This story is part of Future Tense Fiction, a monthly series of short stories from Future Tense and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives.
Manny actually did remember him. He’d been working at Happy Rent-a-Car for a while, and yes, after five years the tourists did all start to blend together. But he also prided himself on having a weirdly good memory, which meant that when the American investigators and their police liaisons asked, he could say with confidence: Oh, yeah. I remember him.
The man was clearly waiting for someone and seemed tired and fidgety after his flight. Manny watched him wander out to the bar on the curb, where they blasted American music and sold bad, expensive tacos and strong, sugary drinks. But he came back pretty quickly and said something like: What a scene. I came here to get away from that.
Manny wasn’t sure what he meant by this—alcohol? Jimmy Buffett?—but he guessed the man meant his fellow Americans. This was a type that Manny encountered often, the ones who asked him where he liked to eat, in this really pointed way. No, they’d say, when he offered them a dinner recommendation. Where do you like to go? These were the tourists who spent their whole vacation looking for some better, more “authentic” Baja that they believed was hidden from them, a bedrock of reality they could reach if they only dug past the glass-bottom boat tours and resort buffets. Manny actually liked these tourists the least because he knew that even if he sent them to his favorite restaurant, they’d still feel disappointed. They would sacrifice their actual experience on the altar of their expectations. They were the ones who would have the worst time, because they were always looking for some other, better place concealed by the one that they could see.
The scent of margarita mix wafted over on the breeze. Manny, resigned, told the man where he liked to eat and watched him as he carefully wrote these suggestions down. He seemed very alone. Manny, in spite of himself, felt a little bad for him. The man asked where he liked to surf. Manny said he liked to go up north a bit. Cerritos could be fun, but it was way too crowded. He liked San Pedrito best. The man nodded, like this meant something to him, but Manny could tell he had no idea. He was in his 50s and too soft to be an aging surfer. He had to be a beginner. It was a shame, Manny thought, because he had the body type, tall and broad, somewhere under his pale pudge and bad posture. But it didn’t matter. He was coming to the sport too late. Manny had started surfing in his early 20s, and even that was too late to ever get better than mediocre. Maybe that faint kinship was what touched something in him. This poor man looked so hopeful and proud, with his soft body and slippery new board. It was kind of heartbreaking. He was so obviously poised for disappointment, worse than that of the tourists who took Manny’s restaurant recommendations—because his disappointment would be not in a place, but in himself.
So, Manny did something impulsive. He gave the man a real recommendation, a spot he really did like for surfing. A quiet beach break that was good for beginners. Too tame for most locals. Far from the tourist traps and party waves. Empty even in the high season.
That beach was where they would later find his body, head bashed in, jaw smashed to bits, half eaten by crabs. The police showed Manny a photo of the victim, or rather a re-creation of his facial structure based on his DNA. Manny had identified him, unequivocally. It was awful. He felt responsible, since he had told the man to go there. At first, Manny worried that the police and these American investigators actually thought he was responsible, in the criminal sense. But they didn’t. They seemed to be driving their questions toward a point—a suspect, perhaps—that they already had in mind. Manny sensed they were holding something back, but maybe that was just how these things went.
Was he meeting up with anyone? the investigators asked.
Yes, Manny said. Three or four other guys with boards met up with him. One was his son, I think.
Why do you say that? the investigators asked. Did he tell you that?
Manny tried to think. He realized that the man hadn’t actually told him they were father and son—he’d just assumed the relationship, since they looked so much alike. Then, something occurred to him. He asked to see the re-creation again. Now the police and the Americans seemed very interested. Manny sensed he was at last driving toward the same point they were.
He examined the picture, tapping his foot. He realized that, upon reflection, he couldn’t be sure if he was looking at an image of the father or the son.
Daren felt his phone buzz in his pocket. A GENMatch notification. He smiled.
“Actually,” Daren said, “I’ve gotten really into epigenetics.”
His half brother, Mark, swirled his whiskey and water. “That’s cool,” he said, in a tone that indicated the opposite. “What else are you up to?”
