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THINNER THAN THOU
When you're alone in your mind you may think you're special, but you're only ever another dumb person driving around inside that stupid body. It's no better than a car dealer's loaner, you know? Forget what the Reverend Earl preaches. The body you are using is no temple, it's a trap for the contents of your head. You want to think about who you are and what to do about it but instead you obsess over the parts that people see. Keep it clean and keep it polished or they'll come for you. Perfect hair, you need. Perfect outfits. Perfect abs and pecs! Image is everything. You grow up with this and in case you don't happen to know, they teach it in all your classes.
The Abercrombie twins are roving the landscape looking for their big sister Annie. Betz Abercrombie and her twin brother Danny are bombing along U.S. State Road Whatever in Dave Berman's Saturnbecause Dave is the one with the car. Plus he has an interest. Dave is kind of in love with Annie and Betz is kind of in love with Dave. Betz Abercrombie loves Dave Berman but she can't do anything about it until they find Annie and spring her from this terrible place. Then she can get Annie to sign off on Dave so she can kiss him and the rest of her life can start. And Danny? He loves their big sister every bit as much as Betz does, but he is also in love with a dream. Until they find her, all their dreams are on hold.
Annie, um, Got in Trouble so the folks sent her away. They did it because of her condition. Annie tried like crazy to keep it a secret but they pounced as soon as she started to show. Mom and Dad were all, "Think of the disgrace!" Now Annie is trapped in this kind of a convent, at a secret location as yet to be identified. She's in this, well, it's one of those institutions for girls who live outside the limits, like, if Annie kept on going the way she was she might just fall off the edge of the civilized world like a medieval vessel sailing straight off the map. The day after they did it Dad was all, "It's for her own good," but Mom was crying when they took her away.
The Dedicated Sisters have her, and the twins are going to break her out.
The Dedicated Sisters are not exactly nuns but they dress up like nuns. To get your attention, the twins suppose. They think what they're doing is more important than religion. Unless it is a religion. It's hard to know. The Deds go around in brown nun outfits that scare the crap out of you, every school Health Ed textbook has the photo. In the books the Dedicated Sisters are lined up like an army of Godzillas marching in to straighten you out. That isn't the worst. Big, tough Dedicated Sisters glare out at you from cautionary posters in every fast-food place and coffee shop where kids hang out. Just in case you forget yourself and start to have fun. There are Ded posters on the pillars in every arcade and every movie house in every mall where kids like the Abercrombies go. The dreaded Deds are posed in front of this Gothic heap, and even that is ominous; it crouches like a monster's castle on ahigh peak and above the convent, black birds soar and you don't know if they're vultures or what.
In case you still don't get it, the legend reads: YOUR BODY IS A TEMPLE. IF YOU CAN'T KEEP IT SACRED, WE WILL.
Nobody knows what the Dedicated Sisters do to you in those places, but everybody knows you come back changed. The twins have heard tales. First they take away your cell phone and sweep your hard drive, every single megabyte down to the last K. They stick you in these little rooms with no Internet connection and no TV, and they rip off your earrings and pull out all your studs and laser off every one of your tattoos. Between them they take away every bit and piece that tells the world you're really you. You can't go out! Their sacred, holy aim is to shape you up and put you in your place. These humongous women patrol the halls in their not-exactly habits with the dread calipers swinging from the fearsome tape measure knotted around the waist and then, God help you. Nobody knows what goes on, exactly, but everybody knows it is the Fate Worse than Death.
Poor Annie is in one of these places, she's been gone for a whole week and the hell of it is that the twins didn't find out where she was until today.
In all their worst imaginings they never thought good old Mom and Dad would ... but they did.
Annie Got in Trouble and their folks shipped her off in the middle of the night. She didn't even get to say good-bye. It happened like that! One day the twins were sitting on the plaid sofa in the family room watching TV with good old Annie in her big shaggy sweater: One Size Hides All, and the next morning she was gone. Betz and Annie shared the pink bedroom with Mom's flowered chintz curtains and the mirrored wall from the beginning, so Betz pretty much knows what's going on with her big sister even though the 'rents don't talk about it and when they do, they never look you in the face. Betz knows but until shetold him, Danny didn't have a clue. With this kind of thing guys are always the last to know. The minute the 'rents tumbled to Annie's condition they dialed the 900 number. A black van came and took her away in the middle of the night.
