The difference between a curse and a superpower is what one chooses to do with it.
It had been too long since Sean had split.
He knew because he was really, really angry and because the medallion embedded in the skin of his chest itched.
Sean sat in his little office above Merv’s Diner, killing time before his client arrived. He tried to focus on his notebook, on getting his thoughts into verse, but it was useless.
He scratched at the hard object beneath his shirt, fingers outlining the flat, black disc sunk into his skin. Right over his heart.
The surface of the medallion was nearly flush with his skin, like the head of a button-style thumbtack pressed hard into a corkboard. Only, this thing was big, three inches in diameter.
Sean shifted his shoulders, wishing the chain he’d attached to the thing would ease its weight some. But the silver chain hung slack from his neck. He didn’t need it at all, and for a long time he hadn’t bothered with it. But he started wearing it again because every time he stood shirtless in front of the bathroom mirror, the chain made the medallion look more like a piece of jewelry than an alien artifact stuck onto his body.
If it was alien. He had no idea what it was or where it had come from.
He undid the top two buttons of his shirt so that he could get his fingernails on the medallion, though it did little good. He could scratch it with a fork and the itch wouldn’t go away.
And that infuriated him.
He gritted his teeth and struggled not to shove everything off his desk. Phone, computer, unpaid bills, automotive magazines, bag of chips. All of it. He wanted to stomp on it, destroy it and everything else in his tiny office.
It had been too long since he’d split. He would have to do it soon, whether or not he had paying work.
He checked the time on his phone. Eight o’clock in the morning. His prospective client was late.
He leapt up and grabbed his gloves, determined to destroy the heavy bag hanging the corner. He’d barely gotten the first glove on when the knock came.
“Come in, goddammit!”
The door squeaked open and in stepped a thin woman with dark puffy eyes. She might have been pretty if she weren’t bawling. She’d been crying on the phone, too.
It irritated Sean to have to deal with someone who couldn’t keep it together. He scanned the office for a box of tissue, thinking he might throw it at her.
But Sean wasn’t the crying sort and didn’t have any tissues. He pulled on the other glove. “Sit down.”
“Mr. Styles?” she said, lower lip trembling.
“I said sit!”
She sat in the folding chair in front of his desk and dug in her purse, one of those big ones that’s like a designer duffle bag. She burrowed her hand into it, and half a dozen wadded snot rags fell out.
Sean smashed the punching bag, picturing her face there. “What do you need me to do?”
She pulled out a slim leather photo album and flipped it open, turning it so he could see one of the pictures. A girl, maybe five or six, beamed up at him. Jack-o-lantern grin, Kool-Aid mustache.
“Your daughter?” he asked.
Debbie let out a moan and nodded, pressing her lips together to fight back sobs.
“What happened to her?”
Sean was already pissed, and if he was going to hear some story about a little girl being mistreated, he knew he was going to take this case. He liked dealing out pain to those who had it coming.
He jabbed and punched the bag, making it swing into the corner. But instead of relieving his fury, it made it worse. He wound up, ready to deliver a strike to split the thing open.
“I need you to kidnap her.”
His blow missed the bag entirely, his momentum spun him around. “Say what?”
But he already he knew. She wanted to stage a kidnapping. Debbie was divorced. She had told him that much over the phone.
“I’ve been involved in these kinds of schemes before, lady. I kidnap her from your house. Your ex pays the ransom, then you and the girl run off to Ft. Lauderdale or San Francisco.” He waved a glove at her. “You’ll get caught.”
Debbie sniffled, but she straightened a bit. “That’s not it. I need you to rescue her from my ex.”
“He got legal custody?”
She nodded, tears streaming down her face.
“Sole custody? No visitation? Nothing?
She covered her face and wept.
“That’s kind of unusual,” he said. “How the hell did that happen?”
She lifted her eyes. Sean could tell she was making an effort to steel herself, to find some reserve of strength in that quivering mass of emotion she called a brain.
“I was in the hospital at the time.” She lifted one arm and curled back the sleeve of her blouse to expose a long scar. A failed suicide.
“My husband is a loser,” she said, “but he was a better choice than me at the time. He divorced me while I was institutionalized.”
“You don’t look like you’re doing so good right now.”
“But I am. I’m doing so much better.”
He didn’t point out the irony that her “better” was interrupted by sobs. “Listen. I do dirty work to clean things up, not to make things messier.”
“Look at this,” she said. She dug in her purse again, spilling about fifteen snot rags on her lap and onto his floor. She pulled out a phone. “Look at this video.”
It showed a dingy kitchen. Table, chairs. A stupid cat clock on one wall, tail swinging out the seconds. Window with a lace curtain. A man staggered into view, swearing at the top of his lungs and looking at the camera. “Turn that thing off! Turn that thing off!”
A small voice cried out, “Daddy, stop! You’ve got to stop drinking, you’ve got to stop!”
“Your daughter took this?” Sean asked.
Debbie nodded and smooshed a tissue against her nose.
The man glowered straight at the camera and shoved a chair out of his way. It tilted and fell onto the tile with a clatter. The girl screamed and the footage became a blur of kitchen tile, then carpet, and then a lavender door with stickers of cartoon dogs on it. She’d locked herself in her bedroom.
“Open the door, Emily!”
If Sean hadn’t been cupping the phone in his boxing gloves, he might have crushed it in his hands.
The medallion burned in his chest. If he could have dedicated his practice to going after bad fathers, he would have done nothing else.
