Emily smiled across the table and tried not to giggle at the young man’s admission. “You’re a doctor?” She asked.
The young man, David, smiled sheepishly. “Wow, I don’t think anyone’s ever thought that was funny. Is it because I look so young? Do I look too young to be a doctor?”
“No, no, it’s not that,” Emily said. “it’s just-” She paused. “I thought you were an accountant or something. I mean, you’re good-looking, you’re smart, and you’re a doctor? My mother would tell me to start planning the wedding.”
David smirked at her. “Do you want to get married tonight?”
The young woman’s amusement was redirected. “Maybe. Let’s see how desert goes.” She met his eyes and held them, but after a few seconds, he began to laugh, and she joined him. “Where do you work? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you outside the coffee shop.”
“I’m a resident at Irving General.” David said, then caught himself. “That makes it sound like I’m a psych patient. I mean, I’m a resident physician at Irving General.”
Emily nodded and sipped her wine. “I knew what you meant.”
The young doctor blushed. “Thanks.” He paused to take a bite of his dinner. “What about you? Where do you work when you’re not reading your date’s minds?”
“I’m a teacher.” Emily said with a giggle. “I teach eighth grade history at the middle school.”
“Really?” David asked. “I heard that school’s kind of rough. Well, as rough as a middle school in a small city can be. It’s not like there are turf wars in the recess yard. But, you know, bullying, cliques, stuff like that. I heard the middle school has a lot of problems with that.”
The young teacher shrugged. “All middle schools have that stuff, but I haven’t noticed that it’s bad. The students in my class all get along, at least while I’m around. But, I couldn’t say, I’ve only been there a month. I just moved to town.”
David chuckled. “Oh, wow. So, a beautiful young school teacher moves to town, meets a ‘good-looking’ doctor, your words, not mine, and they start dating. It sounds like a made-for-TV-movie.” Emily laughed. “Next, your high school sweetheart will move to town, and we’ll have to compete for your affections.”
Emily scoffed. “I promise, you would win. All of my ex-boyfriends are jerks.” She took a deep breath. “Anyway, what do you do when you’re not saving lives at the hospital? Wait, let me guess. Either you’re a big reader or an extreme sports enthusiast.”
“Well, I do like to read,” David said. “but this is my first evening off in more than a month, so I suppose I spend my free time going on dates with women who just moved to town.” Emily tried to respond, but David held up a hand. “Hold on, I’m joking, sorry. I like to run, but mostly just to stay in shape. What about you? What do you do for fun?”
“Besides go on dates with local doctors?” Emily asked. David tried to apologize again, but she patted his hand. “I’m joking.” He held her hand, and she didn’t object. “Well, I go to the gym, I work, but I do love poetry.”
The young doctor’s eyebrow arched. “Writing or reading?”
“Both,” Emily said. “I’ve been reading this one book of poems, but I just haven’t had time. Between school and getting settled, I just haven’t found an hour to read.” She shrugged. “I suppose it’s my own fault.”
“No, It’s not.” David said, but there was something in the way he said it that caught Emily’s attention. “These days, who can find time to do anything? I wanted to ask you out last week, but I had to beg for a night off just to take you to dinner.”
Emily squeezed David’s hand. “Thank you. I’m glad we were able to do this.” She blushed. “Honestly, I wanted you to ask me out the first time we met at the cafe.”
David’s smile returned. “If I’d asked then, we would have had to eat dinner in the hospital cafeteria. Trust me, the food is as bad as the jokes claim. At least here, the food is as good as the company.”
“I don’t know,” Emily said. She smiled at David. “the food’s excellent, but I think I like you better.”
The date ended with a promise for more. Emily’s apartment was only a few blocks from the restaurant, and David walked her home. She didn’t invite him upstairs but she didn’t close the door on a kiss. The young doctor took part of the invitation and kissed her hand before they parted, and Emily tried not to skip with joy as she climbed the stairs to her apartment.
Inside her apartment, Emily went to a window that overlooked the street and searched. She smiled as she saw David, hands in his pocket, walk back the way they’d come, and though she couldn’t see his face, her heart skipped to see him at all. She watched him as he turned a corner and walked out of her view, but she stayed for a second and enjoyed the memories of the evening. With a happy sigh, she took one last look at the street. It was almost empty, except for a woman who walked alone. Emily watched the woman for a second, but the woman glanced up and gave Emily a start.
“I hope I didn’t scare her.” Emily said as she stepped away from the window. “I probably looked like a crazy woman.” She gave the window a second look, then went about her nightly routine, and half an hour later she was in bed. She reached to turn off her bedside lamp, but a book of poetry, the one she’d mentioned to David, caught her attention. After a second’s consideration, she retrieved the book instead and opened it.
