August 1989. Ronald Reagan had vacated the White House, the Cold War was winding down and the outdoor municipal swimming pool was, once again, closed for maintenance.
Rivière-du-Loup was immersed in a chicken broth of pollen-saturated, yellowish air, and I wandered glumly around the neighbourhood, my towel around my neck. Just three days remained before the start of the new school year, and nothing but a few good laps through chlorinated water could have boosted my morale.
I ended up at the municipal stadium. Not a soul in sight. The lines on the baseball field were freshly drawn and the scent of chalk still wafted around. I’d never cared about baseball but, for no particular reason, I loved stadiums. I walked past the dugout. On an old sun-bleached newspaper a column of tanks at Tiananmen Square could just barely be made out.
That was when I noticed the girl sitting up in the very last row. Her nose was buried in a book, as though she was killing time waiting for the next game to begin.
Without giving it too much thought, I climbed up the bleachers in her direction.
I’d never seen her in the neighbourhood. She was thin, with bony hands and a face studded with freckles. The visor of her Mets cap was pulled down low over her eyes and the left knee of her jeans was ripped. The jeans were not of the trendy acid-washed variety, but rough-cut work pants, an ancient pair of Levi’s salvaged from some coal mine in the New Mexico desert.
Her back pressed against the guardrail, she was reading a language-learning manual: Teach Yourself Russian at Home, Volume 13.
I sat down without speaking. She made no sign of noticing me.
The wooden benches scorched our behinds. The sun poured down so mercilessly I was tempted to turn my towel into a turban, but I was afraid of appearing ridiculous. High overhead I could see a 747 tracing long parallel lines of cirrus clouds in the sky. Dry weather ahead.
I was on the verge of spouting some meteorological small talk when the girl tilted up the visor of her cap.
“Last night I dreamt about the bomb at Hiroshima.”
A few seconds went by while I pondered this unconventional preamble.
“Why specifically the Hiroshima bomb?”
She folded her arms.
“The destructive power of modern bombs is unimaginable. Take, for example, an ordinary ballistic missile, about five hundred kilotons. The explosion is enough to send a chunk of tectonic plate into orbit. It’s beyond what the human brain can grasp.”
Where was this girl from? I couldn’t pin down her accent. English? Acadian? My guess was Brayon—from Edmundston, New Brunswick, to be exact. She yanked an empty Cracker Jack box out from between two planks and proceeded to turn it into confetti.
“Little Boy had a yield of approximately fifteen kilotons. Not exactly a firecracker, but easier to measure all the same. If it exploded over our heads, at six hundred metres—the same altitude as the Hiroshima explosion—the shock wave would flatten the city over a radius of 1.5 kilometres. That amounts to an area of seven square kilometres. Which represents . . .”
She squinted, concentrating on the massive mental calculation.
“Two thousand five hundred baseball fields.”
She stopped shredding the Cracker Jack box long enough for her arms to sweep instructively over the landscape.
“The shopping mall would be pulverized, bungalows would be blown to pieces, cars would be sent flying like cardboard boxes, the lampposts would flop down on the ground. And that’s just the shock wave. Then there would be the thermal radiation. Everything would be reduced to ash over dozens of square kilometres—way, way more baseball fields! Near the bomb, the heat would be greater than the temperature at the surface of the sun. Metal would liquefy. Sand would turn into little glass beads.”
Having finished the shredding job, she weighed the pile of confetti in the palm of her hand.
“And do you know what would happen to us, two tiny, little primates made up of 60 per cent water?”
She gently turned her hand upside down and let the breeze carry the confetti off toward left field.
“We would be vaporized in three thousandths of a second.”
She finally turned my way and took a good look at me, probably to gauge how well I’d held up to her lesson. Pretty well, by and large. Her gaze told me I had passed the test.
Her face softened, and I detected the hint of a friendly smile. Then, without saying another word, she plunged back into her Russian handbook.
The shock wave having left me slightly worse for wear, I dropped back against the guardrail. I observed the girl sideways as I wiped my forehead with a corner of the towel. I could have sworn she generated a magnetic field—the radiation of her 195 IQ.
Not only had I never seen this girl before, but I had never seen any girl like her. And just as I was thinking this, it dawned on me that if I ever had to be vaporized in the company of someone else, I would definitely want it to be her.