Daren looked around the country club billiard room, filled with white flowers and black-clad guests, curtains drawn against the bright, flat light of Tennessee winter. It was his father’s funeral. What was he up to? Fucking this, Mark. He spotted his mother across the room. She was engrossed in conversation with her daughter, Daren’s half sister, Amy. They were laughing, which Daren found vaguely inappropriate. Daren was the only product of his parents’ first marriage, and his father’s only offspring. Daren wasn’t close with either of his half siblings. They didn’t need him. They had each other.
“My mom …” Mark paused. “Our mom. Mom. Anyway, she said you were still looking for work? Because my neighbor does insurance too and might have an opening in his office.”
“I do wealth management,” Daren said. “Not insurance.” Before Mark could apologize in some way that would make Daren feel even more pathetic and unemployed, he added: “But the GENMatch stuff is—”
Mark cut him off. “Which one is that? I feel like since they gave that sequencing tech consumer approval, it’s just been a gold rush. You could throw epi in front of any company name, and the stock would jump 10 points. But I guess you’re the finance guy, right?”
Daren pressed his lips into a vague smile and picked up another glass of wine.
“I did a free intake for one of the dieting ones,” Mark continued. “But the subscription rate was so outrageous for what it seemed to be offering. Like, I don’t need to pay some startup out the ass just to tell me to eat more broccoli.”
“Is GENMatch the one that does epigenetics for dating? Because I read an article about the people who want to use sequencing to pair spouses, and it sounded kind of”—Mark wobbled his hand uncertainly, the dull gold of his wedding band catching in the light—“eugenics-y. Anyway, you dating much these days?”
“No,” Daren said, annoyed at both the pivot and the implication that Mark believed him to be the kind of person who would be into eugenics. Also, he had looked at those dating sites. But that wasn’t the point. “Not all these sites are created equal. GENMatch is real medical research. It’s about living up to your genome’s full potential.”
“What are you, their marketing director?”
“I’m a founding member,” Daren sniffed. “The point is, you send them your sequence, and for now, they give you all these insights and visualizations and suggestions for supplements and lifestyle recommendations or whatever. But the plan is for them to use that data to develop new therapies that their members will be first in line for. This isn’t BS about broccoli. They’re talking about, like …” Daren tried to think of something that would impress. “Reversing cellular aging.”
“Pretty big claim,” Mark said. “How does it work, exactly?”
Daren actually couldn’t explain how it worked, even inexactly. He tried, though. He didn’t want to look dumb in front of Mark. He tossed off some keywords from studies he’d half read summaries of—something-something-inherited-trauma, something-something-methylation, something-something-maternal-neglect-in-rats—but as Daren spoke, he could feel his feet brush the bottom of his shallow pool of knowledge. His relationship to the technology of epigenome mapping was not rational. It was emotional. It was, more than anything, like a horoscope. He wanted someone to tell him who he was, to point to a protein and say: This is why you are the way you are. But he couldn’t admit that to Mark. He barely admitted it to himself.
He rambled to a close (something-something-CRISPR) and said, with an authoritative wave of his hand, “Anyway, it’s all pretty technical.”
Mark shrugged. “Sounds like a scam.”
Toward the end of the reception, as Daren found himself alone, finally, free to check the GENMatch notification, his mom slid in beside him at the dessert spread. “Nice job today, hon.”
He put his phone down, with reluctance. “Thanks.”
“Glad that they could all make it,” she said, gesturing with a half-eaten lemon bar to Amy, Mark, and their respective spouses.
Daren nodded and sipped his fourth (or was it his fifth?) glass of cabernet.
“Mark said you were telling him about GENLock.”
“Well, either way,” she said. “Those sites all seem like a waste of time, not to mention money. You should be looking for a new job. It’s a good market.”
“It’s not a waste,” he said. “And I am looking. It’s just hard right now.” He felt himself getting choked up and swallowed the rest of his wine.
“I know,” his mother said. She opened her mouth to speak, then stopped, then tried again. “You’re not thinking of …” Daren winced, watching her stumble on the relevant words.
“Mom, stop. That’s not … that’s over.”
