“If there’s a hell, this is it,” my Grandpa told me the first time he took me to church. He stood there looking off at the impossible towers in the distance as he spoke.
I was little then and looked up at him with blinking eyes. I saw something I had never seen before on his face: fear.
“Never come here on your own,” he said through clenched teeth.
He took my right hand, something he had never done, and squeezed it hard. Pain bubbled up in my fingers and into my arm. I was about to scream before he released his grip and walked briskly into the church, leaving me behind.
I stood there for a few moments to stop myself from crying. I looked over at those behemoths in the distance, wondering how humans could build something so big, so heavy and so angry in the middle of such gentle land. I glanced at my hand: it was swelling up and throbbing. I felt a twitch in my stomach and acid in the back of my throat. My left hand reached for the necklace my mother had left me a few months earlier, just weeks before she died and her father, this man, took me in. Touching the thin silver band reminded me of her hand on my shoulder. A small comfort in a big world.
I had lived in Omaha for my entire life until the courts turned me over to my grandfather. I was an outcast and didn’t make friends easily, but as I got older and became more of a small-town kid, I started to hear more about “The Station.”
Officially, the Red River Nuclear Station just outside North Hawk, Nebraska never went online.
Officially, the project was abandoned in the fall of 1975 after years of setbacks and ultimately a lower demand for electricity — a fate it shared with many other facilities around the country.
There were many late-night, fireside tales: dark figures in black vans running a secret testing facility. Red lights shooting into the sky at night. Tales of radiation poisoning, turning the swampy land around it into an unlivable nightmare where creatures grow two heads, or impossibly large, razor-lined teeth. Strange objects in the sky. I could add in almost any storyline from a major Hollywood horror movie, and it’d be rumored to be true at this nuclear station.
I never believed any of it, of course, but then I’d remember that strange look on Grandpa’s face and the pain in my hand.
Once when I was 15, I snuck out with a flashlight and a six-pack of Grandpa’s beer to explore. Having no real parents was a shitty thing, but the benefit of living with Grandpa was that he was a drunk and stayed out most of the night drinking. I often wondered when I’d get a phone call from the Sheriff telling me he had wrapped his Chevy pickup around an old tree. Half of me wouldn’t have cared, and the other was terrified of being truly alone in the world.
I trudged through the fields and the ground became muddy and wet nearer to the towers. A weak and rusty fence surrounded the flooded perimeter of the Station and I easily found my way past the “NO TRESPASSING” signs to one of the cooling towers. I turned my flashlight off and stared up: it was so big it blotted out nearly half of the night’s sky, an absorbing darkness where there should be glittering stars. I downed my third beer and relished the buzz.
I was still staring up at the all-encompassing blackness when I heard something splash near me. I jumped and dropped the flashlight in the muck.
“Damnit,” I muttered and ended up dropping the three beers I had left as I fumbled for the light. I’ll admit it: I was feeling the alcohol. I was also scared out of my mind.
I found the cool plastic of the flashlight in the mud and flicked it on. A beam stretched toward the cooling tower’s gray and black exterior. I waved the light around, trying to see what had made the sound.
There was no one there. I was hearing things, I thought. Those damned rumors filled my head with demons in the dark.
I looked at the dropped beers, half sunk in the black mud, and decided to leave them. The screaming cicadas were deafening and seemed to hide a kind of malice in them. “Go back home,” they were telling me. Sighing, I agreed with them.
A few miles distance was all it was to Grandpa’s house — my house — and I started walking in that direction.
But that’s when I heard it. A voice in the chorus of nature.
I stopped and spun around, pointing the beam of light in every direction. There was nothing there but swampy mud, rotten wood, and a field of grass in the distance past the rusty fence.
There was something strange about the moment. Even at 15, drunk or not, I could feel something bigger than myself there. The tower’s presence seemed to grow, absorbing even more of the sky and I felt some kind of animal-like panic rising deep in my chest.
I turned away and tried to quicken my pace, not caring about being careful in the mud. I heard the voice again, rising just barely above the sound of the cicadas. Or was it multiple voices now? I tried to go faster and in doing so lost one of my shoes. I left it there and limped forward at a near-run as I scrambled over the fence, ripping part of my jeans.
The voices were coming from all around me then. The cicadas were loud, but the sound of the voices started to drown out the high-pitched sound of the insects. I wildly flicked the flashlight around as I fled, but never saw a soul.
This was about the time I started to cry. And hyperventilate. And scream.
The Church. It was close and I changed course, knowing it was only minutes away.
