Site icon Beyond Ourselves

“The Writer’s Dilemma”

Story by Liam Slade / Originally Posted May 1, 2022

This whole thing started back in the fall.

I had just released my first full-length novel, Kristi’s Mom, which had taken 18 months to write from beginning to end. I was excited by the success it was having and eager to get back to my writing, but also found myself drained. I had plenty of ideas, but could not get excited about any of them. Worse, inspiration and energy were coming at the worst times. When I wanted to write, I couldn’t because I was doing my day job or attending to family issues. When I had time to write, nothing was coming and all of my prospects looked bleak.

During the week, I’m a work-from-homer doing inventory work for a big retail company here in Canada. While you might think this would leave me a lot of freedom and privacy to pursue my craft, the truth is, I do my best to keep my work hours for work. Likewise, I had been married for almost two years so a lot of my personal time was spent living my life – cooking, cleaning, spending evenings with my wife. She knows I write but she doesn’t know about this particular identity. For the most part, I only write as Liam during weekend mornings when she sleeps in.

In my eagerness to repeat the success of Kristi’s Mom, I became a little frustrated. None of my ideas seemed like they would tick the same boxes creatively and with an audience. I like to write what I like to write, but I like it better when that aligns with what other people want to read. Anyway, although I feebly started on a few of my ideas, I was lacking that spark, that drive that said “You must be working on this.”

In my idle procrastination, I started flipping around Facebook and Google looking for odd sources of inspiration. I came across a very strange posting, from a lab in Downtown Toronto that was looking for volunteers for test subjects.

At first I laughed it off. I’ve seen (and written!) enough mad scientist stories to know this never goes well. But, I thought, this is reality, how bad could it get? Plus, they were willing to pay. As Emm and I had recently bought a house, our finances were a little strapped. Every little bit helped.

So I reached out, and a few days later I was in the city waiting to meet with Dr. Nguyen.

Dr. Nguyen explained that this was Nano-Biological research into bio-replication and cortical data translation on a human scale – cloning. They were looking to create fully-formed duplicates of human test subjects with the memory of the original intact.

“Fascinating,” I said, overwhelmed by the sheer scope of what they were trying to do. This was the culmination of decades of research and development. But, I wondered – to what end? With a planet as strapped for resources and an economy where people who already exist can’t find work, why create new, fully-grown adults with needs of their own out of thin air? It couldn’t be for, say, organ donation – I’ve read Never Let Me Go, that doesn’t end well.

Dr. Nguyen obliquely referenced the project’s cold war origins and intimated that, like a lot of scientific advances made throughout history, this was being done for militaristic purposes. Here’s what I got out of that: say there was someone who possessed extremely specialized knowledge, but that this was not knowledge you wanted to be shared with a lot of different people. And let’s say there were a conflict where this person might be targeted for assassination – it would be beneficial to have a backup with all of that person’s knowledge and experience. I thought maybe this was the maximum scale this could be applied to, but then I took it further. What if you needed bodies to fight a war, but recruitment numbers were flagging? Answer: clone your soldiers. Get the army you need, save on training.

In practice, it seemed likely to be another mechanism by which old, powerful, rich white men could extend their existence indefinitely and continue to wreak havoc on the Earth.

The thought gave me the willies, but they were doing this with or without me, and they were dangling a check in front of my face.

The possibilities occurred to me. How many times have I wanted there to be more than one of me? One to write and do whatever I wanted, and the other to do the things I had to do to live my life? I thought of all the roads not taken – travelling I could do, things I could experience without the fear of screwing up my one precious little life. If there were a second me, and we could alternate our experiences, I could do what I had always hoped through my writing – experience everything.

It would be like having the cheat code of life. I signed on.

They showed me some of the technology they would be using – the DNA sequencing console that would break down my DNA sample (blood, not sperm) and rebuild it with primordial goo that simulated a zygote, nursed in a mechanical womb – a gestation chamber — that looked like something out of The Matrix.

Then they took me to the neurograph, one of they key parts of this experiment. It was like one of those apparatuses they push up to your face at the optometrist, but with a part that hovers over your temple. They calibrated it, sent a laser through my eyes and offered a few key phrases.

“Cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon,” Dr. Nguyen said. “This will be the last thing you remember before you – the second you – wakes up. He will repeat this phrase and we will know the neurographic download is complete. Cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon. Repeat.”

“Cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon,” I answered back.

“Very good,” he said. “Again?”

“Cantaloupe, honeydew, watermelon.”

“Once more, and if you hear me say the word towtruck, you are the original, and if you hear the words ‘mango peach’, you are the clone. Now, again?”


A bright blinding flash burst in my eyes and produced a moment of spots.

“Towtruck. The process is complete.”

I shook out some cobwebs and examined myself. I was still here in the exam room. A different me would wake up and emerge from the gestation chamber in 4-6 weeks with a freshly baked body, hearing the phrase “mango peach” to confirm he was the second iteration.

*             *             *

I began to plan for some of the complications this would create. Although I didn’t relish the idea of keeping this a secret, I couldn’t very well tell my wife I had gone and gotten myself cloned, especially not since she was and is completely unaware of my “Liam Slade” identity.

