Most peoples’ soulmate tattoos emerged during puberty, but the Blossom twins had always been precocious. They were born with theirs. Clifford Blossom stood at his wife’s head, squeezing her hand, as they waited for the doctor to hand their babies over from the other side of the screen that shielded them from view of Penelope’s Caesarean section.
The girl emerged first: red-faced, red-haired, and squalling. The boy came next: also red-haired, but pale, and eerily silent.
“They’re healthy,” said the doctor, his voice short.
Two clean babies rested on their mother’s chest. Once the new family was alone, Clifford looped his son’s tiny hand around his finger. He would not be so pedestrian as to marvel over the tiny translucent fingernails. He would instill the importance of a firm handshake early on.
Clifford lifted his finger, uncurling Jason’s left wrist; when he did so, a small, red maple leaf was revealed. Penelope’s breath caught. “Check the other one,” she ordered, and Clifford uncurled his daughter’s wrist to find an identical red maple leaf.
This explained the doctor’s discomfort. Almost no one came out of the womb with a tattoo, but the phenomenon wasn’t unheard of.
Twins born with the same tattoo, though.
“They’re Blossoms through and through,” whispered Penelope. “They’ll always have each other.”
“Still,” said Clifford.
“Still,” agreed Penelope. “It won’t do to let the world know just yet.”
The Blossom children grew up wearing long sleeves and, in Cheryl’s case, gloves. The official story was that they sunburned easily, and were merely covering up. But cuffs don’t always stay in place. No one in Riverdale would say the words aloud in polite company, but everybody knew.
Nana Rose always told Cheryl she had nothing to worry about, that she should be proud of the connection she and Jason shared. And, like the foolish child she was, Cheryl believed her.
“Most people never find their soulmates, you know,” Nana Rose said. “Most people just have to make do the best they can. You and Jason are special, Cheryl.”
“Was Papa Franklin your soulmate, Nana Rose?” She knew he had been, but loved hearing the story anyway.
Nana Rose extended her wrinkled, veiny left wrist and tapped the underside gently with her right index finger. Her tattoo was long gone; of course, it had disappeared when Papa Franklin passed.
“We weren’t soulmates at first,” Nana Rose said. “My tattoo was a rosebush, of course. A beautiful yellow rosebush in full bloom.”
“What was Papa Franklin’s?”
“A single red rose.” Nana Rose smiled, and her eyes grew soft and distant, like she was looking at something Cheryl simply couldn’t see. “But he was so handsome, your grandfather. We felt we had a chance. I had never met anyone with any kind of rose tattoo at all, you see.”
“Why, his rose grew into a bush, and my yellow flowers turned red.”
She smiled, and Cheryl could almost picture it in her mind’s eye: the roses, transforming. She saw it in the fractured, stained-glass animation that opened Beauty and the Beast, a movie Cheryl personally hated.
Clifford and Penelope Blossom rarely let their tattoos show, but Cheryl knew her mother bore a maple tree in spring on her left wrist and her father bore a maple tree in fall on his. She desperately wanted to know whether her parents’ tattoos had ever matched exactly, but even six-year-old Cheryl knew better than to ask that question.
Instead she snuck into Jason’s bedroom that night, which she wasn’t supposed to do.
“Can I stay here, Jay-Jay?” she asked. He nodded, and they set up their usual blanket fort on his bed. Cheryl grabbed the flashlight from his nightstand, and Jason grabbed the book he kept under his pillow. She held the flashlight steady and read over his shoulder, anxiously reassuring herself that their tattoos remained the same every time he turned a page.
The hottest gossip at Riverdale Junior High concerned tattoos, always. Who had started to get outlines. Who had started to develop shading or patterns. Whether anyone matched.
(They were twelve. No one ever matched exactly. You could compare your wrist to the hundreds of thousands of others on any given tattoo-matching app, and you still wouldn’t find an exact match, if you were twelve.)
That Cheryl and Jason Blossom had had fully inked, matching tattoos since birth was an open secret. It gave them a certain social clout, but then, so did their money and their family’s reputation. The matching tattoos also made them a little bit scary and weird. But then, so did their money and their family’s reputation.
For some reason, the “scary and weird” part of the equation fell almost entirely on Cheryl, while Jason got all the social clout. Undoubtedly this had something to do with his sports prowess. To Cheryl’s dismay, he had joined Pop Warner football, and was proving to be quite the quarterback. Just that week, a girl had come up to Jason in the lunch room and waved her left wrist at him.
“That’s a strawberry,” Cheryl snapped. “Not even close.” The girl hurried off, tears in her eyes.
Jason shot her a look, and she rolled her eyes.
“Just saving you the trouble,” she told him.
It was decidedly unfair, that when you were a boy and a good athlete and you said something like that, everyone laughed and admired you more, but when you were a girl and didn’t play sports and you did it, everyone whispered behind their backs about how mean you were.
She got her first period midway through the school year, and spent the next six months obsessively checking her tattoo for any sign of a change. It remained as it always had, and every time she confirmed that fact, she breathed a sigh of relief.
