“A trippy domestic thriller which takes the extramarital affair trope in some intriguingly weird new directions.” – Entertainment Weekly
I’m embarrassed, still, by how long it took me to notice. Everything was right there in the open, right there in front of me, but it still took me so long to see the person I had married.
It took me so long to hate him.
Martine is a genetically cloned replica made from Evelyn Caldwell’s award- winning research. She’s patient and gentle and obedient. She’s everything Evelyn swore she’d never be.
And she’s having an affair with Evelyn’s husband.
Now, the cheating bastard is dead, and both Caldwell wives have a mess to clean up.
Good thing Evelyn Caldwell is used to getting her hands dirty.
Please enjoy this free excerpt of The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey, on sale February 16, 2021.
Late in the afternoon, Seyed sat on a lab stool next to me and eased my pencil out of my hand. “Hey, Evelyn?” He ducked his head and looked at me with his wide, patient brown eyes.
“You’re driving me fucking crazy.” He drummed the pencil on the side of my clipboard in a staccato rhythm. It was loud, uneven, and deeply irritating. He twisted in his chair, looked at the lab phone, looked back at the clipboard, tapped it with the pencil again. “You’ve been doing this shit all day,” he said. “Call Martine already.”
A flush of shame. Fidgeting. “You’re right. I don’t know why I’ve been—ugh. I’ll do it soon, okay?” I almost apologized, but I stopped myself just in time. It was one of my rules, a rule that my father branded into me when I was a child. It was a rule that had gotten me through grad school and internships and the endless fight for respect and recognition. Never apologize in the lab. Never apologize in the workplace.
“C’mon, boss.” Seyed gave me an encouraging smile. It stung like cautery. “You’re Evelyn Goddamn Caldwell. You just won a Neufmann Honor. This lady’s got nothing on you.”
I grimaced, but nodded. Seyed calling me “boss,” the sign of a serious pep-talk attempt.
He was doing his best.
He couldn’t help what he didn’t know.
I’ve never been an optimist.
I’ve never had cause to expect a positive outcome when all the signs point to a negative one.
I bowed to optimism one time, and it was a mistake.
I had been at the museum, enduring an ill-advised attempt at connecting with Lorna’s other research assistant. He was a man who rode his bicycle to the lab every day and ate raw vegetables for lunch. He was tall, stringy, an array of tendons loosely hung on a wire framework. He seemed like a good way for me to practice networking, if not actual friendship. I can’t even remember his name now—Chris, probably, or Ben.
Nathan had found me while I was waiting for my colleague to return from an eternal trip to the lavatory. He sidled up to me at a display of collider schematics. He had long hair then, past his shirt collar, and wore it tied back into a low ponytail. I remember noticing the ponytail and rolling my eyes before he even spoke to me. Later, just before our wedding, he cut it off, and I cried myself to sleep missing it.
“You don’t look like you’re having fun on your date.” That was the first thing he said, his voice pitched low enough that I didn’t immediately recognize that he was talking to me. When I glanced over, Nathan was looking at me sidelong, his mouth crooked up into a dimpled half-smile.
“It’s not a date,” I snapped. “We just work together.”
“He seems to think that it’s a date,” he’d said. “Poor guy’s under the impression that you think it’s a date too. He keeps trying to grab your hand.” I looked at him with alarm, and he held up his hands, took a step away from me. “I haven’t been watching you or following you or anything, we’ve just—we’ve been in the same exhibits a couple of times, and I noticed. Sorry.”
He started to walk away, hands in his pockets, but I stopped him. “It’s not a date,” I said, not bothering to keep my voice down. “He knows it’s not a date. We’re just colleagues.” My non-date came out of the bathroom then, looked around, spotted me. He started to cross the gallery, and I panicked. “In fact,” I said, “you should give me your phone number. Right now.” He grinned and took my phone, sent himself a message from it. Hi, it’s Nathan, rescuing you from an awkward situation.
