Flea

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Stephen Lawson


William Blake - The Ghost of a Flea
Photo Credit: Simone Tagliaferri

In sixth grade my best friend was Jerry Harrison. He wouldn’t let anybody call him Jerry, though. His mom, his dad, his sister, and I had to call him “Flea” to get a response out of him. He’d simply ignore you if you called him Jerry, even if you were standing next to him yelling it in his ear.

“Jerry.” I tried it once. “Jerry. Jerry!” He seemed as deaf as Helen Keller, about whom we often cracked jokes. I started to wonder if he’d actually gone deaf overnight.

“Flea?” I whispered finally.

“Oh, hey, Sam,” he’d said, turning. I’d suddenly materialized into his world. “I didn’t see you there.”

He’d explained the first time we met that he’d fallen asleep on his dog’s bed when he was eight, and that one of Wilbur’s fleas had crawled inside his ear and nested in his brain. The flea’s name was simply “Flea,” and Jerry started blaming all the idiotic things he did on the flea riding inside his head.

“It whispers to me when I first wake up,” he said. “It tells me to do things.”

“So you have like a list for the day?” I asked.

“I never remember until I’m actually doing them,” he said. “He tells me when I first wake up so they’ll stay in my subconscious and I’ll do them without thinking. He told me to take five bucks out of my dad’s wallet yesterday. I’d never do that, so I know it must have been Flea.”

“Did you?”

“There were only a couple of ones in there but he started jumping around until I took them. I tried to tell him I wouldn’t but he moves so much it’s hard to think straight.”

“You know you’re probably schizophrenic, right?” I said. I didn’t see any point in dancing around the subject.

“That’s what my mom thought, too,” he said. “They took me to see this guy and he did some tests on me after Flea told me to bite the neighbors’ cat so he could drink its blood. It scratched my face up. The tests said I wasn’t schizophrenic, though.”

“What did they say you really were?”

“It was something about hyperactivity. Flea was quiet the whole time I was in there so they wouldn’t see any proof he was hiding in my brain. He’s no dummy. He knows when to lay low.”

It was like that all the time with Jerry. He’d do some stupid, impulsive thing and blame it on the flea living in his head. I personally thought it was bad parenting since his dad was gone all the time for work and his mom just tried to be understanding with her poor little boy.

My mom was a social worker, so I heard lots of things about schizophrenics. Jerry definitely fit the bill. He was entertaining to be around, though, so I hung out with him. Mom said he’d probably end up being a criminal someday.

*

Snow days are something no child forgets. A kid who hates getting up in the morning, hates sitting in boring classes, and hates dealing with the sociological nightmare of the early adolescent jungle will dream until he is old and gray of the sort of one-day vacation he remembered having as a boy. There is no guilt in a snow day—none of the latent regret associated with pretending one is sick while one’s comrades are suffering at the schoolhouse. One has simply been given a reprieve by Mother Nature, for a single day, to enjoy debt- and guilt-free. I felt sorry for any kid who lived too far south to experience such miracles, but always did my best to fall back asleep after I’d seen the school-cancellation notice on the television.

I’d nestled back under a warm, just-washed-the-day-before comforter that still smelled of fabric softener on one such morning. I’d nearly drifted back into dreams of breathing underwater or suddenly discovering I could fly if I held my arms the right way when I jumped, a dull thunk having snapped me back into the waking world. I tried to ignore it.

A second thunk brought me into awareness.

I peeked over the comforter and pulled back the curtains of my bedroom window. Jerry stood in the front yard, knee-deep in wet, sticky snow that threatened to pour into his galoshes. His parka-clad arm came up with another piece of gravel, poised to throw again. I opened my window to the biting winter air.

“What’s up, Flea?” I asked. I rubbed a bit of crust from my eye.

“You’ve got to see this,” he said.

“See what?”

“Just put on a coat and come down. It’s just down the street.”

