The Blind Experiment
BY DAVID NAIMON
Remember: “One chewable vitamin each, no more (Topher prefers stegosaurus), almond milk not milk, porridge no nuts (or milk), or eggs no toast (or butter). Watch them (don’t trust them) to brush their teeth. Crispin’s Ritalin is atop the fridge. Emergency undies are in a Ziploc in each of their backpacks. Check at the end of the day. Sack lunches should be 2-1-0, two good fats, one protein and only indigestible carbs. The bus comes at seven am. It’s often early. Be there with them.”
It was on a day just like this, reading his wife’s bewildering checklist for their twin sons on one of Linus’s first day’s as a house-husband, that he thought of the experiment. As he watched the bus recede, with both his twins—remarkably, successfully— on it, Linus felt relieved if not victorious. They were clothed and fed and headed to school, but his head still spun from this sudden reversal of fortune. Just two weeks ago he had been a professor, up for tenure, giving his most anticipated talk, his beloved “butterfly” lecture, at the beginning of Endocrinology 301, and here he was a mere fortnight later, dismissed, alone in his kitchen, at the end of his cul de sac (geographically and spiritually), and unsure how to navigate the day before him.
He knew he had all day to clean up the morning’s mess before Elspith returned from work, but where to begin? He began by surveying the scene—the broken glass, the spilt milk pearling at the edge of the table, Topher’s (or was it Crispin’s?) brown-bristled toothbrush by the coffee grinder, a milk tooth left on the lip of the sink for the tooth fairy—and Linus reminded himself that this, family life, was really no different than the endocrine system, an infinitely complex network of positive and negative feedback loops, of ever-moving parts whose individual components (glands/family members) could not be understood abstracted from the soup of regulatory substances they bathed themselves in, a soup of self and other, of moves and responses meant to support or counter one thing or another. Understanding it required not reduction or simplification but the embracing of bewilderment, he thought, an awe-filled witnessing of creation’s complexity, as he sponged the glass shards, uneaten bread crusts and milk onto the floor into an addressable if ill-defined pile.
It was Linus who had suggested getting rid of Gertie, the nanny. They’d always been a two-income household, but until Linus could figure out his next move, they would get by solely on Elspith’s work as a dietician. It seemed extravagant to keep Gertie on. Nevertheless, Linus missed her, the linearity of her efforts, the pure physics of her actions, the ways in which each exertion seemed to produce a predictable and desired result. He found himself mimicking her as he swept the floor, rinsed the errant coffee grinds from the unused toothbrush, loaded the dishwasher. Just because the system was complex and ever-shifting didn’t mean there weren’t lesser or greater degrees of balance.
Linus took his son’s tooth and held it under a stream of hot water until the thread of gum tissue came loose from its roots and squiggled its way down the drain. He wiped the tooth on his jeans and twirled it in his left hand as he worked on a note from the tooth fairy. “Dear ____” he wrote and then stopped. He stared at the blank space where his pencil rested, unsure who to address. He wrote “son” and erased it. He was a fairy at this moment, he reminded himself, not a dad. He settled upon “loser of said tooth” and wrote a short note to him.
Standing frozen before their bunk beds, he opened his wallet and fished out a dollar bill. Was that enough, one dollar? Too much? Fortuitously, George Washington was the president most known for his teeth. Nevertheless, he added an almost-completed punch-card to Bagel Emporium and paper-clipped the note, the wooden-toothed president and the punch card into a bundle of boyish surprises. He wasn’t sure whose pillow to put it under however. The beds were equally disheveled, equally laden with stuffed dinosaurs and plastic submarines.
Elspith had only half-joked that he couldn’t tell his own sons apart. The unspoken subtext being that he should be able to tell them apart at all times. But they were identical twins after all, motored by the same genetic machinery, nurtured by the same mother, nanny, and teachers. And Elspith had the inane habit to dress them the same, surely just to irk him even more. Of course he could tell them apart many, many times. He’d say “Toph!” and one of their heads would snap back, not the other. Things like that. He knew they would differentiate as they aged, but how different were any two seven year-olds in the big picture?
