Wednesday, October 24, 2018

The Wilting

a picture of a rose that is wilting and a ghost monkey

Most friendships are like a bouquet of flowers.  Sure, they are lovely to have, but they are transient, and inevitably, they wither and die.  Seldom does the stem take root, begging for tender hands to place the new roots in fertile soil, yet this, more than anything, is what Heather craved!  No bouquet fit for a grave, but a potted plant and a sunny windowsill!  So, when Heather found herself walking home along the same route as Jasmine and Rose, she felt pleased when they flanked her and started to chat.
“Hey, I’m Jasmine.  That is Rose.  What’s your name?” said the one on her right.  Jasmine was scrawny and tall, and her oversized head threatened to topple her over at any moment.  Luckily, her giant feet kept her literally grounded, though they did nothing to stifle her illusions of grandeur and flights of fancy.  Yet despite her awkwardness, she was oddly pretty, with long, silky black hair and big, bashful brown eyes that sparkled with innocence and optimism.
Heather smiled coyly as she told them her name.
“How was your first day?” asked Rose, the one on her left.  Rose was a quintessential nerd, complete with thick glasses and an unmanageable mess of thick, curly hair. Short and stocky, her clothes were always ill fitting.  Her pants were too long, dragging across the cement beneath her shoes, and her shirts were always too tight, accentuating the rolls on her belly.
“Oh, okay, I guess,” Heather shrugged.
Jasmine had never been good at making friends.  An involuntary misfit, the harder she tried to fit in, the more she stood out.  She struggled with feelings of self-worth.  She never felt like she belonged, felt shy and awkward, and she never knew what to say.  The other kids interpreted this as weakness, but Jasmine wasn’t weak.  She was quick to anger, and when the other kids would tease her, she’d lash out, overreact and turn to violence and physically fight back against their verbal abuse.  The only problem was that she had grown up with a mean older sister, and she’d gotten good at fighting.  Inevitably, Jasmine would win.  The kid who’d started it would end up crying and covered in bruises, and Jasmine had gotten labelled a trouble maker and a bully, which just made things worse.  She’d ended up being a loner without even trying, and other than Rose, she didn’t have any friends.
She wanted friends.  She tried hard to make them, she just couldn’t.  Her sense of humor was all wrong.  She got a laugh out of human flaws.  In Jasmine’s mind, her words were just good-natured teasing, like at a roast, but she wasn’t good at it.  Her words always cut too deep, hit too close to home, and it was off putting.
Jasmine said, “Hope you steered clear of the cafeteria corn dogs.  They’ll turn you green.” 
Heather replied, “I did.  Went for the pizza instead.”
“Yeah, it’s pretty much the only thing worth eating there,” said Rose.
“I guess you can eat all the pizza you want,” Jasmine quipped, “because people will just think your zits are more freckles, right?” Typical Jasmine, always interacting with others like a hammer to a loaf of bread: no eloquence, no confidence, no grace.
Heather wasn’t the prettiest girl in the world, and she was hyper critical of herself.  In he own mind, she was too tall, too skinny, too pale, and too ugly to be loved.  Already sensitive about having so many freckles, this comment made Heather pull an unhappy face.  “Yeah, right,” she meekly agreed.  Heather always got her feelings hurt so easily.  Something as simple as an unreturned phone call or time spent with a different friend was tantamount to abandonment in Heather’s eyes, and she was quick to pull away and ice down her heart.
“So, do you like to party?” Rose asked.
“Sure,” Heather replied.
“Cause there’s this party on Saturday night at Trey Brown’s house, and I’ve been invited if you wanna come with.”
“Oh, okay.  That sounds like fun,” Heather said.  “Who’s Trey Brown?”
“This boy that’s in love with Rose,” Jasmine teased.
Rose didn’t believe in love.  Not anymore.  Not after what happened last spring with Taylor.  Rose had fallen hard for Taylor. 
Her mother had called it puppy love, but it was far more intense than that.  It was real.  Rose’s every thought was of Taylor.  His mood dictated hers.  His desires became her desires.  They were together so much that their names became synonymous.  He whispered the sweetest day dreams of their future together into Rose’s ear in hot, breathy sighs.  He spoke of marriage, of children, of growing old together, and she’d seen it all so clearly in her mind’s eye.  They were meant to be!  They were supposed to be the high school couple that made it; the one that legends were made of.  She had no way of knowing that his declarations were just sweet nothings.
They’d been dating an eternity of six months when everything changed.  One day, right after school let out for the summer, Rose phoned Taylor, and he didn’t return her call.  Rose felt uneasy.  It wasn’t like him.  They talked every day.  She wrote it off that first day.  He probably just got home too late, out with friends or family.  She waited by the phone the next day, but still he didn’t call.  So late that evening, she phoned him once more, and yet again he didn’t answer.  Her unease turned to worry.  She feared he’d gotten sick or hurt.  The next day left her sitting by the phone in anxious silence yet again, so she decided to head down to the mall and check in with their friends, to see if they knew what was wrong with Taylor.
