“My sister is going to murder me,” I say. My hands shake too bad to light a cigarette. I’ve already spilled a tumbler of whiskey down my silk blouse and cursed vehemently over it. They let us drink here, even though we’re only sixteen and nineteen, my sister and I, respectively, because it doesn’t count if it’s for show business.
“Why do you think 3 AM is going to murder you?” calls the cameraman from near the potted palm. We’re filming on the verandah of the Golden Age Movie Ranch in Los Angeles County. 3 AM is my sister. She’s the third attempt in the Audrey-Marilyn series. They call me 7 MH, the seventh in the Monroe-Hepburn series. We’re different configurations of genetically modified and cloned fragments of DNA of the famed actresses. We don’t know what happened to our predecessors.
I scowl at the camera and look away like I’m reluctant to share a dark secret. Then, I give the camera a dead-on dark look and say, “She thinks I’m manipulating her in order to steal Derek.” I try the whiskey again, and this time succeed in drinking it. “And she’s right.” They love painting me as a jealous evil mastermind to 3 AM’s dumb-blonde victim, especially since they think it’s funny because—
“That fat, ugly bitch will never steal my boyfriend!” The producers love pitting Ugly against Beautiful. 3 AM stomps onto the verandah with hysterics turned up past ten. She’s crying and yells, “She’s totally trying to kill me!”
The cameraman prompts 3 AM. “Now, 3 AM, 7 MH says you’re trying to murder her.”
“I’m so confused! Why would she tell everyone I’m trying to kill her? How could I do that?” She puts on the charming puppy dog eyes that make her America’s sweetheart. I keep drinking. My permanent stage cue for when 3 AM is on camera is to sit in the background and “look ugly and evil.” 3 AM isn’t wrong; I am trying to kill her as well.
“Derek will be mine,” I say and try not to gag on the stupidity of the line, but I don’t have to act too hard because 3 AM’s got it from here.
“He’s my boyfriend, and he loves me!”
“Has he said so?”
“No.” She uses her sweetheart eyes to look heartbroken for good, sympathetic Americans everywhere.
“He just wants to fuck your brains out,” I say. “Though that’s got to be hard, since you don’t have any.” It’s not true. 3 AM’s not as dumb as everyone thinks. She’s at least smart enough to know I’m smarter than everyone else gives me credit for, even with my “evil mastermind status.”
“Nice, 7 MH,” says the director. “Keep it at a ten, 3 AM.”
I go to refill my drink, but 3 AM snatches the bottle. I only play at tug-of-war with it for a moment before letting her have it. She smashes it on the table. Whiskey splatters everywhere. The Golden Age Movie Ranch looks like it would smell like tropical flowers, but, in reality, it’s sticky and smells like piss. I actually flinch, not expecting that move. She lunges at me, bottle knife in hand. I only play freak out. It won’t be the first time she sends me to the infirmary, won’t be my first stitches.
Derek waltzes onto the verandah just in time to play the gallant hero. He shoves me out of the way as if I was the instigator. Then, he holds back 3 AM and gently removes the bottle from her hand.
“Look at me, baby. What’s all this about?” He purrs in his slightly country drawl, designed to appeal to Middle America, and swishes his blond locks.
3 AM fights him. “She says you don’t love me, Derek. She says you’re using me. For sex. Is it true?”
“She’s a jealous bitch,” says Derek. “Of course, I love you.”
And cue the sunset, the crescendo in the music, and the Hollywood kiss. But good reality TV has to follow the horror movie formula to some extent. We can’t leave it on a totally happy ending. Something scary still has to lurk in the background. The camera pans to me.
“They can’t live their perfect beautiful lives with me always around,” I whisper to the camera nearest me. “She’ll murder me for sure.” My hand shakes again as I try to light another cigarette because this part isn’t made up. 3 AM really is planning to kill me for the cameras. “Unless I get her first.”
Time for the sex scene. I won’t get murdered yet nor will I try to kill 3 AM yet. That’s season finale shit. This season finale, we meet our “mothers.” Well, hologram versions of them. A meeting like that is the perfect time for murder.