There was an irony here, that this whole idea, his whole idea—of wholeness, of balance, of a holistic, systems approach to science—was the very thing that got him in trouble, he thought, as he searched for some scissors in his sons’ arts and crafts drawer. He’d been giving the butterfly lecture for years without anything but glowing student reviews. He’d invited Werner Moto, the naturopathic healer, to guest lecture many times before and it had never been the slightest bit controversial, just productive and thought-provoking. His colleagues, if they thought Linus were perhaps a little eccentric in his ways, admired how he engaged the students in the topic at hand, namely treatment philosophies in thyroid pathophysiology.
Linus opened the jaws of the scissors, held the bundle in his other hand, and began to cut it in two. Thinking of the way his career had so quickly spiraled out of control he varied the cut, making it more and more jagged, like the mouth of a sea monster. He slid one half under Toph’s pillow, the other under Crisp’s (or vice versa), and figured part of the fun would be the boys discovering not just a gift, but a clue, one they would have to collaborate on to solve, becoming a super-organism to reap the rewards of their respective, individual discoveries.
He replaced the toothbrush next to its equally unused cousin in the boys’ bathroom and confronted himself in the mirror over the sink. He touched his neck just above and between the medial ends of his clavicles, the fingers of his left and right hands alighting upon the symmetrical and smooth left and right lobes of his thyroid respectively. He shimmied the two wings of this butterfly-shaped gland back and forth beneath his fingers, looked deep into his haggard, unshaven face, and said: “this is not physics, this is not the land of cause and effect, of input and output, of abstraction and purity of form. By signing up for this course, you have entered the wilderness. Your traveling companions are complexity and relativity, mystery and irreducibility. Much like Chaos Theory, small alterations, the proverbial flapping of a butterfly’s wings, can give rise to great and striking consequences in seemingly unrelated parts of the organism.”
He would pause here, as he did now for his reflected audience of one, to linger in and thus augment the spell he was weaving. He’d survey the lecture hall in the pregnant silence— knowing right away which students he had hooked by his introductory words. They had the same slack-jawed, shocked-awake gleam in their eye that he himself had, listening to the words he’d said countless times before, ones that still produced an electric thrill in him even now.
It was an entirely different sort of feeling he felt then, entirely different than when he sat across from his wife at the kitchen table each night since his life went off the rails. Each day, without fail, he made sure the kitchen was returned to order—no teeth on the lip of the sink, toothbrushes face down by the coffee-grinder, milk weeping off the edge of the table, that the boys were in their room with homework splayed before them, that he tucked his t-shirt into the eroded elastic band of his sweatpants and wet down that stubborn tuft of hair at the posterior edge of his ever-widening bald spot—before Elspith returned from a productive day in the world out there. Nevertheless, their nightly review of their respective days always ended up feeling like an interrogation, even as he admitted to himself, that this feeling of being examined may have been entirely self-generated, entirely a product of the ignominy of his diminished station.
This night was no different. Elspith came home. The boys were upstairs before their homework (if not looking at it), and he and Elspith sat together, husband and wife, in a clean and orderly kitchen, sharing an early evening glass of port, as was their habit, to discuss their presumably equally-interesting (alas, if only…) day apart.
“And so, Mr. Mom, how’d it go today?” Elspith said with a wry smile that made her opposite eyebrow arch in a disarming asymmetry.
Linus looked around the kitchen as if to say, with no small amount of pride, “see for yourself.” He gestured with his eyes toward the ceiling and the boys’ room above, underscoring the remarkable silence (and by extension peace) the house was enveloped in.
“Gertie would be mightily impressed I’m sure,” she said.
“He lost a tooth” Linus said. He fished in his pocket and put his son’s tooth on the table between them.
“Finally!” Elspith laughed. “The way Crispin has been playing with it, oh my god.
Dangling by that thread of gum, it was so awful and gross. We’ll have to figure out a tooth fair…”
“Taken care of.”
“Wow. Well that’s pretty impress…”
Linus half-rose from his seat and took a bow. “I’ve got this.”
They clinked glasses while Elspith’s phone buzzed on the table before them. She didn’t
“Hey, did you get a call from Mrs. Porterfield today?” Elspith asked between sips of port. “She called me, probably not remembering our new ‘situation.’” She made air-quotes as she said ’situation’ and Linus wasn’t sure how to feel about it. “She said Crisp was back to being fidgety today. You did remem…”
“Ells, relax,” Linus said, looking over Elspith’s shoulder at the bottle of Ritalin atop the fridge. “Of course I did.”
“Sorry. Just making sure. I’m going to go up and say hi to the boys.”
