Every once in a while, a book comes along that will have you saying “WTF did I just read?”. And today we have a sneak peek of what we are calling the most WTF book of all time—THIS DARKNESS MINE by Mindy McGinnis. It’s about a girl whose life seems picture perfect until a shocking discovery about her past threatens to unravel everything she’s worked for.
We loved Mindy’s last book, THE FEMALE OF THE SPECIES, because it was such a boundary pusher, and that same in your face style is definitely at play in THIS DARKNESS MINE. But this is a dark psychological thriller unlike anything we have ever read. It shocked us, it made us gasp, there were times we had to read it through our fingers as we tried to cover our eyes… and we LOVED every second of it.
So, if you dare, you can start reading the first five chapters of THIS DARKNESS MINE now!
I’m digging splinters out of my gums again.
The closest music store carries only cheap reeds, and Mom and Dad won’t pay shipping for something that weighs practically nothing. The end result is me leaning over the girls’ bathroom sink with Brooke’s tweezers, trying to focus on the sliver by my canine rather than on my best friend’s morbid fascination with the process.
“Some space?” I ask, pulling back from the mirror. It’s hard enough to do this without her shoulder rubbing against mine.
“Sorry, Sasha,” she says. “It’s just so gross.”
Which is exactly why she’s leaning in. That’s the kind of girl Brooke is. She’ll pop the zits you can’t reach and offer to skin everyone else’s cat in bio, but the downside of having that for a friend is that she’s also intensely interested in any open wounds you might have. I’m back up against the mirror, my breath fogging exactly where I need to see before she speaks again.
“I’ve never even heard of people getting reed splinters in their gums. . . .” She lets her sentence die out, like I’m supposed to provide a more likely explanation for the slivers of bone-white wood that work their way out of my gums.
“Reeds break.” I shrug. “And no one else practices as much as I do.”
Brooke nods in the mirror, because there’s no point arguing about that. I arch an eyebrow at her and she shrugs, letting me know she won’t interrupt again.
I pull down my lower lip, resting the tweezers on the callus that’s developed on the inside. The latest splinter is barely poking through, a hard white tip in a sea of soft pink. Getting a good grip on them is always the worst part. Each near miss creates a scraping noise I can feel as well as hear, a tiny vibration that passes through the roots of my teeth. But leaving it there isn’t an option. The last time I ignored one I got an infection and couldn’t play for a week, after which Charity Newell challenged me for first chair. I retained my seat, but she looked oddly hopeful afterward—so I hadn’t crushed her.
I pinch down on the tweezers at the right moment, the tip of the splinter flattening under the pressure. Behind me I hear Brooke taking a deep breath as I pull, the end finally coming free, the tiny round hole in my gum filling with a dot of blood. I run my tongue over it, the tang of copper fading quickly. Brooke takes her tweezers back from me, inspecting the tiny fleck of wood still stuck on the end.
“Does it hurt?” she asks.
I rinse my mouth out with water and do a quick check to see if there are more. “No,” I tell her, which is sort of true.
Like a lot of things, it only hurts if you let it.
Brooke keeps an eye on me throughout lunch, like she thinks I’m going to cough up a femur or something. We’re at our normal table, tucked into a corner where the band geeks and literal drama queens find a measure of peace. We can talk about wet versus dry embouchure without any unwanted sexual innuendo from idiots, and the word thespian gets by without giggles. Which is not to say that we don’t have our own brand of shortcomings. If I hear one more joke about Heath’s trombone . . .
“God, take a shower, Harver,” Lilly says, but her eyes show something less than disgust as they follow Isaac Harver across the cafeteria. Brooke’s too.
“That’s easily three days no-wash, maybe five,” Brooke
“You would know,” Lilly says, rubbing the tips of her squeaky-clean blond curls between her fingers.
“Two weeks, baby.” Brooke flips double Vs for victory toward the football players’ table. She hasn’t let them live down the eighth-grade bet to see who could go the longest without showering. They ignore her, so she decides to pester Lilly instead.
“Like you’d pass up the chance to shower with Isaac,” she says.
Lilly’s narrowed eyes are still on him as he flops into his seat at the table by the window, the one that all the stoners claimed at the beginning of the year and no one had the guts to oust them from.
“Is there a prerinse involved?” Lilly asks, and Brooke busts out laughing.
“Omigod, you whore.”
I smack down my spoon, not caring that chili splatters across Brooke’s sweater. “Do you mind?”
“What?” Her eyes are wide and confused, but Brooke can’t quite pull off total innocence. She knows exactly what she did.
“You should watch your language,” I tell her. “One day it’s going to bite you in the butt.”
“I think you mean ass,” Brooke says, and Lilly ducks her head so I can’t see her smiling. But I know she is.
“Seriously, Brooke. Remember when Miss Upton dropped the f-bomb at band camp?”
“That one time?” Brooke adds, and Lilly can’t smother her laugh.
That joke needs to die already.
“She was almost fired over it,” I remind them.
Summer band camp doesn’t exactly bring out the best in people, especially by midweek. Hauling heavy instruments in hundred-degree weather, blowing every breath you’ve got into music you haven’t learned yet, and fresh breakouts around your lips as your mouthpiece jams every drop of sweat right back into your pores makes you cranky. It’s not ideal, but it still wasn’t okay for the flag instructor to toss out the big no-no when a girl lost her pole grip and Miss Upton took one in the face.
“I think you’d swear if your nose was broken too,” Lilly says. She sneaks a glance at me and adds, “Maybe.”
“Yeah, and anyway, she didn’t actually say fuck,” Brooke goes on, ignoring my wince. “It was more like—” She dumps some milk into her palm, huffs it up her nose, covers her face with her hands, and makes an inarticulate noise that might or might not be a swear. I can’t tell because I’m already pushing back from the table to avoid the white froth Brooke is spewing everywhere.
