May 11

How To Survive a Nuclear Meltdown

By Michele Finn Johnson

The ghost who inhabits my powder room is a thermodynamic anomaly—she generates an enormous quantity of heat versus radiating the chill commonly associated with the spirit world. My realtor and I noticed this wild temperature swing during our pre-purchase walkthrough, but the home inspector said it was just an HVAC system imbalance and to close the vent. No luck. Stay in that powder room long enough, and you’ll swear you’re going through menopause, but from the outside in.


The ghost’s name is Edith. My grandson, JJ, talks with Edith frequently now that he can fly solo for his number ones and twos. JJ says Edith makes him laugh. She tickles me, and my pee comes out fast!

JJ sits on my lap for story time; he paws at my gaucho pants.

Edith wears Lulu Melons like Mommy.

His mommy—my daughter-in-law—freaks if I give JJ a french fry. I’m not her first choice for babysitting, but I’m her best choice ever since I retired from the power plant and moved two blocks away. She knows motherhood’s not my strong suit; I’m much better at fixing nuclear core meltdowns than the toddler type.

Let’s keep Edith between you and me, okay JJ?


The exorcist I hire off of Craigslist says the best chance for success is on the eve of a solstice. Is it smart to wait three months?  I answer the exorcist’s emailed questions—No, Edith isn’t causing anyone harm; No, Edith isn’t creating any physical property damage; Yes, Edith’s staying put in the powder room. Sounds like the perfect houseguest, the exorcist replies. We set a date in June.


My daughter-in-law calls in a panic—JJ has a fever and can’t go to daycare. Can I keep him today? She drops him off with a thermometer, temperature log, and written instructions on administering his meds. I’m measured with my affirmations to her—UnderstoodOf course; Yes, I’ll set a timer—acutely aware that she’s scanning my kitchen for toxins like gluten and cane sugar.

JJ paddles down the hall toward the powder room. Can I visit Edith?

My daughter-in-law scoops him up, gives me a look. Who’s Edith?

I take JJ from her. That’s our secret code for going potty.

Later, my dove, I whisper into JJ’s bangs, measuring the temperature of his forehead with my lips. My, that’s quite the fever!


JJ’s clammy and gray; his fever will not break. His napping head numbs my lap; I tell myself that, in the future, I will not be quick-tempered when JJ butt-sleds down my staircase or repeatedly opens and closes the refrigerator door.

The timer goes off. In goes JJ’s thermometer. 104 degrees. I look at my daughter-in-law’s temperature log. His fever’s been climbing steadily for hours. She didn’t give me a limit—a panic number. It’s been thirty years since JJ’s father was a toddler, but 104 sounds bad. Dangerous.

JJ, let’s get up and go potty. Then we’re going for a ride.

JJ sits on the powder room toilet, but he’s so woozy, I have to hold him steady. Come to think of it, I’m pretty lightheaded too. No breakfast, half a bagel for lunch. Christ, the heat in this powder room—even with the door open to the hallway, it has to be ninety-five degrees in here. It feels like my old control room in the power plant, so close to the generating cores, I found it hard to believe I wasn’t being irradiated, no matter what the safety meters said.

Come on, JJ, make a tinkle for Nana.

I don’t wanna.

Urgent Care or ER?  I should probably call and ask my daughter-in-law or face the wrath of a wrong decision.

JJ points at something behind me. Edith says we should stay home.

Every hair of mine, even those on my legs, is electrified. Is she trying to kill my grandson? Maybe the Craigslist exorcist makes emergency house calls.

Well then, Edith must not be a mother, because she’d know a little boy with a high fever needs to go to the doctor’s.

JJ starts to laugh; he kicks his heels and swats at the air—Stop! Stop! It tickles!—and the stream of pee we’ve been waiting for comes out in a torrent.

I rip a couple squares of toilet paper off the roll and dab JJ dry. Sweat beads bloom across his forehead.

All better now! He giggles, blows kisses to the back wall.

I lay the back of my hand against his cool, damp forehead. Edith—a steaming ghost—out-mothered me.

JJ stares at me with the look his mother has perfected—composure combined with an equal measure of disdain. Edith says you were mean. Edith wants you to say you’re sorry. 

Edith’s right. When did motherhood become a competitive sport? When did bettering each other become the goal?

I’m sorry, Edith.

Intense heat rises up from my toes to my head, like a controlled fission reaction. JJ’s turning blurry. My eyes grow leaded; they close.

Edith will make you all better, Nana, just like she fixed me.

Something, someone, begins to pat down my damp, thinning hair. My mother, putting me to bed when I had the mumps. Patting, patting. My free hand grasps hers—everything arrives from long ago, all at once. Mother, coaxing me to sip cola-flavored medicine from an icy spoon. Mother, rolling cool washcloths, draping them across my forehead.  Those papery fingers. The thinnest of heartbeats. I want to hold onto her forever, memorize her framework, but then she finds it—the tickle spot hidden at the edge of my ribs. She wriggles her knuckles into me until I crackle with laughter.

Nana better now?

Coldness surrounds me; my core’s filled with control rods sucking the fever right out of me.

Magic words, Nana?

Thank you, Edith.

JJ pokes at my nose, splatters my cheek with wet kisses. His puppy breath’s so pungent, so cool against my face. So keenly alive.



Michele Finn Johnson’s work has appeared in Colorado Review, Mid-American Review, Booth, The Adroit Journal, DIAGRAM, Barrelhouse, SmokeLong Quarterly, and elsewhere. Her work was selected for Best Small Fictions 2019, has been nominated several times for a Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Best Microfiction, and won an AWP Intro Journals Award in nonfiction. Michele lives in Tucson and serves as fiction editor at Split Lip Magazine. Find her online at and on twitter @m_finn_johnson.


Art by Michelle Johnsen, art editor

Michelle Johnsen is a nature and portrait photographer in Lancaster, PA, as well as an amateur herbalist and naturalist. Her work has been featured by It’s Modern Art, Susquehanna Style magazine, Permaculture Activist magazine,, EarthFirst! Journal, Lancaster Farm Fresh Cooperative, and used as album art for Grandma Shake!, Anna & Elizabeth, and Liz Fulmer Music. Michelle’s photos have also been stolen by, The Daily Mail, and Lancaster Newspapers. You can contact her at mjphoto717 [at]