The Ghost of a Girl Who Never Lived
By Keffy R. M. Kehrli
I am Sara’s second body.
My first memory is of Sara’s resurrection in a room that smelled of cotton balls and hydrogen peroxide.
“That’s funny,” a man said.
The world felt raw, sore, and new. Under my back, my butt, my fingertips, I could feel every thread in the sheets beneath me. The blanket over my stomach scratched. Padded straps crossed my arms.
“What’s funny?” This voice was a woman’s.
“Got another error message,” the man answered. “Have you ever seen that one before?”
I felt the sheets with Sara’s fingers, and the texture conjured memories I didn’t have. I should have known where I was and what I was there for, but I couldn’t catch hold of the fleeting thoughts. In the dim light of the room I could only see the ceiling.
“Let me see.” I heard a frenzied clicking. “It failed twice?”
“Nothing copied the first time, so I started over. It got about halfway through, and then it gave me this.”
“Error two-one-five-two. Copy error,” the woman said. “I’ve never seen that before. I’ve never even seen an error in the middle of a transplant. Did you check the manual?”
“It didn’t list this one.”
The woman sighed and said, “The only thing I can think of is if we wipe everything back out and start over.”
Operating tables, and the anesthetician’s face. Tissue paper examining tables, candles in a church.
“She’s conscious, though,” the man said. “When the machine aborted, it sent the Copy Completed code. Don’t look at me like that! I don’t know if I ought to mess around with it anymore, or…”
The woman interrupted, “You know we can’t do that without contacting the parents. Come on, we might as well go see what the damage is.”
They stood over me. The man was the younger of the two, and he looked down at me from behind thick glasses. He held his clipboard tight against his chest like a shield. The woman stood closer to me; her hair was light, either blond or grey. She frowned like it was my fault.
“Can you hear and understand me?” she asked.
The man wrote something on his clipboard. I could hear graphite rubbed free, caught in the paper.
My mouth felt dry, and my lips did too, as though if I tried to speak they would break apart. “Yes,” I managed.
She unhooked the straps on my arms. I lifted my left arm and looked at the fingers, hand, wrist. Clean, and smooth, unmarked.
Cat-scratch scar near my first knuckle, angry red and faded pink.
“Do you know why you’re here?”
I wanted to say the right thing, but I didn’t know what that would be. “I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t.”
“She’s coherent,” the woman said. “We’ll have to call the parents.”
The man nodded, and he was still writing. Scratch scratch scratch. He didn’t answer her.
The woman disconnected something that slid out from under the skin of my scalp, and I didn’t like how it rubbed against my skull. “Make sure you tell them that we won’t require the final payment until we get this sorted.”
“Copy error,” I said. “Is that why I don’t know where we are?”
“Yes, Sara,” she said. “I think.”
I walk until I find a cabin in the woods, the windows broken out by tree branches, by wind and rain and thrown rocks. The door hangs far on its hinges.
Shotgun shells, wet with rain. Raccoon droppings. These are the things that litter the floor inside. I step over them in Sara’s boots, into a cabin soggy and ruined from disuse. A dirty orange vest hangs on the wall over a stained and rotten mattress.
Sara has been here before. I know this the way I know so many things. They are the ghosts of objects that live in my brain.
I am alone. The house is alone. I wonder if the raccoons still come in and I wonder who owns what is left of this cabin.
I climb sagging stairs to the loft. My feet sink into the wood with each step, and water oozes out. I realize then that I’m not trying to run away; there’s nowhere to go.
Sara’s mother was an angry red-faced woman with a screech-owl voice. I first saw her the day after Sara failed to copy into my brain. Sara’s father is a fat man with a neatly trimmed brown beard and big sad eyes.
I wore one of Sara’s dresses, and I sat in a little chair. I listened to their conversation and I wondered what it meant for me. They called me Sara, but the word slid off my soul like water off glass. I made fists with my hands when I thought of that, and remembered that even the little things I knew, that birds sing and wolves howl, I knew because Sara knew them.
