“And then, to get at your grandmother’s brain, I would saw off the top of her skull.” Paul smiled at the sea of horrified faces. His students found twentieth century medicine utterly barbaric. Just hearing about historical surgery was disturbing, but he had also provided three dimensional illustrations. Poking a finger into the projection, he pulled the image out of the way and the next one slid up into view. “Today, it’s much simpler. The latest magnetometers can detect the magnetic field emitted by your brain from clear across the room. Direct electrical stimulation of the hippocampus can cause you to rapidly relive your memories as your life literally flashes before your eyes. We record the electrical activity of these memories, and…”
Christine was in the front row again. This week, her hair was pink. Her skirt was black and silver, a starry sky wrapped around her legs. Apparently she had just come from art class. Her neck and arms were sprinkled with blue specks, the results of her frantic, almost violent painting style. It looked as if the air conditioning were on too high again. She had goosebumps down her arms, and her nipples were…
Paul gave his head a quick shake, trying to clear his thoughts. “…and if grandma’s mind starts to slip in her old age, we have a backup file on the computer ready to go. Anything she forgets can be reinserted. And, looking at the clock, I can see our time is up. I’ll tell you about restoring memories next time.”
As the rest of the students bolted for the exits, Christine hopped down the auditorium steps. “Excuse me, Teach, I have a question about the homework.”
She peeked over her shoulder to make sure no one was looking in their direction, then stretched up to kiss his cheek. “I still can’t believe they made you a professor when you haven’t even finished your master’s yet. I’m dating such a smart boy!”
“Oh, stop, you flatter me. And distract me, too. When you come to my class, could you do me a favor and wear a bra?”
Laughing, Christine threw back her shoulders. “Hey, I’m going to show off the girls before gravity starts dragging me down. And speaking of being dragged down, you look tired. You need to relax more, mister. You shouldn’t be getting those frown lines at twenty-five.” She reached around his waist to give his rear end a quick squeeze. “Fortunately, parts of you are still pretty darn cute. I’ll see you tonight at the Indian place.”
A professor on a date with a young student could stir up awkward rumors, so they had chosen a restaurant across town, far from the prying eyes of the college administrators. Outside of class, Paul tried to limit how much they saw each other around campus. He didn’t even like her coming to his office.
That night, after some curry and sonti, they ended up back at Rooms With A View, a hotel by the highway. The “view” was the side of a parking garage, but the curtains were nice. While he checked in at the front desk, she nuzzled his neck and stroked the stubble on his cheek. As they strolled arm in arm to the elevator, one desk clerk whispered to another, “It’s that guy’s third time here this week. Do you think his wife knows?”
~ ~ ~
Late that night, Paul dropped Christine back at her dorm and headed home. His wife had fallen asleep on the couch. Again. She had left the projector in the coffee table running. An old detective movie was floating in the center of the room. It was one she had seen at least thirty times. She didn’t even bother seeking out new films anymore.
He walked down the hall to the den and checked his email. He had the usual messages from students requesting deadline extensions or grade adjustments, and academic journals asking him to review neuroscience papers. He logged in to his secret email account, the one he had created at the start of the previous semester. A new email from Christine.
“Hi Mom! All of my college friends are busy, so I’d like to just come home for fall break. Will you ask Dad to make his famous chicken chili? How ’bout it, toots? – C.”
Paul typed a quick reply. “Sorry, sweetie, but we’re having that trouble with termites again. Your father wants to fumigate. No one can be in the house for two weeks. Maybe you can come home next semester. Love you! – Mom.”
~ ~ ~
The following morning, Christine was sitting in the cafeteria with her friend Rachel, a pre-med student. Rachel was still wearing her scrubs from her shift at the school’s free clinic. Pediatric Medical Assistant was the only job where you could show up to work in what looked like teddy bear pajamas.
“And they’re having the house fumigated for bugs, again,” Christine moaned. “I’m so disappointed! I can’t even remember the last time I got to see Mom. It feels like forever.”
Rachel blew the steam from her coffee. “Could be worse. I wish I didn’t have to see my mom. The rich bitch drinks so much, she had to have her liver regrown last year. She used to hardly drink at all, but when I became an adult, she stopped acting like one. She’s blown so much on booze and surgeries that now she says we don’t have the money to copy my dog. The house is so lonely since he died.”
“You really miss that dog that much? What did you name him again?”
