ThreeMileIsland350By Karla Fetrow

We would blow sometime like Chernobyl, without a warning.  What’s thirty seconds to get somewhere when the particles can’t be seen and maybe it’s already all over, but you won’t know it until ten years down the line, when you’ve rotted from the inside out.  That’s what we told them, sitting on the bus, trundling by with Stanford spread out over the top, looking down.  We had friends that worked in the lab at Stanford.  We were in the know.

They glowed in the dark.  That’s what Eric said.  They’d come over to visit when they got off work, their nervous hands wrapped around a peace pipe that gave them no peace, greenish gleams seeming to flash in and out of their nervous smiles.  It was ghoulish.  Pasty faces, unnaturally pale, opiated eyes.  They don’t wish to feel anymore.  They say they’re the lucky ones.  Shining baubles don’t mean anything to them, and neither does cable television, all night poker or owning a car. They say they’re no longer materialistic.  They don’t eat. They’ve severed themselves from pain and hunger is pain.

Ghoul feasts of cocaine and heroin.  One to bring you up.  One to bring you down.  Working by day in radiated chambers, non-living by night in non-dreams to walk so deeply, the blackness carries through into the morning.  Eric says, “check out this article in the newspaper.”  He reads out loud.  The guy in the next seat up twists around to listen.  “It says some people are addicted to radiation.  They try to get into nuclear plants and other facilities, even uranium mines to get a little retro activity going.”  He chuckles.  “They’re getting their own free treatments.”  Fighting radiation with radiation, fire with fire.  One to get you up.  One to get you down.

We talk about cancer, how it invades you from the inside out.  “We all have it,” says Eric.  “It’s in the air.  It’s in everything you eat.  It’s all in what we do about it.”
My hair cackled once.  It took months of using gentle, restorative shampoos, oil treatments and clipping back dead ends before the healthy growth came through again.   Eric said it was because of the acid rain.  “You’re too careless,” he said.  “You should wear a hat more often.”

People are addicted to radiation.  They love their micro-waves, standing close to them, joyfully jumbling their molecules.  They love the mad scramble.  They love their chemicals.  They have adapted.  They are the new era of radiation and severed pain.

The listening man has his hands wrapped, white-knuckled on the back of his seat.  He’s missing the tips of two fingers on one hand, another on the other, just below the nails.  “One of the terrible things that lethal doses of radiation can do to you,” says Eric casually, “is rot away your body in little pieces at a time.  Like Madame Curie, eating away first at your fingers and your toes, than working its way up.  Piece by piece, your body rots away.”

Our eavesdropper is suddenly agitated.  With a scream, he opens a window.  As the bus slows down for a stop light, he jumps out and dashes madly through the streets.  “Whatever happened to that guy?”  Wonders the driver.

Eric shakes his head and wonders also.  “I don’t know.”

They’re all out there, the ones who had somehow lost their souls.  Their blank eyes gasp like dying fish.  “What if it’s already happened?”  I ask.  What if things blew.  What if we’re all starting to disintegrate and we just don’t know it?”

“You’ll go mad if you think like that,” he warns.

I’ll go mad.  I have a shelf life.  Half deteriorating, then half of half, and half again while pressure cooked plutonium bubbles inside my brain. It’s perfectly safe and clean.  We just don’t know how to dispose of it.  Shelf life on war heads and shining cylinders, rusting.  Their flesh is rotting.   Face after disinterested face passing by, severed from pain.  Their cancers are growing, blue-green twitches under the skin.  The sun hates them.  It drives them palely inside, collectively cool while the air squiggles and bounces glowing molecules between them.  What if we already blew and what we see is nothing more than the death throes, bouncing back and forth in shelf life? Half again and half I take my dreams of non-dreams to bed.  There’s an easy way out.  It’s real mellow.  Why make it hard on yourself?  Take it, shake it, pop it like a pill.

No.  Black and sticky, the night hangs on my arms and they are too pallid.  Witch things, spread fingers glowing.  Rapid transport of automobile lights flashing by the window.  Items line up in black and white relief to fade again.  It’s all the same.  It’s all exactly like yesterday and the day before.  The non sleepers are out and about.  Their voices echo, then fade.  And the rumble comes, but it wasn’t a rumble.  It was only the steam being let out of the kettle.  It fluffs out into the air, then vanishes.  The curtains slumber and the dresser goes, “tick, tick, tick,” and I stare in horror.  The non-dream sleeps in half life while the clock melts.

By Karla Fetrow
When your worst nightmare and your worst reality are on a collision course, it isn’t always easy to tell the difference.


  1. Nice creepy story just in time for the morbid season! Nuclear destruction really is the scariest thing isn’t it? Funny how we tune some fears out to focus on smaller and largely insignificant ones. Good job and a bit of a change in style I noticed.

  2. I find this in some ways scarier than nuclear distruction, nuclear adaptation…what does that mean? Will we cease to be truly human? Having all our humanity jump ship? The mind races, this story has lots of side streets. Good work.

  3. When my wife was being treated for stomach cancer, I met a woman in her 30s who had been visiting a relative on the mainland off of Three Mile Island. The event gave her horrible cancers. She was only there for a visit and came back to Texas where she lived. Much of what happened at Three Mile Island and the surrounding communities was swept under the rug.

  4. Cal, it was only a year or so after the Three Mile Island incident that i had the nightmare that inspired the short story. I was only in my early twenties at the time, but the next morning i awoke with a gray streak at my right temple, which of course, grew thicker and more pronounced over the years.

    Grainne, i don’t know how much our generational exposure to Uranium has affected our humanity. I used to get into debates with people who measured cancer as a hereditary conditional disease. My stand was that the inherited factor depended much on the degree of radiation a descendant might have accumulated, as well as a generational adjustment of the immune system and its counter-balancing effects.

    There is a high cancer rate in my family, which was my motivating factor in studying the disease. My grandfather was the building engineer for the test bombing of the Marshall Islands. He watched it explode. He was on the island several weeks later, picking up exotic shells that had been swept up from the bottom of the sea. Three of his four children developed cancer related diseases. Two of them succumbed to it. My grandfather died of emphysema, a disease generally associated with smoking, although he never smoked, but he had been exposed to radiation. My father was a weapons supply inspector, visiting missile bases and examining nuclear warheads. He had his first tumor removed from the inside of his mouth when he was fifty.

    Although medical doctors would disagree with me, my observation has been the chemo-therapy and radiation treatments for cancer, also effect the mind. The cancer patient often seems to regress in mental maturity, often displaying the thought processes of a much younger person. After a successful treatment, the patient goes back to a relatively normal life, but something is different. Something of the former personality seems lost; as though the person had paused at a certain point in time, then decided to go back and try again.

    Mitch, we live in a shuddering world. Sometimes there’s no way to describe this heedless race toward annihilation that struggles constantly with the human will to survive except in the free fall of a half dream.

  5. Groß danke Für Diese Säule,Das Thema hat mich wirklich Unermeßlich Aufgehangen. Grace in Dieses Papier habe ich Äußerst viel gelernt élements neu die ich Ich kannte nicht.

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