Recycling Clara
by
C. Dennis Moore

Clara came into the kitchen in the morning and grabbed a coffee cup. The coffee was made, compliments of the automatic coffee maker Martin had bought her as a humble anniversary present almost twenty-five years ago when he'd been hired on at Legacy International and learned he'd be making a whopping two hundred and fifty a week. Humble beginnings, she thought as she moved to the refrigerator, knowing she was surrounded by the ten rooms and three bathrooms of the house they'd bought ten years later when his pay had increased almost ten-fold.

She leaned her cane against the counter and grabbed the milk, moving on stiff legs to the table with hot coffee in one hand, a heavy gallon of milk in the other. The work was hard, but at least she *could* walk again. After her stroke, Clara was bedridden. It had been a painful recovery, and she almost didn't make it; at 52, Clara's 5'4", 95-pound frame almost couldn't take the strain.

She settled into the chair and poured milk into her cup, over pouring at first, then adjusted her aim, still relearning to use the right arm. She stirred and watched as the milk first swirled around it, and then mixed with the coffee. She set the spoon aside and brought the steaming cup of what her father used to call "the *real* black gold" to her lips. Steam drifted into her nose and the scalding coffee went between her lips, burned her tongue and throat, and pooled in her stomach, warming her like a furnace.

She unfolded the newspaper, draped it open across the table, and scanned the headlines. A house fire in midtown left a family homeless, but their neighborhood had come to their aid with clothes and a place to stay. A woman was missing, police were investigating whether it was a kidnapping or a legitimate disappearance. "What's a 'legitimate disappearance'?" Clara wondered aloud. A three-car wreck on the highway left three dead and two in the hospital. How many was that in a month? Clara wondered. Sometimes she didn't regret never learning to drive.

She took another drink, then looked at the microwave clock, wondering if Martin would bother coming upstairs today. He'd been down there all morning, having already been at work since before Clara woke up. She wondered, not for the first time, what it was Martin was so hard at work on down there. But she knew she wouldn't find out until Martin wanted her to. She knew how serious his work had been in the past--one year he'd almost been considered for a Nobel Prize. Clara knew some of the things Martin had worked on--a revolutionary surgery procedure here, diagnosing a new strain of certain viruses there, inventing new medical equipment where he saw the need--had profound effects when they reached the right people. It had also granted them a certain independence as far as daily obligations were concerned. The hours he worked sometimes kept him away for days at a time when Clara would neither see nor hear from him, Martin being so into his work. Sometimes she minded, most often not. After Mary was born, she sometimes didn't even notice his absences.

Clara stopped in her reverie, the sudden memory of Mary shocking her into reality.

She'd only been gone four years, but she would have been fifteen this year and, having Mary almost constantly underfoot those first ten years, it still seemed unnatural without her.

And how many 9-year-olds were diagnosed with leukemia?

Clara wondered again if Martin would be up sometime today. She suddenly missed him. Almost at the thought, the door opened and there he stood.

"Hi," he said. He sounded tired and Clara knew he probably hadn't slept more than an hour at a time in two weeks.

"Morning," she said.

Then she looked at his face.

"Martin, what is it?" she asked, expecting a reply something like, "The world's going to end in three minutes," judging by his look.

His only reply at first was a heavy sigh followed by a too-thorough clearing of his throat.

"Clara," he began, "I think that, these past months--no, it's been longer than that--I know that for longer than I can think, I've been putting you off. You see me maybe ninety minutes every two weeks and I haven't heard a complaint yet. Not that I would have heard had you voiced one. But I--."

Clara interrupted. "I know your work is important. You've helped more people than we'll know. When it comes to things like that, I push my selfishness for you aside. Martin, I know--."

"Clara, I need something."

"I always help you when I can," Clara said.

"A baby," Martin said. "I need a baby."

He started on a speech that sounded too ready, giving and re-giving a myriad of reasons he needed a baby, talking about Clara's genes, Clara's DNA. But Clara didn't hear any of it. Instead, she was lost.

Mary had been six months shy of eleven when she died, to the day. A week earlier, she lay in her hospital bed with a calendar, figuring which day she would be ten and a half. And Clara, four years later, still remembered the day. April 11th. AKA the day Mary died.

