by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in M-Brane SF, #18, July 2010
The starhopper had been parked on the edge of town for several hours. After the seven star jump to get all the way to Neggemmon, Jordy figured his friends would want to get right out and meet the natives, so to speak. He understood when Tom recommended fixing lunch first. (Seriously, you can never trust the food in out-of-touch Expansionist colonies. Forget a colony for long enough, and they’ll start harvesting vacuum-slugs to eat.) But he started to get suspicious when Henry suggested relaxing with a quick hand of cards.
One quick hand stretched into several, and Henry kept heckling Tom into playing “just one more.” To give him a chance to win his money back.
“I don’t understand you guys,” Jordy said. “I’d be as excited as hell to get out there, if I were you.”
“You think we’re not excited?” Henry looked calm and collected, completely focused on his cards. Not excited. When Henry looked up, he saw the raised eyebrow expressing skepticism in Jordy’s face. “What?” he said. “This is my poker face. If I looked excited, it’d give away my hand.”
“If you’re so excited, why are we still playing cards?”
“Henry’s afraid,” Tom said. Henry cuffed Tom on the shoulder. Jordy could always trust one brother to rat the other one out. Though, looking them in the eyes, Jordy could tell that both of them were scared.
“Why are you two more afraid to go out there than I am? You’ll fit right in. Everyone’s going to stare at me.”
Henry opened his mouth to answer, but Tom cut him off before he could make a sound. “Being stared at is our niche. Fitting in scares us.” Henry nodded agreement and turned back to his cards.
Jordy let that answer sit and finished the hand. Afterwards, Tom and Henry shuffled the cards and began dealing them again, their two hands working together with the ease that years of practice brought.
Responding to an impatient look from Jordy, Tom said “Hey, I’m ready whenever. If you can convince Henry, that is.” The brothers shot each other a meaningful glance. Jordy could tell it was meaningful, but he couldn’t divine the meaning. It was twin code. “That’s why I wanted to bring you, you know. To give Henry a kick in the pants when he chickened out. Just don’t kick too hard.” Tom grinned; he didn’t have to add “They’re my pants, too.”
Henry scowled. “That’s not why we brought you.” He bent his well-groomed head over the freshly dealt cards, carefully examining his fanned out hand.
It was the small things that reminded Jordy of Tom and Henry’s strangeness — like the way Henry could deftly arrange his cards holding them with only one hand. Other people stared for the larger, more obvious, cruder reason: “Hey, look, there’s a man with two heads!” Jordy could never think of them that way; more like two men sharing one body.
Tom and Henry were that rarity in a day and age when most children were genetically tweaked and hormonally toned by their parents: a child who was conceived naturally but who had come out unusual enough that he — they — couldn’t hide it. Conjoined twins, with two legs, two arms, and two heads. If you weren’t paying attention, they appeared to be normal, separate brothers, albeit sitting unusually close to each other, with their missing arms most likely around each other’s backs. Still, if even their best friend couldn’t help sometimes staring at them, then Jordy couldn’t blame Tom for calling it their niche.
Henry looked up to see Jordy and Tom still watching him. “You haven’t looked at your hands,” he said. “Oh, bloody, all right.” He threw his cards back down. “We can go.”
The road into town was dusty, and the first buildings it passed were small and wooden. They were buildings that could be built by hand from the natural resources of the world. As such, they were the first hint of flavor to grace the senses of Jordy and his hesitant friends. Jordy saw nothing special about the buildings, but Henry noticed that the doors were unusually wide. He sometimes felt crowded by the doorframe when he and his brother walked, together, into a room. Wider doors was nice.
The three travelers continued down the rural road toward the center of town. They could see, looming before them, past the little wooden buildings, the cookie-cutter mansions found in any Expansionist colony from the first-wave. Back then, in the hurry to Expand with a capital E, the seeds of humanity were shot toward any and every likely star system like dandelion fluff on the wind. The Expansionists tried generation ships, cryo-ships, natal-ships (loaded with fetuses to be birthed on arrival — a complete disaster), and anything else that crossed their star-craving minds.
Often, prep-convoys were sent ahead to ready the new colony for its coming inhabitants. They brought Earth-Zero plants, animals, terra-forming machines to tweak the atmosphere, and the unassembled, super-alloy buildings Tom, Henry, and Jordy were approaching now.
Only, sometimes, the prep-convoys were forgotten. And the rest of the colony never arrived.
Usually, forgotten colonies dwindled to nothing as the prep-pilots slowly died, leaving ghost towns on the invisible planets circling distant stars dotting the Expansionist sky. Sometimes, the prep-pilots forged on and started their own colonies from their limited genetic stock combined with genetic samples and records dragged along. Then strange things happened. Things like Neggemmon.
For all the strangeness, Jordy felt oddly at ease. Perhaps it was his reaction to Tom and Henry’s skulking sullenness. They both seemed to feel it was the other’s fault they were here. Neither made eye contact with the people they were beginning to pass, entering the town’s thickness. Jordy, however, nodded greetings to the surprised onlookers. Double visages stared at him from every direction, but Jordy knew his place, so their eyes in fours didn’t bother him.
Jordy had to keep Tom and Henry here until they loosened up, became themselves again, and got to know these people who must have more in common with them than anyone on Crossroads Station, planet Da Vinci, or even their homeworld. As long as Jordy continued to forge ahead, the brothers were forced to meekly follow him. After all, Jordy had pocketed the keys to the star-hopper.
