“What’s the boss got for me today?”
Gracey smirked and pointed toward the refrigerator. “In there, third shelf down. The bowl that’s got your name on it.” He slipped out of his white lab coat, rolled it into a ball, and tossed it in a laundry bin. “You’re gonna love it. There’s a real treat for you tonight,” he laughed, then unlatched the door that lead into the hall.
“Cocky bastard,” Jackson said under his breath. He hated Gracey almost as much as working in this lab. If it weren’t for the pay, he would have much rather been flipping burgers at the drive-in down the street.
But the medical research assistant position let him concentrate on his studies, with a few hours left over to zone out with his X-Box.
He opened the refrigerator. “God almighty!” He covered his nose with his arm. The smell, a combination of bleach and cat urine, was even worse than the moldy cheese and rotting T-bone in his fridge at home.
He reached for a small yellow bowl with a pale green plastic lid. A piece of masking tape across the top bore his name written in black ink: Jackson, Solomon.
Surprisingly small, the bowl weighed no more than a couple of ounces. He studied it and tried to guess what was inside. He held it to his ear and gave it a gentle shake. It was then that he noticed the note from Professor Lundensberger tacked to the bulletin board:
What I have for you tonight doesn’t seem like much, but is one of those examples where a little will go a long way. Inside that little plastic bowl is an eyeball. Not just any eyeball. It belonged to one of the most renowned scientists of human existence. It is the eye of Albert Einstein. Einstein, you ask? THE Einstein? Indeed. The one and the same. Been in cold storage for the past fifty years. And as you can imagine, I paid a pretty penny to get what’s left of that shriveled little peeper. You’ll notice the lens, pupil, cornea, and iris are missing. I’m sure they disappeared long ago, shipped off to some other laboratory, to another scientist who paid more money than I could. But I shouldn’t complain. What I need you to do, Solomon, is to prepare the eye for slides. I trust only you with this task. These we’ll keep in the Ophthalmology Department. They’ll help boost the Department’s credibility and standing. You understand the dire need of something that will lure new students and their parents’ money to keep our jobs. This just may do it. Ball’s in your court son. No pun intended.
Lundensberger was right. As a direct result of his own actions, the department had recently lost precious funding for the ophthalmologic research lab. While Lundensberger’s research was groundbreaking, it was also often lawbreaking, verging on felony charges for the doctor. The professor found loopholes in the laws and used them to his advantage.
He performed experimental operations such as canine and reptile to human corneal transplants that provided extensive insight into the way those creatures saw the world. When the authorities found out the human test subjects were actually several of the town’s bums, most legally insane and unfit to make their own decisions, Lundensberger feigned stupidity and somehow came away Scot-free and with a publishing contract to boot.
The professor’s practices were questionable at best. Solomon knew this was why the man paid his assistants so well, giving them a couple hundred extra each week as a sort of bonus for keeping their mouths shut. Most other students would have thrown in the towel and reported the man by now.
When funding for his projects began to drop as his reputation gained notoriety, and Lundensberger had accepted a cut in pay to hold his position with the university, he began changing the color of students’ eyes just to make a tax-free few grand a week. He sang his best impression of Crystal Gayle’s ‘Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue’ while implanting a plastic colored lens behind the cornea and taking a little sample for his own research in the process.
In the past Lundensberger hadn’t cared much about tarnishing his reputation. He took what he knew he could commercialize for his own benefit and ran with it. Although the man was a brilliant visionary, Solomon didn’t always approve of the professor’s actions.
While the thought of being involved in research on the genetics of Albert Einstein was fascinating, Solomon found it appalling that a part of Einstein’s body would be used to promote the institution. It was like a relic of Christ in one of those rinky-dink European churches that but for a few drops of the icon’s blood no one would ever want to visit.
What really bothered Solomon was the way the professor called him son. He knew it made Gracey cringe with envy. Solomon respected his boss despite his shady practices, but he would no rather be a blood relation to Lundensberger than to Josef Mengele.
Solomon did his work, got his paycheck, and expected nothing in return. Gracey, on the other hand, was a glutton for the professor’s attention. He lusted after recognition for his work. And Lundensberger played with Gracey’s mind, leading him on, tempting him with unrealistic promises of fame and wealth.
Gracey was in an exceptionally acid mood that evening. Not working on Einstein’s eyeball must have been some sort of punishment for the mousy little weevil of a man. As usual, Gracey probably did something that got Lundensberger good and fuming. Why else would he have left the letter out in plain view for Gracey to read? Solomon was certain it had made Gracey’s blood boil.
After reading the letter, Gracey would plot Solomon’s expulsion from the university, or worse. The creepy dynamic between the three men would thankfully last only three more months. All that mattered to Solomon was finishing this quarter. Then he would graduate and move out west, as far away from the lab, the professor and Gracey as he could get, and start up practice in a nice, normal little clinic.