The next morning Betz woke up to megasilence in the pink bedroom. Something in the night, she thought, half-asleep. Something happened in the night. She sat up. "Annie?"
Annie wasn't anywhere. The other twin bed hadn't been slept in and all her stuff was gone. The only thing she'd left behind was her phone. The swift, jealous part of Betz's heart rushed ahead to Dave Berman; had Annie run away with him? Shaking, she hit Dave's name on Annie's speed dialshe left her phone!and when he answered, she held her breath. Not there. Don't ask how, she already knew. Annie was not there. Over his muttered, "Talk fast, it's your dollar," she heard Dave's mom whingeing in the background and Saturday-morning cartoons coming in on Dave's pocket TV. "Hello?" Dave said at the other end. "Hello?"
She tried all of Annie's friends. Janet. Laurie. Nell. She went to Danny's room. "Get up. It's Annie."
"Go away, it's Saturday."
"Danny, she's missing!"
"She's gone, Danny. All her stuff is gone."
His body snapped together like a closing jackknife. He sat up. "No way!"
"Way, Danny. She's totally gone."
"She's gotta be somewhere." Sleepy guy, knuckling his scalp.
"I don't think so. I called everybody on her speed dial and nobody knows."
"She left her phone?"
"She could be hiding, right?"
"I hope so. Come on!"
They wasted good time looking in dumb places, trying to kid themselves that it was some kind of stupid joke, but it was no joke. She wasn't hidden behind a door or in a closet and she wasn't in the attic, either. Annie was totally missing and when they checked the dressers and the cedar chest in the attic all her stuff was gone. When they came boiling downstairs and into the kitchen, shouting, the 'rents smiled into their breakfast cereal like it was any other morning in the world.
"Mom, Dad, Annie's gone!"
"Kidnapped, maybe. Mom!"
"Mom, Dad, call 911!"
Mom smiled and shook her head, like: kids today and Dad turned back to his morning paper as if they weren't there.
You trust these parents you grew up with because it is written into their job description that they love you and take care of you, but who knows? Who really ever knows? Annie was nowhere and here were the 'rents acting like it was any ordinary Saturday morning in the life of the world. The sunlight picked up the shine on Dad's beginning bald spot and highlighted Mom's freckles, every single one.
Betz said, "Mom, Dad. Say something!"
Same old kitchen: sunlight on the ceiling, counters clean and polished. Breakfast set out on the table just the way it always was. Orange juice and milk in paper cups, vitamins and nutrition bars laid out at their places and to keep them in shape, matched running shoes set on the nice tile floor by the back door for the whole family. Minus one. Danny knuckled Dad's arm. "Aren't you going to say something?"
"Good morning to you too."
"Where is she?"
"The shoes, Mom, where are her shoes?"
The 'rents kept on eating their Raisin Bran, like, where's who?
Betz slid into the chair next to their dad. "Come on, Dad. This is a 911 situation."
"No it isn't."
"Kidnapping. Home invasion, or something worse!"
"Don't leap to conclusions, dear."
"Well, somebody's got her!"
Then Mom said something absolutely astounding, and if her voice shook when she said it, Betz was too angry to notice. "We know."
And Dadtheir father that they've had all their lives!Dad blinked those blue eyes like Annie's, wide and pretty and mild as milk, and he rubber-stamped Mom as if there had never been any question about it. "Honey, we know."
You grow up with these people and you trust them because trust is in your job description and just when you think you've got it nailed they turn on you and do something like this. Mom said, "It's for her own good, dear."
"What is?" Betz smacked the table so hard that the bowls jumped. Skim milk sloshed like a thrown ink blot. "What did you do to her?"
"Don't worry," Dad said. "She's in good hands."
Danny threw him a look as hard as a rock. "Like, where?"
Mom didn't exactly answer. Her eyes were bright and empty and sad. "We had no choice."
Danny's fingers clamped on Mom's wrist and she yelped. "Do what?"
She didn't exactly answer that, either. She just went on in that flat, there-there tone, "Don't worry, she's fine."
"What, Mom. What?"
There was a bad silence. Finally Dad coughed. "OK, she's gone."
Mom's voice broke a little. "She couldn't go on the way she was."
"We liked her the way she was."
Dad scowled. "Betzy, your sister got in trouble."
