The Modern Prometheus
My bike jolts whenever I speed over a rock or twig, the little obstacles hidden under the red and yellow blanket of fallen leaves. It's not yet cold enough for my huffing breaths to show in a cloud, but cold enough to necessitate the dark purple woven scarf around my neck. The path I ride along is scenic and winding. The trees blur past me as I weave between the trunks. My school, the Shelley Institute of Biochemical Science and Industry, owns these woods, but I'm riding out just far enough to feel completely alone. Campus is like another world in the fall season, the forests of mature trees going ablaze with their farewell colors. I'm drowning in the sea of tranquil brown and orange, but an old brick house soon comes into view.
I hop off my bike and walk it over to the side of the house, letting it lean against the wilting creeping ivy. Backpack hanging on me, I step up onto the wooden porch and stomp off any mud I may have tracked around before slipping through the front door. It's taken a few visits here to grow comfortable entering without knocking, but the Professor insists I don't need to worry about formalities like that. I pull my fingerless gloves off and stuff them into my coat pockets, walking deeper and deeper into the dwelling.
"Emily," a gravelly voice greets from around the corner. I can hear my name said through a tired smile. "What did you bring for me today?"
I walk through a living room filled with furniture that looks like it hasn't been used since the 1800's, cobwebs clinging to the ceiling and a layer of powdery dust covering the floor.
"Leftover Thanksgiving turkey sandwiches," I say around the corner where the voice had come from and enter what used to be a kitchen.
Cloudy, used beakers line the linoleum countertops, each one filled with some untraceable mixture of chemicals, most left unused. Instead of a refrigerator, the rectangular cutout in the cupboards showcases a complex and realistic human dummy, complete with digestive, nervous, and cardiovascular systems. The stench of formaldehyde and dead animals surrounds me, but I've grown used to awful odors as a biology student.
The Professor sits at a rough-textured wooden desk that doesn't fit well in the kitchen. His wiry jaw-length black hair hides his face from view as he hunches over something, hands deftly and hurriedly tinkering at an object I can't see. I swear he sits in that position so often that people will start calling him Quasimodo. He doesn't turn around when I politely clear my throat.
"What should I start working on, sir?" I ask after hunting down a clear space on the desk and claiming it with my backpack. The Professor looks up from his work, his yellow eyes meeting mine for a brief second before he drops the dead sparrow in his hand and pushes things aside to make more room.
"Let's eat before you work. I'm sure your leftovers will taste just as good the second, or fifth, time around." He smiles when I laugh lightheartedly at his joke, and I pull the two sandwiches from my bag.
The Professor opens the little plastic container and reaches right for the food. I can't hold back a grimace when I think about how many diseases from that dead bird now crawl across the sandwich he's about to eat. I wash my hands in the sink, unintentionally adding a few extra pumps of soap to my palm. Seeing my reaction, the Professor chuckles through a mouthful of bread.
"It's endearing that you worry about my health, but I promise it's entirely unnecessary," he explains. "Nothing in this bird can harm me because her spores are completely organic. Bacteria is a part of life. Your friends in microbiology would tell you that bacteria is life. And this bird's state of death doesn't change that, for life and death are but a small spark apart." At the word 'spark,' the Professor sharply snaps his fingers to illustrate his point.
"Talk as poetically as you want," I say, "but salmonella doesn't care about pretty words." The Professor laughs again and returns to his eating, and I am left thinking nothing of the germs anymore.
After finishing my own sandwich, I take my usual position in the corner of the room where a small generator sits on the floor, looking out of place even in this eclectic collection of things the Professor calls his home. It whirs to life when I flip the power switch, and the gadget attached to it sizzles with electricity. The gadget—the Professor calls it 'the Eden'—is palm size, made up of thrown together brass parts and a tangle of wires. Four long copper prongs stick out from it like the legs of a stool. When connected to the generator, flashes of electricity hiss between the four prongs. The static is so bright that I picture myself in the middle of a storm, lightning cracking all around me.
The Professor, as he had told me, built the Eden some years ago, long before I met him. Though it looks like any ordinary B rated high school science project, the Professor handles it with the utmost care. Once I asked why it was so special to him, and he responded by saying the device housed 'a metaphysical essence of life.' I stopped questioning him about the Eden's composition after that. He handles the parts of our experiments that deal with electricity and gives me little lessons on currents or wattage here and there. I've only just begun my internship with him, but by the time we finish whatever it is he recruited me to accomplish, I hope to be just as technologically inclined as he is. Stuff like that looks good on résumés.
I am fortunate to have landed this internship so early in my education. My freshman year started a few months ago, and I actually stumbled upon the Professor's house by accident. He politely and formally introduced himself while I stood there stricken with the fear I had unintentionally intruded upon a serial killer's property. The Professor took a more enthralled interest in me when I mentioned I was a biology student. He offered me a paid apprenticeship, and how could I have turned it down? Despite starting the internship so recently, I've already learned more about science than any of my classes have taught me.
"Do you have any new pieces for me?" I ask as I line up the procedural equipment on the counter in front of me.