The next day, Emily readied for work and was on the street an hour after sunrise. A smile made itself at home as she walked, and she shared it with the few people she passed as he made her way to the cafe three blocks from her building. As she drew closer to the cafe’s front window, butterflies began to flutter in her stomach, and it wasn’t until she stood before it and looked inside that she understood why.
Outside the cafe, Emily took a moment to look through the window and scan the crowd. The restaurant was busy but the staff moved with practiced efficiency. Most tables were occupied, and a line at the counter was six people deep, but Emily frowned when she realized that none of the customers inside the cafe were David.
Emily took one last look through the window, but before she turned to walk inside, something caught her attention. Reflected in the window was a woman, on a bench across the street. The woman held a book in one hand, but Emily watched as the woman looked up from her book and scanned the street in front of the cafe. There was nothing out of the ordinary about the woman, but her wavy blond hair and slim features caught Emily’s attention as the resemblance between the two women was uncanny.
Before Emily could investigate further, two men walked out of the cafe and between her and the window. They excused themselves, but Emily glanced away from the window as they passed, and when she turned back, the bench was empty.
Emily walked into Mason Middle School and was glad for the crowd of children as she made her way to the front office. She stopped at the counter and handed one of the two coffee cups in her hands to the receptionist. “Good morning, Delilah.”
The middle-aged woman behind the counter looked up and smiled. “Hi, Emily.” She took the coffee and sipped it. “Ooh, perfect. Thanks. Oh, I meant to ask, how was the date with the tall, handsome mystery man?”
“It was good.” Emily said. “Turns out he’s a doctor, so, well, you know.”
Delilah laughed. “Are you going to see him again? Because if you’re not, I’m going to need his number.”
Emily laughed. “Yes, Delilah, I’m going to see him again. Find your own dates.”
“If I could do that,” Delilah said. “I wouldn’t be forty-three and single.”
The two women laughed again. As she did, Emily looked at her message box but saw nothing in the bin marked with her name. “I’m sorry.” She paused. “Do I have any messages?”
Delilah’s laughter fell off and she gave the young teacher a curious look. “No, nothing in the last five minutes. Didn’t you see it when you came in earlier?”
“What?” Emily asked. “I haven’t been in before this. I just got here.”
“No,” Delilah said. “you were here five minutes ago. You walked in, looked at the messages, then left. I was going to ask about the date, but you left before I could. I figured you forgot my coffee.”
Emily took a deep breath. “Delilah, I’m telling you, I just got here. I parked, then I walked inside and brought you your coffee. Five minutes ago I was in the parking lot.”
“Very funny,” Delilah said. “come here.” Emily moved around the counter and stood behind the receptionist. Delilah opened a program on her computer, and after it loaded, a view was displayed of the two women, from above and behind, as they stood at the desk. “Watch.”
Under Delilah’s control, the video skipped back until, after a second, the receptionist stopped and let it play. It showed the school’s front office. Delilah sat at her desk as students passed outside. After a few seconds, a woman stepped into the office, her wavy blond hair down, and looked at the message cubbies Emily had searched previously. The woman then raised her head and looked directly into the camera before she turned and left the office.
Emily’s heart raced, and she leaned against a nearby file cabinet to keep her balance. Though the woman was gone, she stared at the screen, her face still clear. Emily’s vision swam and she fought to take a deep breath, but her thoughts were clear. She knew the woman in the video, though the clarity of the video made the resemblance more evident.
It was the woman from the cafe.
“Are you OK?” Delilah asked.
After a few more deep breaths, Emily nodded. Her fear replaced by curiosity, she stood. “Yeah, I’m fine, thank you.” She said. Delilah held up a hand, and Emily squeezed it. “Did you see which way ‘I’ went after I left?”
Delilah pointed to the right of the office’s front door. “Yeah, you went right. Are you sure you’re alright? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Emily didn’t answer. She rushed out the door and looked down the hall. She searched over the heads of the students that filled it, then froze. A woman, taller than the students, stood at an intersection a few dozen yards away. Her wavy blond hair hung over her shoulders, a smile spread across her lips, and Emily’s blood went cold.
The woman’s face was Emily’s.
The bell rang overhead, and the mysterious woman turned and walked out of view. “Hey!” Emily said. “Wait!”
Emily ran, but students filled the hall and she had to fight the crowd just to reach the intersection. She brushed past harried students and confused teachers until, at last, she reached the intersection of the two halls. The students had entered their classrooms, but, again Emily froze as she looked down the hall. She panted as she tried not to panic, but try as she might, she felt terror creep into her mind as she stared down the empty hall.
