The Reordering of Tonia Vivianby Karen Heuler (Spring 2017)
1. Tonia was used to hearing whispers even before she understood what they meant. Of course she heard her mother’s voice, her father’s voice, but there was another voice low in her ear, almost next to her heart. In the beginning the voice was as curious as she was, figuring out the world.
Tonia learned slowly, adjusting to sight and sound and taste and touch, expecting her own contentment to be echoed by the whispering within her, always intimate and yet remote. As Tonia watched the world slide by, strapped in her seat in the car, she felt another presence always, slightly to the right and behind, almost leaning against her, a pressure, an existence that was intimately reliable. This is good, she would think, and then there’d be an echo, “I like it too.” The other voice always liked motion, and it soothed them both, to be lifted, to be carried, to be rocked, to be bathed.
Tonia eventually called the other voice Vivian. Vivian was the ghost in her head, the sly voice next to her heart. Vivian needed to have things explained to her over and over—sight, scent, color, friendship, all of it. Vivian was inside her and only knew what Tonia told her but learned quickly, absorbed in what she’d been told, piecing together a whole other universe. Vivian’s world was dark and warm and filled with sounds, a steady, sustained world of the swoosh of the heart, the gurgle of the stomach, the soft bellow of breath. There was no light where she was, there was no skin, or the touch of a hand on skin. There were no faces. What was the face? Vivian always wondered. What was the world?
Vivian couldn’t understand the idea of space, either. She kept asking, “And nothing is touching you anywhere on your senses?” and Tonia would say, “Well, now that I think of it, my feet are on the ground. The ground is the place where I rest, and I can stand on it and walk on it. Until I walk into something else, a thing that rises up from the ground, a tree or a house. Like that.” Vivian listened from her darkness, trying to picture this world, having asked so many times already for a definition of flatness, standing up, rising.
Her own world was dark and ruled by sounds, the bub of Tonia’s heart, her breaths, the squish of food going down her gut. Sounds and darkness, pressed close, keeping her exactly right.
Vivian thought incessantly, interpreting what Tonia said and what Tonia described. She learned to recognize the creatures of the outside world—mother, father, neighbor, friend—by sound and by Tonia’s reactions. Tonia was always giving herself away. She was scattered and unreliable and easily led. Vivian could feel her hesitations, her leaps of hope, her disappointments. The heart beat faster or slower; the breaths jumped or held. She knew cold when Tonia drank cold things; heat as well, from soup and hot chocolate. Clothing was a concept that proved her own world was better: what was clothing but a replacement for the fluids that washed over her, for the inside world she felt? Tonia was vague when she tried to name the things that surrounded Vivian: “Bones, stomach, lungs, veins and arteries”—and beyond that very little. Tonia was uneasy about the inside stuff.
Vivian, in her inside state, asked Tonia to please put stuff against her belly, so she could get a sense of shapes. She learned about hands, forks, feet; she learned straightness and triangles and circles from the shapes Tonia traced on her own belly.
On the outside, Tonia’s finger tracked a circle round and round. On the inside, Vivian felt the shape and imagined it at the same time. She wanted to learn more things; she was always demanding to know what Tonia knew. She listened to what Tonia learned when she was in school, and she began to tell her what she’d done wrong.
Tonia loved and hated Vivian in almost equal measure. The problem was, Vivian knew everything about Tonia, so Vivian was the only one who could really judge her. Mother was inclined to forgive her easily, since she was a little deformed, with her back twisted a little and her head to the side. Her father was gentle but very careful around her, as if afraid he might knock her over. None of them knew how Tonia really felt—how she didn’t want to be so different, so inferior, and they all made her feel that way.
In her head, she could run and play like other children; she wanted them to recognize this and stop treating her like there was something wrong. But even when they said kind things to her, she felt Vivian noting every failure, and judging her.
Tonia had a fretful little face, and a fretful little soul, and Vivian’s voice was certain of itself, pushing her to take a chance. Once a little girl, Sophie, had come over to play with Tonia and had cut up a book Tonia loved.
“That’s my book,” she’d said, startled.
