by Melissa Pryor
'Artificial Angels', that's what most people called them. It gave a whole, strange new meaning to 'AA Meetings'.
They started using the process before I was born, but my older brother Bill has told me about the first 'rehabilitation' enough times that I can almost picture as if I was there myself.
The government had picked Chicago State Prison for the first test; the first prisoner to undergo the treatment was a man named Adam Longsmith. (Kind of appropriate, my brother often said, that the first of this 'new race' was named Adam.) Adam had been in jail for more drug charges than my brother could remember, and he seemed ready to hit the black market once again if he ever got out. Supposedly Adam himself signed up for the project, as a way to earn favor, and sneak a chance at early parole.
My brother was a prison guard at the time, and was on duty the day Adam got the treatment. Adam had been strapped down to a chair, though my brother didn't see a need for it. Adam had rarely been violent, and he even smiled through the beginning of the ordeal. But the scientists had insisted, saying they had noticed some 'unusual' side effects in the lab animals they had tested this on before. A bald man put the needle in Adam's arm, and a white, nearly milk-like substance was pushed into the skin. Adam didn't even wince -- most likely all of his previous 'needle habits' had made his arms nearly numb. Now it was just a matter of waiting for the substance to take effect.
Ten years earlier, an excavation crew in Israel had discovered what they believed to be the tomb that once held Jesus of Nazareth. Even more incredible was their claim of finding his DNA in traces of dried blood preserved by the dry desert air. These men were scoffed at, even threatened with death for their claims, but they still insisted that what they found was real. When they began testing the DNA, a few drops of liquid containing the dissolved blood spilled onto the clothing of one of the technicians. Despite the usual precautions to avoid contamination, there were a few tiny seeds from the technician's garden embedded in the cloth ... seeds that sprouted within minutes of contact with the fluid.
They soon discovered that when liquid containing even minute traces of the blood came into contact with living organic matter, the matter would be refueled, replenished, and wholly cleaned. Dying plants would spring to life, with even brighter colors or more bearing far more fruit than previously thought possible
No matter how much they diluted the sample, the resulting solution seemed as potent as the original. Tests on animals from mice on up through rabbits, pigs, and finally apes all produced the same results: illnesses cured, damaged tissue healed. If there were any negative effects, they could not be detected in any of the animal subjects. The year of Adam was the same year that these scientists had finally gotten permission to experiment with human life.
Anyway, like I said before, Adam was smiling at first. He said he didn't even feel a thing.
My brother was ready to unlock him from the chair, but before he could even take a step closer, Adam screamed, a terrible, high-pitched sound like the howl of a tortured animal.
Adam began to thrash around in the seat, almost breaking the straps holding him down. He wasn't even able to form words; he could only yell at the very top of his lungs. He tried to lunge forward, gasping for air whenever he could, and that's when my brother saw the bulges on Adam's back. They were right under Adam's shoulder-blades, and expanded, bigger and bigger, beginning to tear through the orange jumpsuit the prisoners were forced to wear. Once the back of the suit had been ripped open by the bulges, he could see the red skin bubbling. Something was growing under the skin, but my brother never would have guessed what it was.
Adam's screams were turning into sobs, his throat raw, and hot tears rolled down his face. Whatever was growing in his back wasn't going to stop anytime soon, and his skin could no longer hold it in. Then there were two loud...well, my brother called them 'splorches', as 'pops' or 'splats' didn't accurately reproduce the sound. The twin bulges split, spraying the room with blood and other fluids, and Adam's shoulders hunched forward as something -- two somethings -- emerged.
The red spray had spattered everything around the chair, including the scientist and my brother Bill. Understandably, Bill rubbed hard at his face, and all over his body, desperate to rid himself of the stuff -- after all, for all he knew, Adam was contagious. The scientist, on the other hand, had barely moved, save for checking something off his clipboard.
My brother was about to demand what had happened, when he was finally able to see what had caused the mess. Now protruding from Adam's back were two large bird wings, just about the size and length of Adam's arms. Though for now they were coated in red, a later washing would reveal they were actually snow white. Adam was still sobbing loudly, hands clutched, and his entire body was trembling with pain.