In fact, the fact that she would never know I had been cloned was part of the appeal. Keeping this secret from her did give me some guilt, but the positives outweighed the negatives. I wasn’t really planning to do anything untoward with it. It’s not like I had done this to give myself a free pass to cheat on her, I had no intention of doing any such thing. In fact, with a second body, I envisioned myself being a more attentive, loving husband.

I just knew that for this to work I needed this clone to be completely secret. What she didn’t know wouldn’t hurt her.

Our house had three bedrooms – one was Emm’s office, the other a spare bed that was rarely looked in on, so I thought Liam 2 could sleep there in privacy. We would switch off days of work and writing – no pressure to produce, just do your best – with the “worker” stationed at my desk in the living room, and the “extra” stationed in the basement, which was also rarely traveled, housing as it did, a lot of old junk from my pre-marriage life, as well as some furniture we no longer needed, like our old couch. Then, as we saw fit, each of us could take turns going out in the world and taking a break from regular life, while the other tended to the necessities at home.

The plan seemed risky, but I had by now spent over a year secretly being Liam in an online space without my wife or anyone else becoming aware. I had reason to believe I could pull this off.

*             *             *

A few anxious weeks later I got the call – my “second” was complete. Ready or not, I would have to make accommodations for the new addition to my life.

Dr. Nguyen was indisposed when I arrived so I was greeted by a senior researcher named Dr. Alden Cutch. He had a strange, serious tone in his voice when he met me. “I’m glad you came, you never responded to our e-mails.”

“E-mails?” I scrunched my face. I hadn’t received any e-mails. Curious, I loaded the app on my phone and sure enough there they were – diverted to spam.

Before I could read any, he let me onward. “Might as well show you.” We walked past the gallery of birthing chambers, which were kept in a chilled, warehouse-like environment – kind of like shopping in the Beer Store, for those of you who live around here. I saw glassy pods of embryonic liquid housing developmental clones of all stages of development, being fed nutrients that would artificially age them to their proscribed age. Some were merely babies or toddlers yet, a few looked older than me.

“You see,” he said, pausing in the aisle while interns checked readouts on the various pods and made notes, “We’ve had a recurring issue with the DNA sequencer. We have yet to isolate exactly the source of it, but it prevents certain genomes from being read and recreated properly. We have a workaround, a patch, but it prevents the clone from being an exact genetic duplicate of the donor.”

I bit my lip and furrowed my brow. You’ve read my writing, you know where this is going, and I already knew too.

“Don’t tell me,” I sighed.

I turned to see a face encased in the glass cylinder, oxygen and feeding tubes snaking their way around the figure’s naked body.

The features were distorted by the liquid in the chamber and the glass, like a fishbowl, but I recognized them. The person, with their eyes restfully closed, didn’t quite look identical to me, but there was absolutely a reasonable similarity. A family resemblance of sorts. I almost had to laugh.

“You made a woman,” I huffed.

“Yyyyyyyy…es,” Cutch said, elongating the Y as if he were mentally searching for some technicality by which this wouldn’t be true.

I looked her up and down. Long hair swirled around in the water, somewhat obscuring her face, but below the neck you could see a pair of weightless breasts and a naked, hairy female crotch.

All I could do was mutter, “Unbelievable.” I don’t know whether I was talking about the science, or the incompetence, or the sheer coincidence that I, writer of TG Stories, was standing face to face with my own female clone.

I felt a kind of sadness creeping in – selfishly, not necessarily for her, but for my own plans. There would be no “switching out” with this person. Her life would diverge drastically from mine from the moment she emerged from her cocoon. As far as my original hopes went, she was useless to me now.

But there she was, floating in amber, my twin sister, fully grown. I wondered if she could be destroyed before being woken up. Maybe it would be a kindness. I’ve written this story enough times to know it would not be easy for her. But I couldn’t bring myself to even ask. I had created life – she deserved a chance, didn’t she?

And besides, she would have my brain. That wasn’t nothing. There was a lot we could still do with two Liams. Perhaps this even opened a new realm of possibilities. I wrote about what it would be like if a man were turned into a woman. She could write about the reality.

Before I knew it, they were beginning the process. A team of other workers began to fuss with the chamber, draining it of its life-giving fluid. The hatch opened and the body seemed to bristle in the open air as the assistants detached it from the various hoses and monitor wires, laying her limp body on a gurney.

“Hey, careful with her,” I said, mildly offended at their detached, efficient manner. Her naked body looked so frail and vulnerable. Light hair trailed along her thighs and in her armpits; an emaciated over-30-year-old woman who had never shaved or eaten a carb.

The wheeled her into an adjacent examining room and Cutch led me along. Electrodes were applied to her torso.

“A life-giving shock to kick her systems into function.”

“Very Frankenstein,” I muttered. “It’s aliiiiiive.”

“Don’t call her ‘it,’” Cutch admonished me, as if I were being serious.

“So after this is done,” I said, “I’m just supposed to take her and go? You have no more responsibilities?”

“We’ll want to follow up every now and again,” Cutch said, “Run the battery of tests, psychologically and biologically, but once she leaves this property she is your responsibility.”