"Yes, check the box by the back door." The Professor gives his answer without as much as a glance in my direction, already engrossed in his own project again.
I step around the dusty, rusty junk in the kitchen to get to the box, a faded red milk crate inside of which holding a freshly deceased raccoon. I pluck it from the box by the scruff like it's a living cat and bring it to my station, its head and limbs dangling to the side when I place the creature on its back. I find no wounds on its body. For the hundredth time, I wonder where and how the Professor finds perfect specimens such as this one all the time, but my rationality tells me it's best not to know. I take up my scalpel and make a clean incision down the raccoon's sternum. When blood starts to flow, I place a bucket under the lip of the counter to catch all the drips. The pitter-patter grows louder as droplets fill the bucket.
"Vitals are intact," I tell the Professor. He scoots over from the desk and leans above my shoulder to see for himself. His breath is foul, like he eats these raw dead animals for dinner, but I don't give a reaction or point it out to him.
"The Eden, please," he instructs.
I slide on a black rubber glove built specifically for handling electrical equipment before touching the device. The Professor grabs it with his bare hand, and just like when he grabs food without washing up, I can't understand why he doesn't concern himself over the threat of electrocution. I watch with curiosity as he handles the Eden. Sparks dance between the prongs. The current touches his skin, brushing featherlike over the backs of his fingers, but he shows no signs of pain from it. Maybe the glove he gave me is just a precautionary measure. Still, I don't remove it just yet.
The Professor pulls wires from the Eden and attaches them via metal clips to various organs in the raccoon's blooming torso: the heart, both lungs, and the spinal cord. He works like he's done it dozens of times before, but this is the first I'm witnessing anything so interesting in my otherwise tedious internship in this house. The Professor cranks up the power on the generator, causing the Eden's electricity to snap and break audibly. My feet take steps backward, but my neck cranes forward to see every little detail. Right before my eyes, biology marries technology in a frightening display of blueish white cracks of miniature lightning. God, how fascinating.
Plumes of smoke erupt. Whether from the animal's body or the Eden, I can't tell which. The Professor coughs and waves a hand in front of his face to clear the fog from his lungs. When it disperses, I catch a glimpse of movement from the raccoon. Its limp body jerks and twitches like those cartoons that get comically electrocuted. My eyes must be tricking me because the second I shift closer, the movement ceases.
The Professor, it seems, is delighted by this reaction. He smiles and laughs like that was exactly what he wanted to happen. He turns to me, pointing to the raccoon.
"Did you see that, Emily?" His voice brightens, his eyes just as luminous through their yellowish dullness. I'm left with the unsettling realization that my own eyes hadn't been tricking me after all.
"See what, sir?"
"He tried to get away from the shock. He wanted to run because instinct told him to." If seeing a dead animal move surprises the Professor at all, it doesn't show in his voice.
But it's dead. The statement hangs off my lips, remaining unspoken though I'm sure it's written all over my face. I'm starting to doubt my certainty as I stare into the raccoon's folded open body.
He waits for my reaction, but when I don't give one, he turns and removes the clips from the animal's organs. I watch him move around, a busy bee in his hive practically buzzing with thought.
"I'll have to find a new subject, one fresher and with healthy entrails," the Professor says.
"Professor," I start, still working the words through my head. Like usual, he doesn't look at me when I speak, but I touch his shoulder just in case he's too immersed to listen. "Professor, why do you need another animal?"
"To test the Eden with again," he answers and pulls an empty crate up to the counter, unceremoniously swiping the raccoon's corpse into it. When he exits through the back door to dispose of it in the woods, I clean up the space left behind with some disinfecting wipes from my backpack. Where the raccoon had just been resting, the countertop is warm. I scrunch up my face and turn off the generator.
The Professor comes back with something squirming under his dark cloak of a trench coat. He kicks the door shut and reaches into the folds of his faded baggy clothes, revealing a live squirrel underneath. It struggles noiselessly in the Professor's grasp, mouth agape in vain attempts to bite him. Its eyes show the kind of fear that it knows it's going to be killed. The Professor proudly watches my face as I watch the squirrel.
"How'd you manage to catch it?" I ask. I can't imagine him outrunning or out-climbing a squirrel.
"Luck, my dear."
Without further explanation, the Professor carries the creature to the counter and motions for me to come watch. He lays it on its back, easily handling the small, angry mammal, and wraps his thumb and forefinger around its throat. Its fearful squeaks make my chest ache. It claws at the Professor's hand, but its tiny nails do nothing on his calloused and cracked skin. The Professor squeezes just hard enough to cut off the air while mindful to not crush its throat completely. Eventually, all movement ceases, and the squirrel's black eyes dull to something even darker.
"Feel her neck. Tell me what you find," the Professor instructs, removing his hand to let me take his place.
I hold my breath and press my first two fingers to soft fur. Like I suspect, I don't feel any broken bones or damage to the trachea.
"No pulse. It's dead," I confirm.
"Excellent. Open her up for me now, if you don't mind."
