Authors: Caroline B. Cooney
HEY WERE SENDING
Mary Lee to boarding school. She could not believe it. Identical twins —
Mary Lee’s lovely olive skin was stretched with fear. Her beautiful hazel eyes, with their fringe of long black lashes, were wide with panic.
Each swing of hair, each lift of brow, was mirrored in her identical twin. If it had been a fairy tale, and one twin had said, “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who Is the Fairest of Them All?” the mirror could have made no answer. For
“Listen,” said Mary Lee, striving to stay calm. Her parents admired calm. “Madrigal and I have never been separated! You don’t understand because you’re ordinary people. But we’re identical twins. We’re not regular sisters. If you send one of us away, we won’t be whole!”
“Nevertheless,” said her mother, looking sad but sure of herself, “you are going.”
Mother, who adored having identical twins, who loved dressing them just the same, and fixing their hair just the same, and admiring them in their perfect synchrony, now wanted them split up?
Mary Lee was shaking. There was no need to look at her twin, because whatever one did, the other did. Madrigal would also be shaking. One of the oddities of identical twins was that the girls themselves could never tell who started anything. Madrigal might well have started trembling first, and Mary Lee second. One of them was always the echo of the other.
There was no possibility of remaining calm. Frantic, Mary Lee cried, “Mother, you can’t do this to us!”
Her parents were strangely still, perhaps braced against her screaming, perhaps rehearsed for it, dreading the moment when Madrigal, too, began screaming.
“We have given it a great deal of thought, sweetheart,” said her father quietly, “and this is the right thing to do.”
“You’ve spent seventeen years making us match!” shrieked Mary Lee. “And you pulled it off! Nobody can tell us apart. We are one. Now what has brought this on? What set you off? How can you possibly think separation is the right thing to do to us?”
Both girls were there, of course, because where one twin was, the other always was, too. And, yet, Mother and Father seemed to be talking only to Mary Lee. As if Mary Lee had come undone. As if Mary Lee needed to be repaired. As if boarding school were the solution to Mary Lee.
Sadly, her mother stroked Mary Lee’s heavy black hair. Loosely caught behind her head in a cluster of bright yellow ribbons, the hair slid free and weighted down her shoulders. Mother’s eyes were bright with unshed tears, and her heart was racing with sorrow.
Mary Lee could not imagine what was going on. Separation could only break the hearts of all four of them.
“Try to understand,” said her mother brokenly.
But Mary Lee had no use for that instruction. “What is there to understand? You are ripping us away from our own selves!”
“Listen to your phrasing, Mary Lee. Madrigal is not
self,” said Mother. “She is
self. We have allowed ourselves and the world to treat you as a unit. We were wrong. You are not one. You are two.”
She and Madrigal were not run-of-the-mill sisters. Mary Lee could not imagine being shipped away like a package, wrapped in brown paper, tied with string. Waking up in the morning without her twin. Dressing without her twin. Going to class without —
It was unthinkable. She would not do it. “You brought identical twins into the world. You must accept what we are! We are one.”
Mother was suddenly harsh and angry. “Mary Lee, listen to yourself. You say ‘we’ instead of ‘I.’ You say ‘us’ instead of ‘me.’ It isn’t healthy. You need to be a girl named Mary Lee, not half a twinset. You must fly alone. Sing solo.”
Mary Lee had never heard such a horrible idea.
Fly alone? Sing solo?
“Identical twins can’t do that. You’re fighting a biological fact.”
“The fact,” said Father, “is that we have decided to separate you and your sister. You will simply have to trust us that this is a necessary action. For your mental health and Madrigal’s. Madrigal will stay home under our supervision. You will go to boarding school.”
The house seemed to float around Mary Lee as if its rooms had fallen apart like badly stacked toy blocks. She turned to her sister, knowing that the force of her own turn would turn Madrigal as well. They did not imitate each other so much as simultaneously broadcast. They never knew which of them was first and which the follower. It was too quick for that. “We won’t let them, will we, Madrigal?”
Her twin sister smiled. A smile Mary Lee did not share at all.
Her twin sister said, “I think it’s a good idea.”
One thousand nine hundred and twelve miles to the school.
On the big featureless airplane, in a gray sky, with a gray heart, Mary Lee felt each of those miles pulse through her. One thousand nine hundred and twelve spaces between Mary Lee and her twin.
How can I do this? she thought, sick with fear. In my whole life I’ve never entered a room or a building without Madrigal.
This was not quite true. But she could count the exceptions.
There was the first week of fifth grade, when the elementary school faculty decreed that Mary Lee and Madrigal must have different teachers. The second week they gave up.
There was the time Mary Lee went shopping at the mall with Scarlett Maxsom, the way other girls did — with a friend. How strange it had been to have no twin along. To laugh with somebody whose laugh was not partly her own. She had had the fleeting thought that it would be fun to have a friend.
There was the sweet and funny afternoon that she and Van, Scarlett’s brother, had had strawberry sundaes together. Not a date, really, just a lovely coincidence for Mary Lee to cherish.
