by Madysen Rufener
“What sane person could live in this world and not be crazy?” – Ursula K. Le Guin.
Unlike most others, Lillian Bonner was born twice (metaphorically speaking). Her second birth lacked the usual sterile-white hospitals, a mother’s bloodcurdling screams, or queasy onlookers that one may find at the beginning of life. However, it did begin, as all babies do, with a decision: ready or not? Lillian, at the age of twenty-four, had decided on the former, thrown a few necessities into a bag, and opened the driver’s door to her used-to-be-white-now-gray Honda Civic and drove away from it all, away from her crumbling Raleigh apartment that she couldn’t afford but bought anyway, away from her fruitless job hunting and useless bachelor’s degree in nineteenth-century literature (really, what was she thinking?). She left behind her already loveless fiancé she thought she knew but didn’t, and a note explaining, You’re right, Mark. I am crazy. See you in Hell. Yours Never, Lily. She hoped he wouldn’t see it until morning, which would give her enough time to reach her sister’s place before he woke up, as long as she booked it. She didn’t want him chasing after her or begging her to return, but deep down she knew… he wouldn’t care enough to try.
The hour-long drive to her sister’s was always a pleasant one, though Lillian hadn’t visited in several years, despite the relative nearness of their homes. She hadn’t realized this until now, how long it’d been, as she drove along the winding back roads, among the towering trees as tall as skyscrapers and smattering of million-dollar mansions that will eventually devolve into the suburban neighborhood of her sister. A familiarly scenic route, and a usually empty one, that Lillian loved driving. This time, however, there were two other cars on the road, one in front of her and one behind. The former had been with her since she turned on the mansions’ street: a flashy, expensive Mercedes SUV that likely belonged to the owner of one of these mansions. Sure enough, the vehicle turned off into an abnormally and unnecessarily long driveway shortly after Lillian’s sleuthing of the Mercedes. The other car, however, was still behind her and had been for a while.
Probably driving into my sister’s neighborhood, she thought, for there was nothing else in this direction. Like she always complained to her sister Miriam, the neighborhood (called Sunshine Woods or Brightleaf Pines or some other kind of fairytale name) seemed to rest at the end of civilization, the last cluster of human life before the world slipped back into its natural state of trees and land touched only by the critters that live in it. Lillian preferred the city. She enjoyed the bustle and buzz of downtown Raleigh, and the last thing she wanted to do was live in Sunny Creek or whatever it was called, depending on her big sister for help, and yet here she drove.
Lillian glanced at her phone for the third time since leaving her apartment. She’d made sure to let her sister know she was on her way, but there was still no response. That’s normal for Miriam, though. She barely used her phone, and when she did it was only for emergencies. Lillian never understood that. After all, they were only three years apart, but sometimes Miriam acted as though she were sixty-seven, not twenty-seven.
After a picturesque journey through the gradually thickening woods, Lillian reached her destination: a neighborhood of roughly fifteen identical houses nestled tightly together in a cluster of Loblolly pines on a single street. She had never noticed it before, the confusing similarities between each house. One could easily mistake one’s house for another’s if unfamiliar with the neighborhood. Thankfully, she remembered the address and drove through the front entrance of the neighborhood, past a cobblestone sign that read, “Welcome to Ravenswood” in large, swooping, chiseled letters. Okay, she wasn’t even close, but at least she remembered the “wood” part. She drove past the first eleven houses to reach her sister’s. 119 Wooded Lane, she recalled as she parked on the side of the road in front of Miriam’s house. Stepping out of her car, Lillian noticed the small, black car that had been following her pull up to the very last house in the neighborhood. She’d been right.
Lillian walked to the front door and knocked. Within seconds she was greeted by a shirtless, hairy, fifty-plus man holding a tiny, rat-like dog under his left arm.
“Canneyelpyew?” he muttered, barely opening his mouth to talk.
Perhaps she didn’t remember the address as well as she thought. “I’m sorry, what was that?”
A puff of air escaped through the man’s lopsided sneer, and he muttered something under his breath about city folk and their supposed lack of intelligence. “I said. Can. I. ‘Elp. You?”
Lillian, ignoring this person’s serious lack of manners, explained she was looking for a Miriam Bonner, and if he could possibly point her in the direction of said woman’s home, she would be ever so grateful.
