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.
* * *
After another wait, Lottie saunters in, rage in her saunter, not at the guards but at you. She’s mad you’re late. You explain that your underwire bra set off the metal detector. After you removed your bra in the john and stored it in a locker, security sent you to the end of a line of new arrivals.
“Don’t tell me,” Lottie says. “The second time, they made you remove your suit jacket and smirked at you in your tank top. Great job, Candace.” In her green jumpsuit, she’s jumpy and—improbably—pretty: curving dark hair, jaggedly cut, naturally tan skin, green eyes, the same narrow build as you, but tough and muscular while you look stringy.
Lottie’s diatribe reminds you why you hate visiting.
As if you needed reminding.
You’ve been assigned seats at the end of a long wooden table. “Hey Benton,” calls another prisoner a few seats away. “That your sis? Or am I seeing double?”
“Yeah,” Lottie says. “What’s it to you?” She juts her chin in the girl’s direction, all mean aggression, then turns her bright glare on you. You see it in her eyes: you look like shit—dark circles, a rash on your cheeks, hair unwashed. First in line costs. Now Lottie’s rage is at a simmer, the same rage that got her here, that burned down her ex-boyfriend Luke’s new house. The one he built for his wife and kid on the cul-de-sac.
A fancy word for dead end.
Lottie hands you a print-out of a Times article. Paragraphs circled in red, the headline: Is the DNA of Identical Twins Really Identical? Scientists and Prosecutors Say No, But the Courts Aren’t Buying.
You shrug. “So?”
“Read it,” Lottie says. “Just read it.”
You start to read but can’t focus. Lottie begins speaking and you look up gratefully. “I’ve got a proposition. You’re gonna love it. It’s brainy, Sis—right up your alley. Speaking of up your alley, how’s Charlie?”
“Charlie?” You almost forget and ask, “Who’s Charlie?” If you hadn’t been distracted, you might have said, “Charlie is great.” There is no Charlie, at least not in the sense Lottie believes, which is Charlie, a hotshot lawyer you’ve hooked up with. Your excuse not to let Lottie stay over, especially the night she set the fire, the night she showed up with Shadow.
You decide it’s time to “drop” Charlie. In real life he’s a sweet guy who covers the firm’s security desk. He’s going to New York Law at night and sometimes the two of you chat. Sometimes he encourages you to apply. “We could hang out a shingle,” he says. You know he’s joking, and it’s only an office friendship, but he likes you. That’s something.
“Charlie is no more. He did a classic new-blonde-in-the-office-I’m-outa-here routine.”
Lottie guffaws and the guards nearby look up, families and prisoners, too. “You’re looking down-at-heels, Sis. Understandable. Listen I have a way to get out of here. Soon. Even before I’m up for parole.”
“Surprise!” A guard with a white mustache, bald head, and paunch, carries in a tray of Dunkin’, chocolate glazed, sugared, and “for you sourpusses out there, lemon cream. With apologies for this morning’s delays. Help yourself.”
There’s a mild uproar as family members crowd around the doughnuts. Prisoners know they need to remain in their seats. In minutes, there’s only lemon cream left, which suits you and Lottie just fine. Your tastes were always different from everyone else’s.
By then, you’ve read enough of the Times article. You give it back to Lottie. She smooths the pages, which are flat, not rolled up.
She wields them for emphasis, like a pointer, or a knife.
“It’s about mutations.” Lottie brushes doughnut crumbs from the front of her jumpsuit. “There’s a DNA test developed in Brussels. All they need is one mutation to tell one identical twin’s DNA from the other. But the New York courts say the labs need to run more samples before they’ll accept it as evidence. Prosecutors want the labs to do the research so when the next identical twin goes haywire, they can nail him with his DNA. Or her. The shrink here asked if you and I would participate. A DA lady came and interviewed me. How about that?” She smirks. “I always wanted to give my body to science.”
At the nearest vending machine, a line of kids and adults has formed. Something to wash down the doughnuts. Prisoners aren’t allowed to purchase items from the vending machines; only visitors.
“We’ll change history, Sis.” She pumps her right fist and you see the faint burn marks on her forearm. “And if Charlie’s really kaput, we can fix up your place when I get out, use a Chinese screen, like when we were kids and hung a sheet.” She scarfs down the penultimate lemon cream doughnut. There’s just one left now—presumably, for you.
