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at the hour of our death

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A plastic tarp lined the floor of the safe house, heavenly white. Occasionally, a breeze would lift the portions that weren’t already pinned down so they’d balloon up like a cloud. A man knelt at the center of the tarp, occasionally masked in shadow by the wind-blown cover, but Helena didn’t mind.

She knew the silhouette just as well as the man it masked; the only difference it made was that it sometimes prevented him from seeing her. Being that she had the gun and the power to kill, she stepped onto the edge of the tarp, forcing it flat.

Ferdinand’s face was contorted with an expression of drowning terror. His glasses caught the artificial light above him and projected it across the room, an audience of spirits. Alison paced the space behind him, sending furtive glances to the gun in Helena’s hand, the man, and back to the gun. Helena had sent Donnie out with Kira, but after seeing Alison’s face, she thought maybe she should have sent them all away.

“You have what you wanted,” said Ferdinand. “Let me go.”

“Not yet.”

Siobhan left twenty minutes ago to check the two pieces of information Ferdinand had given them: the location of a private pier and the name of a boat, the Finch, which would leave for the island’s coordinates within the hour if they weren’t interrupted.

“I can assure you everything’s correct,” he said.

Just as soon as he said it, Helena’s phone gave a slight pulse. She picked it up and waited for the other voice to speak first.

On the line, Siobhan answered.

“We’re on the Finch now. The captain has promised to cooperate, and in return we won’t break his hands—isn’t that right?” Siobhan’s voice moved away from the mouthpiece and there was a faint grunt in the background.

“I’ll be there soon,” Helena said.

There was a beat of hesitation.

“Do you really think you should be this involved, at your stage?”

Helena hummed.

“Maybe then, you can do the killing and I’ll sit on the boat, yes?”

She waited for a response from the other line, but only heard Ferdinand, who’d understood her clearly and had begun to tear his lungs out with his voice. She had to maneuver her shoulder over her ear just to hear herself think.

Helena continued, a little louder: “We have terms, Siobhan.”

“I remember,” Siobhan said tersely.

Here were the terms, written out on an old cloth at the cantina: Siobhan would no longer intervene with Sarah and Helena’s affairs, make decisions for them, or keep Helena in the dark on matters concerning Sarah; in return, Helena would call her mother when it suited her and refrain from pointing sharp objects at her neck.

“So, is there problem?” She waited.

 “Just get here. We leave in twenty,” Siobhan said and hung up.

Helena stuffed the phone in her pocket and motioned for Alison to lift the tarp.

Alison raised it high over her head so that Ferdinand was blocked from her vision. She didn’t see the point of doing this, other than to protect her from seeing the bullet exit his skull, but she didn’t question it. Helena punched the hammer, listening to the pneumatic click of the mechanism coming into place. Ferdinand was breathing through clenched teeth and his eyes appeared tiny behind his fogged glasses. Helena removed them from his face, keeping the barrel of the gun trained on his forehead.

“Anything you want to say?”

Ferdinand worked his jaw silently for a few seconds. He had his hands tied behind his back with a pink zip tie and he often shifted on his knees.

“I’ve cooperated with you. I’ve told you the truth. I didn’t harm Sarah; you have no reason to kill me.”

“You say you love Rachel, but you turn on her to save your life. This is your truth,” Helena said.

“And what of your truth, Clone killer?” He asked. “You don’t have any right to judge me.”

Cutting his eyes to her swollen stomach, his lips curled in an ironic smile. “Who do you think you are now, hm—the Virgin Mary?”

He mockingly recited a prayer she recognized, but even as he mocked, his teeth chattered and his voice deepened, settling into a rhythm that came with practice. She could imagine him as a child with his knees on the prie-dieu, his wrists buttoned by cufflinks, hands clasped in prayer.

 

“Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary,

That never was it known

That anyone who fled to thy protection,

Implored thy help

Or sought thy intercession,

Was left unaided...”

Helena smiled slightly, remembering the light-flooded image of the convent, the sisters’ dark cloaks, the stacked aisles in cruciform along the nave, and the sisters at the altar. Their voices had climbed high above the congregation in hopes to reach the mercy of some greater force. They, too, had found none.

After a couple lines, he stopped abruptly and cut his eyes up to her. She recognized those eyes, had found them in the faces of countless others, and knew the sort of thoughts that rushed over them. His eyes belonged to Death now.

“Finish the prayer,” she said.                    

“You’re going to kill me once I’ve finished,” he said.

“I will kill you anyway.”

Ferdinand’s face was covered in sweat and his brown hair fell about his face in drenched curls.

“I could change, you know. I’ll switch sides.”

“Yes, I know,” Helena said.

He straightened and pursed his lips, reaching for a higher bid.

“I’ll kill Rachel for you,” he said.

Helena tipped her head back and laughed, loud and gaudy. Poor lamb, she thought. He was jumping to please her without even knowing what she wanted to hear.

“How many times have you been in my place? Begging never changed anything.” she said.

“No, no, not begging: Negotiating. Rachel trusts me. I can use that.”

“Rachel sent you here, yes? Rather than shoot on sight, you were to threaten Sarah’s mother and child without any backup. And a single 22 caliber pistol.”

Sensing the ridicule in her voice, Ferdinand lowered his eyes and nodded once.

“What’s your point?”

“You’re the solider—what do you think?” she asked and gestured to the area around her.

