He was not handling it well.
She knew that, and the doctor knew that. However:
With him on the loose, and the other subject on the loose, and the police closing in…
There was only so much they could do.
Ivan was not the first test subject. And he wasn’t the last, either. In fact, he was test subject 38 out of 79.
He was definitely her favorite test subject.
Unlike the others, Ivan had an upbeat attitude. Even when the drugs kicked in, even when the serum went south, even when his system decided to take a turn for the worst. Ivan was always, always doing his best.
And he never blamed her.
That was key.
All of them were here for a reason. Every test subject chosen, mentally evaluated, allowed into the program, with precision and care. They didn’t want anyone who would blab. They didn’t want anyone who would steal their serums. They didn’t want anyone who would go postal. Everyone here was picked cautiously, carefully, with great consideration.
And, honestly, it didn’t show.
Most of the test subjects were grouchy. Mean. Arrogant. Or, worse, violent. Which was strange, considering that stipulation about not wanting people who’d go postal.
Ivan was the exception.
Even if he wasn’t well, Ivan never blamed Taylor. Never tried to hit her. Never cussed her out or tried to get her in trouble. When things felt bad for Ivan, he simply told her. Shivered. Clenched his fists.
Asked her to help him endure it.
They’d talk for hours then. About her favorite things, or his favorite things. Whatever kept his mind off the pain, or the chills, or the feeling of birds taking flight in his skull. Whatever the serum was doing, she helped him distract himself from it.
In all honesty, they were both grateful for one another. Ivan was grateful that Taylor was so kind, and Taylor was grateful that Ivan still saw her as a person, not just his nurse. Or the one administering torture (which was only half accurate).
That’s why she knew immediately when the serum took to his system.
Ivan finally completed the test.
It was a strange test. One that the doctor had been working on for years. Essentially, it was a serum that stripped you to your core. Revealed who you really were. Made you the most instinctive parts of yourself.
Honestly, it was a rather horrifying test.
Taylor wasn’t an artist, and she was glad. Otherwise she might not ever be able to forget the things she’d seen people turn into. Might not ever stop needing to draw them, get them out of her head.
Again though, Ivan was different.
When his skin split open, she was terrified, yes.
But not horrified.
Not in the slightest.
Instead, she found herself mystified. Dumbfounded.
When Ivan was stripped to his core, he wasn’t hideous. At least, she didn’t think so.
His dead elk head that sat atop his bear body. The way his antlers seemed to glint in the light with green metal. The bluish hue of his wolf’s tail. The way his eyes glowed orange.
None of it frightened her.
Rather, she found herself curious.
What did the quills on his back feel like?
She couldn’t help but wonder.
The beast that was Ivan stared at her. Glowing his eyes in her direction as she reached out a hand.
And that was, of course, when everything went to hell.
The lights flickered, the alarm began to blare.
And it startled them both, no doubt. However:
Ivan took it worse.
He threw his skeletal head skyward, bellowing out something like a ram’s horn mixed with a lion’s roar. The force of the sound knocked Taylor off her feet, back into a cabinet.
And then, it got worse.
With a fist that was clawed and scaled at the knuckle, Ivan punched the door.
And he fled.
Which, was bad enough. A monstrous looking creature running loose in the city? Coming from a top-secret lab facility? Possibly gaining news coverage and exposing them all?
But, you know what was worse?
The fact that there were two of them running loose.
And the cops were catching on. One of their test subjects (Taylor refused to believe it was Ivan) was destroying things. Attacking people. Leaving claw marks and quills pinned up all over the city.
That was what the rush was all about.
She had to get to Ivan before the cops did.
Of course, she was stopped short. Because, why would fate let her find Ivan first, right? What fun would that be? No fun at all. In fact, fate had an even better plan:
Let the other monster find Taylor.
Yeah, that was a great plan.
Back pressed against the wall of the alleyway, the creature stared her down. His beetle-like head and shark eyes trained on her. Fixated on her. The drool coming from the massive amounts of teeth and the gnarly set of pinschers had her convinced.
This monster definitely wanted to eat her.
Bat wings with holes in them flash out, blocking the rest of the alley. Ensuring that she would be snared, no matter how she tried to escape.
Subject 62 definitely wanted to eat her.
And that didn’t surprise her.
Subject 62 was really named Marvin Collins, and Marvin hated Taylor.
