With All the Soul of my Chemical Reactions


[1]

“I saw myself, running beside a cornfield, just after sunset.”

“Say that again, Mr. Flax?”

“I saw myself, running beside a cornfield. After sunset.”

“Yourself.”

“Yeah. But I was on my bike.”

“What did you—” the cop, who’s been asking questions through his boot-brush mustache groomed, or not, to hide the crooked buckteeth his slick cop benefits should’ve fixed by now, looks at his partner and flares his nostrils. “What did you do?”

“I foot-braked hard, swerved onto the gravel, called out.”

“And?” says Bootbrush. The other cop has been drawing what Pete can only guess are dicks in his notebook, bored as hell, saying nothing so they can get out of this shack, trying instead to make Bootbrush laugh. Pete watches him tilt the notebook over his paunch, ever so slightly toward Bootbrush, who strives valiantly not to look.

“He didn’t stop. I got back on my bike and came here, called you.”

Bootbrush, who had introduced himself as some dipshit cop name like Officer Sanderson or Anderson, makes a show of clearing his throat. Pete wonders if he ever chokes on one of his pubey mustache hairs. He raises his notebook, pretends to read from it. “So let’s get this straight. You were biking after sunset. You saw someone running in the ditch between the road and the cornfield. That person looked exactly like you in every respect. You stopped and called out. He didn’t stop.”

“Yep.”

“After sunset?”

“Yep.” Pete lolls his head back and sighs like an airbrake, but Bootbrush trucks on.

“What was the other guy wearing?”

“Jeans, white t-shirt, Kaepernicks—no, I don’t know, but nice shoes, real nice.”

“You sure you got a good look at his face?”

“Yep.”

“And he was running?”

“Yep.”

“After sunset?”

Pete opens his mouth to blurt some smartass joke about the definition of insanity—

“Mr. Flax, I think what Officer Blanderson”—Blanderson, dammit, thinks Pete, should’ve known—“is getting at is that it’s hard enough recognising someone in the day, let alone at night. And this guy was running.” The Dick Artist pauses, tilts his head to look curious, uncreases three neck-rolls in the process. “Have you ever consumed illegal substances?”

“What the hell does that have to do with anything?”

The Dick Artist rolls his eyes theatrically. This guy gets all his preteen-girl emotes from Andy, Mandy, Brandy, & Brad. “Just doing our jobs, Mr. Flax.”

Bootbrush—Blanderson—looks knowingly down at Pete’s pants, black tights with neon green pot leaves all over them, draws his lips into a messy line, nods I-told-you-so-y.

“Okay, first of all, no. Second of all,” Pete looks squarely at Blanderson, “your idiot government is still grandfathering out all the pot plants.” The second Harper government—led by the monomaniacal Harper, now using a wheelchair and a vat of stem-cell cream after a salvo of strokes, propelled by some unquenchable thirst for his since-won title of Canada’s longest-serving prime minister (23 years, 7 months)—had re-criminalised marijuana, after it had been legalised for nearly a full dozen years, in the first of Trudeau’s three lazy terms, and was now struggling to make good on that. “So this,” he pinches his tights and snaps them back to his leg, “wouldn’t be illegal if it was pot, which it isn’t. It’s fucking pants.”

A mischievous, no, a dangerous light glints in the Dick Artist’s beady eyes. “Don’t you fucking swear at us, Peterson. We’re here because you called us here, and you’re clearly fucking around. If we wanted to, we’d haul you in for one of the hundred other laws you’re breaking.”

Pete fumes, but sits rigidly still. Blanderson looks a little uneasy, keeps checking his oversized reinforced-poly watch.

“Whoever you saw, it wasn’t you. It’s not a clone. We don’t live in the fucking Black Mirror.” The Dick Artist, groundlessly proud of his thirty-year-old pop-culture reference, gathers his baggy legs under him and teeters off the low couch. “Don’t call us again, unless it’s serious,” he wheezes, clutching at the thin rail beside the door to catch his breath. “And stay away from the elections signs.” He turns to go, and Blanderson hops up and follows him out.