He knew from experience the effect abuse had on a kid. He blamed his own father for sending him spiraling out of control, all those slaps, punches, kicks and verbal tirades propelling him down the path that led him to wake up one rainy November morning wearing the medallion. As if all of the rage in his heart had compressed until it blossomed into a physical form.
He handed the phone back to Debbie, then took off his gloves and threw them in the corner. “Where is your daughter now?”
“My ex lives west of town on Harwood.” She handed him a thick envelope with two addresses written on it, one on Hardwood and another well south of downtown.
Sean peeked into the envelope and flipped a thumb across a thick wad of hundred dollar bills.
“Five grand,” Debbie said. “And another five when Emily’s safe.”
“You want me to take care of the father?” he asked. “What’s his name?”
“Jack,” she said. “And no, that won’t be necessary.”
“Do you have an escape plan, a place to hide out afterwards?”
“It’s all arranged.” Her tears had stopped, but she still looked like someone who’d lost a cat, dog, and grandma on the same day.
“Good. I can do it this morning.”
“No, that won’t work. He’ll be home today.”
“They need to be there if I’m going to be able to take your daughter.”
“It will be easier if you wait until he’s out of the house. He leaves her home alone when he goes to work.”
“And how old is she?”
“So he goes to work and leaves a seven-year-old home alone all day? Why don’t you just go pick her up?”
But he knew the answer before she spoke. Once the girl was reported missing, Debbie would be the prime suspect. She needed an alibi. Complete deniability.
“So I take her to this address,” he said, pointing to the second one on the envelope. “She stays there for a while until the heat is off you.”
“Yes. Claire is a friend I made at the hospital. No one knows I know her, so the police will have no reason to question her.” All of the strength left the woman at that point and she collapsed into a fit of crying.
Sean’s had found a focus for his anger, which meant he could tolerate the woman’s presence. “I’ll get her for you. I guarantee it.”
Debbie took heart, it seemed. At least she stopped blathering long enough to put her phone and photo album back into her big purse. “Thank you, Mr. Styles.”
As the door closed behind her, Sean returned to his desk and tried to figure out how he would survive another day without splitting. The only thing he could think of was to exhaust himself, which meant he had to go to the gym.
He considered splitting at that moment, but it was tricky having a doppelganger walking around the neighborhood. And the Split could be difficult to control.
Sean hit the gym. Literally. Five minutes into his workout he punched one of the mirrors in the free weight section and barely stopped himself from throwing a dumbbell at an old man doing bicep curls in the corner.
He snuck off, bloody knuckles wrapped in his t-shirt, and ran home as fast as he could. By the time he returned to his apartment above Merv’s Diner, his body was rubbery with exhaustion. Good thing, too, because the smelly codger who lived down the hall, Mr. Veslk, was playing his TV at peak volume. If Sean had been rested, he would have busted the door down and thrown the TV out the window, and Mr. Velsk after it.
To avoid killing anyone, he ordered delivery from Beijing Garden, telling the delivery kid to leave the food in the hall and take the twenty he slipped under the door.
Sean knew not to watch the news or any sort of action movie or read any books. The only real answer was to sleep and endure the crazy nightmares his rage produced. At eight p.m., he popped a couple sleeping pills and hit the sack.
The next morning he felt more in control, bending all his hatred on the drunken man he’d seen in the video. It might as well have been his own idiot father.
A cold single-mindedness settled over him as he began his prep. He showered, shaved, and got dressed with deliberate care. The only thing that would have betrayed his anger was the way his nostrils flared with every breath. That, and his clenched jaw.
He stopped at his door and rechecked the deep pockets of his overcoat: knife with a four inch blade, roll of duct tape, cell phone, five grand in cash that Debbie had give him. Poetry notebook. And the baggy of pills. Not sleeping pills. These were different. These were for the one way trip to Never Never Land. He had to have the pills.
The simplest thing would have been to split there in his apartment. But he couldn’t because he needed an alibi. He always, always, always had an alibi when he split. There were too many security cameras around, and some were certain to see his Split on his way to the girl’s house.
The cams had their upside, though. What Sean loved about Merv’s Diner was that a security camera covered the dining room, continuously recording everything to a computer. And since Merv’s was just downstairs, Sean didn’t have to risk being provoked into stabbing someone on the street.
The bell over the diner’s door jangled as he pushed through. Marcia looked up from where she was taking an order from some idiot in a booth.
He grunted, the best greeting he could manage without swearing at her. She was a pretty nice lady, so he did the best he could not to insult her too much.
Sean went to his spot at the counter. He liked it because it was directly in the center of the security cam view, assuring it got a clear view of his face.
The seats at the counter were the old fashioned style, an aluminum pole topped with a round seat of red vinyl. Sean kept his coat on because he would be needing it soon. He sat down and thrust his elbows onto the chipped Formica countertop.
Marcia bustled around and her pale eyes studied him over the top of her reading glasses, which she kept on a beaded chain around her neck. “One of those days, eh?”
She’d learned to read his mood, so she kept her idle banter inside of her. She dropped a porcelain mug in front of him and splashed it full of hot coffee. The tilt of her arm was finely calibrated, her timing flawless. And when the hot liquid stopped sloshing in the cup, it settled a perfect margin of one half inch below the brim, just room enough for Sean to add three teaspoons of sugar.
It was that kind of precision, that kind of reliable execution, that Sean valued in an alibi.
