by Matthew Ragan
As the cloud reached 40,000 feet, John Harkham opened the door labeled “Faculty Only” inside of Trinity Elementary School, NY. His wife sat at a table rubbing the heaving back of Sister Postasy, the small Italian nun at the school. The nun had her face on the table and sobbed uncontrollably. The smoke made a slight haze outside, the small town of trinity was covered in a new-age fog.
“There, there, Angela,” Mrs. Harkham said.
“Barry and I got four through eight in the auditorium, and Alberta and Mr. Curie has K through three behind the stage. Food and water are being handed out to all of the kids now,” he said, walking towards the window.
The large shadow had only gotten larger since the explosion. It moved slowly, always expanding into the sky, spreading into the clouds like a cancer.
Sister Postasy lifted her head from the table to look out of the window. Her face was a deep red and streaked with tears. Her eyes fell on the shadow over the city, the place she had come for a new life all of those years ago, the place she made her home, now reduced to a pile of ash under swirling grey. John looked at the nun and watched her face cringe again then become a darker shade of red. She gripped the rosary beads from around her neck as if they were choking her, and threw them to the ground. She returned her head to the table and wept.
A spinning red light caught John’s eye as he stared out of the window. He was out of the room before he could even confirm it as Trinity’s Fire Engine. He ran past a wall holding a picture of Bert the Turtle tucked away into his shell. As he neared the school doors he was joined by Mr. Tibbens, the history teacher. He was a man in his early forties with the same haircut they had given him in boot camp before he had left for Korea.
The two men approached a man walking behind the fire truck. He was dressed in a yellow fireman’s uniform with a large black gas mask wrapped around his head. The small town of Trinity was in a ghostly fog as ash swept across the pavements and through the perfectly clipped hedges and lawns.
“Back inside,” the firefighter said pointing back towards the school.
John looked at the mushroom cloud continuing to rise, curling in on itself above the city.
“Where is relief? We need to move the kids to a shelter!” Tibbett’s screamed at the young man behind the mask. Wind was whipping through the town.
“We have orders to get civilians inside,” the young man said.
“Who is that in there?” Tibbett’s asked, leaning forward and looking into the dark mask. “Callow, is that you? It is! Listen, son, you call whoever the hell is giving you those orders and tell them that we have women and children who need to be moved to a shelter immediately.”
“Back inside, Mr. Tibbets,” Callow said.
“Hold on now, did those boys giving those orders have any information on what S.O.B did this,” Tibbets asked.
“Has it happened anywhere else,” John asked but was met with the same lines from Callow that Tibbets was getting.
“Back inside. Further instructions and relief are coming shortly.”
“Are we safe here,” John asked.
As Callow readied himself for another rehearsed response, a dog raced by him, knocking into him and momentarily throwing him off balance. The dog bolted onto the school’s football field, the exact opposite direction of the cloud. Charging through falling ash. He disappeared into the trees as his owner, Mr. Dulles, ran and called after him.
“Eisenhower! Where ya off to, boy?”
“Mr. Dulles,” Callow yelled, leaving the two men standing outside Trinity Elementary.
The men walked back into the entrance hall of the school where Mr. Sweeney, the Gym teacher, stood waiting for news. He was younger than Tibbets but they could have been twins. Their haircuts came to the same perfect flat top and their lips curled the same way when they said “Commie.”
“Red Bastards,” Sweeney said, looking through the window.
“Savages! Using a weapon like that on a civilian city. It’s 1961! Cowards!” Tibbets said.
“I tell you one thing, Jack Kennedy better have our boys shooting off all the damn nukes we got and put them right through those commie S.O.Bs.” The three men stood in a circle in front of the trophy case, an American flag hung high on the wall above it. Sweeney and Tibbets spoke in quick flutters of hatred and rapid verbal retaliation.
“I’m going to check in with Franklin and Alberta,” John said, and left the two men.
The thought of more mushroom clouds hanging over more cities didn’t ease the pain ripping through John, even if it was the commie SOBs.