Then another thought seeped in. When Clara discovered she was pregnant, her first thought was *I'm too old to have a baby*. Thirty-seven was not getting up in the middle of the night age. Thirty-seven was too old to be constantly tired.

She wasn't a mother anymore. But she was older, and even more tired. She said so.

"Martin, you want another baby? But, I'm so tired."

Martin stopped mid-explanation. His expression was question enough. He'd always been good at that, getting his eyes to speak for him.

"I'm old, Martin. Mary would have been fifteen this year. Can you imagine? Me, fifty-two with a fifteen-year-old daughter. And you? You would have been fifty-five teaching her to drive. I'd take her for her first beer when I was fifty-eight. I'm old and too tired to raise another child."

Martin stammered a few "ums", then cleared his throat again and said, "Uh, that's not exactly what I mean. Huh. How do I say it?" Clara stared, waiting, because the way Martin was acting was making her curious now and then he said it, "I don't mean we should raise another child. I just want you to have a baby for me."

She hesitated a second, trying to organize that thought in her mind, trying to figure out why they were talking about different things.

"I think you've lost me," she said.

He sighed, looked out the kitchen window, through which was shining what looked ike a beautiful day, then he turned around, scratched his temple, and said, "I just need a baby."

Clara blinked, glanced at the door that led to Martin's home lab, and a connection formed in her head.

"Is this work?" she asked, incredulous. "Something you're working on? You want me to have a baby? And then, what, just *give* it to you for something you're working on? Are you that far out of your mind, Martin?"

"I can try to explain this, really. I think so, anyway."

"You know what? I doubt it. I mean, come on, Martin, be real. You're a brilliant man and I know you think that whatever you're doing down there is for some human benefit, but we're talking about a *child*. This isn't like you're asking me to test a high-blood-pressure drug, you want me to *give* you a baby?"

"No, let's sit down. I can--."

"Convince me?"

"Explain," he said.

Clara shook her head, then rubbed her eyes. She sat down and sighed.

Martin sat next to her and talked.

His words bounced off Clara, one or two seeping in, but she was losing the sense of what he was saying. While he talked, all her mind could hear was, "I need a baby." And after that, there was the task of wrapping her brain around the meaning. He didn't want another baby, but he wanted her to have one. And she knew if she'd just stop thinking, and start listening, she might understand what he was asking, but no matter what she thought or told herself, all she could get was, "I need a baby."

Finally she cut him off with, "Show me."

Martin stopped and looked up at her. "What?"

"Let me see what's so important. I'm not getting the sense of it anyway, so show me. You show me what you're doing, and I'll consider it. Believe me, Martin, the only reason I even say that is because I know your past achievements. Anyone who didn't know you would have been out the door by now."

"Please."

"Are you even in your right mind? Do you have any idea what you're talking about? You ask for a baby like it's just 'genetic material.'"

"Please," he said again. "I'm so close now. Then I'll show you. I swear, Clara, after you see, you won't regret it."

"Then show me now," she said, struggling to her feet. She reached her cane and finally stood. "Take me there. Let me see."

He saw now this wouldn't be a simple matter of asking, that, if he expected to move ahead, he'd have to concede and take her down to see. His legs tensed, ready to take a step. He hesitated first, then put his arms around her. He put his chin on her shoulder and spoke into her ear.

"Do you remember about six months after Mary died, I asked how much you loved her, how far you would have gone for her sake? Do you remember that?"

"How dare you," Clara whispered. "How dare you even *think* her name. You weren't around. Don't you dare say her precious name to me!" She pushed Martin in the chest. He stumbled at her shove, then regained his balance. There was strength in that tiny frame.

"It's down there?" she asked, shoving again. Martin hit the door and almost fell through--shit, he hadn't closed it all the way. "Come on. You ask for something like this--and for your *'work'*, you better have a damn good reason. Let's see it."

"Clara," he said again.

She shoved again and Martin stumbled through to the top of the stairs.

This was the first time she'd been down here in six years. When Mary was diagnosed, Martin redid the basement with everything from his lab at Legacy International, soundproofing it to avoid outside distractions, and worked at home in case of an emergency. Clara let him have his privacy and had yet to come here since, but she wasn't thinking of his privacy as she followed him down the stairs. She was looking at him, but he looked elsewhere, his stare focused on something else, by the wall. Clara noticed his diverted attention and averted her eyes as well.

