Cover Reveal + Excerpt: Constance by Matthew FitzSimmons
By Crime HQFebruary 15, 2021
The little purple Christmas tree had a lot to answer for. Con hadn’t celebrated Christmas in the three years she’d lived in Washington DC. Hadn’t meant to this year either. But then on the way home from the corner store, she noticed the tree in a box of junk left on the sidewalk outside her building. She couldn’t rightly say what made her rescue it, but it felt right playing Charlie Brown in her very own melancholy Christmas special.
She took it up to her apartment and set it on a table where it twinkled at her hopefully. Other than being two feet tall, and purple, and not smelling a bit of pine, the little tree was virtually impossible to tell from the real thing. But it put her in an uncharacteristically festive mood, and she piled into decorating. She even baked Gamma Jol’s fruitcake, which sat untouched on the kitchen counter but made the apartment smell like home back in Texas.
However, her spirits, like the tree, proved artificial. Celebrating the holidays alone was like setting a bonfire in her living room. It cast unwelcome light into all the dark, carefully disregarded recesses of her life. The delicate truce she’d recently established with her depression unraveled overnight, and she woke on Christmas morning feeling low as hell. She worked remotely for a small nonprofit, which made it far too easy to avoid human contact if she chose. But how had it been a week since she’d left the apartment for anything other than food? Einstein should have spent more time investigating the uneven way that time passed in December, the supermassive black hole of the Gregorian calendar.
Perhaps that was why she accepted the invitation to the dinner that night – an orphan potluck for people with no way to get home for the holidays. Not that she would’ve set foot in Lanesboro even if she could afford the ticket. She hadn’t been home in close to five years. Not since the beginning of her sophomore year in college when Mary D’Arcy, her mother and righteous servant of God, had informed Con that she was going straight to hell. Con had looked her mother dead in the eye and with nineteen years of pent-up fury answered that she’d meet her there. They hadn’t spoken since, not even after the accident.
The party started well enough. But a tableful of lonesome people and their press-on good cheer only reminded Con of how isolated she’d become. She compensated by accepting an invitation to go home with a burly, white New Zealander. His name was Oliver, which he pronounced in a way she found delightful. Oliver had thighs like Doric columns, a mane of curly black hair, and a laugh that made you want in on the joke. She had no intention of actually going home with him – these days it felt better to be wanted than to be had – but she enjoyed the confidence of his attention.
To a point.
After dessert, she extricated herself to the living room and fell into a conversation with a musician who Con discovered shared her Mick Ronson obsession. And like that, Oliver and his tragic thighs were forgotten. How many people even knew the name Mick Ronson anymore? Much less could hold a knowledgeable, geeked-out conversation about his guitar work on early Bowie albums like Aladdin Sane and Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It was like discovering a shared, secret language, and the two women huddled in a corner for the rest of the night talking guitars and exchanging songs and tidbits of musical lore – somehow Con never knew that Ronson had played guitar on John Mellencamp’s Jack & Diane. That blew her mind a little. For the first time in a long time, she wished she’d thought to bring her guitar.
At an uncharitable hour the next morning, the bleating of the alarm woke her. Groping around on the bedside table, she found her LFD and slipped it behind her ear to find out why.
Today, December 26, 2040, will be sunny and clear, with highs in the mid-nineties.
Another scorcher. The eighth consecutive day and far from a record for late December in Washington, DC. A calendar notification reminded her about her appointment at Palingenesis. Groaning, she rolled on her side trying vainly to get comfortable enough to fall back asleep. She was overdue for her monthly refresh and remembered thinking how clever she was scheduling it for the day after Christmas when the place would be deserted. Well this was what cleverness got you.
From the other side of the apartment, the little tree twinkled forlornly at her like a friend who’d spotted her across a crowded room. She felt that she’d let the tree down for not trying hard enough to lift herself out of her gloom. Talking music had been nice, but it had left her with an emotional hangover. Mick Ronson had been Zhi’s favorite guitarist (tied for first with Nile Rodgers), and it brought up too many memories. It also reminded her that she owed Zhi a visit. She could stop by on her way to Palingenesis, but that would mean getting out of bed right now.