Daren regretted telling his mom he was depressed. He let it slip last year after another long week in his dad’s long decline. They were at dinner, and she was so peppy it made him furious, so furious that he started weeping right there in the restaurant, and when she asked him what was wrong, he said that he lay awake every night wishing he would die. This statement upset her more than he expected it would, which he told her, and which then upset her even further.
Daren tried, after that, to feel better. Be better. He even went to therapy a couple of times, mostly as a bid to prove to his ex that he was a better man than she said he was. He’d thought it was all a bunch of bullshit, but one thing the therapist said had stuck with him. In the beige quiet of the therapist’s office, Daren described his spiraling thoughts about himself, how violent they were and how much they scared him. The therapist had listened with perfect composure, hands folded on her lap. Finally, she asked if he’d ever made a plan. He said no, not really. It was more of an impulse. But he’d never thought it through beyond that. The therapist nodded.
When you get that impulse, she said, I want you to try to remember that the thing you really want to end is that feeling, not your life. It’s not about killing yourself. It’s about wanting to kill the part of yourself that’s in pain. Does that make sense?
Daren felt all the blood rush to his face. He wondered briefly if he was having a heart attack and, in some final irony, would actually die, right here, in the midst of talking about how often and how much he wished he would. Daren said it made sense but didn’t make him feel better. He just wanted to be put out of his misery.
Of course, she said. But that’s not the way to do it.
Anyway, he didn’t go back after that session, because soon after, he lost his job—and with it, his insurance. But he never forgot what she said, even though he still lay awake at night sometimes, half wishing he would die. Only now he tried to reframe it and kept it to himself.
Daren went to the bar. One last glass, cup, whatever. No one could judge him for getting hammered at his own dad’s funeral. He got out his phone and opened the GENMatch app (Hi, Daren!), then choked on his wine, sending a spray of red droplets across the screen. He wiped at it with his suit sleeve as he read the notification. He blinked. He read it again:
We found a new genetic relative!
Connect with your identical twin Thomas “TJ” Bowlin Jr.
They weren’t actually identical twins. Daren could see from his profile that TJ was 10 years younger: age 39, born in San Diego. But genetically, they were twins. A 98 percent genomic match. Daren knew that this sort of thing happened. Rarely, very rarely. But it was possible. He’d skimmed the summaries of the papers. “There are only so many ways to put together a human being,” one researcher had said. “After 8 billion, you’re bound to get a duplicate.” She rejected the word doppelgänger, with its supernatural implications. “It’s just probability,” she said. But still. It was spooky. Daren squinted at the screen. TJ looked just like a younger him, only imbued with something else, aside from youth, that he couldn’t put his finger on. It was just like the lab mice, bred to be identical, raised in the same environment, fed the same food, who still somehow turned out different, identical only to a point. One got fat, maybe, while the other got skinny. They used to call it developmental noise. Intangible variation. Both names for the gulf between genotype and phenotype, for the difference they did not expect and could not explain. But now they could, with things like GENMatch. Now they had the tools.
Daren looked around the dry-eyed room, at his mother and half siblings clustered together without him, and then at this photo of—he’d say it; he had no scientific credibility to squander—his doppelgänger, and all his half-learned thoughts about methylation evaporated, because he realized that this is what he’d hoped to see all along: himself as he should have been, younger, happier, better, mistakes as yet unmade, controlling for all his errors and miseries, right switches flipped in every cell. They were the same, at the most fundamental level. And yet.
Daren gulped down the rest of the wine and messaged TJ.
Luisa knew, given the context—a murder investigation, the stern faces of the cops and the investigators now gathered in her cousin’s bar—that it sounded incredibly dumb, but her first impression of TJ was that he was hot. Checking him in, she developed a little crush. They were both from San Diego and had bantered about their hometown. Luisa had moved down to Baja to run Airbnbs and surf. Her cousins were from here, and she’d always loved visiting them, so she figured: Why not? She knew that her parents were kind of horrified at her decision to postpone college to do this, but she didn’t care. She was making more money than, for example, her older sister, who was in year four of a Ph.D. in comp lit, so who was the smart one now? Anyway, Luisa said, it was just so, so sad, so shocking, what had happened, though the fact that these investigators and cops were here did kind of highlight the injustice of things, you know? So many Mexicans went missing every day, and that was sad and shocking too, but when it’s a tourist, suddenly—
The American investigator cut her off and said that yes, that was all very true, but they needed her to stick to the point. Luisa apologized. They asked who was staying in the condo.
