Chatterbox

mouth-and-teeth-close-up.jpg

I knocked at my aunt’s door. With fall giving way to winter and most keeping indoors, it was quiet on my aunt’s street, and I thought I could hear movement inside her house. I knocked harder.

“Aunt Bea! It’s Audie!” I shouted.

I took a step back and leaned against a porch post. At the urging of my mother, who had called me earlier in the day, I was there to check on my aunt. My aunt and I live in the small college town of Holden where I’m a student and my aunt was, until very recently, a professor. Actually, it was my aunt’s sudden resignation from her teaching position just days earlier and her avoidance of our calls that prompted my mother’s request.

I could hear footsteps approaching the door. It opened slightly, and my aunt peered through the crack. Her haggard face startled me; her eyes were bloodshot and her hair an uncharacteristic bird’s nest.

“Audie?” she said quietly.

“Aunt Bea, may I come in?” I asked, concern in my voice.

She studied me silently, leaving me at a loss. While my aunt was naturally reserved, she had never hesitated to welcome me into her home, until then.

“Aunt Bea?” I asked meekly, unsure of what else to say.

She still seemed to be debating whether or not to let me in. Without a word, she closed the door.

I couldn’t believe it. Before I got too carried away with the idea that my aunt had shut her door in my face, I heard her removing the chain. The door opened.

“Come in,” she said and then stood aside to allow me entry. I walked past her and turned to the living room. I took a seat on the leather couch while she made her way to a matching armchair opposite the couch. She watched me closely, seemingly unsure about her decision to let me inside. I had never seen my aunt behave like this and did not know what to make of it.

“My mom asked me to check on you,” I said as soon as she settled into the armchair.

“Oh,” she murmured.

“Aunt Bea, is everything alright?” I asked.

She gazed down to the hardwood floor and began to absently rub her forearm. We sat in this awkward silence for a moment.

“Audie?” she said, still looking downward. She then looked up, met my eyes, and asked, “Is it really you?”

“Yeah, Aunt Bea,” I said, confused. I reached into my pants pocket for my cell phone. “I’m going to call my mom. Alright? Let her know you’re okay.”

“Wait,” she said. “Let me explain what’s going on. Please. I haven’t been able to tell anyone. Please let me tell you.”

In that moment, hers was the most tired and desperate face I had ever seen. I nodded and said, “Please do, Aunt Bea.”

“Audie, you’re going to find what I’m about to tell you very difficult to believe.”

“It’s okay, Aunt Bea,” I reassured her. “Just tell me what happened. I’m happy to listen.”

She propped her face in her hand, clearly collecting her thoughts.

“I had a new student,” she finally said. “His name”—she grimaced—“his name was Gabe.”

I nodded to let her know I was listening.

“Oh, Audie,” she said, “What am I going to do?”

“Aunt Bea, perhaps if you tell me what happened, I might be able to help you.”

She sighed and sat up. Wringing her hands, she continued. “Like I said, I had a new student. He was in my Milton course, and he was, well . . . different.”

“How so?”

“Oh,” she said, “it wasn’t too much at first, but pretty quickly, I noticed that he was very  . . .” She took a moment to consider her word. “. . . talkative. He was the type of student who would absolutely dominate discussion to the point of annoying the rest of the class. He wasn’t my first student like this, of course, and, just as I’d done in the past, I tried to discourage this behavior and encourage others to participate.” A pained expression came over her face, and her lip trembled. Expecting tears that did not come, I determined my aunt was likely too exhausted to cry. “But it didn’t work with him,” she continued, “He would just talk over everyone. So, not long into the semester, I pulled him aside after class, hoping that a simple, direct conversation about his behavior would be enough to get my class back on track. But instead”—she furrowed her brow—“I discovered that I was not merely dealing with social awkwardness but, rather, a conscious, deliberate effort to . . .”

“To what?” I asked.

“To cause grief? Mine? His peers? He never admitted this, of course, but when I spoke to him, I could see in his eyes . . . sense in his voice . . . an awareness of the distress he was causing.”

“Really? That’s horrible.”

“It was subtle, though, so I couldn’t accuse him of anything. Instead, I became determined to reclaim my class. I disregarded nicety and firmly instructed him to stop talking whenever he tried to take over. But he was incessant. He took every single opportunity he could—within reason—to speak.”

My aunt directed her gaze downwards, and we again sat in silence.

After another long, awkward moment, I asked, “So what did you do?”

“Well, before I could do anything else, he died.”

My eyes widened.

“It was an undiscovered heart defect,” she said, still looking down. “He died suddenly, unexpectedly. That was two weeks ago.” She looked up.

“Oh, wow. I’m sorry to hear that, Aunt Bea.”

“Don’t be,” she said flatly.

I grimaced before I could think better of it. She seemed to not mind.

