Verge Fiction: Model Organisms

Verge Fiction is the site's biweekly publication of fictional short stories and book excerpts. Penned by staff writers and guest authors, none of Verge Fiction is real, nor should it be confused with news that regularly appears on this site.

As for the murders, we couldn't quite tell when they began. Even the police weren't totally sure. No one would confirm the rumors, but word had it the burial fees were beggaring some Rockefeller’s foundation for the indigent dead. In New York, the dead wash up on the street around the First Avenue Canal when the tides are high. Plus, there was a serial murderer of prostitutes running around in Long Island for a while, and no one caught on until a bunch of women were found dead on a beach. Later, it emerged that the Long Island Serial Killer in fact had not killed at least one of these persons; rather, the beach was just a popular place to dump bodies. Not all of us in the marine labs had been there for that particular chain of stories.


Anyway, this case was more obvious than that one. The tabloids pounced. It would have been a story if it had only been one body: “CHEWED OUT” was the first headline. It wasn’t up there with the one about headless bodies and topless bars, but all of us agreed we’d missed the city’s golden age.

The chewing was what captured the tabloids' imagination. You could say it caught our attention, too. But we lived in the right neighborhoods, we knew. We lived in Park Slope and what was left of the Lower East Side. We lived in Astoria and Williamsburg. We would be fine.

Of course, the murders were beginning to stack up. Gang violence, anonymous sources close to the police department told the local papers. The chewing was some kind of new calling card for an up-and-coming crew — a crew of what, no one ever said. That was a popular theory here in the labs, too. Some people on the internet said hopeful things about a serial killer. We agreed it would be more interesting than gang violence but also it struck us as less plausible. Soon we took up a friendly bet, with names and guesses. It was $5 to enter, though we could enter as many times as we liked, and Lainey, who worked on stingrays, kept the collection locked in her bottom desk drawer.

The chewing was what captured the tabloids' imagination

We talked about the killings a lot, and not just because the case would inevitably be adapted into a movie. More like, this was a topic we could add to our repertoire, alongside the non-controversial breaktime hits: tourists, the weather, popular music of the turn of the century, some of the only conversations we could have without wading into dangerous territory.

You could see the corpses, if you wanted. If you knew where to look. The browsing history on the interfaces suggested that in fact some of us had looked, though no one would admit to it. But we knew a lot for people who hadn’t seen the photos: the softest spots in the face — eyeballs, lips, tongue, nose — were always missing. Along the edges of the face, usually behind the ears, were signs of penetration by needles. Some autopsy notes indicated venom injections, though this wasn’t uniform (Lainey, mindful of the serial killer thing, had entered a "copycat" bet). The work wasn’t surgical or precise, but rough — scraping at times to the bone. Often, deep gouges that looked like the work of teeth or claws marked the sides of the face, neck, and shoulders. Only the faces ever went; nothing else was touched. And the victims were all alive for the attacks.


(Flickr / Mike Kniec)

As graduate students, we worked on zebrafish and phytoplankton. We worked on the small-spotted catshark and the mako shark. On the nudibranch and the sea slug aplysia, the water flea and sea urchins. We spent most of our time, when we weren’t on boats or in wetsuits, in the main marine biology lounge. The rooms with the tanks — one freshwater room, five saltwater rooms — were cramped and we needed to analyze our data somewhere. There were banks of interfaces lining the lounge’s walls in an open floor plan. A hangover from the decorating trends of the past, we supposed. A cheap couch assembled by some graduate students of years past occupied the middle of the room, and a coffee table lined with interfaces sat facing it. Those were the ideal spots, allowing for maximum privacy.

The crowding intensified. There had been some flooding in the mouse labs in another building — the First Avenue Canal now occasionally overrode its banks, since the seawalls hadn’t been raised in so long — and so the marine labs were compressed into the basement and sub-basement rooms so the mouse people could move into our building while theirs was rebuilt. Privately, we confessed how much we all hated it.

