The kids were rowdy that day. It wasn't their fault, he supposed. There was a lot of tension in the air, even if the state of the sleepy city around them didn't really show it. It didn't help that they were just kids, still trying to come to terms with the realities of the adult world that they were about to enter into. The tension, the anxiety, it had nowhere to go, it just would bottle up inside them until it inevitably burst out in some other form.
So he let them be. Not even when a crudely made paper airplane soared from the rearmost row of the class to the front did he raise his voice in indignation. It wasn't worth it. The lecture went on. Geopolitics of the late 1800's, God, even he found it boring. It must've been utterly miserable for the thirty kids he lectured. He looked down at his watch to check the time. The battered, analogue watch ticked merrily, informing him that the time was currently 11:35 on the dot. Twenty minutes were left in class.
None of them were really listening. Even the 'smart' ones had drifted off into the ether of the muggy August morning. He paused mid lecture to sigh and, on a whim, didn't start back up again. The silence stretched for a full minute as he panned his gaze over his students, their own glassy stares fixed on a point somewhere behind his head. The minute stretched to two.
"Uh… Mr. Fredericks? Are you going to keep talking?" The student closest to him asked finally, apparently shaken from her stupor. He smiled a bit at that.
"No. I don't think there would be any point." He replied, voice dripping with dry amusement. "Consider the rest of class a study period."
It took the rest of the class a full three seconds to process his words before they erupted in cheers of gratitude. Fredericks shook his head and moved to sit at his desk, internally debating on whether or not to start the day's grading work. He only made it two steps before the old intercom system mounted high on the wall blazed to life.
The announcement was short and to the point, but the effect it had on the class was by no means limited by its brevity. Some students looked at the speaker in stunned disbelief, some looked in horror at the face of their teacher. Frederick himself was stilled in shock, too stunned to speak or even think. Ten seconds went by, the classroom quiet but for the tick, tick, tick of Fredericks' watch.
"Mr. Fredericks… Wh-what do we do?" A student in the front row asked. The question restarted Fredericks' mind, jolting him into sudden reality. He turned to look at his students, his charges, his kids. Each stared back, eyes wide in terror, looking for salvation from something no one could save them from.
"What are you waiting for?" Fredericks asked, trying to keep the fear from entering his voice. "Get out of here! Go!" He shouted, raising his voice to a yell for the first time in many years.
That was all the encouragement they needed. Classmates bolted for the door, chairs were overturned, someone tripped and fell on their face. Three other kids helped him up, pulling him along. A small part of Fredericks' mind felt pride at their actions, that they were still helping others even at a time like this. The larger part knew it was pointless.
He followed the last student out, but instead of following the mass moving towards the auditorium, he turned away. Fredericks broke into a run, scrambling past a couple of stunned students and shouldered his way out of the double doors that served as the exit to that wing of the building. Protocol be damned, he had to get home. His body ran on autopilot, muscles straining and heart pumping. His wife and newborn daughter, he had to get to them. There were others who had the same idea apparently, students and the odd faculty member who had chosen to ignore the schools strict guidelines like he had. In any other situation he would have called after them, chased them down and turned them back. Now he ran with them. His feet carried him over the grassy knoll that lay behind the school, dress shoes sinking into the damp earth. It didn't slow him at all.
He ran. He ran like he had never run before. All the years of track and field in high school and college came rushing back to him now. Pace yourself. Get into a proper running position. Don't tire yourself too soon or you'll never reach the finish. He'd never been great at it, never won any tournaments, but he'd still been pretty good, and that was all he needed now. As tempting as it was to sprint as fast as he could, the old memories told him to slow down. He complied, knowing he'd probably never make it otherwise.
He shot down the overgrown dirt path behind the school, ducking under the low hanging maple branches with a grace that belied his lanky stature. The path wasn't maintained at all, only roughly cut through the light copse of trees by him and the few other kids that lived near by. He'd thought about organizing them together to fix the path up, turn it into something more respectable and easier to traverse. He'd never gotten around to it. He cursed himself for it as his foot caught on a hidden root and sent him tumbling. His hands hit the dirt first, tiny, sharp rocks embedding themselves into his smooth palms. He grunted in no small amount of frustration as he picked himself up off the ground and began running again, far more aware of the trail in front of him. He swore at the precious seconds wasted as he weaved and ducked through the low hanging branches. The last tree slipped behind him as he shot out into the backstreets of his neighborhood.
