La Vie Est Drôle, Non?

Lady Viona de Gaspar, the young heiress of House Gaspar, descended from her gilded, shimmering carriage onto the dawn-lit cobblestone of Cuvier Street. This was not meant to be her destination, and the old carriage driver knew.

“Are you certain, miss?” he asked in a high tone, adjusting his cap, his voice as wispy as what remained of his beard. “This is not the sort of street for a lady to traipse around in, especially not now with the Plague.”

She patted down her dress with one hand, wielding her parasol like a soldier over her shoulder. “Utterly positive. Now be on your way and tell no one of this as we’ve agreed. I’ve left the rest of your payment in the seat.”

“As you say. Farewell, miss,” he replied with another adjustment of his cap and the snap of reins. The horses heeded their master and clopped on to their next stop, leaving Lady Viona unattended. For the first time in what felt like months, she was finally able to slip away from the manse without someone surveilling her.

She had never been in this part of the city before. Her mother and father would never let her, and her younger brother had no interest in ever leaving the house, and until now, she had no need to. However she heard rumors from the servants of something quite special hidden away here. The empty streets did perplex her. Her image of the town square of the Workman’s District was quite a bit more populated and bustling with life. Ever since the Babbling Plague had re-emerged a few months ago, she was ordered to never leave, which she understood was for good reason.

She wondered if this would affect her prospects of finding what she came for.

Nonetheless, she started her journey down a tight alleyway that reeked of something sickly sweet and pungent, pinching her nose with her free hand.

On Gustave Street, at around the hour for lunch, an adolescent boy hopped off from his stool behind a counter and unwrapped a small piece of bread from a checkered cloth, placing both back on the counter. With another motion, he placed a jar of grape jam next to it.

This was the routine he had established every day for as long as he could remember. In the morning he would open the store. And at night he would close it. On a good day, a few shady types might come in and buy something. On a bad day, he would not interact with another human being at all, and lately, the bad days had become more and more frequent after city life shut down due to fears of the spreading Babbling Plague. He had a thought as he searched for a utensil. The person who delivered his food this morning was different. Does that mean the usual old lady was sick? He made a mental note to ask tomorrow if she didn’t come by.

A small bell rang through the dimly lit, underground shop, indicating a prospective customer had just walked in. With a startle, he fell to the side, knocking down the stool and himself with it. It had actually been a long time since there was a customer, no less a sale.

“Oh!” said a feminine, refined voice, “My apologies. Are you the proprietor?”

He leaned up from the freshly broomed, wooden floor and saw the source of the question, a lady dressed in white, perhaps a few years older than himself, holding a brilliantly white parasol with both hands. Her long, auburn-red hair struck him as particularly unusual and familiar. She had the aura of someone who did not grow up knowing what hunger ever felt like.

That’s when he realized it. “Ah!” the boy scrambled to his feet, bowing deeply, “A lady of House Gaspar! The apologies are all mine! What is someone of your pre-eminence doing in our humble establishment?”

There was a bit of disappointment that she had been recognized already. Covertness was already out of the question then for the Lady Gaspar. “You’re well spoken for someone so young,” she grinned awkwardly, her eyes wandering across the many various items contained within the store, “But it is unnecessary to be so formal. Please, speak with me as you would any other customer.” She started to approach one of them, “Am I correct in having found the Shop of Intrigue and Curiosities?”

“The very same,” the young shopkeeper said, “My name is Antoine, and I can try to help you find what you’re looking for.”

“Yes… and you can call me Viona.” She returned the bow that he had given her, “Antoine, I’m looking for something I believe may be quite rare…”

The boy straightened up the stool and wrapped up the bread back into its cloth. “Do tell!” he said excitedly, “The magical items you find here have all been fully tested to be safe for use, and as such they can be a bit pricier than what you might find in less reputable shops, but I’m sure you’re good for your money, Lady Viona.”

“Just Viona is fine. And money is no matter. If I am satisfied, you have my word that you will be fully compensated.”

Antoine perked up at the words like a fox hearing the squeak of a mouse in the field. Perhaps his next meal might be more substantial than bread and jam. “Of course!” his words practically became song, “Now, please, what is troubling you?”

Viona paused, suddenly feeling her heart take an extra few beats, “Perhaps I shall more describe what I need. A… gift for my lord father. Something to dazzle even the mayor of our city.”

Antoine scratched his head, “That’s rather vague. Can you describe what he likes?”

“I… cannot say I know of his interests beyond the superficial. He is a scholar of history and languages. He enjoys collecting foreign currency. Some books perhaps.”

