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 of 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 own, 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. And I had a feeling, like hunger, but different that I had never felt before.
“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. The sight of the blood excited me in a way that I couldn’t understand.
“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.