©2004 The Angst Guy (email@example.com)
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Synopsis: The Cuban Missile Crisis boils over in October 1962—and the lives of three sisters change forever. The young Helen, Rita, and Amy Barksdale star in this tale of family bonds tested under the worst of worst-case scenarios.
Author’s Notes: The story’s title is the same as that of the last fantasy fiction I wrote for TSR, Inc., and Wizards of the Coast (“Gone,” from the 1999 Dragonlance anthology, Heroes and Fools: Tales of the Fifth Age). Aside from this, the two stories are completely unrelated. Copious additional notes are found at the story’s end.
Acknowledgements: “Daria” fanfic stalwarts Kara Wild, RedlegRick, Renfield1969, and Lawndale Stalker provided detailed feedback on this story that led to major revisions in the conclusion. Thank you for your excellent help.
This is General Power speaking. I am addressing you for the purpose of reemphasizing the seriousness of the situation the nation faces. We are in an advanced state of readiness to meet any emergencies and I feel that we are well prepared. I expect each of you to maintain strict security and use calm judgment during this tense period.
—General Thomas Power, Commander in Chief, USAF Strategic Air Command,
transmitted to all SAC Wings, Wednesday, October 24, 1962, at DEFCON 2
Friday, October 26, 1962
Helen Barksdale, twelve and a quarter years old, heard and reached for the ringing alarm clock before she was fully awake. Slapping it off, she groaned, then threw off her covers and sat up in bed. A cold shiver ran down her spine as she hugged herself, goose bumps on her arms. The house was freezing even with the central heat on, and Helen’s bedroom at the end of the hall was the coldest room in the house. Even her sisters called it “The Refrigerator.”
As she stood on the cold wooden floor in her bare feet and rubbed her arms to warm them, a noise caught her attention. It was the sound of water running in the pipes. Someone was already using the bathroom shower. Helen glared as she stalked over to her door and opened it, looking out into the hallway. Yellow light spilled from under a nearby door, the bathroom she shared with her two younger sisters.
Temper boiling, she walked over, turned on the hall light, and banged on the bathroom door with her fist. “Don’t use up all the hot water!” she yelled.
“I can’t hear you!” came her youngest sister’s voice from the other side. The shower kept running.
“You little creep!” Helen yelled. “Shut it off right now, and save some for the rest of us, Amy!”
“Like you save any hot water for me, whale butt?”
“Amy! I’m telling on you for that!” Helen snarled. The little rodent had set her alarm early just to get in and steal the hot water. Helen wrestled with the doorknob, but Amy had locked it. “Mom’s going to paddle your backside good!” she shouted in a fury. “Do you hear me?” Helen hammered on the door with both fists for good measure.
“Stop it, will ya?” her middle sister Rita yelled from her bedroom. “I’m trying to sleep!”
“Amy’s using up the hot water!” Helen told Rita, then turned to shout at the bathroom door. “You better turn it off, four-eyes, or I’ll stuff your head in the toilet!”
The shuffle of feet came from Rita’s room. Rita opened it, squinting as she walked out and past Helen, her short blonde hair looking like a tangled bird’s nest. “I’m telling Mom,” she grumbled, heading down the hall.
“Tell her to get Amy out of the bathroom!” Helen shouted after her, but she knew it was a lost cause. Rita would complain that Helen and Amy were fighting and the noise woke her up, and their mother would make Amy get out of the bathroom, then put Rita in, so Helen would be third and get the cold water. She hammered on the door in frustration. “Get out! Right now!”
“Flintstones!” Amy sang, the shower still running. “Meet the Flintstones! They’re a modern Stone-Age fa-mi-ly!”
“Out! Get out!”
“From the . . . town of Plainfield, and Helen Big Butt is about to screeeeeeam!”
“Amy!” Helen screamed.
“Helen, for the love of mercy!” called her mother from the other side of the family’s ranch house. “It’s six o’clock in the morning!”
“Make Amy get out of the shower so we can have some hot water!” Helen shouted back. “I have a really important day today and I have to get fixed up early! And she said ‘butt,’ too! I heard her!”
Her mother wearily thumped down the hall toward her, wrapped in a bathrobe with huge bunny slippers on her feet. “I can’t believe you girls can’t wake up one single day without screaming your heads off and waking up all Creation! Move!” she said, motioning Helen aside.
Rita came down the hall behind her mother, yawning wide and not watching where she was going. As her mother banged on the bathroom door, Helen was immensely pleased to see Rita walk into the wall and smack her head on the low-set thermostat box.
“Ow!” yelled Rita, grabbing her forehead.
“Get out of there right now!” their mother shouted at the bathroom door.
“I’m coming!” Amy said—and the bathroom door opened a moment later. Amy walked out in her pajamas and bathrobe and big-frame glasses, rubbing her long, dark brown hair with a towel. The shower was still running behind her. “What’s the problem?” she asked with eight-year-old innocence.
“Mommy!” shrieked Rita in tears. “I hit my head!”
“Mercy! Are you all right?” cried their mother, and she tried to pull Rita’s hands from her face to assess the damage.
Helen started past her little sister—then noticed something strange. “Your hair is dry!” she shouted at Amy. “You weren’t even in the shower!” Amy tried to run, but Helen lunged and grabbed her by the right hand—a dry right hand. “Hey! You were goofing around wasting hot water the whole time! You little—!”
“Ouch! Mom!” yelled Amy. “She’s twisting my arm!” She jerked out of Helen’s vengeful grasp and got out of the bathroom.
“Helen!” yelled their mother, turning from Rita. “I’m ashamed of you!” Behind her, Amy stuck out her tongue at Helen.
“It’s my turn in the shower!” shouted Rita. “And I banged my head!”
“It’s an improvement on your regular face!” said Amy. She darted into her room, slammed the door, and locked it one second before Rita got her fingernails into her.
“I got here first!” Helen yelled, having now turned the shower off. “I get it next! I give a speech today in class!”
“You hit your little sister, you wake up the whole house, and for that I’m supposed to reward you?” said her mother. “Go to your room and wait your turn!”
“Is it possible for a man to get any peace at this hour?” roared Helen’s father from down the hall. “Would everyone please just shut the hell up?”
“Walter!” yelled his wife. “Don’t use that kind of language in this house, and keep your voice down!”
“Mom!” shouted Helen. “This isn’t fair!”
“It is too fair!” yelled Rita, walking into the bathroom and crowding Helen aside. “Get out and let me shower!”
“I won’t have any hot water, and I’m giving a speech! I can’t go in front of my whole class without a shower!”
“Helen!” shouted her mother. “I told you to go to your room!”
“God, strike me down!” her father cried in despair.
“Walter! Stop it!”
“Can I use your bathroom, then?” said Helen, holding the towel rack to resist Rita’s efforts to shove her out of the bathroom. “Let me shower there!”
“Your father’s about to use it,” said her mother, pointing out the door. “Go to your room until you can behave like a lady!”
“Ooooh!” Helen stamped out of the bathroom, making sure she bumped Rita hard as she left, then went her room and slammed the door. She threw herself on her bed and pounded the mattress with both fists. “I hate you!” she yelled into her rumpled blankets. “I hate all of you! It’s not fair! I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!”
Several minutes passed with her face buried in the blankets. Life wasn’t fair. It stank like cow manure. Why couldn’t everyone go by the rules? The rules being, Helen gets the shower first because she’s the oldest and gets up so early. Didn’t being the oldest count for anything at all? Rita was a year younger, but she got everything, she always got her way because their mother treated Rita like gold. You were the easiest baby I ever had, their mother always said. Not like Helen, God no, or Amy, who almost killed me—eighteen hours, oh mercy. You were the easiest, Rita, and I love you.
“I wish I was dead,” said Helen into her blankets. “Everything stinks. I hate everything. I wish they’d blow up the world and get it over with. I can’t wait to get out of this town and go to college. I’ll show ‘em. I’ll be on that bus and out of here so fast, their heads will spin. I’m going to make some big changes. I’ll make a difference in this world. They’ll find out. They’ll see.”
She sniffed and pushed herself up on her elbows. It was 6:09 a.m. on Friday morning, the best day of the week—or it would be, except Helen knew she would get only cold water when Rita was done, because Rita took forever and a day in the shower, and God only knew what she was doing in there. And then tonight there would be the Friday Night Dinner That Takes Mom Forever to Make. (Wasn’t there some way to just make a dinner in a couple minutes, like something ready-made, like frozen lasagna? Helen loved lasagna, but they had it only once a season, if that.)
And then there would be the Friday Night Fight for the Big Television Set. It was worse than having Sonny Liston and Floyd Patterson duke it out in the front yard. Rita would want to see “Sing Along with Mitch,” and she’d get their mother to sit with her in the living room and they’d both sing those lame songs in their horrible off-key voices, while Amy reminded everyone (in writing) that it was her turn to watch “The Flintstones” on the little TV in the den, so Helen would miss the first half of “Route 66,” and what was the good of watching the second half of a show when you didn’t know anything about the first half? Maybe Dad knew what he was doing when he went down into the basement Friday evenings, beer in hand, to putter with his short-wave radio behind a locked door.
“I hate everything,” Helen grumbled. “I wish they’d go ahead and blow up the world.” She considered other options as well, like leaving home when she was sixteen and lying about her age so she could work as a waitress at a truck stop, and then after earning some money maybe hitch a ride to New York City and find a coffeehouse and meet a guy who wore dark clothes and smoked and was going to college and writing great protest songs, and he’d fall in love with her and they’d travel the country together, righting wrongs and becoming folk heroes, and one day she’d see her family again and they’d all be as miserable as the people in The Grapes of Wrath, but they’d be so surprised they’d drop dead when they saw her—Helen Barksdale (or whatever her name would be after she got married), the All-American Heroine. That would show them.
Helen sighed again and got off the bed. She went to her wall calendar and crossed off the previous day, Thursday the 25th, and looked to remind herself what was in store in just a few hours. Today, she would give a presentation on civil rights and what it meant to Plainfield. It was for her seventh-grade American History class before lunch, and she knew her speech would really upset the bigoted kids and maybe her teacher, Mr. Benedict, too. In moments, everyone would tell a story that started off with, “I heard from my uncle about this Negro who . . .” (except some kids would not say “Negro” and would use that other n-word word instead). That would touch off a fierce argument with the minority of kids, including Helen, who didn’t think there was anything wrong with going to school with Negroes—heck, Plainfield High had three of them, and they were okay. Helen knew she’d give her talk anyway, hang the consequences. If the school called her parents in for a conference, so be it. She had all As and was the best student in Plainfield High School’s junior high section. Let ‘em do their worst.
Over the weekend, she’d finish Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring after doing her homework, then call around and see if anyone wanted to get together Saturday afternoon and talk about important stuff and listen to her Kingston Trio albums. Maybe she could stay at a girlfriend’s house Saturday night, and they could watch “The Defenders,” which Helen loved—a TV show about lawyers who weren’t afraid to take on big cases about real issues. Maybe she should be a lawyer, too, and scare the pants off evildoers all over America. She’d hammer those rotten people, all of them. They’d see.
Except for setting the clocks back one hour, Sunday would be boring, as it always was, but that’s what church was all about: boredom. Helen couldn’t see the use of it. Walt Disney that night would be the one good spot in the day. Monday was the start of the school week cycle all over again, plus it was PTA night. Helen was expected to help serve cookies and punch at PTA, and that meant having to fend off that creepy Mr. Meyer, who kept trying to grab or pinch her rear end while staring at her breasts all the while, and she’d have to smile while everyone complained to her about Negroes and Communists and Democrats. Negroes and Democrats were fine, and frankly, what the heck did anyone really know about Communists, anyway? Had they ever met one? Probably not. Here it was, 1962 and the dawn of a new era of hope and peace and love, and people were acting like it was the Stone Age, like in the Flintstones song, like they should be out beating each other with clubs and rocks.
Helen sighed and shook her head. Halloween was next Wednesday, and she’d be expected to walk Amy and Rita around the whole neighborhood in the freezing cold so they could collect candy and wear dumb costumes. No doubt Rita would again go as a princess (imagine that!) and Amy would wear that hideous black robe and skull mask again and carry around that wooden scythe Dad had made for her, pretending to be the Grim Reaper. “Always good to see a classic,” Dad said every time he saw Amy in that outfit. Why couldn’t Amy wear something like a Wilma Flintstone mask, or Minnie Mouse, or even Amy’s hero, Rocky the Flying Squirrel? She was so weird for a third grader. Helen suspected Amy kept wearing that Grim Reaper costume because she liked the shock value. It creeped out everyone.
Someone banged on her bedroom door. “Shower’s yours, geek!” yelled Rita, who then walked off to her bedroom and locked her door. Helen was too tired to even yell an insult back, which meant she was very tired indeed.
I am tired, she thought, stepping back from her calendar. Her thoughts were as cold as the October wind outside. I’m sick of everything. Just blow up the world. Let’s just throw those bombs around at Cuba and Russia and everywhere, nuke the whole planet. Just blow the whole rotten thing up, and see if I care. Today would be fine.
She got her things and went to the hall bathroom, knowing the hot water would be gone. It was.
“Save some of the Frosted Flakes for me,” said Rita at the breakfast table, stifling another yawn. Her blonde hair was perfectly coifed in Marilyn Monroe movie-star style, despite the fact that Miss Monroe had killed herself only two months earlier. It’s a remembrance, Rita always said when she was reminded of this, and that was that.
“There’s only enough for one more bowl,” said Helen, pouring the rest of the box’s contents into her bowl.
“Helen,” said her mother, “let Rita have the Frosted Flakes. You can have the Corn Flakes.”
“I don’t want the Corn Flakes!” said Helen. “I had the Frosted Flakes first!”
Her mother got up and took Helen’s bowl before she could grab it back, then put the bowl in front of Rita and took Rita’s empty bowl. “I’ll pour you some Corn Flakes,” she said. “Just put a little sugar on them and they’ll be just like—”
“Mother! Those are my Frosted Flakes!” Helen yelled. “That’s not fair! How can you do that?”
“Helen, keep your voice down!” her mother yelled back. “You’re a young lady now, and I expect you to act like one! What does it matter what you eat? Have some Corn Flakes!”
“I don’t want Corn Flakes!” Helen shouted, standing up and shoving her chair back.
“Here’s a Frosted Flake,” said Rita, picking one out of her bowl and flipping it at Helen.
“Rita!” said her mother—but Helen was faster. Dipping her fingers in her glass of milk, she snapped them at Rita and splattered white droplets all over her sister’s face.
“Aaaaah!” Rita shrieked, also jumping up from her seat.
“Helen!” shouted her mother. “You apologize!”
“She threw something at me first!” Helen shouted back.
“Go to your room!” her mother ordered. “Right now!”
“What about Rita? She threw something, too!”
“I have to fix my hair again, you bozo!” Rita shouted at Helen. “You ruined it!”
“Your hair is fine, dope!” Helen yelled, stamping out of the dining room for her bedroom. She slammed her door, waited three minutes by walking in a circle and watching the clock, then walked back out. Only one person was in the dining room when she returned—Amy, reading a comic book while eating the bowl of Frosted Flakes that Rita had left.
“Hi,” said Amy without looking up. “Did I miss anything?”
“You retard!” Helen snapped. “Those were my Frosted Flakes!”
“Oh,” said Amy, engrossed in the comic. The Amazing Spider-Man, Issue #1, said the cover. “I’m sorry, I thought they were Rita’s.”
Helen hissed, but it was too late to do anything else now that Amy had her germs all over the cereal and she was almost through with the bowl, too. Stamping over to the refrigerator, Helen took out the jelly, stuck a piece of bread in the toaster, and glowered at her little sister.
“Halloween’s next week,” said Amy, turning a page in the comic book. “Know what I’m going to be?”
“Dead,” said Helen, under her breath. She looked down on the kitchen counter at the newspaper her father had brought in earlier. U.S. SHOWS CUBAN MISSILE BASE PHOTOS AT U.N., read the headlines.
“Yeah, sort of,” said Amy. “I think I’m going to be the Grim Reaper again.”
“You’re supposed to go as something other than what you really are,” Helen said, flipping the paper over to read the first page below the fold.
“So,” said Amy to her comic book, “you’re not going as a girl dog, then?”
With a sharp intake of breath, Helen dropped the paper and headed for the kitchen table, making a fist—just as her mother came back into the room. Helen slowed and pretended she was merely walking over to get the salt from the table.
“Oh, Amy!” said their mother in annoyance, hands on her hips. “That was Rita’s cereal!”
“Oops,” said Amy, turning another page in her comic book.
“And don’t read at the table,” said her mother, snatching the comic book away. She flipped it into the trashcan. “You shouldn’t read junk like this, anyway.”
“Mom!” Amy screamed. She immediately jumped from her seat and rescued the first-edition comic from its fate, then fled the kitchen for her room.
“Amy! Come back and finish your cereal!” her mother called. She sighed and walked to the refrigerator. “Why can’t we eat a civilized breakfast together like everyone else?” she asked.
“Because Dad left at ten till seven, and Rita took my cereal, then Amy ate it,” said Helen. “That’s why.”
“But you’re having toast!” said her mother. “Why are you so upset about the cereal?”
“Forget it,” Helen grumbled. The toast popped up, and she gingerly took it out to smear jelly on it.
“I’m going into Baltimore this morning,” said her mother, pouring some orange juice for herself. “I might have lunch with your father at Beckman’s Grill if he can get away from the office.”
“You’re taking the bus?”
“I’m taking the bus. Mrs. Hammond next door is driving me over to the bus stop before eight. I should be home by three. I have to do a little shopping.”
For Rita no doubt, thought Helen. You always make special shopping trips for Rita, but not for me. Helen smeared jelly on the toast with angry swipes of the knife: zip zip zip.
“Listen,” said her mother, putting down the orange juice. “I want to talk to you.”
Helen exhaled heavily and put down her toast, ready for another lecture on Behaving Like a Proper Young Woman. “What, Mother?”
“If anything happens—wait, look at me when I’m speaking to you. Listen. Helen, if anything happens, I want you to get Rita and Amy and come home, right away. You hear me?”
Helen frowned at her mother. “What are you talking about?”
