I watch smoke curl and rise from the end of my hand, winding itself around long nails and climbing straight up to wither away at the edge of my face. The stub of a cigarette is so depleted now it’s otherwise invisible giving my fingers that sort of she’s on fire look; the one that might require an extinguisher. It’s disgusting. I know and I don’t much care because I don’t smoke these things anyway. They’re here for ambiance, a sort of pungent sour incense that the loggers like. We get loggers in here now and then, more so than tourists, what with the Upper Brae Bar and Grill being on the edge of the mountains, which protect the thickest edge of the tree line that can only be called forest because the county division supervisors refused to call it wasteland while it’s so close to their most pristine settlement and tourist trap on New Terra. That’s New Terra of the GTGP (Greater Terran Galactic Properties) official colonial settlements, not to be confused with NewTerra one of the GTGP’s protectorates, but that’s all politics and could be like that old potato patato thing, since I’ve never been to NewTerra. I’ve suffered this one for as long as I’ve suffered my time of change and it’s probably not as bad a place as my mind wants to make it, but it wasn’t much fun being uprooted from one colony and planted in another right at the onset of puberty. This colony really is a lot less harsh and much prettier than Escura Luz, and in ironic symbolism I’m just about as done with all that growing up crap as I am with this cigarette. The glowing embers of the last remnants of tobacco are releasing the final bits of smoke into the air like the release of its tiny soul, if it had one. I toss the empty shell of its remains into the ashtray next to my elbow, wondering if the Upper Brae Bar is likened to the ashtray of Saint Katherine, our great city of tourism.
I lift up my right leg and cross it over the left until the knees are neatly stacked. These bar stools are tall and they’d really showcase long sexy legs, if I had those. I’m short, not a midget or dwarf, just short enough to be mistaken for a child too often, but I’m nicely proportioned, as my mother puts it. As it is with the barmaid outfit that my benevolent employer, Jack, provides I have to keep my legs together or tightly stacked if I don’t want to display a lot more than the legs. It’s a fifty-fifty proposition here since I’m targeting the perv that keeps looking this way hoping to get a look at whatever I care to show off. He’s been here long enough to make some moves, yet he’s still way over there, so maybe I’m unfair in giving him such a scandalous tag, especially since making myself useful involves getting him to come over to this stool next to me and buy us a drink. My drinks will cost the same as his, but will be watered down. Maybe he’s just an ardent admirer of beauty. Perhaps he doesn’t see me as being young enough to be his daughter, which would be creepy if he did, because he’s been staring a lot. I’d lift my skirt if there was enough there to lift to display a bit more flesh without being too naughty, but I don’t think that will help because he’s been staring long enough for his eyes to have allowed his imagination to burn through what little I do have on. This will take a different tack to draw him over so he can try and get me a bit loopy and maybe get lucky. He’s had enough alcohol that after a few more drinks the only one likely to be capable of getting lucky is me, as long as he’s a good tipper and fills Jack’s jar. That’s why I always wait for them to come over to me and never go out of my way to approach them, since I already feel like the damned leading the damned as it is.
Yeah, this is my job; this is how I make money and not exactly what I went through school for. School here is a lot different from home. It’s easier, maybe too easy and now I can go to college, but there are a lot of issues. So right now I work and live until I figure a few things out. In this fine community, this is about the best job an immigrant clone colony citizen can expect from a suck rock planet. This type of job isn’t helping my former colony’s image, but that was tarnished to begin with and I shouldn’t be blamed.
I can’t say people here think well of clones and I don’t blame them since I don’t have fond memories of them myself, even if by most definitions I’m one of them. My problem with elitist groups like the Clone Colony Collective is that they have rules for defining what a clone is and I don’t quite fit that mold, even though they still clearly tagged me with genetic markers to claim me as their own, so I’m an outcast there as much as I am here. Another irony here is that it’s this menstruation thing that I have to suffer through that helps define the difference. Most clones don’t have to face this and they don’t even have to deal with real childhood. I was something special, a natural child birth, because there’s some sanction or some other problem with clones that prevent them from joining the League Jump Guild. So, in order to have their own people to train to jump through space they created us the way we are and managed to brand us as something less desirable on both sides of the fence.
Us: would be me and my sisters. And that plan worked out so well that I’m here hiding from the marvelous fate they wanted for us. We’re triplets and yet we’re the oddest mix. My sisters are Theodora and Lucia and the people on the project never gave us a surname. We were supposed to earn those when we reached the age for rite of passage.
