She Called Me Sweetie19 min read
My throat clogging. My nose running. My eyes stinging with tears. I track down R in our game room. He’s playing backgammon with O. He rolls his eyes, gaze panning up from the board to me. “What now?”
I want to cry, It’s not fair! But I stick to the facts, the ones affecting the other boys in the room—The Rest, I call them. A few peek over at my sniveling. I wipe my nose with the back of my hand and stand straight to report: “Mrs. Ma’am says no more evenings with Mommy.”
That gets them. Heads snap up or around from all the game boards. The clock over the mantel chimes twice for 7:30 p.m.—I should be sitting with Mommy! Laughing with Mommy! Reading to her!
R stands and towers over me. A couple sudden inches in the past months. Will that happen to me? Am I different enough to resist that?
“Tell us,” he says.
The clock spits out more clicks, as I grab a breath.
“On, on—” Even more air. “On my way to Mommy’s sitting room.” Out of our wing of Gilchrist Manor into the Central Hall. Along the walkway at the top of the Grand Staircase. “Right by the Crimson Knight.” Dumpy old suit of armor with a red crest on its helmet. “She stopped me. Mrs. Ma’am.” Our teacher, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day, when Mr. Sir took over in the gym. “She said…” I struggled to get the words right, though I can’t do her voice like Y can. “Evening visits with Mommy have been cancelled for the time being. You will keep the afternoon schedule. Tell the others. Run along now.” Run along now, like I was still five, like O2! I hated her for that, in that moment but, of course, that hadn’t lasted as I returned to our part of the Manor. Mrs. Ma’am treats each of us too nicely to stay mad at her.
“Just like that?” R says.
I look up at him, and the words rocket up from my soul again. This time, I don’t cut them off. I don’t care what The Rest think, including R.
“It’s not fair! When you come out of Mommy’s chute, there’s supposed to be just one of you, now and ever. Nobody else like you. Nobody!”
Only I hadn’t come out of Mommy. None of us had. R knows that because I told him otherwise in the secrecy of the belfry, but none of The Rest realizes.
I know lots The Rest don’t because I explore. The Rest don’t seem to like that…except maybe A—I’ll find out for sure next year when he turns eight, the age I started sneaking around and crawling through the heating ductwork and watching. I know our home like the back of my hand. Or R’s. Or A’s. Or G’s, for that matter.
I’ve discovered that we get born in the clinic room over the tool room, next to the Manor’s five-car garage. From hiding, I watched Y, C, and every one since, come down their chutes. Same day each year, August 6th. Only it’s a different woman each time, and Mommy shows up when the baby’s all clean and wrapped up. She smiles and cries and coos and gives the baby his name. From that start, she’s treated us all the same—until G went to live with her this afternoon.
R gazes at me and smiles his patient smile, though something skitters in his eyes, excited, scared. “Let’s go talk about this.” Get me out of the room if I’m going to talk like that, but he needs to spill something too. He sets a hand on my shoulder, then turns to The Rest. With G gone, R is the oldest in our wing: in charge.
Eight other boys stare at him, identical faces, ages three to eleven. Three more, younger, sleep in the next room while we monitor with a radio.
R spreads a smile around, then shrugs. “I’ll find out what’s going on. Don’t worry.” He narrows his look, picking out G2 and L, each wearing sport coat and slacks, dress shirt and striped tie, and loafers. Just like me. “You were scheduled with Mommy this evening?”
They nod slowly.
“You know,” R says, gently.
Tears bulge in their eyes. Just like me.
R looks back at O waiting at their backgammon board. “Later?” O nods.
R brushes past me, whispering, “Belfry,” then marches out of the game room. I follow, avoiding all those gazes accusing me of ruining their lives.
Mommy calls me E. I came to the Manor third, a year after R, two years after G.
R heads toward the belfry above the Central Hall, expecting me to follow along, as if he’d found it and showed me, instead of the other way around. Overlapping planks, unpainted on this side, form the sides. No windows, though shutters on the outside pretend. It can be breezy up there, and at night, it’s lit only by a battery-run light I snitched, but it’s secret. Already sitting, R grins while I clamber to my perch, higher than his, under the slant of the roof’s wooden underside.
“Me first,” he says. “I’m glad you’re back early so I can tell you sooner.” He spots my teary glare. “Not why you’re back early, dummy. We’ll handle that after.”
