Alex and Sasha are twin sisters, physically identical down to their freckles. But the resemblance is only skin deep—Sasha is profoundly autistic, while Alex is not. Sasha can’t communicate and acts bizarrely, and the family revolves around her and her intense needs. Yet the aged, wealthy, and mysterious Aunt Nana seems to have a particular interest in both girls. Offering a helping hand, she encourages the family to move to San Francisco to be near her. And when the young twins discover a tunnel in Nana’s tool shed, it leads them on a journey across the world and back 100 years in time. The tunnel is a pathway to the Firebird Estate, the home of their ancestors, located in rural Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century. Even more remarkable, through the effect that twisting time has on cognition, Sasha is not autistic when she’s at the Firebird Estate. Now, growing up in two strikingly different times and places, the twins must face their separate destinies among the ravages of the incipient Russian Revolution. Can they save their families on both sides of the tunnel? Can they simultaneously stay true to their own hearts, to each other, and to the people they left behind? Each sister must face her own personal challenge — but only together can they discover their own future within their family’s past.
Targeted Age Group:: All Audiences
Heat/Violence Level: Heat Level 1 – G Rated Clean Read
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I'm interested in humanistic science fiction. What makes us human? How do we learn empathy for others who are very different from us? How do we explore ideas of social justice and human rights in an inspiring and emotionally powerful way? How can science and science fiction about the near and far future inform our decisions today? How can we use stories to help us understand cognitive differences — autism, schizophrenia, genius, sensory impairment, body differences, social and psychological isolation? "Twin Time" uses the time loop device to shed some light on autism and its effects on family dynamics. And along the way, the story explores Russian Revolution, life at the turn of the last century in a rural estate, and pays a small tribute to my grandmother who lived some of the events of the story.
"Twin Time" is fully illustrated — children are not the only ones who deserve a bit of visual magic accompanying their stories.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Some of the characters and settings in this books are based on my grandmother, who grew up during the Russian Revolution and suffered a catastrophic collapse of her family and way of life. The main character, Sasha, and her family are mixtures of many children and families I knew. Sasha suffers from profound autism, and in turn, her family suffers with her. I counsel families with children who have problems in school — ADHD, autism, learning differences. Some of the family dynamics described in "Twin Time" are based on true stories. They are hard and heartbreaking, but they are also full of hope and love. Science fiction gave me another tool with which to explore these social issues.
There are doors without and doors within. Some doors lead to a career, others to the special people in our lives, and still others to the mysteries of our inner selves. There are doors to stride through with purpose, and doors to peek through with trepidation. But maybe once in a lifetime there is a door to another reality, a door that connects worlds within multiverses. Be warned: stepping through such a door changes your life forever. So be careful what you wish for.
One: 2019 — Fire
“Dad?” There was noise on the line. Alex heard the sirens of emergency vehicles. She had a sick feeling, making her hand tremble as she jammed the cell phone harder against her ear. “Dad!”
“Alex, honey, there was an accident.” Alex’s father sounded all wrong. “I need you to get to Mills Hospital on the Peninsula right away. Okay?”
“Dad? What’s going on? Is Sasha all right? You’re really scaring me.”
“There was a fire. Aunt Nana has been taken to Mills. Can you get someone to drive you? Mom and I will meet you there.” There was more shuffling, and Alex heard someone tell her father to move. Alex’s father shouted something back, but it was muffled and she couldn’t understand what was being said. Then the line went dead.
Alex held the phone in front of her, hoping to get more information from the mute device. Her legs felt weak as she tried to stand. She needed to borrow a car. It was midday, mid-week, and everyone was in class. Alex had been about to go as well. She was minoring in Russian Literature, and her teacher didn’t make late arrivals welcome.
Her roommate’s keys were on top of her desk. And then they were in Alex’s hands–her subconscious mind had made the decision before she had. She would text an explanation later.
At this time of the day, UC Berkeley was at least an hour away from San Mateo–the small town on the San Francisco Peninsula where Mills Hospital was located. It would be at least an hour before Alex knew what was really going on.
She ran out the door.
The police officer had been trying to speak to the woman, Emma Orlov, but she was clearly in shock, unable to respond. Another officer had been managing the woman’s husband, Greg, trying to convince him to escort his wife away from the scene of the fire.
A neighbor called the rest of the family while the police started the evacuations of nearby homes. The house had already burned to the ground, but the fire stubbornly refused to go out, and the firemen worried it might jump to the neighboring structures.
There had been only one critical injury: an old lady they had pulled from the fire. An ambulance had already taken her to the hospital. However, Mr. Orlov insisted that their daughter was also in the house. The girl was autistic, he said, and mute except for her own name: “Sasha.” The firemen hadn’t been able to locate the girl, but at least there was no evidence that the girl had died in the fire–although it was too early to tell for sure. Still, an alert had been issued: “Svetlana Orlov, a nineteen-year-old special-needs woman, missing after house fire.”
“Sir? We’re going to have to ask you and your wife to leave now. It’s getting dark.”
“She’s in there somewhere,” the girl’s father said in a flat tone. “I know it. I dropped her off myself.”
The officer realized he wasn’t going to be able to get the parents to leave voluntarily. He looked around. The trauma center people should have been here already.
He looked back at the house. It was one of those old mansions built in a Spanish style almost a century ago–stucco and tile with a clay roof–one of the first constructions in the hills of San Mateo. It had been quite lovely, but now it looked like a bomb had exploded inside. Hardly anything was left standing. If there was a body in there, it might take a while to find it.
