Dreamwalker(8)

By: C. S. Friedman


She turned back to the road, turned her left signal on, and put the car in drive.

“When we have to,” she said.

• • •

Mom didn’t tell Tommy about the tests results, just that there had been a problem with the original procedure, and it had to be repeated. He was a smart kid, though, and he could probably tell from our expressions that something was seriously wrong. But Mom had decided to spare him the truth—at least until the test results were confirmed—and I went along with that. Later, when Tommy would normally have grilled me for more information privately, he surprised me by not asking questions. Maybe he sensed that if I tried to talk about what had happened at the lab I would break down in tears, or put my fist through a wall while I screamed curses at the heavens, or . . . something. Like I said, he was a smart kid.

Sample contamination. That’s what Mom told him. The original samples had gotten contaminated, so we’d been asked to provide new ones. Now we had to wait for new results. Ten days.

Dad would be back by then.

• • •

Midnight. I couldn’t sleep.

No, that wasn’t accurate. I wasn’t willing to sleep. Because this was the kind of night when I usually had weird dreams, and right now I just wasn’t up to dealing with them.

I read in bed for awhile, my body positioned between the lamp and the door so that Mom wouldn’t realize I was still awake. Then, come midnight, when I figured everyone else had fallen asleep, I turned off the lamp, left my room, and sneaked quietly downstairs.

The “office” was actually a walk-in pantry, which Mom had outfitted with a computer desk and a few filing cabinets. The files themselves were pretty well organized, so it didn’t take me long to find my birth certificate, along with all the other paperwork that had accompanied my entry into this world. I even found a form with a pair of tiny footprints on it, and for a moment I was tempted to ink up my fully grown feet and see if they matched. But what would that tell me? If two babies had been switched at the hospital, it could have happened before those prints were made.

I put everything back where I’d found it and started back to my room.

On the way I passed Tommy’s door. And I stopped. After a moment, I opened it quietly and slipped inside. The room was dark, but the slatted blinds hadn’t been shut completely, so thin bands of moonlight fell across the bed, illuminating a mound of blankets, toys, and Tommy.

As I stared down at him I felt a mixture of love and confusion so strong that I didn’t know how to handle it.

You’re not really my brother.

I formed the words in my mind, testing them, but they had no real substance. No reality.

For thirteen years this crazy kid had been part of my life. I’d hated him and loved him and resented him and needed him—sometimes all of those things at once. I’d tormented him when he was learning to walk and comforted him when he fell off his bike, and climbed into Mom’s bed with him the night that Dad left us, so that the three of us could cry quietly in the darkness together. Which bonded us together in ways no words could ever capture. Since then I had been like a second mother to him, filling in for Mom while she struggled to make ends meet.

Now, after all that, five simple words threatened to come between us: You’re not really my brother.

What did those words mean, really? That a couple of genes weren’t arranged the way they should be? So what? That didn’t change who I was, did it? Or dictate who I was allowed to love?

Maybe the lab really had screwed up the test, I thought. Maybe they would call us in a few days to tell us that, and then everything would go back to normal. But as much as I hoped that would happen, deep in my gut I didn’t really believe it. Ever since childhood I’d felt as if something in my life was out of kilter. There was nothing concrete that I could ever point to and complain about, just an indefinable sense of wrongness that had always haunted me. Now, at last, that feeling had a name. Things with names didn’t just go away.

I recalled a Law and Order episode I saw once, in which a nine-year-old boy learned that he’d been kidnapped from his birth-parents back when he was just an infant. Years later they found him and applied for legal custody. The judge ruled in their favor, and so they took that happy kid away from the family who had raised him, the only family he’d ever known. DNA trumps love. I still remembered the look on his face when that ruling was announced. Like his whole world had been destroyed.

At sixteen, I was past the age when such a thing was likely to happen to me. At worst, a couple of strangers calling themselves my “real mother and father” might visit, and we’d all try to be polite to one another as we joked bitterly about the lousy security in the hospital where Mom had given birth. And then they would go back to their house, and I would stay in mine, and we’d all try to put the pieces of our lives back together again, as if nothing had ever happened.

Yes, I thought stubbornly. That’s how it will be.

Looking down at my brother, I felt a sudden wave of tenderness and fear come over me, so powerful it brought tears to my eyes. I will always be your sister, I promised him silently. No one will ever be allowed to come between us. I swear it.

Then I sneaked out of his room as quietly as I could, leaving him to dreams that were sure to be more peaceful than mine.





3



MANASSAS

VIRGINIA

Dear Ms. Drake,

In response to your question, it is the policy of our hospital to record the footprint of each newborn during the post-delivery examination. This takes place by the side of the mother and in her full view, immediately after childbirth. Babies and mothers are also tagged with matching bracelets at that time, which they wear until they leave the hospital.

These procedures have been in place since 1992.

Please let me know any further questions you may have.

Sincerely,

Janeen Dover

Director of Risk Management

Manassas Hospital

• • •

Two footprints. One tiny but clean, rendered with professional precision. The other somewhat messy, the kind of mark you’d expect if a teenager swabbed her foot with calligraphy ink and tried to then roll it onto a sheet of printer paper. It was hard to make out its loops and whorls even where the impression was good, and in most places it wasn’t good. Only the ridges on the big toe could be examined with any certainty. But those appeared to match my own.

That should have been good enough, shouldn’t it? Jessica Anne Drake-Hayden had been carried straight from her mother’s womb to the ink pad, a journey witnessed by both of her parents and half a dozen delivery room staff. Her ridge patterns matched my own. I was indisputably that child.

So the DNA lab must have made a mistake. They’d switched samples somewhere along the line, or else confused the reports. The new test would sort that all out.

Right?

Only the lab we’d gone to wasn’t one of those fly-by-night outfits in which quality control took a back seat to sales quotas. This facility was hardcore, as befit a business whose findings had the power to destroy marriages, resolve million-dollar lawsuits, or even send people to jail. The smallest weak link in its chain of protocols would have brought the whole thing crashing down long ago. So the likelihood of them mixing up our samples wasn’t zero percent—nothing in the universe was zero percent—but it was low enough that you’d need scientific notation to write it down. So where did that leave me?

A chimera, I thought soberly. Right on the outside and wrong on the inside. A creature that should not exist.