This starts with day two because on day one no one even noticed Dib was gone. Gaz did, but she didn't care. Dib sometimes stayed away from home overnight, doing weird "investigations". It wasn't a big deal. The Professor worked all night, so he wasn't home to notice his son's absence.
Gaz enjoyed actually getting to have her choice of cereals for once. Somehow Dib always seemed to know which cereal she'd want for breakfast, and since she slept later than him he almost always got a full bowl and left her the crappy store brand junk.
The Professor came home about 8:00, early for him. "Hey kids! I got off early and got a movie. Who wants to watch Lord of the Rings?"
"Again?" Gaz asked. "It's always Lord of the Rings."
"It's a good movie, and there's no science in it. You know how much I hate how Hollywood deals with science. Those people don't know an atom from a quark."
He made some popcorn and they sat down. "Where's your brother?" he asked.
"I don't know," Gaz said. "Probably off doing weird stuff."
"Probably. Someday he'll discover the joys of pursuing real science. Until then we'll let him have his little games."
As usual, Gaz fell asleep half-way through the movie and her father had to carry her up to bed.
The Professor received a call from Dib's school. They wanted to know why Dib hadn't been to school for several days. The Professor told them this was news to him. When he arrived home, Dib was nowhere to be found. Gaz said she hadn't seen him in days. He called the police.
"How long has he been missing?" the officer asked. Badge number 118 – the number of elements in the periodic table. The Professor focused on that fact, trying to block out the rising panic.
"Professor," the officer asked. "When did you last see your son?"
"About four days ago, maybe five." Hydrogen, helium, lithium, beryllium… calm down.
"You haven't seen your son in that long and you didn't call earlier?" The Professor thought the officer sounded suspicious or disgusted.
"He's a very active boy. He spends a great deal of time with his foreign friend."
118 wrote something in his notebook. "What's his friend's name? We'll need to talk with him and his parents."
Boron, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen. Oxygen was important. He hoped Dib was still breathing. "Gaz, what's that foreign kid's name? The one Dib's always playing with?"
"His name is Zim, Dad." She walked into the room. "Why are you here?" she asked the officer.
118 smiled at Gaz. "My name is Officer Brian, Gaz. I'm helping your father."
"We need to find Dib, honey," the Professor said. He's going to help us."
"Why?" Gaz asked. "He lives here. He'll come home when he gets hungry."
"Go to your room and let me talk to the nice policeman, Gaz. We'll talk later."
"Whatever," she said. She left, and the Professor turned to Brian118. "I'll find out where Zim lives and call the station."
They left, and he stared at the black screen of the television. He sat imagining all the reasons Dib might not come home until he fell asleep on the couch. Nothing came of the police speaking with Zim's parents. They said there wasn't anything suspicious at Zim's house.
The Professor canceled his appointments indefinitely. He would still have his research; he couldn't escape that. He could hold off on being a media darling, though. He held a last press conference.
"I have to announce that my son disappeared five days ago. We have no clues as to his whereabouts. I am officially offering one million dollars for the return of Dib Membrane. Dib, if you can hear me, come home son."
There were numerous questions, most of which he had no answers to. He went home and opened the liquor cabinet. He didn't drink much, but he really needed a stiff one right now. He poured a Scotch and sat down to watch the news. Fluorine, neon, sodium, magnesium. Think about facts, he thought. Cold hard facts. Things that never change. He needed something to cling to.
Gaz finally realized that something was wrong. She kept insisting that Dib was coming home, and told her dad she was going to do bad things to her brother for worrying her. Her father managed to hold back the tears until she went to bed. Aluminum, silicon, phosphorus, sulfur. Sulfur is a main component in gunpowder. Gunpowder. Violence. He had to stop thinking like that.
The Professor took a leave of absence from his work. There was too much to do. He had calls to make to the school, to the police station, to Dib's mother. That didn't go well. Even though she didn't care about the kids she made a huge dramatic fuss over Dib's disappearance. He ended up hanging up on her. He had to buy a new bottle of Scotch. Chlorine, argon, potassium, calcium. Kids need lots of calcium. He hoped that wherever Dib was he was getting good food.
