She seldom speaks, now. She has grown tired of the way her voice sounds. It always seems to be moving around the pieces of a game she never agreed to play: always hardening and sharpening into defense or demand or, her specialty: curated indifference. She is sick of hearing it praise the thing she spent thirty years trying to conjugate with. The thing she told herself tirelessly that she was a part of, above of, even when every medical file and the look in the eyes of every gray-haired man she faced kept telling her she wasn't. She is sick of her tongue shaping words like director and superior and scientific revolution so many times that the sharp consonants have been ground down to whispers by the tiny specks of doubt in her voice.
Her voice, something so personal. Distinctly different from the others; clearer. More aware. It just became a strategical tool, like the rest of her, and now she doesn't know how to change it back. And she cannot remember, like so much else of her past, if she ever had a soft voice. Like Veera Suominen. Or an emotional one, like Cosima Niehaus, or an animated one, like Alison Hendrix.
Perhaps the scientists fabricated her voice too, at the beginning of things. For this purpose.
It's not like there is anyone to speak to out here, anyway. Perhaps that's one of the reasons she agreed to come: there's nobody around to play the game of control with. Rachel has to remind herself of that sometimes, when she finds herself picking at her cuticles. That's all over now. The thought gives her very little comfort.
Siobhan had called Rachel two weeks after her rendezvous with Felix in the Uber, where she had sat just a few agonizing steps from the backyard that held everything she could never have. Siobhan Sadler: her own genetic niece. The science annoyed her, because it should mean that Rachel be the one with the upper hand. And yet, she had agreed to a meeting, because she didn't have it in her to protest. She brushed her hair, applied her lipstick and opened the door when Siobhan knocked on it twice. She poured tea into white, mass-produced hotel mugs.
They sat across from each other silently for a little while before Rachel asked, in that voice she was coming to hate more and more, “did he die immediately?”
Siobhan did not break eye contact. “No.”
“A minute, two perhaps.”
“Did he say anything?”
Her mouth curved slightly. “About you, you mean?”
Rachel didn't reply. Siobhan took a pensive sip of tea.
“Too much blood in his throat to say much of anything, I reckon.”
Rachel considered how she felt about that for a long moment. The results were inconclusive.
“Does it make you hate me?”
“No. I don't care for you enough to hate you."
They swallowed some more tea.
“Did you love him?”
Rachel studied her picked-apart cuticles. For some juvenile reason it was easy to be honest with Siobhan Sadler. “I am not quite sure I understand love.”
Siobhan bowed her head. “Fair.”
Rachel quietly remembered the way Ferdinand's voice had sounded when he had told her he loved her. She thought it had sounded fabricated, just like everything in her life. She thought of the six files that had been changed to Deceased when he had returned from Helsinki, that insatiable hunger all over his face. She thought of asking Siobhan if she felt remorse, but what was the point, and besides, she already knew the answer.
“So.” Siobhan's accent tilted the word into a peculiar question. “Where are you gonna go now?”
Rachel raised an eyebrow. “Does it matter to you?”
“I just thought you might not want to spend your whole life in this hotel room.”
Rachel let her one seeing eye drift to the brown concrete wall outside her window and settled for a dry smile. “What gives you the idea that I have a life?”
Siobhan didn't answer that, so Rachel had a sip of tea instead. It was turning humid.
“I have a cottage in Ireland.”
Rachel closed her eyes.
“South-east part, in the countryside. After we left the country I kept it in my name, because I always had a feeling...”
A feeling I would fail? When she opened her eyes again Siobhan looked distant, and then she shifted her gaze steadily back to Rachel.
“I can arrange the trip for you within a few days.”
Rachel swallowed away the wavers in her voice. “I don't need your pity.”
It was Siobhan's turn to raise her eyebrows. “I don't pity you, Rachel. I think you are being given exactly what you deserve.”
Rachel looked away again. “Did Sarah put you up to this?”
Siobhan made a sound with her throat that was almost amused. “Sarah doesn't know I'm here, and I highly doubt she'd like it if she knew.”
Rachel hated herself for having asked. “Then why are you doing this.”
“I thought you didn't care.”
She rolled her eye. Her lungs still felt constricted.
Siobhan regarded her for a second, put her cup down on the table and sighed. She suddenly seemed about ready to be done with the conversation all together. “We were screwed by the same people. We have some irrational duty to do what we can for each other, don't we? You did what you could for us. And this is what I can do for you. You say no, and I'll never come to this depressing hotel room again.”