I nod and take my scalpel in hand. With the precision of thousands of practice dissections, I cut down the sternum and abdomen and peel away the layers of fur, skin, and muscle. Its blood pools and mixes with the raccoon's in the old bucket, getting my fingers slippery. The bones of the ribs are small, almost as fragile as a bird's, and I carefully split them apart to unveil the most crucial of organs underneath. Mammals, I've found, all look the same at this organic level. Humans are no exception.
The Professor watches over my shoulder, giving a small hum of approval once the creature lies exposed for him. He takes my place at the counter.
"The generator, if you please." He gestures with a flick of his fingers.
I turn the device on for the second time today and stand back as the Eden spits and sizzles. The Professor grabs it hastily and attaches the metal clips to the same, scaled-down parts as he had done with the raccoon.
"Now you stand here. Observe," he instructs me and moves out of the way.
"What exactly am I observing?" I stand where he tells me and eye the Eden's electrical pulses warily.
"Progress, Emily. The very reason I asked you to come work under my wing."
The Professor turns the generator's power up a full two notches, the same level we tested with the raccoon. The squirrel's body reacts in a similar way, jumping and convulsing at the current running through it. The demonstration lasts longer, though, and the movements don't halt immediately like they had before.
My eyebrows pull together, and I lean closer in a tantalizing mix of confusion and curiosity. Under the white-blue sparks of light emitting from the metal clips, the ripe red muscle of the heart leaps. It quivers like an abused animal, contracting and expanding in a way that resembles the inhale and exhale of lungs. It takes me a moment to realize that the heart isn't breathing at all. It's beating.
I purse my lips. I've seen this kind of science before.
"We didn't have to cut the squirrel open to restart its heart," I say with accusation in my tone. "The medical field already has the technology to do that. It's called a defibrillator."
The Professor meets my eyes with an even gaze, taking my words into consideration. He then reaches past me to pick up a sharp, intimidating knife on the counter behind me. He raises his arm, brings the knife down rapidly, and cuts right through the squirrel's neck. The sickening crunch of its decapitation makes me cringe while the Professor's expression remains calm.
On the counter the Eden still buzzes, the heart still beats, and the Professor so effortlessly dismantles everything I know to be true. As the squirrel's now useless head rolls away from the knife, the rest of its body hums with life. I cover my mouth because the possibility of throwing up feels very real now.
"I would not waste your time if I practiced the kind of science that already exists," the Professor tells me. "Here, we dance with something much more powerful."
"My God..." The words leave my lips in disbelief. The Professor rests a hand tenderly on my shoulder.
"Your God wants no business here. Nor would mine, but mine is dead." He reaches with his other hand to cut the power, but my eyes stay wide and locked on the dead animal even when all the thrumming ebbs. "You know what this means, correct? We have the power to reverse death, to bring life back to the things life had abandoned. It's beautiful."
No, that doesn't sound right. My mouth hangs open as I scramble for the more fitting word to describe how this situation sits on my conscience.
"It's wrong," I force out, looking at the Professor with a frown.
"Now, Emily," he starts. I step away from him so his hand no longer reaches me, and he sighs. "I know how this must feel for you. It's against the laws of nature, yes, but you are smart enough to consider things previously thought to be impossible. Everything, even science, has more than two sides to the coin."
"Why me, out of all the students in this school? It's a monster of a science institute with thousands of other half-decent bio kids, so why me?" I mean for my words to come out angrily, but they sound slow, weak. To my own surprise, I am more awed than I am disgusted.
"You had the spark," he answers simply.
"What spark?" My mind wanders to the sparks of lightning that come from the Eden. Earlier today, the Professor said something with similar conviction. 'Life and death are but a small spark apart.'
"The spark of inquisitiveness, of intelligence." The Professor leans close to me, voice dropping down to a whisper. "The spark of life." I study his face, the earnest expression under his sagging and wrinkled skin. I trust that face, trust what he tells me, and a resigned sigh leaves my lips.
"I'm sorry for not believing you," I murmur. The Professor smiles and gives my shoulder a light squeeze.
"I can see this has taken quite a lot out of you. We'll stop here for now, and I will see you again tomorrow so we can resume. I have bigger and better things planned for the two of us."
I dutifully return to the Professor's home the next day. Half of me wonders if the events of the day before have been made up or exaggerated in my head. When I step into the dilapidated and familiar home, everything seems how it has been for months. The Professor stands hunched over his desk and barely glances in my direction as he greets me with the usual "Good afternoon, Emily."
Without asking for instructions, I check the crate for a new dead animal and find two raccoons. Like the first one, no wounds mar their bodies. I lay them on their backs, remembering yesterday when the Professor so gracefully choked that squirrel to death. That must've been what he did with all of the animals.
"Wait." The urgency in the Professor's voice gives me pause, the scalpel in my hand hovering inches above one of the raccoons' throats. I turn my head and look at him, taken back by this break in my routine.
The Professor hobbles over to me and swiftly, gently takes the scalpel from my fingers.
