Idiots and Isotopes
by Pat O’Malley
The rumbling, heavy truck swerved on the interstate. It was a large sixteen-wheeler with a tight, blue tarp. Under the tarp were dozens of yellow barrels with the words EXTREMELY HAZARDOUS and TOXIC printed beneath radiation symbols, accompanied by a skull and crossbones.
At the wheel of the truck was middle-aged truck driver Edgar Brown. Hungry and desperately needing to take a piss, Edgar had been driving for over eight hours now. He was supposed to drop these barrels off at some big-shot science building at the end of a town called Maplethorpe. He knew that there were dangerous chemicals in those barrels in the back of the truck, but they were sealed in the barrels and those barrels were sealed by a tight lead-lined tarp. There was nothing for him to worry about.
Taking his eyes off the road, he pulled out his cell phone. He had been sexting with this knock-out blonde Norwegian chick he had met on a dating app. So what if she asked him for money constantly. The sexts set his pants on fire. As soon as he sent her enough money for her visa she was going to fly down to New Jersey and rock his world.
“Hey, baby how’s your day going?” The text from Olivia read.
Keeping one hand idly on the steering wheel, Edgar began to text back.
“Pretty godj hot btch just enw-“
“Dammit,” Edgar grunted.
He always did have fat fingers and now he couldn’t write out a clear message.
Just as the heavy vehicle passed a large sign that read “WELCOME TO MAPLETHORPE!” The truck began to swerve off-center as he focused on texting her back.
“Pretty good hot bitch, just on my way to drop off some bullshit for my job. How’s that pussy doing?”
“Nice,” Edgar smiled looking up just in time to see the truck almost drive off the edge of the road.
“Oh shit!” Edgar screamed as he pulled the steering wheel sharply to the right.
The truck lurched forward, just narrowly avoiding driving off the road and tumbling down the ridge. Struggling to regain its center, the long truck slithered down the road like a giant metal snake as cars driving honked hysterically and turned out of the truck’s way.
Behind the wheel, Edgar was white-knuckle gripping the wheel, steering it right to left, hoping that the truck didn’t flip over. The truck swerved and skidded on the interstate. He heard a tearing sound along with several heavy THUDS dropping off the truck but Edgar was too busy focusing on steering for his life to pay it any mind.
Slamming on the brake, Edgar heard the tires screech. Closing his eyes, he prayed that the truck would stop before any more damage happened. When he opened his eyes, he saw that his prayers had been answered. Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed-Girl” continued its chorus from the truck’s radio as Edgar unbuckled his seat belt and jumped out the door to see what, if any, damage there was.
Outside he saw that far behind the truck there were several other cars that were jetting diagonally off the road. To his right, he saw that the long end of the truck had swerved to an almost 90-degree angle away from the head of the truck, but otherwise, the vehicle appeared undamaged.
That wasn’t what made Edgar’s stomach lurch.
The tarp of the truck had come undone and it looked as though several barrels had fallen from the truck. Sure enough, the sound of alarmed screams shocked him as he looked back at the road he had swerved down and saw several upturned yellow barrels.
The metal containers had burst from the impact on the road and they were all spilling out some sort of sizzling, smoking, green fluid.
Edgar gulped. This was not ideal.
He ran back to his truck just in time to watch people leaving their cars and begin coughing spastically. He yanked out the truck’s walkie-talkie and radioed for dispatch.
“This better be good Edgar,” the walkie-talkie crackled.
“There’s been an incident,” Edgar laughed nervously.
His mustache felt wet. He raised his fingers to his upper lip. When he pulled his hand back, his fingers were dripping red.
“What do you mean there’s been an incident?”
“I-uh-I really think I dropped the ball on this one.”
“What are you thinking about back there, Pete?” Tilda asked, her voice muffled by the blue hazmat suit.
Peter, staring out the window of the dump truck’s backseat, turned to look at her sitting in the passenger’s seat. He also wore a hazmat suit, only his was yellow. It was mandatory that all three individuals traveling in the dump-truck and anyone else unfortunate enough to set foot in Maplethorpe wore their radiation suits constantly while on the clock.
It was almost as if their lives depended on it.
