Based on true events.*
A long, high whistling. A flash. A boom. The scent of burning skin. The buffeting scorch of searing flames, rolling toward eternity…
I had to do it.
There was no way around it anymore. I had tried to reason it away. To make it all okay. It wasn’t. Then I tried to say it was someone else’s fault. Their responsibility.
I couldn’t say that any longer, either.
The apartment building bustled with noise, the folks downstairs arguing over the sound of their television, pipes clanking from showers or dinner clean up. The woman upstairs tapped back and forth, back and forth, getting ready for a Friday night date.
The refrigerator ticked over and hummed from the kitchen, keeping the ghost of tonight’s spaghetti dinner company.
There was no going out for me. I was a mother with a child to take care of. My husband, Paul, worked swing shift and wouldn’t be home for a few more hours.
We’d argued about this for months now. He was afraid. Afraid to lose me. Afraid to raise Lily alone.
I paced between the overstuffed bookshelves and the battered red sofa, and brown corduroy easy chairs. Our tiny television lived in the closet until it was time for Sesame Street. I didn’t believe in television in general, but figured for Lily, Sesame Street was okay.
Tonight though? I could have used the passive entertainment of some dumb sitcom. I was too restless to settle in with a book. Too nervous.
Too angry. Couldn’t eat. Had barely touched my dinner, though I enjoyed the smear of sauce across Lily’s chubby white cheeks. Couldn’t really sleep. All I could do was think.
Every night for the past month, I had paced the living room floor and prayed as Lily slept sweetly in the next room.
Lily was only five years old. She needed a chance to live. She wasn’t going to get a chance if these bastards had their way.
There was a lot at stake. So much riding on this. But for me? There was only her.
What I was planning – or pondering planning – was risky. It might take me away from Lily for a long time. That would make me a bad mother, wouldn’t it?
My parents might say so, and I wondered if they would even forgive me, if it came down to that. But they would help Paul with Lily all the same.
Besides, it was either risk arrest, or risk my daughter’s death.
There had to be a reckoning, large or small.
Clarity. I walked over to the beige, touch tone wall phone, picked up the receiver, and punched in the number I had memorized one month ago.
The phone rang and rang in my ear. Finally, a voice answered. A voice I recognized. Mark’s. The one who had sent out the original call.
Bruce walked the long, cold stretches of cement along the building perimeter. His padded work jacket was warm, and he’d made sure to put on wool support socks, so his legs and feet weren’t aching too badly tonight. It had been a mild winter, but February in Pennsylvania was still cold no matter what.
The long beam of his heavy Maglight swept toward the parking lot. Not many cars left at nine o’clock on a Friday night. Couple of serviceable Buicks, and a fancy Porsche one of the head engineers drove. Bruce bet next time he made rounds, they’d all be gone.
Gray slush hugged the edges of the lot. He’d be glad to see that gone.
Security guard at the electric company research plant? Not the most exciting job Bruce had ever worked, but it was easy enough for a retirement gig. He didn’t know what all went on with half of the research they did in this place, but some of it seemed pretty tricky. They weren’t making better lightbulbs here, that was for sure.
He especially wondered about what they did in that big bay of a warehouse room in the center of the complex.
He’d asked his boss about it his first week on the job, and was told to just pay attention to keeping the plant secure.
“Heck, even if I understood what the scientists and engineers are doing here, I couldn’t explain it to you. Just make your rounds, watch the camera feeds, read a magazine. Okay?”
And that’s what Bruce had done, five nights a week for the last six months. Oh, his supervisor was lying –Bruce knew a brush off when he saw one – but the man was also right, worrying about what exactly they were manufacturing at MidAtlantic Electric was so far above his pay grade, it wasn’t worth it.
He checked the heavy glass double doors. Locked. That was good. He’d already checked the front and side.
Jangling the ring of keys out from his pocket, he unlocked the back doors and stepped inside.
Then he carefully locked them again, before starting his circuit of the long, linoleum hallways.
The only thing he didn’t like about this job?
It was always too quiet.
Bruce never cared much for quiet.
My hands were sweating. We had just inched over into March, but it may as well have been July. I was regretting the rust, cowl necked sweater I’d put on over my jeans.