Raptor claws digging grooves into the ground, Marvin took a step forward.
And Taylor tried her best.
“Listen Marvin, you don’t want to do this. Not really. Sure, you might want to—you are who you are, no judging—but there’ll be consequences still. They’ll have to terminate you. You don’t want that Marvin. Trust me, you don’t. So, uh, don’t kill me, okay? Just back off, let me call Doc, we’ll head back to the lab…”
She trailed off as a growling sound reached her ears.
It reached Marvin’s too.
Without warning, it dropped from the sky.
Quills sticking out of the spine, wolf’s tail swishing like a cat’s.
It was Ivan.
After dropping off the building, he stood for a moment, one eye on Marvin and the other on Taylor.
And, a horrible thought occurred to Taylor.
Ivan might want to eat her, too.
But, then she shoved that thought away.
Ivan would never.
She felt it. Hot-iron-in-her-veins felt it. Like her own spine.
Ivan would never hurt her.
And the moment the thought came to her, she saw something flicker in Ivan’s eyes. The orange glowing dimmer.
And then brighter.
Lifting his head up, Ivan let out another roar.
And punched Marvin in the face.
Skeletal head and all, Ivan threw himself into the fight. The bloody, thrashing, clawing match the two monsters engaged in. Ivan absolutely took part.
And he took Marvin apart.
Not killing him. Taylor still believed Ivan would never.
Marvin was absolutely down for the count when Ivan was done, that was for sure.
When the fight was over, blood dripped from underneath Ivan’s skulls. Oozing, as if the surface were made of skin. A wound at his side also dripped, and he shuffled in order to look at her.
Before she could react any further, he fell apart.
At first, it terrified her. Shocked her. Did she really just witness Ivan fight and die?
Falling apart was normal for the test subjects. It was how they shed their monster skin.
Ivan returned to normal.
And so did Marvin.
The fallout was quite a mess. Doc had to hire some people to clean up, find a way to cover for them. Lie, essentially. But that was alright with Taylor. She didn’t really care.
She was just glad to be alive.
The next night, Ivan didn’t show up for testing.
So Taylor went looking.
It didn’t take her long to find him. After all, he’d already told her all of his favorite thinking spots.
He was sitting on the end of pier 12, looking out at the dark ocean. Hand in a sling, and leg undoubtedly bound.
Without saying a word, she sat down next to him, gazing over the water.
After a few minutes, he spoke first.
“I could’ve killed you.”
She shrugged. “So could driving, but that doesn’t really stop me.”
“‘S not really the same.”
“Why? Because you had a skull for a face?”
Glaring at the water, he said, “No, because I had claws and fangs and I was completely out of my mind. Completely out of control. Do you know what I could’ve done? What I was capable of? I could’ve torn a building down with my bare hands!”
Taylor nodded at him, letting him know she was taking him seriously.
“I know that,” she said.
Confused, she asked.
“Why are you here?”
He sounded so incredulous. So disbelieving.
She couldn’t help but laugh.
“Because I’m here. I’m here because I’m here, and I wouldn’t be able to be here if it weren’t for you Ivan. If Ivan—the instinctive monstrosity version of Ivan—hadn’t shown up, I’d be dead. I wouldn’t be here. Not in any sense of the word.”
That seemed to bring him down. Calm his anger. Soothe him.
“Just because you’re strong, or ferocious, or terrifying, doesn’t mean that you can’t also be kind and considerate and protective. Those instincts can coexist Ivan.”
“Oh yeah?” he scoffed and asked.
“Yeah. I mean, you proved that just last night, didn’t you?”
When he didn’t answer, she sighed again.
“You’re not a monster Ivan. Even if you look like one, you’re still you. Even if you don’t know it, I do.”
“Yeah,” she said, nodding once affirmatively.
It went silent a moment as the two soaked in the night. As Ivan tried to accept what she said, and as she tried her best to convey it.
“You’re a monster Ivan. Maybe you weren’t before, but you are now. And you know what? I’m glad. Without monsters like you, people like me wouldn’t be here. Please remember that.”
And he did.
Because those words…
They were everything he was searching for.
With every waking moment, and every sleeping one, he remembered. When he took his serum, when he stopped, when the experiment was over and he could still feel it slumbering inside him—lying right next to Taylor, just like he was—he remembered.
Not all creatures are monsters.