After what had to be one of the longest bus rides in my conscious memory, I finally arrive at my stop: Rambutan Avenue. Fortunately, it’s only a quick four blocks to my street, but since the sun has already set, it seems much longer. I begin the walk at a brisk pace, making sure not to look drivers in the eyes as I go while checking behind me frequently to spot any followers. I stay close to the streetlights and away from dark areas. Even though I clutch both my keys between my knuckles and my heavy bag in my other hand, I know that I am a tempting target with the skirt, blouse, and heels I wore to the interview. Each step I take, I can feel the edges of the old, formal black heels bite my toes and chafe my ankles. It would be very difficult to outrun an attacker on foot. I mutter a quick prayer when I pass the boulevard where I was almost snatched off the road during high school. Hopefully, I won’t get into a situation where I’d be forced to do something drastic.
My breathing starts to ease as I take that familiar turn onto Jicama Street. I can see my house; in fact, I can practically smell it. The scent of garlic, onions, and chile wafts from my side of the street and hangs in the air while the kids from the house next over light fireworks. My neighbor Paula waves to me as she takes out the garbage. Waving back to her, I can feel the muscles in my neck loosen while I twirl the lanyard that holds my keys. Dorothy was right: there is no place like home.
As I walk closer to the door, the smell of cooking food grows stronger. My stomach growls wildly as I imagine the dinner that’s hopefully waiting inside. I hurriedly fiddle with the door’s semi-broken lock that I still need to get fixed while the giggles and shrieks from the kids I babysit, Lucia and Hector, ring out from behind the entryway. Even I can’t help but smile when I imagine them racing up to hug me when I walk in. Although I took the job to earn some more unreported income, I really enjoy caring for children. When comparing my potentially grueling new corporate job to the familiar routine of making snacks, playing games, and light housework, there really is nothing better.
The kids hear me come in while I set my bag down near the closet. Their light footsteps give it away when they turn around the corner.
“Hey, it’s Rhonda!” Lucia sees me first. Her little face brightens into gap-toothed grin as she races toward me. She grabs me around my stomach in a hug that knocks the wind out of me. I pat her light brown hair as I hug her back. Lucia has gotten so much bigger in the week or two I haven’t seen her. I bet she’s in another growing phase.
I smile. “Hey Lucia! How was your day?”
Lucia proudly tells me, “I learned a new song! Do you wanna hear it?”
“Let’s wait for your little brother to sing it with you, how about that?” I ask her.
She nods and waves to Hector to hurry up, as he toddles in slowly behind her. He’s only four, so it will be awhile before he can catch up to his nine-year-old sister. Hector shyly smiles and grabs my hand, no doubt leading me to wherever they learned the song that day.
“Ra-na, I show you.” He tells me. I nod seriously, trying not to grin too much. I always found his pronunciation so cute because the way he says my name means “frog.” He’ll cry if I point it out though, so I keep the thought to myself. Hector’s gotten much better at speaking since last I saw him. His mother Silvia and I were worried because he was such a late bloomer. But now he’s talking just fine and even singing too! My excitement is genuine as I ask the kids about the song they learned today.
They both lead me into the kitchen where above the pot of simmering stew, my perfect doppelganger stands behind the stove. She is my exact mirror image down to the scar on our left elbows. We have the exact same height, weight, and stature. I told the kids she is my cousin, but anyone with eyes can see that we are the same in every way. But who could prove it?
She stirs the stew rhythmically, despite the obvious heat from both the fire and the chiles themselves. On her, my dark brown hair has been woven neatly into a braid, a clever and low-stress style that doesn’t hurt much when pulled by toddler hands. She glances up and smiles cheerily when she sees me, just like she always does.
“Hey Rhonda, you’re back!” She sets down the wooden spoon and wipes her hands on my red apron.
While Hector tugs at my skirt, Lucia whines, “Ilaria taught us a song! We wanna sing it!”
“Well then, let’s hear it!” I nod to them.
Hector and Lucia sing us both a little song about a white hat, a blue hat, and cooing like a small bird. It’s slow and off-key, but very sweet and precious to me. The lullaby is one of my favorites from childhood, one that my mom used to sing to me whenever I was sick or sad. It always made me feel better and even now, I can’t even remember how anxious I was on the walk home. Ilaria must’ve sensed my stress during the day and prepared this for me. We smile at each other knowingly.
After they finish, Ilaria and I applaud them and cheer loudly. Then, like in any appropriate babysitting fashion, we clap and sing around the kitchen, having ourselves a little parade to celebrate. Ilaria takes little Hector up in her arms and bounces him on her hip while I take Lucia’s hand and we pretend that we are a grand marching band. It ends in more shrieks and giggles.
