The only thing remotely scientific-looking Sara could see were two white cylindrical objects in opposite corners of the room. Each was adorned with switches and a handful of blinking lights, but otherwise resembled upended tanning beds. Really, the place looked more like a studio apartment than a laboratory. There were dirty dishes in the sink, a towel draped over a chair, a Pink Floyd poster on the wall. As for the bearded middle-aged man who’d opened the door—well, he wore sweatpants, a t-shirt, flip-flops. If there was a lab coat anywhere, Sara guessed it was balled up at the bottom of a hamper.
“I’m here about the job,” she said, trying to hide her discomfort.
“What do you know about matter transference?” the man asked with impatience, ushering her inside. He didn’t introduce himself, but Sara knew from Craigslist his name was Raymond Bruce—Dr. Raymond Bruce, though she had yet to spot any credentials or framed diplomas.
“All you really need to know is that’s the transmogrifier,” said Dr. Bruce, pointing to the cylinder in the far corner. “And that’s the receiver module,” he said, pointing to the other cylinder.
“Got it,” said Sara. Dr. Bruce hardly seemed to hear. He was shuffling over to the refrigerator, expounding upon subatomic particle displacement. Sara, nodding and grinning, realized she’d already become a cipher for this man and his theories. All this talk of matter transference felt no different from the office conspiracy theories she’d been subjected to by former coworkers, or the griping from old roommates about ex-boyfriends, or even the convoluted justifications for bad tempers and fits of selfishness from her own exes. Old men sat down next to her on buses and detailed their failed marriages. Convenience store clerks outlined their plans to quit their jobs. Sunken-eyed women appeared beside her on street corners, complaining of wrongful arrests and children seized by social services. And all the while Sara nodded, grinned apologetically, dug inside her purse for spare change.
“Let’s start up the transmogrifier and get the test subject in there,” Dr. Bruce was saying now, pulling from the refrigerator a lumpen mass swathed in plastic wrap which he proceeded to unspool, revealing a cat’s partially rotted corpse.
“Sounds good,” said Sara. Never mind she’d been trying to figure out on the ride over how to spin her Bachelor of Sciences into a legitimate qualification for a lab assistant position. Never mind she’d arrived expecting a job interview and had at some point apparently been hired. Never mind all that—she could already feel herself, despite her discomfort, wanting to please this disheveled, irritable stranger.
Over the next few weeks, she was witness to Dr. Bruce’s experiments many times over. He’d open the transmogrifier, stick some half-decayed animal inside, flip a switch and scribble a note or two on his clipboard. The lights would flicker, a loud electrical pop would sound on the other side of the room, and black smoke would coil forth from the receiver module. Dr. Bruce would then yank open the receiver and duck his head inside to inspect the remains of the creature splattered on the inner walls. Sometimes he’d scoop out a fleshy glob with the tip of his pen and flick it angrily into a jar. Sara would stack the jar with the others in the closet, where it would remain, never to be looked at again.
When Dr. Bruce was finished, Sara would go at the receiver with a roll of paper towels and a bottle of Windex. This was the extent of her duties—unless she counted her futile attempts at quelling the man’s temper. “Looks like pretty much the entire gall bladder stayed intact,” Sara might tell the doctor as she twisted the lid shut on another jar. “That wasn’t quite as bad as last time,” she’d say whenever the transmogrifier would spark and shudder and Dr. Bruce would crouch down to unscrew the maintenance panel.
“I’d rather you not patronize me,” he’d tell her as he fiddled with the machine’s wires, pale buttocks slipping from his sweatpants. And yet if ever she withheld such remarks, the doctor would only grow more sullen, slamming the transmogrifier’s door, scribbling furiously upon clipboard, sulking with head inside receiver, noxious fumes spewing out around him.
“Dr. Bruce,” she’d cry, “you’re gonna make yourself sick.”
“I’m fine,” he’d snap, whipping his head back out indignantly, and the more insensitive this man became the more Sara found herself wanting to please him. A good mood for the doctor was really nothing more than eye contact, some casual conversation, a few tracks from Wish You Were Here before the CD player was shut off and their work continued in silence. But all this seemed so rare to Sara and so precious, too, that she yearned for such times in the long intervals between and mourned guiltily—as if she were responsible—when they dissipated like so many subatomic particles in the ether.
As for the science, it really wasn’t of much interest to Sara. She understood teleportation was involved somehow, but the reality of it mattered as little as the reality of her relationship with Dr. Bruce, who for his part seemed even less interested in the results than Sara. What were the implications for physics? For mankind? The experiments themselves, Sara supposed, were all that mattered to the doctor. They gave him purpose, ritual, structure to an otherwise aimless existence.
When she arrived in the morning, he’d be shuffling around the lab, flip-flops flapping dejectedly on the grimy carpet. But when it came time to flip switches and twist knobs he became energized by some unthinking, joyless passion. Sara would trail behind him, wishing she herself could inspire emotion of such intensity. Was she falling for the doctor? Or was she merely under the sway of another dysfunctional, self-centered nut job?
Matters became even less clear once they started using live animals. Dr. Bruce showed Sara how to operate the transmogrifier and would have her put the subject in herself. “Now open the door,” he’d explain with exasperated pseudo-patience. “Now close the door,” he’d say, scrawling on his clipboard with abrupt, disapproving strokes as though it weren’t the experiment on which he was taking notes but rather his assistant—and who knew, thought Sara, maybe the test subject here really was her.