He handed me a manila envelope. “Her birth certificate and social insurance. You can get her a health card and a passport, but if she wants to drive she’ll have to take the test like everyone else.”

I raised my eyebrow. “The perks of being a government-funded project,” Cutch answered.

One of the assistants, a woman younger than me, nodded to the Doc. “She’s ready.”

“Hey,” I asked in her direction, “Do you think this is weird? She’s going to think she’s me.”

The woman snorted a little laugh, “The things I’ve seen here…”

That didn’t give me comfort.

Finally, Dr. Nguyen appeared with a small box under his arm. “Welcome back, Mr. Slade,” he said in a jovial voice not befitting the deeply weird situation we were in. He set the box on the counter behind us. In it were some slip-on shoes and what appeared to be hospital scrubs, as well as a pair of glasses that looked very much like mine. I idly picked them up.

“She’ll have your same prescription,” Cutch said.

One of the assistants manned the machine. I could barely watch. “Activation in three… two…”

There was a buzz, a zapping noise like an old camera. After this, her chest started to rise and fall more deeply and her eyes fluttered open.

“Mango peach,” Dr. Nguyen said in his authoritative voice.

“Mang…” the clone said hoarsely, remembering what that meant since she was only informed, in her mind, moments earlier.

I watched her eyes bulge open with the realization that she was the clone. Cutch handed her the glasses. She accepted them, but her movements were slow, dazed.

She looked back up at Dr. Nguyen, and around the room to where I was nervously waiting for her reaction.

Then her eyes happened to cast downward to her own body. She would have known in an instant that something was not right. I’m slender all right, but flat-chested. This girl had a pair of petite but noticeable mammaries weighing down from her chest, an obviously unfamiliar presence: soft, small breasts with nipples pointing out in opposite directions.

Her shoulders slumped and she let out this groan of disappointment – the kind that completely lacks any edge of surprise to it. Her hands immediately rose to cover – and cup the weight of – her new little boobies. “Aw… goddamnit,” she groaned in a tone of voice that was disappointed but completely empty of shock.

Yeah… I guess I would’ve halfway expected it too.

The assembled medical professionals were probably surprised by the understated reaction, but they didn’t know that between the two of us, we’ve probably written the complete handbook on how to deal with this scenario. You could call it “What to Expect When You’re Unexpectedly Gender-Swapped.”

My girl-clone muttered some under her breath – as I guess I have a habit of doing – as she dressed in the clothes provided, then we were brought into Dr. Nguyen’s office. I watched in the corner of my eye as she slouched and cradled her head to the side in her hand with her elbow resting on the chair’s arm. I could tell this was her way of registering she was upset and exasperated without wanting to kick up a fuss.

The Doctor gave us a rundown, some of which I had already been told at the beginning and before my “sister” awoke, about the parameters of the cloning and what, exactly, had happened to produce this result. I watched her face as she internally struggled to press down her annoyance to try to absorb all of this. Nguyen stressed that since we share 96% DNA we strictly forbidden from engaging in any kind of sexual relationship with one another that might result in pregnancy. That produced in us a stereo expression of horror and disgust at the idea. Nguyen actually laughed: “Just making sure I cover all the bases.”

And then that was it. They handed us a check for $1000 and sent us on our way.

*             *             *

We stepped out into the cool October air. I offered her my jacket, which she gladly wrapped around herself.

Standing next to her gave me a strange feeling. I’m not a tall or big guy, so she was perhaps a half-head smaller than me with the petite build of the women in my family. As badly as I was struggling to process the situation, I could tell she was shell-shocked.

“Some… coffee?” I asked feebly. It hardly seemed appropriate, but I know that whenever I feel lost or confused, my first instinct is to get a cup of coffee to clear my head.

She flashed me this incredulous look, this sneer of disbelief that my mind had gone somewhere so mundane, but then just as quickly as it appeared it broke and she shrugged. “Sure,” she said, in that barely-yet used voice, which I think she was hesitant to raise above a whisper.

We walked quietly until we found a coffee shop where we could sit down. Sitting across the table from one another, we both tried to avert direct eye contact, and yet couldn’t help glancing up to look one another over. It was unsettling how pretty she was, how bright my blue eyes looked on her even with her sullen expression. With her wan face and limp hair, she had a dingey, “just got kicked out of rehab” look about her. She combed her fingers nervously through her hair. I think there was still goo in it from the birthing pod.

“Must look weird from the outside,” I said modestly.

“You’re looking a lot like Joey these days,” she said, referring to my older brother, her voice finally reaching conversational volume, if still a modest and slight one. “And you need a haircut.”

“Mhm,” I said, taking a sip then fixing my eyes down into my drink. “I’ve noticed that.”

“So what’s our next move?” she asked.

“You’re just gonna ask me that? Would you like some time to freak out?”

“I’ll freak out later,” she said in a voice that suggested she did harbor a desire to freak out at this time. “Right now it’s too new. Let’s strategize, then I can cry about it tomorrow. Come on, this way I can be distracted from the whole… situation,” she gestured at her torso, hands hovering over her breasts as if she were not yet permitting herself to touch them.

“Yeah, this really ruins our plans,” I said. “We were gonna… you know, flip flop, flip flop.”

