Trinitrotoluene

October 29, 2008

This is my fiction piece for creative writing. Enjoy!

“It was a miracle!”

I’d been hearing that a lot lately. Since the accident. The explosion. But I didn’t want to hear it then. And especially not from Josh.

“It was a miracle that you made it out of there alive. And not like a ‘gee, isn’t that nice’ sort of miracle. I mean a ‘God is smiling on you’ miracle!”

Josh and I didn’t really see eye to eye. But of all my friends, he was the only one I ever saw regularly since the accident. Well, met with. I didn’t see much those days. Not since the explosion.

But I could imagine him there. His Bible in one hand and his rosary in the other. Did I mention that Josh would go to Divinity School? At the time he was a chemist. Some things never cease to amaze me.

“I don’t think it was so much a miracle,” I told him. “I mean, I just lucked out.”

Yeah, luck. Not exactly how I remembered. I was TAing an organic chemistry lab full of snot-nosed kids. The price I paid for a free ride through grad school. Half of students were ‘future’ doctors, if their future would ever come. The lab was pretty simple: the nitration of naphthalene. Naphthalene, more commonly known as ‘mothballs.’ So the lab smelled like old people. A comforting smell. Especially since the lab usually smelled like something that might kill you if you just looked at it wrong. Not this week, though. Just old people.

This week’s lab would be like all the others. The kids would mix together a few solutions, stir, and heat. Presto, chango, like alchemy, something different would come out the other end. I don’t think many people realize that chemistry is just glorified cooking. If you can cook a casserole, you can cook methamphetamine. One’s just worth a lot more. And the ingredients are a lot harder to come by.

Anyway, all the kids were scurrying around, pantomiming the molecules in the solutions they were stirring. So far, so good. I hadn’t heard the distinctive crash of glassware. Or the groan of someone that managed to screw up directions like ‘mix A with B.’ Nobody was crying yet. This was a good day, by any standard.

As I surveyed the lab, I could see the looks of despair on some of the students faces. No matter how much I tried to reassure them, they always had the same stunned look on their faces. I wished I could show them how it all fits together. Show them the great gleaming whole that was just beyond their grasp. Instead, I continued my parole, looking for problems before they got out of control.

Everything seemed routine. Then I walked up to the hood of Pyro. His real name was Pierre, but nobody called him that. He was that one kid in lab that nobody paid much attention to. To be honest, I don’t even think he was a science major. I’m not sure how he got into the class. But he did. And he enjoyed himself. This was a kid who took to the lab naturally. But not today. He was scanning his hood frantically. Something was wrong. I ran over to him, but it was too late.

That’s when the hood exploded. Plastic and glass came from all directions. This is why we wear safety goggles, I thought during the split second before the shrapnel hit me. After the initial shock of impact, I was surprised to find that I was still alive. That relief was quickly replaced by dread. The fireball had consumed half the lab. The sprinkler system was on, but the water stood no chance of stopping the fire. Everything was burning. I guess they’re not so far off calling this place hell, I thought. While running for the fire extinguisher, I slipped on some solution that had been knocked to the floor. Darkness consumed me.

I woke up in a hospital bed a few hours late. I couldn’t see. They told me later that the chem lab had been evacuated. A three-alarm fire destroyed the lab area. A group of undergraduates banded together to pull me out. But not before the fire had burnt consumed half my face. The safety goggles melted, fusing with my eyelids. So much for eye protection.  Pyro – sorry – Pierre hadn’t made it. Too many injuries from the explosion. Five other students had been badly burned.

The first moment I could talk, my curiosity got the best of me. I had to know what had exploded. So I asked. The arson team had just filed their report. “TNT,” they said.

It turns out that Pyro had gotten his hands on some toluene. Not many people know that TNT stands for trinitrotoluene. But Pyro did. Apparently he hadn’t been napping during his organic lecture. I mean, the professors don’t go and tell you this stuff. But it doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or an organic chemist) to figure out that if you polynitrate toluene, you’ll end up with something rather explosive. It just takes an internet connection and Wikipedia. Unfortunately for Pyro, toluene is a pretty common solvent. So all he had to do to get his hands on it was walk up to the dispensing hood and pull a lever. Out pours a clear, odorless liquid. A liquid that happens to be pretty dangerous when mixed with sulfuric and nitric acid.

