The Science Project
When other kids claimed their families were
weird, they always mentioned stupid stuff like their dad
singing in the kitchen, or parents shaking their hips at
a school party. But for Mort Passon, weirdness was like
the ThroneMaster game he played on his PC: There was
first level with the occasional charging Orc, worth
about one singing dad. And then there was Level Twenty
with hordes of dragons and fire everywhere, equivalent
to Uncle Fantome shooting electricity through dead
animals in the basement.
Still, he’d never dwelled on his genetic
misfortune until that Saturday just before seventh
grade, when Tommy Cazzolli asked the question that
jolted him out of his sunburned haze.
“Mort, why do you cut your hair so it comes
to a point over each eye?”
Mort removed his arm from his face and
squinted at his friend. He sat up and dug his toes into
the sand, cheeks aglow from the beating San Diego sun.
The roaring surf was punctuated by the shrieks of kids
diving into the waves, as if trying to catch fish with
He shrugged. “Dunno. My mom cuts it this
“Demisse...” Tommy said wistfully. “Tell
me again, why do her eyes glow red?”
“She’s got some problem with red light,
makes her wear red reflective contacts.”
“Oh,” Tommy said, twisting the boogie board
leash around his wrist. His black hair hung in wet
strands like the seaweed they’d picked off moments
earlier. “But then she wears that really bright red
lipstick to match, and that black dress with the weird
symbols, and the bluish-black hair. Kind of freaky.”
Now Mort peered into that dark pit of
insecurity that yawns wide when something you’d accepted
your entire life was about to revealed as unacceptable.
“My grandmother made the dress, and my mom says she
likes the lipstick to match her eyes.”
Tommy nodded vigorously. “Sure, it’s not
like there’s anything wrong with it. Your mom is
dang...,” he swallowed slowly, “she’s really, uh... Cool
looking. Like some gorgeous devil lady.”
Mort scowled. “Can we stop talking about my
“Yeah, that would be good.”
They lay back down for a while, as Mort
listened to the pounding waves and contemplated his
tribe. As weird as mom was, his dad Cadvir made her seem
blander than mashed potatoes on toast. His uncle Fantome
was worse, and he didn’t even want to consider his
sister Tarantia, who spouted misery so dark, she made
other Goths nervous. He’d always known his family was
different, but now, in this uncertain summer, it all
came crashing onto him like a bucket of cold water.
“Anyway,” Tommy said, “if I were you, I’d
get a new haircut before school starts back up.”
And with that, Mort’s circle of self-doubt
It was a summer of changes, the last
Saturday before sixth grade turned to seventh,
elementary school turned to middle school, and their
status as kings of the hill got reset to bottom of the
pack. A blisteringly hot day of obliviousness, where
nervous anticipation could be buried under sparkling
blue water and foamy whitewash of a summer day at the
But on the bus ride home, Mort couldn’t
stop Tommy’s words from worming through his thoughts.
Sure, his family had always been odd, but now the
implications for his future social life seemed
particularly stark. The more he hashed it over, the more
convinced he became that the ninth graders were going to
eat him for lunch.
The bus stopped, and they stepped into the
east county neighborhood they both called home. The
turrets and spires of Mort’s house were visible above
the suburban tract homes of the surrounding landscape,
as strange in that triangular skyline as a windmill in a
parking lot. With boogie boards slung over their backs,
they walked past succulent gardens, red-tiled rooftops,
and windowed doorways until they reached Mort’s
“Man, you could have an awesome nerf-arrow
war from your house,” Tommy said, gazing at the castle’s
“Already scoped it out,” Mort said. “From
the top, you can hit everything except the space in
between the fire hydrant and the stop sign. If you were
going to set up a war, that’d be the safe zone for the
Vikings on the bottom.”
Tommy nodded in approval. “Sweet. We are so
They fell into a long silence then, knowing
that summer was coming to an end right here, right now.
Finally, Tommy sighed. “Well, I’ll see you
“Hey, do you wanna come in for awhile?”
Mort asked. “My mom’ll make us something to eat.”
“Uh, well...” Tommy glanced at Mort’s house
again, and Mort ran his eyes along the stone fortress
that quarantined his family from the normals. The
castle’s outer wall rose high above their grassy front
yard, its drawbridge resting on a swampy sinkhole that
had been Cadvir’s last attempt at a moat. Four turrets
jutted from the stone facade, and behind the wall rose
two pointed towers with one narrow window each, as if
the house squinted suspiciously at the rest of the
Grandfather had built this throwback at a
time when this area was good only for orange groves--to
‘resemble my house in the Old Country’, he’d supposedly
said, though Mort seriously doubted anything like this
existed, anywhere. None of Mort’s neighborhood friends
had ever dared to step foot inside, not even on
Halloween, when his heavily lipsticked mom gave out
kidney-shaped chocolates from beneath red, glowing eyes.
Especially not on Halloween.
So it was surprising when Tommy finally
looked at Mort and said: “Sure. I’ve always wanted to
see your house.
Mort blinked. “Great.”
They threw their boogie boards onto the
lawn, then stepped past the baby-eating gargoyle statues
and onto the drawbridge, footsteps creaking on the
wooden slats. Mort opened the heavy wooden door, and the
mustiness of Fantome’s basement experiments wafted
outward, a cloud of stale air that brought the scent of
singed fur and damp wood.
