Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Weekly Story #49: The Cadaver: A Tale of the Frankenstein

After Pascha, it seemed fitting to write a story springing from the word "Resurrection." And as I've said before, my tendency for writing villainy or corruption is to take something good, admirable, even holy, and twist it into something wicked. With only three stories left, this is the last one related to Lent/Easter.

I submit to you, the reader, that in the history of English-language literature, no one has ever come up with a name better than "Frankenstein." It's fun to say. It's evocative—I'm pretty sure you're thinking of test tubes, electrodes, and neck bolts right now. In its own way it contains within itself the entire genre of science fiction—the perils of scientific innovation, and the promise. I'd just reread the original Mary Shelley novel last year, so the story's relatively fresh in my mind. Frankenstein was never my favorite monster (that will forever be Godzilla), but when I saw a chance to write a Frankenstein story, I knew I had to take it.

In this story, I worked in a few nods to the movie versions, my verdict on calling the Creature "Frankenstein," and what I hope is a respectful portrayal of disability.

The next two weekly stories will be pieces I originally wrote last year as part of this series, but tried to shop around for a short time. One was written in January 2018, the other in July. Following them will be one last original story, a follow-up to something I've written before. To anybody who's actually been reading these, I'm very grateful.

 

THE CADAVER:

A TALE OF THE FRANKENSTEIN

It was a dark and stormy night. Teresa Yeung parked her car as close to Professor Warner's cabin as possible. The gate was open, but there were two flights of stairs leading up to the porch. The Professor knew perfectly well what kind of trouble she had with stairs. All she knew so far was that this somehow had something to do with Frankenstein. Her boyfriend Marco sprang out of the passenger seat with the umbrella, and came around to Teresa's side as she opened her door. Taking the umbrella, she said, "Thanks. I'm sorry to make you do this."

"Well, you were right, this whole thing is sketchy." He took her place in the driver's seat while she stayed outside. "I'll be ready to go as soon as you are."

"I'll give you a signal if it turns out it's okay. If I don't, and I'm not out in ten minutes, get out of here, call the police."

"Got it. God forbid."

"I really appreciate this, Marco." She gave him a kiss, and as she backed away from the car, said, "I love you." Then muttered to herself, "This is so not worth a PhD."

Professor Warner was one of the top biologists in the country, no, the world. Which is what made it so much more unusual that he'd call Teresa up and practically order her to come out to the country on such a lousy night on such short notice.

She hiked up the staircase embedded in the hill, up to the front porch, where she closed the umbrella and knocked on the door. She was already exhausted. Her left thigh ached.

Professor Warner answered, his hair uncombed, his skin pale. "Ms. Yeung. So nice to see you. Come in."

"Yes, I made it." Teresa stepped into the warm and dry living room. Clothes and notebooks lay scattered all over the floor, and the smell of rotting garbage hung in the air. Electrical diagrams, anatomical drawings, and assorted sketches hung pinned on the walls. "How long have you been up here?"

"Since Sunday. I'm on the verge of performing the most important experiment of my life, probably anyone's life. I have no time to waste. Are you familiar with the work of the Frankenstein family?"

"I'm vaguely familiar," Teresa said. "I've seen one of the movies. Didn't the whole thing turn out to be a hoax?"

"Oh, it's not a hoax, not a hoax at all." Professor Warner wiped his newly-formed beard with his palm. "You thirsty? All I have is 7-Up, is that okay?"

"Huh? Oh, yeah, that's fine." No alcohol. She supposed that was a good sign. He was already crossing enough lines right now without getting her drunk. He ran to the kitchen, and she followed him to the doorway. "Listen, the other grad students and I are worried about you."

"I'm sure. I'm sure," the Professor said. "But I'll have some free time once this is done."

Teresa glanced over at the dining table, and spotted three old leather-bound journals stored in plastic bags, with thick spiral notebooks beside them. Names were written on each bag, with the same names on each notebook: Victor Frankenstein; Heinrich Frankenstein, Friedrich Frankenstein. The Professor seemed to have developed a Frankenstein fixation. "So why did you demand I come all the way out here?" she said.

"Well, you are my top student. I've always felt like we had something of a rapport." He brought her a can of 7-Up, as promised. She opened it herself. At this point she was more worried about her professor's health than anything else. This was the worst he'd gotten ever since the divorce.

Too much longer and Marco would leave and call the police, so Teresa went to the window and gave him a wave.