Gaz and her father stopped counting the days. They didn't say much to each other anymore. Gaz played her game slave and her father drank and watched the news, hoping for anything. Scandium, titanium, vanadium, chromium, manganese, iron. He needed to be strong for Gaz, strong like iron.
He found Gaz in the kitchen crying. He held her until she cried herself out, and then tucked her in bed. He poured the rest of the Scotch down the kitchen sink. They had to have an uncomfortable talk the next day.
"He's not coming back, is he?" she asked.
Cobalt, nickel, copper. Blood tastes like copper. Dear God. His son's blood was somewhere, spilled like melted copper. He hugged her close to himself. "I don't think so honey," he said. "I'm sorry." There wasn't anything else left to be said.
Hisex-wife pressed for a funeral, but he couldn't admit Dib was dead, not yet. Zinc, gallium, germanium, arsenic. Arsenic. No.
The Professor was trying to work up enough energy to shave his annoying stubble. He hadn't bothered with much lately. They had enough money to last the rest of their lives if he didn't want to work again. He just sat and watched the news and listened for phone calls that never happened.
He heard the front door announce, "Membrane family member recognized. Welcome home." The door opened and shut. Gaz was home early. He heard her head toward the bathroom, and he was glad she didn't feel like talking. He wanted to be alone for awhile. Selenium, bromine, krypton, rubidium, strontium, yttrium, zirconium, niobium.
About an hour later he heard the front door announce, "Membrane family member recognized. Welcome home." The door's malfunctioning, he thought. Then he heard it open and close.
"Dad, what happened here?" Gaz asked. He turned around and saw her pointing to a series of bloody footprints on the floor. They led toward the bathroom.
"Gaz, go to your room and stay there. I'll be up to get you in a bit. Don't come out unless I come for you, ok?"
The Professor followed the footprints with a feeling of dread. He stopped outside the bathroom door. A bloody smear covered the doorknob and sounds came from inside. He heard a clinck of glass and a soft curse. He opened the door as quietly as possible, and froze.
Dib was standing there as if he'd never been gone, as if his father and sister hadn't been through hell, as if none of this had ever happened. He was barefoot and dressed only in a pair of jeans. He was calmly picking glass out of his face with tweezers. His leg had blood running down it, and his face was cut in various places. His hair was speckled with glass fragments, and Dib was trying to remove some glass from cuts in his face and scalp. Molybdenum, technetium, ruthenium, rhodium, palladium. He couldn't breathe.
"Hey Dad," he said. "Could you hand me the peroxide?"
The Professor handed him the peroxide. "Dib, where have you been all month? We've been worried about you." He spoke carefully, as if Dib was a woodland animal that might spook and bolt. Silver, cadmium, indium, tin, antimony, tellurium, iodine, xenon. He used to love the inert gasses, so full of mysteries. How he hated mystery now.
Dib pulled another shard out of his cheek and dropped in the sink. Clink. Blood and glass. Blood ran over his hands from various cuts. "What are you talking about?" Dib asked. "Can you help me with this one? I can't get to it very well."
The Professor took the tweezers and tried to get the glass shard that Dib was pointing to. It was high on his scalp and to the side. His hands shook too much to remove it. "You've got a lot of glass there, son. How did this happen?" This isn't real. Dib isn't here. I'm imagining all this. It's too good to be true. Cesium, barium, lanthanum, hafnium. He had to stay calm for Dib.
"I'm not sure. I fell through a window, and I came home." He pulled a large slice of glass from his upper arm, and the area started bleeding heavily. He placed a towel over the shoulder and applied pressure. He turned toward his dad. "Could you get the bandages? I can't remember where we keep them."
As Dib turned, the Professor got his first full look at his son. Glass and cuts were the least of his worries. Dib's glasses were gone, which was probably why he wasn't panicking. If he could have seen himself clearly, he would be much less calm. A pink Y-shaped scar crossed his chest, beginning at his shoulder blades and reaching down to his naval. It was an autopsy cut. Another scar started from his hairline and reached all the way around, as far as he could see. Now that he looked he could see where Dib's hair was shorter around the circumference of his head, as if it had been shaved. Three large, deep scratches crossed his chest.
"Dib, you've been gone for a month. Where have you been?"
"I was home yesterday," Dib said.