"Same as the mice," the scientist finally said.
Adam was given several strong painkillers, and then was sent to the infirmary. Despite the massive back pain and blood loss, he would survive the night. After a week's rest, he would be sent back to his cell, and would resume his sentence, with occasional check-ups. Throughout the rest of that year, his skin cleared up, and all traces of the drug abuse he had made his body go through vanished. He never complained of any backaches due to the wings... in fact, he never complained at all. When other members of the prison would try to hurt him or mock him, he would just turn the other cheek. Adam had been friendly before, but after the treatment, he was almost a saint. My brother claims that this Adam was like a completely different person. Adam made parole that year, and was released from prison, around the same time the scientists released their findings about the DNA, and its effects.
Adam never went near drugs again, not even cold medicine. He got a job working in a high school cafeteria, and would spend his break hours talking to the faculty about how to shape the kids for the future. In less than a month, he had rabid followers who hung onto his every word. There were people who believed he was the second coming of Christ, and it wasn't long before he had a cult following. Churches of Adam spotted up all over the nation, and his first book became an international best seller. My brother went to one of his book signings once, and asked Adam if he remembered him from prison.
"Of course I do, " Adam had replied, with a voice as sweet as honey. "Without your help, and the help of everyone there, I could not have been reformed. I owe all of you a great debt. May you be blessed with a long and happy life." He then got up, and hugged my brother, kissing him fondly on the cheek.
His lips were soft, pillow-like. It gave my brother chills.
Since the experiment had worked out so well with Adam, other prisoners were soon signed up to take a part in it. They started low, with more drug dealers, black market sellers, common robbers. They all had the same metamorphosis, with the white wings, the cleansing of their bodies and minds, and the fanatic followers that would flock to their sides. A year after that, the more hardened and dangerous criminals were signed on, and they went through the same process. Rapists, murderers, the worst scum of the earth were being transformed into the kind of men you could bring home to show to your mother. Around the time I was born, there was a new church a few blocks away from my house dedicated to these men. By the time I got into school, the experiment was a natural part of our textbooks and education. It was getting to be common knowledge, and other countries were getting in on it. By the time Korea had joined in, 'Artificial Angels' was the unofficial, yet widely known, term for these people. 'AA' meetings were the sermons they would give out.
We attended these meetings, the whole family, every Sunday. The Artificial Angel that lived nearby was named Kenneth Gareth, once a serial killer of grandmothers. He gave these long sermons on how to live our lives, and at least one person would cry every time. After the sermon, people would get in line just to touch his hand and pay respects. Though he never asked for it, donations were always given to him, and it wasn't long before he had the biggest and most expensive house in the neighborhood. All Artificial Angels lived in luxury, and were treated better than humans. They were the superior race, and to say otherwise was sacrilegious. Before eating, my mother would say 'Praise Kenneth'. When I was in eighth grade, they got their own holiday, which was Adam's birthday, May 18th. It was when I was nineteen, a few days after the holiday, that the trial started.
I remember how it all started, like it was just yesterday. I was late for class because I had overslept, so I was ready to apologize when I opened the door to my algebra class. Inside, everyone was talking, and my teacher, Ms. Rosemary, was staring at the TV in the upper left corner. I slowly walked in, taking a seat next to my best friend at the time, Timothy Sheldon. "What's going on?" I asked, deciding I didn't need to take my textbook out.
"Didn't you hear?" Timothy had replied, and his face was pale, nearly sweating. "Artificial Angel Mark was arrested this morning."
"Arrested?" I repeated, almost dumbstruck from the news. How could anyone arrest an Artificial Angel? They were incapable of doing wrong! Several religious wars had ended just because their existence proved that Christianity was the 'right religion'! I glanced momentarily at the TV, where a brunette news reporter seemed just as upset as Timothy was. "What for?" I asked, as I couldn't hear anything that the TV was saying over the continuous chatter of my classmates.