“Uh huh,” she said, “Now I’m all flipped out.”

“I don’t think you should stay in the spare room,” I said.

“Why not?”

“Too great a chance of intersecting with Emm,” I said. “She can’t know you’re here.”

“That was true when I was gonna be a guy.”

“Yeah, but now we really don’t want her to know,” I said, searching my mind to explain my exact reasoning. “Seems like all of… this… is gonna come with some paraphernalia. Evidence.”

“So now you’re banishing me to the shitty old couch in the drafty basement?” she scoffed in disbelief. “Next to a hundred old boxes of comics from your twenties?”

Our twenties,” I said, then reiterated, “We really need to watch our steps. We don’t want to have to explain this.”

She huffed and a stray lock of hair that had been dangling near her mouth flew. She tucked it almost instinctually behind her ear – it was, admittedly, a little cute.

She got this faraway look in her eyes as I could tell she was doing some mental calculus about the situation. Some of the realities of the situation were dawning. “I need clothes,” she pivoted the conversation quite sternly. “Something comfy to wear around, underwear…” she looked down the neck of her scrubs, “A bra… or two.”

“They sell those underwears at the dollar store, soft bras at the drug store…”

“You’re gonna try to stick me in some dollar-store panties?”

“Just for a start,” I said, “I didn’t exactly budget for a whole new wardrobe. We need to be efficient and quick. Maybe later there’ll be time and money for a… an Old Navy run.”

“They’ve got a Joe Fresh at the grocery store, we can start there.”

“Fine,” I rolled my eyes. “We’ll get you something livable to start with. Maybe also hit Value Village.”

“Whatever,” she sipped with a sneer on her face, then let her expression relax. “No, I get it. Sorry.”

“No, I’m sorry,” I said.

“We can both be sorry,” she allowed. “Oh, and – I’m just being proactive here, but I’m gonna need some you-know-whats for my time of the month.”

“You know, in the stories, the guys are usually a lot more sheepish about these things,” I said.

“Well, we wrote the stories,” she said, taking another ship. “So we don’t have to act all dumb and shocked about it.”


“This coffee’s not sweet enough,” she said.

“Interesting,” I noted, since we had both made ours the same way.

“Just the tip of the iceberg, I’m sure.” She went to get more sugar and I sat and thought more about our predicament.

Clothes. Laundry. Showers. Groceries – food preparation. I was going to have to support an entire secret human being by feeding her scraps off the table. I thought about the logistics of it and my head hurt. I thought about the money and… I thought, we’d better get writing. Ebooks don’t pay much but it could make a difference.

“So,” I said as we gathered ourselves and prepared to head back out onto the street, “How do you… you know… feel?”

“With my hands,” she answered flatly, proving she had retained my inability to pass up a dad joke. “I don’t know, man. It’s been thirty seconds. I’ve barely had time to notice the differences. I mean, obviously I’ve noticed them, but it’s nothing you wouldn’t… hold on.”

She got this faraway look on her face suddenly. Her eyes began to dart around the shop, almost paranoid.

“What is it?”

“I’ve… gotta… pee,” she barely managed to say with a doleful sigh, “Wish me luck.”

I watched her head to the restroom, my strange doppelganger stopping briefly at the junction between the Men’s and Ladies’ before steeling herself to head through to the customary one. I waited a moment, tapping my toe to the song playing on the PA system – Sarah McLachlan’s “Possession” – before she returned, a stunned, faraway look in her eyes.

“How was it?” I asked, tentatively.

With a heavy breath, she said frankly, “The toilet paper they use here is… rough. That’s all I’m gonna say.”

With that, we left.

*             *             *

As we walked toward the train, which would take us back to the suburbs and our new version of life, we were quiet. She kept herself rigid with her arms buried in the pockets of my jacket, grumbling in annoyance while wind buffeted us, blowing her hair everywhere.

I had a lot of thoughts on the train ride home, but kept quiet out of fear of alienating her by being too positive. I thought, there has to be some part of her that is intrigued and maybe a little excited about this, considering our creative output. There was a lot of upside to this, from where I was sitting, but I knew that it wasn’t my life and body that had been upended. I watched her gazing at her new reflection in the window, trying to imagine how I would feel if it were me and coming up empty. She stroked her now smooth, soft, hairless chin, which only moments earlier in her mind would have been bearded for most of the last ten years. I tried to guess, based on her stoic expression as she stared out the window at the passing scenery, which way the wheels in her head were turning, if things were going to be okay or if she was facing the inevitable breakdown any moment. She was extremely hard to read, which I’ve heard about myself and currently found enormously frustrating. Being on the other side of it provoked me to an inadvertent chuckle under my breath.

“What’s so funny?” she asked sharply.

“I’ll, uh, tell you another time,” I said. Then another thought occurred to me. “We’ll need to get you a phone.”

“Sure,” she sighed, showing signs of fatigue from the overwhelming nature of her circumstances.

