Sample of “Mental” by Marie K Johnston

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“Mental” is written in three sections. I am providing you with excerpts from Chapters One, Two and Four to orient you, a full chapter from Section One, excerpts from the rhyming, metered poem which begins each chapter in Section Two, and finally, another full chapter from Section Three. Thank you in advance for your consideration!

 

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Chapter One Excerpt

 

Before I open my eyes, I feel his weight on my mattress and hear his zipper. Now I know what he is about to do and it is the thing I have been afraid of for years, but, especially most recently because during another blackout, he had told me that he wanted to be with a woman who was exactly like me! I tell myself I’m overreacting and that this is just a nightmare. He is adjusting my body, he is taking off my pants and underwear, he is half-naked and so am I. What a terrifying nightmare I am having, I think. I wonder if I can wake up? But I cannot move.

He is silent. He is having his way with me, even though I haven’t moved a muscle. He is staring at me but has a far-away look, and I am barely peeking with my eyes because I want him to think he can’t wake me up.

I don’t want to confront him—he has become a violent man during this divorce. I don’t want to see what is happening to my body and what I fear will happen to my soul.

I was so sad when I went to sleep, I thought, but every pore of my skin is hot and sweaty and depressed and shocked and terribly saddened with every flick of his chrissakes and every blink of his eyes and every curl of his lips. I am being raped by my own father! How will I survive something like this and what if I accidentally get pregnant?

 

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Chapter Two Excerpt

 

Eve and I are “identical” twin sisters. Made from the same sperm and the same egg, easily confusing people we’ve just met, growing up in the same room in the same house. But we are not the same people. She and I still have many different experiences, and still see things we’ve experienced together in very different ways.

 

If I could pluck them out of us and hold them in my hand, those differences would be almost as shocking to me as the difference between life and death. That is why I am writing this about her, about me. I have to understand her to understand myself, and understand myself to understand her. The simple differences are too complicated to tease out any other way.

 

You know, I’m just gonna confess up front. This isn’t all my work, and you would have figured it out had I pretended it was. You see, when my sister is out, I snoop around. One day, I found a bunch of her journals and I have been borrowing from them ever since. But you’re okay with this sort of thing, right?

 

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Chapter Four Excerpt

 

She was alone. The moon smiled down at her.

 

“I watch you people living…”

 

“What?” She looked up at the shining sphere.

 

“I have been watching since before you noticed me. So many of you, and still I don’t understand what you search for.”

 

“I don’t know. I have been looking for what to look for all my life,” she said.

 

“You are so tiny,” it said to her from far away. “So am I. You used to think I was as big as the sun, long ago when you only used your eyes to see. Now you can judge distances and measure space, and you think of me realistically. I remember when I held secrets, long ago, for you.”

 

“What do you see, from where you sit?”

 

“Time. After enough has passed, I pull the ocean toward me–then it pushes itself away again. It has always been so, since before you all.  The ocean and I began together, but it drifted away because that is it’s nature.”

 

“Did you bring us here?” she called, searching through the haze for its face.

 

“No—I am not the one…When I came to see, I was not the first. I don’t know who began the chain that led to you.

 

“I am sorry for you all, though–you have the capacity for understanding, but no understanding. You see everything and can’t distinguish meaning from nonsense.”

 

“But we make meaning.”

 

“Perhaps that is the problem,” it chided, falling behind the shade of the clouds.

 

A flight of blackbirds drifted across her vision, returning to nip at the infant berries just peering from the trees. It reminded her of her childhood—leaning against the pine trees painted chartreuse with pollen, waiting for the wind to blow.

 

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Chapter Thirteen, Section One

 

“I’m pregnant, but I’m a virgin. I’ve been pregnant all my life,”  said Eve.

 

The mirrored faces began to smile around the table. Eve rubbed her belly and licked her lips.  One woman began to pull her brown hair back into a bun, stretching her bent arms towards the hanging light above them all.

 

“You will see that the windows are lying—the world is not as beautiful as the windows will tell you,” her bun was finished now, tight and perfect, and she rested her hands against her neck.  “I believed the windows,” she whispered.

