This is a short fragment for review the book. The full version can be purchased in the store.
Abby Luby NUCLEAR ROMANCE
To environmental journalists who tackle the tough issues, and to grassroots groups who fight to change their world.
Chapter 1Jen 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 bedroom and saw the boy sitting in a rocking chair besides Kaylee’s bed. “Honey, come have something to eat.” “She’s really sick, Mom. She’s not right.” She gently took his arm and led him to the kitchen. They sat down at the table and ate in silence, their movements slow. Then Ricky looked up. Kaylee stood quietly behind Jen, like a ghost. Jen whirled around. “Kaylee—Sweetie—are you hungry? Want to try to eat a little food?” The girl was ashen faced, and, thinking back, Jen cursed herself for not realizing soon enough how sick she really was. She should’ve taken her directly from the beach to the hospital. Maybe that might have saved her. But the girl seemed hungry, and that was a good sign. She sat down and mutely pointed to a bowl of potato salad, one of her favorite foods. Jen scooped a small amount on a dish, added a few pieces of chicken salad and placed it in front of her. After one or two forkfuls, Kaylee stopped eating, dazedly stood up, and went back to bed. It was after midnight when Jen heard Kaylee vomiting. She rushed into the bedroom. Ricky was holding a wastepaper basket under Kaylee’s mouth. “She’s really sick, Mom.” The heat from Kaylee’s head and cheeks seemed to burn Jen’s palms. “Oh baby, you’re burning up. Help me get her up, Ricky. We’re taking her to the emergency room.” They eased her up to sitting and wrapped a blanket around her shoulders. Jen tried to lift her. Dan would be able to carry her, the voice of guilt rambled. They managed to stand Kaylee up and shuffle her through the kitchen, where she heaved again on the floor. “We’ll get it later. Come on. Let’s keep her moving.” The scene was compressed into short, popping flashbacks: reaching the car, putting Kaylee in the back seat that was still wet from the river-soaked clothes, Ricky holding Kaylee’s head on his lap. Jen’s hands shook as she started the car and peeled out of the driveway, holding the cell phone in one hand and steering the car with the other. The hospital’s number was on speed dial. They needed to know they were coming. “Yes. She can’t breathe, vomiting, burning up. We’ll be there in ten minutes.” Ricky was whispering to Kaylee who stared blankly. “You’ll be okay, Kaylee. You’ll be okay.” When they pulled up to the emergency room, Jen barreled out of the car, ran inside and blurted out to no one in particular. “My little girl—she’s—” Jen gestured to her car just outside the automatic doors. A gurney was pushed out to the car, and four strong arms lifted Kaylee out. Inside a voice over a loudspeaker called for a doctor. Sprawled on her back, Kaylee’s body hung like a rag doll as they rolled her into a room that had a glass window facing out into the hall. Cables were hooked up to monitors, an IV stuck in her tiny arm, oxygen tubes crackled out of a plastic bag and were inserted in Kaylee’s nose, her dulled eyes vaguely watching the medical drill. Jen and Ricky, transfixed, peered in through the window. A doctor rushed past them into the room, a space that seemed to be sucking the life out of the little girl. In a muted pantomime, the doctor snapped out questions, took the girl’s pulse, checked readings on the monitors, and then stood tacitly, rolling his pencil between his fingers. He mouthed a few orders to the nurse and came out. “Hi. I’m Richard Turner, the on-call doctor. You are?” “Jen Elery, Kaylee’s mom. This is my son, Ricky. What’s going on with her doctor?” He was young, with a five o’clock shadow and dark circles under his eyes. The collar of his shirt was rumpled, and he tapped the end of his stethoscope in small percussive beats against the inside of his hand. “We don’t know yet. We took some blood, and maybe we’ll have to do other tests. Why don’t you tell me how she got sick. Was she feeling ill before this?” Jen recounted the day: the beach, the splashing around in the water, Kaylee’s struggle to breathe, the violent vomiting. The doctor listened, expressionless, staring at Jen’s forehead as she spoke. “What about allergies?” he asked Jen. “Could she have ingested something that didn’t agree with her?” “She has a bunch of allergies, and her asthma can be severe, but we keep it in check. Could it be the asthma that made her lose her breath and vomit?” “Look, we just don’t know. We’ve given her something to keep her airways open. She’ll sleep for a while, but I won’t have a clue until we get the test results. We might have to x-ray. We’ll talk later.” He scribbled something down on a pad and walked away. Jen couldn’t find the strength to ask him more questions, so she took Ricky down the hall to a waiting area. They sat down on the couch, and the boy, still in his pajamas, curled up against her and soon nodded off. Jen closed her eyes but the hospital sounds kept her alert. She listened for Kaylee’s door to open and close. She fell into a