Donald A. Ranard


He was lying on his back in the field behind old man Jackson’s place, watching faces and figures form and fall apart in the late afternoon sky, when the siren went off. It was civil defense week at school, and there’d been drills every day for the past three days. But this was the first one after school, and it sounded different. In school, you knew what to do. You ducked under your desk, put your head between your legs, and—the joke went—kissed your butt goodbye. But what were you supposed to do out here in the middle of an empty field?
He looked over at Buzzy, sitting cross-legged next to him. Buzzy threw down the corn-silk cigarette he’d been rolling and jumped to his feet. “That’s no drill, Ronnie—that’s the real thing! You better get on home!” He took off running. “You’re lyin’, Buzzy,” Ronnie shouted after him. Buzzy looked back at him and yelled, “Run, Ronnie!” before disappearing into the woods.
He was pretty sure Buzzy was hiding behind a tree watching him. Buzzy was two years older and always pulling something. His father had a small grocery store in town, and one Saturday afternoon he talked Ronnie into taking a coffee across the street to Southern States, to one of the old geezers who whiled away their days there, going on and on about the “gubmint” and refighting the war—the civil war. The old man took the lid off the Styrofoam cup and studied it for a moment before showing Ronnie the contents. Inside was a… turd. He peered at Ronnie with his watery pale blue eyes. “Now, son, did I ask for a hot cup of shit or a hot cup of coffee?” he said, with the tiniest twitch of a smile, and Ronnie knew the old man was in on it.
Well, I’m not gonna fall for it this time, he told himself as he marched across the field. But the siren didn’t let up, and he felt the stirrings of panic. What if Buzzy wasn’t lying? It was October 1957, and the Russians had just put up that thing in space. What was it called—Spooknik? And the adults were scared—you could tell, even though they tried not to show it. Just last week, standing in line at Bodine’s Five and Dime, he’d heard some farmer in bib overalls tell the cashier, “They’ll be droppin’ bombs on us like kids droppin’ rocks on cars from a freeway overpass.”
He stepped up his pace, and then, giving into the fear, broke into a run. He looked up at the sky, half expecting to see it, the thing that scared him more than anything, the terrible mushroom cloud, rising slowly until it filled the whole sky, turning day into night.
Oh God. Please not that. Anything but that.
He entered the house through the side kitchen door and became aware of three things: Perry what’s-his-name—Coma?— on the radio, singing “Catch a Falling Star”; the smell of dinner in the oven; and no Mom.
He stepped into the living room.
No answer.
On the other side of the room, the basement door was open.
He crossed the room and shouted down the stairs. “Mom!”
“I’m down here.”
Her voice sounded normal. Everything was okay!
Wait, she was in the basement—maybe she hadn’t heard the siren.
Then he realized something: There was no siren.
Had it just now stopped? Or had he just now noticed it?
He started down the stairs when the phone rang.
Maybe it was Dad, with news. He raced back to the kitchen and lifted the receiver from the wall. “Hello?”
“Run, Ronnie, run,” Buzzy said, chuckling. “See Ronnie run.”
“I knew you were lyin’.”
“Sure you did. Puck, puck, puck.”
He slammed down the receiver.
He went back to the basement door, reaching it just as his mother appeared at the top of the stairs carrying the laundry basket filled with clean folded clothes.
“Where’ve you been?” She looked at him. “Is something wrong?”
“Are you sure?”
“That siren—what was it for?”
“They’re just testing the sirens. Didn’t they tell you at school?”
“I don’t know. I don’t remember…”
“Honey, you need to pay more attention…Oh my God, the meatloaf!” She thrust the laundry basket at him. “Be a sweetheart and take this up to your room for me, will you?”
Upstairs, Ricky was on the bedroom floor, playing with the toy soldiers. It was Americans versus Germans, on opposite ends of a blanket, bunched up to form hills and valleys.
Ricky looked up. “Hi, Ronnie. Wanna play?”
“Okay.” He put the laundry basket down. “I’ll be the bomber.” He extended his arms out and made a low droning sound: “Errrrrrrrrrr.” He circled the blanket and then swooped down. “Bombs away! Duck and cover! Oh, no! It’s an A-bomb! Not that! Anything but that!” He made the whistling sound of a falling bomb. “KABOOOM!!” He grabbed the blanket and flung the soldiers across the room. “Everybody’s gonna die! We’re all fuckin’ gonna die!”
Ricky stared wide-eyed up at his brother. Then he jumped to his feet. “You said a bad word! I’m gonna tell!” He ran out of the room and down the stairs, yelling, “Mooommm!”
“Run, Ricky, run!” Ronnie shouted after him. “See Ricky run!”

Donald A. Ranard is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, New World Writing Quarterly, Vestal Review, The Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, The Washington Post, The Best Travel Writing, and many other publications. His play, ELBOW. APPLE. CARPET. SADDLE. BUBBLE., was named one of three finalists in Veteran Repertory’s 2021 playwriting contest. Based in Arlington, VA, he has lived in 10 countries in Asia, Europe, and Latin America.