 

“When you get on your first train, you’ll want to ride over the ocean, you’ll want to ride into another country–but, your luggage will be marked for some Midwest state because there are no oceans and there are no countries–only tracks inside of you,” spoke a woman whose face had gone soft and pliable from age–tender was the etched skin around her eyes, her hair a smoky shock around them. She closed these eyes, resting her hands under the table. The pregnant girl, only seventeen, could only listen and could not speak.

 

Laughing, a girl of six years came spinning into the room. Long golden brown tresses waved and flew around her. Her print dress fluttering, she waved a long purple ribbon above her head. She skipped to where the others sat, and stopped to look at their faces. “Sometimes, it is only children who understand the life around us,” she stated. Then, quieted by the silence around her, she climbed into the oldest’s lap.

 

This oldest one rocked the girl, back and forth, humming words against her ear.

 

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“Eve, you will be me one day, and then you will see my death in your life. The days will lead you into me like rabbits are led into snares. Don’t be afraid, don’t be afraid—we are all powerless.”

 

“I am not powerless!” shouted pregnant Eve. “There is an answer growing inside me, pushing to get out. We are all incomplete, but can’t we still find out where dawn is kept when morning has come?” She now had both hands on her swollen abdomen, kneading the hard flesh, hoping to squeeze out a new child-Eve before evening fell.

 

“I am twenty-eight, and I am you,” said a woman with shoulder length brown ringlets and the pregnant girl’s eyes. She wore a wedding dress that had been soaked by rain; the ivory lace clung to her neck and arms.  Reaching under the table, she placed two cream-colored heels in front of the pregnant one.

 

“Here, take your shoes, Eve.”

 

“These are not my shoes, my shoes are brown and flat, they are made for climbing hills,” she answered, looking down at her feet. Both women were barefoot.

 

“No, Eve, these are your shoes. Today I was married; yes, you will marry a man who can’t read. I decided that it’s much easier to love a man who yearns for words he cannot have, than it is to love a man who takes them for granted or abuses them.”

 

The other ten women, ranging from thirty-two to eighty-four, all began nodding. “Yes, Eve,” they said together, speaking to the pregnant girl; “Yes, Eve,” they said to each other.

 

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“We remember being you,” they all continued to speak together now to the ten girl children.  The six year old looked up from the oldest’s lap to stare around the table. A three year old with a curly mop of shaggy brown hair held a pen in her hand–she was scribbling on a new entry in the pregnant one’s diary.  The twelve year old, just beginning to understand her period and her body, giggled and blew kisses at each lady.  

 

The Eve who was fifteen put her hands over her ears, saying, “You do not know me—I will not become you, women. I will be a writer instead.”

 

The girl who was nine replied, “I insist that you call me Eve because there is a God, and he calls to me.” Then she took a glass, which was filled with ice and blue flowers, and stood up in her chair. She tossed the flowers onto the Eves, threw the ice onto the center of the table with swift motions. Water and broken shards of ice shot up from the wood. This Eve threw back her head and laughed. The three year old laughed, stopped scribbling to suck her thumb, and then laughed again; she continued to do this while Eve as twelve blew kisses, nine year old Eve stood on her chair, the Eve of six stared at the rest, and the one who was fifteen repeated, “You do not know me—I will not become you, women. I will be a writer instead…”

 

“I am sixty-six, and I am you,” spoke a thin woman with gray patches in her brown hair.  “Don’t climb trees while we’re pregnant, you’ll miscarry if you do. When your husband tells you he’s going to leave you,” here she turned to the thirty-eight year old,” you’ll want to take to drinking–but don’t be frightened.  We are all powerless.”

 

“He’ll leave me? He married me! He said that he’d never go anywhere without me! If we come into this world alone, why do we want to be bound to another? We know we really can’t be.”  Tears spurted from the face of the Eve wearing her wedding dress. The twelve year old began to cry as well, hating to realize that love ends.

 

“Eves, have a good cry! You already know that love also begins. The beginnings and the endings don’t really take away from the love,” finished the one who had reached sixty-six.

“How will I live long enough to know what you know?” asked pregnant Eve.

 

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The nine year old climbed down from the chair and left the room, returning with a wailing baby in her arms. It was absurd to watch her carry this girl baby, she still being a child herself. She kept soothing the infant, saying, “Evie, my darling–one day you will be me, and then you will surpass my age to see that crying is fruitless. Do you cry for comfort? There is none. Are you crying for happiness? There is only a handful, and we can’t spare much for you.”

