It was bound to happen. Or some version of it. Right afterwards, people said it was incomprehensible. The papers called it ‘baffling’, newscasters ‘an unthinkable tragedy’. But later, those who stopped to consider, those who knew us, thought otherwise. No-one said it completely, certainly not around me, but after the initial shock died down, and all the right things had been said, people began to speak more freely. They started sentences, or ended them, with no single person ever managing to reach point B after starting at point A.
‘If you follow the trajectory …’ Aunt Jo said.
‘Not that I would have predicted that,’ Clayton, the neighbour to our right, said.
The neighbour to our left, Mrs Gibbs, said, ‘Nothing at all in life is entirely predictable, but there are patterns, which …’
‘A logical consequence …’
‘Such that the cruelty of life …’
‘So cruel! Brutal, really …’
‘And then, there was such closeness …’
‘If anything about this could make sense,’ Clayton began, and decided to end there.
To our parents, nothing made sense. But then, they were always outside Elsa and me.
We weren’t like those twins who finish each other’s sentences or feel, tangibly, the other’s pain. If Elsa pinched her arm, my own remained settled. If she sliced tiny parallel grooves into her upper thigh—as she did for a few weeks in high school, before abandoning it, disappointed—I wouldn’t know until she lifted her school uniform and showed me. I never had to ask why, though, so perhaps it’s not so different.
When we were younger, around nine or ten, our class was given a pen-pal exercise. We were each assigned two sheets of A4 paper, an envelope, an HB pencil, and an equivalent in South East Asia—Elsa got Truc, I got Truong. These children had very little by way of property or English, we were told, so our correspondence was reduced to a series of questions so simple that we soon lost interest in any response. What is your favourite colour? How many brothers and sisters do you have? What is your favourite food? We didn’t write about any of the things that occupied us—Mariah Carey, mood rings, whether Macauley Culkin had to share his earnings with his parents, and also, if he had a girlfriend.
When we finally heard back—Truc favoured blue, Truong liked pork—Elsa and I decided to write to each other instead. With her, I didn’t have to wonder if references to a television might cause her grief, and she could mention pocket money with impunity. Perhaps it was solipsistic, and certainly went against the stated aims of the project, but there was something miraculous in it too, as if one could write to oneself and hear back anew, the coin flipped up from inside the wishing well. We still posted each letter, and waited as the mail was sifted into bills and supermarket advertising, until our mother found the small peach envelopes and handed them over. Most of it we knew, of course—Elsa’s recurring dream, my fear of cats—but some letters brought novelty. For a week she was convinced that she’d developed a lisp. In another letter, she wondered if each species of bird had roughly the same level of intelligence—so lorikeets on a par, crows equalled only by other crows—or if there was as great a variance as there was in humans.
She turned to me one day and said, ‘We should always do this.’ And for nearly two years we did: each week another letter from the interior, until we began to worry our mother was snooping and decided nothing should be committed to paper. The letters we wrote later—the ones the police tracked down after searching our luggage—I sometimes considered part of the same project. We were 18 by the time we wrote them, and well beyond birds and cats. I suggested it, and Elsa agreed. There are those who thought it strange, but it seemed more natural and necessary to find one of the survivors, the friend, and reach out.
Elsa and I had sat by the television for days, watching the coverage: the school shot from all angles, and then, in the coming days, the story. It was the first of its kind, on that scale, and its debut left us all breathless. Our father watched the footage, eyed the two boys, the riddled school and candle vigils, and said the genie was out, and there was no putting it back in. ‘You watch,’ he said, ‘this won’t be the last time, now it’s possible.’
‘It’s always been possible,’ our mother said.
He gave her a look, as if she was just being contrary. ‘Yes, but now we know it.’
Elsa and I cried as we never had before, without its feeling at all unfamiliar. Perhaps our parents should have tried harder to uncleave us—from the news, from each other—and, left to feel our way out of it, we instead felt our way further in.
We were 26 when we left for America. Our mother told people that we wanted to spread our wings, that the country had become too small to contain us. ‘Calliope starts a new job in January, a good job,’ I heard her say, ‘so it’ll be their last chance in a long while for the girls to travel.’
‘Let’s just eat ribs and get fat,’ Elsa said.
‘Sounds good,’ I replied.
I hadn’t known that Elsa had kept the boy’s letters, or that she’d bring them along. I might have objected, but not strenuously, and in the end it probably didn’t matter.
We arranged flights to Los Angeles, with plans to travel inland. ‘I don’t want any of the coastal America, really,’ she said. ‘Let’s go where it flattens out in the middle, where there’s nowhere to turn but America. That seems right.’
