Real Rachel Winterbourne
By Tim Jeffreys
AS A PRESENT ON OUR FIFTH wedding anniversary, Rachel bought me a New-Reality Screen. Those screens were passé by then, but Rachel said it was to make up for me never having had one as a child. She had bought me the biggest one she could find. It took up an entire wall in our spacious lounge. I tried it out only once when Rachel was away on a shoot. The convex screen filled your vision and was supposed to sweep you up and take you on a big adventure, but I couldn’t connect with it, couldn’t get past how false it all was. Those virtual environments which were meant to be awe-inspiring did little for me; and I found it unnerving to be addressed by computer-generated characters. I much preferred the world outside our window. I turned the screen off, deciding I hadn’t missed much, and wondered what had inspired Rachel to buy it. For the first time, I found myself wondering if she knew me at all.
It was around this time that I began to have my suspicions. I began to suspect that the woman whose face I opened my eyes to every morning was not my wife. Sure, she looked the same, she sounded the same, and—as far as I could tell—she acted the same, more or less. But it wasn’t her. Not the same person who lived across the street from me when I was growing up. Not the girl I kissed with hammering heart when I was twelve years old after planning it for a week. Not the person I’d poured my heart out to the day I finally realised what I wanted to do with my life. Not the woman I lost my virginity to on a squealing single bed on the day of my seventeenth birthday. Not the woman I proposed to three years later.
Not Rachel Winterbourne.
Of all people, I should’ve known.
More and more often, I found myself watching her, studying her, looking for a clue to confirm my suspicions. I listened when she spoke; waiting for a lie, a slip of the tongue, some falsity that would undo her. A lot of our conversations started like this: “Hey, Rach, do you remember that time ...?”
“Hey, Rach, do you remember that time you, me, and Tommy climbed to the top of that solar tower and lay on the platform sunbathing until a drone passed over and spied on us? Then we heard a voice telling us to get down. It was some guy sat in a control room somewhere, speaking through the drone’s hailer, but it scared the crap out of us.”
“Uh ... sure. I remember that. Of course. Of course I do. What do you want for dinner, babe? I’m thinking to order sushi.”
“The views from up there were pretty amazing, huh?”
A forced smile. “Sure. Amazing. That’s right.”
“You left your wrist-hub up there, and you were too scared to climb back up so I had to go. Remember that?”
“Huh? Oh yeah, my wrist-hub. Poor Jim. All the way back up.”
“I was terrified, actually.”
“Sushi good for you, or are you thinking Italian?”
“Hey, Rach, do you remember that time when—?”
“Give it a rest, hey, babes. I’m tired today.”
I think, deep down, I’d always suspected. Two years had passed since the day she returned home with her hair wet, rain on her face, and her make-up smeared. She’d been gone three months without a word, following that terrible row in which we finally uncorked all the tension that had been building in our relationship for years, and I’d started to think I’d never hear from her again. Whilst I stood bewildered in the hallway having heard her key in the lock, she told me in a torrent of words that she was sorry, that she loved me, that she hadn’t meant what she said, that she missed me, that she would give up her career if that’s what I wanted, let it all go, be simple Rachel Winterbourne again so that we could be happy. She’d learn to cook, clean the house, raise children. Whatever it took. She got down on her knees and begged me to forgive her, begged me to let her come home.
“I love you, Jim,” she said, hugging my legs. “You’re the only thing I want in this world. I don’t want to lose you. I don’t. Not ever.” She kept repeating these words over and over.
It didn’t sound like Rachel. Not the Rachel who three months earlier had shouted these words into my face: You’re a fucking arsehole, Jim!
Was the seed of suspicion planted then?
A Rachelle. She had sent me a Rachelle, I was sure of it.
How could she do that to me?
