CORPUS CHRISTI, Tex. — Brooke Alexander turned off her breast pump at 6:04 p.m. and brought two fresh bottles of milk over to the bed, where her 3-month-old twins lay flat on their backs, red-faced and crying.
“Please, fussy girl,” Brooke whispered.
She peeked outside the room, just big enough for a full-size mattress, and realized she had barely seen the sun all day. The windows were covered by blankets, pinned up with thumbtacks to keep the room cool. Brooke rarely ventured into the rest of the house. Billy’s dad had taken them in when her mom kicked them out, and she didn’t want to get in his way.
The hours without Billy were always the hardest. She knew he had to go, as they relied entirely on the $9.75 an hour he made working the line at Freebirds World Burrito, but she tortured herself imagining all the girls he might be meeting. And she wished she had somewhere to go, too.
Brooke found out she was pregnant late on the night of Aug. 29, two days before the Texas Heartbeat Act banned abortions once an ultrasound can detect cardiac activity, around six weeks of pregnancy. It was the most restrictive abortion law to take effect in the United States in nearly 50 years.
For many Texans who have needed abortions since September, the law has been a major inconvenience, forcing them to drive hundreds of miles, and pay hundreds of dollars, for a legal procedure they once could have had at home. But not everyone has been able to leave the state. Some people couldn’t take time away from work or afford gas, while others, faced with a long journey, decided to stay pregnant. Nearly 10 months into the Texas law, they have started having the babies they never planned to carry to term.
Texas offers a glimpse of what much of the country would face if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade this summer, as has been widely expected since a leaked draft opinion circulated last month. If the landmark precedent falls, roughly half the states in the country are expected to dramatically restrict abortion or ban it altogether, creating vast abortion deserts that will push many into parenthood.
Sometimes Brooke imagined her life if she hadn’t gotten pregnant, and if Texas hadn’t banned abortion just days after she decided that she wanted one. She would have been in school, rushing from class to her shift at Texas Roadhouse, eyes on a real estate license that would finally get her out of Corpus Christi. She pictured an apartment in Austin and enough money for a trip to Hawaii, where she would swim with dolphins in water so clear she could see her toes.
When both babies finally started eating, Brooke took out her phone and restarted the timer that had been running almost continuously since the day they were born. She had two and a half hours until they’d have to eat again.
Brooke and Billy first met at the downtown skatepark with a big group of friends, one clear night in May of last year. They didn’t talk that first day, but Brooke noticed how effortlessly Billy dropped into the quarter-pipe, the way his blond hair flipped out from underneath his red beanie. She followed him on Instagram, and her stomach did a little dance when she saw that he followed her back.
Soon, they were spending almost every day together, throwing themselves into the Gulf of Mexico waves on Padre Island and watching the sun set over the pier. At the skatepark, he’d help her do the tricks she’d been scared to try alone.
“Pinkie promise me you’ll do it,” he’d say, all blue eyes and dimples, as she peeked over the edge of the ramp. Once he hooked her little finger, there was no backing down.
Billy was different from the other guys Brooke knew. He held her hand in public and introduced her to his dad. When she took him to the mall, he grinned each time she stepped out of the dressing room, telling her how good she looked in each new crop top she tried on. He made her feel pretty. “I wasn’t used to feeling like that,” Brooke said.
Brooke took the pregnancy test at 11 o’clock on a hot night at the tail end of the summer. When the two pink lines appeared, she looked over at Billy, then slid onto the bathroom floor, finally connecting the signs she’d ignored for weeks.
The nausea she’d chalked up to food poisoning. The two missed periods. That moment a few weeks back, when Billy put a hand on her stomach and asked if she was sure she wasn’t pregnant.
Leaving Billy in her bedroom with the pregnancy test, Brooke grabbed her keys and drove to her best friend’s house, where they sat on his bed and examined her options.
She could always get an abortion, she told him. Then he reminded her of something she vaguely remembered seeing on Twitter: A new law was scheduled to take effect Sept. 1. Brooke had 48 hours.
The abortion clinic in South Texas, two and a half hours from Corpus Christi, had no open slots in the next two days, with patients across the state racing to get into clinics before the law came down. When Brooke called, the woman on the end of the line offered the names and addresses of clinics in New Mexico, a 13-hour drive from Corpus Christi.
In the meantime, the woman said, Brooke could get an ultrasound somewhere nearby: If she was under six weeks, they could still see her.
“We’re gonna see how far along it is,” Brooke texted her dad, Jeremy Alexander, later that night. “See if abortion is an option.”
“What’s the cut off date,” he asked.
“They just passed a law today!!” she responded in the early hours of Sept. 1, referring to the ban that had just taken effect. “What are the f---ing odds I believe it’s 6 weeks.”
“Fingers crossed????” her dad said.
