Day after day, the reactor burned on as the concrete barriers constrained the dangerous fuel. Should one monotonous evening the smallest crack form in the wall, from thousands of hours of eroding heat that channeled their way to the exterior, liquid death would pour forth.
His stomach grumbled, knowing the beeping that announced a finished cycle meant the plant’s caged cafeteria would be serving lunch. Today was the first Tuesday of the month, meaning beef stroganoff would be served. With the consistency of curdled milk and the hue of the reactor’s green core, it placed just under Friday’s tuna casserole on Levis’ “Things Not to Eat Today” list.
He sighed. It's only January, he thought, twenty three more casseroles and stroganoffs this year.
Sour looks passed around the lunch table as he wedged himself into a groaning plastic chair. To his right sat Mike, a college graduate who would soon ride his diploma to senior management and often remarked about Levi’s weight. On the left, Cheryl, a secretary with greying hair, pursed her lips before continuing conversation about how her husband’s promotion meant that she could submit her two weeks.
Levi was thirty-eight and sat like a stone in the river of conversations. He wished the revolving clock hands on the whitewashed wall would race faster about their track. Five more hour hand rotations until day’s end, twenty-nine until Saturday, two-hundred-eighty-four until another year would pass. Six bi-monthly password changes later and he would still be seated at his desk overlooking the reactor, waiting for time to slip by.
When the closing bell rang, Levi donned his patched coat and stuffed several memorized instruction manuals into his desk drawer. A pair of green eyes from underneath a stack of creased papers stared up at him and he dropped his keyboard over them, encapsulating the face in darkness. Eight years had passed since he had taken the photo. The more that time faded the colors the sharper his gut wrenched when he accidentally glimpsed her face.
He ignored the crimson light when it blinked again for him to raise the fuel rods. Several safe-catches would keep the reactor from overheating and next shift would arrive soon. His boss would chide him, but he'd left early before.
On his way out, he passed the outflow pipes that carried cooling water away from the plant. The DOE regularly checked the exit waste to ensure it remained below required radioactive levels, but Levi knew that some days the pipes well exceeded those values. Hot material then poured into the river, killing fish too close to the spout.
The meandering crowd of workers parted wide to let him pass. He snapped at a lone employee that remained in his path and the poison in his voice transferred to the worker’s expression. New workers, he thought, Always getting in the way.
A barrage of red traffic lights stopped his rusted Ford Pinto, tripling his travel time home and mimicking red lights blinking in his office as the temperature rose.
A young couple passed him as he climbed the stairs to his apartment. They held hands as well as each other’s hearts and faced the frigid winter wind with a spring in their step. He coughed, turned away from their smiles, and remembered the eyes hidden in the locked drawer.
A siren would have accompanied the flashing light but dry rot had corroded its components over the Christmas he spent alone in his apartment.
The sole letter in his mail box was a credit card statement, which strictly informed him that the calls would begin soon.
Error messages pounded on the monitors screens to a late second shift, who never saw their distress.
His television flickered on, displaying a commercial of a couple and their children enjoying vacation. The woman had red hair, like her picture, and was married, like her picture.
The release valve for the radioactive mixture jammed, holding the rods in place for far too long in the bath.
Levi opened the box from under his bed. Just last year lawmakers had attempted to make the gun model illegal due to excessive force, but the legislation had never passed.
Second shift arrived and hammered the keyboard, but the reaction was no longer reversible.
Levi kicked his front door open, clicked off the safety, and laughed into the waiting night.