Some of the graduate students frankly admitted they did very little each week. Two kinds did this: the unwise ones, and the braggarts. Others worked ostentatiously, arriving so early and leaving so late that if they weren’t doing nothing for swathes of hours, they must have been very stupid indeed. It was easy to ascertain who was doing what; it was a matter of looking over a shoulder in the main lounge. Easily achieved, given the cramped quarters and the size of the interfaces’ screens.

We told each other, in total confidence, about the other natural problems of working in close spaces. Among us were the unabashed nose-pickers, the known mouth-breathers, the open-mouthed chewers, the women wearing too much perfume. One conversational half of domestic squabbles; sometimes, the sounds of an imminent divorce. No one — no parent, no teacher, no graduate advisor — had taught us how to say anything to these people, so we said nothing.

Then of course, there were the departmental currents to surf. They divided, approximately, with the rooms we worked in. The freshwater people were a kind of true neutral, and only ever useful in coalition; they made unreliable allies. The vertebrate and invertebrate biologists were generally pitted against each other; the department head was a vertebrate biologist, and their power only seemed to be climbing. They had the majority of the tanks, though the invertebrate biologists knew how to bide their time. Generally, we aligned with our advisors, in terms of politics. Better not to bring it up, if we could.

Though it was comforting to find others who were disgusted by Jeff’s disconcerting habit of chewing food hours after he’d apparently finished eating, like a cow with cud, or Lainey’s perfume’s tendency to enter a room before she did, these conversations did seem to intensify the splits and tensions. (Who was invited to beers and who wasn’t. Whether a certain sea cucumber researcher might in fact be falsifying data to get results that sterling. Whether zebrafish were worthwhile uses of our time. Who might be ratting out whom to the departmental head. How the budget got split. Whose research — Lainey’s, with the most certainty — had a future, and future funding.) So the killings were a relief — team-building, almost. Until they shifted to Brooklyn.


(Wikimedia)

That must have been February. We weren't alarmed, exactly. The chewed-on corpses were still mostly criminals, along with the occasional homeless person. Jonah, the lab clown, suggested we’d acquire a new superhero, and made reference to an old Batman movie most of us hadn’t seen. We laughed politely. None of us could quite fathom Jonah or his devotion to sea slug neurology, or where his pretty, normal-seeming girlfriend had come from.

The killings stayed isolated, mostly in Gravesend and Bensonhurst, Canarsie and East New York. Some of us, those of us who were living in Clinton Hill or "East Williamsburg," which we all knew was actually Ridgewood but were willing to call East Williamsburg anyway because sooner or later everyone buys the myths the realtors are selling (ask anyone who remembers what Bushwick was)— well, some of us got uneasy. Not afraid, per se. It wasn’t like the bodies appeared every night or anything. Not even every week. Sometimes weeks and weeks would pass with no killings, and the tension in the lab ratcheted up to near-unbearable levels until a body surfaced, and the headlines CHUMP CHOMPED, FACELESS CORPSE IN TOPLESS BAR, MAFIOSO MASTICATED appeared with it, reassuring beacons in a fog of office politics.

There were photos, naturally. While the crime scenes tended to be places well known by certain people to be unsurveilled, there were both the amateur and professional photographs of the wreckage. Most media streams wouldn’t run them, but they existed if anyone wanted to find them, and most of the lab found them. We talked about how one man’s exposed jaw made us feel sick to our stomachs, his cheek just bitten clean off. Connoisseurs of the misery business made notes of the type of teeth implied by the bite marks.

We, too, wondered what it was — maybe a fighting dog. Smart money was on a pit bull. Peter in the fish lab suggested an alligator, but we dismissed that immediately. Too hard to hide an alligator. Who could possibly have the space? He insisted on being allowed into the office kitty. Lainey rolled her eyes, said he was easy money. Peter replied that it was almost certainly the work of a reptile of some variety. Said they liked to go for the soft tissue first, the eyes and lips.

