Everybody Has a Twin Except for Me
At fast food joints, the only guys who ask you if you want ice in your drink are the ones who hate ice themselves. That’s what this cat asked me. About a year ago, a guy looking just like him asked me the exact same thing—maybe he was fifteen, at that age right before he discovered girls. He was blond too. His shoulders rolled over a little cause they didn’t know what to do before he spurted up. Big round eyes, puffy and greenish black around the eyelids. "Do you want ice?" that boy asked back then, same thing as this kid here.
"No," I said both times. "Thanks, though." I wanted to tell him to take it easy, get some sleep. But I didn’t say anything. When you show concern, you get into long conversations. I only had time to eat, long enough before Derek and Aaron found me again. I felt them coming, and I hadn’t slept in days. Three nights ago the cold, dry fingers of Derek and Aaron’s dimensions dug at my neck. Sometimes they only wanted to rough me up. Most of the time they wanted me dead.
I sat by the trashcans and scratched at the dull throbbing in my chest. Last night I slept on the loading dock of some furniture warehouse. Didn’t know where I’d be tonight. Too bad too, cause this town looked tame, like they didn’t have to worry about locking their doors at night like back during the day, like my grandmama—"Mama" I called her—bragged about. Would be nice to stay in this little place.
Water stood in the place where hairline met forehead, the intoxicating kiss of heat vapors rising from the Florida marsh. His dreams tonight were clear—unlike the ones he knew he dreamed. With the clear ones, he thought he was there, living better than when he was awake. A metallic ring, and he couldn’t remember what he dreamt at all. Another ring, and he reached for the phone.
"Know how hot it is out here, and you don’t have the decency to pick up the phone?"
"I was dreaming," he wanted to say, but the one on the other end wasn’t patient enough for reason.
"Hey, CF, what you up to, little man?" Derek’s voice, robust and drunk on the other side, his throat full of smoke. Derek and Aaron hated yella boys like CF because yella boys like CF thought they were better than everyone else, fantasized about blue eyes and blond hair.
CF didn’t know how far away that voice was, and he wasn’t going to send for it. "Nothin’. I’m trying to study."
"Oh, okay," he said. "We know how you gotta study."
In the fog of his room, clear dreams slipping through his fingers and evaporating on his consciousness, CF wondered where Derek was—in his own dorm room or downstairs on the lobby phone. They followed him everywhere, Derek and Aaron, in and out of every building. Dared him to step into elevators with them and banged him shoulder to shoulder around corners, branding him somewhere that couldn’t be erased.
Not long before he decided to run, Derek, Aaron, and some other boys blocked the pathway between CF and his dorm. Beer raging through their blood, both factions stood so close in the dulled streetlight that the spit in their words covered cheeks and chins. He only wanted to crawl into bed and dream clear dreams, of wrapping Wendy’s hair around his fingers and nibbling on her earlobes. He stepped off the pathway and tried to ease into the shadows, but the branding rose to the surface.
Aaron’s baritone called up from the half light, "What you up to, nephew?"
CF answered because of the rising in his chest, the same thing simmering in Aaron’s blood. "Just goin’ home. It’s been a long night."
"Been a long night for all of us, baby, but you can help us settle something. This is worth me a lot of money. You know what it’s like bein’ in school and broke."
Before he could turn, before CF got Aaron’s dimming eyes and glinting teeth out of sight, Aaron grabbed him by the collar, heavy nicotine stinging through his nostrils and expanding in his lungs. "Punk-ass sissy!" A tight fist jabbed his nose. CF snatched the hand holding his shirt, clenched his fingernails into Aaron’s chapped skin, then ran.
"That’s that little bitch I been tellin’ y’all about," Derek yelled.
Enclosed within the walls of his bedroom, CF spat blood into his sink until it turned the porcelain pink.
They were his cousin Malik’s friends, loitering around the house to play Numbers and dice. CF didn’t hang in the basement with Malik to watch them lose money to the old cats, didn’t like the smoke and slow-tripping blues clouding downstairs when Mama ran her operation. He only left his room when Mama called him to bring the old men beer. Music from Daddy’s vinyls scratched through the walls. CF, light-headed, wavered under cigar smoke, wailing guitars, and never-realized desires. Wrinkling faces circling him, old men and their wives—sometimes their girlfriends—smiled up from behind their games. "How you doin’, CF?" He only nodded and smiled because old men had a lot to say, and the cigar smoke and blues pounded his head.