“What?” she asks. “Too much?”
“No wonder you don’t have a boyfriend,” Lilly says.
Brooke waves her off as she wipes her face with a napkin. “Who cares? Unlike Sasha, I can survive without a trom . . . boner.”
And there it is. At least once a week. Why couldn’t I date a drummer?
I wad up my own napkin, tossing it into my chili, where it immediately starts to soak up grease and sink.
“Seriously. Why are we even friends?”
Brooke stops laughing, managing to look dignified even with twin rivers of milk flowing from her nostrils. “I really don’t know,” she says.
And somehow, I feel like I didn’t win that one.
There is nothing as beautiful as silver against black.
My clarinet rests in its case, but not for long. It’s time to practice, time to smell wet cork and my own breath, time for my brain to disconnect and my fingers to move of their own volition, music seeping out from under my bedroom door until Mom calls me down to dinner. And maybe even after that, if I play softly enough that they can’t hear.
Six years ago Mr. Hunter brought us into the high school band room, our little sixth-grade bodies small enough to fit into the instrument cages. He showed us every instrument, played a B flat major scale on each one, sent little slips home to our parents explaining financing options and the pros and cons of new versus used.
I knew what I wanted, even then. An unswerving dedication fired in my soul at the sight of the clarinet. I’m not like Lilly, who started out on trumpet, said it hurt her lips too much and tried a sax, flaked out and switched over to the flute, which she’s stayed with for two years—but I’ve seen her casting looks at the oboes lately. I’m not like Brooke either, happy to stand in the back and hit bells, drums, timpani, freshmen, anything that gets close to her mallets.
They chose music because we always did things together, from dressing up like triplet bunnies at Halloween to making a pact that our boyfriends always had to get along with one another or it was a deal breaker. Lilly’s talents extended from the orchestra pit to the stage, even if she had yet to snag a lead role, while Brooke had transposed her penchant for hitting things into a decent softball career.
Me, I live by one thing. And I do it well.
I snap the joints together and tighten the ligature, ignoring the slight scream in my wrist as I do. My hands have crackled since seventh grade, the tendons forever swollen and stiff. Mom keeps warning me that I’m doing permanent damage. Dad doesn’t comment because he always has earplugs in.
It’s together now, resting on my lap, the last rays of the evening sun slipping through my window and bouncing off the keys. I love how it looks so complicated, spikes of silver flaring, empty holes of nothingness, a mass of wood and metal that almost seems vicious until you hear its voice. Low. Melodic. Lulling. It can convince you of anything if you listen to it long enough. My hands find their place and do their work. They must want Brahms tonight because that’s what my ears get.
There’s nothing better than letting your brain go dead. I use it so much, taxing it to the limit with facts, theories, definitions—whatever I need to regurgitate for the next test. Then I push everything I dedicated my mind to for the week out the back door to make room for the next batch, the next test, a red A+ bleeding onto the white of whatever paper I wrote last.
It’s my hands that know the clarinet, not my brain. It unclenches, resting lightly in a fluid bed as Brahms rocks it to sleep, the curtains of my eyelids drawing shut to give it peace from the daylight.
My phone goes off.
I jolt, knocking my teeth against the mouthpiece. The reed cracks and I suck back a word that I’d yell at Brooke for saying. I settle for growling deep in my throat as I dig through the mass of covers on my bed for the phone. It dings at me again, lighting up enough for me to see it under the pillow where it slipped when I tossed it on the bed.
There’s a text from an unfamiliar number, with a monosyllabic message.
I don’t hesitate with my response. A few years ago Kate Gulland accidentally sexted with her boyfriend’s dad because of a single-digit mix-up. She said it made Christmas dinner incredibly awkward.
Who is this?
There’s no answer. I stare at the screen until the opening bars of Beethoven’s Eighth that I use as my background begin to blur into each other. I roll onto my belly, phone still in hand but composure shattered. Full-on practice mode is my favorite place to be, but it’s not an easy one to get to. Recapturing the semiconscious state that I prefer will take a full ten minutes, only to be interrupted again as soon as dinner is ready.
The phone vibrates in my hand, light bouncing off my palm.
I roll my eyes.
Whatever, B. Give your little bro his phone back.
Brooke’s time would be better spent perfecting the new cadence on her quads than screwing with me over text, or next week the woodwinds are going to march right into the brass when we try to pregame. I turn off my phone as Mom’s voice sails up the stairs.
Dad likes to say the only things you can count on in life are death and taxes, but I’ll add our seating arrangement at dinner to that. Dad at the head, Mom at the foot, me to his right. There are scuff marks on the wall behind me where I’ve shoved away from the table too hard, the back of my chair scraping away slivers of wallpaper and digging into the drywall underneath. Seventeen years’ worth of minor arguments and a few dashes for the bathroom are imprinted there, marking my place.
I’ve charted the conversation while staring at the empty chair across from me. I know what to expect the moment my butt is in my spot, so I have my answers preloaded, my mouth ready to convince them I’m present and accounted for while my hands work through some fingering, tapping on the dead silence of fork and spoon.
“How was school today?” from Mom is a middle E, simple and sweet, a good warm-up for more complicated things to come.
“Fine. We played insert current band piece here and Brooke said, ‘fill in with best friend’s witticism of the day.’” One note up, the F, all throat, which is fitting, since this is the most I’ll say in the dinner hour.
Mom says, “How was work?” This is my cue to launch into the A flat major scale, because I’m not needed here. Dad will talk about foreign and domestic taxes, 529 payouts and offshore banking, then complain about people who don’t understand these things. He fills his plate while he talks, making sure none of his food touches.
