“The elder twin they called ‘Tatterhood,’ because she was always so ugly and ragged, and because she had a hood which hung about her ears in tatters. The queen could hardly bear to look at her. The nurses tried to shut her up in a room by herself, but it did no good. She always had to be where the younger twin was, and no one could ever keep them apart.”
— Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, Norske Folkeeventyr
On the day of their mother’s funeral, the Tetherwood twins sat side by side, flanked by dusty candelabras and the kaleidoscopic eyes of the cross-shaped stained glass windows. It was the same church where their mother had been married, where they had been baptised, where they had once hunted for plastic eggs filled with candy as young girls. Tabitha felt strange being there, like they were playing their parts in a period drama filled with historical inaccuracies. But their mother, Natalia, would have wanted this.
They were the only remaining family Natalia had, so the twins had the privilege of sitting in the front of the tiny church. Tabitha could feel dozens of eyes boring into her back. She knew what the eyes on her were thinking, and what they would say about her after all of this was over. “Tatterhood didn’t even cry. Not at all. Not even one little tear on her cheek for her poor dead mother.”
When Tabitha was six, her mother had grabbed her by the hair and shoved her into the hallway closet, an unfinished room crawling with spiders, and made her sleep up there the whole night because she and her sister hadn’t stopped talking after she’d said “lights out.”
As the preacher droned on about what a beautiful soul Natalia had possessed, Tabitha was conscious of her sister’s quietly quaking shoulders, the pitiful shape of her curved spine on the L of the stern back of the wooden pew. Behind the curtain of her rose gold hair, a tear quivered on Iris’s tiny freckled nose. Iris’ tears were elegant, a candlestick silently dripping wax. Tabitha watched out of the corner of her eye as Rob, Iris’ broad-shouldered husband, wrapped one arm around his tiny wife.
If Tabitha were to cry like that, it would not be so pretty. Tabitha imagined her face all scrunched up, looking like a squashed tomato.
Tabitha’s back pressed against the wooden pew, and she stared at the glass windows until the frames bled together.
She thought back to three days ago. When her fingergraph buzzed an incoming message, she had felt as though someone had poured a pitcher of ice water down the back of her neck. Her eyes had blurred, and she’d thought that she was choking.
She had touched her index finger to her ear, hearing her sister’s voice through the tiny speakers in her fingertips. Mom had a heart attack. Come to the hospital.
Tabitha hadn’t needed to respond. The feelings that ran through her ran through Iris too, an electric ribbon that sent waves of pain over impossible distances. Twins’ magic.
After the casket had been lowered into the ground and all the words had been said that needed to be said, the mourners lingered in the graveyard. The day was warm, a light breeze nipping playfully at black shawls and long dresses.
Tabitha walked to the far edge of the graveyard, as far as she could possibly get away from the other guests, and stood beside a dying sapling by the side of the highway. She faced the cars and took long, unsteady breaths of air that was still thick with pollution. Each car that whizzed by sent quivers through the tree’s gnarled white branches.
Iris’ husband came to stand beside her, his black hair billowing in the wind. His mouth wore a sympathetic, downturned grimace that was somehow both a frown and a smile at once. He told her that he was sorry for her loss.
He spoke clearly and concisely, like someone who had never had any fear of public speaking, or any distaste for the sound of words spilling out of his mouth. Sounds without meaning.
He had a long nose, thick eyebrows, and the type of dark, serious eyes that reminded Tabitha of Bollywood movie stars from the late 1900s. But the half-moon beard, like a shrub modestly shrouding the left half of his face, was completely modern. So was the obtrusive face of his silver wristwatch, glinting in the harsh sunlight. A tiny dot in the center blinked from red to white, measuring every beat of his heart.
“I wanted to let you know that Iris and I watched some of the vidcasts you’ve been making,” he said, scratching the bearded half of his face. “They’re really very, very interesting. There was something I wanted to ask you about them. What was it? Hold on… It’ll come back to me in a second.”
