Mrs. Morales was her name, and that was that. Any first name that might be attributed to her was properly defunct. To her third grade students, she was Mrs. Morales, and the conversation was finished.
The paring of her name meant freedom. Mrs. Morales sheared off part of herself the way one prunes rotten branches from a fruit tree and leaves it barren and stripped, embodying the neutral, indistinguishable Mrs that came before Morales. Beige, taupe, colorless, blah Mrs.
Mrs. Morales was both anybody and somebody. She was a kind teacher, a giving member of the community, presumably a young-ish widow, a loving caretaker of her tanks and tanks of tropical fish, the stranger who passed people on the sidewalk and gave them a warm close-lipped smile. People in the little town where she hid recognized her in a general sense – that lady at the bus stop, at WinCo carrying too many grocery bags for her stick-skinny arms, didn’t she teach my daughter her multiplication tables, didn’t she give my son her lunch at school when he forgot his, doesn’t she look plenty sweet? – but stayed the generic species of Friendly Middle-Aged Lady that one sees in every suburban nowhere.
She liked it that way. Mrs. Morales would’ve been plenty happy to die the same way all of God’s creatures eventually did – quietly, without too much of a fuss from the general public. That was the plan: to revel in her happy anonymity. To be presumed dead as the last of her species. To die and be buried and forgotten, along with her first name.
The plan, once solid steel in her future, shattered like untempered glass when her new student turned to her, all braces and tiny oval glasses and bright pink leggings, and said in a firm voice: “Good morning, Marla!”
Mrs. Morales froze, hand still braced upon the heavy classroom door. The students behind the new girl shifted, looking from the grinning child to the bug-eyed teacher.
“What did you just -”
“Mrs. Morales?” The child asked, head cocked sideways, the smile splayed over her chubby face losing its luster. “Can I go inside now?”
Mrs. Morales couldn’t stop staring. No one should know that name – no one, not even the administration who hired her – she signed the papers as Celia Morales, her forged social security number and ID said the same – there was no Marla, Marla was dead –
She forced a smile, nodded, shoved the thought to the back of her head. She really was getting up there in age if she was hearing things. “Yes,” She said. Mrs. Morales pushed the door open wider. “Welcome to Room 14, Brianne!”
The little girl – Brianne Walker, the transfer from out of town, the eight year old who didn’t know her, didn’t know Marla – beamed and hopped her way inside.
Mrs. Morales let her hands shake. She leaned back into her anonymity and wrapped herself in it.
Later that evening, she stood in front of her fish tanks and sorted through her supplies, the hum of the filters and buzz of the lights tucking her into her memories. A massive painting of her favorite fish, the coelacanth, towered above her whole setup. It was an animal she’d taken a special interest in as a child and continued to adore through her adulthood. It was one of the few things she kept preserved from the past.
Before she was Mrs. Morales, Marla was a coward. Her twin sister, Monica, always teased her for it. When they were children, Monica would fight off the neighborhood bullies with rocks whenever they would pick on Marla, chucking them with the sharp stones that fell off of the sidewalk. Monica was bold and sure. Marla found a shadow and hid in it.
But time and bitterness changed all things. And when the two of them grew older, Marla proved herself tougher than she looked when they joined an operation to run cocaine across the border. The dusty California sun, the bundles of cash, the fear throbbing in her throat – it was all worth it. They dreamed of a Malibu house someday, the ocean breeze, true freedom, somewhere the sky stretched and stretched and never seemed to end.
That was before some up-and-coming smugglers caught them both by the coast. Before they lined them up, demanded all the money they hand on them. Before they killed Monica to deter any future competition and rolled her limp, twitching body into the Pacific for the fish to eat.
Mrs. Morales shook the container of freshwater fish flakes into the tank. The tetra and the rainbowfish darted for the food, swarming for the sinking pellets.
She thought back to Brianne. She must not have known what her student was saying, or what name fell out of her mouth. Things had been quiet lately; maybe what she needed was a little bit of excitement.
