TW: violence, animal cruelty
The bottle was a glass Coca Cola bottle salvaged from the barn that her grandfather had kept in a state of quiet disarray.
There was a voice in the bottle. It was soft and low.
Soft and rough. Sad and mad.
Lorna shook the bottle. The voice sped up and there was a short wail. She stuffed the bottle into her faded and slightly frayed backpack and walked to school.
Her science teacher at Redhorn High was a tired old man with whiskers and hair where there shouldn't be any. Lorna called him Mr. Miller. Mr. Miller encouraged curious exploration from his pupils. He focused a lot on research methods. He hammered research methods into their heads and ranted about studies conducted with poor control factors and biased samples. He was a mild grader, and fairly easy going, on everything but research methods.
He also talked incessantly about his lifelong dream to be a Nobel prize winner. He had apparently done some groundbreaking research in genetics when he was younger, but had for reasons not clear to his pupils, ended up teaching high school science in rural California. This fall from grace was very vague in his retellings. He did imply that someone had knifed him in the back. Someone had done him ill. As the victim of circumstance, here he was, his dreams faded and wistful.
As an old man with a hopeless dream, Lorna found Mr. Miller both inspiring and depressing. A high school teacher was not a profession that often led to something impressive. She felt sorry for him. If her little brother had said he wanted to be President one day she would have found his cock-eyed optimism endearing. His whole life was ahead of him and who knew what he might accomplish. But the hope to reality ratio was all downhill from there. At Mr. Miller’s age, most of the downhill journey had already happened.
Even at 16, Lorna felt the weight of her decisions. She was supposed to choose a major, which felt like a wild guessing at what her long term strengths might be. She had to decide where to apply for college, partly based on which schools might give her scholarships. The pressure to succeed and have a great scholarship at a great school was internal and strong.
Had you asked her 6 months ago, she would have admitted that hard science was NOT her strength. She had barely eked out a C in biology. She hated to memorize things. She liked psychology, philosophy, and theory. She wanted to understand the strange and wonderful in the world, but not from one end of a microscope.
However, this year Mr. Miller had opened the world of research to her. She felt that perhaps good research was like a magic spell: you say the incantation perfectly with the right ingredients in the right order and BOOM – magic! Whatever her chosen field, because of Mr. Miller, she had discovered that she was a researcher. She owed him for that.
Lorna walked into the science classroom. It was about 15 minutes before first bell. She had gotten there early on purpose.
Mr. Miller sat behind his desk, his hand exploring the bare expanse of his head. He looked worried.
"Is this a good time?" Lorna asked.
"It is always a good time," he replied. His expression softened as he focused on her.
"I have a question."
“We all have questions. What is yours?”
“My grandfather died last night.”
“Jesus. I'm sorry.... How are you?” he asked, with an expression of genuine concern.
“I'm ok,” she replied. “Thing is, he’s not really dead.”
Mr. Miller pushed back from his desk and crossed his arms. "What do you mean? You just said he was dead.”
“No,” she said, shaking her head. “I said he died. But I don't think he is dead, now.”
Mr. Miller cocked his head, concern turning to confusion. He then snorted a brief whiff of laughter through his nose. “Sit down,” he said. “Why don't you explain a bit further.”
Lorna set her backpack on the floor carefully and lowered herself into a chair at the end of his desk. She faced him.
“Well, I've been experimenting with trying to capture essences of animals when they die,” she said.
Mr. Miller stared at her. His head shifted back in a small spasm, like a miniature whiplash.
Lorna took this as encouragement to continue.
“You see, animals have something like a soul in them. Maybe not a soul but similar. And when they die it goes away. I've been working on ways to catch it before it dissipates.”
Mr. Miller blinked. “Ok, and how are you trying to do this?”
“I kill an animal, and right at the moment of death I place a glass bottle onto or into their mouths. I use tape to make the connection airtight. When enough time has passed, I take the bottle and seal it with wax and glue.” Lorna’s face stayed near expressionless. If anything, there was maybe a faint smile around the corners of her mouth.
“Did this work?” Mr. Miller asked quietly.
“Not at first. I realized I was using the wrong bottles. They were too new.”
“Yes,” said Lorna, nodding. “There seems to be a correlation between age of the glass and the age of the dead thing. It has to be precise. So, easier to do with animals that have a known date of birth. From breeding litters, that kind of thing. You find glass made the same year and it works. I messed around a bit with the sealant and amount of time. Too long and it tries to go back into the dead body and that doesn’t work well. That can get messy.”
“Messy,” Mr. Miller repeated.
“Yeah. I had a cat explode a bit. The head exploded,” said Lorna with a soft laugh.
Mr. Miller stood up and went to the wall where there was a black phone. He picked it up and dialed.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“One moment,” he said to her. Then he spoke into the phone.
“Sorry for the late notice,” he said, “but I just started feeling unwell. I'm going to have to cancel classes for today. I'll be in my office for a while resting." Pause. "Thanks," he said and hung up the phone. He turned to Lorna. "Why don't we continue this conversation in my office."
