a short story
The old black and white film skipped past stage lightning and the monstrous, black-lined eyes opened in a pale, staring face—“it’s alive!” Dr. Stein flipped to another channel. It was a dark night. He had the lamp on, but the pale glow of the TV was engaged in an eerie battle with the incandescent bulb. It was a stormy night too, and the wind had been rattling the windows like zombies trying the latch; thunder shook the house and drowned out the small lifeless cheer of the movies. He was alone in the house, in the wake of his sister’s visit.
There was no one Dr. Stein hated more than his sister. In looks, the siblings were alike enough to be twins, and this made his mouth twist unpleasantly. It was distasteful to him. They were both high-cheekboned and sallow, with dark, somber eyes and straight brown hair. His eyelashes were long, her chin was square.
The argument had raged up and down the house for hours. It was the usual questions: “So what have you been doing lately?” He worked at a science facility, top secret. He told her anyway.
“We’ve come close to creating artificial life; think of it—we can become God.”
His sister laughed. Her laugh was grating, too sure of itself, and it made him feel weak. His sister was a lawyer. She dressed in black suits that made her look powerful, and she always wore heels.
“Haven’t you learned already? The creation always kills the creator. That’s what we did with God.”
Dr. Stein smiled thinly. They were in his study, and his sister walked by the dark bookshelves, tracing her fingers across wood that wasn’t expensive but built as though it was. She took the titles out to flip through, then put them back in the wrong place, upside-down.
“Re-animation of corpses,” Dr. Stein murmured to himself.
He had jump cables in his basement. The car was in the garage but the battery had been removed and brought downstairs. He had wires connected to his lightning rod. Energy could not be created or destroyed, just passed from one thing to the next, the only common inheritance. In the dim light, he had rats floating in jars; he caught them in traps and preserved them so that when he walked down the steps with a flashlight he could look into their staring eyes. Electricity could create movement in death. Perhaps it had the energy of life, perhaps the static he felt touching the TV screen was the remains of those life-forces, gathering, trying to pass into him.
When they sat down in the small kitchen with its checkered grey and pink formica it was as if the memory of all those family dinners came and sat beside them. They ate macaroni and cheese from a box. Dr. Stein hated it. He kept a collection of those boxes in the pantry, for when his sister came to visit. She hated it more. She picked carefully through the garish orange liquid and ate with undisguised disgust. She talked about the last case she had won, defending a man accused of murder.
“Was he innocent?” Dr. Stein asked, watching a fly buzz itself around the light and not swatting it, because his sister flinched at the static crack when its wings moved.
“No,” she said, and swallowed gingerly.
“Do you ever wonder if he’ll murder someone else?” Dr. Stein said, with a vague curiosity, not of care for whoever might be killed or from a sense of justice, but to learn his sister’s answer.
“It could be you.”
“It wouldn’t be,” she said, lining up her fork and knife to convey her displeasure. “I saved his life.”
“A man could hate someone for that,” Dr. Stein said.
His sister threw the fork down with a clatter.
“That was years ago, Archie—and if you think I would have stood aside while my little brother tried to commit suicide you have another thing coming.” She stood up, turned on the tap so it ran enough to steam, and washed the dishes with quick fury.
“I wasn’t talking about that,” he said, and watched the fly.
“Weren’t you?” Her voice was subdued, and almost disappeared in the insubstantial whir of the heater turning on automatically. The wind was picking up.
The fly took another turn around the room and came in reach of the table; Dr. Stein picked up his empty cup and turned it over on the fly. It darted from side to side hitting the glass.
“Why do you torture the poor creature?” his sister said, turning around. Her arms were crossed, and in the light from the bare bulb with the dark and empty windows behind her, she looked severe, like an image in an old movie.
“I’ll let it out, if you like,” Dr. Stein said. He tapped the side of the glass where the fly had alighted, and stared at its small, black body and its vibrating wings.
His sister didn’t answer.
The raccoon had died once, on his back porch, the garbage can overturned and everything scattered over the concrete. He left the garbage where it was, and took the body to the basement. It was still there now, preserved and sitting on the metal table. The shine was harsh and unpleasant as he connected the wires, waiting for a crack of lightning. No monster yet, but when the creature blinked its eyes and the connecting monitor showed the sudden spike of a heartbeat his breath froze in his throat in the excitement of the moment.