The woman was gone.
The day passed in a fog. Whenever the bell rang, Emily jumped. She controlled herself until the room was empty, but between every class, she sat at her desk and wept until students entered the room again and took their seats. With an audience, Emily’s professionalism reasserted itself and she continued her lessons until her next break.
With the day finished, Emily rushed back home. The sun had begun to set by the time she was back inside her apartment, but she drew the curtains and paced the floor of her living room. As she walked, she bit her fingernails, but after a few seconds, pulled her hand away with a disgusted grunt.
“You should stop doing that.” A voice said from the darkness.
Emily screamed and turned toward the corner. A figure stepped from behind her curtains and passed through shadow as it stepped forward. The woman was Emily’s height, with the same wavy blond hair, slim build, and face. Terror filled Emily’s mind as she stared at the woman. “Who are you?” Her voice shook as she asked. “Why are you following me?”
“You’re disappointing David.” The woman said. She crossed the living room, slowly. “You can’t do that. You have to stop disappointing David.”
The distance between the two women closed. Emily backed away, but soon her back was to the wall. “Leave me alone!” Emily said. She raised her arms to protect herself. “Get out of my apartment!”
The other woman ignored her. “You’re disappointing David!” She said, then grabbed Emily’s arms in a vice-like grip. Emily’s hands were pulled away, and the two women’s eyes met. “You must stop disappointing David!”
Emily began to cry. “Let me go!”
“But you’re disappointing David!” The woman’s voice rose, but as it did, the right side of her face began to fall. The skin slid, and for a moment, the thought that the other woman was in the middle of a stroke entered Emily’s scared mind. “You’re not supposed to disappoint David! You can’t! Don’t disappoint David!”
As Emily stared in horror, the woman’s face began to fall. A gash, small at first, formed at her hairline but spread quickly as the skin of her face slid. Emily began to scream and pulled away, but the monstrous woman would not let go. Instead of words, a guttural cry emanated from its throat, but soon that was cut short as more of the invader’s body began to dissolve. Emily’s cries grew louder as the woman with Emily’s face fell apart. Soon, the woman’s hands released Emily and fell into the pile of blood and bones, but even that had already begun to dissolve.
Within seconds, Emily was alone, the only sound that of her screams.
The screams brought Emily’s neighbors, one of whom kicked her in the door. Unable to rouse Emily, they called for an ambulance. Emily was sedated in the ambulance and brought to Irving General Hospital where she was placed in a bed under observation.
A few hours later, Emily awoke. Slowly at first, she began to move as consciousness returned, but as it did, the memory of the events in her apartment came to mind and she opened her eyes. In an unfamiliar hospital, she began to scream again. She tried to sit up but found her arms and legs bound to the bed. She fought against the straps, but could not break free.
The noise attracted a nurse, who charged into the room and grasped Emily by the shoulders. “Ms. Baumhauer.” The nurse said. Emily continued to fight as the nurse struggled to hold her still. “Emily!” Emily stopped and stared at the nurse. Tears ran down her cheeks, but as fear gave way, she began to weep. The nurse hugged her patient as Emily cried.
Minutes passed, but finally, Emily calmed and the nurse released her. “I’m sorry.” Emily said. “Where am I?”
The nurse stood and moved to a nearby computer terminal. “Irving General. Your neighbors heard you screaming and called an ambulance. They had to sedate you.” The nurse read the information on the screen. “Do you have anyone you can call? Family? A friend?”
Emily thought for a second, then shook her head. Before she could answer, there was a knock at the door. “I’m sorry, am I interrupting?”
The two women turned to see David in the doorway. “No, Dr. Combs. She just woke up. I was just about to call you.”
“Thank you.” David said. He turned to Emily. “Can I come in, Emily?”
Emily stared at the young doctor for a second, uncertain. She squinted at David, but soon fear gave way to the comfort of a friendly face and Emily nodded. “You can come in.”
David, dressed in blue hospital scrubs and a lab coat, crossed the room and stood beside Emily’s bed. He placed his hands on the protective arm of the bed, and Emily reached out to take it. He smiled at her. “One of the EMTs told me they brought you in. Are you OK? They said you were screaming about something.”
“Someone broke into my apartment,” Emily said. “she-” She cut herself short. “You’ll think I’m crazy.”
David chuckled. “I promise, I won’t think you’re crazy. You can tell me what happened.”
