Clover is five years old when her world splits in two.
Above her head she sees the plastic stars her dad has stuck to the ceiling, glowing faintly, eerily, in the dark. She smells the fresh scent of rainwater, tickling her nose like a feather drifting over her skin. Her bedroom is quiet, house silent, the only noise coming from the distant roar of cars on the freeway.
At the same moment Clover is looking at something bright and white, nostrils filled with a harsh, chemical odor, fluorescent lights everywhere, on the walls, the floors, the ceilings. Nothing is touching Clover but her bedsheets, and yet she feels hands all over her, can hear a general babel of strange voices.
One voice chuckles softly and whispers, “He’s beautiful, isn’t he? Our little Princeton.”
A hand on a head, as true and soft as if they were actually there, as if they were real. Clover touches the top of her own head and feels nothing. It's like a ghost, like a television screen has flicked on behind her eyes and under her skin, like a thousand termites crawling across her body.
Clover screws her eyes shut, and the green glow of the plastic stars extinguishes, but the white walls and garish light is still present, as clearly as if Clover stood in the room herself.
She’s surrounded on all sides, smaller than she ever remembers being, in the arms of one of the talking strangers, but everything she feels and sees and smells is not happening here, while she lies in her own bed. Clover can't make it go away, and the hot sting of tears threatens her eyes, spilling over onto her cheeks.
At the same time but not the same place, Clover can feel a mouth she didn't know she had open, and a baby's wail tumbles from it.
The stranger pats not-Clover's-body and chuckles, "I guess he doesn't like daddy yet, huh, little guy? Come on, back to mom."
There's a knock on Clover's bedroom door, so close it startles her.
“Clover? Are you awake, sweetheart?”
"You'll grow on him, dear. Prince is just as fussy as all babies."
One of the strangers.
Here, but not, close, but far.
Clover sits up in bed as the phantom touch of another holds her close to their breast, and she cries, "Mama!"
Clover's mother bursts into the room, but even then, she can't stop crying.
Clover spends the morning in two places; one in the car with her mother, sobbing uncontrollably, and the other with the strangers. She can barely see this other place, barely understand what could possibly be happening to her. Like a nightmare, she thinks, one of the scary dreams that makes her seek refuge in her parents' bed when she can't fall back asleep. Only there's nothing scary about this dream besides the mystery of why.
Her mother parks in a large lot filled with other cars outside a tall building, hurriedly unhooks her from her car seat, hands stroking her cheeks and wiping away her tears. “Mama's here,” she assures her, “you’re going to be okay, baby. Will you tell mama where it hurts?”
None of the nurses on duty can make sense of what Clover tells them; she’s here in the emergency room, but she’s also somewhere else, like watching a movie that doesn't end. They have her wait on a chair next to her mother, clutching her hand, as they signal the next available doctor.
The minutes drag into hours, Clover's mother running her fingers through Clover's hair, whispering reassurances into her ear.
Clover can barely hear them, because the strangers are passing her amongst themselves like she's made of delicate china, cooing and laughing. One of them says, "Prince looks just like you, Joanna! Just like his mommy. These cheeks, I could just squeeze them to bits!"
Pressure, on a cheek that isn't Clover's. She touches her face anyway, trying to catch the phantom fingers.
She's examined by a doctor, but he doesn't know what she's trying to say, either, that she's here, but there too. When Clover overhears the doctor telling her mother in hushed tones that she should see an expert in child behavior, it dawns on her.
She has two pairs of eyes.
Two sets of ears.
She is Clover, but she's someone else now, too, and it's a special day.
Today is Prince's birthday.