Fiction · Short Story

Short One Orchard by Donal Mahoney

When Barney Murphy married Blanche O’Brien, he told her almost every day from the wedding on that she was apricots and peaches, an orchard that was his alone to wander, plucking fruit as he saw fit, all of it ripe and juicy, something he would savor for the rest of his life. Blanche, a shy woman, really liked the way Barney could talk. He made nonsense sensible, she told her parents. Blanche was a very happy wife.

From the sixth month on during her first pregnancy, Blanche would ask Barney every day to pat her watermelon. When it finally burst, a boy popped out, and then a girl right after the boy, and then another boy right after the girl. Blanche had given birth to triplets within minutes of each other, lovely infants, all three of them plump and crowned with hair that ran in rivulets of curls.

Six additional children, born one at a time over the next 12 years, were just as beautiful. Even the neighbors were amazed at the fecundity of the couple. Some ladies on the block thought Barney should take up bowling.

“I’ve certainly got my hands full,” Blanche would tell her lady friends but she still seemed happy. Barney remained unperturbed. He earned terrific money as a defense attorney, a vocation to which his rhetorical skills had called him. He tried to find a partner to share the workload but no one could talk the way Barney could. The bigger the crime the more the criminal would pay to hire Barney.

Life was very good for the productive couple. Their nine children studied hard in school and graduated from college. Unlike the trend today, they all married early and settled down. Blanche was even happier once the last child had married and moved out of the house. It would be another honeymoon with just her and Barney home alone. And it seemed that way until the eve of their Golden Wedding Anniversary. That was the night Barney told her, after a nice dinner at a Russian restaurant, that she–his Blanche–was no longer apricots and peaches. More like prunes and raisins.

“Nine children,” Blanche said, “can take a toll on a woman.”

“I know, I know!” Barney said, “I’m not blaming you. But this is life. And I’m short one orchard.”

Barney pointed out that he had plans to prospect for another orchard. He wanted fresh fruit again, ripe and succulent. For days Blanche was stricken. She couldn’t believe Barney would go looking for another woman–or maybe women. But as her mother told her when they were courting, Barney was never meant to be a priest. Still, she had no reason to believe that in 50 years of marriage Barney had ever been unfaithful. Still, the kids had kept her busy and Barney often worked late into the night–or so he said.

In her youth, Blanche, in addition to being apricots and peaches in the eyes of Barney, had also been in the Olympics twice. She had won five gold and silver medals as an archer, a feat Barney over the years had proudly mentioned many times to any neighbor who would still listen. Frankly, everyone on the block was tired of hearing about Blanche’s medals. But thinking it might help keep Barney as her husband, Blanche went looking for and found her ancient bow and arrow in the attic. That night she told Barney she was going to practice for the Senior Olympics.

The Senior Olympics was something Barney had long wanted Blanche to compete in. He wanted her to win more medals. The price of gold and silver had skyrocketed and he figured another stack of medals would be another insurance policy for retirement. Barney even decided to help Blanche train for the competition, taking time off from work to do so. He set up targets in their big back yard and brought the arrows back to her after she had shot them.

With Blanche practicing every day, Barney was kept very busy. He was so busy, in fact, that Blanche didn’t think he had time to look for any new orchards. In addition, she had begun to regain her old expertise. In fact, she thought it was unlikely any other woman in the over-70 group would be able to beat her. “Bullseye Blanche,” as they used to call her, was back in business.

A month later, however, something happened. The story in the paper and the reporters on TV said it was an accident, a tragedy, one arrow out of hundreds gone astray, a large, loving family heartbroken.

And the nine kids, all with big families of their own by now, believed it was an accident. Blanche in tears had told them at the time how the arrow had gone awry, had gone right through Barney’s left eye and settled in his brain.

“He dropped like a tree at logging time,” she said.

There was nothing the first responders could do. Barney was pronounced dead at the hospital. All the neighbors turned out for the funeral and took turns bringing Blanche a hot meal every night for weeks. And then the story seemed to die. Blanche wore black for months and months.

Nevertheless, not everyone was satisfied that things had happened exactly as reported. At closing time in a local pub frequented by friends, every now and then, maybe once a week or so, the same drunken neighbor would declare for all to hear: “The cops can’t ask old Barney what happened that day. We’ve heard what Blanche has to say. But Barney can’t say a word.”

Maybe Barney’s death was an accident. One arrow out of hundreds can go astray. Blanche refused to talk about it anymore and would begin to bawl if anyone mentioned Barney’s name. She also refused to compete in the Senior Olympics even though her skills had continued to improve right up until the arrow caught Barney’s eye. The kids all agreed Barney would have wanted her to compete. But Blanche said no–that to do so would be like putting an arrow in Barney’s other eye and there was no need for that now.

Fiction

The Life Delusion by Gilroy Van Wyk

She burst into the room and I jumped up as she slowly strolled in and surveyed it; she had a bag as big as mine the only difference that mine wasn’t bigger than me. She was a stout blonde with short boyish hair, a ring in her nose and a long red rose tattoo running down the length of her leg. She unpacked and I sat up nervously thinking of what to say but knowing I wouldn’t say anything, the self loathing was strong in me at that point. She finished and walked over to my bed stretched out her hand and introduced herself as Sara. We spoke and I found out she was from Dortmund traveling the garden route – just like me. I only knew one thing about Dortmund so I casually brought it up so as to give her the idea that I knew much more about her hometown than I actually did.