With an exception to the antique oak table placed in the middle of the dining room, the safe house was empty, grey, and impersonal, with walls pocked by removed nails. There was a window on the second floor, but otherwise it was like a sealed cupboard, or a tomb. It had been all too easy to get in and disarm Ferdinand of his single pistol. He squinted about the room, but seemed to look past its walls, staring at nothing. 

She continued: “You’re the front line. Sent to cause damage, nothing more.”

 “I’ll kill her for you,” he repeated blankly.

The intricate mechanisms behind his face had stilled and gave him a peculiar wooden look, as though he were a doll—hardly even alive. Careful, she thought to herself. One misstep is all it takes. Failure to recognize another’s humanity was a fatal flaw that killed the heart rather than the body. It was an addictive sense of mind that, left unchecked, created an unreality that whispered in your ear—you are the original, you are the light.

“I will take care of that now,” she replied. “It would be good for you to finish the prayer, I think.”

“Goddamn you,” he said, grinding his teeth. “Psycho bitch.”

Helena glanced up at Alison, who was currently giving her a worried-loving look, then back to Ferdinand. This was not going at all as she had hoped.

She remembered the way Rudy’s eyes had flipped beneath the hood of his skull, revealing their milky underside while torpid thoughts skimmed over the surface of his mind like dragonflies, humming as they dipped into childhood memories. Turned inward, his eyes could see what they had refused to before— his empty purpose, father of violence —and stayed there, like parallel mirrors, lost to the infinite. In that moment, lying side-by-side with his monstrosity, he had been the most human he’d ever been.

“Saying something can very peace-bringing,” Helena continued, “For some people, it’s too much-- this pressure, it chokes them—and they keep everything mashed to the roof of their mouths, like peanut butter. But prayers are just memory. Makes it easy.”

Ferdinand nodded once, bending his head toward the ground so that she could see a single bead of sweat roll from the baby-soft curls along his neck and meet with his tie-tightened collar. When he sat upright again, he looked at the gun and then cut his eyes to Helena.

Ferocious as his expression was, he could only watch her through sweeping glances; it was as though he were watching the sun’s neckless head descend upon a dark-plated horizon.

When he spoke, his voice wheezed dryly, as though his lungs were the airless bellows of an old accordion.   

“Spare me the sanctimony, girl, Goddamn you. Kill me if it pleases you—if it Goddamn makes your day—then quit wasting my time and do it. But Goddamn you to Hell,” he said and just as soon as he’d finished, he dissolved into tears, breathing through shattered sobs.

                                                                                                       

The whole back of his skull, along with bullet shards, burnt hair, and fragments of teeth, painted a mural of his final thoughts along the arching backdrop of the tarp. The body was jolted a couple paces back, partly beheaded.  From behind the tarp, Alison watched as the silhouette of his remains slowly lost shape, unfurling from the pull of gravity, and whispered the fragment of a different prayer beneath her breath, moving her hands in cruciform over her body:

 

Dear St. Joseph, all the saints and angels, and especially you,

My guardian angel and my chosen patron,

Watch over me.

I commend myself to your protection

Now and always.”

It was too much, like most of Alison, but sincerely told, so Helena followed with a quiet, “Amen,” while she twirled Ferdinand’s glasses obliquely in her hands, and then threw  it onto the tarp along with the rest of him. 

Without looking, Alison walked the tarp to the other end, rolling the body into everything.

“Go to the boat, Helena,” Alison said, somewhat breathlessly. “Bring Sarah back safe.”

 

***

 

Night had sprawled out against the sky while no one was looking and now lay taut over the eyeless face of the universe like a funeral shroud, hemmed in by velvet clouds. Sarah’s eyes traced the darkness for the formless shapes that teemed beneath it and imagined infinite creatures just out of sight, with claws and teeth prodding for a loose thread, and a way in.

Her thigh had become swollen from walking and a steady rivulet of blood spilled over the wound despite her pained attempts to keep pressure, so she’d rolled onto her back, placed her foot on the cliff side at an oblique angle above her head, and squinted as the loose sediment fell away beneath her leather shoes.  She dared not call for help, although the chill in her bones called for it, for fear of attracting Rachel’s attention. The mansion peered at her from behind a threaded veil of shrubbery—not more than a mile or two away from where she hid—and emanated an invitingly warm, auburn light.

Rachel appeared in the vulnerable moments of darkness when Sarah closed her eyes: Her face was cinched with a calm stoicism that’d been absent during their last confrontation, but her eyes maintained their strange inflection— rage coupled with admiration.

She picked up her phone. Pressed #2, put it on speaker, and let the phone rest on her good leg.

After a few hollow rings, Alison’s voice announced in a cordial and near-apologetic manner that she had reached Helena’s voicemail and to kindly leave a message after the tone.

“Shit,” Sarah said and hung up. Pressed #4: “You’ve reached the Hendrix’s residence and the co-owner of Bubbles, please leave a—,” Sarah hung up. She tried a few other numbers but her reception was dwindling fast, so she stuffed it back in her pocket. The ocean roared in the silence, crashing its body against the cliff and sending sprays of salt water across the air.

 “No one is coming, Sarah.”

Sarah perked at the voice and raised her head. She stood a few paces away, arms crossed; a column of black against the dark, she could only be discerned by the pale crescent of her neck, the moon shape of her face.

“Beth?”

In the distance, the water was like a sheet of darkly reflective glass. Beth could turn around if she wanted, walk along the ocean surface and keep  on walking until she found land again; she could find Sarah’s people, she could get help, but instead she stood and she watched.

“Tell me what to do,” said Sarah. “What should I do?”

