The porch light was on, and the brown, two-story craftsman house looked welcoming. A rubber ball lay on the lawn, and someone had scribbled on the walkway with colorful chalk. Pink and yellow flowers flanked the porch steps, and a tricycle lay on its side next to the door.
Jeremy Tilden took a steadying breath and pushed the doorbell. A few seconds later, he heard approaching footsteps.
“Jeremy! Come on in.” Brad Jordan opened the door wide. “Good to see you.”
Jeremy Tilden exchanged a warm handshake and one-armed hug with his best friend. “Sorry to show up at this time of night, but I – er – got some news that I didn’t want to face alone.”
Brad raised an eyebrow. “It’s come? The results?”
Jeremy nodded solemnly and bit his bottom lip.
“Well, come in. Come in.” Brad’s voice was bluff and welcoming. “Angie just got the kids to bed.” He led the way into a cozy family room. Cushy armchairs flanked a driftwood coffee table. A woman in jeans and a T-shirt was curled up in one corner of an overstuffed couch, reading a battered paperback. Her blond hair was pulled into a ponytail. Toys and stuffed animals were scattered across the carpet.
“Angie, look who’s here,” Brad announced.
Angela Jordan looked up from her book. When she saw Jeremy, her blue eyes sparkled, and her mouth curved into a welcoming smile. “Jeremy,” she said, uncurling her legs and sitting up. “So good to see you.”
“Want a beer, bro?”Brad asked, heading for the kitchen.
Jeremy nodded. As Brad disappeared through the doorway, he turned to Angela. “I got the results in the mail. I couldn’t bear facing them on my own.”
Angela’s face fell. “Oh, Jeremy, I’m just so sorry you have to go through this. I feel so responsible.”
Jeremy shook his head as he seated himself in a wing chair beside her. He felt as if the unopened envelope were burning a hole in his shirt pocket. He couldn’t focus on anything but that piece of paper. “It’s not your fault. It’s my own stupidity that landed me in this situation.”
“You shouldn’t feel that way. You were in a bad place. Nobody understands that better than I do. You were vulnerable. And drunk.”
“But I knew better.” He lowered his head and clutched his thick, black curls in both hands. “I should have said no.”
Brad returned with two bottles of beer and a glass of white wine, which he handed to Angela. “Still beating yourself up over old mistakes? Let it go, my friend. You can’t change the past. Yeah, you made an error in judgment, but we all make mistakes. To err is human, and all that shit.”
“Brad’s right, Jeremy,” Angie chimed in. “We’ve all made mistakes. But we have to move on. Put the past behind us.”
Jeremy gave her a funny look, and she nodded solemnly, her eyes locked on his.
With effort, Jeremy dragged his gaze from Angela and took a long drink of beer. “Thanks for letting me be here when I open this,” he said. “I’m really nervous.”
“Nothing to be nervous about, buddy,” Brad said. He lifted his beer. “A toast. To putting the past behind us and looking to the future.” He lowered himself to the couch beside his wife and clinked his beer bottle against her wineglass.
“You still don’t like beer, huh, Angie?” Jeremy commented, desperate to change the subject.
She dimpled, rosy lips parting to reveal perfect white teeth. “Never developed a taste for it. Just give me my Chardonnay, and I’m happy.”
“This feels like old times, doesn’t it?” Brad said. “The three of us, hanging out and drinking after exams.”
“Except the floor was covered with papers and empty pizza boxes, not teddy bears and toy cars,” Angela said.
“I never would have made it through organic chemistry without Angela’s help,” Jeremy commented, smiling at her.
“That’s why I fell in love with her. Beauty and brains.” Brad took another drink of beer, then frowned. “And now she’s wasting all those smarts watching Sesame Street and changing diapers all day. Leaving me to slave away at the office. Then I come home to a filthy house and a fat wife.”
Angela blinked rapidly and looked at the floor.
“That’s ridiculous,” Jeremy said. “Angela looks as beautiful as she did when we were in college together.”
Brad finished off his beer and belched. “When we were in college, she used to exercise occasionally,” he said. “And fix her hair. Trust me, friend. You don’t know what pregnancy does to a woman’s body until you see them naked afterwards.”
“Brad, really,” Angela said softly.
Her husband pasted a smile on his face and forced a laugh. “Jeremy knows I’m just joking around. C’mon, Angie, if we can’t kid each other in front of my best and oldest friend, then what are we doing?”
