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i hope my heart goes first

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His name was John, too.

He’d been thirty. He had the same jawline, the same freckles, the same hair. The nose wasn’t the same, but it was close enough. A little bigger, a little straighter. His eyes were closed in the picture, so you couldn’t tell if they were the same color. The lips were similar enough. His chin was a little more pronounced.

Years ago John might have made the mistake of thinking of the picture as a sign of respect. Like what normal people get when they die. What’s that called. Obituary. When he was fourteen they’d show those in his classes. “See,” his teachers would say, “look at all these dead people. You could have saved them.” And they’d asked, “but why are they in the newspaper?”

Now he knows. They’re a sign of respect. A sign of mourning.

So when he’d escaped, initially he’d thought that this was the same thing. Well, not the same thing, exactly - but similar. Something nice for them. A recognition of their service.

He’s learned since. It’s a warning. It’s a jeer. It’s them saying We caught you. This is the same person as you, and we caught you, and we will catch youtoo. Because successful donors don’t get their photos in the newspaper. That's something that's reserved for people like him. People who escaped, and got caught.

And what happens, or happened, to those people was unspeakable to most of them.

John stares at the picture so hard he’s certain it’s going to give him a headache. He traces a finger along the edges and dips of the face in the grainy photo. Differences from differences in genes, not from environmental differences. Not one of the clones from his set. A sibling, probably. Older, too, not that that necessarily means anything - he knows for a fact there’s another generation of clones of him.

Not of him. Of the model they’re all made of. The model they’re modeled after, he guesses, except they’re made of him. They are him, in a sense. Not - not him him, not John, but the original John. The one that sold himself to science, or was taken, or whatever happened to him.

There’s another generation of them. Twelve, he thinks, that’s the standard amount. Anything more and it gets a little inconvenient. Schools get overcrowded. They must be, what, six years old now. But the new generations are that - new. There’s no clones of his model that he knows of that are older than him. This guy was probably from when they still hadn’t gotten it quite right, when they were still producing individual people with unique genetic compositions, when using them for the purpose they were made for was still a bit frowned upon. When getting correct matches was still completely a guessing game.

People. Calling them that still makes his heart stutter in his chest. Thinking of himself, and by extension other people like himself, as something less than human is so instilled in his brain that consciously going against it is a jolt every time. That’s what they were taught for years, after all - they aren’t humans. They might think they are, but they’re not. Not in the way that others are. Before them, there was a brief period of time when it was popular to jokingly act like gingers didn’t have souls. Like it was amusing. After them, it changed a little - they still didn’t have souls, but at least they weren’t clones. He doesn’t know what the logic is, there. He’s sure it’s something. He’s sure there’s some sort of reasoning behind that.

John - the John that’s still alive, John Laurens - places the newspaper back on the park bench. He’s alive. He’s fine. He’s twenty two. He’s in New York City. He’s okay.

If he was still in school, this would be the part where his teachers would tell him to sit down and put his head between his knees. He doesn’t do that because he’s out. There’s people everywhere. A few months ago the fact that he couldn’t let his anxiety pass safely would have triggered another, worse panic attack, or maybe made him dissociate. Now he just swallows his feelings and turns on his heels.

Because if his face - or a face similar to it, a face this similar to his - is shown in the paper they will know he’s one of them too. And that will make him unsafe for the next few months.

Them being undercover only works if everyone else they’re - they’re related to stays undercover too. John knows this.

They’d had a situation like this once before, when he was still new - one of Lafayette’s copies had surfaced in Chicago and they’d had to hide him for months until everyone had forgotten about it. He still dyes his hair and eyebrows blue because of that. Aaron had told him that he was being dumb, that he was just drawing more attention to himself with artificial shit like that, that it was just going to make people look at him more. Lafayette hadn’t said anything, and Maria’s hands, gloved and gentle in his hair, hadn’t stopped working the dye into the curls.

There’s been other times too, when he’d come home to a state of general panic, but usually those had been siblings, and sometimes the panics themselves hadn’t even been about being found but rather about other things - Eliza’s sister, Hercules’ brother. Maria’s sister. Those don’t usually put them in danger, though Hercules and his brother had been strikingly similar to each other in appearance, and he’d stayed inside for a few weeks just to be sure. There’s something worse about it, though. It’s easier to see siblings as people. It’s easy to mourn someone that’s a separate person. They know their clones are different people, of course, rationally. The whole debate of nature versus nurture. But that discussion had more or less stopped when clones became more widely used, when their production skyrocketed. By the time John was fifteen all he knew about that was what he managed to pry out of older students, the ones that had still been exposed to the curriculum that had half-heartedly and reluctantly recognized their humanity.