meditative state, drifting between sleep and consciousness. An hour later, she gently laid Ricky down and reached for her cell phone. At the other end the phone rang several times. Finally he answered. “Jen? What is it? It’s the middle of the night!” Dan said. Jen pictured him cuddling with his lover, not a care in the world. “It’s Kaylee. We’re in the hospital. Can you come?” “What happened? Why didn’t you call sooner?” He said he was on his way and Jen felt relieved. And nervous. She prayed he wouldn’t bring lover girl. As she put her phone away, she could barely hear the doctor’s voice on the phone down the hall at the nurse’s station. His words were muffled but she thought she heard radiation and exposed. Moments later he entered the waiting area and sat down opposite her on a small table. Jen unfolded herself. As he spoke, the odor of cigarettes tainted the air. A fresh coffee spill stained the sleeve of his white scrubs, and he looked even more tired and bedraggled than before. He saw Ricky sleeping and whispered quietly to Jen. “We think your daughter may have been exposed to some sort of toxic substance. Do you live near a garbage dump? Was your house tested for radon gas or anything like that?” Jen blinked. “Huh? Radon? No, not at all. My house is fine.” “We’re coming up with some sort of foreign substance from the first blood test. It’s really inconclusive.” “This is a far cry from an allergic reaction or asthma—don’t you think, Dr. Turner? Is this vague guess the best you can come up with?” He snorted and shook his head. “Look, we just don’t know. But I think your house should be checked, just as a precaution. To rule stuff out, you know? I called the local Hazmat team to come take a look. Okay?” “I don’t get it. What could possibly be in my home that would suddenly make my daughter so sick? She’s lived there all her life.” “Can’t say, Mrs. Elery. It could be something that she’s been exposed to over a long period of time and has now weakened her immune system. Look, it’s almost morning, and the Hazmat folks could be there in a few hours. Can you be there to let them in? Where’s Mr. Elery?” “On his way.” She glanced at Ricky and whispered, “I’m divorced.” “Oh. Well let me know when you’re leaving so we can alert the Hazmat guys that you’ll be home.” He got up and accidently scrapped the table against the tile floor, waking Ricky. The boy sat up groggily. “Is Kaylee up, Mom?” “Probably not, but let’s go see.” They ambled down the hall to Kaylee’s room. Through the window the nurse motioned for them to come in. The oxygen tubes were still in Kaylee’s nose, and the IV dripped saline in her veins. A boxy apparatus, sidled with a large tubular appendage, and a bag of thick white liquid were next to her bed. “What’s that?” Jen asked the nurse. “In case she can’t eat. We will try to feed her through her mouth.” “You mean force-feed her?” The nurse nodded. “It may not be necessary. We have to see if she can keep food down.” Ricky slowly moved closer to Kaylee. He wanted to hold her hand, but she seemed so ensconced in all the medical apparatus, he wasn’t sure. He looked at the nurse for permission, and she nodded. Ricky gently put his hand over his sister’s. The girl’s eyelids flickered, and she opened her eyes. “Hi, Kaylee.” “Hi, Ricky,” she said in barely a whisper. “Where am I?” Jen moved closer so Kaylee could see her. “You’re in the hospital. You’re sick, and the doctors here will help you. Everything’s going to be fine.” Ricky looked up at his mother and frowned, then back to Kaylee. “You look like a ghost, ya know. All white. Really scary.” Jen wanted to slap him, but Kaylee smiled meekly. Just then Dan walked through the door. “Dad!” Ricky said excitedly, and he let go of Kaylee’s hand. Thank God he’s alone, Jen thought. Dan looked at Jen. He knew she needed a hug, but instead, he opened his arms to his son. He neared Kaylee’s bed and gently touched her arm. “Hi, Dad. Do I look like a ghost?” “No way, Kitten. You’ll be fine.” She looked at her father, expressionless. She seemed lifeless but peculiarly unafraid. She asked for water, and a straw was placed at her thin lips, and she slowly sipped a few drops. Minutes later she threw up what little she had taken in. Jen felt Dan’s fear, their mutual helplessness. She fought back tears, fought back feeling needy. When the doctor came in, Dan asked him a few questions. It was the short exchange of man talk that assumed too much and asked too little. When the doctor left, Dan turned to Jen. “It doesn’t make sense that it’s something at the house, but let them check it out anyway, okay?” “Why? The house is fine. Always has been.” “Please Jen. I know this is upsetting and that you want stay here, but let the guy do the test. Take Ricky home, I’ll stay with Kaylee.” He was consoling… almost comforting. “You both can get some rest and be there for the Hazmat guy. Okay?” They looked at each other. It was a moment of clarity, and just one thing was important—their daughter’s health. “Jen? You’ll be okay?” She nodded. Her eyes filled, and she quickly turned away. “I’ll take Ricky home. Thanks, Dan.”