The beast was wild, possessed of an inarticulate fury and intent to kill that drove it to dive from the table in attack, but leaving the electric connection it faltered, stumbled on its feet in dull confusion and died again.
Outside, the wind was growing louder—now the trees beyond the window, like mourners, bent beneath the fury of the storm, and against the window, tracks of rain spilled sideways like lead. Dr. Stein walked to the window and pushed it up, old wood creaking and water blowing in onto his skin, cold. The darkness held only shadows but still he stared into it. He leaned his head out further, gripping tightly to the sill and pulling in. When he closed the window, the sudden barrier was jarring; he ran his fingers through his wet hair once and watched the rainbow sides of droplets falling.
Down the basement steps, all seventeen, the black outline of her legs blocked the light from above as she stepped down, stairs creaking gently in warning.
“Don’t you keep any lights on down here?” she called, one hand still on the rail.
“I have a light on.” The blue glow of the directed lamp shone above the polished metal as Dr. Stein emptied a rat from a jar and hooked it up to wires. A shock, and another, and he watched the small thing blink at him in sleepy confusion.
“I managed to get rid of the aggression effect but now the animals are too passive,” he observed. “They have no sense of self-preservation.” He brought the blowtorch close and saw the smoke and burning rise from its flesh as it watched him, until once again the heartbeat stopped. Internal organs couldn’t keep it up. There was a soft smile curling the edge of his mouth and he looked away as his sister walked over to him. She stood beyond the glow of the lamp, and only the gleam of her eyes could be seen.
“It’s past midnight,” she said.
“The best time to create life,” he answered.
She laughed shortly, and he dumped the body in the waste disposal can and closed the lid.
Past midnight, and the rain stopped, leaving a cool breeze and hints of rustling leaves. Whatever language the night spoke was incomprehensible to him. They walked up the old wooden steps, smoothed but splintering under their feet, and the lone bulb hummed in the kitchen, where blue shadows mixed with yellow and rain lay on the steps past the crack in the screen door. It glittered like pale diamonds.
“Do you want the heat?” Dr. Stein asked, watching the shape of her white hand clenched against the rail. She let go, and the rail remained.
“No, it’s fine,” his sister said, and he turned from the thermostat. The round face behind plastic was still and inorganic, desperately so. With the last hint of thunder, so went the life, and he felt awkward.
His sister strode out past the kitchen, and into the living room with its stained beige carpet and the red couch. She sat on the edge, crossing her legs; her heels through the glass surface of the coffee table looked pulled from ink.
“They named galvanism after the man who created it,” she said. “He ran electricity through frogs’ legs, and watched them jump. But he hadn’t found life, only sparks moving through flesh.”
Dr. Stein turned off the kitchen light, and in the suddenness of the dark, shadows were, without having done anything but appear. The refrigerator hummed its lonely vibrations, bumping through the space where the light had been, and he went to the living room, sitting on a deep stuffed chair beyond her silhouette.
“You never have any good movies,” she said, flipping through the stack beside the couch, the plastic covers of the disc cases shining out wan and flickering beams toward the wall.
“Do you believe in souls?” he asked.
“I never said that.”
“There’s no reason to believe life can’t be electrically reproduced, if all the variables are accounted for,” he said. “It might take decades, but it’s not impossible.”
“That rat on the table moved, but it no longer acted with a will. How do you know it was still the same rat that had died? If even one of the variables changed, who’s to say what you created had anything in common with what it had been? Its memories, its past—were those gone too?”
“Does it matter if it was the same rat?”
She put the movies down on the table. She twined her fingers, each manicured nail sharp and distinct, and her breath was slow, with an almost imperceptible hesitation.
“I don’t know.”
Sometimes, when he was alone and evening had overstayed its welcome he would take off his shirt in front of the bathroom mirror and stare at his reflection–the skinny frame, the scars—and wonder if he had died that day. It was a familiar fantasy, playing out like a worn reel of film, the true details distorted and fuzzed, the image projected on a screen. If he had—and that was the question; if they had not arrived in time, would she have walked a careful circle around his body, her heels making pock-marks of blood on the wooden floor? He disregarded the fact that his sister had never worn heels till college.
He would imagine that she cut apart his body, replacing his heart with machinery, his blood with gasoline, and wound a twisting key through his center until he jerked and shuddered to life. The problem remained that he was different, and belonged to her. He thought, sometimes, that it might have happened this way.