[2]

It’s true, Pete has vandalised elections signs, but it was a spectacle and for the betterment of society. He and his friends cribbed 106 roman candles from a roadside vendor by attrition over two weeks (justified because the vendor charged a 500% mark-up on the convenience store he bought out annually for Canada Day), salted out the kaolin inside burnt lightbulbs, unscrewed their filaments and replaced them with the roman candles, and then gorilla-taped pairs of them to the signs at three in the morning. The lightbulbs-cum-magnifying-glasses caught the first slants of the sun, lit the fuses on the roman candles, and torched the signs. Everyone in the country blocks near his rural “park” awoke to showers of sparks, glass, and the firecracker-smeared leer of Hope Silver, candidate for the New Right Party of Canada, the NRPC, the Nerps, rebranded old Conservatives merged with the booming Libertarians. Silver had cut her teeth as a self-anointed journalist filming clandestine clips of anti-“immigrant” rallies, clips later revealed to be less clandestine than set up, Silver being one of the rally organisers herself, reciter of the fourteen words, destined for a career in comorbid doubt manufacture and plausible deniability.

Hope is popular among the propertied Nimbies around the parks—clutches of shacks around run-down farmhouses built in response to Harper’s plutophilic land-tax reforms. Hope is popular in the parks, too, despite her anti-poor stances, because the squatters think of themselves not as exploited but as, who said it, Steinbeck, temporarily embarrassed millionaires. They always vote for Nerps, and the only thing they hate more than non-Nerps is other squatters, especially ones who don’t look like them.

It was a funny world where the police shook a candle-charred image in front of Pete’s face, lamenting the besmirched, once-sexy Silver, but didn’t think to mention his using explosives with glass shrapnel. It was pretty much the same with Blanderson and the Dick Artist: the only reason they could think cloning wasn’t a serious possibility was if they didn’t follow the news at all. Everyone was doing it, ever since China fessed up to cloning monkeys in 2018, and the rest of the world clued that they had probably already cloned a human or fifty. Amgen, Novo Gilead, Celgene, Biogen, Baraddur, Regeneron Pharma, Plethora Genetics—underground reports, infiltrations, the occasional exposé unearthed what read like a parody of Crisis Age sci-fi. It was everywhere. Amateurs could probably even do it now, with modified media and a terrarium, high-throughput CRISPR arrays, and a little bit of luck.

Pete sits on his lop-sided concrete steps long after the cops have driven off, their tires scattering gravel into the thin yellow grass and trim helices of dogshit that surround the main drive. He thinks about Hope, her slogan “Hope for a Secure Future,” about its mockery of the beautiful idea of hope itself, of the future itself, about the government’s Virtual Wall program, dismissal of climate science, up-regulation of cloning methods patents, about their dissolution of the genetic engineering oversight commissions, about the death of Percy Schmeiser after his imprisonment, at age ninety-seven, for protesting Bioreactor’s livestock cloning. Pete is a small, loose cog clattering down the well-oiled innards of a vast and needlessly complex machine; at least, on his way down, he might make a little more noise, might jostle a part or two a little more loose.

The door slams behind him, screen peeling farther off its frame, as he gets his GoPro and his phone. He texts Mack from two doors down, Deadfish Dan, so named for his indiscriminate love of all the BeanBoozled flavours (they came in peach, cherry, toothpaste, and dead fish, among others), from three, and Kevin from one lane back.


[3]

Pete leads Mack, Deadfish, and Kevin down the pothole-cratered 13th Line, which had been empty of car traffic since the county had stopped resurfacing and gas passed $3.75 a liter. He’d seen himself north of the intersection with Road 96; there were some half-dozen other parks in the area, so the other Pete could’ve come from any one of them. They’d have to wait and see.

“What’re we doing here again?” Deadfish, fist-fulling his unpredictable beans into his lax jaw, is red-eyed high on his home-grown buds.

“Pete says he saw his clone running beside this field,” Mack says. Mack, formerly a grower himself—they all were—had taken some time to wean himself off Busch and weed. He’s been clean for a full month now, and is melodramatically bitter whenever he’s reminded of it. “You’re not thinking straight, for some reason.”

Deadfish raises a solemn finger. “‘When you high is dry, you plenty mouth.’”

“I just want to get some pictures,” Pete says. “Videos would be even better. Everyone have a camera?”

Mack and Kevin nod, hold up their phones. Deadfish furrows his brow, lost in thought.

“Dan, take my GoPro. I’ll use my phone.”

