Authors: Heather Hildenbrand
Tags: #romance, #dystopian, #new adult
Copyright © 2012, 2013, 2014
The Girl Who Wasn’t
A New Adult version of
Everyone is exactly like me.
There is no one like me.
I wrestle with these contradicting
truths most nights while the rest of them sleep. Tonight is worse
because Marla has left me a note to see her in the morning. No one
sees Marla and comes back. Lonnie reminds me of this after she
snatches the note out of my shaking hand and reads it for Ida, who
promptly bursts into tears. No one speaks after that as we lie in
our bunks counting the breaths until lights out.
In the bunk above me, I can hear Lonnie
breathing steadily in and out. She’s not worrying herself out of a
good night’s sleep. She’s not the one going to see Marla. Below me,
Ida is quiet. I suspect she is awake, worrying, but I don’t call
out. There is no talking after lights out, and even whispers carry
in the sleeping room.
The sleeping room is a long rectangle
with high ceilings and a bad echo. The walls are lined with
triple-level bunk-beds. Everyone here is part of a trio. Lonnie
says it’s because three’s a crowd. It creates diversity and
therefore animosity. It discourages bonding that happens when there
are only two. Ida tells her she’s wrong because the three of us
have bonded just fine. I see both points. No one else seems as
close as we are. But then no other trio has lasted this
I’ve been with Lonnie and Ida since I
began. Most others have lost at least one of their threesome to a
note from Marla, only to have them replaced by a stranger. Ages
vary in Twig City, but the children are kept elsewhere so most new
additions come in looking aged at least sixteen human years. The
oldest I’ve seen is somewhere around fifty. There is no rhyme or
reason to how long you’ll stay once you’re here. Could be a week,
could be a year. I’ve been here five years. Training. Preparing.
And now I have a letter.
The rough fabric of my cotton nightgown
chafes so I lie very still and let my mind race. They say my
discomfort comes from being built like one accustomed to niceties.
How is that fair when I have never experienced anything but copies
of the real thing? My entire life is an imitation.
I am an Imitation.
The constant hum of the building is
annoying tonight. I’ve never experienced a moment of my existence
without it. From the time the tubes were removed from my throat and
air was forced into and out of my lungs, until my petri-grown
organs learned to contract on their own, the humming overhead has
been constant. They say it is the sound of life being poured
through plastic piping and into the tiny tube-grown humans housed
downstairs. Any other night, the humming is nothing more than white
noise. Tonight it’s not a comfort. Nothing is.
All I can think of is Marla. And what
Some say she’s our creator—or our
destroyer, but I don’t think so. I have a memory, hazy and made of
a nightmare, of the day I woke and the first faces I saw. None of
them were women. One man in particular stands out in the fog of
that day. I can’t recall his features. It’s nothing more than a
feeling, really, but the impression it left me with is one of utter
fear. I am positive in a way that I can’t explain that our creator
is this man.
Others say Marla is the
gatekeeper. A walker between worlds, connecting us, the Imitations,
humans, the womb-born, the Authentics.
I don’t know which is true. All I know
is no one ever returns from meeting with Marla.
Across the pitch-dark room, a whisper
is raised loud enough for an overseer to hear. They are the
sentries, the silent guards who watch and wait, only intervening
when a rule is broken or boundary overstepped. I hear the sure,
swift falls of their feet as they make their way to the offending
bunk and bark an order of quiet at whoever it was. Probably Clora.
She’s newer and not great with structure. Lonnie speculates it is a
trait from her Authentic. I hope not. If it’s part of her DNA, it
won’t be easy to break the habit. She’ll be in trouble a
Trouble in Twig City equals whatever
thing you despise. Whether it came as part of your genetic makeup
or something they discovered in your personality later, they’ll
figure you out and punish you accordingly. If you hate cleaning,
they’ll hand you a toothbrush and point you to a large tiled floor.
If you hate being alone, you’ll spend time in solitary confinement.
Mostly, they’ll just increase your daily exercise. Physical health
promotes mental wellness. I’ve heard and said this mantra so many
times I could recite it in my sleep.
The Overseer finishes her warning and
exits the room, back to her monitoring booth full of cameras. The
door latches with a soft click and all is silent again. It is a
tomb aside from the sounds of oxygen being pushed out. No one
snores. Anytime the habit develops, we are referred to the
infirmary for medical attention for whatever is causing the
blockage in the airways. When the Imitation returns—sometimes with
a bandaged nose from a surgery—the problem is gone.
Sleep eludes me. I chase it, grazing my
fingertips across its tail end but never fully catch it.
In the morning, I sit up and stretch. I
know it is morning because the lights have come on. Giant
fluorescent tubes covered by thick plastic covers run the length of
the sleeping room. The power it takes to run them makes the hum in
the air louder. More juice pushed through the pipes.
In the bunk below, Ida is slower to
wake. Her lids are heavy and blinking. I wonder if her night was as
restless as mine. Ida has a way of latching on to other people’s
stress and not letting go until everyone’s happy again. Above me,
Lonnie is grumpy but sits up quickly, mumbling about bacon and
coffee. She thinks her Authentic must not be a morning person. Ida
stands and regards me solemnly. The longer she stares at me, the
more her bottom lip trembles.
