Day 42

The universal post! I’m continuing my story from yesterday since I didn’t get as far as I’d hoped. Prompt: Write an entry inspired by what you can’t see.


The job turned out to be a good match for me. The long, quiet hours monitoring the reactor were soothing. The pay was enough to help my dad finally pay off the mortgage and repair his dusty old sedan. We fell into a pattern, his breakfast acting as my dinner and vice versa. I would still pack him lunch every night before heading to work, making two now (though I didn’t put a note in mine). It was a good life, I decided after the first year.

I was offered the promotion to day shift a year and a half later but I declined. I had an easy rhythm at night with hardworking coworkers. They said I was crazy to turn it down. “Jamie,” they said. “Day shift is everyone’s dream. The nine-to-five, home-for-dinner-with-the-family dream.”

“I have dinner with my dad. We have breakfast for dinner twice a week as a joke.”

They were probably right, and I probably should have taken the promotion. Habits are hard to break. If I had taken the promotion, I probably wouldn’t be here now, here in this disintegrating radiation suit, here trying to prevent tragedy.

It started about two hours ago, a quiet blinking of red on the panel. I stared at it for a minute, a cold sinking feeling creeping up my gut, that sixth sense your body has when everything is about to go wrong. Everything did go wrong.

Investigating the blinking red light led to a blinking red panel that told me the reaction was beyond reasonable parameters and needed to be shut down. Investigating the shutdown console led to a necessary manual override. Investigating the manual override procedure led to strapping into a radiation suit.

That’s where I am now, half suspended on a ladder over a tank of water, the eerie blue glow of the overreaction below me. It’s hot in here, too hot, hot in more than just temperature. The reaction has grown outside of the water tank, grown enough that I shut off the Geiger counter strapped to my waist for sounding like a continuous tone. The rods are firmly stuck in place, dangling like daggers, ready to plunge into the heart of the reaction and shut it down. Ready but unwilling.

The plastic of the suit rubs against my skin, and I can feel it flaking away as it’s bombarded with radiation. It was never designed to handle this level of a leak. I keep climbing up the rafter, climbing to the rods, each rung harder than the last. I should be thinking about how I don’t want to die, how I don’t want this to be the end of my short life. Those thoughts will only slow me down, keep me from stopping this reaction before it becomes too much and causes a meltdown that kills this whole damn town.

That’s what’s important to me now. My father, coughing in bed because he won’t quit smoking. The children on the block, tucked in tight and dreaming about having a snow day tomorrow. Maria’s dog that likes to bark and follow me as I run past her house in the evening. They are what matter now.

The rods are just above me now, and I breathe a sigh of relief. Almost done. It’s getting harder to breathe. The first rod slides free of its holding mechanism, dropping a couple feet and waiting to be released into the tank. One down, five to go. The second, third, and fourth ones are easily freed, but the fifth gives me trouble. There’s rust on the mechanism – the fifth and sixth rods are only used in emergency situations like this one. It takes me a full minute to release the fifth and almost two to release the sixth. By the end, I am panting, thankful of the harness that’s keeping me from falling into the tank below.

Traveling down the ladder is easier. I unhook from the harness as my feet touch the floor, stumbling my way to the control panel. I release all the rods. They hit the reaction with a resounding clang that echoes in the large chamber. The blue light dims in a second, and I know that everything is okay now. The residual radiation in the room will fade, in time, but the damage inside me will not. That many mutated cells only leads to one thing: slow death.

I could leave now, go to the hospital and get treated for radiation poisoning, spend maybe a year coughing blood into napkins and telling my dad everything will be okay. He’d never survive that, not after watching my mom die so many years ago. It’s better if I stay here, let the residual radiation cook my insides, save him the pain of watching.

The metal of the door is sturdy behind me as I sit, setting the timer so this door won’t unlock until the minimum safe level has been reached. Who knows how long that will take. I take off the suit, slowly shedding the plastic to reveal my peeling skin underneath. I must look horrible. I pull out the family picture I keep hidden in my wallet. We took this picture

I pull out the family picture I keep hidden in my wallet. We took this picture on vacation the year before mom got diagnosed. I trace my finger over her face, trying to remember her like this, like she was on this vacation and not how she was in that hospital bed. My little brother is missing his two front teeth. He’ll have to come home now that I’ll be gone. Someone will need to take care of dad, tell him to quit smoking and make him lunches.

I kiss the picture, wiping at the blood left behind. It won’t be long now. One last trip.


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