When the world opened for me it was like the cracking of an egg, sudden and sharp and biting. It laid me out a slimy delicate mess, an egg tipped out on a plate, yellow yolks blooming before your eyes and I cried and my mother said where’s the other one and a minute later there the other one was-like the second yolk for good luck, perfect and whole and very much squished. They shoved my mother back together and stitched her along her old appendix scar and my grandmother thinks to this day they did a bad job of it. When they took the hospital bracelets off they painted my sister’s tiny pink toenail black-just to know who’s who and then we were sisters. Twins. I could just as easily rip out my tongue as tell you what that meant.
When the world closed for me, it smelled of wet earth. As my sister rocked back and forth, the fallen leaves went shush-shush, shush-shush. Tissue-thin leaves lay crumpled beneath me. A barely lightening sky crisscrossed with branches floated above me. A metallic taste of sweat and rust coated my tongue and fresh, cool air flowed through my nose. A small bubble of blood and spit rose from my mouth like a question. My sister held my hand.
My sweat still glistened on my forehead. Moments before I had screamed when I fell and cried with the pain of it, slipping and scrambling around in all the leaves and the blood. Blood had spurted from me like a fountain. But now it oozed from me slowly, exhausted. I lay limp. Everything had narrowed down to this; smelling wet dirt and feeling the softness of the leaves. My sister held my hand.
My mom was a nurse. I used to think I wanted to be one too. I would volunteer at the hospital on weekends, discharging patients, mopping floors and sometimes following my mom around. In our tiny town’s emergency room it was mostly just old people and the occasional accident. The day I knew I couldn’t be a nurse was the day all of this started.
He screamed and screamed, for so long the sound became almost hollow. He would fade out like a scratchy record only to start back up again with new intensity. They wheeled him past me and I couldn’t take my eyes away. Blood absolutely covered him and you could barely tell he was human underneath all of the blood and the deep, deep wounds that crisscrossed his entire body. I couldn’t tell you how old we was or what he was wearing. All I remember was a yellowish forearm scarred with a symbol I had never seen before. Two Xs connected by a single line.
Mom drove home in silence, a tic working in her jaw. I knew better than to say anything to her. Slamming open the door, she dropped her purse onto the counter. A stack of dirty dishes sat in the sink. She checked the trash.
“Jenifer?” she called, going to my sister’s door
“Just a second.”
Mom snapped. She screamed and pounded on Jen’s door.
Ah shit. I collapsed onto the couch, still shaken by what I’d seen. Jen yanked open the door, sporting rumpled hair and an oversized t-shirt, “Jeez. What?”
“What are all these dishes doing out on the counter?” Mom gestured angrily towards the sink.
“Relax, I’ll put them away.”
“Relax?” Mom’s voice scaled an octave and both of us flinched, “I’ve been at work all day, I don’t want to come home to dirty dishes.”
Pure fury now. I slunk away to my room as the voices rose louder and louder. Jen and mom had been fighting like crazy recently, fueled by mom’s stress after night shifts and Jen’s grim determination to rebel. She was almost scary that way. I figured it was just a phase, but it worried me. She’ll come home high, with scratches on her face and refuse to tell me what happened. It mostly started my sophomore year and I think it had something to do with the incident. It changed her, I think. But mom wouldn’t talk about it and neither would dad, and Jen got mad every time I mentioned it, so I eventually stopped bringing it up. It’s been two years, but sometimes I look into her eyes and I feel like it was yesterday.
It happened when I was only 15. I’d begged my mom to let me take the car to the movies so I had to pick her up from work that night. I pulled into the patient and visitor parking since I figured I wouldn’t be there long. Smoking a cig while waiting on my mom gave me a sense of satisfaction and steeled my nerves in the shadowy parking lot. That is, till some crackhead pulled a gun on me. He forced me back into the car and drove me around while I blubbered and cried in the passenger seat, begging him to let me go. He kept pounding the dash with his gun, his green eyes looking like a pair of pitted olives, the pupils all swollen. He told me all the things life had done to him as all the ideas of what he’d do to me swirled in my head. By the time the cops pulled him over, my side of the car was coated in puke. A little bit after that I joined the double X.
For initiation, they took me to a mountainside and let me hang there on a bit of rope for twenty minutes while I recited the rules. When I came up, they all hugged me. It felt nice to be a part of something.
The double X wasn’t at all what I thought it would be. It was just a bunch of teenagers whose eyes were older and sadder than they had any right to be.
