“Of Squid and Schism”
by Devan Barlow
The Mollusk made me do this.
“The other students look up to you. You’ll set a good example by going first.”
I was easy prey. Everyone else had already managed to get out the door.
“I don’t want to.”
She sighed. I think she may have reached what Mother calls her “breaking point” when she and Daddy yell at each other.
“If you volunteer I promise not to make you read aloud in class for the rest of the year.”
Reading aloud makes my face go all hot and then I mess up words, even easy ones, and everyone laughs at me.
So I said I’d be part of her stupid program.
But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.
Yours truly, (the Mollusk made me add this part)
September 3rd, 9 P.S.
The Mollusk said it’s rude to begin a letter without a date and a “proper salutation”, but I think it’s stupid to call you “dear”. I almost asked if it’s rude to read over someone’s shoulder but then I thought about what Mother would say if I brought home a note for bad behavior.
“Your double has a name, just like you.” The Mollusk said. “What will she think if you don’t use it?”
Now that she’s got me snared she makes me stay five minutes after the final bell every day for a “progress update.”
Ms. Mollone doesn’t look like a mollusk. Her disguise is that good. I didn’t realize what she was until we studied them in science last month.
Do you have mollusks there?
At least she’s kept her promise not to make me read aloud even though SOMEONE isn’t keeping up their end of things. Don’t you have pens on your side? Or do you not need them when you can all just sit around thinking at one another?
Write back and tell me. Or not. I don’t care.
September 4th, 9 P.S.
I’m not going to pretend you’re dear to me when you’re not. I tried to tell the Mollusk you’re clearly not interested since everyone knows it takes a day TOPS for letters to get from one side’s post office to another and it’s now been four days since I started writing. Isn’t your teacher making you write back?
“Just be patient,” she said, “I’m sure you’ll hear from her. She’s probably nervous! Why don’t you tell her about your family and then ask about hers? That will give her a starting point.”
Fine. But only because I HATE reading aloud.
Mother works at the Institute. I know you don’t have one of those over there because it’s where they work on Cogitation Interruption and keeping us safe from people like you. That’s why we had to move here, because they want all the scientists and historians close to the Schism.
Daddy hasn’t found a new job yet. He was a reporter back in Trenton but now he just spends a lot of time reading the papers and talking about something called the “rebirth of the printed word”. Mother always groans and changes the subject before I get a chance to ask what he means.
When I told him about this assignment he called the Mollusk a “half crazed Completionist”. Then Mother told me to leave the living room and they yelled at each other for a long time.
Do you know any of this already? The adults say you’re me, a “mirror of what I could have been” across the Schism. But no one’s ever explained what that means.
September 7th, 9 P.S.
I asked the Mollusk why you STILL haven’t written back. She said this was a process and part of exploring this new opportunity was working our way over the bumps in the road.
I think that means she doesn’t know.
Last night at dinner Mother asked how my letter-writing project was going. For some reason she started laughing but Daddy just looked angry so I asked what was funny.
She shook her head. “I never thought my daughter would be handwriting anything in her life.”
“Does it just eat away at you?” Daddy asked in a really soft voice. “That everyone finally got scared enough to pull away from all their screens?”
She looked at him for a long, long time and then said she had a headache and went to bed.
“Daddy, what did you mean before?”
“Your mother had a long day at work.”
“Daddy,” he likes to try to slip those by me, “I’m not a baby anymore. Can I have a real answer?”
“Ah, trumped by the rhetoric of a 12 year old.”
But he just gave me a kiss and went to bed anyway.
When the Schism opened up, did all those scientists kill themselves on your side too?
I don’t care about being your pen pal. But could you maybe tell me that last part?
September 9th, 9 P.S.
I’m not going to complain to the Mollusk about you anymore because all it gets me are suggestions for things to write about. This week I’m supposed to tell you “how I’ve spent the time since writing last.” Because I’m sure you can’t wait to hear.
Maybe you already know. Some days Daddy falls asleep before he cleans up his newspapers and I can sneak peeks if I’m quick. They make it sound like you know all my thoughts before I’m done thinking them. That’s why everyone’s so scared of their double.
Except Ms. Mollone, I guess. She says there’s nothing scary about another version of ourselves unless we allow there to be.
The only thing that’s really happened this week was when she brought me with her to a school board meeting to explain her pen pal program.
