ST. MICHAELS, MARYLAND
I watch the Murphy twins, ring leaders of our kid-circus, terrorize the marina. They throw lit tobacco wads like cherry bombs in fishing nets, onto nearby decks. I think about asking to cut their hair much shorter than it is. I know one of them would answer by pulling a red-threaded needle through my palm like they did to the boy in middle school Home Ec who asked why they both had the same middle name. I imagine they’d sew into my skin, we don’t go lower than this.
But I know that isn’t true.
At my twelfth birthday party, just after their parents started roaming downtown in formal attire, not panhandling, just strolling, and people dubbed them The Murphy Freakshow, I launched myself into the deep end of my swimming pool and both boys plunged in after me. At the bottom, we felt around the decorative rocks, had a lungless screaming contest. Never did we consider kissing like most newly twelve year olds do. Our kid-circus cohorts leaned over the surface, searching for two identical bodies and my gangly ghost.
That party had been the catalyst. The Murphy boys noticed Carrie would jump off anything and land on her ballet-broken-in feet. Rich had an affinity with fire complimented by a sobering stealth. My older brother Jer could bend himself ten ways to Sunday. The neighbor girl Kennedy was ungirlishly broad, waywardly strong, and I had the ability to hold my breath for acres.
Above all, none of our parents watched us.
Not when I catapulted into the water. Not when the boys followed. Not when we charred part of the family cat with a cake candle. Not when we snuck out through the gate. Not even when the constable ushered us home after we’d tried to burn our names with stolen brands into all the trunks at the Christmas tree farm.
Lionel Murphy took the hot iron to his tailbone, silent as his skin cooked, staring into Carrie’s auburn hair like it was a spinning eye trick. His twin brother Micah wrestled the brand from Lionel, stabbing himself in the struggle. I was disinfecting the hole with pool water wrung out of my hair when I felt the town constable’s flashlight on my neck. As the towering man reached for the iron, Micah pressed it to the skin of his tailbone, too.
Their gift to me had been my name stamped on a dog tag dangling from dense thread the texture of twisted together corn stalks, but the metal was gold, truly gold—I made Jer bite into it to check—and that night I hung it above my bed like a dreamcatcher. Then I started telling people the Murphys weren’t freaks, they were independently wealthy, and they weren’t strange, they just had different kinds of fun. But people didn’t listen, so I joined the freakshow and turned it into a full fledged ruckus.
It took a few weeks for us to get on as friends. Jer tried to assert himself as the leader because he was oldest but the Murphys politely dominated his efforts. When Jer suggested we climb the Magnolia trees and throw peeled oranges at cars, or that we break into the consignment shop and build a scarecrow out of old scarves, we’d get halfway there and end up at the firework stand with poppers up our sleeves. Then, we were in the middle of town flopping like witches on fire as the tiny rocks exploded inside our clothes. It was always for the better and eventually, Jer stopped trying. The plainest thing was that the twins liked me best. Even when Carrie and Kennedy grew into their bodies quicker, wore makeup and bras and miniskirts sooner, the boys walked at my side, rode their bikes to my house first. I was the only one who never got them mixed up. Our mischief was an undercurrent of the town’s turning. We didn’t tag boxcars or leave notes in houses we broke into, but everybody knew, if only because we hung out with the Murphy twins. We only got caught once.
We hadn’t known they clipped the wings of the ducks in the park, so after many valiant efforts, Rich caught one. We snuck it to the roof of the library to throw it out over the edge, just to see something take off mid-air. It dropped so heavily, so quickly, there was nothing we could do. If we’d known, we’d have been at the bottom with a bed sheet or basket. Maybe we wouldn’t have thrown it at all. The feathers didn’t billow up like in movies, just stuck with the blood and guts to the cobbles.
We didn’t bother fleeing. The seven of us stayed on the roof, tried to talk each other out of throwing up and crying. The constable was there minutes later, drove us home without the radio on so we could really think about it. And we did. I don’t think we ever stopped thinking about it.