When Rose walked up to the food court where Taylor and their friends liked to hang out, her heart grew heavy and began to tremble.  Taylor sat there like a king amongst sycophants, laughing and having a good time. 
“Taylor,” Rose said as she approached him.  “What’s going on?  Why haven’t you returned my calls?”
Taylor replied, “Why would I call you?  We broke up.”
Rose felt her soul break.  She said, “What?  When?  Why?  I thought you loved me.”
He laughed in a manner that Rose had never heard before.   He put his arm around Cindy Manchester.  “I’m with her now.  Look at her.   She’s hot.”  Taylor ran his eyes up and down Cindy’s body with a lustful leer on his mug. Then he turned to Rose and sneered, “Look at you.  How could I love you?  You’re ugly and your tits are flat.”
Rose felt herself flush red and hot like a boiling lobster.  Cindy Manchester looked victorious and bemused by Rose’s humiliation.   All the others joined in, cackling like rabid hyenas.  Joe, Angela, Steve, Tammy; sure they were Taylor’s gang, but Rose had been hanging out with them for six months.  She thought they were her friends now, too, but they weren’t.  They were lies, just like Taylor.
Everyone stared and laughed at her.  Not just her former friends, but other shoppers, too; they laughed so hard they nearly spit out their corn dogs and chop suey.  Even the pimply faced nerds working the pizza booth guffawed at her mortification.
The frog in her throat silenced her.  She looked at her feet, then quickly turned and scurried off without a word.  She managed to fight back the lamentations until after she’d walked away, but the moment she slipped around the corner, all the trust and love in her heart poured out of her eyes in a torrent of tears, and she vowed never to love again.
Rose pushed the painful memory back into the hole in her heart.  “No one is in love with me,” she insisted.
“Yeah, he is.  Trey loves you,” Jasmine teased, dragging the word love out in a mocking way.
“Shut up,” Rose said. 
An old boat of a car crept by, a hoopty with big wheels and loud bass thrumming from the open windows.  A youth hung his head out of the passenger side window.  He flashed a big, toothy smile and cat cawed at them as he went by.
“Jerk!” Jasmine squawked. 
“What is that creepy building up there?” Heather asked. 
Their path home led them right past Manes Incorporated.  The building loomed like some broken and forlorn machine, all rusted functionality, cracked windows, and forgotten purpose.  Built in the thirties, it had first been a meat packing plant.  The wooden floors were stained a dark and dirty burgundy, the blood of thousands of animals sacrificed to the meat and potatoes diet perpetuated by countless housewives and diligent working husbands.  In time, the meat plant moved to a more modern facility, and the warehouse came up for sale.  It sat abandoned, waiting patiently for just the right owner, when finally, in the eighties, along came one very ambitious inventor and entrepreneur, Doctor Electra Vogelii.  Dr. Vogelii once taught parapsychology at Trinity University.  When the program got cut, she purchased the property, set up a laboratory within, and gave birth to Manes Incorporated.
Dr. Vogelii was a first generation citizen, the daughter of proud, hardworking immigrants.  Renowned for myriad reasons, including her brilliance, talk of her stunning beauty often dominated the rumor mill.  Her dark, flawless complexion, her intense, enormous eyes like deep pools of molasses, and her wild, curly bottle blonde hair all played second fiddle to her perfect, predominate smile.  Beneath her doctor’s coat, she always wore something name brand and red.
Dr. Vogelii often worked alone throughout the night, and numerous rumors circulated about the eldritch and macabre experiments she performed by moonlight.  When she mysteriously disappeared without a trace, fantastic tales of murder and ghosts circulated like a whirlwind.  The building sat abandoned ever since, a playground for cockroaches and skeletal mice.
“That, boys and ghouls, is the local, haunted mad scientist laboratory!” Rose exclaimed in a creepy voice, doing her best horror host impersonation.  “Once owned by a crazy woman doctor who performed countless, illegal experiments on behalf of the United States government, until they turned on her and then,” Rose made a slicing motion with her finger across her neck, “they offed her because she knew too much.”
“Nuh-uh,” Heather said.
“It’s true,” Jasmine insisted.  “My uncle used to be a janitor there.  He told me all about it.”
“I don’t believe you,” Heather scoffed.
The teenagers had to pass through the building’s shadow to get home, and as they neared it, they all grew silent.  As they stepped into the shade, the air felt heavy and alive, so that their hair rose up and they got goosebumps all over. 
Jasmine and Rose often dared one another to peek in the windows, and today was no exception, so they stopped walking.  Heather, who’d been matching their pace, stopped as well.
“Dare you to look in the window,” Rose goaded.
“No way!” Heather said.
“Whatsa matter, Heather?  Chicken?” Jasmine taunted. 
“I’ll look in if you look in,” Heather countered. 
Jasmine feared peering in the window, afraid something dead might look back at her.  Nevertheless, she couldn’t show her fear, not in front of the new girl.  She needed Heather to think that she was cool.  Jasmine walked up to the glass and peered in.  She couldn’t see much through the muck and grime build up on the glass, just silhouettes of equipment in the darkness, angular and mechanical like angry metal beasts.
