“Walking Across The Bomb”
by Alexandra MacKenzie
Senior English, first day, first minute, Mrs. Johnson announcing her intent to make us study the World War I poetry of Rupert Brooke, when the Number Two pencil in my hand went poof, dumping onto my clean notebook a tiny pile of gray ash.
I blinked, then slowly raised my hand.
“Yes, Miss Hargood?”
“My pencil just disintegrated.”
Thirty pairs of eyes swivelled around to stare at me. Mrs. Johnson stalked down the aisle, hands on hips. “Day one, and you’re already amusing us with your little creative lies, Miss Hargood?” She halted ominously near my head.
“I make up stories,” I replied. “I don’t lie.”
“And what, young lady, is the difference?”
“That’s easy. A lie can hurt someone.”
She bent over to sniff the grayish substance on my desk.
“It’s ash,” I said.
“Dope, more likely.” She straightened. “And what is that garb you are wearing?”
Tie–dyed t–shirt, flared leg jeans, blue workman’s shirt, hiking boots, granny glasses, and a peace symbol necklace. Perfectly sensible fashion for a seventeen–year–old hippie girl of 1969. Which I was.
“Does your mother never cut your hair?” she added, as if she had the right to. My classmates chose to giggle, whether at Mrs. Johnson’s rudeness or at my discomfort, who could tell?
“My mother isn’t here,” I replied, hanging my head with a small sniffle. “We spent the summer in Japan, and she got lost on the Tokyo subway.”
“Oh, I am so sorry to hear that.” Mrs. Johnson stared hard at me, arms crossed, a disbelieving frown creasing her brow.
“Who was that dropping you off this morning, then?” asked Peggy Rawlins in a piercing voice. “Your mother’s twin sister?”
Ten minutes later I sat in the Vice Principal’s office, waiting my turn behind Tommy Lester, who had shown up stoned to World History. When it came, my time before the Power That Is proved short and curt.
“Miss Hapgood––” Vice Principal Evans began.
“Yes, well. Yes.” He shuffled his papers. “Emily. We all know here how much you enjoy fabricating nonsense for the amusement of your peers. Your work in last year’s creative writing class and the journal had us all in stitches for weeks. However, there is a time and a proper place for all things. The English class is no place for wild stories.”
Too true, I thought, for Mrs. Johnson’s dull witlessness could not light up the study of literature if it had been soaked in kerosene.
“You will spend an hour after school in the library shelving books for the rest of this week. Dismissed.”
I happily skipped to the next class. Vice Principal Evans apparently did not realize that I had already signed up to be a Library Assistant after school.
During the class break I ran into my best friend Cin, who changed her name from Linda to Cinnamon last year. She whooped and waved her arms in greeting. “Did you hear what happened in first period?”
Oh, no. Had my vanishing pencil made the gossip mill so soon?
“Flack walked on the bomb!” Cin finished.
“Oh.” Flack liked to hang out with Cin and me and the rest of the misfits. His main claim to fame, before this morning, had been to run a garbage can up the school flagpole. “Oh, wow. Is he hurt?”
“One of the jocks kicked him in the nuts,” Cin said loudly. Several girls nearby giggled.
“Ooh.” I felt for poor Flack. But I had my own concerns. “Did you hear what happened to my pencil in English?”
“Not now.” Cin skipped off toward the school nurse’s office. “Flack needs comforting.”
“‘Bye,” I said to her retreating back. I guess disintegrating pencils just couldn’t compete with a wounded hippie hero.
Things got stranger at home that evening.
Lizzie greeted me at the front gate. “Proton,” she said when I walked through.
“No, Lizzie,” I explained patiently, believing I had deciphered her message. “We don’t live on Proton Lane. We live on Potter Street.”
She followed me into the house. “Electron,” she said carefully, and then, “Neutron.”
I threw my books on the hall table and headed for the kitchen in search of cookies. Mom sat at the dining table reading the Tri–City Herald from that morning and drinking a cup of coffee.
“Where did Lizzie learn words like electron and neutron?” I asked as I ransacked the drawers. The Oreos were buried under a pile of kitchen towels. I grabbed a handful.
“Maybe at Special Ed.”
