By Ashley Quiah & Katie Zaborsky
The newspapers called them “a monstrosity,” “sent from the devil himself,” “a burden to a mother.” But Judith just saw her twin sisters and a future where only one of them would survive.
I found a dead rabbit in the forest today. I assumed it had to have been killed by a fox, but when I looked closer, there wasn’t any blood. Its fur seemed shaved, and there were small indents in its pale skin, like someone repeatedly poked it with a stick. Weird, right? The weirdest part was when I walked back home, I found another rabbit, but it had two heads. It reminded me of you and Meredith! I would tell you to tell her I said hi, but I know she is probably reading this right beside you. Mom is coming. I’ll tell you more about the rabbit later. Miss you both!
Judith’s mom walked in with a slice of blueberry pie, the smoke still rising up from the slightly golden crust. Judith rushed her signature at the bottom of the letter and folded it up quickly so her mom wouldn’t see.
“I don’t understand why you still write to those girls if they hardly ever respond,” Judith’s mom said.
“I like to. It’s therapeutic,” Judith said as she shoved a piece of warm blueberry pie into her mouth. Her mother was always cooking something, whether that was a simple pie or a feast of mashed potatoes, roasted vegetables, and stuffed turkey. She quite prided herself in the small details, taking deliberate steps in everything she did. Judith appreciated every new sweater she knit and every dish her mother conjured up for her. But she knew that she didn’t like to be interrupted when in the middle of one of her projects, so the familiarity between them had dwindled to become as thin as a thread on her mother’s hand-sewn dress.
“Since it’s their birthday this weekend, why don’t you go down and visit ‘em?” Judith’s mom suggested. Only being two years apart—her sisters fifteen this year, and Judith seventeen—she used to be very close with them. Her mind couldn’t help but flash to the night that they were taken away.
The teddy bear had ripped threads, uneven stuffing, and dark stains of spilled cereal milk. It looked like it would fall apart any minute, but she still held it tightly as they dragged her sisters out of the house. Her tears soaked the ragged bear and her small hand gripped her mother’s as she screamed for them. She desperately looked up at her mother, pleading for her to help them, but her mother remained poker-faced.
“I would go, but cooking and the house, you know,” Judith’s mom interrupted her out of her thoughts. Her mom was the only one working since her father had died in the war six years ago. His booming laughter and woodsy scent that Judith remembered so fondly were gone, and the home felt empty without him and her sisters.
Later that night, Judith tucked herself under the soft navy blue blanket her mother quilted for her years ago. Embroidered on it in painstaking detail was a forest at midnight. The dark green in the tall pine trees matched the green of the grassy patches along the bottom of the quilt, representing the bumpy forest floor. The white stitches on the dark blue river reflected the light of the moon gazing down from the top of the blanket. Judith loved to explore the forest near her house and so the blanket was one of her most valued possessions.
She fluffed up her pillow and lay her tired head down, her eyes already droopy. The cold summer night breeze drifted through her window. Before she completely fell into the darkness that sleep would bring her, she thought again of the day she was separated from her sisters.
The asylum’s rusted iron fence loomed over the sidewalk and its tarnished front gate, when opened, made a creaking sound so deafening, the neighboring crows flew away. Judith looked up at the towering gray building. Dark green vines crawled up the side and spiderwebs filled every forgotten corner. The black sign pitched on a stake outside read “FAIRFIELD HILLS” but the “H” in Hills had fallen off, leaving a faded imprint.
The guards’ expressions mirrored the desolate and dark atmosphere. The humid air stuck to Judith’s tan skin as she walked into the asylum.
She sat in the visiting room, the gray metal chairs and tables shifting and creaking at the slightest movement. Around her, old ladies wept and deranged men screamed, their souls stolen from them by dementia. Mold and grime covered the once white walls, and every few feet there appeared to be a brown stain on the floor. And the smell, it smelled of urine and metal. If death and despair had a scent, it would smell like this place, Judith thought as she covered her nose with her purple sweater. Her sisters finally came, a special chair being brought out for them. She studied them. It seemed, from the last time she saw them, they had lost weight, gotten smaller, and sat shrunken in their tiny frames.
“Do they not feed you here?” she asked them immediately.
