The Monster of Eagle Rock High
Reporter Kevin Rowe was surprised when he drove into the parking lot of Eagle Rock High School. The red-brick school building was sprawling and immense, sparkling clean and modern. There were hardly any open spots left; he found a corner, on the grass, several hundred feet from the entrance and switched off the ignition. He sat for a moment in the cab of his Chevy truck, gathering his gear.
His paper, The Martinsburg Daily News, had assigned him to the school’s annual science fair, over his protest, and the drive into the mountains of Pendleton County, West Virginia had been long, winding, and boring. Kevin was frustrated and irritated already, even before he had to mingle with the students, parents, and teachers inside. He slipped the strap of his Sony Pro HDV camcorder over one shoulder, stuffed a notepad into his jacket pocket, and exited his pickup.
He walked a while until he found the side entrance to the vast auditorium behind the main campus. He maneuvered around kids ranging in age from preteen to late teens who were chattering in small, frenetic clumps as he entered through the propped-open automatic doors into the cavernous space of the hall. The place felt cool, and echoed with laughter and voices and the occasional playful scream.
“Let’s get this over with,” he said softly to himself. He readied his camcorder, and surveyed the array of tables and displays that were set up in rows under the hanging banks of fluorescent lights.
He started at the tables lined along one wall and began ambling by each exhibit. He read titles printed neatly on poster-board: “How the Temperature of Food Affects Our Taste,” and, “The Effects of Color on Memory,” and, “The Relationship Between the pH Level of Soil and Plant Growth.” He stopped and nodded in greeting to a neatly dressed blotchy young man. “Hi, “I’m from the Martinsburg Daily News. I’d like to ask you a few questions about this pH experiment,” he said.
An hour later, Kevin Rowe paused to catch his breath. He stood in place, rooted in the middle of what he’d discovered was the basketball court and gymnasium during school hours. While visitors, students, and staff filtered by, he flipped the view screen so he could review some of his footage. He watched the Frazier sisters explain about the “Effects of Carbonated Drinks on the Erosion of Tooth Enamel,” and next to them, a skinny, redheaded girl named Courtney tell him about her study “Discovering the Dominant Gene in Black, White, and Tri-colored Mice.” He frowned when he saw how poorly he’d focused on her excellent graphics. “Hmm,” he grunted. “Sorry about that, kid.” He pressed fast forward, and sped through “How Does an Infectious Disease Spread,” put together by a surly boy named Eric…. “Um….” Kevin reached for his notepad and brushed through pages with the same hand. “Eric Falls,” he read. He remembered that Eric was one of the top students in the school, and he’d recommended another presentation, which he described as the “most amazing thing you’ve seen, anywhere in the world.” This was apparently the work of a girl, a friend of Eric’s sister, who was named … Kevin glanced at his writing once more … “Maud. Maud Meeks.”
He meandered in search of Miss Meeks, feeling more relaxed, even kind of excited. The noise level seemed to be dampening a bit; every sound seemed to bounce off cement, metal, or polished wood. He inhaled deeply — there was that smell, that distinctive school cafeteria odor, the aroma of hot dog buns warming, greasy hamburgers grilling. He’d never cared about science fairs, or science in general, when he was in high school, some fifteen years before.
And older woman approached him, and he stopped as she blocked his path. “Hi,” she said, smiling nervously. “I’m Sheila Acuff, one of the teachers here. And you are?” She glanced around behind her, and pushed back at her bangs, as if upset about something.
He let the Sony hang and he hastily reached for his journalist ID. He clipped this to his shirt pocket. “Sorry,” he said to her. “I’m Kevin Rowe from the Martinsburg….”
A crash and a shout interrupted them. Mrs. Acuff spun on her heels, folded her arms. “You know, I told Tony there was going to be trouble. He let’s that girl do whatever she wants.”
“What?” Kevin asked, his reporter’s instincts sparking.
But she didn’t answer, and instead strode away as fast as her tight skirt would let her.
Kevin followed. They reached a growing crowd that was pressed in a semi circle in front of the very first table next to the stairs leading to a stage.
“You ain’t got no business messing with this stuff,” said a man.
“Did your brother do this for you? Who really did this? Girls can’t do this!” insisted another male, his tone deep and tense.
