The highway lights were hanging over me, all bluish and in one long perfect rank. They came slow, and then fast. The words mercury and blue came to mind, repeating themselves with each coming light post. These passing highway lights resembled the UV mercury vapor lamps sometimes used in pool filtration systems. The idea of turning metal into light seemed strange. My thoughts continued that way until I heard the sirens. I saw the rotating blue beacon lights in the rearview mirror. I switched lanes and watched an ambulance speed by. The sound crept up, and then quickly changed its pitch as it passed, with the noise sounding stretched as it drove away.
I looked down to see if the initials of the facility on my shirt, CSFSC, (Central Spent Fuel Storage Complex) was facing right side out. I hung the whistle over my neck, cinched my gym shorts, and clipped on the neon fanny pack with the CPR mask, nitrile gloves, and nicotine gum. Hanging on the rear-view mirror was the Australian style, surf patrol, skull cap, with the strings that tie around the chin.
My breath became visible as I stepped out of the pickup and headed toward the elliptical shaped main building. The sky was in its early morning colors—drizzling, with a visible sun. Around the parking lot, I saw a gathering of ravens that were busy with their morning activities. One of the ravens was tinkering with a stainless-steel shackle, like the kind used to secure rigging. The raven likely found the shiny thing in an industrial yard somewhere. I was tempted to watch the raven more closely, but I was already late as it was. Nearing the entrance of the Complex, I saw a scientist holding an umbrella, walking in the opposite direction from me.
“The Devil is getting hitched early this morning,” she said.
The pool at the Central Complex stored spent nuclear fuel rods, buried in 40 feet of water to keep the material cool, and the radiation contained. However, the Central Complex’s pool wasn’t altogether made for practical storage. In truth, the main function of the Complex was as a pilot facility for a new process of wet storage. In any case, I didn’t see it as my business to care about the purpose of the Complex. I was there to watch the water as a lifeguard. Maybe I was hired as a redundant precaution, or maybe there was genuine concern about drowning scientists. As far as I understood the situation, it was the same responsibility, either way.
On the third month after being hired, the chief safety officer explained the changing situation to me. The temperature at the bottom of the pool had gone up with the recent installation of spent fuel. The radiation from the new installation was also emitting a bluish-white, Cherenkov effect, light from the eggcrate structure housing the spent fuel. I was told there was no issue with staring directly at the light. In fact, from the onset of seeing it, there was something already enticing about the soft glow. I felt as though I could have stared at it for hours. But, the tanning bed-like rays also made me uneasy; as if some kind of insidious UV eye-damage was happening. For that reason, I wore blu-blocker shades when on the observation deck.
“Could you remove your sunglasses for a moment,” said the safety officer.
“I need you to take some extra duties during your watch.”
“What are we talking about here? Checking the pH levels? I can check the pH levels with a kit. No problem.”
“No, nothing like that. Let me see…How should I put this? As a lifeguard, you are, in a way, a qualified safety specialist. You also happen to be an available resource suitable enough for additional duties. Given the seriousness of the situation, I’m obligated to expand your role.”
From there, the safety officer elaborated on the various forms of additional monitoring I would be doing. The most important of which was checking the hydrogen gas levels being emitted by the spent plutonium fuel rods. All the while, I couldn’t help but think about my previous duties at other pools. This was no baby pool Mr. Frog water slide; I had to get my head around that.
In the following weeks, there was another issue as well. In the afternoons, a group of sea otters were being released into the nuclear pool for the last half of my twelve-hour shift. Although there was no official explanation given to me, I did get some information from a scientist named Hurth.
Doc Hurth was the head scientist that managed the engineering project for a new transfer process for newly spent fuel. The process was particular in how it could take spent fuel from a reactor to a separate facility for wet storage. The process involved retrofitting the chassis of semi-trucks into thermal/combustion powered, mobile party pool transports. This transportation process was not well received in the science community, among other voices, but was the key factor to the Central Complex’s progress into new solutions.
Hurth maintained an ongoing role at the Complex as a consultant. And, despite the infamy of his MPP transports, he was at a career highpoint. But, the time he was logging at the pool began to follow him in the off-hours. He became increasingly disturbed with dreams of the blue light; one of which included a man gnawing on his own foot that he described as being an ouroboros. In this dream, the man was lying in a volcano with a dark center, floating on top of blue lava, spinning like a beachball while self-cannibalizing.