 

The baby clutched at the nine year old’s face, and the one who was nine presented the infant to pregnant Eve, stating solemnly, “Now you’ve done it–here’s a newborn Eve. Our lives are filled with stillness and rage.”

 

“Why don’t I remember my childhood, and why can’t I believe in my future?

 

“I suppose it’s true that I have been you,” here pregnant Eve waved her arms at the children.

 

“And I suppose that it is you I will become,” here she glanced at the old and older women.  

 

“But if we all lined up in a row, I still wouldn’t feel as though this could be called a life at all…”

 

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The following are excerpts of a rhyming, metered poem that begins each chapter of Section Two in this novel-within-the-novel part of “Mental.”
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Chapter Fourteen

 

In a push of exhaled breath, she

throws back her head to the sky;

her chest, arms and face begin to whirl

beneath nature’s canvas, and she cries:

 

“Let loose the tendrils of sorrow,

nourishment from sun I borrow;

against this day, my soul does thrive—

it is a joy to be alive!”

 

Her open mouth tastes of the sweet brine

that floats from the gentle sea;

barefoot circles in the sand design

her lifelong philosophy:

 

“With each moment upon the earth,

I will rejoice in this—my birth;

my sensate being will be free

to feel all that this life can be.”

 

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Chapter Fifteen

 

Sun shines amber through her hair;

and her tender eyes glow,

as the infinite ocean’s air

imparts to her what it knows:

 

“When I first saw, my eyes did see

only my own clear water’s leighs;

then upon the shore I crashed,

all horizon being ash.

 

“Eons passed, shore and I as one;

living beings around us, none.

But from our union there conceived

a single spark from which Life weaved.

 

“Burst from our love were sun and star,

soaring above us, to afar;

from my arms, our miracle shone

into human form, flesh and bone.

 

“Descendant of the sea and shore,

who also owns a mortal core:

inhale each moment, confident

that you will see all Life has meant.”

 

The sea’s breath whispers from a distance,

slipping into her ears;

and she decides that not a hindrance

will invade her living years.

 

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Chapter Seventeen

 

This twirling girl-being’s sparkling skin,

clothed in flowing filmy white,

flings arms and legs in pirouette spin;

her natural grace at full height.

 

Her vision sweeping a circle span

of all that the beach contains,

she remembers that other human

lives share with her the sand’s grains.

 

Outward from introspection she slides,

to study strangers’ faces;

filled with hope, to a stop she glides

to learn from others’ graces.

 

Into the waves’ froth run children’s feet;

upon the sand, lovers walk.

An artist muses upon a seat

of sun-drenched rocks.

 

Beneath umbrellas, the elders sleep

in dreams that wake memory;

into the flesh of time slowly seeps

all bittersweet destiny.

 

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Chapter Twenty-Seven, Section Three

 

So, to borrow the words of A.S. Byatt, Eve wanted to be “a poet and a poem.”  Her head was overflowing with romantic ideas of the world; I guess it was just a matter of time before it exploded.  She didn’t see that experience is one basket. She had two—one for ‘good’ experience, and one for ‘bad.’ It is hard to keep filling up two baskets when you only have two hands.

 

Luckily for me, my hopes were dashed before they became too strong.  Ironically, I don’t even remember what happened to help me see that good and bad are always in balance, whether we can see it or not. Maybe it was a subconscious thing, and maybe Eve was the one who taught this to me because it seemed from such an early age that she didn’t get that. Or, better yet, that she did but refused to believe it. She was still somehow smarter than me, though–that’s why she was always so interesting to observe.

 

I think the whole family knew that something in her snapped back in high school during our parents’ divorce. We could sense it; we thought it was natural. I think that our parents just thought she’d get over it; they couldn’t imagine that she wouldn’t.  They think that Eve hung the moon. We all do, I guess.  

 

Anyway, I remember thinking one day, after the divorce was finalized and Eve and I were sitting in our high school parking lot waiting for the car to warm up because it was winter and freezing, I remember thinking that day that something in her had died and might not be coming back. It was such an overcast day, drizzly and dreary, and at the time I wished that the weather was influencing my thoughts and that they weren’t true, but I was pretty sure they were. That thing in her was just too taunt and over-stretched, it couldn’t withstand all of the pressure. It had to break.  

