“These Eyes Are Not My Own” by Jennifer Nestojko
Leah stared at her face for a long time, noting the arch of the brows, never plucked, and the sweep of hair at her forehead. The eyes were open and hazel and unseeing. The skin seemed a little odd, and Leah reached up to touch her own cheek, seeking its warmth. She reached out to touch that other face, the one that was still and cold, but couldn’t quite do it. She had no idea how long she had been there looking; it was very quiet in the room. Finally Leah slid the steel drawer shut and turned away.
The lights of the lab were too bright and cold; they hurt her eyes. This was unfamiliar territory into which she had never ventured. Sarah was the scientist, not Leah. The smells of the room were unfamiliar and made her uneasy, though much of her uneasiness, she had to admit, came from what she had found in the drawers on the far side of the room. She tried not to think of the rows of bodies stored there, all bodies with her own shape, her own face.
The noise came again, suddenly, and Leah started. She moved awkwardly through the aisle alongside the wall, bumping into the table or the wall every now and then, as the space was not wide and certainly not built to accommodate her. While the noise could have come from a rat, she knew that Sarah kept the basement, with its labs and expensive equipment, in as perfect a state as possible. Sarah spent hours and days in this space and had only left for the conference a few days ago. It was not likely that some creature had burrowed its way into this fortress, though, Leah thought wryly, she certainly had.
She paused briefly, resting her hand against the table, twitching her fingers in their padded fingerless gloves. The room was quiet except for the background hum of machinery and refrigeration units. Perhaps she had imagined the noise. She tried to focus, to work around the cold knot in her stomach.
Eleven years, she thought, since she had moved into this house, Sara’s house, and she had never been down here before. There was no elevator, and the stairs were steep. Most of the equipment had been brought in through an outside entrance on the property. This was Sarah’s territory, where she did her genetic research, the research that had won her awards and created breakthroughs in medical treatments, the research that had sent her to this week’s conference in Germany. Sarah had, of course, worked in larger laboratories and often worked over at Stanford, but she had been left a fortune by her family and preferred to work in her own home in the lab she had meticulously designed herself. Leah was an English professor, not a scientist, and her work took her out of the house, and into the classroom. Sarah often joked that it was odd that she was the shut-in, not Leah.
Leah swallowed against the bitter taste in her mouth. Yes, she would have been a shut-in a century ago, but such talk was nonsense now. Sarah had always seen her as less than perfect, as flawed. Leah thought back to the rows of cold steel drawers filled with bodies that matched her own, none of them alive, and shuddered.
There – that was the noise again. She had not imagined it. She looked up and saw a flash of shadow against the wall. Quickly she moved forward, trying to be silent, trying not to squeak in her progress. She turned the corner and sat there, stunned. In the center of the room was a woman – no – in the center of the room was Leah, standing and staring at her with her own hazel eyes.
“Who – who are you?” Not-Leah asked, her eyes wide and frightened. Her hand reached up to touch her face in the exact gesture Leah had used just a few minutes earlier. “Sarah’s not back, is she?”
“Who are you?” Leah asked. She couldn’t help the next question: “Who is Sarah to you?”
Not-Leah shifted her weight from one foot to the other, and Leah noticed how easy it was for her to do so. She looked down at Leah: “You are her, aren’t you? You’re the other one.”
“What other one?” Leah demanded, angry. “Just who and what are you?”
The woman leaned against the steel counter. “I am an experiment,” she said bitterly. “I have been a lab assistant, but I am – expendable.” She looked up swiftly. “Is Sarah here?” There was fear in her voice.
“No,” said Leah. “She’s in Germany. I spoke to her just two hours ago.”
“Is Germany far?” asked the Not-Leah. “I don’t know what Germany is.”
Leah sighed. “Never mind that. Do you have a name?”
