Frank Taylor threw the stick into a patch of tall grass in the field and both dogs ran after it, evenly matched. The dogs looked exactly alike, despite the fact that they were mutts with irregular coloring. Both dogs had one tan eyebrow and one black. Both had mottled spots of grey fur under their bellies in the exact same pattern and location. The only difference was the tail. One had a full tail, the other's tail had been clipped to a three inch nub.
"It's the only way to tell them apart," Frank said to his wife Alison as the tip of a tail was the only thing visible above the tall grass.
"Not the only way," Alison said, distracted by the dark storm clouds shifting above their heads. "It's my dog, I could tell the difference."
"Let's clip Sandy's tail and test your theory," he said, grinning mischievously.
Peanut Butter was the name of Alison's dog. As a kid, her family had the habit of naming dogs after food. Pickles, Bananas, Fudge. She'd kept the tradition going as an adult, naming her pair of mutts Peanut Butter and Jelly.
Sandy came bounding out of the grass with stick in his mouth, Peanut Butter running alongside, occasionally trying to snatch the stick from his copy.
"It's okay, Peanut," Alison said, "I like your stubby tail. It tells a story."
Alison adopted Peanut Butter and Jelly from a rescue shelter. It broke her heart to see them, scared out of their minds, but sticking together to protect each other. If only Frank had been able to clone Jelly before she died. Instead, she had two copies of the same dog. Frank was the one who named him Sandwich, but Alison still had reservations about a cloned animal using her food themed naming tradition, so she called him Sandy.
Alison grabbed the slobbery stick from Sandy's mouth and pretended to throw it. Sandy dashed off, but Peanut Butter stayed, keeping an eye on the stick.
"Sandy falls for that every time," she said. "Peanut knows better."
Alison wanted a reaction from Frank, but the one she got was his quiet scientific stare at the field trying to solve the problem of a cloned dog who wasn't learning new tricks.
Alison threw the stick and Peanut Butter dashed after it.
"Did you ever see Invasion of the Body Snatchers?" Frank asked. "I was terrified of that as a kid."
"So you tried to make your nightmares come true?"
"Nah, the body snatchers were aliens and it was a big tale about conformity," he said dismissively. "But I never understood why the aliens could replicate the body perfectly but not the emotions."
"The aliens didn't have the emotions."
"They didn't have the bodies either. Pharmaceutical companies have understood the chemistry for creating emotions for decades. There's a lot of stuff the FDA will never approve because no one wants the FDA to know about it."
The rain clouds were moving quickly overhead, like a time lapse video in real time.
"A chemical reaction that makes you happy is different than a memory that makes you happy."
"It's adorably old-fashioned that you believe that, but at some level, we're just replicating DNA and chemical reactions. If the smell of mothballs reminds you of your grandma's house, it's just a case of decoding the chemical reaction for grandma and linking it to the chemical reaction of mothballs."
"That simple, huh?"
Peanut Butter came back with the stick and was ready for another throw.
"Things might get weird soon," Frank said.
"Those clouds? I keep waiting for a downpour."
"Not the clouds," he said. "At the lab. My project was approved."
Alison held the stick frozen in a throwing pose, driving both dogs crazy with anticipation.
"The one I said they'd never approve because it's not legal?"
"No interesting experiments are legal in a nation afraid of science."
Alison threw the stick far into the field and both dogs raced off.
"I'm talking about international law," she said. "If you get caught, there's nowhere we can go to avoid jail."
"You wouldn't go to prison," Frank said. "I won't either. We'll be careful. There are always people willing to support our type of research. Private industries, just like Life Identical. A few places in Southeast Asia where we'd be treated like royalty."
"So if you aren't worried about getting caught," Alison said. "Then what does worry you?"
