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Nuclear Family

It was Thursday night and Atom and Electra met at their favorite bar, Fusion, a tiny little dive out by the airport.  They took their drinks to a booth in the back corner. Atom was exhausted and dropped himself into the seat. Electra flitted about. 

“Electra!” he pleaded. “Sit down, you’re making me dizzy.”

“I can’t, silly,” she said. “You know your physics as well as I do.”

Atom sighed. He’d studied Heisenberg, and knew he could never calculate Electra’s position and velocity simultaneously. Electra saw his frustration and laughed in that high-pitched ear-splitting way of hers.

There was a commotion at the bar’s entrance. “Oh no,” said Atom. “Look who’s here.”

In stepped Uranium-238, immediately recognizable in his bomber jacket, military flat-top, and jack boots. He ordered a shot and beer at the bar, pulled out a thick wad of bills, peeled one off, and dropped it on the bar. “Keep the change,” he said. Atom thought he must have recently been enriched. Uranium threw back his shot and scanned the room. He saw Atom and Electra in the back and walked over, laughing.

“What do you know,” he said. “Atom and Electra at Fusion. Must be Thursday.”

“Hi, Uri,” Electra chirped. “You look so handsome. You could be Errol Flynn in an old war movie.” She gave him as much of a hug as her quantum vibrations would allow. 

“Don’t encourage him,” Atom said.

“She can encourage me all she wants, you midget,” said Uranium. “But Errol Flynn couldn’t carry my jock strap, that Hollywood pretty boy! He played like he won the war, I actually won it.”

“Yeah,” said Atom. “With almost a hundred thousand dead Japanese in the first hour, then the fallout and the radiation sickness and the birth defects. You must be so proud.” Atom knew Uri’s response. They’d had this conversation before.

“We saved lives, you lily-livered little asshole. We ended the war before millions more died.”

“Tell yourself that all you want.” Atom was stable enough that he wouldn’t get too agitated about ancient history. He knew how volatile Uri could be.

A yell from the door. “Hey, guys!” 

“Hey Uri, your boys are here,” said Atom. “The twins!”

Plutonium-239 and Strontium-90 were twin brothers who couldn’t be more different. They were standing by the door, amped up and festive, dressed garishly in tight silver lame pants, puffy shirts unbuttoned to the navel, and oversized necklaces displaying their atomic weights. Plutonium yelled over, “Now the party can start!” Atom thought he looked a little doughy and deteriorated. 

  Uri yelled to the bartender, “Give these two knuckleheads whatever they want. It’s on me.” They brought their drinks to the booth. Uri said, “Atom’s been bad-mouthing America’s glorious victory over the Japanese. Set him straight, will ya’, Pluto?”

Plutonium put his arm around Uranium and said, “Good to see you, Atom.” He turned to Electra. “Hi, gorgeous! Uri’s just being defensive because he was in Little Boy at the time.” He grabbed his crotch, “I was in Fat Man because they knew who was really packing!”

Uranium grabbed Plutonium in a head lock, and said, “Yeah, but my half-life is millions of times what yours is, you little shit.” Pluto feigned struggling to free himself and they both laughed. 

Strontium-90 said, “Knock it off, you two.” Then, “Hi Electra. Hi Atom.” Atom nodded. Stront went on, “I hate this WW2 nostalgia. I still feel guilty about it. I’m the one who’s absorbed fastest into human bodies, so I’m the one responsible for the thyroid cancer, the birth defects. When people hear Uranium-238, they think power and prestige. When they hear Plutonium-239, they think scientific breakthroughs. When they hear Strontium-90,” he scrunched up his face, “all it means is cancer and radiation sickness. You two get the accolades and I have to live with the guilt.”

“Fuck your guilt,” said Uranium. “I’m not going to apologize for what we did. These days, they call it ‘collateral damage’ because they know better. It was a small price to pay.”

“What kind of psychopath are you?” said Atom, disgusted. “What about Chernobyl? What about Fukushima? No wars won, no glory, no Errol Flynn. Just lots of human suffering.”

“I agree with him,” said Strontium, weakly. “I feel horrible. I can barely live with myself, even after all these years.”

“Stront, you pussy,” said Plutonium, then gulped down his drink. “Nuclear power lights up the world. This isn’t in the Middle Ages anymore. It’s the 21st Century. We make life great!”

“For who?” Strontium said. “For people with radiation sickness, with cancer, with deformed babies.” He looked down at his atomic weight necklace. “Pluto likes when we wear these things, but that’s it for me. Never again!” He took it off, snapped it in two across his knee and tossed the pieces into a nearby trash can. 

Atom said, “Hopefully, we’ll never drop another bomb. No offense, Uri.”

“None taken,” Uranium said. He sniffed the air. “Boy, it sure smells like vagina in here.” 

“Never miss a chance to be a sexist jerk, huh Uri?” Atom said. Uranium spit on the floor, then headed to the bar for another drink. Electra followed. She’d had a crush on the big guy since she was a kid. 

Atom went on. “If you consider human error, earthquakes, failed security measures, deteriorated infrastructure, we were lucky with Three Mile Island and that was back in the ’70s. Since then, we’ve been getting less lucky. One flipped switch, or one not flipped, and you get thousands dead, with deadly impacts that linger for years. And our little nuclear family is responsible.”

Plutonium said, “Yeah, yeah. You know what they say, everyone complains about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” He let out a big laugh that devolved after a few seconds into a hacking cough. 

“You don’t sound so good,” Strontium said. “That laugh had like zero half-life.” He shook his head and sipped his drink.  

Alan Brickman writes short stories and flash fiction. In his day job, he consults to nonprofit organizations on strategy and organizational development. Raised in New York, educated in Massachusetts, he now lives in New Orleans and can’t imagine living anywhere else. Alan’s fiction has appeared in Literary Heist, Variety Pack, SPANK the CARP, Evening Street Press, Sisyphus Magazine, Random Sample Review, and Deep Overstock, among others. He can be reached at alanbrickman13@gmail.com.

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