“Mrs. Cooper says that Reagan is going to get us into a war with Russia.”
The statement hung over the dinner table like the waft of a turd.
Finn froze with his fork in mid air. His big sister Abby had dropped the turd. Now she looked expectantly across the table at Dad.
Dad looked like his roast beef had turned into rocks in his mouth.
“Is that what Mrs. Cooper says?” Finn hated when Dad answered a question with a question.
“Yes. And she says that the Russians have ICBM’s that can reach California. And nuclear bombs worse than Hiroshima. And that Reagan is going to get us all killed.”
Abby swiveled to Mom who reached for the wine and emptied it into her glass.
Dad rubbed his eyes. He was always tired these days. Abby needed braces and Finn needed new glasses, so Dad was spending long hours at the print shop.
“First of all Abby, there is no Russia. It’s the Soviet Union. And the Soviets are not going to bomb us. They don’t need to bomb us when they can get people like Mrs. Cooper to scare the crap out of children like you.”
“Stan,” Mom said, warning in her voice.
Dad put his fork down. Clank.
Finn held his breath. If the yelling began he would be banished to his room and he’d have to cover his head with his pillow for hours.
But there were no explosions tonight. Dad pushed himself away from the table. “I’m going down to the shop.” Dad clumped down to the basement to be with his saws and clamps and wood.
Mom got up from the table, and steadied herself on its edge. “I need to lie down. You kids go and play.”
Abby sighed, a deep aggrieved sigh and flounced away to her homework.
Finn sat alone, impaling carrots on the tip of a fork.
That night Finn lay in bed staring at the glow-in-the-dark stars on his ceiling. In the light, the stars were a very faint green against the whiteness of the ceiling. Soon Dad would come to tuck him in. When Dad left he would turn the lights out and an entire galaxy would bloom across Finn’s ceiling.
Finn wondered what it would feel like to die in an explosion. He had been burned once, when he accidentally put his hand on the stove. Dad had driven him to the hospital, screeching around corners and running red lights as Finn howled in the back seat. If a bomb could kill you, being blown up must hurt even worse than being burned. Could it hurt twice as bad? The thought stretched the borders of Finn’s comprehension. He shuddered under his covers.
Finn could hear Dad coming to tuck him in. Dad always stuck his head in first, and wiggled his eyebrows. When he sat on the edge of the bed the springs groaned.
Dad pulled Finn’s blankets up to his chin, so that only Finn’s head stuck out, as though from a cocoon. Dad relaxed on the bed. His head lolled back, and his mouth sagged open.
“Dad, what’s Hiroshima?”
Finn’s dad stiffened.
“You’re still thinking about that?” Dad looked at Finn narrowly.
“I really want to know Dad.”
Dad was on the edge of the bed now with arms crossed. “Hiroshima is a place in Japan. We fought them in a war. The war ended when we dropped a bomb on Hiroshima.”
“Did a lot of people die?”
“Yes. More than you can count.”
“Is that why the Russians want to kill us?”
“Not exactly, Finn. It’s complicated.”
“Did it hurt? I mean did it hurt those people when they died?” Finn knew he was pushing it, but he had to know.
“Finn. Little boys shouldn’t be thinking about…what you’re thinking about. You’re safe. I won’t let anything happen to you.”
Finn sighed. Grown-ups always ended conversations this way. He felt as though he were staring into the secret darkness inside a turtle’s shell.
Dad switched off the light. When he left the room Finn kicked himself free of the cocoon of blankets. He spread his arms and legs and gazed at the stars splashed across his ceiling.
The next morning Dad left early for the print shop and Mom went to the grocery store with Abby. Finn had the house to himself. He ate a bowl of Cheerios in front of the tube. Most Saturdays Finn was engrossed by cartoons, but this morning he couldn’t focus. His mind was racing.
After breakfast Finn went down to Dad’s shop. The only light was a naked bulb that you turned on by pulling a ball chain that dangled from the ceiling. From the top of the stairs to the end of the chain, Finn felt like he was in the dark for ages.
In the glow of the light Finn filled his arms. He needed materials: a coffee can, a tangle of insulated wire, a handful of bolts and screws, a bulb from a string of Christmas lights, and a battery. He spread everything out on the work bench.
Dad had showed him how to hook up a light bulb to a lantern battery and he started with that, humming to himself as he worked. He used a box cutter to poke a little hole through the bottom of the coffee can, and ran the light bulb out of the hole. He used a nail to punch holes in the side of the can. Then he looped wires here and there until the can resembled an octopus with a single glowing red eye.
Finn inspected his creation. Something was missing. Bombs need to be detonated somehow. Everybody knew that. He would need a switch. Finn dug around in a milk crate full of scrap electronics until he found what he wanted, a steel toggle switch, still in its housing. It was perfect. He glued the housing to the can carefully.
Finn carried the bomb up the stairs with two hands. In the light of the kitchen he admired his handiwork.
Bad-ass, he thought to himself.
But then mom’s car pulled up into the carport. Finn fast-walked up to his room, hugging the bomb to his chest, careful not to touch the detonator switch. Finn hid the bomb in the back of his closet and went back downstairs, with his hands in his pockets.
