I dusted off an old Tastes Like Chicken favorite of mine from back in the day. Let me know what you think. – TWM
My name is Neville Morris and I’m 19 years old. No, wait. I, Neville Morris, being of sound mind and body, do so… uh, shit. I don’t remember how it goes. Look, I’m just telling my side of the story in case I get dead. Which, at this point, is highly possible.
Where do I start? The first time I met Cereal we were squatting with some other kids in an abandoned building uptown doing whatever would get us through the long days and endless nights. I started calling him Cereal because when we went “shopping”, he’d shove a box of Cap’n Crunch under his black-hooded sweatshirt. I never even knew his real name. He’s dead now, so what’s the point? He’s dead because T-Minus 30 killed him.
Anyway, Cereal and I were looking to make some money and maybe get a place, just get off the street. The homeless thing was getting old and I thought maybe I’d get a job, go back to college. Just something. I’d only just met Cereal but we jived right out the gate. Together we were a two-man riot. We were also tired of starving, tired of freezing, tired of begging for dimes, and tired of showing our dicks to dirty old English professors in dark parking garages for grocery money, so yeah we decided to go in on a place and get the fuck off the street.
It was then that we found the flyer, a want ad; some guy was looking for “healthy males” to participate in a “scientific experiment”. He was offering a thousand dollars a go, with no questions. Now, being a “healthy male” who just happens to travel in circles where the words “healthy males” and “party” are frequently used in the same sentence, usually by older men wearing makeup, I could tell you things I’ve done for money that would push your lunch to the sidewalk. But I like to think I’m above that. Still, let’s just say I’ve done things I’m not so proud of; I figured I could handle doing it one more time if it meant not doing them again.
“We should call him and see what’s up,” I said, handing the flyer back to Cereal. “But I put my foot down at scat, and no kissing.” Cereal laughed like a thunderclap and lit another cigarette, his eyes shining like wet tarmac behind the plume of gray.
Long story short, we spent the day begging and used the funds to purchase a pack of cigarettes, a bottle of cheap wine, a bottle of ephedrine, a deck of cards and last but certainly not least, four Trojans. We ate a handful of the magic bullets and washed them down with the wine as we played cards in the back of the bus on the way to the thing. The ride was nearly two hours long.
“You scared?” I dropped a five of hearts. I had two aces and a pair of sevens.
“Shit, you kidding me?” He tossed a jack of clubs and a two of spades, drawing two fresh from the pile. “You?”
“Your mom’s scared,” I laughed, picking up a third ace, a ten of hearts and, as luck would have it, a fourth ace. The spade. I laughed triumphantly and snapped the set on the seat between us. “Ha!” I helped myself to three more cards with a shaking hand, hoping he didn’t notice.
The doors of the bus hissed open like the gates of Hell and the humid summer night air dropped four coins in the fare box and took a seat.
Fact: we got off at the end of a long gravel road, having followed the directions and arriving later that night.
Fact: it was dark as fuck out.
Fact: at the other end of the drive, just visible in the fading light, sat a ramshackle two-story farmhouse on an otherwise barren lot 50 miles from nowhere.
Fact: there was no name on the mailbox.
You do the math.
The facts, as they added up, should have put us back on that bus before summer’s coin stopped jangling. I mean, we’ve all seen horror movies, right? If you were sitting fat and sassy in a dark movie theater with a bucket of popcorn on your lap, what encouraging advice would you be shouting at me right about now? Being as smart as you are, it’d probably start with “Get”, and end with “the fuck back on the bus!” Am I right?
Cereal, meanwhile, had suddenly given birth to good sense and his voice shook like a spooked horse. “Fuck this, Nev.” The hand he placed on my shoulder brought me full stop in the middle of the long gravel tongue that led to the mouth of the house. I could see one light in the back and a flickering blue glow coming from the second floor. I shook his hand and started walking again. I had it in my head that I had to play this cool. Again, his hand found my shoulder and I whirled to face him.
“Come on, man. You sure this is worth it?” Cereal pointed off toward the house. “We have no idea what’s in there.”