There’d been a time when he’d heard a couple of senior year students, probably eighteen already, so close to graduating, discussing it in hushed tones. He’d been doing homework by their table in the library, and one of them, a girl he’d seen around before, one with skin the color of polished oak, one that kept twirling her hair around her pointer finger, said “Do you really think if you met one of your doubles you’d like them? What if they were, I don’t know. Homophobic. Angie, what if your doubles hated you.” She’d leaned forward over the table, extended her arms, put her weight on her elbows, her forearms. There’d been a look so intense in her eyes that John hadn’t been able to look her in the face.

Her name was Margarita. John remembers this because he remembers that she’d been called on during a class once, and he remembers thinking about how odd it was for a clone to have a name like that. Usually their names were more old-timey, he guesses. Bland. Simple. Not too many syllables. One of the girls he used to know, a Sophia, he thinks, had said White. They’re white names, all matter of fact, and he hadn’t dared to say anything in response to that. It’d felt disrespectful. At least they had their own names now. They used to name them after the model, but then that proved to be dangerous to the model, and they’d started naming them real names. Unique name for each set of clones made of a specific model. John. Elizabeth. Mary. Sophia.

There was a girl that had features so Russian that several people told her that. Every time she heard that she’d burst into tears, and it took John a long time to figure out why, but then he learned that her name was Samantha and he understood. To have one’s origins denied like that. When you don’t know anything about yourself every small thing like that feels like a slap to the face. And Eliza had talked about it, too, sometimes, not very much, but she’d wondered. And he’d wondered too, he guesses. Just not as much.

But everyone had a name like that. Even Alexander, when picking a new name, had opted for a more traditional name. A simple, clean name. And John liked it, loved the way it shaped itself in his mouth, no hard clunking of consonants, but it was telling. He wasn’t sure if it was just that Alexander was more familiar with names like that, or if he’d been conditioned to find them beautiful. He doesn’t know.

Of course, there were other people like Margarita at his school - there’d been a Theodosia. An Ashley. Parker. Sydney. Names that were popular at the time outside their own little bubble, names that new mothers would give their babies, excited and filled with love. There was something of a resentful atmosphere that surrounded those people - people around them jealous of them, even though they weren’t sure why, and the people themselves bitter because they were so close to being normal. They were so close to humanity, but it still wasn’t theirs.

And there is Hercules. There is Lafayette. Hercules was always Hercules. He is one of those people who, in school, got both the jealousy and the teasing, because while Hercules was never a name people really named their kids it was the name of a god. Of course there were biblical names like Abigail and Rebecca and Grace and, hell, John, but Hercules had a Disney movie made about him. That was the thing, really, not so much the godly aspect. If that’d been it, every David would have been envied, and they weren’t.

Religion was never something they talked about in school, at least not ever that John remembers. He looked into the few main religions he knows of now after he escaped, and he thinks he understands why, now. He guesses it would have been enough of a reminder for the teachers and the guardians and whatnot that they were human in every sense that it mattered. Or maybe they’d been afraid that if they had something like religion to unite them they’d revolt. It was reasonable, he guesses, considering there were maybe thirty teens and young adults for every teacher, and if they wanted to they could easily kill every authority figure in that school. If they wanted to, that is. And if they trusted each other enough to do something like that as a group.

Because there’d been so many things that existed just to keep them resentful of each other. He doesn’t have any real evidence of this, of course, but he always suspected the differences in names were the most prominent example. Keep the Lilies and the Ryders and the Herculeses separated from the Annas and the Johns. And it worked to a certain extent - there were the resentful looks and the longing gazes and the occasional ruining of someone else’s clothing because they happened to be called Katie instead of Ruth.

And that was a good way to get people to resent each other. Make some people seem special, but do it in a way that they only seemed special to the kids around them, not to themselves. It keeps everyone involved on their toes.

Margarita, and Angie. Angie was short of Angelica. That was reasonably common. Angie was special. Nicknames were special. They were specialized. Made specifically for each person. It was too human, he supposed, and that’s why they weren’t supposed to have nicknames. But they did anyway. They were whispered to each other in the common rooms, in the dormitories, in the cafeteria. Some of them even wrote them down in the notes they passed to each other in class, if they were brave. There was always the possibility that someone was going to see, and that’d always get them a punishment. They weren’t special. That was the main lesson, there. And he doesn’t think they ever thought they were, or wanted to be.

