I’ve been killed and incarcerated, tortured and seduced, stalked and obsessed. I’ve been the murderer and the victim, the detective and the fugitive, the hero and the villain. I’ve died over and over again. In the swamps of Louisiana, on the streets of Chicago, in a small suburban town where nothing ever happens. I’ve been a housewife, a call girl, a forensic anthropologist, a secretary, an assassin, a nun. And whether I am angel or demon, innocent or damned, only one person is to blame: my sister, Ava Hallett.
Everyone in America has read every detail in her books, seen her on the talk-show circuit, eaten popcorn while I weep and bleed on the silver screen. The only reason she doesn’t have a television series is her apparent inability to write a series. One stand-alone bestseller after another, and I’m the common denominator.
Ava is older than I am, and she laid claim to writing as casually as calling dibs on riding shotgun. And she didn’t stop there. Every job, every hobby, every boyfriend or passion or goddamn private thought I’ve ever had, she’s jammed into a novel. She takes my life and murders it, over and over again.
I wish I were more zen, a person who could let this shit go. I should have joined the Peace Corps or backpacked through Thailand. Without her, maybe I would have been ordinary, the kind of girl who goes to college in her hometown and marries the boy next door. Instead, I ditched everything—my hometown in Northern Virginia, my relationship with my dysfunctional family, and the girl I used to be. Because of Ava, I’m living over fifteen hundred miles away in the suburbs of Houston, under an assumed name.
I sit, anonymous, with two other moms—Bethany and Felicia—at the edge of a playground, pretending to watch all the kids going up and down the slides. And I feel as if my happily-ever-after days in Texas must be numbered. This happiness is too easy. There’s no way I can hold onto it.
The other two moms and I watch our kids, parallel-playing in three separate areas. In sync but separate. Bethany’s son is hanging by his knees from the climbing frame, Felicia’s son spins around and around with his arms flung wide, and my stepdaughter Emma is poking through the mulch with a stick.
Bethany sits next to me in the shade. She’s heavily pregnant, and sweat beads lightly under her bangs. Although she’s pushing forty, her blonde hair is up in a ponytail and she wears denim cutoffs like a teenager. She’s been talking at a brisk clip around the wad of gum in her mouth, words pouring out of her.
“Dan was in oil, so he spent years traveling overseas, working for the money. He banked every dollar he made. Then he had a layover in Atlanta, went to a Waffle House, and I was his waitress. I tell you what, his family was not thrilled that he’d found himself a divorced single mom with a teenager, a toddler, and a crazy ex, but now that we’ve got a boy of our own on the way, they’ve got nothing to say.” Bethany pats her stomach complacently.
I glance over at Felicia, and sure enough, she’s not even suppressing her smirk. The beautiful thing about Bethany is that she gives you all the gossip you’d ever want to know about her, right to your face. She’s not ashamed of anything. I love that about her.
Felicia and I, we like to know what’s going on with people, their stories. Felicia used to work behind the scenes in television, something about scripts and layout, which I always thought was just for magazines. She’s very visual, and I know she’s loving the picture Bethany makes as she tilts her head back and takes a swig from her Diet Pepsi.
You’d think someone with secrets like mine couldn’t be friends with someone like Felicia, wouldn’t you? But the key to covering up your past is to layer in a story that’s good enough to be a distraction. My personal smoke screen is the way I met my husband, Andrew, on FindMyMatch.com.
In a way, our story is the inverse of Bethany’s. He was the single parent, I was the self-sufficient stranger—although I wasn’t rich, and I was on the run. Not that Andrew knew that. For him, my smoke screen had to be that I was an only child, in mourning for my parents, who’d died together in a car crash. I almost backpedaled when I learned that his wife had died in childbirth. But in the end I just added that guilt to the pile I’d already accumulated. Andrew was calm, smart, and patient, and Emma seemed like the one thing I’d been waiting for my whole life. I fell hard for them both, but I didn’t kid myself that I deserved them. All I could hope was that starting all over as a new person with a loving family would give me a chance to earn it for real.
When I told the story to Felicia, I spun a dozen tales of online dating nightmares. I could get laughs for the imaginary guy with the foot fetish, the one whose wife crashed our date, the one who only referred to himself in the third person. “We are so lucky,” I told her. “We’ve got great guys. The world is full of crazies.”
Not like me. I’m only crazy on paper. Once I shed my past, I left all the madness behind. Maybe I am lying about my name, but I’m being honest now. I love the feel of the sun on my face, my friends beside me, the happy shrieks of children. I’m not lying about anything that really matters. Not now.
