Violet and Ivy had been one person until two months ago, when surgeons hacked them apart, right down the middle as if removing a parasitic insect. Despite the risks of surgery, detachment was the last hope to try to save them both.
Ivy had been the first to catch the bug. Eligio, the surgical masked caretaker, had kept them strapped to a king-sized bed in a little one bedroom house for a week until Ivy started spraying the walls with blood. After that, he knew slapping on a mask for protection wasn't going to cut it.
A week ago today, a nurse encouraged Eligio to pick out caskets, "You know, so you're one step ahead." The same day however, they released Violet from the hospital. In a short time, she'd gotten stronger than Eligio could have imagined. She’d begun walking again. Her legs stumbled at first, like a child taking its first steps. She’d gained her appetite as well, eaten every hospital grade meal down to the last grain of rice.
"Violet!” Eligio yelled over to the gangly hag for the third time. She tilted her head in response. "Hand over the remote."
Violet continued fiddling with the contraption, aimlessly pushing buttons and banging it against the plastic armrest of her wheelchair. Eligio had enough. He jumped over the couch and snatched it from her purple-veined hands.
Violet slouched, clasping a gold-finished locket hanging around her neck. Sour yellow hair draped over her sullen face and down her shoulders like lifeless lianas.
"What do you want for dinner?" Eligio asked.
She thought for a moment. "Peas."
"We don't have peas. Try again."
"Apricots and bananas. Grapes. What's those other fruits called?” She pinched the locket between two fingers. “Spa-ghetti."
“Now we're getting somewhere. Spaghetti it is." Eligio got up and stretched. The house was small, and it only took four steps from where he’d been sitting to the kitchen. He twisted the stovetop knob to high. The black-coiled burner reddened and a string of smoke rose, bringing with it the stench of charred noodles.
In the little time it took to fill the deep metal pot with water. The miasmic heat caused Eligio’s skin to dampen with sweat. He slid open the window above the sink, dropped the pot over the hot coils, and waited for bubbles.
Meanwhile, Violet smoothed her fingers, gaunt from ages of suffering, over the locket, over the nooks and bumps of a gilded heart, from the right atrium, to the right ventricle, over the left ventricle, all the way up to the aorta; anatomically correct, down to the coronary artery. Her parents gifted it to her and Ivy for their sixteenth birthday, as a reminder of how much love and happiness the twins brought them.
“Violet, what’s inside the heart? You never told me.”
“That’s because I can’t remember,” Violet responded, tucking the locket inside a floral muumuu. “And it don’t open no more.”
“Here, let me help you.”
Violet lifted her head as he stepped closer. His shoes made a gross sound each time his foot lifted from the sticky tile floor. “It ain’t meant to be open unless me or Ivy open it.”
Eligio pulled out the heart and, with his fingernails, began picking at a crease on the side. “Your sister's dead, sweetie," he told her in the most casual of manners.
“No, she ain’t,” she yelled. “Let it be!” Violet’s ice blue eyes turned white as she chomped down on his wrist.
“You bitch!” Eligio let go and elbowed her head.
Without a word, she tucked her locket back in and lowered her head until her face was veiled in hair.
“You want dinner? Cook it yourself.” He walked back into the kitchen. By now, the noodles boiled in a reverberating tub of hot bubbles. He turned the heat down to low.
He reached above the stove, where Violet’s medicine was kept. He rummaged through orange plastic pill bottles, pillboxes, and containers of cold relief tablets until he found a bottle that read Melatonin, 2 mg.
Eligio poured twenty tablets onto the counter and crushed them into a fine powder with a spoon. He tossed a spoonful of noodles onto a plate and added sauce he’d heated earlier. He gathered the fine powder from the melatonin into the palm of his hand, sprinkled it over the sauce, and covered it with a thick layer of grated Parmesan cheese.
“I’m sorry, it was rude of me to snap at you. Here,” he said, fixing the tray on her wheelchair and placing the freshly made plate of pasta on it. “I made it with extra Parm, how you like it.”
“What is Parm?”
“I hate Parm.” She revolted, turning her head.
“No, it’s your favorite,” he reassured her and twisted a forkful of dripping noodles into her mouth. She resisted at first, until the fork’s metal prongs fanged into her lips.
Violet chewed and swirled the sauced noodles around her tongue until she felt she got the proper taste. “This is my favorite?”