They asked how you and I get along. When I said I didn’t know yet they all stared at me like I was a little kid about to start crying. I think they may have been disappointed when I didn’t.
One of them was this squinty-faced woman who didn’t say anything until everyone else had given up on me and started to pack up their papers.
“You’re one of those Completionists, aren’t you?”
It was the same thing Daddy had called her. The look on the Mollusk’s face made me think she didn’t like it very much.
“I have chosen to refuse Cogitation Interruption, yes.”
The other board members looked like they wished they’d left earlier.
“You’re not safe to be trusted with children.”
The woman’s face was all red but the Mollusk didn’t even blink.
“I see no reason to deny a part of myself, nor why such a personal choice should affect my ability to perform my job.”
I thought the woman was going to start screaming but the Mollusk said we had to go and dragged me out.
I didn’t know you could refuse CI.
Would that mean you and I would be able to hear one another?
I don’t know if I like that idea.
Then again, since you won’t even RESPOND TO MY LETTERS and let me know if there’s anything to be afraid of I have no reason to think you’d want to hear my thoughts.
September 12th, 9 P.S.
I showed Mama all of your letters.
“Isn’t that just like an Isolate.” She said. “How rude of that little girl, thinking you have nothing better to do than sit around writing back to her drivel. Do you want me to tell your teacher to let you skip this assignment?”
She always offers to do that and never even asks what the homework is, but I said she didn’t have to.
“Well,” she said, “if you change your mind you just have to tell me.”
Now I think I might because you were sort of rude. It’s not my fault Mama makes me practice Cogitation so much or that it makes me really tired. She says the Sage’s daughter can’t afford to look weak.
Anyway, you may have a Mollusk but I have Mrs. Murgatroyd. She mostly leaves me alone because of Mama but she asked me specifically if I would write letters to my double. I know it’s because she thinks having the Sage’s daughter involved will make her look impressive but she’s seemed too relieved I said yes to bring it up again.
I wonder if she and your Mollusk talk about us? If she hasn’t been CI’d they probably can.
You and I are too young to connect over the Schism so I don’t know anything about you. Mrs. Murgatroyd says you’re another version of me. Why do adults say unhelpful things instead of just admitting they don’t know?
Are you going to be CI’d when we turn thirteen?
Also, I don’t believe you have studied mollusks very closely because if you had you’d know they are invertebrates, which means they don’t have spines. If your teacher didn’t have a spine I don’t think she’d be so good at getting her own way. See the uneven balance of pen pal activity up to this point.
Just an observation.
September 13th, 9 P.S.
I’m honored you found time in your frantic schedule to jot off a note to me.
Does Mrs. Murgatroyd do that thing where she looks sad and then you feel guilty for not agreeing to whatever she wants? The Mollusk has turned it into an art form.
And for your information there are many different kinds of mollusks including Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni. Those of us who know what we’re talking about understand that’s the proper name for the beautiful creature known as the colossal squid.
Now, your side of the Schism might not have the colossal squid, or any squid at all, which would almost be enough to make me feel bad for you because they are FANTASTIC. They don’t have spines but they have gigantic tentacles and they wait quietly until their prey comes close enough for them to reach out, wrap them up and squeeze out all the oxygen.
Which is exactly what Ms. Mollone did to me. Except instead of slowly digesting me at the bottom of the ocean she made me write to my double. It’s basically the same thing.
Just because your mother is important doesn’t mean you know everything. And if you don’t know something as simple as how squid work I have to wonder what everyone’s wasting their time worrying about. You and I were only three when the Schism opened so I don’t remember much, but they’ve told us in school about all those people who killed themselves because they were scared of the thought of another version of themselves on the other side.
But how dangerous can you be if you don’t even understand squid? I think we might have moved here for nothing.
Another thing you’re probably too busy “practicing” to know is that people used to put “P.S.” at the end of letters when they wanted to add a final thought. Isn’t that silly? A letter ending with “Post Schism”, like when you write out the date?
Are the adults there like the ones here? Because here, they never really answer when you ask about the Schism or doubles or any of it.
Maybe your mother and mine are each other’s doubles. I know it doesn’t always work that way but they do sound awfully similar. Mother wouldn’t like if I asked so I tried the Mollusk instead.
“It’s possible,” she said “but they’d have to meet to be sure. Or request the information from the Institute.”
Neither of those sound likely. Oh well.
September 14th, 9 P.S.
