Authors: Sarah Wylie
To my family
Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.
—Ralph Waldo Emerson
This is how it feels to die: It starts from outside and works its way in. Your cuticles, the tips of your fingers. Fire under your nails that spreads into your bones, burning and freezing everything it comes into contact with. Your arms, your ankles, your teeth, your knees, your stomach, and the place where your heart should be.
Your heart is always the last to go. One hundred irregular beats per minute, and then zero.
But that’s just the start. The start of dying.
This is the rest.
Once upon a time, my mother used to sleep through the night. So did I. Like so much else, our sleeping patterns were almost identical. We flung ourselves across our beds, sleeping through storms and hurricanes and car alarms and darkness, and waking up to a trail of sunlight filtering in, with the world still on its axis, still turning, the way we’d left it. She hasn’t slept like that in seven months.
Now, she wakes up around two in the morning, as if to get a head start on all those elements. Or maybe she’s figured out that the world tilts slightly when we sleep, and she gets up to watch it and try to pull it back in place.
I just lie there when I’m awake, trying to stay silent and hidden.
I’m sure my dad is aware that she barely sleeps, but it’s not like he can get up and keep watch with her since he has to go to work in the morning.
None of us knows exactly what she does when she wakes up.
Maybe she gets on her knees and holds vigil since she realized she believed in God the day my twin sister was diagnosed with leukemia. Or maybe she goes on the computer to look up cures. I personally think she’s practicing some weird voodoo technique where she transfers all the cancer from Jena into her own body, so it can eat away at her cells and make her shriveled and ugly, and we can watch her die instead.
Once upon a time—back when she still slept—I didn’t take my mother seriously. She would tell the same story over and over again. Tires squealing, flying through air, shattered glass, crushed metal. We were under crushed metal. Her and me.
She and I.
I was three months old when the accident happened. We were out of milk or something, and my mother asked Dad to watch Jena, while she took me out with her. Mom and I were just leaving the grocery store when a pickup truck ran into our car, destroying it.
We should have died.
I’ve never known what was more significant: the fact that we both survived, or the fact that she picked me.
I’ve heard the story so many times it feels like my memory instead of hers, even though I was too young to have a memory. When she told it to other people, she never ended at the part I would have, the part where we survived the car accident. Where we walked away without a scratch. She always went on to talk about the time her foot got caught in train tracks, how she struggled to get free, and how if it had happened five seconds later, she would have died. And the fire in her apartment building two years before she met my dad—
oh, did you hear about it?
Everyone had heard about it. Six people dead, including her neighbors on both sides, and it happened ten minutes after she left for work one morning.
She talked about the chest infection I got when I was two. I was in the hospital for days, and
should have died.
When I was little and fell and scraped my knee, my mother would always whisper the same thing in my ear. Other mothers said, “Shh, it’s okay,” and coaxed the tears away with a soft-serve cone. Mine said, “Come on, Danielle. You’re the girl with nine lives. You take after me.”
I don’t think she ever whispered that in Jena’s ear. That’s the difference.
I always pretended to believe her just so she would leave me alone, but I knew my mother was full of crap. I
not to take her seriously. Her words floated above my ears, leaped out of windows and into trees, were carried away by birds and dusty-winged moths and other things I knew to be true.
Then Jena happened.
Nothing and everything is true. We are papier-mâché in a world with a cardboard sun. There is no such thing as cold or heat or time. We are all the same people, constantly being reborn and redying, and every time we think it’s the first.
A month ago, we found out Jena’s treatment isn’t working like they’d hoped and that she needs bone marrow. We thought I’d be the one to help her. I have marrow and plenty of bone and I am her twin.
But we are too different and the doctors can’t break me into splintered little fragments to save Jena. Mom and Dad aren’t a match either, but I am her twin.
Everything Mom had ever said crept back in under the door of my room, tucked itself in my ears when I was sleeping. I hid it under the pillows and breathed it in at night. I couldn’t fall asleep either. And I can’t forget.
Am I the girl with nine lives?
I wish I could forget.
One of the times Mom told her story—about when we’d survived, our nine lives—my Uncle Stephan was visiting. He was some college professor that was a friend of my dad’s, one of those people you call “uncle” without ever knowing why, without them earning the title. Abandoning his standard topic of conspiracy theories for a while, he started talking about all the explanations for the nine lives myth. He said that every time a cat loses one of its lives, that life is released into the universe, to be caught by another cat. Not all cats are born with nine lives, but those that aren’t can keep as many as they can catch. One extra life, or two, or three.
As one life shortens, the other expands.
Now my mother tries to stay awake, while I try to fall asleep.
