The Rotten Beast
In “The Rotten Beast,” a sixteen-year-old girl named Allys, living in a near future version of the U.S., is vehemently opposed to the way scientists are meddling with human and artificial life. In fact, she blames such scientific overreaching for the illness which is killing her. When she awakens one day to find that her parents have gone against her wishes and had an illegal operation performed to save her life and restore her body, she is furious and must come to terms with this new chance at life, which she didn’t ask for and didn’t think she wanted.
Move your fingers.
I have no fingers. I’m dead. Go away.
They’re gone. Long gone. I am only stumps and spirit. Go. Leave. But the voice circles back, a rabid dog that keeps biting at me, tearing at flesh I don’t have.
Move your fingers, dammit!
A sharp stab pierces my right index finger. Pain shatters my fog. A finger! I have a finger! Light floods the darkness. Colors, more sounds, a screaming voice.
And then Jenna. I blink my eyes. Jenna. Her face looms not far from mine. I lift my hand. Fingers. Not plastic, engineered, removable fingers, but fleshandblood ones. Permanent ones. Real fingers. One with a small drop of blood where it has been pierced. I bring these fingers close, running them along my lips and feeling the barest touch, tasting the blood on my tongue.
And then the frightening sensation of toes curling on sheets. Not just the memory of toes, not just stumps and phantom movements, ghosts trying to remember the feel of fabric, but toes attached to feet . . . attached to legs . . . attached to me. I think of the horror the first time I woke and saw four stumps. A new horror fills me.
My god, what have they done?
I know what they’ve done.
How many times had I read reports filed by the Federal Science Ethics Board? Violations? Abuses? Scientists pushing the limits? Scientists creating things in labs that were barely human?
I try to get up, but I’m weak and easily pushed back down by Jenna.
“How could you?” I ask.
“I didn’t. It was your parents.”
“You mean your parents.”
“It’s wrong. It’s illegal.”
“Illegal, yes. Wrong?” She shrugs. “Who’s to say?”
Fury surges through me. I reach out and swing, fingernails digging and scratching, making contact with her face. She pulls back, holding her cheek where I’ve left marks. She stares at me, her face dark and disturbed, and I wonder if she’ll strike back.
“I know you’re angry,” she finally says. “I certainly was.” She walks around to a chair on the other side of my bed and sits. “I called your parents. They’re outside. They’ll be here any second.”
I look up at the ceiling. I’m in a strange room that I don’t recognize, a bedroom, not a hospital room. Surely a secret room. A hidden one. “How long did it take?”
“Eleven months. Record time. Of course, my father already had a blueprint to work from.”
I glare at her. “You.”
She nods unapologetically.
“Replaced? Eighty percent is new. Maybe a bit more.”
I look away. I don’t have to add up the numbers. I’m well beyond the FSEB’s legal limits for replacement parts. It wasn’t just my limbs. My whole body was turning on me and shutting down at the end. Kidneys, heart, liver, lungs. All my organs were moments from death. The infection had ravaged nearly everything.
My last weak breaths were to my parents, telling them to report Jenna. I had found out about her. I wanted the world to know too. It didn’t matter that she was my friend. This was bigger than our friendship. What she, her father, and his mad stable of scientists did was illegal. And now they’ve made me a part of it too.
I hear noise, hurried clumsy footsteps getting closer, louder, and then I see my parents rushing in, their anxious faces filling the doorway. My father looks at my open eyes and cries, too overcome to move forward. My mother steps closer, a thin shadow of who she was.
“Who else would I be?”
She stumbles toward me, falling to the side of my bed, so we are eye-to-eye. She opens her mouth to speak again, but I cut her off. “How could you do this to me?”
She recoils, as if I have slapped her. “How could we not? You’re our daughter.”
“No. Not anymore. I’m a thing. You now have a thing.”
I manage to send both my parents from the room sobbing, only to have Jenna’s father replace them. He tries to act doctorly, as if he’s checking on a patient. He’s a quack and I tell him so. He’s not affected by my accusations, but when he comes closer and reaches out to touch my wrist, I scream for him to get away.
He smiles. “You’re a stubborn girl, Allys. You should have woken up a week ago. I suspected the delay was more in here.” He taps the side of his head. “You have a strong will, but that helped us in many ways.” He steps closer again, and I tense, pressing into the mattress. He stops.
“Allys, I know this is—”
“You don’t know anything, Dr. Fox. You know nothing about me.”