“Jim was lucky. He got in on the ground floor,” Rachel used to say, whenever anyone asked how I’d managed to make her my wife. Sometimes they asked that in a jokey, back-slappy type way. “How on Earth did you manage it, Jimbo?” or “What’s your secret, eh?” Sometimes they were serious. “You’re her husband?” they’d say, after I was introduced. Sometimes they didn’t even need to say it. You could see it written on their faces. They’d look at Rachel, then they’d look at me, and you could see this confusion come over them. In the early years of our marriage, we dealt with it by turning it into a joke. “He hypnotised me when I was twelve,” she told someone at a dinner once. Everyone had laughed. Once, by way of explanation, she told a persistent, well-dressed man in a restaurant how when I was fifteen or so I used to take the money I earned from my weekend job and buy a load of sandwiches from the Super-M. I’d then distribute the sandwiches amongst the homeless people who lived under the old railway arches downtown. This was true, but it only confused the man who wanted to steal Rachel’s affection. “So an idiot can have a beautiful wife?” he said, which prompted Rachel to throw wine in his face. Another time, weary of it, she told a photographer that she married me because I was hung like a horse. That time, I was the only one laughing.
“Lucky was I?” I’d say to her in private.
“Oh yes, you were lucky,” she’d tell me. “You made me fall for you before I knew who I really was.”
For a long time she was just Tommy’s little sister. Tommy Winterbourne was my childhood friend from the other side of the street. As neither of our parents could afford a New-Reality Screen, which were all the rage amongst our age group back then, we used to play outside, mostly in his backyard. Or we’d sneak into holo-shows playing at the Coliseum. We’d find a few empty seats at the back and watch some virtual rock band run through its set-list, projected all the way from New York or Paris or London—the closest we got to places like that in those days. We’d laugh and throw cans when the signal broke up and the band members turned into stuttering ghosts. Rachel must have been there too a lot of the time, but for much of it I can’t say I really noticed her presence. She told me later that I was always kind, letting her in on our games and misadventures when Tommy wouldn’t.
What I can remember is that one day she stopped being Tommy’s little sister and became someone else altogether: a girl with budding breasts and hips and hair, sleepy long-lashed eyes, and a ready smile which I found endearing. She seemed to have shot-up overnight so that one day I looked around and we were the same height, Rachel and I. Tommy was now the one who faded into the background. He saw me kiss her at one of those holo-shows, and afterwards his mockery was relentless. By then I didn’t care. I was all in. Rachel Winterbourne became my world.
Aged fifteen, Rachel went to the city with her mother. I know this story better than anyone because I was the first to hear it when she got home. They were shopping for clothes when a woman approached them. The woman was in her forties, but tall and thin and well-dressed. “Really amazing hair,” Rachel’s mother said later. The woman said she’d been watching Rachel from the food court whilst she and her mother shopped, and she thought Rachel had what it took to be a top model. She handed Rachel’s mother a card. The name on the card read: Edie Dupont. That evening, Rachel’s mother went online and discovered that Edie Dupont was a former model who now ran her own modelling agency called Gold Lion.
A week later Rachel and her mother returned to the city so that Rachel could have pictures taken for her portfolio. Then she and her mother would spend a lot of time sitting at the kitchen table, hunched over a zap-screen, flicking through copies of “Vogue” and “Glamour Magazine.” Before that, Rachel and I used to spend a lot of our time sitting on the roof of her house talking excitedly about all the things we wanted to do with our lives: how we wanted to help the city’s growing number of homeless people, protest for more green spaces, travel, see the world, change the world, and find our own truth. Look at the stars, there’s a whole universe out there. Isn’t that amazing? Look at the trees, look at the moon, look at us! What are we? What are we really?
Following that meeting with Edie Dupont, modelling was the only thing Rachel wanted to talk about. She started telling me things about that world which she didn’t seem to fully understand herself.
“It’s not about getting the cover,” she’d tell me. “It’s about the quality of the cover. Who photographed it? Who provided the outfits? Who did the make-up?”
I’d nod and pretend to understand, but deep down I had an odd feeling. It was similar to a feeling I’d had when I was ten years old and my parents took me on holiday to Tenerife. I’d had a great time on the beach building sandcastles and splashing in the surf; until people starting saying there were reports of a storm out at sea. After that there was an odd tension in the air which even I felt. We returned to the beach every day, but it was as though we were just waiting to see if this storm everyone was talking about would pass; or if it would roll right in and send us fleeing back to the hotel. It never did.