“Yeah,” I grunt. My hour alone with Mommy, the focus of my week, every week, has been tossed away, rumpled and crushed, and he gets to go first as if a single year older makes him boss over me… which, of course, it does. Still, the poem I’d written for this evening—three stanzas with a refrain between, just like Mommy suggested—weeps in my pocket, unread.
Twice a week, I go visit Mommy. Just me. Just her. None of the others. Tuesday at 3 p.m. instead of fencing and Friday at 7:30 p.m. for dessert. Oh, the others get their times with her, I know, but it’s not like when I’m there.
She calls me Sweetie. And she laughs with me and she listens to me. I recite. I read aloud from a fuzzy brown book she keeps in her sitting room.
And I read poems I make up. The others don’t do that, I’m sure, because the first one surprised her. She’d had me read a poem, something about counting ways. I’d never seen words laid out that way, but she sat beside me and ran her fingers along, reading so softly that sometimes I couldn’t hear… just to show me how. I caught on fast—she said so, and called me My only sweetie. So I wrote a few lines, like those, but different, and read them to her at my next visit. She smiled so large and hugged me so hard, so I kept writing poems and she kept smiling and hugging—until today when G went to live with her.
“—listening to me?” R declares.
I jerk so bad I have to clutch at a wall to keep from falling. Nails from a fake shutter scratch my hand. Hurts no more than I’m used to while exploring. “What?”
“The library,”R says patiently.” I finally realized that there’s nothing there newer than twenty years ago. I didn’t really notice it at first…”
Like he was boss of the library, when I was the one who’d shown it to him. Far end of Mommy’s wing, back corner of the Manor, overlooking the formal garden, the overgrown experiment in micro-evolution, as R calls it. I came to it by heating plenum, long, dirty, dark, exciting—because I thought I’d crawled all the larger plenums and traced all the smaller ducts off the plenums by then, two years ago when I was ten—but Mrs. Ma’am had started me on geometry and drafting. Excited, I’d taken those tools and drawn the Manor from the inside-out as I knew it, hiding my drawings, not in my room, though it was supposed to be private, but in the belfry, because I knew it was private. And there, one early morning, I realized a gap in my exploring, a rectangle that no hall led to. But heating ducts go everywhere in a house—have to; it’s a rule—and all I had to do was find where they’d thrown up a false wall. Whoever had hidden the library had been thorough, but I was more thorough. At the end of the hidden run, there it was, all those books. I could hardly wait to tell R.
We can all read. Mrs. Ma’am starts in early, lays down the basics, then guides the tutoring, six years’ difference. I tutor L, for instance. Got me to read all the better for helping him pick it up. Works the same for other subjects: arithmetic, history, science, grammar, composition. About the only thing L and I have in common, though, those daily lessons. Not like A.
We do all study together for The Human Condition classes, reading Shakespeare’s dramatizations of history as insights into people, alone and together. At least that’s how Mrs. Ma’am puts it. On weekends, we act out his re-creations, playing all the parts, men and women, hags and children. Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, The Merchant of Venice. Love and hate. Service, ambition, and power. People stuff. We’re people, too, Mrs. Ma’am says.
Only it’s all the same books. Only those Mrs. Ma’am allows us. Lots of books actually, more than I ever got through. But there’s stuff missing, R insists, ever since I showed him the belfry. The library had made us companions. The belfry made us friends. Still, I haven’t shown him the hidden way to Mommy’s bedroom… yet. I may never.
Mommy. Next Tuesday? Should I tell her then about how I found the library? Show her another way that I’m special? Probably ruin it for R, though. Adults stick together against the kids, that I know, but I don’t care so much for R anymore—or G, for that matter—not since this afternoon.
“Listen to me!” R screams this time.
“I am!” I yell back because I wasn’t really.
“What was I saying?”
I sag in defeat, and he starts again. R doesn’t mind talking, which is one reason he likes the belfry, even when I’m not in it.
“I just didn’t notice how old everything was,” R says, “because with the fiction, it doesn’t really matter—just having fiction, reading it, experiencing someone else’s imagination! Well!” R stops, eyes glistening, breath coming fast. Then he glances with chagrin because he knows he’s repeating himself. “Though I’m coming to see that Shakespeare might have used some fiction techniques in his re-creations.” He watches for my reaction to that.
Who cares? I stare back, glum on the inside, probably the same on the outside.
