TJ Moore Books

Who doesn't want to work for a mad scientist?

LISTEN TO THE COMPLETE SHORT STORY - 14 MIN. FREE AUDIO BOOK

Note: The following is a ‘help wanted’ column fictitiously published by a 17-year-old kid named Zach in Popular Science magazine. There is a huge picture of frizzy, red hair across the first page of the article.

LAB APPRENTICE WANTED

$500,000 STARTING SALARY*

POSITION: EXPERIMENTAL ASSISTANT.

EDUCATION BACKGROUND: WELDING, PhD IN PHYSICS (AND ORGANIC CHEMISTRY, IF POSSIBLE).

OTHER REQUIRED SKILLS: HOLDING BREATH, HOLDING WRENCHES, JUST…UH…IF YOU CAN HOLD STUFF…YOU’RE BETTER THAN THE MONKEY I HIRED LAST YEAR FROM NASA. HE WAS AN IDIOT.

NOW, WIPE THAT ORANGE CHEETO DUST OFF YOUR FINGERTIPS. YOU DON’T WANT TO DROP THIS MAGAZINE ONTO YOUR OILY THIGHS. IT WILL SLIP RIGHT OFF AND KNOCK OVER YOUR DIET MOUNTAIN DEW. DON’T DENY IT. I CAN FEEL THE TINGLE OF CARBONATION FROM HERE. IF YOU SPILL THAT URINE-COLORED SODA, YOU WILL HAVE AN ANT INFESTATION FOR A VERY LONG TIME. I’VE BEEN THERE; AND YOU DON’T WANT THAT.

IF THE TECHNICAL JARGON IS TOO MUCH FOR YOU, KEEP READING. IT’S GOOD FOR YOU TO UNDERSTAND HOW REAL PEOPLE SOLVE REAL PROBLEMS. THAT IS, OF COURSE, IF YOU SEE TIME TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS AS A PROBLEM.

*(ACTUAL WAGES BASED ON PERFORMANCE)

———

Get this through your fat skull: I don’t hire spineless jellyfish.

A little background about myself (before you sell your soul to work for me, unconditionally* (insert evil laugh here).

My red hair is all part of my look.

I don’t have to do much to keep it frizzy since the static electricity in my room is equivalent to rubbing two football fields of carpet together. The frizz deflates a bit when I’m in school, but it springs right back where it was during physics class.

Some kids call me Blaze or Flame, even Fire-Fro (that’s my favorite); but my real name is Zach Burns. Fire-fro is especially cool because it accurately describes one of the ways I pass time. When I’m not in my room studying the theory of relativity, you can usually find me in the backyard setting stuff on fire. I’m not dangerous or reckless about it. But I am calculated and observant. When I light an object, like a vanilla wafer, on fire, I’m looking for very specific things:

How long does it take to burn to its essential carbon base?

What is the consistency of the smoke?

How do the flames interact with the oxygen around the wafer?

Is there much of a difference if I stack the wafers vs. lining them up like soldiers?

All of these details are an important part of how I see the world. Now, I’m not one of those kids who wants to destroy things for the sake of destruction. And I don’t, as they say, “want to watch the world burn.” But you can accuse me of being a pyromaniac simply because I burn objects regularly. And it does give me great pleasure.

Some kids at my high school used to make fun of me because I wear a pleated, white lab coat everywhere I go. I wear to it to English, Math, and even Sculpture class. I do this to protect myself from the staggering stupidity around me. Yes, stupid is a strong word, but I use it with the utmost respect. There are many other words I could use instead. Yet, I’ve found it’s more important to call things as I see them. As Mr. Forrest Gump said, “Stupid is as stupid does,” and there’s enough stupid to go around at Ridgemont High.

I’m writing this column in search of an apprentice. If you think like me, and if what I lay out in the next few pages interests you, please zap me an email at FireFroLab@gmail.com.

You may have heard of me before.

