Authors: Greg Cox
Another screen watched over Reactor Room One, deep in the heart of the abandoned plant. The five-hundred-ton pressure vessel containing the reactor core was shielded by dense layers of steel and concrete, but hot gases continued to leak from the ruptured casing. Silence reigned over the compromised chamber until the massive vessel suddenly toppled over, crashing onto the reinforced concrete floor, as something huge and inconceivable burst up through the floor. A violent discharge of radiation wreaked havoc with the transmission so that the screen caught only a fleeting glimpse of a large, blurry object that vaguely resembled a claw…
Then an immense pulse of energy, indescribably powerful, swept through the entire plant, disrupting every electronic circuit and knocking out all the lights.
The screens in the control room went black.
* * *
The Janjira International School was a one-story building boasting traditional Japanese architecture, complete with bamboo shutters on the window. Sitting in class with his fellow students, facing the blackboard, Ford found it hard to concentrate on Miss Okada’s language lesson. He couldn’t wait for the day to be over so that his dad could finally see the surprise he and Mom had prepared for him. Ford was also hoping for some chocolate cake and ice cream. His mouth watered in anticipation.
Emergency sirens started wailing outside, distracting Ford from his sugary daydreams. The sirens sounded like they were coming from only a few miles away. Frowning, Miss Okada turned away from the chalkboard. “All right, children,” she said in Japanese. “Let’s practice our safety drills.”
Ford figured it was just another duck-and-cover drill as well, until a fearsome metallic groaning penetrated the thin walls of the classroom. Both teacher and students stopped what they were doing and turned their heads toward the window, where the nuclear power plant could be glimpsed not far away. Ford instantly thought of his parents—and how stressed his dad had been that morning.
Did this have something to do with that problem at the plant?
He rushed to the window, even as Miss Okada tried to herd the rest of the class out the door. Boys and girls in matching blue uniforms poured out of the school onto the grassy lawn outside, even as the ominous rumbling grew louder and louder. His teacher called to him, but Ford barely registered her anxious voice. Unable to look away, he stared out the window as…
The entire plant collapsed before his eyes. With a deafening roar, all three containment buildings dropped out of sight, as though suddenly swallowed up by the earth. Billowing clouds of dirt and debris rose up where the towers had once stood. Children, and even a few teachers, screamed as, in a matter of minutes, the looming nuclear power plant ceased to exist.
Ford thought, all thought of cake and birthdays forgotten.
The roar of the disaster consumed his entire world.
A high-pitched hydraulic whine roused Lieutenant Ford Brody from an uneasy slumber. A sliver of light hit his tired brown eyes, causing him to blink and look away. The twenty-five year old Navy officer sat in the cramped-but-spacious hold of a C-17 Globemaster transport plane, surrounded by dozens of troops from other branches of the armed services, all returning from recent tours of duty in Afghanistan. Ford knew he ought to be more excited about finally touching down back home, but, to be honest, he was mostly worn-out, jet-lagged, and even a bit apprehensive.
“Family waiting for you?” Captain Freeman asked, eyeing Ford. A career soldier in his mid-forties, the older man had a seen-it-all air about him. He had been dozing beside Ford for the last several thousand miles.
Ford shrugged. “Hope so.”
Freeman nodded. “How long you been away?”
“Take it slow,” Freeman advised, gathering up his kit, which was resting at his feet. “It’s the one thing they don’t train you for.”
Tell me about it
, Ford thought. The long separation had been hard on everyone.
Daylight flooded the hold as the large cargo doors at the rear of the plane glided open, offering a view of the tarmac beyond. Ford gathered up his own things as he joined the procession of weary, homebound warriors exiting the plane two by two. He quickly lost track of Captain Freeman in the crush of uniformed bodies. He wondered what, if any, kind of reunion the battle-hardened veteran had in store. The call of duty could be hard on one’s home life, as Ford was already learning for himself.
Outside the hangar at Travis Air Force Base, a mob of eager friends and family waited impatiently behind a cordon for the first glimpse of their loved ones. The crowd displayed flowers, yellow ribbons, waving flags, and enough handmade signs to stage a political demonstration. The brightly colored signs, often boasting stars, stripes, and generous amounts of glitter, greeted the new arrivals with countless heartfelt variations on the same theme.