“I knew a man named David,” his sister said. Dr. Stein pushed his finger into the hole in the chair where the stuffing came out and pulled, lightly. Like cotton candy, or some new kind of cloud, it spooled itself from the old patterned fabric, a sickly xanthic shade.
“Was he a lawyer too?”
Dr. Stein tried to imagine his sister going—where? To a crowded bar somewhere, tired after work; or no, an opera;—passing a man on the street with his hat out for crumpled bills. He watched the way his sister’s hands tightened spasmodically around each other, and her eyes, looking down, were lost under the black line of her lashes. “We were involved,” she said. “For two years.”
“What happened to him?” he asked. He knew something must have happened. She would never have mentioned him otherwise.
“He was…odd,” she replied. “We had an apartment together, you know, and one night I came back to find the windows open, the electricity off, but there was a swarm of lightning bugs covering the walls. Their wings, opening and shutting, made the whole house look alive; like it was the flank of an animal, breathing; the room was lit yellow-green like a spotlight from all sides. A few of them flew around him in clockwise spirals, blinking like they were speaking in code. I was by the door, I couldn’t walk inside. He asked me what was wrong and I said it was him. He came over to the door, held out his hand, and led me in. We danced until the dark started to steal away and the fireflies with it, and I closed every window and locked the door. It never happened again.” She looked up at him and leaned back.
Dr. Stein pulled the stuffing from one hand to another and looked away. “He sounds like my kind of person,” he said at last.
“He wasn’t,” his sister replied. “Everyone liked him.”
Dr. Stein smiled.
“He said he’d come to the country to observe—to see the sights before they all disappeared, you know. The ones in the guidebook. It was always dog-eared, the amount of times he paged through, checking off one place after another in charcoal and pencil and ink. It always seemed so morbid, those bright photographs two-dimensionalizing space. I asked him, once, why he noticed me. I had never been to any of those places, until he came; I didn’t care to.”
“What did he say?” Dr. Stein asked.
“He said I was like one of those moths in the larval stage, mummified in amber for millions of years. He said it amused him to see if I would ever crawl my way out. I told him that creatures like that are better off staying where they are. If they emerge, it will be to a world in which the only possibilities are their own death, from lack of natural habitat and predation, or the opposite—their overrunning a world ill-equipped to handle them, and which they will ravage and destroy.”
“Are you predicting the moth apocalypse?” Dr. Stein said.
“Yes,” his sister said, dryly. “It’s a good thing we turned out all the lights.”
“If the power went out, we wouldn’t know,” he said. It had been such a storm, it could have happened. He couldn’t help imagining lightning striking a tree, the wind blowing down wires weighed under the burden of branches, the wet roads, cars on the curb and anxious groups gathered around the live current. Too much electricity did strange things to the human organism, reset those electro-magnetic paths within in the brain, stopped the heart, turned ordinary men into musicians. A lightning strike might bring the dead back to life.
“The refrigerator is still running,” his sister said. “I can hear it.”
She had better ears than him.
In the morning of the next day, after his sister had left, Dr. Stein stood on the front porch next to the puddles lying brown and muddy over the gravel drive. The air was still and quiet, the leaves that remained were like green and dripping umbrellas. He could smell petrichor, and the uncontrollable growing things that sprang from the dark earth. Maples tried to insinuate themselves into his driveway, the small grassy stalks with two bud-like leaves, bright and soft, their roots already clinging to the dirt. Beyond the bend of the drive, the main road could not be seen, only heard; the traffic a constant irritant, the man-made equivalent to that other impossibility, the waterfall—both had that same mundane sound. He imagined that the ground might have split overnight, that a river sprang up and all the cars were buried under the rush of water. He cranked his windows down as he drove to work, turned off the radio, daring a sudden blockage. There was a crash along one road that slowed everything to a crawl, but he got through, flashing his badge at the guards who had known him for six years, they waved him into the complex. The computer labs were buzzing, the generators droned and clattered outside.
“The power didn’t go out where you were?” his coworker said, his suit jacket off, his polished shoes squeaking on the floor.
“No,” Dr. Stein replied. “Is it out in many places?”
“All over the county,” the man said. “You’re a lucky bastard.”
The technicians added links in the neural network, dumped in data, waited for the AI to respond. It looked uncannily lifelike, from the waist up; sitting behind that table like they were reporting to it. He always walked the other way, behind the thing’s back, so he could see the mess of wires and glinting microchips. He wondered if that disturbed it, if it was capable of feeling the same uncanny itch down its spine as a human with their back unprotected.
