Fiction by Shelly Reuben: 'The One Thing You Can Count On'

By Shelly Reuben
Shelly Reuben
Shelly Reuben

In order to describe what happened, I have to transport you to a time and place when the twins, Tierney and Doe Madrigal, were not quite teens.

Their mother, Jeanette, had an instinctive awareness about the downside of sibling relationships, and always seemed to know where resentments could take root: 

The boy who flirts with one twin but ignores the other.

The teacher who foolishly admonishes, “You would be as smart as your sister if just made the effort.”

The diary secretly read.

The blouse borrowed without permission.

Although they were identical, the twins’ parents encouraged them to cultivate characteristics that would set them apart.  This started with separate shopping excursions to the same stores, so that neither would influence the other in their selection of, say, a sweater or a skirt.  

The intention was admirable, but the execution was flawed, because no matter what time Jeanette took Tierney to Macy’s or how much later in the day Ralph, their father, went shopping with Doe, the girls inevitably came home toting exactly the same dresses, blouses, and shoes.

This also happened with bathing suits, bicycles, bracelets, and books.

Eventually, the problem was solved by not only taking the girls shopping at different times, but to different department stores, too.  They also went to different beauty salons.   Tierney wore her hair in a shoulder-length blunt cut, whereas Doe’s stylist had allowed hers to curl naturally.  But when they pulled their hair back into ponytails, the girls looked exactly alike, and other than their parents, no one could tell them apart.  

If you knew them very well, however, you could perceive distinct differences.

Tierney, for example, was the stronger of the two.

Doe was the more romantic.

Both had known at an early age that they wanted to be actresses, but it was Tierney who mapped out their battle plans.

“We’ll live with Mom and Dad for a year after high school, work like slaves, save a ton of money, and then move to Manhattan.”

Tierney researched neighborhoods, realtors, and acting schools.  Doe staged photo shoots, created their portfolios, and wrote scripts for two-man shows.  

Tierney’s favorite flowers were orchids; she loved to quote Winston Churchill and to sing Gershwin songs.  She could do first-rate impersonations of everyone she met, and if she heard a voice – any voice – just once, she could perfectly mimic its contents, tone, and pitch.  She excelled in archery, fencing, and rock climbing. 

Doe’s favorite flowers were violets, and she was more likely to quote Elizabeth Barrett Browning than any politician.  She wrote poems, hated sports, and took lessons in classical ballet.  Once, she thought it would be fun to become an expert marksman, but she was a terrible shot, so took Driver’s Education instead.  Doe was as bad a driver as she was a shot though, and whenever she experienced a strong emotion, she lost control of the car.  When her father broke an ankle, she drove their Jeep through the back of the garage instead of taking him to the hospital.

“I thought I was in reverse!”  

When three boys asked her to the same prom and she didn’t know whom to pick or how to say “No,” she drove through a picket fence.

Although her parents had incessantly warned her not to get behind the wheel when she was overwrought, she always forgot.

But that was when the girls were already in their teens.

The day we meet the twins they were wearing their best party dresses.   Tierney’s was yellow silk with embroidered trim around the hemline.  Doe’s was white dotted Swiss with a flair skirt and tiny silk rosettes.  

Jeannette Madrigal took her daughters to the Mayflower Hotel twice a year:  In May, on their birthday, and on the second Saturday in November, for no particular reason at all.  A change in this routine occurred on an anonymous morning in August when Tierney and Doe were twelve years old.  Jeanette Madrigal had marched into their bedroom and told them what to wear. 

“Why?”  The twins asked in unison.

“Because,” their mother answered coolly, “I am taking you to the Mayflower for lunch.”

Neither girl knew what to think.

For the past month, they had been ceaselessly bickering.

“Mother,” Doe complained, “Tierney ruined my purple scarf!”   

“Daddy,” Tierney whined, “Doe spilled grape juice on my white slacks!”

“It’s your turn to do the dishes!”

