It was late summer a few years from now, and as he did every day as he waited patiently for fourth grade to start, Tony ran out to the mailbox to get the day’s correspondence exactly 0.3 seconds after the mailwoman’s arm had left the mailbox (about 0.62 seconds before she drove to the next house). The days were long, but mail still only came once per day, so he made the most of it by not peeking until he was back inside. As with everything, Tony had a game for this: mail bandits would see him at the mailbox, and they would try to get him if he wasn’t quick and smart!
On this day, he pretended to put something back in the mailbox, like he was going to mail it, to throw the bandits off. Closing the door, he calmly looked both ways as though he would cross the street, and madly dashed toward his house instead. As he ran, he cried, “Mail bandits at four o’clock at 2:30pm, engaging stealth!” He pulled his T-shirt’s collar over his nose, and the bandits could not see him!
He was at the walkway, where he had planted a stack of decoy mail, which he quickly swapped with the actual stack, and he walked it over to the big tree in the middle of the yard. The bandits struck! They tied him to the tree and ran off with his mail! “You lousy bandits,” Tony cried. “I’ll hunt you to the ends of the street!”
Using a piece of dry kid’s cereal he’d hidden in his pocket, Tony cut through the binds (all those sugar crystals are quite sharp!) and re-engaged his stealth before returning to the walk. He grabbed the real mail and moonwalked to the door so that any remaining bandits with anti-stealth would be confused which way he was going.
Once inside, he put the piece of dry cereal in his equipment tray on his dresser, went to the kitchen table and put the mail down. He sorted it into four stacks: Mom, Dad, Tony, and Gary. Gary was their dog. Gary got almost as little mail as Tony got, so most days it was actually two stacks. But on that summer day a few years from now, there were three stacks!
Tony had two whole letters. Both were small envelopes, about the size of postcards, with his address handwritten on them. One envelope was white, the other was an orange-yellow pastel. He put them beside each other on the table and tried to decide which one to open first.
What if the first one is so important that I forget about the other one? he worried. Two pieces of mail, it’s a big responsibility!
He ran to the craft closet, where he got a length of string, a popsicle stick, and some tape. Taping one end of the string to the stick, he carefully threaded it under the flaps of both envelopes. He taped the bottoms of the envelopes to the table, and grabbing the two ends of string, he pulled up quickly. It worked! Both envelopes tore at the flap’s hinge, opening them.
Oh no, he thought. He’d opened them together, but he would still have to read one of them first! He took the two open envelopes together, facing the same way, and closed his eyes, shuffling them. After a minute, he opened his eyes and pulled the letter from the top one, the orange envelope.
It was an invitation to a birthday party for Sepia, a girl from his soccer team, in twelve days. Yay! It was being held at Lunar Park, a downtown park made to look like the Apollo 11 landing site. He would need to get her a gift, and he would need a haircut. And what else? He would need to think about what else! He started to his room to get a notebook to do just that when he remembered the other letter.
I was afraid of this. I almost forgot the other one. Let’s see… Tony picked up the white envelope and pulled the card from it. Another invitation! This one was for a birthday party for Luci-with-an-I from up the street. She was a year ahead, but they still played together a lot during the summers and Spring Break if they weren’t at camps. Her party was at her house. Well, out in the street in front of her house. They did it every year, with lots of decorations and fun.
Tony was doubly excited. Two parties, two gifts to buy. A shopping spree! Two haircuts?! Would the barber make him get out of the chair and sit back down? Or use two pairs of scissors? Maybe just one haircut.
He took the invitations to his room and got a notebook to think about what else. He wrote down the names: “Sepia Clogwood” and “Luci-with-an-I.” He wrote down the date under Sepia’s name, and he started to write down the date under Luci-with-an-I‘s name, but thought he made a mistake. I just wrote it down. Must have looked at Sepia’s invitation again. He double-checked.
Oh no no! Their parties were for the same day! At the same time! What would he do?!
Tony’s mom suggested he call his cousin, Sherry, who was a post-doc at the Clara Rincon Institute of Technology in bio-physics, to ask her advice, which he did.
Sherry told him, “If it were me I’d pick one—probably the one on your street to minimize your carbon footprint, but I know how kids are with their social circles. I think I can help, but you might not like it.”
“Why won’t I like it?”