This wasn’t his division, this pure mechanical device. His own lab created chimeras, strange combinations of the biological and the inorganic, cyborgs in the making. Perhaps someday it would be impossible to tell the electric sheep from the living ones, until they were autopsied.
“Do you remember the last fall?” she asked, now.
“Of course I do,” he answered, while the imperceptible hum of the refrigerator, in the next room, proved that there was still life beyond this moment. In that same year, tsunamis up the coast had destroyed the rest of those cities he’d only heard about, and the TV was an always-uncomfortable static. All the wreckage, all the ruin, and the ground was brilliant red. Every morning, he would wake to more of the world ending, and the earth laid out a scarlet cloak as though waiting for an emperor to arrive.
Nothing doing. He’d killed ants on the back porch, pulled apart their legs, their antennae, trying to see how they moved. One or two had wings. He’d dreamed of the soft orange of a honeybee, lost in that sticky gestalt. They had found honey in the pyramids, buried among the dead—in case they’d gotten hungry on their journey. He wondered what the dead did now, without any more paths to guide them to the stars.
“He just disappeared one day,” she said at last. “Something had been brewing for weeks, but I ignored it. There was a case taking up all my attention.”
“I understand,” Dr. Stein said. His sister shook her head.
“He’d been trying to talk to me. He left this by our bed.” She reached into her purse, pulled out a slim, soft-cover book. In colorful, childlike lines, a fair-haired boy on a rock stared out into endless space.
“The Little Prince,” he said, taking it from her.
“Yes.” Her voice was hard, and he couldn’t tell if her tone held recrimination, or merely disinterest.
“You think it was a suicide note?”
“Maybe,” she said. “Maybe not. He might have just left—gone to find the next thing on his list. He took the guidebook with him—it wasn’t even halfway filled out.”
“And when it is,” Dr. Stein said, “do you think he’ll come back?”
“No,” she said. “He was done with me, and I was done with him long before that.”
“Then why the concern? Why mention it at all?”
“I wondered what your opinion might be.”
“They say that bodies are too heavy to bring along with you,” Dr. Stein said, flipping through the book, looking at the tiny, careful letters; the planets, each small enough for only one idea—except for this one. Here, you had to wait to see the sunset.
“Is that what you were trying to do?”
Dr. Stein smiled. He imagined it looked stretched–thin, inhuman.
“No,” he said. “I was just trying to die.”
She frowned at him, as though unconvinced, but she turned on the TV. An old movie was playing—static-lined and grey.
“Happy birthday, Archie,” she said, standing up, pulling her phone out–the thin square of light unfolded, then went dark. She brought her purse close to her body with one hand as she put it back. “You can keep the book.”
He stood up, too. “Are you leaving? In this storm?”
“The storm is over,” she said. She smiled, slightly, almost sadly; and something in it flickered. “The time for magic is done.” She kissed him, gently, on the cheek, and went out to check her car. Through the front screen, he could see her dark figure bent against it, hear the beep of the key unlocking, the lights turning on. She may have looked his way at last—the glare of the headlights rendered her black and unreadable. Then she got in and turned on the gas.
He stepped out, when the last glow and the sound of the engine had vanished into the trees, and looked up into the sky above him. In the blackness of the outage, the usually-empty space was strewn with a wild abundance of glowing pearls, uncalculably far; the light reached down, touching his skin like silk, then fading away.
That year after autumn, he had seen only green, from every tree—all other colors had been abandoned. He’d lain down on the floors worn from countless feet, cool, soft, as old wood always was. The blood that pooled around him had been dark, and all around, out every window, in the rustling air, was green.
He could almost feel the clockwork in his chest ticking, counting the seconds against an endless sky. It seemed such a small sound, in the silence. The quiet noise of insects humming in the night almost drowned it out.
He walked back inside. He had work to go to tomorrow, if he didn’t decide to pretend his car had been totaled in the storm. He picked up the book, left on the coffee table, and paged through it again. He wondered how much of what his sister had told him was true.
It didn’t really matter.
He left the book on the table, on top of all the movies she didn’t like, then sank into the old couch and watched the movie play on. A flash of lightning, a crack of thunder, and behind the glass, the creature on the bed began to stir.