"Hey, you guys! Want to come out to the field and get in on the game?" The eighth grader stood breathlessly at the top of the hill, shoving his windblown hair out of his eyes. Angel unconsciously gave her own dark frizzy hair a squeeze, put down her notebook and glanced sidelong at Zoe.
"Really?" she asked, brightening as she looked around, taking inventory of her belongings.
"Yeah, sure, we need more players," said the boy. Zoe continued to scratch away with her pencil at her Sudoku puzzle as Angel hurriedly began stuffing the notebook in her bag.
Another, lankier, boy appeared at the crest, saying, "But did you tell 'em what game we're playing?" The boys simultaneously exploded in giggles. "Red Rover," he said, and after a pause added, "Freak!" They thudded back down the hill, laughter ringing out as they dropped from sight.
Angel let her bag slip through her fingers back to the ground and Zoe silently filled in another number. Being conjoined for eighteen years had already left Zoe smart enough not to supply ammunition to their tormenters. Though the two girls each had their own complete bodies, including two pairs of arms and legs, their skulls were fused at the side, so that each had to tilt her head towards the other. The left side of Zoe's head was firmly anchored to the right side of Angel's. Angel pulled her notebook back out and stared at the lines as they slowly became blurred by tears. Almost every other kid who lived on the base got to be home schooled, but now she and her sis had to travel two hours to public school every day, only to receive this kind of terrible treatment.
As the bell rang, the twins rose and began their carefully choreographed walk back to class, keeping to the edge of the corridor to avoid the crowded river of students. As they entered the Resource Room, someone in the hall shouted, "Aha! Retard monster has returned!" She, along with everyone else within hearing, knew this room was for Special Education. It had transpired that though both girls were performing well in school, they were required to attend grueling hours of Special Education. Being conjoined made standardized testing a challenge, and Special Education status allowed them to receive the necessary classroom modifications. Regrettably, this had added an extra helping of ridicule from their schoolmates, made even more irksome by the added Study Skills class that they both considered a complete waste of time.
"Look, I've had it, said Zoe. "I'm not feeling well."
Angel took the cue and, after she slowly blinked in understanding, they approached the teacher. They had often tried this ploy, back in Elementary School, feigning illness to escape all that ogling and all those shudders. Over time, though, they had learned that if they opted out of school too many times, the school officials began to get suspicious. Now they only pulled this stunt when it became really necessary. With hall pass in hand, they went to the office while Zoe started turning on the waterworks. She had discovered at an early age that she could purposely raise her temperature by making herself cry.
"Quick, think of something sad that will make me cry," said Zoe, who was temporarily buoyed up by the excitement of leaving class.
"Remember that one time you caught that newt in the pond and then brought it home and marched it around your doll house until it died?" asked Angel.
"Oh man, I had almost forgotten about Mr. Greensleeves! I wasn't trying to hurt him!" said Zoe.
She was sufficiently wet faced by the time they reached the office and the school nurse placed the plastic disposable thermometer under her tongue. Zoe continued to focus on the tragic memory while Angel thought about how stupid the nurse was. You'd think she'd realize that if one of the girls was sick, they'd both have to be sick. The nurse soon confirmed that Zoe was a tad feverish, and, with her voice dripping with concern, she telephoned their father at his work on the base.
Angel and Zoe were sprawled dramatically on the waiting area couch, looking their most sickly as Daniel arrived in uniform with a scowl on his face. He signed the girls out of school, and as they stood beside him he mumbled under his breath, "We'll see what Wendy has to say about this."
Wendy was the girls' live-in nanny. Daniel always said that they needed both a mother and a father to raise them, so he had hired her to serve as something like a super mom. Wendy had been a pediatrician before she had taken this job with their family. Consequently, she descended on every scraped and every bruise like a team of parameds. The moment they arrived home she was immediately checking their ears and noses, making sure she didn't need to take a throat culture. Unfortunately, as usual, the get-sick-quick trick didn't fool Wendy. So as soon as she gave Daniel her diagnosis, they all had to sit down for yet another one of those talks.
"Why do you have to pull this all the time?" he asked. "I've run out of patience for this!"
Angel burst into tears and covered her face with her hands, but Zoe wasn't having any of this. She said, "So have we, Dad! We're tired of the things you pull as well. Why do you have to lie to us about the operation? Why do you keep moving the date? Why do you keep saying we have to wait before we can be separated? As for myself, I'm tired of being a freak. First you said we might be separated at ten years old and now you're saying we might have to wait until we're eighteen? I'd rather die!"