“I keep telling him to close that basement
door,” Mort mumbled. But Tommy had already stepped
inside and was busy drinking in the assembled artifacts
of their main room, barely visible in the low light. His
eyes travelled over the eight pictures of grandpa gazing
sternly from every angle, up to the Gothic chandelier in
the room’s center, over to the rows of bookshelves lined
with leather-bound tomes, to the fireplace mantle urn
topped by the two fingers in a V-sign, then back to the
pictures of grandpa.
Tommy tiptoed toward the fireplace, his
gaze never leaving grandpa’s glowering image. “His eyes
sure do follow you,” he muttered.
“That’s grandpa,” Mort said. “He built this
place, then disappeared.”
“You mean he died?”
Mort followed Tommy to the fireplace, where
his friend was staring at the urn on the mantle. “What
is that? And why are there two plastic fingers above
“Those are the remains of Great-Uncle
Ghuld,” Demisse said, her two red eyes piercing the
Tommy jumped so far back, he slammed into
the wall, and would have fallen into the fireplace but
for Mort’s hand on his shoulder. “Uh, Mrs. P,” he
stammered, his chest heaving. “I... I didn’t see you
“She has a way of doing that,” Mort
Demisse glided close, her face leaving the
shadows to expose a raspberry swirl of red lipstick and
white cream. A long, black dress dragged behind her, its
tail disappearing into the darkness. “Old Great-Uncle
Ghuld was really quite the character,” she said.
“Uh, how so?” Tommy asked, finally finding
“Well, he was big in the anti-Vietnam war
movement. He protested the daily bodycounts by digging a
grave next to an East Coast military base, getting
inside, and refusing to move until they called off the
draft. Eventually everyone forgot about him, and a
construction company plowed over the hole.” Here she
mimicked patting dirt over a hole, her pointed nails
waving close enough to Tommy’s face to turn him
cross-eyed. “A few years ago they dug him up, and we’ve
put his cremated remains here with his fingers in a
peace sign, as he’d have wanted it.” Demisse laughed,
her bluish hair fluttering backward as if a breeze had
wafted through the room. “Ghuld sure was a strange one.”
“So, those are real fingers?”
“Of course,” she said, resting sharp nails
on Tommy’s shoulder. “What else would they be?”
Tommy seemed frozen in place, though
whether from the reality of the fleshy digits above,
Demisse’s sudden appearance, or fascination with her
hand on his shoulder, Mort couldn’t tell.
She clapped her hands. “But you need
something to eat.” She whirled around, her dress flying
behind her, then glided across the living room and into
Tommy stared. “How does she do that? I
mean, it looks like she’s hovering above the floor...”
“She took ballet a long time ago,” Mort
said. “With those long dresses, you can’t even tell her
feet are moving.”
Tommy nodded. “Yeah, sure. Her feet have to
be moving.” He turned around. “What’s that clinking
Mort nodded his head in the direction of
the bookshelves. “My dad has a workshop behind that
hidden door. He restores old medieval equipment, then
sells it on EBay.”
“You have a secret room? Dude, that is
“Come on, I’ll show you,” Mort said,
walking to the bookshelves. He stopped and turned to
Tommy. “Just pull the shelf there, and it’ll open.” He
hesitated. “I try not to touch this thing. There’s a
dead rat in the door, and it gives me the willies.”
“How do you know it’s there?”
Mort shuffled his feet uncomfortably. He
and Tommy were fast enough friends that exposing his
bizarre house and family didn’t seem quite so terrible
anymore. But revealing his own weirdness was something
“I can see death. Not just death, but
diseased, or dying things. I don’t really know how.”
“You mean like the time we passed that
warehouse and you said someone had died in there?”
Mort winced; he’d forgotten about that one.
He nodded, searching Tommy’s face for any sign that he’d
just loaded one freaky straw too many onto his friend’s
cart. But Tommy just shrugged and pulled the shelf.
“That’s cool,” he said, making appreciative
noises as the entire wall swung around on smooth ball
Beaming, Cadvir looked up from the metal
contraption he was working on. “Mort! And Tomathon! Good
“It’s afternoon, dad--“
“--Wow, look at this,” Tommy exclaimed,
his eyes travelling over the hanging chains, manacles,
halberds, and other medieval metalwork. “This is really
Cadvir stood up straight, his slicked-back
hair soaring a few inches above his head, and his unruly
eyebrows creating shadows over his cheeks. “My life’s
work, village child,” he said.
Mort rolled his eyes. “He sort of thinks
he’s a poet...”
Cadvir stomped to Tommy and grabbed his
arm. “Let me show you around, Tommith. Here we have a
curved axe, used for beheadings before the guillotine.
And here we have a halberd carried by the Hapsburg
palace guard to gore anyone who got too close to the
Emperor. And this device with the rollers is a rack,
used to stretch out any unfortunate trying to stretch
Cadvir’s eyes widened at this little joke.
Then he tilted his head back and roared with laughter,
bushy eyebrows dancing like frantic caterpillars. He
froze, looked at Tommy, and then roared again, a shiny
dangle of spittle connecting his upper and lower lips.
The lights flickered on and off, displaying his white
face in flashing shadows for a brief second before
everything went finally dark.
“Curses, the lighting conduits are quite
unbalanced in this room,” Cadvir said.
