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“WELL, THE TOWN doesn’t appear to be glowing.”
Mom kept her eyes on the road. The silence lingered until Charlie blurted out, “Crickets!”
I laughed and angled toward the back seat. “Where’d you get that from?”
“You, you big dummy!” Charlie cackled. He was six. “‘Awkward silence equals crickets,’ you said.”
I gave his knee a squeeze. Mom had traveled this route thousands of times but not in the past eleven months and never as part of a bumper-to-bumper convoy that stretched on for miles toward the outskirts of town. “I just don’t think it’s funny is all,” she said.
“I don’t, either,” I said. “I’m the one who was in the hospital.”
She shot me a glare, then returned her attention to the rear bumper of a black Toyota SUV with the number 80 affixed to its license plate. “Not from radiation, though.”
“That’s true,” I said. “The meltdown played no role in my accident.”
Mom gripped the steering wheel tighter. The accident was a sticky subject.
“It wasn’t a meltdown,” she said.
“Right,” I said. “It was an explosion at a nuclear plant that caused the evacuation of an entire population. Nothing to see here.”
“I didn’t hear a boom,” Charlie chimed in. “Explosions go boom.”
“I didn’t hear a boom, either,” I said. “We’ll have to ask Dad whether there was one.”
Dad worked for the Mount Hope Nuclear Power Plant and stayed there while we were relocated to a refugee camp.
Mount Hope, South Carolina, is tucked into a valley between two mountain ranges. It’s accessible only by two roads, one from the north and one from the south. Likewise, there were two refugee camps, the main one north of town and the so-called sick (code for radiation exposure) camp to the south. Mom, Charlie, and I were in the latter one, thanks to my accident. Most folks I knew—including almost every other kid—were in the healthy-people camp, though even they were quarantined.
And now we were all getting to go home at last.
“Dad says it’s not going to be safe to live in Chernobyl for twenty thousand years,” I said. “So we’ve got a 19,999-year jump on them.”
Mom wasn’t having it. “And I say this wasn’t Chernobyl. It was more like Three Mile Island, if you want to start comparing nuclear-plant incidents.”
“I was thinking The China Syndrome,” I said.
“This happened in China, too?” Charlie asked.
“How do you even know that movie?” Mom asked.
“I have my ways,” I said, detecting what, for the first time in a while, appeared to be the crack of a smile on my mom’s face.
She can’t help it. She’s amused that I drop references to movies from her era and before. People don’t realize there’s this thing called the internet—and YouTube and On Demand, for that matter.
Speaking of which, I checked my phone again. Still no signal.
At the camp, there was no cell-phone service, and our data was limited. We could send and receive emails—no attachments, of course—but getting onto a website? Fuggedaboutit.
“You know who says it’s safe?” Mom asked. “Your father.”
“Right. Dad,” I said. “I remember that guy.”
“No, it’ll be nice not to be in a single-parent household. Truly.”
“Will Daddy still have a sunburn?” Charlie asked.
“Good question,” I said. “Maybe he’s catching up to me on the shade scale.”
We were able to talk to Dad a couple times on the camp landline—he had clout enough to arrange that—and he told us about the radiation burns he’d received. Normally his skin was on the light-but-not-too-light side that would make people wonder whether he was Italian or Middle Eastern or even…black? Mom brought the darker cocoa to the mix, which explained why Tico liked to call me Latte.
Our beat-up Nissan sedan inched forward, with Mom keeping a healthy distance behind car No. 80. Our SUV was totaled in the accident.
The town alarms had sounded, and the evacuation was shifting into high gear. And so, apparently, was Hank Bradshaw’s Ford F-350. Mom was rushing to pick up Dad at the plant, not knowing that he wouldn’t be joining us after all. She certainly didn’t know that we’d sustain a direct hit to the passenger-side door and would all wind up in the hospital and then the so-called sick camp.
Her right leg got snapped like a wishbone, though now she not only was walking without a limp but had resumed her morning jogs. Charlie took some flying glass in his left arm and across his forehead but otherwise, miracle of miracles, was in tip-top shape. As for me, well…
Like I said, we were gone for eleven months. I remember ten of them. I was in pretty bad shape, or so they tell me. Mom tallied the surgeries for me: seven. Her tearstained face was what I saw when I finally came out of the coma-slash-delirium that the docs had me in. Being a mom isn’t the easiest job, and I admit I’m no walk in the park.
“How’s your head?” she asked now, eyes fixed on the road.
“Fine,” I replied, though it had been aching over the past few days. I reached up and touched the scar on the back of my scalp. I’d never been able to adjust the mirrors in the hospital or our trailer to get a full view, but my phone camera captured the spiderweb of pink scar tissue that contrasted brightly against my smoky skin.