A mischievous expression crossed her face for a split second before contorting into a terrified guise. “Oh my God!  Holy hell!” she cried out, backing away with terror on her face.  “Run! It’s headed for the door!”  She dashed past Heather and Rose, who joined her in fleeing.
Heather’s heart raced with trepidation.  Adrenaline coursed through her in nauseating waves.  “What’d you see? What’d you see?” Heather asked.  She looked white as a sheet and terrified.
Jasmine stopped running and turned to face them.  She laughed.  “What I see is a couple of pussies running from nothing!”
Rose laughed, but Heather looked pissed that she’d been so easily fooled.  “Yeah, you act all brave, but I bet you wouldn’t go inside,” Heather dared her.
“Would too,” Jasmine told her.  I ain’t afraid of nothin’”
“I bet I’ll stay inside longer than you!” Heather challenged.
“Ok.  Ten dollars says you run out before I do,” Jasmine agreed with a smug look on her face.
“Twenty says you both run out before me,” Rose upped the stakes.
“I’ll take your bets,” Jasmine agreed, “but not now.  We come back Saturday night.”
Heather looked annoyed.  “Um, you really want to spend Saturday night in some abandoned dump?  I thought we were going to a party.”
“We’ll go to the party after,” Jasmine said, “besides, you can pay for my party beer when you chicken out!”

* * * * *

The following Saturday evening, just as the sun burned like an ebbing coal against the deep orange sky, the trio rendezvoused at Manes, Inc. 
They walked around to the back of the building where a door sported a fractured window.  Rose picked up a metal pipe and finished the job, showering the interior floor with fragments of glass in the process.  The cracking and shattering noises echoed in a strange way, as if the building ached from the violation.  Rose reached in and unlatched the door.  It groaned in disapproval as she opened it.  “Cowards first,” she ordered, holding it agape.
“You heard her,” Jasmine said, pushing Heather across the threshold.
Heather switched on her flashlight.  Her heartbeat quickened as she surveyed the scene before her.    She felt no comfort as the others joined her within.  A dank, earthy stench inflamed her nostrils, and she sneezed three times in a row.  She expected someone to utter ‘Bless you,’ but no one did, as if sanctity itself were forbidden here.
“Well, this is exciting!” Rose mocked.  She pushed forward, fearless.  They saw nothing unusual.  Just manufacturing equipment covered in dust and cobwebs.  A bit of light from the streetlamps kept the darkness from overwhelming the space.
“So what’s so scary about this place, anyway?” Heather asked.
 Rose said, “I told you.  A mad scientist used to work here.  She did some crazy experiments and then got whacked.”  They talked as they walked around the ground floor of the warehouse.
“Yeah, but what kind of experiments?” Heather’s curiosity was piqued.
“She experimented on monkeys.  She tortured them to death or something.  My uncle said she was trying to make ghost monkeys to sell as pets,” Jasmine explained.
“That’s stupid.  There’s no way that’s true.” Heather mugged a dubious expression.
Jasmine had recited this ghost story a thousand times.  It was one of her favorites.  She elaborated, “It is true.  Dr. Vogelii wanted to invent a machine that would trap the soul at the moment of death.  She couldn’t experiment on humans, of course, but she could legally use animals, you know, in the name of science, so she set up a ghost factory right here in this building.”
“You’re claiming she invented the ghost trap?  Like in Ghostbusters?” Heather asked.
“Sort of.  Except she made the ghosts that she trapped,” Jasmine replied.
“The ghosts of animals.”
Jasmine said, “Yes.  According to my uncle, Dr. Vogelii performed her first experiments on monkeys.  She fired up her soul machine and put this monkey down with a lethal injection, but it didn’t work.  That was why she started torturing the poor things before she killed them.”
“What do you mean?  Why would that make a difference?  Dead is dead,” Heather stated as a matter of fact.
“Well, think about it.  In all the ghost stories ever told, why does the deceased become a ghost?” Rose interjected.
“Unfinished business?”
Rose said, “Right.  They died too young, or they were murdered, or just confused about being dead.”  
Jasmine continued, “The soul had to be willing to stay in order to be trapped.  The first time it didn’t work because the monkey was unaware and therefor at peace with death.  Dr. Vogelii realized that the spirit needed to be angry at the moment of death.   The next time, she tortured the monkey first, got it all riled up, and then she chopped off its head.  It worked.  She trapped its ghost.”
“But why?  Why would she want to trap a ghost?” Heather asked.  She squinted her eyes and crinkled her brow as if perplexed.
Jasmine replied, “Why else?  For profit.  For cold hard cash.”
Heather said.  “How could she ever hope to make money selling ghosts in boxes?  It sounds like a scam.  Even if she did trap a ghost in a box, no one would ever believe it.”
“You see, she figured out a way to put an electronic window on the soul trap, which allowed the spirit to be seen with the naked eye.  She put some aesthetic design into it, made it look pretty, and decided to sell them as novelty items, like some demented jack-in-the-box.”
Heather inquired, “What?  So she just tortured and murdered monkeys for profit?  And the animal rights people didn’t shut her down?”