My mouth was full so I couldn’t properly reply to this silly notion. Why would they teach retarded kids about atoms? Especially a kid like Lizzie, who had, inside her thirteen-year-old body, the brain of a seven-year-old, a seven-year-old who dwelled in a fantasyland of her own peculiar making?
I swallowed. “She can barely write her own name, why would she learn ‘electron’? Last time I looked they were still trying to teach her how to add two plus two.”
“Atom,” Lizzie said. “I want a cookie.”
I gave her an Oreo, and poured out two glasses of milk. “See? She doesn’t make any sense. Like always.”
“Bomb,” said Lizzie, then smashed the Oreo on the table top, sending crumbs flying, smearing the creamy center with her thumb.
“Great. No milk for you.” I drank mine, poured hers back into the carton, and got a sponge to clean up the mess. “What did you do that for?”
“She’s just tired,” Mom said from behind her newspaper. “She needs a nap.”
I finished mopping up. “Fine. Lizzie, go lie down.”
Lizzie looked at me with her too-round eyes. Then she said something that startled me into next week.
“Gray dust,” she said. “We all fall down.”
“What-” I stared, and then turned to tell Mom about my pencil, but she had finished her paper and picked up her US News and World Report. Nobody who knew what was good for them disturbed our mother in her reading of the USN&WR.
I looked back at Lizzie. “Why did you say that?”
Lizzie beamed a silly grin at the ceiling. “Mrs. Toodle told me. Sunny and bright today.”
I sighed and gave up. Most days you didn’t get much sense out of poor little Lizzie, lost in her own special world.
As were we all.
Richland, Pasco, and Kennewick are the Tri-Cities. In 1943 the Government decided the mile–thick basalt and the Columbia River and the endless wastes of sand and sagebrush of southeastern Washington State made a dream location for a nuclear plant. In 1943 the Tri–Cities was a few farms, one small town, and a railroad depot. By 1945, it was thirty thousand people in prefabricated government housing, the women at home with the two point three kids and the men working out at Hanford, where they built the plant that produced the plutonium which was used in the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki.
We lived in Richland, closest to the Hanford nuclear reservation, home to most of its engineers, and nicknamed the Atomic City. And I was an “A-City Youth,” as the Herald liked to name us whenever we crashed a car or won a spelling bee.
We had an Electron, Neutron, and Proton street. We had a Galaxy Avenue. Downtown my mom dropped my dad’s shirts off at the Atomic City Laundry, and every Wednesday night we watched Dad bowl at the Atomic City Lanes. Columbia High School, or Col-Hi for short, was home of the Bombers sport teams, whose cheerleaders donned gold and green uniforms decorated on the back with a mushroom cloud.
And on the Col-Hi mixing area floor, inlaid in tile, was a six-by-four foot bomb silhouette, donated by the class of ’68. The jocks guarded it during class breaks and lunch time, lined up along either side, ready to punch any hippie who dared tried to blemish the hallowed symbol of victory by stepping on it. Sometimes they hit people with the hardbacked chairs that stood along the mixing area walls. They frightened everyone, even me, who had a jock for a brother.
Dad started out as a chemical engineer at Hanford, after the war was over. Then he returned to school to get his PhD, which took forever, and became a specialist in radiation health effects, which was why we spent the summer in Japan (that part of my lie was true). He had a grant to do research at Nagasaki.
Mom did get lost on the subway in Tokyo while we there. But only for about four hours.
“It’s ironic that we’re going to Nagasaki,” I told Mom that June before we all headed over. I had learned all about irony in Junior English. “Here we are living in Richland, where they made the plutonium for the bomb, and now we’re going there so Dad can find out how sick everyone who survived became. Don’t you think that’s ironic?”
“It’s a living,” Mom replied. She never did say much.
“And also,” I pushed onward, “Everyone hates Dad. They hate him here because everyone here loves atomic energy and no one ever says anything bad about it because they make so much money from the plant, and they’ll hate him in Nagasaki because he lives here. Why don’t we move somewhere else? We could move to a real city, like Spokane or Seattle or Portland.”
“This is a good place to raise children,” Mom said.
There were three of us. Me and Lizzie and William, who will only let people call him Bill. Bill just turned sixteen and just made the Col-Hi Bombers football team. His goal when he grows up is to become a Republican, despite the fact that our family dog is named Humphrey Lyndon Hargood.