We drove home, to the house where she had memories of moving in and spending quiet nights with our wife, Emm, only now we would be stealthily smuggling her in. As we started up the car, we heard the strains of Duran Duran’s “Hungry Like the Wolf” I caught her tapping her hand on the armrest rhythmically, head-bobbing and even muttering along to the “doot-doot-doo-doos”, maybe restraining herself from giving it her all the way I usually would because she didn’t know how her voice would sound at full volume. But it made me feel reassured that “I” was in there.

We got to the driveway and I turned off the ignition and hesitated. There was a long pregnant pause. I would ensure the coast was clear – Emm would still be working upstairs at this time, I didn’t doubt – and hustle her downstairs, where we would have very little contact for the rest of the night. I felt a lump in my throat. Somehow when we crossed the threshold to that house, it would be realer than when she first came out of her pod in the first place.

My hand reached for the door.

“Teeth,” she said abruptly.

“I’m sorry, what?” I was confused.

She parted her lips and gritted her teeth. “Straight teeth. No cavities. Pearly white. That’s what I’m thinking about.”

“Huh,” I said. I had spent nearly 10 years without dental coverage before my current job, resulting in having to get a lot of work done the previous summer – several fillings and a root canal. My clone had all new adult teeth that looked pristine, nothing like mine at all.

“We probably couldn’t have pulled off the switch anyway if my teeth were gonna be like this,” she said.

“Hm,” I grunted, “Guess you’re right.”

“New teeth. No heartburn, probably no cholesterol in my system. Muscles that aren’t sore all the time. I feel better than I have in years.”

“I’ll bet,” I noted. “Remember that old mattress we slept on in high school that wrecked our back?”

“Vividly,” she said. She shook her head from side to side – her brownish-reddish locks flecking back and forth – and seemed to gather her thoughts. “Look, what’s done is done, okay? That’s all I want to say. I lived 34 years as you, and now I have a chance to try something different, and I just want to skip the part of the story where I feel all angsty about it and try to see the upside.”

“Okay,” I nodded in agreement, a light smile crossing my lips. I offered her a hand. “If anyone can do it, it’s us.”

We shook, although when our palms clasped I noticed a slight flinch where she must have realized how much smaller her hand was than mine.

*             *             *

The next day, I was able to get away from work to take my clone shopping. We outfitted her in some of my clothes to start – a tee-shirt, a pair of skinny jeans from before the pandemic that I had outgrown but, in her emaciated state, she was delighted to find fit her just fine, and my second-favourite hoodie.

As we entered the clothing store, she visibly tensed up. I sensed she was fighting the reflex to bypass the women’s clothes and go to the men’s section, maybe trying to get past the idea that, if she examined a flowery top or a pair of panties, she was some kind of invader or imposter.

I don’t think she was excited about it. Whenever I’m clothes-shopping with my wife, I often think ‘Wow, women have such nice clothing options,’ but more out of appreciation than envy. I wondered if she was trying to find her way through to that feeling, trying to identify with the models in the posters next to the racks – “average” looking women who looked wholesome and beautiful, and carefree in their dresses and jeans – and trying to put herself in their shoes now.

I thought about how clothes really define a person. I tend to dress in basic jeans and plaid overshirts with plain white undershirts. It’s been my go-to style for years, especially since it’s generically appropriate for my work setting (even though I work from home, I sometimes have to appear on camera.) On weekends I wear my jeans with graphic tees for various properties I’m a fan of – Star Wars or Marvel or the Beatles. I may come off as being uptight about my wardrobe, but really, I know what I like. I’ve been dressing this way for twenty years, it’s hard to break a pattern. Now, my clone was forced to do just that in the most extreme way.

“I turned into a woman,” she said flatly, “Just in time for ‘mom-jeans’ to become the trend.” She held out a pair of loose-fitting jeans with holes in the knees, the likes of which are often seen on younger women and girls these days. I would think that girl-me might be into something more gender-neutral like that, but I got the sense that if she was going to dress as a woman, she was at least interested in experiencing something more femme. I saw her hesitate at a rack of flowy, ruffly tops with, for fast-fashion, a relatively low neckline.

“You could play it safe,” I advised. “Tee-shirts and jeans. You’re not going out anywhere.”

She shot me a bitter look out of the corner of her eye. I think I had hit a sore spot. She put the top in her cart.

With a few basic articles selected – jeans, tights, tanks and tees, along with the gaudy ruffly number – we found ourselves at the underwear. The panties were housed in a messily-filled bunk, with cubbies separating the different styles – boyshort, hipster, bikini, thong, high cut, brief… personally, I know what kind of underwear I like, but I had no clue what would suit a female figure. She picked a few petite pairs with various prints almost at random, even some that had lace trims, but nothing so overtly feminine as a thong. As this was fast fashion, none of this was silky or made entirely of lace, it was just moderate-quality day-to-day underwear, 3 for $15. We ended up buying 12 pairs.

“Do you know how hard it’s going to be to keep this stuff from mixing in with Emm’s?” I asked nervously.

“We have different sizes, at least,” my clone shrugged. Emm was on the curvy side, and my clone was clearly – for the time being, considering she had barely eaten in her life – an XS.

As we headed to the register, we passed a mannequin modelling a dress. She looked up and admired it for a moment, before seeming to realize the implications. She visibly shook off the effect.

“I’m not ready,” she said.

