The Johnsons were the model nuclear family at church and at home. They were a close-knit, loving Catholic clan consisting of Grandpa Johnson, Mr. and Mrs. Johnson, the teenage son Elijah Johnson, and — last, but certainly not least — the beautiful, young daughter Annabeth Johnson.
The Cod County Fourth of July Bonanza was already lively when the Johnsons arrived. Men tended to grills, a gaggle of young girls in sundresses were chasing each other around in the field, and some young boys were dropping fireworks down a steel air pipe protruding from the top of an in-ground tornado shelter next to the large house that was hosting the bonanza.
Time passed quickly — as it tends to do when everything is just fun and games.
Elijah Johnson came running out of the house, chasing his sister who was calling out and teasing him, waving the action figure around that she’d sneakily snatched from him inside.
“Hey, give that back!”
“You can’t catch me!”
“Come on, Annabeth! Be good! Sharing is caring!”
The girl held the action figure out and lept backward when her brother reached for it, laughing and dancing around him while he play-raged.
“Oh,” Elijah perked up, suddenly distracted by something behind Annabeth. “Look, your friend is here!”
As soon as his sister turned to look, Elijah snatched his action figure back from her grip and smiled sweetly, victorious.
“Not fair,” Annabeth fumed. “I thought you were supposed to be a good guy!”
“I am a good guy,” Elijah affirmed. “Now I’m a good guy with a sidekick again.”
The two quickly simmered and returned to their natural sibling rivalry with roles reversed: Elijah taunting his sister with the action figure while she unsuccessfully grabbed at it, while they both ran towards their parents mingling near the grill in case any other unfair shenanigans went down.
Out of nowhere, Mr. Johnson bellowed, “Kids, lay down — on the ground” and he dragged one kid with each arm down to the grass and held them tightly. Beside him, Mrs. Johnson huddled as closely as she could.
Annabeth wriggled free from her father’s grasp and started to ask “What’s wrong?” when a palpable sense of unease permeated through the family. The sound of ambient laughter from the lighthearted barbeque transitioned abruptly to silence, and then to screams.
“Close your eyes,” Mr. Johnson whispered to Annabeth before the world turned red and a steady stream of burning air assaulted the bonanza, blowing painfully and stronger than anything any of the Johnsons had ever felt before for what could have been an hour as easily as just a few seconds. The grass singed with smoldering edges on each blade of grass, the Johnsons’ skins all began to tingle, and the delightful smell of barbeque was blown away and replaced with ash, soot, charcoal, and the sulfurous stench of burnt hair.
The rush of scorching wind continued unabated, relentlessly tearing at the Johnsons’ clothes and skin. Annabeth screamed out in a distorted screech of pain that echoed between a deafening ringing in everyone’s ears and the world darkened to an unnatural, dark red hue.
Eventually, the blast of air died down and finally stopped.
“What, what, what, what, what, what,” Mrs. Johnson stuttered, staring stoically down at the blackened grass beneath her. Even the dirt had darkened and the texture had changed to something coarser, rougher on the hands. “What, what, what, what, what, what, what?”
“I can’t see,” Annabeth whispered, then repeated shrilly. “I can’t see!” She flung her arms around and accidentally smacked the men of her family, then reeled them in to aggressively caress her eyes, hoping to eke out some kind of visual signal.
Mr. Johnson was at his feet already, surveying the rest of the barbeque. Those who hadn’t dropped to the ground before the shockwave had been forcefully knocked over; everyone else was still either still lying still or attempting to stand.
Elijah grabbed his dad’s hand for support and scrambled up to his own shaky feet, like a fawn learning to stand for the first time. Then he reached down to help his sister up. Her skin had turned a dark red and he held his arm out to compare his to hers but gasped when he saw the same burnt sienna discoloring across his own body. And it itched — badly.
“We should get in the shelter,” Elijah suggested, trying to inject logic into the situation. “In case it happens again.”
“I can’t see,” Annabeth continued to wail. “I’m blind!”
“Mom, get up!”
Elijah and his dad helped Mrs. Johnson to her feet and it looked like she would immediately collapse back to the Earth, but she didn’t. Slowly, she silently scanned the chaotic mess of what had been the barbeque just minutes prior.
“Come on, mom. Let’s get in the shelter, right over there. You too, Annabeth.”
The family was shaken, but stood as a unit and moved toward the shelter next to the house. Other families seemed to be recovering as well, although it was difficult for anyone to hear anything with so much residual ringing in their ears.
The shelter door was already open but the shelter was empty. The boy that had been lighting firecrackers inside the shelter before the calamity had since run off to find his parents (dead) and hadn’t bothered to close and lock the door as he’d found it.
“Inside,” Elijah ordered, guiding his sister down a half-dozen stairs into the dark depths. He returned to the entrance to do the same with Mrs. Johnson, but stopped when he saw his dad missing; he looked toward the house and saw Mr. Johnson frozen at the front door, staring inside.
Behind the house, the silhouette of a crimson mushroom cloud expanded over the horizon, lighting the sky up in an even deeper red that spread instantaneously across the entire sky, illuminating the world with a blinding brightness that not even the sun could manage.
“Dad,” Elijah screamed. “Dad! Over here! Back here! In the shelter, please!”
The bloody sky caught Mr. Johnson’s attention instead and he rushed into the house instead. Time froze and Elijah stared, defeated, at the house that would shortly be entirely obliterated. At the last second, Elijah pushed his mom into the shelter and sealed the door behind them, wishing with all his heart to suddenly hear his dad pounding on the door to be let into safety.
When the Johnsons eventually emerged from the shelter, there was nothing left of the house or anyone that had been inside — or outside — other than a field of scrap metal. Annabeth was permanently blind from that afternoon on, and Mrs. Johnson never recovered from a nervous breakdown from the blast. Mr. Johnson had died trying to save Grandpa Johnson, and Elijah would never forgive himself for not doing the same for his own dad.
Those who had managed to cheat death that day regretted their luck. A lethal dose of radiation in Annabeth, Mrs. Johnson, and Elijah, caused nothing but pain and sickness until they each died, in order, over the next three days.