It was TJ, these two guys Tim and Brian, and then this other dude, Daren, who Luisa thought at first was TJ’s older brother or something.
He told you that?
No, she said, but they looked related. And he seemed kind of out of place? Like a hanger-on? The other guys, Tim and Brian, were giving him shit, calling him “old man” and stuff—and not in a friendly way. It felt hostile.
Did Daren seem upset about it?
No, it was TJ who got angry about it. Comparatively, Daren seemed like the chill one. TJ started yelling out of nowhere, like zero to 100, telling the other two to lay off. And they did. But it was … She paused, unsettled at the memory. I don’t know. It was a bad vibe.
Anything else unusual?
Luisa’s cousin piped up from behind the bar. There was that other thing, he said. Luisa looked stricken until he added: With the facial rec.
Oh, Luisa said. Right.
All the properties they rented used facial recognition for access. It was easier than keys, which got lost, and safer than codes, which could be shared. Everyone else—TJ, Tim, Brian—all went into the system no problem. But when she tried to register Daren, the system wouldn’t let her. It kept saying he was already registered and flashing TJ’s face. The computer thought they were the same person.
Luisa shivered. Her cousin grinned. Spooky, right? He laughed. The cops laughed. But the investigators didn’t, and neither did Luisa.
Daren awoke to darkness on his couch. He felt a little queasy; his mouth tasted like bad cabernet and cigarettes, though he’d had so much of the former, he barely remembered having the latter. He was still in his funeral suit. Picking up his phone, Daren saw that it was 1:15 a.m., that the forecast for tomorrow was sleet, and that he had a new message on GENMatch:
Normally, I would have just ignored this and thought it was some kind of phishing scam, but I’m glad I didn’t. You’ll never believe this but my dad also passed away, not last week like yours but a few months ago. He was older, but it was quite sudden and I’m still pretty shook up. My pops was a big Elvis fan and he’d have gotten a kick to hear I was talking to someone in Memphis. I don’t know about the identical twin thing. We do look alike, but I assume it’s some kind of error since we don’t have the same birthday/location/age/etc? And also our profile spikes look different. Anyway, these sites seem pretty janky. Not sure I’ll stay past the free trial. I know it’s trendy to be into this stuff, but I’m not really a believer in genetic destiny lol.
Breaks my heart to hear about your dad. I’m an only child too, and it’s shitty to deal with this alone.
Daren bristled. These sites weren’t janky, and furthermore, it was possible to have a genetic match like this, and anyone who said you couldn’t just didn’t know what they were talking about. But he let that slide. TJ, with his light and easy tone, he thought, seemed like the kind of guy who would let things slide. Daren suppressed, he imagined, his gene for aggression and wrote back something generous and neutral about coincidence and grief, and included a link to an Elvis song, in honor of both their dads. Then, Daren began his defense of epigenetics; genetic destiny was the wrong way to think about it. It was more like seeing a possible destiny and then getting the tools to avert it. It wasn’t their genome but their environments that had produced the different spikes on their profiles. That was the power of what GENMatch was showing them, how the same blueprint, with different instructions, could produce different structures. He gave the example of metamorphosis, which was what had gotten him into epigenetics in the first place:
Imagine you didn’t know that caterpillars turned into butterflies, he wrote to TJ. If you looked at them for the first time side by side, you’d think they were completely different animals. But it’s one animal, with exactly the same DNA. (Kind of like us.) It’s just that the instructions have changed. The caterpillar switches flip off, the butterfly switches flip on. And that’s metamorphosis.
