Finished April 2019
Published 8 August 2020
The afternoon was dry.
A boy with fiery red hair slalomed between the crumbling curbs, his bare feet stroking the pavement. The sound of skateboard wheels rumbled like thunder.
His name was Peter.
There was something in his path, a heap in the road. Peter swerved toward the curb to avoid it, and almost lost his balance. He craned his neck to look as he glided past.
It was a gruesome sight, a dead fox, whose carcass lay in a red pool. Coiled organs swelled out of its ripped belly like bloomed aubrieta and sizzled. Its curled white body was blinding in the sunlight. Peter shifted his gaze in disgust and scratched the cut on his chin. His skateboard groaned away into the heat.
Alice plucked a blond strand of hair from her scalp.
I wish I could dye it black.
The road and sparse rows of dilapidated houses spread out to her right, the desert to her left. The road carved through the sand for miles. The young girl looked down as if in meditation, inspecting her collection of animal skins on the sidewalk.
She jolted at the sound of beating breaths and a sudden stomp, and looked up. The skateboarder looked down.
“What is that?” Peter pushed back his curls. He squatted on the sidewalk next to the array of little skins. Alice’s gaze stabbed his eyes like needles. She hated teenage boys.
They always look like they rule the world. Always safe on their bikes and skateboards.
They do what they want.
“I said, what are those thi—”
“I never asked you to look.” Alice bared her teeth, revealing her gums. “Go away. Now!” Then her voice rumbled low like the flies. “Now,” she enunciated.
“Jesus. Sorry,” Peter said, stepping back. Alice’s shoulders shrunk inward. The boy dropped his board back to the road, looked at her once more, turned, and pushed off. “Creep,” he muttered under his breath. Out of the corner of his eye, the glint of white fur in the distance disappeared in swirls of dust.
Alice turned back to her collection.
She wanted nothing to do with anyone, or anything, but herself. Her own fun in her own world. There was nothing else unless she needed something else to feel better. She would always find a way to feel better.
Alice reached for her cardboard box and opened the flaps. Inside there was a lizard. It perked up upon sensing the light.
“Cutie,” Alice whispered as she plucked it up by the tail. The lizard squirmed in the air. Alice laid it on her flat palm and giggled as it scurried around her wrist. “That’s tickly! Stop it.” She tried to grab the lizard, but it kept circling around her arm, too swift to catch. She reached inside the pocket of her dress. “That’s tickly! That’s tickly!” she shouted as she snatched a pair of scissors from her pocket. “I said, stop it!”
The lizard dropped. Dark green blood splattered her palm.
Alice studied the scissors in her other hand. Dark green glimmered along the edge. She looked down and saw the lizard writhing on the cement. Its tail lay limp. Alice flicked it onto the road, and she dropped her pair of scissors. The lizard stopped moving.
Now I’m lonely.
A tall barbed wire fence ran for miles and formed an enormous corral around an expanse of desert. In the middle of the desert was the prison, a flat one-story building that soaked up the heat, inhaled it.
The iron door screeched open. A shadow cut across the ground as the warden marched out the door and veered along the wall of the building. A prisoner trudged along behind him, chains clanking between his ankles and scraping against his teeth. His shadow dragged along the wall, black void on the cinderblocks.
The officer plowed out the door last, carrying a metal cup and a canteen over his shoulders.
The line of men crawled away from the building. The prisoner sagged under his black scrubs, pulled tight around his body as a surgeon’s gloves. Lines of bloody drool webbed his chin and neck. They all trekked until the building was a blazing white dot in the distance.
The warden halted, turned to the officer, and nodded.
The officer unstrapped the canteen from his back, unscrewed the cap and poured water into the cup. The sand beneath the cup flinched with a fallen drop. Another slipped from the cup’s rim. The prisoner’s eyes followed the drops down between the grains of sand and the cavernous spaces between them. He counted.