His house was close. They had chosen it for that exact reason. It let him walk to work, saving their car for her to use. She worked at a high-rise office further in town and needed the car to get there. It had helped when she was pregnant too. Just in case she had needed to go to the hospital before he was home. Right now he was doubly glad the house was close, though with the car he might have shaved a minute or two off of the trip. Because of all the walking though, he knew the streets like the back of his own hand.
Surprisingly enough the streets and parkways that led home were empty of people. The announcement had to have been broadcast over public channels too. He had expected to see at least some of his neighbors scurrying about, running somewhere. Instead he all he saw was a stray dog sniffing at a fence and a wrinkled old woman sitting on her porch, staring up at the sky. She gave him a grim smile as he ran past, one he didn't return. As he turned onto his street he heard someone in the Thornton's house crying. They had played cards together on the weekends. Robert Thornton always made a mean apple cobbler for desert. He didn't stop for them either.
The pastel blue, cookie-cutter house slowly came into view as he raced down the street. The sight of the empty driveway almost made him stop running, but he knew that doing so would only have wasted time. Instead he sped up, sprinting the last hundred-and-fifty feet to his house. Frederick dodged around the fence that rimmed their yard and shot up the driveway. His feet pounded against the cracked and buckled pavement, leather shoes slapping on the cement walkway as he raced to his front door. He tried the knob before reaching for his keys. It was unlocked, luckily enough. He nearly jumped inside.
"Mary!?" He frantically called into the house. There was no answer. He called out again. "Mary!?" Again, there was no answer. He cursed, looking desperately around the empty house for any sign of where his wife had gone. The living-room held no information for him. No note was on the table, not that he really expected one. The fear and desperation mounting, he quickly checked every room in the house before finding himself alone in the kitchen. He spun in place in the middle of the floor, eyes darting every which-way, burning with a sort of crazed despair.
He spied the calendar hung above the dinette table tucked against the wall. Racing up to it he found what he was looking for. Marked on today's date was everything his wife had planned on doing. Under 11:30 AM, "Mrs. Bennson, Tea" was marked in the gentle sloping of his wife's handwriting. Mrs. Bennson was the local pastor's wife. He and Mary were of a different denomination, but Mary always thought that open theological discussion was a necessary part of maintaining your own faith. Fredericks couldn't exactly say he agreed with the sentiment, but he'd happily went with her to the Bennson's house a few times to please her. The discussion was interesting, if predictable. At least that meant he knew were the house was.
He slapped his hand against the calendar and bolted from the room. As he ran out the door he took a dread-filled glance at his watch. 11:44. There wasn't much time left. The seconds ticked by as he jumped off the small, concrete patio in front of his door. He vaulted over the picket fence in one smooth leap, heading for the street. He completely missed the pickup truck that was barreling towards him.
With him sprinting out into the road, the driver slammed on the brakes in response and threw the truck into a hard turn away from Frederick. Tires screeched on the hard-packed gravel, the truck rose first on two wheels, flipped on its side, and then slid off the road and into the culvert with a deafening crash, spraying mud and water high into the air.
Fredericks stared, dumbfounded at what had just happened, what he had just caused. Without making any sort of decision his body ran towards the crashed truck, and as he made it to the truck he reached out, steadying himself on the tailgate. The sunlight glinting off of his watch broke his subconscious action. He could hear the watch ticking over the settling of the truck, the engine gears clanking together in the machine's death-throes. The second hand moved relentlessly forward, charging towards the inevitable.
Tick. He could see the driver through the rear window. Tick. He didn't recognize the man slumped against the seat-belt. Tick. He didn't move, even as the water from the ditch slowly filled the truck through the broken windows. Tick. He didn't have the time. Tick. The man was probably dead anyway. Tick. Fredericks turned and started running again.