While Elspith was upstairs Linus took down the prescription bottle and gave it a little shake. He was sure he hadn’t doled out Crisp’s medication that day, but it was less clear if he had the day before or the day before that. He flicked a light spray of tablets into the trash (covering them with bubble wrap and a banana peel) to make the remaining quantity reflect his best intentions. He then put the Ritalin on the kitchen counter next to the chewable vitamins. He had done the vitamins. No scurvy, rickets or beri-beri on his watch. Now he’d do the Ritalin too, though he’d always been a little skeptical of medicating a kid’s attention span.
When Elspith came back downstairs, Linus knew by the way she held his gaze that he’d done something wrong. That was the thing about marriages. He could see she was restraining herself, see the effort, the self-censorship, the attempt to rise above. But the problem was he could also still read her, hear the unspoken words, decipher the feelings and judgements, that bubbling soup of truth beneath it all that made him, despite her good faith effort, feel judged.
“Their room smells like before,” Elspith said, eyes narrowed and fixed. “Like a fart factory.”
Linus conjured a laugh. “Boys,” he said. “Two of ‘em.”
“Crisp’s complaining of a tummy ache. And Toph’s scratching again.”
She would win a no-blinking contest for sure and waited that way for an answer to her
unasked dairy question. As guilty as Linus was supposed to feel he just felt mad. They went to school, they came home. They were alive, they were fed. And they were not dead.
Eventually Elspith released Linus from her ocular-vortex and opened the fridge without a word. Linus watched her holding up the milk carton, and then checking to see if the seal on the almond milk box, the one on the door he had missed, was intact. She did this silently, with her back to Linus, and without a spoken reproach. He recognized the effort she made to achieve this leaden silence. But Linus couldn’t take it anymore. Something had to change.
His sons rumbled down the stairs, perched on their chairs and, side-by-side, started flipping open the take-out containers Elspith had brought home from Wok-n-Go. Linus wanted to scream or break something (or all sorts of things) or storm out with a house-shaking slam of the door. Something dramatic. But the tides of habit swept him to his chair. And it was there, in his habitual position, as he stared across the table at the orange-glazed faces of his two heirs, nibbling with an equal lack of grace on their glistening and gooey sweet and sour pork pieces, that he realized that amidst this swirling mess of unasked for chaos and shame, he was blessed with one inimitable constant, one fixed integer, one axial reference point, one rare thing that any scientist would consider themselves duly blessed to have. The identical double helixes of his two sons, two perfectly duplicated spiral ladders of genetic code. The absolute perfect test subjects.
“I love you Daddy,” T said. Linus refilled T’s cup with almond milk, topped off C’s, and stepped back to take them both in, on this, the first day of introducing variables into their lives. Other than the identifier tags—“T” and “C”—that he now clipped on their collars once Elspith left for work, they looked wonderfully themselves and like each other. The perfect controls. And he loved them.
Ever since he’d resolved to use the twinned tools before him to contribute to science and scientific understanding, to leverage himself back into relevance and relevant employment, his ability to father and husband had greatly increased. It took nearly three weeks to locate a compounding pharmacy that would isolate the hardly known thyroid hormones, T1 and T2, into sweetened chewable tablets and he used that time to right the ship, to control what could be controlled, to create an environment predictable enough that it would produce the most meaningful results.
The T1/T2 delay was understandable. Absolutely nobody took these two hormones. T4 was the hormone most produced by the thyroid and thus the most commonly prescribed. T3 was the most active form but mainly converted from T4 in the liver and peripheral tissues. T2 and T1 had never been medicines. They had no purpose. None at all. And that was the point. Of course they had to—he thought, he knew—or why else would the body produce them? We just didn’t know what their purpose was. Yet.
Linus stood back from his sons. He walked behind the kitchen counter and watched their doubled forms hunched over their nut-less porridge and butter-less toast with true affection. It hadn’t escaped his notice that their three first initials, the initials of this triumvirate of male biologies venturing into the open sea of scientific mystery together, spelled “TLC” which at that moment seemed nothing if not providential. But he had no appetite today and his coffee tasted bitter despite achieving a proper brew. He was nervous. During the last three weeks he had achieved a proper homeostasis with his subjects. They were consistently on Elspith’s preferred diet. He stood with them as they brushed their teeth, walked them to the bus early each morning and ushered them through their homework each evening. He had created a smooth flowing momentum for his sons which had created a resurgence of ease between Elspith and Linus as well.
