When she came downstairs to make breakfast, she found Howard hovering over a box wrapped in brown paper.
‘This came for us in the post,’ he told her.
She lifted the box and turned it in her hands. ‘But it’s got no stamps on it. Someone must have dropped it for us personally.’
He snatched it back from her and tore through the paper, pulling out wads of last week’s news to reveal the strange black steel ball inside.
‘What is it?’ she wondered.
‘There’s a letter,’ he noticed. He handed the ball to his wife and unfolded the accompanying sheet of paper covered in unfamiliar black handwriting.
She ran her hands along the smooth surface of the ball, fingering the side, where she discovered a sort of key sticking out, waiting to be pulled.
‘It’s a bomb,’ Howard shocked her, staring at the page.
‘What!’ she cried, unthinkingly throwing the object away from them.
They both threw themselves onto the floor, expecting the explosion. But there was none. The ball just landed in the middle of the kitchen with a clatter and sat there. The ‘key’ jumped out in the tumble and bounced once before lying still, next to its parent.
They remained crouched, unbelieving, before slowly pulling themselves up to sit at the kitchen table. Howard brought the letter up to his eyes again so he could continue reading, this time out loud. Samantha listened carefully to every word, but she never took her eyes off the bomb.
‘“It works a bit like a grenade. You pull the pin and wait for it to explode. Except you don’t have a set number of seconds before the explosion; the bomb is triggered by someone (or something) coming within 2 feet of it.
‘“But that doesn’t mean it’s certain this will trigger it. You may be lucky; it might choose to wait until the next person comes too close.
‘“And it won’t explode just once. This is a special bomb designed to withstand its own force and reset itself for future fun.”’
‘Fun?’ Samantha repeated in disgust. ‘Whose idea of a sick joke is this?’
Howard shook his head to show he didn’t know, and then kept reading.
‘“Frequently Asked Questions: Can the bomb be dismantled? The only way to disable the bomb is to replace the pin in its slot.”’
‘A lot of good that does, then,’ Samantha grumbled.
‘“How big will the explosion be? It should only reach about four feet in any direction away from the bomb’s location. But be warned: this explosion is still very powerful and will kill if you’re next to the bomb when it goes off.”’
He reached the end of the text and folded up the paper, placing it on the table.
‘We have to get rid of it,’ said Samantha.
‘Were you listening to a word of that?’ Howard snapped at her.
She winced. The last thing they needed right now was for Howard to get into one of his tempers.
‘The only way to dismantle the thing is to replace the pin. But you can’t replace the pin because that’s what makes it explode.’
‘I know,’ she said, her eyes wobbling in tears, ‘but we can’t just leave it there!’
‘Mummy?’ came a tiny voice from the staircase that stood across the kitchen, past the bomb, and through the doorway. They both turned to look at their three-year-old son heading toward them, wanting his breakfast.
‘No!’ both parents screamed at once. They waved their arms about and shook their heads to emphasise the point, but the little boy walked on.
‘Don’t come in here, Joey, no!’ Samantha was yelling, while Howard shouted, ‘Stop! Go back upstairs, now!’
But all Joey said was, ‘I’m hungry,’ and he plodded through the doorway and into the kitchen.
‘No!’ Samantha’s voice rang out shrill and piercing, tears streaming down her face as she waited for her only child to be blown to smithereens right before her eyes.
But then just a few seconds later, he was jumping into her arms, wanting to know what all the fuss was about.
‘It didn’t go off,’ said Howard.
‘It didn’t go off,’ Samantha repeated, incredulous. ‘Oh God, it didn’t go off.’ She smothered her son in kisses.
‘Let go, Mummy, stop,’ Joey whined, but she just held him more tightly. Then she dropped to her knees so she was eye level with him.
‘You see that ball there?’ she asked, pointing to the bomb. ‘It’s very dangerous. You are not going near it again. You’re going to hold Mummy’s hand and do whatever I tell you. Understand?’ When he didn’t answer, she said again, ‘Understand?’
Her voice was heavy enough to persuade him to nod.
‘I’m calling the police,’ she told Howard.
‘With what? All the phones are past the kitchen.’
‘I’m going next door, then. We shouldn’t stay here anyway.’
He shrugged. ‘Go on, then.’
‘Aren’t you coming with us?’
She stared at him, trying to work him out. A few years ago, she might have questioned him, but the scar left on her right temple – the one she covered up with make-up and then brushed her hair over – taught her not to interfere when he got it in his mind to do something.
‘Be safe,’ was all she could think to say, and then she took Joey out of the house and went to see their neighbour Claire.