“About a week ago,” she began, in that same resigned tone, “I was in the middle of a lecture, and I remember looking at Gabe’s empty desk and thinking about our poor relationship. And then it happened.” She stopped to rub her eyes and take a deep breath. “It was like any other class—most were listening, taking notes, and, of course, there were the few who were clearly checked out, daydreaming, playing on their cell phones—that sort of thing. But then all of a sudden, everyone sort of, well, jerked, turned towards me, and said in perfect unison, ‘Hello, Ms. Wyatt.’”

“What?”

“It’s true, Audie. I can’t believe I’m saying this aloud, but, yes, Gabe had gained the ability to possess people. And all he seemed interested in doing was talking to me. You must believe me. You do believe me, don’t you?”

Her desperation seemed genuine, but I simply could not bring myself to merely placate this woman, whose shrewdness I had always admired, without first testing her sincerity to at least some degree.

“Aunt Bea . . .” I carefully considered my words. “You know I love you, and I would never want to hurt you, but I have to ask, are you being serious right now?”

“Oh, Audie,” she moaned. “I wish I were only joking, but,” she begin to accentuate every syllable, “everything I tell you is true.”

I could no longer doubt her belief in her story and decided in the moment that I would humor her but would have to sadly apprise my mother of her sister’s sorry mental state once I returned to my dorm room. My mother and I could together determine what to do next.

“Please tell me more, Aunt Bea,” I said.

She perked up a little.

“Well,” she said, “I fled from my classroom that first time and came home in a panic. I eventually convinced myself that it was just a tasteless prank, and I returned to work the next day ready to take my students to task, but . . . they were completely oblivious about what had happened, and pretty much as soon as I was certain they were being honest with me, it happened again. Everyone said, ‘Welcome back, Ms. Wyatt,’ and I realized just how in sync they all were—every movement down to a blink was identical. And their voices! They shared that cadence I had grown to despise over the course of the semester. I couldn’t deny the obvious. Gabe had taken over, but this time I didn’t run. Instead, I mustered the courage to reply.”

“What did you say?”

“I asked where he came from. What he wanted. He wouldn’t say much about . . . the afterlife . . . other than he’d been to more than one place and had found each ‘insufferably boring’—his words. I imagine wherever he went after he died, whoever was already there couldn’t tolerate him and his endless chatter. I think this is why he’s back, harassing me.”

“Wait. How often does he . . . talk to you?”

“It’s all the time, Audie. Anytime I’m around people, he takes over and goes on and on and on about the most inane topics. Shows he likes. Celebrities he admires. That’s why I had to quit. That’s why I don’t answer the phone. He’s cruel, too. He’s wound me up to the point where I’ve absolutely lost it and have yelled at him to shut up only . . .” Her voice became quiet, and she directed her gaze sideways. “. . . only to leave me belligerent in front of a stranger.”

“That’s horrible,” I said, “but, I have to ask, why hasn’t he taken control of me?”

She sighed and seemed to deflate a little.

“Audie, he took over as soon as you sat down. He talked at me for about forty five minutes before saying that he’d enjoy me trying to convince you about him.”

“No,” I said incredulously, “I would have noticed something—missing time at the very least, but I clearly recall everything that’s happened since I arrived.”

“That’s how it is with everyone he possesses. They’re always adamant that they’ve no idea they’d been taken over.”

I wished I could believe her, but such fantastical claims more than strained credulity. I just couldn’t bear the charade any longer.

“I’m sorry Aunt Bea, but I need to go,” I said as I stood up.

My aunt made no effort to stop me. “I understand, Audie,” she said, “but please know that I’ve been telling you the truth.”

The expression on her face was pathetic, and I felt compelled to embrace her.

“It will be okay, Aunt Bea,” I said.

She sobbed in my arms.

I left shortly after, and as soon as I returned to my dorm room, I called my mother to relay the conversation I had with Aunt Bea. And as I spoke to my mother, it struck me—a sad irony about the whole situation. My poor aunt, so clearly suffering some sort of psychosis, was avoiding people because she believed the soul of a deceased student enjoyed the ability to take them over and harangue her, and at the same time, I dreaded encountering my aunt again not because she might be host to an evil spirit, obviously, but in her falling victim to a sudden, random, and undeserved mental illness—an insidiousness that was robbing her of her personality—she was unfortunately similar to the imagined hosts of her former student.

***

Three days later, my mother arrived to town, and we went to my aunt’s house so that she could appreciate for herself the severity of the situation.

We arrived at around eight in the morning, and it was my mother who knocked on the front door.

“Bea, it’s me, Betty!”

There was no response. My aunt’s hatchback sat conspicuously in her driveway, so I took out my cell phone and called her home phone. We listened to it ring from inside. After the third ring, we exchanged a knowing glance.

