It’s a small audience: The director, the screenwriter, and a group of handpicked critics given the opportunity to witness the first cut.
The director is a shrewd man, an intelligent man. Open to discussion, welcoming of debate and dissection. He sits in the very back of the screening room. Wispy, gray cigarette smoke lingers from the ember bouncing between his lips, and joins the translucent cloud that undulates and spreads with each critic’s own toxic exhalation. Only the screenwriter sits without something to occupy his hands. He is seated in the middle of the arranged rows of chairs, invisible between the director and the critics with their amber-tipped cigarettes and notepads and pens. His eyes do not look away from what is yet to take place.
The projector switches on, and the whirring starts again, and the cloud of smoke is tinged blue as the film’s title card flashes in dull gradients on the screen:
THE FLOWERS ARE BLOOMING IN CHERNOBYL.
There is no music, and no credits. The title is written in bold and white lettering over a black background. The director wants the audience to focus on nothing but the words. The director wants the audience to meditate on the words, without frills or distraction. He requires an empty, weightless mind to absorb the information, and everything that underlies it. The director wants the words to be tattooed inside the mind of each audience member like psychic warfare.
The opening scene now begins. There is no wipe or fade-in. It is sudden and direct, and violent in both these aspects.
The boy sits on a bed in an empty and locked room. Outside, screaming can be heard. The words themselves are muddled, but the words are not important and they never have been. They are empty and devoid of reason. It is the volume and the tone that matters. Objects crash against the walls and shatter upon the floor, but the boy doesn’t see what objects they are. The boy only sees the blank room and the locked door. The volume of the words grows and grows and grows, until trickles of crimson blood run down from the boy’s ears. Only when the blood drips onto the floor does the screaming stop. Only now does the door open.
The boy stands and walks out into the hallway. All he can hear is the incessant ringing dulled by punctured eardrums, and it is as if the boy floats underwater when there is no water at all and nothing in his way.
The director taped wet washcloths over the boom mic to achieve this effect, and he desperately wants to share this with the critics, but he remains silent, hands clasped, enraptured by his own work, the cigarette smoldering to the filter between his trembling lips.
The screenwriter stares ahead. Tears pour down his face, and they glint in the film’s radiant glow that bathes the screening room, but the audience is focused and they will never know this ever happened. The screenwriter will never speak about why he is crying because no one will ever ask, and so this will be a secret he carries with him until his death.
The hallway is thick with the stench of bile and weeks-old vomit, and the stronger the smell becomes, the more difficult it is for the boy to walk. The boy looks down at his feet and sees that he wades through a bog, a swamp. The swamp is not mud nor water, but gallons and gallons of puke. The puke is yellow and the puke is green and the puke is red, and it bubbles and swirls like magma harboring the screaming soul of the Earth.
The critics murmur to each other and write notes in the dark. They can’t read what they’re writing but the words are there on the edge of the pens. When the ink touches the paper, the lines and loops and dots evaporate into the air. They inhale nicotine and smirk and fidget. The director glances at the critics but doesn’t linger. He dares not exit the trance he’s cultivated for himself.
The boy shows no emotion, and doesn’t react to the staggering and putrefied environment. He has nowhere to go but forward. There is no leaving and no escaping. He enters the living room from where the violence was born. An older woman sits on a couch in the corner, sobbing and howling into her hands. Her whole body convulses. Her body cries with her. It feels the same pain that her mind does.
The boy makes no attempt to speak to the woman. Her cries are muted behind the blood pooling inside his ears, and the vomit rises up to his knees. He can’t reach her. It acts as a wall, a barrier to any comfort he could provide. And so he turns away.
He comes to a long staircase. The staircase stretches farther and farther down the longer he gazes. Vomit begins to seep through the walls, pouring through cracks like rats escaping a sinking ship. The boy knows he is running out of time. He wants nothing less than to go downstairs but knows that he has to, that his decision was made for him a long time ago, and to go back now would be to doom his future. It will make him what he will soon become. For better or worse the boy knows he will make this decision. The boy wants to see the man that will replace him.
The moment the boy takes his first step, the stairs collapse and the boy slides down. The vomit is slick and wet and the fall is frictionless, and the farther the boy slides, the steeper the fall becomes. He crashes to the bottom and a great wave of puke washes over him. It fills his open mouth and ears and coats his pajamas and it is warm and acidic and it burns his skin and he screams, he screams, but there’s no noise. No one hears him. Even the boy is alarmed by the scream. This is an objective truth: Vomit fills the halls and fills the home, and so the boy too will be no exception.
The boy now stands at the end of a new hallway. The door opens for him. It urges him inside. This is his choice to make. The stairs reemerge and set themselves right to prove this. The boy can leave if he wants. But he won’t. The nucleus of his future throbs and pulses at the end of this hallway. To step away now would be to defy predetermined destiny. It’s counterintuitive but it’s the truest sentiment the boy will ever conceive. There’s no destiny without choice, and so the boy steps forward. This is the greatest moment of his life.
The girl stands in a corner of the room. Though her face is puffy and red from tears and stress and violence inflicted upon others, her expression is mute and placid. She looks into a standing mirror, combing long, blonde hair that falls down to her knees. In this room there is no vomit on the floor or pouring through the walls. The carpet is pristine and white. Black garbage bags sit in pretty little piles, dotting the room like mounds of earth in the grass. The boy doesn’t know it yet, but he hates her. He will hate her more than anyone in the world other than the Great Liar that will change the trajectory of his adult life. But the boy isn’t an adult. The boy doesn’t know what will come. The boy doesn’t see the future. He sees his sibling in a clean, white room with many black trash bags, combing her hair in the mirror.
Don’t put me in a box, she says.
The boy doesn’t answer. He walks over to the trash bags, and opens the one at the top of a pile. He is struck with the familiar stench, and he sees the gallons of collected vomit, and bits of undigested food, and he sees the sickness as it appears in the tangible world outside of the girl’s mind.
Don’t let them put me in a box, she says.
The girl combs her hair and watches the boy stare into the bag of concealed vomit.
When the boy again doesn’t respond, the girl steps towards him and grabs him by the back of the head. She forces his face into the bag of vomit, until it fills every orifice, until it enters his throat and his lungs, until he can see nothing else, smell nothing else. It is the contents of her being. It is what came from within her, and the boy doesn’t realize this but she is imparting to him the most valuable lesson about her that she will ever be able to teach.
The boy lifts his head from the vomit and watches as the girl floats back over to the mirror and continues brushing her hair. He feels the tears welling up inside him, and he wants to cry, but he understands on a level so deep it is subconscious and instinctual, that there is nothing from it to be gained.
The boy lies down on the clean, white carpet, and falls asleep to the absence of sound.
The film ends, and cuts to black. The projector ceases to whir. The lights come on. The critics whisper in each other’s ears before addressing the room. Or rather, addressing the director.
It’s derivative, says one.
It’s not believable, says the other. It would play better if it were the father and not the sister. That’s easier for an audience to grasp. To rally behind. That’s a simpler story to tell.
This will bomb at the box office, says another.
The critics snigger and light new cigarettes, and the smoke that trails to the ceiling is no longer tinged blue but it is gray and black like the plumes of smoke that hover over a forest fire. They all stand, pat the director on the shoulder, and walk out of the screening room.
The director’s gaze turns vacant. He sits rigid before reaching into his waistband, and removes a pistol. He sticks the barrel inside his mouth and pulls the trigger. His body slams backward and sprawls across the floor.
The screenwriter doesn’t move and doesn’t react. He stares at the blank screen as tears run down his face. The screenwriter smiles.