“No.  It’s yours!”

“You stole my book!”

“You broke my watch!”

This continued from sun-up to bedtime until, after weeks of witnessing squabbles that began with the first slice of toast and trailed off behind them as they made their way to school, Ralph Madrigal flung open his arms in despair and begged his wife to, “Do something before they kill each other or I murder them both!”

So Jeanette Madrigal took the twins to lunch.

The situation was so odd, the circumstances so unusual, and their mother’s mood so inscrutable, that when Doe stumbled into Tierney at the entrance to the dining room at the Mayflower Hotel, instead of Tierney snapping, “Watch where you’re going, stupid,” she said, “Are you okay?”  And instead of Doe elbowing her sister in retaliation, she murmured, “Sorry, Tierney.  I tripped.”

They were led to a table in a dimly lighted corner of the room.

Very isolated.

Very quiet.

Jeanette asked the waiter to bring a pot of tea, and told him that they would order later.  While they waited for tea, the twins continually looked at each other with raised eyebrows, questioning glances, and responsive shrugs.

They tried to catch their mother’s eye.

She ignored them.

They fiddled with the silverware.

She studied the menu.

They fidgeted in their seats.

She looked away.

Not until tea was served and they had taken their first ceremonial sips did Jeanette Madrigal finally look across the table and begin to speak.  

Neither girl remembered her exact words, but neither ever forgot their meaning.

“You are sisters,” their mother solemnly said.  “And you are going to be sisters for the rest of your lives.  You are going to grow up, leave home, fall in love, fall out of love, get jobs, lose jobs, make friends and lose friends.”

Tierney looked at Doe and frowned.

Doe twisted her napkin in her lap.

Their mother went on.

“Much as your father and I love you, and much as the two of you love us, we are not always going to be here for you.  Parents get old.  Parents…”

Tierney exclaimed, “Don’t say it!”

Doe cried, “Stop it, Mommy.  Stop!”

Impervious to their pleas, she continued, “Which means that as you grow up and as you grow old, there is only one thing in you life that you can count on.”  

Jeanette Madrigal was an elegant woman with high cheekbones, a long neck, and an aristocratic face.  Tierney felt that when she introduced their mother to her friends, they should courtesy, as if being introduced to a queen.  Doe believed that their mother had a secret sword hidden in a bedroom closet, and that when no one was looking, she would tap the blade on the shoulder of a warrior bold and true, and dub him Sir Noble Knight.

Jeanette stopped talking.  

She looked at Tierney.  She shifted her eyes to Doe.  Finally, she said, “As you grow up and as you grow older, shall I tell you what will be the one thing in life that you can count on?”

Neither girl said a word.

Jeanette reached across the table.  She took Tierney’s left hand in her right hand, and she took Doe’s right hand in her left.  

“The only thing you will ever be able to count on, girls, is each other.”

Tierney jerked back her head.  Shocked.

Doe looked, first at her mother, and then at her sister.  She began to blink.

“If you are sad, Tierney, Doe will cheer you up.  If you are sick, Doe, Tierney will bring you chicken soup.  If one of you loses a job, the other will help to write a resume.  You will be maids of honor at each other’s weddings.  You will hold each other’s hands when your children are born.”  Saying this, Jeanette removed her own hands and joined her daughters’ hands instead.  “If you lose your way, your sister will bring you home.  If someone breaks your heart, your sister will make it right.  When you succeed, and you both will succeed, your sister will be the first to wave pompoms and lead the parade.”

Jeanette rested her chin on her forefingers and studied her daughters’ faces.  Then she dropped her hands, straightened her back, and said, “You are my daughters, and I love you.  But what you are to me and to your father is nothing compared to what you will always … always be to each other.”

Doe bit her lower lip.

Tierney cleared her throat. 

Both girls said at once, “What is that, Mommy?”

Jeanette smiled.

“You will always be each other’s best friend.”

