Our twins visit once a month. They arrive one at a time, passing one another as they move up and down the path dividing the manicured campus. Years ago, we’d gather to watch from the laboratory’s third floor as they ran free on the grass below, dancing and jumping and tumbling, swinging in their parents’ arms like tiny trapeze artists. We rose to our tiptoes and pressed our palms and noses against the cold glass, watching until they disappeared underneath.
Never once did they look up.
Few still come to the lab. The others faded as we’ve withered away, the way fallen trees lose shadows. Only Carl, Ruth and I remain. Carl is dying, his body ruined by tumors. Ruth insists she feels well, but her ashen skin and yellowed eyes suggest otherwise. I am the healthiest, but not blind to my own reflection: pale, gaunt, a wire hanger holding ill-fitting clothes.
Ruth and I stand at the window while Carl lies on a nearby sofa. We’re teenagers now, no longer needing to stand on our toes to see the campus. Carl’s twin is the first to arrive. I spot him walking up the path toward the building, his ink black hair, almond eyes and slender nose mirroring those of the wasted boy on the couch.
The similarities end here. Carl is probably fifty pounds lighter, his once-olive skin tone faded to parchment. His scalp is visible through short tufts of black fuzz. He lies with his head propped on a pillow, a clear oxygen mask covering his mouth. He turns toward us when I announce his twin’s arrival.
“Describe him,” Carl says, his voice muffled by the foggy plastic.
“His hair’s getting long,” Ruth says. “He keeps flipping his head back to get it out of his eyes. He’s wearing a sweater and jeans. Big white headphones on his ears. It looks like he’s texting on his phone.”
“Are his parents there?” Carl asks.
I look out the window. “His mom,” I say.
“How does she look?”
“Good,” Ruth says. “Her hair is shorter.”
“No dad?” Carl asks.
We shake our heads. Carl turns away from the window and looks toward the ceiling. We’ve never met the twins or their parents. We don’t even know their names. But we’ve watched them our entire lives. The twins are our brothers and sisters. Their parents, whom we’ve never seen up close, whose voices we’ve never heard, are our mothers and fathers.
We know them, even if they don’t know us.
Carl says in a whisper, “I thought he might come this time.”
Carl’s twin walks out of sight into the entrance below. He’ll stay for two hours before exiting and returning down the path. Along the way, he’ll pass Ruth’s twin, who will then pass mine a few hours later. It is the monthly ritual, performed every second Saturday. They won’t notice one another as their paths cross, completely unaware of any connection.
They are strangers.
Carl falls asleep on the couch. Ruth and I continue watching.
I asked Ruth to marry me when we were eight years old. I found her during recess at the jungle gym with Carl and Martha, who would die from pneumonia that winter. Ruth sat atop the dome of criss-crossed bars like a queen holding court. I knelt at the base and lifted a bouquet of dandelions toward her. I said the words, then waited for a response. All she did was smile.
It seems in retrospect a silly thing for a child to do. Most boys pull hair, or call names, or chase and push the objects of their affection. I proposed marriage in front of everyone I knew.
This is Ruth’s effect on me. She lulls me like a pendulum.
Dr. Valerie laughs as she recounts the story. We’re alone in the common room. Ruth is downstairs undergoing testing and Carl is sleeping in his room. Dr. Valerie came for Carl’s weekly therapy session, but decided to let him rest. She found me reading on the couch.
“It was the cutest thing,” she says through a smile. “You were so diligent, pulling up as many of those dandelions as you could find. We had no idea what you were up to!”
She was there, of course. The doctors were always around back then. They’d sit to the side taking notes while went about our day. Dr. Stone and Dr. Madrigal took blood and ran us through batteries of examinations, checking our weight and height and ability to perform a variety of physical tasks. Dr. Valerie led therapy sessions and conducted ongoing assessments of our intelligence, personality and levels of achievement. We were poked and prodded, our lives told on the pages of a lab report.
Dr. Valerie was our favorite. She was young and pretty, always happy, always smiling. She often remained after the other adults left, playing games and reading stories. When one of us fell during recess or got into an argument in the nursery, we ran to her.