“Well it involves my research into harmonic duplexing. Long story short, we can separate the bio-energy of your cells by wavelength, so you can go be in two places at once. But neither version of you will be its full-strength, and like half-tone printing, you might look a little funny. But the worst part is you have to recombine within six hours, or your cells will start to absorb wavelengths from your surroundings. If that happens, you’ll be two people forever.”
“Does it hurt?” I asked Sherry.
“Not much. But it’s no picnic either. You kind of feel like you have a wedgie the whole time. Not like your pants are stuck up but some kind of similar uncomfortable vibe. And then when you join back together, it’s like you need to molt, like you have too much of yourself. That’s from the cells already picking up slightly extra energy from the absorption.”
“So let me get this straight, I’d get to go to both parties, but I’d be in two places at once and then I’d have six hours to come back to your lab to get put back together?”
“You don’t have to come to the lab after, just for the splitting. You’ll phase together on your own once you meet yourself.”
“I’ll do it! Two parties at the same time, wow! You could make a lot of money off this, Sherry.”
After I got off the phone, I crossed out “2 gifts” on my notebook and wrote “3 gifts” and added “Cousin Sherry.”
The day-of came and Sherry stopped by to pick Tony up promptly at 11—his mom had said it was okay if his cousin wanted to chauffeur him around for the day. In the car, he gave Sherry her gift, which she left wrapped because it would be dangerous to drive while unwrapping.
“I’ll drop you off at Lunar Park first, then at your house. Be ready to leave from your house at three, and from Sepia’s by four at the latest. That will give us about an hour and a half safety margin.”
“Will I change back in the car, or where?”
“I’m going to drop off your Luci-self at my apartment, and then I’ll go pick up your Sepia self, and you’ll change back in my bathroom. You have to be naked.”
“Naked! You didn’t say anything about that two weeks ago!”
“It’s no biggie. Small price to pay for a double-birthday-party, kiddo. Speaking of naked, you did remember to bring an extra set of clothes, right?”
“Right here,” Tony said, patting his messenger bag. “Shoes, socks, all the things.”
Sherry parked at the CRIT lab and walked Tony in through the security doors, down the stairs into the basement lit with security lights only, through dark corridors smelling of chlorine and dampness, to her lab which she opened by punching in a number.
The room was filled with big rectangular metal boxes covered in lights and dials, each with colored wires coming out at odd spots, like failed attempts at rainbows. In the center were three overlapping circles painted on the floor, and above it some kind of emitter dish to do the splitting.
“Go in and strip,” Shelly told him, pulling the privacy curtain around the circles.
“This better not hurt,” Tony said, putting his bag just outside the curtain and unzipping it.
“I told you, it feels kinda blah but it’s not painful,” Shelly said. “Come on, I have to drive you to two parties after this.”
Tony put his clothes into the bag next to his other clothes, doing his best to stay hidden in the curtain. “Ready!” he called.
Shelly pressed the big red button. The dish above Tony began to spin slowly, though it didn’t light up or even hum.
“How long does it take?” he asked. “Is it safe to talk?”
“It’s already done. Turn around.”
Tony turned around and saw himself turning around. “Weird!” said Tony-S.
“Nuts!” said Tony-L.
“No, your nuts are weird, you nut,” said Tony-S.
“Shut up and get dressed,” Tony-L said.
“Both of you shut up and get dressed,” Shelly said. “And remember, the time was 11:35. That means you have to merge by…”
“Which of us is which?” Tony-L asked.
“Figure it out.”
They played rock-paper-scissors, and Tony-S won, which is why and when he became Tony-S. They both secretly wanted to go to Lunar Park to Sepia’s party, because they thought she was really a good goalkeeper, and she was real funny too. They both liked Luci-with-an-I a lot, too, but they got to see her more often and had been to her party last year anyway.
But it was decided in the tenth round, after Tony-S threw rock and Tony-L threw scissors, so Tony-S put on the khaki pants and newer sneakers and the orange-and-tan striped shirt with the little blue squiggles on the collar, while Tony-L put on sandals and jeans and a light green T-shirt.
“How do I look?” they both said to each other. “Like a party animal!”
“Quit talking to yourself and let’s go,” Shelly said.
“Sorry if we’re annoying,” Tony-S said.
“Everyone’s annoying talking to themselves with this machine,” Shelly said. “It’s basic science.”