In fact, the twins had never dated. They never did anything without each other. Their presence overwhelmed boys. Girls as beautiful and as incredibly alike as these two were not girls so much as an Event.
It was odd how that brief hour with Van had also acquired the status of an Event. She remembered it like a beloved movie, and replayed it in her heart, and even Madrigal did not know how often Mary Lee thought of that afternoon.
But the largest Event of her life was Separation. Already it had a capital letter: It was as huge as the sky and as impenetrable as marble.
“You are not to telephone,” Mother and Father had said sternly. “You must write letters instead.”
Not telephone? Not hear my sister’s voice?
to phone,” pleaded Mary Lee. “I have to have something left.” She turned to Madrigal. “Don’t listen to them. Phone me anyway, when they’re not home.”
“I think they’re right,” said her twin.
The betrayal was so huge and painful that Mary Lee could not even think about it. She knew if Madrigal had fought back, Separation would not have occurred. But Madrigal had not fought back. Madrigal hadn’t argued once. Not once. It was a slap that left a bruise on her heart. Once Mary Lee had the sick thought that her twin was not going to miss her. She killed that thought in a hurry!
Madrigal, left at home, would be as devastated as Mary Lee, shipped away.
She could not understand anything that was happening. Mother and Father actually seemed to hover over her that final week before she left home. As if she were in danger. As if people near her were unsafe. At night she wept into her pillow. In the morning, Mother’s eyes were red, and Father’s eyes were circled, but Madrigal’s eyes were clear and bright.
How could it be? Mother and Father who had always seemed to love her so much had shuffled her off like an old deck of cards.
The mountains were high and crisp. Gray stone buildings sat on a wide grass campus. Thick dark woods enclosed the school like a fortress of old.
She was alone. It had never happened to her before. Ordinary people were often alone, but identical twins, never. What a hideous sensation it was — to be alone! How did people stand it? She was so glad not to be ordinary.
Identical twins, thank heaven, could communicate by invisible waves. Not ultraviolet, not X, not micro, not radio, but twin waves. Through the air and her soul, Mary Lee reached for her twin.
The waves were silent.
In her worst nightmares, Mary Lee had never expected this. Even if death were to come, she had expected to share it with Madrigal.
She was alone. And Madrigal had agreed to it.
Her father had actually had the nerve to cuddle her at the airport, to say good-bye privately, as if he were doing a good thing, a fatherly warm thing. “Be my brave soldier,” he said to her.
Mary Lee hated that comparison.
“Put your best foot forward and try hard. Make friends. Stay alive.”
My best feet walk in step with my twin’s, she thought, fighting tears.
She crossed that school campus, and in the heavy grass left but one set of footprints. Neither of them looked like a best foot to Mary Lee. And what a queer trio of orders: try, make friends, stay alive. Of course she was going to stay alive. You didn’t die of loneliness. Although no doubt she would feel dead, without Madrigal. As for “make friends,” she didn’t want any friend except Madrigal! As for “try” — well, yes, he was right about that. She did have to try. He was leaving her with no choice except trying.
It’s too hard, she thought, already exhausted, and she hadn’t even introduced herself to a single person.
The dormitory was large. So many strange girls to identify and names to learn. They seemed to know each other already, and have the passwords and jokes of intimate groups. The third floor, to which Mary Lee was assigned, seemed more a gathering of teams than a crowd of potential friends.
“Hi,” she said to the girls, “I’m Mary Lee?” Her voice stumbled, the end of the sentence questioningly up in the air, for that was how it felt, not introducing Madrigal, too. Floaty and undecided. Half an introduction for half a set.
But all the girls had been new once, and they moved forward as if they expected to be best friends.
“I’m Bianca,” said her first roommate, smiling.
“I’m Mindy,” said her second roommate, and she actually swept Mary Lee into a hug.
“We’re glad to have you,” they both said. “We’ll show you the ropes, because this is our third year here. They put you with us because we can help.”
Okay, she said to herself. This won’t be the end of the world. People are nice. Somehow I can survive.
The calendar of the school year stretched out hideously long. September until June? She couldn’t go home until Christmas! Oh, that was evil, making her stay here four entire months by herself.
No matter how nice Mindy and Bianca were, Mary Lee could only half-respond. And it didn’t help that, on the third floor, there was already a Marilyn, a Merrill, and a Mary. Mary Lee was yet another similar name to overload people’s memories. Nobody could get her name right. Mindy and Bianca decided to call her ML.
It made her feel like a corporate logo, a piece of stock.
Madrigal I need you
, she begged over the miles. But the twin waves remained silent.
It was worse than being alone: She felt unoccupied. A partly emptied mind and soul.
In the beginning, Mindy and Bianca escorted her everywhere, introducing her with smiles and hugs. But Mary Lee, homesick and heartsick, just stood there: the kind of boarder no school wants, because her only contribution is to lower morale.
The school year continued like a night without sleep.
Mary Lee had never had to make friends before. She had been equipped with an escort since birth. And even though she was so lonely her heart hurt, and she would have taken any pharmaceutical in production to ease the pain, she did not reach out.