by Kate Austen, 1631 words

The fundraiser for the diner took place—appropriately—in the old firehouse. The cavernous event space’s former use was evident from the hooks on the wall that once held helmets, axes and other equipment, and the oil stains on the concrete floor. One of the huge overhead doors was open in spite of the November chill, and a food truck outside dispensed tacos and empanadas, fifty per cent of the proceeds to go toward the rebuilding of the diner. Sven, whose own business was still closed pending a damage assessment, had contributed a keg of his special IPA and was pouring pints in exchange for a $5 donation to the diner fund.

            Meghan’s face ached from smiling as she greeted the hundred or so community members who came to offer their support and ask questions to which she could only mumble vague responses. Inside she was seething; it should have been her mother accepting the platitudes and hugs of strangers, not Meghan, but Amy was off hiding somewhere with Alice. Although she knew Alice was vulnerable and pathetic, Meghan couldn’t help thinking of her as the Evil Twin. She had stolen Meghan’s mother from her. It was hard to get her head around the new reality: her father was not dead; he was not even called Jeff Smith. Her mother had lied when she described a fairytale romance cut tragically short. And all this on top of a new sister who claimed her mother’s exclusive attention. She longed for the days when it was just Phyllis, Amy and her.

            Phyllis sat enthroned on the only comfortable chair in the place, with Ted hovering beside her. She looked pale and exhausted. The news that Willoughby had been taken to hospital after a freak accident did little to calm her frazzled nerves. She knew he wouldn’t give up on his vendetta against her family. Her statement to the police that Willoughby had set the diner afire carried little weight: she had not witnessed the crime, and Jerome was strangely reticent about identifying the blond man he’d seen with a gas can as Jeff Smith, the name Willoughby was now going by. All the police needed to do was check the records to discover that Jeff Smith was officially dead, but Officer Barney Pfeffer was not the sharpest crayon in the box.

            Flora had commandeered a mic and loudspeaker and was encouraging the crowd to donate generously. Her diminutive stature belied a forceful presence. “Come on, guys! Let’s fill this up with cash,” she yelled through the screeching feedback, as she lofted an old fire bucket over her head.

            “What about the insurance money?” came a shout from the crowd.

Flora looked over at Phyllis, who pursed her lips and whispered something in Ted’s ear. Ted ambled over and took the mic from Flora. “The insurance investigation’s ongoing. They’ve confirmed the fire was set deliberately, but until they identify the arsonist, they won’t pay out a penny. In the meantime, we have good folks out of work without a paycheck and bills that still need paying, so please give—”

“Where’s Amy?” another voice interrupted from the back of the room.

Again, Ted looked to Phyllis, who shook her head. Then to Meghan, who shrugged. He decided to ignore the question. “Please give generously!” But his voice was drowned in a rustle of conversation that sounded like wind through trees. Arson! Where’s Amy? Set deliberately! Where is she? Ted could almost see the rumor take off like a forest fire. Did Amy set the diner on fire for the insurance money?

Dwayne Schwartz had consumed three pints of Sven’s 8.5% ABV beer and was feeling the effects. The room shimmered, and bodies seemed to swim past him. He heard the whispers though. So maybe Jerome wasn’t responsible for the fire. Maybe it was Amy. He needed to investigate…tomorrow. Suddenly, one face across the room came into sharp focus: the man talking to Bilan and another guy who from his looks and coloring could only be Bilan’s brother. It was Dwayne’s father! Dwayne hadn’t seen him since Dr. Schwartz had thrown him out of the family’s Seattle home. Schwartz Sr.’s ambitions for wealth and prestige had set an impossibly high bar for his just-below-average son. Dwayne would never be smart enough, athletic enough, good looking enough. What was he doing here?

Dwayne veered between the urge to confront his father and smash a fist into his face, and the need to run away and hide from him, as he had done so often as a child.

“Are you okay?” Sven asked.

In reply, Dwayne folded forward and puked.

Alex arrived late at the fundraiser, having stopped at his house first to shower off the ashy grime, change into jeans and sweater, and polish up the gold piece he’d found.  He walked over to where Ted and Meghan were trying to persuade Phyllis it was time to go home to bed.

