This story is by Vania Ding and was part of our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
I write to you, Sammy. I shouldn’t. After no contact in years, I can’t form any words.
I’ve squeezed myself underneath this desk. The lights can’t sense my movement here. We’re months behind schedule and I’ve lost all of my chances.
I’m somewhere in New Mexico. I don’t know exactly where I am. I received the plane ticket. I arrived. I was picked up. I woke up in the facility. I never warned you. You arrived one day at our apartment after work, your wife missing and nothing else out of place. When did you realize I wasn’t coming back?
I left my life and my job and you.
This place drains me. If I could think clearly, if I could talk to you again, maybe I would choose the outside. The days leading up to our wedding, drenched in nerves and promises, and I told myself we’d been through enough. After days spent in the dark, we beat it. We stopped the world.
We’re making life here. A group of us chosen to fulfill this dream for the government, a cloning experiment. A way to resurrect history. They never told us why we’re reanimating American presidents. There are privileges that none of us have.
We move like clockwork. Sometimes I glimpse other workers behind the glass walls. Their outlines fade and I ask no questions.
We write reports to the supervisor, typing up what we completed during the week and slipping it into our respective boxes. They vanish by the next morning, replaced by a new checklist and items for DNA.
Dr. Bao was particularly jittery with our beginning success. She wrapped us up in discussion those first nights in the cafeteria. Where could we fill in gaps? The pickings, especially for the earlier presidents, were slim.
Human clones were new ground. Dolly the sheep was born into this world, not created at the peak of adulthood. We had the choice of creating empty shells of grown men or embryos in desperate need of hosts. With no explicit purpose given for the project, we could only guess which option was the lesser evil.
I didn’t voice my concerns and to my knowledge, none of the others did either. We had to create men out of clay. Whatever the end product was, we would deal with it in stride. The lists were all we had to guide us to what the government wanted.
Dr. Bao kept quiet on the subject while the rest of us blubbered on about the possible purpose of the project. All the hypotheses we presented were met with silence and her slipping away back to her quarters, coffee mug in hand. It struck a dissonant chord in me that vibrated as we all crept back to our rooms.
Sammy, I liked her. I think you would too.
She did the work for the work itself. I found myself watching her after the rest of our team retired for the night. Her calm, methodical movements soothed me. Looking over her notes, I jumped in thought as she did.
“Am I bothering you?” She spoke first.
My nights here are vivid. I jolt awake at George Washington bursting out of my chest and I have to check myself for a gaping wound. Remember your little cousin, who thought he was a children’s story? I’m sure he’d be thrilled to see proof of his existence in a petri dish.
Cells die. Our supplies dwindle. These people are dead. We can’t just ask for more samples. Every single mistake costs us time that I can’t get back.
There are no clocks outside of the lab. Everything runs together and some days I’ve realized I haven’t eaten anything for over 24 hours while stooped over the lab counter. Some days I realize that I don’t even know how long I’ve been down here. No communication with the world.
I am not a machine. There are days I collapse and huddle underneath my sheets. I wonder if I can wake up and see you on the other side of the room, smell the flowers you insisted on keeping in the bedroom. I miss the details of your face. I write to you on those days.
Bao comes in on those days. She folds around me and I allow it more often than not. She was rough around the edges, clipping her words together, choosing silence more. We numb our brains for an hour or two with an arbitrary video clip of the video logs we record. She holds my hand. I don’t question it.
The outside becomes more and more of a dream. My technicolor dreamscape.
I don’t want to lie to you, Sammy. Please believe me.
I realized later than you did that I was never coming back.
Our attempts failed. The cafeteria talks stopped. More arguments bubbled up in the lab and the lists kept stacking up, unchecked boxes pinned to the walls.
Food stopped coming in from the kitchen. We looked and there was no one but us, Sammy. No supervisor. No workers behind glass.
Bao snapped before the rest of us. She flung one of the sample cases into the glass. We surged forward, scrambling into the unknown, empty and forgotten. Piles and piles of paper. Our notes. Spread out into sections, the most recent envelopes unopened.
The fluorescent lights flickered and I couldn’t breathe. Yelling erupted. Glass crunched underneath my feet.
Why the project?
I still don’t know what to say. The right path to take. I walked away from my life and it slipped by without me. I don’t have any reasons down here to give you. No way to explain myself. I’ve stumbled back into our lab, notes slapped on the walls. The freezer doors are open. The lights are out. There is no one else but me.
After everything, I look into nothing.
My fingers numb in the cold.