“There’s nothing to do.”

Lowering her foot, she rolled onto her stomach, and got onto her knees, ignoring the queasy tilt of her body, as though she were a boat tipped against the back of a wave. A fresh stream of blood leaked from the gash above her right brow and ran into her eyes, breaking her concentration. It wouldn’t take long for her eye to glue shut if she couldn’t keep it open, so she bundled her jacket around her knuckled fist and wiped her face clean.

She stood up, but the sudden movement nearly brought her back to her knees, so she leaned back onto the cliff side.

“This won’t be how it ends, there’s— there’s got to be a way out. Susan spoke of a boat,” she said, squinting down the beach.

“Do you see a boat?”

“Maybe it’s coming.”

“Such faith,” Beth said. “What happened to the non-believer?”

“I believe in my sisters,” Sarah said after a moment.

“No, you’re running from reality,” Beth said softly, “It was always going to end like this. From the moment you took my life, Sarah, you’ve been headed in this direction.” She pointed to the mansion. “You thought you were running away, but every step drew you nearer to this place, and to me.”

Sarah thought of Helena: The patches of broken capillaries around her eyes, which gave her a ferocious, blooming look, and the way her lower jaw hung as though it were hinged at an oblique angle; that messy, precious inversion of all Sarah was and all she feared and admired.

Could she feel that her twin was dying? Was she coming to rescue her?

Knowing her thoughts before they were even fully formed, Beth made a sound of disapproval.

“You’d put your pregnant sister at risk just to save yourself,” she said.

Sarah couldn’t speak for a time. She swallowed blood and watched the beach for any discerning feature, fearing that she’d find Rachel’s silhouette walking down the beach, in no rush of time, for they both knew that Sarah had tread the path that all wounded animals take—having clamored downhill and collapsed in the first pocket of darkness she could find to lick her wounds and wait for the inevitable.

Her vision blurred between Beth and the shifting black screen behind her until the hair on her neck became electric with the notion of things losing shape. Maybe the world really was made for people like Rachel. What other explanation was there? Order was burst at the seam.

 “Why are you like this?” Sarah asked. “What happened to you? Why were so afraid to fight?”

Beth pursed her lips at the question, shook her head.

“You don’t understand. This isn’t about me, it’s about you and your choices,” Beth said. Her lips twisted sourly. “There’s a reason you’re here alone.”

Sarah’s heart quickened. We’re going to die alone, it said. Her heart was an iron hammer denting the inside of her chest. It’d been formed in the company of one other, had developed from a mere echo to a thunderclap, and had been sure to exit the womb first for fear of being abandoned to wilt alongside it.

Over its lifespan, it’d been pressed against the hearts of many others and had furnished Sarah’s world with company, with family, and with lovers. It never prepared to die alone.

“I’m not going to die,” she said. “Stop saying that.”

“You’ll survive the night, but by daybreak you’ll only be weaker and more visible. Best you slip away now.”

“Coward,” Sarah said. She felt like spitting in her face.

Beth laughed. It was an odd sound—warped, as if someone were running a finger along the rim of a wine glass. She wrapped an arm around Sarah so that a cold hand lay against her neck. Squeezing hard, she pushed Sarah into a stumbling walk.

 “Let’s go then.”

 

As they walked, Sarah made dragging footprints in the sand. After a hundred paces, she was breathless and leaned heavily on Beth.

“Where’re we going?” Sarah asked. Her body was stiffening stubbornly, fighting with her as would a drunken stranger. Her lungs turned out shallow clouds of frigid air and pain ebbed in long waves from her hip to her thigh.

“I’m taking you somewhere warm,” said Beth.

When Sarah’s legs began to toil at an incline, she looked up and found herself at the base of the hill she’d stumbled down not long before. Beth had taken her back to the mansion.

Oh, she thought. Sharp, punctual, like a gunshot—oh.

Her heart felt like a rabbit trapped in its own burrow, listening as the snow gave way to digging claws. She looked onto Beth’s eyes for consolation and found only the night sky reflected back at her, lit dimly with the remnants of dead stars.

Beth leaned in close and wrapped her arms around Sarah so that the scent of her clothes filled in the spaces between them; she smelled of tuberose, somewhat decayed, like the kind she used to find as a child during her restless explorations of the city graveyard. Sarah closed her eyes, felt Beth’s temple brush against hers, and listened to the silence where her pulse used to be.

“She might let the others go, if she has you,” whispered Beth.

With that, she turned to leave in the only way Sarah had ever seen her: sweeping gracefully away, with her head and shoulders locked forward, as though possessed by the certainty that wherever she was headed was infinitely better than where she was now.

Just as Beth’s head disappeared behind the slope of the beach, Sarah saw a buoy of light in the distant water, bobbing over the horizon—perhaps it belonged to a lighthouse, a boat, or the sun. She turned back toward the house.

 

***

 

The Finch was a seaweed green trawler with a two-flight cabin that still managed to feel cluttered. The captain had his hands zip tied to the controls on the flying deck and the rest of Siobhan’s birdwatchers took turns watching over him. Helena had two hands gripped on the front deck railings and cringed as the bow tucked over another wave.  On the horizon, there was only darkness. When she closed her eyes, she could almost feel her, could almost walk beside her, and feel her heart thrashing beside her own.

When the pieces of Helena’s heart first came into being, it beat like a great mechanism of steel, with pulleys, wheels, and axles all knit together in a grinding pulse. It had noticed Sarah’s heart developing beside it like a tumor, knew exactly how to destroy it, but let it flourish instead—this, she’d be told (decades later) was love.

