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Bitter Mercies

by Andrew L. Hodges

Part 1 appears in this issue.


But even at home, he still found himself sinking deeper into melancholy. Two glasses of Merlot did nothing to alleviate his depression nor the sinking feeling in his chest. Even sequestered in his office, he found that his sour mood persisted. His efforts at grading the quarter semester lab reports were futile, as were the attempts to review his notes for the next day’s lecture series.

His mind would not stay focused, and he found himself thinking back to what lay in the shadow of that tree. A sense of guilt pervaded his every conscious thought, penetrating the barriers that he normally maintained between himself and the rest of the world. No matter what he did, the heaviness of his lethargy only grew as the evening progressed.

Sitting on his desk was the framed photograph of himself with Sarah and Victoria in front of Edinburgh castle. He had kept it in a place of prominence, as a reminder of his last happy moments with his family. That vacation to Scotland had been the last moment he could recall spending with Victoria before the divorce and his subsequent isolation from Sarah. He had tried to take it in the way he deemed the manliest, with the stoic sense that his career had to come before his sentimentalities as a father and husband.

Like any good researcher, he had believed firmly in the significance of his work and its importance to humanity. At that time, he had thoroughly believed that his work would take off and he would be looking at steady publication for the next decade. Hindsight, of course, was always filled with regret, and the fact that his work had dried up the last three or four years was a bitter pill to swallow. Yet he swallowed it and saw himself better for having taken his medicine with pride.

But his eyes kept drifting to that only family photo, himself young and thin with beautiful Victoria and a grinning Sarah. She had been only ten then and had taken Scotland in with wide eyes and all the mystical joy of childhood. Thinking back, he couldn’t remember her being so joyful, so full of life, afterwards. Things had been resting on very shaky ground between him and Sarah: they had collapsed utterly within a year of the trip. He hadn’t called either of them since Christmas. The excuses were endless: his schedule was loaded with classes and lab practicals, plus there were endless articles for him to both write and review. He had his own life going on outside of them, didn’t he?

Calgrue was finally chased from his desk by that picture. He began to pace, watching his feet as he wandered about his study. The dead rat orbited his mind, weaving around his brain with seasonal constancy. He tried to turn his mind to other things, to look at his books and collection of awards, but nothing seemed to elevate him. Worst of all was the fact that he could find no rational cause for his funk, only a sense of morbidity that seemed to emanate from his thoughts about the rat. These meditations, in turn, directed his mind towards the photo on the desk like a magnet. He puzzled over the association but came to no conclusion about any connection.

And yet his brain, once so prized for its logical prowess, was trapped in a loop that centered on the struggles of that dead animal.

His final act before retiring to the kitchen was to look at the photo of his mentor, Dr. Pierce. The photograph itself was of his graduation, himself in a black robe and half-hugging an older man dressed in the regalia of a Doctor of Philosophy. They both smiled, as well they might. Calgrue had left UCLA with only one friend to his name: Dr. Samuel Pierce, the biochem department’s wizard of DNA regulation.

Calgrue had never had much to do with the “bloods” of the undergrad science department. He found his classmates droll and had rubbed many of his professors the wrong way with his aloof and contrarian manner. It was Pierce who had become his guide, Pierce who had taken him for drinks and dinners and introduced him to his contacts at Johns Hopkins. It was Pierce’s letter, in fact, that had gotten him his Fellowship at JH, and Pierce who had mentored him in how to deliver his first dissertation defense. He wondered if Pierce would be proud of him now, a second-rate professor who spent his working days giving perfunctory lectures.

Too bad Pierce was dead. Otherwise, he would ask.

After a melancholy dinner from the microwave, sleep proved impossible. He tossed and turned but found no solace in his empty bed. Around midnight, he migrated to the kitchen to try to brew some chamomile tea. As he stood over the boiling pot, he pondered his pathetic situation. Here he was, a middle-aged man of science, losing sleep over a deceased rodent. As he sat at the kitchen table with a steaming mug of tea, he realized that it was more than simple depression: he dreaded going to work tomorrow. The very thought of crossing the quadrangle on his way to a lecture or to his office made his heart jump in his chest.

