Beautiful Lies : chap 1

Chapter One

It’s one of those cool, crisp fall nights that make you feel like the air is ripe with possibility, like anything could happen. From where we stand on the jogging trail, my sister and I can see the whole city stretching out around us. On the farthest end, all the way across town, there is a dusk-lit celebration taking place, a huge tent holding overlapping threads of bodies, the sounds of their voices carrying across the wind, all the way to us.

“Ah. Oktoberfest at the Yellow Moon,” she says to me, squinting, standing on tiptoes in her scuffed ballet flats, like if she stares at the party long enough she might absorb some of the excitement, which feels almost electric as it seeps from the crowd.

She looks at me, her face shadowed by the almost-darkness. Her lips are outlined with crimson liner and filled in with a deep shade of cherry gloss. “Don’t you wish we could go?”

I wind a strand of long red hair around my finger, thinking. Someone nearby on the path is smoking a cigarette. I can smell it even though I can’t see him, but he’s in the shadows somewhere, probably close enough to hear us. “We’re only eighteen.” I smile at her. “We can’t drink yet, Alice.”

She smiles back. “You know that wouldn’t matter.” We have fake IDs. And even if we didn’t, Doug the bartender would give us drinks. My sister and I work at the Yellow Moon as servers a few nights a week.

“It wouldn’t work. Everyone would recognize us,” I say. “Half the town’s probably there. If we got drunk, we could get in trouble.” We’ve stopped walking for the moment, pausing to gaze at the lights across town. In the moonlight, my sister looks ready for anything: she is confident, calm, her dewy cheeks flushed with anticipation.

“Wait,” I say to her, “your eyes.”

She bats her lashes. “What’s the matter with them?”

A family strolls past: a mother, father, and a daughter who can’t be older than maybe four. The little girl has three purple helium balloons tied around her wrist, bobbing in the smooth night air as she walks, her pink-and-white sneakers dirty, almost blackened at their edges with dust from the trail.

The family pauses to look at the two of us. My sister and I are standing face-to-face, our identical noses only a few inches apart, our dilated pupils aligned. The space between us feels alive, almost humming with invisible energy.

The mother wears cutoffs and a red tank top, even though the air is cool enough for jackets. She looks tired but happy, holding her daughter’s hand. “You don’t see that every day,” she says to us, squinting through the dusk to get a better look. “You’re identical. Yes?”

I don’t break away from my sister’s gaze. The corners of her eyes crinkle in a soft smile. She is my favorite person in the world. Tonight, even our breath seems to be in sync. “Yes,” I say, “we’re identical.”

The mother kneels beside her daughter. “See, sweetie? They’re twins.”

She’s right. Even though we’re dressed differently, and even though my sister is wearing heavy makeup—while my face is bare except for some light blush and powder—we are an unmistakable matched set.

The little girl gazes at us, openmouthed. We both smile at her.

She looks at her parents. “I want to go home.” She seems almost ready to cry.

Her mom and dad give us an apologetic look. “Kids,” the dad says. He flashes an embarrassed smile, and I feel a surge of unease when I see that his teeth are crooked and yellow. I’m not sure why exactly; there’s just something about him that makes my stomach turn. As the family begins to stroll away, it almost seems like the earth is tilting beneath me, moving my surroundings a hair off-kilter. I can almost taste the cigarette smoke in the air, rancid and thick. It smells toxic; I have the overwhelming urge to get as far away from it as possible.

As she’s walking away, just once the little girl looks over her shoulder. She seems afraid. But of what? Of us?

“I think we scared her,” my sister whispers. She giggles. “We’re freaks.”

“We aren’t freaks.” It’s getting darker by the second. “Let me fix your eyes.”

She begins to look through her purse, digging around in the contents to find a tube of black liquid eyeliner. She hands it to me.

“Hold still,” I tell her. “Alice. Look at the stars.”

She puts her small hands on my shoulders to steady herself. I take a step closer to her—so close that I think I can hear her heart beating, close enough that I can see the faint pulse in her neck and feel the warmth of her breath on my face. With a steady hand, I reapply the liner with smooth strokes. Even when I reach the inside corners of her eyes, the inky applicator tip almost touching her tear ducts, my sister does not flinch.

“There,” I say. “Finished.”

I can see a touch of anxiety behind her smile. “How do I look?” she asks.