“Richard Nixon is the best thing that happened to this country,” Bill announced at dinner on that same day my pencil turned to ash. “He’ll win the war for us, you just wait and see.”
“It hasn’t been declared a war,” I replied. “So how can he?”
“Nam’s got armies and jets and bombs and killing,” Bill said. “So what would you call it, Miss Hippie Freak?”
“Don’t call your sister names,” Dad said, without looking at either of us. He watched Walter Cronkite instead. His chair at the dining table had the best view of the TV over in the living room.
“She is a freak,” Bill said. “Look at her hair!”
Mom looked at my hair. “I like it long.”
“Mom, she’s got flowers in it!”
Mom ignored this and went back to eating her hot dog.
I turned a glaring scowl on Bill. “Were you at the bomb this morning when Flack walked on it? Did you beat him up because he’s a hippie?”
Bill looked disappointed. “No. I missed it. I would have given him a sock on the jaw.”
“It’s nothing but tile and plaster. What makes it so important? It’s part of the floor. Why can’t people walk on it?”
“Tradition,” he replied.
“The Class of ’68 donated the money!” I cried at this absurdity. “It’s only been there since this summer!”
“Right,” he said as if I’d agreed with him. “We’re establishing a tradition.”
“Oh, great. A tradition of beating people up. How wonderful. What if I walked on the bomb? Would you hit me?”
He had the decency to pause for a moment in thought. “I might,” he admitted.
“Dad, Bill just threatened to hit me.”
“What’s that?” Dad tried to scrunch round in his seat to see me better, but the second he took his attention off the piece of hot dog in his hand, Humphrey Lyndon made a flying leap to snatch it away.
“Hey! Bad dog!” Dad swiveled back round to swat at the dog, but by now Humphrey lay burrowed safely under the couch. Dachshunds are good at that.
“Gray dust,” Lizzie piped up. “Mrs. Toodle says––” She paused, frowning in concentration. “Ashes to ashes,” she finished, struggling over the phrase as if it were not her own. Then the frown vanished and the bright, cheerful Lizzie returned. “Mrs. Toodle wants some milk!” She poured her milk down the front of her doll. Mom had bought her the doll in Nagasaki. Mrs. Toodle wore a kimono and big fat sandals and had black hair that originally came in a complex bun but which Lizzie had reduced to frizzled spaghetti strands. Her Japanese name was Noriko. Lizzie didn’t like to say “Noriko”. All of her dolls were called Mrs. Toodle, just as all of her stuffed animals were Mr. Peeble.
“My pencil turned into ashes at school today,” I said to Dad. But he had once more become entranced by Mr. Cronkite, oblivious to all else.
Bill had heard me, though. “You sound like that weirdo TV you watch. Star Trek and that stupid UNCLE show with the dumb spies and conspiracies.”
“I don’t think so.” I looked suspiciously at Lizzie. “Something weird is happening. But it’s more like Twilight Zone or Outer Limits.”
“Like I said, weirdo TV. That’s all you ever watch. No wonder crazy stuff happens around you.”
“It isn’t just me,” I protested. “Something odd is going on. You wait and see.”
“Mrs. Toodle wants Humphrey to have her hot dog,” Lizzie said. She giggled. “Hot dog for the hot dog!”
“‘And that’s the way it is, Tuesday, September 2nd, 1969,” Walter Cronkite replied.
Whenever friends or relatives visited us from out of town, I always told them two things. “You don’t have to use your headlights at night. The sagebrush glows green from the radiation.” (Untrue.) “Dad once found a radioactive mouse inside a vending machine at the Area.” (True.) They invariably believed the first statement and never the second.
“You have a vivid imagination, young lady,” they would tell me after the mouse story.
I told Bill once that the sagebrush glowed green. “Are you making up another of your crazy stories,” he’d asked, “or are you telling the truth?”
“I don’t lie,” I replied, and left him to ponder.
He was a good brother to me, all in all. He’d simply gotten in with a bad crowd when he made the team. Someday I knew he would see the light, because Mom and Dad had raised us to be kind, honest, and considerate of others. High school changes people, of course. In Junior High we had studied together––me helping him with English and math, him helping me in history and geography––and Bill even borrowed my science fiction books, though never the fantasy ones.
