This is Not A Place of Honor

You might be disappointed to know that all our plans for the nuclear waste sites went to hell. You know, all those glorious and Romantic designs we made thinking “Later civilizations must understand this: We mean danger, death, and DO NOT ENTER.” We really should have known by then what humans are like. After all, do you remember how it was back when it was safe-ish and even considered fun to explore the dangerous extremes of the planet? I remember once watching videos of human beings squeezing the air out of their lungs underwater to fit through an impossibly narrow hole in a cave at the darkest part of the sea—just because we could! Or what about the countless people who died climbing Mount Everest, the tallest and arguably one of the most dangerous mountains on the globe? Or, shit, what about the people we nuclear bombed into space just to see what it was like there? We did it because, well, because we wanted to and we were curious, and we loved suffering. We still do.

And so now, thousands of years after that, you might even be surprised to hear humans are still around considering how we came so close, so often, to just erasing ourselves off the face of the planet like we’d done so many other species. Yes we are still around, and so are the roaches.

In any case, you’d be appalled to know how many people built houses in your disaster zones. Isn’t that just the American way? Destroy the world and build a fragile house on the ruins. Maybe these sovereign citizens weren’t too crazy. The most of them had settled on the edges of the real danger. The radiation here was only so-so. Right, so, good for them, I guess.

I’m not sure what drove me to break the pact the rest of us had made. The few of us who maintained order and good outside of the awful. They say curiosity killed the cat, I suppose. What they don’t say is curiosity irradiated the cat and melted its brain and its flesh into a poisoned primordial goop. When the tinker-slash-tour-guide came to my town with her bizarre and beautiful flyers advertising luxury homes and “plenty of space”, I couldn’t help myself. I had to meet at least one of these buffoon, radiation-deniers who measured out their inevitably short lives preaching about how the Zones were safe and all the skyscraping signage was just a hoax by the dead governments designed to keep us overcrowded and poor. 

Don’t get me wrong, you all did a pretty good job when you designed these things. The Zones are quite forbidding! This particular one was a hundred-mile expanse that had been paved with hostile concrete, nearly unwalkable if it had not been for the centuries of acid rain and hundred mile-per-hour winds. Most forbidding were those fathomless pits the size of small lakes that pierced so deep into the earth no human had ever made it to the bottom.

Unfortunately that didn’t stop some humans from building right across the tops. Honestly if you can ignore the profound foolishness of it all, the architectural feat is pretty outstanding. Stretching cables and somewhat-sound foundation across such a huge space just to build a house on a nuclear waste site is not only dedicated, but creative. The human spirit endures, as they say.

So I went with the tinker, even though my friends laughed in my face—then when they realized I was serious, shook me by my collar and called me an idiot. I promised them I wouldn’t stay too long and packed my lunch, a standard quick-protection suit, and my anti-radiation shot to take right before walking into the Zone.

And walking was the only way to get in. Vehicles were in short supply and you couldn’t convince a horse to go anywhere near the place. I guess the horses have more sense than us. About a mile of walking on spiky, uneven concrete will put anyone in a bad mood so I was feeling pretty sour before we ever arrived at the house. Or maybe I was feeling queasy from the shot and the radiation. Something they don’t tell you is how fucking weird it feels to walk through one of the Zones. Even just a few minutes in you start feeling kind of itchy or tingly, but if you’re smart and you’ve taken your shot then it doesn’t get too bad. After about a mile though you start feeling a little drunk—or at least you feel kind of crazy and it might be the fear and paranoia and regret as you realize you’ve been irreppressibly stupid. But finally we arrived at this place and, let me tell you, it was so much more awful than I had pictured. 

First off, I’ll tell you right now that no matter how prepared you think you are, there’s nothing you could generate in your mind that would even begin to resemble what these pits are like. The wind wooshing up from the hole like a maelstrom in midair, confusing, powerful, deafening. Then there’s the sheer size of the thing–you can barely see the far edge all obscured with fog-steam-clouds that had formed just around the edge. The humidity of the place was oppressive and I regretted not wearing an SPF mask as the stinging air stuck to my sweaty brow. Lastly there it is, the house smack dab in the middle, the monument to stupidity, suspended by a grid of waist-thick cables on maybe a square-acre platform in the middle of the mouth to hell.

Objectively it was a quaint house, with lovely french doors on the first floor and lots of charming windows. If only it weren’t painted with this stomach-churning, fleshy pink color, all mottled and peeling. I just had to meet the person who had built this place.

Turns out he really was a lunatic and I really couldn’t tell you whether it was radiation madness that made him this way or radiation madness that made him stay. Either way I followed the tinker, a nice-looking woman with red tattooed lips and an immaculately pressed, imminently impractical pencil skirt, out onto the walkway which was laid out ina sort of zig-zag that led over to the main platform of the house. I trusted gravity in that moment like you guys used to trust god—probably too much. I wasn’t prepared for the sheer force of the wind pushing upward, catching every stray hair, every loose flap of garment, hell even catching my skin and trying its darndest to knock me over into that frightening maw below. I understood the pencil skirt now—less of a kite.

