by Melissa Brooks
The Zukurski twins weren’t identical, but they looked it. It was only when you really got to know them that you could begin to discern the differences. Mallory’s nose turned just slightly to the right. Natalie had a freckle above her lip like a model. Mallory was just a hair taller. Natalie’s hair was a shade darker. Discovering these differences disappointed me because I had admired their talent for tricking people. Like when Natalie had to repeat level one of swimming lessons. I dropped off Mallory instead.
Their parents found them in the pond behind their house. Their creamy faces bobbing just below the surface. Hair fanned out the way a mermaid’s might. They were wearing their white flower girl dresses. Small black shoes that buckled. They wouldn’t have drowned by themselves. They were too cautious. Too smart. They wouldn’t have gone farther than knee-deep if they happened to find themselves alone. They should have never found themselves alone.
After the twins drowned, everyone dropped off casseroles for Mr. and Mrs. Zukurski. Green bean. Tuna. Sweet potato. Beef. When the casseroles began to taper off, they must have been relieved. They didn’t speak to anyone for a while. They stopped coming to church. Stopped answering the phone. So we were all surprised when six months later they invited us to a holiday party.
They had strung lights all around their brick house. Plastic candy canes lined the walkway. Glowing gumdrops dotted the garden. A large tree was visible through the front window. It was decked with a variety of ornaments, some handmade like the googly-eyed mice with candy cane tails the twins made in Sunday school. Others were store-bought—bright bobbing globes, holiday twists on cartoons, Santas that ho-ho-hoed. Five strings of golden garland wrapped around that gargantuan tree. A combination of white and colorful lights.
When Mrs. Zukurski opened the door she greeted me warmly. “It’s so good to see you!” She threw her arms out for an embrace. “Come in! Come in! You have to see all the decorations.”
I walked around the house looking at the decorations she was so proud of. I peeked into the living room and remembered jumping on the couch with Mallory and Natalie, hoping their parents wouldn’t come home early and fire me for being an irresponsible babysitter.
I walked down the hall; looked at the framed pictures of the twins draping the walls; the old grandfather clock that woke me when their parents were out all night; the old hutch I once tried to wiggle into during hide-and-seek. And there, placed just so in the center of the hutch, was Mallory. Wearing her white dress. Black buckled shoes. Her hair curled and half up. Feet dangling over the edge. Hands resting in her lap. She sat very straight. Straighter than I’d ever seen her sit. Stout white candles were arranged in neat rows on either side of her. All lit. Punctuated by poinsettias. She was the center piece, adorned by white lights. Her cheekbones had hollowed out, enlarging her glassy, brown eyes.
I backed away toward the staircase. And there I found the other twin, sitting in the spot where the banister curls into itself. A prickly wreath crowned her head. Small bright lights wrapped her small frame. Of course no candles surrounded her. She was more like a gargoyle. The lights blinked and with them, her eyes. I jumped.
I turned my head. Mrs. Zukurski was walking toward me.
“How are you, dear? I’ve missed you so.” She hugged me. I turned my head back toward Natalie and she followed suit. “Oh, aren’t they lovely?” she asked. “Such beautiful, beautiful girls. We couldn’t bear to part with them. They really make such wonderful decorations.”
I stared at Natalie’s blank eyes, her sallow skin. I tucked her hair behind a withered ear. “You know, they really do,” I said. “Like porcelain dolls.”
Later, Mrs. Zukurski called me to say the twins were missing.
“Well, that’s not so bad is it?” I said. “Maybe Mr. Zukurski just buried them.”
“Drowning them is one thing but this? This is unforgivable.”
“I’m sure they’ll turn up,” I said.
I hung up and resumed brushing Natalie’s long, brown hair. I had to be gentle not to pull it out. A patch of scalp was already starting to peek through above her right ear.