Durham, North Carolina
When Ryden Wagner woke from the final surgery, even the massive doses of painkillers pouring through her IV couldn’t completely eradicate the pain in her face. Still groggy, she skimmed her fingers over the bandages that covered her straightened nose and higher, new cheekbones. The swelling was so bad she had to view the sterile room through half-open eyes, but she could see she was alone.
She’d been in the private clinic for more than a month and during that time had undergone a series of procedures to radically change her appearance; this latest was the final alteration. A chin implant came first, then dental work when that was healed, followed by Lasik eye surgery to allow her to finally shed her thick, black-framed glasses. Yesterday, a stylist had come in and cut several inches off her hair. The man had dyed it as well, from light mousy brown to a darker brunette, but Ryden only knew that from the snippets of hair that fell into her lap. They still refused to let her anywhere near a mirror.
Horrific circumstances had gotten her here, and her unremarkable but satisfying life was about to radically change.
She would miss her work at The Bloom Room, the flower and candle shop where she worked in suburban Philadelphia. Not the day-to-day mundane tasks of cutting and trimming endless roses and arranging bouquets, nor the chatty interactions with customers she had to endure when the shop’s owner was occupied, for she was by nature a loner who loathed small talk. Ryden would miss seeing people’s reactions to the ornate candles that were the outlet for her creative side. At home, she spent most of her time dipping and sculpting the unique creations. Most who bought them at the shop or online declared them far too beautiful to ever touch a match to, and that response never failed to warm her.
The nurse who’d been tending to her came in, white shoes squeaking loudly on the faded linoleum, and smiled when she saw her awake. “How are you feeling?” She checked the nearly flaccid bag hanging from the IV stand.
“Sore,” Ryden replied, “and thirsty as hell. Can I have some water?”
The nurse gave her some ice chips, and as she sucked on them gratefully, she once again explored the unfamiliar landscape of her mouth with her tongue. Porcelain veneers now covered most of her teeth, obliterating the big chip in front that had been with her since the orphanage, when a bigger kid had punched her.
The lawyer who’d brought her here had explained very little of what she was in for next, only that she would undergo extensive training after the operations to prepare her to impersonate someone for a few weeks, perhaps months. Then the threat of prison would be behind her, and she could resume her life.
Three days later, the nurse and doctor came in for the long-anticipated unveiling. She would finally be allowed to see her new self. An unfamiliar woman several years older than Ryden accompanied them. The stranger’s makeup and hair, pulled back in a severe bun, were flawless, and her clothes and jewelry shrieked money. When she introduced herself, her hazel eyes held no hint of warmth.
“I’m Tonya.” The woman extended a well-manicured hand in Ryden’s direction. “I’ll be your tutor during your recovery.”
“Ryden. How’s it going?” She returned the weak handshake before reaching for the remote to the TV on the opposite wall. She’d been watching the inauguration of Elizabeth Thomas, the first female president. A liberal Democrat from Maine, Thomas had served in the U.S. Senate for ten years before her narrow win in the elections nearly three months earlier. Though Ryden muted the sound, she kept the set on, intending to return to the broadcast once her visitors departed.
The doctor reached for a pair of surgical scissors on the tray beside the bed and snipped the sterile gauze wrapped around her head. Then he carefully peeled away the bandages beneath. “You’re a fast healer,” he told Ryden, leaning back with a satisfied expression. “The rest of the bruising will be gone in a few days.” Turning in Tonya’s direction, he added, “Some of my best work. The scars will be virtually undetectable.” He smoothed his thumb lightly over the twin worry lines in Ryden’s forehead, above her nose. “We can get rid of these with a little Botox.”
“Can I see?” Ryden asked impatiently. The doctor glanced at Tonya, who responded to the query with a slight nod, never taking her eyes off Ryden. Her expression gave nothing away of what she thought of the doctor’s handiwork.
The nurse departed, and Ryden returned her gaze to the television while waiting for her to return. The new president was just taking the oath of office. Though Ryden had no real interest in politics, she had voted for Thomas and was glad to see a woman finally take control of the Oval Office.
When the nurse returned with a small hand mirror, Tonya intercepted it and waited for the nurse and doctor to leave before she handed it over.
Ryden cautiously lifted the mirror to her face and gasped aloud. She looked back to the TV, then the mirror—back and forth another two or three times before she finally was able to speak. “Oh, my God.” The realization of who she’d been manufactured to double was chilling. What had she gotten herself into?
Ryden snapped out of the trance when the TV clicked off but was unable to tear her gaze from the bruised but stunning stranger in the mirror. “I look just like—”
“The president,” Tonya said. “And very convincingly, might I add. The eyes are still wrong—you’ll need to wear brown contacts—but otherwise, you’re perfect.”
“I was never told—”
“Security reasons. We couldn’t risk you backing out or talking. But from here on, you belong to us. To the government.”
“What happens when my commitment to you is over? I mean, I’ll still look like her,” Ryden said.
“When that time comes, we will make new alterations.”
“To my face...again.”
“Damn,” Ryden muttered. “The president’s double.”
“Lesson number one: no more profanity,” Tonya said. “And as far as the world is concerned, you are the president.”