Much like the chairs around the table, safe distance is always assured.
He’ll ask how her day was next, and Mom will talk about a long phone call with a friend, reiterating it almost
word for word. I once made it through all twelve major scales while she informed us about someone’s spinal fusion. I don’t remember whose.
Sometimes I wonder what Mom’s day is like once Dad and I are gone, if she’s relieved to see our backs or if the house feels empty without us. Her coffee cups have permanent rings on the inside, her levels of determination rising as they drop. I imagine her day, starting with getting everyone else moving, ending with turning out bedroom lights. Though she always has something to say at dinner, I’ve noticed that Mom’s stories are never about her.
My fingers have stopped moving, a spoonful of mashed potatoes paused halfway to my mouth.
“Sasha?” Mom asks. “Everything okay?”
“My day was fine,” I say, and a line of worry forms between her eyebrows. I’ve interrupted the flow of dinner, said a line from the beginning here at the end, where it doesn’t belong.
“How are you?” I ask, and the line deepens into confusion. Dad always asks how her day was, which is something else entirely.
“I’m . . .” Mom shakes her head, not able to improvise an answer to an unscripted question. “I’m fine,” she says. But her voice goes up at the end, turning it into an uncertainty.
Dad clears his throat. “Sasha.”
“I’m fine too,” I say.
And my chair smacks the wall as I leave.
Homework waits for me, reliable as ever. I turn on my phone so that I can have some Pachelbel in the background while I work. Everyone else in the world might prefer the Canon, but his Ciaccona in F minor blows it out of the water. Brooke says I only listen to it to be elitist.
I smirk while my phone powers up, thinking about Brooke. I’m sure I’ve got either an apology or a long line of texts from her still trying to convince me she’s Isaac. Instead I get this:
WTF you gave me your #
U want me to txt you or not?
A new one comes in just as I’m about to crack some sass.
Brooke may be my best friend, but she knows better than to whatever me, over text or otherwise. My phone shakes in my hands as I consider the alternatives. There aren’t many. Either someone who doesn’t like me is screwing with me—and I’ll admit, that list is long—or this actually is Isaac. Which puts me in an odd place because I have nothing to say to him. I settle for
I think you have the wrong number
Then I mute my phone and fire up the Pachelbel.
Brooke says life is easier in the key of F.
Of course she always adds “you.”
School is a process, a series of hoops to be jumped through, set at the appropriate heights for whoever the jumper is. Mine are high, and while there are days that I resent the mental acrobatics necessary for me to clear them, I also realize that they’ve been positioned there for a reason. It has been determined that I am capable of performing at that level. All I have to do is prove it.
Senior year has been no more taxing than the others. Assigned novels are longer and the equations more convoluted, but nothing has set me back yet. Colleges have been courting me since I was a junior, but my sights have been set on Oberlin since I picked up a pamphlet from the band director as a sixth grader. I can get a degree in psychology as well as a performance degree from their conservatory, something that Dad thinks is hilarious. He told me if my goal was to drive people crazy with my constant playing, I’d already accomplished it.
That’s when Mom bought him the earplugs.
Dad tried to steer me toward an economics major, telling me that music might be my passion but I needed to think rationally about employment. He said taxes only sound boring and can provide a reliable income. I sat through an hour lecture about how there’s a sense of calm to be found in columns of integers, and that numbers never lie. So I found a copy of our cell phone bill and highlighted all the calls from his account to an unfamiliar number that always happened right around the time he got off work. I mailed it to his office with a Post-it attached that said, “You’re right, Dad! Numbers don’t lie. Love, Sasha.”
He left me alone after that. Like pretty much all the time.
My fingers fly through my locker combination without thought, my mind idly following the junior high band as they murder our fight song, its agonizing death floating down the hallway. They’ve pounded through the first sixteen measures, and I’m bracing myself for the bridge when my locker is slammed shut, my index finger two inches from losing some length.
“What the hell?”
“That’s what I’m thinking,” Isaac Harver says as he leans against the wall.
My heart hits at least a hundred beats per minute as I glance up and down the hall, but there’s hardly anyone here this early. Just me, the sixth-grade morning class using the shared band room, and the only person in the world I know who actually owns a black leather jacket.
And somehow Isaac wears it like it’s any other coat, as if he could take it off and still look like a badass. I glance at the tattoo trailing down his neck into his white T-shirt and the scabs on his knuckles from where—the word is—he punched out Jade McCarren’s dad last week when he shorted him on weed.
Intimidating or not he almost took off one of my fingers, and I need all ten if I’m going to Oberlin.
“Thinking,” I say. “Not your normal mode of operation is it?”
He smiles and I stop breathing for a second, either because he might be about to stab me or because he has dimples.
“So, what?” he says. “You came over to the dark side for a minute when you gave me your number?”
I yank my locker open for the second time. “I did not give you my number,” I say between clenched teeth, and my anger makes him take a step back. People are always surprised when roses have a few thorns, like the girls who wear khakis and live with our natural hair color aren’t ever going to bite.
“Yeah . . .” Isaac’s eyes narrow as he watches me fish a copy of Great Expectations out of my locker, even though I have no idea why I need it, since English isn’t until after lunch. “Except you did.”
It’s my turn to slam the locker, and I’m about to say something nasty when there’s a hand on my shoulder, heavy, cool, and calm.
“Everything okay?” Heath asks, his voice as steady as his pulse.
Isaac doesn’t look at my boyfriend. I can feel his eyes on me even though I’m staring at my locker.
“Yeah, man,” Isaac says. “Everything’s peaches.” Then
he flicks a strand of my hair over my shoulder as he walks away.
Heath’s grip on me tightens. “What was that?”
I turn into him, switching my view from the numbers on my locker to the steady, sensible third buttonhole on Heath’s shirt. It’s Tuesday, so he’s wearing his blue oxford.
