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Chernobyle's Travels by Jon Wesick

          SiliCon’s CEO Alex Chernobyl’s giant face stared at the audience from the enlarged cover of Wired Magazine that served as a backdrop to the stage. Despite a schedule tighter than a boa constrictor’s embrace, SiliCon’s employees packed the auditorium to hear Chernobyl’s musings in hopes of teasing out clues about their future. They would have to listen with ears more sensitive than the Arecibo radio telescope because Chernobyl considered himself more than a businessman. He considered himself a philosopher of consumer electronics. The employees burst into applause when he walked on stage. Brushing his shoulder-length, blonde hair from his eyes he took his time walking to the spotlight that illuminated the microphone. Where other businessmen dressed to impress, Chernobyl flaunted the rules to show his absolute power. He could wear pajamas or bib overalls and the SiliCon staff would still defer to him. Hell, he could even come to work in his underwear. Today, he wore a golf shirt, black jeans, and high-top sneakers. Considered one of the Bay Area’s most eligible bachelors, Chernobyl had dated actresses and super models but none of his relationships lasted more than a few months.

          “Imagine this. No credit cards. No checks, bank cards, or account statements. No keys or wallet to spoil the line of your slacks. Instead everything is on your phone.” Chernobyl held up a smart phone with a brushed-steel case. “It’s quick, convenient, and easy. Only one problem spoils this vision. Security. Passwords are hard to remember and criminals can hack them, anyway. There’s only one thing they can’t hack. Your DNA.

          “Rapid advances in biotech have led to our DNAtium Project, a DNA analyzer small enough to fit your smart phone. By recognizing your DNA, a DNAtium-secured phone allows you to safely handle financial transactions. Anybody else picks it up, they can’t use it.

          “I’ve transferred my stock portfolio, bank accounts, and credit cards to this little beauty and it’s fantastic! We still have some minor modifications before manufacturing design but if we stay on task, we can debut at the Consumer Electronics Show. I won’t kid you. There will be lots of long nights but we will accomplish something revolutionary. Any questions?”

          A hand shot up. “Yeah, Steve Psoriasis in contracts. Any way I can get one, today?”

          “Only if you’re willing to pay two hundred thousand dollars,” Chernobyl chuckled. “Otherwise, you’ll have to wait like everyone else. Seriously though, I want to achieve a price point the average consumer can afford, say a thousand bucks. Anybody else? Yes.” Chernobyl pointed to an overweight man in the third row.

          “I’m Greg Mendel in software test. I wonder if you could answer a question about our health insurance.”

          Chernobyl drumming his fingers on his pants leg in annoyance. He was talking about the future of technology and this clock watcher was bringing up petty problems.

          Mendel continued, “It’s just that with Timmy’s Hodgkin’s Disease, the higher deductibles and copays are …”

          “Greg,” Chernobyl interrupted, “my grandfather came to this country with just a pair of pants and two shirts yet he managed to buy a home and put two kids through school. You know why? Grit and hard work. We all face challenges but America is the land of opportunity. If you simply apply yourself, I think you’ll find that adversity strengthens a man.”

          Chernobyl’s administrative assistant pointed to her watch from off stage.

          “Misty is telling me it’s time to go. Keep up the good work.”

          “Mr. Chernobyl! Mr. Chernobyl!” Hands went up with unanswered questions as the CEO walked off stage.

          He returned to his office and brewed a Cappuccino while scrolling through financial reports on his smart phone. Who did that self-pitying whiner say he worked for? Oh yeah, software test. There it was. Just as he suspected, software testing was over budget and behind schedule. That deadwood was dragging the whole department down. Bill Seborrhea would definitely have to hear about this. Chernobyl sent the report to the printer and walked down the hall to retrieve the document. Misty intercepted him on the way back.

          “Preliminary concepts from Distract and Obfuscate.” She handed him a folder.

