sister sister

It starts at the breakfast table. Ada has band-aids on both of her hands, three band-aids per palm, arranged like a star. Mom notices them too. She asks, What happened, Ada? And Ada says, I don’t know. I eye her with suspicion, waiting for a wink or a kick under the table. She stares at her frosted flakes.

We are twins, but not the identical kind. If I were sent to a work camp, somewhere cold and without sunlight, Ada would return in my place. That is: she is paler and thinner, with a worn-down body and a hardened face. The only color she has is in her lips, which are always poppy red.

Mom is Jewish and Dad is Catholic, so they decided that I would be raised Jewish and Ada would be raised Catholic. Religious participation is required, which means I attended Hebrew school twice a week and am set to be bat mitzvahed this year. Ada gets off easy, with youth group just once a week plus church.

Ada gave up television for lent, so instead of watching sitcoms with me before bed, she reads. I hate seeing her curled up with a big book. I laugh louder to annoy her.

I know what you’re doing, she says.

Can you just watch with me?

No. I’m testing my self-discipline.

A week goes by and Ada is still sporting her band-aids. She discards the fraying, smelly ones each morning after her shower. This morning she told Mom she needed more. We had mostly forgotten about her palms until this request. Mom asks, Sweetheart, can I take a look? and Ada hisses, Not until you get me more band-aids.

Mom comes home with a super-size box of band-aids and Ada looks relieved. I don’t know what she is expecting when she peels back the bandages, maybe a papercut or a playground wound, but when mom sees the first palm she says, Woah. And when she sees the second she covers her mouth.

I run from my side of the table to see. Two dime-sized lesions, perfectly centered and perfectly symmetrical. They aren’t scabbed over at all. They look fresh like a sliced-open cherry tomato. I want to touch them.

Mom stares at Ada. She asks, Where did these come from?

Ada stares back. She says, I don’t know. Then, They’ve been like this forever.

She starts to cry and Mom pulls her close, careful to leave her hands resting on the table. Mom coos, It’s okay, it’s okay. I stand there staring at the bullet holes.

Mom takes a photo to show Dad. I don’t know how Dad responded the first time he saw the photo, but I imagine he took the phone from Mom and zoomed in really close on each palm. Then he probably said something like, Beats me, before setting the phone down and walking away.

That night in bed I ask Ada how bad her hands hurt on a scale from one to ten, ten being she was dying, one being we could wheelbarrow race down our driveway right now. She says seven. We brainstorm how she could have gotten the cuts. Sleepwalking seems most plausible, so Ada puts on her winter mittens and I burrito her in a blanket and tie it with twine, a triple knot. I decide to stay up all night keeping watch. Ada says, That’s not necessary. I reply, I’m testing my self-discipline. I make it until 3 A.M. but then the world closes in on me. Ada wakes before me and claims she was still cocooned. We cross sleepwalking off the list.

I receive my Torah portion in October. Parashat Be’Ha’alotekha, which translates to when you step up. In the story, Miriam and her brother Aaron question whether God isn’t also speaking to them and not just Moses. God responds something like, I speak to the chosen ones plainly, not in riddles and then, as he leaves, there is a gigantic cloud of smoke and Miriam is left completely covered in white scales. Nothing happens to Aaron.

In our session, the Rabbi asks what I think of the story. I tell her that, of course, the obvious contradiction is that God punishes Miriam and not Aaron for the same crime. But I don’t really care about that. I want to know this: What if a completely different God is speaking to Miriam?

At dinner I tell Mom and Dad about Miriam and the leprosy and what if it’s a different God. Mom and Dad are not concerned with this. Instead, they ask how I plan to learn all eighteen of my verses. I tell them the cantor gave me a recording which I uploaded to my iPod.

Another week goes by. After a tub of vaseline and two more boxes of band-aids, my parents take Ada to our pediatrician, Dr. Monot. Dr. Monot smells like nail polish remover and banana Laffy Taffy. He examines her wounds under a microscope, pulling at their edges with blue gloves. Then he cleans them, and Ada cries a bit, and he sends us home with an antibacterial cream to be administered twice a day. He says, If they haven’t healed in a week, come back and we can run those tests. I suspect Dr. Monot thinks he will never have to run those tests.

I forget about Ada’s crater palms. I purchase a hookah pen from a ninth grader named Liam with ten dollars left over from a Rite Aid run. My parents don’t know about my aerosol treat and I make Ada promise not to tell. She agrees without protest, saying only, I hear those things give you cancer, just so you know. I look down at the pen then back at her, So do you want to try it? Ada rolls her eyes and turns a page in her book.