For a while, Hurth had these little chat sessions with me while I was on duty. But, as time went on, he started visiting my apartment to get drunk and talk about things I was not to discuss outside of the apartment. All of which related to what he referred to as the problem.
Eventually, I got him to spill the details on the otters. According to him, the otters were the subject of adjacent research going on at the Central Complex. The afternoon pool session was to allow them time to swim in a large area. They were originally from Amchitka Island, Alaska; a region that had its otter population forcefully removed during nuclear testing back in the cold war era. This group was discovered three years ago, hiding near the shore cliffs along the island. He told me the thirteen in the pool are genetically radioresistant. Very special aquatic mammals, he said, over an umpteenth glass of lab grade ethanol and gingko juice. His other drink of choice was fresh squeezed Rio Red grapefruit, paired with a bottle of Wheeler’s gin. Both drinks he claimed could give him the same power as the otters, though it was hard to tell if he was being completely serious about these rad tonics. On the subject of a possible meltdown, he said, surviving radiation poisoning is one thing, surviving fire is another. Too bad they have no idea what kind of pool they’re swimming in. Special or not, they’re just animals, like the rest of us; nothing more but subjects of their environment. And, every adaption has a breaking point.
Hurth’s descriptions went over in my mind, as I saw the white lab suit come in to release the sea otters from their containers. One at a time, the otters looked and sniffed their way out of the kennels and toward an opening in the pet fence around the nuclear pool. The handler would throw in several drums worth of prawn trapped in ice chunks for the otters to crack open along the sides of the pool. It gave them something to do, and they seemed content for the most part.
I watched the otters swimming as I counted them, repeating their non-numerical names to myself: Mel, Babs, Miggy, Ali, Cali, Zoe, Koko, Drago, Toto, Farfalla, Kane, Rubi, and Ivy. In between lounging around like ice cubes in a glass of tea, they would swim and plunge themselves in the water. They were hygienic creatures, often scrubbing their cheeks and fangs throughout the afternoon. Watching them was enough to keep my head out of the sky, but there was another situation below. With the addition of the otters, another precautionary measure was added. A circus quality safety net, positioned 10 feet down in the water, was locked into place around the four corners of the pool. The safety net managed to partially diffuse the light, but the glow remained as enticing as ever.
Later in the afternoon, as I continued to watch the otters swim, Hurth entered the observation deck. He stood near the nuclear pool for half an hour writing something in a notebook. Everything was as normal as it could be, until he pulled a knife out from his lab coat. He clenched the knife in-between his teeth, pirate style, hesitating before a jump. I raised my whistle with my eyes locked onto his. I went in after him with my rescue tube, unsure of what I was going to have to do. He paddled out toward the center of the pool while I played catch up. He switched the knife over to his hand and began to take in several deep breaths before diving under. I let the rescue tube go to float on the surface as I followed him beneath the water. He began to cut away at the safety net. I had limited time; passed the 10-foot barrier of the net was the radiation hazard zone. He looked back toward me and began to slash the knife from side to side. I tried to angle myself closer but ended up being cut on the palm of my right hand. The blood in the water swirled around like ribbons. Scared shitless, I grabbed Hurth’s wrist and tried to pry the knife loose. I could see the blur of my shades fall toward the net and the glowing bottom. I went back up for air with Hurth quickly following after. Hurth took in several deep breaths before diving back under. There was a double risk with going after him again. So, I watched, over a period of moments. His body suddenly went limp. I swam down and hooked his torso with my arms. I pulled his body to the surface using the pool’s access ramp and began my assessment. He still had a pulse but was not breathing. With several thrusts to his abdomen, he began to regurgitate the water. After a few moments, he finally spoke.
“Why did you bring me back up? I was so close. Like in the dream—in the volcano. I almost solved it.”
“What kind of shit is that? Solved what?”
That night, I walked through the hall toward my apartment, still feeling the throb from the cut on my hand that was wrapped up in bandage. The pale-green florescent light was above, and the office building carpet was below. In the closet, just right to the entrance door of my apartment, I kept a Geiger counter. The antique Geiger Counter was a gift from Hurth. I switched it on and waved the metal wand over myself. It made a familiar crackling noise. The needle was jumping back and forth over 0.2 as I tried to remember Hurth’s slurred explanation on how to read the gauge. He said something like, the absorption rate per minute, times ten…if you’re radiating this much jiffy pop, you may have a problem. I switched the dial up, and watched the needle dropped down to below zero, as if I had found the cure radiation setting.
