Monthly Archives: December 2014

Nuclear Tourism

Vasily had but one customer that day, a Prague tourist whose breath reeked of old meat. Vasily waited in the jeep while the other man checked his equipment. Like most tourists, he had brought too many gadgets. Vasily picked his teeth in the mirror.

They were parked at a side path, at a place where Dymtrus had snipped the barb wire two years before. Now Dymtrus rotted in a Minsk jail and Vasily waited for the Czech to finish taking iodide tablets.

The first leg of the journey carried them by a small apartment bloc, usually a photo opportunity for the more excitable tourists in love the with the images of abandoned toys and floors paved with fallen books. But the Czech indicated they should keep walking deeper into the zone, and so they did.

Security had been stepped up in recent years; at first Vasily thought the hoofbeats he heard to be the horseback patrol not scheduled for another hour. But then they found the elk.

The beast had its head lowered and it breathed hard. Its eyes were filmed-over white, and its nostrils pulsed dangerously. Before Vasily could call warning, it charged.

The elk butted him in the shoulder. Vasily dropped his geiger counter, clapping a hand to the injury. The other man let out a screech, flailing his arms and flapping his cap. The elk ignored it and steeled itself forward again. Vasily met it with an iron bar that he grabbed up from the ground. The first hit did not seem to have an effect, but at the second, the elk shook its head and took a few drunken steps. Vasily swung again, downing the beast. The elk dropped to its knees. Vasily caught hold of the Czech before he could dash off in any direction and pulled him along a side path.

They took rest on a bus bench.

Normally, tourists would insist on pacing through the amusement park and one of the primary schools, but though he was shaken, the other man kept insisting on seeing the plant. Vasily had stated several times up front that he would never go near the sarcophagus, that he could not find enough recompense for what trespassing would incur. The Czech remained staid: he had seen internet videos of the internal structure. He wanted to go. Vasily took him to a swimming pool to assuage him. While the other man snapped photos of beached floaters and fallen birds littering the tile, Vasily fiddled with the counter. The plastic face was smashed, and no matter how he adjusted the contacts, it would not beep.

They would visit the park next.

The skeleton of the Ferris wheel loomed over all, an easy landmark. Somehow they had wound up going too far south. Vasily could find the park using dead reckoning with the wheel, but he had no idea how to get back out undetected.

They passed by a stand of sunflowers. A gap in their bright smiled formed of black and crisped bodies. The Czech bent low to poke one with a mechanical pencil.

A low grunt came from behind the flowers.

Vasiliy hefted his flashlight, wishing he had not dropped the iron bar somewhere behind them. A great old boar nosed out from the stand of sunflowers, its face a gnarled mass of tumors. It had a single sow trailing behind it, white-eyed as the elk. The boar’s tusks were yellowed with age and very, very sharp.

The Czech drained of all color and shouted, “Bůh!”

He ran, and the boar ran after him. Vasiliy jumped and caught hold of a tree limb, bringing his legs up just as the sow sailed through the air beneath him. Her head impacted the trunk with a dull thud, the aftershock shaking Vasily from his perch. He landed awkwardly on the sow’s back. The pig emitted a rusty-nail squeal as her legs collapsed beneath her. Vasily heaved to his feet and was off and running before she could recover. Low branches whipped him in the face. He no longer heeded direction, getting picked up would be a welcome intrusion. Jail was preferable to this.

The trees cleared suddenly. Vasily halted, skidding so that his body would not pitch over whatever drop lay before him. He landed on his elbow with a crunch, the jolt sent a shock up to his teeth. Vasily rolled to his back, winded, cradling his arm.

Something crackled nearby.

Vasily jerked his head up to find the Czech, shoe off and nursing a bleeding blister.

The other man blinked owlishly. “I guess we go reactor after all?” He pointed.

The drop before them was a slope, and the slope terminated in a shore. They were beside one of the plant’s cooling lakes, and beyond that was the coffin bulk of the plant itself.

