesn’t know if she brushed her teeth or not before school. She ends up doing it twice.”

We laughed together at this. Troy asked again what I wanted to do, what might help. I told him I wanted to wait, to be patient. I think he assumed I meant with myself, and with the situation. We were all still adjusting, after all. But really, I meant wait for the true answer of how to protect Nicholas.

I thought a lot about my own mom during those months. What kind of parent was she when I was a baby and her world so terrifying? My father left before I was born, and she was young and alone. Did my safety feel impossible to her? If so, how did she manage? I wanted to ask her, but sometimes questions like that really upset her, either because she couldn’t remember, or because it was just an upsetting thing to think about, which was fair. So I didn’t ask. Instead, I tried to be a kind of cocoon. Nicholas strapped to my chest in the Ergobaby, snuggled with a blanket on my lap, pinned with an arm to my hip. I wasn’t an octopus, though I wouldn’t have minded being a kangaroo with a pouch. But unlike my mother, I was not a single parent with a single child. There were other people involved. Nicholas was attached to me in one way or another with such frequency that Ruby began using him for storage. When she had something to hand me, she would give it to Nicholas instead, or if it had a strap like a backpack, she’d loop it around his shoulder. An empty snack dish set on his head. Clever, how adaptable we all were. There is an intimacy in keeping someone so close, and I did not dislike that part of it. I could happily have spent full days nuzzling the top of Nicholas’s head, kissing his neck. I assumed, from the outside, it just looked like I was being a really good mom.


Troy was patient, as he had agreed he would be. I hovered while he gave the babies their bath each night, recut Nicholas’s food into smaller pieces after Troy had put it on his plate, double-checked car seat straps, insisted on dressing Nicholas each morning myself to ensure he would be neither too hot nor too cold. Through all this, Troy said nothing, until one day when I suggested the call might be coming from inside the house.

Troy was out back playing with the kids while I cooked dinner. The window was open, and I could hear their game, which was of the Daddy’s-going-to-get-you variety. Shrieks and laughter rolled in. But then the laughter turned to crying, real crying, the scared and pained kind. A thought flashed through my mind: Troy did not want Nicholas. From Troy’s perspective, Nicholas had disrupted our family’s easy dynamic. And now he had decided to rid himself of that problem. I banged through the door and shouted, “What are you doing to him!?”

Troy turned to me, red-faced Jace tucked into his arms.

“Oh,” I said, before I could stop myself. “I thought it was Nicholas.”

Then I went back inside. Troy followed.

“Don’t you want to know what happened to Jace? He tumbled off the steps.”

“I’m so sorry. I thought it was Nicholas,” I said again. “I thought you had become resentful of him” 

Here, Troy’s worry cracked into anger.

“What the hell, Jenna? Resent him? He’s my son. You’re the one who’s uncomfortable with him being here. The rest of us have moved on.”

I glanced out the window to where Ruby was sitting with Nicholas in the grass. Fine. Then I double-checked to be sure.

“I need you to talk to someone,” Troy said. “This isn’t healthy for you. Or for the kids. You obsess over Nicholas, but you act like Ruby and Jace hardly exist. I’m afraid it’s going to fuck them all up.” Then he looked away, knowing there was no greater indictment he could level.

And indeed, I was shamed. I agreed to find a therapist. In fact, I called several offices the next day, but was told none were accepting new patients. They would add me to their waitlist. I never received any calls back, though. Eventually the issue resolved itself. Mostly, it was just the passage of time that did it, but before that, an incident of violence, theft, and calamity.


Here is what happened. On a Saturday morning, Troy and I drove the kids to the park downtown. We had packed quickly, a hustle to get everyone out the door and into the sunshine. After thirty minutes at the playground, our snack supplies ran low. Ruby started to whine, and when Jace reached for his sippy cup and found it empty of milk, they made a mournful chorus. I offered to find a coffee shop for provisions. I grabbed my wallet from the diaper bag and loaded Nicholas into the stroller.

Troy squinted at me. “You don’t have to take him.”

“It’s just easier,” I said. Though, of course, what I really meant was, It’s safer. Then I turned and started walking before he could raise other objections.

The coffee shop was busy. Nicholas was delighted. From his stroller seat, he waved and smiled to everyone who would look at him. “Hi!” he said over and over. “Hi!” Is there anything cuter than a baby who says “Hi!” to strangers? I wished he would not attract so much attention.

From the cold case I picked milk, yogurts, and a plastic cup of apple slices. Troy would want a cold brew, Ruby a donut. Nicholas had struck up a conversation with the woman waiting ahead of us. “Hi!” She kept turning to say “Hi!” back. The fifth or sixth time this happened, I too said “Hi!” and tried to catch her eye in a thank-you-for-being-a-good-sport-with-him way. But her attention was only for Nicholas. This realization gave me pause. A few more “Hi!”s were exchanged. Then, instead of turning back, she knelt down to be nearer to him. She was an older woman, grandmotherly, with short white hair and big round glasses. She was slim with knuckly hands that shook a little when she extended them to my son. He reached for her fingers and she laughed. She moved those same fingers so they grazed the top of his fuzzy head. “So soft,” she said. But still she did not acknowledge me. Please don’t touch my son, I was on the verge of saying. Then she did a terrifying thing. “Uh-oh,” she said, reaching into the stroller, and I heard, before I saw, the click of the buckle undone.

She was trying to take him. Like a fairytale witch, she had traveled from her otherworld in search of him. Now she was taking him back from whence they both came, back to his land of butterflies and toadstools, to live forever in a hollow tree without me.