Theodora has nice black raven hair, Lucia is as blond as they get and I’m Amber, that’s my name, and my hair is almost rust red most of the time, when I’m not bleaching it. Right now I could almost be mistaken for Lucia, but she’s dead, so that look could be a fatally bad one on me. Lucia was the omega to my alpha and Theo’s beta, meant to be the last and the best; she should have been the one to bring the whole project to success. We would have been washouts without her, and she was a spoiled brat; that golden child. We became babysitters to a whiny cry baby who was afraid of the boogey man and really made us laugh pretty hard, until she took us into her nightmare.
Lucy knew better than to take us to the wretched place where that horrible thing was lurking; but she wanted us to know how real it was for her. The beast snatched us up in one fell swoop and held us like the catch of the day, we all knew we were going to die right there and that thing wanted more from us than just our deaths. I’m not sure what Lucy did to get us loose but it cost her. That bastard sucked her soul out of her and I don’t care that some people say clones don’t have souls. If I’ve no soul then why do I care and why does it hurt so much? And how is it that what isn’t there and doesn’t exist, is being torn from me slowly and painfully every day?
Each time I remember; I have to deal with these worthless tears rolling down my cheeks. After putting us into that mess, she’s not worth this much grief. But the tears have a better purpose. Today it will be the added benefit of drawing Mr. Tom across the room and onto the stool. Tom is what I call all of them. He’ll tell himself he’s on his way to comfort me, although I know what he really wants and it’s not what he’ll get. When I play the cards right he’ll pay for it. I try to avoid his eyes, eyes that tell me lies I can’t afford to buy lest he touch the heart and then the soul that isn’t there. That’s why he remains a Tom to me.
Tom sits in the bar stool next to me, his arm reaches to engulf me like a cradled baby. I can tell he’s a bit shy about it because it’s a slight and tentative action that only grows less so for each moment I don’t rebuke him. He’s talking to me, consoling me. Maybe asking what’s wrong or if he can help. I wouldn’t know. I see his lips move but the words are like white noise to me. I have an attention problem. I’ve been this way since that one time in JumpSpace under the thumb of that creature. It’s why I crave the contact of even this stranger to take away the bitter taste left from an encounter with indescribable terror. His voice is as gentle as his hand and I look up at him to realize that this has to be a tourist. It’s odd but somehow reassuring that he’s not as compelled as others to wipe the tears from my face and eyes. It’s often just an excuse to get close and seem intimate when all they want to do is touch and feel more than just my face. They inadvertently steal the healing power of my tears from me and they are never this tender.
The townies are a bit rough with the clone slut and the loggers are mostly like tangling with a grizzly. I know grizzlies. Someone brought those bears and a few other creatures here from Earth, not to save a species, to hunt them.
Somewhere in a moment of his unusual comforting my head finds this stranger’s shoulder. I’m pressing hard against him. I make faint attempts to dwell on anything else other than what I’m sure Tom must think of me. This whole town knows my reputation despite what it really is and I do my thing at night then vanish in the morning. Up into the mountains where my friends are and everyone is smooth about what I do or don’t do. The one place I can forget that I’m a castoff clone, living in exile and now run away from my parents who are not really parents in any traditional sense.
After Lucia went into a coma and the project fell apart it was decided that Lucia would be destroyed. Maybe I should have objected to that, but we were only thirteen at the time and as far as we knew that’s how those kinds of things were handled in the Clone Colonies. I’d heard worse stories about other such instances and I’ve even heard a few unbelievable notions about clones from people here on New Terra, although none of those fancies are more outrageous than those told in Escura Luz. It all makes me wonder if the clones are congenital liars or just great story tellers and if I should make a distinction.
Theodora decided to leave with the general. General Trihyn Wu was like an uncle to us and a sort of seedy one at that. I never trusted him and blame him as much as anyone else for what happened to Lucia. Theo was always more lenient in her judgment and I often wonder how that all worked out for her and if she thinks of me when I think of her. I couldn’t go the same direction as her because of my feelings against that man, besides I was worried and still am about mom and dad, even though they aren’t really our parents. Mom carried us for nine months and if it weren’t for the clones being in this equation I would probably not give a lot of thought to the validity of our parentage. We were not grown in a vat, so we are inferior and somehow that made our mother inferior although she was grown in a vat and fast tracked into the role of mother hood. For that she should be declared a saint. Perhaps it’s all of that, which makes me understand her better even while feeling a detachment from her that I never felt from the father who was in no way related to us at all. It was he and his gentle unconditional loving kindness that made it so hard for me to leave home.
