Meltdown — Sweet Dreams

Week 14: Written April 4, 2016
A chapter from an unwritten novel I hope to someday finish.

When Sarah went to bed, she thought about birds. She liked birds. They could fly anywhere, anytime. They didn’t need their parents to take them to places, or a bike to ride around. They didn’t even need to see their destination. In a flock or on their own, birds could write their own ticket to anywhere. All they needed was the desire.

And yet humans couldn’t get anywhere, not without a struggle. She thought of all the lessons she learned in school — the discovery of America, the Oregon trail, the Titanic — and how every great adventure was balanced by death and disaster. How long did it take everyone to realize that the Earth was round? Birds didn’t need anybody to tell them that. All they had to do was fly up there and take a look.

She always thought about something in bed before she slept. It was a trick her dad had taught her to help her have pleasant dreams. Just think about something nice, something you like, and then, when you relax and fall asleep, you’ll dream about that. It worked, most of the time. Sometimes, though, she couldn’t control it. Sometimes, it took all the energy she could muster to think about something nice — like birds — or to NOT think about something not nice.

Like her father’s job.

The plant was visible from her bedroom window, over the fence and through the trees. On summer days, it looked like a cloud factory, puffs of steam blending in seamlessly with the clouds in the sky. At night, it was even easier to see, with the lights on the cooling tower illuminating the steam as it wafted upward. She always wanted to visit her father and see what it was like inside a nuclear power plant. If only she were a bird, she could visit him whenever she liked.

There were a lot of wild stories about what went on there. The plant employed a member of almost every family in town, and gossip was rampant in the elementary school hallways.

“He works in the security room,” Sarah told her friends, not really sure what that meant or what the job entailed.

“That’s the worst place!” Craig said. “There are millions of buttons in there, and if anybody presses a wrong button, the whole place could blow up like a bomb.”

Some of her friends nodded, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. Nope, you definitely did NOT want to work in the security room.

“It’s in the center of it,” Craig continued. “When the alarm goes off, everybody else can get out real easy. But if you’re in the security room, you get locked in. You have to fix it, make sure it doesn’t blow up.”

“But it almost always does,” Kelly said, a little cocky smirk on her face. She was the know-it-all in Sarah’s class, the one with impenetrable confidence, even though she was almost always wrong. And she was never happier than when she popped somebody’s bubble, or broke someone’s heart.

Sarah was careful not to let anybody see how hurt she felt, or how scared she was for her father. Nobody came to her aid, either, mostly because nobody knew anything about how a nuclear power plant actually worked. Instead, they made up stories, and it was more fun to make up stories about a death trap that could explode at any moment. Tall tales about a perfectly safe and harmless workplace weren’t going to grab anybody’s attention.

It wasn’t until the teacher called order to the classroom that Sarah could finally relax and focus on something else besides the plant. And on most days, she used her sleeping trick at school, too, to keep her from thinking about things she’d rather not think about.

She’d look out the window, at the groundhogs and squirrels running around the schoolyard, and think about how nice it would be to be an animal. Climbing up trees or scurrying through endless underground tunnels like it’s nothing at all — what a life that must be.

And if she were a groundhog, just like if she were a bird, Sarah knew exactly where her underground tunnel would lead.