“Let’s go in,” my mom said, and she went to the side of the porch to locate the spare key that sat just inside the lattice work. She unlocked the front door, swung it open, and screamed. My aunt, a taut rope around her neck, hanged lifelessly from the upstairs banister.

***

Days later, my mother and I attended my aunt’s funeral. The service was an especially solemn affair given the circumstances of my aunt’s death, and although the attendance suffered no lack of extended family and friends of my aunt, no one was able to take much solace from the company provided, and one could sense a shared desire for the funeral to end as soon as possible. Despite this atmosphere, or in part because of it, the service went by without event, and after its conclusion, a smaller group, spurred largely by familial obligation, travelled to the cemetery for the interment.

My mother and I drove to the cemetery together.

Sitting in the front passenger seat, my mother blankly fiddled with her keychain. “I still can’t believe it, Audie,” she said, “She wasn’t the type.”

“I know, Mom,” I replied.

At the cemetery, I parked along the curb as close to the entrance as I could get and walked demurely with my mother towards my aunt’s final resting place. It was windy, and while I wore a decent overcoat, the late fall breeze bit at my hands and cheeks, making me secretly eager for the end of the ceremony. Once we reached the plot, my mother and I sat on folding chairs set up by the mortuary; we sat next to my grandparents—my aunt and mother’s parents—who had arrived before us. My grandfather put his arm around my mother, and she begin to tear up. Shortly after, the rest of our funeral party arrived, and the interment began in earnest.

The pastor began to speak. He said in a practiced, gentle voice, “Family members of Bea, friends of Bea, co-workers, acquaintances—all in attendance—I’d like to thank you for joining us on this day to celebrate the life of Bea Wyatt and to say goodbye.” He paused—the expression on his face authoritative yet sincere.

My mother, still sobbing, sniffled.

“I’d like you all to join me for a prayer.”

I bowed my head and waited for the pastor to begin. Instead of his voice, I heard a loud creaking. Anxiously, I peered up and saw my aunt’s corpse sitting upright, staring at me with a rictus grin on her face—worn, as a panicked look around revealed, by everyone in attendance.

My deceased aunt, along with everyone else—my mother and grandparents included—then said, “Hi, Audie. You know, you’re a really great listener.”

Taking Care of Vic

Small Cabin

An old cabin stood in the midst of a thick autumn wilderness. Inside the cabin, Vic, a skinny, bespectacled young man, sat on the floor–knees to his chest and hands bound behind his back. Two large men sat facing him. Unlike Vic, they enjoyed the comfort of chairs.

One of the men, a stocky, long-haired fellow, busied himself with a crossword puzzle and occasionally diverted his eyes to Vic. The other man, who was greasy and round, watched Vic intently. For a fleeting moment, steely brown eyes met agitated blue eyes.

The greasy man ran his fingers through his hair and wiped them on the front of his shirt. He got up, opened a window, and fanned the air to his face.

“God, it’s hot,” he moaned, “You think this late in the day it’d be cooler, but damn if it is.” The long-haired man ignored him. He was stuck on an eleven letter word for “an uncommon affliction.”

The greasy man looked back to Vic and grinned.

“It’s alright guy. He’ll be here real soon,” he said. Not a moment later, two distinct knocks came from the front door.

“Well there you go!” The greasy man went to the door and let another man in.

This man was tall and angular, and unlike his associates, was smartly dressed. He exchanged glances with the two large men and then walked to Vic.

The tall man looked to the open window and saw that the sun was nearly obscured by the mountains. He pulled a revolver from out of his jacket.

“Let’s do this,” he said.

Vic whimpered.

The tall man aimed his revolver at Vic’s chest. Vic closed his eyes and turned away.

“Do it!” he yelled.

The tall man shot him. Vic looked down at his chest then up at the tall man. The tall man shot him again. This time the bullet shattered the left lens of Vic’s glasses and punctured his eye. His head slammed back against the wall, and he slumped sideways to the floor, leaving an arch of blood and brains behind him.

***

The tall man took a seat as his associates began their tasks. The long-haired man undid the shackles that bound Vic’s hands while the greasy man brought out cleaning materials–garbage bags, heavy-duty tape, Lysol, and a sorry-looking bone-saw. The long-haired man grabbed Vic’s wrist and pulled to lay him flat. He felt resistance.

Vic pulled his arm loose and sat up, a scowl on his face. The long-haired man fell back on his hands. The greasy man soiled himself. The tall man let out a flat “No.”

Vic stood up.

“You idiots!” His voice grew deep and gnarled. “I told you, silver bullets!”

The greasy man looked to the tall man; his pale, round face shone under the cabin’s lone light bulb. “You said he was just a nut!”

The tall man didn’t respond. He was too immersed in the cracking noises emanating from Vic.

