Secrets in Lace

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Criminal Harassment.

Why don't you just wear earplugs when someone
threatens to kill you? Sleep in the afternoons. Now
that we have you down as a mental case, you'll never
have any civil and human right again. You're an outlaw
now. Anyone that wants to harm you maydo so with
impunity, in fact we'll put stuff in the paper about how
you contributed to your own death. You really shouldn't
hang around with people like that anyway. Bye-bye!

     What is harassment? Harassment is a kind of aggression. It is a kind of human relationship as well.

     The Greeks were the first to describe the utbreak of a springtime phenomena, avian civil war. Imagine: a pair of lucky house sparrows strives to cement ownership of a prime nesting site. The female snips succulent tid-bits of greenery for the trousseau, while the male stations himself at tree-top level, “With an enthusiasm that puts the human posturing of his neighbours to shame,” he swaggers and taunts potential competitors with his distinctive and challenging song.

     According to Debra Niehoff, Ph.D., “Most rivals get the hint. But one upstart decides this choice space is worth a serious confrontation. He lands on a branch just above the nest and defies the male to dislodge him. The enraged resident charges the invader, shrieking and screaming.” Bird watching inspired the first systematic studies of aggression in the wild. “Behavioural scientists following in Darwin’s footsteps suggested that personal space is one critical reason why animals fight.”

     Other bird watchers believe animals resort to aggression to defend resources and reputation rather than space. In a famous study conducted by the Norwegian scientist Schjelderup-Ebbe, the classic “pecking order” was discovered, by comparing the number of times a chicken received pecks from other members of the flock to the number of times it administered pecks to others.

     A famous legal case, Durham v. the United States, had a profound impact on public opinion of biological explanations for human aggression. “A judicial system that had once punished all but the most obviously deranged now seemed to accept every anxiety or blue mood as an excuse for murder,” according to Dr. Niehoff.

     Lawyers and psychiatrists report that juries are “surprisingly skeptical” about attributing violence to mental illness, but when people are acquitted it represents an event that one forensic psychiatrist calls  “aberrations that skew the public perception,” due to sensationalized media coverage.

     Unfortunately, “These aberrations have convinced the public that biology favours the violent at the expense of victims, and that forensic psychiatrists are poised to throw open the floodgates of our passions.”

     These misconceptions also foster wrong ideas about the potential violence of the mentally ill. A recent study by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communicatiions showed that the psychotic killer on a mad murder spree is a very common element of TV programming. In fact, 70 per cent of the mentally ill people portrayed on TV were also portrayed as violent individuals.

     “This violent-maniac stereotype translates into widespread discrimination and distrust,” despite the fact experts estimate that no more than 20 per cent of the mentally ill ever commit a single violent act.

     Recent media coverage in Canada acknowledges the disabled and the mentally ill are more likely than other citizens to be victims of crimes of violence. The significance of crime-fueled victimization of the mentally ill has not been lost on behavioural biologists.

     “Millions of people think that criminals are perhaps born that way, crime is in the blood, the genes, the bones.”

     Niehoff says, “As a result, biologically inspired legal initiatives have not only enraged conservative Americans but have also fueled the worst fears of modern anti-eugenicists, that biological explanations for violent behaviour will be used to isolate, discriminate, and persecute.”

     “If genes rule, people are little more than genetic puppets, their behaviour and their moral judgment tethered to the double helix,” she adds in her book, “The Biology of Violence.”

     “The inevitable consequences of eugenics and psychosurgery, killer instincts and selfish genes, caged animals attacking dolls, and murderers bartering for a hospital bed instead of a prison cell has been a profound distrust of behavioural science and the motives of biological researchers.”

     Yet harassment, aggression, attack, defense; and violence in general has deep biological and genetic roots. Researchers at the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health have studied electrically induced changes in behaviour, biochemistry and gene expression after “kindling,” an experimental technique in which repeated small doses of electricity are used to “turn on” cells deep in the temporal lobe of a lab rat’s brain.

     “Daily intermittent stimulation for a mere second is enough to destabilize the cells surrounding the electrode. A few days of such stimulation, and the irritable neurons fire back.” The rat freezes, locks in place, its snout, mouth and facial muscles twitch, its forepaws jerk and tremble spasmodically. If the repetitive stimulation is continued, the excitation reaches a critical threshold, and an uncontrolled surge of electrical activity rampages through the brain as the rat rears, goes rigid, and topples convulsively into a full-blown motor seizure.

     The critical part to understand from the point of view of harassment, is that up to a year later, the merest hint of electrical stimulation readily rekindles a recurrent seizure. If seizures are kindled often enough, they begin to take on a life of their own, erupting spontaneously even in the absence of stimulation.

