Nuclear Winter – Janie Kim

The new museum was once an old warehouse with pockmarked bricks, the color of wine and old scar tissue. Nestled within the repainted walls were shelves lined with jars of olives and yellow peppers suspended in brine, packed like straight teeth in rows between slender steel infrastructure. It was once steel lacework all the way down, from the sawtooth roof to the subterranean concrete-lined womb, which comfortably housed a cocaine-smuggling semisub — something that no legitimate pickling warehouse should contain, as police emerging from a sting operation later said.

If you breathe deeply enough, you can still catch morsels of the museum’s real history, despite the efforts of the trustees to scrub it away with cleaning crews and chemicals. You inhale, and there’s something like gunpowder, cosmoline slicks, the uncomfortably warm bodies of both above-ground and below-ground laborers, and of Friday-night college couples naked behind walls of stacked jars, and, of course, sugared vinegar-brine and mustard seeds.

The museum, soon to be open to the public, now houses all of the genetically altered organisms that are felled by the combined efforts of government-contracted bounty hunters and the general public. The government pays a sum for each freak monster animal deposited at a GAO collection center. This is their solution to the San Francisco recombinant DNA incident almost two decades ago: on Sundays and Wednesdays from sunrise to sundown, turn people into mercenaries to shoot down the mutants and stop them from spreading their genes, strangle the genetic pandemic like the garroted two-headed sparrows that sometimes dangle from jump rope nooses on schoolyard fences. 

The museum building’s bedrock is the same. Once you’ve accounted for the new odors of formaldehyde and ethyl alcohol, you could argue that nothing about the building has changed since its inception. 

You hate every inch of it. But you never say anything.

* * *

In accordance with their Wednesday routine, Harper is perched on the marble lip of the Darlington Memorial Fountain, resting her rheumatic legs, and Kenny is in his wheelchair, his perpetually shaking hands rattling the armrests. Two tilted people, conspicuously marked by genetic defect: Harper, hip dysplasia, and Kenny, familial tremor. 

As you draw closer, now standing at the edge of the brick inlay encircling the fountain, you see that there is a three-footed pigeon gorging itself on a forgotten soft pretzel only a few feet away, extra appendage pressing back the wax paper wrapping. One of the passersby in neatly ironed business casual catches sight of the bird, pauses, takes shaky aim with his rifle, and fires an inauspicious dart, and now you, Harper, and Kenny watch as the pigeon flies away unscathed, its extra foot flapping. The genetically altered organism is soon lost in the underbelly of the clouds above, smudged with the afterglow of evening that signals that soon it will be time for the grand opening ceremony of the GAO museum, where you are headed to deliver a speech for which your boss selected you. 

A big honor, your boss had said when he summoned you to his office a month ago, just a week after your big research breakthrough. The museum board of directors and I all agreed on you, you’re the perfect spokesperson, he said, with an unsolicited camaraderie-building clap on the old shoulders. You do your work, no questions asked, and you do it well. That’s all anyone could ask for, you know?

You did not know. What you do know is that Harper and Kenny have been here at the fountain since early morning, when people first emerged with their dart rifles, and will be here until later in the evening, when ammunition tapers out and the two leave to have dinner. You have come to know the pair’s routine. You first encountered the two tilted people a year ago, on the eighteenth anniversary of the San Francisco recombinant DNA incident. You had moved into the city after a company branch reassignment, and were walking home from work when you realized that the pair of tilted young adults sitting by the fountain, watching people shoot GAOs, were the same pair from last Wednesday, and from the Wednesday before that, and the Wednesday before that, and so you grew accustomed to seeing them on your daily walk back to your apartment. 

Very quickly, the two became a part of your own routine. Very quickly, you learned what a strange thing perception is — when a person notices a little detail, it begins to show up everywhere. 

You know that they are also at the fountain on Sundays. You know that Harper dislikes chicken gyros from the halal carts — you had once overheard her telling Kenny that they reminded her of the ex-husband who carved out a chunk of her left cheek with a boning knife. You know that Kenny wants to give the historical speech at the grand opening of the GAO Museum — for weeks, you heard him rehearsing what he wanted to say and then lamenting that they would not pick a tilted person. You know that Harper likes this fountain and its central sculpture of a golden nude nymph with a deer at her hips, in particular the fact that the gold lady is eternally mooning the nearby municipal GAO collection center. 

Over a year, your unexpected knowledge amassed. Just last month, you learned that the two live together in the apartment building next to yours. You had come home from a long day at work — success at last after toiling for months to perfect an improved sealant coating for heart medication delivery, something that would shield nitrate-containing medications from oxygen. While drawing your window blinds closed for the night, you saw across the thin sheaf of darkness between your apartment building and the next one two familiar figures silhouetted against the yellow light from a window. The hitch in the step of the walking outline and the violent tremors of the seated outline were instant giveaways. 