Her mother pointed at the newspaper, which Helen had flipped over to reveal the main headline again. “That’s what I’m talking about. You know what I mean. If anything happens, you find Rita and Amy, and you bring them home at once, right here. Don’t stop for anything. You get them and come right home. Nothing else matters.”
This was weird, much too weird. “Why?” Helen asked, her mouth suddenly dry.
“I don’t want my girls out if anything happens,” said her mother.
A last spark of annoyance surfaced in Helen’s mind. “Why don’t you tell Rita to do it? You let her do everything else.”
“Stop it!” her mother snapped. “You’re the oldest, so you’re in charge. You do whatever you have to do, but get them here. That’s all I’m asking. You understand?”
Helen hesitated, almost forgetting what she was trying to do, which was to make toast. A new tone was in her mother’s voice, one Helen did not ever recall hearing before. It sent a cold shiver down her back to hear it. Her mother, who irritated everyone and feared nothing, was afraid. It was more shocking than anything Helen could imagine.
“Sure,” said Helen slowly. “I’ll bring them back.”
“I’m counting on you,” said her mother, pointing at Helen’s chest. “Don’t breathe a word to them. It’s up to you. Whatever you have to do, get—”
“Hey!” shouted Rita, walking back into the kitchen. “What happened to my Frosted Flakes?”
“Amy happened to it,” said Helen, glad to get away from her mother. Her nerves were shot.
“What am I going to eat?” Rita wailed. “I’m starving, Mommy!”
“Helen made some toast,” said their mother. “She’ll share it with you.”
That was the last straw. “Mom, no!” Helen yelled. “I have to eat so I can give my speech! I made that for me!”
“Oh, Helen, for the love of mercy, just share it! The bus comes in ten minutes!”
“This is my toast! Rita can make her own!”
“Mom, please, can I have some toast?” said Rita.
Seeing all was lost, Helen snatched the toast and threw it into the kitchen sink. “There!” she shouted and ran out of the kitchen for her room again. Grabbing her books and ignoring Rita’s shrieks of dismay and her mother’s reprimands, Helen rushed past the kitchen, opened the front door and slammed it behind her. Fighting back tears, she ran down the steps for the end of the driveway, which was where the school bus stopped every morning at 7:20 a.m., give or take three minutes. It was still dark outside, except for a haze of light to the east over the rooftops of the subdivision.
Helen stopped at the road. She had a few minutes to herself, so she wiped her eyes, blew her nose in her handkerchief, and tried using her compact mirror, but it was still too dark out to see herself in it. Snapping her compact shut, she put it back in her purse, and then she realized she’d run out of the house without a coat. She had only her magenta sweater to go with her white blouse and just-below-the-knee powder-blue skirt. Worse, she’d forgotten to make herself a paper-bag lunch, too, so she’d have to spend thirty cents to buy one—or else go back in the house. Thirty cents it was, then.
Groaning, she looked down at her chilled, bare shins. At least her white socks and shoes were unstained, which was a miracle given the way she’d run out of the house through the leaf-filled yard. And her long fingernails were still intact. She’d put pink nail polish on them, stolen from Rita’s room.
“I hate this,” she muttered. Here she was, breakfast-less and lunch-less, freezing her buns off by a dark roadside waiting for a school bus. What if a crazy thrill killer drove by, someone like Charles Starkweather, and he kidnapped her or worse? Would her mother even care? Would Dad come out of the basement long enough to attend the funeral? Would Rita and Amy fight over which one got the best pew in the church? Probably.
Or . . . maybe one sunny morning, Helen would be standing there by the road, waiting for the school bus—when she was sixteen or so—and this nice car would come by, a red Corvette Stingray, and the driver would be a handsome blond guy from California, a lawyer—maybe secretly working for the government, too—and he’d pull over and ask where such-and-such a place was, and he’d be funny and she’d laugh, and he’d offer to drive her to school. Rita and Amy would both happen to be sick that day with scarlet fever, or maybe polio, so Helen would be at the bus stop alone, and she’d say, sure, and she’d get into the Corvette because she knew she could trust this guy, he was a nice man, and off they’d go.
Somehow they wouldn’t quite get to school but would instead stop at a coffee shop somewhere, and he’d tell her about his secret work with President Kennedy, righting wrongs all over America, and he’d fall in love with her and she’d go with him on missions to places like Cuba and the Bahamas and Hawaii, and they’d outsmart the enemies of peace and freedom, and one day they’d drive through Plainfield on their way to Washington, D.C. to meet with the President again and at a stoplight she’d look over, and there on the sidewalk would be her family, destitute and wearing rags, and Helen would wave and smile just as the light turned green and they roared off in the Corvette, and she would hear Rita scream in agony as they left.
That would be wonderful. The very idea thrilled her down to her toes.
The daydream faded as she heard a twig snap behind her. She didn’t turn at once, but instead pretended to yawn as she casually looked back at the house. Someone small was hiding behind the walnut tree in the front yard, with one foot and the edge of her skirt barely visible. Helen turned around as if she’d seen nothing, looking down the two-lane road for the school bus. She waited ten seconds, then said, “Knock it off, you little rodent. I see you behind the tree.”
Amy stepped out from behind the walnut tree and walked only a few feet closer before she stopped in the yard. She was far enough from Helen to have a good head start in case her sister began chasing her. She wore a buttoned-up dark brown coat and white socks with shiny black shoes, holding her books and her Rocky and Bullwinkle lunchbox.
“You can come closer,” said Helen. “I’m not mad.”
“Right,” said Amy, staying where she was.
“Doing anything in school today?” asked Helen.
“We have a field trip,” said Amy. “We’re going to a pumpkin field to pick out pumpkins for Halloween.” She frowned, staring at her big sister. “I bet I can make a jack-o-lantern that looks like your butt, if I can find a pumpkin fat enough.”
“Drop dead,” said Helen amiably.
“You first,” said Amy.
The front door slammed shut, and Rita danced down the front steps. Amy immediately moved to one side to get clear of both sisters, trying not to become trapped if they decided to join forces and chase her. As it was, neither Rita nor Helen showed any inclination to do that. It was just too cold.
Rita had her Marilyn Monroe hairdo protected with a scarf. It was just light enough now to tell she wore her canary yellow dress, the one with the white-checked blouse, covered only by a thick white cotton sweater. Without a trace of fear, she marched up to Helen and stood next to her at the bus stop, shivering a little from the cold wind. She’d remembered to bring her Junior Miss lunch pouch, at least.
“Mom’s really mad at you,” Rita said in a richly satisfied voice. “Wait till you get home tonight.”
“Kiss my ass,” said Helen, who had had enough.
Rita gasped and looked at her with huge eyes. “Oh, you are really going to get it when you get home!” she crowed. “I’m telling!”
Helen turned to her, her voice as cold as the wind. “And I’ll tell Mom you put on a bra when you get to school, and you stuff it with Kleenex until you’re a thirty-four C,” she said in a level voice. “I’ll even get witnesses—two teachers, for sure. I’ll even get copies made of that photo from that guy on the yearbook staff who sold me the negative, the one with your front sticking out like you put grapefruits in there. You know which photo I mean—the one with you smooching Frankie March.”
Rita stepped back but stayed at the bus stop. “You are in so much trouble,” she whispered, but her voice shook.
“So are you,” said Helen in a voice filled with promise. “You wanna tell first, or let me?”
“Bus is coming,” said Amy from the middle of the yard.
“Good,” said Helen. They remained in their standoff until the huge orange-yellow bus pulled up, red lights flashing, and the door opened. Helen let Rita on first, which surprised her sister. Helen then got on, but she stopped at the top of the steps—and waited.
Amy slowly approached the bus. A look of deep anxiety crossed her face as she saw the trap prepared for her. Though she hesitated before boarding, she gave in to the inevitable and climbed the steps, hunching her shoulders for what little protection it would give.
“Hi, rodent,” said Helen, giving her little sister a sharp pinch on the right arm when she got to the top of the steps. Amy jumped and shrieked, but Helen hung on. “Don’t you ever again call me what you called me at breakfast, got that?” Helen snapped, then let Amy go. Turning, Helen walked off to take a seat near the rear of the bus—but halfway there, she turned and pointed at Amy. “And you tell on me, you’ll get it again, double!”
Amy silently took a seat near the front and rubbed her arm, glaring back fiercely through her big-frame glasses. Helen thought she saw tears in Amy’s eyes. Maybe it was just a trick of the overhead aisle lights. A stab of remorse went through her, but it passed when she told herself that Amy deserved it. Call me a girl dog, will she? I’ve got the highest grade-point average in junior high, and she calls me that? She’s lucky she doesn’t get worse. Helen took her seat, wrapped in her self-righteousness like a mummy.
A boy with a crew cut and glasses thicker than Amy’s got on the bus and sat down next to Helen at the next bus stop. He was a freshman and one of the boys on the school’s math club. “You hear the news this morning?” he asked.
She fought down her gag reflex. This boy had the worst breath in Plainfield school history, on the level of First World War chemical weapons. “No,” she said, and she looked out the window to signal she wasn’t interested in talking or breathing his air.
“The Navy caught a Soviet ship sneaking in to Cuba,” he said. “They found missiles on it when they searched it, and Russia’s really mad and is telling us to give the ship back.”
“Whoopee,” said Helen.
“I bet they try something,” said the boy. “I bet they try to get it back. That would be great.”
“Great,” muttered Helen.
“I bet we bomb Castro, too,” said the boy. He pushed his glasses up on his nose with his middle finger. “I hope we fry him good. Dirty Commie. Better dead than red.”
Helen didn’t reply. The sky was brighter in the east, but it was amazing how dreary the landscape looked in the predawn light, the barren fields and bare trees and broken-down barns along the highway. The world was deserted and empty.
The ride to school was otherwise uneventful. The bus first unloaded the smaller children, including third-grader Amy and sixth-grader Rita, in front of Plainfield Elementary. Helen saw Amy walk around to her window, glare up at her, then shout with purest venom above the bus engine and noisy students: “I hope you die!” She walked off immediately after that, lost in the crowd of kids entering school. Helen wrinkled her nose in disgust. Amy was so immature.
Moments later, the bus went into gear and drove around to the front of the adjacent Plainfield High School, where Helen and the remaining students got out and walked up the steps to the doors. By the time she got inside, Helen’s teeth were chattering. She deeply regretted not getting her coat before she ran out.
She went to her locker, traded books around for the first half of her day, and checked her appearance in the mirror she kept hidden under one of her books. Her short brown hair was still in relatively good shape, curled under and bouncy as all get out, thanks to the hairspray she’d used. She touched it up with a comb, then hid the mirror and shut her locker. All she had left to do today was make her speech during third period, right before lunch, and the rest of the day was downhill from there to the weekend.
If she could shake off the knot in her stomach, it would be a perfect day. She remembered her mother’s face as she told Helen to bring her sisters home “if anything happened.” What did she think was going to happen? Nothing would happen. Nothing ever happened in this town. Everything exciting happened in Wilmington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, or Washington, D.C., at most only a day away over two-lane roads from tiny little Plainfield. Baltimore was closest, to the southeast. Helen had been there twice.
Swallowing, she took a deep breath and held it five seconds. The knot in her stomach eased. She then straightened her spine and lifted her chin. Today would be perfect. Nothing would go wrong. She relaxed a little and headed off for homeroom. Maybe she could bribe Amy with a couple of quarters to forget the pinch and let her watch “Route 66” in uninterrupted bliss. It was a steep price to pay, but worth it.
The atmosphere in the hallways at Plainfield High was strained that morning. The whole week had been tense, ever since President Kennedy’s televised speech Monday night about the Soviet missile bases in Cuba and how America wouldn’t stand for it. On Wednesday and Thursday, men brought yellow boxes and barrels into the school storage rooms, Civil Defense symbols visible on each container. The boys whispered about war and fallout and Geiger counters and missiles and giant mutant ants. Today, a number of kids walked around with stricken expressions. Helen saw a girl crying as she hid her face. What was going on?
Helen walked to her homeroom class and heard a voice mixed with static as she came in. Most of the guys, the brains and the football players and the delinquents alike, were crowded around the teacher’s desk, listening to a plugged-in radio. The red morning sun peeked through tree branches at the windows.
“What’s going on?” Helen asked the pony-tailed girl in the seat in front of her, the only person she thought of as a close friend. Tiny, blonde Caroline Barkley was a junior varsity cheerleader, the youngest of them all and usually a fountain of chatty fun—but not now.
“I don’t know,” Caroline whispered in an uneasy tone. “Something about the Navy. I think there was a fight.”
A cold finger went down Helen’s spine again. “Where? You mean in Cuba?”
“I don’t know. I don’t want to hear about it.” Caroline turned away and buried her face in her notebook, scribbling down answers from a Social Studies homework paper she’d borrowed for copying.
Helen hesitated, then got up and made her way to the front of the room where the guys were standing. She gathered a few strange looks as she went, but most of the class was used to the way Helen stuck her nose into whatever was going on, even if it was supposed to be guy stuff.
“—stated it had no information on casualties,” said the male voice on the radio as she got closer. “The Defense Department will neither confirm nor deny reports of a conflict involving U.S. naval forces and Cuban aircraft. We have been informed that the President might make an announcement this afternoon at one o’clock Eastern time, but we have no word if he’ll discuss these reports. We will break in to regular programming once we have further news on events taking place off the coast of Cuba.”
Pop music came on then, in the middle of an Elvis song. “Turn it up!” said one of the girls in the front row.
The teacher turned the radio off instead. “In your seats!” he shouted. “Let’s get roll call done!”
“Mister Gaines!” shouted a lanky boy on the basketball team. “Can the Russians get a bomb over this far into America? Like anywhere near where we are?”
The class laughed nervously. “Not likely,” said the homeroom teacher, frowning at his attendance roster as he checked off names. “I used to work at a school in New Mexico, near that White Sands missile-testing place. Rockets aren’t what they’re cracked up to be.”
“You worked with missiles?” someone else asked. “Wow!”
“No, I didn’t say that!” said Mr. Gaines irritably. “I said I worked near the place where they tested them. Missiles have a mind of their own. You shoot ‘em off, they’ll go anyplace. We’ve got nothing to worry about. The Reds don’t have any missiles around here, anyway.”
“They got those ones in Cuba,” someone reminded him. “And the Russians got bombers.”
“Yeah!” cried several other people.
“The Cuban missiles aren’t ready to be fired,” said Mr. Gaines, looking more irritated. “We found them in time. And planes—we’ll shoot down anything that gets into our airspace. The Russians haven’t—hey! McNeil, Arthur, Donaldson, the rest of you—sit down, or I’ll get out my board of education and educate your rear ends!”
Helen took her seat and pulled out the notes for her civil rights speech to study them. Her mind wouldn’t cooperate, however. Her attention jumped from word to work on the index cards, seeing them as collections of letters but not as words with meanings. This horse hockey about Cuba was getting on her last nerve. She remembered her wish this morning that this would happen, that there would be a war and the world would blow up, but what was wished for in righteous anger was pure nightmare now. When she realized she’d stared at the name “James Meredith” for half a minute and couldn’t remember who he was even though she knew who he was, she gave up and tucked her index cards in her American History book.
Mr. Gaines let the class talk in low voices once roll was called and the morning announcements were made over the intercom. Plainfield had an away football game that night, and everyone was encouraged to come out and support them. Classroom chatter turned to pro football and the usual all-guys argument over whether Green Bay, New York, or Dallas had the better team.
It was a blessing when the first-period bell rang. Helen gathered her books and set out for General Math. The teacher, Mrs. Williamson, was a thin, elderly woman capable of boring to death even the most devoted students, so Helen took the time to relax and daydream a little. As often happened when Helen was bored, she began to think about romance—and sex.
Careful to keep her math book open in front of her, she focused on the stapler on Mrs. Williamson’s desk and thought about the book she’d discovered last week in Rita’s bedroom under her mattress. Helen found it while searching for Rita’s diary for future blackmail material. The book was a far better find than the diary for blackmail purposes, but Helen became so attached to the volume, she couldn’t imagine turning it over to their mother. It was Sex and the Single Girl, by Helen Gurley Brown. A sex book, and another Helen had written it! Thrilled, Helen went through the book like lightning, soaking up the information. A single woman having sex! For fun! Any guy she wanted! Without getting married and having a baby! It was beyond imagining, too incredible to be true.
Just thinking about it made her edgy, but not in a bad way. It got her imagination pumping. What if she was at the drugstore having a root beer float one day, and Rita and Amy were off with Mother shopping in Lehman’s Department Store across the street, and this rakish guy with dark hair sat down nearby and ordered a hamburger. He’d be muscular and tall and look like he was having the best time of his life. She’d watch him, and he’d notice her watching him, and he’d smile and ask how she was doing, and they’d sit together and talk, and he’d pay for her float and show her his black Corvette Stingray parked out front.
You live around here? she’d ask him.
Nah, I’m from California, he’d say. Hollywood.
Yeah, I work in the movies, stunt-car driver. Pay’s good, the work’s fun. A little dangerous, but that makes it fun.
He’d laugh. He’d be so at ease, he’d put her at ease, and she’d laugh with him.
And after they drove around in his black Corvette for a while, racing other cars and maybe righting a wrong here and there, she’d ask to see where he was staying, after letting it drop that she was on The Pill (the details on how she was able to do that were not important), and he’d have a room in a hotel, nicer than the no-tell motel down the road that the high-school seniors were rumored to use, and the room would have scenic windows with a nice, clean room with a big white bed, and they’d walk into his room and he’d slowly shut the door and take her in his strong arms and then—
Things got a little dark at this point in the fantasy because Helen wasn’t exactly sure what was supposed to happen, but she was a knot of tension, practically dancing in her seat in a fever. Her brain had shut down, processing nothing except for a need to do something she couldn’t name, a need that reached out into every part of her body from her head and feet to her—
Helen jerked and blinked, wide awake and back in math class. A brilliant flash of light had gone through the room, which meant—
Without thinking, Helen threw herself out of her desk and dropped to the floor, ducking and covering as she had been taught all her childhood to do. She steeled herself for the heat and blast and flying glass and falling walls.
