When the nuclear power plant had exploded, and they had all been put on buses and taken away from their homes, she had asked her mother, “when can we go back?”
Her mother had replied, “I don’t know. Soon, I hope.”
That line of questioning had repeated itself countless times as they were settled in a new town, at night when her mother tucked her into bed, and later in her teen years, when she came home dejected and closed herself in her room.
As an adult, she had stopped asking. This was in part because it seemed childish to continue, and partly because she no longer had anyone to ask. Nobody that she spoke to had any answers, even vague ones. Sensible people that she new didn’t have enough information, and people in authority refused to give an answer amounting to anything more than saying that the land was no longer habitable.
She decided to try to find out the answers for herself. She went to college and studied physics, and then attended graduate school to study nuclear physics. She had found and devoured every piece of information on that specific nuclear plant that she could. She looked up information on remediation after nuclear disasters. And finally, when she had armed herself with as much information as she could find, she left.
People expected her to pursue a career in the atomic industry. Her family had thrown a small party for her at a local restaurant to celebrate her completing her Masters degree. She had been telling them that she was applying for jobs and would leave for an interview across the country, but instead, the next morning, she went to her parents’ garage and went through her stored belongings. She packed up clothes and toiletries, and a sleeping bag, and bought some hand tools and ten jugs of water on her way out of town. Then she drove. She drove for a couple of days, and stopped when she was almost to the checkpoint, pulled the car over, shrugged into her backpack and put her other things on top of blue plastic tarp and dragged it into the woods.
She knew that the boundary would be consistently watched only at the checkpoints, and patrolled along the rest only periodically. There was no fence… but the large and frightening signs in reflective yellow with the symbol for radiation spread across them in a comparatively dull black were enough to keep most people out. Those signs were how she knew that she had crossed in to the zone… that and the soft clicking of the dosimeter clipped to her belt.
Despite all of her schooling, she had on some level expected the place to feel dead. It didn’t. If it weren’t for the dosimeter, she would never have known that this was a disaster zone. The sun shone through the trees, dappling the ground, and birds flitted from tree to tree overhead, calling to one another. The clearings were a riot of vegetation, all reaching up for the sunlight. As she walked, she started to notice a feeling of unease, and she came to realize that there didn’t seem to be as many insects as one would expect in a normal forest.
She knew that she didn’t want to set up in town… nor too close to any of the big roads into town, nor into the plant itself. So when she came to the city, she knew then that she had to move southward into the farmland. The city itself seemed so strange… it was not a big town, but empty of its living soul of human occupancy, the buildings felt enormous. Everything seemed strangely silent, and this had the effect of making her footsteps on the roads seem impossibly loud, every scrape of rubber against the cracked cement echoing against the nearby buildings. The roads had already been colonized by moss and weeds and here and there even a tree sapling. Nature was taking the city back. The familiar hum of traffic and the hum of electricity that city dwellers come to know as silence was gone, and the true silence, broken by settling rubble and birdsong only occasionally, pressed against her ears.
She spent that whole first summer digging out her house and stacking the strips of sod for the walls. She lived in her tent, and didn’t get the roof on before the rains came. In the spring, it took weeks for the water to drain out, and once it had, she started laying stones in the soil floor to provide a solid walking surface. She cut stout branches for the roofing beams and a central support pillar, and salvaged wood from pallets for the roof structure and the sleeping loft. She lay her two tarps over the wooden roof, and covered it over with sod.
The house, dug eight feet into the ground, was never really waterproof, now matter how faithfully she plastered the walls over with clay. But it was warm in the winter and cool in the summer, and the loft, piled with grass, kept her off the cold ground. It was hard work to even live, but the work felt sacred, somehow. This place was hers. She was the only one that wanted it. Every drop of sweat that fell from her brow was in itself a prayer; a sacrifice to the land for her continued survival.
She kept journals; she kept an eye on the wildlife nearby, what was there, along with rough counts. The farm whose field she had built her house in had once had cattle and goats and chickens, she would see the cows in the distance from time to time, with calves in the spring. They seemed somehow shaggier than normal cows, and would have been two or three generations removed from the accident. She killed one of the goats, luring it in with handsful of food and cutting its throat with her knife. She had held its head as it died, one horn in each hand as it thrashed to escape. She hung the legs, crudely butchered, beneath the sleeping loft in her house and ate from them until they started drawing flies.