I followed his finger with my eyes and while I admit the house looked more and more like a sleeping thing with one sleepy eye watching us march faith-first toward the front door, I found it far more empowering to think about a one followed by three zeroes. Thusly motivated, I proceeded to half-talk, half-bully, half-cajole (wait, that’s three halves…) Cereal into taking one step and then another, and another still.
If my reasons were Jeopardy categories, they would be as follows:
You Can Buy A Lot Of Mouthwash With One Thousand Dollars
Shit In One Hand And Wish In The Other
Fragile Old Queers I Have Stomped For Kicks
Things You Can Sell At A Pawn Shop Without Raising Eyebrows
What Percentage Of English Professors Have Degrees In Male Anatomy
We’ll Look Back On This Some Day And Laugh
We Might As Well Since We’re Already Here
As If You’ve Anything Better To Do.
Across the yard. Up the steps. Across creaking planks to the door. There was some confusion about who would knock on the door and then I had to pound for a full minute before anyone came. I thought I was handling this pretty strong but when the door swung in quite suddenly, Cereal had to grab my arm as I took two involuntary steps backward.
The man before us was basketball-player tall and crooked like his driveway. Shock-white hair stood on end and a weathered face spoke his age, pronounced as it was by shadows from the porch light. From six steps away, he smelled like he’d been drinking since noon, 1954. He was dressed in gray pants and a faded red shirt that hung slack on his angular frame. One pair of bifocals rested on his face, another hung around his neck.
Cereal got his second wind and set sail for business. “Hi, we’re here about the flyer?” He unfolded it from the back pocket of his jeans and took his time smoothing the creases on his thigh, making sure the man got a look at his legs. Cereal was in pretty decent shape for someone who existed solely on Cap’n Crunch; good teeth, high cheekbones, curly hair and a lean build. He did okay for himself. “Is the offer still good?” He held out the flyer with a smile and flashed his pearly whites.
The stranger took it, read it at arms length as though he’d never seen it before. When he was done, he eyed us one at a time. Probably sizing us up, fitting us together like some perverse game of Tetris, figuring out what piece would fit where. Cereal rubbed his hands together and showed his whites again, doing his best to look charming.
Maybe this guy was having second thoughts. Maybe he’d chickened out. Maybe his wife was home and this was bad timing. I closed my eyes and waited for his shouts. “I didn’t write this. Now get off my property, you perverts, both of you, before I call the cops!” I imagined him slamming the door in our faces. I could almost hear the gravel crunching beneath my shoes on the way back into the darkness. I imagined the wave of relief that’d wash over us. I’d light a cigarette and say something like, “Man, I’m glad that didn’t happen!” Cereal would agree and bum a drag from me. Then we’d talk about how we were gonna get home. On the long walk back we’d talk about how that was the last trick we’d never have to pull. We’d dream about opening a comic book store someday or a head shop or maybe gets jobs in a record store or something. By the time we’d made it home sometime afternoon, we’d already have a name for the place picked out. We’d call it —
“Yeah. It’s still good. Come in. I’m Max.” He turned and led us through the house, dark and full of strange smells. A TV blared from somewhere upstairs. The kitchen was in the rear of the house, bathed in weak yellow light from a bulb covered in fly shit. The paint on the ceiling was cracked and peeling. There were dishes in the sink, but the floor was mostly clean.
Max gestured for us to take seats around the Formica table and began rifling through a cupboard near the sink. I heard the friendly sound of plates clinking and wondered if maybe he weren’t one of those born-again types who rent young meat for the evening just so he can cook them dinner, buy them thrift store clothes and listen to their hard luck stories. I hoped so. I was hungry as fuck.
Instead, he placed a tray on the table which held a jar of cotton balls, a clear plastic bottle of rubbing alcohol, a length of rubber tubing, two plastic-wrapped syringes and a small vial made of brown glass. So much for meatloaf and mashed potatoes.
As he began arranging the items according to some inner plan my mouth ran dry like the proverbial tit. “Uh, wait a second. What’s all this shit?” I demanded, tried to sound tough.
“The experiment I’m paying you for, of course,” barked Max over the tops of his bifocals. He had crazy thick eyebrows like antennae, or those things in the ocean. Sea enemies. “What’d you think you were here for?” He took a seat closest to Cereal and gestured for him to roll up his sleeve. Max removed a cotton ball from the jar and doused it with alcohol. In the silence I could hear the liquid gurgle as he upended it briefly.
