It seemed like the girl Jasmine had identified as Alice England, the undertaker’s daughter, started haunting Mikey’s life. He’d never noticed her before, but now she was everywhere: in the hallways and library, passing by the pool building when he was running a swim squad meet, or outside his classroom window. He started looking for that particular burnt-red shade of her hair in amongst the throngs of students in the cafeteria, assembly hall, and locker room. She was always alone. Jasmine must be right in saying she had no friends.
She sure had the look of a genuine loner. Her gait was vague and preoccupied, her gaze trained absently on her own private thoughts… except that she had now developed an odd awareness of Mikey. She would lift her eyes to observe him as she passed him in the hall, her eyes invariably dropping to his chest. He hadn’t yet bothered to remove the Saint Cosmas pendant from the chain he always wore around his neck, so either the girl admired his physique, or she was interested in the saint medallion. Alice’s persistent staring irritated him, but not enough to make him remember to take the pendant off.
A few weeks after the funeral, while Mikey was in the school’s office organizing a day pass for his next swim meet, Alice came in. She handed a note to the receptionist.
“It’s for Mr. Cameron. I can’t attend the kayaking weekend because I work in my family’s business on Saturdays and Sundays. My father has signed it.”
The woman told Alice she would pass it on, but the girl didn’t leave right away. He checked her face. She was looking at him. Her solemn gaze remained on him until Mikey grew uncomfortable and glanced away, but when he looked back, she was still watching him, her eyes on his pendant. Unexpectedly, she raised her hand and took hold of a pendant at her own throat, holding it up to show him. Saint Cosmas. Mikey did a double take.
He did extra laps in the morning and bailed on the after-school session. It wasn’t a squad meeting, so he figured it was okay to skip. Mikey waited at a street corner between the school and Tranquility Funerals. He’d fobbed Jasmine off. She’d wanted to go for shakes with their friends, but Mikey couldn’t stand some of the girls in the group. He had no desire to sit through an afternoon with their inane, high-pitched remarks in his ears. Things were a little tense between them all around. Jasmine had been quiet on the topic of Mikey skipping Simona’s birthday party, and although she couldn’t argue with his reasons, he still got the feeling she was disappointed with him. He was already in trouble with her for developing an allergy to her favorite perfume. She had mostly stopped wearing it, but every few days she tried a small splash just to test him. He invariably fell into a violent sneezing fit within moments of meeting her. He knew that pissed Jasmine off, although she pretended not to mind.
The refusal to go with her to Harlem Shakes tipped the scales. She got pouty and cold, and within a couple of minutes of leaving with her friends, Jasmine texted him to say she felt hurt and abandoned. He knew when she was fishing for an apology, and gave her one, excusing his behavior by saying his shoulder was playing up again. His nagging case of swimmer’s shoulder was a convenient excuse whenever he needed time out from Jasmine―or any kind of excuse for poor boyfriend behavior.
There she was. Alice England. He spotted her walking toward him, on her way home, her hair pulled back into a messy ponytail. She gazed at the ground with a thoughtful frown on her face, carrying a battered canvas satchel like the ones kids used in the seventies and eighties.
“Hey,” Mikey said when she was just a few steps away.
Alice’s head came up and she regarded him with interest. “Hello, Michael.” Her eyes flicked to his pendant―like she was making sure it was still there. She stopped beside him.
“You walking home?” he asked.
“I’m heading your way. Mind if I walk with you?”
Alice shrugged, but then stared with renewed interest. “You waited for me?”
Mikey reddened, although he wasn’t sure why he should feel flustered. “Yeah, I guess. I figured you had something you wanted to say to me.”
It was an accusation turned back on her. Alice took it calmly and considered his words without a hint of embarrassment.
“Do you miss your brother?” she asked.
Mikey nearly choked. Not one other kid at school had mentioned Toby since he died, although they all knew about it. A couple of Jasmine’s girlfriends had given him hugs and whispered that they were sorry, and Mikey’s buddy Flynn had punched his arm and then slung his own arm around Mikey’s neck for an instant to show recognition of the event―but that was as much as any other kid had done. Alice waited, her eyes on his face, alight with curiosity.
“I wasn’t close to Toby,” Mikey said.
“That’s not what I asked,” she remarked, but apparently without sarcasm or any kind of hidden meaning.
“I don’t miss him because I wasn’t very close to him. That was implied.”
She resumed walking and Mikey walked with her. He checked to see if anyone was around, watching them. He didn’t exactly want to be seen with Alice England.
“It must have been rather a relief,” she said. “He was in trouble a lot.”
“You saw the news, huh?” The level of bitterness in his own voice surprised even him.
Alice shook her head. “I read one article. Tobias was addicted to drugs and I think he got caught stealing to pay for them a few times. Is that right?”
