Jericho had been let out of school for the past thirty minutes, but he wasn’t ready to go home yet. The hilltop behind the school parking lot beckoned him on that gorgeous fall afternoon. Laying on the grassy knoll, his backpack sitting next to him, he was gazing up at the puffy clouds that dotted the sky like marshmallows floating in a cup of bright blue cocoa. He furrowed his brow as he realized that no one should ever consume cocoa that was bright blue, but he nonetheless loved staring at the sky whether it was clouds during the day or the stars at night.
The stars looked the same all the time, but clouds could take on any size or shape imaginable. He was fascinated by the textures of rich billowy cumulus clouds that climbed high into the heavens, that took up most of the sky and sometimes portended some wild weather. Even smaller clouds interested him, as he always loved to try to find shapes in them. If his imagination worked hard enough, he could see clouds shaped like food items, animals, cars, even pirate ships.
Once he saw a cloud that looked exactly like an arrow. He followed it relentlessly, walking in the direction of the arrow until eventually he ended up at a strip club two towns over. His parents were called and they were not happy with him. For a while he cursed the sky for pointing him in the wrong direction and getting him grounded, but the clouds were quickly forgiven as they were too beautiful for him to stay mad at them for long.
Today the clouds weren’t very interesting, and it was hard for a boy with even Jericho’s creativity to spin any interesting shapes out of them. But as he studied the sky more, one cloud stood out for its shape. Jericho squinted at it some more, and came up with an honest interpretation.
“Hey,” he whispered to himself, “that one kind of looks like a mushroom.”
He stood up, his eyes still fixated on that cloud. He stared at it harder, and was convinced without any doubt that it was the familiar domed fungus. A stubby stem jutted out from a triangular form that had soft rounded angles. There was nothing else it could be.
“Neato,” he beamed as he picked up his backpack and headed back to his house.
At nine years old he was too old to skip, so he simply walked fast down the hill and up the main road until he reached the street where his house stood. His mother greeted him as soon as he walked through the door.”
“You’re home late Jerry,” she told him with a slightly concerned tone. “I was starting to worry you were following a cloud arrow again.”
“No Mom, but I did do some cloud-gazing after school let out.”
“Find anything interesting?”
“Yeah. I saw a mushroom cloud.”
His mother froze. She stared at him with both eyes wide open. “What did you say?”
“I saw a mushroom cloud, Mom.”
His mother stayed silent for another moment. “Where?”
“On top of the hill by the school.”
“No, where was the cloud?”
“Uh, in the sky. Where the clouds always are.”
His mother blinked several times. “Okay… Jerry, why don’t you go play down in the basement for a little while?”
“Aww Mom, I kinda want to go play with Dave.”
“Please honey, go down to the basement. I need to… make a phone call.”
“Why can’t I just go to my room?”
“BASEMENT. I’m not telling you again.”
“Ugh. Fine.” Jericho stomped down to the basement while his mother began taking a few deep breaths. He didn’t understand why he was being sent there, but at least it gave him an escape route. One of the small windows at the top of the room was just wide enough for him to squeeze through, and he had mastered the art of arranging boxes and other items in front of the wall to be able to reach the opening. He did just that, climbing up and through the window and making sure to replace the pane before scurrying away from the house and past the backyard en route to Dave’s house.
* * *
“So you saw a mushroom cloud after school today?”
“Sure did Dave. It looked so cool. It was big, and white, and shiny…”
“You didn’t hear a loud noise or anything?”
“Why would I hear a loud noise?”
Dave just froze. “Uh, no reason. I just heard mushroom clouds can be noisy.”
“Well, this one wasn’t. Like at all. It just sat there in the sky, doing nothing.”
Dave’s mother walked into the room where the boys were hanging out. “Hi Jerry, how is everything?”
“Pretty good. Such a nice day today.”
Dave piped up, “Jerry just told me he saw a mushroom cloud.”
Dave’s mother froze. “You say you saw a what?”
