Adeline was only allowed to touch her twin sister. Technically, it wasn’t a rule. Technically, it wasn’t the end of the world if she touched anyone else—but it may as well have been for Adeline. The humiliating hours she’d spend afterwards hunting down her sister felt like Armageddon.
Most supernatural origin stories like this begin something along the lines of, “They discovered it when she was three.” But neither of the twins nor their mother and father could remember when or how they first discovered it, but they always knew that it was just the way things were. As soon as the babies were old enough to look distinct from other babies, it became clear. Adeline’s mother could not give her a hug without also giving her curly black hair. Adeline’s father could not kiss her cheek without turning his daughter into a son. Adeline’s pediatrician could not hold her without watching her shift into a toddler-sized version of himself. It was nothing like he’d ever seen before, but thank goodness Adeline had a twin. The family quickly realized that when Aurelie touched her, Adeline would become herself again.
Thus emerged a set of guidelines.
Adeline could only receive hugs when she was tucked, heavily blanketed, into bed. She could only receive kisses on the forehead while wearing a winter cap. She was to wear gloves to sleep, to school, and to play; to cover her skin with long sleeves and turtlenecks even in sweltering July. And she would always have her sister beside her. Always an arm to latch onto just in case something went wrong.
Often, Adeline wondered what would’ve happened if she didn’t have an identical twin—if she’d ever have a natural form at all. Sometimes Aurelie joked that it must’ve started in the womb: “Maybe we weren’t actually identical at first, but then you just turned into me.”
This is how they grew up. Side by side, whether they liked it or not, and Adeline certainly liked it. If she accidentally ran into Luke on the playground, she’d always have a quick fix. But eventually the girls grew tired of playgrounds like how teenagers grow tired of childhood, how young women grow tired of the status quo.
So Aurelie took to the art studios. Adeline was not artistically-minded, to her sister’s disappointment, but at least that meant Aurelie could work in secret on ways to fix the family annoyance. They’d tried photography already. It was one of the first things their parents had tested, but placing their toddler’s pudgy hand onto a slick photograph yielded no effect. Aurelie thought that the gift required something more tactile, perhaps, like a sculpture. More animated, perhaps, like an automaton. But Aurelie was not a mechanic and quickly abandoned that idea.
Instead, Aurelie studied realism. She became a local prodigy, able to replicate reality without flaw by the age of eleven. But instead of dedicating her talents to her imagination, she spent canvas after canvas painting the same girl in different poses: smiling in the garden with a crown of roses in her hair, reading a book on the front steps of the library, sitting on the roof of a car. Sometimes Aurelie couldn’t figure out whether she was drawing herself or her sister; a narcissistic self-portrait or a labor of love. She took each painting home and had her sister touch their mother’s arm, then the face on the canvas, then her own hand when the canvas did not restore her. After a year of trial, Aurelie gave up. Adeline, who couldn’t stand to see her own face anyways, kept the canvases buried in the back of their closet. Aurelie didn’t understand. “What’s the problem with looking at yourself if you’re fine with looking at me?”
On their thirteenth birthday, the girls invited over some friends. Or rather, Aurelie invited the friends; Adeline prepared an armor of scarves. There were ten girls in total, and combined with the two twins, it was a perfect party to play Watchlock full deck. Jasmine, ever the roleplay enthusiast, brought the game as a gift. She’d wrapped it up in aluminum foil and topped it off with an origami bow. Thrusting it into Aurelie’s hands, she begged the twins to open it first, so they did.
“How do you play?” asked Aurelie, examining the glossy box.
“It’s simple,” said Jasmine, “I’ll show you.”
The girls gathered in a circle on the basement floor. Jasmine shuffled the cards and dealt them as she explained the instructions. It didn’t sound simple. “Each card is marked with the name of a role,” Jasmine explained, “and that is your role throughout the game. Unless, of course, you’re the Doppelgänger. Watch out for her—she’s an impersonator.”