This morning, like the twenty before, Linus made two piles on the kitchen counter, each containing a chewable vitamin and a Ritalin. This had been his one conundrum, to take C off Ritalin or to medicate T. Having only one of them on a pharmacologically active substance whose interactions on thyroid metabolism had never been studied was not a reasonable option. Linus figured there must be a latent inclination to fidget, a latent impaired capacity to focus in T. The potential side-benefits (toward prevention of future behavioral problems) of medicating T seemed better than the alternative: a resurgence of C’s fidgeting, a call from Mrs. Porterfield, his wife alerted to a disturbance in the fragile yet hard-earned harmony he had achieved at home. One everyone was benefiting from and thriving in.
But today a third pill would be added to each of their piles. Today the experiment would finally begin. He held the bottle of T1 in one hand, the bottle of T2 in the other, and wondered who would get which. Of course he couldn’t know the answer, not now, not if the science were to be at a high level, a properly blinded experiment. So, without looking, he ferried the bottles from hand to hand to lose track of their identity. He then blindly covered the label of each bottle with “T” or “C” respectively. He shook out a tablet from the T-bottle into T’s pile and a pill from the C-bottle into C’s pile and brought the pills to the kitchen table in properly labeled mini- envelopes. He placed them by their respective plates (after checking the tags on their collars for confirmation of a match) and joined them for their final moments before school.
T took his pills first, nestling them like nuts in a slick of honey atop his porridge. He scooped them into his mouth with his plastic shovel-like spoon and Linus watched his son’s neck until the thyroid cartilage of his larynx bobbed from his swallow. Linus couldn’t keep his eyes off him. “Well? Well?” he wanted to say, irrationally of course, knowing that nothing would be instant, nothing would necessarily even be obvious, if anything observable happened at all. This enterprise may have been (was) in the spirit of the doctors of the early 20th century, ones who were able to experiment with much greater freedom, even when the results were disastrous. But unlike them he was merely giving his sons substances their own bodies already produced, boosting what was naturally there to understand their nature.
C nibbled his pills off his own palm like a squirrel and when he finished Linus wiped their mouths with the corner of his napkin. He walked behind C, like Gertie used to do, placed his hands on C’s shoulders and kissed the top of his head. He burrowed his nose into his blonde curls and remembered the intoxicating smell at their fontanelles when they were infants. He inhaled, searching for it, lost in that memory. He spidered his fingers from C’s shoulders to the front of his neck and placed the pads of his fingers there. Soon after he did the same with T— stood behind him, squeezed his shoulders, kissed his head, smelled his scalp, and palpated his thyroid—what became a morning ritual from then on, and he was pleased with what he found. Glands bilaterally symmetrical, left to right, and brother to brother, surfaces that were smooth and free of irregularities.
He walked them to the bus and watched while they boarded, while they pressed their noses against the glass and waved. He felt a lump in his throat, a mist in his eyes, as the bus departed, trundling into a world of inevitably confounding variables. Linus knew the thyroid could not be studied alone, in isolation. That if the gonads were off-line, if the adrenals were overworked or depleted, if liver metabolism were sluggish, if his kids went off to school and had different stressors, different exposures, different lives than each other…but this was always true in science, in life, he reminded himself. Life was complexity. Even two identical ones.
The hours of the school day took on a weighty purpose for Linus. He spent much of this time reviewing the research-to-date on T1 and T2. It was a paltry amount, mostly older research on animals. And he built a make-shift, portable version of a hunter’s blind, something from which he could stand behind to observe his subjects undetected. The time between his boy’s return and Elspith’s, however, shouldered even more import. Those select few hours were spent in deep, if fraught, observation, yes, but there was never enough time for it. He had to disassemble (and hide) the hunter’s blind, remember to untag his subjects, to properly record his notes, and invent an alternate narrative to his day, prior to Elspith’s return. It was bewildering. But unlike the bewilderment that he felt at Elspith’s instructions for house husbandry, this bewilderment was a comfort, for it confirmed he was engaged with and confronting reality as it was.
