FOR SALE: Shattered Dreams & Broken Hearts
‘Maybe I should dunk my feet in a bowl of custard,’ Alex said. ‘What do you think?’
Hayley seemed distracted again. She was holding her coffee mug to her mouth and staring out of the window.
‘You know, because maybe my taste buds have moved to my feet? Like a fly’s?’
Nothing. What was wrong with her? She usually laughed politely at these kinds of stupid jokes.
With a blink of an eye, she snapped her suddenly intense focus back to Alex. She smiled. ‘Sorry?’
Alex sighed. ‘Doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s COVID.’
‘No, I don’t think so,’ Hayley said.
‘Why not?’ Alex asked. ‘I can’t smell or taste anything.’
Hayley blinked once. Twice. She shook her head. ‘Oh. Yeah, of course. Maybe it is COVID.’
Alex looked at her quizzically. ‘Why are you so weird today?’
‘Mmm?’ Hayley smiled. ‘Nothing! I mean… I’m not.’
Her smile looked forced now. Her eyes didn’t tell Alex that everything was fine, they insisted it. And they were searching. Searching for the next part of the conversation. The part that didn’t involve how strange she was being.
‘Shit!’ Alex caught sight of the clock on the kitchen wall. Nearly quarter to nine. ‘How is that the time already? I’m gonna be late.’
He stood up and Hayley stood with him. The smile had vanished and was now replaced by a frantic look of alarm. ‘Wait, wait!’
‘Jesus, Hayley, what’s wrong?’
‘COVID,’ she blurted out. ‘I took a test and I’m positive. You’ll need to stay home. Isolate. Just in case. You can’t taste your coffee, so you probably have it.’
‘What?’ Alex questioned. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘I, um… I just felt funny. That’s all. Sorry. I should have said.’
But now Hayley looked relaxed. As though some great weight had suddenly been lifted.
What the fuck is going on today?
‘Well I’d better call them,’ Alex said. ‘They’ll not be happy that I’m phoning this late. You should have said.’
As he tapped the app on his phone to find his work’s number, he caught another anxious look from Hayley out of the corner of his eye. She looked as though she wanted to say something else now, but couldn’t find the words. When he pressed the CALL button, each ring seemed to make her heart rate increase, her eyes go wider.
‘Voicemail,’ Alex told her. ‘Nobody’s picking up, I’ll leave a message.’
And there it was again. A temporary relief. Something wasn’t right.
Alex left his message. Apologetic, sincere. He hung up and placed his phone on the kitchen table. He looked at Hayley with a wilful expression of sincerity.
‘Hayley. Be honest. What’s going on? Am I about to self-destruct or something?’
She laughed. Gently at first, and then got carried away. She was hysterical. Tears were streaming down her cheeks. She even cartoonishly slammed a fist on the table. And Alex smiled, but soon enough the smile was wiped off his face. Because he realised that Hayley might not be laughing at all.
Was she…? Is she…?
‘Hayley, are you alright?’
She removed herself from the kitchen, running upstairs and hiding her face as she went.
Good morning, South Central Physics. Lucy speaking, how may I help you today?
Hello, this is Hayley. Hayley Taylor?
Ah, yes. Good morning Miss Taylor. How can I help?
I was wondering if I could speak to Doctor Baker?
I’m afraid Doctor Baker is currently in a meeting. I can ask him to call you back later?
Okay… Okay, yes please.
Is everything alright, Miss Taylor?
Yes, it’s just… I just have a few questions for Doctor Baker… When do you suppose his meeting will finish?
It’s hard to say, really. He’s meeting with one of the largest distributors in the country. It’s a big project, as I’m sure you know. But I’ll let him know you called, Miss Taylor.
Okay… Thank you. Thank you.
‘Jeez, you were washing your hands for a good while in there,’ Alex said as Hayley entered the bedroom. He was lying on his back and staring up at the ceiling, but had raised a comically suspicious eyebrow when Hayley appeared.
'Just, erm… Making sure my hands aren’t full of COVID.’
‘Pfft!’ Alex scoffed. ‘Bit late for that, isn't it?’
Hayley walked over to the bed before perching on the side of it. She sat on it as though she barely knew Alex. As though they hadn’t been dating for over two years.
‘Ah, come on now!’ Alex teased. ‘It doesn’t matter if you stay away from me. The virus will catch up to me eventually!’