Finn’s brother started it a few years ago. His friends banded together to cut some nasty teacher’s brakes, and in the fallout from her accident decided to make the group and the rules. I knew Finn from school, a muscular guy who stuttered when he spoke and was known for being generous with his weed. When we were getting high together, I asked him about the odd-looking scar on his hand. He didn’t tell me then, but a week or two later he took me to meet everyone.
Gregory, a slightly chubby guy who always seemed to be sporting a black eye or a bruise. The teachers assumed he got them in fights. The teachers were wrong. He dressed in hand-me-downs, mostly and one of his shoes had a hole in it. He said it made him sharper, reminded him why he did what he did. In reality, it mostly gave him frostbite.
Amber was thin and wore tight Aeropostale jeans and shirts, uggs boots and an old gray sweatshirt. Her brown hair was stringy, and she lugged around her dad’s baseball bat. Couldn’t sleep at night unless she’d whacked something, if only a tree or bush or whatever.
Rex kind of scared me. He was jacked, for one, and his eyes always had this steely look. We got most of our cocaine from his dad. He was quiet most of the time, but he was vicious and smart about causing chaos. After a couple of months in the group, I learned to appreciate that about him.
We mostly just killed animals; rabbits, squirrels, birds, chipmunks, and the occasional deer. We’d build a bonfire, bigger than we needed and roast the meat, eat it straight out of the fire, a little charred maybe, unseasoned, maybe a little raw sometimes. But it was ours. On a bad night, we’d do coke and just run through the woods screaming until we all fell down. We sent stones soaring through the windows of people we didn’t like. And so what if we put barbed wire in their peonies? We weren’t looking for justice. We weren’t looking for meaning. We were just looking to feel good.
It did feel good and raw and dangerous. Sometimes a little wrong. But the world is wrong. Besides, no one in the double X had ever killed anyone. Sure, I knew some people got hurt, sometimes badly so, but no one died because of us.
We chanted our rules like a song and screamed like the devil was in us.
Never trust anyone but us.
Always be down.
Never, ever leave.
The day I started really worrying about Jen was the day we went sunbathing at Shackthon Falls. I froze when I saw the mark on her arm, clear as day, two Xs connected by a line, the cuts bright red against her pale arm.
“What the fuck is that?”
She stood up, “What’s what?”
“Those cuts on your arm? Who did that to you?”
I stood up too, nearly slipping on the slimy moss that covered the smooth river stone beneath me.
“It’s nothing, Emily. You worry too much.”
“Those are serious, you gotta tell me what happened.”
“No I don’t,” she said, walking away from me
I followed her. She just went faster, splashing through the ankle-deep water.
“Don’t walk away from me!” I yelled, desperate now.
She didn’t respond, just walked faster until her legs shot out from under her and she slammed into the river bed. Blood swirled out into the water around her.
A few stitches and a few days later she was fine, but we never talked about the scars on her arm again.
I figured she didn’t want me poking my nose in her business. I figured she was a big girl, she’d take care of herself and besides, I had enough on my plate, trying to keep my GPA up senior year and applying for colleges. We grew distant, both of us more irritable and stressed. She disappeared for long lengths of time, and I was the only one in the family who seemed to notice.
It wasn’t until months later that I realized how wrong I was.
“Emily!” Jen hissed shaking me awake
It was so dark I could only make out shapes, and I reached for the shape of her face above mine.
“I need your help,” she whispered and her voice was…off.
“Are you crying? What’s going on?”
She sniffed, “I need your help now!”
She sounded terrified. I sat up, rubbing my eyes.
“What’s going on?”
“There’s um… you know how I have those scars on my arm? The double Xs?”
Suddenly I was wide awake, “Yeah?”
“Well, they’re a sign that I’m…part of a group. Like a club. We, um, we get together every month in the woods and we do…things.”
“Things? What things?”
“Just things! But I um… I had a falling out with them. And they can be dangerous.”
“They wanna hurt me. And they know where I live.”
We sorted through our options quickly. Dad was over in Asheville visiting grandma. Mom was working the late shift and wouldn’t be home till 6 am. There was no car, and the nearest person was three miles away on a winding gravel road. Jen suggested calling the cops, but if she told on the group they’d tell on her and she’d go to jail for years. The thought of not seeing her for all that time scared me almost more than the thought of watching her get beaten up by a gang. So we went into the woods.
