“What’s she up to now?” Adina asked her fiancé Mike. “Four? Six?”
He winced. “Eleven.”
Mike’s sister Natalie had attempted suicide on eleven separate occasions, each time using a different method. Cutting her wrists, knocking back three family-size bottles of Tylenol, hanging herself with a hospital bed sheet, jumping into the Columbia River with a bag of stones around her waist. She’d even gone into the woods smeared with bacon fat and gotten herself mauled by a cougar, which only seemed ridiculous because Natalie had survived with barely a scratch. If she hadn’t, it would have been tragic.
Adina snorted, and looked out at the spattering rain. “She belongs in a home.”
“We’ve already tried that,” Mike said, running his fingers through his hair. “They kicked her out of the facility in Eugene after she got into the drain cleaner. Mom and Dad got her on a waiting list for the redwood place, but that could take years.”
“The redwood place?”
“Kind of a treehouse for adults. It’s supposed to be soothing.”
Mike had three sisters and two brothers, but only Natalie seemed to have gotten the crazy gene. Adina thought it was a lucky thing for Natalie to have been born into such a large family with so many shoulders to lean on. She’d never had that luxury.
“Our turn, you mean.” She sighed. “Well, it’s only temporary.” She looked hard into Mike’s eyes on that last word.
“Couple of weeks. A month, tops. Then she’ll be back on her feet.”
She knew better than to correct him. “Fine. She can stay with us. She’ll have to sleep in the basement, though.”
Mike beamed. “It’s going to be okay. You’ll see.”
After Mike left for work, Adina flopped down on the couch and put her hands over her face. She’d made a horrible mistake in coming here, one she couldn’t take back. Mom had warned her that you can’t trust people you meet on the Internet, but had Adina listened? Hell no.
I’m overreacting, Adina thought. She’d moved to Oregon not just to be with Mike, but to open herself up to new experiences. Living with Natalie would be a unique experience for sure. And anyway, this was his house.
Energized, she went to the basement to clear out a space for Natalie.
Everything Adina knew of Natalie came through Mike. Natalie had been a physics student at OSU, with plans to transfer to Stanford after her sophomore year. Then her “troubles” started, as Mike euphemistically put it.
“Right before finals, she slit her wrists,” he’d said. “She didn’t do it for attention. She cut right down to the bone; she should have died. It was a miracle.” Mike wasn’t religious, except when it came to his sister’s numerous survivals of her self-inflicted wounds. More like timing, Adina thought.
Adina hadn’t met Mike’s youngest sister yet. When she’d gone to the coast with his whole clan for the first time last month, only photographs of a young rosy-cheeked Natalie were in attendance. She wondered if the family worried about scaring off the nice girl that Mike had somehow lured across the country.
We’re all normal, they’d seemed to be saying. She’s not like us. They cared about her enough to pay for hospitals and retreats, the modern-day equivalent of keeping one’s freakish offspring in an attic room to wither and decay. But they weren’t about to put her on display.
Adina couldn’t relate to Natalie. She’d had her own troubles, but she’d kept them inside, not splattered in blood for the world to see. Suicide was selfish, she believed, a way of ending one’s own pain while multiplying the pain of everyone else around them.
Besides, it hadn’t worked for Natalie. It hadn’t worked for Natalie eleven times.
She grunted as she used Mike’s bicycle pump to inflate the air mattress. A lot of things would be changing. She thought of all the extra food they’d need to buy, the alterations to their daily lives they’d need to make. Sometimes Adina didn’t even like living with Mike.
“You really think she’ll stop trying to kill herself if she stays with us?” Adina asked.
“I don’t know,” Mike said. “But she’s my sister, Adina. I love her.”
“I know you do,” she said. She pulled a fitted sheet over the air mattress; it sagged at the bottom, an old sock.
“Her plane comes in Saturday. I’m going to ride down from the airport with her. Are you coming along?”
“If it’s all right with you, I’ll stay here.” She could see the look of disappointment in his face, but she wanted a final few hours of solitude in her own home—or close enough—before Mike’s desperately depressed sister planted herself firmly in the basement like a root vegetable. Perhaps the sun would even be shining that day.