     Essentially harassment stimulates the anger centers of the brain, the fear centers, the anxiety centers, and can in fact cause long term changes in personality and behaviour in the victim. And this writer knows from personal experience that the equivalent of a “seizure,” what we might call an emotional meltdown, can occur at the slightest hint of fresh or new harassment, years later. And even in the absence of any harassment, the
feelings of anger, depression and paranoia are easily rekindled in the victim of harassment. In a sense, the effects of harassment may become habitual to the victim.

     This is also manifested throughout what is known as “gene expression;” what this means is that we adapt continuously through our lives. If I begin some weight training exercises, then my muscles will begin to grow—they could not do this without a genetic ability to do so. Yet the brain also experiences changes over the course of our lifetimes. Normal replenishment, i.e. the fact that every cell in our body will be replaced about every seven years also contributes to meet the changing needs dictated by external, environmental factors. Changes in the physical makeup of the brain can take place quite quickly under intense stimulation. This is most obvious in the development of children, but adults also change as well.

     Over the course of living, everything we see, hear, learn, experience and do intersects with the person we are already. That’s why the aggressor/victim relationship is just that—a relationship.

     The brain has entire circuits dedicated to processing information and stimuli related to survival. While you are being harassed, your brain is being re-wired, whether you know it or not, whether you like it or not, whether you are aware of it or not.

     During kindling, electrical stimulation causes cascading protein activation, which prods transcription factors, this is the way information is encoded at the cellular level, to “tinker with the neuronal genome in a way that greatly increases sensitivity to subsequent stimulation,” according to researchers. Harassment triggers survival mechanisms deeply embedded in the central nervous system, a genetic adaptation to temporary environmental factors—such as harassment.

     So essentially your first reaction to an initial incident of harassment may be quite muted. There are good reasons for this, for one it may be the first incident. It is not obviously harassment until it goes on for some time; you may just think of it as an unpleasant thing that happened and quickly forget it. Trouble is, you might need to document it later, in order to protect yourself, so unusual little incidents begin to take on new meaning, especially once it becomes apparent that there is a problem.   

     That being said, if the initial incident is serious and traumatic, a real shock to the system, then the resulting behaviour changes can be dramatic.

     Also, due to the nature of the brain itself, your responses to those stimuli will begin to change over time. Harassment is very often an attempt to provoke or elicit a response, and the people who show aggression towards others that does not result in violence do so for a reason: if an assault occurred, the authorities would almost certainly be called, thereby putting a stop to the behaviour of the aggressor.  The aggressor, who gets some kind of reward from the behaviour, does not wish this to happen. The aggressor may in fact be “savouring your suffering.”

     This writer once heard a person tell another person, within hearing of course, “I like to watch him suffer.”

     And it is also likely that most tormenters simply cannot stand up directly to the perceived “threat,” for in the game of “blame the victim” it is always the fault of the victim: “If they would only change something, everything would be all right.” Yes: if only we could become someone else.

     Victims of various kinds of abuse or torment, including harassment, can be surprisingly cooperative with the abuser. But the victims have as much or more to lose from a major confrontation as the perpetrator, including their life, home or livelihood.

     That’s why the cycle of torment can go on for years, decades even. It is a kind of psychological warfare, the goal of which is to make the victim suffer. For whatever reason, the goal of harassment is very often punishment. The tormenter may be punishing another person for something bad that happened to them, or something in their own life that they feel they cannot change or escape from. The victim is a kind of symbol to the tormentor. Victims are usually selected very carefully, in that they are often isolated, and for various reasons unable to fight back effectively. Another very important thing about the victim is that they are available.

     Simply put, it’s no fun to harass some guy in China, if you can’t observe, and enjoy, the effect of your efforts! And since the tormenter knows absolutely nothing about that person in China, he has no reason to begin, and no handle to use. That’s because the art of harassment is all about sending messages, and these messages are attempts to push the victim’s buttons. We all have our little insecurities, our “buttons,” that can be pushed.

     Harassment is very seldom random. The perpetrator has to know something, and usually quite a lot, about the victim. Perhaps it’s time we learned something about the aggressor.

Vietnam—Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

     What is the best Sylvester Stallone movie ever made? It’s not Rocky. With all due respect to other Stallone fans, it would have to be “First Blood,” the story of a disturbed Vietnam veteran who just wants to be left alone.  

     In the Army “John” operated million-dollar machinery, but in the real world, he can’t even keep a job at a car wash.

     Complex behaviours like aggression require inputs from the inner world, and from the outer world. In 1871 Jacob DaCosta, an attending physician at a Philadelphia military hospital wrote about Civil War veterans who were incapacitated by chest pains, palpitations and exhaustion brought on by battlefield experiences. His hypothesis was that the men’s symptoms originated in the nervous system, not the cardiovascular system, quaintly describing that “the heart has become irritable from its overexertion and
frequent excitement, and that disordered innervation keeps it so.”

