Current Shorts on Survival

“Between the Living and the Dead: A Chernobyl Monologue” by Stacey Johnson

Painting by Anna Rac.

The name means black event: think 350 Hiroshimas. You’d drive out of town, see a cow wrapped in cellophane. Beside her, an old woman, also in cellophane.

            Dogs and cats did not know to be afraid. Soldiers came to shoot them for their radioactive fur, loading the bodies in trucks. We wondered, What about the birds?

            The bees knew first. They did not return for six years. It became a crime to eat the tomatoes from our gardens. They made us pour out the milk. I had a cat, Vaska, who saved me from being eaten by rats in my bed, but in the winter he was gone. Starving cats ate their kittens.

            Warnings came: breast milk was radioactive.

            Who’s to blame? was a question we only asked in the beginning. Later it was simply, What now?

            An infant, mouth to his ears and no ears. Another born like a sac: no eyes, no mouth, four operations before her fourth day. It took four years to get them to admit that the reactor was the cause. The mother needed to know that it was not the fault of their love.

            Soldiers removed the top layer of soil. Everything alive was contaminated. They drank vodka with goose shit, for protection.

            It’s an old story: Prometheus steals fire, Adam bites the apple, Frankenstein defies death. They called the atom the peaceful worker. They laughed in the face of God and then the reactor blew up. Then they told us: here is punishment for our sins. I ripped my dress on a fence; my brother broke a milk bottle. We hid these transgressions from our mother.

            In school, children drew upside-down trees, red rivers, and cried. In the abandoned areas, time moved anyway, without people around. Like childhood, said the old man before he died.

            Did you hear about the priest called to Auschwitz? When the Nazis announced plans to starve men to death, he said, “Take me instead.” He sang aloud for three weeks until he got lethal injection. Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains alone. He knew. There are better shields than flesh, but you work with what you are given.

            See the woman: In her yard are the bodies of her parents, brother, husband, daughter. I love my graves, she says, as she tends to them, singing.

            Her husband was a liquidator. The doctors said, stay away, that is no longer a man. In the final days, bits of his skin would come off in her hand where she held him. It took fourteen days for his liver to come spewing out of his mouth.

            Here is no mystery: flesh tears, bacteria invade.

            Nails hold a body at its weakest point, against the wood of the tree of knowledge, fastened on a crossbeam of cypress.

            If no one looks for the body in the tomb, then no resurrection. The women went. They hid in the ancient forests and crawled back under the barbed wire. Now they tend chickens.

            Most walked away, to escape contamination. But this should tell you something. Outside the Zone, they labeled the milk: “for children” and “for adults.”

            With Hiroshima at least you could see the cloud. This melts you from the inside out. One day we were sitting in the garden and the apple trees were right there, blooming, but we couldn’t smell anything.

            Uranium decomposition: 238 half-lives. A billion years.

            Thorium: 14 billion. How do you hold that?

            What can you hold?  A cat, a potato, a hand.

            Don’t you worry about looters? the soldiers ask.

            To steal what, my soul?

            The dead are here, in the yard. You can talk to them just like the living.

            The baby looked healthy, but I buried her at my husband’s feet. Cirrhosis of the liver, congenital heart disease: she absorbed the shock and I lived.

            We were prepared for bombs. But the atom is everywhere. We learned to fear rain, snow, and love. How do you protect yourself from the things you cannot see?

            Stories are always dog eat dog, man vs. nature, David and Goliath. But the monster beneath our beds we learn not to talk about; it lives in the spaces we abandon. Adults tell children, if you can’t see it, it must not exist.

            I saw cesium pieces in my yard: bright colors the size of my handkerchief. Then I was not afraid, and I sat watching the birds and the elk and the planes that flew back and forth from the reactor, looking for answers.

            If you remember the famine, it’s hunger, not radiation, that scares you. So cook the mushrooms and the wolves howl around your house and you sing.

            Outside, we are lepers. Here, we wait together. Tell me, Who is the victim and who is the priest?  Here we are both.

            There is a man who stalks the reactor now, keeping watch. He explores the rubble, the rooms no one else will go into. There are thousands of workers tasked with erecting a sarcophagus around the site. He is keeping watch for them. He returns daily to the thing that kills him. He calls it his main enemy, his main friend.

            What else can we hold it with, but our bodies? We need to place our fingers in the wounds.

            If I stay alive, he says, I will leave the factory, become a shepherd.

            Come inside now. I have jam from the garden. Oh my legs, I don’t want to stand anymore. Sit with me, drink.  Look!



Stacey Johnson writes and teaches in San Diego County, where she is a current MFA candidate at San Diego State University. Her work has appeared in The Adirondack Review, A Year In Ink, and various small online publications. She lives with her daughter, Grace, who inspires everything.

