Category Archives: science

Friday Flash: The Pigs

Michael’s assignment of monitoring and cleaning up after twelve pigs seemed easy enough.  At the end of the sixteen week program, he would receive board eligibility for the American College of Laboratory Animal Medicine.

Day 1~  Needles of rain stung his face beneath the plastic hood as he trudged through sucking red mud and entered the long white building housing the pigs. Inside, he was bathed in warm yellow light and the sickening sweet smell of fresh, damp hay. A few grunts and soft snuffing sounds greeted him as he carried fresh water to the pens.

“Ellooo, piggies,” he sang, peering through the wire fence. He dropped the water bucket on his foot, soaking the ground around him. “Je suz,” he whispered. “You are about the ugliest things I’ve ever seen.” He took a step back, shaking his head like a dog trying to get water out of his ears. Their bodies were hairless, pink and fleshy like human skin, with large bulbous growths on their oversized heads. They all stared calmly at him. “Sorry, fellas. But for the good of mankind.”

Day 13~ Time to get a blood and tissue sample from one-six. Michael had gotten used to the pigs’ strange looks, but sometimes their behavior still creeped him out. He spent the first hour or so in their pen as instructed; talking to them, petting them, cleaning and washing down their bowls and rubber toys. He decided to take the samples while they were distracted with eating. “All right,” he said, checking the tattoos on their hindquarters. “Which one of you lovelies is number one?” They glanced up from their trough, chewing and then went back to eating. “I know, you don’t understand any of this,” he rambled as he found pig one and gently inserted a needle into a stubby leg vein. “But, you have important jobs. Helping us figure out how a nasty little thing called Alzheimer’s works.” He capped the blood filled syringe and got out a scalpel and bag for the tissue sample. “Besides, better than ending up as bacon on someone’s breakfast plate.” He laughed to himself and glanced at the other pigs as if they’d get the joke.

His heart did a little flip flop and he froze. The pig on the end was staring at him, two black beady eyes meeting his gaze. Now, he’d seen animals acknowledge people, glance at them warily, but there was something so aware, so purposeful in this pig’s stare that he actually felt the hair stand up on his arms. It wasn’t until he slowly backed out of the pen and shut the gate that the pig broke eye contact and went back to eating with the others.

Day 27~  Michael discovered sow number eight–or Lucy, as he had nicknamed her–dead of a brain hemorrhage. Hay had been pushed over her body. Six of the pigs, including Cujo—the one that always stared him down—were standing around her in a circle with their heads hanging. He would have to make a note of this. Along with less rooting, they were exhibiting expanded social behavior.

Day 42~ During one restless night, when he couldn’t sleep, he decided to check on the pigs. He found them standing in a circle. Loud grunts were coming from the circle. Were they…arguing? When they noticed him in the shadows, they all stared for a moment then slowly walked away and began to root in the hay. Which would have been fine if they wouldn’t have kept glancing up at him to see if he was still watching. He decided to have a talk with the Director.

Day 43~ The Director excitedly showed him scans of three of the pigs’ neocortexes. Larger and more folds than should be there.

“Do you think this is such a good idea?” he had asked.

“Well, why not? Think of the possibilities, Michael.”

“I am.”

“Ack,” he waved his arm in frustration. “You’ve just watched too many science fiction movies. It’s not like they’re going to start talking or knitting sweaters, Michael.”

Day 44~  Michael entered the facility and was trying to get the lights to come on when something smashed into his body from behind. He felt the warmth of the heavy mass scramble off of him.  Dazed, he pushed off the ground.

“What the hell?” he shouted, pain turning to anger as he stumbled down the aisle. “What’s going OoNnn…” FWAP! He was flat on his face after tripping over a second warm body that rushed under his feet. Turning slowly over on his back, he stifled a yelp. Cujo was barely two inches from his face, his black eyes gleaming in the dim light; hot, rancid breath choking him. Suddenly, he lunged forward and sank his sharp canine teeth into Michael’s neck.

As the warmth and shock flooded his body, Michael stared at Cujo. Drops of blood were dripping from his bottom lip and…was he smiling?

Friday Flash: Love is Contagious

Alice Windsor noticed her hands shaking as she held them under the automatic sanitizer at the hostess station.

“Ready, Ma’am?”

“I suppose so.” She glanced around the candle lit dining room.

“You’ve arrived before your guest,” the hostess winked. “Follow me.”

Great, Alice thought. Even the hostess can tell I’m a nervous wreck. Get it together.

And then a thought struck her. What if he didn’t show up? She would kill Valerie. Setting her up with some dead beat.  She slid into the seat, eyeing the embedded menu. “Glass of Chablis, please.”