“Let’s find a bar,” Jordy said. He expected no response from Tom or Henry so he spoke loudly. As hoped, two women nearby overheard him. They rushed toward him, shuffling on their two feet, overburdened by overweight. They were a plump woman.
“There’s a good bar in New Town,” the right sister said. “You’re clearly new here…” She was looking Tom and Henry over as she spoke; the left sister smiled placidly.
“That sounds great,” Jordy said, thumping Henry in the arm, since Henry was the closer brother. Back at Crossroads Station he was also the more social… He took the hint.
“I’m Henry,” Henry said, putting out a hand to shake.
“And Tom,” Tom added, putting out his hand.
The sisters looked confused, but they put out two hands, making a strange hand-holding hand-shake. “Nice to meet you…” the right sister, who was speaking, stumbled over their names, “HenryandTom. I’m Claire.”
“And you?” Henry asked, locking eyes with the left sister.
Unnamed, the left sister glanced between the faces looking expectantly at her. She looked as though she wanted to hide. Henry inclined his head, further urging a response.
The right sister, perplexed, repeated “I’m Claire. Claire.”
“Yes, but…” Tom began, sounding contentious.
Henry quickly interrupted, saying “It’s nice to meet you, Claire.”
Claire smiled, and her unnamed sister relaxed into anonymity.
“Yes, and I’m Jordy. Now, about that bar?”
“Would you like me to show you there?” Claire asked, but before any of them could answer, her unnamed left sister cut in. “Actually,” unnamed said, “I have to get to the gravbuggy repair before it closes.”
Claire murmured, “Yes, yes, I forgot. I can be so forgetful…”
The unnamed sister continued, “but I can give you directions.” Unnamed spoke very precisely, verbally guiding them along the path they would take to the bar in New Town.
When she was done, Henry thanked her, and then he switched his gaze from the bashful left face to Claire’s smiling face on the right. “And thank you, too,” he added.
“Yes, we’re very grateful.” Tom stumbled over the words, clearly nervous, but he still smiled at each plump face in turn.
“You’re an odd one,” Claire said, squinching her eyebrows, looking between Tom and Henry, trying to figure these strange off-worlders out. At last, she concluded, “You should meet my sister. She likes the odd ones.”
All eyes — except Claire’s — turned to the unnamed woman sharing Claire’s lumpy shoulders, but her shy smile hadn’t changed. Tom and Henry shared a glance out of the corners of their eyes, and Jordy tilted his head, trying to make Claire’s statement fall into place.
“Yes, yes,” Claire asserted, “you should definitely meet Lori.” The unnamed woman spoke, as if in answer to Claire, “I can stop by Lori’s office after I pick my gravbuggy up.” Claire picked up right where unnamed left off, saying, “I’ll send her your way. She would enjoy having a drink with you two.”
At first, Jordy thought Claire meant Tom and Henry, but from the way she looked at him, he couldn’t help feeling included in the “two.”
The walk to the bar was quiet. Jordy was mulling over the conversation with Claire and her strangely quiet conjoined twin. Tom and Henry simply seemed shell-shocked by their new environment. Jordy couldn’t blame them, though he wouldn’t have guessed what they were thinking. Each brother was wondering, in his own way, whether they looked as strange as Claire and her twin did. Every day, Tom and Henry saw themselves in the mirror. They thought they were used to what a pair of conjoined twins looked like. Instead, they found that they were used to what they looked like. Since Claire and her twin didn’t look like them — or like anyone else they’d met before–, they looked… odd.
As the brothers walked through the wide-set door into the Drowsy Apricot bar, Henry finally managed to put the feeling bothering him into words: “How can I feel like Claire and her twin looked like a freak, when we look just like them?”
“Maybe they are a freak,” Tom answered. “Who comes running up to talk to off-world strangers like that anyway? I could never be that chirpy. Besides, we don’t look just like them.”
Henry fell into silence as they approached the bar. It was made from a wood-grain patterned metal-alloy, and the shelves behind it were lined with bottles, decanters, glass mugs, and metal canteens. The bartenders, a pair of twins with stylishly shaggy hair, were polishing the faux wood with a dust rag. The left twin asked the arriving customers, “What can I getcha?”
Tom ordered a beer for himself and the apricot special, advertised on a flashing monitor behind the bar, for his brother. He knew Henry would want to sample the local special. Jordy waited to order while the bartenders worked together to whip up the fancy, mellow orange drink. When the apricot special was done, the left bartender slid it down the bar to where Jordy was sitting and said, with a wink, “Here ya go brother. Enjoy your special.”
“No,” Henry interjected, pulled from his reverie. “That’s for me. Jordy isn’t our brother. Just a friend.” He grabbed his frothy orange drink, coordinated with Tom picking up his beer, and the brothers moved seamlessly to a nearby table. Tom liked sitting at the bar, but he knew from long experience that Henry would be miserable if he forced them to stay. He also knew that once Henry relaxed a little, at the privacy of their own table and with the help of a few drinks, they could probably move back to the bar. Tom would chat with the bartender then.
While Jordy ordered a drink for himself, Tom and Henry watched other customers wander through the wide front door. Most of them looked like regulars, with regular spots at the bar or tables. Two girls in particular caught Henry’s eye, and he reached over to tap Tom on the wrist, making sure he noticed them too. They looked more out of place in the bar than the others, like they were looking for someone. More importantly, they were exactly Tom and Henry’s type — cute bobbed hair and a snub nose, well, two snubbed noses, one on each of them.