Jeremy looked uncomfortably from Brad to his wife.
Brad scooted closer to Angela and looped at arm over her shoulders. “I’m just teasing you, Angie. You know I love you no matter what you look like.” He kissed her cheek.
Angela swallowed and looked away.
Searching for a safer topic, Jeremy said, “Remember when we jumped into the fountain in the middle of campus at midnight the night before the big game?”
Angela shot him a grateful smile. “It was supposed to be good luck or something, wasn’t it?”
“Ice cold is what it was,” Brad said. “Thought I’d freeze my balls off.”
“Remember when we all climbed onto the roof of University Hall?” Angela asked. “Jeremy was so scared we’d get caught and be expelled.” She giggled.
“No wonder. Jeremy, you had a talent for getting yourself into trouble,” Brad guffawed. “Remember when those football jocks were hassling that pretty little freshman? You defended her honor and got yourself beat up. And how about when you took that sexy brunette out on a date, then found out she had a jealous boyfriend? Jer, you were always getting yourself in hot water – usually over a woman.” He leaned across Angela and gave Jeremy a light punch on the shoulder. “Some things never change, huh, buddy?”
“Brad, stop hassling him,” Angela said. “You know what Gwen’s like. She’s – she’s a seductress, is what she is.”
“You oughta know, sweet cheeks,” Brad said. “She’s your twin sister.”
Angela sighed. “How could I forget?”
“Can’t blame Jeremy for taking his chance with her,” Brad said. “She’s a looker. Looks like you did before the baby fat,” he added, pinching Angela’s hip.
She slapped his hand and scowled at him.
“I think Jeremy had the hots for you at one time, Angie,” Brad said.
Jeremy made a choking sound in the back of his throat.
“No, really,” Brad insisted. “I remember. Sophomore year; we both wanted to ask you out. But Jeremy wimped out.” He gave a coarse laugh, then raised both arms above his head, fists clenched. “Brad Jordan, winner!”
Jeremy swallowed and rolled his beer bottle between his hands.
“Brad, stop it,” Angela scolded.
“Don’t feel bad, buddy,” Brad said. “Look at what I got for my prize.” He opened his hands, including the whole room in his gesture. “Two whiny brats, a lazy slob for a wife and a heartless slave driver of a boss. Living the dream, that’s me.”
Jeremy rubbed a hand over his jaw and stared at his feet.
“I’m the lucky one,” Angela said bitterly. “Such a sweet, kind husband. What a prize.”
Brad rose from the couch. “I’m gonna grab another beer. Jeremy, you want one?”
Jeremy shook his head, and Brad disappeared into the kitchen.
Jeremy looked at Angela and lifted an eyebrow.
“Don’t worry about him,” she said with a gesture of dismissal. “He’s in a bad mood. Something at work.” She leaned toward him. “How do you feel about getting these results? Have you come to terms with the possibilities?”
“God, it was just that one time,” Jeremy moaned, dropping his head into his hands. “A year ago, I was so bummed out. You know – my research project had been rejected. I was on the verge of losing my job. I was upset. Depressed.”
He set his beer on the coffee table and slumped forward, both arms extended toward the floor. “You guys had that party, and I got totally wasted. Honestly, I don’t even remember having sex with your sister. But I woke up in your guest room, and – “ He broke off and looked at Angela with eyes that were red-rimmed and shining with unshed tears. “I’m so sorry.”
Angela curled her legs under herself and laid a gentle hand on Jeremy’s forearm. “My sister is a druggie and a sex addict,” she said. “She sleeps with five different men a week. You’re just lucky you didn’t get a disease from her.”
“How can you be so – I don’t know – casual about it?” he asked. “I mean, she’s your sister. Doesn’t it upset you? The way she is?”
Angela pursed her lips. “It used to,” she admitted. “But she’s been this way as long as I can remember. Even when we were kids. I was the teacher’s pet – honors student, ran track, played saxophone in the jazz band. Gwen spent all her time smoking in the bathroom or cooling her heels in the principal’s office. She was doing hard drugs by the time she was fifteen. When I was getting braces, she was in rehab. When I got my driver’s license, she had her first abortion.”
She took a sip of wine and continued thoughtfully. “Mom and dad tried everything. They paid for the most expensive rehab facilities, bailed her out of jail, everything they could. But Gwen stole money from them, lied to them continuously. When she swiped Mom’s engagement ring and pawned it for drug money, that was the last straw. They disowned her completely. Haven’t spoken to her for about three years.”
