15 minutes until Adeline’s holiday performance, and she was curled up somewhere in a little ball. No one could say where exactly. Caroline, twin sister, PR manager, sat on the couch, smiling with just her mouth, not her eyes. Sometimes Adeline pulled through last minute. Sometimes, she didn’t.
A dozen people were scattered in Nikolai’s living room, a scrappy holiday post-tour party. There were the backstage technicians, the bearded and pot-bellied lighting specialists, the tour manager locked up in the bathroom with yet another important phone call. Two bored groupies made their way inside too, teenagers sitting silent and accusatory with greasy hair and gum smacked every five minutes like the pop of a revolver. Nikolai, music journalist assigned to the three-month tour, had put together this get-together, under pretense of a Secret Santa gift exchange and overall celebration of the completion of a semi-successful series of concerts. Everyone knew he was in love with Adeline, though, and that this whole Santa shebang was a ploy to finally get her inside his apartment, if only as a party guest. Adeline knew, Caroline knew, Nikolai knew, and so did the tour manager, the backstage technician, and the lighting specialists. The groupies probably weren’t in on it. They’d just come because they heard Adeline would play an acoustic and unplugged rendition of her best hits, in an intimate and cozy atmosphere, surrounded by friends, her last hurrah with this latest album.
Nikolai was in the kitchen, arms covered to the elbows with flour. His nervous hands shaped bread rolls. It was his babushka’s recipe, made from the scraps one could collect from a nearly bare Soviet kitchen cabinet. Hers were always rosy, neat, beautiful knots. His looked like the snot left behind on a used tissue. He’d fix them, but if Adeline wasn’t coming, what was the point?
The party guests stood stiff, weary, rocking like gaunt, bare winter trees. The tour had drained them of all juice. They checked the time: five minutes until Adeline’s scheduled performance. Silently, they all made the same calculations, that if she didn’t come 15 after, they’d just quietly thank Nikolai for a very nice evening, and crawl off to their respective homes, charge up for the next journey. They liked the boy, they really did, he was sweet, and they did all hope he and Adeline could have their little romance, but come on. Everyone was too tired for sentimentality.
Caroline’s furious thumbs clacked away at a phone screen. Twelve calls, sixty-two text messages, no response from her sister. It was always like this: one holed up in her cave, slowly decomposing, postponing her rot every once in a while to emerge into the light with some genius performance, then sulk back to darkness however positive the response was, with the other one forever in the sunshine, talking on her behalf, scheduling things, sending emails, calling and apologizing over and over. Caroline never said the word “ungrateful,” not aloud. But both her and Adeline knew that Adeline would have no record deal, no concert, no career without Caroline’s management. What pinched Caroline right in the heart, though, was the silent knowledge that without her twin’s talent, Caroline would have no career either.
The guests all held newspaper-wrapped parcels, dollar-store gift bags, hurriedly bought and packaged presents. Caroline herself had pulled one of the lighting technicians in the Secret Santa exchange, when Nikolai had them write their names on slips of paper, drop them in a bucket, and all pull the name for which they’d buy a present. A gift set of assorted hot sauces sat by her feet. Whatever, she didn’t really know the guy, and men like that kind of thing, right?
Scanning the bored faces of everyone present, Caroline felt the tickle of anxious responsibility, like rats chewing her stomach. Even when Adeline wasn’t here, she felt responsible. She smiled at everyone, walked quickly over to the kitchen, where Nikolai was still struggling with the bread rolls.
“Hi, Nikolai,” she said, tense. It always caught him, right in the throat, how much Caroline looked like Adeline. Duh, they were twins. But still -- same face, same voice, same mannerisms. So many times his heart pounded with lovesick nerves looking at the wrong sister. He’d never tell either of them this, though.
“So,” she chirped, all professional, “When are we going to exchange gifts?”
“Well,” he answered, “I was thinking we ought to wait ‘til Adeline gets here, right?”
“Yeah, of course, of course.” Caroline paused, pressing her lips together. “It’s just, she might be really tired after all the performances. I called her, texted her, nothing. She might not come. It’s Adeline, you know? And I’d just feel bad, with everyone here. They’ve already worked so hard and put up with so much.”
“Right, of course.” Nikolai looked at his watch. “I mean, her performance isn’t for two more minutes. She has time.”
Caroline sighed, leaned against the kitchen countertop.
“Who do you think got you for Secret Santa?” she asked, her voice losing the PR artificiality.
Nikolai smiled, devious. “No one.”
“What do you mean?”
“I didn’t write my name on the little slip. I wrote Adeline’s. I forfeited my gift, so she could have two.” This he said with boyish pride.
Caroline’s shoulders tensed, a boxer braced for a punch.
“You didn’t tell that to Adeline, did you?” she asked, hopeful. One could count on Nikolai’s journalistic discretion. He usually didn’t say more than he needed to.
“Yeah, I told her.”
“You idiot. Why would you do that? Of course she’s not gonna come.” Caroline pinched her nose bridge between two fingers. “She’s freaking out right now.”
“Can you imagine, her coming here, in front of everyone, and getting two gifts? It’d make her look like an asshole!”
“What? No, it wouldn’t.”
“Yeah, I know,” Caroline sighed again. “But that’s how she would see it.”
Nikolai slammed the tray of bread rolls into the oven. They were ugly, and they weren’t getting fixed.