Cheryl noticed that the leaves had started to fall off the maple tree on her father’s wrist.
“I noticed it too,” Jason said one night, after Cheryl’s eyes had flicked from Clifford’s wrist to Jason during dinner. He’d come into her bedroom and was perched at the edge of her bed, watching closely as she brushed her usual hundred strokes. He had always been fascinated by the flow and drape of her silk bathrobe’s wide sleeves.
“What do you think it means?”
Jason shrugged. “You know as well as I do that they’re not getting along as well as they used to.” He reached for the heavy silver-backed hairbrush. “Your arm must be getting tired, Cher,” he said, pulling it from her grasp. “Let me finish.”
She turned her back to him, and closed her eyes as he gently completed the hundred strokes. When he was done, he wordlessly placed the hairbrush back on her vanity, then dropped a tender kiss on the top of her head before going to his own room.
“You’re doing what?” she hissed at Jason. Blood, hot, angry blood, surged through her veins.
“I’m asking Polly to the back-to-school dance.” His voice was calm, as though this was normal. As though the Blossom twins had gotten to their junior year of high school by abandoning each other at crucial moments or in crucial social situations. As though it was normal to ask a girl to the back-to-school dance before school had even started. She knew that it wasn’t, even though no one had ever asked Cheryl to a dance.
“Her tattoo is a freaking mess, Jason.” It was true. She knew it well, having seen it during many River Vixens practices. Polly’s tattoo, which was of nothing, looked like it had been designed by a right-handed kindergartner who had been forced to color both left-handed and blindfolded. It was one of the reasons Cheryl had resolved to keep her in the back this year, now that she was in charge.
“It’s abstract,” said Jason.
“There’s nothing about it that looks remotely close to a maple leaf.”
“What does this have to do with tattoos?” Jason ran a hand through his hair. “I like Polly, as a person. I’m going to ask her to the dance. There’s no rule that you have to do everything with your soulmate just because you know who your soulmate is.”
“I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to, Jay-Jay,” she said, quietly.
This voice usually worked on Jason, on the rare occasions she needed to use a voice on him. But tonight, he merely looked at her.
“Cher, we can’t do everything together for the rest of our lives.”
Aside from those pesky future obligations like marrying and producing Blossom heirs, Cheryl failed to see why not. Let Riverdale talk, again, about how the Blossom twins had attended a dance as each other’s dates. It was none of their business.
She thought about calling Tina Patel, her H.B.I.Backup and the closest thing she had to a friend, but decided it wasn’t worth it. Tina had never been very good at absorbing Cheryl’s wrath.
Unfortunately, this meant Cheryl’s newfound animosity towards the previously too-boring-to-bother-with Polly Cooper was still in full force when Polly’s little sister made the mistake of showing up at River Vixens tryouts. Cheryl narrowed her eyes at the girl. She was a little shorter than Polly, perhaps equally eager to please, and much less put together. Tina and Ginger had, Cheryl presumed, conspired to deliberately give her shorts that were a size too small; it was true that the girl still had a little baby fat around the edges, but not enough to account for that level of bulging.
“Nice work, ladies,” she muttered, sotto voce, as Betty Cooper stepped forward to eagerly and nervously perform a routine of uninspiring spasms. When it was over, Cheryl gestured for the girl to come forward.
Frankly, there was no way Betty Cooper would have made the River Vixens even if Cheryl hadn’t been simmering over Polly all weekend. This legitimately had nothing to do with Betty’s baby fat; Cheryl knew a few weeks of practices would knock that right off. The problem was that Betty didn’t have the fire for it, which was what she intended to say. But then she glanced at Betty’s left wrist, and nearly snorted.
Perhaps if Cheryl hadn’t seen the absurd vanilla milkshake that lined the girl’s skin, she wouldn’t have been so cruel in her dismissal.
“It’s all a little too season five Betty Draper,” she said, whipping her hair expertly behind her head before she exited the gym, Tina and Ginger in lockstep behind her. She was half a basketball court away when an outburst of chatter indicated that everyone in the room had finally gotten it.
She heard rumors, later, that there had been a certain blonde freshman crying in the locker room.
The part of Cheryl that knew what it felt like to have everyone look at you like you were a freak felt, maybe, a little bad. After all, it wasn’t like Betty Cooper had ever done anything to her, except make her watch a bad audition.
The part of Cheryl that knew what it felt like to draw power from having everyone look at you like you were a freak—well, that part hoped Betty Cooper had learned a valuable lesson.
The next morning, Cheryl calmly walked into school and informed Chuck Clayton that he would be her consort to the back-to-school dance.
If he had objections, he was smart enough not to say so.
Jason appeared at the foot of her bed in the middle of the night. He was wearing white silk pajamas and carrying a lit candelabra, so Cheryl forgave herself for the shriek she emitted when her eyes opened.