“Nothing,” I tell him, my eyes slipping slightly upward to the collar of his new tee, crisp and white, barely stretched. I remember that Isaac’s was worn out, with the tiniest drop of rust on the edge that was probably blood.
“Just a psycho being a psycho,” I add, because Heath hasn’t let go of my shoulder, and I can feel the tips of his manicured nails through my sweater.
I head toward the band room, Heath in my wake as the sixth graders spill out to get to their wing before the rest of the high schoolers fill the halls. I swear I can feel the strand of hair that Isaac touched burning right through my clothes.
Which makes no sense because we’ve barely exchanged ten words our entire lives, even in a school this small. The only memory I have of him is from third grade, when he wrote the f-word in red crayon on the bottom of the tube slide, and we all dared each other to go look at it.
He’s at the end of the hall, headed for the back door where smokers sneak one before first period. I watch him take the turn, part of me hoping I never see him again and another part willing him to look back at me. Then he’s gone, and my heart stops.
It actually stops.
I make the oddest noise, the slightest oooh, as I lose the beat, my hands clamping to my chest as if I can reset the metronome there with my fingers. Heath is at my side, hands tight on both arms now, forcing my arms deeper into their sockets, my collarbone protesting. I can’t speak, can’t tell him to stop. My heart has left me. I felt it go, slipping down the hall to follow Isaac. Like a rubber band stretched too far it comes back to me, slamming into my rib cage just as I crumple to the floor.
A thread of regularity.
“I’m fine,” I say to Heath, who came down to the floor with me. “Not enough to eat this morning, I think.”
He digs in his pocket and pulls out a package of granola, which should be some kind of heroism in this moment but instead all I can think is that he’ll be a great dad and somehow that’s unsexy as hell right now.
“Just get me off the floor before anybody sees me,” I say, waving away the granola. He’s a gentleman, hand on my elbow, counting to three, saying “careful,” as I come to my feet.
Heath holds the door to the band room open for me, and I get to my chair without falling, snapping together my clarinet and trying to reclaim the steps of this day, the ones that need to accumulate to get me through the week, the month, the year. Everything that needs to pass to land me where I deserve to be—the first clarinet chair in a bigger room than this, surrounded by real musicians.
Isaac Harver is not going to distract me from that.
And if my heart stops first, I’ll find a way to keep going without it.
I monitor my pulse throughout the day, slipping my fingers onto my wrist and counting, well aware that if I collapse again Heath will call 911 and I’ll spend my evening explaining that my heart travels with Isaac Harver now. Which is just as ridiculous as it sounds, even taken symbolically.
How he got my number I don’t know, but I definitely didn’t give it to him, I reassure myself as I pull the cuff of my sweater back down over my wrist in sixth period. My pulse is right where it’s supposed to be, my heart behaving instead of traipsing toward certain doom. Lilly flops into the seat next to mine, her hair ballooning up into a mushroom cloud that carries nothing more lethal than an overdose of lavender vanilla.
“Hey,” she says. “When you get a chance I need a baby picture for the yearbook.”
I’m still counting heartbeats, so she clarifies.
“The senior baby pictures?” she goes on. “Cole Vance gave us one of him in the tub, but you could totally see his dick. I had to photoshop some bubbles in. They were really small bubbles. But I guess he was a baby then, so he gets a waiver on that one. Although, maybe it matters even on babies? Do some boy babies have bigger—”
I stop her with my hand in the air.
“You need a baby picture of me?”
“For the layout of senior baby pictures?”
I nod. “Got it. Stories of Cole Vance’s prepubescent penis not necessary.”
“Brooke thought it was funny,” she huffs.
“Brooke would,” I shoot back. “Just give me the bare minimums of what I need to know. I’m operating on overload as it is.”
And while this is certainly true, I don’t know why it’s suddenly getting to me. Pressure is my environment, like a creature three miles underneath the sea. If you took all the expectations away, the shock would kill me, my lungs flattening and refusing to reinflate.
“You okay?” Lilly asks.
I’m not used to hearing this question. I am always okay. That’s when I realize both my hands are to my chest, shielding my heart from an unseen threat.
“I’m fine,” I snap, dropping my arms to my side.
I love Lilly but Charity Newell is her cousin, and I can’t say for sure that she was entirely happy for me when I defended first chair successfully. She might actually care if I’m okay. She might be checking for cracks in my veneer.
“Did you finish?” I ask, waving Great Expectations in the air to change the subject.
“You bet,” she says, flashing her phone with highlighted SparkNotes.
“Nice,” I say. “Slacker.”
Lilly shrugs. She’s always been this way, smart enough to skate by but not really caring. She’ll be married in five years, have three kids before thirty and call herself happy.
Great expectations, indeed.
Her eyes are glued on Cole as he walks in the room, and I’m guessing her mind might still be on baby pictures, but probably not mine. I roll my eyes and schedule a reminder in my phone to ding the second I walk in the door. If I don’t grab Mom as soon as I get home, I’ll forget. There are bigger things on my mind, and the last thing I need is Lilly hassling me about it if it slips through the cracks.
Heath comes in and gives me a smile, but takes his usual seat at the front. I study the back of his shirt, the precise cut of his hair—always even because he gets it trimmed on schedule. Next to me, Lilly is teasing Cole about bubbles. Legs crossed, body at an angle, eyes cast upward, fingers twisting in her hair. Everything about her is screaming at him to notice her and it’s working.
Meanwhile I’m ramrod straight staring at Heath’s back, well aware that he’d be irritated if he knew his tag was sticking up.
I don’t tell him.
All the stupid people I know are happy.