“…Bitey.” Rachel sighed. “But the copy would be just a puppy, so he wouldn’t really be able to hurt anyone for at least a year. And even then, only people I hate. By the way, did I tell you Mom still hasn’t gotten Dad a new finger?”
~ ~ ~
Christine spent fall break alone, painting a mural on the wall of her dorm room. A golden skinned goddess greeting the dawn on a crystal beach, the sun rising between her legs. After days of marathon painting sessions, she decided to dye her hair a brilliant orange. The new color was ready just in time for her to change clothes and run to her first class.
That night, she met Paul at the Indian restaurant to share some rogan josh. She tried to keep the conversation on current events, to avoid having to admit she hadn’t done anything exciting. Thankfully, she didn’t have to steer the conversation for long, as he was eager to leave for the hotel.
When they stepped into the lobby, she headed to the restroom while he checked in. “Sir,” the desk clerk sniffed, “there seems to be a problem with your account.”
“Try it again,” Paul insisted.
“I could, sir, but perhaps you would have better luck at another hotel? I know of one downtown that might suit you better. The staff there are very… understanding… of the kind of ‘arrangement’ you have with your lady friend.”
Paul rested his hands on the counter, to give them something to grab besides the clerk’s neck. “She is my girlfriend, not a damned hooker.”
The clerk attempted to force a smile, but decided the strain on his facial muscles was too great. “Of course, sir. Personally, it doesn’t matter to me either way, but the owner insists that we start cracking down on this sort of thing. Now, are you able to locate the exit by yourself, or should I have Lars in security show you the way?”
Paul swatted a jar of pens off the counter and turned to leave. Christine was heading for the elevators, but he grabbed her arm and pulled her the opposite direction. “We’re going.”
“What? But we haven’t fooled around yet!”
“Never you mind that. We just have to go.”
Pulling away, she planted her feet on the tile. “No, tell me why.”
Sighing, he explained the misunderstanding. “So, please, just behave and don’t make a scene. I don’t want anyone to get wind of this. Getting caught sleeping with a student would be bad enough. It would be far, far worse to have people think I was paying for the privilege.”
“Okay, I’ll be a good girl, but this is hysterical.” As they headed to the door, the desk clerk was busily checking in a line of customers. She called across the lobby, “ Alright, fine, we’re leaving! But you still owe me $40 for that handy!”
~ ~ ~
They found another hotel a few miles away. This room was much smaller, but the bathtub was big enough for the both of them. After some relaxation, Paul reached for his phone and ordered a pizza. When the delivery driver knocked on the door, Christine hopped out of the tub and grabbed a towel and Paul’s wallet.
“Wait!” he said. “I’ll get the door.”
“Don’t worry, I’ve got it.” She plopped the box on the nightstand and casually flipped through his wallet. Business cards, credit cards, the fortune from last week’s Chinese food, driver’s license. “Paul, why does your ID say you’re thirty-three?”
He stepped in to the room, wrapping a towel around his waist. “I can explain.”
“Why would you lie about how old you are? Do you really think I’m that shallow?”
“I… I didn’t…”
“I would have dated you anyway. I don’t care about your age, just don’t lie. Never, ever lie to me.” She flung his wallet at his face. “Go home. I want to be alone. I’ll have Rachel take me back to campus in the morning.”
Wordlessly, he finished toweling off and pulled on his clothes. On his way out, he stopped by the front desk and asked that room service send up breakfast in the morning. “French toast and orange juice, and one of those plates of fruit cut into flowers.”
“Of course, sir.”
This late at night, the streets were virtually empty, save for a few automated taxis running their endless loops from hotels to the airport and back again. He drove aimlessly for hours, waiting for his mind and stomach to settle. When he finally pulled in to his driveway, the first rays of sunlight were skimming the tops of distant trees. He slipped in to the house, feeling his way down the hall. His wife always woke up if he turned on the light. He hung his coat in the front closet, next to the cardboard boxes filled with her half-finished paintings and other art projects waiting for the “someday” they would be completed.
He crept to the bedroom, undressed in the dark, and slipped into bed. She rolled over, her arm plopping across his chest. “Oh!” she sighed. “When did you get here?”
“Ages ago, darling.”
“I didn’t feel you get in bed.”
“You don’t feel a lot of things you used to,” he thought.
~ ~ ~
The food cart rolled up to the table, chirped twice, and recited their order in its tinny voice. “Two colas, two bowls of orange chicken, and six spring rolls.”
