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March 28, 1979. They told us to line up single file, wait for the buses on a bell-less afternoon. They told us there was something in the air. “Do not play outside today,” boomed the principal’s voice, as loud as East Coast thunder. We left the words on the board, left our desks, scribbled on the Etch a Sketch on the ride home, ran our fingers along the plastic piping on the green bus seats stuck with chewing gum and Silly Putty.
Nobody talked much. We looked out the windows, confused. The roads had become a sea of yellow. Schools were closing everywhere that day. “TMI melted down,” we heard the bus driver mumble. Our neighbor, Mr. Kauffman, was corralling all his cattle into the barn and shutting the door.
We were urged to stay inside, but my brothers ignored the principal, and the governor, and headed to the baseball field. I stayed home and played with my Barbies, drank Tang and watched the TV while my mom paced the house, wondering if we should evacuate. She called my father at work. “I don’t know if we’re downwind. Are we downwind?”
News anchors relayed Governor Thornburg’s latest updates. Pregnant mothers and preschool children should leave the area. The NRC had released 150,000 liters of radioactive material into the Susquehanna River, where, only a few years later we would spend whole weekends water skiing, as if the meltdown had dissolved its own memories.
My mom called my father again, “She’s in first grade. That’s almost pre-school. I think we should go to Baltimore for a few days.” 140,000 women and children had already left the area. The governor had extended the evacuation radius from three miles to 20 within two days. We stayed inside while farm animals huddled under cover and ate stored feed.
Years later, reports denied the spike in infant mortality rates within the area. Apparently only a few more people died of cancer. One rode the sea of yellow buses with me. A girl whose once awkward features would be the envy of high school whores who did not know better than to dismiss her beauty until she became a model. Cheekbones like split pears, rubbed by a weary hand that held her up on her last days—when she told me how she dreamed of water skiing one more time, joking once, “Maybe I’ll glow some day.”
Holly Lynn Payne is an internationally published novelist whose work has been translated into seven languages. She is a Discover Great New Writers author for her debut novel, The Virgin’s Knot. Her novel, Kingdom of Simplicity won the Benjamin Franklin Award. She is the founder of Skywriter Books, a writing coaching and publishing consultancy. Her forthcoming novel is about a girl who meets Rumi and discovers mysticism in the 13th century. She lives in Mill Valley, California with her daughter and husband.