“I’m fine,” I say. “Just some cramps. Probably didn’t drink enough water today.”
Nia shakes her head. “You need to take care of yourself, girl.”
It’s all I can do not to roll my eyes, but Nia means well. “I will,” I say brightly, grabbing my water bottle and holding it up as if toasting my health. Nia looks like she wants to say more, but then someone asks her about next month’s schedule, and I’m out of here.
If only taking care of myself weren’t such a full time job, I think as I head home. I find the endless cornfields lining the highway hypnotizing, so much so that I miss my exit on a regular basis. Driving, like almost everything else, is more work for me than it is for most people. I’m special. The bad kind of special--although, seriously, what other kind is there? Even in a world of teenagers pumped up on Ritalin, my ADD is truly spectacular. I’ve also got a host of other minor health issues, including a heart murmur, a curved spine, and a very mild case of cerebral palsy that mostly just makes me walk like someone who’s had one too many Angry Orchards, which is totally unfair, because I’ve never tasted an Angry Orchard in my life. What I might hate the most, though, is the 7-inch long, 2-inch wide vertical scar that makes wearing a bikini out of the question and getting my belly-button pierced pointless. Sometimes I think I’d give up my liver in exchange for an attractive torso. And yes, I’m aware that would pretty much defeat the purpose.
I’m sweaty from class and sticking to the vinyl (a.k.a. “leatherette”) seat of my Jetta, and I really, really want to stop at Wendy’s for a Frosty. Theoretically, I’ve got time, but I decide I better go straight home to shower and have lunch first. I have to be at the hospital by 1:30, not for an appointment, but for a job interview, and I don’t want to screw anything up. I tell myself there’s nothing to worry about. If only I can stay focused, everything will be just dandy.
That’s a big “if.”
It’s like I told my parents last night: even if they do hire me, they’ll probably be sorry.
My dad, as usual, tried to make me look for the silver lining.
“Alice,” he reminded me, “you’re applying to work in a hospital cafeteria. If you forget to put a pickle on someone’s hamburger, no one’s going to sue you. It’s not brain surgery.”
“I don’t want to forget the pickle! That’s the problem!” I’ve tried to tell him before how bad I feel when I mess up, especially when I let other people down, but he always feels like everyone should just think I’m wonderful and forgive me. Sadly, the world isn’t like that. I heaved an exasperated sigh. “If I can’t remember to put a freaking pickle on a freaking hamburger, how am I ever going to do anything important? What if I want to be a brain surgeon?”
“Then be one,” said my mother, in that quiet voice she uses that both inspires and terrifies me. “You’re perfectly capable, Alice.” As if I hadn’t heard that a thousand times.
“Do you want to be a brain surgeon?” asked my father. He looked at me with such an odd mixture of curiosity, concern, and pride that I started sobbing. And then he looked so miserable that he’d made me cry that I started sobbing even harder.
“She’s fine, Bill,” my mother said as she smoothed my hair. To me, she added, “I know the world feels hard and unfair sometimes, and it is, it really, truly is. It’s an awful place. But it’s also full of miracles and wonders.” She gave me this little half-smile, and I knew what she was thinking, and she didn’t say it because she knows how much I don’t like to hear it, but I could almost hear it anyway.
You’re our miracle.
It’s not like we talk all the time about why I am the way I am, but it’s always there, like background noise. Sometimes it’s a quiet murmur, like a fan blowing. Sometimes it’s more like conversation at a coffee shop. And sometimes it’s horns honking and sirens blaring.
