Dennis Cole, who went by Denny to friends and neighbors, sat on the cement stoop in front of his parent’s house, seemingly staring up at the picture window to his right, but really only thinking.  A book lay open and face down on the step beneath him, part of the summer reading program that was a joint effort between the local library and his school to keep kids reading over summer vacation.  As far as Denny was concerned, they needn’t have bothered. Reading, at his house, was just like breathing. You could choose not to do it, but not for long.

That said, it is important to note that reading was not all Denny ever did. He usually went outside after breakfast, came in for a quick lunch, and then went out again until forced to come in for supper or darkness. Sometimes, he even camped out in the backyard, or slept on the old mattress in his treehouse. He fancied he was king of the forest. He played baseball with the kids from the neighborhood.  He cooked on an old grill that he placed between two rocks and built a fire underneath, and he shot tin cans with his BB gun. Sometimes, he just sat on the back steps and ate a popsicle, or walked through the woods to Dairy Queen and got an ice cream cone.

Still, books were a big part of his life, and the imagination he tried to live out in the adventures he had in the backyard, and he figured he might as well compete for the prizes they were giving away to those who read the most books. So, this morning found Denny thinking.  He was thinking about what it would be like to be cut off from every other town around, to be the last person, or one of the last people, in the world. The book he was reading was Alas, Babylon, and he had saved it for the last week of summer vacation before his eighth grade year at school started. This was one of the books he would take a test over when he got back to school, and if he passed it, he would earn points that could be redeemed for prizes. He had his eye on baseball tickets. That was the grand prize; a pair of tickets to watch his favorite baseball team play down in the city.

As he sat there thinking, he heard a rumbling sound, faint at first, but growing louder with every passing second. He looked off to the west, the direction from which the sound came, and saw a strange looking plane approaching. It was like something he had seen in an old time science fiction movie, shaped like a blunted nosed triangle, flat on top, sleek and aerodynamic, and black. It was making a sound that he had heard in war movies, a strafing run, they called it, and as it came closer, he watched as old fashioned missiles dropped from the underbelly of the strange flying monster, shocked and unable to move if he had been inclined to do so.

Somewhere in the back of his head, a voice told him that he should take cover, and a video played out in his mind, more a memory, captured with photographic clarity, every detail preserved like the small insects he’d seen captured in amber. It was a memory of the nuclear attack drills his teachers had insisted they practice when he was in elementary school. He watched himself crawl under the table part of his desk, and put his hands on his head. He remembered thinking at the time that this might protect them from the initial attack, but wouldn’t help a bit if the missiles were too close and they fell victim to the radiation poisoning.

All of this passed through his head in a split second, and he realized that he’d always had a secret fear of nuclear attack, of war breaking out in his own land, secret because until this moment, he had not admitted it to himself, and as he fought the urge to hyperventilate, he understood why. It was too horrible to contemplate, too awful to comprehend, and yet, now it looked as though it was happening. When the nearest missile disappeared behind a bank of trees, and he saw pieces of the white picket fence that surrounded the house mixed with pieces of the split rail fence that housed his two donkeys, Poncho and Lefty, he was galvanized into action. He rose and ran for the door, and just as he got there, he found himself sitting up on the old mattress, breathing much too hard and sweating.