The adults around me spoke to one another as though the twelve-year-old girl in question was not even there. In a way they were right, because Sara was still dead, and I was not.
“You said there wouldn’t be complications.” Sara’s mother said. Her voice was low and dangerous.
Doctor Camille was calm, even though she was faced with the fury of a mother who thought – as she had said three times already – that she was losing her daughter for the second time.
“As I already told you, ma’am, we’ve never had this issue before. We’re running a check on the mem files now. There are a few possibilities. The mem could be corru-”
“It had better not be! This is my daughter’s life.”
“Honey.” Sara’s father put his hand on her arm. He only met my eye for a moment.
Doctor Camille cleared her throat. “We’re checking our system for corrupted mem files. I suggest you take your daughter home for a few days. She is functioning.”
“She doesn’t even know who she is,” Sara’s mother sobbed. “She might as well still be dead.”
Doctor Camille looked at me. “The brain isn’t a computer,” she said. “It’s also possible enough of the files transfered that she’ll fill in the rest on her own. We’ll run another assessment in a week, and then discuss your options.”
Sara’s brother Benjamin was not a twin any longer, and he didn’t say a word to me for three days. Sara’s room was left untouched after she died two years before, and I spent most of my time going through it. These were the objects that should have brought me memories, but all it did was make me feel like an intruder.
No matter that the face I saw in the mirror was the same as the one in the picture frames. I was still not the girl who’d carefully lined up her shoes, sorted by color. I was not the girl who loved extinct sea life enough to cover my bed with stuffed versions of creatures now lost.
On the third day, I sat on Sara’s light blue bedspread, with her computer in my lap. I used it to look for other people like me, for clones or failed memory saves. I found nothing.
I shouldn’t exist at all, I gathered. It would be easier for everybody. I am nobody, and nobody says, “I am the clone of a dead girl, and I think…”
“Mom cries every night because of you.”
Benjamin stood in the open doorway, watching me with the same brown eyes I saw in the mirror. Brother. I ought to have looked at him and thought of that, and remembered what we’d done together, even if it was only a fight or an argument sometime long in the past. I knew this because I knew what a brother was, but I couldn’t feel it.
A cold knot of anxiety tightened in my stomach.
He crossed his arms and leaned on the door jamb. I didn’t know what he wanted me to say. He knew what came before Sara’s death, and I didn’t.
“I’m sorry,” I said. The words were like myself, small and unwanted.
His face went funny, sank into impotent fourteen-year-old anger. “No you’re not,” he said. “You don’t even know what that means. You’re broken.”
I held on tight to the computer. I said, “No.”
I flinched when Benjamin entered the room; he was like cold air. “You still don’t remember anything, do you?”
“You’re my brother,” I said. My. Mine. The words were only sounds, devoid of meaning.
“They’ll send you back if you can’t remember,” he said. “If you don’t start acting like yourself again, Sara.”
“Get out of my room,” I said.
Doctor Camille is here. She stands down under the loft in this ruined house.
“Go away,” I say. “Leave me alone. I want to stay here. I don’t want to be Sara.”
I hold onto termite-gnawed balusters like cage bars and look down at her. She’s wearing a clean black suit. She doesn’t look much like a doctor now, but then, she’s not at the hospital.
“Please come down,” she says. “I’m sorry for the past week. We’re going to help you remember who you are, and then this will all be easier to handle.”
She looks at the stairs like she thinks maybe she can climb them to me. Like she thinks she can save me despite myself.
I don’t belong here, and I cannot stay.
“I’m not Sara,” I say, again. I don’t know how to make her understand. “If I become Sara, then I won’t be me.”
Doctor Camille frowns.
I found Sara’s diary on the fourth day I lived in her room. She’d hidden it up on the top shelf of her closet, under a unicorn quilt. I pulled it down in a cloud of dust that made me sneeze. Patterned and blue, with a sparkle green gel pen clipped into the rings. If anything in the room were going to remind me of the life I was meant to claim as my own, it would be that.