I realized I wouldn’t be getting to sleep in on this particular snow day. Adventures ranked only slightly below eating breakfast at eleven o’clock on the snow-day list of fun things to do, and were the precursor to taking a hot bath after such wintry adventures had taken place. In anticipation of said hot bath, I put on my coat and boots and opened the front door.

“This better be worth it,” I said.

“Oh, it will be,” he said.

I crunched along behind Jerry for several minutes in silence until we came to a fence at the back of a house.

“This is it,” Jerry said, and began counting fence posts. “One, two, three…”

I listened for some sound of exciting things occurring but heard nothing apart from his counting.

“…twelve, thirteen.”

He tugged at the thirteenth fence post and the bottom nail came loose.

“Look through there,” he said, holding the gap open with both hands.

Crouching down, I expected to see naked girls having a snowball fight, a dancing bear, or some other thing worthy of such an expedition. Instead, I saw fruit trees.

I stood.

“Peaches? You brought me here on a snow day to see peaches? Is this your flea’s latest idea of a stupid joke?”

“It’s the middle of winter, Sam,” he said. “Peaches grow in the summer. They shouldn’t be on those trees at all.”

“Maybe it’s a special hybrid that grows in the winter.”

“No such thing,” he said. “Maybe what you’re missing is that Old Lady Greenleaf is a witch.”

My first reaction was, of course, to chuckle at the ridiculousness of what Jerry had said.

He only stood patiently, arms crossed, as my mockery subsided.

There were ripe peaches in her backyard in the middle of winter. I couldn’t deny what I had seen.

“It’s a full moon tonight, too,” Jerry said.

“So?”

“So the first full moon of January is Mithrastide,” he said. “It’s a pagan holiday, sort of like Halloween.”

“I’ve never heard of Mithrastide,” I said.

“It’s old. I don’t think anybody really practices it here, except witches,” Jerry said. “I… um… read about it in a book. Anyway, you’re supposed to give children sweet things on Mithrastide, and I really want one of those magic peaches.”

“All right,” I said. “So we’re going to knock on her door and ask for some of her magic fruit?”

“Actually, you’re going to knock on her door and ask for some magic fruit.”

“Why me?”

“I… I’m shy. You just have to knock and ask her if we can come in is all. I’ll ask about the peaches.”

With mild trepidation, I took the acorn knocker in hand and rapped it twice.

*

Old Lady Greenleaf, it turned out, wasn’t so old after all. I caught myself staring up into a firm, ample bosom before pulling my eyes away to meet hers.

“Hello,” she said. Creamy skin sculpted over high cheekbones framed full lips that commanded my full adolescent attention. “Are you selling something?” She batted her eyelashes down at me.

“We’re… um…” I stammered.

“Happy Mithrastide, Miss Greenleaf,” Jerry said, nudging me aside.

The full lips curled into a smile. The creamy skin around her eyes did not, however, crinkle with them.

“What do two handsome young men know about Mithrastide?” she asked, sweetly.

“It’s a midwinter fertility holiday,” Jerry said. “You’re supposed to give out treats to children our age.”

“So right you are,” she said, studying him. Then she turned briefly and walked back into the house. “It’s been such a long time since children came searching out treats on Mithrastide. I can’t imagine you’d want any of my peaches. Let’s see what we have.”

Jerry’s eyes had grown strangely beady, devoid of life, and black like a shark’s eyes. His lower jaw sat open and I watched Lady Greenleaf out of the corner of my eye, praying she wouldn’t turn to see him rubbing his tongue in little circles across his top row of teeth. He’d been transfixed from the moment she mentioned the peaches he sought.

“Flea!” I hissed.

Jerry snapped back to reality the moment it escaped my lips, and he shook his head. He placed a finger to his lips. “I’m Jerry,” he whispered. “Just Jerry.”

From the corner of my eye, I saw Lady Greenleaf stop and turn. She squinted down at him. “Whose boys are you, exactly?” she asked.

We told her. Jerry introduced himself as Jerry for the first time since I’d met him. He made no mention of the flea in his brain. He did, however, assure her we liked peaches as much as anyone.

