The Professor’s Assistant

This week’s tale is a horror short story about a young university student. He just wants an A in organic chemistry. He might get more than he bargained for. Enjoy!

The old man looked great. He was flying across the floor, spurting out chemistry theory like it was music. Professor Millard seemed to go through phases like that. Last month he had looked like he was about to die. He had been pale and his hair was wispy and limp. But then, the next class he had looked twenty years younger. Strangest thing.

Perhaps his long hours doing research caught up with him sometimes. I didn’t know. What I did know was that I needed an A in his organic chemistry class. But it seemed there might be an opening that could help me out in that department. I didn’t see Derek, his TA, around anywhere. Professor Millard might need a new assistant.

When the class ended I approached the professor. He turned his bright grey eyes on me, smiling wide. “Mr. Welsh, how are we this evening?”

“I’m very good, professor,” I said.

“Good, good. Now, what can I do for you?”

“I notice that Derek is not here today. Is he ill?”

“Ill?” he asked, seeming perplexed. He shook his head then, in an almost theatrical manner. “No, no, not ill. Gone on to better things, my boy.” He paused and looked me up and down. “Why? Are you looking to help out?”

“Yes, sir, I’d like that very much,” I said.

Though he smiled again then I didn’t like it. It was genial enough but there was something about it, something off. But I put it out of my head and shook his offered hand.

“Excellent. Now, aside from TA duties I sometimes need help in the lab. Are you up for that?”

“Yes, sir, some practical experience sounds great.”

“Grand! Okay, I’ll email you the schedule. Good evening!” he said as he patted me on the back, turned and walked out of the lecture hall.

I stood there, unsure if I had made a good decision. There was something odd about the man. But he was a university professor, eccentricity kind of came with the position.

It was a couple of days before I received Dr. Millard’s email. I checked my phone when I woke that morning and saw that he had written me overnight. He had sent the email at 3 AM. The man liked to work late.

Attached to the email was a PDF with the TA and lab schedules. The TA slots were all evening classes. It dawned on me then that the other two classes I had done with the professor had also been in the evening. The lab schedule was the most surprising of all. Almost every weeknight I was scheduled to assist from 10 PM to 2 AM. For an unpaid position, it was quite a lot to ask.

But I needed that A. And I didn’t have any classes early in the morning — I liked to sleep in. The semester was also half-over. So, less than a couple of months of late nights. I could handle it to get in the professor’s good graces.

The next few weeks were very interesting. The TA duties — showing up and answering students’ questions, grading papers — were fine and forced me to be on the top of my game. That alone was great for my own grades.

But the lab sessions were bizarre. Dr. Millard knew his chemistry, there was no doubt about that. He moved around the lab with a passion, working feverishly and tirelessly. My eyes would start to get heavy as 2 AM approached but his still shone with a vigour that far outstripped his age. He was like a man on a mission.

“Come on now, lad, plenty of time to sleep later,” he would say. Sometimes he would follow it by clasping me on the shoulder, rather forcefully too. Or, “It’s life or death, boy,” and would laugh it off, almost cackling. He had eccentricities in abundance. Or so I thought then.

His lab work, the little he would tell me about it, centred around researching some rare blood condition. I assumed he was working with the med school of the university on some cutting-edge research. It was, I would find out, very unique research.

“What illness are you studying again, professor?” I asked one evening, as I had on several others. I knew he would dodge the question but I persisted, hoping to break down his armour.

I had been working for the professor for a little over a month at that point. In those weeks his haggard appearance had returned, day-by-day. It was very strange. Yet, his eye for detail and his focus didn’t diminish. But his skin had lost the glow of life and become a sickly yellow, almost grey in places. And dark circles surrounded his sunken, yellow eyes. He looked shrunken in his clothing and his hair was thin and dead-looking. He seemed like someone suffering from malnutrition, or a vitamin deficiency.

“It’s very rare, I’m sure you’ve never heard of it before,” he said. He seemed a little annoyed but I couldn’t be sure if it had anything to do with my question. As his haggardness had grown his irritability had grown with it.