In the basement, dice players’ throats itched for beer in those humid Nashville summers. The ones who’d played dice the longest shook the cubes in their hands like they’d trail their fingers down their woman’s calf. Wrists curled back and forth. They guided the dice when they let go, the dice sailing several feet before they skipped from the ground and kissed the wall. Snake eyes. Inexperienced boys like Derek and Aaron rattled dice in their hands, little pieces of plastic clanking like cracked bells.
Mr. Lewis spent his summers down there, the dice rolling waters from his hands. "Thanks, son," was all he told CF when he handed him a bottle, and stayed silent until he thought the boy was gone. CF shut the door but stayed on the top step. The old man slapped his knotty hands on Derek’s or Aaron’s shoulder. "You little chumps like to lose your money."
CF wished he could say that. Call Derek and Aaron "chump," "fool," chuckle low in his throat like Mr. Lewis did as he dismissed them. But CF choked just at the thought of opening his mouth to them. If he did, whenever he did, he was always at risk of getting grabbed from behind, jumped when he dared to let down his guard.
"I ain’t got it right now. I’ll get it … I’ll get it, though," one would defend, his voice sounding like he was on the peak of adolescence.
It was stupid, but CF would close his eyes, and his eyes would water when he daydreamed about making Derek and Aaron sound like that. His eyes watered because he knew he couldn’t.
"Swear I’ll get it, sir!"
Derek and Aaron were bad with money.
Derek and Aaron didn’t like yella boys who daydreamed about magnet schools or met with blonde and blue-eyed girls down at the creek.
He wrote poetry in gold and silver inks, on black, green, and purple paper just for Wendy and himself. They met on the bank, concealed in the brush, but not too far where ticks latched their subtle fangs into arms and legs. Just enough moonlight filtered through the leaves, and he held the pages at an angle. Let the light catch the silver and gold. Wendy marveled at the glitter rising to the surface of his words. It was the anger, she said, the intensity coming out of them. "You shouldn’t keep them to yourself." Sometimes, though, CF didn’t even know where the words came from. People liked to ask what things meant, and he couldn’t explain. Besides, his poetry wouldn’t make sense to anyone but Wendy.
Despite Wendy, despite the poetry, Derek and Aaron never beat CF, although they threatened. Maybe he had Malik to thank for that.
Nothing else better to do, the blond kid watched me from behind the cash register. Probably thought I hated the sandwich cause I wasn’t taking my time with it. You can’t savor nothing when you’re running.
I promised Mama I’d go to Tennessee State, but I couldn’t stay in Nashville after what happened to Wendy. When I first got to school in Florida, I didn’t recognize Derek and Aaron. Just because they’re from the same dimension as the boys back in Nashville doesn’t mean they look the same. This Aaron’s voice was a little higher than the other’s. That Derek’s chin had a sharper cleft. I didn’t know about twins and dimensions until that night Aaron grabbed and punched me outside the Union. The cut of his fingernails against my chest and the sting of his breath reminded me of the times his twin and Derek and Malik used to mock me outside Mama’s house.
But that’s not when I started running. I could live with a bloodied nose and harassing phone calls, but I didn’t understand everything about twins then. The truth is, in the dimension you belong to, you’re just a node on that dimension’s spectrum. An underdeveloped good quality in you is the best thing one of your twins has going for him. In other cases, your twin deserves exactly what’s coming to him. But since you’re on that spectrum, parts of them bleed into you, and when you’re angry or tired of sleeping by yourself at night, you never know what might boil to the surface.
The blond kid turned away from behind the counter and went back to work. Last time that happened, Derek and Aaron came into the restaurant and hid in the hallway like they were going to the john, waited for me. I went out the opposite exit and listened for their footsteps coming after me and ran through backyards. Ain’t no backyards nearby here. My foot started tapping, and my knee banged the underside of the table.
I couldn’t say the same thing’d happen this time around. I just bumped into the blond kid’s dimension again—that’s all—and I’d have to keep telling myself that. If we all lived variations of the same life on our spectrums, I’d just give up right now. Let Derek and Aaron take me. Whatever would happen to me had already happened to some other CF a long time ago.
I looked out on the street. Nobody but a couple of local kids with their hoods pulled way past their foreheads passing by.
His eyes blurred from reading too many notes. CF went down to Orlando for a break and sat in front of a plate of ribs, held each delicate piece between thumbs and forefingers. He sucked on the bone and pulled the tender meat. Mesquite juice and brown sugar slid across his tongue.