"Not with these," he whispers. "Progress must be made, lest we find ourselves in an eternal rut. We won't be attaching the clips to their internal organs."
"Then what are we attaching them to?" I ask. It strikes me with a certain kind of shame that I have been excited to see the electric current igniting life back in the corpse of an animal. I want to do the same things as yesterday, to feel that surge of power as if I had been the one to get electrocuted instead of the squirrel.
"Think, Emily." The Professor smiles and waves for me to look at the corpses, guiding me forward with a hand in the center of my back. "Let me ask you this: could a raccoon that's been mauled by a fox come back to life? Or would its wounds be too great for the vessel to function again?"
"I guess it would depend on how bad the injuries are," I answer carefully, unsure of what the Professor hints at.
To demonstrate, he uses my scalpel to make random and jagged cuts along one of the raccoons' bodies. Without a beating heart, the blood doesn't sputter out like it does with hacked victims in horror movies. Instead, it seeps out sleepily, trickling over our hands and onto the counter. The Professor impressively draws the wounds to look just like teeth and claw marks, what I imagine it would be if the animal really did suffer through a predator attack. There would be no way for it to survive with how deep the injuries went. The Professor sets down the scalpel once he deems his point made.
"Given the supplies around us, how would you bring him back to life?" he asks.
I take in our surroundings and build up a mental inventory of what I could use. Off to the side sits a display of surgical tools: small scissors, knives, tweezers, and suture string. On the other side lays the other, perfectly intact raccoon. The generator and the Eden remain at the edge of the counter, turned off but calling out for purpose.
My body moves on its own. I slide the other raccoon closer to the first one and begin cutting away at certain parts of its body. I take sections of fur, muscle, and organs out and line them up with the wounds on the first animal. I'm focused, eyes trained on the feverish tampering of my hands. I see red, and I'm not sure if it's just the blood on my hands or the intensity of my determination. The Professor watches in silence as I thread the suture string on a needle and begin sewing the borrowed body parts onto our unfortunate experiment. The animal is closed up once again, its body crossed with messy stitches. They may not be its own parts, but now all the parts are healthy.
"Brilliant." Next to me, the Professor grins. "Now where will we connect the Eden? We can't reach his heart anymore, so tell me how to shock his organs into life."
"The neck," I try. "One on each side. Maybe on the temples too." I glance at the Professor to see if my guess is correct, and he cackles amusedly in response.
"You are so bright, my dear pupil. Yes, yes, exactly. Let us test it out and see what results we can conjure."
He takes care of the generator, leaving me to deal with the Eden and the metal clips. As the device hums with life, I am once again entranced by the ethereal display of electricity that jumps from prong to prong. I touch the Eden without my rubber glove for the first time, almost wanting the lightning to reach my skin just so I might experience the rush.
Feeling nothing out of the ordinary, I return my gaze to the animal and chew my lip as my fingers take up the clips. I have to dig through thick fur to find some skin, but I manage to connect the wires. When I'm sure they're secure, I give the Professor a nod.
The generator groans as the Professor increases the power. My eyes follow the line of wires from the bulky gadget, through the Eden, and into the raccoon. The metal clips sizzle with intensity and cause a smoke to billow up from the corpse, and the smell of rotting flesh is temporarily masked by the rising scent of burnt skin.
Through the smoke, the raccoon lives. It happens slowly, inch by inch. First, its fingers and toes twitch, a different kind of movement from that of simply getting electrocuted. It's thinking, conscious. Then the chest begins to rise and fall, slowly at first, like the poor creature just remembered how to breathe. The respirations grow steadily quicker and more anxious. Does it recall being dead? Can it feel the foreign organs now working to keep their new master alive?
Beady, black eyes blink out of focus. It struggles to stand upright, to gain footing on all fours, but the Professor holds it down by its bony shoulders. Just inches away, I remain completely paralyzed, caught somewhere between utter terror and unadulterated amazement. Ever since yesterday, I had known this was exactly what the Professor wanted to do, but the fact that he actually did it—that we did it—still shocks me as the raccoon convulses from overstimulation. We brought it back to life, but the electricity is slowly killing it once again.
Everything stops all at once, and for a moment I think my heart has as well. But I feel it thumping rapidly in my chest, the forceful drum beat ringing in my skull. I blink and miss the presence of the Professor next to me. I hadn't noticed when he moved away, but he's standing near the generator again. The power has been pulled back completely, ceasing the raccoon's rebirth in the process. It lays dead once again, and the only evidence of its brief second life is the smell of burnt flesh where the clips have seared it.
I take a few deep breaths through my nose as my pupils dial back down to normal size. The Professor clears his throat.
"We have accomplished something unfathomable to today's world, but we have much more ahead of us." He nods toward the raccoon, and I agree. If we are to reanimate a self-sufficient creature, we need to stabilize the life before taking away the electrical current.
"Are you feeling alright?" he asks when I don't say anything. "You look as though you've seen a ghost."
"I have," I say with winded exasperation, smiling softly at my professor. "That was…" My words trail off when I can't give a name to my emotions.
