The Last Few Minutes Before The Bomb
Dennis, Beth and I stood before Mr. Irving—or more exactly, beneath him. Surrounded by globes and bulletin boards, hamster terrariums and a cursive alphabet poster that crawled in slanting letters around the tops of the walls, the room felt like sanctuary—even though we were in trouble. Unlike the other male teachers, Mr. Irving never wore a tie. He was tall, about forty years old and always in jeans. Wisps of gray-brown hair fell around his ears. Wet patches showed under the arms of his pale blue shirt. He crossed his arms and asked, "What was all that talking?"
I mumbled, "Sorry."
"Cool song," Dennis said. "That's all."
Beth pointed a finger at me. "They're gonna kill toads. After school, Mr. Irving. With pencils."
"Toads?" he asked.
"No, no, no." I scratched my head. "We were gonna draw the toads with our pencils." The lie felt obvious and the liar did too, so on a whim I sang, I killed some toady toadies, just to watch them die.
Dennis waved his hands and danced a little jig. Mr. Irving half-smiled. "Extracurricular toad killing is your business, boys, but please don't discuss it in class, O.K.?"
He sent Beth and Dennis to their seats and rested a hand on my shoulder. His Old Spice after-shave smelled like my father, like authority. Mr. Irving leaned his face down near mine and, almost under his breath, he said, "I don't know how to break this to you, kiddo. This is the kind of news that fifth grade boys hate to hear."
My heartbeat quickened. The droopy sincerity in his eyes could mean only one thing: the bombs were on their way. This was it, my chance to live the last few minutes with dignity and bravery—and to cop a feel of Beth's chest. I felt unexpectedly thrilled by the imminent threat of death. Then Mr. Irving drawled out these words: "It looks to me like you're in love with Beth."
When he said it the floor sucked every ounce of excitement through my feet. "Beth Leyland?"
"Love will creep up on you when you least expect it." His words sounded like my mother's Valentine card collection. "Just don't let it distract you too much, if you know what I mean."
I had no clue, but said, "O.K.."
He slid his arm around my shoulder, and in the same irrefutable way my parents spoke the same irrefutable words— as if my life were some sort of self-cracking code—he said, "Someday you'll understand."
I shrugged. The words were mundane they had lost all meaning.
Mr. Irving glanced at the class to be sure no one was listening, then leaned even closer to me and whispered, "Keep an eye on Dennis. He's a bad influence."
Once again I didn't understand, so I shrugged. Mr. Irving tousled my hair and sent me to my desk. I shuffled down the aisle and refused to look at Beth—no eye contact, not even the usual glance at her chest. I caught a whiff of her fruity perfume and pretended I had orders to return calmly to my seat and disconnect the nuclear warhead planted in my math book by Soviet agents. When I sat down Dennis stuffed a hand into my back pocket. He pulled it away a second or two later and whispered, "It's a note."
I pulled a folded sheet of loose-leaf paper from my pocket. His sloppy scribble asked, "do You sTil wAnt to sTAb A tode?" The question was followed by a box for "yes" and a box for "no."
I checked "yes" and passed back the note.
A minute or two later, just as the final bell rang, Beth turned her head and stuck her tongue at me. Dennis reached across the aisle and snapped her bra strap, hard.
Dennis and I bolted through the red doors, sprinted across the playground, and flew past the old maple tree on the edge of the school property. We crossed Nevada Avenue without looking both ways. On Espanola we slowed to a kingly stroll and kicked fallen leaves along the sidewalk. Leaves fell like fat snowflakes as the afternoon sun poured down through the shedding trees. Dennis walked so close beside me he bumped my elbow until I nudged him away. "O.K.," I said, "the toads are communist spies and their hideout is down by the creek."
"What creek?" asked Dennis. His parents had transferred him to Steele just three weeks earlier, so he didn't know the neighborhood yet.
I pointed west. "The creek in the park."
Dennis pulled two pencils out of his backpack and practiced stabbing imaginary toads in the air. "Do toads have blood?"