Her accent distracted Rachel again. She had heard it so many times. She knew what it warped into when it was scared, angry, lying, begging, thanking. She knew the round fondness it acquired whenever it said love or chicken to members of her family. Which Rachel was not a part of.
If Siobhan's voice had taken on that fondness then, Rachel would not have accepted. She knows it now, and she knew it then. But perhaps Siobhan understood that, or perhaps she just didn't have any fondness to spare Rachel.
“It's quite beautiful,” Siobhan sighed absentmindedly.
And it is.
Every day she walks a gravel road, carved between two fields bursting with flowers Rachel has only seen before in picture books. In the mornings, golden sun filters through every tiny petal and paints her skin in dreamlike patterns. Nothing is fabricated here. There are soft green hills, quiet mountains and billowing meadows, a rich painting framed by the steep cliffs and the roaring, ancient sea below them.
It really is beautiful, Rachel thinks, as she stands on the gravel road and feels nothing.
She initially decides to stay for six weeks. Six weeks is an appropriate time to rehabilitate. After that, she should return. To what, her mind asks as she walks up and down the roads, and she has no good answer. Her willpower is dissolving after just a week. What would it matter if she didn't go back? There is nothing to go back to. Nobody requires her. She thinks, as she bends and carefully plucks a violet flower from the roadside, that she might just remain here, forever purposeless, until no desire or memory is left within her.
Where would I go?
In the beginning, life alone in a small cottage in the middle of endless fields is difficult. There seems to be light years of time in a single day, but nothing productive to use it on. If she's not tethered to the consciousness of another person, she fears she will completely disappear. But eventually her phone shuts off, and she doesn't bother to charge it, because she knows no one will call. She stops keeping the TV or the radio on at all times just to hear someone speak. When silence encapsulates her it's frightening, but she opens her eye again, touches one palm to the other and she still seems to exist. That's something.
She stops counting the days. Five times she has been to the drowzy supermarket half an hour away. She buys local produce. Apples from the neighboring town, carrots, milk and butter and organic eggs until the basket is full. She walks past the bread shelf automatically, and then she stops and turns back. Surveys all the endless options and at long last, chooses one without whole grain. Pays in cash, rides the spindly bus back to the stop at the top of the gravel road, walks slowly with her paper bag grazing the ground and the flowers greeting her. In the kitchen, she spreads a thick layer of butter on a slice of bread and eats it leaning against the counter. It's good. Uncomplicated, Rachel thinks.
The girl behind the register at the shop has an accent so broad Rachel almost flinched the first time she heard it. But now she likes how it sounds. Most of all she likes the way the girl behind the register looks at her, which is, after glancing at her distant eye, with polite disinterest. Neither intimidated nor curious. Rachel is not to be experimented on, nor to be feared. Not even to be worshiped. She is just someone in a shop in the countryside, buying things like bread and fruit and organic eggs.
She barely looks in the mirror any more, because Siobhan's cottage doesn't have any. There is just the one, a small one, in the bathroom above the sink. By the sixth venture to the store she looks in it and is startled by a face slightly speckled with freckles. It's August. The sun has begun her lap of honor, and each morning Rachel has been there on the gravel to greet her. She has never had freckles before. She thinks of Kira when she sees them, of an innocence she can never regain. How many years, how many sprays of freckles does it take to be forgiven? How many to be new?
Rachel divides her time evenly between taking walks along the endless roads, sleeping, nibbling on food, and sitting in the different chairs of the cottage thinking about things.
She thinks of the people she has killed. There are a lot of them; lives that she simply snuffed out. Death is simple. It's just another tool she used to acquire her reverie of power. It's convenient.
She feels numb towards them, and then she feels faint disgust at herself for feeling numb. She realizes that Sarah has killed people too. So has Helena: killed her sisters, even, just like Rachel. First hand, finger on trigger killed. ID tag numbers marked Deceased in medical files. They don't seem to carry an awful lot of guilt about it.
But Helena was manipulated, abused and lied to until she barely had a conscience anymore. And most victims were people you sent to capture or kill them, says a voice in her head. They killed because you made them. Rachel supposes that is true, but if this new world is teaching her anything, it's that a life is a life. They are, apparently, all worth the same.
Often, when she loses herself in the abyss of thoughts like these, she ends up feeling awfully tired. She eats a slice of bread. She sleeps.
