Chekhov’s Missile

Chapter 9

Photo credit: Danny Hope

At first, their bodies react how anyone would expect, given the circumstances. Pumping, rushing blood roars inside Joanna’s inner ear. Greedy lungs and an anxious heart compete for space within Bill’s chest. The pulsing of everything — headaches, red alarm lights, heart rates — makes the waiting feel interminable. If the pulsing isn’t infinite, then it feels like an external force, be it a commander’s order or someone else’s missile, will have to end it.

Bill and Joanna are mirrors of one another. Both stand hunched forward, facing opposing walls, with their launch keys dangling from their necks. In front of them are the two nuclear launch switches, too far apart for a single person to engage both. A minute passes. Or an hour. Or ten hours. Bill looks to the red phone on the far wall. Joanna squints toward the computer monitors. Neither say anything. Eventually, their throbbing veins and tightening chests relax. Either they relax or they grow accustomed to this full-body clenching — this gritting of teeth and white-knuckling of launch keys. Bill wonders how long they should wait, how long they’ve been waiting, and what has happened in between.

“I’m gonna burst,” Joanna shouts finally, turning to face Bill.

“I know. We’re stuck down here, without any idea of what’s going on. It’s eating me alive.” Bill’s eyes well up as he looks to Joanna. She blinks.

“Oh, um yeah,” Joanna says, clucking her tongue. “That’s what I meant. Well I’m going to run up to the bathroom and be right back.” Bill glowers at Joanna. “Fast! I’ll be quick.”

“When you said you were gonna burst, you were talking about peeing, weren’t you?” Bill asks as Joanna boards the elevator.

“We can argue about this after I use the little missileer’s room,” Joanna grumbles. As the elevator whirs toward ground level, Bill sits back down in his desk chair, the bunker still bathed in red light. Even with the planet hanging in balance, Joanna can’t help cracking a joke or two. Bill smiles, and as he does, he realizes how clenched is jaw has become, standing over the missile launch switch. He looks down at the metal rod hanging from his necklace. A key that looks like it should fit into a bike lock is half of what’s needed to send a nuclear missile around the world. Bill’s hands go clammy.

Then the fluorescent lights buzz to life, replacing the pulsing emergency ones. The Skype connection, obviously dropped when the standby notice appeared, begins automatically redialing the planet Mars. Bill runs over and logs out of Skype before the call can continue. He looks at the time, displayed in the bottom right of his desktop screen. One hour and fifty-two minutes have passed since their bunker, and ostensibly the world, was put on high alert. Bill hears the elevator doors open and Joanna join him at the screen.

“The key to world peace is an empty bladder, that’s my take away here.” Joanna sits smugly on the desktop, next to Bill’s keyboard. He laughs, more in relief than at Joanna’s joke, and pulls up CNN. The site is down. Bill frowns and goes to the NPR website. 404 Not Found. Joanna leans forward to look at the screen. When the New York Times comes up blank, Joanna kicks Bill and his rolling desk chair away from the computer. She hunches down and sends their browser to all the local newspaper websites where she’s lived over the years: Baltimore, San Francisco, DC. All are down.

“Let me try something,” Bill says, pushing himself back to the desk. He pulls up a Salvadoran paper, El Diario de Hoy, and the front page loads. “I used to read this for my high school Spanish class,” he says absentmindedly. Big red lettering is anchored to the top of the page, and no matter where Bill scrolls it won’t leave. Bill tries to read the overshadowed article beneath it.

“What’s it say?”

“I don’t know if I have this right,” Bill murmurs. “My Spanish isn’t what it used to be.”

“Try me,” Joanna snaps, looking for any easily translatable words she can identify.

“The red text seems to be a shelter in place announcement. Something about rain. Radioactive rain?” Bill takes off his glasses and wipes his eyes. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Then go to Google Translate or something,” Joanna asks, grabbing the keyboard back and pulling up a new window. “Go ahead, type away señor.” Bill, receiving the stolen keyboard back from his partner, types lluvia radiactiva into the translation engine. It spits out: nuclear fallout. “So we bomb France and they bomb El Salvador? What kind of sense does that make?”

“None,” Bill croaks. “I think the fallout is from us.”

“What do you mean? We’re closer to Santa Claus than we are to Central America!” Joanna laughs loudly. “That’s ridiculous.”

“I think the fallout is from the lower states, Joanna. You saw all the news sites are down.”

“So now that we have shoddy internet, the world is coming to an end? Come on Billy, you’re being ridiculous. I think you just need some sleep.” Joanna looks down at her watch and feigns a yawn.

“What time is it?” Bill asks suddenly.

“Just before four in the morning.”

“Okay,” Bill answers. He quickly pulls up YouTube and searches for the ISS livestream. In the video’s thumbnail, small lights illuminate an otherwise dark planet.

“This connection will be messed up too, if we’re facing the apocalypse like you say,” Joanna jeers.

“The stream isn’t hosted in the US,” Bill fires back as the livestream loads. They both lean toward the screen to take in a portion of their planet, still not yet bathed in morning light. The International Space Station floats somewhere over California, where below dark clouds cover most of the country. At first glance, at least, they look like clouds. The perfunctory classical music comes through their speakers, as the ISS orbits and Bill studies the clouds. These dark clouds aren’t gray, he realizes, but a deep, deep orange. Like the red warning lights from before, and his overactive heart, Bill’s eye perceive a subtle pulsing in the orange clouds that cover the lower 48.

“What is that stuff?” Joanna whispers. Bill doesn’t answer at first as he feels his throat ache. He swallows hard and makes sure not to look up at his companion.

“The nuclear fallout.”

To read earlier episodes or hear more from Bill and Joanna, please visit

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