Chapter Three - Shattering News
Charlotte slinks home via the dark, back roads. Turning left into Finchley Way, she catches sight of the familiar ghostly oaks and a sob escapes. Her car roars into the empty garage, lurching to a stop. She stumbles out. In the cloakroom she pauses, staring at her bare feet. Oh Mum, you’d be ashamed if you could see me now.
The kitchen is barren of life. The stopped clock proclaims three twenty six. She leans over the sink and dry retches. Footsteps approach hurriedly.
“Charlie! Are you all right? What are you doing back so soon?” Dad places a gentle hand on the small of her back, with a butterfly’s touch. She groans, spits, wishing this wretched feeling would just go away. He turns on the tap and fills a glass. She takes it, shaking and sips.
“You look terrible.”
“Gee, thanks,” she mutters, straightening, meeting his eyes for a split second. He sniffs at her, exaggeratedly.
“Alcohol. You didn’t...”
“No. I didn’t.” She frowns. “Why don’t you trust me?”
“It’s those boys I don’t trust. They could easily slip something into your...”
“Drink. Yes, Dad, I know. I’m not stupid.” She sighs. With one finger he tenderly brushes away a strand of her hair.
“Is there anything I can do? You’re not...”
“Pregnant? No, Dad. God!” She flings up her head. “You think I’m a complete loser, don’t you?”
“I never said...”
“No, you didn’t have to! It’s all in the questions! Why can’t you...” Feeling suddenly faint her hand loses contact with the glass. It shatters on the floor. Without a word, Dad lifts her into his arms and carries her upstairs. He deposits his daughter on her huge bed, swathed in pink satin.
“You’re not as light as you once were,” he puffs. With a worried smile, he perches on the edge of the bed to catch his breath. She reaches up to her pounding head.
“Oh, my head,” she moans. He fetches her another glass of water and some aspirin, tilts the glass to her lips, just like he used to when she was little. She sips, then lies back, wearily. “Sorry I was such a bitch.”
He looks down at her, the love and fear in his eyes.
“No it’s not,” she replies. “I shouldn’t give you a hard time when you’re just being a good dad.” Then with a faint smile, “Didn’t you always say no arguing, just ‘yes Dad’ or ‘ok?’”
His face crumples a bit. “That was your mother.”
“Oh.” The grey silence stretches out between them, expectant. He takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. Charlotte feels like she stabbed him in the heart.
“There is something you’re not telling me, right?” he says, his brown eyes shining with unshed tears. “I admit, my intuition is nothing like your mother’s is.”
Charlotte frowns. I did it again! Why did I do that?
“Hey,” he says, stroking her face. “It’s ok to remind me.”
“How did you know that’s what I was thinking?”
“Father’s intuition.” He grins. “Now, before you sidetrack me again, what’s going on?”
She closes her eyes. It all seems so ridiculous. A near crash, that’s all it was. Anything else must be an illusion.
“I almost crashed the car,” she whispers, feeling the tears come.
“Oh, Charlie, why didn’t you just tell me? I don’t care about the car!” He grips her hand, the grief stretched over his lips.
“I’m not hurt. It’s ok. I just... have this really bad headache.”
“Did your head hit the headrest hard? Did you make impact with anything? Were the other girls hurt? What happened?”
“I don’t know,” she whimpers, weariness aching in her bones. “I’ve never felt this tired and sore. Ever.”
“So, you didn’t hit the truck?” He persists.
“But you feel sick?”
“Nerves, probably,” he says, though the lines around his eyes say otherwise. There’s something huge, something he’s hiding. She feels it, like an invisible mountain rising up behind him.
“What is it, Dad?”
He shakes his head. “No, it’s nothing, I promise. I’m just glad you’re ok.” He pulls up the covers. “Come on, sleep. You’ll feel better in the morning.”