WELL. Excuse me for not memorizing every single member of the mollusk family. Try to remember you were the one who was so eager to hear back from me.
It’s not like everything for us over here is easy. You may not remember much from that year but I remember having to ask Mama why people kept dying when they weren’t sick or hurt or anything.
“The people on the other side are scared of us, and some of them decide they don’t want to be alive anymore. But when they make that choice it means their double dies too.”
That was the same year Mom died. But she was sick.
At least we’ve tried to reach over to you and make sense of the Schism. All your scientists do is keep us out of your heads and look for the Separation Point.
Which they still haven’t found, last I checked.
Don’t assume I want to read your thoughts. So far most of them haven’t seemed very nice.
And we don’t just Cogitate with anyone. Sharing thoughts with strangers is very rude. Family and close friends only. If you had some manners that might occur to you.
September 20th, 9 P.S.
I think my last letter might have been kind of mean. Cogitation is so much easier than writing things down. Except when Mama hears me thinking about how I haven’t done my chores.
I’m not taking back anything I said. That doesn’t mean I wanted you to stop writing.
Maybe when we turn thirteen you could decide not to get CI’d and then I could just send you thoughts? We might get along better that way.
September 28th, 9 P.S.
You’ll notice it’s been two weeks since I wrote you. This morning the Mollusk asked for volunteers to read aloud and then gave me the guilt-inducing-death-tentacle look again. At least a real colossal squid would have snatched me up and been done with it instead of just waggling a tentacle to make me nervous.
I don’t care WHAT your mother thinks. Mine works really hard at the Institute and it’s important they figure out what the Separation Point was.
How else will they know what caused the people on your side to be Cogent?
None of those people who died were her fault. Or mine.
P.S. Daddy says only fools like Ms. Mollone don’t get CI’d. I asked her today why she never had it done.
“Why would I want to cut out a part of myself?” Her face looked weird, not like a stealthy squid at all. “Just because I hadn’t realized it was there before?”
There was an article in one of the papers this morning about the Separation Point.
“Isn’t he one of those bores you work with?” Daddy asked Mother.
He started subscribing to all these different papers when we moved here and every morning he likes to spread them out over the breakfast table like a big wordy tablecloth. I wonder if it’s like being Cogitated at, all those words bouncing around in his head the rest of the day.
Mother blinked at the paper for a minute, then frowned.
“Yes. Couldn’t reason his way out of a paper bag.”
“Is he right?” I asked.
I think that was when she realized I’d been reading over her shoulder.
“Right enough, but he’s just parroting the actual work the rest of us do.”
The article was about how the Institute keeps comparing historical events on both sides of the Schism because they think the split between universes opened up when something happened differently on one side. All the scientists and historians who didn’t kill themselves have been looking for almost ten years now but they can’t find it.
September 30th, 9 P.S.
Something’s going on.
Yesterday Mrs. Murgatroyd asked me to stay after class and then shut the door really fast.
“What have you and your double been talking about?”
She’s never looked at the letters but the Mollusk has and the two of them share thoughts. So why would she need to ask me?
“Nothing really.” I was nervous because that was a lie and technically teachers are allowed to Cogitate with students. Luckily she didn’t.
She smiled, but it wasn’t a very nice smile. More like she thought I was trying really hard at something and not doing a good job.
“Come on,” she said, “the two of you have been sending a lot of words back and forth!”
I didn’t say anything.
“It’s nice, isn’t it? Feeling more complete?”
“It’s like getting back a piece of yourself you didn’t realize was missing.”
“Can I go now? Mama wanted me home right after school.”
Her mouth got all squeezed-up but she let me leave.
“Has she said anything about her mother?”
I was almost out the door, too.
“Why would she?”
It seemed wrong to tell her anything you’ve told me. I think I understand now what you meant about tentacles, creeping out when you’re not paying attention and wrapping you up until you can’t breathe.
You’re not me. I don’t care if we are each other’s reflections, you’re not me.
But I’d like it if you were my friend.
October 1st, 9 P.S.
Admit I know more than you do about squid and I’ll let you be my best friend.
Our science textbooks are pre-Schism and they’re all crumbly and old but there’s this index in the back. That’s where I learned people who study squid are called “teuthologists”. Isn’t that excellent?
That’s what I’m going to be. A teuthologist. Not something boring like Mother. Every day she has to look at all those history books from our side next to the books they bring over from yours and try to figure out which war went differently or which storm didn’t touch down or whatever.
