Verge Fiction: Clone Boys at the End of the World

Verge Fiction is the site's biweekly publication of fictional short stories and book excerpts. Penned by staff writers and guest authors, none of Verge Fiction is real, nor should it be confused with news that regularly appears on this site.

I couldn’t stop picking at a scab on my head. It was gnawing at me, shriveling up around my hair follicles, so itchy I had to tense my entire body to keep from scratching it. I was sure it was getting bigger every day. Standing in front of the mirror in the bathroom of the apartment where I no longer lived with Drake, I turned my head forward, then to the right at a 45-degree angle. My eyes strained to see the spot near the back of my scalp. My fingers raked the area, hunting for the hardened bloody sore. When I found the scab, I teased it with my index finger until one edge curled up like a chameleon’s tongue, and then slowly, but with the precision and confidence of a surgeon who has only performed this very specific surgery, I pulled the scab from my head, ripping free a patch of skin along with it. I could feel the streams of blood funneling through my hair.

The sky outside was dark red.

That’s not symbolic — a chemical spill at the Johnson & Johnson plant in New Toronto (formerly Toronto) in 2025 had changed the color of the sky from blue to cotton candy pink to its current red. The spill had already destroyed nearly all of the Western Hemisphere and was still spreading. Destruction was slow. There were no city-ending explosions; no untamed riots in the streets; no vials of cyanide available for those who couldn’t bear the wait. Just the painfully slow deterioration of everything, like the bothersome need to sneeze without the relief of it ever coming.

Because the city’s only news was the chemical spill, Channel 4 Toronto weatherman Tom Bonson found himself temporarily out of a job and spent his days sending Twitter dispatches about his green screen withdrawal. Our local dog grooming business, Soapy Paws, had shuttered its doors because all disposable income in the city was being funneled into human skin care. The end of the world, it turned out, was not good for your skin.

The apocalypse is bad for your skin

During the summer of 2036 — this was years after the chemical spill — I worked at NPR, where it was my job to clean Terry Gross’ breathing mask. All the hosts were given FDA-approved masks to protect their superhumanly perfect voices. Terry drank nothing but milk, claiming that dairy was, in fact, the best thing you could do for your vocal chords, and anyone who said otherwise was a dumb-witted sycophant. I, of course, agreed. The inside of her mask was always slightly dewy and speckled with an off-white cream crust. The oils from her face left a Terry Gross-shaped imprint. Once I caught the kid who cleans Ira Glass’ mask huddled in the storage room, his nose to Glass’ plastic mouth-mold, inhaling deeply.

At the time, I was living with Drake, whose royalties were still coming in from his greatest hits album. Despite the fact that the radiation had rendered government-issued currency basically irrelevant, we managed to maintain a grotesquely styled Art Deco condo in downtown New Toronto. After seeing Anthony Kiedis of the now-defunct Really Hot Chili Peppers Collective dancing for change one night in the street, we hired him to be our butler. We shaved his head for fun on rainy nights, and his hair grew back by dawn. He slept between us when we fought. Drake tended to claw the air when he went to bed angry, and Anthony Kiedis took the brunt of the scratches, which was fine by me. I was worried enough about my skin as it was.

They told us that cleaning up the radiation entirely would be impossible. They could treat some of it, and the rest would slowly creep into our bodies, paralyzing our internal organs, crippling our lungs, and eventually our hearts, killing us. It would take years, they said, but it would happen. For now, the pain was mostly aesthetic. Small red bumps cropped up on my triceps like stubborn armies of red ants. Drake and I stopped having sex.

drake-slime

As I spent more and more time alone, I began taking Anthony Kiedis’ poodle, Bubbles, on long walks through the city. One morning, while Bubbles and I were out, I ran into our neighbor, Bono. Bono’s heyday as a well-known rock musician had ended decades prior, and he was very old, but he was immediately recognizable. He had that strong jaw, jutting into the sky like Florida out from the United States; thick, protruding brows; rose-tinted sunglasses. Except now his face was slightly skewed, like the man in Edvard Munch’s The Scream with his mouth wired shut. He invited me over for tea.