He opened the lid of the bowl and peered inside. It was different than he expected. He had seen eyes just days old that were gray, wrinkled and shriveled. He expected it to have the texture of a prune, but instead it was slimy and plump, almost juicy. He rolled the fleshy glob into a separate bowl where he’d use a pestle to mash it into a toothpaste-like consistency before smearing it onto a series of glass slides.
It fell with a plop, splattering a drop of mucous onto his sleeve. In his best imitation of the German-born scientist he said, “I’ve got my eye on you,” and laughed nervously, reaching for some tissue and dabbing at his sleeve.
A chill crept up Solomon’s spine as he took a closer look at the object in the bowl and realized what had happened. This eye stared back at him. The lens, pupil, cornea and iris were still intact.
“Gracey!” He was certain his coworker had run off with Einstein’s eye and had replaced it with a fresh one, probably from one of the cadavers laying stiff as logs in the meat locker down the hall.
Solomon went back to the fridge, scouring the shelves and drawers for the eye. It was nowhere to be found.
He reached for the phone and dialed the professor’s home number.
After several rings, the answering machine message started. Solomon shuddered as he heard not Lundensberger’s, but Gracey’s whiny high-pitched voice.
“Jackson, you won’t get away with this!” he snapped. “You think you can take my life away, but you can’t. I’m gonna show you just like I showed him! You know, Einstein said that ‘only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.’ Jesus, that man cracked me up! Next to Lundensberger, I think he was the most intriguing human being to walk this earth, just like I used to think of the professor. Now I know he is just an idiot. The both of you! Just idiots!” The maniacal laughter turning to sobs. “You’ll find my parting gift for you in the fridge down the hall.”
The message ended.
Solomon dropped the receiver, pausing momentarily before the real panic set in. “Please let him mean Einstein’s eye and not-” Where his words ended his race down the hall began, his sneakers squeaking on the tile floor as he raced toward the locker.
He opened the heavy metal door, propping a wedge under it so he wouldn’t be locked in if it accidentally swung shut. If that happened, he would spend one chilly, extremely uncomfortable night in the giant refrigerator that contained a bevy of dead people and an assortment of body parts all neatly wrapped in plastic bags.
Solomon searched a shelf near the door where most of the ophthalmologic specimens were kept. His hands, shaking and already turning blue from the cold, fumbled through the various baggies and Tupperware bowls. He stopped. Gracey wasn’t joking. He must have taken Einstein’s eye, stolen it for his own, or to sell to some other fool who would shell out enough dough.
“Jesus!” he shouted, blowing into his hands and hopping from one foot to the other in an attempt to stay warm.
“Help me.” He heard the whimpering voice coming from somewhere in the locker. “Jackson, my boy, help me.”
“Professor?” Even though barely audible, Solomon would recognize the professor’s voice anywhere, low-pitched and creaky with a hint of a southern drawl.
There was no response.
“Professor? Where are you?” He stepped hesitantly away from the door, past several naked bodies, tagged at the toe and laying stiff and pale on what looked like super-sized metal cookie sheets.
He found the professor, crouched behind a bench, covering his face with his hands.
“Professor Lundensberger! What has he done to you? Let’s get you to a hospital!” Solomon grabbed at one of the man’s arms but the professor resisted. “You’ll die of exposure if you stay in here any longer, Professor!”
Solomon screamed when the man raised his head. Dried blood stained his face a streaky reddish brown. Dark holes gaped at him where the man’s striking blue eyes had once been.
The same psychotic laughter he heard on the answering machine came from the entrance of the locker.
“Gracey! You sick bastard! What have you done to the professor?” Solomon screamed at him.
“I’ve ruined his career, just like he threatened to ruin mine!”
“An eye for an eye, bro. Or maybe two in his case. Bastard was gonna fire me. After all the hours I’ve devoted to him! Can you believe it?”
Solomon stared at Gracey, mouth agape, stunned at his ghastly form of revenge. “How could you do such a thing, Gracey? You’re sick!”
“What are you talking about, Jackson? We both sink our knives into body parts all the time! In this case though, I didn’t do a thing.” Gracey giggled not unlike a little girl. “He did it.”
“Huh? I don’t get it,” Solomon said, shrugging his shoulders. “Who did it?”
“Look behind you.”
The first thing Jackson noticed was the man’s eyes. They were odd. The iris stretched horizontally across the globe rather than up and down as in a human. His head jerked to the side in a series of twitches and drool poured down the corner of his mouth. It was one of Lundensberger’s experiments.
Solomon gasped as he saw the man lunge forward and the glistening blade of the scalpel rise toward his face. He couldn’t move. He did nothing to stop his assassin. Paralyzed with a mixture of fascination, shock and fear, he didn’t even scream.
The pain in his skull didn’t last long. It was the wound in his belly that caused the most discomfort. So Solomon just lay on the floor of the locker taking shallow breaths and replaying random memories of his life as the cold slowly crept deeper and deeper into his soul. Just as Solomon Jackson’s vision had been stolen from him in a matter of seconds, it wasn’t long before his world went completely black.