Meghan responded, “Of course they do—”
“Not enough,” Meredith interrupted. “Meghan has lost more weight than me.”
“Only because you keep stealing all my food,” Meghan countered with her arm on her hip.
Their bickering continued while Judith sat there and stared at them. Not once did she treat her sisters differently because of their condition. Mostly because she didn’t see them as different; they were each their own person, despite their conjoined bodies. Their heads came in at the neck they shared and their body only separated at the legs, each twin having one of her own. Besides their identical light brown eyes and pale skin, the twins’ main identifying feature was their hair. Meghan’s was short, black, and brushed through while Meredith’s was long and messy, usually having a pencil stuck through it. Despite their otherwise plain features, newspapers had called them “a monstrosity,” “sent from the devil himself,” “a burden to a mother.” But Judith loved them regardless.
When they had calmed down, Judith finally said, “Happy Birthday.” She lifted up the pink bag next to her chair and slid it across the metal table to them. She gave both of them a journal, but Meghan’s came with pens and pencils, while Meredith’s came with crayons.
“For our letters, Meg, and your pretty drawings, Mere,” she explained. Meredith immediately started drawing in her new book, but Meghan abruptly stopped her.
“What is it?” Meredith whined.
“You know they won’t allow us to keep these. You should keep them for yourself, Judy,” Meghan replied in a sad tone.
“Why not?” Judith asked.
“I’m sorry,” said Meghan. “They won’t let us keep outside gifts. And for some reason, they have been more strict with us for the past few weeks. We can’t go outside anymore. A nurse even told us that this might be your last visit.” Her voice sounded strained. She seemed helpless, on the brink of tears as she realized how confined their lives had become.
Judith wouldn’t accept it. Her mother was always in her own world and she had no one else. If it wasn’t for the twins, she would have left. Gone west. Through the forest. Only being allowed to visit two times a year was not enough; she refused to lose the small connection she had with them.
“No, there has to be some way for us to see or talk to each other,” said Judith with a plan already churning in her head.
As her mother busied herself in the kitchen with the final preparations for dinner, Judith sat quietly and traced the wood grain patterns of the oak dining table with her finger. Honestly, Judith, I don’t know where your mind goes sometimes, she could picture her mother saying. Her imagination was constantly getting her into trouble, ever since she was a kid. She remembered telling her mother about long conversations with the neighbor’s sheepdog, but Judith’s mother didn’t have time for her stories. Lying is a sin, her mother often reminded her. But Judith knew what she heard at Fairfield Hills earlier that day wasn’t a delusion or trick of the mind. In fact, she was more clear-eyed than she had ever been before.
“Ah, here we go!” her mother exclaimed, swanning into the dining room holding a chipped enameled baking dish, a gleaming, perfectly bronzed pork roast peeking out over the top. Her mother set the dish down on a burgundy placemat and looked at Judith expectantly. “It’s your favorite, Judith—roast and potatoes.”
Judith looked at the roast and thought it belonged in the pages of a magazine. The potatoes and carrots that surrounded the meat were carefully arranged, the sprigs of rosemary spaced evenly along the perimeter. She wondered how long her mother must have fussed over the presentation.
“It’s beautiful,” Judith said to her, and she meant it, for everything her mother dedicated her time to always looked immaculate.
“Well thank you, Judith,” her mother said, settling into the dining chair at the head of the table and unfolding her napkin. She cleared her throat and once again looked at Judith with a familiar gaze of apprehension. “You’ve barely said a word since you got back. So tell me, how did it go? How are they?” Her voice sounded forced in its cheerfulness. “Fifteen is such a special birthday, you know. I do wish I could have gone, but making dinner took much longer than expected.”
Judith looked at the piece of roast her mother had put on her plate and thought of the dead rabbit she found in the forest yesterday. “I understand, Mom,” she said. “And I know they do too. We all know how busy you are.”
Judith’s mother nodded stiffly and then proceeded to tell her about the latest gossip she overheard at the supermarket.
It’s only been a few hours since I saw you, but I miss you and Meredith so much already. I wish they would let me see you more than twice a year. After each visit, I’m always in a better mood, and for weeks afterward, I fall asleep to the idea of us being reunited and living together as sisters. But then after a while, it feels like you fade from memory, which scares me. I tell everyone at school that I’m an only child, and in the long stretches of time between visits, I often have to remind myself of the truth.
