Mark didn't notice anything amiss until the next morning. They'd gotten home late the night before from the three-day, week-end trip. Traveling with Fredrick, their two year old, had been an adventure. Everything took longer they they'd planned. He found Susan in Fredrick's bedroom with the closet door open wide. She held clothes on two hangers. Puzzled, she examined them.
She said. "I have two jumper suits for Fredrick, both identical. Here are two pairs of identical shoes."
"Maybe you bought them at a two for one sale," Mark said. "Or, you saw something that was perfect for Fredrick, and Mother Fontaine found the same outfit. She put it here while we were away."
The doorbell rang. Cova, their baby sitter waited at the door stoop. Mark let her in with a noncommittal nod. She spoke English with an intense Portuguese accent.
As Mark left he overhead Susan and the baby sitter in a machine gun conversation. Apparently the baby sitter had misplaced something, or maybe Susan had. Susan was putting on her jacket and trying to shrug at the same time. Finally, Susan merely called back 'all okay' as she walked outside.
Mark came home to find Susan sitting on the couch in the front room. She held a package of photographs. An album stood open on the coffee table.
"I had the film developed that we finished on the trip. There's something funny."
Fredrick came tottering in. Mark stood over him, looking down. "How's my little boy down there?" Fredrick raised his arms and Mark dropped to his knees and gave the boy a hug. Fredrick wondered away in search of the cat.
"You need to look at these," Susan said.
Mark sat down beside her.
She said, "Here is Fredrick playing in the sandbox."
"Who's with him?" Mark asked.
Susan asked, "Who does it look like?"
Mark carried the snapshot over by the window. One child sat on the left side of the sandbox pouring sand into an empty plastic jar. The other child sat on the other side, as if a mirror image of the first, emptying sand from a plastic jar.
Mark said, "Both of them are of Fredrick, a double exposure."
"My camera doesn't do double exposures."
"Then the photo lab screwed up. That's possible."
"Except --," her voice caught. She was shaking. "Look at the photo album."
Mark thumbed through the album. Susan had an artistic bent. She'd dressed up the pages with glitter and sparkle. She'd labeled the photographs in her neat handwriting.
"Freddy and Ricky leaving the hospital. Freddy and Ricky with Mother Fontaine. The twins eating carrots. Freddy walks. Ricky walks." Quickly, Mark flipped on through the photographs. All of them showed two boys, identical twins.
"Let me see the photos of the trip." The images began in the same way. Two boys making a mess of a picnic lunch. Two boys looking like angels and asleep in their car seats. Two boys petting a goat. Then, one boy alone.
The last picture, taken late at night on Monday, showed Susan carrying Fredrick alone. It was a flash photograph.
Mark said, "I shot this to finish the roll. It was outside that little country inn where we ate near the Irish Wilderness.
Susan said, "We left with two boys and come home with one."
"No," Mark said. "Fredrick is our son, our only son. This, all of this, is merely some sort of trick. Maybe Cova is behind it."
"Not Cova. She's dedicated to children. That's why we argued this morning. She asked about the other boy. When I came in from work at noon, she asked again. I told her he's with my mother."
Susan began crying. A frightened cry, deep in her throat. "Are we going crazy?"
Mark took her by the shoulders and turned her around. He looked her in the eyes. "You could be crazy. I could be crazy. We both can't be crazy in the same way. How can we lose a boy we never knew we had?"
The next evening Susan was near tears again. "Cova is beside herself. She won't listen to me. She keeps saying Ricky is missing. She can't understand why we would separate the twins."
"Mark, as far as Cova is concerned, we have twins and one is missing."
The next morning, they decided to take Fredrick to Mother Fontaine. When the baby sitter arrived, Susan explained that Fredrick would be at her mother's.
As he left, Mark heard Susan say, "Yes, Cova. He and Ricky will be together. I will not need you today. You can go home."
When Mark came home that afternoon, Susan threw herself into his arms. "Mark, we've got to do something. Mother is asking questions now."
The doorbell rang. Susan jumped. Mark looked out on the stoop. A woman with an aluminum clipboard and a man in a brown sheriff's deputy uniform waited outside.
Mark opened the door.
The woman spoke. "I'm Mildred Ratcliff with the state family services. May we come in?"
The woman said, "This is Deputy Johnson of the county sheriff's office. We have reason to believe you are endangering a minor. This is a court order requiring that you produce your twins, Fredrick Fontaine Stevens -- " she looked the clipboard -- "and Fredrick Fontaine Stevens to be examined by a doctor of the state department of family services."
