DUPLICATOR by James D. Reed

THE GREAT WHITE FARMHOUSE, down to the blistered paint and chipped cornices—a mirror image of the house Angie Sisco was standing in—suddenly materialized in the ragweed where the barn had stood seconds ago. It was as if it had been dropped by a giant crane from the turrets of low cumulus clouds in the spring sky above. A ball of dust and displaced pollen, mushrooming from the impact, enveloped the lower half of the house for a second and then drifted into the oblivion of a soybean field beyond. The duplication, aside from the sputtering transformer behind Angie, had been swift and silent as usual.

Angie, short, pert and with close-cropped hair her friends in their small-town banality described as dishwater blonde (better unpolished brass, Angie thought), stood at the kitchen window, a stopwatch still ticking in her hand. She was distracted by the silence, the birds and crickets and breeze struck dumb by this sudden apparition in the barnyard.

The low-voltage transformer standing in the kitchen—the type Angie had seen atop telephone poles at intervals along country roads—fell silent, drained of its energy. Behind it, the parlor and a narrow living room were filled to the high ceilings with a snakework of tied cables, raceways and an intersecting superstructure of steel tubes that resembled an anthill in cross-section. Captured by this electronic maze were a ratty sofa, end tables, an oversize easy chair, floor lamps, wall paintings, bookcases and decorative gimcracks of a house lived in, sharing its everyday space with the machine at its core.

Most of the furniture, purchased at auction and yard sales, was Angie’s donation. The house, the paintings and this crazy “Duplicator,” as he called it, belonged to Dunbar. These and his art equipment (plus a dozen stripped down old Xerox machines and cases of fungi-encrusted hardbounds) were Dunbar’s sole possessions when Angie moved in a year before.

The silence was broken from inside the anthill.

“Goddammit!” said Dunbar. He had rammed his head, right on the bald spot, against the sharp edge of an overhead raceway that Angie could not have touched even on tiptoe.

Angie dropped the stopwatch on the kitchen counter and went to pull Dunbar out of the electronics before he smashed something. Dunbar’s temper was frightening. He could drive his huge bulk through a door in a rage and then blame it sheepishly on nearsightedness and the thick, outdated lenses balanced on his nose.

“Just sit down and let me see,” said Angie.

“Harmless scratch, Ang. Did you time it?” For Dunbar the success of a duplication somehow tied in with how short an interval there was between energizing, transmittal and receiving.

“You’re bleeding like a stuck pig.”

“It’ll clot,” said Dunbar. Ringlets of brown blood wormed into the thick dark hair above his left ear. Dunbar was like a balding ape. Skin the color of stained pine bared through the mat of hair covering his body. “How long, Angie? More than fifteen seconds?”

“What do you eat, Dunbar? It is clotting. You could probably use a couple stitches, though.” Angie dabbed at the wound with a tissue. “Still hurt?”

“I said it’s okay,” Dunbar huffed. He backed out carefully from the netting of tubes and wires, hunting for the stopwatch. Angie got to the kitchen first. Outside the window, glaring in the sunlight, the duped farmhouse seemed whiter than the original. She grabbed the watch and thumbed the stop button just as Dunbar lunged into the room.

“Jesus, Ang. The timing is critical. It’s not like I reproduce a structure this size every—” Dunbar was transfixed by the house out in the yard, just as Angie had been earlier with the stopwatch in her hand.

“Tell me the barn is behind it, Angie,” he said.

“I don’t think so.”

“Isn’t your Corvair in there?”

“The duplicate is, with the right-hand steering wheel. And your canoe.”

“Just great,” Dunbar said, fuming. Two strides took him to the kitchen door. “This should be interesting. You coming?”

Angie trotted alongside Dunbar’s loping pace. She had long ago accepted his tenseness during the course of an experiment. He was mellower sitting at his drawing table, building up the acrylic layers of oversize illustrations for children’s books, magazine ads, industrial brochures—jobs that appeared weekly in the dented mailbox at the end of the lane.

Dunbar reached the farmhouse first. It was brighter than the old one behind them, as if in the process it had gotten a fresh coat of paint that peeled and cracked in the same spots as the original.

“Ang,” Dunbar said, “forget the stopwatch. This is stupendous.” He held out his great mitt for her, taking Angie’s hand gently and intertwining his little finger around hers. The private handhold put Angie at ease.