Two months go by before Rachel discovers the overgrown garden behind the cottage. One day she opens the door in the old fence panel behind the shed out of boredom, and is met with a dense jungle of greens. Slowly she makes her way around. The narrow paths of stone have succumbed to roots and weeds and large tufts of grass; bushes and vines climb the trunks of fruit trees towards the sky. There are high lilac hedges that turn into azaleas that turn into plants that Rachel can't name, bloomed over months ago but still full of heavy green leaves. A wild, living thing, full of force. Honey bees buzz calmly back and forth between the lavenders. Cosima Niehaus got a tattoo of the golden ratio on her right wrist when she was 19 years old to remind herself of everything's connection in nature.
Rachel screws her eyes shut. How long to stop comparing?
She considers cutting the garden down to perfect squares. She considers getting down on her knees and pulling all the weeds up with her own bare hands. She considers setting it on fire, just to see it turn into ash. In the end she does none of the above. She sits on the weathered bench closest to the apple tree and thinks of all the hands that have ever touched her. They've all wanted something from her; her blood, her anger, her obedience. They've all pushed and pulled until they've gotten it out of her. Rachel, the never ending resource. Rachel, the vessel to manipulate. They all laid hands on her.
Do you know your ID tag number?
It's time for your examination.
A corporation raised you. What are you?
You are the experiment.
She cannot remember if the people who took the roles of her mother and father ever touched her differently – with love and care. Logically, she knows from the video tapes she has seen so many times they're etched onto the surface of her brain, that they did, but the physical memory is lost. How little it all seems to matter against the enormous canvas of cold, calculated touches. Perhaps that's why she kept coming back to those tapes again and again. To build a bridge. A dying person desperate for something to cling onto in the realm of life, but no matter the way she fumbles, she catches nothing. Those tapes lie in a drawer on the other side of the ocean now. Or perhaps they have been destroyed. Either way, she doesn't think she'll ever watch them again. They don't help her. They don't bring her closer to the truth. They only confuse her, only there to make her believe in fabricated lies.
You needed your family, and he took them away from you as an experiment...
You are all barren by design.
For every Sarah, every Cosima, I regret making you.
Who hurt you?
Rachel sits on the bench and gazes down at her hands, turning them slowly, wondering if she'll ever know how to touch anything without the purpose of getting something out of it. If she will manage to turn them into anything other than weapons.
When she passes a rose bush in the garden that is suffocating from weeds, she stops and considers it. She ought to just leave it. When the organism is incompatible with the environment, the organism will die.
From the tiny shed, she retrieves a shovel and a pot and half carries, half drags them through the garden. She stings her fingers until blood draws as she tries to peel away the ivy that clings to every twig of the rose. Eventually she tears it off: suddenly consumed by this new-found purpose, even though she knows deep down it's ridiculous and futile. She just wants to try her hands at something selfless, see if they can do it. With great effort she severs root after root until the plant is free of the earth, presents it with the solitude of the pot and carefully puts soil into it until it's tucked in securely. Below the tap, she fills Siobhan's rusty water pitcher and carries it through the garden even though it's far too heavy. Some of the soil is washed away in the flood she brings, but in the end, Rachel has transplanted the rose bush.
"There," she pants, leaned against the shovel, blouse dirtied and pants ripped from thorns, right leg aching. "Now you are free."
The twigs of the plant look naked and awkward without their cloth of ivy, but the three pale rose blooms seem to have endured. Rachel decides the plant deserves an acclimatisation period. Surely everyone forced into a new environment deserves that.
One week later, Rachel wakes up in Siobhan's cottage to the sound of dense rain on the roof. She gets out of bed and goes to make herself a cup of tea on the stove, absentmindedly rotating her knee to loosen up her stiff leg. When she steps into the living room with her teacup, the rose bush is standing there by the window, begging her to come closer. She does so mechanically. She already knows.
The flowers that were first vigorous and delicate and the softest sunrise shade of pink have begun to shrivel and crack into brownish cadavers. The beautifully sleek leaves have wilted and started to fall to the floor. The naked twig Rachel takes carefully between her fingers breaks off with a snap that seems to ring through the whole cottage.
Rachel drags the dying rose out to the farthest back of the garden. She uproots it from the pot and throws it on a pile of dead brushwood. Her leg aches. She pours the soil back into the hole she made in the earth a week ago. It looks like a freshly dug grave. She sits on the bench below the dripping apple trees and stares at her hands. She wishes she could cut them off. She wishes someone would come and tell her how to be a person. She wishes she had a martini glass, just so she could smash it. How long until you're new?
You have proven yourself. I consider you my daughter.
