He glanced over to the dance floor to try and catch a glimpse of her. All of his fellow students were enjoying themselves dancing. It was the Christmas dance of their graduation year. At last, he found her. Her head tilted back in laughter. She was dancing with Zach, his best friend. Or was he? Perhaps he only befriended Zach to be near her.
Suddenly, she caught his eye and smiled at him. His stomach turned. That smile could wipe away all his sorrows and fears. It was a smile that made him feel better about himself despite his despair. For a brief moment, he didn’t feel alone in this world.
She untied her hands from Zach’s and made her way through the crowd towards him.
“Hi there Sim, why don’t you come and join us?” she asked. Sim could tell she’d been drinking. She looked at him and he didn’t know where to look. He felt exposed. Would she know how he really felt? That he thought about being with her every moment of the day? Cursing his friend for the love he received from her.
Sim snapped out of it and returned to the present, to her eyes. His face softened and he smiled back at her. “You know I don’t dance, Nal.”
He called her Nala and she called him Simba, after their favorite movie.
She sighed and rolled her eyes. He hated it when she did that. He looked at her lips. Her lower lip was fuller than her upper lip. They reminded him of peaches. He could write poems about her lips alone. He had, actually, even though he was far from a creative person.
Nala leaned into him and touted her lips to kiss him on the cheek. “Ok, see you later then at Zach’s?”
Suddenly, Sim panicked. “Uh, no… I-eh have plans,” he stammered.
Nala lifted her left eyebrow in surprise. “Don’t shut yourself off from the world, Sim. Live a little.” Again, that smile. Sim studied the wrinkles in the corner of her eyes, the dimple in her right cheek. The universe was playing a trick on him, he was sure of it. It was all a test in how much he was able to endure.
“Promise,” he said. Then, he turned around and left the awful dance. Tonight, she would be ready.
He’d been working on the machine for months. He bought it from a Japanese man who’d successfully cloned his deceased wife. Sim just needed to tweak the machine and reprogram it. He’d already collected a sample of her hair. He meticulously kept it in a glass container locked in his desk drawer. Every day, he anxiously checked if the sample was still there.
Two days ago, he added them to the machine. It took 48 hours for the body to form. She’d be ready in forty-five minutes.
His passion for data science and programming had already provided him with a steady income stream based on some applications he’d developed for different companies. In a few months, he would graduate but he was in no rush to find a job.
Tweaking the machine had proven a challenge, but certainly not impossible. It took him about a month to write an algorithm that could alter certain emotions of the clone. There was only one important change he needed to make. He needed to make her love him like he loved her. Other than that, he’d left her as she was. As she is. He didn’t know the correct semantics for this type of situation.
The machine started hissing. Steam formed inside it. Behind the window, something was moving. Slowly a figure walked towards the window through the mist.
Sim looked up in awe. There she was. Nala. The clone shot him a smile and opened the door. When the smoke dissolved, Sim realized she was naked. He felt his face turn red and covered his eyes. He took off his jacket with his free hand and threw it at her. His phone buzzed in his pocket, but he ignored it.
“Thanks, Sim,” she said. “That was weird, I feel like I had an intense dream. I still feel tired, though. Darling, will you get me to bed?”
Sim lifted his hand. He had no clue what to say. Darling? His bed? Was she already under the impression they were together? He found it very confusing.
“Come on, what’s wrong?”, she asked.
Sim snapped back. “Nothing, Nal. Eh-I, eh, I will?” He tried.
Nala giggled and took his hand.
When they entered his room, Nala took off the jacket and got into the bed.
“Night, night.” And she was off to sleep like that.
Sim sat at the side of his bed, truly gobsmacked. He did it. He actually did it! He felt his stomach turn. He had no idea how to handle clone Nala. He’d only been thinking about programming her the right way. It hadn’t occurred to him that he would gain a girlfriend when she was done. He never had one. What was he supposed to do? He was distracted by his phone which started buzzing again. He reached for it and saw a message on the home screen:
Sim, I tried calling you but you didn’t pick up. Need to talk. Coming over. Nearly there. X Nal
He also missed a phone call. Shit. He replied that she shouldn’t come, that he was feeling sick. Just when he’d send the message, the doorbell rang. He looked at Nala in his bed. She was vast asleep. He panicked. What will I do? What if she sees this? Then he calmed himself down. He’d just let her in the living room. He went downstairs and opened the door.
“Sim!,” she barged in. “He’s such an ass!” She threw her jacket on the couch and walked to the fridge. Before Sim knew it, she had poured herself a glass of wine. “Want one?”
“Eh. Sure.” Sim felt uncomfortable. “What’s wrong, Nal?”