A few hours later, after the kids have been fed, their mom Silvia comes to pick them up. We exchange pleasant greetings as Ilaria and I pass the now-sleepy children to her arms. Silvia places them in her minivan’s car seats and steps out to chat. We take this time to engage in one of life’s great joys: idle gossip.
“-isn’t it such a shame that the Ramirez boy got arrested?”
“He was doing so well in college, too.” I shake my head.
“It’s because of his mother Irena; I’ve been saying it for years. She lets her son run wild while her girls can barely breathe without her there to hear it.” Silvia tells me swiftly. I love talking with her, because she just has a way of saying things that leaves no room in my mind for doubt about her opinion. It’s just so reassuring. Besides, Silvia is only ten or so years older than I am, so there’s a lot that we agree on that our parents would certainly think otherwise.
Ilaria adds, “It’s insulting to be treated like that at this age.”
Silvia and I nod our heads in agreement. Ilaria makes a good point. We talk about a few more recent events, this and that, but Silvia suddenly changes the topic.
“You know, you two girls look so much alike, I wouldn’t believe you’re cousins. You’re more like twins. Identical twins!” Silvia laughs a little. Ilaria and I laugh with her, and we make the usual assurances of genetics, similar parents, etc. Even though Silvia nods along at the right times, her eyes still dart between the two of us, looking for differences that don’t exist. It’s only after we finally say our goodbyes and Silvia drives away that Ilaria and I look at each other furtively. Oh, if only she knew.
Ilaria and I walk back up the driveway and retrieve the mail that I’d forgotten to check on the walk home. We go through the usual bills, junk mail, promotions, and….
“Is that…from the IRS?” Ilaria asks.
I nod grimly. This is what we’d feared. I skim the letter, seeing phrases like “identity theft” and “compromised.” Damn. I thought I’d been cautious with the income taxes, and even more paranoid about the social security number, but I guess three part-time jobs was too ambitious after all.
“Well, it was bound to happen anyways, so let’s worry about this tomorrow.” Ilaria makes yet another good point. I am tired now; we’ll worry about it tomorrow.
As we chat, my other doppelganger Isabela drives up to the house. She pulls into the driveway and slowly gets out of the car more like a zombie than a clone. Even beneath the black Domino’s hat, I can see dark circles beneath my bloodshot brown eyes. She must be exhausted from the long drive home; I only let my work clone drive because she finishes her shifts so late at night. As she walks closer to me and Ilaria, I am taken aback by how I look. It always stuns me just a little bit whenever I see one of my clones up close because I just can’t get over it. That’s what I really look like?
“Take a picture, it’ll last longer.” Isabela snaps at me.
Ilaria adds, “Then technically, it would be a selfie.”
“Alright, how about we all get into the house before the IRS secretly photographs us from the bushes?” I ask half-jokingly. We laugh at first, but we all steal a glance at the neighbor’s hydrangeas before heading inside.
Once safely indoors, Ilaria feeds Isabela leftovers while I change into my pajamas and brush my teeth. We eventually settle on the couch. Before going to bed, I like to watch a little TV with my clones because it’s not as lonely with two copies of myself watching too. Ever since I moved out from Mom’s house, the nights became rather quiet and scary. I would call her to talk, but I don’t want to disrupt the little sleep she does get.
“You’re thinking about Mom, huh?” Ilaria asks me.
I nod slowly. Ilaria leans her head on my shoulder and Isabela even squeezes my hand. We’re all missing her. And now with this IRS thing, I miss her even more. She would know what to do. My eyes water just a little when I think about all she’s done for me. Mom had me in high school with a deadbeat dad I only met once. She quit school to work several jobs and even helped me through college. I moved out as soon as I could so she wouldn’t have to work so hard, but that was a naïve idea because she still works the same hours. I just wish I could earn enough money to support us both, but I can only make so many clones.
“Worrying won’t make anything better,” Isabela says as though reading my mind. “We’ll just have to send her as much money as we can.”
“That may not be possible with the IRS breathing down our necks. They’re onto us.” I bite my nails as I run through the worst-case scenarios.
Isabela rolls her eyes. “They think we’re the victim of a crime. Not the other way around. How are they going to prove clones in court?”
“They might just find a way and send us to a government lab, Isabela!” I can’t stop myself from raising my voice. Great, now I’m arguing with myself.
Ilaria interrupts, “Instead of fighting, how about we merge back together and let Rhonda sleep? Maybe she’ll feel better thinking about something else.”
“Great idea! Then I don’t have to deal with the worrywart.” Isabela glares at me.
I knit my brows and reply, “No you’re right, Ilaria. It’ll be good to go over everyone’s day.”
