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 Category:  General Fiction
  Posted: February 17, 2020      Views: 79

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Mom of three, grandma of one, literary enthusiast.

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Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of violence.
Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of language.
Warning: The author has noted that this contains the highest level of sexual content.
This work has reached the exceptional level
A teenage girl encounters two strangers on a lonely road
"Twenty" by pit viper

Oconee, Illinois, 1989

The pre-dawn air held the sharp promise of winter as I maneuvered my bike down the gravelly road, empty but for an occasional truck bearing some rusty piece of farm machinery. Fallow, deserted fields flanked the road on both sides, as far as the eye could see. It was a long, dismal commute to Pana High School- four miles in either direction- but I preferred it to riding the bus. I did not want to be picked up in front of the "Girls' Ranch" where I currently resided, to board the ancient bus full of leering classmates in the company of the ranch's other residents. I was fifteen years old, but I was only starting ninth grade, for reasons having to do with the State's inadequate foster care system, and its inability to find me a placement which would allow me to complete a school year before being bounced to some other far-flung hellhole. Last year, I had transferred schools (and placements) three times.

The last placement had been in Peoria, and I had been whisked away with only an hour's notice after I complained to my caseworker about my teenage foster brother's propensity for exposing and fondling himself whenever we were alone together in a room. Ironically, he was allowed to stay. It wasn't my first complaint of this nature, although each one had in fact been justified; presumably the State had decided I'd be better off in a placement where nobody had a penis. Hence, the Girls' Ranch: penis-free, yet distasteful in other ways. For example, we were all supposed to spend a lot of time riding and grooming the horses, creatures for whom I felt little affinity. And some of the other residents were severely screwed-up, hence my not wanting to be affiliated with them at school. Still, this long bike ride each morning could be dispiriting; at this hour the world seemed so abandoned, so devoid of life, that I sometimes pretended I was the hero of some teenage post-apocalyptic dystopia movie, where the rest of the population had been wiped out by a zombie virus or a nuclear holocaust.

I heard the van long before I saw it. I wondered idly who it could be- we had no near neighbors- but was too lost in my own thoughts to care much, until it pulled up abreast of me and parked on the muddy verge of the road. I was suddenly acutely aware of how alone I was out here. Some emotion stirred in the pit of my stomach, prickling the hairs on my arms, but it was not apprehension. Not exactly. I slowed my bike to a walking pace. I heard a door slam; then another. Glancing back, I saw that two men had exited the vehicle. One held a sheaf of papers in his hand; the other held some sort of walkie-talkie contraption. They were dressed in plainclothes- dark slacks and blazers- but they gave off the unmistakable whiff of "cop". Or at least, some sort of authorities. Probably not the Department of Child Welfare, though. Those were almost invariably female. I dismounted and stood staring at them. There was no point in ignoring them. They were clearly here for me.

"Hello!" called the one with the walkie-talkie. "Are you Twenty Beaulieu?"

They stood next to their van, thirty feet away, not approaching.

"Possibly," I replied. "And you are...?"

"I'm Martin Doyle, and this is Dr Sheldon Flynn. We work closely with a division of the NCEH..."

"The what?" I interrupted.

"The National Center for Environmental Health. It's a branch of the CDC... the government. We are doctors, who work with the government." He had apparently decided to dispense with the acronyms and instead patronize me as if I were a mentally-deficient five-year-old.

"Neat! That sounds like fun!" I responded in kind, tightening my grip on my bike's handlebars.

"We've been looking for you for some time, Twenty."

This is not good, I thought. I recalled my nomadic childhood, my mother's endless paranoia, her insistence that the government was after her, that they were going to take her to a lab and cut her up. Of course, she was schizophrenic. And a methamphetamine addict. That'll do it to you. But I also vaguely remembered other things, things that made me especially leery of hearing the words "government" and "doctors" together in the same sentence... particularly on a deserted farm road at six in the morning, the nearest neighbor over a mile away.

"In the course of trying to track you down, we've been reviewing your foster care history. It sounds like you've had some interesting experiences."

"Not particularly." I retorted. "At the last place, another kid was always trying to make me look at his dick. I wouldn't really characterize it as interesting, though."

"But before that, in Naperville..."

Ah, yes. Naperville. I'd had a foster brother there, too. And a less-understanding caseworker, who had since abdicated her position due to an unfortunate accident.