Adina whacked an egg against the stove and put it into the skillet. Like eyes, the yolks stared back at her before she scrambled them into submission. She was cooking for three now, and not in the way she’d expected to be.
Natalie hadn’t said word one to Adina when Mike shuffled her into the house. “It’s late,” he’d said, though it had only been eight o’clock. “Her meds make her sleepy.”
Adina looked up as she heard plodding footsteps echo up from the basement. A woman of indeterminate age with Mike’s sandy brown hair and bags under her eyes sat down at the kitchen table.
“Can I help?”
“Natalie,” Adina said, forcing a smile. “It’s so nice to meet you.”
Natalie mumbled something, but Adina didn’t hear it over the sizzle of the eggs. She let it go.
“Do you want to do anything today? Mike says you haven’t been back to Portland for three or four years now.” She didn’t bring up the reason Natalie hadn’t been here.
“I’ve seen it all before.”
“Well, you probably haven’t seen the new exhibit at the art museum.” Adina dished the eggs out onto plates and slid one to Natalie. “It just opened this week.”
Natalie picked at the eggs. “I just want to stay home if that’s all right with you.”
Well, isn’t this going to be fun? “All right. I’ll go tell Mike you’re up.”
As she went up the stairs to their bedroom, Adina stole another glance at Natalie. Her Hello Kitty bathrobe was much too small for her doll-like frame, and her hair puffed out wildly in all directions.
She didn’t like this situation, but she had to deal with it. Of course he cared more about Natalie than Adina. Even though she’d given up everything for Mike, blood was thicker than water. If things worked out like they’d planned, Natalie would be her sister too.
Of course, things have a way of shifting course. Hadn’t Natalie discovered that herself? All those dreams of an Ivy League education, shattered by Natalie’s invisible demons. At least Adina’s life hadn’t derailed that far, and she could always go back.
Even if it means moving back in with Mom, Adina thought, and shuddered.
A week in, and Natalie still barely left her room. Mike checked in on her every morning before leaving for work, to make sure she took her meds, and they all ate dinner together like a fake family. Natalie ghosted through the house, not interacting, barely speaking. Adina found herself working overtime for an excuse to stay away.
She was carrying a load of laundry upstairs when she heard snuffling behind the door of the basement. She waited a few moments, then lightly rapped on the door. “Natalie?”
“I’m okay,” said a weak voice behind the door.
Even though Adina thought Natalie deserved her privacy, she couldn’t help but be worried about Mike’s sister. She opened the door a crack. “What’s wrong?”
“It never changes. I’m always alive.”
Adina sat down next to Natalie and rubbed her shoulder. “And we’re happy you are. Come on now, get out of bed.”
“You don’t understand.”
Adina didn’t have a response. She didn’t understand.
“Not a scratch,” Natalie said, holding her hand in front of her face like it was the first time she’d seen it. “You jump off a highway overpass, you’d think there’d be some kind of evidence, right?”
So that was how she’d done it this time. “You’re a lucky girl.”
“Lucky,” Natalie spat.
“Maybe there’s some kind of plan for you.”
Natalie laughed so hard Adina could see down into her throat. “You don’t know anything about science, Adina.”
Right, Adina thought, the physics. “You could teach me.”
“I’m no good for teaching anything to anyone anymore. The meds slow my mind down. I’m finished.”
“You could always take a class at the community college.”
“They’re all doing it. They’re all doing everything I could be doing.”
“Who’s all doing what?”
“My other selves. The split-offs.” Natalie sighed. “Probably having a lot more fun than me, too.”
Adina raised an eyebrow.
“You don’t have to watch me. I’m not going to kill myself. I can’t.”
“Okay, Natalie. I’ll leave you alone.” Adina picked up the basket and backed out of the room. On one of the banker’s boxes that held Adina’s still-packed DVD collections sat a half-dozen pill bottles glowing sepia in the light from the bare bulb overhead.