‘Yes, cosy,’ she said. ‘You got it.’
She was more excited about this trip than she had been about anything else over the past three years. She stopped medicating, saying that if my genes could handle it, so could hers. We didn’t bother to tell anyone, agreeing that I would act as her trellis. ‘I can just hitch myself to you, Callioop’—saying my name as she often did, as the basketballing throw: Alleyoop!—‘then I’ll grow straight.’
At the duty-free store, after customs, I found her crying into a display of maximising mascara.
‘We okay?’ I asked.
‘We’re okay,’ she said, once she’d wiped her face clear. She checked the redness in the mirror and noticed a saleswoman looking our way, hesitant about bridging the distance. ‘Do me a favour, though? Give her a big smile. The biggest you can.’
I turned and located her. She was half-holding the counter and her expression, too, was at a midway point. I gave her my widest smile, which cracked at the dry points of my mouth and which, even to me, felt a kind of madness, an unloosing from the dock to where my sister floated. We would float there together, unmoored from family and work and the handful of friends we had managed to make, from everyone who tried to keep us straight in their minds: Calliope has the long hair and fringe; Elsa has the short hair.
We were very plain. That’s what more than a few articles said about us: ‘These quiet, plain-looking sisters’; ‘such unobtrusive, average girls’; ‘the twins, who one might assume from their plain features and dowdy dress had no experience of pistols.’ There’s not a lot to be said about our appearance—we wished we were beautiful; we were not.
‘Extraordinary,’ a girl had said on our first day at high school, matching my eyes to Elsa’s, our noses, chins, hair, expressions—even getting us to parrot something back to compare voices, ‘and yet completely ordinary.’ From then we were little more than curios.
At the barber in Studio City, down the street from our motel, Elsa gave our instructions.
‘Take hers up to here’—she pointed to where her hair stopped—‘and give me a fringe.’
‘Like hers?’ the barber said, pointing his comb at me.
He was in his fifties, maybe, and plain-looking himself, and the shop was one of those old-fashioned places where hair-cutting was a skill or a trade, rather than an art. There were framed photos of boxers and European soccer teams on the walls.
‘You girls English?’ he asked, starting to cut my hair.
‘Something like that.’
‘You know,’ he said, activating his upper body in preparation for some long-coming punchline, ‘normally girls would be a bit more jittery about having their hair cut short. You know: what if it looks horrible? What if I don’t have the neck for it? But you girls, well, you don’t have to wonder, do you? It’s like looking into the future, right?’
Elsa gave me a look, which from the outside might have seemed benign but signalled to me something like joy and pain. ‘I suppose that’s true,’ she said, politely. ‘I hadn’t ever thought of it like that.’
The barber nodded and smiled, and then got down to the business of remaking us. When we left, the afternoon sun pressed newly against my neck, and Elsa kept dropping and raising her eyebrows against the scraggly pleats of our fringe.
The plan, as our parents understood it, was to make our way gradually through the country, stopping at landmarks, before leaving for Canada, to practise our French and eat maple cookies. Our father liked to tell people that we had a knack for languages, that our school-time French was magnifique, but really we were just disciplined rote learners. Even to my ear, which was as partisan a gauge as was possible, Elsa’s spoken French was mechanical, with a syncopation that turned the most mellifluous of expressions into uphill cablecar. Mine was, as in most things, identical. No-one had any use for our French, we least of all.
‘I was thinking Colorado,’ she said one day. We were eating burritos on Cahuenga and I could see the bloat beginning around our jaw and upper arms. ‘I know I said further inland, and we could keep going to Nebraska if you want—’
‘No, I assumed Colorado.’
She nodded and picked out a jalapeño. A couple of Hispanic kids stared at us as they followed their parents out of the restaurant. One pointed, pulling at his father’s arm, and I took a larger bite as Elsa smiled at the entire family.
‘You packed the letters, didn’t you?’
‘In with our passports,’ she said, and then, leaning over to touch the ends of my hair, ‘It’s so straight now. Look at those edges: military precision.’ She took back her hand. ‘Oops.’
‘More for later?’
I took a serviette and wiped the avocado from my hair. It didn’t quite leave, though, and I knew the strands would stay bonded and tacky for the rest of the afternoon.
‘I thought we were living in the now.’
She laughed and pulled a face. After her panic attacks—the really bad ones that gathered momentum and drew in all externalities: a forgotten kindness or stray comment, her bank balance, a government projection, the Earth’s debilitation, me—a friend suggested a training ground of books. Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, various Zen koans. We focused on our breath and our bellies and waited until the external world was reduced to a cubit of now.
