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#55

Last Two



            The last two quadruplets sat on the big front porch in chairs they’d dragged from the kitchen and watched a bland sunset turn pretty good at the last minute.

            “Roscoe tells the best stories,” said Thornton . “But he always starts laughing when he gets to the good parts and that makes it hard to hear the good parts.”

            “I can hear ‘em,” said Chaz. “I’ve never had trouble understanding him, even when we were young.”

             “I could use a good story now,” said Thornton . He leaned back in his chair and propped his feet up on the porch’s railing. The bug zapper zapped something, probably a bug. It was either raining very gently out there on the lawn or else the trees were just drippy.

            “Hint taken,” said Chaz, and for all practical purposes, he became Roscoe. Whether or not he’d been Roscoe before the flood took the others was hard to say. When a few weeks had passed and the missing bodies hadn’t turned up, the two remaining quadruplets filled in the gaps as best they could. That had been two decades ago. There was an official record somewhere of which of the quadruplets had died, but the two who remained could no longer verify its accuracy. The tragedy and the time since had blurred and blended their memories to the point that neither was quite sure which quadruplet was which, which two were dead, which were alive. It didn’t bother them.

            Thornton decided to be Chaz in the interest of fully understanding and therefore fully appreciating the story he was about to hear.

            “Any requests?” asked Roscoe, cracking his fingers two at a time just as he’d done since he was a boy.

            “Yeah,” said Chaz. “The one about you and Donnie breaking into the high school after hours.”

            Roscoe chuckled. “Well, Donnie always claims it was his idea, but I have a very vivid memory of approaching him with the plan.”

            Chaz became Donnie long enough to say, “It was my idea and you know it was and yet you always start this story by denying it.’” Then Chaz was back.

            “Donnie had snuck a master key out of the janitor’s room, whatever you call that place, a week before we broke in,” said Roscoe. “So that night we snuck out our bedroom window. You and Thornton were sleeping on the hide-a-bed in the study until uncle Forrest could fix your bunk beds. We rode our bikes all the way to the school and let ourselves in the back door by the gym. We took our bikes inside and rode them up and down the halls. Donnie rode on top of the tables in the cafeteria. He tried to bunny hop between them and split his lip.”

            Chaz became Donnie and said, “You make it sound like I wiped out right away. I did it four or five times before I split my lip.”

            Roscoe became Thornton and said, “You tell it different every time, Donnie. Last time you claimed you didn’t split your lip until the janitor was chasing you.”

            Donnie became Roscoe and said, “We’re not to that part yet, Thornton ! Hold your horses, we have to build to that!” He paused, his mind feeling the memory from front to back, and then he said, “But you’re right, the look on that janitor’s face…his glasses were so crooked….they looked like someone had just thrown them at his face and they’d happened to hang there…” Roscoe started laughing, shaking in his chair, his heels bouncing up and down on the porch railing, his words flowing together into nonsense.

            “What?” asked Thornton . “I can’t understand a word you’re saying.”

            The sound of sneakers slapping the wet pavement came towards the two remaining quadruplets out of the night.

            A boy of about fourteen appeared at the edge of the porch light’s area of illumination, running up the front walk, his long shoelaces flopping. “I need help,” he said, clearly scared, his voice cracking. “My little brother’s stuck.”

            The last two quadruplets got to their feet, one of them wiping tears off of his cheeks with the back of his index finger, the only sign that he’d been laughing just moments before.

            “Where? What happened?”

            “At my house,” said the boy. “We were playing hide and seek. He’s stuck in a closet. The way he’s screaming I think he’s hurt.”

            “Let’s go,” said one of the quadruplets. “Let’s go, let’s go.”

            The boy turned and ran ahead, the last two quadruplets jogging after him, grunting at the stabs of pain in their creaking joints.

 

            The men could hear the stuck boy screaming from outside the house. “How old is he? What’s his name?”

            “His name is ‘Kit,” said the older brother, leading the way into the house. “And I’m Leland. Kit’s only five. My parents are out. I’m babysitting him. I had to leave him alone to find help, hurry!” He ran up the stairs in long leaps, three steps at a time to the second floor, yelling, “I brought help, Kit!” the last two quadruplets wheezing and puffing up after him.

            Kit was in a closet at the end of the upstairs hallway, somehow stuffed into the second shelf from the top, facing out with his little body wedged tight, one arm sticking straight out, the other crammed under his side as he cried and struggled.

            “This isn’t what I expected,” said one of the quadruplets, breathing hard with his hands on his hips. “I thought you meant the door was stuck.”

            “No, no,” said Leland. “He’s stuck on that shelf. Shh, Kit, it’s OK, we’re gonna get you out.”

            Kit was hyperventilating, tears streaming down his face.

            One of the quadruplets examined the inside of the closet, crouching down and then standing up on his tip-toes. “The shelves are built into the wall,” he said. “I think we’re gonna need to cut down through the shelf above him.”  

            “What if you cut him too?” asked Leland.

            “Don’t cut me!” screamed Kit.

            One of the quadruplets became Chaz. Chaz was the best with kids. “You’re gonna be fine,” said Chaz. “No one’s going to cut you, Kit.”

            “You’ll be out and running around in no time,” said the other quadruplet, whoever he was at the moment. He turned to Chaz and said, “I’ll go get the circular saw out of the garage.” He seemed a little like Donnie as he hurried back up the hall and disappeared down the stairs.

“Wait a minute,” called Chaz, but his brother didn’t stop.

            Chaz turned back to Kit and said, “How’d you think of such a good hiding place, Kit? I know I never would have found you. How’d you get up there? You must be a great climber.”

            “It is a good spot,” said Leland, picking up the cue from Chaz. “I never would have found him if he hadn’t gotten stuck and started calling for help.”