Vasily sat up, heart hammering. He had never been this close before. Though he knew it illogical, he found himself taking shallower breaths. He would have to shower when he got home, and burn his clothes. The geiger counter at his waist was smashed and lost. The Czech dug a fancier German model with a digital readout from his pack. Vasily fumbled with it. The background radiation was higher, but not fatal. They would have to move quickly, he told the tourist, and stay briefly as possible. The other man nodded, staring awestruck off at the plant. Together they hobbled along the perimeter of the lake.

The plant itself had been shut down completely in 2000. but where was the security? Where were the patrols? Vasily knew he and his jeep were not the only fringe operators in the zone of alienation.

The sarcophagus loomed over their future. Just looking at it raised the hairs on Vasily’s neck.

Vasily had no outset intention of getting anywhere near the plant, but curiosity drove precaution from his mind. Gates were open and empty, streets white and bare. The two men walked abreast, Vasily carried his flashlight in his uninjured hand, the tourist carrier the geiger counter.

The perimeter fence was topped with barbed wire. The gate hung open.

The Czech broke away, jogging lightly and waving for Vasily to follow. Vasily considered leaving him, but if he were picked up the man would probably blab Vasily’s name in an instant. He was stuck either way.

They headed not for a reactor, but one of the other buildings. The Czech excitedly overturned debris, snapping pictures with his phone. Vasily kept on lookout. Was there truly no one?

Before Vasily could stop him, the tourist darted through a half-open door. On following, Vasily found the man stopped dead.

They were in a lobby or reception room. The walls were piebald. Paper? No, Vasily could see the mottling on furniture too. A black mold. The walls were teeming with it.

The Czech had been snapping pictures, now he held the little screen up to his face, cursing softly. Vasily could see over his shoulder. The pictures were fuzzy and marred by yellow-orange bleed. The tourist shook the phone.

Vasily took a sudden breath, and then clapped his hand over his mouth. He must breath no more in this room. Something was wrong. It was too warm.

He tried to catch his charge’s arm, but the Czech wheeled forward and evaded his grasp.

The mold patch before them was as big as a classroom map. The Czech got a foot from it and prodded the surface with his pencil. There was a blue-white flash and a sudden rush of heat.

Vasily finally lost his nerve and ran out, shrieking. He could hear the Czech behind him, blundering into things, screaming. Vasily ran shouting, stripping off his clothes, to the coolant lake. He scrubbed ineffectually at his skin.

They did not let him talk to anyone. When Vasily had come into the hospital vomiting blood, he was immediately quarantined. Two days later, after his body had used the last of its blood cells, Vasily died insisting on what he had seen. They could not explain how he had taken a 1,000 rad dose outside of the reactor, nor could they explain the Czech tourist, found wandering cataractous and weak through the brush. The hospital turned his body over for study but refused to offer further facilities to the investigation. They had more patients to service and didn’t want a reputation.

And besides, the room where Vasily stayed had gained the most persistent black mildew…

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A Story for the Telling

Okay, picture this:

There’s a girl somewhere in West Hollywood, knocking on a door in a neighborhood she has no business being anywhere near. She’s from back east, somewhere soft and sweet like she is. She hasn’t been out here long enough to let it curdle the sweetness away from her smile, though lord knows she’s been here too long anyway.

The guy whose apartment she knocks on is a Hollywood wolf, no two ways about it. He’s promised her he’ll get her in pictures and taken what liberties he could, which turn out to be an awful lot. She’s deep in the family way and knocking on his door, asking if he’ll please, please come out. Is he actually in the business? Doesn’t really matter. He’s made promises he has no intention of keeping.

But that’s not the story they want me to tell you. The studios want schmaltz, so let me lay it on thick. Where to start?

America loves an underdog, and they love sports movies, so let’s make it an underdog-sports flick. What sport? Doesn’t really matter. Football, baseball, as long as it’s all-American. Tennis is a little fruity. Let’s say baseball. Our hero is the Kid with the Golden Arm, Mr. Bigshot of Bumfuck, Montana. He’s got a heart of gold and a gal to match. He’s got the whole world by the throat, but something makes him lose his grip. Dad dies? Car crash? Nothing too tragic, we want them dewy, not sobbing. Leave that to the Bette Davis pics. It can’t be his girlfriend buying it, because how else is he going to make the comeback without the Love of a Good Woman?