Sara giggled after everything she said which at first I thought – was a nervous tick but later realized it was a sincere showcase of her joyful spirit. She asked if I wanted to go out and have a beer with her, I could think of nothing better than to spend the rest of my night with her but I didn’t want to step out of the room with her either. I didn’t deserve to be seen in public with her, she should be with one of them, pseudo L.A’s other Gods and Goddesses. After coming to the conclusion that she only asked because I was her roommate I grabbed a handful of money from my bag – the money I was saving for home.

Despite all the hatred, for me, the situation, and Sara’s interest in me I was determined to impress her. I bought a cocktail which was the theme at these Friday night gatherings which hosted the open- mic nights we were attending. Before I could pay one of the attendees told the barman to give Sara a Cosmopolitan and he then put some notes in the tip jar, he invited her to their table then left. I paid for my drink; put some coins in the tip jar as she suggested we join him at their table.

A little table stood at the wall with a perfect view at the stage and I saw us standing there with our drinks, I saw her laughing at my jokes. I was funny I would show off and she would love me for it, I saw her playing with her hair, bending her head to slyly smile at me – all the indications for me to lead her back to the room but what I see and what truly happens is always two different things. She was new in town and there was a table full of locals that could teach her so many things that was beautiful and could tell her so many stories, I said yes and had her lead the way.

We passed a door and I snuck away from her and through it, the door lead to a different section near the stage and I stood at the back against the wall and watched an old Irish man play the guitar. The Irishman made jokes in between his songs but his accent was too thick I couldn’t make out what he was saying. I peered through the crowds at Sara, I saw her next to him laughing while one of the other guys in the group amused her, sweet Sara I knew they were better for you. She was a tourist and they were the locals she was meant to meet. The old Irishman finished his set and the crowd made their way closer to the stage.

A man with a ponytail and a full beard picked up a guitar and sat on stage. He was in the group from before but they all stood around the stage. Sara saw me in my darkened corner and stood next to me, she smiled and spoke, and above the tuning of the guitar I could hear her giggle her sentences to me. The man serenaded us and I saw us talking amidst the music, I saw myself buy her more drinks, I saw her open her heart to me – I was a trustworthy guy and she would see it, she would see me but as soon as the pony-tailed singer started another big Neanderthal came up to Sara and asked her if she wanted to play Foosball. She looked intently at me then asked if I wanted to join. It was a sign from on high that she belonged with them and I said No and turned my head toward the stage. For the second time I had deserted my sweet Sara and fed her to the wolves, if she would be devoured tonight then let it be by the handsome, full bearded and square jawed men and not the traveling bum.

I watched some other artists perform their sets and after a while Sara came back. She took my hand in the corner and said “let’s go sit in the front.” I didn’t want to do that, it drew too much attention to me but she insisted and I had her once again so I thanked god and followed her to the front. They all stared at me, every man and women in the place and she smiled, she giggled her words to me and I sang along and she sang along and we sang along oblivious.

I got up to get us fresh drinks and as soon as I got up a group of women had surrounded her, I handed Sara her drink and she was too engrossed in their company to really take much notice. I got up to leave and saw her look at me, begging me not leave her again. I saw myself shove the groups of women and take her away, I saw myself leave that dull place and go back the room, our room, I would make it heaven, I would give the room everything it needed I would give her all she needed for the one night we had together.

I turned away from Sara’s pleas and walked back to the room. I took off my shoes and got into bed fully dressed, I would be leaving tomorrow for a town full of ugly women that would worship me and the sun will shine and I’ll pick up lost money and karma will turn around to give me a long, full and wet kiss. Not long after I heard the door open, a few steps and silence. I knew she was standing there looking at me lying under the blankets my back faced her way. I saw her get into my bed, I heard her whisper into my ear, I felt her breath on my cheek, my sweet Sara after all the disappointment I had beset on her.

I heard her get dressed, I didn’t turn around, she did not turn on the light, how very considerate of her, I knew she was wonderful, she read with a flashlight I heard the click, sweet Sara I am undeserving. For a long while I listened to her read, I could only hear the pages turning then I fell asleep. The next morning I awoke long before her, I finished up, packed my bags and sat on my bed watching her sleep. I was waiting for her, to say goodbye to her, to hear her giggle, to see the morning crust in her eyes, to see her pleading for me but ultimately to hurt her one last time.

When she woke up I hastily said my goodbyes, I did not give her a chance to speak, and she was still dazed. I could only see confusion on her face; the realization was still to come. I walked out before she could say anything and for the third and final time I had deserted the angel, the goddess, My Sweet Sara. A few hours later, after arriving in the new town on my route I booked into a hostel, put down my bags on two dead cockroaches and watched the rain outside my dirty window.