Order received. Estimated time of arrival: 4 minutes.

She used the time to situate her silk skirt, smoothing it out along the curve of a hip; breathing slowly as she watched the other couples from beneath dark lashes. They all seemed so at ease with each other; talking, smiling like no one else existed. She had that once. With Larson. A lifetime ago. Stop it. She shook her head, trying to clear it of his name, his memory. Every year Valentine’s Day was a day for her to dread, to wait for like a plague. Not this one. She stiffened her resolve as her glass of wine arrived. And right behind it…her blind date.

“Have you been waiting long?” He leaned over her and they air-kissed.

“No, no,” she whispered, stunned by his sincerity, his large brown eyes, the charm that oozed from him like a physical presence, his mild, oaky scent.  “Just about four minutes,” she said, absentmindedly sipping her wine.

He ordered a drink and then the warning chimes startled Alice. It had been awhile since she had spent time in public and she’d forgotten how loud those bells could be. They reached for the paper masks beside their silverware, placed them over their mouth and nose and held eye contact as the sanitizing ions sprayed from the ceiling to zap and collide with any viruses floating around. Alice found herself smiling beneath the mask. A new predicament for her. Could she actually be happy with a man again?

The secondary bells rang indicating they could remove their masks.

“So, Alice,” he pressed his fingers together in front of him and she had the sudden urge to slip her hand between them. She leaned back in her chair, grabbing her hands in her lap to keep them from acting without her consent. “Valerie tells me you’ve been by yourself for a while. Bad divorce was it?”

Alice pushed her hair off her neck. It stuck a bit, damp and clinging. Was it hot in there? “Yes,” she bit her lip. “Mostly though, I just don’t trust myself not to pick another crazy person.”

His laughter came easy and often through dinner. Alice bloomed beneath it, letting herself relax and open up, all the while fighting the urge to touch him. Which was insane. The violation would land her in Solitary Confinement for thirty days. By the time dessert arrived, she was feeling so out of control, she was beginning to think it would be worth it.

“Are you feeling all right? Your face is very flushed.” That sincerity again. It was killing Alice.

“I’m actually feeling…amazing.” She laughed, licking cream from between the fork tongs. Euphoric was the word she would have used, except she still had enough sense not to scare the object of her desire. That sense was quickly fading, though. She lifted the porcelain plate and ran her tongue over it, lapping up every crumb of lemon cake and cream.

“Alice? Maybe we should…” She suddenly lunged across the table and ran her tongue across his throat, tracing a line up his chin, over his lips, cheek and into his ear. People began to shout and two waiters raced over, grabbing her arms, trying to pry her off of the stunned man.

Pink foam began to ooze from her mouth and run down his neck, into his starched collar. Her tongue swelled into a fat strawberry; her eyes rolled back into her head.  A powerful seizure struck and she fell to the floor.

Alice awoke beneath a plastic tent, straps holding down her wrists, machines and white walls beyond the plastic.  Wincing, she tried to call out. Her mouth was swollen and on fire. A shadow emerged, stood in the doorway and then approached the plastic.

“Welcome back, Miss Windsor.”

A small croak was all she could manage.

“It’s okay. I know you can’t speak. I’m CDC Senior Investigator, Robert Glenn.  You have been in quarantine here at Valley Hospital for ten days, along with the man you…licked.” He paused and Alice wanted to crawl inside her skin and disappear as the memory of the Valentines dinner hit her full force. “It seems your ex husband, Dr. Larson Windsor, has created and infected you with a virus that was activated by a specific hormone cocktail…phenyl ethylamine, serotonin, dopamine, among others. In other words, it was meant to activate when you became attracted to someone as a potential mate. It apparently acts fast, spreads through saliva.  I’m afraid…”

Alice squeezed back the tears. No cure, of course. She was now a contagion. Quarantine would be her permanent home. And then her eyes slowly opened, warmth spreading up into her face as she recalled the large brown eyes of the man who was also quarantined indefinitely. He would forgive her eventually, wouldn’t he?

Her swollen tongue brightened from within a deformed smile.

Friday Flash: Root Baby

She was dangling at the end of carrot leaves clutched in Jane’s fist, a tiny dirt baby. On her knees in the garden, Jane stared at the doll-like face covered in dark soil; halfway expecting it to inhale and start crying, while knowing this would be impossible. However, when wet bubbles began to form on the bottom lip, it rattled Jane to the core and she almost dropped the creature.  She fell back in the damp soil, still keeping tight grip on those carrot leaves. Opening her eyes, she confirmed she hadn’t gone insane. The baby was there, still swinging in the air.