“Now that’s why we’re here,” Tom said, then took a gulp of his beer and raised the glass for the left sister to see as she passed them, heading toward the bar but looking back at him. He wanted to get up and follow her. He tensed his leg to stand, but he didn’t feel any answering tension from Henry’s half of the body. Tom sighed. There would be time later, when the apricot alcohol loosened Henry up… And, this way, the girl had more time to glance back at him over her shoulder, and maybe gossip about him with her twin.
Jordy joined them, setting his beer stein before him on the table. Jordy was still thinking about the spooky conversation they’d had with Claire. “Do you guys think there was something wrong with Claire?” he asked. He didn’t mean Claire, exactly, but he couldn’t bring himself to refer directly to her sister — she’d seemed more like a ghost, phantoming Claire than a real person like Tom or Henry.
Tom barely gave him a glance in response — still absorbed in watching the snub-nosed sisters, and Henry said “Claire? The girl we met on the way in?”
“Never mind,” Jordy said. After a deep gulp of beer, he changed the subject, saying “So, why is this colony here?”
“Blind luck?” Henry suggested, beginning to relax into an apricoty haze. “Someone in the universe likes us.” He looked sidewise at Tom, lifting the dregs of his fancy drink to clink glasses, but Tom disagreed.
“I’ve told you the history,” Tom said, his attention snapping back to the table, away from the snub-nosed girls (who were indeed glancing, occasionally, over their shoulders at him). For history buffs like Tom, stories about generations dead girls can be more important than live girls two tables away. He began the story: “There were a pair of brilliant pilots — two sisters. Conjoined.”
“Like us,” Henry added, and, waving his glass around to indicate the entire room, “like them!”
Tom ignored him. “These sisters claimed that their success with long-range space missions had to do with their ability to work together and keep each other company in the dead of space.”
“This was back during Wave-1 Expansion?” Jordy asked.
“Right, way back when,” Tom said. “Anyway, the Expansionists thought these sisters, Lana and Elly Chang were right. So, they sponsored a fellowship program. If you wanted your kids to have a confirmed education and career before they were even born, all you had to do was sign on the dotted line, allow them to use a special hormone treatment in the womb at the right time and BAM. You’ve got twins. Well, sort of.”
Henry snorted. “They targeted poor families, didn’t they?”
“Well, that’s not in the records. But it’s a good bet.”
“So…” Jordy began to put the pieces together. “The government trained all these conjoined twins to be pilots. Then, they sent them off to set up this colony.”
“I’ve heard crazier stories from back then. Did I tell you about the colony founded by a natal-ship?”
“Yes,” Tom said. “I’ve heard about that one. Not enough nannies were sent along. Anyway… When, the conjoined pilots got here, to Neggemmon — only it was Negemon, with one ‘G’ and one ‘M’ back then — they were stranded.”
“One of the abandoned prep-teams for whom the colony never shows up,” Henry clarified, showing he was, despite his attempts to one-handedly build structures out of the coasters, paying attention.
“Except, unlike most of them,” Jordy said, “this abandoned prep-team persevered.”
“Yes,” Tom agreed, “they decided to make a home for themselves here and have children. Only, they decided to make the next generation in their own image.”
“In our own image!” The coasters fell over. Henry added, happily, “Cheers!”
Jordy and Tom caught each other’s eyes, silently agreeing that one apricot special seemed to be enough. Tom would have liked another beer, but it wasn’t worth the effect it would have on Henry. Even though they shared one bloodstream, Henry never could handle alcohol as well as Tom. Tom suspected it was a ploy — an excuse to let go and become the irresponsible one. But, he’d never caught Henry in the act, and he probably never would. So, it was better to play along.
“I think I’ll head back to the bar and get some water,” Tom said. He asked Henry, only half-joking, “Want to come along?” Since the brothers couldn’t go anywhere without each other, they’d learned this pride-saving strategy long ago: inviting Henry to join him was better than asking Henry’s permission to leave.
“Oh, sure,” Henry said, shoving the coasters into a little pile. The two of them rose, and Tom drew a sharp breath when he saw the girls he’d earlier had his eye on watching him. The left sister smiled, and the right sister beckoned them over.
“Hello,” Henry said, as they seated themselves beside the girls at the bar.
“Can we get some water?” Tom addressed the bar-tenders. The bar-tenders inexplicably looked at the girls, who shrugged, before nodding and grabbing two glasses. Filled to the brim, the waters sloshed as the bar-tender shoved them towards Tom.
“Thanks,” the snub-nosed girl on the right said, taking one of the waters. “But, you’re not going to impress a girl much with water.”
“Actually…” Tom said, “that water was for me.” He put his hand out, and carefully, tentatively took back his water. The girls complied, letting him have the water, but they were both giving him the funniest look. The left one said, her eyes flickering between the two brothers, “You must be the man my sister was talking about. Then, fluidly, the right one added: “My sister is Claire. I’m Lori.” Back to the left: “You must be… HenryandTom.” Her eyes never left Tom’s face as she rushed both names together, chin held high and straight.
Her other head, for Tom had a terrible feeling that’s what the beautiful face on the right was, tilted provocatively, waiting for his answer. It made her even cuter in his estimation than she’d been before. “Actually, I’m Tom. You’re Lori?” he asked her.
“Yes,” the left face smiled; the right one squinched her snub-nose adorably.
