Tor.com is proud to present the very first published work by Kelly Lagor, the original short story “How to Make a Triffid,” a chilling tale of science, science fiction, and how we break. (And even more stunned by her tattoo of Tor.com mascot Stubby the Rocket!)
This short story was acquired for Tor.com by Tor Books editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden.
“What do you want, Andy?” I ask.
He’s barely looked past the lip of his coffee cup since we sat down, which means he wants something. That’s fine. I want something too. And if he makes me come all the way to campus to this outdoor café near his lab so he can remind himself we’re still friends so he can ask, then so be it.
He takes another sip of coffee and finally looks me in the eye. “How’ve you been, Joe?”
“What do you want, Andy?”
He breaks eye contact, frowns, and rocks his cup back and forth over an imperfection in the grated tabletop. Clack. Clack. “I haven’t seen you in a few weeks. I wanted to make sure you’re okay.”
He’s lying. He never looks me in the eye when he lies. I bet he’s applying for faculty positions and doesn’t want to tell me. He’s convinced if he leaves I’ll fall apart. Yeah, right. He’ll be the one falling apart.
“I’m fine, Andy,” I say as I sit back and pull a cigarette and lighter from my shirt pocket. That gets his attention. I light up. “Great, actually. I went to another failed pharma fire sale up on the mesa last week and scored some free thermal cyclers, some glassware, and another incubator. I’m ready to start my experiments.”
He reaches across the table, snatches the cigarette out of my mouth, and crushes it on the ground. “When did you start smoking again?”
I shrug and move to pull another one from my pocket, but he glares at me so I shrug again.
“I still don’t understand what’s going on with you,” he says.
Like he ever had the capacity to. I know what’s coming next.
“You should come back and finish your doctorate. Hell, Dr. Morris still asks me about you when I run in to him. He’d take you back in a heartbeat.”
“We’re not gonna talk about this again, Andy. I’m not coming back.”
“But you’re throwing away your future for something pointless.”
Pointless? That’s new. Is he doing this on purpose? Is he trying to make me angry to push me away to assuage his guilt? No. He needs me. Pointless. Ha. Small-minded twit. I lean forward and poke my finger at him. “At least my research isn’t going to make all of humanity blind and numb, Andy.”
He frowns. I can see he’s fighting the urge to go down this road again. Fair’s fair. So he looks down again at his cup. Clack. Clack.
“Andrew,” he says quietly.
I knew it. He did this when we were applying to grad school too. He thinks superficial changes, like how he refers to himself, could ever change who he is. It’s the same thing as thinking his research is contributing to some nebulous greater good. He’s never been a big picture kind of guy. I can’t blame him for that, though. No one is anymore.
I’m sick of him talking around it so I come out and say it.
“You’re applying for faculty positions.”
He doesn’t respond. Clack. Clack.
“Somewhere local?” I ask and take a sip of my coffee.
He shakes his head. “Stanford.”
I nearly choke and put my cup back on the table. How on earth does he think he’s going to get a faculty position at a prestigious research university when he can’t tie his shoes without my help? He’s waiting for me to say something.
“Did you already send in your application?” I ask.
“Yeah. I used a lot from the last grant you helped me out with. Thanks for that, again.”
He must feel guilty if he hadn’t told me all of this in a rush when we sat down. He’s never been one to play his cards close to his chest.
“Do you know when you’ll hear back?”
“Already did. They’re flying me up Sunday night to give a talk on Monday.” A hint of a smile as his eyes flick back to his coffee cup. Clack. Clack.
I feel like I’ve been slapped. “I don’t believe it,” I say.
His smile fades and his eyes narrow a bit. Is he trying to see if I’m jealous? Why would I be jealous?
“Me neither,” he finally says with a shrug. Clack. Clack. “I couldn’t have done it without you,” he adds, but it comes out flat. Wrong. “We both know you should be the one in this position.”
Is he trying to be calculating? That’s new too. I look down at my own cup. I don’t know where the anger rising in my mind is coming from. I want to scream at him. Throw my coffee in his face and drive a cigarette into his eye. But then he will be done with me. Deep breath. But he can’t be done with me. He needs me to write his papers and design his experiments. Another deep breath. What am I worried about? He’ll never get it. He’s not going anywhere. I look back up and he’s staring at me. Whatever. The anger’s gone and I’ve been sitting here long enough.