It frightened me.
I climbed into the back corner of the closet, shoved shoes out of my way, let the clothing fall into place between me and the rest of the room. It was dark, but I could still read.
Reading the diary felt like I was reading the story of somebody else’s life. No part of it made me feel that I was reading about me. I tried. Even though I already thought that I was not Sara, I needed to try. Maybe Sara was there, deep inside my head, waiting to come back out.
I tried to think of the events in the diary as things that had happened to me. It didn’t work. Old crushes on boys who had been in her class at school, who would now be several years older than us. Nothing. They were nobody to me.
I held the book open on my lap and traced my fingers along the words, feeling the indentations that ballpoint pen made on paper. Paper and pen, and not electronic; Sara left behind a tangible mark of having been here.
I flipped through the pages as though some truth was hidden between them, and I could find it that easily. So much of Sara rested in the pages of this book. Not all of her, but the parts that she’d thought were important. I could memorize the events that Sara wrote down; I could pretend.
If I pretended to be Sara, would her parents even know?
Could I? Remember as much as I could of the diary, try to pretend that these were my own memories, instead of something I’d only just read.
I closed the diary and held it in the dim light of the closet.
I come down from the loft. My dress is muddy, and so is my face from my attempts to wipe my tears. Doctor Camille smiles at me, but the expression doesn’t look quite right. She’s glad I came down, but she doesn’t feel any joy.
I let her fuss over my appearance, wiping my tears with a bunched-up tissue and straightening my dress. I walk with Doctor Camille back to Sara’s house, and I drag my feet in the fallen leaves. They smell of rotting alder. “Sara’s dead,” I say.
“You’re Sara,” she says back, and she tightens her fingers on my hand. “Do you remember what it felt like to wake up? It’ll be just like that, but you’ll remember the rest of your life again.”
“That’s not what Doctor Emory said,” I tell her.
I look up and watch Doctor Camille’s face. The way she sets her jaw frightens me, but she doesn’t rise to the bait. I think about pulling my hand from hers and running.
On the fifth day, the skinny man from Grief Abatement Services, Incorporated came out to Sara’s house. He walked with quick short steps and his hair scruffed out around his head. Unruly, long. I watched him come to the front door from Sara’s window, curling my fingers around each other.
“Sara,” her father called to me from the door of her room. I looked back to him, but I didn’t move. “There’s someone here to see you.”
I followed him back down the hall and the stairway, down to the first floor of the house. The scruffy man sat on the least comfortable of all the chairs in the living room, his briefcase pulled up onto his lap. Sara’s mother was not there. I hadn’t seen her since I arrived.
“Hello, Sara,” he said. “I’m Doctor Emory Bieber.” He smiled, and I could see one of his teeth was a silver replacement.
“I’m not Sara,” I said back, automatic. It seemed the only thing I ever said to anybody.
The smile went out like a light after someone’s hit the switch, and he looked over my head to Sara’s father. “G.A.S. sent her home like this?”
Sara’s father’s hand tightened on my right shoulder, squeezing as though that would bring me safety. “We were told she might regain access to her memory if she were in familiar surroundings.”
Doctor Emory looked back down to me. “Might I ask you some questions, Sara?”
“I’m not Sara,” I said again.
“Well,” he asked. “Who are you?”
Cruel question, and he had to know that it was. I pressed my lips together. How could I have a name of my own if nobody would let me find out what it was?
Doctor Emory’s briefcase had a hole in it, white threads sticking out. There were papers inside, and a pen. He put the case down on the floor and leaned forward in the chair, hands clasped loosely together in front of his mouth. “Why do you say you aren’t Sara?”
I didn’t want to tell him the same thing I’d said to everybody for the last few days. But there was that subtle hope I felt, that maybe he’d understand me, unlike all the others. Maybe he wouldn’t put aside how I thought and how I felt as only being symptoms of something that should have been fixed already.
And then again, how could I possibly explain something that I didn’t know in words? I only knew it through feeling.