          Another subordinate cornered him to discuss a problem with subcontractors. By the time Chernobyl got back to his office, his Cappuccino was cold. He opened to folder.

          “No!”

          The marketing plan was all wrong. The models looked like either hookers or Russian peasants. Neither conveyed the image of both safety and excitement, Chernobyl wanted. Chernobyl threw his cup. It shattered against the wall leaving a stain that resembled Lichtenstein, where SiliCon parked its overseas profits to avoid U.S. taxes.

          “Excuse me, sir.” Misty poked her head in the door. “Time for your meeting with the integration team.”

          Chernobyl shoved the marketing concept and financial report in the folder and slid it between volumes of Hayek and Milton Friedman. He spent the day putting out fires and forgot about both by the time he went home. Nevertheless, it was a good day. Given the DNAtium’s progress, several advance orders rolled in making the quarterly reports look positive and increasing his paper wealth by ten to twenty percent. He had good news for Friday’s board meeting.

 

          As always, SiliCon rented the Huntsman’s Club for the board meeting and hired a celebrity chef to cater the event. Depending on the chef, the cuisine ranged from the simple, like sous vide duck breast with white truffles, to the extravagant. Whatever the meal, the result was that Chernobyl had to sit in a wood paneled room making nice to people he despised for an hour. He turned on the charm and after port-wine ice cream topped with gold foil, the board adjourned to the conference room.

         “Let’s begin by reviewing last meeting’s minutes,” Werner Hindenburg said. He was a heavyset man who expressed his disdain for modernity by wearing a monocle like his Prussian forebears of old. “Does anyone have any changes?”

          Peter Bhopal sprang to his feet. “Before we get to that, I have an urgent matter that requires the board’s attention.”

          Bhopal was everything Chernobyl was not. Where Chernobyl dressed casually, Bhopal wore tailored suits. Where Chernobyl was blonde, Bhopal was dark. Where Chernobyl wore his hair long, Bhopal sported a crewcut. Where Chernobyl was a playboy, Bhopal was a family man who expressed his “Christian” values by sending his lesbian daughter to a reeducation camp.

          “I’ve learned of serious financial irregularities on the DNAtium project,” Bhopal continued. “Irregularities that put the entire third-quarter profits at risk.”

          “What do you say to that, Alex?” Hindenburg asked.

          “Peter’s clearly off his meds.” Chernobyl turned to Bhopal. “I hear they have better antipsychotics now, Peter. You ought to try them.”

          “Enough!” Hindenburg shouted. “I will not have disrespect in this room!”

          “If I may introduce Martin Eczema from accounting, sir.” Bhopal motioned to the bodyguard who opened the door for a stoop-shouldered gnome of a man.

          Eczema nervously fingered the thick hairs growing out of his ears while presenting balance sheets that showed tens of millions of dollars siphoned from Chernobyl’s project.

          “This is preposterous!” Chernobyl said. “I’ve never seen these figures before. How did you get this man to cook the books for you, Peter?”

          “Martin showed great courage to come forward and expose your swindle.”

          “Who is he? Some actor you pulled out of a cattle call for a high school performance of ‘Our Town?’ I bet he doesn’t even work for us.”

          “Would you please wait outside, Alex?” Hindenburg said.

          On his way out, Chernobyl looked at each of the board member from Bhopal’s barely concealed smile to Sheryl Katrina’s frown to Jim Deepwater’s look of disgust to Dan Fukushima’s impassive mask. His fate was clear to him before he stepped out the door. Five minutes later, the board confirmed that they had fired him.

          Chernobyl tried to get to SiliCon’s financials on his smart phone but the board had already blocked his access.

         “Bastards!”

          He took an Uber back to headquarters and barged past the reception desk.

          “Excuse me, Mr. Chernobyl. You can’t…”

          He had to get to Misty. She’d find a way around the access lockout. When she did, Bhopal would pay! They all would pay! Two massive men in suits stepped out of the hallway and blocked his path.