“A mushroom cloud.”
“I was laying on the top of the hill outside the school.”
“The grassy knoll? Right across the street from that old book depository?”
“Is everyone alright?”
“Sure, why would anyone not be alright? It’s just a cloud.”
Dave’s mother hurried out of the room and whipped out her phone.
“That’s the second person today who got all bothered when I told them I saw a mushroom cloud,” Jericho shook his head, “I just don’t get what the big deal is.”
“Parents get upset over the dumbest things,” Dave explained. “C’mon, let me show you my new comic book.”
* * *
“General, reporting confirmation. We have indeed gotten numerous reports today about sightings of a mushroom cloud in Conover, New Jersey today.”
NORAD Commander General Richard Long took a long swig of brandy from his flask, knowing it was against regulations but feeling that the occasion demanded it. “Have the sightings been confirmed by eyewitnesses?”
“Not as such sir, but they say they have it on good authority that a child witnessed a mushroom cloud in the sky above his school.”
“A child? Have you done any reconnaissance at all?”
“We sent our top recon pilots to do an air scouting of the area an hour ago. None of them have been able to detect any unusual amount of radiation in the air.”
“Have there been reports of any casualties?”
“None so far, sir.”
“How extensive is the damage within the blast radius?”
“We’ll let you know as soon as we find the blast radius, sir.”
“How have emergency personnel responded? Has the National Guard been mobilized?”
“That’s outside of my purview, sir. But as far as I know, there have been no reports of alarms, fires or emergency activity.”
Long shuffled in his chair. “And the only report is that a child reported seeing a mushroom cloud?”
“According to the reports I heard, yes.”
“Well, I guess we can’t discount kids entirely. I mean, Mozart was only two years old when he wrote Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.”
“Should I inform the Pentagon of these sightings?”
Long sat up to attention. “Tell me, what is this kid’s name?”
“Jericho Tibbets. He is a nine-year-old student at John F. Kennedy Elementary School in Conover.”
“Is he a good student? Well-behaved? Does he have a tendency to play practical jokes?”
“I do not know, sir.”
“Well shoot.” General Long got up from his chair and walked his subordinate to the door. “So we don’t have any evidence of a nuclear strike on the US – no photographic or film evidence, no reports of destroyed buildings or casualties or fires, no radiation – except for the sighting of a mushroom cloud by a nine-year-old boy.”
“That’s correct sir.”
“Well we’re gonna have to go to DEFCON 1 then. I’ll go inform the president. You go tell your spouse that you love them, then pray to whatever god you worship and get into the shelter right away.”
* * *
“Mr. President, I understand you have just been briefed on the situation.”
“Yes. There’s been sightings of a mushroom cloud and our air defenses are currently at DEFCON 1.”
“You’re going on air in an hour. We need to get you down into the bunker immediately.”
“I’m staying in the White House until after I give my speech to the American people.”
“Sir, with all due respect, that is not a good idea. Whoever launched the nuclear strike may be readying another one at the nation’s capital.”
“Well doesn’t Washington have a defense against a nuclear attack? What happened to that Star Trek plan that Reagan implemented?”
“That was Star Wars sir. And no, that never got off the ground.”
“Well eff me. Do we have any idea of where the nuke came from?”
“We haven’t even been able to find the nuke, or the explosion it caused, or any damage. As far as we know, no one’s been killed by this thing.”
The president froze, staring at his aide with an air of fright. “A nuclear explosion that can’t be found? That no one knows where it is or where it landed? Oh my God, that’s terrifying.”
“It very much is, sir.”
“Well, why haven’t we been up on this technology? How did someone else master it before we did?”
“That is a question for later. First, we need to alert the American people and advise them all to take cover. Put the Pentagon on highest alert. Ground all aircraft in the United States and close off all traffic into Washington, DC. Mobilize the Armed Forces and make sure the Air National Guard is ready on a moment’s notice. Put all Armed Forces outside of the US on DEFCON 1.”