The only way to tell any of them apart was by the suits’ colors. The only way to tell their genders was by the sound of their voices. Aside from the obvious, there were additional reasons why wearing the masks constantly was ideal. The inside of the truck seemed to permanently reek from the nauseating stench coming from its contents. Never-mind the fact that an ungodly amount of lethal radiation was poisoning an entire town outside.
“Hmm? Oh, nothing, it’s stupid really,” Peter said.
“Aw come on, tell us!” Tilda urged, curious.
“Okay, just because you asked. I was thinking about the theme song to this old TV show I used to watch back when I was a kid. Isn’t that sad? I could be using that space in my brain for actually important, useful knowledge. Instead, that space is taken by the memory of all the lyrics to some stupid kids show that was canceled years ago.”
“Jesus Christ, that IS sad,” Jeffers, the green hazmat-suited man, chuckled from behind the wheel of the truck.
“Dick,” Peter grumbled under his mask.
“Don’t listen to him… There it is!” Tilda pointed straight ahead.
Jeffers pressed on the truck’s brake. With a black trail of the truck’s engine exhaust behind them, the heavy, rocking truck slowed down as it arrived at what had once been Maplethorpe’s quarry. The three riders inside the truck were greeted by a body of water filled with death. Hundreds of dead, rotting fish floated at the surface of the irradiated body of water.
Peter and Tilda hopped out of the truck, grabbing pitchforks from the back. Stepping aside they watched as Jeffers turned the truck around. A loud beeping sound filled the toxic air as the large, foul-stench truck slowly backed up towards the water.
“So, what show was it anyway?” Tilda asked.
“Oh, you know, one of those dumb 90’s CGI shows about robots that could turn into animals or whatever. What I was really thinking about was this funny part at end of the theme song where the announcer yells the show’s title ‘ANI-BORRRRGGGGSSSS!’ but he would drag it out like that right? Then, right as the credits ended he would say ‘ANI-BORGS!” one more time but really fast and abrupt. I don’t know, that always stuck out to me.”
“Pete, buddy,” Tilda said shaking her head. “You’re a nice guy but you really do need to find yourself a hobby.”
“Hey, you asked! Still, I mean, I always wanted to learn to cook more. Maybe I could work on that?”
“There you go! Set goals for yourself! Head’s up!”
The open-box bed in the rear of the dump truck tilted towards the filthy water. An avalanche of lifeless, radioactive human corpses toppled out splashing into the water. The bodies were pale, hairless men and women covered in radiation burns. Eventually, the last dozen remaining bodies piled on top of each other, halting their descent into their make-shift watery graves.
“It’s not my fault my mother never taught me how to crack an egg,” Peter complained as he stuck his pitchfork into one of the bodies.
Sharp metal prongs easily skewered the corpses. The damage from the radiation had rendered the deceased emaciated skeletons with wax-like skin. The bodies were so weightless Peter almost felt like he was picking up elementary school science class skeletons with his pitchfork. He thrust and stabbed the metal prongs into one of the meatier-looking bodies.
“I could start by making simple things like Quesadillas and-Oof! Damn bastard is heavy,” Peter struggled to lift the radioactive body. He yanked and pulled but the pitchfork couldn’t budge it.
“Here, I gotcha,” Tilda jabbed her own pitchfork into the corpse and in a swift motion, pulled the body up. It landed in the water with a loud splash before sinking to the bottom.
“Thanks. You know, I still say we should have just burned them all in a big pile but NOOOOOO! Those up-tights back at HQ thought it was too ‘disrespectful’.” Peter air-quoted with his gloved fingers.
“Hurry it up back there! We still have to hit up the shelter!” Jeffers called from the front of the truck.
“All right, already! Keep your shirt on!” Tilda called back.
She and Peter hefted the remaining bodies into the quarry and watched behind their lead-lined visors as the bodies bobbed lifelessly in the water.
“Eh, they’ll sink eventually,” Peter shrugged.
“We’re finished!” Tilda called out.
Back in the truck, the three multi-colored hazmat suits left the quarry. As they drove back into town they passed the town’s welcome sign. At some point when shit hit the fan, some clever artist had spray-painted over the sign. Now, instead of saying “WELCOME TO MAPLETHORPE” the sign read “HELL COMES TO MAPLETHORPE” in red, dripping letters.
For several months, the sleepy little suburban town had been completely sealed off from the rest of civilization. For the safety of the rest of the country, a miles-long dome of impenetrable lead had been built over the town. The U.S. Army set up blockades all around the perimeter.