Deadfish cradles the little cube in both hands.

“I saw me—him—running in this ditch. I don’t know if he’ll be back, but we should spread out, cover the ditch and the near field. Then, if we don’t see anyone, we should check the two nearest parks. Sound good?”

All three nod and begin to spread out, Mack and Pete walking south, Dan and Kevin north. Pete snaps an ear off an unyielding stalk, woody, probably quint-stacked GMO corn, husks it, begins to eat. The borer-, rootworm-, and crow-resistant kernels are hard to bite, rubbery seed coats repelling his teeth, but when he pierces them, they are extraordinarily sweet for cow corn and mouth-dryingly starchy. Mack gives him a sidelong glance every time his mouth makes a noticeably slurpy noise.

“Eat one, man,” says Pete, hunger rekindled, as he reaches for his second cob.

Mack sighs, grins reluctantly, breaks his own off. He husks his cob but stops his arm midway to his mouth.

“Was that Deadfish?” Mack’s eyes widen. “There, again, hear that? Like a scream.”

Pete stops chewing and spits out the kernels he had in his mouth. Sure enough, there’s a distant, eerie wail, like a sad dog whose tail is being stepped on has almost given up trying to get free. Or like a fried Deadfish has stubbed his toe. “I bet it is.”

Mack runs through the corn, and Pete follows, monster-leaves slapping and slashing at their faces, pollen puffing off the tassels. Luckily, it isn’t late enough that dew has formed on the leaves, or the pollen would be stuck to their skin, itchily plugging their pores.

As the wail gets louder, Pete hears a rustling in the corn ahead. “Mack,” he hisses. “Mack!”

But Mack is a few rows too far, and before Pete can reach him, another Pete does. Two other Petes. Mack freezes like a rabbit in the porch-light, imagining that stillness is the same as hiding, planning his escape to coincide with the very moment they take their eyes off him. They’re wearing identical white shirts, jeans, Kaepernicks; they have the same unkempt straw-blond hair, the same brown-flecked blue eyes, the right lid a bit heavier than the left, the same slightly rightward crook to their noses, the same long-lobed ears, pouty lips, corn-silk half-beards, receding chins, broad shoulders, thin wrists. They blink in unison, almost; Mack ducks past them and whips out his phone, filming them as one walks toward Pete and one walks toward Mack.

“Who the fuck are you?” says Mack, Deadfish’s wail in the background, red camera light blinking in the fore.

Pete’s filming, too, as both other Petes turn to Mack’s question.

“Who the fuck are you?” they echo, and, turning to Pete, “And you. You look just like us.”

“No, no” says Pete, and Mack repeats him like a bouncing ball. “No, no—you look just like me.”

The other Petes laugh. “Where are you from?”

“Down the road.”

The other Petes look at each other. “We’re from up the road.” They look like they’re about to say more, but another Pete crashes through the corn, nearly bowling over the first two. All three Petes look at each other, blink, then run past Pete himself, all stiff legs and arms, shoulders knocking into him.

“Wait!” Pete turns and films them run, but their backs are blocked by corn leaves.

“Holy shit, holy shit, holy shit.” Mack’s eyes are wide, he’s hyperventilating, and his hands flounder down to rest on his knees.

Pete slaps him on the back, managing his own shaky queasiness by helping his friend. “It’s okay, Mack. I got some great shots. No way the police will laugh it off.”

As Mack’s breathing slows, Kevin leads a weeping Dan to them. “Did you guys see the Pete clone?”

Mack nods, but can’t answer. Pete does: “Yeah, we saw three.”

“Holy shit,” says Kevin. “We filmed one, but he didn’t say anything, just kind of stared at us. Did they say anything to you?”

“Yeah, they said I looked like them.”

Deadfish snorts wetly through his sobs. Kevin, incredulous, shakes his head. “This is fucking weird.”

The four walk back to their park, no sign of the other Petes on the way, and part one by one until Pete’s home alone. His dad is gone, as usual, hopefully working, probably scheming emptily or stealing something he’ll soon find out was less worthwhile than his initial appraisal had suggested, like this couch, their third in as many months. Pete sits down on it, calls the police station.

“Oxford County Police, Officer McMurphy speaking.” It’s the Dick Artist.

Pete slumps internally. “Hi, this is Peterson Flax. I have another … disturbance to report.”