When you’re really high up sometimes people tell you “don’t look down!” as if playing some sick game with your brain. Of course you’re going to look down! You’re walking on the edge of extremely certain death. And the hole, it just, it’s just so dark and impossible, almost unseeable for the magnitude of it. I could only watch one small dark piece of the thing at a given moment, the way you look a tiger in the mouth but can only see one gleaming wet tooth at a time.

The tinker went about her business without hesitation, chin up, shoulders back, talking the whole time about something I couldn’t possibly hear over the roaring wind and my own pounding heart. Finally we reached the center platform which had seemed ridiculously tiny from the edge but which now felt like a luxury, an oasis after the walkway. Even so, I stepped on gingerly, reminding myself that I was almost halfway through the dose of my inoculation.

“He doesn’t take more than one visitor at a time, dear.” the tinker patted my shoulder with enough enthusiasm it would have killed me if I’d been any closer to the edge. “So you’re on your own.” I did not like the way she said that.

Now that I was here looking at this guy’s door I felt so, so stupid, you know? Like, I had almost died a few times already for this? The paint was peeling so much worse than I’d seen from the edge, huge scrolls of it the size of my arm curled off the building, looking all fleshy and dead. The door itself was like any other house, wood and smooth, even with the little peep hole that people use to determine who they’ll let into their homes. What the hell did this guy need that for? How frequently did unexpected visitors come to call? There was even a knocker as if any person that had traversed the Zone didn’t already have an appointment. I pulled it and dropped it three times, maybe too gently to be heard above the din. I guess not though because Mr. Madman yanked the door open a moment later and grunted me in.

Right, so now I was in the house and it was, I can’t explain, just quiet. I guessed he had soundproofed the house because all the noise outside was instantly gone. It was actually…cozy here. I stood there just inside the door because he’d already walked off somewhere and his mood was so pervasively sour that I had to lick my lips just to chill out. Or again, maybe it was the radiation sickness (you people really did a number on this place!). After a second I heard the familiar high keening of a teakettle and Mr. Madman circled back in with the most charming little tray of tea and butter cookies.

“Take yer shoes off and come in, kid.” He stalked off in another direction and down a short hallway—after a short struggle with my boots—there was an honestly beautiful living room. Looking at the man who lived here—pallid, grey and creased, rumple-shirted—it was mystifying that he could be the one who put up all the doilies and little framed paintings of landscapes. I caught the eye of the one tintype in the room and saw him a little younger with the cutest, roundest old woman you ever saw tucked under his arm. She clearly didn’t live here anymore. Maybe she’d left him for a normal home where the paint didn’t peel like a corpse’s skin.

I sat in one of the tufted chairs and accepted the delightful little piece of china when he passed it to me. The tea was a traditional English Breakfast by the aroma but I wouldn’t be drinking it, not in this irradiated death trap. I politely lifted it near my lips before cupping it in my hands and accepting the warmth as its own kind of refreshment.

“You all keep coming down here expecting me to be dead, or halfway there.” He began without prompting, which I was grateful for because I realized I had no real questions for him. “And maybe I’m just about there. I like you little folk with your big eyes and little suits! One day one of you is going to come here and take over for me. That’s how I got the place back when me and Margaret got married.”

“But!” I blurted. “But—just—why?”

“Just cause. Them old motherfuckers left us a grave. They dug it and laid in it and died in it but they dug enough room for all of us so I’m gonna dance on it until it’s my turn. Make no mistake, kid, that’s all you’re doing too—dancing—you just can’t hear the tune.” He drank his poison tea all the way down even though it was still scalding hot. “Anyhow let’s take a look around, you might find you like the place.”

I did. The inside was all old, polished wood and upholstery, little paintings everywhere. More important, it was more space than I’d ever had to myself my entire life. We trotted upstairs and found a weird little bedroom with a sharply slanted ceiling. It was the kind of place you could really be in love, all cozy and right next to just one person. The one you wanted.

On the way back out I realized we’d been talking for almost an hour so I needed to leave soon if I wanted to make it out of the Zone before my shot expired. The man maybe wasn’t totally mad, just sad, alone, and ashamed to be human. Me too, dude, honestly. Stopped at the door again, I could see for a second how he saw the rest of the world. Outside was noise and miles of death. Beyond that was a scattering of really miserable, crowded people. 

“I’ll see you soon, kid” The man said with a bit of smug affection.

“Oh, I won’t be coming back!” I explained, narrowing my eyes.

He just laughed and opened the door. The noise started up again and there was nothing else to say. I wondered for a bizarre moment where he’d gotten the tea from.

photo by Sami Cola

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