DAD GASPS, A LOW, RASPING, heaving sound, half like a wail or a sob. He buries his face in his hands. I dismiss Jem with a sarcastic laugh, although it’s not quite as confident as I wanted it to be.
“I-I know you hate me for what I did,” I say thickly, “but you can’t just rewrite our genes, you know.”
“Stop hiding,” Dennis says over me, walking over to Dad and pulling him up. “It’s too late. It’s time to tell the truth.”
“Boys, be reasonable…” Dad says.
“I think it’s you’re the one who needs to be reasonable, Dad,” Jem says steadily. “Tell us the truth. Tell us what happened.”
“Tell them it’s not true!” I say. “Tell them! It’s not true, Dad, is it?”
Dad’s shoulders slouch and he looks smaller than ever, older than he actually is. For the first time I truly see that Dad has grown a whole decade older in the past two years. I didn’t notice before, because the strength was always there—Dad’s special brand of quiet strength that takes presence in any room. It used to be a shield of sorts, like he was Mom’s rock: She always knew she’d have him to lean on. And, after she was gone, we knew that, too.
Until now. He looks frail and exhausted. His work clothes seem to hang off a frame thinner and smaller than they were made for. He looks defeated, I realize. As though…
No, I think. No. No.
Dad takes a deep breath. “James…” He stops. His whole body trembles. “I can’t, I can’t,” he whispers, as if to himself.
“Say it, Dad,” Dennis urges. “Tell the truth. Mom won’t mind, she’s gone, she won’t know… Or if she does then this is what she wants. It has to be. You know it’s her fault that Mom is gone—say it, you owe us the truth…”
Something changes in Dad. He meets my eyes suddenly. “East, I am so sorry…”
“No,” I say, but he looks away. “No. I’m your daughter, Dad, please—”
“They came to us when she was two,” Dad says, eyes far away.
My hand goes to my mouth.
“When she was two, and the two of you were just toddlers,” Dad says. He stares at the window, out the window into the darkness. “She was so perfect. We named her C-C-Cora… She had the brightest smile. Blue eyes, like mine, but brighter than mine, brighter than both of yours… And hair exactly like Thea’s…golden red, bright red, the brightest red…
“That’s when they came. I used to—you know, your mother used to think it was the hair, and she blamed herself for it. For having beautiful hair.” Dad breathes heavily through his nose. “As if that made any sense…
“They brought another baby with them and begged and begged us to switch. We said no, of course, and they went away. But the next morning, your mother could just tell something was wrong. I didn’t believe her at first. The door was locked. Nobody had broken in. The boys were sleeping soundly in their beds. And then we went into her little room—Cora’s little corner—
“Cora was gone. Perfect Cora, with her beautiful hair and eyes… They’d taken her, just took her… And in her place…
“When she woke up… Her eyes were so dark I thought the Devil himself was looking at me. I told Thea ‘No’, I promised her I’d get Cora back; but they’d left a note.”
Dad swallows. It’s a loud sound, a monstrous sound in this silence. “They’d left a fucking note. Your parents.” He looks at me for the first time. My heart stops when his eyes meet mine—blue and pale like ice frozen over a million times.
“They said their daughter had to be hidden away, protected. As if she was worth more than our Cora.” He chokes, his voice cracks. “She said Cora would be fine, would grow up another way, would grow up far far away from ‘everything’, from us. Said they’d be far away where nobody could find them. Even told us what their baby’s name should be.” He sneers.
“I wanted to kill them. With my bare hands. But then the girl woke up, and started to cry, and Thea just picked her up. She said we couldn’t leave this girl alone, she said it wasn’t this girl’s fault… Thea made me promise. I had to promise I’d be a father to—to her, to the false girl, the wrong daughter. So I promised.”
He’s calm now, but I’m trembling, shaking.
Dennis says, “Tell them what happened next. The rest of the story—tell them.”
Dad is like a robot. I don’t know if he even hears Dennis. He’s already opening his mouth to speak. “A year or so later, we got a call. We’d won the lottery. I’d never bought the lottery in my entire life and neither had Thea. But they wouldn’t take no for an answer. We couldn’t believe it. We shouldn’t have.
“Thea had always wanted to live somewhere else, so we moved. Her parents had passed a long time ago and the only family she had left were some cousins in Edgecliff. I didn’t have anyone, just her and our boys. And the girl. We came to this town, bought a house, and were living there for only about a week when we saw the news.” He closes his eyes and his voice drops to a whisper as if it’s painful, as if it hurts him, physically, to speak them. “Those jumpers, at the cliffs… They showed the pictures on TV… It was them, them. And they’d had a baby with them…”
Unbidden, a low moan escapes me, and the twins seem to startle awake. Jem looks dumbfounded. He didn’t know this part of the story, I realize vaguely; but Dennis’ eyes gleam triumphantly, as though this is a game and he is winning.