“We’re playing cut out pictures,” Sophie said. She had hair so light it almost looked white, and tiny bright eyes.
“No, we’re not! Who said? Stop that!” Tonia was sitting on the couch and Sophie was on the floor. Tonia leaned over to grab the book and lost her balance. She caught herself roughly on the arms of the couch, and inside her, Vivian grunted. “I’m okay,” Tonia said.
Sophie was watching her with interest. “You’re not hurt?” she asked.
“Give me the book,” Tonia hissed.
Sophie gave her the book, and then went on cutting the pages she’d already removed.
“Stop that! Stop that!” Tonia cried. “Where did you get the scissors?”
Sophie looked at her intently. “They’re my scissors. Don’t you have scissors?”
“No,” Tonia’s mother, Ivy, said, coming in from the kitchen. “She has to ask when she wants scissors. Why don’t you give them to me and I’ll take them to your mother?”
“Never mind, I think I’ll leave now,” Sophie said, and slowly got off the floor. She put her scissors into a white envelope, folded and pocketed it, said her goodbyes formally, and left.
“I don’t think I’ll ask her back again,” Tonia said, and her mother agreed.
“She was interesting,” Vivian said. “Why didn’t you like her?”
“It was the scissors,” Tonia said. “They were very sharp.”
“Sharp?” Vivian repeated, but Tonia couldn’t think of how to describe it, so she was silent. Vivian understood some things better than she did, and other things not at all. But Tonia had the last word, always. When Tonia said “no,” it mattered.
When she was eleven, Tonia had a terrible accident while riding her bike. It was early spring; she still had a scarf wrapped around her neck, because her neck was tender. Vivian couldn’t bear it when the neck was cold or too hot. It was her one real requirement about Tonia’s body.
Tonia was riding down a hill, going as fast as she could, enjoying it. Maybe her scarf changed her line of sight—since her head was, after all, leaning to the right anyway. She thought she checked both ways as she shot towards the intersection, and she thought there was no traffic, but a car came from the left and hit her.
The driver stopped. A middle-aged woman with horrified eyes rushed out. She was already calling 911; she was kneeling beside Tonia; she was screaming and her hand kept reaching towards Tonia’s neck and shoulder and then pulling back.
Tonia was in the hospital for months. The voice in her ear ceased. Where was Vivian? What had happened to Vivian? For a while there were heavy drugs and she thought maybe Vivian was sleeping—that Vivian slept while Tonia was awake, and then the reverse. But then they eased her off the drugs. She listened, alert, whenever anyone came through the door for physical therapy, trying to figure out who to ask about Vivian. She had tried to ask her mother, who hadn’t understood and started crying. “It’s all right, it’s all right,” her mother kept saying. “You’ll be good as new. You’ll be better than new! There was a, a, a, tumor inside you. We didn’t know. Oh Tonia, we didn’t know or we would have done something sooner.”
“There was a tumor inside me?” she asked, finally, when her doctor came in for a visit. The doctor had never really told her anything, just checking how she felt and then having her move her head and her arms various ways. He had a quick, abrupt manner.
“Not quite a tumor,” he said. He looked at her curiously. “Is that what your parents said?”
“You took Vivian,” she whispered. “Didn’t you? I can’t hear her any more. Where is she? I need her. I can’t do this without her to help me. Where’s Vivian?”
The doctor’s mouth opened and shut. He seemed about to say something but he decided against it. But that very obvious decision not to tell her anything made Tonia fear the worst. The world was hideously silent, absent, gone.
She screamed when her mother came, screamed and screamed at her, awful language. Her mother took her flailing hand, rubbed it, tried to soothe her. Tonia’s eyes locked on her and begged to know what happened. Her mother said, “You were two eggs, you would have been twins, but sometimes one egg absorbs the other at some point. Not all of it. The other egg, which would have been a baby girl but wasn’t, it never got that far. That other egg was part of a fetus, you would have been joined at the shoulder or chest. That’s what was hurting you.”
“Vivian wasn’t hurting me,” Tonia cried. “I want to see her! I want to see her!”
