The kittens were sleeping under the workbench at the back of the car wash again. One gray, one black, they were curled together in a perfect circle, nose to tail, belly to belly, ying and yang. Hose in hand, Dave crouched down to look at them. He could turn the hose on them right now, but he was more inclined to pull out his phone and take a picture, they looked so cute. What was worse, he wondered, being cruel or being a sap? Which was more of a weakness?
‘C’mon, Dave. Bring that hose up front.’ Dave stood up with a sigh and went outside, pulling hard on the reluctant hose as he went. His twin brother Sam was inside the SUV they were detailing, vacuuming the upholstery. It was the dog days of summer, and people were beginning to head back to the city. Before they went, many of them brought their cars to Sam and Dave’s makeshift car wash. The cars came in smelling of brine and fried food, the upholstery tacky with gum, the carpets granulated with sand. The twins worked the cars over with detergents and unguents until all traces of frivolity were gone.
Sam pulled his head out from the foot well where he had been vacuuming. ‘That last guy gave us a good tip.’ He handed Dave a soft wedge of folded bills. Dave liked it when the bills were well used and softened with age. They seemed to get stronger the more often they passed hands, unlike new bills that were crisp and stiff, but somehow brittle. Dave took the bills and tucked them into his back pocket. Later he would bank them, along with the rest of the day’s takings. The savings account was in both their names, but, of course, only one of them would be going to college in a few months time. They didn’t turn eighteen until November, but it should be clear well before then which one of them was going to survive.
Sam backed out of the car and turned off the vacuum. ‘Mom called,’ he said.
‘Marcia Grey has gone.’
‘Already? The girls only came of age last month.’ Dave felt a rush of adrenaline flooding his muscles, his pulse beating hard against his throat, a sure sign of a panic attack coming on. He thought about the Grey twins, their next-door neighbours since they were all six years old. The four of them had been inseparable. Now there were three. Soon it would be two. Sam looked at him but said nothing. ‘How was she...’ Dave couldn’t finish the sentence.
‘Eliminated? Leukaemia. Acute. She got an infection, so that speeded things along.’
Dave willed himself into calmness. ‘How’s Mom?’
‘She’s okay. She’s glad we’re both still here - for now.’
Dave envied his brother his sanguine outlook on their fate. Sam was cheerfully fatalistic and not given to thinking things through too much. Not like Dave. And it somehow didn’t help to know that it happens to everyone: born in pairs, growing together, growing apart, only one allowed to reach adulthood. Dave and Sam were waiting for the genetic marker to kick in, decide which one of them would survive their nineteenth year.
Dave turned on the hose and played the water over the vehicle while his brother started sponging it down. ‘I never thought Marcia would be the one to be eliminated,’ he said. Sam snorted.
‘Why, because she was the nice one? You don’t still believe that good twin, evil twin mumbo-jumbo, do you? ’
‘Maybe if we knew how it worked...’
‘Maybe we will, one day. Don’t see how it would help, though. Can’t change it.’
Dave turned off the hose and picked up a sponge. Hunkering down to clean the hubcaps, he saw a pair of spiders busily casting a web in the wheel arches. He used the edge of his sponge to flick them out. An insect’s life was so short, it hardly seemed worth bringing them out in pairs too. But there it was – Mother Nature knew best.
Can’t change it. His brother’s words echoed around Dave’s head. What if that weren’t true? What if one of them were to die before the elimination? Not by accident or illness. Killed. Dave knew all the arguments against that. The surviving twin was always the chief suspect. If you were convicted, and you weren’t eliminated naturally, they handed you over to the executioners. Either way, you died. It all made sense, if your chances of being eliminated were still fifty-fifty. But that was the great anomaly, the fact that geneticists, mathematicians and moralists all over the world were trying to explain – if your twin died before elimination, your chances of survival were better than fifty-fifty. Only by a fraction of a percent, but still better.
Dave picked up a brush and started scrubbing the wheels. Sea salt and black brake fluid had been baked together into an immoveable compound that resisted everything but pure elbow grease. This was why the boys had done so well this summer with their car wash – attention to detail. Dave let the rhythmical movement of his arm calm his brain. Thinking about this was getting him nowhere - the snake of logic swallowed its own tail, and choked on it.
‘Dave, you done yet? Mr Barrows is going pick his car up tomorrow, so we should park it in the garage overnight.’
‘Okay, sure. Let me just chase those kittens out before you back it in.’
Dave ducked his head under the workbench. ‘Aw, jeez.’ The gray kitten was still lying down, one curlicue half of a circle that was now broken. The black kitten stood over the gray one, nudging him with his nose, not yet realising his brother was dead. Dave scooped the black kitten up in his hand. ‘Guess you were the lucky one,’ he said. He didn’t see the gleaming SUV reversing towards him. Reversing and picking up speed.