But did she? Want to see him?
What difference did it make, really?
Ashamed of herself for even thinking it, she forced herself into a sitting position and rubbed her right leg, which always ached first thing in the morning. Ugly scars crisscrossed her knee where the surgeons had reattached it after the crash. A medical miracle by all accounts.
Picking out clothes from a mountain of dirty laundry – a pair of black jeans and her vintage Rihanna t-shirt from the Anti world tour (2016, the year of Con’s birth) – Con gave each a forensic sniff and deemed them passable. Keeping it classy, Miss D’Arcy. From the corner, the purple tree watched her silently, speculatively, as if wondering how it had been dragged into this janky scene. That was alright. Con wondered the same thing all the time.
“Who are you here to see?” the nurse at the front desk asked. He was a tall, Nordic-looking man with shaggy, alpine hair and eyes too small for his face that gave him a perpetually suspicious squint.
“Zhi Duan,” Con replied.
It spoke volumes that the nurse didn’t recognize her. The first year after the accident, Con had rarely left Zhi’s side. She’d been on a first-name basis with the entire staff, who’d taken pity on her and let her sleep on the chair in the corner of his room. She didn’t remember the exact moment she’d become a disloyal piece of shit. First visits had been every other day, then once a week, and now she dreaded even the thought of seeing him.
The nurse asked Con for her name and entered it into the system. He informed her that she was not family. Con would argue that point. Rock band might not be a legally recognized family unit, but it sure as hell should be. Zhi Duan, Stephie Martz, Hugh Balzan, Tommy Diop – they were her family. The family she chose. Bound in love and music and shared tragedy. Now and forever. Even if they were all gone, one way or another.
“Check the exception list. I should be on there,” Con suggested. She’d been on it the last time she’d visited but when had that been? The summer? The spring? Zhi’s parents lived in Dallas and had always been grateful that someone who cared about their son still visited. Had they found out that she’d stopped coming and revoked her permission?
To Con’s relief, the nurse found her name. “I’ll need your ID and three biometrics.”
“Have as many as you like.” She dutifully submitted a hand print, eye scan, and speech sample, which the nurse compared against the data stored on her ID as well as the facility’s records. The facility had long-running issues with fans sneaking in to take pictures and steal mementos from Zhi’s room. One sixteen-year-old had been caught shaving Zhi’s head, planning to sell locks of his hair online.
Since the accident, a romantic mythology had sprung up about Zhi like weeds around an untended headstone. How his band, Awaken the Ghosts, had been heading into the studio to record its debut album once the tour wrapped up. How their van had jumped the median after a show, killing keyboardist Tommy Diop and bassist Hugh Balzan, and leaving their lead singer, Zhi Duan, in a coma. How they’d been on the verge of stardom and greatness. Con didn’t know about that, but the obsession with Zhi was real. Bootlegs of the band’s shows and demos were shared back and forth online among the fervent. Thousands of posts had been written in fan forums, especially about Zhi, who had been transformed into a tragic poet-musician god. A generational talent cruelly taken before his time.
Fans of the band – cult members when Con wasn’t feeling generous – pilgrimaged from all over to pay their respects. The site of the crash had become a graffiti-stained shrine. The uber-creepy ones with boundary issues even tracked Con down to ask intimate, presumptuous questions about Zhi. They talked about him like they’d known him, which made her vaguely ill. Her memories weren’t roadside curios, three for a dollar, to be pawed through by grubby-fingered tourists. When confronted, she always kept her answers vague and extracted herself quickly, aware that some of the more hardcore fans resented her and Stephie for not having the decency to die in the crash.
The nurse handed over a visitor’s pass. “Lucky timing. He’s been up at Johns Hopkins for the past few weeks. Only just got back a few days ago. Looks like his parents enrolled him in some study the university is running on long-term-care patients.”
In the elevator, she tried to talk herself into leaving. She’d signed in at the front desk. Didn’t that count as visiting? No one would know if she didn’t actually see him. Least of all Zhi himself. When the elevator opened she meant to get off, but her feet refused to move. It wasn’t until the doors began to close that her hand shot out to hold them open. With a sigh, she got off and went down the long hall.