He nods pensively. "I understand how it feels. The first time I experienced such a feat left me in the most frustrating state of wordlessness."
"You've done this before?"
"Only once, a long time ago. But I was a different man back then."
The Professor's response is so subdued that I open my mouth to ask what's wrong, what he meant by that, but he speaks before I have the chance.
"Would you be so kind as to dispose of the creatures for me?" he asks. "I have a composting shed in the back where the previous ones have been lain to rest. While we could continue our efforts on the same subject, I am not so cruel as to force him to suffer through birth and death more than necessary."
I give him a quick "of course" in response, fingers already unclipping the first raccoon from the Eden and gathering up the scraps of the second. With one and a half raccoons in my arms, I walk into the back.
There isn't much of a yard behind the house. It's brown bark and yellow leaves as far as the eye can see. The trees fit around the Professor's house so snugly that the branches above overlap and block out the sky. I like the canopy. It traps warm air underneath even in the cooling November, near December air. I can't wait to see what this wonderland looks like with bright white snow covering every inch of the forest floor.
The compost shed stands alone a few yards away from the house. The interior is small, so I remain in the threshold as I decide on where to leave the bodies. In here the smell wafts around me, rancid with rotting food, waste, and decomposing carcasses of all the animals the Professor and I have tested on. Beneath all of it is a bed of fresh soil, giving off the scent of rain and earthiness. It's heaven for the flies and the worms.
I look down at the stitched-together animal in my arms and stroke the side of its face as if it was a beloved pet. Its eyes are closed, and I feel both sad and relieved that they will never open again. Out of the three large bins inside the shed, I choose the one closest to me and lift up the lid. It's too dark to see what else lies inside, but I don't need to find out. After setting the raccoons down and replacing the lid, I lock the door behind me and brush my hands together to dispense the dirt and grime.
Riding my bike to and from the Professor's house gets too dangerous in the snow that blankets campus. After trudging through the loose powder and getting my wheels stuck a dozen times, I decided to abandon the bike altogether and hoof it through the woods. I had asked my parents to send some durable winter boots, and I excitedly tested them out as soon as the box arrived. Only two trips back and forth from the Professor's house and they're already molded nicely to the soles of my feet.
I stomp the boots in the hallway before walking through my dorm door, shaking off the cold and a few drops of clingy snow. In an attempt to keep the room clean, I wrap the wet, muddy boots in a plastic bag before dropping them to the floor. Lupe, my roommate, shuffles around her half of the dorm as she haphazardly packs clothes in a huge suitcase.
"How was the final?" she asks over her shoulder.
"Oh, I wasn't at a final." I unwrap my scarf, then peel away layer after layer of heavy-duty outerwear until I'm left in a vintage holiday sweater and worn-down leggings. "I was at the Professor's."
Lupe pauses her work to straighten up and look at me, nose crinkling.
"Yeah, you smell like death. Does that guy live in a morgue or something?" She makes a show of waving her hand in front of her face before going back to her pile of laundry.
"I work with dead animals," I give as an excuse with a shrug she doesn't see. Lifting my shirt collar to my nose, I take a short whiff and don't smell anything too out of the ordinary. I've grown used to the musty stench of taxidermy. As a psychology major, Lupe doesn't have to deal with dissections as much as I do. A shower won't hurt, though.
"It's worse than dead animals," she insists.
"Do you need help packing?" I offer, but as soon as I ask, Lupe zips her suitcase shut. It looks lumpy over the clothing she didn't bother to fold.
"You should work on your own packing before you help with mine." She grins at me, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand.
"I'm not going home," I say casually and begin digging through the closet for my bathroom caddy.
"What?" Lupe nearly squawks, making me turn around in surprise. "It's Christmas break. We're gonna be out of school for, like, two months."
"It's really only a month and a half," I correct, then look down at my fuzzy sock-clad feet.
"So you're just gonna stay here while the whole campus is empty? What about your family? Don't you guys do stuff for Christmas?" Lupe steps close, her voice loud but laced with confusion and concern. "What could you possibly do here all by yourself?"
"My internship…" I mumble, feeling insecure about my choice to skip out on the holidays. It makes sense to prioritize my education, doesn't it? Just a few months ago, Lupe and my other friends had raved on and on with how jealous they were about my opportunity. Now, I lower my voice when I talk about the Professor's house like it's something taboo. "I already talked to my parents about it. They're fine with me staying over break."
"Are they really fine with it, Emily?" Lupe crosses her arms.
"Well, yeah, they'd rather have me at home, but they know how important this is." I glance to the side, hearing my mother's defeated tone when I told her I wouldn't be going home. She sounded sad, sure, but she didn't say no. "There's always next Christmas, anyway."
"Yeah, yeah." Lupe rolls her eyes and smiles again. "You're crazy, you know that?"
"No crazier than the rest of us."
She gives me a brief hug before I head down the hall to the showers, saying she'd be gone before I got back.