R nods, shakes himself into sitting straighter, and announces, “Gregory Aloycious Penobscott.”
“G,” he says and holds up a finger. “R.” A second finger, but pointed back at himself. “E.” He jabs at me with that finger. Then he reels off the rest, spelling that name, counting off the letters. Then, grinning like a lopsided banana, he says, “Do you think Mommy intends to keep this up eleven more years?”
Again, I’m not sure what he means, but I suspect—suspect it means a flood of sameness that will overwhelm my chances for being different. “Keep what up?”
“Making more copies of him.”
That slaps at his thinning patience, but he backtracks. “Someone—maybe Mommy—went through that library, removing every mention of its owner, its collector. Everything else but books gone, their front pages ripped out. No papers. No memos. Like someone wanted to erase him… or save every scrap of him in a special place somewhere else, I’m not sure which.
“When I finally realized this, just a week or so ago, I went through it with a fine-toothed comb.”
“A metaphor. Comes from reading fiction,” he brags. “I finally found something.” He digs inside his shirt, into that secret pouch he’s taken to wearing all the time.
He unfolds a letter and thrusts it at me. I look at the top, of course. “Dear Mr. Bryant.” But R taps a finger toward the bottom. The printed signature reads “Gregory Aloycious Penobscott.”
“That’s us,” R spouts. “We are him, each and every one of us. Mommy must’ve loved him very much.”
“She loves us!”
“Not the same way. Man-woman thing. You’ll understand soon.” He squints suddenly, changes it into a frown, then sighs, though it sounds like, Ahh.
“What?” I’m dizzy from all his jumping to conclusions like they’re stones in the stream behind the Manor, a stream that promises a way to the outside world through miles and miles of the forest that surrounds us.
“I figured it out.”
“What?” My turn to declare.
“What’s going on with G and Mommy—puberty.”
Biology lessons had sneered at me while I struggled with them over the past year. We’re engineers, all of us. Not doctors. Engineers! Doesn’t Mrs. Ma’am realize that?
“You’ll start puberty in three months. You’ll get pubic hair in five. You’ll grow—”
Burns me like an Indian rub on sunburn. “Will not!” I scream. “Just because we’re clones does not mean—”
“Mommy doesn’t call us clones. I do. At least, all the evidence, my books, your spying—”
“Recce,” I correct him. Short for reconnaissance. I read outlaw books too, just not all of them, like he has, several times. Well, maybe just that series by Adam Hardy, but I know them by heart.
“I think Mrs. Ma’am is experimenting on us. Or maybe with us is more accurate. Using us as a means to deciding the old nature-versus-nurture question.”
He’s lost me, so I sputter and glance around for someplace else to sit, but there isn’t any.
“Same genome. Same environment. So how could we be different from each other? ‘Cause we are different, aren’t we, E?”
I answer with another glare because he knows how important that is to me.
R sneers back, not happy about the G situation either, and nobody to take it out on but me. “You’ll grow,” he teases with the repetition, “three inches in the next year. Just like G did. Just like I did.
“Your penis—” he gestures in that direction “—does it ever get big and stiff?”
What a thing to ask! I shrug.
R persists. “Does it?”
I look away. “Sometimes.”
“Well, it’s called an erection, and it’s going to do it more, a lot more even. Only you’ll control it.” He sniggers. “Or it’ll control you.”
My cheeks burn. I find the rafters of the belfry very interesting, anything till he quits talking about this.
“It’s connected with what’s going on here.”
I snap back on that. “You knew this was going to happen?”
He puts out a hand. “Not exactly. It just makes sense. Mommy’s a woman.”
“But not our mommy. Not biologically. So it’s okay.”
I know the words he’s using. I even understand the subject matter. But I just can’t quite get it, what R means. I just can’t make sense out of it, apply it to myself.
So I start to actually hate R, right then and there. Not sure why, but I do. Which is why I lie to him.
“Do you know the way to Mommy’s room?” R asks.
“Sure,” I crack. “We all do. Twice a week… before. “Before G went to live with her.
“No, not her sitting room, her bedroom.”
That sickens me. R sickens me. The belfry sickens me. I hold it off long enough to tell him, “Mommy doesn’t have a bedroom! I don’t know where it is.”
Then I fling myself at the ladder, ride its rails down, the rungs flashing by an inch away, and hit the bottom too hard—but I like that. I stagger away, limping.