Antoine moved on to scratching his hairless chin, something that he had often seen his grandpa do. “We have nothing like that, but if it’s history he likes, there is a book here,” the boy approached a small journal in a case of glass, “That records whatever the speaker is saying as he holds it. See?” He opened to the first page and in perfectly legible print was exactly as he described. “Intriguing, no?”

She barely took a look, replying, “It is, but it’s not quite what I am looking for. It’s far too rudimentary.”

The boy’s mood shifted perceptibly, “Rudimentary? The person who made this notebook sacrificed everything to do so.” As he said this, ink appeared on the open page of the book, quoting him perfectly.

“How do you mean?” she asked, her own tone matching the darkening of the boy’s.

He placed the book back in its glass case, as if returning a baby bird to its nest. “The practice of magic is a practice of obsession. The human soul is burned like firewood in order to do the impossible. The man who sold this book to us was its creator. His name, Broca, is etched here on the back cover. He was singularly focused on creating a notebook that could reveal its holder’s thoughts to help his mute son communicate, and in so doing sacrificed his own ability to speak. It didn’t work. He had made an object that requires one to verbally speak in order for it to function. Since it proved to be useless to him, he sold it to my grandpa.”

Viona stared at the book, and then at her surroundings. Shelves lined with seemingly ordinary items. Each one, regardless of the shape, was something that contained the unwritten record of someone’s life.

Antoine said stiffly, “The sale and creation of items that require human sacrifice is illegal outside of the control of the nobility, Lady Viona, nevertheless these items were made and sold to us. What desperate circumstances would have lead to so many of these items being gathered here?

“Just Viona is fine,” she muttered, “I did not mean to impugn the dignity of its creator. I am sorry.”

He shook his head, “I’m sorry for making you uncomfortable. It’s just that people would come in without the respect these items deserve, and that irks me a little.” He pointed to her left, “Take that water jug for example. Every night, it slowly refills with water. A man named Belanger lost his life to make this. We don’t actually know the details, but my father and mother strive to do their best to find out the history of each and every one of these items.”

“And you remember them all?”

“I have lots of free time here. And I find it intriguing.”

“Very well, what else can you show me?” She decided to politely ignore the hypocrisy of treating these objects with respect and still choosing to sell them in a storefront. Money was still money after all.

“This item,” he said, gingerly holding a toy horse as if it were a live animal, “Is quite special. Anybody, including your father would think it quite delightful.”

“Allow me to surmise that it moves on its own,” she guessed with conviction.

He smirked, “Not exactly. This was crafted by a toymaker as his greatest creation. If it is ever lost or destroyed, it will return to its owner the next day as good as new. You need only write your name along its belly and it will return to you.”

Viona frowned, shifting her weight from one leg to the other as she thought. “That’s fascinating, but not particularly as impressive as I would have hoped… Oh, not to disrespect the creator!” she threw a hand up to her mouth as she realized what she had done yet again. “But I am looking for more. Something quite powerful, though it might not appear that way.”

The boy noticed her pale blue eyes glinting like deep set gems, dissatisfied and hidden among the vines of red hair that curtained her face glancing to and fro. Nothing here would be enough. Neither the Shield of Tresca’s Section nor the Hauy Crystal, perhaps the most interesting items on display.

She sighed, running her fingers along a shelf, “You said these out front were all tested to be safe for use. Where are the other items?”

Antoine gazed back  “I am starting to think perhaps you’re not telling the whole truth. What are you really after,” he placed the toy horse back on the shelf, somewhat needlessly, “Viona?” It felt as strange to say as he thought it might.

“These contraband items found only in the armpit of the city… There’s a reason I am here but I cannot say.”

“Then I’m afraid there’s little I can do to assist you. We are quite cautious of anybody who mean ill towards us considering our line of work.”

“Fine,” she spat, “You’re right. I haven’t thought this through. To be perfectly honest, I am looking for a very specific book. But much bigger than this notebook you have there, and I don’t see anything of the sort out here.”

“If you want a magical book, there are libraries outside of the city…”

“I have heard that the book I’m looking for was sold to your family. You must have a… another chamber or a cellar where you store them, am I right?”

“We have a store of artifacts underground, but how long ago was this?”

“Years ago. Before either you or I were born.”

“What is the title? Who is the author?”

“I do not know the title, but the author was a man by the name of Justus Regnault.”

“I’ve heard the name Regnault before…”

“You’re perceptive, Antoine. Regnault was my mother’s maiden name. Justus Regnault is my maternal grandfather.”

“I see! And what magic was cast over this book of your grandfather’s?”