The woman smiled wryly and pushed her shoulder-length hair away. Leah cringed a little; Sarah had always wanted her to grow her hair out, but she preferred the ease and look of her own pixie cut. “Rachel,” Not-Leah replied. “Sarah named me Rachel – for now.”
Rachel – the biblical counterpoint to Leah. The preferred wife. For a moment Leah couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think. She remembered back to the night she had met Sarah, fifteen years before. They were at a party, and Leah had been dancing in the midst of the crowd in the large living room. She had noticed Sarah earlier, was drawn to her dark hair and eyes and the way she moved, but Sarah had been an unknown entity, and Leah had been too shy to test out the waters. She had danced instead. Sarah had come up and asked, through the music and noise, if she could dance with her. Leah hadn’t even thought of saying no. Sarah had whispered to her that she was dealing with her issues and trying to stretch her boundaries. Leah had assumed she was experimenting with women; she wasn’t going to object just then.
“Please,” said Rachel, the quaver in her voice one Leah knew quite well. “Please help me. I don’t know what to do.”
Leah sighed and rolled back a bit. “I’ll help you,” she said, “but let’s go upstairs. I’m not very comfortable here.”
“Upstairs?” Rachel asked. “I know there’s a passage outside – I’ve been outside a few times. Sarah took me a few times.”
“No,” said Leah impatiently. “Upstairs, in the house.” She realized there was an upside to this doppelganger’s presence. “At least you can help me. This way.” She went past Rachel, looking back to see if the other woman was following, and made her way to the heavy door that closed off the stairs. Now she knew why it was there; it had been a surprise to her when she’d made it to the bottom of the stairs. She took out a key; she’d needed one to open the door to the basement from the kitchen, and it seemed this door was kept locked as well. She unlocked the door, swung it open while pulling back. “Here,” she said to Rachel, “hold this for a moment.” When Rachel took the door she quickly transferred out of her wheelchair and in a swift and practiced gesture folded the chair up. “I am going to crawl up the stairs,” she said. “Please carry the chair after me. It will be nice not to have to pull it up myself.”
Leah adjusted the kneepads she had put on before attempting the stairs earlier and began her lengthy climb. She’d done climbs like this before, including the time the elevator had gone out in the building where her Ren Lit class was being held. That was before they’d learned to schedule her on the first floor, since elevator maintenance was not really a campus priority. Leah had never liked being limited, and since her disease had caught up with her in high school, she’d had a bit of an adjustment time. She paused for a moment, envious of the fact that Rachel, coming up behind her carrying the chair, was ascending with ease. Leah took a deep breath and climbed further. She had little movement and less strength in her lower body, but she was determined to make it.
Leah made it to the door at the top of the stairs, flinging it open and then squeezing herself through. The softer yellow lights of the kitchen were comforting; this was her world. She scooted forward to give Rachel room, and then grabbed her chair, slammed it open, and quickly transferred into it. She wheeled across to the low-set stove, where dinner was warm and waiting. Stripping off her gloves she washed her hands at the sink and then opened a cabinet and reached down, pulling out two plates, and began spooning the stroganoff onto them. She’d been in the middle of grading first year student essays; comfort food had seemed appropriate. Right now it smelled heavenly.
She passed a plate to Rachel and went over to the table, carrying her own. Rachel stood there, awkwardly holding the plate. “Sit down,” said Leah. “We need to talk, and I’m willing to bet you’re hungry.” Rachel sat in silence and tentatively tried a bite of the food. After that first bite she began to eat more rapidly. Leah snorted to herself. What had Sarah been feeding her – take-out? Sarah was, herself, a good cook, and they’d often made their dinners together, sharing the kitchen, sharing a bottle of wine, sharing a kiss or two as they worked. Leah stared at her plate for a moment, not seeing the food. This was a recipe of Sarah’s, passed down from her great-aunt. Sarah and she had made it together the first dinner cooked in this house after she had moved in. Leah had placed candles about the kitchen and they had held hands and almost ritually broken the loaf of bread Sarah had just brought out of the oven.