Her twins were tussling again, jostled into an excited frenzy by the waves. They usually fought all day and all night, taking only a few hours of rest in the moments of stillness when Helena herself pretended to sleep.  During their arguments, they kicked and nipped at each other fussily, as though they knew, even without eyes, that the world outside wasn’t made for pairs.

“Why don’t you rest in the cabin for a while? These waves can’t be helping your nausea,” Siobhan said. She sidled up beside Helena and folded her gloved hands over the railing.

“No breathing space down there,” Helena replied.

“There’s a bit too much out here, I think,” Siobhan said. The wind snapped at their cheeks and drew blood near to the surface.

When Siobhan looked at Helena, she saw the pieces of her daughter she didn’t understand: the chaotic, unpredictable filaments that had been interwoven into Sarah’s character long before she was introduced to the picture.  

“Can I ask you why you’re doing this?”

“I won’t be separate from her.”

Siobhan narrowed her eyes, taking in the quick, reflexive way Helena spoke.

“You’ve been for most of your life.”

“Hm, no,” Helena said, squinting down the horizon. “When you don’t care what becomes of a person, that’s separation.”

Helena thought about the military camp and the expression Sarah had made just before she was abandoned there. The soft way Sarah spoke, attempting to coax her away from the doorway, mingled in her mind with the whimpering cries from the night before, when Parsons held her hand and begged for a way out. It puzzled her now, this dark impulse which drew her to separate from Sarah, and even had difficulty remembering the state of her mind at the time—except that it had fizzed and popped behind her ear canals, fried, as though she’d spent too many hours, days, years, gazing at the sun.

Siobhan nodded silently, seemingly satisfied by this answer, and moved onto a new line of questioning.

“Would you protect Sarah’s safety over your own?”

“I have in the past,” Helena said carefully. She wouldn’t admit to anything Sarah wouldn’t admit to—this was her rule, her safety net.

“You’re at risk now,” Siobhan said, and after a beat, added: “Sarah sacrificed a great deal to bring you back from the internment camp.”

“Then—yes.”

Siobhan nodded and chewed on her words for a minute before continuing. She didn’t meet Helena’s eyes when she next spoke, and rather kept them trained on the horizon.

“So you would protect her over your own children, then?”

Helena’s eyes flattened, turning thin and opaque, and she extended her lower jaw as if absorbing a slap.

Siobhan continued, voice swelling with sincerity: “When you become a mother, you realize that this love you feel for your children has to extend to yourself, too—because they depend on you.” She waited to see what sort of impact that would cause, and then continued: “Back in London, when I saw the walls closing in, as much as I wanted to stay and fight for my people, I ran instead. I separated myself from everyone I knew and cared for, and I left.”

Once Siobhan was finished speaking, there was no sound at all except for the long rush of air into Helena’s lungs.

“You hide behind stories, Siobhan. Never speaking your mind.”

“Then I’ll be clear:  I want to bring Sarah home. She’s my daughter and I want to be with her.”

Helena gave a cheerless smile. When she spoke, her voice was measured in an even and deliberate voice, choosing each word carefully.

“And how will you find her?”

Sensing that she was being tested, Siobhan pursed her lips in thought and pinched the leather niches between the fingers in her charcoaled gloves.

“I’ll start along the beach. She probably found shelter somewhere and is tending her wounds, or she turned stupid and tried to find Cosima.” Siobhan said.  

Helena rapped a knuckle against her temple with a wide, sealed smile.

“You won’t find her there— an injured mind is more like a rat’s than a person’s. When your bird-people betray you at last, you will know this,” Helena said, her voice lowered gravely. “But until then, you’re wading in the dark. Blood won’t take you far.”

“The Birdwatchers would never betray me,” Siobhan said. “Why do you say that?”

She waited for a time before speaking again, feeling as her twins stirred uncomfortably within her—echoes of each other.

“When I was seven, I lived in a cellar that was used in winter to store sacramental wine. It was empty then and I lived alone, hardly ever fed, but had a single friend—a black scorpion. I’d hide it under my shirt whenever any of the nuns came so they wouldn’t kill it; I taught it how to play with my shadow puppets, and to trust my hands when I pet it.” She smiled, remembering the way its legs would stick against her skin as it scuttled across her forearm. Watching Siobhan carefully, she continued: “One day, in the middle of the week, I ate it. Crumpled it into my mouth like a page of paper and swallowed it whole.”

The snapping wind made the blood around her eyes flush angelically while the flesh fanned out with crinkles that made her face appear at the same time ancient and childlike. How had Siobhan not noticed this before?

“Why are you telling me this?”

Helena continued as though she’d never heard Siobhan.

“In the days that followed, I only vomited and cried, stiffening more and more with each day, like an insect. But, once my stomach was empty again, the scorpion came back to me. It stood in the corner of the room like it’d never left, except for one thing—now it spoke. And do you know what it told me?”

Siobhan stared at Helena with wide eyes and attempted to breathe through the lump in her throat. The hair on the back of her neck had become electric with the feeling that Helena might push her over the railings and watch her drown.

Instead, Helena said softly: “Now you are girl and scorpion, combined.”

Siobhan waited for more, but Helena seemed to be content to leave the story there.  

“What happened then?”

Helena’s smile turned feral.

“I ate it again,” she said with a hyenic laugh.