I was featured on the cover of WIRED magazine last year for shipping in 400 gallons of real molten lava from various active volcanoes in the ring of fire. I took the volcano project in Earth / Space Science class very seriously. I thought my teacher, Mr. Clayborne, was going to be furious when the lava truck arrived, but he actually coerced the principal into holding a school assembly that highlighted my demonstration.

Sometimes its healthy for every mad scientist to leave a reclusive state and attempt a foray into the public eye.

Again, fire served me well. And for the first time, I gained a few local fans. CBS news showed up, and then WIRED picked up the story from there: a natural media progression that grew from the brilliance of my concept. And best of all, I didn’t have to sell my soul on social media to gain the attention either. The idea spoke for itself.

Students have no excuse to be bored in high school. No excuse whatsoever. If they took all of the energy they put towards dramatic high school relationships, 90 percent of which fail within six months), and aimed it toward scientific pursuits, I’m confident they would find more meaning than the aforementioned alternative could ever bring.

How much enjoyment can anyone really get from kissing an acne-covered, teenage girl anyway? Adolescent faces are living petri dishes. The classifications of bacteria, if fully understood and documented, would put a stop to teenage make-out sessions once and for all, not only in the United States, but the world over.

And if adequate studies were to be published upon these grounds, there would not only be outrage, but disgust at even the thought of holding hands, not to mention all the other forms of PDA. Although the world should, I argue, be aware of the micro-organizations crawling on their own faces, I try not to let these micro issues distract me from my own experimental interests.

I have too many calculations to crunch.

If the acne bit grossed you out or pissed on your hushpuppies, you are most likely not qualified to apply for apprenticeship. Get that bag of Cheetos ready, Buster.

———

Now, I’d like to give you a virtual tour of my lab, the very lab you will work in if you are outstanding in your application and interview.

The house in which I live is notorious for tricking people with regard to its scale. A formidable optical illusion by any standards, my house is much larger on the inside than it appears from the street. This is caused by the ever-sloping incline that dictates the curved sections of the top two floors, leading into the steep roof. If viewed from an aerial cross-section, the funhouse functionality of the structure is dutifully revealed. All other perspectives skew the structure’s true form.

That being said, my lab encompasses the entire top-floor, a fully refurbished attic decked out with the latest apparatus in scientific research. On the north side, there is a hadron particle collider similar to the famous one, CERN, although much, much smaller, a flux oscillation chamber, meteorology-tracking Doppler radar, a CT scanner, forced osmosis regulator, color-dye selection, fully stocked hard drive render farm, and my very own rat maze.

On the south side, the Rube Goldberg electrical circuitry catalyst feeds into the copper-wire Tesla coil, a staple of any energy-efficient lab, salad dressing emulsifier, elemental centrifuge station complete with self-actuating cylinders, and the hydraulic lift that leads down to the lower levels of the house.

The east and west corners of the lab are meticulously organized into storage areas for all the materials I use to conduct experiments, including my welding gear, fiber-glass protective shield zone, nuts and bolts drawers, power drills, table saw, glass cutters, airbrush station, scissor-lift, and self-cleaning crane.

If you haven’t noticed by now, I don’t mess around.

And yeah, spoiled-brat is an understatement. My parents give me their full financial support including insurance coverage on all my equipment. But don’t make fun of me for these faults. I’m only 17 years old. Besides, my parents will be paying your salary, perspective apprentice, until I successfully crack the problem of time travel, which as you can imagine, may take a while.

Once you are employed, I will not pay for your meals, but I will supply an endless mini-fridge of RedBull—and trust me—it shall give you wings. Gotta love a little product placement. I’ll be expecting my monthly royalties in the mail. Unfortunately, my address is classified.

But if you are working with me when I solve the problem of time travel, thus counteracting, even dismissing and rewriting Einstein’s theory of relativity, you will experience fame that no tabloid piranhas can touch, fame that extends beyond money, and with that fame, more power than is currently knowable.

To have power over space and time is to have power in its purest form. And when I achieve that level of influence, you will be at my side. Throughout our journey to TIME LORD status—it gives me shivers—you will be financially incentivized on each project. Not if, but when we reach our goal, I will be a god, and you shall be the physical entity of our multi-trillion-dollar corporation, with our global economic reign serving as the invisible force that binds us together in an unbroken trinity.