Tony-S got dropped off first, at Lunar Park, gift in hand, since it was on the way. He walked across the grass that was specially bred and grown and trimmed to look vaguely like the terrain around Tranquility Base. Early proposals had attempted to be too loyal, but reason prevailed and it was only Tranquility-like, with the grass nearest the Eagle—a climbable, kid-friendly sculpture and shelter—being specially cut to look like the treads from moon-boots.
The party was at the Moons’ Shack, a futuresque home built on the designs in a children’s book that had the Moon family living Up There all by themselves. After passing through the airlock and waiting for the fans to blow air around and lights to flash, Tony-S walked in to the common room. He went over to the gift table and went to put his present there when he saw the name on the card: “Luci-with-an-I.”
Oh no no no! Tony-S thought. What do I do? He couldn’t remember what he wrote on the card. His mind was split with Tony-L, with each having some of the memory, and some divided between them an inaccessible to both. If the card wasn’t too specific to Luci-with-an-I, he could take it out and tape it without an envelope. It would be a little strange to give Sepia an old copy of The Chicago Manual of Style, which he picked because Luci-with-an-I wanted to be a writer.
But that means… other-Tony will give Luci-with-an-I a book of soccer jokes. That’s just wrong! At least he hadn’t written inscriptions in the books. He took the envelope off carefully, so as to preserve the tape, and tore it open. It read, “A book that will help you to achieve your dreams. — Your Buddy Tony”
Not quite right, but not completely nuts, either, Tony-S thought. The note would ruin the surprise, but anyone could figure out it was a book even through the wrapping paper. He put it next to the other gifts and went into the tunnel with the flashing lights and loud music to join the others.
Tony-L was about to get out of the car at his house, to walk up the block to Luci-with-an-I‘s party, when he noticed the mistake. “Oh no no no no!” he cried to Shelly. “The other me took the wrong gift! I knew I should have left Luci-with-an-I‘s here at home, to avoid a mix-up.”
“You two are impossible,” Shelly said, laughing. “Okay… What did you get me? And that other girl… Sepia?”
“The other me must have the memories. I can’t recall.”
“I can go swap them out, but it will take awhile. What do you want to do? I can open mine, and if it’s any good you can re-wrap it and give it to your friend here. The Sepia girl will have to take her chances with whatever you got this one.”
“I’m pretty sure we bought three books. Let’s see what yours is.”
Shelly carefully undid one end of the wrapping and slid out a copy of a book called Probably Dangerous that presented statistical and physics analyses of all sorts of risky ideas, from going over Niagra Falls in a barrel to fighting a legion of duck-sized horses. “Ha! I love it,” Shelly said. “Might be a bit too mathematical for your friend, but maybe not. It kind of teaches as it goes,” she said, flipping through the pages.
“I don’t remember what’s in hers or in Sepia’s. But this is Sepia’s card. Let’s see what it says,” Tony-L said. He opened the envelope and took out the card, reading it to Shelly. “Some jokes to throw the other team off during penalty kicks. — Your Sweeper Tony”
“I hope the other card isn’t as specific,” Tony-L said. “It’s a soccer joke book. I think we better give Luci-with-an-I your book. I’ll get you another first chance I get.”
“No, it’s okay. I’ll take the soccer jokes. One of my work pals used to play and still watches way too much. But are you sure I don’t need to bring the soccer book back to Sepia’s party?”
“I… We got you the statistics one, and then this soccer book… It’s probably something with writing?”
“Almost all books have writing, Tone,” Shelly joked.
“No, I mean that Luci-with-an-I wants to be a writer, so her book, the one the other me has, is probably about that.”
“Make a call. I can try to go swap it with the soccer book, or we can let it ride.”
“I say let it ride. I need to run inside and replace the card for your book. See you in a few hours!”
“She loved it,” Tony-L said when Shelly picked him up. “Luci-with-an-I says she’s thinking about being an engineer, so it’ll be great to read about the math.”
“I’m glad,” Shelly said. “Now move your butt, we need to go get the other you.”
“We have plenty of time.”
“Yes, but I really don’t want to have to explain to your mom why she’s got an extra Tony. The sooner you’re one again, the better I’ll sleep tonight.”
After dropping Tony-L off at her apartment, Shelly drove on to Lunar Park to collect his other half. She walked across the moonscape, wondering if the moon itself would ever have a park like it. She found the Moons’ Shack and went through the airlock only to find it empty. Oh no! Where’s the party?!