My skull had been fractured in three places, though doctors said there had been zero lasting damage. I couldn’t say the same about my right arm, which had a zipper running lengthwise along its underside. It was full of pins and screws and always felt a little numb. My right knee had a neat circle drawn around the cap, and my chest wounds looked as if they were outlining pectoral muscles that I was just starting to develop. The four broken ribs on my right side hurt whenever I did anything athletic, which was going to be a problem when I tried out for football.
Mom breathed in and out through her mouth, in the shape of an “o,” then said, “What if our house was looted?”
“That’s what you’re worried about?” I laughed.
“It’s been sitting there for almost a year. You never know.”
She stretched an arm to the back-seat floor to grab a cigarette pack in her purse.
“No,” I said.
She’d quit smoking before I was born but started again after the evacuation. She went from smelling like lavender shampoo to stinking of stale smoke, but at least she smoked only outside. She knew better than to make Charlie and me suffer in the car.
“Sorry,” she said, dropping the pack back into her purse. “It’s just, they said at the camp that we shouldn’t get our hopes up that everything is going to be perfect. Why would they say that if there wasn’t going to be a lot of damage?”
“If someone messed with our house,” Charlie declared, “I’ll hunt them down and pop a cap in their ass!” Mom almost swerved off the road before shooting me an accusatory look.
“I might have been quoting Pulp Fiction to him again,” I muttered.
“Don’t worry, Mom,” Charlie said. “I’m trying real hard to be the shepherd.”
Mom’s right foot alternated between the gas and brake pedals. We were moving that slowly. But soon I saw the green sign that read WELCOME TO BOXSMITH COUNTY, and I knew we were close. Everything looked more familiar now, even the trees, which had grown especially lush since we left.
“Do you know when you’re going back to work?” I asked Mom.
“Doug emailed me that the bank may open as soon as tomorrow because people want to check on their money.”
The caravan meandered along the south road beside the Sweetbay River.
I checked my phone again. Still no signal.
Mom turned on the radio, and a deep, authoritative voice intoned, “…continue along your directed route. When you reach Mount Hope town limits, military police will direct you further. Please continue along your directed route…”
It was a loop. I punched the button for the classic-rock station, but the message was there, too. It was everywhere, up and down the dial, AM and FM. Mom turned it off.
“Do you think everything will look the same?” Charlie asked.
“We’ll know soon enough,” I replied.
EVERY HALF MILE or so, a military Jeep was parked on the side of the road with camouflage-clad officers monitoring the caravan with walkie-talkies pressed to their faces. One especially muscle-bound guy fixed his steely eyes on me until we moved past him.
My head hurt even more until I saw the Tastee Freeze. The sign’s hundreds of little lightbulbs were all lit, perhaps for the first time ever.
“Let’s get ice cream!” Charlie announced.
“It won’t be open now,” Mom said. “It’s ten in the morning, and people are just getting back.”
“But it is. Look!”
Sure enough, a line of about twenty smiling people snaked from the pickup window around the corner into the parking lot.
“Huh,” she said again, guiding the car past the courthouse and library, their lawns full, green, and perfectly manicured. As we paraded up Main Street, the storefronts and sidewalks all looked power-washed, their windows glinting in the late-morning sunlight.
“What town is this?” Mom asked. “It’s a little too perfect, isn’t it?”
As she turned onto Oak, the traffic dispersed, and we had a clear shot home. But when we arrived at a stop sign, I announced, “You know what? I’m gonna get out here if you don’t mind.”
“Are you crazy, Jordan?” Charlie barked, but Mom had a knowing look on her face.
“Tell Maggie we say hi,” she said.
“Sure thing,” I said, chagrined, as I closed the door behind me and was immediately overwhelmed by the scent of freshly mown grass and flowers in full bloom. Since when did Mount Hope smell like a greenhouse at peak season?
Mom lowered the passenger-side window. “Please be back soon to help unpack. I may need your help figuring out what was looted.”
“Ha,” I said. “Okay.”
“Give your girlfriend a big KISSY!” Charlie chimed in.
“She’s not my girlfriend,” I muttered as they pulled away. I pulled up her number on my phone, but still…no service.
Maggie and I weren’t dating. She’d been my best friend since we were little, and I didn’t want to mess up a good thing. She was one of those girls who’s better-looking than she realizes—or if she did realize it, she never let on. Her blond hair had a life of its own. So did her hazel eyes.
Yet, if anything, we had grown closer while we were away at our separate camps. Her emails were the one thing that kept me from going crazy at a place where the only people my age wore military uniforms.
