3

The Food of Life

By Matthew B. Johnson

 

Image by Willgard Krause

 

Marion sat on her lab stool, her hands beneath her to keep them from shaking. Her brown eyes twitched back and forth as she held the intruder’s unblinking stare. His eyes, an unnatural pale blue, had a metallic hardness to them. They bore down on her, hungry, predatory, like a starving wolf staring down a cornered rabbit.

“What do you want?” she said, her voice trembling. Her laboratory occasionally experienced break-ins from addicts seeking a fix. The man before her, however, was well-dressed and neatly groomed. His youthful, chiseled features were handsome. His intense gaze detracted from any attractiveness she may have found.

“Your help, Dr. Percovic.” His words, slow and deliberate, were spoken in an accent she couldn’t place.

“My help?” She looked around her lab. Her phone was on the far corner of the counter she was backed up against, out of reach. Closer was the microscope with the heavy steel base she’d been using. Her eyes flickered between it and the intruder. She considered crying out for help, but wondered who would hear her? The other members of her department had gone home hours ago. Some of her coworkers joked that Marion wasted money every month by keeping her apartment, as she spent more nights in the lab than she did at home. Marion even kept a pillow and blanket in her locker in case she decided to spend the night on one of the couches in the employee lounge. The only other person there was Morton, the night watchman, but he was probably out walking the perimeter of the campus. Or…

She shut her eyes against the thought of harm inflicted upon the kindly watchman who reminded her of her grandfather. What if he’d been hurt or killed? What if she was next? Her father would probably drink himself to death while her mother cried herself blind if their only child was taken from them. Creeping tendrils of dread snaked through her insides.

“If it will put you at ease, know that I mean you no harm,” he said. His mouth curled into an approximation of a kind smile. “I only seek to make use of your considerable talents.”

“I don’t understand.” Her trembling caused her loose bun to collapse, sending a cascade of rich mahogany-colored hair down to her shoulders.

“I’ve read all of your papers on cellular regeneration, restorative therapies, mitochondrial manipulation, as well as your book on the history of cellular anatomy. Fascinating, all of them,” he said with a slight nod.

“Th-thank you.”

He gestured to a lab stool across from her. “May I sit?”

She hesitated before consenting, not wanting to provoke him. She let out a small, high-pitched squeak when he moved toward her. She concentrated on her breathing, hoping it would keep her from shaking. His politeness and the overly-calm manner with which he spoke made her cream-colored skin cold and prickly, despite the long sleeves of her heavy lab coat.

He collected himself before he continued. “I have a condition for which modern science has no name, no classification, and, in fact, no means by which one not afflicted might fully comprehend it, much less believe it. It has been a burden for the overwhelming majority of my life. I seek to be free of it. Nothing more.”

“There are plenty of doctors, specialists who-”

“I’ve been to see as many of them as would meet with me,” he interrupted, raising his voice.

She recoiled on her stool.

“Apologies,” he cooed. “I’ve endured this problem for so long, seeking reprieve from it without success.”

Marion turned her head once again looking to her phone. As much as she cherished her microscope, a gift from her parents  after she’d completed her third PhD, she would use it as a bludgeon if she had to. Petite as she was, she estimated she could swing it with enough heft to break skin, if not bone. Besides, the microscope could be replaced. Her life could not.

“I’m not sure I’m the person you need,” she said, her voice a wavering whisper. “I’m not a medical doctor.”

He grinned. “That’s exactly why you’re the person I need. You deal with the experimental and theoretical, not the practical and mundane. Your mind does not suffer from the same needless barriers as others who see only what they know, not what they might discover.” He gazed at her intently, less the predator and more the desperate supplicant.

“What would you need from me?”

“First, to believe.” He rose from the stool, reached into his suit jacket, and held a semiautomatic pistol before her.

Marion jumped from her stool and dashed toward the end of the counter, stumbling as she ran. She grabbed her phone in one hand and the heavy microscope in the other. She ducked behind the other side of the counter, poking her head around the corner just enough to keep him in view. “I’m calling the cops!” she shrieked. “You’d better leave before they-”

He sprang forward. Faster than she imagined the human body capable of moving, he set the gun on the countertop before he was in front of her, holding her wrist and keeping the phone away from her body. She cocked back to smash the microscope into his face, but he again caught her by the wrist.

“Let me go!” she screamed as she struggled.