She giggled. But it looked and sounded forced. As though something in her brain had sent out a signal to the part of her conscience that had to obey, but wasn’t best pleased about it. Like a sign held up to an audience reading “LAUGHTER”.
Canned giggling? It’s almost as though it’s not real at all.
But she came to him now. She lay on the bed beside him and she accepted his arm around her. Even though she felt rigid. Stiff. As though every muscle in her body was tensed. As though she wasn’t made of flesh any more.
‘You know…’ Alex said. ‘I probably should have gone to work. I don't know about you but I really don’t feel ill at all. I mean, the whole can’t taste or smell thing is a bit worrying. But I’m not coughing or anything. And I feel like I’ve got loads of energy. That’s a bit weird, isn’t it?’
‘I don’t know,’ Hayley replied.
‘You don’t know?’ Alex said, and he grinned. ‘Not like you to not know something.’
She turned her head and looked at him now. ‘Let me see your face.’
He turned his own head to her and met her eyes. ‘You a doctor now? Looking for the virus through my nostrils?’
She didn’t smile. But she gazed. Deeply. Her pupils did the thing that Alex had heard about years ago when he was a child. They expanded. It was supposed to mean a girl liked you. He never did find out whether it was true or not.
I bloody well hope she does like me!
He was about to joke about it. But she was acting strangely again. She gently placed a hand on the side of his cheek and then began to lightly move it across his face. Like a blind woman tying to discover the face of a man she’s only ever known the voice of. Her eyes were as wide as an ocean now, and behind them some mysterious sea of argument was trying to weather a storm.
‘Hayley, are you…?’
She interrupted him with her mouth. Soon they were passionate in their kissing. But it seemed this wasn’t enough. With every kiss, Hayley became more fervent.
‘Are you sure about this?’ Alex managed when Hayley’s mouth took a temporary leave of absence. ‘You're just trying to give me the virus, aren't you?’
Wordlessly, she began taking his clothes off.
Good afternoon, South Central Physics. Lucy speaking, how may I help you today?
Hi Lucy, it’s me again. Hayley.
Ah, Miss Taylor! I’m so sorry, you must be calling about Doctor Baker again. I’m afraid he had to go out on some urgent business.
What? I mean… Did you tell him I called?
He has a note of it, yes.
Did you tell him it was pressing?
Oh… I’m sorry, Miss Taylor I wasn’t aware it was pressing. I could…
Just get him to call me when he can, okay? Thanks.
Alex heard Hayley’s side of the call from where he lay in the bedroom. The sex had been intense yet tranquil. It was over much more quickly than normal and then she had held Alex close as though she’d feared he was going to suddenly get up and run away. She’d fallen asleep and he’d tried to also but he couldn’t. Something still wasn’t right. Eventually, Hayley had silently removed herself from the bed, dressed and crept out of the room. It sounded as though she had made her phone call from the bathroom.
The bedroom door softly creaked open now. Hayley’s anxious eyes met Alex’s the instant she set foot inside the room.
‘Who was that?’ Alex asked.
‘You know what I mean. You were just on a phone call.’
But whatever excuse (or perhaps lie?) was about to come never did arrive. Her phone lit up and sang its usual cheery tune to signal an incoming call. Hayley glanced at the screen in an instant, eyes growing suddenly wider.
‘Go on then,’ Alex invited. ‘Answer it.’
Her eyes shifted from the phone screen to meet Alex’s again. They were fearful. A little sad. Without looking, she cancelled the call on her phone.
‘Alright…’ Alex said, and as he spoke he began slipping back into his clothes. ‘What’s going on?’
‘Nothing!’ Hayley answered in her shaking voice. ‘Nothing, just…’
Now it was Alex’s phone that interrupted. He looked at the screen.
‘Ah shit…’ he grumbled. He pressed the button to accept the call. ‘Hello?’
‘Hello,’ the voice on the other end said. It sounded like one of the managers, Martin. ‘Who’s this?’
‘It’s me,’ Alex said. ‘Sorry I can’t come in today. Is everything alright?’
‘What do you mean it’s me?’ Martin returned. He sounded angry. Irate, in fact. ‘Who the fuck is me?’
‘What do you mean?’ Alex asked. ‘I mean it’s me. Alex.’
Silence on the other end. Alex looked at Hayley. He couldn't see her face now. She was sitting on the edge of the bed with her head in her hands.