“Thank you,” said Rachel, pushing back an empty plate. “I have been asleep the last few days – Sarah always sedates me when she leaves. I am given nutrients, but,” Rachel hesitated, “this was very good. No wonder Sarah wants to keep you.”
“Keep me?” Leah’s voice rose. “It looks like she’s replacing me. With a better version.” Leah pushed her own plate away.
“No, no, that isn’t it.” Rachel looked up, and pulled something out of her pocket. She passed it to Leah. It was a flash drive. Leah picked it up, turning it over and over. “I’m to be eliminated, destroyed. I’m just an experiment, like all the others.”
“The others? The ones in the drawers?” Leah shivered at the memory of so many bodies with her own face.
“Yes!” Rachel wrapped her arms about herself in a familiar pose. “I’m the first one who can walk. I’m the successful experiment.” Leah knew her own voice, heard the bitterness it carried.
“What,” Leah asked carefully, “is the plan for you? Are you my replacement, or is Sarah creating a harem?”
“No,” said Rachel, “you don’t understand. I am not your replacement. You are going to replace me.” Leah’s confusion must have been plain on her face. Rachel read it easily. “Your memories are going to be transferred to my body. I will cease to be.”
“How? How can that be done?”
“I don’t know. Sarah has notes, and she’s had me help in the lab, but I didn’t copy those. I can’t understand it.” Rachel sighed. “I was made two years ago. I don’t know much, though Sarah has been teaching me and having me study. She says the memory transfer works better with a more formed mind. She’s had success with it before.”
Leah deliberately pushed away images of Sarah tutoring Rachel in certain subjects; jealousy would certainly distract her, though she couldn’t help but wonder. She wasn’t about to ask. Two years? How long had these experiments been going on? She shut her eyes, trying not to remember scenes from the last fifteen years, trying not to remember Sarah’s laugh or the feel of her curled around her own body in the middle of the night. How could Sarah have despised her body so much?
“Can you help me?” Rachel asked. “I don’t know much. But I don’t want to cease to be. I want to continue, to learn. Sarah took me once to the ocean. There was all that blue, and there were these big white birds and so much sun. I want to go there again.” There were tears in her eyes. “I know you won’t get a new body, but maybe Sarah will make you another one. She knows how, now. Maybe the next time she won’t – give that one a chance to think. To care.”
Leah stared at Rachel, horrified. “I don’t want a new body. I’m fine with this one. I have been for a long time.”
“But you can’t walk. Sarah said she was doing her research for you.” Rachel shrugged. “Everything has been for you. I’ve started to hate the mention of your name.”
“I can’t imagine why,” said Leah dryly. She moved from the table, collected the two plates, and took them over to the sink. She ran the water, washing the plates, wanting to do something, anything. She suddenly wanted to run, and run fast, as she had when she was a child, long before she became used to crutches and then to wheels. Feet that could run would not help her now. A quick mind, perhaps, but she wasn’t feeling quick. She was feeling slow and clumsy. Rachel handed her the two forks, and Leah washed those as well, and then grabbed the cooking pot and cleaned it. The kitchen layout had been specially planned for her and her abilities. There were actually two stovetops and two counters and even two sinks, at different levels. It had worked for them; Leah had always assumed that they had integrated their lives so well that her physical condition was just another daily reality and nothing remarkable. Apparently she was wrong.
After Leah dried her hands, Rachel handed her the flash drive, picking it up from the table where she had left it. “You should read this. I knew Sarah was leaving, and I made sure I didn’t get all of the usual sedative. I wanted to wake early. I read her journals. You should too.”
Leah noticed Rachel’s hand shaking. She looked tired. “Come on,” Leah said. “I’ll read the journals. But you should get some sleep.” Rachel followed Leah down the hall, and Leah brought her to a guest room. Rachel was very simply dressed, in jeans and a t-shirt, but Leah brought out a nightshirt from the dresser and handed it to her. “Get changed and rest. Sarah is far away, and we have a little time to figure out what to do.”