Anyway, Hero McHitter has a sophomore slump. Very relatable, happens to the best of us. Maybe his girl goes off and gets engaged in the meantime, because god forbid an attractive woman go unclaimed in Hollywood.

The girl stands on the stoop and knocks on Wolfy’s door. He’s miles away, at some club talking off some other hopeful’s tonsils. She just knocks and stands like a good girl, ankles together, never sitting. Her voice is never mean, just entreating. It’s got that lilting, lyrical quality to it. Maybe she could have made it, to B-pictures even. Or maybe she could have met up with someone worse. There’s no track-marks on her arms, she’s not jittery with nosebleeds. There’s just the fat bulge at her waist, weighing down her future.

So Hero looks around and finds something to spur him back to the top. Could be an old lighter, a ball signed by the Babe, or even his father’s hat. Suddenly he’s flooded with meaning, he’s got to go to his girl and confess he’s over the moon for her, he can’t have anyone else by his side as he rises back to the top. She dithers, she’s a woman, but we all know she’s going to yank back to his side like he’s got a magnet in his pocket. Maybe there’s a hint of training, maybe some talks with his former friends, but not too much shop talk. Folks don’t go to sports flicks for stats, they go there to be told something they already know.

In the story I want to tell you, somebody opens the door to that girl on the stoop. It isn’t wolfie, he’s miles away and far beneath her. It’s a neighbor, who tells her to come in and get off her feet, in the cleanest way possible. She gets a cup of tea and the advice she’s needed since day one but no one in this town is willing to give. She gets a friend, which is rare commodity in this sewer berg. She doesn’t come back to wolfie’s door, she’s on her way to somewhere better. Maybe back to her folks(wherever they may be) maybe to a cleaner part of California, maybe to get thee to a nunnery. Maybe she makes a pen pal, writes every so often about how she’s doing(much better) how much she misses Hollywood(not at all) and what her future’s like(bright).

But it won’t play in Peoria.

People don’t want to know good girls can get pregnant out of wedlock. Bastards exist as a dramatical device, an albatross around the neck of some tragic Paramount player trying to catch Gary Cooper’s eye. They don’t want to know their dream machine is run off of human coal, they don’t want to know about the collateral damage the star harvester creates. They want to be comforted. They want someone like Sophmore Slouch McGee, who will bootstrap himself out of the gutter because America loves an underdog, however improbable.

All the tragedy, the slump in the middle of the picture, is just foreplay for the real reason everyone came to the show. The Big Game. Where our hero pulls in a miracle at the last possible second, winning everything, the girl, the game, and the audience’s hearts. It doesn’t have to follow the rules, he can bunt that ball like a pigskin for all we care, we just want to see him win. And when he does we all breathe a sigh of relief. Because we scared ourselves, just a little, with the middle of the movie. For a while there, it looked like bad things really could happen, and everything wouldn’t resolve itself neatly.

There’s the story I want to tell you, the story they want me to tell you, and then there’s the story I don’t want to tell you.

The girl stood on the stoop one more day. Then she didn’t come by anymore.

One more day. That’s what I took to finish the stupid sports script. She was on the stoop one more day, the rain soaking her stockings, waiting for someone to invite her in, waiting for someone to care. I cared, but apparently not enough to stop typing. Maybe she left for somewhere better, maybe somewhere worse. While I took one day to finish the no-brainer script, which was one more than it needed, someone’s fate was decided.

Nobody wants to watch that. Nobody wants it to happen, even though it does happen every day in numbers far too high to quantify, so they do the next best thing: they pretend it doesn’t exist. Good girls don’t get pregnant, so that high-school debutante probably skipped church to smoke or something reprehensible. Pregnancy is a penalty, something they have to work through themselves. Wolf isn’t a hero, by a long shot, but a good girl would immediately know better.