She became pregnant when I was nine or ten. I remember wishing to trade places with her baby.
She still visits with us, although less frequently than when we were younger. It’s the same with all of the doctors. Perhaps they’ve learned all there is to know about us. Perhaps they’re simply tired of watching us die.
Dr. Valerie sighs. “I don’t know how she didn’t accept then and there.”
I smile. “It’s for the best. We were a little young for marriage.”
“You’re getting older,” she says. “Maybe she’s coming around?”
“My only competition is Carl,” I say. “Although he does have a way with the ladies.”
A sad smile sinks into Dr. Valerie’s face. I notice for the first time how much she has aged. Lines creep from the edges of her eyes and mouth like cracks in thinning ice. Her features are sharp and angular.
We’re the sick ones, but everybody here suffers.
In my earliest memories, twelve of us lived in the lab. The common room looked like a nursery then, decorated in bright reds, yellows, greens and blues, characters from Sesame Street and Dr. Seuss smiling down from the walls. We sat in beanbags and little plastic chairs and listened as a Dr. Valerie read us stories. We learned numbers and letters, listened to music and did arts and crafts. Scattered toys, promises of sprained ankles, littered the floor.
Ian fell ill first. He developed a cough that became uncontrollable. The doctors kept him in his room while the rest of us played. Eventually, they told us he wouldn’t return.
Angelika, a skinny girl with red hair and freckles, collapsed the following month. A round-faced boy named Steen became ill soon after. Robert, a boy I often played with during the hour-long morning recess on the grassy campus outside, suddenly moved to a location in the building we came to know as the medical wing.
There were only six of us by the time we reached our seventh birthdays.
One by one, we die.
They used to tell us we had a disease. Our families couldn’t take care of us. We were contagious and had to stay confined to the lab, where doctors could search for a cure.
It was Ruth who always poked holes in the story. Why did every one of us have a twin who visited the building? If the doctors could touch us without masks or gloves, why couldn’t our parents? Couldn’t we talk to them on the phone, or through video recordings or letters?
Dr. Madrigal told us the truth when we turned fourteen. We are clones, created from DNA taken from our twins when they were still embryos. Their parents – our parents – signed custody over to Schilling Laboratories in exchange for money.
We were supposed to be a landmark achievement: human embryos cloned from somatic donor cells and carried to term by surrogate mothers. The research team, led by Dr. Madrigal and Dr. Stone and funded by Schilling Laboratories, would become instant celebrities by producing a healthy crop of cloned children. Healthy clones meant an end to infertility and chromosomal disorders and an unlimited supply of embryonic stem cells to treat disease. Healthy clones opened up new fronteirs in medicine.
We weren’t healthy. We developed infections, tumors, cancer. We began to die. Suddenly, nobody was eager to announce our existence. They brought us here instead, locked away on the third floor for all but an hour each day, when we could run around in the drab building’s shadow. The doctors now claim to be working toward a cure for those of us who are still alive.
Our real families don’t want to see us.
They want nothing to do with us.
“Do you think we’ll ever meet them?” Ruth asks one morning. We’re walking side-by-side on the campus green behind the building. It’s early September. I wear a T-shirt. She is bundled in a white jacket and hat that contrasts her dark skin and brown eyes.
Not brown. Amber. Almost like honey.
Her hands are buried in her pockets. Despite the layers, I sense a shiver in her voice.
“Who?” I ask.
“Our parents. The twins”
“They don’t want to meet us.”
“That’s what they say,” Ruth says, motioning toward the lab. She spits out they as if it tastes sour. “Do you really believe it? How could they love one child and completely abandon another?”
“We’re not their children.”
“Ugh! You sound like Dr. Madrigal.”
I wince. “What do you expect me to say? They didn’t give birth to us. They didn’t give us names and homes and birthday parties. We’re just spare cells taken from their real babies.”
Ruth stops walking and turns toward me. “You’re telling me not a single one changed their mind? There were twelve of us, Oliver. Wouldn’t one of those parents would be curious about meeting a boy or girl identical to their own child?”
“Maybe they’re not allowed,” I say.
