Franny Zhang


A woman came up to me on the sidewalk and told me she knew what my secret was.

Which one? I asked.

The woman said her name was Harriet. She’d lived on my street when I was a child, but she didn’t expect me to remember her. I didn’t contradict this claim, choosing instead to sip my coffee and enjoy its play of warmth and bitterness. I was wearing a pencil skirt for work and my favorite heels, and I was ready for what Harriet had to say. Slowly, she began to speak.

When you were little, seven or eight, there was a house at the end of the road, a few doors down from yours. You children called it a shack, though it was just a small house in need of a new coat of paint. That was my home, and I never left, preferring what I could see from my windows. My front room faced the playground where you and the rest of the children played, and I liked to watch as you swarmed about, making a great whirl of the world. I saw, when no other adults did, your scraped knees, broken toys, and bouts of petty violence.

You were the smallest of them, a little dark spot among the towheads of youth. You were an unusual child; I’d never seen anyone like you, in both appearance and temperament. Every day you seemed like a different person. Sometimes you insisted on being the center of attention, thrusting yourself into the forefront of every game, while other times you ignored the crowd in favor of sticks and stones and mud. I found you fascinating, though you were not my favorite. There were prettier boys and girls with sunnier dispositions that I preferred, but you I acknowledged as unique. I remarked privately that you were an odd and perhaps cursed child.

In those days, there was also a man who would wander the neighborhood. He was an old man, or at least he looked old. His hair was white and sprang in wild tufts around his head. He could hardly lift his feet when he walked. Despite his obvious weakness, you children were determined to make a threat out of him. Your lives were so small and safe that this intrusion of the unwell seemed like a danger to you. You halted your games when he appeared and huddled together. I could almost hear your whispered, traded tales of the boogeyman and other demons. I found your fears amusing, glad I’d outgrown them at least. You yourself paid him no special attention, but you were no different than the rest.

One afternoon, I looked outside and saw that you were the only child playing outside. I thought there might have been a party, one all the others had been invited to. You seemed to feel that loneliness keenly. I felt for you then, observed with sympathy all your small, private acts of hurt and anger. Alone, you pulled out grass by the roots and scratched paint from a lamppost with a rock. At one point, you picked up a large stick and struck it again and again against the trunk of a tree. The stick did not break and that only seemed to intensify your rage.

At that moment, the man appeared. He moved slowly down the sidewalk in sneakers with tamped-down heels and a wool overcoat too warm for the season. You turned to him, distracted for the moment from your own displeasures. We both watched him as he walked and then as he abruptly stopped and lowered himself to the ground. He knelt at the edge of the sidewalk and bowed his head in a pose of perfect prayer. He seemed to be making some deep peace between himself and the world around him. It was a private moment, seared raw with intimacy, and I found it difficult to look at. He was exposing himself in a way that people of sounder mind and body never do. I was moved by the sight, and I thought you were as well. I thought you might not see such a sight again, and I was sorry you were seeing it so young. I felt your loss and your luck to have encountered it once.

Apropos of nothing, a troupe of people in masks went by us. They entered the door of an office building and disappeared, just as I would soon do. I watched them until they were gone and then turned back to Harriet.

Eventually, the man rose and began to walk again. You moved as well. You headed to the edge of the grassy lawn and sat down. I thought maybe you would speak to the man as he passed, and I was excited by the idea. You could talk to him, find out where he was going these trips through the neighborhood. I had often wondered about such things, and I wanted you to know the answers I couldn’t. I watched, hoping the two of you would restore some vague, unfounded hope about the connections that exist between all people. I leaned in close to my cracked window as the man approached.

When the man was almost directly in front of you, you kicked up with your leg and tripped him. It was an act of cartoon violence, but not two dimensional, colorful, or cheerful. The man topped forward. He did not have time to brace himself, and his hands were at his side as his head struck the sidewalk. It made a fantastic crack of sound, which I believe I heard even from my house. He lay still and then gave a great groan of protest and surprise, as though everything he’d known about life was contradicted by the position in which he now found himself. His foot twitched and his eyes rolled toward the grass, the trees, the sky. He did not stir again.

You went and stood over him so that your shadow blocked his view. For a long time, you remained motionless as redness swelled at your feet. Then, seeming to realize what you’d done, you fled. You ran back to your house, knocked at the door, and were admitted inside. You were taken back and allowed to continue as if nothing had happened.

I watched from my window as the man died. I had no phone and I couldn’t leave the house, though I was frantic to. The window had betrayed me, and the door defeated me. I think I fainted and didn’t open my eyes again until the next afternoon. By then, the man was gone and the sidewalk was clean. There was no sign at all of what had taken place. The other children were back and you were among them, treading carelessly over where he’d laid. I watched from my window, and I did not know what to do.

I wanted to find out more about that man, but I had no means to do so. He disappeared from the neighborhood, and soon after, so did you. You moved away, and I thought that day would be lost to me forever.

But then, this morning, when I saw you, I recognized you at once because I’ve thought of you every day for the last twenty-five years. You were exactly as I’d thought you’d be. I saw you, and I knew I had to tell you that you never got away with it and that you never will. You might have thought you were alone with your knowledge of what had happened, but I was there with you, every step of the way. You must know this now because I will no longer carry it alone. We must bear it together, openly.

With this, Harriet fell silent. She looked at me with expectation while I finished my coffee and tossed it into the trash. All in all, I was rather pleased by what I’d just heard. I felt I had to respond to Harriet. She deserved something, even if it was just the truth. I studied her, this towering figure in a quilted and stained jacket. Despite her considerable size and bulk, she did give the impression of having gained some lightness in the last few minutes.

Yes, I said. I know this story, but not all of it. I apologize for pedestrian nature of this explanation, but it was not me you saw that day. It was my twin.

Harriet’s eyes widened. You’re lying. There were never two of you.

That’s true, in a way. Our mother was eccentric, and she liked to play tricks. She hadn’t wanted twins, and she didn’t think she should have to suffer through the indignity just because she happened to have them. She decided she’d continue to conduct her life as if she had only one child. If I was ever in a room together with my twin, she refused to acknowledge us. Only when the other one disappeared did we become real. For many years, we lived separately. It was one inside, one outside, one in the room, one out of the room, one at dinner, one hungry upstairs—you get the idea. Together, we were nothing. Apart, she was the soul of perfect motherhood. This was our life. Even now, we can’t seriously fault her for choosing to live life on her own terms. Our father made her stop eventually, likely around the time we moved away.

If it’s any consolation, my twin has not done well in the world. He, yes, he, has found it difficult to live a normal life, whatever the going rate for such an existence is these days. He lives in a long-term care facility and has made a place for himself among the overmedicated and restrained. I’m happy to pay his way in the world, and I see him when I can. I try to coax him into our old games, one outside and one inside, getting him to leave the room while I stay inside or vice versa, just so he’ll do something, but he no longer enjoys such amusements. One day soon, he will leave all of it behind. I live in fear of that day.

Is this fairness? I can’t say. But I will say thank you. It is good to know where we all stand with respect to our shared experience.

Harriet nodded. It’s difficult, to love and to leave. I had a dog once, a fine little beagle named Seamus. He was very good and very lovely and then he died.

We smiled then, full of our understanding of the other. On a busy street, we went our separate ways, unencumbered by the past.


Join the conversation