People don’t like fallen-women stories unless the dame bites it at the end, preferably right after repenting her hussy ways. People like sports movies, people like honest and true men like our Hero McHitter, and his gal who remains virginal for him throughout the years, because it was Meant To Be.

There, there’s your script. Didn’t take me but five minutes.

Enjoy your fucking movie.

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All Points Bulletin

Has anybody seen my boy Frank?

I last saw him about to step out to the corner store. “I’ll be back,” he said. But he wasn’t. He was sixteen and so good it made you ache to look at him. I’m not asking for a lot, just tell me if you’ve caught a glimpse of him.

Has anybody seen my boy Frank? He was a good boy and a help and he didn’t do drugs. His passion was model cars. I still have the last one he ever got, it came in the mail the day after he left. I haven’t even slit the strings on the package. Dodge Charger, it says. And who am I to tell different? It could be rocks in the box, for all I know, but I won’t open it.

Has anybody seen my boy Frank? I know you can hear me. Don’t shut the door and turn out the lights and pretend to watch TV. There hasn’t been anything good on since 1973. There’s nothing on that box that will make you happy, anyway, not as much as Frank made me.

Has anybody seen my boy Frank? He was eight pounds five ounces, the definition of a bouncing baby boy. His middle name was Oz, because we’d always liked that book. He skinned his knee growing up more times than I could count, never needed braces, broke his arm jumping a hay bale in fifth grade. If you see him, look real close for a scar around his elbow. That’s how you’ll know.

Has anybody seen my boy Frank? He would tell us if he was getting ready to leave. He’s not the type to lay everything down and just scarper off. His grandaddy went AWOL once, but that was a different case, and besides, he ended up marrying that girl. Frank would’ve let us know if he had someone, good or bad. He would’ve told us if he was in some sort of trouble, that’s the kind of family we’ve always been. We share the good times and the bad, otherwise what are we?

Has anybody seen my boy Frank? I know it’s going on thirty years now, but hope doesn’t have an expiration date and we’re not getting any less desperate. Any tip you have will be appreciated, even if it turns out to be bunk. We put all our eggs in one basket, I’ll admit, but it was a good basket, it wouldn’tve let them all tumble away. There has to be something. Even a skeleton would do now, because we’ve been living on air since he left. We refuse to believe he’s not coming back, not since he’s been sixteen in our hearts for thirty years. Thirty years. We’ve got trees younger than that. No matter if he’s dead, drunk, drugged, or on the run from the law, we want some word of him even if it pierces our hearts. Our only son, our only boy, our only joy can be dead too, and that’s okay, because this ain’t no kind of life for a human being to live.

Send us word.

Any word.

Even if it’s just “no”

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The Ceiling Goes On Forever

The census men were the only ones who dared travel between floors. There were roaming monks, true, but they never braved the stairwells where savage families sometimes waited to surprise travelers with bared teeth. Hardly any more civilized than a hallway, sometimes.

Quol was taking census in an anteroom. The patriarch’s crude floor dialect was hard to translate, yet Quol caught mention of a greatspace discovered somewhere to the west. Quol gave it no mention in his papers. There were always spaces being discovered, always a few stairs away, always just beyond reach. Someone knocking down a flimsy man-made wall to discover genuine chamberwood. The substantiated claims had gotten to be less and less since the parlorkind had ceased the practice of entombing their dead that had invariably ended up driving them back out into the halls.

Rumors, however persistent, were still rumors.

Quol sought refuge with an alcove family, sleeping face to feet in a space protected only by a curtain from the hall. He took tally with a bit of burnt bannister. Ink stores had run perpetually low since he had parted ways with Jom five stairways ago. With any luck, Jom was now floors above him, hacking his way through the incomprehensible dialects of that story.

Next he caught rest on a wide stone stair. He gathered runnel from the condensation that formed in the vaulted ceilings far above his head. There was a lone turd on the stair above him, but thankfully no sign of its maker. A crudely scratched depiction of genitalia stared him in the face as he ordered papers to drop off at the nearest library. Perhaps he could get new inkwells, too.

