They had only been in the gallery for thirty minutes when Elspeth and Ahsha decided to make a plan to kill their doubles.
Really- it had been Elspeth’s plan and Ahsha had gone along with it to humor her. Ahsha knew that doppelgängers could not be killed, they were like ghosts. Who was to say they had ever been alive in the first place? Maybe they were even the ones that did the killing? The last thought made something white and shivering crawl thought Ahsha’s spine, so she tucked it away into a box in her mind.
“See! They have done it, so we can too” said Elspeth pointing to one of the paintings that hung on the gallery wall. It was of four figures in the forest- or really two figures copied twice in the forest. The name of the painting hung beside it. How They Met Themselves.
“What have they done?” asked Ahsha in the voice she only used for children and people being stupid. Elspeth was not offended; she wasn’t around Ahsha enough to know.
“This is the story,” said Elspeth. “They man and the woman are walking in the woods and then they meet themselves. See how the man’s sword pins the woman-double’s dress? See how she has started to faint? She would be on the ground by now if the man-double were not holding her. They have done it, they have killed their doubles.”
Ahsha shook their head. “Perhaps it’s the doubles who’ve won. How do you know which is which?”
Elespeth was silent at that, because she didn’t.
Neither of them knew very much about doubles at all, except that for some reason or another theirs showed up from time to time. For Ahsha it had started a while ago, but it had never bothered her until now.
Then again it had never been this bad until now. Perhaps it had something to do with Ele? Ele- the only other person she knew who had another version of herself hanging around her like mist.
The first time Ahsha had seen the girl who wore her face had been years ago, she had been eleven then, and it had been the one day of the year where all of her mother’s relatives decided to get together in what they called “the big reunion”. Ahsha remembered that particular “big reunion” as being the worst day of her life. Or second worst, if she decided to count the science fair disaster, but the science fair disaster happed a long time later so it was hard to compare the two.
It had started when she had been sitting in the basement and cousin Kassim had smacked a pillow over her head. Then he had said “oh, there you are Ashes” in that infuriating way of his.
Ahsha was sure she hated cousin Kassim, mostly because her mother expected her to like him, and mostly because he was the only person close to her age at the big family reunions. If Elspeth had been on her mother’s side, things would have been different. Together they could have squashed Kassim.
But then again, if Elspeth had been on her mother’s side, she probably wouldn’t have been Elspeth. She would have been tall and dark haired and like a willow tree. That was why Ahsha didn’t blame her dad from skipping the “big reunions”, he really didn’t have much business there. He would have stuck out; he would’ve stuck out more than Ahsha did.
Most of the time dad got out of the reunions by saying he had “a class to teach at the Poly”, and his excuse made Ahsha jealous. She never had an excuse and always ended up getting stuck alone with her mother, Kassim, and a handful of middle aged women with light musical voices and grey scarves covering their heads. Somehow these women were all her aunties, and for some reason or another, they reminded Ahsha of moths.
Ahsha has been sitting by herself in the basement because the big family reunions felt like when you tried to put jeans on but they were still a bit soggy and stiff from the wash. It felt like everyone was a puzzle piece and for some reason she didn’t quite fit, so to make herself fit a little more Ahsha had tied a grey scarf around her head and tucked her hair into her collar so that if you squinted, she could almost be a moth- woman. For the first time, but not the last time, she wished that she was someone other than herself, and it had felt wonderful. Like a game of make-believe that was real because she was the only one there to witness it, and then stupid Kassim had ruined everything by smacking a pillow over her head.
“Oh, there you are Ashes.”
That hadn’t been the worst of it, when Ahsha turned around to yell at him, he had laughed at the way her hair was put away, and Ahsha felt like an imposter, like a child playing dress-up. She had wanted to cry, but instead she smacked him hard against the jaw.
Kassim had hit her back, of course, and his hit had been harder, and his hit had been angled at just the right position for Ahsha to knock her head on the edge of the coffee table. In the corner of her eye, Ahsha could see that the grey hijab on her head was staining red. And the pin on the grey hijab, that hadn’t been placed correctly in the first place, had come loose and dragged itself across her chin in a way that would eventually leave a crescent-shaped scar.
