A mutant wakes up screaming alone under harsh beams of laboratory light.
The humanlike thing cries and clings to its too-small blanket. High up where the wall meets the ceiling, expressionless scientists observe through soundproof shatterproof glass.
Its face is a skull face, and when it touches the bony surface of those knobs and sockets and ridges its throat-rending screams grow louder still.
Sometimes the screams are loud enough to make the scientists flinch.
Somehow, for some reason, it is always screaming.
The floor of the creature’s cell is white linoleum and the walls are bricks painted white and in one corner is a white door with no knob and a slot at the bottom through which silver trays of food are delivered and removed and in another corner is a small white toilet.
It doesn’t know where it is. It doesn’t remember how it got here. It doesn’t remember anything. It doesn’t even remember its own name.
All it feels is pain.
Even as it eats it screams. Sometimes the screaming means it can’t keep food down. Sometimes the scientists put something in the food.
Usually the food is a bowl of broth with a single large meatball inside.
The thing likes the food.
It slurps the broth with its lipless mouth the best it can, which means not very well. A lot of broth spills between its teeth and out the sides of its jawbone.
The meatball is soft and salty between its tongue and its palate and it chews small bites as slowly as it can so as to savor this small joy. Sometimes it makes the meatball last all day.
Sometimes it finds an entire pill capsule in the middle of the meatball. Sometimes it takes the pill and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it quickly falls asleep after swallowing the pill and sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the pain stops after swallowing the pill and sometimes it doesn’t.
The pain never stops when it doesn’t swallow the pill.
The mutant learns always to swallow the pill.
When the pain stops, the screaming stops.
The mutant starts remembering how to speak.
At first it speaks only to itself. When it speaks to itself at first usually all it says is a series of intermittent yeses and nos as if responding to an inner interrogation.
“Yes … yes … no … yes … no … no … no … no …”
Eventually this stops and the creature starts spending a lot of time pacing around its cell. Sometimes when it’s hungry it stops and looks up at the window along the ceiling and asks, “Is it meatball time yet?”
Sometimes it gets impatient waiting for its meatball.
Sometimes it gets so hungry it can’t stand it.
Sometimes it starts screaming again. Not because of the pain. Thanks to the pills the pain is gone. It screams because the scientists act like they can’t hear it asking for its meatball. But they do. It knows they do. It understands the scientists are there to observe. It knows they can hear it and it knows they decide how long it waits for its meatball.
Sometimes after the scientists ignore it screaming for a meatball for a while it starts throwing itself against the floor.
Sometimes when it finally gets its meatball the meatball is smaller than usual.
On very rare occasions when it finally gets its meatball the meatball is unusually large.
One time the scientists wait so long before serving the meatball it starts bashing its head against the toilet until the porcelain cracks and red smears streak its smooth surface.
From the slot in the door all it receives that day is the pill on a tray.
One time the scientists wait so long before serving the meatball it puts a corner of its blanket in its mouth and bites down and pulls at the fibers with its teeth and then tries forcing as much of the blanket as it can into its mouth and into its throat until it starts choking. Facility workers wearing goggles and medical masks and white anticontamination suits covering their entire bodies storm in and yank the blanket out of its throat.
They take the blanket with them when they leave.
From the slot in the door all it receives that day is its pill on a tray.
The blanket is never returned.
Several weeks pass before the scientists decide they’ve seen enough. After they’ve seen enough, they draw conclusions. They conclude the daily pill is working the way it should. They conclude the creature is sufficiently disciplined. They conclude the next phase can begin.
When the creature swallows the pill in the next meatball it receives, it falls over unconscious almost immediately. While it is unconscious the facility workers wearing goggles and medical masks and white anticontamination suits drag it to a different part of the facility.
When the mutant wakes up it’s in a bed in a small triangular room. On one side is a wall with a window, on one side is an orange curtain, and between them is a wall with two doors, one of which is half covered by the curtain.
There’s a pillow under the mutant’s head and a warm blanket over its body. It climbs out of bed. It sees that it’s wearing pajamas and on the pajamas is a pattern with little bunnies all over. The floor is freezing cold against its bare feet. It walks to the window and looks out and all it can see is the impossibly starry clear night sky.
