Hattie met him behind the dye vats, and me, I was forced to come along. Why did I agree to it? All-morning whines, whispers, and pinches to the nape of my neck, that’s why. We arrived in the factory yard just past noon, Hattie dragging us between looming metal drums, their caps locked down with bolts thick as my wrist.
“Slow down,” I said. She was near running, making me take quick tripping steps to keep pace. I rapped the bit of bone and skin that joined Hattie and me at the base of our spines. More than twins, Mother said. More than can be borne, the ladies at church sighed. More than enough for me, the factory men whispered to each other, too low, they thought, for me to hear.
“Hattie! Slow!” I insisted.
She halted in the shadow of a vat, allowing me to regain my feet and breath. “Sorry,” she murmured. “Sorry. Sorry.” She always apologized in triplicate. “You want to walk forward?”
“I want to walk homeward,” I said, but Hattie ignored this, starting on again, slower this time. I could see where the loaders had scrawled on the dye vats’ sides in wax crayon to identify the colors within. Last summer I’d stolen Father’s ledger and memorized all the codes. I said them silently as we walked: 5102-OL, olive; 8795-CY, cyan; 7999-YW, pale yellow. We rounded 4203-RD, bright red.
He lurked on the other side. Before I knew it, he’d lifted Hattie up on her toes, and her breath escaped in a puff. Matthew, a stuttering 19-year-old with a face as dull as Wednesday morning, met my sister in the dye yard because their love was forbidden. Matthew worked in Father’s dye factory, fortunate to have a job when most of the rest of the town stood on the breadline. All summer behind the vats, his hands had worked over Hattie. They were stained a different color every few weeks—blue, yellow, green, sometimes a dream-snarled purple. That day, they were orange, a pallid fire that would soon flicker at Hattie’s wrists, shoulders, and the insides of her thighs.
Matthew released my sister and walked around to address me with a few stiff words.
“Nice day, huh?”
I shrugged. He glanced at Hattie. The ropes of her braids tickled my neck, which meant that she was nodding to him: Go on.
“Sunny today,” he said.
“Talk of weather.” I yawned.
“They’ve doubled the number of dye vats,” Matthew said. “Did yuh-you notice?”
“Mmmm. Talk of dye vats.” I tapped my foot.
Hattie leaned her head back against my shoulder. “Don’t you wish they’d bust open?” she asked. “Then we could go dip ourselves in any color we wanted.”
“What color would yuh-you choose, Hattie?” Matthew asked.
“All of them.”
“If you dipped yourself in all of them, you’d end up a disgusting brown,” I informed her. “You got to limit yourself to one. Lester Byttle did.”
Hattie whipped the ends of her braids against my cheek. She hated when I talked about Lester Byttle, said the memory gave her nightmares.
Lester had been famous among the line workers for a magic trick. He’d snatch up pinches of base powder in his long, thin hands and, with a sharp look, make it rise from his fingertips, swirling in the air, only to land in twin patches on an unsuspecting worker’s cheeks or eyelids or lips, like a woman’s face paint. Lester had worked in the dye factory for years, since after his family had all burnt up in a house fire when he was a teenager. The mystics said that Lester had started the blaze himself with a bad dream, Lester’s nightmare a spark, the house a tinderbox. The Byttle family had ended with fire; Hattie and I, we’d started out with fire, and I liked to think that maybe Lester had been dreaming again the night that we were born.
“Got a new color today.” Matthew beamed and flashed us his dyed palms.
“Now, what would you call that?” I asked, steering him toward the unpronounceable.
“Uh-oh-oh-oh …” He gulped like he couldn’t breathe. “Oh-uh-oh …”
“What?” I cupped a hand to my ear. “I can’t quite—”
“Orange,” Hattie hissed, nudging me hard in the ribs. I caught the edge of her frown like a fishhook. She turned from me to smooth Matthew’s cheek and curl a finger round his ear. “Ignore her,” she murmured. “She’s always in a bad mood.”
He nodded at me, muttering, “Sylvie,” before ducking back into Hattie’s caress.
They leaned against 4203-RD and worked through their rote of tender gestures: hand-holding, modest-mouthed kisses, a giddy lowering to the ground, me an awkward weight following them down. The dye wove its fingers up my nostrils and down the back of my throat, but I refused to choke as Matthew tangled his hands in Hattie’s hair, pulling it from its braids so that it spilled around me where I sat behind them. It smelled of her pillow back home.
Their bodies, when they kissed, produced a scent thick and sour like spoiled pudding, which mingled with the vinegar smell of the dye. Matthew ran his stained hands over Hattie’s back and accidentally brushed mine. I flinched. “Suh-sorry,” he muttered. “Suh-suh—” Hattie’s mouth covered this last apology, locked down tight on his. I pressed my face against the rusting vat, stared up at the squatting clouds, and darted my tongue out to the cold metal to taste the tang of it, the rough of it.
The place where we are joined is a secret place for Hattie and me, especially since everyone always wants to look at it. The skin of our backs descends into a V, like a bird’s wing does to its body—a bone hinge covered in smooth skin, our spines locked together at the base. We face away from each other, simply two girls standing back to back. When walking somewhere, I let Hattie lead, because then I’m not obliged to wave to anyone or chirp some greeting that will likely not be returned. I trail with perfectly placed backward steps, looking at the world after Hattie has passed it, which makes it a little friendlier somehow.
Lately, though, Hattie hates our hinge. She cranes to look at our backs and sighs. She snaps at me if I move too slowly. I twist my neck, trying to catch her expression, but I can see only half of it: flutter of eye, curve of lip, and slice of cheek. I envy Matthew that, at least, being able to look at the full of Hattie’s face. People say her face is identical to mine, but I wonder if I’d think it so, if I were able to look at it.
In the two months since she took up with Matthew, Hattie’s voice has spread thin as though it has been pumped full of air, and her movements are cloudy with sleepy flourishes. “You ill, Hats?,” Father asked last night, his ear pressed to the radio. Mother clucked her tongue and held the back of her hand to Hattie’s forehead. Only I knew that Hattie was infected with a secret fever, more gruesome than either of them could imagine. Up in our room, she had written Matthew’s name out in seven different types of penmanship, folded the paper furtively, tucked it into her mouth, and nestled it in the pouch of her cheek.