Unfortunately, the professors also don’t tell you that the nitration of toluene can get out of control really fast. There’s a reason bombers used ammonium nitrate when it was available. You didn’t risk blowing yourself up. The nitration of toluene is incredibly exothermic. Add to that the heat Pyro was supplying to the reaction through the heating mantle, and he had no chance.

Yeah, all of this and Josh called it a miracle.

“Don’t you see? You’re alive. You were standing right in front of TNT when it exploded and you made it out alive!”

I could picture the look on his face. Exasperation mixed with wonder. Throw in a little disdain for good measure.

“You know I don’t believe in miracles, Josh. And losing my sight certainly isn’t going to change that. Not for the better, at least.”

I could hear Josh shift on his feet. A nurse walked into the room to check my chart. Susan. I could smell her perfume. My senses really had improved in the months since the accident. I could hear babies crying in the maternity ward. And I could swear that I smelled formaldehyde somewhere in the distance.

“They’re keeping your position for you,” Josh said. “I’ve been talking to Dr. Vansing, and he says that they’ll be happy to take you back when you’re ready to come back.”

There was an uncomfortable silence. I could tell Josh was trying to cheer me up. But how do you cheer up a blind man? Not with a promise of returning to ‘normal.’

“Do you know what we had been talking about in lecture the day of the… accident,” I said.

“Last I’d heard you were talking about thermodynamics.”

“Yeah, the Second Law. The one about disorder. I’ve decided it gets the short end of the science stick.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, everyone’s so focused on evolution. But the real bombshell is the Second Law. ‘Shit happens. The universe is unfair. And it’s just getting even more so by the second.’ Now’s the time to party before the heat death of the universe!”

Another awkward silence. Josh did not appreciate when I got this way. Not that this was anything new since the accident. In undergraduate, Josh and I would pull all-nighters talking about this kind of stuff. Wine and Sartre. Vodka and Dostoyevsky. We tried to keep our discussions themed. So what if we were chemists? It didn’t mean we couldn’t do some thinking on the side.

Josh had gotten me a Braille Bible. I fingered the pages now. Josh breathed a sigh of relief. It all felt like bumps to me.

“Do you ever think about it?” I  said.

“About what?”

“About the heat death of the universe? What it will be like once all the energy is gone and all that’s left is darkness?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I can’t imagine it would be all that nice a place to be.”

“No, I don’t imagine so.”

Josh left me to my musings. I heard him shuffle out of the room. Close the door. Walk down the hall. If I tried, I though I could hear his car starting. Everything was normal.

Staring through the darkness that was once my vision, I could see molecules swirling. A simplified dance, for sure. But still comforting in its simplicity. There, in my minds eye, I saw a tetrahedron, a cube, an octahedron. Plato had been surprisingly prescient in his prediction of the building blocks of matter. Then out of the corner of my eye I saw a hexagon, ornamented with four glowing orbs, three red, one blue. This too was beautiful. I could see it swirling, dancing, playing. But then more appeared, filling my view. Suddenly, they began to shake, shiver, vibrate. And then an explosion. And then nothing.

Sitting there in the blackness, I felt the weight of my body on the hospital bed. I heard the clanking of a candy striper in the hallway. I smelt, well, hospital smell. I could even taste the sirloin steak I’d eaten an hour before. Despite all the stimulation coming into my body, I couldn’t help but think about the darkness that was coming. It wouldn’t come for a googol years. But I could wait. From my solitary room in a solitary corner of a solitary planet in a solitary galaxy in a solitary universe, I would wait.

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One Response to “Trinitrotoluene”

  1. daveinthewest said

    hmmm, this is a little morbid. Good story though.

    Just don’t let it happen to you, lol.

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