The man startled, nearly dropping his ratdog who yelped in protest. He leaned forward and whispered, “Yer with ‘em, aren’t you? I ain’t supposed to talk to you.”
Confused by the man’s conspiratorial attitude, Lillian answered, “Well, I’m her sister. Now, if you could simply point–.”
But before she could finish her request, he had slammed the door in her face and clicked the lock.
Clearly the man’s confused, she thought, not unkindly, after recovering from the shock of such an odd encounter and walking back down the porch steps, away from 119 Wooded Lane. She checked her phone for a response from Miriam, still nothing, and sent another text despite knowing she’d never hear back. What’s your address again?
To her surprise, she received a response from her sister within seconds. Stay.
Annoyed at her sister’s usual monosyllabic, nonsensical style of text, Lillian typed, Already here. Went to wrong house. Where r u???
Again, she received an abrupt answer. Stay, Lily.
After a moment of puzzlement, Lillian remembered the conversation the two had had the last time she visited. “We should have code names,” Miriam had suggested with a mouth full of dinner.
Lillian laughed. “Like James Bond? Okay, Double-Oh-Seven it is.”
“No, I mean if one of us is in danger and we have to let the other know without alerting the perpetrator.” At the time, Lillian had found her sister’s seriousness comical.
Alerting the perpetrator, she’d thought, stifling a laugh. “Been watching a lot of Dateline recently?”
Miriam chuckled drily and said, “Just humor me, Lil.”
Lillian simply smiled and shook her head, directing her attention back to the plate of overdone steak and vegetables sitting in front of her.
“How about I call you Lily?” Miriam asked, her usual goofy smile haven fallen from her face, leaving behind a placid, almost frigid expression. A mask.
“But that’s what my boyfriend calls me. You’ve never called me Lily.”
“Yeah, that’s the whole point. If I ever call you Lily, you’ll know I’m–”
“In danger, right, got it,” said Lillian, still chewing an especially tough chunk of meat. “I guess you expect me to come up with a name for you now.”
“No, that’s fine.”
Lillian swallowed the bite of steak. “Well that’s not fair. Why not?”
Her sister’s voice, usually so cheerful and boisterous, had dropped to a hoarse whisper like the shirtless man with the ratdog. “Because you won’t need to use it.”
She’d nearly forgotten about the codename conversation, as it had occurred almost four years ago, but something about her sister’s odd demeanor that day had stuck with Lillian. It was as if Miriam knew this would happen. She knew she’d have to say “Lily” eventually, and she was preparing for that time.
I’m on my way, Lillian typed and returned her phone to her pocket before big sis could command otherwise.
She began knocking on random doors, starting with 121 Wooded Lane, then 123, and finally 125, the house with the black car. She didn’t recognize the vehicle, but it was possible her sister could have bought a new one. Or maybe she was having company over, and didn’t want Lillian to interrupt. Maybe she meant to type “Lil,” but it had autocorrected to “Lily.” Or maybe–.
“Hey, Lily.” It was Miriam. She looked basically the same, wearing a lavender cable-knit sweater, pale blue jeans, and a beaded bracelet around her left wrist. Her hair was a bit longer, and her face a bit paler, but it was her, seemingly safe and sound. But still calling her Lily.
“Miriam, what’s going on? Are you okay?”
“Yeah, I’m great. Why do you ask?” Her voice was strained and her eyes were wide in warning.
Lillian leaned closer to her sister and whispered, “Should I call nine-one-one?”
“No, not at all,” said Miriam loudly. “I was only eating lunch. Would you like to join me?”
Miriam opened the front door wider, allowing Lillian to slip past her, but as Lillian walked by her older sister, Miriam whispered in her ear, “It’s okay. Just act normal.”
Lillian looked around. Everything seemed normal enough. Her sister’s home was nice, a one-story building with two bedrooms and one and a half baths. Miriam had decorated it all on her own, relying heavily on large crystals, which rested on nearly every piece of furniture. She claimed they had healing qualities, or something along those lines. Lillian hadn’t appreciated them before, but now, as she walked through her sister’s living room to the kitchen, she couldn’t help but brush her fingertips along the top of what looked like rose quartz, for she had this overwhelming feeling of being watched, or studied, like a lab rat. But she’d ran that maze before, performing under his calculating stares, his pen propped above a notepad, laptop always open. Those eyes never moving far from her face, her body, her mind, and even when they did she couldn’t help but feel their presence. She’d learned to keep her guard up, for one never knew when the next test would be. No matter how many times he explained to her, “Lily, I promise, it’s for your own good,” she couldn’t take the labyrinth anymore.
