Sun-baked dirt crunched beneath Charley Long’s boots. Every step tested his will to carry on as he plodded uphill towards the high desert knoll’s summit. When he reached the top, he bent over and braced his hands upon his thighs, lungs billowing. Sweat pearled down his face. A rancid smell of sour washcloth wafted up into his nose from inside his airtight, protective suit.
He stood and surveyed the daunting valley before him, where steel and concrete storage tanks puffed in a row out of the desert sand like muffins in a pan. His jaw hung in anticipation. He knew that within the tanks, slushy atomic fusion excrement gnawed against its confinement. Nuclear waste remaining from the Cold War ballistic weapons era. Spawn of split plutonium atoms. Stored up God-awful stuff, no one knew how to get rid of but kept on producing anyway. A cringe crawled under his skin. He sensed the innate desire of what festered before him, to devour all life force.
The city of tanks beckoned beneath the hot sun. He would be among them soon enough. Nausea gurgled in the pit of Charley’s stomach and seeped into his throat, wanting to expel. He winced from desperation, and tearing at his mask, pushed it up onto his forehead. Freed from the covering’s restrictive filtering, he sucked the fresh air in heaves.
Nausea quelled, claustrophobia released, and with a sense of duty commanding, he willed his body to soldier down across the desert sands towards the tanks. His mouth soured again as he gained ground. The chafing of his protective suit rubbing between his legs scratched his nerves. Everything about this mission rubbed him raw. He clenched his teeth and ordered himself forward despite it all. Earn his damn paycheck. That’s for sure.
He knew he’d be in proximity to radiation when he signed on to work at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation. What surprised him was getting sent to the front lines for leaking tank inspection and repair. But the money was good. The federal paycheck and the benefits were way better than anything else available in the high plateau desert on the eastern side of Washington State. The job, a shot at saving the money he needed to buy that plot of homesteading land shining in his dreams.
He twisted his head and checked behind him. His team advanced but remained a good ways back, so he decided to wait for them. Enter together—strength in numbers.
Without warning, a deep, moaning growl cracked the silence of the desert. The frightening bellow reverberated from deep within the tanks’ bowels, sounding like the prelude to some angry underwater symphony. The sludge awakened. Charley jerked to attention and froze. A shudder rippled through him, and his eyes stretched wide as his ears tensed for any other sound.
The ground rumbled and shook in its depths. The sludge stirred. Charley crouched to steady himself, spreading his arms as if ready to jump. While he poised, a turgid, hollow bubbling sound burst into an erupting burp, giving forth like a giant-stomped pumpkin. The sludge spoke. Its breath came unseen, mistily reaching through the ether for Charley. His hands sprang to clutch his face, sizzling in excruciating pain, and he smelled the stench of unholy dread. Inhaling the toxic spew, he crumpled to the ground, writhing in agony, darkness engulfing him into a sea of fire.
Casey Long climbed up from the rushing White Salmon River with her kayak snugged against her hip. Halfway to the top of the trail, she paused to catch her breath. The air rising from the snowmelt water smelled sweet. A smile graced her face. When she engaged with the river, nothing else mattered. The troubling world fell away, and there was only oneness with nature.
She turned from the river and ascended the switch- backing trail. Reaching the top, she went to her trusty Honda parked alongside the country road and slung her kayak up onto the rack, breathing a sigh of relief to have finished the trek up from the river with the boat in tow. Arching her back and bunching her hair behind her head, a light breeze feathered her sweaty neck.
Her phone rang from within the car’s glove box. She opened the box and took out the singing device. “Hello.”
“Hello. Is this Casey Long?”
“Yes. Who is this?”
“This is Clair Wright calling from the Hanford
Nuclear Reservation. Casey, I’m afraid I have some terrible news for you. An accident has killed your brother, Charley.”
Casey’s heart clenched. Her hand flew to the side of her face in shock. “No! Dead? What the hell happened?”
“I’m afraid he got caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. A tragic accident that no one could have expected. Casey, we are so sorry for your loss. Our thoughts and prayers are with you.”
Casey stood stunned. Charley’s death, unfathomable. Images of him, from child to man, whisked through her mind. She squeezed her hands and quaked, calling to the sky in wide-eyed exasperation. “Why, Charley? Why him?”