“But I would like to know, nonetheless,” I said, pressing him. I had the sinking suspicion that he was suffering from this disease himself. That would explain why he was so driven. But his own illness went in cycles so my hypothesis didn’t make any sense.

The professor stopped his work and sighed. “We are running out of time, boy.” He had taken to calling me boy and lad more often. “You are running out of time.” Alarm rang in my head for a second. What did that mean? But, perhaps sensing my concern, he added, “The semester will soon be over. I’ll have to train a new assistant.”

“I’m sorry professor, you’re right. Let’s focus on the work.”

“Good lad,” he said, patting me on the shoulder with his bony hand.

I stole a glance as he removed his hand. The bones were clearly visible — all the muscle and fat seemed to have melted away. The man was like a walking cadaver. I didn’t know how he managed to stay on his feet.

A couple nights later we had made great strides in our work. The professor seemed jubilant, giddy even. He removed a test tube of blood from the centrifuge and held it up to his yellow eye.

“This is it, lad. This is it,” he said.

It, sir? Your research is complete?” I asked.

He shrugged in his lab coat, lifting shoulders that were thin and emaciated. “Who can say? Only one way to find out.” Then, without further preamble or any sign that what he was doing was outside of all normal lab etiquette — Christ, outside of all normal human etiquette — he lifted the test tube to his lips and downed the modified blood inside.

I stood, transfixed and horrified. No words came and no muscles moved. What the hell?

When the vial was empty the professor tapped a skinny finger against the bottom, trying to get every last drop. I even saw his tongue flick out and draw along the glass edge. Then he licked his lips.

“Good, very good,” he said, as if he had downed a shot of tequila. No, more like he had finished a fantastic appetizer at a fancy restaurant.

What could I say? I felt as if I had walked in on someone having sex. No, as if I had walked in on someone engaged in bestiality. This was obscene, unnatural.

“Professor?” I finally managed to ask.

“Oh, crap,” he said, looking at me and shaking his head. He smiled that same smile, genial but altogether hideous as well. “I had plum forgot about you, lad.” He looked me over then, bringing those yellow eyes from my shoes all the way up to the tip of my head. I felt like prey. “No worries, no worries. You’re okay. Now.”

“Now?” I asked. I felt very vulnerable, like I had seen some taboo ritual and would not be allowed to live.

He held the vial up and shook it between his fingers. “This little beauty. I’m better already.”

“I’m not sure I see what any of that has to do with me?” I asked.

He laughed and shook his head. “Everything, lad, everything to do with you. But, as I said, you’re alri… arrrggg,” he doubled over, dropping the test tube. It hit the floor and shattered. He clutched his midsection, and crouched to the floor, steadying himself with one hand.

“Are you okay, professor?” I asked, rushing toward him. Though, remembering the last few minutes, I stopped before I reached him. I hung back, watching.

“Mother of Lucifer!” He cried out. “No, I’m not okay. It didn’t work. Damn it!” He stood again, leaning his thin form against the edge of the counter-top for support. “Not okay at all.”

“Is there anything I can do?” I asked. Though, even as I spoke, I backed away. The door was behind me. I only had to reach it. Then I could run. I didn’t even know what I was running from but some deeply buried instinct came to life in me then. I knew I wasn’t safe.

“Oh, yes, actually,” he said, lifting his head a little to look over at me. “I will be okay. And you will help. Though I am sorry.”

I continued my backward shuffle, increasing the pace little-by-little. “Sorry?” I asked.

“You’re not going to scream are you?” he asked, that same annoyance entering his voice again. “Derek, he screamed and screamed. It was quite unsettling. It’s not like I want to do this, you see? I’m a victim here too.” The professor pushed himself away from the counter and started toward me.

“Please,” I said. “Please.”

“It’ll be quick, lad. Okay?” He shook his head. “No, that’s a lie. It won’t be quick. And, as I understand it, it’ll hurt like hell. But then, then it’ll all be over.”