Fiction

Caucus at the Parking Meter by Donal Mahoney

For years Rocky’s Diner had always done a great business for breakfast and lunch but his dinner business had fallen off recently as folks moved to the suburbs, got married, died or simply went elsewhere to eat. He thought about closing early but he had a small cadre of elderly men, many of whom had been his customers for two or three meals a day, and Rocky didn’t know where else they might go to eat. They were all single now for different reasons—divorced, widowed, never married or deserted by a wife who had become fed up. Most were in their late 70s and early 80s and not renowned for their civility. They were a crotchety bunch but Rocky liked them all. He himself was in his late 60s, happily married, and didn’t have to worry about money, thanks in large part to loyal customers like these elderly men, some of whom had been eating at his diner for decades.

Many of them would arrive for dinner—or supper, as most of them called it–at 6 p.m., their unofficial appointed hour for the last meal of the day, and depending on their mood, they would either take a stool alone at the counter or pile into one of the red vinyl booths. In a booth, they hoped to be joined by others who might also have spent the day alone, watching television, reading the obituaries or maybe playing solitaire.

Conversation in the booths ran the gamut from politics to religion to dead wives and ex-wives to girls they should have or shouldn’t have married. Occasionally, the conversation in one booth would be joined by those in the booth behind, in front of or across from that particular booth. If the weather was good, sometimes the conversation would spill out onto the street afterward where, weather permitting, the men would gather around a parking meter and continue their caucus.

It was on just such an evening in spring while the caucus at the parking meter was in full swing that an attractive young lady walked by, heels clicking, skirt swaying, and all of the men paused and assessed her with murmurs of appreciation. She was, they all agreed, a very nice young lady.

“I remember years ago dating a girl like that,” said Harry, “and she gave me nothing but heartache. Back then, you’d have to marry them. They didn’t give it away. Thank God I married Mildred instead. She caused me no heartache and I hope to God she’s enjoying heaven. She’s been there for about 10 years now. I still miss her oxtail soup.”

Truth be told, Harry may have been the only one at the parking meter who had been happily married. Three of them had gone through difficult divorces decades ago and still cursed their former wives when their aches and pains were worse than usual. Another man had lived through a tortuous marriage but for religious reasons never considered divorce. His wife finally died and he forced himself to go to the funeral. There was also a bachelor in the group, 78 years old, who prided himself on the number of women he had sampled over the years without ever buying the cake.

“I’m glad I never married,” said Jimbo. “I enjoyed most of the women I dated and they seemed to enjoy me but I never found one I wanted to spend my life with, though it was difficult at times to fight them off. Every one of them wanted to get married. Don’t let a woman tell you size doesn’t matter. I’m proof positive it does.”

Most of the other men over the years had heard Jimbo’s tales of sexual prowess and they didn’t want to get him started again. But Clarence was relatively new to the group and had always wondered if it was his limitations as a lover that had caused his problems. He wondered what Jimbo had that he didn’t. His wife had never complained about their love-making but she may have been too busy complaining about everything else. So he decided to ask Jimbo why he had it so good.

“Jimbo, you mean all those women wanted to marry you because of the size of it. I’m not small but what are we talking about here, 12 inches?”

“Clarence, I don’t want to brag but I remember one woman who insisted I do something to make certain that when we went out, no one would notice if I had a spontaneous reaction. She was afraid if I saw another attractive woman, it might pop up and everyone in the restaurant would notice. So to make her happy I taped it all the way down my leg and stuck the head of it in my sock. I always wore socks with an elastic band as an extra precaution. I wanted to make sure nothing inappropriate happened. I almost married that woman because she was better than the others at taking off the tape when we got home.”

The other men had all heard Jimbo’s story before and kept a straight face while he told it because they wanted to see Clarence’s reaction. They were more than a little surprised when he finally spoke.

“I hope it wasn’t duct tape, Jimbo,” he said, “because that would have hurt like hell when she pulled it off.”

Fiction

The Symbiotic Man By Joseph Grant

Dr. Artemis Narcisco was harboring a deep, dark secret. He was taking his secret work home with him. This was grounds for termination as well as possible jail time should anyone be the wiser. He was an exceedingly brilliant but fastidious research scientist. It was frequently noted by his supervisors how clean his station always was and how detailed he was in his work and weekly reports. No one ever suspected not so much as a hair out of place on his neatly combed head.

Hair; it is a peculiar thing, Narcisco noted. It is pre-natal, grows throughout our lives and even escorts us into the grave. It can shape our personality and how we perceive others. We caress the hair of our loved one. We are attracted to it with our mate and yet if there is a strange hair in front of us or worse, in one’s food, it will end a pleasant meal very quickly, Narcisco thought with a shudder. Never mind if a hair winds up in someone’s mouth or during an intimate encounter. Narcisco didn’t have to worry about such things. He was a celibate by choice.

Religion played a big part in his choosing to be celibate, even though his fellow believers were entangled and disentangled in a variety all sorts of relationships. Relationships or lack thereof never interested Narcisco one way or the other. But therein lie the quandary.

Narcisco was getting older and at a time when most of his associates had already had children or even grandchildren, Narcisco had no such legacy to pass on. Not having children or a wife should not have bothered Narcisco the way it did, as his choice of celibacy was like everything else in his life, not one he made in an arbitrary manner.