“Hey, I’m sorry,” Caroline put a hand on his shoulder. “I know you wanted her to come.”
“No, it’s okay, it’s my fault.” It was not okay -- his brain was swirling with maggots. But he wouldn’t tell this to anyone.
Caroline was already in fixing-things mode. She computed the solution quickly, one to satisfy everyone.
“So listen,” she turned to Nikolai, putting her fingertips together. “We’ll go ahead and have everyone exchange gifts, tell them ‘oh sorry, Adeline can’t make it,’ which I don’t think anyone will be too upset about, then you and I can take her gift -- or I guess, gifts -- down to her apartment, and then that way, you can still see her tonight. That work?”
Nikolai nodded, his lower lip hanging like an upset baby’s.
And so, once again, Caroline addressed everyone, apologizing, and they, once again, nodded, understanding, for the last time. Really, they were relieved to go home. They exchanged gifts. The lighting technician nodded, silently appraising the hot sauce gift set Caroline handed him. Caroline herself got a set of matching necklaces from the tour manager, each with half a heart, one for her, one for Adeline. Never one without the other.
The groupies left as soon as they heard Adeline wasn’t coming. Other guests hardly hung around after they got their gifts. Fifteen minutes after Adeline’s scheduled performance, and only Caroline and Nikolai remained in the apartment, scooping half-bitten cookies and wine-stained plastic cups into trash bags. Afterwards, they squeezed into Caroline’s tiny car, a pink gift bag balanced on Nikolai’s knees. The second gift had come from the same lighting technician Caroline had given a gift to, something boxy and large, a poorly-wrapped package in her trunk.
Adeline’s apartment was on the first floor of an old building, red brick weathered around the corners. Caroline knocked on the door, then the window, called her sister twice, and sent five text messages. She tried to respect her privacy, she really did, but after no response, she unlocked the door with her own spare key.
“Adeline!” she called out. “You here? Nikolai and I came with your gift.”
No response. Like criminal investigators on the scene of a fresh crime, they tip-toed through every room, gently unlocking doors. The apartment was filthy, empty yogurt containers and pizza boxes piling on every piece of furniture. No lamp was turned on. Her bedroom was on the furthest end of the apartment. Inside, it really did appear to be a crime scene. The lights were off, only the streetlamps leaking in, illuminating rising dust in long beams. The curtains appeared clawed off by a rabid cat, shredded on the floor. Broken vases glistened in shards. Books lay splayed and vulnerable, revealing their white bellies. And the window, shattered.
“Do you think someone broke in?” Nikolai whispered.
“No,” Caroline sighed. “There’s no glass in here, it’s all on the outside. She went out the window. She’s freaked out like this before. We gotta go find her.”
It didn’t take long to find her. A commotion burbled on the street, people gathered in a tight crowd, a car parked with open doors, the driver sobbing against his front bumper.
“Oh, no.” Caroline pushed past the herd. There was Adeline, twisted on the ground, eyes wide and still.
“I didn’t mean to, I swear!” the driver called out. “She just ran in front of my car! I had no time to brake or anything.”
“No, I know.” Caroline sighed, looking at her own face on the ground, mangled and bloody.
“Alright, everyone,” she addressed the crowd. “I’m the PR manager. I’m here now, I’ve got this under control. Please clear the area. Apologies for this interruption to your day.”
People shook their heads, clucked their tongues, shuffled along. Caroline spoke to the driver, calmed him down, sent him home with a business card. Then, it was just her and Nikolai and the body.
They sat down on the curb, waiting for the authorities to arrive.
“Damn,” said Caroline. “I’m gonna have to find another job.”
“Yeah. I’m gonna have to rewrite some of these articles. In memoriam now. Oh, and I guess you can take the gifts. I doubt she has need for them any more.”
He handed Caroline the gift bag. She tore through the tissue paper, revealing another matching gift set of necklaces, each with half a heart. One for her, one for Adeline. She already had such necklaces of course, but she wasn’t going to say it.
“The media is gonna get here soon,” Caroline told him. “Do you have your statement ready?”
Nikolai looked at her, at the face so recognizable, so familiar, Adeline’s face, but not really. Words, everything he’d always meant to say, swirled behind his tongue like slippery fish. But then, he remembered.
“Aw, damn it. I gotta go -- I forgot to take my bread rolls out of the oven!”
“Yeah, yeah, of course, go get ‘em,” Caroline smiled. Nikolai scattered away, leaving her alone with her sister.
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I'm glad you're back! This was good, somewhat funny in parts. I'm working on a story for this prompt too and I think it will be way different from yours. Not a bad thing. Good title, good dialogue, good ending. There's an added "th" when she says "Hello, Nikolai," and that's the only typo I could find. Well done, and it's good to have you back!
thanks so much :) !!
thanks so much :) !!
thanks so much :) !!
Oh, Masha. You know how much we enjoy your stories and this did not disappoint. Nikolai was trying so hard to get Adeline and it was slightly amusing. Finally, just straight up ironic when she died in the end. As I see Zilla noted, there’s a “th” where there shouldn’t be. Keep it up.
Yay you’re back! I love Nikolai and Caroline’s reaction to her demise at the end. It’s dark, but extremely appropriate given the setup. It almost feels like a touch of black comedy. Good stuff as always! 😙
Nice descriptions in this one. I do hope the characters work it out in the end!