            Kit’s frantic sobs began to subside as he forgot to struggle for a moment. “I hid here before,” he said. “No one found me.”

            “Pretty smart, aren’t you?” said Chaz, tapping his own forehead with his finger. “You remind me of my brother Roscoe. He always knew how to hide so no one would ever find him if he didn’t want ‘em to.”

            “Was that who went to get the saw?” asked Leland.

            “Where are some other good places to hide, Kit?” asked Chaz, ignoring Leland’s question. He didn’t know how to answer it. He didn’t know who had gone to get the saw, but he hoped it was Thornton . And not just a temporary Thornton, not just a life-long expert imitating Thornton’s mannerisms and borrowing his memories, but really Thornton, with all of Thornton’s real life technical know-how and Thornton’s sure, steady hands.

Unless, of course, he himself was Thornton, in which case he should be the one to cut the shelf with the circular saw, not whichever quadruplet it was who had gone to retrieve it. But no, Thornton wasn’t good with kids, and look how good he was being with Kit right now, look how much Kit had calmed down, he wasn’t screaming or crying or hyperventilating, he was just matter-of-factly naming good hiding places, arguing the merits of hiding under the bathroom sink with Leland. Chaz decided he wasn’t Thornton . It was a relief. Now it was just a matter of hoping the other remaining quadruplet was Thornton .

The front door banged open downstairs and Chaz and the boys heard someone thumping up the steps. Chaz turned and saw the mirror-image of himself coming down the hall, an old dusty circular saw in his hand, smiling at how much things had calmed down in his absence.  

            “We were just talking about hiding places,” said Chaz. Kit was eyeing the saw and Chaz could tell he was beginning to tense up again.

            “Listen,” said Chaz in a low voice, turning to the other quadruplet, his back to the boys. “You can do this without a…problem, right?”

            “Yeah, I can do it.”

            Chaz bit his lip. “I think Thornton should be the one to do it. He’s the best with tools. He has the steady hands.”

            “I agree,” said his quadruplet. “But I think I can do it.” He walked over to the closet and held the blade of the saw up against the top shelf, adjusting it so it wouldn’t quite cut all the way through.

            Chaz followed him, hovering over his shoulder. “So you’re not Thornton ? I mean, really? Are you sure you aren’t?”

            His brother turned to him. “I was thinking about it the whole way to the house and back and I’m pretty sure I’m Roscoe. But I don’t know.”

            “I’m not Thornton ,” said Chaz. “I know I’m not Thornton . Look how my hands are shaking.” He held his hands up for the other to see. They were indeed trembling. “I think I’m Chaz,” he said.

            “Well, either way, someone’s gotta cut Kit loose, right Kit?” Kit didn’t answer. His eyes were wide and teary and he was beginning to whimper again.

            “I don’t think you should do it unless you’re Thornton ,” said Chaz.

            “It’ll be fine. Plug me in.”

            Chaz picked up the circular saw’s thick, orange cord. “This kind of overconfidence is more like Donnie,” he said. “And you know as well as I do that Donnie would screw this up. I think we should call the fire department.”

            His brother snatched the cord out of Chaz’s hand, bent down, and stuck the plug into the wall outlet. He gave the saw a test rev, the blade whirring and flashing.

            Kit began to panic. “I don’t want to get cut! Don’t cut me!”

            “No one’s going to cut you,” said the quadruplet with the saw poised just above Kit, only the thin wooden shelf between his squirming little body and the sawblade’s serrated edge. “You won’t get cut, Kit. I’m not even gonna cut all the way through. Just most of the way and then we’ll break it. Ready?”

            “No!” screamed Kit.

            “Just get it over with!” yelled Leland.

            Chaz, or rather, the remaining quadruplet who believed himself to be Chaz, stepped forward and reached out toward his brother, wanting to force him to consider the consequences, to remind him that, knowing what they both knew of each of the quadruplets’ limits, expecting any of them except for Thornton to pull this off was asking for disaster. But before he could be stopped, the quadruplet with the saw pressed the base plate down on the top shelf and eased the saw forward, slicing into the flimsy particle board with a shrill buzz.

            “Hold still!” shouted Kit’s brother. Kit couldn’t hold still. His one protruding arm flailed as the saw cut into the shelf above him, sawdust spraying backwards in a smooth arc. Then the saw reached the wall with a bump, and whichever quadruplet had guided it now pulled it away, the blade humming to a halt. There was a cracking noise as Kit pushed upwards and the cut shelf split in two. Leland reached up to catch him just in time as Kit tumbled free.

            “That was a skilled cut,” said Roscoe or Donnie or Chaz or Thornton, admiring his brother’s handiwork as Kit cried with relief while Leland rubbed his numb legs. “ Thornton would be impressed.”

            Roscoe or Donnie or Chaz or Thornton brushed sawdust from his forearm and bent to unplug the saw. “Maybe so,” he said. “But I’d hate to speculate.”




Discussion Questions

  • Which quadruplet are you most like? Thornton, Chaz, Donnie, or Roscoe?



  • What makes you so sure you’re you? Is it the fact that you’ve never been in a flood that washed away some or all of your identical siblings?



  • Which two quadruplets do you think survived the flood



  • Are you convinced that the quadruplet who cut the shelf must have been Thornton since it went off without a hitch? Why or why not?



  • Over the course of twenty years, isn’t it conceivable that the surviving quadruplets might have changed in some ways? Maybe learned a new skill or two? Maybe had changes of heart on certain issues? Maybe learned some new information that resulted in changes of perspective?



  • Do you find your identity restrictive?



  • Summarize identity.



  • Actually, don’t summarize identity.