“Lizzie!” Emma comes running over to me with something clenched in her hand. “Look what I found!”
I steel myself as she sticks her hand uncomfortably close to my face. This discovery could be anything from a beetle to a used eraser. She unfolds her chubby fingers to reveal a rhinestone pendant with the top loop broken off. The letter is “L.”
“It’s real diamonds, and L is for Lizzie.” Eagerly she presses it into my hand and takes off again, mulch flying under her feet. I curl my fingers over the trinket, wishing that Lizzie actually were my real name or anywhere close to it.
“Sweet,” Felicia says, and I can see that she’s glad she isn’t holding somebody else’s discarded junk. Her turn will come around again. I still remember when her daughter started collected leaves—everything that came out of Felicia’s purse for weeks was powdered with dried brown leaf fragments.
“Want a piece of gum?” Bethany asks, adding another stick to the bulge in her cheek.
I shake my head as Felicia’s phone buzzes. She pulls it out, then looks up at us. “Getting together a carpool for book club. You going?”
Bethany shrugs. We all know she isn’t interested. Even at the pool, she never pulls so much as a magazine out of her bag. I have been a regular at the book club, even though I tell myself it’s a mistake every single month. And when this month’s book was nominated, I tried to trash it. I said I’d heard it was derivative and slow, with nothing to discuss. But it didn’t work. Ava’s books are always best-sellers. Even a book club with a taste for literary fiction couldn’t overlook a thriller for women, about women, and by a woman. By everyone’s favorite author, everyone but me.
“I can’t make it this month,” I lie.
Felicia won’t let it alone. “If Andrew’s out of town, just get a sitter. My neighbor’s daughter needs pocket money.”
“We’ll see.” I try to be noncommittal, but she shoots me a look that says, I see right through you. Liar.
“Bring Emma over to my place. Tom won’t mind watching one extra.”
“I’ll let you know.”
While normally I crave the feeling of being wanted and valued, I can’t handle three hours of discussing my sister’s latest book. It’s the only one I haven’t read, the one she wrote after I went “off the grid.” The book club provided a little description of the story, set off the coast of New England, and it didn’t sound like my life, but I’ve been fooled into complacency before, only to be struck by the dagger she hides—just for me—in the heart of every novel.
I’m scared to read this book, scared that it could suck me back into the person I was before.
And, honestly, I’m scared to see what my sister knows.
That night Andrew is home early, after Emma’s dinner but before her bath. “I’ll take it from here,” he tells me. “Put up your feet and relax.”
Our grown-up dinner is waiting in the crockpot, so I pour myself a glass of wine, listening to the sound of running water from the bathroom, the deep rumble of Andrew’s voice, and the piping counterpoint of Emma’s. I never thought I would have this kind of life, and relaxing into it isn’t easy. Compulsively I run a dishrag over the countertop, even though there’s not a crumb on it. I always clean the house aggressively, using products that are safe or even homemade, with vinegar and baking soda. I want it fresh, spotless, safe for Emma. When this all falls down, no one will be able to say I didn’t do everything right.
In the hour before Andrew walked through the door, I took a slug from a bottle of bourbon stashed under the sink among the cleaning supplies. The fire in my throat helped me push Ava and her book away, while I arranged Emma’s bits of cooked chicken, leftover steamed broccoli, and goldfish crackers on a melamine plate divided into three sections.
Emma is an easy child, especially considering that she has passed her “terrible twos” and is living out the last months of her “even worse threes.” She likes order, so I made a point of choosing three kinds of food, one for each section, in an equal amount. She went around on her own, taking a bite of chicken, then broccoli, then a goldfish to close it out. Once her plate was clean she held out her hands, and I gave her a kiss on each soft palm, followed by a graham cracker.
We are usually on our own for Emma’s meal and the rest of her evening routine. Houston traffic is unpredictably terrible, and we live in the suburbs “outside the loop” of the beltway. On any given evening Andrew might get home in half an hour or over two hours, depending on the situation.
If Bethany’s in-laws were Andrew’s, they might say that he found marrying a nanny cheaper than keeping one on. I don’t mind yet. Children live in the moment, in the little things of life, so Emma keeps me here, in this happy place. And maybe because she isn’t my flesh and blood, I never feel competitive or resentful. Sometimes I wish she were a little older, a little less of all the things a three-year-old child often is—hungry, tired, bored, whiny, messy—but for the most part we get on easily together. Being with her makes me a better person.
Andrew is also easy to get along with. I chose him for his open gaze, his straightforward approach, and his undemanding nature. His wife died giving birth to Emma, something I didn’t think happened in America anymore, and over two years later he was ready to “test the waters,” as he put it. That’s how we came to meet on the dating site that served as my smoke screen. He doesn’t look for lies in me. And if you don’t count the big one, the one I told up front, I don’t have to lie to him.