A fresh set of nails. The release of a new video game. Mascara that doesn’t run. Shiny rims on a car. These are the things I hear people gushing about as I walk out of school, their momentary elation at the simplest things serving as a reminder that I have higher ideals, bigger goals, a reward in my sights that won’t chip, wash off, wear down, or become boring. Sometimes I think I should borrow Dad’s earplugs to get through the day.
I drive home, ignoring the ache of my hands as they clench on the steering wheel. I’m squeezing more than necessary, thinking about Cole and Lilly in English. A cloud of pheromones surrounded them by the time Mrs. Walker started class, their eyes on each other’s mouths when they talked, straying to other body parts as if they lacked the willpower to control their gaze.
Heath and I aren’t like that, never have been. There’s a calm assurance in our relationship: he is my boyfriend; I am his girlfriend. We’ve been together since eighth grade, a slow escalation from texts that held nothing more than casual information (I’m home. Going skiing. Your hair is pretty.) to mild groping in his parents’ den that came about more from curiosity than passion. We make out because we’re supposed to. That’s what couples do.
The clinical nature of our relationship doesn’t bother me, the hard and fast definitions of what we are to each other reading more like a contractual agreement than anything bordering on affection. We’re cutouts on top of a wedding cake, fingers interlaced but bodies permanently frozen far apart from each other, our smiles painted on. And who cares, really? Wedding cakes are supposed to have toppers. Girls like me are supposed to have boyfriends. Checkmark.
My phone dings at me as I walk in the door, right on schedule. Picture, it says.
“Mom,” I yell, kicking off my shoes. “I need one of my baby pictures.”
I flip through the mail on the table, adding to the pile of acceptance letters from colleges I have no intention of going to. Still, they look nice padding the bottom drawer of my desk.
“Mom,” I call again, raising my voice to be heard over the ice dispenser as I get a drink. There’s no answer. I gulp down half the glass of water and pour the rest on the aloe plant she keeps on the kitchen windowsill. Its leaves are trimmed back, the tips brittle and brown from where she’s had to clip it so many times to treat the little burns she always manages to accumulate in the kitchen. She’s had the same plant for ten years; it’s one of the more useful things we own. So I water it when I’ve got anything left in my glass, one hard worker to another.
“Mom,” I try for a third time, irritated now. I’ve got homework, studying, and hopefully at least two hours of practice ahead of me. Taking care of this baby-
picture business was supposed to be a quick chore, a box to checkmark. But she’s not home, which means I’m going to lose time digging through plastic bins jammed at the back of the hall closet.
I open the door and flop to the ground, dragging out an old globe, a pair of waders that fit no one, a shower mat that ended up in here for some reason, and a shoe rack with zero pairs of shoes on it. The photo bins are stacked nicely on top of one another, the only thing in here with any semblance of order.
But that’s on the outside. Once I pop the top off the first one, I realize I’ve signed up for more than a few minutes of browsing. Mom’s never been the neatest person, but the tubs aren’t even sorted by decade. There’s a shot of my mom in the nineties wearing plaid and drinking beer out of a Styrofoam cup in the same bin as a sepia-toned shot of someone I don’t know and don’t have a timeline’s chance of ever having met.
“Seriously?” I mutter under my breath as I toss a picture of Dad proudly displaying his first cell phone. I jam my hand to the bottom of the pile and close my eyes, counting on dumb luck to deliver me from this mess of undated, unnamed, unorganized people. A sharp edge slides under my thumbnail and I yank back, dragging it with me.
The paper is thin, the corner jammed a couple millimeters under my nail, angry red dots of trapped blood welling around it. I pull it free and unroll it, expecting to see the receipt from when Mom bought the plastic bins.
But it’s a picture. Specifically, an ultrasound.
“Wonder what Lilly would make of that,” I say to myself. I don’t know if fetal-me would be more interesting to her than Cole Vance’s tiny penis.
Except . . . it’s not me. Or rather, it’s not just me.
I scan panel to panel, analyzing what I see, separating black from gray, sound bouncing back off solid versus liquid. The shapes are difficult to distinguish, more white noise than picture. But the neatly printed text at the bottom cannot be misinterpreted, my mother’s name and the date—when she would’ve been pregnant with me.
But I’m not alone in there.
A paradigm shift is defined as a fundamental change in approach or underlying assumptions, and people often come unmoored when they occur. The Catholic Church persecuted Galileo when he argued for a heliocentric universe; people didn’t know germs caused illnesses until the nineteenth century.
And I thought I was an only child until just now.
I take it well, all things considered. That is to say I fall over, crumpling the photos I’d tossed aside. A thousand sharp-edged corners dig into my skin as all the blood leaves my head, my fingers and toes tingling as every drop concentrates to my center. To my engorged heart.
I felt it swell at the sight of two amorphous blobs, vague outline of limbs entwined with one another, heads inclined as if sharing a secret. My heart beats to tear through my chest, my collarbone pounding with the rhythm of it. I am no longer flesh and bone; I am one organ only.
And it will have its way.
I didn’t know I stopped breathing until I take a deep gasp, the black spots on my vision fading with the action.
My hands come back to life, curling around the ultrasound as my mind grapples with the new information, scanning the tidy columns of known things it has acquired and not finding a spot to fit this particular fact.
It’s in the shape of a question mark, and I don’t allow for those. There is no place for this, so I stare until the feeling is back in my hands and feet, until I’m able to slowly sit up, the world righted again though so much in it has gone wrong.
I fold the picture, taking care to crease only the white lines separating the pictures, as if the yet-to-be-born could be harmed. It makes a perfect rectangle, a life-changing fact that fits neatly in my pocket. I put the rest of the pictures back, stack the bins, toss all the useless things no one ever sees back where they were, relegated once again to nonexistence.
Like my twin sister.
