By: Maayan Sulami
4 isn’t answering her phone again. She always forgets it at home or doesn’t charge it, and then I have no way of contacting her; it drives me crazy. It’s fine when she goes to the grocery store, but when she picks Romi from kindergarten, it freaks me out. I text the group to see if one of the others spoke to her or saw her at home. 2 answers right away that she hasn’t seen her all day, and also that she sent me a new version of the presentation for the client to comment on.
I call Henri to see if he’s seen or spoken to her. He answers from the car and says they’re both with him. I take a deep breath. Not that I don’t trust 4, I just hate it that I can’t reach her and she knows it.
“You remember that we’re going to Orly and Matan’s today?” He asks and I say ‘sure,’ even though I completely forgot and had already scheduled a conference-call with my boss for that time. I’ll send 2. I group text again and change the schedule on my phone.
When I get home, they are all there already except for 2. I hug Romi, kiss Henri, and go to the laundry room. 4 is there filling the washing machine.
“How many times have I asked you to take the phone with you?” She gives me an uncomfortable look. She knows I’m mad.
“How am I supposed to know if everything’s ok, or if something went wrong?” I continue. She glances down and separates the whites.
I sigh, “I don’t need you to be sorry, I need you to be more responsible, have you seen my black shirt?”
“It’s hanging to dry, I’ll take it off,” she says. I go to the study. 3 can’t hear me come in. She has her headphones on and her head is swaying to the music, which is so loud I can hear it myself. It sound like metal. Where does she get this stuff?
I touch her gently on the shoulder, but she still jumps in surprise. She turns to me and smiles, takes the headphones down and turns off the music.
“Hi, I made real progress today. I was just sending you the last draft.” I lean to the computer and look at the screen. I know she hates it when I do that, but I don’t have a choice. I scan it briefly, since I know I will have to read it more closely later; suddenly my eyes catch something.
“What’s this dialogue? What’s this phrasing?” I point to a line of text on the document.
“It’s the dialogue with the mother, that ends the fourth chapter. We talked about this.”
“No, I said I didn’t want the dialogue at this stage, it’s too early on. We need to keep the tension. The dialogue gives away too much too soon. Delete this, please.”
She doesn’t say anything. She just takes off her glasses and rubs her eyes.
“Rewrite it and send me the draft again, thank you.”
I go to give Romi a bath. She splashes water at me and laughs. I wonder if she does it with the others, or just with me. I splash back at her and hear the phone from the living room. I call 4 to pick it up.
She yells back that my shirt is ready and that it’s my mom, who wants me to call back. I ask 4 to dress Romi and go get dressed myself. Henri is yelling that we’re late. I finish my makeup when 2 walks inside with her hair out of sorts.
“It’s crazy windy outside,” she says, Romi jumps at her. She loves her more than the others. Probably because she resembles me more than the rest of them.
“I just sent you the presentation revisions, but we can finish it tomorrow.” I get to the living room and grab my purse.
“Your shirt’s wrinkled,” 2 says to Henri and puts Romi down. He goes to change and I call the others. It’s time to put this day to rest. They put their phones in the bowl on the piano. The phones have differently colored cases. They take off their clothes and I start with 4, like always. I breathe deeply, inhaling her inside me, absorbing her, feeling her tissues merge with mine. Her muscles settle into my muscles, the bones fuse, and we are one.
Then 2 is next. 3 stays to babysit Romi. Romi smiles at us from the floor, trying to postpone her bed time.
In the car, I tell Henri I think I’ll let 2 write my novel and not 3.
“2 already has a million things to do. I don’t know if she’ll have the time and energy for it. She’ll end up with a mental breakdown.”
“Yeah, but she’s the only one I can trust with the important things. You haven’t split in a while, you know.”
“I don’t need to, really. You and the girls handle everything so well. You know I can if you need me to.”
“But I don’t think 4 should pick up Romi anymore, she’s a bit absent minded.”
“I know, there was no choice. 2 and 3 were too busy, so it was a one-time thing. Maybe you can pick her up next week?”
Matan and Orly’s house is in a state of chaos when we arrive. The kids are running around, and there’s leftover omelet on the floor and table. The phone keeps ringing, and nobody goes to pick it up.