“We have electric problems,” Mort said
apologetically to Tommy, just as the light came back on.
Cadvir straightened, and turned to a
white-faced Tommy. “Brilliant! Now, on this wall--”
“--Devilled eggs and tomato juice, anyone?”
Demisse called, as she glided into the room with a tray
of jiggling white ovals. Her black dress swirled to its
finale in front of Tommy, as she held out the plate of
Mort looked at the tray and cringed. His
mom always faced devilled eggs down on the flats, with
the egg humps topped by a pimento-stuffed half-olive so
they looked like nothing so much as a big, green
If Tommy’s face had been white before, it
was deathly now. “Uh...uh...”
And suddenly Mort felt crashing guilt for
bringing his best friend into this house of loons. What
had he been thinking? He decided Tommy had had enough.
Tommy finally steeled himself and popped a
devilled egg into his mouth. His eyes widened. “Hey,
these are good...”
“Wonderful,” Cadvir said. “Now, as I was
“Dad, Tom has to get home before four.”
Tommy shot him a grateful look, then turned
to Cadvir. “I do hafta go Mr. P, but I sure would like
to see this some other time.”
“Ah, it is unfortunate, but understandable,
young squire. When our paths cross again, I shall show
you the Iron Maiden, a most beastly contraption, but one
that I have lovingly restored.”
Tommy nodded uncertainly, and Mort pulled
him out into the living room, and into a maelstrom of
heavy flapping. A shape whizzed by them, followed by a
loud bellow of triumph from the basement. “Eureka!
Tommy stared at Mort. “Did he really--I
“We think some of the ‘dead’ birds Fantome
hauls in are really just stunned, and he zaps them back
awake.” Mort watched the bird flutter about in the
rafters, then led Tommy through the door and out to
their lawn. When they were standing under blue sky
again, Mort sighed.
“Look, I’m sorry for bringing you to the
Tommy shook his head. “Don’t say that about
your own family. They’re cool. Different, but cool. Your
dad’s a maniac, but completely awesome.”
Mort searched Tommy’s face, but saw only
truth there. He nodded. “OK. I’ll see you Monday.”
“Yeah,” Tommy said. “See you in seventh
Monday morning dawned bright and hot, and
Mort found his head baking in the sun as he stood on the
street corner, comparing schedules with Tommy and Jim
“Looks like we all have the same first
period science class,” Jim said flatly.
“And that’s it,” Tommy said. “You guys
won’t have me to save your sorry butts the rest of the
It was a measure of their sour moods that
no retorts were issued at this. Jim merely grunted and
gazed down their street, as if searching for any excuse
to return home. Mort put his hands over his head to
block the sun.
“Well, I guess we better go,” Mort said.
They nodded and began walking to Roseville
Middle School, packs drooping from their backs. It was a
silent walk, each of them lost in their own thoughts,
and after twenty minutes they sullenly stepped onto the
bustling campus. They turned left and entered the East
hallway, a gleaming tile rectangle filled with kids of
all colors and sizes, each yelling or slamming a locker
“It’s bigger than I thought,” Mort said
“And noisier,” Tommy said.
Mort’s eyes followed a red-headed girl. “It
might not be that bad...“
“--Hey, Frankenstein!” came a call from
behind them, and they all turned around to see three
older kids, each about eight feet tall and wide as a
Ninth graders. The one who’d spoken had
wavy blond hair, and a jutting chin that dared anyone to
throw a punch at it. And he was looking straight at
Jim looked at his Mickey Mouse watch.
“Excellent. Harassed after only three minutes on campus.
I wonder if that’s some kind of record.”
“Just ignore them and keep walking,” Tommy
said, and they all turned back around.
“--Nice haircut, ‘tard,” called the blond
kid again, and Mort spared a quick glance backward. He
was about to turn away again when something under blond
moron’s eye caught Mort’s attention. He stopped and
turned fully to face the boy, gaping for a long moment.
Then he dropped his pack and began walking towards his
“What the frick are you doing?”
Tommy hissed, as the three ninth graders started
squealing with pleasure.
“Little creep wants a fight,” one of them
laughed, as Mort walked slowly forward, staring at the
thing below the ninth grader’s eye.
“Dude, I am not getting involved in this,”
Tommy called out behind him. After a few seconds, Mort
heard Tommy sigh and rush to his side. “You’re so going
to owe me,” he whispered.
Tommy was good people.
The two of them walked toward the grinning
ninth grader, who was busy cracking his knuckles and
flexing his neck. They stopped in front of him, and one
last locker door banged shut before the entire hallway
fell into a deep hush.
The blond kid grinned and pushed Mort back.
“Throw the first one, punk. Go ahead.”
“What is that below your right eye?” Mort
said, struggling to keep his balance.
“What are you talking about, you little
Mort peered into the diseased flesh under
the kid’s eye, a seething decay that stretched tendrils
in a thousand directions. Transfixed, he watched the
sick tissue throb slowly. “Your right eye. There’s some
kind of growth or something just below. It’s not a
problem now, but it will be. Seriously, I’d have it
The blond kid stared, and Mort realized
that this would be a good time to stop talking. He
turned around and the two of them began walking back,
Tommy’s face scrunched tight with the anticipation of a
fist in his back. But it wasn’t until they’d gotten well
out of punch-range that blond kid’s voice rang out.
