Lee, 12th - United Kingdom
A man, his hair grizzled, his eyes world-weary. A boy, barely teenaged, and yet with the lanky, sallow complexion of a sick, old man. A darkened laboratory; the only light emanating from the flickering monitors and softly bubbling liquids in test tubes: red, blue, green, yellow clouds of light illuminating the room in fractured colors.
The boy sat in the heart of a monstrous machine. Ten feet tall and seven feet wide, the writhing mass of metal and spiraling tubes and hissing steam vents loomed over the boy and his father, casting a dark shadow around the dimly illuminated room. Steel pillars rose up like the pipes of an old church organ; indeed, the shape of the thing reminded the boy of a dark cathedral, wherein a huddled group of frightened people listened to a man with wild eyes scream dark prophecies as the organ wailed. A baby started to cry. The boy snapped himself out of the unnerving fantasy. The machine was going to cure him. Father said was going to cure him.
The man held his finger over a large black button, his tired eyes now holding a sliver of hope as he gazed at his son. His boy. For years, his sickness had plagued him; a mysterious ailment that tore at his lungs, his throat; dulled his eyes and his mind, and dyed his young skin a pale yellow. He would spend nights hacking and spluttering, blood sprays decorating the threadbare carpet like handfuls of sickly red stars in a pale sky, as his father held his trembling hand. From the very first coughing fit that racked his son’s small body, he had vowed to find a cure. Every shake of the head or sigh or pitying look from yet another doctor only fueled his determination, to the point where he had decided to take matters into his own hands.
As a young boy, younger than his son was now, the man had heard a story. Sat around a flickering fire with a crowd of other boys with rumpled hair and wide, curious eyes, he listened to the oldest, most looked-up to of all the boys spin a wondrous tale – a tale of a beautiful woman, cursed by a disease that disfigured her: twisted her slender limbs into gnarled stumps, dried her soft blonde locks into filthy straw… and turned her pale skin a sickly yellow. The man remembered that last detail vividly: the way the older boy had said it, a slight smile creeping onto his lips as he delivered it with relish, the cherry on top of the repulsive sundae of the illness he had described, knowing by the grimaces and sounds of disgust surrounding him that the boys were imagining the woman in all her unholy glory. But the story did not end unhappily: the woman was taken pity on by a brilliant scientist – a scientist, the boy had explained, was what the city men called a sorcerer – who put her in a box of lightning, or an ‘electrotherapy machine’ as the boy had called it with a flourish, and she stepped out of it even more beautiful than she had been before the disease. The woman was so grateful to the scientist that she married him, and they lived happily ever after.
The man still remembered the story, decades later. He himself had become what he’d like to call a scientist, but perhaps in reality he was more of a sorcerer. He had spent his half his life playing around with his strange brand of magic, one that involved metal wands that removed screws instead of evil stepmothers and fairy dust that would melt away your skin if you sprinkled it over yourself. Still, it was magic enough for him, and he thought he had everything he could ever want.
And then his son got ill.
The magic stopped. It all became cold and hard and unforgiving, and the steam hissed and the metal clunked and creaked as the man built the box of lightning that had started it all, all those years ago. But the man slaved on; the machine was the only hope that his son had.
And here were the fruits of his labours. The metal giant seemed to leer down at him, the puffs of steam like scoffing, as if the very thing intended to save his son was ridiculing the very thought. The man abandoned this fantasy almost immediately. The machine was going to save him. He had told his son it would save him.
The boy returned his father’s small, hopeful smile, his heart beating hard in his throat. His father gestured to the slim black button beneath his finger.
The boy gulped.
Clunking. Whirring. A strip of lights brightened in a colored ascension, adding to the dull glow of the room. Silence.
Two giant, rectangular metal clamps with teeth like sharpened knives seized the boy’s skinny arms with two deafening bangs, the ugly sound of metal striking metal echoing horribly around the lab, bouncing off the walls like malicious giggles from entities unknown. It was at this moment that the boy felt panic rise in his throat. It tasted sulfurous in his mouth, and he felt faintly ashamed of his fear. His father had built this machine to cure him, and he had the audacity to… to…
The thought keeled over and died. No, the boy thought. No. He couldn’t convince himself.
He was terrified.
But there was no stopping the machine now. The whirring grew louder, but a faint grinding noise came with it, the horrible, corrosive sound of metal dragging against metal. Two steel rods slowly extended from the body of the machine down to the clamps that held the boy, and he could hear the crackle and fizz of electricity as they slowly descended, coming closer and closer, like a syringe about to be stuck into his arm. The grinding sound grew louder.
The rods were centimeters away.
The boy opened his mouth to scream… and took his last breath.
An explosion, so great that it shook the ground and tore through the lab’s ceiling, allowing the moon’s pale light to seep through, although it was barely noticeable above the orange flames.
The man knelt by a pile of flaming rubble, weeping. His tears evaporated before they could hit the ground. He cursed himself, over and over. He knew nothing. Nothing! He’d built that machine with his boyhood dreams as a blueprint. He’d strapped his son, the only family he had left, to a hunk of electrified steel with the vague idea that it would somehow ‘cure’ him.
Cure him of a disease he wouldn’t have had if it weren’t for him.
If only he hadn’t started messing around with that bacteria.
If only he hadn’t run out of mice to inject with it.
If only his son hadn’t fallen asleep in the laboratory.
If only he hadn’t been delirious with exhaustion.
If only he wasn’t such a disgusting excuse for a father.
If only. If only. If only.
He’d shoved the woman in the box of lightning, but she hadn’t come out beautiful.
The boy’s body lay beneath the rubble. The reflection of the fire, an orange ghost of the one that his father had sat around as a boy, danced in his single exposed eye, glassy and vacant.
Students 6th-12th Grades