The 150 gallon fish tank reflected her face back to her. The painting of the coelacanth leered down from above. A nausea stirred in her gut, and she turned away from herself, disgusted.
Brianne was clever, which was distinctly different than smart. She quickly amassed a sizable group of her peers, all of whom learned how to fall over each other doing what she commanded. Her classmates picked her first in every game, every friendly class competition, every sport. Brianne grinned with all of her teeth, laughed with all of her chest, and had a mean streak that often landed her in hot water. There was one time her lunch aide caught her stealing all of her classmates’ lunches by playing a game with them: any kid who could beat Brianne in rock paper scissors owed her their meal. She had an uncanny ability to sense what her opponent would play; not even the teachers could puzzle out her strategy. By the time she was caught, her backpack bulged with shattered potato chips in crinkly bags and dripping turkey sandwiches.
Mrs. Morales kept a sharper eye on Brianne than she did on her other troublemakers and class clowns. The girl set something off in Mrs. Morales. Call it an old intuition, but she felt that she was the only teacher capable of really seeing something more in Brianne. It was the way she cut her eyes, maybe. When Mrs. Morales watched her play her little gambling games, Brianne’s eyes pierced through her competition with a sharp, single-minded clarity. It was familiar in a nostalgic sort of way, and anything nostalgic was sinister by nature.
She watched Brianne swing by a classmate’s desk, hand brushing across it, a gel pen disappearing into her open palm. Mrs. Morales sighed, tapping her fist on her desk.
“Brianne!” She shouted. The girl leapt, eyes saucer-round, hand disappearing around her back and shielding the pen from view. “Outside. Now!”
She followed her student out of the classroom. When they were in the daylight and away from the prying eyes of her classmates, Brianne seemed properly cowed. Mrs. Morales sighed deeply, pinching the bridge of her nose.
“We can’t keep doing this,” She said. Brianne dug the toe of her running shoes into the dirt, nodding. “Are you listening to me? Look at me.”
Brianne looked up into her teacher’s eyes. They were dark, dark, dark, but only for a second. Mrs. Morales blinked and they were baby blue.
“I’m listening,” Brianne said.
Mrs. Morales held her hand out palm up. “The pen.” Brianne complied, placing it into her teacher’s hand. “I don’t understand why you fell the need to do these things, Brianne.”
“Dunno. Guess it’s a habit,” Brianne muttered.
“Habit? You do this at home, too? Do I need to have a conference with your parents?”
“No,” Brianne whispered. Her gaze fixed onto the ground, her eyes suddenly wide and wet. “Not home. Not this home.”
Mrs. Morales froze. That name flashed across her mind again. Marla.
“The other home,” Brianne continued. She met her eye, hands fisting in her little dress. “You remember, right? On the other side of the country.”
Mrs. Morales sucked in a breath. The daylight suddenly felt like it burned on her skin, like it didn’t want her out there. She felt properly exposed.
A bell rang. Another kid stuck his head out of the door.
“Mrs. Morales? Can we go to recess?”
She backed up, hand brushing against the wall. Mrs. Morales didn’t take her eyes off of Brianne when she spoke. “Yes. Yes, go on.”
The kid scampered off, and with one last long look, so did Brianne. Mrs. Morales’ lungs burned as though she were drowning, as though there was no land in sight.
It was during a field trip – they were all going together to the tide pools, a rite of passage for all grade school children – when the creeping feeling of wrongness caught up on Mrs. Morales. It was a routine trip, and, if she was being completely honest, awfully boring. The tide pools of the East Coast didn’t carry the same scent of the ocean, Mrs. Morales mused, as the ones on the West Coast. The waves hit the shore differently; the seabirds circled overhead more anxiously. The atmosphere put her teeth on edge.
