Then, Nothing

The snow outside is piled two-feet high. J. creaks back, further and further, balancing the chair’s backrest on the table behind, the popcorn ceiling above fading in and out of focus. The pale light of a late winter sun barely penetrates the windows, two entire walls of windows, holding back the bitter cold. The pony-tailed librarian keeps the temperature diabolically warm, especially in winter.

J. had tuned out the ambient post-bell chatter of the other kids, all waiting to be picked up by their parents. Mom was late, again. However, the closing in of familiar footsteps shook J. from this trance.

“I found it!”

P., J.’s friend, had returned with their prize. This little elementary school was full of secrets and hidden areas — nobody goes inside the janitor’s closet, nobody has seen the inside of the room at the end of the hall. But the library was different — an open secret, guarded only by the ponytailed man with the pencil between his teeth. Somewhere, these aisles guarded a truth, one temporarily forbidden yet all too tempting for these pre-adolescent minds.

A few years ago, J.’s older brother came home from school, his cheeks drooping a little more than usual, his skin a little paler than the sunbeams leaning through the kitchen window and onto a vinyl floor.

“What’s up with you?”, their mother asked, slapping together two sides of a sandwich.

The older brother slumped his bag onto the formica. “I saw something really messed up in the library today. It was this book — a book about the end of World War II.”

“What about the end?”

“These people looked so scared…they didn’t even look alive, but they were. It says we dropped this bomb on a whole city and — “

The brother fell silent. J. peered in from the living room to catch a grimace creep across their mother’s face. J. had only been half-paying attention, fiddling around with some addition homework across the room, trying not to seem too interested. But the energy of the scene made the skin on J.’s arm freeze and pucker into goosebumps.

Later that weekend, J. overheard their mother on the phone, a voice stern and baritone. On the TV, an old man in a suit, standing in a fancy building, gravely furrowed his brow as he pointed into a bouquet of microphones.

A few days later, J. noticed the librarian take a glossy book out of the display and move it to a high shelf across the room.

J. was seated next to P., hidden from the late glow of the day behind a friend’s shadow. There it was — hard, black and white, thick cardboard cover inside a sleeve. On that sleeve, a trunk of smoke towered above the clouds, scattering towards the top. It looked kind of like a mushroom.

They flipped through the pages, neglecting the words, stopping to gaze at every picture. To J., the distant, ghostly aura of the black-and-white photos of Hiroshima’s aftermath inspired a range of emotions. But none of them were the fear their brother betrayed. Beneath the growths and gashes, the survivors did not look like him. The desolate landscapes felt distant and foreign; he could not comprehend that frozen world or rubble, nor what it took to create it. But the kids did appear to be the same age as J.

In the back of the book, quotes from survivors captured the awesome, terrifying, instantaneous power of an atomic bomb.

A thundering clap.
A flash of light.
A burst of hot air.
And then nothing.

The next day at recess, far-off whistles signaled that their ballgame was over. More distant sirens wailed after the whistling ceased. J. sank into the sea of not-quite-teenagers flowing back into their homerooms. Along the wall by the principal’s office hung photos of previous fifth grade classes, now moved on to middle school and life beyond. Every face was different, every face was bright with possibility.

J. always glanced at the picture of his older brother on his way back to class. Wondering what he was up to in the building across the street. Wondering what the older kids did with their friends at recess. Wondering if they really shot staples at each other from their mechanical pencils in the back of class, or if that was an older brother spinning tales.

But this time, J. was ushered away from the class pictures. Children were being rushed to the gym. There was urgency in the adults’ voices. J. saw that the door to the room all the way down at the end of the hall was wide open, and the room was packed with adults, so J. snuck past the barricade of teachers to find the source of all the commotion. A TV was on, the dour eyes and puckered mouth of a familiar old man in a suit staring right at J. Suddenly, the old man’s face gave way to static.

J. turned back for gym. The hallway was full now, and the sirens had grown a bit louder. Then,

A thundering clap.

A flash of light.

And a burst of hot air.

Across the plain, in a rural town, teenagers load their duffels into the back of a white van, en route to the mountains for a class trip. A chaperone flashes a glance at her phone.

On an island city in a distant land, a couple of teenagers will themselves up and over a concrete fence, eager to find a way to the top of the skeleton of an abandoned factory.

Across town at another school, three sisters, their lunchtime freedom not yet expired, kick around at the dirt by a slide.

Across the street, a swan, with cygnets in tow, launches its beak through the stillness of a cool pond.

A thundering clap.

A flash of light.

A burst of hot air.

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