My mum used to do that.
We chip away at the devil until there's nothing left.
Where's your smoking gun, Rachel?
She stands in the middle of the green flourish and shakes. How long?
After the rose, she seriously considers leaving the cottage and the damned island altogether. The rain smashes itself against the roof with a staunchness she's never heard before. Her cuticles bleed.
In the end, she stays.
She thinks that ought to count for something.
Despite the heavy, saturated end of summer that has seemed so intent on staying forever, the seasons begin the jading process of changing. The air in the morning nips at her cheeks. On the small gaunt trees in the garden, apples grow that are sour when Rachel tastes them. The pile of dirt from her attempt with the rose has been covered with faintly yellow leaves. When the sun shines it's all golden, but when it doesn't, looming clouds roll across the endless skies. Quicker and quicker in the evenings, daylight departs and twilight settles over the fields.
Siobhan emails semi-regularly. Short, concise messages, to inform on required maintenance of the cottage or to ask various questions about the weather, if the radiator is working, etcetera. She never asks how Rachel is doing, for which Rachel is grateful. She does what Siobhan asks her – which is not a lot, mainly checking pipes and making sure the fence is intact – and writes back in equally short sentences.
It's strangely nice, being given tasks. Being indirectly checked up on in this manner. Rachel's mother never checked up on her.
Rachel's mother. She hates it; the word; the woman; the loss inside her that demands to be felt despite Rachel trying everything to kill it. Her mother made her in a lab. Her mother studied her like a rat. Her mother gave her away and left her. Let Rachel grieve her, miss her, repress her, reinvent her through endless hours of video tapes.
Her mother locked her up and confessed to not wanting her while Rachel was stuck in a wheelchair with words hitching in her throat and an eye shining like a star. Her mother humiliated her.
And what would you do? Let the disease advance, or intervene?
Like she knew Rachel wasn't strong enough to make the tough decisions. Rachel hated her for looking at her like that. Like Susan had known all along: Rachel was nothing but another failure. And perhaps the biggest reason Rachel hated her was because she was right. Because, locked inside that secret prison of a house, locked inside her body that refused to obey her, locked inside her own rotting mind, Charlotte was the only one who lent her any relief. Charlotte would smile at her and tell her about geology and planets while everyone else looked at Rachel like she was a disappointing trinket. In that house, Rachel would have pushed the rest of the Ledas off the highest cliff on the island to cure Charlotte. And that, she knows, was a failure in Susan's eyes.
Rachel hated her. Rachel wanted her back. Maybe just to have someone left to blame for everything.
Charlotte was cloned from you, you know. She hadn't known. But of course. It made sense. After all, it seemed to be true; Rachel only cared about herself. All of it had seemed a fantastical, cruel joke.
What are you?
What am I?
She slams the laptop shut.
When she comes inside from a walk and looks in the bathroom mirror in mid October, her cheeks have that rosy tint she has seen in advertisements for gardening tools or arthritis medication, and her hair falls in loose windswept waves around her face. It has grown to reach her shoulders now, and revealed a dark shadow of origin nearest to her scalp. The roots she can't do much about, but she finds Siobhan's kitchen scissors and cuts her hair methodically in height with her jaw again. Her haircut is one of the few acts of rebellion Rachel committed, something she did to shed skin after men and their hands made her feel like a piece of cattle. She will not go back to that weak, doe-eyed girl.
She wonders what the girl behind the register at the supermarket will think of the change. The supermarket, which Rachel has made a habit of visiting at the same time every week to make sure the girl will be working when she shops for groceries, just so Rachel can receive that smile of recognition from someone. She wonders what the girl would think if she knew the things Rachel has done. Surely she wouldn't smile in that sweet way, then. Surely she wouldn't ask Rachel to have a nice day, then.
She looks away from the mirror, down at the locks of hair in the sink. She looks out the window at the hills. She picks at her cuticles until they bleed.
She comes to an agreement with herself. If she refrains from picking at her cuticles for a whole day, she is allowed to wear Kira's friendship bracelet. Only then can she wear it. If she relapses, she must take the bracelet off again.
When she realises she has accomplished her goal, she stumbles upstairs and rummages through her suitcase until she finds it. The thin, braided threads are still bright blue. Rachel has been careful not to wear it out. She slips it on and leans her head back against the edge of the bed, forces her breaths to come evenly. She remembers how soft Kira's hair was beneath her hands the times Rachel had summoned the courage to touch it. How brown her eyes were.
She never wants to see them again. She only wants to see them again.
