We Become Death
We watched the first explosion from our laboratory and it freaked us all out. I looked at Ed, his big thick framed glasses reflecting the mushroom cloud: a towering monstrosity, a hand of desolation reaching up from the desert, grasping at the sky. One of the other scientists threw up on the floor. “I think this might’ve been a bad idea,” he said and wiped his mouth.
We tried to celebrate, passing around paper cups of cheap champagne, but the mood was a little off. Ed said something about “becoming death.” I didn’t get it.
I drove home and all I could think about were giant, smoking holes and little kids running around with their skin on fire. Even that was wrong. If anyone used the weapon we’d made, the kids wouldn’t have any skin left to worry about.
I stopped at a diner. My eggs tasted like cardboard, so I had some toast. It tasted the same. I started wondering about radiation poisoning. When the check came, I left a generous tip. But I still felt like a scum bag.
There was a woman on TV the next day. She said what we’d done was a crime against nature, an affront to god. We watched in the lab. Ed said something about her being crazy. I thought Ed was being rude. She seemed all right to me.
She didn’t feel the same way about us, though. She was organized—a real activist—and she broke into our testing site with some other folks from the community. They handcuffed themselves to our nukes.
The team decided I should be the one to go to the warehouse and reason with the protestors. They said I hadn’t contributed all that much when it came to the math and the engineering and Ed mentioned I was asleep at my desk when they split the first atom. This was true but I didn’t see the relevance. Ed was starting to piss me off.
I went out there and took my hat off and introduced myself. The woman refused to shake hands, keeping her arms crossed. She did think it was funny I literally had my hat in hand. I didn’t get it.
I went back to the lab. I told the guys this woman was a pretty tough customer and I didn’t think she’d back down. Ed suggested we detonate the nukes and the other guys laughed. I said that was crazy and Ed said he was joking. Everyone laughed again. This time my ears burned.
The second day of the standoff—that’s what the papers were calling it—I went back out. I told the woman we really needed our nukes back. She asked why. I said because we needed to blow them up. She said why. I said to make sure they work.
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” she said.
I went back to the lab and the guys all laughed at me. At this point I was frustrated, which seemed justifiable. I was getting it from both ends.
I went back out and asked the woman what the hell the big idea was. I was losing it, shouting like an idiot. She looked at me and said, “I think you know what you’re doing is wrong.” I huffed and puffed and she said it again but quieter. “I think you know.”
So, I went back to the lab. I told them that I thought the woman might be right. They threw paper coffee cups, old sandwich wrappers, a shoe, and even a pencil at me. The pencil stuck me just above my left eye. I still have a mark.
I pointed out that the guy who threw up said the whole thing might have been a mistake. Ed said that guy didn’t work with us anymore.
“What happened?” I asked.
“He killed himself,” Ed said.
I went back out and asked the women if she had any extra handcuffs. She didn’t so I just wrapped my arms around one of the nukes and hugged it like it was a big, sweet cow.
Through the window, I could see Ed at the control panel. He looked mad. I started wondering if he really was joking about detonating the nukes. I stood there with the rest of the protestors, the world smelling fresh and beautiful, and nothing like cardboard. I thought of my skin and then looked at the woman’s skin and blushed. I knew then what I wanted and wished I had just a little more time.
They surrounded my compound in the middle of January. I could imagine the frozen grass crunching under their boots as they surveyed the area, looking for tripwires and improvised explosive devices. As I watched through my binoculars, I was disappointed. None of them went off.
I’d learned the tricks of dirty war while stationed overseas in an undisclosed location. I spent my time mowing down enemy combatants. Some of the combatants were children. Some were unarmed.
When I got back, I met my wife at the VA hospital. Her kindness was so deep I tried to drown in it. All I could think about were mortar shells, broken hands, and eyeballs full of blood.
I started spending a lot of time on the computer, scrolling through message boards. These were the early days of the internet, not like it is now; pages took ten minutes to load, images materializing one line at a time. Whenever I finally got what I was looking for, something popped in the back of my skull, like a hit of the dope I used to shoot overseas.
I got more into the online stuff and my wife kept going to work at the VA. Every once in a while, she’d try to get me to talk to somebody but there wasn’t time. I was busy.
Being online was fun, meeting people from all over the world and they turned me onto all kinds of stuff: government coverups of UFOs, alternate planes of existence, LSD mind control experiments performed by the CIA, a global network of sexual perverts. One day, I got an email from an officer, a guy who said he knew me back when I was deployed. I didn’t remember him. He said his name was Ed.
That’s how I wound up writing a book. Ed dictated most of it to me over the phone. It was called Death Comes Knocking and it tore my life apart. Some people hated it but the fans were the real trouble.
Ed wanted me to write a sequel and our house started to fill up with documents: leaked communiques from heads of state detailing their sexual appetites, internal memoranda from clandestine intelligence organizations directing death squads to wipe out entire villages, raving accounts from victims of hypnotic mind control and hideous physical torture. The documents didn’t just fill up my house they filled up my head. Finally, my wife left. I didn’t blame her but I was lonely.