Her fist was raised, but she lowered it and let her mouth hang open.

"Her kidneys are going bad," Martin said.

Clara uttered a "Huh?" and looked at him as if just remembering he existed. Then she looked back to the thing that seized her attention in the first place. Across the room was a large plastic incubator-type box. In the box, staring at Clara, was a baby. No, a little older than a baby.

The baby rolled onto its stomach and kicked at the mattress. She looked at Martin, then back to Clara and she put a wrinkled palm to the glass.

"She's not done," Martin said.

"What?"

"Mary," he said. "She's not done. I wanted to wait until I got her perfect. I was almost ready, but then I discovered her kidneys are almost destroyed. That's why I need the baby."

"Mary?" Clara said. She wanted to laugh. No. This was a joke, a bad one, but there was no way any of this was meant as serious business, was there?

"Yes."

"Mary, Martin?"

"Yes," he repeated. "It's Mary. Kind of. I removed the nuclei from some eggs I'd taken from you--I drugged you," he admitted, looking at the floor.

The child watched her with an intensity to meet Clara's own gaze.

"Anyway," Martin continued, taking up his role of scientist, "I replaced the nuclei I destroyed with nuclei from Mary's cells and, nine months later, Mary's genetic twin was born."

"How?

"I paid a surrogate. I fertilized your eggs in a test-tube, then inserted them into her ovaries. After the baby was born, she disappeared. I haven't seen her since."

"Mary's twin."

"Clone, actually. They're physically identical. Well," he corrected, "they would be if I'd taken a little more time, exercised a little more patience, which I should have learned years ago. At first it was just sickness, constantly. She couldn't eat two consecutive meals without throwing one of them up. Finally I got her health again. Then she started to deteriorate. It's been a very long, hard battle, and I thought it was over, until her kidneys started going bad."

Clara wanted to answer, but this shock was something she couldn't seem to fight her way out of.

"I wanted to present to you a complete Mary, with nothing wrong. So I have to get new, healthy material from somewhere and what better place than create another one? Technically I *could* get another surrogate, but I hoped maybe . . . " He stopped, looking from Mary to Clara.

Clara's shock kept her silent and immobile. Martin moved to his desk and rifled through a neat stack of papers, finally finding the bundle he wanted. He took the sheets to Clara and tried to show them to her, but she was still staring at Mary.

"Here's my detailed notes on how I hope to get her back to healthy."

God, she was staring at Mary for the first time in four years.

"Her kidneys are failing, Clara," he said again, lowering the papers.

He looked at Clara, trying to discern whether he was getting through.

Clara herself hadn't changed. Her mouth was still open, her eyes still on Mary, and her mind still repeating *Mary, Mary, Mary, Mary, Mary . . .*

Martin moved to Mary's transparent box, put his fingers against the side and the child slapped her own hand against the plastic, giggling, smiling Mary's smile. Even her teeth looked like Mary's, Clara noticed.

Martin wiggled his fingers, waving at Mary. He smiled and said, "Who's the big girl?"

Mary giggled again.

Martin, smiling, turned around and his face went straight again. Something was wrong with Clara. Not anything he could diagnose at a glance. It was her look. It was wrong.

Whatever it was, it wasn't the elation he'd expected. He remembered his own feelings when Mary was born. Clara'd been wrong earlier. He *did* love Mary--he still did, both of them. He used to check on her every night when he came home, and again when he got up. When he'd go to lunch, he always made a point to drive by her school and look at her through the classroom window or watch her at play during recess.

And he knew how close to Mary Clara had been. So he thought for sure she would be at a level of high beyond any other she'd experienced. But she wasn't. He didn't know what she was. She just had that *look*.

"What's that?" she asked.

"What?" Clara was pointing and Martin followed her finger, turned to Mary, noticed the white scar showing clear under the lights of the lab. "Oh. Nothing."

"Don't tell me nothing," Clara said. She walked to Mary's box and knelt down, staring at the girl, examining the scar. "What happened to her?"