I spend the evenings puffing on my pen, listening to the cantor chant. I like to imagine that the sweet steam is warming up my vocal cords. That just the right mixture of water, food-grade flavoring, nicotine, and propylene glycol will prime my throat. At the very least, maybe the pen helps me focus. Like how Katie Lee is allowed to chew gum in class because she has ADD.

At dinner I make everyonego around and say which of the seven deadly sins they suffer from. I record them in a notebook: Mom: sloth, Dad: greed and gluttony, Ada: pride, Me: envy. I announce that I’ve decided to start writing God's name G-d, which I learned in Hebrew school. It prevents you from having to erase his name. I start writing my own name without one of the vowels. I don’t want to be erased either.

On Thursday evening, we gather around the table and peel back Ada’s bandages. The holes are still there, the same size but slightly scabbed, purple and red camouflage. I’ve never measured a wound’s lifespan like this, making observations and taking notes like a science experiment. Mom and Dad reach the conclusion that the cuts seem to be healing—a communal sigh of relief.

But then I wake up Friday morning to Ada’s sniffles. I roll over to face her and she holds out her arms. She slept without band-aids, and there is now blood dripping from the wound on her right hand. The cut is stained dark brown, the color of oxidized blood, or shit. I go to her. I wrap my arms around her just like Mom did. I repeat, It’s okay, again and again.

Dr. Monot is visibly upset that we are back. He agrees that now he will run those tests, and clips a tiny sliver from the edge of each wound while Ada’s eyes are closed and places them in two separate plastic tubes. The biopsy will be sent to the lab, he says. You will have the results in five days, he says.

Ada needs cheering up, so we pile back in the sedan and drive to Billy’s Pizzeria. Dad says we can order whatever we want. Ada picks at her pepperoni pizza while I scarf down my entire calzone plus two slices of her pie. Later, with a horrible stomach ache, I write in my notebook that maybe my sin is gluttony.

Mom and Dad are whispering. Though we can’t make out the words, the whispering itself tells us plenty. They are worried about Ada. That maybe she is lying or that maybe she is sick in the head or that maybe she is dying of some infection.

Dr. Monot calls on Thursday. He says all the tests came back normal and Ada doesn’t have a staph infection or MRSA or Candida or Streptococcus pyogenes. Mom and Dad don’t know whether to be relieved or concerned. They ask Dr. Monot, What do we do now? He says that since Ada doesn’t have any other symptoms, it is most likely a chronic wound. He tells them that they should make sure she keeps it clean and puts on the cream. Dr. Monot has seen people with small wounds that take an entire year to heal. They say, Okay, and hang up the phone. Then they whisper about how Dr. Monot is kind of a dick.

Ada is growing accustomed to the wounds. There are things that give her trouble, like cutting steak and writing essays by hand, but mostly she gets along fine. At first some kids, like Rebecca McChesney, raise their eyebrows at her band-aid hands, but then Doug Lundgren loses his entire leg in a car crash and that puts things in perspective.

At home, things are not in perspective. Ada is treated like a wounded baby bird. Mom gives her back rubs every night and Dad lets her skip youth group, usually when they go to Feed My Starving Children, the place where kids shovel soy meal into bags for malnourished babies in Africa. It would be unhygienic, he says. We all agree.

Ada says the cuts hurt in the shower, and she can’t shampoo herself without the sting. Mom puts plastic bags over Ada’s hands and duct-tapes them to her wrists. Then she stands right outside the shower and suds Ada’s hair. It’s pathetic and Ada knows it.

Ada stops showering. Her light brown hair gets so greasy that it always looks wet.

Mom and Dad decide it would be good to have Ada see a therapist, to make sure she is coping. They find someone in-network named Anna and when I ask if I can go too they say, No.

Anna tells my parents that Ada has been hearing voices at night, and she recommends a psychiatrist. Mom and Dad ask, You mean like in her dreams? Anna says, They seem more hallucinogenic in nature.

The psychiatrist (who I am also not allowed to see) tells Mom and Dad he can prescribe a low dose of an antipsychotic medication often administered to bipolar patients. They shake their heads, Absolutely not, and never see the psychiatrist again.

I’m halfway through my torah portion but I ran out of my hookah pen so I traded Liam my math textbook, which he claimed he could sell for $100, for a new cartridge.

At the end of my portion the Israelites are camping and they haven’t eaten in days. God sends them an abundance of quail and they are so hungry that they hunt and eat all the quail. Like, almost a hundred quail. Then God gets mad, like really mad. And while the quail flesh is still wedged between their teeth, the anger of the lord is kindled against them and the lord smites them with a very great plague.

One morning after church Dad takes Ada to confession. He gives her a big hug and says, Get it all out, kiddo.

The Priest calls our home and asks for a meeting with Mom and Dad. At the meeting, he says he thinks Ada might have the stigmata. What is the stigmata? they ask.

