Estimated reading time — 15 minutes
I never really liked my sister. I mean, of course I love her, but we’ve never quite gotten along. It’s more than just that “sister rivalry” thing. Even as I stand here now on her front lawn, I guess I’m where I’ve always been with Madeline- torn, caught between two very different girls. But I’m getting ahead of myself. It all had to start somewhere, childhood, I suppose. Even then we were completely different people, our personalities clashing, hard sometimes. She was already eight when I was born, all of a sudden someone else to share your parents with, unwelcome and hogging all the spotlight. And to Madeline? Someone who was NOT about to tag along and get in the way of her… plans.
Everything was always plans with her, and I was never a part of them. Madeline was that overachieving kid at school you hated; before that, she was the catty 4th grader who gossiped behind your back. And growing up, I was one of those bookish types, quiet and small. And THEN I’d come home from school only to find Maddy, my own personal bully, waiting for me. That’s when I started to play that weird little game. She’d lock me in the closet, and as I sat there in the dark (I know it sounds dumb, but I was so young then) I would close my eyes and wish I had a twin.
Maybe it’d even the odds- two younger, quieter girls against one bossy older sister. Or maybe I just wanted somebody else to play with, someone I could share my things with. Whatever the reason, I had a little “mantra” I would say: “I wish I had my twin. I wish she was here.” But no matter how hard I tried to activate some imaginary power, the ‘twin’ never appeared. And so we grew up. Once college time came for Madeline, we mostly went our separate ways, and BOY, did she climb that social ladder like her life depended on it- graduated with honors, married the “boy next door,” had a baby and now she’s got her own office assisting in a law firm while, you guessed it, she’s studying for the bar exam.
And me? I’m not aiming nearly so high. Dad teaches in high school, and I guess I took after him, because I’m an English major and could see myself teaching one day, but maybe to younger kids. I love kids, especially my niece, the only thing that keeps Maddy and I less distant these days- I stay close to her daughter, Ella, because I worry she’s not getting enough of what she needs at home. She’s a shy kid, like me, only six, and her mom already pushes her around when she’s not ignoring her completely. I don’t want to see her go through what I did with Madeline, so I try to make it over there when I can, to give her someone she can play with or talk to. Maybe that’s why I’m in this whole mess now… my concern for little Ella.
It was only this morning I rolled out of bed, ready for another usual day in the life of a college junior when it’s turned out to be ANYTHING but that. Usually it was a morning chat and Starbucks with my roommate, a theatre girl and yin to my yang named Ashley. Then Lit class, lunch to finish any homework, then one of those crappy Chem courses I take just for the credits. When school’s done, I go back to our campus apartment to veg out for a couple of hours, then work nights at the Denny’s. Sure, it’s not as glamorous as what Madeline has, but I can’t help smiling to myself when I think about the cute busboy at work, while she’s stuck with some Home Depot manager named Eddie who can’t even grow a beard, so… I’m gonna chalk that up as a win for ol’ Becky.
I awoke looking a bit pale, hoping it wasn’t the flu, but was already late to meet Ashley for coffee and rushed down the path. But when I got there, my smile met with a confused look from Ash. “I was actually just about to leave,” she told me, latte in hand. “I didn’t think we were meeting today- I mean, I was coming over, but then I saw you.” This took me aback, but she continued, her eyes narrowed and probing. “Weren’t you JUST in the dining hall?” I felt a little queasy now… Ashley had known me for YEARS. She knows what I look like.
“Wait, wait… you saw someone you maybe THOUGHT was me?” I asked. “Ash, I wasn’t at the dining hall. I just came from our place, thought I’d be late ‘cause I’m just, a little sick today. But I wasn’t there. Maybe somebody really looks like me.”
Ashley’s eyes changed from questioning to wide. I knew she wouldn’t fake me out like this. “No, no. Becky, it WAS you. Is this like, a joke?”
Surely there’d been a mistake. “At the dining hall- what was ‘I’ doing there?”
“Just, um… just sitting and eating.” She looked down at her coffee. “Maybe you should go see for yourself.”
