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       Thumped, p.1

           Megan Mccafferty
 
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Thumped


  thumped

  MEGAN McCAFFERTY

  Dedication

  For everyone who helped me celebrate the Summer of Yes

  Contents

  Cover

  Title Page

  Dedication

  FIRST

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  SECOND

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  THIRD

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  BORN AGAIN

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  About the Author

  Credits

  Back Ad

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  FIRST

  “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit a soul?”

  —Mark 8:36

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  I FACE MY REFLECTION, AN ENGORGED DISTORTION I BARELY recognize anymore.

  “I’ll do it this time,” I say to the mirror.

  I mean it too. I’m alone here in my bedroom. The blades are sharp enough and there’s no one here to stop me but myself.

  Until they come for me.

  “Harmony!” Ma calls from down the hall. “You’re missing your own nesting party!”

  My housesisters and I have been preparing for this party for eight and a half months. Every morning I’ve joined Katie, Emily, and Laura in their household for prayer and purposefulness. Now we’re stocking the nursery’s shelves with the cloth diapers, knitted booties, and cotton jumpers we have to show for our collective efforts.

  All four of us received the sacrament of marriage on the same day in a group ceremony. We’re all with child, but I’m the furthest along and the only one carrying twins. I’m also three years older than they are, so that often makes me feel more like a housemother than a housesister to them. For these reasons, they say, the Church Council voted to give Ram and me our own house to keep, the only couple in the settlement that doesn’t have to share with three other families.

  There’s a gentle knock on the door as it opens. I quickly conceal the shears in my apron pocket.

  “May I come in?” Ma asks as she pokes her head in the room. “Are you still woozy?”

  I’d felt fine all morning until Ma had presented me with two exquisite hand-stitched quilts in the traditional pattern of interlocking hearts and halos.

  “May you be as blessed as I have been,” Ma had said as she handed over her gift, a gesture that symbolized the bestowment of motherhood—of womanhood—from one generation to the next.

  At that moment, I had to leave the nursery. I couldn’t breathe in that room. It felt like four tiny feet were stomping my windpipe when in fact the twins hadn’t moved inside me at all.

  Now Ma reaches up to press her palm against my sweaty forehead. Without thinking, I clutch my hand against hers and am somewhat surprised by how cool her skin feels under mine. She inhales sharply, so I know that she’s startled by the gesture too. I’m relieved when she doesn’t resist because I can count on our two joined hands how many times in my sixteen-almost-seventeen years we’ve had a moment alone together like this. Our household never had fewer than a dozen children at one time to care for, so Ma always had to be efficient with her time and attention. Ma is raising eight of the neediest children in the settlement right now, all of whom are under the age of five. Surely there are infants crying in their bassinets, waiting to be soothed. Babies she didn’t give birth to—like me—but were placed by the Church Council to be raised by her righteous example.

  When she retracts her hand, mine falls away and hangs limply at my side.

  “Would it help to know that I felt overwhelmed during my first pregnancy?” she asks. “I wasn’t that much older than you are now.”

  Before the Virus, women could wait until they turned eighteen to get married and have babies. Now, for all but a very few of us around the world, within a year or two of that birthday marks the end of our child-bearing years. At sixteen-almost-seventeen, I’m considered a very late bloomer.

  “Put all your faith in God. He will never give you anything more than you can handle.”

  Ma stands up and brushes the invisible dust off her apron as if the matter of my overwhelming maternity is all settled. She is nothing if not practical. When your whole life has been devoted to taking care of others, you have to be. Small and stout with curly black hair and brown eyes, Ma has never looked anything like me. But for some reason those physical differences are all I can see right now.

  “Take a few moments to pray on it before rejoining us.” She smiles benignly, then slips out the door.

  Ma means well. She always does. But I feel like I’ve already been dealt more than I can handle. I’ve seen that formerly empty room for what it was destined to be all along: a nursery. Two quartersawn oak cribs, one against each wall. A changing table stacked with cloth diapers. A braided rug on the floor in soft shades of yellow and green. A glider and ottoman near the window. But try as I might, I can’t envision the babies sleeping in their cribs. Being changed out of a soiled diaper. Or rolling happily on the rug. And it is all but impossible to picture myself rocking back in forth in the glider, nursing a ravenous baby on each breast. I know now, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that unlike the three other girls in the room with Ma, I will never live up to her example.