Orly blushes and brings us two glasses of wine. We sit in the living room while she quickly clears away piles of laundry, hushes the kids, and disappears into the kitchen for a few minutes. Slowly, the house becomes quiet.
Matan finally answers the phone and finishes the call quickly. He sits next to us and apologizes. We say it’s all good. Orly joins us with snacks and we make a toast.
“Here’s to you, honey. I don’t know how you do it, you’re amazing.” I’m totally lying, the house is a pigsty. If she doesn’t want to split, she can at least get a nanny, or a maid, or ten.
“Thank you, it was a long process, but we’re really happy now. Some days are hard,” she pets Matans’ knee. He shoves bread with balsamic sauce into his mouth and says, “when we decided to stop, we knew it would be difficult, but we didn’t imagine just how hard it would be.”
“It’s so satisfying though, really. Especially with everything concerning the kids,” she says and puts down her glass. She has a piece of omelet stuck to her hair. I don’t know whether to say something or not. Henri sees it too.
“Way to go,” Henri congratulates them and pets my back.
“Really,” I add.
We get home and talk about how new-age Matan and Orly have become, and what’s with the refusal to split, now? The world’s been doing it for years. There’s always some trend. It used to be being vegan, now it’s not splitting.
“It’s true though, what she says about the kids.”
“Don’t start with me, I only let 2 take care of Romi. I told you, today was a one-time thing.”
“But even 2 isn’t you.”
“She’s a closer version of me then the others.”
He doesn’t say anything.
In the morning I get up, drink a glass of water with lemon, and stretch. All this pressure is getting to me. Romi hasn’t gotten up yet, somehow, so I drink my coffee quietly with the newspaper and then go back to the bedroom. I inhale deeply. 2 is pulled out of me slowly, like she has just woken up. She stretches, scratches her shoulder, and goes silently to the closet. I tell her not to take my blue dress because I need it for my meeting today. She takes her phone from the bowl and turns it on.
2 usually deals with everything related to Romi and to work. She’s the only one I trust with these things, but she gets tired much quicker than the others. Since she’s my first split, she’s the closest version of me and the most competent in taking my place in meetings and calls with clients.
I exhale 3 as well. She somehow seems more alert and moves her head to an imaginary tune on the way to the bathroom. 3 keeps my blog and website running, and writes my novel. Her taste in fashion and music doesn’t resemble my own. We also have conflicting ideas about managing the website, and the way the main character in my novel should develop.
Then 4. She stands with her back to me and breathes heavily. For a moment, I think something is wrong with her but she turns around to me and just seems tired.
“Good morning,” she mumbles and follows 3 to the bathroom. 4 does all the errands like laundry, dishes, and grocery shopping. 2 does the important things, but there are some errands, like going to the bank, that 2 can’t do and require the source, meaning me.
I go to wake up Romi. She’s acting like a baby this morning. She has a bit of a fever and she kicks me and screams not to touch her bed. I try to calm her down and stroke her but she doesn’t stop. Suddenly she kicks me in the ribs and I clench. She keeps screaming and then throws up on the bed. For a moment, she’s in shock and then starts crying again. I’m tempted to yell back at her but 2 walks in quietly and picks her up, takes her to the bathroom, and closes the door. 4 comes in and changes the sheets silently. I sigh and hold the side of my body. I get to the living room and look around for Henri.
“He left already,” 3 says and goes into the study. I hear the sound of the computer turning on and then she closes the door behind her. I wear my blue dress and think about having another cup of coffee before work. Then my phone rings.
“Ella!” my boss barks at me through the receiver. Apparently, the presentation I sent him yesterday was completely different than what he had expected. All the data in it is irrelevant, and based on outdated reports. He doesn’t care that these reports are the recent ones accounting gave me. We pitch to the client in three hours, and he has nothing to show. All the predictions are inaccurate, he claims, and he needs me to change the entire business strategy section. I remind him we sat through that part together and approved it weeks ago, but he doesn’t want to hear it. He roars that he needed me in the office an hour ago.