Everyone began to laugh. “What are you doing?” said the guy who sat behind her. “Are you nuts?”
Shaking all over, Helen slowly straightened and looked around. The whole class was laughing at her. Mrs. Williamson was at the windows, opening them as she always did to send some cold air around the room and wake up the sleepy students, and as she pulled another window open, the sunlight flashed on the pane exactly like the previous flash of light.
Helen stood up and took a seat at her desk, her face burning with shame. Her daydream was a shambles.
“Goodness, what is everyone carrying on about?” Mrs. Williamson asked from the windows. “You should be studying now! Miss Barksdale, is there a problem?”
“I dropped something,” she mumbled. “I’m sorry.”
Mrs. Williamson stared at her a moment more, then went back to opening windows. Other students snickered and watched Helen for the rest of the period, waiting to see if she’d do something else crazy.
The second-period bell rang after a million years of this torture. She made it to her Home Economics class and took her seat, grateful that no one here had been in General Math a few minutes ago. Caroline the tiny cheerleader took the seat ahead of Helen. Snapping gum in her mouth, Caroline grinned at Helen, her blonde ponytail bouncing in its usual perky way.
“Wanna piece?” Caroline asked, holding out a stick of gum.
Helen shook her head. “No, thanks. How was your morning?”
“Oh, it got better. French is always fun. I wish I understood what everyone was saying, though.”
Helen smiled. Caroline wasn’t very bright, but she made everyone around her feel good and was immensely popular. Perhaps because Caroline was no threat to Helen’s first-place position in grade-point averages, Helen thought of her fondly and depended on her high spirits to lift Helen’s own. Helen was also more honest with Caroline than with anyone else alive.
“I fell out of my desk last period, in math,” Helen said, reddening again. “It embarrassed me to death.”
“Oh, no! Are you okay? I think they make these desk seats too high.”
“I’m okay. It was just something stupid. Hey, what are you doing tonight? Oh, right—the game.”
“Yeah. We have to be on the bus at . . .” Caroline’s voice trailed off as she looked at the doorway. “Who’s that?” she asked.
Helen looked. She recognized the mother of one of the other girls in Home Ec, standing in the doorway and talking in a loud whisper to the teacher, Miss Barnes. “That’s Sally’s mom,” Helen said. “What’s she doing?”
Miss Barnes turned back to the all-girl class with an anxious look. “Sally?” she called, and made a come-hither motion with her hand. “Get your things, please. Your mother’s here to pick you up.”
“What? Where are we going?” Sally asked.
“Come on!” her mother called, waving. “Get your things right now!”
“Is something happening?” Miss Barnes asked her mother, but her mother did not answer. Sally got her books and walked uncertainly for the door, where her mother put her arm around her and guided her away at a rapid pace.
The starting bell for class rang. Miss Barnes sighed and shut the door. “Well,” she said, walking to the front of the room, “as promised, today we’re going to make a grocery list.” She stopped at the blackboard and wrote OUR LIST on the board in white chalk. “Okay, let’s say you’re shopping for a family of four. There’s you, your husband, and two children, one six years old and one a baby. What kinds of things will you need?”
Hands shot up all over the room. Call on me, call on me! thought Helen, prepared to talk about ready-to-eat lasagna.
“Emily,” said Miss Barnes, pointing somewhere else.
“Diapers,” said Emily, “tons of them.”
“Right,” said Miss Barnes with a smile, “but I should have been more specific. We’re just going to the grocery store today. Look at the four basic food groups and think about it. Let’s say you’re all out of—”
Someone knocked on the door. Miss Barnes sighed again. “Julie, would you get that, please?”
Julie, whose chair was closest to the door, answered it, then stepped back. “It’s Dorothy’s mom,” she said, looking at Dorothy, the tallest girl in the class.
Abruptly, Dorothy’s mother—a short, frumpy woman with graying hair and a faded print dress—pushed past Julie and walked into the room. Without a word, she grabbed her daughter and pulled her out of her seat, heading for the door.
“Mom!” said Dorothy as she was dragged along. “What’s going on?”
“Excuse me!” cried Miss Barnes. “Excuse me, Mrs. Hastings? Mrs. Hastings, please!”
Dorothy’s mother did not stop. She pulled Dorothy out the door and was gone down the hall at a half run, pulling her protesting daughter behind her. Everyone stared at the open door and listened to the sound of the footsteps retreating.
“Class,” said Miss Barnes, putting down the chalk, “I’ll be right back. Stay in your seats, please.” She strode quickly for the classroom door and headed down the hall.
“Where’s she going?” someone asked.
Julie got up and peeked out the door. “She went in the junior high office,” she said. “Some other teachers are there, too.”
“Maybe she’s going to report Dorothy’s mom,” said someone else. “She’s weird.”
“Yeah,” said several other girls. Talk broke down at that point into dozens of small conversations, everyone looking nervously at the door, where Julie kept watch.
Helen noticed that Caroline was clutching her stomach and appeared ill. “Are you okay?” she asked.
Caroline shook her head. “No,” she said in a weak voice. “I’m scared. Something’s wrong, I know it.”
Helen put a hand on her friend’s shoulder. “It’ll be okay,” she said, but she wasn’t sure she believed that. “Things are fine, really. People are just acting strange today. Everything’s under control, though. I’m sure of it.”
Caroline nodded, but she covered her mouth with her hand and shut her eyes. “I can’t stand this,” she whispered. “It makes me so scared. I wish they would stop it.”
“Shhh,” said Helen. She got up and crouched on the floor by Caroline’s desk, taking her hand from her stomach. “It’ll be all right, okay? Listen, it’ll be fine. We’ll all be fine.”
A tear fell from Caroline’s chin and splashed on Helen’s hands. Caroline hid a sob, but everyone heard it anyway. Within moments, other girls came over to offer comfort until Caroline was swamped with well-wishers. Uncomfortable, Helen felt she was getting in the way, so she pulled back and let Caroline’s other friends move in.
And, as she did, she thought about Rita and Amy.
If anything happens, you find Rita and Amy, and you bring them home at once, right here. Don’t stop for anything. You get them and come right home. Nothing else matters.
Helen stepped back toward the door. Her eyes were on Caroline’s ponytail, all that was visible of her through the crowd.
You’re the oldest, so you’re in charge. You do whatever you have to do, but get them here. That’s all I’m asking, okay?
She turned to the door and took a step toward it.
Miss Barnes walked back into the room. Something was wrong—Helen read it instantly in the awkward way Miss Barnes moved, the frozen look in her eyes. Everyone stopped talking.
“Take your seat, Julie,” said Miss Barnes in a strained voice. “Everyone, please take your seats, right now.” She pulled the door shut behind her and then stared at the wall where all the windows were. She stared at it for too long, as if hypnotized. “And pull the shades,” she finally added. “Pull all of them down. Now.”
Several girls got up to do that. The sunlight faded from the room, and only the buzzing fluorescent lights overhead gave illumination. Miss Barnes walked to the front of the room and stood before her desk. She reached back and caught her desk by the edge with both hands, then leaned against it and looked at the floor. Everyone waited.
At long last, Miss Barnes took a deep breath. “When I was a girl,” she said, “my family lived in San Francisco. I really liked it there because of the hills and streetcars and—well, just everything. I’d like to move back there one day, when . . . oh, one day. We’ll see.” She cleared her throat and looked up, eyes scanning the classroom and the girls before her.
“One December morning,” she went on, “we went to church, but before services started, we heard on the news that Pearl Harbor had been attacked. It shocked me that anyone would even think about attacking us, but we went to services anyway, and we prayed for our soldiers and our country, and then we went home. It got worse, though, because these rumors started that San Francisco was going to be attacked next—which of course it wasn’t, but we didn’t know that. It was just . . . just a very scary day, and a scary month came after it.”
Miss Barnes swallowed. “There’s some bad news on the radio,” she said. “There’s been a . . . some trouble around Cuba, but I won’t go into it. All I want you to know is that it might be a scary day, but it might not. We’ll have to wait and see. If things don’t . . . if there’s trouble, I want you to remember that we will pull through it, just like I did when I was your age. I want you all to be brave and think of what’s the right thing to do, each of you, and have faith in God and our country. I’m sure we’ll come through this, and everything will be well again. All you need is faith. Can we all do that?”
Everyone nodded. Many said, “Yes, Miss Barnes.” Helen felt a stirring of courage inside her. Her dread began to shrink.
“What’s going on?” asked a girl in the front row.
Miss Barnes looked down and chewed her lower lip for a long moment. “There’s been . . . some fighting, some kind of problem around Cuba, but it’s being fixed. I think that’s all I can say about it. I’m afraid I don’t know much else.” She stood away from her desk and walked to her chair, but she did not sit down. “Class,” she said, “before we go on, let’s have a moment of silence and if you want to pray, that would probably be a good idea. Okay? Just take a moment and give thanks for something good in your life, or say a prayer for our country. Or both.” She sat down and, after a moment, bowed her head, her hands clasped in her lap and eyes closed.
With nervous glances, everyone else in the class did the same. Instead of thinking about the separation of church and state, which she would have done under any other circumstances, Helen suddenly thought of all the times she’d said that going to church was boring and stupid. Maybe that hadn’t been such a wise thing to say after all, even if church usually was boring. It served a function, too. Helen bowed her hand and put her hands together.
God, she thought to herself, please don’t let anything bad happen to us today. She wrestled with what to say next, suddenly confronted with the way she’d been treating Rita and Amy. True, they got on each other’s last nerve, but they were still her sisters. Help me keep my temper when Rita and Amy try to drive me crazy, she went on. I’m sorry I pinched Amy and bad-mouthed Rita, and I should be sorry even if they never apologize, though maybe You’ll remind them about that later. She winced. Or even if You don’t, I should be a better big sister. Try to make me more patient with them, whatever it takes. I don’t really want any of us to get hurt. Oh, and be nice to Caroline. She’s having a bad day. Please cheer her up. Thanks. Amen.
She opened her eyes, feeling better. When most of the class was looking around again, Miss Barnes got up and walked around to the front of her desk again. Instead of talking about grocery shopping lists, however, she began to talk about her childhood in San Francisco during World War II. Helen and the rest of the class became entranced, asking questions as they listening to her tale. The bell signaling the end of class came all too soon.
Many of the girls hugged Miss Barnes before they left. Helen didn’t, but on impulse she hugged Caroline before leaving the room. “Have a good day,” she told her.
“Thanks,” said Caroline, surprised and touched by the hug. “You, too. See you at lunch?”
“You bet,” said Helen. Calmer and able to smile now, she gathered her things and headed out the door for American History. With the civil rights speech she finally felt prepared to give, it was sure to be a class no one would forget.
Helen’s reborn good mood lasted about twenty seconds on her way to the stairs and her next class. She passed a cluster of boys arguing around a locker and caught one of them saying, “Man, I’m telling ya, there ain’t no such thing as a little A-bomb. It had to be really big, or maybe more than one.”
She slowed, eyes on the floor ahead but her ears turned to the talk. “As long as it was in Cuba, that’s fine with me,” said another boy. “They can shoot ‘em all off at those Commie bastards, as long as they’re not going off over here.”
Helen kept walking a few more steps, then stopped and turned back. “What happened?” she said.
The boys immediately looked at her and fell silent. “Nothing,” said one uneasily.
“Come on,” said Helen, walking closer. “Just tell me.”
One of the boys sighed and looked unhappy. “Someone said on the radio that an A-bomb went off,” he told her. “They don’t know much about it. It was either on Cuba or around it.”
“One guy said it was on a Cuban missile, ‘cause it hit some of our ships,” said another.
“Oh, bull,” said the first boy angrily, “it did not! No one can get close enough to bomb our ships!”
“That’s what he said!” the second boy insisted. “I ain’t kiddin’ ya!”
“It had to be us dropping the big one on Castro,” said another boy, and the argument was off and running again.
Helen stayed a moment to listen, then walked away to her class with automatic feet. Her speech was suddenly the least important thing in the world. Was it true? Had someone done the unthinkable and dropped the Bomb? That must have been the news Miss Barnes wouldn’t tell, and now Helen knew why. What would happen next? Anything was possible, now—anything bad.
American History was on the third floor of Plainfield High’s main building, on the eastward side. At 10:30 a.m., when third period started, Helen slowly walked into the classroom and dropped her books on her desk, then sat down with a lifeless thump. Where her stomach had been was a dull, empty ache. Don’t let this happen, she thought as she sat. Don’t let this happen to us. Stop it now, God, just get down here and stop it. This isn’t funny anymore, and it wasn’t even funny to begin with.
Pre-lunch classroom jitters on Friday were always bad, but today there was additional anxiety thanks to the radio news, which everyone had heard about by now. All the students talked, shouted, and cut up even after the starting bell rang.
“Shut up!” shouted Mr. Benedict from his desk for the eighth time. “Everyone, get in your seats and shut up! Shut up, damn it!” His swearing made the students laugh and get wilder. He slapped a yardstick on his desk until it broke, which brought more laughter from the class. “That’s it!” he shouted, throwing down the broken half of the yardstick. “I’m bringing the principal here!”
Mr. Benedict strode to the classroom door and walked out, leaving it wide open. From the shouting and noise in the halls, Helen could tell that other classrooms were similarly disrupted across the third floor. What about my speech? she thought. Am I going to give it? Will anyone care? I worked on this thing for days!
A paper wad fight broke out. A ball of notebook paper hit Helen in the side of her head. She groaned and got up, leaving her books behind as she walked across the room and stood by the windows. Scattered clouds drifted overhead in a blue sky, and dead leaves flew across the school grounds. A number of students were outside the building, standing in groups talking or walking or throwing rocks. To Helen’s mind, nothing so clearly showed the breakdown in authority as students not being in class while school was going on. It was unthinkable. If I was a teacher, she thought, I’d drag them in by their ears. I’d show ‘em. Two of those jerks are even smoking! Of all the nerve!
The siren at the volunteer fire station down the road sudden rose in the air, howling up to an ear-piercing high note. Helen made a face and left the window as the siren abruptly fell, then rose again in an unfamiliar up-down-up-down pattern. Great, she thought, this is just great, we really need a big fire right now to make everything just peachy and—
The classroom intercom beeped. “Attention all classes!” shouted a loud male voice over the wall speaker. Helen recognized him as the school principal. “I want all teachers to—” The rest of his words were lost in the chaos from the class and the rise-and-fall wail of the fire siren outside. Helen shouted for everyone to stop talking, but no one listened. She couldn’t even hear herself. Her place at the window was taken by students hoping to see fire trucks leaving the station.
Giving up, she pushed her way through the other students to the classroom door and listened in the hallway, but she still couldn’t make out what the principal was saying. However, in moments, students spilled out of classrooms up and down the hall, led by their teachers. “Against the lockers!” one teacher shouted. “Crouch down and face the lockers! Move away from the windows!” Students were white-faced. Some cried.
“What’s going on?” Helen shouted. Several of her own classmates stood behind her, looking at the madness. “What’s happening?”
“Attack warning!” the teacher shouted back. “We have an attack warning! Get everyone out of the room and into the halls! Get them out!”
Attack warning? An attack warning?
Stunned, Helen leaned forward to ask for a clarification.
A very great Light went off behind her, appearing and disappearing in an instant, faster than she could blink. She jumped, startled. The unearthly intensity of the Light and the pricking of heat on the back of her neck were so different from anything she’d ever known, she forgot all of her blindness-prevention instincts, all of her training to duck and cover, and she turned around to see it. For a moment, the noise in the corridor fell except for gasps and cries like “Jesus Christ!” and “What was that?”
It was impossible to see anything through the mass of students in the history classroom at the windows—but many of them had recoiled from the glass, yelling in shock or pain, clutching their eyes. A wave of voices arose next in terror and panic. “It’s a bomb!” a voice screamed.
“Bomb!” screamed everyone else.
Helen tried to get back into the room, but a big male student charging out slammed into her and knocked her backward into several other students dashing down the hall. She fell sprawling to the linoleum floor, banging her head and knocking the wind out of her. Running students stumbled over her, stepping on her arms and legs.
Terrified she would be trampled, Helen scrambled to the row of lockers across the hall as a stampede began around her. She instinctively curled, hands over her head and legs drawn up. Hard-soled shoes kicked and slammed against her. Screams filled her ears as blows rained down from every side. The battering went on until she was close to losing consciousness. For the first time ever, Helen feared she would die.
A chaotic age later, she dully realized the chaos had subsided, and she uncurled long enough to crawl into an empty classroom doorway in case more people ran past. Horrifying screams, dozens of them, echoed up stairwells along the third-floor hall.
Half aware of what she was doing, she got to her unsteady feet. Every spot on her body ached. To her surprise, she found that she was crying. Blood stained her upper blouse and right hand, but she couldn’t tell where it had come from. One of her shoes was gone. She saw it twenty feet down the hall, by a trampled student prone on the floor.
Blinking, Helen staggered toward her shoe and with an effort was able to crouch down, snag it, and put it on as she leaned against the row of lockers. All the while, she stared at the student lying nearby, a vaguely familiar boy who was a senior at the high school. He seemed to be unconscious. A greenish bruise was forming on his cheek. Despite the situation, it was hard to feel empathy for him. A feeling of unreality had taken over Helen’s mind. She thought she was seeing a movie and wasn’t really there in her body at all.
Voices called in pain from down the corridor. She shook her head and realized she’d stood in place for some time. The screaming had faded, but cries could be heard from the stairwells and at the ends of the hall. As she watched, a sound like long rolling thunder vibrated everything for several seconds before fading away. Earthquake? Helen thought, then: Shock wave from a bomb blast. Looking around, she saw teachers and students walking in the halls, bending over motionless bodies and trying to offer aid.
“Amy and Rita,” Helen said aloud. “Amy and Rita.” She stumbled off toward the nearest stairwell down. Bodies were scattered on the stairway and landings, victims of the stampede to escape the school and get outside. Some were motionless, others moaned, and a few crawled, huddled silently in corners, or begged for help for dreadful injuries.
“I’ll be back,” Helen told the injured as she went downstairs without stopping. “I have to go get my sisters and take them home. I’ll send someone over to help as soon as I can. I’m sorry I can’t stay. I’ll be right back, I promise.” She meant to keep her promise, but she could not stop just yet. Her sisters had to be found first.
