Then I get nervous.
“She’ll be here anytime now,” I whisper, seconds before the door opens downstairs.
“You’re totally psychic,” Betsey says with a laugh, but I’m not in the mood. Instead, I try to judge my mother’s level of pissed-ness by the way she kicks off her shoes and rushes up the stairs.
“Oh, good, you’re all here,” she says when she rounds the corner to the rec room. Her hair is pulled back at her neck and she’s wearing ill-fitting but remarkably clean scrubs with a cardigan over them.
“Hi, Mom,” I say as she hurries into the room and sits down on the couch next to Ella. She pats Ella’s knee, smiles at Betsey, then frowns when her eyes meet mine.
“Hi, Lizzie,” she says before sighing like I’m the absolute worst there is for not knowing about stupid freaking triangles. “I don’t have a lot of time, so let’s get right to it.”
“You should have just told us whatever you wanted to say when you saw us earlier,” Ella says. “Don’t you have patients?”
“I wanted to talk to all three of you at once,” Mom says, making me feel sick. That doesn’t sound good at all. “And besides, earlier I was still figuring out what to do.” She pauses for breath, glancing at the clock on the wall.
“What do you mean, ‘figuring out what to do’?” Ella asks, looking suddenly concerned.
Mom faces her. “I’ve decided we’re going to make a change in light of Lizzie’s… challenge,” she says. I can feel Ella glance at me, but I keep my eyes on Mom. No one else speaks, so she continues.
“First, I want to say that we’re lucky that it’s taken this long for noticeable differences to crop up,” she says. “I was fearful every day through puberty, and yet thankfully, that wasn’t an issue.” I don’t have to look at the others to know they’re blushing, too. Nobody wants to hear their mother say the word puberty.
Mom goes on.
“But now, it’s grown obvious to me that Lizzie is developing more right-brain tendencies,” she says, looking into my eyes. “I’m sorry, Lizzie, I thought that by allowing you to be the one in those classes at school, you’d grasp them more easily. I thought maybe I was doing a poor job of teaching them. But it seems that math and science just aren’t your forte.” Mom gives me a sympathetic smile that’s completely annoying.
“But if today is any indication, our current setup isn’t working,” she continues. “We’re not even three weeks in and already it’s clear that to remain on this path could draw attention to us, and therefore threaten everything. Because of this,” Mom says, shifting like she’s bracing for a triple teen outburst, “I am switching junior year assignments.”
I feel myself stiffen; Ella sucks in her breath.
“Are you serious?” Betsey asks. Mom nods.
“Ella will take first half,” she says authoritatively, but not meeting Ella’s eyes, probably because she knows how disappointed Ella’s going to be to miss out on cheer practice. “Lizzie will take second half. Betsey, you’ll stay with evenings.” Betsey visibly relaxes in her chair.
“But we have the schedule down,” Ella says in protest. “This isn’t fair.”
“I know,” Mom says. “But you’ve made straight A’s your whole life. You just transferred—and Principal Cowell specifically commented on your high marks. If suddenly you start getting C’s in math, it’ll attract attention. And beyond that, it’s time to start thinking of college. Of your future.”
Start thinking of college? I feel like she’s been thinking of college since we were two days old. The funny thing is that none of us knows how we’ll even handle college logistically, so we’ve all just put our heads in the sand about it. I blow out my breath, but everyone ignores me.
“So, it’s settled then,” Mom says, checking the clock again as she stands up. “I’ve got to get back to the hospital.”
“How soon?” I ask, knowing that I need to brush up on the cheers Ella’s learned so far. My stomach lurches at the thought of manufacturing pep.
“I called the school and told them that you had a migraine today,” Mom says. “I talked them into letting you retake the quiz.”
Nerves rage in my insides—I can feel mine, and the others’, too. She can’t be saying what I think she’s saying. “How soon, Mom?” I ask again.
She looks at the clock one more time, then looks back at me.
“Don’t forget to take off your nail polish.”
Mom’s talking to me from the kitchen doorway on the morning of the most last-minute, massive switch we’ve ever done. It’s ironic that she’s nagging me: She’s the one who left five minutes ago to mail bills before homeschool, then came back because she forgot both the bills and her car keys. I roll my eyes at her and she leaves, then I look down at my perfectly painted white nails.
“Why do yours always chip so easily?” I ask Ella, frowning. She shrugs, her eyes on the valley below our house. I know she’s upset about the switch, too. She stands and takes her cereal bowl to the sink before disappearing, probably to brush her teeth. Again. I shove back and go upstairs, then wander down the hall toward Mom’s room in search of remover.
I open the door to the cool, dark room and flip on the overhead light. As I squish across the carpet, I glance over at the three baby portraits in thick brown wooden frames, hung art-gallery straight on the wall with the door. I feel a familiar prickling on the back of my neck as I stop for a long look.
Anyone else would see the same kid wearing different outfits and expressions, but really, it’s different people. Ella’s openmouthed; Mom said she was mesmerized by a butterfly on a stick that the photographer used to get her attention. Her background is department store all the way. In her photo, Betsey’s drooling like a Saint Bernard. And I’m crying, probably because someone put me in a bucket.
What makes the hairs on my neck and arms stand up is that there’s another picture in a drawer somewhere—just a four-by-six snapshot taken by a proud parent—and the baby in the photo looks identical to the babies on the wall. Somewhere, there’s a photo of the Original, the baby who died.
The baby Mom cloned to make us.
“What are you doing in here?” Bet asks behind me, scaring me so badly that I bang my shoulder on the wall when I jump back. “Sorry,” she says, laughing. Bet’s always been a fan of frightening others.
“I’m getting nail polish remover,” I say, turning away from the faces that started as someone else’s.
“And visiting the Wall of Fame,” Bet says, waving at the photos. “God, Ella was a weird-looking baby.”
I chuckle, then we’re quiet a second. “Doesn’t it ever freak you out?”
“What?” Bet asks.
“That we’re not… normal,” I say.
“Lizzie, don’t be dumb. We’re normal,” Betsey says, shaking her head at me. “We just happened to be cloned instead of made the regular way.”
“I don’t know,” I say. “Sometimes it makes me feel inferior.”