Jen pulled up to the small, two-story frame house. It was on a block lined with similar houses on a hill overlooking the river and the railroad tracks. The house didn’t look any different. Could there really be something here that made Kaylee sick? Was something leaking in? Some odorless, toxic substance? Ricky dragged himself out of the car. “Mom, do I have to go to school today? I’m really tired. Can I just crash?” “Sure, Sweetie. I’ll call the school. Let’s both get some sleep.” Later that morning a plain white van pulled up to Jen’s house. A man got out, opened the back of the vehicle and pulled out a black case. Just inside the van’s double doors hung a pearly white Hazmat suit, replete with head and foot gear. The man grabbed the radon test kit and, as an afterthought, reached for a small Geiger counter. He switched it on low and hung it over his shoulder by a thin strap. He knocked on the front door, but no one answered. The car was in the driveway, so he knocked again and waited. Still no one. He walked around looking for a door to a basement, where radon tests are done. He noticed a soft crackle from the Geiger counter and checked the reading: it was just normal, background radiation. He headed toward the backyard, and a boy bounded out of the porch. “Hi. Are you the Hazmat man?” Ricky was instantly intrigued with the Geiger counter. “I am. And who are you?” “I’m Ricky Elery. I live here. You’re here to check the house because of my sister, right? She’s really sick.” “Yup. That’s right. I’m Jeff Collins. I work down at the firehouse. Want to help me check for radon levels?” “Cool. Is that a real Geiger counter hanging off your shoulder? We saw one in science class. Does it just measure radiation, or other stuff?” “Just radiation. We use other devices to check for radon and gas leaks.” The husky man knelt down to meet Ricky eye to eye and smiled. He grabbed the Geiger counter, explained how it worked and handed it to the boy. “You want to hold on to this?” “Wow. Can I really?” “Sure. You hold the Geiger counter. Keep the sensor stick pointed out. We have to check for radon with this test kit. Can you show me to the basement?” “There’s a door in the ground you have to lift up. Follow me!” They walked along the side of the house on a small sidewalk lined with a single row of daffodils. At the far end was a clothesline draped with the kid’s clothes, dark and wet, still soaked with river water. As they neared the line, the crackling peaked instantly and then died down. Ricky looked up at the man. “What made it do that?” “Don’t know.” The man stopped to get a fix on the sound. With the Geiger counter still hanging off Ricky’s shoulder, the man nudged the sensor toward the house, the garden, the ground, but the sound stopped. Then he pointed it toward the clothesline, and the crackling modulated into a dense stream of white noise. He cautiously closed in to the clothes, gently pulling Ricky along. “What the…?” “What does it mean, Mr. Collins? Is it coming from our clothes?” Puzzled, the man took the stick from Ricky and sketched imaginary lines around the house, the ground, and the clothesline. The crackling clearly came from the wet clothes. “Hey Ricky. Did your mom just do the laundry or something?” “No. No. These clothes are wet from the beach.” “What beach?” “The riverfront. We were horsing around in the water. That’s where Kaylee got really sick.” The man froze. He took a few steps back and protectively put his arm in front of Ricky. “Don’t touch anything, Ricky.” With his eyes on the meter, he retraced lines around the pants, shirts, underwear, socks. Then he stopped. “Why don’t we shut off the Geiger counter for now, Ricky. Know how to do that?” The boy found the large black knob and clicked it off. “Thanks,” Jeff said. “Is your mom home?”