But in high school he drifted away as soon as he noticed how much attention the cute and popular girls paid to the athletes. And Bill was always good at sports. So now we stood on opposite sides of a tile and plaster bomb. Which was the stupidest thing in the world.
There were, however, more peculiar things to worry about than sibling rivalry that first week of school in 1969.
On Wednesday morning I walked to school, and the sycamore trees along Thayer Avenue glowed a ghostly green.
No one believed me, of course. But after gym class, no one laughed at my vivid imagination.
We were given War Ball to play that day. I attained my goal of getting hit early on, so I could sit in the bleachers and let anyone else who got hit move ahead of me in the queue to return to the game. That way I could hang out with Cin, who had the latest issue of Tiger Beat. We were deep in a study of Peter Tork in swim trunks when we were struck by an unusual sound. Silence.
We looked down at the gym. Students were milling around, whispering, pointing. There were no balls flying anywhere. I looked closer. On the floor, scattered at random, were circles of War Ball–size ash.
“Wow,” said Cin. “Far out.”
“They did it!” came the clear shout of Peggy Rawlins from the floor. Her accusing finger pointed directly at me and Cinnamon, or maybe behind us at Tommy Lester, who was singing “White Rabbit” off–key and Flack, who had chosen to sport a Nehru jacket and tie–dyed shorts to gym class because he’d been excused from play.
The gym teacher, Mr. Wright, followed the line of Peggy’s finger to our bleacher seats. “Who’s that up there?”
“It’s the hippies,” Peggy screeched. “The peace freaks. They did something to our balls!”
“Cool,” said Cin. She looked at me with newfound awe. “Did you come up with something in chemistry class? That is way far out.” She rose to her full six feet. “Down with the military industrial complex war machine!”
“That will be enough,” Mr. Wright said. He bent to examine a circle. “This looks like ash. I can’t imagine what could do this, and all at the same time.”
“Gray dust,” I whispered. “Ashes to ashes. Lizzie did it.” And then suddenly I laughed as an absurd thought struck. “No,” I giggled helplessly, “Mrs. Toodle did it!”
Cin reached down to shake me by the shoulders. “Hey, knock it off. You’ll get us in trouble. They’ll think we’ve been smoking pot like those doofuses behind us.”
I controlled myself with an effort. “Gray dust,” I repeated, and then I turned abruptly sober as I thought it over. The pencil. Mrs. Johnson was talking about war poems. Now the balls in War Ball. A common theme between the two. What could it mean, and what did it have to do with Lizzie’s gray dust and her doll from Japan?
I skipped my post-gym shower and dashed over to the World History classroom, arriving well before everyone else. Mrs. Graham was writing battle dates from the Second World War on the board. Uh-oh.
But nothing happened. I let out a sigh and walked up to the board. “Mrs. Graham, can I ask you something before class?”
“Why, of course you can, Emily. What’s on your mind?”
“Ah. I’m afraid we won’t get to the Pacific Theater until November.”
“But you know a lot about it, right?”
“Yes, dear, I suppose I do.”
“Well, have you ever read anything about paranormal stuff happening around there? You know, like ghosts, or hauntings, or possessions, that had to do with the bombing?”
Mrs. Graham stopping writing to stare at me through her horn–rimmed glasses. “Ghosts? Ghosts in Nagasaki?”
“Um, well. No, not off hand. Why do you ask?”
I started to explain, then realized with a bit of sheepishness that I couldn’t explain, because I didn’t understand it myself. I smiled dumbly instead. “Never mind.” Then I hurried out, skipped class, and went straight home.
Lizzie was walking around the back yard, one of her favorite activities. She made big circles around the two sycamore trees, holding Mrs. Toodle close to her chest while staring into the sky and talking to herself loud enough for the neighbors to hear.
“There was sun on Monday, and sun on Tuesday, and there is sun today,” Lizzie announced to the world. “We like rain, don’t we, Mrs. Toodle? We had rain on September 3rd last year, and wind. Thirty miles an hour.”