“I’m sure they would’ve tried, but she disappeared before the first batch went to market,” Jasmine answered.
Heather shook her head in disbelief.  “That is ridiculous.  I’m calling BS on this story.  It’s just too wacked.”
“Oh really?” Jasmine said, shining her flashlight into an adjacent room.  “What’s all this then?”
They crossed the threshold into a storage room.  Their light beams danced about.  Rows of shelves reached all the way to the ceiling. Upon them sat unusual ornate boxes with glass fronts, like doll display cases, but with electronic metal bases.  The name of her product was written there across the bottom of the base in elegant gold script, ‘Friends Forever’.
“No way,” Rose said.  She walked up to one of the shelves and inspected the case.  There was a power switch on the base.  Beneath it was written, ‘Electronic Viewing’.
“Don’t!” Heather called out, but it was too late. 
Rose turned it on.  Inside, a shadowy, translucent form of a monkey looked up at them. 
“Oh my God.  This cannot be real.  It has to be some kind of optical illusion,” Rose speculated.  She leaned in closer for a better look.  If it was an illusion, it was a damn good one.
It made Rose think about her father.  Her parents had divorced when she was five.  Clearly, Rose felt heartbroken by her father’s sudden absence, so her mother had tried to make it up to her by taking her to the zoo.  She’d fallen in love with the monkey house.  All those monkeys playing in the trees!  They seemed to be having so much fun swinging around on those vines.  And this one little monkey, a little child monkey, he had walked up to the glass, right where she stood with her hands pressed to the glass.  He looked into her eyes, and he reached out and pressed his hand to hers, like he knew how sad and lonely she felt at the loss of her father.  That little monkey had connected with Rose, and that memory had gotten her through many lonely nights without her father’s good night kisses.
This monkey, this ghost of a monkey, he made angry monkey noises and pounded his tiny monkey hand against the glass as if trying to hit her.  Startled, Rose jumped back.  She bumped into a shelf, and the entire thing shook and threatened to topple.  She wondered what would happen if the devices crashed to the floor and shattered, wondered if the imprisoned monkeys would be released.
“Turn it off!” Heather pleaded. 
“It’s horrible,” Jasmine murmured.
The horror of it proved fascinating as well, and Rose couldn’t look away.  She touched the glass.  The ghost monkey inside looked sad.  He cocked his head and pulled a pleading face, as if begging to be freed.  Then he reached out and touched the glass where Rose’s hand was pressed.  Rose could not bear to look at it anymore, so she shut it off.  She put it back on the shelf.
“They’re fake,” Rose hoped.  She walked away.  Jasmine followed her, and Heather, realizing she was being left alone, hurried to catch up to them. 
“Yeah.  Gotta be,” Jasmine agreed.
They stopped in the alcove of the stairwell.  “Up or down?” Rose asked.
Just then, a loud banging noise emanated from beneath them, rising from the tenebrous depths of the stairwell.  Heather jumped, and the others laughed at her.
“Down,” Rose and Jasmine commanded in unison.
“No way,” Heather protested.
“Whatsa matter, Heather?  Afraid the mad doctor is down there waiting for you?”
“No.  Those stairs don’t look safe,” Heather lied.
“Safe enough for me,” Jasmine said.  “Come with me, or forfeit the bet.”
“Fine.”  In truth, Heather didn’t have twenty dollars.  If she did, she would’ve left already.
The trio descended into the miasmal blackness below.  Here, there were no windows and the darkness had substance: hot, thick, and gooey, as if they were slogging through half-baked cake batter.  The floor moaned its disapproval as they made their way around.
They found themselves in Dr. Vogelii’s laboratory.  A foetor of iron and urine hit their nostrils.  Their torch beams darted about, revealing numerous rows of cages big enough to hold monkeys.  Upon closer inspection, they saw the bones of monkeys, cats, and dogs behind the bars.
“They must have starved to death in their cages before anyone noticed the doctor had gone missing,” Jasmine decided.
There was a monkey size torture chair, with straps to hold the monkey down and various instruments of torture: scalpels, razor blades, hooks, and a blow torch.  There was a big hammer for the final blow to the head, as well as a monkey sized guillotine for decapitations.  Blood stained the floor like some horrific Rorschach test.
Rose picked up a manila folder and found some Polaroids of Dr. Vogelii’s experiments.  Her cruelty defined the word nightmare.  Rose stopped on a picture of a monkey secured in the murder chair.  Poor monkey.  He frowned with his entire face.  His eyes looked lost, expressing misery, betrayal, resignation, and fear.  He looked remarkably human.  Her inner voice soliloquized, How could anyone experiment on such an emotive creature and live with herself?    In the name of science?  Science allowed no room for God and therefor no God could reside there.  Science itself became God, removed of compassion, distant and remote, unfeeling as it dominated life and death, Rose thought.  A lump rose in her throat.  “I guess they’re not fake after all,” she gasped.
They noticed a large holding tank, like the smaller soul traps, designed for mass production.  It could hold numerous souls at a time, which could then be expelled one by one into the novelty items.  Alas, with no power, the power lock had released, and the door to the holding tank stood open.
