Time passed quickly. Dale, as he’d said he wouldn’t be, was no longer around. I’d eventually learn from Dieter that he decided to leave in order to spend more time with family. This job requires at least six months out of each year living on-site, which is a lot of time to spend away when you have kids and a life back on the mainland. Dieter himself has two adult children and four grandkids, but despite this, like me, he’s chosen to live full time at the facility.

“I retire in two more years,” he says. “The amount of money I’ll be getting is more than I’ll ever be able to spend in the remainder of my life. I’m doing this for my kids, and their kids, and their kids’ kids.”

A noble enough cause.

“What about you?” he asks me while we watch X042a do a series of memory puzzles from the safety of a television screen. “Not a lot of young people choose to work here, what with the time requirements.”

“Well…” I begin, “I guess I’m here because most other places were looking for people to do more unpaid internships.”

“Not interested in building your resume further?”

I hesitate. “It’s not that, I just… I needed to be paid for my work, that’s all. Before here, I had two jobs–one at a grocery store, and one as a busser at a restaurant, and I was doing an internship at a lab studying the effects of some new cancer drug on a group of rats, and I was also doing all that while trying to finish my Masters. It was running me ragged, and my aunt, she just…”

I pause for a moment, wondering if I should talk about her. “She just… wanted more and more money out of me for living there, and that, coupled with my student loans coming due…” I sigh. “I just needed to get out. This was the first place to hire me after searching for like, a year.”

“Don’t you have friends and other family? A girlfriend maybe?”

I snort-laugh a bit at the thought of ever having a girlfriend.

“I mean, other than my cat? I’m not leaving much behind.” I mark down how long it took 42 to solve the puzzle this time, as does Dieter in his own notes.

He pushes a button to administer a treat, and also resets the test once more.

“What about your parents? I assume you were living with your aunt for some sort of convenience.”

I fall silent. I guess ‘convenience’ is one way of putting it.

Dieter apparently sensed my discomfort. “I apologize if I’ve crossed a boundary”

“No, no, you’re fine,” I say, shaking my head. “My mom is dead, and my dad has OCD and schizoaffective disorder. And he’s a drunk. And a hoarder. And he doesn’t take his meds.”

Dieter raises an eyebrow. “I see.”

“Yeah.” I write down another note. “It’s… It’s behind me though. I’ve been living with my aunt since I was 10.”

We both go quiet as 42 watches panels light up, presses them in sequence, and then looks up at the camera instead of to the control panel, ignoring it as it flashes again.

“Do you think he knows we can see him?” I ask.

“Doubtful.” Dieter presses a button and a loud noise goes off in the enclosure, causing 42 to jump, and pay attention to the panels again. Dieter pushes another button to make the panels flash in sequence once more.

42 completes it quickly this time. Dieter administers another treat, and resets the test.

“Not only does this test his memory,” Dieter continues, “but it tests his attention span.” He writes down a few notes, then says, “He used to be able to focus for longer than this. What with the sudden aggression, and the lowered test scores, I’m wondering if I should have him checked for a brain tumor.”

“You really think he could have a problem like that?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised. He’s number 42 for a reason–all the ones before him either died in-vitro, or went shortly after decantation.” He presses a button that stops the test. “It turns out it’s not easy to create a functional, complex organism from scraps.”

I nod. “What happened to his cage mate?”

“Number 47 died of a heart defect that went undetected until its necropsy.”

“Ah.”

Dieter stands. “If you would be so kind as to file these notes away while I go down and clean up, I would appreciate that.”

I take his clipboard. “Y’know, why don’t I go down and clean up this time?”

Dieter frowns. “I… don’t think so.”

“Why not? I’ve watched you do it enough times now, I think I’ll be safe.”

“And if you’re wrong, he will pick you up and shatter your skull against the wall.” He begins to make his way to the stairs that lead down. “I will handle him directly. You will do this much safer thing.”

“I wanna be able to work with him though. He’s scary, but… really, really interesting.”

Dieter pauses, standing with the door open, looking me over with concern.

“Put on about 60 pounds, and then we’ll talk.”

He heads down. I just frown, and do as I’m told.

At home, I stand in front of the mirror as I change out of my work clothes. Usually I try to avoid looking at myself, but this time… well. I try to ignore the old cigarette burns and self-harm scars. I can see my ribs, and my hip bones jut out. My blue eyes look tired, and sunken.

I look sick.

Unwilling to continue staring at myself, I grab my computer and pull up a BMI chart. After noting what a normal weight for someone of my height should be, I then enter my bathroom, and step on the electronic scale that was already there when I moved in.

86 pounds, it reads.

I wince. Yeah, that’s… pretty bad. 106 is the start of the “normal” zone, for someone my height.

I get dressed in a black sweater and a pair of black sweatpants, go to my kitchen, and ready a cup of instant noodles to microwave for dinner.

… Maybe I should start eating something other than ramen. That might be a good start. There’s a gym here, too.

But I don’t know how to cook, and I don’t know a single thing about weightlifting. I live off of toaster pastries, energy drinks, and microwavables; Lori has called me a “cockroach” for my diet in the past.

I sigh, frustrated, and pull my noodles out of the microwave to eat.

The next morning I arrive at work. I stare down at 42, who’s still asleep, while I wait for Dieter to get here. He’s usually a couple minutes late.

