Chapter 1: Loon

I was a sitting duck in a carpool, but I didn’t know it yet. My mind was elsewhere, on the meeting I had attended that past Tuesday.

Aarie massaged her food with her gums. It squelched. She protested dentures. The instructed-to-be small, cold spoonfuls of mashed potatoes alternated with cold spoonfuls of green beans. They or the room smelled hospitalized, squelched, and it was cold. They were directed into her mouth via solemn caretaker. The caretaker was forty, or fifty maybe, hairless, like a mole rat, and dressed in green scrubs.

I watched, disgusted. I wished that I could will my gaze toward the dying fire in the hearth behind her armchair, but I couldn’t. My eyes magnetized to the horror.

“Aarie, I—“

She lifted her frail and veiny forearm inches upward, fist balled, but not clenched. It hovered momentarily above her chair’s right arm, then fell back onto the upholstery. The action if anything proved the woman decrepit, yet stole my tongue and left me terrified.

Still, she did not speak. So, weak, I tried again.

“They told me you were dead.”

“I know that.”

I swear I saw clouds of dust exude her gullet.

“Why—“

“Not yet why,” she interrupted, “but how? It isn’t easy to convince the police to track you down, contact you, and tell you that I’m dead, you know.”

“Okay, well then, h—“

She cut him off again. “Well, back then, it was easier. Bribery, stupid. Institutionalized justice is just a cesspool.”

She laughed, or choked. I wasn’t sure.

“Aarie, when they told me you were dead, my MOTHER, was dead…it had a serious effect on me. You can’t just—“

“But-I-did.” She spoke one word at a time, each a bullet aimed at my point.

My knuckles whitened around the briefcase in my lap. “That lake, Aarie, was here long before you, and will be long afterwards!”

“That LAKE, Herman, has been in our family for FIVE generations. That’s FIVE times the lives both you and I will ever have, boy.”

Both of her fists were now clenched. She forced the folds of her forehead downward and cheeks up to clamp between them eyes shut, hiding fury. Then, only then, embers smoldered behind her back. It crossed my mind that she could die right there. So I pressed on.

As despot, in scorn, “In these five years, I shudder to even consider what atrocities have been committed in the name of that Godforsaken pond…mother,” I sneered, damnit, I sneered.

Her eyes opened. I’d never seen her surprised before, ever, in my life. It was subtle and magnificent.

“I know about the experiments, Aarie.”

I was high on confidence, seeing my mother on her heels.

“I know everything. I know it isn’t pollution. I know what the factories are used for. I’ve been to the power plant!”

I produced the photo from my pocket and held it in front of her face. Her skin turned translucent, and her demeanor died. Without any power—or intrigue—to me, all she was was feeble.

“I’ll see myself out.” I said.

And I did.

***

A trickle of a traffic pattern brought me back.

“Why are we slowing down?” I asked. “We’re already late.”

I hugged my briefcase to my chest.

Jenny, grinning Jenny, my best friend, the driver, Jenny, Jenny von Westphalen, answered: “There’s a DUI checkpoint ahead, I think. I didn’t see a sign…”

Sumarth, sitting shotgun, sighed.

“Bloody DUI checkpoints. It’s four in the afternoon. Tf you’re driving drunk at four in the afternoon, you’ve already got more than enough to worry about, my friend,” said Sumarth.

Five or six cars ahead of us, two American-made police cars, four foreign-made plastic orange traffic cones, and two flares of unknown origin blocked off all but one lane of the highway. After a short exchange with the driver of each of the—some American-made, some otherwise—cars ahead of us, an American-made officer in charge of the checkpoint let them pass. “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson was playing on XM Radio as we pulled up to the head of the queue. The stocky, clean-shaven, crew-cut officer, emitting an air of arrogance, walkzted* (like “bounded slowly with confidence” or perhaps “leered with attitude”) over to our halted vehicle.

“Good afternoon!” He said enthusiastically. “Names, please.”

We answered in order, left to right, beginning with our driver.

“Jenny Westphalen.”

“Sumarth Galaswani.”

“Herman Barker.”

“Well, okay then,” the police officer said. “Carry on, and drive safe!”

Jenny nodded and drove away. We barely made it twenty feet before the car started to gurgle and splutter and then shut off, and Jenny had to pull over to the side of the highway. She made her way behind the barricade of another, horizontal police car; it blocked the paint that creates lanes across the concrete of a highway, and the subsequent onslaught of cars.

