Starting Over

by

Michael Athey

 

Shelly knew that things were going really bad with Oren, but she had still hoped that things would improve from that point on...

Then his dinosaur attacked her.

She’d just closed the front door to their loft when she heard his shout, but it hadn’t been quite enough warning. Before she knew it the pterodactyl came swooping down upon her, nearly crushing her beneath its girth. The wings were swept forward, hitting the floor before anything else, successfully pinning Shelly’s legs to the spot. Her body wriggled frantically, but to no avail; she was very much stuck.

“Oren!” she cried, pushing against the enormous mass. “Help me!”

“Sorry,” said Oren, gliding down a short stepladder out of her view. He wiped his hands against the stained coveralls he was wearing, which were coated with a chalky white substance, and adjusted the bandage wrapping on his head. “The sucker got away from me there...”

“What is this?”

“Oh, hell,” said Oren, ignoring her question. He was examining one of the long ivory wings of the bird. “Broke off the talon on this side. Well, I suppose it’s fixable. Maybe. Still, it’s probably going to show a crack...”

“Oren!”

“Oh, right!” With a great effort he managed to lift the white dinosaur a few inches off of the ground, just enough to free Shelly’s pinned legs, before setting the beast back down with a groan. “Wow, that’s heavy!”

They both took a few moments to catch their breath then, Oren wiping chalk from his hands, Shelly straightening her business attire (her skirt was ruined, it seemed) before addressing her estranged boyfriend once again.

“What?” she took a breath, “Is?” another breath, “This?”

Oren blinked back at her as though she had asked something as simple as what color the sky was before saying, “A sculpture.”

“I can see that,” she said back. “But why is it in our home?”

“I made it,” he answered with a touch of pride. “It’s limestone. I was about to paint it too, but then you...well, it fell over. You like it?”

“When did you...” she began, then shook her head. “You know how to sculpt?”

He shrugged. “Yeah, I guess. I don’t know why, but earlier today I just had this...this urge, like I absolutely had to make this thing before I did anything else. You ever have those urges?”

“To sculpt a dinosaur?” Shelly laughed nervously. “No, never.”

“Well, I can’t explain it.” One of his hands scratched at the bandage on his head, a nervous tick of his. “Just had to do it.”

They both stared at the fallen white creature a few more moments before Shelly’s senses gathered themselves completely. “Did you leave the loft? To get this block of granite or whatever?”

“Limestone,” Oren corrected, then nodded sheepishly. “Yeah, I had to go to that art supply place down on Brenner Boulevard...”

Honey,” said Shelly, her voice a touch more stern. “You know you shouldn’t have done that.”

“It didn’t cost that much.”

“That’s not the point, you...wait a minute. How did you pay for this?”

Oren stared at his feet. “With that cookie jar money...”

“That’s for emergencies!” Shelly gaped at him, then sighed. “Well, fine. Whatever. Point is, you know you’re not supposed to get up and go walking around and overexert yourself like that, and stop scratching your bandage!”

Oren’s hand whipped down to his side. “Sorry. It itches.”

Shelly smirked and beat some more limestone residue off of her blouse (does limestone wash out of silk? she wondered) as Oren went back to propping the ugly white monstrosity back onto its pedestal, which bothered her a bit. “Aren’t you even concerned as to whether or not I’m alright?”

The question elicited a strange expression from her boyfriend’s face, something akin to constipation. “But you’re fine. See? You’re not bruised or cut or crying or anything.”

And on that note Shelly stormed off to the living room adjacent. Oren didn’t follow, bent over his pet project, whispering little nonsensical things to himself. Once she stopped to look back at him, meaning to say something, but decided instead to refer to the guidebook she’d brought home, hoping it could shed some light on his weird behavior.

She plopped down on the worn black leather couch in the living room, the glass coffee table cluttered with various magazines and unopened mail. The Soulmate Guidebook sat atop this mess, its blue and gold cover invitingly simple. She picked it up and opened it almost immediately (something she had been doing more and more lately) and turned to the chapter titled, “When the Honeymoon’s Over”. The opening paragraph read:

Over time you’ll find that your mate (as well as you yourself) is changing, for better or worse, since you first established your relationship and began to get to know one another. This is natural, as over time your experiences, both shared and unshared, will effect your relations from that point on.