“Dr. Percovic, please–”

“Let me go!” As she continued to struggle to free herself, she realized he wasn’t attacking her, but rather, restraining her.

“Calm yourself, Doctor,” he urged. “Please.”

She shook one last time as he released her, expecting her wrists to be rubbed red from her frenetic movement against his grip. Instead, she found no marks, nor any soreness from her struggle.

“If you don’t mean me any harm, why did you bring a gun into my lab?” Her courage was bolstered by a sudden rush of anger.

“The gun is for you.” He stood up and stepped back. His eyes drifted to the counter where the pistol lay. “Take it.”

She shoved her phone into her coat pocket, and, still clutching the microscope, scooped the gun off the counter. Her hand shook as she held it. She aimed at his chest. “Get out of my lab! This is your only warning.”

A wolfish grin spread across his face. His hands moved to the lapels of his jacket.

He took a step toward her. “In just a moment, I want you to-”

Marion pulled the trigger. He staggered back as the shot ripped into his chest. She let out a scream as she continued shooting, smoke and thunder and flashes of fire filling the lab as she emptied the entire magazine into him.

She sucked in shallow, rapid breaths as the gun clicked empty. Smoke oozed from its barrel, the smell of ozone filling the air. His limp and bloody body lay motionless on the floor. Blood flowed freely from the bullet holes and onto the black and white checkered tile.

Marion felt nauseated. She stared at the gun in her hands. “Oh my god…”

_Self-defense. Any police investigation would find this to be a clear-cut case of self- defense. A strange man breaks into the lab while I’m working alone, late at-_

She snapped back to the present moment when she heard something small and metallic clanking against the tile floor. She gasped as she watched the bullets working their way out of the intruder’s chest. Or rather, his body was expelling them. A dozen bloody and crumpled copper slugs hit the floor.

Seconds later, still bloody and limp, he sucked in a ragged breath.

Startled, she dropped the gun. “Oh, shit!”

He stood up, coughing and taking care not to slip in his own blood. Disapproval showed on his now weathered and sagging face. “Two or three shots would have been sufficient, you know.”

She stood speechless as she inspected him. His hair, once a rich and lustrous black, was now grey and thinning. He stood with what looked like a more concentrated effort, his shoulders and head drooping a little. His voice had even taken on a more aged timber. All of which paled in comparison to the fact that he should be dead.

“What kind of elaborate effects show is this?” she asked.

He removed his jacket, pocked with holes and wet with fresh blood. “Not trickery, but the aforementioned affliction.” He removed his shirt, revealing a dozen soft, pink bruises where the bullets had torn through his flesh, which was now loose and wrinkled like a man in his sixties.

Without further words, he walked to one of the sinks and began washing the blood from his chest, neck, and face. He sighed. “It’s a pity.” He looked back over his shoulder at her. “I rather liked that suit.”

“What’s going on here?” She took angry steps toward him. “None of this makes any sense.”

“Might I trouble you for a towel?” he asked, shutting off the running water.

She pointed. “Bottom left drawer. How are you not dead? And how is it that you seem to have aged forty years in the last minute?”

He turned to face her, drying himself as he spoke. “You’re a brilliant woman, Marion. Based on your observations, what hypotheses do you have?”

“_Doctor Percovic_,” she corrected.

He let out a small laugh. “Of course. My apologies.” He tilted his head back and covered his mouth as if struck by an epiphany. “Further apologies are due, as I have failed to properly introduce myself.” He dropped his head. “My, but my mother would be ashamed of my poor manners.” Raising his eyes to meet hers, he said, “You may call me Lazarus.”

“You’re not serious,” she said with an involuntary chortle. “That’s your name?”

“It has been for a very long time, as it is applicable to who and what I am.”

“You’re insane.”

He seemed amused. “On some days, yes.”

She was taken aback at his affability.

His tone turned serious once more. “But not this day. Tell me, Doctor, do you believe in magic?”

“Of course not.”

He pointed a stiff finger at her. “Exactly the response I’d expect from someone who forms her theories based on empirical evidence.” He paused, offering her a contemplative look. “So I’ll ask again. Based on what you’ve witnessed, what hypotheses have you formed?”

She thought for a moment. “The most likely explanation is you’re an exceptionally talented street magician.”

“What else?”