‘Look,’ Martin finally said. ‘I don’t know who the fuck this really is, but you’re not fucking funny, alright? If you phone this number again I’ll call the police. You won’t get a second warning.’
Martin hung up the phone.
‘Did you hear that?’ Alex asked Hayley. ‘What the hell is going on? I’m going to send him a message.’
‘Wait, Alex, no!’ Hayley yelled, but it was too late. He saw it. A thing so horrifying and completely perplexing that he had to sit himself back down on the bed. The name on his Facebook profile had been changed from “Alex Harper” to “In Memory of Alex Harper”. A quick flip through his own wall showed him comments from friends, family members, acquaintances:
Gone, but never forgotten
Can’t believe you’re not with us anymore, mate.
There was even one from Hayley:
Rest in peace, my beautiful man. I hope you took the piece of my broken heart to heaven with you.
Alex’s eyes darted back to Hayley’s. ‘Why does everyone think I’m dead?’
Hayley couldn’t look at him now. She kept her watery eyes fixed to the floor.
‘Because you are,’ she said.
And Alex couldn’t help but scoff. Even laugh a little. ‘Well… I’m obviously not! I’m sitting right here in front of you. I-’
He was interrupted by Hayley’s phone again. She hurtled it at him and it struck him straight on the forehead before falling to the floor.
‘What the fuck!’ Alex shouted. ‘What did you do that for!?’
‘You didn’t feel it, did you?’ Hayley said.
And now Alex’s anxiety felt more like outright fear. ‘No… no I didn’t… Why didn’t I feel it?’
‘I did a stupid thing…’ Hayley said through her sobs. ‘After you died, I found this scientist. He was looking for people to test this new technology his company are trying to get into the market. It’s for people who… people who have lost ones they love…’
‘Hayley, you’re scaring the shit out of me here…’
‘I’m sorry,’ she sobbed. ‘I’m really sorry. They told me it would just be a copy of you. That they just needed a bit of your DNA to allow their machines to imitate you. The way you looked, they way you talked…’
‘No, no no no,’ Alex said, and managed a small scoff once more. ‘No, Hayley, I’m me! I’m not a machine, I’m Alex. I remember what I was like when I was a child. I remember my friends at school. I remember when we first met. I’m not some copycat, I’m really me!’
‘I know…’ Hayley cried. ‘I knew you were you as soon as you spoke to me. I think they got it wrong. I think your consciousness has been completely copied. To the point where you’ve been… I don’t know… cloned!’
‘Oh God…’ Alex said. ‘That’s why I can’t taste. Or sleep. Or feel anything… Even when we had sex I… I don’t know it was just… different.’
‘I’m so sorry,’ Hayley said.
‘Well, I could still live a normal life, couldn’t I? I died but this new me… I have all my old memories. I can remember how to do my job and everything. It’ll be fine, I… Hayley, what’s wrong?’
As Alex spoke, his words appeared only to make things worse.
‘You…’ Hayley breathed. ‘You don’t last very…’
She couldn’t say it. But he knew. He thought he knew from very early on. He picked up Hayley’s phone and scrolled though her messages. Finding one from South Central Physics, he read:
Thank you for choosing South Central Physics! Brining you one last precious day with the person you love.
Hayley continued to sob.
Miss Taylor! How was your special day, yesterday?
Horrible, Doctor Baker.
I’m sorry. I know it can get emotional.
No. It wasn’t that. That was really him. Everything but his real body.
Now, Miss Taylor, you know that can’t be true. Alex passed away.
Yes, but you copied him. You put a copy of his mind into one of your stupid robots. You need to stop this, now!
I’m sorry you feel that way, Miss Taylor. The technology is just very advanced. We’re able to replicate your loved ones so well it may really feel like it’s them.
It was him! He had all his memories! He joked with me! He was… normal! And then he was scared because he found out what had happened to him!
Oh… Miss Taylor, you didn’t tell him what he was, did you?
Of course I did! How could I not? You need to shut this whole operation down.
I’m afraid that’s impossible, Miss Taylor. I’ve just struck a major deal with a distributor. Listen, I’m sorry your trial didn’t go so well. As a goodwill gesture I’m willing to let you have another go. Just send another sample of DNA to the lab and we’ll get you all set up. How does that sound? Just don’t tell him what he really is this time.