She still prays every night. Even last night.
“Oh, dear Lord, forgive me for hating my life.” No amen. Then she went to sleep and dreamed about her mother.
This morning she forgot her cross. Made pancakes for Oscar and Gemma, even as they rushed through homework they’d evidently lied about finishing. Donnie wanted pancakes too.
“We’re out of flour.”
Last week the twins were in the audience, applauding her Lady Macbeth. They brought her niece and nephews out to her backyard afterward, like they used to. Even though it was after bedtime.
Helena confessed to uttering the name of the show before curtain, while Kira begged to hear her sleepwalk again.
“Out, damned spot!”
Sarah was quiet all night. Because it was her night: Eggshell Alison, always teetering on—“Heavens to... Murgatroyd!”
Now the stacked cardboard boxes give under the heel of her dress shoe; she mock-pirouettes, and lands flat-footed, clutching the soaps to her chest. Her knee pops quietly.
She walks out of the back room, to a waiting customer. “Two Lazy Lilacs,” she says beaming. “Not a high seller, I will admit,” bagging them up. “I pulled it from shelves. You like it?”
The customer does.
“Thank you. I made it.” She hands the customer the folded bag and taps it. “And there’s plenty where that came from.”
Customers at Bubbles are mostly retirees. Steady, if steadily dwindling. Her mother’s old friends. She buys flour on the way home, even though they have plenty.
In Oscar’s room at bedtime, before switching off the lamp she asks: “All of it? Math, History...”
“Should I believe you?”
“Oscar, sometimes you tell untruths.”
“I finished it.” He’s looking into her eyes. Kids can lie at any age: she’s never sure, because he learned by watching her.
She kisses his forehead. “Okay. Goodnight, Sweetheart.”
Gemma’s room is already dark, but Alison’s acknowledged when she pokes her head through the doorway. “Have you been studying for the spelling bee, honey?”
Gemma hums that she has.
“Spell me something.”
“Okay... Very good!” she says into the dark.
In the hall she thinks of a joke that would’ve made Beth laugh. And at her side of the bed, she prays.
“Lord... remind me about my cross in the morning. You can do that, can’t you?” She pretends to sleep as Donnie climbs the stairs.
Mornings at Bubbles are hers alone, to fret over spreadsheets and shelf space, and remind herself she’s still young. She settles on a new window display, for Mother’s Day. It’s right around the corner.
Half an hour before opening, a woman is peering in at her from the sidewalk. Her hands are cupped against the glass to block the glare, and it’s working, because their eyes meet. Alison reaches for her cross, which isn’t there.
Krystal waves excitedly. Alison stares, all the way to the door. At Alison’s urging, she glides inside, on high heels that applaud her every step along the tile floor.
No more peace and quiet. “You must be Alison! Right?” Oversized fringe tote sways from her elbow as she turns and breaks stride, to Alison, locking the door and checking it for good measure. Still staring at Krystal over her shoulder.
“Krystal Goderitch? I thought Sarah made you up!”
Her shoulders deflate as if punctured. “Sarah?... Oh! No.” She brushes it off, twirls a lock of golden hair around her finger. “Look, I’m the real deal. Okay?”
Alison opens her mouth, but Krystal’s hasn’t shut: “I thought you would have bangs. Like on your campaign sign? What were you campaigning for again?”
She walks a wide arc around Krystal, to the front of the counter, saying, “School board trustee. I won. Then I left town on a journey of self-discovery, so, I had to resign—That’s not important, it’s the past.” She leans her lower back against the counter not too awkwardly, crossing her arms. “Do you know what we are?”
Krystal’s finger goes on twirling, untwirls. Twirls. “Weird, right?”
The most Alison can give is a noncommittal shrug. “Sarah claimed you didn’t believe when you saw her... which, frankly, stretched credibility. I thought you were an alias of hers, a con, or something.”
“I’m only me,” Krystal defends. “How often do other people find out they have clones? Are clones. Whatever.” Her hand goes down to tug at the stubborn fabric at her hip, where the short dress is bunching.
Alison ogles her clone’s collarbone, where the untwirled curl comes to rest. “Um, it’s a pleasure meeting you, Krystal, but, I haven’t opened yet. What brings you to Bubbles?” And why now?
She takes a beat to consider. “Like, I wanted to meet you. I’m an entrepreneur too.” From her tote, a phone in a plush pink case, with bunny ears. She waggles it for Alison to take.
