This is how it works: When I am with Helen, I can have Hopscotch and Butterscotch with me too, but I cannot acknowledge them when Helen is there. Helen is my real sister, and Butterscotch is my alternate sister. Hopscotch is the alternate me.
When I say that I don’t acknowledge Hop and Butter, what I mean is that I don’t acknowledge them in any way that Helen could notice. For example, if I am sitting on the couch watching TV with Helen, Butter can sit on the floor with her back against my legs, and if I want to talk to Butter, I don’t have to actually talk—I just hold my fist to my mouth and that’s our microphone and because Butter is my alternate sister, she can hear me. When Butter talks, I put my fist to my ear, but I make it look like I’m just rubbing my face with my fist because it itches or like I’m holding my fist to my face because I’m being thoughtful.
When Butter is down by my feet I don’t have to worry about what’s going to happen next because Butter wraps her arms around my legs and I hold my fist to my ear and she says, “You’re okay—I’m here. You’re Hop. You don’t have to worry.”
When she says that, I turn into Hop. First I feel a bullet racing around my body that is filled with the happy, buzzing feeling of being Hop, and then that feeling spreads everywhere and my feet turn into Hop’s cute, pink, little feet and then up through my legs and torso and then my whole body is my alternate, perfect and tiny body of Hop.
When Helen is focused on her TV show, I keep Hop at my side on the couch so I can remind myself that she’s there, with her very skinny legs against my actual legs, like I can choose to have her legs instead of my legs whenever I want.
When Hop’s body is against my body and Helen is there in the room, the sensation is both magical and real: the best me is attached to the actual me and I am both of us at once.
I should explain that sometimes I am Hopscotch, and sometimes I watch Hopscotch. It took me a while to realize that this was the case. I like it best when I am Hopscotch, but sometimes I have to enjoy her from the outside in order to make it even better once I am inside Hop.
Sometimes the barriers between the two aren’t as clear as I’m making them sound. Sometimes I’m inside and outside at the same time.
I never imagine that I am Butterscotch. Sometimes I let myself imagine what it would be like to be Helen, to get to live in her body and to know what her thoughts are like, but I want none of this from Butter. I just want Butter to exist, and I want her right by me, like a human pillow or a blanket that I can hug or curl up under. If I ever imagine that I’m inside Butter, it’s more like I’m wrapped up inside her, but I’m still me, or I’m Hop, or both, and then we’re protected because Butter blocks us from everything and hides us. I really don’t want to know what that’s like for Butter. Just the idea of it makes me feel guilty and nervous and ruins the whole point of Butter.
* * *
If I do not pass fifth grade, I have to get rid of Hop and Butter entirely. This is my number-one rule right now. I cannot be the oldest and dumbest person in my grade and still have Hop and Butter.
My biggest fear is that my mother is going to have the new baby on exactly the same day that I have to take my end-of-the-year tests at school. Both are supposed to happen in just two weeks, and I’m worried that when I’m taking my tests, my mother will be so focused on the new baby that I’ll fail.
What I like to imagine is that it’s Hop inside my mother’s belly, and when the new baby is born, I will disappear and become Hop entirely, as a new baby, starting over from the beginning. That’s really what I want more than anything.
* * *
Sometimes Hop and Butter like to sneak into Helen’s room when she’s sleeping. Helen sleeps in just short shorts and a tank top, so you really see a lot of her, especially if you’re patient and wait for her to roll into different positions.
The actual me only goes into Helen’s room if she’s not home. When she is home, I can only stare at her until I count to three, and only if she’s not looking at me. When Helen catches me staring it’s worse than not getting to stare at all.
In the special afternoon school that the actual me has to attend every Tuesday and Thursday, we do mindfulness and emotion regulation. The teacher tells us to imagine a place where we feel safe and happy and there’s sunlight everywhere. The teacher says, “Imagine that the sunlight is melting away any tension that you feel.” I always imagine that the sunlight is melting my actual body and stretching my bones long and lean until I am in Helen’s body and in her bed with my own tank top twisted around my torso and my ribs showing the way Helen’s ribs show when she twists that way.
But the truth is that every single part of Helen’s body looks different from every part of mine. Helen is like a natural blonde, but with her whole body. She has smooth, glowing yellow light inside of her. Everything about her is a tan sun-kissed glow stretched long and lean.
What I’d really like to do is take Helen’s body into my own room and lay her on my bed and remove all her clothes so that I can look at every inch of her body and spend as much time as I need comparing every inch of her body to every inch of mine. But even then I wouldn’t know everything that I want to know because there are so many interfering factors—for example, our age difference.