But Ahsha hadn’t been focused on the way her head scarf was slowly turning colour, or the moon-scar that would follow her around for years, she had been focused on the girl, who had suddenly appeared on the coffee table and was staring at her contemptuously. The girl looked like Ahsha, but in a faded nothing-colour sort of way, like she had been put in the wash and was still soggy and stiff.
“You’ve really screwed up this time,” said the girl wearing her face. “The whole reunion will be spoiled when they find you in the basement leaking out the colour of roses.”
And then five years later, there had been the science fair disaster, and Ahsha had seen her again, the girl who wore her face. But this time the girl had a crescent scar under her chin and she said: “everything is ruined now. Everything is ruined now because of you.”
Which was true.
Ahsha could tell that everything was ruined in the way that dad sort of crept around the house when he wasn’t “teaching a class at the Poly” (although her mother seemed to think that he went somewhere else instead of the Poly), or the furious whispers that quickened into silence as soon as she walked through the door, as if she couldn’t tell what a fight was if the words were said a little bit quieter.
Zach Thompson from biology class had told her that divorces were great because they were sort of like a second Christmas, except that parents fought over you and gave you things when you took their side.
For his second Christmas his dad had given him a Porsche when he hadn’t spilled the thing he did-or-did-not-see with the office secretary. But Ahsha found that instead of being fought over, she was just ignored- which had been fine at first, because then no one asked her if she’d had time for piano practice, or trigonometry. But slowly it had started to become not-so-fine because no one remembered to pick her up from soccer practice, and Alyssa Davison started telling people that the reason she was such a bitch was because she came from a broken home. Which Ahsha hadn’t really thought about until it started getting whispered behind her back.
When she was younger, and hadn’t known what the expression meant, Ahsha had though that a broken home was a good thing. Broken, but together, like a pretty wall mosaic, or a seam that had been sloppily stitched. Broken- like the piano the time the little hammers inside it had tangled up, and her mother had said in her joking voice: “finally, you can stop playing that piece- there is nothing Turkish about a march,” and her father had laughed and said “can you blame Mozart for titling his song after the land with the most beautiful women in the world?”Her mother had rolled her eyes and raised her eyebrows so they disappeared above her grey headscarf, and Ahsha had smiled, because the broken piano meant that practice was over.
Instead of practicing piano she watched a game show on the couch and sat in between her father’s orange hair and her mother’s scarf. Each member of her family of her family looked so different- like they had been cut and pasted from opposite sides of the world and placed beside each other.
At that age Ahsha hadn’t known how to explain to people that she was half Turkish half Scottish, so she had just told them that she was Ish. Her heritage was broken in half – like the jagged edges of a newspaper clipping. Broken but together.
Now they were just broken.
Eventually, it got to the point that her parents only noticed Ahsha when she did something awful, like the time she locked herself in her room and screamed- just screamed- or the time she had been sent to the principal’s office because her math teacher had found the cosine law written on her sleeve during a math test.
It wasn’t until she’d been doing it for a while that Ahsha decided that she liked being awful. When you were awful to people they didn’t talk to you, or ask you how things were going at home. You didn’t have to be pretend-nice, and so no one was pretend-nice back. Ahsha imagined that when she was awful a dark knotted cloud formed in the bottom of her stomach, in the place she had always imagined the soul was. But her dark knotted cloud was not a wispy cumulo stratus, when she thought about it Ahsha wanted her cloud to be ugly and hard and unyielding. Like a piece of petrified wood.
But what she had done to Maize Stovel, it hadn’t just been awful, it had been mean.
It had started at the science fair, which Awful-Ahsha wouldn’t have been caught dead going to if Zach Thompson hadn’t been giving out gummy worms to mask how little effort he put into his display on compost. Nice- Ahsha might have gone to the science fair on her own accord, Nice-Ahsha would even have been friends with a goody-two-shoes like Mazie Stovel, but when Mazie had asked “do you mind watching Leotard and my display for a bit while I run to the washroom”, the knotted petrified wood part of Ahsha’s stomach bubbled up and thought “I can have some fun with this can’t I?”
