The Molybdenum Corporation of America, known locally as "the Molly-be-damned," was Washington, Pennsylvania's chief industry. Molybdenum was, of course, one of those essential defense materials, a strengthener for iron and steel and essential for many electronics applications as well. So we kids were all pretty sure we none of us had to worry about the grim aftermath of World War III. When it came, the Soviet Union was sure to spare one of their second-tier nukes to take us out.
"That really bites," Jerry said. He and I and Weird Chuck were lying on the grass out front of the college library, staring at the clouds and talking about whatever entered our heads. The year was 1961. "Why should I die just because I live in the same town as the Molly-be-damned?"
"What are you, some kind of commie?" I asked. "You're gonna die because you're an American, like the rest of us."
"You're not going to die."
"Shut up, Chuck," Jerry said. "Everybody dies sooner or later."
"I mean, not in a nuclear war. I got powers."
"Like what? You gonna fly up and toss those missiles into orbit, like Superman?" Jerry grabbed at Chuck's belt. "Lemme see your Superman underwear."
"Knock it off!" Chuck punched Jerry, and wriggled a few feet away. "No, I got the power to put things off."
"Like homework? I can do that too," I said. The sky was bright and blue. There were fleecy clouds in it. One of them looked like a kangaroo.
"No, it's like … " Chuck shrugged. "You know that history paper Mrs. Ford kept postponing? That was because I forgot to do it. So I just put it off until I had something to turn in. I don't know how it works. It just does."
"You dipwad!" Laughing, Jerry sat up too. "You think —"
"Holy crap," I said.
There in the sky, something bright was arcing down on us. Fast. My gut clenched. Somehow, I knew it was an ICBM. I knew the war had finally come. I knew we were all about to die.
"Later," Chuck said. He waved a negligent hand at the sky. "After I'm dead."
I hardly know how to describe what happened then. The world just felt different. And that bright light in the sky—whatever it was—was gone. It didn't even leave a vapor trail behind.
But then Jerry piled on top of Chuck, and Chuck got mad and went home, and Jerry and I decided to collect bottles along the highway for the deposit money so we could buy some fishing lures, and what with one thing and another I forgot the incident entirely.
Until just now. I had been to see Chuck. He was in pretty bad shape, and the nurse said he didn't have long to live. And coming out of the hospital, I remembered that day so long ago when Chuck said he could postpone things.
Even a nuclear war.
I'm in my fifties now and, ironically enough, I work for the Molly-be-damned. I have a wife and children and too many obligations to even think of moving away. Anyway, that was a long time ago. Memory plays tricks on you. Probably what actually happened was nothing like how I remembered it. Still … I stand outside the hospital and stare into the twilight sky and wonder. What if he was right? What if Armageddon was only postponed?
A single bright star blossoms in the sky. I make a wish on it.
© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.