Krystal’s profile blindingly bright on the screen. Over six million followers. “I’m a lifestyle enthusiast.”
Alison blinks it all from her vision and holds the phone far away. “I thought you were a manicurist.”
“Why do you have to say it like that?” She puts the phone back in the tote, but holds onto Alison’s outstretched hand. Alison comes off the counter. Krystal assesses.
“I could take care of these cuticles for you.”
She hasn’t had a mani since her wedding. She feels naked. Doesn’t hate it. “What... brings you to Bubbles, Krystal?”
Krystal lets go, and their hands fall; Alison’s lags behind.
“I wanted to meet you. We can help each other.”
“Are you in trouble?”
“No! My life is great.” She goes glum. “I just feel a little like, lost, you know?”
Alison leans back on the counter. “Oh. Sure I do.”
“But people listen to me now. I have a voice, finally. And you have a business—a totally cute business, by the way—that I could tell people about. Does that sound cool?”
She’s flummoxed. “That sounds very, very charitable. But I don’t know how I’m supposed to help you.”
“I have so many questions about us!... Obviously,” she adds, sidling over to Alison, rubbing shoulders, nonchalantly dropping the tote on the counter. She takes Alison’s other hand this time and lays its palm flat on hers.
She spreads the sunlight over them, where a beam shines through the window, something beatific in her eyes. And Alison almost chokes on a breath. Krystal deepens the press of her shoulder. “It’s like incredible, isn’t it?”
“Mhmm,” Alison chirps.
“Tell me you sell the moisturizer you’re using.”
“Sure, I can tell you that!” she fits in syllables between laughter, raking her fingers along Krystal’s upturned palm. “Yes. New assortment of lotions, creams, sunblocks, bubble baths, anything else your skin could need.”
“Don’t you mean our skin?” Krystal’s other hand comes up momentarily to brush Alison’s gold wedding ring. “Always needs bubble baths!”
Alison clears her throat, demure. “I want you to try my homemade soaps.” Her hand at last leaves Krystal’s, and roams on its own to where her cross would be.
“Oh? Lead the way.”
“This one’s in the back. Come, come.”
She flirts with danger by using the boxes again. “You’ll catch me if I fall, right?” She doesn’t have to. Two bars of soap pass between them.
“From my garage to you,” Alison says with pride. “One of my favorites, although it never caught on.”
Krystal inspects one of the labels, printed on folded paperboard, held in place by a strand of immaculately knotted hemp—and at once inhales deeply. Alison clasps her hands together at the look of heavy-lidded contentment on her clone’s gorgeous face.
“Okay, I’m absolutely picking up on all of the love you put into this. You have a gift, Alison, like really.”
“Goodness! Thank you. That means so much!” She smiles her brightest.
“So maybe it’s the name.”
Her smile falters slightly. “Maybe what’s the name?”
“I mean... no one wants to be called ‘lazy’.”
She prints new labels. Gemma wins the spelling bee with ‘eudaemonic’, an ugly word for what makes you happy. Customers at Bubbles trend younger. ‘Lilting Lilac’ hits the shelves and is gone in a day. She becomes an online vendor, and pens an open letter of apology for the weeks of backorders. At night she dreams she’s in a rising hot air balloon, always rising, as she looks down, and the ground never looks the same.
Mother’s Day comes, and so do kind messages from her sisters, and from her kids a big well-meaning breakfast, and as much love as always. And Krystal’s there, later at Bubbles: Alison wordlessly critiques her hat-and-sunglasses routine among the crowd she’s fostered. Then situates herself close under Krystal’s wide brim.
“Would you like me to point you to the sunblocks?”
Krystal gives no surprise. “There was a bubble bath that caught my eye. In the back.”
When she has a free moment to breathe, they go back, and she removes Krystal’s sunglasses first thing; balks at the flawless mascara in hiding. Why bother composing herself?
“They’re all here because of you,” she says, “I’m not an abject failure, because of you. I can’t tell you how grateful I am.”
Krystal fingers Alison’s cross, and her soft words are warm on Alison’s hovering lips. “No way. You’ve kept them coming back.”
“Oh, if my mother could see... Hey, what do you say to a night of soapmaking in the suburbs?”
“On Mother’s Day? I don’t know.”
