I wasn’t what you wanted, but I was what you got.
You wanted a charming brown-eyed child who never threw tantrums in the cereal aisle; you wanted a bookworm or a soccer star. You wanted a child that looked like your husband. You’d been so careful about your indiscretions. Condoms with the mountain biker; condoms with the bi-curious couple; condoms with the barista. What I came out different, you thought you were busted. But I was different-different. More than a pinprick hole in a condom. I came from your body, and I came from a lab.
The doctors explained while you sat in shock, trying to nurse what was wrapped in the blanket. They spoke softly. Someone shut the door. Not the first and Where do you work? When they found out you worked for GenTech the room got quiet. Dad started to cry.
In time you saw lab animals differently. Each one was me, heart quickened in fear.
You came home smelling of white coats and witness, anonymous mice designed for your lab. You worked in the lab, and you slept in the lab, and you brought home animals before they died of The Sick. You substituted healthy for damaged. Our secret, you said. No one will know.
After a few years you couldn’t keep all the lab animals. The basement and attic were full of sharp teeth. So you started a habit of clandestine visits: old growth forests, ghost beaches, high dunes. Sometimes Dad went with you at night. Loaded the truck with cages, with claws. You drove for hours, scrambling animal compasses. Unloosed the cages under swathes of thick trees.
In dreams I saw their backwards feet.
At home you called it my little house. But on the phone to the doctor I heard you say cage. Sometimes on weekends a circuitous maze, long hallways tangled, dead ends and stale cheese. One Halloween you dressed as a cat. I heard you laughing from the faraway house. Ran on my wheel until your truck pulled away. Slept in wood chips, carrot for teat.
Sometimes you told me I had beautiful eyes. Cradled me, stroked the fur on my belly.
Sometimes you yelled or set my wheel spinning. Threatened to take me back to the lab.
Over time I learned how to tilt the latch and press against the door of the little house until it opened. I was careful not to use this trick too often. I needed you to think I was stupid, that the slit in the door was your mistake.
Homeschooling was the obvious choice.
I learned your language as fast as any animal. But although I spoke, words never felt natural. Instead I nipped expressively, rubbed my face against doorways.
You stopped giving parties. Sometimes you didn’t come home.
When you didn’t come home it was me and Dad. He’d swear me to secrecy, unhook the latch. We’d turn on the radio, cook grilled cheese with butter. Dad never put my food in a maze or shocked my feet when I turned the wrong corner. Dad called me by name, walked me off-leash. Read to me about Life In The Wild.
He said I was the perfect child. My red eyes red in photos, red in darkness when I led him through deserted streets, showing him the world I knew on instinct. Like teaching him to drive; I wanted him to know the route I knew. Smells, dirt brushing underfoot.
Once, he slept on the couch; let me inhabit the bed, your bed. I burrowed down into the softest feeling. Different from wood chips, burlap, scraps.
I knew about the others, the ones you’d loosed in woods, in water. They spoke to me, a vibrating frequency; tremor and startle, electric with trouble.
A little older, and I asked for a pet.
You stroked my head. Dad smiled, seeing us this way: your gentle side, the side you showed him.
After that you called me Pet.
A little older, and I asked for a playmate. A sister, brother, kid next door. That night you talked it over, voices like cream on the surface of my night. In the morning you smiled, dressed me to go out. We drove past shops and pastel children. Past a church, dogwoods in bloom. The warehouse stood on gravel and a scruffy little lawn. Pictures of animals decorated the building. We walked inside, and I heard the noise: barking, gnawing, clawing, tomb. You wanted me to choose a sibling. I could set one captive free. I swerved away from dogs into the cat room, but all that licking, and the catnip mice. Rabbits came in pairs, but you said just one. To the dogs again.
I closed my eyes and spun.
I called her Sister and Friend and Happy, but that was wishful thinking. Her cage was bigger and barer. She was always in search of something to chew, and her words, when she tried them, were garbled with bone. Her maze was an electric fence that made her fear the ground. She peed in corners and on her own bedding, and there was more information in the scent of her urine than her language. It reeked of history, of street fights and cells, but when I tried to speak to her of captivity, she scoffed and said I knew nothing. “You, fucking wheel,” she slurred, lip curled over a treat, dried slaughterhouse remains. “Run run sleep.” She rolled her eyes and drooled.