“Maybe,” Ruth says. She turns and begins walking again. I keep pace at her left. We are nearly the same height, our shoulders level with one another. I look down at her hands, still bundled into the coat. I wonder if she might remove them, imagining our fingers brushing together. Walking with Ruth is blissful torture.
We move in silence. The lab is to our left, a box of bleached concrete striped with four levels of tinted glass windows. A hundred yards of grass separates the building from the wooded area on our right. It is the same all the way around. The lab is a fortress surrounded by a belt of green, with no other buildings in sight.
After a few minutes, Ruth speaks again. “They should be,” she says.
“Should be what?”
“They should be allowed to meet us. We should be allowed to meet them,” she says. “We should be able to go home with them.”
I think of my twin and his parents. We both have the mother’s sandy brown hair and blue eyes, the father’s nose and chin. I imagine following them down the path, getting into their car and driving to their home. Sitting down to dinner. Watching a movie in the family room, a bowl of popcorn between us on the couch.
Ruth continues. “Don’t you ever wonder about leaving this place? Everybody else comes and goes. Everybody else lives in houses with cars in their driveways and dogs in their backyards. They eat in restaurants, go shopping, wander off in whatever direction they like, simply because they can.” She opens her arms and gestures at their surroundings. “And here we are. Day after day. Rotting away.”
I say nothing. Ruth tucks her hands back into her pockets and squeezes her arms in, as if hugging herself. She shivers. Her teeth chatter.
It can’t be less than sixty degrees out here.
“Let’s go inside,” I say. “You’re going to catch cold.”
We play Monopoly on Saturdays. Carl, as always, plays with the race car. Ruth and I use the top hat and the thimble. We sit around a table in the common room, wrinkled pastel paper bills and dog-eared property cards littering every surface. I roll a seven and move my piece to St. James Place. Ruth has the other two orange properties in her carefully arranged collection. If I don’t buy the third, she’ll have a shot at building houses along the row.
“Pass,” I say.
Carl chuckles. He is lying on the couch, his head against a pillow. The laugh is muffled by his oxygen mask, but the smile behind it is evident.
“What’s funny?” I ask.
Carl shakes his head and looks at Ruth. I follow and see her smiling as well. She looks embarrassed.
I redden. “What?” I say. “I don’t have the money.”
“You’ve got a five-hundred,” Carl whispers.
“I’m saving it,” I say.
“Sure,” says Ruth.
Ruth outbids Carl for St. James Place after it goes up for auction. A mischevious grin breaks out on her face as she places little green houses on the orange strip above each property. Carl smiles as I watch her.
“What do you think the twins are doing right now?” Ruth asks.
This is one of her favorite games. She likes to imagine the glamorous life her clone leads when she is not visiting the lab. The type of life we’re never going to have.
I wonder about this myself. I once read a book on identical twins that described a psychic link between the pair. They share thoughts, feelings and emotions. After reading it, I spent weeks in solitude, eyes closed, trying to reach out and make some sort of connection.
There was nothing.
“It’s Saturday night,” I say. “Maybe he’s at a party?”
Ruth’s brown eyes alight. Not brown. Amber. Like whiskey. “A house party!” she says. “There’s music playing. Everyone is dancing. In the backyard there’s a pool, and everyone is jumping in and swimming!”
“I don’t know. It’s a little cold for swimming.”
Ruth sticks out her tongue. I continue. “What about yours? Is she at the same party?”
I often imagine the lives of our twins intersecting. Ruth’s and mine living across the street from one another, attending the same classes, sharing the same circle of friends. I imagine him having the courage to reach out and take her hand, to tell her how he feels.
Ruth shakes her head. She doesn’t share this fantasy. “She’s out at a nightclub. She’s wearing a cute black dress and heels. The beat from the music is thumping. It’s dark inside, but the dance floor is all lit up. She’s out there with her friends. They’re all dancing in a big group.”
“Sixteen-year-olds can’t get into nightclubs.”
“Mine can.” She turns to her right. “What about your twin, Carl?”
Carl has fallen asleep on the couch. He sleeps more and more each day. He is so thin, so gray. Ruth reaches for a blanket at his feet and pulls it up to cover his upper body.
