Resting bits of moisture hugged the cool still night, their molecular bodies compiling heavily on the bladed tips of taller grasses. Miles above, winds from the friction of the world blew the top off the troposphere and leeched charged ionic aether into the void below. It descended upon the valley, the sinking pressure hardening humidity in a blended blaze of rime and hoar. Elemental cold gravitated towards the tree line, reaching to explode in an ice cloud of crystalline dust. It descended upon the earth, showering the unwitting and the unsown.
Under a pine branch caught by the ground, a mother and her cause lay asleep beneath fallen canopy. Nestled between the cushion of feather and wing, the dormant fledgling’s protruding rostrum sniffed the foggy catalytic flicker of celestial energy. Shivers ran through flesh. The reflex of charged neural activity kidnapped consciousness with one demand: inhale. Instinct pulled the lever and collapsed the diaphragm, spinning sparkling air though the nostrils of its hollow russet beak. The energy crawled down the young branta’s throat and fed avian lungs. Seeding the blood stream. Burning the system.
The first rays of morning peeled away a new day before wide onyx eyes. Awake and unable to bury back into slumbering bosom, the dosed gosling bounced out from safe haven and frenzied over ethereally-steeped sward, its bodily-infused cosmic vigor leading a dreamy cerebellum stupor. Stumbling over the frosted edges of nubile spring shoots, the bloodless pronged feet of the waterfowl weaved wrinkled webbed prints over the crusty cover.
The planet turned and sublimated. The dew softened and melted. And the muddled juvenile shot forward impatient with light-speed. Ionic tonic still throbbing through plasmatic, the gander stooped its neck and snatched-up grassy nourishment until it paced innocently away onto toasty asphalt. Waddling gingerly upon the hard-dark river, it scanned the creased pitch for sustenance. Finding none, intestinal digestive displeasure rumbled away until then the sun-soaked tar radiated into its abdomen. The sensation of uncanny warmth overwhelmed and compelled naiveté to plop flanked belly upon the cracked and graveled face. Resting upon discovered treasure, the youth wallowed in the realization of immediate gratification and washed itself in the abnormal contentedness. The moment swelled until inky eyes shut over a mind percolating with the joy of being happy and alive.
Sated, comfortable and basking in the sun, sweet sleep slid over sense until terrain’s rumble forced opened slain pupils, the rubber tread overhead crushing organs and snapping bones with the overwhelming force of ignorant mechanical torque under emotionless power.
The initial thud of the wheel well hitting unforeseen bulk led to the halting of impetus and the pulling of the emergency brake. The driver turned off the radio and stepped out of the truck to inspect the damage. Under the left tire lay the flattened remains of a still-quivering form, the contents of its head liquefied and pasted though the ruptured orifices of its fragmented skull. The extremities that had escaped the carnage kept trembling about, the last charge of synapses trying in vain to bolt a lost cause.
The scene empty of witnesses, he waited for the body to dance itself out. Reaching into his fleece’s left pocket to extract an unwrapped carton of chemically concocted menthol infused nightshade, he tapped the package against his protruding paunch, unspooled the plastic top, plucked out a single cigarette with his right hand and placed it between his lips. Reaching into his shirt’s chest pocket he removed a chrome container. He hinged off the top and struck the button with his thumb, landing on the release valve to compress the crystal. Pressurized butane leaked under the piezoelectric spark and ignited the gas into a controlled flame. Cupping the flare to his mouth, he breathed in the fume of industrial compounds and scorched toxic organic until the paper curled and shone an orange ember.
He let the smell of saccharine mint smolder in his nostrils, his cigarette resting upon chapped grimace as it blistered away at collagen. He eviscerated the cigarette as a thirsty tot would a juice box, a pillar of ash dislodging from the ring of cinder and sullying his lapel. It did not care. The smoke collected and cooled in tar-coated lungs before it was exhaled with satisfied addiction. He then checked his wrist to watch hands angling toward impending tardiness.