          “Sorry, sir. You’re not allowed in here.”

          “Do you know who I am? I’m the CEO of this company. I make more money in the time it takes you to blink than you make in an entire year.”

          “You’ll have to take that up with the board, sir,” the other man said. “We have our orders. If you don’t leave voluntarily, we’ll escort you out.”

 

          Pacing outside SiliCon headquarters, Chernobyl dialed Misty with frantic determination but could only get her voicemail. Could she be in on it, too? His own department was a nest of traitors but he’d make them pay. Oh yes, he would. First, he needed a plan. He should go home, he supposed, but would something to calm his nerves was in order. He set out for an Irish pub that was within walking distance.

          Halfway there, he had an inspiration. The board wouldn’t have informed the underlings of his ouster, yet. Who was that guy from the auditorium? Steve Psoriasis. Chernobyl scrolled through his contacts on his phone searching for his number. He heard screeching tires and looked up to see the grill of a marauding Toyota Prius. Then everything went black.

 

          “What do we have, here?” The neurosurgeon leaned over the monitor displaying a CT scan of Chernobyl’s brain. As with all such scans, the brain’s hemispheres resembled a candied walnut rendered in gray.

          “Head trauma from a car crash. Looks like some swelling in the prefrontal cortex.” The thought of candied walnuts made the radiologist’s mouth water and he fantasized of them on a spinach salad with vinaigrette, goat cheese, and dried cranberries.

          “Better prep him for surgery, then.”

 

          If you’ve ever experienced excruciating post-operative pain, the reason is often a junkie nurse like Nancy Opioid. Outwardly caring and competent, she fed her desperate addiction by siphoning off patients’ pain meds. When she saw the chart of the comatose man with the shaved head, she hatched a plan that would keep her supplied with drugs for a lifetime. It took her little time to track down the Wired article and understand the principle behind DNAtium security. Being a nurse, she knew how to obtain Chernobyl’s DNA.

          “This won’t hurt a bit, honey.” Nancy opened Chernobyl’s mouth and scraped the inside of his cheek with a cotton swab. “There. That wasn’t so bad. Was it?” She inserted the swab into a test tube, screwed on a cap, and patted Chernobyl in the chest.

          Nancy Opioid believed that when people spoke to comatose patients, some communication got through. This convinced her she was a caring person. After checking Chernobyl’s oxygen and IV, she searched his personal effects.

          “You mind if I borrow this?” She held his smart phone in front of his closed eyes. “I’ll bring it back first thing tomorrow. I promise.”

 

          Serenaded by the beep of the heart monitor, Chernobyl came to and opened his eyes to a field of acoustic tiles on the ceiling. It was peaceful, lying there and imagining patterns in the tiny dots. He saw sports cars and yachts, bars of gold bullion and other things he deserved. He made a giraffe, a rocket ship, and was working on a Spanish galleon when a voice interrupted.

          “Can you hear me, sir?”

          “Wha..?”

          “You suffered an accident. I’m Dr. Vindaloo. Please follow the light with your eyes.” Vindaloo waved a pen light in front of Chernobyl’s face. “You’re lucky. Look’s like there’s no permanent damage.” Vindaloo struggled with the next part. Ideally, he’d keep the patient for another week but the insurance company would never pay. “You’re ready to go home. Just call if you have any problems like seizures, paralysis, or loss of vision.”

 

          An orderly came with a wheelchair. Instead of taking Chernobyl straight to the exit, they detoured to the billing department on the thirteenth floor.

          “Mr. Chernobyl, I’m Melissa Sarcoma. Please have a seat while we go over your bill.” Sarcoma typed at the computer. “The good news is that your insurance covered ninety percent. The bad news is that you still owe a balance of fifty-three thousand dollars and twenty-six cents. How would you like to pay?”

          “Bank transfer.” Chernobyl navigated to his account on his smart phone and found a balance of zero.