Chapter 2The high-pitched squeak of sneakers scuffling on the gym floor punctuated the shouts and jeers as the visiting team scored. It was the end of the season for the local college basketball team, and they were down forty points. Every point scored by the opposition prompted a cacophony of boos and catcalls. It was a scene Lou Padera loved, and he furiously jotted down notes in his reporter’s pad. Lou was senior sports reporter for the Daily Suburban, a major newspaper in Westchester County, just outside New York City. At thirty-nine, Lou had been on staff for over a decade. His byline was popular; his stories were an exciting play-by-play description that read like a quick-action adventure story. Whether it was about local sports, minor or major leagues, his stories were balanced, covering the winners as much as the losers. At the games, he was in high gear, edgy, clenching his chewing gum to combat his smoking habit. This was a play-off game, and the gym was packed, spectators revved. The players shimmied and danced to the beat of the ball, harnessing its energetic momentum. Every hard-hitting bounce and speedy pass fueled the fiery fans, who bellowed out their shouts of approval or condemnation. Plastering the walls of the gym were ads of local businesses; most were dwarfed and sandwiched in by the large, splayed blue-and-white banners promoting ALLPower, the local electric company. The utility company not only sponsored the games, they gave hefty sports scholarships. A kid scored a three-pointer from center court, and cameras flashed like a wave of sparklers. Lou shot out of his seat, nodded to himself, and quickly scribbled on his pad. It was that vicarious thrill that summoned his own days on the college basketball court when he charged the defense and effortlessly dunked the ball. Those years fed his dreams for a life with the pros. As a boy growing up in a poor Italian neighborhood just outside a city in New Jersey, he surprised his coaches with his talent on the court. At first his teammates made fun of his height—a mere six feet, short by basketball standards. But his solid, square frame whisked around the court, ducking and scooping the ball out from under the hands of the giants. It was a different style of playing, almost sneaky. When he earned a college scholarship, it fed the hopes of his parents, who believed a sports career would guarantee Lou a better life. But after college, the young man repeatedly tried out for the pros but never made the cut. Frustrated after each painful rejection, he slowly saw his dream fade and end.
He learned to write about sports in fits and starts. In college he interned for a local radio station as their on-air sports reporter. At first he struggled with what words to use to describe the action. He always excelled as an athlete and never had to fully focus on academics. He knew what he was saying didn’t quite catch the excitement of the game. After college, when he couldn’t get into the pros, he applied for a job as sportscaster at a local TV station close to where he grew up. If he couldn’t play the game, he could at least report on the thing he knew and loved. The camera liked Lou, with his mass of dark, wavy hair and intense blue eyes that said he knew it all. He was a natural on camera, which pleased the station management; even if Lou’s delivery was a bit awkward, he was eye candy for the viewers. He honed his rhetoric, and he got better. But after a few years he wanted to move on. He heard of a newspaper job in Westchester, and by then, the sports lingo was second nature. He landed the job and found that the sports editor didn’t really expect great writing; he just wanted a bit about the game, the winner and loser, and who was playing next. But now that he was writing and not speaking, Lou saw poetry in the athletes and was driven to get that into his writing. He was inspired by high-profile sports writers and eventually found his voice—the voice that echoed the heat of the game, the crushing disappointment of losing, the thrill of the win. His stories were a good read and hard to put down. His reputation as a sportswriter grew, and advertisers began asking for space next to stories by Lou Padera. Time-out was called, and Lou looked over at the coach. Talking to the coach at mid game was strictly forbidden; it was bad form. But what the hell, a quick word or two wouldn’t hurt, would it? Coaches could say the damnedest things when they’re under pressure. Lou made his way to the bench and caught his reflection in the protective glass window guard, pausing to run his hand through his hair. He neared the floor and the bustling cheerleaders. A pom-pom brushed his face, and he lasciviously eyed the buxom girls jiggling into their routine. He smiled and winked at one of the young ladies, then made his way to the coach. “What’s your strategy, coach?” “Get lost, Padera. You’ve got balls bugging me right now.” “What’s with your defense? Their game is really off—” “Stop heckling me, Padera. I mean it. Get me when the clock stops ticking, would ya?” Lou stood off to the side, and a minute later the scoreboard numbers flickered, favoring the