Linus named his blind, made from a banged up Japanese screen that Elspith used to meditate behind, “Thureos,” from the Greek word for ‘shield-shaped,’ from which the word “thyroid” was derived. His favorite place to position Thureos was just in the doorway of his boy’s room, extending it toward their beds and shielding any observer who stepped through the threshold (a scientist in this case) from view of the play area inhabitants. He would install it each day just before they came home. He would retag them upon their arrival, take their vital signs, and give them a mid-afternoon snack (both portions weighed and equalized on the kitchen scale) before sending them to their room to play. Then, when enough time had passed, Linus would tiptoe upstairs, pull a stool alongside Thureos, and peek through the eyeholes he had devised for just such a purpose.
He explained to them that the presence of the blind was a kind of game, that sometimes Dad would be behind Thurman (the name they gave to Thureous) and sometimes he wouldn’t. They would just never know which time was which. The first day or two the blind was problematic, an intruding variable, with his children frequently peeking behind it. But quickly, as he suspected, it became just another piece of furniture, one Linus could be behind or not without, if he was quiet enough, his sons giving it a moment’s thought.
It was amazing the differences he was already discovering. C wore more clothes (on his upper body and extremities) during playtime than T (75% greater frequency). T spent twice as many hours napping and displayed a third fewer nap-time fasciculations than C. C initiated play and disrupted established play (e.g. the knocking down of towers, the hiding of a toy, the harvesting and flicking of nasal secretions) twenty percent more often, etc. Of course it was a small sample size, one whose statistical significance had yet to be determined. But it was growing larger by the day.
Linus had to fight the urge to interpret too soon, to guess who had which hormone. When C came home with a third place ribbon for a speed event during the annual Track & Field day, Linus couldn’t help but think of T2 and the research that suggested it increased oxygen consumption in the liver (in rats). But when the same subject came home with a small downtick in grades in spelling and arithmetic he wondered if C was instead on T1 due to its possible down- regulating effect on the electrical input and charge of the brain. None of this research, he continually reminded himself, not the old animal studies nor his fledging (and trailblazing) dual case study, should be extrapolated from at this juncture. This was merely a humble addition to the annals of science. One small step for mankind.
That said, any reproducible results from these two woefully neglected substances, would make an instant name for Linus, he knew, catapulting him squarely back into the department spotlight. Lines of students would wait to greet him (or just get a glimpse through the congested doorway) during his office hours, or be sprawled in the hall of the full-to-capacity auditorium as he gave his butterfly lecture (updated and revised) for the first time upon his storied return. His contrite colleagues, heads bowed, would show belated outrage over how the Werner Moto debacle had unfairly taken him down. The local, regional, national and international news outlets would punctuate his days with requests for interviews. And the rumors of his name—Linus B. Leonard, Ph.D., tenured professor emeritus of endocrinology—whispers of it really, rumors he would wave off with genuine humility, rumors that connected his name to one particularly coveted and prestigious Swedish award… It would all be stressful surely, and he would look back on these days now, these quiet days alone with his two boys, with a true yearning and nostalgia.
“I’ve been thinking,” Elspith said, breaking a peaceful family silence at dinner. “Maybe we could get used to this.”
Linus, hunched over his ramen bowl in mid-slurp, looked up at his wife without lifting his head. Noodles hung from his lips, their opposite ends still unseen beneath the murky broth.
“I mean, we’d have to tighten our belts a little,” Elspith continued. “But, you feel it right? The way the boys, the way you are thriving?”
Linus bit through the noodles, nodded and wiped the back-splash from his chin.
“There’s no way around it,” Elspith said. “You’re a natural.”
Linus smiled amidst a complex oscillation of pride and panic. He knew this already. She
had been saying it and saying it, and he could feel it too, the mystery of how all the pieces had clicked into a higher-level systems harmony. And their sex-life (they had been married long enough that they’d been through all the phases— the self-consciousness about its diminishing frequency, the brief renaissance of blindfolds and toys, and the settling into a more comfortable acceptance that flagging desire was the natural order of things) it too had clicked into a higher- level harmony, and become even a little primitive and ravenous once again.
“C don’t lick your fingers” Linus said. Startling himself, Linus quickly swiveled his head back toward his wife. He scanned Elspith’s face to see if she noticed the slip, that he’d said ‘C’ instead of ‘Crisp,’ but she hadn’t seemed to (or perhaps found it charming). The other night, she’d expressed how happy she was that, with his extended time with the boys, he was truly getting to know them, that he was even calling them by their names. “For Christ’s sake Ells! I’ve always called them by their names!” Linus had said, offended, even if she were joking. But he had known what she meant. He could tell them apart easily now, automatically, and in so many different if small ways. The hormones were changing them just enough that he even forgot to tag them on some days now.