 

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Maybe you’re wondering why she didn’t actually commit suicide on Chloe’s rooftop…It wasn’t because Jeremy found her up there, not exactly anyway.  She won’t tell me anything, but he will, so I think I’ve figured it out a little.  I just don’t know how much longer she can stand to keep doing this to herself–something’s got to give. Watching her exhaust herself is exhausting because it is ironic that someone so strong can’t just yell out “uncle!”

 

Part of her problem is this nihilist thing: it reminds me of this something that Nietzsche wrote–that people who have lost their ideals are worse off than people who never had any to begin with. He thought that losing your ideals negated the joy of living because the loss was so great that it would lead you to believe that the world sucked and that there was no point in anything.

 

The most interesting thing about Nietzsche to me is that I used to think he was so negative, with his whole “God is dead” stuff, but he’s really a combination of idealist and realist. The interesting part is that when you read biographies about him, he had to struggle so much in his personal life and might not have noticed all of the progress he made by writing for the progress of the rest of us. Eve’s like that—she can’t get out of her own head.

 

I can see that she is both idealistic and realistic, but she can’t admit it. She’s about 70% idealistic and 30% realist now, and I know that to her it seems like she’s becoming pessimistic. It feels that way to her because she is out of balance. That’s why I feel hopeful. As she approaches a better balance between idealism and realism, she will find peace. It’s the way things work. It amazes me how lost we sometimes have to become in order to be found.

 

I think that she also feels at a loss to keep developing herself; she doesn’t know how to see herself anymore.  I wonder what she thinks she sees when she looks in the mirror? Can you imagine seeing something so distorted that you just despise yourself–when everyone else sees something pure and struggling who will figure herself out in time?

 

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We who love her are transfixed by her inevitable growth. It is painful for her, it is painful for us. She was so one way, and we always knew she’d become a different way. But all the chartreuse buds on the new spring branches are also the brown crispy leaves that blow to the ground in the fall. It’s natural. It’s the way life works, and no one is strong enough to win out against the way life works. No one can stop the process of change. Not even someone as strong-willed as my twin sister.

 

Anyway, Jeremy and I have been hanging out a lot lately, since that day.  He is doing much better.  He likes to talk about what happened up there, every time telling me something more or something different.  He seems more solid now, older.  He says that it started raining up there, a light rain, a kind of mist.  He says that for a long time before it started raining, the two of them were just sitting there—he was crying, she was just staring at the ground three stories down.  Neither one had said that they were there to jump.  He could tell she was though.  He couldn’t be sure that she knew he was. She kept throwing her cigarette butts down to the ground, watching them fall, laughing a little when they hit the ground, and saying “splat!” when they did.

 

This rain distracted them a little, and they started talking.  Jeremy said he was worried that it was going to start pouring, and they looked up to scan the sky for thunderclouds.  It was so dark, though, they could barely see.

 

It was one of those nights, Jeremy said, when you weren’t sure if there was a moon because it was so dark. They started looking for the moon together.

 

Eve scanned the sky in front of her, turned her head, looked all around. She thought the moon was there somewhere, behind a building or something. Jeremy looked all around, too. They started sharing the bottle of vodka that Jeremy had brought with him, looking for the moon. They started sharing Eve’s cigarettes, even though he hated menthols, because he had run out of his own. They still didn’t see the moon. They got up, standing on the roof carefully, trying to maintain their balance but the roof was slanted and they were drunk—when he gets to this part of the story, it just kills me. I can see them up there, with their arms out for balance, with their heads thrown back, talking to each other—“do you see anything?” “no, do you?”—it’s kind of sad and sweet and funny all at the same time. It’s also ironic that they came up there to jump off the thing that they were now trying not to fall off of.

 

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I didn’t understand why it was important to find that moon. Jeremy says for him it had something to do with hope. He says he and Eve haven’t talked about it since, so he doesn’t know if she felt that way, too. It was really early in the morning, and Eve had said that she was afraid that the moon might have set.  They started talking about how weird it was that the moon set, just like the sun did, and how some nights it did and some nights it didn’t. Jeremy asked me why that was, the first time he told me the story.