“Damnit!” cried Sumarth. “We’ve missed it, then! We’ve bloody missed it!”

Nobody said anything. A new police officer, different to the one that had asked us our names, got out of his car and walked over.

“Trouble?” he inquired, having probably noticed Sumarth’s tantrum.

His frame was slight and uniform baggy. His face was as skinny as the rest of him, what with his cheeks so sunken-in, but his mouth and teeth were proportionally large compared to the amount of skin, as were his eyes. They were bulbous and bulging out. His pointed nose was small, brown hair long and wispy beneath his hat.

“Yes,” replied Jenny. “I thought I had a quarter tank of gas, but I guess either me or my car was wrong. Could you please take one of us to a gas station?”

“I sure can. Where were you folks headed?”

Sumarth answered, “We were going to a conference at a hospital off exit 88 that starts in…”

He took his phone out of his khaki pocket and checked the time.

“…nine minutes.”

“Well, shit,” said the cop. “How importanté was this con-ferénce?”

“Extremely,” replied Sumarth, very curt.

“Well, if one of you can stay with the car, I’d be more than happy to take the other two to this shin-dig…if it helps?” offered the officer.

Jenny and I exchanged a glance while Sumarth beamed.

“You should go,” I said before she could. “It was your idea to start the project in the first place, you’re the reason we’ve made it this far, and you did most of the legwork. Here.”

I handed her the briefcase. Jenny blushed a little, but otherwise kept herself contained.

“You know everything, right?” I asked. “I mean, I know you know, but you know you know, right?”

She nodded and exited the car to join Sumarth, already following the police officer across the empty lanes and to his squad car.

***

AAA were on their way, and I was leaned against the driver’s side door of Jenny’s green jeep Cherokee in repose, in response, staring dumbly at the screen of my smartphone and wishing that someone would suddenly call to announce an imminent arrival. They didn’t.

Instead, the original policeman, the one who had questioned us at the DUI checkpoint, now drove over in his cop car, lights beaming, siren silent.

“Get in,” he said with a smile, pointing like he’d done it a million times before with his thumb toward his backseat. “Don’t worry about it; this whole DUI checkpoint thing’s almost over anyway. Donnie, the guy who took your friends, he’s on his way back, along with all the other support already here who’ll make sure the car gets to where it needs to go. My word. Donnie let me know on my radio,” he held up his walkie-talkie, “who you are and how important the event you’re going to is. As a man sworn to protect the public, I feel as though this is my duty.”

Aplomb elated, I got in his back seat. I should’ve hesitated. He took me to Jenny and Sumarth.

Chapter 2: Jenny and Sumarth

“You just missed the exit,” said Jenny.

She was sitting in the back of the car behind Sumarth, who was in the passenger seat. Donnie kept quiet and kept going.

“You can get off at the next one and turn around. We can be a few minutes late,” saved Sumarth, coolly.

Donnie nodded and got off at the next exit.

“Okay, now turn here,” said Jenny.

He didn’t stop.

“Okay, the next one,” said Sumarth.

He drove past again. They were starting to panic.

“Where are you taking us?” asked Jenny, on her way to terrified.

“We ran your ID,” said Donnie, “and you two didn’t come up. Fake iden-ti-ties. Who knows who y’all, or your buddy back at the checkpoint really is, and we’ve gotta know before we can put you wherever you need to go. You understand?”

“Excuse me? Officer, this is a mistake. Listen to me: I was born here in Tuscaloosa, Tennessee, and Sumarth moved here almost six years ago. Please, now run it again, I insist,” half-pleaded Jenny, upset in restraint. “You have to believe me.”

“Fine,” said Donnie, “because I’m a sweetheart.”

He pulled over on the side of the road and typed Jenny’s and then Sumarth’s name, birth date, and ID number into his keyboard. It communicated with a small interface, mounted below the dashboard, and was bound by a disorganized array of black wires. The screen—bright in terms of light but dark in terms of shade—green screen of the monitor read, in white letters, “no results” for both Jenny and Sumarth.

“See?” Donnie sneered to a stunned Sumarth and Jenny. “You don’t exist.”

Then he pulled away from the curb and drove off, deeper into a residential neighborhood, with a crooked smile on his face.

Chapter 3: Experiments

I remember drowning. Drowning, but, but, drowning, it was like…well, I did panic a little at first, but then, then it just felt like breathing, and for a long time I slept. I saw Jenny and Sumarth too, also sleeping, sleeping in tubes.