“But the barn is in there, I know it. And your car. The canoe. Shit, did I blow it. This thing was supposed to come down thirty feet from here, at least. Ridiculous, stupid machine.”

“Maybe you can undo it,” said Angie. “Reverse polarity or something.”

“Let me read the books, love.” Dunbar drew back his hand. “Look through that doorway. What do you see inside?”

Angie squinted against the glare, her eyes still not adjusted to the sunlight. “It’s creepy, Dunbar. Like a giant ice cube. With things frozen in the ice.”

“It’s the damn barn. Threaded through everything. We won’t be able to walk around inside.” Dunbar was at the duplicate kitchen window peering through his thick spectacles against the windowpane. “There’s the dupe Corvair. Locked solid into the floor.”

“It wasn’t much good anyway with the dashboard backwards and the clutch where the brake is supposed to be.” Angie sensed Dunbar’s rising temper. Her comment was intended as a soothing joke. To break the ice.

“It’s not funny,” said Dunbar. Angie knew he plotted these experiments to the hilt. Dunbar reacted to failure like a bomb with a delayed fuse.

“You could get another canoe from the livery. They auction a few off every fall.”

“Three months from now when it’s too damn cold to use it. I don’t care about the canoe. The duplication was a flop. My aim is way off. I don’t know—ought to blow the goddamn thing sky high and the house with it and move into this one. But naturally, that’s impossible.”

“And a little crazy.”

“Don’t start in, Ang. Just don’t start in now.” Dunbar stomped back across the dust and gravel, muttering to himself about pulse-amplitudes, transconductance, voltage drops—a foreign language as far as Angie was concerned—while she looked closer into the duplicate kitchen doorway, opening from the left-hand side instead of the right, and saw suspended in the ceiling Dunbar’s ghostly upside-down canoe, unduplicated, the numbers stenciled on its bow correct and right-reading and blending wax-like into the wedded plaster lathe and oaken timbers of this strange structure.

Almonton, Ohio was a company town, owned and operated by Almonte Ambulance Accessory Inc., where Angie Sisco and practically everyone else except Dunbar worked. The knobby drumlins, reminding Angie of pictures she’d seen in National Geographic of those impossible Chinese mountains that seemed to have erupted from the earth, surrounded Almonton and fortified it from the more complicated world outside. In Cincinnati and Columbus and Pittsburgh and the rest of the country it was May Day, 1982, while in Almonton it might as well still have been the fifties.

“I can’t believe that boss of yours, Angie,” said Cheryl Hoffmeyer. Cheryl, a straw in her mouth, was on her third cherry Coke of the day. “He comes out to the secretarial pool with this advertising report about four o’clock, and of course since I’m on break he wants me to type it. Six or seven pages worth. By quitting time. I asked him if your typewriter was broken or something.”

The rest of the Almonte office typing pool was at the round table at the center of Martin’s Grille. The four girls, all Angie’s age, nodded their heads in agreement: Mr. Campbell, the ad manager, was a royal pain in the ass.

“So did you type it for him?”

“Well I guess.”

“He’s got you pegged now, Cheryl. You best head for the restroom the next time he comes out of his office.”

Cheryl sucked her Coke dry with such disgust that old Martin, flipping hamburgers behind the counter, turned and raised an eyebrow.

“What’s the deal, Angie,” said an overweight girl across the table. “He’s got you buried again?”

“George Campbell,” said Angie. “Mr. Paperwork. It’s budget time, and frankly that’s enough for two or three people. You could be next, Betty.”

“Betty could be next,” said a fourth girl, “for early retirement from Almonte Inc. I mean real early.”

They all laughed. Martin’s was the place where they could turn a monotonous day at the office around in their favor. Though his handwriting was illegible and his files were crammed with carbons of reports nobody read, Angie didn’t mind working for George Campbell. That’s how she’d met Dunbar. He’d bought the old farmhouse and five acres and hid there like an invalid for six speculative months before suddenly appearing in the Almonte lobby, lugging a chewed-up portfolio nearly as big as himself. He asked to see the ad manager, and Campbell went wild after the interview. Fantastic artist! Right here in our own backyard! Fire the idiot agency! One or two days a week for months Dunbar lumbered in and out with POP display layouts, bulletin covers, ad comps and catalog drawings. Campbell doted on him.