Sadly, travel brought no respite, only more family census. A girl from a parlor twittered about greatspace as Quol sketched her family tree. Room patriarchs pointed him in circles. The space was always just the next hall over, tantalizingly close but never approachable.

He moved through a hall that had been cannibalized so heavily that even stone was missing in places. The few roomers were taciturn, often he had only time to do a rough headcount before doors slammed on him.

There was a single door at the end of the hall. Quol expected it to open up on a smaller passage, but instead a rough-headed woman looked up as the door swung free. Small children gathered in her skirts, homespun cloth accented with gilded strips cut from a drape.

Through miming and gestures, Quol made himself understood. The matron’s crude speech was hardly better than stair dialect. Quol could see from her face she thought the same of his sharp librarian tongue. He suspected they were a stair family that had taken over a parlor space, but refrained from saying so. Indeed, she spoke of the room being empty and unnaturally cold when they arrived, but thought nothing of it until they destroyed a section of man-made partition. Instead of the closet or annex they had hoped for, there was a strange patch of wall. Quol deciphered from her crude idioms that it was unlike any wall they had seen, transparent as the ice that formed on stairwells sometimes. The room beyond it was massive, larger than even a ballroom, with an odd, rough carpet and a ceiling far beyond what they could fathom. It was uninhabited, and ultimately barred from ingress since the place gave them a strong sense of foreboding.

The woman asked if he would like to see it. All tasks forgotten in the sudden lust for new knowledge, Quol stepped inside.

Though everything in Quol’s instincts screamed at him that it was merely a ruse, that they would lead him to a closet to cut his throat and steal his pack, he thinned a smile on his face and followed her through smoky rooms made with flimsy partitions. The men were elaborately bearded, the women were buried under shawls and rugs.

The man-made wall was still in place. Quol thought he had been taken for a fool, until he noticed that it showed signs of being removed, then clumsily re-attached. A door was cut asymmetrically into the wood, it was this that the matron now pushed open.

There was no fire. Quol could not see how they lit the room, until he realized the light was coming from the wall itself. It was indeed transparent, but not ice; he pressed fingertips to it and found it merely cool, not cold. The matron watched him, unimpressed.

“He other already here,” she buzzed in her crude tongue, “other travel-man books. Step through wall.”

Quol stopped cold. With the fingers of his free hand, he made the sign of a banded cap. The matron grunted, grasping her elbow in an obscure gesture of confirmation.

Jom. Jom had been through here. And what had befallen him?

“Step through wall,” the woman repeated. “through. Down.”

Down. That was simple enough. But—through? The wall, though clearly transparent, was solid as anything.

The matron bade him away and hefted a catch. The wall slid up into itself, a mechanism Quol had never seen anywhere else. A rush of air hit them, fresh and somehow sweet, but strange. It smelled not of a room abandoned to the annals of time, but of something Quol could not place. The woman, now that her task had been accomplished, shied away from the opening. She would not even put her hand through, so Quol did. There was no noticeable change in temperature, nothing screaming out of the void to pierce his hand. So what was the source of trepidation?

Quol had made up his mind almost before this moment. He would be a pioneer, he would be the one to explore this space successfully. Signing and speaking, he had the matron step back. The opening, while easily wide enough to accommodate a man, balked at his census pack. He was just reconsidering the wisdom of his decision to wear it through the passage when his strap caught in the crevice between walls, pivoting his momentum and shooting him out the opening too soon. For a moment he hung farcically suspended, then the strap snapped and his weight sent him plummeting down.

The pack was both his undoing and savior. Quol fell three-quarters on his side, his impact spread out enough that he was merely painfully winded, not broken completely. He gasped sharply, and was unable to take a breath for agonizing seconds. The ceiling reeled about him a woolly gray that stretched off in all conceivable directions but the one he’d come from—that was a wall so impossibly tall that it made his eyes hurt so he shut them.