“Well, duh,” Shelly commented, flipping ahead a few pages.

Studies find that it is detrimental to “bask in the afterglow”. Though it is wonderful to recall the ‘good times’, these recollections should not overshadow your experiences with your mate in the present. With any relationship there will be noticeable changes that occur, in both you and your mate, so you must learn to take these in stride. Change is, after all, the very spice of life.

“Easy for you to say,” she grumbled. “You didn’t just have a limestone pterodactyl nearly kill you...”

“What’re you reading?”

Oren had apparently abandoned his project for the time being, standing over her shoulder behind the couch. She could smell the sweat on his coveralls, he was that close.

“You should take a shower,” she said, shutting the book quickly. “You stink.”

#

Dinner was reheated leftovers, slightly tepid roast chicken and despondent mixed vegetables (Oren had let dinner preparations slide that evening, thanks to the great white bird glaring at both of them from the corner of the dining room). Awful, Shelly thought to herself as her fork stabbed the dry chicken breast. Just like how their relationship had been going lately. Simply awful...

Across the table Oren was managing just a touch better, his utensils picking away at the dead slab on his plate, his eyes focused on nothing in particular. Shelly let her fork drop with a clatter.

“Aren’t you going to ask how my day went?” she said.

Oren’s knife and fork froze over his plate. “Why? Did something new happen?”

“Well, no,” she admitted. “Nothing special, I guess.”

“Oh.”

His knife and fork recommenced immediately, almost as though they hadn’t been interrupted at all. Shelly took note of this in her mind as she said, “So...sculpture.”

“Huh?”

“You’ve taken up sculpture.”

“Yeah,” he said, then frowned as though not satisfied with his answer. “Well, I wouldn’t say I’ve taken it up, really.”

“Oh?”

“No. It’s more like...well, it’s kind of like I always could, you know? Like when you get back onto a bicycle and still know how to ride it even though you haven’t done it for years and years and years...”

Oren’s eyes began to lose their focus once again, gazing off somewhere invisible to Shelly’s eyes, someplace hidden and mysterious and unknown.

“I see,” she said.

From the corner of the room the pterodactyl continued to stare at her defiantly, its unblinking white eyes glaring as she sawed silently away at the rest of her food. She looked down into her plate deliberately, avoiding its gaze. She decided to just let the topic drop.

After dinner she left Oren to clear the table, twice reminding him to take his medication before retiring to the living room. He was whistling to himself as he gathered up the dishes, the tune strange yet vaguely familiar to Shelly at the same time. She struggled to place it in her mind as her fingers walked along the row of magazines filed in one of the wall-high bookshelves, forgetting about the tune as she found the copy she’d been searching for.

The magazine she pulled out was one of those entertainment zines, dated approximately a year ago. The dog-eared article was titled, “Celebrity Profile: Oren Sinclair, Hollywood’s New Darling”. Her eyes darted across the copy, most of it already committed to memory. It took a few minutes before she came across the section concerning Oren’s personal interests. Sure enough, there was a paragraph about sculpting. She must’ve forgotten about that, she supposed, but it didn’t really answer the question that was scratching away at her thoughts...

Was it really possible? she wondered. Was he actually beginning to retrieve his memories?

From the kitchen Oren continued to hum that vaguely familiar tune, which only made Shelly worry that much more.

#

Work began to pile up on her the next day. Seven separate case files sat on her desk untouched, her pen thumping against one of the manila folders in a nonsense rhythm, her mind completely elsewhere. Suddenly she realized that she should open one of them so that she would at least appear to be busy. After all, that would be enough to satisfy Dr. Halmstead, wouldn’t it?

So she opened one of the files, letting its contents dance across her eyes. None of the information permeated her thoughts, though. It couldn’t be helped; she was still preoccupied with Oren’s weird behavior...and his stupid pterodactyl...

