by Clint Margrave
The fetus was in a Mason jar next to a frog, a tarantula, and Christian Wojtynek.
Everyone in Mr. Schlosser’s sophomore biology class hated me too, but with Christian there, I didn’t have to worry. The year was 1989. The place, a suburban capsule in the hills of Anaheim, 45 minutes east of downtown L.A., twenty minutes from Disneyland, and a half-hour away from the beach.
I didn’t go to the beach. I didn’t go to Disneyland. The sun did nothing but burn a white boy like me. And the happiest place on Earth did nothing but make me feel sad.
And though I was white like the rest of my class, I wasn’t albino-white like Christian. Though I was skinny, I wasn’t skeleton-skinny like Christian. And though I dressed in unpopular clothes, they were unpopularly fashionable, not the brown polyester pants and polo shirts like Christian wore.
“Faggot,” Jay Nelson said, welcoming me back from Winter Break just before the bell rang. “A little late for Halloween, isn’t it, faggot?”
A common insult I received from my classmates since I grew my hair long, dyed it black, wore black nail polish, black eyeliner, and all black clothes.
“Hey Christian,” Travis Westerman said, nose red and peeling from too much time spent on his surfboard. “How many Polacks does it take to change a lightbulb?”
And though I was different, I wasn’t Polish-immigrant-parents-from-a-communist-country-at-the-tail-end-of-the-Cold-War different. You could pronounce my last name. And my European ancestry didn’t happen to be the current butt of every joke.
“I don’t know, Trav, how many?” Christian said.
I also wasn’t gullible like Christian, which led him to play right into that weird Polish stereotype of being dumb.
“You give up?” Travis said. “One to stand on a chair and hold the bulb and the other two to spin the chair. Stupid ass!”
He tossed a crumpled wad of paper at Christian, but the paper bounced off his desk and hit the shelf with the Mason jar.
“Gross!” Carrie Mackenzie shouted, covering her mouth with her hand.
“Is that thing even real?” Eric Weir asked.
“Seriously,” Sarah Niles said. “Are we going to have to stare at it all semester? It’s like freaking me out!”
“I don’t think it’s real,” Jay said.
“It just seems wrong to have a baby in a jar like that,” Tracey Hanson added. “Like it goes against God or something.”
“I like it,” I said.
And of course, it was real. That’s what I liked about it. The little webbed fingers and toes. The black tadpole eyes. The alien appearance. The way it terrified my classmates.
“That’s because you worship the devil,” Brett Bennett said to me.
“Hail Satan,” I said, holding up my pinky and index finger.
I didn’t worship the devil. I’d been an atheist since the age of eleven. I just liked hanging out in graveyards better than at football games.
Christian was also terrified of the fetus. It freaked him out so much he couldn’t even look at it when he took his seat.
“Hey Christian,” I said, exiled to the desk right behind him. “It kinda looks like you. Are you sure it isn’t your brother?”
“Haha. Very funny,” Christian said.
“I’m gonna make you kiss it.”
Being an outcast didn’t necessarily make two boys friends.
The bell rang and Mr. Schlosser asked us to open our textbooks to the introductory chapter.
“Biology is the study of living things,” he said. “One of the central questions we’ll be exploring this semester is what does it mean to be alive?”
Something I’d been wondering ever since my dad walked into my sixth grade class one morning and announced to everyone: “His aunt just died.”
A crumpled piece of paper hit Christian’s head. This time Kevin Lasher threw it. Christian just smiled with a mouthful of braces. Though I had crooked teeth, they weren’t braces-crooked.
At lunch, I stayed up top of campus while most of the kids ventured down to the cafeteria. There was a brick planter, where the punks, skaters, hessians, and guys like me sat. Sometimes jocks walked by and called us names. I once had a whole Coke thrown on me by some jock named Casey Sawyer, but it only made the Egyptian ankh around my neck sticky for the day.
Christian would roam around, picking up rocks, or talking to himself, stepping on his own pant legs, but it surprised me on the first day of the new semester to see him walking with Richard Barras.
Everyone knew Richard. He had been the guy who shot Jeff Birch in the 7th grade with his father’s revolver. Jeff Birch had been in my music class. Charges had never been pressed; the whole thing ruled an accident, though none of us believed it. The incident had sent hysteria and sirens through the neighborhood. Richard disappeared for a few years to go to another school, but here he was. His stockiness and tan complexion made him look funny walking next to lanky, albino Christian.