Lizzie liked the weather. She spent the bulk of her day staring at the heavens. We could ask her about the weather for any day of the year going back to when she was one year old, and she would tell us, and if we looked it up in an almanac, she’d be right. She liked storms very much, and felt happiest during winter.
“Hi, Liz.” I fell into step beside her. “How is Mrs. Toodle today?”
“She’s got a cold.” Lizzie did not stop her pace nor tear her gaze away from the clouds. “Mrs. Toodle not happy here.”
“I see. Lizzie, tell me something. Does Mrs. Toodle talk to you?”
Lizzie nodded vigorously. “She talks funny.” She kept right on walking, staring at the clouds. “Like in Japan, but like here.”
I scratched my head, puzzled by this idea. “Do you mean you hear her in English with a Japanese accent, or you hear her in both Japanese and English at the same time?”
This was too much for her mind. “Can we go to Japan again?” she replied after a thoughtful silence.
“Maybe someday we can do that. So why is Mrs. Toodle so unhappy? Is it because she’s so far from her home?”
“Don’t know.” Lizzie clutched the doll tighter to her chest. “She likes the sun. But Mrs. Toodle unhappy with the––” She came to a halt and scrunched up her face, holding the doll to one ear as if listening intently. “––the gloating,” she finished, frowning fiercely, the same frown I’d seen at dinner the night before when she didn’t look at all like herself.
“Lizzie, do you even know what that word means?”
Lizzie resumed her circling of the yard and I followed. “Electron,” Lizzie said. “Proton. Atom bomb.”
“But what has that got to do with gloating? Are you sure that’s what Mrs. Toodle means?” Wait a minute, my logical mind said, You’re talking about a doll talking.
“Mrs. Toodle doesn’t like it,” Lizzie said. “She tells me in the funny voice.”
Great. More nonsense. “And does she make things she doesn’t like turn into ash?” Then I remembered her way of saying this. “Does she turn things into gray dust?”
Lizzie nodded again.
I tried to work my mind around this new puzzle. Gloating. Over what––the bomb? Did she not like the way we’d named our streets or something? That made no sense. “Lizzie, why didn’t Mrs. Toodle like my pencil or the balls at gym class today?”
Lizzie paused to hold the doll to her ear. I stopped to bend low beside her, but couldn’t hear a thing. If a ghost were talking, only my sister could hear. Maybe the ghost spoke only to those who lived in their own special world. Either that, or Bill was right, and I had seen one too many Twilight Zone episodes.
Lizzie lowered her doll, looking puzzled.
“Well?” I straightened. “What did she say?”
The unfamiliar word came out slowly for her. “Practice.”
“Oh.” I scratched my head. “Do you mean they weren’t her real goal? She was warming up, so to speak?” They are going to haul me away to my own very Special Ed class if I keep thinking these things. Vivid imagination, indeed.
Lizzie smiled brightly and headed off on her circular path.
“Mrs. Toodle almost done,” she called back cheerfully.
“Almost done practicing?” Oh, dear. “And then what will she turn to ash?”
Lizzie stopped in her tracks and lowered her gaze from the sky and turned incredibly knowing blue eyes on me. “Everything,” she said.
I phoned Cin as soon as she got home from school.
“The world is going to end,” I said.
“Are you high? You swore to me last year that you’d never touch drugs.”
“I am not high.”
“Good. Did you hear what happened while we were stuck in that idiot gym class today? Stevie Flowertop Hains accidentally stepped on the stupid bomb, and Tim Gooley from the basketball team throw a chair at him and hit him on the shoulder.”
“Listen,” I said impatiently, “I’ve got bigger news. The world is going to end.”
“Oh, sure. Tell me another one.”
“Look, this is serious.” I told her what I thought was happening.
“Okay,” she replied after a long silence, “let me get this straight. A doll that your sister got in Nagasaki has a ghost inside, and the ghost can talk to her because she’s retarded. And this ghost is angry, and can somehow turn stuff into ash.”
“And she’s planning to wipe out the whole city?”
“Because it thinks we’re gloating over the bomb?”
“I’m still working on that part of the theory.”
Another long silence.
“Well?” I prompted. “What do you think?”