When I confided in my mother about what was happening to Rachel, my mother just laughed and said that thousands of young girls audition to be models every year, what made Rachel think she was the one who’d make it onto “Vogue?” What made her so special?
“Let her have her moment,” my mother said. “Most probably, this business will blow over and be forgotten about in a month.”
She was wrong. The storm blew inland. Soon after getting her portfolio shots taken, Rachel was doing catalogue shoots, then pop star promos, then catwalk stuff, then lingerie, then perfume ads. It was no longer about making the cover of the glamour magazines, but about how many covers she’d made. When I looked at those covers, I didn’t associate the girl staring out at me as the same girl I’d fallen in love with. The girl on those covers looked fake somehow, with bleached out features and a repertoire of ludicrous expressions none of which I’d ever seen my Rachel use—from pouting sultriness, to orgasmic joy, to lowered brow moodiness. I didn’t know the girl on those covers, didn’t recognise her.
At home, Rachel was still just Rachel; shy and sweet and worrying about her schoolwork. But then after she’d been modelling for a year or so, someone suggested she change her name. So Rachel Winterbourne became Rachelle. Just Rachelle. By that point, they told her, she didn’t need a surname.
And with that change of name things really started to take off for her.
By then, I was stuck at college doing social studies. I still hadn’t worked out how I might best be of service to the world.
“You can stay at home and look after the babies,” Rachel said to me one day shortly after we were married. By then there’d been a six-figure offer for her to market her own brand of perfume. When she told me about the offer, I asked semi-serious how many sandwiches we could buy with that money; but Rachel dismissed this with a laugh. Let someone else buy sandwiches for the homeless, she said. That might have been the first time I felt something other than love for her.
“You’re not around often enough for us to make a baby,” I said. This, too, I meant half-jokingly, but she didn’t laugh. I saw her expression turn inward and she was distant for the remainder of her stay.
Before long there was a Rachelle perfume, a Rachelle clothing line, ghostwritten Rachelle books, and a range of Rachelle dolls. I can clearly remember the day, a year into our marriage, when she returned home from a shoot in Milan and told me about the latest proposal. At first I couldn’t believe what she was telling me.
“Are you crazy?”
“All the top models are doing it.”
“How could you even think that’d be a good idea?”
“Jim, do you know how much one of those would sell for? We’re not talking creepy sex dolls here, like the ones some models have out on the market. I’d never put my name to something like that. We’re talking about the real thing. A limited run. And I get forty percent of retail. That’s ... well, that’s a lot of money.”
“Rach, we’ve already got more money than we can spend. What would you want to go and do that for? Is that even legal?”
“Of course it’s legal. Do you think Elle Zelenka would be doing it if it wasn’t legal?”
“And you’d be happy with that? You be happy having ... people out in the world who looked just like you, acted just like ...”
“They’re not people, Jim. They’d just be ...”
“What? What would they be, Rach?”
“My agent said we could call them Rachelles.”
She didn’t need my permission it seemed. A month or two after we had that conversation, Rachel flew out to L.A. for a three week stay at a place called The Andrew Hamilton Clinic. The first Rachelle was bought by some Saudi prince for an eight-figure sum. The second one off the assembly line, or out of the freezer, or however the hell they made those things, fetched twice that amount, bought by a man in Japan who wanted to remain anonymous.
We were rich. Beyond rich. I wanted to put that money to good use, somehow; but it was Rachel’s money and she had other ideas. We moved into a penthouse flat at the top of the newly erected one-hundred story Morby VI building. The lift took eight seconds to reach the top. The views across London from our windows were breathtaking.
We had fast access to the city as the main bypass ran directly in front of the building. I was concerned about the noise, as great articulated lorries barrelled along the bypass night and day, but we couldn’t hear the traffic from the penthouse.
I stopped going to college. Whatever thoughts I’d had about what I planned do with my future now seemed irrelevant.
When Rachel returned from her third trip to L.A., all she wanted to do was party. When I told her I had more important things to do, she laughed. She’d go missing for days on end, then when she was home her comms-hubb was always buzzing.