“I need some enzymes,” I say. “I want to start cloning the genes I need for my first round of experiments and the biotech companies won’t sell to someone not affiliated with a research institution.”
He doesn’t answer right away. Just that stupid frown again. “I don’t know.”
Is he gonna make me beg? No. Not beg. Bargain.
“Look, have you put together your presentation yet?”
“No, but I was going to put together a few data slides from lab meetings this afternoon.”
Of course he waited until the last minute—he still doesn’t know how to put together a research talk. Idiot. “No, Andrew. You need to present a narrative that makes the department heads wet themselves over all the Nature and Science papers you’re gonna publish and all of the grant money you’re gonna bring in. You can’t just throw a bunch of data slides together.” I let that sink in and take another sip of coffee. He’s never been good at using his data to tell a story. From the way he shifts in his seat, I can see he’s starting to feel anxious. Good. It’s time.
“If you give me the plasmids I need to make the enzymes myself, I’ll fix your presentation.”
“I was hoping you’d help me anyway,” Andrew says.
Of course he was. That’s the reason he wants to see me. I’ve helped him so much he never developed his own legs to stand on.
“I’m not comfortable helping you with your folly, Joe,” he adds. “I mean you’re trying to make a triffid. I don’t get what you’re trying to accomplish.”
“How many times do you want me to explain? All things decay, Andrew, but there are things that transcend the trappings of matter and biochemical pathways and even life itself. People like you are going to destroy those things with hubris and shortsightedness. Someone needs to make a statement, Andrew. You call this a folly, but what you do is folly.”
Andrew laughs at me. He laughs. “I don’t understand how that has anything to do with making a fictional people-eating plant monster from a story written fifty years ago.”
“You don’t have to,” I say. I’m fighting to keep the edge from my voice. I need this to be done. Now. “We’ve known each other for a long time. I’m asking you to trust me. I have to do this. It’s important.”
And he breaks. I can tell by the way he slumps his shoulders.
“Fine,” he says. “I need to make more anyway.” He drains the rest of his coffee and stands. Transaction complete. No point in sticking around. I do the same, but he reaches for me and rests his hands on my shoulders. He’s looking me straight in the eye. What’s this about?
“I am worried about you, okay?” he says. “You know I love you like a brother, right? So I hope you understand it’s killing me to see you do this to yourself. Can you make me a promise? Can you promise me you won’t ever give up like your dad did?”
Where the hell did this come from? He can’t possibly think I’m depressed, can he? No. Of course not. He doesn’t understand me at all. I nod to make him stop staring and he takes his hands off my shoulders and pats me on the arm.
“Okay,” he says. “Come by Friday. I should have new stocks made up by then and I can show you what I’ve got together so far for my presentation. And take care of yourself, okay?”
I nod again and he heads back towards his lab with a quick wave. My legs feel heavy, so I sit back down at the table and look at the crushed cigarette on the ground. Andrew didn’t put it out completely with his shoe and during our conversation it reignited and burned down towards the filter. I fumble in my pocket for a fresh one and follow the thin lines of the smoke as they dance and dissipate towards the sky.
I was seven and home sick with the chicken pox the first time Dad read me John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. The itching kept me from falling asleep and he had just finished playing connect-the-dots with the calamine lotion when he pulled the dog-eared copy from between the mattresses in his room.
“My dad first read this to me when I was about your age,” he said. “I liked it then because of the triffids. I liked to imagine they could one day be real because the only limit to what we could do with science is our imagination. I like it now because it shows us humans can survive anything—even each other.” I didn’t understand what he meant by the second part, but when he started reading and the images spun in my head, I didn’t want him to stop.
We read the entire book in two days and as soon as he trusted me not to scratch I was in the backyard, looking for a triffid of my own in the garden Mom had started after I was born. Though there weren’t any, my curiosity raged. Could we really make a triffid? What made plants different from animals so that animals could walk and plants couldn’t? Were there plants that ate meat? Did those plants still need to eat sunlight? Could plants really communicate with one another? If they could, what did they say?