I fidgeted, playing with my hands. “I’m not,” I said. “I would know if I was. How do you know that you’re Doctor Emory?”
I wasn’t trying to be a pain. Some part of me wondered if there was a feeling or sense that other people had, the sense of who they are, and that maybe that simply hadn’t copied with the rest of what Sara knew. Sara’s father took his hand from my shoulder. I wondered if he would leave me with the doctor to talk about what it meant to be Sara.
And Doctor Emory, for his part, was struggling to satisfactorily answer my question to himself, so he could share it with the rest of us. He frowned and pressed a finger against his lips. “I suppose I worded that badly,” he said. “It’s unusual to think you’re someone other than you are.”
“I just know,” I said. “I just know I’m not Sara.”
“Do you want to be Sara?” he asked. Nobody, not in five days, had asked me that question even once.
“No,” I said, and Sara’s father left without another word.
“You don’t?” Doctor Emory fiddled with one of the latches on his briefcase without looking away from me. “Why not?”
“Because I’m me,” I said, as though that were reason enough. And couldn’t it be? “I don’t want to be rewritten. I don’t want to go away.”
I walked past Emory and he turned on the chair to watch me. I sat on the couch and pulled my feet up, sinking into the cushion.
“Do you mind that I’m recording our conversation?” he asked.
“Okay,” I said. I wondered what Sara’s father would have thought, had he heard that. I wondered what else was in the beat-up case.
“You’re a standard G.A.S. replacement clone, and you left the Center five days ago, correct?”
I couldn’t think of why he wanted to know. “Yes,” I answered.
“And there was an error, wasn’t there? But they sent you out anyway. How do you feel about that?”
His look was too hungry, and it frightened me. For once, I didn’t want to say what was expected of me. I didn’t know what he wanted to hear, so I couldn’t avoid the answer. Where was Sara’s father?
“I don’t know,” I said. I hugged my knees. I suddenly wanted to cry, but I couldn’t say why. “I’m not the person they want me to be. This isn’t my body; it belongs to Sara. But if she comes back, then where will I go? Will I be a ghost? Will I just go away?”
“Do you think you’re a person?” he asked.
And I couldn’t hold the tears back anymore, because how could I be anything else? “Of course I’m a person,” I said. I cried.
He smiled, a nice smile, and he played with the latch on his briefcase again. “Thank you,” he said.
When we get back to the house, we don’t go inside. There’s already a car waiting to take us to the Center. I don’t want to get in. Doctor Camille pats my hand.
Sara’s mother and father are inside the house, or maybe they aren’t home at all. I don’t know. Why would they come to say goodbye to me, anyway? I’m not their daughter. I’m a ghost.
Doctor Camille lets my hand free long enough to open the door to the back of the car. I slide in over dark brown leather and let her buckle the seatbelt for me. I don’t look up until she’s closed the door, sealed me away from the rest of the world with steel and glass.
In a window on the second floor, I think I see Benjamin. He doesn’t wave and neither do I.
On my last night, Sara’s parents fought. I sat in her closet again with the diary. I leaned my head against the wall, and I could hear them clearly through their closet.
Sara’s mother sounded like a dying eagle. “You let him in? Do you know how bad this looks?”
“He said he was a doc-.”
“He was a reporter for Christ’s sake!”
I flipped through the pages of the diary. I didn’t want to read them; I just wanted to feel the paper under my fingers. I wanted to feel something real.
“I don’t think we’re being fair to her.”
“Fair? Fair? How is thisfair to anybody? ‘Clones are people too: a shocking investigative report into G.A.S — what they don’t want you to know about replacing your loved ones.'”
The creaking sound of bedsprings. Sara’s father’s voice was low and even. “I would never have agreed if I’d known it would be like this.”
“Oh, sure,” Sara’s mother retorted. “You say that now. After you were the one who said we had to bring her home like she is. ‘Give her a chance,’ you said.”
“This isn’t right,” he said.