Rachel grabbed the tray and gave the robot a pat. “Thank you, boy. Always such great service.”
“It’s nicer when there’s a person to smile at you,” Christine grumbled.
“He would smile, if he had a face!” Rachel folded a napkin into a grinning mouth and offered it to the food cart, but it didn’t accept the gift. “And what about you, Chris? Why are you such a glum bum?”
“I tried to call a friend from back home, but it was a wrong number.” She shook her head. “That’s seven of my friends who’ve changed their numbers without telling me. How did I lose touch with so many people? I only went to college. I’m not circumnavigating the globe in a balloon.”
“That’s how life is. The people you like change into something else, but the people you hate stay the same forever. If your old friends don’t want to keep in touch, you should touch someone else. Go on some dates! Mingle ’till you find that tingle!”
“Actually, I am seeing someone… a professor. I’ve been dating Paul Hudson in the neurology department since last semester. He doesn’t want anyone from school to see us together, so we have to drive all over town looking for safe places to tingle together.”
Rachel wrinkled her nose. “That’s ridiculous. They wouldn’t fire him for dating a student. It’s just frowned upon, not scowled angrily at. You’re over eighteen, for Pete’s saké. …Maybe getting fired isn’t what he’s scared of. …Maybe he’s married!”
Christine rolled her eyes. “Oh, sure, that’s probably it. He’s teaching six classes this semester. He barely has time for me, let alone a wife.” But doubt gnawed at her mind. What was Paul really afraid of? Was there something in his home he didn’t want her to see?
Paul had office hours after lunch. He would be busy meeting with students on campus, and his house would be empty. Hopefully. She stopped at her dorm room to drop off her backpack and headed for the bridge that connected the main campus to “the village”, the university’s terraced houses where graduate students and faculty members stayed.
There were bits of fence post along river, marking a hiking path that was no longer there. Over the years, the river had worn away its banks, and most of the path had collapsed into the water. Crossing the bridge, she came to a long, tree-lined cul-de-sac. As she walked, she read the plaques on the mail boxes until she found the one that said “Hudson”. Wringing her hands, she climbed the steps to the porch. “Well, here we go. It’s not snooping if I just happen to find a gap in the curtains, right?”
A woman was sitting with her back to the window, leaning over a coffee table. The table was running a game. A tiny spaceship hovered in the air, a field of asteroids rushing towards it. The woman leaned back and forth on the couch, her cascade of black hair swaying as the ship followed her movements. Just thinking about moving was enough, but some people couldn’t maintain a high enough level of concentration. She wasn’t quite fast enough, and an asteroid slammed into her ship. It shattered like a stained glass window. The woman kicked over the table, the game fizzling out.
With an exasperated grunt, she pushed herself up off the couch. As she turned to stand the table back upright, Christine caught a glimpse of her face. “Oh my god!”
~ ~ ~
“Do you know what you want to eat?” Paul asked. Christine had insisted on going to dinner early, so the restaurant would be nearly empty.
“I was thinking lamb korma, a mango lassi, and how long have you been married?”
“What?” Paul choked. “’How long have I been married?’”
She sighed. “You’re repeating the question to buy time until you can think of a lie.”
He tossed the menu on the table, nearly knocking over their water glasses. “You went to my house. Did you talk to her?”
“No, but I saw her. She looks just like me. Or I’ll look like her, in another ten years and thirty pounds. And here I thought the point of adultery was to try something new, not to have a younger version of the wife you’re sick of fucking.”
He gestured for her to lower her voice. “I swear, Christine, I’m not married. The woman you saw is an old friend who’s been visiting me for a few days. To be honest, having her here has been torture. I’ve spent half my adult life drowning in love for her, only to discover that she prefers the company of other women. So, after years of hoping, I decided to look for someone to replace her. I took her photo and used facial recognition software from a security firm to search the web for a woman who with similar features. That’s how I found you. So I applied to the master’s program here and ‘accidentally’ bumped into you at the cafeteria.”
“I don’t know how to react,” she said. “Do you even like me, or am I just the the next best thing?”
“I love you! I always -”
“I don’t want to talk to you right now. I’m going to take an autocab home.”
~ ~ ~
Christine skipped all of her classes, spending the day at home watching television. Every couple of hours, she tried to call her mom at home, but the call kept going to voice mail. Finally, she gave up on the phone and wrote her mom a long email about everything that had happened between her and Paul, omitting the part about him being one of her professors. Moments after clicking “send”, she had a reply.