“The two biggest freaks have found each other,” my friend Cooksey said. And though I didn’t have many friends, I was glad to have some, and not be hanging out with Richard Barras.
Soon after, Christian started getting a reputation as a troublemaker. Everybody knew he would do just about anything Richard asked, like pulling a fire alarm in the middle of the day. Richard played the leader, doing all the talking, while Christian followed behind him, shirt tucked in, belt pulled all the way to the last notch.
Nobody bullied Christian more than Richard did. One time I even saw Richard yank Christian’s underwear outside the waistband of his pants, right in front of everyone. And yet, nobody befriended him like Richard did either.
“Hey Christian,” I heard Richard say once, during lunchtime. “Make a fist as tight as possible and hold it in front of your face. I’ll see if I can pull it down.”
“What for?” Christian said.
“It’s a strength test.”
Richard let go and Christian’s own fist went flinging back into his face and knocked off his glasses. Christian picked up his oversized brown frames off the ground and laughed like he always did. And though I thought glasses made you look cool and intellectual like Morrissey, I was glad I didn’t have to wear them like Christian did.
I started getting in my own kind of trouble. Mostly, at home. My mom found a stash of porn mags in my bedroom and an empty cigarette box. She also didn’t understand my obsession with wearing all black.
“What is it about you and death?” she said.
Soon, black shirts began to disappear from my dresser drawer.
One time, I called her to pick me up from the mall after undercover security guards had escorted me out.
“We don’t like your kind around here,” one of them said.
She didn’t believe me when I told her I’d done nothing wrong, that they just didn’t like the way I dressed. And when I mentioned some of the kids at school picked on me for the same reason, she said, “Well, it’s not like you don’t have a choice.”
And though I hated her for saying it, I knew it was true.
“Individuals in a population exhibit various traits,” Mr. Schlosser said, one afternoon. “Some members possess variations that increase their chance to survive and reproduce. Adapting to the environment is a necessary quality of living things but it can also leave them very vulnerable.”
That day he told us about the fetus.
He walked over to the shelf in the middle of his lecture and pulled down the Mason jar. Though I couldn’t see him from where I sat, I knew Christian’s face must have been pale as a corpse.
“At the gestational age, a fetus has only a 50% survival rate outside the womb,” Mr. Schlosser said.
“Is it a boy or girl?” said Peter Buckley, a guy who once played on a little league team with me.
“Well, I don’t see a dick,” whispered Travis Westerman.
“I don’t think that’s a real baby,” Aaron Underwood said.
“Baby?” Justin Ward said. “More like alien.”
“A fetus isn’t born yet so it isn’t a baby,” Mr. Schlosser said. “But it’s definitely not an alien either – unless you think we all are since we all looked like this at one time.”
“So it’s real then?” Kevin Lasher said.
“Well, yes,” Mr. Schlosser said. “Very real.”
I heard my classmates’ frightened sighs. Christian didn’t say a word. He kept his head down as if reading his textbook.
That’s when I kicked the back of his chair.
“How did it get here?” Sherrie Chapman asked, a short redheaded girl, who raised her hand.
“I’m not entirely sure. It got here before I did,” Mr. Schlosser said. “But from what I understand, it was a donation.”
“Who would donate that?” Eric Ross said.
Mr. Schlosser shrugged.
“I was told the mother died in a car accident. This was many, many years ago.”
Mr. Schlosser had thinning gray hair. He wore a tan cardigan and baggy pants. Sometimes he took off his thick glasses and bit the back of the frames. He probably got picked on in high school.
“How old do you think it was?” Kristy Franks said.
“I’d say about three months,” Mr. Schlosser said, holding the jar closer to his face. “Early in the fetal development, the head dominates the body. The eyes are spaced apart. The face is flat.”
“It’s just so disturbing,” Tracey Hanson said. “I don’t know about you but I’m going to pray for it.”
I kicked Christian’s chair a second time.
What was my reasoning? What was I looking for? God, that fetus had tiny little fingers.
“Is that your brother?” I whispered to him.
Christian tried to ignore me.
“What’s your brother’s name?”
I wondered if Christian had a brother. I didn’t. But sometimes, I wished I had an older one.
“Come on,” I said, kicking Christian’s chair again. “Tell Mr. Schlosser you want to kiss your brother.”