He continued toward me, closer and closer, as I continued backing, closer and closer to the door. Whatever he was, the man was weak, frail. There was no way he could keep up with me, a fit young man. Was there? I decided to chance it.

I turned and flung myself toward the door, breaking into a sprint. My hand was out, ready to push against the handle. But I never made it.

The professor was frail but not, it seemed, weak. I felt cold, bony fingers around my neck, plucking me from my escape. That strong grip stopped me in my tracks. A swish of white lab coat shot by in my peripheral vision as the man’s leg swiped my own out from underneath me.

Then the professor was atop me, glaring down into my eyes with his own sunken yellow ones. He had me pinned, his knees sat on my forearms and his feet were on my thighs. There was enormous weight in his frail body. An inhuman weight.

“Please,” I mumbled again, knowing it would do no good.

“I wish I could, boy, I do. But this is life or death, you see. And I try, every time I try. But none of you has been able to help in any other way. No assistant has been able to do more. But this,” he grinned, “this is helpful. It buys me time you see, time to keep trying. Someday I’ll find the cure. So, there you go, have some solace in the fact that you’re helping science. You know, in the long run.”

He smiled again then, showing his teeth. Two of them, the incisors, were more prominent than the others. How had I never noticed that before? They protruded almost to his lower lip. Those hideous fangs were the second last thing I ever saw. In the next instant — he moved so fast — those teeth were in my neck. Hot blood ran down my skin, but the rest of my body was going cold.

I could hear the professor drinking then. My blood ran into his mouth and he drank it like water. My eyes focused on the rectangular patterns of lights and metal bars in the lab ceiling. That was the last thing I saw as my vision started to blur. Soon there was darkness. And yet the sucking, and the horrible sound that accompanied it, continued.

Finally, he stopped and stood.

I wasn’t dead. I knew I soon would be, yes, but even drained I was hanging on. And the professor’s words carried to me as my brain wound down.

“How many will it take?” Though I couldn’t see him I knew he was looking down at my crumpled body. “How many lives to save my only, pitiful body?” He started to walk away, my existence discarded like my body. “Now, where did I put that list of potential assistants?”

Then all was black. The cold arms of Death embraced me.

I could not have been more amazed when I again opened my eyes. Had it been hours? Days? I was still laying on the floor for the grated ceiling with its panels and lights was still there. But now it looked different.

The shapes seemed to have a halo about them, a shifting edge that never settled. And colours, once vibrant and rich now shimmered as if alive. Yet, at the same time, they were dull and lifeless. It was a world of contradictions. I was alive, obviously, though I felt dead.

“You’ll get used to it,” a voice said from nearby. It was a voice I knew but couldn’t place. Like my eyes, my ears now seemed to hear differently. Was it better? Maybe. But there was something missing in it as well.

With difficulty — everything was very sore — I raised myself up to sitting. Turning my aching head I saw the owner of the voice. He was mopping my own blood off the floor.

“Derek?!” I asked, confused.

He smiled. “Hey, buddy. Welcome to the graveyard shift.”

I got to my feet and almost fell over again. Some of it was weakness but most of it was what I saw as I glanced around the room. I managed to lean against one of the lab benches for support. “What the hell?!”

Four other young people were working in the lab. Their skin was pale and drawn; only a semblance of life remained. A couple of them were mixing chemicals, one was washing beakers while the last sat with a notebook. They all turned at my exclamation. They smiled back, shook their heads and then returned to their work.

I knew them, not personally, but had asked questions of them at one time or another while attending one of Professor Millard’s classes. They had all been his TA at some point.

And now? Now they were like me. No. I was like them: undead.

, ,

Garbage Day

Illustration of a woman, distraught, sitting among full garbage bags. The title of the story, Garbage Day, is written above the garbage bags.