“WELCOME HOME, DAD!”
“WELCOME HOME, SIS!”
“WELCOME HOME, SWEETHEART!”
Cheers and applause hailed the first appearance of the troops, followed by tears and squeals of delight as individuals spotted their respective loved ones. Neatly regimented ranks broke apart into a riot of emotional reunions. Spouses leapt into each other’s arms, locking lips in public displays of affection. Small children scampered to embrace their parents. Older relatives wept openly at the safe return of long-absent sons, daughters, nephews, nieces, and grand-children. Handcrafted signs, painstakingly prepared, were tossed aside and forgotten in the joy and excitement of the moment. Bouquets of yellow roses were crushed between enthusiastic hugs and kisses.
Lost in a sea of jubilant strangers, Ford looked around anxiously, searching for a familiar face. At first all he saw was other people’s reunions, but then:
Elle emerged from the chaotic mob scene, her sandy blond hair and hazel eyes instantly rendering everyone else insignificant, aside from the mop-headed four-year-old boy clutched in her arms. A rush of emotion overcame Ford at the sight of his wife and son, who had only been flickering images on a computer screen for over a year now. He couldn’t help noticing how much bigger Sam was; he’d been barely more than a toddler the last time Ford had laid eyes on him in person. He tried not to think about how much he’d missed during the young boy’s growth.
They jostled their way through the crowd toward each other. Beaming and beautiful, Elle put Sam down on the pavement in front of his father. Ford half expected the boy to come charging toward him, as so many of the other children were doing with their parents, but instead Sam looked oddly tentative. He hung back shyly, retreating behind his mother, while Ford stood by helplessly, uncertain what to do. At the moment, defusing a roadside IED seemed simpler and easier than re-connecting with his own child.
Elle broke the awkward silence. “Lots of discussion about who gets the first hug.” she explained.
“Where’d you come out on that?” Ford asked.
Elle bent to confer with Sam. “You change your mind, honey?”
Sam stared at Ford wordlessly. Ford knelt down before him, approaching him as delicately as he would an unexploded bomb.
“I’ve been carrying around that last hug you gave me for a long time,” Ford said gently, even as Sam continued to gaze at him as though he didn’t quite recognize the uniformed stranger before him. “I could sure use a refill.”
The boy came out from behind Elle, but still appeared a little shy. Elle placed a comforting hand on Sam’s shoulder, while casting an apologetic look at Ford.
“Let’s do this,” she suggested. “Why don’t I go first and check it out and make sure Daddy still knows what he’s doing?”
She came forward and, for the time being, all Ford’s fears and worries evaporated as she was there in his arms once more, holding him close, kissing him passionately, and he felt keenly just how much he had missed her during his long months abroad. Sam was squeezed in between them, hesitantly joining in the celebration. The three of them clung to each other, wrapped up tight in the moment, oblivious to the tumultuous scene around them. For the first time since the plane had touched down, Ford truly felt like he was home.
At least for now.
* * *
“Welcome Home, Daddy!” read the homemade banner taped to the dining room wall.
The sun had fallen by the time they got back to their modest home in San Francisco. Ford was relieved to see that the house looked much as he remembered, aside from a few new knick-knacks and appliances. Dinner was cartons of ice cream, including Ford’s favorite: Rocky Road. Across the table, Sam dug enthusiastically into a big carton of chocolate-chip mint. His earlier shyness had faded somewhat, now that they were all settled back in at home, in familiar surroundings. Maybe Sam had just needed a little time to get used to seeing his dad again?
Ford hoped that was the case. “Sam, you better enjoy this,” his mother said. “You’re not getting ice cream for dinner every night.”
“We aren’t?” Ford said through a mouthful of Rocky Road, provoking giggles from Sam. “Why not?”
Elle rolled her eyes. “Sam, how do you have a ten-year-old for a father? How is that mathematically possible?”