The Professor held his watch so Dib could see it. "Look at the date."
"That can't be right," Dib said. "That's a whole month off."
"No, son. The date's right. You've lost a month somewhere. Now tell me what you remember."
"I went to school, and I walked over to Zim's house. He wasn't home so I walked back. I stopped at the book store and got a coffee. Then something happened – something in an alley. Then…then I fell through a window, and I came home."
"That's all? There's a lot of time missing there, and that scar you've got isn't from falling through a window."
He reached into a drawer where a spare pair of Dib's glasses and Gaz' contacts were kept. Dib put on the glasses and stared at himself in the mirror. He touched the scar on his chest and head. "Dad? Where did these come from?" he asked.
"We'll find out," his father said. "I want you to go lay down on the couch. I'm calling an ambulance. There's no telling what else is wrong."
Dib limped to the couch, leaving more bloody footprints. The Professor went to the kitchen so Dib couldn't hear him, and he called 911. "Yes, you heard me right. My son came home today and he's covered in wounds. His shoulder and foot are bleeding, and he doesn't remember what happened for the last month. He has some very odd scars as well. I think he might have been tortured."
When they told him the ambulance was on its way he went back to the living room and pulled up a chair near Dib. Dib was sleeping. His father looked at his scars and the scratches across his chest. He noticed that his wrists had scrapes and cuts on them as if he had been restrained. Torture, he thought. His precious little boy had been tortured. Tantalum, tungsten, rhenium, osmium. It wasn't working. Iridium, platinum, gold, mercury, torture. Torture was an element. Like the basic building blocks of the universe, it was an irrevocable part of his world now.
Dib shifted in his sleep. "No," he said. "Stop cutting me!" Dib woke up screaming. His father held him until the panic had passed. "Don't let it get me again," he said.
"You're home now, son. It's safe here." Thallium, lead, bismuth, polonium. "What do you remember?"
"I don't know," Dib said. They heard ambulance sirens approaching. As it stopped outside their house the emergency lights flashed eerily on the walls. "I just remember a green face, with big eyes and lots of teeth. And he kept laughing and cutting. It was horrible."
Astatine, radon, francium, radium. He let the EMT's in. They checked Dib's vitals and loaded him in the ambulance. Gaz leaned out of her room. "Dad, what's happening? Can I come out?" she asked.
"Dib came home," he said.
"Dib came home! Why didn't you call me?" She ran down the stairs, but she stopped when she saw Dib. "Dib?" she asked. "You look really bad."
He lay on the stretcher. "It's alright, Gaz. Don't worry about me."
The Professor followed the ambulance with Gaz in the car. Actinium, rutherfordium, dubnium, seaborgium. When they reached the emergency room, he said. "Gaz, your brother needs us to be calm right now. He's hurt and afraid. Do you understand?" She nodded, but the look in her eyes said that no, she didn't understand.
Dib wasn't badly hurt, at least not physically. He needed a lot of stitches, and a large piece of foreign material was pulled from one of the deep scratches, but other than that he just needed some blood. The doctors wanted to keep him overnight. The Professor arranged for Gaz to stay with his secretary, and he sat in the waiting room until morning. Bohrium, hassium, meitnerium, darmstadtium.
Early the next morning, his son's little foreign friend arrived. "Hello Dib's father. I would like to see Dib."
"How did you know he was here?" the Professor asked. He hadn't told anyone but his secretary.
"Um, my parents told me? I am NORMAL!" Zim said.
"Visiting hours start soon. Do you want to see him?" the Professor asked. This Zim kid was the only friend Dib ever talked about. They played a complicated game about alien invasions together. Maybe he'd like to see Zim.
"Yes, Zim would like that," he said.
They went to see Dib. He was lying on the bed, awake and flipping through the channels on television. "Hey Dad," he said listlessly.
"Hi son, I brought a friend to see you."
"Hi Dib. How are you feeling?" Zim asked. He smirked.
"Not so great. I can't remember what happened for the last month."
"Really, none of it?" Zim asked.
"I remember a face, and pain, and bright lights over me, but that's all. What did you do to your hand?"
The Professor looked at Zim's hand. One of his fingers was covered with a bandage. The other fingers had claw-like fingernails.