Is Sarah happy now? The thought manifests in her mind before she can prevent it, and then she's already infected, and it's too late. Like a spring flood they come, all the thoughts that hurt her the worst. Of course Sarah's happy. She won, didn't she? In the basement, in the backyard, in the house with a mother who loves her and a daughter who loves her and a whole happy, perfect family. They're all together, and Kira is better off now that Rachel is gone, now that Rachel is no longer watching through a mirroring glass as people push and pull at her biology, unidentified emotions raging within her.
Rachel grips the bracelet so tight her knuckles whiten. All she ever did was hurt others. Irreparable. Misguided. Cold. She had to gauge her eye out, had to sequester herself on a rainy island to be able to stop. And they're all happy now, and she's still... Rachel Duncan.
Subject: [no subject]
I have been here almost three months now. I have spoken to four people during that time.
Do you know how terrible it is to not get better when all you're trying to do is get better? When you tell yourself each night as you go to bed: tomorrow I will make something more, come a little bit closer. And you feel relief that the day is over, and you wish to forget it because it provided you with so little. Every night I long for the next day, and every morning I wake up and I am instantly disappointed.
I am trying. I am trying my damnedest in this terrible nothingness but I don't know how to do it. This cabin is full of the past I never had and I feel like an intruder. I killed your rose bush. I ruined the nature. It's so beautiful here, but it's like I can't see it. Nothing is important. Nothing is happening. And I'm beginning to fade away.
You just shipped me off here so you could feel better about yourself, didn't you? You didn't really know how to help me. I'm just further away now, and you can tell yourself that you did a good deed. Well, let me enlighten you. You didn't. I am not any closer to freedom than I was in that hotel room. Maybe you should have just left me there. Maybe then, at least I would've had some naive hope still in me.
Of all the things to have happened to me, this might be the most unbearable.
Are you sure you want to delete draft?
If you go to the cliffs on a windy day, you can lean over the edge and be held from falling down by the sheer force of the wind. Rachel discovers this after twelve weeks in the cottage. She rides the bus to the end of the line, ignores the bus driver's concerned frown through the glass as she cuts away from the road and pushes through scrubby vegetation and icy rain towards the cliffs.
She has one of Siobhan's jackets on; a heavy, lined raincoat in black that reaches past her knees and shuts most of the cold out. Rachel feels like she's wearing someone else's life. It's comforting.
She reaches the edge of the cliffs, which are slippery from rain. The closer to the edge she steps, the stronger the wind is. Directly below her the monster of water is thrashing against the rocks, hissing and surging and loud, foaming at the mouth. It seems so powerful, so wild, yet the cliff walls don't even shiver. They stay still, unbroken, calmly letting the sea live out its rage. Rachel stands there for a long time, looking into the dim horizon, letting salt water creep below the coat and cover her from all sides.
She attempts to forgive herself. But how do you forgive yourself when you trained yourself into feeling no remorse? Does she have no moral compass? No capacity for love? Has she repressed it all?
From nowhere, a scream explodes in her lungs and she is momentarily scared it will sound horrible, but as soon as her lips part, the wind snatches the sound from her throat and folds it away in its ripples and curls. Rachel allows a second scream. She is so cursedly tired of these endless questions, these moral qualms she taints herself with and to which she's incapable of finding any answers. What is the point?
She closes her eyes. Holds her arms out, palms to the sea, as if she is hoping to catch something, or bless the world in front of her. If the wind holds me up, she thinks, that must mean something. If I don't fall into the water and get smashed against the rocks, I must be meant to exist. She leans forward.
Humans are impatient. It's in their nature. Keep moving forward. Don't stay still; you'll get left behind. You'll drown. You'll be eaten alive. If the organism is incompatible with the environment, the organism will die. The only other option is to change.
On the bus back, tears keep falling from her left eye. It's probably a reaction to the harsh wind and the salt that she didn't feel. Rachel imagines quietly that it's all the synthetic parts of her, being washed out.
One morning in late November, she wakes up to a world dressed in thin white robes. Rachel sits in her pajamas by the kitchen window, holding a cup of tea, and looks at it. The garden has given way to stillness at last. She thinks about her rose bush. Sleeping beneath the snow now, like the rest of the plants in the garden. What a relief it must be; being covered with all that cold, white, left in peace. Unbothered.
The next day it has already melted away, and then it continues like that; snow falling and melting and falling and melting again, until the lawn has turned into a soggy swamp. Rachel finds a pair of boots in the closet that are, annoyingly enough, just her size, and she wears an extra sweater when she goes outside. Her leg has stopped aching from the cold weather.