The garden had been left to the ravages of nature since Mom’s funeral a few years before, so I took it upon myself to get it back in working order. Dad seemed eager to help so we planted tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, and herbs, and, soon enough, we’d transformed the weed-tangled mass of vegetation back into a thriving garden.
I know he never got over her. It was apparent in the way he would cry whenever two people fell in love on television. How he stopped leaving the house except for work and rarely for errands for fear of running into someone we knew asking how we were holding up. But it was easy to keep him from getting too sad as I got older. I could just change the channel or run the errands myself to protect him.
I always looked forward to our weekends in the garden. We would weed and prune, kneeling together in the rich soil. The smell was incredible—the sharp tang and sticky yellow fingers from pruning the tomatoes, the moist earth beneath my fingernails, and how the fresh, dry dirt would get into my nose and mouth, all sweet and sharp like the taste of iron. Later I would be startled as I sat down to read between the rows and had a mineral clump crack between my teeth.
We didn’t need to talk to communicate how important the garden was to both of us—to him as a part of the woman he’d loved and lost, and to me as a way I could bring him back to life, week by week. We would let our sweat and occasional blood speak to our dedication. At the end of a long afternoon we would sit on the back porch, me with my iced tea and him with a sweating bottle of beer, both of us leaving rings of perspiration on the dry wood. The same, but different.
“They’re breathing now,” I remember him saying late one afternoon as we sat drinking. I was still young and didn’t yet understand about plant transpiration, so I asked him what he meant. He just smiled one of his rare smiles, his teeth so white in contrast to his dusty face. We sat there a long time and I watched the plants and imagined deep breaths, long held against the heat of the day, passing into the sky like asphalt sweating in summer.
I’m going to tackle the hardest part of the triffid first: communication. In Wyndham’s story the triffids could communicate where food was by clacking woody growths against their bases.
At first I was stumped how one could build a complex trait like language in an organism that never evolved to need it. But I soon realized I was thinking like a human—in gestures and touch and speech. Plants do communicate with one another. It’s just done through chemical signals instead.
One such chemical is ethylene, which plants release into the air when they’re wounded to tell nearby plants to be on their guard. Though one might find it romantic or altruistic that plants talk to one another this way, anthropomorphizing a plant is an act of fiction. It’s the result of evolutionary fitness, where the whole point is to pass on your genetic material. If one’s prevented from doing so, it’s in its interest to protect the next best thing: its closest relatives, with whom it shares many of its genes. In many cases, nearby plants are likely to be related to the wounded plant, so having them steel themselves against the same threat increases the likelihood of leaving behind their molecular legacy.
I used to think it ironic there was a structural relationship between ethylene and ethanol, and how their emission by a victim communicates a state of internal distress. My dad reeked of ethanol for much of my life, so it’s understandable I would think that. But I was extrapolating from experience, just like a child. I know now there are only so many permutations of small molecules.
Since triffids communicate using sound rather than traditional chemical signals, I cannot use these innate signaling pathways. However, I can manipulate these pathways in such a way to recreate the triffids’ signature clacking. Communication can be broken into signal input, reaction, and signal output. The ethylene system follows these parameters: signal input (wounding), reaction (signaling events in the plant that result in ethylene production), and signal output (release of ethylene). Responding plants sense ethylene (input) through cell surface receptors and a different set of pathways are triggered (reaction) to increase the plant’s defenses (output).
For my triffids, I will utilize aspects of both communicating plants and receiving plants. For input, all I have to do is modify one of those receptors on the surface of the cells to detect a volatile chemical humans emit, signaling food is present.
The reaction phase will require more work, since I will need to genetically engineer the plants to create the woody organs at their bases to do the clacking. There are innate pathways I can exploit for this end too. First, to make the growths, I can manipulate the genetic pathway responsible for root branching, except arrange it to occur in aboveground tissues. To make them woody, I need to increase the deposition of cell wall material in those new branches and around the base to make them thicker, so when they bang against one another they’ll make a sound.