          This couldn’t be. His pulse rate spiked and he felt sweat drip down his sides. Okay, maybe it was just a mistake of some kind. He navigated to his stock portfolio and found it empty. The same was true for his 401(k). He phoned Misty.

          “You’ve reached the voicemail of Misty Emphysema. Please leave a … Beep! This is Horizon Wireless. You have exceeded your plan’s data allowance. Please call 1-800-555-1234 and speak to a service representative.”

          Chernobyl stared at the smartphone that had once been his entire life. Now it was just a hunk of useless metal.

          “Perhaps we can arrange a payment plan,” Sarcoma said.

 

          “We all good?” The orderly motioned Chernobyl toward the wheelchair once Sarcoma had finished with him.

          “Peachy.” Chernobyl took a seat.

          “You sound a little less than excited to be getting out of here.” The orderly pushed the wheelchair into the hall and stopped by the elevator. “You ought to be thrilled. I mean, aside from that shaved head, you got your health.”

          “I suppose you’re right.”

          “Yes sir, I seen many people worse than yourself with cancer, a colostomy bag, or unable to walk.” The orderly pushed the call button. “Take it from me. Your health is worth a billion dollars.”

          “One point five billion, actually.”

          “There you go, sunshine! You possess a treasure worth one point five billion dollars. What could possibly go wrong?” The elevator stopped in the lobby and the orderly turfed Chernobyl out at the exit.

          As Chernobyl stepped out into the spring day, he realized the orderly was right. He still had his health and more importantly his wits. After taking stock, he decided his first stop would be his twenty-thousand-square-foot home on Bel Air Street. As the nation’s leading proponent of a cashless society, he had no money for a cab or even bus fare but a brisk walk on a sunny day would do his constitution good.

          The most direct route was east on Trayvon Street, across the Freddie Gray overpass, and onto Ferguson Boulevard. After a dozen blocks, Chernobyl had sweated through his Oakland Raiders jersey. He longed for a hearty meal but by now hair salons and liquor stores had replaced trendy cafes.

          The sooner he got home, the sooner he’d get something to eat. Careful to avoid dog turds and broken glass, he picked up his pace. Even though his electronic assets were missing, he had enough Krugerrands in the safe to tide him over for a decade if he watched his spending by driving a Bentley instead of a Rolls and dining on filet and foie gras instead of Wagyu beef.

          “Ayuda! Ayuda!” A Guatemalan woman in lingerie ran from the entrance of the Suzy Wong Massage Parlor.

          Caught up in plans to get the best rate for his gold, Chernobyl paid no attention to the two members of the Michigan Avenue Mollusks capturing the woman and dragging her screaming back inside. Nor did he notice automatic weapons fire by Rodney King Elementary School and the half dozen dead and dying children claimed as collateral damage in a turf war between the Mollusks and the Seventeenth Street Cephalopods.

          After hours of walking, Chernobyl’s legs felt heavy as depleted uranium and he was thirsty enough to drain Lake Baikal. Why was fate so cruel to him? He must have traveled over fifteen miles. Surely his home was just around the corner. Chernobyl trudged on. He felt a drop of rain on his forehead. Then another. The sky opened up in a deluge that soaked Chernobyl like New Orleans’ Ninth Ward.

          Chernobyl squished on in his wet shoes and arrived at his home after dark. Wet and shivering, he wanted nothing more than a hot shower, a snack of lobster in lemon butter, and a good night’s sleep on thousand-thread-count sheets. The sign in the front yard stopped him faster than the armor of an M1 Abrams tank.

          Sold by Ellen Collateralized, Debt Obligation Realty

          This couldn’t be! It just couldn’t be! An old-fashioned lock had replaced the DNA reader on the front door.       

Chernobyl paced back and forth on the sidewalk. There had to be a way inside. He needed those Krugerrands. The laundry room! Lupe often left the window open for cool air.