Sunlight casts lace shadows on the carpet. Charlotte wakes, blinking and stretching. She patters barefoot to the bathroom. Turning on the taps she glances absently at the mirror. And screams. In the glare of the skylight she can see something which does not belong on her face. Her finger trembles in mid-air, hovering over the spot, but afraid to make contact with the ugly, greyish-brown mark which looks like some hideous disease. Like leprosy. She gasps, splashing her face with cold water, scrubbing with a soft, pink facecloth. But as she lowers her hand she can see that the patch is reddened all around the edges and still grey, dead-looking in the centre. Charlotte screams and runs, taking the stairs two at a time, squealing for her father. He comes running into the entrance hall, his face white, his voice hoarse.
“What is it, Charlie?”
“My face!” she cries, falling to the floor, weeping. “No, no, no!” She covers her face with her hands, then takes them away, terrified of spreading the disease to her hands. She screams when he touches her back.
“Charlie, please, let me help you.”
Her sobs are grating inside her chest. She gulps them down.
“Please, tell me what’s wrong!” Robert Campbell squats beside his daughter. Hiding her face behind a veil of hair Charlotte fights to control herself. Her father, of all people, will know what to do to rid her of this disgusting... thing on her face. He’s a doctor and a scientist. She raises her head and points.
“It’s not a pimple.” Her voice wobbles. “It looks grey and... Dead.”
He frowns. “Come into the kitchen and let me look at it.” She follows him to the bright, sunny kitchen, with its straight lines, smooth, clean surfaces and impersonality. Ellen Campbell’s face smiles sadly from the wall, a lone exhibit in their private gallery. He puts his glasses on, tilts her head gently to the light. Then he turns away, goes to the downstairs bathroom and comes back with a cotton bud.
“It’s leprosy, isn’t it?” she whispers.
“Sh. Just a minute.”
“Tell me, Dad!”
He ignores her, touching the spot very deftly with the cotton bud. She stares at his eyes, waiting for the verdict. He carefully inserts the cotton bud into a tube and pops on the lid. Replacing his glasses in his shirt pocket he sighs, squeezing his brow.
“Sit down. It’s time I told you something.”
“What? Is it leprosy? Am I going to slowly fall apart? You’ll have to send me away to some hideous clinic in India or something!”
Her father laughs. “No. None of that. Just sit down.”
“How can you laugh at a time like this?”
He brings up a chair to face her, all laughter erased. She’s never seen him look like this. He gathers himself. Her heart is thumping in her chest. What could he possibly have kept from her?
“When you were eight, the year before we knew about your mother’s breast cancer...” His eyes flick to the photograph. “You were very ill. Do you remember being in hospital?”
“No. What was wrong with me? Has it come back? Is there a cure?”
He takes her hands in his.
“I was hoping I’d never have to tell you this.” His eyes look sad, like he’s witnessed the most tragic thing in the world.
“What? What is it, Dad?” It’s as if the whole world is waiting to cry with her in a tsunami that will wipe away all trace of her life.
“You were dying, Charlie. We couldn’t bear to lose you.”
“But I got better, obviously,” she replies, confused.
“Yes. You did.” He licks his lips nervously. “Because...” He looks at the portrait once more, for strength. “Because I made a clone.”
“A clone. A genetic replica of you, using your DNA. I accelerated the growth. You grew eight years in eight months. Then, just before you... passed away, I transferred your consciousness to your new body.” Charlotte stares at his face, which seems so familiar, the face which always smiles and encourages, rarely frowns. Yet the words coming out of his mouth sound like gibberish and his face looks all floaty. Her mouth is dry. She tries to swallow.
“A clone? But, how can that be real? Isn’t it illegal to clone a human being?”
And then it hits her, like a train.
“But... so I’m not even the real Charlotte Campbell?”
“Of course you’re real! You are Charlotte. There’s no difference. You’re the same person.”
“It’s not even the same body!” She looks away, feeling disgusted.
“Charlie, look at me!” He gently takes her chin in his hand and brings her face round to him again. “You are yourself. Your spirit, your fire, your talents, your thoughts, are all there. We just gave you a body that’s healthy. I was able to tinker with your DNA and eliminate some of the markers of quite serious diseases that could have developed during your lifetime.”
