It was a radiant red and gold fall Monday morning when everything got ready to change. Not that Perth would know it from a glance around the quiet house or when crossing Dartmoor Parkway, the traffic thickening and their mother waving from the porch, or the train right on time along Fourth Street. Victoria was ahead of her but not by much.
It would take the day cracking open–didn’t everyone hear it?–at lunch hour. It made her brain hurt, all the crackling and crashing as her mind took in, then recoiled at the scene before her.
Her sister didn’t even glance her way. How could she? Her wide brown eyes were glued to Dominic’s, the new boy’s, the one who sat across from Perth in eighth grade English class. Vic, as she called her at school, ten months younger but in the same grade, had him in drama class. They’d briefly noted him during the first week of the semester. And only because his thick dark hair fell to his shoulders and his bare ankles hung out where his jeans might have covered them. It was otherwise obvious he was out of place, though all new kids were out of place, as they knew. The sisters had moved a lot. (But now all three were “firmly planted,” their mother said, “in very good soil, we will bloom accordingly.” Perth and Victoria hoped with every fiber of their beings she was in this marriage for the long run.)
Perth carried the lunch tray to where she usually sat, between Jana and Elise, across from Vic. The two of them were in heated discussion about who did better in a math pop quiz and why Mr. Mercer was a terrible teacher, so Perth leaned forward and said,
“Hey, Vic.” She craned her neck to see Dominic but he was looking at his cheeseburger before taking a huge bite.
Victoria looked the other way while picking up several pieces of lettuce and tomato and stuffed them in her mouth. She acted embarrassed by that and she licked her fingers, then grabbed a napkin. Dominic was oblivious, attacking the burger, but he lifted a free hand at someone passing by. he had a friend already, that was good.
“Hey Victoria, what’s up, gorgeous?” Perth asked again, hands palm-up in the air. She then speared veggies from her chef salad. Why was was she being ignored?
Dominic’s gaze drifted around Jana, who took off, and landed on her. Vic gave up, flashed a smile as fake as possible at her. Perth gave her a level, cool stare.
“Well, hi,” Vic said, “I’m eating lunch, like you. Like Dom and Elise. What do you want? We have fifteen more minutes to eat. So, if you don’t mind…”
That wasn’t strictly true; they had over a half hour, but if they wanted time to walk around or fix their hair and all or gossip with friends, they had fifteen more left to eat. And they always made good use of their break times. They were together in school as they were usually around home: Perth and Victoria Didrikson, the reigning “Irish twins.”
“Hi Dom, I’m Perth, Vic’s sister, or do you know her as Victoria?” She gestured to her sister. “It makes a difference. Only insiders call her Victoria.”
“Perth, quit already!”
Dom swiped at his greasy mouth and shook his head, dark hair shimmying. “Just Vic, we met a couple weeks ago. Hey, aren’t you in my English class?”
“Yeah, with Miss Marsh, good deal, huh? Mrs. Harner is a cruel one. What are you working on for the essay?”
Vic stood up, tray in hand, salad barely touched. “Excuse me, Dom, you done? Let’s go outside where there’s more air.”
He shot her a grin, grabbed his tray and, to Perth’s shock, just followed.
Perth felt a slow burn make way from face to chest to gut. She listened to Elise jabber on about something, tried to finish lunch. But nothing felt right. Perth had an impulse to go to the nurse’s station and say she was sick. Because all in all, she sort of was. Vic had found a boy when they had absolutely sworn them off for another year. They had a yearly oath, and they each signed it. Then they pricked a finger and let a drop of their blood mark the page right under their names. It was one of a few mysterious ways they did things. It was like that since they had been kids.
The first thing everyone wanted to know was why she had such an weird name. Perth was, after all, the capital of Western Australia. Or if you didn’t know it, now you did. Her mother was born there and she’d had a supposedly idyllic childhood. Until her family immigrated to Canada, namely Victoria on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Maddy, their mother, had thrived there even more. Although the island was a bit isolated, not nearly as much as it was in Perth (where ocean and outback surrounded that city). She’d loved it so much that she fell in love and got married there. Later, she named her second child for that city.
Neither of the sisters quite recalled the city on the island; they had been two and three. But after Maddy’s divorce they’d lived across Canada several years. And then she met Keith, an American businessman, and that was that. That was five years ago. Now they were in Cincinnati and it could be worse, they guessed. But all through the ups and downs, Perth and Victoria were stuck together, one in mind and action more often than not, even though not in age or appearance. Nothing could have pulled them apart, not really, not even their tendencies for clear territorial space or their differences in musical taste or a constant need of reassurance that they were equally loved by their gorgeous, smart, but at times distracted mother. It had so often been romance that she preferred or so it seemed to them, and they had vowed to avoid it at all costs. Or at least as long as they possibly could, until age thirty or forty when they had established careers and good friends and homes of their own. Nearby, of course.