Helen was descending the last stairway to the main floor when she recognized one of the bodies, a crumpled form at the foot of the steps. It was a small blonde girl with a ponytail, lying flat on her stomach with her face turned to the left. Her thin arms and legs were purple from bruising, her left arm clearly broken in two places and bent behind her. It looked to Helen as if the girl had fallen down the stairs and been trampled. She didn’t recognize the girl right away, but as she passed she stared, slowed, stopped, then knelt at Caroline’s side.
Blood pooled on the dirty linoleum around Caroline’s head, bubbling from her nose and mouth. Helen carefully touched Caroline’s neck, feeling for a pulse as she had been taught in her Red Cross classes. Footprints were visible across the back of the smaller girl’s white blouse.
“Oh, my God,” Helen whispered.
Caroline’s left eye slowly opened and turned up at Helen, as if the smaller girl were awakening from sleep. Helen flinched in horror. She had thought Caroline was dead. In a terrible way, she had hoped her friend was dead, as her injuries were so awful.
“Caroline!” she whispered. “Oh, God! Oh, God, it’s me, Helen! I’m here, okay? Caroline, I’m here! I’m with you, okay?” Possibilities for rescue crowded her mind. Should she move Caroline? Was her back broken? She stroked Caroline’s face and hair, trying to collect her thoughts. “I won’t leave you,” she whispered. “I have to go soon because I have to get my sisters, but I’ll stay here with you until I get you out! I’ll get help for you, okay? Can you hear me? Caroline, can you hear me?”
The little cheerleader’s gaze stayed focused on Helen’s face wherever she moved, but Caroline did not otherwise stir. Her breathing was audible now, labored and short. Helen realized most of the cheerleader’s ribs might be broken. How could anyone do this to another human being? How was it even possible? How could God let this happen?
“Caroline?” Helen fought back her tears as she stroked the girl’s cheek. “Don’t die on me, okay? I’ll get help and get you out of here, okay? You’re my best friend! Just wait for me, okay? Wait for me until I get back with help? Wait for me?”
Her friend’s lips slowly moved as another bubble of blood appeared and popped between them. As Helen watched, Caroline’s lips curled. She smiled up at Helen.
“I love you!” Helen cried, sobbing openly. “I love you!” She had never once considered saying that to anyone she knew at school, even to Caroline, who was her best friend in the same way the radiant Caroline was everyone’s best friend.
Caroline’s lips moved to say something in return, words without sound.
She did not finish. In moments, she let out a long, slow, tired sigh. Glittering red bubbles popped from her mouth and nostrils, but no bubbles appeared after that. Her lips parted. The smile stopped. Caroline’s left eye ceased to follow Helen’s movements.
“Caroline?” Helen stroked her cheek. “Caroline, can you wait for me?”
The smaller girl’s face and skin took on a yellowish hue. Helen moved her hand in front of her friend’s eye. Caroline’s pupil did not respond.
Helen remained motionless for a long moment, then put her hand down and touched Caroline’s neck again. It was still warm. There was no pulse.
“I love you,” Helen said. She knew what had happened but said it anyway. “I’ll come back for you. Wait for me. I promise to come back. I have to get my sisters and take them home first. I promised Mom I’d—”
Helen stopped talking but did not flinch. She did not take her hand from her friend. The second Light died as swiftly as the first, reflected from every surface and lighting even the dark places. In the distance outside the building, Helen heard wild screams and car tires screeching on pavement.
The first flash might have been an accident. The second flash said it was not.
Atomic war, she thought. They went and did it. It’s real. They’ve killed us all.
It was necessary to pause for a moment, necessary to sit still for a handful of seconds and reflect on all the people Helen knew had ceased to exist in that instant flash, reflect on the many more who were dying even now, and offer a prayer for them. Helen felt for a moment as if she talked directly to God, asking mercy for all humanity, asking that all be saved even if mankind had just failed the final test to avoid extinction. Spare us, spare us, have mercy, forgive us. Don’t let this happen.
She sat until she could wait no longer. The dead were gone. The living called. She opened her eyes and looked down at Caroline a last time.
“I have to go,” Helen told her friend. “I have to get my sisters and take them home.” She stroked the smaller girl’s cheek, then got up. Her knees felt warm and sticky. She looked down and saw that the front of her shirt and her knees were soaked with Caroline’s blood, which ran down in long streams into her socks and shoes. She started to reach down to wipe it away, but gave up. It did not matter anymore.
“I love you,” Helen said to the little cheerleader. “I love you.” Turning, she staggered toward the double doors at the end of the first floor hall. A broad blue sky was visible through the windows. Blue sky, Helen thought. That is just so wrong. How could the sky still be blue?
Helen pushed open one of the doors at the end of the corridor, blinking against direct sunlight. Cold October air swept around her, but she hardly felt it. Her body was detached from her consciousness and moved without guidance in her shock. As she left the school, a group of four adult women—parents, she thought—rushed past her and into the building, after giving her horrified looks. They cried out only moments after they entered. Helen did not stop or look back. Rita and Amy, sang the mantra in her head, Rita and Amy, Rita and Amy.
To the north was Plainfield’s elementary school, several hundred feet away across a grass lot and a softball field. A road running past both schools was already carrying a greater than usual number of cars heading into the countryside, most of them speeding and honking horns. Scattered knots of high-school students and staff were visible everywhere, crouching behind cars or hiding behind buildings. None of those hiding were exposed to the south or east. Few people were in the open, most running in different directions alone or in small groups. Only a few people stood around, watching the sky, talking, smoking, running hands through their hair and looking dazed.
Baltimore is southeast, she thought, where Mom and Dad are. As that thought entered her mind, it was suppressed. Washington, D.C. is south, her thoughts ran on, as if nothing had happened; Wilmington and Philadelphia are farther away to the east.
There had been two flashes so far. The first was either east or southeast, given the way the students at the windows had reacted as if blinded. Helen did not speculate where the flashes had come from. She did not want to know.
Vaguely aware she was attracting attention because of her bloodied appearance, Helen continued walking in the open toward the elementary school. The blood on her legs pulled on her skin as it dried. As she crossed the baseball diamond and went around the fence, a second rumbling thunder came and shook her bones. She remembered the thunder following the first flash: a fading blast wave from a nuclear weapon. She kept going.
A half-dozen women were clustered around a side entrance on the west side of the elementary school. Several pounded on the closed doors and shouted for them to be opened. Helen decided to avoid them and continue on around the gray, two-story building in a clockwise direction, looking for the classroom where she thought Rita might be. Rita had said the night before that Halloween decorations were taped to her room’s windows, but most of the classroom windows had them. Had Rita mentioned a big witch? She’d compared it to her big sister, as Helen recalled, though she was not in the least offended now. The insult was not worth comment.
“Honey?” a woman yelled at her. Helen looked over and saw a lady she did not recognize, on the edge of the group at the doors. The woman stared at her, badly shocked. “Honey, are you all right? Do you need help? What happened to you?”
Helen shook her head and kept walking. It wasn’t worth the time to explain; she had things to do. The other women watched her with visible fear and concern. “You need to get to cover!” another woman shouted at her. “There’s radiation coming!” As if that mattered, Helen thought, and ignored the warning.
On the north end of the elementary school was the main entrance and bus loading dock. The doors here, too, were shut and apparently locked, given the crowd of several dozen parents shouting for their children to be sent out. All but a few were women, and not all wore coats or sweaters, as if they’d dropped everything to get to the school as quickly as possible. Cars were parked haphazardly at the loading dock. The fathers must still be at work, Helen thought. With luck, they were not working in the big cities—but she carried that thought no further.
Helen briefly considered joining the women, but she remembered being trampled by the mob in the high school, so she stayed far away. Circling wide around the scene at the main doors and ignoring any calls to her, she crossed the road that the buses took and scanned the school windows carefully as she headed south along the eastern side of the long building. Despair entered the fringes of consciousness, but she fought it back and continued walking at a slow and deliberate pace so she would be sure to see a witch cutout or decoration. She saw many small ones, but no large one.
While she looked, she became aware that the right side of her head throbbed. She touched her right ear and discovered the brown, curled-under hair on that side was clotted with blood. Someone must have kicked her when she was run over. It explained the blood on her blouse after the stampede. A long shower would be required once she got home. Perhaps Rita and Amy wouldn’t mind if she got the hot water first this time. She also felt an urge not to shower, to leave the blood on her. It was all she had left of Caroline.
Reaching the south end of the building again, she glanced across the road at the high school. A few students were filtering back to it. Teachers and parents were trying to collect the teenagers and either take them inside or walk them toward their homes. “Are the phones working?” she heard one teacher repeatedly shout. “I can’t get the police!”
Helen crossed the south end of the elementary school, saw no big witches in the windows, and headed back up the west side again. After a moment, she looked toward the side entrance where the women had gathered ten minutes earlier. They were gone.
They got into the building, she realized. She began to run back to the door, but her legs and chest hurt so much she had to walk again. The effects of her near-trampling were beginning to worsen. Ugly greenish bruises covered her arms, shins, and thighs, and she ached to the bone everywhere. It doesn’t matter, she told herself, I can’t stop until I get Rita and Amy out. Maybe we can get something to drink before we go home. She licked her lips, which were chapped from the wind.
When she reached the door and opened it, she found two men immediately inside. She recognized them as teachers. One saw her and gasped, “Good God!” He stopped her by catching her arm and crouched so his face was level with hers. “Are you in pain?” he asked. He tried to turn her head to look at her right ear. A muffled chorus of shouts and yells, arising from the throats of many children, came from behind a door at the end of the short entry hall, twenty feet away.
Helen pulled away and pushed his hands aside. “Do you know which room Amy Barksdale is in?” she said. She figured Amy would be easy to manage with a few threats, but she could be dragged along for a short time if it came to that. Rita liked to be a pain just for the sake of being a pain, so she would have to be picked up second.
“She’s bleeding down her legs,” the other man said, looking Helen over. “We need to be her to the school nurse.”
“Where does it hurt?” the first man asked Helen with genuine concern. “Did you hurt your legs or tummy? Are you in pain?”
Tummy? she thought. Do I look like a kid? “No!” she snapped. “I’m here to get Amy Barksdale! Do you know where she is?”
“Is she a student?” the second man asked.
“She’s my sister, in the third grade,” she said. “I have to take her home with my other sister, Rita.”
“Rita Barksdale? Blonde girl, sixth grade?” said the first man. “She’s in my class next to mine on the second floor. You’re her sister?”
“Yes, I just said that!” Helen’s patience wore thin. “What room is she in?”
“Two thirty-one,” said the first man. “Look, sweetie, we’ve got to get you to the school nurse. You’re really bleeding, see?”
“I’m not hurt!” Helen shouted, shoving away from him. “Everyone that’s hurt is back in the high school! They’re all dead over there, most of them. Leave me alone!”
With that, she shook them off and left at a fast pace. Pulling open the entry-hall door, she dashed into the corridor beyond to get to the stairway across the hall. The building hadn’t changed since she had last been there in the spring, when sixth grade ended. However, she discovered that she had to pass what looked like a thousand children sitting in the halls against the lockers, all talking or shouting or crying or making trouble. The air stank as if some children had gone to the bathroom in their clothing. The least disturbance attracted their bored or overanxious attention.
When Helen made her appearance, all the children near her screamed and moved back, seeing her bloodstained clothes, hands, and legs. It was impossible to hear anything else. Ignoring them, Helen pushed her way through, went up the stairs, and got to the second floor. Her energy reserves were low. She was also aware that she stank of drying blood and perspiration, but it couldn’t be helped. Room 231 was only a few doors down. She steeled herself when she walked out into the second-floor corridor, which was filled with children not much younger than she was. Their reactions were predictable—gasps, shrieks, wide-eyed looks, pointing, and “Wow!” and “Gross!” and “She’s bleeding!”
“Are you all right?” a female teacher asked her.
“I’m okay, but I’m looking for Rita Barksdale in room two thirty-one,” she said quickly.
“Where are you hurt?” asked the lady. “Why don’t you go with me to the girls’ room and let me get your cleaned up and find out what happened to you?”
“No!” said Helen, shouting to be heard over the noise of children in the hall around them. “I’m looking for Rita Barksdale!”
“She’s right there!” said a boy, pointing. Helen turned and looked behind her.
Rita stood not four feet away in her bright yellow dress. She stared at her older sister with huge eyes and an open mouth. “Good heavens!” Rita said in a voice remarkably like their mother’s. “What did you do?”
“I didn’t do anything!” said Helen crossly. “We have to go home!”
“Is Mom here?” Rita asked.
Helen opened her mouth to say no—but didn’t. “She’s outside! Come on!”
“You can’t leave yet, honey!” said the teacher. “You’re too badly hurt!”
“I’m not hurt!” Helen insisted. “The people in the high school are hurt!” She pointed to Rita. “I have to take her home!”
The teacher vacillated, then looked at the many students lining the corridor. “I’d rather you stayed,” she said. “Are you sure you won’t stay?”
Helen paid no attention. “Let’s go!” she said to Rita, trying to grab her by the hand. Rita swiftly pulled back, looking Helen over. “Is that blood?” her sister asked, putting a hand over her mouth.
“Yes! Now, come on!”
“Don’t touch me!”
“Come on, or I will touch you!”
“No, you won’t!” Rita headed for the stairs, with Helen right behind her. Rita started down, then turned to look back. “Can Susan Milford come over tonight?”
“No! Mom said no!”
“Oh, she did not!” Rita shouted back. “She’ll let me! It’s Friday!” She started up the stairs again. “I’m going to get Susan.”
Helen blocked her way, then stuck her bloodstained hands out at her sister in a threatening way. “Go downstairs!” she shouted. “Now!”
“Get out of my way! I’m telling Mom!”
“Go ahead!” Helen shouted. “Go ahead and tell her! You go ahead!” She did not say that she thought their mother was already dead, burned up with all of Baltimore by one of the bomb flashes. It was the first time she admitted to herself that her mother and father were likely dead.
“I will tell!” Rita stamped down the stairs, then tried to outrun Helen to get outside first.
I’m the mom now, Helen thought. I’m the mom. It’s up to me. She began to run. Her legs hurt like hell. “Wait up!” she shouted. “Stop running! We have to get Amy!”
“You get her!” Rita shouted and ran for the side door that Helen had used to get in. Helen got to the bottom of the stairs, stirring another round of shrieks and cries from the smaller children because of her appearance.
As Rita pushed open the entry hall door, Helen shouted to the two teachers there, “Catch her! Don’t let her go outside before our mom gets here!”
To her satisfaction, one of the teachers caught Rita by the shoulders. “Hold on there, girl,” said the man, keeping her still despite her struggles. “You just wait until your mother gets here, like your sister said.”
Rita glared back at Helen, but she did not attempt to flee. Helen shouted, “Thanks!” and looked down the corridor. Smaller kids shrank back, staring at her dress and legs. The dark brown blood was almost dry.
“Get away from me!” a girl screamed. “That’s disgusting!”
“Where is the third grade?” Helen shouted at the kids and teachers. “My sister Amy’s in the third grade! Where is she?”
“They’re not here!” one of the women teachers called back. “Amy and the others went on a field trip. They weren’t supposed to come back until one o’clock.”
“Field trip?” We have a field trip, Amy had said that morning. We’re going to a pumpkin field to pick out pumpkins for Halloween. “Where’d they go?”
“They went to Boylan’s Fun Farm,” the teacher said. “It’s south of here. Just wait for them to come back.”
“Boy Land Farm?”
“No, Boylan’s. B-O-Y-L-A-N, Boylan’s Fun Farm. It’s off State Route Nine, about ten miles or so.”
“Can someone call there and see if my sister’s there?”
“The phones don’t work, dear. None of them do. Must be something wrong with the system. Too many people using the phone lines or something. If you’ll just wait here with us, she’ll be back.”
“Thanks,” said Helen, her face without expression. She headed for the door out. Amy’s gone, Amy’s way south of us, and I can’t get her back. We’ll have to wait for her.
She pushed open the door to the exit corridor. The two teachers were still there, standing by the door out. Rita stood leaning against the wall, arms folded over her chest, glaring at Helen.
“Let’s go,” said Helen. “Stay with me.”
“You’re not my mother!” Rita shouted as they went outside into the cold wind. The two men waved goodbye to them, but neither girl noticed. “Where is Mom? You said Mom was out here!”
“We’ll talk about it when we get home,” said Helen, walking ahead of Rita toward the front of the elementary school. “We have to get Amy first.”
“Amy’s gone on a field trip, geek brain!” Rita shouted, moving to a point ten feet away from her sister. “Didn’t you know, dork breath?”
“I didn’t know!” Helen shouted back in a fury. “She’s at a farm south of here!”
“So, where are we going?” Rita yelled. She kept her arms crossed, hunched up against the chill. “Why did you bring me out here?”
“Because Mom told me to get you and Amy and bring you both home!”
“Well, where is she?”
Helen stopped and faced her sister. “I don’t know where she is!” she screamed at the top of her lungs. “I don’t know where the hell she is! Stop bothering me with that bull crap!”
“I’m telling on you, potty mouth! I’m telling! I’m telling everything on you!”
Helen stood for several long seconds, staring at Rita. “Fine,” she said in a soft voice. “You can tell her when we see her. Tell her everything. I don’t care anymore.”
A look of anxiety crossed Rita’s face. “I will tell!” she shouted, trying to regain her momentum. “I’ll tell her you messed up your clothes and everything! I’ll tell her you were mean to me! You’ll get it good!”
Helen did not react, except to stare at Rita. “Okay,” she said quietly. “Do it. I don’t care.” She waved a tired hand. “Let’s go wait for Amy, then go home.”
“How are we getting home, dork brain?”
Helen hesitated. “We’ll walk. It’s not all that far from here.”
“It is, too! I’m not walking!”
“We’re going to wait for Amy’s bus, then we’re going home!”
“I don’t want to go wait for Amy! I’m going back to my friends!” Rita took a step back toward the elementary school.