     During the 1940’s Abram Kardiner described “physioneurosis,” a series of physical symptoms due to an emotional reaction to combat. This was rampant among WW I veterans. Colloquially dubbed “shell shock,” the afflicted soldiers startled easily, suffered sleep disturbances, and overreacted to sights, sounds and events that reminded them of the trauma of combat exposure.

     While the report piqued little interest among his peers, military authorities began to draft policies designed to limit or reduce psychological casualties in subsequent conflicts, with results that were described by experts as “resoundingly unsuccessful.”

     In the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study, an epidemiological study of more than three thousand Vietnam veterans, up to one-third suffered symptoms similar to those noted by Kardiner.

     Vietnam veterans resented efforts to ignore or trivialize the debilitating anxiety that persisted long after their return home. They forced the government, the public, and the mental health community to acknowledge and recognize that the behavioural and emotional devastation caused by combat trauma was not a character defect, but is in fact due to long-lasting physiological changes in the wake of an extraordinary emotional experience.

     It also opened eyes to similar pathological stress responses in people who had experienced other kinds of trauma, such as natural disasters, domestic violence, physical or sexual abuse, torture, and violent crime. And harassment is a crime of violence even if no violence takes place. That’ because it involves the use of fear, anger, frustration and other negative emotions. Your own biochemistry is being used as a weapon against you.

     Scientists were prompted to broaden their perspective on the biological mechanisms of violence to include victims. In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association came up with a new diagnosis, a new disease: post traumatic stress disorder. Symptoms are grouped into three classes.

     Re-experiencing symptoms include acute physical discomfort when confronted with reminders of the traumatic event, as well as nightmare, intrusive memories, and flashbacks, called “waking dreams,” which re-enact the original trauma.

     Avoidance or aversion symptoms represent efforts to avoid activities, emotions, or interactions that are associated with the trauma.

     Hyperarousal symptoms, symptoms of overreaction; include insomnia, irritability, rage outbursts, and exaggerated startle responses.

     These reflect an enduring sense of imminent danger, feelings that can be described as the “constant expectation of harm.” Symptoms of PTSD can follow seeing as well as actually experiencing a threatening event, and may not manifest themselves until months or even years after the trauma.

     PTSD research and the long-term physiological effects of stress have inspired renewed commitment to the diagnosis and treatment of stress-related disorders. The new research uncovered a surprising number of congruencies between the neurobiological mechanisms underlying stress disorders and those underlying aggression.

     Fear and anger share pathways and signaling mechanisms in the brain and nervous system. This commonality shows there is a relationship between aggressor and victim, this link is as fundamental at the relationship between gene and environment.

     Extended observations carried out in the lab demonstrate that aggressive encounters are not random combinations of behaviours; they follow a characteristic pattern and sequence. Aggressive behaviour tends to occur in bursts; even in human aggression the pattern is similar.

     The abusive spouse who comes home in a rage at the end of the work week, the boss who terrorizes his staff before a critical deadline, the serial killer who stalks, strikes, then disappears for months or years; like harassment they tend to be intermittent.

     Some behavioural researchers feel that associative frustration-aggression behaviours prove that aggressive behaviours are learned behaviours. In the late 1930’s researchers at the University of Illinois showed that other stimuli, such as pain, could cause angry reactions. Literally dozens of studies were published demonstrating fierce fighting after electrical shocks were applied to the feet or tails of lab animals. Pain is so effective that shocked rats and monkeys could be induced to attack a doll, a cloth-covered tennis ball, or even a rubber hose if no other suitable victim was close by.
     Another famous experiment involving lab rats went as follows: a rat was introduced into an enclosure, almost immediately a light at one end was flashed rapidly, and a door was opened in the other end of the space. The test animal would invariably flee through the door in an effort to escape, but then it would receive a strong electrical shock.

     When some person constantly harasses another person, of course they are looking for a reaction.

     When the animal was put into the box again, and the light was flashed, the animal became fearful and angry. Over time, the more often this was done, the anger and aggression became greater, even in the absence of further shock or pain. It was the reminder, the resultant fear that caused the aggressive behaviours.

    Based upon observations of laboratory animals, Scottish biologist S. A. Barnett constructed a criminal profile of rat aggression in colonies trapped and housed together in large cages. This profile consisted of characteristic postures, sounds, and maneuvers, such as the threat posture, boxing posture, and the attack posture.

     Like an intruder trapped with a dominant aggressor in an inescapable enclosure, a rat confined to an electrified cage cannot escape the painful shocks. Due to careful mapping of posture patterns, the researchers concluded that pain-induced aggression was an act of self-defense, this was because while an attack occurred, the complete set of “body language terms” was different and corresponded exactly to defensive postures adopted by submissive rats.

     Criminal harassment is violence. The perpetrator has simply found a better way of doing physical harm to another person, often a victim who feels powerless to escape and may find it difficult to get proper help with the situation.


Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Hermit.

     Dr. Kyle Retson was spending a lot of time with hermit crabs lately, so much so that he was in danger of becoming a hermit himself. But maybe things were about to change.

     What was truly fascinating to Kyle, who had originally been more interested in marine mammals, was the symbiotic relationship the crab had with another organism.


     It was her first day on the job. Kyle hadn’t seen her in the three weeks since the interview. While he remembered her beauty, at the time he kidded himself that he was hiring Olive for her qualifications.

     When she walked into the room this morning, all that self-delusional nonsense went right out the window.

     At first, it was something or someone to think about besides his admittedly narcissistic point of view, or his only other friends the crabs. The wetsuit was by its nature rather revealing and he had to fight the strong urge to swim behind so he could simply watch, or to grab the odd photo when she swam overhead, silhouetted by the golden beams of sunshine in all her lithe and youthful glory.

     She made him feel old—too old. He was only forty-four, for crying out loud.

     His voice, metallic and distorted inside her headset, was calm, warm and intimate inside of his own. He spoke, carefully and distinctly.

     “Symbiosis is a Greek word. It means to live together.”

     He felt a momentary embarrassment. She was no first-year student, barely able to read, more
interested in the free credit cards their parents would have to pay for, and parties.

     “Like mycorhizae?” 

     In the murky depths, her eyes gleamed impishly behind her facemask. The stream of bubbles rising up from her exhalations glittered in the slanting morning sunlight as he paused for words.

     The golden orb of the sun was directly behind her head and the effect was glorious.

     Her hair, free of the constraints of gravity, floated around her head like the jeweled corona of the sun.

     His heart leapt at her perspicuity.

     “Yes! There are several types of symbiosis. Mutualism results in mutual benefit to both organisms. In antagonistic symbiosis, one organism is injured in satisfying the needs of another, like chicken pox, or diphtheria.”

     “And then there is commensalism.”

     “Right.” He was busy picking out a single hermit crab from the herd, one which looked much the same as every other hermit crab they had observed so far this morning. “We’re going to need a few more of our little buddies here, nice healthy ones.”

     “How many do you figure?”

     “Two or three hundred.” He did a quick check of the pressure gauge. “We won’t  have time to collect that many today, I’m afraid.”

     Without further discussion, they swam around in circles, each of them with a net bag, and stainless steel tongs to catch them.

     “Won’t they fight in there?” It seemed a little cruel. “Why do we need so many?”

     “Ah, it’s no big thing. We’re just going to put them in the blender anyway.”

     Olive was quiet for a moment.

     Sensing her discomfort, he spoke again.

     “It’s all in the name of science, Olive. It’s a small price to pay. Who knows, we might come up with a cure for cancer or something.”

     They were back in the boat in forty minutes, and back on shore a half an hour later.

     As Dr. Retson hit the button and spun up the ninety-thousand dollar highly-accurate scientific food-processor with the first of the hermit crabs, she came out of the showers, and she smelled…she smelled…indescribably wonderful.

     Her aroma drowned out, (a nice allusion) the smell of raw seafood in the air.

     Kyle drank in her hair, long and dark and wet, and clinging like strings of seaweed to her elfin
face and neck. The rest of her looked just fine, in her sensible, businesslike grey skirt and a frilly
white blouse. The high-heeled shoes were the only concession to vibrant, glowing, healthy young

     “So what we do is to puree the crabs and then we squeeze out the juice.” He noted a quick, involuntary little dry-heave on her part.

     “It’s all right. It just takes a little getting used to. Um, breathe through your mouth at first.”

     “I think I’ll be all right. Oh!”

     Then she turned and ran for the bathroom again.

     “Oh, well.” Students did dissections as a matter of course.

     He could hear her in there, and it didn’t really sound like she was vomiting. This sort of employment was a tad unusual. You had to admit. It was a lot better than a slaughterhouse, and some quite young women worked in those places.

     No one liked the first day or two in a slaughterhouse. What was truly horrifying about that particular summer job was just how quickly a person adapted.

     He sucked in a deep breath through his nostrils.

     “Ah!” He felt secure in his own sense of humour. “I love the smell of raw, pureed hermit crab in the morning.”

     Then came the sounds of retching from the bathroom, but then it was just around the corner and it sounded like she hadn’t even shut the door.

     “I’m sorry, doctor.” She apologized on her return.

     “Yeah. It is a bit much. I’m sorry about that, but really, you’re just going to have to get used to it.”

     This was no way to win a woman’s heart. What a crazy thought.
     “I guess we could crack open a window once in a while.”

     She just sort of stood there patiently waiting.

     Was Olive a woman? She was all of twenty-two years old. Or was she just a girl? Did he even have the right to think this way about a student, albeit an adult in her own right? She was also an employee for the summer. The conflicts or even downright taboos were easy to determine. What was missing was any sort of satisfactory future outcome.

