Sean texts back:
“Go drop your stuff in your rooms and meet me in the living room,” Mom says when we’re all inside. “I think it’s time the four of us had a good, long chat.”
Ella, Betsey, and I do as she says. Upstairs, my room looks too boring, too bland. I wish I could go to the mall and buy some more posters, but instead, I have a tongue-lashing to look forward to. I head back downstairs, bracing myself for trouble. But when I step into the living room, there’s a pint of ice cream on the coffee table—not even on a coaster—and bowls and spoons stacked to the side.
“I thought mint chip might make things easier,” Mom says, smiling weakly. I think of all she’s done, and I can’t smile back.
But I do accept the ice cream.
“First, I want to say how sorry I am for what happened this weekend,” Mom says, brushing her hair out of her eyes.
“What did happen?” Ella asks. “I’m still… I don’t really know why that woman did what she did.”
Mom sighs. “Maggie Kendall’s team tried to do what ours did: They tried to clone humans,” Mom says. “They were unsuccessful, or so I thought.”
“What does that mean?” Betsey asks.
“I’ll get to that in a minute,” Mom says. “Anyway, they played dirty, luring lab assistants to their space and trying to get them to share secrets. They tried to recruit me, and I’ll always regret taking the interview. For a while now, I’ve believed that Maggie was the one who turned in Dr. Jovovich. She’s a big part of the reason I’ve been looking over my shoulder all these years.”
I reach back and yank a throw pillow out from under me and toss it aside. I want to ask why Maggie just suddenly turned up now, but I don’t want to speak to Mom. Honestly, I’m not sure I trust a word she’s saying anyway.
Like she heard my thoughts, Ella asks, “How did Maggie find us?”
Mom looks away quickly, then back at Ella. Then her eyes fall on mine. “Lizzie, this isn’t your fault,” she says in a way that makes me think she’s saying it is my fault. “But she found us through Twinner… when you uploaded the photo of yourself and got a match.” She looks at Betsey when she says the next part. “I said earlier that I thought that Maggie hadn’t been successful cloning humans; I was wrong. Her team had been monitoring Petra.”
“Oh my god, she is the Original?” Betsey says excitedly.
“No, no,” Mom says, raising her palms. “Maggie said that when Dr. Jovovich and I claimed to have failed with the cloning, the clients went to her team next. They apparently succeeded one time, but the DNA wasn’t right. Apparently, she has something similar to progeria, but not nearly as severe.”
“What’s that?” Betsey asks, concerned.
“It’s when you age too quickly,” Ella says.
“Good,” Mom says to El, like we’re in class instead of talking about the fourth human clone. “That’s right. It’s rapid aging, and usually children with that issue have a life expectancy of only twenty years, tops. But in this case, it’s a mutation of that disease that’s much slower progressing. But still…” Her words trail off.
“Petra’s going to die?” Betsey asks. Mom doesn’t answer at first. Then, “I’m sorry, but yes, in her thirties or forties,” she says. “I know you’ve emailed with her. I know—”
“What don’t you know?” I mutter under my breath. It just flies out of my mouth; I didn’t mean to speak.
“Not a lot,” Mom says. She sounds more worn-out than proud. I look down at my forgotten bowl of ice cream; it’s a green-and-brown soupy mess.
“How did Petra end up in Oregon?” Bet asks.
“Apparently, the clients didn’t want to risk having another baby die on them, so they put her up for adoption.”
“That’s…” Betsey says, her words trailing off.
“Yes.” Mom shifts in her chair.
“So where’s Maggie?” Ella asks. “What’s to stop her from coming back here and trying again?”
“Blackmail,” Mom says flatly. “I have a little recorder in my car that I turned on when I came home that day. You might remember Maggie from TV back when Dr. Jovovich went to jail. She was quoted on the news saying human cloning is unethical and those who were secretly doing it deserved to be punished. Little did they know, she was one of those people.”
Mom takes a breath; I realize I’m holding mine.
“Anyway, she’s kept up that front, and I recorded her saying that she cloned Petra.” She pauses. “That morning you took off, I went to her and played her the recording. I told her never to come near us again or she’d go to jail like Dr. Jovovich.”
Mom waits a moment, maybe hoping one of us will ask about her fate—about Maggie turning Mom in right back. When we don’t, she fills in the blanks.
“If she tries to turn me in, she’ll fail. I have triplets—each with her own Social Security card and identity.”
Suddenly, the license in my purse feels less shiny, because it seems like it was Mom’s idea, not mine.
“You didn’t know we were going to ask Mason for help when you talked to Maggie,” Betsey says. She looks confused.
“I didn’t,” Mom says. “At that moment, I wasn’t thinking of myself. I was thinking of you.”
I can’t help it: I roll my eyes. She sees me but doesn’t say anything. At this point, I’m not sure what she could say.
“Wait a minute,” Ella says, working something out. “If you had a recorder, why didn’t you just end it right after she told you she cloned Petra? Why did you go along with her? Why did you allow us to go along with her?”
Mom blushes. “It wasn’t the best choice I’ve ever made.”
I furrow my eyebrows at her. “What do you mean?” Choice?
“I assessed the situation and didn’t feel like any of us were in life-threatening danger, so…” Mom stops talking just as it hits me. Suddenly, I know why she let us panic, let two of us think we were being kidnapped and the other one go on a wild-goose chase across the country in winter weather.
“She wanted to see Maggie’s lab,” I say disgustedly. “She wanted to see her research.”
The way my mom purses her lips together tells me two things. First, I’m right. And second, no matter what she says, science comes first.
“I’m done talking,” I say, standing up and leaving the living room. Over my shoulder, without looking back, I say it again. “I’m done.”
No one else comes upstairs for a long time. I call Sean and tell him about everything; we talk for a few minutes, but then he has to go because his mom is instituting Quality Family Time after he missed her favorite holiday.
“I could get out of it,” he says, “if you want to come over. Or I’ll come there? I mean, now that she knows about us…”
“She always knew about us,” I say, which makes me feel a little sick. Then, “I don’t feel like I can leave right now. They’re still talking down there; I want the update from Bet and Ella later.”