Fusion: A Love Story

A reporter asks Eliza an important question: Where is Dr. Victor Frank? She knows the answer, but she’ll have to choose whether to protect the scientist who once gave her the world or to punish him for letting it all slip away.

Photo: Sandra Knisely

In the early days, the headlines were hyperbolic. “FUSION ENERGY ACHIEVED: WE’RE ALL SUN WORSHIPPERS NOW.” “NO MORE OIL, NO MORE WARS.” “POLAR BEARS TO MANKIND: ‘THANKS.’”

She understood enough to know that most of the articles got the science wrong, so she only read those under a variation of the banner “MEET THE MAN WHO HARNESSED THE SUN.” She did so discretely, of course. Her husband politely let their children watch several of the earliest news stories, but she noticed when he began to change the channel. She put away her favorite of the newspaper clips, in a box on the top shelf of the linen closet. In another life, she would have bought every magazine, framed every front page. This was not that life.

It took awhile, but not that long, for the headlines to change. “WORLD WASN’T READY: ENERGY MARKETS COLLAPSE.” “EXPERTS SAY PURE FUSION BOMBS ‘INEVITABLE.’” “WE’RE GONNA NEED BETTER SUNSCREEN.” The stories about the man changed, too. Someone had given documents to an enemy. The man who had harnessed the sun went missing, and a coalition of governments formed to find him.

She was the one who changed the channel now. Her husband pretended not to notice.

*

His name was Victor Frank. His parents were European, which made him the most exotic person she’d meet at their small liberal arts college. He was there on a merit scholarship. She was there because they waved tuition for children of the cleaning staff. He was shy and intense. She was outgoing and funny. He took care of her physics homework. She smoothed things over for him at parties.

She noticed as he adopted a vaguely Germanic accent in an effort to set himself apart from his classmates. She worried as he grew more and more withdrawn. She suggested they take a trip, get a change of scenery. They saw rivers, mountains, canyons. Places without people. His parents paid.

Graduate school was difficult. The new town was less friendly than her own. She left him once, tired of the cold, the loneliness, the silence in their dark, cramped apartment night after night. He sent flower bouquets. When she didn’t reply, he sent bigger bouquets. His parents offered another trip. When they returned from abroad, she unpacked her luggage in that dark, cramped apartment.

She was both proud and afraid the first time she saw the machine he worked on in those days. It filled the room, a curvy mess of copper and wires. The room hummed, as if the machine were breathing. He walked around it, pointing out its flaws. She heard nothing but his happiness.

The ring startled her. The stone didn’t sparkle like the ones her college friends acquired. Instead it was black, a piece of meteorite that fell near the place where he was born. He had welded it onto the thin silver band himself. She rearranged her face into a smile. She understood him.

*

The postcard arrived with a rip down the middle, almost halfway. On the front, a chain of waterfalls. On the back, an address and a postmark from Brazil. The handwriting was clean, tight, spare. “You are the only one who knows.” Her hands shook as she hid it in the box on the top shelf of the linen closet.

The first time the reporter called, her husband hung up without speaking. The second time, her husband yelled. The third time, their son picked up and heard the reporter offer money. She and her husband looked at each other. She and her daughter went shopping for a new dress.

*

“Eliza, you knew Dr. Frank while he was in graduate school, when he was working on the machine that was the precursor to his successful stellerator.”

“Yes.”

“Right. So, what was he like in those days? Did he ever talk about the possibility of weapons? About the consequences of sustained fusion reactions?”

She twisted her wedding ring around her finger. It didn’t spin around as easily as the meteorite ring used to; the stone her husband bought was too big. You always play with your jewelry. You always have. She heard Vic’s voice in her ear, and she tensed. It had been a long time since she’d thought about the sound of him.

“No.”

The reporter shifted one leg over the other. She glanced at her husband, standing at the edge of the set with the young, pretty producer. He gestured at her, prompting. These people would need more.

“No, it was all about the intellectual challenge for him. Could he do it? Could he make it work? Vic could have researched anything, really. This lab just happened to offer us funding. Him, I mean.”

She blushed and did not look at her husband. The reporter nodded, relieved. From behind the camera, the operator gave a thumbs up.