The movement of these growths is not complex. There already exist methods by which plants can move suddenly, as seen in Venus flytrap or mimosa plants. They don’t move because they’re hungry or frightened. Ion channels in the walls of the cells at the base of the leaves open and cause the cells to swell, which results in a mechanical deformation we interpret as movement. Ironically enough, ion channels are responsible for the contraction of our muscles. But again, there is no higher meaning in this. The more you learn about nature, the more you learn it’s a bit of a one-trick pony.
Creating a rhythm other plants can recognize is the last piece and for this I can exploit a small quirk of neurobiology. The sudden fluctuation of the concentration of calcium ions inside and outside of neural cells is the basis of neural signaling in animals. The rate of fluctuation is mediated by neurotransmitters like GABA and glutamate. This is what Andrew does research on—he’s interested in how these modulations might be playing a role in memory and behavior. These neurotransmitters are what make us do what we do: breathe, run, love. Our experiences create neural patterns that condition our neurons to behave a certain way in the future, which helps us later understand and react to our environment.
Plants have GABA and glutamate that also influence calcium ion fluctuations. Their role is to help the plant understand and react to its environment, though this is limited to monitoring the nutrient concentrations around it. I can exploit this system to get these ion fluctuations to occur in a specific rhythm, thus causing the deformation of the woody stalks to beat in time. It’s hard to not think it’s funny that, despite the vast evolutionary distance between plants and humans, we’re the same, biologically.
In sum, communication isn’t complex when broken down into its components and simplified into a binary system of present/absent. Act/don’t act. At times I envy this dispassion. Now I just need those enzymes since I can’t manipulate any of these genes or pathways without them.
Andrew’s lab is in the midst of the sprawling campus. The afternoon is agreeable, like every afternoon along the shoreline. This place smells of dust and the sweet, medicinal scent of the ubiquitous eucalyptus trees. There’s hardly any grass—just ruined soil, strips of sloughed white and brown bark, and a few hardy weeds marked for death by some green-tinted herbicide. Eucalyptus is toxic to humans, and their canopy hangs over the campus like a halo of death the students don’t seem to notice or mind.
I park in the lot behind his building, which looks like a prison with its narrow, dark windows and heavy concrete façade. How lovely it’s named for naturalist John Muir, who advocated the preservation of America’s natural spaces, and here he is, immortalized in concrete and glass, surrounded by non-native eucalyptus trees that destroy and displace the natural flora and fauna. What a way to honor a life.
Andrew was too busy to come down and get me himself, so he gave me the code to get into the building, and now I’m standing at his bench, watching him fiddle with an image in Photoshop on his desktop. I haven’t been inside this building before—we both did our graduate work elsewhere on campus. The windows do little to let in the light, so the fluorescent lights are already humming overhead. They cast no shadows on the floor, which, together with waiting for Andrew to acknowledge me, gives me a peculiar feeling of limbo.
His bench is meticulous. It’s a common affliction of two types of scientists. The first is so detail oriented they demand perfection from their experiments and their workspaces. The second feels they’re losing control over their projects, and thus their lives, so they control the one thing in lab they can: the cleanliness of their benches. It’s an effective method of mimicry, but only goes so far to mask their inadequacies. Andrew is the latter and I already know he’s going to tell me he didn’t get around to making the aliquots.
He looks up from his monitor and gives me a smile. “Hey Joe. Sorry about the wait, I’ve been working on my slides. Want to take a look at what I’ve got so far?” He turns the monitor towards me.
“No. I came down here to get the aliquots. E-mail me your presentation and I can fix it tonight. I don’t need you to walk me through it.”
He looks at me for a long moment. Is he sizing me up? He shrugs and turns the screen back and opens another file. “I didn’t have a chance to make them,” he said. “This has taken more time than I thought. I can make them next week after I get back from my interview.”
Is he trying to make sure I uphold my end of the bargain by withholding the enzymes until I fix his presentation? Does he honestly think that’s going to work? Keeping me happy is in his best interests. He needs to remember that.
“I didn’t come all the way down here to chat, Andrew. Streak some colonies out on a plate right now—I can do the purification myself.”
He doesn’t look up. He just keeps staring ahead, defiant. No. He doesn’t get to ignore me.
“Do you really expect to get this job without my help, Andy? Do you really expect to get any job? You and I both know you don’t have the head for this sort of thing, so if you want to stand a chance, you’d better stop pretending to ignore me and give me what I want.”