“I… still cannot say, because I am not certain. I am just curious if you could take a look in the back and find the book for me. It is the only book that my grandfather has written that has magical properties. If you just look for something with his name on it…”

“I see! I think I’m starting to get it! I thought it was strange that you came all the way here even with this Plague quarantine in effect. You must be here on a secret mission from your father to retrieve this magical item in order to ward off the Babbling Plague and save the city, but there’s no way he could order someone he cannot trust to secure something so valuable from a place like this, so he sent his eldest child. The one person he trusts the most!”

Viona did not say a word, but her eyes could not meet his.

“I bet I don’t have the full picture yet. Perhaps he did not send you. You’re doing this yourself all alone in order to save us. Wow, you might be a hero in the making… The story you are writing, Viona, will be told for generations to come! In that case, I can’t just leave you here.” Antoine took out a shiny, silvery key. “You and I can head down there ourselves. I never thought that my life here holding down the store could amount to much, but this might change everything!”

He locked up the front door and bid her to follow him. She obliged with an audible gulp as he lead her down a winding staircase even further underground. She held onto his shoulder, other hand tightly gripping her now purposeless parasol. It served as a comforting totem.

In the darkness, Viona asked, “Is there not a single source of light down here…? How are we to find this book?” Her voice echoed across the stone corridor. “Antoine?”

“You’re the type to worry a lot, aren’t you?” he replied without turning his head. Or if he had, she could not tell except by his unflinching descent down the stairs. “Can you tell me what you need this book for if you don’t even know what it does?”

Viona gripped his shoulder tighter, “And I shall say it in words perhaps you’ll finally heed. I’d rather not divulge anything that would harm the dignity of my father.”

“You said before that this would be a gift for him.”

“And that it shall.”

Antoine smiled invisibly, “I don’t even know the birthdays of my mom and dad. They are always off saving the world, or exploring ancient crypts, or whatever else catches their fancy.”

“Are they not the proprietors of your store?”

The boy continued, “No, my grandpa owned the store before he passed. It was his obsession. My father had no interest in taking it up after him, but he just could not keep away from the study of magical items. He met my mom while on an expedition and they really hit it off. The two returned home briefly and left me with my dad’s parents before shoving off for their next adventure together. It’s pretty romantic if you lean back and squint at it.”

“I see,” she said glumly, “I never knew either of my grandparents. My father did not share many stories about his parents, and neither my mother.”

“Hmm, you also seem to make a habit of making everything about yourself,” he teased. “I thought I was telling the story.”

“E-excuse me,” she stuttered, clearing her throat, “I did not mean to.”

“Have you ever used a sentence without the words ‘I’ or ‘me’?”

“Well, most certainly I hav- I meant… Oh!” she caught herself, and then felt heat rise into her face, “I can feel you laughing you know! There’s no point in hiding it!”

“Hey, there’s a sentence! Nice work, Viona. Don’t worry, we’re already at the bottom.” Antoine tried to clear the air of any of her nervousness, but he wasn’t sure if that worked in the least.

Regardless, with one more step, Viona found herself against flat ground as two rows of fires began appearing from thin air ahead of them. “Magic torches?” she asked, already expecting the affirmative.

“The least of the mad things we have down here… There are some dangerous items in this cellar so please keep your hands on my shoulders.”

“Very well.”

Antoine lead her on a slow walk through the dry tunnels, walls lined with far stranger, more foreboding items than she had seen in the store front. Some looked like weapons or gnarled branches of discolored trees, others human body parts or grotesque dolls. She was certain she had seen some of them following her with their eyes. In the dancing shadows of the magical torches, everything looked to be writhing and alive.

“I don’t see any books…” she whispered, finding her own voice to be trembling like the flashing fires surrounding them.

“They are stored towards the end,” Antoine reassured her, “As long as you don’t touch anything, nothing will happen. We wouldn’t transport anything that has a mind of its own down here.”

“Are there truly objects like that?”

“There are. All of them originate accidentally from people with unhealthy attachments to certain objects. Sometimes the object is given a sense of purpose that it must fulfill and seems to be conscious or alive, but it’s actually behaving by a simple set of rules. Other times it mimics the person who gave it life as if they had transferred their mind over to it, but everything seems to point to that not truly being the case. Their stories are probably the most interesting, but often times they are the most isolated. With no one else around them, it’s hard to find a source that can tell us more about who they were.”

“I see…”

“How much do you know about magic?” he asked casually.

She offered a long “um” before responding, “The Regnault family is rather famous for having studied the fundamental principles of magic for four generations. I’ve always been interested, but my father forbade me from ever studying it in earnest as my mother had. He’s not the biggest proponent of anything magical. In fact, sometimes I wonder why they ever got married.”

“So, nothing?”