Unlike Tina, the other waitress, Marcia kept her uniform immaculate. Since Merv’s was one of those pseudo throwback retro diners, Marcia wore a waitress dress with the knee length skirt and a top with capped sleeves and banded collar. Her nametag was positioned perfectly above her left breast. In three seconds, she had fluttered down a paper placemat in front of Sean and a paper napkin with fork, spoon and knife nestled inside.
She knew what his order would be, but it wasn’t like Marcia to assume anything. She removed her order tablet from her pocket, unclipped the pen from behind her ear and stood in the ready position.
Having paid for hundreds and hundreds of meals at Merv’s, Sean knew that Marcia always notated the time of his order on her tablet, another piece of documentary evidence that he wanted to make sure he had. In addition, he would pay with his credit card to create another record.
“The usual,” he said.
She accepted that, although Sean knew for a fact she wrote, in neat fine printing, 2 eggs, bacon (extra crispy), grits.
Sean needed his Split to be full, to have plenty of energy, so he had to gag down his meal. Not that the food wasn’t delicious. Merv’s cook performed over his million degree griddle like a virtuoso, waving his half melted spatula like a conductor.
Sean forced himself to eat everything and drink an extra cup of coffee. He nodded to Marcia, set his poetry notebook on his placemat to show that he meant to be back, and headed for the dingy hallway leading to the bathrooms. Given the seating arrangement, nobody in the restaurant could see which door he used, so Sean bypassed the restrooms and ducked into Merv’s office.
It smelled of cigarette butts and wet ceiling tile. A battered steel desk, probably a leftover from World War Two, stood along one wall. A rickety green office chair slouched in front of it. Stacks of automotive magazines, the kind that featured pouty girls in bikinis bent over the hoods of muscle cars, stood on every flat surface, including the floor. A narrow aisle cut through the clutter from the door to the chair.
Sean closed the door, took two measured paces and turned to face the desk. His Split always appeared to his right, so he had to make sure there was enough room. The last thing he wanted was to have to mercy kill his Split because he’d been careless. Having a Split half embedded in a wall was not a pleasant sight.
He took some deep breaths and put his hand over the medallion. It started easy this time. It always did when he was this angry, which told him how close he’d pushed it. The rage would force a split eventually. His body started to stretch. Not really, though. It just felt like it was stretching, as if he were Rubberman or something.
The trick was to give into it, sort of like getting your eyes to see a wallpaper pattern in 3D. He just had to relax in the right way. He couldn’t even explain it to himself. It was just a feeling.
The sensation of stretching increased, pulling the skin of his abdomen and forehead taught. Soon his whole body burned, like when kids gave each other snakebite by twisting the skin on their arms in opposite directions.
This snakebite burned from his groin straight up through his navel, up to his throat, bisecting his face and scalp and coming down the other side to his butt.
The more he fought it, the more it hurt, and the longer it took. A lesson learned by suffering through many long splittings.
Despite his experience, he always got to a point where he lost faith. The agony grew to such a degree that he convinced himself that this time, he truly was being ripped apart.
He looked down at the buttons on his shirt. The way his body felt, they should be popping off. But his shirt hung loose as ever.
He closed his eyes and focused on his breathing. His ears roared, as if the blood in his eardrums boiled. And for a fraction of a moment he sensed a duality, a two-ness of mind as the Split was born. The feeling collapsed, leaving him warm, as if filled with light.
Sean turned right to face his Split. The Split was identical to him, down to the spot of egg yolk at the corner of his mouth.
They both raised a finger to scrap it away.
“Why don’t you wipe your goddam face?” the Split asked. “Did I get it?”
“Okay, let’s see who’s who.”
Even though Sean stood to the left of the Split, he always followed the same protocol to establish himself as The One True Sean.
They both unbuttoned their shirts to expose their chests.
Sean touched the medallion. “I am The One True Sean.”
His Split did not have the medallion. Instead, a livid circle, slightly depressed, marked the matching spot on his skin.
“I understand,” the Split said, though his face betrayed the horror he felt. And the rage.
Sean understood. He retained the memories and experiences of all his previous Splits. He knew the horror of getting that death sentence. Even knowing that your mind and memories would rejoin the One True and live on, there was no getting past the instinct to survive.
There was no need to discuss the plan. The Split knew everything Sean knew. Of course, that would change once it started its mission. Sean wouldn’t know the whole story until the Split died and his experiences returned to him.
The Split buttoned up, and gave Sean the finger as he walked out. He would leave by the back door, which let into an alley.
The One True Sean removed his coat and hat and slipped back into the diner. No one gave him a second look as he hung his things on the stand by the door and took up his usual spot at the counter.
Marcia filled his cup. “You look like you’re feeling better.”
He smiled as he pulled a pen from his shirt pocket. “I do. I really do. And can I just say that you are the best waitress I’ve ever had?”
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Angry Sean headed south, leaving the diner and The One True Sean behind.
“What an idiot,” he said. All morning he’d anticipated the release of splitting. But only one of them got to lose the anger, and that was never The One True Sean. He cast a quick glance back. “Enjoy your morning, TOTS. I won’t be long.”
A wild-haired bum wearing an Army jacket rattled coins in an tin bean can and held it up. Sean pulled his wallet and dug out a couple Benjamins for the man. “Spend it quick.”