opposition. Home-team fans waved their fists and rasped out boos and hisses. Lou chuckled and called over to the coach. “Never saw the house so packed with fans, Coach. Maybe you should hear what they have to say?” The coach ignored him. Then— “Give me a break, Padera! These folks don’t know their ass from a jump shot—and don’t quote me. Just write that these are good-intentioned folks devoted to the team spirit. Got all that?” Lou closed in. “You’re not telling me what to write, are you, Coach? I always make these kids look good, win or lose. You know that.” Just then the home team scored, and applause erupted like a concert hall of kettledrums. The rush to beat the clock was on. Later that evening Lou sat at his desk in the newsroom banging out the story. His headline read “Home team dunks a loss.” A few other reporters were also working late, getting their stories in for the morning paper. Over the last six months the large room of wall-to-wall desks had become empty. Newspapers were struggling to beat out Internet news, watching sales and subscriptions plummet, regular advertisers pulling out ads. The upshot: reporters were being laid off. Now, a lingering echo of a few clacking keyboards hung in the air. Tom Wilson, a heavyset reporter sat across from Lou, jerking a toothpick as he spoke. “You gonna make deadline? The boss is chafing at the bit.” Lou nodded and looked down at the end of the newsroom where his editor, Owen Marks, sat in a glass-enclosed office. Skinny and nervous, Owen was a young editor who also doubled as a reporter under the new austerity budget. From his desk, Lou could see Owen’s back and heard him barking into the phone. Tom leaned over to Lou, his voice low. “He ask you to cover other stuff besides sports? The little bastard has me writing obits and the cop blotter. Sucks.” “Nah. He’d never ask me. I’m his ace sports reporter. He’d be wasting his time trying to get me to cover other stories. He knows that.” Lou furiously typed his kicker line to end the story. “Get real, Lou. Have you looked around here lately? See these empty desks? Newspapers are dinosaurs—only difference is no one will ever dig up our relics for posterity. We’ve lost out to the Internet. This baby could close down any day.” “Jeez, Tom. We’re the largest daily paper outside New York City. We’ll never fold. Just going through a tough phase is all.” Owens’s voice rasped out over Lou’s intercom. “You got that story for me, Padera? The printer is holding up the works just for you, Lady. Why didn’t you file earlier, as soon as the game was over?” Lou chuckled. “Sorry Owen. Was interviewing a nice single mom of one of the players. Could make an interesting side story, you know? The struggles of a mom raising a son-athlete by herself, in a male-dominated game.” “You’re out of control, Padera. File that story and get in here, will ya?” Lou lost his smile. “All in good time, boss.” Tom shook his head. “Could be your turn now, Buddy.” Lou tapped out a few more words and leaned back. He searched through a heap of scribbled notes where he usually jotted down story ideas to pitch to Owen, just in case he was asked to cover something else, as Tom predicted. But he came up empty-handed. Finally he sauntered down to the editor’s office, knocked on the glass door, and walked in. Owen, sunk in a canyon of folders and stacks of paper, motioned him over. “Sit down, Lou. I need a favor.” Lou remained standing. “I’m good. What’s up?” Owen angled back in his worn swivel chair, and a plaintive creak sliced the air. He looked weary and older than his years. “Look Lou, you’re one of my best reporters, and we know you can write about pretty much anything. Agreed?” Lou nodded. His throat tightened. “Okay. We’re spread thin, and you know that. I need you to cover another story—not sports related. Up until now, I’ve tried to spare you, but you’re the last man on the totem pole not covering other beats. Time you did what we’re all doing, Princess.” Lou frowned. He placed his hands firmly on the back of a chair. Then he slowly sat down. “Sports is all I know, Owen, and I’ve been taking on more, from derby bouts to the majors. I’m doing more than my share. I really object to this.” “Wake up and smell the coffee, Your Highness. We’re all scrounging to keep our jobs. I have the paper’s owner on my ass, and the bottom line is you want to keep your job, you take more work. I’m rewriting fat-free cookie recipes, for God’s sake.” “And when do you suggest I take on more? In the goddamn middle of the night?” “Yes. If you’d let up on your gallivanting bachelor escapades, you’d be amazed how much extra time you have on your hands.” Owen wrote something down on a scrap of paper and handed it to Lou. He read the note and worked his jaw. “Who is she?” “Jen Elery. It isn’t pretty. Just lost a young daughter to some freaky illness. The school community is grieving to the hilt. It’s emotions on steroids. They’re holding a vigil for the girl tonight. I want an exclusive interview with the mom. Do a good job, and I’ll get you front page billing. Go.” Lou scowled at the paper and then glared at Owen. He stood up and whipped out the door.