“Who was that?” I’d say to her.
“Nobody. Just a friend.”
It all came to a head when I got up early one morning and discovered Rachel in the living room snorting lines of bluish powder off the coffee table. It’s impossible to describe how shocked I was. She was still wearing the previous night’s outfit, and the make-up around her eyes had started to congeal. Pausing in what she was doing, she sat and gazed up at me, her expression a mix of guilt and defiance.
“You don’t understand the pressures I’m under, Jim,” she said, before I could say anything. “You don’t understand the world I live in at all.”
For a moment I couldn’t speak, such was the anger and disgust rising in me. Then I took a breath and told her, “Why don’t you leave it then. Leave that world. You’ve made enough money. You could walk away.”
She laughed. “And do what?”
“I don’t know. We could travel. We used to talk about—”
“Travel? Jim, I’ve seen every airport in the world already.”
“Children then. You said you wanted children once.”
“You said it.”
“This isn’t you, Rach. You’re not you anymore. Look at what you’re doing, it’s ... it’s disgusting.”
A black look came over her face then. She rose from the floor and strode past me and into the bedroom, tottering unsteadily on high heels. There was a small suitcase she hadn’t yet unpacked sitting under the window. She opened the suitcase, took a few things from her walk-in wardrobe, and tossed them into it. She struggled as she tried to close the lid. When I went to stop her, she pushed me away.
“We used to talk about saving the world.”
“I just want the old Rachel back,” I told her. “The girl I fell in love with. That’s all. Can’t you understand that?”
Rachel straightened and met my eyes for a long moment. The anger in her expression changed to something else, something that for me was worse. Pity.
“I’m not that person anymore, Jim. I’m not the sweet little girl who nodded along to all that naïve rubbish you used to spout.”
“Naïve? What’s naïve about—?”
“That’s the problem, see? I’ve changed. And you haven’t.”
At that, my own anger surged. “You mean because I’m not powerballing God-knows-what shit off the coffee table?”
She turned to look at me, furious again, her eyes stung. “What? Fuck you, Jim! What do you know about it?”
“Is this who you want to be, Rach, some junkie fucking waster? Is it? Oh, I know: helping others is naïve so let’s shove as much junk up our noses as we can and live in a bubble for the rest of our lives. You want the truth, Rach, all this money we have. It makes me sick! Do you know what we could do with it? What a difference we could make? Are you really just going piss it all away?”
That was when she turned to me with teary eyes and shouted into my face. “You’re a fucking arsehole, Jim!”
“Look at yourself. You’re a disgrace!”
“Edgardo doesn’t think so!”
“Who the fuck is Edgardo?”
“No one you know.”
I caught hold of her shoulder as she tried to leave the room and span her around to face me again.
“That’s it then, is it? That’s what this is all about? You’re fucking some dickhead you met on your travels. Well, go then. Go and do lines with Edgardo. Get out of here! I hope your new life makes you very happy!”
Shrugging my hand from her shoulder, she narrowed her eyes at me and said: “You’ll never understand anything about my life. How could you?”
Seeing her march ahead of me, I thought of all the happy times we’d had and suddenly didn’t want to see her go. “Wait. Wait! Rach, listen ...”
As she headed for the front door dragging her little suitcase behind her, she halted. Turning, she looked me in the eye, shifting her head a little to one side. It was as if she were seeing me, really seeing me, for the first time in a long while.
“Jim ... listen. We got married too young. That’s all it was. I didn’t even know who I was then, or what I really wanted out of life.”
I grabbed hold of her, by the wrist this time. “Rach ... what are you saying? That we’re ...”
“Let go of me!” she said, yanking her arm out of my grasp.
“Rach, I just want you to listen ...”
“It’s too late, Jim. I do love you. I do care.” Her eyes softened and she raised a heart-hearted smile. “I am your bloodsister after all, right?”
“You wouldn’t remember. That was before I grew breasts.”
I backed away from her, shaking my head. “What the hell does that mean?”
Rachel sighed. “Nothing. Just ... sometimes I think that’s all I am. Breasts, legs, hips, hair, lips. Not a person. Not a real person like everybody else. Just a thing. A—”
“I never ever thought of you like that. How could you even think I would?”