In the afternoon, Finn snuck the bomb outside through the basement door. He climbed over the fence and through Mrs. Hampstead’s yard, along a tree line that shielded him from view. When he made it to the next street he sighed in relief. Hugging the bomb to his chest he ran down the sidewalk, zig-zagging through the cracks, leaping over roots that had pushed up through the concrete, and stopping here and there to kick at dandelions.
In the middle of the street he followed a line of ants to a dark spot on the sidewalk. Leaning closer he saw that the ants were advancing on a hard candy that someone had spit out. Finn squatted down to stare at the ants as they marched in formation, with empty eyes fixed on something unknowable.
Finn heard a shoe scuff behind him. It was Nicky, a boy two grades behind him. Nicky was a tow-haired boy with an angelic face. He was wearing a pair of leather sandals and, impossibly, a spotless white polo shirt tucked into khaki shorts.
“Hi Finn. Whatcha doing?”
“Nothing.” Finn stood up to go. Nicky’ big sister Melanie was Abby’s best friend, and the two cooed over Nicky as though he were a doll.
“Whatcha got?” Nicky pointed at the bomb in Finn’s arms.
“It’s, uh. Something I made.”
“It looks like a coffee can.”
“That’s just the outside part. Most of it is inside.” Finn tilted the bomb so Nicky could see the winking red bulb.
“Whoa.” Nicky’s eyes widened.
“It’s a noo-kyuh-ler bomb actually. It’s like what the Soviets have, but better. My bomb can blow up the entire earth. Not just California.”
Nicky’s jaw dropped. “Was it hard to make?”
“Not too hard. My dad showed me how to hook up the battery. But I figured out how to make it explode.” Finn pointed at the toggle switch. “That’s the detonator.”
“Don’t touch it!” Nicky squealed. When the color drained from his face his freckles stood out like paint splatters on canvas.
“Settle down. I just made it.” Finn patted the bomb. “I’m not going to explode it. Yet.”
“Never explode it Finn!” Nicky begged. “I don’t want you to!”
Finn stared at Nicky blankly. Finn’s ears were buzzing and his stomach felt like it was turning inside out.
Finn put his finger on the detonator switch and wiggled it threateningly. “I will explode it if you don’t stop crying.”
Nicky turned and raced away, shrieking, with his hands over his ears.
Finn’s finger was trembling. Before Nicky could reach the corner, Finn flipped the switch as far as it would go.
Finn was playing with action figures when he heard Abby coming down the hall. By her tight measured clip, he knew that something bad was about to happen. She barged through the door of his bedroom and glowered down at him, with her fists on her hips. Finn didn’t look up from his toy. Ignore her and she’ll go away.
But Abby would not be ignored.
“Finn! Melanie just called me and told me you made Nicholas cry with some stupid lie about a bomb! He’s been crying all day and he’s afraid to come out of the basement because he thinks you’re going to blow up the whole world. How could you do such a mean and stupid thing!”
Once on television Finn had been fascinated by a program about the stone heads on Easter Island. When people were yelling in his house, Finn became an Easter Island head. Silent, impassive, staring into the middle distance.
Finn’s calmness seemed to incite Abby. She was shrieking now and apoplectic. “Nicholas is sweet and innocent. His birthday is tomorrow and you ruined it. Finn you are a horrible little boy. You are…sick. And twisted! And Dad is going to kill you.”
Abby stomped away.
Finn watched dust motes swirl. Blood rushed in his ears.
Finn heard Dad pull into the car port. It was dinner time. Finn was hungry and had to pee like crazy but he didn’t emerge from his room. Dad would be in soon enough. As soon as he stepped into the house, Abby would descend on Dad to tattle, and after that…
Finn idly wondered if he would get a spanking. He’d been spanked before. Usually Dad just used a yardstick but once he’d used a broom handle, and after that Finn had bruises on his butt for a week and couldn’t sit properly.
Finn stewed in the unfairness of it all. He hadn’t done anything. He hadn’t actually blown up the whole earth. He was just playing.
Finn broke out of his reverie when Dad pushed into the room.
Dad wasn’t carrying the yardstick, and he wasn’t volcano-angry, so Finn knew he wouldn’t get a spanking. Instead Dad seemed serious, and sad, which made Finn worry even more.
Dad sat down on the edge of the bed and swung his legs up. He reclined and closed his eyes. He hadn’t taken a day off in months and he was exhausted. For a moment Finn thought Dad would fall asleep. When he finally spoke his voice was tight and choked.
“When I was a boy I went to Vietnam. Do you know where that is?” Finn had a globe on the nightstand. Dad reached for it and put his finger on a pink blob. “They put me on a plane and sent me half-way around the world. It was a war. I was eighteen years old.”
Dad’s face went leaden and he turned inward. It was as though the molecules in the air stopped moving. Finn squirmed.
A spanking would have been much better than this. When Dad returned from wherever he had gone, Finn knew he would seem smaller, as though a layer had been lathed off.
Finally Dad stirred himself. “Can I see your bomb Finn?”
Finn slid off the bed and retrieved his bomb from its hiding place in the closet.
Dad inspected the bomb, turning it over and over in his hands. “Be careful with this thing. Don’t take it out of the house anymore. And don’t ever let Abby see it.”
When Dad left the room Finn curled up in bed. He put the bomb on his nightstand, where the globe had been. He gazed at the blinking red light until he fell asleep under a wash of glowing stars.