I’ve got long, dark hair, like a bunch of other girls, and I’m 20, like half the kids on campus. So I rationalized, and put on a goofy face, waving my fingers in mock horror. “Ooooh, a secret clone. Maybe I SHOULD go meet this mysterious Becky number two, huh?” But Ash was serious.
“You’re… probably right,” she nodded, touching my arm with a smile before she started to the door, off to class herself. “Don’t worry. Millions of people in the world, right? You know what they say- everybody’s got a twin.”
A chill ran through me, but I said a quick goodbye, then decided I needed to know. The next building over held the dining hall, and I rushed across the grass to see this ‘mystery girl,’ suddenly feeling like that nervous little kid again. I made my way through Bishop Hall but as I got to the cafeteria stairs, I found myself weak, and not just from running. I was all at once so tired, like I hadn’t slept in days, but my determination was strong, and I slowly pulled one leg up in front of the other. Sweating and gasping as I climbed, I wondered what the Hell was wrong with me. I’m not in this bad of shape by a LONG shot. I made it to the top barely in time to see her, and froze.
There was a girl that looked exactly like me, in a purple tank top and jeans, placing her tray by the kitchen and walking away towards the quad. The sweat on my skin went cold. She was IDENTICAL. The hair, the face, the everything. My mind raced but I simply couldn’t find any good explanation, and I went lightheaded. It was all too much. With the girl gone, whoever she was, I trudged all the way back to our apartment and ran to the bathroom to puke. When I was washing up, I caught my reflection in the mirror.
My face was grey and sallow, bags under my eyes, hair a dull mess. I groaned from exhaustion and climbed back into bed, figuring, fuck the class. I could afford to miss one Lit session, but not science, so I set my phone for an hour-long nap, and took an aspirin on the bedside stand for the gnawing pain settling behind my eyes. With that, I passed out in the soft embrace of my pillow. When the alarm jerked me awake, I looked even worse, head now throbbing. I changed into a long-sleeved shirt, shivering, thinking I’d need to see a doctor- but after class. My hands shook as I slung my bag over one shoulder and headed to the building.
I shuddered in the wind, even though it was just a light California breeze. That girl… I couldn’t stop picturing it, but tried to focus. With some difficulty, I made it up the few short steps and opened the class door only to find my professor, Mrs. Broche, with a look of befuddlement. “Becky, were you not just… wearing a different outfit?” My heart skipped a beat. No, no, this was all wrong.
“I, uh- think you have me mixed up with a different student-“ My hands searched through my bag for the paper due that day, mind boggled as dizzying spots danced before my eyes. “Here’s my essay, Mrs. Broche…”
The old woman gave me a concerned smile and rested her hand on my arm, the skin clammy. “Honey, you already handed your paper in. You JUST did. Do you… want to sit down?”
I slowly withdrew my hands from the bag, eyes darting around the room at the funny stares of my classmates. “I… did? Was I, um, just in here?”
My lab partner piped up with an uncertain tone. “Becky, I just saw you give her the paper. You alright?” I felt faint, dripping with sweat, but quietly choked out, “I’m fine.” No one looked like they bought it, and I tried to smile and glanced at the clock. Technically class didn’t start for another two minutes. “I’m just gonna go get some air, OK?”
The teacher nodded, finally taking her hand off me. “That sounds good, Becky. We won’t be getting underway just yet.” Panic gripped my head like a vice as I stumbled out into the hall, and I saw a guy I knew, another English major, Dean. My heart sank with the weight of his words.
“Weren’t you just here?” Dean gestured. “Going the… other way?”
I weakly assured him, “Musta been someone else, heh,” and he walked off as I slowly followed down the hall he’d indicated, feeling worse with every step. By the time I’d made it to the girl’s bathroom I could barely summon the strength to open the door, but in I went, and as it shut behind me there she was. The twin I always wanted. The girl from the dining hall. Just standing there, washing her hands, and as she turned she wasn’t even surprised to see me.
“Becky, what’s wrong?” she asked in a voice of genuine worry. She looked like she actually cared about how ill I was, as I slumped against the bathroom wall, the tile cool against my hot, moist skin. As my head spun I watched my bookbag slide down beside me, limp on the floor, and I turned to see her approaching.
