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We is We

We’re moving again. Doesn’t matter where. For us, in our trailer, one place is the same as the last and the last and the next and the next. One place is all we know. We’ll move till we don’t then Cyrus will sell tickets and you will come. I grasp this future easy.

You’ll walk by and gawp us. You’ll stare or maybe you won’t be able to look that long. Some can’t. Some turn away and don’t look back. Others sneak a peek when they think we is not looking. But we is always looking.

We got eyes in the back of our head, Millie likes to say.

We see you all. You’ll stop and walk by. You’re alone or together with your lovey ones, holding hands, laughing, covering faces. We’ll watch you drag your scared child down the dark hall of our trailer. You’ll fashion ugly faces at our ugliness but we is used to it. Being ugly is what we is good at. That’s what you’ll have paid for. You might take pictures, ignoring the sign that tells you not to.

Millie gets mad about the pictures. Bang the glass and shake a finger. Rules is rules, Millie says. She says they’re the law, like Mama’s Bible Book or the rules Cyrus made, though I’ve been wondering about Cyrus’ rules more and more. Doubting if they’re right and true rules.

Millie doesn’t like it when I question things.

We is we, she says. God stuck us together and we gotta stick together. ‘Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.’ No questions and no pictures.

The truth is I don’t mind. I sometimes even smile for the pictures. Millie says that’s vanity and against the rules too, but I’m not vain. How could I be? I guess I just like that some piece of we makes it out and into that world, the world Millie thinks we don’t need and won’t never know, though I think different. I got plans.

“You’re lucky,” Cyrus says. “The outside world is a dark and wicked place. Thorns fill people’s heads. Their hearts are graveyards.”

But our world is dark too. All day and everyday and our world’s got nothing to fill it. Our world is black box with a hard chair and mirror behind. It’s a hot light bulb that shines and sweats our ugly head.

Or it’s this room behind the room, the one we’re in now. The other half of our world: bed, toilet, and dresser. There’s Mama’s Bible Book on the dresser. There’s the drawer I found the tiny knife in, under peanut shells and clothespins. Cyrus disremembered it and now it’s mine.

Millie said, Thou shalt not steal, and I said, Finders keepers. But she kept bugging and hassling and niggling, for days and days, till I finally told her, I’m gonna give it back to Cyrus, and that’s the truth. Though not yet and not how she thinks.

Cyrus tacked a poster on the wood that covers the window. It’s a picture of a mountain that touches the clouds. It’s the only mountain we’ve ever seen. Picture Mountain. Millie says it’s the Lord’s mount, Sinai, where God’s rules were handed down, but I say it’s something else. I stroll my finger up the mountain, feeling the tears in the paper, all the way to the clouds at the top. I say things don’t always mean what you think, Millie. Sometimes things mean something else. Like the man who spoke through the glass. Or the plans I got.

Millie doesn’t know the plans. I reason those plans in a way Millie can’t hear. I make them small and jumbled, like I’m stirring alphabet soup, and only I know what the letters spell.

Our trailer lurches to a stop and rolls me on Millie’s face. I say sorry and stand up. It’s maybe morning because we stopped moving. Though it doesn’t matter when and it doesn’t matter where. One place is the same as the last and the last and the next and the next, and we got our things to do.

We gobble the bread and cheese Cyrus brought last night. I brush our black hair so Millie looks ok. We pee and amble from the back room to the front, closing the painted door you can’t see. We perch on our stool and wait.

Let’s play a game, Millie says. Word Swap? Bible Lines? Tag?

Millie loves games but I tell her I’m not in the mood. I feel her pout on the back of my neck and cram my thoughts with a storm of letters so she won’t know what I’m really chewing. I scramble the words “plan,” “knife,” and “Cyrus” in our head.

You don’t come for a long time and then you do: a man and a woman.

