The week before the atom bomb dropped by accident on Mars Bluff, we’d made Plaster of Paris atoms in science class; with neutrons, protons, and electrons, that circled around on different color mobile strings tied to the overhead fluorescent lights. I looked up at the big black nucleus of each atom and thought they looked like eyes. I understood the power of atoms and thought about them every time I heard the sonic boom when jets flew by overhead on their way to Shaw Air Force Base. I knew the way to make the sky boom was to burst the invisible atoms in the air. In my mind the whole explosion looked like the little pieces of a sneeze from the Primer of Sanitation film strip we saw in health class.
Aunt Belva, Momma’s younger sister, had parked her burgundy Ford Galaxy under a Weeping Willow and was waiting for the bell to ring. I had to go home from school that day with my twin cousins, Mary Helen and Frances Hatchell and their little brother Edwin. It was Spring, and Momma and Daddy had gone to a Life and Casualty Insurance Company luncheon in Charlotte. Daddy was the district manager for the Pee Dee Region of South Carolina, and every six months, he and Momma drove up there for a free meal.
My cousins and Aunt Belva had to wait on me while I took my safety patrol helmet back to the patrol room. I was the only fifth grade girl in all of Florence County in 1958 to be picked for safety patrol. I loved my white safety patrol sash and wore it all day, until I got ready to put on my pajamas for bed.
I got in the back seat of the car with the twins. After I wiped fingerprints off my blue cat-eye glasses, I started to read my library book from the True Life Biography series. I’d picked Marie Curie because she was the only woman I remembered from science class.
Aunt Belva pointed a red fingernail at me when she saw my book and said, “Lila, girls who work in science laboratories don’t have babies.” I didn’t care; I liked science more than any other subject at school.
We drove through downtown Florence. Aunt Belva downshifted to ten mph as we passed the dental clinics. Senior citizens from New York to Miami were lined up on the sidewalk and waited to get the cheapest dentures in the United States. As soon as we passed the Susie Spotless PLEASE! PLEASE! DON’T BE A LITTERBUG sign we were in the country.
The highway unwound like a straight yo-yo string through the yellow pollen-dusted pines. When the road turned into the county road and got bumpy, I noticed Little Edwin’s blond, porcupine, shaved head poking up and down over the back of the front seat. The twins were 11, a year and two months older than me. They had me trapped in the middle of the back seat and giggled and talked loud about all the boys they were in love with at school. Neither one of the twins was very bright. Anytime I tried to talk to them about something important like current events, they’d tell me I was too smart, and change the subject. I thought they were morons. Even though they were my first cousins, I knew I couldn’t possibly have inherited any of their stupidity. Mary Helen was tall and skinny with a pretty pointed face and long red hair. Frances, who called herself “Francoise” looked identical to Mary Helen but with shorter hair she pin-curled every night. When the twins laughed, they got red splotches on their faces like a rash. All of their sentences began, “I knew this boy once and he . . . . . . . . . . .”
For no good reason, Frances tried to yank off my patrol badge and at the same time slapped the side of my face and screamed out that I had hit her. Aunt Belva turned around at the Claussen Crossroads four-way stop and scolded me. She made Mary Helen move over to the middle and sit between us. I did not trust the twins. The twins seemed to get away with everything all the time.
We coasted down the long dirt driveway in Mars Bluff to their house, an old tin-roofed tobacco farmhouse that survived the Civil War. A golden sun blinded us in the back seat as it beat down out of a blue sky. I turned away and rolled the window down and got a whiff of onion grass and cow manure. Uncle Eddie was in the old carriage house that he converted into a garage workshop. He was sawing off the legs of a broken bench. Uncle Eddie was a stocky man with greasy wavy hair that he combed straight back with no part. He used to be the star pitcher for the Florence Stealers Triple-A baseball team, but lost the tip of his finger one day working on his truck’s fan belt. Right after that he quit baseball and got fat. When he didn’t notice I stared at his nub which reminded me of a half-eaten fish stick. Aunt Belva married Uncle Eddie when he was still playing baseball. Uncle Eddie was dumb, a real hick, and Aunt Belva was pretty, like the twins, with long red hair she wore in a plaited bun. She’d been the smartest girl in her class at Florence High, but you would never know it since she had to get married to Uncle Eddie before her June graduation. Aunt Belva became a Free Will Baptist right after the twins were born because the Hatchell family were big in the Free Will Baptist Church. Before she married Uncle Eddie, she was a Presbyterian like our family. Sometimes I went to Sunday School with Frances and Mary Helen to win the Bible verse sword drills. Once I stayed and went to church with them and right in the middle of church everybody took off their shoes and washed their feet in porcelain pots. Aunt Belva wouldn’t even let the twins or Little Edwin go to the picture show. The Free Will Baptists thought it was a sin.