Mike bit his lip and shook his head when Adina told him what Natalie had said, but he didn’t call his parents, and he didn’t confront Natalie.
“What’s a split-off?”
“Like I’d know anything about that. She wasn’t exactly friendly to me, Mike.”
“She has problems. In a family, we look out for each other.”
Natalie wasn’t Adina’s family, though, at least not yet. “How’s that application coming?”
“She’s staying, Adina.” Mike stalked to their bedroom.
Adina gritted her teeth until she tasted sand.
Later, as Adina washed the dinner dishes, she felt a frizzy-haired phantom slip in next to her, dish rag in hand. “Mind if I dry?”
“I’d appreciate that.”
Natalie wiped the dishes haphazardly, leaving thick streaks. Adina would have to fix them later. “I want to apologize.”
“It’s all right.”
“I just feel so trapped.” She stuck the dripping plate onto the drainer.
“In this house?”
“In this life. I think, why me? Why do I have to be the one who lives forever? That’s how it works though. One of us lives forever. I’m that one.”
“You’re not immortal, Natalie.”
“Yes, I am.” She twisted the rag in her hands. “And so are you.”
Don’t engage, Adina thought. “How would you like to go out for a drive this weekend?”
“I guess I will. It’s as good as anything else.”
Adina nodded, a little reluctantly. She’d been hoping to spend tomorrow transplanting some rose bushes, but family time was more important. Do it for Mike. “I’ll get you at ten.”
Mike woke up puking. Adina set him up with a bucket, placed a pitcher of juice on the bedside table, and ruffled his hair. “We’ll reschedule the drive.”
“No, you guys go without me. I’ve been trying to get Natalie out of the house for weeks. She’s really been looking forward to this.”
“Your sister was actually looking forward to something?”
“She told me she wanted to spend some time with you.” He gestured to his messenger bag before sticking his head back in the bucket. “Keys are in there,” he said, his voice labored.
Adina plucked the keys from Mike’s bag and went down the stairs to Natalie’s makeshift room. She’s been ignoring me for weeks, Adina thought. Why talk now? Maybe it had taken that long for Natalie to be comfortable with her. Maybe Natalie’s new meds were finally working. Adina didn’t like Natalie much, but she counted this as a good sign.
Natalie was already dressed in a tattered OSU sweatshirt, her hair combed and everything. She sat on her bed with her purse on her lap, staring at Adina’s towering boxes labeled with black Sharpie writing. “Where are you from?”
“I’ve never been to the East Coast. At least, not this me.”
“Ready to go?” Adina caught herself before she jingled the keys in her hand. She’s not a dog.
Natalie lifted herself from the bed.
Only after Adina pulled out of the driveway did she realize that she didn’t know where they were supposed to go today. Mike was going to take care of that; he knew the area better, and Natalie was his sister after all. “Where do you want to go?”
Natalie shrugged a shoulder. “Forest Park.”
“You have to direct me.”
Once they were on the highway, Adina braved the subject. “What’s a split-off?”
“I know I won’t understand. Tell me anyway.”
“It’s a you. A you who made different choices.”
“Do you wish you had made different choices, Natalie?”
She groaned. “Now you sound like a goddamn shrink.”
“It’s never too late to change your life. Lots of people bounce back from things like this. You’re such a—”
“—lucky girl. I’m pretty sure you say that in one hundred percent of the worlds. Except for the ones where a meteor lands on your head just as you’re about to say it.”
“I’m not trying to fight with you.” Adina wished Mike was here. But would Natalie act this crazy if he was? She restrained herself around her big brother.
“Everyone thinks I’m nuts,” Natalie said. “They lock me up, they drug me. I’ll outlast them. You’ll all go on, but I’ll still be here. Forever.”
“Because you’re immortal.”
“Because everyone is,” she said. “Just not at the same time. That would be crazy.”
Adina cast an eye at the dashboard, counting down the hours until she could stop pretending to like Natalie. “Whatever you say.”