“I know that you blame scientists and doctors for what happened to you—”
“Not just me, Doctor. Millions have suffered because of people like you. You experiment with things you can’t begin to understand and the rest of us pay the price. You’re not going to get away with this.”
He bends forward and grabs my hand and roughly shakes it in front of my face. I try to pull it away, but his grip is firm. “And millions would give anything to have what we’ve given you. Biogel made this possible and I’m not going to apologize for it.” He doesn’t try to hide his anger, but he lets go and steps away. So much for his bedside manner. “I’ll give you some time,” he says. “This is a lot for you to take in right now, but we will talk later.” He leaves.
Jenna stands silently at the side of my bed, staring at me, and finally sighs as if she’s annoyed and walks to the door. Just before she leaves she pauses and then turns to me. “Give in to it, Allys. It will make it easier for you. You’ll give in eventually, anyway.”
Give in to what? Being controlled by all the computer chips stuffed into his Biogel? “I’ll never give in. I’m stronger than you, Jenna.”
“No doubt about that. It’s what I always liked about you—your strength and determination. But you’ll give in. You’ll get taken over. It will come when you let your guard down and you’re least expecting it.” She walks out, shutting the door behind her.
Taken over. I’m chilled by the way she speaks of it so matter-of-factly. What does she mean, taken over? Are the biochips waiting to snatch away the last bit of free will I have? Are they going to wring away that little piece of me that still holds some scrap of my humanity? How long can I hold out before I’m more robot than human?
I close my eyes. Maybe it’s too late. Only twenty percent of me is still original. The rest is bioengineered, created in a lab, loaded with computer chips telling what’s left of my body what to do. Maybe I’m not me at all already? I try to feel the changes. I press my hand to my chest and try to feel the biochips clicking away inside, but all I feel is the strong steady beat of something mimicking what was once my heart.
After two more days, I’m allowed to go home with my parents. Dr. Fox comes once a week to check on me. Jenna comes every day.
“You needn’t bother,” I tell her.
“I know,” she says.
I refuse to say more to her and my parents get just as few words from me. I hear them whisper with Dr. Fox when he visits. Car keys are hidden. Communication codes are changed. They lock my room at night. They don’t trust me. They shouldn’t. I want to turn us all in. It’s the right thing to do.
After two weeks, Jenna stops coming. For six days, she doesn’t come. I watch the long drive, expecting her to emerge through the oleander bushes that hide our house from the road. But she doesn’t. Good riddance. She must have finally gotten the message that her visits are a waste of time. But then it occurs to me that I have every right to waste her time after what she and her father have done to me. She deserves the punishment of these visits. She can’t smugly tell me I’ll be taken over and then just drop out of sight.
I watch from the porch on days seven, eight, and nine, and on day ten she appears, swinging a paper bag in her hand.
“Morning,” she says as she walks up the porch steps.
“Morning? You disappear for ten days and all you have to say is morning? Where the hell have you been?”
“What’s it to you? I’ve been busy. I’ve been living life.” She sits down in the chair next to mine.
“If you can call it that. Your father told me everything. I may be eighty percent lab creation now, but you’re even worse—ninety percent! We don’t have blood and muscles beneath our skin. We have blue goo and who knows what else? How can you call that living?”
She ignores my question, smiling at something she sees in the garden beyond the porch. She jumps up. “Got to go!” And runs down the steps.
“Wait a minute!” I call after her. “You just got here. Where are you going?”
She turns to look at me as she continues to walk backward, smiling as if this is all impossibly funny. “Ethan’s waiting for me on the road—and he’s way better company than you are. But I brought you something. In the paper bag. It might help speed up your . . . transition. Enjoy!” She turns and runs away.
“Wait! Come back!” But she’s already disappeared behind the long hedge of oleander. I hate her. And I’m not going to enjoy anything she brought me—especially not something that’s going to make me give in.
I walk back to the rocker, still swaying from her abrupt departure, and look at the small brown bag resting beside it. I nudge it with my foot. Nothing happens, so I pick it up and look inside. A peach. A large, round, peachy peach. It’s an odd thing for her to bring me. I pull it out and sit down on the first porch step, looking at it from all sides. It looks ordinary. I scratch the skin with my fingernail and it peels back to reveal rich brown flesh. And that’s when I remember.
