The Coincidence Couch
by Mel Gilden
Chapter 1: Desperate Times, Desperate Measures
Autumn Rust and her brother, Fall, were sitting on their front steps watching summer vacation crawl by.
Autumn was a short thin eleven-year-old girl who had been born on September 22, the autumnal equinox, one of the two days in any year when day and night are exactly the same length.
Fall looked up from the Savage Planet game he'd been working at since vacation started. He was a stocky boy who had been born on the same day as his sister, but six minutes later.
When asked why he and his sister did not look alike, he explained for the thousandth time that they were fraternal twins, not identical twins.
Autumn always let him do the explaining because she sometimes got cranky at having to repeat so obvious a fact over and over again.
Autumn and Fall had gotten permission from their parents to clear out the half of the garage called "the guest room."
At the moment it contained an ancient bed—anything set on the mattress would roll to a deep furrow in the center—and an apple crate standing on its short side that served as a bedside table. A single window looked out onto the alley.
Nobody had ever actually slept in "the guest room."
Separated from "the guest room" by a wall was the other half of the area the Rust family called the "garage." It contained paint cans, hunks of wood with old nails poking through, as well as rusty saws, drills, and screwdrivers sticking up at odd and unexpected angles.
Each half of the garage had its own door that opened onto the driveway.
Autumn and Fall moved the bed and the crate into the "garage" half, leaving "the guest room" empty right down to the bare plasterboard walls and cement floor.
"What do you think?" Autumn asked as she swept her hands through the air to take in the empty room. "A few sticks of furniture, a few splashes of paint, and this place will look awesome."
Searching through the "garage" half of the garage for what they needed was difficult, not to mention a little dangerous. But they did find cans of birch-white paint, and some very old wallpaper with enormous red roses and yucky green leaves on it.
Their father walked up to the door and watched them ransacking the garage.
He was stocky, like Fall, and the wispy brown hair atop his head seemed to have a mind of its own. He was dressed in a pair of clean jeans and a plaid shirt.
He wrote a humor column for a newspaper called The Broadside. And because he worked at home he could wear pretty much anything he liked.
"How's it going?" he asked.
"Great," Fall exclaimed. "We're going to call the empty half of the garage the Sibling Rivalry Club. "It'll be a place where we and our friends can get away from the prying eyes of adults."
"Should we ever actually see our friends again," Autumn said.
"Summer will be over before you know it and you'll be complaining about how busy you are." Mr. Rust pointed to the roll of red rose wallpaper Fall was holding.
"I hope you wear gloves when you handle that wallpaper," he said. "It looks radioactive."
"It's very elegant," Autumn explained. "If we put it up, the pattern will kill the spiders and roaches. But neither one of us knows anything about putting up wallpaper, so we decided to forget about it. We'll just paint the walls and put down this ancient sickly blue carpeting we found rolled up in a corner."
"Have a good time," Mr. Rust said. "When your mother gets home, she'll be fascinated by your approach to decorating."
"Sure," Fall said. "Yar will probably send out a photographer."
Yar was the name of the magazine where their mother worked as an editor. It featured pictures and articles telling rich people how they could fix up their mansions and villas with thousand-dollar hat racks, ten-thousand-dollar lamps, and chairs that cost as much as airplanes.
Mr. Rust warned them to be careful and went back into the house to work.
Most of the paint cans were so old that the twins couldn't even get them open. They ended up painting most of the room a sort of dusty green color. After painting for an hour, they sat on the floor in the middle of the room, each leaning against the back of the other, and surveying their handiwork.
Unfortunately, they still had one wall left to paint when they ran out of the dusty green stuff. Air flowed through between the open window and the open door, wafting away the paint fumes.
"It's like living inside that terrible wallpaper," Autumn said.
"We don't have much of a choice unless we actually want to buy paint," Fall replied.
They considered that sad fact glumly. Their financial resources were limited: the money given to them by relatives was in the bank and untouchable, and money they made doing odd jobs seemed to evaporate into the air.
