Academic Interest

Austin Payeur

“This is a slightly unusual request,” said Dr. Wagner, with what he hoped was commendable restraint. “And you say that this is purely out of academic interest?”

“Of course, sir,” said the undergraduate sitting in front of the desk, a wiry, wide-eyed ball of nervous tension and anxious intelligence. It was the sort of twitchy, bright, scientific fervour that made Dr. Wagner appreciate having a large piece of wooden furniture between the two of them. “Purely academic.”

“While I feel I must applaud an undergraduate taking to the field of veterinary surgery with such…” he struggled for a word, and settled on, “vigour, Mister Lavender – it is Lavender, yes?”

“Yes, sir. Like the flower.”

Dr. Wagner pursed his lips. It was so oddly dissonant to have such a polite name attached to a request for horse mutilation. “It’s only that I’ve taken the liberty of speaking to your former professors about your ‘academic interests’, and what I’ve heard troubles me.”

To any other of his students, hearing that would be the source of considerable worry. It either spoke to Mr. Lavender’s resilience or naiveté that he simply frowned, glanced upwards, then looked back at Dr. Wagner with almost childlike confusion and asked, “‘Troubles you’, sir?”

“Yes, troubles me.” He tapped a few keys and read an email through glasses balanced precariously on the tip of his nose. “Tell me, do you recall Mister Bird?”

Mr. Lavender beamed immediately. “An excellent professor, sir, he encouraged me to follow through on my field of choice.”

“He described you as a man of keen scientific interest.”

“He said as much, sir.”

“He also said that you have a ‘total lack of ethics’.”

To Dr. Wagner’s considerable concern, Mr. Lavender chuckled softly. “In my defense, that paper was entirely hypothetical.”

“And what of Mister Hamada, who described you as ‘the hypothetical lovechild of Nikola Tesla and Hieronymus Bosch’?”

“He flatters me, sir.”

“And what of Ms. Doddle’s, ‘This man is a menace to the good name of science, please, for the love of God, don’t accommodate him’?”

“Ms. Doddle’s comments are racially charged, sir. I should think you ignore them.”

“You’re white, Mister Lavender.”

Mr. Lavender’s patience seemed to be running thin. “Well, I think you’ll find that Doctor Mala openly described me as a man to watch,” he said with a slight hint of reproach.

“That she did,” Dr. Wagner said. He noted that Mr. Lavender had chosen not to mention that Dr. Mala had also added the suffix, ‘from behind the safety of a Plexiglas shield, and possibly a brick wall’.”

He tapped a key. A poorly-animated, gently spiralling helix of DNA filled the screen. He turned back to Mr. Lavender, clasping both hands together on his desk in his best ‘talking down a man strapping himself to an atomic bomb’ posture. “But records and recommendations aside, I’m also concerned by the nature of your experiment.”

Of all the things he could have said, this seemed to generate the most emotional of responses from Mr. Lavender. Rather, all of the emotion drained out of his face, then slowly refilled itself with a mixture of confusion and righteous fury. “What,” he said flatly.

“I’m afraid that I simply don’t understand the reasoning behind it.”

“I thought I made it fairly clear, sir,” Mr. Lavender said, spitting each word out with increased force until the ‘sir’ could’ve been mistaken for a truck backfiring. “The bisection and alteration of a horse’s mouth to allow the lip to reach to the back of the jaw, similar to the mouth structure of most carnivores.”

“No, what’s the purpose of this experiment? What benefit would you receive from altering a horse’s mouth?”

“To test the legitimacy of my proposed designs for a carnivorous horse!” Mr. Lavender said, the delicate clockwork mechanism of patience having long since snapped, mainspring ricocheting madly into the horizon. “The skull structure of a carnivore and an herbivore have always been similar except in terms of mouth and cheek structure to accommodate for diet! By bisecting the cheek of a horse, I can begin the creation of a carnivorous horse!”

“Why on Earth do you need a carnivorous horse?!”

Mr. Lavender allowed himself to breath for a moment, closing his eyes shut like a lead shield against the radiation of Dr. Wagner’s bafflement. Finally he leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers together. All that was missing was a large cat in his lap. “Doctor Wagner,” he said in a slow measured tone. “Since the dawn of time, mankind has strived for one thing. Within in the vast libraries of our collective consciousness lies a single, solitary dream. We as a species stand united, in spite of all gaps of culture, of ethnicity, of sheer distance, in this want. It keeps us alive. It keeps us driven. For as long as man has walked this earth, he has always wanted a badass, man-eating, fire-breathing horse to ride into battle. And though we may manufacture our own poor similes of such a dream, whether through weapons of war or in the design and development of our own cars and vehicles of everyday life, this dream has yet to be achieved. That is why I must create a carnivorous horse, Doctor Wagner. To achieve this dream of mankind.” It was a grand, flowery speech that stank of practiced recitation.

“Fire-breathing, Mister Lavender?”

“One step at a time, Doctor Wagner. But I’ll get there eventually.”

“Absolutely not, Mister Lavender.”

Mr. Lavender stared at Dr. Wagner for just long enough for it to become uncomfortable. Then he shrugged. “That’s fair,” he said. He snatched back his proposal from the desk and popped open his bag to replace it. For an instant, Dr. Wagner swore he saw what appeared to be hedge trimmers peeking back at him from within – then the bag was closed and they disappeared from sight.

“Good evening, Doctor Wagner,” Mr. Lavender said as he stepped out of the office. “I’ll make sure you’re eaten first.”

Dr. Wagner allowed himself to deflate once the door closed. He raked some fingers through his thinning hair. That was the third mad undergrad this week. If only he was an English professor, he told himself. Life would be so much simpler.

Austin Payeur is the result of an experiment to genetically crossbreed a Ukrainian and a redneck. Out of the two products of the experiment, one became a respectable, intelligent scientist in the field of microbiology, while the other ate Play-Doh in kindergarten. Take a wild guess which one Austin was. At some point he picked up a pencil, and the world’s been a little weirder for it ever since. Austin can now be seen pretending to be an adult in college. In his free time he plays the ukulele, although he only really knows how to play Patricia the Stripper and All-Star.

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