The Fates of Atomic Zombies
by John Van Allen
“She’s late,” Vivienne said.
“Sometimes Mo’s early,” Scarlett said. “Sometimes she’s late.”
“But never on time,” they said in unison.
The women, youthful at least in appearance, sat across from each other at their regular table at the Nouveau Gastro Café on Rue du Jour in Paris, waiting for their unpredictable sister.
“She’s undoubtedly lurking out there somewhere,” Vivienne said, adjusting a long, blond mane that cascaded down the back of her red leather waistcoat past her tight, white leggings nearly to the floor.
“Undeniably,” Scarlett said. “But that’s her nature.”
In stylistic contrast to her more flamboyant sister, Scarlett wore a white lab coat when she took on creaturely form and kept her candy apple-red hair piled up in a bun that twitched every now and then as if it had a life of its own. Black-rimmed glasses allowed her green eyes to perceive the world as humans did. Without them, everything appeared as swirling, glowing patterns of subatomic particles.
Their young appearance and modern dress belied their true nature. In reality, they were ancient beings, nearly as old as the world itself. One, Scarlett, responsible for the onset of life, the other, Vivienne, for molding it. Nature and Nurture, co-workers conspiring in service of their creation.
“Why do you wear that ugly thing?” Vivienne asked. “You don’t actually work in a lab.”
Scarlett flung her arms wide in dramatic fashion. “All the world’s my lab, and all the creatures in it merely subjects.”
“You parody Shakespeare?”
Scarlett’s eyes grew big, and she leaned across the table. “Did you know that on average humans have around two-hundred billion Shakespearean atoms in their bodies at any given time?”
Vivienne nodded toward the restaurant patrons. “So everyone’s a poet now?”
“Atomically speaking at least,” Scarlett said. “As well as a sociopathic dictator.”
“Wait, wait, don’t tell me,” Vivienne said, lifting her finger. “Hitler’s atoms?”
“And Stalin and Genghis Khan, but also Buddha, Confucius, Jesus, Gandhi. The list goes on.”
“People accept the bad with the good,” Vivienne said with a shrug.
“That’s life,” Scarlett said, feathering her fingertips over the varnished wood of the table, appreciating its lovely molecular structure.
If life was their vocation, food was their avocation. They co-owned the little café, Vivienne developing the recipes while Scarlett dabbled in molecular gastronomy.
A waiter delivered a microbrew for Vivienne and a glass of pinot noir for Scarlett. She swirled the wine in her glass, took a whiff and closed her eyes. She savored the rich, earthy bouquet, re-experiencing the origin of every molecule of her beverage.
“It appears you like it,” Vivienne noted.
“Complex,” Scarlett moaned. “Delightful atomic structure.”
Scarlett set down her glass, held out her hand, and stared into her open palm. Vivienne leaned in eagerly, a look of excitement on her face. Sparkles of light appeared out of thin air, flying crazily above the table.
Scarlett concentrated, and the particles coalesced and descended into a glowing ball in her hand. She squeezed and molded the energy, and shortly held the stem of a rosebud. Dipping a finger in her wine glass, she touched the flower transforming it ruby red.
Vivienne’s golden hair shimmered, undulating over her back like ripples in a pond. At her touch, the bud unwrapped, its petals unfolding in full bloom. The sisters grinned at each other, their faces flushed with the warm glow of pride.
“Let’s hope Mo doesn’t get hold of it,” Vivienne said.
“Agreed,” Scarlett said. “So what’s on the menu today?”
“Something entirely new and unusual.”
“Well... spit it out.”
“It’s a chicken and egg puree I’ve been working on,” Vivienne said, signaling for the waiter. “My commentary on the old riddle.”
“Certainly renders moot the question of which came first,” Scarlett said.
Vivienne winked. “My point exactly.”
“I guess I’ll try it... And I’ll order one for our sister, too.”
Vivienne scowled. “But Mo doesn’t eat.”
“We should order something for her anyway, just to be nice.”
The waiter arrived and Vivienne reluctantly ordered for three. “You know, it’s not a pretty thing watching her try to eat.”
“Shhh, here she is.”
Their sister had materialized near the front door, wearing a flowing dark garment with long sleeves that concealed all but her gloved hands and long hair that trailed behind her like wisps of black smoke. The restaurant customers instinctively looked away as she passed. She crept along at a snail’s pace most of the time. Every now and then, though, she lurched over impossible amounts of space in the blink of an eye, a tendency that unnerved even her immortal sisters.
Tall and pale-skinned, their sister came to stand before them, the interlaced fingers of her gloved hands settling at her waist taking on the appearance of a shiny black belt buckle. Her pale blue eyes glanced first at one sister, then the other. “Greetings,” she said, her face a deadpan.
“Have a seat, Sis,” Vivienne said. “Take a load off.”
“Thank you,” their sister said, her expression unchanged.
Vivienne gathered her lively hair and pulled it protectively over one shoulder as far as possible from her strange sister’s black strands. An awkward silence followed before Scarlett spoke up. “How’ve you been?”
Their sister paused. “Adequate.”
“I’ll bet,” Vivienne said, raising her eyebrows. “Busy, no doubt.”
Their sister had no hobby and lived a dull, asocial existence destroying what Scarlett and Vivienne lovingly brought into being. The corner of her mouth twitched as if threatening a grin. “As you well know.”