“Thought I was one of them old faggots looking for a hump, did ya?” He snorted derisively as he swabbed Cereal’s arm. The sting of rubbing alcohol cut my nostrils in the closeness of the room and my stomach slowly turned. Cereal’s face went white and he looked at me with fear in his eyes. He was still showing his teeth, but maybe he was just as scared as I was. Sex was one thing, but this was different. “Well, no — of course not,” I lied. “But what’s in the –.”
Max looked first at Cereal then at me, exhaling a sigh and removing his bifocals. “As I recall, gentlemen, the flyer stated quite clearly, ‘healthy males wanted for a scientific experiment’. It did not say ‘lonely old fruit bat desires dirty dancing with young bucks’. It also specified you’d be paid one thousand dollars a piece for not asking any questions.” His voice box growled like a rock tumbler and I could feel the baritone in my chest. My stomach grumbled in protest of the scent of the alcohol.
“As I am a man of my word, I promise you will be paid according to that agreement. In turn,” he continued, forcefully turning Cereal’s elbow toward the floor and exposing a series of tiny scabs to the shit-stained light, “I agree not to ask you any embarrassing or obvious questions about what you do in your spare time. Speaking of time, you are wasting mine. One thousand dollars. Do we have a deal? If not, you and your friend here are free to get the hell out of my house.” Max looked back and forth at us. “Your decision, please. Three… two… one… now.”
Cereal looked at me for a moment before nodding his head. Then his eyes closed, his perfect teeth now concealed behind tightly clamped lips with nothing further to say. “Fine,” I said, taking off my jacket. “But I’m going first.”
Max replaced the bifocals on his face and repeated the swabbing operation on me before opening the packet containing a fresh syringe. I remember thinking how silly this was; I was in the middle of nowhere with a strange man who, for all I knew, was about to inject me with cat piss and kerosene, and I had just insisted on going first? I felt as though I were outside myself, watching.
Max grunted disapprovingly at the marks along my arms as he swabbed my arm. Then he wrapped me tight, woke the vein and slipped me like a pro. I watched him draw my blood into that tiny chamber before ramming the plunger home. He placed another pre-soaked cotton ball over the needle and withdrew the syringe, all very matter-of-fact. Before the empty syringe hit the empty can in the corner, a freight train chill was galloping down my spine. I felt the room close in around me and for a moment, I knew no pain.
Now it was Cereal’s turn. I vaguely remember him laughing as he held out his arm. Max did him proper but as the needle slid out and the cotton ball began slurping at the pinprick wound, Max did something unexpected. He began to talk about spiders.
“Do either of you boys know that the silk of the common spider is unique in all the arachnid world? It’s incredibly strong and terribly resilient,” he said, gazing through the empty syringe at the yellowed bulb overhead. Some well-sedated part of me was shouting out a warning as it fell backwards into warm gravy, but I wasn’t listening anymore. I was riding down a river of light on the sound of Max’s voice, without absorbing any of the dangerous content.
“For example,” said Max, accentuating each syllable, “if you produce enough of silk and bind it with other like polymers, you’ll create a powerful kind of body armor, possibly ideal for military and law enforcement applications. But you’d be ignoring the bigger picture.”
“I wanted to explore another possibility; I wanted to weave it to the human skeletal structure, to the muscle mass, or graft it to the skin. It’s far more plausible than it sounds, really.” He tossed Cereal’s empty into the trash and leaned back in his chair, removing his glasses and rubbing his eyes. “I had hard facts and the research to back it up but I was unable to convince my colleagues of my claims, so I decided to continue my work alone, out here, with a handful of silent investors and one diligent assistant.”
From the corner of my eye, I saw Cereal stiffen. His eyes went big like saucers and his mouth stretched tight in a ghastly O, as though someone has whispered something astonishing in his ear. I’d seen that look before and I knew what it meant but for some reason, I refused to accept that it might be happening again, here and now. If Max noticed this he seemed not to care, and instead continued speaking.
