The clone was never really a child. Mary ordered enhancements including extra-extra intelligence and her new baby demonstrated grownup abilities as early as age one, not only talking but correcting Mother’s grammar. Cynthia was polite enough about it, remarking casually, “Is that right?” or, “And I thought it was pronounced——” as if she were an actual child and Mary a parent. But they both knew right from the start just who was parenting who.
By the second year Mary was working a second job to pay for the computers and all that medical equipment Cynthia had set up in the living room. There were always a dozen volunteers from the university around and the food bill was killer too. Her darling daughter tooled around on her mini Segway in her baby bibs overseeing the massive project. Mary bounced from her day job as a teller at the bank to her telemarketing gig and when she dragged home she was too exhausted to do much more than zee out. She had nightmares about the bills and dreams that Cynthia would finally finish.
What Cynthia was doing was making herself a baby brother. She was not just cloning with genetic manipulation—the eight computers cluttering the extra bedroom had plotted DNA sequencing for brand new proteins. Some would generate more folds in the cortex and some increased the efficiency of blood flow to the brain. She wanted a sibling who would challenge her intellectually.
Mary blew her top when she found out about the project upgrade. “Genetic engineering? Do you know what all this is costing me?”
Cynthia edged her Segway a bit closer and corrected, “Technically it’s genomic engineering. You see, we’re using several new complimentary alleles——”
“You said we were going to save money! You wanted a baby brother and you said you could do it cheaper than Biogen charged for you. A few test tubes and some mail order gene splicers. Maybe ten thousand bucks. Right? You said ten thousand dollars.”
“Now Mother, that was only an estimate.”
“I am almost a quarter of a million dollars in debt! And now I find out you’re playing Dr. Frankenstein?” Mary shot a glare at a lab tech. “And what are all you people doing? You’re helping her? This kind of research is potentially dangerous. You have no idea what could happen.”
Fluffing her golden curls, Cynthia sighed. “Mother, the rats are playing chess and one of our rhesuses is working on a novel.” Her voice rose. “By the way everyone—Dr. Venter and his team have been nominated for another Nobel.” A wave of congratulations swept through the living room and everyone applauded.
“I told you I want those monkeys out of the attic,” Mary snapped. She sidestepped a heavyset man rushing down the hall to join in the gaiety and stormed to her bedroom. When she slammed the door and turned around what she saw shocked her into silence. The rats were indeed playing chess and they were doing it on her bed.
“Excuse me?” The young man hovering over the chess game adjusted his wire rimmed glasses and stiffened. “This room is closed, I am afraid.”
One of the rats squeaked. A girl with bright pink hair trailing over her black sweater who was seated on the bed reached out and moved a chess piece. She looked up. “Josh, she’s all right. She’s Cynthia’s donor.”
Josh brightened. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize.”
“This happens to be my bedroom,” Mary said.
“And you are certainly welcome to it—at six o’clock.”
“We have a regular schedule,” the girl added. “Sorry.” The black rat squeaked and she moved the black queen. “Oh, I think that’s check, Einstein.” The white rat adopted a worried look on the other side of the board, tiny paws tucked under its furry chin.
Josh whispered to Mary, “Socrates has been on fire all day.”
Mary stumbled out muttering to herself. These people had taken over her home just like Cynthia’s project had taken over her life. Hopefully Cynthia’s new brother would be smart enough to play the market so Mary could get back some of that money. Or maybe the kids could go on Baby Jeopardy. Cynthia had a 200 IQ and the new clone was going to be even smarter. There had to be a way to make some money off that.
A high voice flared from the end of the hall. “There you are!”
That impossibly thin, bearded professor from MIT was back. He cornered Mary, waving a power pad. He had been there at the start of all this and she wanted answers. She complained, “I thought this was a clone job with simple enhancements, like Cynthia. Now I find out you’re making new genes?”
“Yes, of course we’re making new genes! Cynthia’s entire program is proactive. Now—we have you scheduled for blood work downstairs.” He hurried back towards the kitchen.
