Asor Polk wanted to throw his sample case out the window, but he took a deep breath, placed it on the floor and lay down on the bed in his second floor room at the Tar Heel Hotel in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. He was still wearing his suit pants and tie, slightly loosened around his neck.
Most of the salesmen calling in Rocky Mount were at the Sheraton Carleton down the street, but Asor had always stayed at the Tar Heel; now it was all he could afford.
He totaled the day’s sales in his head as he lay staring at the ceiling. It hadn’t been a good day, or trip. He was barely covering expenses. Maybe I need a new line, he thought as he watched a bug crawl across the ceiling, reaching the light in the middle, then skirting around it, continuing to the other side. Asor never recalled seeing insects at the Tar Heel before.
A few hours later on the third floor of the hotel, 12 year old Benny Purgis watched his father sleep. Benny had his own cot and he liked this hotel because you could call downstairs and order a Coke or a sandwich and they brought it right to your room.
Benny’s father had been out all day, leaving him to walk around the town. He’d gone to a movie and looked in all the stores. He’d slept for two hours late in the afternoon, so he wasn’t tired.
Dr. Halvin Purgis had been visiting most of the universities in the state, trying to gain interest in his research project on the Ceratomegilla Fuscilabis. Although his academic affiliations had been severed for a decade, Dr. Purgis was still well known. Now he worked for a pharmaceutical company in a lab in his basement. There were always lots of fights at home, and Benny was happy his father often took him on his trips. The recent words of his mother: “You should go back to teaching while you can!” echoed in Benny’s ears, along with his father’s angry reply, “I have my project; soon the universities will come to me.”
Dr. Purgis’ project was in a ventilated metal box next to the closet door. Benny was forbidden to touch it, but twice on this trip he’d looked inside the cases. He loved to watch the inhabitants scurry around their plastic homes. Some of the larger ones had individual cases. They were big, a couple as large as a quarter.
Listening to his father snore, Benny took one of the plastic cases into the bathroom, opened it and watched the things dance around as he held it to the light. Dr. Purgis groaned in his sleep and turned over. The sudden noise so startled Benny that he dropped the case. Fearing his father would awaken, Benny rushed to gather the specimens crawling all over the bathroom floor. He recaptured all he could see and put them back in the case. Climbing in his cot, he plugged the headset into his small radio and lay back to listen to the all-night station in Raleigh.
The next morning Dr. Purgis listened impatiently to the drone of the head of the biology department at Carolina Atlantic University. “You see, Dr. Purgis, we don’t have the funding to finance such work. If you’d like to apply for a teaching position…”
“No, no, I don’t want to teach. I’m a scientist, not a babysitter.”
“Ah, very well, then, I’m sorry. Perhaps you could try Duke.”
“Perhaps,” Dr. Purgis answered, knowing he’s already been to the top institutions, and was now on what he called the third tier. He closed his metal case, making sure the air holes were properly aligned.
“You know, Dr. Purgis,” the department head said, “The startling growth you have produced, along with the fierce characteristics the mutants display is indeed interesting…”
“Yes, thank you. I’ve got to be going.”
“Do they really mate as rapidly as you indicate?”
Dr. Purgis had an appointment in Greenville at East Carolina in an hour. Benny was already waiting in the car. Still, he liked to discuss his work, and maybe the man was reconsidering. “Yes, with the introduction of the chemical substance, the female will reproduce about a thousand of the mutant species in four hours. Are you rethinking your decision?”
“No, not all. Sorry. It is fascinating though.”
Benny watched his father come down the walk, hoping he hadn’t found any specimens missing. Benny’s hand was swollen and inflamed, a large, oozing red spot he had to keep hidden from his father. He must have been bitten picking up one of the large ones. He looked at his other hand, which had also looked red and bigger. He never knew that ladybugs would bite.
Asor Polk awoke, knowing he’d overslept, but disoriented, until he remembered he was in the hotel. The room was dark; the light must have burned out. He looked at the ceiling, trying to focus. It was red and black and moving. It was alive, flowing like a wave from one corner to the other. The ceiling was a mass of bugs. He tried to get out of bed, but when he looked down they were all over the floor. Some were on the bed, crawling up his leg. His pillow was black with therm. As he turned, the bugs moved with him, starting to bite. He slapped at them, but there were too many, and when the ones on the ceiling fell on him like soot from an incinerator, he didn’t even have time to scream.
2 thoughts on ““Dr. Purgis’ Project” by David Howard”
Excellent! Wasn’t expecting that ending. I’ll never look at ladybugs the same way again!
Really enjoyed this story by David Howard. It has a little of everything…suspense, mystery, science fiction. It draws the reader into a human predicament that has quite a surprising ending. Well-written with a good eye for detail and vivid characterization.