An array of pill bottles lined the cabinet behind Philip Abel’s mirror. The sleeping medication didn’t help – as he stared at his own reflection, the bags occupying the space under his eyes were the most prominent feature of his face. He splashed lukewarm water on his cheeks and wrapped his watch around his wrist. It was almost noon on Tuesday; he had been awake for the sun to greet him through his bedroom window six hours earlier, but his body’s natural cycles had just provided him with the first occasion to touch the floor.
Philip stepped over to his apartment’s kitchenette and poured black coffee into a mug. He opened his laptop and pulled up his post on a renters’ forum. Two bedrooms, one bathroom – it was just enough space for two people. Rent was steep, and since his last roommate left to move in with his girlfriend, Philip could hardly keep up.
His post was almost two weeks old, and there were no signs of any takers. Philip hated living alone. He despised being left with his thoughts – his constant anxiety consumed him, especially at night. The pills did little except bring his eyelids about halfway shut but just as unable to close. Having somebody to share the space eased his nerves enough to maintain relative sanity.
As he scrolled through the forum, his phone buzzed on the counter. He peeked over, and his heart dropped the second he caught a glimpse of her name. Elaine’s contact photo shone like a beacon of light through the dull apartment. Philip reached over and gingerly raised the phone to his ear.
“Good morning,” she whispered. “How did you sleep?”
“Fine,” Philip lied. A smile crept across his face. “Morning? It’s afternoon.”
“Is it?” Elaine said mid-yawn. “I just woke up.”
Philip turned back to his laptop, his eyes wandering across the screen. “Sounds nice. Will the rest of your day be this productive?” he said.
“I’m working late shifts every night this week,” she answered, “until Friday, when I’m supposed to be going out with Stacy – wanna be my plus-one?”
Philip’s heart fluttered. “Just give me the time and place,” he said. “Friday.”
“Friday,” Elaine declared, her grin sounding through the speakerphone. Click.
Suddenly, an advertisement on the laptop caught Philip’s eye. “Need an extra set of hands? Two heads are better than one – Gemini DNA Services.”
He clicked on the ad and skimmed the text. Philip had heard stories about human cloning on the news, mostly in relation to organ harvesting and bizarre cults, but he’d never considered ordering his own. Perhaps he’d appreciate his own company better if he reinterpreted what it meant to live with himself.
The website detailed the instructions. Customers just needed to send a DNA sample to a P.O. box in a suburban office park and attach a return address. It seemed simple enough, thought Philip. He scanned the kitchenette for a vessel and snatched a small plastic baggie from a drawer.
While he collected saliva in his mouth, the phone buzzed on the countertop once more. It was Elaine. He spit the sample into the bag and picked up. “Hello?”
“I forgot to ask, do you have a friend that you could bring for Stacy? I don’t want her to feel awkward with us,” she explained.
“Sure,” Philip reassured her. “I know just the guy.”
Late morning on Friday, Philip heard a knock. He stumbled to the door already knowing the familiar face that laid on the other side. He turned the knob and opened it, only to be met with his own gaze. Philip immediately locked eyes with his new roommate, who was dressed in a hospital gown.
“Philip Abel?” said the clone.
Gravity’s grasp over Philip’s jaw was too great for him to form a response.
Sensing their greetings were over, the clone invited himself into the apartment. “So,” he said, “tell me about ourselves.”
“What do you need to know?” inquired the still-shocked Philip. “Oh, just fill in some gaps for me,” the clone said nonchalantly. “Your social media has already answered the big questions, and your laptop Internet history answered most of the more niche topics.”
Flustered, Philip took his phone out of his pocket. “We’ll talk about that later, but tonight we’re going out with this woman named Elaine.” He flashed him a picture. The clone looked at the screen with wonder. Philip jerked the phone away.
“She has a friend named Stacy, and you’re going to stick with her. Got it?”
“Stacy. Right,” the clone said dismissively. “Tell me more about this Elaine.”
“All you need to know about Elaine is that she means a lot to me. Don’t get too friendly. Now let’s get you something more suitable to wear.”
That evening, after the clone had traded his gown for some khaki pants and a button-down shirt, the doppelgängers stood outside the restaurant. Philip fidgeted with his watch, noting that the women were late. Meanwhile, the clone stood still with a robotic expression on his face.
After several minutes, Elaine and Stacy emerged from the parking lot. “Traffic was terrible,” Elaine lamented. She stretched out her arms and Philip poised himself to receive her embrace – but before he could, her arms fell around the clone. “I missed you,” Elaine giggled into his ear. Her eyes turned towards Philip, whose expression had turned from confusion to dismay. He looked over at Stacy, who seemed uninterested in her surroundings.
“Is this your friend?” she asked. Her gaze flicked between Philip and the clone a few times before reality dawned on her. “You never told me you had a twin brother!”
“I don’t,” said the clone. Philip cut in. “I got one of those clones from a DNA website.”
“You ordered a clone of yourself online?” exclaimed Elaine. “Remember how I was looking for a roommate?” suggested Philip. Elaine shot the pair a skeptical look. “Let’s get a table.”
The clone and Elaine led the four, with Philip and Stacy in tow. By the time they took their seats, Elaine and her new old friend were locked in a conversation, leaving Philip to make small talk with the indifferent woman across from him.
“Your brother and Elaine are getting along,” said Stacy. “He’s not my brother,” retorted Philip. “I spit in a bag earlier this week and he came in the mail this morning.”
“He’s cute, though,” admitted Stacy. Philip donned a look of bewilderment.