Neither Tierney nor Doe recalled much else about that luncheon, except that first they began to cry, then they hugged each other, and then somehow or another, they got home.  

What they did clearly remember, though, was that from that day forward, they stopped bickering and stopped competing.  Each became more an advocate for the other than for herself, and both shone with a new light that somehow carried them through adolescence and fueled the engines of their dreams.

They grew up. 

They moved to New York

They became actresses.

When they entered the talent agency recommended by their high school drama coach, their individual beauty would have been stunning.  Times two, it was breath taking, and it got them signed-contracts within half-an-hour of walking through the door.

First, their agent had pictures taken of the twins … as twins.

“There aren’t many ads nowadays like Doublemint once did.  You know.  Two look-alikes on a bicycle with the ‘double your pleasure’ jingle in the background.  Never mind.  You’re too young.  But let’s get a set of photos on file so that we can do the twin angle if we want to.”

Then the agent sent them home.

“When you come back,” he said, “I want one of you to look like Ophelia before she goes nuts, and the other to look like sex on a pogo stick.  Or one to look like a debutante, and the other to look like…”

Tierney interrupted, “We get it.”

Doe said, “Been there.”

Tierney added, “Done that.”

And they waved their hands (identical hands, identical waves), and strode out the door.

The next day, their agent – and everybody else – could tell the twins apart.

Tierney had a feathery pixie haircut, and was made up with dark eye eyeliner and pale mauve lipstick.  She wore a sleeveless black turtleneck, high cut at the shoulders to expose two perfect collarbones, skin-tight Capri pants, and black ballet flats.  She looks chic, artistic, and worldly.

Doe’s hair was bunched into wild curls atop her head, freckles danced across her face, and her eyelashes extended long and luxurious over bright green eyes.  Doe was wearing a spaghetti strap sundress, skimpy high-heeled sandals, and cologne that smelled like a day at the beach.

Each had laid siege to a style.

Tierney:  New York Sophisticate.

Doe:  Girl next door.

Their talent agent wasted no time. 

Within a month, Tierney had been cast as the lead investigator in a television thriller about the recovery of stolen masterpieces.  Her character was as agile as an acrobat and as versatile as a chameleon.  The series required her to wear designer clothes and to leap tall buildings at a single bound (not really).  It was filmed all over the world.

Within six weeks of arriving in New York, Doe had been cast in a TV series as a fledgling editor involved in the creation and production of best selling novels.  Doe’s character was a counterpoint of fresh-faced innocence in a world of literary sharks.  Her scenes were shot on Long Island and in Manhattan and required no location work at all.

Tierney and Doe loved their scripts, loved their parts, and loved their executive producer – the same producer of both shows.  Tierney, not surprisingly, had gone the next step and actually fallen in love with him, which was not difficult because, at one time or another, just about everybody fell in love with Johnnie.  

When it was all over, Tierney reproached herself for having allowed him to get that close.  “Idiot!” she would murmur.  “Serves me right for thinking I could trust a man named after a bottle of scotch.”

Weeks … months … years later, Tierney still could not make up her mind about Johnnie.  She once tried to graph him on a sheet of paper.  In the center of the page, in big, bold letters, she printed JOHNNY WALKER HENNESSEY.  

On the left side, she wrote, “Personality Profile.”  

Under that, she wrote: Talented; Imaginative; Ambitious.  

On the right side of the page, Tierney wrote, “Spiritual Profile.”

Under that, she scrawled: “Evil?  Egomaniacal?  Sadistic?”  

Then she scratched out those words and wrote, “He broke my sister’s heart!”

Those last five words might have referred to a heart broken by love’s betrayal.

They did not.

Tierney meant a heart broken by inadvertent complicity in a lie.  

A heart that, given time, could have mended and triumphed.