Suddenly, the room turned as chilly as a meat locker.  The hair stood up on their arms and the backs of their necks, and they could feel eyes upon them, peering at them like wild animals hiding in the forest shadows, deciding what to do next.
A scampering sound rushed through the room, sounding like two dozen monkeys running past them.  Hollow and vacant monkey cries seemed to emanate from another dimension.  Laboratory items were thrown about as if they were poo.  Beakers and flasks flew off the shelves and smashed onto the floor. The chain-hung ceiling lights rocked furiously, as if invisible monkeys rode upon them.  Rose grabbed Jasmine, and they ducked down behind a filing cabinet and hid, just as pair of scissors flew past them and embedded into the wall with a fierce thock!
Heather screamed and started to run up the stairs, but her ankle turned.   She fell and tumbled back to the floor, which shuddered and groaned as she crashed upon it.  “Ahhhhhhh!” Heather ululated in pain and fear.   “Help!  Can somebody help me?” she yelled out.
Petrified, her heart pounded in her chest.  All around her, paranormal events unfolded before her disbelieving eyes in a whirlwind of monkey antics.  Then, Heather felt a tiny monkey hand run its cold dead fingers through her hair, as if playing with it.  The terror overtook her, and she vociferated the midnight squeal of a child waking from a nightmare.
 “No! No stop!”  Heather cried out.  In an instant, everything turned still and quiet again.  “I want to go home!  I want to go home right now!”
Cautiously, Rose and Jasmine came out from their hiding spot.
“Oh no, Heather!” Rose called out.  She and Jasmine crunched across broken glass as they hurried to her.  “Are you okay?”
“No.  I trashed my ankle,” Heather sniveled, wiping the tears from her eyes.
“I think it’s time to go,” Jasmine declared.  “The bet is off.”
 “Well, then, let’s get out of here!” Rose agreed.  “This was a dumb idea.”
“Help me to that chair,” Heather requested, meaning the one by the desk. Rose and Jasmine helped her over.  Then Heather began to inspect her ankle.  She had a nasty bruise and it was swelling, but she could move all her toes.  “Okay.  I think I can walk.  Let’s go.”
Rose gave Heather a hand up.  Rose and Jasmine flanked Heather.  She wrapped her arms around their shoulders, and they started to hobble towards the stairs.
They had just reached the stairwell landing when the floor made a sonorous creaking noise.  With a thunderous implosion, the floor gave way and swallowed the girls up.  They screamed, not understanding what had happened.  They felt the vertigo of falling, that sick feeling of being out of control as one submits utterly to gravity.  Then, they crashed into the ground below with harmonious ululations of pain and shock.  Their flashlights rolled away from them, but mercifully did not go out.
“Is everyone okay?” Jasmine called out.  They had landed on some boxes, mostly cases of absorbent lab towels, which had broken their fall.
“I don’t know.  My arm hurts, but yeah, I’m okay, I think,” Rose said.
Heather’s injured foot had worsened.  “We’ve got to get out of here,” Heather moaned. “I’m not okay.  I think my foot is broken. I’m calling for help.” She pulled out her cell phone, but it had been crushed in the fall and wouldn’t come on.  “Crap!  My phone’s busted.  Try yours.”
“I don’t have one.” Jasmine explained, “They’re too expensive.”
Rose pulled her phone out of her pants pocket and dialed 911, but nothing happened.  “No signal,” she said.  “This sucks.”
Heather could feel panic starting to rise within her.  She gulped and tried to look brave.
A quiet filled the room, as if silence itself were a sound.  They heard nothing.  Not a car horn, not a siren, not a single sound from the city penetrated the space.  They felt utterly alone, isolated, and cut off from the world. 
One at a time, Jasmine helped the injured girls up and over to a desk.  Heather sat down in the office chair and Rose leaned on the desktop.  Then Jasmine retrieved their flashlights.
“What is this place?” Heather asked, looking around.
Jasmine observed the room and recognized equipment similar to the contraptions in the room upstairs. “Secret lab,” Jasmine inferred.
“Hey guys, look,” Heather said, pointing to the blinking lights on the old lab equipment, indicating that they were on.  “The power is still on down here.”  She flipped on the desk lamp.
“Why would the power still be on?” Rose asked.
“To keep this room secret, Dr. Vogelii probably tapped into the street lights’ electrical system to stay off the grid,” Jasmine reasoned.  “I saw it in movie once.”
“Maybe Dr. Vogelii is still alive and hiding out down here,” Heather suggested.  “I saw that in a movie once, too.”
“Look at all this dust,” Rose pointed out.  “No one has been down here in ages.”  Rose picked up a journal from the desk and started to flip through it. 
Jasmine touched Heather’s shoulder and said, “Don’t worry; we’ll get you to a hospital soon.  Did you feel it pop or snap?  Does it feel like it’s grinding?”
“No.  It just hurts like crazy,” Heather whined.
“Maybe it’s not broken, just injured.   Let me stabilize your ankle.  I learned first aid when I was a lifeguard last summer.”
“Okay, thanks,” Heather said.