“You’re just in time for lunch,” said Miriam, scurrying into the kitchen.
“It’s not even ten o’clock yet.”
The older sister began pulling out a plastic-wrapped dish containing some unknown substance. Lillian went over to grab the plates out of a cupboard above her sister’s head, watching Miriam closely. She seemed calm, a placid smile hewed to her face, but as she watched her sister pull out yet another dish from her fridge and begin serving food on the two plates Lillian had retrieved, she noticed the slight tremble in Miriam’s hands. After collecting the needed silverware, Lillian approached her sister, who was pulling out both plates from the microwave.
“May I ask what’s being served?” she asked, eyeing the suspiciously non-descript substances.
Miriam snorted and replied, “It’s my famous green with a side of orange.” She grabbed a spoon off the counter to hand to Lillian, but as the youngest reached for the utensil, Miriam winced and it fell from her hand, clattering to the floor.
“Ah, sorry about that,” Miriam said, picking up the spoon, setting it in the sink, and grabbing another from the drawer. “Here.”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Just my wrist. Probably from all the cooking,” she explained, rubbing her left wrist and pushing the bracelet up further on her arm.
Lillian nodded. “So, which one’s mine?” she asked, gesturing to the two plates.
Miriam winced again, pulling on the bracelet. “Which one do you want?”
“What’s the orange taste like? Or, maybe a better question is: what is it?”
Her sister smiled. “It’s a surprise.”
Lillian laughed. “Guess I’ll have the orange.” She grabbed the respective plate and walked it over to the table. “Thanks, by the way.”
She sat down and glanced at her big sister, “Care to join?”
Miriam didn’t respond, nor raise her gaze from the green dish sitting in front of her. Instead, she rubbed her wrist and muttered, “I thought your favorite color was green.”
“Nope. Used to be, but I’ve sort of taken a liking to orange. It reminds me of the sunrise. Or sunset, however you want to look at it.”
Miriam was glaring at her dish, repeatedly yanking the bracelet on her bad wrist.
Lillian scooped some of the orange onto her spoon. It smelled like melted cheese and spice. “Hey, it’s fine. I know we haven’t seen each other in a while, but that’s my fault. I was just so busy–“
“Don’t beat yourself up. I still like green, it’s just–“
“Don’t eat it.”
“–I guess I prefer orange now. You know how I am. One day I like this and the next–“
Miriam bit down on her bracelet, causing it to snap and spill its beads on the floor. Stepping over the mess, Miriam walked swiftly toward her and snatched the full spoon from her hand. It was then that Lillian noticed the state of her sister’s wrist. It was raw and bloody, like that of a prisoner who has spent far too long in handcuffs.
“What the hell, Miriam?”
The older sister didn’t respond. Instead, she grabbed the bowl and threw it in the sink, where it shattered into a mixture of orange slime and glass. She then marched over to the nearest crystal, picked it up, and held it in front of her face, shouting, “Is that what you wanted?”
Lillian stood up, knocking her chair over. “Miriam, calm down.” She took a couple of steps toward her sister, hands outstretched in front of her as if taming an animal. “It’s not that big a deal. Just talk to me.”
“I’ve already tried, Lily.” Miriam slammed the crystal on the ground, but it remained intact. The floor, on the other hand, dented under the force.
Suddenly, the walls of Miriam’s house began to shake, harder and harder, until paintings fell to the floor and crystals tumbled off tables. Thinking this was the first earthquake she’d ever experienced, Lillian crawled under the dining table and called to her sister, asking her to follow suit. But Miriam only stood there, staring ahead, tears streaming down her face, as half of the house’s walls lowered into gaps in the floor, and a dozen lab-coat-adorning individuals began flooding into the home, led by a familiar face.
Mark, thought Lillian as the leader’s face came striding inside, a group of note-takers rallied behind him.
“Test two-one-four complete,” he spoke, supposedly to his followers who began scribbling furiously on their notebooks. “Results: Subject Four attempted to warn Subject Three of the impending outcome of the test. Their relationship remains intact, unlike the last time, and Three is still utterly confused by the entire ordeal. Four, on the other hand, remembered enough to know her sister was in danger and attempted to warn Three against me and the test, as planned. End notes.” He turned to Miriam. “What does she remember?”
