James was sick. Of the twins he’d always been the frailer. Eli was robust, warm color in his pudgy cheeks, a spark of mischief in his eyes. James was born after his brother by almost three hours, and so silent that his mother and I briefly lost hope.
His first cry was not the fighting gasp for life of his brother, but a thin and plaintive wail that clawed at my soul. It was the kind of cry that made me question myself as a father, as a man, wonder at my selfishness for bringing more life to suffer humanity’s misery.
I’d tried to describe it to Linny later. She didn’t understand. But there was a lot about me Linny didn’t understand and never cared to.
As the two boys grew, even though they were identical, Eli surpassed his brother in height and weight and in basic skills, learning to crawl first, then to walk, run, and even finding his first words much in advance of James. Linny worried. She took them to doctors and specialists and healers. For once they all agreed. The child was below his growth percentile and likely always would be. But he was still within the norm. There was nothing physically wrong with him; they all called it a ‘failure to thrive.’ My grandmother, had she been living to meet him, would have called him poorly. She’d have also pointed out that I myself was a poorly child and no one put much hope in my thriving, either. Yet here I was. Quite possibly one of the last men on earth, barring my own sons.
“He needs a doctor,” Linny said desperately, her voice barely above a whisper.
I just looked at her.
Her dark eyes raked my face, and left me feeling exposed and somehow ashamed.
“What do you want me to do? I brought back all the medicine I can find. Isn’t there something here you can give him?”
Her arms were crossed tightly over what had once been a full chest. It struck me how thin she’d gotten. I had loved sinking into her soft curves. They were gone. “I don’t know what to give him, for fuck’s sake. What if I make it worse?”
He was headed for worse regardless. We both knew it. “I don’t know what you want from me. I’m not a doctor.”
“His fever is just getting higher.”
I handed her a bottle. “This will bring it down. It’s even grape flavored. And these,” I produced a bottle of penicillin tablets. “Half at a time. It can’t hurt him. We can hope it’s just an infection of some sort.” And not radiation poisoning I refrained from adding.
She nodded. There was something in her face, something that wanted to trust me but didn’t.
“It’s the best I can do, Linny,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
I wished she would move into my arms like she’d done so many times, so long ago. That she’d put her ear against my chest, and the world would slow for a moment. Everything felt right and possible when she was there.
She took the bottles and left the room.