Playing Possum, Alice Scott
CW: mentions of death, murder, animal death
There are many things in the world that people are not meant to know exist. Janus wondered several times a day if they were included in that category.
Truth be told, very little about Janus could be considered “lab regulation.” Not the shorts and patterned tights they wore in lieu of typical scrubs, not their asymmetrical hair dyed a shade of red usually reserved for Christmas advertisements, not the bold, brass pronoun placard on their door in a bigger font than their name, and certainly not the anomalous creature causing all sorts of trouble in the lab. Janus drummed their fingers on the cold metal of the surgical table, as though completely oblivious to the creature causing all sorts of hell around the room. They were not as oblivious as they looked, they were just hoping that creature would wear itself out sooner rather than later and they could turn it over to the proper facility. Truth be told, they were wishing they’d had time to stop for coffee this morning because it was turning out to be a long day, even at 9:24 AM. A supervisor was droning on in their ear, the phone cradled between their head and shoulder.
They always hated when these damn things played possum.
It kind of looked like a possum, actually, a possum that’d been swallowed into some sort of hell-void and spit out wrong. For one thing its fur didn’t seem to move, it was reminiscent of cartoons that used stationary textures for the characters’ clothes, like a solid unmoving patch of black and grey whirls. Whether it had actual eyes or empty sockets, Janus wasn’t entirely sure, but whichever it was, it was the blackest black they’d ever seen that swallowed any light. It scuttled across the floor in rapid, glitchlike zigzags that Janus’ eyes couldn’t quite track, and it was curled in on itself like it’d stepped in a puddle in sock feet. Janus would’ve found that hysterical if the damn thing wasn’t supposed to be dead.
Creatures like this thing, whatever it was, lived in secret every day. They coexisted with humanity unseen and that was probably for the best. People had proven time and time again that they couldn’t handle being confronted by the things that go bump in the night suddenly bumping its way through the daylight, and that’s where The Facility came in.
It had a longer, official title, but as long as Janus had worked there, nobody had ever used it. It was just The Facility, the ones who kept the strange and unexplainable beasts firmly unexplained. And what better way to figure out how to secure the living ones than to see what made the dead ones tick.
That’s where Janus came in. Unfortunately, they weren’t nearly as good with the live ones.
“I know you said it was dead,” they yelled into the phone as the Void Possum skittered up a wall. They picked up a broom from the corner and tried to whack the damn thing down. “It looked pretty dead to me as well when what’s-her-face brought it down, but I am very sure that it’s not dead now!” The girl who’d brought the Void Possum down that morning had looked frazzled, probably new or an intern, or both. The possum had been in a tiny little body bag, the size of which had made it look like it came from some kind of Mortuary Barbie set.
Coincidentally, the intern looked like Mortuary Barbie too.
“Delivery?” she’d said, giving Janus the all-too-familiar baffled once over of someone who didn’t know the Facility coroner dressed like an indie rocker before poking around the lab. “So this is the autopsy room, I’ve never been down here.”
“I’m aware, I would’ve remembered you,” Janus said, tossing the body bag onto the table like junk mail.
“I’m new in the experimental medical division,” Mortuary Barbie said. “I could definitely see myself down here, I hope I get to spend some more time in the lab.” Their lab. There were plenty of other labs but this one belonged to them and she didn’t need to be seeing herself anywhere in it. She didn’t offer a name.
“Maybe,” Janus said. “But I can’t cut it open with anyone else in the room who’s not a trained medical examiner so I’d get back upstairs if I were you, have a good day!” They’d tried to sound cheery as they shooed her out of the room, with minimal success. Nobody took that much interest in the lab and being in it. This was their job and they were damn good it, Mortuary Barbie could find her own damn place. Granted, it was silly to think that someone would be gunning for their job, of all things, but the possibility reared its head.
Right around the time the Void Possum reared out of its little bag, very much awake now and none too happy at being tossed around like a softball, and bolted the second the bag was unzipped.
“Are you sure?” came the voice of a tired supervisor through the phone once they’d caught him up to speed.
“It’s trying to get into the ceiling tiles, that’s as not dead as you can get!” What they didn’t say was the nagging thought that maybe Mortuary Barbie had known that, and was upstairs laughing at the thought of Janus chasing the very not-dead critter across the lab while plotting her redecoration once she moved in.
“Don’t snap at me, Janus,” their supervisor said, pulling them back to the present moment. They could hear the exasperated sigh in his voice. “Are you sure the creature isn’t some kind of reanimated—”
“It may very well be but it’s moving around.” Janus ran their free hand through their hair. “My job is to cut open the weird dead shit you all find out in the world and figure out what makes it tick in case your field team encounters it again. Moving around, crawling up walls—” They jabbed at the ceiling with the broom handle just as the Void Possum jerked to the left to avoid it. “—Means I can’t autopsy it. Moving around is not. My. Department.”
“Alright then, we’ll send the intern back down if you can contain it—”
“What all do you think I am trying to do?” Janus said. “Teach it to do tricks like a show dog?” Trying to make a fool of myself so she can waltz right in? “ It climbs walls, sir.”
“Don’t let it get in the ceiling! If it gets into the ducts we’ll never get it back!” he said. Another audible thump as the Void Possum narrowly avoided the broom handle. “Don’t kill it!” He didn’t sound happy, and Janus couldn’t be sure if that annoyance was with the field team who didn’t check the so-called corpse or their inability to wrangle something the size of a rodent. It sounded terrible, but they were hoping for the field team.