“Shelly?”

“Yeah!” she piped, looking up quickly. Dr. Halmstead’s kind gray beard ruffled into an amused grin, his hands in the pockets of his long white coat.

“Do you have Ms. Embretson’s file handy?” he asked.

“Um,” she said, shuffling through the case files for several seconds before realizing it was the one she already had open in front of her. “Yes, Embretson! Here you go!”

Her boss’s eyes twinkled as he took the file from her. “Thank you, Shelly. And where was your mind off to, I wonder?”

She couldn’t help blushing. Dr. Halmstead had always been able to interpret her behaviors without fail. “I’m sorry, sir.”

“Daydreaming about your sweetheart again?”

“No!” she said in mock disdain. “Well...okay, yes.”

This evoked a chuckle from her boss as he patted her shoulder in a fatherly fashion. “Ah, good old Oren Sinclair, actor extraordinaire!” The silly rhyme still made him snort. “Every woman’s fantasy, to be sure! (just like my daughter, oh but I suppose that just figures). You still have that lock of his hair, you silly girl?”

Shelly nodded sheepishly.

“Ha! I knew it! A bit disgusting, though. Yes? Keeping someone’s dead hair? Oh, but I suppose you don’t care as long as the dead hair is his. Well! Hopefully he’ll reappear, hmm?”

Shelly blushed even hotter. “Hopefully so.”

“He disappeared...how long ago was it? Six or seven months?”

“About that long, I guess.” Her smile faded slightly.

“Oh, don’t fret. I’m sure he’s just off vacationing someplace, having a grand old time making everyone scared to death about him! (or at least the majority of the female population, it seems!).” Dr. Halmstead turned to go back to his office, then stopped abruptly. “Before I forget, here’s a copy of that notice I mentioned earlier.” He handed her a sheet titled Memorandum. “You’ll be kind enough to keep an eye out, right?”

Shelly’s red cheeks dimpled into an uncomfortable smile. “Of course, sir.”

“Good!” Dr. Halmstead said, then sighed and shook his head. “Something’s got to be done, you know. All this office theft, missing meds, not to mention a CF-160 unit as well, (hate to have to install security cameras, against my values, so intrusive, so very intrusive, they’d even put them in the lavatories, how revolting to be sure) Ah! Hello, Ms. Embretson!”

Her boss continued to talk as he disappeared into his nearby office with his client in tow. Turning back to the memo, Shelly’s felt her face glow even hotter, the list of missing items all too familiar to her eyes.

#

Back at home Shelly discovered a saber-toothed tiger, white as frost, poised to pounce on her in the front vestibule of the loft.

“Hello,” said Oren, brandishing a small rock hammer near the tiger’s rump. “How’s it look to you? Pretty good? I think it’s pretty good...”

“Look,” Shelly began, trying her best not to explode. “I’m glad that you’re enjoying this...this sculpting stuff, but--”

“But what?” he interrupted, looking hurt. His eyes were beautiful when he gave her that hurt look...

She tried to remain firm. “Couldn’t you, I don’t know, just do something else? Like painting, maybe?”

“Pain-ting?” He said the word slowly, deliberately, as if his lips were trying out the word for the first time. A hand went to the wrapping around his head, scratching pensively. “Painting. Huh. Yeah, I could try that.”

She left him to finish up his work on the tiger, hurrying off to the living room to double-check her resources. No mention of painting in any of the articles, though. Surely if he had learned how to sculpt, then it couldn’t be a far cry to do something else artistically...

“It’s done!”

Oren’s call from the vestibule made her drop the magazine in spite of herself. “You don’t have to shout, sweetie!”

“Sorry,” he said, walking into the living room. “What’s that you got there?”

“Nothing,” she said, filing the magazine back in the shelf. “Just an old article I was reading.”