Not me. I’m going to look at squid all day and figure out how they work and how they live and how to keep them alive.
Maybe I could figure out if squid have doubles over the Schism too.
The Mollusk asked about your mother. She knew she was the Sage but I didn’t tell her anything else.
October 4th, 9 P.S.
You must be busy again. Otherwise you’re ignoring me and you would NEVER do that to your best friend, RIGHT?
I don’t have a lot of practice being friends but it still doesn’t seem like a very nice thing to do.
Mother and Daddy have been fighting a lot. Or they just stopped keeping their voices down. Most of it I can ignore but last night was really weird.
“We’re so close,” Mother said “and it’s selfish of you –”
“You know what?” Daddy said, “I think Vanessa may have had the right idea after all.”
I don’t know what that means but Mother didn’t come in to say goodnight to me.
October 6th, 9 P.S.
Mama’s been making me practice a lot. She says I have to be ready for what’s to come.
She always says that but never explains what it means. It’s so frustrating!
I’m sorry your parents are fighting but at least both of them are alive. When Mom was still here they’d Cogitate their arguments instead of talking, because of me I think. I still always knew when they were mad at each other.
No one knew more about Cogitation than Mom. Just before she got sick they’d given her a special award for “excellence in neurological research.” I have the plaque in my room.
She’d talk about the Schism too, say everyone was going about it the wrong way and that a big hole between worlds doesn’t open up in the middle of this nowhere town on the East Coast because a major historical event gets skewed.
“It’s the little things.” She always insisted, which would make Mama roll her eyes but they’d wrinkle their noses at each other and I’d know everything was ok.
“I’d bet you anything it’s something everyone’s forgotten about that tore through the worlds.”
Mama won’t talk about her anymore.
October 7th, 9 P.S.
I don’t know how I feel about Cogitation.
I asked Daddy who Vanessa was. He got annoyed because I asked when he was reading the paper but I don’t know what he expects because he is ALWAYS reading the paper.
“A friend of your Mother’s.” Then he was reading again. Why would you care about the news from a place you’ve never heard of?
“What was her idea?”
He put the paper down. He never does that.
“She and your mother had a disagreement.”
“Does she live back in Trenton?”
He looked at me for a very long time, so long I wondered if he’d forget what he’d been reading about once he went back to it.
“She killed herself after the Schism opened.”
I thought about what he’d said and I almost asked Daddy if he wanted to kill himself too. But he wasn’t listening anymore.
It could be something little, I guess, that opened the Schism. Wouldn’t that be funny?
You should see the building Mother works at, the Institute. All these shiny panels in this weird silvery-blue color that hurts your eyes if you go past when the sun’s up. And no windows.
That’s supposed to keep anyone from looking out at the Schism, which is silly because they’ve already built that wall around it. One of Daddy’s papers used to make jokes about the quarries running out because they were using so much granite. Until they did.
Do you get to take history in school there? The older students used to before the Schism. Then they took all the books away because they didn’t know what had really happened anymore.
I think I’d like to know more about the past. It’s probably not as interesting as squid. But our science textbook never tells me enough about the people who made all those discoveries.
October 8th, 9 P.S.
I don’t think I’m supposed to tell anyone this but you’re my best friend and that’s different. I figured out why Mama’s been making me practice so much.
There’s going to be an important meeting soon, on our birthday, between Mama and some of the people from the place your mom works at. It’s going to be called the Pan-Schism Conference.
“It’s the chance we’ve been waiting for,” she told me, “we’ll finally be able to show them the good of embracing Cogitation.” It was the happiest I’ve seen her in a while.
She’s going to bring me with her and says there’s a part for me in the demonstration, whatever that means. So here’s what we should do. Find out if your mom is going to be one of the people the Institute sends. You don’t have to be CI’d right after you wake up on our birthday, do you? That way we could meet and talk to one another and no one else would know.
Wouldn’t that be fun?
October 9th, 9 P.S.
I don’t know if this is a good idea. Everyone says it’s really risky not to be CI’d. Not that I think you’d try to suck out my mind like the stories say people from your side do, but what about someone else? I wouldn’t want some stranger knowing my thoughts.
Please don’t be mad.
October 10th, 9 P.S.
I’m not mad. I’m just hurt you don’t trust me. I thought we were best friends.