Nala took a gulp and looked him in the eye. Sim’s level of discomfort soared. He wondered if she could read what was going on in his expression. His secret.
“Zach, of course. He broke up with me again. Said this time it’s final.” Nala rolled her eyes and took another gulp of her wine. “He says that every time. I’m sick of it. Always the same fight. Always over—”
Nala looked at him in a weird way. Like there was something wrong with him.
“Over what?”, he heard himself say to his own surprise. Hope flared.
Nala hesitated. “You.”
“Me?” Sim felt like he was going to burst.
“Yes, he thinks we’re in love. Can you believe that? Us? I said to him a thousand times, we’re just friends. Always have been.”
That word. That phrase. He hated her when she said that. He hated Zach for seeing through him. He held his tongue.
“Say something!” Nala begged.
“What do you want me to say?”
“You’re all the same, you. Never mind.”
“Huh, what are you turning angry at me for?”
“I said leave it!” Nala raised her voice.
“Sim, what’s going on?” a voice upstairs asked.
“What, you have a-a guest?” Nala asked surprised, putting her glass down.
Sim panicked. What was he supposed to do? He jumped forward in a frenzy and took Nala by the arm. “You’ve got to go.”
“What? Who’s there?”
“None of your business, go!” he spat.
“Really, Sim? Fuck you.” Nala turned and slammed the door closed.
“What was that, darling?” an all too familiar voice asked.
Sim finished his wine in one go and then Nala’s. He needed to hide her.
Sim felt tired. His mind raced. He needed to so do many things, but he just couldn’t be bothered. Clone Nala was still asleep. As soon as she started to become angry at him for not being allowed to go outside, he had to drug her and put her back in the machine. Then he updated her and changed her code.
Two blissful days was all they shared. Clone Nala had become the real Nala to him. They were together like he always wanted. Hakuna Matata, that’s what those two days felt like for him. It was better than Sim imagined it would be. To be able to touch her without fear of being exposed. Without the fear of rejection. It was as if this was how it was always meant to be. But then she wanted to get out of the house.
The real Nala tried calling him since their last encounter. She’d send him over a hundred messages for weeks. And then they stopped. Last night, he watched the Lion King with the updated clone but it was not the same. Now, all that was left was but a shell of the woman he had had all those sleepless nights over.
Naturally, he had read all her messages. She admitted she loved him, but not in that way. It was high school all over again when he asked her out on a date. He remembered her laughing until she realized he was serious. That was the first time she said she didn’t love him that way. And above all, that she didn’t want to jeopardize their friendship. Every time she said something like this, he felt a bit smaller. He’d never been good with any other girls, and now he was just incapable to even try. His hope for Nala had always stood in the way of pursuing someone else.
“Why the long face?” Nala walked down the stairs, in her bathrobe, just out of the shower. Every time he saw the clone he felt a hint of optimism only to realize after a split second that she wasn’t her. What was he thinking in the first place? Unrequited love hurts, but shouldn’t he just have distanced himself from her and go out with other girls?
Clone Nala was merely a fraction of the real one. Especially since he had to update her. He might as well have given her Valium. Nala had always been a gifted artist. She once made a drawing of him which was eerily real. It was like she had captured the misery in his eyes. That was all the clone did most days, draw. That and watching television all day, keeping up with the drama of others.
Sim and the real Nala always liked to talk about the things that intrigued them about life. They were both brought up as Christians but at one point decided that it all just didn’t make sense. They talked for hours about all the other ways of life out there, not feeling like they belonged to a specific community. They both read the same books, mostly about the future of technology and humanity, philosophy and books about spirituality. He never talked with the clone like he did with real Nala.
Sim had ignored Zach as well, and a few of his classmates he hung out with every once in a while. He did go to class but always went straight home, desperate to avoid anyone or escape from Zach after class. Zach showed up at his house once, but Sim didn’t open the door. After that, Sim had closed all the curtains that people could possibly see from the outside, even if he was living on the fifth and sixth floor.
He looked at clone Nala on the couch. She was playing with her hair. He liked that. Sim knew he should put her back in the machine, switch her off. This was no way to live. However, it was the only way to live with her. To actually feel her love and affection. Affection he craved ever since he met her. He couldn’t give up on that.
Months passed and Sim had completely alienated himself from the outside world. He didn’t get out of the house much. Only to hand in his thesis. His relationship with clone Nala was all he had. All he could hold on to.
Every day was the same groundhog-like day. He would be programming all day, she watched television. Nala even stopped drawing. At first, he worked in the living room, wanting to be near her and keeping an eye on her. After a while, he grew tired of the TV shows she was watching. The same harsh voices coming from the television. As if the voices were mocking him for the life he chose.