Later, after surveying the tiger alongside Oren for what seemed like an uncomfortably long time, she turned back to her blue and gold guidebook, praying for some sensible answers in the chapter titled, “Interests: Cultivate or Criticize?” It read:

In any relationship it is important to provide your mate with an environment in which his or her interests can thrive. Your mate may even have hobbies, interests, or goals that you were never even aware of, but you should never address them as detrimental or dangerous. If anything, the expression of these interests should be seen as a valid attempt by your mate to share those things he or she truly cherishes, which is an essential aspect to the very healthiest of relationships...

“Hmph,” said Shelly, shutting the book. “Doesn’t mean he should go downright weird on me, though.”

At dinner she noticed Oren humming that same odd tune to himself again. As she gnawed at the half-cooked steak he’d wrangled from the fridge she suddenly managed to place it in her mind.

“Cave Hunters,” she whispered. Oren stopped humming immediately.

“What’d you say?”

“Nothing,” she said, but that was it. That’s where the tune had come from. The theme music from Cave Hunters, the very last picture he had appeared in.

“So how much do you think painting supplies cost?” Oren asked brightly.

“I’ll pick some up for you.”

“That’s okay. I can go to the shop...”

“No,” she said in a flat tone, avoiding his gaze. He’d been out at least two times already. Surely someone would recognize him on the street if it continued. “You shouldn’t be leaving the loft. You...you need to take it easy.”

“But I feel fine.”

“You’re not fine, sweetheart,” she said. “You need more time to recover.” Her eyes wandered to the clock hanging beside the sneering pterodactyl in the corner of the room. “Speaking of which, you should probably take your medicine now.”

After dinner Oren continued to press her about it to the point that she felt she would burst, his questions flooding into every conversation, too numerous and too distinct to evade. If he felt fine, why the medicine? Why stay in the loft? Why be a prisoner? After all, didn’t she love him? Didn’t she care about him? Couldn’t she see that he was miserable?

Finally, after an hour of shared silence sitting on the couch, she relented and went quickly to the bookshelf and retrieved one of the magazines. It fell open to the dog-eared page on the coffee table, her ruby-red fingernail pointing to his celebrity photo.

“Here,” she said in a tired tone. “This is who you are.”

His hands cradled the magazine as though it was a fragile, precious treasure, his face suddenly brightening.

“I’m...” He couldn’t find the words, giggling excitedly. “This is me! I’m a movie star?”

“Yes,” said Shelly, not sharing his excited tone. “You were an actor before...well, before your accident.”

He continued to look over the pages in astonishment, but his smile quickly faded. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“You needed time, dear,” she explained, thinking rather quickly. “Time to recover. You lost your memory, after all. Your head injury was pretty bad.”

He rubbed the bandage on his head. “The head injury...”

“Yes, that’s right. It was only a little more than a month ago that you woke up. Remember?”

“Oh,” Oren said quietly. “Oh yeah...”

“So you see? You needed this time to recover, to get acclimated all over again. And besides,” her finger tapped the article, “you never enjoyed being seen in public anyway. You were always getting mobbed by your fans.”

“My fans,” he said, half-smiling. “Huh.”

“Here,” she said soothingly. “Sit back against the couch. There you go. You’re head’s probably reeling from all this.”

Oren managed a grin as she knelt to rest beside him. “It’s so much...hard to believe, but at the same time it makes sense...”

“Yes,” she said softly. “I know.”

Then Oren sat straight up. “But what about my family? My friends? Where are they? Aren’t they concerned?”

Shelly bit her lip. “Your parents passed away, darling. As for your friends...” Her eyes searched up into the ceiling. “Well, as far as they’re concerned you’re on hiatus. Until you’re fully recovered, that is.”

“But I feel perfectly normal,” he insisted, but Shelly placed a finger over his lips to shush him.

“They said you need more time,” she said.

“Who said?”

“The doctor...Halmstead. Doctor Halmstead, remember?”

“Well, can we go talk to him or something?”

Shelly shushed him again, pecking his cheek. “Just lie down, sweetie.” She helped him flatten out on the couch, lying beside him. “That’s it.” She kissed him full on the lips and he didn’t stop her, but he continued to frown. “Stop worrying, sweetheart. You’re going to be fine. Kiss me again.”