The book didn’t help anything. People online were talking about taking up arms, killing cops and politicians, and causing general mayhem. That was when the media started coming after me. They said I was a nut who lived in the woods and wanted to destroy the USA. They made some salient points but I felt the picture they painted was somewhat inflammatory.
The cops and the government spooks didn’t agree. They started following me. I couldn’t go for a beer without at least one pair of eyes on me. I was trapped in a panopticon of surveillance. So maybe that’s why I wound up shooting the state trooper. He was tailing me. At least I think he was.
I ended up trapped in my cabin, looking out a window, waiting for the goon squad to bust through my door and put me down. I didn’t know what else to do, so I called my wife.
On opposite ends of the line, both of us were crying. I said I was sorry, sorry for letting this business with Ed take over my life. She said she was sorry for leaving and I told her it wasn’t her fault.
As I sat on my floor, listening to the sound of boots trampling through the frozen grass, me and my wife made a vow. If we ever saw each other again, we’d stick together, never let anyone tear us apart. I choked out the words as they kicked in the door, “I’m sorry. I miss you. Please come home.”
The Big One
There was a note stuck to my computer after I came back from my lunch break. The woman at the desk next to me said it was the big one. She always said that. People called into the paper with tips about secret underground tunnels in the downtown metro area or corrupt science teachers at the university who had misappropriated funds and were building mind control lasers that would turn the city’s children gay. No matter what the tip was about, the woman next to me would always turn and say, “This is it. It’s the big one.”
The big one was something all of us at the newspaper were looking for. We all wanted a good story, we wanted to win awards, we wanted to make a name for ourselves. I didn’t think there was anything wrong with this. We were all hungry.
Apparently, the note said, there was a burglary trial underway. Someone from the press needed to be there. The testimony from one of the burglar’s was going to expose a covert operation by a classified wing of the United States government. Not only that but it would incriminate these spooks or spies in drug dealing and prostitution, demonstrate they were part of a criminal ring that local law enforcement had been trying to break up for years. I called the number on the sticky note and it went to voicemail. By the end of the day, I forgot about it.
The next day there was another note on my desk. The tipster had called again. It looked like he wasn’t going to leave me alone, so I called him back. His voice was distorted and crackly. He sounded paranoid.
I took this to my editor—a guy called Ed, though he didn’t like anyone pointing out the similarities between his name and his job title—and he told me to go check out the trial. It was a slow news day, so it was either that or cover a jalapeño eating contest for Cinco De Mayo. I’d done enough of those to know the angle. Spicy on both ends.
The testimony was wild. The guy on the stand said he could prove that government agents were involved in the production and distribution of large amounts of phenylcyclohexyl piperidine (angel dust for short) and were selling it in an area of the city with a high concentration of political activists. Also, it just so happened to be where most of the Black and brown people lived.
I took this back to Ed. He was worried. Could I back this up? Where were the documents. So, I called the tipster. He sent me the documents.
The stuff was a mess. Pages and pages of redacted nonsense, just looking at them made my head spin. That’s when the woman at the desk next to me got involved.
She was a star in the organization, bringing home award winning stories about the criminal justice system. She told the facts and named the names. I was intimidated by her. All my stories were light and fluffy and hers were like hammers falling on every crooked nail in the city. The tip should have gone to her but it had somehow wound up on my desk and at this point the tipster would only talk to me. I guess that had to count for something.
Documents were the woman’s specialty. She could rip through them, finding hidden bits of treasure buried in the most innocuous details. Watching her work made my heart go off like a news ticker. I almost told her this but she would’ve laughed. And not in a good way.
When we went to publish, the shit hit the fan. The woman thought someone got to Ed. I couldn’t argue. He spiked the story and made us move our desks to the back of the office. It looked like my next big story would be a chili eating contest. I was back in my element. Spicy on both ends.
But my partner—I could call her that now—she didn’t let up. She kept pushing. I was scared. Someone had come to my house and left a bullet on my doormat. Who knows what they’d done to her?
The way she fought; it inspired me. I knew I had to back her up. One night we were in the office, it was late, just us and Ed. She fought him on every point while I stood there, nodding like an idiot. Ed finally relented. “Whatever,” he shouted. “It’s your careers you’re flushing down the toilet.”
We went back to our desks, both of our hands shaking. Who knew what would happen once the story hit the stands? We could be locked up, shot to death in the street, forced to go on late night talk shows. I didn’t care. Both of us sat there, our hearts going crazy, and I looked at her and I wanted to tell her that it didn’t matter what happened with the story. I wanted to tell her I’d already found “the big one.” I opened my mouth to speak, ready to hear her laugh.
J. G. Steen lives and writes in Milwaukee and has previously published work in Rejection Letters, The Sublunary Review, The Rio Review, The Racket, and Analecta.