Soon they went back into the storage part of the garage and behind an old bed frame they found one can of birch-white paint that had never been opened.
Autumn carried the can into the clubhouse, and Fall pried the lid off with an old screwdriver. They had enough paint to finish the wall, with a little left over.
"What about furniture and stuff for the walls?" Fall remarked.
"We might have to spend some money after all," Autumn said. "I saw an ad for Memento Mary's Used Furniture in this morning's Broadside."
They walked by Memento Mary's place often but had never had a reason to go inside.
"It can't hurt to look," Fall said.
The twins crossed the driveway, their shadows like blots of charcoal on the cement.
In the house they found the sections of that morning's Broadside still scattered across the kitchen table.
Josephine, their gray-and-white tabby cat, was sleeping on the table right in the middle of the mess. She slept on her back, like a sea otter.
When Autumn pulled the Home section out from under her, she made a small squeak, then jumped to the floor, stretched, and walked to a chair where she curled up and was soon asleep again, as if she had never been disturbed.
"Look here," Autumn said as she poked at an ad.
MEMENTO MARY'S USED FURNITURE
Amazing Historical Pieces
as well as
Furniture For Everyday Use
High High Quality - Low Low Prices
There was an address, a phone number, a website, and a photo of a slim woman—who may or may not have been Memento Mary herself—with short dark hair, wearing a t-shirt and jeans. On the front of her shirt was an empty rocking chair over the words, "I'm off my rocker."
She had a big smile that was slightly out of kilter, which Autumn found endearing.
"Great smile," Autumn said. "She looks nice."
"Nice for a girl," Fall said.
"You're going to have to talk to some girl besides your sister eventually," Autumn said, "if only to see what it's like."
"I talk to Julia and Beth all the time," Fall reminded her.
"We've lived next door to them since we were five. They might as well be your sisters too."
Julia was also Autumn's BFF, her best friend in the world. Autumn had felt just a little bit abandoned when Julia and Beth left to spend the summer at their aunt's house in Oregon.
"Let's take a look at this website," Fall said as he snatched up the Home section and hurried to his bedroom, Autumn in his wake.
Fall soon found Memento Mary's website. The featured piece of furniture that week was an enormous round table. Judging by the chair that was pulled up to it, the table would have taken up most of the school gym.
Autumn stared at the screen over Fall's shoulder.
"It's King Arthur's round table," she said, "it says here."
"Impossible," Fall said.
"No," Autumn said. "That's what it says."
"Of course that's what it says. I just don't believe it's King Arthur's round table—if there ever was such a thing. Do you?"
"I suppose not," Autumn said as if she were sorry. "Though Memento Mary is certainly charging enough for it."
"The world is full of suckers," Fall said.
They clicked through the rest of the site looking for something a little more in their price range.
But Memento Mary had a story to go with every piece—the more outrageous the story, the more expensive the piece. And the cheap stuff was in the hundreds of dollars.
"Apparently she deals in antiques," Autumn said.
"These are not antiques," Fall replied firmly. "These are figments of her imagination."
"So what do we do?" Autumn asked.
"There's always the alley," Fall said as he idly turned pages of the Home section.
Autumn nodded. "All right," she said. "Let's get to it."
Fall suddenly perked up.
"Hey, look at this," he said.
He pointed to a picture at the top of a page. It showed a man—a boy not much older than they were, really. He was very handsome, with long blonde hair that had a wave over his right ear.
"Your boyfriend Fo Thill is buying a house in Cool Creek Canyon."
"He's not my boyfriend," Autumn said. "I've never even met him."
"But you think he's hot," Fall suggested, persisting.
"I think he makes wonderful movies," Autumn stated.
"He must. You saw Screech six times."
"Five times. And the first three times you were with me. Can we go look in the alley now?"
She walked out the bedroom door.
Chapter 2: Sudden Weirdness
The twins followed the stone path between the garage and the avocado tree and for a moment stood next to the wheeled trash barrels, peering up and down the alley.