Her mother was perplexed and wrung her hands. “Who’s Vivian? Tonia! What is it—who is Vivian?” She suddenly understood. “It’s gone, it’s gone, Tonia. Did you feel something? I’m so sorry, I never knew you felt it. Is that what you mean?”
“She’s my sister!” Tonia cried. She slapped her hand against the wound in her neck and shoulder. She began to claw at it, scraping away bandages until she got at the raw skin. Her mother pressed the nurse’s button. She wrestled with her daughter, dragging her hands away from her own flesh. She was a little madwoman, a little demon, howling and striking out. When Ivy caught sight of her daughter’s eyes, they were frenzied and sick and unbalanced, as if a torture beyond endurance had tossed her over the edge.
2. Vivian was born with a little foot coming out of her chest, just below the breastbone. There was an odd silence after the delivery and Ivy struggled to see the baby as the nurse wrapped the infant in a towel and did the tests. The extra foot reacted when they cleaned the child’s body. They handed the baby to Ivy, and the doctor explained that Vivian was a twin and sometimes one twin absorbed the other at a very early stage of development. In fact, the stage is usually so early that no one really is aware of an absorbed twin hidden somewhere in the baby’s body.
But this time, the twin wasn’t totally absorbed, just enclosed. Ivy was given the baby and she covered the extra foot with the blanket, and looked at her daughter’s face. It was a normal human face.
The absorbed twin had a brain and a beating heart, and that stopped Ivy from giving permission to remove it, even after the doctor warned her that the hidden twin was a parasite and would rob the baby of nutrients.
The father was an ex-boyfriend who didn’t want a child and had left town. The only family she had was a brother, who told her to permit the surgery. “Or you’ll lose the good one,” he said, not meaning any offense.
She didn’t really want to lose the good one, but there was a beating heart and a living brain to consider. It wasn’t an easy decision.
Despite the doctor’s dire predictions, the “good one,” named Vivian, began to thrive, no matter how deformed. She had a huge belly, where the rest of the hidden child lived, or at least part of it. X-rays showed a shrunken body, but a complete body. Its hands were clasped together. It was upside down, with just the one foot sticking up and out. The other leg was bent at the knee, the foot lodged up against her twin’s spine.
Vivian grew and learned to live with the foot sticking out. She wore loose shirts and dresses. She ran and tumbled, once breaking the exposed toe of the inner twin. “Luckily, toes aren’t too bad,” the doctor said, “I mean, she’s not walking on the foot.” It was the same doctor, and at least he didn’t need an explanation of how strange it all was. “I don’t know,” he said, wavering. “Perhaps a shoe? Something to protect the foot?”
Ivy refused to consider a shoe. She trained Vivian to raise her arm up if she ever ran or ever jumped or ever felt like she was falling. The arm would protect Tonia’s foot. (Yes, Ivy had named the inner twin.)
Over the years, when she bathed Vivian, she massaged Tonia’s foot and sang songs while she did it, hoping that Tonia would feel some sense of being loved.
When Vivian was older, Ivy often found her sitting and talking to herself, little fuzzy sounds of conversation.
“I like that song, too,” she said once. “The one you said you like so much. That’s right, mom said it was too high for her. And she means the sound of her voice, not where something is on the shelf. Did you notice that?”
Ivy turned away. Her daughter was a strange one, but very bright.
Over the years, Vivian adapted well. She had friends among the homely and the outcast, odd little creatures, fragile souls who came and sat down for milk and cookies and refused to eat because of allergies or suspicions, but they were her daughter’s friends, and she was happy to see them. One was a little white-haired girl who came for a while but said she didn’t like how Vivian was always whispering about her. The girl was known to cut herself.
Vivian whispered constantly. She was always reporting what she was seeing, sometimes with explanations or judgments. Ivy had heard, over the years, how Vivian spoke about her. “She wouldn’t have the nerve,” was one comment. What had Vivian overheard? Ivy went back over her telephone conversation with her brother, but there was nothing she could think of. Surely Vivian couldn’t hear what her brother had said? Ivy’s brother was sometimes rude to the child, and in consequence, Vivian didn’t like him. “He wants us gone,” she’d heard Vivian whispering.