Kevin pushed and forced his way through the clot of people, getting some startled and angry reactions. The entire mood of the science fair seemed to change. He broke past the wall of spectators. He halted. He stared. “Oh Geezus,” he said before he could control himself. He lifted his eyes quickly to the posters and charts and pictures tacked up behind the table; gold letters caught his attention. “Morphological and Functional Development of Human Embryonic and Fetal Organs Using Bioengineering Techniques and Animal Grafting,” he read. He lowered his gaze once more, stared at whatever it was that swam in the large glass canister in front of him..
“Maud, Maud, this is ungodly, this is the devil’s work!” a woman shouted.
“Excuse me,” Kevin said loudly to the tall, pale girl he just noticed standing on the other side of the table, the canister and its contents between them. “Excuse me, are you Maud Meeks?”
Several girls who skipped over, happy and jaunty, suddenly slouched and bent and hung their heads and began to back away. “Maudie, what have you done?” one of them asked in a squeaky voice.
The pale girl appeared completely calm, almost like she was carved from stone. “Can you explain yourselves, tell me how you feel, Megan, Jessica?” she asked.
Kevin furrowed his brows. “Hey,” he interrupted, “my name is Kevin Rowe, and I’m from the Martinsburg Daily News….”
“You, get outta here. This ain’t none of your business,” someone yelled.
“Now wait a minute,” Keven said, half-turning to see who had addressed him. “I’d really like to know what’s going on here.”
“That’s Megan Falls,” Maud said, pointing at the dark-haired of the two who continued to cower. “And the other is Jessica Dowdy. My two best friends. Tell me what you’re thinking, guys,” she said with a lilt.
They stared back at her, faces flushed and expressions contorted.
“We’ll tell you what we’re thinkin’ Missy,” said an older man, raising his fist.
Kevin stretched so he could see. “And you are?” he asked, putting his pen to his pad.
“It’s no flamin’ business of yours who I am,” came a shout back.
“Look at it, look what she’s done,” said a woman.
“Hello, Mr. Rowe, my name is Maud, Maud Meeks,” the girl finally answered him, and he pivoted back around so he faced her once more.
He took her offered hand. “Uh, hi, Maud, do you think you could describe….”
“Why sure!” she answered. “I used a special tissue-growth medium that I developed. Using the Internet I was able to obtain various pieces of equipment, and human fetal tissue cultures … see, it’s all here under the ‘Materials’ section….” she raised her arms in an L-shape as if she were a showroom glamour-girl presenting a new car. “And then I was able to grow various organs of both human and engineered tissues….”
“The devil take you!” and “You’re going to hell!” and “You disgusting baby killer!” shot at them from the air.
Maud, whose hair was pulled into two severe braids, and whose drab, shirtwaist dress looked about sixty years out of date, narrowed her eyes but said nothing. She took a deep breath. Kevin caught her take the slightest peek at something above her, on her left. He followed her line of sight, trying to be quick so as not to draw attention. It was a camera, positioned about ten feet above on a pole next to Maud’s table. A tiny green light indicated it was recording. Kevin tilted his head and made a puzzled face for Maud to see.
“And,” the girl continued, “I grafted these organs onto the backs of small animals, like mice and….”
“You’re a monster!” a woman screamed.
The entire crowd erupted. Kevin sidled closer to the display area, away from the thrusting fists and stamping feet and snarling faces. He inadvertently looked down, into the blue-green fluid in the tank-like canister. “Eww,” he said, instinctively leaning back. He forced himself to look again. What appeared to be some kind of … amalgam … part baby, part animal, either a piglet or a rat or something — floated and occasionally jerked and jumped and twitched.
Several teachers now arrived and inserted themselves between the angry parents and Kevin. “Hi, I’m….” he started.
“We don’t care who you are,” one of the male instructors snapped at him.
Maud smiled. “That’s Mr. Tucker, Glenn Tucker. He teaches history. And this is my mom and my brother,” she added, waving a hand to her right. “Angela Meeks and Brandon Meeks.”
Her mother, Angela, was ghost white, dark circles framing her eyes. She appeared to be shaking. Brandon on the other hand was giggling. “And how old are you Brandon,” Kevin asked, trying to get his camera positioned to start filming.
“Brandon is a year older than me,” Maud answered for him. “And he needs to get himself under control right now.” She shot her brother a sharp glare.
Kevin began filming.