The city had paved the alley a few years before so it looked like a narrow street creased in the middle to make a channel along which rainwater could run. Some garages opened onto the alley and others, like the Rust garage, turned their backs on it. A few cars were parked in the ivy along the alley's edge.
A squad of crows strutted up and down as if they were city inspectors looking for permit violations.
The twins set off in opposite directions, strolling through the sun-drenched landscape. The air was warm and clear, and like most alleys, this one was full of interesting things that people had thrown away.
Only a few seconds later Autumn called out to Fall.
"Here's something," she cried.
He joined her by a couch covered in nappy cloth in different shades of brown stripes.
"Looks as if cats have thrown up hairballs on it." Autumn pointed to a group of vaguely circular discolorations.
"You're not going to find perfect furniture in an alley," Fall reminded her.
Autumn sat down at one end of the couch and Fall sat at the other. Fall slapped a cushion with the flat of his hand, raising a small cloud of dust.
"It's comfortable," he said.
"And it's right here," Autumn said.
Standing on the center cushion, she could look through the back window of the garage into their newly painted clubhouse.
"I wonder who left it here," Autumn said after she sat down again.
"Does it matter?" Fall asked.
"I suppose not. Still, us finding exactly what we needed so close to home is kind of a—"
"A coincidence?" Fall suggested.
"I guess we were meant to have it," Autumn agreed.
Without discussing it further, they each got a grip on an end and with difficulty carried the heavy couch to the clubhouse doorway where they had to tilt it at a strange angle; it seemed to get heavier as they maneuvered it.
When they got the couch into the room at last they collapsed onto it with their legs stretched straight out before them.
"Looks nice, huh?" Autumn said.
"Nice," Fall agreed.
For a while they just enjoyed sitting on the couch rather than moving it.
"I wish I had some ice cream," Autumn said.
As if on cue, a tinkly music-box version of Brahms' Lullaby began somewhere out on the street.
They looked at each other with surprise while they listened to the music get louder.
"Another coincidence?" Fall asked.
"I don't care what it is," Autumn said. "I want some ice cream."
"We should ask Dad," Fall said.
"You know what he's like when he's working," Autumn replied. "By the time we get his attention, the truck will be gone."
Fall nodded. They got up and hurried to the front of the house.
As they ran out through the front gate, a white truck with chocolate-brown trim was just passing their house. Autumn was about to raise her hand to hail the ice cream man, but he beat her to it; he saw them and waved, smiling broadly as his truck rolled to a stop.
The Brahms Lullaby continued blaring from the chocolate-brown horn on the front fender until the ice cream man turned it down.
"He seems to know us," Autumn said.
"No way," Fall said. "He just hopes we're customers."
The ice cream man leaped from his truck. He was a tall thin man with a small carefully trimmed mustache—like the mustache on the bad guy in an old western.
Still, his smile seemed pleasant and sincere enough.
He wore a brown hat and a white smock with the words Eskimo Taco stitched on the pocket in brown thread.
"Autumn!" he called, "Fall! It's nice to see you two again."
"Do we know you?" Fall asked.
The ice cream man seemed surprised and hurt by Fall's question.
"It's me, Vince," he said as if prompting an idiot four-year-old.
"We don't know you," Fall said. "How do you know our names?"
"How do I—"
He stopped, shocked into silence. He looked sideways at the kids.
"Don't you remember?" he asked. "A few years ago I took you to Marina del Rey for an old radio re-creation. Remember the people who fished from the big rocks along the water?"
He shook his head. "Of course, those rocks aren't there anymore. The whole area is just fancy condominiums now."
He grew more confused as he studied Autumn and Fall. "But that's not possible," he went on. "You were about the same age then as you are now."
"And we never fished from those rocks," Fall said.
"Maybe not," Vince admitted. "But I knew your names."
It was a mystery, all right.
"Is it possible," Fall asked, "that somewhere in the world there is another set of twins a few years older than we are, who look just like us and have the same names?"
"It would be quite a coincidence," Autumn said, and glanced meaningfully at her brother.
