The Caretaker – No. 219

The driver turned the corner, and a line of blooming cherry trees and brick-faced apartments flanked the block.

“Number 32,” said Dr. Taylor before reclining in the van’s seat.

Sensing his attention shifting to her, Roz fumbled her purse strap over her shoulder.

“You don’t need to do it this way, Rozaline.”

“Ruby’s my responsibility. I have to check with her before I sign any paperwork.”

With a resigned bob of his head, Dr. Taylor smoothed his tie and adjusted the pleats in his khakis. In the rustling, Roz heard his litany of disagreements, the points he’d gone over in his office, over the phone, in the endless threads of emails. She eyed the briefcase sitting beside his polished loafers and wondered if just signing his forms might be more prudent. Turning back to the tinted window and passing brownstones, she sought a sure path.

Bold, bright red letters darted down the sidewalk, streaking the spring morning like they had her website. The manipulation of photographs she’d posted, the glut of raging comments waiting for deletion, the reactions of fans, of her agent Maggie, of her publisher and colleagues, bombarded her sense of calm. The letters she’d received, the messages peppering her travels, further stirred her unease.

A flush raced across her skin when the driver pulled to a stop.

“Rozaline?”

Dr. Taylor placed a light hand on her forearm. His gentleness contrasted with the tension in her muscles, the tightness of her fist. Flexing her fingers, Roz put them to work collecting the extra set of key from her purse.

“I shouldn’t be long.”

Dr. Taylor retrieved a cell phone from his blazer’s pocket and held it out as if she’d never seen one before. “I’m calling your number if I get worried.”

“Do what you need to do doctor.”

Seizing the door’s latch, Roz yanked it open and hopped out. She slammed the door back into place, Dr. Taylor’s concern joining her in the fresh air.

“He’ll have me in the room next door to yours, Rube.” Shivering at the idea, Roz marched on stiff legs to the stoop of apartment 32.

A row of dead plants cluttered each step, plastic prongs standing rigid and empty of birthday cards, green ribbons from Christmas wrapped around the rims. A wreath of now copper-colored pine needles hung on the front door.

In the window alongside, the edge of a heavy curtain inched aside. A shade peered out.

Roz pretended to ignore the spy as she pressed the doorbell three times.

The curtain dropped, and after a brief sway hung straight and still.

Roz started counting. She reached ten without another sign of movement inside. Claws gripped her chest as she slipped her key into the lock, twisted, and put her shoulder into the paint chips. Pine needles showered her sneakers, creating a tinny patter on the threshold. The plants’ musky scent of decay blended with the stuffy interior tinged with the smell of ink and used kitty litter.

Putting a hand to her nose, Roz entered and shut the door softly behind her. “Rube? It’s me, Roz.”

From the kitchen, a clatter of falling dishes replied. Roz tiptoed around the stacks of newspapers and phone books cluttering the short hallway, and brushed aside the wooden beads dangling in the archway.

At the sink, Ruby’s hasty ponytail bounced as she hustled plates and bowls with stuck on food into the gaping dishwasher. The faucet gushed, helping the tub of bubbles to build. Spatters wet the braided mat beneath Ruby’s bare feet.

“I was about to wash these up.”

Scrubbing at her temple, Roz skimmed over the pile of postcards held onto the refrigerator by magnets, avoiding the take out containers, ripped boxes of cereal, rotting fruit in bowls, and tower of open cat food cans on the kitchen table.

“I’m not worried about the dishes, Rube.”

“Oh?” Ruby shut off the faucet, her shoulders hunched beneath an oversized sweatshirt. “You’re here because of the website then.”

“Yeah.”

Ruby turned from the sink, her damp hands kneading the heather-gray sweatshirt and leaving a patchwork of dark splotches. “Are you mad at me?”

Bottling the truth, Roz motioned at the living room across the hall. “Can we sit down?”

Ruby brightened. “Sure, sure.”

She dashed from the kitchen and started flinging magazines, library books, and dirty clothes off the living room’s couch. With them tumbling on the floor, she began clearing the mismatched side chair.