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“To Dorothy” by Sidney Thompson

Painting by Anna Rac

I remember you, the brunette from California, with the sheet music of “Over the Rainbow” framed on your apartment wall. It was autographed by the composer of the music or the lyrics, one of them. I remember, too, clearly, how on that night we met, on the eve of the fall semester, when we first had sex, you said the Tin Man had always been your favorite, ever since you were a little girl, because he didn’t have a penis.

Sometimes I think of you, how you preferred to be eaten than penetrated. You who bragged that same night that you’d slept with over a hundred guys.

Whenever I find myself in a cemetery, I remember what you said once so many years ago—of course, in Oxford, Mississippi, when we were grad students. We’d watched Ghost at the mall theater, then visited Faulkner’s grave, admiring the stonework, and you said in the shade after some wandering, “There’s nothing sadder than seeing new flowers on old graves.”

Not many weeks later you called me to your apartment because you’d promised paramedics that you wouldn’t spend the night alone. You confessed that it wasn’t the first time you’d asphyxiated yourself but it had been your first time to call 911. You showed me the knitted rope, the bedroom doorknob. Are you beginning to remember me yet?

Then, before long, you lost your teaching post after word got out you had sex with students and your student’s friends at a frat party. We weren’t speaking by then. Different circles.

If you read this, find me on Facebook. You’ll see I’m married to a brunette from Kansas. How about that for irony—me with my Dorothy at last. But do you have your Tin Man? Are you somewhere, or anywhere, by now? If I remembered your name, my approach would’ve been entirely different.




Sidney Thompson holds an MFA in creative writing and a Ph.D. in American literature, with a secondary specialization in African-American narratives. He is the author of the short story collection Sideshow, winner of Foreword Magazine’s Silver Award for Short Story Collection of the Year (2006). His fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and in such literary journals as 2 Bridges Review, Atticus Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Cleaver Magazine, The Cortland Review, Danse Macabre, Flash: The International Short-Short Story Magazine, Grey Sparrow Journal, NANO, Prick of the Spindle, Ragazine, and The Southern Review. He also has a chapbook of poetry, titled You/Wee, forthcoming in December from Prolific Press. He lives in Fort Worth, where he teaches creative writing at Texas Christian University.

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“I Might Never Learn” by Randall Brown

Painting by Anna Rac.

Reflux runs in my family, burning even as babies, a sharp cringe in every snapshot. This esophageal squall tastes like shredded Firestones, a tired ache that settled in my father’s Adam’s apple. Extended into sinuses, eroded cracks, soft fissures, until he could no longer stomach margaritas with my mother. The outlawed repertoire might leave lesser men impoverished: no lemon tang, no hot press of garlic, no avocado butter. Chocolate turned volatile: no beer, wine, briny cocktail. But my father relaxed into restrictions: a kiosk of pots with broth and worms. Eating without, craving pittance. But not me, no, I continue to burn.

   

Randall Brown is the author of the award-winning Mad to Live, his essay on (very) short fiction appears in The Rose Metal Press Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, and he appears in numerous anthologies. He blogs regularly at FlashFiction.Net and has been published widely, both online and in print. He is also the founder and managing editor of Matter Press and its Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. He received his MFA from Vermont College and now teaches in Rosemont College’s MFA in Creative Writing Program. “I Might Never Learn” first appeared in Corium Magazine.

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“As Designed” by Randall Brown

Painting by Anna Rac.

More and more, he finds himself in the psychedelia of Farmville, the land of Teletubbies without the creatures: crops, a cottage, a line of cherry trees, all of it his. Blueberries to arise in four hours, tomatoes to plant, watermelons to fertilize. He’s saving up for a tractor or seeder. He pets the Clydesdales, gathers the wool, collects truffles from the pigs. He walks along the white-washed fence, passing the red, purple, yellow hay bales. Someone has painted GROOVY onto the day-glo barn. No neighbors’ dogs bark; no face peers over the fence or through the evergreens. A duck sits on an anvil. Any second the pink roses will bloom. Later, the daffodils, the red tulips. A bug in the system has made crops unable to shrivel. There’s no need to harvest, but he keeps to the schedule. Except for the daisies, like miniature suns or cracked-open eggs, alive for weeks, undead, desperate to…. In the corner, by the tombstones, fallow land waits to be plowed. Somewhere a phone rings, like an alarm. Somewhere, a pile of papers. Somewhere, a text. Pick me up. Take me here. Remember to get the milk. Somewhere, outside of Farmville, someone works madly to fix that glitch so flowers will wither, as they should.