“But you still talk to her,” Jeremy said. “You have her over, invite her to parties.”
Angela gave him a sad smile. “She’s my sister,” she murmured.
“She doesn’t come around anymore.” Brad re-entered the room with two more beers, one of which he put on the table in front of Jeremy. “Since she pulled this DNA bullshit with my best friend, we don’t allow her in the house. Except for when you guys did the swabs last month.”
“Frankly, I don’t even know why she decided to keep this baby. What’s her name – Nora, or something?” Angela said. “She’s had at least two abortions. That I know of.”
“But she did keep it,” Jeremy said, jiggling his knee nervously. “And now she’s claiming it’s mine.”
“Handy, isn’t it?” Brad sneered. “As soon as you get that big development contract with the drug company, Gwen shows up. Wanting money. Claiming you’re the father of her two-month old baby. Trust me, Jer, she heard that you hit it big, and she wants a piece of that. That woman can smell green from miles away.”
“But what if it is?” Jeremy pulled the sealed envelope from his pocket. “What if this paper says that I’m the father of Gwen’s baby girl? Will she really be able to hit me for child support?” He chewed his bottom lip nervously. “This new contract is very promising, but I need to re-invest most of the money into development. On paper, it looks like I’m making lots of money, but it’s all tied up in R and D.”
“The difficulties of owning your own business,” Brad murmured.
Jeremy nodded. “As my accountant, you know it’s true. A big monthly child support payment could devastate me at this stage.”
“I can’t believe Child Protective Services let her keep the kid,” Angela murmured. “With her record, they should have put the baby right into foster care.” Absently, she picked a stuffed bunny from the floor and cradled it against her chest.
“Supposedly, she got herself clean the last month of her pregnancy. Taking suboxone or something,” Brad said. “Courts try to give the bio mom the custody whenever possible.”
Angela looked up, her eyes bright with excitement. “Jeremy, if it is your child, you could try to get custody. You’d be a much better parent than Gwen.”
Brad scoffed. “It’s not his kid, Angie. We don’t even know if he slept with Gwennie. She could be lying her ass off.”
“But then she wouldn’t have asked for a paternity test, would she?” Jeremy tapped the envelope in his hand. He felt as if there were a deep hole inside him, a vacuous emptiness that refused to be filled. Two months ago, he’d been on top of the world. His small research lab had completed the initial testing of a potentially groundbreaking new heart medication, and a big pharmaceutical company had offered him a contract.
He’d scarcely had time to get used to the idea of financial security and professional success when he’d gotten the call from Angela’s twin sister. “Remember that party at Brad and Angie’s house? Ten months ago? Well, guess what!”
He had no idea why she thought he was the father. As Angela had said, Gwen had plenty of sexual partners. Surely there were dozens of possible culprits. Brad was probably right; she’d heard about the contract. Wanted to get her hands on his money. But what if that wasn’t it? What if she knew about – the other thing?
Brad shrugged. “Keep in mind, this test isn’t legally binding. This one is a do-it-yourself one that is mailed to the lab. Informational only. If it’s positive, then she can demand that you have a legal test done at a certified DNA clinic. That way, there’s chain of custody and all that. But I convinced her to do the less expensive test first. Told her that she wouldn’t have to pay for it. Then, if it’s positive, she can demand the other one.”
He took another drink of beer. “Trust me, Jeremy. The woman has no idea who the father is. She’s just shooting blind, hoping to get lucky and hit the jackpot.”
Jeremy nodded slowly. “I’m sure you’re right,” he said, trying to convince himself.
A child’s cry sounded on the baby monitor on the table. Angela rose to her feet. “That’s Charlotte. I’d better go check on her.”
As his wife left the room, Brad turned to his friend with a grin. “So, tell me what I’m missing, my lucky single friend. Tell me all about your vibrant sex life.”
Jeremy smiled uncomfortably. “I’m not really seeing anybody special at the moment.”
Brad winked mischievously. “Please, have pity on your sad, monogamous friend. Allow me to live vicariously through you. What lovely ladies have you recently bedded?”
“Contrary to how it seems, based on this thing with Gwen,” Jeremy said. “I’m not really very promiscuous. Frankly, I’m jealous of you. You don’t know how lucky you are – having a beautiful woman to come home to every night. Somebody to share your life with.”
