Excerpt from "Dysnomia"
by Alana Capria
I live in the place of nuclear meltdowns. My kitchen looks like Chernobyl. Light tubes hang down from electrical strings, plaster walls are caved in, paint fragments touch a cracked expanse of brownish-yellow linoleum. What I pour out of the cereal boxes is the nuclear fallout, the glowing green powder touching the bowl and making it glow. I use razor wire to brush my teeth free of atomic decay. I have to scrape the dentin clean. Outer layers accumulate the filth. The inner pulp is exposed, then hidden away again. I slather my gums with plaster of paris, then blow dry the resin hard. What flows from the tap is copper in color but with a green tinge. I dip my plates into the water until they're well coated, then hang them to dry in the window. When I strike them with the side of a knife, they tap together and sound like wind chimes. I teethe on bricks of plutonium stolen from inside the melting grid. I like how the radioactivity makes my mouth tingle. If I move my jaws to the left, then the bricks taste like sugar. If I move my jaws too far to the right, then I don't taste anything that doesn't remind me of water. I used to keep a geiger counter beneath my bed but its constant clicking made sleep impossible. I dreamed of clocking and tocking and melt. I don't need a manmade machine to tell me that the atoms will degrade forever, that as soon as I breathed the air following the melting, the rotten atoms were already splitting violently beneath my tongue. I could taste it. It tasted like dirty flooring, my tongue moving in and out of the many narrow grooves. I wait for a man with a drooping face to knock on the side of the house. He'll come for a piece of the isotope. He'll ask me to place it upon his tongue like religion. He'll stand with his eyes closed while I shut the door between us. Each time I look out the window, he'll be standing there awaiting the brick's melt. It won't come. The meltdown is not a real liquid meltdown. There is no truly watery moment. His mouth will always be occupied by solidity. The meltdown is something more of a sloughing. The reactor failed, then fell down. The reactor cracked in half. The reactor shed its first skin, then its second. The shedding was done quickly. The third, fourth, and fifth layers fell slowly, with a faint smearing motion, like wet skin being rolled free of the body. The concrete barriers decayed. The mortar between bricks powdered. Then the reactor was exposed in all its green glow. The uranium rods pulsed and melted. Some people looked directly into the mass and lost their eyesight. It was like staring into the sun. I stayed far enough away. I barely noticed the mushroom cloud outside the kitchen window. When I tried to go to the bathroom, the toilet bowl filled with brown sludge. All that wastewater came from the reactor. It pulsed with atomic age.
Already, living bodies were suffering the sterile effects of standing too close to the meltdown. Penises were fusing to scrotum. Sperm counts were lower. Eggs were hatching, then splintering. Uteruses were shedding excess flesh, developing endometriums several inches thick, the kind of skin that closed the body of itself. What progeny managed to be squeezed free of such mutilation had bad skin and even worse mouths. The jaws weren't on correctly. The gums were a filmy, milky white. The teeth came out red. Those rotten generations attempted to breed and so the degradation continued, one DNA pool after the next, each more mutated than the last.
When the reactor failed, a klaxon sounded. Now the klaxon shrieks every day at the strike of noon. It makes me think of sunshine. The nuclear reactor sounds for a radius of twenty-miles. The waters around the nuclear reactor are battery acid. If I jab a wooden stick at the water, the wood pulp immediately fizzles with burn. I always let the stick go as it puffs up and bubbles while slipping beneath the surface. If I pull it back, then I increase the chances of the water splashing me. I don't want to burn. I didn't burn the first time and I refuse to burn the second. I wear a gas mask when I cook dinner. I found the mask in the woods. It still stinks of burned rubber but the form is there. It filters the rotten air. So I wear it while chopping up brown onions I find beneath small bushes. The garlic is green in the center and when it touches acid, it glows with a bright blue that makes me think of corpse rot. There are corpses under the ground and they've all gone rotten in the same garlic manner. The rot will eventually become water and that water will mix with the dirt until a slurry forms. That slurry will become more of a grain and out of that putrefaction, a small carrot will grow. But it will be a green carrot and it's safe to say that a carrot that color should never be consumed. Someone will come and eat it though. Someone always comes along to eat those things the mouth is advised against. I pull the gas mask tight around my mouth and when clouds of smoke plume free of the oven, I just blink until the smoke clears. I never smell anything, not even the slightest acrid quality to the burners inside. I want to smell gas but there's no such thing as pure gasoline anymore. The radiation is in everything. It's dangerous when airborne. This is why I stopped drinking water years ago. It's impossible to clean the water now. We take our chances with the cows. We drink directly from the udders to avoid the middle materials. We can only hope that the fallout never reached the grass lands but we already know that isn't the case. The cows' eyes are completely red. The cows always run a fever.
Sometimes I'm lucky and can find thick pieces of half-used graphite sticking out of the dirt. Then I put on rubber gloves and write scrawled messages on whatever empty wall surface I stumble upon. I write many things:
WE WILL MELT FOREVER. THE SKIN IS NOT CONTAINED. BEWARE THE HEAVY MOON. THOSE BAGS OVER THE HEAD? SMELL WITH THE MOUTH.
