LAB RAT VENGEANCE
by Sarah Schiff
In the neuroscience lab where I worked as an undergraduate intern, we were studying what makes mice experience the sensation of fullness. You can just imagine who’d want access to those findings—the know-how to regulate people’s appetites. The primary investigator, Dr. Hillbrawn, suspected a specific subnucleus of being the moderating agent of satiety, so my job was to locate and then lesion it (which is fancy scientific jargon for destroy, and, just so you know, I am pretty fancy). Once I could do the surgeries without supervision, I started coming in late at night so I could work without the distractions of other people’s gossip and smells. One grad student played Nirvana on a loop, so the whole white room consistently felt filled with dismay.
On a late September night, I had an adolescent mouse head-fixed into the stereotax, a kind of miniature operating table. The mouse, big for his age, lay belly down. While his red eyes looked blindly up at me, shiny with ointment to keep them from drying out, I shaved the white fur at the top of his head, made a slice, and pulled the pink skin apart into a vaginal-looking wound. After I drilled a hole through his skull, just as I was about to lower the electrode, I saw the mouse’s whiskers twitch. Or I thought I did. From ethics training, I knew we were supposed to give a booster of anesthesia if we sensed the mouse waking so I pinched his tail, and his whole body flinched, a clear indicator that the dope wasn’t enough.
But what if it had to be? If I continued the surgery how would this mouse react, skull-cracked, brain-exposed, but alert to the world? What if I just—
At the electrode’s pulse, his sticky eyes filled with dampened terror, followed by screeches that rent the antiseptic night. When I pulled the wire free, his body and limbs thrashed across the metal surface, his head locked in place.
I watched with a kind of thoughtful horror. This writhing mouse has touched death, must sense himself on the brink, caught up in the suck toward oblivion.
What a rush it must be. I could almost feel it myself.
After sealing the mouse’s scalp with vet glue, I set up an arena and video camera and grabbed one of the female mice we kept for breeding.
Even among mice, males are considered the norm, the females too inconstant, so to ensure we always had female mice in estrus, all hot and bothered and ready to rut, we had to keep them separated. Just like us, female mice get on the same cycles with their fellow cage-dwellers. Whenever a new litter of pups was born, we’d wait the twenty-one days until they were weaned, pick out the surplus of females, dump them into a tank, and fill it with carbon dioxide, slowly at first to put them to sleep, then full blast. Their very own girls-only gas chamber.
At least they were spared the life of a lab rat.
During my training, I’d watched some videos of mouse sexual behavior, which happened to be even more formulaic than human. The male would dally before sniffing the female’s backside, and that sniffing would go on for quite a while, in all kinds of positions, before mounting, then withdrawing to lick his junk, then mounting again, and soon done after several quick-time humps and rapturous squeaks. The technical term for mouse foreplay is, get this, anogenital exploration.
Feel free to use that next time you’re looking to spice up your dirty-talk.
This mouse, whom I would dub Ladies Mouse, was having none of it. He must have been woozy from the drugs, but once I put him in the cage with the female, he leaped at her like Superman, or rather, Mighty Mouse, snort. It was as if it was his last lay, his final chance to pass on all the genetic material that defined Ladies Mouse and Ladies Mouse alone. He did it for the same reason shipwrecked men carve their last words into the bark of trees. Because even the most is never enough.
The going theory was that if you stress out animals, they’ll do all they can to return to homeostasis. The last thing they’d be up for, supposedly, was the agitation of a courtship ritual. But Ladies Mouse defied the theory. He didn’t fight or flee but found a way to do both, to force himself on another and allow his DNA to escape.
I put on a pot of coffee, already planning my next experiment. First I had to confirm that I’d lesioned the part of Ladies Mouse’s brain I’d been aiming for. Stereotactic surgery only gives you a suggestion of which part of the brain actually gets hit by the electrode. Mouse brains are small, after all.
Which meant I’d have to kill Ladies Mouse. Wishing I hadn’t named him, I put him in a cage and marked it: “Surgerized mice. Save for Deb.” It would take a couple weeks for the neurons to die off, if I’d destroyed them at all. Maybe I’d just stimulated them. Or maybe the burned neurons had nothing to do with it. Was the stress of waking during surgery enough to explain Ladies Mouse’s desperate and freakish last lay?
Over the following weeks, I prepared for Ladies Mouse’s final surgery, and when the time came, I laid him down in a tray of crushed ice inside the fume hood. This time I was sure to inject him with a healthy dose of anesthetic—actually it wasn’t so healthy, har har.
This final surgery, a transcardial perfusion, would be belly up.
