Back in February, I discovered that Litro was running a flash fiction competition on the theme of ‘environmental disaster’. Not my usual choice of topic, but I decided to give it my best shot. Problem was, I only had a night before the deadline. Plus the limit was 700 words, which really isn’t much. (Add another pathetic excuse here.) Thus it’s poorly paced – a classic example of having an elaborate beginning and eventually running out of words to use (though as a literature student, I’d argue that the succession of choppy sentences in the second half exemplify the accelerated rush of events to its denouement; but I’ll shut up now).
But I quite like the concept, and I hope it makes you think, and consider.
by Justin Lau
Minako, 67, tottered over to the sink with a cup, reaching for the tap and tearing off the tape on the spout end.
‘Mother!’ scolded Suzuko. ‘How many times do I have to tell you, leave that alone!’
Minako muttered but sat obediently at the kitchen table as her daughter poured a new two-litre bottle of fresh water. It swirled in her cup, sloshing about. She shut her eyes; it reminded her of the waves fifteen years ago. She took a sip and sighed. The water was good.
Suzuko dug through the drawer for an extra roll of duct tape. The tap must be sealed; no water must flow through. ‘How was your checkup?’ she asked.
Minako met her daughter’s eyes, smiling gently but also in tired resignation.
Suzuko knew and her eyes widened in fright, but she kept quiet, waiting for the verdict.
‘I have thyroid cancer,’ said Minako.
Her voice didn’t tremble as she thought it might. The words felt strange in her mouth despite having practised many times, repeating them months before the diagnosis, all in preparation. Remarkably, she felt a deep sense of calm.
Suzuko closed her eyes, slowly. Tears flowed from her clenched eyelids. Drip, drop, yet she made no sound. Her mother wasn’t groaning, why should she? She fought the desire to fly into a rage, wishing for Minako to do the same. How easy it would be, to lash out in frustration and curse in anger. But she knew it was to be taken in quiet acceptance. This was her mother’s way, and as her daughter she would respect it. They had both known it would happen; it was simply a question of when, and now they knew.
She walked over to her mother and embraced her. There would be no more sobbing between them. Minako gazed at her daughter’s aged and wrinkled face, yet still beautiful with traces of passionate vigour. She used her thumbs to wipe away Suzuko’s tears and nodded once.
Suzuko went back to her cooking.
‘Horrible, just horrible. Nothing has changed,’ murmured Minako as she read the newspaper headline: Fukushima Protests Escalate As Radioactive Water Continues To Leak Into The Pacific.
The two women heard a door slam, followed by stomping in the hallway. Shota and Yuta, 7 and 5, exploded into the dining room, shouting and laughing.
‘Grandma! Grandma!’ they exclaimed, running into her open arms.
‘Good boys.’ She kissed the top of their heads. ‘Go greet your mother.’
They ran and hugged her from behind.
‘Careful!’ said Suzuko as she stirred the boiling pot.
‘What’s for dinner, mum?’ asked Yuta.
‘Your favourite,’ she replied.
‘Curry! Curry! Curry!’ they chanted, dancing around the dining table.
‘Where’s Kenta?’ asked Suzuko.
Her two sons froze and began to fidget uneasily.
She turned to face them. ‘Where is your eldest brother?’
Shota opened his mouth but shut it quickly.
Minako’s eyes widened, the colour draining from her face.
Suzuko knelt down and grabbed his shoulders. ‘Shota! Answer me!’
He burst into tears and wailed. ‘He told me not to tell you *sob* but he said he was going *sob* under the fence –‘
Suzuko dashed out of the house wearing her radiation suit.
She ran parallel to the ten-metre-high security fence, extending along the coast as far as the eye could see. On the way, she spotted a small hole dug underneath the fence, big enough for a child to squeeze through.
She reached the gate and cried out in desperation, ‘Please, let me through! My son is in there!’
She began pounding it with her fists but a guard in similar attire grabbed her arm. ‘Ma’am, I’m sorry but no one is allowed to pass through.’
She threw herself at him, sobbing and beating his chest. She fell to the ground, the guard also helpless.
The next day, 23 August 2026.
On the newspaper’s ninth page, a brief unnoticed article: Boy Takes A Fatal Swim.
© Justin Lau, 2014