You stop in front of us. The woman gasps though we don’t catch it. We can’t hear much through the glass. She gawps like a mother over her sick child, rainy eyes and raised brow, hands laced. I don’t move a muscle except to blink, not until the man squeezes her shoulder and they move on to see the others. The ones we’ve never seen.

Millie wants to gaze back and think about mama but I don’t let her. I’m gazing forward, to the coming.

All day you and yours come and I don’t move but to blink. I make my plans and we watch you stop and walk by, stop and walk by. I sit on the stool and let your eyes march over us. I let you sneak your peeks and snap your pictures. Cyrus taught me how to sit still so people see us—me in front, Millie in the mirror. So they could see we. That was rule number one.

“Don’t fidget, Mary.” Cyrus said. “Just move a mite so they know you’re real. Mostly, be a painting.”

Cyrus will come tonight like he always does. He’ll bring us dinner and breakfast for tomorrow. He’ll arise through the other door, the one we can’t open. He’ll say something like, “A face most find horrid can be beautiful if one looks long enough. If one really studies it, they’ll unwrap the beauty.”

He’ll tug out our dinner from the paper bag. Millie likes French fries and I don’t so we don’t get those. We both like burgers so that’s what Cyrus mostly buys and will likely bring tonight. Millie likes pickles and I don’t, but I leave them on the burgers and ponder something else when I eat them for her—though, truth is, I taste vinegar and garlic no matter what I’m thinking about.

Cyrus will unbag our dinner and then he’ll lean in to kiss our cheeks and that’s when I’ll stab him in the face. I’ve been practicing on the wood in our back room, training on the paper mountain so my hand won’t slip when the time comes.

Cyrus smells like pine trees. I remember pine trees and their whiff, or Millie does. She remembers better as she’s always looking back. She retains more things of the world but I recall some. I recall the touch of sun on our faces, the wet feel of a bath. I remember grass between our toes. I still dream of those things and my dreams are mine and mine alone.

We don’t really remember Mama. All we have left of her is what’s in our blood and her Bible Book. She cried when we was born because mothers want a baby that looks like them and not a nature’s mistake. We don’t remember much but we know it’s true because she told Cyrus and he told us. How she cried and almost drowned us in the bath and what mother states a thing like that if it isn’t true?

Cyrus saved us. He set us free, Millie likes to say but I think about it different, though I wonder if it’s gonna be hard to kill him. Will he fight? Will I cry? Will I later grieve for his pine smell, his rough lips on our cheeks? Will I miss his voice saying my old name? I look forward but I can’t know. A wall stands between the forthcoming and me.

Cyrus calls us “Mary,” because he says that’s the name our Mama gave us though we can’t remember if it’s true. We were too little. But it’s for sure true that Mama garbaged us so I garbaged her name. I named myself and to hell with mama and Cyrus.

Millie doesn’t like it when I swear or reflect about the name. She frowns and our scalp tingles. She says, It’s a sin not to keep your birth name, even if it’s from a woman who forsook us.  ‘A good name is to be chosen rather than great riches.

I cross my legs and smooth our skirt on the stool. I tell her, Who named you Millie? You weren’t even born with a name. She doesn’t say nothing to that because she knows it’s as true as can be. I christened her and not mama, not Cyrus. I chose Millie like I chose my name. I titled myself Janis because of the man who spoke through the glass. The old man I could hear.

Between you and we is the wall of glass. Cyrus says it safeguards us. If it wasn’t there Cyrus said you might chuck things or hurt us. The wall was new once but now it’s forever smudged and scratched. Cyrus’ rule number two is: don’t touch the glass.

“Don’t want to hurt yourself,” he says. “You’re my darling. My favorite.”

All day you slip past. Brave children mush faces on the glass, tiny lips and noses pushed in like Millie’s. You sometimes put a single fingertip on it to point at Millie in the mirror. Must have been a million you and yours fingers pressed on that glass between us. We can’t count that high.

