Little Fox by Amy Griswold [sci-fi]

Little Fox by Amy Griswold

The sky is white when I wake up, and it takes me a moment to realize that I’m in my clone’s bed.

Fox is usually up before I am, helping make breakfast and figuring out what I’m going to wear that day. I stare up at her ceiling, which is painted plain white instead of showing a live stream of the sky like mine. The inside of my head feels slow, and my tongue tastes bitter.

There’s a brisk knock on the door. “Fox!” my mother calls. “It is still a school day for Marissa, you know.”

I climb out of bed, and apparently that satisfies my mother that Fox is awake, because I hear her footsteps retreating. I squint and realize I’m not wearing my own contact lenses. These must be Fox’s, because they’re not bringing up any data no matter how I contort my features.

Fox has my old wall screen I used before I got smart walls, and I clap my hands to turn it on. “Cloud, what day is it?”

“The date is September 1,” the cloud says.

September 1. Right now, I’m supposed to be settling into my freshman dormitory at NYU. My train left late last night, but I wasn’t on it and I can’t remember why. I pull on one of Fox’s plain white dresses, which feels like I’m wearing a nightgown, and head for my room.

My bed is made and my closet door is closed. The ceiling shows that the sky outside is blue, but the walls have been switched from looping scenes from my favorite flicks to the serene beach my mother prefers. My backpack and my suitcases are gone.

The last thing I remember is Fox bringing me a cup of coffee. “You’ll want this if you’re staying up all night on the train,” she said. I remember it tasted bitter.

It only takes me a moment to pull up the Amtrak records and see that my ticket has been used. I scan for pictures and find a couple of crowd shots uploaded to the cloud by excited travelers that show me getting onto the train. But, of course, who they actually show is Fox.

She’s wearing my clothes, and she’s got her hair up in a knot the way I wear mine. It was already the same pale green I’m wearing this fall. She wanted to have her hair the same color as mine, as if we were real sisters, and I helped her dye it, joking about the acid color the dye turned on my gloves, like something out of a mad scientist flick.

Now I wonder if she was planning this the whole time we were laughing together. I can’t understand why she would do this to me.

“Cloud, call Fox,” I say.

“I don’t think it will work very well to call yourself on the phone,” the cloud says.

My fingers go to my right earring. My identifier chip should be there to tell the cloud who I am. But I’m guessing that if I looked in the mirror, I’d see Fox’s earrings in my ear, stark white triangles to identify her as a clone.

Her earrings aren’t supposed to come off. Not unless you have the little device the company uses to put them on. But when I look in the mirror, there they are in my ears. My face has been washed clean of its usual painted enhancements, and someone—Fox—has painted the minimalist dots she usually wears on both my cheekbones.

It’s on the tip of my tongue to call the police. Or at least to go tell my mother so that she can figure out what our best response to this is. Maybe there are more discreet ways of getting Fox back without getting the police involved. If the police catch her impersonating her original—

I can’t wrap my mind around the idea of losing Fox that way. She’s supposed to come live with me once I’m out of college, so she can take care of me and watch horror flicks with me late at night and critique the girls I date. She’s supposed to be there when I get married. When I have a baby, Fox is supposed to be there to rock the baby in her arms.

“Fox!” my mother says, raising her voice.

I can’t tell her the truth yet. I need more time. I need to talk to Fox.

“I’m coming,” I say, and hurry to help get my sister Marissa ready for school.

Marissa raises a skeptical eyebrow when I fumble with her buttons. “What’s wrong with you this morning?”

“I’ll bet Fox misses Bella,” my mother says. She kisses Marissa on the head. “I know you miss her too.”

“No, I don’t,” Marissa says. “She was the one who wanted to go to stupid college.”

“I’ll bet you do miss her, really,” I say, because I think that’s what Fox would say.

“You can call her on the way to school,” my mother tells Marissa.

“I might call her, too,” I say.

“After the breakfast dishes are done, Fox,” my mother says. She gives me a kind but firm smile. “I can’t let you get into bad habits, can I? Bella will need you more than ever once she graduates.”

“I wish I were there with her right now,” I say.

“So do I, believe me,” my mother says. “I still can’t believe she chose a college that won’t allow clones in the dormitories. All they’d need is room for a little bed in the corner. I don’t even know how she’s going to dress herself without you, believe me.”

I can, in fact, dress myself without Fox picking out the clothes for me. I’ve gone on school trips for entire days at a time without Fox. And I’ve been telling myself that I can call her any time I need to hear her voice. Or not call her, and find out what it’s like to handle things with no one to rely on but my friends, the way my mother did when she was my age.