But sometimes I get that sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Because lies have a way of surfacing, and I want so much for this Lizzie—wife, mother, friend—to be real. Andrew doesn’t deserve a fake.
He returns with Emma in his arms, a fine mist of soapy sweetness hovering over them both. “Say good night, sweetheart.” He tilts her toward me.
As her warm, damp cheek presses against mine, she whispers, “Good night, sweetheart,” and giggles.
“Good night to you, my Emma Bean.” For a moment this is the only thing that’s real, this family—a mom and a dad and this loved child. Then Andrew turns with Emma, and I feel the chill of the air-conditioning on my abandoned cheek.
I take another sip of wine, a sip that’s a little too big. As I hear Andrew setting up Emma’s room with the nightlight, special blanket, and lullaby bear, I speed to the fridge. The bottle of white is almost empty, so I swig it down, hide the empty bottle at the bottom of the recycling bin, and fill my glass with a serving from a new bottle. Not cold, but that’s okay.
I’ve put in the wine-saving plug and have the refrigerator open when Andrew comes back into the kitchen.
“You want a glass?” I ask, hoping he’ll say no. Drinking warm white wine looks bad, and I’m invested in looking right. We’re just weeks shy of our first-year anniversary, and Andrew still thinks I’m a good person.
He nods, then hesitates. “What’s for dinner?”
“Beef stew. We have red.” I think we have red. Unless I drank it all.
“I’ll go with a beer instead.” He comes up behind me and puts one arm around my tensed waist, reaching with the other to snag a bottle of Saint Arnold Santos. “Let’s watch the news before we eat.”
Prime-time television in Texas comes on an hour earlier than it does on the East Coast, where I grew up. There’s no way we can watch the nightly news together unless we record it, so we always do. We settle together on the sofa, knees touching, drinks in our hands, and push play.
The newscaster is in the middle of a story, but it’s the photo behind her that makes me clench my wine glass. Ava. A publicity photo that shows her leaning against a brick wall, her blonde hair barely brushing the shoulders of her tailored leather jacket. It takes a second for me to make sense of the words written across the photo: “Life Imitates Fiction.”
That’s how I learn that my sister is missing.
How is the disappearance of one woman national news? When that woman is a New York Times best-selling author whose books are made into blockbuster movies, when she writes story after story about women who are missing or kidnapped or killed, and when her husband makes a teary-eyed plea to the cameras for “any news at all”—that’s a guaranteed eyes-glued-to-the-screen scenario.
I’m not prepared. Not for any of it. Not for the rush of fear and love I feel for Ava, even after all she’s done. I want to unsee the news, dial the evening back to me and Andrew on the sofa, safe and happy. The way he thinks we still are.
One unfortunate side effect of cutting yourself off from your family is that nobody calls to tell you there’s been an accident or a tragedy. And when you learn that your sister has gone missing, you can’t let your husband know anything is wrong. Not without blowing up the new life you have with him. All he knows about Ava is that she’s a writer on our book-club list. That’s on me. I’ve got the schedule stuck to our fridge.
The final notes of the nightly news theme are fading away. Andrew looks at me. “You should definitely go to book club tomorrow night. This whole thing is going to make the discussion unforgettable.”
Unforgettable. I clench the stem of my empty wine glass, remembering the way Ava always sucked the life, the attention out of every space. I can’t believe she’s missing. I will not believe it. This has got to be another one of her games.
As Andrew putters around the house after dinner, I step onto the front porch with the disposable phone I keep secretly charged and hidden in a sugar bowl in the china cabinet. All the china was chosen by Andrew’s first wife. Although he encouraged me to choose something else, I loved stepping into this ready-made life.
The air is steamy hot, not cool and crisp like the autumns of my childhood. When the sun goes down in Texas, heat continues pulsing off the pavement, so there’s no reprieve. On the front steps, the street stretches away from me on either side, lined with rows of houses in brick. In this planned community, every home is a variant on a single plan. It would be a perfect setting for one of Ava’s stories, all the houses made of ticky-tacky.
I open the phone and dial the only number I ever call from it, my parents’ landline, but it goes straight to voicemail. I hang up without leaving a message. Bitterly I think that I could leave them this number, ask them to call me when they know something. But if they wanted to find me, they would have already. The reason I’ve disappeared so successfully isn’t this burner phone, it’s that nobody is looking for me.