“I think you’ve been smoking dope with Tommy Lester behind my back,” Cin said. “You are crazy. And don’t think I haven’t forgotten about the time you told me the sagebrush glows green at night, ’cause I haven’t. Goodbye!”
And then I finally heard what she had told me. Steve Hains walked on the bomb during gym class and got hit.
And then I heard Cin’s whooping shout from yesterday morning. Flack had been beaten up for walking on the bomb during first period…during my English class.
“It’s the jocks,” I said to my poster of The Monkees. “Mrs. Toodle hates the jocks.”
Well, maybe it would be okay if she just turned all the cheerleader’s uniforms into gray dust and that was that. I had a feeling, though, that it wouldn’t be so simple.
I tried talking to Dad that evening, but failed to get through.
“I’m watching Walter,” he said. “We can discuss it later.”
But later he was engrossed in the latest issue of Science, while Mom remained enraptured by her US News and World Report.
I got desperate then, I’ll admit. I tried Bill.
“You think what?” he replied to my explanation.
“We’ve got to find a way to appease the ghost,” I said, hoping to override his logical objections with pragmatic action. “The ghost is angry. We’ve got to find out how to appease it so it won’t turn us all to gray dust.”
He stared at me. And stared. Then he folded his muscular football arms across his broad football chest and said, “Appease? Why? We don’t have anything to be ashamed of here, so why should we have to appease some dead Nagasakian? Do you think the Japanese or the Germans wouldn’t have used the bomb if they’d gotten it first? We didn’t do anything wrong. We saved lives, remember? The bomb stopped the war. This town is full of heroes, and I’m proud of every inch of it.”
Oh, dear. Being a jock had changed my brother into an alien.
I went upstairs to my room. “We’re doomed,” I said to my poster. “We are all of us doomed as doomed as we can be.”
Peter Tork did not reply.
Next day in first-period English I had trouble concentrating on Rupert Brooke. I didn’t have to worry about it long, though. Fifteen minutes into class, Mrs. Johnson’s blackboard turned to ash.
She stared and stared at the wall where the board had been mere minutes before. “I..oh…what?” she muttered.
We stared along with her. “Mrs. Johnson, what just happened?”
“I don’t know.” Her normally rosy cheeks turned pale. She bit her lower lip. “Did someone…is this a practical joke? You can’t do that. No one can do that. What is going on here?”
There were jittery whispers around the classroom. A nervous teacher made all of us nervous. “Maybe,” someone said tentatively from the back of the room, “maybe it was defective.”
“Yeah, it’s gotten eaten by something, like termites.”
“Termites eat wood, stupid. That’s not made out of wood.”
“Well, part of it is!”
Mrs. Johnson dismissed us early, and we all watched her scurry down the hall towards the Principal’s office, muttering anxiously all the way.
In the next period, during math class, Tommy Lester’s desk disintegrated, but he didn’t notice due to being high on pot. The rest of us, though, we noticed. And the ones who had been in English earlier were completely freaked out. And not long after, in our biology lab, all of the test tubes went. Some students suggested a Russky attack, but I had a different, chilling thought.
What if the Nagasaki ghost didn’t stop at inanimate objects?
“No more gloating,” I said to no one at all. At lunch hour I snuck into the gym and found all the cheerleader uniforms. I systematically cut out the white felt mushroom clouds on their backs, borrowed Tommy Lester’s cigarette lighter, snuck into the chemistry classroom, and burned them in the lab sink.
An hour later I sat in Vice Principal Evans’ office.
“Setting off the fire alarm is a very serious offense,” he said. “Even by accident, as you claim. What do you have to say for yourself, Miss Hapgood?”
“The world is about to end,” I replied. “And it’s Hargood.”
“Yes, well. Yes.” He adjusted his tie. “Your imagination, I see, is as fantastic as ever. Having an imagination, however, is not a license to cause havoc. I have enough trouble on my hands today, what with all these bizarre equipment failures. Library duty after school, young lady, for the rest of the semester.”
I had a break before my next class, so I wandered aimlessly through the school, wondering, hope against hope, that the ghost had gone. But I knew in my heart it hadn’t.
“We killed you,” I said out loud to her. “We killed you, and all your friends, and all your family, and all your city.” I walked along, talking out loud, just like Lizzie, ignoring the students passing me in the halls who stared and pointed my way. There is sun today. Bright, bright sun. Will there be sun tomorrow, Lizzie?