The officer faced the prisoner. He balanced the paddle out toward him with both hands. The cup hovered a hair’s width from the prisoner’s chin. Another drop fell to the earth. The whole desert heard the liquid growl as it disappeared in the sediments.
The prisoner held the officer’s gaze as he pressed the cup against his lips. The warden lodged the gun against the back of his neck. The prisoner’s eyes dipped to the cup of water reflecting the sky. The blinding sun flickered as a pinpoint in the center of the cup.
“Do I have to tell you what to swallow?” the warden mocked.
I won’t swallow.
The prisoner’s tongue tapped the water. Heat blasted through the coils of his brain. His arching veins popped out of his temples. The coldness of the water on his tongue shocked his senses as if he were staring into the light of Heaven. In that moment, he believed in it.
I won’t swallow.
He sucked the water up with his sweat. He filled his mouth until his cheeks bloated like the scabbed blisters across his back. He held it until his tongue felt formless. The sun beat down. The water soaked through the cracks in his lips and dribbled beneath his shirt. It cooked in his mouth. Minutes passed.
The prisoner spat the water onto the sand and collapsed onto the ground, weeping.
“I won’t swallow,” he whispered.
He prayed for the day that he could leave the prison and learn every last name and every last statistic that might save him, because before the war, he hadn’t learned any of it. He hadn’t paid attention. If only he had, he would’ve known what to do when they came for his freedom.
The officer nodded. The warden holstered his gun. “He’s a smart one,” he said. “He knows how to survive.” The bodies of other prisoners surrounded them, at silence, at peace. Swarms of flies buzzed in their throats.
The houses were gone, left behind in the distance. A fence stood between the road and the desert and sand spilled beneath the wire mesh, coating the road like snow. The fence blurred as Peter sped alongside it.
He pressed his front foot deep into the side of his board, swerved and tripped into the sand. Unhurt, Peter locked his hands behind his head and turned to face the road. Sweat stained his whole shirt. He sat down in the sand, digging his hands into it and ran the golden specks through his fingers. A strong breeze picked up swirls of dust. Peter stared at the fence across the road.
Did that little girl kill those animals? The thought nagged at him. Nasty.
Peter stood, his eyes still glued to the towering fence.
I think Guantánamo had fences like this. That’s what it looked like on TV.
He looked down the road. The fence appeared to pinch inward at the horizon. A few yards farther down, something lodged in the wire mesh caught his eye. Peter dragged his board onto the road, pushed off, and a plume of dust curled over him. The object came into focus, and Peter rolled to a stop. He stayed on his board. It was a long piece of yellow caution tape, fluttering in the breeze from a large hole in the fence. Peter looked past the wire mesh. A stronger wind howled past him on toward desert, and the yellow tape flapped straight out over the road. The hole in the fence flexed, as if opening a portal to another universe, or into a time capsule.
He just wished to death that he knew the past, because he barely understood the present.
The wind shifted direction and Peter looked up into the sky. There was silence, then a deep rumbling, like a thousand rolling skateboard wheels. The sky became a sickly blue, and golden light glimmered over the crests of the clouds. The wind swirled little black pockets into the dimming sky. The air melted into a dark mass. Storm clouds.
Holy Mother of Jesus.
A raindrop splatted against Peter’s forehead.
Big drops of water fell, torrents drilling the ground, drowning the cut on his chin, filling his shirt. Peter threw an arm over his eyes and turned to look at the road. The tar glistened and steam shot off its surface and clotted the air. Thunder crashed and white lightning rolled over the sky.
I have to find shelter.
Peter whipped around to face the fence. The wire mesh glinted in the flashing light and curtain of water. He couldn’t see past the hole in the fence. The gallons of water washing over Peter’s skin seemed to fill his throat.
Lightening flashed. Peter turned back to the road, glimpsing a silhouette. Its form swayed through the rain. Lightening flashed again. He became frozen in place.
The silhouette held a pair of scissors.
It’s her, Peter realized. She’s going to kill me. Just like that fox and those rodents.