If you’re from around here, you already know my story. I don’t remember it, of course, but I’ve read and watched a little bit. Not much. Not as much as you’d think. But my parents never kept any of it a secret. They unspooled the more complicated parts as I grew old enough to make sense out of it, and although I don’t remember any of it, I lived it. If you’re not from around here, you might have heard my story anyway, because a lot of national news outlets picked it up, and now that information is available until the end of time on the internet. My parents hate that, but there’s nothing they can do about it. I don’t ever have to tell my story, because anyone can google me and find it out for themselves. But if I did tell my story, it would go something like this:
Once upon a time, I, Alice Merrick, was a twin, and not just any twin. I was half of a pair of conjoined twins until I was a year old. My twin, Celia Merrick, and I, were joined at the abdomen and chest. We also shared a liver. The separation surgery didn’t go as well as the doctors and my parents hoped. Celia died on the operating table, and I almost did, too. My parents knew losing one or both of us was a possibility, and naturally, the choice about whether or not to separate us was something they agonized over. But I believe what they tell me: that they made peace with their decision before the surgery, and even though they were devastated by my sister’s death, they do not regret their choice. But me? I never had a choice. I try not to imagine what life would be like if my parents had decided against the operation, but I can’t help it. Usually I picture myself walking around wearing my sister like a shirt that’s stuck to you on a humid afternoon. Not pleasant. But then, when I’m lonely, which, I admit, is pretty often, I feel like it might be nice to have a friend who could never leave you. Either way, it’s hard to forget someone when you’ve got a humongous scar running from your chest to your belly button reminding you that she died so you could have a so-called normal life. Especially when that someone shares all your DNA, and the same letters of your name. Alice. Celia. You cannot possibly be more connected to another human being than we were. And yet, I don’t remember her.
Except I do.
You won’t find this part of the story on the internet.
When I was little--littler, because I’m barely five feet now--Celia was not only my dead sister, but also my imaginary friend. At the time, however, I thought she was utterly real. I know better now, and yet … well. I can remember how real she felt. I’d be playing in the sandbox in my backyard, and then she’d just suddenly be there. Not like, snap!, a tiny body appearing out of thin air, but naturally, like she’d been there all along and I just hadn’t noticed her. And we’d just . . . well, we’d play.
Because I was awkward and often sick, I didn’t have a lot of friends, so it’s not surprising that I invented one. Celia did whatever I wanted to do. If I wanted to build sand castles, we built sand castles. If I wanted to swing, we played on the swingset. If I wanted to pretend, she came up with wonderful games of make-believe. She was kind. She listened to me. The only disheartening thing was, everything she did, she did better than I did. She could swing higher. She could build taller and grander sandcastles. And she looked like me, except prettier. I knew exactly who she was. After all, my parents had never hid her from me. For some reason that I can’t explain, though, I hid her from them. I’m honestly not sure if I didn’t want them to suffer because I could see her and they couldn’t, or if, selfishly, I just wanted her to be mine, and mine alone.
The ending of this story would be more satisfying if I could tell you that I left Celia behind after I made some awesome new friends and discovered I didn’t need her anymore. That isn’t what happened. To be honest, I still don’t have a lot of friends. It was more like she just visited less and less often and eventually I never saw her again. I know that sounds weird. It sounds weird to me. Probably I just grew out of her, the way you grow out of jungle gyms and Pokemon.
AAARRRGHH! Did I mention that Indiana has way too many cornfields, and they all look exactly the same? How is there so much corn here? And yet, I don’t know a single person who lives on a farm. Something else I don’t know: whether or not I passed my exit yet. I hate when I do this. I start thinking about something, and then I totally forget what I’m supposed to be doing. Right now, I’m kind of freaked out, because I don’t recognize anything. I feel like I could be anywhere on any highway in any part of Indiana, or maybe even in the whole Midwest. Illinois and Iowa look pretty much the same. “I” states are the worst. I don’t think there’s much in Idaho, either, except potatoes. Potatoes instead of corn. I’d like to live in a “C” state someday. California, Connecticut, or Colorado. Or maybe a . . .
Ohmygosh. I’m doing it again.
Focus, Alice, I tell myself. Get a grip. I look for some kind of sign or a landmark to give me a clue as to where I am, but there’s nothing. Which is weird. Despite the cornfields, it’s not like I’m in the middle of nowhere. Name a chain restaurant or a fast-food joint, and there’s probably one or maybe two within a half-hour radius of wherever I am, unless I’ve driven a lot further than I think I have. I most likely have missed my exit, but I can’t be too far past. The next one has to be coming up soon.