“Darling, I’m so sorry I missed your call. I dropped my phone in the hot tub yesterday. As for this Paul fellow, he sounds like he really cares for you. I would just try to forgive him.”
Paul sighed and switched off his computer. “I hope that works.”
~ ~ ~
“Mom always told me that lies are sandbags holding back rising flood waters. If you hear someone lie, you should get out of there before you drown.” She reread the email, trying to imagine her mother saying the same things in person. “No, it just doesn’t make any sense. Paul tells me he loves me because I remind him of the woman he really wants, and I’m just supposed to take it as a compliment?”
“It’s not fair to let that woman go on thinking their relationship is honest and platonic. She needs to know what Paul is really like. I have to talk to her.” As she started for the village, a cold wind pushed against her. Her skirt flapped like a bird caught in a storm. When she finally reached his door, her finger refused to push the bell. “…Eventually. First, I should see if she’s home.”
She turned to the window, peering through a slit in the curtains. The other woman was sitting on the couch, her back to the window. The coffee table was projecting a movie into the air. The woman had her hair in a high ponytail, revealing a constellation of freckles on the back of her neck, a near perfect Andromeda. Christine knew almost nothing about constellations, but she would have recognized that pattern anywhere. The skin on her own neck was a perfect match.
“That’s impossible,” Rachel said. She pushed away her plate and rested her elbow on the table. “Clones start out as babies, just like everyone else. How old are you?”
“Did that woman look over twenty years older than you?”
“No. Maybe eight, ten years older.”
“See? You’d have to be in grade school! So it didn’t happen.”
Christine waved over the robot food cart and shoved their empty plates into the slot in its chest. It chirped appreciatively. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe it’s a coincidence. Lots of people have freckles.”
As she walked back to her dorm room, the image of the mystery woman’s skin tumbled through her mind. Was it really the same as her own? Perhaps she had seen a few dark spots and her imagination had filled in the rest. “But I’m not crazy. Paul’s the one who’s been acting strange. Maybe he has more secrets he hasn’t shared.”
She plopped on the bed, pulled her scroll from her pocket, and unrolled it. The scroll was a thin, eighteen inch square of white plastic. One corner was market with a thumb print. When she grabbed the corner and squeezed, the scroll became as stiff as a sheet of glass and began to glow.
The scroll automatically opened her web browser to her last visited page, the college library. Searching for “Paul Hudson” turned up results in dozens of academic journals. The earliest articles were about his research into Werner syndrome, a rare disease that caused premature aging. His experiments had managed to simulate the symptoms in mice, accelerating the aging process so that they were born, grew to adulthood, and reached old age in three weeks. Unfortunately, his funding had been cut off before he could actually find a cure.
She flipped back to the first page of the article. Oddly, the byline listed Paul as “Dr. Paul Hudson, PhD.” Could it have been his father? No, the picture was definitely her Paul. “The goddamn liar. But what do I do about it? Rachel would just tell me to dump the chump and move on. But what’s his motivation? I can imagine someone lying about having a doctorate, but to lie about not having one… I just need to get away from campus for a bit, clear my head. Maybe I’ll go see Mom.”
~ ~ ~
Christine awoke early the next morning, packed an overnight bag, and called an autocab. The trip home was a four hour drive through corn fields, forest, and little, bump in the road country towns. The house was a red and white Queen Anne, built nearly a century earlier by one of the wealthiest families in the state. Since then, it had been sold and split into apartments.
She hopped up the stone steps to the porch and hit the buzzer for the apartment on the top floor. “Hi, Mom! I’m here to crash for the night!”
“Hello? Who’s that, then?” It was a woman’s voice, but not her mother’s.
“Oh, I’m sorry. I must have pressed the wrong button. I was trying to buzz my mother in unit 3, Samantha McCoy.”
“This is unit 3, but there’s no one here by that name.”
“Are… are you sure?”
The woman laughed. “Yes, I think I would have noticed. Was she the brunette with the glasses who used to live here? Tell her to come pick up her old paint cans. They’ve been sitting in my closet for nearly a year!”
Christine suddenly felt very ill. “I was right,” she thought. “I know what he did.” Aloud, she said, “Can you call me a cab?”
~ ~ ~
Christine stepped into Paul’s office and slid into the leather chair in front of his great, oaken desk. He was busily writing notes in a scroll. “Hello, Doctor Hudson.”
“You know you’re not supposed to see me outside of class,” he said, not looking up. “You are normally so well behaved. This is rather disappointing.”