“Impossible.”  Jane lowered her into the basket, on top of the three or four carrots she had already plucked from the soil. Removing her gloves, she wiped the soil from its eyelids. They fluttered at her touch. Then she brushed the dirt from its neck and chest. Its skin was almost translucent, tinged yellow in the sunlight; thin fibers on its arms and legs glistened as it became animated, opening and closing tiny fists, kicking tiny toes. Jane brushed back the leaves from its forehead, in awe.

Then, in a flurry of fear she crawled, plucking out row after row of carrots, imagining other root babies entombed in fertilized soil. But, thankfully, this was the only one. When Jane peeked back into the basket, the eyes were open. It was staring at her quietly with eyes the color of the sun.

“Marge? Hi, this is Jane. Listen, I have a problem.”

“Okay.”

Jane sat at the kitchen table, the root baby still in the basket of carrots, staring quietly back at her. The smell of damp soil permeated the air.

“You know how I was telling you this spring I couldn’t afford Pureorganics seeds?”

“Oh no, Jane, you didn’t buy that genetically modified crap did you?”

“Well…yes. I figured, well how bad could it be, really. Right?”

“So,” Marge sighed, “how bad is it?”

“It’s…it’s alive,” Jane whispered. “And staring at me. I don’t know what to do with her.”

There was a long silence.

“Do you need a recipe?”

“What!” Jane sat up in her chair. “No! I can’t…can’t eat her. She looks human!”

“So, what are you going to do? Raise her and send her off to college? Jane, listen, you grew her in your garden, for food. You plucked her out of the dirt, she…it, is obviously not human. So, what’s the problem?”

Jane was feeling frantic. “What’s the problem? She has eyes, tiny clear eyelashes, toes…”

“So do cows, so what?”

Jane had no answer.

“Look, you know Evan Rogers at Knoll Hill Market? If you really can’t eat it, he’ll buy it from you. Sylvia was telling me her brother got some bad GM seeds, ended up with some kind of fish turnips. They smelled awful, but Evan bought ‘em. He specializes in exotic meats.”

Jane felt bile rising in her throat. “I have to go.” She barely made it to the bathroom.

When she returned, the rootbaby had lost her glow, her skin was graying. Was she dying?

Jane frantically offered her milk, the last of her pureed potatoes, water. She refused everything silently.

“What do you eat?”

She turned to the internet for answers. The few hits she got only gave cooking advice, not feeding advice.

Jane rushed her back out into the sunlight. Maybe her energy system was more plant like, she seemed to come alive when exposed to the sun before. In the sunlight, she could see tiny flakes and fissures on the rootbaby’s skin. So dry. She unwound the hose and trickled cool water across her belly and legs.

Her tiny mouth twitched. Was that a smile? The sunlight faded from her eyes and they closed. The animation left her.

Jane turned off the water, the rootbaby now bathed in her tears.

Jane knew she was supposed to call a disposal unit, but she also knew what they would do, the dissection, the tests. That would be worse than being eaten.

She scooped up the tiny body in her palm and held it gently to her chest as she walked back to the garden.

(photo credit: Jonathan Boeke)

Friday flash: Messenger of Death

Eric fumbled with the buttons on the arm rest of the stolen Nissan. A blast of humid night air hit him. It smelled like charred beef.

“Snow Bunny, can you hear me?” Adrenaline shot his voice up a few octaves.

“Loud and clear, Earth Worm. What the hell happened?” She jumped off the bed and pressed her forehead against the hotel window, searching the Miami skyline as if she could find him.

“You said there were no guards!” Glancing in the rear view mirror had become his latest tick as he navigated the short grid of turns toward the highway. “FYI, there were two freakin’ guards, Snow Bunny! Two!”

“Shit.” Long bit of silence. “Sorry. But, you got out with the samples, right?”

Eric slipped the cool-pack full of vials from his black canvas jacket, tossing them onto the seat beside him.

“Affirmative.” Sarcasm and fear. He cranked up the air. “I think someone’s following me.”

“Earth worm, listen to me.” Her voice was measured, painfully calm. “Eric…the hard part is over. Now you just have to get that evidence to the Sun’s reporter. He’s there waiting. Just keep driving, that’s all you have to do. You know how important this is. You’re the messenger; this has to get out to the public.”

He wiped at his nose, checked the rear view mirror and jerked the wheel hard right, swerving over two lanes and jumping onto I-75 at the last minute. The suspected black van didn’t make it.

“Yeah, the messenger of death.” And then louder, so she could hear him, “getting onto Alligator Alley now.”

“Okay. Good. Anyone behind you?”

“Negative. You know what they’ll do if they catch me, right?”

“They won’t. Just drive. One hour and it’ll be out of your hands. We’re doing the right thing. They are monsters. And Eric…”

“Yeah?”