He stood up and led her down the hallway, and to the small one-window office at the back of the school. Lorna could see the school dumpsters out of the window. Mr. Miller pulled out a battered wooden chair and placed it facing his desk.
"Please" he said, indicating the chair.
She sat, backpack slowly lowered to the ground next to her.
“Please continue,” he a said with an inviting gesture.
She continued as if there had been no interruption: “With the right aged bottle I was finally able to capture the essence properly. I could hear noises coming from the bottle - purring and whines and meows. This was my first success. The cat was 2 years old and the bottle had a date from the same year. I got lucky, you see, because the bottle manufacturing date is not necessarily accurate. Lots of positing here.”
She paused and rubbed an eyebrow. “You know, I was thinking ahead on this, but if you wanted to do this in an organized way you would start manufacturing bottles from scratch. Every batch would have a date, and you could match it to the birthdate of the person in question.”
“You think this would work with people?” asked Mr. Miller slowly.
“I know it can,” Lorna said.
“You…" He paused, “You mentioned your grandfather. This have to do with him?” There was a catch in his voice.
“Of course!” Lorna said excitedly. She was smiling now. “He was my very first human trial. You have taught us really well, Mr. Miller. For instance, I realize that I don’t have a controlled sample, and that using my own grandfather means I have bias, but the opportunity presented itself and I went with it. You can call it a case study.”
Mr. Miller sank back into his office chair. It was worn and upholstered with brown plaid. It sagged when he shifted his body weight to the left. Lorna saw him look at his cell phone in his right hand. He then lowered both his arms under the desk. He pulled the chair up and leaned forward again. He breathed heavily, like someone finishing a sprint.
“OK. Let me get this straight. You have found that by using glass bottles adhered to an animal’s mouth at the time of death, you can capture its essence in the bottle. And that once you seal the bottle the essence stays there?”
“That’s what I said, yes,” replied Lorna, her eyes narrowing.
He then asked the question because it had to be asked: “How do you know it is the essence?”
“Because…Come on! Haven’t you listened to anything I’ve said?” Lorna felt impatient and a building anger. Mr. Miller was so slow to understand. He should have been excited. Instead, he looked worried.
“I have. I have,” he said. “I’m just confused. Even if something is there, in the bottle, how can you know what it is?”
“That’s what I need you for. I need to do more research, better research, with more studies, more subjects. And I need a way of analyzing the essence without losing it,” she said.
“OK,” said Mr. Miller. He swallowed and nodded.
“You don’t believe me,” Lorna said.
Mr. Miller ignored this. “Have you brought any of your tests to show me?” he asked.
“I brought my grandfather. I thought you would be most interested in a human trial,” said Lorna.
Mr. Miller’s face then shifted in a way that made Lorna think of her phone when the brightness was turned down. His voice when he spoke next was thin and low. “Please describe precisely what you did in order to capture your grandfather’s essence. Be specific. Accounting precisely all the details of the method is very important to replicating a result.” His attention shifted down to his lap and then centered back on her.
“Yes, I know,” she said.
“Go on, and please, give me a little background on the subject. Your grandfather. Why him?”
“Of course.” She sat up straighter. Maybe he was finally taking her seriously. Maybe he would be proud of her. Maybe he would be jealous.
She took a deep breath. She let it out.
“My grandfather has been dying of lung cancer. He has been in the hospital off and on for the last couple of months. He spoke to me during this time – more than he had ever before - about his life, growing up in Kansas, the fields, the war he fought in, moving out to California, grandma.
"I talked to him about death. He was - opposed to it.” Lorna made a single laughing sound. “He came home from the hospital this time and we were told it was THE last time. We were told that he had a couple of weeks tops.” She paused and sighed, looking at her backpack.
“I talked to him about my project. He was very interested. He told me that if there was a way to stay living, where he could have his mind, and not be in pain, that he would take it. He said that this was what he thought heaven might be like.” She looked up at her teacher.
“Wouldn’t you like to live forever?” Lorna asked him, looking straight into his eyes.
“I suppose it depends on what that means,” responded Mr. Miller.
“Yes, well, I decided that the best thing I could do for my grandfather was to add him to my experiment,” said Lorna.
“So, what did you do? Again, please be specific.”
“I found a bottle in his barn that seemed to be from the era when he was born. I took it to an antique store and had someone date it for me. The date they gave me was 1944 to 1945. My grandfather was born in 1945 so I took a chance. I think that if the bottle is older that it may still work but younger does not. At least that is one of my hypotheses. So, I brought it home and found duck tape and wax and a glue gun. I waited by his bedside for a number of days. We talked and he slept. He got more and more sick and had to take more and more medication. He started to have trouble breathing. He would gasp and stop and then gurgle and start again. They finally started giving him oxygen.