She shook herself out of her musing. It was dangerous to let the mind wander while watching children; they always seemed to find the most asinine ways of breaking bones or losing teeth. Mrs. Morales did a quick headcount of her class and panicked as she came up one kid short.
And she immediately knew who she needed to look for.
“Brianne?” Mrs. Morales huffed along the coast, stopping by huddled throngs of children poking at starfish and stone crabs to ask if any of them had seen where Brianne had run off to.
“I think I saw her go that way,” Little Kyle Mitter chirped as he grasped handfuls of kelp and chucked them from the water. “She looked kinda sad, Missus.”
“Thank you, Kyle,” Mrs. Morales said, patting him briefly on the head. She made her way down the rocky shore, in the direction the kid had pointed her. Brianne was too independent, far too foolhardy. Mrs. Morales wondered who raised her, and what kind of laissez-faire New Age idiots they had to be to encourage this kind of behavior. Back in her day, parents were more hands-on. Sometimes too hands on. She still remembered that time she ran off to the tide pools, Marla and her sister –
Her sister, sitting on the rocks, chucking kelp into the pools and watching the guppies scatter. Her dark hair pulled by the wind.
Brianne sat alone on the shore behind a particularly large, rocky outcrop. Her knees were drawn up to her chest, eyes glassy and far away, fixed on the horizon line. Her nails dug little crescent moons into her bony shins.
“Brianne, Jesus Christ!” Mrs. Morales cried out, hands firmly on her hips. “You nearly scared me to death. What do you think you’re doing here all alone? You know the rules, young lady; detention for you when we get back to school.”
“I remember,” Brianne whispered. The words barely slipped out of her mouth. Mrs. Morales rolled her eyes.
“I’m sure you do. I recited them for the whole class on the way over here. Now get up, you’ve already given me a heart attack -”
“No,” Brianne said, her gaze still fixed out at the sea. “I remember the tide pools. The other ones in Point Loma. Where we went before it all got bad.”
Mrs. Morales froze. Her breath caught in her throat. “What…” She swallowed hard. Took a second to ground herself. Laughed even harder. “That’s nonsense. Now come with me -”
“Marla,” Brianne murmured. So quiet, so so quiet, it might have been a trick of the sea, the rushing of ocean air, the mad crowing of the gulls. The girl turned her ruddy face to Mrs. Morales, who stared back in horrified shock. “Marla.”
They stood there, a standoff. The air stilled; the air never stopped whipping. Mrs. Morales licked her lips.
“I think you should go join your class now,” She whispered.
Brianne nodded solemnly, looking the role of a cowed child. But that name, that name Marla drowned all those years ago, the name that had run out of her like the blood of the sister she’d left behind – Marla – she was certain she heard it. She was certain!
It was impossible. Monica was cooling in the earth, and Marla was cooling down there with her. The life she’d lived with her sister was the casket they were buried in, and now there was only Mrs. Morales.
Mrs. Morales was not a superstitious person, nor was she particularly religious. There was no afterlife. There were no vengeful ghosts. There was no reincarnation. And if there was a heaven, its doors were closed to her. But the thought wouldn’t give her peace. The mischievous Brianne, who had the clever gambler’s mind of Monica, who looked her in the eye and said the one name that was her undoing…
The rest of the day drifted by, running through her in eddies. It seemed like she was standing on the bluff one second, then shaking flakes into her aquariums the next. She stared into her reflection. Shook the bottle again. Watched the fish swarm as the coelacanth leered from above.
There’s a funny thing about the coelacanth fish. For quite a long time, they were believed to be totally dead, wiped out sixty-six million years ago for reasons unknown, extinct, never to be seen again. They had been reclaimed by time. A relic of a bygone era.
But time leaves its wake behind it, and nothing is ever truly gone without a trace. The coelacanth lives on still in the deepest trenches of the ocean, where underwater volcanoes erupt without anyone around to appreciate the explosion. Their cousins and their cousins’ cousins creep around down there, churning the water, dredging up silt and sand, a swimming corpse. And the rest of humanity trundles on above ground, none the wiser.