Coming from a broken home, Narcisco often wondered if his infantile environment had anything to do with his lack of interest in pairing with another or his decision later in life to be chaste. He had watched his parents fight for as long as he could recall. His father, a union pipefitter and his mother, a school teacher; had been mismatched from the start but whereas the old adage of opposites attracting made for nice romantic twists in cheesy novels, it did not play any sentimental facet in cold and clinical reality when it came to his parents.

During Narcisco’s formative years and into his teens, he may as well have been invisible to women, not that it mattered one ion to him. He stuck his nose in the books and did not peek back up until he was a grad student doing an internship at a physics lab near the university.

When Narcisco received an offer to work at Soma-Cell under the auspices of the legendary Dr. Lusus, Soma-Cell’s founder and chief scientific officer, he was thrilled. Lusus was renowned for being a pioneering specialist of tissue engineering by discovering how to separate the complex DNA from delicate human skin cells for laboratory use. With his discovery came media appearances, books and documentaries as well as interested financial benefactors. He started Soma-Cell not long after this noteworthy breakthrough and the company was a leading innovator in stem cell research.

Narcisco’s improvement upon the original concept was to use a single human hair follicle. He was well aware that each human hair root contains living cells. These living cells possess nuclei with pristine human DNA, individual to their owner. It was important to use a live specimen as when the cells die, DNA breaks down. It was the glaring reason why a Frankenstein story could only exist in fiction, Narcisco knew. Otherwise, it was theoretically possible to reanimate the deceased. But there was a slight problem to his research.

If Dr. Narcisco was able to extract the DNA, he would need an egg to replace the nucleus in order to cultivate a specimen in a dish. At first, he wondered how and where he would get his hands on an egg in order to marry the DNA with another to produce a satisfactory end product. Then it came to him, he was surrounded by thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of samples stored down the hall in their Cryo-Protectant Lab. These were held in vats labeled CPD, which stood for Citrate, Phosphate and Dextrose. It would likely not be a problem as the lab personnel were always going in and harvesting a few eggs for experiments.

There were further complexities. One could grow a sample in a Petri dish, as the scientists were always trying to do for study, but these were usually never carried out to any length of maturity and destroyed after about ten days. Furthermore, there would have to be a transfer to a willing participant in the program. Besides, these technicians were always doing bizarre mash-ups of human DNA with a chicken or cow or some such and seeing if they could grow a pig’s ear in a dish. These highly bizarre experiments were all done in the name of clinical research and harvesting alternative body parts should war, disease and dismemberment require such without violating ethical issues, of which the cause and effect were forever intertwined.

Locating a host in all of this might prove the most difficult, Narcisco knew. He had no luck with women and never had much of a need for one until now. It wasn’t that he was a misogynist, it was quite the opposite. Women scared the hell out of him. He saw what his mother did to his father and how his father treated his mother and she in return.  It shaped him for life.

Without a human female in the experiment, the growth of the specimen would only get so far, if it developed at all. For ethical and legal reasons, humans were never used, just lower form mammals. This did not interest Narcisco. It was holding back research one hundred years, he felt. Science was all about evolution of the species not keeping it stagnant. If this were true, then why have science research labs at all? While he understood the moral implications, science, he thought, should have no boundaries. Otherwise, it was relegating research to the days of Gregor Mendel and his peas.

For Narcisco, Mendel had been a childhood inspiration. After his work on plant hybridization, he worked honey bees and animals. He wished to further Mendel’s direction.  Narcisco’s ultimate problem came from working with the single hair cell sample. The hair cell sample was specialized just as any cell in the body is specialized. There are cells for eyes, teeth, muscle or indeed, hair. Hair cells did not recognize other needed cells in order to grow anything but hair. Narcisco was well aware of scientists using a variety of electrical currents to circumvent this quandary and confuse nature, as well as working with chemical reactions to facilitate a positive result. It didn’t always work and typically, the samples displayed disturbing cellular aberrations and defects. Some of the younger, more irreverent researchers held onto their specimens instead of destroying them and would name them as pets, permeating  their stations with very peculiar life forms.

A miracle, of sorts, came in the guise of the latest breakthrough, of which Narcisco played a major role; a colony stimulating factor. Colony stimulating dynamics was something new, a top secret substance which was scientifically manufactured in the lab. It allowed bone marrow to produce and reactivate long dormant stem cells within the body stored from birth and be reintroduced into the blood stream. These would be readily available from his own blood sample. This advance allowed Narcisco to use these cells which weren’t specialized and manipulate and marry them with the DNA from both hosts and for the original hair cell to multiply exponentially as it would recognize the DNA. This would permit his research experiment to develop almost naturally.

But, Narcisco was under a rigid deadline. Normal embryos implant at 14 days. He would have to find a willing participant who would somehow not have the moral compunction to turn him over to his superiors, not to mention the authorities. Given the research team they had, it was mostly men and a couple of dowdy-looking women either quickly approaching, in or well-past menopause. The youngest of this matronly group, Eva, had given up raising a family and having children in lieu of having a career.