By the time he’d finished, my colleague had reached us. I gave Nathan a wink, trying to come across as flirtatious, as bold. He would later tell me that I’d looked panicked.
“Give me a call,” he’d said, glancing between me and poor Chris, or Ben, or whatever his name was.
I’d gotten what I needed—a way to make sure my colleague knew that the thing he had hoped for was never going to happen. I told him brightly about getting asked out, said something about how we should do coworker outings more often. I pretended not to notice the way his face fell.
I never had any intention of calling Nathan.
But I did call him. I didn’t have a good reason to, didn’t have any data to support the decision. I took a chance on him.
I had hoped for the best.
Martine answered the phone on the second ring. Her voice was high, light, warm. Nonthreatening. Hearing it was like swallowing a cheekful of venom.
“Hello, this is the Caldwell residence, Martine speaking.”
I forced myself to look past the fact that she’d used Nathan’s last name, as if it belonged to her. As if she were a Caldwell. As if she got to have a name at all. I unconsciously slipped into the low, brusque tone I used when speaking at conferences. “It’s Evelyn. My lab assistant gave me your message.” I didn’t ask any questions, didn’t let any uncertainty through. Authoritative. Unapologetic. Don’t fidget. Don’t apologize.
She was more than polite. Excited, even. She sounded like she was talking to an old friend, instead of to the woman whose husband she’d stolen. That’s not fair, I mentally chastised myself. It’s not her fault. I told her that I couldn’t talk long, tried to sound like there was a reason I had to go, instead of like I was running away.
“Oh, before I forget—I understand congratulations are in order,” Martine said, her voice easy. I couldn’t help admiring the way she navigated conversation, the infinite finesse of it. She was showing me mercy: by interrupting, she kept me from having to commit the rudeness of admitting I didn’t want to stay on the phone. The faux pas of her interruption rescued me from feeling awkward. It absorbed discomfort on my behalf. The ultimate mannerly posture.
I recognized the maneuver. It was directly out of my mother’s playbook.
Martine asked me if I would consider getting a cup of tea with her. I paused long enough that she asked if I was still on the line. “Yes. I’m here.” I cleared my throat. “Why do you want to get tea with me, Martine?”
Martine laughed, a light, tinkling laugh, one designed to make people feel fun at parties. That was also my mother’s. “Oh, I’m so sorry if I’ve worried you at all, Evelyn. I just wanted to get tea so we could get to know each other a little. I know that things with Nathan aren’t ideal, but I don’t want there to be any troubled water between us. Don’t you think it would be better if we could be friends?”
I choked back a laugh. “Friends?”
“I would love to get to know you,” Martine said, as though this were a perfectly reasonable request. I was the woman who had been married to Nathan, the woman whose life Martine’s existence had blown to pieces, and she wanted to get to know me. Of course she did. Why wouldn’t she?
She asked again, and this time, a note of pleading entered her voice. “Just tea. An hour. That’s all. Please?”
I didn’t ask for his opinion, but of course Seyed told me not to do it.
“I have to. I said I would.”
“Don’t get coffee with this lady, it’s weird. You know this is weird, right?”
You have no idea how weird this is, I thought. “She asked me to get tea, not coffee. And I have to go.”
Seyed looked up from the felt he was gluing to a clipboard. “Why do you owe her anything? It’s not like you’re the homewrecker here.”
“She’s—it’s complicated, Sy. And besides, I already said I’d go.”
“When are you doing this objectively insane thing?”
“Tomorrow morning. So I’ll need you to handle the fluid sampling.”
He raised an eyebrow. “You mean I’m covering your workload while you do the thing you know you shouldn’t do.”
“Yes,” I said. “Please.”
“Great.” He walked the clipboard back to the tank it belonged to, returned it, and grabbed an un-felted clipboard from the next tank over. “Perfect. Because I didn’t have enough to do.”
