Conjoined

By Dana Diehl

Prompt, by Rion Amilcar Scott: Christmas/Kwanzaa/Hannukkah/Three King's Day after society has ended and civilization is struggling back to life.

Jenna and Lily can’t agree on the rules of New Christmas.

In this version, Lily says, Santa’s elves will curse and be politically incorrect.

In this version, Jenna says, Santa’s elves will have overtaken Santa and started their own holiday where they pilot hot air balloons instead of reindeer.

In this version, we will decorate our windows with pigeon bones.

In this version, we will make snow angels in the ash.

There is no one to break ties. There is no one to break ties, because Jenna and Lily are the last girl on earth.

They are allowed to say girl because they are sisters and they are conjoined. Two spines, two hearts folded inside a single torso that binds them together. Two brains, two faces, two noses, four ears. One pair of legs. One pair of arms. One ass. It’s funny how you can be separate in so many ways but only some of those ways matter.

“We’ll agree to disagree,” says Jenna.

Lily hates the way Jenna uses platitudes to end arguments. Jenna hates the way Lily can only end an argument by winning.

Since the world ended, Lily and Jenna have been living on abandoned television studio stages in LA. They sleep on the Central Perk couch, eat dry Ramen lunches in the Full House kitchen. They like how these stages were designed to look alive, even when they weren’t. Unused coffee mugs on counters. Crayoned drawings of sunsets stuck with magnets to fridges containing plastic foods.

In the Old World, Jenna and Lily had their own reality show. They had make-up artists who would powder their shared skin peach between takes, reapply Jenna’s very-berry-pink lipstick, touch-up Lily’s silver eye shadow. “To us, you’re just like anyone else,” the producers assured them. They pitched episodes to Jenna and Lily’s parents: In this episode, the two-headed girl rides a bike in their cul-de-sac. In this episode, the two-headed girl joins the softball team and strikes a homerun. In this episode, the two-headed girl crams for a biology final (encouraging the question, if a student has one ass but two heads, does that student have an unfair advantage?). The producers flew Jenna and Lily to LA, flew them to a set that had been designed to look like the girl’s living room back in Cincinnati, framed childhood photos placed on a mahogany bookshelf, a sofa that forced their parallel spines straight. Jenna and Lily liked that in LA, when the camera was around, people on the streets stared openly. In Cincinnati, people would pretend to text while they took pictures, they’d avoid eye contact and wait until Jenna and Lily passed to turn to their friends: “Did you see that?” Jenna and Lily liked that the camera makes people less polite. When everyone was looking, there was no point in trying to hide.

As they brainstorm rules for their New World, their New Christmas, Jenna and Lily walk Hollywood Boulevard. They watch their reflection in empty shop windows. Since the world ended, they’ve let themselves become satisfyingly monstrous. They’ve burned their brushes into piles of plastic, let their hair tangle together into a single knot. They loot film wardrobes to dress themselves—today they wear a blood-stained wedding dress from a zombie flick. Yesterday they wore a space suit that felt like pajamas.

In white lace, they skip over a palm frond, they spit on Stars of Fame. The high sun turns the gray buildings white. They can smell the not-so-distant ocean, and the briny scent of it makes them both dizzy at once.

When Jenna and Lily were younger, they were obsessed with learning about themselves and girls like them. They memorized all of the different ways two people could be joined. By hip, by back, by belly. This line on Wikipedia haunted them: In the case of Thoracopagus, two bodies are fused from the thorax to lower belly, a heart is shared. Separation of twins cannot offer survival to two twins. A designated twin may survive if allotted the heart, sacrificing the other twin. They are obsessed with the word choice of designated, of allotted, of sacrifice. To allot is to give. There were no words that showed what was being taken away. They wondered, if it came down to it, which of them would be sacrificed.

During that same period, Jenna and Lily went through a phase of hurting each other in secret. Jenna would punch Lily in the meaty part of her thigh. Lily would retaliate by drinking coffee before bed, letting the caffeine zip through their shared bloodstream, keeping them both awake until dawn. They wanted to find ways to hurt the other without being hurt themselves, wanted to locate the boundaries, if any, that separated them.

Once at dinner, the evening before a flight out to LA, Lily almost asked their parents, “Did you ever consider separating us? Did you ever have to consider, which one of us to save?” Jenna could feel the question coming, could feel it in the thump thump of their shared heartbeat. She clutched the hand that belonged to Lily. She was afraid of that small possibility that there was an answer.

… 

            The night before New Christmas, Jenna and Lily struggle to fall asleep in a bedroom with only three walls, a bedroom made for people who weren’t real, dead lights suspended overhead instead of a ceiling lamp.

In the Old World, Christmas always came two month early. Their producers would want to air special holiday editions that would have to be shot weeks in advance to be done in time for December. So Jenna and Lily’s parents would set up their plastic tree. They’d wrap empty boxes to place under the branches. More boxes than Jenna and Lily ever received on real Christmas. Then the lights would come, the microphones stuck against skin, the hum of the camera.

“We have no secrets between the two of us,” Jenna would tell the camera. “And no, we’re not scared or sad to be the way we are. We’re just grateful to be alive.”

All of those platitudes Lily could never stomach. It was never true what Jenna said, about them not keeping secrets. Especially now, especially when they were the only girl left.

Lily’s secret: When the world ended, she was glad. Glad that there was no one left to stumble over pronouns (she…I mean they…I mean it?).  Glad that there was no left to wonder, “If you add two brains and one vagina, do you get one girl or two?” Glad that the thing that was considered a handicap had actually been a super power, had been the thing that protected them, like a girl in a horror movie saved by her virginity.

Jenna’s secret: She dreamed about confronting their old producers, producers who had smoothed their skin flawless with cream, made them look normal with softball teams, with sparkly eyeliner. In her dreams, she’d cry to them, “We’re not like anyone else. You only wanted to pretend that we were.”

The secret they both share, though neither of them knows it: They fantasize about sitting in front of the camera one last time. In the fantasy, the cameraman counts down with her fingers, the red light blinks on, and the two-headed girl goes wild. Tears paper from wrappers with their two pairs of teeth. Splits of seams of their cord-knit sweater to jump naked on the faux-leather couch. Because isn’t this what everyone wanted of them all along? To see them grotesque. To see them breaking. To see the monster come out.