That day—funny how some days pick at you. Work at your sanity like someone untying a mess of knots. Plucking all the other strings and strands out, leaving just a single line. A single thought. One exposed, leaving you no choice but to follow wherever it leads.
Fuck him for what he did; Patrick Murray, that goofy, slug-faced, walking pocket protector. I remember him coming up to me in the hallway that day.
“I made a breakthrough,” He’d said, shaky, smelling of booze and body odor. “One so large it’ll flip science on its head. Bigger than Rutherford’s findings. Really, Chris. I don’t think I can trust anyone except you.”
I hadn’t seen him in three weeks. No one had. There were a few times during that conversation I asked if he was alright. Instead of answering, he just fidgeted and begged me to see come see for myself.
That day, Patrick ruined my life without even knowing it. Took every piece of string away from my knotted life except one; dangling like an irresistible clue for me to follow.
I’d known him for maybe ten years. We worked in the same Physics Department. Never talked about much more than classroom gossip, nerdy theoretical shit or the occasional philosophical debate, but I’d say we’d become good friends. Maybe once or twice we’d gotten into grander things like the merits of astrology or the undeniable truths in some of the more obscure sciences. I used to think all that stuff was a load of horseshit.
Pat had, too. Until his wife died.
Painful, seeing a guy that harmless, and as unfuckable, lose someone he loved so much. To see him unravel at the seams. Even worse to look back and wish I could apologize for judging him the way I did. That day, my gut feeling was to have him hauled off to a psych ward.
His basement was a mess. He’d caked on a thick layer of squalor over his once-average man cave. Empty beer and whiskey bottles everywhere: on the sparse table space, lining the unused bits of shelves, toppled around the carpeted floor.
It smelled like shit.
And there were cages. Some empty, some not. Birds cawing. Rats, too. Squeaking. Rustling in their little group cells. Squished together. Miserable.
“This is the literal definition of a madhouse,” I told him. “Like, some serious crazy-scientist type shit.”
“I know. But you don’t understand. The—the—the implications of it all. It’ll—I just have to show you. I have to show someone. I have to publish. People need to know.”
“This is freaky, man. Are you… are you doing alright? Pat?”
“Please. Please, just stay for a moment. Just hear me out. I know how crazy I look, but the science is sound. I swear… please.”
The books and scrolls concerned me the most. Ancient. Leather bound. Pentagrams and shit like that were painted on some of the covers as well as on random papers lying around. I saw strange symbols stamped over a few papyrus scrolls, too. Only later would I realize they were markings of demons and evil spirits.
At his workbench, he pulled out some machine made of sheet metal and brass. Rivets everywhere. Had a few simple dials and gauges, and a digital readout, along with a crystal at its top. He worked on it for a minute or two. Watching quietly—better not to put up a fuss when you’re in the presence of crazy people—I saw the machine was plugged into his computer, a switchboard, a camera, and something similar to an old radio.
Patrick muttered the whole time. “Four hundred and… Thirty-two… just there… the balance is… ninety. Good.”
When someone that smart starts spurting out numbers, no matter how fucking cuckoo they’ve gone, it’s like watching a concert violinist lose themselves in a solo. There’s passion behind it. I remember the first year he showed up to teach thermodynamics 501 or something along those lines. After hearing all the complaints about his exams, I don’t even think I would have passed. You’d think a guy like that would’ve kept a better journal?
I asked him, “Is this a—a university thing?”
What a stupid question.
A bird squawked. A raven in the corner. It scared the shit out of me.
“That one should do fine.” Patrick hurried over and pulled it out of its cage. It happened so fast, I didn’t know what to do. You always give crazy people the benefit of the doubt. He worked to strap it down to his workbench.
“This is some Edgar-Allen-Poe-ass bullshit,” I whispered behind him. “This can’t be legal.”
Of course it wasn’t legal. What an idiot I was back then. What an idiot he was, I should say.
Patrick turned on the computer monitor, still murmuring and frantically double checking things. That put me on edge more than anything. The double checking. Just next to the bird, an image of us showed up on-screen, the camera at an awkward angle. The entire room on-screen was bathed in blue strands. Light and dark morphing lines, along with globs and dots. All similar shades of blue. Like a trippy, monochromatic, squished, lava-lamp filter-like thingy laid over the picture.
I wish I’d heard him out more. I didn’t understand at the time.
Patrick said, “Science measures things.”
I nodded, glaring at him.
“Sometimes, there are things we know of, but can’t see. Things we just haven’t been able to measure… yet.”
“Okay.” I got more aggressive. “So what the fuck are we measuring here, Pat? What are we measuring in a culty-as-shit basement with a fucking horror-story raven on your goddamn desk, huh? Please. Tell me what you’ve broken damn near every university code—law—to measure. Huh, Pat?”
I’ll never forget that calm face in the middle of all his frantic double-checking. A calm before the storm. So confident.
Calculated and rehearsed, he said, “Esoterons. Esos for short. Single units of forces within us that, when we—when things die—all things: plants, animals, bugs alike—they release their esoteron, or eso, into the world. That’s what we’re measuring.” He pontificated. “I know how to measure it and I know what it is, and that’s all I know anymore. That’s all I can think anymore. Hers is out there. Somewhere.”
Not many moments leave you speechless. We’re good at speaking—humans, I mean. Well-practiced. Prepared to hit the ball back most times. But not this one. I watched, slack-jawed, while he carried on. Pointed to the blue lines and globs on the screen. Chose a few and followed them with his finger while they floated through the room. Around us. My skin crawled. I peeked over my shoulder more than once. Felt things graze me like you might feel an imaginary spider crawling all over you after losing sight of a real one.