“Since you haven’t brought any baskets, I guess we’ll have to get you some out of the closet,” she said. “It’s this way.”

I would have followed her anywhere. I watched the rhythmic swing of maternal hips that said everything I needed to know about fertility holidays and nothing about old ladies. In gym class we’d discussed whether we were tit-men or ass-men and I’d said I was a tit-man then. Now, I grew surer with every rhythmic gyration of her womanly buttocks that I was an ass-man. I prayed now that she wouldn’t turn and see the throbbing erection she’d caused. My palms started to sweat, so I crossed my arms to hide them in my armpits.

Jerry seemed strangely unaffected by her, but kept stealing glances out the window toward the garden.

Lady Greenleaf bent over to pick up two wicker baskets from the closet and I coughed in response to the growing ache in the region of my groin.

“Here we go,” she said, handing us the baskets. I quickly positioned a basket at crotch-level, feeling my palm-sweat soaking into the wicker handle. She looked me up and down, a grin never leaving her face.

“Before you gentlemen pick my fruit-tree clean, though, I wonder if you’d give me an opinion on something.”

“Er… okay,” I managed.

Jerry stood on his tiptoes, looking over my head at the peach trees in the back yard.

“Jerry,” I whispered, nudging him with an elbow while carefully maintaining the crotch-concealing basket’s position.

Again, he returned to the façade of sane, reasonably polite Jerry.

“Of course,” Jerry said. “What is it?”

“It’s a painting I bought,” she said.

She led the way into her living room, where a cozy fire burned in the fireplace beyond two overstuffed leather armchairs. On the wall directly across from us hung a painting that seemed strangely familiar. Reds and browns writhed together against a black backdrop to portray the muscled, hideous, humanoid form of something that was not quite a man. Its vertebrae bulged from the skin of its back, ready to burst through. Its eyes—beady, like a shark’s—stared into a bowl. Its tongue stood rigid at the edge of its top row of teeth.

“That’s William Blake, isn’t it?” I asked, looking at Jerry for confirmation. We’d learned about Blake in school. The erection had thankfully subsided now, but hairs on the back of my neck had begun to stand on end.

“You actually pay attention in school,” Lady Greenleaf said. “I’m impressed.”

I would have burned my own house down to impress her further, or sailed a ship into a cliff just to prove I liked her singing.

“So what do you think of it?” she asked.

I thought it was monstrous, but I voiced this as “interesting.”

Jerry cracked his neck, then his knuckles. Something was irritating him. “He’s… beautiful,” Jerry said.

“Would you like to know what was in that bowl he’s holding?” she asked.

I raised an eyebrow.

Jerry just stared at the painting. He fidgeted.

“Peaches,” she said. “My peaches.”

I stepped closer to the painting, trying to ignore the irritated rasping that had replaced Jerry’s breathing. I found, at the bottom of the frame, a small brass placard. It read: William Blake, “The Ghost of a Flea,” Tempera with Gold on Mahogany, 1819. I remembered this painting, now.

“I thought this was smaller,” I said. “I thought it was a miniature painting.”

“This one’s the original,” she said. “I lied. I didn’t really buy it. This is the one young Will painted for me.”

I almost asked aloud how he could have painted something for her in 1819, but the hair on my neck and the peaches in her garden held my tongue.

Jerry’s face had twisted into a tormented grimace. “I brought a virgin,” Jerry hissed. “He came freely. I brought a sacrifice to your altar. I claim the right of blood atonement.”

Lady Greenleaf looked me over again. “All right,” she said, and opened a drawer. From it she drew a sliver of what looked like glass. She held it to the light. “Do you know what it takes to carve a solid piece of diamond, the hardest naturally-occurring substance on Earth, into a razor-edged knife?” she asked. She pulled her eyes from it and looked at me. She wasn’t smiling anymore.

“No,” I said. My feet wanted to back away from her, but my legs felt as though they had been filled with concrete.