 

“You’re into science. Why does the moon only set sometimes, and not every night?”

 

I could see that he was serious, so I told him that it has to do with the position of the earth and stuff.

 

“Oh,” he said. “That makes sense. I should tell Eve; she’d like to know.”

 

So, there they were, moon-hunting as Jeremy calls it now, in the mist and the dark. Eve started talking about the phases of the moon, telling Jeremy that if they couldn’t find the moon tonight it was because of the phase it was in. He asked her what phase that was, and this is where he starts to get excited when he tells you the story.

 

“So, I said, ‘What phase is the moon in when you can’t see it?’

 

‘It’s called a new moon.’

 

“That’s weird…It’s new, but you can’t tell it’s even there?  Why would they call it that?”

 

“‘I don’t know. I guess because it’s about to be there, about to be a moon again.’”

 

Jeremy says that he remembers thinking how wonderful that was, that people had named this phase “new” instead of waiting to name the first visible stage that. That people even recognized it as a phase was cool because it looked like nothing was happening up there; but, something was, you just couldn’t see it.  

 

I wonder if the people who named those phases imagined what the moon was doing in its new phase. I can see them thinking that it was up there gussying itself up, in the bathroom with the door closed, taking a long bath to get all of the cosmic dirt off, polishing itself up, getting ready to shine again. It kind of makes me laugh because it seems like such a childish way to look at things; it kind of makes me want to cry though because it’s such a pretty way of seeing things.   

 

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Anyway, after Eve told him about the new moon, he says he just didn’t feel like jumping much anymore. He asked her if she would drive him home. She said she would, and they both climbed down the fire escape. She says she doesn’t remember being up there, or moon-hunting, or driving Jeremy home. She actually didn’t drive them–they found Jacob before they found Sam, and Jacob was going to take us all home.

 

This was as it should have been. Sam was wise, but Jacob was wiser because he not only knew the things Sam knew, he could actually apply them in a consistently calm way.

 

Sam and Eve butted heads, because Eve couldn’t see what Sam saw and Sam couldn’t stand it. Eve wanted Sam to be happy, and she thought she had to help him see things the way she did, and he wanted her to be happy and thought she would be if she saw things the way he did. Their love was big, but it couldn’t prevent them from getting in its way.

 

The relationship she had with Jacob was different, though. They had been broken up for around two years at this point, but their love was stronger than ever. He had probably understood Eve because he had already been where she was. And he knew she was stuck, but he knew she’d figure herself out in her own time.

 

But the interesting part was that the fact that they were in different places never caused either one of them any dissonance. To the point, I think, that Eve never even realized that she thought Jake was where she was. He knew better than she did, though, and probably recognized that she felt this way, that she couldn’t help it, and that she would grow out of it.

 

Eve told me once that the reason they had split up was because they didn’t want to keep each other from growing—they loved each other that much. Even after the break up, though, they continued to love each other more—deciding that they were like brother and sister, deciding that being family to each other was better than being in love.

 

Sometimes Eve preferred Jacob to Sam, but she didn’t know why then. She just knew it was okay, even though it was confusing to her. Jake had been the closest person to her for the past 3 years, and beyond their sexual love they had cultivated a huge, no-matter-what kind of love that could soothe her in some of her most difficult moments because she saw it as a testament that some things can remain pure and good forever.

 

Even though they sometimes talked about the merits and difficulties of getting back together, the decision to not make a decision about that was the only decision in her life that she had been able to succeed in suspending. It didn’t matter to her whether they were ‘together’ or not. They couldn’t love each other more, and that was the most important thing anyway.

 

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It’s a good thing that Jacob was there, and much more sober than the rest of us.  It is a good thing that he could almost always be counted on when something really important was happening in Eve’s life. They found me half-asleep on the stairs, and put me in the in the backseat with Jeremy.  

 

I remember Jeremy telling Jacob how great Eve was, how smart she was. I remember Eve was real quiet all the way to Jeremy’s apartment, so quiet that from the backseat I thought she had passed out. She was just listening, unable to figure out how to say ‘thank you’ to Jeremy, or to tell him that she thought he was great and smart, too. Once we dropped Jeremy off, though, she sat up in her seat and started talking.  