She goes into town one day, and there are Christmas trees outside all the shops. She roams around like a lost tourist, a ghost among all the people bustling and rushing to buy all their gifts in time. Rachel has no one to buy gifts. The thought upsets her more than she likes, so she buys a pair of handmade woolen mittens from an old man with trembling hands in a market stand. As he hands them over to her along with her change, he calls her dear. There you are my dear. A sudden, vivid image of Ethan Duncan slipping away from her in the flashing video room comes to her, and Rachel has to turn away quickly so the old man doesn't notice how frantically her heart starts to pound.
The day before Christmas she gets an email from Siobhan.
I saw on the forecast that the weather is about to get colder. If the temperature drops below five degrees, run the hot water every hour or the pipes will freeze. If they freeze, you will have to call a plumber, and there won't be any plumbers available during the holidays. If it snows, there's a shovel in the shed, and make sure too much snow doesn't pile on the roof of the veranda or it will cave in.
Take care, S.
Ps: Kira wishes you a merry Christmas, and she wants you to know that she misses you.
The email has an image attachment. Rachel clicks on it and she doesn't know what she is expecting but it's not the drawing that expands across the screen of two figures, an elephant and a monkey, hand in hand beside a Christmas tree over poured with decorations. They're each holding a colorfully wrapped gift, they're smiling happily and their little cartoon eyes are twinkling. Around their left wrists are drawn thin blue lines.
Rachel stares at the image until she starts to cry. She sits on Siobhan's bed with her computer on her lap and cries, and God, it's reassuring to know that she's still capable of the act.
This exile, this loneliness, is just reminding her of what she is not. What she doesn't have. A home. A family. Someone who knows her and can tell her who she is when she forgets, which is most of the time now. Someone who understands what it does to you to be hurt and used and discarded like she has been. How it punches big holes right through the person you made yourself into. Rachel despises them all. Rachel wishes desperately she could be one of them instead of herself, jaundiced and incorrigible and alone in the Irish countryside, crying uncontrollably against the back of her shaking hand.
Hours later, when she is swollen and tragic and full of that thick, comforting exhaustion, she opens her laptop again. She saves the image to a new folder on her hard drive, and clicks reply on the email. Her fingers tremble over the keys.
Thank you for the information. I will make sure to run the taps and not let the snow pile.
Tell Kira, I hope she has a wonderful Christmas.
The next morning, there's a new layer of snow outside, and big flakes are all the while joining their already fallen friends. Rachel runs the taps every hour. She steps outside and cuts a wound in the untouched snow as she makes her way to the shed to retrieve the shovel. Snow gets in her boots ahd in her gloves, but she manages to push the heavy layer off the roof of the veranda. At one point, a macabre noise of exertion slips from her mouth, and she's frightened by her own existence.
In the evening, she decides to make herself an actual meal and spends a good hour and a half in the kitchen with one of Siobhan's old cookbooks open on the table, methodically chopping and boiling and frying. She's not a very experienced cook, but following steps is comforting, and using her hands is distracting. She sits down with the meal in the armchair and flicks on the radio for the first time in months. She browses through the static until she finds a station that is playing carol classics, and she sits in the chair and eats her meal, listening to the choirs.
Rachel cannot remember anything from her childhood Christmases except vague glimpses of ornate trees and gifts wrapped in exclusive paper. She remembers the doll she got the Christmas before she turned six. It was her most prized possession and she would bring it everywhere, until that fateful day when Aldous sat her down in his big office and showed her the Leda files. After that, the doll was discarded. Rachel had been given better playthings. She thinks about the files, and then shuts the thought down on account of it making her feel strangely disgusted with herself.
She wonders briefly how Kira's Christmas has been but shuts that thought down too because it hurts, watches the snow fall below the veranda light for a while. She crawls beneath the cool sheets of the bed, wakes up twice to run the taps, but the pipes don't seem to freeze. Perhaps it's not cold enough. When she opens her eyes the next morning, it's a new day.
On December 30th, the girl behind the register at the supermarket is wearing a new, shiny metallic name tag that says Niamh. Rachel tries the name inside her mouth as Niamh scans her carrots. It fits her quite well.
“Have any New Year's plans?” Niamh asks suddenly, smiling politely at Rachel. Rachel is so taken aback that she fumbles for several seconds before managing to form words.
“Not... really,” she stutters.