“I don’t either,” she said. “One of the Oppenheimers gave this to me.”

“Why did he do that?” I asked.

“Wouldn’t you, if it were yours to give?” she asked.

“Probably,” I said. I don’t know if I could have lied, even if I thought it would help me.

She rose then, and walked toward me, diamond knife in hand.

“Men never can resist my fruit,” she said, and paused to stroke Jerry’s hair with her delicate fingers. “Neither can fleas.”

His grimace had subsided slightly, but his left eyelid twitched and his lips curled into a greedy sneer.

“You give your virginal friend as a sacrifice, do you?” she asked. “I want to be sure.”

“Yes,” he said, but it came out, “Yesssssss.

Lady Greenleaf’s lips curled into a sneer, then. The diamond blade refracted the light from the fire for a split second as she whipped it through the skin of Jerry’s pudgy adolescent neck.

“That wasn’t the deal,” she said, as Jerry’s hands shot to the crimson geyser that had erupted from his throat. “I said if you ever tasted another of my peaches, it would restore your form. I said nothing of sacrificing the blood of a virgin. I do not work by those rules.”

Jerry crumpled into a heap, the stream of his arterial exsanguination having formed a pool that continued to spread. His blood painted an arc up the wall and across the ceiling. Some had splattered on my jeans and over the basket that hung loosely in my left hand. Eyes wide, I watched Jerry rattle and twitch. Somehow, not a drop of his blood touched Lady Greenleaf.

“It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature,” she said. “Not that you could, Flea.”

Then, as the blood stopped flowing, I watched in horror as Jerry’s neck wriggled and twitched with a life of its own. A tiny black speck crawled out of the wound and sprang onto the floor. Even faster than her previous slash, Lady Greenleaf’s hand darted out at the black speck. She held her index and thumbnail to her face to inspect the creature trapped between them.

“Look what you made me do,” she said. “Now your little friend will never look at Mithrastide the same way. You’ve scarred him forever.”

“Jerry,” I said. “You killed him.”

“He would’ve been a tax collector,” she said, “even if I pulled this little vampire out some other way. Once a worm gets into your fruit, there’s not much else you can do for it.”

A tiny voice squealed between her fingertips.

“You knew what you were doing, coming here,” she said. “You should have been content with the mercy I’d shown you.”

With that, she closed her fingernails to a point and a tiny red spray shot up between them. The black speck disappeared entirely. She looked again to me. “Bury your friend,” she said.

“What?”

She stepped closer. The fingernails of the hand that had just annihilated Jerry’s brain-flea now traced the curve of my jaw. “Do it for me,” she said. “Mothers know best.”

Nothing about the fecundity she exuded with every breath seemed seductive any longer. She was Nature—living, growing, and entirely indifferent to human suffering. Yet some part of my brain still worked logically and realized that she had spared me. The Flea had offered my blood and she had destroyed him instead. Perhaps she simply had no good reason to use me as fertilizer, but I was alive.

Numbly, I grabbed my best friend’s ankles and dragged his bloody, half-decapitated corpse out the door leaving a red stream in its wake. Jerry’s tongue still pressed rigidly against his top teeth as his head flopped along the floorboards.

*

My back ached from swinging the mattock and shovel as I scooped the last load of dirt from Jerry’s grave. Lady Greenleaf tread softly on her moss carpet, appearing above me as I climbed out of the pit. She drew a small object from a pocket, stooped, and placed the object in Jerry’s mouth.

“I’ll help you,” she said, and grabbed Jerry’s wrists as I grabbed his ankles.

*

Jerry’s parents never called the police. No missing child posters ever showed up on telephone poles. No one at school asked me if I had seen Jerry. He simply vanished, and I seemed to be the only one that knew it had even happened.

I walked by Old Lady Greenleaf’s house a year later and noticed that she had mended the thirteenth fencepost. Above the fence line, though, I noticed a new tree amidst the peach trees.

Lady Greenleaf said I could talk to Jerry as long as I wanted.