We were in Mark Schlessinger’s home. Seven of us clustered around the rectangle of the kitchen table. Two of the other women and all four men, everyone drinking instant coffee. No one touched the plate of butter cookies Mark’s wife Kathy had set out. Too keyed up, I guess.
We were all white, basically middle class. Not one of us was special.
We were college students, working people, parents, and two elders – Jan and Rick– who had to be near seventy. Damn. If they could do this, so could I.
The eighth of our cohort, Sarah, smoked near the kitchen window, leaning against the sink. She was a photographer. Around thirty, plump and pretty, her dark hair was cut short, and curled around her wide, pale face. The window was open a crack, but instead of sucking the smoke out of the room, the cold breeze pushed it back into the room.
Besides Mark, I barely knew these people before we started meeting, but after four months of planning, I knew them well enough. I hoped. Because tonight, I was throwing my lot in with them, one hundred percent. Tonight was the night we had to confirm whether we were willing to go ahead. We’d checked in about this every step of the way, getting confirmation from all present.
There couldn’t be any doubts, with this type of work. It was too risky. Too dangerous. We had talked about all contingencies, spoken our fears out loud, and prayed for strength.
One person’s reticence could mean disaster for us all.
Mark spoke. “I hope you’ve all had enough time to pray and discern, because the clock is officially ticking.”
“Should we go over the plan one more time?” Sarah asked from her window perch.
“No.” My own voice startled me. “We’ve gone over and over it. It’s as good as it’s going to get. We just need to decide. To move. I’m sick of waiting around.”
I was, too. The longer this went on, the more nervous and the more certain I became. It was a strange combination. It felt as though my insides wanted to burst outward. Some nights, it felt as if the edges of my skin were on fire.
Like tonight. I was incandescent with the holy fire the prophets spoke of. The flame of righteousness. Used to seeing that in Jan and Rick’s wise eyes, I never thought I’d feel it in myself.
The flaming sword wielded by Old Testament angels.
The hands and arms that cradled my daughter’s little body, and gentled her to sleep, now held that sword.
There was no turning back.
If I was going to save Lily, nervous or not, the deed had to be done.
It was a Wednesday night, around ten thirty, and Bruce was making his rounds.
“Forgive us our trespasses…”
Bruce swore he heard voices coming from down the short hall leading to the big bay, the largest research area in the entire plant. Willing the thick rubber soles of his shoes to not squeak, he unclipped the heavy Maglight from his belt and eased down the hallway.
A sliver of pale light outlined the double wooden doors. People were trespassing, all right. The last scientist had left an hour ago.
Bruce paused in front of the doors. The small white plaque to one side of the doors read “Space Systems Division, Re-Entry.”
The doors led to a big bay, a wide open space filled with machinery and metal. What MAE had to do with space systems, he had no idea. But everything needed electricity, right? Computers. Industrial plants. Rocket ships.
Bruce’s suspicions about exactly what work went on behind those doors was deepening, but he was pretty good at keeping that to himself.
If anyone outside of work asked, he always said he was just a security guard. His supervisor was right. There was no use in knowing.
Speaking of which, Bruce wondered if he should high tail it back to the office and call his supervisor. It wasn’t as if Bruce carried a gun or anything. He was the lowest level worker here. Well, except for janitorial staff, maybe.
But it was still his job to check things out. And office access was either through this bay, or back around the outside. He couldn’t risk whoever was behind those doors, getting away.
He eased toward the wooden door, and saw that the latch was broken. Someone had taken a crowbar to it. Or a hammer. Speaking of which, how the hell had they gotten into the building? They must have picked the side door open after he’d gone by.
He eased the door open, wincing as one of the hinges squeaked.
Bruce poked his head around the slab of wood.
All of a sudden, a cloth clamped over his face. He gasped in a huge breath, which set his nose and mouth on fire, and barreled through. The shock of his shoulder slamming the wood of the door rocked through his sternum. He scrabbled at the hand on his face.
Scent of ether. A sweet rush over his tongue. He fought, lashing out with the Maglight, and felt it connect. Heard a yelp of pain.
Arms gripped him, tightening around him from behind. The hand on his face never let go. A second hand slammed around his neck. His mouth flooded with saliva.
