Unfinished: The Wonder Pets

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If I have a superhuman ability, it is almost certainly an extremely high threshold for children’s television, particularly those shows geared toward preschool children: Franklin, Little Bear, Dora the Explorer, The Backyardigans and Wonder Pets, just to name a few. Some of these (Franklin) I merely tolerate, while others (The Backyardigans) I actually enjoy watching with my son.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed that Kyle cycles through the shows he likes. His enjoyment of Blue’s Clues remains fairly constant, but whether he likes The Backyardigans one month and Wonder Pets another is entirely a matter of whim.

About a year ago, Kyle was on a Wonder Pets kick, and I was being exposed to a high level of guinea pig, duckling and turtle antics. Something inside me snapped; I began to consider an alternative explanation for the trio of helpful animals living in their little schoolhouse. What if, I thought, the whole thing is just the fever-dream of a guinea pig who is the test subject of a laboratory experiment?

The notion percolated in the back of my mind for a while and at some point I realized that, one way or another, I needed to get it out. So I sat down and wrote the beginning of a Linny (or Lynny, as it turns out) the guinea pig tale. Not long after I began, the winds of change blew through the International House of Johnson and Wonder Pets gave way to something else and without the regular exposure to Linny, Tuck and Ming-Ming, too, my mind wandered elsewhere and the story was abandoned.

I have no plans to return to the beleaguered guinea pig, but I present the incomplete tale here as a cautionary tale: this is what can happen when the adult mind comes under the assault of children’s television.


BROOKLYN, NY
03 MARCH, 2006

“The phone—”

“The phone is ringing,” Dr. Selig murmured. “I know, Walter; I can hear it. Unfortunately I’m a little occupied at the moment. As are you.” He tapped the side of the syringe a few times, then slowly depressed the plunger until a thin stream of clear liquid geysered from the tip of the hypodermic needle. “Besides, that’ll just be Nick calling to tell us they’ve decided to turn down our grant application. Again. Now, if you’ll move your finger just a little…yes, that’s excellent.”

The needle pierced the shaved skin at the base of the guinea pig’s skull and Dr. Selig injected what he suspected would be the final dose of the serum into the little mammal’s brain stem. A moment later, Walter returned the fidgeting rodent to its cage. Returned to the familiar bed of wood shavings, the guinea pig seemed content to sit motionless, peering out at the lab. It would have looked like any of a million other such animals living in similar cages in the bedrooms and living rooms of houses all across the country, were it not for the color-coded nodes that marked the location of nearly three dozen subdermal implants in the rodent’s head, spinal column and appendages.

Dr. Selig stripped off his latex gloves and dropped them into a nearby trash can. “Go ahead and run the connectivity check,” he said. “I’ll be back in an hour. I trust you want your usual?”

Walter nodded. “No celery this time,” he said.

Dr. Selig sighed. This conversation was becoming a tiresome ritual. “I’ll tell them,” he said, as he always did, “just like I’ve told them a hundred times before.”

“How hard is it for them to understand that some people like Buffalo wings without celery?” Walter asked, just as indignant today as he was last Friday when it was Dr. Selig’s turn to pick up lunch.

“I’ll tell them,” Dr. Selig said again. “You run the connectivity check.”

The lab ran a predictable lunch schedule, and there was no one more predictable about lunch than Walter. On Monday, everyone brought lunch from home and Walter ate his leftover lasagna cold. On Tuesday, Josh—the lab’s other intern—would run to Happy Burger and Walter would invariably order a bacon cheeseburger with no pickles. Wednesdays meant Dr. Oxley taking orders for Mexarito’s, Walter mangling the pronunciation of “quesadilla” when he ordered. Thursdays were the only days when Walter wasn’t likely to complain about a botched order, as it was his day to venture out to the House of Ming for Chinese food, and he always made sure there was plenty of duck sauce for his eggroll and that his General Tso’s chicken contained no vegetables. Vegetables as a rule were shunned by Walter, but green peppers especially he held in high contempt.

Later in the afternoon, when they sent someone to Dairy Queen for their weekly ice cream treats, Walter would order a turtle sundae with no pecans. Anyone daring to argue that a turtle sundae prepared without pecans was simply a caramel-and-chocolate sundae would be loudly rebuked by Walter, and everyone in the lab had long since learned that it was folly to argue with Walter where food was concerned.

Dr. Selig shrugged off his lab coat, then turned around to survey the lab. Dr. Oxley was out for the day, trying to drum up some more funding in the vain hope of keeping the lab running for another three months. Josh was multi-tasking, as usual, his phone cradled on his left shoulder while he wrote something on a yellow legal pad, pausing occasionally to run a finger over the touchpad on his laptop.

Walter was crouched in his chair, elbows on knees, peering into the guinea pig’s enclosure. Dr. Selig wondered briefly which of the two mammals—the placid guinea pig or the wide-eyed, neurotic intern—was more intelligent, then cleared his throat. “Walter,” he said, pointing to the computer terminal that processed the data feeds from the wireless sensors implanted beneath the guinea pig’s dermis. “Run the connectivity check.”

