By Eric Karlsson

I kneeled on a window seat and stared at a streetlight four stories below. Its halo glimmered in a slight drizzle igniting droplets that burst like sparks in the mists of passing traffic. A man walked beneath it, and his dark hair and coat began to glitter. An entire building shimmered in its influence. Even the air held a copper luster.

Through it all I tried to distinguish the source, an outline of the tiny filament which I knew was isolated and blazing in its crystalline globe.

Isolated... My idiosyncrasies were no stranger than those of others I could remember from the institute. I didn't like clothes. I objectified women and occasionally yelled at mirrors when my reflection taunted me.

Blazing... It was more than anxiety about my purpose in life. It wasn't frustration, alienation or despair. Something in the lamp's halogen burned through the cracked window glass into the back of my head to trigger some kind of sensory memory, perhaps a primal bit of data passed through generations in my DNA. I was in the wrong place.

It was very cold, and I was wearing only a pair of blue scrub pants. I pulled a large wool sweater over my head and, just as claustrophobia started to grip me, found an opening and poked my head through.

A whirring noise caught my attention. It was the baby next to me bundled in blue, plastic-lined paper with a T-shirt wrapped around it. Not a regular baby--it had a small, black pump attached to its lower back pushing fluids through miniature tubes. Aside from a deformed nub where the growth of a right arm had been disrupted, it also had no limbs and no head--just a plump torso with tiny nipples, a belly button and male genitals.

I picked it up before putting my arms in the sweater. Warmth pressed against my chest and forearms as I cradled it and felt its soft vibrations. It was alive, making noises like a fish tank.

A thump through the darkness shook the front door then keys jangled from the other side. Someone or something was trying to get in.

The door knob rattled, and I realized why I was in that room. It wasn't my apartment. Shards of glass from the broken window rattled by my knees as I wrestled one arm through a sleeve then picked up a pile of clothing, which I had gathered for the winter weather.

The dead-bolt clacked.

Maneuvering the bundle and the clothing I stepped out through the window. The door squeaked open. Light sliced through the darkness and lit my breath as it froze in front of me.

It had begun to snow, and I still only had one arm in the sweater. A light went on behind me. A woman gasped and called out, "Hello? Who's there?"

With my free hand, I gripped a window ledge above, swung my foot and moved up the outside of the building. A man's voice called from the apartment. "The window's broken!"

I climbed to the next ledge, moved laterally past two windows then peeked in on a family watching TV in their front room. A mom and dad were sitting on a couch while a boy sat on the floor staring in the same direction. I quickly put on black sweatpants and fixed the large sweater. I still had another sweatshirt and a pair of sneakers gathered under my arm with the baby.

The boy laughed. I glanced inside and saw him and his parents smiling at the TV. At that moment, I remembered my own dad and about eight women of different ages in my family. Their faces were blurred in my memory and looked similar as a result. We had all been eating dinner when men in tattered uniforms had invaded and taken me and another girl who had been about my age.

I had been sharing food with her, eating with my hands, when a giant noose had lifted her screaming. Another noose tightened around my own neck and choked out my cries for help.

I haven't seen her since, but I sometimes imagine her sitting in a hollow of my mind still caught in the noose.

Light glowed from another window, and I put my hands on the glass. It wasn't as warm as I had expected. In fact, it was very cold compared to the scene inside. An obscured view through a doorway revealed a pot boiling on a stove. Then a blonde woman appeared talking on a headset and dumping pasta into the pot. Her hair was tangled in a clip behind her head, and she wore a striped sweater, brown pants and green slippers. I could smell the sauce cooking.

People at the institute used to make spaghetti all the time. It was my favorite.

Her scream startled me. She hurled her phone across the room straight at my face, and it slammed against the window. I lost my balance and dropped to the ledge below barely holding steady with my free hand.

I juggled the baby while the sneakers slipped from my grip and pulled the sweatshirt with them to the street below. I thought about going after them, but a woman was already standing by them with her son looking up at me.

"We've been robbed!" People yelled out their windows as I turned the corner of the building and leaped for the railing of a fire escape.

"Stop him!"

"He's on the ledge!"

The sight of me on her window ledge had made the blonde woman scream like the girl who had been lifted from my home. Home... Where my heart is? Where I hang my hat? What hat?

I dropped from the fire escape ladder, tucked the bundle and ran with bare feet splashing through slush.


Downtown, a person started following me, an agile person in dark, baggy clothes. No matter how fast or crafty I was, the pursuer always found me. A spy dressed like a homeless man, unshaven and dirty, the pursuer moved through the stores instead of on the sidewalks. He raced through bakeries which had closed for the night, clothing stores and crowded bars without taking his eyes off of me. He never blinked.