“Jesus Christ, Jason,” she said, sitting up. She switched on her bedside lamp, and Jason immediately looked less like a creepy apparition.
“Flashlight batteries ran out.”
“So stumble around in the dark like a normal person. There’s no need to go all Banquo.” Why the hell did he even have Nana Rose’s favorite candelabra handy? Things had been tense since Clifford had actively stepped up the heir-to-the-family-fortune game, but even Cheryl wasn’t sure they merited this level of melodrama.
He set the candelabra next to her lamp and crawled into bed with her, and a tiny thrill ran down her spine. They hadn’t shared a bed since before he started seeing Polly; it wasn’t like they’d done so often in the past few years, but she still missed his occasional presence.
She started stroking his hair, noticing as she did that what had started out as small bags under his eyes were now enormous and purple. “What’s the matter, Jay-Jay?”
“You have to promise not to be mad at me, Cheryl,” he said, quietly. “I didn’t mean for this to happen.”
“You can tell me anything, you know that. I could never be mad at you.” She smiled at her brother. “We’re soulmates, after all.”
For some reason, this made Jason flinch. “That’s the thing.”
He sat up straight and peeled back the left cuff of his pajamas, and Cheryl felt as though she’d been run over by a thousand toppling maple syrup barrels.
Jason’s wrist now sported the scribblings of a blindfolded kindergartner.
It had been a week and two days since Cheryl had emerged dripping wet from Sweetwater River and announced that her beloved brother had been swept away, presumed drowned. She felt the entire town’s eyes on her everywhere she went, and more harshly than usual. She had been expecting that.
She had not been expecting to feel quite as empty as she felt.
She definitely had not been expecting a crazy person to hail her from the woods behind Pop’s Chocklit Shoppe.
“Cheryl!” screeched a female voice. “Cheryl, thank god. Thank god I found you.”
“Show yourself,” she ordered, widening her stance just a little bit. Today’s stilettos were not meant for self-defense situations, but she could handle things if she needed to.
“Cheryl, it’s me. Polly.”
“Polly. Polly Cooper? Polly Cooper, who decided not to answer her phone for the last two weeks?”
“It wasn’t my fault. My parents sent me away. Cheryl, please, I need to talk to you.”
“Fine,” said Cheryl, rolling her eyes. Polly was hysterical, no doubt, believing Jason to be dead. She stepped back into the trees, daring the ground to mess with her shoes.
Polly Cooper stood there dressed in the saddest, rattiest blue pinafore Cheryl had ever seen. She was bruised from head to toe, or possibly just filthy, and her face and arms and legs were scratched.
“This couture is a bit much even for you, Pollikins. Where are we shopping these days, The Sound Of Music?”
“Yes! I’ve been in a convent,” Polly said, as though this was a sentence that made sense. “Cheryl, I have to tell you—I’m so sorry.”
“About Jason? Yes, it’s been a difficult time.”
“No, I mean…I know the canoe thing was faked. It was all part of a plan. But something happened two days ago.” Polly held out her left wrist, her eyes massive and unblinking. “Jason’s really dead.”
Her tattoo had disappeared.
Months had passed. Jason’s body had been recovered. An enormously pregnant Polly Cooper was back with her mother, refusing to let Cheryl see her anymore; apparently, there were only so many times Polly was willing to let someone else hysterically claw bright red fingernails through the blank spot on her left wrist. Her father was dead by his own hand.
The same hand that had killed Jason.
Cheryl’s maple leaf had been slowly turning pale, but on the day she learned what her father had done, it lost color completely. Now it was a smudge of its former self. Not even a shadow, really. Just a smudge.
For some reason the Sad Breakfast Club had decided to adopt her. If it was possible to scorn pity and feel grateful for it at the same time, Cheryl was doing that. She watched them now as they all sat around her at lunch. Betty Cooper’s vanilla milkshake wore a crown now, and Cheryl wondered if there was something about the Cooper girls that made them particularly susceptible to shifting soulmates. She hadn’t known exactly what Jughead’s tattoo had looked like before, but she knew the crown had been part of it; his left wrist, or what she could see of it, now bore a crown wearing a vanilla milkshake. The inanity of it made her want to punch them both.
Veronica Lodge and Archie Andrews sat next to each other. They were clearly boning. That was as much as Cheryl cared to think about them.
“How’s your wrist doing, Cheryl?” Betty asked sympathetically. Always with the sympathy, that one.
Cheryl shrugged. “See for yourself,” she said, holding it out.
Betty’s face screwed up in a way that indicated she was trying not to wince, but Veronica—Veronica took hold of Cheryl’s wrist and peered closely at it.
“Funny,” she said lightly. “You know, mine’s been…” She held it out, next to Cheryl’s, so close their arms touched.
Veronica had moved to Riverdale with a string of pearls around her neck and a string of pearls on her wrist. Now her tattoo pearls had lost their luster, and their definition.
Even Jughead seemed interested. “You’re both Rorschach tests,” he deadpanned.
Cheryl looked up, and her eyes locked on Veronica’s.