In the beginning, there were only seven of her.
Perfect reproductions, each and every one, from the proud, particular curve of her nose right down to the swollen knuckle on her left thumb (the result of a childhood break). The detail was astounding — even the freckles matched up. I had mapped out their constellations on the only copy we’d ever managed to kill, along with any other microscopic feature I could think of: spacing of the teeth, taste buds, placement and pattern of hair follicles on the scalp. All of the measurements came out perfectly equal. Zero deviation. It seemed like each replica had been constructed atom by atom, cell by cell; the most advanced laboratory in the world wouldn’t have been able to tell one from the other.
Or from the real thing.
It was a small comfort that this last part was only true in autopsy. Alive, the copies couldn’t have been more recognizable. They were physically identical to Joan — eerily so, every detail in its place — but in person, they were as vacant and unsettling as abandoned houses. When the copies looked at you, their gazes were empty, searching, like the beam from a lighthouse: even through the two-way mirrors, they always seemed to find my face.
Also, they couldn’t speak. When they tried, it came out in soft clicks, tongue against teeth, like broken machinery. (At night, you could hear it through the walls: an out-of-time chorus, click, click, click.) The dead copy’s brain had nothing to tell me about that — when I prodded it open, I found the Wernicke’s and Broca’s areas whole and undamaged, loops of gray fat raveled tight around a secret I couldn’t understand. Even the vocal cords and tongue looked perfectly formed. Joan told me that the copies had never shown any signs of understanding one another; if the clicks did serve a purpose, it was more akin to a wolf’s howl than a language, a mournful, echoing cry of I am not alone.
I was rarely allowed to see them. Joan owned a sprawling, run-down white colonial in rural Missouri, the only inheritance she had received from her parents when they died — she kept the copies there, each in their own personal room, with boarded-up windows and a big, ugly deadbolt on every door. (They had to be separated, Joan told me, though she wouldn’t explain why.) No one but Joan was permitted to enter those rooms. It was only after I begged her and begged her that she installed a two-way mirror in each wall — a viewing window — so that I could get some idea of what she was so afraid of.
To this day, I regret asking for that mirror.
Not because I wish I had never seen the copies — even now, they still fascinate me — but because of the presumptive nature of a two-way mirror, the dangerous sort of entitlement it creates. It allowed me to take for granted the fact that I was watching something that couldn’t watch me back.
Joan never told me exactly what happened.
All I know is, in the beginning, there were seven of her, and one day I drove down to the house in Missouri and found that the guest room was locked, the linen closet gutted and carefully sealed, and one of the bathrooms had been walled off — three new copies, sprung from somewhere or something I didn’t want to know. Joan told me that it was under control, and that there was no danger anymore, even though I often caught her asleep in front of the newly bolted doors, shotgun sagging against her chest, her breathing deep and strange. Whenever that happened, I could always look up and find the copy watching — or, not watching exactly, since they couldn’t have been able to see her. But… looking.
In seven years, only one of the copies has ever escaped, and that was the one we killed.
I barely even remember that night anymore, as hard as I’ve tried to dredge it up. It comes to me sometimes, when I’m trying to sleep, as a sequence of disjointed images: a hand grasping mine, the oily stock of a gun, a snapshot of pitch-black sky. That pale face in the darkness, glowing like a dim moon — the way it loped, inhuman, over the dead grass on the plains, its body familiar but its movements so utterly strange — and most of all its eyes. Its awful, ancient goddamned eyes. They met mine for the first time across a hundred yards of prairie, and despite their emptiness, I swore I saw the slightest flicker of recognition in them.
Those eyes… they were not right.
Joan still won’t tell me how we killed it. I scoured the body during the autopsy but couldn’t find a bullet — not even a bruise. The lack of closure needled at me for years afterward. Joan did describe to me, as a treat, the sound that it made when it died: a long, drawn-out scream, she said, eerily human, agonized — but the words had the cadence of a ghost story, and Joan is usually so stoic that I have to wonder if she might have been lying, or making something up, just to take the edge off my curiosity.
I’m not angry either way. Even if Joan had lied, it would have been an act of love.
In fact, all these years later, I’m almost glad that she decided to keep it to herself. That is, I’m glad not to know the particulars of that night: of the copy, which was standing stock-still in the dark and then, suddenly, not — which out of nowhere appeared on my operating table, its eyes glazed over and staring at nothing.
If Joan thinks that I can’t handle knowing, I believe her. Joan is one of the only people on this earth that I can trust fully — she knows the bounds and borders of my sanity, and her own: she has walked them toe-to-heel and come back with the exact measurements.
Love can do that, I think.
Ruby Allen-Short is a young Virginia writer who enjoys stories about monsters, aliens, and ladies loving ladies.