It didn’t take long for Violet to wolf down the whole plate; only two minutes to be exact. Within twenty, she was out like wet fire. Melatonin was the only way to silent the old bag from chitchatting through his favorite show. But at least now, he only needed to take care of Violet. Before, when Violet and Ivy were fused, it was a never-ending cycle of droning chatter. Blah blah blah blah blah. Words ricocheted between them every moment of the day and night. Eligio sometimes caught them speaking in tongues; speech incomprehensible to all but each other. Since the separation, however, things were different when dealing with Violet. She was manageable.
Eligio balanced dinner on his left hand. With the right, he flicked to Channel 68, to his favorite show, “Intervention Miracles.” He threw the remote on the coffee table and slouched on the couch.
Halfway through the show, Violet began giving off a thunder of snores. Eligio turned up the volume on the TV until it pierced his ears. Even then, it wasn’t loud enough to drown her out. He put the pasta plate on the table and shifted closer to her. Her head was slumped down and twisted sideways like a deflated balloon. With every snoring breath, the hair covering her face flicked forward, then relaxed back.
He pinched her nose shut. At once, she quit snoring and gulped in air. He ducked behind the couch’s armrest before he could catch her reaction.
A commercial on TV showed a luxurious spa and a woman; blonde, nude, walking through blue pools and hot tubs, combing her hair with a fat brush. She winked at the screen, at Eligio. It ended and his show flicked back on.
Moments later, the engine in the back of Violet’s nose roared back up.
“Violet, I hate to wish this upon anyone, but I wish you had died already." He flicked her nose playfully. "Nothing against you two, but you're old. Got nothin’ much left to do but die, right?"
Violet tipped her head back on the seat and opened her mouth, letting out an ugly set of snorts as if, even in sleep, she was trying to drown his voice out. With two fingers, Eligio closed her mouth, yet she continued to snore out her nose.
"Never thought you two would live through surgery. It’s nothing less than a miracle.” Eligio held onto her nose until she gasped for air, then released. “Especially after the infection . . . How did you do it?”
As he was about to return to his show, he saw flickering from the gold chain around Violet's frail thin neck. Her eyes were still closed and she continued snoring away, so he parted back her yellow hair, and with the pressure of a gnat's touch, lifted the chain until the gilded heart dangled from his hand.
He smoothed his fingers over the intricate details of the heart, naming the parts as he went along. It was hot to the touch. "How could you produce this much heat? You're barely alive!" He smirked and with his free hand, brushed away hair settling over her face. "Violet, you're an old girl."
He dug nails into the fine crevasse of the locket, but it was stuck together like glue. Faster, his fingers fumbled over the locket, failing to pry the pieces apart. It was pumping out heat faster than the coils on the stovetop oven. He let go. He had to. It was too hot.
Violet opened her eyes at once. Eligio continued hovering over her. She coughed. Drops of mucus splattered across his face. She gazed down and immediately tapped her hand over her chest until she brushed up against the locket. She caressed it between her bony fingers.
"Who are you?" Violet gasped.
"Was straightening your hair. I think you need a bath later on. After my show, okay?"
"Why are you in my house? Who are you?" Violet tried standing.
He pushed her back down into the wheelchair. "I’m Eligio, your unfortunate caretaker for the past five years. Sit." He held onto her shoulders as she fidgeted.
"Help! I've been captured!" Her deranged voice was fragmented by thick mucus. "Help!"
Violet's lazy eyes blinked, uneven, shaky. If Eligio could hold her down a bit longer, she'd tire herself out and go back to sleep.
Meanwhile, fist after fist pounded against his arms. Her head thrashed back and forth against the wheelchair. Hair flailed around Eligio's face.
And a minute later, she gasped for air. At this point, she'd lost much of her energy. She'd be out soon. She let out one last desperate cry for help before she conked out. The scream was weak, a futile waste of breath.
He released his grip and felt her left clavicle bone shift. He'd go to jail if he'd broken it. "Nah, if it were broken, she'd still be hollering."
He unlatched the necklace and dipped it into his breast pocket. At that instant, the heat expanded through his polo. As he launched himself back onto the couch, ending credits rolled up the screen. He let out an angry growl. He turned the TV off and threw down the remote. A piece of the remote chipped off, landing somewhere under the couch.
Eligio sat still on the couch. There was an odd buzzing sensation within his ear canals, as if a noise too high or low for him to hear vibrated through them. And this time, it wasn't Violet snoring.
A framed photograph above the TV fluttered enough for Eligio's eye to catch it. It was a family portrait, tinged yellow from age. All four figures were poised with a cheerful smile. Violet and Ivy, teenagers, sat front row center, Ivy on the left side, Violet to the right. A long summery dress covered most of the stool they sat on. Standing behind them was a young couple, their parents; father on the left, mother on the right. Each parent graced a hand on their daughters' shoulders.