     She had good marks, she had a good attitude. It was a no brainer, but he was going where angels often fear to tread. He had some regrets about hiring her. This could get very complicated, very, very quickly. He was a confirmed bachelor, or at least thought he was, and pretty set in his ways, up until now.

     “No, I’m sorry. I’m a bit of a joker, sometimes. I just wasn’t thinking. This isn’t easy, which I tend to forget. It is my job…my life’s work. I guess I’ve just gotten used to it. I worked my way through school and well, um, one of my first jobs was at a slaughterhouse.”

     “I’m better now.”

     He was suddenly proud of her. In some odd fashion, he even felt protective towards her.

     Kyle didn’t reflect for too long on what all this actually meant.

     “So the goal of the project is…?”

     That was the second time!

     “I’m sorry.” He seemed to be apologizing for every little thing today. “The hermit crab has a friend, a symbiote. What happens is the microorganism dissolves the shell of the hermit crab. The symbiote excretes a calcareous secretion—”

     “Which forms a new shell. It grows at about the same rate as the old one. Yes. We studied that, in fact you taught us. But what is it about, doctor?”


     “Why, doctor?”

     “Ah! That is the question, isn’t it?” He sought the words.

     He really wasn’t used to having a lot of people around, odd as that might sound for a university professor. Lectures were usually written well in advance, then polished a thousand times until you knew it by heart. It was a quick performance, and the questions afterwards fairly mundane.

     “The crab gets a new shell—but he already had one to begin with. Ah, but now he doesn’t have to moult. It results in protection at a vulnerable time. The symbiote gets an increased food supply, and I suppose more, um, mating opportunities…from its new mobility, and, and, by the crab disturbing the sediment…”

     “Yes, but why, doctor? What are we studying and why are we studying it?” She asked in all the innocence, the bright and cheerful enthusiasm of someone on the first day at an exciting new job.

     “Call me Kyle. I’m sorry, um, it’s just that there’s no need to be so formal…”


     She was waiting for him to answer, as he stared into those violet eyes…eyes of a most unusual colour, and with the flaxen blonde hair…and those shoes. He had noticed them before, in the front row of the class. She always sat there.

     “It’s pure science. I have this crazy idea that there must be something more.”


     Somehow, this was so much more important to the doctor than a simple lecture, which he had given to something like seventy thousand students over the years. This was a kind of dream, a quest. Among other things, he wanted to convince her that this was real, and worth doing, or even just trying.

     “I would like to find out how it all started to begin with. I mean, why? That is the best question any person can ever ask. We’re going to see if we can get this naughty old symbiote and separate it out somehow…grow a fresh batch without the crabs…and then we’re going to introduce it to a new host.”

     “You mean like another crab?”

     “Even better. I’m going to see if I can get it to adopt plastic as a host organism.”

     “Plastic!” Her eyes popped at this, the revelation rocking back on her heels.

     “Think of all that plastic, just drifting around in ten-metre tall islands in the middle of the Atlantic.” He was gratified to see a jolt of recognition. “We studied that too, right? I want to make it sink to the bottom of the ocean. We coat the plastic with calcium. Then it sinks. If we can figure out how to do it.”

     She stared, impressed by all of this no doubt. She reached over and patted his shoulder.

     “Then I guess we’d better get to work.”

     He couldn’t help but return her smile.

     Doctor Retson took a long, deep slug of water, tepid after sitting there all morning. He honestly didn’t know if there was more bottled water in the fridge, but then those little administrative details was the reason why the doctor needed a research assistant.

     “Okay.” He pitched the bottle and the remains of the water into the wastebasket, beckoning from beside the desk. “So we have enough stuff. In this cupboard we have the sterile filters. We take a filter and put it into the large Pyrex receptacle here, and we scoop up some puree using the provided plastic scoop. Don’t forget to thoroughly wash that after, and put in some of the goop.”

     “And then the cellular residue filters through and drips into the graduated cylinder.” She nodded in understanding. “And then what do we do?”

     He grinned in delight. A sense of humour! And Star Trek of all things!

     “Don’t stick your fingers in there or anything, okay? Uh, let’s see. Rubber gloves! Right? But just let the stuff drip, and I’ll go off and build another rig, otherwise, this is going to take weeks.”

     It was a simple process. “It’s pretty simple, in fact pretty boring. But you can listen to the radio.”
     “Okay. I’ll be careful not to contaminate the filtrate.”
     Good girl, he thought and decided to talk as little as possible for a while. Air would help, he decided, and so he took time to breathe for a moment.

     “It shouldn’t take me too long.” Kyle pretended to be thinking. “I’m just going down the hall, nd case I’ll be back in time for you to go to lunch. I’ll be in two-thirteen if you need me. Take phone messages. Stuff like that, although I don’t get too many.”