“Where are you going?” a raspy voice behind me called as I walked down a quiet sidewalk beside weedless lawns, immaculate houses, and even a few new white picket fences. I turned to see a soldier with stubble on his baby face and a large rifle at his side.
“Just headed to my friend’s house,” I said. “We were in different camps.”
“The town of Mount Hope is currently under martial law,” he said with a robotic intonation. “You must heed the curfew rules until the emergency protocols are lifted.”
I fast-walked in the other direction, not looking back until I hit a dirt path. The empty lot next to Redmond’s Lumberyard was a shortcut to Maggie’s house. The grass and weeds were almost as tall as I was.
As I made my way through the thicket, I heard a growl.
You know how something might sound large or small to you? Whatever made this noise did not sound small.
It was not a cat.
It was not a dog.
There it went again, louder. It reminded me of when I visited the Charleston zoo, and a lion roared and the bars seemed to shake.
And there it was, about thirty feet away, standing up on its haunches amid the weeds.
A bear. A ten-foot-tall bear.
I remembered from Boy Scouts that brown bears attacked when they were hungry, but grizzlies liked to fight for the sake of it. This bear was black.
I knew there was a hole in the lumberyard’s chain-link fence halfway down. The bear was right behind me, snorting like a bull just before it charges.
Now I wasn’t running; I was flying, going faster than I’d ever gone in a football game. I ducked behind an old red cedar tree next to the fence and—shit. The fence had been fixed, the hole gone. Thanks, do-gooding military.
Not looking back, I latched onto the limbs of the cedar and started climbing, my old sneakers scraping against the loose bark of the branches.
I made it up that tree in an instant and dropped to the ground on the other side of the fence, sticking the landing with my knees bent, including the surgically reconstructed one. It didn’t even hurt. I looked back at the bear halfway up the tree, grabbed a piece of loose lumber off the ground, and heaved it like a javelin.
Bam! That wood got a snoutful of bear, knocking the animal off the tree and back onto the path on the other side of the fence. It landed with a squeal and an ummph.
NERF WAS THE sweetest golden retriever ever. He didn’t walk so much as hop on his paws. His ears would prick up, his brown eyes would brighten, and he’d let out a gentle “Aarf! Aarf!”
Now Nerf was slamming his face against his kennel cage, lunging, barking, and trying to gnaw through the plastic bars. He had murder in his eyes, and those eyes were aimed at me.
“What is wrong with him?” I asked my mom again, crouched on the floor of her veterinary office.
“I gave him a sedative,” she said. “He should be calming down soon.”
“He should’ve calmed down already.”
Mom let out a dramatic sigh. On the drive back from camp, the McAlisters rear-ended the Mitchells about twenty-five miles from town. There must’ve been fifty soldiers on the scene within thirty seconds.
“Could this be a reaction to the radiation?” I asked from the floor. “It’s like he got infected the moment we were back in town.”
“No,” Mom said, stepping into the entryway to pick up a suitcase. “Radiation doesn’t work like that. And that’s all gone, anyway, remember?” She lugged the bag upstairs.
I looked back at Nerf.
“Hey, boy!” I said in my sweetest voice.
He smashed his face into the bars, jolting me backward again. The collision didn’t faze him at all as he growled and reared back on his haunches. I worried he was going to concuss himself. He barked savagely.
“Mom, Nerf is freaking me out!” I grabbed my two duffels and joined Mom upstairs.
I tossed my bag onto my bed and looked around. Our living space was basically a studio apartment, the attic of the vet practice. Any money we had went for what Mom, Dr. Renee Gooding, called “infrastructure improvements,” most recently, twenty thousand dollars into an X-ray machine.
I pulled out my phone and looked for a text. Jordan and I had emailed about getting together when we both arrived in town, but the phone was showing no bars.
“Did the accident do something to the cell towers?” I asked.
“The phone companies probably haven’t reactivated the towers yet. Bureaucracy.”
Emails came through, though. Most of my friends were in the camp, so we didn’t email much, but from the moment I sent a message to Jordan, way over in the “sick” camp, I started checking my in-box compulsively. And when “Jordan Conners” popped up in my in-box, I smiled.
I felt even closer to him many miles apart than I did growing up with him in Mount Hope.
I also missed him.
After his injuries, how would he look now?
I checked my phone again. No signal.
Ring. Ring. Ring.
I turned from Mom to hide the smile breaking across my face, and I scrambled down the stairs. I ducked into the office to check myself in the mirror.
“Are you playing hard to get?” Mom called down.
“Aooooo!” Nerf howled from the other room.
I took a breath, straightened my posture, and opened the door.