R calls after me. The ladder rattles with his steps. I swerve toward the nearest vent for the return-air plenum. Flick and flick and it opens. I bend, thrust, then wriggle, escaping where he can no longer go because he’s gotten too big. Him and his stiff penis.
I drop into a cul-de-sac on the third floor, out of sight of anybody who might be wandering Mommy’s wing of the Manor. Three ways into Mommy’s bedroom. A door from her sitting room, hidden behind a bookcase. A servant’s access up a tightly wound staircase. A nondescript, locked door in the big hall, twenty paces past the archway into her sitting room. I pull out a key to that door, a key I copied from the housekeeper’s master ring that always hangs in the pantry downstairs at night. That tool room next to the garage makes life so much easier.
No sneaking around. I trot to the door, but unlock it quietly and slip into…
Mommy’s room spreads out before me. Frills and lace. Thick carpet and blond wood. Mommy and G.
Mommy… I’ve never seen her like this. So… I think the word is demure. She sits in a frilly robe at the foot of her four-poster bed, her ankles crossed, her knees clasped and positioned to one side, her hands clasped to her chest, and her full, smiling attention on G.
He poses in the middle of the room with his back to me, also in a robe, only thick and dark green and tied tightly around him. One hand holds the fuzzy brown book—the one I read from! Only I read to Mommy from that book. The other hand weaves through the air in time to his words.
So he can read poetry. Did Mommy teach him too? Aww, Mommy!
But can he write poetry? Can he create as Romeo did beneath that balcony?
“Smiles, tears, of all my life—and, if God choose,” he says. “I shall but love thee better after death.”
Mommy claps, a light patting of her fingers. “Nice,” she says huskily, as she stands. With a shrug, her robe falls open, then off. She stands naked! Gorgeous! Ugly! I’m not sure which. She sets her feet apart, her legs braced as they come together in an odd patch of dark… hair? Her gaze wanders over his head, shoulders, chest, then lower… and lower. “You’re ready again? Wonderful! So like my Gregory, only more so.”
She lays her hands on her hips and spreads her fingers over them and tucks her elbows back. Her—breasts, bulbous and pouting, point straight at G. “Come to me,” she says, “my sweet G. “
G flings open his robe and darts forward. His robe crumples to the floor. He grabs her. She catches him. They tumble onto the bed. Her legs bounce up, then wrap around him. And he—he starts pumping his hips, pumping against her.
Then I know! He’s pumping his stiff penis into her again and again. And she likes it!
I should run away, but no, spiky curiosity whips that impulse away. Mommy moans and G picks up his pace. Embarrassment pricks me: be gone! But I have something to show Mommy, something that will stop all this, put things back until I can win her for me alone. I have something, but what?
The poem, yearning in my pocket. I scrabble after it, then rip its pliant stiffness loose. Thrusting it forward, I step toward the bed.
Unheeding, engrossed, G slows his pumping and bends his head down from Mommy’s neck to suck on something. She opens her eyes wide and rocks her head and—notices me. She smiles while G works.
“Which one are you?”she says absently.
She lifts a hand in slow greeting, then flips it over and waves me away. “You’ll get your turn,” she exults, then closes her eyes again as she runs a fingernail up G’s rippling back, leaving a welt.
The floor wobbles. The door jam brushes my shoulder.
Unsteady—me? Or the world around me? I edge back, slip out to the hallway, and—I give way to my fear and horror and sadness and hatred and—and I run. Along the hall, down the servant’s stair.
A stiff penis he has and I don’t—yet. Why couldn’t she have waited? I am the same boy as G was. I will be the same man as he is now. If she’d just waited for me, her only sweetie, she’d’ve gotten the same thing—and more: she would’ve had me, the only E, the only me.
But no, she hasn’t waited. And when G uses up his stiff penis—how long can it last—there will be R. His penis can get stiff already when he wants it to. Not like me. I can’t—yet. Then, following me, The Rest, year after year—G, O, R, Y, and so on—The Rest will get their stiff penises, and Mommy will get them.
The Rest crowd in on me, crushing me like a wave of maggots. I hate them all!
A step wiggles under my foot, tripping me. I crash into a wall. Crying, gasping, nose clogging and running, I stare around, kitchen through one door, summer room through another, more steps going down.
