Ben Sobel tests cosmetic products on small, restrained mammals for a living. He puts makeup in their eyes and records how long it takes to destroy the corneas. He shaves them and applies nail polish to skin. He puts hand lotion into orifices. This is a real thing he does, for money. The money is good; he will soon be free of med school debt. Ben is a young man, healthy but not happy. A lot of people don't know that rabbits, like humans, scream.
He wonders, How did I end up here?
One evening at dusk he finds a skeletal dog—huge, like an old wizard bent over and draped in fur—on the street outside his house. Drool comes in ropes from its mouth. The dog lets something small, grey, and wet fall at Ben's feet. The small, grey, wet thing tries to crawl away. The dog snatches it up again—there's a crunching sound, like little branches—and eats it in one gulp.
Ben names the dog "Martin."
Ben hasn't spoken to his twin brother Martin in almost six months. He misses Martin. They had a fight.
So he is shocked that, within a week, Martin (the twin brother, not the dog) calls him. By this time, Ben is feeling better than he has in a long time, an emotional recovery which he can only attribute to the dog's companionship. Ben has even stopped having nightmares where he pisses blood. The dog goes on long car rides with him, sticks its head out the window, gives him understanding looks. Ben cares for the dog, tries to fatten it up, gives it love and attention.
What a stroke of luck, to find this dog.
So when Martin calls, Ben is feeling magnanimous—willing to put aside the hard feelings of the past half-year—because he believes he can see a bit of light at the end of his very specific tunnel. "Hey," he says to Martin, his brother. "I'll be honest, I was thinking of calling you, too."
"A couple things," says Martin. "Three things. One, I want to apologize. I'm sorry. I was wrong. I've been able to see that more clearly with time. So I don't know if you can forgive me for the things I said, but this is me apologizing."
"Oh," Ben says, ready to accept the apology but not sure he is ready to say he accepts it. Martin can sense this and goes on.
"Two, I'm getting married. She's the most beautiful woman in the world. And she loves me. Can you believe it? I want you to be the best man. Listen, I apologize for everything I said. Being with Julia has washed every bad feeling out of me—like a flash flood, it feels like. What do you think?"
"That's good for you," Ben says. He feels, for the most part, genuinely happy for Martin. A little jealous, but not overwhelmingly so. "I think I would love to be your best man."
"Great," Martin says. He hesitates. "So, ah—how are you these days?"
"Okay," Ben says. "Listen, I apologize, too. What's the other thing?"
"The other thing? Oh, the other thing. Did you know we had another twin?"
"What?" Ben says.
Martin corrects himself: "Not another a twin. A triplet. Did you know we were triplets?"
Ben doesn't understand.
"About six months ago," Martin says, "I found something in my arm. It was a, uh, like a clot of hair and teeth. It just kind of worked its way to the surface. I go to the doctor and I say, 'Hey, look at this thing I dug out of my arm! It's hair and teeth, isn't it?' He looks at it and says, 'This is a teratoma. You had a twin who died in the womb and you absorbed him.' I said, 'Doc, I have a living, breathing twin walking around in the sunshine right now.' And he says, 'Well then, the two of you had another brother, and he didn't make it.' Now you know."
Ben feels like he did the first time he ever ejaculated, when he was ten, when he thought, That was in my body?
"Yep," Martin says, reading his mind, "you probably have a couple of those things in you, too. Don't worry, they'll work their way out."
"Great," Ben says.
"And another thing," Martin says, "he told me it's good luck." • The dog grows hale on its beefy diet. Its hair becomes lustrous and when Ben looks at it, he believes it is smiling, like a sidekick who provides comic relief and reassurance. At the park, where it chases squirrels—but does not catch them! good!—the dog draws admiring glances from women with smaller, sleeker dogs.
In the laboratory, the rabbits struggle and cry.
One weekend he makes the long drive to visit his brother, an official reconciliation visit. They embrace. He has brought the dog. "You named him after me," Martin exclaims, delighted. Martin's fiancée Julia is lovely. His life seems swollen, too-bright with happiness, and Ben thinks hopefully that, with good fortune, his own life might one day be like this. When they last spoke, six months back, Martin was drinking too much and depressed.
When Ben returns home, filled with a resolve that feels like gold in his chest, he goes to work and says, "I quit. This isn't me giving notice. This is me right before I walk out the door and you never see me again." A more emphatic and riotous exit would involve him setting the animals free, letting havoc ensue, but surely it would be a squalid, cowering havoc, terrible to see, not like in the movies, and anyway he cannot risk criminal charges and the inevitable lawsuit.
Still, when he gets back to his house and Martin greets him with a comradely Woof! and a thorough slobbering, Ben feels like a prince. • He searches for new jobs. Promising avenues seem open if he does not concern himself too much about salary. He would have no problem working at a bank, for example, or as someone's assistant at a law firm, as long as at the law firm they don't shave rabbits for experimenting.