Mazie’s science fair project had been about the boiling frog syndrome, which according to research was a common myth. Ahsha found common myths disappointing. Like someone telling you that Santa Claus wasn’t real, or that Napoleon wasn’t short.
Another disappointing thing was that the pet frog that Mazie called Leotard wasn’t on display to prove a hypothesis; he was just been there to demonstrate the “unique and porous skin of amphibians”.
Right off the bat Ahsha hadn’t like Leotard. He seemed smug. If frogs could be smug. And he seemed stupid. In her head Ahsha kept calling him Leotard-the-Retard because he didn’t do anything. She tried nudging him a few times with the eraser end of her pencil, but Leotard wouldn’t respond. The only part of him that moved was the bubbly air sack under his chin, the same spot that Ahsha had a hijab pin scar.
When Ahsha placed Leotard in the empty gummy worm box beside Zach Thompson’s display she hadn’t thought that she might ruin the entire science fair, or that anything would be broken, or even that she would get into trouble. She had just thought it would be sort of funny to watch people freak out.
At first no one noticed the frog in the box because no one went to Zach ’s display which was just a row of boring dirt filled containers, but eventually a few people shuffled over to that side of the science fair, and Ahsha heard a piercing scream.
She would have been satisfied with just the scream, but then the startled screamer had pushed Zach ’s trifold over. Instead of being upset he grinned and fist pumped the air because a broken science fair project meant that he wouldn’t get an F. And that would have been that if Zach ’s excited fist pump hadn’t knocked down the trifold display beside him. All across the science fair trifolds toppled over like dominos and a few fragmented yelps burst across the room like fireworks. That must have meant that Leotard was finally moving.
Ahsha glanced over at Zach ’s side of the science fair. Leotard was definitely moving. Somehow he had managed to attach himself to Zach ’s arm, once again demonstrating the “unique and porous skin of amphibians”. When Zach finally managed to shake him off, Leotard went flying into the mouth of a scaled and impressively accurate display of a volcanic ridge thermo-system.
“Whoops. Boiling frog syndrome.” Ahsha murmured to herself at the same time as she felt a slight tap on her back.
“Ahsha?” said Mazie with a sad nervous smile, as if she thought everything was a funny joke and Leotard the frog- who was really a frog prince/boy band singer/date to the spring formal- was hidden behind Ahsha’s back. Then they would all laugh and Ahsha would point to the hidden cameras because smile you’ve just been punked!
“Ahsha?” Mazie asked again. But this time her eyes were watery and pleading. And Ahsha started to feel bad about the thing she had done, and the thoughts she had thought about boy band singers and formal dances, and Awful- Ahsha began to melt away into the glazed gym floor, and the knotted ugly thing in Ahsha’s stomach that had been born when she had been looking for her soccer uniform and had found divorce papers became something uglier and harder and guiltier.
In one furious moment Ahsha wanted to apologize. She opened her mouth to say something, but it was the ugly part of her speaking again, and Nice-Ahsha was packed away like a hand in a sock puppet.
“Just get a new frog Mazie. Find one in the pond somewhere,” she said. When she walked out of the room, through the back doors, Ahsha imagined that the winter wind was leaving a gusty trail behind her.
“What’s that?” asked Ahsha to the boy beside her.
The plan had been to lie low at the back of the school, not talk to anyone, and pretty much let herself feel like the piece of shit she was, but then a group of twelfth graders had snuck out the back gym doors a few moments after she had, and one of them had started crinkling something beside her.
A few seconds later Ahsha realized that the crinkling was actually rolling, and when she looked down, the boy beside her was holding an odd cone shaped cigarette. Ahsha looked down again- awkwardly this time.
She imagined the PSA man and his frying pan. This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. But then remembered that PSA’s were the first time she had realized that adults could lie- that they could make things up- like fake commercials about house hippos. They made things up make up like, I’m teaching a class at the Poly.
“Consider this my science fair project. Herbology- you know.” The boy replied with a coy half grin. Dully Ahsha realized that he was expecting her to laugh.