Maddy hugged them close when they told her the plan, thinking she might agree it was smart. They did not speak of the signatures and blood.
“Maybe so,” was all she said. “You never know what’s ahead. It is all an adventure…”
But ambiguous words meant little to her daughters; they were devoted, and so bold with certainty. She’d not forgotten how hard past times had been, the pain she’d suffered. Maddy had grown up cared for and secure, though, and she knew it had saved her. She now worked as a speech therapist four days a week; she’d remarried well, was happy again. But it had taken a terrible divorce and several more promising or miserable men, of being poor and deeply lonely while slowly finishing college–all in between then and now, meaning her degree and then Keith.
Perth and Victoria got wounded some in the fallout along the way. Maddy regretted this. What could be done but live a healthier life now, be generous with love? But she was a more and more realist. Heartbreak was not something they’d avoid. And that made her ache deep inside where no words lived.
After lunch, Perth obsessed about things. It was as if a part of her had been misplaced, and there was bodily discomfort, and when she looked around for her sister at her locker down the hall, he was there, one hand up, his body half-circling Vic’s. Perth’s body clutched; she felt it as anger, but who was she mad at? Him? Her? Her own self? Hormones? Hers must be sluggish or defective, despite being ten months older. Her sister did look older than she did, and Victoria thought she knew more, that was clear.
When they met back home and sat at the dinner table, Vic avoided Perth’s scathing looks and talked little or to their mother and Keith. Maddy noticed but said nothing; the girls had their rough moments. Their stepfather had little clue–who got anything about freshly minted teenagers?
Since they had their own rooms avoidance was a snap later, or so Victoria hoped. She was texting with Dominic, nothing that interesting yet fascinating to her, and she had homework to do, and her elaborately designed and colored “Do Not Disturb” sign was hanging on the doorknob. Maybe Perth would respect that awhile.
But Perth pounded on the door. Victoria wished for her to go away.
“Victoria, let me in,” she said in a loud whisper into the keyhole. “Time to talk…”
“No.” Vic was watched the phone screen for Dom’s response.
“I can get in, you know.”
“Not without breaking down the door. Do not pick the lock.”
“Come on, you can’t refuse your big sister entry. It’s against the rules,” she whined.
“Your rules, not mine.”
There it was, three small words from him: have to go. She stared at perth through the door.
Perth leaned her back against it. She could hear their mother and stepfather laughing over whatever dumb show they watched. “I’m bored. I want the whole story.”
Victoria sighed, got up, walked around the end of her bed, looked out the window. It was a hard cold night; stars glittered like ice and a frost warning was up. It would be another beautiful day in the morning and they’d meet at lunch, maybe, again. In drama class. Casting had occurred for the play and if he got the male lead and she got the female lead….She recalled the way his hands laced fingers, then slid behind his head and then neck, his elbows sticking out. She didn’t know why that got her, but it did, they was he seemed more…something…open, reachable…that minute, even though it was more a stretch. He was two inches taller than she was already. He was funny in a quiet way. It made her feel dreamy.
A hand smacked hard once at the door and Victoria started, then bounced back onto her bed.
“Go away, Perth, you’re only making things worse…”
She lay very still, staring at the ceiling, fiddling with silky fringe on her purple flowered pillow held against her chest. There was no more said, and not even Perth walking away was heard. And that suddenly scared her. Enough to stop thinking about Dominic, enough to make it tough to get on her homework. What was happening? How could such a thing make them slide around each other, but ready to fight?
It went that way, more or less on Tuesday and Wednesday, then Thursday. By Friday Perth stopped going to–much less talking at–her sister’s bedroom door. She stopped sitting at her usual lunch table so she wouldn’t see the two of them excluding the world. She and Elise ate outside on the lawn as there was a warming spell, and when Janna joined them one day, Elise warned her to not ask about Dom and Vic, it upset Perth more each day and it was all over school already: Vic and Dom, together.
“Are you so freakin’ mad or jealous or what?” Janna asked, anyway. “Why her and not us?”
“No, it just isn’t what I expected, that’s all,” Perth said. She made a scornful face, then pulled her long hair back into a ponytail so the wind wouldn’t readily catch it, turn it upside down.
“You have the best hair,” Elise said. “Vic and you got lucky.”
“Thanks…I have the best sister when she isn’t an idiot,” Perth said.
“She’s not an idiot, just dumbstruck with puppy love,” Jana said and Elise socked her in the shoulder. “I mean, who can blame her?.”
“Oh, please. He’s okay, just a new eighth grade guy and why she is so mesmerized…well, I don’t get it. He isn’t all that smart or anything.” Her eyes filled suddenly and she closed them. “And she promised!””