She tilts Krystal’s brim upward. “It’s my day. Donnie—my husband—is taking the kids to see their grandparents. So I will be making soap, because these days I can never seem to make enough soap. And I would love your company.” She slips the sunglasses into her hand.
But it’s getting dark when Alison sees her that evening, and she has no need for them. The hat’s gone too. What she needs are safety goggles, latex gloves, and an apron.
“Hand me my spatula? Here come the fumes. Be ready with the vinegar.”
Alison sprinkles the lye into water, and stirs, stirs, stirs. Sprinkles a little more. The vinegar is in case of violent eruption—but Alison has the pattern down. She stirs, stirs, stirs. Sprinkles. “How are the oils?”
“49 degrees,” Krystal reports. “And she was like, ‘I’m your clone’, just being... so gruff, you know? And I guess I didn’t want to believe it.”
“Sarah? Gruff? Heaven forbid.”
“Yes! So I started researching Neolution, and I read this book written by Aldous Leekie. Do you know who he is?”
“His body’s under that rug.” She stirs with the spatula, while passing the immersion blender behind her back. “Nearly time to pour in the solution.” The blender leaves her hand. “It’s so nice having someone to make soap with.”
“I’m having so much fun!” from Krystal. Then, conspiratorially: “Listen, good joke about the rug, but it’s so weird because like, he really did vanish under mysterious circumstances. But that’s whatever. That wasn’t in the book.”
“That’s what our first channel was all about, right? Bringing to light all the shady shit these corporations are up to!”
Alison lifts the solution with fearful reverence.
“Anyway,” Krystal continues, “mad science definitely isn’t my thing. But I couldn’t stop thinking about Rudy, and his... ‘brother’, and how I kept seeing his face like, everywhere.”
“Don’t you worry.” Alison moves to stand with Krystal over the slow cooker, solution sloshing not at all. “Your wretched little stalker is under the rug too.”
“And Sarah’s nose, at least, did look exactly like mine. Like, ‘Okay’. That was one thing I couldn’t ignore.”
“Let’s not ignore the task at hand. Ready?” (Krystal nods eagerly.) Alison pours, and Krystal operates the blender, on low, stirring in circles from the side. Not a single air bubble. The pouring done, Alison rubs Krystal’s shoulders, who stirs until their work emulsifies and looks like lilac pudding. “Cover it.”
Krystal plops the lid in place, sees to a quick wipedown of the blender. “You know, I am fully going to add ‘soapmaking’ to my CV.”
“Oh, we aren’t done yet. This is my favorite part!” Alison stoops down and pulls out the loaf mold holding yesterday’s batch, 24-hours cooled and topped with dried herbs. She produces one soap cutter from a drawer. “The cutting.” And a spare kitchen knife.
She takes the knife in hand and flips the mold facing downward, then conks the bottom with the knife handle, so the slab of soap drops free to the workbench with a crack.
“We cut one mold into nine bars. Now take this.” She taps the soap cutter. “Hold it in your fist, like brass knuckles; Perfect! Do not hit me. Now, soap underneath—line it up, right there, good—go down on it. Firm.” Krystal peels it like an orange.
On the other side, Alison guess-measures a cut with the knife. “This is how I used to do it.” She presses her palm to the spine of the blade and leans all her weight into it, for their second bar of soap. An escaped grin tugs her cheek muscles sore at the familiar heavy thump.
They alternate, three further cuts each. Krystal asks, “So how many of us are there? And where?”
Alison’s massaging a bar’s sharp edges with her thumb. “All over. Spin a globe, close your eyes, and point. You and I are two of almost 300.”
“Hectic.” Krystal shakes her head ruefully, busy slipping bars into their folded labels. “Weirdos message me sometimes, saying like, ‘u look just likw my friend camilla!!!’ But that’s normal, right?”
“Sure, those could be normal weirdos; everyone has a few lookalikes somewhere. I’ve noticed sideways glances now and then at Bubbles, from some of the young people. But I am a consummate professional.”
“I never wanted to put my—our face out there like this. I just wanted to tell people the truth. It’s hard being an aspirational figure.”
“Do you mean inspirational?” Alison asks, tying knots.
Once the new bars are fit for sale, and the pudding sufficiently cooked, and cooled, and poured into the mold in order to get cut tomorrow, and the supplies rinsed and dried and stored away, Alison whoops and says, “Let’s give our skin a bubble bath!”
