By Gene Lass
reunion of the Brookdale West Class of 1990 was expected to be unlike any in
class history. The 5th was described by one of the attendees as,
“Same bullshit just 10 lbs. heavier.” The 10th and 15th
were distasteful networking opportunities. The 20th and 25th
were cancelled due to lack of interest.
Thus, the 30th
would be distinctive just for occurring, but also because attendees were now
mature enough to have gotten over conflicts of the past. They also had
something to look forward to: Class member Hugo Carlson would be attending. The
founder of his own robotics firm, Carlson had just won the Nobel Prize for
Physics. He had never attended a reunion before, having been an unpopular nerd
in school, but for this reunion not only did he say he would come, he would
like to speak.
The night of the reunion,
Carlson arrived on time, dressed semi-formally with slacks, a sport coat, and
his signature bow tie over a t-shirt. He mingled with the crowd, shaking hands
with some, and signing a few autographs before taking the stage for his keynote
address, which would be the most memorable in the school’s history.
“Hello Class of 1990. I’m
sure most of you remember me, even though I look a little different now, as do
many of you. If not, my name is Hugo Carlson. Because of the work I did with my
robotics company, Boz, I just won the Nobel Prize for Physics.”
The room erupted in
applause and cheers. Carlson smiled and nodded, then gestured to a presentation
screen behind him.
“Thank you. The handshake
logo you see here on the screen and on my t-shirt is the Boz logo, which I adopted
(or stole) from the inside art from the Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”
album. I was never a huge music person, but it represents perfectly the spirit
of Boz as a company: making connections between people and helping humanity
through the use of robotics.
“I was presented the Nobel
Prize primarily because of Boz’s development of micro and macro robots to
process radioactive waste safely to prevent meltdowns, and even after a
meltdown or containment event has occurred. Our large robots safely move the
physical material, while our nano robots, which can also be deployed by robots,
process the material on a molecular level to make it safe 100 to 1000 times
faster than previously possible.”
There was applause again.
Carlson gave a bigger smile and nodded again. “That was Boz’s greatest success,
but what I came here to talk to you about today was our…—my—greatest
failure. What I haven’t talked about until today, what you haven’t seen in the
media, is my diagnosis. I have stage 4 metastatic cancer in my lymph nodes and
The image on the screen
behind Carlson changed, now showing a classic video game screen.
“When I got my diagnosis,
my specialist Sidney Coleman told me that cancer is like Pac-man. We all
remember Pac-Man. Little Pac-Man cancer cells go through our bodies all the
time, gobbling things up. Our immune systems fight them off. The cells get to
be a problem when they gobble faster than we can fight them, and then, like
Super Mario, they grow and gobble more. Cancer metastasizes when it clears a
screen and goes on to gobble in other parts of the body.
“Hearing that analogy, I
determined that what the world needs to fight this disease is ghosts. You
The screen changed to show
a video ghost attacking Pac-Man, who shriveled up and faded away.
“Inky, Pinky, Blinky,
Clyde, and Sue, the Pac-villains. They chased the Pac-family relentlessly around
the screens through every successive game in the series. They never quit,
returning even after Pac-Man chomped a power pill and fought back.”
The screen changed again,
showing a microscopic view of a pinwheel-shaped object.
“So I built this. That’s a
picture of my first cancer-fighting nanobot. I call it a c-ghost, or Clyde,
because Clyde was my favorite.” He smiled and the crowd laughed.
“Clyde was designed to go
through the body, assisting the immune system in hunting down and eliminating
cancer cells before they take hold, and after. And because cancer can shift and
move throughout the body, traveling and metastasizing, so can my ghosts. This
would in effect cure and prevent cancer. Except…”
The screen changed again to
show the Pac-Man Game Over screen.
“It doesn’t work. I’m going
to die. While my ghosts can find and eat cancer cells, cancer can spread and
grow faster than I can employ ghosts. In theory a combination of radiation and
chemotherapy with the bots could prove effective, but the chemo and radiation
also damage the bots. At some point that balance of therapies may be found, but
by then I will be dead.
“A diagnosis like this
makes a person look back at life, which is why I’m here today.”
He looked across the crowd
at his graduating class. So many faces.
“I have a lot of memories
of school. I’ve known some of you since kindergarten. There are very few of you
I could call friends. Or even friendly. Most days in school the most I could
hope for was vague indifference toward me, King Nerd. What I usually got was
hostility, mockery, and acts of violence.”
He looked at individual
faces in the crowd.
“Tyson, my neighbor, the
soccer star. You never physically hurt me, but you gave me hell in the hallway
and on every bus ride for three years. You also tormented a retarded girl when
you couldn’t get enough reaction or entertainment out of me. Fuck you.
“Craig Kinney. You used to
stop by my lunch table every day, no matter where I sat, to amuse your friends
by analyzing my lunch. My lunch was the same every day: Pepperoni slices, 2
cookies, small pretzels, and a fruit rollup. I could barely eat because you
made me feel like my food was somehow morally or ethically wrong, and I was
wrong to eat it. Some days I just threw it away uneaten even though I was
starving. Fuck you.
“Tim Hayden. You followed
me and my few friends around throughout the school, making rude comments you
could only say because your hulking friends protected you. You once told me I
should kill myself because I couldn’t toss a basketball through a hoop even
once. You said it again when you thought my plaid shirt and Toughskin jeans
weren’t stylish enough. On my best day of school, my friend Glen tried to kill
you by pushing you down the stairs after you made the mistake of saying
something to us while on your own. I always regretted that you lived. I wanted
to see you broken at the bottom of the stairs, but you grabbed the railing and
saved yourself. It’s a shame.”
He looked at the crowd
again. They looked back, many of them gape mouthed.
“In the interest of being
adults and letting bygones be bygones, I shook hands with each of these
gentlemen tonight, and with several more of you. Just like on the Boz logo, I
was reaching out, shaking hands. But clearly I haven’t forgotten the past. It
still bothers me.”
The screen changed again,
showing the pinwheel nanobot once more.
“Which is where my ghosts
come in. Because even though my nanobots couldn’t save me, that doesn’t make
them useless. You see, they can’t eat cancer fast enough in a Stage 4 case like
myself. But in a healthy person the problem is, they can’t be turned off. They
need to eat, and they don’t want to come out. They become an artificial
autoimmune disease, and I gave it to each of you I shook hands with tonight.
“Not only can my bots not
be turned off, but due to their intended ability to shift when cancer shifts,
and hunt down the cells anywhere, they could attack anywhere in your body.
Right now they could be stripping the marrow out of your bones, or pooling in
your heart, weakening the aorta. Or attacking your brain or optic nerve. By the
time you go home tonight your prostate may be riddled with holes like swiss
“What is certain is that by
dawn tomorrow, all of you will be dead. And that is the reason I came here
tonight. The only comfort I have is knowing that while I’ll be dead soon,
you’ll die before me, in agony.
“Thank you and good night.”
Gene Lass has been
and editor for more than 25 years, working in all areas of publishing, from
books and magazines to blogs. He has also released six books of poetry to date,
including the most recent, Ghosts, his second collaboration with artist
Jennifer Paige Davis. His fiction and poetry have appeared in Electric
Velocipede, KSquare, The Albatross, Black Petals, Coffin
Bell Journal, Schlock, and Every Day Poems. His short story,
“Fence Sitter” was nominated for Best of the Net 2020.