Something about this man, with his expensive suit and ridiculous watch, his good looks, his careful way of pronouncing Iris’ name in his subtle accent, annoyed Tabitha. She turned and saw her sister’s shadow bleeding down the hill, and she backed away before he could finish, escaping to the secluded confines of her car.
She took the tiny freeway that circled the town of Castor, what locals called “the ring”. Along the road, ancient billboards pleaded for long lost causes, some of them at least three decades old. She drove slowly, squinting to read the faded text: Take a stand! STOP pollution before it’s too late. The words were written above an image of children playing in a sandbox with giant black respirators clamped over their faces. Someone had left their mark in green spray-paint. “It’s too late.”
Through evacuation, extreme re-landscaping, and pop-up dams, they had been able to prevent the flooding of most of the eastern coastal cities in the US and postpone their destruction for at least ten more years.
But even in a place like Castor, a sleepy small town on the border of Alabama and Georgia, it was difficult to think about anything like that for too long. Her fingergraph kept buzzing and distracting her. When she put it to her ear, the fingergraph told her about a movie she’d been meaning to watch called “Basics in Love” and then about a special sale on her favorite brand of cookies at Piggly Wiggly. She had to pay $299 per month to disable these ads, and that was money that she just didn’t have right now.
In Castor, you didn’t have to have a lot of money to get by. It wasn’t like living in a big city. Sure, sometimes she wondered what her life would have been like if she’d left Castor when Iris did, after they’d graduated. Even if she couldn’t get into a top U-niv, maybe she could have gone to some other kind of school, learned how to make clothes or cut hair. Maybe in one of the big cities, she would have met another basic like herself.
Her last boyfriend had been a basic with a habit of huffing computer duster, an IT guy. He was tall, and better looking than she was, but she was too smart for him, which was a problem for her. That, and he had always smelled a little like spoiled milk.
She liked to think that her one and only similarity to her mother was that both of them had never needed a man.
She lived by herself in a small blue house on the poor side of town. When she came home from her job delivering gourmet meals, she enjoyed making vidcasts. Her username was “Tatterhood,” and in her vidcasts, she always wore a threadbare hoodie, her face completely in shadow. Her face would put her at risk and only weakened her arguments. No one was interested in the opinions of a woman who actually looked her age.
In her vidcasts, she talked about the poverty rate, or gas rationing, or how the Mars Project was not a mark of humanity’s failure. Sometimes she would attack Unidaism, the growing religion with a cult-like following that believed that “All is God, All is Good” and the belief that human consciousness was the sole purpose of the universe. Her most controversial idea of all she merely hinted at: the concept that genetic modification had undermined evolution and irrevocably damaged their ability to adapt to climate change.
She hadn’t always been this way. When she was very young, Tabitha had enjoyed reading about other people like her and Iris. The doctors had called it “superfetation”: an ultra rare phenomenon when two babies, conceived separately, shared the same womb.
Natalia was a member of the first generation of GMs, or genetically modified people. She had only ever wanted one child and zero husbands. She was a busy woman with a small income who worked hard to keep her life as clean and small and simple as possible. But difficulties plagued her when she pursued pregnancy. She suffered miscarriage after miscarriage before finally, at long last, one of the babies lasted. She called her friends and told them that she was going to have a little girl. But then when Natalia went to see her obstetrician for her sixth week checkup, her doctor’s face had turned milky white above her green scrubs.
“I’ll never forget the look on her face,” Natalia would always laugh, in the telling of this story.
At first, no one had believed that the second baby hadn’t just somehow been “missed” in the earlier two ultrasounds. It seemed too incredible. They all said that it had to be some kind of mix-up or even a hoax. But the second baby was there, like a strange cancerous growth inside Natalia’s womb, half the size but swiftly growing.
They tried to extend Natalia’s pregnancy for as long as possible. The girls were born via C-section. Tabitha, the medical anomaly, was born first: a translucent, tadpole-like creature at 4 pounds and two ounces, her lungs not fully developed. Iris was born a minute later. Iris was plump and healthy, a squirming and screaming berry twice the size of her older sister.