Brooke found a place that would perform an ultrasound on short notice and scheduled an appointment for 9 a.m.
Whenever a new client walks into the Pregnancy Center of the Coastal Bend, they are asked to fill out a form. After all the usual questions of name, date of birth and marital status comes the one that most interests the staff: “If you are pregnant, what are your intentions?”
From there, the team sorts each client into one of three groups:
If they’re planning to have the baby: “LTC,” likely to carry.
If they’re on the fence: “AV,” abortion vulnerable.
If they’re planning to get an abortion: “AM,” abortion minded.
The Pregnancy Center of the Coastal Bend, which advertises itself as the “#1 Source of Abortion Information” in the region, is one of thousands of crisis pregnancy centers across the United States, antiabortion organizations that are often religiously affiliated.
When Brooke showed up with her mom for her appointment, she had no idea she’d walked into a facility designed to dissuade people from getting abortions. She also didn’t know how much significance her form held for the staff: By signaling that she wanted an abortion, she became their first “AM” of the Texas Heartbeat Act.
Brooke heard about the center from her mom’s friend, who knew she needed an ultrasound. This place offered them free. Brooke felt a sense of calm, sitting in the waiting room, lulled by its decorative throw pillows and soft watercolors of ocean scenes.
The advocate assigned to her case, Angie Arnholt, had been counseling abortion-minded clients at the pregnancy center for a year. While many of the center volunteers signed up only to talk to “LTCs” to have happy conversations about babies their clients couldn’t wait to have, Arnholt, a 61-year-old who wears a gold cross around her neck, felt called to do what she could to help women “make a good decision,” she later told The Washington Post.
Back in a consultation room, Brooke told Arnholt all the reasons she wanted to get an abortion. She had just enrolled in real estate classes at community college, which would be her first time back in a classroom since she dropped out of high school three years earlier at 15. She and Billy had been dating only three months.
Sitting across from Brooke and her mom, Arnholt opened “A Woman’s Right to Know,” an antiabortion booklet distributed by the state of Texas, flipping to a page titled “Abortion risks.” The first risk listed was “death.”
As Brooke listened to Arnholt’s warnings of depression, nausea, cramping, breast cancer and infertility, she tried to stay calm, reminding herself that women get abortions all the time. Still, Brooke couldn’t help fixating on some of the words Arnholt used: Vacuum suction. Heavy bleeding. Punctured uterus. (Serious complications from abortion are rare. Abortion does not increase the risk of mental illness, breast cancer or infertility, according to leading medical organizations.)
Starting to panic, Brooke looked over at her mom. When she found out Brooke was pregnant, Terri Thomas told her daughter to get an abortion. While she was a devout Christian, going to church a few times a week and twice on Sundays, she had her own views on this particular issue.
Thomas had her first kid at 20, she said, just as she was transferring out of community college with hopes of starting law school. If the timing had been different, she said, she might have been a prosecutor. Instead, she hopped from one retail job to another: Bath & Body Works to Walgreens to Home Depot.
Growing up, Brooke said, she bounced back and forth between her mom’s house and her dad’s, depending on who was the more stable parent at the time. Her happiest years as a kid were spent with her dad, she said, on a tree-lined street with a ping-pong table in the garage and a trampoline in the backyard. But then Brooke’s dad started using cocaine.
While Alexander has been sober for a few years now, he said, back then he couldn’t kick the habit. Around the time he stopped paying all the rent, and sewage started backing up in their toilets, Brooke moved back in with her mom.
With her mom, Brooke always felt like she was tiptoeing. If Brooke forgot to turn off the lights or do the dishes, Thomas would start yelling. Thomas felt she had every right to respond that way, she said, because she was the “hen” in her henhouse.
Arnholt ushered Brooke into the ultrasound room, where Brooke undressed from the waist down and lay back onto an examination table, looking up at a large flat-screen TV.
As the ultrasound technician pressed the probe into her stomach, slathered with gel, Brooke willed the screen to show a fetus without a heartbeat. The technician gasped. It was twins. And they were 12 weeks along.
“Are you sure?” Brooke said. “Oh, my God, oh, my God,” Thomas recalled saying as she jumped up and down. “This is a miracle from the Lord. We are having these babies.”
Brooke felt like she was floating above herself, watching the scene below. Her mom was calling the twins “my babies,” promising Brooke she would take care of everything, as the ultrasound technician told her how much she loved being a twin.
If she really tried, Brooke thought she could make it to New Mexico. Her older brother would probably lend her the money to get there. But she couldn’t stop staring at the pulsing yellow line on the ultrasound screen.
She wondered: If her babies had heartbeats, as these women said they did, was aborting them murder? Eventually, Arnholt turned to Brooke and asked whether she’d be keeping them. Brooke heard herself saying “yes.”
Brooke walked out of the pregnancy center that day with an ultrasound photo and a handful of lollipops that Arnholt promised would help with her morning sickness.