She thought for another moment, glancing down at the rapidly sealed bullet holes. “Let’s suppose I shot you with actual bullets and they actually punctured your chest cavity causing you too bleed actual blood all over my clean lab floor.” He voice carried overtones of her irritation as she glanced down at the smeared pool of blood near her workstation. “That would mean your cellular make up allows your body to heal wounds exponentially faster than the average human being. However, that would also mean your body would need an equally exponential amount of calories to sustain itself, or it would resort to burning your own muscle tissue to keep up with the energy demanded just to keep your heart and brain functioning.” She folded her arms as she pondered how own theory. She shook her head. “That’s not possible, though.”

“Why not?”

“Because even if you managed to eat enough calories to sustain that sort of energy consumption – and I assure you, the human stomach is only a fraction of the size it would need to be in order to allow such a vast intake – the digestive system can’t metabolize those calories fast enough. You would starve to death even while gorging yourself.”

He smiled in satisfaction. “A logical conclusion.” He spread his hands. “Yet here I stand when I should be dead.”

As much as she hated to admit it, he had a point. And she hated it even more that her curiosity was growing by the second.

“Alright,” she said, letting out a tired sigh. “How?”

He sat back down on a lab stool, letting out a small groan of relief as he did so. “I’ll spare you the tale of a sickly boy born to parents of means who used all the resources at their disposal to help their son become a sickly young man. What’s important is, a man they’d hired in hopes of finding a permanent remedy to my ailments discovered an ancient temple in the Rhineland. Among the ruins, he found a scroll which held detailed instructions for a ritual which would grant whoever successfully completed it immortality.”

Marion guffawed. “You’re joking, right?”

The predatory gaze had returned to his eyes. “As you’ve seen, even if I sustain extreme bodily harm, I heal almost instantaneously.”

“If you’re immortal, how come your body ages so considerably after it heals itself?” she asked. “And what if I’d have shot you in the head?”

“I would have healed, just as you witnessed. Only, I’d have a crushing headache for a few hours.” He rubbed his temples at the memories. “As for my current wizened condition…” A sad smile formed on his face. “Immortality comes at a terrible cost, one which I must pay soon.”

“Pay how?”

“I need to feed.”

She let out another derisive snicker. “I’ll see if I can find a blood packet for you.”

“I’m not a vampire,” he said, his tone and expression tired. “Charles Darwin once called me homophagus.”

“You’re a cannibal?” she said, incredulous. “And you’re telling me you knew Darwin?”

“Is it so hard to believe?”

“Yes.”

Lazarus leaned forward, elbows on his knees, hands folded. “I went to Charles over 150 years ago to see if he could help me, much like I’m doing with you now. I’ve been fortunate enough in my unnaturally long life to meet many great scientific minds.” His expression soured. “Sadly, none of them were able to cure this affliction.”

“So you eat dead people to stay alive.” She shrugged. “That doesn’t sound like too much of a price to pay for eternal life.”

“If only that were so.”

“How do you mean?”

“Another demonstration,” he said. He stood up, grunting with the effort. “If you will please follow me, Doctor.”

She remained rooted in place as he began to walk toward the hallway that led back to the other branches of the facility. “I’m not moving until you tell me what you want to show me.”

He stopped and turned back toward her. “What I intend to show you will be difficult to observe,” he said after a thoughtful pause. “It will be easier in many regards to simply show you.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Define difficult.”

“Horrifying. But you must see for yourself.” He put angry emphasis on his last two words. He visibly composed himself. “Please, Doctor. Time is of the essence.”

“Why?” She began taking small steps forward. “I’d assume an immortal would have all the time in the world.”

“Would that it were so.” He led her toward the section of the lab dedicated to infectious diseases.

His solemn expression and cryptic words made her once again breakout in gooseflesh. And despite the voice screaming in her mind to get as far from the lab as possible, her scientific curiosity was overwhelming.

He led her toward a hallway in which several “clean rooms” stood in a row. A muffled thudding sound beating in irregular rhythm was coming from the first room.

“What’s that?” Anxiety prickled the back of her neck.

She gasped as Lazarus opened the door to one of the emergency decontamination showers, revealing a young man tied up and gagged. Stripped down to his boxers, he shivered, tears streaming down his cheeks. He made a muffled plea for help, his eyes wide and wild like an animal caught in a hunter’s trap.

“What is this?” she said, her voice a whisper. She once again felt the pangs of fear clawing at her guts.

“An unfortunate necessity, and further proof that I am what I say I am.” He gazed at her for a moment, remorse heavy in his eyes. “For your sake, Doctor, I’ll try to make this quick.” He turned to the bound young man. “But not too quick.”