Cheryl, the only one among them to have been married (and divorced), ordered another cherry Coke. “Old Campbell just loves Dunbar,” she said. “How about you, Miss Sisco?”

Fat Betty chuckled silently, her double chin pumping like a bullfrog’s. An after-work get-together at Martin’s wouldn’t be proper without Cheryl chiding Angie over her reclusive roommate. Angie summed it up to jealousy on behalf of both girls: no man in his right mind would want Betty; and Cheryl was the only one to deny her reputation as town hussy.

“Dunbar’s only fault,” said Angie, “is that he works twenty-four hours a day. He needs me to take care of him.”

“What am I hearing, Ang?” said Cheryl. “I was a chief cook and bottle washer for five years. Believe me, no fun—none at all. If I hadn’t dumped Terry when I did—”

“There’s more to it than that for us, Cheryl.”

“Like what?”

Like rides through the countryside while Dunbar sketched houses they both thought were neat and would be duplicated by just the two of them high atop a hill over the Ohio River. Like going to drive-ins in an ass-backwards Corvair and holding hands their secret way. Like lying naked, gently beneath her gargantuan lover, on the old living room sofa intertwined by Erector Set machinery, serenaded by the ticking of cooled-down capacitors.

Dunbar with scientific accuracy would time his progress on each freelance job. Locked inside an upstairs bedroom-cum-studio he’d eventually stagger down to wherever Angie was in the house, sometimes at four in the morning, excited that the assignment was completed, full of self-deprecation. “Twenty-two frickin hours, Ang,” he’d say. “Should’ve taken a third of that. I’m no draftsman. I simply cannot draw anything from scratch.” Angie would soothe him and point out, “Nonsense. You paint beautifully. Why do all your clients keep coming back for more?” “Painting and drawing,” Dunbar explained. “Two different things. Brushstrokes are mere formulae, the finishing touch—the glaze over a framework.” And Angie would let him bluff, cool down like the capacitors, until they found themselves again on the sofa, lit by dawn outside and the Christmas tree control panel sitting like a mute chaperon in the living room behind them.

“So,” said Cheryl, pushing aside her last cherry Coke of the evening, “how about an invite out to the farmhouse? Betty wants to check out the sleeping arrangements.”

“Dunbar’s funny about visitors,” Angie explained.

“Funny as in ha ha, or funny as in weird?”

“He’s working non-stop on some illustrations. A hoity-toity East Coast magazine. You wouldn’t believe the deadlines those people give.”

“So let him hole up,” said the fourth girl. “We won’t bother him. We just want to see if you’re being taken care of.”

“I guess Mr. Campbell and I have something in common,” said Angie, trying to make it sound like a joke. “We’re both wild about Dunbar.”

When she first met Dunbar, months before she moved into what was then a nearly empty farmhouse sheltering his few possessions, with a kitchen equipped starkly by Coleman (stove, ice chest, lantern), Angie got a tour of the upstairs studio.

Dunbar led her into his studio as if it were the sacristy of a shrine. He’d knocked down the partition separating two larger upstairs rooms and fitted into the north wall a surplus eight-foot-wide bay window which during the day made it the brightest room in the house. At night the studio hummed from a choir of fluorescent ballasts. It was a room for drawing. And for withdrawing, Angie soon learned.

Dunbar showed Angie his luci, or camera lucida. An ancient device, he explained, which allows an artist to translate the features of a real, three-dimensional object onto the two-dimensional surface of paper or canvas, through adjustable prisms and lenses.

“It’s not enough,” he said, demonstrating the luci. “I need something that will take what I see over there, and put it here, where I can reproduce it. Without the loss of that one dimension.”

Scattered over the studio floor and the rest of the house—like bricks of pulp—were volumes on photography, xerography, cloning, and magazines full of unintelligible gibberish describing holograms and stereoscopic prototypes. Dunbar’s idea at first was for a super-luci, and Angie became the assistant, an innocent splicer of wires, a sorter of nuts and bolts under his direction. She was too buffaloed by it all to even be curious. By the time she moved in the Duplicator had grown slowly to occupy two rooms of their house.

The first experiments had been simple. Angie knew they were far beyond the super-luci and that this was far beyond her. Dunbar’s reproplate, as he called it, was the old light box she had bought from her boss when Mr. Campbell purchased a larger slide viewing table. The Duplicator was smaller then, but its power was evident from the first test.