“I know about as much as you’ve told me. That souls serve as the active force that fuels all magic. Magic spells and the like are incantations that focus the ambiguous uncertainty within the soul into impossible certainties.”

“You got the fundamentals, as far as I know. Something doesn’t add up about your story though. If your father hates magic so much, why marry someone so closely tied to it and then sell such an important book to us? Doesn’t make sense.”

“Parents rarely make sense. From what you’ve told me, you’re probably already aware of that fact.”

Antoine stopped.

“Oh, I hope I did not-”

“This is where all of the books are,” he said, an arm outstretched over a small table with merely two books and a lit candle.

Viona let go of his shoulder, approaching the table. “This is truly all?”

“We don’t come across a lot of magical books. They tend to be either too dangerous to sell, not useful to anyone but the writer, or whatever other problem that comes with someone’s obsession involving books and knowledge.”

Viona scanned the two books but they were both devoid of any title or authorship on the cover.

“May I open them?”

“Better if I do that. Let’s see…” Antoine opened the first book, “I remember now. This one is apparently a cookbook. I don’t think this is what you’re looking for.”

“A recipe book? Sounds innocent enough.”

“Ah, right, but there’s more. Any dish made by using this book as a reference is highly addictive. To the point of utter obsession. This thing completely ruined a family or two before it fell into my mother’s possession, and she’s kept it hidden ever since. The original author was actually a mother who wanted her children to enjoy the food of her original homeland… And I suppose she took it too far.” Antoine shook his head in the faint candlelight, “Thank the heavens that my mom’s never been interested in cooking.”

“That’s awful… She gave her life to make such a terrible thing?”

“In this case, yes. It was a conceptual sacrifice of her ability to eat, and therefore, she starved to death. May I ask what your grandfather lost in the process of making his book? It might give us some warning before I take a peek at this next one.”

“I’m afraid I do not know…”

“Fair enough. Here I go.” Antoine plucked the cover with his thumb and index finger.

“Wait!” Viona cried, placing the parasol between him and the next book, “Aren’t you being too incautious? What if it kills you?”

“Will it kill me?” he asked nonchalantly. Almost eagerly.

“I don’t know! I just know that I need the book my grandfather wrote. If you can confirm that he wrote it, I don’t actually need to know what it does! There’s no need to draw a curse onto yourself or anything!”

“A cursed book? Now this is getting interesting! My grandpa used to say that cursed objects are actually extremely rare. When people hate other people enough to curse them, objects are not created to carry the curse, because magical objects require a powerful obsession centered around the object itself. Curses against arbitrary people are usually very weak, like you might find yourself getting caught in the rain or forget an important event.”

“I understand. My grandfather was not the type to carry any sort of grudge… but perhaps this book isn’t my grandfather’s. What then?”

“I’m saying it’s probably not cursed. You have every right to be cautious because you’re an important lady, Viona. Me? I’m just a bored kid minding a shop. My story isn’t as important as yours. You’re gonna save our town from the Babbling Plague with this thing, right?”

“I’m doing no such thing, Antoine. You have the wrong idea of me. I’m not seeking out this book as part of some noble quest.”

“You still haven’t told me why you need your grandfather’s book. I’m just assuming because you’ve given me nothing to work with.”

“If I tell you, I’m afraid it will be unavoidable, so I can’t! I don’t want to believe that it’s happening, but I’ll stake my life on making sure that it doesn’t! That’s why I defied the quarantine and ended up here in this awful place looking for a book that might not exist!”

Antoine flipped back the front cover with a nonchalant toss of his hand. Viona gasped, and the two fell completely silent. Time crawled as they exhaled, both realizing that they had been holding their breath.

Viona spoke first, “This is definitely the book written by Justus Regnault. His name is written on the bottom corner on the back of the front cover. I think this must be it…”

Antoine’s open mouth parted to form a happy grin. “Amazing… to be quite honest I have no idea what this book can do… There are only a few things in our collection in that category. Let us take it upstairs at once!”

“It doesn’t do anything.”

“What?” Antoine took his finger off the cover of the book. “Now I’m confused.”

Viona’s lip shuddered imperceptibly before she spoke, “As I mentioned before, years ago, before I was born, my father sold a book to your family. But the truth was… this book had no magic properties whatsoever. He tricked your family into paying more than it was worth, but it was still written by my grandfather Justus Regnault. My father then used the money as collateral to secure a loan, which is how he started his business. My grandfather was livid when he found out that his apprentice would do such a thing, but my mother at the time was deeply in love with my father, so my grandfather relented and allowed the two to get wed.”

Antoine scratched his chin. “No, this can’t be a fake. That’s impossible. There’s no way your family sold us something like that. Tons of people try to do the same thing, and my grandpa had too keen of an eye to accept such a thing.”