“Shut that off!” one of the female teachers said to him; a cluster of hands thrust at Kevin’s face and his fingers and attempted to grab the camcorder.
He lowered it, feeling uneasy for the first time. “Maybe one of you should call the police….” he suggested to the back of Mr. Tucker.
“Oh, we only have four county deputies and three of them are here,” Maud volunteered. “See, that man with the red face saying he’s going to ‘whup me’ — that’s Deputy Borland.”
Angela Meeks was pressing close to her son. She was crying. A man appeared from the stage area, and hopped down the steps, then jumped the rest of the way. “What the hell is this? Angie, what’s going on here?”
“Hey Dad!” Maud said, her voice, her demeanor, her posture devoid of fear or concern. “This man is a reporter from Martinsburg,” she added.
Kevin found himself face to face with Mr. Meeks, who was a youngish, tall and tanned man dressed in a cotton shirt, cowboy boots and jeans. He wore a baseball cap.
“Pleased to meet you….” Kevin started. Something came flying by his ear. It landed on a glass display case and there was a cracking sound. He turned once more to the mob surging in his direction. “Come on,” he called out to them, “she’s a girl. This is a science fair, what the hell is the matter with you people?”
“She’s the devil,” came the answer. Words were hurled and echoed in the vast space: “The Meeks were always strange,” “Get her out of here,” “They’re all evil.” Another object hissed by his head, and rapped hard into one of the posters hanging behind Maud. The cardboard tore slightly. She didn’t even flinch. Her face brightened.
Kevin, his legs against the table edge, was trying to get as far away from the people in front of him as possible. He noted a short, stocky man had appeared; he was dressed in a three-piece suit but was brusque and tough and once he started working the area between Maud’s exhibition table and the throng, the advance stopped.
“Mr. Kiser!” Maud exclaimed, for the first time perhaps displaying her true feelings by the joyful tone of her greeting.
The teacher who Kevin had first followed to find Maud, Sheila Acuff, was right behind Mr. Kiser, holding on to his jacket like a little girl while they threaded their way. “This is the chairman of the science department and supervisor of this fair, Tony Kiser,” Acuff said to Kevin. “I think this has gone on long enough,” she said to Maud.
“Ladies, gentlemen, please!” Tony Kiser bellowed, raising both his arms. “Please listen. Maud has something to say.”
“We don’t want to hear anything she has to say,” yelled one of the students.
“Miss Estep, shut up right now,” Kiser answered. He and Sheila Acuff began urging the crowd to step back, and reluctantly the people did, leaving about ten feet of space. Kevin gratefully moved to the side, next to the stage steps, and put his Sony into position; he began recording.
Maud eased by her father and mother, who both appeared terrified, and said softly, “Don’t worry, it’s okay!” She came to the front of her table and began unbraiding her hair. It was a performance. Quickly, her strawberry-blonde waves shook loose and flowed elegantly around her shoulders. She then unbuttoned the ugly, old-fashioned dress that made her look like Carrie. She slipped it off, and underneath she was dressed in a fashionable ruffled peasant blouse and mini-skirt.
There was muttering from the spectators who squeezed forward once more. Tony Kiser waved them back.
Next, Maud and Brandon Meeks carefully removed all the signs and posters that described Maud’s supposed bioengineering experiment. Underneath, were a whole new set of posters. Centered n the back of the booth, six feet off the ground, previously hidden by a cloth, Maud revealed a 32-inch HDTV screen. Kevin panned the new signs that were tacked up around the exhibition table; he saw the words “CONFORMITY,” “GROUP THINK,” “HERD BEHAVIOR,” “HIVE MIND,” and above the television in large red letters, “DEINDIVIDUATION.”
Kevin focused on Maud again; he thought, She’s beautiful. How did he think she looked like “Wednesday Addams” before?
Maud stepped closer to the edge of the mob. “You see, my real project is, “An Experiment in Group Polarization. This is psychology, behavioral science, not biology. Although I’d be willing to bet when some of you — my neighbors, my friends, the people who my family spent our entire lives with — when some of you get your brains autopsied one day, the coroners will find your amygdallas so big they’ll wonder how you-all managed to carry your heads….”
“That’s enough, Maud,” Mrs. Acuff said, darting her face around to confront the girl. “Finish what you started, now.”
