by Kathy Lanzarotti
“Greetings from the exclusion zone!”
It’s the tagline of all of Sarah’s TIkTok videos. Her phone’s camera pans across the living room. Her fuzzy charges caught mid-yawn and mid-stretch. Some still doze with tails in lazy wags or thumps. Back when Sarah was drinking, getting out of bed was a step-by-step process, like those time lapse videos of a lizard breaking out of its egg. Sober Sarah is up before the sun. There’s just so much to do.
“Everybody ready to go potty?”
Sarah queues Edith Piaf’s Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, opens the sliding glass door and lets the dogs free into the yard. The music from the speakers under her roof is loud, but it doesn’t matter. Since the neighbors were evacuated there’s no one left to complain. The dogs race each other past the shriveled garden and root among the trees, the leaves brick colored even though it’s only July.
From below, fan favorite, blind diabetic pug Mayberry, Sarah’s own dog, snuffles and squeaks out a yawn. Sarah moves the phone down. Mayberry sways back and forth on her elderly hips, her long pink tongue rolls over her flat nose, sightless eyes aimed in the direction of Sarah’s face.
“Good morning your Highness!” she says.
Mayberry sneezes a reply.
“God bless you!” Sarah sings.
Mayberry lifts herself onto tremulous legs and heads toward the door. Mayberry. The reason Sarah refused to leave. Mayberry, who stuck with her when no one else would. Mayberry, whom she would never abandon. Not even if it killed her.
Before any of this happened, around three years ago, the world and Sarah herself had been consumed with other things. There was a war in Eastern Europe, hurricanes, wildfires and a global pandemic that had shut down the planet.
And because apparently there wasn’t enough chaos, there was John Matthew Marky. Trice named because these sorts always are. John Matthew Marky Wingnut. John Matthew Marky self-described “patriot.” John Matthew Marky who truly exemplified the Alexander Pope quote about a little knowledge being a dangerous thing.
Bombs are tricky. Everyone knows this even though it’s weird that they do. It’s one of those things mentioned on TV and in the movies. On the Sunday morning talk shows where old men with flags fixed to their lapels cite this particular scenario as The Thing That Keeps Them Up At Night.
John Matthew Marky’s bomb contained the holy trinity of uranium, plutonium, and thorium. It was tucked inside the warm womb of a forty dollar carry on suitcase purchased on Amazon.com, right on FB Live and broadcast from the basement of his mother’s house. The saturated concrete block walls behind him spray painted with red hate symbols and strewn with terrible flags.
Still streaming, John Matthew Marky rolled the suitcase out to his mother’s navy 1987 Cutlass Ciera. His hair clipped close to his skull, dressed in a long gray sweatshirt emblazoned with the flag of Rhodesia.
His plan was to detonate the bomb in front of a major airport.
He didn’t make it.
About a third of the way through the journey, during a particularly vile screed about the banking system, a semi lost a tire. The rubber snaked between the axles, and flew across three lanes like a vulcanized magic carpet before it smashed through John Paul Marky’s windshield. This gifted him with the martyrdom he’d hoped for but hadn’t expected quite so soon. The car continued to roll until it thudded into a ditch just shy of the exit ramp closest to Sarah’s subdivision. The car flipped. The little suitcase bounced around the cabin and exploded in a blinding flash.
When the National Guard arrived, most of the neighbors were outside. Sarah watched them trade rumors from the nutshell of her porch swing. Mayberry on her lap. A cup of cinnamon coffee in her green mug that read, I’m a Ray Of Fucking Sunshine. Rumors and speculation was all anyone had at that point. The WiFi and cell service, TV and radio, stopped with the blast. Sarah was no scientist but she’d watched enough movies to know this wasn’t a good sign. And then there was the sky, cast a hazy pink orange that was both light and dark at the same time. For a moment Sarah wished she had a better relationship with her neighbors.
She lived alone with Mayberry for a reason. Here in this house that she had built with her ex-husband. The house that she used to joke that she’d have to be carried out of. “And after that,” she’d say, waving a glass or red, or white, or whatever was around. “I’m gonna come back and haunt it!” Sarah, now five years sober, had once been the drunk lady on the hill. After her husband and kids left she was the crazy lady on the hill. Suffice it to say, she kept to herself.
Sarah checked her watch and then remembered that it too had stopped. Mayberry shifted and snored. Sarah scratched her behind her ears.