“It doesn’t matter.” She gazed up into my face. “I do care.”
“Stay then. Don’t leave. We can talk it through.”
Her eyes clouded. She shook her head. “Sayonara, Jim.”
After she returned that night all rain-sodden, full of pleas and apologies, and until I started to suspect that I’d been duped, we lived the life I’d always imagined us living. A happy life. The belated life of a newly-married couple. In the beginning I watched out for signs of drug use or affairs with other men, but I detected nothing and Rachel assured me that was all behind her.
“What happened?” I asked her. “What happened during those months you were gone?”
“What happened was: I woke up,” she said. “I missed you and I realised I still loved you. We’re soulmates, Jim. I really believe that. I asked myself what I wanted most in life, and the answer was easy. I wanted you. Us.”
Because we had no money worries, I started work with a charity that provided support to the homeless, people who were considered no better than rats by our current Government who did nothing to help them. Rachel said she was through with modelling. All that travel had worn her out, she said. Now what she wanted most in the world was to stay at home and take care of the apartment, read books, cook dinner for her hubby, and tend our little roof garden. “Like a good little housewife.” I kept an eye out for signs of boredom, but she seemed truly content.
She was always showing me that smile I’d once become so enamoured of. She reminded me more and more of the Rachel I’d known before that day she and her mother encountered Edie Dupont, before the modelling, before she became Rachelle. We began to talk about starting a family. Sometimes, when we made love, Rachel would whisper into my ear: “Put a baby in me, Jim. I want to have your baby. Put a baby in me.” She said it so often that it began to sound like something which had been programmed into her mind. One thing Rachel had told me about the Rachelles was that they were all designed to be sterile.
So, two years, lots of unprotected sex, no baby.
Once I began to suspect what Rachel had done, it seemed obvious. Of course. She was out there somewhere living the life she’d chosen, and because she still had a conscience somewhere in her bruised soul, or because she wanted to make things easier for me, or easier for herself, smoother, she’d sent back the clone in her place, pre-programmed to say all the things I wanted to hear but unable to truly provide them. Once I realised this, I couldn’t stand to have that thing, that replacement, touch me. Of course she—it—didn’t understand why. She became sad and withdrawn, always watching me in silence with a wounded expression.
“Is something wrong, Jim? You’re not happy. Don’t you love me anymore? Is that it?”
“I’m your husband, aren’t I?”
“Then why don’t you act like it. Talk to me.”
“I love Rachel Winterbourne.”
“Jim ... what’re you talking about? It doesn’t ... Jim? Talk to me.”
We went around and around like this for months. Whenever we fought, Rachel would shut herself in the bedroom or the bathroom. I’d hear her sobbing from behind the door. I never asked her outright if she was a Rachelle. Something stopped me from saying it out loud. Besides, she might have been programmed to think she was the real Rachel Winterbourne. There was no way of knowing what ideas might have been planted in her mind. It was tearing me apart not knowing.
Every day I typed her name—her real name and her professional one—into every social media website I could think of after I realised one night lying awake that someone who’d been in the public eye couldn’t possibly just vanish. She had fans and admirers all over the globe. Someone, somewhere was sure to approach her wanting a selfie. Someone’s status update would mention having spotted her. But I found nothing. Every time I closed my eyes I’d see Rachel, the real Rachel, living her life without me. I pictured her with other men, handsome foreign types, on yachts or hotel balconies in the sun, and she was laughing. I imagined that she was laughing at me. Stupid, sad, ignorant Jim living out his life with some glorified sex doll replacement for a wife. What a fool.
I had to find a way to know for sure, or I’d go crazy. I knew it.
I told Rachel I had to get away for a few weeks.
“Is this your revenge, Jim?” she said, sitting on the bed hugging her knees, her hair on her face. “For that time I walked out on you?”
“Do you really think I’m that petty?”
“Where are you going then? Who’re you going with?”
“No one! I haven’t decided where I’m going yet. I just need to get away. Get my head straight.”