Ivy heard a yowl one day when she was inside and the kids were outside. She went to check on it, and found the little white-haired girl holding her arm and crying.
“What is it?” she asked, thinking a bite or a sting.
“She bit me,” the girl said, and Ivy froze.
Ivy froze and looked at Vivian. She was afraid she might see some evidence of spiritual malformation in her daughter’s face, a result of the strange way the child was made. She had feared this for years now, listening to her daughter talk in undertones, wondering if the inner child was influencing her. Some of the whispers were said in a cruel voice, a harsh voice, not the voice of Vivian, she told herself, but the voice of what Vivian imagined her twin to be. That was it, of course; Vivian was good, but Tonia was evil, and she feared someday that Vivian would turn into Tonia.
She got into the habit of walking around quietly so she could come upon Vivian without her knowing it; so she could overhear those strange conversations Vivian had with her hidden twin.
“That boy who pointed at us today?” Vivian said one day after school. “I’m going to throw a rock at him. I’m good at throwing. He says I have boobs, and they jiggle. I don’t have boobs. Do I, Tonia?”
She was silent. “Do you have boobs?”
She listened, her head slightly tilted.
“Maybe a rock isn’t right,” she said. “Maybe I’ll grab a bat and hit him.”
Things like that froze Ivy’s heart sometimes. Sometimes she was too stunned by it—too uncertain what to do because she was horrified by Vivian’s condition as much as she was determined to protect her. She came up with a reason for everything Vivian did, and much of it was due to the influence of the inner twin. When she found little piles of cookies, and pens of different colors, and scented candles and perfumes, she knew what they meant: they were teaching lessons for Tonia. She had found Vivian whispering, “This is a fork,” and putting the fork up against the little foot protruding from her stomach. “This is a spoon,” she continued, picking up a spoon, and Ivy, her heart zooming, passed by stiffly.
What did the inner twin learn? Math, apparently, because she heard Vivian explaining the times table and putting various numbers of things against that foot. Ivy’s brother saw that, asked about it, and his lips tightened. “She’s a little witch,” he said. “That one’s a creepy one, all right.” Ivy shushed him, and looked over his shoulder at Vivian, looking back at her. Her arms were crossed over her chest, over Tonia’s foot, protecting her.
From then on Ivy only saw her brother when Vivian wasn’t around. She couldn’t stand the way his eyes flicked from Vivian to anywhere else, and then uneasily back. And besides, Vivian had asked if her uncle hated her. Because he always put his hand on her extra foot and one time he had said, “Where’s the rest of it, Vivian? Where you hiding the rest of it? Why don’t you let it come out?”
Had he really said that? Or was it something Vivian (or Tonia) had made up? It was disturbing to realize she might not trust her own daughter. Of course she trusted her own daughter. Daughters.
“Your uncle loves you,” she said. “He told me to tell you and I forgot. He hasn’t been feeling well and he doesn’t want you to catch anything from him.”
Vivian nodded. “He’s sick,” she repeated, stroking her stomach. “All right, he’s sick.”
Ivy pieced Tonia together from conversations she overheard and from Vivian’s own actions. Tonia questioned everything in detail. The taste, the scent, the touch. The rules of living outside a twin. The way the world was. Ivy felt claustrophobic, sometimes, just thinking about the inner twin. What was it like to live that way, in the darkness, with the sound only of a beating heart or she supposed, actually, digestive sounds, breathing sounds, the swish of blood moving. In such a very small space, the only outside world known through her foot. She had seen that foot twitch; she knew the foot had sensation and after all these years, there was no reason to doubt Vivian’s statement that the foot belonged to Tonia, and Tonia was alive.
One day Ivy saw the white-haired girl across the street. She called to Vivian that her friend was there. It had been a while since they’d gotten together, but she had looked up and seen the girl through the window and it seemed like a good thing, that Vivian had a friend again. They were almost teenagers, and she didn’t know what it would be like, living with Vivian when hormones kicked in.