He began to, his eyes half-closed, then pulled back. “My parents,” he said. “They’re...dead?”

“Yes, darling,” she whispered as she rolled on top of him. “I’m afraid they are.”

#

The guidebook came with Shelly to work the next day, but she wasn’t going to get her hopes up about finding any new useful information. She was pretty sure even before she opened it at her desk that there wouldn’t be a chapter on the topic she needed, but she poured over it regardless, page by page, disregarding the growing pile of case files entirely.

She was so immersed in the book’s contents, in fact, that she didn’t even notice when her coworker Connie walked up.

“You’re actually reading that?” she asked.

Shelly gasped, shutting the book quickly. “You scared me, Connie!”

“Sorry,” she said, prying the book away. “So, are you looking to score points with the boss or something?”

“Oh, no,” said Shelly, faking a laugh. “I’m just, you know, trying to get all the lingo down and stuff. For the clients. Yup.” She eyed the book nervously.

“Uh-huh,” said Connie, pursing her lips. “Where’d you get this, anyway? Is it your own personal copy?”

“Well,” Shelly began, forcing herself to make eye contact. “No. It’s the doctor’s. I’m borrowing it.”

“Uh-huh,” said Connie once again, smirking. “You read that memo from a few days ago? The one about the missing supplies and all? I wonder.” Her manicured fingernails (more like claws, Shelly thought to herself) drummed against the book’s cover. “I wonder if they have any suspects...”

“Really, Connie,” said Shelly, taking the book back. “You think I’d steal all those things? Besides, how often have you had to reorder supplies? I bet Doctor Halmstead would be shocked if he looked at your invoices for the past year...”

“Shut up!” Connie hissed, but she was smiling as well, forgetting about the guidebook. “He’d have my butt!”

“What’s that you said, Connie?”

It was Dr. Halmstead, speak of the Devil, standing outside the door to his office. Both women snickered as he smiled at them.

“You two have nothing better to do than talk about anatomy?” he said.

“No, doctor,” said Connie. “I mean yes, sir. Back to work I go.”

Shelly’s eyes narrowed as she watched her coworker disappear around the corner, but turned quickly back to her boss. He seemed quite pleased with her.

“What is it, doctor?” she asked.

“My book!” he replied, gesturing to her hands, which were clutching the book in question rather firmly. “I didn’t realize you had an interest!”

“Oh, yes,” she said, nodding. “A little.”

“Good! Good! I think it’s a good little guide, don’t you? Quite good, quite thorough, gives you all the ins and outs and all that, yes? Don’t you think? Shelly? Are you all right, dear? Are you having a spasm?”

The whole time Shelly had simply been nodding mechanically to her boss’s remarks, which she finally ceased, blushing deeply.

“Sorry, Dr. Halmstead,” she said. “It’s a very good guide.”

“But not a great one! Eh?” His eyes twinkled. “Perhaps you and I could go over the finer points, yes? It would be very interesting, I think.” He began to walk off as another client arrived at his door, still mumbling. “(Yes, quite interesting, getting her thoughts, why didn’t I think of that before, must be losing my wits) Hello, Mr. Kincaid! How are you? Your girl’s right in here...”

Shelly exhaled deeply as her boss disappeared into his office. She hadn’t realized that she had been holding her breath.

#

It took her until she arrived at her front door to realize that she had forgotten to pick up Oren’s painting supplies. A fierce bit of cursing escaped her lips as she keyed the lock and walked inside, her teeth gnashing a bit behind her tight mouth, preparing for Oren’s tantrum that would inevitably follow this failure on her part...

But he wasn’t home.

She found a note lying amidst a mess of magazines on the coffee table. It read: Went out. Be back later. Don’t worry about me being spotted. Got a disguise. -Oren.

Beneath the note lay several of the magazines Shelly had so carefully kept filed away, all featuring articles about Oren. The top one’s title read: “The Case of Mr. Sinclair: Kidnapped or Killed?” It was about the disappearance seven months back. She wondered just how much of it he had managed to read.