Vic fell to his knees and doubled over. He balled his hands into fists and began to heave. The three men watched as his shoulders widened. His shirt split, revealing fur. He looked up to them, his good eye glaring, his face disfigured.

The tall man dashed for the front door. A transformed Vic pounced on him before he made much ground. He tore at the tall man and rearranged his flesh. Seconds later, he went to work on the other two.

The tall man, not quite gone, wriggled towards the front door. Vic’s lupine ear perked at the movement, and he lunged. He landed his large hind paw on the tall man’s head and squashed it into goulash. He lunged again and smashed through the front door.

In front of the silent cabin, Vic, backed by a chorus of more common beasts, howled at the moon.

The Delivery

Victorian Mansion

Matching smiles. Two boys and a girl. The boys stood behind the girl, who was sitting. Behind the boys was a middle-aged couple. The strong familial resemblance drew attention to itself. Again, Frank found himself gazing at the photo sitting atop his roommate’s desk and feeling envious. Things would have been so much easier, he thought. So much struggle, so much hardship could have been avoided if only I had that.

A distinct knock at the door interrupted his thoughts.

“It’s open,” Frank said.

The door opened and a familiar face—bespectacled and topped with an abundance of brown, curly hair—appeared. Frank recognized his friend Lucian.

“Got a delivery for you,” Lucian said. Frank noted the confidence with which his friend spoke English and thought that if not for his Romanian accent, Lucian could easily pass for American.

Frank drew his attention to the package Lucian held at his side.

Lucian entered the room and sat the small package, neatly wrapped in brown paper and tied up with a string, on the night stand next to Frank’s bed.

From behind his textbook, Frank rolled his eyes.

“Now’s a bad time. I’ve really got to study.”

Lucian smiled at this.

“Ivan said you’ll get three times your regular payment for this one. But it needs to be delivered tomorrow at seven-thirty PM, exactly. He emphasized that.”

“Three times?”

“That’s what he said.”

“Hmm.” Frank thought of his mounting debt; studying abroad had not been cheap. “How far is it?”

“It’s a three hour train ride to the village of Orlat. He also said the house is impossible to miss.”

“Orlat? Never heard of it.” Frank looked down and rubbed his chin. “Alright. Let him know I’ve got it.”

Lucian laughed. “Good man! And hey, the train ride will give you time to study.”

“Yep,” Frank replied flatly.

***

Bringg! Bringg! Helga picked up the phone.

“Admissions. This is Helga speaking,” she said.

“Yes,” a throaty voice replied, drawing the word out.

Helga suddenly felt tired. She blinked a few times and rubbed her eyes. She took great pride in both her work and her position of relative authority. Her instinct was to ignore this sudden fatigue until she could take a break and to maintain a professional poise until then. She just hoped the call would not last very long.

“What can I do for you, sir?” she asked and then stifled a yawn.

The odd voice on the other end replied, and with each uttered syllable, Helga’s tiredness grew closer to exhaustion. The voice stopped and whomever it came from hung up. Helga’s eyes widened and her breathing quickened as she somehow realized that whatever was causing her condition would not cease until she had done what the voice had commanded. She did not understand how this could be and lacked the energy to question or fight whatever force compelled her.

As swiftly as she possibly could, given her current state, she got up, located the form for student Frank Dade, stamped it “Withdraw due to medical or personal issues,” and then returned it to its filling cabinet. As soon as she sat back down, her fatigue lifted and any recollection of what had just transpired left her just as quickly.

***

Frank entered a car near the middle of the train bound for Orlat and was astonished at what he saw. Carved paneling adorned the walls, lush curtains framed the windows, and ornate pendant lights hung from the ceiling.

He headed to his seat and found that it was quite comfortable. In accordance with its surroundings, it was amply padded and upholstered in a dark mahogany corduroy. This opulence struck Frank as odd considering the train’s lack of passengers; there was only one other person in the car with him.

The sparse, chalky white hair on the back of this person’s head, who sat a few seats in front of Frank, indicated that he was an elderly gentleman.

The train began to move.

Frank brought his hematology textbook from out of his knapsack and picked up where he had left off. He spent the next hour reading all about conditions of the blood. At about the fifth re-read sentence, he decided that it was time to rest his eyes.

He laid his head back against the headrest, folded his arms, and quickly feel asleep.

***

Frank felt wakefulness return. He must have been more tired than he’d realized as it seemed as though he’d only gone to sleep moments before, but the bitter taste in his mouth told him he’d had a decent nap. He rubbed his eyes with his palms and yawned. He then opened his eyes and jumped at the sight of a glowering old man.

“Can I help you?” Frank asked in a tone that was equal parts surprise and annoyance.

“Don’t think I’m so easily replaced,” the old man said, pointing a crooked finger at Frank. “I’ve procured for thirty years, and I still have more years left in me!”