It was midwinter. The sun hadn’t been seen in days. Dunbar switched off the furnace and lit oil lamps to conserve precious electricity. They were alone in the chilly farmhouse, its living room lit only by the faint bluish glow of the reproplate. Dunbar’s control panel was aglow with dim red LEDs and indicators blinking jack-o-lantern orange.

Angie watched, wondering if Dunbar even realized she was in the room. He placed a small dull-green vase, a perfect Rookwood Angie had purchased for a song from a naïve housewife’s garage sale, on one corner of the light box. Instantly, the apparatus surged with a pulse of electricity. Dunbar stepped to the control panel. He thumbed through several pages of notes and then orchestrated a sequence of pushbuttons and toggle switches. Lights winked. The reproplate dimmed first and then the blue-white fluorescence intensified into a bloated flash of quicksilver. The Rookwood vase wavered as if Angie were seeing it through a bank of intense heat. Dunbar, his back turned, was frantically throwing switches on the panel. Angie thought he might be aborting the test, that something had gone haywire.

Then, flat at first like an underpainting and expanding rapidly into a second and third dimension gaining color and form, a shimmering, iridescent green vase appeared on the reproplate’s opposite corner. The metallic color breathed for a moment, pulsating, and the ghost became actual, brighter that its parent yet just as real.

“I’ll be a son-of-a—” said Dunbar in his typical unenthusiastic monotone.

“You did it! You just doubled my investment!”

“Except it’s worthless.”

“But it looks brand new.”

“And backwards. It’s a mirror image. Not a duplicate. A stupid backwards vase.”

Now, with the mirrored house and Corvair melted into the canoe and the barn, Dunbar was tearing down his invention, crawling through the tubes and wires like a large nearsighted mole suddenly surfaced in a landfill poking through the detritus in search of calories. He ignored Angie, spurning her support. Yet he wanted her invisible presence as he spent mumbling hours—days—rewiring lugs, crossing splices, transposing fuses in this wild machine, all to the tune of sputtering low-voltage arcs.

“Still here,” she said when Dunbar sprang up swearing after another electrocuting jolt.

“Good,” he replied, and resumed the wiring unperturbed. She felt, as far as Dunbar was concerned, that she may as well be anyone standing there—Cheryl, Fat Betty or even a mechanical clone of herself—holding a plate of stale, untouched sandwiches and watching him root through the dismantled Duplicator.

Dunbar fell behind in his artwork. Angie fielded phone calls from irate clients as far away as San Francisco. She opened mail from art directors in Dayton, Louisville, Raleigh. Where the hell is the layout? Consider the purchase order cancelled! One agency rep in Cleveland, less his travel brochure cover art (a half-finished landscape montage of Acapulco attracting cobwebs on Dunbar’s easel), called him an asshole, typed precisely by a secretary on letterhead with carbons to everyone, including the agency president.

Most nights Dunbar slept in the shambles of the living room, his hairy ham hock legs wrapped around the sofa as if it were a lover of his own proportions. At least that is where Angie found him every morning on her way out to work. In the evenings she tended her broccoli and tomatoes which grew high now, fresh salad ready for plucking. And Dunbar continued with his mumblings, chants and multicolored, superimposed wiring diagrams.

In droves Angie’s beefsteaks and marglobes poured off the vines. She took them to work by the tubful and gave them away. What broccoli still grew had gone to seed. She let weeds overtake the garden.

Finally, Dunbar pieced together the Duplicator. He came out into the yard one afternoon, clean-shaven for the first time in weeks, wearing a fresh shirt Angie had never seen.

“Summer’s about shot, Ang,” he said. “And you haven’t taken vacation time.”

“I just couldn’t go anywhere alone. Cheryl wanted me to go to Florida. Her brother lives down there. All we’d talk about the whole trip would be work. I guess I’ve been waiting on you to surface.”

“It’s done,” said Dunbar, kneeling beside Angie as she spaded out the last of her potatoes.

“So,” said Angie. “A test experiment next?”

“Already done. Your Boston fern now has a twin.”

“Oh, really? But you’ll be wanting to catch up on your assignments. There’re some nasty letters on the dining room table.”

“The hell with them. I’m too far behind to worry. You still with me, Ang?”