Mom sighed like a girl. "What would happen if people found out?"
"Found out what?"
"About her condition." Mom gave Betz a significant look. "You know."
Dad said, "But for heaven's sake don't advertise it. If anybody asks, she's on one of those junior-year-abroad things."
"Or at an exercise camp."
"Yeah, that's it. France. If anybody asks, your sister is in France."
Danny went off like a cherry bomb. "That's crap!"
Mom said, "Language!"
Dad said, "Not another word."
"Go to hell!"
"That's it! Go to your room!"
They didn't, of course. They went to the mall. They went to the mall and Sunday they went to the movies, one after another after another from the first show until midnight because the weekend had stretched into a long silence that the parents chose not to break. When they saw the twins coming Mom and Dad retreated to far corners of the house because, Mom explained patiently, all these conversations ended in questions and yelling and they weren't going to take it any more.
Monday they went to school and came straight home after because something had happened to Annie and they couldn't face their friends until they found out what.
Betz even avoided Dave Berman with his nice eyes and his gimme grin, and when he finally caught up with her after geometry to ask, she fobbed him off with some lie. France. My God, did she really tell him Annie had gone to France? New York, she thinks she said, and she thinks she told him it was only for a week, but by that time she was so crazy with worry that she doesn't know. Every day she and Danny went to school and back and that's all. They slouched around feeling embarrassed and guilty, like Annie being missing wasn't the parents' fault, it was something they did. They wasted the week that way while in the Abercrombie house unanswered questions piled up in every hallway and every corner of the kitchen. Wherever the twins went in the house questions followed, expanding like hairballs until they filled every room.
Stonewalling, the 'rents were stonewalling them. For sins unnamed or maybe unspeakable, Annie had been sent away and Mom and Dad wouldn't say why. Or where. The twins searched their parents'desks and ransacked their hard drives while they were still at work and when they sat down together for takeout at night Betz and Danny tried to trick the truth out of them but Mom was silent and Dad blew them off with that grim, impenetrable smile.
Thursday, Betz whispered, "This is awful. What are we going to do?"
Cool brother with that slanted Danny grin. "Find her, I guess."
"Where are we gonna start?"
"Yeah," he said, sighing.
Betz grimaced miserably. "My point."
The routine was terrible. Wake up and worry. School. Come home and worry until it was time for bed. Go to bed and worry until you finally slept.
Six days. Six days of this and, what? Nothing. Until today.
Fridays the high schools let out early because of bodybuilding and beauty pageant prep classes, which Betz always skipped, and when the twins got home at lunchtime there was this mooshed-up paper jammed in the mailbox. Danny pulled it out. At first they thought it was an ad supplement, but Betz went down on her knees on the cement and smoothed it out. It was a note! It was definitely Annie's rushed handwriting laid over the newsprint, no city named on the page, no date. Whoever brought the note had instructions to deliver it Friday morning, so the twins would get it before Mom and Dad came home from work.
Betz pointed. "Look!" It was so obvious. They felt so stupid. DOH!
The Dedicated Sisters got me. Help.
The twins exchanged one of those encoded twin looks that obviate discussion. "Let's go."
Now they are bombing along in Dave Berman's car because Dave is kind of in love with Annie even though they kind of just broke up. He would do anything to get her back. The minute Betz phoned he came over. The minute she told him what they were doing, he said he was in. She said they didn't have a car. He said he'd drive.
Everybody knows the maroon Saturn is a lemon and a clunker, but it's the best they can do and who cares if the car makes them look like a batch of old ladies out cruising if it gets them out of this stupid town?
They've been driving for what seems like hours. Mrs. Berman's cast-off economy model chugs along like a car in an old-fashioned movie with the neon, cement-block-pebbled-flowerbeds-asphalt-parking-lot scenery repeating itself on the passenger side like so much background painted on canvas revolving on a loop. Dave's kicked it up to seventy. They're moving fast but Betz gets the idea that they aren't going anywhere. The same roadside things keep flipping by in rotation, unless they are repeating like cards in a perpetual Rolodex: same fast-food chains, strip-mall stores, gas stations, diet franchises, rotating signs for repetitively named motels and everything punctuated by revolving holographic signboards blasting sayings by the Reverend Earl, who has galvanized the nation with his famous slogan:
THINNER THAN THOU
With no known map to their destination, Dave drives on into late afternoon. Danny is riding shotgun, riffing nervously on roads they might take. Slouched in back, Betz studies the note Annie sent. Where is she anyway? Who are the Dedicated Sisters really, and do they have just one convent or are there gangs of Ded convents tucked into hillsides or hidden in caves all over this great country of ours?