I roll out of my bunk and land lightly
on my feet, slipping my shoes on and fussing with my blond
hair—anything to ignore Ida’s nervous energy. Anna, the girl whose
bunk is closest to ours, catches my eye and nods. I nod back in
silent hello. It is a daily ritual, simple and meaningless
considering she and I never converse beyond this, but I suspect I
will miss it when I’m gone.
Ven, I don’t want you to
go,” Ida says in her soft voice that always makes me think of dolls
in pretty dresses. Porcelain. Breakable.
I don’t acknowledge her plea. I don’t
want her to cry again. If she does, I think I will cry too. “Time
for breakfast,” I say.
We fall into step together as the crowd
of girls who live in this wing surges toward the breakfast hall. My
shoulder is bumped as people push past. I don’t complain. The way
to breakfast used to involve more shoving and jostling for space.
Notes from Marla have depleted our numbers.
I smell bacon,” Lonnie
announces as we pass through the wide doors into the dining hall.
She heads straight for the buffet line.
I wander to the coffee and muffins
station with Ida and fill a plate even though my stomach feels
packed with bricks. We sit at our usual table and though it is dead
center of the crowded room, no one bothers us. Twig City
discourages fraternization. Trios stick together but new alliances
are rarely formed. The closest group of diners is five chairs away.
I can’t even hear their conversation. Just as well. Today, I don’t
want them to hear mine.
Is that bran?” Lonnie asks,
glaring suspiciously at Ida’s plate as she sits.
Bran’s good for you,” Ida
says, her lips forming a pout.
I stare longingly at Lonnie’s single
piece of sausage and two small strips of bacon. “Don’t be too
jealous. I had to promise to do an extra thirty minutes of cardio
to get both,” she explains.
It seems a small price to pay as the
smell hits me and I watch with rapture as she chews. She catches me
looking. I force a bite of my muffin. “Yum,” I say dryly. Lonnie
I berate myself for not getting the
bacon since I won’t be here to do the extra cardio it requires
Maybe she’ll change her
mind,” Ida says, abruptly bringing the conversation back
I say nothing. Lonnie rolls her eyes
and mumbles “not likely” around a mouthful of eggs. They are not
real eggs, which I hear come from chickens, but processed, organic
material packed with vitamins and proteins.
Ida glares at Lonnie. “It’s possible.
Ven can be convincing when she wants to be.”
No one ‘convinces’ Marla,”
Lonnie says. She’s right. Ida must know it because she doesn’t
What do you think they want
with you?” Ida asks quietly.
Lonnie and I share a look. There are
only two reasons an Imitation gets a letter from Marla. “I think
maybe they have an assignment for me,” I say. Neither of us is
willing to say the other option: that my Authentic is dead or
otherwise no longer in need of her Imitation. In which case, the
Imitation is terminated.
You’re probably right,” Ida
says. “Something clandestine and exciting, I’m sure.”
There is a note of forced cheerfulness
in her voice. Anyone else listening would assume it was for my
benefit, or Lonnie’s, but I know better. Ida must convince herself
there is no reason to panic.
Very exciting,” I
Can you imagine? Living
with humans? Pretending to be one of them?” Ida is far away, her
words wistful. She’s not speaking to either one of us anymore but
caught up in her own fantasy.
Lonnie and I exchange a look because
neither of us share Ida’s dream of living among humans. Probably
because both of us know that to live with humans means to never
return home to each other. It means you’ve been assigned to do
something dangerous in order to preserve your Authentic and once
your assignment is done, so are you. I can’t bear to say that to
After breakfast, the three of us walk
together to our designated changing room. We have ten minutes to
report downstairs for physical activity along with the rest of the
girls in our wing. Ida’s back is turned to me as she quickly
switches out her plain cotton sleep-shirt for the spandex material
we are given to exercise in.
The black ink high on the side of her
neck contrasts with her milky skin, the tree and set of numbers
engraved inside the trunk announcing her identity. All Imitations
are given a mark just before they are brought out of incubation. I
don’t remember receiving mine—it was always there, from the time I
awoke. The designs are all the same: an outline of a tree, the
symbol of life. Inside the hollow trunk are seven digits unique to
each of us. Possibly the only thing we possess in our entire
physical makeup that makes us one of a kind.
I catch sight of Ida’s and read it:
8988494. Her identifier. I know from memory that mine reads
4266256. I am older than she is in incubation days, though we were
awoken around the same time. Lonnie’s is half-covered by her hair
but I can recite hers from memory also: 7215409. She woke up a
month after I did.
Ven! Quit daydreaming and
get a move on,” the overseer near the door shouts, jolting me out
of my thoughts.
I finish yanking on my pants and shoes
and head out. The overseer who fussed at me—a towering woman with
broad shoulders and a mean scowl—gives me a look as I pass her. I
ignore it. The overseers are paid to be cross. I’ve told this to my
examiner, Anita, and she doesn’t bother arguing so I know it’s
Examiners are another
constant in Twig City. They check our mental health almost daily,
making sure we are fit for duty at a moment’s notice. Anita is more
laid-back than most. Still, I’ve never told her the real truth:
this letter from Marla is the most dreaded possibility I can
imagine. More terrifying than donating a vital organ or limb to the
girl I’ve never met whose genetic makeup matches mine to a T.
Instead, I tell Anita what they all want to hear, what Imitations
are supposed to say. That if and when I am called to duty, I will
be ready. I will serve my Authentic in any way necessary, including
my own termination.
I was created to
The last line, one I’ve repeated ad
nauseam and always with conviction, leaves a bitter taste in my