“You awake over there, Skullface?” says a voice. The mutant wheels around. The voice came from the other side of the orange curtain.
“Hello?” Skullface says, stepping cautiously toward the curtain.
“Over here man,” says the voice.
Skullface pauses near the curtain for a moment, listening. He notices the door that’s half covered by the curtain has no knob.
Skullface then notices the other door does have a knob. Instead of following the voice, he approaches the door and puts his hand on the knob and opens it. On the other side is a small and extremely clean bathroom with a sink, a toilet, and a bathtub.
“What are you waiting for? Over here. Over here!”
He closes the bathroom door and returns to the orange curtain and looks at what’s on the other side.
What’s on the other side is another triangular half of a room just like his own. There’s a creature under a blanket just like his own. Sitting up in a bed just like his own. There’s a window and a bathroom door. Just like his own.
“It’s alright Skullface,” says the creature in the bed. “I won’t hurt you.” The creature has a face like the underside of a stingray: flat, with two holes that might be nostrils or eye sockets over a lipless, flaplike mouth with corners that are slightly upturned in what is almost a smile, and a row of gill slits on each side where its practically neckless head meets its torso. “They call me Ray,” he says, extending a gray-green hand.
Skullface approaches Ray’s bedside. He takes Ray’s hand, which Ray grips firmly. His hand, Skullface notices, is moist and rough.
“I like your room,” says Skullface.
“It’s your room too now, brother,” says Ray, stretching his arms. “It’s our room now.”
Skullface feels an immediate, intense bond with Ray.
Ray is smiling at Skullface.
Skullface is glad to have a roommate now and for that roommate to be Ray.
Ray seems glad too.
“I’m going to go back to my bed and my warm blanket now,” Skullface says, then climbs back into his bed and under his blanket.
Facility workers wearing goggles and medical masks and white anticontamination suits come and go from the room.
The facility workers never speak. They gesture.
Skullface and Ray usually understand the gestures but not always.
When Skullface and Ray don’t understand the gestures, the facility workers help them understand, usually by repeating their gestures and then, if that doesn’t work, through the use of force.
When the facility workers are inside Ray and Skullface’s room they can always open the knobless-from-the-inside door to let in more facility workers.
The facility workers seem to multiply on the other side of the knobless door until their numbers overwhelm even Skullface and Ray’s deepest misunderstandings.
Having already been in the room for some time, there isn’t much Ray misunderstands. Skullface, on the other hand, soon suffers through several misunderstandings. Ray helps Skullface when he can but sometimes only the overwhelming force of several facility workers with their strong gloved hands closed tight around his ankles and wrists and neck are sufficient for engendering the fear they require to trigger the reactions expected of him.
It’s only a matter of days before Skullface becomes just as good as Ray at obeying the facility workers’ gestured commands.
Soon Skullface sees the facility workers’ rapid gestures and knows right away what is expected.
He knows to stand against the wall when he is told and to take a bath when he is told.
He knows to lie face down on the floor when he is told and to turn away when he is told.
He knows to get in bed when he is told and to fasten the leather strips around both of his ankles and one of his wrists when he is told.
When a facility worker fastens the leather strip around his remaining wrist, he knows to say thank you.
Weeks go by.
Sometimes a whole day passes before the facility workers return to unstrap him.
Sometimes Ray talks to him when he’s strapped down and sometimes Ray doesn’t.
He thinks Ray is strapped down too when he’s strapped down but he’s not always sure.
Sometimes when he’s strapped down and Ray doesn’t speak to him he still hears sounds he assumes are Ray moving around on the other side of the orange curtain.
When they’re both strapped down, Ray talks about how he can’t remember anything from before the facility.
Hearing Ray talk like this really gets Skullface thinking. He doesn’t remember anything from before the facility either. Before Ray mentioned it, it didn’t even occur to him to think of there ever being a time in his life before the facility. But he could not deny that a time in his life before the facility must have happened. He could not deny it, though dwelling on the mystery disturbed him. It disturbed him so much he tried to think of this inability to remember solely as a mystery of Ray’s life and not his own.
“We were children once, right?” says Ray from his side of the orange curtain. “We had parents once, right?”
“Right,” says Skullface from his side of the orange curtain, though he doesn’t sound extremely confident.
“For all we know, we could be brothers,” says Ray. “Hell for all we know we could be sisters.”