"I hope so."
We headed north on Wood Avenue, cut across the brown grass of the Monument Valley Park soccer field, and hiked over Dead Man's Cliff—my name for a sharp, bumpy turn in the bike path. We walked through a stand of tall cottonwoods and long, dark shadows. Fallen leaves crackled underfoot. The yellow leaves reminded me of Beth's blond hair, which reminded me not to think about Beth, which in turn reminded me of Mr. Irving's strange advice, which reminded me of Beth's boobs, which of course reminded me of nuclear war because Beth's chest was intended to be the last thing my hands would ever touch.
We came out of the trees where the bike path snaked along the rim of the arroyo. Below us flowed Monument Creek, a thin ribbon of gray water about twenty feet across and only a few inches deep. Steep sandstone walls angled up on either side. Weeds poked through cracks in the rocks. We stood high above the creek, a would-be murderer and his accomplice, about to go down to the water's edge in search of a victim.
I pointed at the creek. "This is where they live."
Dennis chuckled. "Not for long."
We scampered down the arroyo wall. Dennis clutched my arm to brace himself over a spot where the sandstone had crumbled. I shook off his gummy fingers and ran ahead. We stopped by the muddy bank, in the exact spot where toads had glistened all summer long. A crow pounded the air and flew off, leaving us alone. A cloud passed over the sun for a moment. The toads were gone. Their shimmering brown bodies had vanished. My stomach felt cold and hard. Dennis's freckled face scrunched into a look of disbelief, as if his Brigadoon turned out to be nothing but lies. "You sure this is the place?"
I shrugged. "Maybe they migrated."
Dennis stomped the ground as if his feet would flush them into the light. "Come out with your feet up, you damn commie toads!"
Hoping to catch just one, we lifted stones and overturned a couple of logs. Worms and a few strange insects writhed and wiggled in the light, but no toads. After a while, I folded my arms over my chest.
"They're not here."
Dennis draped his arm over my shoulder. "No joke." He spat into the creek. "Stinkin' spy-toads."
With nothing to kill but time, we stretched on our backs in the weeds. Gray clouds drifted over the cottonwood trees. I stared at the antennas and satellite dishes on Cheyenne Mountain. Would they melt in a nuclear blast? Probably, I decided, unless they were made of some indestructible metal. If the bomb ever dropped, our city would be flattened, the trees blown over like match sticks. For a few minutes, Dennis and I were the last two humans on Earth. The wind shook leaves into the air.
I turned to Dennis and asked, "Would you really kill a toad? I mean for real?" With his oily hair, freckles, scratched glasses and runny nose, I couldn't imagine Dennis hurting anything or anyone.
He filled a pause by scratching his neck with the pencil eraser. "Yeah, I would'a done it. How about you?"
"I don't think so."
He nodded. "Cool idea, though."
"Yeah, maybe when the toads come back."
We grew quiet again. I pictured Beth Leyland's hair, her brown eyes and crooked nose—and, of course, her boobs. But Beth was a goody-goody, too prudish for the likes of me and Dennis. Mr. Irving was nuts. In love with Beth? I didn't even like her, except that the bumps of her nipples usually showed through her shirts.
Dennis interrupted my thoughts with a snort. He placed a clammy hand on my arm and pointed at the sky, more or less in the direction of a cloud. All at once that cloud became the funniest thing I had ever seen: it was long, round and shaped like a penis. We laughed loud and hard, rolling over one another in the grass. For the next twenty or thirty minutes we scanned the sky for more penises and other body parts, and found them. On and on, huge boobs and butts floated over our heads. All the while I half expected a toad to hop out from behind a rock or a bush and make our mission complete. It seemed a perfectly empty afternoon, with nothing to do but watch the sky and giggle until we got hungry enough to go home for dinner.
When Dennis touched my shoulder and snorted again, I expected him to point out yet another butt-shaped cloud. He didn't though. His bluish eyelids fluttered as he thought for a second. Then he got up on his knees and looked down at me. "My Uncle Stan invented a wrestling game in his basement," he said.