‘Realise deeply that the present moment is all you have,’ Elsa said to me, packing up the burrito wrappers. And I knew she was right.
From Denver, we wrote letters home.
‘Tell them we’re hiking,’ I said. ‘And kayaking.’
‘I’ll say we’re learning how to rock climb.’
‘Put something in there for Mum.’
She paused and then read aloud as she typed. ‘We have gone on a few dates.’ She looked up at me. ‘Okay?’
In reality we were going to the supermarket or the pharmacy, feeling ourselves small as pins in the gigantic aisles of cheap goods. We bought anything we didn’t recognise—donut peaches, tamarillos, organic mac and cheese, half ’n’ half, Fluff, canned sloppy joe—as well as anything we’d heard on a TV show or movie, or advertised on the back of Archie comics: Cracker Jacks, Fig Newtons, spray-can cheese. For a week we took a particular and exclusive liking to jerky.
‘If you get the inside right,’ Elsa/Eckhart said, biting off a whitened beef husk, ‘the outside will fall into place.’
We ate and listened to talkback radio in our motel room—a cheap place in a less-than-central location, whose rooms seemed built for low-rent conferences or overnight stays, the design so inoffensive that it carried its own offence. Elsa took the bed by the door; I chose the window, and then, halfway through our stay, we swapped. The maids had changed the sheets but I still searched for the Sorbolene and cracked walnut scent of my sister. I could have been smelling my own scent—it was difficult to tell sometimes—but there were moments when I felt we could be extricated one from the other, when I would bet my all on this being Elsa and not Calliope. But then, even now I think I can smell her.
The weeks passed. The Denver Post reported that we kept mostly to ourselves but that we came down for a bagel each morning at ten o’clock. The fact of the bagel makes us seem more isolated and simple than we were—as if we did little else than make sure we didn’t miss our daily wheatgood. The bagel was free and fresh, and so we ate it. And both Elsa and I had conversations with the duty manager at the motel—friendly ones, neither of us winding things up too soon or too curtly—so part of me feels that there was disingenuity in the retelling, that we were always going to be the quiet ones who sought no company and could incriminate no-one. Another part of me thinks that this might be the only way to read us in hindsight.
In one of those conversations, the duty manager gave us some flyers for local tour companies and attractions. He fanned them out across the reception desk, opening each to circle salient features or points on maps with a black biro.
‘Oh, then you should absolutely do the Coors brewery tour,’ he said, when we answered that yes, we liked beer. ‘It’s a great way to meet people.’
‘It is?’ I asked.
‘Oh yeah. Two pretty girls like you?’
We went instead to the grave of Buffalo Bill, which was just outside Denver. There was a museum alongside it, and the site was supposed to offer the best views from the top of Lookout Mountain. Outside the museum an older couple sat, altitude sick and pale, beneath a bright profile of Bill.
We wandered through the displays of Bill’s clothes and listened to his voice from an old recording, but Elsa had suggested the museum so we could try on the costumes of the Wild West and get one of those novelty sepia photos. She became agitated when the museum ended instead in the Pahaska Tepee Gift Shop and Snack Bar.
‘Else, it’s a dumb museum, okay? We should just go.’
She was rifling through a rack of fringed suede coats, more violently than the coathangers could take. ‘No, it’s fine.’
‘Come on, this is lame.’
‘It’s not lame.’ She grew red in the face and left, storming over to the section of the store labelled ‘American Indians’.
I went to sit outside, next to the wheezing couple. Elsa took so long that I walked down the hill to explore a little. The air was quite brisk, now it was October, and I tried to breathe in the now of conifers and woodsmoke. I came to a sign from Denver Mountain Parks:
Do you want to leave your mark on this world?
If you take a pine cone, you may keep a tree from growing. If you pick a flower, you may keep a new plant from growing. If you throw trash on the ground, you disturb the beauty of nature.
Now if you want to leave your mark, come sign the guest book.
When I got back to the gift shop, Elsa was in the snack bar, drinking hot chocolate and reading her new purchase, The Wisdom of the Native Americans. She was revived, and so we could return.
That was our only fight. After Buffalo Bill, Elsa was equable. She quoted Sitting Bull, Black Elk, Red Cloud and Ohiyesa as she sipped root beer on the couch.
‘May your moccasins make happy tracks in many snows,’ she said.
‘And yours,’ I said.
