I made a rabbit today.
It was easy to see which parts to assemble once I pulled the bodies from storage and massaged them back to warmth and shape. Separating the vital parts from the rest wasn't difficult either; I had a large clean surface, sharp blades, and plenty of light. It was the joining together of number three's powerful haunches to number six's long torso and number five's sturdy front legs - connecting tendons and nerves and blood vessels, sewing brown and white and spotted fur together with small and careful stitches - that took a hell of a long time and a lot out of me.
I took a break after that part was done, watching the Patriots blow a thirteen-point lead. Losers. I pulled number seven from her cage. I could feel her heart beating swiftly against my palm as I descended into the basement once more, and I soon put a stop to that. I worked quickly, everything falling into place precisely as I had envisioned it.
Her head wasn't a perfect fit for the torso, but I'd left myself enough skin to work around that, and the stitches made a neat ring around the fur. A shot of the new serum into the brain stem was enough to kick-start the involuntary processes - blood circulation, respiration. Another shot into the brain and her eyes opened and she started to hop a little lopsidedly.
I took her upstairs and put her back in the cage with plenty of food and water, then cleaned up. Within an hour, the place looked and smelled pristine. Thank God for bleach.
So now I have a scientific marvel, proof for the theories I've been developing for years, a fridge full of beer, and a staggeringly large collection of lucky rabbit's feet. Life is good.
I pull a pair of gloves from the box and slide them on. The snap of the latex is drowned out by the sound of the four o'clock bell; Brenda, the power-hungry bitch, likes to press that button like she's signaling a bomb to drop and she likes to wait for me - lowly, quiet "Janitor Ken" - to pass right underneath the bell before she rings it. Brenda is a homicide waiting to happen.
The first floor boys' room isn't too big a mess today. No vomit or shit, just some piss puddling in the grout between the tiles. Apparently, it's too much to expect boys in high school to be able to aim their dicks. The routine is so familiar by now that I'm done mopping up mud and piss before I really even think about it. I drop disinfectant cakes in the urinals and scrub the faucets and commodes.
I make quick work of the other bathrooms and get the hallways done too before I take my coffee break in the faculty lounge. It's full, all the teachers gossiping as they wait for Principal Ryder to show up and hold his monthly meeting. The subject of discussion is once again the new transfer student, a boy named Dean. Muriel is bemoaning his indifference to junior-year English, as if world lit is a guaranteed thrill ride, and Mason is singing the boy's praises, insisting that the kid was born to be a biochemical engineer.
I swirl my coffee and tune them out, pondering my next step, listing all the species I've got stored away, that I keep fresh with my cocktail.
Maybe it should be a cat.
Mr. Fluffy looks a lot more interesting now than he did before, when he kept scratching at my door and yowling like he hadn't been fed in weeks. Even though his new tail is far shorter than his old one, he still swipes it around disdainfully, lets it curl against his new, wider paws, picked for dexterity, much better than the set he was born with. He looks feral rather than domestic now, and I wonder how he'd hunt.
The mouse gets away at first, since Mr. Fluffy's still a little uncoordinated. But he picks up grace and speed with each step, and some instinct nearly bred out of him reasserts itself and he pounces, sharp and sure, and his whiskers drip with blood.
It's getting dark ridiculously early these days, so I switch up my routine, do the outdoor work first and then come inside to work under the fluorescent lights. But there's no point in raking until all the students are gone; they don't think twice about scattering leaves and jumping in the neat mounds I've made. So I go outside and lean on my rake, waiting for the flood to slow to a trickle, and I can see one dark figure running on the track that loops around the football field. There's a smaller figure sitting on the fifty-yard line, hunched over a book, but my eyes keep straying to the one that's running, steady, untiring, legs keeping stride effortlessly. The last stragglers breeze by me and I turn away from the track and begin to rake.
When I'm done, I can hear someone crunching through still-scattered leaves, a boy, from the sound of his voice. No one answers him and I can't hear any accompanying footsteps, so I figure he must be talking to himself. I turn and find myself face-to-face with someone I've never seen before, the talking boy at his side. The boy isn't old enough to be a man - he hasn't yet grown into the broad frame of his body and his cheeks are still smooth - but he's quiet and focused in a way that the rest of the boys just aren't.
"Dean, come on," the younger boy says, squirming inside a jacket that's two sizes too big for him, and I step aside to let them pass. Dean turns his head to look at me again before letting himself be tugged away.
So that's Dean, who's got the faculty lounge buzzing. There's something strange about him. I'd bet the new and improved Mr. Fluffy on it.
I'm not a masochist, so instead of staying at home to watch the Pats lose again, I take the Sunday paper to the park and work on the crossword.