I got out of the car after Edwin tried to beat the twins in a race to the back door. Sometimes when I watched them all together, I wished Momma and Daddy would have another baby so I would have somebody to play with. But Momma was 42 when she had me and got her tubes tied. When the twins and Edwin fought, it was easy for me to remember the good things about being an only child like all the food I wanted, my own Philco television set, and not having to share the hi-fi console.
The Hackberry tree swing was empty; I decided to go sit in it and read my library book. Before I left the car, I untied my Girl Scout sweater from around my waist and put it on and pulled the sleeves over my elbows. In the swing, I kept my left toe in the sand to keep from rocking. When the wind blew my brown hair over my eyes, I was able to look directly at the sun, but when I pulled it all back under the bobby pins on the side of my head, I had to squint.
The screen door slapped against the house and startled me. I closed my book and watched Frances and Mary Helen as they carried their beautiful china Japanese tea set in an egg crate down the steps. They went over to the picnic table to set up a tea party and began to name off all the boys in their class.
“Lila loves Wayne Turner! Lila’s in love with Wayne! Lila and Wayne sitting in a tree K-I-S-S-I-N-G!” The twins screamed and laughed and I watched their faces turn pink to red to pink again. Wayne Turner was a 13-year-old albino boy in the sixth grade that everyone said had false teeth.
Frances and Mary Helen didn’t ask me to play tea party so I decided to play parachute instead. Parachute was when you pump hard in the swing and jump out at the highest point from the ground, and when you jumped you had to yell Ripcord! before you hit the ground. I kept on swinging till I hit the overhead branch five times with my foot, then I jumped out and yelled Ripcord! I landed on my feet, and when my feet hit the ground my ankles started to ache. When I stood up, I checked to make sure my patrol badge was still pinned to my white sash. I went over and picked up my library book and sat back in the swing. I pretended to read as I watched the twins suspiciously from a distance.
The twins quit playing tea party and ran behind me and started to push me hard in the swing. From out of nowhere, a lazy drone of an airplane engine grew louder. I watched Marie Curie’s face disappear in the sand when I let go of my library books. As I swung up I pointed my right toe and it looked like I was close enough to kick the side of the airplane.
I watched the bomb fall fast. It was heading straight for the vegetable garden about 50 feet away. The bomb fell behind the line of pink dogwood trees that separated the garden from the yard. The explosion blew me like a tremendous whoosh out of the swing seat, the same time the bomb swallowed up the vegetable garden. I hit the ground flat out, and with a thud. The noise was so loud that it sucked all the air out of my chest. My head hurt bad enough to have been split wide open. I thought I was dead, but I could taste dirt in my mouth.
Little Edwin, who had been in the house with Aunt Belva ran out into the yard crying, “Daddy, Daddy, what happened?”
Black dust that smelled like firecrackers hung in the air, and when it cleared, I saw Uncle Eddie run towards Little Edwin and the twins, who hid under the picnic table, and then behind them the garage started to crumble.
“I don’t know what happened, son,” said Uncle Eddie, “I think an airplane blew up. I reckon I better go down to the basement to shut off the electricity and gas, in case there are any more explosions,” Uncle Eddie yelled loud enough so we all would hear.
Aunt Belva, who was sewing the twins Easter dresses in the living room when the bomb fell, managed to stick me with her pin cushion bracelet when she helped me off the ground. Her eyes were opened wide like she was mad, but I knew she was real scared. The twins were bawling their eyes out from fear, but I thought for a second it was from their broken tea set that was scattered in little pieces around the picnic table. I shut my eyes tight as I tried to keep from crying, and I kept seeing the same flash of light from the explosion that made my head feel hot when I fell out of the swing. My skin felt sweaty and cold at the same time. I touched the top of my forehead and got blood on my fingers. Clothes on the clothesline resembled shredded dust rags and on Aunt Belva’s car, the windshield glass was gone, the hood was gone, and the top was bent. I still held my lips together tight. Aunt Belva told me that Momma and Daddy were on their way, but I knew this wasn’t true because I knew Momma and Daddy were on the highway somewhere on the way back from Charlotte. Uncle Eddie ran into the house, and came back with a towel that smelled like his hair tonic, and draped it on my head like when I played a shepherd in the Manger Scene.