I decided to watch some basic cable to ease my mind. As my hand reached toward the power button on the old Panasonic, I saw a blue halo on the blank screen. I placed my hand directly on the screen and began to move it from side to side which resulted in faint tracers. I then pressed my face against the glass, after which I saw a glowing reflection looking back. After an attempt to process what was happening, I ignored the situation and flipped the television on anyway. The TV was always glitchy, often with horizontal scrolling lines distorting the picture.
With the TV on, a kind of nauseated curiosity took control of me as I placed my hand back on the screen. The TV bugged out completely. Through the distortion I saw images trying to form. After several moments of this, the TV formed a complete picture. I removed my hand and saw Nameless Mascot Face on the screen, who was a cartoon-hour TV cohost from over twenty years ago. I hadn’t seen this show in so long I had completely forgotten it existed. The masked cohost had the look of a cartoon cowboy come to life, with blue eyes dotted with empty pupils and a frozen smile on its artificial face. Nameless Mascot Face must have had another name. What was its name? Maybe that’s just how it was; a Nameless Mascot Face that didn’t speak. And then it happened, the Nameless Mascot Face started waiving at me from behind the moving retrace lines. It gave me two thumbs up, which I then mirrored back. After realizing what I was doing, I decided it was time to turn the thing off.
“Imagine that this is the correct form of life after the cosmic explosion and we stand certain of our place in the world. Slowly, we begin to read back our progress. And then we see it; this image of the past, coming in like a series of broadcasts. The other says, long ago, there was a darkness before the pool. A fluid was created from the ancient fluid, a biological fluid, a strange fluid. After the cosmic bang, the insects of the pond found shelter near the shore. And, in-between this broadcast and the receiver is where the problem exists. The alpha and omega constant, in constellation, with gamma radiation shooting from and toward the void. Alive and dead, with wave frequencies coming from a chattering skull.”
Lightning in the area. I could see the heavy clouds from the observation deck’s sky windows. I sat on the guard stand. I thought of the word fire. I then thought about not thinking. Each thought that came was like a bubble erupting to the surface. I let the random thoughts drift further away, until I started to hear a hum in my mind, like a white noise.
I jumped into the water and began my swim to the bottom. Above my head, the otters began to swarm at the speed of bats leaving a cave, obscuring the light from above and making my path clear. I started cutting at the opening in the net left by Hurth. I swam through it and felt the heat of the water increasing. I was out of air and still had another ten feet to go. I felt the pressure of the water against my skull. The temperature was reaching further into the core of my body. I was burning away, until I felt a release from my sensations. Finally, at the bottom, I touched the glowing surface.
When I awoke, I found myself standing in a large space, filled with mist and moving lights. I walked toward a dancing shadow on the face of a cloud. The music sounded like a steel drum. I cut through the cloud and saw a familiar figure. It looked like a cartoon character come to life, but instead of a cowboy costume, it wore a suit with horizontal stripes.
“I’ve seen your masked face before.”
It stopped dancing and looked at me.
“Do you have a name?” I said.
“I am Flanbergogh.”
“Is that it?”
“It is. And, it is what I am.”
“Am I dead?”
“That depends on what you mean by dead.”
“Perhaps you should try to swim back up.”
“Wait. What’s under your mask?”
“Are you sure you want to see?”
“I want to see what you are.”
Flanbergogh removed the mask. Under it was a headless void, with a neck that looked like the red insides of a grapefruit cut in half.
“You must take it now,” it said.
I took Flanbergogh’s face/head.
“Before you leave, I need something in return. A head for a head.”
“Your head, I need it.”
“Hold on,” I said.
I untied my lifeguard skull cap and place it on top of Flanbergogh’s neck stump. It then gave me a thumbs up. After that, the room filled with light, and went dark.
As I came to, I saw myself suspended under the water. The otters were lifting my body up to the surface. On my head was the face of Flanbergogh. The otters swam in a circular motion around my body, cycling in and out, taking turns with pushing me upwards. I saw my silhouette above like a shadow on the surface of the water. My vision then blacked out. When it came back, I was looking straight ahead at the ceiling of the observation deck. I saw that the skylights were open. Snow drifted down through the window openings from the overcast sky. One of the otters was chewing on Flanbergogh’s mask. The otters were keeping me aloft in the water, with their paws holding on to my arms and legs and their bodies functioning like floaties. I continued to look around the darkened observation deck and saw ice forming around the edges of the pool. I rested my head back in the water and continued to float there, slowly spinning, and feeling weightless.