Reeling, Siobhan stared into Helena’s eyes as the ocean roared around them. It had been so long since Helena bothered to engage that she’d begun to blend into the background, colorless, a faceless image that’d converged with stories of other people’s children. Now she felt locked in confrontation with these conflicting versions of Helena, unable to separate myth from reality.

“What does any of that have to do with me?”

“We’ve both sacrificed other’s lives to save our own, but you do yours at a distance—running, trading—some, with faces you don’t even recognize,” Helena spat into the rolling ocean. “When I kill, I carry them with me—they become a part of me.”

Her words pierced Siobhan more completely than the wind chill. Raising her eyebrows, she began to remove her gloves in order to keep her eyes trained to the task at hand rather than on Helena, who would be able to spot the shame that lay bare there. Still, Helena wasn’t finished. She leaned in close, touching a hand to Siobhan’s shoulder and keeping her words tucked close to her lips so that they couldn’t be swept away by the wind.

Softly, she said: “You’re a weak person, Siobhan, and you’ve made Sarah weak in return.”

At this final affront, Siobhan slapped her gloves against the railing with a crisp crack. She turned on Helena ferociously.

“Fine, you win! Go alone, bring Sarah back safe, but you’re not doing your children any favors. Let me say this: I hope your twins match your expectations—and that they’re every bit as strong as Sarah is weak. I hope they eat you alive.”  

 

When the Finch was close enough to shore, the captain steered it behind the inlet of a cliff while the birdwatchers dropped an anchor and prepared the canoe. The rest of the trip would be made alone.  Just as Helena was being lowered below the hull, she met eyes with Siobhan, who cast a grim stare and looked away.

The horizon bobbed in the distance: a slab of darkness, lit only by the light of the mansion. She kept her eyes ahead and tried not to think about Sarah—crouched in the darkness, bleeding and alone, trying to hold herself together as the world dissolved around her. As she rowed, a dark figure appeared to hover over the water a couple paces in front of her—a faceless shadow, absent of all the contours and lines that drew up a person. One moment they hovered, and the next they walked, beginning to morph into the shape of a person with each passing step. With a tailored breath, Helena managed to keep rowing as though she hadn’t noticed.

The figure’s body belonged to Parsons. She recognized his rigid shoulders and the way his hands hung limply at his side. He was nearly the same from when she last saw him—he wore camouflage green sweat pants, all-weather loafers, and a grey T-shirt; his expression was mild, with a small smile playing at his lips and wistful eyes the color of mulch—except that the space where his exposed brain had once quivered, a bruised violet color, was now shelled out and replaced by the night sky.  

“It’s good to see you again, Helena,” he said.

Helena met his gaze and turned away, sweeping her eyes over the horizon. She rowed a few times before Parsons stepped onto the backseat and sat down. He picked at a thread in his sweatpants and smiled at her. His scent was antiseptic and dizzying, like bleach fumes in a stuffed dive-in bathroom.

“I’ve nothing to say to you.”

“I think you do.”

Her mouth tightened into a thin line. Parsons’ hands were as pink and soft as baby’s skin and he tended to tuck them between his legs when he spoke, hunched sloppily over his lap. He did this now, leaning over his knees to speak beside Helena’s ear.

“You’re thinking about what Siobhan said to you—about your twins,” Parsons said. “What will you do if they are weak?”

“They won’t be,” she said quickly, and then hesitantly added: “It doesn’t matter.”

“You don’t have to lie to me,” Parsons murmured, stroking the back of her hair, smoothing its maddened coils into something more manageable. “Besides, you’re right to worry; you’ve seen what becomes of the fragile things of the world.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Helena repeated woodenly.

“Remember, Helena, the ones you buried beneath the dandelions—did it not matter then? Poor little ones never even saw the light.” Parsons touched her shoulder and she shut her eyes, remembering that day, and how she’d collected the bouquet from the backyard lawn, finishing her chores while she prepared their grave. He continued: “I always wondered: Why dandelions? They make a fleeting marker at best. Already, their yellow crowns have gone bald, swept away by winter’s breath. What did you wish for when you buried them, hmm—to forget?”

“They were beautiful and Alison said I could use them,” Helena snapped, bristling.

“That’s because they’re pests.” When Helena gave no response, Parsons continued in a somber voice: “Do you want to know what I think?”

Unable to speak, Helena only shook her head. Meanwhile, a dark wave swelled from beneath the canoe and picked up speed, charging toward shore. Her chest constricted with a familiar panic and her twins shifted uncomfortably from inside her womb, sensing it as their own.

“You knew you couldn’t protect them, so you let them die,” he said.

“That’s not true,” she croaked.

“Helena, it was a mercy not a sin. If given the chance, the universe would have made them suffer—they might’ve even become like me.” Parsons leaned back, allowing her some space to breathe, but continued in the same stern voice: “But you’re not finished yet. You’ve still got work to do—darling Sarah worries about her leg, but she bleeds internally. She won’t get better on her own, I know you sense it. Then, of course, you have your twins to consider. One of them is weak. Did you know that?” Parsons tipped his head to one side, as though he could see them. Helena sucked in a breath. Yes, she’d noticed it over the past couple weeks—that gradually softening heartbeat. After all their tussling, one of them had submitted to the other, yearning only to please.

“Get out of my head. Leave me be,” Helena whispered. Every word he spoke tugged on a place in her mind like a set of old, forgotten fishing lines, whose whispery tendrils were knotted with the entrails of creatures long abandoned.

“It was always going to come down to this choice—your children, or your sister.”

“You don’t write fate,” Helena snapped.