Eva Miller was a soft target. No matter how she tried to deflect the idea of having a child, it was always something omnipresent. There were those around her who persisted in getting into her personal life. Her mother, for one, dropped not so subtle guilt-bombs in conversation. Her girlfriends would ask over and over as each one of them was either getting married off or having their own babies.

Such constant stress would lead to Eva having crying jags at work and taking days off for depression. This did not go unnoticed by her superiors or co-workers. It surprised them, as she seemed to be happy in her work. She never took a day off and was always the first one there and the last one to leave. But then again, this had been her work ethic from very early on in her life.

In every way, she had been the perfect girl to her parents. She had been the model child that other parents pointed out to their children. “Why can’t you be more like Eva?” was a question privately posed to many of her friends. She took dance class, played classical piano and excelled in linguistics.  When she was a little older, she became a Brownie and won many patches, awards and medals. In school, she was the ideal student and as a result of her impressive school exams, she was assigned to assist as a teacher’s aide from an early age. Many educators told her that she would make an excellent teacher. She not only exceeded academically, but also had excelled in school sports, student council and belonged to other programs and was her class president. She went on to a prestigious East Coast Ivy League University and had graduated at the top percentile of her class with top honors in the field of genetic science. She had been recruited by Soma-Cell right out of college, was given an astounding salary for a college grad, bought her own house and moved in with her college sweetheart, Brad, but the economy had hit them hard and they squabbled over his inability to get a job and she finally broke it off with him. Even though she was the apple of her parent’s eye, her mother was deeply disappointed in her and that she had split with her boyfriend. Not only was her perfect daughter still single at the age of 30 but after the debacle with Brad, she had also recently informed her mother that she was not interested in getting married or raising a family but following her career path.

The echo of their last fight ran through Eva’s head as she tried to put her mind on a report she was filling out on her work with synthetic DNA Replication.

“You know, Eva…by the time I was your age I was married to your father and had already given birth to you!” She recalled her mother railing at her.

“That was your generation! When will you learn that I want to live my life, not yours.” She grimaced at the remembrance of saying it to her mother, but it was true. It was her life, not her mother’s. While maybe it was not right for her mother, it was right for her. As the scene played out in her head, an email popped up. It was from that nerdy Art Narcisco, she observed.  In it, he asked if she wanted to get coffee some time. It was non-descript and she saw little harm in it. It would also appease her mother and nothing would ever come of it, she told herself.

Narcisco had his eye on the comely brown-haired research analyst for a while. Behind her glasses, stiff exterior and hair pulled back tightly in a bun, there seemed to be a caged animal who needed only to let her hair down, he thought; knowing nothing about women except what he’d seen in movies.

They met for coffee after work at one of the ubiquitous coffee shops in town. Eva was her cool, calculating self, thinking maybe if she allied herself with this brilliant older man, he could teach her a thing or two and maybe mentor her in her career. Narcisco was his usual bumbling and nervous personage, but had already conspired in his mind that Eva would be a great catch for his experiment and not much else.

“I want to thank you for inviting me out.” Eva said, trying to break the ice. “We need to get out of that place more often.”

“Yup.”

“Boy, if only my mother could see me now. She’s always wanting me go out with her friend’s sons. I guess she wants me to settle down and give her that grandchild.” She rattled off with a laugh. It was something she always did when nervous.

Narcisco nodded.

“I’m sorry; I don’t mean to get too personal.”

“Uh-huh.”

“It’s good to get out. It’s like working in one big rat cage, that place.” Eva smiled and sipped at her very hot coffee. “Careful.” She cautioned Narcisco. “It’s hot.”

“Okay.” Narcisco nodded.

“You don’t say much.”

“Just making conversation.”

Not really, thought Eva and tried to change the subject to any subject. “So, do you like what you do?”

“Yes, I do.”

“You don’t know how refreshing that is to hear. Usually guys I’ve spoken with, well, their answer is usually less than gratifying. They usually say that it’s just a paycheck to pay the bills.”

“You know a lot of guys?”

“No, not really.”

“But you said the guys you speak with-”

“What I meant was that the typical response is that it’s a means to a very short end.”

“Oh.” Narcisco nodded and then said nothing for nearly the next five minutes and looked around the coffee bar.  He noticed that the barista looked like Eva Peron.

Just when Eva thought she’d go out of her mind, Narcisco finally spoke. “Do you like what you do?”

Eva could have groaned out loud. Narcisco’s social skills were lacking to say the very least. Instead, she sipped at her coffee and answered him. “I do like the work I do. I find it fascinating. I think we are on the cusp of a brave new world, so to speak. “I think it’s terribly interesting and there’s no telling what breakthroughs we will discover in the coming years. Think of all the lives we can save with all of our stem cell research and all of the regenerative medicine that we can use to better thousands of lives. There will be no use for artificial limbs and other body parts if we can grow such things in the lab. I am thrilled to be a part of this exciting time in forensic medicine.”

“I think it’s much more than that. I think that we have a chance to play God.”

Eva gave him a quizzical look. “Play God? Excuse me? What do you mean?”

Narcisco quivered as he looked at her and was excited someone was listening to him. “For the first time in mankind’s existence, we have the potential to skip the God quotient and use somatic cell nuclear transfer.”