The deputy asked, "Both have the same name?" His expression said giving the two boys the same name were criminal enough.
"What is this about?" Mark asked.
"It is about child abandonment," the woman said. "It would be better if we talk inside."
"No," Mark said. He stepped onto the porch and closed the door. "My wife is not well. While she is sick, her mother is taking care of our child."
The state worker looked at the Sheriff's deputy.
The deputy said evenly, "Mr. Stevens, this is routine. By state law any reported case of child abuse or abandonment must be investigated. Ms. Ratcliff will take the children and have them examined. They will be back to you within twenty-four hours -- forty-eight at the most."
Mark looked at him as if he were insane. "Two days for a doctor's examination! The child is not sick. He's received nothing but the best care. He's in a family where parents and grandparents love him dearly. How can you come and take a child?"
"It's the law," Mildred Ratcliff said. "It's for the children's best interest. You talk about one child. You have two children. Where are they?"
"He's -- they're with their grandmother."
Susan came to the door. She looked convincingly ill. Her eyes were dark and moist with tears, her hair disheveled. She sniffled and held her arms across her chest as if she were cold.
Mark realized she was ill with worry.
Before Mark could warn Susan, Ms. Ratcliff said, "May we come in?"
Susan nodded and the sheriff's deputy and family worker stepped into the house. The deputy stood by the door holding his hat in one hand and the folded court order in the other. Mildred Ratcliff walked on into the house.
"What is she doing?" Susan asked
"Go with her," Mark said. He stood silently with the sheriff's deputy.
Within minutes, Mildred Ratcliff was back. "They're not here."
"What is going on?" Susan asked.
Ms. Ratcliff said, "Do you have financial problems? Having trouble paying off your home equity loan, over extended on your credit cards?"
"What if we are?" Mark said.
Mildred said, "Maybe you downsized. Children are costly to raise and you have a spare. Turn one over to a relative, give him away, maybe take some money on the side. It makes good business sense."
"You are treading on dangerous ground."
"No, Mr. Stevens. You are on dangerous ground. This is a court order for you to produce both of your children. Do it or face contempt charges."
"Fredrick is with my mother," Susan said. "I can telephone and she will bring him here."
"You have two children. I want them both. Here is my card. Produce them by noon tomorrow."
On Friday, Mark stayed at home with Susan. Mark called Mother Fontaine.
"I don't know what is going on," Mark said. "Do me a favor. Sit down with a tape recorder and tell me everything that has happened with, uh, Freddy and Ricky, since they were born. Talk as if you're telling this to an interested stranger. Assume we know nothing. I'll come by for the tapes this afternoon."
Shortly after he picked up the tapes, his cell phone rang. "It's me, Dewey."
Mark described the situation to his lawyer. "Can they do that?"
"Demand you hand over your children? Without a doubt. Too many children have died after a hot-line call is ignored. Are you going to turn them over?"
"Can't. I have but one."
Silence. "Where is the other one?"
"Don't know. Don't remember but one."
"Not a good answer," Dewey said.
"I know. It scares me. What happens next?"
"The judge's order was issued yesterday about this time. You've failed to produce your children. I'd say in about an hour a warrant will be issued for you and your wife. After that you sit in jail until you produce the two children."
"Can I get bail?"
"No. You will not be under arrest. You'll be held for contempt until you produce the children or explain their absence."
"Thanks," Mark said. "I'll talk to you later."
It was Friday afternoon exactly one week after they'd left on the three-day trip.
"Dewey thinks the law will come for us," Mark said.
Susan came from the bedroom with her luggage packed. "Let's leave. We can drive the same route as last week."
"With Fredrick?" Mark asked.
"Absolutely not," Susan said. "We lost one boy on that trip. I'm not going to lose another one. We'll repeat our steps exactly. Visit the same attractions, stay in the same rooms in the same motels, eat at the same restaurants at exactly the same time."
Mark couldn't think of anything better to do. It would keep him away from the sheriff for another three days.
On Saturday and Sunday they listened time and again to Mother Fontaine's tapes. "Such good little boys. So smart and eager to learn. Freddy is only eight minutes older, but he takes the lead in everything. The first to walk, the first to talk. Ricky is more subdued, as if in the shadow of his stronger brother."