When we got inside Bono’s apartment (made entirely of marble, even the couch), Bono removed his sunglasses, revealing two eyes completely unaccustomed to daylight. Set deep in his face, surrounded by uneven splotches of dark purple skin, his eyes looked like two raisins melted onto a topographical map of the Great Lakes. He looked over at his son — a 32-year-old petri dish clone — who was sitting at the kitchen table, miming a wrestling match between two jumbo shrimp in a bowl of cocktail sauce.

"Let me tell you a little story," he said, "about love." I looked at his shrunken voodoo eyes and tried to think of a polite escape, but it wasn’t as if I had anyone else to talk to.

Bono’s Soliloquy (told in third person)

Bono fucked up. He knew that now; now that his creation, in his own likeness no less — what he had hoped would be a vessel of altruism and goodness with a stomach for Jameson — was slouched over a Burrito Bomber tiki bar in an Orlando suburb wearing a muscle tee and a Hawaiian shirt (unbuttoned), snorting wet chunks of margarita salt off the hairy, sweat-soaked chest of a mall security guard named Robert.

This creation was Bono’s son, his flesh, a few bits of his DNA soaked in chemicals and female ejaculate, birthed out of a petri dish in a medical complex outside of Fort Worth, Teaxas that specialized in sheep cloning. The customers at the McDonald’s next door often found tufts of genetically modified sheep fur in their Big Macs. The management told them it was onion skin. The thing was born on an unusually cold day in June, one of those days when the morning dew turns into morning frost and everyone talks about it at work. I say he was born, but really I mean he was ripe. The scientists in the sheep lab heard a noise that morning; it was the sound of a plastic petri dish cracking against the clone’s baby-sized mass. Then, not a cry, but instead, the manic Texan ramblings of an adult who has never before experienced Earth.

The clone was ripe

It was back in 1981 when Bono first started to feel irreparably lonely, right as he was spearheading the change of his band name from The Hype to U2. This loneliness coincided with an unquellable bout of egomania, and he decided the best way to cure his insufferable solitude was to recreate himself. A man, Bono’s thinking went, is only as good as the things he puts into this world, and what better way to give back than to give the world another him?

And so, in the spring of ‘81, he contacted a group of scientists he discovered through a sponsored tweet. They told Bono to take a mental fitness test and then send a sperm sample to their lab. It took years and millions of dollars, but it worked. The clone’s name — a name Bono cultivated from a series of Encyclopedia Britannica about large oil conglomerates — was Horst Simco.

He looked like Bono: that sharp, geometric jaw; that sloping, heavy brow; those tinted sunglasses. The doctors said somehow the sunglasses had become such a part of Bono that his clone was born with the same ones. In fact, (poor Horst), the glasses were fused to his face. The doctors said their removal would require dangerous skin grafting around the eye area, and so Bono refused the surgery, deciding that his son would have to make due. It was the first of Horst’s many struggles.

Despite their artificial beginnings, Bono’s relationship with Horst was a perfect picture of father and son: hours-long games of catch lead to late dinners and even later movie nights. But in his teen years, Horst started staying out late with other neighborhood boys, self-medicating with mescaline, reckless driving, and Wü Tang albums in an attempt to forget that he was nothing but a clinic-born replica of his father.

As a teenager, Horst developed a stutter. When he would ask for pepper, it would come out p-p-pe-pepper. When he asked for salt, his mouth became a hissing radiator. His birth name was even more of a challenge. He would always get stuck on the "or," which led many people to believe he was perpetually in the middle of making a decision. Because of this, Horst legally assumed a new moniker on his 18th birthday, one more suited to his own self-perception: Riff Raff.

riff-raff

When Riff Raff was 19, he left home and moved to Houston. He spent his nights competing in rap battles in grimy clubs and warehouses. He got the MTV and Nike logos tattooed on his chest. He bedazzled his sunglasses with hundreds of small pink Swarovski crystals.

Bono and Riff Raff didn’t speak for three years, until they decided to reconnect, shortly after The Incident of 2025, on a Floridian vacation. (Though the spill had occurred in Toronto, its effects were felt across the globe. Within weeks, the water of Florida had turned purple. No one knew why, but some claimed to prefer the color to the original blue.) Florida is neutral ground, as the saying now goes. And that brings us back to the tiki bar.