Jasmine went and got a roll of duct tape and gathered up some of the absorbent lab towels.  Then she folded several towels together and wrapped them around Heather’s ankle, padding it.  Next, she taped the padding into place.  “There,” she said.  “Let me find you a walking stick.”  Jasmine looked around the area, shining her flashlight here and there.  Finally, she found a broom in a closet.  She removed the broom head and gave Heather the stick. 
“Thanks,” Heather said.  “It’s feeling a bit better.”
“No problem,” Jasmine replied.
Rose interrupted, “It says here that Dr. Vogelii had been commissioned by the government to invent the machine that captures a soul.  They planned to trap the souls of executed inmates and use them as a guerrilla warfare tactic, depositing them into enemy headquarters or putting them into the cells of suspected spies and commies as a torture technique.  Looks like the government decided it was a bad idea and changed its mind, and they refused to pay her for the machine.  She’d run up a huge debt, and she needed a way to cash in on her work.  She tried selling articles on her experiments, but no one took her seriously.  So she came up with the idea of Friend’s Forever.  She cashed out her retirement fund and put everything into making those we found upstairs, but hit a wall when no one would distribute them.”
“Really?  She didn’t see that coming?  She actually thought people would want to buy those macabre things?” Heather interjected.  “I’m starting to doubt the whole genius aspect of her personality.”
Rose flipped through the pages until she found another entry that caught her eye.  “Desperate to make back her investment, she decided to explore applications for the health care industry.  She attempted to apply her vision to soul transference, so that the soul of a dying man could be transferred to a healthy clone of himself, or even the body of another person, freshly deceased.  Says here she successfully put the soul of a chimp into the body of a dog by extracting the soul to the trap as usual and then utilizing a new invention to insert the soul, but the chimp/dog subsequently died of shock within ten minutes.  Gross.”  She flipped a few more pages. “Oh, but eventually she got it to work with a chimp and a gorilla.”
“That bitch was nuts,” Jasmine said.
“Last entry,” Rose said.  “Oh my God!  She was attempting the same experiment, except she was going to put a gorilla into the body of a dead homeless man she had found in the alley.”
They looked at each other, no longer trying to be tough and fearless.  They were scared and it showed.
Jasmine gulped.  “We seriously need to get out of here.  I’m going to look for the exit.  There has to be a hidden staircase into this place.”  Jasmine walked into the next room.
“Wait up,” Rose said, chasing after her.   
Heather sat there alone, and she could feel eyes watching her.  Then she remembered the cold dead monkey hand running its fingers through her hair.  The adrenaline kicked in, and her ankle didn’t hurt so bad after all.  “Hey guys, wait for me!” she yelled, limping after them.
Jasmine stepped into the next room and turned on the florescent lights.  This room mirrored the one upstairs, but down here, everything was larger: the cages, the torture/murder chair, the soul trap machine, all sized up to gorilla proportions, and a second chair sat beside the first, hooked up to the resouling equipment.  There, in the torture/murder chair, lay a decapitated human skeleton, wearing a Bellville Sassoon dress and a lab coat.  The lights flickered and dimmed, struggling to stay on.
“Looks like we found Dr. Vogelii,” Jasmine said.
“I guess the police didn’t find this place,” Heather observed.
“What do you think happened to her?” Jasmine asked.
Several large video cameras were positioned around the room, to capture the experiments on tape.  Rose walked up to the one facing the torture/murder chair and ejected the tape.  “Let’s find out,” she said, popping the tape into a VCR on a nearby shelf and hitting rewind.  She turned on the television and the room flickered with a blue glow.
Rose fired up the tape.  There on screen, Dr. Vogelii described her last experiment. “Damn, she was hot,” Rose said.  “Too bad she was crazy.”
A gorilla sat strapped down in the torture/murder chair.  Dr. Vogelii tormented the gorilla with military precision, cutting and burning the poor animal until she got the gorilla riled up enough.
“I can’t watch this,” Heather stammered, fighting the urge to puke.  She turned away. “My ankle is killing me,” she complained.  “Let’s go, already.”  She took a seat in the resouling chair, laid back, and exhaled with annoyance.
“In a minute,” Jasmine replied, watching the video intently.  “I want to know what happened.”
Just then, the gorilla’s restraints came loose and the gorilla pulled free.  She lunged at Dr. Vogelii’s face and ripped and tore, rending her flesh from the meat, turning her into a mutilated ghoul.  She screamed in agony.  The gorilla forced Dr. Vogelii back into the killing chair.  It pulled the lever that activated the decapitation sequence, and Dr. Vogelii lost her head with a thwump!  Blood gushed from the severance like a broken Slushy machine. 
“Uhhhhh!” Jasmine and Rose cried out in unison, but neither looked away as the video continued on.
The soul trap machine flared up and made a tremendous sucking sound as it gobbled up Dr. Vogelii’s ghost.  The gorilla roared triumphantly, and then disappeared from the scene.  The camera continued on, filming Dr. Vogelii’s headless corpse, presumably until it ran out of tape.
“Oh my God!” Jasmine cried out, horrified by what she had just made herself watch.  “Why did we watch that?”