He stops fiddling with his computer, and his eyes drop. He’s still not looking at me. Look at me. I grab the box of gloves off his bench and throw it at his head. I miss and the box hits the wall, but it gets his attention. Now he’s looking.
My face is hot and I’m shaking, but why? All I can think is too far. But too far for whom? Him? Me? Then what have I done. No. No to what? What I just did? That it was too far? I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to do. So I wait for Andy to do something. Andrew. Do something.
His eyes narrow and he grabs the box of gloves off the floor. He gets up, slams the box down on his bench, and pulls on a pair. He leans in close to my face, his voice quiet, but every molecule vibrating between us is charged with hate.
He brushes past me and disappears through a door into a labyrinth of freezers and cell culture hoods. I look around. His labmates are all staring at me, so I follow after Andy. Andrew. My face feels like it’s on fire, but I can’t tell if it’s anger or shame.
Andrew has his back to me. He’s pulling white boxes out of a minus-eighty freezer and setting them on top of an adjacent centrifuge until he finds a box with a peeling strand of green tape with his neat handwriting on it. He puts the other boxes back in the freezer and slams the door. You shouldn’t do that, I think. The door will stick.
He throws the box into one of the hoods. The tape flies off en route and flutters down to land at my feet. Numb, I bend over and pick it up as Andy flicks on the ventilation and disappears back into the maze. While he’s gone, I watch the steam rise off of the thawing box.
He comes back with a box of pipette tips and a few agar plates. He sits down, opens the box, and pulls out a few tubes filled with yellow-white pellets.
Before I can stop myself, I speak. My voice sounds faraway. “You shouldn’t pull out all the other stocks. Freeze-thawing is bad for the cells and based on the ambient room temperature and the cells being at minus eighty, their temperature is rising at a rate of—”
“They’re in glycerol, they’ll be fine,” Andrew says and jams the pipette tip into one of the pellets before wiping the tip across the surface of the plate. He does the same with a few more tubes, then puts the tubes back in the box, puts the lids back on the plates, and turns off the hood. He grabs the box and heads back over to the freezer and tries to lift the handle, but it’s stuck. He puts the box on the centrifuge and tries to lift it with both hands, but it doesn’t budge. He tries again and the freezer slides forward a few inches.
My voice again from a thousand miles away. “You created a partial vacuum when you slammed the door shut. It will take a few minutes for the pressure to equalize before you can open it.”
Andrew stops struggling with the handle. His back to me, I can see the rise and fall of his shoulders as he breathes. They’re deep breaths. Measured breaths. But I can’t help myself as I take a few steps forward and put the strip of tape next to the box.
“Adhesive fails at temperatures that low,” I say. “You should always label boxes and samples directly with an indelible marker.”
Andy spins around, his hand knocking the box and the tape off of the centrifuge. The box bursts open as it hits the ground and sends the stocks skittering across the floor. His face is red as he clenches his right hand into a fist. I anticipate the strike, but I don’t raise my hands to defend myself. My entire body feels heavy. All I can do is drop my gaze to the floor. The tape is at my feet again.
The strike doesn’t come. Instead, a sigh.
“Please go,” he says. There’s no anger in it, but sadness. Loss.
I do as he says and it isn’t until I’m back in the parking lot, fumbling with my lighter in my shaking hands, trying to remember where I parked, that I realize I forgot to take the plates.
Dad and I would always read The Day of the Triffids together on the anniversary of Mom’s death, so when I went away to college, he gave me a copy at the airport with a hug— the smell of sweat and ethanol embracing us both. I didn’t want to go to a college so faraway, but he had insisted, saying it was the only way I would win that Nobel Prize he always joked about.
I called him every night to check up on him. He’d always say he was fine, then—with a chorus of clacking beer bottles in the background—ask about my classes and whether I’d met any nice girls.
That year the anniversary came while finals were in full swing. Andy and I had become friends in the first few weeks of school after seeing each other in many of the same classes, and we were pulling an all-nighter in the library to prepare for our chemistry and calculus finals the next day. It was close to three a.m. when we took a break and I snuck off to the stairwell with my copy of the book to call.