I. Things I Know
1. According to date and name of mother, one of the fetuses is me.
2. Both of the fetuses are female.
3. This has been kept from me on purpose.
II. Things I Don’t Know
1. If she was born
2. If she died
3. If she was adopted
B. How Isaac Harver got my number
I shake my head and erase out the last line as irrelevant. I don’t like not knowing things, but that list has suddenly become longer than I imagined possible, and I need to prioritize. I write unlikely next to adopted. We’re not rich but definitely comfortable enough to afford two kids. I’ve chewed the eraser off my pencil, spitting out the soft pink nub and crunching the metal that held it between my teeth while I think.
Mom came home half an hour ago, Dad shortly after. She’s banging pots and pans around in the kitchen, his earplugs are doing overtime, so neither one of them knows I’m not playing clarinet up here. Instead I’m weighing my options.
I can walk downstairs, the ultrasound trailing behind me like a ticker-tape parade celebrating the dawn of a new world, one in which I’m aware of my anonymous sibling. I know how that will play out. Mom will cry; Dad will yell; I will stand like a pillar in a storm, demanding truth. I spit out the metal casing from the eraser and chomp down on the wet wood of the pencil, appreciating the give in it when everything else seems to be pushing back at me.
I fold up my list, blowing away the last bits of eraser that linger from eradicating Isaac Harver’s name. If only I could drag one across my brain, ridding myself of him up there too. My heart gives a little shudder at the thought, and I look down at my chest.
“Shut up,” I say.
Mom’s voice floats up the stairs, hitting the same notes as always. Din—ner. It’s an F sharp followed by a half step down to the F, the normalcy of our routine inked out in notes of black and white. I can shatter this, sweep everything to the side in a discordant crash, but then I’ll have to deal with Dad’s bullish baritone, Mom’s panic in a jarring soprano. My blank stare, whole rests of nothingness, can only bear so much.
Or, I can do what I do best.
Figure things out on my own.
Our courthouse looks like what you’d expect in a small Ohio town; someone started with ambition and then ran out of energy. Or money. Or both.
The front does everything a courthouse should. It looks serious, imposing, like a brick bastion of justice that fell from the sky. But once I walk through the double doors on Wednesday after school, all the trappings of glory fall away. I’m hit with a mix of mildew and ancient cigarette smoke that only a demolition is going to address. The plaster walls have cracks like varicose veins, small explosions of age. One last holdout of nobility—a grand old wooden staircase—is stripped of its dignity by the orange traffic cone on the landing, draped with caution tape of no specific nature. I can only assume I’m supposed to watch out for the water dripping from the ceiling.
There’s a directory mounted on the wall, white peg letters canted at angles that make me want to reach out and straighten them. The office of vital statistics is in the addition, a polite word for the pressboard square attached to the back of the building. I walk in, worried that my feet might punch right through the linoleum floor, or that my voice will blow the wood paneling from the studs. The waiting room looks sick, badly lit by fluorescent lights, the mismatched set of chairs all clear castoffs. The lady behind the counter glances up at me, her fingers still moving across her keyboard.
“What do you need?”
Mom would call her rude. I call it efficient. This woman speaks my language.
“Birth certificate,” I say.
Her eyes go back to her screen. “Yours or someone else’s?”
She doesn’t glance back at me. “Birth certificates can only be issued to the parent or spouse. I’m betting you’re neither of those.”
“What about a sister?”
The word feels weird on my tongue, one I’m not sure I’ve said before.
“Sure,” she says, still looking at the screen. “What’s her name?”
I pause too long, and she prompts me. “Your sister’s name?”
“I’m not sure,” I admit, and she looks up at me. I only have her attention for a split second before she’s back on the computer again, our business together finished.
“Adoption records are sealed,” she says.
“Look”—I scan the piles of papers on her desk and finally locate a name plaque—“Jane, I don’t think she was adopted. I don’t even know if she was born.”
The keys stop clicking and I’ve got her. I don’t think Jane gets a lot of high excitement or mystery here in the addition, so I whip out the ultrasound.
“This is me . . . well, one of them is,” I tell her.
“So you’re a twin,” Jane says. “Or you were supposed to be, anyway.” She takes it from me, unfurling the thin paper and holding it up to the light. “Don’t want to ask Mom?”
“What about Dad?”
I let silence answer that one.
She sighs and hands the ultrasound back to me. “Like I said, birth certificates can be issued only to parents.” I’m about to argue when she puts her hand up to stop me. “But vital statistics are public record.”
Jane motions me to follow her as she pulls open a flimsy door, a puff of stale air greeting us. She flips a switch and the lights bubble to life, flickering as if they resent it. Racks of heavy books surround us, but Jane goes right for the one she wants, tossing it onto a wide wooden table in the center of the room.
“Yeah. She’s your twin. She’ll have the same last name and birthdate.”
“Sasha Stone,” I say, more than a little embarrassed I didn’t think of that on my own. My brain has always been a sharp instrument, a pencil with lead that tears through paper. But on this subject I’ve been dull, barely leaving a mark behind.
I tell her, and Jane’s finger trails down a column of Ss. “There,” she taps my name. “Found you.”
I lean over the table, fascinated by this stark representation of my existence. There I am, Sasha Stone, daughter of Patricia (Hall) Stone and Mark Stone. I feel a ridiculous bloom of relief in my chest to see that information, as if I needed proof that I was indeed born.
“No sister, though,” Jane says, her finger moving over to the birthdate column. “See? No other Stones born on November twenty-first of that year.”
“So she was stillborn?”
“Maybe,” Jane says, disappearing in the racks of books for a second, and returning with one titled Deaths 2000–
I don’t like all the possibilities encapsulated after the dash, an endless stream of deaths with no definitive cutoff point.