Natalia had told her daughters all of this many times. She had liked stories with happy endings. She’d liked the way the familiar details tripped warm and soft down the ladder of her tongue, the way her memory, which was rooted in photographs and mementoes, grew more pleasant whenever she revisited it. Natalia had focused on the physical, and in her mind she’d always linked her daughters’ birth to the two tiny pink plastic bracelets she had brought home from the hospital. The birth itself, and all of its horrors, had long vanished from her memory.
To her children, Natalia only laughed about the day and called Tabitha her “little miracle”. When guests visited, Natalia asked Tabitha to sing a song and then she squeezed her daughter’s hand and smiled when Tabitha forgot the words. And Tabitha always forgot the words because the attention was so distracting — Natalia’s gushing, infectious laugh, the stranger’s curious eyes, and the unfamiliar softness of Natalia’s hands clasping Tabitha so tightly.
As they grew older, Tabitha slowly came to realize all of the differences between herself and her sister. Like that Iris’ skin didn’t turn red in the sun. Or that Iris didn’t struggle with time tables. When Tabitha tried to dance, she lost herself and tripped over her own feet. When Iris danced, it was as though her body was made of rubber and string. Tabitha was what they called a “basic.” She was an average homosapien, far below average in a GM world. And Iris was a GM.
A week after the funeral, Tabitha walked the two and a half miles to her mother’s house to help get everything organized before the estate sale. They had to decide which things they wanted to take before they priced the items with the assessment with the liquidator, a friend of Rob’s who had promised to give them a good rate.
Tabitha already knew that she wasn’t taking anything. She was only there for moral support.
Walking across Castor wasn’t a problem for her. She enjoyed it. When she wasn’t working, she liked to walk down Main Street, to the old grocery store or the Lucky 10 bowling alley and the RVX movie theater, all of which had long gone out of business, and then walk home again. Sometimes she thought about how strange it was that she had decided to stay here, since she had been the one who hated it the most growing up. But Tabitha had grown to fit the town, and she had liked it even more after the population dropped from 1000 to 500. In an ever-urbanizing America, small towns were shrinking fast, and Castor had become a tiny artifact. Walking under the shade of the ever-present southern pine, past the dilapidated fences, the empty barns and overgrown fields, Tabitha felt she had found an oasis, a place that still, in its own small way, ignored change.
The little house was like a gnarled root sticking out of a worn-down stump. It was red-brown, sloppy brick, all crumbling mortar, choking under the bind of overgrown weeds.
When she was little, Tabitha had loved the house and the sub-co where they had lived in with thirty other lower-middle income families. Natalia had thought about moving to a single’s sub-co sponsored by one of the big dating companies that were so popular back then, but ultimately she had decided it would be too trashy with two half-grown children.
The two-story house reminded her of a ship forever threatening to capsize. The roof was slumping inward, and the columns that held up their wrap-around porch were rotting away at the bottom. But its degradation was part of its charm, and it made it all the more appropriate for childhood enchantments centered around pirate ships and kudzu monsters. She found the key that was still hidden under the welcome mat and went inside.
She stepped into the kitchen slowly, carefully, as though she was afraid to disturb spirits lurking in the dust. “Iris?” she called. “You here?”
The house seemed to be empty. She walked through the kitchen and emerged in what had once been the family living room.
Someone was there, over by the fireplace. A large nose protruding below tiny walnut brown eyes. Hair the color of burnt cheese cascaded over hunched shoulders. Even before Tabitha gasped and clasped her hand to her mouth, there was a split second of recognition. And then the old, ugly woman gasped too.
Tabitha turned away from the mirror and quickly walked back through the kitchen and out to the front porch, already thumbing through her purse for a cigarette.
In her own house, Tabitha didn’t own a single mirror. Even when she went into a public restroom, she had trained herself not to look up, never to encounter that horrible shape of herself. But now that she hardly ever left the house, she had gotten out of practice. Now she only knew her face from the expression on a GM’s face when one looked at her and then immediately looked away.
Tabitha stood outside, drawing the smoke in and out of her lungs, rapidly, like grey clouds gathering for an imminent storm.
