White, neon light splatters over the windshield of the spacecraft. Although Jessica knows it can’t be called a windshield. There is no wind in space. Maybe there is. Earthbound, previously earthbound, Jessica is uncertain. Gayle43 reaches over and yanks on her harness until Jessica snaps tight against what should have been the co-pilot’s seat. But he is knocked out and stacked in a utility closet, along with the pilot, at the spaceport just outside Titusville which is forty miles down the Florida coast from Jessica’s home, which she will never be able to return to.
“Don’t touch anything.”
Gayle43 goes back to staring at the control panel in front of them. Lights blink, an alarm sounds, and Gayle43 punches buttons too fast for Jessica to follow. But not superpower fast. Does her clone have superpowers? The little craft twists sideways in quick loops. Streams of light crisscross in front of them and explode. Jessica’s wheelchair escapes its straps and floats between them. Gayle43 bats it back.
“The pulse blast reverberations will hit us. But there shouldn’t be permanent damage. Brace.”
Jessica hears groaning in the hull. Her skin crawls and vibrations shake the old lady wattles under her neck. Her eyes expand against their sockets. Are they going to explode? She closes them. Will she end up blind as well as gimpy?
Gayle43 is her clone. Not disabled, but her clone. Jessica has been repeating that to herself ever since Gayle43 knocked on the cranberry red door of her sweet home. The image of concrete block walls painted a butter yellow and the spikes of coral bean that line the walk float in the speckled dark behind her eyelids. She can smell the jessamine vine growing over the front porch screens. Jessica loves her house, her creative cocoon, her sanctuary, the place where everything is exactly as she needs it to be. She opens her eyes. She smells cold metal and her own sweat. What has she done?
The knock at the door had come at the worst time. Jessica pretended she hadn’t heard it. The magnifying lenses she’d ordered to help her eyesight had finally arrived, and she was placing a delicate series of plum-threaded couching stitches on the silk. The trick with Su double-sided embroidery was to stitch over the ends of threads instead of tying knots. Which required two layers, the first to hide the ends and then longer stitches to hide the short stitches which she was in the process of doing when a second flurry of knocks backed her head away from the bamboo hoop. Her view became a swirl of blurred shapes until she remembered to pull the glasses up onto her forehead. It took her vision time to adjust. The knock, louder, came again. Jessica secured her needle.
“What the holy hell. It says right there on the door jamb not to disturb. I do not want to go to your church or buy your band candy. Do I have to add ‘fuck off’ to the sign?”
Jessica yelled this as she grabbed the doorknob with one hand and used the other to shove her wheelchair backward. She’d forgotten to put on gloves and her hands were gritty from the tires. She had to remember to wash them before she touched the silks again. Which she hoped would be momentarily. And band candy was a thing of the past, something her mother used to yell her own door. The person outside was probably selling fake automated security. The door swung open. Except for the fact that the woman stood on her own legs, except that she was thin and muscular, and except that she was at least forty years younger than Jessica’s seventy-six, they could have been the same person. Jessica looked into the woman’s eyes. They were blue flecked with green. The exact same as Jessica’s except for the smooth, pale white skin around them. This woman hadn’t been in the sun much. The eyes stared back at her in recognition.
It had been years since Jessica had been someone privy to high-level secrets, but still she had heard rumors about the ruling Council of Scientists providing cloned children to the outer planets. But no one had reported ever seeing one. These days, since the Council’s ascendency, no one was reporting much about anything. If they did, they disappeared. There were certainly unpleasant consequences for knowing what she now knew. Her peaceful retirement would be ruined. Maybe if she slammed the door fast enough, no one in authority would find out. Jessica made a decision.
She backed away from the door and gestured at her clone to close it. They considered each other.
“How tall are you? I’ve always wondered how tall I would have been.”
“Five feet, eight inches tall. My name is Gayle43. I’m sorry. I had to find you. It’s a compulsion that can happen to us, this yearning to know. Researchers say it’s like adoptees who go search for their birth parents only stronger. They give us drugs to suppress the instinct. You must turn me in to avoid the penalty of being complicit. Then you will be safe. But may we talk for a while before you call your authorities?”
Jessica had lived much of her life dodging authorities. Calling them was seldom the way to be safe. Her clone seemed not to have gotten that survival gene. Except that she got all the genes. Nature vs. nuture. Jessica had thought more than once that disability helped her escape a life of white lady complacency. Here was proof. Gayle43 wandered around the front room. Did the 43 mean there were forty-two other Jessicas? This one stopped at the embroidery table. She looked at one side and then the other of the screen. Then she did it again.
Jessica knew it was impressive what with the ears, upper head, and beginning of a nose of a Florida panther on one side of the translucent silk and a half-finished bouquet of wildflowers on the other. This was her new creative obsession. Jessica rolled up to the side of Gayle43 and looked with her. She’d made a mistake with those last stitches. They should have been a darker purple to both fill in a passion flower petal and complete the shadow under the panther’s nose.