     She already had his cell-phone number, and there was a room directory taped to the wall by the door.

     “Okay, doctor. What about you?”

     It was an innocent enough question, but Kyle found himself blushing furiously.

     “I brought a sandwich.”

     “Ah.” She gave him a strange look and a glance at the fridge, so quick she may herself have been unaware of it.

     She was bright—no doubt about it, but she hadn’t put two and two together yet. He had a funny feeling that she had already looked in the fridge, right when she first arrived. Perhaps just to see what was in there, or even if it was very clean inside—and maybe she didn’t recall seeing any sandwiches in there. His experience with women, or even people for that matter, wasn’t too extensive or even recent. Kyle was a scientist, not a politician, or a used-car salesperson.

     The only things in the fridge were sample bottles and some sour old skim milk for his occasional cup of instant coffee. With Doctor Retson, the work was entirely consuming, and he rarely even thought about lunch. He also knew that to impose his own eccentric habits on an employee was bad personal politics.

     “I’ll leave you to it, then.” Kyle strode off, out of the door and down the hall.

     Suddenly he ran back and grabbed his briefcase from his desk. Conceivably, he might have a sandwich in there. That would introduce some element of doubt. She couldn’t prove either way, as to whether he had a sandwich or not.

     When Kyle returned with the new tower-rig he had built in the apparatus shop, Olive was on her third batch and had collected what looked like about six hundred cc’s of fluid.

     “Excellent!” He beamed at the sight. “Oh! What are you putting it in?”

     “I thought one of those plastic bottles with the plastic screw-cap…the white ones?” She made a flick of her head at the far corner of the room.

     The ‘cellular residue,’ was a kind of pale milky fluid, rather thick and viscous looking. Later it would be cut with distilled water so it was easier to work with.

     His eyes traveled over and he saw an open cupboard door, with a few lonely bottles lined up inside.

     “Yes. Those are fine.”

     Even empty, the brand-new sterile bottles had a little clear plastic seal, and so he went over and cracked the cap off one.

     “The labels are in the drawer right here.” He was humming a nameless little tune. “Ah, here we go. And we need a funnel.”

     In triumph, he went back to his oaken desk and actually had to stop and think for a second.

     There was his best pen right there.

     “Now, our project name is, ‘Hermit,’ sample number is, uh, triple-oh one, and the sampler is Olive Cargill.”

     “Okay.” She looked over his shoulder in a wash of scent. “So we’ll be dealing with less than a hundred samples then?”

     He nodded.

     “I’d like to get about ten litres. At two hundred and fifty cc’s per bottle, that’s only forty samples. I don’t know, maybe fifty at the most is all we need.”

     She nodded.

     “So let’s call it, ‘Sample Hermit OC-001.’ Oh! And the date. There.”

     “That would be numbers?”

     “Yeah. The day, the month, and the year.”

     “How about month, day and year? It seems more logical. Like June ninth, twenty-ten becomes oh-six-oh-nine-two-oh-ten?”

     Her professional, no-nonsense attitude made it easier to take his mind away from certain other thoughts.

     It was after lunch and things seemed to be going well.

     “Thank God you’re here.” He sighed, flushed with the accomplishment of extracting a good half a litre of clean fluid after three stages of filtration.

     “I’ve always loved semi-permeable membranes.” All of a sudden, they were both laughing.

     “Oh, Kyle. That is just too much!”

     He grinned in happy agreement, then went on.

     “When we get enough samples, then we go on to culture the symbiote.” She seemed
interested enough in all of this. “Then we modify its DNA.”

     She nodded, listening carefully.

     “I’ve already proven this chemical extraction system. Otherwise it would have been hard to
get funding.”

     “Yes. I always knew there was more to the work than just biochemistry.”

     Kyle nodded, impressed.

     “It all has to be paid for. Half my job is writing proposals and reporting findings, but this is the fun part.”

     Olive seemed to be working out fine so far. They got along well.  

     Not only that, but the girl went out on lunch and came back with a fresh cup of coffee for him, and how she knew was a mystery, but it was a decaf with two drops of skim milk and a half an artificial sweetener, just the way he liked it.

     She got on the phone and ordered more bottles. She cleaned the fridge, got petty cash from someone in administration that Kyle had never heard of, and put milk and a few ready-made sandwiches in the fridge. She went out again for half an hour and bought coffee, sugar, and somehow she came up with real spoons, napkins, and crockery cups.

     She cleaned up the whole lab with jaw-dropping ease. Just standing around watching stuff drip was clearly not her style.

     The girl was a marvel, in more ways than one.

     After little better than half a day, the place was so well organized, he hardly recognized it when he got back from a short meeting with Alfred Schelling over in the Marine Archaeology department.