“What are you-”

Without warning, Lazarus knelt down and bit deep into the man’s shoulder and tore out a chunk of flesh. The young man screamed in pain and horror as blood ran down his arm and chest.

“What the fuck?” Marion shrieked. Her heart pounded as if she’d been sprinting for several minutes.

Lazarus ignored her as he swallowed the chunk of flesh and went back for another bite.

Another terrified scream.

“Stop this!” Marion said as she tried to wrestle Lazarus away from the young man.

“I told you, I need to feed,” Lazarus barked, his eyes burning with phosphoric heat. “And it’s no better than he deserves.”

She paused as Lazarus jerked away from her to take another bite. She ripped her eyes away from the blood and gore to look the young man in the face. Underneath the fear and agony, she began to recognize the face she’d seen on the news less than two weeks before. Her stomach lurched before she could confirm the young man’s identity, and she vomited all over the floor of the decontamination shower. As she crumpled to her hands and knees, the sounds around her went dull, a mercy she was unable to recognize as she continued to wretch. Her head and vision went fuzzy, her limbs tingled, and her stomach continued to surge despite being empty.

The world went black and silent as she passed out.

#

“Doctor Percovic?” A gentle voice through dense cotton, she was unsure if she’d heard it or imagined it. Soft light began to brighten the world around her as she stirred. Something hard and cold pressed into her back and the backs of her legs.

“Are you alright, Doctor?”

She opened her eyes, surprised to find she was sitting propped against the wall of the shower. Her head feeling dense and heavy as cast-iron, she turned toward the voice. A face came into soft focus and a soothing hand reached out toward her.

“Don’t touch me!” she shouted, recoiling as Lazarus touched her shoulder. She tried to stand. Lacking balance, she simply sat back on her haunches, leaning against the shower wall for support. “Why?” she croaked.

Lazarus turned a nozzle protruding from the speckled green tile. A cascade of warm water rained down on them, pulling Marion back to her senses.

“Why?” she shouted.

“Look at me,” Lazarus said.

She turned a hateful glare on him. Surprise soon supplanted hate. His aged visage had been replaced by youthful features. He now appeared to be a man in his early twenties, younger even than when she’d first seen him. Her eyes slid from him to the half-devoured corpse a few feet from her. Her guts turned cartwheels within her, but she noticed the bites, while numerous and deep, avoided all major arteries. Questions came faster than answers, but the key puzzle pieces came together in her mind.

“Why do you have to feed on living creatures?”

“People,” Lazarus corrected. “It has to be a live person. Otherwise, my body won’t regain its youth.”

“Why?” she repeated.

“It is what the ritual required,” he said. “Life cannot be restored from something already dead. Only life can sustain a life indefinitely.”

“You’re a monster,” she whispered.

“I am.” His gaze was steady and neutral. “I no longer wish to be.”

“What would happen if you just stopped…feeding?”

“I would die.”

“It’s no better than you deserve,” she said.

“It’s easy for you to say. You’ve never died before.”

“And you have?”

“Yes.”

She cocked her head to the side. “When? How?”

“During my childhood, I died while undergoing one of the many treatments inflicted upon me.” The specter of memories long passed shadowed his face. “The shaman was skilled enough to rip me from the afterlife. But I had seen what lies beyond this life.” His downcast eyes watched as bloody water swirled the shower drain.

“What did you see?”

“You don’t want to know,” he muttered. “The knowledge I carry still gives me nightmares centuries after I learned of it. I would not inflict it upon you.”

“I can handle it,” she condescended.

He turned a pain-filled glance on her. “Imagine every depiction of Hell you’ve read in books and seen in movies. Now imagine it a thousand times worse. Can you conceive of such a thing?”

“I see what you’re driving at.”

“No, you don’t,” he said louder than she was expecting. “Take that image of a thousand times worse Hell and make that a thousand times worse.” His breathing quickened and his eyes held a feral look. “Beyond this life lie horrors human beings can’t comprehend, things so terrible people can’t conceptualize them because they exceed the limits of fear. This is the fate that awaits us all.”

“Right,” she said, drawing out the “i” sound. “Why would we even exist if such a fate awaited us when we die?”

Lazarus shrugged. “I’ve pondered that very question countless times over the centuries. I’m no closer to an answer now than I was when I was brought back to life.” He thought for a moment, fidgeting with the shower nozzle. “My best guess? Human beings were a mistake, a failed experiment by a deity who was too proud to admit his failure and turned his back on his creation.”