He was a buffoon, with very blonde hair and a very red face, a potbelly starting under his flannel shirt. He would not find a post-doctoral fellowship, we all knew. We couldn't tell him, exactly. So we let him work on the zebrafish and kept our thoughts regarding his dim future to ourselves.

We were used to weirdos — we had a couple of researchers who ran marathons and were, for that reason, tiresome to talk with. Our group wasn’t nearly as weird as the Drosophila people, who ripped flies’ wings off for their studies and did unspeakable things at night. Jonah had put money on a rogue Drosophila researcher snapping under the pressure and chewing off the faces of passersby. He’d insisted.

In fact, the only person not in the death pool was June, who worked on sea stars. It wasn’t unusual for June to be aloof from lab conversation; she was a solid worker and generally quiet, avoiding politics. We liked her and feared becoming her in equal measure. She had become even quieter lately, on account of what was mockingly described as her personal tragedy.


(Wikipedia / Alexander Vasenin)

It was hard to say when June’s cat had begun to die; perhaps she’d made the announcement to us in the lab at some point. Or maybe she’d told someone loose-lipped, we didn’t remember. Maybe that was when we first noticed the white streak that now wound through her long dark braid; like Susan Sontag, the most pretentious of us said. It was impossible to tell how old she was. She might have been in her late 30s or early 50s. Too much time on boats collecting samples had leathered her skin, stamping crow's feet and laugh lines into her ruddy, moon-shaped face.

June was short and plodding, a post-doc on her second go-round. Her shoes were sensible loafers; her pants were sensible khakis; her shirts, sensible no-iron blouses. She wore her hair, with its streak, in a sensible braid over one shoulder. She never used the lounge for her data analyses, not that we’d seen anyway. She had her own office, through some minor administrative goodwill.

Her projects weren't the sexiest projects, but she was reliably published in mid-tier journals. True, she was getting on and her work in sea star regeneration hadn't significantly advanced the field, but she was still working. We all knew what the job market was like for those of us who hung through a PhD. June's reliability, her sensible braid and her loafers, slightly darkened around the toes, were the best many of us could hope for. We all knew that in the middle of the night, but almost never admitted it to each other.

The next step of course would be an adjunct role. Maybe after a few years of that, an assistant professorship. No further. No university committee would tenure someone in her field. Nowhere. Not enough grant money for her to be worth anyone's time.

She was reliably published in mid-tier journals

Sea stars were hot a few decades ago when her PhD advisor had trained; sea stars and salamanders, anything that could regrow a lost limb. These days they weren’t considered ideal model organisms, although it was not inconceivable given the whole telomere thing from the Winesburg lab that work on them could heat up again. We didn’t think it was likely, though. The National Institutes of Health giveth and the National Institutes of Health taketh away, amen.

As the weeks sidled by, we began to forget about June's dying cat. Not forget, exactly. More like it slid from our consciousness. We had other concerns: our bills, our love lives, our children, our research. The murders, naturally. Of course we asked about the cat from time to time, and the very closest to June saw the occasional cat video, but mostly, the dying cat seemed normal. We weren't even sure how long the cat had been dying. After a while, it began to feel like the cat had always been dying. Those indolent leukemias, June said, you know how they are.

June certainly took a little more time off than before, to make sure the cat got to the vet. And she made up the time in our basement lab, staying late or coming in on weekends. Peter in the fish lab said she must be bringing her cat in, because he was allergic to cats and the lab had started to make him sneezy. We ignored Peter.

Besides, so what if she had brought the cat? None of us knew June to date. We weren't even sure if she liked men or women. And June occasionally mentioned friends, but not often enough that we got the sense that anyone was very close to her. Did she have a family? She had the cat. We hoped, without being tactless enough to ask, that she’d scraped together enough money for the disposal fee, in the face of the cat’s death.

We all agreed the cat was beautiful, black with wide green eyes. June kept a photo of the cat on her workbench. Some kind of long-hair mix, with a wide fluffy tail. June had adopted the cat as an adult; some of the cat's teeth were missing, and there was a nick in its right ear — a mark of its history as a Brooklyn heavy, we assumed.