“Who the Hell ARE you?” I said hoarsely. On her way over from the sink she faltered, leaving the water running as she gradually came toward me, and I scrabbled against the wall to get away.
“Don’t you know me? I’m your… sister…” She doubled over with a look of pain, clutching her stomach and wailing. My twin still tried haltingly to walk to me, and I was helpless to do anything but wave my hands in defense and push myself toward the stalls by shuffling my shoes. “We’re twins!”
“I’m not… your twin,” I told her between breaths. “I don’t have a twin, and I don’t… know who you are…” My head was splitting and my stomach felt ready for another round of vomit.
The girl was hurt, confused. “But I’m supposed to be here- this is our SCHOOL, Becky. Do you not- remember?” The sink was overflowing behind her, its water slowly pooling as she continued to grab at her belly, taking an uneasy step. “This is our- our life. I don’t understand.” She winced, her face going white. “Becky, what’s wrong?”
“YOU’RE what’s wrong!” I lay half-propped against the wall, the rest of me sprawled upon the tile, my whole body reeling.
My twin just gave a small, sad shake of her head. “I don’t know why we’re both so sick,” she told me, struggling on her feet. “I’ve been like this- ugh- all day.” I could tell she was really hurting.
“So have I,” I told her. This was crazy- I refused to believe I was in the girl’s bathroom, talking to a TWIN I never fucking had. No, this was something else, I reasoned to myself. I just had a fever… a really high one. Just a fever…
I reached trembling for the door to try and call for help, but it was so hard, and I was so very, very tired… my arm fell dead to the floor as I drifted in and out of consciousness on the tiles. All I could hear was the sound of my twin crying in pain, now down on her knees but still crawling to me, shaking violently. I tried to stay awake, tried to hold onto the feeling of the cool wetness that slowly spread under my legs. Out of the corner of my eye I watched her, skin now ashen and nose bleeding from both nostrils, croaking, “Sis… Becks, please…”
A monstrous agony taking hold of me, I used all the strength I had left to reach for her arm, but she twisted and pulled away, trying to get to her feet. She slipped in the puddle of still-running tap water and all at once I saw her fall back, bashing her head down on the sink corner and tumbling limp onto the ground, neck cocked at an odd angle. Oh God. Was she-? Just as quickly as she had dropped, the haze in my mind began to clear, and the harsh grip of pain suddenly released my body. My skin now flushing with new vigor, I sat up in the water and looked over.
Her brown eyes were locked, open and lifeless. A terrible sorrow flooded into me, and I locked the bathroom door from the inside and carefully made my way over to the body, shutting the damned sink off for good. With newfound energy I kneeled down and cradled my twin as her black, soaking hair fell loosely around me and the blood flowed freely from a gash in the back of her head. To my surprise, tears began streaming down my cheeks as I quietly said to her, “Maybe you were my twin. I asked for you, and you… you actually came…”
Maybe I was responsible for this. Maybe neither of us had to die, no matter how sick we’d become. Maybe this girl had her own life this entire time, living it out with no idea that I was living mine without her. Gently closing those staring dead eyes, I had no idea what to do, and considered calling for help. “I’m so sorry,” I told her. I grabbed a wad of paper towels and wiped away the bloody water. I couldn’t just leave her like this. My health rushing back to me, I finished with the tile, patting away the last traces of blood before I went to carefully clean off the wound on her head.
I gingerly propped her up between the back wall and the handicapped toilet railing of the last stall, biting my lip as my mind raced when I realized what the world would see- they’d think it was ME dead in there. I tucked my arm beneath her knees and tried to pull her legs up onto the rim of the toilet so no one would see her, shutting her inside and wondering who to call first. The police? My mom? God, as if anyone would ever BEGIN to believe me… As if to reply, the sound of my phone ringing made me jump, still in my bag across the room.