“Self-reporting, Mr. Flax?” The Dick Artist belches a laugh.

Pete ignores him. “My friends and I saw three clones in the same cornfield, north of 13 and 96.”

“‘My friends and I’—good grammar, Mr. Flax. I’m sorry, but we’ve already been to your place of residence today.”

“Look, this is serious. We have good footage, too.”

“I’m sorry, but we can’t spare the officers.”

“Is that why you’re answering the phone?” Pete regrets it as soon as he says it.

The Dick Artist’s voice blooms like a sundew. “On the other hand, we just might be able to send some officers your way. Hold, please.”

“No, no, fine, don’t.”

“Have a lovely evening, Mr. Flax.”

“Fuck you,” Pete breathes, not quietly enough, and hangs up to the sound of the Dick Artist retchily clearing his throat.

Furious, Pete takes a short video of himself explaining who he is and what he’s seen, then thumbs through the clips from his phone. His friends have all uploaded their shots to their cloud, via the patchy internet their park collaborated to siphon from the nearby fibre-optic highway. Kevin’s videos are decent, and Mack’s show two other Petes plus Pete filming, which is good for authenticity. Even Deadfish’s shots aren’t bad, though most of them are crooked pictures of corn. He splices them together using an arduously torrented video-editing program, cleans up the sound, and, many hiccups and reboots later, posts the finished product to YouTube with the title “Three Clones Spotted Near London.”


[4]

By the next day, 7,826 people have watched his video. LaMichael Rose from Brampton comments that he saw two clones of himself in a mall, buying cinnamon buns, his favourite snack. Lili Thibodeau from Montréal, Québec, comments that she saw a clone of herself board a subway, then a clone of herself, maybe the same one, texting on a park bench. A user named PrivateI manages to comment, through a welter of exclamation marks, that they’d been fixing their hair in the mirrored glass of the Bay Park Centre when their reflection started to pick its nose, and two other passersby saw it, too. A user named Clonespiracy69 observes that clones are everywhere and that probably all of them are clones, too. The rest of the comments are more anonymous notes of agreement and concern.

As Pete scrolls through them, clicking links to articles about genetic engineering, a brisk knock rattles his front door. His dad still isn’t home, so, tweaked it might be the Three Petes—or, worse or not, he doesn’t know, the Dick Artist—he peeks through his bedroom blinds. It’s a woman, tall and thin, tailored navy blouse and military bun.

“Hi,” says Pete, opening the door. “Peterson Flax.”

“Hi Pete,” says the woman, extending a vanilla-scented, cream-softened hand. Her cuticles, Pete notes, are exquisite. “Kelly Stiegler, Canadian View.”

“Oh,” says Pete. The Canadian View is a living fossil, the last remaining establishment print news publisher in Canada, formed through the Harper-pressured merger of Postmedia, Torstar, the Globe and Mail, and the gutted CBC. Somehow, it survives, improbably staking its reputation on investigative, long-form journalism, hard-hitting interviews, and actual paper. “How can I help you?”

Kelly has piercing, pale green eyes, with a sparkle of trouble, or so Pete imagines. “I’m just here to ask you a few questions about the video you posted yesterday. Mind if I come in?”

“Oh,” says Pete again, stupidly, fumbling for words. Not often he’s caught without something to say. “Sure, come in.”

He steps aside, holds the door open, and catches his right hand unconsciously neating the rumples of his greasy tank-top.

“Do you have any questions?” she asks as she brushes past him, slips into the welcoming tape-patched folds of the couch. He sits in the vinyl-strap patio chair across from her.

“Not yet,” says Pete, regaining some of the paint-thinning bravado he likes to think he’s known for. He hasn’t met anyone with Kelly’s poise in a while, not since he dropped out of high school a few years ago; it knocked him off his spot, for a second. She reminds him of the debate team—that girl Ronnie, fearless and razor-tongued.

“Good. Pete, your video intrigued me. I’ve been working on a story about clones for six months now—”

“Six months?”

Kelly smiles, hapless, toothless. “Yes. You’re not alone, as I’m sure you know. Can you describe your encounters with the clones?”