“Thank you,” Rachel said, with relief in her voice. “I didn’t know if you would help me – or agree with Sarah. Sarah seemed to think you didn’t appreciate all of her efforts, so I thought I’d try. I didn’t know what else to do.”
“I suppose Sarah is right,” said Leah, with a small laugh. “I don’t appreciate all her efforts.”
It was late when Leah looked up from her laptop. She was at the desk in her bedroom. The stained glass of her desk lamp, a Tiffany-style lamp with peacocks, and the one on her nightstand with its cheerful yellow daffodils, were bright splashes of color in the room, welcome after the screen of the computer. Sarah had indeed been conducting her experiments for the last decade, starting almost directly after they had moved in together. Leah remembered back to her adolescence, to the anger and frustration and fear that came from the slow erosion of her body, the tripping and stumbling, the loss of control. Though her crutches had taken so long to get accustomed to, leaving welts on her skin and wearing holes in the sides of her bras, she had hated how proficient she had become at using them. She could twirl about on them and run races with her friends down the long halls of her high school in the early morning before zero period.
The wheelchair had been worse. Her friends all wanted to try it out, to pop wheelies and see how fast they could go down the ramp by the music room, but she had wanted nothing to do with it. The wheels made her hands sore and dirty. She felt larger than she was, her body’s parameters extended by plastic and metal. Her first lover, Alanna, had retouched the boundaries, bringing different sensations, recreating her body as something sensual and beautiful, not something broken, and Leah had loved her for it, had enjoyed learning a different incarnation, to take part in a dance once again. She had been a wallflower in high school when she even went to dances, but Alanna had taken her to clubs and to dances and never seemed to mind Leah’s awkward chair dancing. Leah learned not to mind either.
When I first met Leah she was dancing. I was so surprised to see someone in a wheelchair on the dance floor; I was mesmerized. She was moving her body, moving her arms, smiling. I was attracted and afraid at the same time. Someday we will dance together without that chair in the way. Someday she’ll be able to dance on her feet. I have waited so many years for that day and it is finally going to happen.
Leah read the entry in Sarah’s journal and thought back again to that night. When Leah had agreed, happily, to dance with Sarah, Sarah had straddled her in the chair, facing her, moving with her and finally leaning in for a long kiss. Leah had danced shamelessly, not caring that she was only shifting in her seat and moving her torso, that her legs couldn’t move. She had wrapped her arms around Sarah, pulled her close, returning her kiss. She stared at the peacock feather on the lamp for a long moment and then scrolled down the page.
I told Leah that I was close to a cure for her. She smiled, she seemed pleased, but I was looking for overjoyed. I know some of the treatments I have tried in the past haven’t been successful, but I don’t understand her. If I were in that chair I would be searching everywhere for a cure. I wouldn’t settle for a half life. Well, I’m not in the chair myself, but I’m still not going to settle. I’m going to fix this genetic defect and then we can both really live together.
Leah pushed away from the desk and went down the hall to the kitchen. She poured herself a glass of wine and sat there drinking it. She rather thought they had been living together, and happily at that. She wasn’t settling, she wasn’t resigned; she had never been able to find the right words to express how she felt, but she wanted to accept her disability and move forward. This was her body, and for all its scars and problems it was hers. It was a map of her life and struggles and joys. The burns on her arm from oil spatter had come on a day where she had gone on a picnic with Sarah and friends and she was cooking for that lunch. The burns had hurt, and they were permanent scars, but it had been a lovely day under the redwoods with dappled sunlight and the laughter of good company.
Leah idly ran her index finger along her middle finger, absently feeling for the scar from the time when she was four and had broken a window slat by pulling on it. It had left a small bump that contrasted with the writing callus on the other hand. She had used the two different marks to learn left from right when in kindergarten. Leah paused and then ran her finger down the middle finger again. There was no scar.