In this modest column, I’m not able to detail every step of my goal; but I assure you, the plans have been drawn up. I must continue the work. And I cannot do it alone. That is why I need you, perspective apprentice to lend a hand. More than that, I need a beautiful mind, one capable of reaching past the boundaries of scientific pursuit into new territory, new frontiers. By the way, I heart Star Trek.

Just a brief warning: I do have an aversion for the name Lenny since that was the name of incompetent monkey from NASA I fired last year. So, if your name is indeed Lenny, don’t worry about applying. Your application will be shredded post-haste. And if you are in this particular predicament, I strongly advise an immediate name change.

However, I could be flexible on this point, since I will usually refer to you as “Igor,” a term of endearment. I’ll rephrase that. I will call you Igor when you are doing well, but in times of failure, I will call you Scum, for that is what every one of failure should be called. But never Lenny.

I hated Lenny. He almost reversed the evolutionary process by simply being alive. In the wild, natural selection would have taken care of Lenny via falling space debris. My tongue goes limp when I try to say it. The word dribbles from my lips like a lukewarm broth; and not in a good way.

There. Now you know.

Thanks for nothing, NASA.

I am the proud owner of the world’s largest collection of TV monitors. It’s no secret that time travel will be possible only through the use of electro-magnetic pulses. TVs already have that going for them. The strongest currents are conducted through the older models. I find them cheap: garage sales, curbs, and dumpster-diving at electronics stores. Ideally, once I’m a bona fide Time Lord, I’ll not only be able to visit any time period I want, but I’ll have the power to infiltrate any TV program or movie ever produced.

The jury is still out about the exact physics of all of that, but that’s my primary thesis. Sure, it would be neat to to travel back to Egyptian times and supervise the pyramids being built; but it would be even more fun to join Doctor Who on his travels across space and time. Since Doctor Who is a fictional character, I would have to manipulate the electro-magnetic pulses to open different portals into all forms of fictional media.

Now, you may be wondering what the potential dangers are if those portals went two ways, if they were accessible from either side. And honestly, you should be concerned. The trillions (googolplex, really) of unknown variables would definitely elevate the danger zone.

But I’m not going to let that stop me. Science moves forward when people face the risk with ideas, with ingenuity. Walt Disney always told his artists to “keep moving forward,” and he was so right. I mean, he was Walt freaking Disney. He had what it took to make magic from nothing.

And so, that’s what I’m asking of you. Simple enough.

Will it be daunting? Yes.

Will it be frightening? Yes.

Will I allow you to ask me this many questions when you’re holding the zappy end of a flux defibrillator? Absolutely not. Should that discourage you from applying? Well, that, my friend, is up to you. I do not hire spineless jellyfish. Although, it would be electrifying.

*(APPLICATIONS ARE $99, START SAVING, KIDS.)

Peace out

Zach Burns, Fire-Fro

Copyright © 2016 by TJ Moore

LISTEN TO THE SHORT STORY - FREE AUDIO BOOK

TheMainAttraction_TJMoore_TJMooreBooks

Pet shops are dangerous places after dark.

THE MAIN ATTRACTION

I’ll never work at a pet shop again. It’s more than just the terror I experienced. My morals have changed. I no longer think it’s a good thing to keep animals caged up in close quarters with no exercise and no real care. Actually, it disgusts me. I secretly believe nature sees everything. It probably wants all the animals back in the wild. That’s where I believe they belong. But I didn’t always think about animals that way. I respect them now because I fear them. I’ve seen what they can do.

Growing up, I thought animals were nature’s little angels with their oh-so-obedient whiskers. My hamster would trundle over and softly nudge my ankles with his wet nose. That was before I had any real responsibility toward animals.

Those warm and fuzzy feelings are in the past.

That was all before I met Skittles.