I don’t want to make you upset, but I cried today when I got home. You both looked so unhappy, even on your birthday! In fact, everyone in there—the doctors, the nurses, the receptionist—looked like they were either in mourning or numb to the world around them. You’re both much skinnier than the last time I saw you, and the cut on Meredith’s knee looked infected. What happened to Nurse Harmon? She loved you two and always snuck you extra food from the kitchen, remember?
I know what I’m about to say is crazy, but please listen to me—you can’t stay at Fairfield Hills. It’s not a good place, no matter what Mom says, and there isn’t much time. If I could get you out, would you leave? Just think about it—the three of us, working and living together like we were never apart. I don’t have much saved up (Mom only gives me 25 cents a week) but I could get a job, and maybe you and Meredith could too. And I would protect you if we went out in public. People may stare, but I promise I wouldn’t let anything bad happen to you.
I know Meredith would leave that place in an instant, but would you? Write me back as soon as you can. If you want to leave, we have to do it now.
Judith was surprised to see that there weren’t any guards standing outside of Fairfield Hills when she arrived at the front gates a week later at 10:00 PM. She went around the back and unlatched the cellar doors with a black crowbar she had found in her shed at home. The right door groaned loudly as she pulled it open. Closing the door behind her, Judith crept down the concrete stairs. When she stepped into the basement, the floor seemed damp, like there had been a flood or leakage recently. Turning in all directions, she examined the cramped space with the small light her dying flashlight gave out. The light reflected off of something and bounced back into her eyes. When she walked in the direction of whatever had shined back at her, she found tools. Surgical tools.
The deep fear in Judith became even more noticeable to her as she stared at the tools. The set on the left looked brand new, not a single fingerprint to be found as the instruments gleamed up at her. Next to it, the other set played a stark contrast; the rusting brown metal peeled off like it had been painted on.
Judith hurriedly picked up the new tools and shoved them into the cloth bag she had brought. She breathed deeply to calm her racing heart and continued to trudge through the rest of the basement looking for a way out. Despite every attempt to explore the asylum during her previous visits—in search of a bathroom, pretending to get lost on the way out—Judith was disappointed that she could never find an exit that wasn’t the front doors.
A door swung open at the top of a set of concrete stairs that Judith had yet to notice. Her heart began to beat faster as she quickly turned off her flashlight. She crept back into the shadows the new brighter light provided and strained to hear two women speaking to each other. Their voices blurred together from behind the sticky cardboard boxes Judith hid behind. Her hands became clammy as she held onto a shelf, struggling not to fall back and be noticed.
“I don’t see anything, do you?” she heard one nurse ask.
“No, maybe it was just my imagination,” said the other nurse, closing the door behind her.
As soon as they left, Judith exhaled deeply, not realizing that she had been holding her breath. After waiting a few minutes in the dark and quiet cellar, she tiptoed up the steps and gently opened the door the nurses had come in through, finding herself at the start of a long and narrow hallway.
She took careful steps on the tile floors, pressing up against the wall to hide as best as she could. The asylum looked even more morbid at night. Barely any lights were on and Judith didn’t want to risk turning on her own, so she stuck one hand out in front of her to feel for any obstacles. Footsteps from halls away echoed throughout the silent building, causing Judith to stop every few seconds to make sure the only noise within the vicinity was the pounding of her beating heart.
After searching in the dark for a sign to lead her to her sisters, Judith found the visiting room. Nurses gathered at the front desk, a few talking softly amongst themselves, others dozing off, their heavy heads falling to rise back up again. Judith hid in the shadows, trying to find the door her sisters came through when she visited them. When she finally located the metal grill door with bars like a prison cell, she snuck past it, squeezing in her stomach in an attempt to not push the door open even more.
She walked down another long hallway, listening to the moans and cries of elderly patients. Their strained and sad voices blended together, bringing tears to Judith’s eyes. She didn’t understand how people could live like this. The rooms were tiny, with large metal doors and small openings to slide food through. She doubt they had windows or any natural air. The thought of how they were being treated revolted her and she began to walk faster, eager to get herself and her sisters out. She pressed her ear to each door listening for whichever room didn’t have an agonized patient. When she came across a room that sounded silent, she lifted up the small metal flap and looked through the narrow hole. She instantly recognized the asymmetrical hair, the thin white dress hanging off of their small shoulders. Judith whispered through the hole, calling their names.