(Flickr / eva101)

It was probably the older PhD candidates who first noticed something was afoot with June, beyond the cat; their noses were keenest for this kind of thing. Or perhaps one of June’s minions had said something. She was ordering new shipments of sea stars from the undergraduates who patrolled the coast and keeping odder hours. She would just smile when she was asked what she was doing; even her graduate student minions hadn't been allowed to touch the results.

So that became the source of the other gossip in the lab, besides the masticating murders, what June's data must be. We engaged in this quietly, at beer night. Sometimes during lunches, too. She was so thoroughly consumed by it, whatever it was, that we began to wonder if it was the kind of thing that might restart starfish research in a serious way. If it was the kind of thing that, upon publication, might lead to a tenure-track offer. The kind of thing that might lead to her own lab. This was why the older PhDs were sniffing around her, we figured.

We liked to meet up at a dive bar on the Lower East Side for beer night. We could speak freely there. We could talk about the important business of graduate school: what professors were one-hit wonders, the woman whose graduate advisor accidentally sent an email to the entire lab that was meant for his wife (asking for her to bring the condoms and French maid outfit for their trip to the Adirondacks), who to suck up to, the obvious alcoholism of a department secretary, how to get the right people on your committee, what happened if one of your committee members abruptly left. The mad scramble for a competitive advantage, any competitive advantage. Odds on publication. The important things, shared only with our trusted group.

Most of us didn’t want to know the darker business of this stuff anyway. There had been some whispers, not even whispers, more like suspicious breaths, involving a backup that had crashed, wiping out the entirety of one poor bastard’s data. These suspicious breaths had focused on one particular professor, the department head, whose work would have been invalidated by the data. We did not want to discuss this possibility, nor any of the other rumors we’d heard about the department head. We didn’t need more enemies to contemplate. And we didn’t need the head of our department among our enemies.

What did this leave us to talk about? June. What she was doing. That was safe enough. We had all agreed to court her favor in our various ways somehow without really talking about it. All of us could use a co-author credit to boost our stature, no less if it were on, say, a really big paper. We listed the names of the people who were sure to get a co-author line, those who might if June was generous, and whether there was any way to belatedly help by offering to write the introductory matter for the paper.

This was widely dismissed as too needy. Several of us did it anyway. So yes, sometimes it was a reprieve, resorting to the details of the murders when the tensions between the factions ratcheted up. How terrible the murders were. How shocking it was the police hadn’t caught anyone, despite being virtually everywhere. The faceless bodies. We could all agree — Oh it was terrible what happened to that homeless guy, poor whatshisname. Did you see the video of the detectives from that last one?

A few of us were even genuinely frightened to go out alone at night, even though our neighborhoods had been untouched. Some others feigned this at closing time as an excuse to split a taxi ride — since there were no drivers among us and everything in the cab was recorded, the taxis were arguably the safest places in New York.


(Flickr / zhouxuan12345678)

It was a gorgeous spring morning just after Easter when June came in with her cat around her neck. The cat was larger than we had expected from the pictures, or rather, longer. It certainly looked like a cancer patient. It was emaciated, and its dull fur stuck out at odd angles; it had given up on grooming. Patches of fur were missing from its belly, and its forelegs were naked, exposing obscene pink skin. Its head lolled on June's shoulder. The green eyes were half-open and sometimes the cat indulged a slow blink. It sat there, on her shoulders, as she strolled to her office.

Peter from the fish lab tried to say something about a violation of working conditions, but June just ignored him, closing her office door in his puffy buffoon face. Peter went from person to person, trying to summon up some outrage about the cancerous cat's appearance in the lab, but none of us felt we could say much to June about it. It seemed unwise to alienate someone who might one day become a principal investigator, with a lab of her own.