After ice cream, it was time to put Sam to bed. His room still had same blue wallpaper, adorned with rockets and blazing comets, he and Elle had picked out four years ago. Pencil markings on a wall charted his growth. Although Elle had been needed to help Sam into his pajamas, Ford had insisted on tucking his son into bed himself. But first he had to clear off a menagerie of toy soldiers, tanks, and dinosaurs from atop the covers. He couldn’t help smiling at the toys, which reminded him of the same ones he’d played with as a child—before his mother died and everything went to hell.
Don’t think about that now
, he scolded himself.
Concentrate on today… and Sam.
“See this one here?” He plucked a green plastic soldier from the bed-slash-battleground. “That’s a lot like Daddy in his uniform, but mine’s way cooler. We need to go to the toy store, find you a Navy man. How ‘bout that?”
Sam nodded happily, grinning up at Ford, as his dad tucked him in.
“Alright, big man,” he said, mussing the boy’s hair. “Hit the rack.”
Sam cuddled in beneath the covers. “Can you sing the dinosaur song… like Mommy?”
The dinosaur song?
Ford was baffled—and acutely aware of long he had been missing from his son’s life. “Not sure I know that one.”
He looked to Elle for help. She smiled at him from the doorway, letting him fend for himself, just like he’d insisted.
Captain Freeman was right
, he decided.
They really don’t train us for this.
He got up to leave. A worried look came over the little boy’s face.
“Dad? You’ll be here tomorrow, too, right?”
Ford winced at the anxiety in his son’s voice.
“Yeah, buddy. I told you. The next two weeks are all yours.” He reluctantly retreated toward the hall, where Elle was waiting. “Now get some shut-eye, okay? I’ll still be here in the morning.”
Ford leaned in and gave Sam a gentle peck on the forehead. He wished there was more he could to do to reassure his son. He knew what it was like to have a father you barely knew anymore.
“You bet,” he promised.
* * *
“—so by this point, he’s literally buck naked with his jock strap on his forehead, a banana in his teeth, hooting like a monkey—and
when our C.O. steps in—and I swear to God, looks him right in the eye, not skipping a beat, goes: ‘At ease, Lieutenant.’”
Elle doubled over, giggling hysterically, as Ford acted out the anecdote for her entertainment. They had the lights on dim in the kitchen and a half-empty bottle of wine rested on the table between them. Ford knew he ought to get some sleep—he had been traveling nonstop for over a day now—but he and Elle had a lot of lost time to make up. She struggled to catch her breath, laughing so hard tears leaked from her eyes. Ford cracked up, too.
He came around the table and pulled her close.
“I missed your laugh,” he said, relishing the feel of her against him. “My last roommate honked like a mule.”
She melted into him. The familiar scent of her hair stirred his memories.
“I missed you, too,” she said.
Their laughter gradually subsided, but he kept holding onto her, unwilling to let her go. Back on tour, while disposing of explosive ordnance, there had been more than a few tense moments when he’d thought he’d never have a chance to hold Elle again. Part of him still couldn’t believe that they were really back together again after all that time. Hilarity gave way to intimacy as she rested snugly against him. Just like old times.
He drew her toward him. She resisted at first, eyeing him with a wary expression, but, to his vast relief, she let it go for now. Their lips met as they surrendered to a mutual hunger that had not been satisfied for far too long. The kiss deepened, growing in heat, while they pressed against each other with ever-greater urgency, their hands exploring the tantalizing contours beneath their clothing, their fervent grip and lips anchoring them together. Locked in each other’s arms, they began to ease toward the bedroom.
The phone rang.
“Don’t,” he said. “Not now.”
Elle disengaged from the embrace, pulling away, but he held on to her waist. Her face was flushed. “It could be work.”
She was a nurse at San Francisco General Hospital, and she took her responsibilities as seriously as he did his. It was one of the things he loved about her, even when their respective duties pulled them apart. He clung to her playfully, nuzzling her neck, even as she leaned over to answer the phone.
“Hello?” she said into the receiver, fighting back giggles.
“Tell ‘em you’re busy,” he whispered seductively into her ear. “Tell ‘em your husband is unbuttoning your shirt as you speak—”
He heard a muffled voice on the other end of the line, but was more interested in exploring the tantalizing contours beneath Elle’s clothes. She wriggled deliciously and made a very half-hearted effort to swat away his wandering hands while he nibbled on her ear. She turned her moist, enticing lips away from the phone.