With her free hand, she gingerly touched her hand to her cheek, feeling its soft gaps and crevices, battle scars from a never-ending war waged against acne. The first time she had gone to a dermatologist, he had tilted her chin back and forth, examining the rugged terrain of her face, and it had almost felt like being admired. She remembered how her face had flushed even more red, so that her acne looked even worse, and the dermatologist had barely been able to professionally contain his delight. In an era where almost every teenager was a GM, industries like dermatology and orthodontistry were in the tank. All of the parents who could afford these luxuries for their children had already paid the exorbitant sum to have a child who wouldn’t need braces or eczema medication. Being a GM was like having beauty insurance. So a girl like Tabitha, who was born completely uninsured, was considered a real treat.
The day when Tabitha and her mother returned home from the dermatologist, Tabitha found Iris eating ice cream at the kitchen counter with a friend, both of their faces not only acne-free, but smooth, freckled, and positively dewey with youth. That night, Tabitha had told her mother that she wasn’t going to the dermatologist for a blood test, as he had suggested, and she wasn’t going to go to the orthodontist’s appointment her mother had scheduled either.
“No matter what I do, I’ll never be as pretty as Iris,” Tabitha had told Natalia. “I’m just going to have to learn to be okay with the way I look.”
“Beauty isn’t everything,” she said. “Now, come here.”
Being held by her mother was a strange, uncomfortable feeling. Natalia smelled like the color pink, and her hands were sticky with the wrinkle-reducing lotion that she always put on before she went to sleep.
After that, Tabitha stopped wearing tight, trendy clothes like Iris wore and found a ratty grey hooded sweatshirt at Goodwill, the same kind of thing she saw other basics wearing. When she walked around town by herself, no one looked twice at her. But she still had to go to school occasionally: for tests, “discussion-based learning,” and “social events” that couldn’t take place over tablet or fingergraph.
Tabitha wasn’t the only basic at her high school. It wasn’t like everyone could be a GM. The procedure was too expensive for the poor (although it was slowly being added to more and more health plans, and would soon, she suspected, be considered a human right). But even if it was affordable for everyone, mistakes happened. There were still parents who thought too highly of themselves to abort their less than perfectly intelligent, talented, beautiful child, no matter how embarrassing the result might be. For now at least, the basics were not completely outnumbered.
At school the basics all sat together in the back of the room, cutting up and purposefully acting stupid. The GMs sat in the front like paper cut-outs of ideal students. Iris and Tabitha always sat together, apart from the rest of the class, on the far right side of the room.
When Tabitha came in with her ratty grey hood and slumped into her desk beside Iris, she was surprised to see a shadow fall over her almost immediately. Class hadn’t started yet. Their instructor was a telecommuter, and Tabitha had not yet felt a buzz from her teacher through her fingergraph.
She looked up. It was one of the other basics. She couldn’t remember his name. Like her, he had acne, but his face wasn’t as squashed and misshapen as hers. Her heart started beating very fast.
“What?” she demanded.
The boy smiled. It was a sideways smile that favored the right side of his face.
“That’s a cool hood. Kind of punk,” he said, “No more Tabitha Tetherwood. You’re Tabitha Tatterhood now!” He stuck out his tongue and made the sign of the horns with his hands, rock and roll style. Then he walked to his desk with the other basics.
“Thanks?” Tabitha said, and then turned to Iris with raised eyebrows.
“It is a little bit tattered,” Iris admitted.
But Tabitha had found that she liked the name. She’d written it down in her notebook. Tatterhood, tatterHOOD. Each time she’d written it, she felt a hidden power welling up inside of her. She’d felt as if her grey moth’s wings were expanding out of her hoodie, stretching and growing.
Tabitha’s cigarette was no more than a nub when she heard the wispy crunch of boots marching through tall grass, and then her sister appeared from behind the house. Iris’ tan, slender legs looked elegant in short jean shorts. Her face was slightly flushed from the sun, and her eyes were dotted with freckles from her recent honeymoon. But she wasn’t smiling.