Vivienne gulped her beer, swallowed, and sniffed. “What’re you drinking?”
“I do not appear to be drinking anything,” their sister responded dryly.
Vivienne sighed in exasperation. “What I meant was—”
“Nothing, right?” Scarlett asked.
“Thank you,” their sister said. “If I may ask, what is the occasion of this meeting?”
“Loosen up, Mo,” Vivienne said.
“Yeah, it’s just us,” Scarlett added.
The waiter came and placed a large plate in front of Vivienne with several colorful but unidentifiable vegetables cut up julienne style and stacked in a manner similar to wood before a bonfire. Scarlett and her dark sister received shallow white bowls containing a substance the color and consistency of brown mustard.
Their sister stared incredulous at the thick mixture in front of her. “What... is this?”
“Food,” Vivienne said. “You should try it.”
“I fail to see the point of—”
“Come on, Mo,” Scarlett said, inserting a spoonful into her own mouth.
“Very well,” their sister said, dipping her spoon into the bowl. “In the interest of furthering our filial relationship.”
Vivienne leaned forward with hopeful curiosity as her sister lifted a portion of the puree to her mouth and blew on it. Vivienne’s face contorted into an expression of horror as her culinary creation turned into a foul-smelling putrescent goo as black as her sister’s hair.
“See,” Vivienne said. “She has no appreciation for any aspect of life or creation with the exception of its vulnerability and fragility. She’s all over that.”
“I have no choice,” their sister said.
“The puree is delicious,” Scarlett said in an attempt to lessen the tension.
Their sister’s icy blue eyes shifted between Scarlett and Vivienne. “We have little in common and little to discuss that will not provoke antipathy. So again I must ask why I have been summoned, and why these forms?”
“Look, Mo,” Scarlett began. “We think about you all the time.”
“Of this I have no doubt,” their sister said. She scanned the restaurant. “At least you do not ignore me as the creatures do.”
“You’re rather difficult to ignore,” Vivienne said.
“We know your work is all-consuming,” Scarlett said.
“We know it defines you,” Vivienne added, prompting a scowl from Scarlett.
“We understand it takes a toll on you,” Scarlett said. “We just thought it might help if you did something to enjoy yourself a little.”
“I do not exist to enjoy myself.”
The hostess approached with another guest.
A look of dismay grew over their sister’s face. “What have you done?”
“Keep an open mind, Sis,” Scarlett said. “Let’s see what happens.”
An athletic-looking young man came to sit next to Scarlett and directly across from her dark sister.
“Mo, this is Vito,” Vivienne said. “Vito this is our beloved sister, Morta.”
“Pleasure to meet you, amore,” Vito said, extending his hand. Tanned skin, blond hair, and blue eyes, the young man was the picture of health and vigor.
Morta studied Vito like a specimen a moment, then reluctantly accepted the offered appendage with her gloved hand.
“Your sister’s very formal, no?”
“Her hands get cold,” Scarlett interrupted.
“Yeah, real cold,” Vivienne added.
“Reynaud’s Disease,” Scarlett said. “You know, problems with her circulation.”
“There is nothing wrong with my circulation,” Morta said.
“Yeah, as in she doesn’t have any,” Vivienne said under her breath.
“Let me warm your hand, amore mio,” Vito said.
“That is not advisable,” Morta said.
“She’s self-conscious,” Scarlett said.
“I’m a very accepting person,” Vito said. “Allow me.”
Morta hesitated, then began pulling her fingers loose from the glove. Scarlett clapped a hand over that of her sister before it was completely unsheathed.
“Vito, why don’t you tell our sister where you work,” Scarlett suggested.
“Why certainly. You might say I tempt fate for a living.”
Morta frowned. “I beg your pardon.”
Vito continued. “I’m a professional daredevil in the cirque. I stare death in the face each day.”
Vivienne, who had taken a swig of her beer, coughed, liquid spraying from the side of her mouth and trickling down her neck.
“I take it this individual is unaware of my... occupation,” Morta monotoned.
“Ah, you mean the café,” Vito said. “It’s quite lovely.”
A large group of children noisily gathered near the entrance of the café.
“Looks like my class is here,” Vivienne said. “Thankfully.”
“Class?” Vito asked.
“Yes, I teach cooking classes to children. I love working with the little ones. There’s so much potential there, so much hope for the future. They’re far more satisfying than all that tedium Scarlett here puts up with on the atomic level.”
“Speak for yourself,” Scarlett said. “All those children over there are just little clouds of molecules, atoms, and quantum particles. It’s all a matter of perspective.”
Vivienne got up. “If you’ll excuse me.”
“I’ll come with you,” Scarlett said. “Let these two get to know each other.”
The two sisters guided the group of children through a set of double-doors into the kitchen leaving Morta and Vito sitting together at the table.
“So,” Vito said, “it’s a beautiful day outside. What do you say we get out of here?”
Morta regarded him, then reached over and lifted the dark red rose from the table and gently laid it in Vito’s palm.
“Why thank you,” Vito said. “But I believe the custom is for the man to bring roses to the woman.”
He handed the rose back to Morta. She pulled off the shiny black glove shielding the world from her bare hand and took the rose from him. Together, they watched the flower wither, blacken, and crumble into a pile of dust on the tablecloth.
“Still want to hold my hand, amore?”
* * *
Copyright © 2017 by John Van Allen