Today was supposed to be the Murphy twins’ birthday party. Our basement was prepared with streamers, pizza rolls, and a collection of beers we’d gradually stolen from our dads. Jer drove us to the pier and we paid the sybil who reads palms. She is the mom of a guy we go to school with, Craig, and she sat knowingly, even without looking at our skins or into our eyes, at a grandiose velvet-veiled table. A mulberry colored scarf hid her lightning-white curls, bracelet-sized hoop earrings held my gaze at the nape of her neck where the silver grazed. She was the youngest of all the high school moms and the only one with white hair. Of course, Craig didn’t got around telling everybody that his mom was a swindler on the docks. That they lived in the loft apartment above the crab shack. Or that even when we teased him into lying, Craig truly believe the things his mother predicted. The way she sometimes cried at school functions, staring into the abyss of our youthfully distracted energies as we danced and bobbed for apples at festivals. Once, she grabbed Melrose Carter by the wrist at our middle school field day and begged her not to climb any trees, even if someone dared her, even if her kite was stuck. She did anyway and slipped into a coma weeks later. The only person Melrose told of the prediction was Craig, in a violated swirl of fear. He told her parents in the hospital lobby as he sobbed into Mrs. Crater’s skirt, who was too stunned to pat his back. She simply walked up to Craig’s mother lingering by the door and slapped her clean across the face. They moved to the docks after that and Craig pretty much stopped talking. To everyone.
Carrie had said since it was their seventeenth birthday, we had to do something wild. She wanted to trespass or steal like Jer’s birthday last year when we took the cross-shredded papers from the credit union and bombed the high school principal’s front yard. People came to school saying they’d seen the principal and her husband vacuuming the grass. We were on a reeling thrill for days.
When I suggested we get palm readings, Rich got hellbent on the idea, patting his jean pocket of loose change until everybody agreed.
Micah moved to sit at her velvet table as Lionel grabbed his collar, yanked him away. “I was born first.” This was the first time either of them had mentioned birth order. It was surprising. I think we all assumed they just came into existence, of any vessel but their mother, at the exact same time.
The sybil traced the ridges of Lionel’s upright palm and looked frantically between the identical faces. She reached out for Micah and compared them. Her lips pursed as she dragged her talons around their skin. “Your heart lines, your head lines are both the same, but your life lines…” She gummed an elaborately fake accent that definitely fooled tourists, landing the vowels hard. “One of you will die before your next shared year.”
“What?” Lionel yelled, tugging away.
“Your birthday,” Carrie whispered behind him.
He yelled over his shoulder, “I know.”
Micah’s hand was still limp in the sybil’s grasp. I reached out and pushed her off, held his wrist as if protecting the pulse. His breath was heavy and perfectly strident with Lionel’s. He stared into my face like there was an answer somewhere there. I looked to the sybil, a drawn-on beauty mark by her lip, fake eyelashes fanning her cold eyes. I grabbed for one of the gigantic earrings but missed. Rich flipped the table and pulled down a tapestry clipped to the wall. Micah broke away from me and ran across the dock toward the water. Lionel followed.
I looked at her with disgust and betrayal, sure it went against every sybil code of conduct to openly predict a death. Then I remembered Melrose and decided she must hate beautiful people. Melrose had golden hair, silver-blue eyes. The twins were stunning, insultingly symmetrical and reflected the sun in such a way that they always glowed, even in Maryland winters. As we left, Rich spat on her rug and called her a lying bitch.
Now we are on the dock a few feet behind. Kennedy says softly, “I knew it was a bad idea to go out before the party.”
“I’ll beat the hell out of Craig and his trashy mother.” Jer says with arms crossed, white-knuckled.
I shudder against heavy wind. “It’s not Craig’s fault his mother is trashy.” “It’s Craig’s fault his trashy mother wants the boys to feel like they’re going to die.”
She had never done to them what she did to Melrose, but the sybil always regarded both boys with sharp eyes. Even in primary school, she did not let Craig attend their birthday parties and snapped in his face like a dog if she caught him trading baseball cards with the twins in the pickup line. She chunked a crystal highball glass at a wall just above the twins’ heads at a Christmas mixer and yelled as she was being forcefully escorted out, the boys picking glass from their hair, that she did it to banish bad luck. That it swarmed them as foggy crowns. I thought she sensed trouble, which they emitted like an odor, but now I feel that it was something deeper. A severance with some almighty thread was lost on both boys. I think this offended her. Or scared her. Or both.
