- When the casting director calls you in, he asks you to tell him your saddest story. You say, “The last person to tell me happy birthday was my brother. He died in a car accident before self-driving cars. These days, the only best wishes I get are from brandbots.” Happy birthday, Leslie! We hope you have many reasons to smile – Spartan Cavity Protection Gel.
“I snapshot those messages to make my own card. Then I stack up the discounts to buy my own presents.” The casting director makes a face to his assistant, like Hmm. Not bad. What do you think?
The assistant takes notes. “You don’t have anyone in your life?”
You say no. You say you got used to it, like your loneliness is scar tissue.
“So why apply to a dating show?” asks the assistant.
You shrug and say, “I don’t want to be alone anymore.”
What you don’t say is that you’re tired of being the one left to carry on. What you don’t say is how much your brother would have loved to be here.
- The show’s name is Clonely Hearts Club. The producers originally wanted Game of Clones, but another network trademarked it. You nod at their holovid and wait for them to say what happens next.
You’ll be one of seven contestants. Each of you will be paired with a B-list celebrity and their clone. You will go on some pre-arranged dates.
“Are you good with horses?” they ask.
You say yes, even though you’ve never seen a horse. Not even the synthetic ones designed for emotional support therapies.
In the end, you have to guess who you’ve been with the entire time: the clone or the actual celebrity. If you pick the celebrity, you both win a cash prize and an all-expense paid vacation to a private island. If you pick the clone, you’re sent home.
“What happens to the clone?” you ask.
“Exits are 90 days,” say the producers.
This is code for short lifespans. Some clones live for twenty-four hours as organ donors. Some live for six months as designated companions for the bereaved. Most countries only allow up to one year of existence.
Their impermanence makes you think about your brother. About that drunk driver saying “sorry” over and over again at the hearing. About your brother’s unpaid bills, unread messages, his unfinished life. Also, that unsent application in his drafts: 3 reasons I’d make a great cast member…
You think about that one law of physics that states how two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time.
Then you say, “I’ll be there.”
- They pair you up with an actor named Don Martin. You remember him as the lead on a show about supernatural doctors. He played a vampire. His followers call themselves “fang-girls.” The first time you meet, you’re supposed to ride horses on a beach at sunset. The date alludes to a famous scene from the show.
“Sorry,” says Don. “This is kind of embarrassing.”
“I don’t mind the fan service,” you say and he smiles. It’s the first time you made anyone smile in a long time. In between takes, one of the producers tells you to reign it in. “Your personality is Ultimate Sad Girl,” they say. “Don is supposed to make you believe in happiness again. He rescues you. Understand?”
At the end of the date, you’re supposed to fall off your horse. Instead, you give Don’s horse a little slap that sends Don rearing back and eating a mouthful of sand. You tend to his (very minor) wounds. Fang-girls eat it up: “Yasss #hurtandcomfort!!!”
You imagine what your brother would say. You imagine him grinning in the dark.
- Don’s father wanted him to be a doctor. “Playing one on TV didn’t count.” He talks about this because your fourth date is at a hospital. The hospital where your brother died. You and Don are supposed to visit terminally ill patients. The whole episode is meant to be “the personal one.” The one where you “open up to each other” to build more emotional stakes.
You tell yourself to be Ultimate Sad Girl. But you don’t feel sad at all. Instead, you feel nothing. You walk around nondescript corridors and whisper to frail patients, but there is a hole inside you; the shape of it is the plot where your brother was buried. The producers ask you to cry. When you say you can’t, they tell you to get angry. When you can’t even give them that, they call for a break.
Don hugs you in the middle of the cafeteria.
You keep wishing your brother could tell you what to do.
- On the last date, Don asks “the question.” After the show airs, you’ll learn that all the participants are asked “the question.”
“Do you think I’m real?” You and the crew are the only ones in a theater (the theme of your last date is movie night). While you’re thinking, Don nuzzles your fingers.
“Clone or not, I’ve always lived someone else’s life. On screen. Off screen. I don’t know how you feel. But I’d like to live my own life now. Preferably with you in it.”
The doctors said your brother died on impact. No suffering. Yet somehow, all that suffering was transferred to you. You will never pay that debt.
So you tell Don the truth.
“I’m a twin,” you say. The crew grows quiet. “I don’t know how to live my own life either. I always followed my brother’s shadow. Even being on this show is something he’d do. He was stupid and romantic like that. So I don’t care if you’re a clone.”
You lean in for a kiss that’s more of a surrender; an emptying of a vessel.
“All I know is that you’re about as real as I am.”
Clonely Hearts Club is the winner of the Apparition Literary Magazine February Flash Fiction Challenge