The tubes are constructed of a rare polymer, composed and concocted of the wildest of mad scientists’ greatest epiphanies, and are see-through, see-through blue. The limp, lifeless bodies of Jenny, Sumarth, and Herman lie dormant, submerged in an electric green, viscous, chemical ichor and held posed by tentacle-like cords and wires attached via suction cup to their skin. The luminescent ooze wobbles like Jell-o. The tentacles adjust the bodies appropriately.

Aarie walks in.

“Feeding them?” she inquires, to no one.

She turns on her heel and exits the room, lit only by the experiments. Her footsteps: “tap, tap, tap.”

I didn’t get how I was seeing things. My eyelids were shut. I could feel them. I knew, I know they’re there, but I can’t and couldn’t open them. It was as if they’d been stitched closed. Still, though, I saw everything. From the moment that I noticed I’d been kidnapped, and worse, was being taken to my mother’s house, to when I came to after getting knocked out by some kind of aerosol in the cop car (the officer put on a gas mask, turned, and fired in a swift motion, the bastard). And when I woke up, I’d been submerged, naked, into this tank where I’m now trapped. Jenny and Sumarth already occupied their own oozy environments.

I saw my mother sometimes, coming into the room and then walking out again. I saw scientists inspecting and making decisions and incisions, none of which hurt as long as I was in the ichor. I saw everything, everything but myself. That was the one thing I realized I couldn’t see: myself. No matter how hard I tried. I would move my arms as far up as the tentacles would allow, and my head down, and could sense my eyes pointed at where my arms should be, and I would see nothing. Strange.

Chapter 4: Morality Lies; in Conflict

“They’re responding well to the treatment, doctor,” said Aarie, matter-of-factly.

“Yes, they are,” the doctor replied “Herman especially: it’s your fantastic genes, if I may say so. His transformation is almost complete.

“You may not say so.”

The doctor continued, a little rattled. “For the other two, however, it took a little longer before the mutagens could seize the host. I would expect those experiments complete by tomorrow morning.”

“Thank you, doctor.” She didn’t mean it.

“You’re welcome, Ms. Barker.”

The skinny, bony, wiry doctor and his pristine lab coat stood in the otherwise ordinary living room (couches, television, fire place, mantel, rug, art, all expensive of course). Aarie opened the door to the cellar and began to descend. Five or six stairs from the last step, she could see the electric green ichor glow. At the base of the staircase, she could see the experiments.

Chapter 5: I Mean it This Time

All three had already grown ultramarine scales. Sumarth and Jenny only on their upper body, but Herman was covered. Gills had developed in all of their necks. The gills came first, almost immediately in fact, which made sense,given that they were the solution’s first intended purpose. The effects that followed, a result of prolonged exposure to the ichor, were yet to be fully explored. All their eye sockets now bore bright orange, lidless orbs. Their hair was gone, and in its place, their scalp now housed a dorsal ridge, much like the plumed basilisk, if you’re familiar with one of those. All sixty total fingers (Jenny, Sumarth, Herman) on all six of their collective hands had webbed, and all the toes on Herman’s feet already had, too. A long, thick, scaly tail hung also. But besides these “improvements,” the general silhouette and structure of Jenny, Sumarth, and Herman’s bodies remained intact. If bundled in coats, gloves, and a hat, maybe they could pass as human from a distance. A very far distance, if they could be controlled.

Aarie exhibited a slightest grin, a rare sight, once in a lifetime for most. And she left the room.

***

The next morning, Jenny’s body convulsed in shock, at first sporadically, and then it escalated into full-blown death rattles, and then she was plucked from her tank by scrambling scientists, and then I never saw her again. Later, at the same time, Sumarth and I also got taken out of the viscous goo. Masks attached to metal canisters were put on our faces, and we were whisked away in wheelchairs.

***

“Who are you?” asked the doctor.

Bound to my chair by restraints on my wrists and ankles, in an office, I stared blankly back at him. He got up from his grey seat. He got out from behind his white desk and strode over. He loosened the strap that trapped my right wrist. Reinvigorated blood flow is comforting. Perhaps I smiled. The doctor jotted down something on his clipboard quickly.

“Do you understand me?” he asked, now back behind his desk.

