Authors: Sarah Wylie
“Everything supposedly starts with God, correct? So did math.”
“Do you want me to write that down?” I ask when Jack makes no move to do so himself. “To be honest,” I lean in toward him and whisper conspiratorially, “I’m fairly certain that
the answer to all of Halbrook’s problems. Religion. It will help him find himself, make peace with the past and let go of his failed dreams and all that … It helped my mom.”
Skipping breakfast once again has caught up with me, and my stomach growls its disapproval. I rummage through my backpack and pull out a half-empty bag of Doritos. They’ve been under my books since yesterday, so the chips are more like chiplets. “Want some?” Moist, sticky, tiny, delicious chiplets.
Jack’s eyes scan the library nervously. “No, thanks.” I wonder if it’s getting caught with the chips he’s anxious about, or the fact that he has me for a partner.
“Um, thanks for going to the trouble of printing this—”
“No trouble,” I shrug.
“—but we don’t actually … I think we’ll probably have to go more in-depth with this. Maybe we could even go to the public library and do some research.”
Mrs. Uri’s head suddenly snaps in our direction. Perhaps I’ve been too loud with the chips.
Her eyes lock on mine, willing me into a puddle of molten teenager. I don’t look away. A second later, she’s leaving her desk and heading across the room toward me, toward us.
“Sure you don’t want any?” I slide the crumpled packet toward Jack. He doesn’t have time to protest.
Mrs. Uri stops in front of us. She opens her mouth to speak, to yell and foam and teacher-curse the day I was born. Then, her face softens and the side of her mouth crumples. “Hi, Danielle.”
She is still smiling, but her eyes travel to the table and the offending bag o’ chips. “You and Jenavieve—”
“—look so much alike. I mean, for nonidentical—”
“Fraternal,” says Jack.
“—twins,” finishes Mrs. Uri. She keeps smiling at me, waiting: won’t I thank her? Being told you look like someone else is supposed to be the ultimate compliment, and yet it never really feels like it. Especially when it isn’t true. It’s just that seeing me reminds her of Jena.
She can’t ignore the shiny chip bag anymore, and without looking at it, as if swiping a fly in her periphery or overcome by a tick, she slams her hand down on the table and wraps it in her palm. “You can’t eat in here, Danielle. Please don’t make me tell you again.”
Still smiling, she turns, going back to her task of paperback sweat prevention.
“I’m leaving,” I announce as soon as she’s gone.
Jack holds out a single finger at me. “You were going to pretend it was mine.”
“So if you don’t like my information, feel free to find your own. From, like,
” I stuff my mostly empty notebook into my backpack and hesitate. Who gets custody of the chewed-on, salivary yellow pencil?
“I can’t believe you’d do that.”
Withholding a groan, I throw the pencil into my backpack. Hurt is so not sexy on a nerd.
“Sweetie,” I coo, “relax, she didn’t say anything about expelling either one of us.”
Jack stands with me now and, leaving his stuff on the table, follows me out of the library. Mr. Halbrook is talking to Mrs. Uri. With her luck, he’s the one hitting on her—not resident hot P.E. teacher, Mr. Thomas. I bet she’s playing the “I’m married” card. Either way, Jack and I get out unnoticed.
“But you tried to make it look like
was the one eating them.”
I wait till we’re safely through the library doors before I tiredly face Jack. “A bag of chips? Really? Of all the things to come between us.”
Jack starts to say something else, but I cut him off. “Look, she
me inhaling the pack beforehand. She
me slide it over to you. She
it was me.”
“Then why did you do it?”
Feeling frustrated at Jack’s complete fixation and psychological inertia, I turn and walk down the length of the hall. It’s barely the start of the day, but the thought of another two periods of pointless conversations before lunch, not to mention my chemistry teacher lecturing in monotone, seems unbearable. I figure a little break won’t hurt.
Backpack in hand, I slip out the heavy iron doors leading to the front of the school. If we were some New York City school, we might have security guards traipsing the halls or X-ray machines that beep when we have something forbidden. Or swipe cards that ensure that we are doing what we should be doing when we should be doing it. But we are not some New York City school, and if we skip out during school hours, we will only have Our Consciences to answer to and Our Parents’ Voicemails to delete and Our Bad Grades to be ashamed of. I’m surprised I don’t run into the entire student body outside the school doors.