I eat the graphite pieces for breakfast. I devour charcoal briquettes. I vomit sporadically and spontaneously. A man with a greasy face looks in through my basement window. He watches as I tend to the boiler that hasn't worked in what seems like hundreds of years. He runs his engorged tongue around his fat lips and clicks his molars together several times until his teeth crack in half. He sucks pulp from inside those teeth, then spits the fleshy bits at the window. I watch the pinkish stains roll down the glass. I can smell his stench through the walls. This man hasn't bathed in days. He doesn't know where to find a bar of soap. I hoarded soap bars for years. Now I am always clean although the water temperature doesn't stay static. I boil water, splash it over my skin, then nurse the second degree burns with a rag and some butter. The man clacks his fingers against the window. He knocks on the glass. He presses his open mouth against the pane and sucks. Sometimes he screams, Stick me inside! I slick wet tar over the windows until the man is blocked. Through areas of thinner tar, I see the man's shadow moving back and forth but at least I don't have to see the damage he repeatedly does to his face. Sometimes he slips pieces of paper beneath the front door and the notes always read: YES? But the reactor isn't alive all the time. It exists hidden inside a concrete sarcophagus, the stony walls filled in with extra sediment to make it harder for atomic decay to drift easily. I knock on the walls and listen to what exists inside. There is a rattle, a shudder. There is something living beneath the floor and it is not made of concrete nor is it made of brick or steel or radioactivity or flesh. Although the babies are radioactive. The sick and elderly wipe radiation from their seeping eyes.
I menstruate radiation but it's no different from my normal monthly blood. It's still red despite the shining. And the way the shimmer spreads through my pad is enjoyable. It's a red night sky consisting solely of my blood and uterine discards. I have plenty of them. Every month, I think I can't possibly have anything left inside to make the blood and every month, I bleed freely, changing the sanitary napkins each time my underwear feels moist. At night, I wake and the blood has spilled over, so that I wake up in the moist and that's the most uncomfortable part of it. The moist lingering between my thighs, turning colder as the night progresses, becoming wetter, until finally, I stagger from the wet and find that I'm coated in a sticky, red lacquer. Every time, it seems that I've woken up in the midst of a fresh murder scene but this isn't that kind of blood. Aside from the radiation, the reactor does one more thing to the blood. It makes it last longer. What was once a week at most is now bordering on two months, nearly half a month given to bleeding. Then one week is devoted to ovulation whatever malformed eggs still exist inside my internal hatcheries, and when those eggs are done, there is one last week spent preparing the body to bleed again. Then my breasts ache but it is a deeper ache than the one I suffer during half the month. Then my abdomen cramps and I wait for my uterus to fall into prolapse, to plummet from my cavity, because how can anything exist at the lid of a hole and never fall through? If I move a certain way and my body shifts as a result, how does my uterus stay plugged up at the top when its bulk leads into an endless, bottomless chamber? I go to the sink, pour cold water into my hands, and splash it upon my face. I blink the irradiated wet into my eyes. I moisturize every part of me, soaking in that water for a time, then wiping clean the internal bleed by hooking a finger into my body and twisting it around in a slow circle. The day grows dark as the mushroom cloud thickens, blocking out the sun's light. Either one will eventually scorch this world clean. If the atoms don't dig in deep enough, the sun will send out one of its massive erasure flares. An unhealthy man stumbles past the kitchen window. He is immediately followed by another. Both are missing the flesh around their engorged mouths. In the wake of radiation flux, the flesh always seems to puff up. I pour cherry-flavored cough syrup into a tablespoon and slurp it while grimacing. The cough syrup won't protect against the radioactive waves leaking through the walls. What it will do is keep my nocturnal coughing at a minimum. My lungs never seem to cooperate with seamless breathing when my eyes are closed. I press a hand against the kitchen window and my palm blots the men outside. They appear on either side of my hand, then disappear inside my fingers. They flicker with a brilliant orange light. It is the sun encased within a thin membrane of alabaster.
Tomorrow at noon, the reactor will break apart and the klaxon will sound the alarm. The day after, the reactor will meltdown once more and the klaxon will wail until I'm partially deaf. This will happen over and over again. Thousands upon thousands of meltdowns, well into the millions, deep into the billions, extending past accessible numbers. The atoms will decay while I make an egg and cheese omelette. The atoms will decay while I rinse old soap from my hair. The atoms will decay while I turn on the cold water, then the hot water, then both simultaneously. The atoms will decay while my mouth goes dry from whatever rabies virus lingers in the air. The atoms will decay as I apply a bleach film to the edges of the welcome mat. The atoms will decay while I eat a piece of chewy meat. The atoms will decay each time I open the refrigerator. The atoms will decay when the mushroom clouds finally dissipate. The atoms will decay when someone sets the merry-go-round in motion. The atoms will decay each time I lock and unlock the basement. The atoms will decay and that decay will decay and that decay will decay further and this will happen until the sun explodes and the earth becomes a cold, dry crust hurtling through the universe, the surface baked into clay, the sort of empty terrain that not even a tardigrade can live upon. And each time the atom decays, the klaxon will sound, that panicked hollowness blaring across the landscape, extending past the audible perimeters into the once silent zones, the klaxon desperate to wake something up, anything really, but there's nothing left, nothing at all.
Alana I. Capria
is the author of the short story collection "Wrapped in Red" (Montag Press, 2014) and the novel "Hooks and Slaughterhouse" (Montag Press, 2013). She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Fairleigh Dickinson University. Capria resides in Northern New Jersey with her husband. Her website is alanacapria.com.