Johnnie Walker Hennessey was the perpetrator and catalyst of this catastrophe.  He was also, in many respects, a jewel of a man.  He looked like a hero in a 1940s Hollywood western.  Six-feet-four-inches tall, lean and masculine, with well-defined features.  He had a high brow, an angular jaw, and incisive blue eyes that glinted with irony.  And he was smart enough to untie the Gordian knot.

Johnnie had graduated from college at eighteen, received a doctorate in molecular biology at twenty-two, and published his first novel – a runaway best seller – a week before his twenty-fifth birthday.  This was followed by three more bestsellers, all made into movies that he did not like, which compelled him to write and produce the movie of his fifth novel himself.  

He did not enter the area of television production until, after divorcing his fourth wife, he became bored with Hollywood and moved back to New York.  

He was forty-years-old, childless, and possessed of a deep, seductive speaking voice.  His ex-wives appeared not to dislike him, although it was said that in exchange for generous alimony payments, they had negotiated away the right to expostulate about their marriages.

Yet, none seemed particularly bitter, and after his death, all came to his funeral and wept beside his grave.

 It was Johnnie who had approved casting the twins in shows that would appear on the same network, although not on the same day.  “Don’t worry,” he assured the casting directors, “there won’t be a problem.”

He was right.

The production of Tierney’s series was a logistical nightmare, each week’s action revolving around the theft of artwork from a different private collection, museum, or auction house in a different part of the world.  In its initial phases, and as the show’s creator and executive producer, Johnnie Walker Hennessey accompanied the cast and crew to all of the locations where it was being shot.

Tierney and Doe were, at that time, twenty-one years old.

Twenty-one is the age of maximum vulnerability, when a woman believes that she is worldly enough to inspire (or quell) tempests, but is really as helpless as a puppy.  

Think back on the history of infamous love affairs.  

A president of the United States and an intern.

A movie star and a step-daughter.

A college professor and a co-ed.

Dozens of college professors, and dozens of co-eds!

Of these women – girls really – there were only three universal constants:  

One.  They were young and inexperienced.  

Two.  They believed everything their lovers said.  

Three.  They were credulous romantics.

Tierney did not see herself that way.  She considered herself savvy, sophisticated, and cynical.  When she asked Johnnie how he could have had four failed marriages, he answered, “Because I was an inattentive husband.”

So naturally she assumed that all four failures had been his wives’ faults.

When he said, “Don’t trust me.  I’m unreliable,” yet was never late for a date and was courtly to a fault, Tierney believed him to be the trust-worthiest of men.  

Only once had he acted in a manner she deemed incompatible with the man she thought she loved.  It happened on the day that they met. 

An appointment had been made for afternoon tea at the Plaza Hotel.

Tierney and her agent were to meet with Johnnie and the director of their new TV show.  Tierney and Johnnie arrived simultaneously, Tierney getting out of her taxi at the same time that Johnnie started up the hotel stairs.

Johnnie’s shoe was about to touch the third step when Tierney heard a deep, gravely voice calling out from somewhere … everywhere …  nowhere, “Hey, Einstein.   Don’t forget your brain!”  

At the first two words, Johnnie stopped.  Mid-step.

At the last four, he stood rigid.  Looking neither to his right nor to his left, as breathless as a stone.

Fascinated by the frozen tableau, Tierney started counting:  One.  Two.  Three.  All the way up to sixty-eight.  Then, as if released from a trance but still wearing a stunned look on his face, Johnnie Walker Hennessey continued up the stairs.  

Minutes later, when Tierney sat across from him at their table in the Palm Court, he was once again his usual scintillating, brilliant self.

Tierney never found out what those six words meant or why they’d had such an immobilizing effect on Johnnie, and over the course of her bedazzlement by the executive producer, she thought that the incident had completely left her mind.

It had not.

Their love affair was a sumptuous thing, resonant with laughter and punctuated by a thousand thoughtful Johnnie-like things.  A Tiffany silver locket engraved with the words “I Love You.”  A leather-bound compilation of Winston Churchill speeches.  Bouquet upon bouquet of purple dendrobium orchids.  Spur of the moment trips to Paris for dinner.  A violinist hired to play Gershwin tunes. 