I kept held one hand tight with my sister’s and the other one on my father’s ax. She lit our way with a flashlight that danced eerily over the tree trunks. We shuffled along as fast as we could without fear of tripping, every sound we made feeling like a gunshot in the near-silence. Our breath froze in front of us, ghosting in the brilliant glare of the flashlight. The axe thumped heavily against my calf. I thanked God we’d both remembered to throw on coats and boots. I thanked God that I liked to hike in the woods behind our property and so knew them well. And I prayed desperately to the tiny, winking stars above that we’d make it through the night. We kept on like this, fear driving us forward until we started hearing the screams.
They sounded crazy, whooping and screeching loud enough to wake the dead. At least seven of them. My sister shrieked and dropped the flashlight.
“That’s them.” she whispered
“Fuck. Jesus fuck!” I cursed, rummaging around in the fallen leaves for the flashlight. Jen whimpered and tugged at her hair. I pressed the flashlight into her hand and hoisted the ax, my arm already sore from the weight of it. We stumbled along as fast as we could. The wailing of the people after us careened between the tree trunks, a slowly mounting chorus of pain.
When I first heard the screeches of the double X, I froze. Adrenaline cannonballed into my veins and my legs felt like cement. But as I walked on an idea began to crystalize in my mind. Our most important rule swirled in my mind. Never ever leave. They would never let me leave. I looked at my sister’s pale hand wrapped around the handle of the ax. I hated that I’d dragged her into this. She didn’t deserve it. I tasted the frosted mountain air and knew what I had to do. The idea of how to do it came just a few moments later. I stopped suddenly and tugged on Emily’s sleeve.
“We have to split up.”
“What the hell? No! I can’t leave you” she cried
“Sure but they’ll catch us if we don’t. You know we don’t stand a chance together like this. We’re slow. A sitting duck. But maybe if we strategize, like maybe I could lead them away while you hide and then…” I paused, throwing my line out and waiting for her to take the bait.
She shook her head, “No, I’ll lead them away.”
It was easy to feign surprise, “No, you can’t!”
“Look. I’m faster than you. I can maybe outrun them by myself and if I can’t, well, they’re not after me, are they? We’ll confuse them.”
“But I can’t let you take that risk…”
She was still puzzling it through, “Yeah, you hide with the ax in case they come back. I’ll take the flashlight. There’s no way… there’s no way they’d kill a random person like me. Is there?”
I shook my head.
“But what if they hurt you?” I asked
I could tell by her defiant stance that she was sold, “No, I’ll do it.”
Tears spilled out of my eyes, warm for the briefest second on my face, “I love you.” I choked out, “I love you so much.”
She smiled tightly, “Take the ax and hide.”
I watched until she disappeared into the trees, knowing that was the last time I’d see my sister. Then, I threw the ax onto the ground and started walking in the opposite direction.
I ran on, my blood like ice in my veins. The light danced shakily in front of me. I ran faster, and faster, hearing the frenzied shouts behind me. I had to do this. Had to distract them. If Jen and I could just make it till morning our mom would come home. The idea was glorious to me, walking back to the house with Jen to find my mom in her baby blue scrubs and to drive out of the woods safe and sound. I had to make that happen. And so I sprinted until my lungs felt like they were full of rocks. I sprinted until heat crept out from my sweaty collar and pressed against my red face.
Suddenly, a scream wailed out into the night and I fell, skidding forward with a cry. I would recognize my sister’s scream anywhere. I scrambled up, my knees and elbows stinging and fumbled for the flashlight. I could hear my heartbeat in my throat and feel the tears stinging my eyes as I ran back to her, barely noticing the vines and branches that whipped my face.
By the time I staggered into a clearing, the dawn light was beginning to turn the sky dishwater gray. Everything was washed out, monochrome and blurry through my tears. Jen lay gasping in a bloody nest of leaves. I kneeled beside her and cradled her limp hand.
“No, no, no” I moaned
I looked up, into the faces of the people that stood around her. With a start, I realized I knew most of them from school. One of them, Finn, I think his name was, stepped closer and raised a hand as if to comfort me. On his forearm, the same mark as on hers.
“Get the fuck away!” I screamed
The cowards backed away slowly, their faces struck, “Get away from her!” I screamed again, my voice cracking and broken.
As they ran, I turned back to my sister. I smoothed her hair back and kissed her hand. Her eyes were glazed, but still alive. I held her small hand until it was cold.