An engorged body floated down the gray river. The factory whistle blew plaintively in the distance. The sky was velvety gray and the wind had a bite. The surface of the water was undisturbed; the river moved slowly. The woman who owned the body faced up, her hands and forearms submerged in the dark water. The buttons on her green dress strained to hold the garment together as the gasses developing inside her body collected. Her mouth gaped open, a pool of dried-over blood covered the socket where her tongue was cut out.
A shabbily-dressed young boy on the bank farthest from the body was playing in a shallow area of the river, poking at hatchling fish with a stick. He saw the mass of the body moving past from the corner of his eye. He stood up to look, but didn't know what to make of it. Then he heard faint screaming. There was a flash of light.
The boy looked in the direction of the factory, but it was beyond the trees, beyond his vision. He dropped his stick and his breathing became shallow. The sky was still bright in that direction. He glanced back at the body, now passing out of sight, around a bend in the river. The treetops swayed and a stiff wind picked up. The boy turned and climbed up the dirty embankment and ran for his bicycle, lying in a heap next to the path.
He pedaled towards the wooden bridge that crossed the river and led to the road. When he reached it, the civil defense sirens started to go off. He braked and stopped. He leaned against the railing of the bridge. The top of the factory stacks should have been visible but they did not appear above the trees. There was a brownish haze instead. He looked down the end of the path where it met the road. Something moved. The boy squinted. It was a hunched over man running towards him, clutching at his throat. There was more movement, more people behind him, all running. Then he could hear them gagging and choking.
The boy backed from the bridge a few steps. The first man was slowing down. He reached the other end of the bridge and stopped completely. He stood and looked at the boy for a moment, then vomited up a torrent of blood. He collapsed to his knees then landed face first on the slats of the wooden bridge. The others started to succumb behind the man.
The boy watched, his cheeks quivering. His hands went cold, gripping the handlebars of his bicycle. Finally there was no more movement, just heaps of blood-soaked clothes. The civil defense sirens died out. The silence was thick.
"Hello?" screamed out the boy. He started breathing rapidly, his eyes darting around the scene at the end of the bridge.
"Hello?!" he yelled out again. Something fell in dark of the forest, an animal dropping from a tree. The boy jumped. Then he saw more movement on the path, dark and low to the ground. It was like fabric, like a bed sheet being spread out over a bed. It was a brown fog creeping its way towards the bridge. Its fingers curled over the bodies, caressing, then covering them like a shroud.
The boy turned his bicycle around, scraping the wheels across the dirt. He mounted it shakily and started back down the path, riding towards the small makeshift house he shared with his mother and father. As he rode, tears obscured his vision. The forest passed in a blur of gray and green.
When he reached the house he found a long black car parked in front of it. The paint was shiny and it carried the emblem of the factory security force. The boy leaned his bicycle against a tree. He walked around the car, and looked surreptitiously at the dark windows, trying to see if anybody was inside. The door to the house was half open, and he saw a man in a long black coat looking at him from inside.
"Who are you?" the boy asked.
"Is this your house?" asked the man. The boy nodded slowly. "Come in then," said the man. He opened the door wider. The boy clenched his fists and didn't move his feet. "It's all right, I have something to tell you."
The boy moved quickly, running into the house. There was one room inside, with a table and chairs and two beds. The smaller bed was his. He ran to it and sat next to his pillow, running his fingers under it. The man closed the door and the room fell dark. The man sat at the table, and the both waited in silence until their eyes adjusted to the light coming from the one dirty window.
"What happened?" asked the boy.
"Oh, a very bad thing," said the man.
"People died," said the boy. "I saw them."
"That's very sad," said the man. He adjusted his position, making the chair squeak. "You know I have children of my own. But you probably have never met them. They go to school."
The boy was silent. His fingers slowly reached deeper under the pillow.
"You're parents worked at the factory, didn't they?"
"Yes," said the boy.
"As you would have too in a few years," said the man.
"They didn't--" the boy stopped his sentence abruptly.
"They didn't what?" asked the man with half a smile. "They didn't want you to work in the factory? Let me guess, they wanted something more for you?"
"Yes," said the boy quietly.
"And what would you have done?"
"I'd have gone to school," he said.
"That's not a job boy. How would you afford it anyway?" The man chuckled. "You know, you're father's dead because of that sentiment." The man stood, pushing the chair behind him and letting it fall backwards. He shoved his hands in his pockets and grinned. "There's an order to things boy, and it's best not to disturb that order."
The man withdrew a knife, a six inch blade was outlined in the light from the window. The man turned the knife in his hand, looking at it.
"I couldn't stop her soon enough," he said.
"My mother," said the boy.
"Yes," said the man.
"She's been gone for two days," said the boy.
"Has it been that long?" asked the man. "Hmmm. I've failed miserably then."
"The bomb went off," said the boy.
"Not at the proper time though," said the man.
"No. It was supposed to be tonight, when everyone was gone."
"So you knew?" asked the man. He raised the hand with the knife.
"Yes," said the boy. "I guess I did."
The man grunted and lunged towards the boy. The boy rolled away, withdrawing his arm from the pillow. His hand held a gun. As the man fell toward the bed and stabbed blankets the boy cocked the gun and fired. The man slumped and stopped breathing.