“I’ve been here every day. What did you have in mind? I’ve got two weeks coming from Almonte.”

“Save one for around Christmas and take the other one now. I don’t really want to go anywhere, though. I’m just missing you. That damn machine—I had to solve the problem. Maybe I’m crazy.”

“Crazy because of the Duplicator—or over me?”

“You now, Ang. I had in mind a bedroom vacation. I’d love to lock us both in for a week. Get some groceries, a little booze. I won’t even think about the Duplicator. Promise.”

“It’s slow at work,” said Angie. “I’ll ask Mr. Campbell tomorrow for a few days off. And I think I’d prefer wine over whiskey.”

“Ang, those tubers have been underground for four months. You suppose they could stay there another night? Let’s take a quick trip into town and start our vacation right now.”

Dunbar led the way to the upstairs bedroom where evening light streamed through the windows; he lit oil lamps and plugged Mozart into a cassette player. The wine was forgotten. They were awake, on top, below, and inside until the sun from an opposite window eclipsed the dying lamplight and Angie, with a start, realized she was two hours late for work.

In the two or three weeks following, Dunbar nearly retired from his other interests. She would find him at a front window waiting, or sitting in the field fronting the house whenever she pulled into the lane. It was as if this bearish man were clinging to her, afraid to divide his attention by doing anything other than to dote on Angie, fix the evening meal, clean the house, mow the lawn that was becoming spiky and brown with the approach of fall.

He attempted to dismantle one corner of the duplicate house; there was a pile of paint-flecked lumber next to the plowed under soybean field, and a portion of the house’s framing lay exposed and garbled with the barn siding threaded through it. She mentioned this and Dunbar reacted sheepishly, like an alcoholic on the wagon who had gone into a bar just to taste the atmosphere and maybe a glass of tonic water with a twist, and ended up sipping a stranger’s drink while he wasn’t looking.

She was aware Dunbar didn’t sleep at night, that after their lovemaking (which had become more violent and irregular—with Dunbar sometimes wanting to head for the bedroom in the midst of dinner, or calling her at work midmornings to beg that she come out to the house at lunch for a quickie he ached so badly) when she rolled over drowsily to face the wall, he crept naked out into the night, or somewhere else in the house, but—she was sure, because there was never the smell of electric current or paint—not to his studio or to the bowels of the silent Duplicator. But at dawn he was back in bed asleep, sprawled over three-quarters of the mattress on his stomach twitching like a dog dreaming of some far-off rabbit chase.

“I guess Campbell’s fired your large friend, ay?” Cheryl Hoffmeyer sat next to Angie at the round table in the center of Martin’s Grille. They were waiting on Fat Betty and another girl to show up with tickets to an REO Speedwagon concert in Chillicothe. Cheryl, as usual, drained her third cherry Coke of the afternoon.

“Dunbar says he loses it sometimes,” said Angie.

“Loses it?”

“The touch, the feel. I’m not really sure. He hasn’t done much of anything for a month.”

“Must be nice to quit work anytime you feel like it. Or life. Listen, Angie, you’re not paying his way now, are you?”

“Nothing like that, Cheryl. It’s a fifty-fifty deal. He’s got a healthy bank account. But I’ve seen how he works, eighteen hours a day, seven days a week for months on end. He saves his time off in one big chunk and then takes it all. More time for romance this way, too.”

“Romance?” Cheryl sputtered through her straw. “Why you little devil. Suddenly these long lunches of yours take on new meaning. Why don’t you two get married before something happens and you have to?”

“You’re a real ass sometimes, Hoffmeyer. Here I am wanting to talk serious, and you make jokes. Dunbar—well, he’s changed. I can’t describe it. It’s like he wants to lock me up and have me to himself or something. It’s smothering—but he’s so kind and wanting to please, to wait on me.”

“In all seriousness Ang,” said Cheryl. “I’m sorry to hear Dunbar’s ‘changed.’ But I wouldn’t know about that. Hell, I’ve only met the guy what—two, three times?

“The day he came in here and you introduced him around he didn’t say a word. Not even to old Betty when she tried talking art, which she knows a thing or two about. And that farm—Christ. It’s like a super-secret military installation way up on the hill and the only thing you can see from the road are trees and your padlocked front gate.”

A waitress brought more soft drinks to the table. Fat Betty and the other girl were overdue. Cherry syrup lay at the bottom of Cheryl’s glass like a dollop of grenadine. She swirled a straw through the mixture.

