NUCLEAR ROMANCE: EXCERPT 6
December 27, 2011 § 2 Comments
It was afternoon when Lou banged out a rough story about the high school game he would cover later that evening. When the game was over, he would fill in the blanks and file the story just before deadline. It would be a story parents and teachers would jump to, anxious to see a picture of their kids and their name in print. His phone rang.
“Padera here. On deadline. Can I call you back?”
“Have you figured out how that young girl really died?”
A woman’s voice.
“Who is this?”
“Check out stuff leaking from the old nuke plant. That will give you a clue.” Click.
Lou glared at the phone. He quickly punched a code to trace the call, but the number was blocked. What was that about? He returned to his story and wrote some formulaic wrap-up that he could change depending on who won the game. He leaned back, his eyes fixed on his phone, his mind picturing the two plant domes on the river’s edge.
– – – – – – – –
Diana Chase wiped the tears from her face. She slowly folded up the newspaper and put Jen Elery’s story out of sight. As the assistant principal of an elementary school, she mustn’t be seen crying, especially for the next ten minutes as she greets kids bouncing off the school bus and funneling through the halls to their classrooms.
She regained her composure and pulled a mirror from her desk drawer, swishing back her straight, dark auburn hair from her angular face, her features a striking composite of her Irish mother and her Asian father. Her dark brown eyes were still red and blotchy, nothing some eye drops and a quick brush of mascara wouldn’t fix.
Outside her window, Diana could see the morning procession of school buses pull up the front drive, their yellow hulks casting a golden hue over the brightly lit office. She kept the room sparse. Except for her computer, a neat stack of folders on a file cabinet, and a single shelf of books, Diana allowed herself only a few personal items: a large aquarium by the window for her box turtle and a long, colorful dragon kite arching a far corner near the door. On her desk was a small picture of her shih tzu, Lin, next to a slightly larger, years-old picture of her parents, her mom’s flaming red hair tickling the cheek of her smiling dad.
Diana stood up and did a quick yoga stretch and headed out into the reception area, where she could see directly into the office of the principal, Jane Bigley. Jane hired Diana five years ago, and the two women ran the school like clockwork. Jane was considerably older than the thirty-eight-year-old Diana, and except for butting heads a few times over school policy, they got along. Ultimately, both women were professionally committed to the students; in the great educational complex, the kids came first.
The reception area was large, with two desks for secretaries and one for a receptionist. Two of the desks were empty; one secretary was out on maternity leave and the receptionist had taken early retirement. Diana’s morning station was traffic control in the school lobby; stopping the running and pushing, saying hi to the kids she knew, checking their energy—who was excited, who was sickly, who would get in trouble that day. It was the faces of kids streaming past her each morning that inspired Diana and fueled her dedication.
“Hey, Jimmy! Remember your lunch today?”
“Sure did, Ms. Chase!”
“Don’t drop your violin, Meghan!”
“I got it, Ms. Chase.”
As the parade thinned out, Ricky Elery walked in, his gait slow, eyes to the floor. Diana fought the tears and looked away. Suddenly Jane was by her side and stepped up to the boy.
“Hi, Ricky. Are you competing in the fifth grade readathon this month?”
“Oh. Hi, Mrs. Bigley. No. I’m just not up to it this time.”
He looked at Jane and Diana, sensing their pity.
“See ya,” he said, turning toward the stairs to his second-floor classroom.
Diana turned to Jane.
“Good try. Do you think he’s okay?”
“Don’t know. Let’s keep our eye on him. Here’s a tissue.”
Diana dabbed her eyes and nodded toward the outside parking lot.
“His mom is still driving him to school every day. She sits in the parking lot for about an hour before she leaves.”
“Poor Jen Elery.”
“Can we do anything for her?”
“Don’t know. Let’s try to come up with something.”
After teaching for almost thirteen years, Diana knew that the worst emotional trauma for a school community was the loss of a fellow student. Shocked by Kaylee’s death, the PTA organized a candlelight vigil and a food campaign to deliver meals to Jen and Ricky for the next few months. But the distraught, estranged mother shunned the offer. She wanted no part of the vigil. She just wanted to be left alone.
Diana headed for her office, half listening to Jane over the PA system incant the Pledge of Allegiance and then segue into morning announcements.
Diana sprinkled some dried turtle food into the aquarium, which took up a large place on her windowsill. She looked out to the parking lot, at the bright yellow forsythia bordering the edge, which sent out a fiery glow. At the far end of the lot, Diana saw Jen sitting in her car, staring at the school. It seemed the grieving mother wanted to stay as close to her son as possible.
Diana stared at Jen’s car. After a minute, she picked up the phone and punched Jane’s extension.
“What’s happening with the part-time receptionist job out in front?”
“The job’s on hold for now.”
“Could we offer it to Jen Elery?”
“Maybe. She could give it a try as a volunteer and then see . . .”
Two minutes later Diana was outside walking slowly toward Jen’s car. As she got closer she saw that the woman had her seat tilted back and seemed to be sleeping. Diana softly knocked on the window. Jen startled up, glaring at Diana through the closed window. Then slowly she rolled the window down.