“Yeah, you’d better walk away, you
wussies,” he shouted, though Mort could have sworn he
heard a tremor there.
The hallway mayhem began anew as they
melted back into the crowd, a cacophony of yells and
banging metal. Mort returned to his pack and closed his
eyes, feeling sweat drip down his chest. He opened his
eyes again to see Jim staring at both of them.
“OK, what just happened there?”
Visibly shaken, Tommy just shook his head.
“I have no idea.”
First period found Jim, Tommy, and Mort
sitting in science class, as far to the back of the
classroom as possible. Mrs. Arnaud droned on in the
background, while Jim picked at the wood chips on his
desk, and Tommy drew a hand in his notebook.
“Now remember, the science project will be
thirty percent of your grade, so this is your chance to
really show me what you’ve got,” Mrs. Arnaud said
brightly. Mildly intrigued, Mort watched her arm-fat
jiggle with every mark on the chalkboard.
“You’ve got two months, people, and in that
time, I want to see that you’ve used the scientific
method or a bit of clever engineering to research a
topic, or build something that will solve a problem.
It’s OK if someone helps you, but you have to present on
your own. If you need ideas, I’ve got a list of
projects--from studying fish growth rates at different
light levels, to building a circuit, to using a
microscope to research the effects of soap on bacteria.”
“I’m going to use a microscope to count the
bacteria in my boogers,” Tommy whispered, causing Mort
to issue a loud snort.
Mrs. Arnaud turned to look at them. “And
Mort, since you seem to have something to say, you can
be the first presenter.”
Tommy grinned at Mort, and Mort kicked him
under the desk.
Mort put his head in his hands. First day
of Middle School, and he’d already been harassed and
he’d tweaked his science teacher. It was going to be a
A bank of gray clouds followed Mort home
that day after school. Much as he tried to squash the
memory, shouts of ‘Hey Frankenstein’ rang through his
skull like some frantic train bell. Today, his family’s
oddities were a giant brick-stuffed suitcase chained to
He got home and stomped up the spiral
staircase to Cadvir’s room in the North Tower, expelling
dust clouds and passing his mom’s bat paintings, which
lined the tower walls like some vampiric animation show.
Mort stood in his dad’s doorway and stared
at Cadvir asleep in his bed, a padded cushion walled on
all sides by wooden planks. How had he never noticed its
resemblance to an open casket? And his dad’s sleep, so
still and silent--was his chest even moving?
Cadvir’s eyes shot open, and he bent to a
perfect ‘L’ sitting position, an eerie movement that
resembled a marionette being pulled up by its strings.
“Mort! Would you like a tonic?”
Mort blinked. “Uh, no thanks. Dad, why do
you sleep in a coffin?”
Cadvir seemed genuinely surprised. He
twisted to look around him, then turned back to Mort.
“What? No! Young larva, you know I retain problems
rolling during my slumbers. These planks prevent me from
descending to certain harm during the darkness. Much of
our family suffer this ailment; I’m told all slept this
way in the Old Country.”
“That was France, right?”
Cadvir grinned, a toothy smile that seemed
to stretch from ear to ear. Somewhere, a light
Mort scowled. “If we’re from France, how
come our last name doesn’t have the stupid nasal twang
to it? Why do we have to pronounce ‘Passon’ like someone
is dying? And how come--“
“Mort!” Cadvir said sternly. “So many
inquesteries on this black, moonless night.”
“It’s afternoon, dad--“
“--Perhaps we have not spent enough
friendship time of late,” Cadvir said, concerned. “Come,
let us journey downstairs to hammer fourteenth-century
torture implements in a time of father-son bonding.”
“No thanks, dad.” Mort sighed. “Where’s
“She paints in the South Tower.”
Mort knew better than to disturb his mom’s
painting sessions with the various bat colonies and
rodent families living in the tower spire. He nodded,
and as he left the room, heard the ‘oomph’ of Cadvir
slamming back down to his bed.
He stomped down the staircase and walked
toward Tarantia’s room, listening to the sounds of
screeching guitar and heavy base grow louder with every
step. Stopping before her door, he watched it vibrate in
time to the cacophonic drums. After a long internal
debate, he steeled himself and knocked.
Sounds of three locks turning, then the
door opened to release a physical shockwave of reverb,
and the visual shockwave that was seventeen-year-old
Mort felt the air compress around his body,
his eardrums screaming for mercy as he stared into his
sister’s scowling face. It was a face of heavy black
lipstick and shaved eyebrows replaced by thin pencil
lines--an angry inverted triangle pointing to her
thrice-pierced nose. Her hair was formed into black
spikes that circled her head like the Statue of Liberty
crown, matching the spikes on her leather boots.
“What do you want, Coyote Meat?” She yelled
over the music.
“I want to know how you made it through
Middle School,” Mort shouted back.
Black lipstick curved into an upward
triangle. “You piddled on yourself at school?” she
Mort shook his head. “I want to know how
you made it through Junior High!”
Tarantia’s frown returned, as if trying to
decide between admitting him or squishing him under one
studded boot. Finally, she stepped back. Mort walked in,
quickly scanning her room.
