“Apoptosis, or Cell Death”
By Kaylie Mancino
“And the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.”
Somewhere, buried beneath the rubble of decaying cement and wine-stained dorm carpets, there is a bomb. It’s been there for weeks now- when the halls are quiet, I can hear the even quieter ticking of a catastrophe inching closer to our lungs, dancing atop our sweaty skin. I count the time between each one, waiting for the seconds to turn into milliseconds into explosion.
By now, everyone knows about this bomb. Sheila Greenfeld posted about the noise to her Instagram on Monday morning and then Max From Down The Hall called his parents in a panic. When Tuesday rolled around, most of the student body had either bought train tickets or expensive Ubers back home. Some even left on foot, forgoing their laptop cases and extra bottles of spray deodorant splayed across their floors in favor of walking along the sides of the highway.
I stayed on campus. I didn’t have anywhere else to go that sounded better than a veiled, looming threat that hung over our heads like our corporate futures- if we survived long enough to sit inside the office cubicles and stare at framed pictures of our pets.
Sheila stayed too. She boasted about the new makeup palette her roommate left behind in the wake of her hasty escape.
“But aren’t you scared about the bomb?” her half-sister asked over the phone.
“It doesn’t sound like a huge one,” Sheila said. “More like a bath bomb, if anything.”
I leaned my shoulder against her door, my left ear telling my right one not to listen to a private conversation. I’m not very good at keeping to myself.
“But you do hear it, right?”
A pause followed. I took in a breath.
Then- “sometimes,” Sheila said, “when everything else is quiet.”
Behind the sound of her voice, underneath her larynx, I heard another tick.
“I’ll get out of here when the bomb squad shows up,” Sheila reasoned. “If they don’t, you bet your ass I’m staying for that kid Max’s roommate's party on Friday.” She laughed, flitty like the chirp of a baby bird. “Did you hear that idiot left his Xbox?”
On Wednesday, the bomb squad did show up, but only to tell us there was no bomb lurking beneath the floorboards. One of them- a scruffy, lanky young man with a bowl cut hidden beneath his helmet- smiled reassuringly at our slowly declining group of students gathered in the lounge of the old freshman dorm. Our faces were puffed from crying over our potential demise; some eyes were just red from all the weed Jonah the Drug Dealer had stuffed inside his pillowcase. He hopped on his scooter the day after the news spread, screaming old Christian hymns about the Second Coming of Christ.
“I’d like to inform you all that there is no bomb on this campus,” the Bomb Squad Man stated. His yellowed teeth glistened with spit. “I hope whoever started this rumor learns to think before they speak.”
For a few seconds, we stared at him. We stared and we stared and he stared back, his beady eyes connecting with mine. Sometimes, I recall him winking at me, but then I start to think I made it up inside my head. I do that a lot- recalling events in hues of a bright color that makes me seem like the most important person in the room. Besides, if he wanted to wink at anyone, it would probably be Sheila. She sat in the corner and fiddled with the Xbox remote, her cleavage dangling in the faces of all the computer science majors who salivate at the sight of breasts like Pavlov’s dogs.
I think that the ticking knew we were seeking it out because, this time, it slithered under our skin cells and buried itself all the way at the bottom of our pores. It thumped with our heartbeats, spilled out of our foreheads like sweat.
Once, in Biology class, I learned about the concept of apoptosis- pre-programmed cell death that only occurs once a threat enters its vicinity. The action cannot be stopped since it’s already in motion, so stagnance is crucial. The antibodies in your blood muster up all the courage they can and force themselves to watch a friend explode into nothing, knowing that any attempt they could have made at saving this cell is pointless.
It made me think of speeding cars who don’t stop to look at the roadkill on the side of the road. Also, forest fires where the emergency responders are carried out, their noses attached to the wires of oxygen tanks.
Bomb Squad Man sighed at us, as if this ordeal was taxing for him and his lopsided mouth, and turned to leave.
(I wondered if only I could see the tiny, metal box strapped to the back of his uniform, attached to him like a virus to infected cells.)
On Thursday, I formed a hypothesis:
This hidden bomb is not actually hidden. It can’t be. I saw Bomb Squad Man carry it out of the building. But it’s still ticking. So it is no longer hidden, but it is not in sight. This paradox can only be explained by a + b= Idon’tfuckingknow.
Instead of classes, the professors all sent us essays to write about the world wars. I know there were only two, but somehow, I managed to find a million more trapped within the dusty pages of my rental textbooks.
9/11? World war. The Boston bombing? Another world war. The man shot across the street from the McDonald’s between 45th and Second? The greatest world war there ever was. It seems to me that we all carry little Earths in the palms of our hands, although my old friend, Jessie, carried Jupiter in hers before she was sent away to live in a white-walled bedroom.
Her departure was a world war with no casualties. Instead, all of the soldiers shrunk into toys and a pair of giant hands scooped them up and carried them somewhere else, a vast desert where letters are stamped and returned days after you send them.