“You know,” Cheryl went on, “how people in Almonton talk about Dunbar. And the farm. There were some kids up there last summer who were spreading rumors about a house Dunbar built, an exact replica of the old house. I don’t know about that, kids and all, but he is strange and rather unfriendly—untalkative you’d say, or shy—and nobody likes him. Or at least they’re suspicious of the guy. Only natural in a backwater dump like Almonton…”

“Preoccupied,” said Angie.

“Okay. Shy, preoccupied. Whatever. But you don’t need the same reputation. Angie Sisco, big city girl who came to Almonton because a hick town’s personality appealed to her. Won over everybody within a month. Especially at Almonte Ambulance Junk Incorporated. George Campbell at the top of the list. And after five years you see how forgiving these creeps are. We think this overgrown madman has locked you away in his castle and may boil you for Thanksgiving dinner. Worse, you’ve become mysterious yourself.” Cheryl siphoned the fourth, noisy cherry Coke. “This is the first time in weeks you’ve met us at Martin’s.”

“I can’t go to the concert, Cher.”

“Aw, Ang.”

“Dunbar. He’s not feeling well. I came in for the drug store. And to give you this.” She handed Cheryl a twenty dollar bill. “Give it to Betty. For the ticket. I’m sorry, but I really have to get back.”

A thunderstorm that evening lit up the sky with sporadic silver flashes. On the drive home Angie’s only consolation was that the outdoor concert would be cancelled, and that her absence from the typing pool clique would be diminished. She came up the lane as the torrent started. The farmhouse was dark and, closer, she saw the dim amber glow of Dunbar’s oil lamps softening the gloom. Was that a thunderbolt reflection in the front room windows?

Dunbar was squatting in the living room and didn’t notice her entrance. The transformer, no longer dormant, pitched and whined to his tuning of the control panel knobs.

“Feeling better?” Angie asked. She dropped the bag of decongestants and over-the-counter tablets in front of him.

“Angie! Jeez, you scared the hell out of me. Aren’t you going to Chillicothe?”

“Since you weren’t feeling well I cancelled out. But obviously—”

“Just tinkering,” said Dunbar. “The goddamn thing’s getting rusty from disuse.”

“You faked the whole thing, the cold and fever—even puking. What did you pour in the toilet for that one—mushroom soup?”

“Must be a remission, Ang. I swear. I was bored up there in bed. You know me—got to be doing something all the time.”

Angie walked over to the reproplate. Atop its blue-green glow sat a frosted Pyrex jar, the wide, bubble-topped stopper taped loosely to the mouth.

“You haven’t done anything in three months,” said Angie. “Which is your prerogative, of course. So what is this, suddenly?”

“A little experiment is all. Just to see if the thing still works. I’ll shut it down if you’d like. I simply didn’t think you’d be back this soon.”

“What’s in the jar?” Angie asked. She was impatient with Dunbar’s attitude, suspicious of this sudden furtiveness.

Dunbar replied there was nothing in the jar. Air. Then he rheostated the Duplicator down to a low hum. The transformer sputtered out its familiar ticking and the reproplate dimmed to black.

Leaves of all colors quilted the lawn around the farmhouse. The overhead cumulus array of last summer had been exchanged for a steady, low-hanging gray parade, threatening drizzle, eventually snow. Out in the soybean field Angie saw the dog from Dunbar’s dreams, a hound the color of coagulated blood, trotting after her as she made her way back to the house. The animal loped in a zigzag pattern, coming closer; she could hear its panting, see saliva raking back from the muzzle. The thing is smiling, Angie thought, or snarling. The gob from its mouth was creamy and flecked with foam. She was nearer the duplicate house than the real one and decided to head for it, no panic, just walk faster and get to the fence. But suddenly the duplicate farmhouse was gone, as if it had never been there. In its place was the old lilting barn looking like it had a year ago before the Duplicator existed. The insane dog was snapping at her heels. And there was Dunbar, tall and like a fortress, arms outstretched to catch her and carry her safely into the barn’s darkness while the hound—she could hear it—whined and ticked and fretted across the fence and tore frantic divots from the ground while its brain dissolved like a salted snail.

