Unreleased Interviews from the Invidium Clinical Trials
Rod Castle (Chicago, IL): When I first saw your ad on the L, I was skeptical. No offense, but it looked like a chimp threw it together in Microsoft Paint. It was hella sketch.
Interviewer: “Hella sketch?” Do you mind putting that in laymen’s terms?
RC: Yeah, that’s slang for, like, very illegitimate-seeming.
But I was desperate for some relief from my symptoms. Every night, as I dangled upside down from my pullup bar, the thoughts seared through my brain like rounds from Rambo’s M60. No matter what I did, I couldn’t shake them, just as Rambo couldn’t shake the horrors he endured in Vietnam. And the 200 bucks didn’t sound bad either.
I: What first triggered your symptoms?
RC: It was Randall, this dude at my gym. More specifically, it was his abs. Before I beheld his eight-pack, I existed in a state of blissful ignorance. In my naiveté, I assumed that my meager six-pack was the height of human achievement. That the eight-packs I saw in the movies—Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Wahlberg—were unattainable fantasies, products of meticulous makeup work and post-production software. But as I watched Randall’s abs glisten in the locker room, chiseled in perfect symmetry like an old Greek statue, all those notions shattered. Before long, his eight-pack haunted my every waking moment. And some of my dreaming ones too. No homo.
I: “No homo?”
RC: It means I didn’t admire his abs in, like, a gay way.
I: Why did you feel compelled to clarify that?
RC: It’s just an expression.
Anyway, I needed to get some intel on his operation. So, I shifted my workout time to match his—I liked to get my pump on in the morning, but Randall preferred evenings. To avoid detection, I posted up on a bench at the opposite side of the gym, observing him only through glances in the network of mirrors. Planner resting on my lap, I jotted down every nuance of his workouts. Turned out, his routines were nearly identical to mine—though he was more of a Russian Twist than a V-up guy.
So, I figured his secret must be something else. Maybe his diet?
One night, I stalked Randall out of the gym. Maintaining a one-block following distance, I watched him swagger his way down Damen, like he was Dolph goddamn Lundgren. When we reached North Ave, I considered turning back. I was damn near a mile from my apartment. But my body kept moving, like I was in a trance or something.
A block later, I watched him saunter into Lou Malnati’s and crush a large deep-dish pizza. He didn’t pause the onslaught for a moment, even to wipe the grease from his disgusting chin. When he finished, not a crumb remained. Four-thousand-plus calories and innumerable carbs, down the old hatch like it was nothing.
This sent my symptoms into overdrive. Cut to that iconic Rocky IV training montage. I’m Rocky, the scrappy underdog, halving my portion sizes, jogging along the frozen lakefront, and banging out crunches until they forcibly remove me from the gym. In alternating cuts, Randall, the villainous Russian, is stuffing his face with bacon burgers, Italian beef, and chili cheese dogs.
At the end of the montage, nothing changes. Randall still has his glorious eight-pack and I still have my pitiful six-pack.
Now, this part is what made me think perhaps I had a problem. After a particularly punishing workout, I followed Randall into the locker room and watched him strip down. I hated the way he removed his shirt, like he was a god gracing us mortals with a glimpse of his exposed torso. Finally, he wrapped a towel around his waist and lumbered over to the showers, leaving his blue Powerade unattended. Once the other patrons cleared out, I removed the lid and stared into the depths of that high-fructose abomination.
Checking over my shoulder, I removed a handful of estrogen pills from my pocket. And then, with a twisted grin, I crushed them into his Powerade.
From behind my locker door, I watched the fucker’s Adam’s Apple throb as he chugged it down.
I: And how did you feel when you administered a dose of Invidium?
RC: The waiver I signed said I might get placebos. But I know you gave me the dope shit.
I: How, exactly, did you arrive at that conclusion?
RC: I squashed the beef. I walked right up to Randall and told him, “You have nice abs, man.” No insinuations, no backhand, just a genuine dude-to-dude compliment.
I: Anything else of note to report?
RC: Not really. We chatted a bit and shared a kale smoothie. Even sipped it through the same straw. I went back to working out in the morning and he hasn’t crossed my mind since.