Mikey didn’t speak. This was what they were going to discuss? Toby’s rap sheet? Was the girl feeding the press or something? He shot her a suspicious glance but dismissed the idea a moment later. She was too weird to have cut a deal with the press. A girl like Alice wouldn’t even know where to begin. But he could interrogate, too.
“Why are you so interested in my pendant?” he asked.
For the first time, Alice’s honest eyes spoke of some kind of connection with him―because he’d been so blunt with his question, Mikey figured.
“It’s because I realized Tobias was a twin when I was tending to his body. Your mother supplied a Saint Damian pendant for him to wear. I know about the Saints Cosmas and Damian, the patron saints of twins.”
Alice’s light, sweet voice made her sound fragile. It had a vaguely hypnotic effect. He focused on her words.
“You’ve got a Cosmas, too.”
“Yes. They usually give Cosmas to the firstborn twin.”
“Firstborn by nine minutes,” Mikey answered.
“Four minutes,” was her reply.
“Four minutes; nine minutes―and we get the Saint Cosmas pendant as the reward for winning the race.” Mikey permitted himself a wry grin.
“As well as the traditional family name. Primogeniture, Michael Warrender the Fourth.”
Alice said this without a shadow of humor, and Mikey searched her face furiously for layered meanings. He couldn’t detect a thing. He didn’t know that word she’d said, but he knew exactly what she meant. It smarted, although he wasn’t completely sure why, and he got defensive.
“Okay, what about your twin?” he said, pulling his eyes away from Alice’s open face as he made his attack. “What happened to yours?”
Alice paused for a brief moment before answering. “My twin was born dead. Our umbilical cords were tangled around us both. My leg, and my twin’s neck.”
Mikey felt like a dumb jerk. Clearly, Alice was a little like a kindergartener: brutally honest and without much of a filter to make her interactions socially appropriate.
“You were lucky,” he said, for want of a better reply.
“I was. My leg’s no good, though.”
“What d’you mean?”
“The circulation to my leg got cut off and the muscles have never developed properly. I’ve had physiotherapy, but it’s just weak and inferior. It even looks strange.” She stopped and hitched up her skirt to reveal her bare leg.
Although it was an innocent gesture, the sudden feeling of his sexual interest spiking embarrassed him. Jesus, Michael, he rebuked himself. He didn’t know where to look, but Alice waited patiently for him to bring his eyes to the leg. Finally, he looked. There wasn’t anything too abnormal at first glance, but when he focused on what he was looking at, he saw spidery surface veins and some discoloration.
“It looks fine,” he said because she seemed to be waiting for a response.
Then Alice hitched her skirt on the other side so he could see both legs against each other. He saw how one creamy-colored thigh looked somehow much healthier than the other, which was bluish and blotchy. He also got a glimpse of bright green underwear. Again, the little surge of thoroughly unexpected and unwanted desire. Damn the girl for showing him her legs and underwear in such an ingenuous manner. It made him feel disgusting and guilty about having a physical reaction. If Jasmine had been the one hitching up her skirt to show him her smooth, tanned legs, she would have caught his eye and smirked flirtatiously. Alice was peering down at her own legs, observing their variation critically, as though she wasn’t quite convinced of her own story. She dropped her school skirt and lifted her head to look at his face again.
“Yes, so for me it was the leg, and for my twin, it was the neck. I imagine us doing a kind of synchronized swimming in the uterus, getting all tangled up.”
Surely this must be a joke? An odd attempt at humor? Mikey started to smile, waiting for her to grin or giggle, but Alice simply resumed walking. He scrambled to catch up.
“My twin had a Saint Damian’s pendant, but my parents didn’t bury her with it. She was just a tiny infant, and I’ve seen it many times―newborns that the parents want buried with a pendant or other jewelry they’ve bought specially. But jewelry can look wrong on a baby; it seems to take away from the innocence and purity. The parents usually change their minds when they see how big and ugly jewelry looks on their tiny babies.” Alice glanced at him. “My parents kept my twin sister’s pendant. It belongs to me now.” The honesty in her face was almost physically painful for Mikey. “Your mother asked for the Saint Damian’s pendant back,” she added. “She told me she needed to keep that one small thing of his for you.”
Mikey’s chest suddenly felt like a cavern, barely holding up under its own hollow weight. He’d not felt a thing for Toby for a couple of years, well, nothing but contempt. But when he thought of Alice keeping her sister’s pendant, and his own mother keeping Toby’s pendant for him, he felt… well, he felt like…
“I’m home, now.”
“What?” he said in agitation. He went to run a hand through his hair but caught hold of it instead, tugging on it in an attempt to clear his head.
Alice stood neatly by the steps outside Tranquility Funerals. Next to the front door was a modest sign, an old brass plaque that read, England’s Funeral Parlor Est. 1906.
“Goodbye, Michael,” she said, turning around to climb the steps.
She went through a gate at the side of the house. Mikey wanted to call out to her, to stop her from walking away, but there was no reason he could think of to do so without looking irrational and crazy, so he just watched her go.