Wounds that appear in locations matching the crucifixion, he responds, Do her cuts bleed more on Holy days?

We don’t know, Mom and Dad say.

Do they bleed more after she has received communion?

We don’t know.

Has she lost any weight?


Mom interjects, What does it mean exactly, to have the stigmata?

The Priest smiles. If she does have it, it's a miracle. A real miracle, he says. It’s a sign she has been chosen by God to suffer the same wounds as his son.

Mom’s face is all squished up like a date. The Priest says, If it’s okay with you, I’d like to have more meetings with Ada. Mom and Dad say they have to think about it.

They are pale and quiet in the car ride home. Mom says something like, The Jews don’t have any shit like this.

Dad says, What do we do now?

Mom shrugs. Is it bad parenting to not believe your kid is a saint?

Sitting in bed that night, I’m craving answers. I ask Ada to put down her book. What is going on with you?

She looks at me with wide eyes and a sad mouth.

The Priest—what did you tell him?

That I hear voices at night and see things, she says.

So you’re having nightmares?

No. I feel awake and my hands hurt.

And the Priest thinks this makes you special?

Yes, he thinks I am a stigmatic.

I decide I’m not going to give Ada the satisfaction of asking what this means.

Well, I don’t hear you making noise at night.

They aren’t scary visions. I’m not going to scream or anything.

What do you see?

She closes her eyes and turns away from me. You wouldn't understand.

Dad takes Ada an hour early to youth group to meet with the Priest and I stay home Googling stigmata. It sucks, I’m about to become a woman but Ada is about to become a saint. The Wikipedia page has an entire section devoted to fraudulent stigmatics— those whose only miracle was self-mutilation. I find my mom sitting on the couch in the living room and throw the computer into her lap.

Lots of fakers, I say.

She scans the page and sighs. I don’t think your sister is cutting herself if that’s what you are implying.

How do you know? I exclaim.

She looks at me. You haven't seen anything going on in your room, have you?

No, I say, but I haven’t been spying.

By the time we were nine it was clear I was the destined daughter. People were always saying I had lots of chutzpah. The most attention Ada got was from elderly churchgoers who handed her their rosary beads and told her that she reminded them of someone, but they could never remember who.

It happens on a Sunday. And of course, it’s Palm Sunday, although I didn’t know this until Dad told me in the car to soccer. Ada performs her first miracle. During their private meetings, the Priest has been testing Ada’s healing abilities, looking for supernatural evidence of her calling. He brought in a few congregation members and instructed Ada to pray over them, placing her hands on either side of their face and repeating the Priest’s words, line by line, like wedding vows.

One of the congregants, a thirty-nine-year-old long-haul trucker, had a horrible cold and was set to leave for a trip to Missoula the following day. He needed this week's paycheck to get the family car fixed. Ada placed her hands on his stubbled cheeks and repeated the prayer, line by line. The following day he awoke with clear nasal passages and no sinus pressure.

At dinner, Ada recounts the entire event for us. It is the most animated I have seen her in months, waving her hands around and repeating certain details she thought deserved more reaction. I look from Mom to Dad. They nod at Ada encouragingly. I sit in silence and eat my baked potato with my hands, shoving it into my mouth to prevent something sour from slipping out. Then I run to our room and slam the door before Mom can ask me to do the dishes.

After the Palm Sunday miracle, the prayer ministries continue through Holy Week. Mom and Dad say we can all go see Ada work her magic. I have never been to their Church during Holy Week. The pews have thick white ribbons wrapped around them, tied in big bows at the top. Bright green palms are wedged into every second seat. The place is packed, and I wonder if this many people will come to my bat mitzvah. There is not much on the altar, just a small white cross, three candles, and a bowl of water.

The organ starts playing and I jump in my pew. Ada appears, dressed in a brown robe with a puffy white over-shirt. She looks like Friar Tuck. The robe is too long and she almost trips walking up to the altar. As she dips her hands into the water, people stand up and form a line in the center aisle.

She touches a woman with big breasts and a woman with no breasts and a young girl in a wheelchair and an old man without legs and my English teacher and a pair of quadruplets and one woman brings her golden retriever and Ada smiles and pets it before placing her hands over his scruffy ears and closing her eyes to pray that it starts eating its kibble again.

The next day there is a phone call— a reporter from FOX News who says, We heard about your daughter's gift. And I think, Which daughter? The reporter wants to do a segment on Ada and wonders if he can film it at our house on Friday. Mom and Dad say they need to think about it. They sit side-by-side on the bed and Mom says, I’m not sure we should be broadcasting this, and It’s just so strange, and, She is barely a teenager. Dad says, If she has a gift, we should share it, and, It’s not like we are turning a profit off her, and, Ultimately, it’s her choice.