“Not fate, no—but I know people’s choices. There’s hardly any difference between the two, I’ve noticed. People choose in a straight line. Later, they’re convinced they had none at all.”

The beach was in view and growing steadily larger. Behind it, the mansion stood like a pale ghost. Helena felt her babies grow still inside her belly, lulled to sleep by the rock of the canoe, and she strained to reach the shore more quickly.

Seeing that Helena had no response to this, he smiled and clapped a hand on Helena’s shoulder.

“I’ll see you soon,” he said and disappeared.

 

***

 

It took nearly double the time for Sarah to limp back up the sandy slope, through the spotted thistle, and return to the mansion’s patio. Taking shelter beneath the shadowed bodies of bushes and canopied trees, she circled the property and continued until she found the back door entrance to the basement. Her hands left red print marks along the sliding glass door, but otherwise her re-entry was soundless. At once, the warm air pressed up against her skin, heavy and palpable, as though she were walking through a membrane. She saw that she’d entered the pool room and knew that the door at the end led to a smaller room with two routes: a single hallway and a staircase. One led to a series of bedrooms and the other led to the rest of the house.

It was a saltwater pool. The marine weight of the air was like a pressing hand upon the shoulder. Bulbous light fixtures placed along the pool’s limestone walls gave off a haze of radiant white light as though they were pearls.

First, she performed some light maintenance on her leg. She had neither the skill nor the material to suture the wound, but the room had a few white towels, plastic ties, and a mesh net for her to guise into a bandage.  Afterward, she sat by the pool and thought about nothing.

The marble ceiling was unusually decorated for a basement. A variety of trickster characters from Greek mythology were etched all across it, Sarah didn’t know them all—Sisyphus, Prometheus, Tantalus—while at the center, a marble statue of Medusa’s Head lay prominently. Her mouth was garish and wide, revealing a row of pin-needle teeth and a lolling tongue, set in an everlasting scream. Snakes wound about her head in a familiar fashion, like the dancing rays of the sun. But her eyes completed the image and made the statue both difficult and hypnotizing to look at. Her eyes were at the same time handsome and miserable as they gazed into the mirror image surrendered by the pool surface, and yet there was an upturned, almost wistful, look about them.

After reaching the second room, Sarah was met with two choices: a stairwell that led up to the first floor, and to Rachel, and an unlit hallway to her left, which was full of closed doors. She turned left and started down the hallway.

From upstairs, Rachel could be heard moving from room to room, marked by the particular sound of her cane—like the crack of thunder—thump-thump, thump-thump.

She walked midway to the end before finding the first puddle of blood. The next was more of a streak dappled across the concrete, and the final was a blotted wheel track. Someone had been dragged there, placed in a wheelchair, and carried to the end of the hallway. Susan Duncan.

The scent of tuberose touched her nose and turned the hair on her head electric, telling her what her eyes couldn’t see. This was Death: the masking scent of flowers, which hid the truth, and the taste of metal on her tongue.

Bile threatened to touch her tongue and sent her body in motion. She could die here and her body would be hidden in a bedroom, or buried beneath a garden, and nobody would know. Her sisters would search for her and find only this: a closed door and the blind knowledge of death behind it.

“I need to get out of here,” Sarah whispered. Her heart echoed her words in a pounding rhythm. Oh God, I don’t want to die here.  

That’s when she noticed Rachel on the top of the stair well. Her cane punctuated her descent with a crisp thump-thump, thump-thump.

“Who’s down there?” Rachel called out.

Wide-eyed, Sarah searched the hallway for a weapon, aware of the breathing quiet that was all around her. In front of her, she saw the headlong shadow of Rachel inching toward the ground floor. The hairs on the back of her neck rose as a hand fell on her shoulder, pulling her in close.

Shh, shh…,” a voice whispered into her ear.

“Helena?” Sarah whispered. Her voice cut off midway, frightened of being heard.

Without answering, she kicked her bare feet beneath Sarah’s heels, taking up her footprint, and then they were stepping backwards, moving deeper into the shadows together. She opened a door that was the color of tulips, ushered them both through it, and shut the door silently. They stood there, entwined in silence, preparing for whatever the universe would churn out for them.

Helena’s heart recognized its twin just as it was when they first met, a stuttering echo; a babbling stream. It was older than Sarah’s heart by a few microseconds—the rate of a few splitting cells, perhaps a single heartbeat—but long enough to learn of loneliness. Its twin would be denied nothing. Now they were aware of only each other and the twisting, tearing claws of the universe, subdued for now.

“What are you doing here?” Sarah asked.

“I was given directions by a man with weak knees,” she said vaguely.

“How’d you manage that?” Sarah asked, watching as Helena’s face melted from its locked-jaw stare and let out a lolling tongue. Then it dawned on her: She’d gotten to Ferdinand somehow. Probably through the knees, if she had to guess from Helena’s fondness for double meanings.

She grasped Helena’s hand, squeezed it urgently, and asked: “Siobhan and Kira—are they alright?”

“Siobhan is a mile offshore, waiting for you. Kira is safe.”

Sarah shut her eyes from the tears and sighed with relief. Thank god.

“How did you know to find me?”

“Sestra, you’re very good at finding trouble,” she said. “Escaping it, not so much.”

Smiling fondly, she raised a palm to cup Helena’s cheek but found a loose threading along her shoulder instead. The sweater was cashmere and clearly belonged to Alison from its quality, but Helena had worn it beyond its age and had the tendency to gnaw at her sleeves.

“Are you alright?”