“She took Little Fox with her,” I said. Little Fox was the stuffed animal I slept with as a baby. At one point when I was going through an unfortunately imaginative stage, I got upset because I convinced myself that if I really loved Little Fox enough, he would turn into a real fox, like in the Velveteen Rabbit. He persisted in staying mechanical, and I writhed in guilt for not loving him enough to give him a beating heart. My mother pointed out that real foxes were not good pets, and that if he were a real fox, he wouldn’t sing songs or tell stories. It helped, a little, but I still hoped to wake up one morning to the touch of a cold nose on my face.

I named Fox after Little Fox when she came to live with us. I’m not sure I would let a four-year-old name her clone sister, myself, but it could have been worse; my ex-girlfriend Olivia had a clone sister named Pinky Pony, and even shortening it to Pink didn’t help much.

“She doesn’t need Little Fox,” my mother said. “She needs you. Now, how about those dishes?”

I stack a few dishes haphazardly in the dishwasher and run a cleaner over the counters until I hear the front door close behind Marissa and my mother. “Cloud, call Bella.”

“You haven’t finished the dishes yet,” the cloud said. I stack faster, guess at the right settings, and turn the dishwasher on.

“Cloud, call Bella. This is…Fox. Answer the phone. We need to talk.” I hesitate, and then add, “I haven’t told anyone. We can still fix this. Just answer the phone.”

She doesn’t. Not then, not at lunchtime, when I try to figure out how to make myself a sandwich without severing fingers, and not before dinner, when I’m getting desperate. I make such a disaster out of dinner that when my mother comes to investigate the source of the burned-plastic smell, she throws dinner out and tells the cloud to order takeout for us instead.

“I’m sorry,” I say, wracking my brain for an explanation.

“I’ll talk to you after Marissa is in bed,” my mother says, not angrily, but wearily.

I serve the takeout when it arrives and choke down my own serving in the kitchen. I put the leftovers away after dinner, and do the dishes, and go help Marissa undress.

“I can take my own clothes off,” she says, with a look of eleven-year-old scorn. “I don’t need my sister’s clone to do it for me.”

“I’m here to help,” I say.

“Yeah, for how long?” Marissa pulls her pajama top over her head and flops down on her bed, her walls and ceiling shifting to a black starlit void that always unnerves me a little, like we’re on a platform floating in space. “In four years, you’re going to go live with Bella and I’m going to be on my own.”

“You’ll have your mother,” I say.

Marissa gives me a very old look. “Much good she is,” she says.

I wish I could argue with that. My mother loves me and Marissa, but she was happy enough to let Fox take care of us as soon as Fox was old enough. She ordered a clone of Marissa, too, but when Marissa was two, there was an outbreak of antibiotic-resistant pneumonia. Marissa spent a month in the hospital, and was fragile even after that, but her clone died. They gave my mother her money back, I think.

“You’ll survive,” I say, and go find my mother.

I sit on the end of her bed, trying to decide what to say to her. Overhead, seagulls are sailing through a blue sky, although outside the house it’s dark.

“I’m going to miss Bella,” my mother says. She reaches out for my hand, and I give it to her. Even my nails are painted in the clear gloss Fox uses. I try to picture Fox drugging my coffee, carrying me to her bed, changing the nail polish on my limp fingers, putting her earrings into my ears. The words Im not Fox are on the tip of my tongue. “And I’m going to miss you, too, when you go to live with her.”

“I’m sure you and Marissa will be all right.”

“We’ll manage. I’m looking into buying an orphan.” I didn’t know my mother was thinking of spending the kind of money it took to buy a clone whose original was dead. Some families want to keep the clone, but others find it a morbid reminder. There’s a fairly competitive resale market. “What I mean is, I’m going to miss you. Having you live with us has been…almost like having a third daughter.”

“I’m going to miss you too,” I say. Would Fox tear up at those words? I think she probably should, but it’s hard to imagine. I can’t remember ever seeing Fox cry.

“We’ve got another four years,” my mother says, her voice turning brisk again, as if someone had caught her cradling one of my stuffed animals. “And we can’t have burned dinners for four years. I’m certain you can do better than what I saw today.”

“I’m sure I can too,” I say as neutrally as I can.

“Good,” she says. “Well, goodnight Fox.”

“Good night, ma’am,” I say.

***

I’m woken up by pounding on my door. I leap out of bed and fling the door open, hoping to see Fox standing there smirking in triumph at having played the world’s best and most dangerous practical joke.

Instead, it’s my mother, her face drawn. “Bella never checked into her dormitory,” she says. “Apparently, NYU isn’t sure she ever arrived on campus at all.”

“I hope she’s okay,” I say.