He looked back once as he turned onto another street. No one was coming to help the driver. Guilt flooded into Fredericks' brain, warring with his own sense of objectivity. The man would be alone, cold and wet as the end came. It was a horrible way to go. Fredericks didn't want that for himself, for his wife, for his child. He couldn't let that happen; let them be alone too. He pushed away the guilt and the fear and the self-loathing and urged his already burning legs to run even harder, adrenaline squeezing every last bit of speed that it could out of them. Without any other interruption he knew he'd make it to the Bennson's house in just under ten minutes. He'd make it, not with as much time to spare as he wished, but he'd make it.
Sirens whined in the distance as he ran. They came and went, fading in and out of his hearing as one source got further away and another grew closer. He didn't know why there were so many, he couldn't have imagined what on earth they were trying to accomplish in the short time they had. Maybe they were just running somewhere, like he was. What use was it, a small, hated part of his mind whispered. What good would it do any of them? He quashed the though mercilessly. It didn't matter what he thought. He had to be there for them.
There was screaming from up ahead. It was loud, high-pitched, most likely from a woman. It came from a house with a picket fence, just off to his right. It was another pre-fab house, looking very much like his own. Fredericks turned to look at it as he approached. He caught movement behind the living room window coming towards the door. Another scream pierced the air. It wasn't the screaming that stopped him, it was the front door opening. A woman in a pale red dress was frantically trying to leave the house. He recognized her, but only from seeing her in passing, likely in the local grocery store. Her eyes were wild, fearful. They were full of a terror that didn't pertain to the inevitable. No, the threat she feared was much, much closer.
A muscled arm reached out of the doorway from behind her, it snagged the back of her dress and held fast. She screamed again, pulling desperately against the fingers that held her by the collar.
"Let me go!" She screamed. "Please Abram! Oh God, please!" She kicked back at the man who held her. It was her husband, Fredericks realized. One of her kicks must have struck home because the woman was suddenly released. Overbalanced by the sudden loss of pulling force, she toppled forward, yelping as she sprawled on the front porch. Fredericks started moving towards the yard, as if preparing to jump the fence but something else stopped him again. The man, large and vicious looking, stood in the door frame. In his hand was a steel revolver.
"It's better this way Marlene. More humane." He said softly. Fredericks stared, captivated by the sight of what could so easily have been him. There was no remorse on the man's face, no pity. His wife shrieked at him.
"You killed him! Abram you killed our son! How could you!?" She was crying. Fredericks could hear the sobs even though her back was to him. His face twisted into a partial snarl, though it was obvious he wasn't angry with her. Fredericks' mouth parted to say something, shout something, anything. Nothing but a startled gasp came out.
"He was going to die anyway! That's how it is!" He yelled. "It's better this way! Better than huddling in fear, waiting for the end." He finished, waving the gun with his hand. She lay there, staring up at him.
"No, no, no." She whimpered. "Nonononono."
"Yes Marlene. I'm sorry." He said. The gun centered on her head. "I love you." Fredericks saw the finger tighten, but he still jumped at the gunshot. The woman, Marlene, collapsed onto the porch, blood contrasting horridly with the gray rock. The man looked up at Fredericks, eyes hollow.
"It's easier, son. It is. I'll take the blame for you too." The man's voice was steady, resigned. The gun raised again, this time to point at Fredericks.
"My wife." He said frantically, mind going blank with terror and desperation. "I have to get to my wife." Fredericks took a step back, muscles coiled to bolt. The ticking of the watch pounded in his skull, a constant reminder of the time he was wasting. A spark of something flashed in the man's eyes and the gun stopped its movement. The man's face slackened, looking numb. The spark in his eyes died.
"Ah. I understand." He said, his eyes leaving Fredericks' face and shifting back to his own wife's. Fredericks didn't hesitate, he took the moment's reprieve and ran fast and hard. He'd made it two houses down before he heard the second gunshot. He didn't look back, he knew he couldn't afford to. He just ran. It was only a few more houses away.
As he turned the corner onto the Bennson's street he spotted their house at the end of the lane. The Bennson's house was the largest on the street, cobbled together by the rest of the neighborhood in support of Mr. Bennson's parish. Fredericks almost whooped for joy at the sight of his wife's car parked out in front. Neither she, nor his daughter were out in the yard, but he didn't think they would be. They'd be with Mrs. Bennson, inside, or at least that was what he hoped.