Daniel rubbed his eyes and sat down heavily in his club chair. "I just don't have an accurate timeline for you girls right now," he said. His fist rested on the leather, alternately opening and clenching. "And if you think being a freak in public school is hard," he added, "don't make me enroll you in a private military school where you might learn a little more discipline." Angel grasped Zoe's hand and waved a silent gesture to indicate that she wanted to flee to their room. Confrontation was not her thing. Zoe wrapped her arm around her protectively and shot a sideways evil eye at Daniel as they headed off to their bedroom to lie down. Angel was always getting these migraines every time they argued with Dad.
Wendy entered the room fifteen minutes later with some Tylenol, as if on cue. As she marked off Angel's dose on a small sheet she used to keep track of those kinds of things, she brightly asked if they'd like to help her make dinner. That brought a small smile out of Angel, so Zoe rolled her eyes and decided to oblige. One of the things Zoe liked about having a nanny was never having to lift a finger in the kitchen. Each carefully planned meal portion was weighed out like a chemistry experiment by Wendy. Her meals were always tidy and nutritious. But Angel loved to cook and hated the fact that she didn't get a chance to make a mess in the kitchen like other girls her age.
After the dinner hour, which Daniel had spent brooding in his office and arguing on the telephone, the girls were deemed well enough for their weekly test. Their brain functions were monitored frequently in many different ways, including a weekly survey in a building located right on the base. This was conducted by a friendly doctor named Kevin, who asked them many strange questions that didn't make a whole lot of sense. When they were babies, it started out with putting a smudge on their noses and seeing if they would wipe it off when they viewed themselves in a mirror.
As they grew older, the test became verbal and then written, with complicated questions like, "How do you maintain your autonomy?" It was frustrating to Zoe to be treated like some kind of lab specimen by Kevin, but Angel loved how he was so cheerful. He seemed genuinely interested in them and even excited when they displayed behaviors he deemed fascinating. Even though Zoe seemed to be the stronger one in most social situations, it was Angel who usually decided where they would go as they moved intuitively through space. And it was Angel who first discovered her own sense of self, even as an infant, wiping the smudge off both her own nose and her sister's. Strangely, this strength that Angel showed in their partnership seemed to be increasing with age.
As Kevin explained, this was the time of life when humans learned about their own individuality and identity as they develop. Always competitive in schoolwork and intellectual pursuits, Angel liked being better than Zoe at anything. Zoe's favorite part of the test was a video game they had to play, where each girl was shown a different screen. They got to manipulate a little spaceship through a maze filled with bad guys, and one girl at a time would be shown the screen with all the dangers while the other one would just have to guess as they moved the joystick. Sometimes they were allowed to talk each other through the maze verbally, and sometimes it was just supposed to be a mental thing. Though Zoe didn't always do well at the game, it sure beat taking a boring written test! Today, when their high scores were printed off at the end of the test, Kevin was even more excited than ever, with his rosy cheeks puffing up like a chipmunk. He fairly vibrated as he hugged them and said that he was looking forward to speaking with their dad.
Later that night, Zoe was fast asleep but Angel lay still and awake, looking out to the moon, squeezing her eyes shut and then allowing them to pop open. She felt butterflies in her stomach, and sensed that something exciting was going to turn her life around. As she tried to get to sleep, she daydreamed about what it would be like after they were separated and she was her own person. Even if she had to wait until age eighteen, she decided her childhood could just be a tiny bump in the path of a long and successful life. By the time she was thirty-six, she would have lived as many years apart as they had lived together, and this all would be a distant memory, remembered as a mere inconvenience. She could hear her dad talking loudly on the phone as she concentrated on her daydream of being a famous singer. All those guys would be so sorry that they made fun of her when she turned down their pleas for a date. She noticed that, in her sleep, Zoe balled her hands into fists and then relaxed them. She remembered her dad's fist on the arm of his chair, just that evening, flexing it to cope with his stress and anger.
As she fell asleep, Angel dreamed that she was dancing with a tall, redheaded boy with adorable freckles on his face. They twirled on the dance floor as she wore a fabulous dress of white. He lifted her hand and she spun under his hand as if she were a clockwork ballerina. Her right toe was on the floor. As if ice skating, she twirled in an endless, frictionless spiral. When she came to rest, he was wearing a white tuxedo, and she realized that she was in a bridal gown. Suddenly, Zoe ran up to her and pushed her. She was yelling in a strange language, and the wedding guests all stared in horror. She could see all of them, face after face, repeated endlessly as if she were in a house of mirrors. She couldn't understand why Zoe was so angry with her. When she woke up, she was covered with sweat and filled with relief that it was only a dream. Determined not to go back to sleep, and a little afraid of resuming her nightmare, she raised her arm to shake out her joints. Zoe murmured as she slumbered. Angel fixed her inner eye on her previous daydream, imagining herself singing at a sold out concert.