But it isn’t. I keep driving, and there’s nothing. I look at the dashboard clock: 12:25. I’m getting anxious, and even though it seems ridiculous, I use bluetooth to program the Jetta’s GPS to “home.”
Almost immediately, I hear: In 300 yards, take exit right.
Whoa, I think. That came up fast. And how did I miss the sign for it earlier? But as I veer off the highway, I realize I don’t even recognize the name of the city on the exit sign: Callay. Super weird. I must have driven further than I thought, and Callay must be some dinky town I’ve never heard of--which still doesn’t make much much sense, but then, I’m so unobservant that it’s possible.
The ramp spirals and curves until I can no longer see the highway in my rearview mirror. Now turn left, my GPS instructs me, so I do. There’s nothing but fields on both sides of me, and they’re not cornfields or even soybean fields. They look forgotten, like they might have once been farmed but have gone to seed. A few trees are scattered carelessly across the landscape, eventually melting into a sparse, scrubby-looking forest out near the horizon. I wonder when my GPS is going to take me back onto the highway, or if maybe it knows a back route to my house. I keep driving, because what else can I do? I’d have been better off if I had stopped at Wendy’s. I know the way home from there. Wondering how long my GPS is going to keep me on this godforsaken road, I glance at my dashboard clock again.
It says 12:25.
I’m terrible at marking time in my head, but even I know at least ten minutes, and maybe more like fifteen, has passed since the last time I looked. My heart starts racing, which isn’t good. I might send myself into arrhythmia. Being me is so damn much work. I have to keep myself calm even when I’m going crazy. There’s a completely logical explanation, of course, I assure myself. Something’s probably wrong with the electrical system.
You have reached your destination.
Whoa, wait. Hold the short bus. Not only have I not reached my destination, but I have reached no destination of any kind whatsoever. There is literally nothing here. No corn. No potatoes. No Wendy’s. Nothing.
I pull off to the side of the road, thinking I’ll check out my GPS, but as soon as I do, the car--I know this makes no sense?--turns itself off. I twist the key in the ignition, and the engine sputters and fades out. I try again. The engine doesn’t even pretend to respond. I don’t know much about cars, but I’m thinking it definitely must be the electrical system. Or the alternator. People who know about cars are always talking about alternators.
“What is going on here?” I say out loud, as if my GPS could answer me.
I fish around in my purse for my cell phone. It has no service. Of course it doesn’t.
Not a single car has passed by since I got here. All I can hear are birds and crickets.
I am so screwed.
Maybe I should walk back to the highway and try to flag someone down. If I’m really lucky, it won’t be a serial killer, or, worse, someone I know from school. But the highway’s a long way away now, so I decide to see if I can find any signs of civilization close by. Where is the town of Callay, anyway?
I’m not optimistic about finding it.
I can’t help worrying I’m going to be lost out here forever. Should I head left? Right? It doesn’t matter. The road goes on and on both ways. In the end, I notice a path--not even a path, really, just a slightly trampled-down grassy trail--leading into the wasted field on the same side of the road my now-useless Jetta is parked. Following this trail doesn’t seem like the greatest idea, but I don’t have a better one. Plus, I’m drawn to it. The way it’s here, right in front of me, feels like a sign.
The crickets get louder and louder as I walk, reminding me of the way my head buzzes when I have too many thoughts crowding in at the same time. I’m sticky and damp all over. I’d be a lot more comfortable if I were wearing shorts rather than these leggings. Worst of all, I’m getting really thirsty. I probably should have stayed with my car, or at least brought my water bottle with me.