When he answered, his speech was thicker than usual. At the time I thought it was because he had drunk too much. He asked me to read to him, so I did. I read for an hour before I heard him snore. I kept reading until I heard the receiver hit the floor. I figured I’d let him sleep it off and call him after my finals.
I was taking a nap between exams when my phone rang. It was my aunt. She was hysterical. She explained she had come over to check on Dad since his line was busy. Then she said she had meant to come over the day before, but didn’t get around to it and she was so sorry. So sorry. Then she said Dad . . .
I want to take a minute to digress. In order for humans to move, action potentials from the nervous system result in the release of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine, which then binds to muscle fiber cells and stimulates them to release calcium. These calcium ions bind to an extracellular protein, which causes that protein to shift and expose a site where a bridge between adjacent fibers can form. This causes the muscle to contract. To relax, the calcium must be pumped back into the cells through ion channels. The action of the channels depends on another small molecule known as ATP. ATP is one of the many products of breathing oxygen.
When you’re dead, you’re not breathing. Therefore, there’s no ATP. Without ATP, calcium leaks from your muscle cells unchecked. This causes the muscles to contract and the body to go stiff. This is known as rigor mortis and it sets in fully three hours after death. It goes away by itself as the muscle tissue begins to decompose thirty-six hours later. This is one way to determine time of death.
Another way is algor mortis, which is a measurement of the change in body temperature. A human body will cast off heat in regular intervals following death at the rate of two degrees Celsius during the first hour, then one degree every hour after until it reaches the ambient room temperature. The coroner’s report said the time of death had been anytime in the preceding thirty-six hours due to the presence of rigor, which meant he had the heat cranked way up in the bedroom. He would do that sometimes when he was missing Mom. He said it was because she was like sleeping with a furnace.
But I know when he died. He died at 4:28 a.m. because that’s the time my phone said I hung up. Because I wasn’t there.
Plants already have the capacity to move towards a stimulus. For example, if you put a plant next to a window, it will bend towards the light. A plant hormone, auxin, is responsible for causing the cells on the shaded side of the stem to elongate, causing the bend. Oddly enough, it’s structurally similar to serotonin. I used to wonder if plants leaned towards the light because it made them happy. But that’s silly. Plants don’t think. They don’t move because of muscle fibers or free will. They move because of ion channels and auxin. It’s not like giving your kid a hug outside of an airport. It’s a reflex, like knocking a box of thawing stocks to the floor in a moment of anger.
To help my triffids walk, I can exploit the same mechanisms that make the clacking structures move, just in a different area of the plant. The issue here is figuring out how to get the plants to move in a coordinated way towards a target—either other triffids or their prey. So I’ll develop a similar mechanism to chemotaxis, which is movement along a gradient towards a chemical signal.
For this I must develop a sensory region on one side of the plant that contains a high concentration of the modified receptors that recognize volatile human compounds, as well as a fluid-filled sac to detect the vibrations in the air from other triffids. I’ll tie stimulation of this region to movement of the genetically modified feet so they move towards higher concentrations of the compounds or decibel levels of clacks. When a certain threshold is reached it will mean a human is within striking distance.
It’s funny so many things that are misinterpreted as behavior can be boiled down to chemical reactions. I think it’s funnier still people think of their own behavior as being on a higher level. It’s not. It’s the same, whether you’re moving forward because of love or moving away because of pain. Everything does this, from bacteria to plants to animals to humans.
But these actions aren’t without purpose. It’s all in the name of saving yourself long enough to leave a part of you behind. Something bigger than yourself, whether it’s a copy of your genes or a broken child or a triffid.
I moved home for grad school after college. As soon as I got back, I began to collect discarded equipment and to set up my lab in my childhood bedroom. By day I played diligent graduate student, jumping through the proper administrative and academic hoops. But I lived for the nights, where I worked to make the dream that consumed me in college a reality. I would pore over literature to find the genes I needed, and scour sequence databases to determine my cloning strategies. For this to work, every step had to be planned in advance because I wouldn’t have the luxury to redo many experiments. After six years, I was ready, so I left the program, much to the consternation of Andrew, my advisor, and the department.