"Zim hurt his finger, that's all. This is a skin condition. I am normal."
Now the Professor was beginning to remember why he'd never liked the foreign kid. He was really weird. Something definitely bothered him about Zim.
Zim left, and the doctor arrived. He discussed Dib's case with his father and showed him the piece of material found in the scratch. The Professor held it up. "This looks like a claw," he said. It looks like Zim's fingernails. I wonder what kind of skin condition he has.
"I'll take that if you don't mind," the Professor said. "I'd like to take it to my lab. Dib was obviously taken hostage and then attacked by an animal. Perhaps if I can isolate the species that attacked him, we can begin to determine who its owners are." And then they'll pay, he thought. "And then I can assist the police," he said.
Gaz was waiting for them when they got home. She forgot she wasn't supposed to care about Dib and she ran around like an excited puppy. "Where were you? What happened? Was it bad? Were you in the circus?"
"I don't know where I was. Leave me alone." He headed up the stairs toward his room.
"Dib, your sister was worried about you. Come give her a hug."
"Ewww," she said.
"Do I have to?" he asked.
"Yes, you have to." He supervised the mandatory hugging, and then went to his lab to work on the claw from Dib's wound.
It wasn't human, or ursine, canine, feline, bovine, equine; it wasn't anything he could identify. The claw belonged to no species he could identify, and his had full access to the best police equipment. No one was going to tell Professor Membrane no. He was too famous and rich. He kept thinking about Zim's "skin condition". He had to get to the bottom of this. His son still woke up screaming every night, and whoever had done this to him might return. Roentgenium, copernicium, cerium. Dib didn't even enjoy eating cereal anymore. His wasn't the Dib his father knew before he disappeared. He just sat and stared a lot of the time.
The Professor insisted on driving Gaz and Dib to school and picking them up. He wouldn't let them go out alone. Gaz grumbled, but Dib didn't care. That bothered the Professor. Dib had always been the free spirited, independent child. He wondered if someone had done something to his brain. He did have that head scar.
He broke the claw down to study it further. It had aluminum inside it. He found another substance he couldn't identify. There was only one reason there could be a substance Professor Membrane wasn't able to identify. This had to be of alien origin. As much as he railed against paranormal studies, it was the only realistic answer. Dib had been telling the truth, and his father had turned a blind eye so long that monsters had abducted and tortured his precious son.
It had to be Zim. The "games" that his son played with Zim made sense now. If he had been telling the truth then Zim was an alien bent on world domination. There was only one way to find out. He needed a DNA sample. He could compare Zim's DNA to the DNA he found in the claw. He'd use Zim's obsession with seeming to be a normal boy against him. Praseodymium, neodymium, promethium, samarium. He was in the rare earth elements now, near the end of the periodic table. He'd never made it so far in his meditations without achieving some sort of tranquility.
One day he saw Zim and Dib talking as he came to pick Dib up. In the sunlight he could see the bags under his son's eyes clearly. Dib hadn't gotten a full night's sleep since he'd come home. He was far too thin as well. Zim on the other hand was pudgy and except for the skin condition seemed healthy enough.
"Hello, Zim," the Professor said. "Are you waiting for your parents?"
"No, I walk home. I am ZIM!"
"I can give you a ride if you want. It's too cold to be walking."
Zim hesitated. "Zim is strong. Zim will walk."
The Professor smiled. "A normal boy would accept the ride Zim."
Zim climbed into the car with Dib and Gaz. "How do I get to your house?" the Professor asked. Zim pointed out the way. "You just live a couple blocks from us, doesn't he, Dib?"
"Yeah," Dib said. "Hey! You have a dog!" A green dog ran around the lawn unleashed.
"He's really stupid," Zim said.
"He looks stupid," Gaz said.
"What's his name?" Dib asked.
Zim didn't answer. His parents came out of the house. Instead of dropping Zim off, the Professor parked the car. "How about we meet Zim's parents, Dib?" He got out of the car before Zim could protest and walked toward the house. Europium, gadolinium, terbium, dysprosium.
