Part 2, Chapter 21 (Pages 107-116) Summary
It is a snowy January day as Gladney walks home. He sees Heinrich, in his camouflage, sitting on the ledge of the attic looking through binoculars at a train wreck in the distance. Gladney retrieves the fourteen-year-old boy from the ledge, but later the boy hears sirens and returns to his perch with a radio and a highway map.
The derailed tanker was carrying Nyodene Derivative/Nyodene D; Heinrich saw a movie in school about toxic waste and remembers this chemical causes “urgent bumps” in rats. The initial news reports warn about the “feathery plume of smoke” causing skin irritation and sweaty palms, but the reports are now warning about nausea, vomiting, and shortness of breath. The black cloud of smoke rising from the wreckage is not likely to reach the Gladneys’ house on this windless day, but the interstate is now closed and the sirens continue.
Denise reports that authorities are using snow blowers to cover the wreckage with something that will neutralize the chemical. The girls’ palms are sweating, but no one believes they have actually been harmed. A weather front is blowing in from the northeast, and the danger from the black cloud is growing a bit more likely. Despite hearing the air raid sirens from a neighboring town, Gladney is certain his family is in no imminent danger. Nothing so dramatic ever happens to people like them. Babette is worried but only shares her concern with Gladney.
Now reports call the smoke a “black billowing cloud.” Gladney goes to the roof to see lots of emergency teams working furiously. It is clear that the potential danger here is more than fire or explosion; this “death would penetrate, seep into the genes, show itself in bodies not yet born.”
Gladney is still not worried. Heinrich informs him that the latest reports are calling this an “airborne toxic event.” Despite his son’s foreboding tone as he makes this announcement, Gladney is still unconcerned. Location is everything, he says, and the cloud is over there while they are here.
Heinrich begs his father to react, but Gladney insists that tragic incidents only happen to “people who live in mobile homes out in the scrubby parts of the county.” The family eats early and the girls are certain that is because their parents want to “get it out of the way.”
The air raid sirens go off during the meal, so close that everyone at the table is disrupted. The meal progresses in silence, and no one makes eye contact with anyone else; it is as if the horrible sound might grow worse if they behave in their normally raucous manner.
In the midst of their “decorous hysteria,” the Gladneys hear a car drive by with a loudspeaker to warn everyone to evacuate immediately because of a “cloud of deadly chemicals.” After dessert, Denise packs bags for everyone, Heinrich grabs the binoculars, Babette gathers food from the pantry, and Steffie clears the table.