Nuclear Romance

Abby Luby


To environmental journalists who tackle the tough issues, and to grassroots groups who fight to change their world.

Chapter 1

Jen Elery never knew exactly what killed her young daughter. The unexplained death of her seven-year-old fed a smoldering anguish. Doctors, frustrated with their own dizzying stream of improbable causes, were sure of one thing: the girl was sick to begin with, and her frail immune system weakened her fight against a strange virus or some kind of toxic substance.

But what virus? What toxic substance? As the girl slipped into unconsciousness, Jen relentlessly grilled the doctors with questions: Figure this out, for God’s sake. Don’t let my little Kaylee die.

After the crushing loss, the bereaved mother needed to believe it wasn’t her fault. She replayed the day of Kaylee’s sudden attack and the onset of a mysterious illness that ravaged the girl’s body. Jen’s recall stopped the action at moments she could’ve intervened, the one fleeting instant she might have saved her helpless little girl. When exactly did her maternal instinct stop? Was she too laid back on that warm spring day at the riverfront beach?

Jen had piled Kaylee and her older son, Ricky, into the car. It was a sudden break from the after-school routine, and they cheerfully took the short, five-minute drive from their house to the Hudson River, a spot with a playground, picnic tables, and a beach.

That day, when they got out of the car, Jen felt a surge of relief. It was good to be here, to lose yourself in the serenity of the water, to forget everything—the barrage of phone calls, the haggling lawyers.

It was a day of quiet celebration. The divorce was final. No more high-pitched banter with Dan, her now ex-husband. She fought hard and won. It was Jen who called the shots about child visitation, the house, coveted belongings, all negotiated in a torrent of scurrilous accusations. How could he ever juggle the kids—homework, illness, baseball practice, Girl Scouts? And did he think he’d get help with the kids from his new little girlfriend? Over Jen’s dead body. The image of Dan kissing his paramour in front of her children made Jen’s blood boil. That slut.

But now it was over. Time to calm down, breathe, watch the kids let loose and imbibe the sweet river air. Waves caught the late afternoon sun, and bobbling flecks of light danced to their own song. The beach curved around the small cove, framed by a band of green grass.

The river was cool but not cold, and Jen recalled pressing her toes in the water, then deeper into the sandy loam. The air was an intoxicating mix of salt and fresh, wet earth. The breeze rippled on the river’s surface, and further out, sailboats clipped along, catching the lively current and passing the lumbering barges that trudged north toward West Point. At times a random cloud floated a solitary shadow over the sand.

The two children played tag under a weeping willow tree whose swooping, pale green branches hinted at summer. Jen ran her hands through her short, dark brown hair and squatted down to the water’s edge, her thin body a huddle of bones. She cupped her hands and brought the briny water to her face just as Ricky and Kaylee blasted past her into the water.

“Hey! Watch it!” she remembered saying.

“Sorry, Mom!”

Jen smiled at their giddiness. At least they rolled up their pants.

Throughout the embattled divorce, Ricky, ten, took on a paternal role, watching over his younger sister, consoling Jen when she couldn’t hide her tears. The sandy-haired boy was growing up too fast. But at school it was a different story. His teacher repeatedly called her, complaining that Ricky was acting out, picking fights, rebelling. Her son had become two different people: at school he was aggressive, but at home, he was the man of the house. The school psychologist said the boy was reacting to the stress of the divorce and releasing his anger at school. Perhaps he should be medicated. Not really, Jen told him. I’ll deal with him. He’ll straighten out.

Kaylee, on the other hand, became subdued and moody. At school the girl sulked and stayed by herself, even when her friends invited her to play. She was bright and kept up with her homework but never raised her hand in class. At home the two kids would often whisper to themselves in the TV room.

She reassured both kids it wasn’t their fault that Daddy left, that both she and Dan loved them no matter what. She wanted them to feel blameless and confessed that the divorce was all her fault, a plausible truth that fed her wavering guilt like a transfusion of bad blood into her veins.