He tried again, looking directly into the eyes of the face on the right. “You’re Lori?”
“Yes.” In unison. Their lilting voices were both haunting and beautiful spoken together like that. A shout into a canyon, repeated to coincide perfectly, almost perfectly with its echo. Tom looked at the two faces — he saw two girls, sisters, deserving to be equals. Was one of them only a shadow?
“I don’t know how to explain this,” Tom said, tapping Henry’s arm. Henry was slumped over his water, forehead leaning heavily into the heal of his hand. Tom desperately wished he would snap out of it; he could really use Henry’s support. “I’m a little confused…” Henry was at least paying attention now, so Tom spoke to him. “This girl — these girls — they both say they’re Lori.”
“They’ve got the same name?” Henry asked. He clearly wasn’t getting it.
“I don’t think so.”
Lori was watching them closely. “You came in with him?” Her left self twisted around and pointed at Jordy.
“Yes,” Tom said.
“You’re from off-world,” she said. “All you’ve known is… people,” there was a strange twist to the way she said the word, and Tom thought he saw her right self mouth the words half-people, “like him.” It wasn’t a question.
“Full ambi-cognitive schism,” the right Lori said, staring somewhere between Tom and Henry’s faces. Henry didn’t know what that meant, but he knew it ruffled him the wrong way. “I’ve never seen a full blown case before.” The left Lori was looking at them closely, noting their different reactions.
Tom tried to play it cool. “You’re a psychologist or something?” It bothered him after he said the words that he didn’t know which woman he was asking… He feared he was asking both of them, despite the singularity of his noun.
“Yes,” Lori said with her left mouth and offered Tom her right hand. “It’s an honor to meet you.”
At least, that was how she saw it.
Even though the Lori who spoke — the brain in her left head–, wasn’t controlling the hand, couldn’t feel the sensations in it when Tom cautiously took it in his rough hand, she felt complete ownership over it. Maybe her smile was less warm on her left face than on her right, and there was less of a blush from the feel of Tom’s warm fingers, but that didn’t make Lori feel any less like they’d shaken hands.
That’s how it felt to shake hands for her.
Henry, on the other hand, only watched the handshake. He saw his brother take and hold the delicate, slender fingers of a beautiful woman. She might be saying strange and upsetting things, calling him names he didn’t understand, and elusively refusing to identify herself (for it still hadn’t sunk in for Henry that the sisters he saw were an illusion of his perspective and upbringing).
No, in Henry’s eyes, Tom was making time with an annoying but beautiful girl, and she had a sister, sitting right there, next to her, waiting for him. A sister she wouldn’t feel squeamish about sharing too much of her private life with… A sister he could kiss and make love to while Henry did the same with his girl. For Lori (and the phantom sister that Henry imagined when he saw her) it would be the same act of love in the same way it was for Henry and Tom.
“Hi, I’m Henry,” Henry said. He stuck his hand out, hovering it hopefully near Lori’s previously unshaken hand. Lori looked amused and a little confused in both her faces, but she lifted her hand from resting on the bar and placed it in his. Henry gripped it firmly, gently, before letting her slip her hand away. The blush and warmth reached her left cheeks now. It was subtle. Lori didn’t understand the difference, but she knew the man — insane though he was by her culture’s definition — had charmed her. She didn’t know how; she didn’t realize that his simple insistence on shaking hands with both of her hands made her two halves more equal, relevant, realized. Whole.
“And I’m Lori,” her left self repeated. “I thought we were past the introductions,” she was smiling, almost laughing as she spoke, “but I guess they’re a lot more complicated if you have a dual identity.”
“Hey!” Henry exclaimed. He sputtered before recovering himself enough to say, “Look, I’m trying to be nice here, and you keep throwing these names at me.”
“Calm down, Henry,” Tom said.
“Do you even know what she’s talking about? Or her? You’re making awful nice-nice with her, but I don’t know what in the hell either of them is talking about.”
Tom opened his mouth to speak, but Lori put her right hand on his right to stall him. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ve never met someone like you.” Her eyes on the left darted between both brothers, and she quickly added, with her left self, “Like either of you.” Her right self picked up the hint and fluidly continued, “I should know better than to throw technical jargon around like that, but, you –” Her left self added, “– both of you –” Back to the right, “– need to understand that no one here has met anyone like the two of you.”
After a pause and a nervous glance at the bartender, who was watching them skeptically, Lori’s left self concluded: “It’s likely to cause a lot of confusion.”
The bartender snorted with one head and muttered, “To say the least,” with the other.
“You want to keep out of this, buddy?” Henry asked, hostility dripping from every word.
“Henry…” Tom said, hoping to placate his brother. He could tell Henry’s temper was sorely unbalanced, and he didn’t want to end up in a fight. Though, the adrenaline in his blood, coursing through his body at an accelerated rate due to Henry’s fear and anger racing heart wasn’t making it easy for Tom to stay steady either.
The bartender put up his hands, palms out. “My mistake,” he said. “Private conversation.” He gestured with the rag he’d been using to wipe down the bar and looked at Lori, “I’ll be over there if you need me, Lori.”
Lori smiled, tight lips on both mouths, and was about to thank the bartender when Tom and Henry leapt from their seat. Tom had tried to stay stolidly seated, but Henry’s fury had won the day. “That tears it,” he yelled. “You think this crazy lady has anything to fear from me?”
“Henry.” Tom’s voice sounded like their father’s in his ears. He hoped it sounded that way in Henry’s ears too. “You’re making me look bad. You’re making yourself look bad.”