She checked down the tubular hallways, but while she found a trashcan full of decorations and pointy hats, nobody was there. They must have decided to go somewhere… Surely they left someone to tell the parents?
She went back out front and started asking strangers if they knew what had become of Sepia’s party. One man eating some moon-rocks, which were specially-popped popcorn that came out looking like little rocks, told her that the whole celebration had marched out the south side of the park onto a bus about 20 minutes before.
Must have been a birthday surprise.… But where did they go? She checked her mobile. Still had plenty of time. The party was supposed to end in ten more minutes, and that still left over an hour to get Tony-S back to her apartment. Surely parents would be showing up to the park to pick up their kids. Shelly would wait and it would work out. She went to the concession stand and got two sacks of moon-rocks: one for herself, and one for Tony-L who hadn’t been to the Lunar Park. As she sat on one of the hover-benches and ate the flat-sided bits of popcorn, she realized once he recombined he’d still feel like had been there. Ah well, he’ll still enjoy it.
A half-hour passed, and there was still no party bus, still no parents looking for their kids. Shelly called her apartment to ask Tony-L what was up.
“Maybe he forgot about the time limit! What are we going to do? It’s only… a little more than an hour left!”
“I need you to call your mom. Maybe Sepia’s parents called to get special permission for some kind of surprise.”
“What am I supposed to say? Mom, where am I?”
“Ah, right. I will call her and ask.”
“Risky. She might wonder if you’ve lost me.”
“Better risk it than end up with two cousins.”
“It wouldn’t be that bad. I’d get twice the birthday and Christmas presents.”
“But you’d have to share them with yourself, dude.”
“Forgot about that. Go ahead and call her.”
Tony’s mom was contrite. She told Shelly she should have called, felt bad she hadn’t. Everything was fine, she told her niece: they were at the movies. Sepia’s mom had gotten a local theater to play the original moon landing for the kids. The bus would take them to dinner and then home.
Shelly called Tony-L back at her apartment. “They went to the movies, to watch the moon landing,” she told him. “But she didn’t say which theater, and I couldn’t ask. It would have been suspicious.”
“What are we going to do?”
“We still have 40 minutes. We have to figure out which theater.”
“Yeah, but how do we do that?”
“It’s probably close by. Go on my computer and tell me the list of theaters within ten blocks of Lunar Park.”
Tony-L got on Shelly’s computer and ran the cartography service. “There’s ten of them. This will take forever. You’d have to do more than one every four minutes and still have time to get back here! And what if it’s none of these ten! I’m doomed!”
“If it’s one of the ten, it’s a fifty-fifty chance it’s in the first half of them. Don’t worry, dude.”
Shelly drove to the first theater and asked if they were showing the moon landing. The lady in the ticket booth looked at her like she was loony. She got in the car and booked it to the second one.
“Do you have a kid’s party here for the moon landing?” she asked the man at the booth.
“No, we do not, but my girlfriend works there. It’s the Magic Cinema down by the river walk.”
“Thanks!” Shelly said, running back to her car.
She called Tony-L again. “Be ready to get picked up. We have to go down to the river, quick!”
“But I have to be naked!”
“You’ll go in the bathroom, or a broom closet or something. Wait for me at my front door.”
Shelly pulled in to the parking lot of the Magic Cinema and headed straight to the curb. Tony-L got out and didn’t wait for Shelly to park. He went up to the ticket counter and told them he needed his brother Tony paged, that it was an emergency.
Tony came out and the two Tonys went in to the bathroom, in to a stall, stripped down, and pressed their palms together. Foop! they got sucked into each other like an imploding soap bubble, and only one Tony remained. Tony got dressed and carried the extra set of clothes in his arms as he walked out to find Shelly.
“There you are!” Shelly said, walking to the door of the theater. Tony jogged up to meet her. “How do you feel?” she asked.
“A little weird. It didn’t feel like I was wedgied before, but now it does. Maybe it’s different for boys?”
“I wouldn’t know. Ready to go? Or do you want to stay for dinner and let the bus take you home?”
“I’m ready! I’ve had too much birthday for one kid to handle,” Tony said. “Even if it was technically two!”
This story was inspired by The New York Times: 6 August 2021: Ruth Whippman: “What We Are Not Teaching Boys About Being Human”.