Before Frank could reply, the old man turned his back to him and returned to his seat near the front of the car, looking back only once to flash a quick scowl.

“Okay,” Frank said to himself, bewildered.

The last few minutes of the ride passed without further event, and as soon as the train came to a stop, Frank grabbed his things and departed, eager to make his delivery and return to campus as soon as possible.

Exiting the train, Frank took in just how small Orlat was. The town consisted of a handful of nondescript buildings on either side of a lone cobblestone road that began at the small train station Frank stood at and led up a slight incline to a run-down Victorian mansion.

That must be the house, he thought.

With the package under his arm, he began to walk toward the mansion.

The sun was setting and Frank felt grateful for the street lights that lit his path. As the sunlight diminished, he realized that these lights and a porch light at the mansion were the only electric lighting in view. Every window was dark.

Frank quickened his step.

As soon as he reached the mansion, he hurried up the porch and, after scanning for a buzzer and failing to find one, knocked on the door.

A moment passed and then the handle began to turn. The door creaked open to reveal the package’s recipient.

The recipient was a tall man with a bald head, large pointed ears, and sunken eyes that were a solid pale yellow except for the pupils. He wore a dirty, dark-brown suit that contrasted sharply with his ashen skin.

Frank shrieked and turned to run, but before he could take a single step, the man was upon him. The man gripped Frank’s left shoulder. Frank tried, in vain, to break free.

The man grinned. “My package,” he said, and his voice drew Frank into a stupor. He plucked the package from Frank’s right hand and carelessly tossed it aside.

“Home delivery is something I could really get used to,” he said before sinking his fangs deep into Frank’s neck.

***

A distinct knock at the door disrupted Gregory’s thoughts.

“It’s open,” he said.

My Father Is a Scientist

Keypad

I can’t keep this a secret anymore. I have to tell someone . . . so I’m telling you—a random person on the internet.

I’m not stupid. I don’t want to get myself or my father in trouble, so I’ve taken care to change certain details, such as names, in order to protect our identities. Despite these minor changes, the events I am about to relate really did happen. It is my hope that sharing them will absolve me of some of my guilt.

Anyway, let me start with my father. As my title makes clear, he is a scientist. I won’t say who he works for, obviously, but I will say that he answers to some very important, very powerful people.

My father works at home in our basement, which has been made into his laboratory. I’ve only been inside his lab a few times. He has invited my younger brother and me twice to view his work; these were times he was particularly proud and wanted to share what he had accomplished. And then, of course, there is the time I snuck in, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The lab is electronically locked; the only entrance is through a steel door that is opened by entering a code into a keypad. It’s a state-of-the-art facility straight out of the movies; his employers spare no cost in facilitating his work. This is because he is a certified genius and is especially productive. I need to be careful to avoid giving away enough clues for you to figure out who he is, but I feel comfortable letting you know that just about everyone relies on his work; you most likely have one or two items in your home that would not exist if it weren’t for my father.

I want to give you a better idea about my father as a person—the man I, Anders, and my brother, Steven, call dad. I hate that he’s changed. Before the incident, he was affectionate and silly. I miss his hugs, and I miss his dad jokes. He still acts like his old self sometimes, but I can tell it’s just that—an act; when I look in his eyes, I see a man overcome by guilt who is putting on a show for the benefit of my brother and me. When he’s not putting on this act, he’s working in his lab. He’s always been a workaholic and very dedicated to his work, but since the incident, he spends more and more time in his lab. Before what happened, we were a happy family. We would have family nights and would order pizza and play games like Monopoly and Sorry. We would go camping. We would go to the movies together. When our father wasn’t busy, we were always having fun. Those times are in the past. Now my father just goes through the motions so that he can keep Steven oblivious to what’s changed. I’m also guilty of this. It’s worked so far, but I don’t think we can keep this act up for much longer.

The incident happened near the end of my junior year in high school. My father had been working hard on a project, and this was a project unlike any other. I could tell from his uncharacteristic demeanor. He never allowed Steven or me to go into his lab, but he became particularly strict on this point. Under no circumstances were we to even go near his lab. I assumed he was near a breakthrough and was worried that we would mess things up. We placated him with numerous promises to stay away from his lab.

A little over two weeks after he told us to avoid his lab, my father left for the city. He told us that he needed to gather some necessary supplies for his work and would be gone for three days. He, of course, stressed the importance of staying clear of his lab, and we, as we had done so many times before, promised to abide. I had planned on obeying him—truly I did. I don’t claim this to escape responsibility; no matter what I do, I will never be able to change the fact that my actions led to tragedy. But I also cannot help but realize that if it weren’t for the persistence of my friend Bob, my life would still be normal.