I still smell cigarette smoke. The family from a moment ago is far away, three bodies bobbing against the horizon, growing smaller with every step. Soon they’ll turn a corner and disappear altogether. I don’t like being alone out here, so close to whoever is standing in the shadows, maybe watching us. I know I’m getting upset over nothing, but I can’t help it; the air reeks of disease. “You look like Alice,” I tell her. “You look like yourself.”

“We could go home,” she offers. “We could stay in tonight.”

I frown. “A minute ago you were ready to sneak into Oktoberfest, and now you want to go home? What fun would that be? We said we’d go out. You wanted to come. Our friends are waiting for us.”

“Your friends,” she corrects me. “They don’t like me anymore. Remember?” She looks around, sniffling. I know she can smell the smoke too. “I’m nervous,” she says.

“Don’t be. Everything is fine. You’ll be great.”

She looks at the lights from Oktoberfest across town again. “Bet they’re having more fun than we will at the fair. We could go. I have my ID.”

I follow her gaze, imagining how it would feel to be silly and drunk, the thrill that comes from truly getting away with something. She’s right; it would be more fun.

But we have plans. “We already talked about this. We’re going to the carnival. I’ll be with you the whole time, Alice,” I say.

Her lips—full and shiny, identical to mine except for their deep stain of color—form a slow smile. “I know you will, Rachel.”

More confident now, she starts walking again, heading toward the fair. When I look at her, the last few beams of sunlight almost completely below the horizon now, all I see are shadows against her profile, her sharp features softened, almost seeming to dissolve.

She glances at me, smiles again. “All right, you’ve convinced me. Now come on, before I change my mind. We’ll be late.” She tugs me along, our fingers still laced together. The gesture feels as natural to me as breathing. She is mine. I belong to her. This is how it has always been, even before we were born.

On our side of town, only a few hundred feet down the path we’re walking on, there’s a whole different kind of crowd gathered for the annual autumn festival at Hollick Park. I can smell it before I see it, the gross odor of cigarette smoke replaced by whiffs of cotton candy, funnel cakes, and hot dogs.

“I want a candy apple,” my sister says, holding my hand more tightly as we walk down the hill, toward the field crowded with people and vendors’ booths. At the far edge of the park, there’s a tiny carnival set up, a cluster of rickety-looking rides crowding the horizon. In the center of them, a Ferris wheel spins slowly, its metal beams strung with twinkling white lights, the structure towering so far above the rest of the fair that, at its highest point, the wheel almost seems to graze the moon.

“Rachel.” I hear someone calling us—calling me. “Rachel and Alice! Behind you!”

We both turn around. “Here we go,” my sister murmurs.

“Shh.” I give her a look. “It’s okay.”

The voice belongs to Kimberly Shields, who we’ve made plans to meet up with tonight. Everybody calls her Kimber. She waves at us, beaming, her bright green eyes flashing beneath the fair’s lights. She’s still in her cheerleading uniform, obviously having just come from a football game. She’s with two of our other friends: Nicholas Hahn, whose dad owns the Yellow Moon, and his girlfriend, Holly Willis, who goes to our church and volunteers in the nursery every Sunday, and whose family leaves their Christmas tree up year round.

At almost eighteen years old, Kimber Shields is an honest-to-goodness sash-wearing cookie-selling Girl Scout. A few weeks ago, when she was at the mall, an elderly man had a heart attack in the bookstore, right there in the Crafts and Hobbies section. Kimber was a few feet away, paging through a book on knitting. Without any hesitation, she got down on the floor and gave the man CPR until the paramedics arrived. She saved his life.

The five of us stand in a semicircle beside one of those games where you try to toss a ping-pong ball into glass bowls filled with water. One out of every five or six bowls has a fish swimming around in it; if you sink one, you get to keep the fish.

“Charlie would love this,” I murmur, looking at the fish. Charlie is our cousin.

My sister stares at the game. “It’s two dollars for four tries,” she says. Her heavy black eyeliner gives her face a hollow look, making her blue eyes seem bigger than they actually are, their lids filled in with dark gray shadow, the effect both dramatic and kind of unsettling in its allure. Her beauty is different from mine tonight: more arresting, more intimidating somehow. When she’s all made up, out and about, she has a presence that commands attention, and she knows it. Tonight she wears a plain, fitted white tank top and a denim miniskirt that’s so short I almost can’t believe our aunt and uncle let her leave the house in it, even if she is wearing tights underneath. Despite the way she faltered a few minutes ago, she is nothing but confidence now. Men who pass by us stop to look at her, even if they’re with their wives or girlfriends. They can’t help themselves.