“Oh,” Niamh says in an awkward tone, turning back to the groceries.
“What about you?” Rachel says on a whim.
Niamh's easy smile returns as she scans Rachel's bread. “Going to a party in Carlow with my friends. Rumour is, there'll be loads of huge fireworks and even a private DJ.”
Rachel has no idea where Carlow is, but she smiles back tentatively. “That sounds like fun.”
Niamh nods good-naturedly. “That'll be 28.50,” she says.
Rachel offers her 30 euros. “Keep the change,” she begs, and to her great relief Niamh doesn't protest.
“Well, happy new year, anyway,” she says as Rachel picks up her bag from the packing bench.
When Rachel replies “you too,” it's probably with too much gravity, but Niamh only smiles on, and turns to the next customer. Rachel leaves the supermarket so consumed by their conversation she almost gets on the bus in the wrong direction.
New Year's Eve makes itself known with a few scarce bursts of color at the far end of the horizon. Rachel watches them from the arm chair as she listens to the countdown on the radio, spinning the bracelet around her wrist. Perhaps the fireworks are Niamh's, from Carlow. Perhaps she's kissing a boy or a girl as the new year begins, or dancing with her friends. Perhaps she is throwing up in a guest bathroom. Rachel makes up scenario after scenario to keep her mind off the family in Toronto that she isn't part of who will be entering the new year in five hours, until she's tired enough to fall asleep.
The snow begins to melt on the second day of the new year. The muted lifelessness of winter used to feel comforting to Rachel, but now she sees the pale grass and the forgotten dirt again and she feels something loosen inside her. The pale January sun touches her skin when she steps out on the porch, water is dripping like a curtain from all the drainpipes around her and she is struck by a sensation, like a pressure and subsequent release.
On January 4th, as she is in the kitchen making herself a sandwich, a sudden noise catches her attention. A small motorcycle is coming down the road, and she recognises it as the postman. She has had no mail since she arrived here. But now, he comes to a stop by Siobhan's mailbox and sticks a letter in it. Rachel stands by the window with the knife in her hand and watches him disappear behind the curve of the road. Then, she puts the knife down and goes to retrieve her boots.
The letter is small and a little battered, and it's addressed to Rachel Duncan, c/o Siobhan Sadler, in a handwriting Rachel is quite sure she recognises but is too afraid to make assumptions about as she pokes the envelope open, braced against the kitchen counter, and she almost rips the pages open but forces herself to be calm, and then there it is, in her hand, and her eye trips over the words written in ballpoint for her.
Don't ask me why I'm writing this, because I don't have a good answer.
I'll be honest, when I first found out S had sent you to Ireland, I wasn't happy about it. I had really looked forward to a life where you and I had nothing to do with each other. But it's not that simple, is it, and besides it's not up to me who she invites to her properties.
I would say I hope you're happy, but honestly I don't know if either of us really know how to be that. They never taught us, did they? But, I hope you can forgive yourself. That's bloody hard too, I know. I've been fortunate enough to have a family who tell me all the time that they do, and I'm not trying to say that we're family by this, but I guess you deserve to know.
Kira forgives you. She's probably forgiven you from the very start. She asks about you sometimes, if you're okay. She senses that type of thing. S obviously forgives you, and Helena does too. She's too occupied with mum stuff now to have time for grudges. And I forgive you. Well. I'm working on it. At least I think I understand you a bit more now. I know you were used too, and all of it was a mess. I guess what I'm trying to say is that we did a lot of bad things for a lot of reasons, but we're here now and we're still alive, and we bloody well need to try and move on. If not for our own sake, then to spite the people who thought they could make a person in a lab and control them. That mindset's worked quite well for Cosima. Thank you by the way, for giving the list of all the Ledas to her. She and Delphine are curing people left and right. There really are so many of us still here, real people with all sorts of lives, and you giving that list to her is a big reason why. Maybe it felt like a defeat to you, but it was a thing that's helped save a lot of people. See, we're all improving.
I hope Ireland is helping you with whatever it is you need to get done. I know it can be bloody lonely there, though. I'm not saying we have to be friends now, or that you have any obligation to, but if you ever come back, I know it would make Kira happy if you stopped by sometime.
I'd wish you a happy New Year, but, you know.