Lastly we picked up socks and looked for jackets, getting her a basic green fall coat with the drawstring waist.

“Do you think I could pull off one of those little jean jackets that only goes down to here?” she asked.

“Seems a little impractical for our budget,” I noted. She made an exaggerated pouty face. “Hey, when you’re paying the bills, you can buy whatever you want.”

Again that seemed the wrong thing to say since her entire existence would be spent in my basement. Her expression turned visibly sour, but I watched her stifle it.

“So,” I said as we joined the line for the register, “What do I call you?”

She breathed in deep and exhaled. “I haven’t thought about it. In my head I’m still… well, not Liam.”

Liam, of course, is a pen name.

“The obvious choice seems to be Lia,” I noted.

“Yes,” she agreed, “That’s why I don’t like it.” We were never really into the trope of a newly-transformed woman taking the feminized version of her male name.

“I don’t like my name either,” I noted, referring to my real name.

“You could change it anytime.”

“Yeah, but,” I said, “It’s my name.”

The logic seemed contradictory, but I knew she would understand. Even though I didn’t always like it, there was no name in the world I felt suited me better than the one I was born with, with my pseudonym of “Liam Slade” being a compromise of a runner-up. I only feel like a “Liam” when I’m writing or promoting my work.

“Or you could be Leanne,” I noted.

“After high school?!” she balked, “Doubt it.”

The story of what happened in Grade 9 between myself and a girl named Leanne is too long to get into here, but is not very flattering to yours truly.

“Elle,” she said out loud. “Hm. You know, like L-for-Liam, and Elle-is-a-girl…”

“Do you feel like an Elle?”

“I feel like me,” she said sourly. I got the sense that “me” wasn’t Elle, either.

“You’re gonna think this is nuts,” she said, “Or maybe you won’t. But I’m feeling something basic and plain, like Katie or Sarah.”

“I never knew a Sarah I really liked,” I noted. The name didn’t excite me.

“Or one you hated,” she said with a bright smile. “It’s a very neutral name.”

“Sarah Slade?” I guessed. That had kind of a cool girl-next-door feel to it. As we passed the register, I grabbed one last thing – a pack of hair ties.

“So thoughtful,” she said.

*             *             *

Weeks passed and I settled into the new arrangement with Sarah, as we decided to call her. Although Emm was stationed in her office for long days at her new job, I kept my she-double mostly confined to the basement, where we would confer and discuss our ideas. Sarah had literally nothing to do besides write, so she was eager for a project.

I hadn’t conceived of anything since finishing Kristi’s Mom, so we started to pitch back and forth, which netted a few interesting ideas but nothing that seemed urgently exciting that would mirror the success we had had with Kristi. She mentioned that we had been thinking of polishing off Partsexchange, a story we had started writing a year or so before the pandemic. It was nearly done but I had struggled to bring it to an end. Maybe, she thought, with her mind free to focus only on that, she could come up with something. I let her have it.

I set Sarah up with an old laptop to do her writing, and she worked through December. It was a handy distraction from the upcoming Holiday. Sarah, as she was wont to do, looked on the bright side: “The family stress is all yours.” With Emm’s family, and my divorced parents, the Holidays were often hard to navigate between the various sets of expectations. It was a burden that I’m sure she was glad to be rid of.

The charade wasn’t easy to maintain. Since there is no bathroom in our little basement, we had to be very tactful about hygiene, but we made it work. I made meals that I knew would produce lots of leftovers – pastas, meat loafs – so that Emm wouldn’t notice that I was cooking for three.

In her free time, Sarah helped with the cleaning and chores, stealthily helping me keep the kitchen clean and the floors swept. I felt guilty watching her do these things like my own personal Cinderella, but I had work to do to support our weird little family.

As the New Year approached, I was impressed by Sarah’s work. Since she had, more or less, my same mind, reading it was like having waved a magic wand and immediately produced the writing that I envisioned in my head. She had navigated a few of the plot hitches that I had struggled with when I last set the story aside and firmed up the ending. I was proud of her, and vicariously, proud of myself. Partsexchange – admittedly, not the most conventional follow-up to Kristi’s Mom – went live on January 2.

*             *             *

With the extra brain power of two Slades, we made big plans for 2022. Could we produce a new work about that same size every two months this year? We didn’t see any reason why not. With the holidays – a busy period at my job – behind us and things settling down, we began to arrange a schedule. Most days she would write and I would review, but when I felt we could get away with it, she would fill in for me at my workstation and I would get to do the writing – it seemed a shame to miss out on the fun. It felt like we should be able to switch out seamlessly.

Our first project was going to be a novella called My Freaky Valentine, a lighthearted romcom about daters who get switched. I didn’t really have any specific ideas in mind other than it would be kind of a fluffy excursion.

One afternoon a few weeks into the process I came down to the basement to see her and check on her process. I found her sitting on the couch that served as her bed, in a t-shirt and panties, eating crackers and idly scrolling the internet on her laptop.

“Did you know,” she said, “The word ‘Dord’ appeared in the dictionary for years based on a mistake nobody caught? It was supposed to read ‘D or d,’ for density.”