Arnholt and the ultrasound technician each followed up with Brooke a few times over text. Brooke scheduled what the pregnancy center called a “prenatal appointment,” where she sat through another ultrasound, then dropped by for a parenting class, earning “points” she redeemed for a package of diapers.
After that, Brooke didn’t go back to the pregnancy center. She said the class felt like a waste of time. Instead, she turned to Billy. Within a few weeks, Brooke and Billy had a plan. He would join the Air Force as soon as he graduated from high school. Brooke would wait for him to finish basic training, then follow him wherever he got assigned.
Soon they were debating baby names. Surrounded by their friends and families one afternoon in October, Brooke and Billy fired gender-reveal cannons into Thomas’s backyard, unleashing two giant puffs of pink smoke.
“I’m so happy I met you billy,” Brooke wrote in an Instagram post announcing her pregnancy. “Starting a family with you is gonna be one of the hardest things I’m ever gonna experience, but I’m glad I get to do it with you.”
Brooke started her real estate classes in early November, and she loved everything about going to school. When she showed up the first day in her favorite crop top and jeans, the cinder-block building “felt like an opportunity,” she said. Most days, she’d buy a Frappuccino from the vending machine and sit down in the chair she’d claimed as her own, opening her textbook to a page she’d already covered in yellow highlighter.
Brooke got an 83 on the final exam, the highest grade in the class.
She texted everyone she could think of who might want to hear the news: Billy, her brother, her mom, her dad, her grandpa. After three years out of school, she couldn’t believe she’d done so well. “I felt like, man, I must be really smart,” she said.
Throughout the fall, Billy was her biggest worry. He’d stayed pretty quiet back when she was deciding what to do about the babies. Just once, he told her he’d prefer to get an abortion, but would support her completely in whatever she chose. He’d thought about adoption, but Brooke wouldn’t even consider it.
“I don’t think I’m ready for this,” he’d told her. Billy was scared to lose what he described as “the freedom of being a teenager.” After he graduated, he’d planned to keep working at Freebirds, just enough hours to get by, so he could maximize his skate time and “just chill.” People respected Billy at the skate park. Whenever he geared up to film some tricks, everyone else cleared out of the bowl.
By November, Billy was paying all of Brooke’s bills. She’d stopped working at Texas Roadhouse after the smell of the meat and grease had been making her sick to her stomach. To swing Brooke’s $330 car payment, they applied for a WIC card and ate ramen or pancakes for dinner. When they overdrafted Brooke’s credit card, Billy worked double shifts until he could pay it off.
Brooke wanted to work, but she couldn’t hack a waitressing job. At seven months pregnant, she struggled to stay on her feet for too long and felt utterly exhausted by even the simplest tasks. She started falling asleep while doing her homework. Then she missed a class. Then another.
When she decided to drop out of real estate school, she couldn’t bring herself to tell her teacher. She convinced herself it wasn’t that big of a deal. They’d be moving away soon anyway, and the Air Force would pay Billy enough to support them both.
Brooke wedged her real estate textbook in a line of books on her dresser, between “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” and the fourth Harry Potter. Maybe she’d come back to it one day.
Anytime Brooke went out with the babies in public, she knew that people were staring. She was 18 and she looked 18, with rosy cheeks and curly blond ringlets tied together with a ribbon. As she struggled to maneuver her double stroller through the doors at Freebirds, she imagined everyone was judging her, writing her off as a clueless kid and a bad mom.
She was determined to prove them wrong. Somehow, mothering came naturally to Brooke. Whenever one of the babies started crying, Brooke would tick through her mental checklist: Was her daughter hungry? Tired? Did she need to be changed?
If it was none of those things, Brooke would pick up her daughter and hold her close, swaying from side to side, kissing the silky brown strands on the top of her head. Almost always, her baby would stop crying.
“I think they can smell me,” she said. “And that makes me feel so special.” Brooke knew the little things about her daughters that no one else would notice. Olivia had a higher-pitched cry. Kendall was harder to soothe. You could always tell when they were about to wake up, because they’d start to smile.
Looking at her daughters, Brooke struggled to articulate her feelings on abortion. On one hand, she said, she absolutely believed that women should have the right to choose what’s best for their own lives. On the other, she knew that, without the Texas law, her babies might not be here.
“Who’s to say what I would have done if the law wasn’t in effect?” she said. “I don’t want to think about it.” Brooke considered all that she’d lost: long nights at the skate park, trips to the mall, dropping $30 on a crab dinner just because she felt like it.
“I can’t just really be free,” she said. “I guess that really sums it up. That’s a big thing that I really miss.” She sat silently for a while, Olivia’s hand wrapped around her finger. “It’s really scary thinking that I wouldn’t have them,” she said.
There was only one way she could make sense of it, she said. Losing them now, as fully formed human beings, would be different from losing them back then.
