This story is by Jacklyn Carroll and won the Grand Prize in our 2017 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the Summer Writing Contest stories here.
Jacklyn Carroll is a twenty-five-year-old writer from the South. She has a degree in English and currently works as a technical writer, writing documentation by day and fiction by night. Jacklyn can be found on Twitter (@jacklyn_lee) and her website. When she isn’t writing, she enjoys watching movies, listening to K-pop or hanging out with her cat, Dolly.
“How are you feeling today, Mr. President?”
Subject 34 ignores my question, continuing to focus on the playing cards in front of him. It’s been four weeks since his file dropped into my inbox. Conversations with 34 are rare, but he has slowly warmed to my presence. Every week I look at body language, eye movement. I study. I observe.
Despite his unwillingness to answer most of my questions, 34 is my favorite patient so far. He’s better than Subject 27, who lumbered around the room yelling, or 7, who took one look at my dark skin and refused to speak to me. Prejudice, it seems, lasts beyond the grave.
I look down at my tablet. It has my name, Dr. Roman Bell, printed at the top along with 34’s initials—D.D.E.—scribbled in the corner. Once the subjects are approved by a psychiatrist, they are moved out of the clinic area and are prepared to go out into the world. They are eventually given new identities, so we call them by their numbers instead of their original names.
I can hear the news blaring from the television in the hallway, reporting the third assassination this week. The government is falling, and this project—Project 1776—is the proposed solution.
Why create new leaders when you can resurrect old ones?
“When will I be cleared to leave?” 34’s eyes are now fixed on me. I think of the recommendation of approval I wrote on my last update and the REQUEST DENIED that appeared on the file the next day.
“Soon. Once you’re approved by the people in charge.” The lie feels heavy on my tongue.
“Are you not in charge?” There’s a rare hint of humor in his voice. He is well aware of how little power I actually have.
“Very funny,” I say as my phone buzzes at my hip. REPORT TO PASCAL flashes on the screen.
“Until next time, Mr. President,” I say with a quick nod. 34 is already back to playing cards. He is, if anything, a creature of habit.
“Look, Roman, I don’t have a choice,” Dr. Pascal says, leaning against her desk. “The older subjects just can’t adapt like the new ones can.”
I stare down at 34’s file. It now says SCHEDULE FOR TERMINATION. I can feel my skin start to prickle.
“I approved Subject 34 weeks ago, Jade, what the hell happened?”
“That wasn’t my call.” She sighed. “The board didn’t approve your request.”
My hands are gripping the folder so hard that the pages are starting to curl. “Subject 34 is more stable than the others—hell, they approved 45 just last week, and we all know how well his term ended—”
“Roman!” Jade interrupts me, pulling the now-ruined folder out of my hands. “I know you’re upset, but look, the bosses? They don’t want boring.”
I think of 34, playing cards in his room. I think of the stories I shared with him about growing up in a large, Greek family while he told me stories from his time fighting in World War II. Is that what all that was? Boring?
She sighs, forces a smile. “Peace doesn’t inspire people anymore, Roman. America needs someone who will fight for them.”
I look at Jade, who is still smiling, and I want to believe her. I want to believe that 34 is boring, that America needs more than a card player, more than a war hero. I want to believe her, but her smile doesn’t reach her eyes.
It’s almost noon, and the Observation unit is busier than ever. Nurses and doctors travel from room to room, leading subjects back down to the Laboratory. One by one, just a few floors below my feet, the older clones are being scrapped.
I sit across from 34, who’s focused on a game of Solitaire.
“The floor is busy today,” he says. “Did something happen?”
I start to answer but hesitate. His eyes flicker up to meet mine. The television is still blaring in the hallway. News of another assassination? Reports of an old one? They all seem to blur together.
“I hope to never become President again.”
His statement catches me off guard. I turn from the door to stare at him, watching as he slowly puts down his cards.
“Leading this country was my greatest honor,” he said. “I strove for peace and for democracy, and I achieved what I could in my time. But now?” He pauses. For a moment the only sound in the room is from the news: AMERICA IN PERIL.
“Once I could only imagine the future of this nation; now it is here, this future I helped create.” He smiles. “And yet, my prayer remains the same. I pray for peace. Peace is a continuing imperative. It always has been.”
He begins to pick up the cards one by one, shuffling them back into the deck. “The peace I once strove for, however, is not the same peace this new nation now speaks of. And so, my time as a leader has come and gone.”
He places the stack of cards in front of me. I can hear the voices outside the door, and I know it’s almost time. I search for something to say, something profound or inspiring, but my mind is blank. For the first time since Project 1776 began, I find myself starstruck in the presence of a leader—or, at least, the clone of one.
“If it helps,” I say, ignoring the knocks at the door, “you were always my favorite president.”
The door opens, but neither of us move.
Subject 34 is still smiling. His cards are warm in my hands. He stands, turning toward the door.
“I am ready.”