I hurried over to see it was Madeline, and answered. “Rebecca- oh, thank God you picked up!” Just as it did before, my heart began beating hard against my chest. I had never heard my sister speak in such a way. She sounded disturbed, frightened, practically UNHINGED. She kept going, a mile a minute. “I don’t know what to do, fuck, I don’t know what to do! You have to come, or… someone has to come here and get me, oh, Jesus.”
“Maddy, where are you?”
“I’m at the office.” Her voice was ragged and muffled, like she was hiding. “Something terrible- no, something IMPOSSIBLE is going on.” At this, I felt an uneasy tingle at the back of my throat, as she explained, “I, I was here, you know, working. Then on my lunch break I called my landline at home like I always do… to check my messages. Rebecca, I called the phone when no one was home. And someone picked up. I picked up.”
I scrambled to find my words. “What do you mean?”
“I mean it was ME! It was fucking me, myself, picking up the goddamned telephone! I am TERRIFIED, Becca. I’ve been retching over the sink for half an hour and I… I think I’m sick. Maybe even hospital sick.” That was it. I shook all over, holding the phone to my ear so hard I thought it might snap, and whispered back to her, “I think I know what’s going on, Maddy.”
“What? How could you have ANY idea what’s happening.” That was Madeline- dismissive even in the face of sheer, unadulterated madness. I grabbed up my bag and with one last, apologetic look back, unlocked the door and fled the building. “All I know is, there’s some stranger in my house right now, and I need your help, Becca. PLEASE!” I bounded across the grass toward my parking lot. “I need you to come and pick me up… I’m too dizzy to drive.”
“Alright, I told you, I think I know what’s up. I’m coming, okay?”
She practically shrieked at me. “Look, right now I need your CAR and your ASSISTANCE, not your… theories, Rebecca! Just, please hurry.” I felt a little indignant, but she WAS my sister, and if a twin had suddenly popped up in my life… I was already starting the car.
“I’m on the way,” I tried to reassure her. “Just stay where you are, right?”
Madeline laughed until it was broken by a chesty cough, telling me wryly, “I couldn’t go anywhere even if I wanted to. Just drive fast.” With her office in the next town over, I kept her on the line as I drove, and she only got sicker. “I’m not gonna be able to get my work done,” she told me faintly.
“Don’t worry about that, Maddy. Something… really terrible happened.” I pushed back the threat of more tears and took a sharp corner in her direction.
My sister sounded confused, like she was speaking through a fog. “…What?”
“I saw- I saw my own twin.” The light was yellow but I went right through it and kept my foot down hard on the gas. “Listen, I’m not joking with you. I had this stupid game as a kid and I like, I wanted my own twin, alright?” There was nothing but the sound of her breathing, and I feared for her, trying to evoke a response. “So today I see this other girl, this like, ‘twin’ of mine. And seeing her made me really sick, too.”
“You were sick?” Thank God, she was still conscious.
“Yeah, but the twin, she’s…” I fell silent for a minute. “She’s gone, now, and I feel like myself again.” Maybe she’d been there all along. Maybe if I’d just kept my distance… but I didn’t tell Maddy that. I didn’t know what else to tell her; only that I was coming.
As I closed in on her office she said, “Then maybe… maybe I really have a twin at my house. Oh, God.” She sighed. “She could be stealing my clothes, touching all my things, and God only knows what else…”
“I’m pulling in!” I shouted, frantically leaving the car running in a nearby spot. As I was about to hang up with her, jogging to the door, I told her, “I’m on my way in.” That’s when she suddenly interjected, “Oh my God, Rebecca- I think you’re actually right. Oh my God…” Then I heard a thud, as if she had dropped onto the floor, and I called “Maddy!” before finally hanging up, as I was already inside.
I rushed through the busy office, ignoring everyone that tried to greet me, telling them, “Sorry, I’ve got to go see my sister- she isn’t feeling well.” I found Madeline lying partly beneath her desk, the phone off the hook next to her pale, cold hands as she looked up at me in fear. “It’s OK, it’s OK,” I told her as I pulled her up to lean against me, and we started to make our way out as quickly as she could go. A woman poked her head out of a cubicle and said, “Not quite yourself, huh, Mads?” But we kept going, and once at the car I laid her down in the backseat, as my sister moaned with confusion.