          Chernobyl rushed to the backyard fence, grabbed the top edge, and kicked and skidded the soles of his soaked sneakers against the wooden slats to boost himself over. His panting and cursing woke the dog from a pleasant dream of chasing frisbees into whitecaps breaking on a beach. Molly the golden retriever was so friendly that she would lick Adolph Eichmann’s hand. But when she smelled Chernobyl, her eyes burned red. Howling like a hell hound she attacked. Chernobyl scrambled back over the fence but not before Molly’s flashing fangs tore a chunk of fat the size of a softball out of his ass. Fortunately for Chernobyl, there was plenty more where that came from.

 

          Chernobyl quieted his complaining stomach with a handful of stolen cat food and spent a night of fitful dreams shivering in a child’s treehouse. Morning arrived with a bit of hope. Chernobyl realized he still had one asset, the DNAtium phone. SiliCon’s Danish competitor GALLium A/S would pay a pretty penny for the technology. He felt no compunction about selling out his former company. After what they did to him, they deserved it.

          If only his phone’s GPS were working, he could find the most efficient way to GALLium’s Bay Area office. As it was, he retraced his steps and headed west on Michigan Avenue. Street artists had sprayed buildings with lots of graffiti but Chernobyl had little time for art appreciation. He needed a negotiating strategy. The first rule was to never let your opponent see how desperate you were. Yeah, if he played his cards right, he might even get on GALLium’s board. A thin man wearing a ski cap shaped like a snail stepped into Chernobyl’s path. Two more came up from behind.

          “This here’s Mollusk territory.” The thin man’s wicked smile revealed a gold tooth. “Fine for trespassing is one hundred dollars.”

          “Mollusk territory,” Chernobyl snorted. “I don’t see your name on it.”

          The thin man pointed to a gang sign painted in a Cubist style on the side of a bodega. It said, “Mollusk Territory – No Trespassing.”

          “Search him.”

          The thugs pinned Chernobyl’s hands behind his back, emptied his pockets, and tossed the DNAtium phone to their leader.

          “You can’t take that.” Chernobyl grabbed for his phone. “It’s…”

          A blow to his kidney sent Chernobyl to his knees and a sweep tumbled him to the sidewalk. Hands on the concrete, Chernobyl tried to lever himself upright until a kick to his side broke three ribs.

          “Hold on! Hold on! That’s my boy.” A voice came from behind. “He didn’t mean no disrespect. He got PTSD from Eye Rack.”

          Chernobyl struggled to his knees to see the Mollusks walking away and the face of a gray-bearded leaning over him.

          “Are you crazy?” Chernobyl’s savior said. “That’s ‘Scargot. You don’t mess with him. Come on, we got to get you out of here.”

          Even though the man smelled like sweat that had baked in a four-hundred-fifty-degree oven for three weeks, Chernobyl accepted his help getting to his feet. His chest felt as if it were full of broken glass and he had to lean of the man’s shopping cart to support himself.

          “Name’s Willie, Willie Polemicist. Old Willie’s been living on these streets for over sixteen years. He knows a thing or two about surviving. Come on son, Willie needs to get you some medicine.”

          Willie pushed the shopping cart, its front wheel jittering like a hummingbird on meth while Chernobyl hung on. Chernobyl thought there were going to the hospital but Willie stopped in front of a liquor store and began haranguing passersby.

          “Excuse me, sir. Could you please help a brother out with some spare change?”

          Most walked by but a few rewarded Willie with some pennies.

          “What you waiting for, son? Go around the corner and ask the fine citizens over there for some donations.”

          Having received corporate welfare for decades, Chernobyl felt no compunction asking for charity. With his marketing prowess, he predicted he’d be quite a success. His ribs felt a little better and the pain wasn’t bad as long as he didn’t bend over. After rounding the corner, he hit up the first pedestrian he saw.