Emily took a deep breath while the nurse and the doctor exchanged glances. With a nod, the nurse left the room and closed the door behind her. Alone with David, Emily squeezed his hand. “She looked like me, David. The woman looked exactly like me! I saw her at the cafe, at school, then she broke into my apartment! She kept telling me I’d ‘disappointed David’!”
The doctor listened, and when Emily was finished, he looked disturbed. “Well, I hope that ‘David’ isn’t me. Let me call the police, maybe they can find her.”
“No!” Emily said. “They can’t! David, she dissolved! Right in front of me! She was yelling at me, and the skin just slid off her bones! She fell apart and just disappeared! David, she just fell apart!” She clutched David’s hand, but after a few breaths, her desperation changed. “You believe me, right? You have to believe me!”
David nodded. “I believe you. I don’t know about a person dissolving in front of you, but I believe you saw something. Clearly, it disturbed you.” He thought for a moment, then grimaced. “They want to keep you under observation for the night, maybe I should let you rest.”
Emily tried to take David’s other hand, but the straps around her other arm stopped her. “No, please, don’t leave. I hate hospitals, please don’t leave me alone.”
“Well, I could discharge you.” David said. “Being a doctor does have its benefits. I don’t think you should go home, though. Is there anyone else in town you could stay with?”
The patient shook her head. “No, I just moved here a few months ago.”
“I still don’t think you should go home.” David thought for a moment. “This may sound forward, but would you want to stay at my house? Don’t worry, I have a spare bedroom, and you can lock the door, but I have the space if you’d like.”
For the first time that night, Emily smiled. She held David’s hand, and, on the monitor beside her bed, her heart rate increased slightly. “That would be very nice. Thank you, David.”
David held her hand. “It’s my pleasure.”
They entered David’s large, ranch-style house and stepped into the living room. “We can go back to your apartment for some clothes later,” David said. “but you should probably get some rest first.”
“You don’t want to go for me?” Emily asked.
David chuckled. “Maybe after a third date. The first date seems a little early to search your underwear drawer.” Emily blushed. “Of course, letting you stay here after someone broke into your apartment kind of upends all the rules.”
Emily smiled. “If it makes you feel better, you’re practically guaranteed a second date now.” She said. David laughed and Emily examined the living room. The furniture was comfortable and clean, the hardwood floors had been swept recently, and pictures hung on the wall. Emily examined one, an old black-and-white photograph beside the television. The photograph was of a young couple in front of the door to a church. The man wore a tuxedo while the woman wore a wedding dress, her veil pulled back over her head. The man resembled David, but the woman’s wavy blond hair piqued Emily’s curiosity. “Are these your parents? You look just like your dad.” She stared at the photo. “Just don’t tell me we’re dating because I look so much like your mom.”
“No, those aren’t my parents.” David said. He laughed, but it died quickly.
“Oh, who is it?” Emily asked. Her skin began to crawl.
The floorboards creaked as David approached. “That is a picture of my wife and I.”
Emily’s hand shook, but it soon spread to the rest of her body. “You were married?” Emily asked, but she closed her eyes to hide from the answer.
“I was.” David said. He put a hand on Emily’s shoulder, and she stifled a scream. “She was the love of my life. Beautiful, smart, charming, she was everything I never knew I wanted in life. Every day with her was a joy, and even forty years was too short a time with Emily.”
The young teacher whirled and backed away from David. “What?” She asked, and tears began to pour down her face. “I don’t understand.”
“We had just decided to retire,” David said, unmindful of Emily’s reaction. “we’d never had any children, but we’d never gone anywhere. We spent our whole lives in Irving, we wanted to see the world. That’s why it was such a tragedy when she was killed in a car accident.”
The room fell quiet, the only sound Emily’s shuddering breaths. At last, David turned to face her. “Don’t worry, I didn’t lie, per se, I just kept some things to myself. I am a doctor” He paused for a second. “OK, I’m going to skip the explanation of how I figured it out, and just jump to what I did. You see, there are ways to bring people back to life, even to extend their lives. I found out how to do both, and after I’d restored my youth, I began the process of bringing back my Emily.”
“‘Began the process’?” Emily asked. She stared at David in horror, and all affection was gone from her eyes. “What?”
“I couldn’t just bring Emily’s life back into her body,” David said. “I had to, kind of, start over.” He reached for Emily, but she shook away, and he lowered his hand. “Instead, I learned how to make copies of Emily, her body, her brain, even the basics of her personality, but I couldn’t just make a copy. I had to test the results, to make sure that the process was working.”
Emily’s head began to swim, but she leaned against the wall and stayed on her feet. “So, what, you cloned her? I’m just a clone? You waited twenty-five years for your wife to come back?”