She dragged after him, grumbling, “I can’t afford all this. That’s what I’m saying.”
“Of course you can’t! Come along.”
When they reached the basement, she succumbed to the pack of lab coats that attacked with their needles and swabs. Every time she came down here they treated her like some lab rat. Except that she couldn’t play chess, so they probably treated Einstein and Socrates a whole lot better. The monthly gorgonzola bill told her that much.
“We’ll be making the extraction for the clone presently,” the bearded professor informed her. His minions were busily running her fluid samples through the bank of equipment lining the wall.
“You mean your research is finished? Because I really am dead broke. Illinois Electric is about to turn the power off.”
“Of course they are! We are well aware of the deplorable state of your finances.” The professor arched his eyebrows and a couple of the techs sniggered. “And that’s why we’ve assigned royalties from our genetic patents to cover all future expenses.”
“Really? And you’re paying all those bills?”
“No. It wouldn’t do to comingle funds that way. From here on out we will take care of everything though, rest assured.”
“No buts! I insist.”
“No buts.” He waved a long finger. “Now come over here and—”
She groaned, “You know I’m working two jobs to pay all those bills.”
“Let’s extract the specimen for the clone so you can get right back to work.”
“Thanks a lot.”
The professor smiled. “Team?” The lab coats attacked.
They used a surrogate mother so Mary wouldn’t have to take maternity leave. Once they had the new clone started she fell back into her regular work routine. The scientists pretty much left her alone unless they ran out of coffee or Funyuns.
It was impossible to keep up with the interest from all those bills and the mortgage company foreclosed a few weeks later. Cynthia was nice enough to buy the house. Mary was now sleeping in the spare bedroom with two interns and all the computers, but at least she had her own pillow on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Mary did catch a break when Magic Foods Corporation offered them a contract to promote their breakfast cereal. Unfortunately Cynthia refused to participate in all that nonsense. Mary was forced to show up for the commercial with a life-sized laminated picture of her curly-headed daughter.
The director was a tall woman with jet black hair that seemed to point sideways and up, forming a small niche which might be used for car keys or a petite cell. “M. K. Baldwin, in the house,” her whiskery assistant announced as she strode onto the set in the production studio in New York. Her satiny black tights and jacket gleamed under the overhead lights and the six-inch heels drummed an impatient beat.
A man in a gray suit rushed out from the crush of bodies encircling the set. “MK, we weren’t able to get celebrity prodigy Cynthia Rogers, but we have her mother and a substitute Cynthia.”
A woman with her leg in a cast hobbled forward. She flashed a nervous look. “I’m having trouble booking Times Square for your party, Ms. Baldwin. I’m sorry—apparently the mayor already has something planned for December 31st.”
MK kicked the cast. “You’re fired!”
Waving a bottle of Perrier, a perky blond woman bounced up. “Here you are, Ms. Baldwin. Eight degrees Celsius, just like you asked.”
MK unscrewed the cap and took a sip. “Fired.” She handed the water back and the woman slouched with a forlorn look on her face.
A white-haired man with glasses lofted a hand. “Ms. Baldwin—”
“Fired.” MK turned to the set. “Which one of you is the baby?”
Mary cuddled the glossy picture of Cynthia on the chair next to her. “I’m Mary Rogers and this is—”
“She looks a little thin. Jack, do we have a substitute substitute? Jack!”
A harried man with unruly dark hair spilling over his forehead rushed up. He displayed several large posters of other babies. “I like this one.”
“No.” MK grimaced. “I want the redhead.”
“I understand.” He gave her the poster of the perky baby with blue bows festooning her scarlet hair. “Will you be home for dinner?”
“Let’s make it eight o’clock.”
“I’ll tell your mother.”
Mary was confused. When the director handed her the poster, she asked, “You want me to do the commercial with a picture of someone else’s baby? Why not just use an actress?”
“Okay, I’ll use you for this, but don’t ever call me again.”