Quol concentrated on slowing his breathing, making sure his limbs were in working order. When he could finally sit up he wiggled off his pack, painfully twisting his limbs in a few places, and grabbing a draught of water.

After this rest he took proper stock of his surroundings. The carpet beneath his feet was unlike any he’d ever seen, thick, rough, and fragile. He teased a frond with his hand and it broke with a crisp snap. The floor beneath it had rotted completely, the spongy texture was welcome after the fall.

Quol could see the place he’d fallen from. It looked like the only bright eye in a dead face. It sat some distance above him, the sharp pain in his side reminded him of how far it was. There were others, shining and, he assumed, carrying the same properties as the wall that dropped him. There were even a few on his immediate level but they were blank, blocked off presumably after generations of lost family members or perhaps never open to begin with.

Movement caught his eye.

The wall, perhaps his only salvation, was sliding down by degrees, or perhaps design. Quol opened his mouth just a little too late to shout as the wall slid shut with a final-sounding click. Darkness rushed to fill the space beyond. He could only pray that the matron had the good sense to block it off until the proper authorities could study it.

Quol looked around. The floor was vast and met the horizon seamlessly. A greatspace, perhaps the greatest space ever known. The weight of its size pressed down upon him, he found his breath becoming short and his blood rising in panic. He shut his eyes against it. There was no body, if Jom had fallen he had lived long enough to drag himself away at least. He forced his eyes open again. An unbelievable distance away, Quol saw a crimson dot against the fragile green. He hiked to it.

The space yawned all around him. He looked continually behind him and to either side, expecting an ambush at any moment. There was only the crumpled shape before him, which grew sadder with the closing distance.

Jom had fallen on his pack. His eyes fluttered, alternating between a vacant stare and rolling back to the whites. Quol knelt by his fallen colleague. What had the schism been about? The matter of whether parlortongue was merely a dialect of ballroom or a language in its own right? The legitimacy of stair pidgin? Nothing that mattered now. Quol dropped water from a flask into his palm, dribbling it on Jom’s eyes and forehead. Jom’s eyes focused and then glazed. He may have injured his head in the fall, but then how had he staggered so far? Quol felt his skull. Nothing immediately noticeable.

“Jom,” he said.

Jom looked up with a start, as if he had not realized there was really another person present.

“Quol,” he rasped, “O god, it’s got you too.”

Quol knew better than to nod. “Are you hurt? I can provide aid—” but Jom was shaking his head.

“No, save your water. No stairs, no pipes, no faucets.”

Quol felt a dread that had been circling his mind descend. He had been wondering that, but more immediate matters had temporarily pushed it away. How would they find food? Water? Even if they weren’t attacked by an outside force, how would they live?

Jom’s eyes were wandering. Even if he had no physical injuries, something had proved too much for his body to handle. Quol shook him a little.

“Hold on,” he said, “we have made a discovery to shake the ages. All we need to do is get back and report it.”

A choking sound came from Jom’s throat. Quol realized he was laughing.

“Get back?” he said, voice raising to a cracked shout, “and how? The way is blocked and the ceiling goes on forever and forever and forever and forever AND FOREVER–” he broke off in a coughing fit.

Quol gave him water and attempted to nurse him, but Jom slipped away slowly as the ceiling darkened through some unknown mechanism. Jom could see no light fixtures, not even a fireplace. It was as fascinating as it was terrible.

Quol closed his eyes against the reeling vertigo. He spread Jom’s blanket, upheld by their packs to form a flimsy cover. Then he sat, stroking Jom’s feverish hand, wishing he could crawl beneath it too and deny the blasphemy above their heads.

“It’s okay,” he lied, “I have dragged you back under ceiling. You’re safe.”

Eventually, Jom’s hand went cold.

Quol left him tucked under the blanket, unable to bring himself to plunder necessities from Jom’s pack, even if he no longer needed them.

There was no cover for Quol. The wall sat uncompromising behind him. He was too afraid to leave the safety of its facade, yet it could offer him no comfort. He should move. He had to move. He would never get anywhere otherwise. But the room was dim, and the ceiling went on forever.

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