This is the winning entry in Young Post’s 2016 Winter Short Story competition, which offers a grand prize of an iPad Air 2! Each week during the winter holiday, we published one of the finalists’ stories, showcasing the author’s writing skills and creativity.
Most stories, especially fairy tales, begin with “once upon a time” and end with “happily ever after”.
This is not one of those stories.
This is a story of prejudice, oppression and betrayal. About a monster who became a man, and a man who became a monster. A villain who longed to be a hero, and a hero who was really a villain.
This is not a fairy tale; this is a tragedy, and it begins with a mistake...
I am seven years old when they bring me to my new home: the International Research Institute of Hong Kong.
“This can’t be happening,” Doctor Chang mutters to himself as he shoves me roughly through the doorway of the laboratory. “This is a mistake. It’s impossible ...” He does not even deign to spare me a glance as he exits the laboratory and slams the metal lock into place, leaving me alone inside the room. I stare around. The whitewashed room is cold and immaculate and the stainless steel sinks gleam in the harsh white light. A neat row of sharp syringes line the wall and I fight the urge to shudder.
“I hadn’t expected it to work, you know.” The Dr’s faint voice drifts into the room, and I cannot help but eavesdrop on the heated discussion unfolding.
“It shouldn’t have worked! This whole ordeal is a mistake!”
“It is unexpected, but it is a breakthrough in genetic science.” I hear another voice murmur. Feet shuffle outside the door as the men in white coats whisper to each other.
“Instead of ... disposing of him, we should keep him. He’s only a child,” someone says.
“He’s not a child,” Dr Chang says coldly. “He’s a monster.”
I strain my ears to hear them, bewildered by their strange words and my puzzling situation. Who are they talking about? I wonder.
More importantly, what am I doing here?
In the back of my mind, I faintly recall Dr Chang hovering over me, armed with a needle, watching me with clinical detachment. I remember the sharp pain of the syringe puncturing my skin, and pinpricks of blood blooming like crimson poppies on my white hospital gown. I remember the sound of screaming, and then the pitch-black world of nothingness.
Stranger still is my reflection in the room’s lone mirror. Since the experiment, my skin has become pale and mottled, and my vision seems oddly skewed. I do not even recognise myself.
This is all a mystery. Questions flood my mind.
The door swings open. “Patient 103,” barks Dr Chang. I blink at him, confused.
“Who, me?” I point at myself.
He sneers. “Yes, you. Come here.”
“But my name isn’t ...”
He ignores me. Instead, holding me in an iron grip, he leads me into another room full of waiting scientists. They bombard me with questions as soon as I step through the doorway.
A week passes before they finally stop their interrogation.
Another week passes before I figure out that the monster they were talking about was me.
The padded room is dark and cramped. The small, barred window in the corner and the locked steel door to my right serve as my only reminders that there is a world outside of these walls. I lie on the starched white sheets of my bed, thinking.
After five years, I have finally figured out that I am locked in here because I am different. I am too strange, too unnatural, to be allowed outside. I am a monster. Everything from my red hair to my blue eyes is considered wrong. Every genetic strand in my body has been wired differently.
I am locked in here because of my genes. Recessive, the scientists call it. My genes are completely recessive, unlike any other person’s in the world – a baffling combination of every oddity of the human anatomy. Every bizarre or rare genetic mutation is imbued into my every cell.
I am locked in here because of a bizarre genetic experiment that the scientists hadn’t even expected to work. I shouldn’t have even survived. That seven-year-old boy should have died on the operating table.
The serum they gave me shouldn’t have changed my genes. Yet, to everyone’s surprise and horror, all it took was one concoction-filled syringe and a monster was born.
“Patient 103.” Three sharp knocks echo through the door and it opens to reveal Dr Chang, standing with his clipboard. I glance at him. In the past five years, I have slowly been isolated from others, my existence hidden from the people of Hong Kong. Despite being the person who caused my pathetic state, Dr Chang’s rare visits are my only connection to the outside world.
I do not bother sitting up to greet him. I’m afraid that if I do, I will see the same pity and disgust that I see in everyone else’s eyes. Yes, I think angrily, my face is deformed, my limbs are too long, my hands are misshapen ... but it was you who made me this way!
The ones who stare at me in shock and abhorrence are the ones who played with my genes like a game of chance. You would think they’d at least have the decency to look me in the eyes. Instead, they whisper behind my back with revulsion and detestation.
Freak. Mistake. Monster.
“Dr Chang ... do you think I’m a monster?” I ask bluntly, suddenly desperate to know.
There is a long, heavy silence. The man does not say anything, but he does not need to. As the door clicks shut, I already know the answer.
“We need your help.”
