Kali Fajardo-Anstine chose Nancy Ludmerer’s “Matchbox” as the second place finalist for our 2020 Summer Short Story Award for New Writers! Today, we’re proud to share this marvelous story with you, along with Kali Fajardo-Anstine’s introduction: “I was first pulled into ‘Matchbox’ by the strength of the writer’s voice. The prose is conversational and natural yet filled with striking moments of wisdom, an attention to language that amplifies and reflects human nature. Through stark realism ‘Matchbox’ presents a story rife with thematic questions, the weight of our crimes, nature versus nurture, betrayal, and love. Vast ideas populate this story but do not weigh down this swiftly moving narrative of two sisters, identical twins, Candace and Lottie. I was intrigued by their characterization and found myself both charmed and saddened by their actions, which speaks to the power of this story. Candace and Lottie’s story might probe questions of the highest order, but they are also deeply complex and individualistic characters, women who are rounded, complex, flawed, and capable of change.”
Long before Lottie shows you the Times article, you found the studies showing that identical twin embryos, from the same fertilized egg, start to be different a month after conception. During the first trimester they undergo an average of 300 genetic mutations. Also called copy errors. You love and hate that name: copy errors. One of your tasks at work is to make sure there are no copy errors when an evidence book is prepared for a judge or arbitrator. But copy errors in identical twins are inevitable. They’re what make you different from Lottie.
The van is late. No surprise there. You’re first in line at 58th and Tenth, huddled in your wool coat, tongue scorched from drinking your newsstand tea too fast. Already dreading the end of the ride, seventy-five miles away: the sky brighter than anywhere in the city; noisy birds atop the barbed wire, mocking prisoners and visitors alike; stone-faced guards who take family members one at a time through four different doors that slam shut (metal, gated, electrified, red). Waiting, and then more waiting. Like it’s you who’s the fuck-up and not Lottie. The security area, the metal detectors, the humiliating search for contraband. Even the children—and half of the visitors on Sundays are kids, T-shirts or ruffly blouses tucked in their jeans, hair slicked back or neatly braided—even they have to go through the metal detectors.
The van’s a converted school bus, yellow and grimy on the outside, overheated within. Frayed seats, woolly asbestos-laden guts exposed. Everyone all uber-polite until the boarding’s almost finished, the little ones settled in with their juice and coloring books, the older kids sulking at having to leave their phones behind or have them confiscated by security. That’s when some folks think maybe there won’t be room and the shoving starts. Fact is, they all get on. Some little ones sitting on dad’s lap, or grandma’s.
Being first, you get a window seat, last row. You stare at the dirty snow, the still-deserted Main Streets. The icy gray river churning in the distance. In spring or after a fresh snowfall, it’s a pretty ride if you forget where you’re going, turn off the voices spilling their guts or carousing like New Years. Today, the woman beside you, hair in a net, mouth lipsticked dark brown like her eyes, wants to talk. “Your sister?” she asks, having pegged you as too young to be a prisoner’s mom and too old (although at thirty-two, you aren’t really) to be a prisoner’s daughter. Foolishly you nod.
“My sister, too,” she says. “Mine, they keep putting in SHU. I think she should sue. Pardon my asking but with your suit and all, are you a lawyer?”
You tell her no. You don’t say that you work for lawyers, which would only prompt more questions. Instead you look out the window intently, as if the key to existence is hidden in the closed-up storefronts. Finally she dozes off.
After ninety minutes getting through security, you actually enter the visiting room. It looks like a cafeteria in a semi-rundown middle school, with three vending machines along one wall. The offerings are the same in each machine, which always disappoints visitors: Poland Spring, Coke, Sprite, Snickers, Kit Kats, Doritos. You murmur your twin sister’s name and cell number to the first guard you see.
You haven’t visited for months. On the phone Lottie said she had a plan for getting out soon. Is this Lottie’s way of drawing you in? Despite being born two minutes earlier, you were always trailing dreamily behind. Until school brought you to heel. You had to pay attention, stay alert, to keep people from mixing you up with Lottie.