This was a lie. I knew exactly where I was going. I was going to L.A. to visit The Andrew Hamilton Clinic to see if I could get some answers.
L.A. was hot and congested and cloaked in smog, just as I’d imagined it would be. What I hadn’t expected to see were so many flowers. The city was like one big beautiful garden. I couldn’t help but wonder if Rachel too had seen it this way the first time she arrived. I wished we could’ve come and visited the city together.
“This place is beautiful,” I said to the taxi driver who picked me up from the airport.
“Yeah,” he replied. “L.A.’s a paradise since they cleaned up all the slums.”
He reached forward to nudge something with his hand, and I saw that there was a black lizard about the size of a man’s hand perched beneath the windscreen. The reason I hadn’t noticed it until now was because it had remained completely still and also matched the colour of the dashboard on which it lay.
“Is that a chameleon?” I asked, leaning forward in my seat. The lizard shifted its head at my movement and stared back at me.
“Not just a chameleon,” the driver said. “Lizzie’s an Elandesberg dwarf chameleon. A special type. She can change her colours to fool the eyes of whatever predator she comes up against. Amazing.” He laughed, sounding like a dog panting. “And she’s got you in her sights, boy. See her colours go?”
As I watched I saw the chameleon’s skin darken so that it all but vanished now into the dashboard.
“Lizzie’s a beauty.”
“Named her after my ex-wife. She was a chameleon, too, in her way.” He made his panting laugh again. “Ain’t that how some people are? Just changing their colours to suit whatever environment they’s in?”
I sat back, but couldn’t take my eyes off the chameleon for the rest of the journey. I glanced up as we approached the hotel, then when I looked for the chameleon again I couldn’t find it. I didn’t know if it was still there on the dash, perfectly camouflaged, or if it had scuttled away and hid somewhere.
The Andrew Hamilton Clinic was a huge glass-fronted building set high in the Hollywood Hills. Before I called them, I thought about posing as an agent or a photographer in order to speak to someone there, but in the end I told them the truth—that I was Rachel Winterbourne’s husband and I had some things I wanted to discuss. It turned out they were just as keen to talk to me. When I arrived, I discovered why. It seemed Rachel had asked for the Rachelle line to be put on hold at a time of high demand—as they put it—and they’d not heard anything from her in almost three years. The woman I met with in a small, plushly-furnished room, who introduced herself as Dinah Gibson, Director of Operations, explained to me that the clinic still had high profile parties interested in the Rachelle line, all they needed was word from Rachel to agree that they could go ahead and produce more.
Dinah was like all the other women I’d seen around L.A.; thin and ageless; hair and teeth and clothes all perfect. She had something of the waxwork about her. She could have been any age between twenty and fifty.
“Rachel did insist on an addendum to her contract,” she told me, “which allowed no further Rachelles to be produced without her permission. Keeping them off the market all this time has increased the value, if that was her intention, but it won’t be long before it starts to slide again. Especially now Rachel herself is no longer in the public eye. ”
“I can’t help you with that,” I told her. “It’s Rachel’s decision. Besides, personally I think what you do here is sick and perverted. This world is already seriously overpopulated. You folk are just adding to the problem. Making copies of people who already exist just so some tycoon can have a supermodel to decorate his house. It’s disgusting. Twisted. And that’s before you factor in the human rights element.”
Dinah Gibson barely blinked when I said this. Most likely, she’d heard all the arguments I could have thrown at her many times over.
“Do you understand, Mr. Watt, how much money you and your wife are losing by keeping the Rachelles off the market?”
“We don’t care about money.”
That got a reaction. Dinah looked aghast; or as aghast as she could look given all the plastic surgery.
“Perhaps you don’t, but Rachel does.”
“How could you possibly know what Rachel cares about? You barely even know her.”
I saw a sly smile appear on Dinah’s face.
“And you do? How well do you actually know your wife, Mr. Watt? I’ll bet I could tell you a few things about her that you’d find very surprising.”
This threw me. Later I found myself wondering whether everything I believed to be true about Rachel was, in fact, just some idea I’d projected onto her. I thought of those magazine-cover Rachels I hadn’t recognised as the Rachel I knew. Wasn’t that Rachel’s talent—to be whoever you wanted her to be?