All through the pregnancy, Brooke had planned to bring the babies home to her mom’s house, where they’d all live together until Billy made enough money to pay for a home. Brooke’s mom had promised to be there for them, back in the ultrasound room, and Brooke had believed her. But after a couple of weeks, Brooke started to feel like her mom could turn on her at any moment.
Thomas would remind Brooke that she was staying in her house rent-free, running the TV and AC all night without paying for electric. After Brooke left dirty dishes in the sink one night in May, she woke up to her mom yelling at her from the kitchen.
“You don’t get a prize for getting yourself knocked up and pregnant,” Thomas remembered saying. “I don’t know what you think I owe you, but you don’t get a prize for that.” Brooke told her, “You treat me like some random chick off the street. I’m your daughter.”
Thomas said she told her to find another place to live. Brooke packed up a few things and drove the babies to Billy’s dad’s house. Billy’s room wasn’t exactly where she’d imagined raising her daughters, with its stash of skateboard magazines and a giant Freebirds billboard behind the bed, advertising fountain drinks for 95 cents. But it was a place she was welcome.
The next morning, Brooke woke up to a text from her mother. “I am by no means a perfect human or a perfect mom, but I love you no matter what,” she wrote. “You don’t have to stay over there.” Brooke would rather rely on Billy than her mom, she decided, though in her most anxious moments, she worried he might kick her out, too.
She often relived an argument they’d had one Saturday night in April, when they got a little too drunk and Billy finally talked about all the things he’d been avoiding. He didn’t really like the way his life was turning out, he told her. He didn’t want to join the Air Force. He just wanted to skate. “That’s not my fault,” she’d told him. “I didn’t get myself pregnant.”
At one point, she recalled, he suggested they try living apart. They were over that now, Brooke reminded herself as she hung up her clothes in Billy’s closet. She placed a bouquet of flowers on his desk and lit a candle, filling the room with a scent called “Forever Love.” Bit by bit, she would make Billy’s room a home.
Across town, a woman Brooke had never met would soon be sharing her story, holding up the twins as an antiabortion triumph, just two weeks after the leaked draft decision revealed a Supreme Court on the brink of overturning Roe.
The Coastal Bend Republican Coalition gathered on May 19 for its weekly meeting at a local barbecue joint. Over brisket and coleslaw, members listened to the speaker they’d invited for the evening: Jana Pinson, the executive director of the Pregnancy Center of the Coastal Bend.
To explain the center’s work, Pinson told a story about a girl who showed up with her mom on the morning the Heartbeat Act took effect, asking for an abortion. The mother and daughter “were so furious with us,” Pinson said, “so angry.” But as soon as they saw the ultrasound, she said, everything changed. “The moment we put that wand on her sweet belly and two babies popped up … it absolutely melted them.”
Last year, Pinson said, 583 abortion-minded and abortion-vulnerable women chose to continue their pregnancies after visiting their facility. At their banquet in March, with over 2,800 attendees from across the region, Pinson and her staff lit 583 candles. One of those was for Brooke.
Three weeks later, the babies stayed home while Brooke and Billy drove to the courthouse. Billy was about to leave for a five-month stint in basic training and technical school. For Brooke to qualify for military benefits, they had to get married.
At 11 o’clock on a Monday morning, they walked into a courtroom with an American flag behind the bench, Brooke in a flowery sundress, Billy in jeans. She’d looked around for white dresses on Amazon but couldn’t justify the $30: She was terrified she’d run out of money while Billy was away.
The loneliness scared her, too. She kept imagining the long nights alone in Billy’s house, trying to calm two crying babies without him. He wouldn’t have his phone at basic training, and she would hear from him mostly through letters. She knew she’d have to manage that little voice in the back of her head: What if he changed his mind about their life together?
Standing with Billy in front of the justice of the peace, Brooke told herself that, one day, they would have their “love story moment.” She would walk down the aisle in a wedding gown. Their friends and family would cry and cheer as she and Billy publicly declared how much they meant to each other.
“I, Brooke Alexander, take thee, Billy High, to be my wedded husband,” she repeated.
If it wasn’t for the Texas law, Brooke knew she might not be standing here. She’d probably be studying for her next exam, while Billy mastered some new trick on the quarter-pipe. She liked to think they’d still be together, spending their money on movie tickets and Whataburger, instead of diapers and baby wipes.
She told herself that alternate life didn’t matter anymore. She had two babies she loved more than anything else in the world. “I do,” she said, tears in her eyes. Brooke pulled out her phone once they finished the ceremony: 1 hour, 15 minutes. Time to grab some lunch and head home. The babies would be hungry.
Story editing by Peter Wallsten. Photos by Marvi Lacar. Photo editing by Thomas Simonetti. Copy editing by Mike Cirelli. Design by Stephanie Hays.