The weather woman on the dusty television screen and the brightening around the curtains tells me that it's 6a.m. My cell phone blares out confirmation as I lean across the couch and fumble for it on the end table. Another night without much sleep. Another day to get through. I contemplate staying home and not leaving my couch, on the off-chance that sleep decides to pay me a visit, but even as I consider it, I'm getting up to look for my work clothes. On second thought, I need to keep myself busy. I've missed enough work the past few days. I pull on my jeans and the blue and white (mostly) work shirt. I keep forgetting to do laundry. I can feel the rough edge of the Calverton Municipal Plumbing patch on the front breast pocket under my thumb. My belt buckle clinks as I crawl into my uniform.
I leave home behind in a cloud of dust, the white double-wide trailer in my rear-view mirror stares back at me through darkened windows as I head down the dirt road to town. Calverton. Smallville USA. Nowhereville. A town in crisis. I round the hill to town and my eyes are drawn over to the top of the next hill, on the opposite end of town. My truck bounces over the rough grading of the dirt road, and I see the dark latticework of iron and steel and the various buildings that make up The Gunderson Mine. Jack. Damn you, Jack. Jack, Mark Bowen, Steve Holbrook and several others - thirteen in all - are still missing. Missing. 'Missing' is a word for people with hope. My brother Jack and twelve other poor bastards are rotting in a flooded coal shaft. Only a fool would hope for more after eight days.
I replay events in my head as I drive to work, only half-concentrating on the road. They were doing their job and they hit water. However climactic the news media and drama queens make it out to be, that's what happened. The short truth. The truth that keeps me up at night. I can see Jack man-handling the drill, leaning into it. I can see him thrown back against the ground as water and coal and rock smash into the tunnel. The high pressure wave of the water probably burst their ear drums and ruptured their organs before they even had a chance to drown. Of course, he could have drowned. Who knows? Having a vivid imagination and a knowledge of hydro-dynamics doesn't help. My truck bounces as I cross the cattle guard on the road to The Yard. I pull into my usual parking spot and sit for a moment, letting my thoughts clear before I turn off the ignition and grab my lunch box.
I stroll into the office trailer, the brass cowbell on the door announcing my entrance. Lucy's desk is empty so I head down the hall to Wade's office. Wade Salas, looking grumpier than usual, elbows on his desk, rubbing his temples. "Hey Larry. I hope you got some rest the past few days, because we have a TON of orders to fill. It's a real mess out there. It has been the past couple days!" He hands me a clipboard with more work orders than I've ever seen. "Wow. You weren't kidding. Where's Lucy?" I asked, trying to sound like I wasn't disappointed. I wanted to keep busy, but not THIS busy. Ask and you shall receive. "She wasn't feeling good and last night she had some sort of rash or allergic reaction to something so I took her to the Urgent Care this morning. The damn place was PACKED. Never seen it like this." Hairs on the back of my neck stood up as I'm hearing this. I don't know why, but I got a real bad feeling about this. "Damn. Well, I hope she feels better. This place won't run without her!" I chide. I clock in on the way out of the office and grab my radio, then head to The Yard to get my Calverton Municipal Plumbing truck. Being early means I get my pick - meaning the least broke-down of the lot.
I get inside the number 08 truck and look over my list of work orders. They are all jumbled up. I sigh as I remove them from the clipboard and arrange them by location, the way Lucy usually does. It makes it go a lot smoother if they are done on a route, so I start on the opposite end of town near The Gunderson Mine. After a few minutes I finish up my prioritizing and drive out of the yard, passing Dave Allred on the way out. There's usually more people here by now. Derrek Burns was the first work order, so I point the number 08 truck to the west. I went to school with some Burnses and wonder if they are any relation as I pull up. It's a small house. The water spigot on the front of the house looks old - galvanized steel pipe with an old bronze patina, and the electrical ground wire for the house is locked to it with an old metal strap.
I knock on the wood-framed screen door and ring the door bell and a minute later the door opens and I'm greeted with "What the hell do YOU want?! *cough*". Taken aback I reply "CMP. You called about the plumbing. Are you Derrek Burns?" The baseball capped silhouette comes out of the dark house and a grizzled old hand with a plaid sleeve swings the screen door wide with a creak. "Hmph. Come in." And with that, Mr. Burns disappeared into the dark house. I quickly gather up my water test kit and head inside. The house was a time capsule from the 1970s, from the matted shag carpet do the faded velvet furniture in once-gaudy colors. Yellowed lace doilies hang off the furniture like moss and the musty old smell is strong enough to taste. I jump, startled, as a mass of knit blanket coughs and shifts. "Go back to sleep, Edna! It's just the Water Guy!" Mr. Burns grumbles. The light is dim, but a I catch a quick glance of an old, slick frail hand covered in black moles dart out to clutch the blanket before disappearing under the knitted yarn.
He leads me to the kitchen, which is a little bit brighter, bathed in a sickly yellow light from the dirty vinyl window blinds. Dust motes float in the few stray slivers of sunlight that managed to make it into the house. "So it says here you need your water tested? What seems to be the problem?" I ask, consulting my clipboard. A grizzled hand with black moles reaches for the tap and turns the handle. There is a groan and a shudder as the pipes rattle, then a trickle of water at first. Mr. Burns reaches into a pile of dirty dishes and grabs a clear (for the most part) glass and shoves it under the faucet. A gush comes out of the sink and the pipes go still. The water has sediment in it. Tiny black globules in the water. I pull the string on the blinds to let a little light in and hold the glass up to inspect it. Not globules. THINGS. Little black worm-like creatures dancing in the glass, swimming a beautiful ballet. Like sea monkeys, but graceful. I put my hand over the sink and pour the glass over it, hoping to catch a few of the little worms. A neat little black ball pulses in my hand. The tiny worms march toward the edge of my hand. I turn my hand so they don't fall off, and they continue around to the back of my hand. They move pretty quick. They arrange themselves in neat little rows along the back of my hand, and my skin starts to tingle a bit. My veins. They are lined up along my veins. Dozens of tiny pinpricks at once and I use my other hand to brush the worms off. I get a few of them, their tiny bodies leaving black smudges, but tiny blood droplets well up from my hand where the others escaped. Into my hand. My skin crawls and I shudder, and I can't decide if it's because of the worms, or if it's the realization that they are now inside me.
Mr. Burns leans in "Hmph. Damn well water! Do what you gotta do to fix it!" I look at him then. I mean REALLY look at him. His eyes are feverish and his face is covered in sweat, and fine black hairs on his face wiggle and twitch where the sunlight hits him. Shiny black blisters clustered on his cheeks seem to pulse. I run out of the house, dropping my clipboard, and I scramble in my truck, fumbling the keys in the ignition. I don't know if I'm there for a few minutes or an hour. The sound of children brings me back to reality. Some kids a few houses down are playing in a water sprinkler, splashing and laughing. A lady with a pitcher of lemonade. Ten yards away on the other side of the street, and elderly lady waves at me and smiles while she waters her yard. Did she look OK? Healthy? I force myself not to look at her again as I put the truck in gear and speed away.
Thanks for reading! It's been a while since I posted here. It feels good to be back