The rest of the living room was in disarray as well, especially around the bookshelves and the entertainment unit in the corner. She recognized the movie boxes sitting open at the foot of the television, all of his old features she’d bought. Had he sat and watched those as well? she wondered. The movie in the player was Cave Hunters, of course, the box featuring none other than Oren himself wearing a furry loin cloth and vest, saddled upon an enormous saber-toothed tiger, brandishing a spear at a wicked-looking flying reptile that bore more than a passing resemblance to their beloved dining room pterodactyl...

Shelly could sense everything falling apart then. It would be impossible to keep the rest from him now. He already knew too much. She’d meant to ease him into it all more gradually, wait for the buzz surrounding the disappearance to fade, then take him back into the public view with her, happily together, but now...

The wall phone rang. The number on the display was Connie’s. She picked up the receiver reluctantly.

“Hello?”

“Oh, good! You're home!” Connie spat back quickly. “Have you seen it?”

“Seen what?”

“Oh, dear Lord!” Connie’s voice laughed hysterically. “You can’t miss this! Turn on the TV! Channel nine! Do it now!”

Shelly plodded back to the couch, flipping on the TV with the remote. The words NEWS FLASH! appeared in the upper left corner of the screen. The word LIVE appeared in the bottom right. A very recent still photo of Oren’s bemused face with the word FOUND below it appeared smack dab in the center.

“Oh my God...” Shelly mumbled.

“I know!” Connie piped. “He’s back!”

Shelly’s thumb mashed the volume button feverishly, flooding the room with the animated voice-over of Channel Nine’s street reporter.

“...cannot account for his whereabouts for the past seven months, but was first spotted here on the street by our very own film crew only two hours earlier...”

The show cut to video feed of the reporter chasing after a man in dirty coveralls and lugging a brand new easel down Brenner Boulevard. As the camera zoomed in Shelly saw that it was Oren, except that he was wearing a false moustache (which didn’t even come close to matching his hair color, Shelly couldn’t help noticing). A bundle of paint brushes were wedged between his teeth as he clumsily continued to sprint down the street, then the feed cut off, returning to the earlier stock photo.

She stared at the screen, her mind racing. He’d been found! What could she do now? She couldn’t cover this up; there was no possible way at this point, especially if Oren had actually talked to them. Oh God, if he had talked to them...and where was he, anyway?

“Uh, Shelly?” said Connie through the receiver. “You still there? Hellooo...”

Shelly hung up the phone abruptly, her hands going to her face. Dear God, she thought to herself. Everything really was falling apart after all...

The phone rang again suddenly. She picked it up on the first ring.

“Sorry, Connie. I didn’t mean to be rude--”

“Who?” said a man’s voice, rather distant. “Is that you, Shelly?”

“What?”

“It’s Oren.”

“Oren!” she nearly shrieked, unable to conceal her frazzled tone. “Where are you?”

“I’m on a plane!” he replied. His voice sounded rather happy to relate this news, which made Shelly growl. “A little private one! Apparently I own it! They won’t let me pilot it, though.”

“They? Who are they, Oren?”

“Oh, my agent (at least that’s who he says he is) and some press people. He picked me up off the street, saw me running away from that camera crew. Did you catch that on TV, by the way? Anyway, he and his driver threw me into their limo and started screaming at me for disappearing on them, and...”

“What did you tell them?” Shelly interrupted.

“Oh.” Oren lowered his voice to a whisper. “They’re pretty mad at you, Shelly. They think you kidnapped me or something. I tried to tell them that you were my girlfriend and that I was on...what was that word you used? High eights?”

“Hiatus!”

“Yeah, that word. Anyway, they say you were making it all up since I’m married already and all. Did you know that, Shelly? I’m married! I have a wife! Isn’t that just weird? Man, I wonder what she looks like...”

“Oren!” Shelly snapped. “What do you mean when you say they’re mad at me?”