Putting down the wine glass, Leah stared at her finger. The scar had always been hard to see, but it was easy for her to feel. It wasn’t there. The blotches from the oil were there, and the mark on her thumb where she had cut herself while camping as a girl scout. She picked up her right foot and looked at the back of her heel. She had a small and very old scar there, so tiny it folded into the ankle well. Leah stared for a moment; there was no small scar. She felt cold all over. Rachel had said it: “She says the memory transfer works better with a more formed mind. She’s had success with it before.” Leah stared at the door to the basement, wanting to crawl back down and search each preserved self in those cold drawers, seeking the one body that held those minute marks of her life, her real life. Which one was it? Which one was her? Who had she been before Sarah had transferred her memories? Did that self have her own memories, her own personality? Had she, Leah, retained her memories after the transfer, before Sarah killed her? “Oh God,” Leah thought, staring at the door, “I’m a failed experiment too. And a successful one.”
The lilting sounds of a harp broke the silence. Leah was startled: it was so loud in the quiet house, but she pulled out her cell phone. It was Sarah. Leah answered, trying to sound normal.
“Hey there, how’s the conference?”
“Oh,” came Sarah’s rich voice over the line. “Some of the talks have been interesting. Some are the usual posturing.”
Leah peered at the wall clock. It was eleven at night here, so it was eight in the morning in Germany. “Is your talk today?”
“Yes, in a few hours. You sound tired – I thought you might be asleep by now.” Sarah laughed. “I didn’t want to wake you up, but I just wanted to hear your voice. I miss you.” There was a short pause. “Is everything fine over there?”
“Sure,” Leah forced herself to say. “I’ve been doing some late night reading. I needed a break from grading. I don’t sound too worn out, do I? I mean, there were only three plagiarizers.”
Sarah laughed again. “Oh, one of my sensors went off in the lab. It’s easily triggered, but I wanted to make sure the house wasn’t on fire or anything.” It was an old joke, calling to see if the house was on fire, but Leah felt a rush of fear. What sensor? Did Sarah know Rachel was awake? Did she know Leah had ventured down into the lab? Leah had already died once, it seemed; she wasn’t eager to do so again.
“No fire, no smoke. My cooking didn’t set off a single smoke alarm. I’m losing my touch.” Leah paused, trying to keep her voice light. “I didn’t realize how late is was. I should go to bed soon.”
“I’m glad you are still up. I do miss you,” said Sarah. Leah felt her throat close and reached up to brush at her eyes. Sarah continued, “I’ve been speaking to some medical researchers from Sweden; it seems they have been doing genetic research in the same field. We may get you walking yet.”
“Oh Sarah,” said Leah, “I’m fine. I’m happy with my own work and with you. I’m glad advances are being made around the world, that others will have help, but I’m not anxious about it.”
“Well,” said Sarah, “be assured there are indeed advances. I’ll have you on your feet before you know it.”
“I’ll sign up for the spring soccer league.” That too was an old joke. “Have a wonderful conference. I’m looking forward to having you home in a week.” For once that sentence was a lie, but talking to Sarah was unsettling. Leah wanted her here, wanted Sarah to hold her and tell her that everything was all right. She wanted to reach out in the night and have her close and warm and loving.
“I love you,” said Sarah. “Always.”
“I love you too,” said Leah. It was their usual goodbye. “Always.” As she hung up she realized that it was her last goodbye if all went as it needed to go. She had to go, to escape, and to find a place for Rachel.
Leah looked at the laptop. She couldn’t help scrolling down to look at one more entry.
Perhaps I should keep Rachel. I like having her about the lab; it gets lonely here sometimes. I don’t think Leah realizes how much I do for her. I like the idea of being able to train Rachel. She has Leah’s brilliance, but I could turn that to scientific inquiry. We could be partners in all things. Still, I love Leah. Who else would think to make a silly poem out of my first breakthrough? Could I have both? No, that would be living a lie; they are different people, not really the same. I started this to have Leah whole and well. I will finish what I have begun. It will be worth it to see how happy I can make her.