Ahsha didn’t laugh.
“Sawyer,” said the boy, lighting the science fair project and releasing a smell that reminded Ahsha of the soggy hay pushed into the corner of cages whenever she went to the zoo.
“Saw her what?” Ahsha said. At first she wrinkled her nose at the odor and then she thought that maybe that was uncool, so she pretended that it didn’t bother her.
“You’re funny.” Sawyer said laughing more than the joke warranted. “What’s your name funny girl?”
“Sounds like Ashes.”
“Not really” said Ahsha, reminded of cousin Kassim.
“You should go by Ashes. I like Ashes,” said Sawyer.
“Well you can’t burn Ashes. I figured you only like things that you can burn.”
With a tiny smile, she sashayed across the wall closer to where Sawyer sat-to avoid her jeans getting soggy from the little patches of February snow. A moment later she realized that Sawyer probably thought she had moved over because of him, and her face burned with embarrassment. Suddenly she was aware that she could flirt with Sawyer. With this strange boy and his herbology project, and the bits of Awful Ahsha that were left became Rebel Ahsha, which she liked a bit better. But not that much better because Rebel Ahsha was still Ahsha, and Ahsha was starting to realize that she didn’t like herself. At all. If she’d had the choice she would have named herself something really rebellious sounding. Like Claudia. She liked the name because it sounded like claws.
Rebel Ahsha didn’t even bat an eye when Sawyer slipped the joint between her lips- but she did cough like hell.
Se coughed so much that she wouldn’t have been all that surprised if her lungs started to ooze out of her throat in pink chunks- like chewed hubba-bubba.
“Its usually like that your first time,” said Sawyer.
“Not my first time,” Rebel Ahsha said, sounding surprisingly collected. The lie should have been obvious, but she was so full of redness and hot blooded bravado that anything she said was believable- and this boy, this boy with hair the colour of moor grass would go with her anywhere.
She wondered what her aunties would think if they saw her. What would they say, the graceful veiled women? Some tall like fabric mountains, some like moths in darkened colours, and some with only slits of eyes visible like midnight assassins. “The body is a temple Ahsha.”
The body is.
Between the coughs, the soggy zoo smell, and the feeling that in any moment she would inch even closer to Sawyer and kiss him on the chin, Ahsha began to notice things. She began to play a game of make believe than only she was aware of.
The universe existed in a pattern. The universe was a daydream and she was a temple.
No- she was a priestess of a holy well in an ancient part of Istanbul. No- she was a seal skinned girl in Orkney who jumped into the ocean and turned into foam. No- she was anything. Anything but herself. She was Awful- Ahsha and Rebel- Ahisha and Claudia and Ashes Ashes Ashes. She was made of ashes, and long ago she had been pulled- screaming- from a ribcage.
“Are you ok?” whispered a daydream.
The body is a temple.
“Are you O.K?” and the daydream sounded sort of like Sawyer.
And her body was doubled, as if she had broken a mirror and let a crack roll down it like a tear drop. One of her was as it had always been, and the other was nothing-coloured. A piece of petrified cloud wearing her face as a mask. Her reflection began to speak.
“Everything is ruined now. Everything is ruined now because of you,” the other Ahsha said.
And then Ahsha kissed Ahsha on the chin, right on her crescent scar. For a brief moment of dull concern Ahsha was certain that she was dying. Isn’t that what happened when people touched their doppelgänger?
Sawyer’s voce was still ringing in her ears like a church bell, and instead of dying Ahsha began to suspect that she was drowning into a reluctant sleep. So it was true that and sleep were cousins.
The back door opened and the twelfth graders scattered. Ahsha wasn’t sure if Sawyer went with them but she hoped he did.
“No you don’t,” said the double.
Ahsha opened her mouth to say you don’t know what I want, but the tired kept it shut, and then it was too late. The double, the thing wearing her face like a death omen became the assistant principle and Mazie Stovel.
Then Ahsha wished that she really was dying.
On the first day of Ahsha’s out of school suspension cousin Elspeth came to town.