“I’m pretty sure I’m a guy,” says Skullface, still not sounding very confident.
“I can’t remember my childhood,” says Ray. “But I remember gender is a social construct. What your anatomy looks like and who you are as a person doesn’t necessarily always match, right?”
“Right,” says Skullface somewhat more confidently.
“So we could be brothers or we could be sisters,” Ray reaffirms. “I think I’m older than you so I could be your father and you could be my son. Or I could be your mother and you could be my daughter.”
A momentary pause. “I don’t know what I am,” says Skullface, with extreme confidence.
Another pause. “I don’t know what I am either,” says Ray with less confidence than before. “How much do you think it matters?”
“I’m not sure if it matters at all,” says Skullface, still sounding extremely confident but only because he’s getting better at making his voice sound confident and not because he possesses any true inner confidence.
Sometimes when they’re strapped down Ray says nothing for hours despite Skullface’s aborted attempts to start a conversation.
What Skullface wants to talk about usually is either meatballs or pain.
One day Skullface reminisces aloud about different meatballs he’s been served during his time in the facility tasting somewhat differently. “They used to be sweeter and tangier,” he says, “but before they moved me from my old room into this room with you they became less tangy and more salty. Yesterday’s meatball was hardly tangy at all. Do you remember yesterday’s meatball?”
And Ray says nothing.
The pains Skullface describes are a recent development. The pains coincide with the experiments the facility workers started doing on him. So far Skullface doesn’t particularly mind the experimentation but he does mind the pain.
“My foot still hurts from whatever they did to it last week,” he says another day. “And yesterday, whatever they did, I thought they gouged out one of my nipples. It was terrible and there was so much blood. But now I don’t feel anything there. Now I don’t feel anything at all.” He pauses for a moment, then asks, “What about you Ray? Are you in pain? Any pain at all?”
And Ray says nothing.
When Ray doesn’t talk, Skullface wonders if there’s a reason for his roommate’s silence.
Maybe Ray can’t talk because he’s asleep. Maybe Ray can’t talk because he’s been drugged. Maybe Ray can’t talk because his mouth is glued shut. Maybe Ray can’t talk because the facility workers ordered him not to talk. Maybe Ray can’t talk because he’s dead.
Maybe Ray can talk but he doesn’t because he’s gone.
Maybe Ray can talk but for his own reasons he chooses not to.
Or maybe it’s completely random and there’s no reason for Ray’s silence or for anything else at all.
One day after Skullface and Ray eat their meatballs they are suddenly surrounded in their room by masked facility workers who gesture for both to lie down in their beds and strap themselves in.
As always the masked facility workers help with the last wrist strap.
Soon Skullface and Ray both slip into a deep state of unconsciousness.
And while Skullface and Ray are unconscious the masked facility workers wheel their beds away and into the operating room.
Under the extreme lights of the operating room, surgeons surround them.
The surgeons draw their knives and trace red lines across their skins and carefully, deliberately, little by little open and unfurl the bodies of the experimental subjects before them.
Expressionless scientists observe the surgeries silently through a soundproof shatterproof glass high up where the wall meets the ceiling.
Bit by bit, the surgeons vivisect their subjects.
They place organs on shiny chrome trays. The organs flop and glisten, still pulsing, still attached to their bodies by networks of stringy, webby tissue.
Some of this tissue the surgeons slice away. Some of it they simply stretch and touch. Some they taste.
When the surgeons slice away tissue and fully remove organs, they place what they take into cold containers that hiss and release a cascade of mist when opened. When they close, they close with a snap.
After the surgeons finish removing what they meant to remove, a masked facility worker wheels a cart into the operating room.
The cart overflows with opalescent gemstones that blackly shimmer shades of cinnabar, amethyst, cobalt, and jade.
The worker wheels the cart between the bodies.
One by one the surgeons remove fist-sized gemstones from the cart. In their white-gloved hands they hold the gemstones to the light of their lamps to see the bubbles and cracks inside these abysmal crystals. They put the crystals into their subjects’ bodies where the organs they removed used to be.
Then the surgeons stitch and solder the subjects’ bodies back together with crystals inside instead of certain innards.
For Skullface, the abysmal crystals replace his stomach, spleen, and gallbladder.