          “Pardon me, ma’am…”

          The woman walked by as if Chernobyl were not even there. He tried a few more time with no more luck. How dare they! Didn’t they know who he was? Well, damn it, he’d just have to make them notice.

          “Sir!” Chernobyl stepped in front of a man in running shorts. “How about helping the less fortunate?”

          The runner turned his empty pockets inside out and shrugged.

          “Next time!” Chernobyl turned to an Asian woman. “Hey you!”

          Chernobyl kept up the hard sell for over an hour and collected a dollar and ninety-seven cents. It felt good doing something productive. He heard a siren and turned to see a policeman getting out of a patrol car.

          “Thank goodness you’re here, officer. Three criminals stole my cell phone on Michigan Avenue and I need it back.”

          “Is that right? Why don’t you get in back and we’ll go sort it out?” The policeman ushered Chernobyl into the patrol car.

          Finally, someone was helping. Chernobyl didn’t worry about locked doors or mesh screen separating him from the front. When he recovered his fortune, he’d have to make a sizable donation to the police benevolent league. The officer got behind the wheel and they set off.

          “183. 10-7,” he said over the radio.

          “Roger 183.”

          Instead of turning toward Michigan Avenue, they went east.

          “Hey, this isn’t the way,” Chernobyl began to sweat.

          “Short cut.”

          They drove out of town, turned onto a two-lane road, a gravel road, and then stopped at the Eric Garner Reservoir.

          “End of the line, asshole!” The cop dragged Chernobyl out of the back seat.

          “How dare you treat me this way! I’m a tax-paying…”

          The cop kicked Chernobyl in the groin, doubling him over, and then drove a knee into his face, breaking      Chernobyl’s nose. Grabbing the ruined CEO by the belt and collar, the cop tossed him into the water.

          “Next time you harass my citizens, I’ll tie an anchor to your ankles!” The cop drove away, leaving Chernobyl dog-paddling toward shore.

 

          Chernobyl walked back to the liquor store, arrived after dark, and found Willie sitting next to an empty bottle of Muscatel.

          On seeing Chernobyl’s bent nose, Willie stopped humming and said, “Oh my! Guess Willie should have warned you about the cops.” Willie got to his feet. “Come on, son. Willie’s gonna’ scrounge us up something to eat.” Willie led Chernobyl to the Cholesterol Queen Grocery after parking his shopping cart a block away. “Old Willie can’t risk getting his cart repossessed. Oh no, he can’t.”

          Passing cars and SUVs parked under neon lights, Willie and Chernobyl made their way behind the store where the dumpsters waited, fragrant with the alcohol scent of overripe fruit and the bouquet of spoiled meat. In their haste to discard produce even a millisecond past its sell-by date, the staff had flung fruit and vegetables wildly at the dumpsters’ open maws, leaving the pavement littered with broken tomatoes and moldy oranges. After holding a finger to his lips for silence, Willie climbed in a dumpster and handed out lettuce, a crushed box of cookies, and a package of hamburger. A liquor of pork blood and vegetable seeping covered everything. Willie climbed out and brushed a banana peel off his hair. Then hauling their repast, the two men stole away.

          They camped under the stars just like their Neolithic ancestors must have. Willie made a fire of old newspaper and scrap lumber and served up plates of medium-rare burger on hubcaps. Chernobyl paused. Was it safe? They had fished the meat out of a germ-ridded dumpster after all. He inhaled the aroma of wood smoke and grilled meat. It had to be safe! Mankind’s hunter-gatherer ancestors survived before refrigeration and modern hygiene. Chernobyl could too. He dug in.

          As he ate a second helping, Chernobyl reflected on society. With ingenuity like Willie’s, the poor got along just fine. They didn’t need government handouts. Such “charity” only created a dangerous dependency. The best thing society could do for them was to reduce taxes on people like Chernobyl.

 

          A pain sharp as a machete to the colon woke Chernobyl. He tore off the garbage bag he was using for a blanket and ran for the bushes. His offended digestive tract spewed its contents from both ends before he could unzip his pants.