“Oh, they want an investigation done. With police detectives and stuff. I told them since you were my girlfriend and all that it’d be mean to make you go to jail, considering how well you took care of me. So don’t worry, honey. I won’t press charges! But hey! My head’s fine except for this weird scar on my scalp...”

“I’m coming to see you, Oren. Where is your plane heading?”

“I don’t know!” he replied, giggling. “Isn’t that cool? It’s kind of like an adventure! Anyway, I’m not allowed to see you. My agent (I think his name’s Ted) is convinced you’re some love-crazed fanatic who’s trying to imprison me or something.” A muffled voice in the background growled something at that point. “What? Oh, hey Ted. Oh, sorry, I meant Todd. Me? Just talkin’ on the phone...to my, er, art dealer! But I don’t wanna hang up yet. Oh, really? That expensive? I gotta go, sweetie, er...Miss Art Dealer Lady. Bye!”

The connection cut off. Shelly stood frozen, the receiver still up to her ear, trying to fend off the bombardment of thoughts pummeling her mind. Just like that, she thought to herself. It was over...

Oren was gone.

#

The next few weeks were a veritable nightmare for Shelly as she watched her lovely Oren quickly imbue himself back into the Hollywood scene. Programs popped up on every station about him, buzzing with excitement about his latest projects. There was the long-delayed production of the Cave Hunters sequel (which Oren had originally walked out on), not to mention the coffee shop rumors about his new art exhibit set to debut in less than two weeks (Oren was calling it “Prehistoria” or something equally stupid. He’d already called her four times about mailing him back his sculptures), and already the three major networks were advertising for their competing made-for-TV movies chronicling the strange circumstances surrounding his disappearance, each set to air right after the Super Bowl...

Shelly was rather miffed to find that in each teaser they had chosen a rather dumpy-looking woman to play her character. And mean, to boot (she hadn’t been too keen when the producers approached her with the scripts and contracts only days after Oren was discovered. She supposed that they had taken it personally).

After all this she didn’t want to wonder if it could possibly get any worse as she came back from work, tired and lonely and depressed...

Then it did.

The phone was already ringing as she walked into the living room. It was Connie, of course.

“Turn on the TV!” she squealed. “Channel seven! You won’t believe it!”

Shelly complied, though fear was already rising within her. The television screen popped to life and she flipped to channel seven, none too surprised to see that the program was about Oren. Except it wasn’t the same Oren. Not exactly. Or was it? She couldn’t really tell. She turned up the volume. The commentator’s voice rose quickly:

“...unprecedented and mysterious turn, Oren Sinclair has returned...again!” The show cut to footage of a somewhat disheveled version of Oren departing from a small jet at a California airport, his face covered in a bushy grizzle of hair, dressed in what looked to be clothing one might wear on a safari. Next to him stood his celebrity wife in similar garb, looking more than pleased to be back on familiar ground. “That’s right, folks. This is Mr. Sinclair getting off a charter plane with his wife, Eliza, only forty-five minutes ago. Mr. Sinclair requested that the press be present for his arrival. He and his wife have been out of the country for the past several months in a small village in Africa, and Mr. Sinclair told us he only recently heard the news that he had returned to the limelight a few weeks ago...while he was still in Africa!”

“Oh my God...” said Shelly.

“I know!” Connie chimed in.

“...came as quite a shock to the other Oren Sinclair as well, who was picked up by authorities only minutes ago while hosting his art exhibit at the Burbank Community Center. Police investigator Wilhelm states their medical examiner positively identified the impersonator as a clone, more specifically a CF-160 belonging to the Halmstead Corporation, as indicated by a trademark biochip in the impersonator’s scalp. Dr. Halmstead was unavailable for comment...”

“Impossible,” Shelly mumbled, hanging up the phone in a daze. “It’s just not possible...”

But it was, and she knew it. She buried her face in her hands, trying to fend off tears. She couldn’t help it now. How could it be? He wasn’t supposed to return. He had been all but declared dead, for crying out loud, but now he was back. Now they would know everything...