You crawled around the house with rag and cleaner, sniffing the carpet. I wouldn’t say I was sad to see the dog go.
There was a recovery period, something like mourning – not for my lost sibling, exactly, as for the failed experiment. You didn’t like failed experiments. Your career was results-oriented. There was a whole week when you didn’t come home. You spoke tenderly on the phone, asked me what I was reading. Dad and I hunkered down, waiting on your decision.
Then you were back, in my room one night, billowing foreign smells. You lay on the floor on your back next to the little house. I breathed through my mouth so as not to learn too much, but even then I could taste sadness all over you: the animals you’d treated, the humans you’d handled. I choked on it. I didn’t understand how you could walk around like that, how you could lay there breathing in and out, whispering to me, without gagging on the smell.
I learned too much that night, though I didn’t hear anything you said. So it was as much a surprise to me as to Dad when my new sibling showed up. This one all your own.
Of your body. Of the lab.
But nothing at all like me.
I tried not to think in terms like more and better. More human. Better toys. She got to wear clothes and watch videos. She got a sitter when you went to work, and the sitter was afraid of me. Even Dad couldn’t help laughing when she made the sign for tickle, though he always caught himself, gave me a sympathetic look. She wore diapers and ribbons. She liked to show off by climbing the maple tree out back and swinging one-handed.
She was allowed outside more. I watched from the window, pretending to read. It didn’t matter anymore how often I lifted the latch.
When you spoke on the phone, you laughed about how easy your first was, but you said it in a way that suggested you preferred a challenge.
I called her Beast and Animal and Freak.
You had to keep us separated.
I ran away, but the streets were ugly and fierce without Dad, the woods foreboding. I slipped back inside, where my sibling was snoring. I watched her giant hands twitch and fist. I wondered if I could lure her away. If I could entice her to the faraway trees. I couldn’t sign well, but I knew enough to say, Follow. Out. You’d raised me on mazes, raised me to be smarter than I’d been at problem-solving.
Back out, to the lab. I’d never been there, but I followed your scent the whole way. Smells of death and wrong. The sizzle of panic, and of mutation, everything inside out, twisted messages and nonsense. They could not cry for help. They could not comprehend not-pain or read their own labels.
In another area, silence. The ache of waiting.
The Sick Ones chattered insanely as I climbed up to examine the vials and dishes and powders. Thing Not-Caged, they said. Will fall, will die, will eat the terrible. Some of them couldn’t stop laughing; some repeated the same phrases. Feed! they screamed. Open door!
I opened all their cages. They raced around the room, out the door, into the street. I left with my vial, but I’d lost heart. At home I kept it buried in wood chips until I finally just threw it away.
When you got sick, we all waited with you for the results. But your years of research bought you exactly nothing. Maybe the cure was hiding in the woods or the water, buried in the bodies of those you’d freed. Maybe we were the contagion, me and my sister, your half-breed lab babies radiating disease.
Whatever the cause, it worked its quick damage, and you were gone.
You never asked for forgiveness.
We never granted it.
My sister and I stood together at your funeral, our father across the grave. Your other lovers peeping red-eyed from the small gathering. We talked about your life in a way that made it make sense. Not how you were, but how we wanted you to be.
Loving mother. Gentle soul. Brilliant scientist.
I smelled your body still putting out information. You were still working, still trying to tell us your story. I could tell that my sister noticed it, too. She touched my hand with her giant paw. It was our first touch.
Beast to beast.
Carol Guess is the author of thirteen books of poetry and prose, including Doll Studies: Forensics and Darling Endangered. Follow her here: www.carolguess.blogspot.com
Kelly Magee is the author of Body Language (UNT Press 2006), winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Short Fiction, With Animal, co-written with Carol Guess and forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press, and The Reckless Remainder, co-written with Carol Guess and forthcoming from Noctuary Press. Her writing has appeared in Crazyhorse, The Kenyon Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Passages North, Indiana Review, and others. She teaches creative writing at Western Washington University. You can find links to her writing at kellyelizabethmagee.com.