Scenes from a Solitary Life
by Brent C. Smith
She rests against a sweat-stained pillow. Hair clings to her forehead like strands of shriveled seaweed from the shrinking ocean. Everyone sweats in this dying world, but hers is the mark of exertion. Of exhaustion.
A baby sleeps in her arms. She holds its head against her shoulder and presses dried lips to its ginger hair. But her eyes, wide with interest (or is it fear?) watch her husband and his twin across the long room. He whispers to identical doctors, but the force of his hissing carries across the space as if he shouted.
"What's going on? Why is there only one? How can it survive alone?"
The doctors clean their tinted spectacles and shrug.
The mother's twin reaches from the adjoining bed where she shared the birthing pain. She pats the mother's hand, careful not to touch the child. "Don't you worry."
There will be more children, she assures the mother.
There is no place for such an aberration, she means.
He watches from the fringe as the other children pick sides for stickball. The air stifles, heated by the expanding sun. Sweat drips from his chin though the game has yet to start.
"We're one pair short," says the team captain.
"I can play," the boy mumbles, his head lowered so that fiery hair shields his face. His hands grab fistfuls of shirt hem.
The captain's twin shakes her head. "It takes two to score."
"Besides," says the captain in her identical voice, "no one wants you on their team. One stick is worthless. Like you."
The other children nod in agreement.
The child slinks away, kicking rocks in the gravel road. His mother is gone, dead from sickness the sun's radiation brings. His aunt too, once the twin-bond severed. With one finger he probes the tender, thin bruises from his father's cane.
Why can't you fit in? his father yells.
What kind of monster are you? he means.
He kneels before a girl at the edge of a browning meadow. He is tall and wiry with a mop of curly red hair leaping from his head like sunfire. He might be handsome if not lessened by downturned eyes and defeated shoulders.
The grasses bend and sway before questing thermals as the girl considers him. Her expression is softened by a tear gathering in the lip of an eyelid.
"Marry me," the boy pleads at her feet. "I love you. I'll be the best husband you could ever hope for."
The girl smiles for the briefest moment as if living the fantasy his words conjure. She gazes across the field where her twin sits waiting, as far away as she dares. The girl's face saddens. Hardens. Icy determination shatters soft regret.
"I can't. How could we live? Who would my sister marry? You have no twin."
It's not our way, she tells him.
You are too different, she means.
A boy has grown to manhood, although some of the child remains in the bowed head and sloped shoulders.
The lunar mines are hard labor, but the only refuge he's found for a twinless man. They send him to the deepest, most dangerous, depths.
Better to risk one life than two, they say.
Better a twinless man die, they mean.
The most abundant veins lie sequestered there, waiting for his explosions so they can be dug free. An entire moonful of fuel to power machinery to create a wormhole, an escape from their doomed world. His job is important. It grants him acceptance, if not friendship among the other miners. He has a place here.
He rests in his bunk in the topside housing, waiting for the miners to clear the detritus that his explosions have created. But the new tunnel is unstable, and even where he lies on the surface, the ground shakes as, far beneath him, the rock shifts.
Men rush into the tunnels, two by two. But he knows the paths best, and he's not held back by the tether of a twin. He arrives first.
A miner lies on the ground before an unmovable wall of fallen stone. He curls around his gut like a slug exposed to sun. He's one of those who have been most accepting to the man. Almost a friend, though this word is never uttered.
The miner groans. "He's dying. I feel it, like someone spooling out my insides." He claws the ground, reaching for his twin behind the rubble.
The man holds the miner, consoling him, unable to understand his pain. The others arrive and tear desperately at the wall of stone.
The miner sighs, "He's gone." He stiffens and stills, the light fades from his eyes.
The man throws himself across the miner's body. "Connect with me!" He wills his soul, his heart, his essence to reach out and link with the dying man. But there is no connection.
The miner shudders a last time and becomes as inanimate as the fallen rock, unable to survive in solitude.
He sits, curled into the tiny cockpit, a tiny blister on the bulk of machinery that will stabilize the far end of the wormhole. Sweat darkens his sun-red hair, pinning it against his forehead like dried seaweed from a dead world. The wormhole grows as his ship approaches, the monitors and instruments provide details his eyes cannot. He wonders how it will feel to be stretched across space for a brief instant, a mere fraction of a second, but long enough to sever a twin-bond. He wonders if he will ever return.
He will go where only a twinless man can go, they tell him.
He will go alone, they mean.
This story was first published on Thursday, November 26th, 2015