But you’re not having any. Not the doughnut, not Lottie’s plan. This is the first time Lottie has spoken about where she intends to live when she gets out. Or at least the first time she’s spoken about it to you. You’re partly to blame. When Lottie went to prison, you continued to pay the rent on the Queens apartment, where Lottie lived alone after Mom died. But that winter, you got a flurry of phone messages from the landlord asking you to call, which you ignored for months. Your rent checks weren’t being cashed. Finally you called him back. He said the pipes burst in December so they went in and renovated. The rent had doubled and there was a new tenant.
You could hear the landlord breathing, waiting for your next move: a threatened lawsuit? A complaint to the Rent Board? Instead you thought, maybe it’s for the best. How long could you pay Lottie’s rent as well as your own?
You certainly couldn’t live there.
“This DNA study—no way,” you tell Lottie now. “Not for me. You’ll have to get your good behavior points somewhere else.”
“Don’t do this, Candace. Don’t bag out like last time.”
“You can’t bag out, if you’re never ‘in’—I never was ‘in’, and I’m not now.” According to the defense psychiatrist at Lottie’s trial, Lottie and you share many traits, being genetically identical. Not to mention growing up in the same fucked-up environment. No father. Mom’s men friends passing through. If Lottie were nuts from the get-go or at least damaged by her environment, she might avoid prison.
What a crock.
Five years earlier you sat out Lottie’s trial.
* * *
Lottie’s lawyer assumed you’d help. “A hereditary tendency. An inborn fascination with fire,” he said in his office that afternoon, “a compulsion, if you will, which you channeled into other things. Your sister didn’t.” He folded and refolded a red silk handkerchief, then leaned close, breath heavy with mint. “Candace, it’s my belief if you testify, the jury won’t just find reasonable doubt, they’ll be racked by doubt.” When you said no, and then no again, he begged you at least to attend the trial, to show support.
At lunchtime, you could have walked the seven blocks from your office to the courthouse. Instead you walked along the river, threw crumbs at the gulls.
* * *
Lottie’s lawyer was right about one thing. You both knew fire. Lottie says she doesn’t remember this, but you do: your father had the bright idea of using a lit cigarette as punishment. It only happened once, and only to Lottie—you were the good twin until that moment—but at four years old you took a kitchen knife and went after him and there must have been something scary in your face, something he didn’t think you had in you until that moment, because he left and never came back. Mom didn’t believe it when you told her how it went down; at least she said she didn’t. But she didn’t go looking for him either.
She gets credit for that.
* * *
At Fresh Air Camp, you learned that Native American tribes could start campfires by rubbing two sticks together; though you and Lottie worked obsessively, you were no more successful than the other kids. “I don’t think it’s possible,” Lottie insisted. “Not the way they taught us. There’s a trick. Maybe the sticks they use are matches in disguise.” In those days, the two of you were sticks. Skinny, with stringy black hair, and wide-apart green eyes. Someone said you had potential, being tall, to be models. But your faces were too dirty, too freckled, too scrungy, too sullen. Nothing happening there.
Sullen. Lottie was often accused of being sullen. You plastered on a stupid smile, hoping it wasn’t a smirk. Both of you were accused of smirking.
* * *
“There’s something else,” Lottie says. “I’m back in SHU tonight. You know what Doughnut Man said this morning? ‘Back in the happy house tonight, eh, Benton? Got a bunch of screamers there’ll curdle your blood. 1 A.M., 2 A.M., screaming, banging, cursing. A real welcome committee.’”
“Whether I spit into a tube doesn’t affect your going to SHU tonight. Whatever shit you did isn’t going away.”
You learned about SHU years ago. You made the trip in the van and the guard said, “Sorry, Benton’s in SHU, no visitors today.” You looked up SHU: the Special Housing Unit, a euphemism for solitary confinement. The prison’s primary mode of punishment, sometimes for violence, sometimes for simply irritating a guard or being disruptive. A room like a box, concrete floor, a feed slot through the door. No contact but the guard delivering food and meds, but constant noise from other prisoners in the SHU Block. Lights on all the time. No clock, so you can’t tell if it’s day or night.
As you told your seatmate in the van that morning, you’re not a lawyer. You do grunt work for lawyers.
Sometimes when you stay late, it’s not for work. You’re looking up things. Arson. Pyromania. SHU. And, especially, twins.
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.
But not different enough. Mom said you were both overly sensitive and quick to anger. In your case, the anger turned inward. When you said “you stupid shit,” the words were directed at yourself, not the jerk who offended you.
* * *
But when did that start?