You had never spoken to them. You never said a word to either of them. Which, you thought, was why they never said anything to you, either. No doubt they recognized you, too, the person in reluctant business casual and downcast eyes who paused at the fountain around 5 p.m. every working day.

Your tilted pair. Your very own Baader-Meinhof phenomenon.

* * *

Evolution: When a little bundle of proteins responsible for photocopying your DNA screws up at its one job. Over and over again. DNA polymerase is not perfect. Check in at any point in time and what you have is different from what you started with, the mistakes accumulating each time, the universe’s longest running, never-ending game of Telephone. 

Life was made by a bunch of mistakes. Or serendipity. Whichever way you want to look at it.

When you were a little kid, fresh off the boat and stepping into a new country, you learned what evolution was on a firsthand basis before ever being taught what it was by a teacher in a classroom. Evolution was when you learned that your broken English led to avoidance and side-eyes and being chosen last for kickball teams, and so you doubled your effort in your English classes to stop slurring your R’s and tripled your effort in science classes that did not require such fluency. Evolution was when you learned that having words written in your language on your clothes led to your pencils going missing, and then your favorite eraser, so you learned to use rubbing alcohol, a strong polar solvent, to erode away the vinyl lettering. Evolution was when you learned that mispronouncing words made people laugh in a bad way, so you decided you would be silent.

You did not understand why people had this reflex reaction to your mispronunciations. Mispronouncing a word meant that you learned that word through reading. And what was so wrong with learning and reading?

* * *

At the fountain, you often overheard Kenny practicing the speech that he so wanted to give at the GAO museum grand opening. He has said to Harper, repeatedly, that he doesn’t want the sugarcoated bullshit that the government hands out like candy. He is not wrong; your own prepared speech about the history behind the rise of GAOs was painstakingly manicured by not only your boss but the museum’s trustees and board of directors, selecting only truths that were cute and bite-sized, like dog breeders selecting for crinkled pug faces. Crinkled pug faces constrict air flow so the dogs have difficulty breathing their whole lives and, wheezing, live a life of brain inflammation, joint problems, poor vision, and immune dysfunction.

You often walked past the pair on your commute home, only hearing snippets, but when the muggy September warmth put you in a lethargic mood two months ago, you decided to pause at the fountain and hear the full thing. Your timing was perfect. Kenny was just clearing his throat to begin. 

“It was stupid, really, them putting the world’s biggest synthetic biology lab within blast range of a nuclear power plant.” Here, Kenny spread his shaking arms emphatically. “Of course, the explosion wasn’t as devastating as Chernobyl or Fukushima, at least not in the same sense, not with the trillions of becquerels of radioactive compounds lighting up the sky and thyroid cancer cropping up like rabbits in the spring.” He waved his hands again. From Harper’s amused commentary, you knew that this hand-waving was a defining characteristic that Kenny’s students associated him with, back in his days as a history teacher.

“Harper and I have read enough history books to validate our theory that the number one underappreciated leading cause of human death is stupidity, second only to hubris. No, the problem here was not the fallout. That hasn’t been the problem since the French finally figured out how to replace nuclear fission with nuclear fusion, after years of tinkering with centrifuges, plasmas, and, interestingly, piezophilic bacteria. The issue this time around was the resulting release of the labs’ recombinant DNA. The viral vector had a penchant for phytoplankton and mosquitoes, and found its way into the San Joaquin River and then into San Francisco Bay and then into the Pacific Ocean, and then wherever the wind and waves blew, which was everywhere.

“Fast forward two decades, and now the world is filled with circus freak animals. The museum is a building for P.T. Barnum. All of the preserved GAO animals, me and Harper, and all of the people staring at me with disgust as I speak. You’re afraid that tiltedness in people is a mutation transmitted from person to person like the stuff that mutated wild animals. You’re afraid that they’ll spread from us and get into you and your children. You’re afraid that you’ll look like us. But really, you’re afraid that transmission actually has nothing to do with any of this.”

Here, you stood up and continued walking home, quickly. Kenny’s speech was not cute, and it was not bite-sized, and you decided that you wanted dinner instead.

Convergent evolution, you thought, is when two species evolve a similar trait by walking two different paths in time. Like bird wings and bat wings — things that help you fly. Like whale fins and shark fins — things that help you swim. Like Kenny’s tiltedness and your inability to grasp English. Things that make the nice words in your head fall out of your mouth all crumbly.

* * *

Natural selection: Only the ones who have evolved the best traits live, and everyone else dies. 

Or, maybe that “everyone else” includes those who lived but evolved towards invisibility. That was your first thought when the teacher talked about Darwin and his finches in middle school. The invisible ones, you were sure, could keep evolving out of sight and no one would know.

