Matthew Wilcox is the one that made the bomb stop exploding. And no one knew where it came from, or who dropped it. We didn't even really know the payload, whether it was a full megaton or ten or a splinter from a cluster bomb. All we knew, when everyone in Pine Falls woke up at three thirty-six and fifteen seconds, is that it was hanging in the sky just outside of the city limits, and that a man named Matt Wilcox had made it stop - just after it started to go off.
Everyone. Every woman, every child knew that name.
It happened at three thirty-six and fifteen seconds, and the town meeting happened a little less than an hour later. I say it that way for a reason. The town meeting happened, it wasn't called. People woke up, got out of their homes, and they started walking toward city hall to talk about it. There was a thick orange glow in the sky, just bright enough to trip the sensors in the automatic street lamps, and make baby birds start crying from the nest for early worms.
Some denied what they knew, denied knowing it, claimed it was just the morning sun - and they ignored that the light was coming from up north, over by where the air field was. A lot of the older folks, who had lived through the Cold War figured that's probably what the target was. Lots of silos underground up by the airfield. And Pine Falls was just a bullet hole's width from it on a map.
The mayor got on the phone, called up Califax where the O'nasses Dairy Plant was to see how they were doing. The phones just whistled, like electric wind through an old house. He set it down and chewed his cheek for a while, and then assembled a team to head out into the world to check on them. Sixteen men we never heard from again. Their trucks just stopped on the highway as soon as they reached the exit to town. Six people working at the Farm 'n Fresh saw it. They just stopped moving, like their truck had turned to Polaroid.
The first real question asked, when that strange meeting at the town hall started, wasn't about what had just happened. It wasn't about the phones, and it certainly wasn't about the truck no one knew had already been sent. The first question asked when the room finally got quiet, was from Jessica - who was sitting at the head of Pine Falls city counsel. No one had asked her to go up, but Jessica was known for her initiative and, though young, the people in town tended to listen when she spoke. Jessica had a good heart, the kind where you could tell just by listening. It was an odd question she asked.
"Why do we all know it was Matt Wilcox that stopped it?"
And nobody really had an answer. Matt wasn't much of a man to speak of. He worked down at the autoshop, but he didn't know much about cars so he was low on the totem pole there. He was married to a woman of his same forty years, name of Janet. Janet McHiggens-Wilcox was a nice woman, hard of hearing. Had no patience for drinkers. She took the stage next, and Jessica let her.
"I woke up the same as everybody else. And I knew Matt had done it. Somehow I knew." She paused then, shaking her head and pantomiming how her hand had reached over to where her husband should have been in bed, "He wasn't there, though. I don't know where he went."
"He's up on the hill," Jerry Bivens' kid said. Jerry Junior was seventeen, sitting at the town hall with his girl Tonny. They didn't say much else. Most folks were able to deduce which hill they meant. The old quarry lip where high school kids liked to go. You understand what I mean.
Half the town went up there then, to that man on the hill, drunk, stopping that spark from swallowing us all. He had half a bottle of paint thinner whiskey in his hand, and a receipt for it from Sir Gas-A-Lot where he had made the purchase just a few days prior. He was sitting on a stump with red eyes, staring as hard as he could into the burning face of a frozen nuclear holocaust with piss snaking his trouser legs.
Janet ordinarily would have started yelling then, finding out that Matt was drinking out in the world without telling her. But she wasn't mad then. She just sort of looked at him with a patient kind of love, then up at what he was looking at. He was rocking a little and talking the words to an old Hank Williams song. Car headlights were pulling around him, spilling on his back and then to the side as they parked behind him and whole families got out to look up at the sky.
It took the better part of an hour to talk him down off the hill. Someone brought him a blanket, and others asked him a lot of questions. Eventually, he agreed to stop staring at the thing in the sky. He explained later that he had thought the thing would start moving again if he blinked too much, or looked away. But he had been wrong. And after everyone got him a fresh set of clothes and enough coffee to sober a little, he said he had the biggest headache of his life - and everyone let him sleep.
Hours passed. Many hours. The sun never rose.
More groups were assembling, thinking about leaving town to go out into the world to see if explanations could be found there. The television channels showed single frozen images on every channel, constant streams of the same tone of sound. The internet didn't work. Phone reception all over was fine, but no information came in or went out. The rest of the world, at least as far as Pine Falls was concerned, had simply stopped in mid stroke. And so they could see that the world wasn't offering them anything in the way of answers.