“For what?” Eva asked naively.

“To create life.”

“What’re you talking about? God creates life.”

“Have you seen the life that God creates? Life that’s full of sickness, cancer and death. Children born with handicaps, deformities, terminal illnesses and mental degeneration? Science has it within its grasp the propensity to surpass God and create man in its own infinite, perfect likeness. We are on the threshold of creating human beings without disease and possibly burying death in the grave of history. Mark my words; there will come a time when death will be seen as one of man’s illnesses that we have surmounted. With science and medicine, we will live hundreds, maybe thousands of years.”

“But who do you think creates that life and lets it thrive?”

“Science.”

“No, you ass.” Eva snapped. “It’s God! Let me ask you. Are you religious?”

“Not really. More of an agnostic. Science hasn’t proven the existence of God and until it does, I’m afraid, I’m going to stay that way.”

“But science hasn’t disproven the existence of God, either.”

“Moot point.”

“So, why did you ask me out for coffee, Art?”

“It’s Artemis.” He said through clenched teeth.

Saa-reeee!” Eva said melodramatically. “You didn’t ask me here to talk about religion, did you?”

“You’re the one who brought religion into the conversation.” He stated incorrectly.

“Well, then what did you bring me here for?”

Narcisco eyed her warily. “I don’t know if I should tell you.”

Oh my God.” Eva muttered under her breath.

“There you go, bringing religion into it again.”

“You know, I think I’m gonna go.” She said and started to stand. “This was a bad idea.”

“Wait! Wait! I was joking…” Narcisco blurted. “I’ve been frightfully boorish. If I’ve offended you, dear Eva, I must apologize.”

“Uh-oh, somebody’s been reading his Jane Austen.” Eva rolled her eyes. “Nobody talks like that. Just say you’re sorry.”

“They don’t?” Narcisco said with a baffled expression.

“I guess you don’t have a lot of experience with women?”

“Is it that patently obvious?”

“Yes, dreadfully so.” Eva teased.

“Don’t make fun of me.” He said and folded his arms and started to turn away.

“Hey, I’m only joking, too!” She said and grabbed across the table at his arm. “You have to be able to take it too, ya know.”

He looked at her hand on his arm. She removed it. “I’m sorry.” He said. “Well, what I really want to ask you is if you’d be interested in taking part in a little experiment with me.”

“That’s got to be the worst pick-up line ever.”

“Oh, no!” Narcisco said. “That’s not what I meant at all.”

Eva laughed. “Oh sorry.”

“You sound like you don’t have much experience with guys.” Narcisco shot back.

“Touché.”

“I’d like to do a radical experiment.”

“Oh?”

“I’ll be blunt. I need one of your eggs.”

“Now that might be the worst pick-up line ever.” Eva said. “Before I throw this hot coffee in your lap…”

“No, please listen.” Narcisco started.  “I have an idea on how to clone a human safely and ethically.”

“How?” Eva scoffed. “There is no ethicality to cloning.”

“They’re doing it with livestock and they’re doing it with vegetables.  Why not humans? This could lead to a whole other science, as we’ve said. Later on, we could harvest body parts for people but if my testing works we won’t have to, like I’ve said. We could tweak the DNA and create perfect human forms.”

“It’s immoral and not to mention, illegal!”

“Laws can be bought, sold and changed. Laws are made up by men who are fallible. Those are just mere technicalities.” Narcisco waved the point back across the table.

“Yes, to keep other infallible men in line!” Eva argued.

“Anyway, we will negotiate the genome and create a human life form, perfect in its efficacy.”

“So, you need an egg from me and you can do this?”

“Without question.”

“Just for experimentation purposes, correct? I mean, after a certain interval, we’re talking, you’ll destroy the specimen, right?”

“No.”

“Art…Artemis, you can’t procure life by artificial means and keep it to grow in some lab like a mold spore.”

“That’s where you come in. I want you to carry it to full gestation.”

“Absolutely not.” Eva balked.

“But you said your mother wanted you to have kids.”

“Yes, but the normal way! Not by a scientific assembly line in some cold, clinical lab! Children are born out of love, Artemis, not by osmosis.”

“I wasn’t born out of love.” Narcisco said glumly. “I was a mistake. MY father said that to me over and over.”

“So…what? Are you trying to fix that mistake by doing this?”

“No.” He said and looked at Eva. “So, will you help me?”

“I think you do need help.” Eva said. “But not the kind I can give you.”

“You have to help me. You’re my only hope of getting this project off the drawing table.”

“Listen to you! You’re talking about it like some project.”

“Well, it is. It’s not like a natural childbirth.”

“Exactly and I won’t be a part of this. It’s diabolical.”

“But I need you.” Narcisco whined. “You must do this for me! For science.”

“Now you’re sounding pathetic, Artemis, really? You don’t even have the balls to ask me like any normal guy. You know, the older ladies in the lab said you were weird but I felt sorry for you. I had no idea how right they were.”

“Don’t leave!” He said in an anxious manner. His voice was louder than before and some people were looking over at him and Eva. He grabbed on to her sleeve.

Eva felt her face flush. “Let me go. I’ve had enough of your bizarre ideas for one night.”