His toenails snapped against the tar. The broken mesh shredded the collar of his shirt as he punched through the hole in the fence, leaving his skateboard behind. His feet pounded the sand as he ran.
Alice stepped back from the fence.
Her gaze shifted to the gaping hole.
The rain had calmed. A single drop of water splatted down the back of her neck. She wrung her hair in one yank.
I shouldn’t go in there.
Alice knew the area well. She knew this place. And she knew enough to be worried.
“He shouldn’t have gone in there,” she murmured. “He’ll be caught for trespassing.”
Alice turned to face the road. There was a skateboard—his skateboard. Alice squatted, placed a hand on top of the board and stroked it. It felt like lizard skin.
She sat down on the board and gazed past the fence. Tattered yellow caution tape lay all around her, and she heard the rumble of thunder from the sky.
A dark spot stained the sand. Two more appeared. The warden cursed as they hit the ground. Water exploded against the prisoner’s neck. The air stirred, forming gusts, and the rain swarmed around them. The warden grumbled out an order, but the wind roared louder.
“We’re heading back!” the warden screamed. “A storm’s coming in fast.”
The chains pulled at the prisoner’s ankles and his neck as he stepped over the fallen bodies. He dared to stick out his tongue as raindrops fell around him. Far away, beneath the blackened horizon, a microscopic figure grew larger in the distance. The prisoner’s lips squirmed. He wanted to laugh.
The fog cleared and sunlight burst through the cloud cover, the storm shifting away from Peter.
I can’t let her get me.
It’s so hot.
Peter looked over his shoulder. The fog was still creeping. A split sky, frigid darkness and searing light, was above him.
I have to get out of here.
Sweat bubbled in his ears. His skin was the color of rust. It was bloody. He was so hot. “Help.” He curled his tongue and it scraped against the roof of his mouth. There was rumbling in the distance, and Peter stopped running to scan the horizon. He blinked to clear his eyes of dust and saw moving figures in the distance. People.
Alice loosened her grip from the wire mesh, licked her lips and ducked through the hole in the fence. She ducked into another realm.
Maybe that boy was just lonely, too.
The sand was soft under her feet and stained dark from the rain. She ran. Sand sprayed the air as her feet kicked up the ground. The clouds began to vanish as she ran and ran, and as she came over a rise, a white building appeared, hovering over the sand like a ghost. Alice halted, staring at it. It was a silent building. It had an iron door, but no windows. Alice licked her lips and cautiously made her way forward.
Her bare foot scraped against something buried in the sand. Alice bit her lip as she stopped and bent over, eyeing the small cut on the bottom of her foot. Then her gaze moved to the object, a ring of iron keys. She picked them up.
Peter was in a void.
The sand stretched on around him. There was no fence and no clear horizon. The figures in the distance were gone.
I can’t stay here forever.
The line of clouds in the sky grew longer and there was rumbling in the distance. Peter raised his head to the sky.
Who were those people? Were they even real?
Peter frowned and trudged forward.
Maybe they’re prisoners. Is this an old war camp? They did a feature about that a few weeks ago. They rounded up citizens thinking they were soldiers.
Dread gnawed at him.
What if I die here?
Peter stopped. He saw something. A little white dot broke the landscape in the distance.
The floor of the prison became soaked in an orange glow as she pushed open the door. Harsh shadows stemmed from every piece of dust and crack in the stone as sunlight streamed into the darkness. A chain lay straight across it all, anchored to the floor. Alice removed the ring of keys from the lock on the door, and her eyes followed the chain as it rose into a corner.
A skeleton seemed to stand there, scabs quilting its bones and sagging flesh.
“You’re not a boy,” Alice blankly stated. With no fear, she stepped toward the prisoner. The chain hung from his neck like a leash. She tugged on it. “Where’s that boy?” she demanded. “I was going to save him.”
“Could you save me?”