Against his better judgment, Bono had agreed to go with Riff Raff to the Burrito Bomber tiki bar near their peach-colored, cement-walled resort. They had been fighting all week: Bono wanted to go spelunking; Riff Raff wanted to go to a strip club. A trip to the tiki bar was their attempt at a compromise.

After two hours in the bar, Bono realized he was beginning to enjoy the way his thighs were bloated with booze and the way the syrupy margarita lined his tongue like a shag carpet. Riff Raff picked his head up from the mall security guard’s chest and looked down at his phone. Frozen margarita dribbled out of his mouth and onto the screen.

"Horst, your phone," Bono said, gesturing at the neon green ice on the iPhone.

"Don’t worry, it’s fake. It’s made of plastic, see?" Riff Raff said, sleepily hitting the phone against the wooden bar. "Some dude gave it to me in a Sports Authority."

By the time Bono and Riff left the tiki bar, their sweat was five parts lime margarita to one part salt, and the bartender had taken away their car keys. They would have to take a cab back to the resort.

Luckily, a taxi was idling outside the bar. Bono and Riff exclaimed that it was like the cab had been waiting just for them. In reality, there were dozens of other cabs streaming down the block, waiting for tiki bar patrons who had overindulged. As Bono slid the yellow van door closed, the cab was illuminated by what, to Bono and Riff Raff, felt like several thousand disco balls lit by a vengeful member of the Guns N Roses stage crew. The driver turned around, his bald head caught in a ray of fuchsia. "Welcome to Cash Cab!" he bellowed, spit flying through the air like mist from a broken sprinkler. The driver-slash-game show host’s bloodshot eyes bulged, framed by one bead of sweat traveling slowly from his temple. He spoke in at a manic, hyperbolic speed: the United States boycotted the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in which city?

The driver’s entire body shook with forced anticipation; three blue veins pulsed simultaneously in his neck, like a silent, anatomic symphony. The driver reminded Bono of a deranged tennis instructor he once had who suffered a breakdown and began eating his tennis court piece by piece: racket strings, grip tape, bolts, and strings from the net, even the rubbery kernels of green astroturf. Bono looked up at the roof of the cab, wondering what horrific thing would happen if they answered the question incorrectly, willing his brain synapses to recharge like his gold Prius. Riff Raff just slumped in his seat; his head rolled clumsily to the side as an acidic mix of partially digested margarita and bile fell from his chapped lips.

End Soliloquy

"You understand?" Bono said.

I didn’t.

Moscow, he whispered.

Two weeks later, we spent the night in Drake’s studio because New Toronto Power and Light (NTPNL) was testing the radiation levels in our apartment (not that there was anything we could do about the results). The studio was nicer than the NPR offices, which, due to the exorbitant face mask funding, had no money left to supply its employees with chairs, garbage cans, or a water cooler. The hosts stood at their desks, surrounded by crushed Styrofoam coffee cups, snotty tissues, and Ira Glass’ Nutri-Grain Bar wrappers. He warned us frequently not to move their shiny pink carcasses, because it was art.

An Ira Glass dream

Drake’s studio, on the other hand, was bright and spacious, with floor-to-ceiling windows looming over downtown New Toronto, exposed brick, delicate recessed lighting, and a stainless steel refrigerator brimming with Nutri-Grain bars. An Ira Glass dream. The wrappers were nestled snugly in wicker wastebaskets. An Ira Glass nightmare. We agreed to meet there late one night, because Drake was working late and because a fan had just brought him a case of Dom Perignon. In the elevator Drake commented on my peeling nose.

"You should take care of that."

"I know, I got lotion."

For dinner, Drake and I went to a 24-hour deli, where we picked up two plastic containers of food — one Caesar salad and one potato salad with an inexplicable raisin topping. The news blared from a small television in the corner. A droopy-faced anchor, reading half-heartedly from a spiral notebook, was talking about the Olympics. No city was equipped to host this year. The cashier gave us the salads for free.

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