“If she died at birth, she’ll be in here,” Jane says, finger once again slicing through columns of ink. I wonder if she has calluses on her fingertips like I do, mine from making music, hers from trailing over lives begun and ended.
“She’s not here,” Jane announces.
My hand goes back to my pocket to reassure myself that the ultrasound is still there, the only thing in the world that says I have—or had—a sister.
A sister who wasn’t born and never died.
When I see Isaac in the hallway I take an impulsive step backward, the heels of my shoes knocking against the door of the vital records office. He looks up from the bench he’s sitting on, a solid expanse of wood that belongs in a church, not a common hall with pictures of child-support nonpayers posted above it. Still, he looks comfortable, arms spread across the rolled back like he belongs here. Our eyes meet and he smiles like there’s nothing surprising about the situation.
I look away quickly, to the words on the door next to him. Parole Officer. So I guess he does belong here.
“I’m starting to think you might be following me,” Isaac says.
“You wish,” I say, anything more cutting than that lost to me. I’ve been demoted to monosyllabic words.
He smiles again, gaze traveling over me in a way I definitely don’t like . . . except I feel a subtle shift, muscles loosening or tensing ever so slightly, and somehow I’m angled toward him, like Lilly was with Cole, one shoulder dropped just enough that my shirt gapes a little. Isaac senses it, rising from the bench to cut the space between us, his body a knife that mine wants to be cut by. Because I’m moving forward too, and soon we’re indecently close, my heart hammering so hard I’ve got spots in my vision again.
“I got your text,” he says.
“I didn’t text you,” I shoot back, my mouth the only thing I still have control of. But even that feels slippery, as if it might jump the last few inches between mine and his without permission.
“Huh . . . ,” he says. “That’s funny ’cause . . .” and he holds up his phone, showing me a text that came in early this morning at three fifteen—
What r u doing?
“One”—I hold up an index finger, hoping it’s an effective barrier between us—“I was asleep at three. Two”—another finger goes up, adding a board to the wall I’m building—“I use real words when I text. And three”—last one, to hold it all in place—“that text came from someone named Lady, not me.”
He flips it back open, pulls up his contacts and shows me the entry for “Lady.” It’s my number, sure and true, a dark rendering of facts as concrete as the books in Jane’s office.
“You’re a lady, all right,” Isaac says, his voice husky in my ear as he leans closer.
“I . . .” My voice fails me, my hand trailing up to his neck to touch the tattoo there rather than push him back like I told it to.
“Something’s wrong,” I say, sidestepping away from him, my hand leaving his chest and going to mine to feel the pace of my heart. Very allegro.
“Yep,” he agrees. “And I know what it is. You like me . . . but you don’t like that you like me.”
“Based only on that sentence, you’re an idiot,” I say just as the parole officer’s door opens and a man sticks his head out.
“Sounds like she’s got your number, Harver,” he says, gesturing for Isaac to come inside.
“Uh-huh . . . ,” Isaac says. “And I’ve got hers.”
And then he winks at me.
And I like it.
“I asked Melanie if she knew what color the carpet was in her brother’s room, and she said green.” Brooke brings the wooden mallet down on the skull of our fetal pig, sending some cartilage onto my safety goggles.
“So taking that and the toe of the shoe I spotted in the pic, I’m guessing that is Cole’s dick. Hardly worth Instagramming.” She gives the pig another whack.
Lilly perches on a stool, elbows resting on the black countertop of the biology room. “Dammit,” she says. “It is a little dick.”
My friends have been plumbing the depths of the mysteries of the size of Cole Vance’s dick for a few days, not coming up with any solid evidence as of yet.
“Hmmmm . . .” Brooke watches Lilly carefully. “You could always ask Charity.”
Lilly flushes. “No way.”
“I can find out for sure,” Brooke says, pressing her thumb on the cranium.
“Excuse me?” Lilly says, her embarrassed pink kicking up to an angry red.
“Chill,” Brooke says, “I’ll just ask him to whip it out sometime.” The skull gives way underneath the pressure with a distinct pop.
“Does it matter how big it is?” I ask Lilly. “I mean, do you like him or not?”
“It matters,” Brooke says with conviction.
“It matters more if you like him,” I say, putting a reassuring hand on Lilly’s shoulder.
Lilly’s face scrunches up a little bit like she might cry at the unexpected support. “Thanks, Sasha.”
It’s not something I’d usually say, but I’ve come to the realization that while I might be the alpha of our group and Brooke the firm beta, Lilly can’t ever decide which one of us to please. She’s a toddler getting conflicting advice from her parents, and watching her confusion is solid entertainment. I’ve learned that if I can veil my words in something like kindness she tends to respond better, and I could use the distraction of being a good friend right now. Isaac gave me a knowing nod in the hall this morning that sent my stomach plummeting but my pulse skyrocketing.
I checked my phone the second I got to my car yesterday. No texts had been sent in the middle of the night—to anyone. None had come in either. I’m chalking it up to some semiliterate trying to connect with Isaac for God knows what and an errant radio wave identifying it as my number.
“I definitely like Cole,” Lilly says. “But I don’t want to end up in a micropenis situation.”
“You’re not the only one who enjoys a guy with a ’boner, Sasha,” Brooke adds.
I roll my eyes. “Do you have that brain exposed yet?”
“Ohhhhh yeah,” she says, ignoring the tools on the tray and cracking bone away with her gloved fingers. “Nervous system, here I come.”
“Also endocrine,” I say.
“You need to get out more.”
A sudden shriek makes everyone jump; Lilly almost topples off her stool.
“Mrs. DeBrau,” Charity Newell yells from across the room. “I think my pig is totally pregnant.”
“Like it could be only kind of pregnant,” Brooke says under her breath. I think of gray shadows and twining umbilical cords, one baby born, one forever in limbo.