The prisoner’s voice was winter, cold and ridden with death. He sunk to his knees, the chain falling into a pile at Alice’s feet. A band of orange light from the open door fell across his eyes and colored his irises golden. Alice bit her lip and she glanced over her shoulder. Her stomach clenched. If that boy isn’t here, then where is he?
“Save me!” the prisoner pleaded.
She was mad at the boy.
Alice turned back to the prisoner.
“Okay,” she huffed. “I’ll save you now.”
Why would he come into the desert if he knew he was going to get lost? He created his own misery. The universe didn’t have to do it for him.
Alice held out a key from the metal ring, grabbed onto the chain and tugged the man’s neck forward. Drool spurted out his lips and smeared the girl’s fingers as she worked off the lock. The metals shrieked. Alice’s fingers burned. The chain snapped and the prisoner collapsed. Alice dropped the keys to the floor.
“Thank you!” the prisoner gasped. “You saved me!”
A deep rumbling sounded from outside. The orange light was gone, and instead, the door became a blazing rectangle of white light.
“We have to go.” Alice pulled on the prisoner’s arm. “We have to go.”
The old man stared at the severed chain.
“We have to go!” Alice screamed. She yanked the prisoner by his collar. “The jailors will be back soon!”
They were outside in seconds, sand churning past their knees in the wind. The sky boiled, clouds toppling over one another as if missiles were tearing apart the atoms of hydrogen, going to shatter bedroom windows like they had years ago. Alice and the prisoner stared up at the shadows spilling over them.
As they ran, the prisoner didn’t look over his shoulder. He let Alice rescue him. He let her kick sand over him. He swallowed it. He didn’t feel the heat. They ran harder. Another raindrop stroked his cheek, then another.
Alice stopped, sensing something behind them, and turned around. The prisoner tripped into the sand.
“Don’t stop! Don’t leave me!” the prisoner sobbed. “Save me, child!”
Alice pointed. The prisoner followed her gaze. He saw a black wave rolling over the sky and looked down. Someone was running toward them, a mushroom cloud of dust bulging over their shoulders from the distance.
It was a boy.
“Come on!” Alice screamed. “The storm’s going to kill us!”
The boy glanced at them but didn’t slow his pace. He ran past them. Alice yanked the prisoner back to his feet.
They all sprinted into the receding light. The afternoon was scorching, and it showed in the red papillary of their toes. Shadows consumed their footprints like a tide. Soon they raced against the rain.
“Look!” the boy shouted. A hellish red sun hung over the horizon. “The fence!” The prisoner squinted through the rays of violet light. “The fence!”
The prisoner fell, convulsing, and vomited onto the sand. He recovered quickly and pushed himself up from the ground.
He stared down.
Alice lay motionless in front of him, her eyes turning glassy. She stared up.
Peter wiped an arm over his forehead. The sky rumbled.
“Is she dead?” he whispered.
Dust and heat gelled the air. The clouds bubbled overhead like blistering skin. Peter glanced over his shoulder at the fence, then back at the old man and the girl.
“She fell.” The old man looked up at Peter. “I tripped over her.”
Something sliced Peter’s shoulder. He looked up. Icy raindrops were falling. Peter grabbed the girl’s arms and dragged her. “We can’t stay here,” he said.
I can’t believe I’m helping her.
“Wait.” The prisoner took Alice from Peter’s grasp and draped her fragile neck and thin legs over his shoulders and cradled her. He limped forward. Alice’s lips drifted apart and raindrops splattered her teeth. Peter followed them, and soon they were at the fence.
The hole was still there, and it seemed to open wider in the hard wind. Peter ripped his arms up as he crawled through to the other side and ribbons of blood streamed toward his wrists. Once he was through, the prisoner pressed Alice into his body as he pushed his way through the hole, the jagged edges of the wires drawing long gashes along his torso. They made it to the other side.
The air became heavy like the clouds and the clouds invaded Alice’s pores. Her drowned body was heavy, and made the frail prisoner tremble to his knees. Peter whirled around and stood frozen, watching them.
Then he relaxed his shoulders and just let the rain come over him.
