On May 27, 1982, Project Scarab, was born into a cruel, Technicolor world. It really is too bad most of the people in Strana, Oklahoma were without the television, and would be until they received a hefty anonymous payout a couple years later. Afterward, people were seen flying past in brand-new Chevy’s and eating popcorn with eyes glued to their strange, motion picture boxes. Boy, would things have turned out much differently if they had known of the project beforehand; I know I wouldn’t be in an institution, at least.
The first wave arrived in a white pickup; I remember watching them all jump out of the truck single-file, one of them fetching a huge black chest from the bed. But rather than warn my family of the visitors, I simply went back to playing war with my toy soldiers in the dirt. In my head, there were two armies, the Americans and the Reds, fighting for the mound of dirt I very carefully formed –- but the dirt was so dry that regardless of my effort, the steep battleground quickly flattened and my men were left standing on a simple hill. Suddenly a shadow fell over the battlefield and a hand appeared on my shoulder. “Hiya, squirt. Playing army, I see. Who’s winning?”
“The ‘Mericans will. They always do. I make sure of it,” I reply, looking up to see my spectator. It was a young woman no older than 25. Her hair was pulled back in a loose bun and against her breast was a blue ID card. An emblazoned MEDICAL STAFF was pasted directly above her little portrait.
“Because they’re the good guys,” I said enthusiastically. But I was confused; at seven, I couldn’t comprehend any circumstance where the good guys did not conquer evil. Hell, I would not have known the difference between the sides if I wasn’t set straight. The woman didn’t say anything after that, she only nodded and gave me two pats before jumping up to join the others, wherever they were. Again, I didn’t really understand nor care what was going on. What I knew for certain, however, was that the Americans were going to win the war.
I played out in the dirt until the sky turned pink and the breeze started to cool. Back at home, mom and dad and my sister Lynn sat at the dinner table. “Hope I didn’t keep you waiting,” I said. That was the typical me, always thinking I was the center of everything. God knows I was right in my philosophy.
“Please sit, Remy. I’ve already fixed your plate.” Mom ushered me into a chair. The meal that night was some Campbell’s chicken noodle soup, green beans, and a plump pile of mashed potatoes.
I looked at Lynn before sitting. “There better be more potatoes when I’m done!” She always seemed to eat all of them before I had a chance to grab more. I was ten years younger than she, and in my mind I needed the food more so I could finally outgrow her. Lord, I wish life was truly that simple.
For once, Lynn did not bite back. Instead, she sat emotionless, staring at her glass of milk. What was usually a lively conversation around the dinner table was an awkward stare down. A calm, peculiar silence lingered in the room. “Oh, I met this lady in the yard today. She was pretty, but weird,” I said before taking a mouthful of potatoes.
Dad’s eyes flicked to mom, and hers did the same to Lynn. “Did she happen to give you her name, honey?” Dad asked a little too interested, while Lynn, distraught, left her plate and ran to the bathroom.
Suddenly things were not calm at all. “Damn it, Mary!” Dad shouted, standing from the table. This caused the glasses and plates to rattle, like we were having an earthquake. There weren’t many of those at the time, but then again we may just have been without a good seismograph. “I told you telling her was a bad idea, and you better keep your mouth shut for now on.” Before mom could say anything, he stormed out of the dining room.
My mother must have noticed the confusion in my expression, so she tried to mediate the situation. “Never mind your father. He has just had a stressful day to say the least. Everything is okay though.” Then after a long pause, she added, “We’ll be all right.”
That night was a particularly long one. No matter how hard my mom and dad tried to muffle their voices, the paper-thin walls were not ones for keeping secrets. “She went up to him, John! What do you say about that? Huh?”
“It may have only been Amy Bronwe checking up on him. God knows she does it often, bless her.”
“How can you just sit back and be calm with all this? John, we have a problem and if don’t fix it…”
“Then, what, Mary?” I never heard my parents talk that way to one another. Their voices weren’t their own; something else had taken over.
“I don’t know! But we can’t wait here and find out. I’m leaving, we’re leaving: the kids and I.” I heard a door open and a loud thud shook the floor. “I love you, but sometimes you can be so goddamn stubborn! They’re starting the experiment and they’ve picked our son for the first test!”
I never found out what logic, if any, my mother had for her reasoning. For all I know, she was a crazed lunatic who happened to be on the right track. But that night, sure enough mom and dad packed us all in the shitty red Volkswagen dad was determined to fix up into a racer and we left Strana, but we didn’t make it far. Turns out, we only made it out of town a couple miles before they stopped us.