To his left, a black hat swarming with
wasps. To the front, a concert poster of Marilyn Manson,
ripped in four lines, like someone had raked sharp
fingernails through it. Next to that, black and white
posters of dead bodies from historic crime scenes,
glaring down on Cthulhu the Python, who was currently
wrapped around a bedpost and two lamps. To his right was
the door, studded with three deadbolts to thwart Uncle
Fantome’s occasional attempts to rescue Cthulhu’s rodent
lunch. All of it a blur of vibration, as the
wall-mounted speakers shook the foundations.
Tarantia touched her sound system, the
music stopped, and Mort stumbled forward, as if someone
had just depressurized the room. He dug a finger in his
“Wow. Was that organ music I heard, behind
the jet engine noise and the insane screaming?”
Tarantia grinned, her pencil-line eyebrows
moving close together. “You bet. That’s Fecesium, the
hottest band in Pulpit Metal.”
“Pulpit metal? Is that a thing?”
She watched him in pity. “Oh Mort. Are they
picking on you? It’s no wonder; you’re such a scrawny,
Tarantia cracked her knuckles. “You want to
know how I made it through Middle School? I did it by
being bad-ass. By making sure anyone who crossed me
would pay for it later. By getting a reputation.
Here, look at this.” She brought the black hat and a
trailing cloud of wasps closer to Mort. “When I walk
around with this hat, what do people see?”
“A lunatic who’s going to need a
“No! They see someone who doesn’t give a
crap. Anybody who’d wear this would just as soon tear
your head off as look at you. No one picks on a kid
wearing a wasp hat.” She put the hat down and dug
through her skull-shaped black bag. Then she walked to
Mort with a jar of black paint and a brush. “I’m going
to help you. Stand still.”
She proceeded to dab black paint around
Mort’s eyes, as wasps flew through his vision and landed
on her hands. “There,” she said, eyeing her work
critically. “That’s the first step. You got to look like
you don’t care, and black eye-rings are a start. You’re
going to be my project this year. Come back every week,
and I’ll turn you into a dark minion of death that no
one will mess with.”
“Uh, ok...” Mort said, getting up. He was
pretty sure he wouldn’t be coming back; he really wasn’t
fond of any strategy that increased his weirdness level.
He turned to say something else to Tarantia, decided
against it, and walked to the door.
But just as he grabbed the doorknob, hell
froze over: Tarantia turned Mort around and wrapped her
arms around him.
“Middle school sucked,” she said, holding
him tightly. “I remember. But stay awesome, and it will
get better. I promise.” Mort hugged her back after one
shocked moment, trying to remember the last time his
sister had displayed any remotely human trait. He
figured it had been somewhere south of thirteen.
Tarantia pushed him away, her scowl back in
place. “Now scram, before I feed you to Cthulhu.”
Confused, Mort found himself shoved out the
door and blasted with music again, as the three locks
clicked behind him. He sighed and ran a hand through
closely cropped hair. After a moment’s deliberation, he
began walking to the basement staircase to see Uncle
Fantome. With all the loonies in this household, it was
a strange fact that his dead-animal zapping,
masochistic, mouth-scarred uncle was sometimes the
sanest adult in the castle.
Sounds of sobbing wafted from below as he
descended to Fantome’s workshop. Mort entered the open
doorway to see his uncle holding a dead skunk in two
hands, his needle-encrusted dome bent over the
Fantome lifted watery eyes, moving slowly
lest the sharp inward spikes on his leather vest press
too deeply into his shoulder. “Oh, Mort. This one left
babies, and a mate. Why can’t I bring her back? Why?”
Mort shook his head and stepped closer,
watching Fantome wipe his eyes in careful movements. Of
all the freakazoids in Family Passon, Fantome took the
circus sideshow award. Every morning, he pushed hundreds
of needles into a perforated metal helmet, just far
enough in to cause him pain with every head-turn. He
wore leather vests with spikes sewn into the inseam,
ensuring a constant supply of new puncture wounds. His
mouth was sea of scars, the result of a lifetime of
meals eaten from the end of a sharp knife. And for all
that, Fantome’s demonic metal tortures masked the
gentlest soul Mort had ever known.
“Everything has to go sometime,” Mort said
“But not so early,” Fantome sniffed. “She
was so young, oh, so young. I buzzed her for three
hours, but still she wouldn’t come back to me.” He wiped
his nose then stared at Mort, his scalp-needle forest
glinting in the dull light.
“What is that around your eyes?”
Mort self-consciously rubbed his eyes.
“Tarantia painted eye-rings for me, said it would make
me a bad-ass at school.”
Fantome looked pained -- this time,
mentally. “You can count on the fact that everything
uttered by any seventeen-year old girl is patently
false. They’ll start making some true statements again
by twenty, and once they’re married, everything they say
is right. But at seventeen, it’s all crap.” He walked
slowly to Mort and rubbed the makeup off, grunting as
the shoulder spikes dug into his flesh. “Why would you
let her do this?”
Mort shuffled his feet. “I don’t know. I
went to ask her how she survived Middle School, and it
spun out of control from there.”
Fantome cocked his head. “I think I just
picked up KFMR. Happens occasionally with the hundred
antennas on my scalp.” He looked back at Mort. “Anyway,
school problems, huh? Don’t I know how that feels.”
Mort scowled. “What’s wrong with our
family? We’re all so frickin’ weird, and I don’t
think Mom and Dad even realize it. I got harassed on my
first day of school, and now I have this stupid science
project that I don’t know how to complete, and I ticked
off my science teacher. Middle and High school are going
to suck so heavily.”