One night, inexplicably, Ben has a fainting spell, as if his brain has all of a sudden, and just for a second, been pulped. He wakes up a few minutes later, fine except for a nosebleed. He feeds the dog and goes to bed.
In the morning, a phone call. He hears a man's voice, that steak-and-potatoes voice of a man with a badge.
The question: "Is Martin Sobel your brother?"
"Yeah," Ben says. "Why?"
"We've been trying to reach you. He was killed last night. I'm sorry to have to give the news, especially by phone."
Ben cannot extract much from the man. There was a shooting at the house. Only Martin was killed. Two bullets in the head. Since their parents passed away years ago, Ben must come to identify and claim the body.
In shock, Ben drives the eight hours across three states to get to where his brother lives—lived. In a squat, brick police station, a man called Sheriff Larch is able to fill him in.
"Well. It seems homicide wasn't involved," the sheriff says. "It seems he—shot himself."
"What?" Ben says, incredulous. "Twice? In the head?"
"I know," says the sheriff. "It's hard to believe. But he wrote a suicide note, covered the floor with plastic shower curtains, then shot himself in the head. Most of the time a gunshot to the head will kill you, once in a while it won't. He must've picked up the gun a second time and finished himself off. Forensics is pending, but it looks pretty solid. Also, he left a message with his ex-girlfriend saying he was going to kill himself."
"His 'ex-girlfriend'? He had a fiancée."
"She ran off with his buddy from work."
After the police station, after the morgue, after the visit to his brother's home, Ben is alone. The absence of his twin brother from the world feels like the loss of a marvelous extra limb. Martin had been so proud of his life, of Julia.
Now Ben feels unmoored, disoriented. It's as if the feeling of being in the laboratory has followed him, the dull unending chill of it, the sensation that none of this can be real, that soon it must end.
As if recalling a dream he remembers coveting Martin's life or one like it. • He goes back home after the funeral, drained from the surreal experience of eulogizing his twin. Many people that Ben didn't know were there.
Shortly after his return home, he drives to the FastMart gas station to buy motor oil. The dog, Martin, enters the station with him, padding silently behind. At the counter, a bald man with pink, healthy skin stands in front of them arguing with the young clerk over a number on a lottery ticket.
"Sorry," the clerk says. "I just misheard you, I made a mistake. It's only a digit off. I can't exchange, though. I'm sorry." His eye drifts to Martin, who pants and whines. "Hey," says the clerk, "I don't know if that thing is a bear or a dog, but get it out of here. See the sign? No pets."
But the bald customer—he is pink-skinned, with a jowly smile—looks at the dog, too, and he says, "Rasputin!"
The dog knows this man. The dog is wary.
"That's my boy!" says the man. "I lost him almost two months ago. Did you get him from the pound? Or did you find him?"
It happens too fast for Ben to lie. He says, "I—I found him. He was starving."
"I'll bet he was!" says the man. "Look, here's a picture of me and him." He produces from his wallet a limp photograph of himself, on a mountaintop, with Martin, whose real name is apparently Rasputin.
"Thank you for taking care of him!" says the man.
There is no choice. With a terrible, violated feeling, Ben agrees to let the bald, pink man follow him to his house, where they will pick up a few toys belonging to the dog, a bed that Ben has bought, and the cans of dog food that will no longer be of any use to Ben.
At Ben's house, the man is talkative, asking questions. "You look young," he says. "You have your own house? You could pass for a college student."
"I rent," Ben says.
"I'm an anesthesiologist," the man says as Ben gathers some chew toys. "I'm divorced. This old boy is my best friend." Ben grunts that he understands.
"Why don't you walk over to my house with me," says the anesthesiologist. "It's just a few blocks. And it'll be a transition, like symbolic, for the old boy. I can see he likes you."
"Okay," Ben says. Already he feels lonely.
They begin to walk. The distance is not just a few blocks. They walk ten, then fifteen, then twenty blocks, and they are in a different part of town. It is dusk.
"Here we are," says the anesthesiologist, tugging Rasputin's collar. "Come in, old boy. Remember this place?"
The dog whines, twisting its big bony neck to get away.
"What if you lead him in?" says the anesthesiologist.
Ben leads the dog toward the house. Reluctantly, the dog goes along. The anesthesiologist opens the screen door and front door to let them in. Ben finds himself in a dark, camphor-smelling hallway. "Take him in the kitchen?" says the anesthesiologist, shutting the doors. "To your right." Ben obeys.
In the kitchen, the anesthesiologist attacks Ben, pinning him facedown to the linoleum with a knee between his shoulder blades, sticking a syringe in the back of his neck until Ben falls unconscious. • He wakes strapped to a wooden chair, gagged with something rubber. He can't speak. Things are blending, dividing, in his vision and in his mind. Rabbits scream somewhere, he can hear this distinctly. He can hear the squeaking of their restraints as they struggle.
