When her sister arrived, Vanessa hurried to the front door to meet her. She knew about the accident, the reason Victoria finally had to come back home after only a few semesters away. What she didn't know was, despite the accident, whether Victoria had already been about to drop out, or be kicked out, of school. Vic remained vague when explaining, but either way the accident had happened and she was moving back home. Still, Van wasn't fully prepared for how her sister would look.
Like a broken mirror, half of Vic's face was smooth and calm, matching Van's own perfectly. The other half was jagged and too taut.
Always the first to make a crude joke Vic smiled and said, "Mom was bent on keeping us pretty. Well she's gone and I'm ruined. I have nothing else to worry about. It's freeing actually. You should try it, Van." Vic laughed and pushed past her sister who was holding onto the door jamb, blocking Vic from getting inside.
"Sorry," Van said edging out of Vic's way. "Sorry."
"I hate that word," Vic said still grinning, half her mouth turned up sharply. "Stop saying it or I'll start hating you too."
"S – " Van caught the word and pulled it back into her chest. "Sure, whatever you want."
Vic dropped one of the two bags she was carrying and started up the stairs, heading to their old room. Van picked up the bag without being told and followed. The thin handle dug painfully into her palm but she waited patiently at the doorway while her sister surveyed the room.
"You're still sleeping in here," Vic said.
"It's only been a few months. I didn't think – "
"I'm taking this room. You can have Mom's. I wouldn't sleep in there if you paid me. You can help me move the extra furniture out later. Right now I want to shower and sleep and then eat like a tank."
Van put her sister's bag by her old bed and turned to go back downstairs. Vic caught her from behind, bear hugging and leaning her body weight into Van. In the long mirror by the door they looked at each other's reflections. The clean side of Vic face peeked out from Van's hair.
"Missed you," Victoria said.
"Missed you," Vanessa answered. She started to smile but froze when the other side of Vic's face slid out from behind her hair.
"Together again," Vic whispered close to Van's ear.
Van was careful not to pull away until Vic let go first. My sister, she reminded herself. She took the stairs slowly, walked into the kitchen, quietly opened and closed the cabinets and the fridge, and began preparing dinner.
An hour later she pulled a sheet of roasted root vegetables from the oven and set them next to the chicken breasts that were resting under a tin foil tent. She had heard Vic banging around upstairs, slamming doors, turning on the shower, and then it was silent for a while. Van had fought the urge to go check on her and instead forced herself to methodically clean the kitchen.
Vic finally came downstairs and walked into the kitchen just as Van was putting the roasted vegetables on the stove top to cool. Vic crowded by her sister and reached for a wedge of sweet potato.
"Careful, you'll hurt yourself," Van said, regret instantly pooling against her cheeks. "It's hot," she explained feeling dumb when Vic continued to smirk at her, fingers still poised over the sheet.
"I wouldn't want to hurt myself," Vic said, half her face smiling, the other half baring its teeth.
She finally turned away and Van was able to breathe again. She pulled plates and flatware from the drying rack and followed Vic to the breakfast table. Vic watched her arrange the settings and pulled two paper napkins from the holder dropping one on her own plate and the other on Van's.
After dinner they sat on the floor in front of the sofa and took turns with the remote like they used to. Van started out on the edge of the rug near the far end of the sofa but Vic grabbed her by the waist and pulled her to the middle where they were both reflected in the glass screen of the squat TV. Strong, Van thought. She clenched her hands, discretely flexing her biceps and wondered if she could haul Vic so easily. She snuck a peek at Vic's arm when her sister raised it to jab the remote at the TV. Their arms still looked identical. Where is Vic hiding all that extra muscle?
After a few stilted days they finally fell back into their usual routine. One sister scrubbing the toilet while the other wiped counters. One loading the washing machine while the other matched socks. Van smiled to herself, surprised that she'd ever felt uncomfortable around her own flesh and blood. But one night, after they shut off the TV and put the cushions back on the couch, Vic grabbed Van's shoulders and held her at arm's length.
"Let me look at you," Vic said when she tried to pull away. "Let me see your face."
Van steadied herself and stared back at her sister, looking into the eye on Vic's good side.
Vic pulled her closer and said, "We don't match any more. Sad, isn't it, not seeing your face when you look at me? Imagine how I feel." Vic trailed her fingers down Van's smooth skin. "I wish you still looked like me."
When Vic finally let go and turned to head upstairs Van scrubbed the heel of her palm up and down her cheek wiping away her sister's touch.
Another two days passed without incident and then Vic wanted to inspect Van's face again, this time with the two of them shoulder to shoulder, looking into the mirror by the front door. Vic kept changing sides, pushing her sister this way and that, elbowing her into position so Vic could be on the left and then the right and then the left again. Back and forth, their faces in profile, both facing towards the stairs so that they matched perfectly, or both facing the TV so that one reflection was ruined.