The Professor continued, "I know what this probably sounded like when I called you. Professor, grad student, alone in the woods. No, I brought you here for something far more important." He brushed past her to the table and picked up one of the bagged notebooks. "I have here the notes of three generations of Frankensteins, along with my own translation. I've been studying them for years, since I myself was an undergrad."

"And they're real?" Teresa said.

"Quite real. And they make for the most fascinating reading. Follow me."

He took her up the stairs. "You see, Heinrich and Friedrich both started out trying to disprove Victor's theories. They considered him a madman—a disgrace. But as the journals go on, they start to find him more compelling. They start to carry out their own experiments. They refine them. And they succeeded. They all brought the dead back to life. That is why I brought you here."

He pulled a chain, and the lights flooded on, revealing a crowd of machines packed together in a small loft. Medical equipment connected to computers that connected to tubes that connected to something on the other side of the door. The Professor had managed to assemble so much in one small cabin.

It was all equipment they had used in the lab back at the university, for their own experiments. Experiments on cadavers, and human tissue.

"Oh no. Don't tell me…" Teresa began to feel dizzy. "Our experiments… restarting that heart… that arm… we put together a working digestive system! Was that…?"

"Yes!" Professor Warner cried out. "To ultimately replicate the Frankensteins' experiments. I had to test it on smaller scales before I brought it all together in one."

The strength in Teresa's right leg gave out, and all her weight went onto the left. She leaned on the railing around the staircase and rubbed her left leg. Her thigh badly needed a massage, but she was in no position to take off the prosthetic to do so. "I… I thought this was to help people who need transplants." Not follow in the footsteps of grave-robbers who thought they were scientists.

"And it will," he said." "It already has. But if we can raise the dead, the sky's the limit. You won't just be contributing to life-saving medicine. You'll be part of a revolution!"

Teresa backed away. "Th-The medicine was enough… Wait! If you're trying to replicate a Frankenstein experiment, then where…"

"Over here." He went to a chest freezer in the corner. Nausea hit Teresa as soon as she s saw it. She knew what was in there right away. "Come here," the Professor said, "it won't bite you."

She could try to run, but down all those stairs, all the way to the car? The Professor would catch up before she got halfway down the first flight. So she limped over, her right knee unable to stay firm, her left aluminum knee unable to loosen up.

He opened the freezer. Even knowing what he was about to show her, the sight of a dead body still knocked the breath out of her lungs. It was a white male, middle-aged, naked with frosted skin, bald but physically fit. Autopsy incisions ran across his chest. His knees were bent to help him fit inside, making him look almost like he was taking a nap.

"Wh-where did you get that?" Terror stopped Teresa's voice, so the words only came out as breaths. What had the professor become?

"Pulled some strings at the med school," Professor Warner said. "He gave his body to science, and I'm here to oblige him." He laughed. "What, you think I killed him? No, this poor fella died of liver cancer."

"You're going to wake him up."

"Yep. I had to replace a ton of organs, but look, our experiments are paying off. The incisions of his chest are healing! I just need your help real quick. Grab his legs."

"No." Teresa backed away. "I'm leaving."

"On that leg?"

Now Teresa wanted to slap him. In all these years, Professor Warner had never made light of her disability this way. "All right, listen. My boyfriend's in the car outside. All I have to do is scream and then we are both out of here." She was partly bluffing. She and Marco had never planned for what to do if he heard screaming. He could take that as a cue to drive off and call the police. The police would come, but he would be gone. Or he could barge in, start a fight, and get everybody hurt. "I mean it! Here goes!" And she took a breath—

—and the Professor slapped her. "Shut up and grab his legs. We're taking him outside."

Teresa's heart pounded. There was nothing but noise left in her head, just the sting on her cheek, and all she could do was watch the Professor hoist the cadaver up by the armpits. "Now!" he said. She grabbed the ankles, and they lifted him up out of the freezer, and dangled him between them over to the door. The whole time Teresa got a full view of the poor cadaver's moles, wrinkles, genitals. She couldn't stop wobbling.

"Oh come on," the Professor said. "It's not like you haven't handled a dead body before."

"Well, no, but…" But they were cadavers, obtained legitimately, not through whatever bribes or threats the Professor had used, not lugged around like a sandbag. There were supposed to be procedures and protocols and equipment for this. Carrying the body like this, she now felt very much like a grave robber.

He brought her out to an open-air deck, currently being rained on, but with a tent on the far end. With no umbrella, there was nothing Teresa could do to avoid getting wet. Two thin steel towers rose high into the night sky on each side of the tent.

They carried the cadaver in and laid it on the table. Teresa could finally take her eyes off it. "Am I done now?" This was all so surreal, as if this wasn't even her, as if she were watching this from somewhere closeby. "Am I?"