“I’m not feeling good,” Toph said. “Can I be excused?”
“You okay, honey?” Elspith asked.
Toph nodded. “Just wanna lie down.”
Linus leaned across the table and felt Topher’s forehead. It was moist, a little clammy, but not hot. He did the same to Crispin’s, dry and unremarkable. He stood up and walked behind Topher’s chair, placed his hands on his son’s shoulders and squeezed. He kissed him at the top of his head, and took in his scent.
Elspith watched in mild amazement. “I love you,” she mouthed.
Linus resisted the urge to slide his hands toward the front of Toph’s neck. Instead he satisfied himself with brushing the very outer edge of the gland’s two wings with his fingertips as he released Toph to fly up to his room.
“Yes, you can go too,” Elspith said to Crisp when he gave them his look. “Just slurp up that last chunk-a tofu for Momma.”
Linus started clearing the table. He rinsed the dishes before putting them in the dishwasher, a ritual that used to seem patently absurd, that he’d fight his wife over, until he had to clean the fermenting black gunk in the filter. “Did we switch shampoos?” Linus asked as he stood at the sink. He knew the answer, for he was buying the toiletries now. That was what puzzled him. The smell beneath their hair.
Elspith grunted the double-syllable wordless grunt for ‘no’ and said, “Sit down honey. Tell me what you did today.”
The smell still lingered in his nostrils. That strangely wonderful brew of eventfulness, of hospital, of brackish water, of amphibious membranes, cauls and sacs, an odor that somehow came together, illogically, into something bracing, vivifying, as if it were a memory of something impossibly before. He had searched for that smell the first time he copied Gertie, the first time he smelled the skulls of his boys. And at first there was nothing. And then more and more nothing, until there was something, but just out of reach, that hinted at itself by its absence. But over the weeks it had grown by equal proportion on both their heads. Still faint, still subtle, but there. He was sure.
Linus set the dishes softly down in the sink and returned to himself. He returned to the table, wiped off its surface and placed two thimbles of grappa before them. “Sorry,” he said.
“What have you been up to?”
He had been studying the life of Sidney Farber, the doctor who discovered the leukemia medication that continued to save countless children’s lives today. How medicine had changed since then, Linus had marveled, when one could come up with an idea in your laboratory in the basement of the hospital, synthesize a medication solely based on this theory, and then walk upstairs—no animal studies, no peer review, no informed consent—and waltz through the children’s leukemia ward injecting them with your idea-cum-drug. There were disasters before success surely, dying children dying quicker because of him. And Farber had to risk total failure, risk becoming a black mark on his profession, the name ‘Farber’ associated with the worst kind of quackery, to become one of its greats.
Linus brought the thimble to his lower lip, tipped a small wash of grappa into his mouth. “My day?” he said. “It was not that different really…”
“Hold on.” Elspith said. “Hear that? The boys, they’re calling for you for story-time. Do you want me to do it?”
“No, no,” Linus said. “I’ll go.” He knocked back the thimble and stood.
“What are you reading them?” she asked. “Still Pterodactyl Ptales?”
“Not a book,” Linus said. “I sort of make it up as I go.”
Linus wiped the perspiration from his forehead with the bottom edge of his t-shirt, looked over the waterlogged recipe, and then read Elspith’s note one more time: “Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate (if no appetite, Bieler broth). Warm saltwater gargle, cool washcloth, tepid baths. No Tylenol (unless it goes above 104). Clover honey-ginger root-lemon wedge tea (boil the ginger, quarter-sized chunk, for ten minutes uncovered). Call me with anything weird (the febrile seizure he had as a munchkin). Extra stegosaurus.”
Linus lifted the steamer—burdened with an array of crudely chopped zucchini, celery, green beans and parsley—with unsteady hands. He shuttled the vegetables, the cooperative ones, into the blender with a rubber spatula. He surveyed the settings—chop, mix, blend—left to right, and chose the last one, ‘pulverize,’ pushing down hard on the button long after its function had been fulfilled. He shimmied the thick slurry into Topher’s favorite ‘prehistoric’ glass but overshot, a stream of hot green ejecta flash-frying the back of his hand.