“I cannot judge them,” I told the ghost. “I wasn’t here. They worked hard, they worked for their country, and their families, and their friends. They believed they were doing the right and good thing. They’re proud of the work they did. They named the streets Electron, Neutron, and Proton, and that’s okay. They called this place the Atomic City, and that’s okay. But then came the mushroom clouds, and the Col-Hi Bombers, and maybe they went a step too far. Maybe they went beyond pride.”
I bumped into something. A waste can. It crumpled into ash.
“Oh, no. No, no, no.” I hadn’t appeased her. The uniforms weren’t enough.
I backed up, bumped into a student, and another. “Don’t do this!” I cried to the ghost. “We weren’t there! None of us were even born yet!”
I turned and ran down the hall, not caring where I went, just aching to run the fear and confusion out of my body. As I tore around a corner, I braked to a stumbling halt as a male voice boomed out, “Don’t step on the bomb!”
The bomb. The atom bomb. In the mixing area floor, inlaid in forest-green tile, the six-by-four foot silhouette of the bomb, guarded by the jocks, who beat up anyone who dared to desecrate its hallowed ground. Flack. Stevie Hains. And now me.
There they stood, four of them, tall, muscular, broad-shouldered.
“Bill,” I said, seeing my brother among them.
“You know her?” asked the guy who had yelled.
“She’s my hippie sister. Go away, Emily. I won’t stop them if you touch this bomb.”
“No?” I said. Then I walked to one of the hardbacked chairs against the wall, sat down, put my chin in my hands, and stared at the silhouette.
If anyone steps on it, they’ll get punched or chased or have a chair thrown at them, because it’s sacred. And the jocks gloat over it all.
It had to be destroyed. But how? I’d be expelled. Bill would never speak to me again. Dad would have to move us to Spokane or Seattle or Portland. I trembled as I sat there, knowing what I had to do. “I’m not a hero,” I said to the ghost. “Not me.”
The chair dissolved into ash beneath me, and my rear end connected hard with the floor. Several of the jocks laughed, but some of them looked confused.
“What the hell was that?” one said to Bill.
“How should I know?”
“It’s a hippie trick, it’s not real!” another said angrily.
They weren’t moving off the bomb. “Why can’t you just turn the bomb to ash?” I implored the ghost. “And be done with it?”
I looked hard at the bomb. Nothing happened.
We have to do it. Not her. We’re the ones who are gloating.
I looked at the jocks. No. They’re the ones gloating. They have to destroy the bomb.
I rose and dusted off the ash. Shaking badly, I walked to the auto shop room on the other side of the campus to borrow a sledgehammer. Not being a strong person, it took me half an hour to drag it back to the mixing area. Still trembling, half from fear that I was wrong, and half from fear that I was right, I handed the hammer to Bill.
“The bomb has got to go,” I said. “And you have to take it out.”
“Are you nuts?”
“Look around you.” Five more chairs had turned to ash. “Can’t you see what’s going on?”
“Oh, yeah, right. Your little Nagasaki ghost is going to wipe everything out.” He chuckled. “Mrs. Toodle.”
His friends laughed with him.
“Her name is Noriko,” I said “And she only wants the gloating to stop. You can be proud. You can call the streets whatever you want.” A deep shiver ran through me. I am not brave. “And you can hate my friends and me for wearing funny clothes and long hair and for hating the war.” My pulse raced wildly, and I took a deep breath that did not help. I knew what I had to do. Noriko wouldn’t stop with inanimate objects.
Because we hadn’t.
“You can do all those things,” I said, taking one more deep breath. “But you can’t stop this.” And I stepped onto the bomb, square in its center.
The jocks looked nervously at Bill. He looked disgusted. “Get off.”
“No.” My heart pounded and my teeth chattered. “You’ve turned this bomb into a living thing, one that hurts when someone steps on it, one that needs you to protect it. And that is not your imagination. That is a lie.” I wiped a trickle of sweat from my brow. “I won’t get off,” I said, more bravely than I felt. “You have to hit me.”