I wish I could have one of Helen’s body at all the different ages that she’s been, like one of those wooden dolls where you have the little dolls tucked inside the bigger dolls. I wish I could have all the Helens like this, one tucked inside the next inside the next, and I could look at whichever one I wanted whenever I wanted for the rest of my life, except then it wouldn’t really be Helen, so it wouldn’t be interesting.
It’s all much easier if I’m Hop. Hop is even skinnier than Helen, so it makes me less anxious if I can compare myself as Hop to Helen and have Butter there to tell me it’s not even good to be as skinny as I am when I’m Hop.
As soon as they enter Helen’s room, Hop goes to the farthest corner of the room and hides while Butter gets up into the bed with sleeping Helen. Even when Helen is not in her bed, Helen’s bed smells like Helen.
If I get anxious, Butter says, Remember, you can count, and then I count my breaths: in is one, out is two, in is three, out is four, until I get to ten—after that Butter is back to strong-Butter in Helen’s bed and Hop is safe in the corner because Butter is strong.
Then I connect Butter’s eyes to Hop’s eyes so that Hop can see what Butter sees up close and Butter can see Hop’s body up close. This way Hop can stay in the corner and Butter can still compare Hop’s body to Helen’s body.
If Hop gets impatient and wants a quicker, more exact comparison than Butter is willing to do, then Hop has to get into the bed too, in the exact same position as Helen, so that Butter can be sure that every part of Hop is skinnier than every part of Helen.
Luckily, Butter can tell when Hop is getting too nervous for her own good, and then she swoops Hop up in her arms as if Hop is as light as a sheet of paper, and she closes Hop’s whole body up in her hand until Hop is all warm sensation and isn’t thinking anymore. Then Helen brings Hop back to me in my bed and I get to be Hop.
Sometimes it’s hard for me to feel like I’m Hop after thinking about Helen, especially if I think about the fact that Helen is in the bedroom right next mine. Then I feel not like Hop at all, and Hop has to run circles around my bed and slap her knuckles against my walls and throw herself on the ground as hard as she can while Butter begs her to please relax and get into the bed so that Butter can comfort us. When Hop is flinging herself against my walls, she is as tiny and girlish as she ever is, and she wears soft pajamas with the thinnest pink stripes, like baby girl pajamas, but they still hang off of her because she’s so skinny.
I should admit that the actual me, during this time, is almost always just lying on my back too lazy to run and fling myself the way Hop does. This is why it takes so long to give in and relax, because I’m already relaxing.
It used to be that as soon as I started crying I’d let Butter comfort me, but now I wait for as long as I can and I have to clench all of my muscles until I get at least one cramp, and it has to be a painful one, and it takes not just crying but getting out of breath from crying. I have to really exhaust myself and only then can I be Hop and curl up on Butter. That’s the only way it feels good, like it couldn’t have been earned any more than it was.
Then Butter says, “It’s okay, you’re Hop, you’re Hop,” and Butter is all around me and my whole body is my tiny girl Hop body and I can breathe without having to count my breaths because Butter says if they need to be counted, she’ll count them. “Just sleep,” she says. She is everywhere and she whispers words in my ears until I am almost asleep and then she just breathes in my ears and my bedsheets are soft and pink and striped and they are mine.
Right before we fall asleep is the one time Hop and I are completely one.
* * *
When I am at my desk at school, I am not allowed to pretend that I am Hop and I am not allowed to have Butter. If I start to want Hop and Butter, I have to picture them on the top shelf of my cold metal locker, shoved to the back, covered in all of my terrible tests with my terrible grades on them, most of which I have not yet shown to my mother. I make myself picture my exact grade on each and every test, in Ms. Rubin’s exact handwriting, next to my stupid name in my stupid handwriting. If I want to think about Hop and Butter I have to think about those tests instead because that’s what I should be thinking about.
If I try all the techniques I know and I still can’t focus on my work, I am allowed to imagine Butter hugging Hop, but I have to picture Butter’s nice soft body pressed really hard into the back metal wall of my locker, so that it hurts Butter to comfort Hop, and I have to imagine that Hop is a boy—as different from the actual me as Hop ever is—with his boney boy knees pulled to his chest and his skinny boy arms covered in goosebumps, and Butter kissing his arms and his knees and then just wrapping herself around him so that her body is the only body touching any part of the cold metal, and it can only be from the outside that I am watching them, through the small slats at the top of my locker, and the only way I can get inside to be Hop is to focus on my work and improve my performance at school and get high grades and replace all of the failing tests with good tests. Then I can be Hop and get under those good tests and relax with Butter.