This chair he's in, it's not a normal chair. It is some custom-built thing, with leather straps and metal hinges, probably created by the anesthesiologist here in this very basement. It sits on a wide sheet of clear plastic.
Ben is naked.
"Some days I can't believe my luck," says the anesthesiologist, who is sitting on a grey couch that looks like it was picked up off a curb. A TV is on, muted, and Ben can see it out of the corner of his eye. The anesthesiologist has been watching the news and waiting for Ben to wake up.
"I thought that old mutt was gone for good. What a day."
"Ennnnnghh," Ben says through the gag. "Ennnnghhh!"
Don't, he is saying. Don't!
Upstairs, Rasputin barks.
"I examined you," the anesthesiologist says. "You have very soft skin. You also have a tumor or something on the back of your thigh. I can feel it beneath the skin. Here, I'll show you."
Rising, he picks up a thick pair of scissors from a folding TV tray beside Ben's restraint chair. Ben can't quite see what other things are on the tray, just that they are shiny. The anesthesiologist kneels beside Ben's leg and pinches the flesh in his fist, making it bulge. With the scissors he cuts out a flap of Ben's thigh. "NNNNNGEH!" cries Ben. He feels blood run down the back of his leg.
The anesthesiologist digs around in the wound with his fingers, then produces a small blood-covered lump which he pops in his mouth and sucks on, cleaning it.
Oh my God, thinks Ben.
Spitting the lump, now mostly cleaned of blood, into his palm, the anesthesiologist holds it up in front of Ben's face.
"What is that?" he asks Ben.
A lump of baby teeth and hair.
Ben thinks: Little brother.
Wildly, he thinks: Luck?
"Well, it's unique, whatever it is," the anesthesiologist says. "Some kind of tumor."
He backs away and sets the teratoma on his folding TV tray.
"Let's watch a video," the anesthesiologist says suddenly. He has a digital video camera hooked up to his TV with A/V cables. He fiddles withthe controls and moves the TV so that Ben can see it.
The video begins to play. On it, a young man is strapped naked to the restraint chair, crying and struggling, gagged. The anesthesiologist approaches the prisoner and—Ben closes his eyes.
"No, watch," the anesthesiologist says. "I just want you to watch. Then I'll let you go, if you promise not to tell anyone."
The video seems to go on forever.
By the end, it is impossible to tell if the young man is still alive. But the tape has run out. "Okay," the anesthesiologist says, going to turn off the camera. "Yes, I did lie. I'm not going to let you go. But thanks for watching."
Please, Ben thinks. Let anything happen. Let me survive. Let a truck bomb go off outside the house. Let terrorists attack.
Blood leaks down his leg.
Behind him there are clicks, dog toenails on wood. Rasputin is coming down the stairs. The dog walks around the restraint chair and sniffs at Ben, licks boredly at his bleeding leg. To Ben this feels like an apology, which scares him. He begins to cry.
"Get away from it," the anesthesiologist says to Rasputin, who slinks off. The anesthesiologist rearranges the TV against the wall, humming to himself. He steps back and hesitates, staring at the screen, which has now filled again with regular programming. The screen is at the very corner of Ben's vision again, and he tries to make out what has gotten the anesthesiologist's attention, what is now making him mutter rapidly to himself.
Breathing fast, the anesthesiologist takes something from his pocket and looks at it, then looks at the screen.
"Oh my God," he says.
"Enngh?" Ben says desperately. "Enngh?"
"Holy Mary, mother of…"
"Two-ninety-six!" the anesthesiologist screams. "Two-ninety-six! Oh my fucking God!" He presses his palms to his forehead and just screams, without words. The dog becomes excited, jumping around, barking.
When the anesthesiologist stops screaming, he is panting, moaning with joy.
"That clerk," he weeps, laughing. "He gave me the wrong ticket. I just won three hundred million on it!"
He sits heavily on the couch, a hand pressed to his brow. "Oh my God. Look at this shithole. By God, now Jean will be sorry she left. This changes everything." He laughs again, a laugh of passionate relief, of a spirit lifting.
Then he looks at Ben and his face goes a little sad as he says, "Well, some things money can't change."
When he looks away from Ben, though, his beatific expression returns. His life of drudgery and squalor is over. He rises and walks to the folding table, where he picks up something shiny. Shaking his head, catching his breath, he says—
"You! By God, you're some kind of good luck charm."
And, coming closer—
"Your little tumor thing on a keychain, wouldn't that be just right."
To emphasize this he takes his keys from his pocket and jingles them, causing Rasputin to get excited and bark loudly, hoping for a drive. But then the keys are put back into the pocket and Rasputin, immediately bored, turns away and settles on the floor, face on his forepaws. There is little to do here, in his new, old home. He pays no attention to something taking place behind him. Dimly he can recall the same thing happening before, many times.