A draft from somewhere rustled some hairs that had escaped from my bun as I made a horizontal incision just beneath his rib cage and pushed apart the skin with my thumb and forefinger. The twitching bright redness of his organs made me stop. I could just glue him up now, virtually no damage done. But I kept going, remembering the steps of the surgery in my head like a telephone number. With the scalpel, I traced the shape of a shield along the edges of his ribcage and, as if peeling away a sticker, lifted the skin, followed by the sternum. There his heart pumped wildly, I couldn’t believe with what tempo and vigor. His system was drugged and irreparably damaged, but his heart beat pertinaciously on. Holding my breath, I pinched the pulsing heart between the forceps, pierced a hole in the right atrium to let the blood ooze out, and, with a trembling hand, inserted a needle into the left ventricle. I didn’t exhale until the saline, then paraformaldehyde began their journey through his organs. Ladies Mouse’s whole body moved as if in a seizure, then just his fore paws, as if waving goodbye. In less than twenty minutes, his body had gone stiff, all the organs paled to a chalky white.
Rather unremarkable scissors are sufficient for cutting off mice’s heads, but I thought Ladies Mouse deserved the guillotine that we reserved for tough-necked rats, the royal treatment.
With his head in my blood-dappled gloves, I scissored away his skull as if it were a cuticle on a nail, and the clattering sound of me dropping the scissors back on the tray made me jump, an alarm bell shrilling its warning in my head. I looked around, expecting to find someone who’d been watching me this whole time.
But, no, I was alone. What was the next step again? All I could think about was the bloody, decapitated body and a missing witness. Had I pickled Ladies Mouse for nothing? Then I saw the mini-spatula and knew what to do.
After severing the cranial nerves, I popped Ladies Mouse’s brain out like a pea from its pod, and my heart clamored against my chest as I caught it before it fell to the floor. Concentrate, I told myself as I slid the brain into a vial of paraformaldehyde for post-fixing. Then I tossed Ladies Mouse’s corpse, wrapped in a surgical glove, into the freezer with the other carcasses, bound eventually for the incinerator, and tried not to feel sad for him. All the next day, I stayed in the lab, drinking coffee and keeping my eye on the solution, making sure no one disturbed it. That night, after everyone had finally left, I cut the solidified brain into sections, stained them, and searched for the missing neurons under a microscope.
It was a miss. I’d put Ladies Mouse through all that, only to hit a neighboring subnucleus.
But maybe it was a happy miss. Discoveries can’t be anticipated, after all. Maybe, I thrilled to think, males also have an ever-elusive g-spot, and maybe it’s in the brain.
The next morning, I was woken by Jason, the grad student responsible for supervising me. I didn’t like sharing what I’d been up to, but I’d need his help, and Jason was always railing against the Man, by which he meant academia, its rigidity, its unpredictable hesitancies, and its general stinginess. He usually spoke in a low, emphatic tone that sounded on the verge of angry, but once I’d explained my plan, his voice seemed to jump an octave. “Sweet, nice work, Deb. Way to stick it!”
He set me up so I could spend the next few months breeding my own litter of mouse pups, which mostly just consisted of him signing forms I put in front of his face. After I’d put aside half the weaned mice as the control group, I dove into my experiments. How could I get them to take that desperate lunge toward whatever life remained rather than retreat to nurse their wounds? The findings, I knew, could have huge implications. Forget controlling appetite. Whoever knew the formula for invigorating the sex drive could rule the world. Or at least buy it—and was there a difference?
Over the holidays, the city was aglow with Christmas spirit, but I was in the lab, trying to figure out what I was missing in my research. As the new year approached and as more and more mice failed to live up to their predecessor, I started to suspect that my initial results had been an anomaly, related more to Ladies Mouse’s distinctive qualities than anything endemic to mice, let alone humankind.
There was no payday in sight.
Then, at the beginning of Spring term, Jason delivered a presentation to the whole lab, complete with PowerPoint slides. The topic: my research.
I was sitting at the back of the conference room, in denial. This couldn’t be my hypothesis, my experiments and data, my potentially field-changing findings he was claiming as his own. I considered briefly, and absurdly, that he’d been working on a parallel experiment this whole time. But no, I even recognized my mice in the videos, the ones whose neurons I’d been destroying and whose sex acts I’d been filming. The more he spoke, his voice assuming that self-righteous tone of being the only person in the room to have thought of something previously unthought, the more insistently my heart pumped, and the feeling of it nearly bursting through my chest made me remember the blood draining out of Ladies Mouse. What did Ladies Mouse ever do? The undeserving one was Jason.
I wasn’t even a footnote.
After the presentation, I found him in the cafeteria, a huge building, airless as a shopping mall, with a daunting design of hatched wooden planks on the high ceiling. Fight or flee? I went up to where he was sitting and slid his plate of salad bar salad down the length of the table like an air hockey puck. When I put my face in front of his, the clatter of his dropped fork, just like that of the scissors I’d used to trim away Ladies Mouse’s skull, made me shiver. But his obvious fear made mine manageable.