I put on my shoes and leave. I text the girls their “to-do” list in the group chat. 4 needs to go to the grocery store, clean the fridge, and go to the post office. 3 needs to finish chapter four of my novel, write a new blog post, and develop a new design for it. 2 stays home with Romi and will take her to the doctor later, after she calms down. I can already feel I’m not going to like this day at all.
At noon, I get a big bouquet of flowers from Henri. It’s our anniversary. I can’t believe I forgot about that. Then I get a call from 2 saying that Romi has pneumonia. She received her medicine and is now sleeping.
The presentation with the client goes really badly. My boss smirks after every second sentence I utter. It’s infuriating, since he gave me all the final revisions that completely ruined my pitch and made it unclear and incoherent. The client chews us out for not being prepared and claims to pay us a lot for nothing. We reschedule to pitch the full presentation again, with the entire marketing team the next morning. I need some quiet. I go to the porch. The new junior executive is sitting there, smoking. She offers me a cigarette and I take it, even though I haven’t smoked since I got pregnant with Romi. I finish it in four long drags. I call 2 and tell her she needs to take my place at dinner with Henri tonight.
“Are you sure?” She sounds agitated. “He’ll be really offended and angry.”
I hear my boss yell my name from inside the office.
“I need you to be me today, okay? I can’t leave work. I know this is really wrong to ask you this, but I have no choice. This is a one-time thing; I won’t ask this again, I promise. Wear my long black dress and the necklace he got for me last year, you know which one?”
She hesitates, “Yes.”
“Okay, thanks. Sorry.” I hang up and return to the office.
On the way back, the guilt starts gnawing at me. I think whether to tell Henri the truth, but I can imagine his rage and I flinch. Maybe I’ll just let her get it over with tonight. If she can even convince him she’s me. 2 has been with us the longest, and she’s the split who is the most like me, but we’re still very different. She’s a bit quieter and daintier, and kind of a pushover. Now I get anxious. What did I do? What was I thinking? I have to tell him everything, otherwise, he’ll be furious with me.
When I get home, I find 3 and 4 sitting in the living room. Henri and 2 still haven’t returned.
“What’s up? How’s Romi?” I take off my coat, they both get up. I go to Romi’s room, but she’s not there. I call her name again, but there is no answer.
“Where is she?” I go back to the living room.
“She’s fine,” 4 says and stares at me. 3 quietly glares at the floor.
“Where is she?” I start to panic, maybe she was taken to the emergency room because of the pneumonia?
“She’s safe, Ella. Sit,” says 3. I drop my purse to the floor.
“I don’t want to sit. Answer me!” The panic is taking over me.
“Don’t raise your voice at us!” 4 shouts suddenly and I quiet down. I never heard her yell. I never heard any of them yell.
“We’re done with you and your attitude, get it?” Her voice is quiet now.
“We’re separating from you for good, all of us.”
The living room is silent for a moment. They both look at me accusingly. This must be a dream. I close my eyes. I’ll wake up in a minute.
“Where’s Romi?” my eyes are still closed.
“You’ll get Romi back after we get source ID’s and money, so we can leave and have our own lives,” says 4, determined.
I’m blinded by my own tears, what have they done to her? What’s going on? Where’s Henri and 2?
“What the hell is wrong with you?” I start yelling, “You can’t do this!”
“Of course, we can, Ella. We have things to accomplish too, things we want to achieve, just like you, and we’re not going to waste our lives on your shit. Give me your ID. We’ll both go get money out of the ATM and it’ll all be over.”
“You’re not getting anything until I see Romi,” I tell them.
“Ella, stop,” 3 speaks now.
“Don’t you talk to me!” I scream at her. This isn’t happening, I’ll absorb them back, they can’t do this.
“If you pull us in you won’t see Romi again,” 4 is reading my mind.
I can’t breathe, this isn’t happening.
The lock turns, the door opens, we all turn around. It’s Henri and 2.
“Henri!” I yell and jump at him to embrace him. My tears soaking his shirt.
“Did you smoke?” He pushes me off gently. “This isn’t like you, 2.”
“2?” I barely whisper the word, it dissolves in the living room air.
“What are you talking about, you idiot, I’m your wife!” I start hitting him with my fists. 2 backs away and her hand shoots to her neck, to the pearl necklace Henri bought me last year for my birthday.