His friends shifted their feet. One of them rubbed his hands together, and another one made a fist. “Come on, Bill. She’s mocking us. She’s mocking the bomb. We gotta hit her.”
Bill still gripped the sledgehammer. “She’s just crazy. Thinks there’s a ghost out to get us.”
The main double doors to the mixing area shimmered, shivered, and vanished into gray dust, leaving the empty metal frame behind.
“Did you see that?” I said. “It’s her. She hates this place. She’ll turn everything here, and everything and everyone in the whole town, into ash if you don’t break up this bomb.”
“That’s not a ghost, that’s just planned obsolescence.” But Bill’s voice had a distinctly wary tone.
“Fine,” I said. “You don’t believe me? Then hit me. Beat me up. I’m on your sacred bomb. You’re supposed to beat me up. She hates that, you know. If I’m wrong, I get a bloody nose and some bruises. But if I’m right, and you hit me, Noriko of Nagasaki will get really, really mad. So come on.” I glared at each of them in turn. “Hit me.”
One of them stepped toward me, fist clenched. The lights flickered. Another one stepped forward, both fists clenched. All the windows along one wall shattered.
“Wait.” Bill still gripped the sledgehammer, his knuckles gleaming white.
“It’s a prank, Bill. Her hippie friends rigged the place up. It’s not true. You know how she makes things up.”
“Then hit me,” I said again, staring hard at Bill, willing him to see his sister and not a hippie freak. Willing him to see the difference between what is made up, and what is not true. I swayed, my heart beating so fast that I felt lightheaded.
One of the jocks raised his arm, preparing to strike. I closed my eyes tight and cringed. I heard a loud wham. But the blow never came.
When I opened my eyes, Bill was holding the other guy’s wrist tightly, the sledgehammer flat on the floor where he’d dropped it. He pushed the jock away from me, then looked the others in the eyes.
“Emily does tell tales,” he said clearly. “But she doesn’t tell lies.”
I let out a huge sigh of relief. “Thank you.” Then I frowned at him, and gestured him to come closer. He hesitated only a second, then gingerly stepped onto the bomb.
“Didn’t I once tell you,” I whispered, “that the sagebrush glows green at night?”
He smiled. “Yeah. I drove out there as soon as I got my driver’s license. And you know what? It does glow green at night.”
Sometimes you make things up, and sometimes you just think you’re making them up, when all the while you were really finding the truth inside.
He got off the bomb and bent to pick up the sledgehammer. Behind us, an entire row of lockers shook before falling to nothingness.
“Hurry,” I said, moving off to the side.
Bill raised the hammer with his muscular arms and his broad chest.
The ceiling shivered. “Now!” I cried, and Bill brought the hammer down in a mighty blow that cracked the bomb six ways to Sunday.
“Again,” I said, and he struck another blow, and another, and the ceiling shivered and the walls shook and the floor rattled until the bomb was nothing but unrecognizable crumbs of plaster and tile and dust.
And after the final blow reverberated off the walls, there was only a deafening silence.
Nothing turned into ash the next day, or the day after that, or the day after that.
Lizzie sat on the front porch clutching her stuffed dog, Mr. Peeble, to her chest. As usual, she stared intently at the sky.
“Hi,” I said, sitting down beside her. “Where’s Mrs. Toodle today?”
“She went home,” Lizzie said.
“Good. She’ll certainly be happier there.”
“Sunny today,” Lizzie replied.
“Yes.” I looked at her innocent, always cheerful face. “Lizzie, how would you like to go for a ride tonight with me?”
She took one brief moment to look away from the sky to consult with Mr. Peeble. “Okay,” she said. “Mr. Peeble wants to know where we go.”
“Into the desert,” I replied. “To look at the sagebrush.”
Lizzie resumed gazing upwards, her smile beaming. “Green,” she said into the heavens, and she laughed and laughed.
Alexandra (Alex) MacKenzie was raised in the Atomic City (Richland, WA) and now resides in the Emerald City (Seattle) where she completed the Clarion West workshop. She works at the University of Washington; in her spare time she enjoys birding, painting, gardening, and obeying her dachshunds. Her web page is mizmak.googlepages.com/home.
Editorial © 2008 Alexandra MacKenzie. All other content copyright © 2008 ByrenLee Press
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish