Today's Reading

Suddenly a piercing sound—a loud, insistent beep, beep, beep—wakes Stephanie with a start. She's disoriented, her thoughts muddled. It's the smoke alarm—there's smoke in the house—she can smell it. She lurches to her feet, eyes wide with fear. It's coming from the kitchen. Momentarily paralyzed, she thinks of the twins upstairs, then she runs to the kitchen. There's a frying pan on the stove, and it has erupted into flames. For a moment she stands in the doorway, stupefied, because she can't remember putting anything on the stove. Quickly, she enters the kitchen and reaches frantically for the fire extinguisher in an upper cupboard near the stove. In her panic, she can't remember how to work it. She turns to face the fire and the flames are higher now, licking toward the ceiling, but the ceiling hasn't yet caught fire. She can hear the whooshing sound of the flames, and the heat is almost unbearable. Her heart is pounding frantically as she has a moment of indecision. Should she stay here, wasting precious seconds trying to work the extinguisher, or run upstairs to get the babies? Would she even have enough time to get them out? Should she call 911 first? Then all at once she knows what to do—she wrenches open a bottom cupboard and grabs a metal lid, then slides it onto the frying pan. Deprived of oxygen, the fire is smothered and quickly goes out. She grabs an oven mitt and reaches over and turns off the burner.

Stephanie sags with relief. The room smells of smoke. Her eyes are stinging and tearing up, and she leans back against the counter, shaking now that the danger is past. The alarm is still shrieking, but it's not the one in the kitchen that's going off, she realizes—it's the alarm upstairs. She turns on the fan over the stove, opens the window above the kitchen sink, and runs upstairs. She has to grab the footstool out of the bedroom to reach the screeching smoke detector in the hall. She finally disables it with shaking hands. In the sudden silence, she can hear the babies wailing, startled awake by the alarm.

She hurries into the nursery, whispering shhh, shhhh....... She picks each baby up, one at a time, soothing them, kissing their soft cheeks. They won't go back to sleep now; they're too riled up. She carries Jackie and then Emma downstairs and places them both in the playpen in the living room with some of their favorite toys, and returns to the kitchen.

The air is clear but it still reeks of smoke. She stares at the frying pan sitting on the burner as if she's still frightened of it. She grabs the oven mitt and lifts the lid. It looks like there was just oil in the pan. Was she going to fry something? She can't remember. How could she have put a pan on the stove and forgotten about it and let herself fall asleep? She thinks with horror about how quickly the fire might have spread.

Still shaken, she returns to the living room and sits on the rug with her back against the sofa, cuddling both babies to her chest.
She kisses the tops of their soft heads and strokes their cheeks, holding back tears. "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry..." she whispers.

She must remember to get Patrick to look at the smoke detector in the kitchen when he gets home tonight.


2

On Monday, just after lunch, Stephanie stares blankly at the wall in the pediatrician's office, fatigue glazing her eyes. The previous night had been particularly difficult. The twins are still buckled, squirming, into their double stroller; it's the easiest way to contain them. She hopes the doctor won't be too much longer. One thing Stephanie's learned as a first-time mother is that timing is everything. She hopes to keep the girls awake long enough to make it through the appointment, and then they can fall asleep in the car on the short drive home. She'll carry them inside for their afternoon nap, still asleep, one after the other, leaving one alone in the locked car while she carries the other in. . . .

The door opens abruptly and Dr. Prashad smiles at her. Stephanie knows that she's a mother, too, that she understands what it's like, although she doesn't have twins.

"How are we doing?" the doctor asks sympathetically.

She might well ask. This is an unscheduled appointment, but it's not Stephanie's first unannounced visit like this.

"Not great," Stephanie admits, giving a wobbly smile. She can feel her eyes immediately welling up. Shit. Why is it that the slightest bit of sympathy can bring her to tears these days? It's sleep deprivation, that's what it is, pure and simple. If she doesn't start getting more sleep soon, she's going to lose it.

She glances away from the doctor to her babies.
...

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