Again, Daren didn’t really know that he knew enough to explain the mechanics of this. But he knew the way it made him feel. The other night he’d passed out on the couch in front of the TV and woken up to a nature documentary about butterflies, to the narrator explaining how certain species of caterpillars carried in them the exoskeleton of their future wings, their future selves, smushed up against their spineless spines, like scaffolding. And yes, he was drunk at the time—or the kind of drunk where you’ve stopped drinking long enough to start tipping toward hungover—but he got choked up. He looked at the screen and thought: Wow. That’s me. The bones of my future, stuck somewhere inside me.
A few days later, TJ wrote back: First off, I thought that was a Willie Nelson song lol. Shows you how much I know. Then, he admitted he’d never really thought about epigenetics that way, with the butterflies. It was cool.
After that, the two men started comparing photos and GENMatch profiles; the similarities were uncanny, in the true, original sense. Their shoulders sloped the same way. They had the same eyes and lopsided dimples. The same hairline too, only TJ had just shaved his head when he started going bald, while Daren was still clinging to the little hair he had. Daren’s overbite had been present in TJ but corrected, when he was young, by two loving parents who also gently nagged him about his retainer. Perhaps it was those parents and the sunshine of his home state, Daren thought, that had spared TJ from their genetic code’s proclivities toward impulse control issues and depression and alcohol abuse disorder. (Lucky me, TJ said, with a screenshot of the colorful graphs on his profile.) His profile also showed that TJ’s biological age was younger than his 39 years, while Daren’s was older than his 49. This was common, Daren explained, in cases of childhood trauma. (My dad had a temper, Daren said, and didn’t elaborate further.)
Some of the switches, however, had flipped in synchrony. They were both good at math and chemistry and bad at baseball and soccer. Both liked to swim and were happiest by water. Even their careers were similar: TJ was a CPA but had just left his firm, and wasn’t it funny that Daren worked in wealth management, because he was thinking about moving into that too. Both men had badly sprained the same ankle at around the same age, albeit in different ways. That injury had contributed, years later, to Daren almost blowing out his ACL, after which he’d put on 40 pounds and started drinking more. Keep up with your stretches, Daren said. I’m telling you, protect that knee.
Lol a glimpse into my future, TJ wrote back, though Daren could tell he didn’t believe him.
But most uncanny of all was their taste in women. When TJ described his fiancée, he could have been describing Daren’s ex-wife. Full-figured, brown hair, brown eyes, four years his junior.
Our type, TJ wrote. You have kids?
Daren had a 6-year-old daughter named Chloe. She lived in Texas with his ex-wife and her new husband. According to their custody agreement, he saw Chloe only when he flew down to Dallas and stayed near the airport at a Homewood Suites and took her out for dinner and ice cream, sometimes to the park, depending on the weather. But he could sense, already, that she dreaded his visits, that she was enduring them and counting the minutes until she could go back to her mother and her stepfather, back to her real life and real home. He was on track to becoming incidental to her existence. He would be just like his father, superfluous, unloved, and eventually unmourned, while his wife flourished without him, like a plant repotted.
I can’t believe she did that, TJ wrote. I bet you’re a great dad.
Daren could have cried. Thank you, he said. I’m trying.
The investigators asked Brian to describe the fight again, the one that had led to him leaving the Airbnb.
Daren and TJ were spending a lot of time together, he said, which I didn’t love. Daren was annoying. The way he was with TJ was so … I don’t know. It was creepy. Plus, he couldn’t surf for shit. But TJ didn’t seem to mind, so I let it go. The first couple days were fine. Fun, actually. But then, on the third day, TJ hurt his knee on a wipeout.
After it happened, he got really angry. I thought he was just worked up ’cause it would keep him out of the water for a couple of days. It didn’t seem like such a bad injury. But it really upset him. Upset Daren too, weirdly. They both fixated on it. TJ almost seemed to blame Daren for it, which didn’t make any sense. But I was happy to have another reason not to like the guy, so I didn’t care.
That night, TJ wanted to stay up late, drinking and talking. TJ was drinking a lot on the trip, which wasn’t typical for him. I gave him a pass because of his dad; I knew he was having a hard time. But again, after the knee injury, the tenor kind of shifted. He kept going on and on in these circular conversations about free will and fate, and somehow this knee injury was a part of all that. I could see TJ getting more and more agitated and intense about it, so I was like, Hey, man—injuries happen. You’ll be fine. It’s just your knee.