“Henri,” she says and her voice quivers. I look at her with disbelief.
“You too?” I step closer to her, “How can you do this to me? You…”
“Please stop, 2,” she says gently and looks at me intensely. Let’s sit down and talk about this calmly, what’s going on…”
I tackle her before she finishes. My hands close on her neck and everyone rushes forward to grab me. Arms are pulling me back and I shout Romi’s name! “Let them tell you where Romi is! They took her!”
Henri holds me strongly.
“Ella took her to her parents. Calm down, what’s wrong with you?”
“Henri, it’s me! How can you think she’s me?” I don’t even sound like myself now, my voice is hoarse and trembling.
“Ella said you acted weird today, but now you’re smoking and acting violent? It’s unlike you, it’s unlike any of you,” he says. He looks right into my eyes. How can he not see me?
“I’m not 2, I’m Ella, I’m telling you, how dare you not recognize me, Henri?”
“If you’re Ella, then how come you weren’t at the restaurant with me today, celebrating our anniversary?” He asks, still looking at me, and I tear up. I can’t stop weeping now. I don’t want to stop.
“I sent 2 instead of me because I had an important presentation at work,” I whisper. Henri looks into one of my eyes, then the other. For a minute, he seems to believe me.
“I can’t believe you 2, that’s really low,” he takes off his jacket and turns to go to our bedroom. “Ella, maybe we should call it a night,” he says to 2 and she looks at me. I beg her with my eyes.
“No” she says,” I need to talk to the girls, you go to bed, honey, I’ll come right up.”
He disappears in the room. The four of us stay in the living room.
“How can you look me in the eye?” I hiss at 2.
“Quiet,” she says, her voice is calm and stable. The three of them sit on the sofa.
“Let me explain how this is going to work,” 4 says. I look at her now more intently. Her hair is shorter than any of ours. How did I not notice that before? She also has a black mark on her arm. It’s a bird tattoo, was that always there?
“2 is going to stay here with Henri. 3 will go watch over Romi. You and I will sleep outside of the house. Tomorrow morning, you and I will go to the bank, and you’ll get thirty thousand dollars. Then we’ll go to the Department of the Interior and issue more source IDs.”
Every split has an ID that is marked as a split. That way the authorities know to differentiate between splits and the real person. Without the source ID, you cannot issue a driver’s license, open a bank account, or get a job.
How did they do this? How long have they been planning it? They’re my splits and I’m losing to them.
“Get your bag.”
We leave quickly, and 3 takes a separate cab. Our own cab takes me and 4 to a small motel on Santa Ana Street. We get a tiny room with two beds.
“Remember, if I don’t contact one of the girls, they will know not to bring Romi back, so don’t think of anything clever during the night. Unlike your husband, 2 and 3 will be able to tell you’re not me.”
“Why are you doing this?” I keep from crying, I won’t cry in front of her again.
“Because I’m tired,” she takes off her shoes. “Because I wasn’t meant to spend my life cleaning your toilet or going to the grocery store for you, or waiting an hour in line to get your packages from the post office. I have things I want to do, too. And you probably forgot, but splits don’t live as long as the source. Our lives begin when you split us for the first time, but we die at the same time, which means that unlike you, I don’t have so long, and I’d like to live the next forty years the way I want. Thank you very much.”
“I’m sorry,” I say, “really.”
“No, you’re not. You’re a selfish woman, and you only care about yourself and what you want.”
“That’s not true.”
“Isn’t it? Then why are you making 3 rewrite your novel for the fourth time instead of writing it yourself? Why do you pile more and more assignments on 2 like she lives to serve you? You know she had a nervous breakdown last year?”
“No,” I gasp, the tears are almost back.
“I didn’t think so. And next time you have something important to do, do it yourself and don’t send her to impersonate you.” She lies on the bed and turns her back to me. “Not that there will be a next time.”
She turns off the lights.
I lie in bed, thinking what I can do to beat them. This is what I do, I develop strategies for a living. There must be a way to defeat them. I created them. I should be stronger than they are. How long have they resented me without me knowing?