“How can you be so sure?” Viona said, “That was the story I overheard from my father himself.”

“Could he not have been lying to whoever he was speaking to? But what doesn’t make sense to me is… if you believe this book is a fake… why do you want it back? And what meaning is there in lying to me if you don’t believe it? Just what kind of power is contained in this book that your family would go to such lengths…?”

Viona bit her lip and tensed her arms. “You’re not listening to me! You keep assuming that there’s a conspiracy here, but there isn’t! I need this book because it’s a family heirloom that was wrongfully sold to you! Are there any records of how much we received for this book? I’ll double it and ensure you all are compensated, but I need to take this book home with me this instant.”

“You don’t have the money with you upfront?”

“Does it look like I do?” Viona seemed almost on the verge of tears, “I don’t have anything but my word. Consider that even in such circumstances, I have come here, and I am not someone foolish enough to come so ill-equipped if it can be avoided. That is how desperate I am.”

“But help me understand why.”

“You really want to know my story that badly? Even if it hurts me to tell it?”

“I do, right now more than anything. I’ll give you this book for free if you tell me the truth.”

“Do not mock me or-”

“I’m serious. I love a good story more than anything else. If I could read or write, I would be consumed by the books that are out there, but unfortunately, I don’t have that privilege.”

Viona searched for the words but found herself grimacing in silence. She did not know why she said the things she did earlier. It was as if a wild animal caught in her embrace was struggling to let itself loose, scratching and biting in the thrashing. As if she was no longer able to be the only one to know.

“Would it help if I told you something first? The reason I was so sure is because my grandpa loved stories, too. He would tell me countless stories… some impossible fictions and some real life tales he had heard from others… and stories from his own life. I would sit in the upstairs storefront with him, waiting for my mom and dad to return from their trips with more artifacts, all the while listening to his stories.”

“That explains your love of them,” she said dryly.

“Oh, I surely did. More than anything. You might say that I was obsessed with hearing more stories to the point of mania. As a child, I would go out and ask townspeople all sorts of things, which frustrated my grandpa greatly. I garnered quite a reputation for myself in this neighborhood, and every time my grandfather had to cover for my indiscretions. There came a point when I hated, absolutely hated to be stuck inside the store and I would venture off on my own, causing mayhem wherever I went. My friends and I were horrible troublemakers. That was when the Plague first struck the city.”

“The Plague struck about… a few months ago?”

Antoine’s eyes closed as he heaved a deep sigh, “The Babbling Plague first struck the city almost twenty years ago.”

“How old are you, Antoine…?” Viona whispered as she took a step back.

“By now, if I have counted correctly, I should be thirty four years old,” the boy said, his youthful face having put on the expression of a weary workman. “I contracted the Babbling Plague and returned home, rapidly deteriorating. I couldn’t form words by the end of the night. By the next day, I was chanting madly, raving in a trance, slowly losing all rationality. My grandpa was deaf by this time, and immune to the Babbling Plague’s effects, so he did not contract it, and he did his best to take care of me until I might overcome it, but my condition grew worse and worse. A week had passed before he disappeared, and…”

“What happened to him?”

“I don’t know the details. The intricacies of magic are beyond my understanding. What I know are the effects. He died so that I can still exist inside the store. If I take a step outside of the store, I will disappear and reappear inside the store, much like that toy horse. I don’t know this for sure, but I think I actually did die that night, and my grandpa used an artifact to bring me back at great cost to himself. When my mom and dad returned, they found his body… and they found me. Now in their old age they are still out there searching for a way to liberate me, so that I’m no longer bound to the store. Perhaps so I can die.”

He expected her to run upstairs in fear. He expected her to laugh in his face. Any other reaction than the steely gaze she returned. Viona’s lips pursed, until it parted to form the words, “My mother and father are getting a divorce.”

Dreadful quiet filled the room like noxious fumes. Viona’s irises glistened in the magical candle light as her nose seemed to tremble. Antoine didn’t know what else to add, and so he said nothing at all.

She continued, “I’m not here to save the city. Or unlock the mysteries of my grandfather’s magic. My problems don’t even come close to rivaling yours. I never thought I might meet someone who was unbound from life and death here in my life, and yet here you are in front of me. Your story is so utterly incredible, I’m not sure I fully believe it. What I deal with is nothing compared to yours.”

“It’s okay. It’s not a competition, Viona.”

“I just need that book so my mother won’t hate my father anymore. I’ll say I found it in the library and that he didn’t sell it. That this was a misunderstanding. I know they have other problems to work through, but I don’t know what else to do, and if it’s in my power to do anything, at least it’s this.”