My father left in the early morning on a Thursday. Taking advantage of him being away, Steven and I spent the day playing video games and eating junk food. Nothing else worth mentioning happened on this day.

Friday rolled around, and I was content to spend it the same way I had spent the day before. Steven, on the other hand, was invited to a friend’s house, and he let me know that he and some other friends would be staying the night there.

I spent a few hours playing Doom, and then I became bored. I decided that I would follow my brother’s example and find a friend to hang out with. I called my best friend Carter, but he was grounded. I then called my good friend Pat. His parents let me know he was at another friend’s house, but they couldn’t remember the friend’s name; Pat didn’t have a cell phone, so I moved down the list, so to speak. I then called my friend Bob. Bob was happy to come over and hang out.

Bob arrived, and we discussed what we ought to do.

“Let’s play some video games,” he proposed.

Of course Bob wanted to play video games—his dad had taken his own system away because he was failing a number of classes, and he was always eager to get his gaming fix while at a friend’s house.

“I’m pretty tired of video games. That’s all I did yesterday,” I said. “How about a horror movie?” I asked. Both Bob and I were really into horror movies.

“Let’s watch Jason Lives,” I suggested. “You’ve got to see the paintball scene, man! It’s pretty great!”

“Sure,” Bob replied. I put my Jason Lives Blu-ray into my Xbox and pressed play.

We were both enjoying the movie, and then we got to the paintball scene. Once the scene was over, I turned to Bob and asked what he’d thought.

He just uttered, “Meh,” and this irritated me. If I hadn’t known Bob better, I would have been more upset, but I knew him to be an unrepentant contrarian, and around me especially. Even when it was pretty clear that we both enjoyed something—a song, a game, whatever—he would sometimes claim otherwise, and I think it was because he resented what I had that he didn’t. My father was a very well-to-do scientist, and Bob’s was a janitor; suffice it say, Bob did not enjoy the same privileges my brother and I did. Disagreeing with me occasionally over superficial things was his passive-aggressive way of dealing with this.

I felt annoyed at him but decided to take it in stride. Instead of calling him out on his childish behavior, I just asked somewhat exasperatedly, “Do you want to do something else?”

“Yeah,” he said smiling, “Let’s check out your dad’s lab.”

“No,” I snapped.

“Ah, come on! You know you want to!” Bob pleaded.

“My father would kill me!” I exclaimed, “He made me promise multiple times to not even go near his lab. No way.”

“Oh,” he scoffed. “He’ll never know. We’ll only be in there for a second.”

“Bob, I said no.”

“Whatever,” he muttered, “Be a coward for all I care.”

I groaned. “I’m not a coward,” I told him, “You just don’t understand how big of a deal it is to my dad that we stay out of there.”

“Yeah, whatever,” Bob said, unmoved by my claim.

Not wanting Bob to leave early—it was still the early afternoon, and I didn’t want to spend the rest of the day by myself—I tried to appease him by suggesting we play video games.

“Sure,” he said unenthusiastically.

We played for about half an hour, but Bob pouted the whole time. I tried to smooth things over, but he gave flat, one-word replies to my every attempt at friendly conversation.

It was obvious that he was still trying to get me to agree to show him my father’s lab, and while this irked me, he was still successful in wearing me down. I thought, If I just let him peek, we’ll be in and out in a moment, dad will never know, Bob will stop being so annoying, and the rest of the day will be saved.

I sighed and said, “I’ll let you peek if you promise me that we’ll only be in there a second, and you won’t touch anything.”

Bob grinned. “I knew you’d come around,” he said.

“I mean it. Just a second, and you don’t touch a thing.”

“Sheesh, Anders. I promise.”

Satisfied, I led Bob to my father’s study.

We entered the study, and Bob followed me to my father’s large desk. I opened the pencil drawer and started removing its contents.

“So a few years ago, I peeked through the keyhole,” I said, motioning toward the door, “and saw my dad putting this drawer back together. I waited for a day when he was out, and then I snuck back in and discovered that this is a false drawer.” I finished clearing the contents. I then ran my hand along the right inside corner until I felt a small ribbon. I pinched the ribbon and lifted it to reveal the hidden compartment.

“Neat!” Bob exclaimed.

“Yeah, I guess,” I said. It was now my turn to act unenthused; although, I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t curious to see what my father was working on that was so important.

I located my father’s password book and flipped through it until I found the updated passcode for entry to his lab.

“1083. Got it,” I said. I then placed everything back in order so that my father would not know we had been rifling through his things.

We hurried down to the lab and stood a moment before the door.

“Come on, man. Open it,” Bob urged.

I sighed, promised myself we’d be in and out, and reluctantly entered the code.

The electronic lock clicked, and I opened the heavy steel door. We entered the lab. I didn’t bother turning on the lights since the various electronic consoles and devices that filled the lab provided sufficient lighting.