Monday morning they packed and left the cabin they'd rented on the grounds of a restored mill. Mark found it more and more difficult to talk to Susan. He could sense a cold wedge between them. Mother Fontaine had spoken so vividly of the twins, they both knew they had existed. Now the youngest, Ricky was missing -- or dead. Mark remembered a statistic he'd read about childhood deaths. Half of all parents who lose a child end their marriage because of it.
Susan announced, "It's their names."
Mark asked, "What?"
"We named them both the same. Fredrick Fontaine Stevens, the oldest to be called Freddy and Fredrick Fontaine Stevens, eight minutes younger, to be called Ricky."
Mark said, "Yes, Mother Fontaine complained about that."
"You remember!" Susan asked.
"No, I'm repeating what your mother said on the tape."
Susan said, "They are two people, two human beings. Each one must have a name of his own. With only one name, only one boy can exist."
"You're going spooky on me," Mark said.
"Call the lawyer," Susan said. She already had the cell phone out. She paged through her address book.
"He can submit the paperwork to give them both names. The one with mother is Fred Fontaine Stevens and the missing one -- we'll use your mother's maiden name -- is Rick Dubman Stevens."
Mark saw Susan's determined expression. "All right." When the connection was completed, he said, "Dewey, this is Mark -- "
"I know who it is. You are being sought by the sheriff. They've put an arrest warrant out for you. Contempt of court, endangering the life of a minor, child abandonment."
"All right. I'll be in tomorrow. Now for the reason I called. How difficult is it to legally change the name of my children?"
"You mean the two boys?" Dewey asked.
"Yes," Mark took a deep breath. "My two boys, Freddy and Ricky."
"Recording fee and paperwork. A judge reviews all of the applications. Weird stuff like trying to change a name to a number usually gets tossed out."
"How long will it take. I want this done today, before nightfall."
"The paperwork can go in this afternoon. After that it is merely rubber stamping and recording. Consider it done as soon as the paperwork reaches the county court house. What are their names?"
Mark said, "Fredrick Fontaine Stevens is Fred Fontaine Stevens. The other one, the one they claim is missing, is Rick Dubman Stevens."
"How do I tell them apart?"
"The older one is Freddy. The younger is Ricky. Time of birth is on the birth certificates."
"All right. I'll make it happen. Again, I advise you that the sheriff is seeking you. What can I tell him?"
"I'll be at your office at 10:00 tomorrow morning."
"That's what I'll tell him. You be here by 9:00."
Mark gave the phone to Susan. "Call Mother Fontaine. Tell her we've changed the names of her grandchildren."
He looked at his watch. "We're running late."
Susan said, "It doesn't matter. I know where it happened. Our photographs showed both boys until we stopped for our evening meal at that inn at the edge of the Irish Wilderness."
The Irish Wilderness was a great expanse of hardwood forest, lonely, abandoned, and desolate. It was the largest natural area in the state and off limits to anyone but hikers. A rambling farmhouse at the edge of the public land had been converted to a restaurant.
When Rick pulled into the parking lot, it was late and growing dark. The building had a tumbled look, as if it has been built over time. Nothing was the same and nothing matched.
The inside had the same mismatched look. No two chairs the same, the dishes were odd sized and from different patterns. Candles burned in holders of different sizes and colors. Mark said, "This menu is not the one we had last week."
"I know," Susan said. "Nothing can be identical here. Nothing can repeat itself. This is where it happened."
Susan began eating with desperate eagerness. She finished well ahead of Mark. "I'm going to the ladies room."
Mark nodded. After they finished a meal, she always took the boys to the restroom. She'd wash the food from their faces. She'd dampen a towel to rid their clothes of the stains their bibs didn't catch.
Mark checked the cell phone and found good service. He called Mother Fontaine. "How is our little boy?"
Mother Fontaine said, "He became unusually still a moment ago. Now he's bouncing around feeling fine. He's asking for Ricky."
Mark looked up. Susan walked back into the dining area leading Ricky. He toddled along at her side, holding on to one finger. Susan said, "He's asking for Freddy."
Mark nodded. "Maybe we should have brought them both. But I thought two children might be more than we could handle."
About the author:
John Hudson Tiner has more than 100 fiction stories published including two adventure/mystery books for teenagers. He is a member of the Mystery Writers of America. In addition, he is the author of textbooks, curriculum material and character building biographies. He has written more than 800 manuscripts, including 50 books, for all age groups.