He was irritated with me, and rightly so. I debated telling him everything—telling him why I couldn’t say no to Martine, what I owed to her, why I needed to see her. But it was too much already, him knowing who Martine was. Him knowing Nathan had been unfaithful.
The idea of telling Seyed who Martine really was caused my entire mind to recoil. “I’ll be in by ten,” I said.
“Have you ever seen this woman in person before?” he asked. “What if she’s, like, a murderer?”
I grimaced at the memory of my knuckles on the red-painted front door of Nathan’s second, secret house. The knob turning. Martine’s face, smiling out at me, eyes blank and polite in the few seconds before recognition struck us both. “I’ve seen her before,” I said. “She’s very sane.”
Seyed shook his head, cutting a strip of felt. “I still don’t think you should do this to yourself,” he said softly. “Not that my opinion matters.”
That last part wasn’t a barb—it was an apology. He knew he was intruding, knew he was speaking out of turn. And he also knew that his opinion did matter, mattered when no one else’s did. He was allowed to question me. He was allowed to offer opinions. He was allowed to speak during oversight meetings, even when my funding was at risk, even when the meeting was really a battle for survival.
I respected Seyed. He could keep up with me. He was one of the only people who was allowed to have an opinion at all.
“I know I shouldn’t do it, Sy,” I replied, watching him apply glue to the back of the clipboard. “But I’m going to anyway.”
I couldn’t turn my back on Martine.
I couldn’t escape her, any more than I could escape myself.
The tea shop Martine had chosen was cute. It was small, with mismatched furniture and clumsy velvet couches and a handchalked menu behind the counter. Tea-filled jars lined the shelves behind the register. The place smelled like steam and wood polish. There was a bulletin board covered in handwritten fliers for babysitting, yoga classes, free furniture.
It was almost exactly halfway between our houses. A bell over the door announced my entrance, bright and brassy. I tried not to look for her, but I failed, and there she was.
She was already seated, her hands around a steaming mug, her eyes on a book. She didn’t look up, didn’t notice me standing there—too engrossed in her reading. The air in the coffee shop seemed thin. My breath came too fast. I took my time at the coatrack, unwinding my scarf, shrugging out of my coat, watching the way Martine moved. Watching her tuck a finger under the page she was reading for a few seconds before turning it. Watching her blow on her tea before taking a tentative sip.
It was hypnotic. Martine moved in ways that I didn’t, in ways that I had consciously, effortfully trained myself out of. Tucking-in of my arms and legs, ways of making myself smaller, less obtrusive. Delicate flutters that might imply indecision. Little hesitations that could make my colleagues think they had permission to doubt me.
And then there were the similarities. I knew, without having to think about it, that I chewed my lip in that same way when I was reading a sentence that challenged my assumptions about something. I knew that I took the same care when setting a glass on a table. I knew that my chin drifted toward whatever I was paying attention to.
When I went to the counter to order a tea, the server did a double take. He kept glancing up at me as he took my order. Just when I thought I might scream, he shook his head and apologized. “Sorry,” he said, “it’s just—are you here meeting someone?”
“Yes. Her.” I pointed to Martine’s back, anticipating the followup question.
“Are you guys twins?” the server asked, pouring hot water into a mug to warm it. “It’s uncanny.”
“Yes, twins.” The lie was easy. “Can you bring that to the table when it’s ready?”
“It’ll just be another minute,” he said. But I was already walking away, my skin jumping.
It was stupid, stupider than anything in the world, the way I’d caught Nathan. A cliche: I’d found a hair.
My own hair is watery, the kind of blonde that doesn’t catch the light, that vanishes at my temples and makes my forehead look Tudor-high. My mother’s hair.
The level of coincidence that led to me finding the other hair was absurd.
It was the kind of thing that couldn’t have happened if I’d remembered just a minute earlier or a minute later. I wouldn’t have known. I wouldn’t have had a clue.