Once Sean delivered the girl and ended his life, every molecule originating from the One True Sean would disappear from this world. Duct tape, coat, knife, fingerprints. His wallet and everything in it, including the money he’d given Army bum.
A convenient phenomenon, since it didn’t leave any dead Seans lying around to confuse people. It also allowed him to double his money. Long enough to spend it, anyway.
The bum looked in the can, then lifted it in an mock toast. “To your health!”
Split Sean put his wallet away and checked the left front pocket of his slacks. He knew he’d find the pills there. After all, he’d put them there this morning. And yet, the more time that passed, the less he trusted The One True Sean.
What an ass. Making me do the crap work, while he lounges at Merv’s.
It wasn’t fair. Here he was, going to commit a crime—albeit a justified one—while TOTS was not only relaxing at Merv’s, he was also super happy and filled with love.
The idea made Angry Sean want to smash some car windows.
No. Gotta stay focused.
He’d gotten TOTS in trouble more than once by acting out. And since he’d be rejoining him soon, he’d just be hurting himself.
The house was five blocks south and ten blocks east. By the time he got there, he’d harnessed his rage somewhat.
The house stood on the east side of the street in a neighborhood full of people with tenuous jobs, who paid most of their taxes, drank domestic beer, and watched football. Sean hated them. They were his father’s people.
The house in question looked like a 1920s job; a bungalow with a screened front porch. Debbie had said that Emily would be home alone. From across the street, the house looked dark, shades drawn.
Sean considered just going to the front door, but he knew that no matter how bad of a father Jack was, he would have trained his kid not to just answer the door and talk to strangers.
Or would he?
Sean’s father wouldn’t have taught him that. As a matter of fact, he’d always made Sean answer the door when people rang. The only explicit instructions his dad gave was never to open the door for someone wearing a suit. “They’re either religious, political, or business. I got no use for salesmen.”
Sean snorted at the memory. His dad could’ve used a touch more religion. Maybe then Sean wouldn’t have grown up half-feral on the streets. Maybe he wouldn’t have ended up in juvie. Maybe he wouldn’t have relied so much on booze to erase his mind.
Maybe if Sean had had the big guy upstairs on his side, he wouldn’t have ended up with a cursed medallion burned into his flesh.
Sean kept up a quiet monologue of curses as he crossed the street and slipped down the narrow gravel driveway next to the house. Judging from the veins of tall weeds that crisscrossed the drive, Jack didn’t have a car. A chain-link gate stood between a dilapidated garage and the back corner of the house. Sean scanned the tiny yard. No dog and no evidence of one. That was good. Sean hated killing dogs.
He went through and stepped up to the back door. A flimsy yellow curtain covered the window. Sean pressed the latch button the screen door.
The door was unlocked. He pushed through, slowly, trying to keep the door from making too much noise. He eased the screen door shut behind him, as they had a tendency to slam the last few inches.
So far, so good. Excited, high pitched voices came from deep in the house. Sean paused. It sounded like a TV show.
He patted his pocket to double check for the duct tape. He didn’t want to tape the girl’s mouth shut, didn’t want to hurt her at all. But he knew if she got spooked and started screaming, he would have to. His main concern was that he might get so mad he’d hurt her by mistake.
He’d injured some decent folks in the past, and just thinking about it ticked him off. It was TOTS’s fault for making him go out and do this crap.
He stood in a crowded little entryway, kind of a little mud area. The floor was littered with inline skates, miscellaneous garden gloves, and a couple pair of floral pink tennis shoes with Velcro straps. Hanging from pegs were a girl’s yellow raincoat and a puffy feather-filled winter parka. Straight ahead lay a short hallway leading into a kitchen.
Sean took quiet steps and peeked around the corner into a small living room. A girl sat on the sofa watching television. She wore pajamas with cartoon characters all over them. Her hair was crazy, as if she had just gotten out of bed. On the sofa next to her was a paper plate, and on it, a half-eaten Pop Tart.
A click sounded behind him. Sean spun and looked into the unblinking barrel of a pistol.
“I don’t want to shoot you,” Debbie said. “I just want to talk.” Tears streamed from her eyes and down her cheeks. And the gun trembled in her white-knuckle grip. Sean figured she’d probably miss if she pulled the trigger. Still, she was close enough that she could get a lucky shot.
“You’re messing with the wrong man, lady. I don’t care if you shoot me.”
It wasn’t exactly true. He hated getting shot. With his luck, he’d be gutshot and languish in this craphole for days.
“So what’s the deal?” he asked. “I’m obviously not here to kidnap the girl.”
“Have a seat,” she said, waving the pistol at one of the kitchen chairs.
He noticed the clock over the window. A black cat, tail swinging out the seconds. He was in the same kitchen he had seen in the video Debbie had shown him at the office.
“So who was the man I saw on camera?” he asked. “Not her father.”
“A friend,” she said. “He’s an actor.”
Sean relaxed a bit. If Debbie intended to kill him, he figured she would have shot him already. She could have done it at his office, for that matter.
He pulled out a chair and sat, but what he really wanted to do was pick it up and smash it on the floor. Or maybe bash in Debbie’s head with it.
He darted a glance at the girl in the living room. She stared at him with wide eyes. She resembled her mother, except she wasn’t weepy. If anything, she looked irritated that their conversation was disrupting her TV watching, which Sean kind of respected.
“So what do you want, Debbie?”
She dabbed at her eyes with a wadded up tissue and wiped her nose. Her lips trembled, but she summoned some reserve of strength and lifted her chin. The gun stopped wavering, too. “Unbutton your shirt.”