Over the next few months, my hours at the Professor's house extend to the point where I spend more time working with him instead of doing homework in my own dorm room. He carefully and patiently explains to me the science of bioelectricity, letting me discover new details like every day is a thrilling chapter in a book with an ending I couldn't wait for. I love every page I turn.
It's summer now, and my parents were upset to hear I wouldn't be going home again. My only regret is that I can't tell them how close I am to the discovery of something great.
When I arrive at the house on a particularly hot day, the first thing I notice is all the windows tightly shut, and as I let myself in, the second thing I notice is the Professor sitting on the dusty couch in the living room.
"I was beginning to think you were permanently attached to the laboratory," I say lightheartedly. I set my backpack on the floor next to a medieval-looking china cabinet and slide all the windows open. It invites a nice cross-breeze, dispelling some of the suffocating heat.
"I am like a fine painting. I'm old and often stay in the same place for long periods of time," he responds.
I laugh and dig around through my backpack for the snacks I brought for both of us. Behind me I hear the Professor moving to stand up, but a weak wheeze punctuates his breath, and he sits down again. I forget about the food for the moment and turn around to make sure he's alright.
If I ask him if he needs help, he'll say he doesn't, so I simply offer my hand out in case he wants to stand again. He shakes his head, and I can see sweat shimmering around the edges of his face.
"Professor…" I say with a slight frown. Lately, I have noticed him getting weaker, but I thought it was just the result of the intense work we throw ourselves into every day. Reanimation is an emotionally exhausting process, and maybe it has been taking a toll on the Professor's body. He's old, after all, but I realize now that I never asked exactly how old.
"I will be fine, my dear. The heat slows me down at times."
I don't believe the heat is the only reason for his sluggishness, but I run to the kitchen anyway and fill a glass with ice water. Holding the cup to his mouth, I make him drink in small sips. He smiles gratefully.
"You would make the perfect nurse," he tells me.
"I'd never forgive myself if all I ever did was be a perfect nurse," I say, ignoring the irony that I am in fact a pre-med biology student. Once, I offhandedly commented that I should quit school because I was learning so many more exhilarating things with the Professor, but he quickly and sternly told me that getting an education will be the best thing I can ever do for myself.
"Take it from someone who knows," he has said. "Knowledge is the most powerful weapon with which you can equip yourself. With it, you are immortal."
Looking at him now, he seems anything but. Every so often I catch him touching his chest, right over his heart, feeling it beat. I want to tell him to see a doctor, but that would be an invasion of his privacy even despite how close we've grown as teacher and student. I'm suddenly hoping that he teaches me everything I need to know before he dies so I may continue our groundbreaking work. I know I will never forget the things he's taught me, and I suppose that is what he meant by knowledge making someone immortal.
A cool, wet sensation dots my calf, accompanied by the sound of light sniffing. I smile at the dog greeting me and reach down to pat her head. Marie is our dog, mine and the Professor's, and she is our most successful experiment. She was a yellow lab mix who died of old age a few weeks ago. She had belonged to one of my other professors at school, and I managed to get my hands on the corpse when I found out about the dog's passing. I used the excuse that I had a veterinarian sister who would cremate the dog for free—I wouldn't dare tell anyone about the true nature of our experiments; the world would call us crazy—and my teacher let me take her without a second thought.
The Professor had praised me when I showed him the dog, and together we brought her back to life. She isn't perfect; the Eden caused her to go blind even though she hadn't been in her first life. Her previously brown irises are now clouded over in a pale blue, but she is already accustomed to taking the world in through her nose instead of her eyes. Her body had been in the early stages of decomposition by the time she was brought back to life, and it remained that way even though her heart now beats and her cells regenerate to keep her alive. Her skin sags like she is nothing but a bag of bones, and her fur has taken on a pale greyish color. She moves slowly, afraid her body will fall apart. I watched her walk around, wondering why her movements looked so familiar to me. My stomach felt tight when I realized the Professor carries his body in the exact same way.
The secret to sustained life, we've discovered, is the Eden. We learned how to bring life to the lifeless, and with the help of Marie, we also learned that systematic shocks from the Eden are what prevent the body from dying again. Marie gets three shocks every day. They don't hurt her, and she's always in much better health after each electrotherapy session.
The Professor finds the strength to stand, and Marie and I follow him into the laboratory. The dog sits and patiently waits for the generator to be turned on. I pick up the Eden, but the Professor takes it from my hands. I watch as he stares into the blue lightning with his own brand of serenity, and he reaches out to touch one of the prongs with his bare fingers. I take an urgent step forward to stop him, but again, he is completely unaffected. He sighs contentedly through his nose, eyes closed for a moment. When he opens them again, he bends down to attach two clips to the sides of Marie's neck. The current runs through her, sending visible vibrations along her frame. Unlike our failed experiments who convulsed form the electricity, she thrives on it.
The Professor leaves the clips on for only a few seconds, and afterwards Marie shakes out her body and strolls into the living room to lie down for a nap. The Professor turns to me once the generator is off, and I'm captivated by the look in his eyes. He seems much better than before.
