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Nucleus

Giulio Giuffrida

      Six protons clustered among six neutrons deep within the cavities of a single carbon atom. They floated there in utter and vast darkness, surrounded by a cloud of like-minded electrons. Despite the messiness of its cloud, the atom as a whole was perfectly balanced, each little spherical element agreeing to share the space. As the small electrons darted along the outskirts, the larger nucleus rotated ever so slightly in the middle, luxuriating in its peaceful harmony with the universe. This small, harmonic world existed among a boundless collection of exact replicas, all infinitesimally housed within the cheap particle board on the side panel of Giorgio's dorm room desk. Its balance was left completely intact—as is the case with most outside forces—when, darting into the steamy-dim room, Donnie slugged the particle board with both of his fists, landing a desk lamp on the floor in a wonderful heap of glass and plastic. 

      "What the hell, Donnie?" 

      "We need to get off this planet!" Donnie exclaimed, pinning his back against the wall and lowering.

      "I don't know what you're talking about," Giorgio said, "did you take your pills?" 

      Donnie glanced up angrily at his friend, "yes, and we need to get the hell off of this planet." 

      "Why do you keep saying that?" Giorgio replied, "you're not explaining yourself." 

      Donnie didn't want to explain himself. Didn't everyone already know? We're on the brink, yes, perpetually on the brink, he thought. We sit and we lounge; we have dinner and get ice cream, yet the brink still forces us to sit upon it, to gaze at its daunting infinitude. Some of us can forget about it for a while, can relish in the gorgeous entanglement of human connection, can look away from the razors at our throats. But when the day's over and we're let alone in our cots, our bedrooms, our houses, the brink comes back to us. It haunts us. It causes us to hit things—why did he abuse his knuckles so?—and say things and do things. 

      "It's the twin nuclei problem, Giorj. The exact problem Weinstein wouldn't shut up about." 

      Donnie rubbed the spaces between his bloodied knuckles as he talked. 

      "The twin nuclei problem?" 

      "Yeah, since the fifties we've imprisoned ourselves. We don't have the wisdom to split atoms." 

      "Are you talking about nukes?" Giorgio said, sitting back down on his cot. 

      "Yes, and investigating the cell. And if you don't think Ukraine is relevant—" 

      "I know it's not relevant," Giorgio interrupted, "haven't you heard of mutually assured destruction?" 

      "Of course I've heard of it, but haven't you heard of human error? Or radar glitches? Submarines losing communication?" 

      Giorgio went silent and the two boys looked at each other from either side of the room, one on the floor, the other on his cot. 

      How can I get him to see the danger? Donnie thought. We're living the same terrifying reality, aren't we? 

      Giorgio’s calm and collected manner was completely infuriating to Donnie at times. He was one of those people who could never be roused to protest, who, if wronged, would always turn the other cheek. He wasn't religious—no, definitely not—but closely spiritual. Doctrine had no place in his nurtured, free mind, a mind that seemed to wholly regenerate and converse with the cosmos during the many instances Donnie caught him crisscrossed and meditating. Perhaps it was naivety; perhaps the world's flames hadn't yet reached his bones. Or maybe the enlightened just hadn’t spoken loud enough; maybe the barrier was completely communicative. Either way, it was an odd juxtaposition, Donnie thought, for such a measured, seemingly learned creature to inhabit such childish points of view. 

      After a few minutes of silence, Giorgio calmly pushed the tips of his thumbs together and added, "Donnie, you're being ridiculous. We're not gonna get nuked. Maybe lay off Twitter for now." 

      Perhaps it was the way he said it, the tone and slight smile across his smooth beige face as he professed such complete falsehoods, that turned Donnie cherry red. His jaw clenched up and his vision blurred; he stood up fast and needed to hit something—hit Giorgio—no he couldn't; his eyes darted sideways, looking for something inanimate. The desk just left of Giorgio's cot, a perfect target, shook once again as he railed his bloodied right fist against its side, providing a low baseline to the symphony of expletives hurled in Giorgio's general direction. 

      Donnie could think of nothing but the urge to flee, and he did so, leaving his roommate belly up and squinting on his cot. As he crossed the threshold of the brownstone's oaken door frame, the sun pierced his irises and warmed the skin left open by his shirt sleeves. He decided to push toward upper Bay State road, the fury gradually releasing from him as he walked. 

      How can he not be worried? Donnie thought, stomping. Surely, if anything can happen, it will happen. A zero-point-one percent chance of an occurrence is low, but—as he'd assented to in listening to a recent podcast—if you run that simulation enough times, surely it will happen. Worse, we have an octogenarian at the helm of our own destruction, he thought, and pictured the Commander's shaky decrepit pointer finger hovering above a half-opened presidential football. 