“And we’re not using an actress. You showed up with a picture and I’m using a picture. I am going for realism here.”
“Makeup!” Two men appeared with sundry cosmetic gear. MK pointed at the new poster. “See if you can do something about that nose.” The technicians shared a nod and launched into a flurry to make that redheaded girl’s nose look better.
A thinnish man in a pin striped suit approached Mary. She recognized the sour-looking expression. This was Cynthia’s lawyer, Mr. Pill. He produced a legal document. “This is an injunction against using your daughter’s name to promote Fruity Tooties.”
“I will not discuss it one instant longer. You have been served.” He disappeared into the crowd.
When the makeup experts were finished, the poster girl’s nose looked a little limey-colored. MK fired them both and took her seat, nodding to the only assistant she had left. A flush swept into the man’s round face and he squeaked, “Me? Now?” He loosened his tie. “Okay. Quiet on the set. Action!”
The cameras began rolling. Mary was more than a little bit nervous. Her make believe daughter had a green nose, she could no longer use her celebrity daughter’s name, and the prop man had been fired that morning so she was holding up a plain cardboard box with FRUITY TOOTS scrawled in magic marker. She did the best she could under bad circumstances.
“Hello, I’m—some girl’s mother. Maybe this girl,” she said, adlibbing a bit. “And my little girl just loves Fruity Tooties.”
“Cut! Is that right? Fruity Tooties?”
MK’s assistant nodded. “Yes.”
“Then why does it say Fruity Toots on the box?”
“Is that important, MK?”
“You’re fired.” The assistant turned away. “Wait. Do the thing and then you’re fired.”
“Quiet on the set. Action!”
Mary began again. “Hello, I’m a mother. Maybe this girl’s. Whoever I am, I’m sure there’s a little girl out there who loves Fruity Tooties. Maybe my daughter. Maybe not. But this little girl right here sure does.” She pantomimed feeding the poster girl.
“Cut! There’s nothing on the spoon.”
“Follow the script. Quiet. Action!”
“She just can’t get enough of Fruity Tooties.” Mary spooned cereal and milk, which dribbled down the poster. A wide smear of white obliterated the girl’s face. “And Fruit Tooties is fortified with vitamin D so it’s great for your child’s complexion. And that makes it great for you too.” Mary took a bite and almost fainted. It tasted like tar with maybe a hint of foot. It was the worst thing she had ever eaten, including her one and only attempt at stir fry.
MK waved a copy of the script. “Where does it say in here to vogue a drunken platypus? No method acting, people!”
Mary took a sip of water. “It tastes—” Her voice dipped. “Like old shoe.”
“Then embrace the old shoe. You have to be the part. Be the part people!”
Mary sighed. She would just have to force herself to get through this. “Okay. I’m ready.”
They tried it again. It went fine but they found out there was no film in the cameras. Then the lights went out on the next take. And it just kept getting worse. Mary was so flustered that she started using Cynthia’s name, that sodden poster kept falling down, and MK gave a sneezer a bloody nose. After forty-two takes MK Baldwin fired herself and left the studio.
One of the cameraman spoke up. “Let’s just run through one more time. Let’s make this a print, people. Action!”
It went perfectly. Mary was poised and charming and she didn’t spit out the cereal. Unfortunately they never used the commercial and there were no residuals. Mary barely broke even on the trip.
After the commercial fiasco Mary should have known better, but when she returned home she contacted that theatrical agent she’d met in LA. She desperately needed a third job to help pay all those bills.
Harry Hooker booked her as a clown but she got stuck in that little car and they had to use the Jaws of Life to get her out. The gig as a talking mime didn’t go any better. Mary froze up and she couldn’t think of anything to say. The job as the back half of a horse was working out okay until the front half eloped and moved to Omaha. Mary didn’t want to move to Omaha so she had to give it up. She decided show business was just not for her. She went up to Harry’s office one last time to tell him the bad news.