“Thea tried to kill herself, twice. I barely stopped her both times. But it was nothing I didn’t want to do myself. I started to drink, because I kept seeing her face. Beautiful Cora, perfect Cora…
“I wanted my baby back, not this… Other. I couldn’t think straight. They had taken our daughter, then killed themselves, alongside our daughter. I wanted to find their bodies, shake them back to life and kill them all over again.
“Every time I looked at her I could feel that rage. I drank and drank and drank. The money went so fast. And then I had enough.
“I took her out one night. I left her on the cliffs. I couldn’t bring myself to throw her off the rocks, but I thought it fitting that she should die there, where her parents had killed my daughter. And then the next day when I visited Thea in the hospital she could just tell. I don’t fucking know how. And she looked at me like she didn’t know who I was.
“She wouldn’t let me close to her. Wouldn’t talk to me, touch me…even look at me. The boys…I think they sensed something was wrong. Dennis wouldn’t leave Thea’s side, and I started to wonder if she had told him the truth. And James kept asking where his ‘sister’ was…”
“And then he brought her back,” Dennis says softly.
Dad nods. “And then he brought back. He’d found her—alive and breathing, right on the beach. The cliffs wouldn’t kill her, the ocean wouldn’t kill her.” Dad laughs bitterly.
“Thea got better after that. And grew to love me again. But it ruined us for the longest time.”
Dennis says, “And now she’s dead.”
Dad inhales shakily—it’s more a sob than a breath. “And now she’s d-dead, too. They’re all gone. Both my girls. All gone.”
It’s deathly still in the kitchen. I feel sick. I see Jem shaking, opening his mouth, and then closing his lips again, swallowing back his doubts, accepting Dad’s words.
“So we had a sister?” Jem whispers. “We had… We had a real sister?”
“You lied to us,” I hear Jem say, as if from far away. “You’ve been lying this entire time…”
“Your mother made me promise” is the reply. “I love Thea. I promised her and I kept my promise.”
“You just broke that promise,” I say, feeling betrayed on behalf of Mom—even though she isn’t my mom—but she is, she has to be, she has to be—she’s Mom, she’s my mother, she has to be—
Dennis’s eyes narrow on me immediately. “You shut up,” he hisses.
“Stop this,” I say. I can’t take this suffocating muteness and the accusation, the blame blame blame accusation in this room all directed at me because it can’t be true but it’s true but she has to be my mom but it’s true not true not true true no— “Don’t be ridiculous. Stop lying.”
Dad’s lips are a thin line. “Dad,” I say. “Dad, please. Admit it, you’re lying. It’s a bad joke, it doesn’t even make sense. Where were the police? A lottery? Come on…” But he shakes his head, refusing to hear me. Refusing to look at me.
“Jem.” I say. I stumble to him, grasp his arms, his hands. “Stop playing along. It’s not funny now. I’m your sister. I am your sister—right, Jem?”
He raises his eyes to mine. They’re empty and cold. My heart stops.
“Please,” I try one last time, gently, desperately. “Please.” Please. Something in his eyes changes, but my stupid mouth has to keep going. “No matter what they said—no matter what Ash told you—”
Whatever he’d felt disappears in an instant and then there’s nothing but furious fire. He takes a step forward, and then another and then another, forcing me back. I keep saying his name. “Jem. James. Jamie.”
“Don’t say my name,” he snarls angrily. He speeds up and I almost trip over my feet and he grabs my elbow. Dad and Dennis watch from behind him, wordless. “I’m not your brother.”
Jem pulls me up and drags me through the room, through the house and then I lose all sense of dignity and reality and I’m screaming at him, sobbing and begging—“No no listen to me I’m your sister, you know me, please Jem I love you PLEASE—”
He kicks the door open and a gust of cold wind flies in with it, engulfs me just as he throws me, hard. I cry out, and then I’m tumbling feet over head down the porch steps and I hit my head on something hard and then I’m lying in the grass, pinpricks of pain radiating from my shoulders and chest.
Jem shoved me off the steps. Jem just literally kicked me out of the house.
“You are not my sister,” I hear him say from somewhere above me.
I pick myself up shakily. I try to stand, and fall back down. Something’s wrong with my ankle.
I look at Jem again, one last time, standing there half-silhouetted in the doorway. His face is hard.
I get to my feet. I force myself to stand. I brush the dirt off my pants, curl my fingers to stop them from trembling, and I limp away. Down the street. Past the car, the truck. Around the corner. I hear the door slam shut in the distance.
It’s pitch-black. I can’t see my fingers. I feel cold. My mind is frozen. My chest hurts, my head hurts, my feet hurt, my ankle still burns. My entire body burns.
Move. Keep moving. Go.
When I get to the tree marked with a dash of fluorescent white paint, something in me snaps.
I push through thorns and branches and trees and onto open rock and I keep running and I throw myself over the edge of the cliff.