Teams of hazmat-fitted, armed soldiers guarded the exits. Martial Law was all but directly said to be in order. Only members of the Clean-Up Crew, government agents in hazmat suits with clearance badges, like the one’s Peter, Tilda, and Jeffers had, were allowed any possible entry from what was left of Maplethorpe.
Driving through town, the streets were eerily quiet. Stores and buildings were derelict with broken windows. Banners for a Spring festival dated several months earlier were still hanging on cable wires in the Town’s Main Street. The street was lined with dead things.
In the long months since the radiation spill had first broken out, Maplethorpe had become a barren, irradiated ghost town. All the citizens of Maplethrope, including the butcher, the baker, and the candlestick-maker, were all either dead or in quarantine in the town’s radiation center’s shelter. The shelter was a large concrete fortress built into a mountain at the edge of town with enough provisions to last a week at a time.
One of the many laborious responsibilities for the hazmat agents was to do a supply drop by at the end of the week. When the mood struck them, they were even known to occasionally listen for additional resource requests for survivors.
“I hate coming here, this place is such a downer,” Peter sighed.
Everyone inside bounced as the truck ran over something.
“Shit!” Jeffers cursed.
“What the hell was that?” Tilda asked.
“I think I just ran over a damn corpse.”
“Right, well be careful. I get car sick y’know,” Tilda said
The truck pulled up to a gigantic metal door that served as the shelter’s only entrance. The impenetrable doors had two sliding entrances, one to speak with someone through the radiation-proof glass and the other to safely slide supplies to the shelter’s many occupants. Inside were the remaining stragglers who had managed to drag themselves and their families inside the shelter.
This was after the first wave of the meltdown when rioters began dropping dead of radiation sickness. Unfortunately, even safety and sanctuary from deadly radiation did not temper the high anxiety of the survivors waiting every second for the word that it was safe to leave their iron cage in the mountain. They were all scared and desperate for answers, aimless, and powerless in the face of uncertain death.
“Damn ingrates,” Tilda said staring at the shelter.
“Huh?” Peter asked.
“Nothing, nothing,” Tilda replied.
“All right, let’s go to work,” Jeffers switched the truck into park.
The three multi-colored hazmat agents hopped out of the truck and made their way towards the shelter. Tilda held a clipboard and pen in her blue shielded hands. Peter and Jeffers, lemon and lime, carried big bags of toilet paper, sanitary wipes, and sudoku puzzles. In the back of his pocket, Jeffers also carried a small, .38 revolver holstered to his hip. It never hurt to have a safety piece.
“Time to feed the prisoners,” grumbled Peter.
“Occupants,” Tilda corrected.
“Right, sorry ‘occupants.’”
As they walked, a small, metal Geiger detector strapped to Peter’s waist started crackling and shaking like mad. The flashing warning lights signaled that the ungodly levels of radiation permeating throughout the town around them were sending the detectors off the charts. Tilda and Jeffers stared alarmed at Peter as the young man set down his supply bag to desperately grab at the detector.
“Sorry must have switched off silent mode by accident,” Peter said sheepishly.
He quickly flipped a switch on the detector and it immediately went silent.
“Try to keep it professional, remember they’re under a lot of stress,” Tilda cautioned.
The three returned to walking towards the shelter. A moment later they were standing in front of the vault doors.
Their last few visits had shown that the survivors were clearly growing more unruly. The lack of any news or update on when the town would finally be radiation-free was making them increasingly anxious and frustrated. Electricity or running water had vanished since the town had been sealed off.
As the days passed and nothing changed, the human spirit could only take so much boredom and anticipation before it started to bend their minds a little.
Tilda thought the phrase “going feral” was a little harsh. She preferred to think of the survivors as “roughing it.” That was much better, less aggressive.
Clipboard in hand, Tilda knocked on the steel door.
Immediately there was the sound of rustling behind the door.
“Did you hear that?” came a voice from inside.
“It’s them! They’ve come back! See, I told you!” Another voice, this one high pitched and rattling.
“Open the window for God’s sake open the window!”
The glass window above the metal vault door slid open. Behind the glass was a crowd of men and women of various ages and races, all sharing the same hopes and fears, pushed around the older bearded man to get a view of their possible saviors. The men were skinny with long bedraggled beards and long unkempt hair that matched the women’s own unruly manes. They all looked unclean and emaciated.