"Well hello!" the wife said. "It's so good to have you at our house!" They invited him inside. The place was creepy. It was almost like a home, but not quite. Things were out of place. Sure, there was a picture over the couch, but it was a picture of a bizarre monkey. His parents were forced, comical. They had no accent or green skin. Zim didn't see a spark fly from his mother's head, but the Professor noticed. "We should have pie!" she screamed.
They chatted for awhile, the parents shouting crazier things as the minutes went by. When he thought he had laid the groundwork, he asked, "how would you like to come over and help Dib study for his test, Zim? He's behind, and he tells me you get good grades. It's something normal kids do, you know."
"I think that's wonderful!" the mom screamed.
"Boys do need friends. Otherwise they get weeeiiirddd." The father said.
"Ok then. Get what you need and we'll go to the house. I'll order a pizza for you kids."
Zim got his backpack. He walked slowly to the car. The little dog was still running in circles. "What's his name?" Dib asked, pointing to the dog.
"Gir," Zim said.
"That name sounds familiar," Dib said.
The Professor noticed that Zim barely ate a few bites of his pizza, and he didn't seem to like it. He took Zim's leftovers down to the lab and began to run tests on the part Zim had bitten into. Holmium, erbium, thulium, ytterbium, lutetium, thorium, protactinium. Yes, he should be proactive.
"How did your test go?" he asked the next day at school.
"I got a B+," Dib said.
"That's good. Hey, there's your friend. Zim, do you want a ride?"
"Sure, I guess," Zim said. The Professor took him home and chatted with the parents again. He was carrying a loaded gun, just in case. He didn't know if they'd get suspicious.
He finished the tests that night. The saliva from the pizza slice had aluminum in it, as well as the element he couldn't identify. Uranium, neptunium, plutonium, americium, curium. How dare that little piece of trash pretend to be Dib's friend when he hurt his son like that? Dib hadn't had much of a chance for a normal like anyway. He was always a strange child. Zim had robbed him of what little chance he had.
The Professor could be a patient man when he needed to achieve something important. He made a daily schedule of taking Zim home and chatting with his "parents". He did this for weeks, watching his son finally begin to adjust. He started to eat regularly again, and he had some nights he actually didn't wake up screaming.
After about a month he decided he'd make his move. The kids had a monthly visitation with their mother. They didn't want to go, but it was court ordered. He usually had their bags in the car and dropped them off at her house. It was just across town.
As he drove toward his ex-wife's home, Zim said, "this isn't the way to my house." He sounded nervous. Berkelium, californium, einsteinium, fermium.
"I need to drop the kids off at their mom's, and then I'll take you home," the Professor said.
"Ok, I guess," Zim said.
He dropped them off and drove back toward their side of town. He pulled up in front of his own house. "I need to get a few things from my lab. Would you like to come see the lab?"
"Not really," Zim said. "I don't like labs."
The Professor forced a laugh. "Sure you do. All normal boys like labs."
"Normal boys…yeah. Ok, I'll look at the lab."
They entered through the cargo doors, and he turned on the fluorescent lights. "You might be interested in this, Zim. It's called Super-Toast. It's going to end world hunger when it's perfected."
"Really?" Zim said. He stepped closer to where the Professor was pointing, moving ahead of the human. The Professor put his hands in his pockets. Gun on the left, tazer on the right.
Mendelevium, nobelium, lawrencium. There weren't any more.
"The end," the Professor said.
"What?" Zim said. He turned around to face the Professor holding a tazer. He dropped the human pretense and leapt at the Professor with a snarl, but he was still hit in the chest with electricity.
"I've never reached the end before. At least you convulse like a human," the Professor said. Zim lay on the floor, blinking up at him. One of his cosmetic eyes had fallen off, and the Professor saw his large, red, inhuman eye. He picked Zim up and placed him on a medical bed. He attached restraints, making them tighter than he really needed to.
Lawrencium, lawrencium, lawrencium, lawrencium, lawrencium. There weren't any more. He was at the end.
The Professor pulled out a medical tray filled with instruments placed with sterile precision. He made sure Zim could see the tray.
"What are you going to do to me?" Zim asked.
"I'm going to start with what you did to my son." He drew a Y-shape on Zim's chest. He picked up a scalpel. Zim screamed, but it didn't matter. The Professor's lab was soundproof.
"Abduct this," the Professor said as he made the first incision.