He said I didn’t get it. The knee wasn’t just an injury, it was everything. It was the beginning of the end, and in 10 years, he’d be just like Daren. And I was like, Dude, your dad died. It’s normal to feel depressed, but I can promise you, you won’t end up like that loser.
But that just set him off more. He started shouting about how I didn’t “get it” because I couldn’t see “what he was made of,” whatever that meant. Only Daren could see it. Only Daren understood. Daren was the key to everything. Daren was his destiny. Daren, Daren, Daren. He was hammered at this point, obviously. And I was like, Listen, I get it. Daren fucking sucks. If I were going to turn into that in 10 years, I’d be upset too.
Brian looked down at his lap. It was a joke. Sort of. After I said that, TJ got really quiet. He said that insulting Daren was the same as insulting him. Then, he stood up, marched into my room, came out with my open suitcase and threw it off the balcony. He said that if I really felt that way about Daren, I should fuck off. So I did. Me and Tim packed up our shit and booked a place in Todos Santos for the rest of the week. It was crazy. I’d never seen TJ like that, ever. Figured I’d talk it out with him back home, but …
Brian looked out the window. He had been so excited to come here, and now he never wanted to come back. He wished TJ were still alive somewhere so he could tell him all about this fucked-up trip, where he was still trapped in this overpriced condo, because he was being questioned in a murder investigation and couldn’t leave the country. He asked the police when they were going to release TJ’s body, or what was left of it, back to the States for burial.
The American investigator hesitated. We still need to analyze the remains, he said. To confirm the decedent’s identity.
Brian scoffed. What’s to analyze? Don’t you just test the DNA?
So? I know TJ’s is up on one of those stupid epigenetics sites. That’s how he met fucking Daren. Shouldn’t that tell you whose body it is?
The investigator cleared his throat. There’s the issue of dental records. And the other man is still missing.
Brian threw his hands up. Why do you keep saying “the other man” like I don’t know it’s Daren? I realize I’m not an FBI agent or whatever, but if I had to guess which one of them would murder somebody and go on the run in Mexico, my money’s on the fuckup alcoholic on the verge of bankruptcy, not TJ. The TJ I know would never do that.
The investigator cocked his head. What about the TJ who threw your stuff out of the window? Would he?
Brian clenched his jaw. The police whispered in Spanish again. No version of TJ I know would do that, he said. But he could hear how unconvincing it sounded.
Daren and TJ talked mostly about their dads. Daren realized that here, at last, was someone who wanted to hear about his dad and who had not attended his funeral with a bored expression and dry eyes and called him a difficult man or a complicated person or whatever other euphemisms everyone had used, since you couldn’t call someone a drunk or an asshole or a prick or a fucking dick at their own funeral, especially not to that someone’s only child, who had paid for everything, even after they lost their job, even after the debt they accrued for the parent surpassed the debt they’d already accrued for themselves, covering all the out-of-network doctors and stroke rehab and stair lift and the home health aide and then the other home health aide after the first one said the patient was difficult, because professional caregivers used those euphemisms too.
That’s why he liked talking about his dad with TJ; he could just tell nice stories. Daren told him about weekends at Hyde Lake where he’d learned to gut a trout and how happy his dad was on the water, when it was just the two of them in the cool mist of morning, the dawn chorus swelling all around them. Since he’d lost his job, his dad had been his main occupation for the last nine months. And now that he’d passed, Daren realized he had no one left to talk to, not that his dad had been much of a conversationalist at the end. Maybe the more accurate thing to say was that he had no one left to listen to him. But TJ did. TJ was interested.
They were emailing several times a day now: long emails, long replies. It was in one of these emails that TJ mentioned Baja. It was a trip he’d done several times with his dad. TJ texted Daren a screenshot of his booked flight—they were texting by this point, and quite a lot—from San Diego to Cabo. Why don’t you join us? TJ said. Two other guys were coming, friends from childhood who’d known his dad and surfed with him. You ever surfed? he asked.
