I’m in the bathroom when the concussion shock rattles through, shaking window panes and tipping picture frames. “Rex, get out here!” I bolt outside, dirty flannel shirt hanging askew, shoelaces untied.
Outside, the sky’s still blue. The sunset is orange and gold, receding at just the right angle to draw spooky shadows from the roof of the garage. Jen and Bobby are standing in the declining slope of the backyard. Above town, tiny yet ominous, a grey cloud captures the sun’s last rays. The cloud looks like a thin grey mushroom, long at the base, with a circular bulb at the top.
Sirens sing in the distance, blown on the rising wind. I address my friends, trying to hide my concern behind a chagrined smile, “What happened?” No answer. “Are you OK?” Jen looks pale, worried. Bobby’s arm is around her shoulder, and she is leaning into his torso as if there’s no strength in her legs. “Was that the factory?” This gets a sharp look from both of my friends.
The cold silence of late afternoon seems to deepen as high cotton clouds form above town. Walking to the garage, I grab a ladder and climb as high up the angled roof as I can. From my vantage, I hear cracking and popping, see explosions of light. They’re coming from the gated military facility on the opposite edge of town. Locals just called it “the factory”, but rumor held it to be a munitions plant of some kind.
The munitions plant was off-limits to civilians; even non-military guest workers were triple-cleared through security, and its official existence and purpose a matter of hearsay. Now it seems that the secret had become public knowledge.
Bobby’s waving at me as Jen slumps to the ground. I can see that the grey mushroom in the sky has swelled to become an inflated balloon; it’s stretching in the wind, fueled by ground fires which burn white, green, iridescent purple. I slide down the sides of the ladder, tilting dangerously, and run to where they’re standing. As I approach them, my knees buckle and I fall to the ground. I feel disassociated from my body, almost laughably intoxicated, despite the fact that my hands hurt and I’m dizzy.
I’m trying to stand up, palms bleeding against my flannel shirt, as Bobby tilts crazily above me. Jen’s lying on her side, facing the sunset, wincing in the bright rays. Bobby’s talking to me, saying “Let’s get inside, get in the house.”
I can’t move, I’m shaking and panting, afraid I’ll fall. Bobby and I pivot as we hear the unmistakable scream of jet engines directly overhead. The planes move fast, afterburners on, formation tearing into two branches that split above town.
The fireball is unexpected when it hits. Gorgeous, really, like a hungry red flower. It reaches out, illuminates us, consumes all it touches. All human error is reduced to zero in the pitiless red halo from on high.