Fall frowned in thought.
"Whatever," Autumn said. "We would like to buy some ice cream."
"In honor of our possibly meeting again, anything you want is on the house. On the truck. You know what I mean."
"Gee, thanks," Autumn and Fall said together. After short consideration, each of them asked for an Eskimo Taco.
Vince pulled a chrome handle, opening the back door of his truck and allowing cold white smoke to escape. He reached deep inside and pulled out a couple of foil-wrapped packages.
"Two Eskimo Tacos," he said as he handed them around.
The twins immediately tore open the foil and pulled out their Eskimo Tacos; each one was a small chocolate shell filled with a wedge of vanilla ice cream. The chocolate cracked pleasantly as they bit into it.
"Well, I have to be going," Vince said as he climbed back into his truck. "Be good, now. I'll come around again sometime. It's not on my regular route. And if you figure out where we met before, let me know."
"We will," Fall said.
Vince turned up Brahms' Lullaby, put his truck into gear, and rolled away.
The kids licked the vanilla parts of their Eskimo Tacos and waved at Vince as his truck moved slowly along the street.
"What do you think?" Fall asked as they walked back to the sidewalk.
"I think we each got a free ice cream out of the deal," Autumn said. They sauntered along the driveway toward the back yard.
"Okay," Fall said. "But what is the deal? How could he know our names?"
Autumn didn't say anything for a long time. When she did speak, it was as if she were talking to herself.
"First the couch. Then the ice cream man appearing just when I wanted ice cream. Then Vince knowing us."
"Or Vince knowing twins just like us but a few years older," Fall suggested.
"This is more than just a set of coincidences," Autumn said. "This is weird."
"You got that right."
"Do you think one of us suddenly has magic powers?"
"Where would they come from?" Fall asked. "Besides, I'm not sure I believe in magic powers."
"I'd like to believe," Autumn admitted.
"That's different. I'd like to believe we haven't lost our minds."
Autumn punched him in the shoulder. "What we need is a test," she said.
Chapter 2: An Answered Wish
Still working on their Eskimo Tacos, Autumn and Fall wandered into the back yard and stood on the grass in the shade of the old avocado tree.
"Go ahead and wish for something," Fall suggested. "You're the one who got ice cream when you wished for it."
"I wish I knew what was going on," Autumn said, sounding well and truly bewildered.
They waited, not knowing what to expect. A breeze came up, stirring the leaves of the avocado tree and the ferns and the bushes. It was easy to imagine fairies and elves moving around in the undergrowth.
"Magic?" Autumn asked.
"Not very good magic," Fall said. "I don't feel any smarter."
"Me neither. You try something."
Fall shoved the last of his Eskimo Taco into his mouth and chewed until he had room to talk.
"I wish I had a hamburger and an order of onion rings," he said.
They waited again.
Fall sat down on the grass and leaned back on his elbows. He carefully folded the silver Eskimo Taco wrapper and put it into his pocket. Autumn sat down next to him and ate the last chip of chocolate from her Eskimo Taco. She balled up her wrapper and held it in her fist.
No one offered them food of any kind.
"Maybe it really was all a coincidence," Fall said.
"Maybe," Autumn said. "What about Vince knowing our names?"
"Maybe he's from the future."
"Maybe he's an alien from space."
"Maybe he's a government agent."
"Maybe he's a criminal."
"Maybe we should stop," Fall said. "We're scaring me."
"Should we tell somebody? An adult, maybe?"
"Tell 'em what? I don't want to get the guy in trouble if he's just some goof who has a perfectly good reason for knowing our names."
"And that reason would be?"
"He seemed nice enough. And knowing our names isn't a crime. We'll tell Dad about him when he comes up for air. Wish for something else."
"World peace?" Autumn suggested. "An end to poverty and hunger?"
"Maybe we should work up to stuff like that. If a wish that size came true there might be side effects."
"Sure. Side effects."
Autumn closed her eyes. "I wish the garage was more organized," she said. She opened her eyes. "Is that small enough for you?"