“Mom wants us home!” said Helen. “The sooner we get home, the sooner you can tell on me. If you go back to school, she’ll be mad at you, not me.”
“I don’t believe you! You’re lying!”
Helen shook her head. She couldn’t hold back any longer. “Do you know what’s going on?” she asked. “Don’t you know?”
“Know what?” said Rita, angry and a little confused.
Helen shook her head again and began walking toward the front of the school again. “Never mind,” she said. “Come on.”
Rita was on the verge of heading back into the building. When Helen stopped and looked back, she reluctantly walked toward her sister, not her friends.
They got to the front of the elementary school to find many cars now parked along the street and loading dock area. Parents everywhere were rushing into the open doors of the building and bringing out their children. Many people were crying, adults and children alike. Traffic was bad, with cars backed up everywhere along the highway.
Helen waited for Rita to catch up, then motioned her over to a spot some distance away from the crowd. They stood about ten feet apart by the wall of the school, watching the chaos. Helen thought of an anthill she once disturbed, and how the ants dashed around pell-mell, crazily accomplishing nothing.
“What’s going on?” Rita asked. Her rage was spent for the moment. “Why’s everyone going home?”
“A war’s just started,” said Helen. “We have to go home because of the war.”
“You’re lying!” Rita said, but her voice lacked conviction. “There isn’t any war!”
“It just started,” said Helen without emotion. She couldn’t believe how tired she felt. “It’s an atomic war.”
Helen shook her head and looked away. She then looked down at her wrists, realizing she had left her watch at home. “What time is it?” she asked Rita.
Rita checked her own watch, a nicer one than Helen’s. “Eleven fifteen.” She looked her sister over carefully. “Is that really blood?”
Helen looked down at her hands, legs, and clothes. She nodded. The urge to cry surfaced, but she fought it down.
“How you get it all over you?”
Helen dropped her hands and looked away without answering.
“Did you have your period? Did you just get your first period and you didn’t bring a pad?”
“I bet you did. That was dumb. Look at you.”
Helen didn’t bother to answer. She hated her sister more in that moment than she ever had in her life.
“Are we just waiting for Amy’s bus?”
Helen forced herself to answer through gritted teeth. “Yeah.”
“Why don’t we call Mom and see if she can pick us up?”
“I don’t know where she is.”
“Well, go to the office and call home!”
“The phones don’t work.”
“None of them?”
Helen exhaled heavily. “Because of the war, dope.”
Stung, Rita turned away, hands on her hips. “You are such a liar,” she muttered. “I’m telling.”
Helen looked at Rita’s back and imagined whacking her with a baseball bat. She wondered if her sister’s head would fly off if you hit it hard enough.
“I haven’t had lunch yet,” said Rita. “Can we get something to drink? I’m really thirsty.”
So am I, you retard, thought Helen. So am I.
Cars pulled up in front of them, adults getting out and looking around and shouting for their children. One was a gray Plymouth four-door. Helen noticed the shadowed driver beckoning to her, but she looked away. If he wasn’t a school bus, she wasn’t interested. She hoped they wouldn’t be out in the cold weather forever. She was starting to shiver.
“Helen! Come on!” Rita shouted a few moments later.
Angry beyond reason, Helen turned to snap off a bitter retort. It died on her lips. Rita was getting into the gray Plymouth, into the front passenger seat.
“Rita!” Helen screamed. She launched herself at the car, but Rita shut the door and punched down the lock before she got there. “Get out! Rita! Get out of the—”
The driver turned his head toward her with a twisted grin. It was Mr. Meyer, the creepy slime ball who liked to grab her rear end on PTA night and ogle her breasts.
And he was driving off with Rita.
“NO!” Helen shouted. A dread greater than her fear of atomic war seized her. Panicked, she grabbed the rear door handle as the gray Plymouth slowly rolled forward to get out of the line of cars. The door was locked. Holding on to the handle and running alongside the car, she pounded on the side window with her fist. “Stop!” she screamed. “Rita, get out! Rita! RITA!”
Rita got up in the front seat and reached back to unlock the rear door. She hesitated. The locking knob had been pulled off, leaving only a metal screw sticking up by the rolled-up window. She grabbed this and tried to pull up, but she let go of it almost immediately, shaking her fingers in pain.
Mr. Meyer attempted to get through the line of cars leaving the school, but his way was blocked by a two-tone station wagon crawling past him on the highway side. As Mr. Meyer honked his horn, Helen let go of the door handle and ran around to the left of the car, squeezing between the Plymouth and the station wagon. She grabbed the rear door handle there and pushed in the metal button with her thumb.
The latch popped. She opened the door as wide as she could in the limited space between the two cars and scrambled in just as Mr. Meyer got around the station wagon. The Plymouth surged forward, throwing Helen back and slamming the rear door on her feet. With a yelp, she jerked her legs back and pulled the door fully shut. The Plymouth accelerated, moving quickly around the packed cars to head for the highway.
“This man said he’d get us something to eat!” Rita shouted at Helen over the engine’s roar. “Then he’s going to take us to get Amy!”
Pulled from side to side as Mr. Meyer made several quick turns, Helen wished that someone would invent a restraint that would hold a person in her seat and keep her from being bounced all over creation inside a moving car. She scooted over to Rita’s side of the car. Mr. Meyer had an intense look on his face as he got into the swift flow of traffic and headed away from the school grounds, into the countryside.
“Stop the car!” Helen shouted in fear. “Let us out!”
“I’m helpin’ ya out, kid!” said Mr. Meyer with a faint grin. “We’re gonna take a li’l trip, just the three of us. I’ll getcha somethin’ to eat. Don’t worry.”
“No! Stop the car!”
“Helen, for gosh sakes!” Rita yelled angrily, turning in the seat to look back. “Cut it out! You’re not Mom!”
“You tell ‘er, kid,” said Mr. Meyer. The Plymouth picked up speed. Her mouth dry with fear, Helen saw a road sign pass: STATE ROUTE 15 SOUTH.
“We’re not going to get Amy!” Helen shouted. “We’re going the wrong way! She’s at a farm off State Route Nine!”
“This is a shortcut,” said Mr. Meyer, his humor fading, “and keep your damn voice down, all right? It’s pissing me off.”
“Yeah,” Rita chimed in, though she eyed the driver and her voice wasn’t as loud as before.
“Please, stop the car!” Helen said. “Let us out! Let us out!”
For an answer, Mr. Meyer swung at her, his right hand balled into a fist. The blow hit Helen’s left shoulder, knocking her back on the rear seat. She grasped her injured arm, grimacing in pain.
“I told ya to shut your trap!” he shouted. “Just shut your damn mouth when I tell ya to shut it!”
Rita got up on her knees in the front seat and looked back at her sister. Her face was creased with fear.
“She’ll be fine,” said Mr. Meyer. The car went over a rise, and everyone bounced in the seats. “Don’t worry ‘bout her. I hadda do it. The li’l bitch was gonna make me have a wreck.”
Helen’s shoulder blazed with pain. She looked up at her sister’s white face, then at the rear-view mirror in which Mr. Meyer glared at her. “Jesus,” he said, “what kind of crap have you got all over you? You’d better not be getting’ my car dirty, or you’ll pay for it the hard way. Ya hear me?”
“Let us out!” Helen hissed through gritted teeth.
“When the time comes,” he said. Helen saw him glance over at Rita. His gaze rested on her for much too long. When Mr. Meyer looked back at the road, Helen saw his right arm move toward her sister.
Rita flinched and looked down. “Hey!” she said, and she struggled to get free. Helen couldn’t see what was happening, but she knew. She knew exactly what was happening.
Rita pulled away from Mr. Meyer and scooted over to the passenger door, a shocked look on her face. “Don’t do that!” she said.
“Do what?” asked Mr. Meyer with a grin. “It was just a li’l squeeze. You need to relax. Everything’ll be fine if you just relax, got it?”
“Don’t touch me!” said Rita in a frightened voice. Mr. Meyer reached for her again, but Rita stayed out of his grasp, pressed flat against the passenger door and window. “No!” she said, on the verge of crying. “Please don’t!”
“Oh, come on, relax and enjoy it,” said Mr. Meyer. “It’s not like there’s a choice.” He suddenly lunged to the right and caught Rita by her wrist, pulling her toward him. “Gotcha!” he said. He laughed as she struggled.
The laugh said it all. Helen saw it instantly. Mr. Meyer would hurt them. He would take them far into the countryside and do terrible things to them both, things they could not imagine anyone would ever do. Helen would suffer, she understood that, but Rita would suffer more because she was pretty. Helen would be helpless to stop it. When Mr. Meyer finally killed them, as she knew he would, it would be a blessing to die.
In less than a second, Helen launched herself off the back seat and wildly struck at Mr. Meyer’s head with her fists. He cursed and let go of Rita and tried to fend off Helen with his right hand, but she reached around his head and raked with her fingernails, determined to tear the skin from his face. Her fingers dug into both his eyes. Jerking violently, Mr. Meyer slammed down with his right foot on the accelerator. The sudden motion threw Helen backward—and her fingernails tore through everything in their way.
Mr. Meyer screamed and let go of the steering wheel to grab at his face. The car drifted to the right, scattering gravel as it left the road, then went airborne. Falling across the rear seat, Helen felt herself go weightless and fought to grab something. With a crash, she was thrown into the back of the front seat and onto the floor, and then everything bounced and she was flung against the left rear door as the car spun out.
The world came to a stop. The Plymouth’s engine was still running, and the vehicle slowly began to roll forward over bumpy ground. Helen got up in a daze, her brains rattled. “Rita?” she called. “Rita?”
The car was in the middle of a field of flattened corn stalks, about sixty feet from the highway. It had gone off a five-foot embankment before landing hard and spinning around, and now it coasted toward a patch of trees at five miles per hour, heading back the way it had come. Dirt was splattered all over the windshield. Mr. Meyer had been thrown forward over the steering wheel into the windshield on impact, smashing the glass into a huge spider web of cracks with the top of his head. The center of the spider web was stained red. Now he lay slumped against the steering wheel, head down. Dark, glistening blood was visible all through his hair. Rita lay in a tangled ball in the floor under the dashboard on the passenger side, feebly moving her arms and legs.
Helen saw that the rolling car was about to hit a poplar tree, and she braced herself against the back of the front seat. The bang as the car hit the tree and stopped was mild compared to what had gone before. The engine continued running. Mr. Meyer did not stir. Rita groaned and tried to get up.
Eyeing the motionless Mr. Meyer, Helen crawled over the front seat, then reached down to pull up Rita. She unlocked the door and kicked it open. In moments, the two girls got out of the car and ran for their lives across the cornfield in the cold sunlight. Near exhaustion, they reached a dry creek bed lined with trees and climbed down the bank. Helen risked a look back. Hundreds of feet behind them, the gray Plymouth still pressed against the quaking poplar, smoke pumping from its tailpipe. “Hide!” Helen shouted, and they got down on the bank of the creek in the cold dead leaves, only the tops of their heads showing to watch the Plymouth.
Cold sweat ran down Helen’s face from the run. Her injuries had been forgotten in the panic to escape. She looked at Rita, hunkered down beside her and panting as hard as she was, then looked back at the car with the open passenger door. Helen was entirely too aware of what could have happened to them. Her free reading time in supermarkets, when her mother wasn’t looking, was occasionally spent flipping through police and detective magazines filled with gory, lurid stories of dismembered hitchhikers and cross-country serial killers and bloodstained bathtubs and naked bodies found in fields at night with their hands and feet bound with electrical tape.
This would have been a million times worse than any of that.
“What if he comes after us?” Rita’s voice quavered.
“We’ll run,” said Helen. “We’ve got a head start, and he can’t see us.”
“We should get out of here!”
“Okay,” said Helen, hoping that Mr. Meyer wasn’t getting out of the car anytime soon. They got up and headed for the opposite bank.
“Oh!” cried Rita, stopping dead. She felt in her yellow dress pockets. “Oh, no! The key’s gone! I lost the key to the house!”
“I had the key to the house in my pocket, but it’s gone!”
Helen hesitated and looked back at the car. “When did you have it last?”
“I had it in the car!” said Rita. “I remember because . . . because I had it . . . in my hand . . . when . . . he was—” Rita burst into tears and began to wail. “I wanted to stab him with it!” she cried. “I wanted to make him stop! He—he—God!”
For a long moment, Helen watched as her sister sobbed, her head down and arms limp at her sides. Helen looked back at the car, saw no one coming, then looked back at Rita. She knew what had happened to her. It had happened to Helen, too, and she still felt dirty when she remembered it.
Then Helen did a thing she never imagined she would do. She took two steps toward her sister and put her arms around her and hugged her. It felt strange to do it, but she did it anyway. She did not recall ever hugging Rita, at least not in the last few years. As they stood together under the bare trees in the dry creek bed, Helen felt sorrow and pain for the sister she had hated for so long. It was a new feeling, and it hurt in new ways. Still, it felt like the right thing to feel.
“It’s okay,” said Helen as Rita wept. “We’re okay. He can’t get us.” She repeated this and many things like it for a long time. At some point, she added, “He did that to me, too. He’s been after me for weeks. I won’t let him do it to you again. I’ll never let him do that to you again.”
“What?” Rita’s crying faded. “He did what?”
“He did that to me, too, what he did to you. I couldn’t get away from him. He won’t get us anymore. I won’t let him.”
“He did?” Rita pulled back. “To you? Why didn’t you tell me?” Her nose was running badly. She had put eye makeup on, and it was running, too.
“You got in his car before I could say anything.” Helen pulled Rita close again, not wanting to look her in the face and talk about it. “We’re okay now. I’ll look out for you, like Mom did. I promise I’ll take care of you, but don’t leave me like that again.”
Rita cried a little while more, then Helen took out a handkerchief and wiped Rita’s face off. “There’s a war going on,” said Helen, speaking in a low voice as she cleaned up her sister. “It’s a real war. I’m not lying to you about it. People are going crazy everywhere. They went crazy in the high school, and . . . and things happened that I don’t want to talk about ever. We have to be careful from now on. Don’t go anywhere without me, ever. I’ll do everything I can to get you and Amy home, I swear it. Okay?”
“Okay,” said Rita. She wiped her eyes. “Helen?”
“I really lost the house key.” She sniffed, close to tears again. “I think it’s in the car. With him.”
Helen looked back at the idling Plymouth. She imagined that in moments, Mr. Meyer would wake up and find the house key on the passenger side floor. He might know where the Barksdales’ home was, and he might decide to visit the three little girls one night while their parents were gone. For a long minute, Helen stared back at the car.
If I run now, said a voice inside her, he’ll come back with that key.
“Wait here,” she told Rita in a low voice. “Get down on the ground and hide. Put some sticks and leaves over you and don’t move.”
“Where are you going?”
“Back to the car.”
“Don’t! Stay with me! Don’t go there!”
Helen hugged her sister once more. “Shhh. I’ll be back. I promise. Stay here and hide. Don’t move until I get back, okay?”
“I’m scared!” Rita began to cry again. “Don’t leave me! I’m sorry! It’s all my fault!”
“Shhh. Just wait for me here. I’ll be back. I promise.”
I’ve said this before, Helen thought. I told all of those other kids in the high school the same thing, but I knew I wasn’t coming back for them, except for Caroline, but she was gone before I could save her. I can’t do that to Rita. I can’t leave her behind. I will come back for her. I will.
She made Rita get down in the leaves and lie still. Helen scattered dead leaves over her sister for more camouflage, then readied herself. She stood still, head down, and closed her eyes for just a moment—Help me, God, please help me do this and get back safely. Looking down, she found a rock that fit in her right hand with a sharp point sticking out. She then carefully climbed the bank. Taking a deep breath, she left the tree line, rock in hand, and set out in the cold sunlight for the idling gray car.
Helen headed across the flattened cornfield in a crouch, keeping close to the ground to reduce her visibility. She stopped often, nerves jumping and muscles tensed to flee when she thought she saw movement in the car, but she would again creep closer once reassured nothing had changed. She approached the car at a diagonal, so Mr. Meyer could not see her through the rear view mirror. Cars rushed by on the highway, taking no notice of the scene.
Helen looked back several times but could not see Rita, well buried in the leaves. She knew Rita was watching her, and she wondered what Rita was thinking of her now. She probably thinks I’m braver than anything, Helen told herself, but I’m scared to death and I can’t believe I’m doing this. I could give up and run away, but then Mr. Meyer will get the key and come after us. He’ll probably come after us anyway after what I did to him. He doesn’t need a key to get us. He’ll wait and catch us when we leave the house. I can’t let him have the key, though. If he gets it, we’re as good as dead. I hope I hurt him good before we crashed. I hope I hurt him so much he died! Damn him! Damn him straight to hell!
The final approach to the car was made with Helen’s nerves frayed to the breaking point, hunched down so far she almost crawled to the open passenger door. Her fingers cramped from gripping the rock so tightly in her fist. Smoke from the tailpipe got in her lungs; she covered her mouth and forced herself not to cough.
Her thoughts went a mile a second: If he sees me, I’ll throw the rock at him and run to get Rita. Wait—I can’t run toward Rita! I’ll lead him right to her! I’ll have to run somewhere else, away from her, far away. If he catches me then, he won’t hurt her. She’s smart enough to stay down until it’s safe out. She’d better be smart enough—she was the one who got in his car and believed him to begin with. But she knows now what she did wrong—boy, does she know. Be careful, be careful!
Twenty feet from the car, she rose up and peered in, trembling all over. Mr. Meyer was still slumped against the steering wheel in the same position as before. Was he dead? Did the wreck kill him? Had she killed him with her fingernails? She looked down at her nails and saw bloodstains on her fingertips, but she didn’t know if it was his blood, hers, Caroline’s, or someone else’s. She looked up and slowly moved toward the open passenger door. When she reached it, she peered inside.
The brass key to the house was on the dirty floor mat by the open door, partway under the seat. Helen reached down, keeping her eyes on Mr. Meyer all the while. Blood ran from his hair down over his face in thin streams, dripping from his nose and chin into his lap. To her horror, she saw that both his eyes were bleeding. They appeared to be closed, but scratches from her fingernails clearly ran across his face and through his eyes as well. It was ghastly and made her stomach lurch.