Last year at the Charter, Rae was leading a discussion of current events. She liked to throw in fun, unusual news too, and that day she shared a news video of a newly developed chocolate peach. I remember being ashamed that I was secretly fascinated by this news. I loved peaches and I loved chocolate and I wondered what the two would taste like together, but to try one would go against everything I believed. All those months that I volunteered in the FSEB offices, I had heard stories. I heard about bioengineered plants entering the food supply and tainting natural populations to the point of extinction. It was another glaring example of why there had to be controls—even over chocolate peaches.
I stuff the peach back in the bag and set it on the end of the porch. I could throw it away, but better that I save it for another ten days until it’s good and putrid and then give the rotten beast back to Jenna.
But it isn’t ten days before she comes again. She comes the next day, this time with Ethan in tow. They only stay for a few minutes. Ethan hugs me, which I allow him to do since he isn’t really a part of this whole fiasco, just a bystander like me. I awkwardly return his hug and note the silky feel of his shirt against my bare arms. I pull away.
“What is it?” he asks.
Jenna smiles, as if she knows everything about me. I want to wipe the smile from her face. “Try the peach yet?” she asks.
“It won’t last forever, you know?”
“Unlike some things.” I know a few things too, Jenna. My parents told me how long we both might live, thanks to our Biogel and her father’s miscalculations—possibly another two hundred years. I smile back at her. She gets my drift.
“Bye!” she says.
I don’t protest. I don’t want to give her that satisfaction. But I do wave to Ethan. After they leave I walk to the end of the porch and peek into the bag that holds the peach. It’s still firm, and whole, and plump. As beautiful a peach as I’ve ever seen. No point in giving it back to her yet. I’ll wait until it’s a rotting pile of stink.
I wait outside the next day at the same time and they don’t come. And the next. And the next. I would at least like to see Ethan again. I check on the peach each day too. The beast is not rotting. Instead, it seems to be growing bigger and more vibrant each day. But it has to rot eventually. All fruits do, even engineered fruit.
I watch my father from a distance, working in his rose garden, wary now of speaking to me for fear I will snap his head off. My mother has returned to work. Our house is a silent island in the middle of nowhere.
I walk the perimeter each day because there’s nothing else to do, memorizing the oleander bushes, which create a massive flowered wall around the property. Three pinks. Three whites. Three pinks. Four whites. Somebody can’t count. I am at the far corner of the lawn when the sky opens up with a summer storm. I begin to run for the house, but I stop myself. I look down at my feet. I haven’t run since I got sick. So long ago. The rain pelts my shoulders, my arms, and my legs. It drenches my clothing, making it stick to my skin, and I stand there in the downpour letting the rain mask what’s unexpectedly running down my cheeks.
The next day Jenna and Ethan come again, this time with a visitor. Ethan’s cousin Jared is here visiting from Texas. I haven’t washed my hair in four days. I wish I had known. I try not to stare but he has the most vivid green eyes I’ve ever seen, and the surrounding scenery isn’t bad to look at either. They stay and talk for an hour, sitting on the lawn, though I do little more than shrug and grunt. Jenna pulls clover and makes a chain she drapes over Ethan’s neck. Jared smiles and my stomach twists as if it’s turning inside out.
When they leave I walk up the porch steps to go inside, but I stop and glance at the brown paper bag still sitting at the end of the porch. Surely by now the beast is rotten. I look inside, and yes, sure enough the small piece of skin I peeled away is brown and shriveling. I pull the peach out. The flesh is softening. It won’t be long now. I sit down on the porch step and stare at it. And wonder. I only want one tiny taste before it spoils. How could one little piece of fruit make me give in?
I sniff the flesh where the skin is missing. It’s a scent like no other, like summer, sweetness, and decadence all wrapped into one small round package. I take a bite and it’s every bit as heavenly as I imagined, two perfect tastes made even better. I savor each mouthful, slowly rolling the chocolaty flesh over my tongue, but it’s soon gone, and then I lick the juice that has run down my fingers.
My fingers. I look at them. Sticky and sweet. Sometimes I forget that they were all made in a lab. My chest squeezes with a fleeting pang of guilt, and I lick each and every finger all over again.
And that’s when I know. It’s happened. And this is only the beginning.
I’m giving in.
I’m being taken over.
Just like Jenna said, when I least expected it.
And I hardly care.
“The Rotten Beast” copyright © 2011 by Mary E. Pearson
Art copyright © 2011 Sam Weber