Meghan screamed. Meredith gasped.
“What are you doing here?” Meghan shouted. “How did you get in?” She lowered her voice halfway through her sentence and looked behind Judith to see if there was anyone else in the hall.
“You said you wanted me to come!” Judith responded. She took the crowbar out of her bag and began to break the door lock.
“What are you talking about?” Meghan questioned.
“The letter you sent me.” Judith took the letter out of her bag and inserted it through the slot for Meghan to see.
Judith finally broke off the lock and wrenched the door open. She found her sisters in a small room with a twin-sized bed, dirty sink, and dirty toilet. The disgust on Judith’s face was visible as she looked around the cramped space.
Meghan began to hyperventilate. Judith’s confusion was clear as she grabbed Meghan’s arm and asked what was wrong.
“I didn’t write this letter,” Meghan said.
“Well if you didn’t, who did?” Judith asked. Meghan looked at Meredith.
Judith gasped in realization as she saw Meredith’s apologetic and pained expression—she was the one who wrote the letter.
“But how?” Meghan asked.
“The drawing I gave to Nurse Kathy wasn’t a drawing, it was the letter. I wrote it when you were sleeping,” Meredith began to stutter and tears filled her eyes.
“Why?” Meghan shouted.
Before Meredith could respond, Judith interrupted. “They’re going to perform surgery on you guys!” Judith blurted out. “The last time I visited, I overheard the nurses discussing a surgery date for you two, and one nurse mentioned that only one of you would be able to survive a surgery like that. I didn’t want to tell you in the letter because I didn’t want to frighten you before I could do something about it.” She looked up at her sisters. Meghan’s mouth gaped open in shock while Meredith’s lip quivered like she was holding back a sob.
“I want to leave, Meg,” Meredith said. “You’re holding us back! If we can break out with Judith, then both of us can be saved,” she reasoned.
When Meghan tried to respond, Meredith began to scream. “I can’t live like this!” Her voice became more and more high-pitched as she pulled at her hair with her hand. She paced around the small room in a panicky daze, dragging Meghan with her. Judith watched, her brown eyes open wide, not knowing what to do, not knowing how to stop her, but knowing for certain that the sprinting footsteps outside in the hallway belonged to nurses and guards.
Nurse Harmon’s red hair was the first color Judith saw in the bleak gray room. Meredith’s screams became more intense, her small hand pulling at her hair so hard, clumps came out. Meghan was crying, pleading for Meredith to stop. Judith’s eyes came back into sharp focus as she remembered her mission. Whoever wrote the letter didn’t matter right now—she needed to get her sisters out.
Judith took two big steps across the small concrete room and grabbed her sisters’ arms with both of hers, creating a circle formation between them.
“Just trust me!” Judith pleaded, looking them both in the eyes. She grabbed Meredith’s arm and yanked them out of the room, dodging past Nurse Harmon. Breaking into a sprint towards the exit, Judith looked back every now and then to make sure her sisters were right behind her. Sweat covered every inch of her. She pushed away any doubt that fed into the fear that she and her sisters wouldn’t be able to escape.
Judith continued to run until a guard slammed her to the floor. She couldn’t breathe, his weight suffocating her to the point where her vision went blurry. He got off of her before everything went completely dark and yanked her fragile body up. She stumbled in her standing position and grabbed the wall for support as she twisted her head around to look for Meghan and Meredith.
Just when she had gained stability, Judith saw something that she knew would traumatize her forever. She looked at the twins, struggling to get free from the nurses dragging them down the hallway. A nurse screamed for help. The guard that had pushed her down pulled a gun from his side. Judith heard the gun go off, the gunshot so loud she felt like the ringing in her ears would never stop. She watched the bullet go straight into Meredith’s head.
Time seemed to be frozen as Judith saw everyone’s mouth drop open to let out shrieks and screams. Meredith’s head lolled to the side, blood oozing out of the hole in her forehead. Meghan fell to the floor in tears—the weight of her other half seemed too heavy for her to support. Nurse Harmon furiously wiped away the tears that were streaming down her face and put on a hard expression. She shouted at the surrounding nurses. “Get the room ready! Call the doctor! The surgery must be done now.”