He was breathing hard, running out of energy by the time he had reached the front lawn. He forced himself just a little further, jogging up the steps and bringing his right arm up to pound on the door. His watch face stared back at him, second hand ticking ever closer. 11:55. He ignored it, ignored his growing inner sense of doom and slammed his fist repeatedly against the door.
"Mary!" He called. "Mary it's me! Open up!"
It took a second, but then he heard someone fiddling with the bronze lock. The door swung open, revealing the thin, pale face of Mrs. Bennson. Her eyes were red and puffy, no doubt from crying. She smiled weakly at him.
"Mary's in the parlor." She said, voice subdued. He nodded, moving quickly past her as she stepped aside. As he entered the room he found Mary standing with their daughter held against her chest. Upon seeing him she rushed towards him, barreling into his open arms, tears leaking down her cheeks.
"Y-you made it." She stammered, looking up at his face. "I had hoped you would… but… the school is so far away, and-" He shushed her then, kissing her gently on the lips before pulling away. He squeezed her against him as the adrenaline faded from his system. Fredericks breathed in deeply, trying to take comfort in the smell of his wife's primrose shampoo.
"Of course I made it." He responded quietly He peered down at his daughter, wrapped in a pastel blue blanket, sleeping peacefully. He kissed her forehead before looking back into his wife's eyes. Her lower lip trembled and she shuddered against him. The baby stirred slightly, gurgling softly in its sleep, knotting her tiny fist into the cloth of her shirt.
"How's Sam been?" He asked, touching his daughter's face with a single finger, flicking her nose kindly. Mary made a strangled noise that was somewhere between a laugh and a sob. She looked down at Sam before answering.
"She's been great today," Mary choked out, "Didn't fuss at all. She's been so good. She's… She's not going to..." Mary trailed off, unable and unwilling to finish her thought. He was glad she didn't. He was barely holding it together as it was. The reminder of what was going to be lost… It would have broken him. Instead, Fredericks nodded sadly, clutching the two of them impossibly closer and . He looked up, into his wife's tear-filled eyes.
"It'll be okay Mary, it'll be okay." He told her even though his voice betrayed him, hitching slightly as water welled in his own eyes. She nodded once, sharply, before burying herself into his shoulder. She shook with quiet sobs, and he could feel her tears wetting the fabric of his shirt. He cried too, holding her close. Mrs. Bennson came into the room, weeping openly as well. She collapsed into a chair, clutching a picture frame to her chest. A small part of Fredericks pitied her, but was too caught up in his own feelings to offer the woman any support.
With a second's though he looked up, past his wife's shoulder, out of the parlor window. The view was good, he supposed. The window gave him a line of sight all the way over the city center, through the few, lonely skyscrapers and ending with the rocky, purple mountains that ringed the city. It reminded him of the evenings the two of them had spent in those mountains, running from trail to trail, stream to stream, lost in the warmth of the summer. His eyes darted across the sky, looking in vain for a sign of what was to come. Did he have regrets? He looked away from the window, tightening his grip on his wife and child. No, he had no regrets. A tearful smile stretched its way across his face as he held his family in his arms. They were the last thing he saw. The world turned white. He felt, more than heard a rumbling, and then, he knew no more.
The center of the city had become a massive pit, covered in a sheet of glass that had formed as the very earth melted in the explosion. The dust cloud was massive, arcing high into the afternoon sky, throwing tainted dirt and debris miles away from the epicenter. Fires burned everywhere.
In the ruins of an obliterated house on the far edge of the city a mass of scorched flesh and bone lay scattered amongst the red-hot bricks and flaming timbers, slowly turning to ash. Barely audible over the crackling of the fires, the steady tick, tick, tick, of an old, battered, analogue watch could be heard. Somehow, through either fluke or miracle, the watch was shielded from the blast, staying intact for a few seconds even as the world burned around it. It kept ticking as the heat turned its owner into ash and charred its leather strap. As the fires burned and the city evaporated the ticking slowed, and then stopped as the watch succumbed to the heat. The gearing melted together, stopping the motion of its hands forever on 12:00.