“Sounds to me like these people think that’s the same thing.”
“All the more reason for me to want you to sit down, Henry.”
“Well, I don’t have to care what you want.”
While they spoke, Tom and Henry stood rooted in one spot. Tom had his hand on the bar and was trying to reseat themself; Henry had his hand balled into a fist and was straining to leap toward the bartender.
Fortunately, the pique in Henry’s voice called Jordy’s attention. Before anyone else could react to Henry’s rising tone, Jordy was across the room and had laid a staying hand on his shoulder. “You don’t want to get in a fistfight,” Jordy said. “You know you don’t.”
Henry relaxed a little, knowing what Jordy said was true; Tom breathed a sigh of relief.
“Why don’t you two go back to the star-hopper? I can clear the tab here.” Jordy pulled the keys out of his pocket and handed them to Tom.
“Thanks, Jordy,” Tom said, meaning much more than thanks for covering the tab. He took a tentative step back from the bar, trying not to press his luck too hard too fast. After an awkward moment of holding that careful balance, Henry’s foot followed suit. They were able to turn away together and walk for the door.
Once they were gone, the tension in the bar palpably lessened. However, it wasn’t gone. Conjoined natives who had been keeping a pair of eyes on the worrisome newcomers still had one worrisome newcomer to watch. Jordy could tell he was subtly the center of attention, but he wasn’t bothered by it like Henry had been. This wasn’t his world, and he knew it never would be. So, he was free to ignore the opinions of him that he could feel forming around him.
He took a few credit chips out of his wallet and set them on the bar, moving closer to Lori in doing so. The bartender looked at the currency curiously. “Credit chips?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Jordy answered. “They’re good here, right?”
“I guess so…” the bartender said. “I mean, we did join the League… I’ve just never seen them before.” Credit chips were the official currency of the League of Expansionary Planets, but most colonies used an unofficial local currency as well.
“Can I get another beer over here?” Jordy asked. “I think I’m gonna need it before joining up with my mates again.” He spoke loudly on purpose, hoping to break the tension. It worked. The bartender’s smile became easier, and Jordy heard a snort of a laugh from somewhere in the bar behind him.
The bartender slid Jordy’s fresh beer along the bar top, froth slanting and spilling over the edge before it stopped almost in front of Lori. Jordy took the stool beside her, where Tom and Henry had been sitting before, and picked up the dripping beer. He sucked the foam off the top and tried to mop the sides down with a napkin. He was stalling, trying to figure out what to say to this pretty girl — girls, in his mind still, no matter what he’d figured out about how this colony worked — whom Tom and Henry clearly liked.
“They like you,” he said.
“Both of them?” right-Lori asked. “And,” from left-Lori, “all of me?”
Jordy smiled. “You’re right,” he admitted. “It’s more like half and half.”
Quietly, left-Lori said, “I thought so.” Both faces were smiling. A warm and beautiful smile. Jordy could see what attracted Tom to them. “We’re not used to seeing our separate halves as separate people. A few people do, but therapy almost always helps them learn to fit in.”
“You’re a therapist.”
Lori shrugged her shoulders. It was one motion her two halves could perform seamlessly, requiring both sides to be complete, without easily dividing into what could be seen as two separate motions. “Something like that,” she said. “Actually a psychologist. But I do therapy sometimes. It’s not called for a lot.”
She switched back and forth between her mouths as she spoke — one sentence from the right, the other from the left. But, Jordy was trying to tune that out. If she thought of herselves as one person, he thought he should try to do so too. It was respectful. And practical.
Building up two separate Lori’s in his mind would only confuse him. That way madness lay. He’d seen Henry treading there. But who better to tread towards madness with than a therapist? Or even a psychologist.
“Tell you what,” Jordy said. “Would you like to go on a date with my friends? Or do a therapy session for them? Or something?”
Lori laughed. In stereo, from two beautiful faces, it was quite enchanting. “I don’t usually mix dates and therapy sessions.”
“If I can get them to meet you somewhere tomorrow…”
“The schoolhouse,” Lori suggested. “Two o’clock.”
“That wasn’t what I expected… but, okay. If I can get them to meet you at the schoolhouse tomorrow, call it what you want — date, therapy session, research, whatever — will you be there?”
“Why me?” Lori asked. “Your… friends seem to have some rather ambiguous feelings about me.”
“No,” Jordy said. “They have some ambiguous feelings about your culture. You they like. Henry wouldn’t get so worked up over a girl he didn’t like.”
Jordy finished off his beer and pushed the glass to the bartender’s side of the bar. “Besides,” he said, standing up and checking his pockets for cash, “if anyone here has a chance to reach through the confusion and paranoia in Henry’s skull…”; he put down enough cash to generously cover the tab; “…it’ll be a therapist.”
Lori smiled and said, “Tell Henry, I’ll be looking forward to seeing him, if you think that will help.”
Jordy spent his walk back to the starhopper trying to decide if it would help, and otherwise generally strategizing how to spin Tom and Henry’s date with Lori. He didn’t have much luck. Basically, as far as Jordy could figure, Tom would be up for the date no matter how he spun it. Henry, however, would probably be wedged so far into the starhopper that it would take crowbars to pop him out.