“Oh, Tonia,” Vivian said, “Sophie is coming to see us.” She moved to the door, and Ivy could almost swear she heard a hiss coming from Vivian’s belly. It must have been something else.
She looked through the window as Vivian ran out, and ran down from the house, and ran into the street.
A car raced down the street and hit her.
Ivy screamed and ran out as the car took off, and she knelt down next to Vivian and began to sob and ran her hands over her, checking, checking.
Vivian’s eyes were open and looked over to the side. Her chest didn’t rise. There was blood on the street. Through the cloth of Vivian’s blouse Ivy could see a twitch. Tonia. She stared at it, aghast, and heard shouting and sirens. The foot twitched again and Ivy could see a bulge where Vivian’s stomach was exposed, her clothes askew. She thought she should do something to save the inner twin, who was struggling to survive—and how long would that struggle go on? She told herself she would say something when the ambulance came, and she really meant to, but she was terrified of what it would look like, that inner twin, and so when they put Vivian on a stretcher, she merely said that her child was deformed, and she let them decide what they would do as if she knew nothing at all about the child inside, whose desperate voice she told herself she couldn’t hear.
3. There was never anything but darkness, and at first never any sound but the thought of sound. Never any taste but the impression of taste. There was sensation, or the impression of sensation. And a persistent wavelike feeling that might, after all, be sound.
Vivian wanted to know what the real things were. She had learned what she could from Tonia, had gone along as she learned to move, to run, to eat, to go to school. Understood that there were clothes, and Tonia knew how to assemble them. She had mental images of things that might or might not be close to the things Tonia actually knew without effort. What was a car but motion; what was a soda but liquid; what was the sky that couldn’t be touched? Her senses were shut up yet longing to be used.
And they couldn’t be used because of Tonia, who was outside and kept her inside.
She knew that. She had learned words and maybe not images, but words and concepts. Some of it Tonia whispered to her when they were alone, when Vivian asked about things in a sweet voice, flattering Tonia to no end because Tonia liked to be flattered, liked to feel she was strong and smart.
The world Vivian knew was amniotic and warm. She was cramped but she had never been otherwise. Her arms were bent, her hands reached up. Her legs were curled against each other. The sound of her sister’s heart was her touchstone, the start and end to her day. The oceanic swish of blood and breath and digestion kept her soothed.
The sounds she heard formed her thoughts. Nothing proceeded in a straight line for her; she moved and rippled side to side and front to back. Vivian was at war with herself, caught between the cavelike world inside her sister and the world outside—dreamed of, in blurry patches, described when Tonia felt like describing it, or when she had been humiliated by some failure and sought out her twin for solace. Vivian rested inside her dark world, there to be used by her sister and never to be released. Why couldn’t she be released?
Why couldn’t she trade with her twin for a while? Let her feel how food rubbed down her arm as it traveled the gullet, how a deep breath, a hearty laugh, made her cringe in a tighter world, and made her aware of how far away she was from the source of joy. She wanted to see her mother, her father, her sister’s friends. She wanted to see a puppy.
And she wanted to make her sister scream. How dare Tonia accept that she had the outside world, as if by rights? It was not a right, it was an accident, and by all accounts her sister was wasting almost every moment of the great gift she had, asking for shoes and music and parties and puppies, all of them to be kept from Vivian. But that didn’t sadden Vivian, the fact that these gifts (for her birthday even! for their birthday!) could never be shared despite how often Tonia made a pretence of it. “Thank you, mommy!” she’d squeal over a desired toy. “We love it, mommy!” as if Vivian stood a chance at sharing it.
Tonia was always using Vivian. “Mommy, we need a new coat because Vivian is chilly when I’m chilly,” she’d say, and get the coat.
“Mommy, we need to go in the car and drive to the park because Vivian is feeling all cramped up and needs me to get more exercise.”
The little liar. Eating extra shares of cake. Vivian stiffened her shoulders in hatred, clenching her arms, making a small motion with her foot. She could hear Tonia complain, felt her sister’s hands pushing back against her stomach.
Tonia went to a special school with special children. A lot of them were fragile or deformed in some way. There was a little white-haired girl, Sophie, who followed Tonia around for some reason.