The idea for the suspense short story below came to me when I was out for a walk with my four-legged friend Harold. He has a tendency to try and pee on the netting and old bed sheets people put over their trash bags. While diverting him from peeing on one such sheet, the shape of the bags underneath gave me the seed of this story. So, thanks for the inspiration Harry!

It’s running for eight now. I have to be at work by 8:30. And there’s still that thing that needs doing. But the bed is warm and that thing is something I don’t want to do. I have to. I know it. I only want to deny it for a little while longer.

I roll over and swing my arm out to encircle a warm body that is no longer there. My arm flops against the sheet and mattress beneath, as if surrendering to the fact of his absence. The sheets are warm, inviting. The day ahead is cold and awkward.

It’s been a week since I’ve been at the office. People will ask questions. They’ll say, “Oh Rebbecca, how are you doing? Really?” in that tone that makes you want to punch them. Or they’ll pretend nothing has happened. Or they’ll look away. I don’t know which I’d rather.

Another glance at the clock tells me I have no choice if I’m going to be on time. I untangle myself from the sheets. So warm. Goodbye. My clothes are on in a minute, my hair pinned up. I throw on a little make-up — no one’s going to question my appearance today and I can’t be bothered to give a shit.

I try not to think about the next task as I descend the stairs. I push it out of my mind, thinking instead of the soothing aroma of brewing coffee. It will fill my nostrils when I enter the office in about twenty-five minutes. Then I can hide at my desk and carry on with my life.

Then I’m in the porch facing my nightmare. My weekly nightmare. I managed to avoid it until now, since that day so long ago. My parents had done it, or David had done it. But he won’t be doing it anymore.

Black garbage bags, ten of them, fill the space. My knees go a little weak, thinking of entwining my fingers into the thin, tacky plastic. And I have to swallow back vomit that is threatening to creep up my throat. A sour taste lingers in my mouth.

This is not hard. I know it’s not hard. People do this every damn week. Why can’t I?

But I know why. And I can’t think of that day without thinking of long-dead Snuffles. Beautiful, loving Snuffles. God, how I miss that dog.

I walk around the bags and sit, fall almost, to the bench next to the door. It’s hard to breathe so I open the door a crack, letting the light Fall breeze caress my face. That was a mistake. That’s when I see it.

The sheet sits next to the stairs, on a little patch of grass in front of the house. That’s all it takes. I start to urge.

I shove the door closed with a bang and dash for the bathroom. Barely making it I puke into the sink. Hot, sticky tendrils of it flow over my chin. The smell almost makes me vomit again. I hold it down. I raise my head, knowing it’s a mistake, and look into the mirror.

But I don’t see myself, not as I am, no, I see a little girl, innocent and carefree. A little girl that didn’t know her life was about to change forever.

I walked Snuffles every day before school, around seven-thirty. It had been one of the conditions of getting her. My mother made me promise to walk her and so I did. But it wasn’t a chore, Snuffles was the best friend an eight-year-old girl could have. She loved to cuddle and would lick my face with her hot little tongue.

On this particular morning, it was cool, a little later in the year than it is now and I could see my breath as I walked. I had mittens on too, with Snuffles leash wrapped around one. We strutted along like we owned the world.

It was garbage day. Piled beside each driveway, on a little strip of grass, were black or green bags. Often one or two and, rarely, three or more. Over most of them, as required, was a sheet, to keep birds away. Some late-risers, putting out their own bags or getting into their cars, smiled at me as we passed. I smiled back. We lived in a small town outside a big town; it was safe and most people knew each other.

Snuffles would stop every now and then, squatting as she peed. In my pocket I had two poop bags, just in case, though she hardly pooped on her walks. For which I was very thankful.

In front of one house there was a paisley sheet covering some very lumpy trash. Snuffles squat on the grass next to it. I stopped to let her do her business and looked around, waiting. It was a quiet part of the neighbourhood, sleepy even. Most of the cars were still in the driveways. The overnight condensation glistened on metal and glass in the rising sunlight. I remember thinking how calm and dreamlike it was.

I had no idea that dream would soon turn into a nightmare.