“That girl in there is not my daughter. That’s not right. We should have made them bring her back right, not take the closest they could make. You tell me how getting G.A.S. sued is going to help anybody! If they get shut down, then we’ll never get Sara back. Don’t you care?”
“I care more than you do.” His voice went up in pitch, raising with his anger.
I closed the diary and held it so tightly that I could feel the corners of the cover digging into my skin.
“That’s news to me! You just wanted to bury her and give up!”
The bed creaked again. Someone standing? “We should have!”
I heard their door slam, and heavy footsteps down the hall. A pause, and then the front door slammed, louder.
And silence fell over the house. I crept out from the closet.
I climbed into the bed and slid the diary under my pillow. I was about to turn the lights out when the doorknob turned, and Sara’s mother came in. Her eyes were red, probably from crying. I thought of what Benjamin had said, but I didn’t care. I didn’t want to make her happy.
She crossed the room to me, bent to kiss me softly on my forehead. She smelled like sickly orange perfume. I wanted to wave her away from me, but I settled for clutching the blue and white comforter in my hands.
“Goodnight, honey,” she said. “Tomorrow we’ll bring you back to the Center and they’ll put your memories back.”
She tried to pull the blankets up to my chin, but I held them down with tight fingers. She gave up and turned the light out, felt her way back to the door. I waited until she was silhouetted in the doorway and then I said, “Sara’s dead, Mom.”
We reach the Center at mid-day, but we don’t go through the front doors. I feel like a fugitive, hurried out of the car and into the back door. I ask why we’re going that way, but Doctor Camille doesn’t answer. She leaves me in a little room with plastic toys for children much younger than I am, and magazines that nobody likes enough to steal.
I pick up an orange plastic block that says “B” on the side just to have something in my hands. I can feel the imperfect seam left by the mold it was made in. I worry at it, running my finger over the rough plastic edge over and over.
After a long time, Doctor Camille comes back. She’s changed her clothes and looks like a doctor again, and she waves for me to follow her through the double doors.
“We’re ready for you,” she says.
I woke in the morning, as soon as the sun hit my second floor window and filtered pink through the Venetian blinds. At first I didn’t want to get out of bed.
I flipped over onto my stomach, twisting around under the blankets. I pulled the diary out from under my pillow and turned it to the last page. I unclipped the pen and pulled the cap off. The end of the pen was warped with the indentations of Sara’s teeth.
I realized then that I didn’t know what I wanted to write.
“Dear Diary,” I started, and I crossed it out. Sara never started her entries like that. She just started with a date, so I wrote that in underneath the crossed-out salutation.
“Sara,” I wrote. My handwriting looked nothing like hers. It was jagged in all the wrong places. “I was you for a week. I wasn’t very good at it. I’m sorry.”
I looked at it for a while, watched the gel ink dry. I signed it, “Me.”
I snuck out the back door while the rest of the house still slept, tiptoeing through the yard. I ran when I got to the trees.
I wait. I lie on clean sheets and a plastic mask covers my mouth and nose. The lights dim to a soft red glow, and Doctor Camille rests one cool gloved hand on my forehead. She starts to count down from ten.
I close my eyes. I don’t know who I’ll be when I open them.
About the Author
Keffy R. M. Kehrli is a speculative fiction writer who currently lives on Long Island, where he’s working on a PhD in Genetics. He attended Clarion UCSD in 2008 and since then, his fiction has appeared in magazines such as Lightspeed, Apex, and Uncanny. In 2015, he launched GlitterShip, a podcast featuring LGBTQ short fiction.
He is also a former editor of Shimmer Magazine.
About the Narrator
Mur Lafferty is the co-editor and co-host of Escape Pod.
She is an American podcaster and writer based in Durham, North Carolina. She is the host and creator of the podcasts I Should Be Writing and Ditch Diggers. In the past decade she has been: co-founder/co-editor of Pseudopod, founder of Mothership Zeta, editor or co-editor of Escape Pod (where she is currently).
She is fond of Escape Artists, in other words.
Mur is the 2013 winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.