 

          A week later Chernobyl was fifteen pounds lighter. His clothes were torn and stained and the patchy beard growing on his face had reached the itchy stage. He’d recovered from five days of bloody diarrhea with the help of some expired Imodium that Willie kept around for just such an emergency. Now wary of food poisoning, Chernobyl limited his diet to dry coffee creamer. Reeking of his own funk, he no longer noticed Willie’s industrial-strength B.O. Tired, hurting, and driven mad by lice, Chernobyl sought anything to numb his pain. Where once he planned grand, technical projects, he now thought no further than the next jug of cheap wine.

          One night he and Willie shared a bottle of cough syrup. In his weakened state, Chernobyl’s pulse slowed, his breath nearly stopped, and a warm, white light appeared in front of him. With no reason to go on suffering, he took a step toward death’s embrace.

          “Alex, your work is not done,” a familiar voice called out. “You must go back.”

          Chernobyl turned and saw his favorite president.

          “Saint Ronnie?”

          “That’s right, Alex. It’s me. My tax cuts and deregulation were a bold step toward rejuvenating our economy but there are those who would sully my legacy. That’s why I need your help.”

          “But how? How can I regain my fortune to continue my war on the middle class?”

          A picture formed in Chernobyl’s mind. Of course! The financial report that would prove Bhopal’s treachery was in his office, on the bookshelf, between Hayek and Milton Friedman.

          Chernobyl woke with a gasp and tore a sheet from a magazine to wipe the drool from his face. The article showed Bhopal’s picture under the banner headline, “New SiliCon CEO to Move Corporate HQ.”

 

          Larry Lunchbox and Sal Sixpack drove the Lackluster Moving and Storage van down Bleaker toward the SiliCon headquarters. Neither looked forward to a day hauling heavy loads but a job was a job. Lunchbox stopped at an intersection. When the light turned green, he shifted into first and stepped on the gas. Posing as an innocent pedestrian as he’d done in dozens of insurance scams, Willie came out of nowhere and bounced off the grill.

          “Shit! Shit! Shit! I don’t need this.” Lunchbox got out of the cab followed by Sixpack.

          “You okay, buddy?” Sixpack leaned over the downed man with the gray beard.

          Willie grabbed Sixpack by the collar, yanked, and bounced the mover’s head off the asphalt. Aided by surprise Chernobyl had no trouble subduing his partner.

 

          Dressed in the movers’ uniforms, Chernobyl and Willie drove to SiliCon’s headquarters and parked in the loading zone. Reception let them pass without a second glance so the two took the elevator to the thirteenth floor.

          “You go on ahead, son. Old Wille’s gonna find him a sit-down toilet and have his first indoor bowl movement in three months.”

          A half-dozen movers in identical uniforms went in and out of the offices so Chernobyl had little trouble fitting in. He found an empty box, carried it into his office, and looked longingly at the Cappuccino machine. There was no time for that. Turning to the bookshelf, he found the folder where he’d left it, removed the report, and stuffed it down his pants. For good measure, he filled the box with books by conservative economists before walking out.

          Balancing the box on one shoulder, Chernobyl passed unnoticed down the hall and took the elevator to the lobby. He’d already started for the exit when he heard a familiar voice.

          “I don’t care if the engineers say it will take fifty-thousand hours, I want it done in ten!”

          It was Bhopal, himself!

          Turning back would have aroused suspicion so Chernobyl pulled his cap low and continued. The exit beckoned like a lifeboat in shark-filled waters but he kept his pace slow. He made it to ten steps away. Then five.

          “Stop that man!” Bhopal yelled.

          Guards grabbed Chernobyl by the arms and spun him around to face his nemesis.

          “No mover would ever carry a box with the label facing outward,” Bhopal said. “What do you want, Alex?”

          “My copy of Milton Friedman,” Chernobyl said. “I couldn’t leave it behind.”