“Just give me one more second.”

Perching on the edge of the couch’s paisley cushion, Roz placed her purse in her lap and watched Ruby’s next bustle at the computer desk strewn with post-it notes and printed pages. Ruby’s fingers flashed over the keys, the mouse moving in jagged spurts. Windows flickered, some browsers, others black with green code, others full of pictures and colors.

Something caught Ruby’s attention and she paused long enough to read. She barked a snickering laugh, sat, and typed in a clacking blur.

The clicks went on for another count of ten and Roz twisted the strap of her purse. “Rube?”

Ruby jolted upright. The casters of her chair groaned, wheels crunching crumbs on the plastic mat when she slowly rotated. Roz met her gaze, her blue eyes wide and darkened by sleepless bags.

“Roz,” said Ruby. “You’re here about the website?”

“Yes, Rube.” Ceasing her twist of purse straps, Roz sought an even tone. “You can’t keep hacking into my account and changing things, adding things. It makes me look bad.”

“But it’s mine,” said Ruby, “it’s me.”

“No Rube, the website’s mine. It’s me.”

Ruby swiveled back to the computer. A click and tap brought up the site. Roz rose and stood at Ruby’s side, willing the articles, the photographs, and conversations remained as she’d written or posted them that morning before her appointment with Dr. Taylor.

Clean text contrasted against the white background. The header glowed, the sunset she’d captured off the New Zealand coast nearly whisking her from Ruby’s living room. Three new comments had been added to her recent discussion of rural amenities while on safari near Kilimanjaro and a clutch of her animal shots had received fresh likes.

“You see.” Ruby pointed to the lone headshot Maggie had insisted on including.

Remembered tugs on her scalp had Roz’s toes curling. The hairdresser she’d hired before Maggie’s photographer friend’s photo shoot had managed to make some semblance out of short crop of dark hair. An electronic touch up had smoothed the start of wrinkles earned from days in tropical or arctic suns. Her blue eyes sparkled more than they did after the most restful sleep, dark bags disappeared, and contrasted with the tan she’d earned from a research trip in Mexico.

Ruby poked at the image with a spindly finger, her jagged nail thumping the screen. “It’s me.”

“No, Rube.” Roz dropped to the arm of Ruby’s chair, and stared into the tired and pasty face so close to her own. “That’s me.”

“No!”

In a flurry, Ruby bolted to her feet and snatched a mirror out of the array of knickknacks, opened mail, newspaper clippings, printouts, and books filling her desk’s tower of shelves. She faced herself, and then looked at the screen. She dropped like a brick back into her chair.

“It’s me.”

“No, Rube.” Roz slid the mirror from Ruby’s trembling fingers. She set it beside the keyboard, reflective side down. Pivoting the chair, she put Ruby’s back to the screen. “That’s why I need you to stop making changes. The website is part of my work. When you make changes it causes trouble for me with my agent, my boss.”

“With Maggie?”

“Yes, with Maggie.” She bit her tongue before listing the others who’d upbraided her for each electronic misstep, for every factual error, for each random post.

“But how else am I supposed to get you to visit?”

“What?” Roz tilted onto her heels, her grip on the armrests the only thing keeping her from falling. “Is that why you’re doing this?”

Ruby stared into her hands, her face flushed. “Maybe.”

“Oh Rube, why didn’t you tell me?”

She twisted the hem of her sweatshirt. “You don’t answer you phone and you’re always gone.”

“I write.”

“You write,” whispered Ruby.

She tried to spin back to the computer but Roz held on, keeping the chair in place. The blockade brought her Ruby’s confused scowl.

“I messed up again didn’t I?”

“Rube.” Roz forced her fingers to relax, the waver out of her voice, the guilt down into her belly. “I need you to do me a favor.”

The uncertain lines on Ruby’s face vanished and eagerness took their place. “Anything.”

“You remember Doctor Taylor?”

Ruby’s features contorted, this time with concentration. The fingers of one hand tapped at the air as if keying up the memory in her brain. She found an answer somewhere and her face cleared. “The head man?”