Rose said nothing.  She just sat there in silence, utterly shocked.
“Okay, now can we go home?” Heather pleaded.
 “You’re not going anywhere!” Jasmine joked, activating the arm restraints.  She laughed at Heather as she struggled against them.
Heather went pale and screamed, “Not funny!  Let me out!”
“Okay.  I was just kidding.  Sorry.  I was trying to lighten the mood.”  Jasmine pressed the release button, but it malfunctioned and nothing happened.
Rose paid little attention to the others.  Instead, she thought about what she had just seen.  “Wait a minute, that means Dr. Vogelii is inside that soul trap,” Rose surmised. 
Rose looked at the machine’s antiquated technology.  The machine was immense and clunky, with numerous back lit buttons and levers protruding from a metal hull.  The buttons were all coded with letters, indicating what they did, she presumed.  There was a screen that displayed a read out in green letters against a black background.  “I want to see her.  I need to see her,” she mumbled.  She looked for the one that activated the electronic glass.  One button was marked EV, which Rose presumed meant Electronic Viewing, as it did on the Friends Forever machines.  She pressed it.
“Come on, Jasmine!  Let me out!”  Heather begged, squirming for freedom.
“I’m trying!” Jasmine insisted.  “It’s not working.”
The resole whirred to life with a high pitched sound like a strong wind mixed with a kettle’s whistle.  A robotic female voice declared, “Elan vital activated.  Soul insertion in 10, 9, 8 …”
“Wait!  What’s going on?” Heather asked in wide-eyed terror as she saw the lights on the machine attached to her chair come to life.
“7, 6, 5, 4 …” the voice continued.
 Heather screamed, “What did you do?  Let me out!”  Heather struggled against the restraints like a madwoman in an asylum, but they held fast.  Her heart pounded in her chest so hard she felt like she might faint.  She trembled.
“Oh my God,” Rose said, realizing what she had begun.  She looked desperately for an abort button, but found none.
Jasmine hit the release button on the restraints again and again, but the chair refused to let go of Heather.
“3, 2, 1,” the voice continued.
Just then, an electric glow passed from the machine and into Heather.  Heather writhed, as if having a seizure.
Jasmine screamed, “Help!  Help her!”
Her face contorted with fear and horror, Rose said, “I don’t know what to do!”
They watched helplessly.  It lasted but a moment, a moment that felt like forever.  Then it was over.  The machine went silent.
Jasmine reached out and shook Heather’s shoulder.  “Heather?  Are you okay?”
“Say something,” Rose begged.
Heather opened her eyes and blinked slowly.  She stared at Jasmine and Rose.  “I’m okay,” Heather claimed.  “I guess it only works on empty bodies.”
“Thank God!” Rose sighed.
“Can you get me out of this thing?”
“Yeah,” Rose promised.  She found a screwdriver and worked the restraints free.
Heather started to stand up, but she felt light headed and had to sit back down.  “I do feel a little weird,” she realized.
“Weird how?” Rose asked.
“My head hurts, like there are too many thoughts inside my mind…”  She stared off vacantly.  She empathized, “You know, Dr. Vogelii wasn’t crazy.  She wanted nothing more than greatness, to invent a game changer, to be a household name like Tesla or Einstein. It is a common desire, to leave one’s mark on the world.  However, her lucubration obsessed her.  It drove her to be an over achiever, a workaholic.  Her overbearing drive to succeed disintegrated her marriage.  Her husband grew distant; a great insurmountable divide formed between them; until one day, she came home after a fourteen hour shift to discover that he had gone away, forever.  She found herself all alone.  The house stood silent and hollow, echoing the state of her heart, and then, the cracks spread from her heart to her mind as one by one her marbles shattered.  Her loneliness catalyzed the idea of the ghost pet, to serve as a companion who needed no care, yet could never leave.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” Rose asked.
At that moment, a wild look filled Heather’s eyes, and her expression contorted.  She pulled a mad face, like decades of unexpressed rage had overtaken her, as if suddenly the devil had jumped inside her.
“You!” Heather accused, but the accent was not her own. “You’re the apes that ruined my experiment!” Dr. Vogelii’s words boomed through Heather’s mouth.  “You killed me!?  I’ll have your souls!”
“Holy shit!” Rose cried out, “I think Heather is possessed!”
“Run!” Jasmine screamed. 
“Wait, no, don’t go!  Please.  Stay!” Dr. Vogelii begged, her tone completely changed, her expression softened.  “You talk.  You’re not apes at all.  I was confused.  Just stay and talk to me!  I didn’t mean to frighten you!  Let’s be friends!  I’ve been so lonely trapped down here all these years!”
“Screw you, nutso!” Jasmine yelled.  Rose and Jasmine took off like lab rats through a sprung cage door. They had no idea where they were going, but they ran nonetheless. 
However, this was Dr. Vogelii’s lab, and she knew where everything was.  She grabbed a tranquilizer gun from a cabinet and headed after them.  She moved quickly, as if she didn’t even feel the pain of Heather’s injured ankle.  Jasmine and Rose had almost made it to the secret entrance’s stairwell when the darts hit their necks.  The nightmare world faded away, and everything went black.