She eyes him defiantly. “And I’m supposed to be grateful?”
“Charlie… We loved you. We would have done anything to save you.”
“Loved? As in past tense? So you loved her more. I’m just a replacement, a Mach II.”
“No! Of course not! We love you just as much. You’re the same person, Charlie. How could we love you any less?”
Her father sighs, running his fingers through his hair.
“Then if I’m such a perfect version of me, why can’t I remember anything from before the age of eight? That photo of me, in the formal lounge...”
“In your ballet costume? You loved ballet.”
“No, I don’t remember that. At all. And I don’t love ballet. That girl is not me!”
There are tears in his eyes as he takes her hands. “Please don’t say that,” he whispers. “We fought so hard to save you.”
“Then why didn’t you save Mum? Why did you keep me alive and let her die?” Charlotte’s voice cracks.
“There was no time. We found out so late.” He closes his eyes and swallows. Charlotte stares out the window, at Mum’s garden - the roses, the delphiniums, the daisies she planted all along the driveway. It’s a familiar story, a fairytale told to soothe her at bedtime. She always smiles, to keep him happy, but she can’t remember her mother kneeling in those flower beds or pruning the dead rose heads. Charlotte breathes in deep and lets it out slowly. Dad is still there, in front of her like a priest at the altar, begging his god to forgive him.
“It’s not your fault,” she says softly, squeezing his hands. “I understand why you did it. It’s just a shock, you know? To find out you are not who you thought you were. That your whole life has been a lie.” He looks up at her but says nothing. He can’t deny it. “But at least I understand now why have no memories of being little, of growing up in this house and of Mum being well.” Her voice shakes a little as she asks, “So, do you know what this spot is? Is it dangerous?”
He gets up creakily. “I’m not completely sure, but I think I can fix it.”
“But what is it, Dad? Am I dying? Again?” She can feel a clamp around her chest, squeezing her breath.
“No,” he says firmly.
“Leave it with me, ok? I’m going straight to the lab to run some tests on the sample.” He grabs his keys from the bench.
“But...” She swivels in her chair, watching him leave, feeling as if he’s leaving her behind on a distant planet.
“Trust me, ok, Charlie? I’ll fix this. In the meantime, eat healthy. Go to the gym. Be good to your body.”
“I always am!” She calls out, as he disappears into the cloakroom. His car grumbles to life and the sound dies away.
She’s alone. Alone with the devastating news.
Who can she call? Abbi? Tessa? They’d laugh nervously, then text every single person they know with the news. They are her friends, sort of, while she’s the Queen of Harlington High. They’d be just as happy to see her topple off her throne. It feels too big, this news. She squeezes her head, wishing she could tell someone.
Anyone. Anyone at all.
She gets up and checks the fridge. Sighing with gratitude she takes a block of mint-filled chocolate from the shelf. Peeling off the foil she gulps the first square. The squirt of mint is cold and locks onto the surface of her tongue. Leaving the kitchen behind, her feet follow a familiar path to the formal lounge, the pale tiles cool underfoot.
She stands, just inside the door, toes submerged in the plush cream carpet. The room is flooded with light, flashing white and cream on every surface. Clean. Unused. Like a mausoleum. On the opposite wall, behind the white grand piano, a seven year old ballerina stares out from a huge sepia photograph. Large, soft eyes, flawless skin, rosebud lips. Brown wisps frame her angelic face, her hair caught gently in a bun behind her neck. Her costume is the palest pink. One satin-encased toe is pointed forward, as if to anchor the moment in time. Forever.
You’re gone and I’m an imposter. She tells the little girl who used to be. The soft eyes are sad. So much sadness for such a little girl!
Was I already sick when this was taken? Did I know I was going to die? Did it hurt when they transferred me to this body?
Charlotte stares at the pint sized ballerina. A stranger with no answers. Leaving the white room, she closes the doors carefully, keeping the ghosts inside.