It's nice out, and the grass is covered with bright leaves I'm not responsible for raking and bagging. The air is crisp, but a jumbo coffee and a box of cinnamon donuts are keeping the edge out of the breeze that keeps ruffling the pages of the newspaper. It's quiet; most people are still at church, praying for all the wrong things.
I've gotten all the way to 21 down when I realize that things have shifted. The park is crawling with families now, kids throwing Frisbees, dogs leaping up to catch them.
Dogs. Now there's an idea.
"You're dead! You hear me, Winchester? Dead!" The threat probably would have been more effective if Zeke's voice hadn't cracked in the middle of it.
There's already a crowd gathering, big and eager enough so that no one really notices when I join the throng. Zeke's making a big show of stripping off his letterman jacket and handing it off to Todd, but the boy opposite him - Dean - keeps his on, and just crouches to stack his books on the ground. It takes me a moment to place the look on his face. It's boredom.
"You don't trust your girlfriend, that's not my problem," he says.
Zeke flushes and runs at Dean, taking a wild swing. Dean ducks, gets one palm flat against Zeke's ribcage, and pushes. Every time Zeke comes at him, he just feints away, negligently, like Zeke's not even worth a few quick jabs, a few shuffles of dancing feet.
Zeke's red with rage now; when Dean steps out of the way this time, Zeke ends up running full-tilt into a row of lockers. His tooth spins on the ground before it's swallowed by a river of blood. When I look up, Dean's melted away.
I have to stay late to clean up the mess Zeke's face made. Thank God for bleach.
If Mr. Fluffy was all about the survival of instinct, Kibbles is an experiment in training. He know sit and lie down and that's enough for now.
I keep an eye on the time as I build him up. I'm getting quicker, but he's bigger than anything else I've made, so it still takes most of a day to assemble him. When he wakes up, his tail starts wagging immediately. I give him a few minutes to pad around the basement and sniff the walls, the floor, the air.
"Kibbles," I say. "Sit."
He looks up at the sound of my voice. I repeat the command and he trots over to me, panting happily.
"Sit," I say again, and I can almost see the impulse pass from his yellow head to his black haunches as he obeys.
I don't know what exactly I'm expecting when I open Dean's locker with my master key. Certainly not a Rube Goldberg device that's triggered when the door swings open more than forty-five degrees. It's only luck that keeps me from losing a finger or four when a finely honed knife swooshes through the air and dings against the thin metal door.
Dean's growing on me, I have to admit.
There's a stack of untouched textbooks at the bottom of the locker forming a stand for the device. On the top shelf are math, chem, and organic chem texts, the pages dog-eared. Dean hasn't made any notes in the margins, but glancing through the pages he's marked, I can tell he's coming at one problem from several different angles; no wonder Mason Little, Ph.D., was impressed.
I'm a little impressed, too.
The first real setback of the project rears its ugly head. Kibbles cannot learn any new commands. Stay, shake, roll over, even play dead - none of them makes any impression even after he's remembered sit and lie down.
It hurts to record in the journal, but any scientific endeavor is worthwhile only if it adheres to the truth. All knowledge must exist in the subject's brain prior to second life. The reanimated brain cannot generate original thoughts or even break down and combine pieces of existing knowledge in any new way.
Kibbles just keeps wagging his tail.
"Hey buddy, what's wrong?" the bartender asks, pushing dirt around in circles with a greasy-looking cloth.
"Somethin' wrong with my dog," I say into my beer, and he nods sympathetically and stops asking questions. It was worth driving two towns over to buy some anonymity; everyone back home knows I don't have a dog, not really.
The noise of the place offers a welcome distraction from Kibbles's failure, and I swivel in my seat and see Dean. Either no one carded him or he's got a hell of a fake; whatever the case, it's not my concern, and I take the opportunity to watch him unobserved.
He's chatting and laughing, circling the pool table with a cue in his hand. I shake my head, wondering if I can believe my inebriated eyes. He's hustling, challenging and raising the stakes, and he's winning.
He scoops up the wad of cash and heads for the door, detouring at the last second to look right at me and say, "Drive safe."
I can't figure out my next step, and I'm watching Kibbles pace back and forth and Mr. Fluffy groom himself - cautiously, like he's still not used to the taste of his new paws on his tongue. Just as Kibbles finally picks his spot and plunks himself down on top of Mr. Fluffy, it hits me, brilliant and incisive as lightning.
A human being will be my masterpiece.
This is going to take serious planning. I'll need to find bodies - homo sapiens is not a part of my current collection. Fresh bodies, newly buried, not only so that the cocktail can preclude rather than just fight against decay, but also so that no one can tell if the graves have been disturbed.