Nightmares like this came often to Angie throughout early winter. She mentioned it once to Dunbar but he didn’t listen. He spent all his time locked away in the studio working on God-knows-what. Angie never saw him leave with his portfolio, or go to the post office with large packages bound for big cities.

The Duplicator sat silent, yet Angie noticed it hadn’t collected dust. But if Dunbar was continuing experiments in private there was no evidence of duplicate objects lying about.

Angie spent more time after work with the girls at Martin’s. And George Campbell had rehired the ad agency.

The nightmares coalesced into dull montages of Dunbar carrying her in his huge arms: to the barn, to the Corvair abandoned in the middle of a field, to a long marble table where there sat a green vase holding a single fern stem; to a closet where high on a stack of empty library shelves was a jar of frost with dry ice vapors billowing from the mouth and puddling onto the shelves below. She slept on the sofa now, while Dunbar hid in his fluorescent shelter working on a project he refused to discuss, becoming a stranger.

“The bags under your eyes are most becoming,” said Cheryl one afternoon at Martin’s Grille. Fat Betty was busy wolfing down a helping of old man Martin’s lime meringue pie. She joked about putting on more insulation for the winter which already had packed four inches of snow on the streets and yards of Almonton. Their fourth partner had deserted them weeks ago, and Cheryl’s pregnancy, father unknown, had blossomed into a bulge she no longer bothered to conceal.

“Thanks, Cheryl,” said Angie. “You’re always good for a compliment.”

“None intended, Ang. Really—you look wasted. But it’s none of my business if you don’t want to talk about it.”

“Ever wake up and feel—even though you know you’ve slept eight hours—like you were never asleep?”

Cheryl toyed with her Coke. “Couldn’t be any worse than waking up with the heaves.”

“I’m just tired all the time,” said Angie. “From eight in the morning, on.”

“Oh how delightful! We’re both in a family way…maybe we’ll have twins!”

“I don’t think so,” said Angie. “Dunbar and I haven’t slept together in over a month.” It was out. The admission made her feel better. She glanced over at Betty who, not listening, was entranced by a second portion of lime pie.

“So he’s still alive,” said Cheryl. “I mean, you never talk about him anymore. Or that little paradise you two have—which now sounds like paradise lost. Maybe we should both munch endless lime pies like Betty here—you with us, Betty?—and find the road to nirvana. I’ve still got a spare bedroom, Ang. Anytime you want and I’d love the company.”

Angie felt awkward with what she wanted to say as she watched Betty fork down the egg whites and eye a last slice of pie under the glass dome on the counter.

“I don’t think I love him anymore,” Angie asided to Cheryl. “It’s like someone pulled the stopper from the bottom of a sink. He always has a meal ready, cleans the house—like a maid, or something. But then at night he disappears, up to the studio. And this crazy jar I found in the basement, every week there’s more in it, milk or dry ice—”

“Jar?”

“Oh, something he canned that went bad. I don’t know. Forget it.”

“Sounds a little weird, Angie. What’s going on?”

“I said forget it,” Angie snapped. She could have easily revealed the Duplicator. Her mind reeled. Suddenly Fat Betty’s presence, the flabbing scoop of her arm cycling pie from plate to flecked lips and again to the plate, annoyed her. She was never annoyed, never snapped, but now she felt like water in that sink spiraling counterclockwise down the unstoppered drain.

Abruptly she told Cheryl she had to go, as Betty continued munching the last piece of pie in Martin’s Grille and, on her way out the door, Angie imagined Betty now with the plate in her mouth, chewing chunks of sugared china.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

“To spend the night at Cheryl’s.”

“With all your clothes?”

Dunbar stood at the bedroom doorway. He was, compared to Angie, clear-eyed, calm.

“You don’t want to talk anymore,” said Angie. “That makes whatever I say a pronouncement or something.”

“Pronouncement?”

“Yes. When was the last time we touched?”

“Angie, for God’s sake, sit down. You’ve thrown clothes all over the room—” It was then Dunbar saw the Pyrex jar on top of Angie’s bureau. Just above the etched shoulder the glass was clear, revealing hazy contents that looked like miniature, wispy clouds, or a fishbowl of aerated milk. The handwritten label read: Essence of A.

“What are doing with that?” Dunbar asked.

“What are you doing with it?”