David gave Emily a curious look. “’Twenty-five years’? You’re only two weeks old. Ladies, could you come in here, please?”
Doors at the far end of the living room opened and people poured through it. They were all dressed differently, some in casual clothes, others in lab coats or work jumpsuits, but all of them were women, in their mid-twenties, with wavy blond hair and Emily’s face. A dozen or so stood in the living room and smiled, either at Emily or David, affection and curiosity in their eyes.
Emily stared in horror. “What?”
“These are my daughters.” David said. “Every one of them a perfect physical copy of my Emily, but though I love them all, I could never take one of them as my wife. I made them, I gave them life, but to bring my Emily back, she had to come from outside. You had so much promise, I genuinely was developing feelings for you, not just as a clone of my Emily, but as a renewal of that love into something new.” He sighed. “But you hadn’t finished the poetry book.”
The young teacher’s eyes went wide. “But I did! I finished it that night!”
“I know,” David said. “but my Emily had finished it the night before our first date. I had to know if you could be my Emily, not just another copy, so we went on a date. I knew that, if I could recreate our first date, you were the one.” He shook his head. “It was my fault, really. It’s been forty years, things have changed, people are busier than they were when my Emily and I were first married. But I was disappointed, and one of my daughters was hurt by that.”
“The woman who broke into my apartment?” Emily asked, then a new horror dawned on her. “You had me followed. The woman on the street, in the school, she was one of your ‘daughters’, wasn’t she?”
David nodded, and a tear welled up in one eye. “She was, and it hurt that she died. I was disappointed about the book, and she hated you for it. She was already watching you, to make sure you were safe, but when I mentioned my disappointment, I guess she decided to confront you.” He wiped his eye. “I had no idea she would disintegrate. It must have been some flaw in the copying process. It’s never happened before, and now I’m worried that any of my other daughters might be in danger as well.”
“Why am I here?” Emily asked. “Why’d you bring me here? Couldn’t you have left me in the hospital?”
“I’m afraid not.” David said with regret. “Something kept you from finishing the book, and I have to know what caused my daughter to die like that. I have to know if there was some flaw in the personality transfer process. My daughters can hug and touch and-” He shook his head. “I’m sorry, that sounds bad. They’re good girls, but they don’t disintegrate when they make physical contact with each other. You’re the unknown variable, and I need to know what happened.”
Emily tried to protest but was left with no chance. Before she could speak, David said something, something she didn’t understand in a language she couldn’t identify. As soon as she heard the strange word, her vision dimmed and she fell to the ground, unconscious.
When Emily awoke, she was, once again, strapped down. The stainless steel table on which she lay was cold, and as she tried to move, she realized that she was naked. A light above her head was bright and made it impossible to see the rest of the room, but the echo of footsteps told her that it was large.
After a second of fearful anticipation, David walked into view with two of his ‘daughters’ behind him. “David!” Emily said. “Please! Let me go! I finished the book! David, I finished the book!”
David was dressed in gray hospital scrubs, a shower cap, and a mask, as were the two other Emilies. As he took a position beside Emily on the table, one of his daughters placed a stainless steel tray beside him. The other, covered from head to toe in protective medical equipment, took a position across from David.
When everything was in place, David took a recording device from a pocket, activated it, and placed it at the head of the table. “Dr. David Combs, performing an autopsy and allergen test. Assisting are Amanda, C-Five, and Joanne, C-Two. Amanda, can you attach the neurological equipment to the subject’s head, please?”
“Yes, doctor.” The woman across from David, Amanda, said with Emily’s voice. She retrieved a metal machine, shaped like a crown, and placed it over Emily’s head. As it settled, several hundred needles pushed in from the crown. The needles pierced Emily’s skin and entered her skull until they settled in her brain. Each needle received neurological data that was sent, through wires in the crown, to a nearby computer that Emily couldn’t see.
Emily looked at David through the tears in her eyes. “David, please!” She said, then began to weep. “It hurts, David. Why are you doing this?”
David sighed. “I’m sorry, but I have to know where I failed. I have to know if you were responsible for what happened the Katy, and I need to know why you aren’t a perfect copy of my Emily. I need you awake for this, or else I won’t collect all the neurological data that I need. I truly am sorry, but know that this hurts me more than it hurts you.” He straightened and held out his right hand. “Joanne, scalpel.” The other woman, another copy of Emily, handed David a scalpel. “Now making the first incision into bio-form E-Fourteen.”
She didn’t feel the scalpel as it cut into her flesh, deep and clean, but, eventually, she felt the pain as her chest was opened, and Emily screamed.