Where to go? I can’t forget what I’ve seen, G pumping, Mommy moaning. There is only one way to forget that—stop it from happening again. I race down those steps, then wind through the basement to her wing’s furnace. We’re all good at engineering; we breeze through Mr. Sir’s workshops, machines, electricity, fuels. All the Manor’s furnaces burn natural gas, electronic ignition, no pilot lights. A few whacks with a hammer will bypass their safeguards and make an explosion inevitable. And I know where to get that hammer.
Make us all the same again? All the same?
I head toward our wing. The Rest huddle there, including R by now, many sleeping, the rest playing those silly games of ours. They have no idea what Mommy and G are doing. Well, maybe R does, but he can’t guess what I’m up to. He doesn’t explore; he doesn’t know the basement; and furnaces exist only in Mr. Sir’s textbooks. Along the way, I pick up a monkey wrench left behind by the regular maintenance crew. Oh, they never see us, but I watch them, learn from them. Too bad A will never get that chance.
What did Richard III say? Shall I be plain? I wish the bastards dead. And he made it happen. I can, too.
Staring at our furnace, I think about ignition. Wait on a thermostat to spark the explosion? Chance it’ll come before I can rescue Mommy? No. I reach for those wires, going to rip them out, but hold off. I like electricity, pure, primitive, powerful. I just need to control its flow, delay that ignition till I’m done with my doing. On a shelf, a discarded doorbell push and extra 18-gauge wire give that to me. I add them to the thermostat circuit. Now for a timer. I fill a bucket with water, set it on a lever over a fulcrum, and tape the doorbell to the other end. Add a brick to give it weight, then punch a small hole in the bucket. In time, the brick will lie on the doorbell, heavier and heavier, until—
Grinning, I scoot back through the basement, pausing only to whack those furnaces with the monkey wrench and let loose their gases too, then climb that narrow stairway. I let up then to catch my breath, looking forward to leading Mommy down to the garage so she can drive us away. She holds my hand and flinches only slightly as the Manor erupts behind us. She says, At least I’ve got you, sweetie, and that’s all I need.
But I can hardly wake her, sprawled in her bed, sheet tugged over her chest. G snores on the other side, hard asleep and covering any sounds I make, going through Mommy’s closet for traveling clothes. Enough to handle the summer night’s chill. I’ll get by, dressed as I am, though I lost my tie somewhere down below. I’m sure we can buy more clothes and anything else we need.
“Mommy!” I call again quietly, this time right into her ear. No answer. So I put a thumb to her left eyeball and press hard once. “Mommy!”
She lurches awake. Her eyes bobble, then track me down. “You again. “Not happy to see me.
“Come away with me.” A romantic phrase. I pray it works.
Mommy frowns, then glances over to check on G. He doesn’t stir. I’ll never sleep that solidly again, now that I know why not. She turns the frown on me.
Desperate, I quote, “But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It is the East, and Juliet is the sun!”
Now she smiles. I’ve won her! But she doesn’t get out of bed. Instead, she says, “Silly E. You’re not ready yet.” She lifts that same hand, waves it with the same dismissal! “You’ll get your chance, believe me.” She leers right at me. “I look forward to it.” And she rolls over, bare back a pale wall of rejection.
A bed post wavers. The drape above her flaps. I tip over but catch myself with a hand on the sheet where she’d lain. Her damp sheet. Damp with what? I jerk away, overcorrect, and stagger back, hitting the open closet door. Her clothes hang there. Her words come back to me: “At least I’ve got you, sweetie. “No, not her words, mine. My pretend words, my hopeful words, when this woman was still Mommy and I was still her sweetie.
Who needs her anyway?
Not me. Not E. The last clone left walking. Just me and the stream, leading me to the outside world, through a forest blurred with night.
As R said, same genome, same environment, how can we be different? Geometry talks about intersections where two lines cross. Genome crosses environment. Otherwise identical lines make unique intersections each time. Perhaps it depends on how well the particular genome listens to the environment. I, for instance, learned specific things from Mommy, poetry for one, obsession for another. Neither worked out. In the end, it’s just me and the universe, one on one. No matter how many other times Mommy, Mrs. Ma’am, and Mr. Sir tried, I’m the one who counts.
An explosion slashes through the dark, floods the forest with tangerine light, then another catches up, then one more. In a moment, it drains away, leaving me alone—at last.
What should I call myself? Richard? Ah, yes, Richard, Richard Gregory.
Remember that name—you’ll see it again.