This is going to be big. I can feel it.
It's not terribly efficient, but it's easy to keep the obituary pages of several different newspapers in my cleaning cart and read the columns between tasks. My fingertips are stained from the pages' black borders, but ink washes away more easily than blood.
I find what I'm looking for when I'm seated at the high black counter of the chemistry lab. A car accident decapitated the star pitcher of a nearby high school baseball team and left two others less spectacularly dead; they'll be buried tomorrow morning at the cemetery over in Cranford. A Community Mourns, the text says, and I make a mental note to borrow a shovel and a crowbar from the supply closet before I head home.
Cranford doesn't believe in streetlights, apparently, and it's pitch-black out when I make my way into the cemetery. I find the new graves with my flashlight and start to dig.
I wrap the bodies in tarps and haul them to the bed of my truck. My back and arms are aching as I pile the dirt back on the empty coffins and drag the shovel and crowbar back to my truck. I get in and lean my head against the steering wheel for a minute, trying to work up the energy to drive home.
When I flip on my headlights, I see two illuminated figures; spooked, I cut the lights immediately. That can't be Dean I just saw, Dean and a big bearded man, standing shoulder-to-shoulder and not flinching from the light.
There's no way I'm going through anything like that again anytime soon, so I call in sick and spend the day evaluating what's now in my basement.
All healthy specimens, but the smallest of the bodies is having a weird reaction to the cocktail; the skin on his chest is green-streaked and clammy. His legs look fine, though, sturdy and strong. If I use his legs and the other two for the trunk and arms, I've got everything I need.
Well, almost. All I need now is the perfect brain.
It has to be an impressive brain, one that will justify all of this labor. Someone intelligent, someone who would be able to appreciate the importance of the work.
I drive out to the medical supply store and try to think as I look at the rows of gleaming blades. Mason might be a good choice. He's a little annoying, sure, but he'd take an interest in the project. The problem is that he'd be missed, at least during the school year, and I'm ready now; I don't want to wait until June.
I'm loading my purchases in the truck and trying to decide if I have time for breakfast at the diner when I see who's at the pay phone across the street. It's the man I saw with Dean, the one who looks like Paul Bunyan. I pull a ballcap from the glove compartment and cross the street.
His voice is raspy and rushed, like he's tired of being interrupted and is determined to say his piece. "No, Jim, it's done. The boys and I'll be on the road in a few days. Sammy can gripe all he wants, but he doesn't really like it here; I heard him asking if our next place could have a basketball hoop over the garage door." He pauses. "The boys send their best. We'll call in a week, when we're settled."
He listens for a moment and laughs. "Yeah, you better pray for us."
He hangs up and fishes in his pocket for change to buy a newspaper, and I go back to my truck.
I don't believe in signs. But luck favors the well-prepared. Dean is the answer.
I have to be careful. Dean's already demonstrated a number of alarming talents, like moving silently and seeing what he appears to overlook. But he's acting like any other kid when I see him in the hallways, and I know from his empty locker that I need to move quickly.
I can't get Brenda to budge from her desk, which means I can't look up Dean's address in his permanent file, so I end up having to follow him home. His little brother is a huge help, chattering away in a piping voice that carries easily on the breeze, keeping Dean entertained with stories of the frogs his class dissected. Dean is quiet and alert, and it hits me that with his brain, I'll have not only the perfect specimen, the perfect assistant, but a perfect hunter as well.
This is getting awfully exciting.
The house that Dean unlocks and shepherds his brother into is small and dingy. The yard is overgrown, covered in dead leaves, and the screen doors haven't been replaced with storm doors. The whole place feels depressingly squalid and temporary, and I wonder if Dean is tired of moving around.
Time to go home and get everything ready. I can't remember the last time I've felt this excited, and my elation only grows as I put the new blades to work and piece together my greatest triumph. Each part joins together beautifully, like it's meant to be. The new Dean will carry a little more weight, will be thicker with muscle. He will be a warrior.
Even across the street, I can hear the angry voices coming from the ugly little house, breaking the early morning silence. Dean storms out the door, his little brother hot on his heels, swinging his bookbag and looking surprisingly placid. They get in the car and Dean peels out of the driveway, coming close enough to see me, but he's too upset to register my presence.
Ten minutes later, he's back, and his father comes out, disheveled and stumbling, demanding the car keys. Dean slaps them into his hand furiously and pushes past him to get inside.
His dad treats the car with even less respect than Dean did, weaving drunkenly down the narrow street, turning the corner and passing out of sight. This is an advantage I didn't think I'd get; now, while he's too angry to see straight, is the time to get Dean.
