It’s been eight years since I lost my family for the first time. Years of endless sorrow and lonesome emptiness. Years of staying up late for no reason other than to avoid an empty bed, watching re-runs of the shows we used to enjoy together: Breaking Bad, Arrested Development, The Office – hell, sometimes I’d even put on Scooby Doo just to pretend my kids were still in the room for a little while. On the rare occasion I had it on and was smiling for just a moment, I’d turn to where Maggie and Jerry used to sit and ask them who they thought the bad guy under the mask was, only to see a silent couch gathering dust. Maggie used to love that show. Soon, she would again.
Eight years ago, I had to work late at the lab: another night of predictable disappointment to my kids. They expected me to come home early enough to catch the midnight showing of The LEGO Movie. A midnight showing shouldn’t have been too much to ask for: I should have been well out of work by that time. But like many nights, their father was still stuck at work, obsessively trying to perfect a rat’s genome only for it to come out catatonic once the cloning was complete. There was always something missing – one more thing that needed perfecting. I just didn’t realize that one thing wasn’t what I was working on, but what I wasn’t working on. “Go without me,” I told them, for the umpteenth time. “We can watch it again together next weekend.” Maggie and Jerry wanted to wait for me, but my wife, Debra, had seen this song and dance too many times before. She convinced the kids to go, telling them they wouldn’t want all their friends to see it before they had. And so they went, but they never saw the movie that night. A drunk driver plowed into them at what the coroners told me was eight-five miles per hour in a school zone only a few blocks from our house. Eighty-five. It was some college student who got off on a DUI, sixteen months in jail, and a ten thousand dollar fine his parents probably paid off. And despite all the years of therapy and hundreds of hours of trying to convince myself otherwise, I can’t help but feel it was more my fault than his.
But it doesn’t have to be that way anymore. I decided four years ago that I had enough of the sorrow. I had enough of my life feeling like a meaningless pit of monotony and loneliness and re-runs until I cried myself to sleep on the couch each night. I decided I was done mulling over the “morality” of it. I wanted my life back. I wanted to feel happiness again. I wanted to turn to that empty couch and see my children, enthralled with that detective cartoon dog. I didn’t just want it – I deserved it. You don’t know what it’s like to have the skills to vanquish all your worries at the edge of your fingertips and to not use them. It was like drowning beside a fully-functional raft. I decided I was suffering for no reason. It was time to fix what had been broken.
From that moment on, I started to feel hope again. I began by digging up the two bags of hair we had collected from Maggie’s and Jerry’s first haircuts, stuffed away in the attic. It was right alongside pictures of their first day at school and home video of their first steps and words. I took the bags into work the next day and began the process under the guise of my other work – my colleagues never suspected a thing. All they saw was a rejuvenated William Reeves coming into the lab with a spring in his step and a cheerful smile on his lips they hadn’t seen in years.
I took two of the frozen eggs donated to our lab, and claimed I needed them for research. Nobody bat an eye. Then, I extracted what DNA I could get from the hairs, and injected the sequencing into the eggs. From then it was just a waiting game. I watched as they grew each day in those glass tubes, excitement building with every little sign of progress. Soon it would all be normal again. It took weeks of anticipation until they were even so much as a couple of lima beans floating in that electrified liquid concoction. Then they began to form: first a head and then tiny legs and feet, then out sprouted those facial features I remember from when they were first born.
And then when, they were fully grown, I released them. In the dead of night after everyone had left the lab, I brought them home, ready to finally resume our beautiful life together. It was the second happiest day of my life – a second chance at what was once mine.
I taught them everything again. It was almost more rewarding to teach them the second time around. They learned fast – faster than expected. By two months they were walking. By four months they were speaking their first words. By a year they’d stopped drinking from their sippy cups. And by three years they were speaking in fully coherent sentences, not just the babble of a child. While this should have all been alarming as a parent, the geneticist in me took over. I thought only good could come of it, but I was catching myself on more than one occasion viewing them as more of a science experiment than reincarnations of my children – and perhaps there was just reason for that. If they could talk now, they could learn basic arithmetic within the next year. Maybe they’d be reading Shakespeare by seven, solving differentials at ten – they could be the world’s most remarkable duo before their last pubescent pimple popped.