Without facts, the townspeople shared words. At the end of the first day, the mayor's office got wind that a second group, Robby Hicker and his boys had set out to leave town on foot with rifles in hand for anyone who tried to stop them. They were found in a field, like scarecrows, standing still with their guns. They stayed like that. For them, time had stopped.
No one went near them.
Matthew got a lot of visits that week. Work resumed in the farms, but that first month we mostly stuck to the fields well inside the perimeter of town. No one knew for sure just how far existence went, how far you could go without getting stuck. After the first month, the grass kept growing and we used that to indicate where we could and couldn't go. Signs went up at the edge of town. Don't go into the short grass.
Hard to say why the grass kept going, but Marge over at the florist shop noticed that all her sunflowers were pointing at that big orange thing in the sky, like it was a sun. There was no day and no night, just that dull orange raining whatever light we could get down. And the plants loved it.
That's how Dr. Mackel from the university guessed that time hadn't stopped exactly, as best he could tell. There was still some kind of a transfer of energy happening, just at a rate slow enough that the nuclear explosion was not harmful, more like a sunrise. When asked what might have caused something like this, he shrugged angry,
"I don't know, Judith. Why don't you get a PhD in thermal engineering and tell me?"
The boys in town started up a hobby of sticking arrows in the sky. After a month, most of the birds disappeared. Well, they didn't disappear. They were like a big black halo in a ring around the perimeter of town. Funerals for the men who stopped in the field never happened.
Dalton Fuller, the greasy spoon line cook was the first one to ask to be taken to the edge of town after his heart attack. With Pine Falls cut off from the hospital it wasn't looking good. He asked to be taken to the park at the edge of town, and that's where we pushed his wheelchair - down the hill until it stopped in the short grass, him with his arms up like he was riding a roller coaster. Dalton Fuller never died, way we see it.
A year passed like that.
Life in the town was simple, but in its own way we were still living through the end of the world - just not the one we had pictured. We had to learn to live on our own, make what we needed. Matt stopped working at the auto mechanic's after it closed, and he started working the soil on his property to grow food for him and Janet. The Wilcox's never had any kids. Never had the time for it.
Years started slipping past us, and bit by bit the old world faded from memory. We never exactly forgot about it, but after a few years it came up a lot less in conversation. Matt Wilcox got older, old enough that his eyes started turning yellow and his doctor told the rest of us that his liver was showing signs of giving up. He'd been drinking this whole time, quietly, by himself. He never bothered anybody, so we never really noticed.
And so the second meeting in the history of
Pine Falls was called to discuss Matt. Janet didn't go to this one.
"Matt's dying," mayor Jessica said, older now, "The doctor says it could be next month, or a year from now. Now ordinarily I wouldn't consider it our business, but there's that fire in the sky and I'd like to just talk to you and see what you all have to say about it."
"What's going to happen to us when he dies?" someone said. It didn't matter who. Anybody could have said it. We were all thinking it.
"He doesn't have to die," another said.
The dying were like statues, immortal at the
edge of town where they stood in fields, caught mid-stride as they backed away, waving inward. There was a circle of them all around us, all dressed in their sunday finest.
No one ever had to die.
But leave it to Matt to go off and find that hill while everyone in town figured out what to do with him. He sat there yellow eyed, staring at that sun with a half bottle of fine scotch in his hand. When the Sheriff found him, the first thing he did was feel the drunk's neck for a pulse.
Matt Wilcox was dead. But the sun - our new old sun - never set, never grew and swallowed us up. It just stood, burning over us in the cool forever morning.
Maybe some day time will start again, but I don't know. And I don't know what will happen when it does. I know the bomb will finish what started all those years ago, and whoever tries to find out what happened to Pine Falls will find a crater, same as you'd expect. I'd say they'd find more bodies than usual buried in the cemetery, but no one's visited it in years. And without new deaths, there's no need for head stones.
I still get a kick out of some politician somewhere talking to America, mourning our town publicly, saying every life in our town was snuffed out in an instant. Maybe he's right. Or maybe our town will just go on forever - in this doomed footprint.