“Who is that, John? JOHN!” The car came to a screeching stop; I’m not sure how dad was able to keep from clipping that woman who was standing firm in the middle of the dirt road, but I wish he would have flattened her out. Her white palm glowed and she appeared almost angelic in the car’s headlights. “Everyone just stay calm. We’re going to see Uncle Vernon, remember?” It was Lynn, as usual, quick to devise a scheme – she’d use that very skill to get away after pulling insurance fraud in her thirties, walking free without regret and with $7,000 fattening her bank account.
Two loud thumps came from the driver’s side window. It was the man I saw driving the truck carrying those strange people earlier that day. His physical features were obscured behind a bright flashlight, but his voice was thick and hoarse, like he was a sergeant or something. “Sorry, but there’s a nine-o-clock curfew in effect for the next three weeks. I’m going to have to ask that you turn around and return home.”
Suddenly, my dad, who was always the calm and rational one, began to shift uncomfortably in his seat. Beads of sweat stuck to the back of his neck. “We were just starting, no taking, no just on a vacation…” He paused to reclaim his breath. “Sir, we’re on our way to visit my brother Vernon.”
“He’s got testicular cancer, he doesn’t have many days left,” Mom described. Lynn had to get the skill from someone, I guess.
The man didn’t budge. “Well I’m sorry. No one’s to leave tonight. Please turn around, or we’ll have someone escort you.”
“But I insist, uh…? Officer? Are you? You didn’t show me your badge.”
“My apologies, my name is Officer Smalgriff, and have orders to enforce this curfew so the agency can conduct a special survey. If you leave, I’m afraid the data would be flawed, and we can’t have that. This is very important governmental matters, I assure you.” Dad simply nodded his head before pressing his foot against the accelerator, and we sped off.
“What the hell…” Mom muttered. “’Governmental matters’ he said. Posh! What would a man from Tulsa have anything to do with how our government is run?” Mom had always been a critic for every other city in the world, quick to point out the flaws in the system. But she never turned the blame to herself and the minuscule, religion-ruled town of Strana.
Lynn, now unbuckled from her seat, leaned closer to mom and dad. “He’s lying. He’s not from Tulsa at all. I’m not an expert in accents, but I swear his sounded more from the New England states. A guy I know from school has that same accent, and he’s from Albany.” If my sister would have seen the Humvee before it crashed into us, tearing our car apart, she’d had kept her seatbelt on. My last sight was of her head hitting the dashboard.
That was last time I saw my parents. Years later I’d find out that their bodies were never found; they’d simply disappeared. Records and everything had been wiped clean. I didn’t even know my sister survived until I was well into my forties. By then, Lynn was in the third stage of lung cancer and only had time to describe to me some of her misadventures. If she would have kept her promise she made to mom when she started hanging out with the smokers at school when she was fifteen, maybe the two of us would have been able to share more stories when we were older.
When I finally came to, I was surrounded by a team of nurses and doctors, all looking at me, studying me as if I were from another world. So I asked the obvious question, “Where am I?” No one would respond, however. They only kept scribbling notes onto their clipboards and pacing about. My arms and legs were bound to the bed by leather straps. I don’t remember many details of the room, except that it was white and housed dozens of monitors and machines. Sometimes I can see it in a dream, but nothing ever sticks.
I sat like that for a while before one of the scientists talked to me. I recognized her as the one who approached me in the yard and the one who stopped us in the road. “How are you feeling, Remington?” Her voice sounded very different in the white room than when she spoke to me before. Back at home, she sounded just like another resident of Strana; now, she sounded sophisticated and superior. It was condescending, although I didn’t know it at the time.
“Where’s mom and dad? And Lynn?” That’s all I could think about. Images of their faces floated around in my memory.
“They’re all okay, but that doesn’t matter. How are you feeling?”
“I’m fine… I guess.” As fine as a child could get after losing his family. “Kind of dizzy and my head hurts. And my name’s Remy.” I hated the name Remington. It seemed too regal for my taste. Remington is the boy that would get beat up and made fun of in school because his mom let him stuff spiced coffee and cinnamon cakes in his lunch box.
“Right… Remy,” she said, making a note of it on her clipboard. “I’m sure you’re very confused with everything that’s happening right now, but you have to understand that there are things you simply cannot know. Most of it wouldn’t make sense to you anyway. All you need to be focused on is taking this pill.” She pulled a small red caplet out of her large lab coat. “For right now, this is the most important thing in the world for you.” She placed it on a small metal tray next to a Dixie cup of water. She then released my restraints enough to where I can reach the tray.
“You want me to take it? Why? I’m not sick.”
“And you’re absolutely right; however, this is not about sickness. This is part of an experiment that could help a lot of people; it could save lives. You wouldn’t want someone to die just because you refused to take a small pill, would you?” I shook my head. “This was all we wanted of your family, to help us help others. It upset us when we saw you trying to leave, when we had such big plans. But we have you and that’s all that matters. You are the most important one.” I bet that’s what she told the others, too, to get them to cooperate.