It was mid-afternoon, and Lou sat in his car, stuck in traffic. It had been stop and go, and more than once he slammed on his brakes, just missing the tailgate of the car in front. He was miffed and not concentrating on driving. School buses were ruling the road, and traffic lurched forward a foot at a time. How was he going to do this? Talk to a teary-eyed mom? He could grasp the loss of a basketball game, but not this. This was major, life altering. Although he didn’t have kids, he couldn’t imagine outliving your own child. He was directly behind a school bus close to Jen’s house. The bus was letting off a young boy about ten years old. Lou watched the boy drag his backpack on the ground to his house and slump in through the front door. Lou looked at his notes. Must be the brother. He parked at the edge of the driveway and turned off the motor. The house had a small view of the Hudson River and the commuter railroad station. Nice little spot, he thought. Lou reached for his recorder and notepad but didn’t get out of the car. He tried to get his bearings. Leaning against the side of the house next to a few large black garbage bags was a small pink bike, it’s yellow and orange tassels, shriveled and dry, hanging off the handle bars. He stared at the bike and bit down on the end of a stick of gum, waving it up and down before crunching the rest in his mouth. This was a bummer assignment. It meant relating emotionally, being extra sensitive—something hard for him to access. Let’s get this over with, he thought as he quickly wadded up the gum into a piece of paper. He got out of the car and made his way to the house. He knocked and waited. A few moments later a wisp of a woman slowly opened the door. Her short brown hair was slicked back, revealing sunken brown eyes, wells framed by dark circles. “Mrs. Elery?” “Yes? Oh, you must be Mr. Padera. Please come in.” He eased inside and stood in a small entry with a stairway on one side. Halfway up the stairs was the boy from the school bus. “This is my son, Ricky,” Jen said. “Ricky, this is Mr. Padera from the newspaper. He’s writing a story about… about… Kaylee.” Lou extended his hand to Ricky, who came down a few steps to meet him, meekly holding out his hand. “Hi, Mr. Padera. Nice to meet you.” The boy turned to his mother. “Going to do homework, Mom,” and he retreated up the steps. Jen opened double glass doors and led Lou into a small living room. The blinds were partially closed, and thin slats of sunlight streaked the floor. Jen motioned for Lou to sit in an overstuffed chair, and she sat down close by on a small loveseat. He pulled out his pad and recorder and set them on an old trunk that served as a coffee table. Only one item occupied the table: a pewter-framed picture of Kaylee with a black ribbon woven through the latticework of the frame. Lou’s eyes were fixed on the picture. For a moment he lost his voice and fidgeted with his recorder. Jen frowned. “Okay, Mrs. Elery. Let’s get started. Just how did your daughter get sick? Oh—and how old was she again? Just need some general background here.” Jen stared at the recorder and then at Lou, who was poised to take notes. The room became airless. In a low voice she said, “You know Mr. Padera, I… I don’t know if I can do this. I mean, I know you have a job to do, but really, it’s just too soon. I’m really sorry. I…” Shit, Lou thought. He pressed her. “But you seemed willing just an hour ago on the phone, Mrs. Elery. What’s changed?” “Nothing. I don’t know. Maybe you being right here in front of me. Sorry. I wasn’t thinking. I don’t feel… I just can’t do this.” ...
All rights belong to the author: Abby Luby.
This is a short fragment for review the book. The full version can be purchased in the store.