Fantome twisted thin lips surrounded by
scars. “So they’ve never told you have they? About our
Mort shook his head.
Wincing, Fantome pulled up a chair and sat
down. “Mort, way back when, our ancestors were in a
class of people called Animators.”
“What, they worked for Pixar?”
“Don’t be smart. Animators were folks with
some special connection to the dead, professional
psychics who could temporarily infuse living creatures
with deceased spirits. People would hire us to lie in
the grave with a loved one, then cast their spirit into
a willing volunteer for one last conversation.
Sometimes, when there was no human volunteer, we’d even
animate farm creatures, so the deceased could be around
their loved one a few days more.”
Mort stared. “That’s crazy.”
Fantome sat back slowly. “Is it? Then why
does every person in this family have some preoccupation
with death? Your dad sleeps in a coffin. Your mom bakes
food shaped like body parts. Your sister posts pictures
of dead people on her wall. You have a knack for seeing
death, and me...,” he pointed to the rows of power
supplies and cables used to shoot electricity through
dead animals..., “I have this.”
Mort swept his gaze across the lab
equipment, and felt a rare insight. “You hurt yourself
to block out their pain, don’t you?”
Fantome nodded, a blur of bobbing head
spikes. “I’m cursed with empathy, Mort. I can’t stand
their anguish; I see it, I feel it. It makes me crazy.
Only by taking on some small measure of their pain can I
sleep at night.”
Mort smiled. For some reason, he felt
better. And he realized that of all the people in this
fortress asylum, he was by far the closest to his
disturbed uncle, a lost soul who felt emotions that made
sense. If that made Mort even more of a freak, then so
“I have an idea for your science project,”
Fantome said. He got up slowly, grabbed a metal box,
then pressed several buttons. Loud grinding echoed from
a basement corner, followed by a humming sound. Then,
there was a crash of something falling to the floor, and
a huge metal thing began rolling toward them.
Mort stared at the gleaming black robot, a
five-foot high creature of dark metal tubing, rotating
camera lenses, and giant battery packs. It rode forward
on four spherical wheels, stopped about ten feet away,
and raised one arm. Then, with a loud crackling sound, a
lightning bolt appeared between two electrodes at the
tip of the arm.
“That is absolutely the coolest thing I’ve
ever seen,” Mort whispered. He knew Fantome had spent
years getting his Ph.D in electrical engineering, but he
had no idea he’d been working on this. “And
you’ll let me use it for my science project?”
“On one condition,” Fantome said slyly.
“I’ve built Rob-Zombie here with every potential for
full autonomy, but no software to drive it. I’ve got
microcontrollers on every joint, every axis, and each of
them can control the stepper motors with maximum
granularity. But so far, all the main CPU software does
is accept commands from this remote controller. I want
to give Rob-Zombie life.”
Mort swallowed. “What are you saying?”
“Animation, Mort,” Fantome hissed. His eyes
bulged outward like some giant, spiked insect. “Our
ancestors could animate pigs, sheep, all kinds of
creatures besides humans. I want to animate Rob here,
and you’re the one to do it!”
Mort stared. “Why me? And who’s going to
dig up some cemetery plot anyway?”
Fantome rushed toward him and stopped,
groaning in pain. He wiggled the spikes in, then
finished a much slower move to Mort’s side. “You have
the power, Mort, I can feel it. The strongest animators
were those who could see death, and in our family,
that’s only we two. But you’re much stronger. And we
don’t need to go to a cemetery; we have Great-uncle
Ghuld’s remains. I’ve already dug a grave for just this
purpose -- though I was going to try to do it myself.”
“This is absolutely insane, Mort said as
he stomped up the basement stairs. He stopped at the
top, not turning around. “Let me think about it.”
That evening at dinner, Mort picked at his
food, thinking. Cadvir sat at the head of their
dragon-legged table reciting poetry, while Demisse
mechanically stabbed at her stew, her eyes that pale
crimson color they got when she was half-missing.
Fantome ate quietly, sometimes grunting as the sharp end
of the knife hit him on the lip, while Tarantia bobbed
her shoulders, her headphones blaring music so loud it
was enough to vibrate the wasp hat atop her head.
All of them in their own worlds, ignoring
Cadvir’s lilting poetry recital. Mort ate listlessly,
re-hashing his choices. He’d love to have a cool robot
for a science project, but what if it was so weird, none
of his friends would talk to him again? Wouldn’t it be
safer to do some study on how soap killed bacteria?
One of Tarantia’s wasps buzzed across
Mort’s vision, and landed in his heart-beet salad.
“Mom!” Mort said, disgusted.
Demisse’s eyes shifted from pale pink to
full glowing red, as if she’d just returned from some
distant planet. “Tarantia. Keep your beasts away from
Tarantia pretended not to hear, but she
kicked Mort under the table, then got up and moved one
seat over. And that’s when it dawned on Mort. The robot
would be his way of being bad-ass. He didn’t need paint,
he didn’t need attitude. For once he was going to use
weirdness to his advantage. He was going to do the
coolest thing that had ever been done in school, and if
it was so cool that no one got it, well who cared
He looked at a bloody-mouthed Fantome from
across the table. “I’m in.”
