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There's Always a Nuclear Bomb at the End

Jennifer Mason-Black lives in the woods of Massachusetts, surrounded by her human family and a menagerie of elderly animals. In addition to previous publication in Daily Science Fiction, her fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Giganotosaurus, and The Sun, among others. Additional information about her work can be found at cosmicdriftwood.com

There is always a nuclear bomb at the end.
Sometimes it belongs to terrorists, their lives devoted to this one thing, this one chance to blow up a city peopled entirely with women, children, frightened middle-aged cab drivers, young executives. They will detonate it whether their demands are met or not, because it's never the demand that matters. Never. It is always the anger beneath the demand, or the greed, or the hatred.
Sometimes it belongs to the President, or the Army, or a secret council populated with secret councilors. People who are kept in a drawer, folded between sheets of paper, tidy, pressed, spotless, retrieved just for the scene where they say that there is no other choice, the city must be destroyed. They have no children, no spouses, no hobbies. They can almost be seen through, tissue-thin, would be if they stood in front of a bright window instead of a wall covered with a dark seal. Scene over, they are tucked away again, until the next time the bomb arises.
It is always a city as well. Buildings will collapse, people will scream. It is never a real wasteland. Never a place where the tap water can be lit with a match. Never a place where the trees have been stripped from hillside after hillside and the soil runs down the incline in waves, or where the air is silent from the death of the songbirds. Never a place where families pack their things into a beat-up car, an eviction notice on the door behind them.
No, it's always a city, and the buildings always fall. There's always a woman, somewhere. Someone will point her out, later, in reviews. See, a woman, they say. She might be a wife, a girlfriend, a sister. She will be beautiful.
Sometimes she suffers. Sometimes she ends up dead. If she does, it's okay. Her cold corpse is as powerful as a nuclear bomb. Her lifeless body is the thing that turns the tide, forces the hand, sounds the alarm. She becomes a holy relic. She lives in the refrigerator, they all do, all these women waiting for their moment to prove evil is, well, evil.
Sometimes she's something else. Sometimes she dressed in black. Sometimes she knows how to break men's necks between her thighs. Sometimes she wears the highest of heels, but surprise! They are just part of her deadly tool set. See, she says, I am sexy for a reason. I am sexy because I'm clever, because I have a sense of the absurd, because this is a sly commentary on the sexism inherent in our culture.
She is sexy because someone dressed her in tight black leather and insisted it was right.
She doesn't look like me. She doesn't look like you either, even if you think she does. She doesn't even look like herself, not when she wakes up, hair artfully tousled, not when she is bleeding, or hurt. Not when she is scared. She doesn't live in a drawer, or a refrigerator. She hangs in a closet with the other women like her, arranged by hair color, eye color, breast size.
She has a mouth. She uses it for lipstick, for wit, for confessions. She doesn't use it for food. If she does, it's like her heels--strictly a tool of the trade. She eats a bite of salad, convinces a bad guy to turn.
She never works alone. The man, or men, she works with... they have worked alone. If not with this bomb, than with others. They don't use heels as tools. They use people. They charm the shy office worker into revealing secret files. They remind the overweight security guard that he used to serve in the Army. The people they use, some end up dead. Some end up happy. Either way, it's good. These men need the help of Shy Office Worker, Fat Security Guard. They are saving people.
The men share the Women of the Refrigerator. They grieve their lost loves over beer in a bar somewhere. A bar full of large muscles, torn shirts, faces that close off just before weeping. There are windows in the bar to stare out of, eyes focused on a distant hill, thoughts on that one day when that one woman, now on ice, smiled and brushed her hair off her cheek and said, I'll always love you. Or when she looked up, tears in her eyes, and said I'll try to get clean, or I'll get off the streets. This bar is where villains are counted, and old debts are numbered, and final promises are made.
The woman doesn't come to this bar. If she did, men would stare. There would be someone, one guy, maybe two, who would make rude suggestions to her, who would try to force her to dance, or to kiss, or accept his body against hers. The other men would come to her rescue. Maybe. Maybe they wouldn't be fast enough, maybe she would stick her long spiky heel into her attacker's eye and tell him that that was how she said no.
And someone, somewhere, after, would tell us, see, there are strong women out there.
This woman has a past. The men have pasts too, involving military crimes, or mentors dying, or families murdered. It's part of why they need windows in their bars, the ones to stare out of meaningfully.
The woman's past is different. If someone has died, it was her sister. Younger, sweeter, innocent. More likely, the woman grew up poor and alone. She learned to trade on her looks, she was trained as a prostitute, or an assassin, or both. She has only one love. Maybe a mentor, maybe the man who rescued her from the assassin pimp, maybe the one decent man she's ever met. And she can't tell him how she feels. He's too good for her.
There are many people she doesn't love. A man in a wheelchair. A UPS driver. Another woman, or if she does, only another woman who shares her tight clothing, her high heels. Not a slightly overweight woman with a buzz cut and glasses. Not a man shorter than her, thinner than her, dumber than her.
She doesn't love a child of her own either. Someone else's, yes. A little orphan she finds in a hall, a sister's babbling blue-eyed daughter. Perhaps. Or perhaps she avoids them all, provides laughs in the way she awkwardly holds one passed to her by a smiling grateful woman speaking a language she doesn't understand.
She will work with the man, the men, the mentor she loves, the rescuer she loves, and she will follow them in heels and leather, and she will fight beside them like she is one of them.
Like she is one of them.
The men live in houses. They each have their own. The houses are the same. Each has a golden retriever, and a picket fence, and framed prints hung on hall walls. The pictures on the mantle vary, but there are always smiling faces. This is where the men will wait for their scenes, while the woman patiently hangs in the closet among the others.
And in the end there will be a nuclear bomb. There will be only minutes to spare, seconds, and the woman will rescue civilians, or she will say no, don't, and then look up with understanding, as the man flies, drives, swims, imagines the bomb away. He will be noble, and she will believe him dead, and there will be nothing she can do. Because the bomb is not her destiny. She cannot break it between her thighs, she cannot outflip it, or seduce it, or drive her high heel into it.
She can only let the man do what must be done. It is what men do.
In the end, he will have survived. He will return to his home, to his bar, to some other place entirely, and he will find someone waiting for him there. Someone who believes in him--a friend, a new love, a child.
In the end, she will return to her hanger, where they will whisper together, these women who vary by hair color and eye color and breast size. They will try to find things they can talk about, but there will be so little. I loved a man, one might say, I had a sister, I learned to run in higher heels, I wore a wig of straight black hair, I wondered what it would be like to stare out a bar window without needing to fight off men with moustaches and bad taste in beer.
I wondered what it would be like to eat a sandwich.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, November 28th, 2014
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