“Now put the network switch into the on position and engage the actuator. No!” he’d snap before quickly suppressing his anger as if it were too valuable a thing to waste on her. “The actuator,” he’d say with mock gentleness. “Engage the actuator.”
Then the lights would flicker, the pop would sound, and the smoke appeared, blacker each time. Already Sara could feel herself overcome by revulsion. Sizzling on the inside of the receiver module were the remains of whatever wretched beast she had forced—or had been forced to force—into the transmogrifier moments before. She knew this. She knew, too, that Dr. Bruce derived a sort of pleasure from her misery, appearing almost buoyant afterwards.
“Let’s see what’s behind door number one,” he might joke as he swung open the receiver. “What do we have here?” he’d wonder aloud, prodding the mess with mock curiosity. “The results are inconclusive,” he’d tell her then. “Maybe the actuator wasn‘t engaged.”
By week five, Sara had put so many animals to death she really had no expectations for the emaciated cat the doctor had snatched from behind the dumpster. In fact, when the doctor opened the receiver module and a sickly gargle was heard from within, they both recoiled with surprise, or possibly fright. The cat wobbled out from the smoke before flopping to the floor. Hoping somehow to ease it’s suffering, Sara picked it up, struck by the very tangibility of this being that had disappeared, however briefly, into near-nothingness. It was only then she noticed the cat no longer had a tail and she dropped the thing in shock.
“Pick the creature back up and set it on the desk,” Dr. Bruce instructed her with impatience. Sara had thought the doctor might be delighted by this grotesque development—or at least by her dismay—but it was with visible frustration that he examined the cat. Once again a change had occurred in their dynamic—though what it was and in which direction it had shifted Sara wasn’t sure. Twenty minutes later, the cat spewed its innards out and was dead.
The next morning Dr. Bruce was waiting for Sara with an enfeebled German shepherd and he studied her carefully as he handed her the leash, as though hoping to elicit some sort of reaction. Was he expecting her to protest? Beg him to end the experiments? To quit her position here at the lab?
Sara had decided she wouldn’t—no, couldn’t—waste any more emotion on this bastard, and with a certainty that surprised even her she led the dog into the transmogrifier. When it lurched from the receiver with all but one leg missing, Sara stood there, watching impassively, waiting for Dr. Bruce to act. Even when the dog began weakly, mindlessly propelling itself with its remaining appendage—belly scraping carpet—even then, Sara did nothing.
“Okay,” Dr. Bruce murmured, eyes averted from the dog, “let’s just let it tire itself out and then we’ll start the examination.”
The rabbit they sent through the following day fared even worse, reeling forth from the smoke with the cat tail curling from a bloody pustule on its back and one of the dog’s missing legs fused to its side. It wasn’t long before it had toppled over, its feet scrambling to upright itself, its long, extraneous limb pawing idiotically at the air.
The experiments went on like this for the next week. Some body parts disappeared for good, others returned in the most ghastly ways, and Dr. Bruce became more ill at ease with each flip of the switch. Sara meanwhile found herself growing ever more spiteful, savoring the look of the doctor’s pale, stricken face each time he cautiously cracked open the receiver. There was a sort of power in spite, in heartlessness, in disregard for the feelings of others.
Then one morning Dr. Bruce was his old self again. “The time has come to test the transmogrifier upon myself,” he announced, composed and contemptuous. “If I emerge unaltered in the receiver the world may never be the same. If unsuccessful,” he said, “the results could be truly catastrophic.”
Was he hoping Sara would plead with him not to go through with it? Or perhaps offer herself up for the experiment in his place? Possibly the doctor merely wanted to see how far he could push Sara simply to see how far he could push her.
“Sounds good,” Sara told him, swinging open the transmogrifier’s door as if to dare the son of a bitch inside. Anger, disappointment or some other emotion altogether flickered across the doctor’s face. Then he shook off his flip-flops, took off his shirt, dropped his sweatpants, and stepped from the grubby heap of fabric, standing there for a long moment, pasty, pot-bellied, completely and defiantly naked.
“Don’t forget to engage the actuator,” he told Sara and marched into the transmogrifier. Sara shut the door behind him and flipped the necessary switches. The lights flickered and grew so dim she thought for a moment a fuse had blown. Then the pop sounded and the blackest, most lethal-looking smoke yet surged forth.
Sara hesitated, hand on the receiver. She choked back a cough, wondering if Dr. Bruce had split apart in the void along with whatever tenuous bonds had once held them together. Or maybe he was simply a bit of goop now, ready to be flicked into a jar and stashed in the jar closet. Maybe he’d emerge some hideous, misshapen creature and would then need her to care for him. Or maybe Sara would open the door to find the worst thing of all: That the experiment had finally succeeded and nothing at all was changed.
Stephen Langlois is a writer of the fantastic and absurd. His work has appeared in Glimmer Train, The Portland Review, Necessary Fiction, Weave Magazine, Phantom Drift, Burrow Press Review, Juked, Big Lucks, Storychord and Gigantic Sequins, among other places. He is also the recipient of a 2015 NYC Emerging Writers Fellowship from The Center for Fiction. Visit him at www.stephenmlanglois.com and follow him on Twitter at @stphnlanglois.