The girls’ heads spun as Jasmine went through the different roles and their objectives—the Watch Order: to eliminate evil. The Spy Order: to infiltrate good. There was the Jester, the Detective, the Warlock, and more—meaningless names that none of the girls could remember. Adeline fiddled with the card that Jasmine had dealt her, running a gloved finger over the runes printed on its back.
“Don’t peek just yet,” Jasmine warned. Adeline put the card down.
When all the cards had been dealt, Jasmine announced that it was time to play. The girls immediately began to protest, asking for another reiteration of the instructions, but Jasmine only laughed. “It’s one of those games that makes more sense when you actually play. Now,” said Jasmine, “I’ll be the moderator. Everyone, flip over your cards.”
The girls did. Adeline snatched hers up to reveal an intricate illustration, like a fantasy film concept painting the size of a teenage palm. Basked in green light, a sharp-faced woman sneered up at her. A medieval scroll below her portrait marked her role.
Adeline cried out and leapt to her feet as if she’d been stung.
The girls looked up in confusion. “What’s wrong with you?” Aurelie demanded. Adeline threw the card to the carpet and fled; the card bounced across the ground and landed faceup at her twin sister’s feet. It was the Doppelgänger.
Now, every time the girls played with their friends, Aurelie had to truncate the set lest Adeline embarrass her again. Eventually, rather than sift through the roles every game to toss out the Doppelgänger, Aurelie just kept the card in her wallet. Sometimes she dreamed of playing the game with a full deck, considered kicking her sister out for a while or at least planting her before the TV as she invited nine friends over to play. But under this roof that was impossible, so Aurelie carried the card with her for another three years.
One night when they were sixteen, Aurelie came home to find a boy in their bedroom rocking back and forth on the brink of tears. She reached out and the boy—rather, Adeline—clutched her arm, body melting back into her sister’s form.
“What the hell happened to you?” Aurelie asked soothingly, rubbing her sister’s shoulder. She’d come to realize that although Adeline was technically older—by seven minutes, which Adeline never rubbed in but Aurelie resented anyway—she’d grown to become somewhat of a caretaker, the honorary firstborn, the Head Girl. Her worry was genuine. For both herself and her sister, Aurelie feared what touching—or being touched by—a boy would imply.
“Have you ever had a boyfriend?” Adeline asked instead.
Aurelie remembered the first time she’d loved a boy, how the boy almost loved her back. She’d invited him to a smoothie shop, the taste of strawberry ice down her throat still so vivid after a turbulent semester. They argued lightly who would pay, and he’d insisted that he would pay since he was the boy, but Aurelie beat him to it and pulled a twenty from her wallet faster than he could protest. In the scramble, she’d dropped a few cards—her learner’s permit, her student ID, and that little brown card with the medieval designs and the dark-haired Doppelgänger sneering on its face. “What’s this?” asked the boy, picking it up, and that was when Aurelie remembered she could never be his girlfriend for her sister’s sake.
So Aurelie answered truthfully and said “no.” Adeline wept that evening over Aurelie’s shoulder, clinging to her as if to ensure that she had shifted into herself again. Even when Aurelie’s stomach growled with hunger, when her foot tapped with impatience, when she told her sister that she had a packet of homework to do for precalculus the next morning, Adeline refused to let go. “You’re yourself again,” Aurelie reminded her, “you’re fine, you’re yourself.” Eventually she got impatient. “I won’t be with you forever, you know, and at some point you’ll have to make do on your own.”
That only made Adeline’s sobs even stronger. “But what if I shift and I never come back? What if I forget who I am?”
Aurelie shoved her sister away. “In two years, we’re going to college.”
Those words frightened Adeline more than Aurelie realized. College. She’d always expected to stay in the same school as her sister, but Aurelie had big dreams. And that was terrifying. She once asked Aurelie whether she’d consider staying in state for school. Aurelie only shrugged. “I just want to be free.”