Before the sex scene, I lurk in the faux marble hallway outside of the bathroom, waiting for Derek to finish his shower. The camera crew is ready too. I catch the eye of Gabby the Gaffer and then look away quickly, lest someone recognize the glint of friendship and connection in our gazes. Ugly girls like me aren’t supposed to have friends. We aren’t supposed to be likeable. See, when the traits of two beautiful women are combined, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee an even more beautiful woman. Sometimes the features are jarring and uncanny together. Or so I’ve been told.
Derek comes out, and I almost forget my line. His towel barely covers anything. He isn’t genetically modified like us; he was just born perfect. Well, except for his brain. I think about how I want to lick that hard line of muscle that curves around his hip and into his penis. Obviously, I don’t like a jerk like Derek, but I’ve never been touched by anyone, and I am basically forced to see him naked all the time.
“Ugh, what the hell are you looking at?” says Derek.
“You know why they call her 3 AM, don’t you?” I say. “It’s because that’s when all the boys come by for a booty call.”
“You’re just jealous,” he says. He hocks a loogie. America must be as starved for sex as I am if they really dig this guy as much as the producers claim.
“I’m not,” I say. “Derek, I know you could never love me, but I do really love you. You should know that hot new actor who co-starred with 3 AM in the Breakfast at Tiffany’s remake last summer? Well, he came over last night.”
Derek flips. He storms into 3 AM’s room. I follow. 3 AM barely has time to cover her naked body with the sheets. He yanks her from the bed, and they start screaming. I look away. I don’t want to know how ugly this will get. 3 AM is willing to do anything, even fake abuse to get out of actually fucking Derek for the cameras. He’s a jerk and almost ten years her senior. She doesn’t even like boys, but the producers aren’t interested. Life at the Golden Age Movie Ranch has gotten so much worse for us since they introduced Derek this season and since the legal battles with the Hepburn and Monroe estates have become ever more costly. I wait outside 3 AM’s door listening to her and Derek scream and thud around the room. 3 AM shrieks in a way that doesn’t sound like her acting shriek, so I rush in, despite the PAs trying to stop me, and pull Derek off her. I hug her on the bed as I tell him to fuck off.
Censorship hardly exists anymore. Killing, fucking, it’s all good. The real Americans admit it’s all they want to do to each other and all they want to watch anyway. Sometimes it’s a clone thing. Though people don’t seem to mind clones as gorgeous as 3 AM. In general, our moral fabric has decomposed. I come up with all sorts of shit each episode to keep Derek and 3 AM’s storyline from turning porno. The producers are okay with porn, but they like my argument that thwarting the relationship builds suspense and keeps viewers coming back for more. 3 AM has a huge crush on Gabby the Gaffer, who’s way too old for her, but humors 3 AM’s flirtations. Poor 3 AM would have sex and mother figures all mixed up. Our whole relationship, mine and 3 AM’s, it’s all my idea. The AM and MH series were really created to make the perfect movie star, to be glamorous, and increase box office value. But a girl who looks like an uncanny amalgamation of Audrey and Marilyn features all in discord with each other is not the perfect movie star. I was very young when I figured out the television heel-face trope was my shot at survival. 3 AM still gets sent out to do movies. But television is where I thrive. I let them turn me into a freak to keep going. Every time they seem to lose interest, I gain or lose fifty pounds. I propose another botchy nose job in my attempt “to look beautiful like 3 AM.” I let them scar me and stitch me up. Ugliness is as fascinating to America as beauty.
3 AM keeps going for the fan mail, from all the little girls saying they always felt they were a little Audrey or a little Marilyn. I mostly get hate mail. We both get death threats from all the struggling actors who are angry that big-time stars and clones take all the jobs—even the commercials. But I keep doing the show—not that I have much choice—I do it for the ratings. As long as the ratings are killer, I get to live.
They cut. They leave us in the dark of 3 AM’s bedroom together. We pick the blankets off the floor. We huddle together to go to bed. 3 AM goes to take sleeping pills, smoke some weed. They let us have any drug we can think of here. Anything to keep us dependent on them. I stop her. I remind her we don’t want to be dependent on them anymore.
They could decide to start filming at any time. Sometimes we go months without seeing a camera. Sometimes we go months without getting away from the camera. It all depends what America is willing to buy. Whether we’re on TV or not, we’re always watched and always guarded. “Technology” like us is too precious and expensive to risk loss or damage.