Fortunately, when Jordy stepped out from under the starry sky of Neggemmon and into the artificial warmth and light of the starhopper, he found Tom dealing solitaire at the table. Henry’s hand lay limp, and his head lolled forward. He was sound asleep. So, Jordy whispered the setup to Tom, leaving him with the problem of getting Henry out on a date with a girl who’d upset him almost to the point of starting a fistfight.
It turned out to be easier than either of them expected. Henry was decidedly meek when he awoke in the morning. Most likely, he was embarrassed by his behavior the night before.
So, Tom and Henry were sharp and ready, outside the schoolhouse, at ten ’til two o’clock. They tried to look inconspicuous, but they felt awfully strange hanging around a schoolyard watching the children play. Nonetheless, it was fascinating watching so many twinned children play. They played just like normal children… Swinging on swings, spinning the merry-go-round, and climbing the jungle gym. But… They still looked strange. Tom was fascinated by it; Henry was a little ashamed. He felt he should be better than people who had always laughed at him — not just by not laughing, but by not sharing a single feeling that they ever felt. Yet, he couldn’t rise above it, so he just looked away.
Lori arrived, saying “I’m glad you came.”
“Yes, we both came,” Henry said, immediately regretting the antagonism in his voice. “I’m sorry about last night.”
“Forget about it,” Lori said. “No harm done.”
Jordy had told Tom and Henry to try ignoring which Lori spoke when they… she spoke, but neither brother could do it yet. They both saw a talkative right-Lori and a strangely silent left-Lori. Tom didn’t mind. He liked right-Lori, and he was fine with a quiet left-Lori tagging along. Like Henry was tagging along. Henry, however, was still bothered by left-Lori’s silence. It made him want to draw her out. So, every time he spoke, he looked Lori in her left eyes, only looking at Lori’s right face while she was actually speaking, and barely even then. It began to make him feel like he and left-Lori shared a secret conspiracy, both inwardly laughing at their siblings as they spoke.
Of course, left-Lori didn’t think of right-Lori as her sibling, but she felt the secret connection to Henry nonetheless. It was strange to be wooed by a man like this. Their dominant heads showing a preference for each other, and their submissive heads doing the same. Not that Henry could really be described as submissive… By all the definitions of her society, Tom and Henry were crazy. But… She loved being pulled into his — their — craziness.
While Lori flirted quietly with Henry, mostly using her left eyes and smile, she also explained to Tom why they were meeting at the schoolhouse. She’d checked to make sure it would be okay with the third grade teacher, because she thought watching the children would help Tom and Henry understand the people here better. While fully ambi-cognitive adults were rare and generally barely functional in this society — unlike Tom and Henry seemed to be — ambi-cognitive children were relatively common.
Most of them developed coping mechanisms or otherwise grew out of it, but, in third grade, an ambi-cognitive child would still be struggling. Quite transparently, probably. And, Ms. Trebling, the third grade teacher, assured Lori that she did have a strongly ambi-cognitive boy in her class this year. Anton.
“We’re really going to stand in the back of this class and watch the kids?” Henry asked when he realized what Tom and Lori had been talking about.
“That’s the plan,” Lori said, speaking from her left mouth out of deference to Henry’s clear preference for it. “Give it a try,” on impulse, she reached out and squeezed Henry’s hand, “I think it’ll make me make more sense to you.”
Henry was completely won over by the feel of her hand on his. “Okay, I’m game.”
When the three of them — Tom, Henry, and Lori — filed into the back of her classroom, Ms. Trebling was teaching her class addition by carrying. Her dominant self was talking, explaining the numbers on the board; her submissive self wrote the numbers and, between times, kept an eye on the class. That was they way she’d done it for years.
Looking around the room, Tom and Henry could see that all the children were following the same model. One child — or one half child, rather — wrote, copying the writing on the board; the other half stared straight ahead, clearly listening. Occasionally a child would raise a hand. If it was the hand that had been writing, the child asked a question like: “Is that number under the three a seven or a two?” If it was the hand that had been idle — the listener’s hand — the question was about Ms. Trebling’s lecture.
Tom and Henry looked at each other. They were both disconcerted. “When do the other children…” Tom began, but he realized he’d have to rephrase his question and started over. “I mean, do they ever practice writing with their other hands?”
“A little,” Lori whispered back. They were both being quiet out of respect for the class. “Writing with both hands can be a useful skill sometimes. However, we rarely write as well with the second hand.”
Tom frowned. He tried to imagine not being able to write and having to rely on Henry to do all his writing for him. It was a frustrating prospect. Fortunately, Henry didn’t seem to be thinking the same thoughts. After last night, Henry didn’t need any more frustration.
Tom followed Henry’s gaze and saw that he was watching a twin boy in the front row. Neither of the twin boy’s hands was writing; the page on his desk was a blank sheet, and both his faces were listening intently to the teacher. Lori had already spotted the boy and was sure he was Anton.
“Now,” Ms. Trebling said, picking up a sheaf of papers from her desk. “Hand around these exercise, and let’s see if you can do problems like this on your own.”
There were a lot of frowns and otherwise serious faces as the children started looking over the worksheets. Ms. Trebling, walking among the desks, looking at the empty worksheets said, “Don’t forget to think out loud.”
There was a sudden roar as children started saying things like, “If I write the eight here…” or “So, I’ll put a tick mark there…” The roar softened when Ms. Trebling admonished, “But, quietly, of course.”
“That’s so strange…” Henry said, watching the children. “It’s like ‘think out loud’ means ‘give orders to your twin.'” He looked at Lori, squarely in her left face. “Don’t you feel ordered around if… um… well…”
“Don’t I feel ordered around when I say I’m going to do something with my other head, planning on using this head to do it?”