“Not that much to say. I was biking to get some milk from the dairy a couple lines up, and I saw this guy running in the ditch beside the cornfield at the corner of the 13th Line and Road 96. I slowed down, because it’s weird for anyone to be running in the ditch, and then I saw that he was me. I called out, but he just kept running. Weird running too, stiff legs, locked elbows. I guess I’d never mentioned that before.”

“What did you do when he didn’t stop?”

“I called out again, but I was spooked, honest. I came back here and had to unwind a bit, then I called the police.”

“How did they handle the situation?”

“They dispatched two officers here, Officer Blanderson and Officer The Di—Officer McMurphy. They asked me a few questions, but … ”

“But?”

“Didn’t do a whole lot.”

“What did they say?”

“They heard my story, asked me the same questions over and over, didn’t believe that I could see his clothes, let alone his face. Then they gave me shit for swearing, for wearing pants with pot leaves on them, and for some stuff I—they thought I did a little while ago.”

“What stuff?”

“Some vandalism.”

“Of what?”

“Hope Silver’s election signs.” Pete looks between his feet, toes touching, catches himself, looks up defiantly. He thinks he can see a grin tickling the corner of Kelly’s professionally set lips.

“Do these cops watch the news?”

“That’s what I was thinking.” Pete snorts.

“Pete, do you biohack?”

This one catches him off guard. He thought they’d been establishing some kind of camaraderie. Guess not. “What? Biohack? No.”

Kelly narrows her eyes ever so slightly. “Do you know anyone who does?”

“Who doesn’t?”

“Who do you know?”

“My friend Mack.”

“What does Mack do?”

“Nothing now.” Pete’s starting to bristle. “He tried to make a glowing strain of weed, almost a year ago, back when he was still blazing.”

“Did he succeed?”

“No. Cost too much money.” Pete grimaces. If this lady knows her shit, she should know she’s starting to toe the line of what’s cool for squatters to talk about. Money’s only a safe topic between zero and twenty dollars, or, of course, above a thousand dollars, a sum lodged safely in the pigeonholes of post-neoliberal fantasy. “And he was terrified of clones.”

“But he never made a clone?”

Pete blows air out through his lips. “No. The money, like I said. And Mack just has this clone-phobia.”

“I saw that in the video.”

“Yep.”

“Do you know anyone else who biohacks?”

“No. Nobody has the cash. Why are you asking me all this?”

“Sorry, Pete, but I have to be sure.”

“What for?”

“There are rumours going around that the clones are being made by backyard geneticists, garage biohackers. You know the story, I’m sure; you’re a smart guy. Anarchists, socialists, anti-government types. One variant suggested it was the last CAW union, but then the union was dissolved, and the clones kept showing up.”

“That’s fucking stupid.”

Kelly shrugs. “We can’t rule anything out, at this point. Who knows, maybe there’s a bleeding heart libertarian out there, intent on changing the world through Reason and Productive Achievement.” She shifts in her seat, uncrosses and recrosses her legs, and winks, Pete thinks, at him.

“I guess.”

“Can you tell me about the video, then?”

Pete shows her all the clips, explains last night, shows her the comments on his video. They get talking about the conversation he had with his clones.

“They didn’t say anything else to you?”

“No.”

“Only ‘You look like us’?”

Pete grunts. “Yep. Do they ever say much to people?”

Kelly pauses, looks at the brown water ring on the ceiling. “Not usually. Clones don’t have much to say. I’ve interviewed some of them. Bad memories, or maybe not that many memories. Weird syntax. But sometimes, they have long conversations with their originals. Once or twice, they’ve met up regularly, had what you might call a friendship. And once… ”

“Once what?”

“An affair.”

“Whew,” breathes Pete. “That’s fucked.”

“I’m sure there are more stories of all kinds. That’s why I’m here.”

“I didn’t fuck my clones.” Maybe he comes on a little too strong, there.

Kelly bites her lip. “No, I know, Pete.”

“How many other clones are out there?”

“I shouldn’t say much about it, but more than five hundred. And that’s in Canada alone.”

Pete whistles. “And backyard biohackers is still the big smart theory?”

“Well, I’ve interviewed other leads, too.”

“Who?”

“A lot of people. Government, but their scientists aren’t working on a lot these days. Military, same deal.”

“What about that creepy fuck at Plethora Genetics? I saw him on YouTube last week talking about their new cloning techniques.”