Antoine shrugged, “I see. I don’t think you’re lying, but I don’t have any memory of your father coming to our store, but this is proof enough isn’t it? My grandpa must have accepted it just because it was actually written by the great Justus Regnault, even if it isn’t magical on its own.”

Viona stared at the book, “Antoine, do you think it’s okay to lie in order to save my parents’ marriage?”

The boy pondered this for only a moment, “I suppose all stories are lies. There’s always something that doesn’t go told in a story. The exclusion of some truth is what makes it a story one can tell, which makes it a lie by omission. Even still, should they find out the truth…”

“If they find out the truth, I might end up making things worse. In fact, even with this, they might still get a divorce.”

“Then the least you could do is be honest with the way you feel. It took a lot to wrangle the truth of you, Viona. I’m guessing you’re not the most expressive person even at home.”

“Hmph,” she grunted, “Why am I even asking a ghost trapped in a cave? What life experience do you have that could possibly help me?”

He shrugged, taking no offense, “I know what stories are, and I know that you are a character in your story. You cannot control the other characters in this story of yours, but the way that you tell your story ten, twenty, thirty years from now… that you can control. How is it that you want your side of the story to end?” Antoine picked up the cook book once more, “All of these stories trapped in these magical artifacts ended in tragedy and drama. People who were willing to give up everything in order to pursue a single-minded goal, but I think for most of them, it wasn’t necessary. People who focus their lives onto material objects to solve their problems aren’t thinking straight. It makes for fascinating stories, but… it makes also for tales to learn from. In the end, I think it’s better to live life without the ability to control so much of it.”

Viona picked up her grandfather’s book. “I don’t know what else to do. Will our family be split apart? I feel so unsafe, as if I’m teetering on a tightrope with nothing to catch me below. Every time I think about it, it becomes hard to breathe and my chest tightens as my mind races for a solution, to the point where I would do anything to prevent it from happening.”

“Your story doesn’t come to a halt with your parent’s divorce. Heaven forbid, even if it does happen, you’ll wake up the next morning and the sun will still rise. And you’ll find yourself still in your bed, feeling the same pang of hunger and wondering what jam to put on your bread today.”

“…Are you telling me to just accept it? To not do whatever I can to fight it?”

“Or fight it. It’s up to you, but whatever comes to pass, life goes on because… life just isn’t like stories. Even after you die, your story continues in the lives of those who knew you. Trust me, from someone who just can’t seem to die.”

“Antoine,” Viona said resolutely, “You’ve given me some things to think about.” She carefully placed the book down onto the table, “I don’t think I’ll be taking this book after all.”

He groaned, adding, “Fine, that’s just as good. I wasn’t going to sell you this book in the first place.”

“What?! And why not? You said you would give it to me for free.”

“You don’t have any money,” Antoine winked. She laughed. For the first time in recent memory, she laughed very honestly.

With that, Viona departed from the store. As Antoine waved her farewell, a little disappointed that he failed to make a sale, he took the book up with him to the front counter, ready to sell it to the young lady should she ever decide to return for it.

One day, a day like any other, years after the Babbling Plague swept through the city and vanished, Antoine was preparing for his usual lunch in his shop on Gustave Street. Faluche bread and cherry jam with a little bit of butter. Business has been better lately, and so he’d taken to trying some of life’s luxuries, such as butter. Delicious butter. He thought to himself that luxuries would soon become necessities, and it might be dangerous to proceed down this path before long.

It was then that she returned, as he had expected, but she was taller now. More refined. Her auburn hair no longer draped her shoulders but was tied up into a neatly decorated bun. As she passed through the jingling door of that curious shop, she was holding the shoulders of a young girl — dressed much the same as herself — who looked to be even younger than the boy shopkeeper.

“Ah, good day, Antoine…” she greeted him, a sprinkle of melancholy flaked her words as it left her, “So you are still here, just as you always were.”

The boy shopkeeper greeted her in return, “Good day, Lady Viona de Gaspar. Could this be your daughter? I’ve heard rumors, so I wondered when I might have the pleasure of meeting her.

“Indeed,” she said, stroking the hair of her daughter who seemed to be overwhelmed by the outside, despite being safely inside of a store, “She’s quite shy, but her name is Vestrea. She’s been begging me to help her learn more about magic, so I brought her to meet you.” The girl nodded in agreement. “Have you learned to read yet, Antoine? I thought if you hadn’t, I could tutor you and my daughter simultaneously.”

“I have been trying, but without someone to tell me if I have been doing it correctly or not, it has been more or less impossible,” he laughed.