Daren hadn’t, but anything TJ could do, he could do too, right? They were genetically nearly identical. Any differences between them were all down to nurture rather than nature, which meant that perhaps those differences could be undone by nurture as well. Wasn’t that the point of this? Wasn’t that why he was giving GENMatch access to his sequencing? In the hopes that one day they’d be able to change it? But Daren was nervous—and not just about surfing. He’d wanted to change for so long, but now that it felt so close, the prospect of it frightened him. What if he failed? What if he succeeded? What was on the other side?
Maybe, Daren said. Also, are you sure you want an old guy like me hanging around?
TJ wrote back immediately. Obviously, I want you to come, otherwise why would I have invited you, dude. And what’s this attitude!?! Of course you can surf/change/do anything you set your mind to. We’re not quitters, D!
This “we” had been popping up more and more in TJ’s recent correspondence; Daren couldn’t tell if it was facetious or genuine, but he chose to believe the latter. He chose to believe TJ about all of it. Maybe he really could surf/change/do anything he set his mind to. Maybe he could be like TJ, turn on all the best parts of himself and leave the worst unexpressed.
Daren booked his ticket that night.
FUCK YES, TJ wrote. Told you. We’re risk takers.
Daren smiled. He did feel like a risk-taker. It felt good. Maybe I’ll stay in Mexico forever, he said, sipping margaritas by the sea.
Luisa called the investigators again. There was one other thing, something she hadn’t wanted to say in front of her cousin. She had seen them again. Pescadero wasn’t a big place. She’d heard that Tim and Brian had left earlier after some kind of argument. Only Daren and TJ had stuck around; Luisa saw them out at a bar. They seemed much happier now that it was just the two of them. Daren in particular seemed more relaxed. He was also tanner and had shaved his head. He looked good, actually. He looked more like TJ. But TJ was also looking a little rougher, so maybe it was that TJ was starting to look more like Daren.
The police asked her what happened next. Luisa toyed with the frayed edge of her jean shorts.
Well, she said, Daren was in a great mood, buying people drinks, chatting everyone up. But TJ seemed really down, and I asked him what was wrong. He started opening up to me about how his dad had died.
Luisa bit her lip. I knew he had a fiancée, she said. But we were drinking a lot, and one thing led to another. The three of us went back to the condo where TJ and I … we hooked up. Or I thought we did. I’m not sure.
The American cut in: Are you saying that he assaulted you?
No. She had wanted to sleep with TJ. She’d thought that’s what she was doing. She remembered being surprised; he was more aggressive in bed than she’d expected. She remembered gazing into his eyes. He had beautiful eyes. Pale green.
The next morning, TJ was gone. She went into the kitchen to find Daren freshly showered, making eggs. And when he turned to say good morning, she realized that he had pale green eyes too.
Luisa felt nauseous, the vertigo of the realization rushing back. So, I asked him, Where’s TJ? And Daren just smiled, in this really self-satisfied way, and said:
We were wondering when you’d ask that.
The night before they flew to Cabo, TJ called Daren on the phone. It was the first time they’d heard each other’s voices, and even after everything—comparing their genomes and their bone structures and their sexual preferences—this, somehow … this was the strangest moment of all. To hear one’s own voice, echoed back.
But Daren was having second thoughts about the trip. He’d been feeling pretty low the past few days, he said. Worse than low, if he was honest. It scared him.
“You’ve had a hard year,” TJ said.
“I know. But I tried to …” He paused. Two nights earlier, after a particularly infuriating email from his ex, Daren had tried to swallow a bottle of his dad’s old oxycodone. Maybe tried was too strong a word. Considered. He’d sat on the couch for several long seconds, holding all of the pills in his mouth like a chipmunk, feeling their time-release coating start to loosen on his tongue. Then, one slipped down his throat, and in so doing triggered a deep, involuntary survival instinct. He raced, retching, to the toilet, where the gummy mass of pills coagulated in the remains of his dinner and whiskey sodas. It had been as embarrassing as it was frightening. Daren was ashamed, in a contradictory, irreconcilable way, both of the fact that he had come so close to a real attempt and of the fact that he’d failed to complete it.