“You’re a psychology professor. You study her as part of some research you’re doing, but she doesn’t know what it is,” Miriam answered, arms crossed and staring directly at him. Her eyes darted to Lillian, then back to Mark. “She thinks you’re engaged. As if she’d ever sink to your level.”
Mark paused, watching Miriam intently, then spoke over his shoulder. “Subject 4 showing signs of defiance.” More scribbling. “Increase the serum dosage for next time to erase any memories of my role in the test. I’m afraid it may have skewed our results.”
The scientists finished taking their notes, then one, a woman, walked over to Miriam, who continued to glare at Mark. “It’s alright,” said the scientist, attempting to lead Miriam through one of the gaps in the walls. “Next time. She’ll get it next time.”
Miriam waited before following her outside. She turned to her little sister, eyes pleading. “You have to remember, Lil. Next time. Just remember, and they’ll let us go. You’ll be cured.”
“What’s happening, Miriam? Cured from what?” asked Lillian, crawling out from under her table. “Why is he here?”
Mark answered for her. “Lily, you are a recipient of experimental treatment for those suffering from trauma-induced memory loss. You and your sister are also part of my study regarding relationships between siblings who have undergone a tragedy and what they are willing to do for each other’s wellbeing. Now, I am going to ask you a series of questions and I would like you to answer them as truthfully as–“
“What tragedy?” asked Lillian. “I’ve never ‘undergone a tragedy.’ Miriam, tell him–”
“It’s okay, Lil.” The oldest sister turned to Mark. “Your tests aren’t working, Dr. Gable. I don’t want to put her through this anymore. She doesn’t remember what happened, and she doesn’t need to. And frankly, your study is barbaric and dangerous. We’re done. I no longer consent to your treatments.”
Mark (Dr. Gable?) only chuckled, along with his colleagues. “Miriam, that’s what you said last time. Why do you think I had you wear that special bracelet?”
Miriam’s face paled as Dr. Gable had two scientists lead her outside. “Treat her with the serum. We’ll try again after the interview.”
“Leave her alone, Mark. I won’t let you touch her,” Lillian exclaimed as she watched her sister being led to one of the several vehicles that now resided in Miriam’s front yard.
“I know. You never do,” he replied, beckoning over two more colleagues. “Hold her arms.”
Before Lillian could take a step toward her sister, she felt her arms pinned behind her back. Dr. Gable’s goons had caught her, their grips strong, yet painless, as if they were afraid of damaging her, not out of kindness, but the anxiety that a hand-shaped bruise blooming on her wrist might skew their results. Lillian was nothing but a test subject in their eyes, something to be studied, a means to something more. She could see it in how they looked at her, but she was used to it. She was an expert at being studied.
“Alright, Lily. Let’s get started,” Mark said. He pulled a sleek, black pen from his pocket, propping it above that damn clipboard. “Did you notice the car this time?”
“What car?” She knew she should be scared, but something about this seemed familiar, like it’d happened before. The only thing she felt was confusion, and an overwhelming desire to hide from him.
Dr. Gable studied her, his pen bouncing against the thick stack of paper clamped to the board. “The black one. We weren’t exactly discreet this time.”
“A black car? Yeah, I saw one of those. I’ve seen several black cars during my lifetime. Can we be done now? I want to go home.” Lillian struggled vainly against her captors. “And I want my sister.”
Dr. Gable’s eyes shut as he brushed the palm of his hand over his face, index finger and thumb pinching the bridge of his nose, stopping there only briefly. He referred back to his notes, scratched something down, then turned to leave.
“Interview two-one-four complete,” he said as he walked past his colleagues toward the yard filled with cars. “Patient’s status: same as always.”
“That’s it? Okay, what the hell is going? Let go of me.” Lillian once again attempted to escape, but her struggling was useless. The grips on her arms simply tightened, making it impossible to move.
Dr. Gable, without so much as breaking his stride, called over his shoulder. “Let’s try it again, everyone. This time, leave out the sister. We won’t be needing her again.”
A sting of a needle in her arm. The cold hardwood floor pressed against her cheek. That was all she remembered. At least until everything started over again, and she was reborn for the twenty-fifth time that year.