Jordan burst in, slammed the door behind him, locked the bolt, and peered back out through the blinds. His shirt was drenched in sweat, and he was gasping for breath.
“Jordan! Great to see ya!” I announced. “Which bank did you rob?”
“I must have lost it,” he said, his eyes still directed through the front window.
“Oh, the bear,” I said.
“Hi, Maggie,” he said with a sheepish smile. “I was chased here by a giant black bear. Sorry.”
He wrapped me in a hot, damp hug.
“Eeesh,” I said. “You smell like a giant black bear.”
“More like a panther,” he said, and let go of me, crossed the room, and picked up the phone at the receptionist’s desk. “No dial tone.”
He returned to the blinds and scanned the neighborhood.
“I missed you, too,” I deadpanned.
Jordan flashed that grin I’d missed so much. “Maggie, it was an actual bear.” As I stepped toward the door, a loud clang burst from inside the office.
“What the hell was that?” Jordan asked.
“C’mere,” I said, and led him to the cage where Nerf was growling, teeth bared.
“Spooky,” Jordan said as Nerf hurled himself toward us.
“That’s the look the bear was giving me.”
THE BEAR HAD moved from Redmond’s lot onto a quiet county road by the time we pulled up, but as we cruised the town in Deputy Ruby’s squad car, we couldn’t miss the massive furry black animal lumbering down the center of the woods-lined County Road J.
Holy crap, that thing was huge and not friendly-looking. No wonder Jordan worked up such a sweat.
“That’s some bear,” Deputy Ruby said as we crouched behind his car.
Mom got out the tranquilizer gun and rested the barrel atop the car’s hood.
The bear was loping along in the opposite direction, getting smaller and smaller. Mom steadied her aim and squinted.
We were too far away. The dart skidded by the bear’s feet. The bear looked down, then whipped back toward us.
“Maggie,” Jordan said as the four of us ducked behind the squad car.
“Not now, Jordan!” I hissed.
We heard scraping on the gravel. Then it stopped, then started again.
It was getting closer.
Then heavy wheezing, growing louder.
Mom was sitting with her back to the car door, the tranq gun cocked and loaded. She spun around, held the barrel over the hood, and…
Whack! The bear slapped away the gun, which then skittered to the edge of the woods. The bear roared, loudly, and we heard a screeching of metal. As we bolted away from the car, I looked back to see the bear hoisting the passenger-side door over its head and then flinging it our way like an oversize Frisbee.
“Look out!” I cried, and Deputy Ruby dove to his left to avoid decapitation.
The bear was now atop the car’s roof, stomping it down into the cabin, shattered glass from the windows and flashing lights spraying onto the road. The tranquilizer gun had come to rest just beyond the road’s shoulder. I was the closest to it and could get there faster than the bear—I thought.
“Maggie!” Jordan shouted as I scrambled toward the gun.
The bear was taking giant strides, closing the gap. In one fluid motion, I grabbed the gun and whirled toward the charging animal, which was two steps from me, claws out.
Zap! The dart hit it right between the eyes, and the bear spilled over backward.
“Damn!” Jordan cried. “Nice shot!”
I blew into the muzzle and smiled.
“That’s my girl,” Mom said as she and Jordan jogged toward me and wrapped their arms around my shoulders. “I’m not sure how to get it back to the clinic for an exam.”
“Well, it’s not going in that squad car,” I said, nodding toward the pile of twisted metal and scattered glass in the middle of the road.
I looked at Jordan and put on my sweetest voice: “So what were you trying to tell me?”
“I was wondering how effective a tranquilizer that didn’t work on Nerf would be on a raging ten-foot-tall bear.”
The smile on my face froze. I turned toward the bear just as it was launching itself back onto its feet, towering above me.
“Maggie!” Mom cried.
Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam! Blam! A crouching Deputy Ruby emptied his pistol chamber into the animal, red patches oozing in its fur. The bear roared—and bolted toward the deputy, who fell over backward, his hands in front of his face.
As the bear arched over him, snarling, teeth out, I saw a flash from inside the woods and heard a voop!
The bear exploded, and the sky was filled with raining clumps of fur and bear meat.
Four young military officers stepped out of the woods, one hoisting a grenade launcher.
“The situation has been neutralized,” the officer with the launcher said. “Please proceed back into town.”
Mom’s face was as white as the newly painted stripes on the road.
“Don’t worry,” I said, rubbing her shoulder blades. “We’ll find another bear for you to examine.”
“Thanks,” she coughed out.
Jordan extended a hand to pull a bloodied Deputy Ruby to his feet.
“That was some bear,” the deputy grunted, and we all started walking back to town.
- On Sale
- Aug 13, 2019
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Grand Central Publishing