Sandy dropped the stick at Frank's feet and began licking his hand. His tail was wagging like a conductor's baton leading Frank's thoughts. A perfect tail, just like the one Peanut Butter had before they'd adopted him. It was a variation on the classic belly button question. You're born with genetic material laid out like a map, but the map doesn't account for a scar left by a placenta you never needed. Or a tail that got cut off after being crushed by the tire of the speeding truck that killed Jelly.
"It can be an ugly business," Frank said, petting under Sandy's chin. "I've seen a lot of experiments we had to dispose of. No memories planted yet. Can't even save their organs. Just off to the incinerator."
Alison couldn't see the memories in Frank's head so she had to invent her own nightmarish images of malformed human clones that needed to be scrapped. Back to the drawing board.
They could hear the rain approaching, traveling across the field, before it began to soak them.
"Why won't you tell me more about this experiment?" she asked.
Frank clenched his teeth, torn at not being able to say more. "Anything I tell you puts you in danger."
"That means you're in danger."
"I think there's a spy at the lab," said Frank. "If things go sideways, I'll let you know in code."
The downpour made tiny pok sounds as it hit their raincoats.
"I don't know yet," Frank said. "But you'll know when you hear it. Come here and make sure you aren't followed."
Alison wanted to ask Frank who would be following her but Peanut growled low and fierce a few yards away. Alison scanned for another dog, raccoon or whatever threat was setting Peanut off. The only thing nearby was Sandy, loping along stupidly.
"Think he recognizes himself?" Alison asked.
Frank studied both dogs as Peanut barked and snapped at Sandy.
"What's gotten into you, Peanut?" Alison said, pulling him back by the collar. "It's just Sandy. There's nothing to be afraid of. That's yourself you're barking at."
❖ ❖ ❖
The next day, Alison got a call from Frank saying he wouldn't be coming home that night. He hadn't stayed all night at the lab since his early days at Life Identical. He still worked late sometimes, but he always came home.
She made dinner for herself, put a bowl of food out for the dogs and settled in for a night of binge viewing season two of Walking Dead. Nothing like scaring yourself when you're home alone.
After two episodes, she went down to the kitchen to make a drink. The dog's food bowl was still full. She checked the dog door to make sure it hadn't been locked. But if it were locked, she would have heard them barking. Alison went out into the yard, enclosed by a wooden fence and a gate that was still latched.
"Peanut," she called into the night air, scenes of the undead still lingering. "Peanut Butter, dinner's ready." She never called Sandwich to dinner.
She flipped a switch for floodlights that filled the entire yard with light. Everything lit up like a tennis court on a summer night. Alison waited for any sign of her dogs, any shadow moving.
As she turned to go back, she heard something moving in the trees beyond where the floodlights reached. Probably a raccoon or possum or some animal scrounging for food at night. Probably.
This is why she shouldn't watch shows about zombies alone.
Alison turned off the flood lights, bolted the door behind her and latched the dog door. They could howl when they got hungry.
She made a drink, stronger than she'd planned to a few moments ago, and grabbed her old aluminum softball bat . The rational part of her brain kicked in. The dogs were in the woods chasing whatever animal she heard roaming around. Zombies didn't exist. No one was coming to get her. All that Invasion of the Body Snatchers talk yesterday didn't help. Just watch the show and let yourself get freaked out because that's why you enjoy it.
Halfway through the third episode, Alison heard growling. At first she thought it was coming from her TV but she muted it and the sound outside became even more grisly and horrible. Barking, yelping, low gurgling sounds. Something was attacking her dog or maybe both dogs where fighting something off.
Alison ran downstairs with the bat in hand and turned on the floodlights. She felt an emptiness overwhelm her the moment she realized what she was looking at. Peanut Butter was slumped on the grass halfway across the yard, viciously attacked, fur covered in blood. She knew he was gone.
Alison dropped the bat and ran out to Peanut Butter. She lay a hand on his ribs. Already getting cold. What had done this? What was Peanut Butter protecting her from?
A cracked twig made her aware of Sandy at the perimeter of where the floodlights ended. It was dark, but Alison thought she could see blood on Sandy's fur too.
