Henry hadn’t set an alarm for a reason. That waking up to a machine nonsense was only a necessary means to an end. A crutch to maintain his place in the realm of responsible adulthood. That morning, he wanted to see how far his body could go naturally catching him up on the sleep his overtime had deprived him of the past week. A day off, when your last ten consecutive were spent wearing earplugs and safety glasses and your hand poised to shut off a machine in case of emergency or jamming or because the foreman is testing your alertness, is meant to be spent asleep. Dead to the world asleep. Lying down in bed after the hottest shower he’d allowed himself in weeks, the rain smatters landing on his apartment window, Henry had fallen asleep almost immediately.
So, when his mind registered the phone going off in the wee hours of the morning, his first thought was that he’d forgotten to suspend one of his backup alarms. That thought was quickly overridden by the realization that it wasn’t an alarm, but a ringtone. The tone, the theme to The Smurfs, was one hadn’t heard for months. It was a ringtone he’d assigned to only one person. His twin sister.
Sliding to the edge of his bed, he reached for the phone and swiped the bottom of the screen to as to catch the call. Even though he’d have those annoying la la la la la las in his head the rest of the day, he wanted the sound to stop. Picking up and listening to Cynthia bitch about Mom or work or whatever it was she was calling to complain his ear about was the next necessary step to take to silence. Silence meant sleep.
“Kid brother. I’m surprised you’re up,” the voice said. He detected something on the line besides her sarcasm. Static. He was literally less than a minute younger than her, but early on in their lives they’d given each other the nicknames kid brother and—
“Big sis. I’m not. I wasn’t. I’m hoping this is all just a dream, honestly. I haven’t had a decent night of sleep in two weeks,” Henry told her. He hoped that this overhaul of information might mean she’d call back during daylight. Give him some peace. For God’s sake, he doesn’t hear from her in over two months and she has to call now?
The briefest moment of silence hung on the line. She must finally be standing still, Henry thought. As fast as it had faded, the rasp of his sister’s voice, complete with the static cling, started again from the receiver. “Gee, Henry, standing in front of a machine watching other machines make boxes all day must take a lot out of you,” she pouted.
“What time even is it right now?”
“It’s thirty minutes to four in the morning, kid brother,” Cynthia snickered.
Henry decided to keep his eyes shut as not to risk becoming any more awake than he already was. The last thing he needed was this call to keep him from being able fall back asleep. “Why are you calling me at 3:30 am? Where are you?” he said, promoting the direct line of questioning he’d learned it took to get through to his off-kilter twin.
“You still seeing what’s-her-nuts?” she asked, ignoring her brother’s questions.
He wasn’t. The last time his sister was over to his place, it was to watch an indie comedy his then-girlfriend worked on as an associate producer. The movie was garbage, despite what AP Lena thought, and Henry should have known better than introduce her to his sister like that. Cynthia talked shit throughout the entire movie, justifying herself by saying that Lena couldn’t have known how terrible the film was going to be when she took the job, although Lena was practically best friends with the director (a point Lena didn’t mention to Cynthia). Thankfully, Trevor was there to diffuse the situation, which probably would have ended worse than it had, considering the amount of wine the girls were guzzling. Once insults, however passive they were, began flying, the glasses started going down a lot quicker. Trevor came up with an excuse about picking up lottery tickets before the night’s drawing as a way to get Cynthia out of the house. If there was one thing you could count on Cynthia for, it was her weakness for the lotto. The other thing you could count on was her ability to get under the skin of nearly anyone she met. That night, her victim was the perfectly polite girl who her brother really seemed to be into. Lena broke up with Henry the following week. She said it was because of their conflicting work schedules, but he blamed Cynthia’s trademark first impression.
“Lena? Nope. Not dating anyone,” he said. “Seriously, what’s up?”
“Aw, she was so cute. I really saw that going somewhere,” she said. “Jesus, Henry. Can’t your big sister just call to chat?”
“No,” he said, refraining from saying her given name aloud, although he so dearly wanted to send her into an outrage, “not this early and not when she’s dancing around the purpose of her call like it’s the ballet.”
“Okay, fine. I’m calling because I need to talk to you about something. I thought maybe we could have breakfast together. Like old times. I promise it’s not to bitch about Mom or my job or to whine about being an art school drop-out or any of the usual shit. That being said, I do need to talk to you and it does needs to be today,” Cynthia’s big sister tone mirrored that of their tyrannical mother, taunting Henry’s former self, the one who had for years been dependent on both women.
For a moment, he thought of how easy it would be to tell her he was working in a few hours and couldn’t see her for several days. The demanding tone in her voice told him it wasn’t going to be that easy. “God, it’s my first day off in like two weeks. I’m not leaving my place,” he said.
“That’s fine,” she said, and his phone dinged indicating that the call was dropped. A second beep, the doorbell, echoed the noise from the receiver. Henry’s heart sank. He forced his eyes open, switched on the lamp on his nightstand, and shuffled to the door.
Standing in the dim light of the foyer, cellphone in one hand and two grocery bags in the other, stood his female mirror image of a sister—68 inches of grungy, disheveled, smirking Cynthia Freeman.