Nothing was going right. His twins were separated—Crispin at school, Topher home sick—for the first time under his watch. Each living completely unidentical lives. And with their hard-won diurnal ritual upended, Linus was scrabbling to gain purchase on the day. He held his hand under the kitchen faucet and told himself again it was simply an upper respiratory infection. Topher had touched a virus-mired doorknob that Crispin had not, touched it and then his nose or mouth. It was as simple as that.
But Topher, who had shivered and sweat all night, looked terrible earlier this morning, ghost-white and glassy-eyed. Linus had a moment of acute paroxysmal hesitation before giving him his two stegosauri, the Ritalin, and his daily, chewable mystery hormone simply labeled “T.” What if? What if the hor…but he couldn’t bring himself to ask the question. Nothing about this illness suggested anything but the proper immune response of a child battling a dime-a- dozen pulmonary viral infection. Nothing.
Nevertheless, unnerved after administering his medicines, after seeing his son so laid out, his sensorium so clouded over, he retreated to the kitchen. And before preparing the broth that he now set on the breakfast tray, he looked back through the animal research. The phraseology of one study in particular had caught Linus’ eye: “… a torpid-like state in the subject rodents, one where they stopped responding to their environment almost as if playing dead.” He dropped a honey-laden spoon into the mug of ginger tea, placed it next to the broth and one of Topher’s picture books (Pterodactyl Ptales Ptwo), and carried the breakfast tray upstairs.
When Linus stepped into the room he glanced, out of habit, to his right, at Thureos who now shielded an empty play area from view, before looking straight-ahead at the lump in the lower bunk of his twin sons’ bed.
“Toph?” Linus whispered as he approached. “Topher?” he repeated as he sat the tray down on Crispin’s upper mattress. “T-Man?”
Topher was curled up on his side, his face toward the wall, much like he had been earlier. He was—finally, thankfully—asleep but so unnervingly still. “A torpid-like state,” he thought as he brought his ear close to his son’s head and heard the soft purr of his respirations. With the utmost delicacy, Linus moved a clump of Topher’s sweat-caked bangs to the side and felt his forehead, hot but dry. He placed his fingers at his son’s wrist and was met by a rapid and thready pulse yet again. Linus exhaled in relief. A torpid-like state, sure, but the rodents were hypothermic, with low blood pressure and slow pulses. The exact opposite of this. It was fear talking so loudly not reason.
He sat next to his son for a while, deciding Toph’s sleep was worth more than hydration at this juncture. Feeling the urge to fuss with him, to tuck his sheets in better, to sing him a song, Linus realized it was best for the study to move Thureos between him and his subject. It was only after doing so, after sitting on the stool behind the screen and checking on his son through the eyeholes now properly oriented, that he realized that during his ill-founded panic he wasn’t thinking of Farber’s travails at all but Moto’s.
Moto had been a staple in Linus’ advanced courses, a provocative insertion into the syllabus, that like nothing else he did, prompted his students to step back and see their closely- held assumptions for the first time. Linus allowed Moto to touch briefly on his more ‘out there’ theories—gluten cross-reactivity with thyroid autoantibodies, minerals and botanical roots as supportive measures for thyroid metabolism, dietary modifications to improve the efficiency of liver detoxification pathways and thus peripheral conversion of T4 to T3— to tease the students with them. But primarily he had Moto focus his lectures on his reasoning for the use of hormonally-active porcine thyroid tissue (instead of synthetically isolated and purified T4) with his patients.
And to this day Linus stood behind Moto’s reasoning. Why give a single isolated hormone when giving the gland itself in its infinitely complex wholeness would acknowledge where human understanding ends (and that it does end), that the various substances produced by the thyroid, not only T1 and T2, but the enzymatic cofactors, the soft tissue micronutrients as well, served a purpose (that their very existence argued for this), that taking the whole rather than an isolated part would likely lead to not only fewer side effects but yet undiscovered side benefits to boot.
Linus removed his hand from his mouth. He’d been sucking the sting off his burn as he walked through everything Moto ever did in Linus’ classroom, confirming he felt comfortable with it all. It wasn’t Linus’ fault that one of his students became a patient of Moto’s (many did in fact), that Moto then treated this patient’s bulging spinal disc with an alkaloid injection that led to a sepsis that ultimately killed him. What did that have to do with Linus, as terrible and as ill- conceived as it was?
