Wednesday, April 15, 2015

How I Became a Mad Scientist -Episode 5

First Episode.    Previous Episode.

Frank seemed pleased that a storm was rolling in as we worked. The thunder made me nervous. Mom and her friends had gone for a run. If the rain started, she’d come home and catch us doing…well, whatever it was that we were going to be doing. 

Frank had been pretty vague about the whole process while we were out and about. Now, he started looking in cabinets and calling out questions. “You guys have a blender, right?  Where does your mom keep her Pyrex pitchers? Good grief! Don’t you guys own any sharp knives?  Where’s the first aid kit?”

We set everything he needed in the middle of the table: knives and cutting boards, the meat, a blender, salt, dishwashing fluid, rubbing alcohol, and a strainer. “First, we’re going to extract the DNA from the meat,” Frank explained. “Then we’ll recombine it and put it into the egg for incubation. We should get at least a few cells of a Kraken-Cow before it dies.” I shook my head. There was no way that my cousin was going to extract DNA, recombine it, and create a whole new animal using ordinary kitchen supplies. He was clearly nuts.

He started chopping the steaks, I took the calamari.  We’d just thrown the meat into the blender when my mom walked in.  She wrinkled up her nose. “What on Earth are you boys doing?”
Frank turned bright red and started to stammer. “Um, Protein Shakes,” I said quickly. “Some of the guys made fun of Frank for being scrawny.  So I went on-line and found a recipe to help him bulk up.”

“There’s no way he’ll be able to choke that down,” my mom said. She rummaged around in the fridge, pulled out a jar of minced garlic, and dumped some into the blender, and turned it on. “There. That will give it some flavor and make it healthier,” she said.  “Oh, and make sure you cook it before you drink it. I don’t want you getting sick from that raw meat.” She patted Frank on the head, gave me a quick squeeze, grabbed a cup of coffee, and headed into her office to work.  

Frank groaned. “I had it planned perfectly. With garlic DNA in the mix, who knows what will happen? We’ll probably get nothing at all.”

“Maybe we’ll get a Kraken-Cow with terrible breath,” I joked. Frank didn’t seem to think I was funny.  He walked me through the steps to extract DNA. We mixed the dish liquid and salt in with the meat and garlic. Our ‘protein shake’ was now completely undrinkable.  Then we smashed the goop through a strainer, and mixed it with the rubbing alcohol.  Some white, snotty stuff appeared.  Frank had me pull it out with a toothpick.  

“Those are strands of DNA,” he said quietly. “The blueprint of life. Garlic, Squid, and Cow, all mixed together.”  He pulled a syringe out of his pocket and handed it to me. “Now, inject it into the eggs.”

I stared at the syringe. “Where did you get this? You can’t just walk into the store and buy one.”
“When they took apart my lab, they didn’t check my sock drawer,” Frank said. “I have all sorts of random odds and ends left, from that time when Mom made me clean up my room for Grandma.”  I carefully filled the syringe with DNA and injected it into each egg.  Frank popped them into the incubator.  “Plug this in in your room,” he said.  “We’ll give them a couple days and then check on them.”  

“What if they start stinking?” I asked.  “Mom will suspect something.”

“Tell her you’re hatching chicks for science class at school.  But they won’t stink. We’ll stop the experiment long before they rot.”  I plugged in the incubator, hid it under my bed, and helped Frank clean up the mess in the kitchen.  Thunder crashed again, close by. The lights glowed bright, then dimmed, than flickered out, then came back on.  I wondered if the eggs were all right.

Monday, April 13, 2015

How I Became a Mad Scientist - Episode 4

I snorted. Now I knew Frank was making things up. There was no way my cousin could create a monster out of groceries. “IGA carries steak, eggs, and squid,” I said.

“And I’d need a lab assistant. If I get caught doing anything myself, it’s off to the big house for me.  So I’d need someone I trusted who could follow directions and keep a secret.”

“I’m all about secrets,” I said. “They called me ‘zip-lips’ in fourth grade.” Which was technically true. Of course, it was because of my braces, not because of my secret-keeping abilities, but I wasn’t going to tattle on Frank. It’s not like he was planning anything illegal or dangerous.

“Excellent.” Frank wiggled his fingers together like a mad scientist in a cartoon.  “We can start as soon as we get home from this forsaken wilderness.”

“We’re only 5 miles off the highway, Frank. It’s not even close to a wilderness.” I rolled over and closed my eyes. Some animal or another thrashed around in the underbrush. I had a feeling Frank was going to be up all night.