I pull into the driveway and check my jacket pocket for supplies. The rag and bottle of chloroform are there. I pull on a pair of latex gloves.
It turns out I don't even have to break in; Dean forgot to lock the door after he slammed it shut. I slip inside and hear him in the next room. I peek into the doorway and see him. He's got his back to me, and he's loading the contents of the room into a few boxes. He seems to be picking and choosing, packing only certain items, so I can't tell how close he is to being done.
I douse the rag and inch forward, and just as I'm about to clap the rag over Dean's nose and mouth, I get pulled into a rough headlock.
"Got him, Dad?" Dean asks without turning around, still loading books into a box.
"Mr. Franklin and I are going to have a little talk," his father answers, his voice a low growl. "You think you can be done by the time Sammy's done with school?"
Dean turns to assess his progress, looks at his father's arm lying across my throat, and nods.
"Now," Dean's father says, once we're in my house and I've been trussed up and deposited roughly into one of the kitchen chairs, "you're going to tell me what it was you wanted with my boy." He yanks briefly at the noose he'd tied around my throat to get me into the car. "And it's going to be the complete truth."
He waits, but I'm not talking, not until I figure him out. He raises an eyebrow. "Not ready to share yet?" A stinging slap to my face brings my eyes back to his. He nods like he's satisfied by something. "Well, you've certainly made an impression on my boy. He swore up and down that there was more to you than just Janitor Ken. Boy's got a gut that's infallible."
Of course his father would get it all wrong. I snort, and he leans in close, trying to intimidate me. "He has the perfect brain," I say coldly, correcting him, and his father smiles sharply.
"That can't be all you have to say for yourself," he muses, getting me on my feet with one hand tugging at the rope knotted across my back. With that kind of strength, it's a pity I couldn't have used him for Dean's new body. He marches me to the basement door. "Let's see what you were digging up all by your lonesome at the witching hour."
He shoves me down the steps, drops me onto the stool by my worktable, and straightens me out carelessly. I watch him look at the rabbit, Mr. Fluffy, and Kibbles. I square my shoulders proudly at the sight of my creations, who all look up at me. His face goes tight when he locates and flips through my journal, angry eyes darting between its pages and me.
I can see him through the doorway when he finds Dean's new body laid out on its cool slab and circles it a few times.
"Tell me," he says, coming back to loom right over me, his voice terribly inquisitive and his eyes equally probing, "how you justify what you've done."
He sees the denial on my face and cuts me off with a dismissive wave. "Oh, I know you didn't kill them. The only one you were going to kill was my boy, and you didn't get a chance to do it. You're not technically a murderer, at least not yet. But what gives you the right to desecrate the dead?"
"I'm giving them life!" I protest, and his face darkens.
"Wrong answer," he grits out.
"The pursuit of knowledge needs no justification."
That stops him in his tracks. "So you're a scientist above all else?"
A withering look is the best response for someone as willfully blind to the majesty of the work as this man. Dean would understand. Dean's searching for answers too. His father slaps me again, harder this time. "You are not touching my boy," he growls, sounding like an animal himself.
He paces in front of me, still clutching my journal in his sweaty fingers and looking like he wants to eviscerate me. "Where's the serum?" he demands abruptly. He looks ready to break everything in my lab, so I nod my head in the direction of the drawer. He pulls out the vials one by one, smashing them to the floor and grinding the glass beneath his feet. He can make as many dramatic gestures as he wants; I know the formula for the serum as well as I know my own name.
But with the last vial in his hand he hesitates; he looks at me and nods. He doses a hypodermic with the contents and sets it in front of me. My journal disappears into one of his pockets and from another he pulls out a knife with a blade the length of my forearm. The rope binding my right arm suddenly pools at my feet, but before I can move it he's got the tip of the blade pressed under my chin. "Here's your chance to do a little field research," he says, grim pleasure evident in the insane shine of his eyes.
I shake my head carefully, wary of the knife. I'm starting to panic a little; his inexplicable glee is throwing me off.
"You can wait for the cops to show up - I have a hunch there'll be an anonymous call tipping them off about the contents of your basement - and get hauled off somewhere and learn how monsters are treated in this day and age. Or you can end it right now, slip yourself some serum, know what your creatures felt but in reverse. Your choice," he finishes, his face twisted with barbaric satisfaction.
He backs away slowly. I have to think. But everything is crashing around me, all of my painstaking work reduced to nothing by a brute guarding a treasure. His reaction tells me everything I need to know; no one will understand what I've accomplished. The only way out is the serum.
I plunge the needle into my jugular and feel the breakdown of my flesh begin. I look up and meet his eyes and I know we're both thinking of Dean.