Marion thought for a moment, unsure whether or not she believed him. Her uncertainty bothered her further. “Do you have any proof of this version of the afterlife?”

“My memory of that place is the only proof anyone will ever have,” he answered. “But consider what you’ve witnessed. Why would I endure the horror, the awful taste of human flesh, and the guilt that comes with eating live people if it wasn’t the only way to stave off the afterlife I saw?”

“Because you’re a murderer who enjoys killing, or a coward,” she spat.

Lazarus chuckled at her sudden brashness. “I don’t enjoy it. But I freely admit to being a murderer and a coward. It is cowardice that causes me to inflict death on others so that I can avoid it.”

“Why? What makes your life more important than anyone else’s?”

“Because it is mine,” he said, his expression thoughtful. “Because this is the only life I have and will ever have. Why should I surrender my existence to the decay of disease or time when I have the means to prolong my life indefinitely?”

She pointed to the half-eaten corpse on the floor. “Because of this! He is…was just barely grown up. He had a full life ahead of him, and you took it because it would extend yours!”

“A life of privilege, free from the consequences of his actions, no matter what harm he caused others,” Lazarus said.

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“Don’t you recognize him?”

Marion glanced back at the young man’s face. “Yes, but I can’t quite place him.”

“Sam Bronson,” Lazarus said. “Son of James Bronson of the firm Bronson, Gilbert, and Camden, decorated college athlete, and thrice acquitted rapist.”

Marion’s head bobbed as a mashup of news stories replayed in her mind. Sam Bronson had been accused of multiple instances of rape at the university at which he was a heralded pitcher. Only three had gone to trial, all of which ended in acquittals, despite varying degrees of damning evidence. Rather than the trauma experienced by his alleged victims, the media had focused on Sam’s athletic achievements, statistics, and Major League prospects as well as his family’s philanthropic projects. Marion had been repulsed by the lack of fairness, objectivity, and compassion for the women who had been victimized.

“When I first became what I am,” Lazarus said, interrupting her thoughts, “I tried to feed on those who wronged or hurt others for their own personal gain: criminals, swindlers, politicians.” He turned a disdainful look on Sam’s body. “In recent years, however, I’ve developed a taste for spoiled rich boys whose parents’ money can buy them out of whatever trouble they get into to.” He looked back at Marion. “In a way, I provide a valuable social service.”

Marion chuckled through a pained expression. “That’s a level of self-delusion I can’t even comprehend.”

“People often speak ill of bottom-feeders, but value the service they provide,” Lazarus said. “However, there have been times where I was desperate and forced to feed on those who didn’t deserve such a fate.” He sighed as he walked into the decontamination chamber and retrieved a large plastic tarp. “I may be a selfish coward. I may be a monster. That does not mean I am without remorse.” Spreading the tarp out on the ground, he dragged Sam’s body into the middle of it. “I don’t want to be a monster any more than I wish to let my life expire. That’s why I came to you, Dr. Percovic.”

“What makes you think I can help you?” she said. “You want me to, what…engineer some serum or pill that will keep you young forever?”

“Something to that effect, yes. With your education and experience, coupled with the advanced technology at your disposal, you stand a better chance than any of the other great minds I’ve sought out.”

She laughed a sputtering, exasperated laugh. “You’re out of your mind! I’m pretty sure if that was possible, cancer researchers, dying billionaires, or cosmetic companies would have figured it out by now. Do you know how much money there would be in finding the key to eternal youth?”

He shook his head. “That’s irrelevant. Besides, you have the one key asset no one else has.”

She shot him a disdainful glare. “You.”

A toothy grin spread across his face. “Yes. You can study my cellular make-up and replication and figure out what causes me to reverse in age after I feed.”

She stared at him for several long seconds as she considered his words. “No. After what I’ve seen, you don’t deserve my help.”

Lazarus began wrapping Sam’s body in the tarp. He didn’t look at her as he spoke. “I offer something else in exchange for your aid.” He tied several segments of rope around Sam’s body.

“I don’t care what you’re offering. I don’t want any part of this.”

“What about a Nobel Prize?” The edges of his mouth curled upward into the slightest grin.

Marion stared back at him owlishly.

“What about the breakthroughs in restorative therapies you could pioneer and the countless number of people who would benefit from your research? What about having your name spoken along with the likes of Einstein, Newton, Curie, and Hawking?”