"Of course not, I need a witness. There's supposed to be lightning tonight. All we need is to have it strike one of these two rods here."

"And then what happens?" Teresa said. "What are you going to do with this man after he comes back to life? Wh… What happened to the people the Frankensteins brought back?" The ones in the movies didn't exactly become flourishing members of society.

"You know, that's the part I was never able to crack." He stared off wistfully, as if he hadn't just slapped a woman half his age square in the face. "Friedrich Frankenstein talked about his creature adjusting fairly well, even learning to sing, but after a certain point, his diary just peters out." A dim thunder rumbled in the distance. "There we go. We don't have much time." He attached electrodes to the cadaver's chest, strapped on some tubing and wiring, and inserted IV needles. "Now we just—"

A man's screams echoed from downhill.

Teresa yelled back, "Marco!"

"Polo!" Professor Warner said.

"That's not funny!" Teresa ran out of the tent to the deck rail. "Marco! Marco!"

Next there were footsteps splashing up the steps outside the cabin.

"Who else is out here?" Teresa asked the Professor.

"You got me," he said. For the first time tonight, he seemed uneasy. "It's just you, me, and your boyfriend out there."

Then the cabin shook, the deck along with it. The footsteps tromped inside and up the stairs. At the same time, the Professor ran in. As soon as he got through the door, he let out a piercing scream and backed out.

A shape came out of the door with him. When it straightened its back, it stood seven feet tall, with the bulk of a heavyweight boxer, and skin like a dead field in the heart of winter. Scars suggested the seams in the skin where parts had been grafted on.

"Good," the shape said with an impossibly deep voice. "I'm not too late."

"All right, buddy," the Professor said, "I'm not here for a fight. You can have anything." He reached into his back pocket. "Here. Take it." He dangled his wallet in front of him. "It's yours."

The shape wrapped his giant hand around the Professor's wrist, and lifted him three feet in the air. The wallet fell to the floor. "Do you not realize who I am?"

Professor Warner sputtered without giving an answer. Still holding the man's wrist, the shape turned to Teresa. Her right knee gave out, and only the railing and her left leg kept her standing. "And you?" the shape said.

Teresa couldn't stop stuttering, but she managed to spit something out. "F-F-Friedrich's? Or Heinrich's?"

"Victor's." The creature slung the Professor to the ground. "Two hundred years damned to be a Frankenstein. Hard to die after coming back." He plodded around the Professor's crumpled body. "You said I could have anything? I'll take the cadaver."

"No!" Professor Warner lifted himself up and crawled in front of the Frankenstein. "My research! My revolution!"

The Frankenstein bent down to meet him face to face. "I'll take the journals, too. And that wasn't a request." He moved around the Professor toward the tent.

Professor Warner shot to his feet. "Don't you realize what you're doing? We could extend the human lifespan by years, decades, indefinitely! Treat illnesses that couldn't be treated! Do you have any idea how many people will die, and stay dead, if you do this?"

The Frankenstein froze at the entrance to the tent. "Do you have any idea what it's like to live life inside a corpse? This experiment is over. When the time comes for the dead to rise, they will." He entered, and came out a moment later with the body in his arms. "I'll take him where he belongs. Now, where are the Frankensteins' notebooks?"

"No dice," Professor Warner said. "You're not taking—"

"They're downstairs," Teresa said. "On the dining table!"

The Frankenstein nodded. "Much obliged."

"Teresa!" the Professor cried.

The Frankenstein kicked him in the shin, knocking him to his knees. He said to Teresa, "You may go. The others and I aren't quite finished here."

"Th-the others?"

"Heinrich's and Friedrich's."

Teresa sidled along the railing, keeping her distance from the creature. "Wh-what about Marco? My boyfriend? Out in the car?"

The Frankenstein adjusted the cadaver. "He saw Friedrich's and got frightened. He'll be fine."

As she reached the door, she asked, "And the Professor?"

The shape looked behind him, where the Professor was shivering in the rain. "I've killed before. It's since gotten tiresome. He'd be wise not to tempt me. Just go. And don't turn back."

And Teresa went, as fast as her mismatched legs could take her. She didn't see anyone else. Maybe the other creatures were hiding elsewhere around the cabin, or somewhere in the woods outside. She thought it best to trust the shape, and not to wait and see who else might appear.

She reached the car to find Marco shaking, ghostly pale, ready to seize her in his arms, and then drive as far away from here as possible.

All her work, all her study, all… for that.