Now we’re watching Micah hang his head over the water on all fours. Lionel stands above and they look like a stack of shelves, perfectly mimicking just feet apart. Carrie limbos between, wondering if she should comfort Lionel or let him be. The worst part was that the sybil didn’t even have to say it would be Lionel who’d die first. We knew.
Last summer behind the consignment shop he’d started kissing Carrie. Then, he started driving her around in his Jeep like he was her boyfriend; cutting across busy lanes, running yellows, running reds, as if he had the right to put her life at risk. It never mattered if Carrie loved him because she let him think she did. She’s polite that way. Though, once she told me she’d kissed Micah thinking it was Lionel and to her immediate shame, both boys tasted the same. I tried not to wonder why Lionel picked her and when I did, I tried not to hate her for it. Even harder, I tried not to expect Micah to pick me.
After some dry heaves, Micah finally vomits. Jer yells a joke about fish food but nobody laughs. “Let’s go to the basement, there’s a bucket of beer.” Kennedy slips Jer’s car keys from his hand and flips them between her fingers.
“Let’s go to the bottom of the marina,” Micah says. “There’s a begging shrine of broken glass.”
“Yeah,” I say.
There’s a breeze-blown pause and I can feel Rich wondering how deep could he dive with an open flame. Lionel is about to reach for Carrie. She would let him. Jer wants his car keys back but Kennedy still clutches them. Yeah.
I pull my sweater off, step out of my boots. Rich takes a tin of tobacco and lighter from his jean pocket. In a blink, we’re stripped to the underwire. I look around and see that ours are the only warm bodies on this dock. Lionel and Rich wad loose tobacco, wrap it in rolling papers, light quickly and throw as far as they can. Carrie, Kennedy, and Jer bob in the cold water. I am still standing, half-naked, wishing I was older than the Murphy twins so maybe I could be the one to die first. My parents would miss me but only for a little bit. The Murphy’s parents would cease to exist, would freeze like pin-stuck butterflies wherever they hovered.
“Take it off,” Kennedy whoops from the water and I do. Micah stands next to me and in an uncomfortable instant, we have both realized we are grown. In this vulnerability we are very warmly harmonic. I think of the photograph I saw in a museum of a naked man and woman standing on the roof of a car, holding each other, the division of their bodies blurred. It was not romantic. This feels like it might be romantic.
Jer bets he can swim out to the dissolving tobacco bombs, drink the water and get a buzz. Kennedy untangles Carrie’s damp curls. As if I’ve passed my reflection in a hall mirror, I realize with a shudder that if anybody on earth looks like me, it’s Carrie. Still, nobody watches me and Micah. His hand is on my exposed hipbone and I feel his face, young with stubble. Neither he or Lionel look like their father, thankfully. They inherited their freckles from nothing but the sun. “What’s your middle name?” I ask him.
“No, it isn’t.”
Micah and Lionel Saint Murphy, I think. “We could go back to my place.”
“Are your parents home?” He squeezes his lips together to encourage fleeting circulation.
“We’d have to cut through Main Street,” he says.
We both know that their mother is circling the fountain downtown with a pet-cluster of amber pinned to her lapel. Their father stands in the square, holding an umbrella over a bronzed couple kissing even though it doesn’t rain. The Murphy Freakshow. Even when this cruel nickname became true, when our kid-circus lead by the twins started to trespass, steal, and blaze, nobody thought to regret. To think of most prophecies and how they fulfill themselves.
I feel around Micah’s ribs for the old branding hole. “The pool water didn’t help,” he says, remembering. He looks to his brother, sees the small forest fire in his hand. “Maybe Lionel killed himself years ago and it’s just taking this long for him to die.”
“I’d believe that but we’re too young to think that way.” I say.