Helena pretended not to hear her and played with a strand of Sarah’s hair instead, turning it over in her hand, inspecting the straggly dead ends. Playing at patience, Sarah’ placed a hand on the upper part of Helena’s chest and felt her heartbeat. From an early age, Helena had learned to keep her emotions sutured beneath the skin, but her eyes and heart were open wounds and never failed to give her away.  She could tell by the way her heart clamored to meet Sarah’s palm, Helena was agitated by something. But she wouldn’t press further, opting to let Helena volunteer a response when she was ready. One of the lessons she took from their multiple phone conversations: Helena would answer her questions fully, and without too much prodding, if she was patient enough.

Finally, Helena placed a hand over Sarah’s, ending their individual inspections.

“I’ll be better once we’re all safe.”

Sarah’s heart welled painfully. She’d been so sure nobody would come for her. To think she had walked into this place searching for Death while her people were only a few miles away, preparing to rescue her.

“I should have just stayed on the beach. I’m so stupid. I don’t know what came over me.”

Helena tucked her lips in.

“I’m sure you had a reason,” she offered unconvincingly.

Sarah nodded, noticing the soft, careful way Helena spoke, as though she were setting each word into place.

“Come on,” she said. “Let me look at you.”

How long had it been since they’d last seen each other? The smallest details made her heart flip inside out. Helena had gained some weight around her hips, which made her look less feral—a little less like an alley cat—and she had deep, renaissance cheeks. Her posture was no better than when she’d left, to Sarah’s dismay. Alison had promised to help Helena keep on track with her stretches, but apparently, her time away had erased that.

Then, there was Helena’s belly.

Terrified to look, her palms found the life that swelled under Helena’s navel to be solid and tight, but it was as silent and still as the ground beneath snow. Helena’s hands rested over Sarah’s. The smile faded from Sarah’s face as Beth’s words oscillated in her mind: You’d put your pregnant sister at risk just to save yourself.

“Are they usually this still?”

Helena felt for herself and knitted her brows.

“Not for this long,” she said.

“Why didn’t Siobhan come for me instead?” Sarah asked, fighting to keep Helena from breaking eye contact.

At hearing Siobhan’s name, she stared at her palms without answering. Sarah waited for a time and then touched Helena’s shoulder, a silent prompt.

“You are upset I came for you,” Helena said at last.

“If you hadn’t come, I’d be dead, but you have to be careful now—for your children.”

“Yes, so everyone says. No one listens,” Helena snapped. A rare heat lifted her words and surprised them both.

Wanting to push the subject further, she pulled Helena close, prompting her to crouch and nestle her head comfortably on Sarah’s chest. It was an unusual position, but familiar to them.  

“Tell me.”

After a moment, Helena settled into the embrace.

“Do you think we suffered more because we’re twins?” Helena asked at last. “If I were just a piece of you, I wouldn’t have hurt so many people; you wouldn’t so often be hurt.” 

Sarah’s mind went blank as she attempted to grasp a version of the world where neither she nor Helena existed, but a mixture of the two. Curiously, she wondered where Helena’s twins fit into this line of thought, but couldn’t find the words to hang her question on. Perhaps there wasn’t a right way to ask.

“It could’ve easily gone the other way, you know,” Sarah murmured. “We could’ve become an angry angel, anyway.”

“We’d have been together.”

Frowning, Sarah said nothing for a while. It concerned her sometimes that Helena idealized togetherness over morality. Being separate from her sisters was the greatest sin and punishment. Sometimes, she wondered if that night in the warehouse had gone differently—whether she’d attempted to rehabilitate Helena or had chosen words other than ‘I’ve already got a family’— would she have changed as drastically as she did? Would she have killed Siobhan if she’d thought it possible to do so without damaging their relationship?

“Strength can be a weakness, too, Helena,” Sarah said hesitantly, unsure of how Helena would take it. “I think we were meant to be separate just as much as we were meant to meet.”

“I don’t think so.”

When she stepped back, her face had become a passive mask that jarred with her salt-rubbed eyes. She gave an unaffected smirk as though she were about to shrug and throw an empty phrase over her shoulder like, ‘we all have opinions.’ Instead, she turned toward the pink-tulip door and pressed against it, listening for Rachel.

A sharp twinge of pain twisted in Sarah’s gut and spread out across her innards. Wincing, Sarah hugged her midsection, but kept silent, fearful of how Helena would take it.

“We should go now,” she said, standing up. At once, her head felt full of water and when she tipped forward, the weight of the ocean was there, pressed upon her eyelids. She grabbed Helena tenderly by the elbow in attempt to steady herself.

Sighing, Helena adjusted her position so that she could take most of Sarah’s weight.

“You’ll get better, Sarah—you always do,” Helena murmured.

With a deep breath, she nodded, repeating the words to herself in her mind. 

“Okay, I’m ready.”

 

The night had nearly passed by the time they returned to the pool hall. Golden hues colored the glittering marble of the vaulted ceiling and created a fissure between that and the dark water. Where the pool’s edge dipped beneath the water there was a shallow berth with pale water the color of the sky. There, Sarah found Medusa’s eyes glittering on the surface, watching their progress across the hall. Outside, swollen clouds with rolled over the ocean colored by a rosary of pink light that encircled the horizon, bringing promises of morning. Either sweat or blood flowed steadily into Sarah’s eyes and glued her left eye shut, forcing Helena to become her eyes as they walked. With each step, she envisioned the cold, unforgiving world outside coming closer, intruding upon the warmth of the insulated hall. Her face darkened with the sort of thoughts that crowded an injured mind—long and black-feathered, they were the sort that circled overhead, waiting for the heart to stop.

