Jason carried the terrarium to the edge of the stream. Marty tagged along to watch and to say whatever goodbyes there were to be said as Rocky slithered away. Jason removed the top screen and angled the terrarium to suggest a direction for Rocky to take. The snake raised its head higher, hesitated but a moment, and then sped off across the rocks and down a crevice without even so much as a backward glance. Marty wanted to check out the size of the tadpoles in the stream, so Jason joined him for a bit. Then Jason returned to the terrarium, stood the screen at an angle within it, and grabbed it by one of its glass sides for transport. Together he and Marty headed back for the house.
Once inside, Jason poured himself a cold glass of milk and Marty ran himself a drink of water from the tap, then buttered a slice of whole wheat bread with some peanut butter and jelly, slapped a second slice on top of it and cut it crosswise, giving half to Jason.
The boys stood silently, eating and drinking and looking at each other. They rinsed their glasses under the faucet, shoved them upside down in the dishwasher, and headed for the cellar, Jason in the lead. Marty had never really liked the dark, dry atmosphere of the cellar, but with his brother there ahead of him it seemed less spooky.
Once down there, they headed for the bikes, which were stored inside the windowless center room once used for storing wood for the old fireplace in the living room.
When their parents bought the house, his mom and dad had mentioned a number of times that the wood room would be a great room in case there ever was a need to “hunker down,” as his dad called it. At first Marty had thought his dad meant squatting with knees bent, but as time passed, he came to understand it was for use in case of certain emergencies. Like a hurricane, they had noted. Or in case of fallout. The explanation of the room’s importance left Marty more confused than ever. He had never heard of a hurricane happening around here. And if any of them were to have a fight and fall out, why any one of them would want to use a windowless room as a “time out” was beyond him.
Over the past winter, the boys’ mom and dad had some shelves built in the room on which they stored all kinds of first aid supplies, canned foods, bottles of water, a bucket with a box of plastic bags in it, sweat pants and sweatshirts for each of them, along with flip-flops and dad’s dosimeter. His dad said they always needed them at work to measure the radiation levels. Marty figured his dad didn’t take this one to work because they gave him one to use free when he was there, which probably saved on batteries.
He knew, too, that Jason understood how it worked because he had gotten up to go to the bathroom one night and his dad was explaining it to Jason at the kitchen table.
There also was a box of what his dad said was KI. Marty had opened it. What was in it looked like a batch of white pills resembling aspirin. He decided that when and if they ever got around to having the fight, which would really have to be a big one—although over what he could not guess—that they would probably all need to take aspirin and that was why the batch was so big.
Before the boys could leave for their bike ride, Jason had to tighten his chain, and as both bikes had sat over the winter, the chains were dusty and needed greasing.
The boys pulled their bikes out into the middle of the north side of the cellar where dad kept his tools on a work bench. The bench stood against the north wall of the wood room, as everyone in the family referred to the room to be used in case of emergencies as a shelter and in case of major differences or, as the younger boy believed, as a time out. Why it remained the wood room when its use no longer had anything to do with fuel was something of a mystery to Marty. Marty wandered about waiting for instruction from Jason. He perused the wood room.
He was convinced that grownups were a special bunch, always throwing in one word or another to get you mixed up. They should have called it the store room. Look at this. Four sleeping bags, no less. Never even taken out of their cases. He bounced one that was still in its plastic case against the wall. He picked up the box of travel games that no one was allowed to remove from the room. Last spring he had wanted to take it to Chicago when they drove there for Easter. NO WAY! He never could figure out what that was all about!
Dad once said that the wood room could well be considered the most important room in the house. Figure that. Dad. What a joker.
It took quite a while to decide which would be the best tools to use for removing and replacing the chains. So as to not leave his younger brother out of the process, as Jason searched, he talked about what he was doing.
“Let’s see, now. A-1. No.” Jason replaced the flattened can with the pointed nose back on the shelf. He should have asked his dad which oil or grease to use. “What are you doing in there? Come on, Marty. Help.”
Marty exited the wood room and joined Jason in front of his dad’s work table. Jason inspected the cans on the shelf, pulling them out one at a time, and then quickly replacing them. “Wasps and bees. No. Good on Wood. Nope. Axle grease. Yup. Pay dirt.” He opened a tightly closed tin can in which some kind of grease that looked like dark Vaseline was to be found. He held it down for Marty to inspect. He stuck his finger in it, held it to his nose, smelled it. “Yup. Axle grease.”
He swiped it beneath Marty’s nose and Marty followed suit.
“Yup. Axle grease.”
“Now, where did dad put those plastic gloves?”
“Here they are!”
Suddenly, the floor shook beneath them. The cans on the shelf rattled as did the tools. Some fell to the floor. The lights went out. The boys froze. Stock-still in the dim light of the cellar, they sought each other’s eyes.
“Stay with me. Come on.”
Jason led the way up the stairs and Marty followed closely behind. Jason went to the south side living room window. Marty crowded in beside him to get a look, too. What the boys saw was pretty incredible. The whole southern sky was glowing like red hot coals.
Jason was unable to estimate how far away the glow was but giving a good guess, if it were the Magdum Heights Plant, it was thirty miles south or so. And if it were not, then it was just a large fire only a few miles from where they stood. In either case, they were not particularly
well situated. Jason’s thought went to his mother and father. What went through his mind filled him with dread and a sickening, sinking feeling. His brother brought him back.
“Jason. Holy Moley!”