“Hi, I hope I’m not too late to contribute.” Alex extended his hand, palm upward. In it lay a shining gold piece about two inches across with a coat of arms and strange lettering around the edge. The coin bore the date 1898.

Ted’s eyes widened. “Where did you get this?”

“I found it in the wreckage of the diner, so really I’m just returning it to its proper owners. Do you know what it is?”

Ted picked up the gold medallion by its edges as if it was a delicate piece of china. “Yes, I saw others like this when I was prospecting in Alaska. It’s a Peter the Great medal.”

Alex took the piece back from Ted and examined it. “Isn’t that Russian lettering around the edge—Cyrillic alphabet?”

“Yes,” Ted pointed to the coat of arms. “And that’s the Tsar’s seal. You know that Alaska used to be part of Russia? Even after it became a U.S. territory, lots of Russians continued to live there. These medals were given to those Russians who had performed a special personal service to the Tsar. They’re very rare.”

“So, is it worth much?” asked Meghan.

“Oh, yes! A collector might pay as much as two-fifty for it.”

“Two hundred and fifty dollars?”

“No. Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars.”

The four stared in awe at the medal. Alex broke the silence. “Hello, Meghan. You probably don’t remember me from high school. It’s nice to see you again.” He smiled into her eyes and she felt herself blushing. No, I don’t remember you. How could I have forgotten that smile, those eyes, those shoulders… “Not surprising. I was a spotty little runt in those days.” And you were the Homecoming Queen, he thought. I worshipped you.

Alex held out the medal to Meghan, and as their fingers touched, she felt a charge of electricity between them.

“Thank you,” she breathed.

At that moment Barney Pfeffer pushed his way through the remaining guests to the group around Phyllis’ chair. He was panting and red-faced.

“I thought I should let you know. That Jeff Smith—or whoever he is— has checked himself out of the hospital. We don’t know where he’s headed, but he was making some pretty wild threats. He might be dangerous.”

Bilan didn’t know what to make of Dr. Schwartz. Yes, he had been very helpful to Tawfiiq, and said flattering things about her brother’s intelligence and medical skill. But he completely ignored his own son. Only tonight had Bilan understood that Dwayne the dishwasher was her brother’s mentor’s son. Or perhaps with her limited English, she had misunderstood. And she was also confused by his keen interest in her twin daughters. Tawfiiq explained that Schwartz was conducting a long-term study into twins, something about nature and nurture, genetics and environment. The long words were unfamiliar to her. Duolingo concentrated on everyday situations, not scientific experiments.

            Her instinct as a mother was to protect her girls from Dr. Schwartz. She didn’t want them prodded and poked, examined and interrogated, even in the interest of science. There was something creepy about the doctor and his obsession with twins. Tawfiiq told her that he had been collecting data for over twenty-five years and was soon to publish a book that would assure his place not just in the medical sphere but make him world famous. Schwartz just needed one more case study to contrast with the very first case study in the book: twin girls who had been separated at birth and brought up in different circumstances. Astur and Aamlina would be the perfect contrast.

            “Sister, do this for me,” Tawfiiq urged. “With Dr. Schwartz’ recommendation I can get a position anywhere I want after my residency is completed. You can stop waiting tables and the girls can go to the best schools.” Tawfiiq had walked Bilan back to her cabin after the fundraiser. She made tea for them both after checking on the sleeping girls.

            Bilan sighed. “I don’t know. I’m going to talk to Dwayne first. It’s strange that his father has rejected him.  Maybe Phyllis or Amy can advise me. They are wise and have raised daughters.” She sipped her tea.

            Tawfiiq expelled an exasperated breath. “Don’t spoil this chance for me, Bilan! It could change your life too!”

            Bilan thought about the lump in her breast, resisting the urge to touch it. She had put off doing something about the lump for many reasons: not wanting to miss work, not being able to afford treatment, but above all fear of the diagnosis. But she knew she had to take action soon. Perhaps if she agreed to the twins’ participation in the study, the doctor might treat her for free. Do such things happen in America? Free healthcare? She would ask Phyllis.