I frown at Dr Chang. In the eleven years that have passed by since my first fateful day here, his hair has faded to silver strands and there are new wrinkles around his eyes. However, as I sit before Dr Chang in his office, I note that he seems to have aged a thousand years in the space of a few days.
“My help?” I ask, sceptical. This must be a joke. “Why?”
“We are dying,” the man says quietly after a long pause, as if he himself cannot even believe it. “Humanity is dying. A virus has broken out ... it attacks the brain, killing everyone it infects.”
I stare at him in disbelief. “Can’t you simply alter the genetic data?” I suggest, with a trace of bitterness. “You altered my DNA; alter your own to survive!”
Dr Chang licks his lips nervously and, in that moment, I know what he really wants.
“You need me my ‘monster’ genes,” I say bluntly. The realisation is so ironic that I cannot help the laughter bubble up my throat. “You want your mistake to fix your problems.”
He nods in part relief, part despondency. I snort cynically. “Why would I help you?”
“Please,” he begs. “Listen, I’m sorry, alright? We – I – never meant to ruin your life! The experiment should not have changed your genes in the first place. I hadn’t expected it to work!”
My happiness at finally receiving this long-awaited apology overwhelms my disgust with this man. I cannot help the feeling of triumph swelling in my chest as he promises me that, if I help him, mankind will remember me as their saviour.
Not a monster, I think, a saviour. I smile and agree.
“You didn’t tell him, did you?” The accusatory glare the nurse shoots at Dr Chang makes even the austere scientist fidget.
“What?” I demand. “What secrets are you hiding now?”
“Nothing!” he says quickly. Too quickly. Anger flows through me at the thought of being used again. I turn away brusquely. “Enough with the lies, Doctor. I know you think of me as nothing more than an aberration, but this –”
Flustered, he grabs me, shaking his head furiously. A vindictive pleasure washes over me as I feel the desperation radiating from him. “No, no, please!” he cries. His pitiful behaviour both pleases and repulses me. How the mighty have fallen.
“You are the best chance we have,” he says. “But, to help the whole of humanity, we need to take samples from your hypothalamus.”
I blink, still not understanding. He bites his lip.
“It’s a tiny cluster of cells located deep within your brain ... it is ... difficult to access.”
I freeze. Something in my stomach drops and the feeling of foreboding floods my veins. The consequence of slicing into my brain to reach this region is ... grisly. Risky.
“I’m going to die, aren’t I?”
He nods, mutely.
I don’t want to die. But...
You’re going to be a saviour. The words echo through my mind once more, and soon enough, my longing to be respected and admired overwhelms even my fear of dying. Despite the dangers, I lie and say that it doesn’t matter.
I definitely do not miss the satisfied smile that flashes across Dr Chang’s face.
I lie flat on the stainless steel table. Scalpels and syringes surround me, their sharp fangs sinking their potion into my veins. I lift my heavy eyelids and see the blurry outline of the nurse leaning over the operating table. I mumble incoherently.
The hiss of a television in the corner of the room reaches my ears, along with the sounds of applause and cheering. It is a news channel.
“Today is a historic day,” the reporter says, as the nurse adjusts a mask over my face. “Scientists at the International Research Institute of Hong Kong have announced that they will soon have a cure for the virus that has already claimed countless lives.”
I watch drowsily as the screen changes to show a crowd of applauding people. Who are they clapping for?
“Dr Albert Chang is been credited as the scientific saviour of humanity. Thanks to his tireless work he has found a way to modify a hypothalamus so it contains extremely rare recessive genes that are not affected by the virus,” the reporter says. “This tiny part of the brain – no bigger than an almond – will be used to create a vaccine that will undoubtedly save the world.
The camera changes the angle to show a man standing on a podium. I recognise his white hair, his wrinkled eyes and his cold, watchful gaze, and my fists clench involuntarily.
Dr Chang bows to raucous applause. “Thank you,” he says, with a fake smile plastered over his face. “To be honest, I hadn’t expected my experiment to work. But I’m glad that I continued working on it.”
Dr Chang promised that the people would remember me as their saviour, but all I will ever be is a footnote in a scientific journal. The world will never know my name. I want to cry out. I want to scream in protest. But I am too numb to move. The anaesthetic invades my system as the surgeons calmly prepare their instruments for what will be my execution.
All I can do is whimper. It should be me, I think. I should be the one standing on the podium. I should be the one the whole world claps for. In a way, they are clapping for me. They are clapping and cheering for my death. The death of a monster.
I wonder, deep in thought, as take my final breath.
Who is the monster and who is the man?
If you’ve got a creative tale to tell, then get ready for our Summer Short Story Competition. Each week during the summer holidays, we will publish one of the finalists’ stories, showcasing the author’s writing skills and creativity. Stay tuned to Young Post for all the details, coming soon!