I stand on my front step for another moment, trying to tamp down my rising anxiety. Ava is probably just building publicity for her new book, or holed up with a new guy, or looking for a quiet place to write. She’s never been overly concerned about the feelings of other people. She’ll turn up, and nobody will know who I am.
Ava’s fine. I will be too.
I believe my own lie enough to fall asleep, but unease runs through every dream. In them I’m chasing Ava through a forest of twisted, sentient trees. I wake up with my heart pounding and the sheets twisted like a bandage around my ankles. Beside me, Andrew sprawls flat on his back, arms open, palms up, his breathing deep and rhythmic. I wish I felt that free and open, even in sleep.
Silently I slip my feet out of the coiled bedclothes and pad to the other room, where my laptop is charging on the counter. Andrew gave it to me last Christmas, and I’m still a little suspicious of it. I don’t shop online, and my social-media presence is nonexistent. Our joint family email address is the only one I share with the book club and the preschool. Even so, I clear my browser history and power the whole thing off every time I’m done.
Now I think back to the time before, back when my name was still Zoe, before I had a suburban life and disappeared into a cadre of other moms. My hands hover over the keyboard as I remember the crappy student apartment, the babysitting gigs and bookstore job I used to supplement my graduate student stipend. I type in that old email address—my actual name and the server. To remember the password, I close my eyes against the pale glow of the screen and remember the release date of Ava’s previous book.
I was working the evening shift at the bookstore, and a huge flat of Ava’s books was waiting in the receiving area for the next morning’s official release date. Straightening the shelves and pulling special orders, I tried not to think about what Ava might have written. I was tired of being disappointed in my callous parents, tired of being angry, tired of living under a spotlight. Or not a spotlight—more like the focused beam from a giant magnifying glass, and I, the hapless ant, was always scurrying away to avoid being burned alive.
The difference with this book was that Ava now had a reason to be angry with me. Before, I hadn’t done anything. I was just trying to live my life. But this time I had broken a taboo. Not only had I coveted my sister’s man, I had taken him.
And when I sliced open the first box of books and lifted one out to put on the display tower, I couldn’t help flipping it open. The story of a husband, seduced by his sister-in-law and then framed for a murder she’d committed. The dedication didn’t mention me. It read: “To Glenn, my own true love. May you get from life all the joy you have given me.”
That was the moment when I decided to burn my own life to the ground and start all over again as someone else. There was no way to be free of Ava, as long as I was Zoe.
As the oldest of four sisters, I’ve always been fascinated with the way siblings struggle to claim their own self-identity, while also projecting and misrepresenting that of their “competition.” My first published short story, “Margaret’s Magnolia,” shows how one sister can misread the other’s situation, even while trying to support and defend her.
Once Two Sisters is a psychological thriller about two estranged sisters. The youngest, Zoe, is hiding out from her sister and living in Texas under an assumed name with her husband and stepdaughter. One evening she sees a news story about a missing best-selling author—her big sister, Ava. Ava mined her little sister’s life for the plots of her novels, until finally Zoe fled to build a life free from her famous sister’s grasp. Now she believes this “disappearance” is just another of Ava’s twisted fictions, but the authorities consider Zoe a prime suspect. And, as it turns out, Ava isn’t the author of these events. She’s been taken captive by a woman with an attack dog, a cattle prod, and a single-minded obsession with Ava’s own distant parents and their military research.
But I didn’t want to settle for a story where every character is twisted and out for herself. Although the sisters are alienated emotionally, their physical distance helps them to reexamine their relationship and ultimately brings them back together. After all, Ava is the only one in the world who actually experienced Zoe’s childhood, and Zoe is the only one who can really understand Ava’s past.
Using the emotional skills that she’s built with her friends and family in Texas, Zoe races to clear her name and rescue her sister. Through her isolation and fear, Ava recognizes her own need for a real connection with Zoe, a need she’s been expressing obliquely through fiction. And Zoe realizes that her past doesn’t have to be her future. No longer adversaries, the reunited sisters are ready to erase the mistakes of the past and rebuild a family relationship, understanding that, in life and in fiction, happiness comes from the choices we make.
My three younger sisters have all read my published and unpublished work and are unafraid to give me their honest opinions, always with love.
Sarah Warburton lives in Blacksburg, Virginia. For ten years she was the lead writer for the monthly magazine UpClose. She has studied writing with Pam Houston at the Taos Writers Workshop and with Justin Cronin in Houston. Her story “Margaret’s Magnolia” appeared in the Southern Arts Journal, and her story “Life Script” won first place in a Women on Writing Flash Fiction contest. She is a member of Sisters in Crime.
Embark, Issue 7, January 2019