Funny that evolution is now the linchpin of your professional career. To pay for your bills, you work on directed evolution of tardigrades, poking and prodding at their genes to understand how the little creatures survive everything from polar ice caps to x-ray radiation to rock-crushing pressures to the nothingness of outer space. It is a miracle how tardigrades evolved the way they did. Their cells are full of floppy proteins that are unable to decide on a shape. The indecisive things are like glass, in uncertain limbo between solid and liquid. Like tempered glass, these proteins protect the tardigrade. 

What you do is you take these proteins from the tardigrades and make strong heart medication sealant from them. And you don’t need to utter a word.

The company you work for is good at copying what exists, picking things out from living organisms and claiming them as its own. And then making a lot of money off of them. 

But you, too, have become good at copying, at blending in. You also took a page from the tardigrades’ book. The key to survival, you and the tardigrades decided, is making a shell, glass or otherwise, to separate yourself from all the dangers of the world. So you built up your barrier. You started early, as a kid. Maybe you had an unfair advantage over latecomers. But evolution doesn’t cut any slack.

* * *

You think back to last month when you saw by happenstance, across the slat of urban darkness, that Harper and Kenny live in the apartment building next to yours on the same floor. Through your window, you watched Harper. She was bathed in golden light, in pajamas that hung limply off her pointed frame, standing before a floor-length mirror by a glowing TV screen, her fingers curled around a glass of water, and you felt ashamed to be secretly witnessing such a private part of tilted daily routine. You knew you should not look, wondered if this was voyeuristic, but you looked. 

You watched across the darkness as she opened the unmistakable white bag, unscrewed a little container, drew out a small object. You could not see from this distance, but you knew that pinched between her thumb and forefinger was a smooth white pill — the smooth white pill that all the tilted were required to take nightly. The pill that the government could deny in the case of emergency — if a tilted person needed to be eliminated for the safety of all other people (could it be that someone’s tilt is transmissible, either between people or from parent to future child?). Not taking a pill for a few days would result in unchecked growth of the government’s gut microbe implant, unlimited by the lack of the white repressor pill, and end in sepsis and total shutdown of bodily functions.

You watched as Harper tilted her head back and swallowed. She stood there before the mirror afterwards, motionless until she raised a hand and ran a finger along her concave cheek. You squinted and you could make out the skin, almost smooth but dark with scar pigmentation, the color of the museum building before its new paint job.

Then Harper flinched as though struck by a dart. It must be something from the TV, you thought. You pried your eyes away from your window to turn on your own TV, flicked through channels for what elicited such a reaction. It did not take long to find your answer. On almost every channel was the same report: a new vaccine for tiltedness. The new vaccine, a plasticky anchorwoman told you, reduced the likelihood of recombinant DNA being transferred between people via the San Francisco virus, and that the government was urging everyone to be vaccinated at their earliest convenience. 

You looked back at your window. The TV had been turned off, and Harper was taking out a second white pill and pouring a glass of water — you presumed for Kenny — and then she raised a hand to switch off the living room lights and everything was flooded in darkness. 

* * *

Carcinization: Nature tried to evolve crabs so many times that there is a word for this. Whipping up creatures with hard shells seems to be a favorite pastime of Nature.

Once, when you were a high school student, you saw an old man buy some fresh snow crab legs from the seafood vendor. You saw his face when you walked by, illuminated in flickering sulfur yellow from the neon lights above, and from one glance you knew he was from your country. 

You first heard and then saw the man with the fresh snow crab legs in a plastic baggie get jumped by three men in balaclavas holding guns yelling race riot race riot. 

Unlike crabs, the man did not have a hard shell. Human skin is so weak and delicate, and the balaclava men knew it. They looked up from the red ruckus, saw that you had turned and were watching from further down the street.

What are you looking at, they said. You a gook too? Like him?

You were frozen. You were quiet, like you always were. 

They dragged the man away down the street. Every time you see crab legs you want to throw up.

* * *

Last week, you had your annual check-up. Screens for all common forms of tiltedness came out negative and there were no signs of San Francisco virus DNA, to your relief. At this same time, Harper had gone to pick up both her and Kenny’s monthly supplies of white pills. The doctor’s office door swung open, Harper entered, and she limped her way to the purple vinyl lobby sofa, which was already occupied by a little girl who had one twiggy arm hugging her knees and a bandaged mass where a second arm would have connected to the shoulder. A nurse was looping a stretch of bandaging from the stump to her neck. 

Like you, the girl watched Harper limp over to the sofa and her teary eyes quickly settled on Harper’s carved cheek. “I don’t want to be like you,” she said.

Harper looked down at her. “Of course you don’t.” 

The girl was silent. She looked at her shoulder stump, then said, “They said this was because of… genetic venous thrombosis.” She moved the words around her mouth as though she were flexing an unfamiliar new appendage. “What about you?” 