"We know who you are, Twenty. We know you have certain... abilities. We want to understand them better. We want to help you understand them. We want to help."

I envisioned my mother, her skinny track-marked arms and wild eyes, staring through the curtains of our motel room at three AM.
"They say they want to help you," she was muttering under her breath, "Help themselves to you, that's what they really want to do..."

"I have to get to school." I said, throwing one leg over my bike.

"Twenty, you can't run away from this," the other one, Flynn, spoke up for the first time.

"Yes... I.... CAN!" A sudden wave of fury rolled through me. "I want to have a normal life. Leave me alone."

"We can help you." Doyle spoke again. "We can help you learn how to control these..."

"Aren't you even curious about why?" Flynn interrupted. "Haven't you ever wondered? There are things we can tell you, things about your family and why you are the way you are. Come sit with us for ten minutes. We'll tell you what we know. And then if you want to go, we won't try to stop you."

"Um... no thanks, Stranger Danger. Your van looks rapey, and you're not a very good liar. I'm going to school."

"Twenty... we know what you can do. You and I both know that we are no threat to you. Quite the contrary. We couldn't hold you against your will if we wanted to. What we want is to offer you what information we have, so that you can make an informed decision about the next steps. Because I think this gets away from you sometimes. And it'll happen again- and again- if you don't start learning how to control it. It could be worse next time."

I thought about it, scraping a circle in the gravel with the toe of my sneaker, chewing on the inside of my cheek. God damn it. The thing was, now that they'd managed to track me down, they weren't just going to go away.
I dropped my bike by the side of the road and walked toward the van.

"Your grandmother," Flynn said, shuffling through his papers once we were all seated, more or less comfortably, in the parked van. "Emma LeClercq, born in... let's see, 1914, in Ottowa, Illinois."
He held up a grainy xeroxed photo of a girl my age, in old-fashioned clothes. There was nothing familiar about her, but then the photo quality was so bad that I could barely make out the image at all. She could've been anyone.

"In 1930, when she was just your age, she went to work at a new factory in town. It was a factory that made watches and clocks. Her job was to paint the numbers on these timepieces, so they'd glow in the dark. The luminous paint she used was made with radium. Do you know what that is?"

"Sort of?" I replied. Not really.

"It's an element that is very dangerous to humans, although this wasn't common knowledge then. In a very short period of time, your grandmother and the other girls who worked with her began to get sick. Their teeth fell out. They developed sores that wouldn't heal. Their bones themselves began to crumble. They developed unusual cancers. Some died very quickly. Others lingered for years. But in the end, all of them succumbed to radiation poisoning."

"Seriously? And the government didn't do anything about this?"

"They did. It took a long time. But this case- the case of your grandmother and the other girls like her- eventually led to new regulations regarding workplace safety. Those girls were heroes, in a way. What happened to them ultimately made things safer for everyone."

"Sounds more like they were victims." I responded. "Heroes generally have a choice. So, my ancestors were uneducated manual laborers who got screwed over by the government. No big surprise there, but thanks for the genealogy lesson."

"Most of these workers who were exposed to radiation became sterile." Flynn continued, ignoring me. "They could not get pregnant, or if they did, their offspring was stillborn. Your grandmother, although she was very ill, lasted a long time. Long enough to marry, and to have a daughter: your mother. She was very sick by that time, and your mother was born with high levels of radium in her body. At birth, she literally glowed with it."

"Really? That's kind of awesome." I laughed. "Like, a radioactive mutant baby."

"Radioactive, yes. Highly. Mutant? No. Surprisingly, she seemed perfectly normal, although small. The doctors examined her extensively, but could find nothing wrong with her. They assumed she would manifest various physical symptoms of radiation poisoning as time went on, but she never did. Your grandmother, however, died less than a month after her birth, and your grandfather died the next year, also of radiation poisoning."

"Wait, did he work in the watch factory too?"

"No. He was unconnected to the factory. It is assumed he developed radium toxicity through proximity to his wife."

"So he, like, caught it from her?"

"The mode of transmission isn't entirely known. Presumably, she would've carried home particles of radium in her hair, on her skin and clothing. Their shared bed would've been completely contaminated with it. Other husbands and close relatives of the factory workers developed radium poisoning, it was a well-known phenomenon. You need to understand, these workers were so radioactive, they literally glowed. The radium settled in their bones, causing them to glow faintly in the dark."