I remind myself of this again and again and again as Ms. Rubin walks around the room returning tests. Ms. Rubin always cups my test in her hand when she gives it back to me so that no one can see my shameful grade, and she puts it on my desk facedown so I can wait until I’m ready to look. To everyone else she returns tests face up, and she smiles. When Ms. Rubin returns a test to Katie, who sits next to me, Ms. Rubin touches Katie’s shoulder because Katie is the smallest and cutest girl in my class.
My mother says that when I was little I was a wonderful student. She says that my kindergarten teacher told her I was the star of the class. Now my mother looks at me and says, What happened? You used to love school.
When Ms. Rubin puts my test face-down on my desk, I have to turn it over really slowly, starting with the bottom left-hand corner, so that I can see the red marks going from bottom to top, and when I’m sure all the X’s I’ve seen mean that it’s another F, I fold the test in half and in half again and then very calmly put it in my desk like it’s really a fine grade and I’m just modest so I want to put it away and don’t want to share my grades like everyone else is sharing their grades.
What I really want to do with my test is crumple it in my fist and punch myself with it. But I can’t do that because I’m not allowed to punch myself at school. What I have to do instead is squeeze my empty fist into as tight a ball as possible and press my knuckles as hard as I can into the hard metal desk until I feel Butter coming toward me from my locker, just the feeling of Butter, but when I feel Butter coming toward me, I have to dig my knuckles even harder into the desk and grind them into the desk and then hold my right forearm with my left hand and dig my nails into my skin and then that’s Butter digging her fingers into my arm because she’s trying to lift my arm and make me punch myself. She says, Why are you hitting yourself? Stop hitting yourself, you retard! and she says it just like Helen says it when Helen is actually making me hit myself.
* * *
If I wake up in the middle of the night and Hop and Butter have already been to Helen’s room, I have to try to go back to sleep. Butter tries to hug me back to sleep, but if I’m still awake after fifteen minutes have passed, then she says, “You’re Hop. Just be Hop,” and that means I have to go down to the kitchen so that Butter can feed me. If I say I don’t want to eat, Butter says, You have to eat. You’re getting too skinny, even for you.
The actual me is on a diet but not skinny at all. I only eat a snack once a week, on Wednesdays, when Helen is at Hebrew school, and I never eat the snacks that Helen likes best—the Fritos and Ring Dings—because those are Helen’s special snacks and if I even taste them I feel terrible because Helen will want those snacks but they’ll be gone because of me.
On Wednesdays I sit exactly where Helen usually sits on the couch and I put my feet where Helen puts her feet and I take big bites from my snack the way Helen does.
If you look at my mood chart, you can see that on Wednesdays my anxiety is a lot less, but Wednesdays are still my least favorite day of the week.
Hop never wants to eat anything at all, but when I can’t sleep, Butter tells her she has to at least eat her Pop Tarts because that’s her medicine, and the doctor says she has to eat two and if she can eat three, that’s even better.
If I agree to eat two Pop Tarts, I get to sit under the kitchen table facing the wall, and Butter wraps one of her hands around each of my thighs to remind me that they are tiny Hop thighs and that’s why I have to take my medication. If I start to think that I don’t deserve the medication because my legs are too fat and nothing like Hop’s or Helen’s, Butter says, The medicine will make you skinnier, and then she remembers I’m Hop and she says, You need to eat. She tells me, You’re my special baby.
If I tell Butter that the Pop Tarts made me feel sicker, she says I just need more medicine and that I need liquid medicine and she walks me to the freezer and I have to eat the slightly melted rims around all the pints of ice cream we have because that ice cream melts into medicine. After I’ve eaten the melted rims I have to eat more ice cream if I still feel sick.
When I am standing in front of the freezer with the freezer door open, Butter stands behind me and puts her warm hands on my back and says, Of course you’re cold—look how skinny you are!, just like my mother says to Helen, and then Butter tries to be a blanket and wrap herself around me. Then I have to eat more ice cream and feel even colder until I really am cold skinny Hop.
Sometimes I hear my mother in my head asking who ate all the ice cream and then it is very hard to be Hop because there is no Hop and Helen is skinny and my mother is pregnant and they need our ice cream and I don’t.
So Butter says, “You’ll feel better if you eat some potato chips. Taking your liquid medicine always makes you nervous,” and then I have to eat all of the broken potato chips in the bag and then just one whole chip and then I have to take more liquid medicine.
Butter says, It’ll soothe your stomach. I wish I could soothe you. I want you to feel as good as you possibly can. So I stand in front of the freezer and eat the ice cream with my fingers and then I feel better because I’m cold like Hop.
Then it’s like a race to see how much ice cream I can eat before Hop turns into a boy and he gets so cold he dies. If that happens, I never get to be Hop again.