“What were you doing back there?”
“Just having a look around,” said Iris. “It hasn’t changed much.”
“Still a dump,” Tabitha said.
As she moved past her, Tabitha was struck by the miserable look in her sister’s light eyes. She turned and followed her inside.
They worked in separate rooms: Iris in the living room, Tabitha in the kitchen. After they’d been cleaning for about an hour, Tabitha heard her sister’s laughter from the living room. The sound was high-pitched and breathy, a musical squeaking. Tabitha poked her head out of the pantry, and suddenly it was as though she was fifteen again, and there was a joke she didn’t want to miss.
She found Iris sprawled out on the floor. Somehow, the room looked even messier than it had before. Iris had abandoned the knick-knacks she’d been sorting through and was lying with her chin propped up on her hands, flipping through a book filled with big, shiny pages.
“What is that?”
“It’s a photo album,” Iris said. “You’ve never seen one? I think this was one of Mom’s various nostalgic projects.” She giggled again. “Of course she didn’t finish it. But look, I found this.”
She pointed to a photograph of the two of them in floor length gowns, arms linked, smiling self-consciously. The young Tabitha wasn’t looking straight at the camera; her eyes were fixed somewhere slightly off to the left of the photographer.
“It’s our prom!”
“Oh my God.”
Sometime after she had acquired the name Tatterhood, and before Tabitha had decided she wasn’t going to U-niv, there was the prom. Prom was based on a barbaric concept that only still existed in small towns: the idea that it was good to force a group of young people in one hot room together to let flesh and blood do their work.
The traditions surrounding this event were so elaborate that the prom rivalled even some of the town’s more modest weddings. Tabitha might have thought that it was all part of a ruse to boost the town’s economy, but she didn’t think that local government was exceptionally cunning. First, you had to get a date to the dance. The only way to properly ask someone was to go through an embarrassingly public process of asking your date to accompany you. Then there was the dress. The make-up. The manicure. The skin treatments. Every minute of it was recorded and streamed on vidcasts in time lapse videos with one of five tear-jerking pop hits.
And then, one night, about three weeks before the prom, four boys in masks appeared on their front lawn.
Tabitha woke to the sound of tapping. The tapping soon turned into the crack of breaking glass. She sat up and saw that the light from the streetlamp outside their window was severed by moving shadows.
The window was cracked. Outside, voices were singing, but the sound was more like howling, the plaintive bleating of injured dogs. She sat up, and saw that Iris was already awake, staring out the window, her hand clasped over her mouth, the yellow light from outside dripping silver and gold through her hair.
“What’s going on?” Tabitha came to the window, and saw four tall, masked shapes standing in the front yard. “Trolls,” she sneered. She called all the pretty GM boys in her class trolls.
“Shh!” Iris said. Her face was flushed, and her eyes were shining.
There was a car waiting in the driveway. It was shiny and sleek like some kind of poisonous insect. Some new model. Next to the cheap plastic mailbox, it looked like a time traveler from a distant, more glamorous future.
“I’m going to go tell them to get lost,” Tabitha said. She opened the window and stuck her head out.
“Tabby, don’t!” Iris hissed. But Tabitha was already climbing outside. She slid carefully down the rain pipe, grasping fists of kudzu to guide her way down. When she landed on the grass, she scowled at the four figures trespassing on their front yard.
Up close, the boys’ masks looked even more ridiculous. They were rubber, with plastic eyes that rolled in their sockets, cheap things from some costume store downtown that gave them pig noses and warts on top of their pretty faces.
She recognized at least two of the figures by the way they were standing. They were their classmates. One was Damian, a stocky boy with a sharp, scruffy chin and deep-set eyes like two hard stones, a non-stop talker. The other must have been his friend, a taller, skinnier boy with sleepy eyes who occasionally challenged Damian’s authority. Tabitha didn’t remember his name. She had not bothered to learn it.
“And why did you think it was necessary to break our window?” Tabitha asked, combing wilted kudzu leaves from her hair.