“Don’t let those vials break.”

He cranked up the radio so he couldn’t hear the pounding in his chest or the blood rushing through his head.  It was almost three in the morning so traffic was light, but still, every time lights appeared behind him, he held his breath until they passed.

The road was a long straight ribbon of blacktop cutting through the Everglades. Metal fencing bordering both sides of the highway flew by in intermitten flashes. He suddenly longed for a couple short months ago when all he had to worry about was passing his Chem. II final.

Ding ding. Eric moved his attention from the road to the dashboard. A tiny red light glared at him.

“What the…?” His heart did a flip flop and almost stopped. “C..c..come in. Snow Bunny? Angela!”

“What, what’s wrong? Are they behind you?”

“I’m almost out of gas.” No response. “Did you hear me?”

“You stole a car that was on empty?!”

“I didn’t exactly have time to check.”

“There are no gas stations on Alligator Alley.”

“Oh god.”

“Okay, go as far as you can and then…you’ll have to walk. I have to think.”

Eric slowed the car down to 55 mph. He had heard this was the most gas efficient speed. Things were becoming very surreal and he was getting numb from the terror, feeling nothing but the sensation of a cold sweat.

And then he heard it. The unmistakable thump thump thump of a chopper. He knew this was no coincidence. They were looking for him. The car began to putter. Slamming his hands on the steering wheel, he eased it off the road and brought it to rest close to the fence. He killed the lights.

“Angela?” Static. “Angela!” Were they blocking the radio signal? Now he really did feel paranoid. He ripped off the headset and hid it under the seat. Maybe he could save her, at least. Let them think he was acting alone.

As a spotlight from the helicopter came into view, sweeping back and forth like two wicked, alien eyes, his face became slick with tears. This was not going to end well for him.

Grabbing the cool-pack, he opened the door and began to run. When he was out of breath, he said a little prayer and scaled the fence. The top part, being angled down, was a bit difficult, but he soon found himself crash landing with a thud in the tall grasses beside the waterway.

The chopper was close now, but within a few minutes he heard something even more terrifying. Squealing tires, car doors…dogs. He collapsed against the fence. It was over. They would find him and make him disappear. After all this, he had failed.

Two eyes, glowing the color of moonlight appeared in the dark waters before silently submerging again.

He suddenly knew what he had to do. This had to make headlines one way or another. A few infected gators would do the trick. They couldn’t stop that in time to cover it up. He ripped open the cool pack with his teeth and one by one, unsealed the vials and drank them.

Fighting the blinding pain now coursing through him, Eric slid forward until his feet, then his legs and finally his arms were submerged in the warm, murky waters.

He felt the gator only as a violent jerk on his leg, then a wicked roll into the darkness.

Friday Flash: The Word Eater

brainscan

The word ‘normal’ tastes like soured milk. My best friend, Anna, is coconut flavored. The machine they called a ‘SonicSite 4000’, which will prune my crossed neurons with pulses of sound, tastes like pea soup with too much pepper. The word strap tastes like cold molasses.

“Won’t it be nice to read a book without all those pesky associations?”

My eyes move to the vanilla crème nurse above me. Her voice is warm, but her fingertips are cold as she presses them into my scalp. Or is she pressing bits of metal onto my head? I don’t really want to know. The large, round donut machine they’re going to stick my head into is scary enough.

Are they pesky? I don’t think so, but everyone else seems to. To me, they just are. As a square has four sides, the word book tastes like buttered toffee.

“I don’t know,” I sigh. “If you couldn’t taste apple pie, would you still eat it?”

She was light and thoughtful. “Well, I suppose not. Wouldn’t be worth the effort and hip expansion.”

My doctor would have said, “Tasting an apple pie is normal, tasting a book is not.” Which is why I’m here. To become normal.

The word sad tastes like black licorice.

“You may feel a slight pressure on your scalp. How are you doing? Is the valium kicking in yet?”

My face crinkles involuntarily.

“Are you okay?”

“Yes.” Valium is onion flavored. I wish they would just call it a pill. Tart grass, much nicer. I am trying to relax, doing breathing exercises, having faith in those who know better. Those who know what normal is.

Faith. Tastes like perfume. Now I recall the one that really got me in trouble. The one where mom found out I wasn’t normal. The Lord’s Prayer. It tastes like raw bacon. I threw up on the children’s choir director in front of three hundred horrified church goers.

I hear the doctor’s soft shoes on the linoleum before I hear his voice.

“Is our girl ready?”

“Yes, Dr. Bryant.”

“Dr. Bryant,” I repeat. I savor the taste of lemon cheesecake; let it linger on my tongue. A tear slips, slides down my neck. My legs begin to shake.

I close my eyes and let go.