“Come on Lila, go ahead. You know you want to cry too,” said the twins in unison as they cried and sprayed spit on the side of my face as they egged me on to cry, to cry out loud.
“It is standard procedure for safety patrols not to cry in emergencies. Y’all would know that if you ever read the safety patrol rulebook!” I yelled back at them. I wiped my eyes and nose off with the clean part of the sleeve of my sweater, and then I rubbed my glasses with a corner of the towel. When I put my glasses back on I saw the cars had gathered in the dirt driveway. People jumped out of their cars and took turns, asked me over and over again if I was alright. I told them I had a headache, but by then my head had stopped bleeding and started to feel numb. Some man in a business suit and a bright red pocked marked face ran up to Uncle Eddie and told him that the concussion of the explosion hit was so great that it turned his car completely around out on the Myrtle Beach Highway.
A dark green Pontiac ambulance with STOUDEMIRE FUNERAL HOME printed on the side, careened down the driveway past the cars and the crowd. Two men in white uniforms took my towel, wiped my head with water, and wrapped my head with a bandage that covered the cut on my forehead. I wanted my towel back so I could hide my head. Aunt Belva got a band-aid to put over her ear from the ambulance men. With spots of blood on her dress and Little Edwin on her lap, Aunt Belva sat in the back of the ambulance with me strapped to the gurney. When those ambulance men put me in the back I knew they saw my underpants.
“Come over here Lila, honey, and we’ll get cleaned up a little bit,” said Beatrice Rogers, a nurse I knew from Momma’s Wednesday afternoon Literary Club. She quickly unwrapped the bandage on my head and painted my cut with yellow liquid from a brown glass bottle that smelled like a mixture of gasoline and butterscotch.
Three other nurses took Uncle Eddie, the twins, and Little Edwin to the Whites Only waiting room. Aunt Belva stayed in the emergency examining room with me. I wished Momma would show up. Aunt Belva tried to be nice, but when she touched me, I cringed and moved away.
Nurse Rogers moved me to an empty room with a hospital bed. I realized it was dark now by the neon EAT MORE RESTAURANT sign across the street that blinked on and off outside through the window.
Dr. Lawson, a tanned snake-skinned doctor with silver hair who I remembered from fall’s flu shot, told me I had to go to X-Ray when my parents showed up. Aunt Belva came back in and sat on the end of the cot, leaned over and kissed my cheek. It was one of those kisses that I knew I had to let dry instead of wiping off and hurting her feelings.
“Honey, now don’t you worry ’bout your uncle, the twins, and Little Edwin. Dr. Lawson said they are all fine, and you’re going to be fine too,” Aunt Belva said.
“Don’t worry about me, Aunt Belva, Dr. Lawson said everything was going to be okay, then I guess I’ll be alright, I think it could of been a lot worse,” I said.
Aunt Belva and I both bowed our heads when the evening devotional prayer began overhead on the brown box speaker. After the preacher said Amen, the evening radio announcer started his six o’clock newscast:
A B-47 jet bomber accidentally dropped an unarmed atomic bomb in Mars Bluff, a small farm community near Florence today. The TNT in the bomb’s trigger device exploded from a mechanical malfunction of the bomb’s lock system. However, there was no atomic explosion. Air Force personnel from the 38th Air Division at Hunter Air Force Base, Savannah, Georgia have rushed to the scene. All persons are warned to stay out of the immediate area because of potentially dangerous radioactive contamination. It is the first time an atomic bomb has known to have been dropped in the United States outside nuclear testing grounds.
Aunt Belva rose to her feet and looked up at the ceiling, shut her eyes and said, “Jesus Lord my judgement has come and gone, thank you Jesus, thank you Lord for saving my family.”
I lay there and said a prayer to myself and tried not to think about how much I wished the twins were hurt more than me.
“The atom bomb fell, Aunt Belva, and the Lord spared us,” I told her in hopes of sounding more like a Free Will Baptist, and not someone who wished bad things on the twins.
“Lila honey, we are all very fortunate, and we have a lot to be thankful for. If you sit still here, I’ll go call your Momma and see if she’s home yet,” said Aunt Belva in a soft baby voice that sounded like Gracie Allen.