Zhi’s room was silent apart from the machine that breathed for him and the rhythmic beeping of the monitors. Seeing him like this always broke her heart all over again. She hurried to the window and opened the curtains. Why did they keep it so dark in here? There was a tree in the courtyard, tall and sinewy, that Zhi would have loved. Con made a circuit of the room, straightening up. Not that it was necessary – the staff did an excellent job – but this was her routine to make herself feel like she still played a part in his life. When she had finished tidying, she pulled up a chair beside the bed and took Zhi’s hand. Once, they’d been the callused hands of a guitarist but now they were as soft as a newborn’s. She squeezed. He didn’t squeeze back. He never would again.
Persistent vegetative state.
She didn’t think she’d ever heard three uglier words. The first year, she’d clung to the fantasy that if she kept talking and singing to him, her devotion would be rewarded. The more doctors tried to convince her that Zhi’s brain damage was irreversible, that he would never regain consciousness, the more radicalized in her certainty she became. He was special. He had a destiny. They didn’t know him, know his strength. Not like she did. So it would be up to her to help him find his way back. She’d made herself his lighthouse, resolved to keep watch until he came back to her. One day his eyes would flicker open. He would look over to her and smile and ask when they could blow this place. Like in a fucking fairytale. Could you imagine anyone being so naive? But here was the thing, she still was. A pathetically stubborn woman who refused to listen to reason.
It was why she couldn’t get out of bed some mornings and why her friends had run out of patience with her. After the crash, people had respected her grief, indulged it, even admiring its spikey resilience. Their hearts and thoughts and prayers went out to her. But the luster of any tragedy eventually wore off. The narrative changed. It wasn’t as if she and Zhi had been married. Three years was long enough to mourn. Too long, some whispered. She needed to quit milking it and move on. She’d felt herself being reclassified from grieving to depressed. And depression, unlike grief, was treated as a character flaw. Not that anyone said it aloud, but who wanted to deal with some sad girl and her bum knee? Con didn’t blame them. She didn’t much want to deal with herself either.
“Merry Christmas, Zhi,” she said and put her head down and cried.
The band had played a show in DC that night and were on the way to North Carolina when the van jumped the median. Con had been curled up asleep in the back, no seatbelt, and woke in a hospital bed with no memory of the crash. No one could say for certain what had happened. Not even Stephie, who had improbably walked away without a scratch. All that was known was that the truck had hit them head on and their van had been totaled. Hugh had died instantly. Tommy hung on for two days before succumbing to his injuries. Zhi had never regained consciousness. Her Zhi. Con was in the hospital for two months recuperating from multiple surgeries and missed both funerals. She hadn’t spoken to Stephie, her best friend in the world, in years.
Without noticing that she was doing it, she put her hand on her right knee and rubbed the scars beneath her jeans.
Zhi had been driving that night as he had throughout the tour, clocking unhealthy hours behind the wheel. Without discussing it with anyone first, he’d bought the band a self-drive ’27 Chevy van. The new laws required vehicles to be auto-drive but had grandfathered in older models. It was an expensive hobby. Parts were harder and harder to find, and the cost of a self-drive insurance policy was stratospheric. None of their families had that kind of money, except for Zhi’s parents, who could afford to underwrite their only child’s reckless flight of fancy.
Before leaving Texas, Con had been nominated by the rest of the band to try one last time to convince Zhi to trade in the van and get something newer. Something reliable. She was the band’s chief negotiator and had done her best but no one ever won an argument with Zhi. Not when he dug in his heels and got that look in his eyes, talking about how a band being driven around America by computer would never truly understand where it came from. It was all soulful bullshit, but it sounded so good when Zhi said it. Everything always did. That had been Zhi’s gift. The reason Con had fallen in love with him in the first place, why she loved him even now, though it didn’t feel good anymore, and she wished that she knew how to make it stop.