Bruce jerked his head, trying to shake off the hands, trying to buck the person glued onto his back. A small group of people came into focus. They were in a rough circle, staring at him. One of them held up a hand, as though to offer him some strange blessing.
What the hell were they doing here?
Bruce tried not to inhale again, but couldn’t help himself. The skin on his face tingled with pain, singed by the caustic fumes. He bucked and twisted, still trying to throw off his attacker. His head started to swim.
Bruce heard himself fall.
“Forgive me…” a man’s voice said, right near his ear.
“We have to hurry. There’s only a ten minute window before he starts waking up.” John, the biggest of our cohort, dragged the security guard away from the doors, arranging him carefully, almost reverently, near the white wall.
The room was huge, with two story high ceilings. An industrial cathedral with humming fluorescent lights, it was large enough to have several production areas, plus long work benches, and a cluster of desks piled with papers and tan computer consoles.
The slightly sweet scent of the chloroform mixed with the scents of oiled metal, cleaning solution, and my sweat.
My heart pounded and adrenaline pumped through my whole body. Trembling with the rush of it, I’d never felt so alive. So sure of something. All my concerns were gone. This was right.
This was the reckoning.
This was the thing I could do to keep my daughter alive.
I swung my hammer toward the bright curve of metal. It was a blacksmith’s hammer, a small sledge with a heavy iron head, and thick wooden grip. The iron smacked with jarring satisfaction onto the gleaming cone. Reverberations rang up to my shoulder. I swung again.
A new scent filled the air then. Blood.
I swung again, and again. The spilling of the blood of peace was not my task. Dismantling this warhead was.
“This is for Lily,” I said, and swung again. “Our Father.” Clank. “Who art in heaven.” Smack. Each beat of my hammer punctuated a line of prayer. Each blow imprinted itself in my bones.
All I could see was my daughter’s face.
Oh, I knew some of my compatriots were doing this for all of humanity, or the greater glory of God, or some such high ideals.
I wasn’t that pure. That selfless. That good.
The thing that drove me was the selfishness only a parent could feel. The sense that the only thing in the world that mattered was your child. Your child. Blood of your blood. Flesh of your flesh.
And you would do anything to protect them.
The sound of metal pounding metal grew faster and stronger around me, increasing with the scent of blood, and the shout of prayer.
I swung that heavy hammer with every bit of strength I had.
His head pounded and his mouth tasted vile. Bruce felt his gorge rise and tried to push it back down. No use. He rolled to one side –why was he on the ground?– and puked up the tuna sandwich and coffee he’d had on his break.
He fumbled in his pants pocket for a handkerchief to wipe his face, then sat up carefully. Slowly. He really didn’t want to throw up again. Especially as he’d have to clean it up. The janitors wouldn’t be in until tomorrow.
Leaning his back against one of the towering white walls, he finally focused his eyes on the bay. The room was vast, like a hockey rink. Where the rest of the building had more ordinary sized rooms, this bay was two stories tall.
There was blood. Everywhere. Huge, red swathes of it on the linoleum floor. Red spatters on the walls. Red heaps of… Oh no. Red heaps of what looked like blueprints on the long workbench set against the wall that was at a right angle to the one he leaned against.
Red on the computers. That was really bad. Weren’t they supposed to keep dry?
And in the center of the room, dented metal cones, marred with dripping red.
“What the hell happened here?”
Bruce braced himself against the wall, and crawled himself to standing. Then he bent and vomited again. His head hurt as if someone had been hanging pictures inside his skull.
“Call Mr. Benson,” he said out loud.
He staggered toward the doors across the room. The quickest way to the office was straight through.
We stood, singing, on the gray cement of the courthouse steps, faces turned toward the watery morning sunlight.
It was just over one week later, and amazingly, they hadn’t caught us. We had waited, patiently. Meeting together. Calling one another.
I spent as much time with Lily as I could. And finally, I came clean to my parents. They needed to know, in case the police showed up at my door.
We were all certain MAE would have footage from security cameras, and would have turned it over to the police. Plus, there was the security guard John had knocked out. But if they did have any evidence against us, they hadn’t figured out who we were or where we lived.
There was nothing in the news.
You’d think that was a good thing, but arrest was the ace up our sleeve. It was the only thing that would get us the publicity we needed.