I asked Mama if she’s met her double before. She says they’ve only exchanged letters but they’re both going to be at this meeting and that made me think of how her double will be CI’d already and they won’t have nearly as nice of a time as we could if you’d just take a chance.
You know I’d never hurt you.
October 11th, 9 P.S.
You’re not going to believe this.
I was going to ask about the Conference, I really was, but then the Mollusk started telling me about it.
She’s going to be there, doing a presentation about her pen pal program and its’ “potential to increase pan-Schism cooperation”.
She said if I go with her she’ll lend me a book about squid she kept from one of her college classes.
THEN I asked Mother when I was going to be CI’d, all casual like it didn’t matter.
“What has that teacher been saying to you?” She narrowed her eyes like she was worried the Mollusk was hiding behind me, tentacles ready to strike.
“Nothing! It was just a question!”
“Then do I need to figure it out right this instant? I’ve got a lot of work to get through tonight.”
“Would Vanessa have worked at the Institute too? If she hadn’t –”
“Who told you about her?”
I think their fight afterwards may have been my fault but at least she came in to say goodnight later.
“I’m sorry I yelled at you before.” She gave me a hug. “Vanessa was very important to me. I miss her a lot.”
“That’s ok.” I was thinking about what you’d written, how I still have both my parents. “Was she your best friend?”
“Sort of. But don’t tell Daddy we talked about her.”
Her face tightened up, like when you swallow something you don’t realize is going to be bitter until it’s too late.
“Sometimes adults have to make choices that hurt people. Vanessa and Daddy were parts of one I had to make, when you were little.”
“Mother, I –”
“I’m doing this to keep you safe.” Her hug got too tight. “You know that’s all I want, right?”
She hasn’t held me like that since I was really little.
“Hey,” I think she realized she was about to crush my ribs, “you’ve got a birthday coming up. How would you like to spend it together, just the two of us? I’ve got a meeting that morning but we could have all afternoon and then go to dinner if you wanted.”
“That sounds nice.”
It really did. But somehow I didn’t want to tell her I’d be spending that morning with you and the Mollusk.
I do trust you. And I can’t wait to meet you.
October 12th, 9 P.S.
It’s tomorrow! By the time you get this we may have already met. I can’t wait!
Maybe if you wanted you could decide not to be CI’d at all. Would it be so bad to be a little bit like the Mollusk?
October 14th, 9 P.S.
I’m so sorry.
Not a stupid adult sorry where they don’t mean it but don’t think you’ll know the difference. I wish my apology were bigger than the biggest squid in the world so it could wrap you up and make you feel better.
I don’t know how but Mother found out our plan. She wouldn’t let me go to school on our birthday, even when I told her the Mollusk needed me for something really important.
“You’ll still meet your pen pal.” Mother said. I’d never told her that you and I were going to meet. She was doing that thing where she looks at me but doesn’t see me. “You’re just not going to do it with that teacher of yours.”
She acted really excited, like this was the best birthday present ever and wasn’t I excited? I was too, because I wanted to meet you so much and I thought if I asked nicely Ms. Mollone might still lend me the squid book.
Mother told me what to do with my mind when you and I met and she promised that it would let us hear each other. I did what she said and it was like looking in my own head and telling my brain to bend a certain way, sort of like listening except that’s not really it but I can’t explain it right.
I swear, Susanna, I didn’t know she was lying.
This letter might not even get to you. Mother won’t let me out of my room. The Mollusk came the other day and I heard them talking but I never saw her.
Daddy slid a newspaper under my door this morning.
The paper called it Cogitation Distuption, what Mother made me do to you. There was a picture of her with her boss, the director of the Institute, who looked happy and horrible.
Then the article mentioned you.
I felt you at the conference as soon as we got there, like a part of my mind I didn’t realize I’d lost until then. I did exactly what Mother told me but then you disappeared and I thought maybe you didn’t like what you found in my mind. But then everyone started yelling and Mother dragged me out of there before I could try to find you.
I never thought it would hurt you but the paper says you’re trapped in your mind. You can’t wake up or talk or Cogitate and it’s all my fault.
Mother and Daddy keep shouting at each other. She said everything went as planned and he called her a monster and then I heard a door slam.
Susanna, please wake up and be my best friend again.
Devan Barlow’s fiction has previously appeared in Lackington’s. When not writing she reads voraciously, drinks tea, and thinks about fairy tales and sea monsters. Follow her on Twitter @Devan_Barlow.