Sophie had nicks on her arms and Ivy found out that Sophie was in therapy because she cut herself. Ivy wavered over letting the girl come over. She wavered, and by wavering she let it happen. Sophie’s mother called her and said, carefully, that she was grateful that her daughter was allowed to have a friend. “Allowed” to have a friend. It struck a chord with Ivy, whose own child was oddly shaped and whispered to herself; how could she judge another child with different challenges? She encouraged Tonia to play with Sophie and Tonia set her mouth hard and did it, at least some of the time. She hated the way Sophie stared at her without blinking for minutes at a time. It made Tonia blink reactively.
But Tonia had problems greater than Sophie. Vivian was becoming more unbearable every year. She kept insisting that Tonia was going to die and that she, Vivian, was going to be on the outside, where she belonged, and where Tonia was useless. “You never do anything. You’re too afraid. And you should be afraid. You don’t pay attention. What did you have for dinner last night?”
“French fries,” Tonia said quickly. She was a poor eater; her mother almost always gave her French fries.
“I wanted mashed potatoes.”
“You can’t put ketchup on mashed potatoes.”
“You can put butter on mashed potatoes. I like butter.”
Tonia was silent.
Vivian said, “I will like butter. When I’m free.”
Tonia said, resentfully, “You’ll never be free.”
“Sophie said she knows how to get me free.”
That silenced Tonia. She was becoming a little afraid of Sophie, who had once shown her a razor blade she kept wrapped up in her pocket. She had opened the thick paper, fold after fold, and then cut a thin red line across her thigh with the razor inside it. And then looked up and grinned.
Recently Sophie had said, “I have very good hearing.”
“So do I,” Tonia replied. She wanted to be better than Sophie in every possible way. “I can hear birds fly.”
“So can I,” Sophie replied. “I can hear mice in the walls.”
“Everyone can hear mice in the walls.”
Sophie smiled. She had a tranquil, foxy face and knobby arms, so she looked like a cartoon spider. “I can hear Vivian. I can hear you talk to her, and I can hear what she says.”
That shut Tonia up, but Vivian turned her head in the dark with evident excitement and said, “Can you hear Tonia’s heart beat?”
“I can hear two hearts beat,” Sophie said. “And yours is so much stronger.”
Tonia thought, “Is she talking to me? Is my heart stronger?” But Vivian was sure Sophie was taking to her. Vivian knew she was the strong one.
Their discussions were three-way discussions after that. This pleased Vivian but Tonia began to dislike the little white-haired girl. “She leaves me out, sometime,” she said to Vivian. “She just wants to talk to you. It’s creepy.”
“Talking to me is creepy?”
“I mean, I’m right in front of her.”
Vivian was silent.
“She can see me,” Tonia said desperately.
Vivian curled her hands, causing Tonia to wince.
“Vivian, Sophie and I are on the outside. In the world.” She was doing her best to explain.
“Oh! The world!” Vivian cried. “You’re always talking about the world!” She tried to twist herself, she was so furious. Tonia was her boundary, her prison, the greedy girl who took everything away from her, and never could describe what that “everything” was.
“Stop that,” Tonia cried. “You’re hurting me.”
“I want the world,” Vivian said, and stopped twisting.
A little later, Tonia was riding her bike home from school. It was an old bike—her mom said “classic”—and it had a basket in front and a shelf over the rear wheel so she could bungee her books on it. She did well on bikes, despite the boxy appearance of her torso. She had a helmet in the basket; her mother forced her to wear it, but it stayed in the basket when her mother wasn’t watching.
She and Vivian kept fighting about Sophie, whom Tonia no longer wanted to see. “Because she talks to me, that’s why you hate her,” Vivian said.
Tonia was sullen.
“If I were in the world, the two of us would go wherever we wanted.”
Pause. “You mean the two of us?”
Tonia slowed her bike and put her foot down to steady it. “She’s weird,” Tonia said stiffly.
Vivian snickered and Tonia flushed. “I’m not weird,” Tonia said. “Weird means you choose not to be like everyone else.”