… I wonder.

I head for the door that leads into the enclosure, make my way down, and stop just short of the final barrier. I’ll just be in and out, I tell myself. It’s fast asleep. It’ll go differently this time.

I’m being driven by pure curiosity.

I snag a lab coat, and then nervously eye one of the cattle prods. I grab one before turning the doorknob, and entering.

Immediately, 42’s ears perk and he looks in my direction.

He’s not coming for me like he did the first time–instead, he’s staring wide eyed at the cattle prod. I can hear a growl forming in his throat, warning me to keep my distance.

“Uh… h-hello,” I say awkwardly, with a small wave.

A hiss.

Well, at least he’s staying over there.

Carefully I begin to approach. If he gets up, I’ll turn around and head straight for the door.

I can see his fur stand as he eyes me, and then the cattle prod.

I get a stupid idea.

I toss the cattle prod to the side, and hold up my hands. It clatters to the floor, and 42 tilts his head at me, as if confused. But he stops growling.

“Y-yeah, see? I’m not gonna hurt you. I just… wanna get a closer look, that’s all.”

Suddenly, 42’s eyes widen, and his ears flatten to his head as he lets out a loud hiss and his eyes light up.

I panic.

And then I feel myself getting grabbed around the waist from behind as Dieter pulls me backwards and pushes me back toward the door. I trip over myself and land painfully on my ass, scrambling to get back up. He brandishes his own cattle prod, getting ready to use it on 42, who is absolutely losing its mind.

And then I hear it.

“NO!” shouts 42 as it curls into a ball, terrified.

Dieter turns to me. “Get back upstairs. Now.”

I do as I’m told, badly shaken. I don’t even bother to hang the lab coat or put away the cattle prod, which I’d left behind anyway. I collapse into one of the rolling chairs, and wait for Dieter to come back, which he does. He’s furious.

“What the hell were you doing down there?”

“H-he was asleep, I–”

“NEVER enter that enclosure without myself present, do you understand?”

I lock up, unable to speak. Dieter continues, unaware of what his yelling is doing to me.

“Do you think I’m kidding when I say that thing will kill you? What do you think it’s for!?”

I can’t move.

Dieter continues, but I can’t hear him.

I’m so fucking stupid. I should’ve never come here. I’m too small to do my job. Too fragile to be yelled at by another man. I’m going to be fired. I’ll have to live with Lori again. I’ll kill myself if I have to go back there. I should kill myself now. I should–

I feel a hand on my shoulder.

My face is wet.

“Ejay.”

I snap out of it. Dieter is gently squeezing my shoulder, a look of worry on his aged face.

“Are you alright?”

I’m not sure what to say, so I blurt what I think is the obvious.

“I-It said ‘no’.”

Dieter is quiet for a moment.

“It didn’t say anything.”

“B-but it did, I–”

“It’s like a parrot,” he says slowly. “It can repeat words that it hears, but it doesn’t actually know what it’s saying.”

I sit there quietly. I can feel my entire body rocking steadily to the rapid beat of my heart. My head hurts.

“Ejay, are you okay?”

I’m not, but I can’t let him know that.

“P… P-please don’t yell at me in the future.”

“You could’ve been killed–”

“I-I know,” I say, waving a shaky hand. “I know.”

We stare at each other for a couple seconds.

“… I’ll keep that in mind,” he says quietly.

“Are you… a-are you going to report me to Eckert?” I ask.

“No, of course not,” he says. “Technically, you have just as much right to be down there as I do, but…” he places a hand to his head for a moment, before dropping it to his side again. “You’re just… so small. It’s not safe for you. It’s barely any safer for me, and I’m at least twice your size. Someone as young as you, I… I couldn’t handle it, if something were to happen.”

We’re both quiet.

I break the silence.

“Y’know, I… was thinking about what you said yesterday, about… wanting me to put on 60 pounds or whatever.”

He watches me, waiting for me to continue.

“I… just… I don’t know anything about… a-about how. Th-the most complicated thing I know how to cook is hard boiled eggs a-and they turn out green most of the time, and I’ve never lifted weights before, like… I-I’m genuinely clueless.”

He tilts his head. “I could help you with that, if you’d like. I am a former airman–I could teach you a thing or two about physical training.” He sits down on an adjacent chair and says, with a faint smirk, “And, not to brag, but I can do a bit more than hard boiled eggs.”

I didn’t know what to say. I was expecting him to shake his head in disappointment, or to give me an ultimatum; not to offer help. I’m not sure which of those options is worse, frankly. Accepting his help means taking up his time; at least disappointment means I’m not actively being a burden. It just… also means I can’t properly work here. Which means I’d have to go home.

“I-I, uh.”

“Think on it,” says Dieter as he gets back to his feet. “I have plenty of free time after work and on the weekends.”

I stammer. “I-if you genuinely want to help me, I… Please.”

He chuckles a bit at how awkward I am. “How does tomorrow night sound? I’ll bring some food, we’ll cook it together, and maybe you’ll learn something.”

We spend the rest of our work day talking about food and his time in the military while doing clerical work and making plans for a new test.

Despite the remainder of our time together going smoothly, I couldn’t help but feel that 42 yelling the word “no” was a bit too situationally specific. Something felt off, and I knew it was going to nag at me until I found out for sure.