The president nodded assuredly. “Yes, yes, yes. And then, we need to trace the nuke, and find out who sent it here. Whoever did this is going to pay.”
“All our intelligence agencies are already on it sir.”
* * *
Mrs. Tibbets had the television on and she and her equally apprehensive husband were watching it with intense interest. The president was speaking right then, and it was clear that things were about to get very serious as the US government prepared its response to the reports of a mushroom cloud over a small town in New Jersey.
“Rest assured America, we will prevail. We will live to see another day. And to the victims of this horrendous nuclear blast, as soon as we find you, you will receive our sincerest prayers. Your deaths, assuming that they did happen, will not have been in vain.”
Jericho entered the living room and took a seat on the floor in front of the TV. The chyron on the screen, with “US TO RESPOND TO NUCLEAR ATTACK” blazing in large bright red letters, immediately struck him with confusion and worry.
“Mom,” he asked timidly, “is there going to be a nuclear war?”
“Well sweetie, yes there may be one coming up.” Mrs. Tibbets did not want to sugarcoat the situation. “You did see that nuclear blast earlier today, didn’t you?”
“Nuclear blast? I didn’t see any explosion.”
“Yes you did. You told me you saw a mushroom cloud.”
“Yeah, a cloud shaped like a mushroom.”
“Honey, that’s what a nuclear explosion is. When a nuclear bomb explodes, it creates a massive surge of moving air that takes the shape of a mushroom.”
“No, that’s not what I saw!” Jericho sprang up from the floor with tears swelling in his eyes.” “I saw a cloud shaped like a mushroom! Just a regular cloud! Shaped like a mushroom! You know, like those things that grow near trees! Like those things you put on pizzas! Like those things Uncle Chris uses on weekends and orders me not to say to anyone!”
Mrs. Tibbets sat in silence, looking at her son, with all the color drained from her face.
“Honey,” Mr. Tibbets said to her, “Did you cause World War Three because of a misunderstanding with your son again?”
“He told me what he saw!” The embattled mother lashed out, “How was I supposed to know what he really meant?”
“Mom, everybody’s freaking out about this nuclear war thing and nothing even happened! We gotta tell somebody! The president is talking about all this war stuff and I don’t know what most of it means but it all sounds really scary!”
Mrs. Tibbets stood up and pointed at the staircase. “Jerry, go to your room. I’m gonna fix this little trouble you caused and then you and I are going to have a very serious talk! You are not looking at clouds anymore! Ever! And if you ever, EVER bring our country to the brink of nuclear war again, you are going to be very, very grounded!”
Jericho glared at his mother but did not defy her commands; he stomped up the stairs and slammed the door to his room. Mrs. Tibbets immediately picked up her phone and dialed the number for the local Air National Guard.
“Honestly honey, I had no idea Chris still did that,” Mr. Tibbets said quietly as his wife shot him a dirty look before putting her phone up to her ear.
* * *
“Looks like it was all a false alarm, Mr. President.”
“Yeah I’ve already canceled the launch sequence. DEFCON for the Air Force is down to DEFCON Three now too. And the Pentagon is no longer on high alert.”
“So what do we say about all this?”
“Well, we can’t tell the public that there was no nuclear strike. We can’t just come right out and admit that a nine-year-old boy pranked the entire US government. We would look a little foolish.”
“So who do we blame for the reports of the strike?”
The president opened a drawer in his desk and took out his most trusted advisor – a paper fortune teller. He looked at it solemnly, then placed his fingers on the grips on the underside of it, and held it out to his aide.
“Pick a number,” he instructed. “One, two, three, four or five.”
“Uh… four,” the aide responded.
“One, two, three four,” the president counted as his hands manipulated the device, shifting the corners back and forth. “Now pick a color, red or blue.”
The president lifted the flap with the corresponding color. “Ah, North Korea. This thing always has the right answer.”
“I’ll inform the Joint Chiefs right away,” the aide responded as he hustled out of the Oval Office.