“Well, anyway,” Maud continued, “Mr. Tucker and Mrs. Acuff are in on it, and my brother Brandon helped too. Bran, show ’em how you helped?”
Brandon, a thick-set line-backer with the high school football team, his blonde crew-cut glistening with sweat under the lights, leaned over from the back of the table, and reached into the cylindrical glass container; he grasped the throbbing creature inside, and swung it up, holding it aloft. Blue, inky water dribbled.
The crowd gave a collective gasp. Some muttering about “evil” and “ungodly” could be heard again.
Maud glanced over her shoulder at her brother, nodded once. “This isn’t real, people,” she said. “Brandon and I made it out of silicon and foam rubber. We learned how to do it. Brandon wired it and he operated a switch that made it seem alive. The fluid inside is not culturegrowth medium, but food coloring and H2O.” She took what looked to be a remote control out of her pocket and pushed some buttons. The television screen flickered into life. “My science fair project is, was, to see how quickly a group of human beings from a small community, a county that has no more than 8,000 people who all know one another and grew up with one another, how quickly they would — if at all — become polarized as a group, undergo deindividuation, and form a mob exhibiting herd behvior.” She gracefully shifted so that she didn’t block the view of the television, but still was positioned in such a way that she could address her audience. She punched one of the buttons on the remote. The television began replaying the events of the last two hours.
Kevin Rowe nodded to himself as he remembered the elevated camera he’d noticed earlier. He continued filming, Maud Meeks in the center of his own tiny screen.
The people watched silently, recognizing themselves, their relatives, acquaintances, colleagues and friends.
“I deliberately changed my appearance, so that I’d look more creepy. I purposely acted so that you wouldn’t be able to read me, or my motives or emotions. I chose a false experiment that would be as provocative as possible; especially in this county, where all most of you care about are fetuses, your Bibles and your guns…”
“Maud!” Mr. Kiser whispered fiercely. He and Sheila Acuff and several other teachers had turned their backs to the crowd and were also watching as the images played before them.
“You all became deindividualized within a few minutes. That’s when you lose your inhibitions, you lose your sense of self and your morals and values, your sense of responsibility, in the presence of others.”
“We didn’t lose our morals and values,” a woman shouted. “You Meeks never had them.”
“That’s enough, now, Mrs. Estep,” Tony Kiser said calmly. But a shadow of worry played across his face as he made eye contact with Maud’s parents, now standing next to Brandon, who still held the fake amalgam.
Maud, too, turned to look at her mother, who she knew was scared and upset. “I’m sorry, Mom,” she said. “Dad, I couldn’t tell you. I thought it would be cool and important, and I didn’t expect, I didn’t think….”
Michael Meeks couldn’t say the usual petty words that most would say to a child in response — that’s the problem, you never think, you don’t have any common sense — because, he knew his only daughter was brilliant, and thought too much about everything. His skin crawled as he realized something very serious had happened. “Maudie,” he said, reaching out a hand, “Honey, it’s okay. Everything’s fine.”
Brandon dropped the simulacrum back into the water. He gave his mother a hug. He too, sense something had changed, and he was abruptly angry. “You people are idiots,” he said loudly.
Maud heaved a huge sigh. She brought one hand to her face to try and shield her eyes, which were burning with tears. “Okay,” she said, her voice shaky and higher-pitched. “I’ll have my report finished by tomorrow, Mr. Kiser,” she said. “I think we want to go home now.”
Her father was at her side. “Come on, baby,” he said, holding her and leading her back towards the stage steps.
They passed close by Kevin, where he remained and continued recording the family while they gathered some of Maud’s belongings and valuables, and then left the building through an exit nearby.
“Turn that damn thing off,” one of the teachers demanded in Kevin Rowe’s direction. And then, “You should have your head examined, Kiser. In fact, I think I’ll be calling the Board of Education about you.”
Kevin watched as Tony Kiser and Sheila Acuff exchanged a brief, emotion-laden, mutually comforting glance.
“Hmm,” he said, and filmed them until they disappeared down one of the aisles.
The throng dissipated, shedding separate people who moved in different directions; Kevin Rowe could hear mumbling complaints and heated discussion. Anxiety, stress, a jittery and uncertain feeling seemed to permeate the air. He finally shut off his camcorder. He noted that students were already packing up their displays. He decided it would be a good time for him to leave, too. He had an article to write in any case. A nice feature about a high school science fair.