At first you were, as twins can be, best friends. Now, in the visiting room, Lottie raises her eyes from the last doughnut and stares at you. You worry she knows what you’re thinking. She seizes the opportunity to soften you up, all geared to getting you to participate in the DNA study, which—like the testimony her lawyer wanted you to give—is surely bullshit.
Another dead end.
“We had fun, didn’t we, sharing a room?” Lottie asks, brushing doughnut crumbs onto the floor. A guard lounging against the wall glares, straightens up as if he’s going to walk over and confront Lottie, send her for a broom and dustpan to clean up her mess. He continues to stare but doesn’t move. “You know what was the most fun?” Lottie continues. “Fooling people. Even Mom, when we were little. And teachers. Oh god, the teachers.”
Yes, the teachers. Is it a coincidence that Luke is one? In September they’d always start out thinking, twins, how cute. Then Lottie would get chewed out for copying some brainiac’s work (or worse, your work) or for chattering non-stop during quiet time or for messing with the paints in the back of the room where she’d been sent for a time out. The teacher would say, “Lottie Benton, go to the principal!” And Lottie would lie sweetly, “I’m Candace.” The teacher would waver, suddenly unsure. All it took was a moment. Class would erupt.
“In the third grade, they separated us. Remember?” Lottie reminisces softly but her eyes sear into you. “That was a bummer. Then in middle school, forget about it.” By then, of course, everyone could tell the Benton twins apart, or thought they could. “Me with my piercings, and you with your white blouses and that heart locket.” Still, you continued to love many of the same things, the same music. In middle school, you became obsessed with the Dixie Chicks, with “There’s Your Trouble.” You’d make up lyrics, try to outdo each other.
At the other end of the visiting room, the area they call Kids’ Corner, children entertain their moms-in-jumpsuits. One girl warbles “Tomorrow”. Two little guys, maybe six-years-old, tap dance in sneakers, then collapse in a heap, tittering. Lots of noisy shushing and a teenage boy sings “You Will Be Found,” a song that breaks your heart—for no reason, really—followed by clapping. You’re stuck at the opposite end, glued to your assigned seats; the guards play a staring game, aimed directly at those seats. The exit to the cell blocks is right there.
They could haul her off for a time out now if they wanted.
“Remember that poem in fifth grade assembly? When we dressed like boys?” She recites the opening of Henry Leigh’s poem, The Twins, which she knows you know by heart: In form and feature, face and limb, I grew so like my brother that folks got taking me for him and each for one another.
“Stop. I won’t be able to get it out of my head.”
Mostly the poem recounts the trials of being an identical twin brother. The line you loved best, though, was, as they say, gender-neutral: I put the question hopelessly to everyone I knew. What would you do if you were me to prove that you were you?
It got easier to tell Lottie and you apart in high school. A boy you both crushed on said you looked different when you were mad: Lottie, all smoldering and electric; you, contained fury, lips pressed together.
“How can two people be identical, with the same DNA, but so different?” your mother asked then. “I don’t understand it.”
Lottie’s eyes are relentless now. “You know who couldn’t tell us apart, ever? Dad. Dad had no idea.”
“We were four when he left. You barely remember him. Isn’t that what you told the lawyer?”
“I remember him. An equal opportunity shithead. He went after whoever was closer.”
Dad never used names. Mom said it was because he didn’t want to make a mistake and show himself a fool. Mom told any new boyfriend that her twin girls chased their father away, warned he’d get the same if he didn’t behave. She was wrong, though, about who drove Dad away.
It was only you.
* * *
You were away at community college when Lottie met Luke and when Mom, an unreformed smoker, met her Maker. You were hoping to do well enough in the two-year program at Binghamton to transfer to the four-year state university. When Mom died, you left college, never to return. Truth was, you hated it, or hated being away.
Lottie was working for Con Ed in an entry-level job and still living in the ancestral mansion, as you called it. The apartment was a mess. It reeked of stale cigarette smoke and sickness. Except Lottie’s room—what had been your room, too—which smelled of tuna fish, hair dye, and sex.
On the train to Rockaway to deposit Mom’s ashes, in a nearly empty subway car, another January, the two of you bundled against the cold, Lottie told you about Luke, the handsome teacher she met when she responded to a reported gas leak at his high school, a vocational school in Upper Manhattan. You asked where he lived and she told you about the wife and kid. You immediately got that he was a dead end but she kept going on about how sweet and sensitive he was.
Not to mention, brilliant.
“He’s smart,” Lottie said. “Like you.” She instantly sensed your disapproval. “Like they say: the worst thing a person can do is judge someone else.”
