A selection from our “Change” call for submissions.
By Austin Berrier
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Illustration by Elizabeth Bowling.
“Be still, child. Let time undo itself so we may all return to our true home, the warmth of a kissed cheek in the vacuum of space from our true mother star, telling us to be calm and float away to pollinate every planet we see. They are as innumerable as the infinity above, around, and within you, each a channel for creation. Let life appear and disappear again, blink and breathe in and out, forever and ever, amen.”
These were the last words my ma would say to me every night, and the last she would ever whisper to me:
“The cosmic wind, our sun’s breath, will restore us all.”
She spoke to me then over the droning whir of my spinning caged fan, white noise to get me through our unheated home’s icebox darkness. Her words were a mouthed prayer to no one in particular, and a ritual was all she ever needed to get through the workweek.
Back then, the bogeyman lived in words on the wind, the whispers of wandering spirits in the woods. I used to hear them call me by moonlight, streetlight, any light but the sun, a syllabically stretched Teddy, a siren’s phone call request for my presence.
The words always came from the same direction too, my magnetic north,the abandoned nuclear power plant buried away in the nearby woods. Back in Reagan’s day, a worker named Mickey Rogers made it have a meltdown and go bat shit nuts, smoke billowing out of unknown places while alarm bells cried out its name in the otherwise silent night.
Pop heard them and became a fleeing silhouette, slamming the door shut and unknowingly heading towards his fate, my soon to be center. He died trying to help strangers live, maybe hoping that his actions could undo the damage that chance had done. God may not play with dice, but death sure as hell does when he comes out to claim his prey.
No one can say if my pop actually rescued anyone that night, dying to save some sinner’s scattered soul, arms stretched wide like the holy man himself, but why should it matter if he did? All I know, and all that matters, is that his charred skull had a smile on it in his new lead casket buried bed.
What is it to absorb this secret past, to breathe it in and settle down? It behaves like toxic dust, invisible until it catches you softly in its net and takes you running like a freight train down shaking bone metal tracks. It finally caught my ma and now she sits frozen in place, hypnotized and held alive by the false color screen of a candle lit entertainment cathedral. Everything else in comparison was a single discolored Kodak of dusty dishes and rusty doorknobs that never quite locked, letting time stay open.
Five years to the day later, I looked Mickey dead in the eye, my axe in hand, and the ashy head height fence around him. The steel grid pixelated the dark landscape, giving no clue of the world beyond. The news broadcast from the night jumbled around in my pulsing skull:
“Good night, farewell, this is the end of our time in the world.”
My dry lips cracked open.
“Will all this be okay?”
“Of course. After all, what is a border if not a line raised high from being watered with blood? Let barb wire poke you and provoke you, but don’t let it ever scare you away.”
“But what if these walls breathe? My pop may be listening.”
“Then let him whisper back to our shuffled steps in the dark.”
I started climbing.
Perched at the top, I could see the spaghetti western cardboard cutout ghost town of the old plant. Its industrial mechanisms were starting to rust and decay back in nature’s hands.
Hopping down then into the darkness, I couldn’t yet see why the ground was feather pillow soft.
“Is this heaven? I feel like I’m walking on a cloud.”
We were casually stepping on the springs of plant communities, each life flattening under the weight of a single foot.
“Why are they here?”
“Mayor claims they remove radiation from the soil. Nuclear uptake my ass, whoever heard of erasing the past?”
I nodded, my head drooping slightly out of exhaustion from the heavy years watching ma get lost in the nightly black box, from the first moment I opened the door and found Mickey just standing there with his gap toothed smile, flowers in hand.
We walked through a maze of discolored warning signs and faded caution tape, doctor’s emergency bandages placed on a gaping wound open for viewing. The hallways creaked, eager to tell their stories: then, a boarded up doorway at one last building.
“You sure about this?”
He looked at me, desperate to tell me something I didn’t want to hear: this was where it happened, where he summoned hell then ran, where he traded lives with my now ten foot deep father. I tightened my fingers on the axe.
“Just, just tell your ma I loved her, ok?”
I swallowed slowly, letting the poisonous air drip its way down my throat. Let time undo itself.
I closed my eyes and swung. He screamed.
I heard the sound of vital building bones breaking, and then suddenly, a growl.
We both looked into the canine’s eyes approaching from the framed darkness of the now fractured doorway. You could immediately see that its blood was a viscous smoothie made of anarchy and broken glass, a series of hyped up pipes flowing with simple sugars injected with shark teeth needles. It was a wonder how it had miles of the microscopic stuff twisted solid inside of its over eager and salivating form, its continued existence a testament to tiny miracles: only by pure chance had it never accidentally exploded from the seismic bodily pressure of unfocused anger.