“No!” I shouted. Then, she finally did look at me, her face a question. She said something. I was already mid-stride. “No!” I said again and shoved her. She tumbled backward, an ungainly slide against the coffee shop linoleum. When I picture the scene now, it includes the faces of everyone else in the store, surprise and horror and disapproval, some moving to help the woman, others trying to block me. But the truth is that in the moment I could see no one but Nicholas as I took hold of his stroller handles and ran us both out the open door.

“It’s okay, buddy!” I called to him as I made a sharp right turn on the sidewalk. Though I had seen her fall, I felt certain the woman would pursue us. A witch spurned is not a witch thwarted. Nicholas was crying, either from the jostling of the stroller or the surprise of our exit. Or perhaps, in hindsight, the loss of his new friend. “Twisted” was the word she said. I would hear it later in my memory. His stroller harness straps had been twisted.

I ran to the end of the block and then another and when confronted with a red light, I veered us left, across the street back toward the park. I was very fast at that time in my life. I was a regular runner, my legs long and summer-tanned. I was wearing good shoes that day. Once I crossed into the park, there was a grassy hill and I built up a good deal of speed between my fast legs and the weight of the stroller and the force of gravity. I crossed the bike path. I had the playground in mind—the safety of Troy and also of other parents who would surely band together to protect Nicholas from capture. But, of course, I was actually two blocks east and heading not for the playground but the river.

It snuck up on me. We lived well north of downtown and had only been to the park once before. Though I knew, from maps and from driving around, that the Spokane River cut the park in half, I was unprepared for its reality. 

By the time I thought Stop, I was already in the muck, my sneakers slick with mud and goose poop. My body and the stroller both were skidding into the water. I tried to gain better purchase on the whole situation, but I was still holding everybody’s snacks. Yogurt and apple slices, now loosed from their cup, splashed as I dug my feet in and pulled back hard on the handles.

Then, Nicholas tumbled headfirst into the water.

He had been unbuckled the whole time, of course. The whole reason for all of it.

I lurched in after him. A child can drown in less than three inches of water. But two steps into the river, and I was already up to my knees. Nicholas was somewhere below me, but where? I reached frantically while counting in my head. How long could he go without drawing the river into his lungs? Four seconds? Eight seconds? My hands swished through the opaque water and hit nothing but more water. He was gone. The witch had gotten him. We were always heading toward this. A child I hadn’t asked for and now a grief I’d never escape. Search and Rescue would scour the river, and whatever they found, body or no body, would be the worst possible outcome.

At seventeen seconds, my hand grazed his leg and I pulled him up by it. Not dead, not even coughing up water. He had never been submerged, only flung out of my line of sight and too shocked to make noise until he was hoisted upside-down by his super-fun mom. Then he laughed. His hair was still dry.

I responded to this joyful sound by vomiting on both of us.


This is Nicholas’s favorite part of the story when I tell it now. He and Jace are thirteen, and inclined toward humor of a visceral nature. So, when we are reviewing family lore, this is always the one he requests: The-Time-Mom-Thought-I-Was-Being-Kidnapped-And-Launched-Me-Into-The-River-And-Puked.

“Did you think you were pregnant with more twins?” he asks, then mimes gratuitous vomiting while also holding a pregnant belly.

“Mom did upchuck like, constantly, when she was knocked with you guys,” Ruby confirms.

Not only was Ruby not an oracle, she was not even a child with a particularly good memory. She remembers my morning sickness, but she cannot conjure the months of Jace before Nicholas, and so our greatest lie is an easy one. Why are there so few pictures from the boys’ first year? We were busy, our hands full. 

Nicholas’s second favorite part is that I stole all those snacks that fell in the pond. “Criminal,” he says, t’sking.

His third favorite part is that I pushed down an old lady.

“Falls can be very bad for elderly people,” Troy always reminds. “She might have been seriously hurt.”

“But you don’t know because you never went back to check!” one or the other of the kids cackles. This quickly becomes a story told in the round.

We did not go back to check, it’s true. For a while, I looked through the paper and online everyday for an account of the incident, but there was none.


My favorite part is what happened next. Though I don’t tell this because it’s boring. The family version ends with the vomiting.

After that, I walked back to the playground, Nicholas balanced on my hip. I left the stroller and the coffee shop foods where they were – mud-bound at the river’s edge. Troy toweled us off with a baby blanket from the diaper bag, put Nicholas into clean clothes, and asked too many times if I was okay, and did I want to go home. But I was okay, and I did not want to go home. I wanted to sit on a bench and watch my children play, to luxuriate in the moment. Something bad had happened, and I had not lost him. He had not evaporated back into the ether from which he came. I believed we were, for a moment, inoculated against other bad things.

The feeling stayed with me in the days and weeks that followed. Nicholas was sturdier than I had thought. And also more tangible. Realer. Getting realer and realer everyday.

Or maybe I had just, finally, as Troy once suggested of himself and the other kids, moved on.

Still, not everything changed after that. Ruby and Jace have always accused me of playing favorites, of picking Nicholas first, taking his side, giving him the biggest slice of cake, etc. I don’t. I would never. What is happening is their bodies are remembering something old, making it feel new. There was a time, however brief, when my hand reached for his and not theirs on instinct, and that won’t leave them. I’m sorry. But couldn’t I level the same accusations now? Everyone in this family is always grabbing for Nicholas, that dapper bunny who was never lonesome, only curious, so curious, about his new and bright and glowing world. The other kids want him on their team for all games, want to sit next to him in the way-back of the car, want to pull him into a private corner and share their most important secrets.

“Tell it again, Mom!” Nicholas says of the story. “Or another one just like it.” Then he laughs. He is always laughing. He pulls our family together, closer and closer, in a joyful spinning. Not a miracle, but a force.

Saturday, July 15, 2023