Well, let them sit inside in the warmth with their flattened Dorito chip bags hidden between their textbooks, and their bags of candy in opened backpacks where they can slip their fingers in and get their sugar fix. Me? I prefer the cold.
I head to the football field behind the school building. In the distance, a group of freshmen (led by the
P.E. teacher and non-hottie, Mr. Kelton) alternate between jogging halfheartedly around the field, navigating clumped pockets of unmelted snow, and making out with asthma puffers. Today is warmer than it’s been in weeks, but it’s still early February. I’m pretty sure forcing kids to run laps qualifies as cruel and unusual punishment. I find a nook of the building where I can watch them, but they can’t see me. Then I drop my backpack on the ground and sit on top of it.
Mr. Kelton blows a shrill whistle and the class assembles in the middle of the field. My eyes skim over them, to the soccer goalpost way over at the end of the field.
It’s been forever since I watched a soccer game.
I hate soccer. The fact that it’s outdoors. The excessive celebration after a goal. The head-butting. The fact that an entire near-two-hours of match time can go by without a single goal.
I don’t miss it.
But it reminds me of hearing about which boy came to watch which game they were playing. Of Jena’s obnoxious cleat stomp-dance, of tripping over gym bags and balls in our hallway at home. Of a time when I was allowed to openly hate soccer, because you can hate things you’re sure of, things that aren’t going away.
A scrawny freshman is doubled over, red-faced and clutching his side, but a tuft of vapor drifts out of his mouth, assuring me that he is alive. His friend stops jogging to walk alongside him, and little clouds sail out of his mouth too as he speaks. The whole freshman class is breathing, all of them releasing malformed air letters to rub it in that they are alive.
I am, too. I breathe through my mouth. Staring over at the deserted soccer post, treacherously declaring that I am alive. I clamp my mouth shut and my throat constricts.
I want to evaporate.
If Jena and I were just sisters, not twins, it wouldn’t matter that I couldn’t donate blood or stem cells or bone marrow to her. But I am her twin and I still can’t.
I pull my knees up, rest my head on them, and shut my eyes. I’m trying to empty my mind, trying to lull myself to sleep. It feels like it’s working for the first thirty seconds, until I hear some shuffling and snow crunching around me. Without lifting my head, I see a pair of ratty white sneakers, with a grass stain on the left one. Above them are a pair of skinny-boy legs hidden beneath skinny-boy black pants, which are a little short for my taste.
“Are you okay?” Jack asks. Since I last saw him, he’s put on a dark green coat. He’s staring down at me, looking uncomfortable. “After our … dispute, I saw you come outside. So as soon as math ended, I wanted to come and find you.”
He exhales and I’m mesmerized by his smoky breath.
“I wanted to apologize,” Jack continues. “For before, I mean. I realize I overreacted.”
“I’d forgotten all about it,” I say, pulling myself up and wiping my palms on the back of my jeans.
“As long as you don’t hate me,” Jack says.
“I could never.” I poke my elbow into his side. For once I don’t have the energy to tease him, to be the Dani he knows. I heave my backpack onto my shoulder. “We better get back inside.”
* * *
The last person I expect to see when I come out of the school building at the end of the day is my father. He’s parked by the curb, behind a snail trail of school buses. Dad waves manically, while I try to think of some way I can get away with pretending not to know him. Amnesia, maybe?
I take my time walking toward the car.
“I knocked off a few hours early, so I thought I’d spare you the bus ride.”
“Thanks, Dad,” I say, climbing into the passenger seat.
My heart sinks when he doesn’t immediately start the car.
“I’ve been thinking,” he begins, his hand placed on the steering wheel, TV-dad style, “you just … you haven’t seemed like yourself lately—which is understandable. I mean, we all feel
. But I know you’ve been taking all this pretty hard and I … what I mean is … Do you think you’re … Are you worried about getting … cancer?”
Even now, it’s still hard for him to say it. I don’t blame him. It’s an icky word. Why couldn’t whoever was in charge of naming things call cancer “sugar” and sugar “cancer”? People might not eat so much of the stuff then. And it’s so much more pleasant to die of sugar.