"Can we please stop," Van asked. "I'm just tired," she added when Vic glared at her. "I don't mind looking at you, but it's late."
"You don't mind looking at me," Vic asked, her eyebrows crawling up her forehead. "That's so kind."
"No, I mean, I like looking at you. I like looking at us, but I'm tired now." Van shifted her weight, crossed and then dropped her arms.
"You like looking at me," Vic said. "But you don't want to look like me, right?"
"No," Van said and then sucked in a quick breath. "No, I mean, yes. You're beautiful. I don't care about how your face – "
"Our face," Vic shouted. In one step she closed the gap that Van been making with her shuffling baby steps. "It's not my fault we don't match anymore."
Vic had her sister backed against the wall and was so close that she was shouting almost directly into Van's mouth. Vic shoved her aside and stomped upstairs slamming their bedroom door. Van wound her arms across her chest and hugged herself tightly. When she stopped shaking, she turned off the lights in the TV room and picked her way upstairs following a pattern that years ago Vic had created to avoid all the creaky steps. Their mother had been a light sleeper and would bolt from bed at the slightest noise. Van walked on cat's feet past her sister's room, their room, and slowly clicked her mother's door shut. She sagged into their mother's bed and turned her face into the old pillow.
Hours later she woke up with her sister's face inches from her own. The room was dark but enough street light came in to show the contours of her sister's craggy skin. Vic's breathing was slow, lips slightly parted, eyelids smooth.
Van turned away and curled into herself at the far end of the bed.
"Do you love me," her sister asked.
"Of course," she whispered back.
The next morning Van woke to an empty bed and deep pillow creases on one side of her face. She took her time in the bathroom, not wanting to go downstairs until her skin had returned to normal. It wasn't until Van finally walked into the kitchen that she realized she was alone in the house. She called her sister's name because it seemed rude not to, but when there was no answer Van relaxed a bit and started to make a pot of tea. Someone began pounding on the front door just as she was setting the kettle on the stove. The kettle clattered out of her hand and landed noisily onto the lit burner. The loud banging kept up as she walked with quick, tiny steps to the door. Doesn't she remember where the spare's hidden, Van thought as she turned the handle. She opened the door a few inches and peeked out with one eye.
"Who are you?" Van blinked at the man in front of her.
"Quit fucking around Vicky and just let me in. I need to piss."
"I'm sorry. My sister's not home," Van said. "And you are?"
"Vicky, I swear I'll whip it out right here and whiz on your damn door if you don't let me in." He leaned one hand against the door frame and started jiggling his belt loose with the other.
"No!" Van stepped back opening the door wider. "She's not here. Please don't."
He stepped back sharply, one hand still on his crotch. "Jesus, Vicky. Your face. How did you do that?"
Van caught her fingers before they touched her cheek and swung her hand behind her back. "I'm not Vicky. I'm her sister Vanessa."
"Sister? She has a twin sister? Fuck." The man paced a small circle and jammed his hands into his jacket pockets. "Liar," he whispered.
"I'm not lying," Van said.
"Not you," he snapped. "Her. She's a fucking liar. You tell her Carpenter said...nothing, never mind. Forget I was here. Don't tell her you saw me." His long legs stumbled down the front stoop, hurrying to put some distance between himself and the house.
"Wait," Van called after him. "How do you know my sister?"
The man, Carpenter, burrowed into his jacket and jogged away. Van watched him and then closed the door and turned the bolt in one practiced motion. She stood staring at the bolt for a moment before the tea kettle's whistling brought her out of her daze. She turned around and then slammed herself back against the door.
"Don't call me that. You sound like Mom." Vic stood directly in front of her breathing heavily, hair slightly damp. "Vicky and Vanny, Vicky and Vanny."
"Sorry. That guy kept called you Vicky. It slipped out."
"Carpenter. I was just talking to him. You had to have heard us."
"Van, you weren't talking to anyone. I ran down here to find you staring at the door."
"No, he was just here. Carpenter. He thought I was you. He knew about your scar."
Vic stepped around her and unbolted the door to step outside.
"There's no one here, Van."
Van watched her sister making a show of shielding her eyes and squinting down the street in the direction Carpenter left. "Where did you come from so quickly," Van asked. "I thought I was alone."
"You're not alone. I'm here," Vic smiled and step back inside, past her sister, towards the still shrill tea kettle. "I was in the shower. I ran downstairs to shut off this racket. It's been whistling forever. What have you been doing down here?"
Van followed her into the kitchen, watched her put the kettle on a trivet and make two mugs of tea. Vic sat at the breakfast table warming her hands around one mug after she used her knuckles to scoot the other towards her sister. Van felt the sting behind her eyes. She was able to hold the tears back but her sinuses acted of their own accord and loosed a dribble of thin clear mucus above her lip. Van wiped it away and reached for the mug.