The three of us stood in a shootout circle, waiting for something to happen. Finally, something did, and a snapping jaw leapt at my chest quickly, springs ready to mouse trap shut my life out like a finger to a flame.
All I remember was falling, the ground arriving to meet me faster than I could say hello back.
When I woke, all I could smell was the loneliness of spilt rust in a four walled life where endless fields should have been, a splatter paint of scarlet on the wooden boards. My axe was stuck in the ground a few feet away like a makeshift grave marker, its carved handle patiently waiting to be held again.
The body bubbled in response, speaking the language of dissolved bones and memories. The moment the smell hit my nose, all I could do was wait to finish emptying my dinner onto the ground.
“Welcome back to the land of the living.”
I crawled over to the axe like an infant, then wrenched it loose from the soil, putting my entire weight into it to finally force the thing free. It now felt heavier in my white knuckled fingers, as if violence could dry like paint. Let life appear and disappear.
“Did you really just kill that mutt?”
“I don’t think it was alive in the first place, so maybe not. If it ever did steadily breathe in the whispers of dawn, it wasn’t quite a real life, one you could have put a finger on. Imagine teeth snarling from hour one, ready only to bite the body that can barely feed it. Looks in the mirror, sees first and third creatures colliding in place, doesn’t know how to handle the dissonance. It’s a wonder we don’t all bite strangers.”
Then, a frantic nudge at the edge of perception, followed by another, every little thing ringing in and out in a circle around us.
Looking back and in the distance, Mickey and I could see a second sunrise of local flame: my home, a world away.
“Haven’t we had enough?”
The song of strangers running in the night echoed back as we ran in frantic search of them, waves bouncing off the nameless metal walls and sharpened tree trunk landscapes blurring around us, jagged fence lines and abandoned buildings appearing and disappearing in the buzzing soundscape of the morning. Scattered lost buildings slowed us down, houses with rusted slides and plastic swings lightning cracked down the middle, the dangling edges drumming into one another from the dull wind. How does it feel for ghosts to walk barefoot on the poisoned thorns of these now hallowed grounds, sharp pine cones ready to slow their already feeble steps?
Finally, we arrived to a model train arrangement of dawn runners, tiny people frantically attempting to piss out the flames with their water gushing pipe guns. Pieces of plastic adorned the landscape, glinting like minefield shrapnel in the rays of the rising sun.
You could already see the beams of my winded home drunkenly wobbling, unsure of themselves. It was too late; seconds later, they came crashing down across the single living room turned dying room chair, along with my hope that anything could be salvaged from the now wreckage of my history.
Her body sitting motionless as if thinking about something distant, she was fixed away from me and towards the now missing black box stand.
“I’m sure it was quick, and it looks like she was sleeping too.”
Mickey put his hand on my shoulder, and I collapsed to the ground.
The plastic around my knees was from the now disintegrated tv tube. It had caught fire like a disease, and no one had been around to put it out. We had not been around.
Ma had gone off to join Pop in the cloud choir, her part now fulfilled.
“Maybe you’ll hear both of them tonight to sing you to sleep, two voices blending into one to wish you well.”
As I stayed kneeling, the darkness around me started to mold itself into the ghastly shape it had always been, deadly shadows creeping forward to lightning strike me out of this plane of existence. Uncertainty spills and breaches the mind’s pipes, tearing it apart synapse by broken synapse. No grand life or death, only us and our collective heart speaker beating faintly outward towards the heavens.
To this day, I imagine the box exploding on the big screen, a high power vision of cathode ray tubes ripping themselves apart in slow motion, each shard biting into the wood and concrete bones that held my boxed world up. Every piece penetrated the wall with a gunshot explosion, taking the room apart I had sat in for years but never actually got to know.
I walk through it in my dreams sometimes, each wall bending as if to reach out and slowly caress my hair. They’re each in a state of perpetual falling in place, still skydives always about to but never quite able to crush and absorb my brittle body into them too.
As for my ma, her gravestone now reads, “Mother, found and lost.”
Rest in Peace, home. You will be missed.
Austin Berrier, a 22-year-old from Arcadia, North Carolina, is currently a senior in Engineering and Mathematics at Virginia Tech, and a local Blacksburg adventurer. Writing for him is “a form of exploration,” of both himself and the hidden parts of the world. Berrier likes to write alone, whenever “inspiration hits me in the face.” This story is dedicated “to all the lovely people I have called home and had to leave behind.”