One of the guardsmen walked over to Sarah’s porch. A black bipedal cockroach with a large and complicated gun. “Good afternoon Ma’am” His voice was muffled and creepy under his gas mask.
“Good afternoon.” She blew a ripple into her coffee before taking another sip.
“There’s been an explosion ma’am-”
“You don’t say,” she said.
“I’m going to have to ask you to pack up any medications and supplies you may need and come with us.”
“Where?” she asked.
“We have a secure facility ma’am-”
“Oh,” she said. “That doesn’t sound good, does it Mayberry?” She resettled the dog in her lap.
The guardsman shifted his weight. “Animals are being taken into quarantine-”
Sarah put a protective hand on the dog’s head. “Um, not this one.”
“Ma’am we need to figure out what exactly was in the explosion, we need to measure the levels of radioactivity and test for biological-”
“I get that.” she nodded. “But Mayberry stays with me.”
The cockroach was silent. He shifted his fingers on the gun.
“You’re not going to be a problem are you ma’am?”
Sarah laughed, “Sweetie, I was born a problem. Ask anyone.”
Sarah is sure that if she could see the guardsman’s eyes he’d be rolling them.
“Look, ma’am, the radiation…It’s not conducive to life. You need to get checked out.”
Sarah stared over the guardsman’s head. “Life.” She looked him right in the eye lenses. “Thanks, I’ll pass.” She sipped her coffee. “I’m staying here.”
“Ma’am, I can forcibly remove you.”
“You can,” she said. “But I don’t think you will. And please, call me Sarah. All this ma’am stuff is making me feel old.” She finished her coffee. “I’m staying here with Mayberry. Tell the neighbors if they want they can bring their pets to me. I’m not leaving. I’ll take care of them.”
He took a hand off the gun, went to scratch his nose and fumbled over the mask. “Ma’am,” he sounded tired. “Sarah.” He motioned his gloved hand at her. “How do you intend to take care of them? Of yourself?”
Sarah hoisted Mayberry onto her shoulder as she stood. “I’ll figure it out. You just let them know.”
And the animals did come. The cats and the dogs, the rodents and the reptiles. They came with favorite blankets and wrung out toys. With squeaky exercise wheels and water bottles. Sun mimicking heat lamps and supplemental calcium. They came with scratching posts and laser toys, rawhide bones and Kongs, cedar bedding, chew bells, cold stored mealworms and rocks for hiding. Sarah had gone from the crazy lady on the hill, to the savior of the pets of the Eden Falls Subdivision.
She was Noah and the dirty bomb was her flood.
It’s hard to film all of the time, but it is literally keeping her alive. As good as she is at being alone, and Sarah is a pro, she needs help. She needs food, fresh water, and medicine. Her rescue is the Internet. Sarah has become a TikTok sensation. This is what has kept the WiFi and electricity on. Water is shipped in 25-gallon drums along with shelf stable products. There is pet food and medicine, all delivered by robot wagons into the Zone.
Her first viral video featured Mayberry snuffling over a bowl of Royal Canin Glycobalance, and completely ignoring her subcutaneous insulin shot. Sarah made sure the can was prominently displayed in the foreground.
In another, Sarah cheerfully sings the praises of the Kaytee Runabout Small Animal Exercise Ball, as guinea pigs Huey, Dewey and Louie roll across her washable Re-jute rug(courtesy of Ruggable) in plastic orbs. Cthulhu the Russian Blue watched them from the perch of his Yaheetech 61 inch cat tree and condo from Chewy.com.
There is fresh produce as well as soaps, shampoo, laundry detergent and fabric softener. Rolls of toilet paper and paper towels, both regular and eco friendly.
Sarah was featured on the morning show circuit via Zoom. After her appearance on one of the cable shows, the host, whom Sarah had always loathed, quipped with a scrunch of her after market nose, “I wonder what it smells like in there?”
The next day Sarah was awakened by the cheerful beeps of the delivery robot laden with swag boxes from Clorox, Mr. Clean and Bona.
Sarah even received deliveries of beer and wine, which led to a Very Special Episode video in which she discussed her sobriety and thanked her donors for their lovely gift. The robot returned bearing non-alcoholic beers, dealcoholized wines, and a delicious alcohol free red vermouth.
She had saved the wine though. In the basement in a cool dry spot for when things went tits up, as the kids said. Well, more tits up, which was terrifying but something she could count on. When the time came she would have wine for one final toast. She’d pair it with the Pentobarbital that a vet had sent with the other medications. It also worked on humans, just ask the folks on death row.