Two men sat at the bar. One downed shots of whiskey. The other kept looking back at CF. When he started out the door, a voice, robust and full of smoke, called out to him, "Hey, CF, can we talk for a minute?"
CF didn’t know how the man knew his name, but he was an Aaron. Aaron twisted the gold watch around his wrist. Slipped his hands into his jacket pocket.
"Do I know you, friend?"
He rubbed his hand, much bigger than the hands of other Aarons, over CF’s head. "What did you do to your hair, nephew?"
"It’s been like this for a while," he said.
Aaron pulled him outside away from the door. The Derek at the bar crooked his neck and watched through the cracked glass. "Have you been taking more than your slice?"
Aaron patted him on the cheek. "We’ll give you a couple of days. Do what you do best. We can talk later."
That night CF went to the ATM and took out all of his money, went back to his dorm and stuffed his backpack with a few pieces of clothes, a toothbrush and toothpaste, and the bills and loose change on the dresser. He had promised Mama he’d graduate, but he could never explain to her why he left.
The chicken sandwich was okay. Not enough lettuce. Not enough mayonnaise. The other kid who hated ice from a year ago made his much better.
I’ve been running for eight years now. This is about the thousandth town I’ve been through—I’ve wound my way up from Florida and into Alabama, back across the Blue Ridge Mountains and West Virginia, hopped on trains to Chicago and Des Moines. I’ve survived on just enough. Some days I didn’t eat, and some days, like today, I treated myself.
Everybody has twins except for me. There have to be other CFs out there, but I can’t feel them like I feel other dimensions, when the CFs should be more real to me than anything else. Everywhere I go, I see people who look like, act like, smell like all those friends I used to have 3- and 400 miles away. I knew this girl from high school named Kaya—real pretty girl with cocoa-butter smooth skin and eyebrows arched like rainbows. It’s been two years now, but when I drifted through Minneapolis, I swear I saw her—or saw her twin. She was a little bit darker, her hair a little curlier, but when she handed me my change, she smiled like she knew me. I wanna run into that Kaya Dimension again.
And it’s not just the look. The twins make you feel like you did when you were with the original. Dimensions must have personality imprints on them like fingerprints. And when you encounter that twin, when you tap into that dimension, it pricks your spirit with something you once knew. If your experience with that person was good, imprint hands reach in and caress your soul, rock you slow and make you wish you’d never been disconnected in the first place. If it was bad, those hands tear at your insides, snap your windpipe, make you want to forget him or her all over again. But dimensions are always accompanied by memories, and when you meet a twin, you take the memory and map it across everyone on that spectrum’s face. Sometimes it takes me a moment to figure out if a new twin is friendly.
Never had that problem with Dereks and Aarons.
Outside it looked like rain, and twilight was crossing fast into night. In front of a beauty parlor admiring a poster in the window, a Wendy talked to her friend and ran her fingers through her hair. I got ashamed for thinking about Kayas. I didn’t say anything to Wendy, though. I never do when I see one. I won’t give them the chance to recognize me because I know they’ll end up lying in their own blood—when they didn’t even do anything wrong, when another blonde girl only wanted the wallet out of their back jeans’ pocket. I never give myself a chance to wonder what would have happened if me and Wendy had still been together, and she wasn’t by herself in that back parking lot that night.
Malik and his boys never liked Wendy. Wendy’s parents never liked me. For Malik and his boys, she was everything I was supposed to reject. For Wendy’s parents, I was just a weed like Malik and Derek and Aaron growing on the other side of the creek. Too poisonous to touch and taste. But we met anyway, out by the place where we used to swing off the old tire into brownish-green water. Back in the trees where she used to beat me up when we were kids and it was okay for blonde girls to play with little yella boys.
Wendy asked her friend, "Do you think that’ll look good on me?"
I turned away. I couldn’t stay there and listen to her. I had to find the trains. The beat of wheels over rails rocked in the distance, the same rhythm thumping in my chest. "No, you’d have to straighten your hair," the friend said. "I wish I had wavy hair."
"But I get tired of it."
She got tired of it, but she wouldn’t change it. Her twins never did.
He knew this would be the end.
He knew the end was coming for a long time, but he kept pushing it back. He could have made things a lot easier on himself. When he first saw her sitting on the opposite bank flicking cigarette ashes in a soda can, he could have left her alone. Pretended he didn’t want to know what was wrong—they were just two people who’d grown up around each other for years without their lives really intersecting.
"Shut up! I’ll be home when I want!" Wendy’s voice lifted over the tree line and out into the darkened neighborhood.