Walter swung the chair around and began tapping at the keyboard. Satisfied that the intern was following his directive, Dr. Selig left the laboratory, bound for Little Airplane Wings, an establishment that claimed to have “better Buffalo sauce than Buffalo!”

***

An hour later, the guinea pig was munching away at one of the unwanted celery sticks from Walter’s lunch. Though there was no outward indication, the chemical cocktail Dr. Selig had injected was working its magic: simultaneously inhibiting the rodent’s ErbB4 receptors and GABAergic interneurons. The former affected her cells’ ability to process Neuregulin-1, while the latter inhibited expression of parvalbumin, the combined upshot of which was severe, chemically-induced schizophrenia.

Her left eye twitched. An electric impulse was picked up by the sensor implanted near her left eye and a small packet of data was transmitted wirelessly to a nearby computer, where the strength and duration of the impulse were committed digitally to disc, along with thirty-three other data points that indicated other electrical impulses or lack thereof. Her left eye twitched again.

***

“She’s falling asleep,” Walter said, his face so close to the enclosure that his breath fogged up the glass. “Do you think she dreams, Dr. Selig?”

Dr. Selig wiped a dollop of barbecue sauce from the corner of his mouth with a napkin and considered the question for a moment before answering.

“There’s sufficient evidence to suggest that she does, Walter,” he said, reaching forward to tap one of the jagged lines marching across the LCD screen. “She’ll be entering her REM cycle shortly, just as you and I do every night. Her sleep patterns are similar enough to ours—including observable alterations in brain activity—that it’s entirely reasonable to conclude that she does, indeed, dream. But you can rest assured that her dreaming, or the fact that she does dream, has nothing to do with what we’re doing here.”

The answer seemed to satisfy Walter, who continued to stare at the guinea pig as he would do for what seemed like hours at a time if Dr. Selig didn’t find something else for him to do. This is what happens when you agree to hire your husband’s empty-headed younger brother, Dr. Selig thought, glancing ruefully over at Dr. Oxley’s empty chair and vowing for what must have been the ten-thousandth time to never again allow a colleague’s nepotism to supersede little things like talent and qualifications. Still, it was Friday, and in all likelihood they’d have to pack up the lab on Monday when Nick managed to deliver the bad news about the grant application and Dr. Oxley similarly reported her failure to find another backer, so where was the harm in letting Walter stare at a sleeping guinea pig all afternoon? It would certainly keep him out of Dr. Selig’s hair.

***

The guinea pig slept, unmindful of the voyeur looming beyond the glass, and she dreamed. On the nearby screen, unwatched by anyone in the lab, the lines that provided a visual indicator of the various electrical impulses in her brain grew more jagged as new neural pathways opened to compensate for those the chemicals had closed. The rodent’s brain behaved in ways no one in the laboratory had predicted. Neurotransmitters that had been disabled by previous variants of the experimental serum were activated again, while those that had been functioning normally only an hour before suddenly went quiet.

***

The alarm went off while Dr. Selig was in the restroom. Walter had no idea what it meant, nor what he should do. He looked to Josh, who was still on the phone. “I have to go,” Josh said quickly. “There’s an animal in trouble.” He fumbled the receiver onto its cradle and crossed to Walter’s workstation. “What’s going on?” he asked. “What’s the problem?”

Josh, unlike Walter, had been hired based on those two little things Dr. Selig felt were more important than nepotism: talent and qualifications. It took him only a quick glance at the EEG readouts on the monitor to realize that something was going horribly wrong in the guinea pig’s brain. He looked over at the animal’s enclosure; she was sleeping peacefully, the rapid in-out motion of her breathing the only indication that she was alive at all.

“This doesn’t make sense,” Josh said, frowning at the readout. “She should be wide awake and thrashing like an angry badger. When was the last time you calibrated these sensors?”

“Yesterday,” Dr. Selig said from the doorway. He crossed the lab quickly; if either intern noticed that the fly on his trousers was open they didn’t bother to point it out to him. “I heard the alarm. What’s going on?”

Walter stood mute while Josh explained that the guinea pig appeared to be having some sort of neuropathic seizure. “Except she’s not,” he said, confusion clear in the tone of his voice. “She’s just…sleeping.”

“Comatose seems more likely,” Dr. Selig replied, “though these readings certainly don’t suggest it.”

Walter stared at the guinea pig, as concerned about her welfare as anyone in the lab but utterly incapable of doing anything to affect it. He looked at the half-eaten piece of celery, then over to the discarded remains of his lunch, the corner of the styrofoam takeout box poking out of the trash can, more convinced then ever that the vile stalk was not to be trusted. He leaned in close to the enclosure again, oblivious to the conversation going on just a few feet away. He saw the guinea pig’s left eye twitch. Rapid eye movement, he thought, recalling his earlier conversation with Dr. Selig, and again wondered if she was dreaming.