Above the main floor of the Lillian steel mill's cutting shed, there is a big green sign. It announces, in strong white letters,
is our primary goal!
Days since last accident: 7 8 4
Sparks fly amid a haze of smoke and sound and grime. Workers in scrappy overalls toil amidst stacks of steel, using shrieking buzzsaws to cut the metal into sections, or smelting it down with beds of orange flame. A forklift navigates the crowded factory floor, cables dangling from its prongs. The barest hint of sunlight streams in through dirty windows.
One worker carries a ladder with him. He sets it down beneath the sign and begins to climb; standing on the second-highest rung, he can just reach the letters.
He takes down the '784', and puts up a '1'.
It was a land covered in white, a dusting of powder that somehow made it seem… grimmer, colder than usual; a lack of colour, except for dull red house-brick and dark green pine. Snow covered the garden, covered the fields and the hills and the town. Clumps of it clung to the gutters and piled against the curb.
The swing creaked softly under an endless grey sky. The boy sitting on it wore dark clothes: a suit and shirt and crumpled tie. His skin was flushed from the cold, and in one hand he held the most beautiful silver locket.
Inside, it was warm, and crowded, and comforting. But he wanted none of it.
"I'm so worried for that boy." The woman looked out the window with sad blue eyes, at the child sitting in the snow.
Her husband stood behind her, a plate of food in his hand. "Joe's gonna be okay."
"But she was everything to him."
"Jack's gonna step up. He's a good man."
"But he's never had to be a father before," the woman whispered. "I don't think he… understands Joe."
The mourners mingled among dreary brown curtains and fragile gloom. Some sat while others stood, illuminated by the soft glow of lamplight. The air was filled with morbid questions, idle chatter, whispered condolences.
"How long had Elizabeth worked there? Five years?"
"No, I think it was six."
A panting border collie wandered among the guests, brushing against seldom-used dresses and shiny black shoes. Its nose twitched, and it began trotting towards a group of four boys standing around a dinner table.
"What do you think was in the coffin?" one of them murmured conspiratorially. He was short, with blonde hair and rabbity teeth.
"Jesus, shut up."
"I'm just saying 'cause of how she died. You guys weren't wondering that?"
"No, I'm eating macaroni salad."
There was silence for a moment, broken only by the clink of forks against pottery.
Then one of the other boys spoke up, chubby, dressed in an awkwardly-fitting suit. "I was wondering about that too."
"Ugh. I don't know how you guys can eat."
"Try a turkey roll and you'll discover how. They're delicious."
"Either nothing was in there, or like whatever they scraped up…"
"Jesus – guys—" One of the boys looked horrified. He was tall, wearing a shirt and tie.
"I heard it crushed her completely."
"At least keep your voices down—"
"Steel beam, those things weigh a ton. Literally."
"If it had been open casket, I would not be eating right now. Despite the turkey rolls."
Across the other side of the room, the dog barked and jumped at a woman's plate.
"Lucy, down. Get down!" Its owner, a man in a black suit, patted it on the head and looked around the house. "Joe?… Anyone seen Joe?"
"Bet Joe's not gonna want to do my movie anymore," the chubby boy said sadly.
"Why do you think why? The story, it's about the living dead—"
"His mother's not a zombie," one of them interrupted. Pale, dark sweater.
"But she's dead, shithead."
There was a short pause.
"Hey, these turkey rolls are pretty good."
Snow. He sat on the swing, surrounded by it, kicking it with his feet. The locket was cold in his hands. Behind him, a spindly oak clutched at the sky with dark, dead fingers.
Then... the throaty rumble of a car engine. He glanced up the hill and saw an old yellow Skylark winding its way down the asphalt, shattering the silence.
The boy looked on dully, long brown hair falling across his brow.
The car stopped outside the house. His house. A man climbed out as it sputtered to a halt, dressed in a woolen black coat, tall, well-built, with stringy blonde hair. He walked along the drive and up the stairs to their front door, head bowed, with only the barest glance at the boy sitting on the swing.
The man smoothed his hair back and walked inside. The door swung shut with a loud creak. In the distance, a bird sang.
"I just want to talk to you, Jack-"
"Get him out of here."
"Would you just wait a minute? WAIT!"
Inside the house, something fell to the floor with a clang. The boy looked up.
"Jack! Jack, just let me-"
"No. Get out!"
The door was kicked open. Two men tumbled out of it, the blonde-haired one being pushed along in front, struggling against the handcuffs that held his arms behind his back. Their feet scraped through the snow.
"I knew this was a mistake," his father growled.
"Jack, I… Jack – augh!"
He pulled open the door of the police car in the driveway shoved the new arrival inside. The boy watched impassively, surrounded by quiet houses and old parked cars.
His father shut the door, panting with barely-suppressed rage. He looked, saw his son on the red-painted swingset.
"Joseph, I'll be home soon."
He swung into the driver's seat and reversed out of the driveway, tires squealing, sirens flashing red and blue.
The boy watched them go.
Then he blinked, and snapped the locket shut, waiting for summer.