“From the attic? No.” Josh finished scribbling a note and swiveled round in his chair. “You’re a daring one, Hon!”
“No, just desperate.”
“This for your weekly column?”
“Yeah,” Hanna said, “If I’m not back in 30 minutes, call the police.”
Josh laughed. “Sure thing.”
Hanna went upstairs, pulled the attic ladder down and climbed up. She flicked the light on and crossed the plywood walkway to the stacks of boxes along one gable end, and she pulled boxes off the top to get to the one she wanted. She found the book and started stacking the boxes back up and noticed one labeled “Bernt’s Library – Box 4 of 30.”
Hanna opened the box and smiled, began pulling her father’s old books out one by one. She laughed and cried down Memory Lane until she found a book she’d not seen before, “’Biographies of Strangers’ by Dr. Merten Amsel.” The title intrigued her. She flipped through a few pages and became so fascinated that she took it downstairs with her to the kitchen to look at in depth.
She dusted off both books and sat down at the kitchen table to pore over the “Biographies…” book. Josh came in for a glass of water, saw her utterly rapt.
“What are you looking at, Hon?”
“Oh hey, Sweets” Hanna said. “Remember when my mom moved from the old house after my dad died, and she had some boxes delivered here for us to store for her?”
“Well, I found a box labeled ‘Bernt’s Library – Box 4 of 30’ that must have been delivered here by mistake because there weren’t any others from Dad’s library up there. Anyway, I found this fascinating yet freaky book.”
Hanna showed Josh the cover, “See this title, ‘Biographies of Strangers’? Well, apparently ‘strangers’ refers to human clones and this is a book full of them, with pictures and biographies! And they were all created by a scientist named Dr. Merten Amsel.”
“No way!” Josh said. “What year was the book published?”
“But scientists only recently created a human embryo as a source of stem cells!”
“I know,” Hanna said, “That’s what makes this so…so Frankenstein…because the first person in this book was created in the 1930’s! I’m not sure what year Amsel created the last one, I’m still working my way through it.” She flipped to the front of the book. “Look, here’s a picture of him in the Preface.”
“Oh cripes, he looks like Josef Mengele!”
“Hm…a bit…only with a little less of the devil in his eyes.” Hanna giggled.
“And the text is in German. You’ll have to tell me what it says, in a nutshell.”
“Well, apparently, Dr. Amsel was born in 1889 and began his career in 1902 working under the famed embryologist, Hans Spemann. And basically, he took what he learned, advanced it on his own, and actually produced many successful human clones.”
“If that’s true, why haven’t we heard about this?” Josh said. “A discovery of that magnitude would have been splashed all over the news, featured in scientific journals, added to school history books… Surely this book is a hoax! Hanna, what publishing house printed it?”
Hanna flipped to the title page. “There are just the letters U and B separated by a dash. And there is no address. Very strange…”
“I’m going to Google some of this while you finish going through the book,” Josh said.
“Good idea, Sweets.”
Josh went to his study and entered all search terms he could think of to cover Amsel in and out of the field of cloning and he found only one thing: Amsel’s name in the team list for Spemann’s success with nuclear transfer in creating a salamander. He began to see what he could find for the publisher “U-B” when he heard Hanna’s scream.
Josh rushed to the kitchen. Hanna’s hands were clapped hard over her mouth and her eyes were wide and staring at one of the biographies. Josh put his hand softly on her shoulder.
“What is it, Hanna?” And then he saw it, the name “Genoveva Agna Neumann, geb. 1943.” Hanna’s mother’s name and year of birth. And there above the name was the same picture of a beautiful young girl of 18 or so that he’d seen in a family album at Hanna’s parents’ house. “Oh, Hanna…”
“You’re damned straight ‘Oh Hanna!’ she yelled. She jumped up from her chair, began pacing and yelling, “This is a fucking nightmare! It can’t be real! It can’t be true! Tell me it can’t be true! Tell me…” and she broke down scream-sobbing and slapping then punching herself.
Josh grabbed her arms and held them tight to her body. She fought to break loose and screamed like a trapped wildcat. She screamed the vilest words at ungodly decibels.
Josh had to bellow to be heard. “Hanna! Shut up and think about it! This book may be a hoax!”
Still she fought and screamed obscenities. Pretty soon the neighbors would be calling 911, if they hadn’t already.
With one leg, Josh swiped Hanna’s legs out from under her, got her to the ground on her back with her arms tucked behind her and he straddled her, put her in a vice grip, pressing his weight down on her and in on her sides. He put the heel of one hand on Hanna’s forehead and spread his fingers out over the top of her skull and pressed her head to the kitchen floor to stop her banging it. Then he put the heel of his other hand under her chin, pushed up, and stopped some of the noise.
“Hanna!” he yelled.
She looked at him with the wild eyes of a spooked mare and began a stifled scream-growling.
“The book could be a hoax” Josh yelled. “There could be a perfectly logical explanation. Doing yourself like this will not help you. The first thing we will do is call Veva and see what she says about this.”
Josh released the grip on her jaw.
“That BITCH! That THING! That—”
Josh clamped her mouth. That she was moving some of her anger away from herself and to her mother was a tiny sign of hope. Still she scream-growled, but less vehemently.
With the veins at his temples throbbing and Hanna’s worst fear for ammo, he put his mouth to her telephone ear like lips to a microphone, and he said into it, “You may think you don’t care about your future now, but you might change your mind. And if you do, you won’t want tonight to end in the nuthouse because that will go on your permanent record. So stop what you’re doing now. Find out what is real in this situation. And if you still want to go over the edge after you know what’s real, then you can be my guest.”
Josh could feel the tension in Hanna’s muscles slacken some. Her noise began to fade to a forced and undulating buzz-hum. Then she closed her eyes and lay still and quiet. He took his hand away from her mouth.
Hanna spoke. “Can you imagine how you would feel if you found out you were the offspring of a clone?”
“Oh, Hon, I have been imagining it,” Josh said, “And if it was true, I couldn’t say what I’d end up doing about it, but I do know that the first thing I’d do is try like hell to disprove it.”
“Shall we call Veva now? See what she says about all this?”
“Yeah,” Hanna said. “OK, let me up, let’s get this over with.”
Josh climbed off Hanna, helped her up, got her a glass of water.
Hanna dialed her mother’s apartment.
“Hel-lo, this is Veva!”
“Mom, I’ve just found the book,” Hanna said.
“Oh hello, Liebschen! What book?”
“’Biographies of Strangers’.”
There was a pause.
“Oh that,” Veva said. “It must have been put in the boxes to be stored at your house by mistake.”
“Mom, were you cloned?”
“We should not talk of such things on the telephone, Liebschen.”
“Because you can’t tell me ‘No’ right now, must mean the answer is ‘Yes’.”
“Fix some tea, Liebschen,” Veva said, “I’ll be over shortly.”
To Be Continued
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