"Nothing," Martin repeated. "She just had some . . . trouble . . . a while back."

"And you had to operate on her?"

"Look, we're avoiding the issue. This is Mary. I've brought her back. But right now her organs are failing and I need to have a suitable donor. We need to have a baby."

Clara shook her head, still unable to believe what he was asking. She chose to avoid the subject yet again and asked, "What kind of trouble."

Mary was clapping a hand against the plastic, smiling up at Clara, wrinkling her nose, squinting her eyes, and huffing through her nose in a mock, child's laugh.

Clara felt the knot rise in her throat and she turned away.

"Tell me," she said.

"Nothing," he said again. "Her clavicle. It needed replaced."

"Re--what? She's only a year old, when did she need a bone transplant?"

"Clara."

"When? And worse, where did you get a donor? You come to me wanting to farm out a baby for spare parts, where did you get them the first time?"

Martin sighed. He ground his fingertips into his eyes and then turned away, mumbling to the wall.

"What?" Clara asked.

"Surrogate," he said more clearly.

"How?"

"When I made Mary, I made two, for this very reason--in case her health went bad again. That transplant took, but it almost didn't and I don't want to run that risk again. She's still not finished, but we can make another baby, this time a straight genetic match."

"But not a surrogate?"

"No," he said. He turned away, put his stack of papers back on his desk, and busied himself by fiddling with a couple of machines.

"Why not?" Clara asked. "It would be just as good, wouldn't it? And a surrogate would be younger, more apt to carry a baby to full term. Better yet, why even do this at all, Martin? You can obviously bring back a copy of Mary, but this baby isn't going to have her heart, it's not going to be the same."

"First, I don't want to use a surrogate. They're too unpredictable. As for the baby, I was doing this partly for you. I thought you'd be happy. We can make her like Mary. She's genetically the same, and raised by us, why wouldn't she be the same emotionally and mentally?"

"I just don't think it works that way."

Martin sat at his desk, thinking over what Clara had said.

Clara was still standing in front of Mary's box, still staring at her, still a bit in shock.

A thought came to her and she wondered why she hadn't thought it before now. She kept her eyes on the baby and asked over her shoulder, "Martin, what happened to the other baby?"

"Huh?" He looked up from a scribbled calculation he'd thought he'd misplaced somewhere, but saw was written directly onto his desktop in marker.

"When you transplanted Mary's, what was it, her collarbone? When you did that, what happened to the other baby? Is it around somewhere missing a collarbone?"

"Um. No," he said. "Not exactly."

"So what happened to it?"

Martin stood up and came closer to her, but not so close she could reach him, just in case.

"Like I said, it was just in case I needed it. And I did."

"So, what?"

He shrugged, knowing she would hate the answer, but it was the only one he could give because it was the truth.

"It was just parts," he said.

"Just parts?" she asked, appalled. "You created a baby, a living thing, just for spare parts? And what happens when you're done with it, it goes out with the rest of the useless garbage?"

In the box, Mary was trying to pull her foot to her mouth and suck one of the toes.

"It . . . I . . . It still had plenty of useful organs. I donated them and they'll probably be used to save another half dozen children's lives."

"You're unbelievable sometimes, you know that?" she said.

Martin stared at her, solid in his commitment, sure of his motives. "Clara I did what I did to give us our daughter back, and there's nothing to feel bad about."

"Of course not," she said, her voice rising. "You just feel you can do whatever you want to get what you need, and nevermind how. It was a baby, Martin, a living child, every bit as real and important as Mary, or even this baby here."

"This *is* Mary," he said.

"Martin, it's just a copy. It's not our Mary. And what about the baby's mother, did she know you were growing a baby in her just to farm out the parts?"

Martin cleared his throat. He turned away and began to walk toward the stairs, saying, "I didn't come to you to argue about the validity of bringing our daughter back, Clara. I thought you'd be happy."

Clara watched him ascend, then looked back at Mary.

She put her hand against the glass, and Mary slapped at it with her own tiny palm.

"She didn't know, did she?" Clara muttered more to herself than to the baby. "So what did she say when he told her?"