Her attention fell back into the phone, Clair’s voice speaking into her ear. “He got exposed to radiation and toxic chemicals, and we are holding his body in a special ward.”
Casey answered with a tremor in her voice. “What does that mean, and when can I see him?”
“I’m not authorized to share all of the details, but I can arrange for someone from the Department of Energy to meet with you. Can you be here tomorrow morning?”
Casey exhaled, “I’ll be there.”
“Good, Casey. Something else you should know. We must handle Charley’s radiated body properly, and it requires burying in a special way.” The word, buried, made Casey’s head spin. What would Charley want? Burned or rotted in the ground? She remembered them encountering a decaying deer carcass in the woods as children. The squirming maggots had freaked him out. Burned—that’s what he would want.
“Don’t worry. We can talk more about that tomorrow. Follow the signs to area 200 West and then HPMC. About eleven o’clock? Is that good for you?”
“It should be okay.”
Casey lowered the phone. Reality slapped her. She stomped her foot in the dirt and spun a circle, crying out, “Oh, Charley!” Her eyes squeezed and her tears flowed as the hurt overcame her.
Casey’s housemate, Frank, came up the hill from the river. His wet suit, peeled down to his waist, revealed his buff, inked arm that clutched his kayak as he made for the Honda. A slash of dirty blond hair hung over one eye, and a grin showed the pleasure gained from his run down the White Salmon. He saw Casey slumped against the car; her arms locked across her chest, her eyes blankly staring, her puffy red face laden with pain. He set down his boat and hurried to her side. “Casey, what’s wrong?”
“My brother is dead,” she croaked, and surrendered to his open arms. They held each other by the roadside, rocking in the moment. “He got nuked somehow at Hanford,” she furthered. Her words sickened her. She had never faced death before. Where did he go?
Frank gently held her. “What happened? How could he get nuked?”
She pulled away and wiped her eyes with her arm, her face tightening. “I don’t fucking know. But I sure am going to find out.”
“What happens now?”
“I’m driving out to Hanford in the morning. I have to talk to some special Department of Energy person to get answers,” she said with a doubting curl hanging at the end of her lip that she often held as if scrutinizing the world, not expecting much.
They changed and drove upriver to drop Frank at his truck. Frank broke the quiet between them. “Typical Feds,” Frank said, snugging down his straight-billed, snapback cap with ‘Wicked’ in red letters on the front. He shifted his head side to side as if they might be watching. “They try to make like everything is cool out there. You know, talking about how great their safety programs are, while in reality it’s a leaking cesspool of the most deadly shit on earth. What got into Charley to want to work out there anyway?”
“Lured by big money, I guess. Thought if he toughed it out for a while, he’d get ahead. Not everyone is sitting fat like you.” Frank rolled his eyes and shrugged off her red-neck roots getting the better of her. “I’ll find out the truth about what happened. You’ll see. Somebody is going to pay. They’re not going to get away with murdering my brother.”
“Whoa, girl. I get you being upset, but like what? You’re going to take on the Federal government?”
“Whatever it takes, Frank. I’m saying I’m not afraid of them, and I’m not going to buy into any bullshit. I’ll find out what happened to Charley and who’s to blame.”
At the bottom of the hill, where the White Salmon met the spring melt swollen Columbia River, Casey swung east towards the town of Bingen. On mental auto-pilot, she headed upriver back to her shared ‘little run-down but cute’ home, an estate agent might say. Out of her car window, she saw the big river dotted with kite-boarders launched from the tawny sand bar fingering from the Hood River into the grey-green Columbia. The kite-boarders ripped across the channel, capturing the winds that blew steadily from the west off of the Pacific Ocean. The multi-colored sails, set against a clear blue sky, flew across the water like a kaleidoscope of butterflies luffing into the wind.
Dashing the picture of wind filled colorful sails, an eye-blinding headlight barreled around a bend in the river. It appeared to be coming straight at her. Like breaking the sound barrier, a one hundred car coal train roared into Casey’s brain. It thrust through her, and it’s roar and clamor of vibrating clatter of wheels obliterated all other sounds. It’s inertia gutted her. The force of it leaving her hollow, blowing past her like the life of her brother. Here, then gone, then emptiness and silence. She tightened her grip on the wheel. She just wanted to get home.