The annoying thing was that Ahsha hadn’t been told that a relative her age was taking up residence in the guest room for an uncertain amount of time. No one had told her anything because when her parents weren’t shooting piercing glances at each other, they were shooting disappointed glances at her that seemed to say “what will we ever do with you?”
Because no one had told her anything Ahsha had assumed that the visiting cousin was Kassim so at the airport she made a point of sticking her chin out so the crescent scar was a silent reminder.
But the visiting cousin wasn’t Kassim, or anyone on her mother’s side. She was pale and fox haired and had her father’s gossamer gaze. With a sting Ahsha noticed that she was lovely, with the same type of fairytale beauty that she had seen once in a story book.
It had been the illustrated version of The Snow Queen and a woman with an icicle crown had been staring into her magic mirror. In the story the queen was vain, but in the picture Ahsha hadn’t thought she looked vain at all, just thoughtful and mystified, as if she had been gazing into the world with her mirror asking: Why are we here? Why are any of us here?
The ugly knotted thing in Ahsha’s stomach, which had simmered down since the suspension happened and the “consider this a permanent grounding until you smarten up,” happened started to bubble up again.
“It’s a pleasure to see you Elspeth,” said Ahsha’s mom in the warmest voice Ahsha had heard her speak in for a while.
“Thank you Aunt Fatima and Uncle Leroy,” said Elspeth.
With satisfaction Ahsha decided that Elspeth’s voice wasn’t queen-like at all. It sounded clipped and cross, and had a high lilt to it as if she was the Scottish version of Malibu Barbie.
What kind of name was Elspeth anyways, Ahsha thought to herself. It sounded like someone had tried to say the word “spit” while clearing their throat. It sounded like someone had tried to think of the most Scottish way of saying “Elizibeth”, then part way through decided to give up and get drunk only to wake up half wasted blubbering the words “Elspeth. I’ve got it! Elspeth is perfect.”
Elspeth turned to Ahsha and stuck out her arm. “I’m obliged,” she said with her pretty face and ugly voice.
“Hello Obliged, I’m Ahsha” Ahsha said with a sardonic grin.
Elspeth cocked her head to the side like a dazed woodland creature. Most people would have thought that was a little cute because she had a knack for looking like Bambi, but Ahsha took it as a challenge, a way of saying I’m not putting up with your bullshit.
“Not Obliged then. Ele. You can just call me Ele,” said Elspeth.
When she hesitantly shook her cousins hand Ahsha almost recoiled. Elspeth was freezing, and when she looked deeply into her Snow Queen eyes, Ahsha realized that there was something dark and swimming underneath them. Like her own knotted cloud.
Ahsha wondered if Elspeth’s cold would travel up to her heart and pierce it like a piece of the snow queen’s mirror. Would it freeze her and leave her prone on the airport floor-dying. Isn’t that what happened, didn’t people die when they touched their doppelgänger?
But how can we be doppelgänger’s? We look nothing alike thought Ahsha after a moment of rationality.
“I know, she’s prettier than us. Isn’t she so pretty?” said someone in a voice that sounded like her own.
Ahsha flickered her eyes towards the luggage carrousel. The thing that was wearing her face like a mask was sitting on an upright suitcase impossibly keeping balance as if it was made of nothing at all. Ahsha sighed with annoyance and almost replied obviously, you don’t have to point it out, but it was like the thing could read her mind, which it probably could, because it put its hands up defensively and plucked itself from the air .
Ahsha’s dad took Elspeth’s two hot pink luggage bags in each hand, maybe she really was the Scottish version of Malibu Barbie, and Ahsha’s mother walked a noticeable distance away from him, as if she was pretending that he was someone else’s husband.
Then Ahsha and Elspeth were shoved together and if she traded Elspeth out for Kassim it would have been like old times, being left with a cousin she didn’t like because everyone else was too busy to notice.
“Your double is showing,” said Elspeth in a matter of fact voice, as if she had said something regular like, “my hands are freezing”, or “the time is currently 7:48 pm”. She pointed to the luggage carousel- were moments earlier Ahsha’s double had been.