* * * * *

 Rose awoke sometime later.  Still groggy, the tranquilizer addled her at first, but then she remembered where she was, strapped into the torture/murder chair.  The red light on the video camera indicated that Dr. Vogelii was filming this.
“Oh good,” Dr. Vogelii spoke through Heather’s lips. “You’re finally awake.  Now I can finish this.”
“What are you going to do to us?” Rose asked.
Dr. Vogelii told her, “Like Oscar Wilde once said, ‘Keep love inside you.  Going without it is like a moonless graveyard when the flowers are wilted.’”
“I’m pretty sure that’s not how that quote goes,” Rose replied.  “What are you planning to do?”
“Don’t worry your bushy little head about it.  You know what they say, ‘One woman’s science is another woman’s magick!’  I’m going to do some magick.”
“Where’s Jasmine?” Rose asked.
“Over there.  Already done,” Dr. Vogelii said, motioning with her head. 
Rose saw the decapitated corpse of Jasmine lying discarded in the floor.  All the color left Rose’s face.  “Oh my God!  No!  Jasmine!” she cried out.  She couldn’t look at it anymore, so she looked away. 
But her eyes found only more horror to behold, for she spied Jasmine’s soul captured inside the soul trap, pounding in vain silence upon the electronic glass window.  Jasmine looked mournful, her eyes had that same look in them that they had when her puppy had suddenly died: shocked, lost, desperate, and heartbroken.  Although her screams were muted, Rose could read her lips.  “Somebody, help me!” Jasmine pleaded.  “Please!  Please, help me!”
Rose struggled against the restraints, but she found that they held tight.  “You’re a murderer!” she cried out.  “A freaking psychopath!” 
“Labels,” Dr. Vogelii shrugged.  “Now, let’s get started.  It doesn’t work if you don’t suffer when you die.” Dr. Vogelii picked up a lopper.
“How can you be so cruel?” Rose asked.  Tears ran down her face.
“Too many years all alone, trapped in that soul trap.  I must have gone off!” Dr. Vogelii laughed, amusing herself.  “No one understands the depths of my loneliness.  I guess if they did, I wouldn’t be lonely.”  She shook her head.  “And I was so lonely!  But I won’t be anymore.  I have found a cure for loneliness.  You see, friends are just strangers from a different perspective.  And that is what you shall soon have!  A different perspective!  Perhaps I’ll win a Nobel Prize!”
Dr. Vogelii chopped off Rose’s fingertips one at a time, as if trimming flowers for an arrangement. 
“AAaiiee!” Rose screamed out in agony as Dr. Vogelii tortured her. 
“That’s a good girl,” Dr. Vogelii instructed, “Really feel it.  Let it hurt!”
“AAaiiee!”  Rose squealed as another fingertip hit the floor.  “AAaiiee!  AAaiiee!”  Please stop!” she begged through sniffling cries.  “AAaiiee!  You bitch!” Rose cursed.
“Yes, yes!” Dr. Vogelii cried out ecstatically.  Her eyes were frenzied; her expression conveyed the depths of her madness.  She picked up the blow torch and lit it up.  “This is going to hurt a lot,” she warned.  She put the torch to Rose’s arm.  The skin blistered and bubbled beneath the flame like a melting candle of flesh. 
The shriek Rose emitted pierced the night like the desperate howls of a dying mountain cat.  “Stop, just please, stop,” she begged.
Dr. Vogelii did stop. Trembling, Rose wept with relief.  Then Dr. Vogelii announced, “Round two!” and she put the torch against Rose’s cheek.
“Arghhhhhh!” Rose screamed out, nearly fainting from the pain.
“There, now you are ready,” Dr. Vogelii told her.  She stepped back and pushed some buttons, and with a sickening thwack, Rose lost her head.  They say the head lives on for a bit after the severance, and now Rose knew that to be true.  She watched her body gush blood from her neck stump.  Her very soul felt fragmented and wrong, tethered to a chunk of meat, and she wanted nothing more than to be back upon the bleeding stump. 
Then she saw the light: the beautiful, white, beatific light, the one they always write about in the books on near death experiences, and Rose longed to go into it.  She felt as if her soul had coalesced again into one whole, and she was released from her body.  She started towards the light, but then something pulled her like fruit to the ground beneath its mother tree.
Momentarily, Rose found herself in the soul trap machine with Jasmine.  They looked at one another, their expressions utterly broken and lost.   Through the window, they watched Dr. Vogelii sit down in the resouling chair.
“What is she doing? Jasmine asked.  Now that they were both disembodied within the trap, they could hear one another again.
“Curing loneliness,” Rose explained.
Just then, Dr. Vogelii used a broom handle to hit the button, bringing the resouling machine to life with a whirr.  It sucked Jasmine out first, followed by Rose.  Instantly, they found themselves looking out through Heather’s eyes.
So friends, Dr. Vogelii said inside Heather’s mind, What should we talk about?
Therefore upon the graves of friends new and old, the funeral blooms took root.

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