“Just part of a dupe, Angie. In fact, the last part. I put it away in the cellar and forgot about it. This ridiculous machine—it doesn’t work anymore. This was the last experiment. A total failure. You know I haven’t plugged the thing in for months. It’s all over.”

“Dunbar,” Angie said, turning to him and dropping the blouses she had just yanked from a bureau drawer. “Maybe it is over. Us. You’re wrapped up in these other things and there’s no room for me. It’s so uncertain I don’t even know if I love you anymore. I’d say I was sorry—but I’m not sure of that either.”

While Angie spoke, Dunbar walked to the bureau and picked up the jar. His movements were dreamlike, robotic.

“For heaven’s sake talk to me,” said Angie. “Yes, I’m packing everything. I’m moving out.”

Dunbar held the jar. He blinked as if slightly confused and then walked to the door.

“Dunbar?”

Bowing to avoid hitting the doorframe, he was gone.

Martin’s Grille had undergone a facelift. There were new curtains in the front windows and a freshly lettered sign above the door. The sign was designed circus style with M and E of equal size and the ornate letters in between forming an arch. It was Dunbar’s work; he had surfaced lately and was even doing jobs again for George Campbell.

The girls were in a booth suffering New Year’s hangovers. The old round table had been traded for several chintzy Formica and chrome dinettes upon which no one had yet eaten. Tinsel and withered party balloons hung from the ceiling.

“I think I’m going to die,” said Cheryl, her face a doughy gray.

Fat Betty, on her resolution diet, looked up from a bowl of pale tomatoes and cottage cheese. “You think those are going to help?” she asked, pointing to the empty cherry Coke glasses staggered over the table.

“Nothing will help, Betty. Least of all cottage cheese.”

A third girl said nothing. Her ears buzzed with an aspirin overdose.

“Well,” said Betty, “since no one else has mentioned it, I’ve got some juicy gossip. Ears perked? Guess who’s back in town.”

“Dunbar,” said Cheryl, feeling the cherry juice drop like a can of motor oil down her throat.

“Yes, Dunbar—but who’s been seen with him?”

There was no response from the dull wits surrounding Betty.

“Snuggled up close and walking in step just like they used to. Holding hands with their little fingers wrapped around each other. The looney’s got her hypnotized this time. I yelled ‘Hey Angie!’ at the top of my lungs when I saw them across Portsmouth Street. They just kept on walking, real lovey-dovey, into the five-and-dime.”

Cheryl gazed out the window. A gust of wind swirled snow already on the ground making it look as if another blizzard were about to hit. It had been over a month since her miscarriage.

“Don’t you believe me?” Betty asked. “Your best friend is back. Angie.”

Cheryl watched the snow spin in a white paisley pattern. Across the street from the Grille people braved the misery of winter, wandering in and out of the few shops open this holiday, unrecognizable ghosts at this gauzelike distance in the bleak afternoon. It might have been seven AM—or six o’clock in the evening.

“Not Angie,” said Cheryl, still watching the phantoms come and go behind the snow screen. “Someone like her. Dunbar’s type, of course. Yeah, I saw them, holding hands like you say. Bundled up in scarves and knit caps. Almost a duplication of last winter when they came in for supplies and whatever the hell Dunbar buys all the time in the hardware store. Driving that weird Corvair that looks like Angie’s.”

“You mean that isn’t Angie’s car?” asked Betty.

“Not Angie’s, but something damned close to it. If you ask me, Dunbar’s a real sicko. And I mean real.”

Out of the corner of her eye Betty saw old man Martin serve a chunk of whipped cream-topped chocolate cake to a counter customer. It brought tears to her eyes. She gobbled down another forkful of cottage cheese.

Cheryl, always ready to twist the knife, grabbed a menu. “Now,” she said, “anyone ready for Martin’s Greasy Spatula Special?”

James D. Reed has worked as a graphic designer, ad copywriter, art director, carpenter, paper mill-hand, pole barn builder. He holds a BFA from Miami University, Ohio. His stories have appeared in The Nebraska Review, Country People Magazine, Perceptions Magazine of the Arts, and most recently in The Feathered Flounder. Jim and his wife Sabine live in a recently renovated (formerly dilapidated) farm house on ten acres of woods near Oxford, Ohio.

If he could be any sharp thing he would be a No. 11 X-Acto blade.

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One Response to DUPLICATOR by James D. Reed

  1. renee smith says:

    i enjoyed reading this story

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