The baby grinned at Clara again and the old woman felt her heart sinking at the thought of her daughter, dead at ten, and then here was this baby, a copy of her Mary, the same in every physical respect, but Clara kept telling herself this wasn't Mary, that Martin had done something impossible, incredible, and very wrong.

The overhead light caught Mary's scar again and Clara pictured the other baby, the "spare parts version" of their poor Mary, born for the purpose of being nothing more than recycled parts, never meant to be loved or to grow up, and now he wanted her to do the same. Clara suddenly felt a thundering pressure in her head and she thought, just for a second, "Mary," before she was on the floor.

* * * When Clara woke up, she found herself in bed. The lights were blurry and her head swam. Something moved across from her and Martin asked, "How do you feel?"

Clara tried to sit up, but her arm wouldn't work. She tried to talk, but nothing came out.

"That's what I figured," Martin said. "Another stroke. Bigger this time, and it's done more than just slow you down."

Her vision cleared. She looked up at Martin who stood before her now. There was a question in her eyes.

"You've been out for almost a week," Martin said. "You must have gotten yourself pretty worked up that day. When I came down, I found you unconscious on the floor. Good thing I came down when I did."

In the background there was a giggle, loud, happy.

Clara looked up at Martin again, moved her eyebrows in another question.

"Mary's fine," he said. "For now. But she's going to need that transplant if she wants to see her next birthday."

Clara, frowning.

"Ten months, which is cutting it close, but I think if the baby's a match, that should be just enough time."

Clara tried to lean up again, but nothing worked, no matter how hard she tried. She looked at him. In all their years together, he could read her expression without a word.

"I had to," he said. "I can't think of it as a new baby. It's just a way to save Mary."

Clara shook her head, she could do that.

"You've got the next nine months," he said. "I know by then you'll see. We'll start you on the pre-natal vitamins soon. In the meantime, rest. This one was bad, but not permenant, I don't think, so with some work later on, I think you'll have a full recovery. But for now, rest."

He kissed the top of her head and Clara leaned back on her pillow. Martin went to Mary, smiled down at her, then disappeared upstairs.

Alone, Clara looked over at Mary. Then she looked down at her own stomach and wondered if he'd done it already, while she was unconscious. But she didn't wonder for long because she knew somehow that he had.

Mary, she thought, looking at the baby in the plastic box across the room. Not Mary, but I wish. The door at the top of the stairs was closed. She looked around at the emtpy room, helpless in her bed, immobile and silent. She thought, *Martin*, then fell back into her pillow, the silence of the room overwhelming her, sounding like loneliness and loss.

* * *

On Mary's sixteenth birthday, Martin finished the roll of film and set the camera to rewind. He hugged his smiling daughter, kissed her cheek and turned to go to his bedroom.

This year, as all the others, it was just the two of them. He'd offered many times to send Mary to school, feeling she could use the interaction. But she'd always declined, preferring to have her father teach her at home.

"Thanks, Daddy," Mary yelled from the other room. She'd obviously just opened the microscope he got her. She was definitely his daughter.

He put the film on the dresser to have it developed later and stretched out on the bed.

He was thinking, as he did every year on Mary's birthday, of the day Clara died. That last stroke had taken too much out of her. She'd barely carried the baby to term and by the time Martin delivered it, Clara was gone.

Eventually, Mary stopped deteriorating. Martin had kept the baby on ice for use later if necessary, but after the kidneys, Mary seemed fine and healthy once again.

Martin went into the kitchen to help Mary clean up. He found her in front of the refrigerator, a quart of milk in her hand, a cup of hot coffee in the other. She pushed the door closed with her knee, then sat at the table to enjoy a cup of what her grandfather used to call "the real black gold." This was something she'd inherited from her mother.

He looked at her stomach. She hadn't begun showing yet, but she would soon. Three months ago, he destroyed the nuclei in a batch of Mary's egg cells, then replaced them with nuclei from Clara's cells, which he had in abundance.

He thought, not for the first time, how much she resembled her mother. He smiled at his daughter and started cleaning up.

***



C. Dennis Moore is the author of the e-novella Safe at Home, as well as over 30 published short stories. His split collection On the Broken Edge Of Alabaster Smile should be out sometime soon from Massacre Publications. His website is www.cdennismoore.com.

***

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