He shook his head. He had been one of the first on the scene and had been there when they pulled the elderly woman out. She said she was alone; she was adamant about it. She was badly burned, but before they took her away, she insisted that they get in touch with her lawyer. Strange, he thought at the time, but people tend to do strange things when their world goes up in flames.
Alex hated hospitals. The smell of death was always just barely noticeable underneath all the sparkling surfaces. Now she stood beside her great-aunt’s hospital bed. The woman was being kept alive by some futuristic spaceship-like life support system.
Alex turned to see a small man in an impeccably tailored conservative suit standing by the door of the intensive care unit.
“I’m Alex,” she said. Who is he?
“Alex. I’ve heard so much about you.” The man smiled like he was a family friend. Alex found the strange intimacy of his expression both unnerving and patronizing. Where are my parents? The hospital’s reception staff had informed her of the fire, but her parents had not responded to her texts or answered their cell phones.
“I haven’t heard of you. If you’ll excuse me, my Aunt Nana is in there.” Alex tried to maneuver around the man to get into the room.
“I know. Nadezhda Orlova asked me specifically to talk to you.”
“While in intensive care?” Alex was getting annoyed. She knew some people were drawn to tragedy, and this man was keeping her from going to see Aunt Nana. She looked around for a nurse or a doctor or an orderly–someone who could get rid of him. Only family was allowed on this floor, and Alex was sure he was not family.
“I can assure you that Ms. Orlova was very specific. If anything were to happen to her, I was to find you right away. You see, I represent your great-aunt’s estate–”
“Don’t you think this is a very inappropriate time?” Alex was horrified. She was only nineteen and dealing with a family emergency on her own. Where are Mom and Dad? She certainly wasn’t qualified to be dealing with legal implications right at this moment, if ever.
“I am here on Ms. Orlova’s instructions.”
Deciding to go ahead and be rude, Alex tried to push the man aside. But he wouldn’t budge–he was stronger than he looked.
“Alex.” He reached out to her, but she pulled away and stepped back. “It’s very important that I speak with you right away. Please.”
Alex was confused and frightened. There was no one around to help, and Aunt Nana was unconscious, swaddled in all that technology, beeping and whooshing, the music of death. “What do you want?” she asked.
“I want to talk to you about Sasha and your Orlov family in Russia,” the man said.
There had been no Orlovs in Russia for over half a century, as far as she knew. Except…
Alex almost sat on the floor–it was just too much. But the man took her by her elbow and guided her to an empty nursing station just down the hall. He deposited Alex into one of the two rolling chairs and sat in the other one.
“What do you want from me?” Alex asked at last. “And what do you know about Sasha?” Please tell me Sasha’s okay. Sasha was Alex’s identical twin. But while Alex was a vibrant young woman studying at the University of California in Berkeley, her sister was profoundly autistic. Aunt Nana was one of the few people Sasha responded to, and today would have been one of the days she spent with her, giving their mother a much-needed break.
The man opened a briefcase–one of those superfine leather ones that Alex always imagined were carried by old lawyers. He carefully took out an envelope and gently slid out a few old sepia photographs. Alex couldn’t help but lean over and look. And what she saw took her breath away.
The photos were faded yellow and obviously very old. And yet the faces staring back at her, through the veil of time, were familiar. Very familiar.
The biggest photograph, which also looked the oldest, showed young twin girls dressed in identical white old-fashioned dresses and wearing black shoes and stockings. They were the faces of her and her sister.
Alex wanted to say that these people were fluke lookalikes–girls from another generation who just happened to bear a striking similarity to her and her twin sister–but she knew what she saw. The one girl was clearly her, Alex, and the girl she was holding hands with was just as undoubtedly Sasha. They appeared to be about three or four years old.
Alex flipped through the pictures. Two smaller photos showed a woman and a man. The woman looked like Alex, but a bit older. The man she couldn’t quite identify, but he did look familiar.
And then Alex found a photo of herself that looked like it could have been taken today–except for the fur hat and collar and the high-necked white shirt. The Alex in this picture was her, at her current age. It was like looking into some faded mirror, some alternate reality.
Alex flipped the photo over. On the back, in Russian, was printed a name and date: “Alexandra Orlova, 1919.”
Boris Blackburg was observing Alex carefully, judging her emotional state and her ability to comprehend what he was telling her. She seemed very confused. He wasn’t surprised. This was the strangest assignment he had ever accepted. At first, he thought it was some silly notion of a well-to-do old woman. But as the years passed, he got to know Nadezhda well, and he liked the old woman, eccentricities and all. And as he got to know the Orlov family as well–vicariously, of course—the assignment grew more and more strange and intriguing.
Boris was also well compensated for his work. He was going to ensure Nadezhda’s wishes were followed. Alex Orlov would inherit her great-aunt’s estate and all the accompanying strangeness that came with it. He would make certain of it.
“Where did you get these?” Alex asked.
“Nadezhda, your Aunt Nana, gave these to me about eighteen years ago, shortly after you and Sasha were born.”
“I… I…” Alex seemed to want to say something, but couldn’t get it out. Boris was prepared to give her time, as long as her parents didn’t interfere with his mission by arriving too soon. At least the girl was now of age and the complications of guardianship had gone away–but he needed to complete his assignment before her parents arrived and complicated matters.
“Who’s the woman in this photo?” Alex pointed to a small black and white print of a man and a woman walking on the street. The image was very small, and it was difficult to identify the people, both of whom were wearing hats.
“Who do you think it is?” Boris asked. He knew, of course–Nadezhda had identified most of the photos for him, and there was information written on the back of most.
“I don’t know. But… it looks like… me?” Alex’s voice was small, barely audible.
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