“Pfft.” Brad rolled his eyes. “Enjoy your single days. All the pretty ladies . . . “ He waggled his eyebrows suggestively.
Jeremy rose and walked to the window where he stood looking out into the back yard. Fireflies danced over the lawn, their glimmering points of light appearing and disappearing in a Morse code that he couldn’t understand.
Angela reappeared in the doorway. “She’s fine,” she announced. “Just dropped her pacifier. Sleeping like a baby now.”
Jeremy turned away from the window and returned to his chair. I wish I could be sure of what these results will show.” He laid the envelope flat on the coffee table and stared at it.
Brad grinned widely. “Don’t worry, buddy,” he said. “I’ve got your back.”
“Thanks, but – “
“No,” Brad insisted. “I mean it. I took care of things for you.”
“What do you mean?” Jeremy wrinkled his forehead.
“Well, you guys both came here to the house to do the test,” Brad said. “Neutral ground, right?”
Jeremy nodded. He and Angela both stared at Brad.
“What was it, about six weeks ago?” Brad continued. “We had the three cheek swabs. Did ‘em right here in the family room. One for Gwen. One for you. One for Baby Nora. Sealed them all in the envelope and drove to the post office together. No funny business, right?”
“Right.” It was Angela’s turn to nod.
Brad’s grin got wider, and he took a long slug from his beer bottle. “Well, sir, I made a quick switcheroo.”
“What do you mean?” Angela uncurled her legs and put her feet on the floor, as if getting ready to run.
“Your husband is one smart cookie,” Brad assured her. “I switched out the baby’s swab. Substituted a different one.”
Jeremy’s eyes narrowed. “Whose DNA did you substitute?”
Brad laughed delightedly. “Our daughter, Charlotte,” he said.
“What?” Angela’s voice had become shrill. “Why would you do that, Brad? What were you thinking?”
Brad made a calming gesture with his hands. “Stop, stop. Don’t freak out. Listen. It makes perfect sense. Angela, you and Gwen are identical twins. Therefore you have identical DNA. The paternity test people will see that the baby is a girl, just like Nora. And half its DNA will be the same as Gwen’s. And the other half will be mine. The company doesn’t have my DNA; all they’ll be able to say is that Jeremy is not the father.” He clapped his hands, applauding his own cleverness. “Problem solved.”
“You swabbed Charlotte’s cheek?” Angela asked in a choked voice.
Brad waved his hand casually. “No big deal. She thought it was funny. Said ‘Dada, yum-yum,’ or something.”
Brad clapped his hands and rubbed them together vigorously. “Well?” he said eagerly. “Go ahead and open the envelope. You know what the results will be now. Nothing to worry about.”
Jeremy returned to his seat and picked up the envelope. His hands shook slightly.
Brad winked at him and whispered, “You can thank me later.”
Jeremy glanced at Angela, who was staring at his hands as they fumbled with the envelope flap. She swallowed and glanced at his eyes, then back at his hands.
Jeremy opened the envelope and removed a single sheet of paper. He scanned it quickly, then dropped it on the table and buried his face in his hands with a low moan.
Brad’s eyebrows knitted together in confusion. “What’s wrong?” he blurted. “What is it?” He picked up the paper and examined it.
Angela wrapped her arms around herself as if she were cold. Jeremy stood and returned to the window, standing with his back to the room.
“But – but I don’t understand,” Brad stammered. “How could this be? I sent Charlotte’s swab. I’m quite sure. Sealed the envelope myself.”
“Brad – “ Angela began. I’m so – “
Her husband shook her head, not listening. “This says that Jeremy is the baby’s father. That the DNA is consistent with Gwen and Jeremy being the parents of Nora. But we didn’t send Nora’s DNA; we sent – “
Suddenly, Brad stopped talking. His eyes opened wide. He looked at Angela, then Jeremy. His voice dropped to a whisper. “But that would mean – “
“Oh, Brad.” Angela’s eyes filled with tears. “I’m so sorry. We never wanted you to find out like this.”
Jessica Spelman loves a good adventure, whether it be sky-diving, backpacking around Europe or going on safari in Africa. But the best adventures are often found on the pages of a book. That’s why she loves to read and write stories of all sorts. In her spare time, she is a primary care physician and the mother of four teenagers, which is an adventure of another kind.