“Spider silk is a protein similar to goat’s milk, you see. When the spider gene is injected into a goat, the goat in turn produces a protein identical to that found in spider silk.” His puppeteer fingers danced back and forth describing this circular occurrence and his rumbling voice echoed off the paper-thin walls. “It’s really just a simple chain of amino acids, primarily glycine and alanine.” He leaned back in his chair. Eyes on me, eyes on Cereal, checked a watch on his left wrist, continued speaking at us over his bifocals.
“Did you also know that spider silk is almost five times stronger than steel and twice as strong as Kevlar of the same weight? It has the ability to stretch about 30 percent longer than its original length without breaking, which makes it very resilient.”
The room around me spun and fell like a knife fighter in a gunfight, and I followed it down.
“Now, theoretically this protein would then be extracted from the goat’s milk to produce silk fibers. Ordinarily, the process stops there but I took it a little further and developed a way to hyper-accelerate the result to form a new compound.” He glanced at Cereal again, checked a watch before turning to face me. He pried open my left eye and clicked on a penlight, left, right, left. Then he rose, walked around the table and did the same to Cereal. Were I lucid, were I in any way able to speak I’d have told him not to waste his time.
“After that, I tried attaching it to a human enzyme for easier joining, and laced it with a strong sedative to take the edge off. I hope you approve — although I’m guessing by the marks on your arm that you probably don’t give a shit what you inject into your body. I call this batch T-Minus.” Pause. “I don’t think your friend cared for it. Wait here, please,” and he left the room through a curtained door.
I slumped over on the table and stared; Cereal’s head was tilted back. His eyes were staring up through the ceiling and out into the starry night beyond. There was foam around his lips and a tear was drying on his cheek. There came a noise like a high-pitched whine and I listened to it for some time before I realized it was coming from me. I was whimpering. “Cereal, Jesus, you gotta wake up…” I whispered. I was treading water in lukewarm syrup and there was a weird sensation rippling down my spine, as though my skeleton was being rolled about in silk sheets.
Max’s voice reached my ears from light years away. “Anyway, I was working on germline gene therapy, an additional step to PGD. I was beyond screening embryos. Any trait could be added to an embryo: cerevisiae, elegans, melanogaster. Endless possibilities, really.” I could only make out bits and pieces of what he was saying. Something crashed and I heard him swear.
He continued speaking and his footsteps brought his voice closer. “Ninety-five percent of the initial sequencing is finished, and I’ve got a ninety-nine percent degree of accuracy. There’s just one problem — we have to test it the hard way.” And that’s when Max padded into the kitchen through the dividing curtain behind a double-barrel shotgun, which was aimed at my chest. I struggled to sit up right and raise my arms to shield myself.
“This won’t hurt a bit,” he said, stroking both triggers. One for me, the other for Cereal.
The blast came with a deafening roar and I saw a flash of light leap toward me. I felt the sting as the pellets impacting with my skin and the punch threw me to the floor. From my position beneath the table I could see that Max’s feet were stuffed into bunny slippers and I lay there contemplating what that meant, waiting for the warm red voice of death to whisper gentle things into my ear. Moments passed. It never spoke.
“It’s all right. You can open your eyes. The experiment worked. Well, for one of you, anyway.” I blinked once and thought about moving my limbs. Then I sat up, unsure of what would come next. I sure as shit didn’t expect to see what I saw. There was about a hundred smoking holes in my T-shirt and there were a lot of metal fragments lying in my lap. My chest stung like I’d done a belly flop and I trembled as I scooped the pellets and poured them through my hands like sand. I ran my hands over my body, looking for blood but there was none. I was unharmed.
I looked over at what used to be Cereal. His lips were blue and the useful parts of his chest were missing. I was too scared to move, but I couldn’t take my eyes away from the meat puppet that had once been the closest thing I’d had to a friend.
“Sorry, I had to make sure he was dead,” said Max. “As for you, you’re a living god for the next half hour. Enjoy it.” He parted the curtain and glanced back at me. “Oh. You can sleep on the couch. There’s food in the fridge.” The curtain closed and I blacked out. And that’s how I met Max.
I sat in the front room the next morning while Max and Irene patiently explained T-Minus to me after we’d buried Cereal in the cornfield. Irene, the intern who worked for Max, was the first person to take a shot of T-Minus almost a year ago.