All of them shared the same wild, feverish look in their eyes.
“Has there been any news? Anything at all?”
“Are they any closer to fixing the radiation?”
“Folks! Folks! One question at a time! Settle down! Settle down!” Tilda raised her gloved hands defensively as Jeffers and Peter stood motionlessly behind her.
The crowd went silent.
“Thank you! I mean really, sheesh. Now then, I believe it says here-” Tilda looked down to her clipboard.
“When are we getting out of here?!” They all asked in unison.
If there was one thing that irritated Tilda it was being interrupted.
“As I was ABOUT to say, the good news is that word came from HQ. You’ll be happy to know that we are about to enter Phase 2 of cleanup efforts!” Tilda had been practicing her ‘enthusiastic’ voice.
It didn’t seem to be helping.
“You said we were already in Phase 2 the last time you were here!” A voice behind the glass cried.
“Did I? Oh, yes now I remember. Well, it’s true like I said Phase 2 is underway so the radiation will hopefully be erased by…erm, what’s today?”
“Thursday!” Someone inside shouted
“I meant the date.” Tilda sighed.
“It’s the 10th!” A bald man yelled.
“No, it’s the 12th!” A woman shouted.
“Dammit, I’m telling you it’s the 10th!”
“No, she’s right, it’s the 12th!” A new voice said.
“This is becoming monotonous,” Jeffers whispered behind Tilda.
The woman in the blue hazmat suit whistled sharply drawing everyone’s attention.
“Fighting amongst yourselves isn’t going to fix things. But look! See, it’s not all bad news we’ve brought provisions, plenty of toilet paper, and sudoku to keep you occupied.”
A small metal door slid open at the side of the shelter’s entrance. Jeffers and Peter stuffed the provisions into the chute and slid the door shut. It was the only way to safely transfer care packages without exposure to deadly radiation.
“Why can’t we have radiation suits like you guys!” Someone yelled.
“We’ve been over this. You need… you need special clearance to be issued an official hazmat safety suit.”
“The whole damn town is a nuclear fallout zone! How is that not clearance enough?!”
“You all know that the radiation is going to go down eventually. I promise you’ll all be the first to know when it’s safe to go outside. Whether it’s the 10th or the 12th, we should have things back to normal by the end of the month,” Tilda thought she sounded convincing.
The truth was that she herself had wondered why they couldn’t just pass along dozens of hazmat suits to begin evacuating the survivors. It was possible that the POTUS didn’t want to risk survivors bringing anyone outside who could secretly be ridden with toxic levels of radiation, for all the sense that made. Radiation was not contagious but the Big Boss wasn’t having it.
Fate had conspired to make Maplethorpe the 21st-century American version of Chernobyl. The three-mile town was sealed off, shielding the rest of the country, the rest of the world, but that didn’t help the people who were still trapped. There were rumors that Tilda’s superiors were working on building a sarcophagus around the primary radiation hotspot, where the chemical truck had spilled all those months ago.
Each of the hazmat employees tried not to think about what would happen when excuses and delays would no longer work on the trapped citizens of Maplethorpe. A comforting thought was that as long as everyone inside the town was smart and protected from the radiation, they just might be able to weather the meltdown until the radiation really was depleted.
Everyone was doing their very best.
“Ugh, my nose is itchy,” Peter groaned as he began scratching his face through his mask.
“What about food?! The rations in here taste like garbage!” A man with sagging flesh yelled.
“They ate my dog!” A child’s voice cried from behind the glass.
“Quiet you,” a woman, possibly the child’s mother, shushed.
“I’ll see if I can greenlight some airport meals. For now, everyone needs to hang in there with the rations ‘kay?” Tilda said.
“Son of a bitch, I can’t scratch it through this mask,” Peter set his supply bag down.
He wriggled his right arm, pulling it inside his radiation sleeve. The right sleeve of the hazmat suit sagged as Peter furiously scratched his nose from the inside.
“Ooooh that is SO much better,” Peter smiled.
It was only a few seconds after he said that when his wriggling hand accidentally yanked the hazmat mask right off his damn suit.
The empty, black mask crumpled on the ground. It looked like the decapitated head of a large mosquito. Peter’s terrified face, pale and shaved, was exposed to the irradiated air. Tilda and Jeffers looked on, mortified at their associate’s containment breach.