‘A bomb,’ Claire repeated several times after she heard the story.
‘Yes, Claire, now may I please use your phone?’ Samantha requested again.
‘Oh, I’m so sorry, I’m just...overwhelmed. It’s right through there, on the table.’
Samantha went where she was directed and picked up the black cordless phone...and found her mind had gone completely blank. It was like she was staring at hieroglyphs rather than phone buttons; she couldn’t figure out how to dial a number. Then she saw her hands were trembling, and she realised so far she had been running on adrenaline and not noticed just how terrified she was. She sank to the floor in floods of tears, recalling the moment she thought her son was about to die.
Claire hurried in with Joey. ‘Oh honey, let me make the call.’ She took the phone from Samantha’s hands and dialled 999.
‘That’s right, a bomb. This isn’t a joke, this is serious! ...okay...okay...yes...yes, I understand...yes, thank you.’ She gave Samantha’s address and ended the call. ‘They’re sending the bomb squad straight away.’
Samantha only cried more, until she felt like she was choking and she needed air. She reached up her arm for Claire to help pull her up, and together they stumbled out the front door, standing on the patio. Samantha heaved in deep breaths, trying to steady herself. Joey pushed his way between her legs and stood in front of her, and she put her hands on his shoulders to hold him to her.
‘What...,’ Claire began, and then Samantha noticed him too. Howard was at the front door of their own house, pushing the bomb with the end of a long broom.
Somehow this made Samantha forget all about her terror. ‘Howard, what the hell do you think you’re doing?’
He looked up. ‘What does it look like I’m doing, Sam?’ he snarled back at her. ‘You said we had to get rid of it, so I’m getting rid of it.’
‘I didn’t mean for you to risk your life!’
‘It’s okay, it’s safe. This broom’s over four feet long, so the explosion can’t touch me.’
‘One, we don’t know that for sure because we’ve never seen it go off,’ she began ticking off her points on her fingers, ‘and two, it might not kill you, but that letter said nothing about it not maiming you for life!’
Howard looked like he’d been slapped. He obviously hadn’t thought of that. But she could see he didn’t care, either. ‘I’m getting rid of it,’ he spoke with finality.
He continued pushing the bomb, one slow inch at a time, down their front walk. His audience held their breath, their chests tight inside, but miraculously the bomb never went off. At last, he left the bomb where the pavement met their front garden.
‘Now it can’t touch us,’ he announced, beaming at his wife as if he expected her to be proud and thankful.
‘That really helps the neighbours when they walk by, right?’ she snapped at him. ‘You should have left it in the house until the police came. The bomb squad are on their way as we speak!’
He shrugged. ‘I wonder how it resets itself after it explodes,’ was all he said.
And then he crept toward the deadly object like he sometimes did with Joey when he wanted to surprise him.
‘What’s he doing?’ Claire whispered to Samantha, as if she would have any idea.
Meanwhile, Howard approached closer and closer to the bomb, as if daring it to go off. Once, the bomb made a ‘click’ sound, stopping him in his place. But it didn’t seem in the mood for doing more than clicking, and this made Howard laugh.
And then he kicked it.
He reared backward, and then flung his foot forward at the steel ball with all the strength he could summon. It flew a house-and-a-half down the street, but when it landed, it merely rattled.
Howard stood, amazed, just staring at it down the road. Then, ‘Ha!’ He let out a long, loud scream, drawing several neighbours out into their doorways, while the others just watched through their windows. Samantha could see they looked nervous, which she understood. Howard had a way of doing that to people.
‘Howard,’ she tried, stepping forward, but Claire caught her by the arm and pulled her back, shaking her head and mouthing the word no.
He hadn’t heard her, anyway. He just kept on screaming. When that lost its flavour, he started jumping, throwing his arms around in the air.
‘What’s wrong with Daddy?’ Joey asked his mother.
Startled, she looked down at him. ‘Honey, go inside the house. Claire, can you put on the telly for him?’
‘Of course,’ said Claire. She took the boy by the hand. ‘Come on, love. We’ll find you some cartoons.’
‘In the Night Garden!’ Joey shouted with glee.
‘Maybe,’ nodded Claire, not really knowing what show he meant, but not about to admit it and lose her leverage.
Samantha shot her a look of gratitude, but was soon drawn back to the spectacle on the street. Now her husband seemed to have remembered her watching him. He shouted to her, ‘I don’t think it’s even a real bomb!’
There was a sharp unified gasp amongst the neighbours looking on, followed by much whispering: ‘A bomb?’ ‘Did he say a bomb?’ Samantha felt she should do something.