“Why didn’t it work on Cereal?” I asked, staring woodenly at a cup of coffee in my hands.
Max just shrugged. “I could give you a long-winded scientific answer that you wouldn’t understand, or I could tell you that his chromosomes zigged when they should have zagged–.”
“You fucking… bastard!” The coffee slopped slightly under the force of my agitation. “What if we’d both died? How many fucking people have you killed out here? And why the hell did you have shoot me? You’re a fucking idiot.” My voice broke, my throat constricting around the last syllable like a boa. I cleared my throat. “Where’s my bag? I want a cigarette.”
“I can answer your questions,” he replied. “But first, there’s no smoking here. I have got a great number of chemicals in the basement, some of which respond poorly to fire. Second, I hate the smell of cigarettes. As for the money, you and your friend were willing to risk your health, to say nothing of your lives for a meager thousand dollars. I needed your unwitting help to test a formula I designed to render the human body bulletproof for approximately one half-hour. Who is the real idiot?
“Second, if I’d injected you and that batch of T-Minus had been a failure, it may have held some very unpleasant side effects for you, in which case, shooting you on the spot would have been an act of mercy.
“If the test was a success, which it was, and you survived, which you did, I could then persuade you to help me with my experiment, which I’m doing. Right now.
“Here’s the deal, there are no riders or waivers, and no need to sign or consult your lawyer. Live here, free room and board, meals provided and all the T-Minus you can stand. I can’t promise it won’t kill you any quicker than the junk you were shoving in your veins. But there can be no other drugs taken here, of any kind, unless Irene or I administer them to you.
“Absolutely no drinking, and no cigarettes. I need you healthy or not at all. I hate to sound so cliché but if I can’t use you, I will kill you. You’ve been exposed to my work and I don’t want you blabbing to the world about what goes on here.
“Do what I tell you, pull your weight and I will make you a god on Earth. On the other hand, if you lie to me, steal from me, break our agreement or otherwise piss on what we’ve got going on here,” he said, indicating himself and Irene, who just smiled, “and I’ll simply wait till your dose runs out and let Irene hunt you down in the darkness. Or I’ll just shoot you myself. Do we have a deal?”
I rose, walked to the window. Outside, the birds sang stupid songs. A breeze did something to the grass and stirred the dust in the driveway. It was a gorgeous fucking day. A little ways into the corn scrub, not 300 feet from the house, a fresh patch of earth marked the spot where Cereal was having a long and meaningful dirt nap. He was a year older than me. I didn’t even know his name. I just kept calling him Cereal. How many more bodies were out there?
“How many people have you injected with that stuff?”
“It’s called T-Minus 30, and that question’s not important right now. I need your answer,” said Max.
“Well, what if the police come looking for us?”
Irene walked over and stood next to me, one hand on my shoulder the way you’d soothe a child. She was tall and athletic, with arms like an oak banister and an Amazon’s physique. The T-Minus probably had a lot to do with that. “And what if they do, Neville?” she asked, leveling her gaze at me. I couldn’t tear away from her eyes. They threatened to swallow me whole. “What are you going to tell them? You’re in this, too. You touched immortality last night. Aren’t you curious as to what comes next? Don’t you realize how lucky you are to be here? I can understand your apprehension– it’s probably not the most effective way to screen applicants,” she said with another disarming smile, like a hostess at a party ignoring cat vomit on the floor. “But we had to be sure the serum worked. Try to see our side of it. If we had just given you the dose, how else could we test its capabilities without — well, shooting you at close range with a shotgun?”
Of course, how silly of me not to see this for myself. Jesus H. Christ, these people were stone-fucking insane! I sat back on the couch and thought for a moment. I had nothing else to go back to. Hadn’t for years. I didn’t have a job. I had no friends and no mon —
“What about the two thousand dollars, mine and Cereal’s share?” I asked.
“I’m almost ashamed to tell you there never was any money,” replied Max. “Room and board is free. What is there to spend it on?”
Damn, this just gets better and better. But what the hell else was I supposed to do?
“Okay.” I took a deep breath. “I’m in.”