Adeline knew it was awful of her, but the day her sister sent an application to an art school across the coast, she began to pray that they would not let her in. That her teachers would submit a lousy recommendation, that her portfolio files would be corrupted in the sending, that the admissions office would somehow, somehow find something terribly wrong. The night before applications were due, Adeline noticed that her sister had left her computer open, application portal still logged-in on the screen, and she considered deleting her application right then and there but couldn’t bring herself to betray her. But on the day Aurelie came home with the letter, Adeline was wishing that she did.
It was inevitable, she knew. Aurelie was too gifted and brilliant for it not to morph into reality. Never had she ever been so upset to see her sister smiling, envelope in hand stamped with the insignia of her dream school. They had sent her a full-ride scholarship after reviewing her pristine portfolio.
“I probably won’t go unless they give me money,” Aurelie had told her months before, “because out-of-state costs an arm and a leg. Actually, both arms and both legs of everyone in this entire family. It isn’t worth it.” But the scholarship was in her hands—or in her bank account at least—and so Aurelie would be going.
At first, Adeline tried to plead. “We’ve been together all our lives,” she said. “I’ll visit,” Aurelie countered.
“Not enough,” Adeline said. “And besides.”
“I know what thing you’re talking about.” Aurelie’s face soured. “I can’t believe how selfish you are. Your thing. I just got a free ride to my goddamn dream school and I’ve been fantasizing about this moment for at least a year now and all you can think about is your thing.”
“I know,” Adeline wept, and rather than console her, Aurelie let her cry.
The next months were a flurry of senioritis and college preparations as Aurelie made lists and phoned friends and went to prom and partied and graduated and packed. Adeline did all this by her side but remained separated from her sister by a cold shoulder. Adeline supposed that she deserved it, but felt nothing but despair as the months molded into each other until April became August. Aurelie and their mother pored over dorm decor and made packing lists and stuffed suitcases and cardboard boxes with supplies. Adeline didn’t offer to help, and Aurelie didn’t ask.
On the day before she was set to leave, Aurelie broke the silence. She came home from her friend’s house to find Adeline watching TV, curled up in a blanket despite the summer heat. “Adeline,” she said.
Adeline looked up and Aurelie opened her arms.
Adeline was only allowed to touch her twin sister. Adeline was only allowed to hug her twin sister without the barrier of a wool jacket or a blanket or a ski suit; Aurelie was the only person Adeline could touch without flinching. Once upon a time, Adeline would’ve flown into her arms, let her sister tuck her into her elbows and kiss her cheek and twist her hair. But now, Adeline screamed and stood and shoved her aside and stormed upstairs to the room they’d only share for one more night.
Aurelie ran after her but Adeline had a head start. She made it to their room first, slammed it ‘til the frame rattled, pressed in the lock on the door. Aurelie pounded on the other side. “Adeline!”
“You’d let me forget,” Adeline shrieked, “You’d let me forget what I look like! You’d let me forget who I am!”
For the first time in seven years, Adeline pulled out the canvases Aurelie had painted for her. She threw them all down onto the floor and stomped on them until they were reduced to wooden frame and fibered shreds. She stomped and stomped and stomped until she couldn’t hear Aurelie pounding on the door anymore, and she stomped a few times once again, just for good measure. Then she ran back downstairs, family watching in startled concern as she yanked off her sweatshirt and yanked off her gloves and unlocked the front door and ran.
She ran and ran and ran wearing nothing but a t-shirt and capris, the most unconstrained she’d ever felt outside for as long as she could remember; the freedom was like cool wind against bare breasts, like sleeping stark naked, like diving bikini-clad off the longboard into the public pool. She ran past the bus stop, ran past the gas station, ran to the town center illuminated by nothing but the moon. “Sorry,” she said, “pardon me, excuse me,” as she collided with shoulder after shoulder in the obsidian evening. That night, for the first time, Adeline let herself be no one, shifting and shifting and shifting without care of what monster she’d become.