After I tuck myself into bed, my clones and I take a deep breath. Then I absorb them back into my body. My brain experiences a rush of memory, the instantaneous transfer of thought and recollection. Exhausted, I sink into sleep.
In the morning, I take inventory of the kitchen pantry. Feeding Hector and Lucia last night went through some of my food supply for the week, even though I was happy to do it. Ilaria prepared the dinner as carefully as she could without wasting too many ingredients, but I’m still short a couple meals for my clones. One bag of rice, some fruit, half a carton of eggs, one pack of tortillas, and some ground beef will have to last me until the end of the month. I will only be able to produce Isabela for my other part time job until I can go grocery shopping again.
Creating clones requires an obscene amount of calories. I discovered this ability during the rare event, when I wasn’t working, at a party with some college friends. I had tried an edible for the first time, and that led me to consume my friend Angel’s entire package of protein bars. Not box. Package. Of course I offered to pay him back, but he found it funny and didn’t like the bars anyways. I estimate that I ate over 10,000 calories in that sitting. Because the next morning, I woke to find five identical copies of myself looking over me.
After a large breakfast, I’m able to focus and summon Isabela from my body. Straining and shivering, it feels oddly similar to pooping. When she emerges onto the kitchen floor, I pant and wipe the sweat from my neck. Looks like I was just barely able to create her with the food I ate. She looks up at me and glares.
“Aren’t you forgetting something?” Isabela asks.
“You didn’t go over the bills yesterday, dummy.” She rolls her eyes in a way that makes me kind of hate myself. Literally.
We go to the mail and pore over the gas, water, internet, heat, etc. All the lovely rent details. Isabela and I write down and organize the finances at the kitchen table until we reach the one I dread the most: the student loan payment. I stare at that goddamn interest rate until it blurs in my vision.
Isabela quips, “Well, I hear organs go for a lot these days.”
“Don’t act like I won’t sell yours for a quick buck.”
She huffs, even though she knows I’m joking. My clones disappear when I sleep, so I would have black market thugs hunting me to the ends of the earth if I tried selling hers. Although it would be quite profitable if I could...
“Anyways, we’re going to be late for work, so let’s get ready.” I jump up and head to the bedroom.
“Yippee,” Isabela says sarcastically. “I get to keep my organs today.”
Later that afternoon, I’m on my break at the internship. Behind the reception desk, I stare at my phone as if looking at it will somehow make a call from the company I interviewed at appear. Now wouldn’t that be a cool power?
“Excuse me?” A young man in an expensive-looking suit stands in front of the counter. He’s tall, good-looking, and I can smell some fancy cologne from here. His carefully chosen tie has flecks of blue that complement his light-colored eyes. This man has money and knows how to spend it well. I do my best not to ogle him while I arrange my papers behind the desk. It’s the moments like these when I remember how grateful I am for this job.
I quickly reply, “Yes, how can I help you?”
He pauses, quietly studying my face. My heart beats a little quicker as I meet his pretty hazel eyes. I pray that my mascara hasn’t smudged and my lipstick is still on my lips. Mentally, I high-five Isabela for reminding me to put on makeup today.
“Are you Rhonda Torres?” He asks suddenly.
I knit my eyebrows. “Yes?”
The man nods and then asks me something that makes my stomach twist with fear.
“Can you step outside for a couple questions? I’m Benjamin Adler with the IRS.”
“I, um…. “ I find myself unable to speak. My lips quiver as I try to think of something to say. Damnit, how did they find me so quickly? It runs through my mind to call Isabela and warn her, but the IRS guy will see me. I don’t know what to do.
As if reading my mind, Benjamin says, “If you’re wondering about your cousin Isabela, I have her in the car outside.”
“What? You can’t do that, that’s not how it works!” If I wasn’t panicking before, I am panicking now. How does he know about Isabela?
“Please come along quietly so we can sort this whole thing out.” Benjamin makes a pointed look, as though admonishing a child. I find it infuriating enough to collect myself. I’ve researched what the IRS can do if they suspect you of fraud, but it’s largely related to seizing assets or property. Isabela can’t be with him. The agency doesn’t have the ability to seize people.
“You’re lying.” I tell him coldly. “If you don’t have an appointment at this office, I have to ask you to leave.”
His eyes narrow when he says, “Don’t believe me? Then who’s that out there?”
Benjamin turns and points out the glass doors to a girl wearing a Domino’s uniform.
I know better than to take the bait, so I turn to pick up my phone. “I’m calling the police.”
The phone screen is the last thing I see before it all goes black, and I slump to the floor. My body is heavy and I can’t move. Maybe it wasn’t the IRS I should’ve been worried about, I think bitterly.