"Murder. They say he killed a ten year old boy."
It was the scandal that swept the world off its feet. Mark had been an Artificial Angel for five years, after serving years in prison for pedophilia. He had three churches in Nebraska, and one was going to be made in Ireland in two years.
As for the boy, his name had been Nathan Polar, a good kid who wanted to play professional baseball when he grew up. His body had been found in one of Mark's churches, the one next to the IHOP. He had been missing for four days, and officers had found the little boy stuffed away in a trunk, neck snapped.
When Officials examined the body, they found signs of sexual abuse with Mark's DNA.
Despite this evidence, the police who arrested Mark were hounded for days and threatened with death by large, unruly mobs. The trial was televised live every day in was in session, and protest groups in the millions were always outside of the courthouse. Popular singers wrote about Mark's innocence, but it was the daring ones who rapped about his guilt that made it to the top of the charts. The world was split in two. Either you were with Mark, or against him, and the sides loathed each other with a passion. Vandalism and small gang wars were started over this trial, even before the judge could slam down on his gavel.
Mark and his attorney, a small man named Gary Unders who declared he was doing this case pro-bono, pleaded Not Guilty.
The prosecutor was an Asian-American named Taro Maebera, whose wife left him during the trial. Taro brought in several witnesses, mostly the community and Nathan's family, who had said that many young boys were often in Mark's care alone, yet no one had ever thought to worry over it. Nathan's father ranted and raved about how Mark had broken their trust, and yet Mark barely batted an eyelash. He sat through the entire thing with a calm smile, as if he was just attending a play.
Gary afterward brought in his own witnesses... Mark's fellow Artificial Angels. Even the original, Adam, was brought in, though Taro tried again and again to object to this, saying they had no relevance to the case at hand. But the judge -- a fat one, Duke Farns, who had obvious hair growing out of his ears -- barely listened to him. He was a big follower of the Artificial Angels, and probably should have recused himself, but most judges and politicians at least pretended to be Angel followers, so nobody had called him on it. All of these Angels proclaimed Mark could never harm a child again, and that perhaps someone had planted evidence in order to cast the blame on the Angels.
Though they were small in number, there were people who didn't trust the Angels, and it was now that they were getting a voice, in one of the worst ways possible. Some of my classes were cancelled to watch the trial. I'd like to think it's why Timothy failed algebra.
Half a year had passed when new startling evidence was brought up. Nathan's father had hired several private detectives to look into the workings of the Angels, and two devastating results were found. First, Mark had been abusing several children in the community for years, some as soon as he had gotten out of prison. Second, not only did other Angels know about this, but they urged the children and their families to keep quiet, in order to 'keep the peace'. Once this was brought to light, people from around the world felt brave enough to speak out against the Angels, and what they had done to them. Other Angels had abused children, had abused women, had gone through drugs and stealing and raping and murdering, all the while putting on the facade that they had changed. I still have the 60 Minutes special they did on Angel Kenneth stored somewhere in my basement. Yet there were still people who clamored for the Angels innocence, saying that this was all a lie, that these people had been bought or forced into saying what the Angels had done to them. The Angels themselves were vehement deniers. The scientists who had started the experiment in the first place had gone into hiding, and several elected government officials who had O.K.'ed the project had stepped down from office.
I drove down to the court house on the day that Mark took the stand. My brother Bill had some inside connections, so he had helped me get inside and get a good seat. Before it had started, I looked to my brother, and asked him if he thought Mark was innocent or guilty. He hesitated before answering me, and I noticed how yellow his teeth had gotten. He had promised to quit smoking, but it seems he had just started up again. He, at least, was only human.
"I talked to Adam a few weeks ago," he told me, instead of answering my question right away. He didn't look at me, and clasped his hands together. "When he left to answer a phone call, I looked in his briefcase. I found six bags of cocaine. When he got back, I told him what I had found, and I asked him if he'd been dealing drugs ever since this whole damn thing got started."