They have to save Annie but where in hell are they supposed to start?
The landscape they are riding through is terminally flat: four-lane cement ribbon laid in the tracks of an old country road, America is crosshatched with commercial strips just like the one Dave has chosen, six-lane highways taking people out of one place into the next so smoothly that only the most committed locals can tell the difference between this place and the one they just left. For everybody who lives around here, it's just another Saturday afternoon out in the car, swipe your plastic at Marshalls, Staples, Bed Bath & Beyond, because in commercial America most Saturdays go like this one: shopping, friedsomething for supper at Wendy's or Burger King, dessert at Dairy Queen, get your Pick a Mix or popcorn while you're on line for the evening movie at the multiplex, buy extras between features if you're seeing two and don't think about what you ate until afterward, when you remember to worry about your weight. Face sagging and jowly? Lipo! Body image slipping just a little bit? Hey, there's always the gym.
Superhighways in these parts are designed to move people, but secondary roads like the one they are on today are calculated to make them stop. Turnoffs are easy. So is getting back on the road. Lights are timed so that intersections flip by with seductive regularity, punctuated only by billboards carrying quotations from the Reverend Earl, the yellow-haired guru of the good life in which everyone is slim and beautiful in a state the Reverend Earl calls the Afterfat. He broadcasts 24/7 from the Glass Cathedral, or somebody does, and gazillion people like the twins' mom pray to him and send money like he is the answer to their prayers.
Mom is, OK, after three children Mom is self-conscious about her weight, and even if she wasn't, who would want to risk a ticket from the Fashion Police? It's weird in a world so focused on how you look that even with everybody trying to be beautiful, so many grownups fail.
This means nothing to the three riding along in Dave's Saturn because at their age bodies like the ones society prizes and the Reverend promises to the faithful come as a natural right. Look at Betz with her firm bare arms and that taut, smooth belly peeking out of the designer gap between the tank top and her relentlessly taut lo-rise jeans. Silky rib cage under the truncated tank top, sweet little bellybutton diamond stud to call attention, daisy tattoo peeping out of her waistband just above the hip. These kids and the kids they hang out with take their bodies for grantedyou know, the kind you run around in without thinking when you're some-teen and never gonna get old, running their palms down sleek thighs with entitled smiles that expose beautiful square teeth. Any problems with their features, like crooked noses, have already been fixed. At their age, perfection is close.
For the parent generation, it's hard. They can forget about perfectanything, hit forty and life is a holding action from there on, and if in a few more years Mom and Dad can't manage it and somebody comes after them, OK, it will damn well serve them right.
Send Annie away, will they? They'd better watch their fucking step or in a few more years the twins can get them sentenced to a year in exercise camp or one of those high-end granola-and-lemon-juice diet spas. Stupid grownups have to starve and jog or sweat it off or gasp over the Abdomenizer and they're still gross, but when you're the twins' age you assume it's their own stupid fault. Serves them right for getting old. To stay in the ballpark people like Mom and Dad atone and suffer and burn excess calories doing Power Yoga or spinning or Pilates or the complete course at the Sign of the Crossed Triceps because it is written that everybody over a certain age is doomed to starve or work it off or both; "no thanks, I can't," "just a sliver for me," "oh, I never eat anything white." Where they used to be young and beautiful and relaxed, they get all tense and craven because the ones lucky enough to catch some wasting disease may be OK but for everybody else, putting on years means putting on weight.
They may preach beauty and moderation but Betz knows that people like Mom and Dad often sneak food and scarf it when nobody's watching and holy as they are, they sit at the table with their eyes glittering: Are you going to eat that? See, the metabolically challenged, which is most of us, fix on the next meal like alcoholics focused on the next drink. Wallowing, Mom and Dad eat and then they atone in the steam room or at the gym and when all else fails, they turn to the Reverend Earl.
Thin is the new religion, but not for buff, seventeen-year-old Dave or wiry Danny and certainly not for Betz.
That's another story.
Copyright © 2004 by Kit Reed