“Fuck! Oh, fuck! Fuck!!” Peter yelled.
He scrambled to reattach his mask to his suit back on. He strapped the mask back on to the lead-lined suit. With the mask back in place, heavy, breathing fogged up the eye-holes in the mask. Even though the fog Tilda could see Peter’s terrified, darting eyes.
“Damn, cheap bastards!” Peter screamed, desperately pressing the mask to his face.
“Breach! He had a breach!” Several voices behind the window yelled.
Tilda held up her clipboard like some kind of ineffective calming shield.
“Everyone remain calm! A three-second breach is hardly enough time to cause any damage!” Even she couldn’t buy her lie.
“Yeah, what she said! I’m fine! Everything’s fine!” Peter shouted behind the hands over his mask.
“You stupid little bastard,” Jeffers whispered, clamping his hand on Peter’s shoulder.
“What!??” Peter turned to look at him.
“We’re in the middle of a radioactive wasteland and you just had to scratch your nose, didn’t you?” Jeffers voiced dripped with angry frustration.
“I told you, it’s fine!” Peter raised his hands from his mask in proof.
The mask immediately slipped off his face and fell to the ground again.
“Son of a-!” Peter’s exposed face screamed as he scrambled to pick up and reattach his mask again.
“Breach! Breach!” The crowd behind the glass window was in a frenzy now.
“I-I…Oh Jesus,” Peter’s eyes darted around but he couldn’t find the words.
“C’mon, let’s get back to the truck. I’ll scan you with the equipment, see what we’re dealing with.” Jeffers sighed.
“It wasn’t off long enough, right? It wasn’t off long enough,” Peter whimpered.
“Just shut up and keep walking.”
Jeffers led Peter away from the shelter, out of sight from the others.
The crowd inside the shelter behind the glass was growing increasingly anxious.
“What’s happening out there? Where are they going?”
“Nothing, nothing at all. Certainly, nothing to worry about. We’re all trained to deal with these types of scenarios. Like I always tell you every time we visit; everyone at the VOX Radiation Co. is working diligently round the clock to bring your town back to normal.”
The sound of a single gunshot rang out. Even behind the glass of the shelter, the mob of people crowded around could hear it. Cries of concern and pounding came from behind the glass.
“What the hell was that?”
“What was what? Sorry, you’ll have to speak up. Again, you all have nothing to worry about,” she tried her hardest to smile behind her visor.
After that fiasco, they managed to part ways with the people in the shelter. Soon they were back in the truck, Jeffers was again behind the wheel and Tilda in the passenger seat. Behind them, carefully folded on the backseat was a yellow hazmat uniform speckled with blood.
“You know, I almost feel bad for all those people in that shelter,” Tilda said.
“Fuck them,” Jeffers replied.
Taking one hand off the wheel, he pulled the truck’s walkie-talks from the console.
“Welp, better get this over with,” Jeffers beeped on the walkie-talkie, and it crackled with frequency.
“Hey boss, so listen we had a small hiccup with Peter. He-wait, what? Damn son, really? Wow. Yeah, I’ll let her know. What was what? Oh nothing, I’ll tell you later. Over and out,” Jeffers clicked the walkie off and set it down.
“Get ready to be amazed,” Jeffers looked at Tilda.
“What? What did she say?”
“They’ve made significant progress in containment procedures. Radiation levels are already dropping! HQ said the town may be clear by the end of the month.”
“That’s incredible! I was right all along!” Tilda beamed.
Smiling, her happiness was interrupted as an ugly thought reared its head. Tilda slumped in her seat, letting out a depressing, resigned sigh.
“What are you thinking about?” Jeffers asked, not that he really cared.
“I just remembered all the paperwork I’m going to have to do with what happened to Peter. God what a nightmare that’ll be.”
“I bet he would have made a terrible chef,” Jeffers said.
“You know I never really liked him much anyway,” Tilda confessed.
“Fuck him and Ani-Borgs,” there was no tone in Jeffers’s voice.
“ANI-BORRRGGGSSS,” Tilda thought for some God-forsaken reason.
She leaned her masked head on the truck’s window. In another moment, the rumbling truck drove through the town’s guarded perimeter, exiting Maplethorpe, off into the night.
Neither of them looked back.