“So? It’s only two dollars.” Nicholas—nobody ever calls him Nick—looks into his open wallet, thumbing through a bunch of ones. “You ought to try it, Alice. Win yourself a fish or something.”

Nicholas lives a few blocks away from us, in one of the biggest and nicest houses in our whole city. In addition to the Yellow Moon, his dad, Mr. Hahn, also owns Pratzi’s, which is a hoity-toity restaurant uptown. Nicholas’s dad drives around Greensburg all the time in a silver Mercedes with tinted windows, blaring classical music, a lit cigar between his lips. People say he has ties to the local mafia, but I’ve always doubted it; I can’t imagine that our town even has a mafia connection. Anyway, I know that Mr. Hahn is a jerk. For one thing, he’s an awful boss; he’s always flirting with the waitresses, making sleazy comments about the way we look, his gaze raking over us like we belong to him. And supposedly his first wife—Nicholas’s mom—left because he used to beat her up all the time. He never got arrested for it or anything, but that’s what people say.

Despite his family drama, Nicholas is a nice enough guy, well liked by pretty much everyone, cute in a nerdy kind of way. I’m actually surprised he and Holly decided to come out with us tonight; lately they’ve been devoting most of their time to geocaching, which is kind of like an elaborate treasure hunt using GPS. I don’t know much about it beyond that, but Holly has told me it’s a ridiculous amount of fun.

“For two dollars,” my sister tells Nicholas, “I could go to the pet store and buy myself a goldfish.”

“But the fun’s in trying to win,” Holly says. I can see her breath suspended in midair as she exhales; that’s how chilly it is.

“I bet they’re scared,” I say, staring at the fish as they circle endlessly in their tiny bowls.

Nobody says anything. We all look at the game, its edges crowded with little kids, their parents standing behind them looking bored.

Finally, Kimber giggles. “Rachel, you’re so funny,” she says. “Fish don’t have feelings.”

My sister is chewing pink gum. She blows a bubble, snaps it loudly against her lips, and says, “So what you’re telling us is, if a fish needed CPR, you wouldn’t help it.”

Kimber seems confused. “Alice, fish don’t—you aren’t—” She frowns, looking from my sister to me in

frustration. “I earned my Good Samaritan badge for that.”

“I know.” I try to smile warmly at her. Kimber responds by frowning again, bringing her fingers to her neck to grasp a tiny golden cross dangling from a thin chain.

Kimber is a good person—she deserves all the happiness she can get. Back in the first grade, before I ever knew her, her parents went through a messy divorce. One night while she and her mom were sleeping, her dad set their house on fire. He went to prison, and Kimber was in the hospital for months. I’ve seen her getting changed in gym class; she has horrible scars all over her back and shoulders. She never wears tank tops or goes swimming with the rest of us in the summer. She’s never even been on a date, though plenty of guys have asked—she’s too ashamed of the way she looks.

There is a noticeable unease among my friends, who are doing their best to be kind to my twin. Things used to be different among us, but in the last six months or so, she has broken away from our group, preferring to spend her time alone. She’s gotten a real taste for alcohol lately—pot too. As a result, her reputation has disintegrated to the point where some of our friends aren’t even supposed to be around her anymore. This fact pains me, because I know her better than anyone. I know she’s not a bad person. She just wants some peace, the opportunity to quiet her mind, which always seems to be working against her. She wants to silence her thoughts, but she doesn’t have any idea how to do it aside from drinking or smoking until she can’t string together a sentence anymore.

Sometimes I understand exactly how she feels.

We are essentially the same, she and I. Her and me. My sister, myself. When she takes off her makeup and brushes out her hair—when we first wake up in the morning, or right before we go to bed in the evening—nobody in this world can tell us apart just from looking at us. Only we know who is who. Knowledge like that, shared with only one other person in the world, can feel exhilarating. It’s like we own a secret that nobody else will ever hold the key to, for as long as we both live.

Right now, my sister squeezes my hand to get my attention. “I’m hungry,” she says.