For Ray, the crystals replace his heart and one half of the left hemisphere of his brain.
As the surgeons finish reassembling their subjects’ bodies, the facility workers wheel away the excess gems and organs.
From behind the window high up where the wall meets the ceiling, the scientists finish taking notes on the surgeons’ work.
When Skullface reawakens in the room he shares with Ray, his wrists and ankles are no longer bound, but he’s in so much pain he can’t move anyway.
He finds he’s been given a small metal box with a button on it. When he presses the button once the pain recedes but he still can’t move. When he presses the button a second time he slips into sleep.
The orange curtain is drawn so he always can turn and see Ray is there, unbound and having a small metal box with a button of his own.
And he can turn over to the other side and look out the window and the impossibly starry eternal night seems never to end.
None of it seems ever to end.
He doesn’t know how many days pass like this. Waking up. Talking. Ray sometimes answering, sometimes not. Pressing the button, relieving the pain. Enduring consciousness for as long as consciousness can be endured. Then the button again and sleep at last. A last recourse always seeming a little too late. But a last recourse that always seems to hasten the next unwelcome wakening. The unwelcome wakening always punctuated by the unwelcome asking, the unwelcome unanswering.
Before long this state of semiconscious convalescence seems to be all that ever was and all that ever will be.
Before long it starts to seem like enough.
Skullface wakes up and Ray is standing over him.
A bandage covers half of Ray’s head and he’s wearing a powder blue cotton hospital gown with big brown stains on it that might be blood or might be poop. He’s unsteady on his feet, leaning on Skullface’s bed.
Skullface tries propping himself up on his elbows but the pain is still too much.
He reaches for the button.
The button is no longer there.
Panic surges in his chest.
The room spins.
Every nerve in his body fires at once. His arms and legs twitch. He’s losing control. He breathes rapidly, panting. The stale air in the room isn’t enough. He tries rolling over on his side. He can’t. He reaches for Ray. Ray takes his hand, pulls him on his side.
He vomits. Loudly.
Neon pink foam erupts from his throat, coating half his pillow and the side of the bed.
After he finishes, his panting slows.
“Try to sit up,” says Ray. He leans over Skullface to flip his pillow so he doesn’t lay his head in the foam and accidentally touches the foam with his pinky finger.
The foam is cool to the touch and exudes little wisps of vapor. Soon his finger starts feeling warm and then hot, and then it stings. Little bubbles rise up from within it. Where it is thin, he can see his skin blistering. He tries wiping it off on Skullface’s blanket. The entire liquified finger slides off as a smear.
Now the room is spinning for Ray. He takes an unsteady step backward and loses balance and falls and lands on his ass.
He looks at his half-melted hand and screams.
Skullface wakes up and Ray is standing over him.
A bandage covers half of Ray’s head and the remains of one hand.
He’s wearing a powder blue cotton hospital with big brown stains on it that might be blood, might be poop.
He’s unsteady on his feet, leaning on a metal walker.
“Don’t try and sit up,” he says.
Skullface feels around on the sheet by his hands, then starts feeling around on the blanket on top of himself. He’s still in so much pain.
Ray shakes his head. “The buttons are gone.” He takes one of Skullface’s hands in his nonbandaged hand.
Skullface weeps softly. Tears dribble from his eye sockets and a thin stream of mucous oozes from his nose hole. He whimpers like a lost baby animal.
“We have to get out of here,” Ray says. He stands there holding Skullface’s hand, gazing into his eye sockets.
Eventually Skullface stops whimpering. “Sorry I melted your finger off,” he says.
Ray makes a shushing sound at Skullface.
“I don’t know what that stuff that came out of me was,” Skullface continues. “That’s never happened before.”
Ray keeps making shushing sounds at Skullface until he falls asleep.
Skullface wakes up and Ray is standing over him.
The half of Ray’s head that’s covered by a bandage looks smaller than the uncovered half, as if his head has caved in a little bit.
The bandage on his hand has been removed. The skin is black and crisscrossed with a strange network of wrinkles. He’s still wobbly on his feet. He steadies himself on the bedrail. His shrivelled fingers click against its metal as if they’re made of wood.
The stains on his hospital gown have spread.
“We’re going to get out of here,” Ray says. “And we’re going to find an apartment together. Live together, help each other.”