“Mesmerized…he’s dangerous magic!” Jana wiggled fingers at them and gave them a hard stare, one eyebrow raised, the goofy one as usual.
Elise sat up straight, ears perked up by Perth’s last words. “Promised what?”
Perth wasn’t listening. Dangerous. Yeah, that’s how it felt, as if they’d entered a dark maze, and she couldn’t quite find the way to Vic even though she felt her so nearby she almost heard her breathing. Laughing at her. And that guy calling out to Victoria. But why did her sister avoid her? They’d always talked. They’d always known what the other most needed or wanted. Yet Perth could figure almost none of this out. It was as if she had been suddenly closed out. Victoria took one step that way, not the other way where Perth and she were used to going, and the world they shared stopped turning. She felt queasy and dizzy–again.
“It’s like Vic pulled down the shades, turned out the light and even my banging on the door doesn’t matter. Okay, 911–but big deal, just not answering, Sis.”
“Oh,” Janna said.
Elise put her hand on her friend’s shirted back, smoothed away damp wrinkles from unseasonable heat and wondered what it was like to have a sister. She had an older brother who she might do without.
“Crap, Perth,” Jana said and sat closer to the other side but the truth was, it was just a boy so why all the drama? She sort of had a boyfriend who was really just a good friend. Much better that way. They were only thirteen, fourteen, anyway.
“Quiet down some!” Keith called upstairs.
It was Victoria’s music for a change, very loud soul or was it pop music. Perth liked Ella Fitzgerald lately, a real shocker, but then she was a unique one. A couple months ago it had been David Bowie, of all people, and before that, some rapper he had never heard. Sampling, that was a good thing he thought. He’d also noticed the girls weren’t talking much, and Maddy was getting worried. He lingered at the bottom of the stairs. The music quieted. Perth stuck her head out of her room, took one step into the hall, so Keith retreated.
Perth tiptoed to Victoria’s room, bent down and slid a note under the door. She backed away then disappeared into her own room.
Victoria’s head was bent over the first play script, hair draping a side of her face as she tapped her pencil against her lips. She had gotten the lead but told no one at home yet. But she heard the paper slip over the worn floorboards and knew what it was. Her eyes lost focus on the words below. Dom hadn’t gotten a part so a stage connection was out, but he was working on lighting. She was excited. She’d always imagined being a stage actress so now it could start happening. A lot was changing. She felt breathless at times, her situational anxiety rearing its head (or so their mother would say, it ran in the family).
She slipped off the quilt and retrieved the note. It got right to the point.
What have you done with my wonderful sister?
She opened the door but Perth was not there. She crossed the hall and knocked.
“Who goes there?” Perth called out in a booming voice.
“One lady of the forest, to another.”
“Are you armed with sword or words?”
Victoria paused, almost letting go a chuckle. This is how it went.
“I come in peace…my sister bids me welcome,” she said.
“I will confer with my cabinet and ferns.” A momentary silence, then a brass bowl was struck. “Enter with hands and mind open and free.”
Maddy was halfway up the stairs when she heard some of the exchange. Her throat tightened as she pressed hand to chest, and returned to her husband.
Victoria entered a room lit with soft white, star-shaped lights strung about two windows and across top of the wall behind the bed. Two huge ferns hung in planters in opposite corners; a tarnished brass deer perched on her desk beside an ivy. Perth was seated at the desk–as she often was–but stood gracefully, shoulders back. The one who danced best, had such posture.
“Okay, I know, it’s stupid, but Dom is the first guy I’ve really noticed and–“
“So stardust got you but that shouldn’t interfere, should it, with us–“
“Right. I thought he might like you, though.”
“Sure, no interest indicated either way.”
“So what’s next?”
Perth and Victoria eased back on fluffy bed pillows, looking at the soft lights.
“I think you need to revise the oath a bit,” Victoria said.
“Me? I did nothing, changed nothing. You’re the changer.”
“But we’re getting older.”
“I suppose. But why do I have to alter the document”
The wind came up, rattled maple limbs like a handful of dry bones. Soon Perth would be able to see out across the street again. She liked the comfort of dense greenery more than an open vista but that was nature.
“I know, I’m the writer Irish twin. Really ought to be accurate and say Australian, that makes more sense…”
“Perth! Listen: no more bloodletting?”
“Agreed. I will just revise a bit: we’ve determined that flexibility and understanding are crucial when faced with a possibility of any outside love, but we must never lose our sister bond.”
Victoria lay her head on Perth’s shoulder. “Yeah. Well stated, sister.”
“Well received, sister.”
Perth and Victoria knew their mother was anxious downstairs, hoped to hear what they were up to this time, but they did what they always did. They kept their secrets to themselves, unless threat of harm was evident and imminent. And none was.