Mr. Vinny’s Pet Emporium was tucked away in a New Jersey town I’d rather not name. For those of you that have spent a while in Jersey, you’ll know where I’m talking about. As for the rest of you, just imagine a town where more white-trash-dumpster-divers die from falling vending machines than dump truck accidents. Of all the horrific ways to go, an unbalanced vending machine just might make the late nightly news. Oddly enough, this tragic phenomenon happens so often here in ___________ New Jersey that onlookers simply chase after rolling cans of free Mountain Dew instead of calling 911.

That’s just one example of the ass-backwards priorities in Jersey. That awful Jersey Shore TV show, staged and fake as it is, provides a small glimpse into the ongoing drama that does happen. Some people outside the state joke about that show being a documentary. And from what I’ve seen, they have a valid point.

Why is this town so insane? Has civilization declined this far in morality? These are the questions that used to keep me up at night before the animals took over.

———

I’ve worked for some memorable characters at different jobs, but none of them scared me as much as Vinny Johnson, the owner of the pet shop. He is a total douche bag and has one of those faces that looks like he sneezed wrong, scrambling his features. For example, his eyes are spread so far apart that he can watch NASCAR in the front row without turning his head. His mouth curls up in a permanent sneer—the aftermath of a nasty dog bite. There’s another scar that weaves between his eyebrows, ending just next to his bulbous nose. I’ve always wondered if his nose honks. But I’ve never been brave enough to give it a squeeze. He’d probably bite my finger off.

And boy-oh-boy, he likes to tell stories. They aren’t the kind of stories you’d tell at a picnic or family get-together. You wouldn’t—and shouldn’t—but he does.

Yeah, he’s not shy about his past. Our staff meetings were usually spent listening to one of his recent adventures. You see, he likes to travel as much as he can. When Vinny was a teenager, he began collecting snakes. He started with the kinds of snakes you’d expect: garden snakes, rattlesnakes, even vipers. But the sheer thrill of collecting the “tame ones,” as he called them, eventually lost its sting. I can’t make up this shit.

Now, I really have no idea where the hell he found one, but I’ll never forget the day—it was a Tuesday—that Vinny waltzed into the pet shop with a picture of his new specimen: a South American anaconda with thirteen stripes down its back.

I’d never seen Vinny so jacked before.

He was jumping up and down like a schoolgirl, waving the Polaroid picture around, trying to gauge our reactions. The other pet shop workers, Buzz and Phyllis, tried to act impressed. What a motely crew they are. Buzz even asked if he could get Vinny to sign a copy of the picture to post on eBay.

I could see through their empty grins.

Buzz hated snakes. He believed they slithered from volcanoes, straight from hell. His superstitious beliefs are kind of pathetic when you think about it. The snakes we kept in the shop didn’t bite since most of them were defanged.

Even so, Buzz refused to clean the snake cages. 

That job was usually up to me. 

Vinny never explained how he got the anaconda across the border or through customs. But there was a detail he wouldn’t shut up about: the price.

Vinny tucked the Polaroid into his leather jacket and took a deep breath before revealing how much legal tender he’d dumped on this prehistoric behemoth.

“Listen, guys. Listen,” he said, wiping sweat from his forehead. “You’ll never believe what I shelled out to get him. A beauty, he is. Gawd. You’ll never guess.”

“How much?” Buzz said. “Spit it out.”

“You sure you don’t want to sit down before. …”

“What?” Phyllis snapped her hand to her hip and tapped her foot. “Vinny, give us some credit here.”

 “How much?” Buzz actually looked like he wanted to know.

“Seven,” Vinny said.

Phyllis popped a bubble in her gum. “Seven …?”

“Thousand?” Buzz chimed in.

“Nah, guys. Come on,” Vinny said. “It’s a friggin’ anaconda. Not a beat up Toyota.”

“Seven million.” Phyllis leaned against the counter.

“Really, Phyllis? Nah! Naaaah, man. Seven. Ya know. Seven of the big G’s!”

“No way.” Buzz did that snapping thing with his fingers, a habit most people leave behind in middle school when they realize it leads to arthritis: the universal gesture for ‘poned.’

Vinny cracked his neck, letting off steam. “All right, enough guessing. I’ll tell you. Seven hundred thousand, baby. I’ve been saving up.”