“Eugene Pearson, CTO. I’ve talked to him, gone through their records, at least the ones they showed me. Clean.”

“Creepy though.” Pete tucks his elbows to his sides, sticks out his forearms, lets his hands dangle in an imitation of Pearson. “Spidery, daddy-long-legs kind of guy. Probably a GMO.”

Kelly’s mouth twitches again. “We talked to Megan Cass, too, CEO of MetaSelection. Same story.”

“Well, Kelly, I hate to say it, but somebody is spoon-feeding you shit.”

“I have a lot of leads to work through.”

“I guess.”

“Have you been outside your community recently?”

“No, just to the dairy, some walks in the fields.”

“No school, hospital visits?”

“No.”

“Have you discarded any garbage lately?”

“What? Yeah, obviously, all the time.”

“What garbage?”

“Uh, everything.”

“What kinds of things?”

“I don’t know, the usual. Light bulbs, food packaging, candy wrappers, paper towels, tissues, bandages—why are you typing all this up?”

Kelly’s fingers rap furiously across her keyboard. “Ever litter, like on the ground?”

“I know what littering is. But yeah, I guess, a few times.”

“What?”

“Same stuff, really. Firecrackers, cigarette butts.”

“Ever spit?”

“Spit? Yes, Miss Stiegler. I also cough, sneeze, pick my nose, fart, piss, and shit. Sometimes, my shit splashes the toilet water into my asshole, and I get scared of tapeworms and use some extra toilet paper. All down the drain, though, not littered on the ground.” Kelly’s hard look interrupts him, and as he calms down, he clues. “Oh, fuck.”

“That’s the theory.”

“They’re, whoever ‘they’ are, they’re picking my DNA off my garbage, my waste.” Or that’s what Kelly thinks, or, at least, that’s what she’s telling him she thinks. He wants to ask why, why me, but as soon as he thinks about wanting to ask, he knows the answer, and he knows it’d be better not to ask. DNA is hard to find complete, hard to isolate, and once you found some good, intact stuff, you’d want to replicate your findings. Even Mack had done that. And besides, why anyone other than him—young, poor, powerless. They must’ve figured that the most he’d do would be to make a YouTube video, if that.

“Nobody has found out where they get it. But your DNA is everywhere. It can’t be that hard. That’s why there seems to be no system, either; if you pick up a Kleenex, you don’t know whose it is. But if there’s at least one nasal cell, you can make a clone. And you don’t know who the clone would be.”

“So there could be a hundred more Petes running around, anywhere in the world.”


[5]

Pete talks with Kelly for half an hour. They revisit his experience with his clones in minute detail, then he takes her to the cornfield. The clones aren’t there, so they go to the nearby park, a ring of houses huddled around a dilapidated red-brick farmhouse with some broken and some plywood-covered windows. Pete follows Kelly as she knocks on every door. Most people don’t even bother to look out their windows, don’t answer. Some stare angrily through whatever they’re using as curtains—garbage bags, taped-together Canadian Views, ragged bedsheets, tablecloths, sometimes even a mismatched curtain or two. Only a small minority open the door, and only a small minority of those are willing to talk at all.

One old lady, wrapped in a feather boa, points a cracked nail far too close to Pete’s cornea: “You.”

Pete stops his Adam’s apple halfway to a gulp. “Hi,” he manages.

“I seen you walking in and out of that farmhouse all day, a hunnerd times a day.” She cranes her neck forward, squints hard, and nods slowly. “Yeah, it was you.”

Pete starts to shake his head, but Kelly interrupts him. “Are you sure, Mrs.—”

“’Course I’m sure. Already called the cops on him twice, ’cause there shouldn’ be noone in that house now, or at least if someone’s gonna be there it should be a park resident, not some stranger—”

“When did you start seeing Pete here, Mrs.—” Kelly leaves the name hanging for the woman to fill with an introduction, but, Pete thinks, nobody in a park is going to volunteer their name to someone in as clean an outfit as Stiegler.

“—and the cops came, same two buggers both times—”

Pete’s ears get hot; he tries not to move. The same two cops—Blanderson and the Dick Artist, must be.

“—they even saw him.” She points at Pete again, who clenches his fists, digs his nails into his palms to keep from saying anything. “And they didn’ do nothing.”

“When did you first see Pete?”