“Deb.” Even in that one syllable, I could hear the quavers in his voice. “How was your Christmas?”
“Bullshit, Jason.” I got so close, our lips were almost touching. From afar, the moment might have looked romantic, like I was willing to vault a cafeteria table just for a kiss.
“There’s nothing to say,” he went on all aquiver. “I was the lead on that experiment, set you up, supervised you.”
“It was my idea, Jason. I did the work. You just gave the okay.”
“More like you were the manual labor, the benchman.”
“That’s a lie, and you know it.”
“I provided the materials, the animals, the equipment, got the go-ahead from Dr. Hillbrawn. You don’t even have a college degree. Everything you used was mine, which means so are the findings.” He sneezed, and it sounded like the karate chop yip—hiya!—of a cartoon ninja.
Maybe he’d done those things, but none of it was enough to justify taking my work. Authority too often gets the glory, without even showing up. “I’m telling Dr. Hillbrawn everything.”
“He’s been kept apprised this whole time. We even got IACUC approval and had to cover up some of your shadier techniques in the process, I’ll have you know. As far as he’s concerned, the experiment’s mine, and that’s because it is.”
“That’s some false reality you live in,” I said, but to my own ears, at least, my voice sounded thin. He couldn’t have me beat.
“I tell you what, Deb,” and he hopped his chair forward and picked up his fork as if about to dive into an invisible meal. “I’m presenting the findings at the conference in April over at NYU. You can join me at the poster session, help me answer questions when it gets busy.”
“I’ll be there.”
He lowered his eyes to my short black skirt and rainbow leggings. “Just make sure you look the part.”
I made my best holier-than-thou face. “I thought you were all about sticking it to the man.”
“I am. But sometimes you have to play the game.”
And here I was, thinking I was playing.
When I left the cafeteria, it was snowing. As I watched my step over the sidewalks, I wondered why it didn’t thunder in a snowstorm. Where was the protest of the sky?
Since ketamine is a schedule three controlled substance and hallucinogenic, any lab that uses it is subject to DEA inspection, thanks primarily to a rather experimental bunch of 1970s California yoga instructors with a death wish. Dr. Hillbrawn kept it in the lab as anesthesia for the mice and rats. The problem, though, was the dosage: I’d need to hoard it for months before collecting enough to cook down and concentrate, but I didn’t have that kind of time. Or patience.
How ironic, then, that powder AP5, just another antagonist of NMDA receptors, was readily available for a couple hundred taxpayer dollars. In Dr. Hillbrawn’s lab, there was AP5 to spare.
So when it came time for the neuroscience convention, I was ready. In a single bathroom off the main conference hall, I took out my stash of AP5 in dimethyl sulfoxide, since it can dissolve chemicals that are hydrophobic (afraid of water, of all things). It’s also great for transporting substances through skin.
As I stirred deliberate figure eights into the solution, I could feel the heat building under my arms with the prospect of revenge, but that was soon chased by doubt: Was I the bad guy here?
Feeling like a witch above her brew, all I could think was I needed to come out of this without losing my dignity, even if meant doing something as rotten as the smell drifting up from my potion: a heady blend of spoiled milk and asparagus-laced urine.
All vengeance really was was self-defense after the fact, a welcome balm to helpless feelings.
As I looked around to ensure I hadn’t left anything incriminating behind, I caught a glimpse of myself in the streaky mirror. It was the nicest I’d ever dressed: gray twill pants and a white collared shirt, complete with a narrow snake-skin belt.
No witch was I.
After pulling on fresh surgical gloves, I donned another pair, these made from black lace. The left-handed one was soaked in my solvent. Before leaving, I doused myself with patchouli to cover the smell and thought, it’s not just mathematics, firefighting, and rock and roll that young girls get dissuaded from. Our potential for bad doings gets stymied too. We unlearn our capacity for trouble. Beamed to us daily, we hear the messages that we’re built for good, for caretaking, obeying. Boys will be boys, but girls aim to please.
How deep did the lesson run in me?
Across a sea of ambling scientists, there was Jason, setting up his poster at the far wall. In all his high fashion sense, he was sporting a short-sleeved collared shirt with a bowtie. Feeling as if my gliding body was a substitute for the real me, I weaved my way toward him, protecting my left hand as if it were broken. I felt unbound, sipping on trouble, a drink like liquor that rouses and dulls.
“No hard feelings,” I said, clutching his arm and holding on a few seconds longer than a casual greeting merited. He grinned, reached for my shoulder, and said, “That’s my Deb.”
With my most innocent smile, I withdrew my hand, claiming nervousness. “Gonna go to the little girls’ room before the big show.”
“You might want to wipe off some of that patchouli or whatever the hell it is. It reeks. And lose the gloves, Elvira.”