Daren shook his head, trying to dislodge the image of the pills floating in his own vomit. “Nothing, I’m sorry. I just … really hate myself right now.”
“Hey,” TJ said, San Diego sunshine in his voice. “You don’t hate me.”
“No,” Daren sniffled. But TJ was TJ. Daren was himself. They were different.
TJ laughed. “Not according to GENMatch.”
Daren smiled. “True.”
“You just gotta remember that thing your therapist said: You don’t really want to hurt yourself, just the part of yourself that’s in pain.”
Daren wiped his eyes. “Maybe I want to kill the caterpillar because I’m ready to be the butterfly.”
“That’s such a beautiful way of thinking about it,” TJ said.
Daren thought so, too.
Yeah, the bar owner remembered him. Strange guy. Shaved head. Green eyes.
Did he remember his name?
The bartender shook his head. He remembered things about him though. His dad had just died, and he was having some sort of girl trouble. The bartender apologized—his English was rusty these days. But as far as he could tell, the man had recently gotten either engaged or divorced. One or the other.
The man was headed to that little beach up the road for surfing. Really remote spot. I said he might see some whales, because this is the time of year they come down to breed. The American asked how the whales knew to return. Were they taught the way? Or were they somehow born knowing it, like they had it in their DNA? I said I wasn’t sure. Then, he asked if I believed in destiny. The bartender rolled his eyes. He was that kind of drunk. I said everything that happens is part of God’s plan, but I guess that wasn’t the answer he wanted because he got all choked up and kept saying something I couldn’t understand, and to be honest, I didn’t really care. But he insisted on translating it for me on his phone. It came out to something like: If you knew the rest of your life was going to be unhappy, wouldn’t it make sense to kill yourself now? That was the gist.
Did he sound serious?
I didn’t think so. But … The bartender shook his head. Kind of ironic, huh? To talk like that and then … He looked at the photo of the dead man’s cratered skull and crossed himself. I told him to go splash some water on his face, so he went to the bathroom. When he came back, he was way calmer. Weirdly calmer. It was so drastic, I figured he must have taken something. Plus, he’d changed shirts, which was also weird. I said something about the shirt like, Why’d you change? You trying to impress me? And the guy just laughed and said no. Maybe he was trying to fuck with me. Then he paid his tab and left. Last I saw of him.
It had been harder than he expected. Seeing his own body sprawled before him was terrifying in a way that seeing his live body standing before him had not been. But he tried to remind himself that death was, in this case, a mercy; they’d both agreed it was better to be dead than Daren. Maybe that was why the first hit felt so instinctive. The rock. The blow. But then it was awful. There was so much blood, and worse than that, he had looked so surprised, which was infuriating. Hadn’t he seen this coming? Hadn’t he said this was what he he’d always wanted? To kill the worst part of himself, so the rest could live unburdened? He bludgeoned the head over and over, trying to get rid of that stupid look on its face, his face, their face, and when he stopped, he realized he’d destroyed their last irreversible distinction; in the end, the only difference between them had been the teeth.
He squinted against the sun, blinding bright off the sea. His vision was suddenly crystalline. He would never be depressed again. Or anxious. Or angry. Or sad. Or self-loathing. All that was now dissolving, back into imaginal discs of emotion. Now he could be anything he wanted. He could be the man he always should have been. He almost wanted to re-upload his profile to GENMatch to see which switches were flipped in the secret walls of his cells. All the right ones, he was sure, all darker destinies averted. He watched, past the waves, a whale breach, its tail pointing up, as if it were balancing beneath the sea on its great, balene’d snout.
He saw now that he’d gotten blood all over his board, where it had beaded on the wax. It would come off in the ocean, he told himself. It was fine. Everything was going to be fine. He shook his knee. He stretched. He smiled. He’d read that if you smiled, you could trick your brain into happiness. He could be happy now, if put his mind to it. He wasn’t a quitter. He smiled more widely, with all his intact teeth. He shook his knee again. Then, he picked up his board and walked into the surf.
We’re OK, he thought, as his toes touched the water. I’m OK.
Read a response essay by a journalist who covers DNA tech.
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