Alexis blamed herself when she caught Bea kneeling by the sign the next day. She was supposed to watch Bea when she was near the street. Bea didn’t quite understand cars yet — she tended to underestimate their speed and her own visibility.
But Alexis had gone back into the house to get a glass of water and there Bea was, inches from the two-posted sign that stood on the edge of the sidewalk. The posts were farther apart than Alexis could reach her two arms. It welcomed drivers to Bodie, their last warning before the town sprang up from the winding two lane highway.
Bea had acquired a fascination with danger. When Alexis first noticed, she told Bea stories of the thorns and splinters. When Bea sought out cars and strangers, Alexis added ghosts in their bathroom, a monster for their closet, and the sign. Most days, she thought she remembered pulling the idea out of the air.
She remembered the eye doctor, the year she got glasses. He’d held different circles of glass in front of her eyes to find the one that made the world look clearest. How easy was it, to walk into a world adjusted, just close enough that you didn’t notice?
She ran over to Bea, held her back. “What are you doing?”
“Bear wants to go through.”
Bear lay just short of the crack in the concrete that divided the world before and the world after.
Sometimes, Alexis thought she could hear a faint hum, like a faraway lawnmower, coming from the other side of the sign. Sometimes she put her hand up to the place where the boundary must be and lay it flat along the parting. Sometimes, she caught flashes of change, a blue tint under her fingernails, a widening of her veins.
Bea pushed Bear forward and his great head flopped over, one glass eye hitting the pavement with a clink.
“It’s not safe,” Alexis said.
“Bear will come back different.” She’d seen their parents walk through it, when they didn’t yell, when they’d had Benjamin. “And your bear, he’ll switch places. He’ll be with a different Alexis, a different Bea.”
“Why?” Bea said. “What will Bear be, if he goes through?” She gave him another tiny push.
“One time, I saw a firefly go through and it came out a spider, all curled up,” Alexis tangled her fingers in illustration.
“Will Bear be a spider?”
Bear’s eye made a pathetic skritching noise as his nose was edged closer. Alexis said. “He’ll be a different bear. And your bear will live in a different world.”
“A nicer world?” Bea asked.
“Girls,” their mother called. “Dinner!”
Bea snatched Bear and ran into the house.
Benjamin had never passed under the sign. He’d come into this world different, and if Alexis had known, if she could have walked him through the sign, brought back a baby with an intact heart or walked him into a world where hearts worked different– Instead, every time her parents had visited the hospital after his birth, they’d brought back more medicines and less baby, until they didn’t bring back anything at all.
She put her hand flat on the wooden post, daring to curl her fingers into the other world. Dreaming for a moment of his fingers touching hers.
“Did you girls have fun playing?” their mother asked.
Alexis kicked Bea to ensure her silence. Alexis got in trouble for telling scary stories. Nobody cared if the stories were true.
“Ow!” said Bea. “She kicked me!”
“Alexis, please,” said their father.
“Sorry,” Alexis said. She glared at Bea and Bea glared back.
“What did you do today, Beatrix?” their mother prompted.
“We built a fort,” Bea said.
Alexis couldn’t remember how old she was when she learned the difference between truth and lies. However old, Bea was younger.
Before, her parents would have sighed, questioning what portion of their nice lawn the fort occupied. Instead, their mother went back to eating.
“What about you, Alexis?” her father asked.
Alexis did not lie like Bea did, like breathing. She took the truth and cut and cut and cut. “I helped Bea play with Bear.”
That ended the conversation for the evening. If she turned she could see the sign out the window, but she didn’t turn.
When Alexis woke that night, Bea was gone. She checked the bottom bunk. Touched the sheets to confirm what she already knew, her fingertips registering the lack of human warmth.
She wandered through the rooms of their home, made strange by moonlight. At last, she stood before their front door. Alexis fumbled with the deadbolt, which finally jerked open with an extended creaking sound.
Bea was standing frozen in front of the sign, one of Benjamin’s toys held in her hands like an offering. Alexis couldn’t call out. Later, she would wonder if she hadn’t wanted to.
Alexis ran, feet thumping against the concrete, and Bea glanced at her and stepped under the sign to the other side. She turned around, eyes a shade darker, maybe.
Alexis stopped short, inches before her feet would have taken her through. Their faces were a foot apart and Alexis could feel all the versions of the people she could have been and might yet still be stretching between them.
There was no use asking if she felt different. Whoever she was now, she would have always felt like this. Instead, Alexis took a step toward the house and offered her hand.
Bea joined her, lacing their fingers.
“Can I see?” Bea said, voice high. Higher?
Alexis led her to Benjamin’s room, its carpet rumpled from the recent exodus of furniture. They stood together in the doorway, hands linked.
“Is the room the same?” Alexis asked.
Bea nodded. “He’s still gone.”
“Is this the first time you’ve passed through the sign?”
Bea nodded, eyes full of conviction. Alexis squeezed her hand tighter, trying to anchor her sister to her.
Audrey R. Hollis, a 2018 graduate of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop, is a Los Angeles-based writer. Her fiction has appeared or is upcoming in Strange Horizons, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and Daily Science Fiction, among other places. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram @audreyrhollis.