Natalie didn’t take the hint. “Think of a choice you’ve made. Like moving to Portland. That’s a fork. There are millions of forks.” She pushed her hands outward at a ninety degree angle. “In some of the forks, you move. In some, you don’t.”
At that moment, Adina wished she’d taken another fork, so she wouldn’t have to talk to Natalie. She reminded herself to be patient. “So you think there are other people out there living other lives?”
“Well, you can’t talk to them.”
“So these split-off people, you think they’re happier than you?”
“If they haven’t figured it out by now, yes.”
“Figured what out?”
Natalie signaled a turn, and Adina slowed down the car. She pulled into a back road lined with evergreens so tall they pierced the colorless skies above. The road was still muddy from yesterday’s rain, and Adina heard the ping of drops hitting the roof of Mike’s Honda. After parking the car, she pulled out her umbrella.
“Lousy day for a walk. We should just go back.”
“No, I want to see it. I need to see it.”
Adina didn’t bother asking. “At least put on your raincoat.”
Natalie smirked. “That’s for tourists.”
They walked through the park for a long time, Natalie leading the way. The constant drizzle of the rain streaked the depressed woman’s face until it looked like she had been crying. For once, though, she wasn’t.
They walked in silence, Adina whacking the branches of the trees with the sides of her umbrella until she gave up and tucked it into her coat pocket. “Where are we going, Natalie?”
“I’ll know it when I see it.”
Adina’s sneakers slipped on the rocks beneath their feet. She reached out and steadied herself against tree trunks when she felt wobbly, but not Natalie. She’d once read an article stating that severely depressed people often ignored their body’s cries of pain, powering through unbelievable trauma. The body became unimportant, unreal. A sack of meat powered by a reluctant mind. Worthless.
Finally, Natalie stopped. Adina nearly fell into her. “We’re here,” she said, indicating a low pile of rocks.
Adina squinted. “That’s what you came to see?”
Natalie went up to the pile of rocks and patted it. “I broke my ankle climbing on this thing when I was ten. That’s when I first knew.”
Adina took a stab. “About the split-offs.”
“When the paramedics came, they said it could have been a lot worse. They said I could have fallen backwards instead of forwards, broke my neck.” Natalie shook her head. “Lucky girl.”
“They say something like that to everyone. I caught meningitis in college, and they said if I had come in a day later I wouldn’t have made it.” She took a step toward Natalie. “Everyone has a story like that.”
“Everyone has split-offs.”
Adina took a deep breath. “Well, at least you don’t think you’re a special snowflake.”
Natalie barreled on. “I didn’t think about it for a couple of months. Not until summer. My brothers and I went out on our bikes and Mike was hit by a truck.”
Adina paused, thinking. “Mike never told me he was hit by a truck.”
“Not this Mike. The split-off one. He died and I saw it happen. For less than a fraction of a second, it was there. Two worlds, side by side.” She held her hands up, parallel to one another. “I picked this one. I’d rather live in a world with Mike, instead of a world without him. I love my brother.”
“This happens all the time for you?”
Adina sighed and crossed her arms. “So what happened to you in this other world?”
Natalie shrugged. “Beats me. Does it matter?”
“It would matter to her.”
She looked away, toward the mountains only barely visible through the layer of trees. “I began to think about it. What if this is happening all the time? What if, for every choice you make, every accident you narrowly avoid, there’s someone out there who isn’t so lucky? So I started experimenting.”
“By trying to kill yourself,” Adina said, ice in her veins.
“By being reckless. I started riding without a helmet, eating raw meat, sleeping outside in the rain with no tent. My parents noticed what I was doing, but with six kids, who has the time to watch them every moment? I persevered, though. I don’t know how many split-offs I killed. Hundreds, probably.”
Adina felt like rolling her eyes. “You’re just lucky, Natalie.”
“Luck’s not scientific. This is. Look, do you know what happens to you after you die?”
“You go to sleep.” Adina spread out her arms. “I’m an atheist.”