“No, that’s not possible,” I say, and Brooke makes a duh face because she thinks I’m talking to her.
“Not possible at all,” Mrs. DeBrau echoes me. “It’s a fetal pig, Charity, only a baby herself. However, you’ve done excellent work here.”
She leans over Charity’s tray to inspect the splayed animal, skin pinned around it like a macabre cape. “You preserved the reproductive system while dissecting. You have a deft touch.” Mrs. DeBrau looks at Brooke pointedly.
“I prefer my mallet,” my friend says, spinning it in her fingers.
“Mrs. DeBrau,” I ask. “At what point can a fetus stop existing?”
She looks up from Charity’s table, a cautious look on her face. “What do you mean, Sasha?”
This is exactly the problem. I don’t know what I mean. Last night I did search after search on my laptop, ruling out the obviously wrong answers right away. Mom’s stance on abortion has always been unwavering, so that’s out. I have no way of knowing if a miscarriage occurred, but we both seem healthy and whole in the ultrasound.
“I mean . . .” Everyone is looking at me now, because Sasha Stone not knowing what to say is an event worth noting.
“Can there be a fetus, no miscarriage or abortion, and then . . . suddenly no fetus?”
“Sure,” Mrs. DeBrau says, leaning back over Charity’s fetal pig. “That’s called resorption. It happens alongside a miscarriage, and the mother’s body reabsorbs what’s left of the material. Typically she won’t even know she was pregnant.”
That doesn’t work. Mom definitely knew. There aren’t ten fingers in that ultrasound. There are twenty.
“But what about twins?” I blurt, and Mrs. DeBrau looks back at me. “What if there are twins and then . . . then there’s not?”
“Aahhh.” She smiles. “You’re talking about vanishing twin syndrome.”
I smile back. That sounds about right.
Vanishing twin syndrome: also known as fetal resorption, is a fetus in a multi-gestation pregnancy that dies in utero and is then partially or completely reabsorbed by the twin.
“‘Partially or completely reabsorbed,’” I say to myself, tapping a fresh pencil against my lip.
My desk is a mess of papers and scribbled notes, half-drawn illustrations of various stages of embryo development with question marks penciled on the sides. I’ve been fending off texts from Heath all evening, responding with nonanswers and varying degrees of meh when he tried to invite himself to dinner. He’s usually good about respecting my space, but when he calls I capitulate and answer.
“Well, hello to you too,” he says.
“I’m kind of busy,” I tell him, my pencil sketching a version of myself in the margin, bored and on the phone.
“Do you have a minute to talk to your boyfriend about this rumor that you’re pregnant?”
My pencil skids across my notes, jerking the whole paper sideways and exposing the pig-heart diagram I’m supposed to be studying. The tip of the lead shakes along with my hands, the stuttering of my heart dotting Morse code across the aorta.
“I don’t know what you said in biology today, but Charity told Cole you were asking about abortion.”
“Resorption,” I clarify. “It’s when one twin absorbs another in the womb.”
I expect a sigh of relief, Heath’s usual noncombative tone restored so I can handle him and go back to what I was doing. Instead I get: “Why were you asking about that?”
“Why does it matter?” I shoot back. “It’s not like I’m pregnant. We don’t have sex.”
“Just because we don’t have sex doesn’t mean you can’t be pregnant.”
Lead punches through sheets of paper down to the wood of my desk.
It’s one word, his name. But I know how to use it. I’ve heard girls adopt the cajoling tone to calm down their man, an upward lilt with a flirtatious accent that changes the subject. I say his name like a brick wall. One he can run into and break his damn face on. Heath is still talking, but I’m not listening, my brain derailed by the fact that I just swore. Only in my head, but it counts.
What is wrong with me?
I can’t get Isaac Harver—who is a total scumbag—out of my head. I practically stuck my tongue down his throat right in front of his parole officer for the love of God. I’m arguing with a perfectly nice, useful boyfriend over gossip. I’m using bad words and . . . my foot nudges my clarinet case, safely stowed under my desk.
As in, put away. There’s a thin film of dust across the top.
I realize I haven’t practiced all week.
This is not who I am. This is not me.
“This is not me,” I say, interrupting Heath.
“What? Sasha? What do you mean?”
“I have to go.”
I hang up, my phone dropping to the floor next to my clarinet case as my eyes devour chambers of the fetal pig heart, so similar to ours, the colors of the diagram—red, blue, purple—vibrant against the dull grays of my ultrasound, still half curled, hiding in shame. One corner touches my notes, the sketch of myself, bored with my perfect boyfriend, now surrounded by a heavy script, all caps, vicious lines meeting at sharp angles to create a message I didn’t write.
WHY THE FUCK ARE YOU TALKING TO ME?
I think of Isaac Harver and bad words, my heart racing.
This is not me.
About This Darkness Mine
GONE GIRL and FIGHT CLUB collide in this shocking psychological thriller.
Sasha Stone knows her place—first-chair clarinet, top of her class, and at the side of her Oxford-wearing boyfriend. She’s worked her entire life to ensure her path to Oberlin Conservatory as a star musician is perfectly paved.
But suddenly there’s a fork in the road in the shape of Isaac Harver. Her body shifts toward him when he walks by, and her skin misses his touch even though she’s never known it. Why does he act like he knows her so well—too well—when she doesn’t know him at all?
Sasha discovers that her by-the-book life began by ending the chapter of another: the twin sister she absorbed in the womb. But that doesn’t explain the gaps of missing time in her practice schedule, or the memories she has of things she certainly never did with Isaac.
Armed with the knowledge that her heart might not be hers alone, Sasha must decide what she’s willing to do—and who she’s willing to hurt—to take it back.
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