Ain’t that how some people are? Just changing their colours to suit whatever environment they’s in?
All those times we’d sat on her roof and talked when we were kids, could it really just have been me doing all the talking? Had I ever asked Rachel what she wanted out of life?
“I’ve known her since she was ten years old,” I told Dinah, recovering. “We dated for six years and have been married for three. I know her better than anyone.”
“Then may I ask why you came here?” Dinah said in a pert voice.
“I wanted to ask some questions about the Rachelles.”
“Mr. Watt, I’m not in a position to—”
“You produced three Rachelles, right, before Rachel put a hold on it? One went to the Saudi price, one went to Japan. What happened to the third?”
“Mr. Watt, that information is classified.”
“I need to know who bought the third one.”
“We can provide that information, but only to Rachel herself. If you’d like to put her in touch with us, I’ll make sure—”
“I can’t put her in touch with you. I’m not certain myself where she is.”
Dinah narrowed her gaze. “Don’t you live together?”
“Not ... not necessarily.”
“What do you mean, not necessarily? Either you do or you don’t.”
“Right now I don’t know. That’s what I mean.”
“Then I’m not sure why we’re having this conversation, Mr. Watt. Perhaps you should leave.”
Standing, she crossed to a desk on the other side of the room. There was a zap-screen mounted on the wall behind the desk. Dinah dabbed a finger at the screen and brought up the face of a young woman I recognised from the building’s reception desk.
“Tia, send Daryl over to meeting room five. I want Mr. Watt escorted from the premises right away.”
“Look,” I said, also rising from my chair. “If you can’t tell me what happened to the third Rachelle, perhaps you can just tell me this ...”
“Our meeting’s over Mr. Watt. If you can put your wife in touch with us, I’ll be happy to answer any questions she may have.”
Seeing it might be my last chance to get any kind of answer, I thought desperately of how I could get information out of this woman. “Look, Rachel has no idea you’ve got people lined up wanting to buy Rachelles, right? If you answer me one question, I promise I’ll speak to Rachel about it if I do happen to see her again.”
Dinah was silent, regarding me with folded arms. “What is it, Mr. Watt?”
I took a deep breath. “The clones you make. The ones you made of Rachel. Are they exact copies?”
Dinah drew in her breath and let it out slowly. “Of course. Exact copies. That’s what our customers want.”
“Exact in every way to the actual person they were copies of? So that there’s no way to tell them apart?”
“Yes, that’s right,” Dinah said. “Except there are certain things we wouldn’t be able to reproduce.”
“Things like what?”
“Well ... like scars. If Rachel had any scars they wouldn’t be written into her DNA, so therefore they wouldn’t be reproduced. That would be one way you could tell them apart.”
There was a soft knocking from behind me. The door opened and the burly security guard I’d first encountered in the lobby put his head inside.
“Everything all right, Miss Gibson?”
“Yes,” she said. “Mr. Watt was just leaving.”
Back at the hotel, I wracked my brain trying to remember if Rachel had any scars. It wasn’t until I was in a taxi to the airport the next day that it came to me. Bloodsister. Isn’t that what she said the day we had that massive row? “I am your bloodsister, after all.” It had confused me at the time but now, all of a sudden, I knew what she’d meant. I could remember her telling me about it, long before that. She told me how one day when we were kids Tommy and I cut our thumbs with a penknife, pressed them together, and announced that we were bloodbrothers.
“I had to get in on that,” Rachel told me, laughing and holding up her thumb. “Still got the scar. Hey, Jim, how’s this? Not only am I your wife, I’m also your bloodsister. Cool, huh?”
Now at last I had a way to know for sure whether I was living with the real Rachel or a Rachelle. Once I got home, I could check Rachel’s hands and see if she had a scar on her thumb. My thoughts reeled the entire journey home, as I tried to remember whether I’d noticed the scar on Rachel’s thumb at any time since she’d returned home two years ago. I couldn’t. In truth, the only time I could remember seeing it was that one time she’d shown it to me.