Morning comes. I get up slowly. We leave the motel and go to the nearest bank. We take a number and stand in line. I talk to her quietly. I ask her to tell me where Romi is, but she’s not in the mood to talk and just shushes me angrily. I’m going to lose 30 thousand dollars and my three splits, and who knows if they’ll keep their word and return Romi. I keep begging 4, but she hisses at me again. I have to do something. Suddenly, I notice the security guard. I leap towards him and scream for help. All the people in the room gasp, and the guard himself almost stumbles backwards.
“Please, help me! That split…” I yell and point at 4 who stands and watches me. She frowns, her arms crossed.
“She’s trying to steal my identity! She took my daughter, she’s keeping her somewhere, you have to help me, please!” I barely recognize my own voice but I know what I’m talking about. There’s a DNA scanner in the bank that can identify who is a source and who isn’t.
“Sir, my split has completely lost it, decided she wants to stop cooperating and rebel against me. Please, don’t mind her,” 4 perfectly impersonates my tone of voice, calm and stable. The guard looks at me then at her. She has my bag with my certificates.
“Please!” I plead, before he decides to side with her. “Please, just scan us and see that I’m telling the truth.”
This convinces him, and he takes us to an inside room. He asks a clerk to come with us. 4 gives me a cold look and turns to her phone. I snatch it from her and smash it on the floor. She gasps in surprise. I look at her furiously; people around us take a step back.
We walk past a mirror and I catch my reflection. I don’t at all look like myself. My eyes are swollen, my hair is messy, I have no makeup on and my shirt is dirty and wrinkled. I’m the furthest I can be from Ella Stempepper.
We go into the room; the guard positions us next to each other and the clerk turns on the scanner. It makes a high beeping sound. It looks like a metal detector in airports. I breath with relief, now this will all be over.
“Go on,” he urges her, and 4 walks slowly. The clerk stands next to the scanner, looking at the screen that shows the DNA scan. She goes through the scanner slowly; the clerk’s eyes are fixed on the screen, then she looks up at the guard.
“Source,” she says, bored, and for a moment I don’t understand what she said.
“This must be a mistake! This can’t…”
“Go on, your turn,” he gently pushes me by the shoulder. What’s going on here? I walk through the scanner. There is a high pitch beep as I go to the other side next to 4.
“You’re out of your league, Ella,” she says through gritted teeth when I walk past her.
“Well?” he asks.
The clerk looks at me now. Something about her seems off.
“No, this is a mistake!” I start screaming, the guard takes 4 to the side, probably offering her help with the rebellious split. They speak in low voices and I can’t hear them. She only smiles and nods, and occasionally glances at me with faux empathy. A few minutes later, he escorts us back to the line. How did she do that? I look back at the clerk. She smiles and places a finger on her lips, as if keeping a secret. Then it hits me.
She’s a split, too.
But it was already done.
“Thank you, sir, sorry for the trouble.” 4 parts with the guard with the same stable tone. I am out of ideas.
The guard gets back to his post and gives me menacing looks during our wait. When we get to the booth, the clerk doesn’t make eye contact with me. To withdraw this amount of money, one has to be scanned, but she says nothing when she gives 4 a large envelope and we leave.
Then we go to the Department of the Interior. I submit a request for extra source IDs. I can only ask for one at a time. I go through the scanner silently this time. 4 fills out the forms, with the address she wants the ID sent to.
“I’ll find a way to make copies for the girls,” she says. I don’t know if I believe her. I don’t really care anymore.
We get back home. Romi and Henri aren’t there, only the other two. I look at them and they seem completely different. They look nothing like me. 3 wears a watch, loose jeans that she certainly didn’t find in my closet, and a t-shirt with a colorful print. 2 is still wearing my long black dress, but her hair is much curlier than mine, somehow. The look in their eyes is different. They are completely different entities. How did I not see this until now? Who are they? Who am I?
4 splits the money between them, each has a large, fully packed bag.
“How long have you been planning this?” I ask and sit in a chair
“About two months,” 4 says without looking at me.
There’s a knock and I jump in my seat. Romi?
2 goes to open it. It’s the delivery guy from the grocery store. He goes in, puts the grocery bags on the counter and turns to us, smiling. I give him large tips, he has to recognize me.
“Hey Ella”, he says to 4. “Your splits are so different from you, you know?”