Judith felt dizzy as she watched nurses carry her sisters down the hallway and into a room, following closely behind. The dull lightbulb in the middle of the room flickered fast, an urgency to it. With no window to provide air, Judith felt like she was suffocating for the second time that day as she inhaled air that smelled like death. Nurse Harmon laid the twins on a stained mattress that sat on top of a rusting bed frame in the middle of the room. Other nurses came in and helped to tie the twins to the bed with brown, peeling leather straps. Meghan thrashed around, her face red and her voice strained as she continued to scream for Meredith.
Judith tried to go to her sister’s side, but a nurse pushed her back and said she couldn’t be in there. A doctor came in wearing a green sweater vest but quickly covered it with a white smock. Judith was forcibly kicked out by a nurse, and she found herself back in a dirty hallway. She listened to the other patients cry and wail as they tried to get someone’s attention to find out what the commotion was.
Her eyes kept closing, her head slowly falling, until she jerked it back up again. She stood in the same spot, not moving, lightly breathing, for what felt like hours. She couldn’t grasp that Meredith was dead. Memories of her flashed through Judith’s mind like a video playing out in her head. Meredith was always the more energetic one, always dragging Meghan around to draw on every spot of clean wall in her sight. Her hair was tangled, she was messy.
“Judith!” Judith’s mother ran through the front doors of the asylum into Judith’s outstretched arms. The two sobbed into each other’s shoulders as they awaited a response from the doctor.
Did you receive the last letter I sent you? Or the one before that where I told you about Deborah, the girl who screams in the middle of the night and wakes everyone up?
I hope my letters aren’t getting lost. I’m only allowed one a week, and there’s no one else I can talk to. Mom won’t visit me here—before she dropped me off, she told me that she didn’t recognize her own daughter. Can you believe that? I tried over and over to tell her why I broke into Fairfield Hills but she never believed me. She only shook her head and told me that she knew sooner or later my imagination would get the best of me. But I’m not sick! The other girls in here have conversations with themselves and speak in made-up languages or don’t speak at all. THEY’RE sick. I try to tell the nurses that I don’t need the medication they give everyone else, but they won’t let me go back to my bed until they’ve seen me swallow my pills.
Meghan, PLEASE tell her that I’m not making things up. She thinks everything that happened is my fault. Is that what you think, too? Please say no. I think about Meredith every day, and I know you do, too. But they were going to kill one of you in the surgery! I wish every day that it was all a dream and I could wake up and talk to both of you.
It’s not all bad, right? At least you’re out of Fairfield Hills and get to live with Mom again while you recover. Do you sleep in my room? Does she let you help her cook? I think they’re going to let me out of here soon. I just have to prove to them that I’m not sick. Then we’ll be reunited and finally get to act like sisters. Can you please just write me back and tell me that you don’t think this is all my fault?
Or is it all my fault?
The inspiration for “Double Vision” originated at a Girls Write Now Friday Night Salon with author Megan Giddings. The salon focused on thriller writing, and the prompts encouraged the writers to tap into the darker side of their minds. Ashley envisioned a young girl exploring the woods, constantly thinking about her conjoined sisters. And “Double Vision” was born. Throughout the process, Katie and Ashley divided the work by writing alternate sections and went through each other’s work to fuse together their styles. They then brought the story to life through an audio component and various sound effects which are meant to immerse listeners into Judith’s world and her sisters’ rundown asylum. Getting lost in Judith’s mind and the long halls of Fairfield Hills was easy for Katie and Ashley as the fates of Meredith and Meghan were slowly revealed.
Ashley Quiah was born and raised in the suburbs of Queens, NY. She is currently a high school senior. She loves reading, doing yoga, and everything horror. Ashley plans to pursue Astronomy and English when she goes to college.
Katie Zaborsky is the Program and Communications Administrator at New York University’s Work Life office. Katie is also pursuing her Master’s degree at NYU’s Silver School of Social Work and is interested in writing and artistic expression as a therapeutic tool. Previously, Katie worked as an Associate Editor at Penguin Random House.