No sign of the attacker.
She tried to think what could have done this. Mountain lion, coyote...
"Come here, Sandy," Alison called out.
Stupid clone dog, she thought. Should've helped protect her dog.
Alison stroked Peanut's fur, repeating "Good boy."
She looked up to call Sandy again. A chill shot through her as she noticed Sandy lurking silently, head low, shoulders tense, muzzle snarled.
Sandy growled and continued stalking closer.
Alison reached for the bat, which she realized was at the door. She edged backwards slowly.
"Good boy," she soothed. "Good--"
Sandy sprang quickly and Alison turned and scrambled for the door.
She had her palm on the door handle when Sandy's fangs sank into her ankle. Alison grabbed the bat and swung around. She could see her own dog attacking her, only it wasn't him. It's not him, she told herself. It's just a clone with a defect.
Alison raised the bat over her head and swung down hard. Thwack. It let go of her leg. Defective clone. It tried biting again. Thwack. Snapping at her. Not a real dog. Thwack. She didn't stop until the clone dog stopped moving and then she collapsed in the cool grass under the floodlights. She panted heavily for a few moments, staring at the bright lights against the night sky.
She took her phone from her pocket and called Frank. It went instantly to voice mail.
"Frank, come home. There's been an accident with the dogs. Call me when you get this."
Exhausted, Alison closed her eyes and waited for her phone to vibrate.
❖ ❖ ❖
Alison woke in the cool green grass thinking it was daytime but soon realized the floodlights were still on. She lifted her phone in front of her face. No missed calls, no messages. She knew what she had to do next. Dig a hole for her dog and build a fire for Frank's clone. At the lab they incinerated them. She would have to do the same, then shovel the ashes, teeth and anything that didn't get burned away into a bucket and dump it in a river. The clone dog didn't just have the same DNA as Peanut--it had nanoscale bar codes that could be tracked with an electron microscope.
Alison sat up to begin this gruesome chore but when she looked around the dogs were gone. No trace that they had even been there. No blood on the grass. No matted area where their bodies had been. Vanished. Did any of this really happen?
She checked her arms. No evidence of dried blood. Her clothes were clean but were these the clothes she'd been wearing? She hadn't been paying attention.
Standing up, Alison found a clue that made her feel like she wasn't losing her mind. Her foot was sore. She removed the shoe and sock and saw a dog bite, which had been cleaned but not bandaged. The teeth marks in her ankle made her feel sane. She could have imagined or dreamt everything else.
Bewildered and limping toward the door, Alison saw something that stopped her in her tracks. A gift-wrapped box with a ribbon and bow sat in front of the door. Whoever made the dogs disappear must have left this.
Alison approached the gift-wrapped box slowly, wondering if it were going to explode or unleash angry venomous snakes or contain a grisly keepsake from the lethal dog fight. There was an almost electronic buzzing in her ears, like standing under giant power lines. Bending down to lift the gift-wrapped lid, she felt dizzy as if whatever was inside the box had a narcotic affect on her.
Inside the box was something at once innocent yet terrifying. A porcelain doll in a red dress with a tangle of white hair. Off-kilter yellow eyes staring not quite straight ahead with a frozen expression.
Alison remembered this doll but couldn't place it, like seeing a familiar face at the grocery store but not having the right context to recognize how you know the person.
The doll's porcelain feet clinked together as Alison lifted it from the box. She expected a note underneath. Something to help explain why her dog was killed by its clone, how all the evidence disappeared, and why a creepy doll that made her feel wobbly and slightly nauseous was left as an unmarked present. Aside from the doll, the box was empty.
Alison stared at the doll until a piercing pain shot through the center of her skull. The electronic buzz filled her ears and she dropped the doll back in the box and pressed her hands against her temples.
"Alison, the pain is temporary."
Startled, she looked around with her hands still on her head.
"We are tuning the frequency, reducing the noise."