“Last night he took the oxygen mask off and told me he was ready to go. I brought him his pills and he took a few. I waited until he was asleep, then I duck taped the bottle to his mouth and waited. His vitals flatlined right around midnight. I waited the 30 minutes that had worked best with the cats, removed the bottle, and sealed it with the cap, wax, and the glue gun.” She paused. ”Well?” she looked at him expectantly.
“You….” Her teacher rubbed his face nervously with his left hand. His right hand stayed under the desk. She had a suspicion about that hand but she said nothing.
“It worked,” she said. “he is here”.
Mr. Miller gulped. “Here? Can I see?”
She hesitated. ”Don’t make me regret this.” She pulled out a dark green translucent bottle. “Coca Cola” was etched in a relief that stood out on the bottle. The top was covered in dark red wax, the edges with hot glue.
She held it out to him. “Put it to your ear. You’ll see.”
His left hand shook as he reached for the bottle. The bottle felt warm. He looked her in the eyes as he held it up to his ear. He put it down.
Mr. Miller shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I don’t hear anything.”
Lorna grabbed the bottle from him roughly and gave it a violent shake. She leaned over the desk and shoved it toward Mr. Miller’s head. “Here! Can’t you hear this?” In the bottle she could clearly hear a hum of a voice and a call as if of anger or surprise. Lorna believed that it didn’t like to be shaken, but it was sure more active afterwards.
Mr. Miller closed his eyes as if listening intently. Then he leaned back, opened his eyes, and shook his head. “I’m sorry. Maybe I just can’t hear it for some reason. Maybe I’m the problem. You wouldn’t want me to lie, right?”
Her mouth screwed up, she sucked her lips in. She grabbed the bottle and took a long time placing it back into her backpack.
She looked up, “You know, I suspected you might want to take this for yourself, figure it out, get a Nobel Prize.” Her voice went up a pitch while still remaining a little above a whisper. “You aren’t saying you don’t hear it just so you can steal it, are you?”
Mr. Miller shook his head. “No Lorna, I’m sorry. I really don’t hear anything. But I will be sure to encourage other people to check out your findings.” Pause. “Do you still have the tests from the cats? You didn’t get rid of those did you? A good scientist, a good researcher, keeps and catalogues successes and failures.”
“Yes. I have them.” She stood up. She leaned over his desk and looked down at his lap.
“Where is your cell phone?” she asked.
He raised his right hand. The phone was in it. The screen was off.
“Were you recording our conversation?” asked Lora tightly.
“Of course not,” said Mr. Miller.
“I think you were,” she replied.
Mr. Miller considered his options and shrugged. “Ok, yes, I was, for reference, and to assist you of course.”
Lorna sighed and went back to her chair. She looked at him in the eyes. “I’m going to show you my methods first hand so you can get to know them better. It’ll be much more useful than just listening to me explain them.”
She lifted her bag and slowly placed it on the desk.
“Would you like to help me?” she asked.
“I’m not sure,” said Mr. Miller. “I think we should ask someone else for help. How about that? Maybe someone else would hear it.” He looked toward the door.
Lorna followed his gaze and then focused back on him. “Just help me out. I’m going to collect some good data. Mind grabbing the supplies from my bag?”
“What supplies?” he asked.
She looked down at the backpack and back up at him.
Mr. Miller sighed and put down his phone. He opened the backpack.
Crumpled white t-shirts surrounding the bottle with wax on it.
A roll of duct tape.
A glue gun.
A pale green vintage 7-up glass bottle.
“Wait,” he said. He looked up and felt something from behind. Burning and pain in his side. Then a wave of cold.
As he slid down into his chair, his vision blurred. Through the looming blackness surrounding his head, he heard words, low and soft:
“Thanks for all your help, Mr. Miller. I couldn’t have done this without you.”
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This story needs a part 2 please!!! As creepy as it got, it's still my favourite out of all 3 stories that you posted... I was scared for Mr. Miller all along so the end got me 💔 Your writing is wonderful, more people need to read this!!! Besides enjoying the contents, I've got lots to learn from here as a writer. I look forward to reading more of your stories so keep posting! 😁
An incredibly interesting story concept, written very well. Congratulations on making the shortlist - it's easy to see why this was considered a winner. FYI the tape is actually called duct tape but I think there's a brand of it called Duck Tape, which would then require capitals, like Coca Cola. I really enjoyed your writing and this story had me on the edge of my seat the whole time. Cheers :)
Yep. Must have had a brain fart. Should have read duct tape. Glad you otherwise enjoyed it :)
You are fantastic with dialog! The one thing that kept distracting me was that OK is an abbreviation for Oklahoma. It is supposed to be spelled out as "okay." I am just pointing that out because otherwise your story was a joy to read and I wouldn't want it to detract from your future work.
Just wow! This won my heart! The plot was incredibly good and ah! the plot twist...what to say about it. The pace of the story was very well held with as many descriptions as required. It felt quite natural, the protagonist trying to prove her point so delicately. Beautiful work Ruth! Congratulations!!