You snorted. “Who’s they?”
“He didn’t make that up either. Someone famous said it first. It’s wrong to judge people by someone else’s rules. One person can follow the law and be evil, and another person can break the law and be a fine human being.”
“A recipe for anarchy,” you said. “Sounds like warmed-over Oscar Wilde.”
Lottie got quiet. You knew you were being a supercilious jerk and got quiet too. You wondered where Lottie and Luke discussed the contours of ethical behavior. Not a conversation you ever had with a guy, certainly not while in bed with him.
Who the hell was Luke, pulling this crap on Lottie?
“Sounds like he’s justifying his own bad behavior. Cheating on his wife with his girlfriend. Neglecting his children to be with said girlfriend.”
“Child,” Lottie responded. “Not children. I think you’re jealous. I really do.”
You didn’t respond. After a while conversation resumed, about the Queens apartment, how Lottie would continue living there. “I’ll find my own place as soon as I get a job,” you said, hating the thought of staying in that apartment even one night.
The job came through that afternoon.
* * *
Lottie broke up with Luke for the first time six months after you returned to New York. He failed to show on her birthday—your birthday, too, although that, of course, was irrelevant. She threw Luke’s stuff down the stairs of the walk-up, one item at a time—jock strap, tie, deodorant, toothbrush. He found them as he bounded up after midnight to see her, clutching a wilted bouquet of yellow roses from the all-night grocery. By then it was the next day. She wouldn’t let him in.
“Maybe he got the date wrong,” you said on the phone. You knew that didn’t make sense—from everything Lottie said, Luke was an uber-precise guy—plus if he thought the birthday was the next day he wouldn’t have shown up after midnight, but the following evening. The roses would have been fresh, from a florist, and not, as Lottie described them, wilted, heads drooping, from the corner bodega.
They might have even been red.
“I may be dumb, but I’m not stupid,” Lottie said. “Don’t patronize me, Candace.”
Did she always speak that way? Or was that Luke?
“People make mistakes. Sometimes we need to let go.” You surprised even yourself with this oh-so-reasonable advice. Truth was, you didn’t want them to break up. With Luke around, she was more independent, less likely to call at crazy hours with schemes for quitting her Con Ed job and going into business (unspecified in nature), with you as partner.
“He lies a lot,” Lottie said. “Things I never told you about. He lies to his wife but he lies to me, too. You warned me he was a dead end. You were right.”
“You knew all that already.”
“I’ve decided,” she said. “Luke is over.”
Two months later, maybe three, you were sitting on the fire escape with the latest Louise Penny mystery and a glass of plonk at 8 pm. You’d finished dinner—cold noodles from Hunan Park—when your favorite lawyer called with a so-called emergency. Could you come in and redo the binders on the insurance case? You never turn down overtime, then or now. Later, during the year Lottie went to prison, when you were paying for her apartment as well as your own, it’s what saved you from the proverbial poorhouse.
Twenty minutes later, there you were, on the downtown platform, about to board the #1 train, when Luke apparently saw you through the open doors of an uptown #2, and thought you were Lottie. He pushed his way off, practically knocking down some old lady, who cursed him loudly, and raced up the stairs, down the other side.
“Lottie!” he said, grabbing your arm. “I’ve been wanting to call you.” Even though he and Lottie had been together for over a year before she dumped him, you’d never met him. He was more handsome than in the photos she showed you on her phone. He was sweaty and almost shaking, his voice as deep as pitch and you—you’re a sucker for guys with voices like that. You glanced at the conductor. He shrugged, shook his head. The doors slammed shut.
You stood on the platform debating with yourself for a full 30 seconds whether to tell Luke you weren’t Lottie.
What was the point? He’d find out soon.
“Can we talk?” he asked. “Please.” His hand on your arm.
You imagined Lottie shoving away his hand as she kept going, her growled “get off me.” The threat in her eyes to make a scene if he didn’t leave her alone.
You’re not Lottie.
And without prompting, he realized it. Score one for Luke. “Hey wait,” he said. He took a step back and looked at you hard. Although she never introduced you, she plainly talked about you. “Candace?”
He went with you to your office. You filled out a guest pass for him at the security desk while your friend Charlie raised an eyebrow. Luke flashed his identification; he was a NYC high school teacher who moonlighted teaching at one of those sleazy for-profit colleges. He taught something useful, like engineering or pipe-fitting. He said he’d sit in a conference room and read, so long as you would join him for a drink afterwards. You were sure he wanted to speak to you about Lottie, figure out how to get back on her good side. You said okay. You’d already had a glass of wine, with your cold noodles, in fact, two glasses.