“We’re going to lose him soon,” she whispers without taking her eyes off him.
I nod. She continues. “Carl’s twin is up on a giant mountain somewhere. He’s been walking and climbing all day, and now he’s at the top, on a cliff overlooking endless trees and rivers. There are many stars in the sky. He starts a little fire and sits next to it. And he just watches everything.”
Ruth turns and looks at me. I smile at her. She smiles back.
“We should call a nurse to come get him,” I say.
She nods. “I’ll go to the phone.” As she walks away, she begins to cough, quietly at first, then more violently. It’s as if she’s been holding it in this whole time.
Carl dies in October, a few weeks after being moved to the medical wing. There are no flowers, no wake, no funeral. These are things we only know from watching television and movies. When one of us dies, there is a visit from Dr. Stone and a few therapy sessions with Dr. Valerie. After that, we move on.
Ruth and I stroll along the campus during our daily walk. We circle the perimeter of the building, starting at the main entrance and moving counter-clockwise. The weak sun hides behind thin clouds as it begins its fall toward the horizon. We are silent, save for the rattling cough Ruth tries to hide and I pretend to ignore.
We reach the concrete walkway connecting the front of the building to the grove of trees shielding the parking area at the opposite end. This is the path our twins walk, the path the doctors, nurses and other workers traverse every day as they arrive and depart. It’s a path we are forbidden to follow.
I cross the walkway and continue along the lawn, hoping to circle the building again before we go back inside. After a few steps, I notice Ruth is no longer at my side.
She stands on the pavement with her back to the lab, eyeing something in the distance. I follow her gaze, expecting to find one of the twins or some other odd sight. Instead there is nothing. Ruth stares at the same oak and birch trees we’ve seen from our window for years.
I walk back and stand to her left, crossing my arms and looking in the same direction. The bright green of the trees is fading into reds and oranges and yellows. Most find this beautiful. I know the truth. Leaves change colors when they are starving.
“A few more weeks and the trees will be bare,” I say.
Ruth coughs again. Her lungs echo like a tomb.
We watch the trees without speaking. I’m about to suggest going back inside when Ruth steps forward and begins walking away from the lab. I watch her take a few steps before trotting to catch up. “Where are you going?” I ask.
“Ruth, we’re not supposed to go down there.” The path leads to the only known exit from the campus. We’ve been told our entire lives not to stray toward its far end.
“Let’s leave,” she says. “Right now. Down the path and through whatever’s on the other side.”
“Ruth, we can’t leave.”
“It’ll be just like in the movies,” she continues, as if she doesn’t hear me. “We’ll reach the road and get on a bus or a train. We’ll go to a town or a city, someplace we’ve never been.”
“We don’t have any money.”
Ruth shrugs. “Then we’ll walk.”
We’re more than halfway down the path. I imagine the two of us leaving the lab behind, side-by-side, seated close together as we’re ferried toward some unknown destination. We’ll find jobs and get an apartment. We’ll start a life together.
Ruth’s cough persists. We’re closer to the exit than we’ve ever been.
I want to reach for her hand. She would let me take it. I know she would.
The exit is steps away.
A siren chirps in the opening between the trees ahead of us. A white truck appears, a gumdrop-shaped red emergency light on its roof. It crushes the gravel beneath as it pulls to a stop, blocking the opening lengthwise. SCHILLING LABS SECURITY is printed on its side.
Two men in dark blue uniforms step from the vehicle. One speaks quietly into a handheld radio as the other approaches Ruth and me. “You kids lost?” he says.
I start to speak when the sound of footsteps behind us stops me. I turn to see more security officers running down the path from the lab. There are two men in white coats running alongside the officers, one pale and narrow, the other dark-skinned and squat. Dr. Stone and Dr. Madrigal.
“Ruth! Oliver!” Dr. Stone huffs as he draws close. “Where are you going?”
“We’re just taking a walk,” I say.
“We’re leaving,” Ruth says.
She glares at the doctors, her back straight and her arms crossed, a posture screaming rebellion. Dr. Stone looks hurt, as if he’s just learned of some awful betrayal. Dr. Madrigal’s face unwraps into a sinister smirk.