Fantome smiled widely.
The next two months were a blur. Mort spent
every free moment down in the basement with Fantome,
soldering loose capacitors, binning parts, and helping
Fantome load the latest microcontroller code into the
little processors that moved Rob’s legs, arms, and
cameras. After Mort suggested that they should mount
their old garbage disposal on Rob’s left arm, they spent
days beefing up the unit to five horsepower, and another
week re-building the back brace to hold a bigger car
The main microprocessor in Rob-Zombie’s
brain-case held only enough smarts to receive signals
from the remote and communicate those to the smaller
microcontrollers--Fantome insisted it do nothing more
than that, so there’d be enough “space” for Ghuld’s
personality to settle right in. Mort had no idea whether
this made sense, but he figured none of it really made
sense if you stopped and thought about it. So, he kept
his mouth shut.
At school, he continued to get the
stink-eye from the blond ninth grader, whose name he
learned was Sean Rikers. Sean threw the occasional
hallway barb Mort’s way but never openly challenged him,
as if afraid to hear another word about his eye. And
that was perfectly fine with Mort -- he could handle any
stupidity if it meant he didn’t have to go toe-to-toe
with a ninth grader.
So it was that the two months flew by as if
they were nothing.
The Thursday night before the science
project was due, Mort, Fantome, and Rob-Zombie stood
over the six-foot grave Fantome had dug in the back of
their yard, with Mort holding Ghuld’s remains.
“Didn’t dad complain about this giant hole
in the yard?” Mort asked.
“Are you kidding? He asked me if he could
sleep in it.” Fantome pushed some buttons on the remote,
and Rob-Zombie rolled to the hand-cranked platform.
“Here goes,” Mort said, following the
robot to the wooden slat. Fantome began turning the
hand-crank, grimacing as the spikes dug into his torso.
“Now remember,” he grunted, as Mort and Rob descended
into the pit. “Keep in contact with Rob and Ghuld at all
The platform hit the ground, and Mort lay
back with the urn on his chest, grabbing one of
Rob-Zombie’s wheels. He stared at the rectangle of night
sky from the grave’s bottom, reflecting on the
strangeness of what he was doing. Yet being here didn’t
feel creepy or claustrophobic. To Mort it felt oddly
Night settled in, and soon the only sounds
were the chirps of crickets and occasional sigh from
above, where Fantome watched over the grave. Mort’s mind
began to wander, casting the four walls of his tomb in
blurry edges. He looked at his chest and saw an orange
glow surrounding the urn--Ghuld’s spirit essence, no
more alive than a video recording. He focused on this,
watching the orange glow reshape and ooze, like a jar of
thick liquid. Then, without warning, that orange glow
crawled up his arm, through his chest, and into
Mort shuddered, feeling an alien presence
that lasted but a second before it was gone. The robot
seemed to vibrate, and Mort sat up, fully awake. The
vertical camera mounted on Rob’s front shifted up by 3
“Uh, Fantome...” Mort said softly. Then the
robot’s swiveling horizontal camera mount began twirling
about its head, the voice synthesizer LED lit up, and a
computer voice sounded.
“It’s damn dark in here. Someone light a
draft card.” The monotone voice began warbling in
something that might have been distantly related to a
“Fantome!” Mort shouted.
“Eureka!” Came Fantome’s cry from above,
and then sounds of the turning crank intermixed with
yelps of pain, as Fantome began furiously cranking the
platform out of the hole. As they reached the top, Ghuld
rolled his way off the platform, his horizontal camera
“What a drag. Let’s split this scene--”
Fantome yanked the power cord out of the
battery socket, and Ghuld went dark. “You have to save
as much juice as you can,” he said, head-spikes glinting
in the moonlight. “Ghuld’s animation will only last a
couple days, but you’ll have enough time to do what you
Mort nodded, grinning. Tomorrow was going
to be an interesting day.
The next morning, Mort waited with Ghuld at
the street corner, watching his friends’ eyes grow wider
as they approached from down the block. Tommy and Jim
walked tentatively to Ghuld, then began inspecting his
cameras, battery pack, and the garbage disposal on his
“Dude...” Tommy started.
“My science project,” Mort said, grinning.
“Pretty cool, huh?”
“Way cool,” Jim said softly.
“So how does it move?” Tommy asked
excitedly. “Is there a remote control or something?”
Ghuld’s front-mounted vertical camera slid
upward until it reached Tommy’s eye level. “Why do all
you cats have buzz-cuts? You’re not John Birchers, are
Jim and Tommy stood still as rocks.
Mort grinned. “My uncle and I programmed
him to sound like a 60’s war demonstrator,” he said,
hooking two index fingers.
Jim turned an intense stare on Mort. “Do
you know what I’m not going to do? I’m not going to ask
why you just made air quotes when you said ‘program’.”
“So freaking sweet,” Tommy
exclaimed, practically skipping around Ghuld. “Mort,
this is seriously the most awesome thing I’ve ever seen.
Jim, hand me your new Iphone, I need to look up John
They began walking and rolling to school,
and Ghuld’s horizontal camera rotated to take in the
rows of identical red-roofed houses. “Depressing, man.
This is some kind of suburban hell...”