"I have told you many times, and I will say it again. I'm unyieldingly impressed by how far you've come, and I could never have wished for a better pupil."
"You don't have to say that," I tell him, though I can't keep the smile from my face. "It's thanks to you, anyway. You're the best teacher I've ever had, and probably ever will."
"'Ever' is a long time, my dear." He lightly pats my cheek in a job-well-done sort of way, and pride blossoms in my chest. "For now, unfortunately, I do not have any more specimens on which we can test. I'm sorry for making you ride out all this way just to send you home. Come back tonight. By then, I shall have something fresh we can work with."
I hesitate. "Are you sure? I don't think it's good for you to be going off on your own. I could get an animal for us since I'm here."
That, for some reason, makes him laugh. "Don't worry about an old man like me. I will manage."
It's hard to get my feet moving out the door, and once I'm gone and walking my bike away from the house, I glance over my shoulder to watch the structure get swallowed up in green.
Approaching the house at night feels different from when I see it during the day. With no light to warn me of its presence, it sneaks up on me. Surrounded by trees and creeping ivy, the stone walls resemble an ancient headstone peeking out of the earth, grey rock against a black sky save for the sliver of yellow light that pours from the first floor windows.
Marie comes from around the back and sniffs my legs, tail wagging when she recognizes me. At first I worry that she gets sent out at night, but it makes no difference to her sightless eyes, sun or moon.
We both walk onto the porch and step inside the house. The Professor's hunched shadow is thrown against the wall from the single light he uses in the laboratory, and he fusses over something on the desk I can't see. When he hears me, he steps around the corner to greet me. Though I've often stayed in his house after sundown, it isn't until now that I think the dark makes him look more like a corpse than a living human.
"Emily." The way he says my name would sound like a purr if it wasn't for the crackling in his throat. "Welcome to our final act."
He beckons me into the room, and the body of a lifeless woman on his desk startles me when I round the corner. An audible gasp escapes my mouth, my eyes going wide at the sight. My entire being freezes, except for my heart, which pounds so loudly against my ribs I'm sure the Professor can hear it. His hand goes to my wrist like he expects me to run, an explanation on the edge of his lips.
"Emily," he says again, reassuringly this time, and I drag my gaze up to his face. I want him to tell me that it's not what I think, that he didn't kill this woman, whomever she may be. I want him to say I have no reason to be afraid of him.
"Please, listen." His hand slides from my wrist up to my shoulder, and he stares intensely into my eyes. "We cannot abandon our symphony before it is finished. This is our crescendo, and I need my composer by my side to complete it. I need your help, Emily."
I swallow hard and look at the dead woman a little more closely. She's older than I am, maybe in her upper twenties, and she lies on the table completely naked with nothing to give her modesty. Her skin is the palest I've ever seen, but it's beautiful like a china doll. The pallor contrasts stunningly with the blackness of her wavy hair. She looks nothing like me. My hair is shorter and straighter and a coppery brown color. Where I have freckles, her face is clear of imperfections. If I am the warmth of day, then she is the moonless night. Her feet and hands are stained with dirt, and the purple bruises around her neck stand out in the telltale shape of fingers. The Professor takes my silence as indecision and speaks again.
"She needs your help, too. You can give her the chance at a second life."
I find my voice, and it comes out in a whisper. "I'll help."
"That means a lot to both of us. Her name is Esmerelda."
The Professor lowers his hand and takes his place at the generator. I move forward on weak legs and stand in front of the desk, my eyes never leaving Esmerelda's face. She is so gorgeous and looks so at peace, like she might be sleeping, that I don't want to disturb her.
My hands rely on muscle memory as I pinch the skin at her neck and temples to attach the clips. Before pulling away, I run my fingers down her soft cheek and expect her eyes to open. I picture them as blue, but we will find out shortly enough.
Wordlessly, the Professor turns the generator on and sets the power higher than we've ever used before. The surge causes the light to flicker, flashes running down the Eden's wires at impossible speeds. I step back as the current reaches Esmerelda's body. The unprecedented amounts of wattage coursing through her sends sparks of lightning down her limbs. It jumps from her fingertips and crackles in my direction, alive and searching for another host.
Esmerelda's body reacts to the current, seizing and cringing away from the unwelcome stimulation, but nothing else happens. Her eyes don't open, her lungs don't breathe, and the Professor draws it out for over five minutes until he cuts the power.
"Readjust the clips," he says, a small frown tugging his lips downward, "and we'll try again."
I fidget with the clips, moving them over an inch or two and making sure they're completely secure before stepping away. The power comes on again, this time at an even higher setting. The generator groans from the work it's being forced to put out, and smoke bleeds from both the Eden itself and the metal clips on Esmerelda's skin. The light overhead flickers until it sputters and sparks, dead from too much power sucked up by the generator. We are plunged into a darkness that matches the night outside, but the flashes of blue lightning show us the silhouettes of things around us.
It stops only when the Professor gives up for the second time. When my eyes adjust to the lack of light, I can see the frustration in his features.
"Again." It sounds like a growl, close to my ear.