But Angie.

Angie had a look of despair mixed with resentment on her face. John had winced at the question too - he’d inferred that this must have been a question because she, herself, had been gay. He knew Margarita could not have meant anything bad by it, but he understood the emotions on her face, the internal struggle. What if people who are you in almost every sense of the word hated you. What a question to ask someone. John ached for the girl. He wanted to say “Don’t worry about it. They don’t matter. You’ll never meet them.” But he didn’t, because he wasn’t supposed to even be listening in the first place, and he didn’t want to give himself away.

“They could be gay too,” Angie’d said, “we still don’t know if it’s innate or not.”

Margarita had leaned back. She’d still had the same intense look in her eyes, but she’d seemed satisfied for now.

Angie’s response had startled him, and he wasn’t sure why. He knew that was true. They didn’t know. It was entirely possible that it was something one was born with, but there was nothing then to prove that.

He thinks that’s the first time he really thought about the possibility that his copies could be fundamentally different from him in that aspect. He’d thought about how much of his personality was based on his sexuality, and on the experiences he’d had because of his sexuality, and how they’d shaped him into who he was, how he hadn’t been born with anger issues, how he hadn’t been born protective. He thinks about the fact that he’d picked up painting after his teachers had suggested it as a way to cope with his anger. Maybe his copies were bullied for their freckles and their mismatched faces, or for their accent, for the way their vowels stretched sometimes or their consonants clattered against each other, and maybe that made them angry too. But maybe they were straight and maybe they had a group of friends. Maybe they were around kids softer than them. Maybe they were shaped into leaders.

He’d picked up his books and walked out. He thinks Angie and Margarita never even noticed he’d been there.

But the siblings - it makes sense that there’s siblings for most of them. They kept most of their original models from the days when using real people was still okay. Although of course then they weren’t models. They were surrogates, or donors, or whatever people called them then.

They kept them.

They like recycling.

That’s why they exist. That’s why John exists, and Maria, and Alexander, and Lafayette, and Hercules, and Eliza, and Aaron. It doesn’t matter if they accept it or not, that’s the truth, and that’s how it works. No matter how Lafayette tries to ignore it that’s still the reason they’re there. And he does try to deny it - from his name to the way he talks about it.

Lafayette had found his name in a book. It made sense to him, John guesses - he named himself after a guy that disguised himself as a pregnant woman just so he could get on a boat and fight in the independency war of a country he wasn’t even a citizen of. That’s what Lafayette did. That’s close to what he did, anyway. He didn’t fight a war, not literally, but he’d made it here, all the way from France, and he hadn’t been caught. He hadn’t been even close to being caught. He’d pretended he’d been normal, that he’d been human, and he’d made it.

See, European clones like to think there’s something special about what they do in Europe, as if it isn’t the same thing no matter where it happens. Sure, they have their special nice schools but that doesn’t mean they aren’t still raised to be slaughtered. And they know it, still, no matter how well they can recite their Shakespeare or how well they know their conjugations. They know they weren’t meant to be normal people, and that’s what drove Lafayette underground, eventually, that’s what made him find Hercules and Burr. It was sad, John thinks, but not particularly surprising. Plenty of them try to live normally, and some of them manage. Some of them have new identities, new names, and they do okay. But knowing what they were raised for, what they were created for - that fucks you up. It’s something you carry with you forever.

And that’s why what happened to Lafayette was so sad.

He was okay for a few years. He and Hercules and Burr had their own place, and they went to work, and Lafayette had a new shiny birth certificate with all the right stamps on it, and he was okay, and John found them, and then Alexander and Maria and Eliza, and they were all happy, and then suddenly they caught one of his copies in Chicago. And then he’d had to disappear.

That’s the thing about clones, John’d thought, they think like you do. He hadn’t said that out loud but he knew that everyone was thinking the same thing, even Lafayette. And that’s what made him think about what he’d heard back when he was still in school, in the library, and how that’d made him feel. He’d traded looks with Eliza, then, because he knew she’d known exactly what he thought right then. She knew about it. She knew these things. He thinks it must have hit Alexander, too: not because he was scared, but because he was sad. He wouldn’t admit it, but he’d had this look on his face. And Eliza and John traded looks, again, behind his back this time, because, again, they knew.

The thing about Alexander there is that he only had two clones, and he’d seen one of them die firsthand. The second one turned up dead much later, true, but Alexander had been convinced that she’d die as well. And she did. Later, but still. John gets the sadness in the face of the death of a copy, he does, but he knows that with Alex it’s more than that. If people made from the same model as him keep dying does that say something about him. Is that an indication of how his life will play out.