Tonight’s gentleman is being awfully tender and confusing me in ways he could never possibly understand. I push his drink farther away from his reach while thinking that sometimes all the bad aggression comes from inside a bottle. Sipping my cola I look at him. He’s still absorbed in his one-sided conversation. I rest my scattered faux golden trusses upon his shoulder and try to listen to the rhythm of his voice. If I can’t focus on his words I’ll focus on his tone. Dad may have come close but he never seemed this tender. Mom was rarely gentle and sometimes sounded harsh when instructing, “Make sure Lucia does this. Have Lucia do that. Keep Lucia happy.” If they’d only known it all amounted to “Help send Lucia into the jaws of death or worse; the bowls of hell.”
I almost ask for Tom’s real name and that would be bad; very bad. None of this is real until I make it real and reality can bite like a bitch when you get into her face like that. I have to keep my real life in the mountains with my friends where it belongs. Tom will be gone tomorrow to be replaced by another Tom with the new night. As I remind myself of this I look at him with suspicion. I’m not at all sure this isn’t one of the Tom’s of a bygone day. That’s happened before, but they’re usually aggressively abusive once they can recall the other night had ended with their face pasted to the table instead of my breasts. No, he’s got the smell of tourist and just passing through, besides he’s too kind for a dissatisfied past customer.
Jack, my boss the bartender, has worked his way over to us while swishing the corner of a towel into a shot glass, polishing by instinct while keeping an eye on business. After giving me a severe look, he pushes Tom’s drink back up next to Tom’s hand and waits for me to move, so I keep still. Jack has only my interests, and his own, at heart. I can’t live if I don’t have money. I can’t have money if Tom doesn’t keep buying drinks.
Tom picks up the glass and empties it. Jack has the next one on the counter for him before he can lift a finger. Tom tosses money into the great jar there in the middle of the bar and I’d feel all warm and fuzzy knowing half that’s mine, but for the dark cloud that seems to be crowding my twisted and confused mood. Before I allow my self to backslide again I stand and turn away. Tom instinctively encircles me with both hands to hold me there. I have to be gentle but firm in explaining that I need to use the powder room. I really just need to get out of his gentle reach long enough to let the harshness of reality intrude on my state of mind.
Still trying to make things difficult for me, Tom gently lets me go in warm fuzzy pieces. I use my forefinger to touch my lipstick and use that finger to smear his lip just a tad. He smiles genially as I walk away giving him coy glances from over my shoulder while trying to remain smiling on the outside. Never once do I allow myself to waver from the onslaught of quivering trembling sensation that’s vibrating through my bones.
Inside the bathroom with my hands on either side of the sink I take one long hard look at myself. I could just as well be looking at Lucia. Well, Lucia’s ghost at the very least. As I stare into the mirror and into the eyes that stare back almost accusing, the tears well and continue smearing the remainder of my makeup. I pull a fresh one out of my pocket and light a match to it, having to give it one or two puffs to get it rolling and then I place it standing on its filter on the edge of the sink below the mirror. The smoke runs across the mirror in the direction that the ventilation moves it. My eyes are a mess and I begin wiping them gently until they are clean, so I can re-paint them. I can’t take out all the redness but some eye-drops will help a little. My whole body shudders as I try to push back the longing for more of Tom’s gentle touch. A quick look at my chronometer tells me the regular crowd will start filtering in soon and I push Tom back into the background. With a harsh shake that tosses my hair in the air I push aside all thoughts of yesterday’s ghosts and today’s angels.
By the time I’m finished I’m certain Jack will have Tom more under the bar than over. It’s better this way. That those who have souls do not mingle with those whose soul is in question. I really don’t feel soulless, but to be honest I don’t know how that should feel. At moments like this a soul can be a hindrance.
Thus repaired ready to proceed through my night and once again anchored with the reality that my life is waiting in the morning in the mountain, I pull one more cigarette from my pocket leaving the other tiny smoke stack in front of the mirror. I check myself with one last parting gaze through the fog of smoke to the illusion that I’m once again presentable and reach out as if to steady myself.
My fingers chill at the touch of the fingertips on the other side of the glass, as a cold reminder that all of this here and now, is nothing more than smoke and mirrors.
~*~ J.L. Dobias