“Eva, you can’t go! I won’t let you!”

“Oh no? Watch me leave.” She said and flung his hand away with a grand gesture. She walked out the door and around the office building where the cafe was located and towards the parking lot.

Narcisco caught up with her as she was cursing up a storm and stomping towards her car. “Wait, Eva! I need to talk to you.”

“Artemis, Art, whatever the hell your name is, if you don’t leave me alone, so help me I’ll start to scream! Leave me alone! I don’t want you to talk to me at work, I don’t want you to look at me at work, nothing. I don’t want any more emails, no contact, nada, zip! Got it?”

“But you’re perfect for this and it won’t hurt at all. You can have visitation rights, whatever you want.”

“Oh my God, you’re not getting this! Leave me alone!”

“Look, I’ll pay you.”

“Get another surrogate and leave me the hell alone.” She said as she fumbled for her keys.

“Eva, please, listen to reason.”

“No, you listen to it. I am not interested. It’s sick. It’s depraved. If you ever bring it up again, I will go to Dr. Lusus and to the authorities.” She threatened him and shook her head. “At least a normal guy would have tried to take me to bed. You really do need help.” She grumbled as she opened her car door, got in and locked it. She turned on the ignition and nearly backed up over him.

Narcisco watched her drive off down the street. He didn’t recall much after that, except for that the next day she did not show up for work. Her car was missing as well. The police questioned Narcisco as they did everyone at the lab. Narcisco had thought ahead to erase his and Eva’s emails on the server. The detectives even suspected her old college boyfriend who had been emailing her lately on her personal email and at work and put him on surveillance for awhile. The case went nowhere fast and then went cold.

No one ever suspected the timid lab technician of any malfeasance. Not the police, the newspapers who ran the story of the mysterious disappearance, nor his colleagues. No one suspected that he had gotten into his car that night in a fit of blind rage and drove her off the road, flipping her vehicle into a ditch which then rolled into the nearby lake. The way he saw it, he had saved her from drowning that night, although she had been paralyzed in the accident. He decided it was his responsibility to take care of her.

Nobody would ever believe such a story where his only defense would have been that he couldn’t recall. He had to produce an excuse more credible to save himself. He couldn’t remember much, but did remember putting her in his back seat and sending her car to the bottom of the lake by sticking it in neutral and letting it lumber clumsily downhill. He recalled the gurgled noises she made as the paralysis began to set into her vocal chords and how he took her to live in his house and how he cared for her that night when he should have really taken her to the hospital. He put her in his bedroom and then later on, he would build room for her in his attic and how he always kept the door shut tight. He would order the best medical supplies online and set her up in a quasi-hospital setting in her new room. He had kept her incapacitated frame nourished by intravenous tube and bathed her and changed her while he watched her belly grow with his progeny.

The look in her eye could be described as one of insurmountable fear but Narcisco liked to think it was the recognition of finding her one true love. Not long after the baby was born, he caught her trying to escape, as he reasoned even though she had only tried to move and knocked over the tube, she was slowly and most frighteningly lowered into a medically induced coma under his auspices behind a locked bedroom door.

The door had remained locked throughout Cain’s childhood. He was forbidden to go into the room. In fact, Narcisco had always held onto the key. It wasn’t hard for Cain to figure out the old man’s hiding place for the key. He had seen the old man get drunk and fumble around for the key and go into the room and shut the door and cry aloud. It was an odd way for a father to act, Cain knew.

That had been many years ago. Their child, as Narcisco liked to refer to him, Cain, had grown into a strapping young man of twenty.  Narcisco was pleased to note that there had been no deformities and no childhood illnesses, other than the occasional cold or flu. Cain was the spitting image of his father as was Eva’s own genetic offspring an identical clone, Lily. It was a prescient thing Narcisco had done, for Eva did not survive long after their second test subject was born. On one beautiful spring day, Narcisco buried his dearly loved Eva on a hill overlooking his century-old farmhouse. But now Lily would naturally take her place. In this way, Eva would live on through Lily. But there was a problem.

Narcisco had raised the spawn as they had been both originally raised. Both went to the finest schools and no expense was spared in bringing them up correctly. Cain studied science and physics while Lily took all the prerequisite courses and studies her mother took such as piano, ballet and education and sciences were also strongly stressed upon her. Lily was not in the least interested. Cain became a glaring problem to Narcisco. As a mirror-image to his creator, a self-realization hit Narcisco.

“Was I really that annoying at that age?” Narcisco wondered. Not to mention, Cain displayed a perpetual self-loathing and signs of sociophobia that became abundantly clear as to where he’d inherited these traits.

Sadly, he held no more pride in Lily. She was supposed to have been a pristine duplicate of his beloved Eva. Both of the children held such promise but had been such bitter disappointments. He learned of Lily’s immoral behavior with boys as well as alcohol and drug use and vehemently disapproved. This set the two apart. More than this, Lily was revolted by Narcisco’s attempts to flirt with her, let alone to try to romance her.

