Winter 2011 Issue of the Finger Lakes Sierran
by Naomi Burnett
I stare at my wrist. The lump has been there for two days now, and, although I hate the sight of it, it's better to look than to pretend it's not there. It might be nothing, a trick of my mind, a quirk of my body.
But, now, my head is spinning, jumping between spaces of time and memory.
Pencils, textbooks, colored pictures, and ponytails. I want to be grown up all at once, like my sisters.
"Why aren't you swering the door?" I ask.
My mom presses her finger against her lips. "It's the well drillers," she whispers after a moment of strained silence.
I nod and hold as still as I can, hoping the man in the suit will go away. He's been coming to our house for weeks now, and, as I sit in silence, I understand why my mom doesn't want to talk to him. The company won't take "no" for an answer. But, if we hold still enough and breathe softly, maybe he will think we're not home.
We wait for the fourth set of knocks. They don't come.
"Why are we hiding?" I ask the question because I am afraid—because I want her to tell me that everything is all right.
"It's not something to worry about," she says at last. "They just want to buy our mineral rights."
I wrinkle my nose at the closed door. "Well, why won't they leave us alone since we don't want to sell them?"
My mom shakes her head and points to the gray, wrinkled cover of my math book. "Time to start those problems."
My mind churns again, turning from the past to the Now in a jumble of colors and emotions. My wrist is hurting now, or maybe I'm just imagining it. I close my eyes, trying to remember the things I want to—the hayrides, the bonfires, running through the cornfields with my hair streaming behind me, flying down an icy hill on a pink plastic sled. But those memories are pushed aside all too quickly by the things I do not want to remember.
The checks came in the mail from the Comapny. We lost our mineral rights to the majority and the drillers, but what did it matter? We put them on the fridge then cased them—a comfort for the moment.
Then the smell came. I crawled out of the drains and faucets, hovered in the shower, above my lgalss of water, in our noses, our mouths, on our hands. Maybe it's just the natural gas, we tell ourselves. We've always smelled that from time to time.
But the smell gets worse. Before long, the water leaves a chemical taste in my mouth—a hint of cleaning fluids becomes the defining feature of our drinking water.
We can't deny it any more; our water smells and tastes as if someone poured a mixture of Windex and Scrubbing Bubbles down the well. We stop drinking the water, but we still touch it—still shower in it, still use it on our hands and for our dishes, even to brush our teeth. Bottled water is expensive. What other choice did we have?
My parents send the water to be tested, and the report says there are traces of the components of gasoline in our water. Chemicals that shouldn't be there are swimming in our well, in our sinks, in our drinking glasses. They say it was a miracle that we smelled it. Good that we noticed. It was good. It was good. Good.
We move giant water tanks into our basement, lowering them down the steep stairs by ropes and pulleys. I don't know how much the filters cost, but I guess from my parent's faces that they weren't cheap. They don't talk about the filters, but I do hear them say the value of the house is no longer what it should be.
Time passes quickly, and, before long, I move away to college. One day, I find myself sitting next to a friend in the library. He knows about the gas wells. He understands, and he's kind; so I tell him. I tell the facts, the barren details.
Then, I speak the words that are haunting me. "They say—you know, the media and environmental people—they say we might die of cancer, me and my parents."
My friend's gaze flickers from the carpet to my face, traces of sadness mixing with anger in the deep centers of his eyes. "You will die of cancer," he says, his voice filled with an odd mixture of anger and sympathy, "It's not right. Something has to be done."
I shrug. For once in my life, I don't know what to say. Later, alone in my room, I turn my face to the wall and feel the liquid fear pool in my eyes and gather in my chest. I know it's waiting for me to succumb to its current.
In that moment, my mind is overwhelmed by the potential closeness of death. Jesus is salvation: the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden, no matter how many times they poison the wells. Death for a follower of him is nothing, a passage into a new life, a better life. I know this. Yet, I rock back and forth in agony, wondering about the other poisoned wells. Some of the people who live above those wells don't know what will happen when the lumps spread and choke and panic them into an eternity they did not expect.
And, the lump on my own wrist still frightens me. It's not Death itself I'm afraid to face but, rather, the pathway to it.
Maybe it's nothing, I tell my friends. A ganglion cyst, a bonespur. Maybe some old gas tank buried on our property polluted the water. Maybe I'm making something out of nothing. Maybe. Maybe.
All I know is this: my name is Naomi. I'm twenty years old. I have dreams and hopes and beliefs. I want to show the world the love of Jesus. I want to give until I have nothing left, until I've made a difference to someone. I want to abolish stereotypes and give a voice to those who cannot speak for themselves. I want toclimb a mountain and sing Italian opera from the peak. I want to help the helpless. I want to run and climb and dream and laugh and live.
Yet, as I stare at that tiny lump, all I can think of is a white room, tubes in my arms, in the arms of my parents, tears for the lives cut short, and—in the background of it all—the heavy, metallic heart beat of the gas well.
Maybe it's just liquid fear I hold in my parent's contaminated glasses.
But maybe it's not.