When the old Marla died to make room for Mrs. Morales, she left something behind of herself – her instincts, her clever tongue, her close-lipped grin. These are things she couldn’t shake.
But it wasn’t just Marla who insisted on dredging up silt and sand. Monica – Monica, her twin sister, her partner in crime, her prehistoric friend and confidante, Monica, who she watched bleed out before Marla escaped the sweltering underbelly of Los Angeles – she left her wake behind her, too. Monica told her once, while they were drunk off their asses during a run down to Tijuana, that she’d stick by Marla come hell or high water. And it seemed as though hell took her first.
But the coelacanth returned, against all odds. She always seemed to return.
The next day, Mrs. Morales watched young Brianne as she played with the deck of cards. She shuffled them with the precision of a crooked dealer, prepared to give a losing hand.
Brianne slipped a card into her sleeve with a mature, practiced ease. When Mrs. Morales inhaled sharply, guilt embracing her like an old friend, Brianne looked up. The corner of her mouth twitched, and Mrs. Morales may not have known who stared back at her, but Marla absolutely, positively did.
She was not superstitious, but sleep began to evade her. Her twin sister, her departed Monica, seemed to drip out of every crevice in her room, holding her fast and dragging her down into the black depths of history.
Mrs. Morales called Brianne up to the front of the class.
“I need to speak to you outside for a minute,” She said sternly. The whole class jeered and laughed as Brianne’s face flushed red. Her eyes – those sky-blue eyes of Brianne Walker, those brown-earth eyes of Monica Perez, the murdered twin sister of Marla Perez, upturned and wide and grabbing Mrs. Morales by the throat – caught the gaze of her teacher.
“Now.” Mrs. Morales turned on her heel and walked away. She didn’t need to turn around to check if Brianne was following. Her sister’s shadow breathed on her neck for years and years; of course she’d know when she was behind her.
Mrs. Morales led her student out of the class and around the corner, in a little alleyway between the fourth grade and fifth grade bungalows. Weeds scrabbled up from the concrete and dripped their dew onto the ground, a chain link fence barely shading them from the sun. The morning mist billowed from Mrs. Morales’ mouth as she hyperventilated. It was cold enough to make her remember.
Marla grabbed Brianne’s elbow. The child took a step back instinctively, a hand reaching back to grab at the fence, which groaned and creaked and gave way beneath her weight. “Hey-!” She cried out, but Marla only tightened her grip.
“Monica?” The name slithered out of her mouth, and Marla’s whole throat seized. “Monica, is that you?”
Brianne whipped her arm around, using the fence for support. She dug one little shoe into the mud; her eyes pricked with tears. “Marla!”
“Monica, listen – listen, I -” Mist rose from her face, she felt her lips quiver, her whole body quaking. “I’m – I’m sorry -”
Brianne turned to look at her, and when Marla caught her gaze, there was only her sister left behind. Terror, and loathing, and animalistic panic accompanied her, and her expression shocked Marla enough to loosen her grip. Brianne ripped from her teacher’s grasp.
“You don’t get to apologize,” She said. “You don’t.”
Marla whimpered, hands falling to the wet dirt. “Monica -”
“Don’t.” Monica took a step back. “Don’t, when I’m stuck here, like this. You get to stay alive just as you were, and I…” She looked down at her hands as they shook. “Don’t call me by that name ever again, Mrs. Morales. Monica died.” Monica – Brianne – both and neither and still topside, above sea level where she wasn’t supposed to exist – turned and bolted in the opposite direction. She kicked up mud behind her as she disappeared around the corner.
The sky opened above Marla and the ground sealed up below her. That was her sister. That was her sister. Marla let herself fully fall forward. She hunched over her lap, the shredded vestiges of herself laying at her feet, and watched the morning sun dry up the dewy earth, alone, all alone, the last of her kind.