     

Randall Brown is the author of the award-winning Mad to Live, his essay on (very) short fiction appears in The Rose Metal Press Guide to Writing Flash Fiction, and he appears in numerous anthologies. He blogs regularly at FlashFiction.Net and has been published widely, both online and in print. He is also the founder and managing editor of Matter Press and its Journal of Compressed Creative Arts. He received his MFA from Vermont College and now teaches in Rosemont College’s MFA in Creative Writing Program.

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“Kick Me in the Nuts for $20?” by Marcus Meade

Painting by Anna Rac.

We walked out of Balley’s, a roving bachelor party looking for the right bar or Blackjack table. I’d lost my ass playing three-card poker, and the rest of my group lagged behind.

A steady stream of Vegas bodies moved both directions of a crosswalk staircase. I tried to step slowly so my friends might keep up, but the current waits for no one except the migrant workers handing out small cards for hookers—rocks in the stream.

The wide crosswalk provided some relief from the rush of people so I stopped and watched a man with an electric guitar and small amp playing “American Woman.” Another man with a briar-patch beard sat next to an upturned ball cap and a sign reading “too ugly to hook.”

In the quiet that followed guitar man’s song, a voice projected over the buzz of moving people. “Kick me in the nuts for twenty bucks,” a man shouted. He stood near the end of the crosswalk holding a cardboard sign that read, “kick me in the nuts?”. He was young, early twenties, and his clothes dangled from thin arms and legs. He smiled with repeated shouts, “Twenty bucks, kick me in the nuts!” Unlike the man too ugly to hook, who simply sat on the ground and stared, this young man’s face reflected the liveliness of the street.

Under the neon lights, his skin looked a dull shade of peach, like he was covered in layers of plastic wrap. His face had patches of hair that might look impressive on someone ten years younger but on him looked ragged and dirty.

In hearing the man, I visualized the toe of a boot smashing my own nuts and remembered the pain of contact from years past. The uncontrollable burn, the body-snatching sickness deep in my gut that recedes slowly.

After a moment, the friends I’d been waiting for came walking my way. I jumped back into the stream beside them, and we continued across the street when a familiar voice commanded us to hold up. Chuck, a member of our group, was talking to the man with the “kick me in the nuts?” sign. The rest of us clustered at the top of the staircase trying not to interrupt the flow of people.

After only a minute, Chuck and the man came walking up to our group. Chuck pointed to Sam, the soon-to-be groom, and presented the man as a gift to him. Sam looked hesitant and waved his hands in protest, but the others pushed him closer to the man while laughing and clapping in praise at Chuck’s gift.

I stood silent with my hands interlocked at my belt. This won’t happen, I thought. And yet, I saw the group turn to Sam. I saw him blush and hold up his hands asking them to stop but only in the most lighthearted way.

A part of me forced my hands up in a signal asking my friends to stop before letting them fall back to their clenched position at my belt. I turned and fixed my gaze on a large sign for Paris, unable to look at my friends, and thankful I couldn’t look at myself.

The man encouraged Sam as well, his excitement matching the building frenzy around him. With nearly fifteen dedicated onlookers, Sam gave in, and I stared more intently at the neon sign for Harrah’s.

The crowd surrounding Sam had reached at least twenty-five people, and everyone stood surprisingly quiet as the money changed hands.

I held my breath, waiting for the laughter and collective exhale of the audience to signal an end to the show. I waited to hear the man scream or fall or cry and turned my head toward anything other than what was happening five feet away from me.

My eyes squinted as a reflex, and the neon lights became blurry and dull. Waiting for the street to make sounds again, a violent force struck me on the side. I lost my balance and fell face-first to the ground.

The silence remained, no laughs or screams, just anticipation that wouldn’t release. My scraped hands pressed equal parts pavement and discarded hooker cards. Looking up, I saw the kick-me-in-the-nuts man running past Harrah’s. His loose shirt and baggy jeans billowed out like the parachute of a drag racer, but he wasn’t slowing down. He navigated the stream of people with precision, and was gone before Chuck got beyond, “Hey, asshole! Hey!”

The crowd slowly broke away, carrying a new, anxious laughter up and down stream.

My friends picked me up, and we continued our walk down the strip. We found the next casino, and I lost two hundred dollars shooting craps. I watched servers in short skirts and body glitter walk from table to table. I watched the night turn back into morning and the numbers on the jackpots climb higher and higher. As we headed back towards the hotel, Chuck and the others grumbled about the man who, it turned out, wanted twenty dollars to run down the street. Eventually, they turned it into a joke, another story to tell back home huddled around a table at the bar.

   

Marcus Meade is an Assistant Professor – General Faculty at the University of Virginia in the Academic and Professional Writing Program. He focuses primarily on scholarship in Rhetoric and Composition, but occasionally finds time to write short fiction, music, and baseball commentary. His interests are eclectic, but his intent is always the same, to write something that helps people.

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