“Man! This is so cool!” Bob exclaimed. I wasn’t awestruck like Bob, having seen the lab before, but I still held fascination for my father’s work and hoped to discover his current project. We were only in the lab for a moment before we found a large glass container filled with a pink jelly-like substance. It sat atop a lighted countertop, which illuminated the substance.

“This must be what my father is working on,” I said. “It wasn’t here the last time I was.”

“What is it?” Bob asked.

“I have no idea,” I replied.

“I bet it’s food. A new snack, maybe?”

I shrugged. “Like I said, I don’t know.” Satisfied at having found my father’s current project, I turned to Bob and said, “Alright. You saw the lab. Let’s go.”

He looked at me incredulously. “We just got here!” he whined.

“Come on, man,” I moaned, “You promised we’d only be a minute.”

Bob rolled his eyes. “Just a few more minutes and then we can go,” he said.

I sighed loudly. “You’ve got two minutes.”

Bob stood in front of the glass container and leaned in to get a closer look.

“If it is food, it doesn’t look very tasty,” he said. “It looks like snot. I wonder if that’s what your dad is working on. Trying to make it look less gross.”

I didn’t reply. I just stood there silently counting the seconds on my watch.

“It’s got to taste really good if they have your dad working on making it look better,” Bob said.

I could see where this was heading. “Don’t even think about it, Bob.”

Bob grinned and lifted his hand to the open top of the container, which was just above his head. “I’m going to be the first to taste it!” he announced.

I think the substance sensed the heat of Bob’s hand because as soon as his hand hovered above the open top, the substance sloshed around on its own. Bob instinctively brought his hand back, but the substance was too quick. A tentacle shot out and wrapped around his hand. Bob screamed. He shook his hand violently, desperately trying to fling the substance off. He separated the mass on his hand from the bulk that remained in the container, but what was on his hand stayed put.

“It burns!” he screamed. “Help me, Anders!” More tentacles shot from the mass on his hand and attached to his face and chest.

I didn’t know what to do. I just stood there.

I heard the front door open. “Hey guys, I’m home early!” my father called out.

“Dad! Help!” I cried.

My father came rushing into the lab. He saw Bob, who had collapsed to the floor. “Get back, Anders!” he yelled. He then grabbed a fire extinguisher from the wall and started spraying my friend.

Bob writhed and screamed in pain.

“Hold still, Bob! I need you to hold still!” my father demanded.

My father turned to me as he continued spraying my friend with the extinguisher. “Get out of here!” he barked, “And close the door!”

I did as he instructed. Feeling light-headed, I trudged to the stairs and sat down. I held my face in my hands and thought, Bob is dead, and life as I know it is over.

***

My father was in the lab for hours. When he came out, we sat down in our living room. We sat in silence for a moment; he seemed to be searching for the right words.

“Anders,” he said, “We’re far beyond me being disappointed or upset.”

I didn’t reply; I didn’t know what to say. I just gazed at the floor.

He went on, “You learned today, in the worst way possible, why I demand that you stay out of my lab.”

“I’m so sorry dad,” I whimpered.

“I’m sure you are,” he said, “but here’s the situation we find ourselves in.” He paused. “Look at me, Anders,” he said. I looked at him. “You friend is alive, but he’s in a miserable condition. I had to place him in cryogenic stasis until I am able to truly help him, and I can’t say how long that is going to be.”

“He’s frozen?” I asked.

“Yes,” my father replied. “You see, the organism you found is a biological weapon. It was discovered by a colleague of mine, and what I’ve been working on is essentially an antidote—something less crude than freezing it, which is the only neutralization we’re currently aware of. This work is extremely important. It simply must continue.” He closed his eyes, brought his hand to his face, and sat silently for a moment. He sighed and continued, “It must.”

“Can’t you surgically remove it from Bob?” I asked meekly.

“No,” he answered, “It’s gone too deep. The only solution is complete neutralization.”

We sat in silence again. After a moment, my father spoke. “Anders, listen.” His voice carried a tinge of anger. “If anyone finds out what happened—my overseer, your friend’s parents, your brother—it won’t only mean an end to my work, it will mean the end of everything. Our lives. It’ll mean prison for me and foster homes for you and your brother. But we’re not going to let that happen? Right, son?”

“Right,” I said. “So, what do we do?”

“Your friend was never over here. You haven’t seen him. You don’t know where he is, got it?”

I nodded. “Alright, dad,” I said.

***

It’s been months since the incident. When I ask about Bob, my father only tells me that he’s close to the solution, but the way he says this suggests he’s only telling me what I want to hear.

Bob lived with his father; his parents divorced when he was little, and his mom isn’t in the picture. His father was working the day Bob came over, and Bob was definitely not the type to leave a note saying where he was. Besides, I know he had planned on being back home before his father got back from work that day.