“Um… yeah.” There was an awkward pause, then Henry said, “It sounds silly when you put it that way.”
“No, no…” Lori said from her right mouth. “I was just thinking of the best way to answer you.” Switching to her left face, which had held a ponderous expression and still spoke carefully: “It’s not silly, Henry. That can be a very big problem for some people. I noticed you looking at that boy in the front row — the one who wasn’t writing with either hand.”
Henry glanced back at Anton and could see that Ms. Trebling was kneeling beside his front row desk now, talking to him. She was saying, “Anton, where are your notes?”
“I’m sorry,” the boy muttered, averting his eyes. At the same time, with his other head, he said, “At least I was listening!” casting a sheepish smile the teacher’s way.
“Don’t double-talk,” Ms. Trebling said.
“I’m sorry,” the face with averted eyes muttered again. Anton’s other face stopped just in time to avoid a double-talk apology. It left him with his mouth goofily open.
Lori leaned close to Henry and whispered for both him and Tom to hear, “Anton’s ambi-cognitive. Neither head is strongly dominant over the other.”
“Neither head…” Henry muttered. “You make it sound like they’re not people…”
“On this world, they‘re not,” Lori answered. “He’s a person. And he’s deeply conflicted.”
As if to demonstrate the point, an outburst from Anton’s direction drew the attention of the entire room. “I hate writing! My hand gets tired!” Anton’s more surly head roared. At the same time, he threw all the papers on his desk at Ms. Trebling and his own other self. His other head threw a hand up to block the papers.
“Anton,” Ms. Trebling admonished, grabbing him by both wrists to halt any further altercation, “you have to write.”
The surly Anton glanced furtively at his other head. “Then I want to write with my other hand.” Anton’s other face contorted into a look of fury only a child still feels free to openly express. Bizarrely, in this case, Anton was expressing that fury at himself. He spoke in even tones, barely containing his anger as he said: “I don’t want to write with my other hand. I like it the way it is.”
Ms. Trebling sighed. “Anton, don’t look at yourself while you’re talking. You know better than that.” She slowly let go of his wrists while Anton unclenched his hands. By the time his arms were completely free of the teacher’s restraint, he’d dropped them loosely at his sides. His shoulders slumped in defeat as Ms. Trebling picked up his pen and held it out before him. “You have to practice writing,” she said. “You can practice with both hands if you like, alternating between them. But, one way or another, you need to keep writing. Now, take the pen from me.” Ms. Trebling kept her eyes firmly locked on the eyes in both of Anton’s faces. “Take the pen, Anton.”
The head that had caused the outburst held her gaze. His other face was the first to look away, and his corresponding hand reached out to take the pen.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Trebling,” Anton said. “Very sorry,” he amended, smugly, with his other head. Ms. Trebling accepted their apology and, as she stepped away, the two faces didn’t look at each other, not even a sly one-faced glance.
“You okay?” Henry asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “It’s just so damn spooky.”
Lori took Tom’s hand and squeezed it. Henry, watching, couldn’t tell if he was jealous of Tom or pleased: with this girl, affection for his brother was theoretically the same as affection for him. But Henry wasn’t used to thinking that way. And he didn’t completely buy it. You could like some parts of a person and dislike others. So, even if “Lori” thought of Tom and Henry as two parts of the same person, they — she — could still prefer one half to the other.
And, after the fit he’d thrown last night, Henry could completely understand Lori not liking him.
“Let’s get out of here,” Lori. “It’ll be easier to talk outside.” So, still holding Tom’s hand, Lori turned away and led her different minded visitors out of Ms. Trebling’s third grade classroom.
Outside, Lori’s hand fell away, and the brothers found themselves following her, on equal footing, again. The three of them walked toward the playground and circled around the monkey bars, swing set, and other play structures a while before talking again.
“It doesn’t seem right,” Tom said. “That kid hates himself.”
Lori wondered how long it had taken Tom to choose how to phrase his sentence — and then how much longer to come to peace with it. “Don’t you and Henry ever fight?” she asked.
Tom was silent, but Henry laughed.
“That’s right,” Lori said. “I guess I know you do. How is that any different?”
“We work it out,” Tom said. “We get over it.”
“Anton will work it out and get over it too.”
Tom looked skeptical.
“He’s just a kid right now,” Lori said. “By the time he’s an adult, he’ll be over all those fights. He’ll have figured out how to work with himself, get along with himself…”
“Dominate himself,” Henry offered.
“Anton? I doubt it. That kid looks like he’ll always be at least a bit ambi-cognitive.” Lori looked at Tom and Henry and could see they weren’t buying it. “But that’s not the point,” she said. “Kids often don’t like the rules they’re told to live by. Brush your teeth. Fold your clothes. Eat your vegetables. Just because one kid,” the emphasis she put on the word sounded angry, almost hostile, “isn’t happy, that doesn’t mean the entire philosophy is wrong.”
“If the philosophy’s not wrong, then I want to hear that you’re happy,” Tom said.
“No,” Tom said. “I want to hear you say it with each mouth. I want to hear each mouth explain how happy you are.”
Lori looked taken aback. Each of her mouths was held a little open — wanting to speak, but not being ready to jump through the hoop Tom had held out for her. She grabbed the chains to one of the swings they were passing and stopped. She stood there. After playing with the links a minute, she sat down on the swing and looked at her feet pawing the bark dust ground beneath her.