Which should have disabled you from redoing the binders, except that that was something you could do in your sleep, which did not require forethought or skill. Unlike your night with Luke, which required both. Skill you had in spades. When you are the identical but nonetheless uglier twin you develop it. Forethought you had none, which is why you went for the drink, why you didn’t rebuff him in the lobby of your building, why you instead invited him up for a “nightcap.”
It was only after Luke fell asleep that you asked yourself, what the fuck were you doing?
Until then, you were all in, trying to be everything, trying to be her, or at least to know what it was like to be her. Even though it was months since Lottie broke up with him, you imagined her smell still on him, in the fur of his belly, the smooth skin behind his ears, the taut muscles of his back. You breathed him in, her lovely boy-man, and imagined you were breathing her in, too.
But once he got up to get water, looked at his phone, set the phone alarm and got back in bed, you were flummoxed. How was it that Luke, who was married and had a little girl, didn’t have to be somewhere? Every man you’d ever slept with had to be somewhere. Was that why Lottie considered him a keeper? “This one’s a keeper,” Mother would say about some new man hanging around: Ray the fireman or Dave the plumber or (your favorite, name-wise, anyway), Hugh, a driving instructor. “What’s it to Hugh?” you would challenge Mom when she criticized something. At twelve, dumb wordplay was your form of sass, and Lottie, your loyal audience. It drove Mom nuts.
You were on your side when Luke got back into bed, and when he put his arm around you from behind, you assumed he wanted to fuck again, but no, he snuggled against your back. You lay awake, watching the numbers on the night stand’s digital clock, each minute’s passing an eternity. Two years later, you would lie there, alone, imagining your sister’s time in SHU. Without a clock to watch time passing. Never knowing how much longer till morning.
* * *
It’s one thing to cheat on your lover with a wife, the one bringing up the kids. Lottie knew about that. It’s what married guys do. But the others made her crazy, and after that one night, they made you crazy, too, when you heard about them from Lottie, who was back with Luke a week after your night with him.
* * *
The day before Lottie set the fire, you went to see her at the old place in Queens. The landlord had called, claiming that Lottie had turned the apartment into a firetrap with piles of paper and debris; you were listed as someone to call in an emergency. Lottie said she only let things go when her relationship with Luke deteriorated. You said to Lottie: “Repeat after me. Luke is a bum. Luke is a cheat. Luke is a terrible father, and a liar, and a two-timer, or maybe three- or four-timer. And clean up your goddam house.”
She stared at you, nodded.
Looking back, you kept goading her. You never said the words. You never said, burn him. You weren’t there when Lottie’s match hissed to life.
It was nothing like chemistry lab with Mr. Fredericks, the first time Lottie used fire to punish, with you at the next table. She was mad because Fredericks wouldn’t let the two of you be lab partners. “Then Candace does all the work,” he said. “Not happening.”
There were four students to a table, and an alcohol lamp on each table, wicks long and bright with fire. The first task was to heat water. After Fredericks insisted she sit elsewhere, Lottie moved away angrily, jerking her hips, and plonked down at the table opposite. The alcohol lamp fell over, the alcohol spilled out and fire spread along the floor. You knew about alcohol lamps; when you were bored you read about crap like that. There was a bucket of baking soda in the closet, along with the mops and brooms, and you got the baking soda and poured it on the flaming floor while everyone else was screaming, Fredericks trying to calm them down and evacuate the lab.
No one got hurt, just scared. Still, Fredericks had to report the incident. He was reprimanded, almost lost his job. Nothing happened to Lottie. No one saw her lean on the table. No one saw her shove it away from her.
No one but you.
* * *
Truth is, the two of you are different. Lottie looks ahead, even if it’s only to plan the next three minutes. She executes with malice aforethought. Lottie planned the fire when Luke’s wife and kid wouldn’t be there. She planned it when Luke wouldn’t be there. He was working late, or at least that’s what he told her. Did she think he was lying? Probably. But still.
She forgot one thing—but forgetting isn’t the same as lack of planning. When she got to Luke’s place with the kerosene-soaked rags, and the matches, and the newspapers, she saw the sign beside the front door: “In case of emergency, please save our pets!” with a checkmark next to the graceful silhouette of a cat, the sign courtesy of the North Shore Animal League. She’d forgotten about Shadow, the charcoal grey Luke had recently adopted. She remembered where the key was but she forgot about the cat. She found him in the wife’s bathroom, curled in the sink. She grabbed Shadow with one hand, held him close. Then she whirled in the center of the living room with the kerosene and the rags and the newspapers. The cat was remarkably calm, quiet against her chest.