“Oh, on about two weeks now.”

“You first saw him two weeks ago?”

“That’s what I said.”

“Was the house empty before then?”

“Been empty ever since the Marshalls unplugged their old man and took his money to—”

“How long was it empty?”

“—to some island, Cayman, yeah. Somewhere they don’ have to pay no tax—”

“Do you know how long they’d been gone before—”

“—because y’know with this upside-down tax thing we’re all Nits.”

Pete clears his throat, thinks the better of it. This acronym, No Income Tax Sponge, still rankles him and his neighbours, even though Finance Minister Black was caught saying it ages ago, because while it was true they had little income, they weren’t sponges. They got no infrastructure support or anything else taxes were supposed to do.

“And that was maybe three weeks ago, empty since.”

“So it was empty for three weeks, and you’ve been seeing Pete for two weeks?”

The woman cranes her neck again, nods slowly. Pete could swear that by the way she hoists a decrepit eyebrow she thinks Kelly’s slow.

Kelly opens her mouth to ask a follow-up question, but reconsiders, thanks her, and stalks off to the farmhouse. Pete, nervous enough to piss his pants but reminding himself that someone might make a new him out of the soaked dirt, trails behind.

Nobody answers, but the handle gives to the gentlest pressure from Kelly’s steady hand. Pete’s trembling, no, quaking. Kelly pulls the door open, and three Petes tumble out. They blink dumbly in the sudden sunlight, look around at each other, then sprint inflexibly through the park. Kelly edges her way inside, Pete, barely breathing, behind. Inside the farmhouse, dustily lit by chinks of light through the broken shutters and open door, there’s some old wooden shelves, a moth-eaten armchair, and, standing stock-still, arms at their sides, calmly looking in whatever direction they happen to be facing, fourteen Petes. It is a mannequin tableau, except that when Kelly and Pete enter, most of them move their eyes.

Pete has had enough, then, and lurches out, trying his damnedest not to cry. He has to sit down, though, catch his breath, think things through. The grass, he finds, is less brittle than he expected, almost forgiving, or at least not resistant. He notices, then, he feels deep in his marrow, then, that the world is whirling like a drunk and knuckling through the galaxy at a million miles an hour, and his ears pick up its horrible, long, polyvocal Doppler effect—wind blowing, people snoring, cicadas thrumming, blackbirds chortling, mice tittering, a distant engine backfiring, Kelly asking question after question, Petes blinking and stuttering, the sounds all stretching, stretching.


[6]

It has been two months since the journalist arrived. No story has appeared in the Canadian View, and Pete would know, because he has every daily copy stacked beside his front door. His dad hasn’t appeared, either. Last Pete heard, he met some girl “practically your age, Petey” in a bar, possibly a strip club, in London. He liked to shack up with these girls for a few months before coming home. But Pete can’t help wondering if his dad was whatever-it-was’s source of Pete DNA, if maybe, in need of a little walking-around money, he’d sold them some of his son’s genetic matter. Pete also hasn’t seen Mack or Kevin or Deadfish, hasn’t answered their texts or opened the door to them, and eventually they gave up.

And maybe that’s for the better. For it has also been two months since Pete has fired up the pump to wash a plate or a fork or his body, borrowed some bleach to wipe the windows, wheelbarrowed the garbage to the park’s secluded burn pit, hung his laundry to air out, or flushed the toilet. It’s stained black and half-buried in used and occasionally re-used toilet paper.

The flies are the worst of it. Their shit pollocks the windows so thoroughly that Pete can only tell if the sun is out or not, and it covers the countertops, too, so he doesn’t want to eat much, just crackers from boxes left in a heap where there used to be a garbage can, washed down with apple juice, empty tins in a sticky pyramid. Some days, there are more flies in the air, buzzing incessantly, landing, dodging his swat, then landing in the same spot again, over and over, pinging against the lightbulbs browned with fly shit, hammering against the windows. Other days, there are more flies dead on the ground, drying into hollow husks in the window sills, limning the dirty dishes in leggy black, bristly blue-green bellies exposed to the humid air, dulling as maggots wriggle in and out.

But at least there would be no Pete cloned from an apple juice tin in Flint, Michigan, the last place Pete had heard Ontario sent its trash. There would be no more Petes at all, in fact. Nothing leaves the house anymore.

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