Before he had a chance to think about what he was doing, he was dressed and in his car. He had to dig it up, to see if it was alive. Driving down the road back towards the university was torture, knowing that what he was doing made no sense. Yet he was no longer in control of his body: his actions were now performed without input from his brain. His rational mind protested, but he felt unable to attend to these protestations.

Any concerns he had about being caught by security could not be translated into practical prevention. Even the absurdity of what he was doing was far removed from his conscious self. Something inside of him had been decided, and he knew that he would be forced to go through with this insanity.

Using his ID, he parked in the faculty lot and walked to the main campus. The fear of being seen was a strong detractor, but again, he was no longer master of his body. His legs were taking him down the main street towards the quadrangle, where he knew the rat was waiting. He wondered if it would still be alive and highly doubted that this would be the case. It terrified him almost beyond reason to contemplate the rate scrounging around inside of that hole, twitching and mewling beneath the Earth. He could not allow himself to speculate any longer: he had to know for sure.

The streetlamps lining the sidewalk of the quadrangle cast a ghostly illumination over the dark asphalt. The windows of the surrounding complex were black squares, and even the night janitor seemed to have taken the evening off. Calgrue felt like a thousand fools, but his compulsion had reached a manic pitch. An internal maelstrom was drawing him back to that mound, where he knew he would be forced to kneel on the grave of that unfortunate creature. He felt guilt over what he could not possibly control, as if he had dashed the poor creature upon the ground himself. Even now, he didn’t know what he would do if the thing were alive, the possibility seemed beyond his comprehension. But he could not rest, could think of nothing else until he knew for sure.

Just as he bent over the mound, he heard something in the distance. Voices. A door closing. Calgrue felt his heart jump and he fell into a crouch on the ground by the bushes.

All his fears came rushing to him at once, the terrible reality of being discovered completely consumed him. The sound was coming from across the quadrangle, in the direction of the library. Calgrue tasted bile as his stomach roiled and his skin roused itself into gooseflesh. He could hear footsteps on concrete as someone descended the stoop of the library. There were voices, and Calgrue tried to listen. There was what sounded like a janitor or a night watchman trying to explain that it was impossible to keep the library open any longer. A quivering voice replied, one that sounded familiar.

And the footsteps closed in.

Calgrue’s mind raced for an explanation, should he be discovered. He pressed himself into the bushes while his brain worked to find some excuse. Nothing came to mind, and he began to panic. He watched as a shadow grew long over the asphalt. The footsteps echoed closer, and soon a figure loomed into view.

Calgrue frowned and stared from his hiding hole in the foliage. He was so shocked he almost said the name aloud: it was Frobisher. He watched as the young man walked away, hands in his pockets, shoulders bowed. He had a backpack on his back and had a pile of papers tucked under his arm. Calgrue gawked, his mind shifting gears as it now probed the mystery of Frobisher. Why was he here? Why had he come? The only thing that he could figure was that Frobisher had come to study late at night. Was the boy fighting to improve his grade? Calgrue couldn’t see Frobisher burning the midnight oil over books, not some lackadaisical romantic like that! And yet he saw the evidence walking away, notes in hand, his gait heavy and fatigued. No matter how hard he tried, Calgrue could not help but see a drowning man trying to swim.

And he wanted to bury him, to cover him in schoolwork and lab reports and leave him to suffocate.

The next day, Calgrue showed up early for his morning class as usual. He had slept very little and was running strong on several cups of black coffee. He stood at the lectern and waited, watching his students file in slowly and sit down. Even after the time to start lecture had passed, he waited, eyeing his students with an angry gaze.

It was almost five minutes past the hour before Frobisher finally came running in. The young man made his way directly to the lectern, dancing his way down the aisle of seats toward Calgrue. His cheeks were red, and he had large, dark circles under his eyes. Standing before the old professor, he started belting out some series of excuses.

But Calgrue stopped him. No, there would be no more of this: he wanted Frobisher in his office that very afternoon. The young man could not reschedule, it had to be that very afternoon. Frobisher was dazed, but he merely nodded and sat down. Calgrue watched him, thinking how easy it was to bury the offensive bodies of the defenseless.

Once Frobisher was seated, Calgrue went on with the lecture.

Copyright © 2020 by Andrew L. Hodges

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