He seemed more at peace than he ever had in his tormented flea-ridden flesh. The wind that swept through his leaves and shook his limbs seemed to soothe the spirit that Flea had twisted into a knot.

His trunk groaned, softly, as the wood shifted, and I had to laugh at what he said.

I looked through the window to make sure her back was turned. For him, for both of us, I picked a peach from one of her trees.

I took a bite.

pencilStephen Lawson is a UH-60 Blackhawk pilot for the Kentucky Army National Guard and aspiring professional writer. slawson80[at]gmail.com

The Dangers of Living Vicariously

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
Stephen Lawson


Abandoned Distillery
Photo Credit: Christopher/BlackBirdCD

Kentucky hadn’t seen an ice storm this bad in over a decade. The governor had activated the entire National Guard twelve years ago to do door-to-door checks, clear debris, and transport supplies. Cell towers had gone down, old folks froze to death in their homes, and school was out for two weeks in some places. This was worse though. Sheets of freezing rain had fallen every other night for three weeks, melting to a slush during the day and freezing again into a thick layer of solid ice. Even in Louisville, the metro police had issued a notice that anyone caught driving on its icy streets until they were safer would get a ticket.

It was the perfect time, Katie thought, for urban exploring. No one was at work, the streets were ghost-town empty, and the continual fall of freezing rain meant their footprints would be erased just minutes after they passed.

Katie and Roger had talked about exploring the abandoned Fiddler’s Green Bourbon distillery since they were in middle school. It had that haunted look at night, with its wrought iron gates and the way the pointed roof of the water tower made the skyline seem just a bit more like a castle when the moon was out. Roger’s friend Tyler from the track team had come too, since he and Roger were playing video games when Katie called.

“I can’t even see the top of the water tower from all the ice coming down,” Roger said as they came to the wall.

“That means we’re harder to see too,” Katie said. “Give me a boost?”

The owners of Fiddler’s Green had apparently thought an inviting, aesthetic appeal was more important than security. As a result, the distillery grounds were surrounded not by a chain-link fence with barbed wire, but by an eight-foot brick wall. Roger leaned his back against the wall and cupped his hands on his knee. Katie stepped into his hands, lost her balance for a moment, and stuffed her crotch in Roger’s face.

“Sorry,” she said, glancing down.

“Don’t apologize,” Tyler said. “You just made his night.”

They were all over the wall in a few moments and in the urban explorers’ paradise—an abandoned complex of buildings that hadn’t been touched in over a decade.

“There’ll be an aging warehouse somewhere here where they would’ve kept the oak barrels to age the bourbon,” Roger said. “My vote is we try to find that first.”

“I second that motion,” Tyler said with a smile.

“Let’s see if they locked the doors first,” Katie said, trying a doorknob. Then, after rattling it to make sure it wasn’t just frozen, Katie pulled a double-ended lock pick and tension wrench from her coat pocket.

“Where did you get those?” Tyler asked.

“I made them, stupid,” Katie answered. “I do have Internet access, and better things to do with my time than play video games.”

“She’s been doing this since we were in seventh grade,” Roger whispered.

Katie raked the pins in the lock with one end of the pick, applying slight pressure to the lock core with the tension wrench. After several moments she used the diamond-shaped end of the pick on the back pin, and the lock slowly turned.

“Holy crap,” Tyler said, “I need to hang out with you guys more often. I’ve been missing out.”

“Real knowledge is never spoon-fed,” Katie replied. “That’s what Mr. Gyerson says, isn’t it?”

“I wouldn’t know,” Tyler said. “I sleep in his class.”

A skittering sound echoed in the shadows.

“Do you hear that?” Roger asked. “It sounds like they have rats.”

“I’m not surprised,” Katie said. “I just figured they’d be somewhere warmer right now.”

“Well, there’s nothing in here but empty rows of shelves anyway,” Roger said. “Let’s look for something more interesting, like the warehouse.”