She told you this when she showed up at your door, a blanket in her arms, Shadow inside. “Please,” she said. “Take him.”
“What did you do?” you kept asking. “What did you do?”
She smelled like smoke, like kerosene, like campfires.
“What I said I would do. You said he deserved it.”
“You shouldn’t be here. Don’t you have to be at work?” She frequently covered night shifts for Con Ed. “I’m on furlough,” she said. “For fighting.”
You told her to go home to her apartment in Queens. You lied and told her Charlie was on the way and shouldn’t see her there. You said, “I’ll take him,” and held out your arms to Shadow, who slid through them and ran to hide under your bed.
You closed the door.
* * *
“I really need you to do this, Candace,” Lottie says, handing you the Times article once more. “If things go right, it can me get out by next fall.”
The guards are calling her name. One stands directly in front of her, hands on hips.
You don’t have the heart to thrust it back at her, not with them looking on.
Visiting hours are over.
On your way to the van Doughnut Guy stops you. “Your sister’s been having visitors: an ADA, her boyfriend, you. Starting tonight, she’s in SHU until February 14th. You can’t see her. Neither can he. You’ll let him know, right?”
Her boyfriend? Who else could it be but Luke? After Lottie admitted she set the fire, after his wife couldn’t pretend anymore she didn’t know, she took the kid and went.
So that’s why Lottie’s looking so good.
The mood in the van is different now: lighter, almost jovial. An obligation fulfilled, a burden lifted. Now the adults chat softly or doze while the children, who’d been half-asleep or anxious on the way up, are boisterous, laughing, fueled by doughnut sugar. Two little girls, sisters, maybe four and six, race up the aisle, playing their version of hide-and-seek. The little one careens into you in the last row. She hides her head in your lap, seems to think that if she can’t see her sister, her sister can’t see her. They are beautiful children in their way, with red-brown braids and orange freckles on milky skin. The little girl smells like caramel. “I want a puppy,” she implores, as if you can magically produce one. “I have a kitty,” you tell her.
On this visit, like the others, Lottie didn’t ask about Shadow. She has never asked about him.
At home, you look at your apartment through Lottie’s eyes, the way it must have seemed to her the night she brought Shadow to your door, meowing piteously. A square room, with a half-fridge and a two-burner stove and a microwave in one corner. A daybed on the opposite wall. A blue file cabinet, where you keep your research. A bookcase, the lower shelf assigned to Shadow. His bowls and his blanket.
You fill the teakettle on the smaller burner. The kettle is clean and austere, like the apartment, like Shadow’s sleek gray silhouette, emerging soundlessly from under the bed.
Each item in its place.
The guard said to let Lottie’s boyfriend know she was going to SHU. You wonder how often Luke visits, what they talk about, if he expresses remorse or solicits it, if he tells her how low he had fallen in those days.
There was even this thing with her sister.
The morning after you slept with Luke you found a Dive Bar matchbook he left behind with his cell phone number scrawled on it. An artifact, even then; smoking had long been banned, including at the Dive Bar, where the two of you stopped before heading to your apartment. That morning, you stuck the matchbook in the drawer with your corkscrew and knives, the same drawer where you keep personal legal documents – your lease, your social security card, other important papers, bound together by a rubber band. Now you stuff the New York Times article that Lottie gave you in with the other documents in the rubber band. You shut the drawer on the documents, on the matchbook, on the knives.
But when you try to light the flame under your tea, the burner won’t go on. You open the drawer, grab the matchbook, and light the gas with one of the dozen matches remaining. You rip off the matchbook cover and hold it in the flame. It curls into ash.
Nancy Ludmerer has fiction in Kenyon Review, Carve (where “A Simple Case” was the fiction winner of Carve’s 2019 Prose & Poetry Contest), Electric Literature, the Saturday Evening Post, Litro, Cimarron Review, and other places. Her flash fiction has been reprinted in Best Small Fictions (“First Night,” a River Styx prizewinner), translated into Spanish, and read aloud on NPR-affiliated radio, and her short memoir “Kritios Boy” (Literal Latte) was named a notable essay in Best American Essays 2014. Most recently her story “Good Intentions” won first prize in Pulp Literature’s Raven Short Story Contest. She practiced law for over 30 years before turning to writing full-time. She lives in NYC.