The unlit hallways were empty as his wingtips clicked down the corridor, past open classrooms where twenty or so wooden bomb shelters sat vacant in neat little rows. The buzz of talking children becoming clear as he strode into the auditorium where the older students of Trinity Elementary sat. Their teachers stood around them, drifting off to talk with each other.
Children ate crackers and talked in small groups. John heard some of the children repeat what their parents had always said.
“It’s the communists. My dad said they were trying to take over the world.”
“It’s World War Three.”
“My dad built us a shelter. Once he gets home from work we’re just going to stay there.”
The words of the children were heavy in John’s ears. His stomach twisted as he ascended the small stage and slipped behind the red curtain where Mr. Curie and Alberta stood, realizing that it was not natural for anyone to be dealing with matters like these.
“How are the kids,” John asked as he approached the young science teacher and the school receptionist.
“Oblivious,” Alberta said with a sad smile.
“We got on the radio and heard the fallout message that’s being broadcasted. It sounds like there have been other cities,” Curie said, arms folded, his mind was elsewhere, which it usually was. He was young but if anyone in this building knew the repercussions of the bomb, it was Curie.
“Jesus Christ,” John said.
“We need to get to a shelter. Most of these kids’ parents worked in the city, John,” Curie said turning to him.
“We were told to wait inside. Relief will come,” John said. “They also told everyone to hide under a desk, John. This is only going to get worse.”
Sweeney and Tibbett’s walked out from behind the curtain and joined the group laughing and talking young children.
“I’m telling you, send all of’em. Put ‘em in their place. Using the H-bomb on us like that.”
“That isn’t a hydrogen bomb. If it was we would all be dead,” Curie whispered to the group. “That was an atomic blast. A hydrogen bomb is devastating.”
John’s stomach lurched at something being more devastating than what he saw over the sky of his city.
“We should be dropping them, then,” Sweeney said.
“If even one of them went off it would affect everything on the planet,” Curie said hushed again. “Whomever continues to launch these bombs is condemning us as an entire species.”
“O.K., Oppenheimer, then what do you suppose we do? Let the Reds win. Let communism rule,” Tibbets said. “Our boys are going to unleash everything we have on those commie SOBs.”
John’s wife appeared by the edge of the curtain and motioned for him to come to her.
“You need to say something. They are getting restless,” she said.
Most of the children talked to one another, but as John looked at each child he saw some with the same expression he wore now. The black cloud still clinging to the backs of their eyes. Sister Postasy stood off to the side behind his wife, her white hair frazzled, cross and rosary beads absent, staring off at the children with the sad look.
“All right,” John said after a moment to think.
There had been no updates. The bomb hit, there was a light, and then that damn cloud started to grow out from the fire. Curie approached him as he gathered his thoughts.
“We can get on a bus, John. We can load up the kids and go west for a while, until we can get away from this ash and these winds. We’re too close.” Curie said.
The idea sounded beautiful. Escaping the school in a convoy of yellow buses, racing away from the looming shadow, but it was a dream. John couldn’t think of a place where that shadow wouldn’t follow.
“Franklin, I don’t want to be here either, but we can’t.”
“John I-“Curie started but John cut in.
“We wouldn’t have enough room for everyone and we all go or nobody does.”
There was only the slightest pause before Curie nodded, that look of sadness filled his face replacing his hope of escape from the atomic shadow.
John fixed himself so he looked like the respectable principal of Trinity Elementary. These kids were scared and confused. Most had seen a flash and then spent the next 20 minutes under their desks. They wanted to know where their parents were. They wanted to know why it was snowing outside. They wanted to know where the smoke and fog came from. They wanted to know things that John wished could one day, maybe with a lot of work, be forgotten.
He walked onto the stage with a paper megaphone used by the cheerleaders for the school’s football team. The children and teachers looked up at him from their seats knowing that the truth is what they thought they wanted. John knew they wanted to feel safe and that everything was going to be alright. They needed a leader, someone to look to. So he did what leaders must sometimes do.