Gertrude Milton (Bismarck, ND): In Eden, God gave us all our hearts could desire. But still we hungered for more. We turned away from His light and embraced Lucifer’s serpentine hiss. And then came famine and plague and the fury of the wild beasts—
I: If I may interject—I believe this falls outside the scope of our study—
GM: Heavens, I apologize. Sometimes I just get so carried away.
I: Not to worry, ma’am. Do you mind telling us what first triggered your symptoms?
GM: I have a little pear tree in our parish’s community garden. For five years, I’ve been diligently watering, pruning, and fertilizing him. I was sure this would be the fall he would finally bear fruit. And then I could make a scrumptious little jam for my fellow worshippers to enjoy.
Oh, but that cruel summer, three plagues befell my beloved pear tree. First was the arthritis, the searing pain in my hip that rendered me unable to prune the branches. Nonetheless, the little pears began to sprout, each one a delicate jewel. Then came the winds, the vicious gusts from the east. Without a trace of remorse, they threw my pears to the ground, mangling the flesh with bruises. Finally came the insects, the locust-like horde, devouring the fallen fruit, leaving nothing but barren cores. In the end, not a single pear survived.
Meanwhile, in the adjacent plot, Esther’s kumquat tree thrived. It was just like her to choose such an ostentatious plant—a tropical citrus tree that, without a big strong grandson to carry it inside for the winter, would perish the moment November rolled around. It wasn’t good enough for her to simply grow the tree, either. No, she had to cover it with a big refrigerator box all spring to induce dormancy, so it would fruit in August, just like my pear tree.
I don’t pretend to know God’s plan, but for the life of me, I cannot understand why He punished my crops and spared hers. She’s a hypocrite, a charlatan—the epitome of all The Good Lord loathes. While the rest of us lower ourselves to the kneelers, bowing our heads in reverence, Esther remains comfortably seated. She says it’s her poor, arthritic knee. But I’ve had two hip surgeries and you don’t see me complaining.
Esther’s crop was so bountiful, she supplied every member of the parish with their own jar of kumquat marmalade. That fall, talk of her marmalade swirled through the congregation—it was just so “delectable,” so “tangy.” Father Eunice even went so far as to sing its praises in a sermon. When Esther handed me my jar, she had the nerve to say, “Better luck next year.”
Soon after, I acquiesced to Lucifer’s nagging whispers. I used my position as editor of the church bulletin to strike all mentions of Esther’s “marvelous marmalade” from the fall issue. In the photo we ran, her kumquat tree was conspicuously absent—cropped just out of frame. And then I spread a series of rumors: I found a worm in Esther’s marmalade, her grandson hadn’t been baptized, and so on.
After each of these transgressions, I promptly visited the confessional booth. But the penances felt so inadequate. How, after all, could a measly “Our Father” absolve me of these egregious sins? So, I piled on additional penances of my own: fasting, scalding myself with bacon grease, poking myself with a thumbtack. But still, Lucifer invaded my thoughts.
I: Did the Invidium alleviate your symptoms?
GM: You should be ashamed of yourselves, playing God with your little chemistry sets. You sought to save humanity from itself, but, instead, you breathed life into an abomination. These little green pills do nothing more than amplify Lucifer’s insidious whispers.
Two weeks after starting the drug, I placed an online order. On one of the last temperate days of autumn, the package arrived on my doorstep. I waited for night to fall for what seemed like an eon. Then, I placed it in my passenger seat and drove to the parish garden. Tucking it in my walker’s basket, I crept past Gertrude’s squash, Clarence’s mint, Bernadette’s cucumber. There I stood, before Esther’s kumquat tree. It looked so serene, glinting in the moonlight, swaying gently in the autumn breeze …
With a mighty slash of my key, I freed them—a thousand ravenous aphids—from the box. Like a black cloud, they descended upon the little kumquat tree, feasting on the leaves with insatiable hunger. A sinister cackle emanated from my throat, but it sounded foreign, as if uttered by someone else entirely.
On my way out of the garden, a serpent ensnared my ankle. I toppled to the ground, bracing myself for the bite. But then I saw it was only a garden hose. Using my walker for support, I climbed to my feet, chuckling at my folly.