‘It’s okay, the police are coming!’ she yelled.
‘The police,’ Howard sniggered. ‘Call them back and tell them not to bother. That’s no bomb.’
‘I don’t know....’ Samantha shifted in place when she saw he was coming over to her with that glowering look on his face that she only saw once before they married, and since then it seemed it was on the increase – lately, up to once a month. She used to think perhaps things would get better, they could work things out. But when she did the math, the future looked bleak.
‘For fuck’s sake, Samantha,’ he said when he neared her. ‘What are you trying to do, make me look crazy in front of everyone?’
Why would I, when you’re doing a good enough job of it yourself? was what she thought, but she knew better than to say it aloud.
‘What if you’re wrong? What if it is a bomb?’ she asked.
‘Were you watching me? I pushed the thing out the house,’ he narrated, pointing at their front door to make his point clear, ‘then out onto the grass.’ He stamped on the wet overgrown grass blades, uneven in height. ‘And then I kicked the piece of shit. It flew. And it did nothing.’
‘The letter said....’
‘Fuck the letter. It’s some prank. Why are you always so fucking naive?’ he spat.
Even if she could have formed the words to reply, she didn’t have time because a siren cut them off. It was low and distant, but it seemed to be speeding toward them. ‘It’s the bomb squad,’ she said.
Howard rolled his eyes. ‘I couldn’t have worked that out myself.’ He turned from her and sauntered up the street toward the possibly explosive device.
One of their neighbours from across the road took the opportunity to approach her. It was an elderly woman named Miriam. She tapped Samantha on the shoulder, making her jump. ‘I’m so sorry,’ Miriam said. ‘I didn’t mean to scare you. Just....’
‘I know,’ said Samantha. She didn’t even need to hear the question; there weren’t too many things it could be.
‘I don’t mean to offend,’ Miriam started again.
To their right, the bomb squad finally made their appearance, swerving into a loose parking space and jumping out. Samantha hurried to them.
‘Are you the woman who called us?’ one of them asked her.
‘Yes.’ And she went through the whole story again, fighting off fresh tears as she once more had to acknowledge the reality of the situation.
When she finished, they headed up the road to the offending object and the man in charge spoke gruffly to her husband. ‘Please step aside.’
‘It’s not even real. What’s she been telling you?’ was the reply.
The man in charge gave Samantha a look, and then looked back at Howard. ‘I wasn’t asking, I was giving an order. Step. Aside.’
‘Really, just watch. Watch this.’ And he kicked the ball again, flinging it about ten feet away –
and it exploded.
The air split with the sound and everyone threw themselves to the ground.
When the noise died away, Samantha rose, trembling all over, her heart pounding. She looked to see a small crater where the bomb had been...but she knew it would still be there, sitting at the centre, waiting. The pin would still be out – lost in the rubble, now, no doubt. And it would have reset itself. Who knew when it would go off again – but it definitely would go off. There was nothing Howard could say to the contrary, now.
He appeared to be shaky, as well. He had clapped his hands over his head, and now he put them back down at his side and just stared.
The official was the only one who seemed to recover. ‘We’ll be handling this now,’ he said, and this time Howard didn’t argue.
By the end of the evening, they used a crane to lower a huge metal dome over the bomb, and then slid thin sheet metal underneath, to encase it. They soldered it shut before using the same crane to carry it ever so slowly into the back of a truck, which was rigged up with sirens but would drive at the speed of a snail. They would bury it somewhere where it could explode itself deeper and deeper into the earth, until perhaps they could forget it.
When they were finished asking questions and had taken the letter and package that accompanied the bomb, Samantha found herself standing alone with Howard. She had put Joey to bed at Claire’s, feeling it was safer there, just for the night.
‘Thank God it’s all over,’ she said, just for something to say.
Howard didn’t answer. That same glowering expression had returned to his face.
‘What’s wrong?’ she asked.
‘You show me up like that and then ask what’s wrong,’ he said, scowling.
‘What?’ Her face was one of pure bewilderment. ‘Howard, it was a bomb!’ She pressed her hands to her head, ready to tear out her own hair. ‘Did we live through the same day, today?’
‘Don’t fucking talk to me,’ he shot back, disgust dripping from his words. He headed back into their house, leaving her alone in the street.
Samantha looked up the road in the direction where the bomb squad had driven off with what was someone’s twisted idea of a surprise gift for them. Then she looked back at her house, at her hateful husband.
You forgot to take the bomb with you, she thought. You left him here with me.