Before I can speak, he rushes on. “Because it makes sense why you might think that, with you and Jena being twins. But as Dr. Thames explained back in July, the likelihood of your getting sick is pretty low. You don’t need to worry about that.”
He pauses now, waiting for me to confirm that this is, in fact, what is wrong.
“I get it,” I say. “Whatever I die from probably won’t be cancer. Maybe I’ll get hit by a UFO. Ooh, or one of those freak rollercoaster-ride-gone-wrong deals.”
“Dad, it’s freezing in here. Do you want me to die of frostbite?”
“No,” he says, “I don’t want you to die of anything.” I stare straight ahead, my throat lumpy, as I begin to think he really is just going to make us sit here and “talk.” But he starts the car and pulls out onto the road. “So, your mom and I were looking at some RVs in the paper the other day. To rent for August.”
I relax and melt into my seat. “Yeah?”
“Yeah.” He launches into the story, lamenting prices and filling every seat in the car, except mine, with excitement over the trip he and Mom had been planning for last August. When it didn’t happen, my parents acted like it had nothing to do with Jena’s diagnosis, like the plans just fell through, but we all know the truth. “So that’s the one we’re leaning toward right now. It would have to be in the summer, of course.”
The rest of the way home, we talk about school and Dad’s work and our elusive trip and that callback of mine.
When he found me in the pool the other night, Dad scolded me for not being careful and asked if I’d had anything to drink, even though he had to have smelled it on me.
He thinks I’m acting out because I’m scared of getting sick.
What would he think if he knew that Mom was right about my lives, if he knew that I
help Jena after all?
I know having nine lives (or six) falls under the category of Impossible Things, things that you are committed to scary institutions for believing.
But she only needs one, and six lives are too many for any one person.
“I’ve had an epiphany.” Lauren flops down next to me on a bench in the cafeteria. I’ve decided to take the day off from sitting with Spencer and Candy.
“An epiphany,” I repeat slowly, twirling a piece of lettuce around my fork and willing myself to eat it. Mom was preoccupied this morning, so I threw together the only non-tofu meal I could think of—a salad. Jena’s done with radiation for the foreseeable future, but they have a meeting with her oncologist this afternoon, an “update,” which is almost worse. Even Jena was nervous this morning.
I’ve been sitting here for the past five minutes, trying to figure out whether salads are always this brown, or if it’s just me.
“It’s, like, a revelation. A sudden realization. When something you haven’t—”
“I know what an epiphany is,” I tell Lauren.
“Oh. Well, yesterday,” she continues, “it hit me that I’ve been living in total complacency. I’ve allowed myself to become yet another self-absorbed, shallow adolescent. It’s sickening.”
No, the fact that my lunch looks like it might be alive is.
I glance at the huge wall clock across the cafeteria.
“I mean, so many people all around the world are voiceless. Unable to express their opinions and be heard, and yet
all sit here silent and immobile. Sickening,” she says again, with a shake of her head. Her sandwich is wrapped in blue, grease-resistant paper, and the smell of Marmite assaults my senses as soon as she opens it up. Her sister, Nicole, introduced her to Marmite after she got back from doing fieldwork in New Zealand, and Lauren has been obsessed ever since.
For the next ten minutes, Lauren rambles on about her epiphany and how, from here on out, she refuses to stay silent. I stare at her sandwich as she speaks. Somehow it manages to look way more appetizing than my salad, even though I think Marmite tastes like earwax.
“Did you know that when she was nine, Rachel Talbot staged a protest by sitting in this ancient tree at her elementary school when they tried to cut it down? Stuff like that just makes me feel so inspired.”
“So she’s a tree hugger?” I ask, finally giving up and pushing away my salad.
Lauren frowns. “I’ve always found that term derogatory. She’s a passionate campaigner concerned with environmental causes.”
Lauren keeps talking, hardly stopping for a breath. Most people don’t have all that much to say to me. The brave ones risk a “how are you,” but it’s not long before even they realize that there’s a long list of words they can’t mention in front of me: sister, sick, time, hair, hospital, eyebrows … After a while, no matter how brave you are, you realize it’s just easier not to talk.