Alice hung limp between the prisoner’s arms, and the old man curled himself over her, bowing his head to hers as he lay her body to the road. The rain soaked her white hair, and when lightening flashed, her skin glistened like oil. Peter turned around as the old man limped over to him. Together they looked back at Alice, but she was barely visible. A flood had grown over the road and water erupted over her body as raindrops speared the current. Her dress was ghost skin clinging to her stony flesh. She was indistinguishable from the tar. Peter envisioned a dead fox.
The crystal mobile hummed in the window. Peter sat cross-legged on the floor beneath it, drawing circles in the dust on the wooden floor. The crystal shuddered as the sunlight dimmed with a passing cloud, then fired up again as light returned. Rainbows blessed the boy’s eyelids.
His house smelled like spring.
“Where are your parents?” the prisoner asked. He sat in the patched-up armchair like a grandfather, wiping drool from his lips, as dust and light plodded across his sunken face. Peter shrugged. He wasn’t listening. He thought of Alice.
It was the tar. That’s why she died. You’re never supposed to touch the road. Tar is neurotoxic. That’s why you live on skateboard wheels. Radioactivity settled in the ground. That was something they never fixed after the war.
“How long were you in that prison?” Peter finally said.
“Since the war started,” the prisoner replied.
“When’d the war start?”
“What do you mean?” The prisoner narrowed his eyes. “Didn’t you learn about it in school?”
“It was a big war.”
A cloud passed over the sun and the temperature dipped. Goosebumps rode over the prisoner’s skin. Shadows carved up over the boy’s cheekbones and dug caverns beneath the prisoner’s eyebrows. The sun returned and rainbows filled the room again.
“You know about Chernobyl?” Peter broke the silence. “I saw something about it on CNN.”
They talked about how things used to be different. People used to pray to make things better. But we’re all that’s left after the third world-war.
“CNN?” The prisoner gurgled up a cough and mucus splattered the window glass. “Excuse me. How could it be on the news? Chernobyl happened centuries ago.”
“The news? There is no news.” Peter’s eyes fell on the opposite wall. “They rerun history programs.” There was an old brick fireplace. A string of pale blue, plastic rosaries cascaded over a hook in the mantlepiece. Peter shut his eyes.
In the old days, the gods used to make storms go away. People thought that the meaning of life was to work with the gods to stave off forces of chaos. Yeah. In Mesopotamia. Your purpose in life was to make sure things ran smoothly. That was, what—six thousand years ago?
That’s what they said on TV.
The prisoner opened his mouth as if to say something. Instead, he leaned forward in the armchair, hauled himself to his feet and lifted his chin to gaze up. Only half the roof of the house was intact. Shingles crumbled over the walls and a shocked yellow sky glowed down on them.
The prisoner limped toward the door.
“Wait.” Peter sat up straight. “Where are you going? Tell me more about before the war.” The prisoner opened the door. “Please,” he begged.
Rainbows stopped spinning around the room. “I’m going to see the world,” the prisoner said. “Or what’s left of it, at any rate. I’ve been locked away from it for too long.”
“I’ve been locked in it for too long.” Peter glared at the old man. “There’s nothing left to see. There’s just dust.”
And little girls that die from roads. Little girls that play with dead animals. Maybe we were always all that was left.
The prisoner simply stared. His gaze longed for something in Peter, but the boy was an empty artillery shell.
“Chernobyl is proof that life goes on after annihilation,” the prisoner finally said. Peter looked away and buried his face in the palms of his hands.
I hate that I’m all that’s left.
The prisoner turned toward the open door.
“It shows that people can leave a horrific mess and an angered god will forgive and give them another chance to live. Six thousand Chernobyls have led up to where we are now. Chaos can be playful. It can be sick.” He looked one last time over his shoulder, smiling at the young boy. “But it always leaves more than just dust.”
The old man stepped through the door, toward the setting sun.
1 thought on “Chernobyl”
Atmospheric and haunting piece.