People say Bob ran away, and his lackluster performance at school makes this seem plausible. His father won’t hear it, though, and maintains that his son wouldn’t have run away, that something must have happened to him. I try to stay clear of Bob’s father. I worry that someday I’ll feel compelled to tell him the truth.

In the end, I find myself desperately clinging to hope. I hope that my father discovers how to neutralize the organism and that he is willing to face the difficult consequences of helping my friend, be they time in prison and the separation of our family. But what I hope even more is that my friend, silently residing in our basement, is unaware. I hope he’s asleep but not dreaming.

Accident at the Laboratory

Spagetti Brain
Image source

Ray Zerlinski didn’t move. He knew what had just happened. He could feel where the laser had split him—above the eyes, horizontal along the brow. The upper tips of his ears fell off and the wounds began to bleed.

I’m going to die, he thought.

***

The lab was quiet. An occasional bird song or rustling breeze were the only sounds that broke the silence.

Ray thought of Sandy and June. This afforded him a necessary calm. Sandy, he knew, would be in the park with June, taking advantage of the warm fall weather. He thought to call Sandy on her cell but instinctively knew that it would be premature. Getting his head straight was his first priority.

Slowly, carefully, he raised his hands to his bald head and held it in place. He remembered the duct tape he kept in a drawer across the lab.

He baby-stepped across the room and did his best to ignore the blood running from the tops of his ears. It pooled in the pit between his thumb and palm at both hands.

He made it to the drawer without incident. Standing before it, he contemplated his next move.

As nimbly as he could, Ray released his right hand from his head. He focused on his left, making sure he didn’t overcompensate for the freedom of his right hand and budge his alignment.

He opened the drawer, felt for the duct tape, and brought it to the counter above the drawer. Little tape remained. He nearly bent his head down to see but caught himself. Turning only his eyes to the tape, he saw it was unlikely that it would fit the circumference of his head. Still, he felt it was better than nothing.

He felt along the roll and found the end. He then picked it loose with his thumb and fingernail, all the while keeping his head upright and as still as possible. After he got a decent grip, he held the loose end and brought the roll between his knees. Clamping it tightly, he carefully pulled the strip longer. He released the roll from his knees, raised the end of the strip to his head, and started pressing it slowly along the split. It only went half way.

Ray turned away from the counter, his right hand still free, his left still holding the un-taped side of his head. The lab was dark. From one of the windows he saw the sun setting. He inched to the light switch and flicked it on.

It was now time to make a phone call. Ray knew better than to call directly for emergency services. He could imagine the difficulty in trying to relate what had happened to a pair of skeptical EMTs, who’d likely knock the top of his head off by accident before he could get across the delicate nature of his predicament. And while Ray ached to speak to Sally, he knew it would be wiser to contact his boss. His boss wouldn’t question or panic over what Ray had to tell him and would not waste precious time in getting Ray the help he needed.

Ray’s cell phone was where it always was when he was working in the lab—in the locker room across the hall. He never keep it on his person while he worked out of fear that he’d forget to turn it off, it would ring, startle him, and cause an accident not unlike the one that had him currently imperiled. Getting to it meant opening and maneuvering around two heavy doors.

Still gently holding his head, Ray slowly turned the doorknob with his free hand. He pulled, but the door wouldn’t budge. An expletive flashed in his mind. He pulled again, but it still wouldn’t open. Careful to quell his frustration, he let go of the handle and took a moment to breathe. He noticed an odd mark on the left side of the door. Having gazed at it, he realized what the mark was—the path of the laser when it perfectly sliced his head. The beam had welded the metal door and frame together. He was stuck in the lab.

***

Ray sat upright against a wall. A day had passed since the accident, and considering how extremely fine the split was, he figured it would take about three more for his head to heal enough to stay together. He believed that his skin and brain would mend in this time. His skull, of course, would take longer to seal, but he hoped that once his flesh healed, he would survive.

***

His left arm ached. He’d been holding his head for two days now and felt a disastrous muscle spasm becoming inevitable. To avoid this, he moved his left hand from his head.

Lifting his hand as slowly as he could, he felt a slight movement along the split. Some skin at the edge of the split had stuck to his palm, and about an inch of the split lay open and bleeding.

With his arms resting at his sides and blood flowing down the side of his face, he closed his eyes.

Just a little rest, he told himself. I’ll stay awake. I won’t let myself sleep.

***

Straining to balance a heavy, white bowl of spaghetti on a platter, Ray stood in a restaurant unknown to him. In a haze at the other end of the room a portly diner pounded on his table and clamored for his meal. Ray hurried his pace but lost his footing. The bowl flew from the platter, moved slowly through the air, and landed on its side. The spaghetti flopped out of it in a lump and rolled on the floor. Dinner was ruined.