“You know it’s probably empty, right?” Katie said. “Nobody in their right mind would leave gallons of high-end bourbon in a warehouse when they left.”

“Then what are those barrels in the window of that building?” Tyler asked, pointing.

“It’s worth a look,” Roger said, smiling.

Katie started to pull out her picks when she came to the warehouse door. Then, on a whim, she tried the knob.

“It’s open,” she said, pushing the door open. “Of all the buildings to leave unlocked…”

Tyler walked inside and tapped on a barrel. “There’s something in them. Now we just need to find a way to get them open,” he said.

Tiny feet skittered behind the shelves.

“There are rats in here too,” Roger said. “Watch your feet.”

“Something bit me!” Katie said, looking down.

A stabbing pain shot through Roger’s neck, and he instantly started to feel numb.

“Tyler, look—” Roger began, but his tongue stopped working before he could say “out.”

Over Tyler’s shoulder he’d seen something. He was sure it wasn’t a rat. Instead, it looked like a tiny man about the size of his hand, with what looked like a tiny spear.

As Roger crumbled to the floor, he did his best not to land on Katie, but he felt more like a sack of potatoes than someone who could control his own body.

 

Roger felt a terrible ache behind his right shoulder blade that ran all the way up to his right ear. It was the kind of ache he’d only gotten from sleeping on the couch for too long. “What the hell?” he said, looking around him. Katie and he lay in a cage about four feet high with what looked like steel bars. Someone had chained their hands to the bars on opposite sides of the cage. Katie remained motionless. Roger nudged her with his foot.

“Katie,” he whispered. “Katie, wake up.”

Her leg moved, and then she jerked as she tried to bring her chained hands to her face.

Roger looked outside the cage and saw a man working at a table, over what appeared to be Tyler’s restrained body. The man turned to look at Roger.

“Mr. Gyerson?”

“Hello, Roger,” the man said. “I’m glad you’re awake.”

“Can you get us out of here? What’s going on?”

“I’ll let you out in a moment, Roger,” he said, “after I’m done with your friend Tyler. I have to make sure my equipment is still calibrated. I haven’t made a transfer in months.”

“What?” Roger asked. “What are you talking about?”

“The homunculi that captured the three of you were my first experiments with this process. I filled them with the souls of homeless vagrants many months ago to do menial tasks for me. I haven’t made one recently so I’m going to animate one with your friend Tyler before I put you and Katie in the device.”

“What’s a homunculi?” Tyler asked. “I don’t think I want to be one of those.”

“A homunculus, Tyler,” Mr. Gyerson said, “is a small artificial person, and one of the many pet projects of alchemists. Many of them tried silly methods like using hippomene under the full moon, but I find the easiest method is to make a miniature human frame with mostly artificial organs, insert a mouse’s heart, and then transfer a living soul. That is what I’m going to do with you.”

“Why me?” Tyler asked.

“Because you sleep in my class,” Mr. Gyerson answered. “You’re rude. You should respect your elders, and you don’t. So I’m giving you a fitting station in the world, with the homeless men that wandered into my bourbon barrel trap before you.”

“Whatever dude,” Tyler said.

“Exactly my point,” Gyerson said. “‘Dude’ isn’t the way you should address your elders. If you tried ‘sir’ once in a while, you might not be spending the rest of your life in a seven-inch body.”

Roger caught the sound of snickering from another table, where he saw the tiny men gathered around a homunculus-sized table. Their black eyes gazed at Tyler, knowing he was about to join their ranks. A single beer can with a tiny tap in its side sat at the edge of the table.

“Miniature men are so much easier to satisfy,” Gyerson said. “All they wanted in life was free-flowing sedation and no responsibility. I give them all the beer they can drink and they ambush interlopers for me. I don’t even need food for them, since their new bodies run on nothing but beer. I think all of them are happier for the change.”

Katie pulled herself upright against the bars.

“What about Roger and me?” she asked. “Are we going to be homunculi as well?”