There are a few more trees now, and the terrain is getting scrubbier. Sparrows flit above me and whistle their one-note tune. Just when I’m about to turn around, I am pretty sure I see--really? Is it?--a girl sitting on a low branch of a tree. The tree, a large maple, is not far away, and I’ve been vaguely aware of it for a while. However, the girl, because it definitely is a girl, just seems to have appeared out of the blue. I know I should be thrilled. This is why I walked out here, right? Hoping to find someone to rescue me? But I’m not thrilled, not exactly. There’s something about her. As I draw nearer, I can tell she’s just about my age, and—-
She’s exactly my age.
Oh. My. God.
I think about running back to the car as fast as I can, but the part of me that wants to see her again is stronger than the part that doesn’t. I keep walking, right up to the base of the tree.
“Hello, Alice,” she says.
I look up at her, shading my eyes from the sun. “Hello, Celia.”
The girl climbs down from the tree, or at least, I assume she does, because suddenly she is standing next to me.
“I wasn’t sure you’d know me.”
“I’d know you anywhere,” I say.
“No,” says Celia. “You wouldn’t.”
I have no idea what she means by that, so I say nothing.
“I made tea for us,” Celia says brightly. “Over here.”
And then I see that on the ground next to the tree there is a red-and-white-checkered tablecloth spread out, and on it a child’s tea set complete with tiny pink plastic cupcakes.
Celia sits down on the cloth and motions for me to join her. Feeling a bit awkward and silly, I do. She pours a pretend cup of tea for me. I’m so thirsty, I can’t help looking to see if maybe something is in it. Nothing is.
“Sorry,” says Celia. “Best I can do.” She pours a pretend cup of tea for herself and sips at it heartily. I set my cup next to me, unwilling to play along. Celia doesn’t seem to mind. She smiles at me with my own smile. Looking at Celia is like looking into some kind of fairy-tale mirror. We are exact reflections of each other, mirror twins, except that she is perfect. Once, when we were little, she showed me her belly. It was soft and round and smooth. I gaze at her, imagining how her stomach looks now. I bet she’d look great in a bikini.
“You’re thinking I’m beautiful,” says Celia.
“Well, yes, except your nose is kind of bumpy,” I tell her, and she laughs.
“There is that,” she agrees. We both touch our bumpy noses, and I think about how many times I’ve wished I were a normal girl obsessing about the shape of my nose.
Celia hands me a plastic cupcake, and I set it next to my teacup.
“You look good,” she says, her eyes moving from my leggings up to my wild curls, which actually look better when it’s humid out.
“Thanks, but I’m kind of a mess,” I tell her. I’m not sure if I’m talking about the way I look or the way I feel, or both. Suddenly it’s like we’re little girls again, playing make-believe in my bedroom or in the backyard where no one can see her but me. Celia is the one who understands. The only one. “Actually, I’m a total mess,” I confess, and then the words start pouring out of me. “I really try, and sometimes I do all right. I get good grades and stuff. But everything’s so hard! I need so much help all the time.”
“So?” Celia refills her teacup. She holds out the pot to me and I shake my head.
“So, what am I going to do when there’s no one around to help me?” I say.
Celia ponders this, holding the teapot in midair as though she has forgotten it is still in her hand. “How did you get here?” she asks.
I laugh. That is funny. “Well,” I say. “In my car. Most of the way. And then I walked.”
“Who drove you?”
“I drove myself. But, my car has a GPS . . .” I trail off. “I can’t find my way out of a paper bag without it, if I’m not going somewhere I’ve been a thousand times. Or sometimes even then, apparently.”
“So, when you’re a grown-up, you’re not allowed to have a GPS?”
I roll my eyes. Celia finally notices that the pot is still in her hand, and she sets it down.
“You sound like my parents,” I say, and then I clap my hand over my mouth. Our parents, I should have said. But I plow on, because I want to make Celia understand.
“Even if I can get a real job someday,” I explain, “and take care of myself, at least sort of, I’m never going to be . . . ” I’m whining, but I can’t help it, and I can’t quite say what I want to say, either. “I’m never really ever going to get it together. I’m never going to . . . to be. . .”
“To be perfect?” says Celia. “Seriously, Alice. Get over yourself.”