But it wasn’t all the medical marvel I wanted to believe it was. From time to time there would be…blips: small but pervasive anomalies that seemed to only get more frequent as time went on. They’d foregone their milk diets by a year, but it didn’t take much longer until they refused to entertain my nights of binging Scooby Doo episodes. It was “too childish and predictable”, a fifteen-month-old Maggie remarked. That was something I could live with, but it only got worse from there. From time to time their faces would droop – eyes sagging and nose falling wayward while their mouths would nearly melt off their jaw like a couple of stroke victims. But eventually it would all snap back into place and they’d continue on as if nothing had happened. It happened often enough that I eventually didn’t worry too much when I saw those signs. Other times they’d gargle in deep incoherent moans or stare off into nothingness as if they’d seen a ghost. One night, Maggie even came into my room to tell me about a recurring dream she had: she was with Jerry and a familiar woman who she knew she loved, but had never met. They were in a car on their way to a movie singing “Wheels on the Bus” when a loud screeching bang and the pain of a thousand knives being jabbed into her skin came out of seemingly nowhere. The sounds of bones crackling like bubble wrap and a woman’s scream rang in her ears just half a second before blood mixed with fragments of flying glass penetrated her right cheek. She reenacted the whole thing in the doorway of my bedroom while I wept silently in the dark. They knew – somewhere inside those cloned forms, they knew everything.
Another evening at the dinner table, Jerry asked, “Dad, where’s our Mom?”
I didn’t lie, but I didn’t tell him the full truth either. “She died a long time ago in a car accident. She was hit by a drunk driver.”
Jerry pondered this for a moment and then stared at his sister who stared back in what looked like almost telepathic communication. “At the traffic light by the school?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said hesitantly.
“Were we there?” he asked.
“Of course not.”
Maggie nodded back to him. “I think so. I think we were. I remember.” She opened her mouth, still looking deeply into Jerry’s eyes, and together they began:
The wheels on the bus go ‘round and ‘round, ‘round and ‘round, ‘round and ‘round…
It was only at this point that the guilt began to set in. They weren’t my children anymore. They were unnatural spawns – embodiments of my own guilt – recreations of a life that was once mine, but not the real thing. It would only be a matter of time until they found out they didn’t need food and water the same way a real person did. It was only a matter of time until they realized what they were, and maybe more importantly, what I was.
And then, only a month ago, they became my nightmare. I awoke one night at some time either very late or very early in the dead of darkness with the two of them standing side by side in my bedroom doorway. Their eyes flickered upon their stagnant silhouettes and my heart jumped to my throat. “Hey,” I said in a groggy drawl. “What’s going on? Are you kids okay?”
Nothing. No response. They just…stood there.
“Kids?” I said again, suddenly coaxed to a higher attentiveness from my growing fear. “Kids, what’s up? It’s late. Come on, it’s not time for games.”
Then they tilted their heads to opposite directions and I jumped up, back against the headboard and covers pulled up to my chin. Then their jaws dropped together in silence at first. A moment later, they let out the most terrible croaking screams like a chorus of banshees. Everything they did, they did together. As if a shared consciousness dictated every decision – two confused souls who knew they had no business amongst the living. And they knew exactly who to blame. On and on they screamed. My body broke into a cold sweat. I shivered against the piercing wails. Their screams traveled beyond my ears – deep into my veins and heart, barraging against the guilt for what I had done.
Then they stopped, straightened their necks, and stepped forward. Once. Twice. Three times. Then stopped in place, still perfectly side by side. I pushed my back into the headboard as hard as I could, as if I could phase right through it if only I pressed a little harder. “We know,” they said in unison. “We know what you did.” My stomach flipped. My heart felt like it was asphyxiating in my chest. “We know what you did, father. We know.”
A marvel of modern science? Righteous retribution for playing God? I’ll never know for sure. I try not to think about it. All I know is that I have to turn the TV just a little louder at night to drown out the incessant scratching coming from the attic.