My sister and I have a single magic trick: when we face each other from opposite sides of a window, it becomes a mirror. We lift our hands, wink, pull our lips in strange directions. We imitate dinosaurs and gyrate our hips in particularly bad dance moves. Our parents laugh at us. Our lovers shake their heads and pour each other drinks. Our pets stare, faces tilted and ears perked. They do not get the joke.
We are the same in all but fingerprints. In first grade, we told everyone we would die on the same day. In high school, we got into the same universities. In college, we shared rooms and then apartments. Once, drunkenly, we found our way to the same lover. Our hair, our baggy shirts, our pink boots, our love of pit bulls, our favorite movies; we are truly identical.
“Even your hearts,” Mom says sometimes.
This is why we are confused one Wednesday afternoon when the doctor declares I have gained a pound and my sister has lost one.
“Probably stress,” he says, and leaves before questions fully blossom in our minds.
I turn to her, stare at her figure, and look down at my stomach. I text her that night and confess I skipped dinner.
Me too, she replies. I couldn’t keep anything down.
When we were ten we both got food poisoning, even though we ordered different things on the menu (for once). When we were fifteen, her boyfriend wanted to go on a date alone and I called her because my head started throbbing out of nowhere—she’d been in a car crash.
My stomach doesn’t ache. If anything, it grumbles, stubbornly. It needs food. I shouldn’t have skipped dinner. My lover made spinach ravioli and strawberry shortcake for dessert. I tried to eat it. I could smell the garlic marinara sauce. I knew how the whipped cream would burst like tiny clouds in my mouth. But despite my hunger, despite all that yearning, I couldn’t muster a single bite. I wanted to be a better twin.
Some weeks later, when it becomes clear that our respective shrinking and growing will not stop on its own, the doctor puts us on special diets. My sister eats to gain weight. Her list of recommended foods is full of protein shakes, bananas, cheeses, and breads. Snacks throughout the day.
Meanwhile, I am told to cut out fatty foods, bread, pasta, dairy. I swear off sugar. The doctors are very invested in my weight loss. They bring in nutritionists and do blood tests. They find us interesting insomuch as we are twins, but I am the one they mutter about, concerned, like my body is a problem to fix, a mystery to crack. I hold my protruding stomach in the waiting room and hope they solve it.
I begin to run in the mornings. I am not a runner. My lungs burn and my knees ache. Some people look like they fly through the air when they run. Lithe muscles bursting with strength. I imagine I look like the geriatric gazelle at the back of the pack, about to be eaten by strong, graceful predators.
Geriatric as I feel, I still have to try. I put a garbage bag over my body, avoid water, run around the park until my feet won’t carry me even one step further.
I can’t help but weigh myself when I get home; I have gained three pounds since morning.
At our next weigh-in, the doctors realize my sister is not just losing weight. She is losing height. Almost an inch, to be exact.
“Your arms are shorter,” one doctor says. He frowns at a clipboard and measures the rest of her. It’s all shrinking. He refers us to an orthopedist after taking our new height and weight.
I am taller. They measure my arms, my legs, my neck. They measure the circumference of my skull and the length of my feet. Each measurement exceeds my sister’s.
My sister sings songs. Her voice is a hazy cloud in the car, at choir concerts throughout high school, above the pews at church on Sunday mornings. She’s a talker, too. Uses her voice however she can. Our teachers used to ask her to shout announcements to the rest of the class because her voice carries so well.
I have the same diaphragm and vocal cords but never cared to use them. I’ve always preferred drawing. It’s quieter, more peaceful, and I have time to fix my mistakes. Singing allows no such mercies. My sister is braver than me.
She creeps into my room a month after the doctors measure our bones. My lover is asleep and does not notice. My sister stands over me, places her hands on mine. Palms flat, fingers splayed. The tops of my fingers curl over hers.
“What’s happening?” she asks. Her voice is higher than it used to be.
I look up at the stars. They seem closer now, already.
When I can no longer fit through doorways, I stop eating. My body refuses to notice. The doctors beg me to adhere to a diet.
“What do you think I’ve been doing? Plucking cows from pasture?”