“Lady, I don’t—”
“Unbutton it!” She swiped the back of her hand across her eyes to clear the tears, but the gun stayed pointed right at him.
He lifted his hands, slowly, so as not to startle Debbie. The last thing he need was her trigger finger to give a involuntary twitch.
There was only one reason she’d want him to unbutton his shirt. She knew about the medallion.
But nobody knew about it, not even Marcia.
But that’s not true, is it?
Sean couldn’t help but smile. The medallion had come from somewhere, had its own history, had probably passed from person to person. Apparently it had touched this woman’s life somehow.
He unbuttoned the top button and then next and the next, then spread his shirt wide to show her the pink round scar over his heart. “Do you understand what you’re seeing?”
It was like all the air went out of Debbie then. She lowered the gun and burst into sobs.
Sean considered lunging across the table and wrestling the gun away. But Debbie would just as likely get off a shot. And even if she didn’t and he was able to take the gun, his rage was on its own hair trigger. He doubted he could stop himself once he got into a physical altercation with the woman.
“This is as close to happy as I’ve been in a long time,” Debbie said. “I want you to give me the medallion.”
“I would love to,” he said. “But it’s kind of embedded in The One True Sean.”
“The One True Sean?” she said. “Is that what you call him?” She took in a long breath and ran her fingers through her hair. “How do you function? Why aren’t you crying?”
“Crying? I never cry.”
“But how do you deal with the sadness?”
The question had no meaning at all. Why would she assume he was sad?
It struck him then. But what he suspected couldn’t be possible. “Show me,” he said. “Show me the scar.”
She didn’t hesitate. She unbuttoned her blouse with her free hand and pulled down the top edge of her bra, just far enough that Sean could see the arch of round scar. It was exactly like the one Sean had over his heart.
Debbie was a Split.
“How are you alive if your One True Debbie lost the medallion? Or is there a second one?”
She wiped at her eyes. “No, there is only one. But the real Debbie—Happy Debbie—was murdered. I don’t know who did it or how, but I’ve been searching for the medallion ever since.”
“When you had the medallion, you became sadder and sadder, didn’t you?”
“Of course,” she said, “that’s how it works.”
“Not for me,” Sean said. “I get mad. Angrier and angrier. But I still don’t understand how you survived. A Split can’t live if the One True is dead.”
“Who told you that?”
Sean had no idea. Where had he gotten that from?
Debbie set the gun on the table. “I’m a terrible mother. I can barely function at all. Emily hasn’t been to school in months. I need to get that medallion back. Get back into balance.”
She looked up at him with her watery eyes, begging for his cooperation.
He said, “I don’t know what you expect me to . . .”
But he did.
The thought of it thrilled him nearly as much as it chilled him. She’d hired him to help her kill The One True Sean.
She covered her mouth with her hand, but it did nothing to stifle her sobs. Her eyebrows knit and more tears flowed. “I know what I’m asking. But look at Emily sitting in there. She knows how screwed up her life is, but she can’t do anything about it. She’s a good kid. She deserves a happy life and a parent who can take care of her and go to the movies and go to the zoo and go out in public without weeping all the time. She’s the only thing that’s kept me alive to this point, and even then . . .”
She looked down at the pink scar on her wrist and forearm. “She found me bleeding in the bathroom, called 911. She was only five.”
Sean’s rage flashed hot as he thought of Debbie and Emily’s miserable lives. And meanwhile, TOTS was filled with love and enjoying himself. He deserved to die. He was useless.
No matter who Angry Sean encountered, there was no one he hated more than The One True Sean. And realizing he could survive without him and be done with the medallion . . .
He pulled the phone from his pocket.
Debbie didn’t even reach for the gun as he went for it. He could have pulled the knife and stabbed her. And part of him still wanted to just out of fury.
Angry Sean’s phone, being a clone, had the same number as The One True Sean’s. He had figured out early on that it allowed him to send texts to himself.
Sean checked the time and set the device on the table.
“The One True Sean will be expecting my memories to return to him in a couple hours. When that doesn’t happen, he’ll start to worry about me.” He sniffed at the irony that TOTS would worry if he didn’t kill himself. “He’ll come looking.”
“Thank you.” Debbie mopped her eyes with a tissue so twisted and wadded that Sean wondered how it could soak up anything.
The eggs and bacon he’d had for breakfast were long gone, so he rifled through the cabinets. “Where are the damn Pop Tarts?”
“I think Emily ate the last package. I’d fix you something to eat, but I’m a terrible cook when I’m crying.”
Sean slammed the cabinet shut. “I’ll do it.” He yanked open the fridge, making jars of pickles, jam, and salad dressing rattle in the door shelves. All Debbie had was eggs and bacon. Not exactly what he craved after seeing Emily’s Pop Tarts.
Cooking gave him something to focus his anger on, though it didn’t make him very precise. The first two eggs were so overdone he had to dump them in the trash. Wisps of acrid black smoke came off the pan as he slammed it back down on the stove.
The next two eggs weren’t so bad, but the yokes were hard and the whites had a few largish bits of shell in them. At least the toaster didn’t require any skill. He dropped the plate in front of Debbie. “Eat.”
A few minutes later, he dumped a skillet full of sulfur-smelling eggs and black bacon onto his own plate.