 

“That Jeremy, I love that guy. He’s so sensitive to everything; he’s so fragile. Y’all should of seen him up there, worried that it was going to pour down raining. He was worried that the streets would ice over and people would get into wrecks. He’s funny,” she said.  She stroked Jacob’s hair, leaned back, smoking her cigarette.

 

That’s all she said, but I remember thinking that Jacob and I had missed out on something by not being invited to their rooftop soiree.  Jeremy seemed different because of it.  Eve did, too.

 

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She passed out before she finished that cigarette. I know because Jacob yelled at me to wake up in the backseat (I had been awake, but just thinking), and throw her cigarette out the window.  She didn’t wake up when we pulled up in the driveway at home, either, and Jacob carried her inside.  

 

It made me think of being really small again, coming home late at night from being out with our parents. We’d both fall asleep in the backseat, but I’d always wake up as we pulled into the driveway. Eve is the heaviest sleeper I’ve ever seen; my parents always said that she wouldn’t wake up even if a parade was marching through her bedroom.  

 

Dad used to carry her inside until she was about eleven and finally got too big.  I opened the door for Jacob, and watched as he walked to Eve’s bedroom.  He carried her with her head on his shoulder, with his arms around her waist, and she looked like a little kid up there with her eyes closed.   

 

She looked almost free of that thing that held her, almost peaceful. I told them goodnight, and went out on the porch for one more cigarette before bed.  

 

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This morning, I woke up to the sounds of kitchen cabinet doors slamming shut, and the rattling of pots and pans. It was early. My pounding head and dry tongue reminded me that I should have done the water and aspirin thing before hitting the sack last night. I slowly got out of bed, and made my way to the kitchen.

 

Eve was there in the kitchen, dressed, making breakfast. She was smiling. Her hair was still a little damp from the shower, and it stuck a little to the sides of her face and her forehead, but she looked fresh and clean. She asked me how I wanted my eggs.

 

I just stood there.

 

Then she said, “You know, it hit me this morning.’If you’re not going to get busy living, then get busy dying.’ Do you remember who said that? I can’t remember.”

 

I didn’t know, either. I just smiled at her. She seemed like herself again.

 

“You know what else? Let’s switch names for the day, just for fun. Like we used to. Call me Lillith from now on, wouldja?” She told me.

 

“Okay, Eve,” I said.

 

“You mean ‘Lillith’, Lilly. Right?” She handed me a glass of orange juice, and we sat down at the kitchen table together.

 

“Yeah.  I mean ‘Lillith,’ Lillith.”

 

“Cool.”  She took a big bite of scrambled eggs, and bit off the corner of her buttered toast.  

 

I started eating, too. The eggs had melted cheese in them, and a few pieces of shell. I started laughing.  

 

“What?” my sister asked, smiling.

 

“These taste like the eggs Dad used to make us before school,” I told her.

 

“Yeah, I was thinking that  same thing.”

 

“Hey, Eve? ‘Lillith’ sounds weird to me.  I’ll just call you ‘Lilly,’ cool?”

 

“Cool,” said Lilly. We smiled at each other.

 

Sisters.

 

“Hey, Eve, I was thinking about going for a walk after we eat. Wanna come?” Lilly asked me.

 

I nodded.  Here we go, I thought. I understood why she wanted to switch names again. She wanted to be somebody else for a little while. The problem was we couldn’t pull it off anymore because now we had our own personalities and recognizable hairstyles. I decided to play along anyway, hoping it would help.

 

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Well, that’s not the end of this story, unfortunately.  I told you earlier that I wasn’t sure if it would have a happy ending; and, I turned out to be right about that.  When I said it, though, I meant at the time that I wasn’t sure how to write one.  I assumed that in real life there’d be one, though, obviously.  I meant that I wasn’t sure if I was a good enough writer to craft an ending at all, one that seemed satisfying and complete.  

 

But, here’s the next real life part: Eve, I mean Lilly, did actually  try to kill herself. Two weeks after that breakfast scene.  I’m just on my way to the hospital now to visit her.  Everyone will be there, and everyone will cry.  No one understands it, not even me.  I thought that writing this stupid thing would help me understand her, but it didn’t.  Oh well, what do I know anyway?  I’m only twenty-two, for chrissakes.  There is so much in general I need to know. I don’t even know what I don’t know.  

 

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