“Yes, I can quite imagine. The storefront is covered in new items since last. So many more stories written on these shelves…” The nostalgia in her voice nearly made her sound like the adolescent girl that first walked into those doors.

“You are correct, and you must also have a decade’s worth of stories to catch me up on since we last met.” Antoine said with an eager grin, “What’s been new with you?”

Viona gave a hollow, rehearsed laugh, “So many, many stories,” and with a pained smile said, “Most recently, it seems I’ve gotten a divorce…”



There are pathways that light up across your body when you interact with a cup of tea. Your eyes receive light that is reflected backwards onto photosensitive cells that send electric signals into the computer in your head. That thing then crunches all the numbers. Am I feeling good right now? Is it safe to take these actions? Will I enjoy it if I do? How much time do I have?

The orders are sent hurtling through wires down your spine and into your arm, triggering muscle contractions maneuvering your hand to reach down and grip the handle with trained dexterity, reversing the actions to bring the tea up to your nose, olfactory receptors going wild at the waves of new sensory stimuli. Amazing, your computer remarks, this was a worthy decision, and I shall perform this task again in the future. Ever since I was a child, I was fascinated with the minutiae of the human body, and this leads to an even grander inquiry. Where does the will to perform these actions even come from? Is the mind just a set of algorithms tangled up within itself to do things beneficial to its survival? Is it more like an unfathomable soul?

Clearly I’ve grew up a little different from everyone else. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think of myself as some kind of stand-out super star of anything. I’m average to an exceptional degree, but no one else seemed to think so. A lot of the children around me at school somehow heard a rumor from somewhere that I did not have a father. Not just living at home, but biologically, because I am a perfect genetic clone of my mother.

The adults treated me with care like a porcelain doll, while the other children treated me with child-like fascination, which if you know anything about children, involved a lot of poking and provoking. Ever see a little boy before an ant hill? Wanton, curious destruction is always involved.

Some of them genuinely believed I had super powers, which I played up so that they might leave me alone. I warned them that if they messed with me, I would use my psychic powers to turn them inside out. This seemed to dissuade the more imaginative ones, but the disbelievers would call my bluff, eventually breaking down the lie. I recall one afternoon was especially bad. They had thrown a rock at me and missed, and I confronted them. They threw more until one hit me, drawing blood. They scattered like rats, and I hobbled over to my teacher crying, so she sent me home for the day. People were horrible, I remember thinking, until I could smell the wafting of buttery bread coming from inside my home. My mom had heard from my teacher that I was being sent home, and prepared french toast and honeyed teas to cheer me up.

Well, despite the campaign of terror inflicted on me, I found that the psychology of a human being is rather resilient. I kept living life, growing numb and accepting that this is simply who I was and how I would be treated. Over time, the kids grew bored of teasing me, as these kinds of people do, eventually moving on to target others, almost at random. Honestly, I could see no pattern in their cruelty.

There was one little girl in elementary school, when I was already an adult, whom I witnessed being pushed around. For reasons beyond my understanding at the time, I stood up for her against these tiny schoolyard bullies. “I heard of her! She’s the clone!” they shouted when they saw me, referencing some obscure sci-fi movie right afterwards with their poses.

“Yeah, leave her alone, or my clone army will come for you.” That gave them a good laugh, and they turned to leave, uncommitted to harassing an adult it seemed. It didn’t take much at all. I asked her what her name was and why they were bullying her. Insensitive, maybe, but I didn’t think about it at the time. She quietly replied that her name was Vanesa, and that she wasn’t a real person.

I pressed, asking why she was saying that, and she said that she was made-up. Artificial. That she didn’t have a mommy or a daddy. It turned out that she was indeed an orphan, taken in by foster parents. A designer baby that did not turn out how her parents wanted, and thus, abandoned. My heart broke for her, and I swore to come back to her home with a gift when I visit.

That night, when I told my mother about the bizarre occurrence, she smirked and smugly added that I was most certainly her daughter for being bold enough to stand up to a bunch of children. Well, that was a given since we look almost identical, anyway, but I asked her what she meant. I never appreciated her brand of sarcasm.

“I never told you, did I? Maybe it’s about time.”

“You can’t just start a conversation like that, momma.”

“You’re right, let me ask you something else then. Do you know where you come from?”

“From you. I’m an exact replica of you, but different. Like an identical twin.” I gave her the side-eye. Usually she found it funny.

“Exactly, and do you know where I come from?”

“From… Roanoke?”

She laughed, “Yeah, originally, we are all from Virginia. I’m a clone of my mother, too, except I never got to meet her.”

I blinked in confusion, “What?” It was all I could muster.