“To be you,” I whisper.
Celia puts a plastic cupcake up to her mouth and licks the pretend pink icing. She keeps licking and licking, but of course the icing stays right on the cupcake. After a minute, she puts the cupcake down and looks at me sharply with her dark, almost black eyes, gorgeous eyes with curly lashes that aren’t hidden behind a pair of owlish glasses, and gives me the coldest stare imaginable.
“I’m dead,” she says.
I look at Celia, so pretty, bumpy nose and all.
“Does that . . . um . . . make you angry?” I ask.
Celia nods vigorously. “Yes.”
Suddenly, everything seems very still and quiet. The shadow of a cloud floats across the field.
“I’m so sorry,” I say. The words are beyond inadequate. How dare I whine? I don’t deserve to exist. I shouldn’t exist, not without her.
“It’s not your fault,” says Celia. “It’s how the cards fell.”
“But it’s all so unfair!” I say. I struggle for the right words. “I’ll try--I do try, I’ve always tried--to live for both of us.”
“What?” I’m confused.
Celia sighs, a long, breathy, airy, sigh. A slight breeze ruffles her curls. “You don’t own me, Alice,” she says, her voice steely. “Give me the dignity of being who I am.”
I feel like I’ve been punched in the gut. “If it had been you who lived . . . “
“But it wasn’t,” says Celia. “So just, please, play the hand you were dealt.”
I nod. Even though I’m still hurting, at the same time it feels like a rock I’ve been dragging around has suddenly turned into a balloon and floated away.
“Alice,” Celia says. She pauses a long time, absent-mindedly fiddling with the lid on the teapot. “I do think, sometimes, about what it would have been like if we had grown up together. The way we were.”
“Attached,” I say.
“Yes,” says Celia. She runs a hand up and down her belly, as if imagining me stuck there. “How would going to the bathroom work? What if I wanted to be a teacher, and you wanted to be a veterinarian? If only one of us wanted to see a movie, would we still have to buy two tickets?”
I nod. I have thought about these things too. “What if we didn’t like each other?” I say. “And what if we got in a fight? If I slapped you, would it hurt me? What if you got a song stuck in your head? Would I hear it too?”
Celia looks up at the sky for a moment. “I don’t know. Maybe.” She twirls a strand of hair around her finger, the way I do sometimes. “What if one of us fell in love?” she asks. “Can you even imagine how we would have sex?” She laughs, and it’s my laugh. Then I laugh too, because the truth is, of course I have tried to imagine that. Isn’t that what everyone wonders about conjoined twins?
“Maybe we would have figured it all out,” I say. “Maybe we would have been happy. There are conjoined twins who’ve gotten married, and even had kids. It’s not out of the realm of possibility.”
“Anything is possible,” says Celia. “But this is what is.”
I don’t know exactly how or when Celia leaves. It was like that when we were little, too: one minute we’d be playing, and the next she’d be gone, but it’s not like I’d ever see her disappear into a shining mist or anything.
The maple tree is still here, but there’s no sign of the checkered tablecloth or the tea set. It’s as though I just stopped paying attention for a moment, and in that moment everything changed. But I’m as thirsty as ever. I follow the trampled-down trail back the way I came, and my Jetta is waiting for me, with my water bottle inside it.
A white mini-van whizzes by, and I jump back, startled. A minute later, a Prius comes along. I think about trying to flag someone down, but wonder if maybe ….
Sure enough, when I turn my key in the ignition, the Jetta roars to life.
I’m thinking I can still make it home in time to change and get to the hospital for my interview. Dealing with pickles might be okay after all. Who knows? I might even be able to pull off brain surgery someday. Actually, seriously, I’ve never told anyone this, but I think being a radiologist would be cool.
I look at the dashboard. It’s 12:27, and suddenly I am wildly excited about my one and only life. Now, if my GPS will just . . .
Drive seven miles, then turn right.
Okay, Alice, I tell myself.
And I do.