All the while, the clone’s charisma never faltered. From the other side of the table, Philip could barely hear the content of his hour-long exchange with Elaine, but every laugh the two shared stung him. After dinner, they split the check and headed towards the door. On their way out, Stacy approached the clone with some newfound charm previously unknown to Philip. Seeing a window, he beckoned Elaine.
Her expecting expression discomforted Philip, as he realized he’d hardly spoken to her all night. “I had fun tonight,” he fibbed in a hushed tone out of the others’ earshot. “Are you going to be around tomorrow night? I’d love to do something like this again.”
She gave him an understanding smile. “Just the two of us,” Philip clarified.
“I’m sorry,” she sighed. “Tomorrow is my only other night off, and I already have plans with Philip.”
His look of anticipation faded into one of perplexity. “With Philip?” He pointed to his doppelgänger. She nodded. “That’s not Philip. I’m Philip. The clone didn’t exist before Tuesday.”
She offered a sheepish shrug. “Half the time, I forgot. But I invited you here tonight because I wanted to spend time with you.”
“Why didn’t you?” snapped back Philip.
Taken aback, Elaine leaned towards him with pity in her eyes. “I did.”
By the time Philip and his counterpart arrived at the apartment, the decision to procure Gemini’s services was beginning to feel like a bad investment. “What was that about?” demanded Philip as he slammed the door. “I told you to stay away from Elaine!”
“I don’t know what to tell you,” replied the clone. “She prefers this Philip.”
The original scoffed. “You are not Philip. You’re not the new and improved version of me,” he barked. “You were born in a lab from my saliva.”
The clone bit back. “I’m just as human as you!”
Philip resisted the urge to hit him. The clone turned away, his body’s natural rhythms steering him towards the bathroom. Before he closed the door, he shot Philip a devilish smirk.
“I know my consciousness was created last Tuesday. How are you so certain yours wasn’t?”
Philip paused for a moment to consider what he’d just heard. He snapped back to his senses, then hopped over to the counter and flipped his laptop open to the Gemini DNA Services website. His feverish eyes combed the page until he reached a phone number in fine print at the bottom. He dialed the number and brought the phone to his ear.
“Hello?” answered a gruff voice.
“I want to return my clone. Right now,” Philip whispered into the phone. The voice chuckled. “That’s not how this works,” he said. “You brought him into the world. It’s not our job to take him out.” Philip furrowed his brow and raised his voice. “How am I supposed to get rid of him?”
The voice replied. “You took up that burden when you ordered him. He’s your flesh and blood. Not mine.” Click.
He stepped back in frustration and shoved his phone into his pocket, then glanced over to the kitchenette. There was a set of cooking knives tucked next to the coffee machine. He stared at the handle of the chef’s knife, reflecting on what he was about to do.
Philip Abel was not a murderer. But was it truly murder if this clone was nothing but a skeleton piloted by a days-old brain? It was merely a copy-paste of reality. If the clone had dropped off the face of the Earth, nobody would’ve batted an eye because its original template lived on. He could just tell Elaine that the clone had a defect, so he returned it.
But what if the clone had the same idea?
Philip heard the bathroom doorknob turning. He raced over to the kitchenette and grasped the chef’s knife, then timorously positioned himself next to the door and gathered his courage.
The door flung open. “I’m not going back there! They’ll kill me!” the clone shouted, before looking to his left to spot the blade speeding towards his chest. The clone grabbed Philip’s arm before the knife could make contact with his skin. Philip’s grimace turned to terror as the clone brought him to the floor. Philip powered through the clone’s grip and slashed him across the torso. Stunned, the clone swatted the knife out of Philip’s hand. The two grappled on the ground in stalemate for a few seconds, with Philip extending his arm toward the bloodied blade to finish what he started. Before he could reach the handle, the clone caught a glimpse of Philip’s coffee mug next to the laptop on the counter.
The doppelgänger pushed Philip’s forehead against the floor and clutched the mug, flailing it into Philip’s nose. The mug shattered, sending ceramic shards flying across the apartment. The clone bashed the remaining piece of the mug into Philip’s face until his arm straining for the knife went limp.
The clone collapsed into the pool of blood on the floor, panting and processing the events of the past thirty seconds. He gazed over at his lifeless prototype. Sputtering, the clone rose to his feet and dragged the body into the bathroom, lifting it into the tub. He scanned up and down the corpse, its face mangled beyond recognition. The clone noticed a watch and bent over to remove it. He wrapped it around his own wrist.
He turned to the mirror and saw that blood had soaked through his button-down. While he patched his wound, he heard a faint buzzing from the bathtub. The clone shuffled back and removed the phone from the bloodstained pants’ pocket. He immediately recognized Elaine’s contact photo.
“Hey, Philip. I just wanted to apologize for what happened tonight. None of my friends have ever gotten cloned before, so I didn’t know what to make of the whole thing.”
The clone grinned. “Imagine how I feel.”
“I feel bad about blowing you off for your body double,” she snickered. “Will next time be like this? Is Stacy gonna have to tag along for the double date again?”
“Stacy’s actually off the hook. I decided to send the clone back. I think I prefer living alone anyways,” he said.
“Really? So what happens to a clone if you return it?”
“I have no idea,” he lied.
She changed the subject. “Are we still on for tomorrow night?”
“Of course,” he said. “Just text me the time and place.”
“Okay,” she purred. “Good night, Philip.”
“Good night, Elaine,” the impostor said as he hung up the phone. He glanced at his new watch and realized it was almost midnight. He closed the shower curtains around the tub, then turned to exit the bathroom.
That night, a different Philip Abel slept soundly in the spare bedroom.