Rachel's hands shake. She puts the letter down on the counter and clenches them to make them stop. She rereads the letter. A third time. Her breathing gets constricted. She stares at the word forgives in Sarah's wide hand writing. Kira forgives you. She doesn't know what to do with herself. Something inside her is splitting open and things are rushing out through the cracks. Rage, envy, desperation. She's enraged with Sarah for overpowering her like this, and she's envious that Sarah's apparently doing so well that she can afford to be working on it and she is also overwhelmed, by being recognised as a big reason why, by the words we're all improving, and she is desperate for something to hold onto and do the same.
In the end, it's a simple decision. The decision to go. Rachel thinks about the dead rose bush in the back of the garden. She thinks of the sea below the cliffs that didn't take her. She thinks about Niamh smiling at strangers from behind the cash register. And she thinks about all the people who hurt her. Rachel doesn't want to be the empty shell of their defect science. She wants to be the person who smiles back across the register. And she is terrified of that person, she is not sure she even likes her, and she has no idea how to be her, but she must try.
She twirls the soft braided bracelet around her wrist. The blue has started to wane. Her cuticles are smooth.
To get to the airport you have to take a train. To get to the train you have to take the bus. To Rachel's mild surprise it's not a struggle to haul her two heavy bags down the gravel road onto the main one, and walk along the wayside to the bus stop. A small sweat breaks at the nape of her neck under the benign sun, but nothing more. Her leg doesn't bother her at all, hasn't bothered her for a long time now. The countryside, Rachel thinks. Who would have thought.
At the train stop it's Rachel and four adolescent boys in dirty branded trainers, with hints of manhood in their features. Rachel attaches her eye to a crack in the stone wall across the tracks and observes them out of the corner of it with mild interest.
Their voices are low but in a precarious way, like they could erupt at any second. They stand in a circle a few strides to her right and seem to be discussing something of importance. A smatter of saliva globs on the ground, emanating from their center. A few cigarettes, smoked down to the filter, discarded. One of the boys snaps at another, loudly enough that Rachel would have flinched, if she had been someone else.
There is the faint rumble of an approaching train. The boys raise their voices to be heard over it. They seem upset now, and Rachel gives up pretending to look at the rock. The loudest one, also the tallest, suddenly shoves the one opposite him violently backwards, towards Rachel. The boy, who is wearing a red track jacket, swears at his aggressor and throws his hands out, affront written all over his features. His friends look unsure in that specific way adolescent boys will look unsure when they realize they aren't as fearless as they made themselves up to be.
The tall boy steps forward swiftly and spits some words out but Rachel can't hear what they are over the approaching train. And then he shoves the boy in the red jacket once more, and this time he loses his balance, arms flailing like useless wings, and stumbles towards the edge of the platform and he's going to fall over it, he is going to fall onto the tracks; unmade below the body of an incoming train just like –
Rachel's hand wraps around his wrist.
With a strength she didn't know she had, feet skidding across slabs of stone, she halts his momentum and pulls him towards her. He utters a noise of shock, swivels for a second, and regains his balance.
One more second, and the train pulls into the station with a speed that catches Rachel's hair in a gust of wind.
The boy is staring at her, his eyes wide open. They are brown and warm in the light, and in them Rachel can see every shivering second of his life.
The last carriage of the train comes to a stop behind them. Then silence.
“Thank you,” says the boy. His voice is barely deeper than a child's. It's shaped into beautiful coils by his accent. It digs right into Rachel. “Ehm. Thank you.”
The train doors open. His eyes are still attached to hers, luminous and transparent. Searching. He's waiting for her to say something, Rachel realizes belatedly.
“Be careful.” Her voice is untidy and sounds like a command mixed up in a question.
People spill out of the train and onto the platform around them. Rachel unlocks her fingers from around the boy's arm and tears her gaze away finally. The red of his jacket flickers in the corner of her eye as he moves. In one fluid motion, she picks up her bags, turns around and steps onto the train, and the doors close behind her. The sound of the train station is cut off, but through the narrow window she can still see the brown-eyed boy as he reunites with his flock. The tall one looks sullen, the others baffled. When the train starts to move, the boy squints over his shoulder towards Rachel and Rachel looks back at him through her one living eye as he becomes smaller and smaller, trying to make out that sunlit vivid brown once more, before the train enters a tunnel and everything goes black; the growing roar of acceleration drowning out the obnoxiously loud thudding of her heart.
Rachel doesn't know his name. She never will. No file.
Rachel will never see him again.
She is filled by a wildness so acute, she must brace herself against the train door and gasp for breath.
She opens her eyes, looks at her hands splayed over the dirty window, behind which the darkness is splitting in half, silence falling away to thunderous speed.
They look the same. But they are new.