April and Sue Spivey held hands as they each tried to read the other one's mind. They could sometimes, or so it seemed. It wasn't so much reading minds as it was knowing the other sister deeply and anticipating a reaction. April Spivey was creative, tender. Her sister, Sue, was more logical and tough.
The news had been good, sort of. One of the girls had gotten into the best school in the state. It had been a lottery, and the girls' mother, Ophelia Spivey, had taken a whole day off to wait in line, get the girls' numbers, and wait some more, breathless as the numbers were drawn and illuminated on the screen.
One hundred seven.
It was one of the two numbers Ophelia Spivey had been holding. She looked down in disbelief at her calloused hands that had washed a thousand toilets, down at her fingernails that were so neglected they seemed to be trying to crack off to run to someone else's hands, to her numbers. One hundred seven was one of hers.
She couldn't believe it. Almost wouldn't believe it. Ophelia Spivey was the youngest of seven children. She had never learned to read, but even so, she could write her name when she needed to or check the numbers for the No. 9 bus. Ophelia knew beyond a doubt that the number she was holding matched the number on the screen — it was one of the 20 slots. Out of the hundreds of children trying to get into the school, Ophelia's child was one of them. It was the best thing to ever happen to her, and a lot of things had happened to her over the years.
Now she had to figure out a way to tell the girls that one of them was going to get to ride the bus to the other part of town and have a real first-class education, and the other, well, the other was going to have to stay home and walk to the school three blocks down — the one with failing students, frightened teachers, and drug dealers lurking on the sidewalks.
Yes, telling the girls that only one of them was lucky in life was going to be the hardest part of it all.
They had taken the news well she thought ...
Well, no. Not really.
It had been awful.
"Only one of us?" said April.
"Which one? said Sue.
Their mother had opened her mouth to say which child's number was drawn, but she was suddenly struck with a thought. There were three months of summer before school started. Three months. Surely, whoever had not gotten in would feel downtrodden a full three months. And the other might feel smug. Or nervous. No. She would not say which child would get the education. Not until school was getting ready to begin.
And after three months of summer, of sitting on the stoop of their government housing, bored, fearful, the time came for the girls' mother to reveal the secret. Which girl would go to Whalen Academy?
"You're twins," said Ophelia. "God gives me twins. Two children. Then he goes and gives only one of them a future. Makes no sense to me. Doesn't seem fair."
The girls huddled around their mama's knees and waited for the words to exit her lips.
"Who, Mama, who?" said the girls.
"Wait. There's something I never told you."
The girls squeezed each other's hands.
"You had a sister. Another one. Triplets."
The air hung so heavy, April and Sue thought they might choke.
"But she didn't make it. Gave up her life so the two of you could live."
Tears sprung to the girls' eyes as if their own sadness and shock was compounded by the other's. And neither would forget the look on their mother's face when she put one hand on April's cheek and one hand on Sue's and said, "I love you both. Maybe even more than God does. So I'll let you choose. Who's going to that Whalen Academy? I don't know. You tell me. You're identical twins. Nobody knows the difference, so the name doesn't matter. I got one uniform. Come Monday morning, one of you girls is in it. Just surprise me."
And that began the longest night in the history of April and Sue Spivey's 10 years. For it was the night they would bite on fingernails and cry onion tears and hug each other till falling asleep. Which one would give up their life for the other? April stirred her creative juices and Sue enacted reason and logic, and by morning the girls knew what they had to do. Come that Monday morning, one of them — only one — was dressed in the Whalen Academy uniform. The other sat on the front stoop, anxiously waiting for her turn. Tomorrow.
Nicole Seitz is the author of six novels and teaches art at a Mt. Pleasant school. Learn more at nicoleseitz.com.