My laughter fell flat when Esther called my name. She was heading up the path with her burly grandson, Matthew, who was pushing a wheelbarrow of fertilizer. I drummed up some small talk, offered some half-baked excuse about why I was there at 9 pm. But I knew it was futile.
The next day, Esther and I locked eyes from across the pews. She radiated, through her glare, a rage that scorched like hellfire. But after mass, she didn’t confront me. The subtext was not only did she know what I’d done—but so did God. And she would defer to His judgment.
Oksana Pavlenko (Palo Alto, CA): Ever since I was girl in Russia, I dreamed of becoming scientist. Of curing man’s ills with burner of Bunsen and flask of Erlenmeyer. Dream was flame that nourished me as Mother and I endured wages of pauper.
I: Oksana, get out of that chair. Participant 1001 will arrive any minute.
OP: I am Participant 1001.
I: Hilarious. Now, please, vacate the chair.
OP: I only wish to tell my fragment of story. I have been consuming Invidium since beginning. Since before Institutional Review Board cleared for human trials. Since before we dispensed to lab rats. I knew I could lose job and become bird of jail. But I possessed no choice. My symptoms had me at, how you say, end of my yarn.
I: Oksana, once the FDA clears this drug, you’ll be wealthy beyond your wildest comprehension. Who could you possibly be jealous of?
OP: You are without clue?
OP: It started at company summer party, when you toasted, “With a little green pill, I freed lab rats from their own craven instincts. No longer do they lust for one another’s dry pasta. They now live in harmony, in prosperity, as we may one day live.” You neglected to mention how I went extra kilometer for project. How I worked like mongrel, socializing, grouping, and collecting data from rats while you dozed in tower of ivory.
I: That’s an unfair characterization and you know—
OP: Matters deteriorated when CEO ordered celebratory vodka shots and PR team snapped photograph of you for website. I took single dose of Invidium prototype A400. This had no effect on symptoms—only triggered episode of vertigo. I was forced to lay down in booth. No one noticed my absence. As room twirled like carousel, I was tormented by visions of dying spinster, forever unacknowledged, my life’s work snatched by callous fingers of male mediocrity.
I: Oksana, please, allow me to explain—
OP: I hit bottom of rock on night before Society for Neuroscience Conference. Your head had ballooned larger than dirigible. Without trace of remorse, you informed me I would no longer present research to esteemed colleagues. You would take reins instead. As I watched you gesture to enraptured crowd, I envisioned breaking poster board over your head and lighting you on fire. I administered double dose of Invidium C290 prototype, but it failed to extinguish scorching tongues of flame.
I: I know how you feel. I, too, was once a slave to my envy. When I was a boy, I possessed an IQ so far to the right of the bell curve, they had to recalibrate the scale. At the tender age of nine, I was taking AP classes at the high school. Not only that, but I was first-chair violin, captain of the chess team, and the reigning champion of the science fair for three years running. However, despite my triumphs, I was bitterly jealous of my brother.
My older brother was, in the words of my father, a “royal fuckup.” He constantly cut class and, on the days he chose to show up, he reeked of pot. Instead of filling out his exams, he festooned them with doodles of spacemen on surfboards. As I practiced my violin in my room, my father’s voice echoed through the vents. “You couldn’t find your own asshole if it wasn’t attached to your body,” he said, speech slurred from cheap whiskey. Then an unmistakable sound filled the house—the sound of a belt buckle striking bare flesh.
The twisted part is that I was jealous of the beatings. Because at least my father noticed my brother. I, on the other hand, was a shapeless wraith, floating by unseen, unacknowledged. I started the Invidium project not to glorify my ego, but simply to cope. I needed to cleanse myself of my envy.
OP: I possessed no inkling. Accept my apologies.
I: It’s alright, Oksana. I’m sorry, too. How about I bump your name up on the study? Picture this: the moniker “Oksana Pavlenko” will reverberate through the annals of history forevermore. Why are you crying?
OP: Boat has sailed. In depths of envy, I swapped prototypes with placebos and randomized dosage spreadsheet. Clinical trials are, how you say, fucked.
Derek Andersen is an Illinois Wesleyan alum working as a copywriter in Chicago. His short stories have appeared in Arts & Letters, Barrelhouse, Catapult, Columbia Journal, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @DerekJAnd.