     “Have you seen my proof of concept sample?” He was sure it was around somewhere.

     “No, what was it in?”

     “It was the same kind of a bottle. I just grabbed an unused one from a previous project.”

     The doctor recalled that he got really organized that particular time and so he had pre-labeled a bunch of bottles, half a box of which never got used.

     Now, all of the benches were amazingly clean, almost empty in fact. He didn’t see that bottle anywhere, as they both stood there, sweeping the shelves with their eyes.

     “It had a blue label, instead of white.”                

     “I don’t think I’ve seen anything like that.” She opened up the fridge.

     “The light’s not working.”

     “No, no, that’s right. That big brown bottle has to be kept out of the light, that’s our DNA extractor, my own preparation. It lines them all up in a row. It works just beautifully.”

     Doctor Kyle’s eyes strayed down to the wastebasket, which was empty. Then revelation struck.

     “Oh, no!”

     He started laughing uncontrollably, a laugh that went on and on, with poor Olive gaping. She had no idea of what happened. He laughed and spluttered with the sheer joy of ribald, random fate, as he tried to explain the joke so she could have a good laugh too.

     The next morning, the doctor woke with a rush of anticipation. Today promised great new things, what with the project, and Olive, and of course the morning dive was what had attracted him to marine biology in the first place.

     His first impression was of a beautiful summer morning right outside his window.

     As he moved around the rather cluttered, dingy little apartment he called home, for some reason Kyle was moving a little slower today. The last thing he needed was a cold or the flu.

     Maybe it was all the excitement from yesterday, but he was just plain exhausted and he had plans for the day. Groggily, the absent-minded Kyle went about the ordeal of showering, dressing, and making it in to work on time.

     He was almost late, after a ten-minute search for his glasses, which were in the bathroom, right beside where Kyle had just endured a half-blind shave with a dull razor and no shaving cream.

     The day wasn’t starting off too well.

     The morning dive went fairly well, with Kyle taking the boat to a different place. He kidded himself that he might be sick one day and she really should know all the test site locations, mapped and logged with the department’s own global positioning system.

     She stood close and warm, as he explained how it worked and showed her what all the buttons did. While he still didn’t feel well, he was pretty sure he wasn’t sick. He would make it through the day.

     This was one of the most beautiful spots on the whole coast, with its clear aquamarine waters, the arc of white beach and the forest rising up into the hills beyond.

     “I’ll show you a different spot tomorrow.”

     Clad in her white bikini, Olive nodded happily, as she dumped the crabs into the bait tank. As far as summer jobs went, this one paid well, and you certainly couldn’t fault the working conditions.

     Where else could you get a perfect tan and get paid twenty-two dollars an hour?

     “So you know all of these places?” They studied the wall map, studded with Kyle’s coloured pins, each with little tags and numbers stuck on them with crazy glue.

     The tags were her idea.

     She had taken to wearing just running shoes, bikini bottoms and a loose man’s shirt, mostly unbuttoned around the lab, but then he was accustomed to his own hiking shoes, cut-off jeans and a shirt, mostly unbuttoned.

     “Oh, yeah.” He bragged a little bit, unable to help himself. “I know this coast like the back of my hand.”
     He reached up to point out San Marcos, the little island with an underwater grotto. It wasn’t actually one of his test sites, but he had this crazy idea that she might want to see it.

     “Holy, crap, what the hell is that?” His face froze at the sight of rows and rows of some kind of small, yellowy-greenish, indistinct concentric rings all over the back of his hand.

     The next day was fine, although Kyle’s strange skin condition didn’t abate, and it even seemed to be a little worse. Kyle was so distracted he could barely focus on the job at all, and seemed to have an itch up in between the shoulder blades, that he just couldn’t keep his hands off of.                                                                         
     When she returned from lunch, Kyle was gone, just gone, but his briefcase and jacket were right where he left them.

     Olive assumed that he was at some meeting and maybe Kyle had simply forgotten to write it down, or perhaps he had some kind of family emergency. With no idea of what else to do, she just kept on filtering crab puree and bottling up the samples from Site 2, a simple suffix on the end of the code identifying this batch.

     Since Olive had her own key, she locked up the lab and went home at the usual time, noting that Kyle had not signed the book coming in this morning, nor going out this afternoon. She would like to ask him about more room in another fridge somewhere.

     She was pretty sure he didn’t live in the building.

     It was late when the phone rang.

     “Olive! I need you to help me.”

     “Kyle! What happened? I wondered where you were.” She had just been awoken from a deep sleep.

     “You have to help me.”

     “Where are you? Are you at the lab?” She glanced at the clock.

     What was this? It was three o’clock in the morning.

     “Are you all right?”

     “Please help me.” He begged, a note of desperation evident in his husky, quavering voice.

     “Are you sick? Did you have an accident?” She gasped. “What happened? What’s going on?”