"What about it?"
"It's really funny." The hand Dennis hadn't pulled away tightened its grip on my arm. "He's all big and sweaty, and he throws me down and tickles me."
Something about his face and his hand on my arm made me shiver. "Sounds creepy." I squirmed to get away, but his hand held tight.
"We should try it." As he spoke, his breath grew thick and heavy. Then, his eyes bugged out for a second and his lips curved into that tiny sickle of a grin. "Wanna see my tattoo?"
I bent my legs and got ready to push away from him.
He put his hand on his heart. "No lie."
"Where is it?"
"Next to my wiener." He pointed at the fly of his corduroys. "It's a black and green pirate skull."
I said, "Prove it."
He unzipped his jeans and tugged them down. No tattoo — only his small, pale wiener sagging beneath an outie belly button. My eyes drifted to his belly button. I was afraid to look lower, unable to turn away. He pulled up his pants and laughed as if he'd fooled me with some hilarious prank. Still on my back, I stared at the darkening sky and decided it was time to go home.
Then, before I could stop him—before I knew what was happening—I felt his fingers fumble with the zipper of my jeans. My arms and legs locked as if I had turned to stone. Dennis unzipped the zipper, messed with my belt for a second but couldn't get it to unhook. After a few seconds he jumped on me, straddling my legs between his, and wrapped his arms around my waist.
I said, "What the hell?"
He grunted, "Let's wrestle."
His fingers grabbed at my belt and brushed against my skin. My body jolted to life. I pushed away his arms. He lurched as if to hug me or put me in a headlock. I rolled away, grabbed my book bag, and jumped to my feet. Dennis moved toward me. I backed off until I hit the arroyo wall. Dennis grinned like a boy playing tag or hide-and-seek. I said, "Back off, Dennis."
He stepped up, wiped his hand on his nose, and flung his bony arms wide. "Wrestle me."
"I'm going home."
He said, "No you're not," and reached for my shoulders. Without thought, I balled up my fist and punched him as hard as I could. Once. On his mouth. The punch hardly made a sound. Nothing like the thunderclap I expected — only a quiet thunk. My hands dropped to my sides. Dennis blinked a few times. We stood there, without moving, staring at each other. His lower lip had split. A dark bead of blood gathered in the dimple of his chin, then spilled in a thin line down his neck.
He wiped at the blood. "I didn't mean anything."
I shoved him in the chest. He stumbled backwards. It felt surprisingly good to push his tiny body, so I shoved him again. On the fourth shove, Dennis tipped backwards into the creek and sprawled in the water. The current split and made a wake around him as the water soaked into his clothes and made his tan corduroys turn dark as mud. His face floated slightly above the surface. His eyes stayed shut. I thought he might be dead, until he shivered and propped himself on his elbows. He stared at me. "Don't tell." Water dripped down his freckled face, onto his chest. "Please."
I picked up a rock and held it by my ear, ready to throw. "You better not tell either."
He shook his head. "I won't."
I tossed the rock across the creek and hiked the arroyo wall. Dennis called after me, but I didn't turn back. As I passed among the cottonwoods, leaves crackled underfoot. A breeze carried the grisly odor of French fry grease from the hospital cafeteria two blocks away. My knuckles stung where I had hit him. My arms and legs felt rigid and ice-cold. I tried to pretend this was a secret mission, that Dennis had been a Soviet agent. It didn't work. He was a kid, and I had punched him in the face. The cottonwood trees rose against the steel gray sunset. Red lights blinked over Cheyenne Mountain. Over and over, I relived the punch. It was too late to change it. Nothing could pull back my fist. Nothing could help him dodge the blow. The friendship was dead. I remember thinking, I never saw this coming. And I remember the trunks of the cottonwoods standing deathly still in the wind and the cold, dim sky. Those trees looked as if nothing could knock them over.