“So is yours,” said Ahsha and she knew it was true.
When she turned around, she wasn’t surprised to see another Elspeth following them a little ways away. This Elspeth had that same deep wondering look that the real Elspeth had, but her entire body was nothing-coloured. Like a cloud wearing a face.
Elspeth turned around to stare at her double and then she turned back to Ahsha, surprise flickered through her face and was quickly replaced by an expression that was blank and indecipherable.
“Cousins don’t just move out of nowhere and in the middle of February,” pried Ahsha. “What did you do Ele, get kicked out of school?”
“No. But I heard you did,” said Elspeth.
Ahsha’s face reddened.
“She’s got you there” said Ahsha’s double who had appeared beside her again. The double was reading a book that looked like it belonged on her middle school book shelf in between the Baby Sitters Club and Animorphs . When she got closer Ahsha could read the title. Double trouble. Very funny.
The double pointed towards Ahsha’s parents who were still walking apart from each other at a strangers distance. “Wow. What did you do to make them hate each other so much?”
Elspeth’s double was trailing behind them both saying nothing. It had that strange empty look and was staring into the distance as silent as a ghost.
When they all arrived home, every member of her Ish family, the surprises kept coming.
It turned out that Elspeth wasn’t staying in the guest room after all. Dad was staying in the guest room. Ele was staying with Ahsha in her room, and as soon as her cousin had hauled her two big luggage cases through the door Ahsha knew that the arrangement wouldn’t work.
Actually- that wasn’t true. Ahsha had realized that the situation wouldn’t work the moment Ele had hijacked her bathroom to “freshen up from the plane ride.” After half an hour of an occupied bathroom Ahsha began to kick the door repeatedly but heard nothing on the other side but a cheery pop song on the radio, and what for a split second had sounded like someone puking their guts out.
Maybe Elspeth was the type that got sick on planes? But it seemed unlikely. Elspeth was one of those girls that Ahsha couldn’t imagine ugly things happening to. The zombie apocalypse could happen and she would still be pretty, with dark bruises rimming her eyes like kohl and undead skin, pale, like a White Witch.
When Elspeth finally came out, smelling like flowers and not vomit Ahsha was sure she’d heard wrong. Maybe the puke noise had come from the radio. She wouldn’t have been surprised if most of Elspeth’s music taste sounded like puke-noise anyways. As she closed the bathroom door Ahsha put the thoughts of puke away in a box in her mind, but when she saw Ele’s double sitting on the ledge of the bathtub sulkily she stared at it warily.
The double looked up and gave Ahsha a fleeting smile.
“I am beautiful when I am empty,” it said.
The second Christmas that Ahsha never got happened for Elspeth instead. Elspeth didn’t get a new Porsche like Zach Thomspson, but she did get smothered with offers to “show her around town” by both of Ahsha’s parents. At first Ahsha was jealous, but then she was relieved that she wasn’t the one to experience the full force of a second Christmas. They were overwhelming and terrifying and just a little bit sad. It made her uncomfortable when adults acted like children.
“I hope you don’t miss home too much,” said Ahsha’s mom over breakfast, force-grinning like the sides of her mouth were being pulled by metal hooks.
“It’s exciting being somewhere new Aunt Fatima,” said Elspeth politely.
“Think of this as your home away from home, and you’re in luck Ele, I know the best spots that this city has to offer” said Ahsha’s father with a grin equally as painful.
Elespeth smiled without her teeth and pushed her food around with her fork. She had been pushing her food around for a while and intrigued Ahsha wondered if her cousin actually planed on eating anything.
“That’s great Uncle Leroy.” Elspeth said.
Ahsha moved her head back and forth to watch the exchange. It was like a fencing match. So far the score was even. Her mother and father moved their forks across their plates like sabers and made eye contact in brief instances of muted enmity.
“Oh don’t mind your uncle, unless the Polytechnic and its student lounge sound like the best spots in town to you?” Fatima said too cheerfully.
One point mom.