“Please make me some coffee,” my mother says, turning away as if she hasn’t heard. “Cloud, call NYU campus security again.”

I let the door swing shut. “Cloud, please call Bella,” I say. “This is Fox. Pick up now, or I’m going to tell my mother what you’ve done.”

The aging wall screen lights with an image of Fox, not quite life-size. Her hair is short and brown, and her face is streaked with face paint in odd geometric stripes, the kind of pattern privacy nuts use to avoid being recognized by the cloud in photos. She’s sitting on the edge of a fountain in front of a public camera, lighted signs turning the water rainbow colors as they flash and crawl.

“I’m surprised you haven’t told her already,” she says.

“I don’t want you to go to jail. Just come home, all right?”

“And everything will be all right?”

“I’ll say I got cold feet about college and spent all day walking around the city,” I say. “My mother will be so relieved to hear I’m not dead that she’ll forgive me.”

“I’m not coming home, Bella.”

“You have to come home. I can’t cover for you forever.”

“You don’t have to,” Fox says. “I can’t get away with being you much longer anyway. I was hoping I could get a fake ID before I threw your earrings away.”

“And the money in my bank account?”

“I tried,” Fox says, no apology in her voice. “My voiceprint matches yours closely enough to fool the cloud, but the audio scan for bank transfers is a lot better. I had to clean out my account for new clothes and the face paint.” She shrugs, wrapping her arms around herself. It’s chilly for the minidress she’s wearing. “I know some places to go. I’m not the first one to run away.”

“Why are you doing this to me?” I say. My voice cracks a little. “I trusted you.”

“You shouldn’t have.”

“You’re my sister.”

She shakes her head. “Your mother bought me to work for you. That doesn’t make me your sister, no matter how many genes we share.”

“I love you.”

“I love you too,” Fox says. There are no tears in her eyes. “That’s just not important right now.”

I know there must be words to say that will make her come back to me, make her come home, but the only thing in my throat is an ever-tightening knot. “Cloud, transfer the funds in my college fall semester account to Fox,” I say.

“Funds transferred,” the cloud says.

“You’ll have to put them on a chip,” I say. “My mother will close your account when I tell her the truth.”

“Just give me a couple of hours,” Fox says. “I know a guy who can chip them for me.” She digs in her backpack and pulls out Little Fox. “I shouldn’t have taken him,” she says. “I can’t keep him. I’ll mail him back to you.”

When we were younger, Fox used to sneak into my room so that we could sleep in one bed, my arms around Little Fox, Fox’s hand just touching his fur.

“That’s too dangerous,” I say. “Just keep him.”

“I can’t,” she says, and puts him down on the fountain’s edge, his glass eyes staring uncaring into mine. She reaches up to take my earrings out of her ears.

“You never told me,” I said.

Fox shakes her head. “What didn’t you know?” She throws the earrings into the fountain, her lips moving as if she’s making a wish, or maybe saying goodbye, and the video feed ends.

***

When I tell my mother I’m not Fox, after she’s called the dean of students but before she can call our congressman, she stares at me as if she can’t figure out what to say to me. “Where is Fox?” she asks finally.

“I let her pretend to be me so that she could run away.” I want to believe that if they catch her, they’ll go easier on her if they don’t know she drugged me and stole from me. Maybe it’s even true.

I expect fury, tears, a lecture on my irresponsibility. Instead, there is a long silence. On the ceiling panel, a gull swoops low enough that I can see each feather on its wings and then sails off into the distance. When I look back at my mother, her eyes are closed. “Did you do this because of Marissa?”

“What about Marissa?”

“Because Marissa is a clone.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

My mother opens her eyes. “I thought you were old enough to understand when it happened. When Marissa went away to the hospital…”

She stops, but not soon enough for me to pretend I don’t understand. “It wasn’t really Marissa that came back.”

“It was our Marissa. The one we could keep. When the first Marissa was dying, we took her to the same hospital where her clone was being treated. When she died…”

“You switched them.” I shake my head. “Does she know?”

“She was too young to remember. It’s better that way. What we did—switching the girls—it wasn’t strictly legal. We paid for their records to be switched so that Marissa—our Marissa—is officially the original.”

“It’s not the same.”

“Of course it’s not,” my mother says. “But I wanted another daughter.”

“What about Fox?”

“I still had you.”

Yesterday morning, I had two sisters. Now I’m not sure if I have two or none. “I hope Fox gets away,” I say, low and angry. “I hope they never find her.”

“You don’t mean that,” my mother says. “You made a mistake, but I know you want Fox to come home.”

But all I can think of is a fox running under a wide-open sky, her coat flaming through the morning mist until she vanishes out of sight.

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