I’ve imagined walking through that glass a thousand times. I’ve imagined thinking so hard, I make it disappear. Then I’ll stand off this stool and follow you out into the hall. I’ll finally see the others in their rooms, then walk to the EXIT and whatever is beyond.

Millie quit trying to stop me imagining. We is we except for what is mine and what I imagine is mine and mine alone. Her face scrunches up tight when I imagine the glass gone. I can’t see her but I feel Millie like you feel your fist tighten, with a mind of its own, when you’re wrathful at something or somebody.

It’s a funny thing that the thousands of you and yours can see Millie and I can’t, because she’s behind and I’m front.

I got your back, Millie likes to joke.

But when you are not watching us I sometimes make the trick. I hold a mirror to a mirror to see her, though it’s not a mirror at all but the knife I found. I witness fuzzy Millie in the reflection of the reflection on the blade. On the back of our head, sticking out of our hair, she’s exactly me only with the air took out of her face—mushed nose and sleepy looking, as she can’t hardly open her eyes. Sleeping Beauty. Her skin is pale, sun robbed like mine, white against the black of our hair. Snow White after the apple. The truth is she’s not sleeping. She thinks all the time and talks almost as much as she thinks. Often I just long for quiet and peace, nothing more.

Right now she’s thinking about our secret. We love our secret. What we know that you don’t, what even Cyrus don’t know. That Millie is Millie and not just a face on the back of my head, not just a twin I tried to gobble in mama’s womb but couldn’t finish because I was too tired from growing legs, arms and ribs, or maybe just not starved enough. She is me but not me and we is we.

We’ve been we since I can remember. When I learned to talk she learned to talk. Hello Mary full of grace, she said like she’d just arrived and was introducing herself. Though she was always there. Always and forever. We’d play and sing and argue and she was always there—sleeping when I slept, waking when I woke.

We sometimes think how lonely it must be for you who are not we. All alone in your head, that must be a terrible thing. I wonder again if that old man was lonely in his head.

Millie doesn’t like me thinking about the man. She says, like always, He was just crazy and this time I don’t say anything. I just remember the story despite her.

I recollect how it was a slow day with not so many of you. We squirmed on our chair, restless and hot, legs stuck to wood, the air like sand. Then he came. Like a child, he pushed his face right up to the glass.

But he wasn’t a child. He was the oldest man ever. For a weird moment I felt we’d paid to see him, the most ancient man in the world, and not the other way around, the way it was and is.

I froze like we’re supposed to and watched him watch us. I tallied thirty blinks and waited for him to move on down the hall. But he didn’t. He ran a hand through what little hair he had. Thin and white as cobwebs, it scarcely roofed his head. Brown, mud-like spots speckled his face and hands. His cracked lips mouthed words and I did something I’d never done. I slipped from our stool and stepped to the glass.

You stay put, Millie said. Rules is rules.

But I didn’t care about the rules. I craved to hear his words. I brought our face up to the glass. Up close, I saw the blood traffic beneath his paper skin. His eyes reminded of blue sky and clouds as I turned our head and pressed our ear to the cool of the glass.

“Janus,” the man said, his voice a whisper from the sea, though he must have been roaring to get his words through to us. “You’re Janus. You look to the future and the past. The god of beginnings.”

He smiled, baring teeth like rotten corn, then bowed his dappled head and was gone.

Millie said, The old got straw for brains. But I took that name and made it mine and mine alone. I threw Mama’s Bible Book back in Millie’s face. Respect your elders, I told her, and that she was Lot’s wife, looking back, while I eyed the future and new beginnings.

Pride goes before a fall, Millie says.

Better to fall than never run, I say and she doesn’t say nothing to that and I smile because I know it’s one of those things that means something else, too.

It must be closing time. None of you and yours has come for a while. I grip the knife in my hand and wait. Cyrus will come soon.