“I’m not sure I understand some of the material from earlier this semester. When you scan an elderly person’s brain to preserve their memory, the memories are copied to computer files, right? Almost like a video?”
“And, after their memory starts to go, you restore it from the copy.” She picked up a letter opener from a tray on the desk and examined her reflection in the blade. “Do you have to use the whole file, or can you cut parts out?”
Paul switched off the scroll and jammed it into a drawer. “The whole point of the technology,” he snapped, “is to preserve the memories. Why would the medical team erase them?”
“I don’t know. Why would you?”
“Young lady, you are confused. Why don’t I sign you up with a tutor?”
She thrust the blade at his face. “I got a good, close look at the woman at your house. I know I’m her clone. You gave me her memories, but only part of the file. Why? Tell me everything, or I swear to god – I see you reaching for the security button under your desk. Go ahead. Push it. The guard can help pull the letter opener out of your eye.”
He placed his hands on the desk. “You have absolutely no reason to be angry. If imitation is flattery, cloning is close to worship. You, my dear, are a shrine to a goddess who is no longer worthy of her priest.”
Ignoring her threats, he pushed himself up from the chair and stepped over to the window. “I met the first Christine about eight years ago, when she was a sophomore and I was working on my master’s. Sun dress, paint splatters, and so much potential. She was going to spark a surrealist revival, open an art gallery, see the world and set it on fire. She was exciting and dangerous, everything I wasn’t.”
He sighed deeply. “A year later, I asked her to marry me. I thought she would stay the woman I fell in love with forever, like a butterfly pinned up for display. But, after college, she crawled back into her cocoon. She settled for a meaningless, nothing job and let it suck the marrow from her bones. She abandoned her art, stopped reading, stopped growing, and gave up everything that made her worthwhile. So, late one night, I took a hair from her brush and drove out to the research facility, where I grew a new Christine. Using the accelerated aging techniques I developed, it took just a couple of weeks to transform you from an infant to a young woman. I made you Christine at her prime, back when she was still a firework waiting to explode.”
“I convinced the first Christine to volunteer in the lab’s memory research. I went through a copy of her file, editing everything that had happened in the last eight years. I left the current date and who the president was, but removed everything personal, including our relationship. Even though you didn’t have your own Social Security number, as a department head at the university, I was able to change a few forms and enroll you without one. As far as her parents were concerned, their daughter had left college years ago, so I’ve been paying your tuition myself.”
“How old am I, really?”
“About nine months.”
“So, I’ve been at college for my entire life.” She slumped in her chair and let the letter opener clatter to the floor. “The closest thing I have to a parent is you. I’ve never actually met my mother. I’ve probably never even spoken to her.”
He smiled warmly. “But the need for that charade is over. I’m back with the woman I fell in love with! I can teach you her mistakes, so you don’t have to make them. You can be better than her. We can be better, together.”
She shook her head. “I’ll still become her, eventually.”
“No,” he said simply. “I won’t allow it.”
Without her own Social Security number, she couldn’t get a job, or switch to another school. She couldn’t get her own legal identity without revealing to the world that she was a clone, and a ground-breaking one at that. Everyone would want to study Paul’s creation. She would end up spending the rest of her life as a lab rat. What else could she do?
A few weeks later, Paul left his wife and they moved across the state. Christine didn’t want to leave, but Paul insisted that it was the only way to be sure his wife would never discover their secret. He took a position at a teaching hospital, and she stayed at home painting.
As the years flowed by, she managed to put the past out of her mind. She didn’t love Paul, not really, but there were quiet moments where she was almost content. Her painting technique improved, and she took up landscapes. Paul thought they were dull, even trite, but they gave her a kind of peace.
She poured her collection of hair dyes in the sink, taking photos of the rainbow swirling down the drain. Gradually, her hair reverted to its natural black. One impulsive afternoon, she chopped most of it off, leaving herself with a short pixie cut.
She spent an entire summer standing nude in the middle of the bedroom, working on a self-portrait. She meticulously recreated every detail of her body, from the faint beginning of crow’s feet at the corner of her eyes to the belly that had gotten a bit rounder from too many Indian buffets. The masterwork finished, she decided to reward herself with a few hours of mental oblivion in front of the television.
That night, a sound pulled her out of a deep sleep. She opened her eyes to find Paul across the hallway, standing in the bathroom, sliding her toothbrush into a glass test tube.