There wasn’t the usual tug on the leash and so I looked to see what Snuffles was doing. She was chewing on something sticking out from underneath the sheet. I remember thinking that people should do a better job of bagging their trash.

It was a little sausage, pale and tubular. Snuffles gnawed on it with her sharp little teeth, leaving impressions in the meat. Little bits of it came away and revealed red beneath. Tiny trickles of that red ran from the opened seams. That was strange, I had never seen a sausage that looked like that inside.

And did sausages have little wrinkles like that? No, not usually. And what was that at the end? It looked like, almost could have been, a fingernail. I leaned in closer to look.

It wasn’t a sausage. Snuffles was chewing on a human finger, now gnawed and raw with blood.

Adrenaline flooded my body. I didn’t know what to do, which way to go. I froze, not old enough, experienced enough, to handle the situation. I let my eyes trace the shape of the sheet. It was a particular kind of lumpy, a shape that was, now, very clear. I backed up a step, tugging on Snuffles’s leash.

She protested, still trying to get at the finger she had mangled. I pulled harder. The dog protested but finally relented. However, she was on one side of the sheet, I was on the other. The strap of the leash snagged against the material and started to drag it.

“No,” I whispered, knowing I did not want to see what was beneath that sheet. I wanted to keep walking, to pretend this hadn’t happened, to have my innocence left intact. It was too late for that.

The sheet drew back in slow motion. Behind the chewed, pale and, yes, lifeless, finger was a palm. Connected to it were three other, dead fingers and one stubby thumb. Against the red blood of the mangled finger, those digits looked almost white.

Snuffles came closer and the sheet continued its slow reveal. Soon an arm, clothed in a suit, blue and pin-striped, slid into view. From the crumpled outline of the sheet, I knew what was coming. And I knew I was not prepared for it.

Little brown tufts of hair popped free as the sheet travelled on. Next the start of an eyebrow, darker than the other hair. And along an almost white jawbone were hints of stubble. Finally, the first of two horrors presented themselves to me.

The eye was open, begging, pleading but soulless, locked in the agony of death. Its brother soon joined it and the pair locked on my own. I couldn’t look away. I could only stare at the little blood vessels, gape at the blue pupils that still haunt my nightmares.

It was too much. I tugged again and Snuffles, yelping a little, came to my side. As she did the head was revealed completely. What was left of it.

The left side of his skull was only partly there. Above his eye socket, along a jagged piece of exposed white bone, were flecks of red and grey. Beneath and behind it was a mass of misery that I hope never to see again in my life. I suppose brain surgeons see it all the time. But not like that, not penetrated, destroyed. I found out later that it had been done with a golf club. I didn’t need to know that. It didn’t help.

The middle-aged man’s stiff corpse lay there, exposed, unmoving and unseeing in the morning cold. But I still didn’t, couldn’t move.

My knees gave way and I slumped to the ground. Something, some reflex, some survival mechanism clicked on in my brain then. And I screamed. I howled, like a wounded animal.

I don’t know how long it was before someone, one of the people from one of the nearby houses, came out and found me there. My throat was raw as she wrapped her arms around me and turned me away from the body.

Later I found out that it was a town councillor, the body. The man had been involved in some shady dealings and got his comeuppance. It shook our little town to the core, not that I was aware of it at the time. They sheltered me from it. I only wish they could have protected me from that scene.

To me, who he was didn’t matter. He was only the body. And I would never forget it, no matter how hard I tried. I would look into his eyes every garbage day.

After rinsing the sink I make my way from the bathroom back to the porch. I summon courage that doesn’t exist. Damn you David, you son-of-a-bitch. This is your job. Instead, you made time with Cindy at your office. Well, you’re gone now and I’m left with this. The remnants of your life, collected in ten bags, that you couldn’t be bothered to take when you moved out.

And it’s fucking garbage day.

I walk out the front door, ignoring the bags, and lock it behind me.

The bags will still be there later. That’s okay. I’ll deal with them then.