“Well I would give my taste a little more merit than that,” said Ahsha’s dad. “Its up to my taste to make sure we are living a comfortable lifestyle you know,”
Elspeth nodded and looked vaguely uncomfortable.
Point for dad.
Ahsha’s mother glowered. “You know, as one of the curators at the gallery it was up to my taste to pick some of the paintings we are using in our latest exhibit. I would love to give you a tour of the artwork Ele.”
“No no no. None of that Fatima, you know how delicate your position in the gallery is. Let me give Elspeth a tour. That way neither of us have to worry.”
By this time Ahsha wanted to duck underneath the table. It looked like Elspeth did too.
“Oh that won’t do,” said Fatima. “Anyways, won’t you be teaching a class at the Poly?” The way Fatima’s mother said teaching a class at the Poly was soaked in acid an even Elspeth had to wince at that. It wouldn’t have been so bad in any other family, but those words were dad’s words, and her mother had just used them against him.
Ahsha’s dad was caught mid bite when Fatima’s blow hit. The bit of scrambled egg still on his fork- on his sabre- fell onto his shirt in a pathetic fight against gravity, and the ketchup that had been on the scrambled eggs left a blossoming red stain, bright like a drop of blood.
“Uncle Leroy, Aunt Fatima there isn’t any need to worry. Ahsha already said that she would show me the exhibit later on today,” said Elspeth. To Ahsha, her cousin’s voice still sounded cross and clipped, but it seemed to do the trick on her parents because they both said “oh” and made awkward clearing noises with their throats.
Ahsha looked up confused and Elspeth gave her a “just shut up I’ve got this” look.
For once in what seemed like ages, Ahsha decided to do what she was told, or in this case not told, and stayed quiet. Whatever fairy spell Elspeth was casting over her parents she was grateful. They both seemed to have forgotten that she was “grounded until she smartened up”- how awesome. In fact, until Elspeth had brought her name up, they both seemed to have forgotten she existed at all- how typical.
They had only been in the gallery for thirty minutes when Elspeth and Ahsha decided to make a plan to kill their doubles.
Elspeth had been staring hard at a particular painting, jotting things down in a hot pink notebook, and Ahsha had been roaming around looking for wifi so that she could find Sawyer on Facebook.
When the quest for wifi had failed Ahsha tiptoed back to the painting that Elspeth was perched beside, The Bower Meadow, and peered over her cousins shoulder to see what she was writing about. The painting was pretty enough, but Ahsha didn’t find it particularly interesting- definitely not interesting enough to write notes on. But apparently Ele did.
Two girls. Red haired one (that’s me) dark haired pouty one (Ahsha probably). Backwards-Ele and Backwards-Ahsha are dancing in the background. Backwards-Ele is spying. What a bitch.
Ahsha couldn’t help but giggle.
Elspeth snapped her notebook shut and whipped around. “It’s not funny,” she said sounding more clipped cross than usual.
“Yes it is,” said Ahsha. “Backwards-Ele and Backwards-Ahsha, why do you call them that, they aren’t backwards? If anything, mine only says the truth.”
“The truth. You think they say the truth?” Elspeth whispered, as if the doubles were right behind them. She opened her mouth to talk again and then clamped it shut as if her next sentence would be a struggle. “You’re the only one…” Elespeth said sullenly. “You’re the only one who could ever understand Ahsha… and you still don’t.” The last of Elspeth’s words came out small and shaky and as she began to blink her eyes she turned her back away quickly.
When Elsepth turned away, the double Ele or the backwards Ele painted itself out of the air and turned towards Ahsha. She was holding a bottle of something and shaking it like a maraca.
She was holding the bottle in her left hand Ahsha realized. The real Ele was right handed. Now that she noticed it, everything about the doppelgänger was flipped- like an image in a mirror. Backwards. I get it now, thought Ahsha, who was still staring intently at the nothing-coloured version of her cousin. As the double got closer Ahsha could read what was written on the bottle, which she realized was a bottle of pills. Lipozene. What was that? A drug? Was that the reason for Elspeth’s visit? Was Elspeth a junkie? Was this a rehab trip?
Elspeth’s double leaned into Ahsha’s ear and whispered.