“Holy shit!” Buzz just kept snapping his fingers into his wrist, hard and fast enough to start a fire. “You didn’t.”

“I sure did.”

Phyllis clenched one of her burly fists. “Don’t tell me that, Vinny.”

“What?”

“Don’t you tell me you burned that kind of money on a damn snake!” Her eyes went baseball wide then softball wide.

“And …?”

“God, you are really too much, Vinny. How many years have I been beggin’ for a raise? Or a rotten Christmas bonus?”

“Now look. …”

Phyllis flung her hands into the air, side-swiping the cockatoo cage. “That’s it, Vinny. I’m sick of it. I will not be upstaged by another pink-tongued serpent!”

She heaved herself over the checkout counter and swung her legs over the change jar, almost scattering hundreds of nickels and dimes across the linoleum. Phyllis plopped her middle-aged muffin top in front of the cash register and pulled out a stack of 20s. She riffled through the bills and shoved the wad of greasy cash into her bra, adjusting it without breaking eye-contact with Vinny. “I should have listened to my friends, Vin. They told me you’d pull something crazy like this. I just didn’t think it’d be another damn snake, you sonofabitch!”

“Hold on now. …” Vinny took a step toward the shop entrance and propped the door open with his right foot. A grin took over his face. Then he hollered out the door, “Steve-o! I think they’re ready to see it!”

Phyllis closed the cash register and froze. “No…No…No! You’d better not be doing what I. …”

Vinny spoke over her fear. “That’s right. It’s time to show him off. Get the cage ready, Buzz. Our little shop just got a main attraction. Okay, Steve-o, bring in Skittles. And put your gloves on. She’s probably hungry.” Then he let loose a fog-horn guffaw.

Phyllis marched out the back door. “Burn in hell, Vinny!” 

Vinny didn’t follow her.

The $230 she stole from the register would be back when she returned a few days later to reclaim her job. Vinny knew Phyllis would be back. In fact, he would have bet money on it. That’s just the kind of person he was; a gambling man. He and Phyllis had history. The romantic kind. Let’s just say she broke his heart, snapped it right in half. This wasn’t the first time Phyllis acted out this scene. It was her way.

Pure, unadulterated drama. She a diva and he a douche.

Thinking back on it, they were perfect for each other.

———

Vinny made me stay overnight to keep watch over Skittles. The first night with any new animal is always touch and go. I had to make sure the cages were air-tight and to start the regimented food cycle. For a snake thicker than a fire hose, the food portions are extreme. I prepared a full meal of seared beef tips, gravy, and asparagus. Any cowboy chuck wagon cook would have been proud. I usually tried to make the first meal special so the animals created a positive association with me in their minds. It was safer that way. At least, I thought it was.

After preparing Skittles’s meal, the charred BBQ smell made me hungry. I slid the snake’s food into a rotating compartment in the cage and cooked up a T-bone steak that had been calling my name in the freezer. She watched me cook the meat, flicking her tongue into the air, tasting the cloud of seasoning coming from the grill.

It was eerie at first, eating with the snake. She kept tilting her head down, always keeping me in the corner of her eye. Skittles was sizing me up: she the prehistoric predator; I the potential prey. Thank God for that steel cage. It was the only physical barrier separating us. Sitting across from her, letting the T-bone steak melt in my mouth, I remembered my own mortality. This situation could have been avoided altogether if I hadn’t signed that damn contract.

Vinny is truly a bastard. He should have warned me about all the dangers involved in running a pet store. I’ve been clawed at, spat at; Bandit, the teenage raccoon, threw shit at me once. All this abuse for $8.40 per hour. I guess it’s better than the years I spent shoveling rocks at my uncle’s landscaping business. At least at the pet store, I got to see kids find new friends when they took home a bunny or a puppy for the first time.

Sleep came like a sledgehammer.

The excitement surrounding Skittles’s arrival must have exhausted me.

I don’t remember falling asleep. But I’ll never forget waking up.