Zoe murmured and shifted in her sleep. Deep inside her slumber, she and Angel were inside a mystical land filled with witches and other fantastical creatures. They walked on a street of gold between houses made of candy. She laughed and pointed out a leprechaun who addressed her sternly and explained that he was down on his luck and was willing to sell her his magical hat. She and Angel obligingly searched their pockets, and even checked their shoes, where each of them always kept a secret stash of their money. When they came up empty handed, the leprechaun became angry. He reached up to a rainbow that landed on his empty pot of gold and fashioned it into a lasso, looping it around Zoe's hand and wrenching her apart from her sister. As they were torn asunder, her sister cried out and she could see that Angel lay dying on that street of gold. The rope made her unable to reach her, despite her struggles. The offending rainbow lifted Zoe up into the sky and left her hanging over her sister's body, powerless to help.
The next morning, long before the alarm went off, Zoe awoke to the sounds of footsteps in the hallway and laughing in the living room. She tried to keep sleeping because there was still plenty of time, but she could feel the anger rising. It was incredibly rude to make that much noise when there were people sleeping in the house. She could tell Angel was awake. "Wanna' go see what all the hubbub is about?" she asked. They climbed out of bed and walked down the hallway and encountered an incredible crush of guests. Kevin was there, along with several uniformed men, some whom she vaguely recognized as their dad's coworkers, and some whom they had never seen before. Several of the guests stood up to greet the girls as they sleepily entered the living room. Everyone was in high spirits with huge smiles. Some were clapping each other on the back. "Dad, what's going on?" Zoe asked, trying to express the anger in her voice, but it was fading fast, replaced with confusion. Daniel had a giddy expression on his face that they had never seen before.
"Girls, you're going to have surgery tomorrow," he announced. "You, my clever girls, are going to be separated!" Zoe grasped Angel's hand and the two stood in quiet disbelief as the men around the room continued celebrating. Wendy emerged from the kitchen with champagne flutes and one of the uniformed men started pouring. Another military man grabbed Zoe's right hand and Angel's left to shake them both at once. He introduced himself as Dave, and without stopping for breath, said that he would be in the room at the time of their surgery to supervise things, that it was very nice to meet them and weren't they excited about the adventure that lay in store for them over the next few days. Zoe just looked at him as if he were an insect. Well, apparently the clever girls weren't going to go to school that day.
After that, life seemed a blur that was broken only by the boredom of the ride to the airport. It seemed that they would have to fly to a hospital with a large enough CT and MRI scan machines to fit both girls. Chatty Dave was sitting in the passenger seat next to a hired driver with his upper body cranked around so that he could make creepy attempts at small talk. Since Angel liked animals, they had talked about his new puppy for almost half an hour now. After a spell, the car fell silent and Dave turned back around to talk to the driver. "He probably doesn't even have a dog," Zoe said. They hadn't gotten a chance to have a shower that morning and she was feeling cranky and stinky.
It was a long day, and they had spent plenty of time in scanning machines designed for incredibly overweight people. After plenty of brain imaging, they had their skulls laser mapped to reference the external structure of their heads to the internal brain anatomy. Their beautiful hair was shaved off and their skin was marked up like a war strategy map. Since they were attached at such a small point and were young, they did not require skin expanders. Sleep was to be had in two hospital beds side-by-side with the railings folded down, and dinner was not to be had at all, since anesthesia would be administered first thing in the morning. The nurses were all very friendly and sympathetic. Angel was delighted when they brought her an enormous pile of teen magazines, but Zoe was disappointed when they gave her a puzzle book that had been mostly completed. A knock came on the door and a cheerful, pudgy woman with rhinestone glasses and dangly earrings bounced into the room.
"Hello, Angelina and Zoe," she said. My name is Merry and I'm a chaplain here at the hospital."
"Great, now they think we're gonna' die. I'll bet she's here for our last rights," Zoe said. Angel just breathed shallowly, forcing a smile.
"Oh my, no!" Merry laughed. "My role is to offer a listening presence and prayer if needed. Now, it says in your file that you girls are Catholic. Will you be needing the Eucharist during your stay here at the hospital?"