I took that red capsule once a day for the next 20 days, still completely in the dark of the group’s true intentions and of the capsule’s significance. It wasn’t until the day after they ceased the treatment that the aftereffects became noticeable.
The first side effect to come was the stomach pain. I was still bound to the table, so I couldn’t double over in agony – but if the circumstance would have been different, I would have. The discomfort grew so severe that I was only able to fall asleep in maybe two-hour intervals. After each, I woke up screaming and writhing. After only two nights of the stomach pains, my voice was hoarse; I felt like a burning washcloth doused with bleach was stuck in my throat, the bleach and gasoline dripping down to only further exacerbate my gut. Nobody would help me, but I could feel them watching me. They had the place lined with cameras and I was their supposed star pupil, so of course they would be watching.
Eventually I got used to the stomach pain, and other side effects began to appear. There was nausea, then tinnitus, vertigo, and lastly hallucinations. In between vomiting and begging for help, my mom would come to me. Every time I saw her, she was banging her head against the wall until her scalp was bloody, and she was whispering, “Project Scarab will be the death of us all.” That was the first time I ever heard of Project Scarab – I swear – and everything you’re reading here I have repeatedly told my therapist, who insists time has corroded my memory, and maybe she’s right to a point. But in this instance, no, this is very true.
I’m not entirely sure how many more days followed until the effects eased up a bit; I was too terrified of the ordeal to keep track of the days. Earlier, when all I had to look forward to was taking a pill, counting days was the best way to pass time. But sooner or later the side effects lessened and the nurse came up to me once again, this time with an ultrasound machine. “Well, it appears as if everything went according to plan, but now we have to check to be completely sure!” She was very animated, if she wasn’t busy playing sophisticated–doctor-bitch, I bet she would have done a little dance.
After releasing me from the leather straps, the woman raised my gown to my chest and applied the jelly. We were both focused on the image that was appearing on the screen next to the bed. After moving the wand around my belly for a little while, she looked at me, beaming. “Look at that!” Then to others in the other room. “IT WAS A SUCCESS!” She shrieked and pointed at the screen. “My dear Remy, you have helped in the making of a new, more efficient world!” But none of this made sense to me. I’d never seen an ultrasound machine, let alone know what it was for.
“My baby… I shall see you soon enough,” she muttered, her fingers lightly grazing the glass screen. “Oh, I just can’t contain myself!” The nurse hopped away from the bed and stormed out of the room. If only I could go back and tell myself to run away, that she didn’t intend to leave me unbound. But I was too obedient and scared to leave. I saw what made the nurse so excited, and it made me feel sick. I was pretty sure I felt my stomach nudge me.
Only hours later, they had me asleep and on an operating table. The next time I woke up, I cried, only it came out as grunt. My stomach had been cut and stitched up, and I was naked under the blistering hot Oklahoma sun.
Eventually a couple picked me up from the side of the road and cared for me until I turned 18, when I moved out. My parents, by birth and adopted, had envisioned so many great things I would accomplish when I got older. Each of them believed I was going to become a doctor and make the big bucks as the chief surgeon someplace, and have a moderately sized family in a nice home. But I am not what any of them thought I’d turn out to be. I went to college for a semester before dropping out and turning to Mrs. H and glass. I met a girl who I thought I loved, but it didn’t last long. The second she saw my surgical scar and asked me as to its origin, she fled, never looking back.
Project Scarab ruined me in every way possible. The beast that had been torn from my stomach, turns out, was a special, genetically-modified beetle capable of living hundreds of years – they didn’t ever release a name for it publicly – and it was hypothesized that scientists could duplicate the modified insect’s DNA, splice it and grow closer to creating the first truly immortal human being. So I can forgive a girl that doesn’t want to be with the guy that mothered a foot-long insect in his body for some weeks. Hell, I wouldn’t.
Now, 57 years later, I live gaunt and alone in Sherman Hills Institution somewhere off the east coast. After two failed suicide attempts, during one my hanging rope broke and the other I sliced my wrist the wrong way – I didn’t know there was a proper etiquette in suicide – I was forcibly placed under the care of Dr. Ramirez and here I sit in my little room typing this. The doc says most of what I have told her is only a figment of my imagination, caused by an abusive set of foster parents, but not even she can explain my scar, this pregnancy scar. A film is rumored to come out featuring a secret government project not too unlike mine. Here’s to hopes a film producer will find my incredibly true words and turn them into a documentary, peeking past the dense layer of mannequins and pop stars that patrols this country to unveil a more corrupt society with fantastic, yet dubious, intentions. But who am I kidding? No one’s going to read my nonsensical life story and think, “Damn. That’d made a good motion picture.” I would ask God for some clarity in all this, but I imagine I would only receive a Hell no and an omniscient middle finger.