Six years I’ve been waiting and now Andrew’s trying to ruin me. No. He’s my friend. He cares about me. He said so. He’s supposed to help me. He can’t leave. He can’t. So I’m here to apologize, to tell him I’ll help him with his presentation and anything else.
I’ve been waiting by his car since the incident and it isn’t until after four a.m. that I see him coming across the lot. He doesn’t see me until he’s a few feet away. He stops and we watch each other for a moment before he digs in his pocket and unlocks his car.
“What do you want?” he asks. He’s still mad.
I try to look as abashed as I feel. “Working late?” I ask.
He sighs and crosses his arms in front of him. “What do you want, Joe?”
The words are harder to say than I thought they would be. Andrew shifts his weight and sighs again. His words are softer this time.
“Look,” he says, “I’m tired and I want to go home.” He moves to go around me, but I hold up my hands and the words come. My heart is pounding.
“I’m sorry, Andrew. Please don’t go.”
His face softens more. I’m close.
“I’m sorry,” I repeat. “I’ll help you with your presentation and anything else you need to get this job.”
We stand for another moment and watch each other. His shoulders slump and he sighs. He breaks My heart quits racing. It’s going to be alright.
“I thought a lot about what you said earlier,” Andy says, “about all of the things you’ve done for me, and you’re right. If I expect to be running my own lab, I have to start relying on myself. I need to get this job because of me and not because of you. So thanks for your offer, but I’m going to do this alone.”
No. No he can’t. He needs me.
“And I’m not going to help you with your triffids,” he continues. “You’re a brilliant scientist, Joe. I’m never gonna be as smart as you. If you finished your degree, you could get a job anywhere.” He throws his hands in the air. “I mean, c’mon! Have you stopped to think about what you’re doing? You could win a Nobel Prize, but you just sit in your bedroom making toy monsters to mourn someone who died ten years ago.
“I don’t mean to be mean, Joe, it’s just I love you and I’m sick of watching you throw your life away. You need to move on. Honor his memory by doing something meaningful. So I’m going to help you by not helping you. And I know you’re going to be mad at me, and that’s okay because when you come to your senses, know I’ll be here for you, same as I’ve always been.”
I don’t say anything. I can’t say anything. All I can do is stare at him—this man who is supposed to be my best friend. Andrew. Andy. I watch him as he steps around me and gets into his car and drives off. It’s only later when I get into my own car I realize I’ve been crying. I look at the clock on the dashboard. It’s 4:28 a.m.
After Dad’s funeral, I found his copy of The Day of the Triffids between the mattresses of his bed next to an empty bottle of sleeping pills. It’s the same bed Mom died in. I remember the argument he’d had with my aunt about throwing it out. He said as long as he had it, he’d still have a piece of her. She thought he was being morbid, but she didn’t understand.
When I was older, I read about the different poisons they used to treat her cancer. They were plant-derived alkaloids that were supposed to block the cancerous cells from dividing by inhibiting the assembly and function of structural proteins. They didn’t work, so they gave her different alkaloids, like morphine and codeine, to numb the pain right up until the end.
I understand why my dad wanted to do the same thing. But his pain couldn’t be managed. There was no pill to stop the sadness, so in the end he went out as numb as she had. I think he just wanted to be with her again. I take care of the garden in the backyard for the same reason.
I wonder a lot about what his last thought was before the sleeping pills carried him away. Was he happy? Relieved? Scared? Given the amount of atoms in the universe, what are the odds one of those atoms is now a part of me? Do I get better odds because I knew him? Because I loved him? What are the odds of one of them existing in one of the triffids I create and the ones that come after? Are they better? Are they statistically significant?
My last challenge will be making my triffids venomous. Sometimes I wish I had gone further in my physics studies, since it helps one really understand the intricacies of atomic interactions. I could better appreciate the beauty behind how the toxin induces death. I like to think of physicists as the coroners of the universe in how they’re studying its perimortem state. Andy would never appreciate such a subtle description because Andy’s not a big picture kind of person.
I am going to recreate the curare production pathway found in the bark of the Chondorodendron tomentosum plant in my triffids. When introduced into human tissue, the poison blocks the normal function of acetylcholine receptors and causes paralysis and asphyxiation as the diaphragm is unable to contract. The biosynthetic pathway has not been well studied, but I used my knowledge of organic chemistry to devise a way to synthesize it from its benzylisoquinoline precursor. This is the precursor to many alkaloid compounds, like morphine and codeine.