She smiled, thinking of something else.
The next day, at breakfast, she said she was ready to go to the school.
‘The cab fare might be a little bit.’
‘It’s not too morbid, is it?’
‘Of course it is. But would you rather the beer factory?’
We both laughed and I saw, as we did, how our faces receded into our necks. We were changed physically: still no different from each other but occupying a new place in the greater world.
It was cloudy the day we went to Littleton, the endless grey broken sporadically by the full October pumpkins lining the highways or carved and positioned on porches. Our bags were filled with Halloween candy: mallow witches and choc tarantulas, and we used them as a source of buoyancy for the day, reaching for them pre-emptively.
We asked to be dropped a few streets away, telling the taxi driver we had relatives nearby. Elsa was quiet, so I told him our cousin had just come home from Iraq, that he was a hero, and we were going to surprise him. ‘His name’s Jethro,’ I said, unnecessarily.
When we paid, stepping out onto a pallid suburban street, and gesturing to a yellow weatherboard for the sake of the driver, he said, ‘Well, you tell Jethro from me that his country thanks him.’
‘We sure will,’ I said, and we began the short walk to the school.
There was a fair amount of interest in the clippings and letters in our luggage. One mystery attracts another—or, perhaps, one horror begets another. Whom did we identify with, the two boys or the students? Aunt Jo, sitting in our lounge room, felt sure it was the students. We were kind kids, she said, and both of us—Elsa in particular, as our mother, clutching for something, told reporters—had always loved animals.
‘Don’t forget they were bullied at school,’ Clayton said.
‘Well now, does that put them on the students’ side or the boys’?’ Mrs Gibbs asked.
The truth covers all comers. There was no limit to our identification, not at home when we first heard of what happened, nor as we stood in front of the memorial library, wondering what exactly we hoped to gain from this visit. We could be sad for everyone, standing there: the boys, their victims, the friend they sent home before they began. What frightened us wasn’t that it was inconceivable but that, in being inconceivable, it became inevitable. When, as teens, we’d visited the Blue Mountains, Elsa and I had stood where the railing ended and looked down. Even then, when there had been an equilibrium to things, it took effort to keep still at the edge. Even if you don’t want it, even if your place is back from the scarp, the risk becomes possibility, and the possibility shifts from an outlying horror to something that, given time, becomes a fatalistic question, something already done, something you see clearly and completely and is therefore inevitable and okay. Until you remember you haven’t left the scarp at all, and there are still things to fear.
We sat on the lawn for about half an hour, watching as students passed back and forth and imagining them ghosts.
‘Any action’, I quoted, ‘is often better than no action.’
‘It feels that way, doesn’t it?’ Elsa said, drawing our fringe to one side. ‘Hold on.’ She grabbed the book from her bag and turned to a dog-eared page. ‘Here it is.’ She cleared her throat and looked me in the eye. ‘So long as mists envelop you, be still.’
She shook her head. ‘Ponca Chief White Eagle.’
The school didn’t change anything. I can hear my parents trying to turn it into a watershed, and there is no-one to tell them otherwise. For their sake it can be that way. But Elsa and I had been visiting the range for at least two weeks before we ever went to Littleton.
It had a friendly logo—Family Shooting Center—and their website had a tab for ‘Boy Scout pricing’, which we had thought was simply an honest fee policy but turned out to be prices for actual boy scouts. This made Elsa want to go more. There was something cheerful in their wording: ‘Feel like shooting a machine gun? Now is your chance!’ We didn’t feel like shooting a machine gun—there was something distasteful in that—but we did want to try the specialty bratwurst they had at the snack shop on certain days: pheasant and buffalo and something called jackalope.
‘Are you sure you’re game?’ the server asked, holding up a sausage. ‘Cos this sure is!’
We took a couple of lessons from Wade, who was serious and pleasant, like most of the men there. He took us past the rifle range, where guys with shirts tucked into their jeans sat on small benches, their rifles chocked on triangular ledges. They reached down to plastic water bottles and adjusted their ear muffs, and, between the firing, the room felt more like a typing pool than anything of risk.
At the pistol range, Wade explained how to hold the gun, where the safety was, how much of a kickback to expect, as well as the more custodial topics of firearm storage and care, safe gun handling, and what he called ‘the mental attitude required to own and discharge a handgun’.
I went first. The sound was smothered by the ear muffs but it was still considerable, and the hum continued into my wrists for a few minutes afterwards. Elsa was up and ready as soon as I gave the gun back to Wade.
‘Yep, you got it,’ he said approvingly.