As my taxi negotiated the bypass traffic, which seemed to take forever, and pulled up outside the Morby IV, I felt a swell of anxiety in my chest and I was finding it hard to breathe. I’d begun to think about what it meant if I looked at Rachel’s thumb and found it did have a scar. That would mean I’d been wrong, and I had a hell of a lot of making up to do. It meant that Rachel had come back to me that night; we had started our life over; we were happy. After running my swat-card over the taxi’s reader, I dashed up the steps in a hurry to get up to our apartment and discover just who it was I’d find there.
Joseph, the night porter, called out to me as I entered. He rushed out from behind his desk.
“Mr. Watt. Just a minute. We’ve been trying to contact you.”
“What is it, Joseph?”
“Mr. Watt, it’s about your wife ...”
For a moment I thought he meant Rachel, the real Rachel. Had she stopped by, left a message for me? But of course, he meant the woman I lived with, whoever she was.
“There was an accident, Mr. Watt. You better sit down.”
“What is it? What happened?”
He led me to his desk and sat me down in his leather chair.
“Yesterday, it was. I’m so sorry, Mr. Watt.”
I felt a sudden surge of dread. “What ... what happened? Tell me?”
“Your wife she ... she fell, Mr. Watt. From the window of your apartment. She fell. She must have ... well ... jumped. Right into all that ... that traffic out there. She was ... I mean ... you couldn’t even ... It happened yesterday. I’m so sorry I have to be the one to tell you, Mr. Watt. We’re all so sorry. She was ...”
I titled my head back. I felt dizzy suddenly. Images of Rachel flickered through my mind. Rachel laughing as we sat on the roof of her childhood home together. Rachel on our wedding day. Rachel screaming at me: You’re a fucking arsehole, Jim! I could feel something rising inside me, swelling up towards my throat. A scream.
“Where’s the body?” I said. “At the morgue, right? The body’s at the morgue?” My own voice sounded foreign to me, like it was coming from someone else. “I have to see the body.”
Joseph frowned and dropped his eyes. “She fell a hundred stories,” he said, almost in a whisper. “Then in road. Crushed beyond belief. There ain’t no body to see, Mr. Watt. You understand? There ain’t no body left. I’m so sorry.”
Here’s the funny part. I don’t mean funny ha ha; but it might make you laugh if you’re the sort of person who likes to laugh at life’s grim ironies, or the type that finds other people’s misfortune amusing.
What I think about most these days is how happy we were when she came home after that massive row, after she’d been missing for three months, before I started to suspect that she was a Rachelle. Looking back, I think that was the happiest time of my life.
Yeah, I know. Hilarious.
After the funeral, I continued looking for answers for a while. I was still convinced that the real Rachel was out there somewhere, living under an assumed name. But eventually I realised it was hopeless. All my leads only led to dead ends. If Rachel had wanted to disappear, she’d done an exceptional job.
I find myself sitting and staring at that New-Reality Screen she gave me for our fifth wedding anniversary. I don’t power it up. I just stare at it. I wonder: if the Rachel I was living with by then was a clone, how did she know that I’d never had a New-Reality Screen as a child because my parents couldn’t afford one? Is there some way this information could have been programmed into the clone’s mind? Maybe it was the real Rachel sending me some kind of message. Or maybe, just maybe, it was Rachel herself who leapt from our apartment window that day whilst I was returning from L.A.
Not knowing if she really died is a kind of purgatory. I would give anything to have Rachel back; the love of my life, my wife, my soulmate, my bloodsister. I did a little speech at the funeral where I talked about how unique she was and told the congregation that I’d never meet another woman like her. Of course, I know that’s not true. There are at least three just like her out in the world somewhere. Clones. Facsimiles. And me being a rich man—having inherited all of my wife’s fortune—I’ve started thinking lately about how I might acquire one.
Someone else, as Rachel herself once said, can buy sandwiches.
Tim Jeffreys is a UK-based writer of speculative fiction. His novella, “Voids,” co-written with Martin Greaves, was recently published by Omnium Gatherum Books. Jeffreys is also the author of five collections of short stories, the latest “From Elsewhere.”