“If we’re not too young to die, we’re not too young to think about it.” He wraps his arms around me. My hands find the brand at the base of his spine identical to the mark on Lionel. The skin is rumpled like a sheet with pockets and hard edges. As if in slow motion, Micah leans us off the dock and into the water. We surface as quickly as we land and start to kiss.
The bronzed couple from downtown are the only ones watching.
Not really. The bitch sybil is watching out her window. My parents are in the living room, watching TV and kind-of watching. Carrie decides to love Lionel before he dies. Rich is inflamed. Jer moves to kiss Kennedy to feel something. Micah inhales one of my deepest breaths, “They’re probably watching.”
“I was born here but Jer wasn’t,” I say. Micah breaks his paddling rhythm to touch my shoulder. He says, “You two are so different.”
I can’t say the same to him.
I see Lionel, holding his palm to a flame. I know he’s trying to burn away the death trajectory. I try to mean what I ask, “What if we sunk to the bottom and became relics?” His hair is so long, I want to cut it. I think about swimming down to find the sharpest bottle shard because his waves are too long and there’s just too much of him. I think the same of Lionel and then try not to do that anymore.
“Only if we sink as anything but wishing coins.”
“Why? Then Rich would swim for miles to get us.”
He smiles with all of his teeth like a true believer in something. A wolfish howl echoes from downtown and the sybil moves away from her window. Mr. Murphy still holds the couple’s umbrella but cups his mouth with one hand, calling to his sons. Just before pulling me under, Micah pulls me closer. “Because then we’d always feel like we owed somebody an answer.”
Then we are underneath. And the freak-show veil is torn.
Tobacco wads crater and sink. Kennedy’s shoulders bolster and Carrie kicks her broken feet. Rich is about to ignite the elastic of his underwear while Jer searches for his car keys, worried that they’re wet. This is our final act.
Nobody is watching.
I have been holding my breath for so long, I start to notice the oxygen absence. Micah’s eyes are opened and glossy. He has let go of my body, floats away and I have stopped thinking about reaching out to touch him because this is not romantic. Small, bursting thoughts ring in my ears as I look at Micah, and he looks back at me with Lionel’s eyes. Every time I have looked at him, I remember, and in every memory, it was never just one boy looking back.
Now, his skin is gaunt and he recognizes the expression on my face, that I am unraveling the longest string of revealing memories as he sinks further away. Moments before his body feigns empty, a familiar rock breaks the surface. Through algae film I can’t tell if it’s Lionel sinking after Micah or Micah divinely multiplied and saving himself, if they’ve ever been separate or if this is the truest trick, finalized in the foggiest water. All I can feel is the vibrant family crest they consecrated the night of my twelfth birthday, deciding in all quickness to become a fraternity of two, double-headed leader to a secret kid-circus where their twinhood was the most intriguing sideshow.
I have gone as deeply as it goes and my back is to the marina floor. Looking up, I see the romantic thing I’d been feeling; Lionel realizes with a static tug that Micah will not, will never return, so he runs pruning fingers through his own hair and locks both arms around his brother. Lionel cups a hand by his mouth and howls to their father hoping the desperate wounding will make its way downtown. The echo shocks my featherweight body.
I try to figure out what any of this has been. Have these boys ever loved anybody but the part of themselves living in the other? My chest throbs a warning pulse and I push off the ground, cutting every heart-head-life line in my hand. Before I break the surface, I look at the Murphy twins and they have become something indivisible, so whole that their identical faces look like an illusion. I snap out of a consuming bewitchment and see that this was always the mind-game. Years of being different people beyond the glaring sameness— the uniqueness of one was just repressed inside the other. Two boys living from opposite ends of a Chinese finger-trap, rooted in a shared center.
I want to say to them, “Good one. You really got me.” I want to sew their hands together and lament, you were always going lower than this. I emerge from the water newly foolish. With my first breath, I howl to their father, to the bitch sybil, to Carrie and Kennedy, Jer and Rich who are looking at me, panicked. I howl until Jer pulls me out of the water and my back is on the splintered dock while they ask me where the boys went, when they’ll come up.