Tom was watching her, but Henry was watching Tom. With a subtle rebalancing, from toe to heel, Henry started the two of them backing away. He wanted a word alone with his brother. So, the two of them made a quiet circuit of the playground together, leaving the Loris on her swing.
“What’re you doing?” Henry asked, once they were out of earshot. “We have a real chance with this girl. She’s not like any girls we’ve ever known before.”
“That’s because she’s a domineering tyrant and a pathologically repressed and oppressed twin.”
“Funny,” Henry said. “Last night you were the one who liked her.”
“As I recall you were about ready to punch the bartender out because you were so mad at Lori.”
“Well, I guess I got it out of my system. Now it’s time to get it out of yours. You really spark with that domineering tyrant, and I don’t think I’ve ever met a sweeter girl than pathologically oppressed Lori. So what if they have the same name and some weird quirks about how to use pronouns.”
“So, what’re you saying?” Tom asked, looking back at Lori. He could only see her from behind, but he could tell that the dominant Lori was still watching her feet, and the submissive Lori was staring at the sky. “You’ll take the quiet one, and I take the chatty one? Treat them like the sisters we know they are… even though they think they are not?”
“Yeah. Why not?”
“She thinks we’re crazy.”
“I don’t have a problem with that.”
“I do,” Tom said. “We get along fine. You and me. And I don’t want anyone, any therapists — even if they’re pretty girls — messing with that. I don’t want her trying to make me become submissive to you.”
“Tom,” Henry said. “If one of us were dominant, it’d be you.”
“Whatever,” Tom said. “I don’t want her trying to cure us.”
Henry couldn’t argue with that.
The brothers continued to talk as they made another few circuits of the small play yard. They were trying to decide if this crazy colony held anything for them. Could they live with people they thought were crazy?
Yes. The answer they agreed on was yes.
And they could live with people who thought they were crazy too. But, they couldn’t live with anyone trying to change them. Deny their separateness. Deny either of their personhoods.
“I don’t think Lori wants to do that,” Henry argued.
“How can you be sure?” Tom asked. “She’s said we’re crazy by her society’s standards. And she’s been defending her society’s standards to us. What makes you think she sees any value in us the way that we are?”
And Henry couldn’t answer that. So, they finished their current circuit. Quietly. At deadlock. And, when they came around the swing set again, they sat on the swing beside Lori. Tom stared into the distance. Henry looked down at their feet.
“Do you get lonely? Lori asked.
Tom looked over too slowly to see which Lori had spoken, but Henry looked up in time to see that it was the dominant one. The one who sparked with Tom. So, Henry held his tongue, shared a smile with Lori’s quieter half, and waited with her for Tom to answer.
“I guess so,” Tom said. “I mean, who doesn’t?”
“I don’t mean for a girl,” Lori said. “I mean… really lonely.”
“I guess not.” Tom looked at Henry. “I’ve always got this guy to talk to.”
Henry smiled at Tom, but then he went back to looking at the quiet Lori. “You get lonely,” he said to her. “Don’t you.”
“Yeah,” the quiet Lori said. Her dominant self agreed, “I do get lonely. I read,” she said, switching back to her quieter side, “that was why we… the first colonists were like this… So, they wouldn’t get lonely in the quiet of space.” After a moment, her dominant self said, softly, “I never understood that. Until now.”
“Until meeting you.”
Both Loris were looking at Tom. She could tell that he was the one to win over now. He was the one who still had reservations. “Stay here,” she said. “I want to get to know you. Both of you.”
“All of me does.”
Tom was quiet for a while. Then he asked, “When you get lonely, why don’t you…” he paused, considering his words, trying to remember the words the third grade teacher had used, “…think out loud?”
“I do sometimes,” the quiet Lori said. Her dominant self added, “But not much. We’re trained not to.” “That’s what you were watching in that classroom.”
“I figured,” Henry said.
“Does it make you feel crazy?” Tom asked.
“Do Henry and I seem crazy to you?”
“You should.” “But no.” “Not so much.” “And, yet… Sort of.” “In a good way.” Her smiles were dazzling. Both Tom and Henry thought so, but Henry was the one who started them moving in to kiss her. The brothers’ swing swung around, moving Tom, Henry, and the Loris face to face. Henry, being the right brother, faced the quieter, left-Lori. And, as he and she kissed, she found herself, on her right side, right in front of Tom. She initiated that kiss.
When the mess of them began to pull away from each other, Henry risked a quick peck on Loris right mouth. He wasn’t sure what kissing both of her faces meant, but it made him giddy. And, Tom couldn’t have minded too much, because he was the one to invite Lori to meet them for dinner that night. And, he didn’t mention it on their walk back to the star-hopper.
On the way back, Henry kept rattling on about how great Lori was, and asking whether Tom didn’t feel the same. But all his questions worked as rhetorical, and Tom let them stay that way. Henry wasn’t worried. He could feel the swagger in Tom’s stride; out of the corner of his eye, he could see Tom smiling; and, he could hear Tom’s tuneless but happy hum.
Jordy was waiting for them in the star-hopper, cheating at solitaire. When he saw his friends walk in, Jordy said, “So, are we staying?”
“Yeah,” Henry said, a grin spread across his face.
“Then, I guess it went well with Lori?” Jordy asked.
“Yes,” Henry said, then looked sidewise at Tom, who added, “We’re crazy about her.”