In some ways her mornings are better now. She can step outside in the clothes she slept in, hair up in a ponytail, sleep loosened and frizzed around her skull baby orangutan style. She drinks as much coffee as she wants, especially the delicious flavored stuff from a company called Berres Brothers. Mayberry starred in that unboxing video, too. Loud snorts as her flat nose hovered over the bag of pumpkin caramel spice culminating in an audible snort of approval with eyes bugged and a flick of her long pink tongue.
The videos were posted under the username @Glowwormfarm. She had decided that her original picks @r0engtenfile, @glowdogglow and @Curie_ositykilledthecat, were insensitive. Sarah thereby dubbed her house, yard, and those of her permanently displaced neighbors with a title that felt more whimsical. Maybe in a thousand years or so someone could reopen it as a pumpkin patch.
One of the things Sarah had loved most about her neighborhood before the bomb was the wildlife. The turkeys that gobbled in shock when she surprised them in her garden, the hawks that circled and the deer that rooted around her impatiens, the constant chirps of chubby chipmunks which may or may not have been tunneling into her foundation. Sarah had loved to watch them all. Now the rare turkey that came by was wizened and silent, the deer skinny and tremulous. The chipmunks and squirrels were nowhere to be seen, and she could only assume that all the hawks had flown away. It made for an eerie quiet. The stink bugs however, continued to buzz and pinball around her house and the mosquitos never tired of biting. Sarah had read somewhere that the word mosquito meant, “little fly” in Spanish. “What’s Spanish for little bastard, May?” she would ask her pug who would respond with a yawn as she snuggled deeper into her Ultra Plush Stress Relief Bed from Petco.
The yoga instructor on Sarah’s app lifts herself into a plank pose. She has long black hair and an exotic name that Sarah would likely pronounce incorrectly if she ever had to say it out loud. The instructor’s body is long and economical in a way that Sarah’s has never been. According to Instagram, she also has a pug, an old one, with a white mask like Mayberry’s, so Sarah figures she must be a good person.
The movement is a nice stretch for her strained muscles. Grave digging is hard work. It has gifted her newly enviable arms but since turning fifty, everything aches, and she’s tired.
After the interment comes the “funeral.” Take today’s loss of Madea the Chihuahua. Sarah laid her in the grave wrapped in her ice cream cone blanket that began life as a tea towel, her beloved octopus at her side. Sarah posted a video as she always did, accompanied by Phoebe Bridgers’ cover of A Prayer in Open D. A collection of shots of Madea in happier times. In the sink with a clot of suds on top of her tiny head, stuck in a plastic pumpkin at Halloween, and sound asleep on Sarah’s pillow with her tongue taffy pulled over her toothless gums. The post ends with the pet’s name, date of birth (if she has it) and date of death. Finally, she presses a rainbow sticker in the corner of the photo on her pet gallery wall, courtesy of Mixtiles.
Sarah stretches her arms over her head, brings them down and presses them together at her chest. She’s not in a hurry to give Madea a sticker, because she knows there are far more pictures with stickers than without. In fact, Madea’s death leaves only Cthulhu the cat, Archimago the iguana and Miss Mayberry herself.
It’s a Tuesday according to Sarah’s phone, when she walks downstairs and is greeted by Cthulhu, tail wound around the coffee maker. She pats him on the head, turned the machine on and headed into the living room to wake up Mayberry.
“May slept in today, didn’t she ‘Thu?”
But Mayberry was not asleep.
Death doesn’t care about dignity, and Sarah can’t stop staring.
No. She thinks. Nononononono.
It’s only when she hears a crash as Cthulhu springs from the kitchen counter that she realizes she’s screaming it.
This was not the plan. Sarah thinks as she packs dirt over Mayberry’s grave, where she will rest forever wrapped in Sarah’s favorite gray sweatshirt, her worn and spitty Ewok tucked between her paws. She drops the shovel and heads inside.
The plan, if you could call it that, was that when Mayberry passed, so would Sarah. Of course for this plan to work Mayberry had to outlive all of the other animals. Sarah had never questioned that she would. She was Mayberry. The one who hid behind her during all of the fights, the one who curled against her stomach as she lay on her bed and cried. It was May who snored beside her when she drunkenly stared at the ceiling and listened to Pink Floyd’s Animals on a loop.
