Helen walked with purpose scuffing the sand, her toes exploring the crystals that had been washed up and were forming into islands and inlets by the tide that lapped and swirled along the shore. There was an inevitability Chris had told her in his last call that fall-out from any explosion would lead to this type of pollution, but on this scale it was a shock all the same.
The beach stretched for miles ahead of her in a brilliant light that only sun baked sand could produce. The dunes hid a swamp marsh and from there sharp grasses stood at the edge of the land, flat and deserted. In the distance a smoke haze drifted over the shell of the reactor, sirens barely audible announced more help was on the way and a helicopter clattered in the distance dropping yet more yellow sheets of flame retardant. It was the nightmare they had dreaded and now alone she carried on walking, searching for a clue or anything in fact that would make sense of it all.
It was dusk now and turning to retrace her steps started the walk back, the breeze now in her face. Cordite stung her lips and tears drew lines over her cheeks. Her pale city complexion was pock marked and freckled from days spent on the beach. She ached for some good food as she had become a regular at the motel, eating warm burgers and crisps from the dispenser and dulling herself to sleep with bourbon and coke from the minibar. One evening she buried herself in the newspapers, scanning for any news of survivors at the bar but then tired of drunken and fumbling propositions from easily offended lorry drivers her room became a refuge.
Her time anyway was nearly up and she had made no progress. The agency in New York wanted her back and so reluctantly Helen accepted that tonight would be her last in the single room where the sheets had never been changed over the last week and the thin red curtains flapped against the grubby slatted window. The air conditioning whistled and would make no difference to the coming hot and humid night. She stripped off her jeans and shirt and stepped into the shower. A dribble of warm water pooled at her feet, sand twirled into the drain bubbling with the soap but it was a relief to be clean again. The bath towel was surprisingly soft and wrapped tight around her thin body. She had lost weight and thought one last evening at the bar could be endured, just in case someone might tell her something rather than offering her drinks and sex.
CNN on mute was on one screen, the other showed baseball and the bar seemed empty. Helen drew up a stool and stared at the news, not taking in anything, she felt numb and ready to cry again. The explosion was being placed further down the agenda now that the November election was hotting up and dominating the airwaves candidates shouting at each other.
A drink suddenly appeared in front of her, the coke fizzing in the glass. The barman stood looking up at the news, back to her, polishing absentmindedly. She turned and noticed the swing door closing and a bulging manila envelope on the sticky top. On the front in black tip pen was her name and a number that looked like a mobile and the four letters spelling a name that could have been a male of female, Cris.
‘Did you see who dropped this off,’ she asked the back of the barman. ‘Nah’ the back replied.