When we’re not filming, there’s not much for us to do but watch old movies. When we were little, we used to dream about the places we saw in the movies. Places we wanted to go to.
“We’ll run away,” we’d say. “To the Badlands of Montana.”
“No, to the plains of northern Texas.”
We’ll live someone else’s movie for a change. We’ll find a colony of our older sisters, alive, and happy, and ready to greet us with open arms. These were good nights, the nights when I didn’t beg her to kill me, when she didn’t beg me to disfigure her.
“Let’s go,” we’d whisper to each other under the covers. Let’s go, we’d say, night after night.
For the season finale, we sit in the red velvet and gold gilt living room waiting to meet our mothers. I wonder how the murder will happen. I know the drug we’ll use, but I’m not sure where I’ll ingest it. It should look like real shock for the cameras, Gabby has told me. I had one brief conversation with 3 AM about it, but we never know when we’re being watched, so I haven’t given her details and Gabby hasn’t given me details. I just hope 3 AM kills me before the producers do.
This scene is very scripted. The producers are using some sort of pre-recorded hologram for us to respond to. As we start rolling, Marilyn and Audrey materialize. 3 AM and I cry and tell them about ourselves. They say charming old-fashioned pleasantries. They talk about 3 AM’s beauty. Marilyn consoles me that she understands my pain since once she played a girl who had to wear glasses too. Even though I know they’re not real, I hate what the producers have done to these actresses, how they’ve dumbed them down and materialized them. Then again, am I in any position to pity them?
I reach for the wine glass the crew had set out for me. I take a sip. It tastes funny. This is it. This is the poison. I catch 3 AM’s eye, and she knows. She hesitates as she picks up her glass. She holds back a sour expression when she drinks, so she tastes it too. This poison isn’t from the producers. It’s all ours. I knock mine back, hearing Gabby the Gaffer’s words in my mind explaining how she could get us a drug that would make everyone think we were dead, like in Romeo + Juliet. 3 AM chugs hers too. I grow dizzy and feel faint, but 3 AM is still small and childlike. The drug works faster on her. I watch her collapse. Now they’ll think I murdered her and killed myself, but it doesn’t matter anymore. We gave them good TV for most of our lives, and now we get to exit the sound stage our way. Hologram Audrey and Marilyn continue recycling sweet lines from their old movies, smiling electrically, as I too collapse.
I wake up to a putrid smell and a stuffy feeling. I hear Gabby calling our names. I start to squirm and struggle to find my voice. A ripping sound. Gabby yanks me out of some sort of body bag, and we stumble to the top of the pit. She calls for 3 AM. My eyes adjust to the darkness. I see a pit full of body bags. I open one that looks fresh and see a child that looks like 3 AM and I. So, they’ve been experimenting with making more of us. We won’t be missed. I feel like I should cry, but I’ve only done it for the camera for years and that’s cheapened the emotion. Gabby’s still searching for 3 AM, and I panic. I can’t go without her. What if the plan didn’t work? What if we really did kill her?
We hear moaning. Gabby rescues 3 AM. She pulls us both in for a hug, tells us to go find ourselves, tells 3 AM to concentrate on growing up and that she’ll have time for many loves later. She gives her a tender kiss. She grips my shoulder and tells me to take care of my little sister. I tell her that if there are others, to tell them they have older sisters who have a home out there somewhere who are waiting for them. Gabby says we can’t contact her. No one can know where we go. I say, just knowing a family and a home exists is enough.
Lights in the distance. A guard demanding to know who’s there. We run.
We keep running all the way to the badlands of Montana, to the plains of Texas, to Hole-in-the-Wall and on to Bolivia, from Casablanca to Paris and back to Casablanca. We have another fantasy, our most cherished one. We know Audrey lived to old age, but, like the rest of America, we’ve always been captivated by Marilyn’s tragic and untimely demise. We like to pretend her suicide wasn’t real either. It was a ploy for her to escape, like we did. That she lived long enough to get those new life-enhancing elixirs they have nowadays, that we’ll run into her one day. But now we run, calling to each other, let’s go, let’s go, let’s go.