When we got home the next day, we headed to the IGA to pick up the materials for the Kraken-Cow project. We wandered up and down the aisles.  Frank was pretty sure he wouldn’t get in trouble with his probation officer for coming on the shopping expedition. We were at a grocery store, not a science store.  

The ground beef and the eggs were easy, but the squid presented a problem.  Our only choice was frozen and breaded.  “If we thaw it first, it shouldn’t be too bad,” Frank decided. “Any way, it’s not like we’re going to let it grow very big. I’m just showing you that it’s possible, so you’ll stop making fun of me about that dumb story.” I hadn’t said a word about the story since the night before, but you could tell the whole joke had really bugged Frank.  Besides, I kind of wanted to see if he could make a Kraken-cow.

As we walked home, we paused in front of Frank’s house.  “Can we do this at your place?” he asked nervously. “I have a feeling my mom would suspect something.” My mom doesn’t pay much attention to what I do around the house since I’ve always been a good kid.  But I pointed out that I didn’t have any science stuff at home. 

“It’ll be fine,” said Frank. “You’ll have most of what we need in your kitchen. And I can run inside really fast and pick up a few things.”

Frank came out of his house carrying a shoebox with a syringe, a strange lightbulb, and a little Plexiglas box with a plug attached. He grinned widely and bounced while he walked. For the first time since he moved to town, he seemed to be having fun. 

We set up shop on my mom’s kitchen island. “This won’t stain anything, will it?” I asked nervously.  My mom is kind of obsessed with her kitchen. She and Dad just redid it last year, and she calls it the “Kitchen of Destiny.”  If we screwed anything up, she’d probably call Frank’s parole officer herself.

“No, it’s not any messier than normal cooking,” Frank said. “Cooking is a kind of science, after all.” He stopped for a moment, deep in thought.  I pulled the food out of the bags and lined it up on the counter. It was a hot day, and the squid, or ‘calamari,’ as the package called it, had mostly thawed on the way home.

“Now,” said Frank grandly, “I will teach you to create life!” Thunder echoed up the river valley.  

Next Episode.

Friday, April 10, 2015

How I Became a Mad Scientist - part 3

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Chapter 2: Camping with the Kraken-Kow!

My scout troop had a camping trip that weekend, and I got permission to bring Frank along. I figured it would be a good way to distract him.  He could experience the beauty of nature, hang out with a nice crowd of guys and make some friends, get some exercise, and get his mind off of the science ban.  Everything was going great until it came time for the campfire stories.

We were camping out at Knotty Pine Lake, right next to the water.  Knotty Pine is one of our favorite spots. It’s great for fishing, swimming and boating. If you hike up hill, the views are spectacular, and there’s some good rock climbing along the way. Plus, the ticks aren’t too bad there, even in the summer. We usually go there once or twice while school’s out and this was our first camp-out of the season.

Everything was going fine until we gathered around the campfire to eat s’mores and tell spooky stories. You see, Knotty Pine Lake has a legendary monster. We only talk about it at scout events, but it has a long and noble history. It was Liam Miller’s turn to tell the story, and he really got into it.

“In 1902, a group of boys were fishing at Knotty Pine. They noticed that the fish were all swimming towards them into the shallow water instead of away from them. Then, the water in the middle of the lake started churning and bubbling.  The boys should have run then, but they didn’t. They stayed to watch. A tremendous beast rose slowly out of the lake.

It’s body was like a giant cow, but it had the long, dark, slimy tentacles of a kraken, the giant squid-monster that used to crush boats in the dark seas.  As it rose higher, the monster’s udder cleared the water. Acidic milk squirted from each teat, setting fire to trees and burning the boys’ skin. They tried to run, but slimy tentacles are faster than young boys.  Eight boys went down to the lake that day, but only six returned.   The beast sunk back down into the scum at the bottom of the lake.  It was full, and it slumbered, for a while. People avoided the lake. They knew something evil lurked below its surface. But then…..”

Liam’s brother Ben picked up the thread as firelight flickered across his face. “The Great Depression came. Children were starving in the streets. And so a desperate mother sent her three sons down to the lake to catch some dinner.  They found the youngest boy up a tree, covered in acid burns and babbling about monsters. They searched for his brothers, but found no sign. They assumed that Hobos took them. The boy wouldn’t stop talking about Kraken-Kow, so he was sent to the state hospital, where he lived in a tiny room until he died, always screaming in agony when he saw the carton of milk on his meal trays.