Her mother shouted back, "Don’t bother coming home then!"
Creek water up to her thighs, Wendy waded across and crawled onto the bank. Her hair was wet too, stringy, and she shivered in her undershirt. It was the dull, hyperawareness in her widened eyes that CF hated. He’d seen too much of it of late. He knew it wasn’t going to change.
"I really despise her sometimes, you know?" She leaned against him. Her damp hair on his neck made CF cold.
He pushed her back. "I told you you and I couldn’t be if you started that again."
"Don’t do that," she said. "You’re worried about your grandparents finding out about us—just say that. Don’t use excuses."
"You know that’s not it. I don’t care if they find out. I don’t know what else to do. This is the only way you’ll listen."
"How am I supposed to stop when my parents won’t leave me alone?" Wendy lifted her undershirt. Even in the dark, CF saw the marks across her stomach. "They’re not going to change," she said.
But he couldn’t change, either. He couldn’t change what he knew was right—break up with Wendy to get her to stop. There were so many things he couldn’t change. Act like her dropping acid was okay. Smile for Mama’s customers and encourage them to keep throwing their money in the pot when they didn’t stand a chance, and they’d end up late on payments. Make Malik and Derek and Aaron think he didn’t want to get a better life for himself somewhere far away from them. There were too many things he decided not to change. This was who he was, and all he’d ever be. He didn’t fit in with them. All he could do was hope to fit in somewhere else.
Wendy tucked her undershirt into her jeans. She was a little more lucid now, and CF knew they’d both made their decisions.
"What else am I supposed to do?" he said.
The trains weren’t too far off, but the rain came hard and all that was in front of me were walls of water and mist. Imprint fingers of Derek’s and Aaron’s dimensions grabbed at my neck, pressed on my Adam’s apple. I trudged through a field, my feet getting lost in tangles of mud and grass. An overflowing pond sent swirls of water around my ankles, threatening to take me down its new course.
I’m tired of running. Above me, behind me, inside me, they’re pounding and pulling. When they’re this close, I feel them burn away muscle and bone. Every fiber starts to untwine. My bones crack in stiff legs, bitter marrow ready to snap tendons from the joints. If I stop, if I let them catch me, I’ll rip apart. Maybe I would find the trains, and they’d carry me off only to start the game all over again. Or I’d dive onto the tracks and let the wheels tear my clothes from the skin, deprive Derek and Aaron of that pleasure.
I gotta find a twin. Maybe I fell out of my dimension, and my twins can’t even help me. Not all of them would run, would they? I need their bite. I need their rage, their resolve to take a punch, and then punch back. If they exist out there, why won’t they bleed into me? Or maybe all CFs are running and can’t find themselves. Nodes forever scattered …
Sometimes there’s this buzzing in my chest. It’s not threatening. It’s not some other dimension summoning up memories of Kayas or Wendys or Maliks. When I’m real still, I listen to the pulse in my ears, like my heartbeat’s under water.
It’s a signal—it has to be. My dimension’s calling me.
These legs pump after I can’t feel my body no more. Something warm runs down my leg, like when I rip my sleeve on barbed wire. I don’t have time to see if the blood’s from a shot or a cut—at least I don’t think I’ve heard shots. I spit thick phlegm, feeling Derek and Aaron filtering my lungs.
Too much Derek and Aaron have gotten into and tainted me over the years. I know, one day, when I find a twin, I’m going to have to protect him. Somewhere along the line, I didn’t stand up straight enough. I should have cussed my cousin and Derek and Aaron out and let them beat me up. They would have respected me then … Or I should have marched right up to Wendy’s parents and told them to go to hell. Whatever weaknesses I let grow in me, I can’t let them bleed into and corrupt the other CFs.
It’s the last thing I can do for them, to make things right. Maybe it’ll be tonight, or next week, or two years from now—I’ll let Derek and Aaron wipe me out. My blood and memories seeping into their pores, I’ll drain across their spectrums. Every night when it seems clear, right when it’s real, I’ll rise up from their dreams and run them into places they can’t hide.
Nashville native Toiya Kristen Finley is a writer, editor, game writer, narrative designer, and game designer. She has no twins, as far as she knows. Her fiction has been published in The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, The Best of Electric Velocipede, Nature, and Fantasy Magazine. She is the founding editor and former managing/fiction editor of Harpur Palate. The Game Narrative Toolbox (Focal Press), a book on narrative design she’s co-authoring with Jennifer Brandes Hepler, Ann Lemay, and Tobias Heussner, will be out in early 2015.