“That is the best idea ever, and I was thinking it right along with you,” Krystal replies, removing her apron. “Do you think we have Clone ESP or something?” removing her wig.
Alison gapes. “Nope. I don’t think so.”
She catches Alison’s meaning: “Well, Brie’s hair fell out once—so naturally I’m a lot more cautious around products than I used to be—but I love this color too much to let go! Here. I know you want to try it on.” She drapes the wig lopsided over Alison’s head.
Alison blows a few strands away from her face, and nimbly fits it in place. “I’m an actor. Wigs are a way of life. This is nothing new to me.” With hands on hips, she sashays the length of the garage and back, as Krystal claps and squeals. “How do I look? Alison Hendrix, Leda fashionista!”
Krystal can’t suppress her shock. “You know about Project Leda?” She recovers and hushes, “That’s like, top-secret military shit.”
Alison knows better than to ask; instead she leads Krystal by the hand upstairs to the bath, removing clothes not too unnaturally as they pass through the bedroom laughing. The tub fills and overflows with pink-scented bubbles, and floods in waves with the asynchronous dip of their bodies. The two of them in shower caps, faces free of makeup and cleansed, so her own children couldn’t tell them apart. Only Krystal’s six million followers.
Basement Jaxx is playing, Krystal’s bobbing her head. “I so loved this song in high school, you have no idea.” Her foot rises from the suds to flick moisture on Alison’s cheek. Alison grabs it going under and rubs in retaliation.
“I love it now,” rubbing, while poking her toe under Krystal’s arm, the tub losing more water as she squirms. Alison relents, unwilling to be accused of roughhousing. “But it sounded better then, didn’t it?”
“Hm, sounds the same to me!” She strokes the back of Alison’s submerged knee, featherlight, exactly the way Alison likes. It’s Clone ESP.
“Well... good. Don’t let it change on you. Everything’s always changing, for the worse.” Thumb absently kneading the arch of Krystal’s foot. “Find something that doesn’t.”
“Hey! Not everything.” Krystal sits up. Alison does the same. More spillage. Krystal flicks Alison’s nipple.
“You can’t be so negative! Trust me, it’s really bad for your health!” She gropes blindly through all the pink for Alison’s thigh and squeezes. Concern fades into a smile. “Think of how great Bubbles is doing. And isn’t... this... so much better than the back room?” gathering suds in her hands and rubbing them over Alison’s shoulders.
She takes Krystal’s hands in hers, and holds them under the warm water. “So much better. But my mother died certain that I would run Bubbles into the ground. And I can’t shove it back in her face.”
“That’s awful,” Krystal says pouting.
“It’s my first Mother’s Day without her, and Donnie... he doesn’t get it—can’t get it! One morning he said, ‘I thought you hated your mother’.”
“That’s Donnie’s picture in the hallway, right?” (Alison gives a blank nod.) “Well, I never forget a face. Did you know a few years ago he was posing as a masseur at Brightborn?”
“A masseur at Brightborn?” Alison lies back down.
Krystal pulls Alison’s foot into her lap. “I was there conducting an investigation, and he got me naked under false pretenses! Like, that may not be the creepiest thing that’s happened to me in my life... but it’s worth mentioning. You must be a runner. With these calluses, I mean?”
“I’ve been training for my first marathon. I need to know what it feels like.” She adjusts her hips, and lets her other foot hang dripping over the side. “Sorry about Donnie.”
“I’m sorry about your mom. But you’re a mom too. It’s still your day. A day of rest and relaxation, and good company.” Krystal sighs happily. “I’d love to be a mama someday.”
“Well, I can’t help you with that. ‘But the tears on the pillow have dried, my dear,’” she sings. Krystal joins in, and they sing the rest of the song.
Alison’s still naked in bed when her family comes home the next morning. Naked, and blinking hard, running her hands over the pillow frantically; the nightstand. For a note, evidence to destroy. But Krystal left none.
She yanks her sleep mask from the drawer and pulls the bedsheets up to her chin, and goes fetal. Donnie walks in once she can’t see him.
“Well, there aren’t empty bottles everywhere. That’s something.”
“I’d resent that remark,” not bothering to feign grogginess, “but you’re one to talk, Mister. It wasn’t so long ago—“
“Stop—I’ve heard this one. All of your mistakes were a lifetime or two ago. And mine might as well have been made yesterday.” From the bathroom: “What happened in here?”