I trade the hookah for weed, which Liam sells me at a discount because I’m a frequent flier. I get high outside my garage, sitting cross legged in the driveway with Krispy Kreme eyes. Looking down at my palms, I’m angry with their perfection. Ada’s palms have changed, they look more like birth marks (no more scabs, no more bleeding) just two dark red circles, like little bloody ponds under a layer of skin. I think about how—if her touch really can heal—the miracle that would come from swimming in them.

The chatting before bed has been canceled. Ada is propped up against a wall of pastel pillows reading her big book. I sit with my noise canceling headphones on listening to my portion or This American Life or The Black Eyed Peas. These days, when we do talk, she sticks up her nose and speaks veryyy slowlyyy like I don’t understand English or something.

There was another Sunday miracle in April. This one involved a baby. Then there was a third, this one involved an overweight acupuncturist. I know it’s desperation that makes you want someone’s crusty hands on your face, but I want to tell everyone that she never washes them.

I’m writing my bat mitzvah speech in the kitchen and it’s about why Moses and not Miriam and it reeks of envy.

Mom and Dad ask Ada about FOX News and she brightens, Of course I want to do it. Mom says, Honey, are you sure? and Ada responds Yes, I want more people to know. Dad says, That’s great kiddo, and Mom says, Whatever you want sweetie. I say nothing.

At school, word has gotten out that Ada is magic. Kids are saying that she is a witch, that she never sleeps, that she can tell the future. I overhear Jake Cherrill say, what do you think would happen if she gave me a handy? Ada is pleased with the chatter because mostly everyone leaves her alone and I am the one left fielding question about her powers.

I’m complaining to Mom on the drive to services like, She doesn’t have to learn another language, and, Is she really going to be on the cover of a magazine? Mom ignores my question and says, Honey, I think you should give yourself a break, but I don’t want a break I want my BIG BREAK.

The TV crew arrives when I am still asleep but Ada is in the bathroom, busy not washing her hands. When I finally make it downstairs, our living room has been re-arranged so that our two nicest chairs sit alone in front of the fireplace. A pointy blonde woman is brushing blush onto Ada’s cheeks. A man in a black dress shirt with a Cheshire Cat smile looks at me on the stairs and says, You must be Lena. I nod my head yes.

They plop Ada down in one of the chairs. The pointy woman rushes to her makeup bag to grab a lip gloss. Ada is glowing, and it's not grease. The Cheshire Cat starts explaining, This will be a live broadcast, so everyone needs to stay quiet in the background. The segment will probably last fifteen minutes. The camera man runs back and forth—from the tree lights positioned just out of frame and then back to the camera. Mom and Dad stand in front of the entrance to the kitchen. They look proud. They look happy.

The camera man counts down three, two, one. The Cheshire Cat starts talking. We are live with Ada Atkins, our city’s very own stigmatic. You may be wondering what a stigmatic is-

I recite my portion in my head. I think about the weed I hid under a rock by the garage. I am not listening to Ada’s answer. Mom and Dad are smiling and nodding. I make it to verse twelve from memory. I can’t remember what comes next. Ada is describing her second miracle, the one with the baby. The Cheshire Cat is eating it up. The pointy woman is eating it up—she has stopped packing up her makeup to listen. I can’t see the cameraman’s face because it is squished up against the camera, but I bet he is eating it up too. I can’t remember what comes after verse twelve.

The Cheshire Cat says, What an incredible gift you have. Your parents must have been a bit surprised when this started. Ada looks at Mom and Dad, who are looking back at her with warm eyes. Ada says, I love my parents. She says, I was scared at first, but now I feel so lucky. I am just here to serve. I’m trying to work backwards from verse eighteen to figure out thirteen. I look down and realize my nail is bleeding. I have been picking at it. What does the future hold for you? Ada says she wants to travel the world healing people, that she wants to go to California and Africa and Spain. She wants to open her own healing ministries, lots of them, like a chain. She wants to be on the cover of Teen Vogue.

I am trying to hear the cantor, but then I am standing in front of the camera. You can see my body, but my head is cut off. I’m the Headless Horseman. I’m facing the lens but staring at Mom and Dad. Mom and Dad are holding their breath, looking at me with alarm. When I was ten, I mindlessly drew all over a prayer handout during Hebrew school, drawing a thick black skyscraper over God’s name. I was sent to the office and the teacher told my parents, She is very disruptive. I tried to explain I was just doodling, but no one believed me.

Every night Ada slinks into the bathroom and uses our curling iron to keep her wounds from healing, I say into the camera. She beats up on her hands with the barrel. She gags herself with a roll of toilet paper to keep quiet.

The cameraman fidgets with the camera. I see him mouth the words shit and fuck, and then I remember my thirteenth verse.

You can find Eve on twitter, @zel_eve
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