“Me, too,” Holly says. “I shouldn’t be. I just ate a few hours ago.” She opens her oversize purse—a designer knockoff that looks big enough to hold the contents of an entire minibar—and pulls out a prescription pill bottle. Holly is a skinny, nervous girl with light blond hair and pale skin. More often than not, she spends weekends at church retreats with her youth group. It’s not like she has a choice, though; her family is so strict and conservative that Holly wasn’t even allowed to shave her legs or get her ears pierced until she turned fourteen, which is really funny, because she was the first girl I knew to go on birth control, back in the ninth grade. By then she’d been dating Nicholas for two years. To this day, her mom has no idea what her little girl is up to. In my experience, adults usually don’t.

“What are those, Holly?” Kimber asks, her tone suspicious. “Are those drugs?”

“They’re obviously drugs,” I say. I don’t let go of my sister’s hand. She seems restless, sort of like she doesn’t want to be out tonight. Her behavior is a little odd; it was her idea to come.

She tugs me toward the candy-apple stand a few yards away, a bright-red neon apple glowing in the window of the vending trailer. Our friends follow behind us.

“Would you relax, Kimber?” Holly opens the bottle, shakes two of the pills into her hand. “They’re for Evan’s asthma. They suppress your appetite, that’s all.”

Nicholas looks at his girlfriend, vaguely interested in the fact that she’s abusing her little brother’s prescription medication. “Doesn’t he need them? You know—to breathe?”

“Oh, he’ll be fine,” she says, swallowing both pills without anything to drink. “He has tons of them. These are, like, extras.” And she holds out the bottle, offering it to us. “Anybody want one? You won’t be hungry for the rest of the night.” She pauses. “But there’s a very small risk of dizziness, blurred vision, and seizure.”

Behind us, in the park’s band shell, several musicians are setting up their equipment. The guitarist plays a chord. He’s hooked up to an amplifier. The noise slices through the crowd, momentarily creating an almost complete silence as everybody stops to listen. Just for a second.

“What are we doing?” I ask. “Does anybody want something to eat? Alice wants a candy apple.”

My sister’s gaze shifts past my face. I can tell she’s staring at the rides. “Actually, I want to go on the Ferris wheel. Then I want a candy apple.” She smiles at me like a little kid. “Can we, Rachel?”

I turn around. Faintly, I think I can hear the gears grinding on the rides. Among all the food smells, there’s a whiff of grease in the air.

“I don’t want to. It’s so high, Alice. These things fall apart sometimes; I’ve seen it on the news.”

“She’s right,” Nicholas says. “Some guy forgets to tighten a bolt in the wrong place, and people end up getting killed.”

“Come on.” Holly nudges him. “It’s the Ferris wheel.” To me, she says, “It’s for kids, Rachel. You’ll be fine.”

I glance at it again. Heights don’t usually bother me. Tonight, though, the thought of being up in the air makes me uneasy. I don’t know why. “Then come with us.”

“Okay. We will.” Holly looks from Nicholas to Kimber. “Right?”

Kimber nods. “Sure.”

Nicholas shrugs, indifferent. “Whatever. I don’t care.”

The five of us, led by my sister, hold on to one another’s hands and make a chain as we weave through the crowd together. Even though it’s chilly, the air is crisp and refreshing. Families and kids are out in droves. We pass a few more people we know from school. I see our biology teacher, Mr. Slater, standing alone beside a kettle-corn booth and smoking a cigarette; he doesn’t seem at all concerned that parents and students will see what he’s doing. He looks miserable too, but that’s nothing new for him. I see an elderly woman being pushed along in a wheelchair. She’s had her face painted tonight; her nose and cheeks are colored red and black, like a cat’s. We pass young couples with their hands in one another’s back pockets, and a slew of high-school football players in lettermen jackets who have clearly been boozing it up. Holly almost knocks over a man on stilts as he makes his way through the crowd, a good four feet taller than everyone else, dressed like Uncle Sam.

And we pass carnies. They’re everywhere, at least one at each booth, all wearing dirty clothes, most of them smoking cigarettes, their eyes gleaming as they call out to whoever’s passing by to come and play, try to win your girl a prize, or to go for a spin on one of the rides.

When we get to the Ferris wheel, the ride has just come to a stop. The operator is beginning to empty the seats, one swinging bench at a time. The line grows shorter as, two by two, people climb on.

“I’m so thirsty,” Holly complains. She makes a face like she’s tasted something bad. “Nicholas.” She pouts. “I’m so thirsty, baby.”

“You want something to drink?” he offers.

She nods. “Yes, please. Lemonade.”