She leaves the mask on. “I can admit to my mistakes!”
Donnie sits at the foot of the bed. “This isn’t liver deep, Alison.” His hand somewhat firm on her calf, through the sheet. “I know, this was your first Mother’s Day—“
“Oh, shut up, Donnie.” And his hand jerks away.
“But you’ve been acting like this for weeks,” he says. “Ever since that morning you lied about flour, I knew things would get bad again.”
“If you wanted pancakes and knew there was flour, why didn’t you make your own? I can’t be blamed for your lack of initiative.”
“You latch on to the most innocuous detail of whatever I say, and ignore the rest. Why can’t you talk about anything?” Deep breath. “The night before the flour incident, Sarah was here. She wouldn’t come inside, remember? She told you something on the porch that clearly upset you, and you haven’t breathed a word about it.”
“About Sarah’s business, you mean? Of course I haven’t.”
“Is she in trouble?”
Alison’s phone rings, and she silently praises the Lord. It’s the default ringtone, muffled by carpet. Donnie groans as he bends over, and grabs it. “It’s Cosima.”
She holds out her hand, and the phone drops into it. “I’m going to take this, privately.” And waits until Donnie’s footsteps recede down the stairs.
“Cosima, hi! Is this Cosima?”
The warm rasp assures her. “Uh, hey dude! Did I... screw up the time zones?”
“Oh, not at all! It’s a fine sunny morning in Bailey Downs!” She rolls over on her back. “The sweet sound of your voice was the only thing missing; now it’s perfect!”
“I’ve missed you, Alison. Sorry I don’t call more. Really.” Cosima’s rolling something on her end. Alison’s just glad she can’t smell it.
“Am I on speaker?”
“Yes, ma’am,” she drolls, “this is... a definite two-hander. Don’t worry, it’s just you and me.”
“I was not worried. Should I be?”
“No worries.” Cosima pauses. To lick her doobie, no doubt. “Just wanted to catch up, and gab about Sarah’s big news. Baby on board.”
Alison pinches the mask against the bridge of her nose.
There’s the flick of a lighter. “She sai’ she tol’ you firs’,” doobie held between her lips.
“That’s right. After having to be told herself, by Helena.”
Cosima’s laugh lives briefly, before succumbing to a coughing fit: Alison bunches the sheet in her fist. But she knows it’s nothing; Cosima did it to herself this time. Alison starts laughing.
“What can I say?” finally. “I’m overjoyed for her. Did she... no, I guess—Oh, damn, of course not... She didn’t say anything to you about her eggs, did she?”
“Say... uh, say what about her eggs?”
“Nothing! Nothing. It was a long time ago, it doesn’t—”
“Did you ask for her—? Oh, Alison.”
“Oh, Cosima,” she mocks reflexively.
“And she said no? When was this?”
“I was troubled, emotionally. My mother had just died. Sarah was looking out for me in that moment. I understand that now.”
A slow exhale. “Holy shit.”
“If we have to dredge up the past, let it at least be recent. How was Felix’s art show?”
“I don’t remember,” she giggles. “But he sends his heartfelt apologies for going international on you. By the way, Lady Macbeth, Sarah told me a secret: The play brought a tear to her eye. Wish I could’ve seen it, dude.”
The play, or the tear? “Oh, she’s pregnant, she’d probably cry over—You know, Felix is wandering the earth, Helena moved in with Sarah, and I’m still here. I almost died in this house! Helena shot an arrow through a man’s neck! There are corpses buried in the—”
“Alison, are you having a panic attack? Because I know how to deal with those, I can help.”
Her eyelids squeeze tight under the mask. She curls her toes until they hurt, then relaxes. “I only got carried away. How are you, Cosima? Have you settled in?”
“Yeah, I mean, it’s a great program.” The close sound of paper burning. “And Del’s been force-feeding me French for years, so.” Another slow exhale. “Tu t’en sors, ma sœur?”
“Yes, I’m fine, sestra. But I have to go make my kids’ breakfast,” she says not too curtly. “Give Delphine my love.”
Cosima says will do, and agrees to call more. Alison pulls the mask off. Blinks at the orange wedge of sunlight between the curtains. She calls Krystal, and goes straight to voicemail.
“Hey! You’ve reached Krystal, sorry I’m so busy! Isn’t life great? For business inquiries, contact...”