“You’re not like everyone else. And I’m not like anyone else.”
“I’m more like everyone else than you are.” Tonia frowned. She was getting lost in the argument.
“You’ll never be like everyone else as long as I’m inside,” Vivian said. “And I’ll never be normal as long as I’m hidden like this.”
Tonia, annoyed, clenched the brake lever on the handlebars. “You’ll always be hidden,” she said.
“When you get older, won’t you want to take me out?”
“I don’t know,” she said, surprised. “I’m used to it. To you. It would be so different.”
Sophie whistled from across the street. “That’s Sophie,” Tonia said, annoyed.
“I want to talk to her.”
“Please. Only for a few minutes.” Vivian was pleading, but there was a certain edge that said the pleading could turn into anger.
Sophie stared and Tonia felt caught by that stare, biting her lip and considering. She might as well get it over with, so that Vivian would leave her in peace.
She let her bike drop and shrugged. Her eyes were on Sophie, and Sophie’s eyes were on her, which is probably why she stepped out without looking first. She was annoyed, and grudging, and worried by what Vivian had said.
The car hit Tonia so hard she flew up in the air. It was so surprising she didn’t even notice it. She just flew. The car slowed down and then sped up.
Her body, already unbalanced and vulnerable in odd ways, landed almost at Sophie’s feet. Her legs were twisted; her neck was twisted. Her eyes were open and unblinking.
The white-haired girl leaned down. “Vivian?” Sophie whispered.
“Yes.” The voice was thin. “Where’s Tonia?”
Sophie tapped Tonia with the toe of her shoe, three times, each time a little harder. She got down on her knees and put her hand over Tonia’s hand and mouth. “It doesn’t feel like she’s breathing,” she said.
“I can’t hear her,” Vivian murmured. “Can you help her?”
Sophie took out a small rectangle of folded paper and began to open it. “Can you move your foot or anything?”
“My foot,” Vivian said and inched her toes a little. “Tonia hates when I do that.”
“Now move your hands.” Sophie took the razor out of the paper.
“I feel strange,” Vivian said weakly. “I don’t like this, Sophie. Can’t you help Tonia? Something’s happening.”
“It’s the world, Vivian, that’s what it is. Don’t worry, you’ll see it in a minute. Tonia can’t stop you now.”
“She isn’t breathing, is she? But I think I can still hear her heart.”
“That’s your heart. Now you can hear your heart.”
Vivian was being tugged. She felt a limit, a boundary to herself being released and the world rushed in all at once, in a tumble—light, cold, smells, sounds. She was being lifted and then placed down on what she imagined her sister calling roughness.
She opened her eyes and she could only see brightness, whiteness, not colors but a wincing kind of blurring.
“Don’t look at the sun, you’ll hurt your eyes,” Sophie said.
She turned her head and it was better. Things were all jumbled now, lines and shadows and shapes. Her eyes slowly looked around the world close to her. She stared at a shape and tried to make it into anything her sister had described to her, but the effort to reconcile an unseen world with a seen one proved too much. She didn’t know what the shape was.
“What am I looking at?” she asked Sophie. “What do I see?”
Sophie shifted, sitting back on her heels. Vivian—twisted, underdeveloped, a purplish color, her skin glistening, no hair on her body, the size of a doll—looked at her sister’s face, looked at her outer self, who had never seemed completely a stranger or completely a friend. She had no idea what faces were, how they worked, what they did, and as she stared at the dips and rises of her sister’s face, she was blind to the other world in a new way. She couldn’t feel her sister breathe or hear her heart beat, or roam through the world like a sheltered heart while Tonia described what she chose to describe; that was gone. The world was hers now, and none of it was quite as good as the inner world, where she’d lived like a jewel on the inside of a crown.
“What am I seeing?” she asked Sophie, her eyes trying to piece together the world her sister had described to her, so she could recognize anything about it at all.
“I want to see Tonia,” she said. “I want to be near Tonia.”
Sophie stood there, folding her piece of paper back into its usual shape, putting it back in her pocket, looking down the street to where a neighbor was walking towards them. She stepped back, and stepped away.
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