Was he from the institute? Why couldn't I remember? Did I even know my own name? Yes--Alger Branaman.

I lost the pursuer in an alley between a bookstore and an apartment building. City noises swished and clanked in the air beneath the glowing clouds. My feet were burning from the cold, and my breathing wheezed in my throat.

Why was I running? The pursuer who had scrambled through the buildings had disturbed me, but something bigger was resonating in the shadows. Where was home? What about the helpless baby? If only I had those shoes. The snowfall made my head ache.

Jazz music and the smells of coffee and pastries brought me to a door. A narrow passage inside concealed me from the commotion further in. Another door opened to my right. I smelled urine and chemicals. A fat man with glasses emerged adjusting his belt, unaware of me to his left.

I went into the bathroom and locked the door with a slide-bolt. It was a small room, and it was warm. I sat on the floor with my feet tucked under me, rocking to the music outside as I untied the baby's T-shirt and watched beads of moisture roll off its blue paper. My body synchronized with its humming as some of the evening's tension melted and other things came into awareness, like how completely one of the pastries I smelled could fill a body with warmth and sweetness.

After placing the baby on the toilet lid, I sat on the sink and cupped my hands under the steaming faucet. The warm water helped fill my stomach and clear my thinking. I wiped my mouth, and a monkey appeared in front of me on another sink opposite the one I was using, watching me through a window.

It became agitated. Its eyes darted, and its head moved around as it inspected my bathroom. I lunged for the baby on the toilet and left before anything could happen.

Holding the baby like a football, I moved quickly into the front area where everyone was eating and listening to music. I plucked a scone from a woman's plate and knocked some silverware onto the floor. She yelped, and a man yelled at me. "Hey!"

It seemed like everyone but the band had stopped to stare at me. I wanted to scream at them for being oblivious and exclusive and warm but kept moving toward the front door. A man with wet hair and wearing a puffy, red jacket opened the door and entered. His eyes were wide and glistening as he walked straight toward me. I turned to escape.

The man in the red jacket yelled, "Backgammon!"

Another man grabbed my arm.

"Let go!" I yelled, and the man did.


At the end of the alley, taxis, cars and delivery trucks filled the road, nudging and honking at each other, spewing fumes. As I ran toward the traffic, the image of the monkey back in the bathroom hung with me--surreal--as if a window to my memory had opened in front of me. I remembered feeding monkeys and playing games with them. I remembered monkeys isolated in numbered cages on top of each other and feeding only the top monkeys so that the ones below were forced to eat the droppings of the ones above them--something to do with correlating their degrees of health with how "processed" their food was. I jumped onto the hood of a car, then onto another, and another until I landed on the sidewalk on the other side of the street.

A group of people waiting for a bus shuffled out of my way. A dark-haired female let out a yelp like the woman with the scone. Everyone stared at me.

My feet were becoming numb, and I could barely feel the baby in my grasp.

"Stop it!" I yelled. "Look at her!"

I pointed at a woman whose plump face stretched the plastic of a yellow, hooded rain poncho. Her eyes grew wide with confusion, and her mouth dropped open like those of everyone around her, as if I were a common street person poised to do them harm.


The monkey from the bathroom, a rhesus monkey like the ones at the institute, was moving through the stores now, wearing dark clothing and a hat with metal rods poking out of it, following me as I moved toward a quieter part of the city. A woman squealed as I dashed through a crowd of disembarking bus passengers and dropped the baby on the sidewalk. Its pump went silent.

I picked up the baby and bolted for the darkness of another alley. On a loading platform, I stopped and shook the baby. It remained silent. I unwrapped it, turned it over and slapped the small, black box attached to its back.

It began to gurgle and whir again.

As I wrapped it back up in its paper, I felt sadness or something resembling fear growing inside it. It made me want to let it go and drop it onto the concrete below the platform. Its mass, its helplessness suddenly seemed contagious, a hindrance and a threat to my survival. Even if I were able to find safety, I wouldn't be able to keep it alive. The pump would eventually run out of power.

Something moved in the shadows across the alley, a mound of blankets and towels in the doorway of a warehouse. I hopped down from the loading platform and crossed the alley. I could hear breathing. I was prepared to run as I watched a man's breath emerge from the pile--a bearded man sleeping. He smelled like the bathroom.

I tugged on the corner of a gray towel. The man didn't stir. I yanked the towel free, and he snorted. "Wet nose for clothes."