My stomach flutters as we get closer to the ride. I stare up at the highest seat, imagining how it will feel to be stopped at the very top, swinging back and forth, helpless, and a twinge of panic ripples through me. I can smell the hot oil that greases the gears, the odor deeply unsettling for some reason. I’m not sure why I’m so afraid—the feeling has come from out of nowhere. All I know is that I don’t want to get on.

“You need me to buy you some lemonade right now?” Nicholas asks Holly.

“Yes. Hurry up and you’ll be back before we reach the front of the line.”

He ducks away, disappearing into the crowd. My friends and I take small steps, getting closer and closer. I feel dizzy with dread. Get a grip, I tell myself. It’s a freaking Ferris wheel.

But I can’t calm down. I press a hand to my stomach. The air feels much colder all of a sudden. I can hear bits of conversation coming from all around me, but I can’t focus on any of them, not completely.

“Rachel.” It’s my sister. She’s beaming, cheeks flushed from the cold. “Come on!”

We’re at the head of the line. She tugs me toward the empty seat. I don’t know how Kimber can even think about riding alone. I’m sweating in the chilly evening, unable to speak, arrested by anxiety. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.

We sit down beside each other, and she rests her head on my shoulder. For the moment, sitting so close that I can hear the rhythm of our breath in sync, I feel a little bit better.

The ride’s operator approaches us, ready to lower the metal restraining bar across our laps. Nicholas appears behind him, holding an oversize Styrofoam cup.

“Yay!” Holly claps from her place in line. “Thank you!”

The operator turns around. “Nope,” he says, shaking his head. “You can’t cut in line, man.”

“Dude, I just stepped out for a second.” Nicholas’s tone is light, friendly. “Come on. I’m with my girlfriend.”

“Sorry, kid. Can’t do it. You’ll have to wait for the next one.”

And before I have a chance to realize what’s happening, my sister slides out of the seat we’re sharing. “You can ride with Holly, Rachel.” She begins to back away, waving with both hands. “I’ll catch up with you after. I want a candy apple!”

She turns on her heel and rushes away from us. It is such a typical Alice move—restless, impulsive—but I feel like she’s only acting this way because that’s the kind of behavior everyone expects from her. Almost immediately I lose sight of her in the thick crowd.

Holly climbs into the seat next to me. Nicholas is still standing beside the head of the line. He shrugs at us before stepping away, giving the finger to the ride operator’s back.

“I guess that worked out,” Holly says, clutching her purse against her chest. Without any warning, she raises her voice and screams “I love you!” at Nicholas.

The operator leans over us. With one hand, he pulls the metal bar downward, securing it tightly against our laps. “Enjoy your ride.” His voice is flat as his eyes stare into mine. His breath on my face is so sour, so sickening, that I have to look away before I gag.

Our seat rises into the air. Beneath us, previous riders climb out, replaced by Kimber.

I search the crowd for my sister, looking everywhere for a glimpse of her red hair, for a sign of the face I recognize so well.

The wheel turns slowly at first, then begins to speed up. Across the field, the band starts to play. I recognize the music. It’s “Sleep Walk” by Santo & Johnny. It was my parents’ wedding song.

“Holly.” My voice barely breaks a whisper. The music is too loud, the ride too fast.

“Whoo!” Holly kicks her feet with glee. Even though it’s fall, she’s wearing open-toed high-heeled sandals, her toenails painted a creamy shade of pink. She raises her arms, making spirit fingers in the air, and I get a whiff of her perfume. The smell turns my stomach again. I could almost throw up.

“Alice.” My voice is louder, but Holly still doesn’t hear me. She stands up a little in her seat, the metal bar pressing against her thighs, to blow kisses at Nicholas.

From high above the crowd, I can spot Uncle Sam on his stilts. I can see strands of customers, their bodies woven into ropes of flesh as they line up for food. I can see the candy-apple stand, its neon light glowing red against the crowd. But I don’t see my sister anywhere.

Long before our births, we shared the same space in our mother’s body. We are what’s known as “monochorionic monoamniotic twins,” which means we are identical twins who grew in the same amniotic sac and shared one placenta. It’s a pretty rare phenomenon; when it does happen, both twins don’t always survive, let alone thrive as we have—especially back when we were born. The chance of our simple existence is a marvel of nature. No matter where I am, no matter where she is, I have always felt her presence from somewhere within myself.

Until this moment. It is as though the thread connecting us has snapped, like something deep inside me has been severed. She is simply gone.

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