Sim focused on his work and sometimes worked sixteen hours a day. He started taking drugs to stay awake. Then he needed drugs to get to sleep. His diet consisted of take out and pan pizza. Nala had the same but they stopped eating together a few weeks ago. Sim’s skin turned paler and paler. He needed pills to go to the toilet.
They stopped having sex months ago. Sim just didn’t feel like it anymore and Nala couldn’t be bothered as with most things. At first, she felt like real Nala, like a human being. Sim had to reprogram her a couple of times and now she felt more like a robot from the early 2000s. Still, he couldn’t give her up.
Merely looking at her every day made him feel like there was still a reason to get up in the morning.
Besides working, one of his daily rituals was to check on the real Nala on the internet. He followed all of her social accounts to see what she was up to. Today, she posted a picture on the beach, holding a margarita, looking in the camera over her sunglasses, laughing. He looked from the picture to the Nala on the couch. The same smile, dimples and all. Except for the eyes.
That afternoon, Nala posted another picture on the same beach. This time, she was joined by a man. He kissed her on the cheek. She smiled that dangerous smile again. A smile that made Sim meek. It wasn’t Zach. There was a text accompanying the picture: “I’ll never let you go. We’re moving to Australia!”
Sim felt like he had just been in a fight and was left out bleeding on the streets. He looked at the Nala on the couch and walked over to her. “Come, let’s go upstairs,” he said.
Nala followed him. By being with her, Sim felt like this was how he could take revenge on her, but it only made him feel worse. All he could think about was that picture. She had moved on without him.
Sim sipped his cocktail and enjoyed feeling sand between his toes. The clone sat next to him, smiling.
“I’m so happy we’re here, darling,” she said.
He genuinely was. It was like he was released from prison. They had spent over two years in his house, day after day. Sim got to his feet and cursed at his knees. He had gained a considerable amount of weight. His sedentary lifestyle had resulted in stiff knees. Nala looked exactly the same as the day she got out of the machine. It started to freak Sim out. Even though he knew this beforehand, the clone would not age. She held out her hand and he gave it a soft squeeze. This is how he imagined it would be like. Living life together and travel. He’d been anxious, especially when they were at the airport back home. He bought her a passport on the dark web, changed her name and recoded it into the clone. Clone Nala was oblivious of course, but Sim broke up a sweat at security. Luckily, his money was well spent.
Before they left on their half-year trip, Sim made some adjustments to her code. She started to act like the real Nala again. He should have done this from the start.
“I wish we could travel all the time, Sim. You could work from anywhere in the world. I could teach English. I never want to leave.”
It wasn’t a bad idea, but Sim was already too far out of his comfort zone. “Maybe, yeah.”
“You don’t sound very convincing.”
“You know I love home.”
She nodded and let go of his hand. “I’m going for a swim.”
Sim watched her walk away, her long dark curls bouncing on her back. She turned around and winked at him. “Aren’t you coming?”
They traveled all around South and Central America together. Slowly, Sim started to lose his extra pounds and felt healthier again. He worked less and ate well. Nala made sure of that.
Sim looked at his apartment building and couldn’t help but feel a calm washing over him. When he carried their suitcases to the entrance, he felt a hand on his shoulder. “Remember me?”
With a jerk, Sim turned around. “Zach?”
“Hey mate, how are you doing? You look good! You— Nala?” Zach walked past Sim and approached the clone. Zach also called her Nala, he always wanted to be part of what they had.
“Oh hi, Zach.” She hugged him. “How are you?”
“I can’t believe it! You two finally together? Well done, mate.” Zach punched Sim in the shoulders and then put his arm around him. “I’m so happy for you two. I always thought you two would end up together.”
Nala laughed. “What are you on about, Zach?”
Sim panicked and intervened. “Honey, can you please order some takeout? I’ll join you in a bit.” He kissed her on the cheek.
Nala studied him and raised her eyebrows. “Sure, great to see you, Zach. Take care.”
“Honestly mate, so happy for you. I’m glad things turned around. I’m married now. We’re expecting!” Zach showed him a picture of his wife on his phone. “Anyway, gotta go. Wifey needs her groceries.” Only now did Sim notice that the door to Zach’s car was open, the engine still running. “Grab a pint, soon?”
Sim shrugged. “Sure.”
Shit, no. How could I’ve been so careless? Sim thought. He went inside and looked at Nala.
Fuck! What am I going to do? Zach will notice something’s wrong once he’s on social media. Although he didn’t mention anything about the fact that Nala was supposed to be in Australia.