She made herself look down just long enough to pick up the house key. She was ready to run then—she even began to lunge away from the car—but then she saw the back of Mr. Meyer’s pants. His wallet stuck partway out of his right back pocket.
A wallet. Money. Helen had two dollars in her dress pocket, which was an enormous sum to her. What did Mr. Meyer have? What could Helen do with some extra money on a bad day like this, when any emergency might appear?
She shook herself. What am I thinking? God, Helen! Run, you dope, run like hell!
Yet, she didn’t. Struggling to decide, she stood with key in hand and stared at the top of his wallet.
He owes me, she thought. He hurt my sister. He hurt me. He owes me everything he’s got. I hope he dies out here, but I might need that money to get food later, for Rita and Amy and me, if Mom and Dad don’t—
The line of thought was immediately rubbed out. Helen put the house key in a dress pocket, then got into the car, moving at a snail’s pace. The rock was raised in her right hand, pointed end out. Mr. Meyer did not stir. Helen moved so slowly it took almost a minute to get to him. With her left hand, she reached over and took hold of his wallet. It came out of his pocket easily. She jammed it into her deep sweater pocket and scrambled out of the car and turned to run.
She dropped the rock and screamed instead.
“Hey,” said the tall teenager blocking her way. Several other teenage guys stood on either side of him. He nodded at the Plymouth. “You have a wreck?”
Helen opened her mouth but was too terrified to do anything else. The tall teenager wore a brown leather bomber jacket and had his thumbs stuck in the belt of his dirty jeans. He ignored the cold. A grass stem hung from the side of his mouth. He had a blond crew cut and clear blue eyes that revealed nothing inside him. He was as big as a titan. The three guys with him were big, too, but not like him. She had focused so intently on getting the wallet, she hadn’t noticed anyone coming.
“Cat got your tongue?” the tall teenager said. The guys with him smiled or snickered. He ignored them and looked over Helen’s head into the idling Plymouth. “That your dad in there?”
“No,” she said in a high voice, shaking her head.
“Uncle? Friend of the family?” He grinned broadly. “Husband?”
The other guys laughed. She shook her head quickly and shivered.
The teenager looked Helen up and down. His gaze came to rest on her bare legs. “Why are you with him?” he asked, staring at her legs.
Helen could hardly talk, she was so scared. “H-h-he k-kidnapped me,” she whispered. It was almost true.
The teenager had been chewing on the grass stem, but when she said that, he stopped. “He kidnapped you,” he repeated. The guys with him stopped smiling and glanced at the big blond teenager for direction.
“He hurt you?” He stared down at her lower half.
Helen glanced down at the bloodstains on her dress, socks, and legs. She suddenly had an idea what he was thinking. She didn’t know much about sex and its consequences, but she had read some and heard a little from other kids. When she looked back up, she hesitated—then nodded yes.
The tall teenager’s empty eyes changed in a way that terrified Helen to her core. He looked away from her and walked around the gray Plymouth to the driver’s door. Opening it, he reached in and with one hand pulled Mr. Meyer out across the dirt clods and flattened corn stalks. The tall blond teenager was very strong. He dragged Mr. Meyer twenty feet away from the car and dropped him, then walked back to the car and turned off the ignition. “Wasting gas,” he said.
The three tall boys began walking around to the other side of the car. One pushed Helen ahead of him. She went, knowing she was about to die and glad—if that was the right word—that Rita was not with her. She prayed that Rita and Amy would escape, and her death would be quick and painless.
“So,” said the blond teenager, standing over Mr. Meyer, “this guy hurt you, right?”
Helen nodded, shaking all over.
The teenager spit out the grass stem, reached behind him under his bomber jacket, and pulled a long-barreled black handgun from the back of his pants. He pointed it at Mr. Meyer and pulled the trigger—BAM BAM BAM. Blood spattered across Mr. Meyer’s shirt from three dark-red holes. Mr. Meyer stiffened, then slumped and did not move again.
The teenager twirled the handgun rapidly on the index finger of his right hand, held the barrel to his lips, blew across it, and holstered the weapon in his right pants pocket as if it were the easiest thing in the world to do. He looked up at his friends with a bright grin, hands spread out to his sides. “Now,” he said in a cheery voice, “did I not do that just like on ‘Gunsmoke’?”
After hesitating, the three other teens burst into nervous laughter and applause. Helen stared down in mindless terror at Mr. Meyer and the glistening drops of red that covered him from head to waist.
“We got a car now,” said the blond teen, looking at the Plymouth with his hands on his hips. “Ain’t a Chevy, but it’ll do. Almost a full tank. Jeez, I was tired of walking.”
“We gotta go west,” said one of the guys with him. “Everything east is glass.”
“Yeah, I saw the clouds, too,” said the blond teen. He considered. “Can’t go south or north, either. Baltimore’s gone, Washington. Philly’s probably next. Bet New York’s gone, maybe Chicago, don’t know what else. Too many people on the roads, running around like roaches. It’s crazy, dad.”
“California,” said another teen. “We need to get the hell away from the fallout.”
“Yeah, west coast,” said another. “L.A., if it’s still there.”
“All the ICBM and SAC bases are west,” said the third one. “We gotta cut down toward Mexico, go through Phoenix, maybe.”
“I could do that,” said the tall blond. “Got a cousin in Phoenix. She’s hot. We could get her and her girlfriends and check out the coast.” He leaned down and rolled Mr. Meyer’s body over with a single heave. Blood soaked the back of Mr. Meyer’s shirt around three holes ripped through the fabric. “No wallet,” said the teen, checking his pockets. “Must be in the car. See if this son of a bitch left his wallet under the seat or the glove box or trunk or something. Check for guns and stuff, too.” Two guys walked over to the Plymouth to do just that.
“Hey,” said the guy behind Helen. “What about her?”
The blond teen looked down at Helen with blue eyes colder than any winter. “The bad man went bye-bye,” he told Helen. “Take a hike now. Scram.”
She didn’t move.
“We could take her with us,” said the guy behind her. “You know, for company.”
“Jeez, no. I don’t do kids.”
The guy behind Helen sighed and gave her a push. “Beat it,” he said, “or join the bad man in hell.”
Helen bolted. She forgot her earlier plans about not running toward her sister and made a mad beeline across the field for the trees where she’d left Rita. She tripped and fell once, dirtied her knees and hands, heard the teenagers far behind her laugh, then got up and ran harder. The twisted stalks of corn flew under her in a blur.
“Run!” Helen shouted when she reached the tree line, jumping down the bank. Rita scrambled up, crying as she probably had been since Helen left, and they ran together down the dry creek bed, jumping over rocks and fallen branches. They stumbled, fell, got up, and kept going as fast as they could.
Far down the creek bed was an old concrete bridge, where the banks were deep and trees and undergrowth shrouded the girls from the eyes of the world. They ran under the bridge and staggered to a stop, too exhausted to go any farther. Small branches, rocks, and debris littered the streambed. Helen directed Rita to a place against one wall where the ground was relatively free of anything except dirt and pebbles, and here they sank down to rest, their backs to the concrete. Helen put her arms around her sister and held her as they painfully gasped for air with overworked lungs.
“I thought they shot you!” Rita wailed. “I thought you were dead! I was sure you were dead!” Helen pulled her close and tried to shush her, but nothing worked. She was too tired to cry much, and it was easier to hold Rita and gather a little warmth from her.
The last few minutes since Rita had gotten into Mr. Meyer’s car at the elementary school were surreal, a bad dream from a fever that refused to go away. Rational thought was a long time in coming.
Those boys said Baltimore and Washington were gone, Helen thought. How did they know that? They said they saw the clouds. Did they mean mushroom clouds? I never looked out the window like the other kids did, so I never saw the flashes or clouds or anything. Good thing, though, because those kids were blinded. I was so lucky. I can’t believe this is really happening. Isn’t it possible this is just a big mistake, and nothing bad is really happening? Those teenagers looked at a regular cloud or a smoke cloud from a regular fire, and everyone’s scared, but there’s no real war? Then what were those two flashes in the sky? Sunlight reflecting from something? Why did those students go blind when they saw it? Are they still blind? Was this just like that radio panic from the 1930s, when everyone thought the Martians were invading? She suspected it wasn’t. It felt all too real. What would happen next was beyond her ability to guess.
Helen raised her head and looked around. She had no idea what time it was, but she guessed it was about noon. She raised Rita’s left wrist and peered at her watch: 11:56 a.m. It was hard to recall even what day of the week it was. Sunlight spilled over the brown autumn landscape to either side of the bridge. It was cold in the darkness, but here at least no one could see them.
Helen turned her head and peered at Rita’s hair, which was stiff with hairspray. “Are you okay from that bump you got this morning?”
“On the thermostat.”
“Oh.” Rita reached up and touched a spot on the right side of her head, covered by her hairdo. “It hurts a little, but it’s okay.”
Helen looked at the spot Rita touched, then leaned closer and kissed it. After a moment, Rita settled in closer to her sister.
A car drove over the bridge at a high rate of speed. Both girls flinched and looked up. Rita’s fingers gripped Helen tightly. “I’m scared,” she whispered.
Helen listened. The car hadn’t stopped, but other fears crowded in. Were those teenagers coming for them after all? She let go of Rita and forced herself to get up. “Stay here,” she said in a low voice. “I’ll—” She grimaced from the pain shooting through her cramped legs “—go see if anyone’s coming.”
“Don’t leave me! Helen! Don’t leave me!”
Helen limped over to the edge of the bridge, looking back the way they’d come. No one could be seen or heard. Another car went by overhead. She pulled back, holding her breath, but that car did not stop, either.
Exhaling heavily, Helen leaned back against the concrete wall and tried to make sense of it all. I woke up this morning, she thought, and from that moment on, everything went wrong. Everything got completely away from me. This has to be a dream, except I know it isn’t. I can’t get hurt in a dream.
Her hands were cold, so she tucked them into her sweater pockets—and found Mr. Meyer’s wallet. She pulled it out, then remembered the house key, too. It was still safely in her dress pocket. When did Mother give Rita a key to the house, too? Helen kept hers inside her right shoe, so it could not be lost. It wasn’t uncomfortable once she got used to walking on it.
She slowly opened the wallet. Mr. Meyer’s driver’s license, a membership card from some place called the Wild Stallions’ Corral (with the silhouette of a naked woman on it), five business cards from people and companies that were unfamiliar to Helen, several unremarkable scraps of paper, and . . .
Helen carefully counted out the bills. Three twenties, two tens, a five, and two ones—eighty-seven dollars. It was more money than she had dreamed of. She stuffed the money in her dress pocket with the house key, then stuck the wallet under a rock. With a last look around, she walked stiffly back to Rita. “We need to find out where we are,” she said. “I don’t know what road this is.”
Rita sniffed. “Please stay with me.”
“I will. Don’t worry.” Helen wanted to lie down and sleep, but she discarded any notion of resting for long. It was too cold to be comfortable, and she was too afraid of what would happen if she let her defenses down. Pure exhaustion and pain, however, dictated that she would not be traveling any great distances for a while.
Rita hesitated, then burst out with, “I really have to go to the bathroom, bad!”
Helen had no immediate answer for that. She looked around and considered. “Well . . . you’ll have to go here.”
“There’s nowhere else to go.”
“Can we get to a house?”
It wasn’t worth arguing over. “I don’t know if there’s a house around, and I don’t trust anyone enough to ask.”
“I really have to go! And I need TP!”
“We don’t have any toilet paper. Just go here. No one will see.”
Two cars went by overhead. Both girls froze until the cars were well gone.
“I’m scared someone will see me!” Rita cried, looking desperate.
“No one’s going to stop here, and we can’t stay. Just go!”
“I can’t! I can’t wait!”
The needs of nature and Helen’s promises to stand guard resolved the situation. Once she was finished, Rita wanted to leave immediately, because of the smell and because she wanted to get cleaned up somewhere. Helen looked down at herself and thought Rita had nothing to complain about, but she kept her thoughts to herself. Only the fact that she hadn’t had anything to drink since a water fountain break at school—and nothing to eat since the night before—kept Helen from a similar urgency. She figured that was good in a way, despite her thirst and gnawing hunger, as she doubted she could have held it in after all she’d been through.
Still, a drink of anything was becoming a pressing need of its own. Helen wished for a puddle she could scoop clear water from, but none was visible. She feared she would be less picky before long and drink even dirty water.
With great care, Helen stepped out from under the bridge, on one side and then the other, and peered up at the highway. She hoped to see a road sign telling them where they were, but nothing was visible. She finally climbed one of the banks to get a better view of their surroundings. Around her were rolling hills dotted with small farms. After a moment, she spotted a distant and familiar-looking white farmhouse with two red silos behind it, nestled into a forested hillside on the right about a mile away. The highway curved off to the right around that hill. She quickly climbed down.
“I know where we are!” she quickly told Rita. “You remember when we drove to that river park last year? We’re under the road going that way. I think it’s the same road that goes to that pumpkin farm where Amy’s at, State Route Nine.”
“Oh,” said Rita. “How far do we have to go?”
“Uh . . . I don’t know. We’ll just have to walk when we’re ready to go. We still need to rest.”
“Are those bad guys going to find us?”
Helen walked back and looked in the direction they’d come. Her stomach growled. She hoped Rita didn’t hear it. “I don’t see them. I think they’re gone now. I think they just wanted the car.”
“Why were they shooting?”
Helen swallowed. She didn’t answer.
“Were they shooting at you?”
“No,” said Helen, thinking of dead Mr. Meyer. “Let’s don’t talk about it.”
“I was so scared.” Rita’s voice quavered. “I was so afraid they’d shot you. I couldn’t see what happened.”
“Rita, stop.” Helen sighed, feeling depressed, and looked out from under the bridge once more. “You know,” she said, “maybe we should rest here. Amy’s bus was coming back at one, someone told me, so if we just stay here, it’ll come back and we can get on it.”
Rita wrinkled her nose. “I don’t want to stay here. It stinks.”
“We can’t go walking. I’m worn out.”
“I want a shower.”
“I get to go first.”
Helen felt an incredible urge to scream at Rita, but she fought it down and walked back to the bank on the side they’d first run under the bridge. After a bit of study, she climbed the bank, ignoring her stomach’s insistent growls. At the top, she looked down the two-lane highway in the direction of the farmhouse with the two red silos.
“Oh!” she cried out and scrambled to her feet. “Rita! Rita! Get up here! It’s the bus! Amy’s school bus is coming!”
Helen had climbed the slope on the left side of the road, beside the oncoming traffic lane. She waved her arms energetically as the distant school bus approached. “Stop!” she screamed. “Stop! For Pete’s sake, stop!”
To her amazement, the bus’s brake lights came on, and it slowed as it got nearer. The vehicle appeared to be jammed with people. Some kids had their heads and arms out the windows, waving or shouting at her.
Rita climbed the slope behind Helen as the bus pulled up and stopped. Helen immediately saw that the vehicle was filled beyond capacity with children. Kids were even standing right behind the folding doors on the bottom steps. A lady teacher she remembered from fifth grade stuck her head out a window and hailed her. “Helen Barksdale?” she shouted. “What the hell are you doing here?” Children on the bus laughed and hooted when the teacher said “hell.”
“We’re looking for my sister, Amy!” Helen shouted back. “Is she on this bus?”
“Are you hurt? You look a mess!”
“No, I’m all right! We’re trying to find my sister, Amy Barksdale!”
The teacher pulled back and shouted something into the chaos inside the school bus. After a long moment during which Helen could hear children shout negative replies, the teacher reappeared. “She’s back on the other bus. It broke down two miles back, and we put as many of the kids on this one as we could. If you want to walk there, you can, but we don’t have any room for you on this one. I’m sorry as hell, but we just don’t.” More hoots and jeers came from the children.
Helen’s heart sank, but she was glad to know Amy was nearby. “She’s back that way?” Helen asked, pointing south.
“Yes! We have to go!” called the teacher. “Do you know anything about what’s happening in town?”
“It’s really bad,” Helen said. “The traffic is terrible. There was a lot of trouble at the high school, and . . . some kids got hurt. Be careful.”
“Honey,” said the teacher, “I don’t mean to alarm you, but we heard on a radio at the farm that the Russians attacked us. Do you know if that’s true?”
“I think it is,” said Helen, “but I don’t know much. There were some big flashes that might have been from bombs.”
“That’s probably what they were,” said the teacher. “Baltimore got hit. They have a short wave at the farm, and someone on it said the city was on fire. You couldn’t see it through the smoke.”
Children on the bus began to cry and shout questions at the teacher. “Oh, damn it!” she said, suddenly regretting her comments. “Listen, we have to go! Cars are coming! Go to the other bus! Bye now!”
Helen nodded, her face grim. The bus pulled away as children waved farewell to Helen and Rita. Seeing traffic approaching, Helen grabbed Rita and guided her back down the slope to hide under the bridge again.
“We can wait here,” said Helen at the bottom of the slope, “or we can walk south to the other bus. I say walk. At least we’ll be safe with the other kids and teachers. But let’s walk way off to the side of the road, so no one can see us. I don’t want to have any more problems, okay?”
“Okay,” said Rita in a soft voice. She did not look Helen in the face. “What were they saying about Baltimore?” she mumbled.
Helen wrestled with an answer. She started to dismiss it, but she hesitated too long. “Rita,” she began, but she couldn’t think of anything else to say for seconds longer. “Rita, I don’t know what happened. Some people said a bomb hit Baltimore. I don’t know if it did, but that’s what they keep saying. I don’t know anything else. We’ll have to go home and wait for Mom and Dad to get home tonight, okay?”
Rita nodded, looking down.
“Come on. I hurt all over, and you probably do, too, but we have to get Amy. Let’s go.” Helen waved her sister to follow.
“Can we stay here?” asked Rita. Her words were barely audible. “I’m scared.”
“We have to get Amy. Mom told me to get both of you and go home. We’re going together.”
Helen thought Rita was being a baby, but in a way, what else did she expect? Rita had been catered to by their mother since birth. She was helpless when the chips were down, always waiting for someone to give her direction.