But she hadn’t outlived them all. Cthulhu was currently hidden under the bed or a pile of clothes in her closet. Archimago, who was about a tenth of the way into his expected life span sat in his tank, basking under the controlled rays of his UV lamp.
A pull of a cord in the cellar illuminates the dusty box sent from a vineyard in California.
It’s not like they’ll know right?
Her purple-handled scissors slips through the packing tape.
She’s betraying them. All of this time and energy and she’s just going to leave them?
The bottle gives easily from its molded nest of sustainable materials and releases a happy little glug as Sarah stands up, reconsiders, and pulls another.
They’ll be fine, she thinks, and heads to the medicine shelf, shuffles through the box of syringes and selects one. The vials in the next box clatter together under her shaky hands. Once she stops posting they’ll send a robot for a well check. They’ll find the big lizard and the cat. She’ll leave water for each of them and plenty of food. They’ll find them and–
They’ll kill them is what. People put cats down all the time. And a six foot iguana? Living in an exclusion zone? it’s a no brainer. They’ll be dead. Like they would have been if she hadn’t taken them in in the first place.
Sarah fills a wine glass with vials and tucks a wrapped syringe beside them. The glass, Waterford Carina, a wedding gift, pressed between two fingers and a thumb, her other hand around the necks of both bottles.
She is terrified of needles, but she figures the wine will help her get over her fear.
She unloads the suicide starter pack outside on the dust crusted patio table, surrounded by the wizened ghosts of flowers past and the skeletal sentinels of dying trees. She pierces the cork with a new corkscrew that came with the wine, twists like the pro she once was and voila!. She pours and her ears thrill at the familiar splash of liquid in the glass. With one push of a needle into a vial the plunger goes up and the barrel fills. She places it on the table, and prepares for her first taste of wine in five years.
“To Mayberry!” she says out loud and aims the glass in the direction of the fresh grave marked by a Lladro cross, a gift from her mother. For what? To save her soul?
She raises the glass to her lips and then stops.
And now it’s a grave marker for a dog. Whaddya think of that, Mom?
She laughs out loud, until tears burn at the edge of her eyes. She remembers all of her pets, and all of their little owners who have gotten older and forgotten and moved on. She takes a deep breath in and counts to three, holds it, then lets it out.
It’s not until the needle is hovered over the crook of her arm that she realizes she has no idea what is vein and what is muscle.
If at first you don’t succeed.
She shakes her head and holds the syringe over the glass, presses the plunger and watches the drug stream into the wine. It slows into fat drops until there is nothing left. The fluid swirls at the bottom of the glass and she stares at the hues of cherry red and maroon.
Something is rustling in the woods.
She puts the glass down and turns in her chair.
It’s been so long since she’s heard the mundane crunch of dead leaves. But that’s not all.
From out of the sere bushes comes a dog. Small with dirty reddish curls. Terrier ears high, with eyes as big as its nose.
Sarah puts the glass down, stands and stares.
The dog lowers its head and Sarah hears a small weak bark
“Oh,” she says out loud. Then breathes, “Babies.”
The dog steps forward slowly, three pups huddle behind, and peep around their mother.
A tear slips fast from Sarah’s eye. She opens her mouth to speak but only sobs. She tries again. “Where’d you come from?” she asks the dog. It lifts its head, ears relaxed. Its tail shifts back and forth.
“Come on, Mama,” she says as she holds a hand out and walks toward the small family.
“Come on in,” she says. “You’re going to love it here.”
Kathy Lanzarotti(she/her) is co-editor of Done Darkness: A Collection of Stories, Poetry and Essays About Life Beyond Sadness. She is a Wisconsin Regional Writers’ Jade Ring Award winner for short fiction. Her stories have appeared in (b)Oinkzine, Ellipsis, Creative Wisconsin, Platform for Prose, Jokes Review, Fictive Dream and The Cabinet of Heed.
6 thoughts on “Glow Worm Farm”
A fantastic story that feels frighteningly real!! Congratulations to Kathy Lanzarotti. 👏👏
I love that Sarah finds a reason to live. This short story seems very true-to-life.
Anazingly written – touching and humorous at the same time.
My eyes are filled with tears and my heart with warmth. So much I can relate with, you are a great writer. Wow
I knew it. You were destined to write stories no one else would think of, with practical skill few could match. I was breathing with Sarah and her long-tongued boarders from the first boom to the last pups wandering out of the wood. Readers will love your style. I love being able to say, “I told you so.”