          Hard though he was, Bhopal couldn’t stop his eyes from getting moist. He motioned for the guards to let Chernobyl go. That was his fatal mistake.

 

          It took a lot of panhandling for Willie to raise money to buy Chernobyl a cook’s uniform from Goodwill, a haircut, and a shower. The two said goodbye outside the Huntsman’s Club.

          “I’ll never forget what you’ve done for me, Willie.” After embracing his savior for the last time, Chernobyl turned to reclaim his destiny.

 

          In his new office, Chernobyl fired up the Cappuccino machine. While waiting for his brew, he stroked every square inch of his mahogany desk. God, it felt so good to be back. Coffee in hand, he leaned back and inhaled the rich aroma of Arabica beans and cream. He’d learned so much about human nature from his downfall and eventual comeback. He’d been immature but now he was a man and would do things differently. He started with a text message.

          “Misty, send Greg Mendel to my office.”

          Fifteen minutes later, the father of the cancer-stricken girl knocked on Chernobyl’s door frame.

          “Please take a seat.” Chernobyl gestured to an empty chair.

          “Thank you, sir.”

          “I’ll get straight to the point.” Chernobyl entered a few commands on his smart phone, then a few more, and finally set it down. “While I sympathize with your family difficulties, your work isn’t up to snuff. You’re fired!”

 

          Once again, a blowup of Chernobyl’s portrait served as a backdrop to the stage. This time it was from a People Magazine cover. When Chernobyl walked to the podium, the assembled SiliCon employees cheered.

          “What an exhausting month!” Chernobyl ran a hand through his inch-long hair. “Exhausting but invigorating! I lost everything but learned valuable lessons in the process, lessons I’d like to share with you.

          “Before my experience with homelessness, I was a confident man. Some would say too confident. But after clawing my way back from the dregs of society, I realize that I wasn’t confident enough. Having made my way to the top twice, I can honestly say that I deserve everything I have. If you don’t have what I do, then it’s your own damn fault.”

 

          As Willie Polemicist pushed his shopping cart across Tenderloin Road, a wheel caught on the curb and tipped his clothes and blankets onto the wet pavement. He stooped to pick up his possessions and nearly passed out when he stood. He hadn’t eaten for three days. Willie shivered in the cold. Soaked from a recent rain, his threadbare jacket supplied little warmth. He hacked a gob of bloody mucous with a chest-rattling cough and spat. He was weak and his legs felt like he was moving them through Jell-O.

          A stretch limousine slowed to match his pace and then pulled to the curb. A driver, dressed in black livery got out.

          “Mr. Polemicist?” He held out an envelope. “Mr. Chernobyl asked me to give you this expression of his gratitude.”

          “Why, thank you.” Willie snatched the envelope and stuffed it in his pocket. “Thank you very much.”

          After pitching camp under the South Central Street bridge, Willie fished the envelope from his pocket and admired the gold-foil trim.

          “Old Willie’s luck’s about to change for the better.” He slid a dirty finger under the flap and tore it open.

          Inside was a twenty-percent-off coupon for a DNAtium smart phone.

Jon Wesick is a regional editor of the San Diego Poetry Annual. He’s published hundreds of poems and stories in journals such as the Atlanta Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, Metal Scratches, Pearl, Slipstream, Space and Time, Tales of the Talisman, and Zahir. The editors of Knot Magazine nominated his story “The Visitor” for a Pushcart Prize. His poem “Meditation Instruction” won the Editor’s Choice Award in the 2016 Spirit First Contest. Another poem “Bread and Circuses” won second place in the 2007 African American Writers and Artists Contest. “Richard Feynman’s Commute” shared third place in the 2017 Rhysling Award’s short poem category. Jon is the author of the poetry collection Words of Power, Dances of Freedom as well as several novels and most recently the short-story collection The Alchemist’s Grandson Changes His Name.
http://jonwesick.com