Tierney was in love.  And it never occurred to her that anyone as loving as Johnnie would not be in love too.  

Her schedule, had she not been one-and-twenty, would have killed an ox.

A week in Budapest.

A week in Tel Aviv.

The week after that, Madrid.

Then, Edinburgh, Zurich, and Hong Kong.

Followed by – she hadn’t known that such a place existed outside Bela Lugosi movies – Transylvania.  

By the time Tierney’s cast and crew had arrived in the land of blood-sucking vampires, the show’s executive producer was investing fewer hours on their series and more time working on his other show.  

Specifically, on Doe’s series based in New York.  

Although Tierney and Doe still shared an apartment, Tierney had been away for over three months.  Aside from handwritten letters and sporadic phone calls (Doe hated the Internet), on a day-to-day basis, they were out of touch.  Doe knew, as did everybody on the set, that Johnnie Walker Hennessey and Tierney Madrigal were, or at least had been, a couple.  Now, however, rumors were rife that their affair was over, done, kaput, and that Tierney had dumped her older, richer, and more successful beau.  

Doe got the news first from the wardrobe mistress.  

It was repeated by the script girl, an assistant director, a gaffer, and her make-up lady.  When Johnnie asked her out for dinner, she heard it from him, too.

“I thought that you were dating my sister!”  Doe protested.

 “Were, past tense is the operative word,” he said with just the right combination of self-mockery and regret.  “I am afraid, Doe, that Tierney saw through me.  Wisely, she left me at the altar before I could make yet a fifth mistake.”

Doe telephoned her sister at least sixty times during the period when Johnnie’s wit, charm, and persistence were making inroads on her resistance, but she never managed to get through to Tierney, who was still on location in a remote and inaccessible area of Transylvania.

Finally, Doe agreed to go out with the man who executive produced her show and who was named after a smooth blended scotch.  

“But just once,” she stated firmly.

One date led to two.

Two dates led to champagne, flowers, trinkets, and poems.

Doe, like Tierney, was twenty-one.

But Tierney was strong.

And Doe was a romantic.

So, when Tierney’s crew finally wrapped up shooting and she telephoned her twin from an airport in the God-knows-where-Baltics, Doe was stricken with guilt upon hearing Tierney’s end of the conversation. 

“…Johnnie is meeting me tonight in Paris.  We’re staying at Le Meurice.  From there we go to…”

And Doe realized that Johnnie had lied.

She broke into her sister’s itinerary of bliss.  

“Oh no,” she cried.  “Johnnie said … I believed … Oh, Tierney.  My darling, darling Tierney.  My sister.  My twin.  My dearest and best friend, I betrayed you!  I am so sorry.  Johnnie lied to me.  I would never … I didn’t know.  Honestly … honestly.  I didn’t know.”

Two more things happened that night.

Doe took her car out of the space where it was parked under their apartment building.

And Tierney booked a red-eye flight home.

Doe was dead before Tierney’s plane landed.

She had managed to get out of the city without incident.  Doe even drove safely across the George Washington Bridge.  The straightaway on the Palisades Parkway, though, was her undoing.  Some people, even the police for a time, speculated that she had deliberately driven off the road and into the stand of trees just north of Exit 4.  But Doe’s family knew better.

And Tierney knew everything about everything the minute that she got back to their apartment.

A silver Tiffany locket.  Violets.  Tickets to the ballet.   And poems.  The exact same poems that Johnnie had penned, or so he had said, for Tierney alone, but rewritten and substituted with Doe’s name.  

That night, Tierney replayed in her mind – not Johnnie’s romantic flummery – but childhood lessons of loyalty and love. 

“If you are sad,” her mother had promised, “Doe will cheer you up.  If Doe is sick, you will bring her chicken soup.”