It is Dr. Stone who first speaks. “What do you mean, leaving? You can’t go anywhere in your condition!”
“I’ll manage,” Ruth says. “It’s not as if staying here has been all that great for any of us.”
Dr. Stone looks to Dr. Madrigal, who takes a step toward Ruth. “You’re not thinking clearly. It’s time to come inside.”
“No!” she shouts. “We should be able to leave! Why … can’t we …” A violent coughing fit interrupts Ruth’s protestations. I put my hands around her shoulders, holding her up as her body lurches forward. We’re then pulled apart, the security officers grabbing both of us and dragging us back toward the lab.
I can hear Dr. Madrigal’s voice behind us. “Everything’s all right,” he says. “You’ll feel better once you’re inside.”
They lead us through the front doors. I see Dr. Valerie standing by the front desk in the lobby. She turns away the moment our eyes meet.
Ruth is dying.
She lies in her room, somewhere between awake and asleep, an IV in her arm and an oxygen mask on her face. I can see her bones: the sharp angles of her cheekbones, the knobs of her elbows, clavicles jutting from her shoulders like newly sprouted wings. Her skin is dry, ashen, as if she is slowly turning to dust.
I sit at her bedside. I say her name. Her eyes open, heavy, half-lidded. Not brown. Amber, like a sunset. She offers a tired smile.
“Merry Christmas,” I say. I pull a small bouquet of dandelions tied together with a ribbon from behind my back and lay it on her midsection.
Ruth sees them and laughs. “How?” she asks in a weak voice.
“I’ve been growing them in my room. I was planning to spring them on you at New Year’s.”
“Gonna propose again?”
I blush. “I wish I hadn’t given up so easily the first time.”
I take her hand. We sit without speaking, listening to the beeps and whirrs and chirps of the various devices monitoring Ruth’s condition. They’ll likely move her to the medical wing shortly, as they did with Carl, and Barbara before him, and Spencer before her. The turning of the leaves. This may be one of my last chances to sit with her.
After a moment, Ruth speaks in a whisper. “Why did they make us?”
It’s a question I ask myself every day. “Because they could, I guess,” I say. “They wanted to see if it could work.”
I don’t know how to answer. A scientist would probably say no. We fell to pieces like cheap knockoffs while our twins grew strong and flourished. Surely we weren’t what they hoped.
We are people, though. We walk, talk, and breathe. We tell jokes and have favorite books, movies, and television shows. We are joyful, sad, thoughtful, shy, confident, and insecure. We fear dying.
“It worked,” I say. “We’re too awesome to be ignored.”
She smiles. “It would have been fun.”
“You and me. Running away. I would have liked that.”
“I would have liked it, too.”
“I wish there were more time,” Ruth says in a whisper. “I didn’t see it until now. You always knew, but I didn’t see.”
The nurse comes in and asks me to leave. I wipe a tear from Ruth’s cheek with my thumb and look into her eyes. She is falling back to sleep. The nurse will soon give her medication, and Ruth will sink deeper into her slumber.
I lean in and kiss Ruth on the cheek. I wonder if she feels it, if she wishes I had done it long before. If I’ll ever be able to do it again.
It snowed last night. The campus sleeps under a thin blanket of white. I remember a time when there were many visitors here, especially on the second Saturday, the day the twins came. Snow meant shoveled walkways, meandering footprints, snow angels. A landscape of traces.
It is late morning on visiting day, and the snow is undisturbed. Nobody comes anymore. The twins. The parents. Even some of the doctors and staff seem to have slipped away. It is as if this entire place is being forgotten.
I am waiting for one visitor. A twin usually comes once or twice after one of us dies, presumably for a final examination and interview. Ruth’s twin should have arrived already, but I’m holding out hope that she is running late. Maybe the snow delayed their trip.
The door behind me opens and closes. I hear footsteps but do not turn around. After a moment, I see Dr. Valerie’s reflection in the glass. She looks out the window beside me.
“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” she says.
“They don’t shovel the walk anymore,” I say.
“Oh. They must have forgotten.”
