I decide that it’s time to take back my life.
The second day of my punishment, Mom moves my computer to the kitchen island. She announces that she’ll be changing the password daily, and I can only use it for two hours for homework when she’s there to supervise my online time. Three-plus weeks of my prison sentence ahead of me, when she actually looks over my shoulder as I Google a vocabulary word, I shove back and tell her that I’m boycotting homeschool.
“It’s not like it matters,” I say. “Ella’s the one getting the real grades.”
“That’s your choice,” Mom says, talking to me from the entryway as I storm up the stairs. “But for every assignment you fail to complete for homeschool, you add another half day to your punishment.”
I continue up the stairs and slam my bedroom door so hard it rocks the house. But later, I finish the assignment. I may be fraught with lava-hot fury right now, but I’m not a moron.
I’m not about to add to my sentence.
“Are you all right?” Sean asks the third night; we’re on the spy phone, my last remaining link to the outside world. Mom’s at work, but I wouldn’t put it past her to come home to check on me, so I’m on the floor of my bathroom with the door locked and the fan going.
“I’m a prisoner,” I groan. “It’s not like I was really all that free to begin with, but this is ridiculous. I mean, I can take missing school. I can handle being without my computer… mostly. But…” I’m quiet.
“I’m so sorry,” he says. “Does it make you feel any better to know that I’m miserable without you?”
“A little,” I say, smiling weakly.
“Just a little?” he asks. “Come on.”
I laugh out loud, and the jolt of it makes the tears I’ve held back fall from my eyes. Suddenly, I’m laughing and crying at the same time. “I miss you,” I say when I catch my breath.
“I miss you, too.”
I wipe away my tears and sniff loudly; there’s a break in the conversation before Sean speaks again.
“Lizzie, I know you don’t want to talk about this, but I really think we should tell someone,” he says gently. “I’ll talk to my mom; I’ll tell her not to do anything about it without your permission. I just feel like someone needs to know. She might have some good advice.”
“No, Sean, don’t,” I say forcefully. “Really. I’m serious.”
He huffs. “Are you seriously going to keep defending her? Saying that she gave up so much for you? I mean, for god’s sake, you’re locked in your house.”
“I’m fully aware of where I am,” I say, growing angry. “But if someone outside our family is the one to call Mom on her shit, she’ll freak and possibly move us again. Do you want that?” I’m glad for the fan at the end; my voice is loud.
“Of course I don’t want that,” he says in a gentler tone. “But I want you to be safe. At first, it was just the schedule. Then the dating. Now you actually can’t leave the house. I’m afraid for you; I’m afraid of what’s next.”
“She’d never hurt us,” I say. “She honestly believes she’s protecting us.”
“From what?” Sean asks.
I’m quiet for a few seconds. “I’m not sure at this point,” I say finally. “All I know is that Betsey, Ella, and I need to be the ones to confront her directly. And if we can do it with a DNA test that says we know the Original is alive, plus the address of her secret office and the knowledge that she doesn’t work at the hospital, we’ve got so much proof that there’s no way she can lie anymore.”
“And then what?” he asks, sounding worn down. “What will come of it?”
“I’ve been thinking about that,” I say. “I think if it comes down to it, we need to trade our silence for identities.”
“You’re going to blackmail your mom?”
“Sean, you’re the one who’s always pushing me to get out of this situation,” I say. “I mean, we’ll try to reason with her. But if it doesn’t work—if she won’t listen—then yeah. We might just have to scare her into freeing us.”
The eighth day, I’m in the rec room watching TV when I see out of the corner of my eye Mom go into my room with a laundry basket. I could help her—my room’s a disaster area—but instead, I turn up the volume and scrunch lower into the couch.
Two hours later, when I decide to change out of sweats, I walk into a room that barely looks like mine. The clothes are gone from the floor; the bed is made hotel perfectly; the curtains are drawn and the window is open. My vanilla candle is lit on my desk and it smells so nice. I smile for maybe the first time since I saw Mom outside the post office, wondering if this is her version of a peace treaty.
But then I walk into the bathroom and see an empty tampon box on the vanity, and I know without checking for sure: She found the spy phone.
My connection to Sean is gone.
When Mom goes out on Saturday, Betsey, Ella, and I run to my room. Bet dials the number scrawled on a piece of scrap paper and sits down on the desk chair. Like kids at story time, Ella and I sit cross-legged at her feet. We hear the cell ring once, twice, three times….
“Petra?” Betsey says. “It’s Betsey. From Twinner?”
“Oh, hi!” the girl says. Everyone around me has the same voice, so I could be wrong, but hers sounds a lot like ours. “How are you?”
“I’m okay,” Bet says. “Just hanging out. How about you?”
“I’m good,” Petra says. “But I thought you were going to call a little earlier. I might have to cut this short; I’m headed out to a birthday party.”
“Oh, cool,” Betsey says, and I can hear in her voice that she’s disappointed. “Yeah, sorry for not calling earlier. I was doing some stuff for my mom… you know, your long-lost mother.” Betsey fakes a laugh and I hear one on the other end of the line.
“She’s probably better than my real birth mom,” Petra says.
“You know her?” Betsey asks. Ella and I look at each other excitedly.
“I’ve never met her,” the girl says. “I just have this whole made-up persona in my mind. In my imagination, she had me as a teen and was way too young to handle a kid, so her parents made her give me up.”
I feel sad for her in that moment: having to make up the backstory to her own life.
“Anyway, I’ve gotta go,” she says. “I can’t be late to my own party.”
“Oh, it’s your birthday?” Betsey says.
“Well, not until next week, but yeah, it’s my party,” she says. “Sweet sixteen.”
“Well, happy birthday,” Bet says, “and maybe I’ll call you in a few days.” Bet missed it, but Ella heard: I know because her face looks as disappointed as I feel.
“Okay, great!” Petra says. “Have a good afternoon. Bye!”
Bet hangs up and looks at us: It’s not until then that she notices our expressions.
“What?” she asks.