They got up and walked over to check. Both parts of the garage contained the same mess as usual.
Instead of waiting around for more coincidences to happen they shoved the couch against a wall and went to look in the storage part of the garage for more furnishings.
"I wish we had a table," Fall said.
"I wish I could fly," Autumn said.
"I wish I had x-ray vision," Fall said.
They looked at each other speculatively, eyebrows up, waiting. Nothing continued to happen.
After a while Fall found a metal trash can that wasn't very dented and Autumn found an old plastic clock radio of a shade of green not found in nature. They threw their Eskimo Taco wrappers into the can and plugged the radio in. After a few seconds music actually came from the speaker.
"The clock doesn't work," Fall pointed out.
"As long as the radio works," Autumn replied.
The news was on.
The big story was that scientists reported the Earth was moving through a cloud of meteorites, small bits of space junk. The chance of any of them hitting the Earth was slim, but they would make quite a show in the sky for the next week or two.
"I don't suppose finding the radio counts as an answered wish," Autumn said.
"No way," Fall said. "You never wished for a radio."
Autumn picked up the trash can and spoke into it.
"'The weed of crime bears bitter fruit,'" she said in a creepy voice. "'The Shadow knows!'"
Then she laughed like a maniac. Her echoing voice boomed out of the trash can.
"You and your old radio."
"I love that old dramatic stuff," Autumn said.
She began to quote from some of the ancient comedies and dramas that one of the rock 'n' roll radio stations played in the middle of the night. She sometimes listened to them when she was up late and didn't feel like reading
"'The Lone Ranger rides again!'" she cried happily.
"The place still looks pretty bare," Fall said, hoping to distract her.
"Minimalist, Yar would say," Fall said. "Should we take a look in the alley again? We didn't get very far last time."
Once again Autumn walked in one direction along the alley and Fall walked in the other. They got back together behind their garage fifteen minutes later.
"Nothing," Autumn said. "Not a sausage."
"Me neither," Fall said. "Do you mind if I put up one of my Star Wars posters in the clubhouse?"
"No. You do that while I get some magazines. I'm determined to enjoy the Sibling Rivalry Club no matter how little furniture it has. Furniture isn't everything. Friends are important, too. As I recall."
Autumn frowned for a moment, thinking about Julia.
Autumn got back to the clubhouse with a stack of movie magazines before Fall returned with his poster. She sat down on the couch and pulled her feet up under her to get comfy, a real luxury because she wasn't allowed to put her feet on the furniture in the house.
By the time Fall returned with his poster—he'd had to dig around for it in the back of his closet—she was well into an article about the likes and dislikes of Fo Thill.
She knew most of this stuff, but she always enjoyed reading it again.
Fall thumb-tacked his poster to the wall. It showed little Anakin Skywalker casting the shadow of Darth Vader.
"Very cool," Autumn said when she glanced up and saw it.
Fall turned to look over Autumn's shoulder.
"Hm. Interesting," he said. "I see that Fo likes vegetarian chili on his chili burgers."
"Yes," Autumn said. "But his favorite food is pizza."
"And his favorite color is red. And he likes to swing dance. And he likes to read mysteries. And the soft-hearted yob sometimes volunteers at an animal shelter."
"You must be a fan, too, or you wouldn't know all that stuff," Autumn said defensively.
She sighed. "Sometimes I dream about meeting him."
The moment the words were out of her mouth, they both realized she had just wished for something and they stopped and waited to see if the wish would be granted.
Suddenly they heard a truck pull up outside the window that looked onto the alley. The engine stopped, a door slammed, and somebody said a very bad word while he thrashed around in the ivy.
"Has Vince come back?" Fall asked.
They ran to the window and looked out. Their eyes widened with surprise when they saw who was standing in the middle of the alley with an ivy vine wrapped around one ankle.
"Fo Thill," Autumn said, breathing the two words as if she were afraid to say them too loudly.
"I think this qualifies as an answered wish," Fall said.