Around noon, June excused herself to attend a meeting with the department chair, who had caught wind of something unusual in June’s supplies. It wasn’t clear what this meeting meant; if it was a congratulations, or a demand for rough data before any more sea stars were ordered, or if the department chair had simply heard the same loose talk from the fourth years. Could it have been something more sinister? We didn’t like to think about it.

A bit later, June came back down the hall, smiling a little. We heard white-noise murmurs from the less discreet, wondering what the outcome of the meeting had been. Even the cat looked livelier, lifting its head from her shoulder and peering around the room, ears alert. June gently cradled the cat off her shoulders and sat on the graduate student couch, placing the cat in her lap. The cat’s purr was surprisingly deep, like a motorcycle. She kissed its forehead between the ears and told it that it was a good girl.

Peter from the fish lab came over to tell June that she absolutely could not have the cat in the building. His eyes were watering, he said, and it was true he had been sneezing all day. He stood over June, who was stroking the cat. June said nothing, just went on smoothing the cat's fur. Peter got louder and louder. It was bad hygiene, he said. She was endangering everyone's results, he said.

That was when the cat sprang out of June's lap and attached itself to Peter's face.


(Flickr / Patrick Feller)

During the brief moment the cat was in the air — and we can't attest to this for sure, we were all very afraid — we saw the cat's jaw seem to unhinge. And rather than just one row of teeth in its mouth, we saw at least three rows, like a shark's. Three rows is our consensus, although Lainey from stingray lab insists there were five.

At first we were too shocked to move. The screaming was something awful. June sat watching as Peter staggered backward into an equipment table. He tried pulling at the cat with both hands, but couldn't seem to remove it. Its front claws were sunk in deep by his ears; its back claws on his collar bone.

And then the cat puffed up, larger and larger, and what appeared to be spines emerged from the patchy fur. Peter grabbed at the feline, trying to crow the beast from his face, but several of the spines lodged in Peter’s hands, breaking off from the cat. Shortly after that, the screaming stopped as Peter fell to the ground.

It was worse when the screaming stopped. There were these terrible squishy tearing noises. We learned something then, about horror.

It was worse when the screaming stopped

We gathered ourselves and ran. We ducked into the pufferfish room and pushed lab tables against its two doors. Our devices couldn’t find the network in the basement, but there was an interface set up, and someone used that to alert the police. After that, we took turns calling our loved ones. We figured the cat could fit in the air vents, but we also knew the grates wouldn't readily come off.

We all felt better when we heard the sirens approach. We sat huddled, holding each other, some of us weeping. We were sure it would just be a matter of time before some reassuring knock came on our door. The lights flickered and then went off. The interface was just a black square, unable to connect. It wasn’t clear what happened. We heard the generators hum to life, and the aquariums went on filtering, their murky green glow the only light.

The sirens stopped, and then there was just quiet. Quiet for a long time. Our devices lost charge and died. We had the pufferfish and a Bunsen burner, but it was also possible we would poison ourselves trying to cook it. Plus, none of us were responsible for the experiment, so we didn't know what genes had been knocked out or if the fish had been dosed with something.

We don't know how long we have been down here now. Sometimes we send someone out, to see if June and her cat are gone, but no one ever returns. We sent Lainey first, on account of her overwhelming perfume. Jeff was next; his chewing had been annoying in normal circumstances, but the constant mastication, after Peter’s death, was unbearable. We sent Jonah out after he expressed admiration for June’s work, how much she must have accomplished under truly daunting time pressure and with limited resources. It wasn’t that he was wrong. There are the obvious problems, of course, but also the data is almost certainly flawed and will doubtless be impossible to replicate. Unscientific. A mess. An embarrassment to our profession.

We hear the thing that once was a cat sometimes, or we think we do. The low, startling purr. Sometimes we think we hear June talking to it, but we’ve never been able to make out what she’s been saying. Mostly we hope we are hallucinating.

The water filtration system on the fish is exquisite but we are very hungry.


(Flickr / Lauri Rantala)