"That is seriously creepy. So my grandmother glowed?"

"She still does." Doyle spoke up. "Some of the radium girls have been exhumed for scientific study. Their corpses are still glowing in their coffins. The elevated radiation levels at their gravesites is still detectable with a geiger counter. Radium has a half life of 1,600 years."

"This is all... morbidly fascinating," I said, "but I'm not sure what it has to do with me. I don't glow. My mom may have glowed at birth, but she didn't by the time I knew her. Trust me, I would've noticed something like that. Are you saying, what? I may have radiation poisoning? I'm going to get sick and die? What?"

"Your mother entered the State's foster care system when she was only a year old. Normally an orphaned infant would have a good chance at a permanent placement- adoptive parents- but once they got wind of her history, nobody wanted to adopt your mother. Who would want to adopt a child with radiation poisoning, one who might live only a few years? It was difficult to even find foster placements for her, everyone was so worried about the dangers of radiation. The CDC kept a close eye on her as she grew. Having her in State care made this easier. It gave them greater access to her than they might've had, if her parents had lived. There were annual check-ups. Occasionally, she was brought to the State CDC headquarters for more extensive testing and observation. Years went by, and while her radium levels didn't depreciate significantly, they also didn't create any of the physical symptoms we associate with radiation toxicity. In fact, she was remarkably healthy. But in interviews with various foster parents, researchers began to realize she was not exactly 'normal'. She had unusual abilities. She was reportedly able to manipulate people, situations- and possibly physical matter- with her mind. And when she exhibited these abilities, allegedly, her eyes... "

"Would glow." I finished for him. I pictured her murmuring softly to a motel manager, a police officer, a drunk she'd picked up in a bar. The faint, eerie, pale green glow of her eyes illuminating his face as it suddenly went slack and empty.

"She wanted a normal life." I told them. "That's all she ever wanted, and you wouldn't let her have that. She spent her life running and hiding- and hiding me- from you. From the government. She didn't like to use her power; she almost never did, and only when she had to, to survive. To protect me. She wouldn't have overdosed- she probably wouldn't have used drugs in the first place- if you'd just left her alone. You should've left us alone."

I addressed this to Flynn, who had done most of the talking so far. He had become strangely passive, gazing into my eyes as he nodded sympathetically, seemingly agreeing with all that I said. I heard a rustle of movement from my other side suddenly, and saw that Doyle was leaning toward me with a hypodermic syringe in his hand.

"Freeze." I said. An eerie light, that otherwordly pale green glow which I now had a name for, spilled across the dim interior of the van. Doyle froze. A trickle of saliva glistened at the side of his mouth.

"Close your eyes." Flynn hissed at him. I turned my gaze in his direction. Not only his eyelids but his entire face was clenched in resistance. The glow fell across it, and his face went slack and empty. It's radiation, I thought. It can penetrate bones. It can certainly penetrate eyelids. Closing your eyes doesn't help.

"Take out your gun." I told Flynn. I'd seen the bulge of it through his jacket when we got into the van. Dreamlike, he complied.

"Shoot him." I said. The noise, when it came, was dull, muted, even in the enclosed confines of the van. I supposed the gun had a silencer on it. My knowledge of such things was fairly limited, at the time. Doyle slumped against the passenger door, blood trickling from a hole in the center of his forehead.

"Now shoot yourself." I said. Flynn placed the barrel of the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

I considered taking the papers, the picture of my alleged grandmother... but for what? Besides, they were flecked with blood and brain particles. I got out empty-handed and closed the door behind me. I walked back to my bike and mounted it. It was going to be a longer ride than I had anticipated. I wasn't going to school today after all, but to the greyhound bus station in Effingham. Once I got to the highway, I'd ditch the bike and hitch a ride.

Twenty Short Story Contest contest entry

Author Notes
Last night, I read a non-fiction book about the "Radium Girls". It was fascinating and inspiring. The way my mind works, I immediately started thinking, what if some of them had children, and their children had children, and the radiation got passed down, but instead of making them sick, it made them have supernatural powers?
I hope this is not disrespectful to the actual Radium Girls (for whom I have nothing but admiration) or their real-life descendants. The "grandmother" mentioned in the story is not an actual historical personage. I made up her name. As for why the protagonist's name is "Twenty"... well, that is so that I could enter my story in the contest, of course! :)
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