"What the hell is that?" asked Zoe.
Mary looked over her glasses and said, "Communion."
"No," said Zoe. We don't actually need to waste your time on that. We're not Catholic. Our dad is, and he must have put that in there."
"I believe in God" chirped Angel brightly. "Can you pray for everything to go super well for us during surgery? I'm really scared."
"Of course," said Merry, her earrings bouncing emphatically. She grasped Angel's hand in her own and offered a hand to Zoe, who shook her head and looked cross.
"I'm actually Pagan, Zoe said. And I'm sure you wouldn't know any of my prayers."
Shrugging and taking up Angel's other hand Merry spoke soothingly. "God, bless your little Angel here as she goes through surgery. Make sure that you comfort her in times of fear, and allow her to heal quickly afterwards. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, Amen."
Emboldened, Zoe said, "So, would you happen to know any Pagan chants?"
"Well," Merry said, "not really, but perhaps you could teach me one."
Zoe instructed them all to hold hands. She began the chant and Angel, knowing the words, chimed in. "Body and mind, spirit and soul, energy flow to heal the whole," they intoned. Merry joined in after a couple of repeats and they spoke together faster and louder until they finished all at once with a flourish. Zoe squeezed Merry's hand and released her. Merry, flushed and happy, thanked both of them and let them know that she could be paged if they had any further spiritual care needs. That night, neither girl could sleep until a night nurse offered them some medicine to help them relax.
The next morning it was more pills for breakfast, and then a very clumsy negotiation of the corridors by hospital staff rolling the girls on a large gurney. Angel giggled nonstop as they tried to fit two staff members, the gurney and Dave into the elevator together. At the last minute, Zoe announced that she had to pee, and a nurse had to help the drugged up girls to a bathroom and assist them. When everything was prepared, a friendly anesthesiologist began administering the drugs, asking "So, do you girls like horses?" Angel giggled and answered in the affirmative. Zoe, annoyed that she was being asked a little kid's question, was going to explain that she liked horses fine, but that they weren't her favorite animal in the world, but the medicine was already kicking in so she could only manage a mumbled yes.
* * *
Angel woke up first. It was a strange room, bright and different. Her vision seemed fuzzy around the edges, and a beeping machine next to her sounded as if it was in a tunnel far away. She didn't feel any pain. She reached to touch her sister, and Zoe wasn't there. Her fingers tingled. She felt a surge of excitement and panic. She lifted a hand to touch her head, but an intravenous tube prevented her from lifting it high enough. She tried to speak, but her voice was a rough whisper. A nurse hurried over and smiled. "You had to be intubated my dear," she said. "It was such a long surgery with the reconstruction, so your throat is going to be a little raw for a while. Here, have some water. I'll crank your bed up so that you can get a look at your sister. She's over to your left. I imagine it's the first time for that."
The bed made a buzzing noise as Angel's head was gently elevated. Her neck was difficult to tilt, and the nurse helped her to adjust so she could get a look at the sleeping Zoe. Zoe's mouth was open and she was drooling. Her head was bandaged up as if she were wearing a turban. She was snoring. Angel reached up with her free hand to touch the bandages on her own head. She noticed that the skin on the right side of her face was slightly tighter. She made an attempt to sip some water, but her lips were numb and water ran down her face. The nurse mopped her with a paper towel and asked if she was feeling any pain. Angel just continued to stare at Zoe. Doctors hurried into the room, asked her to move her fingers and toes. Then they left just as quickly as they had arrived.
Zoe snorted and stirred. Her mouth closed and her eyelids twitched and fluttered. Angel smiled, eager to talk with her sister again. Zoe's eyes widened and her jaw snapped open. A harsh, raspy scream issued out of her mouth and she thrashed as if possessed, ripping the intravenous tubes out of her arm. The nurse shouted out the doorway and several staff rushed in and held her down as she screamed and fought. Angel was astounded, and tried to speak loud enough for Zoe to hear her comforting words, but it was impossible.
Zoe was restrained with some straps that were attached to the bed. Her eyes were squeezed shut and she was breathing quickly and heavily as a nurse re-inserted the needle and administered a high dose of morphine. Another woman was on the phone, requesting a visit from a resident psychiatric physician. The room lapsed back into silence and the original nurse remained, looking a bit harried. "Don't worry, dear," she said to Angel, "sometimes surgery can be very stressful and scary. Your sister is going to be just fine." Angel wasn't so sure.
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