“You were engaged at one point. Can you tell us why you didn’t marry Dr. Frank? Was there something in your gut that told you not to?”

This was supposed to be off limits. From the corner of her eye, she saw her husband grab the producer, quiet but furious, as he often was. What Vic lacked in passion, her husband had in spades. Initially it had attracted her. Now she often found it wearisome. She didn’t have to answer the question, but she would.

“Sometimes, when we’re young, we make decisions based on small things that pile up and feel like big things. Vic was kind to me. I always felt bad he never married.”

The reporter coaxed her. “So do you regret not marrying Dr. Frank? Is that what you’re saying?” His voice was light, but Eliza recognized the trap in front of her. She shook her head.

“When we separated, I said he couldn’t marry me because he was already married. To his dissertation. That’s the one thing I regret.” She glanced to the side. Her husband was no longer on the set.

“Eliza, you’re one of the few people still alive who know Dr. Frank outside of work. I have to ask you, do you know where he went after he disappeared from his lab at the University of Wisconsin? Do you know where he is today?”

She kept her gaze on the reporter. She knew that he was going to ask her, but she was not prepared. Every time her husband tried to practice answers with her, she avoided this one. Just say no, he urged her. In the memory, her husband spoke with Vic’s voice.

She reached for the water glass on the small table next to her. They’ll like the dramatic pause. She took a long sip and dripped some onto the front of her dress. She waved at the producer. The cameraman cut. The reporter opened his mouth but said nothing as the makeup girls dabbed her.

What does it mean to protect Vic? What does it say to him? That after all this time, after all that’s happened, what we made together lives on? That however broken and useless it may be to us now, it survives?

The makeup girls retreated, and the cameraman brought down his arm. The reporter did not smile. “Eliza, do you know where Dr. Frank is?”

What will happen if they find him? Will they arrest him? Kill him? Maybe he just chose the wrong associates; he was always bad at reading people. Or maybe he is accountable. He and the machine are indistinguishable now. If he isn’t responsible, who is?

She bit her lip. The reporter sensed a pressure change in the air around her and leaned forward. The cameraman lifted his head from the viewfinder.

Is he testing me? Is that why he sent me the postcard? Maybe it’s just a decoy; maybe he expected me to tell these people what he told me. Send them running to the wrong part of the world. Maybe he’s preying on my disappointment in him. Maybe he’s counting on it.

She began to shake her head, then stopped midway in a sort of small spasm. The producer whispered into the mic at her shoulder.

If I say the word — Brazil — I’ll never hear from him again.

She became aware of the harsh set lights and blinked, hard. Later, in the editing room, the reporter and the producer would argue over cutting this footage, over whether she had a medical condition, some sort of physical tic, that they dare not manipulate into shiftiness.

I should have written him back, immediately, and told him I wanted no part of this. He’s made me complicit in something I don’t understand. I cannot be responsible for him.

The reporter reached over and put his hand on her knee. “There’s an old Buddhist saying, Eliza, that I think you would like. The saying goes, ‘there are three things that cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth.’ What do you think about that?”

She stared at his hand, the nails manicured, the skin tanned. It was not the hand of a man who had spent years in a basement building a machine no one else believed would work. It was not the hand of a man who had lost the tip of his little finger in a tangled copper coil while falling from a ladder. It was not the hand of a man who had been scarred with electricity so many times the creases in his palm had been lost.

I should have written him back and told him I still keep the meteorite ring in a small box in the back of my jewelry case. That someday, I will give it to my daughter, though I don’t yet know if I will tell her who gave it to me.

It no longer mattered what she said to the reporter. They were coming for her now, regardless. They were going to tear apart her house. They were going to find the box on the top shelf of the linen closet. They were going to read the postcard.

Into the camera, she spoke to an audience of one.

“I learned something the other day. Meteorites are magnetic, you know. Maybe that’s why we’re so drawn to them, though they aren’t all that pretty. Little magnets from space that have flown closer to the sun than any of us ever will.”

She removed the reporter’s hand from her knee.

“What an incredible thing for a clump of dust to achieve.”

Written for the Frankenstein Bicentennial Dare. Here’s more about the real-life fusion experiments that inspired this story.