Sweat poured from her in a fever, her freckled face suddenly so white and thin. “Thanks…” she told me, as I buckled myself in and set a course for her house, not far off.
“Madeline- stay awake. Tell me what you meant, when you said I was ‘right’.” I drove nervously, looking around for nothing in particular, as if this “other” sister was going to suddenly pop up.
From behind me Maddy laughed. “Ironic, really,” she said, disoriented. “When I was a girl, I wished too… I wished I could be in two places at once.” A few coughs escaped her. “You know, like, one ‘me’ could be at school and the other at home. One working and one with Ella. Like when she was a baby- GOD, she was so much work.” Now she was coughing profusely, bordering on delirious.
“Hang on,” I told her firmly. “We’ll be there in just a couple minutes, OK?”
Even as I sped through the suburban streets and she groaned, she continued to babble on. “Maybe I brought this… this ‘twin’ on too, huh?” Another laugh mixed with coughs. “Stretching myself so thin I needed another pair of hands to take care of it all.” It was the next street over now, and from behind me her voice said darkly, “ Ella will be getting home from school.”
“Look, Maddy! We’re here, we’re here…” My words faded as I pulled up to the curb of the house next door to hers, and opened the backseat door to find her coughing up bits of blood and phlegm, growing weaker by the minute. I took her hand and implored, “Hang on.” I tried to form a semblance of a plan, looking over the grass at her house. What would I do face-to-face with this… this Madeline-Twin? But my sister cut through my thoughts with her gravelly words.
“Your ‘twin’ person,” she said to me. “What happened? How did you- get better?”
Hesitantly, I started, “I regret it so much, Maddy… she DIED. It was an accident, I swear, and-“ Suddenly we both heard it: the lurching creak of a school bus coming to a stop just ahead of us. Ella was now getting off the steps and spotted me, waving. “Oh God- just hang on!”
I jumped over a bike laying in the neighbor’s yard and ran, the little girl starting up the concrete steps to my horror. I screamed to her, “That’s not your mother!” and waved my arms in panic, and Ella turned with a perplexed look as I stopped dead in my tracks at the startling sight of “Madeline-Twin.” The front door swung fully open. There she stood with a huge smile on her face, her brown hair pulled into a messy bun, wearing denim slacks caked in flour. A plate of chocolate chip cookies cooled on the table beside her as the woman bent down to embrace the still-confused Ella in a big, loving hug.
She leaned in tight and looked over the little girl’s shoulder at me with a warm, knowing smile. I was shocked into silence, watching motionless as she pulled back, kneeling at Ella’s level. “Why did Auntie Becca say that?” she asked her ‘mother,’ and Madeline-Twin simply shrugged it off. “Nahh, we’re just playing a silly game.” She crinkled her nose at the girl to put her at ease. “Isn’t that right, Aunt Becky?” She stood with a wave and said, “Why don’t you come on in? Maybe you should let your friend in the car have a rest… she IS very tired.”
I snapped my head back to see the real Madeline, her face half-sticking out from the backseat and wheezing, looking as taken aback as I was. She told me in a wobbly voice, “Get… the bitch. Now… get her!”
Madeline-Twin was kissing and doting on Ella, telling her to be careful, the cookies were still hot. “Is it your birthday? We don’t EVER make stuff together!” the girl giggled. This woman, this mom-who-wasn’t, just laughed, telling her with some fatigue, “Every day is a good day for baking with my special girl. And Mommy got off work early today.”
“Really?” Ella beamed.
“Yup, tummy ache, so no cookies for me. Closed up early.”
I struggled to find my voice and came up empty, turning to watch as my actual sister languished in my car, impatiently waving her hand at me. “Kill her, she’s with Ella! Jesus, Rebecca! DO SOMETHING!” Meanwhile her ‘twin’ took the girl gently by the hand. I glanced back and forth between them in uncertainty. One sister wasting away, still shouting orders at me. The other now moving into the hall, chatting with Ella behind an open door with a motherly hand on her shoulder. And so here I am. Stuck. It’s like I said- I never really liked my sister.