Thump. Thump. Thump.
I press a hand against my chest, as if doing so could drown out the constant beating within. Blue told me three times that I would grow used to the sound. Twenty-four hours later, it is as distractingly loud as its first flat note. I wish I could turn it down.
My hand flutters down to tug at the skirt I selected out of May Clark’s wardrobe. She was fond of the colour green – I have counted eleven shades in her closet alone – but she only has black skirts. This information is not in her files, and I wonder if I ought to know the reason. Blue has always said that perfection relies on the details. The family always notices.
The reflection in the full-length mirror is perfectly aligned with May Clark’s files. I take another step closer and squint at the details. Wire-frame glasses – taken from her drawer – placed on a broad nose. Inky black hair cut ruthlessly short. Lips painted a shade of coral that matches my nail varnish. I step back, put one hand on my waist, cock my head, and smile the toothy grin I’ve seen in the timeline of the young woman’s life.
From now on, I am May Clark.
If I pass The Test, that is.
A knock on the door pulls me away from the mirror. Tingles crawl up my arms, but I now recognise the sensation, along with its soundtracks (thumpthumpthump). I plop on the edge of the bed, pick up an abandoned book, and inhale. “Yes?”
A man pokes his head in. His face is bony, and the bags under his hazel eyes are pronounced. His entire countenance lights up when his gaze finds me, however. “Everything alright?” This question has been his staple for the last few days. It does not seem to matter that my answer has not changed once.
“Yes, Papa,” I sigh, though any sting of impatience that response may carry is smothered out by a smile. “I’m fine. Just…” I gesture to the room around me, “needed some time to reacquaint myself.”
He is in the room now, though the door remains ajar and his hand remains on the handle. His tip-toeing around me is to my advantage, but I imagine the real May would have found it exasperating. “Does it look different?” he asks, looking around. “We’ve kept it exactly as you left it.”
I shake my head. “It’s exactly as I remember it. I’ve been away for a while, that’s all.”
His smile is sympathetic. “Of course. Well, take all the time you need to get used to it.” He is quiet for two heartbeats. When he speaks again, his voice is soft. “I’m glad you’re home, May.”
I have been trained in handling families – families who don’t know how to respond to their child’s return, families who need to be convinced that their child has returned. Blue has taught me about this particular family: the long days they had spent in stark-white corridors, watching and waiting for their only daughter to wake up. When she didn’t, however, it was Blue and I who were by her bedside. “Grief’s an ugly thing,” Blue said at the time, a paraphrasing of the company’s motto. “They don’t need to know.”
They don’t need to know. This man doesn’t need to know that the young woman in front of him is built of wires and steel, her heartbeats programmed. He doesn’t need to know what he has lost, not when we can help it.
I set the book aside and stand. I have studied May’s life, her memories playing like movie reels in my head. I know what she does. I don’t question myself as I wrap my arms around his waist. This is The Test, or the beginning of it. I’ve heard cautionary tales of Substitutes failing, getting a detail wrong under the eyes of watchful family members. I cannot make that mistake.
For a moment he stiffens, but then he wraps his arms around me and squeezes. I’m short enough – or rather, my father is so tall – that my head rests against his chest.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
“I’m glad to be home.”
Cilla Prescott is a postgrad student by day and writer by night. She enjoys rainy evenings, books about strange new worlds, and baked goods. You can find her on Twitter: @pavedwithbookss and her blog Paved with Bookss.