Her LFD chirped with yet another reminder of her appointment. Con wondered what Zhi would think if he knew that she had a clone waiting for her at Palingenesis or that the crash was the reason she kept these monthly appointments. Death had always been an abstraction, but after the crash nothing frightened her more. The clone was cowardice pure and simple, cowardice that had seeped into her groundwater like a toxin.
She would give anything for him to sit up and remind her that she didn’t have to be afraid every minute. He’d once told her that she was the bravest person he’d ever known. Where had that woman gone?
Only ten in the morning but already it was on the mean side of ninety. Con fought her way through the scrum of grim-eyed protesters chanting their defiant, ripcord slogans outside Palingenesis. She’d scheduled the appointment for the day after Christmas hoping it would be quiet for a change, but the protesters were out in force. There had to be three times as many as she’d ever seen before. Maybe they didn’t have anywhere to spend the holidays either.
The protestors were a permanent fixture, rain or shine, huddled beneath the black umbrellas that had become the unofficial symbol of their cause. These were the shock troops of the CoA – the Children of Adam – the single largest anti-cloning organization in the US. They picketed every Palingenesis clinic in the country, but the headquarters here in Washington, DC held a particularly intense fascination for them. In their minds this was the point of origin. The birthplace of human cloning. Where the species had begun to disentangle itself from its humanity.
The umbrellas pulsed excitedly as word filtered through the crowd – the front doors of the clinic had opened. Everyone knew what that meant. A client was arriving. Two white security guards emerged into the sunshine. Both wore ballistic vests and didn’t venture far from the doors as they scanned the crowd for Con.
She didn’t dare call out to them. Not yet anyway. Not until she was much, much closer. She knew exactly how the protesters would respond if they realized that the enemy walked among them. The main entrance was rarely used so these protests were a frustrating, thankless vigil; they would be eager to put a face to their rage. Con pulled the brim of her cap low over her eyes. Not that anyone was likely to recognize her, but the possibility scared her enough to keep photographs of every outfit she wore to her monthly appointments, careful never to wear the same thing twice.
The crowd surged forward lifting Con off her feet and knocking the wind out of her. She’d been in enough mosh pits to know better than to fight against the tide. Safer to be carried along, conserving energy, and wait for an opportunity to swim for shore.
“No birth, no soul! No birth, no soul!”
“God doesn’t want you!”
With each chant, the crowd took another step forward. By law, protesters were required to remain forty feet back from the clinic doors, but the police, who mostly sided with the demonstration, had better things to do than enforce the legal buffer zone. Normally it didn’t matter. No one who could afford Palingenesis’s services arrived on foot. The clientele was nine-digit wealthy and preferred the private underground parking garage to avoid all the ugliness out front.
Except for Con, of course. Her bank account rarely broke three digits and some days barely two. She couldn’t even afford a new used scooter after her last one had been stolen. So to keep her monthly appointments, she had no choice but to run this gauntlet. Not that running was something she did well anymore, but she still had a little fight left in her. Elbowing her way through a gap, she emerged at the front of the protest. The doors, and the safety of the guards, beckoned only a short distance away.
Con made a break for it, hobbling for the door and pleading with her reconstructed knee not to lock up. Realizing they had been deceived, the demonstrators roared. It was a terrible, prehistoric sound and Con braced for the hands that would drag her back into the protest’s maw. This was the part she hated most. When all eyes would be on her. Ironic considering how much she loved to be on stage. She had sung for audiences as large as five thousand yet this crowd, no more than four hundred strong, made her stomach seize up. But then the guards spotted her and rushed forward, each taking an arm, and bundled her inside as the crowd howled for blood.
The sound-proof doors sealed closed behind them, silencing the din of the protesters. In the abrupt calm, Con looked questioningly at the guards.
“What’s going on out there?” she asked, trying to catch her breath.
“You didn’t hear?” the taller of the two said. “Abigail Stickling died last night.”
“Died?” his partner said. “You mean base-jumped off the Monroe Hotel without a parachute.”
Con was stunned at the news, but it explained why there were so many protesters this morning. Dr. Abigail Stickling, the mother of human cloning and co-founder of Palingenesis, the bogeyman who haunted so many conspiracy theories, was dead. A suicide. This would be a day of triumphant celebration for the CoA and anyone else who believed human cloning to be an abomination.