“Yep, it is what it is,” she says and gives him five dollars. I look at him in disbelief and decide not to let him go without saying something. He walks past me on his way to the door and I hold him by the elbow.
“Hey, say, don’t you recognize me?”
He looks at me for a moment. I remember I don’t look like myself, but still. There were a few times when I answered the door to let him in.
“Errm…” he starts and looks back at 4.
“Ignore her. Thanks, Jeremy,” she says sharply and he leaves.
This isn’t happening, this isn’t happening… 4 stares at me.
“Why did you think he would recognize you? Did you ever talk to him? Did you even know his name until today? Don’t you realize I’m running this house? I know the guy from the supermarket, the pharmacist downstairs, I even know your neighbors better than you do. I’ll bet they’ll also say I was the source and not you.”
Her anger takes over her. She comes closer to me.
“What did you think? That you could live your life the way you want, and discard all the nuisances and discomforts onto someone else? So what if you had more important things to do? We all do. Did you know that 3 finished her own novel, and it even got accepted for publication? And 2? Well, 2 sure is a better mother than you, maybe she should keep Romi,” she snarls.
“No,” I yell and get up quickly. I’m so exhausted I’m sure I will fall. 2 lowers her eyes.
“2, please don’t, you know I love Romi more than everything, I know I wasn’t the best mother, but I can change everything. I don’t care about the money, you can all go. Just give her back.”
“You’ll get her back once we’re far enough, otherwise you’ll call someone and when we’re not around, they might believe you,” 3 says quietly, closes her bag, and hoists it on her shoulder.
The living room grows quiet, we only breathe. My head is pounding. I have to do something. I can hear an ambulance siren from afar.
“2 please,” I can’t hold my tears again.
“Don’t listen to her,” 3 and 4 say simultaneously, but 2 stares straight at me.
I notice the picture frame on the piano, the picture we took on Romi’s third birthday. Henri and I are kissing her cheeks from both sides, and her smiling face is smooshed between both of ours. Henri loves this picture, I never liked it. He went to get it framed together with Romi and brought it home. I look crumpled in this picture, too, not like myself. Maybe that is how I look like now.
There’s no time to think. I rush forward, grab the picture frame, and smash it on the sharp edge of the piano. The glass shatters, I take a big shard and toss the frame aside, all three tense up.
I push the glass against my wrist.
“You’ll give Romi back now or I’m ending it. If I die, you die too. You can’t exist without me.”
“What’s wrong with you?” 3 yells.
“She won’t do it,” 4 sounds calm.
“Wanna bet?” I push the glass deeper and it cuts through my skin. 2 gasps loudly but she’s not looking at me. She is staring at my feet. Romi’s picture is tossed under the glass. Her squinting eyes are bright and narrow.
“I’m sorry for everything. I know I can still make everything better.” I look at her, not knowing what else to say.
2 looks at the others, their eyes are wide open. It seems like an eternity; the ambulance still howls outside.
Finally, she says, “Absorb them back. I’ll tell you where Romi is.”
For a moment, I’m not sure if I can even do it again, I feel too weak, like I will be absorbed into them, and not the other way around. But when I look in their eyes I see their fear and it gives me strength.
They don’t even manage to yell “no” or try to leap aside, before they both dissolve into me. Their clothes, suddenly vacant, silently fall to the floor.
I sink into the chair again. It took more energy than I expected, but I feel stronger now that they are not split from me.
2 picks up the clothes from the floor and folds them quietly. Then she empties the bags and puts everything back in place.
She comes to me and fixes my hair. I’m so mad at her I want to slap her, but I’m exhausted.
“Romi is at Evelin’s, on the second floor, I told her you had to go to Grandma for an emergency.”
Romi was here all the time, in the building. I start crying again. 2 undresses. She’s ready to be absorbed again.
“Don’t ever split us again,” she stares at me furiously. “I mean it.”
I finally get up, and take ten thousand dollars and the address 4 had written on a piece of paper, where the source ID was to be sent to, and give them to her.
“I don’t ever want to see you again,” I say. “Good luck.”
She just smiles at me. She takes her things and gets dressed. Without a word, she goes to the door and opens it. She doesn’t look back before she closes it behind her.