Sarah had taken photos to document our action. She photographed the blood my compatriots had poured out from babies bottles carried in tucked in coat pockets. It was their own blood, spilled in symbolic protest of the blood spilled around the world every day.
She photographed the dented warheads. I was particularly proud of the mess I’d made of mine. Pride in such destruction didn’t feel like a sin. It felt like a blessing.
The damage we’d done was minuscule compared to the damage those warheads would do once they were set free to fly through the air, obliterating cities, burning the flesh from children, poisoning the water and the soil.
Sarah blew the photos up to poster size, along with photos of the aftermath of nuclear attacks. We pasted them to cardboard sheets, and held them in our hands, as we sang.
“And everyone ‘neath their vine and fig tree, shall live in peace and unafraid…” Mark’s booming voice was joined by Sarah’s more reedy one. I joined the others, our voices rising in the early April morning air. It was still chilly, but a slight breeze carried the scent of grass and flowers.
“And into plough shares beat their swords, nations shall learn war no more!”
It was Easter Sunday, and this was our church. A small crowd of thirty others joined us, singing in a semi-circle around we eight. Reporters clustered at the base of the steps, having taken statements from Mark and some of the others. I had offered my own soundbite.
“My daughter’s life is more important than the those improper things named as weapons, paid for by the people of the United States. I do not wish to pay the price of war. If I must? I will pay whatever cost peace has, over and over again.”
We had decided not to call the weapons “property.” Ray had said they were “improper,” and I had to agree. They were outside of nature. Things that should never exist in this world. All we had done then, was attempt to restore harmony once again.
And now? All we had left to do was sing, and stand, and pray.
Five police cars pulled up at the base of the courthouse steps, lights flashing, but with no sirens on. We were not important enough to sound high alert throughout the city. There was no rush to arrest a bunch of crazy white people who called themselves Christians, who had done who-knows-what at the MidAtlantic Electric plant on a March night.
I turned to look at my friends, and the stark, black and white photos held in our hands. Images of destruction and death interspersed with images of destruction and hope.
A smile split me open, down to my shoes. There she was, hoisted in Paul’s arms, her own chubby arms outstretched, reaching toward me. My parents stood next to them, faces worried.
Setting my cardboard image down, I walked toward them, down the steps.
Lily. My daughter. The love of my life. And Paul. The man who loved me enough to let me do this.
“Excuse me ma’am. Are you Mary Sullivan?”
It was a uniformed officer. Dark brimmed police hat resting low on his brow. Blue shirt with sewn in seams. Navy pants.
His eyes were brown.
“You are under arrest.” His hands were on my shoulders then, turning me away from him. “Hands behind your back, please?”
I complied, eyes back on Lily’s face. My mother and father stepped up beside Paul and Lily. They were in their Sunday clothes. Lily’s dress was white eyelet, under a lavender sweater. She wore lavender socks and small, white patent leather shoes.
Her blue eyes stared at me, so calm. Waiting.
Steel clicked around my wrists. Cold. The left cuff pinched my skin. Hand on my arm, the officer led me down the stairs.
“May I kiss my daughter goodbye?”
The officer sighed. “Make it quick.”
He steered me toward my family.
“We’re so proud of you, Mary,” my mother said. She looked as if she was holding back tears. My father kissed my cheek.
I guess they had forgiven me after all.
“I love you,” Paul said.
“I love you, too. So much…”
We kissed. Soft. Bittersweet.
Then I leaned toward my daughter, who smelled of talcum powder and chocolate.
“I love you, Lily-bean.” I kissed her petal-soft cheek. Breathed her in.
“Love you, Mommy!”
“We have to get you in the car, ma’am.”
“Meet me at the station?” I asked my father.
“We’ll be there.”
What those eight people did that night, changed Bruce’s life. One month after the event, he gave his notice at MidAtlantic Electric.
Oh, he’d need to testify at the trial, his supervisor said. That was fine.
He knew who’s side he was on.
*This is fiction, but based on true events, primarily the Plowshares Action done at the King of Prussia GE Nuclear Missile Facility. Yes, people really did break in and hammer on nose cones. The pouring of blood was taken from another Plowshares action in California.
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