By the time I get back in my car to leave campus, the sun is beginning to rise. After Andy left I used the code he’d given me to get back into the building in order to find what I needed: plastics, stocks, selection antibiotics, powder media. I only took small things from different labs. Half-full bottles. Half-empty tubes. They’ll just think other people used them. They’ll order more. And I’ll come back. If Andy doesn’t need me, I don’t need him.
And though no one else will notice, Andy will. I made sure of that. He’ll notice when he tries to turn on his computer in the morning to find that all of his data files have been erased. That his slide deck for his presentation is gone and his external hard drive he uses to back everything up won’t turn on. He’ll notice all of his boxes in the minus-eighty have lost their little green labels covered in his neat little handwriting. He’ll notice all of his stocks are no longer viable because they’ve been thawed one too many times. And maybe he’ll think back on how much I helped him. And maybe he’ll realize how badly I can hurt him. Let’s see him try to leave now.
I’d like to think maybe he’ll understand you can’t depend on other people. They’ll hurt and abandon you because they’re blind, like he is. Maybe he’ll learn, like I have, what’s important in all of this. Maybe he’ll finally understand I’m trying to protect what he’s trying to destroy: the power of a story.
Take for example the bacterial stock on dry ice in my trunk that contains an enzyme I need for my research. Soon those bacteria will be making more enzyme for me. They can make it forever if I let them. They could divide endlessly, making this enzyme even after I’m dead and gone. There’s a kind of comfort in that thought.
I like to think about the subatomic particles within the atoms within the molecules within the nucleic acids within the DNA that makes up the plasmid and the bacteria and you and me and, eventually, my triffids. These particles have been around since shortly after time began and will still be around until shortly before time ends. Everything that makes us human, everything we think and feel, is mediated through the vibrations and interactions of these particles. These interactions are what created me and my memories. They’re what created The Day of the Triffids and John Wyndham and the garden in the backyard. They’re what my parents both returned to after they died and what we’ll all return to in the end, including the little bacteria making my enzyme for me. I wonder a lot about whether or not my dad’s last breath was inhaled by one of the plants out back and turned into sugar in the leaves the plant used to grow. His breath held against the heat death of the universe. I wonder how much of my dad is still in the garden.
Andy’s research aims to understand the physiological basis for what makes us who we are: what makes us love someone or cry when they leave us. But story exists outside of this cycle. Sure, when you listen to a story for the first time it’s just vibrations in the air triggering neural networks that cause you to associate the patterns with entrenched stimuli that trigger trained responses in the limbic system and/or cortex. Those unique patterns are made based on our experiences—on those patterns laid out by glutamate and GABA and calcium fluctuations —that matter. It’s why I felt the way I did when my dad first read me the story, even though I experienced it differently than he did. It’s why it means something different to me now. And I can use the story to make my legacy—not in concrete and glass or in a copy of my genes, but in something that could save the thing it was born from.
To my father, The Day of the Triffids was not so much about monsters and the end of the world, but about how can be our own worst enemies. And to a certain extent I agree, not because of the horrors we commit as programmed responses to tragedy, but because of our shortsightedness. Just like the people in the story couldn’t survive long-term on scavenged food and equipment, we can’t survive long-term on quick fixes for our pain. The only way to work through pain is to understand it, not ignore it.
If all the Andys of the world succeed and we understand the biological basis of memory and emotion, pharmaceutical companies could develop drugs to tailor our experiences of the world—to choose not feel sadness or pain. We would be no better than my triffids: just collections of ion channels, calcium fluctuations, GABA, and glutamate.
Ironic these will make my triffids move. Kill. Though they may not be an immediate threat, give it time. Let them wait until we’re all blind and numb. They’re patient. Until then, we can still tell one another stories that can be felt as only we can feel them because of the pain and the loss we can’t erase. We can be changed. But that’s the bigger picture. For now, I need to focus on the little things.
“How to Make a Triffid” copyright © 2012 Kelly Lagor
Art copyright © 2012 Wesley Allsbrook