I didn’t move. I’d heard Sumarth scream sometime last night, in either a dream or reality, but either way I wasn’t telling them anything. I chose to continue to pursue the charade of ignorance and brokenness, as I’d been doing the last few days. I wasn’t sure if I was sane anymore, anyway. I wondered what happened to Sumarth. I wondered if I was getting preferential treatment because of my mother. The doctor grabbed a cube off of his desk, a solid green plastic cube only a few inches tall, the sole item of any color on the large white desk or in in the small white room, save the doctor’s brown clipboard, mine and his grey chairs, and a blue pen in the pocket of the doctor’s white lab coat. He put the cube in the palm of my now-free hand; the floor was just as white.

“Throw it,” he said.

And I did. I hadn’t meant to. But I watched the cube hit the wall. After returning to the clipboard to record the occurrence, the doctor picked up the cube and put it back in my hand; for the record, I still couldn’t see (my hand), only feel. But I could see the cube, hovering there.

“Again,” he said.

I did nothing, still astounded.

“Throw it!”

And I did. I watched the green plastic rebound off plaster and then fall to the ground. It would seem the opportunity to think before acting out of command was non-provisional. The doctor rose to retrieve the cube. I was still alarmed by my compliance, and in answer was determined to defy the doctor this time around, if only to prove that I could, and I couldn’t.

“Throw it,” he said.

And I did.

So, now frustrated, I lunged for the doctor! Never-before-seen claws slid out from beneath my scaly green knuckles. He dodged my assault, barely. I nicked his ribs and he scrambled behind his desk. An alarm sounded, the room flashed red. Men in gas masks and uniforms hurried in. One brandished what looked like a leaf blower, but it was billowing a thick black cloud.

I saw, before I slept, the doctor slump over.

Chapter 6: The Escape

It was the weirdest feeling. I was swimming, swimming underwater; meanwhile, the water was flying down the highway. That’s not to mention the spinning. Concealed in innards under the guise of cement mixing truck: Aarie’s goons were transporting me somewhere. They weren’t dressed like police officers anymore. I’d caught glimpses of the truck’s tankard being filled with ice during a few forays in consciousness, just before I was dropped into the churning.

I was too distracted by my circumstances to compile evidence enough for a time frame. After a long wait, we arrived, and the truck stopped spinning.

The goons turned a metal wheel, and a hatch opened, and I, and a waterfall of cold water, gushed and then spilled out of the was-once-rotating chamber. I fell at the feet of my mother.

I opened my mouth to speak.

“Be silent,” Aarie spat, and my lips sealed.

“You have always loved it here, Herman. Turn around.”

A pause.

“And then stay still.”

I 180’d mechanically. Before me was Belvedere Lake, its placid nature corroborated by the tranquility of surrounding evergreen. The day seemed serene; all clouds were picture-perfect. A few flocks of birds flew through sunlight.

“This lake, Herman, shall become your sanctum. Your sanctum, your sanctuary. I couldn’t tell you the number of times you begged me to come here. But I can count the number of times you were caught sneaking in. Twice. Twice!

Everything smelled like honey, but I stared at her. I didn’t know she did know. She knew. It hadn’t seemed like she did, no, not back then, flashing back to her armchair and the hearth.

“I’m confining you to this lake for infinity.”

At the extent of my vision, there it was. A beehive brave on a tree branch.

“You’re never again allowed to leave its boundary.”

Honey and, if you’re lucky, royal jelly is in the hive. The first queen out kills all the other ones before they can wake up.

“Your father would’ve simply killed you, God rest his soul. Do you understand me, Herman? Nod if you understand me.”

I nodded. Was this mercy?

“Now Herman, get inside that lake.”

Where are the wasps when you need them the most?

“Never leave the lake, Herman.”

I was wading into the water.

“Never speak again, Herman.”

The inside of a beehive is palatial. Larvae moved when hatched to designated hexagons to transform, fed by nurses. No honey yet. From translucent, near-formless worms to more defined pupae. Eyes and mandibles take shape. When do they find out?

***

For all installments from 30 Birds, click here.

Previous installments:

  1. “Velvet” by the Bloody Eyes
  2. “Subtle” by Yukio Mishima
  3. “Geronimo Sunset!” by Jun. 27
  4. “My Hero” by Annie Wonoffate Million
  5. “Gender” by Jun. 27, Part 1
  6. “Gender” by Jun. 27, Part 2
  7. “Eel Dogs ‘Til Stupid” by Jun. 27
  8. “Pleasant Town” by Jun. 27