     Kyle didn’t sound well at all.

     “Please help me.” He sounded indistinct and far away from the phone.

     “Tell me where you are.” A flush of concern and something else, maybe even a little dread came over her.

     She just had time to look at the dial. Sure enough, it was the lab. Then it all faded.

     The phone was silent, gone dead. The batteries on her cordless needed replacing, and she
simply hadn’t found the time.


     Somehow or other, deep in her heart, she knew that Kyle was a nice guy. Olive was pretty sure she could handle him if he was drunk and got up to any strange tricks. He was only about an inch taller, and lightly built. Olive had a few dirty tricks up her sleeve, if worst came to worst. Her brother showed her when she was about fourteen. Kyle was at the lab, and she would have to sign in with security anyway. Most likely, she had nothing to worry about.

     “Oh, God. Damn it.”

     Sighing, she swung herself out of bed and headed to the closet for a pair of jeans and a sweater.

     What Olive found at the lab was shocking.

     “Thank you for coming.” It was an apparition with Kyle’s voice.    

      Her hand flew up to her mouth and she stifled a scream.
     “Oh!’ She gasped, throwing her jean jacket aside and striding to where he sat.
     “Oh, my God!” She struggled with the reality of it. “What happened? Oh, Kyle, what’s happening to you?”

     “We may not have much time.” Kyle shivered uncontrollably. “Close that door, please.”

     She hastened to comply, mind reeling. Turning, she halted, mesmerized by the sight of Doctor Kyle Retson, covered in scales, horrible bare feet sticking out of his ragged trousers…and that awful right hand, huge and pale now, with hook-like pincers.

     “I’m sorry…you shouldn’t have to see this. But someone must go on.”

     “Kyle! What is going on? What happened to you?”

     “Please…write this down.” He spluttered, half choking as he tried to gasp out the words.

     “Yes, yes.” She scrabbled for a pen and paper.

     She practically threw the other chair there and sat beside his desk.

     “Good girl. I knew I could rely on you…”

     Poor Kyle was gasping for breath, fighting for his very life it seemed.

     “What is it?” She asked, half in a panic, but trying to focus on helping him in some way.

     “I…I drank the distillate…accidentally…thought it was bottle…of water.”

     She scribbled furiously.

     “Read…my notes. In the blue binder…my password…computer… is nanunanu.”

     “Yes, yes. What do you want me to do?”

     “Just read it. Oh, God, I’ll call an ambulance.” His breathing was horrendous.

     She had only just thought of it, but he held up his left hand, which looked horribly misshapen.

     “No. They…couldn’t do anything anyway.” Then his voice became more lucid. “I drank the stuff…I think I’m growing a shell…so that part works, anyway.”

     Kyle got up and headed for the door.

     “Kyle!” She shouted, but he just kept going.

     Flinging the notepad aside, she went after him.

     “Kyle! Kyle!” A small group of people laughed and tittered at the strange figure of Kyle blundering past them, intent on some purposeful destination.

     “Kyle!” She grabbed his arm, but he flung her off and just kept going.

     “No!” She gasped in sudden comprehension. “No, Kyle!”

     Kyle was headed straight for the water. He looked at her sideways, stumbling along on stiff, unfamiliar legs. His face was now almost completely alien, more monster rather than a man anymore.

     The look of despair in his eyes made her throw her hand over her mouth in horror.

     The scales were everywhere, the edges of them now growing together at an ever-accelerating rate.

     “Wait!” She cried in desperation.

     Kyle paused, as she sank down into the sand, sobbing in sheer frustration and fear for Kyle.

     “Wait.” She moaned, tears streaming down her face.

     Kyle hovered there indecisively.

     “Must…get in the water.” His voice was now horribly distorted by the huge bulges appearing in the sides of his neck.

     “Kyle…please…let me try and help you.” She begged through the tears.

     “I…have loved you…forever…will love you…forever…”

     Her tears spurted up beyond all control and she gnashed her teeth and moaned and sobbed, staring up at him in despair.

     “Oh, please, Kyle, don’t…don’t.” She shuddered in grief and anguish.

     “If I live…I will go…to the grotto.” He said it as clearly as he could, struggling to get the words out.

     “The grotto!” She gasped.

     “Look for me…” He reached out and touched her cheek tenderly.

     She clung to his hands, trying to hold him back from this awful thing.

     “I…just…wasn’t…meant…to be…”

     Then, twisting from her grip, Kyle broke free.

     “No!” She wailed, as he turned and made his way as best he could down the beach and into the surf.

     Olive collapsed in the sand when his dark form disappeared into the waves, the sound of sirens in the distance the only other thing to be heard over the surf, roaring white and foamy in the moonlight.


Note: My books are free from Smashwords until July 31, using coupon code SSW 75. These are erotica, more graphic than the above story.