We stare out the window in silence. She seems uncomfortable, fidgeting with her blouse, shuffling her feet. She wants to talk: about Ruth, about Carl, about my being the only one left. I’m not giving her an opening.
There is movement at the far end of the campus. I see two figures walking toward the building, leaving a trail of footprints in their wake.
She walks with her mother, bundled in snow boots, dark jeans and a black ski jacket that falls below her waist. A white knit cap covers the long, tight black curls of her hair. I can see her face as she draws closer. Her skin is dark brown and smooth. Her pink lips shine with gloss. Her brown eyes dance as she jokes with her mother beside her.
Not brown. Amber. Almost like butterscotch.
“Such a lovely girl,” Dr. Valerie says. “Smart, too. Just like Ruth.”
“What’s her name?” I ask.
“Oliver, you know I can’t tell you that.”
I turn to Dr. Valerie. “They don’t look up.”
“The twins and their parents. None of them ever look up. I used to stand here and wait for one of them, any of them, to glance up and make eye contact. But they never have.”
“Well, why would they?”
“I would be curious,” I say. “If there were a person out there that looked just like my kid, that had my DNA, I would want to see them. Even if I didn’t want them, I’d still take a look. I wouldn’t be able to resist.”
“Is there a question here?”
“I want to meet them.”
Dr. Valerie and I watch one another. I’ve known her my whole life. She is the doctor who cares about us, the one who listens to our problems and tells us everything will be alright. She treats us with warmth, love, compassion.
Except for now. The look on Dr. Valerie’s face as she stares at me is one of suspicion.
“Isn’t the home we’ve given you enough?” she asks.
“This?” I wave my arms around the common room. “You call this a home? We’re stuck inside all day. We go out for an hour of exercise. You know what that sounds like?”
“This is the best place for you,” she says. “Your immune system isn’t equipped to handle contact with outsiders.”
“That should be our choice!” It occurs to me that I keep referring to myself as a plural. We. As if there were anyone else left. “Just tell my parents I want to meet them. I’m not asking for them to take me home with them or anything. I just want to speak with them.”
“It’s not possible.”
“You know why. You have to know by now.”
“I want to hear you say it,” I say, stepping closer to her. “Why can’t I meet my family?”
“It’s so easy to demonize if you don’t look at the benefits,” she says. “Healthy clone cells can end heart disease, paralysis, genetic disorders. So many sick people would have a chance to be better.”
“There are some who believe cloning technology holds the secret to stopping the aging process. Can you imagine? Never growing old?”
“If anyone can imagine what that’s like, it’s me,” I say.
Dr. Valerie’s face hardens. “They don’t know, Oliver. Nobody knows. And nobody will.”
I hear Ruth’s voice in my mind. Told you.
The parents signed up for some random experiment. They received money and assurance that their children wouldn’t be hurt in any way. They never learned what was done with the DNA taken from their babies.
“You had no right to do this to us,” I say.
“You helped us learn,” she says. “Next time it will be better. You’ve made humanity better.”
Next time. As if eleven dead children are nothing more than an easily corrected typo, a flubbed line, a misplaced decimal point. As if there is a quick, easy remedy for our mourning, our suffering, our isolation.
Once I’m gone, they’ll find new parents, new genomes to steal from embryos, new surrogates willing to carry them for a paycheck. A new set of clones will hatch.
I hope it is better for them.
“I’ve got an appointment downstairs,” she says. “I’ll check back later. Try to get some rest.”
I turn back to the window as she walks away. She’ll pretend this discussion never happened the next time she visits. It’s easier to act as if this is normal, that locking sick children away in a prison disguised as a laboratory is a normal existence.
Ruth’s twin has disappeared into the entrance below. Mine will be along before long. I’ve watched them pass one another on the path more times than I can count. They’ve never so much as glanced at one another.
I think of my fantasy about our twins being neighbors, classmates, even friends. I imagine their eyes meeting as they pass near the entrance. They’ll stop and talk. They’ll wonder at how they never noticed one another here at the lab before. They’ll gossip about friends and teachers. They’ll smile and laugh.
They will hold hands.
They will walk down the path leading away from the lab together.
And nobody will stop them.