Eligio had often wondered what it was like to live conjoined. Whatever they did, they did together. And their parents; how’d they cope with the life-altering news? Did Violet and her sister still have a connection after the separation, or did the feelings disappear as it does after an amputation? It was an odd situation for sure, even for someone like Eligio, who wiped shit off grown adult's asses for a living.
Eligio jumped up and stood from the couch. He must have fallen asleep. The wheelchair was empty. He wiped his groggy eyes and yawned.
Footsteps scurried from somewhere behind him. He caught a quick glimpse of a short, but thick shadowed figure scurrying down the hall. It had a childlike appearance. It could be seen for a moment until it vanished into an off-white light streaming from the bathroom.
The house went quiet.
"Violet?" He felt his stomach crawl. He hesitated before he stepped toward the bathroom. "Violet, you should've woke me up if you needed to go to the bathroom."
As he neared, he heard sloshing of water, then drips and a soft tapping. The odd buzzing sensation within his ear returned. He wanted to turn back. Something inside pleaded for him to stay put, but he couldn't allow her to take control.
Two more steps and he’d be in the bathroom.
Eligio was her caretaker. It was his job to look after her. He leaned a hand against the wall.
One more step.
"Violet! You old shit. You scared me."
He walked over to Violet, who lay in the tub. Fecal matter bobbed in yellow-brown water. "You defecated in the tub? What’s wrong with you?"
She didn't even bother to look up. She was focused on something between her bent knees, where her arms fiddled with something beneath the murky water. He knelt onto his knees beside the tub and tried hard not to inhale through his nose. Soiled hair was stuck to her face. She looked like a swamp hag, if there ever was one.
"This won’t happen again, you hear me?" Eligio turned on the faucet from behind her to cold. Her back arched forward as the water cascaded down her spine. He reached under her bottom and pulled the plug. "You need me. Don't ever do this on your own again." He grabbed a thick sponge and spurts out a long line of liquid soap. He began scrubbing her down.
"Where's my locket?" she asked, her voice gruff.
It startled Eligio. He wasn't expecting her to respond, let alone with a question so blunt. He'd forgotten about the thing until now.
He continued scrubbing her upper torso with force, ignoring her. Although nude, she had a huge bandage wrapped around her from where the surgery had taken place. Eligio brushed the edge of it with the sponge. It came off and brought with it another ghastly smell of rot.
He picked the floating bandage out of the water and tossed it, dripping, into the trash. The incision was a nasty, tree trunk shaped wound seeping out puss. But something else about it wasn’t right. It was the incision; it was on her right side.
Not a moment later, as if a bolt shot through him, he cried out to the old woman in the tub, "Ivy!"
She raised a dripping hand from the bathwater and, without warning, dug jagged nails into his face. He shot backward, stabbing his spine against two knobs sticking out from a sink cabinet. It stole his breath and paralyzed him for a moment.
A rhythm of banging and tapping arose from the hallway. It drew nearer but Eligio's focus was on Ivy.
Eligio reached into his breast pocket and pulled out the gilded locket. "This is what you’re looking for?" He dangled it in front of him. She threw out a hand. He refused.
"How did you get back?"
"I walked. Violet needed me."
"She doesn't need you. I’m taking care of her. You're going back to the hospital after your bath. And—" He smashed the locket against the stone tile floor with a tight fist. It emitted a cracking noise, breaking Ivy's heart. "Never lay a hand on me again, you hear?"
Tears swallowed Ivy's blue eyes and they turned white, as Violet's had earlier. He lifted himself up and hovered over the gilded heart. The two pieces lay separately on top of each other—he'd cracked it open! It was an immediate reaction to flip the top half over.
Inside was an inlaid black and white photograph of two naked infants attached at the spine. He picked up the other half and looked closer. A reflection of an old hag stared back at him. He dropped the locket. It hit the floor with a clang, louder than any sound should make with a pendant-sized object.
The moment Eligio looked up, he saw the backside of a hammer swooping at his forehead. There was no time to move. As it dug into his skull, his vision turned red.
Violet took out the prongs from his skull and hammered him again and again. Great strength wasn’t needed for a gruesome outcome.
Ivy splashed putrid water at him as if it were a game. She slithered over the tub. Her bony fingers clasped each half of the gilded heart together. She struggled to piece it back together, but her hands were too slippery. "Sir," Ivy spoke to Eligio, who was sprawled out on the tile floor. A pool of blood trickled out from under his head like spaghetti sauce. "Can you help me fix my heart?"
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