“I don’t see what that has to do with anything,” she said, though her mind was already considering the possibilities of what he offered.

“This of it this way. If you do this, not only would you prevent me from having to kill to stay alive, but you will gain for yourself the secret to immortality,” he said. The predatory glint was back in his eyes. “Look at all you’ve accomplished in your short life. Imagine what you could do with infinite lifetimes.” He slung Sam’s body over his shoulder. “Or refuse my offer. And my next victim’s blood will be on your hands as well.”

She wanted to spit his words back in his face. She wanted to bash his skull in with a microscope or douse him in acetone and light a match. However, her mind began to conjure visions of achieving her professional goals and the accolades that would follow. She pictured people in hospitals thanking her for chances at better, healthier lives. She imagined debilitating, crippling diseases and injuries being things of the past, mentioned only in text books along with afflictions of a bygone age like Small Pox. Here was the chance to attain all that her heart desired and more. The price, however, was rewarding the world’s longest active serial killer for centuries of death and selfish slaughter.

She had remained in silent contemplation for several long moments before Lazarus spoke.

“Well?” he said. “What path will you choose, Doctor?”

She steeled herself against her fluttering insides as she gave him her answer.

Did she ever truly have a choice?

#

_One week later…­_

#

Marion pulled several sample slides from the drawer beneath her microscope. She yawned as she set them on the counter top. Sleep had been difficult to come by since her surprise encounter the week before. Fatigue weighed on her body, but her mind worked relentlessly. Propelled by her interest in her work, her youth, and a steady supply of coffee, she geared up for another late night in her lab.

“Hello, Doctor Percovic,” a gentle, tired voice said from behind her.

She started, scattering her slides across the countertop. She turned around to see Lazarus standing in the entryway of her lab. “You really shouldn’t sneak up on people,” she said, letting her irritation permeate her tone.

“Apologies” He seemed heavy on his feet as he stepped toward her. “Are you ready to begin?”

“Did you bring what I asked for?”

He reached into his suit jacket and pulled out a small notebook. “The detailed instructions for the immortality ritual.”

“Come sit over here.” She slid a lab stool next to the countertop with her slides.

Lazarus shuffled over to her. His white hair was thin enough she could see the liver spots that had formed on his scalp. He let out a long, slow, exhausted sigh as he sat down. He held out the notebook toward her.

As Marion reached for it, he pulled the notebook away. His eyes were sadness and remorse. “Know that I have never shared this information with anyone. This world doesn’t need more people like me.”

She gazed back at him, curious. “Are there others like you?”

A sad smile formed on his face. “If there are, I’ve never met one.” His eyes shifted to the notebook. “I give this to you only because it buys your help in ending this curse.”

“It’s a key piece of data I’ll need to solve this impossible puzzle.” She bristled at the insinuation that she was somehow being bought.

He hesitated before handing her the notebook. “And you have procured a meal for me?”

“I have.” She refused to make eye contact, focusing instead on her equipment. “I’ll need to take several tissue samples as well as blood now, then again…afterwards.”

He nodded. “Will this take long? I’m exceedingly hungry.”

“Not long. Take off your jacket and roll up your shirt sleeve.”

Small, involuntary grunts escaped his mouth as he obliged, his motions stiff and strained.

Marion slid on a pair of latex examination gloves and readied a scalpel. “This will sting a little.”

He remained expressionless as she took skin samples, several vials of blood, and a few small bits of muscle tissue. Whatever area she poked, scraped, or cut healed seconds after she took the necessary sample.

“There. I’m finished for now,” she said as she set the last slide on an aluminum tray next to her microscope.

“What, no lollipop?” He feigned a boyish grin.

Ignoring him, she stripped off her gloves and stood up. “Let’s get this over with.”

She led him to the same cleanroom in which he’d eaten Sam Bronson the week prior. The heavy doors separating the decontamination shower from inner chamber where her colleagues worked with some of the most deadly diseases known to man.

“In there,” she said.

Lazarus peered through the small window to see a naked, middle-aged man slumped against the far wall of the clean room. “I’m curious,” he said, his gaze shifting from his dinner to her. “How did you capture him?”

Marion shrugged. “Nothing I couldn’t accomplish with a few drinks and a little feminine charm. Also, a hefty dose of ketamine and a mover’s dolly.”

Lazarus laughed. “My, but you are resourceful.”