They tasted horrible, but he gagged them down anyway. The whole process used up only fifteen minutes, so he stashed the dirty plates in the sink and sat down to wait.
The stench of burnt eggs filled the small kitchen, as if his anger had manifested as a noxious cloud. The hyper cheerful sound of Emily’s cartoons—as inappropriate in that moment as circus music at a funeral—scraped at his nerves.
Sean sat at the table, staring at his hands, and waited, hoping he could keep the anger down until TOTS arrived. The cat clock’s tail swung to and fro, ticking off each slow second like the countdown to Armageddon.
The One True Sean sat at the counter at Merv’s Diner, writing poetry. He hadn’t felt so relaxed—so at one with the universe—for weeks. He really should split more often, he thought. Shedding the anger was such a relief. If only he could let Angry Sean just live his own life and go away forever. But since there was no record of Sean ever having a twin, it was just too risky in the long run.
Besides, Angry Sean would certainly get in a fight and murder someone, and if The One True Sean didn’t have a good alibi, he’d run a high risk of being incarcerated for the crimes of the Angry Sean.
He checked his phone. It was getting to the outside of when he expected Angry Sean’s memories to return. He didn’t relish it. There was usually a lot of ugliness in those memories, though the anger would be mostly gone.
Sean wouldn’t even notice it at first; it would take a week or two before he got even mildly perturbed about something. But then it would grow and grow and grow.
“More coffee, Marcia,” he said, smiling broadly.
“You sure had a mood change, Sweetie. You must have been hungry.”
“Nah. That’s just me. Mood swings. Got it from my father. You’re looking very pretty today Marcia. Did you do something different with your hair?”
She blushed and failed at concealing a grin.
Sean straightened and stretched his arms. He’d been working on his poem for the better part of two hours. Fifteen pages of the best verse he’d ever written. Lots of flowers and rainbows and sunshine. He’d spent an entire page finding interesting and unique rhymes for the word bloom. He’d even managed to use the word “tomb”.
The morning rush had long since petered out, and there were only three people left in the diner. An adorable elderly couple sat at a booth by the window, drinking coffee and eating like birds. At the counter, a couple stools to Sean’s left, a wonderful homeless guy in an Army jacket hunched over his second breakfast. Marcia had tried to shoo him out, but he’d flashed a couple hundred dollar bills. He’d also thanked The One True Sean over and over again for his generosity. Sean didn’t know what the man was referring to, but he assumed it was the love Sean felt for him.
“Let me get the check,” Sean said. “You should save your money for a motel room or something.”
“No, no, you’ve done enough.”
“No seriously,” Sean said. “I want to help you get back on your feet, get a place to live.” That gave him an amazing idea. “Hey! You can stay in my apartment. I live upstairs.”
The man’s eyes narrowed. “You just want to take the money back, don’t you?”
“No, no. I’m serious.” Sean dug in his pocket for his keys and handed them over. “Just go on up. It’s apartment 203. And take a shower.”
“Okay.” The man stood and Sean noticed he had a paper bag, obviously holding some sort of booze.
Sean put his hand on the man’s shoulder and looked into his eyes. “I know you think you need that liquor. I was once where you were. But you don’t. If you fill your heart with love, you can overcome anything.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” he said. “I guess I’ll just have to throw it out. I’ll do that as soon as I leave.”
Sean smiled, filled with joy. He was working a miracle. He would help this man. He would get him cleaned up. He would find him a job. Who knew what might become of this man? He might be president someday.
The guy left, and Sean returned to his poetry. He was so inspired he decided to start a new poem.
He wrote: “What Can Love Not Overcome?” by Sean Styles
His phone chimed. It was an alarm, signaling the latest time at which Angry Sean should have returned to his memories.
But what difference did it make? Let Angry Sean have some extra time. Besides, he had a difficult task in rescuing that poor girl. What could be more important than reuniting her with her sad mother?
Sean dabbed at his eyes with a napkin, overcome with love, overcome with compassion, and in awe of the good work he was doing.
His phone chimed again, an incoming email. He checked it.
“Oh yeah,” he said to himself. He always set a timed email reminder for himself when he split. It read:
Sean, I know you’re feeling great right now, but if Angry Sean hasn’t returned to you yet, or you haven’t heard from him, you need to go find him. Go find him and share your love with him. He needs you!
The One True Sean was overcome with the wisdom he’d shown in setting up this automated message. It just went to show that he was truly a man of love and compassion.
He pressed his lips together and nodded to himself. It didn’t matter if he lost his alibi. Angry Sean needed him.
He tucked his notebook into his pocket, left $100 for Marcia, and headed out. As he walked, he typed a text message to himself, knowing that it would arrive on Angry Sean’s phone, too.
Where are you? Is everything okay?
Five minutes later there was still no answer. He sent another text.
Sean, is the girl with her mother?
It was a reckless text because it was a record that the police would be able to discover if they suspected him of kidnapping the girl. But it didn’t matter. He was doing important work.
Another automated email came in.
Sean, if you haven’t left the diner yet, you need to do so now. I know you feel like you’re doing something important, but you have to be careful. Make sure you’re not being watched, and try the back door first.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
Being overcautious seemed somehow selfish to him. He wanted to shout to the world, “I’m going to find my Angry Split and save him, and then I’m going to save the girl from her horrible father and return her to her mother. The courts got it wrong, and I have no fear of the law. For I serve a higher justice than Man.”
He managed to restrain himself because experience had taught him that an overabundance of love and joy made people think he was crazy. And that tended to attract the police.