Yet in Linus’ worst moments, surrounded now by all these home remedies and their ridiculous instructions (modern medicine still so helpless before most viruses) he had fallen for the same failure of logic that had led others to fire him: a feeling of guilt by association, as if just by knowing Moto, that his crazy thinking, a thinking Linus had never sanctioned himself, had somehow rubbed off on him nevertheless.
The presence of Thureos helped Linus resume his observations, to log them, to salvage some semblance of meaning from the day’s data . The problem was there was very little to record. Topher hardly moved. In fact, he didn’t move at all. Not unless Linus went around the screen and went up very close to his son. It was there, hovering mere inches above him, that he could hear his shallow breaths, see his ribcage contract and expand, watch his eyes swivel and twitch beneath his eyelids, feel the immense, improbable heat produced by such a tiny form.
Even when Topher did move, when Linus looked through the eyeholes to discover him in a different position, having tossed off his blankets or clutched close his plastic submarine, it still prompted him to go to his bedside. Was he hungry? Thirsty? Could he read him a story? But his son had gone deeply interior, was sleeping as profoundly during the day as he had tossed and turned the night before.
If only Gertie had been there. He’d have given anything to have her there, to have his
efforts produce predictable and reliable results like hers always seemed to. He couldn’t call his wife, not now, not with nothing of substance to report other than that he was finally asleep. Linus was at a loss. His own breath became shallow and short as he paced behind the screen and beside the bed. He checked vital signs, applied cool washcloths, and finally, when he found himself repeating things beyond their possible usefulness, he just surrendered, lifting the tangle of sheets and sliding into bed with Topher.
He slotted himself against the backside of his son’s curled form, became a second iteration of it. Linus could better monitor from here, he reasoned, as his own breathing relaxed. He could acquire far more data now and record it later. He burrowed his face into Topher’s curls, placed his lips against the vertex of his skull, noted the heat on his own face, tasted the acrid salinity of his son’s skin. “Butterflies are white and blue,” Linus sang softly into his hair. “In the field we wander through.” He trailed off as he lost the words.
“T-man?” Linus murmured into Topher’s scalp. “Little man? Wake up, little T-Rex. Wake up!” He imagined these murmured vibrations traveling through Topher’s skull, through his meninges, on a vector toward his forebrain, oscillating through his hypothalamus, entering into the wondrous dance of his HPA axis feedback loop, his son stirring now, his son waking up alert, recovered, restored. But Linus knew sleep was the way to this outcome, not magical thinking, and reined himself in as he pulled his son closer.
“In this course we will…” Linus said against the top of Topher’s head. “We will navigate reality undistorted.” He stopped there, not because he had lost the words. Linus could’ve gone on with this lecture, the one he constantly revised day to day in his head for his triumphant return, without a single note to refer to, but there it was. There it was again, that smell. Just the very edge of it or sitting there just beyond its edge. Faint but retrievable he chased it with a deep inhalation and then another.
They’d been born early. Three weeks early. Elspith wanted a home birth but that was out
of the question, not with all the complications a twin delivery could produce. Labor had been uncomplicated though, if long. It was into the second day that they came. Crispin had screamed first thing. Toph did too, once he heard his brother that is. Linus cut their cords, marveled at the monstrous wonder of the placenta, at the utterly inhuman blood and guts of it all.
His boys on his chest now, washed, clean, wrapped in fresh towels, two impossibly tiny beings—one, Crispin, reaching into the air, searching, searching, the other, Topher, kicking his legs like a little frog—he was surprised to discover it then, in all the newfound sterility, the slightest scent, the slightest spoor at their fontanelles, a whiff of wordless recognition and yet alien all the same. A substance, a network of substances, unknown, ancestral, and surely impossibly complex in nature, yet a mere whiff of a thing. When it disappeared he could not remember, but that day, those days, those irretrievable days…
Linus woke slowly to his son’s increasingly kinetic body. When Topher twisted in Linus’ arms, kicked his legs out and turned to face his chest, when he placed his face, now cool, against his breastbone and Linus’ heart, in turn, skipped a beat in relief, when their breaths–a father half-awake, a son half-asleep–synced up, as if by magic, with nary a thought nor effort, Linus knew he had discovered something about these hormones and their feedback loops, something he couldn’t find the words for. But what a discovery it was. He held it close before anyone could take it away.