A Small Strange Something
Justin Thurman

Everything’s damn screwy today. You may be wondering, “Why’s the parking lot
jammed with white vans and men in latex and face ventilators?” Or, “Why’s Dr. Reynolds in
handcuffs?” Or, “Where are the Witherses?” Clearing up this boondoggle is my primary
responsibility, why I gathered you all here in the lab, the source of our current and future
struggles. And I aim to make Dr. Reynolds real proud. After I tell you why Dr. Reynolds
incinerated the Witherses and before we get debriefed and prepped for testing, you can go about
on your own. Call your wives, give them the broad strokes. Get a Coke, some Funyuns from the
dinner machines.

But remember: Dr. Reynolds brought me in, privately, said to me, “Otis. You’re the
supervisor. Address your staff.” He didn’t have to. He well had been hauled off without explaining anything to anybody. After all, the headline’s not going to read, “Prominent Cosmetics Scientist Destroys Vital New Organism, Keeps Janitors in the Dark.” Sure, we sweep up his egg-salad sandwich crumbs and get the what-for if we don’t de-spot the Schlenk flasks. He worries about us, though, recognizes that we might have taken a liking to the Witherses, that no one likes to be treated invisible or disposable. In another lab? The custodians aren’t supposed to give a duck fart about no Witherses. Here, Reynolds appreciates that we might give a duck fart or two. We matter. Remember that.

Here’s why Reynolds had no choice. The Witherses were—hold on while I read this—
“virocorrosive echinoderms.” That’s a fancy way to say they reproduced by themselves. Say I’m
one of these critters. I up and go, “You know what? I want another me around.” Don’t need to
find a lady or ask a daddy’s permission. I can detach a piece of myself and say, “Off you go,
piece. Be another me.” And that piece does that. And its piece does that. So on.

Why the good Lord sees fit for critters to make babies by themselves isn’t the issue. Real
estate is the issue. Every night, more Witherses crowded up whatever Reynolds stuffed them
into. Test tubes into vats into buildings into ecosystems. This lab isn’t equipped for that. Only so many receptacles and so much space in the world.

Another thing. Each Withers had itself “anterior biuvalvae.” These doodads “secreted
disintegrative agents.” I got it all written down. We saw it all besides. One Withers seeping
disintegrative agent is minimal damage. But a Withers divides and divides and habitates
whatever with its brood. And a Withers brood dissolves everything into goop. Plastic? Goop.
Steel? Goop. Reynolds set in his wife’s golden earring. Six Witherses later? Goop. That wasn’t jolly joy syrup we sopped up every night. That was the liquefied bottom of a Withers aquarium.
Untended, they’d goop away everything. It’s a wonder they didn’t goop off someone’s limb.

Dr. Reynolds told me his research mission is ultra-violet rays and animal-safe lipsticks.
Witherses have nothing to do with that.

If anyone warrants mourning, it’s Reynolds. Imagine being him: a lifelong love for natural objects. Imagine finding a small strange something, a tiny multi-limbed treasure that pulsates color and awe and can’t help but bring hours of delight. It’s spinning in its sludge on your porch, a single flaming star no bigger than a slug, eyes like heaven’s dimes. It stops. It blinks—you know the blink—and it casts its spell.

Instant calm.

Something says, “You are but a single golden strand in Ma Nature’s cozy blanket.”

I felt it every night and so did you. That look! A tractor beam asking for nothing but your
slack-jawed gaze. Barely able to empty the waste bins my insides got so filled with joy, like I
hadn’t shucked my life of its potential.

Naturally, you want to share these feelings. Imagine bringing this new thing to the place
that consumes so many lives with all its instruments. This creature emits a comforting hum and a magicked odor. And sure as hell, everyone sees it.

Forgets their dreams and regrets.

Ignores the nasty outside world of butchers, schemers, starving kids.

It multiplies as its little guts dictate, stacks its selves into inexplicable configurations. No existing vessel can coop it up. And even though it stinks of spirit and dignifies your labors (who knows how, probably with brain-eating spores), even though for everything it dissolves it takes one of your worries with it, it also gobbles up your tools, your results, and turns them all into wonderful worthless snot.

So: Dr. Reynolds gathered them into a metal mop bucket he gambled would hold together for the walk to the blast furnace. Thirty-odd Witherses at last count. He tossed them in, said
goodbye, and pressed the ignition.

Poof. World saved. Between us and the Witherses, between us and an endless river of
money from the chemical weapons industry, Reynolds picked us. Ours is a story of triumph.

To the bad news, then.

The suits got Reynolds dead to rights on the closed circuit surveillance cameras. The
Witherses became government property once Reynolds waltzed them through that door and the government don’t take kindly to their property getting incinerated, especially if that property’s useful for taking over the world. Reynolds is going elsewhere. And probably for a long while.

As for us, we all got exposed. We’ll be heading off to … let me read this—“quarantined
environs.” Can’t say for how long or what for. We’ll be fed anyway. Don’t get angry. We’re in a
right-to-work state. We signed contracts.

And think about what’s been explained! Those Witherses lulled us. There is indeed a nasty outside world, we’re in it, and thank God for that.

Probably accounts for Chet’s itching and Phil’s patchy mustache.

My spit’s thick as plumber’s putty.

But see something else, too. We survived. We matter.

Justin Thurman’s fiction, reviews, and scholarship have appeared or are forthcoming in The Collagist, Fiddleblack, WOE: Writing on the Edge, and Monday Night, among others. He currently teaches writing and literature at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Georgia.