I wondered what would happen if this world war came to fruition; would the bomb explode and turn us into scarlet rain? Or would we all just fly up into the air and never come down again? I could picture it: Converse sneakers stained with bird shit, dangling off the edge of telephone wires. The top of the President’s head as he gives a speech on live TV. Bomb Squad Man finally unscrewing the helmet from his scalp.
Would they use a nice picture of me from prom on the evening news? Would Sheila’s breasts have their own segment? Would Jonah the Drug Dealer’s weed burn up in flames and make everyone in the vicinity stoned?
That morning, a bird flew straight into my window. The hues of his feathers smeared the glass and the colors dripped all the way down with his broken body. But then the sun entered my vision at just the right angle until it covered the blood stains and all I could see was light. I took that as a sign from God, or maybe Jessie, or Jupiter.
Despite popular belief, the bomb was ever-present, stretched out along the edges of campus like a shadow. I sat on the toilet and counted the seconds between each tick. At first, there were 60 peaceful moments, tiny little amounts of time that brushed my hair back from my head and pressed kisses right on my scalp. My mother used to do that when I was sick; I decided that I really missed her sometimes, when I allowed myself to think about it- which was usually when I was on the toilet.
But then the peaceful, motherly minute collapsed in on itself and broke down by threes- slowly counting backwards until there were only 30 seconds between each sound the mysterious bomb made when it wanted attention.
That afternoon, all of the professors lined up their cars like a funeral procession and vacated the parking lot. A few kids tried to follow, their arms outstretched with blunt nails scraping against window glass. But, the gates suddenly locked from the outside. And the trees- they were suddenly barbed wire. And then, the sky above our heads dimmed like overhead lights in hospital rooms when it’s time for all the weeping visitors to leave.
Once everyone discovered they were trapped here, all Hell broke loose. Chairs were thrown, clothes were shed, fires were started in the courtyard.
Sheila and Max’s Roommate decided to have End of the World Sex; I heard the moaning from all the way down the hall. I used my fingers as ear plugs, the green wax serving as a barrier between me and them.
“Don’t you dare cry,” I heard Sheila bellow, but she sounded like she was underwater. “Because if you cry, it’ll make me cry and then the last sex I’ll ever have will be sad.”
“But I can hear it!” Max’s Roommate moaned. “It’s everywhere and nowhere and I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die. Oh, God. Oh, God.”
He sobbed, squeaking like a mouse trapped beneath a lion’s paw. I reminded me of the Bible story and how I always thought that the mouse was just too stupid to realize the danger of his entire situation. Now, I envied his ignorance.
“I wish I was six,” Max’s Roommate said. “I miss my kindergarten teacher. What was her name again? God, I don’t even know. This is so fucked up. We can’t leave. And where is the fucking bomb squad now, huh? They’re lying to us. I can fucking feel it.”
I heard Sheila shush him; I pictured her cradling him to her breast, his thin lips pursing out to suckle and latch like a newborn. The bomb chided him for his infantility, ticking again but this time, it sounded strained.
A long, human cry of It’s Almost Time.
The dorm building started to shake on Friday morning. I felt the tremors beneath the floor tiles, jumping up to greet the bottom of my feet like the weeds in a back garden.
“It’s coming!” I heard someone shout. “Say your prayers- let Him hear you!”
There was more shouting, more tears, more desperate pleas sounding from every room.
“God, I’m sorry for my sins,” someone else wailed. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee-“
“Shut the fuck up!”
Doors began to swing open as bare feet pattered towards the nearest exits. I didn’t move from my bedroom. All I could see behind my eyelids were wavelengths of sound, rising and falling with the quakes- the moments where my body lifted and caught air.
I thought of my mother and the toilet. I thought of my friend lost at sea and how Jupiter will never turn into a star. I thought of telephone wires and End Of The World Sex, and watched from my window as everyone tumbled outside, forming a pajama-cladded huddle.
“Do we hide?” Sheila asked.
“From a bomb?” Max’s Roommate asked back.
They bickered but clung onto each other’s jackets as if there was nothing else to keep them tethered to the earth but skin and leather.
A jumble of panicked voices melded together, forming a thick blanket of noise. Somehow, layered above the ticking and the shaking, I heard every word from everyone.
“Maybe it’s an earthquake!”
“I think the ticking stopped.”
“I should’ve dropped out when I wanted to.”
“I don’t want to die alone. Please, hold my hand.”
“I’m glad everyone’s outside so we can—wait. Why is she still up there?”
I froze. Slowly, a sea of messy heads and frantic eyes turned in my direction.
“Hey! You!” Sheila shouted. “Are you okay?”
For the first time, her voice was directed towards me.