Alison heard a high-pitched screech inside her head grow louder and louder until it stopped completely. She lowered her hands from her head.
"Alison," said the high-pitched voice. "Can you hear me without pain?"
Alison understood now and looked down at the doll.
"Are you possessed?"
"I am here to help you. There are people you can't trust, people who want to harm you but can't harm you until they understand what you know."
"Why would anyone want to harm me?" Alison asked, although she knew exactly why.
"Your husband will be home in the morning. Do not trust him."
"Of course I can trust him, he's my husband."
There was silence and Alison thought she'd somehow failed the doll.
"You know what your husband does," said the doll. "You know the experiments he planned. Make the man who comes home earn your trust."
"What do you mean, the man who comes home?"
"When you see him, do not let him know you hear me talk. If possible, do not let him see me at all."
"You're a talking doll that showed up on my doorstep. Why would I trust anything you say?"
The doll was silent. Alison shook the doll, but it didn't say anything.
Alison carried the doll over to the garbage can, lifted the lid, and stuffed both the doll and box it came in into the trash. She went inside, turned off the backyard floodlights, and went to bed.
❖ ❖ ❖
When Alison woke up, Frank was in the shower. She went into the bathroom and wiped steam off the mirror.
"Long night," she said.
"Sorry I didn't come home," Frank replied.
"How did the project go?"
"What do you mean?"
"I know you were worried about..." Alison stopped speaking. She stared into the foggy mirror. Was she dreaming? It seemed as if her mirror image was delayed a half second behind her own movements.
"What was I worried about?" asked Frank.
She waved her hand around. Tilted her head sideways. Just the slightest delay, practically imperceptible. First the talking doll, now this. Was she going crazy?
"A lot of wives might worry if their husband spent the night at the office and took a shower the moment they got home."
Frank opened the shower curtain. Alison slipped out of her clothes and stepped into the shower.
❖ ❖ ❖
Watching Frank get dressed in the room, Alison felt something was wrong. She couldn't place it exactly. Frank looked the same, but different somehow.
"What's wrong?" Frank asked.
"Something terrible happened last night."
Frank held his shirt in his hand and walked over.
"Something terrible? Are you okay?"
"It's the dogs," Alison said.
"They're dead. Both of them."
There was a long silence before Frank said, "What dogs are you talking about, Alison?"
Alison heard the buzzing in her head, felt dizzy.
"Our dogs. Peanut Butter and Sandwich."
Frank's face was filled with concern.
"Alison, Peanut Butter died over a year ago. You remember that, don't you? He was hit by--"
"He was killed by your stupid--"
"My stupid what?" Frank asked.
Then Alison realized what was different. It seemed almost ridiculous to notice but when you've been married a long time you know your spouse's body as well as your own. Frank's bellybutton wasn't his bellybutton. His navel seemed too smooth, somehow not right.
"Alison, don't get mad at me," said Frank.
"Mad about what?"
"I've been wanting to bring this up for a while. It's just that you've been acting strange lately. And it worries me that you think your dog died last night. If you're having difficulty distinguishing between reality and dreams..."
"I know a person you could talk to."
Frank grabbed his wallet off the dresser and pulled out a business card.
"Do you?" Alison said, not reaching out to take it.
"He's just there to listen. You tell him what's bothering you, and he'll listen. That's it."
Alison stared at Frank's bellybutton. They would have had to create a bellybutton surgically.
"Okay," she said, snatching the card. "But put your shirt on."
❖ ❖ ❖
Alison waited until Frank was busy until going out to the trash can. She hoped the doll was still there. It was hard to tell what was real anymore. Maybe she imagined the dog fight. Imagined the doll.
Alison lifted the lid from the trash can and saw the box. She shoved it aside and saw the doll staring up at her. The swirling buzzing sound returned in her head.
"You were right," Alison said.
The doll didn't say anything in return. Alison brushed bits of garbage off the doll and brought it in the house. Maybe it was time to start listening.
❖ ❖ ❖