My face was sticky with BBQ sauce, momentarily gluing my face to the workbench near the backroom grill. As my vision blurred into focus, I looked toward the grill, thankful I hadn’t left it on overnight. Vinny would instantaneously combust if I accidentally burned down the place.

A clear stripe of sunlight cut across the floor, and my eyes followed it. The light etched up the first row of cages, past legal documents and calendars, then curved toward the door near the cash register. A sharp pain shot through my lower back. I sat up and realized I was sitting on a gnawed-clean T-bone from last night. I removed the bone and threw it across the room, missing the garbage can entirely. Thankfully, no one was around. I was embarrassed without an audience.

I sat up, stretched my neck, cracked my knuckles, all those early morning tune-ups before facing the day. Getting up, the blood drained from my head, blotting my vision with purple spots. And when I took a step, my left knee locked up, pricking my skin up and down with pins and needles. Half of me was still asleep.

Then, I noticed the freezer was open. Even after I tripped over myself, an invisible force pulled me toward the freezer. Empty bags and naked T-bones were strewn all over the floor. I stepped on a few peas that had since thawed to mush. A family of flies surveyed the carnage, eating their fill.

Did I really eat this in my sleep?

I looked down to my stomach, no bigger than normal. I didn’t feel full. Actually, my stomach was talking to itself, growling.

There’s no way. Otherwise, I’m a total fat ass!

A trail of BBQ sauce weaved through more crumpled freezer bags. The sauce was speaking to me, hinting at the images I was about to witness. It was a path I didn’t want to follow, but no one else was around to walk it for me. Staggering into the main room, I heard the stacks of cages shaking with energy.

Part of the ceiling had been ripped open by a destructive force. I could hear the morning traffic filtering through the opening. Peering up, neck extended, I suddenly closed my mouth to avoid the pieces of pink insulation falling in tiny clumps like cotton candy. Scratch marks had been carved toward the opening as well, leaving a deadly etching of whatever burrowed through the roof. The scratches weren’t deep. Instead, they were smooth; almost resembling rope burns. Their cause wasn’t clear to me. But I knew the long carvings hadn’t been there when I fell asleep. And the gaping hole in the ceiling hadn’t been there either. I would have remembered that, at least.

I turned my attention back to the cages. The bunnies panicked and balled themselves up in the corners of their cells. Then, I noticed a generous collection of feathers wilting at the bottom of the birdcages. One of the cockatoos ruffled his feathers and puffed out his chest, ashamed about the new bald spot just above his tail. The birds rarely acted like this. And from what I remember, the birds didn’t shed feathers this dramatically either.

As I walked closer to them, the birds turned their heads, piercing me with sharp stares. Now, the spicy-tang-smell of the BBQ sauce was stronger than before. I turned the corner around the last birdcage and a ticking sound reached into my ears, pecking under my skull.

Click-a-clacka…tick-tick…click-a-clacka…tock-tock...

More mushed peas.

Click-a-clacka…

Water everywhere.

Tick-tick…

A pungent, rank odor.

Tock-tock…

Shards of glass, scattered like clear daggers.

Click-a-clacka…

Magnetically, I became entranced by the sound. I saw the bare, steel frames of the fish tanks, shattered beyond repair. Then lifeless, yet still vibrantly colored forms with closed gills were strewn all over the linoleum. I tip-toed around them, careful not to squish them further.

Enticed by the limitless smorgasbord just out of reach, Mittens, the one-eyed alley cat, hissed and pawed through the bars of her cage. When I looked at her, a rush of panic chilled my stiff legs.

The rascal…the prankster. That out-of-control raccoon, Bandit, was missing from his cage. But the lock was still attached to the latch. The top of the cage was dented as if something heavy and dense had fallen onto it, bending the bars enough for Bandit to escape. I looked up and over, just above Bandit’s empty dwelling. And for a moment, my heart stopped beating.

What I saw made it kick into sudden overdrive. Total turbo.

There’s a big difference between seeing and believing. That morning, I knew the difference. My gut squirmed when I finally realized…that Skittles…our striped anaconda…our new main attraction…was gone!