The voices were screaming now, an incomprehensible, violent chant that seemed to come from all around me. I had my hands to my ears as I ran, trying to block out the sound, and that’s when I saw the church in the distance, an orange glow from a window filling my heart with hope. I cleared the muck and hit dry land with only the tall grass in my way now. I was sprinting and the voices faded just a bit.
Nearly there, I rushed past the decrepit merry-go-round, turned the handle to the church door, and nearly laughed when it turned easily. I rushed in, my wet socks slick on the wood floor and I fell backward, hitting my head against the floor.
My vision went blurry, and my head throbbed. I could barely make out my surroundings.
“Help,” I said in a broken voice, one hand behind my head cradling the bruise. “Is anyone here?”
It was quiet inside but the sound of the outside voices was quickly surrounding the church walls.
I could make out the words now.
“The void. The void. The void. The void.” Over and over again. “The void.”
Sometimes the voices would chant in unison, and other times all the voices would scream the words randomly, crashing them together in a chaotic anti-song.
I could see better now, and I could make out someone in the church with me.
“Pastor Leo?” I asked. I couldn’t make out who was there, standing in front of the candles, the light illuminating a silhouette but hiding the person’s features. The figure moved toward me.
“The void,” a man’s voice said, quieter than the ones surrounding the church but still audible within the walls. I scooted away until my back was against the closed front door. I could almost smell the breath of the people gathered there just beyond, chanting and spitting their words at the church’s walls, trying to break them down.
“The void. The void. The void.”
The man kept approaching and his hand reached toward me, grabbing at my face.
That’s when I kicked, and the man fell back. I stood up and turned around, put my hands on the door, and decided to try to crash through the people surrounding the church to make a desperate run for it. Anything was better than being trapped inside with no way out, I had decided.
I pushed the door open and tried to run, but a mass of hands reached for me. One grabbed and tore my shirt. Another set of fingers raked a fingernail on my cheek, carving a jagged line to my ear. Another gripped my silver necklace from behind, choking me and pulling me back, but I made a lunge and the necklace broke, finally letting me through the humanity and into the field, and then to the road, and soon Grandpa’s house. The voices fading and then silent.
I could barely breathe from the bruise on my neck and back of my head. My shirt was red with blood and I limped to my room. I considered waking up the only family I had left in the world, but thought better of it. What would I say to him? Grandpa was a cold, quiet, reasonable man. He had a Bible in every room of the house. Sometimes they’d have dinner and Grandpa would say one, maybe two words outside of the prayer he’d say before every meal. I couldn’t imagine he’d listen to me now, believing the insanity that I had just gone through.
So I remained quiet and never told Grandpa about “the void” or anything about that night near the Red River Nuclear Station.
Months would go by, and I would still be afraid to go out at night alone. I became more secluded, sitting in my room behind a locked door. My grandpa receded even more into his resolute quietness, sometimes leaving the house for days at a time. We became complete strangers who tolerated each other’s existence and then completely ignored each other.
Years went by. I went to college. I started a family. Time started to shift the memories of that night into something less real. A nightmare maybe. The result of a brain of a kid dealing with the trauma of losing his mother and living with a stone silent old man.
And all of this coming back to me now, decades later. I’m cleaning up his old house In North Hawk and getting it ready for sale. He finally died. I received a phone call from his brother, telling me of Grandpa’s death and that someone needed to get the house ready for sale. I volunteered and made the drive out of Omaha to North Hawk.
I sit now at Grandpa’s old desk in his study. It’s the one room I never entered in all my years living here. The door was always locked and it felt wrong to be here now, like I was trespassing.
The desk is dead center in the middle of the room under a single ceiling light above me. The walls are lined with shelves full of dusty books, some falling apart and rotting.
The desk in front of me is made of brown, deeply lined wood. I open the drawers. Old pens, some paper, and scattered junk are all I find.
But one of the drawers won’t open. It’s locked, and after looking a while for a key, I take a hammer instead and rip the drawer open.
I sit and look at what’s inside for a long time: my broken necklace on top of a Bible.
I pick up the broken thing and a flash of memory crashes into me: my mother’s hand on my shoulder. A fingernail cutting my face as I struggle to run. This necklace breaking and finally setting me free. An impossible cacophony of endless voices cutting into the night.
I put the necklace gently on the desk and remove the Bible. It’s one of the old ones with a leather cover and thick pages. I place its considerable bulk on the dusty desk and look at it there next to the shattered necklace.
“If there’s a hell, this is it,” I whisper, reciting Grandpa’s warning to me at the church.
I open the Bible.
Every word within is harshly blacked out with blue or black ink, and filling each available white space in the entire book, hundreds of thousands of times, my grandpa had written two words:
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Check back tomorrow for more as October 2023 becomes a strange month for the citizens in and around North Hawk, Nebraska.