Patrick said, “They don’t split or combine. Each one a pocket of liquid to itself. Like an organism.”
“Screen’s probably just broken or something.”
He laughed. Cackled. Had I known how many screens he’d probably gone through; the hours he’d put into this; the countless, sleepless nights he’d spent on calculations and cross-referencing occult theories to physical properties; I probably would’ve laughed, too. Laughed till I cracked.
The raven cawed again, calling our attention. Patrick put on some gloves and picked up an empty needle from nearby. Without hesitation, he filled a vial with the bird’s blood, then grabbed the camera and pointed it at the bird. On the screen, it was the same as us, just a normal picture. The blue strands stayed in place around the room. I started to feel stupid without being able to place why. He explained that, through a blood sample, we could trace the birds esoteron when it dies. My stomach sank.
After plugging the vial of blood into the strange machine, he pushed a button and the readout lit up. He placed the camera on a tripod and aimed it at the test subject. Its eso was to show up purple, he explained.
I could’ve stopped him, but curiosity killed the raven.
Patrick Murray gave it a scientific snap to its neck. I jumped. Once he confirmed it was dead, we both held our breaths and watched the screen. My heart pounded. Oh my God, did it pound. Fuck. I remember squinting to see at first. It took a minute, but just as he said, there it was. Leaking out of the ravens still beak—with nothing beating inside to pump it out, mind you—a purple blob wiggled its way out. Slowly. Maybe took five minutes. As the blob came out, it surrounded the bird’s head at first, like an astronaut’s helmet. Then its body. I asked Patrick what was happening. He hadn’t a clue, really. Some guesses he cited from books on witchcraft and the like. Back and forth, I bounced between looking at the dead bird and the screen, wishing to make more of a connection. After maybe five more minutes, on-screen, the blob detached from its once-host and wandered into the air. It stretched from floor to ceiling and wriggled around. We watched it for minutes in silence.
Patrick—that son of a bitch with every bit of belief backing him. Every bit of conviction a born-again might have—said, “It’s a soul. We have souls.”
“Nope.” I shook my head. I wanted an answer. Just not that one. A new type of disease would’ve been better. “Nope.”
He pleaded his case. Told me countless times of the implications. Couldn’t I see them? What more proof did I need? On and on he went while I backed up, hitting a cage, setting some mice into a panic. Taking the stairs up two at a time, I stopped once to look back at the screen; and at the bird. I felt imaginary little blobs of blue all around me. The hairs on my arms and neck swam around and sifted through the air for answers.
Souls? I couldn’t grasp something like that back then.
After I left Patrick Murray’s basement, I called the police.
They arrested him that afternoon and found near a hundred random animals buried in his backyard. No humans.
Obviously, the university pulled his tenure. Later, I’d overhear little grapevine tales of strange comments he’d let slip in his lectures. How people saw it fully in hindsight. Everyone knew he was crazy from the start, they’d claim. Even people around our department would say things like, “I had my reservations about him.”
More than a dozen times, I thought about contacting him. Visiting him in the clinic they threw him in. At first, I shrugged off the little purple blob as some phenomena similar to air currents or electromagnetic waves. Before long, though, that little purple blob kept me up at night. Covered my head so I couldn’t breathe.
He’d have understood, right? Understood why I called the police. Understood why I couldn’t bear to face him.
I wish he’d left better notes.
Soon enough, I found myself searching— scouring—the internet for answers on the occult. Hiding little theories from my wife, my family, my colleagues. Soon enough, that raven tugged all the other strings away. Plucked me apart. Soon enough, I knew I had to see him; Patrick Murray.
Only, it was too late.
With a simple search, I found his obituary. Suicide in his cell. That doughy piece of shit, Patrick. I wondered if something purple leaked out of him?
At his estate sale, I bought everything I could. My wife didn’t understand. I got why she left. I would have, too. Took the kids and ran as fast as she did.
“You’re a soulless bastard. You know that, Chris?” she told me one time, just before she left. What horror hit her face when I cackled—cackled myself mad until I cracked. She had no clue the depth of research I’d already done by that time. The little dots—blobs—I’d already connected. All without her—or the university for that matter—knowing. That’s where Patrick went wrong. Once, I spent a week draining, killing and tracing bugs and plants. An esoteron leaked out of each and every one. Hung around for a moment, then squished in with all the others.
Still, Patrick Murray—that incompetent genius. That drunk—he didn’t leave good notes. Notes that could’ve given me more to work with. Saved me so much time. Perhaps I wouldn’t have had to move onto trials like this? Perhaps he’d known something more and was too drunk to write it down?
I tell the scraggly man on my workbench, “I wish I didn’t have to do this. I am sorry, but you’ll be just fine. You’re eso will just float up.” I fluttered my hands up in the air.
The man struggles to break free from the straps, but it’s not possible. “Patrick Murray,” I whisper in his ear. “That’s who you should blame for all this. Not me. Murray’s to blame.”
He shakes his head. Pounds his feet on the bench. My hands shake while I pick up the empty needle and find a vein. The man jerks and makes me poke him in the wrong place. No problem. I take what I can and fill some of a vial. It’ll work either way. Patrick would’ve appreciated the upgrades I’ve made to his machine.
With the camera on the man, I give him a lethal injection into his kidney. Giddy, I watch the screen. Sure enough, after a few minutes, a purple blob peeks out.
That hollow black you get when you think of death fills me up. This happens every time. I feel a solitary string tugging at me. Pulling my heart down—stuffing it—squishing it—down a pitch-dark hole.
“Hello there.” I force a smile, waving my finger at the purple blob on the screen. “We do have a soul.”