“The head man yeah.” Dropping to her knees, Roz took Ruby’s hands and cradled them. “He has a special place I’d like you to visit.”

“Like you visit places?”

The claws returned, raking across Roz’s chest. “Sure.”

“And I can write articles and take photographs?”

“I think so,” said Roz, “we’ll have to check with him.”

“I would like to visit someplace new.” Ruby glanced around the living room, her nose wrinkling. “This place gets so messy.”

“I’m sure Dr. Taylor’s place will be much neater.”

A rustle from the litter box had Ruby on her feet, her hands stripped from Roz’s grasp. She made it to the living room’s doorway before stopping short and hugging herself snug.

Rising, Roz came up behind her. “Rube?”

Ruby swung around, black hair flinging, her eyes wide, her whole body shaking. “What about Mop?”

Plucking a strand of disheveled hair, Roz tucked it behind Ruby’s ear. “I already checked. You can take Mop with you.”

“And you’ll visit me there?”

“Of course I will.” Roz stroked Ruby’s pale cheek, the sharp line of her cheekbone. Ruby snatched her hand and found her other one, cradling both as Roz had cradled hers.

“This will make you happy?”

Roz squeezed Ruby’s hands. “I think this will make both of us happy.”

“I’d just be happy not feeling like I’m—” Ruby’s grip tightened and she stared at the screen, her gaze locked on the headshot. “Like I’m in two places…”

Stepping between Ruby and the computer, Roz captured her gaze. “You’re not in two places, Rube.”

“I don’t understand.” Skepticism entered her eyes. “I’m looking at me right now.”

Guilt burrowed into Roz’s bones. “I’m Rozaline, Rube. I’m your sister.”

Ruby tilted her head. “But you look like me.”

“We’re twins remember?”

Roz held her breath while Ruby’s eyes lost focus and the idea processed. She locked back on a few eternal seconds later. “That’s why we look alike?”

“Yes,” whispered Roz.

“But that doesn’t make sense. How can I be my own sister?”

“I promise it does make sense, Rube, and Dr. Taylor’s going to help you understand.”

“Dr. Taylor?” Rube’s fingers twitched. “The head man. At his special place?”

“At his special place.”

“Where I can take Mop and you’ll visit?”

Roz’s vision watered like a heat above a desert road. “You got it.”

The notion swirled around in clouds Roz suspected swarmed between Ruby’s ears. Her sister scanned over the desk, the jumble of the living room, the bookcases, the clothing, the general disarray. When she returned, a spark of clarity glinted in her eye and a timid smile appeared on Ruby’s lips.

“I think that would be a good idea.”

Roz filled her lungs with a litter-tainted breath. “Me too.”

“We’re going now?”

“If you’re ready.”

“Then I should let everyone know.”

Ruby bolted free and sank into the desk’s chair. Hunching over the keyboard, her fingers flew. Windows started popping up, text streaming. One hacked through a firewall and security. The sunset-topped website appeared on the screen again, administration access open.

“Rube.” Leaning over the chair, Roz lifted her sister’s hands from the keys.

Ruby tugged against her hold. “But Maggie, my fans, they have to know.”

“I’ll tell them okay?”

Ruby glanced over her shoulder. “You promise?”

“I promise.”

The living room’s clutter claimed her again and the tension leaked from Ruby’s body. “I should go.”

“And we’re going to go.”

“Together?”

“Together,” said Roz.

She coaxed Ruby from the chair and slipped her arm through the thin twig of her sister’s limb.

“What about Mop and my clothes?”

“I’ll take care of everything, Rube. Your job is to check out Dr. Taylor’s special place and tell me what you think of it.” Roz began a methodical walk to the front door, Ruby plodding at her side.

“I can write you an article,” said Ruby, “and take pictures.”

“If you want. Or you can tell me yourself when I visit.”

Ruby grinned. “I like that part.”

Collecting a discarded jacket from atop the pile of newspapers, Roz worked her sister into the sleeves.

“Yeah.” She buttoned jacket and smoothed the lapels while swallowing the lump in her throat. “I like that part too.”