“Even when you’re asleep you still have a consciousness. The human drive is for life against all odds.” Natalie pushed her wet hair out of her face. “I’ve survived things that shouldn’t be survivable, Adina. Those weren’t cries for help, they were attempts to get into the most improbable universe I could. To get to the zero point zero zero zero zero one universe. The one where I’m the least likely to be alive, but still am. The ultimate survivor. I’m not nearly there yet.”
“Why would you want to go there? Why do this?”
She shrugged again. Adina was starting to hate that shrugging. “To see what happens.”
Remind me never to take a freshman physics class, Adina thought. “So you can’t die. You’ll just move to another fork. I shoot you in the head, you find some way to deflect the bullet.”
“From my perspective, yes.”
“Well, in mine I’ll spend the rest of my life in state prison.”
Natalie blinked. “Then you just don’t take that fork.”
“Do you realize how insane this sounds? Of course you do. You’re not a moron.” Adina felt the sudden urge to back three feet away from Natalie. “You can’t prove any of this.”
“You can’t prove it’s not happening.” Natalie held up her arm. “This is the proof, Adina. I’m alive, you’re alive. Mike’s alive. We all live alone. Every one of us.” Her eyes bulged open, and Adina could almost see the spit flying from her teeth like some rabid animal.
Adina threw up her hands. “I’m going back to the car. We’re both going to catch pneumonia out here. Maybe you can survive that, little miss ultimate survivor, but I want to get back to my warm house and your brother.”
Adina couldn’t tell whether Natalie was about to bolt away or follow her to the car. Finally, the depressed woman moved away from the rock pile. Slowly they trudged through the papier-mâché leaves, twigs cracking underneath. Looking through the thick branches, Adina saw them as a series of forks all leading in different directions. Some to the East Coast, some to the sea.
She shook her head. Don’t let this crazy woman get to you. But as she looked back at her not-quite-sister-in-law, she realized it was too late.
Adina made sure Natalie buckled her seat belt. As she pulled the car onto the narrow road, she chuckled as she checked the rearview mirror for traffic. Safety first, she thought.
Six days later, Natalie’s application for the Redwoods Therapeutic Environment came through. Mike drove her down to Sacramento. Adina was polite as she said goodbye, and she did wish Natalie well, but she prayed Natalie wouldn’t come back. She’d used up her turn with Mike, after all.
Neither one of them told Mike about the discussion in Forest Park.
Wrapped in a blanket, Adina cozied up to the Duraflame log on the fireplace. She’d caught a cold after her visit to the park and hadn’t quite gotten over it. She brought a mug of tea to her lips. Chamomile tea.
She woke to the shriek of the fire alarm.
“Shit!” Adina threw the blanket from her legs into the fireplace, which only caused the flames to rise higher. She looked for water, an extinguisher, anything, but only saw her sad little half-empty cup of tea. She swore again, stuffed her cell phone in her pocket, and darted to the front yard.
Mike’s gonna kill me, she thought, and I deserve it. Stupid!
Adina turned her head to the fire, one last look. An image hung in midair of a woman being carried out on a stretcher, a rag covering her face. Like a lock fitting into a deadbolt, she was aware of a settling into place, a sense of this is it. She felt a ripping, a rending, and then, a choice being made for her, that she had nothing to do with.
Then, a blackness.
She lay on the wet earth. Neighbors surrounded her in a semicircle. Nobody moved to comfort her. In these situations, nobody ever does.
We all live alone. Every one of us.
The firefighters arrived in six minutes. As they sprayed the blackened walls of Mike’s house, a burly man with a Portland Fire & Rescue jacket came over to her. “I just need to ask some questions,” said the firefighter.
Adina had a question of her own. “Is the house okay?”
“Some structural damage. Nothing too bad. You have insurance, right? You always have to have insurance.”
“It’s not my house,” she said, shakily signing the papers that he had given her without reading them. “It belongs to my boyfriend.”
“He’ll just be happy you’re safe. You are safe, right?” The firefighter looked her over, a little surprised.
Adina looked down at her own body. “Yes. I think so.”
“I’m glad to hear it. You made it out just in time. You’re a very lucky girl.”