Unbeknownst to Narcisco, Cain had retrieved the key to the room and had gained access. The room had not been changed since Eva’s death. In this secretive sanctum, Narcisco had kept all of his scientific notes and books on genetic manipulation and how he had used Eva’s eggs and his hair cells to create life. It was a nightmarish discovery for Cain. He had long-suspected that the lady he had sketchy memories of who had lived in the room had been his mother but was not ready to learn such an atrocity. He waited for Narcisco to come home one day after work. Narcisco was startled to see the door off the landing opened and raced up the stairs. Inside, he found a room as though a typhoon had gone through it.

“Is this true?” Lily’s voice broke.

“When were you going to tell me?” Cain screamed at Narcisco as he stood in the doorway. Cain sitting in the middle of the room with books, photos and notes scattered about him. Lily stood nearby and had obviously been crying.

“You two should not be in here!” Narcisco stumbled for words.

“When were you going to tell us?” Lily corrected Cain.

“You shouldn’t have opened the door! I’ve told you two a million times never to open this door!”

“You’re insane.” Cain spat. “You always told me I had been born at County, now I see you’ve been lying to us all along.”

“Is this true?” Lily asked.

“You’ve got no right to be in here, going through my personal things.”

“Is this true?” Lily asked again, only this time screaming the question at him.

“Eva, please. I mean, Lily.” Narcisco awkwardly fumbled for words. “I was going to tell you.-”

“”It is true! It’s why we never saw our birth records or social security card or anything. Just worthless school i.d.’s. Enough with your lies.” Cain said. “C’mon Lily, let’s leave.”

“Is it true what you wrote here?” Lily cried. “That Eva didn’t love you so you created me to love you?”

Narcisco felt his face flush. “It’s true.” He nodded.

“You’re sick, old man.” Cain spat. “It doesn’t matter because Lily loves me, don’t you, Lily?”

“That can’t be!” Narcisco sputtered. “I made you for me!”

“Eww! Lily shuddered. “Gross.”

“But you can’t go with Cain. He’s your brother.”

“Not according to your notes. We just came out of the same test tube, pops.” Cain snapped.

“I do love Cain.” Lily said and went over and grabbed onto his arm.

“I won’t allow this!” Narcisco became enraged. “Over my dead body.”

“Out of our way.” Cain said as the two of them tried to get past Narcisco.

“No.” Narcisco stood firm.

“One last time. Out of our way. I’ll go to the police with all of this.”

“Cain, I’m warning you.”

“Fine, have it your way.” Cain said and lunged for Narcisco. The two grappled together and hit the floor as Lily shrieked. In the end, Cain beat the older man to death with the very heavy Erlenmeyer flask in which he had been created before it shattered in a bloody mess all over Narcisco’s head.

As there had never been any public record of the two, the police were baffled by the crime and as they collected and poured over the copious notes, they assured themselves that they were the ramblings of one very twisted individual. However, there was one positive end to this mysterious crime. From the long-winded notes of Dr. Narcisco, it was clear that he had been the culprit behind a most dreadful crime who conducted horrendous experiments on an innocent young woman. Interestingly, the cold case of Eva Miller had been definitively closed but his murder would remain forever unsolved.

Fiction

Flash Fiction: Safeguarding Quiz by Leilanie Stewart

“So, can anyone tell me, what is meant by the term, vulnerable child?” asked the Child Protection Officer.

Silence fell across the meeting room as the sixty-plus teachers contemplated the question. The Child Protection Officer waited for an answer from her podium at the front.

“Anyone?”

“A CLA – a Child Looked After,” said the Art teacher. “Or any child who is statemented?”

“Correct,” said the Child Protection officer. “But apart from CLA’s in foster care, or statemented kids with SEN requirements, any child who needs some kind of support to attain average levels of mainstream education is termed vulnerable.”

A hushed snigger went round the room. The Child Protection Officer smiled. “Yes, you’ve caught on. That means most of the kids at this school, doesn’t it? Now then, next question. Can anyone tell me, what does the term neglect mean in regards to Child Protection?”

The Science teacher put up his hand. “Er… when a child isn’t getting the proper food and care?”

“That’s right. Neglect means when a child’s physical or psychological needs aren’t being met. Same question then, in relation to sexual abuse.”

“Rape,” said the P.E. teacher. “Incest. Subjecting a child to pornographic materials. An adult coercing a youngster into sex.”

“Yes,” said the Child Protection Officer. She shifted her stance on the podium, an air of discomfort about her expression. “How about physical abuse?”

The I.C.T teacher put up a hand. “I think physical abuse means excessive hitting of a child.”

An eruption of laughter broke out across the sixty-plus teachers.

“Excessive?” prompted the Child Protection Officer.

“Well… I think it’s ok to hit your child, but not to leave a bruise.”

“So a bruise is excessive?”

“I guess… yeah.” The I.C.T teacher gave an awkward smile.

The Media teacher sniggered. “We need to find ways to not bruise our kids then!”

“Hit them on the ankle or foot where it won’t be seen,” laughed the Learning Support teacher.

The Child Protection Officer gave a tight-lipped smile until the room descended into calm once more.

“Alright then, I think you’ve all established what excessive means.” She turned to the I.C.T teacher. “Oh… and welcome back from your maternity leave, Angela.”