J. G. Steen ~ Triptych

  1. 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.

  1. Explosive Materials

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.”

  1. 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.