During the divorce, Kaylee became seriously asthmatic, a condition that compounded the tension at home. The girl was small; her fragile frame shook uncontrollably when she wheezed and coughed. Jen would snap into action and grab one of the many medicines or inhalers off the kitchen counter. The daily routine to keep her daughter breathing normally distracted Jen from the droning, inner voice of self pity, a private lament of a single parent dealing with a sick child.

But that day at the beach, Kaylee seemed fine. They were just kids fooling around, jostling in the water. Jen recalled how she languished in their crazy laughter and wild play—was that when she should’ve pulled Kaylee out of the water? The girl had just taken her asthma medication, so everything must be okay. Right?

Ricky was cupping a handful of water and aimed it at Kaylee, purposely missing her. The blond, curly-haired girl edged away, giggling, moving further into deep water.

“Almost gotcha!” Ricky teased. “Gonna get you now!”

“No you won’t either,” Kaylee taunted back. “You’re too slow!”

Jen spread a blanket over the sand and laid down, feeling her body relax one muscle at a time, unpursing her lips, a tightening that grew out of nowhere during the embattled custody case. She softened her face. Relaxing was a new sensation, but had she relaxed a little bit too much?

It was idyllic. What could go wrong? Behind the kids the cove arched around the river, which was outlined with trees brandishing tiny, new lime-colored leaves, like small feathers gracing the dark branches. Hugging the shore were bushes of wild pink roses, reflected in the water like an impressionist painting. It was a setting that even softened the two domes of the power plant across the way.

Ricky was getting into it, tossing more water at Kaylee, now up to his knees. Each slug of water got closer and closer to the girl, barely missing her. The splashing escalated, and the kids got carried away, getting in up to their waists. Ricky must have tapped into some suppressed aggression and bailed water straight at Kaylee’s face. The girl screamed—out of delight or fear? She couldn’t pull her arms out of the water fast enough to splash back. Then, with two hands, Ricky hauled a torrent of water again. And again. Kaylee’s arms worked like a sluggish pinwheel, and she fell backwards in the water, submerged briefly, then ejected up, gasping for air. Ricky was poised to douse her again but waited. Was she okay? Or was she faking it to get the upper hand?

The harrowing sound of her attempt to inhale—the heavy, deep-throated whistle—was unforgettable. The girl gasped, struggling to get air. Her face contorted as she fell backward, a slow-motion clip before she disappeared completely underwater. Ricky lunged in after his sister and pulled her up by her shirt, her head awkwardly cocked back.

“What the hell are you doing to her?” Jen yelled, standing up. “Get her out of the water! Now! Oh my God!”

Jen bolted from the blanket toward the water, her feet making quick, deep gouges in the sand. The girl’s face was drained of color, and Jen pulled her from Ricky and half carried her out of the water onto the beach. Kaylee, drenched and limp, was buckling under the weight of her wet clothes.

“You’re okay, honey. Lean against me. You’re okay.”

Jen settled Kaylee down on the blanket and tried to calm her and slow the wheezing. Ricky stood there, stunned.

“She’s okay, Ricky. You were probably a little too rough, but she’ll be fine.”

Suddenly Kaylee started to gag, like she was going to vomit. Jen’s own stomach tightened. This wasn’t just an asthma attack. Then the girl started to convulse. Ricky stared at his sister, his eyes wide.

“Mom—what’s the matter with her?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know. Get me her inhaler from the car.”

The boy’s eyes welled up. “Mom… I’m sorry, I didn’t know…”

“Shut up. Just get me her medicine now. Then we’re going home.”

At home, it took hours for Kaylee to stop gagging and coughing. Jen switched between inhalers and allergy medication, haphazardly guessing at the dosages. She sponged the girl down the best she could, and finally Kaylee calmed and drifted into a restless sleep.

It was dark when Jen hung the kid’s soggy and slightly fishy-smelling clothes out on the line. Then the intense recriminations: How did this happen? Why wasn’t she watching her kids more closely? Maybe the kids would be fine if Dan were here. He’d be in control, keeping everyone in line, sticking to a routine.

She tried to snap out of it and threw some sandwiches on the table for supper.

When she called Ricky to come and eat, she got no response. She peeked in the kid’s shared bedroo ...

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