“Yes, of course, precious Katie. I wouldn’t leave your souls without a place to go once we vacate your bodies. That would be murder, and I’m just not that sort of man.”

“Vacate our bodies?” Katie said. “What do you mean?”

“Youth is wasted on the young, darling Katie,” Gyerson said, “and you more than deserve this. The three of you are common criminals with, I must say, bodies and youth you don’t deserve.”

“So… wait,” Roger interrupted. “You’re planning to take over my body and put my soul in a homunculus?”

“That’s pretty much the idea, yes,” Gyerson said. “You’ve maintained that physique quite well with all that running you do. I couldn’t have asked for a better subject. I’m old, as you can see, and my wife no longer finds me attractive. I can’t blame her, of course, since she’s wrinkled and sagging as well and I’m repulsed by the thought of making love to her. Katie’s filled out so nicely in the last couple of years that my wife and I will be quite happy with her. I’ll be able to turn an old man’s lust into a healthy love for my wife again. I’d never even thought of taking a younger mistress, you know. I’m just not that sort of man.”

Katie made a sound that was a mix between choking and throwing up.

“Anyway, we’ve dithered long enough, haven’t we, Tyler?” Gyerson asked.

Roger could just make out the tiny, stitched-together man lying motionless on the table adjacent to Tyler. Gyerson pressed a few buttons on a keypad and opened the valve on an intravenous drip that ran to Tyler’s forearm. Tyler twisted against the restraints.

“No!” he yelled. “Wait! I—”

Then his body went still. A few moments passed, and the homunculus body on the table began to twist in the same fashion. A high-pitched scream escaped its tiny lips. Gyerson poked Tyler’s tiny new body with a dissecting probe to test its reflexes. Homunculus-Tyler squirmed.

“Ha!” Gyerson said. “Another successful transfer! Another tiny minion for my tiny army! Looks like we’re good to go for you two. Margaret will be so happy.”

“What are you going to do as two high school kids anyway?” Katie asked, trying to think of a way to stall Gyerson’s plan. “People will wonder why you’re not in school. Our parents will come looking for us.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that, dear Katie. We won’t even be in the United States much longer. My first bit of alchemical experimentation was transmuting metals. I’ve made more than enough gold to buy the island we’ll be flying to tomorrow morning. The two of you are just the last step in our retirement plan. Most folks retire when they’re too old to enjoy it. Margaret and I shall have a second life. I’ve even fashioned Philosopher’s Stones for us so we’ll never have to do this again.”

“You can’t… that’s horrible,” Katie said. “You’re a teacher. You should be helping people.”

“I’m a chemistry teacher teaching a lie,” Gyerson said. “Real knowledge is never spoon-fed but I’ve been forced to teach the state-sanctioned ‘curriculum’ for the last thirty years and I’m tired of it.”

“What do you mean ‘state-sanctioned’?” Roger asked.

“The drivel we feed kids in schools these days,” Gyerson said. “If the masses knew it was possible to turn lead into gold, would gold have any value? Of course not. Everyone would try to do it. Only by teaching impossibility in schools do the select few retain power. Have you ever picked up a chemistry textbook from the late 1800s? No, of course you wouldn’t. You’re too busy playing video games to care about lost knowledge and censorship. Our great-grandfathers’ chemistry textbooks had recipes for nitroglycerine, poisons, and the like. Those are things the state deems too dangerous for the masses now, and so they are no longer published. That knowledge is hoarded by those who ‘need’ it to serve the state and make its arsenal of death. If you go back further, you’ll notice a radical shift in thought and print when the secret masters of the world realized what alchemy would do to the Gold Standard. Did you know that Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, the same year those secret masters formed a new hegemonic dynasty with their alchemical secrets? That was when they started teaching this heavily-censored version of science.”

“Sounds like a great conspiracy theory,” Roger said. “It’s heavy on motive and light on facts.”

“Suit yourself,” Gyerson said. “You won’t believe the truth despite the evidence I’ve given you. I guess the homunculus really is a fitting station for you.”