“This seems impossible. Also my, or our, aptitude in the creative arts has always tested low.”
Jessica chalks another win for life with a disability. She had never been creative until about twenty years ago when her weakness progressed and she couldn’t be effective at her job anymore.
“It’s not easy. You sketch in the design and direction of stitches, of course, but you have to keep the image on the other side of the silk, the panther, in mind. It takes intense attention to detail and more patience than I ever had when I was younger and more able. Sometimes if the color is the same for both images, you can use one needle, but usually two are in play. The richness comes from each color consisting of at least ten shades. The masters of this art can take a thread of silk and divide it into a hundred filaments. I can’t do that. But still, I get decent results.” Jessica raised a finger to touch the scarlet satin of a firebush that had turned out well and then remembered her hands weren’t clean. She knew she was rambling from nerves. She had a clone. Damn. Gayle43 must be weirded out as well. She looked at her.
Gayle43 was smiling.
“I am, or was, an assistant planetary manager. My job parameters are not unlike what you just described. I worked with many threads. Some of those allowed me to find you.”
Jessica snorted in recognition. Her mother had been the director of a conglomerate of nonprofit agencies trying to feed people. But Jessica had grown up to be the one who provided them with off-book solutions. Travelling with a disability allowed her to develop a network of contacts that simply looked like the support she needed to get around. Parts of it were. Other parts were something else. She also had worked with many threads, but she’d never made the connection to her art. Her mother would be right there alongside Gayle43 and also smiling, amused by her obliviousness. Warmth and tenderness for Gayle43 engulfed Jessica. The sudden strength of connection and the familiarity were worrisome, but Jessica figured it was a good sign when you liked your own damn self.
“I’ve judged that we have a half more hour together before you become suspect. My existence will be ended, but you will be spared. Tell me now about your parents. Do you have children? Please list your inherited traits. I assumed your handicap would make you frail, but the bones of your arms and shoulders are thicker than mine. Did you grow up on a high gravity planet? Have you been in love? We make bonds with others, but all of us have wondered if it is the same as the in films we see. You must hurry with answers. I will transmit them into the clone network before my end.”
Gayle43 was bossy. That must be a nature part of their genes. And she’d glossed over the part about being executed. And once again there was her naivety in thinking Jessica would be spared. The uncovering of secret clone shit would blow things up for the Council here on Earth. People got freaked out by clones. Why wasn’t she freaked out? But instead, an old excitement had Jessica pulling the magnifying glasses off her head and smoothing down the flyaway wisps of gray hair. She pivoted and headed to the bedroom. Gayle43 followed her.
“Did you hear me? Are you of the age of hearing loss? When did it begin?”
Jessica pulled out the long unused backpack from the floor of her closet and threw it on the bed. She fetched clothes from the dresser and stacked them beside it. Heart medications, pain pills, the large tube of skin lotion, and a flashlight off her bedside table followed. The heating pad was already there twisted up in the sheets. She unplugged it and put it on top of the pile. She pulled id papers, photos of her mother, and a faded ultrasound image from the desk. Bracing on her armrest, she bent low to reach for an envelope of money tucked under the bottom drawer.
“Here, I can do that.”
Gayle43 bent down beside Jessica. Their heads were close. Jessica noted the shades of red in Gayle43’s black hair. She knew that in the sun they showed up more. She remembered from before her own hair silvered.
“If you want to help me, stand over there out of the way.”
Jessica used her command voice. Gayle43 straightened and stepped away. Jessica had years more experience at being bossy.
In the bathroom she gathered basic toiletries including her nighttime hand moisturizer and took them to the bed. She dumped them on the pile. The pile was too big. Jessica decided she only needed one shawl but then added an extra pair of padded, cut-off gloves. She sighed and set aside the heating pad and half of the clothes, but not the warm socks. When she stuffed everything into the bag, it fit. Jessica congratulated herself on creating maybe the first ever wheelchair-using, old hag go bag.
She dragged it onto her lap and went back to the living room. Gayle43 followed her, still not interfering. Careful not to touch the actual image, Jessica wrapped the hoop, skeins of silk, and needles in a cloth bag and slid it into a pocket of the backpack.
“Here, hoist this onto the push handles for me.” Gayle43 lifted the pack out of her lap and slid the straps over the handles. Jessica felt the weight of it change the balance of the wheelchair. “And how much time before they come for you? This is the first place they’ll look, right?”
“I’m on my biennial month of leave. I booked an excursion to a nearby entertainment planet and from there hired a disreputable long-haul trader to bring me to Earth. I’m not due on shift for two days, but the trader will report me for a reward as soon as she’s left Earth’s jurisdiction. So, four hours from now at the outside.”