This is not the first time I’ve meant to do this. There’s been more than twenty burgers since I found the knife and made the plan. But tonight I’ll shove that tiny blade in his face, a face I’ve studied so long it’s grown ugly to me, no matter how handsome Millie thinks he is.

His nostrils are too big and his ears stick out like wings. His breath smells like gasoline. Tonight I’ll stab his ugly stinky face. I’ll stab it and take his keys and run.

To make Millie happy I clear my jumbled head and we play a game, Picture Paint. She chooses dog, so we paint that. She chooses the breed and I add the ears and fur. I make it white with black spots. I make its tongue pink and wet. Then I choose mountain. She shades the trees and the rocks and I add the clouds and the birds atop. We paint and wait for Cyrus.

He’s slow to come so when we tire of painting we play Imagine the Others. Millie styles a Crow Man, like always, with wings that touch both walls of his room. I make Fish Girl in her own pool of a room and The Eyeball—a man with a face that is nothing but a blinking eye. Millie laughs and I think how maybe I’ll set them all free, all the others, whatever and whoever they may be.

When Cyrus finally shows I can tell he’s well oiled. He fumbles with the keys and drops the food bag on the floor. He nearly falls over trying to pick it up. I clasp the knife so hard it becomes part of my hand.

Drunk he’ll be slow. He’ll be slow and I’ll be quick, I think.

Quick at what? Millie says. What are you doing, Mary? And I panic because I didn’t alphabet soup my thoughts, I’m too nervous and now Millie knows, she sees the plans and future I gaze toward. Everything.

She doesn’t say what I imagined, Thou shall not kill or Cyrus saved us. She just screams.

She screams and screams, like those sirens that pass us when we’re on the road only louder and never passing, she screams so loud our head will explode. It’ll splat all over the glass wall.

I try to tell her how we’ll be free. I paint all the things we’ll see that we’ve forgotten, and all the things we’ve never seen that we’ll see: the sun, the moon, the stars, the sea, television and chocolate, dogs and horses and cats, grass between the toes, other books and laughter and . . . but I can’t go on with the endless list because she just keeps screaming and screaming.

“What’s wrong, sugar?” Cyrus says, his words slack from the drink. “You look . . . lost.”

And I am lost as we collapse off the stool and I know the plan won’t happen tonight, won’t ever happen, because of Millie and how she’s always looking back, back even to the Garden and man’s fall, and never forward and I can’t think and won’t ever think again from her screaming—a million crow caws in our head, the laments of the burning sinners in hell—and I jab the knife up and into Millie’s sleepy eye, and it’s a flame in my own, and she screams even louder, and I stab again, again, again, till finally the screaming softens and I tell her, Sorry Millie and It’s our only way and For no one who has a blemish shall draw near. I stab till she says nothing. She’ll never say nothing again and I marvel at the new quiet and stillness in our head, like I’m on top of Picture Mountain hearing the soundlessness of clouds.

My head wet from mists and lighter, as if I’m turning cloud. There’s hurt but sleep and calm too, because I know Cyrus—who’s by me, gripping my hand, though I can’t hardly feel it, taking back the knife—he’ll let me go because I’m not a freak, not like the others, and no more will you stop and gawp because I don’t have Millie and we is not we, but just I.

Originally published in UnCommon Bodies, edited by Pavarti K. Tyler.

About the Author

Michael Harris Cohen’s work is published or forthcoming in various magazines and anthologies including F(r)iction, Catapult’s Tiny Crimes, Fiction International, and Conjunctions. He is the winner of F(r)iction’s short story contest, judged by Mercedes Yardley, as well as the Modern Grimmoire Literary Prize. He’s received a Fulbright grant for literary translation and fellowships from The Djerassi Foundation, OMI International Arts Center, and the Künstlerdorf Schöppingen Foundation. His first book, The Eyes, was published by the once marvelous but now defunct Mixer Publishing. He lives with his wife and daughters in Sofia and teaches in the department of Literature and Theater at the American University in Bulgaria.