Gyerson snatched up Tyler in one hand and dropped him in a small wire cage, which he placed on the table with the other homunculi.

“We’ll just let Tyler introduce himself to the others while I introduce you to your new body, Roger,” he said, and grabbed a pole with a cable loop at one end.

Roger had been twisting against his restraints throughout this conversation, but they were far too secure. Gyerson unlocked the cage with a small key and tightened the cable at the end of the pole around Roger’s throat.

“This is a bit like an animal control collar,” Gyerson explained, “with the addition of this button that will let me shock you if you try to fight me.”

Gyerson pressed the button and Roger’s jaw tensed with the current as fire shot through his brain.

“See,” Gyerson said, smiling. “Evidence.”

After some struggling and several more jolts, Gyerson managed to strap Roger to the table where Tyler’s lifeless former body had been.

“Now, I haven’t exactly done a transfusion before,” Gyerson said, as he tapped several keys on the keypad. “I’ll just set your apparatus to transfer to the homunculus and set mine to a split-second delay so our souls don’t cause a traffic jam of sorts. We wouldn’t want that. I should be able to jump into your body between beats and the heart will never know the difference. If you separate a heart from a soul for more than just a few minutes death is irreversible, you know. I found that out the hard way.”

Roger spit at Gyerson, but the old man ducked to one side.

“Very rude. Horrible manners,” he muttered as he started Roger’s intravenous drip. Then, still muttering to himself, Gyerson tapped several buttons on a separate keypad and inserted a needle into his own left arm.

“Now then…” he said, and lay down on the table. He waited a moment, and felt a strange pull at the core of his being. He smiled.

Gyerson opened his eyes and found that he was strapped to the other table.

Except…

It was the wrong other table. He moved his hands and found that they were much smaller than he’d expected. The mouse’s heart thumped faster than his human one had.

“There are three bits of real knowledge I was never spoon-fed,” Katie said, as she untied Roger. “Three things I’ve very much enjoyed learning on my own. The first, obviously, is picking locks. Even if you’d been smart enough to search me and take my picks, I could’ve had that lock open in five seconds with one of my hairpins. Seriously, if you have all this gold, why didn’t you invest in a decent lock for your prisoners?”

Gyerson looked around. Surely the other homunculi would help him. He kept them stocked in beer and facilitated their miniature lives of ease. What he saw on the table was one homunculus out of the wire cage and six homunculi inside it.

“The second thing,” Katie said, “was how to move silently, quickly. Don’t you think an urban explorer might have developed that skill set by now? Your little homeless-munculus army never saw me coming, and neither did you. You really could’ve invested in some better help too.”

“Put me back,” Gyerson said. “I’ll share my gold with you. I’m sorry. I do apologize for any misunderstanding. Just put me back in my original body before it dies and you’ll be filthy rich, I promise.”

“I know I’ll be rich,” Katie said with a smile, “but you’re interrupting me. That’s very rude. You should learn some manners, and I intend to teach them to you. The third thing I learned, through much study, was effective torture. I can’t be sure, of course, what methods would work on your makeshift homunculus body, but I’m pretty sure waterboarding and moderate voltage will get it done. You’re going to tell me where the gold is, where the island is, and most importantly, where your notebooks are. You don’t have to spoon-feed me, teacher. I’ll rip it out of you.”

“Such cruelty…” Gyerson said.

“You’ve taken advantage of virtue for too long,” she said. “Old folks like you demand respect of a younger generation while you rip our dreams apart for your pleasure. These homeless you enslaved exploited the compassion of better people to further their vices, and you’re no better for playing on my virtue to say I should respect you. You say we’re cruel, but you’ve abused our virtue to the point that we cannot practice it and survive at the same time.”

“Monster,” Gyerson whispered.

“Well, Dr. Frankenstein,” Katie said, “you made me.”

pencil

Stephen Lawson is a UH-60 Blackhawk pilot for the Kentucky Army National Guard and aspiring professional writer. Email: slawson80[at]gmail.com