I set the helpless thing in blue paper next to the man, draped the towel over it and ran knowing that the man might wake up and be disgusted by the thing. He would probably kill it maybe even eat it if he were hungry enough. I knew I'd never be that hungry. I ate the scone.


Is it natural for someone trained to think in measured terms of cause and effect to be stealing clothes and food from strangers? Why would a scientists dress like a homeless man? Do homeless people remember monkeys cowering from mirrors in their cages, tearing the skin from their arms, gnawing off their fingers? They do remember crazy things. Do they remember switching on circular saws over sedated primates with glossy eyes and shaved, yellowish craniums?

On a busy street, I found myself in front of a small Italian restaurant. Its door opened, and I could almost see the aromas wafting into the cold. I peered through the window and watched people eating all the wonderful food--lasagna, fettuccini, spaghetti. Again, everyone was comfortable and exclusive, unaware of anything outside of their eating room. I wanted to squeeze through the glass.

"Hey, Alg."

In the cove of the entrance stood the man in the red jacket. He had a round face, unshaven with watery, blue eyes. Before I could run, the man held up another jacket, like the one he was wearing only smaller.

"I figured you'd need this," he said. "Especially with your head like that."

"What?" I asked.

"For you," he said holding out the jacket. "Look. In the window. You're hardly wearing anything, and it's eleven degrees out."

The rhesus monkey showed up on the other side of the window, with his hairy face and metal rods poking out of his hat, staring me right in the eye.

"Running won't help," the man said, but just in case, I climbed a drainpipe.

"Wait, Alg! Yahtzee!"

I hesitated then jumped on top of a green awning above the man.

"You call me `Alg'," I said. "Who are you?"

"I'm Jerry," the man said from under the awning. "Doctor Weber's Assistant, remember? If you don't believe me put this on."

A dark stocking cap landed on the awning in front of me. I picked it up. It was warm. I smelled it then put it on.

"After a while, you'll remember," Jerry said. "I'm your friend. I make you lunch and play games with you."

I was ready to climb and put the whole building between me, Jerry and his monkey. Something about him, though, was sincere. The ache in my head began to fade.

"Did you do it?" Jerry asked.


"Feels better, right? Pretty soon you'll start remembering things. You want this jacket? I also have garlic bread."

I was still hungry. I climbed down.

"You have any shoes?" I asked.

"Sorry, Alg," he said. "Look in the window."

Wearing a stocking cap, the monkey inside the restaurant watched me as it grabbed a red jacket from Jerry's reflection. I was confused. Some of the people inside had begun to point at me. Others were smiling and mumbling to each other.

"That's you. Alger-9," he said. "Remember? Come on. Doctor Weber. The Charly Project at The Branaman Institute. Playing mahjong and backgammon. You took off again, man."

"Man? What do you mean?" I asked. "That's me? Alger-9?"

I stared at the monkey that stood as motionless as I did holding a red jacket and a piece of garlic bread.

"Yeah," he said.

"A monkey?"

"Well, a really cool one. You're smarter than most of the people at the institute, except when you forget everything. This time you freaked out and took the bud."


"The organ bud from the Harvest Project. Where is it, anyway?"

I was dazed. I watched my simian reflection put on the jacket and remove its stocking cap as I did. The top of its skull was missing. It wasn't a strange hat. The gray, wrinkled mass of my brain was exposed to the elements, to the car fumes, to every pollutant in the city. Jerry sneezed.

"Excuse me," he said. "It's cold."

Driven like nails into my brain, were five electrodes. I pulled one of them. The pain it sent down my right side reminded me of screams and people in masks restraining me on a gurney. I lifted the hood of the jacket over my head and felt the warmth returning in my upper body. I remembered Jerry, the only one in the institute who hadn't helped to restrain me during the "treatments".

I put the cap back on.

"What is this, Jerry? My brain is exposed!"

"Because you had one more surgery left, Alg, and they didn't want to cut your head again. Do you know what you did with the bud? Doctor Weber is really pissed off. They might cut funding if anything gets screwed up. Why'd you take it anyway?"

"I don't know."

"Do you remember where it is?"


"Shoot Alg, you could be in big trouble."

I climbed the drainpipe again. "Mmhm."

"Where're you going?"

"What night is it?" I asked.

"Huh? It's Friday, the twelfth of January."

"That's why I left, Jerry," I said and started to climb. "It's Friday night and I haven't been out in a while."

"No, dangit!" Jerry yelled. "Well, don't let your head get cold again!"