Not that he really cared, because he loved the police. He admired them. They were heroes. He wished he could talk to some of them right at that very moment, tell them how much he appreciated what they did for the community. But he knew that if they detained him, that would get in the way of him his important mission.
He found the house and marched right up to the front door and knocked. No answer. He opened the door and went inside, and saw a girl sitting on a sofa in her pajamas and watching television.
“Hi, you must be Emily,” he said. “What are you watching?”
“Cartoons,” she said.
“Awesome. I love cartoons. And I love you, and I want you to know, Emily, that you’re special and important. I know things have been difficult, especially with your father, but we have to forgive him and understand that he’s had a very difficult life. But I do think it’s important that you spend time with your mother because she needs you. She’s very sad and she needs more love in her life. . . .”
He stopped, for the first time noticing Angry Sean and Debbie sitting at the kitchen table.
“What’s this?” he said. “Debbie, don’t tell me Jack has invited you back? That must be it! You’re together again. You’re going to be a family. This is wonderful!”
He went to Angry Sean and tried to give him a hug, but Angry Sean shoved him back.
The One True Sean didn’t care. “I understand that you’re angry, Sean, but why didn’t you answer my texts?”
Sean didn’t say anything. His jaw was clenched tight. The One True Sean noticed the gun on the table. How strange. Why would a reunited family, so filled with the joy of getting back together again and resolving all of their differences, need a gun?
“Where’s Jack?” Sean asked. “I want to hug him.”
“He’s not here,” Angry Sean said. “He never was.”
Through the love and joy in The One True Sean’s heart, a feeling he couldn’t quite comprehend popped into being. And with it came strange thoughts.
Was it possible that Jack and Debbie and Emily had not joined back together as a warm, loving family? If so, that meant something else was going on.
He took a couple deep breaths to center himself and reduce his exuberance so that he could really focus his attention on these people who needed him.
He pulled out a chair and sat down at the table and smiled at Debbie and patted her arm. “Everything’s going to be fine, dear,” he said. “Just tell me what’s happening.”
She looked down at the gun and then slowly raised her eyes to meet his. “I need the medallion.”
Surprise wasn’t the word for what Sean felt. Shock wouldn’t even begin to describe it. He’d forgotten all about the medallion.
He patted his chest. He could feel the outline of the object there beneath his shirt.
“How do you know about the medallion?” he asked. “Did Angry Sean tell you?”
The One True Sean knew he should be alarmed, but he really didn’t see what risk there was in this woman knowing. She was so sad. She really just needed help. She couldn’t hurt anyone.
“I would love to give it to you,” he said, “but it’s embedded in my flesh.”
The strike came so fast, The One True Sean didn’t see it coming. One moment he was looking at Debbie and the next he was looking at the ceiling with his back to the floor. His legs were still hooked over the edge of the chair. He had completed tipped over. Pain bloomed on his face. His heart nearly broke as he realized that Angry Sean had hit him.
Angry Sean looked down at The One True Sean. It had felt good to hit him. He wanted to hit him again, punch his smiling face over and over again till it was just a mash of bone and flesh. Like the crunchy eggs he’d made for Debbie.
But still, there was no point in prolonging the murder. Not in front of the girl, who didn’t need to see that kind of violence. It was bad enough that he’d been forced to hit TOTS in her field of vision.
Debbie burst into sobs and dropped her sodden cheek to the table. She covered her head with her arms. “Get it over with. Just get it over with.”
“What’s she talking about?” The One True Sean asked, smiling and trying to lift himself up from the floor.
Angry Sean considered the gun, but decided against using it. He dug in his pocket for the baggy of pills. He shook all six of them into his palm and held them out.
“Swallow these, TOTS.”
The One True Sean took them and looked at them. “But these will kill me.”
“I know. But you need to do it. You need to sacrifice yourself so that Debbie and her daughter can be happy again. You see, she is a Split.”
“It’s not possible.” The One True Sean’s cheerfulness made Angry Sean want to strangle him.
Not in front of the girl.
“If she gets the medallion back,” Angry Sean explained through clenched teeth, “then her True Debbie will return to her and she will balance out. The same way you do when I return.”
“Interesting theorey,” The One True Sean said. “But if I die, you’ll die.”
“I don’t think so. She’s proof of that.”
“Very interesting,” The One True Sean said as he struggle to his feet. “Truly fascinating. I didn’t think it was possible.”
He looked at the pills in his hand and then set them on the table. “I’m sorry. I really want to help. But I love myself. And it would be terrible to kill myself. I do so much good in the world. Maybe we can work out some other way to take care of the girl and make Debbie happy. Maybe she just needs cheering up.”
“You know that’s not how it works,” Angry Sean said. “Do you think that anger management would help me?”
“It might. I was thinking about that on the way over. It really might. There’s nothing love can’t overcome.
“Shut him up. Shut him up,” Debbie cried. She reached for the gun and swung it toward The One True Sean and pulled the trigger. The shot snapped out, hot and loud in the small kitchen. Emily shrieked.
Flakes of wood shot up from a cabinet as the bullet went wide.
TOTS swayed side to side on his toes like a tennis player. “I’m sorry, Debbie. But I must avoid your gunshots. Self-preservation can’t be overcome by will alone.”
“Oh no?” Angry Sean said. “And all the times you forced me to kill myself, you don’t think that will alone made me take the pills?”