I have to nervously feel around to find the body again, and I wince when my hand squeezes soft flesh. Rigor mortis hasn't set in yet. She is still warm to the touch, and I wonder if it's because of how freshly dead she is, or because of the intense shocks. I don't let my thoughts distract me too much, and once the clips are re-readjusted, I tell the Professor it's ready.
The generator emits a low hum that I can feel more than I can hear. It rumbles my feet, my chest, and the entire infrastructure of the house. On the highest setting now, the lightning comes back with terrifying ferocity. Its tendrils reach for everything, flashing from Esmerelda to all corners of the room, and it's so bright I have to shield my eyes. Glass shatters around me, the beakers, windows, and the lightbulb in the ceiling all blowing apart like a bomb had gone off. I wait for one spark to strike me and end my life where I stand.
Esmerelda wakes. Her eyes snap open, going from closed to as wide as they can go. They're blue just like I had imagined, blue like the lightning surrounding us all. The Professor and I take simultaneous steps forward to see her, and she arches her back off the desk and opens her mouth to release a heartbreaking scream. Her voice is so loud it fills my head completely, making it impossible to think of anything else. She doesn't waver, and I can hear the pain in her never ending cry. I reach out to my side and grab the Professor's arm.
"Turn it off!" I have to yell above the chaos just to be heard. "You're killing her again!"
"I am not killing! I am giving her the greatest gift of all: life after death!" he shouts back, manic joy giving his words substance.
Esmerelda screams on, shrill and devastating, and the Professor makes no moves to turn the generator off and end her suffering. I push past him and unplug the entire ensemble from the wall. Esmerelda's voice and body both drop at the same time, and she hits the desk with a dead thud. I blink against the darkness as I catch my breath, one hand over my heart as if that would help it calm down. The air is so still and so quiet that I think I have died in the lightning storm.
"She did not wish to live again," the Professor says after one long minute. His voice comes from somewhere off to my right, and I have to listen for his location until my eyes can see in the dark again.
"What do you mean?" My voice feels raw, like it had been me instead of Esmerelda shrieking out in pain and fear. I can see the Professor's shadow leaning over her corpse with his fingers tightly grasping the edge of the desk. He looks at me for only a moment before hanging his head again, grieving.
"Humans are different from animals. They are stubborn creatures, and if they do not want to live, they won't."
I stay silent, drinking in his words. In the quiet, the Professor slowly and methodically removes the clips from Esmerelda. He bends down, kisses her forehead, and straightens again to lift up the body. He carries her into the living room, and from my spot in the destroyed laboratory, I can hear as he lays her down on the couch. Marie trots into the room with her head hanging low, whining as she hides behind me.
"There's too much glass in here. Come on, girl." I manage to pick up the heavy dog and move her to the back door, shoes crunching over the shards of glass littering the floor. After gently setting her down and making sure she's alright in the backyard, I close the door and turn around to find the Professor's face too close to my own. It startles me enough to make me jump, but I offer him a small smile as I step around him.
"Sorry, I didn't hear you come back in," I say.
"Don't worry, my dear. I've been known to give people quite the fright." He follows me back into the kitchen, and I hope he has a broom somewhere in the house so I can get to work on cleaning up.
I settle for using my shoes to kick the glass under the desk for now, just so it's less of a hazard, when I feel a heavy hand on my shoulder. I turn, unprepared for how close the Professor stands, and I take a step back until my hip bumps the edge of the desk.
"What are we going to do now?" I ask. "We'll have to find someone who wants to live, as you said, but I don't know how we would be able to tell."
"You are a very smart girl, the smartest I've ever known," the Professor muses as he runs his hand over my hair. His breath ghosts over my face as he talks. "I am so happy to have the pleasure of calling you my student and my friend."
"Me too, Professor." I sound quiet in front of him, vulnerable and trusting.
"I want to have you forever. You are the one, Emily. You are the one who wants to live." He smiles warmly at me, and my heart drops.
I take a sharp inhale through my nose as my eyes go wide and flick toward the back door. My instinct tells me to run, but the Professor has me pinned between himself and the desk. He was always hunching over, so I never knew just how tall he is until he's standing so near.
"No…" My voice off to nothingness when the Professor tenderly shushes me.
"You have the spark of life. Don't you remember?" There's a laugh in his tone. "Did you not trust me when I told you that?"
"I did—I do trust you, but…" I don't want to die, I try to say. I want to live. What he said is true. "I want to live."
"You will, my dear."
Both of his hands grab my shoulders, and my back collides with the rough wood of the desk. I struggle and kick and gasp for breath when the wind is momentarily knocked out of me. It's a waste of energy with the advantage my professor has over me. He shushes me again, gently, and it makes me want to surrender.
"Immortality awaits you. I will be your creator, your father, your God," he coos, and it calms me. I stare openly into his eyes, feeling his fingertips brush lightly down my neck. I take in a breath, my last, as those fingers close around my throat. My world goes dark, and I hear his voice at my ear, soft and alluring. "If I must be Adam, then I chose you to be my Eve."