An Atomic Mistake

My recollection is fuzzy. But I’ll do my best to fabricate the missing pieces such that detecting their absence would be improbable.

Fade through white.

We were working our way through the checkout line at the local * Megamart. A man was making his way upstream from the rest of us asking almost everyone something. Maybe he was asking everyone the same question, or maybe something specific to the askee. Regardless, he was getting the same answer, “No.” Some just shook their heads silently. Some answered with their faces, while others flat-out said it in an “Are you crazy?” sort of way.

It was our turn. Scruffy face. Long hair pulled back. Clothes that have seen better days. Hard to tell if he was pushing his thirties or pulling his twenties. Caucasian. Would have no trouble blending as a boardwalk regular down at Pacific Beach. Anxiously, “Do you have the device?”

The device… device? My brain tussled through all the possible things that could fit that description, trying desperately to understand what this very impatient man was talking about without risking my chance to give him an honest answer, or risking an undesired reaction for wasting his time. “Are you talking about this?” I reached into our shopping cart and pulled out a weighty silver canister (marked with various trefoil emblems) out from under some new clothes for the kids. Uranium? Plutonium? What the hell is this?!

“Yes! Yes. Shhhh…” Trying fruitlessly to contain his excitement, “How much do you want for it?”

“I don’t know. Maybe two or three hundred?” I was so perplexed about this situation. Why was this device in my cart? He gave me the cash — $300 — took the device and disappeared into the parking lot. We continued through the checkout and went back to our hotel room which, wouldn’t you guess, was also in * Megamart. The next 30 minutes or so went by as uninterestingly as possible. Then the room shook and the chaos started. All manor of city officials were suddenly everywhere, trying to get everyone out of the building, and out of the area. We packed up our things and realized our van was parked on the other side of the premises. “I’ll go get the van. Keep the kids with you. I’ll be right back.” I kissed Jen and headed out.

Half way to our van. I was stopped by some lady in a fallout suit directing me to turn around and get out of there. She held up a card with four stripes or sections on it with a stepped progression of magenta towards white. “See this? When this part turns white like this, it means the radioactivity is far beyond the tolerable level. You need to evacuate. Now.”

“Can I have one of those cards?” I asked her. She handed me one and reiterated that I need to be turning around and then her attention diverted to some other people who were also heading this way. I kept going past her, looking for our van. The air was thick and dusty… no, more like foggy. White-ish. The bottom stripe on my card was turning from deep magenta to a washed out tint and the words “Warning, radioactivity detected, level 1” appeared in that stripe. I kept going, covering my mouth with my shirt as if the fallout coated everything with the fine drywall dust from a construction site.

I found our van. I had trekked past it and had to double-back a bit. By now the top stripe had been activated and read, “Intolerable radioactive levels detected. Life unsustainable.” It seemed difficult to breathe. There was movement near the van. It was my son just wandering about, playing with some toy waiting for me to open the van so he could climb in. “What are you doing out here? Where’s mommy? Why are you not with her?” The questions rattled out effortlessly. He just looked at me and non-chalantly replied with a non-answer. “We have to get out of here! The air is poisonous!” I barked.

A television in the window behind me was tuned to the news with aerial shots of the area and all you could see was a white cloud and some outlines of buildings. Then they cut to security camera footage of the impatient man yelling at the entrance to * Megamart saying something about things “now being fair” and “that’s what you get for…[unintelligible sounds].” He was arrested. I think I passed out.

I woke up to a doctor pointing to an area of my chest on a sheet of film baffled that my cancer disappeared.

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