The trains through the Gorge ran relentlessly. Following the river banks, they tunneled through basalt cliffs and found their passage from the eastern plains through the Cascade Mountains and down to the sea. The coal and fracked oil trains transported the drilled and dug remains of eras past that greased the present’s wheels and tarred the future. A chunk of loose coal blew out of a train car and bounced off her car’s hood.
“Fuckers!” she screamed, pounding on the steering wheel.
Past the six-block, downtown strip of the lumber mill town named Bingen, Casey turned and drove three blocks before hitting the side street that led to the wood-shingled bungalow. She came to a halt in the large carport, perfect for hanging wet suits and gear. Scattered in front of her in the yard were Frank’s toys: kayaks, windsurfing and kitesurfing boards, sails, a couple of dirt bikes, snowboards, and a snowmobile. Between two glacier peaked volcanos with countless miles of National Forests veined with rivers, the outdoor playing never ended. But today, the sunny fun clouded behind the darkness of death.
Frank parked his pickup beside Casey’s car and joined her in stowing their gear. They walked to the house in silence. The screen door flapped and Jett, a housemate, came out to greet them. He emerged with his dark hair tousled, wearing protective eyewear and a mask dangling on his chest. A peculiar odor clung to him. “How’d it go, guys?” he said with a welcoming smile.
Casey walked past him.
Jett’s head jerked back.
Frank raised a finger to his lips and led Jett into the living room, where he sat Jett down and told the sad tale of Charley’s accident.
“Well, that explains everything,” Jett said, dropping his voice to a near whisper. “Damn awful, isn’t it? Killed by radiation and toxic chemicals. Gruesome, man.” He hung his head. “Poor Casey. She told me how Charley took care of her growing up in Spokane.”
“Yeah, it’s going to be hard for her for a while. You know—sad, angry, and maybe even spiteful. We need to help her get through this tough time.”
Casey flung herself onto her bed, clutching a pillow to her head. Questions bombarded in a repetitious circle. What had happened? People aren’t supposed to die when they go to work. Charley—gone? Death, a stranger.
She wished it a bad dream she could wake from, but it remained valid. Tomorrow, she would learn more. Determined to hold herself together, she got up, showered, and changed for work. She hoped carrying on with her regular schedule would distract from the turmoil of her mind. How she’d make it through the night, she wasn’t sure? Break out the melatonin, she guessed. Tomorrow, she’ll see him—or what’s left of him. She grimaced at the thought. What did radiation do to a person anyway?
She needed to talk to her girlfriend, Lolly. To hear her voice and to share the overwhelming grief with someone intimate. She called. Lolly answered. “Hey, Casey. I was thinking about you, too. Funny how that works. I should be leaving Portland and coming out your way later next week.”
“Something horrible has happened,” Casey said and managed to tell of Charley’s death with agonizing difficulty.
“Oh, Casey. Poor Charley. What a terrible shock. You sound devastated. Are you all right? Look, I’ll get off work and come straight out.”
“No, don’t do that. I’ll be okay. Just hearing your voice is what I need. Sweet of you to offer, but things are happening quickly. I go to see Charley first thing tomorrow, and decisions need to be made about what to do. You don’t need to get involved in all of that. Bad enough that I will have to see his dead body. No reason for you. “
“Sure you don’t want company?”
“I’ll get one of the guys to go with me. Bring some big hugs when you come out next week. Okay?”
“You seem upset. I should come.”
“Let me get past tomorrow. You know, seeing him and all that. I’ll keep in touch.”
“If you say so. Call me if anything changes. You know I’m here for you.”
Lolly’s words were magic to Casey’s ears. All her life, she had needed someone to feel that way. “I love you,” she said.
“I love you too. Call me.”
Jett moved cautiously towards Casey when she entered the living room dressed in her work outfit for bartending across the river in the larger town of Hood River, Oregon. He reached out to her. She came to him. Eyes watering, he hugged her tenderly. She melted into the comfort of his arms. “Casey, I’m so sorry to hear about Charley. Can I keep you company on the ride out to see him tomorrow?”
Jett said what she needed to hear. He had a way of knowing her insides. Casey gripped him at arm’s length and found his eyes. “I’d like that.” She turned and walked towards the front door. The thought of leaving to see dead Charley in the morning slammed her. She stopped before the door. Her shoulders dropped. Her face darkened, and she threw back her head. Shaking her hair defiantly, she cried out, “Fucking Hanford! Why did he have to go there?”