Tierney reached for the telephone and called Johnnie’s number.  After he picked up, the first words he said were, “I heard about your sister.  You must be heartbroken.  What can I do?”

“Meet me,” Tierney said, “tomorrow afternoon.  Three o’clock.  Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel.”

“Done,” Johnny said.  “What else?”

Tierney replied curtly.  “That will do.”

She replaced her telephone in its cradle, and again recalled the words that her mother had said:

“You will be maids of honor at each other’s weddings.  You will hold each other’s hands when your children are born.  If you lose your way, your sister will bring you home.”

Tierney went into Doe’s bedroom and lay atop her twin’s bed.  She did not take off her clothes.  She did not get between the sheets.  She stared at the ceiling.

The next morning, she made no phone calls and she did not answer the telephone.  She continued to stare at the ceiling until 1:00 p.m., when she showered, put on her makeup, and got dressed.

One thing about Tierney Madrigal as an actress, which was known by every director with whom she worked, was that she had impeccable timing.  Her entrances, her raised eyebrows, her looks of scorn … all were exquisitely executed and achieved the desired effect.

Timing, Tierney believed, was everything.

She walked to the Plaza Hotel.

That day, Johnnie Walker Hennessey had also chosen to walk.  He proceeded up Fifth Avenue, cut through the park, and continued around the Pulitzer Fountain.  Nimble and graceful as a dancer, he had paced himself to jaywalk through the turnaround and arrive safely on the opposite sidewalk before a taxi cab – and he saw it coming – would barrel past the entrance to the hotel

He would have made it, too.

Had it not been for a voice – undistinguishable in pitch, tone, and content from the deep, gravely twang of so many months ago – that called out to him again.

“Hey, Einstein,” it shouted.

Johnnie stopped moving.

Tierney counted.

One.  Two.  Three.

The taxi cab hurtled forward.

“Don’t forget your…”

Four.  Five.  Six.


The Plaza Hotel’s doorman, observing the seemingly paralyzed figure, screamed, “Move!”

But Johnnie Walker Hennessey did not move.  He stood, stone still in the middle of the street, defenseless against the terrible, terrifying, and unforgettably dull and deadly thud of metal against flesh.

Tierney watched from where she was hiding behind a parked limousine.  Softly, quietly, and in her own voice instead of the one that she had mimicked so convincingly, she repeated, “Don’t forget your brain.”

Years later, after the cancellation of one show and before rehearsals began on the next, the two-time Emmy Award winning actress toyed with the idea of researching the background of the late Johnnie Walker Hennessey and discovering the meaning behind those fateful and fatal words.  Were they the cruel taunt of bullies from his youth, evocative of such devastating humiliation that they had literally stopped Johnnie in his tracks?  Had it been a voice from the past? Was it a voice from the future?  A threat?  A warning?   A signal?  A curse?  

Once, she had even gotten so far as to look up the telephone number of a highly recommended private detective.

But it never got beyond that, because whenever Tierney felt the urge, she would stop what she was doing, look at herself in the nearest mirror, and see the face of her sister staring back.  And each time … every time she did that … Doe’s image would repeat the words that they had learned from their mother so very, very long ago.

“If someone breaks your heart,” Jeanette Madrigal had promised, “your sister will make it right.”

Then Tierney would fluff her still pixie-styled hair, throw the strap of her purse over her shoulder, and stride out of her apartment, once again eager to lead a happy, successful, and guilt-free life.  

                                           * * * 

Copyright © 2014, Shelly ReubenOriginally published in The Evening Sun, Norwich, NY -  HYPERLINK "" \o "" Shelly Reuben’s books have been nominated for Edgar, Prometheus, and Falcon awards.  For more about her books, visit  HYPERLINK "" \o "" www.shellyreuben.comLink to David M. Kinchen's reviews of her novels "The Skirt Man" and "Tabula Rasa":  HYPERLINK "" \o ""

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