“Time passed. People forgot the legends. The state built a camprground here, a campground used by scouts. Every now and then, we hear rumors. Sometimes a swimmer disappears. But no one has ever seen……”

“ARGHHHHHHHHHH!” Frank leapt to his feet, screaming. “Get it off! Get it off!” Mike Goff stood behind him, using the soaked gym sock we use to frighten first-time campers during the Kraken-Kow story. Everybody laughed as Frank sat down, blushing.

“Congratulations, Frank. You’ve been initiated into the League of the Kraken,” Mike said. Frank rolled his eyes.  He seemed OK, though. I mean, most guys can take a joke. And the whole idea of a Kraken-Kow was pretty ridiculous. Acidic milk? A submarine cow with tentacles? It really only seemed possible because the Miller boys were such great storytellers.

Later, in the tent, I couldn’t help teasing Frank. “Sheesh, you’re supposed to be the scientific genius, but you fell for Kraken-Cow? Couldn’t you tell it’s impossible?”

Frank snorted. “There are more things in heaven and earth, George, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.  Kraken-cow seems possible because I know my science. Labs are creating all sorts of chimeras these days. They can put jellyfish DNA into a sheep and make it glow, they can create pigs that grow human hearts and cows that give coffee. Why couldn’t someone make a Kraken-Cow? If I wasn’t on probation right now, I’d do it myself.

“I’d really like to see that,” I said.

“Impossible. I’d need a fresh steak, a dozen eggs, and some squid.” 

Next Episode.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

How I Became a Mad Scientist--Part 2

Read Part 1 Here.

At the bottom of the stairs, thin lines of light outlined a sagging wooden door.  I knocked.  “Come in, George. I’ve been waiting for you.”  Well, that was a creepy greeting. On the other hand, Frank’s voice was definitely squeakier than mine. Maybe he was still little and scrawny. If he tried anything crazy in his drug-induced haze, I could overpower him and call for help.  Or at least, that’s what I told myself.

I reached for the doorknob but found only a hole stuffed with rags.  I put my palm flat against the door and pushed.  The sudden brightness of the room beyond the door stabbed at my eyes.  I shaded them with my hand and took a step backwards, towards the stairs.

My eyes adjusted to the light. Frank was still a red-headed, freckled kid with bright blue eyes. Even though it’d been five years since I’d seen him last, he was still about two inches shorter than me.  He still wore glasses with square, plastic frames, and he still dressed in jeans, a periodic table t-shirt, and a stained lab coat.   It was like no time had passed since the day of the neon green suit. I grinned. He certainly didn’t look like a depressed pothead. He looked like my cousin Frank - full of fun and full of mischief.

“So,” I said, trying to sound casual, “your parents decided to move back to Tell City?”  

Frank pulled up the leg of his jeans. A strange device made a ring around his right ankle. “It’s part of my probation.  We had to move, and I have to spend a year being normal.”

“Probation? Are you selling drugs or something?”  I’m not very subtle.  Besides, I had to know. If Frank had a drug problem, I wasn’t going to hang around with him.

Frank laughed. “Yeah, right. Like I’d want to mess up this fantastic brain?  No, I got caught hacking. And breaking into a national laboratory.  And stealing Uranium.  But I needed it, and there was no other way to get it!”

I looked around the room. The walls were covered with blueprints and schematics. Bits of wire and metal lay in carefully organized piles on the floor.  I sat down on the bed. It seemed to be the only thing that wasn’t a work in progress.  “They put you on probation?  Shouldn’t they have given you some “Incredible hacking for a 12-year-old” award?”

Frank sighed. I thought he was going to cry, he looked so miserable. “No, they were pretty steamed. I don’t know why- now they know where their security holes are!  Anyway, they put me on probation. No internet, no electronics stores, no science or inventing for a year, or I go to juvie.”

I frowned. “Juvie? That really stinks, Frank. Though I’ve heard the food isn’t bad.  Does this mean you’ll be in my class at the Junior High?”

He shook his head. “Nope. They’re too afraid I’d find some way to get online or get access to a lab.  They said I have to be home-schooled. With real books and paper.”

I thought for a moment. I knew a few home-schoolers. They weren’t bad kids, but the local crowd tended to do the whole “Dinosaurs died in the flood and plate tectonics is a lie” thing.  A science-minded kid like Frank wouldn’t last one minute in that crowd.  I stuck out my hand. “Well, Frank, you’ve got one friend, at least. I can teach you how to have fun even when you’re on probation.”

Frank shook my hand and grinned. “Thanks, George. I knew I could count on you.  We can paint the town neon green!”

Of course, we couldn’t. Frank’s probation extended to chemistry experiments. And it would be a little while before we found the loophole.

Next Part.