“What, oh. Sorry. All fine.” Sim forced a smile and brought the suitcases to their room. He needed to hide her again. Worse, he needed to drug her again and adjust her code. Or they could move as clone Nala suggested.
He couldn’t face reality here anymore. Sim decided to move and take her with him. Perhaps if they started over, he could reprogram her and then they could try to live a normal life. That was the only option he had of trying to lead a normal life with her.
That night Nala couldn’t hold her excitement. She danced around the house, a wineglass in her left hand. They decided to move to Buenos Aires. They would leave in ten days, which left Sim with enough time to get his affairs in order.
“One more day! I just can’t believe it. I’ve already started looking at teaching positions. I found one in our favorite area.” Nala smiled at him.
For a moment, Sim felt like she was real. Like this was really his life with her. He studied her freckles, looking for any evidence of his lie. They were perfect as ever. The doorbell rang. Probably his stepfather picking up some of his last stuff. “Nal, can you please bring some boxes to the door, I’ll open it.”
When Sim opened the door, he felt sick. He wanted to close it and run, but he couldn’t move.
“Sim!” The woman hugged him. “It’s so good to see you again, you look–”
Sim turned and clone Nala stared into her reflection at the door.
Real Nala let go of him and gasped. “Sim, what the fuck is this?”
Clone Nala dropped the boxes. “Sim, what the fuck is this?”
Sim looked from one to the other. That was the last thing he remembered.
When he opened his eyes, he thought he was drunk. He stared at two Nala’s. One slightly older, sporting a new and shorter haircut. Her eyes were at battle, one was kind and the other furious. She wore change and age like an armor. The corners of her eyes showed small wrinkles like crowns supporting her gaze. He looked at clone Nala who still looked 21, but she stared at him expressionlessly, like she had been switched off.
“So Zach was right, you are with me. What the hell were you thinking, Sim? Don’t you know how disturbing this is? How humiliating? How long has this been going on?”
Sim stared from her to the clone and couldn’t manage more than a shrug. The battle in real Nala’s eyes was over, they now stared at him in unison wearing the same expression of pity. The smile that accompanied her look was possibly even worse.
“I can’t believe it, but I actually feel sorry for you. For us.” The real Nala said
Sim still couldn’t manage to speak. All those years he had been afraid of this. He saw clone Nala opening her mouth and then closing it again. Perhaps she changed her mind. She went upstairs, moving unnaturally.
Real Nala walked to the fridge. “Got any wine?” She didn’t wait for an answer and poured herself a glass and drank it in one go before she poured another.
“I–,” Nala took another sip for courage. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I feel sorry for you. I’m angry, but I’m sad at the same time. All these years… You hurt me, Sim, when you cut me out of your life. I loved you and at the moment I needed you most, you weren’t there for me. My heart broke twice.”
She looked at him, waiting for a response. Sim heard what she said, he even understood it, but he was too numb to answer. It was like he changed his own algorithm, making him meek.
“You were my best friend.”
That hit him. Sim forced a smile he didn’t feel, it was as if two hands jerked at the corners of his mouth. There it was again, the rejection, like always.
“Do you remember our last conversation?” Nala asked.
He remembered every word and shivered. He nodded, still unable to speak like the lie he had been living finally bit off his tongue.
“I’ve beaten myself up for it those months after. I knew what I wanted, but I didn’t know how to express it. Well, I did, but I was hurt. I actually hoped you would do it for me. But that only works in the movies. I now know that if I want something I should come out and say it.” Nala said.
Sim heard a sound and he found he was trying to talk, his mouth dry. Nala handed him her wine and he took a sip. He stood there frozen, unable to think, unable to find the words that he had prepared since he was thirteen on the day he met her.
“What?” Nala raised her eyebrows as only she could. One of the features he loved about her, but even this gesture was different than that of the clone. Like it was more experienced. “You are the dumbest person I know. And blind. And an asshole. And a freak for getting yourself a version of me, while I was there waiting for you to grow the balls to ask me out. I needed you to fight for me. To fight yourself and conquer me. I know it sounds stupid, but at the time I knew I couldn’t bring us together. It should have been you. I loved you, but I convinced myself that you weren’t the person I deserved at the time. You were too nice, too much of a friend. And instead, Zach, or other boys I dated were all distractions. They treated me like shit and weren’t kind. I thought you were not the person I needed at the time, instead I lied to myself and ran away.”
Sim felt like all the air was pushed out of his lungs. A tear rolled down his cheek.
“If only,” Nala sighed. And then Sim spotted a wedding ring.
- THE END -
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