Fiction from Lucy Zhang

Photo: Hudson Hintze

Double Flash

When the nuclei broke down into smaller pieces like Styrofoam ground into confetti, the rest of the atoms could not help but follow in the same snowballing self-destruction: neutrons waltzing to their death, cleaved into remnants of themselves and photons trailing in their light-footed steps.

And when there were almost no free dancing neutrons left to bombard each other, when the final uranium-235 nucleus split into two, a girl fell out, body sheltered by gamma rays and heat. Airships couldn’t touch her; satellite dishes melted; infrared cameras failed to capture the brilliant, white magnesium flash, failed to pinpoint the heat of her body and its internal combustion regulating the temperature of her blood; the people couldn’t touch her, not her hair sticking upward with static, not her clenched fists pulled close to her chest.

She fell. For a moment, she heard nothing but the wind brushing against her cheek. She latched onto the air, rock, water, vaporizing and expanding matter. A shockwave rippled away from her body, a sphere of a fireball bursting into a cloud. She emerged on Earth with a flash of incandescence—don’t blink—then vanished, ionized and opaque, then brightened again: her wavering of confidence that she’d make it unscathed.

Moments ago, a six-year-old boy looked up from the Lego dragon figurine in his right hand, ballerina Barbie in his left. He had been admiring how the ballerina held her arabesque, back knee pointed outward rather than downward like it had nothing to hide, how her body seemed to elongate with her gaze following the length of her arm. And moments before that, he had been admiring the dragon’s wings, how they spanned longer than its body and he thought maybe that’s why no large flying animals exist—the burden of physics and resources and fuel.

But now, for a split second, he saw the girl in the sky. He dropped the dragon and the Barbie, recalled hearing them clack against the pavement, squinted at the flash of light, and wondered how she supported herself there, without wings to fly away, without her arms out to catch herself. The boy wanted to be a flier when he grew up—no, not a pilot—he didn’t want to rely on a man-made aircraft; but even he knew such a thing was impossible, just like Santa’s existence, a manifestation of his mother’s happy family fantasy. So he’d train to become a ballet dancer instead, not that he really had a traditional, male role model since his dad died years ago in war, probably fighting another dad whose son lived in a different time zone in a different house not made of drywall where they played with Legos and possibly Barbie dolls.

The girl tucked her knees into her chest and wished to return to the confines of a neutron encased in an atom. She wished to sleep among the soil and rocks deep inside Earth’s mantle. She didn’t want to meet the boy’s gaze. She didn’t want to see his body’s outline on the sidewalk, a shadow among rubble, an outline that could be mistaken for a stain, a splattered crow, the dark imprint of a wave of heat and ray of light that would have marked the concrete regardless of the boy’s presence.


Lucy Zhang is a writer masquerading around as a software engineer. She watches anime and sleeps in on weekends like a normal human being. Recent publications include: Ligeia, Ghost Parachute, Twist in Time, MoonPark Review and Tiny Molecules. She can be found at or on Twitter @Dango_Ramen.

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