“Either that or she forgot her broomstick,” the first guard said.
His partner snickered and made a whistling noise of something plummeting to the ground. Con walked away without a word, and the guards fell silent behind her. Good, she thought. Abigail Stickling might be a controversial figure, but she was also Con’s aunt. So the hell with the guards and their petty cruelty. The irony though was that Con shared similar thoughts about her aunt, a woman she barely knew beyond what she read in the media.
The last time she’d seen her aunt had been the commotion at her father’s funeral. An ugly fight had erupted between her mother and her aunt before the service. To this day, Con didn’t know what had set off her mother but having grown up with her, she knew it wouldn’t have taken much. The Sticklings were a large clan – two sisters and four brothers – that enjoyed the spectacle of taking sides. Con’s uncles had all rallied around the grieving widow and against Abigail, who everyone agreed had put on airs since moving to Boston for school. It was also agreed that her interest in human cloning, still in the theoretical stages, was a sin of pride; a wretched befoulment of God’s design.
In the end Abigail had been permanently disinvited from her parents’ home. Her name wasn’t to be spoken, her existence not to be acknowledged in any way. Everything Con knew about her aunt she’d learned either in the media or else from Gamma Jol, her father’s mother. Gamma Jol had never wanted anything to do with the Sticklings in the first place, her son’s courtship of Mary an enduring mystery. Perhaps that was why she took such pleasure in answering all the questions her granddaughter couldn’t ask anyone else.
For her part, Abigail had taken her shunning in stride and left West Texas never to return. It had made her an inspiration of sorts to Con six years later when she’d rebelled against her mother’s strict expectations and gone to live with Gamma Jol. She’d resolved to follow her aunt’s example by getting out Lanesboro and making something of herself, only her route would be music not science. Her aunt had gotten out alright. She’d become both world famous and phenomenally wealthy, and she’d never spoken to anyone in the family again.
Not one, solitary word.
Until the letters arrived.
Two years ago, lawyers had turned up at the doorstep of every member of the family, bearing legal paperwork gifting each with a clone. Con had to hand it to her aunt. What was the market price of an individual clone? Twenty-five, thirty million? No one in the family had ever had money, so to an outsider it would’ve looked like an extraordinarily generous and extravagant gesture. To the family, however, it was Abigail rubbing her success in their faces by offering the one thing that none of them would ever accept.
If there was any doubt of her aunt’s intentions, the accompanying letter was a masterpiece of score settling that perfectly encapsulated the resentments that had riven the family for decades. Con remembered the last sentence verbatim: I hope this small token of my affection allows you all to live long, long lives, wallowing in your collective mediocrity. Apparently Con’s mother wasn’t the only one in the family who could hold a grudge.
Con alone had accepted her aunt’s gift despite, or perhaps because, it being wrapped in an emphatic fuck you. The mixed-race daughter of a white, fire-breathing evangelical and a half-black, half-Vietnamese Army corporal, Con had grown up an outsider, contending with tormenters of every age and race. She’d had to fight her way through school. Too small to win most of them, she’d learned the art of survival instead. Stubbornness was a rich vein of ore running through both sides of her family, and Con mined it for the will to endure anything. Setting her jaw, she willed her way through childhood following three simple rules: never cry in public, never ask for help, never ever give them the satisfaction of knowing they’d gotten to her. So when the taunting letter from her aunt had arrived, Con recognized the work of a bully. She tore up the letter and took the clone even though she wasn’t sure she wanted it.
Since Con had been in DC, her aunt had never once reached out to her. Not even when Con was convalescing in the hospital following the operations to reattach her leg. And in the two years that she had been coming to Palingenesis to refresh her upload, Abigail had never emerged from her laboratories to say so much as hello. Outside Palingenesis’s windows, the great tent of umbrellas trembled in frustration and once again Con thought of birds. Only this time it was of the ravens that sometimes gathered along the Texas highways of her childhood, waiting on a dying animal to give it up. What had Gamma Jol called a group of ravens? An unkindness? Yes, she thought, that sounded about right.