  A riot breaks out in my belly. The thrashing of four tiny feet, the pounding of four tiny fists. The twins are awake.

  “Are you two trying to stop me?” I whisper. “Or do you want me to go through with it?”

  Another round of kicking and punching.

  I choose to interpret this as a sign of encouragement. After eight and a half months, I’m convinced the twins feel as trapped as I do. I take the shears out of my pocket and return my attention to the mirror with a renewed sense of purpose. I grip the handle, all ready to go through with my plan, when I’m stopped by the sound of my name once more.

  “Harmony!”

  Only this time, it’s not Ma. And it’s not coming from down the hall.

  “It’s me . . .”

  It’s him.

  “Please pick up . . .”

  Calling to me from the MiVu screen.

  Oh my grace. I’ve blinded his profile countless times, but he keeps coming back.

  “Harmony . . .”

  I don’t want to look at his face. I draw upon every last ounce of strength I have left not to look. . . .

  But I can’t help myself. And there he is, larger than life on the screen, looking every bit as tortured and handsome as he did the last time he tried to contact me a few weeks a
go.

  Jondoe. Or Gabriel, as he should be known.

  No, I will only know him as Jondoe.

  “You’re at thirty-five weeks today, Harmony. I just want to make sure you’re okay. . . .”

  He looks so sincere. But how can I ever believe someone who gets paid to lie?

  “Please let me see you . . . I miss your face.”

  Right now I hold all the power. I can see him. But he can’t see me.

  And if I have my way, he never will.

  I briskly walk over to the MiVu screen and blind his profile again.

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  MY TWIN IS EVERYWHERE, AND YET SHE’S NOWHERE TO BE seen.

  “She blinded me again,” Jondoe says with a sigh, a sigh with 180 pounds of perfectly sculpted musculature behind it. Not that his hot body is doing him a bit of good these days. He’s miserable, and it’s all because of my sister.

  “I’m sorry,” I say. “But I told you she would.”

  Harmony is the most determined person I’ve ever met. Eight and a half months ago, she made up her mind that returning to Goodside to deliver the twins was the “godly” thing to do. She hasn’t wavered in that decision, despite all our repeated attempts to woo her back to this side of the gates. Harmony insists on raising them with Ram, even though there’s zero chance that her husband is the true father.

  “Do you have any idea how hard it is to be here?” Jondoe asks. “Surrounded by girls who look exactly like her?”

  The irony is, I’m Harmony’s identical twin and I’m not even one of the girls Jondoe is referring to. I scan the rowdy crowd from the safety of the one-way window wall of our second-story VIP room. There are a lot of girls who look just like her at a distance. It’s impossible to count just how many dyed blondes are dressed in Conception Couture knockoffs of Harmony’s green maternity gown.

  Jondoe anxiously chews on his thumbnail. “Is it even safe for her to deliver in Goodside? Do they even have real doctors there?”

  “Delivering is what they do best,” I say, taking Harmony’s

  word for it because that’s all I have. I mean, Goodside midwives must know what they’re doing if they routinely deliver babies for teen newlyweds, right?

  But before I can say anything else to reassure him, my agent, Lib, comes barreling toward us wearing the latest TEAM HOTTIE T-shirt under the pink and blue flashing lumina jacket that has become his iconic trademark. I hate that shirt. I especially hate that I’m wearing the same exact shirt in size XXXL Maternity.

  “Your FANS are ready for YOU! Are YOU ready for THEM?”

  “We’re ready.” I look to Jondoe for confirmation, but he’s too distracted to pay me or Lib or this party any mind.

  Lib has no time for such self-indulgent melodrama, unless he’s the one being self-indulgently melodramatic. He pokes Jondoe in the ribs.

  “Ow!” Jondoe says, rubbing the spot.

  “You think you can interrupt your VERY IMPORTANT LIP POUTING long enough to fulfill your contractual obligations?”

  Jondoe shrugs.

  Lib shoots me a he’s your problem look, then takes off to welcome the incoming crowd.

  As soon as he’s out of earshot, Jondoe leans in.

  “I can’t believe Harmony is really going to stay there with Ram.” His voice is on the verge of breaking. “You promised that she’d come around before she delivered.”

  “I thought she would . . .”

  I really did too.

  “You told me this was how I could help her,” he says bitterly, more to himself than me. “That’s the only reason I’m still here . . .”