“It’s not the same thing,” The One True Sean said. “You didn’t really die. You knew that all of your memories would return to me. Just like falling asleep and waking up from a bad dream.”
“A bad dream,” Angry Sean said. “I’ll give you a bad dream.”
He stood, grabbed his chair and swung it at The One True Sean.
TOTS dodged away, grinning. “I understand that you’re angry, but this is really preposterous. Just take some deep—”
Angry Sean swung the chair again.
“Hold still!” Debbie cried as she swung the gun to follow TOTS. She wiped a sleeve across her eyes to clear her vision.
Angry Sean swung the chair back and forth, forcing The One True Sean against the cabinets. He’d had enough. It was time to put an end to the confrontation. He set the chair down.
“I’m sorry, Sean,” he said. “This was a mistake. I see now that you’re right. Love can overcome anything.” He took a step forward, arms wide as if to give a hug.
TOTS spread his arms wide, too. “Bring it in!”
A gun blast deafened Angry Sean. TOTS’s eyes widened, and a bloodstain bloomed from his chest. He collapsed to the floor.
Gasping for breath, he recited: “Love’s all embracing womb encompasseth anger’s blazing tomb!”
The gun fell from Debbie’s hand and clattered on the floor. She slumped back into her chair, body convulsing with sobs.
Emily called from the living room, “What’s going on? Did you shoot mama?”
“No,” Angry Sean said.
He still wasn’t convinced that he would survive the death of The One True Sean. He considered taking the pills just to speed up his own end, but if there was a chance that he could live and be rid of his moronic other half, he had to wait it out.
And then it happened.
The One True Sean faded into dust and the dust disappeared. All that remained was the medallion, its chain a pool of silver on the tile floor.
Angry Sean stared at it, amazed, unable to believe he was free of it. He didn’t dare touch it.
“Debbie,” he said. “Debbie, take it.”
She lifted her head, then rose onto unsteady feet. She wiped a hand across her face, smearing tears and snot across her cheek. “It worked.”
Taking drunken steps, she crossed to where the medallion lay. She picked it up and drew the chain over her head.
She tore open her blouse. Popped buttons skittered across the tile floor. She pressed the medallion into the scar on her chest. As soon as she released it, the black disc fell away and dangled from the chain.
Debbie stumbled back to the kitchen table, pulled the chain back over her head and threw the medallion across the room. It bounced off the shattered cabinet and fell to the floor with soft click.
Her entire torso shook with sobs. “It didn’t work. It didn’t work. It didn’t work.” She buried her face in her hands and melted onto the table.
Angry Sean stared at her, torn between a desire to punch her and a burning need to destroy the medallion.
To vent some of his rage, he smashed his fist on the table, sending a huge crack down the center.
“What’s this?” Emily asked.
Angry Sean turned. The girl had picked up the medallion, held it up by its chain.
“Put it down.”
“Put it down.”
But the girl studied the relic with a fixed stare as she slowly hooked her other hand through the chain and spread it wide. She started to duck her head through the loop.
Angry Sean leapt for her.
Too slow. The medallion hung from her neck. Then it shifted, moved of its own power to center itself over her heart. Curls of smoke rose from it as it burned through her pajama top.
Emily watched it curiously, but without fear.
Angry Sean stood motionless, at a loss for what to do, but feeling certain he his brain was about to crack.
“It’s warm,” she said, amazed. A tear trickled down her face. “It’s wonderful.”
The medallion had sunk into the girl’s skin.
Angry Sean growled and spat out a string of curses. He turned to the girl’s mother. “Debbie. We’ve got a situation.”
Debbie didn’t move. She wasn’t crying, though. He went to her, pulled her head from the table. Her eyes stared blank and lifeless.
Sean hadn’t heard another gunshot, but he searched her for wounds anyway. And then he saw it. The pills The One True Sean had refused to take were gone.
“She’s dead, isn’t she?” Emily asked, looking at her mother.
“I’m afraid so,” Angry Sean said, gritting his teeth, forcing himself not to scream at the girl.
She didn’t react. If anything she seemed relieved.
“When does your father get home?” he asked.
“Dead,” she said, though she smiled.
“Wait a second.” He dug out the envelope containing the first five grand. There were two addresses written on it. The first was for this house. The second for a friend of Debbie’s. He entered the second address into his phone. A map popped up.
He cursed himself for not checking before. The second address was for a bank. He shoved the phone in his pocket. “Aunts? Uncles? Godparents?”
“None.” She took a step closer to him, looked up with wide, loving eyes. “All I have is you.”
Those eyes burned through his anger, producing in him a new feeling. It calmed him, though it was not love or happiness.
It was resolve.
“Do you have a backpack? Suitcase?”
“Go get your things. Clothes, toothbrush. Anything you absolutely cannot stand to part with.”
She didn’t question him, just ran to her room.
Sean patted the pocket that held the envelope of cash Debbie had given him. A quick search of the front hallway uncovered Debbie’s purse. He breathed through his teeth as he mined through dozens of snotty tissues. But he found what he was looking for. Another envelope containing the second half of his fee.
He’d definitely need it now that he had a kid to take care of.
Minutes later Emily returned, pulling a tattered pink suitcase behind her. The ear of a stuffed animal poked from the front pocket.
“You’re going to come with me. I have to show you how that thing works.” He pointed at her heart.
As they walked down the street together, he dialed 911.
“I need to report a suicide.”
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