“You don’t say,” I grumbled. “What have you got for me?”

She opened the document. There were less than 1000 words there, most of which had come in the early days of the work on the story, and a lot of which had been written by me.

“I haven’t really gotten to it yet,” she shrugged.

I frowned. She had been doing just about anything besides writing.

“I went through all these boxes, consolidated them and sorted them into things to keep and things to give away,” she said.

“You don’t think I would want to have a say in what to give away?” I asked, naturally protective of my stuff, even if it was the accumulated debris of my pre-Emm life that had largely been in storage before we moved here.

“I know what you’re attached to, I’m you,” she said. “Don’t worry, not losing any CD’s, despite the fact that everything’s online.”

“Or books,” I said.

“Some books,” she shrugged. “Some of them you’re just never going to read, and you know it.”

“Fair,” I sighed. “When do you think you might get into the writing.”

“I haven’t really felt inspired,” she said, blasé.

“You have nothing but time,” I said, “At some point, you have to be done with procrastination.”

“That so-called ‘procrastination’ is all I have in life,” she said. “I live in a dungeon, I survive off your backwash, I don’t see anybody but you. There’s no spark, no catalyst to get me started. Just these four walls.”

When she put it that way, I knew exactly what she was saying, and felt terrible. I loved to be out, to people-watch and observe the world. Many of my ideas had come this way. I needed my brain to be free-range, not factory farmed. Sarah was the same way.

“You want me to bring my experience to the writing,” she said, “The real experience of being a man who turned into a woman. But I don’t have any of that experience. Almost my entire time since leaving that lab has been spent in this basement, cowering in the shadows, sleeping on a hard couch next to a noisy furnace, eating scraps. I’ve been out in the world like this, maybe twice.”

“Okay, so what can we do?” I asked. “You can make day trips. You can go to the mall, you can go around town, I won’t stop you.”

I had the feeling there was something she wanted to say to that but she didn’t come out with it.

*             *             *

The writing continued, but she didn’t work on My Freaky Valentine at all. Instead she began work on a piece called The Escape, about an innocent man who was kidnapped and forcibly-feminized, with his mental and physical anguish being highlighted in almost grotesque detail. It was dark, darker than anything “Liam Slade” had yet written, and I did not feel good about putting our name on it.

With a bit of trepidation, we came up with a sort of a solution – get Sarah a job. That way she could go and experience some form of life, interact with people, have something to spark her and maybe snap her out of her funk.

It was risky, absolutely. She would have to come and go from our house at all hours, somehow without being detected by Emm. But it would solve another problem we had been having. With a third person in the house, costs were up. Groceries, electricity, water… to say nothing of her need for a wardrobe and hygiene products. Even having a part time job would help defray some of those costs, as well as getting her out in the world.

We debated to some degree what would be the best option. I thought waitressing, especially at a restaurant or a bar, would be good – you get lots of tips and maybe working late would mean being able to sneak in after Emm and I had gone to bed. Sarah, however, didn’t like the implications – men in bars and restaurants like to leer at their waitresses, and tip better when the “goods” are on display.

“Guys always think that if they were chicks, they’d shake what they’ve got for cash. But when it’s your body, you become a lot more protective of it,” she reasoned.

“So, OnlyFans is out,” I said.

“Way out.”

We settled on her becoming a barista. It was a job I had never done, but easy to learn, and Sarah had inherited my love of coffee. “A friendly smile, casual clothes, unflattering apron… worked for me,” she said.

Her schedule added a tricky wrinkle to our scheme. Writing on My Freaky Valentine stalled out because now both of us were a little busy. With her blessing, I started writing The Princess Awakening on my own, while leaving her to get to a headspace where she could get back to writing of her own. Considering I had hoped that having a clone would help expand my resources, I was becoming frustrated. I wrote and I wrote and I wrote, asking Sarah to look at what I had done and contribute, but she kept waving it off, saying she was tired from working long hours, and that whatever I had was probably fine.

I thought since her room and board was being looked after, then financially she could get away with only working 3 or 4 days per week and giving the rest to writing, but she worked a lot, probably motivated by a desire to get away from her “prison.”

One night, she didn’t come home when she was supposed to. I became anxious, then livid, then afraid. I was worried she would stroll in while Emm and I were on the couch watching The Masked Singer or something. Or worse, that she wouldn’t come home at all. Letting her roam free was proving more problematic in certain ways that keeping her under my roof. I was distracted all night and when Emm asked what was on my mind I had to pretend it was just about being busy at work.

At 3:20 AM I heard the garage door, which was located below the master bedroom, open. I bolted awake.

Sleepily, Emm asked “Wha’zat?”

“Must be the neighbors,” I said quietly. “I’ll, uh, go make sure.”

Angrily, I poked my head out the front door. Sarah was there in her green coat, shivering. She hurried in so that when I closed the door it was impossible to tell how many people had entered. I held a finger to my lips and we crept downstairs quietly.

“What the fuck!” I hissed in a stage-whisper.

“Sorry!” she said, “I was out and time got away from me.”

“Out with who? It’s a Tuesday night!”

“People from work,” she said. “They think I’m in my twenties, thanks to my amazing skin.”