She could have been me, Helen realized. If I’d been treated like Rita, I’d be dead by now . Perhaps it was rationalizing, but it made Helen feel a little better about her so-called hard life. She gave Rita a quick hug. “We have to get going,” she said. “Stay with me. If those bad guys come back, we have to be far away from here.” She took Rita by the hand, and her sister followed in silence.
The left side of the highway had a broad, curved slope down to the bottom of a twenty-foot-deep ditch. On the top of the opposite side of the ditch was a wire fence, beyond which was a large grassy field that Helen figured was used for making hay. This would probably be the last harvest for the year before winter set in. It might be the last harvest period, Helen thought, if a real atomic war has broken out.
The girls discovered that if they walked along the bottom of the ditch, cars on the highway could not be seen and likely could not see them, either. The ditch fed into the dry creek bed, so getting into the ditch was simple.
At first the walk was made in silence. Helen could tell that they had a long way to go, and she thought of her weary leg muscles and grumbling stomach. She planned to go to bed for the whole weekend after they got home. Even if she had to get up at three a.m., she was determined to get the bathtub all for herself, with the hottest water there was.
About three minutes into their walk, Helen thought of a song and began to hum it. It took a few moments to remember the words. She knew her voice wasn’t very good, but Rita’s was worse, so it hardly mattered.
“‘Only love can break a heart,’” she sang softly, remembering the Gene Pitney tune, “‘and only love can mend it again.’”
To her surprise, Rita chimed in with the main stanzas after humming the proper notes that followed. “‘Last night I hurt you, but darling, remember this,’” they sang. “‘Only love can break a heart, / Only love can mend it again.’”
Helen knew only the first set of lyrics, but Rita knew them all. “‘Give me a chance to make up for the harm I’ve done,’” she sang, keeping her voice low, “‘Try to forgive me and let’s keep the two of us one, / Please let me hold you and love you for always and always, / Only love can break a heart, / Only love can mend it again.’” Helen joined in the final line, and they drew out the words “love,” “mend,” and “again” as Pitney did when he sang it. She almost forgot her hunger and thirst.
“My turn,” said Rita. She twisted her mouth from side to side, thinking, then began, “‘Well, I’m the type of guy who will never settle down, / Where pretty girls are, well, you know that I’m around, / I kiss them and I love them, ‘cause to me they’re all the same, / I hug them and I squeeze them, they don’t even know my name, / They call me the wanderer, yeah, the wanderer, I roam around, around, around, around—‘” She stopped and giggled. “I can’t remember the rest of it,” she confessed.
“Who did that one?”
“Um, Dion,” said Rita. “I know a bunch of them.”
“I feel like we’re wanderers.” Helen wiped her face. She was already heating up from the walk, for which she was grateful. The temperature had improved as the day progressed, but it was still about fifty degrees Fahrenheit, she figured. The wind was almost nil in the ditch, which helped. “Sing something else.”
“You hate my singing,” said Rita. “Why do you always tell me to shut up when I’m singing?”
Helen sighed. “It’s okay to sing. Just sing.”
“Boy, I don’t understand you. You screamed in my face the other night when I was trying to—”
“Rita,” Helen interrupted. “Rita, just stop it. I said a lot of things that don’t matter anymore. I’m sorry, okay? Let’s drop it.”
“But why?” Rita half shouted. “What do you mean it doesn’t matter?”
Helen said nothing. She watched the ground ahead of her as she walked, feeling the edges of depression creep in.
“Is this about Mom and Dad?” asked Rita, her voice not so loud.
Swallowing, Helen nodded. “Let’s don’t fight anymore, okay?” she said. “I don’t want to fight anymore ever.”
Rita blew out her breath and was silent, too. Both of their stomachs rumbled at the same time. At last, Helen remembered a tune that all three of the sisters had liked. When it came on the radio, they often sang it together, though in separate rooms.
“‘In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight,’” she sang. Rita picked up almost immediately. “‘In the jungle, the quiet jungle, the lion sleeps tonight—’”
“Wee-mah-wack,” Rita said rapidly, to set Helen straight on a long-running argument, and they both went on with the chorus, making up some of the odd words as they always did. Helen began to clap, and Rita followed. They went through the entire song twice.
“My shoes are ruined,” said Rita. “Look at them. I’ll have to get Mom to get me a new pair over the weekend.”
Helen said nothing. Rita’s face fell, clearly considering the possibilities if their parents did not return.
Two more songs later, they noticed the ditch was becoming shallower, and they were visible to passing traffic. At Helen’s suggestion, they climbed the opposite slope, crawled under the barbed wire of the fence, and walked through the grassy field, keeping low. This ended their singing, but it allowed them to feel safer as they went.
“I see the bus,” said Rita ten minutes later. “Look.”
Helen shaded her eyes and saw the bus, pulled off on the other side of the road onto a long gravel driveway. The bus’s hood was pulled up. Smoke or steam drifted from the engine block. “Why are those kids off the bus? Oh, look! There, by the front of the bus! That’s Amy!”
One of the tiny figures in the distance did indeed look like Amy, wearing her brown coat and round glasses. The two girls broke out of the field, went under the fence again, and began running despite their weariness. Some of the kids by the bus saw them and pointed. Amy looked in their direction. Helen was pleased to see a look of total astonishment spread over Amy’s features.
It still took two more minutes to make it to their goal, but when the girls crossed the highway and ran around the bus, it seemed to Helen that almost no time at all had passed since she’d spotted her littlest sister. She and Rita ran to Amy—who stared at them in disbelief—and caught her, knelt by her, and hugged her, sandwiching her between them. Overcome with relief, both Helen and Rita began to cry.
“Jeepers!” cried Amy. “How’d you get here?”
“I love you!” Helen gasped, and she began to cry harder, clutching both Amy and Rita to her. “Thank God we found you! I love you so much!”
“Hey, you’re crushing me!” Amy began to cry, too. “Not so hard!”
“Where did you girls come from?” asked the bus driver, a portly middle-aged woman smoking a cigarette. “You walk all the way out here from town?”
Helen shook her head and kissed Amy on the forehead, though Amy recoiled a moment later and wiped her eyes.
“Mom and Dad are dead!” Rita wailed into Amy’s coat.
“What?” gasped Amy, her brown eyes huge behind her glasses.
“Shhh! Rita!” Helen moved over and grabbed her middle sister. “We don’t know that! Don’t say it!”
“You mean Baltimore?” said Amy. Helen looked her in the face. Amy sniffed, her eyes red, but her manner was composed again. “We heard it got bombed. Did it?”
“We don’t know,” said Helen. “We got out here to find you and take you home. Mom wanted us all to be home as soon as possible.”
“No, she’s not back yet,” said Helen. “She told me this morning to get you two home if anything went wrong.”
“They’re dead!” Rita said between sobs. “You told me they were dead!”
“I didn’t say that!” Helen half-shouted. She put an arm around Rita and pulled her close. “I said I don’t know what happened to them! People keep saying stuff about Baltimore, but we don’t know anything about what happened. We have to get home and wait for them to get back.”
Helen gave Rita and Amy a last hug, then stood. After trying but failing to get Rita up, Helen turned to Amy. “Help me get her over there to that rock,” she said. With an effort, the biggest sister and the smallest one got Rita on her feet and over to a broad, flat boulder that was the right height to double as a seat. There, Rita put her face in her hands and continued crying. Unable to do more for her, Helen led her littlest sister by the hand out of earshot of Rita.
“How did you two get here?” Amy asked.
Helen took a long breath and let it out slowly. For reasons she couldn’t fathom, she trusted Amy with the truth. “A creep gave us a ride. I’ll tell you more about it later. It was hell.”
“What’s that?” Amy pointed to Helen’s stained legs and filthy clothing.
“It’s nothing. Forget about it.”
“Is that blood? Did you get hurt?”
“I’ll tell you about it later, okay?” She fought back another urge to cry, and she wiped her eyes with her palms. “I don’t want to talk about it. I’m just glad I found you.”
“I’m still mad at you,” said Amy in a low voice.
“Mad? For what?”
“You really hurt me this morning when you pinched me.”
Helen stared at her sister and remembered. She then stuck out her left arm. It was covered with scratches and bruises. “Pinch me back,” she said. “Hard as you can. I won’t do anything about it. Then we’ll be even.”
Amy stared at Helen’s arm. “What happened?”
“Amy,” said Helen wearily, “the truth is, there’s a war going on, everyone at the high school panicked, my best friend got killed, Rita and I got picked up by a sicko and almost got killed, and then—look, we’ve just been through a ton of crap to find you. God strike me down if I’m lying.” She took a breath. “Now, pinch me and get it over with.”
Staring at Helen in shock, Amy finally looked down at her sister’s arm and gave her a small pinch. Helen knelt, pulled Amy close, and hugged her again. After hesitating, Amy put her small arms around her in return.
“This is a bad joke, right?” Amy asked, her voice muffled by Helen’s sweater.
“I wish it was. I really wish it was. Things are really bad.” She pulled back and looked Amy in the eyes. “Look,” she said in a softer voice, glancing back at Rita, “we had some really bad things happen to us on the way out here. Don’t ask Rita about it. I can talk to you about it later, but I don’t want you to upset her.”
“Since when did you give a hoot what Rita thinks?” Amy asked, confused.
No quick answer suggested itself. “We’re in a bad way,” Helen finally said. She ran her fingers through Amy’s long brown hair, taking out tangles. “Don’t ever leave me and Rita from now on. We three have to stick together, no matter what happens, okay? Things could be really rough for a while, but we have to stay together and not get separated. Nothing else matters but that. You got that?”
Amy stared at Helen, then nodded slowly.
Helen nodded back and kissed Amy’s hands. “I swear,” she said, “I swear before God I will never hurt you again. I’m sorry for all the bad stuff I’ve done to you. I don’t ever want to do it again. I promise.”
Long seconds passed.
“Mom and Dad are dead, aren’t they?” Amy whispered.
Helen looked down at Amy’s small hands. “I don’t know,” she whispered back. “I heard Baltimore and Washington got hit. They started an atomic war this morning, I’m pretty sure. I don’t know anything else. I can’t even believe we’re still alive, it’s been so bad. Don’t ever leave me, okay?”
After another hug, Helen got to her feet and patted Amy on the shoulder. “Keep this to yourself, okay? Don’t spread it around, especially to the other kids.”
“Okay,” Amy whispered. White-faced, she took Helen’s hand and gripped it firmly, no emotion showing.
Leading Amy with her, Helen questioned the bus driver and one of the two teachers who had stayed with the bus. Twelve students had been left behind with them after the other bus, grossly overloaded, headed back to town, the driver intending to return as soon as possible.
“We had some kids go off with their moms who drove out here to find us,” said the bus driver. “We’re all that’s left. You know anything about what’s happening?”
Helen shook her head. “Nothing. Things were a big mess in town.”
“We saw a flash in the sky,” the driver went on. “You see anything like that?”
“Two flashes,” said Helen. “I don’t know where they came from.”
“Well, I can guess,” said the driver. She took out another cigarette and lit up.
“We’re letting the kids go to the bathroom in a culvert over there,” said the teacher who stood by the driver, and she pointed to a place behind the bus. Helen saw a large drainage pipe almost five feet in diameter in a low part of the nearby ditch, where the other teacher stood with three students in a line. “Wish someone had a radio so we could get some news.”
Helen looked back at Rita. She appeared to be over her crying jag and was fixing herself up once more.
“I have to go,” said Amy. “Go with me?”
“To the potty?”
Amy frowned. “To the toilet,” she corrected. “I’m not a baby.”
“Right,” said Helen, sighing. “Sorry. Just a second. Hey, Rita?” Rita looked up from her seat on the rock, brushing debris from her dirty yellow dress. “Rita, do you . . . have to go again?”
“Go where?” Rita called back.
“Go,” said Helen, pointing down to the culvert with her free hand.
Rita looked where Helen pointed, not getting it for several seconds. Her face then scrunched up in revulsion. “I already—” She glanced at Amy “—no, I’m fine.” Rita got up, smoothed down her dress, and walked over. “Does Amy have to go?”
“Yes,” said Amy. “I’ll pretend I’m a wild bear in the woods.”
“Don’t say it,” warned Helen.
“Say what?” asked Amy. “I didn’t say shit.”
Helen gasped, then began to snicker. Rita joined in, covering her mouth. After a moment, neither of the older two could stand up, and they sat down on the ground and howled with laughter.
“That was funny?” Amy said, cracking a smile. “I should say shit more often.”
“Stop! Stop!” gasped Helen. “No! No more swearing! Just stop!”
“Are you going to tell on me?” Amy’s smile faltered.
“No, no,” said Helen, getting control of herself, “but don’t say it again! Okay?”
“Okay.” Amy smirked, but it was a weak one. No one mentioned that there might no one at home to tattle to.
Once she got to her feet, Rita volunteered to take Amy down to the culvert. Amy did not seem happy with the arrangement, giving Helen a significant look, but she went anyway. Helen stayed behind, watching them go, then turned and walked back to the bus driver and teacher standing in front of the bus. She had something she had to sort out, but she had to do it without her sisters in hearing range.
“Excuse me, but I keep hearing that Baltimore was hit,” she said as she walked up to the adults. “Our parents were there. Are there, I mean.” She flushed, shocked that she’d mentioned them in the past tense.
The teacher, a young woman with short dark hair, looked highly uncomfortable. “We were listening to a ham operator outside Baltimore when we were at the farm,” she said. “It didn’t sound good. I’m . . . I’m very sorry.” She rubbed her mouth, her eyes watering up. “I should shut up and go see if they need help with the bathroom line.”
After the teacher hurried off, Helen turned to the bus driver. “Tell me the truth,” she asked. She hoped she didn’t sound like she was begging.
The bus driver, sad and tired, looked her over. “You the oldest?”
The driver knocked ash from her cigarette. “All right, then. You asked. Baltimore got hit this mornin’ about ten-thirty. The guy on the radio said there were a lot of fires. He was out in the Parkville area. Fire departments from all over were tryin’ to get in, but the roads were jammed to hell. He said a few radio stations are doin’ that ‘mergency whatchacallit, conel-somethin’, CONELRAD, but they’re not sayin’ anythin’ useful. Some radio stations away from town are still broadcastin’, tellin’ people whatever they know, but nothin’s coming from downtown.” She blew out a dragon’s breath of smoke. “Washington might’ve gotten hit, too, few minutes after that, but some radio stations are still on the air around there and say things are mostly all right. Bomb went off east of there, sort of over the ocean.” She took another long drag on her smoke. “I’m sorry,” she said, blowing smoke as she talked. “Wish I had better news.”
“That’s okay,” said Helen. “That’s what I thought it was. Thank you.” A void grew inside her. She had put off thinking about this all morning. There simply hadn’t been time. Now she had no idea how to deal with the knowledge. Because the attack came with so little warning, one or both of her parents were almost certainly dead. A void ate everything inside her. “We’ll just go home and see,” she finished lamely.
“We’ll get you girls home,” said the bus driver. “Don’t worry about it. Did you walk all the way out here?”
“Someone drove us,” said Helen in a dull voice. That was all she was determined to say about it.
Singing drifted down the road from the culvert. Waiting in line to use the culvert, Rita and Amy were going through “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” The other kids and teachers joined in. All the remaining children in the area walked over to join them.
“Good kids,” said the bus driver, looking back at Helen. She squinted against the sun at Helen’s back. “Your sisters are lucky to have you.”
Helen said nothing. Too much weighed on her mind. After finishing the song, Rita began a new one, Little Eva’s “Loco-motion,” and she got the other kids to clap along while she danced and sang. Amy went into the dark culvert with one of the lady teachers. Helen listened in uncritical silence, though Rita’s voice was, of course, off-key. It was a surprise to see Rita in a better mood, though Helen knew her sister would be up and down the emotional scale for a long time to come—as would they all.
The bus driver walked toward the culvert to better see the goings-on. Helen turned and looked south toward where she imagined Washington, D.C. lay hidden behind the rolling hills, then looked southwest toward Baltimore. She half expected to see a mushroom cloud there, but the attack had been hours ago now. She couldn’t tell if the clouds in that direction were mushroom shaped or not.
She closed her eyes and imagined what it must have been like—her mother in a department store, looking for dresses for Rita, and her father sitting at his brown desk by the windows facing Baltimore’s harbor, making notes for a meeting, then—a Light, the brightest Light they had ever seen, coming in the windows and doors and down hallways and through cracks for only a flash in time, and then a moment of rushing and flying and falling walls and burning, and then—
Peace? Did they find peace on the other side, God and angels, or a distant green land, with millions of other human beings caught by the same Light? Or were they still alive but buried under tons of burning rubble, choking on smoke, unable to see or move, and even now calling for help that could never reach them in time? Or were they alive after all and coming to get their children? Had only one parent made it through this awful day, or no parent at all? The questions were too much to struggle with.
How would it be if a bomb went off now, right before me? Helen thought. She imagined the blinding Light, the building Heat, the trees around her in flame and the children screaming as they burned like torches, then the great breath of the blast wave roaring past, throwing flames and cars and school buses and bodies before it, and the smoldering desert that the blast would leave behind, the silence of an ash-filled wind.
Would anyone remember me? Would anyone know my name out of the millions of dead? Would anything I did or touched, anything good I did in my entire life, survive into the future if I did not? She did not know, and it disturbed her. I’ll survive, though. It would have been better if I had died and Mom and Dad were here now, but I’m here, and I have to do everything I can to keep us together until—until Mom and Dad get home. If Mom wants to favor Rita, that’s okay. I can live with it now. And Dad can hide in the basement. I won’t argue with either of them. I just want to see them again and have my family back. That’s all I want.
Tears ran down her cheeks. The sun warmed her face even as the wind cooled it.
Give me strength, God, whatever happens. Give me the strength to take care of my sisters, if they are all the family I have left. Let me be there for them, whatever happens, and if it can be done, bring our parents home. If that cannot be, give them peace wherever they are, forever. And grant peace to Caroline and all the others, but especially to Caroline, my angel. Amen.
Helen opened her eyes and looked south. This morning, her only concern in life was a hot shower, a talk on civil rights, and watching “Route 66” on the television. Now the old world was ending, and a new world was being born. Helen knew of nothing more frightening and terrible. And the burden of facing that world would fall on her.