Skullface coughs. Nods. “We’ll sleep on the floor. On the carpeted floor. Until we find furniture.”
“We’ll make our own furniture,” Ray says. “We’ll get thrown-away clothes and stuff them with leaves and feathers and sand, sew shut the footholes and handholes.”
“And the headholes and bumholes.”
“All the holes. And we’ll pile them on the floor so all the time we can just lie on the floor, looking up.”
“And we can paint a mural on the ceiling,” says Skullface. “We’ll paint a mural up there so we can look at whatever we want to look at.”
“What do you want to look at?”
“Blue skies. White clouds. Yellow sun.”
Ray nods. “I remember blue skies and white clouds and the yellow sun.” He shifts and winces. “I can’t remember actually seeing them. But I remember them. The idea of them.”
A few days later, Skullface sits up on his own.
After another week, he can stand.
Another week and he can wobblingly shuffle from his bed to Ray’s bedside and stand over Ray, whose recovery has taken a turn for the worse.
Rather than recovering, Ray now appears to be suffering a sort of rapid overripening.
The bandaged side of Ray’s head has fully collapsed while the exposed side has begun to bulge. A thin membrane of moisture glistens on his skin. The network of wrinkles has spread and he’s covered in bruises. The bruises are indented and slightly fuzzy to the touch. The hand that lost the finger Skullface puked pink foam onto has shrivelled into a sticklike claw.
Skullface clenches his strengthening fingers around Ray’s bed rail. He reaches out and gently strokes his friend’s swelling head.
Ray’s frayed voice emerges as a gurgle, as if half submerged. “We’ll open a video store when we get out,” he says. “That’s how we’ll live.”
Skullface responds with a solemn nod. “A video store. Of course.” A tear trickles out of his eye socket.
“We’ll love all the movies,” Ray continues. “All of them equally. The award winners. The bombs. The low-budget horrors and the nature documentaries and the stupid comedies. And when someone comes up to the counter to rent one, we’ll always say ‘good choice.’ And we’ll always be right.”
Skullface continues nodding and tries to recall specific memories of being inside of a video store and fails.
He knows what a video store is.
He knows what Ray is talking about.
Yet everything from before the facility is still a blank.
Ray looks up at Skullface and seems to notice his nodding. “We’ll always be right,” he repeats, his voice becoming thicker, as if his throat is filling with gel. “Yes. We’ll always be right.”
Ray starts nodding back.
Suddenly both Ray and Skullface are nodding at each other together.
Like both are keeping time to an inaudible beat.
Skullface starts to nod faster, harder. Mocking himself. His sincere nods suddenly joke nods.
And Ray is in on the joke. He also starts nodding faster. Harder. Gently mocking Skullface. Mocking their synchrony. Their togetherness. What’s become of them. What they’ve come to.
Neither can truly smile but right now they would if they could. They would smile shocking synchronous nodding smiles together and their hearts would fill and their hearts fill anyway and in that moment they both fully feel the love each has for the other.
They feel it until the bulge on Ray’s head bursts and the top of his head spreads open and empties with a glistening gush of millions of lazily wriggling purple worms that cascade in milky clumps down his pillow and mattress and splash onto the floor with a sickening wet slap.
Skullface staggers backward. The worm puddle spreads. The sweet reek of advanced rot rises.
Skullface backs into the rail of his own bed. He screams and cries and turns away. And with surprising strength, he shoves his bed over and it crashes sideways against the floor.
He drops to the floor and stares at the spilled contents of Ray’s skull. There are chunks among the purple worms and rivulets that spread and drip and are still dropping from the dampened bedsheets. Skullface cries and screams and blubbers. He wants to gather the semisolid slop and return it to his friend’s head. He wants to run his hands through it and smear it all over himself.
He is aware he is losing control.
He tries to hold back the emotional eruption and fails.
His whole body shakes with rage and sorrow.
And still he stares at the wormy splatter and searches it for signs of sentience, signs some part of Ray lives on, only tragically transformed, signs he is not completely alone again.
Gradually the worms stop moving. The puddle dries and becomes tacky. A honeycomb pattern between the dead worms emerges. In this change, Skullface believes he sees evidence of life.
He wants to speak to it but he can’t.