As they walked, kids left their houses to
follow them, many coming up to Ghuld and touching his
metal casing, or dancing in front of his cameras. By the
time they reached school, Ghuld was leading an army of
children behind him, and this only drew even more crowds
when they stepped onto campus. The bell had rung, but
those still on their way to class stopped what they were
doing to swarm around Ghuld. The robot waded into the
crowds fearlessly, stopped, and rotated its head mount
“Groovy, we’ve got enough here to get this
little protest noticed,” came Ghuld’s mechanical voice.
It raised the electrode arm, and a bolt of electricity
shot between two prongs. “You ankle-biters over there
form a line. When the fuzz comes, we’ll charge ‘em
before the water cannons come out...”
This seemed only to further draw in the
crowd, and Mort called out before he was pressed out of
earshot. “Ghuld, I’ve got a whole class full of kids who
support the war. You need to come talk to them.”
Ghuld swiveled his camera toward Mort.
“Lead me to those idiot sticks,” he said. Mort turned
and led Ghuld and his entourage to the door of Mrs.
Arnaud’s class. He motioned Ghuld to stay put, then
entered the classroom with Tommy and Jim.
Suzie Emerson was just walking back to her
seat when they entered, and Mrs. Arnaud turned a stern
gaze their way. “Mort, you were to be the first speaker,
and you’re late. Susan just presented her project on
snail locomotion; I hope you can show us something
“Oh this is almost too beautiful,” Tommy
said, finding his seat.
“My science project is Ghuld the robot,”
Mort said theatrically, then turned to the door. “Ghuld,
please come in now.”
Ghuld wheeled in, his garbage disposal
going full tilt, and bolts of electricity shooting
through his fingertips. The class stared in dumbstruck
silence as Ghuld rolled to the front and stopped. He
moved his vertical camera up and down twice.
“What are all you little fascists looking
Mrs. Arnaud sat down.
“Do you Dullsville Dorks even know what’s
going on in the world?” Ghuld said, his mechanical voice
removing any sting from his words. “Out there, thousands
are dying every month fighting Johnson’s war, dropping
Napalm on innocent Vietnamese children. We are going to
put a stop to it. Now repeat after me: ‘One, two, three,
four, we don’t want your freaking war!”
For a long moment, the only sound in the
room was the hum of fluorescent lights.
Ghuld’s garbage disposal arm whirred.
“What, are you cats deaf? I said...”
This time, a few of Mort’s classmates
joined in the chant. The next time through, it was half
the class. And by the fourth chant, even Mrs. Arnaud was
pumping her fist in the air, yelling for an end to the
“Ghuld,” Tommy called, raising his arm.
“Do you have anything to say to all the...,“ he looked
at Jim’s Iphone, “...John Birchers in the room?”
Ghuld’s lights blinked, and his garbage
disposal arm cranked up to full speed. “Damn Bircher
right-wing nutcakes!” Ghuld rolled to a desk in the
front row and fed a mechanical pencil into his arm,
shooting plastic shavings from the garbage disposal’s
other end. “Bunch of racist quacks. Why don’t they
volunteer for the draft if they love it so much?” Ghuld
flew into a frenzy then. He began circling around the
class, collecting pencils and feeding them into the
grinder on his arm. Everyone ducked as Ghuld rolled down
the aisles, spraying pencil shavings in every direction.
Finally, he circled a desk and rolled out the door, his
synthesized voice spouting expletives that faded into
The classroom was silent as a tomb. Mort
stood tentatively. “Mrs. Arnaud I...”
“You better go get him,” said a white-faced
Mort rushed to the door, then stopped and
turned back to her. “Um. I get an A, right?”
Mrs. Arnaud broke her dull stare to look at
the pencil shavings covering her classroom. “Only
because I have to reduce all this to some kind of
That weekend was a good one. Neighborhood
kids Mort had seen but never met knocked on his door,
asking if Ghuld could come out and play. Some of them
brought branches and toothbrushes to see if Ghuld’s
cranked-up garbage disposal could shred them into pulp.
Unfortunately, as Fantome predicted, Ghuld’s spirit had
fled Rob-Zombie by Sunday, and according to Fantome, it
was impossible to animate the same vessel twice. But
while Mort had to invent stories about software glitches
and broken parts, it turned out not to matter too much.
Mostly, those kids were fascinated by the neighborhood
castle, and really just wanted an excuse to meet the
bizarre family that called it home. Mort was sure that a
few of them would eventually become friends.
The following Monday, Mort, Tommy, and Jim
walked down the East Hallway, noticing a subtle change
in the air. Mort could almost swear that Roseville
Middle School had somehow become--friendlier.
Kids who’d never even noticed him now nodded in his
direction, or gave him a brief smile as they passed.
“Whoa, look at this,” Jim said pointing.
They stopped to stare incredulously at the giant banner
over the lockers: an American flag with a peace sign
where the stars should have been. Below it was a picture
of Ghuld the robot, and the words “Charge ‘em before the
water cannons come out,” in bold blue highlight.
“Hey, Mort,” called a voice, and Mort
turned to see Sean Rikers and his two cohorts walking
by, each wearing a haircut that came to a point over
each eye, just like Mort.
Mort lifted a couple fingers. “Uh, hi...”
The three of them turned to stare at the
ninth graders’ retreating backs, until the bigger kids
became swallowed by the crowds.
After a long, silent moment, Tommy shook
his head. “It is going to be a strange year.”