She turned away, empty as death, and went to find her sisters.
A truck stopped an hour later and took the rest of the children and adults back to Plainfield Elementary. A neighbor recognized the Barksdale girls and drove them home with her own daughter. Helen used Rita’s key to get into the empty house, and they locked the door behind them. The power was still on. The TV showed only static, except for a station showing a Civil Defense symbol with no sound. Rita and Amy went to their rooms, but Helen stopped in the kitchen. After looking in the refrigerator and judging how much food they had left—and remembering the money she had taken from Mr. Meyer—she sat down at the table, in the chair where her mother always sat. She thought for a long time, worrying and planning, then got up and walked down the hall to her sisters’ bedrooms.
She knocked on Rita’s door first. After a long pause, Rita opened it. Her face was red and puffy, and she clutched a large brown bear she called Buddy.
“Go take a shower and change your clothes,” said Helen softly. “Save some hot water for Amy, though. I’m going to make us something to eat.”
“Mom will make dinner when she gets home with Dad,” Rita said, her voice high.
“If they’re late, I’ll have something ready for them when they get here,” Helen said. “We need lunch, though. Go on.” Rita nodded and went to get a change of clothes.
Amy did not respond to a knock on her door. Helen tried the knob and found it was unlocked. She went in and saw an Amy-sized lump under the blankets on the bed. Helen sat beside it. The lump moved away from her.
“Amy,” Helen whispered. She pulled the blankets away. Amy had buried her face in her pillow and would not move. After a moment, Helen kicked off her shoes and lay down on her side in the bed close beside her little sister.
“Amy?” said Helen.
Amy did not reply.
Helen swallowed. “Amy, I need your help.”
Amy shifted, then looked up, sniffling. Her face was as red and swollen as Rita’s.
“Mom and Dad might get back tonight,” Helen said in a soft voice, “but whatever happens, we need to keep the house going. I’m worried about Rita, but I think you and I can keep her on her feet if . . . if things don’t work out too well.”
“How could things get any worse?” Amy said, wiping her nose on her sleeve.
Helen put her arms around her little sister, who scooted closer to her. “I love you,” said Helen.
“I love you, too,” Amy whispered.
The silence lasted a long time. They heard Rita turn on the shower, listened to the hot water pipes pop and groan.
“What happens if Mom and Dad don’t come back?”
A pause. “I’ll be here. I’ll always be here to take care of you.”
“Thank you for coming to find me,” said Amy. “I was scared.”
“We’re okay now.”
“I’m sorry I called you names this morning.”
Helen kissed Amy on the forehead. “Forget it. I feel bad about pinching you. You didn’t deserve it.”
“Yes, I did.”
“Shhh. No. I was wrong.” Another pause. “Are you hungry?”
Amy nodded slightly. Helen kissed her again and got up. “I’m going to make lunch. Take a shower when Rita’s done and get changed. A real shower, this time, and wash good.”
“Okay.” Pause. “Are we going back to school on Monday?”
Helen stopped at the door and looked back. “I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it.” She thought about it. “I don’t think so.”
“That’s the first time I’ve ever heard you say that.”
“‘I don’t know.’ You always know everything.”
Helen chewed the inside of her lip. She has a point. I was like that. “I’ve been through too much today,” she finally said. “I can’t think of anything else to say.”
In the hall, the bathroom door opened. Helen realized the shower was off. Rita walked into the hall, her hair plastered down and body wrapped in a big towel. “Next,” she said, then went to her room. It was the shortest shower she had ever taken.
The three sisters ate leftovers from the refrigerator, warmed in the oven, then turned on the TV. The one television station they could get, a static-filled image from Philadelphia, had a handful of live reporters and announcers retelling what they heard from radios and wire services. The United States had been attacked that morning by missiles and aircraft from Cuba and possibly from the Soviet Union or its submarines. The U.S. had retaliated and was continuing to strike back. Atomic war raged across Europe and Asia. Baltimore, Miami, San Diego, and several Air Force bases in Florida had been hit. Washington, D.C. took a near miss but was still operating; many Congressmen had fled to a secret location, but some had vowed to stay on. People were fleeing every major city, but looting and rioting were minimal except at some grocery stores and gas stations. Further atomic attacks were expected at any time, and all families with fallout shelters were urged to use them immediately.
The girls checked the driveway every few minutes. No mother or father came home to them. Helen dialed all their relatives on the phone, but all numbers were busy. The telephone system was overloaded, and nothing more could be done.
Helen made dinner—more leftovers—and they ate in silence and listened to the TV in the living room. When it got dark, Helen pulled down all the shades so no one would know no adults were present. No neighbors came by. It grew cold again.
At nine-fifteen that evening, the newsmen on TV reported that President Kennedy was dead. Helen gasped in disbelief. His Air Force jet had crashed, destroyed in flight by the bomb that went off near the capitol. President Johnson was directing the war effort from an unknown location. Martial law had been declared throughout the U.S. and in Canada, and all National Guard and reserve troops were being called up. All civilian air travel was banned, and all harbors and ports were closed except to military ships.
Helen got up and turned down the volume, then remained standing to watch the TV with her arms crossed in front of her. She still couldn’t believe the President was dead. Rita sat on one end of the couch, covered with a blanket, and cried into the pillows. Amy silently played with her Bugs Bunny stuffed doll at the other end, glancing up at the TV now and then. She finally put down the doll and sat beside Rita, holding her hand. When Helen left the room, Amy got up and went with her, even sitting outside the bathroom when her sister went in there.
At midnight, every light in the house was on. Staring at the TV, Helen sat on the sofa between Rita and Amy, who were asleep and covered with blankets from their bed.
How many millions of people are dead? she wondered. Or are there billions dead now? Are we about to pass away as a species? Did we really just kill ourselves off today, in just a few hours of time? Will radiation clouds and fallout get us all? Are we gone?
She carefully got up without waking her sisters and tried the phone. It made a peculiar noise like static and did not work. She hung up and tried the radio in the kitchen. A few stations were on, giving ghastly reports from survivors who had escaped from the inferno that was Baltimore, Civil Defense instructions for avoiding fallout, and urgings for people to return to their homes, take shelter, and stay calm.
Numb, she turned the radio off. The only news that mattered was the return of her parents. Every minute that passed eroded her faint hopes that her mother or father had survived. New terrors assailed her as she sat down alone at the kitchen table. If their parents were dead, would the sisters be taken to an orphanage and lose their home and be split up, never to see each other again? Would they be able to find relatives to live with? Would criminals try to break into the house and hurt them? Helen took out all the steak knives and put them around the house, hidden from view, just in case.
And the worst moments of the day came back to haunt her—Caroline’s face as she died, Mr. Meyer’s attempted kidnapping of Rita, the psychopathic teenager with the gun. Could I have saved Caroline? Could I have stopped Rita from getting into Mr. Meyer’s car? Would the teenagers have taken me away to hurt me, as they said they might? How could I have been so cruel to Rita and Amy, so angry with my parents, so uncaring of those I love? Did I bring this war on by wishing for it this morning? How could I have ever wished for a thing like this, knowing how terrible it is? How will we survive now that everything is gone?
She went to the bathroom and took a shower so hot it burned her skin, scrubbing herself until it hurt to get rid of all the blood, dirt, and filth of the day. She cried, remembering Caroline, then finished up and got out and dressed in her room without noticing what sort of dress she’d put on. Making herself a cup of hot cocoa, she went back into the living room and watched the TV for more news. Strangely, no more news was being offered now—“for security reasons.” Apparently, someone was afraid the Russians were monitoring television broadcasts to pick out more targets to strike.
Restless, she was walking into the kitchen again when she spotted a Bible in the living room bookshelf. She stopped and gently pulled it out. Helen remembered going to Bible study classes as a little girl, but they had always bored her to tears. She randomly opened the black book and read the first thing she saw. It was Ecclesiastes 1:4.
One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth for ever.
If Mom and Dad are dead, we will survive, she thought. We will make it through somehow. And the note about the earth lasting on, no matter what, comforted her. Not everything was lost. She put the Bible back on the shelf and sat on the couch between her sisters, her hands cupped around their heads. The TV gave instructions on how to purify water and make sure food was safe to eat, how to use a Geiger counter, how to wash fallout off a car, house, or vegetables from a garden.
When the sun came up at eight the next morning, Helen was still awake, but her parents were not home. She got up from the couch to look out at the red sky, marveling that the day could go on as it always had when so dreadful a time was upon the world.
At long last, she straightened her shoulders. She was the oldest, and she would do what had to be done, no matter what. Her mother, for all her faults, had known Helen could be relied upon to take care of things and meet any emergency. She took a breath and held it, her eyes closed. I am prepared, she thought. I will keep us safe and use good judgment. She remembered something her father once said, that in Louisiana was an Air Force base named Barksdale. Thinking about it made her feel stronger. She would protect her sisters, guide them through this new and terrible world, and keep them safe.
Wiping her eyes, Helen went to the kitchen and looked in the refrigerator for something other than leftovers for breakfast when her sisters awoke. One generation had passed away, and a new generation had taken its place. The earth would abide.
Author’s Notes II: Though there are many alternate-history stories of “Daria” in which the changes in events are confined to happenings within the series only, there are few such stories in which the changes are within the greater framework of world history. This lack intrigued me, and this story was written with that in mind. It is possible that a future story will follow from this tale, showing how the Barksdale sisters grew to adulthood in their war-torn world—and if there is someone named Daria in this post-atomic future.
This story was originally posted as a serial tale (“Gone”) on the Sh33p’s Fluff MB in late November 2003. By being posted chapter by chapter, the tale was intended to initially mislead the reader as to whether it was “Daria” mixed with real history, a bad dream, or an alternate universe. The original ending (in which Helen was killed when caught in the open by an atomic blast) was changed after examining reader feedback; several other endings were also discarded until the present one was used.
Part of the basis for this story came from my childhood memories. I clearly recall the curious autumn in second grade, in October 1962, when the local high school was filled with Civil Defense supplies, and my elementary school had special survival drills that were not connected with tornado weather. I had no idea why it was happening, but I knew it was different and the adults were nervous. It soon passed, but I was curious.
“Gone” was also influenced by atomic-war stories I read and saw throughout my childhood, particularly the “postwar” novels Alas Babylon, Tomorrow!, Triumph, Dark December, Warday, On the Beach, Malevil, and A Canticle for Leibowitz, and the movies Testament, The Day After, Invasion USA, Panic in the Year Zero, and Atomic Cafe. All contributed in some way, great or small, to the particular vision herein.
Historical nonfiction books contributed a great deal to the story, particularly John Hershey’s Hiroshima, Richard Rhodes’s Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb (chapter 27, including the source of the real-life quote from General Power on page 572), Kenzaburo Oe’s The Crazy Iris and Other Stories of the Atomic Aftermath, and Bruce D. Clayton’s Life After Doomsday: A Survivalist Guide to Nuclear War and Other Major Disasters (chapters 2 and 3, and appendix A).
A recent anthology of alternate-history speculations had a major influence on this story and should be acknowledged: What Ifs? of American History: Eminent Historians Imagine What Might Have Been, by Antony Beevor (ed.), Calebert Carr, Robert Cowley (ed.), Robert Dallek, John Lukacs, and Jay Winik. The chapter entitled, “The Cuban Missile Crisis: Second Holocaust” (pages 251-272) was influential, though I altered the events leading to war and the list of American cities targeted. The chapter appears to follow notes from Richard Rhodes’s Dark Sun (chapter 27) and the basic concept for the post-atomic, global-cooling effect now called “nuclear autumn,” a variant of the “nuclear winter” posited by the 1984 book, The Cold and the Dark: The World after Nuclear War (by Paul R. Ehrich, Carl Sagan, Donald Kennedy, and Walter Orr Roberts).
Finally, Internet sources too numerous to name were consulted for information on the aftereffects of thermonuclear weapon explosions, sibling birth order’s effects on personality, popular songs and cars in 1961 and 1962, clothing styles of that period, etc. It’s amazing what you can find online these days.
In addition, of course, is the Daria element. I went through everything I could find on the three Barksdale sisters in various episodes of the series and began creating a table of what I imagined they would have been like in October 1962. It would take too long to show how I came up with the ages and birth order of the sisters, but the result was satisfying to the story and to me. Below is an appendix giving my specific notes (not all of which were used) on the personalities, likes, and goals of the three girls in their childhood, and on that dreadful time in October around which the story revolves. My thanks to everyone who offered suggestions and information sources for the tale.
APPENDIX: STORY NOTES
THE BARKSDALE SISTERS (OCTOBER 1962)
Name HELEN RITA AMY
Age (Birthday) 12 (July 1950) 11 (April 1951) 8 (September 1954)
Grade 10/1962 7 junior high 6 elementary 3 elementary
Hair short medium brunette short blonde, styled dark brunette
Hair Style shoulders, curled under Marilyn Monroe cut long, wavy, free
Eyes hazel green brown
Height 59 inches 57 inches 49 inches
Weight 95 lbs. 75 lbs. 52 lbs.
Personality overachiever popular, pretty isolated reader
sucks up to authority peer group only sarcastic/cynical loner
power/control freak seductive/charm smart aleck/rebel
commands groups gets someone to help her does it by herself
threats, bribery, blackmail gets mother to defend her insults, sarcasm
humiliation, pressure romantic fantasies heroic fantasies
romantic/sex fantasies underachiever, cheery practical, realistic, solemn
(similar to Jodie Landon) (similar to Quinn) (similar to Daria)
Songs Pat Boone (claimed) Elvis Chipmunks
Elvis (in secret) Roy Orbison Monster Mash
Ray Charles Dion Flintstones song
Peter Paul Mary Rick Nelson Purple People Eater
Kingston Trio Twist/Locomotion Walt Disney songs
“Lion Sleeps Tonight” “Lion Sleeps Tonight” “Lion Sleeps Tonight”
FOLK/POP DANCE/POP/TOP 40 CHILDREN/ANNOYING
TV shows 77 Sunset Strip Lassie Flintstones
Route 66 Sing Along With Mitch Walt Disney
Lassie Walt Disney Jetsons
Walt Disney beauty pageants Mr. Ed
The Defenders situation comedies Lassie
news shows soap operas Bugs Bunny
soap operas commercials with songs Rocky & Bullwinkle
Idols JFK Jackie K. Rocky & Bullwinkle
John Glenn M. Monroe (d.8/25) Spider-Man
Rachel Carson James Bond (Dr. No) Annie Oakley
James Meredith Elizabeth Taylor Bugs Bunny (smart aleck)
James Bond (Dr. No) Annette Funicello anti-authority figures
Issues civil rights Miss America bedtime & TV issues
Berlin Wall Jackie K. fashions Halloween costumes
Peace Corps M. Monroe’s death up late reading in bed
China v. India going steady (plans) won’t interact with other kids
Pollution hairspray problems rude in class under pressure
Nov elections wants a bra, stuffs dress feels left out of everything
Cuba/Castro entitled, deserves best doesn’t trust life, hostile
Books To Kill a Mockingbird Sex & Single Girl Mad Magazine (banned)
Life Magazine Teen Scene Spider-man comics
Silent Spring Teen Life Wonder Woman comics
Sex & Single Girl (doesn’t read much) (reads everything possible)
Other Vaughn Meader JFK lp Dr. No (hasn’t seen) Dr. No (hasn’t seen)
Media Dr. No (hasn’t seen) 101 Dalmatians 101 Dalmatians
West Side Story The Parent Trap The Absent-Minded Professor
Gone with the Wind The Music Man Alice in Wonderland
Lunchbox Paper bag Junior Miss Rocky & Bullwinkle
Clothing Black hair beret Canary yellow Large-frame brown glasses
(typical) Magenta sweater checked dress Dark brown sweater
10/26/62 White blouse (with white) White blouse
Powder blue skirt White sweater Forest green skirt
White shoes/socks Yellow shoes Black shoes, white socks
Color Summer/Autumn Spring Autumn
Season (like Quinn) (like Daria)
Favorite idiot square Communist
Insults moron four-eyes (Amy) whale (or big) butt
retard bozo pervert
sicko geek snot face
four-eyes (Amy) weirdo rat fink
Sister Issues R: Mom’s favorite H: picks flaws, bossy H: domineering, bossy
gets her way won’t help w/ homework rigid, orders me around
A: smart mouth A: troublemaker R: ignores me
no respect, weird insulting shallow, no mind of own
Favorite Toys Bear (hidden in closet) Barbie & Ken Bugs Bunny doll
(won’t play with toys) Fashion toys Annie Oakley outfit and guns
Stuffed animals (display) Secret agent/superhero toys
6:00 wake up, shower, dress (Rita/Helen/Amy)
6:50 father leaves for work after coffee
7:00 girl’s fast breakfast
7:20 bus comes
7:40 arrive at school
8:00 homeroom, sunrise
8:30 1st period
9:30 2nd period
10:30 3rd period
11:30 lunch—4th period (alternates)
1:00 5th period
2:00 6th period
3:00 school out
3:30 arrive home on bus
6:15 father home from work
9:00 Amy bedtime (8:00 Sun-Thu)
10:00 Helen/Rita bedtime (9:00 Sun-Thu)
11:00 Parents to bed
Halloween: next week, Wednesday, October 31st.
Daylight Savings Time changes on Sunday, October 28: set clocks back 1 hour
Moon: sliver crescent (not visible in story)
Plainfield: Maryland/Virginia/Pennsylvania area (state not defined, NW of and close to Baltimore)
Interstate system not completed, only begun—two-lane roads everywhere
Plainfield High School (junior (7-8) and senior high (9-12) separate)
Plainfield Elementary School (adjacent (1-6))
“College Bored” (Helen’s age clue)
“The Daria Hunter” (Helen’s age clue)
“I Don’t” (Helen, Rita, Amy: relationship, childhood)
“That Was Then, This Is Dumb” (Helen’s age clue)
“Through a Lens Darkly” (Helen, Amy: relationship)
“Aunt Nauseum” (Helen, Rita, Amy: relationship, childhood)
The Daria Diaries (Helen’s astrological sign)
Original: collected 1/26/04, modified 12/5/04