Aunt Belva seemed to be gone for a long time, and I watched the cars hum by on Irby Street and it made me think of an assignment in social studies we had in February. Mrs. Herbert, our teacher, wanted us to draw a picture of what we thought Florence would look like after the atom bomb dropped. I painted a picture all in black and red with bleeding bodies with no arms or legs stacked on top of each other, and all the houses in the neighborhood, some collapsed, some with a few pieces of timber still standing, with people’s arms reaching out to the sky. I colored the sky black, blocking the sun and a few tree trunks remained with their roots drenched in blood. After I drew the picture, Mrs. Herbert made me go to the guidance counselor. After the guidance counselor asked me how I liked school and what I thought about being when I grew up, she asked me what I thought about the picture I drew.
“We’re headed for a big showdown and the bomb will be used and they’ll be a black cloud over Florence, and all the cities in the United States and Russia, and it will be the worst thing anyone had seen and we’ll all be gone and Momma says if we’re not gone then we’ll be in the worst trouble you can imagine and we’ll sure be wishing we were gone.”
I sat there and looked at the guidance counselor with a frozen stare, and I felt scared like I had said too much. The guidance counselor asked me if my parents fought. I said no, but sometimes I tried to pick fights with them. Then she asked me if I liked to draw a lot of pictures in black. I told her only on days that I felt like it.
The door opened to my hospital room and there were Momma and Daddy. Daddy was still dressed in the gray suit with elephant leg trousers that he called his Charlotte suit, even though he wore it to church. Momma looked pretty, even though I remember it was one of the only times I ever remember seeing her cry. She had already tried to cover up the tears and I could tell because her rouge was streaked. When Momma stroked the top of my head I felt a tingle. Daddy lifted my hand and gently drew circles around the mole on my wrist with his finger. I came real close to telling them that I loved them, but I didn’t.
Nurse Rogers came back in and took me to X-Ray. I sat on a long stainless steel table that was cold on my thighs. I got goose bumps from imagining the inside pictures of my head.
“My brain looks like flattened ping-pong balls stuck together,” I said to the X-Ray technician lady who held the X-Ray plate over my head. The technician lady told me to shut my eyes. I imagined I felt a warm tingle on the top of my head when the machine roared and flashed.
“The cut on Lila’s forehead is possibly contaminated with radiation,” Dr. Lawson told Momma and Daddy after the X-Ray while he squeezed my arm and jabbed me with a tetanus shot.
“She’ll be given baths throughout the night by the night nurses as a precaution against radioactivity,” he added.
Nurse Rogers came in and handed Momma and Daddy little white masks that looked like the kind Daddy wore to spray the tomato plants with fertilizer. Daddy and Momma stayed in the room with me until Daddy said he should go home to get some sleep. Then Momma walked out with him, and in a few minutes she came back in with an orderly who set up a cot next to me. Momma stayed next to me on the cot that night. Before I went to sleep I couldn’t help but rehash out loud over and over again the whole afternoon until Momma told me to go to sleep and try to think about something else. She said Aunt Belva and her family couldn’t stay in their house anymore so they were at the Swamp Fox Hotel as guests of the mayor, until they got their house fixed. I didn’t sleep at all that night since the night nurses came in every hour and tried to whisper sweet talk to me while they wore protective masks and gloves and washed me hard all over with yellow sponges.
I got to leave the hospital the next afternoon, with my head wrapped up. It was way after school let out. A bunch of men with notebooks and cameras tried to stop my wheelchair on the way out to the parking lot. Momma pushed me on to the car. I wore my safety patrol sash strapped across my pink housecoat.
“My safety patrol training for emergencies saved my life,” I told one reporter. Momma made me hush until we got in the car.
On the car ride home from the hospital I thought about the bomb, and I remembered my unfinished library book might be lost under the sand and I was afraid I might have to pay a library fine. Beside us in traffic a Porter Paints van passed by with a picture of a rainbow of colors shooting out of a paint can. It reminded me of the black-eyed nucleus that hooked all the strings of colorful protons, neutrons, and electrons on the mobiles at school. Back home in my room that night, I lay in the dark with my eyes closed and saw in my head a photographic negative of my whole body floating straight up in the air, like a lightning struck picture snapped by God.
—Hilton Caston is an MFA candidate in writing at Columbia University. This is her first short story.