"Who's Carpenter," she asked in a bare whisper.
Vic slapped her palm down on the table. "Stop saying that name. There is no Carpenter. No one was out there." She leapt up, her chair scraping loudly against the floor. Van backed towards the stove as Vic approached her. Van's tea sloshed out of her mug and seared her hand, but she held onto the mug, keeping it between her stomach and Vic's finger that was threatening to jab into her.
"No one was out there," Vic said slowly.
"No one was out there," Van repeated, nodding along with Vic who was bobbing her head like a conductor.
Van didn't have to be told to repeat it. They had played Follow Me enough times as children that she knew by instinct what Van wanted from her. But now Vic was watching too carefully, looking for hesitation, breathing on her. Being this close Van could see that Vic's scar looked painfully dry, the skin around the edges slightly cracking, almost like she could run a fingernail underneath it and peel the whole ugly mess away from Vic's face. Her real sister would be looking back at her instead of whoever was in the kitchen with her now.
A week passed. A quiet week of false peace. The sisters exchanged phrases like 'Excuse me' or 'Thank you' but little else. In the mornings Van slipped by Vic's bedroom no longer offering to make her breakfast. Vic kept her door closed all the time now anyway. In the evenings Van would come back to a dark house. Vic would show up an hour later, taking the stairs two at a time, heading straight for her room, where she would slam the door. Van would have long since eaten and cleaned up after herself before Vic would come into the kitchen to rummage through the fridge. A few times Van almost asked if Vic wanted her to heat up the leftovers, but each time she stopped herself. Let her eat it cold, Van thought, enjoying the small cruelty for a moment and then hating herself just as quickly.
Much later Van was surprised that she wasn't the one to cave, that it was Vic who finally broke the stalemate in the form of a shiny red apple. For a second, as Vic held the apple out to her, Van had the most ridiculous thoughts of curses and witches and a half dead princess. Then she couldn't help but laugh at herself and as she did Vic joined in and swung a small basket of freshly picked apples onto the counter. They laughed for a few seconds, each for their own reason, and then sighed in unison like they used to do. That brought on another round of laughter. Then together they each ate an apple, biting into the red skin and crunching the white flesh at the exact same time, mirroring each other's movements. Van held her apple up high, testing her sister, who was already beginning to raise her matching apple over her own head. Vic put her other hand on her hip just as Van was striking the same pose. Vic smiled as Van smiled, and then she lashed her hand out toward Van's face catching the apple that Van had just tossed into the air. Van stepped back, her smile wavering until Vic began to juggle the two apples with one hand.
"That's great," Van laughed. "I didn't know you could do that."
"I learned while I was away," Vic said, watching her sister and not the apples that jumped over and over in front of her. "New tricks to play."
"I didn't think you were there long enough to learn much of anything," Van said and then cursed herself. "I'm sorry. That was stupid to say. I'm sorry."
Vic caught both apples with a flourish and handed one to Van who took it after a moment's pause. Which is mine? Vic waited for her to choose one before finishing off the remaining apple in a few large bites.
"Apology accepted," Vic said her mouth full and grinning widely.
Van's eyes flicked from the churning mess in her sister's mouth to the knotted flesh on her cheek. Van felt bile rising in her throat. She rapidly ate her apple, turning it in fast circles, trying to finish it before her rolling stomach ruined everything. Van choked it down, barely chewing. Chunks of hard fruit scraped inside her throat. Her eyes watered but the pain was a distraction from the nausea so she kept swallowing. All the while Vic watched her and grinned and smacked her lips as she slowly chewed. Vic dropped both cores into the disposal and let them grind while the water ran at full blast. Van tried to breathe deeply but quietly, in through her nose, out through her mouth, hoping to sooth her sour stomach. Don't, she thought. She finally smiled back at her sister who was leaning against the sink watching her.
"Let's make a pie with the rest," Vic said running her hand over the small mound of apples.
"We don't have the ingredients to make crust," Van said. "We could make apple sauce instead."
"Mom's mush? I fucking hated that garbage," Vic gripped one of the apples in her fist.
"I thought we liked it," Van mumbled. "We always told Mom how we loved her recipe."
"Cinnamon and slim. I would've told her anything to shut her up."
Van swallowed the spit that was pooling in her mouth. Vic dropped the apple from her fist. It bounced off the top of the pile and rolled onto the floor. Van watched it wobbling towards her unable to stop herself from backing away as both Vic and the apple closed in on her.
"Yes Mommy," Vic whined. "More please Mommy."
They both looked down at the apple when it finally stopped by Van feet.
Vic laughed as she left the kitchen and said from over her shoulder, "Probably full of worms by now."
Van stood alone with the thing by her feet, clamped a hand over her mouth, and willed herself to keep breathing.