Jessica yearned to live again with the knowledge of smugglers and the disreputable, to be disreputable herself. She had been known for her ability to move goods—medicines and food mainly, sometimes people—into and out of impossible places. She’d been looking through the narrow focus of her magnifying glasses for too long. Becoming an artist had been her way to oppose the rise of cold rationality. Her artwork, the artist’s statements on the walls at galleries, her interviews at shows all offered a type of resistance to the cerebral. Now it was time for another type of resistance. She threw Gayle43 the sunhat she used for her garden.
“Wear this low over your face. A cliché of subterfuge, but it still works. I’m getting on my computer and activating some old contacts. They’ll get us out of the country. Should I keep adding forty-three to the end of your name? How about just Gayle?”
“But my name is Gayle43.” Gayle 43 patted the faded flower on the brim of the hat. “I like this. On our planet it would be called frivolous. Wearing it would ruin my performance reviews.”
Jessica never argued with someone about their name. And she put an attraction for femme presentation on the nature side of things.
“Your performance reviews are always perfect, right?”
“Until now. But there won’t be another one.” The realization had Gayle43’s mouth flapping but unable to form words. Jessica hoped this wasn’t what she looked like when she was befuddled which happened more often these days. Maybe she shouldn’t go with Gayle43 what with the obviousness of the wheelchair for anyone chasing them. But Gayle43 was strong and young. She could push or even lift her when they needed to hide. Also, Jessica herself was needed. There were some bigwigs in some countries who owed her or at least remembered their parents remembering her mother fondly. If they could just get to one of those countries. They needed to hurry. Jessica leaned forward to adjust for the weight of her backpack and pulled up to the desk with her computer. Before she could lift the lid, Gayle43 pushed her hand down on it.
“I understand now that I’ve put you in danger. You could go your own way to escape, but in my analysis, you are safer with my help. I think this is your conclusion as well. We have to leave the planet. What is the fastest route back to the Spaceport?”
Jessica wanted to argue, but Gayle43 was right. Since she agreed with the plan, Jessica ignored that Gayle43 had decided a course of action without her input, and within the hour they were on the coastal express train headed south. Gayle43 posture loosened. She made a pun about them being on the lam except she said “on the lame.” Jessica abhorred abled people making jokes as if they were also disabled, but perhaps your own clone got a pass. Gayle43 leaned into the window and exclaimed each time a view of the ocean passed by. She wanted Jessica to explain what made the changes in water color from aqua to grey-blue and why did the air smell the way it did. Jessica yearned to see her own new vistas. She hadn’t yearned in a long time.
The next blast lights up the side portals. She’d expected to be thrown out onto the deck, but just a tremor rocks Jessica’s chair. They must be past the reach of Earth’s near space weapons. Jessica stops bracing.
Gayle43 holds up her hand in the exact “wait” gesture that Jessica often used. Jessica ponders nature and nurture again. She knows she has inherited that specific imperial command from her mother, but she hadn’t known it was written into their genetics.
“I’ve set in a route that will probably keep us hidden. It’s to a planet where Gayle28 and Gayle36 are stationed. There were rumors of a clone revolution before all contact was terminated. This is the only plan I have. We will now have days of waiting.”
Rumors, maybes, and haphazard plans have all worked for Jessica in the past. Like when the raggedy remnants of a white patriot movement were closing in to, at the least, rob her, and a group of old women hauling water motioned her over. She thought they were probably related to the thugs and were going to use old lady intimidation to defend themselves, but instead they reached into buckets, behind overalls, and under aprons to pull out so very many large guns. First they scared off their probable grandsons and then used old lady intimidation to get money from her. She was glad to hand it over. Or the time a half-assed plan to circumvent a naval blockade by floating food packages up a tidal river had actually worked.
But that luck was long ago. Jessica loosens her harness. Gayle43 pushes back from the console and rotates her chair to face Jessica.
“Will you answer my questions now?”
Jessica holds up her own hand in the wait gesture. She rummages in her pack and pulls out her embroidery hoop. She is not going to worry about smudging. Over one thigh she arranges all the threads of yellow, red, blue, gold, and orange—every shade she needs to create brown. She flips the screen. From now on she’ll work from the panther side. Before she threads a needle, she takes Gayle43’s hand in hers. She remembers and recognizes the slim knuckles and unspotted skin of her own young hand.
“My bones are bigger than yours from using crutches. My mother raised me. She didn’t administer a planet like you, but she did run a planet-wide organization. I had a daughter, but she died as she was born. And yes, I’ve been in love. Would you like to me to tell you those stories first?”
Jessica and Gayle43 smile identical smiles.
Sandra Gail Lambert is the author of the memoir A Certain Loneliness and The River’s Memory, a novel. Her writing has been widely anthologized and published by The New York Times, The Sun, Orion, and The Paris Review. She is an NEA Creative Writing Fellow and the co-editor of the online anthology Older Queer Voices: The Intimacy of Survival.