“I guess I got carried away,” I said and hurried back to the bathroom, feeling as if I’d had too much caffeine and might be propelled into a topple. To get the stink out, I rinsed and scrubbed the glove, wrapped it in a couple plastic bags, and buried it deep in the nasty bathroom trash. Then I splashed some cold water on my face, trying to tame the flush in my cheeks.
“You go here,” Jason told me when I returned, indicating the spot against the wall. He stood on the other side of the easel that held a rather shoddily designed poster. The sheets of data pinned to the board hung askew, and the small font was hard to read. Shockingly, he hadn’t asked me to design it for him, but probably—rightfully—he hadn’t trusted me to give it my best. My kind of crafty wasn’t for him.
He didn’t seem at all conscious of his poster’s inadequacy but stood with hands on hips, looking out with a devil-moon grin at the meandering scientists. When he bent to tie his shoe, I scribbled my name into the bottom corner.
As the scientists made their way toward us, they stood close to the poster, as if about to grab the easel up in a waltz. Soon they were gathering in droves, intrigued by the originality of the research, not to mention the fact that it was about the sex drive. Salt-n-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk about Sex” was stuck in my head, and I hummed it to try to still the nerves. When would the AP5 kick in? As he handed out ivory-colored business cards, Jason’s voice rang with confidence, and with each card, I worried more. Maybe I hadn’t held on to him long enough. Had I screwed up the dosage? Maybe AP5 didn’t work the same way ketamine did. If nothing happened, I told myself, nothing would happen. Maybe it would even be a good thing.
Motivated by the size and stature of his audience, Jason kept expounding, but after he’d been through the spiel multiple times, handed out at least thirty cards, and answered dozens of questions, his responses grew suddenly curt. He shuffled the cards in his hands. Was this it? When he stared at the ceiling, mouth agape, I took over the presentation. “As you can see, the results far exceeded the expectations of my hypothesis.”
The next time I glanced at Jason, his business cards were strewn across the floor, and each hand was clasped to the opposite shoulder, his elbows draped in a V across his chest. He started rocking, alternately standing on his tiptoes and falling back on his heels. Accustomed to eccentricity, the scientists looked at him out of the corners of their eyes.
Then Jason growled, and the real hallucinations set in. “Fuck you,” he started yelling at the scientists. I flinched at the first one. “Get the fuck out of here!” He was moving erratically, like a bee was after him.
Now my fears were upturned. Maybe I’d given him too much. What if he became violent? What would an overdose of AP5 look like?
“Are you okay?” one of the scientists asked him. Her name tag told me she was Dr. Chelsea Pak from Stanford.
What if he died?
“Get off me!” he yelled.
“Is this normal?” a Dr. Brian Alexander asked. I’d all of a sudden become Jason’s handler.
What if there was an investigation?
What else hadn’t I thought of?
“Shut up with your incantations!” Jason got up close to the scientists, who wiped his spit from their faces. Then, as if they’d bared fangs at him, he jumped back, dabbing his forehead, chest, and shoulders before holding up his two index fingers in the shape of a cross. Like a sprinkler, he moved the cross back and forth, forming a barrier between him and some of the smartest people on the planet. “Christ!” he screamed. “Christ, save me! Save me from Satan’s children.”
“Anyone an MD here?” Dr. Pak asked. Another scientist, Dr. Portia Green, was inching toward Jason, making shushing sounds. As she approached, Jason crumpled to the floor and crawled under the table, wailing hysterical tears, ringing the pathetic tones of a lone child finding himself at the end of the world. “Oh Christ, Oh Christ! Save me from this hellscape.”
As the scientists looked at each other in nervous horror, I slipped Jason’s business cards into their unfeeling hands, feeling fine and redeemed.
But the next morning, I woke in sheets that felt marinated in sweat. What if there was a comeuppance? I’d covered my tracks well, but would Jason suspect me? After all, he knew I had a motive. I spent the next several nights drinking late, feeling by turns monstrous and vindicated, sip by sip.
But time passed, and I was left alone. Vindicated then. I’d done Ladies Mouse proud.
Why had I even doubted myself?
I’m not sure what was more damaging to Jason’s credibility, the delusional hysterics or his invocation of Christ, but, as far as I know, he never got a job in academia.
Dr. Hillbrawn, though, became the director of a major sexual dysfunction research center in Manhattan. Last I heard, none of his products worked better than placebos. But sometimes that can be enough—just thinking things are so can be pretty damn persuasive.
At other times, though, you need every corrective at your disposal.
Sarah Schiff earned her PhD in American literature from Emory University but is a fugitive from higher education. She now writes fiction and teaches high school English in Atlanta. Her stories have appeared in Raleigh Review, J Journal, MonkeyBicycle, and Fiction Southeast, among others. One has also been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. “Lab Rat Vengeance” is excerpted from her novel-in-progress, As Though to Breathe Were Life.
Cover Design by Karen Rile