“We didn’t mean to,” said one of the masks. He turned back to the window. “Iris!” he called again.
“She doesn’t want you here! Seriously, get the hell out.”
But then Iris was coming down too, slower than Tabitha but more gracefully, her skin covered with tiny bumps from the cool night air. The boys whooped and cheered as Iris pink slippers landed softly on the damp grass.
“We’ve come to abduct you,” Damian said.
“What?” said Iris.
“It’s a super secret mission,” said one of the nameless other boys. “It has nothing whatsoever to do with prom.”
“Just come,” Damian said. “It won’t be that bad, I promise.”
Iris stood there, toying with the hem of her shirt. “I can’t just leave,” she said. “It’s the middle of the night.”
“We’ll be back before the sunrise. No one will ever know. Come on.”
Iris hesitated. “I’ll only go if Tabitha comes too.”
Tabitha crossed her arms across her chest. “Well, I’m not going,” she said.
The boys groaned. “Aww, come on!”
Tabitha shook her head. “Nope. We’re going to bed. Iris, come on. Let’s go through the back.” She started to turn away.
But suddenly there was movement and a squealing shriek like shattered glass. Damian had grabbed Iris around the waist, lifted her up, and hurtled towards the car.
“Stop!” Tabitha yelled, and then, remembering that she was standing right next to her mother’s window, she clapped her hand over her mouth. The boys had outpaced her in an instant. They piled into the car, turned on the silent engine, and sped away, windows open, arms hanging out, laughing and yelling over each other.
Tabitha ran into the street, her bare feet stinging as they slapped against the concrete. One of the boys must have overridden the auto driver, because the car sped away without stopping at the rusted stop sign at the end of the street. Tabitha followed them until she could no longer see the headlights, and then she stopped.
As the car had turned out of their driveway, Tabitha had seen a glimpse of Iris through the open window. She didn’t look scared at all. Her mouth was pulled into a wide grin, and glowing, starlike in the dark.
Iris did not return that night. Tabitha slept fitfully, waking every hour to find that the bed next to hers was empty. She sent Iris three messages, but Iris never replied. The white curtains billowed gently, propelled by the draft that came through the broken window.
The next morning, Tabitha found her mother eating microwave eggs and orange juice at the kitchen island. Tabitha poured a bowl of cereal and sat down beside her.
“Where’s your sister?”
“She got up early to go for a run,” Tabitha said.
“Oh, really? I didn’t hear her.”
Natalia eyed her oldest daughter as though she were a wild animal with curious, incomprehensible tendencies. “What do you think you’ll do today?” she asked.
“I have a lot of studying to do,” answered Tabitha.
Natalia nodded slowly as though this answer, though acceptable, wasn’t the one she had wanted to hear.
After breakfast, Tabitha sat outside on the porch with a cup of coffee and watched the news vidcast on her tablet. But she found that she wasn’t really paying attention. Every time a car passed, her thoughts melted, and all she could do was stare and hope that the next car she saw would be the one that would stop and bring Iris back. On their quiet street, she counted twelve grey cars, eight black cars, nine blue cars, and four green cars before Iris stepped out of the sleek black car and walked up to the porch, her head bowed.
“Where were you?” Tabitha demanded.
Iris looked at her with wide, apologetic eyes. Her pink pajamas were wrinkled, and there were dark circles under her eyes. The glow from last night was gone. “Did you tell Mom?” she asked.
“I told her you went for a run.”
“She didn’t notice I was gone?”
Tabitha shook her head and stared at her empty coffee cup. Now that Iris was back, safe and sound, Tabitha found that she didn’t even want to look at her.
“Are you mad at me?” Iris asked. She was using the same songlike, high-pitched voice she turned to when Natalia scolded her about her grades.
“You could have gotten away from them,” she said.
“I know,” said Iris. “I’m sorry.”
Tabitha said nothing.
“Damian asked me to prom,” Iris said, and then Tabitha heard the stairs creaking as Iris skipped down the porch steps to enter through the back door, unnoticed. Tabitha listened to the soft stirring of her shins cutting through the tall grass until it faded away, still staring into her empty coffee cup.