We went back a couple of times, each day feeling a little more certain with the handling and the men. We rented the pistols at the office and collected our protective gear and ammunition, as if we were hiring bowling shoes. The office had the same eighties wood panelling as our childhood ten-pin alley, and along with the art-shop merchandising of the bullets—stacked in various coloured boxes like crayons or inks—and the open archways and pens of the ranges—the whiff of dried grass coming in on the wind, like at the old horse stables in Buxton—the centre conjured up everything that had ever been good to us, enough of it to keep us there.
Our mother asked me, when she and Dad finally arrived at Arapahoe County Hospital, pale and jet-worn, ‘Was it Elsa’s idea?’
This was just hours after officials had confirmed which of us I was. For days I had been both Elsa and Calliope: a portmanteau, a jackalope, with all of her and most of me, and this had been my only comfort. Once customs supplied our fingerprints, though, I was only Calliope, and Elsa was gone.
I don’t know if it was Elsa’s idea, exactly. It might have been. But our mother is thinking of it as if it were a single moment that could have forked either way, when really it was a series of moments, with equal contribution, any of which could have forked another way. So if Elsa was the one who positioned that last fork, and I confirmed the route, who was the one to send us down that path?
What I do know is that we were both, as the reports said, happy that day. It wasn’t our only happy day—it can’t be simplified to that—but as we walked into the range we were smiling and making jokes. There were a lot of incidental touches, I remember: Elsa placing her hand on my shoulder as I bought some chips, me resting my foot against hers in the taxi.
‘We’ll have to do it quickly,’ I said, looking at the cameras hinged to every wall.
She nodded. ‘Let’s just hang out a bit first.’
We were still plain, but Elsa—even in her padded down jacket and track pants, even with the pallor and volume of her new American skin—was lit by something that buoyed me, and made me wonder if I, too, was so illuminated.
She only became agitated when the time neared and a group of men filled out the booth next door. They were loud and spilled into our space, and one of them rested a soft drink can on my chair. I went to the office and arranged another booth, the corner one, for us.
‘Little Miss Take-Charge,’ Elsa said, when I returned.
‘Consider it a gift,’ I said.
We switched pistols so she would use mine and I hers, and then we looked at each other for a time. The light from before had gone but the feeling between us—an insoluble warmth and latitude—was undiminished. I took in her face, which was also my face, and saw in it everything we could never truly loathe, not when it was ours: the pale mouth; the eyes that tended downward, leaching even our most vivid expressions of energy; the nose nesting in tiny shot capillaries. I smiled, wanting to see it reflected, and she obliged in the smallest shifts. My sister pulled me to her.
If I were to relive anything—and I think of this a lot now—it would be this: the walnut and Sorbolene, the faint animal undertone of hair before it turns, the down jacket filling all the spaces between us.
I spoke into the down: ‘May the rainbow always touch your shoulder, Else.’
She pulled away and smiled. ‘You read it.’
‘Bits and pieces.’
She smiled again, larger this time, and cocked her gun.
The police had a lot of questions. Was it a pact? Had we been planning this for months? Who decided on the gunshot positions, Elsa or me, and why were they different? There was no-one to answer them. I made sure of that, and so did Elsa. The bone fragments have mostly been removed, but the damage was done, and any answers I might have been inclined to give will stay with me now, and with Elsa.
Most days, the wound causes me pain but it’s diffuse; it beats across my entire forehead into the hairline so that it’s difficult to make out the precise source. There is no mirror to check; the room was cleared of them. So I don’t know if she aimed straight—if this was her intention all along—or if she was pushed off kilter by bad timing. Some days it doesn’t matter; this is the result: I am in the now, where I will remain for more reasons than simple philosophy. In a small subset of these days, this is okay, I can sit with it. The sun passes overhead, the breeze is multivalent. In another subset, the idea is ceaseless and cruel. Overwhelmingly, though, I am back there, and the only thing that matters is the same question that occupies my parents: was this the plan, and for how long?
‘The hurt of one is the hurt of all,’ she’d said at the motel one night. I was watching television and turned to look at her. She lifted herself out of the paperback and said, in answer to a question I never asked: ‘White Buffalo Calf Woman.’
Her smile had begun to fade the moment it appeared, and she took a pen and underlined the quote, repeating it slowly. I thought she was making a comment on us, that there was no true independence here, no singularity of pain or feeling, that this was impossible. And I looked over at her and smiled, agreeing. But we never did feel it in that way, not entirely, and now I wonder if she knew that, better than I did, and that this was her way of showing me.