And, I tried to speak. I did. My tongue lashed at the cobwebs that made home in the back of my throat. Once, my mother told me to sleep with my mouth closed so that spiders don’t lay eggs between my teeth. I wondered what would have happened if I let my lips part, just once, to let out a scream.
The dead bird from Thursday was still laying on the concrete below, its body vibrating with every quake the earth made below us. I realized it was floating the same time I was, our bodies stagnant in midair. My feet flailed as my throat got caught with a noise that reverberated from within me.
This noise wasn’t a scream. It wasn’t a plea. It wasn’t a prayer.
My hands flew to my mouth to cover the sound, but then it started leaving through my nostrils and my ears. It was so loud that I couldn’t hear my heartbeat any longer.
Tick, tick, tick.
I yelled and I yelled, but all anyone could see was my face- the look of Dawning in my eyes. The look of a realization made from the remnants of every sound I’ve ever made and every heartbeat I’ve ever loved.
“What’s she doing?” someone said.
“What is she holding?”
“Who is she?”
The realization that it was too late.
I watched everyone scamper away like mice escaping the grasp of a lion’s paw. Maybe the mouse wasn’t stupid; maybe the lion cut his nails and sharpened his teeth instead.
I watched Converse sneakers fling up into the air. I watched Max’s Roommate fall on his face. I watched Sheila step over his body. I watched the bird leave the cement and float back to the ledge of my window. I stared into its open eyes.
“I’m sorry I couldn’t save you,” I whispered.
The bird did not speak. Of course it didn’t. It was already dead.
* * *
“It’s devastating,” Sheila spoke. “I wish she could have reached out for help.”
The reporter nodded, his pen scrawling back and forth on a notepad.
“You were her neighbor?” he asked.
Sheila nodded in confirmation. “I lived right down the hall. I never knew her name, but I always heard her pacing right outside my door. She never knocked, though.”
The reporter frowned. “So, you weren’t friends?”
“No, no,” Sheila said. “She didn’t really talk to anyone. I know her friend Jessica died last school year, the same way she did. So, I knew she was lonely.”
The reporter took more notes. “Okay,” he said. “Am I correct in saying that you were the last person to speak to her before she passed?”
“I was,” Sheila said, swallowing. “I saw her through her window crying. Like, uncontrollably. So I asked her if she needed help. But she just kept going on and on about there being a bomb on campus and how it was going to explode. I couldn’t really understand her and was a little freaked out. So, I left.”
“That’s a lot to handle.” The reporter sighed, as if this whole ordeal was taxing for him and his lopsided toupee. “Do you believe that the pandemic played a role in her choice of taking her own life?”
Sheila bit her lip in thought. “Well, it’s safe to say that we were all affected in different ways. Isolation’s a bitch, you know?”
The reporter stopped writing to nod in understanding.
“But she just… I don’t know. She took it harder than most.”
The reporter closed his notebook, placing his pen in his front pocket.
“Thank you for answering my questions,” he said. “And I sincerely hope that you and your classmates can heal from this.”
Sheila smiled. “Thank you.”
The reporter turned to leave, and Sheila noticed something strapped to his back: a tiny, metal box, clinging onto his suit like a virus attached to infected cells.
It ticked just once, and Sheila thought nothing of it.
Wow, such excellent voice…
Wow, such excellent voice and prose! Punchy, witty, and kept me on the edge of my seat the whole time! I loved it!
Thank you so much, Holly!…
In reply to Wow, such excellent voice… by Holly Davis
Thank you so much, Holly! Since I usually write memoirs and realistic fiction pieces, this story was a little out of my comfort zone. I’m so glad that you enjoyed it- your comment means more than you know!
Suspenseful and well-written…
Suspenseful and well-written. I appreciated the entire image of a ticking bomb to connect to her mental health - clever!
I am so happy to hear that,…
In reply to Suspenseful and well-written… by Melissa Hope
I am so happy to hear that, thank you!!! I definitely wanted to get the message of mental health across in a way that wasn’t insensitive, so I am relieved to receive feedback on that aspect of my story! Thank you again!
Wish it could go on longer...
I was sorry to see this come to its unsettling end. Well written, great 'voice' and 'imagination'.
Thank you so much! The…
In reply to Wish it could go on longer... by Keith Garton
Thank you so much! The ending was the hardest part for me to write, but I decided to cut it a bit short since I wanted to represent how quickly someone could turn to that sort of thinking and how fast mental health can deteriorate without the right resources. I’m so happy to hear that you enjoyed it, thank you again for your kind words.
A thought-provoking piece
As soon as I got to the end I wanted to re-read it with the hindsight of the ending. The ticking throughout is a great device giving the story tension and suspense, and also some arresting imagery throughout.
I’m so glad to hear that- I…
In reply to A thought-provoking piece by Jenni Harrison
I’m so glad to hear that- I wanted the ending to tie everything together but also leave the reader thinking about the story has a whole. Your comment means a lot to me. Thank you so much for sharing!!!