“Helena, wait,” Sarah said, gasping. “I need a minute.”

Tightening her grip on Sarah, Helena kept going.

“No stopping.”

Her mouth worked into a tight line from the strain of keeping her injured leg from stiffening entirely. Helena’s fingers were caught between her ribs, touching the soft tissue, and making her dizzy as she tried to breathe around them.

“Who are you trying to outrun?”

At the voice, the twins’ attention startled to the shadowed figure of a woman. Through the shadows, her face was like black and purple velvet. Helena opened her mouth and then shut it again with a silent click, swallowing against her closing throat.

“Amelia,” she croaked.

Stepping out of the darkness, Amelia’s voice was round and brazen, rising over the gentle lapping water with Godly authority.

“I thought you might remember me, Helena,” Amelia said and stretched her lips wide. “Just look at you—a mother of two and with a big decision to make for them, as well. We do become like our mothers in the end, don’t we?”

“I choose both. My family, I can save both,” Helena said hollowly, with a scratchy note of hysteria.

Amelia tipped her head back and laughed with a tremulous sound, like sheet metal—identical to the one Sarah had heard from Beth. Recognizing the warped way Amelia spoke, Sarah shut her eyes and took in a ragged, grieving breath. She’d enjoyed the dislocated intimacy of Beth’s temple against her own and imagined that there’d been a scrap of truth to it, even as her words turned cruel. Whatever stood before them now was neither Beth nor Amelia, but was rather more like that silent exchange between charcoaled clouds (a glistering kiss, violent and electric), which fissured the air and scattered electrons like stars; the foundation of life: Death.

“I thought you might say that,” Amelia said. “Of course, we both know what you really mean when you say that.”

Sarah watched Helena’s face change.

“What’s she talking about?” Sarah asked, noticing how poorly she slurred. Her mouth was going sore from the locked way she held it and was beginning to meld her words and thoughts together.

“True to form, you’re faithful to the point of predictability,” Amelia tipped her head. “The closest you ever came to changing your fate was that day in the warehouse—do you remember?  It was for all the wrong reasons, I’ll admit. You were so confused.”

Helena placed the heel of her palms against her eyelids and pushed.

“Stop it.”

Remaining silent, Sarah touched a hand to an old wound that lay prominently against her neck. It’d come from that time before, she and Helena had used to mark each other like rabid dogs, as compensation for lost time, forming scars that might’ve been birthmarks in another life. On that day, just as Helena had tightened the chain around Sarah’s neck, she’d rasped a prayer into her ear, voice drowned with hysteria:  Vicnaja pamjat'. Vicnaja pamjat'. Blazennyj pokoj; vicnaja jim pamjat*. Her intentions were clear, but something had stopped her, and she’d thrown Sarah against the pillar instead. So I cannot kill you, sister.

Helena, what aren’t you telling me?”

“Nothing.”

Helena grabbed Sarah’s hand tightly and began hauling her across the pool hall.

She pulled fitfully against Helena, who, in return, wrenched with twice the might as before and with the violence of a riptide. Then she turned on Sarah with an expression of such ferocity that her eyes looked flayed of their lids, un-winged.

“Come with me—now,” Helena said through gritted teeth, which said enough, but it was the violence in her hands that spoke to Sarah, explaining more than Helena ever could with words. There was an unspoken agreement to this angelic devotion, one of sacrifice. It was this realization that seized the last of Sarah’s muscles and locked her in place. The world rushed ahead of her, whorling incomprehensibly beneath her feet. Helena’s expression changed as she watched Sarah’s face and her grip slackened, breathing air to their sweat-slickened palms.

Then Sarah collapsed.

 

When she woke again, her head was cradled in the crook of Helena’s neck, where, above all other sound, she heard the terrible thrashing of their hearts, side-by-side between her temple and Helena’s throat. She felt, rather than heard, Helena speak frantically on the phone to Siobhan, begging for help, before devolving into a chaotic, crooning hum of the Cherubic Hymn. The vibrations of which settled into Sarah’s temple resonantly, informing her of lost time.

On the phone, Siobhan’s voice was shrill: You will carry her if it kills you.

Only then did she feel the warmth of the sun on her face. She realized that Helena had carried her outside and had collapsed beneath their collective weight.  Squinting, she moved her head just far enough to see the white-rod brilliance of sunlight bursting from the horizon. The sun was an open eyeball, staring at a new day while the night fled in search for another horizon.

Pulling back, Helena stared into Sarah’s eyes.

Their hearts beat in a discordant rhythm, chanting as though in the procession of the Divine Liturgy:

We never should have met.

                                                (Lord have mercy.)

We’ll never be separate.

                                                (Amen.)

Raising her hand, she touched Helena’s stomach and felt the force of life churning inside her along with their separate parts—colliding, combining, becoming one-another in their desperate tussle for survival. With her hand, she could feel that inner, dying world harden against her palm like amber.

At the center of the womb, the twins’ heart had begun to beat as one. The inner pair— sensing the first brush of abandonment—was allowing itself to be embedded in the body of its other.

Now she is both night and day, Amelia’s voice resonated in her mind.

The surviving child would carry the body of her soulmate within herself, marked forever by the touch of her first kill. The embedded twin would likewise become like that old monster that’d been scratched onto the ceiling of the pool hall, alighted on their mother’s weighted shoulders, eternally dead and undying.