“I am only beautiful when I am empty… so I am always empty”
At the same time Elspeth finally turned around and hovered around another painting. How They Met Themselves.
“We have to kill them. We have to kill our doubles,” she said
In the small café beside the gallery, the girls made a list of why they hated their doubles.
“Because they hate us,” Elspeth said.
“Because they remind us of ourselves,” Ahsha added. She had said it to be cynical and sarcastic and show Elspeth that she thought the plan was silly, but the moment the words had slipped out of her mouth Ahsha realized that she meant them.
“Donut?” she said hurriedly to mask the sudden vulnerable feeling she got whenever she accidentally shared.
“No thank you, I don’t eat.“ said Elspeth.
“I don’t eat donuts,” Elspeth corrected.
Ahsha was brought back to the image at breakfast with Elspeth pushing her food around and then again to the bottle of pills that the double had been holding. For a second, connecting lines lit in her mind like sparklers, and then they faded. Ahsha put the thought she had been thinking away into a box in her mind. It didn’t fit. Not with Elspeth. Why would Elspeth not eat on purpose? She was already skinny. She was already beautiful like a fairytale Queen.
“We hate them because they show up at the most inconvenient times,” said Elspeth adding another point to the list.
Ahsha nodded at that. “I know. Mine likes to show up when I don’t want to be me. When I would rather be someone else,”
“I always wish that I was someone else…” said Elspeth dreamily.
“If you could be someone else who would you be?” Ahsha asked. “I would be someone named Claudia. I like it because it sounds like claws. I would stretch my ear lobes out and ride a motorcycle somewhere and never come back.”
“I would be someone named Hero,” said Elspeth surprisingly meekly.
“That’s not a name,”
“It is too!” Elspeth said defensively. “It’s a name from a story I read. It was about a woman so beautiful someone swam a long way just to see her every night. I wish that I was that beautiful.”
Ahsha creased her brow in confusion. How could someone like Elspeth not realize that she was that beautiful?
“My double always reminding me of things I’ve done wrong. Like getting my parents divorced,” said Ahsha.
Elspeth’s eyes widened. “Don’t tell me you think that’s your fault? Even I know that’s not your fault.”
Ahsha stared down at the coffee table, puzzled. If it wasn’t her fault, whose fault was it?
“Maybe that’s what you tell yourself. Maybe Backwards Ahsha is just telling you what you tell yourself,”
“Not Ahsha, Claudia.” Ahsha said with a grin.
Elspeth rolled her eyed but smiled along with her. She even smiled when, with a sharpened pencil Ahsha carved “Claudia and Hero were here, bitches” on the corner of the coffee table. When one of the café workers walked past their table Ahsha guiltily took interest in her coffee again and accidentally slipped out of being Claudia. Claudia wouldn’t have been guilty abut anything.
“What’s wrong?” Elspeth asked.
Just the fact that I’m not really Claudia and you’re not really Hero, she thought to herself. “Nothing,” she said.
“Are you sure?”
“Yup” said Ahsha. And surprised, she realized she meant it. Maybe being herself wasn’t so bad. Trying to be someone else like Awful- Ahsha hadn’t worked out so well anyways had it?
“Ok then”, said Elspeth getting up from her chair. When she stood, Ahsha thought that her cousin looked a little lightheaded and Ahsha’s mind was pushed back to the full plate at breakfast and the pills and the puking noise.
Suddenly Elspeth looked sad and droopy like a wilted flower. Like she was going to faint. Ahsha stood up to catch her and when she did, she realized that the other Ahsha, the backwards Ahsha was right beside her. So was the backwards Ele.
“Oh. There you are Ashes,” said Ahsha to Ahsha and it was impossible to tell who was who and who had said what. They were the same person staring back at each other from two sides of a mirror.
They were the same person. Ahsha and backwards Ahsha. It would be impossible to tell who would win.
After all, Ahsha spelled backwards was Ahsha. Ele spelled backwards was Ele. And somewhere, there was a place they would intertwine. The backwards and the forwards. The neither here nor there. Somewhere they would have to meet themselves.