If he opens his mouth, he’ll weep.
Gradually his racing heart slows.
He inhales and exhales.
“Blue skies. White clouds. Yellow sun,” he says.
He runs his fingers along the inert worms in the drying, darkening puddle.
“We could be brothers or we could be sisters,” he says.
He lies down on the floor.
“Sorry I melted your finger off,” he says.
He brings his knees to his chest and lies like that for hours with the wormy purple stain on the floor, ignoring the stiffening corpse on the bed.
The door crashes open. Masked facility workers storm the room. Some surround Skullface. They seize his arms and legs in their strong gloved hands and lift him off the floor. Some surround Ray’s remains. Some pick up Skullface’s bed so it’s upright again and some drop him into the bed and prepare the straps.
One comes in carrying a flamethrower.
Skullface squirms and struggles as the facility workers try to strap him in.
He watches as Ray’s body is wheeled away.
He watches as the worker with the flamethrower aims his torch at the wormy stain. The worker says, “Stand back.” Fire bursts from the flamethrower. The linoleum boils. A scorch mark replaces the last trace of Ray.
The smell is horrendous.
Skullface vibrates with rage.
He realizes he’s holding it back.
He realizes he’s always been holding it back.
The force of his fury. His outrage at what has been done. At what they have done. To Ray. To both of them.
He pulls one hand free from a worker trying to strap him down.
With his other hand he grabs the wrist of another worker trying to strap him down. The strength of his grip surprises the other worker, who draws a baton to smash Skullface’s fingers.
“Enough!” Skullface shouts.
Or means to shout.
The word doesn’t make it out. Instead of speech, what comes out of his face is an eruption of caustic pink foam. From his mouth. From his eye sockets. From his nose hole.
The deadly rage foam streams from Skullface and engulfs the masked facility workers, whose skin sizzles and sloughs away in bloody blobs. Their foam-soaked heads liquify almost instantly. Their faces stretch and distend beneath their masks and the masks flow down their melting bodies like pieces of trash in rivers of radioactive sludge. Their twitching torsos, still wearing sopping, once-white uniforms, slap and splash to the floor, becoming a spreading pool of viscous gore.
Skullface rolls out of the bed then leans unsteadily against it. The room lurches around him. He’s trembling all over. His fingertips tingle. He realizes he’s holding the detached wrist and twitching hand of the worker who was strapping him down. He drops it. It lands with a splat.
A surge of pain stabs him from inside, from where they put the abysmal crystals inside of him. He bends over and cries out. He gasps and clenches his teeth. Slowly he inhales and exhales, inhales and exhales.
After the pain passes, he stands and surveys the carnage slop covering the floor. He notices a security alarm is blaring, has been blaring for he doesn’t know how long. He understands the alarm is because of him. He understands he has to run.
He rips down the orange curtain dividing the room and wraps it around himself and runs out the knobless door.
The hallway is a maze.
Red lights flash. Alarms blare.
The masked facility workers he encounters in the hallway keep their distance. Some simply run.
He finds a stairwell and descends.
At the bottom of the stairwell is an emergency exit.
He runs outside and is stunned by the stars in the night sky around him and what he thinks for a second is a strangely large blue moon until he grasps the moon he’s seeing is the planet and the ground beneath him is the moon.
Behind him is the facility.
Before him is a fenced-in shantytown.
He runs and runs and runs. He comes to rest against the fence, where he drops to the ground, still wrapped in the orange curtain, gasping and weeping. His body shudders violently and again he pukes the pink foam, harmlessly into the dust this time. He waits for the rage and panic to subside. He waits for a new way of surviving alone again to begin.
Rick Claypool is the author of the post-apocalyptic workplace horror novella The Mold Farmer (Six Gallery Press, 2020) and the dystopian absurdist superhero novel Leech Girl Lives (Spaceboy Books, 2017). His short fiction appears in several online publications and anthologies. He has a master’s degree in Popular Culture Studies from Bowling Green State University. By day he writes corporate accountability reports that have been covered by NPR, the Associated Press, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and numerous media outlets for Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group founded by Ralph Nader. He lives in Rhode Island with his family, two cats, and several Petri dishes with slime molds growing on them. Find him online at rickclaypool.org and on Twitter at @weirdstrug.