I rolled my eyes. “Maybe you should have just stayed out.”

“Don’t think I didn’t think about it,” she said sharply.

I tried to bypass my frustration with her. “I was just worried, okay?”

“Well, I’m fine,” she said sharply, trying to deflect any kind of tough conversation.

“We need to co-ordinate your comings and goings,” I said.

“Yeah,” she sighed heavily, reluctantly acknowledging my point.

*             *             *

By late March, I was seeing less and less of Sarah. She was using her money to order things to the house and I had to ferry them down to the basement before Emm saw. I showed her the nearly-finished draft of The Princess Awakening. I had written a plot point late in the story where a character finds out another character’s secret affair, but I wasn’t sure how to play it out. I wanted her input, but her thoughts went beyond that. She decided to play the role of my inner critic.

“I think we can do better than this,” she said.

“What are you talking about? It’s good.”

“It’s fine,” she shrugged.

“No thanks to you,” I said. “I got all this done in months on my own, where were you?”

“I was working,” she said insistently.

“So was I,” I said. “This is what you’re here for, isn’t it? When was the last time you even wrote? The coffee-slinging isn’t your life, it’s a means to an end.”

“I’ve got other stuff,” she said bitterly.

“Like what?”

“Like friends, like…” she trailed off. A long silence developed between us.

“There’s… there’s someone, isn’t there?”

She gradually lifted her eyes to meet mine. I could see a kind of guilt there.

“Who is it?” I asked.

“I don’t think you want to know,” she said.

“I do,” I said, stepping closer and softening my voice. “I want to know everything about you that you can bear to tell me.”

“His name’s Drew,” she said. “He’s a guy I work with. He came onto me, and I was flattered, curious, because it never happened that way before.”

I went cold as I processed this information. “I could see that,” I muttered. “And you like him?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “A simple prop to occupy my time,” she quoted R.E.M., one of our favourite bands.

“And you like… it?” I asked, barely able to get the word out, alluding to what she had apparently done with this Drew.

She shrugged and blushed a little. “It has its moments.”

I sat there processing, and knowing how I think, she let me a while before speaking.

“Are you, uh… shocked?” she asked.

I took a long moment to think. “Yes and no,” I said, my brain still far away from my body. “I still think of you as me, doing the things that I would do and making all the same decisions.”

“Me too,” she said. “You know, there’s always the part of the story where the guy has sex as a woman, but it never happens this quick, not if we want to be realistic. I honestly didn’t see it happening at first, but… that’s why it did. Because it wasn’t a decision you would make. I mean, what’s the point of me, if I’m just going to be you?”

We sat quietly for a while.

“Do you want to know more?” she asked.

“Maybe later,” I sighed. “I’m not sure I could handle it.”

I consider myself a cisgender, heterosexual male. I had written dozens of stories where people just like me are nudged out of that comfort zone and experimenting. Yet it shook me more than a little to find out that that could really be the case.

*             *             *

As I prepared to publish The Princess Awakening, I found her in the basement. She had gathered her meager possessions into a box.

“Hey, so,” she said, “I think it’s time for me to move on.”

“What do you mean, ‘move on’? Where would you go?”

“Just… away,” she said, heaviness in her voice. “I can’t do this anymore, and I don’t think you can either.”

“Sarah, we can work it out,” I said. “Look at what we did with Partsexchange. Two heads are better than one.”

“I’m living half a life here, Liam,” she said defeatedly. “I’m no good to anyone.”

I nodded in understanding.

“It’s gonna be hard,” I said. “But, I think you’re right. We did this so that I, in some way, could find new horizons, and it’s wrong to keep you down here.

“Listen,” I advised, “Don’t stay at the coffee shop too long. Don’t stop writing. I didn’t bring you into this world to pour lattes.”

She nodded. A tear streaked down her soft cheek.

“Go do all the things I didn’t do,” I said. “Don’t play it safe. You want boys, be with boys, be with girls if you want. Have fun, you’ve got a chance to do it all. Get tattoos, travel, whatever. Just… please, please write about it.”

She was getting more choked up as the tears came more quickly as she wrapped her arms around me. I had a tear or two too. We were so alike and yet now, becoming so different.

“I will,” she said through sobs. “I will.”

“You have to,” I said.

“I will,” she insisted.

“And stay in touch,” I said. “For God’s sake, I don’t want to lose track of you like I did everyone else.” High school friends, college friends, old co-workers and collaborators who became passive acquaintances on Facebook at best, many of whom I simply never see.

“You won’t,” she said, her body shaking. “And you be good to Emm.”

“I’m never not,” I said warmly. She laughed at that. I’m not sure why.

That’s the writer’s dilemma. We only have one life, and we have to spend so much of our time just surviving and living day to day that it might become hard to make time for the thing we love. There’s no cheat code though, no life hack, no shortcut. I wanted a second Liam to help write, but I wound up with a second person, one with a very different fate from me. With any luck, she’ll be writing things I never dreamed of. As long as she is able to make the time.

We only have one life, which we owe to ourselves to make the most of. We can only imagine the rest.

*             *             *

Copyright 2022 Liam Slade, all rights reserved. To be reprinted only with permission of the author.

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