“Yes, she had passed away in 1951, but some big-head scientist decided to bring her back to life in the form of me, and in the form of you from me.”

“I thought it was illegal to clone someone dead.”

“Oh, it most certainly was, and I was national news for a long time. Your momma was famous, you know. You’re not the only one. Except, in some ways, it’s more fair to say that I’m your older sister.”

“What are you saying?”

“Well, it’s been on my mind lately, and you’re already in college so it’s about time you know the truth. I’m getting on in years so I want you to hear it from me before anything happens.”

“Momma! You’re only fourty!” It was true though. She was aging pretty rapidly, which is a side effect of some of the older clones.

“Thank you, darling. I shielded you from the truth for as long as I could. I really wanted you to have a normal upbringing, the kind I couldn’t ever have. Sometimes I was even jealous of how blissfully ignorant you were.”

“That isn’t why you hit me, right?”

“No, that was discipline. That’s because I love you. And I’m saying this because I love you. The truth is that we were human experiments. The government granted me and you human rights only after the UN became involved, but now all of that might be changing again. Originally, we were cloned to produce certain cells, but the process resulted in viable fetuses. When that happened and the lead scientists reported it, the details were leaked to the press, which then exploded into another huge scandal.” She seemed as serene as someone recalling a nostalgic picnic, but I could scarcely believe what I was hearing. Not a single snarky remark came to mind.

My mother continued, “I’ll cut to the chase. Darling, I have cancer. It’s only a matter of time before they come to take me back. They want to examine me.”

I sighed as if finally breathing for the first time, “Oh, good. No one dies of cancer nowadays, momma. I’m sure they’ll want to take care of you. You’re a celebrity, right?”

“No, no. I said they want to examine me, not treat me. They want the cancer to go as far as it will go before it kills me, and then they’ll extract it and study it. Isn’t it gruesome?” she added with a snarl.

“That’s… that’s illeg-“ I barely stuttered the words before she interrupted.

“They write the laws, darling. The people in charge are different from the ones that liberated you and me twenty years ago. Hey, at least they had the good will to warn me that they’ll be coming for me once I’m ready. That’s more than I expected.”

“I’ll go to the media! I’ll go to social media! I’ll find a lawyer! What kind of… why would they? That makes zero sense!” I was panicking so rapidly I was surprising even myself. I could sense the clamminess of sweat on my palms, now gripped into fists.

“They said they would give you everything you need once I’m gone. They don’t need you if they have me, you know? You and I are the same, so you’re at risk of having cancer, too, but you never have to go through that pain if I do. Do you see what I’m saying?”

“I… I don’t…” Tears welled up in my eyes because I knew exactly what she was saying. I was too young and apathetic to realize my mother’s horror during election night seven years ago. I always thought things like that were a world divorced from my own. It’s all I could think about in that moment. The ghostly expression of death itself worn on my mother’s face that night in contrast to the angelic visage of peace worn on my mother’s face now.

“You’ll be alright, darling. And so will I. Don’t worry about a thing.”

“They can pick someone else, can’t they?”

“It would have to be you.”

“I’ll do it then!”

“Oh, darling…”

I started to scream, “How come I don’t get a choice in all of this, huh?! It’s… not fair!”

She then said the words I might never forget. “Can’t you let your mother be selfish for once in her life?”

I shut up real quick, and weeping into her arms as she stroked my head, whispering that it would all be okay. Strangely, whenever she spoke, it almost sounded like I was talking to myself, which made that moment feel all the more surreal. It felt as if I was consoling myself.

My mother passed away in a government black site facility. I do not know the details of her death. I do not know where she died. I have tried to find out more but have been met with no leads or clues, and I was forced to give up by court order. When I explained to little Vanesa, she seemed to understand, since apparently she’s also not allowed to find her birth parents. She might be one of the smartest children I’ve ever met, but to be abandoned just because she wasn’t perfect… Heat rises to my chest every time I think about it.

Would I have done the same thing in my mother’s shoes? Despite it all, I would have. It makes me wonder how much of my own thoughts and desires are determined by “free will” and how much of it is determined by my genetics. Will I see her in heaven? Will we be the same person? Or different, but pretty darn similar?

I was given life in order for others to benefit from my sacrifice. Unlike most, there actually was a reason why I was born, but I’ve absolutely no desire to fulfill it. What then do I choose to dedicate my life to? Justice for my mother? That was a choice she made, too. This might be a twisted conclusion, but I can’t take that away from her. Maybe it’s to live a life that our original could not live, with opportunities she never had? What is the meaning of my life?

So many questions, and none of them can be answered scientifically, and as badly as I want to know the answers, I’m not sure if it’s worth the trouble sometimes, you know?