When they first found her, she didn’t hide or run. She had known they would come eventually… they would notice her fires or the construction she had done. When they came they were in uniforms. They were astonished to see her, a woman in her thirties with no business there. They had told her that she would have to go with them.
“If you take me out of here, you’ll have to do it by force. And then you’ll have to imprison me for the rest of my life, because the first chance I have, I’ll come back.”
They had left her, not sure that an arrest was in order, and had come back in a few days with a truck. The truck contained a large water tank made from blue plastic, and food, and a radio with batteries. They brought paperwork, which she signed, and brought her pens and notebooks. They had a doctor with them, and the doctor gave her a quick physical. She handed over her journals, containing all of her observations and thoughts and feelings on the little life she had made. They told her she must not drink the native water, or eat any of the plants or animals. She lied and said that she wouldn’t.
It wasn’t that she didn’t understand the risks involved with eating from the land… it was that the foods that they brought were necessarily shelf stable, and she couldn’t live on canned beans and corn and white rice forever. But it was what they needed to hear, and so she complied.
She was now an official working scientist.
And so it went, every few months a truck would come with men in uniform. They would bring her cans and beans and rice, and refill her water tank, and bring her correspondence from anyone with questions as to what was going on inside the zone. Some sent rudimentary scientific equipment, or requests for samples with specimen jars. The trucks also brought batteries and carefully sealed any garbage in bright yellow plastic bags, although she did not produce much garbage that wouldn’t decompose away eventually. Mostly just the packaging from the supplies that they brought here.
Eventually she got to know some of the guys who came in with supplies. She would start to look forward to the visits… she would put a pot of water on the fire and dig out some of the tea bags from the crates in the house. The tea was all dust and shake, dried out and bitter once brewed; the kind of inexpensive thing that is so rampant in institutional food, but it was better than water alone, and she felt it best to provide some hospitality.
The men that she knew sometimes managed to bring her little luxuries… a few chocolate bars, fresh oranges, and once even a pound of coffee. That first cup of coffee in years smelled like a revelation, and the stimulating effect made her head spin. She brought out packaged cookies and made tea, and they sat with her for a little while. Once in a while, there would be a new person on the supply convoy, and they invariably had intrusive questions that led to an attempt to convince her to leave.
“How do you live here,” they’d ask, and also, “aren’t you lonely?”
“Right around when I start getting lonely is usually when you all show up,” she’d respond with a smile.
Feral cats moved into the area, and she welcomed them as a way to keep vermin out. In the winter, she’d let them inside the house to keep them out of the wet, and they’d start sleeping up next to her in the loft for the warmth. Eventually she came to realize that they were pets. One of the scientists sent her sunflower seeds to plant, with instructions to take soil samples after each crop was cut down. The flowers themselves, with their thick stalks and broad leaves, could not be used, consumed, or burned, so she tied them up in bundles, and when the men came back they would wrap them in bright yellow plastic and take them away. On one visit, one of the men took her aside to talk.
“You know you’ll die out here,” he said to her.
“You know you’ll die out there, right?” she responded.
“But you’ll die young here, everything is poison.”
“Would you rather live in exile, or die in your home?”
“Aren’t you afraid?”
“That’s the thing about radiation, isn’t it? You can’t see it, you can’t smell it or hear it or taste it. In low doses, you can’t even feel it. It’s difficult to remain afraid of something that you never notice. It’s not an aggressor… it’s just another facet of life here.”
He put a hand on her shoulder and shook his head.
After a time, she did not know how long, she noticed her bones would hurt a bit more. She was very lean now, all skin and wiry muscles and bones underneath, and a fire in her belly that propelled her through each day. Her hair started to show grey, and sometimes she felt like she tired out before she ought, and sometimes she thought her breath came a bit harder than it should. She didn’t think she could possibly be old, though she had stopped keeping track of her age. These feelings made her uneasy, sometimes slightly nauseated, and she started staying up later, and rising earlier… anything she could do to wring more of this life out of what little time she had left.