My body surrounds my lover. It takes him into its warm embrace as I sleep. He builds us a bigger bed. A bigger room.
Then he builds me a new house, knocks down walls and ceilings so I can stand up inside—I am four stories tall and my head grazes the wooden beams. The house sits on my parents’ land, so they can help take care of us. Mostly, my mother weeps, but my nearness makes them feel better, so I don’t argue.
“What happens when I outgrow this place?”
“The doctors will fix you,” my mother says, then goes to prepare food for my sister.
My lover watches her go. “I will find redwoods tall enough to protect you.”
I watch him drive away to find something big enough to hold me, but I am not sure that such a thing exists.
I use a magnifying glass to see my sister. She stands in front of a microphone and shouts. The speakers barely register her words. She sits on my father’s shoulders and sleeps in our old room. I remember when both our bodies fit our bunk beds. Now a pillow is more than enough for her body to toss and turn throughout the night. Sometimes she rides our cat, Lucky, around the house, holds on to the tuft of fur on his neck until they reach the kitchen. My sister tells me Lucky has become more gentle, waits for her to get off before darting into some dark corner or another. Lucky’s kisses are more painful now, but my sister doesn’t complain.
The doctors are worried that she will keel over and die of malnutrition, but all of her vitals are normal. At least the ones they can measure. The doctors tell me my heart will give out any day now, that it cannot support such a mass (I heard one refer to me as The Blob. I daydream about swallowing him whole). But my heart is growing, too. I place my hand on my chest and feel it beat. My heart is larger than I used to be.
“Don’t quit on me,” I whisper to it, and it thumps in response.
It happens when my body can no longer be housed. The news declares severe weather warnings. The sky turns murky and thick. Green and yellow bruises the clouds, the sky, the very horizon, and sirens scream out from every corner of town. I watch my parents scurry to the shelter. My sister stays with me, and even though I can’t see her face, I imagine she looks afraid. The wind whips my hair around like ropes. It stings my face but my body may as well have roots.
First, the rain picks up. It comes down in droplets, then sheets, then from the side. A low cloud hovers just above me, drenching me the best it can before it passes by. Hail comes next: pebbles, pennies, grapefruits, and baseballs. It feels like particularly persistent shards of glass. I hunch over myself and let my back and hair take the brunt of it all. Some hail falls hard enough my skin might bruise. Can my skin still bruise?
The tornado lands about a mile away, winding down through the hay bales with fury unparalleled. I’ve seen tornadoes before, but never from this angle. I look down at the damage it does on the land. It swallows trees and cows. It might be a half-mile wide. It saunters toward me like a boxer in a cage, stares me down.
I wonder if there is a shelter in the world large enough to hold me. I wonder, too, if I need a shelter. I’m about to find out.
I take my sister into my hands and interlace my fingers tightly. Maybe I can keep her safe against the deluge. The tornado throws me off balance, like I’ve been shoved by a boulder. It rips the air from my lungs, and I cower as close to the ground as I can, on my knees, head bowed low—respect the almighty, as I’ve always been taught. In the eye, it grows bright as day. Nothing blocks the sun from peeking in. I look up into a maelstrom of debris. There might be blood or death, but all I see is darkness and light. The world is simpler here. All too soon the darkness is back, and I bow once more.
At the end of it all, I raise my hand to my left eye, try hard to focus on my sister’s face. “Are you ok?” I ask, quietly, afraid to pierce her eardrums.
I think I see her nod.
The doctors come to ascertain the damage done to my body, but they seem less concerned about my health and more interested in the thickness of my skin.
“You should be dead by now,” one says, knocking on my pinky toe from the top of a ladder.
People don’t have to pay to see me—I am perfectly visible on the Kansas horizon. But they pay anyways, to get up close. Word has spread after the tornado. I am the girl the storm couldn’t carry. Men I don’t know charge ridiculous fees for people to cross into their properties, properties that border my family’s land. I sit in the field behind my house. I am unsure how tall I am, or how much I weigh. The doctors stopped telling me when we ran out of money. Scientists show up sometimes, doing tests and asking questions.