A car whistled by, and Tabitha looked up to see what color it was.
The guest room wasn’t really a guest room, because Natalia never had guests. Instead it was filled with what Natalia called “collectibles”. These were overpriced toys that had, once upon a time, been deemed valuable. Natalia had always had a weakness for hype when it came to children’s toys. She’d claimed to buy them for Iris and Tabitha, but she never let them play with them, because, she explained, they would be worth so much more one day if they only let them stay in their box. The boxes were bruised because Iris and Tabitha had often snuck into the room with babysitters when Natalia wasn’t home to open them up as much as they dared, or simply play with the dolls in their boxes. There was always something unsatisfying about it.
Long after Iris and Tabitha had stopped being interested in toys, Natalia kept buying whatever “collectible” she fancied. She claimed that she was saving them for her future grandchildren.
Tabitha entered the room, which had grown even more crowded since she left. Now everywhere she looked, she saw faces with round, rolling eyes, dark lashes, and painted lips. There was something unsettling about prepubescent pastels next to all those round blushing cheeks.
There were stuffed animals too, the limp paws of the BoboDogs that had been so popular ten years ago, and the Jelly Petz before them. Tabitha could never be sure if her mother’s love of childhood toys indicated something childlike and imaginative in her personality or something not quite fully developed.
Tabitha was studying the detachable limbs of a perplexing sort of puppet when she heard a scratching, high-pitched noise coming from the hallway. She walked out and stood in front of the closet door.
The same place where her mother had once banished her. It looked so small, now.
There was a crackling, shifting sound, like some small animal was trapped inside.
Or, Tabitha thought, It could be a ghost.
“Iris?” She called out, trying to keep her voice light and carefree. “Could you come up here for a minute?”
A few minutes later, Iris stood at the top of the stairs, breathless and sweating. “What is it?” she asked.
“There’s something inside the closet,” Tabitha said.
They stood in the hallway, listening. The animal seemed to know that they were there. It was silent for half a minute, and then the scratching began again.
“It’s probably a squirrel.”
“Or a bird,” Tabitha said, thinking of the cooing.
They brought a trash bag upstairs and stood in front of the hallway closet. It was sweltering and cramped in the tiny hallway. Iris’ head nearly touched the hallway ceiling.
“Do you want to be the one to open the door, or do you want to catch it?”
“I think I’ll open the door,” Iris said. She brushed a stray hair behind her ear and leaned down.
On the count of three, Iris opened the door, and a whirling mass of brown feathers poured out. Iris screamed, and Tabitha batted the thing away with the broom, sending it spiralling down the stairs. The chicken half-flew, half-tumbled to the bottom, collected itself, and strut its way into the kitchen.
Tabitha rushed after it with the broom, and Iris came behind her. When they reached the bottom of the stairs, Tabitha nearly collided with the chicken, who had now turned back towards them. Wings outstretched, the chicken flew at them, its sharp, tiny beak pecking at the air.
They spent another half hour chasing after the chicken. Finally, Tabitha managed to push it out the front door with her broom. In the hallway closet, they found crumbs of chicken feed in a little bowl, and a little box lined with a towel, cradling three brown and white spotted eggs.
“How did it stay alive?” said Tabitha. Somehow she couldn’t picture Natalia raising a chicken anywhere, much less in the hall closet.
“It’s one of life’s mysteries, I guess,” said Iris, gazing at the brown and white feathers scattered over the carpet. “And now there’s more to clean. You know what? Let’s not do this anymore. We can take things we want and call someone to deal with the rest.”
Both of their boxes were small. Tabitha took a few posters from her teenage years, the photo album, and a set of ceramic plates, as well as a few toys that still conjured happy memories. She was surprised to see how many of the items that Iris took were toys and clothing from their infanthood. A baby bib with a drawing of a cartoon mouse, a set of wooden alphabet blocks, a plastic tea set.