Leah shivered and closed the journal. She pulled up Facebook and saw a pending message:
Susan Moreno: Why has Sarah left the conference? Is everything well? Her presentation is tomorrow, and it is the keynote speech for the day.
The message had been sent very early in the morning, or the night before in Germany. Leah hadn’t had a chance to check her email or any of her social media accounts all day; she’d been in meetings and was then trying to work through the stack of papers. Then she had heard the noises in the basement. How long? How long had Rachel been awake and moving about? She had been awake long enough to read through Sarah’s notes and journals.
How long would it take for Sarah to get home? Leah wasn’t sure, but there was a good chance that phone call had come from inside the U.S. Leah pulled a bag out of the closet and began to pack clothes. She wanted to wake Rachel up and make a dash for the car, but she took a few deep breaths and continued packing. At least, she thought wryly, Rachel was the same size. Leah’s shoulders were a bit broader from using the chair, but they were close enough. She left the bag in the room, went to the kitchen and packed a few supplies, slung that bag off the chair, and rolled down the hall to the guest room.
There was enough moonlight coming through the window that Leah could make out Rachel’s face as she slept. She watched for a moment, fascinated. It was a look at herself she had never seen. She had never expected to run off with another woman, and was she really? She was, in a way, running off with herself. No, she told herself firmly, they might have the same genes, but they were two different people. That was the point.
Gently she nudged Rachel awake. “Rachel,” she said, turning on the light, “I’ve left some clothes out for you in my room down the hall. We have to leave.”
“Oh no,” said Rachel, instantly awake. “Sarah’s coming.”
“Yes,” replied Leah, making her voice soothing. She felt like a parent comforting a child. “We need to leave now, before she gets here. Bring the travel bag from the room.”
Rachel sat up. “How can we leave? The roads here are long and steep. I haven’t been outside much; I’d get lost. Sarah took me in a car when we went to the beach, but I don’t know how to work one.”
Leah rolled her eyes. “I have a car. I can drive. We need to leave now, though.” Rachel nodded and got out of bed, heading towards Leah’s room at her direction.
Leah turned off the light in the guest room and went out into the entryway, turning on the light to guide Rachel. She grabbed her knapsack and keys and then took down a small picture hanging by the front door. It was a picture of her with Sarah, taken in front of the house. She slipped it into her knapsack. She was suddenly very glad that she had always kept a separate bank account. Sarah was very well off, yet Leah enjoyed being able to buy groceries and pay for her own conference trips and buy Sarah gifts. She could add going on the lam to that list of financial freedoms.
Rachel came into the entryway, carrying the suitcase. Leah opened the door and went through, Rachel following her. Leah locked the door, and rolled down the ramp. It was dark outside, the moon casting shadows in the front garden and lighting up the drive. Leah transferred into her van and secured the chair, transferring into the driver’s seat. Rachel put the suitcase in the back and then got into the passenger’s seat. She looked around in wonder. “The moon is so bright,” she said. “The whole world is different.”
Leah looked at her. Rachel seemed awed, almost excited beneath her fear. She was leaving her cramped space of labs and underground rooms and there was a new world to explore, supposing she got the chance to do so. With that thought, Leah started the car and drove down the long drive to the street. The house was secluded on a large estate in the hills; there were no streetlights and no nearby neighbors. The road was empty and quiet, the smell of the redwoods moist and earthy. Very deliberately Leah turned onto the street and drove away. As she was about to round the curve she saw the asphalt light up in her rearview mirror. There was a car coming up from behind. It turned into the driveway, making its way up the hill.
Sarah had come home.
About the Author
Jennifer Nestojko is a coastal Californian, living in the Monterey area and commuting to San Jose to teach. She explores the intersection of words and reality through poetry and fiction.