My sister plays hopscotch on the phone, tiny feet bare, dancing out messages. Each word is a gymnastic masterpiece; I never knew she could do backflips. It feels like a betrayal, this secret skill, but I don’t tell her so. Instead, I hold my magnifying glass over the phone and put one eye to the lens. This is how we communicate, now. Through trial and omission.
Do you miss your old body?
“It’s the same body as before. Do you miss food?”
Sometimes Mom gives me breadcrumbs. The Italian kind. I like the spices. Do you miss your lover?
“I miss being loved. When will we die?”
I don’t think we can.
I drape myself with emergency tarps duct-taped together to keep the cold at bay.
“When will I develop my own gravitational pull?” I ask a scientist.
He takes measurements at the base of my feet and shrugs.
State officials beg me to stay put. They do not know what to do with my body. I think they want to confiscate it, but there is no machinery that could move me. I think they want to tax it, but there is no language to describe what I have become, so laws cannot be written. My feet could crush houses. If I stood in the ocean, my head might still poke out—the displacement would flood coastal cities.
I stand outside of my old house and place a microscope in the tallest window. If I squint, I can see my sister sitting under the lens, blurry as a speck of dust. I am not sure what she does with her time, or what she’s thinking, or what she fears. There is no microphone that can register her voice anymore. Sometimes she waves at me; I am afraid to whisper so much as a hello, lest I blow her away.
Storm fronts begin to tangle my hair. It rains behind me, but not in front. On my right side, but not my left. I divide the weather into neat segments, cut it before it can cross my body.
My breath causes shifts in wind patterns. Birds learn to fly at least a mile around me.
“Could you be more careful when you sigh?” my father asks through a megaphone. “The neighbors lost thousands in crops last time you sneezed.”
I hold my breath and nod.
My sister disappears on the first day of spring. I cry long enough to form a lake around the valley my body has carved into the field.
My parents refuse to talk to me after that. They row around me to get to the barn. I hiccup and overturn their kayaks. They swim to the shallows and I hear the echoes of my mother’s curses. I splash a tsunami into their house. They move away.
Eventually, my head is high enough in the sky that I can no longer hear anyone on the ground. I wish I could share the view with my sister. We whispered to each other under the sheets when we were little and our parents told us to go to sleep. We talked about all the things we wanted to do, the ways we’d find happiness.
“The world is so big,” she said. “I want to see all of it.”
“It’s too much for me. Even thinking about all the places I’ll never see makes me feel lonely.”
She took my hand. “Then we’ll see it together.”
Has my sister died? Should I mourn her? Has she been squashed? Or does she dance with electrons now? I like to think she’s elemental, bonded with atomic particles to create something truly beautiful. Soon, I hope, she’ll connect with quarks and learn their language. She’ll have to, if she wants them to understand her songs.
I raise my right arm and wonder if, somewhere below me, she raises her own. If she’s in pain, can I still feel it? Or is she too tiny for my mind to connect with hers? I wonder if we were ever twins, or if it was just a dream I had once, years ago.
A plane hums past me, passengers gawking and taking pictures. I can almost glimpse the satellites in orbit. If I stood, could I climb Mount Everest? How many steps would it take to get there? I look up at the moon, the only thing that hasn’t shrunk as I’ve grown. Its light gets brighter and bigger every night, like me. It calls to me.
Carefully, slowly, I uncross my legs. Rocks and houses crumble beneath my feet. I dust off my knees and stand, unrolling my back one vertebrae at a time. My head peaks into the stratosphere, and the air is cold and fresh. I stretch and yawn for the first time in ages. My back cracks like thunder. Like more than thunder. Like planets colliding. I feel glorious.
Above me, the moon glints reassuringly. I reach up to it and my hand pierces the atmosphere, the cold sting of space. My ears pop. I shift my weight and stand on my tiptoes. The moon hangs patiently, ready to be plucked like a peach.
KIRA BELL (@kdbell89) is from Chicago and doesn’t mind when people call it “Chi-Town.” She’s a Pushcart Prize Nominee and her nonfiction was longlisted for the 2019 DISQUIET Prize. She’s currently an MFA candidate at Alabama, and her fiction has appeared in Psychopomp Magazine.