“Tough luck. My limp was because of shit luck-of-the-draw genes.” Then Harper waved a hand at her left cheek. “This actually isn’t a tiltedness, it’s from a crazy ex-husband. So, let’s see, together we’ve got a limp, a missing cheek, and a missing arm. Not bad, yeah?”

They fell silent again as a nurse came to Harper with forms and her two vials of white pills in a white paper bag. The girl watched. 

The nurse paused before returning to the side office, looking quizzically at you still standing in the waiting room. “Can I help you with anything?” 

You stalled by bending down to retie your shoelaces. Before Harper left, she said to the girl, “You’ll probably soon learn firsthand that people with amputated limbs often feel phantom pain. But this is the real stinger.” She lifted the white paper bag and shook it so the pills inside rattled softly. “They’ll give you yours soon, after your gut microbe implant. Don’t worry, they don’t hurt you physically. But they’ll make you feel like something that was rightfully yours was taken away from you. And then you’ll learn that there are all kinds of amputations that hurt.” 

She pushed open the door, and both of you felt the November wind knife across your faces. 

* * *

Some clear-sky evenings, your tilted pair come out to the lawn in the city center for the stars. They lie there on the grass like hastily folded sweaters, bundled in fleece blankets.

You first saw them out one night while you were returning from the pharmacy with some medicine for your headache. Or rather, you first recognized their hushed voices, now so familiar to you, and then you made out their fuzzy forms outlined in the soft glow from the moon and the nearest streetlight, saw their breaths purling in the cool air. 

Then began your habit of going on nighttime walks around the lawn. You would wrap a coat around yourself and slip outside with secret hopes that your tilted pair might be there too, while telling yourself that going on walks was simply good for your digestion. 

Usually Harper and Kenny were silent. Sometimes they talked. Last week, Kenny asked her if she wanted to remarry. She told him probably not. She told him both she and he were not missing out on much, that neither of them needed another shackle. Kenny had never been married. His tilted symptoms had started around the prime bachelor age of twenty-five, and so his twitching and convulsing had probably scared potential dates away, or generated some pity, or disgust, or a mixture of both, much like an upturned GAO beetle wriggling its twelve legs around might, he said himself, half-jokingly. Harper asked him if he still wanted to be a history teacher. He said there was still nothing he would rather do, if only the students’ parents hadn’t been so afraid of his tiltedness. Harper said she wished that publishers would restore her contracts and un-blacklist her books, but admitted that her situation was not as unfortunate, since stringing words together wasn’t something that could be as easily squelched. 

* * *

Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: You can never know both the exact location and exact speed of any object at the same time. And Schrödinger’s cat is both alive and dead until you open the box and look inside and, in that instant, seal its fate.

* * *

The GAO museum is a large box of preserved mutated animals.

As you enter the GAO museum for the grand opening ceremony, you debate whether your unanticipated knowledge about Harper and Kenny is happenstance or not. The building is adorned with motionless specimen after specimen inside glass enclosures, preserved in formaldehyde, some freeze-dried, some skinned and stuffed, and all around you are the stale glass eyes of taxidermy mounts reflecting the bright lights and glinting filigreed walls. 

You know that Harper and Kenny, too, have made their way here, although you lost sight of them as you were ushered into an area reserved for esteemed guests and speakers. 

Soon, your boss is at the podium giving your introduction, surrounded by decorative engraved glass panels that catch the reflections of the audience. It’s all niceties and platitudes and compliments about your diligence until he begins spouting words that make your mild boredom acidify into a crawling in your gut. He announces that he has signed several contracts involving the sealant coating for heart medication that you had developed and perfected. Your sealant coating has so, so many applications, your boss says, and will now not only bring about improved heart medications, but also a splendid panoply of more effective white pills and tiny tools and barely perceptible implants to further rein in the tilted population, to protect people from genetic plague. 

You feel lightheaded. There is now applause and the expectation that you will jump up onto the stage to accept the praise and give your speech, but any strength has been drained from your legs and your hands are shaking like Kenny’s and you cannot bring yourself to stand up. You look across the room and make eye contact with Kenny, who was already looking at you — he had recognized you, you are startled, but then wonder why you are even surprised. If you had lingered around them enough to know Kenny’s GAO museum speech, they would surely recognize you, too. 

In the subtlest of movements, you tilt your head toward the stage in an invitation.

“Have at it,” you say.

Kenny needs no further prompting. He wheels himself to the podium. Harper passes him the mic box. Kenny begins to deliver his words. There is agitated stirring among the crowd, but he keeps going, you watch the shell-shocked eyes of the crowd around you. Monster, the eyes say. Look at those monsters. But as you once heard Kenny mutter on a cloudless night out on the lawn, monsters are not much more than representations of people’s worst fears about themselves. You see on one of the glass panels the chimeric overlay of the crowd, Harper and Kenny’s reflections, and your own.