Don’t you dare tell me that there are lots of kids who look the same. Don’t pretend this is some sort of funny coincidence either, like the kindergarten teacher does. I’d know my baby girl anywhere. I know the way her hair smells, and how her soft little hands feel in mine. I know her giggling laugh, the way she puffs out her cheeks when she’s angry, and the light in her eyes when she sees me across the room. I know all the things that only a mother can know, but for the life of me I still can’t tell them apart.
“Elizabeth, go put your crayons away. It’s time to go home now.”
“I’m not done yet.”
“Don’t talk back to your mom. You can finish tomorrow.”
“You’re not my mom. You’re just a lady.”
That was the first shock. When the girl I thought was my daughter shied away from me at the kindergarten. I grabbed her arm and started dragging her, thinking she was just misbehaving. She started to struggle and howl in protest, but I wasn’t in the mood so I picked her up and slung her over my shoulder. I probably would have walked away with her and never known if the real Elizabeth hadn’t come skipping around the corner.
“Hi mom! Hi Taylor!”
“Put me down! I don’t wanna!” shouted the child I was carrying. I’d always thought double-takes were just something people did in movies. I must have done a quadruple. Everything was identical, from their blonde pigtails tied exactly the same way all the way down to their matching floral overalls.
“Whicha cowa,” my daughter said.
“Zookiah gromwich,” Taylor replied as I put them down.
“Isn’t it adorable?” Mrs. Hallowitz, the kindergarten teacher, was just returning from the bathroom leading another toddler by the hand. “They even talk in their own language. None of the other kids can understand them.”
My daughter leaned over to Taylor and whispered something that sounded like: “Priva priva mae.”
Both girls looked at me pointedly and began a hysterical giggle in perfect synchronization. Even the intakes of breath and the sudden high-pitched squeals lined up.
Honestly? I didn’t think it was adorable at all. I thought it was beyond creepy. I wasted no time scooping my daughter up and getting her out of there. I might have been able to find it cute under different circumstances, but the truth is that Elizabeth did have a twin. At least in the womb. Her sister was stillborn though, and seeing Taylor just brought back a rush of memories that I hadn’t allowed myself to touch for five years.
By the next day, I’d convinced myself I was overreacting. I should be glad that my daughter made a friend. This was only going to be weird if I let it be weird. I don’t know if I was just trying to prove something to myself, but I even made an effort by reaching out to Taylor’s parents and inviting them over for a play date. They were really sweet people, and we laughed about the “weird coincidence” while the kids played with LEGOs on the floor.
In theory, this was supposed to make me feel better about the situation. It didn’t. The more we talked, the weirder it got. Both girls would sit exactly the same way with their knees drawn up to their chins. They both liked to peel apples and eat the skin — both liked the same obscure cartoon about a digital world — both liked cats more than dogs. Their favorite color was blue.
Even worse, the whole time they were playing together they only spoke in their secret language, laughing in unison. Taylor’s mother looked a little uncomfortable when they both asked to use the bathroom at the same time, but she just laughed it off and commented on how impressionable five year olds are.
“Did you have fun today with your new friend?” I asked Elizabeth when I was tucking her into bed that night.
“She’s not my friend. She’s my sister,” Elizabeth declared in that pompously imperative way children have.
“You don’t have a sister. Taylor has her own parents, remember?”
“It’s okay, mom. I know she died.” Elizabeth’s eyes were already closed when she said it. She spoke as casually as though saying goodnight, nestling further under the covers as she did. “Don’t worry. She’s all better now.”
I’d never spoken aloud about Elizabeth’s twin since the day she died. Never even dared to think it too loudly.
“Did your father tell you that?” I asked, trying to keep my voice calm.
“No. Taylor told me. Goodnight mom.”
“Sweet dreams, little one.”
I’d just turned off the lights and was about to leave the room when Elizabeth said: “Baree fanta lan, Taylor.”
“What did you just say?”
Elizabeth started giggling. Then she was silent. Then giggling again, rambling away in her unknown language.
I can’t explain exactly why I decided to call Taylor’s parents right then. I guess I was just feeling overwhelmed and needed a little reality check.
“Has Taylor gone to bed already?” I asked.
“No, she’s in the kitchen drinking a warm milk,” Taylor’s mom replied. “Is something the matter?”
“Is she… talking to herself?”
A shuffling. Then a pause. I heard Elizabeth mumble something, then start to giggle again. On the other end of the line, I heard Taylor giggling at the same exact instant.
“She’s not saying anything,” Taylor’s mom said. I breathed a sigh of relief, but it was cut short. “Not real words anyway. Just pretend words.”
I thanked her, wished her goodnight, and hung up the phone. Not before I heard Taylor replying in the background to whatever Elizabeth was saying to herself. They were communicating somehow. I don’t know why that terrified me so much, but it did. I sat outside her room and wrote down as much of the gibberish as I could make sense of. In the morning, I tried asking Elizabeth what it meant. She only laughed and said it was a secret.
I felt like I was running in circles. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, but the more I thought, the more confusing it got. Had my other girl survived after-all? Could she have been adopted by another family somehow? But that still didn’t explain how they were talking to each other.
As a last resort, I tried hanging around the kindergarten until after Taylor’s parents dropped her off and left. Then I went in and signed Taylor out, pretending that she was my daughter. She trusted me this time since we’ve played together at my house, and I promised her some treats if she went along with it.
Once we were alone in my car, I showed her all the gibberish words I wrote down from the night before. I told her she had to help me figure out what they meant for her to get her treat. Taylor was happy to oblige.
“Lizzy (her word for Elizabeth) and I were talking last night.”
“What were you talking about?”
“We were trying to decide which of us was dead. What kind of treat did you bring?”
“Soon, honey. Can you tell me what that means?”
“Ughhh.” Taylor rolled her eyes in exasperation, just the way Elizabeth always does when I make her wait. “One of us died when we were little. I think it was Lizzy, but she thinks it was me.”
“You both look pretty alive to me.”
“I knowwwwwwww,” she whined. “That’s why we can’t agree. But I can’t live unless she’s dead, so that’s going to happen. Can I have my treat now?”
“What’s going to happen?” I understood her, but I still couldn’t believe a five year old would say such a thing.
“Lizzy has to die,” Taylor said emphatically. “There’s only supposed to be one of us.”
“That doesn’t make sense. It’s insane. I never want to hear you say that again.”
Taylor shrugged. “If we get ice-cream, can it be —”
“Chocolate,” I cut her off. “I know.”
“Are you going to hurt my daughter?”
Taylor’s eyes widened, fearful. She shook her head rapidly. I let out a breath I didn’t even know I was holding.
“You can’t hurt someone who is already dead,” Taylor said matter-of-factly.
This part is hard to type, but I need you to know why I did it. I need you to know that Taylor didn’t suffer when I wrapped my hands around her little neck. She barely even struggled, and it snapped so easily that I know she barely even knew what was happening. She said so herself. You can’t hurt someone who is already dead, and I had my own daughter to worry about.
I’m sorry Mr. Sallos. I’m sorry Mrs. Sallos. I know this letter will be hard for you to understand, but your daughter didn’t die yesterday. She was my daughter, and she died five years ago before she ever left the hospital. I know what it must have seemed like, but you never had a daughter of your own. You had a dream about a life that could have been, and this pain you feel is just the surprise of waking up.
I just wish Elizabeth would stop talking to herself. I wish she wouldn’t look at me the way she does, or laugh when she’s alone.