There’s another thing there, too, with him. He knows it’s a thing with all of them, he guesses, the thing about the gayness, but it’s more burning with Alexander than it is with the rest of them, and John is drawn to that. For Alexander it isn’t the gayness, really, but rather his gender. All of his copies turned up dead, and all of his copies turned up as girls.

And that makes him feel like a faker.

John keeps telling him “They might have also been, just hadn’t realized it, or weren’t safe to be public about it,” and Alex keeps shrugging, because that’s a fair guess. But just as well it might be that Alexander is the only boy out of the three of them. And that doesn’t - that isn't a good feeling. They're supposed to be the same, and none of them want to be special. Alexander does, in a certain way. But not like this.

John knows he wonders about his model, sometimes, because of that. Was his model a trans guy too? They have no idea. Alexander doesn’t think he’s a fuck up for it, but he feels like a faker sometimes. John doesn’t feel like a faker, but he does feel like a fuck up. If his model was straight, and he came out gay, what does that mean? Aaron keeps calling him out on that, and he’s a little sharper about it than he has to be, and John knows it’s not good to think about it like that. There’s nothing wrong about it. But he wonders. And it makes him nervous.

But that’s what makes them so similar, he guesses. There’s more, of course - other things. Anger. Hunger. A certain kind of vulnerability others don’t understand or don’t want to understand. Alexander’s hands around his waist, and his around Alexander’s neck, his eyelashes against his cheek. There’s the light bouncing off the walls and onto them. The way it clings to them. The way his clothes smell like Alexander. The way the bathtub feels empty without him. They’re the same on so many levels and if John believed in that sort of thing he’d wonder if their models had known each other. If they’d loved each other like they do. If they still do. If they’re free.

Alexander looks out of windows sometimes like he wants really badly to be free. Sometimes he’ll stare directly out, not even at anything in particular, just out. Eliza always tells him to just go, because she recognizes the longing in his gaze, the yearning. She knows those things. But John doesn’t think it’s just about going out, because they do that. He does that. He goes out. This is something more. John hasn’t figured out what it is, not yet anyway. Maybe he just longs to be free. Maybe it’s more than that. Maybe it isn’t, and he’s making a big deal out of nothing. Either way, there’s something weird about it, and whenever John goes to hug him when he’s like that he flinches away like he’s been startled out of his thoughts.

There’s this block of donor houses on the way home that John passes almost every time he goes out or comes home. Sometimes he takes another route out, but usually he opts for this one. It’s faster, and besides, sometimes he likes to be reminded of the fact that it’s still happening. That it’s real. That they aren’t the only ones who know about it.

John glances at the people going by, and he thinks, They all know. Everyone knows. They just pretend they don’t. And John isn’t sure if that’s worse or better than if they just admitted to it. If they just admitted that they know what happens everywhere in the country, everywhere in the world. If they admitted they knew where all their new, shiny organs came from. If they still would talk about the miracles of science if they’d been forced to admit what it was that was keeping them alive. If they’d been forced to admit that the luxury of being able to easily live past a hundred didn’t apply to everyone, and that it had never been meant to apply to everyone.

John thinks about Eliza. She’d been seven years old. The other girl had been nine. He wonders if the parents of that girl ever even considered the fact that they’d taken organs out of the body of a seven year old to keep their kid alive. He wonders if they would have cared even if they did.

Recycling, they’d said. Taking things that aren’t used anymore and putting them into better use. They hadn’t said it outright, but by phrasing it like that John had understood that they meant that people like them don’t really have any use for their organs. They aren’t worthy of life. And it makes sense, he guesses, because they weren’t created to have lives. The have one purpose.

Recycling. John thinks of himself as one of those metal garbage cans, made full just to be emptied. Perhaps that’s a little dramatic. He can’t find it in himself to care.

There’s a man, probably a caretaker, escorting a young woman, maybe twenty, out of a pale pink building. John crosses his arms across his chest. She’s wearing one of those off-white hospital gowns that John had gotten familiar with, briefly.

(He’d been nineteen. He’d been a little younger than usual donors, then, but then again, he’d only given a part of his liver. Given, they kept saying, like it had been a choice. It hadn’t. He’s healed from it, and he knows that livers can repair themselves, to an extent. But he knows the process.)

The woman smiles at the man she’s with, but it’s a very thin smile. John wonders how much time she has left. How many organs she has left to recycle.