Harry Hooker wore a checkered hat and puffed on a smokeless cigarette whenever he was on the phone, and he was always on the phone. He had limitless brown eyes that looked right through you and back. Mary liked the colorful man and she valued the relationship they had developed in the short time they had worked together. She felt bad about having to quit.
When she told him she wanted out of the business, Harry stuck a hand over the phone and asked, “Who’re you again?”
“Mary Rogers. I—”
“You want a job?”
“Talk to Rita. She’ll you get fixed up. We have a circus gig coming up you’d be perfect for.”
“You can stick your head in a lion’s mouth or be a human cannonball. Your choice.”
“Sorry, I have to take this call.” Mary was glad that Harry had taken it so well.
A few days later, Mary was in the dining room moping about the bills when Cynthia rolled up on her mini Segway. Shuffling bills and envelopes into a rickety pile, she asked, “And what can I do for you, young lady?”
“Mother, I know you’re worried about bills and I can’t help but feel somewhat responsible.”
“You are responsible. They’re your bills!”
“You really shouldn’t have given me power of attorney. That may have been imprudent.”
“I wish there was something I could do to help.”
“You sure could. You have like ten million dollars in the bank, right?” Cynthia’s genetic patents had netted her a huge amount of money.
“In your bank, yes.”
“How much money do you actually have?”
“Now, Mother—I can’t be expected to extrapolate extemporaneously like that. I’m only two.”
“Well, you could use some of that money to help me out.”
“I agree. You have performed your parental duties admirably and I feel you deserve a reward.”
“Here you are.” Cynthia presented her with a check.
The check was for one million dollars. Mary stared in absolute shock. This would take care all of those bills! “Thank you so much, Cynthia.”
“Think nothing of it.”
Mary noticed something written in the memo space. A baby, that’s what it said. A baby? “Cynthia, are you trying to buy your little brother?”
“Oh that. In the event you happen to have an extra baby lying around I reserve the right to assume control. It’s just legal mumbo jumbo. Leave all that to the lawyers to figure out, I say.”
“I am not selling you your baby brother.”
Cynthia sighed with a shake of her curls. “Mother, have you forgotten that Meredith will possess superlative intellectual abilities, as do I. I am eminently more qualified to mentor—”
“Meredith? That’s a girl’s name.”
“I assure you it is not exclusively a girl’s name.”
“And I’m naming him Michael.”
“I’m calling him Mikey.”
“Quite imaginative. But don’t you think it might behoove our familial unit to consider what’s best for Meredith?”
“And I’m going to start calling you Cindy.” That check had done something to Mary. Her little darling had finally pushed her over the edge. It was time to take back her house. Figuratively speaking, since Cynthia now owned the property.
“I will simply refuse to respond to such a derisive soubriquet.”
“What’s that, Cindy?”
Cynthia began humming quietly as she looked around the room, blue eyes flashing.
Mary tore up the check. “I guess I’ll just have to keep working like a dog to take care of my little girl. Because there are some things that money can’t buy.”
“Isn’t that a bit dramatic, Mother?”
“And when Mikey is born I’ll just work a little harder. Like millions of other single parents.”
“This sounds familiar. Are you by chance rehearsing for an afternoon special?”
Mary grinned for the first time in a long while. “I am an afternoon special. Get used to it.”
Cynthia wrinkled her face into a tiny frown. A sigh. “You know he’s going to like me better.” She climbed up into her mother’s lap.
“We’ll see.” Mary was amazed at how soft her hair was. She smelled so sweet and fresh! Mary held the magical little body closer. This was the very best part of being a mommy.
“I expect I should write you another check.”
“No strings attached?”
“No strings or encumbrances whatsoever.”
“Thank you, Cynthia.”
“I suppose I love you, Mother.”
“I know. And I most definitely love you.”
Cynthia snuggled into the nape of her neck. “Please—don’t ever call me Cindy.”
“You didn’t like that?”
A tiny shudder. “Please.”
“I don’t know——Cindy. I kind of like it.”