"What did he say?" I asked, trying to keep my voice in a low whisper, as I started to notice others around us listening in on our conversation.
"He..." His hand shook, which was the usual sign that he needed a cigarette. I moved in a little closer, and put my hand on top of his. He looked at me, nodded slowly, and then spoke again. "He smiled at me, hugged me, and kissed my cheek. He said that the world was beautiful, and that all men should appreciate what we can make with our own hands. That it was God and Jesus' will for us to be independent, and that if we can make our own happiness, we should use it. I said that couldn't be right, that... that there's no way any just God would tell people to use cocaine. Guy actually laughed, and said we shouldn't take everything from the Bible word for word... if we did, anyone who ate figs would be stoned to death."
The judge slammed on his gavel, and everyone went quiet. It was time to begin the questioning. Gary went first, slowly asking Mark about his life, about the experiment, and about all the good he had done for the community. Mark was pleasant and kind about it all. Then Gary asked him, point blank, if he sexually abused children after he was released from prison. I heard some people sucking in their breath and holding it, before Mark answered, without skipping a beat or any hesitation whatsoever.
"It's not abuse. You should give these kids a lot more credit... they understand a lot at this age, but at the same time are so beautiful in their innocence. I sought to teach them, and give them my love, in the best way possible. Nathan, unfortunately, was being selfish, and refusing the gift I had bestowed upon him. I swear I did not mean to kill him, but he is in a better place now. I only hid his body to spare the parent's grief a little longer."
"Son of a bitch!" came a defiant roar, and I instantly recognized Nathan's father from the stands, on his feet, his face red as hell itself. He shoved people out of his way, and pulled something from his jacket. Guards ran at him, and my brother grabbed me, holding me, using himself as a shield just in case. Because of that, I couldn't see what happened, but I heard it clearly. Four shots rang out, and there was screaming from every angle. Footsteps pounded as people tried to flee in different directions, and the judge slammed down his gavel, again, again, again, again. I just held onto my brother, waiting for it to end. I could smell his bad breath, thanks to his smoking, and it was oddly comforting. I closed my eyes, and prayed until there was silence, which took over an hour to come. Turned out three of those shots had hit Mark -- one in the head, two in the chest -- and the fourth had gone into Gary's right arm. Mark had died instantly, and Gary was sent to the local hospital to recover. Nathan's father was arrested. He got twenty to life.
I drove my brother to his apartment, where I almost ran over a sweet blonde girl named Sophia Kingsly, who I would later marry. We had spaghetti for dinner as we watched the news. Other Angels were finally being arrested for their own crimes, and the experiment was put to a halt. In other countries, they easily go out on bail, and continued to practice preaching, and still had their followers. Many of churches in America were torn down, and college students used Adam's birthday as an excuse to drink more. My brother claimed he one day saw the bald scientist at a bar drinking with some frat boys, looking like he was down to his last dollar. Then again, that day my brother was pretty drunk himself, so I don't know how reliable that is. He managed to sober himself up by the time of my wedding.
I was twenty-six when Kenneth's church was taken down. I was watching it from the park, while Sophia was at the gym, working off the fat thanks to our second child. My brother came down to watch it with me, and my kids -- Brent and Jackie -- were playing on the swings. My brother offered me a beer and a smoke, but I declined. We didn't talk for a few minutes, but I managed to find something to say after I saw a particularly large wall being torn down.
"Why do you still do this stuff?" I asked, waving with a hand to gesture to the booze and cigarette. "You know the doctor said it'll kill you in a few years."
"I know, I know." He didn't look at me, eyes on the construction crew. "It just helps get the taste out of my mouth."
A third wall was torn down, and he raised his half empty bottle.
"Glory glory, hallelujah."
I hesitated, then pretended to hold up an imaginary bottle to clink it with his.
"Glory glory, hallelujah."
© 2011 Melissa Pryor
Bio: Melissa Pryor is a 22 year old recent graduate from Montclair State University with a major in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. She tends to write short stories based on either humor or horror, or mixing the two if she can.
E-mail: Melissa Pryor
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