When I eat too much of the ice cream and I can’t stop eating ice cream even though too much is missing and it’s going to be obvious, Butter tries to hug me again, but I know what she’s really doing is trying to comfort Hop, and I am not Hop. Then I hear my mom saying to my afternoon school teacher, Maybe she should be nervous. I’d be nervous too if I were failing out of school.
Even though I can feel Hop’s medicine making me fatter, I keep eating the ice cream because it’s already too late to stop. Hop is curled up by the vent at the bottom of the freezer where it’s warmer, and then Butter has to get down on the ground too to protect Hop and then I know that what she’s really doing is protecting Hop from me. I am pushing Butter farther and farther away from me and I am hurting Hop and Butter has to love Hop instead of me, and even when I really am so cold I’m shivering, I don’t deserve for Butter to warm me up because I made myself cold by eating Hop’s medicine.
Then Butter yells, Go! And I have to run to the bathroom and push the handle of my special toothbrush as far down my throat as I can. My goal is to throw up so quickly that the ice cream is still cold when it comes back up. Then it feels like a cold cloud moving from low in my stomach up to my throat and collecting everything gross and hot inside of me and spitting it out again and again until I can feel a tiny bit of Hop at the core of me and I hear hard, steady thumping in my chest like an audience clapping for me to keep going faster and faster until there’s no more cold cloud and what’s left behind is warm special baby Hop expanding inside me, not like Hop is getting bigger but like Hop is blending and merging with the actual me until we’re just Hop.
Then Butter knocks on the door and says, “Can I please come in now?” and she sits next to me even though what I want is for her to sit behind me and hug me. Instead she puts her hand on my stomach and says, Poor thing, you’re still sick. And then she says, One more time, and I know if I do it two or three more times she’ll press her chest to my back and hug me because I have actual tears in my eyes from throwing up so many times, and she says, Okay, you’re okay now, and it’s like I’ve been crying and crying and finally I’m calm.
Then Butter says, “I’m worried about you, Gigi,” just like Helen says to the actual Gigi, who is Helen’s best friend, ever since Gigi told Helen what she really does with her toothbrush and why she giggles when she says to Helen, “Off to use my toothbrush!” after they’ve had a big snack.
I only use my special toothbrush in the middle of the night and on Wednesdays because I don’t want Helen to know that I copied Gigi.
When I am finished and I’ve rehidden my special toothbrush under the sink, I get to curl up on the bathmat the way Hop curled up by the vent at the bottom of the freezer, and then Butter curls around me and we stay that way until we’re falling asleep, and then we get to go back to bed and actually sleep.
* * *
The day before I have to take the first of my end-of-the-year tests, I have to hold the new baby for the first time. When they put my new sister on my lap, Helen stands over me and she keeps telling me to be careful and then I feel very nervous that I will drop the new baby or hit her because I don’t like her, but then my dad tells Helen that I’m fine and that she should go talk to my mother and my dad sits down not very close to me and looks at his phone and Butter comes and sits behind me and whispers, “It’s okay; just do what I do,” and she lightly rubs my arm and I do that to the baby.
The new baby’s name is Hattie because my mother likes that name and Helen said she really wanted the baby to have an H name. I have a special feeling about the letter H because of the way it looks like two skinnies holding hands. Now it’s like Hattie and Helen are those two H-skinnies, and I am the only one without an H name. My mother keeps calling the new baby Sweetheart and Helen calls her Baby H.
I’ve been calling her Hattie, but when I am holding her and no one is looking, Butter says, “What if that’s Hop?” Then she says, “She’s beautiful. She looks just like you did when you were a baby,” which is okay for her to say and for me to believe because my mother said the same exact thing. I am very thankful that Hattie is not skinny or blonde like Helen. It almost makes me want to cry I’m so relieved.
Butter puts her mouth right to my ear and she whispers, Hop, I love you so much. Then I put my forehead to Hattie’s forehead, so that our skin is touching but just barely, so that our eyes are looking right into each other. “You’re Hop,” I whisper, and I can feel her breathing onto my face. “Don’t worry,” I whisper. “You look like me, but you’re Hop.” Butter still has her mouth pressed to my ear, and her hand gets bigger on my arm and warmer. “I love you,” I say to the baby Hop. “I will love and protect you forever.”
Then I put my fist to my mouth. I say to Butter, I hate her. I can’t. And when I move my fist to my ear, Butter says, You can.
Jill Rosenberg has a BA from Vassar College and an MFA in fiction from the University of Montana. Her stories have appeared in The Kenyon Review Online, The Black Warrior Review, Crazyhorse, and other journals.