After Iris’ prom abduction, one of Damian’s friends had quietly asked Tabitha to go to prom. There was no singing, no flowers, no late night surprises. Tabitha knew immediately that Iris had put him up to it.
Later, Iris demanded to know why Tabitha had refused him. “Ryan isn’t going to ask you,” she said, her eyes narrowed.
“Who’s Ryan?” said Tabitha.
“As if you don’t know.”
After a few minutes of prying, Tabitha finally realized that Iris meant the boy who had dubbed her “Tatterhood.” Iris seemed to believe that she had some sort of crush on him. Tabitha became even angrier, screamed that she didn’t even want to go to the stupid prom, and that if Iris did she was just as bad as all the rest of them.
At the time, the fight had seemed like the worst thing that ever could have happened.
But Iris and Tabitha never stayed angry at each other. How could they, with their beds five feet apart, and the sound of their mother’s footsteps creaking on the floor, wandering through her cave of sinking treasures, taking them out and putting them away again, as if their touch would give her some hidden power?
That night, Iris turned to face her. Her face was eerie and ethereal in the half-light. “I’m not going to prom with Damian,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“Why don’t we both go without dates? Who needs them anyway?”
Tabitha hesitated. “Are you sure?”
They stood on the porch with their cardboard boxes, beside the heaping pile of junk that was their childhood home. Tabitha was surprised to see that it had grown late. The sky had sunk into the greyish purple color that always made Tabitha feel sad. She didn’t want Iris to leave. Iris and Rob would go back to India, and Tabitha would go home to her little blue house, all alone.
“It’s hot, isn’t it?” Iris said.
“Yeah. You know what? We should drink some lemonade,” Tabitha suggested.
Iris’ eyes lit up. “I would love some lemonade.”
They put their boxes down and went back into the kitchen. Tabitha found the powdered stuff in the box of bulk items that Natalia had been keeping in the pantry for years. “I hope this isn’t too old.”
“It’s probably at least ten years old.”
“Should we drink it?”
“I guess it won’t kill us.”
When they came back outside, they found that the chicken had returned. She was pecking at the dried grass, making her way to the pile of trash they had left on the curb.
“It’s so nice out here,” Tabitha said.
“Yeah, it is.”
They sat down in the porch swing, and slowly swung back and forth, pushing themselves with their bare heels. The swing seemed much squeakier now than it had when they were younger; the metal hinges whined with every push and pull. Tabitha started to worry that it would collapse under their weight, and then she decided that she didn’t care.
“Poor Mom,” Iris sighed, breaking the comfortable silence. “God, it’s all just too much.”
Tabitha had a sinking feeling that her sister might cry and an immediate reflex to distract her from it. She looked up into the sky and saw the orange white light of Mars.
“I’ve been thinking about going to the Mars colony,” she said. “I heard that they’re recruiting basics. Weird, right?”
Iris’ eyes did not lift up to her sister’s face. Her gaze was fixed on the gaps between bony slivers of the sinking porch. “It’s not that weird,” she said.
“What do you mean?”
“There’s a problem with GMs. Well, second generation GMs, anyway. Like me and Rob.”
Their swinging slowed to a stop, and the world seemed to fall still. Aside from the chicken’s quiet scratching and pecking, there wasn’t a sound. “What kind of problem?” Tabitha asked.
Iris sighed again, covering her face with her hands. “We won’t grow old.”
“What do you mean?”
“The oldest that GMs will age is probably forty-five, fifty maybe. Which means that my time is almost up.”
“How is that possible?”
“There’s some kind of new disease that GMs are getting. Something in our blood. No one knew there was anything wrong with the genetic modification process until the second generation came along and the life expectancy started dropping. You were right, Tabitha, GMs really aren’t equipped to adapt. And now that I’m pregnant…” She paused. “I don’t know. I mean, it’s not completely hopeless. They might still find a cure. Rob says he thinks they will.”
“Of course they will.” Tabitha took her sister’s hand to quiet the small bird that seemed to be trapped inside her own throat. In the night’s looming shadows, the chicken’s eyes shown hungry and yellow as she pecked her way towards them, beak open wide.