“A developing fetus is highly susceptible to anomalies,” Mr. Schlosser said, turning to look at me, as if he’d overheard me talking to Christian. I leaned back in my desk.
“As you can see, by this stage, the head is half the body size, external features such as hands, toes, eyes, and neck are well-formed.”
“Tell us. What’s his name?” I whispered to Christian. “Matthew? Mark? Luke? John?”
When Mr. Schlosser set the fetus on the counter to write something on the chalkboard, I kicked Christian’s chair harder this time. And that’s when it happened. He stood up and looked at me.
“Would you just knock it off you freak?” he shouted. “Just knock it off.”
Then something inside of him snapped.
He picked up the Mason jar off the counter, paused, looked around the classroom, and started shaking it like a bottle of salad dressing. He shook the jar so hard that his glasses slid down his nose. A formaldehyde-solution tsunami formed inside it. I thought any minute the lid might fly off and the fetus would go hurling across the classroom. That’s when Mr. Schlosser dropped the chalk in his hand and wrestled the jar away from Christian.
“Give me that!” he shouted at Christian. “You! Office! Now!”
Christian looked at me. I didn’t look back at him. Instead, I looked at the jar. The fetus’s head had flattened out. Its face looked smashed. One eye had floated away. Christian didn’t say anything. He just picked up his backpack and left the class. We never spoke again.
It must’ve been a year later I came to school and saw the news vans. By this time, my natural brown hair had grown back. I’d added some color to my wardrobe. I had a driver’s license and a job at Target. I’d even gotten a girlfriend who planned on making me attend junior prom that year.
First period was Geometry.
Mrs. Gerty stayed at her desk after the bell rang. She didn’t get up to take roll. Instead, she brushed her curly black hair behind her ear and sighed. Finally, she walked over to the podium.
“Some of you might have heard,” she said.
Even when Principal Fox got on the intercom and told us Christian Wojtynek was dead, nobody believed it. And when he designated a moment of silence for the victim, none of us made a sound.
At lunchtime, reporters wandered around trying to get statements from us.
“Did you know the victim?” one of them asked.
“Yes,” I told him. “We were once in the same class.”
When I got home that afternoon, my mom who’d been contacted by the school, sat me down on the couch, told me she loved me, and asked if I was all right.
“It’s just so sad,” she said, before giving me a hug. “I can’t imagine what his parents must be going through.”
The next day, I read all about it in the newspaper.
“Am I in trouble?” Richard had asked police, when he reported the second accidental shooting in three years, just before they took him into custody.
“Sometimes in order to study life, we also have to study death,” Mr. Schlosser had told the class that day after he’d sent Christian to the office. Larry Coulter had asked why, if biology was the study of living things, were we studying a dead fetus?
“All living things exhibit certain characteristics of life: They grow. They evolve. They reproduce. And yes, they die.”
I felt a crumpled piece of paper hit the side of my head and bounce onto Christian’s empty desk.
“Hey faggot,” Jay Nelson said, when I turned around to see who threw it. “Do you sleep in a coffin?”
“Did your mom fuck a bat or something?” Travis Westerman said.
Then another crumpled piece of paper, this time thrown by Kevin Lasher, brushed past my ear and landed right on the counter near the Mason jar.
“So gross,” Carrie Mackenzie said. “I can’t believe what that freak did.”
Much later, I heard a parent complained about the fetus and asked for its removal. The specimen disturbed her child. At first, the school resisted and stood by Mr. Schlosser and the Science department. But when more parents got wind and circulated a petition around to all the local churches, the school eventually recanted. Sometimes, I still wonder what they did with it. Did they bury it in the hills somewhere safe, away from the coyotes? Or transport it to another high school? More than likely, they just shut it away in some locked compartment and tried to forget about it. Like a bad memory. Or uncomfortable truth.
Clint Margrave is the author of Salute the Wreckage (2016) and The Early Death of Men (2012), both published by NYQ Books. His stories and poems have also appeared in The New York Quarterly,Rattle, Cimarron Review, Word Riot, 3AM, Bartleby Snopes, decomP, Ambit (UK), as well as in the recent LA Fiction Anthology: Southland Stories by Southland Writers by Red Hen Press. He lives in Los Angeles, CA.
(Portfolio page art: Max Weber. Within story art: Juan Gris.)