The next thirty minutes were spent throwing as many things as she could fit into a medium-sized carry-on bag. Enough to live out of for a few days until she bought more clothes. Enough to keep her and her Oren going once they got out of the state. She grunted as her body squeezed the overfilled bag shut, sweat breaking out along her forehead.

She stopped suddenly, realizing the worst. Her Oren was with the authorities. How was she supposed to get to him without being taken in herself? She needed a plan, that was all. She had to think of a plan...

She jumped in place as the doorbell rang. Cautiously she tiptoed down the stairs from the bedroom and over to the front door, peering through the peephole. Dr. Halmstead’s ovalesque visage was grinning back.

“It’s okay, dear,” he said cheerily enough. “I’m not going to bite you or anything! Come now, open up!”

Though still unsure, she opened the door regardless. Seeing her boss there, looking at her in a paternal fashion, she couldn’t help but break down as he entered.

“So,” said Halmstead, cradling her head on his shoulder. “You’ve been a bad girl, haven’t you?”

He led her back to her couch, listening to her patiently as the confession flooded out of her amidst heavy, choking sobs. About the stolen clone fetus, the meds, the accelerated incubation equipment, the lock of hair she used for DNA replication, everything. She couldn’t even look at him once she had finished, looking down at the floor as she wiped a stream of tears off her cheek.

“We’ve got a recall team already out to retrieve him,” said Halmstead gravely. “But we still need the initiation code from you.”

“The initiation code?” Shelly asked, frowning. “What good is that?”

“For reprogramming,” Halmstead explained, then narrowed his eyes at her. “So we can blank out his memory store and hopefully recycle the unit. Didn’t you read the rest of my guide book?”

“Oh. No...I...”

“Chapter fourteen,” said Halmstead, and then he spoke as though quoting: “Not every relationship is successful, which is just the nature of humanity. Conflicting matches, identity crises, and schizotypal disorders are always a danger when cloning a mate, especially in the case that the host human is still alive. But in such a case you may start over, and it’s as simple as reciting the first words you spoke to your mate.”

“Oh,” said Shelly, laughing nervously. “I wish I’d read that far.”

“It’s alright. Here.” He took out a small piece of paper and a pen. “Just write it down here.” She complied, scribbling three words quickly. Halmstead read them with a grin: My Private Idol.

“Do you have to do it?” Shelly asked. “Do you have to...erase him?”

“Ah, my dear.” Halmstead patted her head. “I’m sorry, we must.”

“But if I kept him here,” she began, then stopped herself, realizing how foolish she sounded. “The same thing would probably happen again.”

Halmstead nodded. “I can only imagine it was tough, having Oren Sinclair disappear, you two growing so close, having your very own perfect mate come into your life and then depart. Yes, I can understand your sadness. But I can fix that, Shelly. I can make you feel better.”

Shelly moved back a touch. “How do you mean?”

And then Halmstead spoke three words, slowly and carefully. “Father. Loves. Daughter.”

As easily as that, Shelly’s face went blank, her eyes vacant, staring off into some unseen place, her mind suddenly empty, her body completely limp.

“There you are,” said Halmstead. “Oops! Better write that down! There. You. Are. That’s your new code, Shelly, you mischievous little girl. My daughter, rest in peace, you’re her to a tee. Should’ve known better than to clone my kin, but it couldn’t be helped, I missed you so much, Shelly...”

“Who?” Shelly said vacantly.

“Shelly. That is your name, love. You. You Shelly. Me Doctor Halmstead. This way, sweetie.”

He mumbled a few more words and she blanked out completely once again as he led her toward the door and to his awaiting recall van, where attendants folded her up and stored her away in a large gray recycling receptacle. Halmstead looked on and sighed as they piled into the van.

“It’s such a hassle,” he mused. “Such an unbelievably enormous hassle starting over with these things.”

END

 
 
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Michael is a graduate of the University of Kansas, where he received his bachelor's degree in psychology. Besides writing, his favorite hobby is reading science fiction and fantasy from the 50's and 60's.
 
 
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