      The magnolias were in full bloom, and as he strode under them, a light hint of the horn-honking and engine-buzzing from adjacent Commonwealth Avenue soothed his angry and blood-filled ears. Across the street, a campus tour guide strolled past with her little ducklings, each staring patiently and open-eyed at their learned chaperone. Donnie assumed the lovely, flowering street had the same effect on them as it did on himself: they were calmed, invited, and loved. Shrubs and tree branches jetted out among the carved stone entrances and ivy wound its way around fences and walls. 

      Donnie kept walking, the forward momentum grounding him, until he reached Marsh Plaza. He spied one of the stone benches in front of the chapel, and laid down on it, head facing Commonwealth Avenue. His eyes now sideways, he watched the passersby defy gravity and head down an impossibly deep slope. Their keychains glistened and jangled; their messy hair waved gently in the wind. 

      If I died here, Donnie thought, I would be satisfied. Disappointed, but curiously satisfied. It might have been the warmness of the plaza, the scent of its flowering plants, the carefree and fascinating bodies drifting through it, or perhaps it was all of these things, that flushed Donnie with an aura of absolute contentment. He felt weightlessly suspended in a sort of warm nest, free to think and feel whatever might come to him. This facilitated a wider, more zoomed-out worldview, and he began to think about the species. Not the American, not the first world, not those who inhabit our current time period—but the species. We're most certainly warm, dumb, and smelly, he thought, but it's also clear that we're brilliant and gorgeous. We're capable of Paradise Lost and the Hubble telescope, yet we created the Vietnam War and the Gulags. Our cities flourish with life: high-rises and ornate apartments, upscale restaurants and enchanting art museums—but conceal below them underpaid labor forces and hawkish governmental militaries. We're an interesting mixture of sugar and salt, Donnie concluded, but worth saving. Undoubtedly worth saving. 

      About an hour passed when of a sudden, the passersby descended and ascended the slope with increasing speed. The keychains were glinting more intensely, and the hair was now flipping incomprehensibly. There were no individual people anymore, but a panicked, flowing mass gushing relentlessly up the sidewalk. 

      Such a sight caused Donnie to sit erect, positioning his eyes back to standard, upright human perception. He could see it even clearer now: frightened crowds heading south on Commonwealth Avenue, away from the city. Some were on bikes, others on foot. All had rushed mannerisms and items strewn out of their bags and pockets. 

      It was happening. He knew it immediately, but denied it for several seconds. His hands wanted to shake, but something stopped them, something much more powerful than himself. It was his prior sense of contentment; it flooded his small body with a wave of peace and security, drowning the fire of concern and panic that was struggling to surface out of his brain. He could see the hysteria flying haphazardly around him, yet this coffin of tranquility held him firmly in place, restraining the deep, evolved urge to flee that was ripping through his consciousness like a zipper. 

      He thought about his earlier conclusion that dying in Marsh plaza would be satisfying, if a bit disappointing. But he didn't want to die. He wanted, in fact, to punch something inanimate like Giorgio's desk, but nothing quite like it was available. Not to mention he could not move his arms or legs. Fury coursed his neurons, yet the rest of his body was rigid and limp. As he tried flailing his right arm, resulting in a slow two or three inches of movement, he realized that his neck had seized up, and so had his back. The only part of his body that could move freely now were his eyeballs, and even those were beginning to get blurry. Looking down at his now fuzzy-looking bloodied knuckles, he couldn’t move them an inch. He was shrouded—trapped—in a powerful blanket of exterior calmness and could not leave it. The fury was there but subverted. He was buried. 

      Still sitting erect on the stone bench, Donnie looked out at the raging river of passersby before him. A single figure left the large group and headed toward him, bending down and speaking straight into his face. Donnie could hear nothing beyond muffles at this point, but by the general outline and surprisingly calm demeanor of the blurry shadow, he knew it was Giorgio. He stood in front of Donnie for about two minutes, running off sentences that Donnie interpreted as incoherent mumbles. It felt to him like he was under water: no matter how much Giorgio shouted, no matter how clearly Giorgio spoke, it all sounded indiscernible. 

      Donnie wanted more than anything to break out of this shell of calmness and security and exclaim to Giorgio's face, "I'm sorry I was so petty, now let's leave!" but he couldn't. He struggled, applying all possible force to every limb—but nothing would move. He couldn't hear Giorgio, much less go with him. About a minute later, Donnie felt smooth, even pressure around his entire body. Two arms and a torso were wrapped around his own, and he knew this was their parting gesture. Giorgio couldn’t waste any more precious time. 

      The dark figure left him, and he once again sat alone on the stone bench, trapped in his own consciousness. Humans were worth saving,—yes!—but he had no way of expressing it. He closed his worried eyes and let the minutes go by. The atoms split above his head. 

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