I’d been on the way out the door, headed to work, and I realized at the last moment that I needed a hair to demonstrate a sampling technique to some visiting grad students who would try to leave résumés on my desk. I let the lab send me a batch of them a few times a year, a show of goodwill on my part, and this was a technique I could let them see without worrying that anyone would faint. The method I was going to demonstrate could make use of old, dead tissues, and a hair was perfect for the task— small, annoying to keep track of, difficult to manipulate.
It was midsummer and my hair was up, tucked away from my face and off my neck so it wouldn’t stick to me in the humidity. But I spotted one of my loose strands on Nathan’s coat as I was leaving the house, and I grabbed it, pleased to not have to go upstairs and harvest one from my hairbrush. I’d folded it into a receipt from my own pocket, a receipt for butter and brussels sprouts and cotton swabs.
When I demonstrated the sampling technique to the wide-eyed students, I noticed that something was wrong. My sequencing result showed the trademark Seyed and I used to flag specimens, a goofy line of code that, when translated, spelled out it’s alive. Our little joke. Our little signature.
I wish I could say that I’d felt even a moment of knee-jerk denial, that any part of me had insisted it couldn’t be so—but no, that would be a lie.
I knew. I knew right away, like knowing the doctor has bad news to share. I remember the way my stomach dropped, the way heat flooded my throat.
This is bad, I thought, and I wasn’t wrong.
I didn’t try to pretend. I just verified. Once the students were gone, I sequenced the sample again. There was plenty of the hair left to use. I sequenced it three times, and the third time, I showed it to Seyed to check my own observation. He immediately spotted the signature line.
I sat back in my chair and let out a long, slow breath. “Well, this is awkward, Seyed,” I said, my voice shaking. “But I don’t think this is my hair.”
What had followed—a private investigator, an envelope full of photographs of Nathan walking into a strange house, late nights spent scrolling through his text messages and emails looking for something, anything, a name, a reason—was less crisp in my memory. It all blurred together into a frenzy of bitter anger and determination.
What stayed sharp was the confrontation: the moment when I knocked on the door of the strange house.
The moment when the other woman answered the door, and the observable data confirmed my hypothesis.
The moment when I was faced with a mirror image of myself, wearing a strand of pearls and a blank, welcoming smile.
I sat down across from Martine without saying “hello” first. I repeated never apologize over and over again in my head.
Martine looked up, smiled, closed her book without even marking the page. She tucked the book into her purse before I could see the title.
“Evelyn, I’m so glad you had time for me. I know you’re terribly busy.”
I clenched a fist under the table. “Terribly busy” felt like code for “too involved in work to save your marriage.” That wasn’t what she meant. Of course I was overreacting. But then, it was Martine. Wasn’t I entitled to overreact? I bit back everything I wanted to say. “Of course,” I replied. “It’s the least I could do.”
Martine rested her wrists on the edge of the table to hold her mug. Not her elbows. Elbows would be rude, but wrists, those were fine. I recognized the posture, and I sat up a little straighter, felt my lips purse with distaste. She didn’t seem to notice, smiling up at the server as he delivered my drink. She thanked him for me. He looked between the two of us for a moment before leaving.
I took a sip of my drink. It was too hot. I took another sip, letting it scald my throat.
“I wanted to ask you some things,” Martine said, then looked down into her mug. “But first, I hope you’ll forgive me if I step away for a moment? I got here a bit early and my tea has just run right through me.”
I was about to say that I didn’t mind. I was thinking that of course I didn’t mind, that Martine could get up and leave whenever she wanted, that Martine could take a running leap off a high bridge for all I cared. But before I had the chance to say anything, Martine pushed away from the table and stood, and the sight of her standing up stole my breath from my throat.
Martine gave me a small smile, then walked off to the restroom, one hand smoothing her blouse over her slightly rounded belly.
I finally managed a soft “Oh.”
So that’s what she wanted to talk about.
Copyright © Sarah Gailey 2021
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