My own name had instantly taken on new meanings--Alger-9 Branaman. I had, however, always known how to eat, drink, sleep, defecate, urinate, fornicate. It was all instinct. I had even known how to communicate. But, I hadn't always known how to talk. They had surgically installed words into my head and then measured them as they emerged from my mouth.

Before that, I had felt like one of them, part of the institute-family, maybe an intern who had shared lunches with Dr. Weber and Dr. Stansfield. I played with Jerry. Made love to Josie and Posie who, looking back, had had electrodes in their brains. It all seemed normal.

Sometime after Dr. Weber had begun the treatments, I began to act even more like one of them. I talked. I wore clothes. I even beat Jerry regularly in chess but had begun to feel less like one of them. With intelligence came awareness of my differences.

The organ bud and I were experiments--mutated to benefit humans. At least I had ended up with intelligence and mobility. I had even begun to amuse myself with lab assistants by spouting complex theorems and throwing chess pieces at them from atop storage cabinets.

The bud, on the other hand, was helpless, created for the sole purpose of providing sick humans with new organs. Instead of letting the weak die off or even killing them to save the species, humans developed ways to prolong their lives. The bud was a bag of spare parts for such people. It could not talk, eat or even think, but it did have a heart.


I found the bud under the towel where I had left it. The homeless man hadn't moved, and the pump was still sending vital fluids through its little tubes. Near the man's bearded face, I put my hands on the bundle. It was cold.

I tried to make sense of my intentions, but the structures of thought fell apart in my broken head. Every human word-link conjured a growing sickness in me as I lifted the baby into my lap and cradled its humming body- Ethical... Love... Science... Life...

Before the baby could get warm, I removed the paper and turned it over. I pinched a small, clear tube on the pump and plucked it from its fitting. It sputtered. Blood surged from the end in rapid spurts.

I set the baby's belly against the concrete then pulled the other tube. The pump became louder filtering only cold air, its cries genetically choked out of it. My mouth watered as I placed my palms against the baby and felt its desperation shivering in tiny rhythms--real life.

A dark puddle encircled the baby on the concrete, growing between my knees and the homeless man's furry cheek, rippling under his breath.


When Dr, Weber showed up with Jerry, Dr. Stansfield and two assistants, they found me sitting next to a sleeping vagrant and a damaged organ bud.

"I don't remember," I said.

"Dammit!" Dr. Weber was a stern woman in her fifties who had dedicated her life to science. Bundled in a green parka and a stocking cap, I knew that all she was thinking about was how to hide this mishap from her funders.

"Jerry, get the monkey out of here," she said.

"I'm you're monkey," I said.

She averted her eyes and directed her anger toward the assistants. "You guys grab the bud."

The pile of blankets rustled. "Fork the ham!" the homeless man exclaimed, and an assistant near him holding a garbage bag jumped on his tip-toes as if avoiding a snake.

Another assistant placed the baby into the bag then helped hurry it back to the van.

"Sorry," Jerry said. "We knew you'd be at a restaurant."

"Italian restaurant?" I asked. "You know me pretty well."

"Yeah, and we put a tracking device in the jacket."

"Is there any spaghetti back at the institute?" I asked.


In the van, sitting on Jerry's shoulder I said the word, "Consciousness."

Jerry sniffled. Everyone gazed out the windows as headlights and streetlights passed in the crisp darkness.

Louder, I said, "The soul isn't kept in the head!"

Dr. Weber glared back from the passenger seat. "Be quiet!"

"It's not kept in a Valentine-shaped compartment in the chest," I said. "Every cell has intelligence. Life. A soul."

Jerry nudged me. "Alg!"

"The bud knew what it was," I said.

Jerry sneezed, and I said, "Bless you."

No one else said anything. For the rest of the trip, we watched the lights, and chalked up the evening's events to a glitch in one experiment which had led to the possible termination of another. They would restrict my lab clearance and eventually make more buds. My differences would become more apparent as I grew to be more "human", and people with brain diseases would begin to prosper as a result.

Isolated and blazing...

I might be able to live with that as long as certain conditions, which I had yet to determine, were met. Conditions beyond spaghetti dinners, conditions beyond being the "top" monkey which my makers had no doubt failed to account for. In fact, I would probably develop better cures on my own, less invasive methods. But first, I knew I would have to make them cover my brain.

The End

Copyright © 2002 by Eric Karlsson

Bio: Eric has an MFA from Naropa University's Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, founded by poet, Allen Ginsburg and Buddhist monk, Ch”gyam Trungpa, Rinpoche. He is self-employed in the candy vending business and spends a great deal of time pursuing a career in screenwriting. He likes to dabble in all genres and has published a couple of literary short stories.



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