“Right now I’m focusing on getting it off of the ceiling!” said Janus. “Where did you find this thing anyway? It smells awful.”
“There was a nest of the creatures in a blind woman’s crawl space,” their supervisor said. “The rest got away, they were startled by the industrial lights, but we thought we’d scared this one to death.”
“You thought wrong.”
“Tone, Janus,” he said. No response. “Janus?” Janus couldn’t resist the urge for a snarky quip, especially in a situation like this, and he knew that. Their silence was not encouraging.
“Hang on,” Janus said, setting the broom down. “Be quiet, I lost sight of it, and I’m not giving up until I have this thing” Because if I can’t wrangle something the size of a yam then that doesn’t say very good things about my competency.
Which was ridiculous, and as soon as the thought popped into their head they knew that. Their job revolved around the firmly dead and they couldn’t be expected to be perfectly prepared for a situation like this. They were too good at their job for something like this to be more than a blip on the higher ups’ radar.
“Janus, don’t tell me to be quiet—”
“Shh!” they hissed. “It’s still in the room, I can hear it scuttling—AH FUCK!” They hadn’t seen the creature drop down from the ceiling but at some point in their bickering with the supervisor, it had, and now it was crawling up their leg. It stared up at them with those pitch black eyes like a grinning skull and a slightly slack jaw, and for the first time since the critter had been brought in Janus thought it might be something to be afraid of, and they weren’t often afraid of their job. They’d never been the kind of person to scare easily, they’d walked off into the woods at eleven years old in search of the Jersey Devil on a Girl Scout camping trip, and had always thought of that as setting the precedent for the rest of their life.
But now? Now they were something close to scared. Not necessarily because of the Void Possum and its devilish little face, but because if it got out it was their head on the chopping block. People weren’t supposed to know about things like this, that was the whole reason for The Facility’s existence, so if one little marsupial from hell got out of the lab and somehow into the outside world, it was nobody’s fault but them, and no matter how good they were at their job, it didn’t outweigh being a leak.
They knew what happened to leaks, even if The Facility had a separate lab for human autopsies.
They kicked at it but the Void Possum had dug its midnight purple claws into their stockings and was making a wailing sound like a strong wind through a cave, or a funeral dirge. Not a good sign.
“Janus?” the supervisor asked, the phone now abandoned on the floor.
“Hang on, I’ve almost got it!” they yelled, clueless as to whether or not he could still hear them. They’d grabbed their lunch bag, a tote bag that proudly proclaimed how Alan Turing Fought Nazis with his Big Gay Brain, and in one clumsy movement managed to snatch up the Void Possum, ripping a hole in their stockings in the process. “Alright, success!” They picked the phone up from the floor, grateful it wasn’t a video call, that their supervisor couldn’t see how haggard they looked. “Unless this little bastard can teleport I’ve got it!”
“Someone should be down to get it soon.” He hung up before they could respond.
“Gotcha,” they said, tying the bag’s straps together so the creature couldn’t get out again. It kept thrashing and hissing, none too happy about its current accommodations, and Janus couldn’t entirely blame them. “You’re a piece of work, you know that?” The guttural hiss in response could’ve been affirmative, they weren’t sure. They talked to dead things on the regular, being alone down in the lap, the fact that this one could kind of respond was almost refreshing. “It’s your fault I almost had an existential crisis today, so I will take great pleasure in seeing how you work once you’re actually dead. I’m sure your guts are fascinating, I’m very good at my job. Good enough to keep my job.” It wasn’t the possum that needed to be reassured of this.
Mortuary Barbie was back before Janus could get so fed up with the creature they threw the sack at a wall. She took one look at Janus, grimacing with their hair half out of its ponytail and the hole in their stockings and winced.
“Oh my god, it really is still kicking,” she said, covering her mouth in shock. “One of the supervisors said they thing I dropped off turned out to be playing possum and I thought they were just pulling one over on the new girl. I would’ve come help you if I’d known, that’s not your job!”
“It’s not. Take it,” Janus said, thrusting the wiggling bag into the girl’s arms. “Bring it back if it dies for real and not a minute sooner. I said I wasn’t giving up until I caught it, and now it’s someone else’s problem.”
“Do you want your bag back?” she asked as Janus pushed past her.
“Keep it, I’ll order another one!” they said.
“Suit yourself, but they fact that you caught this thing in a tote bag is damn impressive,” she said. “I forgot to introduce myself earlier, I realize. I’m Eleanor.” She glanced at Janus’ plaque by the door. “She and her are fine. I’d shake your hand but…” She pointed her chin towards the unhappy bag of possum.
Janus stopped, glancing back at the table.
A separate lab for human autopsies.
No, none of that. They were victorious today, no need to dwell. It was silly, to think they’d lose their job over a fluke like this. “Janus. They and them, if you don’t mind.” Deep breath. “You want coffee? I’m going for coffee. I can wait until you’re done taking that thing wherever it belongs until it dies, but after this morning, I’ve earned it.”
Alice Scott (She/They) is a queer author and bookseller who may in fact be a ferret turned human by a kiss from a prince. She has a BFA in creative writing from George Mason University and number of short stories including “Playing Possum.” Follow her on twitter @Allyscottauthor for more.