My eyelids finally collapse on themselves just as the sun feels it’s safe to come out of hiding. It’s less than two hours before school starts, but that’s the way it always goes.
The next thing I know, Mom is shaking me awake and joking about how much I like my beauty sleep. I play along, turning over and waiting until the last possible minute to get up and go.
By the time I shower and get downstairs, the only other person I’ve seen today is Mom. Dad’s already at work.
“Morning, Danielle.” I jump when I hear Jena’s voice from the top of the stairs. I always aim to be out of the house before she’s awake.
“Hey,” I say. She’s leaning against the railing, looking down at me.
I’ve never understood why anyone would mix Jena and me up. We are fraternal twins, and since elementary school, I’ve been about an inch taller. My hair is long, brunette, and straight, while hers was wavy, sort of a mousy brown.
“I’m late for the bus.”
She frowns, because she knows I’m not, but I’ve already grabbed my backpack, deciding against breakfast, and am heading toward the front door.
It is bright out, but cold. Dirty, weeks-old snow is slathered unevenly over the ground like a moldy spread on an open-face sandwich.
When the bus finally pulls up at the stop down the street from my house, I drag my way to the back, placing my backpack in the seat beside me, and pressing my face against the window, eyes shut, until we get to school.
The best thing about weekday mornings is math class. Really. Our teacher, Mr. Halbrook, was a political science minor in college and hasn’t forgotten it. We’re more likely to discuss foreign policy than algebra in this class. Which goes over about as well as you’d imagine with tenth graders as well versed in the art of apathy as we are.
“Hey, Dani,” my friend Lauren says as I enter the room, just before the bell goes off. I’m heading toward my usual seat behind her when I note that there’s an even better one across the aisle from her.
“Lauren, hope you don’t mind if I sit here today,” I tell her, grinning. She tucks a black braid behind her ear and rolls her eyes in response.
I shift closer to Jack Penner, the guy in the seat on the other side of mine. “How’s it going, hot stuff?”
Jack glances up from his book temporarily, a healthy flush coloring his cheeks. Poor kid. Some people would call what I do to Jack bullying, but you have to understand that I’ve known him since elementary school. We have a connection.
I squeeze his shoulder and turn to Lauren.
“So I’m putting up Green Society posters today in fifth period, if you want to come help,” she says as Mr. Halbrook walks in, hugging a pregnant yellow folder. “Crap. I hope those aren’t our tests.”
“I have gym,” I say regretfully. “Maybe I’ll just tell Mr. K. I have excruciating cramps and have to skip.”
Lauren makes a face. “I hate girls who use cramps as an excuse to get out of stuff.”
I don’t react to Lauren’s insult because she’s genuinely oblivious to the fact that she’s just insulted me. Her motto is to speak her mind always. It’s why I’m her only real friend and why she’s the only friend I’ve kept.
“I think it’s the ultimate slap in the face of feminism,” she continues as Mr. Halbrook drops her marked test in front of her.
“Great job,” he nods. She looks down at her paper and beams.
“Wow, I didn’t do that badly.” Which means she could only have gotten a hundred percent.
While she’s looking over her test, I turn to Jack. “Hey, Jack, can I ask you something? What’s another word for cramps? I think
word is a slap in the face of humanism.”
The tips of Jack’s ears redden.
“Uh, I don’t know,” he stutters. Jack is an overachieving nerd with zero social skills. Always has been. He has also always been lanky, with bluish-gray eyes and blond hair.
I prop my face up in my hand and continue. “I’m sure it has a synonym. It’s like the word ‘diarrhea.’”
As luck would have it, Mr. Halbrook just happens to be dropping off my test, and he shoots me a disapproving look. I’m not sure if it’s because of my test score or the conversation I’m having. Probably both.
I give him a winning smile and tuck my test into the back of my notebook without looking at it. “Everybody calls it ‘diarrhea’ or ‘the runs,’ which are equally as bad as each other and the condition that they describe. Don’t you think?”
Jack keeps his head down, staring intently at his notebook. A test paper with a circled green
lands in front of him.
“Wow, good job,” I say.
“Anyway,” I continue, doodling on the inside cover of my notebook. “Whoever came up with those words deserves to be shot. But it turns out another synonym for diarrhea is ‘Montezuma’s revenge,’ which is a thousand times better. And actually makes me
I had it.”
A few people are eavesdropping on our conversation now, and I hear them snicker. Jack is still ignoring me. Lauren is fascinated with her test. I wonder how she stands it, being perfect. There’s nothing to feel guilty or angry about, nothing to improve or argue over.
“So I was just kind of wondering if it’s the same thing with cramps. Maybe it can be, like, the Serpent’s Revenge or God’s Revenge or something.”