  He silences himself as the room fills with fan clubbers, contest winners, and corporate muckety-mucks, all eager to have their fotos taken with us.

  I believe Jondoe has sincere feelings for my sister. I mean, the guy can sell underwear like nobody’s business, but that pretty much pushes the limit of his skills as an actor. There’s no way that he could have faked the change I’ve seen in him for the past eight and a half months. I know it has sucked for Jondoe—I can relate all too well to wanting to be with someone you can’t have.

  I bring my lips to his ear.

  “She’s the reason I’m here too,” I say. “And there’s still time.”

  But even as I say these words, I know that with each minute that goes by, they are that much closer to becoming more lies.

  Our audience swoons over our whispered sweet nothings, the secrets shared by two gorgeous ReProductive Professionals who have done the unheard of:

  We have fallen deeply and lustily in love.

  At least that’s what we need everyone to believe they’re seeing.

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  I DID IT! IF I CAN RESIST JONDOE, I CAN DO ANYTHING. I’M flush with a rush of energy like I haven’t felt since my second trimester.

  With one hand I take hold of my long braid and extend it as far as it will go. With the other hand I open the shears. I place the thick golden plait inside the mouth of the scissors, close my eyes, and . . .

  “What in Heaven are you doing?”

  My husband has a knack for showing up precisely when he’s not wanted.

  Ram is frozen in the door frame, his whole face etched with concern. I know this gentle giant cares about me, loves me even, just not in the way in he should. And yet, I cared enough about him to come back here because he needed me more than I needed him. It’s how my ma raised me, after all, to live in JOY:

  Jesus first, Others next, Yourself last.

  That’s the excuse I use anyway, whenever anyone asks why I gave up on my fresh start in Otherside before it even had a chance to begin. Yet, as far as I know, according to stolen conversations I’ve had with Melody, there’s really only one person who asks. But after everything that has happened, I don’t think I’ll ever be convinced that Jondoe needs me out there nearly as much as Melody says he does, and certainly not more than Ram needs me here. Jondoe has amassed a fortune making fools fall for his untruths. We both have, actually. But I won’t be his fool again.

  Or anyone else’s.

  Ram approaches me slowly, carefully, like I’m a rabid dog or something worth fearing.

  “Your ma and your housesisters are waiting for you,” he says.

  His hand is outstretched, hoping I’ll willingly give him the scissors without an argument. Praying that I will, against all odds, act like the subservient wife he’s never asked me to be. Instead, I take an even tighter grip on the handles, clamp down firmly one . . . two . . . three times until the braid comes away in my fist!

  Ram and I take a moment to marvel at it, as if this length of hair were a rare and dangerous creature I had hunted down and caught with my bare hands.

  I’m still staring at my quarry when I hear the high-pitched gasps.

  “Oh my grace!”

  Ma tries in vain to block my housesisters from getting a clear look at what I’ve just done. Hands flutter to mouths, cheeks, and eyes in disbelief.

  “The Orders!” my housesisters cry out in unison. “She broke the Orders!”

  I lock eyes with the woman who raised me. There’s no comfort to be found in her gaze, only sadness. I hope she knows this isn’t her fault. Ma treated all her daughters—by birth and by adoption, before me and after—the same. Forty-seven out of forty-eight of the children she raised were receptive to her teachings of the Word. I don’t know why I am the exception.

  “I’m praying for you,” Ma says as she ushers Katie, Emily, and Laura out of the doorway. There’s a finality to the way she says it, as if she’s brushing me off like so much invisible dust on her apron.

  The front door slams and Ram finally speaks. There’s a catch in his voice. He’s scared. And I am too.

  “What are you doing, Harmony? What are we going to do?”

  At eight and a half months along, I don’t have much time left for figuring out the answer. I rub the naked nape of my neck and do what I haven’t been able to do since I came back all those months ago: Tell the trut
h.

  “I don’t know.”

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  “COME, EVERYONE,” LIB ANNOUNCES. “AND MEET THE HOTTEST half of The Hotties!”

  That’s me. One half of the Hot Twins Having Twins. When a series of focus groups thumbs-downed that label because it was too wordy for the MiNet, Harmony and I were officially rebranded The Hotties. Marketers find our story irresistible. Identical twin girls separated at birth, raised in drastically different environments, due to deliver sets of twin girls on the same day. This is the wildly anticipated event known as Double Double Due Date, or D4.

 
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