“That’s me,” she said, unenthusiastically. She entered the code to release the magnetic lock and the door slid open.

She put a firm hand against his chest, stopping him before he entered the emergency shower. “You eat. I get a second set of samples. Then you leave and dispose of the body. Anything happens outside of those parameters, and our agreement is null and void. Understood?”

“I understand,” he said. “Though if we are to work together, a little mutual trust would go a long way.”

“Noted.”

He waved his hand in front of his nose as he approached the motionless man. “Cheap whiskey makes for a pungent cologne…and a pickled aftertaste.” he said without looking back at her.

“I needed him unconscious. You needed him alive. I did my best to find a balance between the two.” Her eyes slid over his aged face. “Or go out and hunt. It’s up to you.”

He didn’t say anything. He moved with labored steps toward the man on the floor.

Marion’s back stiffened when Lazarus stopped several feet short of his meal.

“This man’s heart isn’t beating.” He turned and locked eyes with her.

Marion reached into her lab coat and pulled out a small glass vial of blood contaminated with viral meningitis. Cocking her arm back, she threw the vial into the cleanroom, then hit the button closing the doors to the inner chamber. The vial shattered as Lazarus rushed toward the door. He struggled to open it from the inside, but the magnetic locks had already clamped shut. An alarm sounding the presence of a leaked viral contaminant sounded, warning all staff in the chamber to vacate the room and get to the decontamination shower.

“What is the meaning of this?” Lazarus shouted. His voice was barely audible through the small window.

She took a few steps back as a computerized voice announced the inner chamber would be cleansed of all contaminates.

Lazarus shrieked as fire burst forth from several nozzles in the room’s walls and ceiling. While she’d hoped never to see it used, she silently thanked whoever designed the clean room’s emergency response system.

The fire burned for a full minute before an exhaust system sucked all the oxygen from the room, quenching the flames. Marion stood still and silent, listening for any movement within. When she didn’t hear anything, she crept forward and looked through the window. A large, black smudge and pile of ash and charred bone was all that remained of the cadaver.

She couldn’t see any trace of Lazarus.

Her stomach dropped as her mind searched for possible explanations. He couldn’t have escaped. She’d sealed the doors and trapped him inside. The magnetic doors were the only way in or out, and the fire had incinerated everything in the room. Given his deteriorated state and lack of food, the fire should have killed him, or at least caused his body to consume more energy to heal itself than he could provide and still survive.

Grabbing a fire extinguisher from the wall nearby, she entered the code to open the doors to the inner chamber. As they slid open, she readied the heavy metal cylinder like a cudgel in case anything sprang out at her.

The smell of burnt flesh lingered in the air making her scrunch her nose. Taking a cautious step forward, she stepped into the cleanroom.

Nothing indicated Lazarus had ever been there.

She lowered the extinguisher, breathing a heavy sigh and allowing herself a relieved laugh. And while she felt a small twinge of guilt at having betrayed his trust, she would rest easier knowing she’d killed one of the worst monsters the world had never known existed.

After removing all evidence from the cleanroom, Marion returned to her lab to study her new samples. When she sat down at her microscope, however, exhaustion overpowered her. And as curious as she was, she was simply too tired to do any more work. She stored her samples and hung up her lab coat, stopping as her eyes found Lazarus’ notebook on her lab table. She walked over and picked it up. She took a few steps, then stopped and gazed at the book. A surge of energy fueled by interest spurred her to open the notebook. On the front page, a single line was written:

­_The food of life is life itself; food that creates a hunger that can never be sated._

She read the line over and over, debating whether or not she should turn the page and keep reading.

 

About the Author:  Matthew earned his master’s degree in English Literature from Mills College in 2016. Currently, he is an adjunct English professor at Sacramento City College and the creative writing instructor for CSU Sacramento’s Academic Talent Search summer program. He has been published in The World of Myth, Gravel Magazine, and in John Hopkins University Press’ (Dis)Ability Short Story Anthology (he’s a quadriplegic as a result of an accident in 2005). He’s been a life-long fan of science fiction and fantasy as well as anything that makes him laugh.

https://www.instagram.com/matt54johnson/

 

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My name is Jack L. Bryson and I'm the editor of Teleport. I studied literature at University of Montana. I live in Mountain View Ca, and my email is coffeeant1@gmail.com

3 Comments

    • Brilliant story! I could not read it fast enough to see what was going to happen.

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