He tossed the spent butt at the forgotten dead and piled his blood and bones into the driver’s seat, slamming the car door behind him. In the passenger seat sat the last two bites of a ham, egg and cheese sandwich processed in a compacted croissant. He stuffed it into his salivating maw, a pair of quick chomps making the trick disappear beneath his pudgy orifice. He wiped off the grease from his hands to his shirt then shifted into drive.
Chewing, wheezing, the engine accelerated into the fresh crunch of another skeleton. Its maturity bore into its sinew and was immediately followed by the soul-wrenching sound of a life in distress. The driver hastily pulled the emergency, stepped back out, and saw a formerly maternal goose draped in ruin on the road.
Its wings were broken and torn. Its legs were folded at awful angles. Gawky honks bled out of its bill in gurgled spasms of shame. Both creatures knew the damage was beyond repair. Only one was panicked enough to end it. Watching doom approach with inevitable dread, the bleating bird tried to crawl away, but there was no stopping the brute. Its heavy steel-toed boot stomped its mark, snuffing the face off existence and holding it there until glimmer extinguished beneath sole. With a swift kick he passed both carcasses to the side of the road, leaving behind an explosion of down.
Scraping off the taint with pavement, he climbed back in the cab. Avicide in the rearview mirror, he brushed the feathers off his shoulder and buckled up for safety.
“Enough of this shit,” he muttered to himself and promptly resumed skirting the county roads en route to the Buffalo, New York freeway.
Roaring into the Cattaraugus County Industrial Park, the driver slowed and parked in the nearly barren lot. Turning off the ignition, he stepped out of the car and walked towards the brick-red building, the engine slowly clapping behind him.
A cloud of smoke enshrouded the blood-shot squint greeting the delinquent. Searing away the night’s haunts under a tin poster declaring, “No Smoking Within 30 Feet of Building,” the shabby man wearing yesterday’s clothes slumped back into the shadows once he saw who was overdue.
“Soupy,” the raspy accent tarred with tobacco reds accosted. “You’re late.”
“So’s your wife,” Soupy snorted. “You’re welcome Adam. The two of you can practice pregnant Kegel lifts at this year’s state fair. Might even win a blue ribbon.”
“Are you jealous of my Turkish muscle?” Adam pushed out his belly and rubbed it as if it were Buddha’s. “Tell you what, if it’s a boy I’ll name him after fuck you.”
“At least he’ll be classy,” Soupy said. “Hey, my dad said you had an inside track on some season tickets. You get ’em?”
“The waiting list finally came around,” Adam nodded. “Worst investment ever.”
“And here I thought you were the last believer of the Buffalo.”
“The soul can take only so much hope,” he said, hacking black spittle from his gullet onto the stained sidewalk. “But that’s what it’s there for, right?”
“That and forgiveness, I guess.”
“Speaking of which, boss man came looking for you.”
“Shit, you think he found out about the truck?”
“The truck you drove off as a take-home?” Adam chortled until begetting an unsettling cough. “He’s known about that for days.”
“Seriously?” Soupy said. “And you didn’t tell me?”
“I couldn’t be bothered,” he said, dragging the last of his nicotine. “You know, too busy doing the job. Hey, you don’t happen to have an extra cig on you, do ya?”
“Goddamn it Adam,” Soupy said, retrieving his pack and tossing a donation to his colleague. It fell off Adam’s gut and into the dirt. “We’re supposed to be on the same team.”
Soupy pulled open the doors to the interior of the plant and retreated inside. Adam shrugged, bent the knee to the sacrifice, and returned to the shadows.
“It’s alright Soupy,” he muttered to the vanished. “Everyone’s got to have a turn.”
Adam then struck a match to engage in his brutally slow form of self-immolation. After a drag he looked at the cigarette in disgust.
“Menthol? Are you fucking kidding me?”
“Good morning, you wanted to see me?”
“Matt,” Mr. Campbell smiled as he looked up from his desk. “Good to see you. This is Lester Deiss. He’s here on behalf of the EEI.”
Matt fixated on the man dressed in rubber slacks and a heavy denim shirt. His charcoal hair matched the dyed leather of the chair upon which he sat. An unblemished canary hardhat rested on his lap and a vintage briefcase stood by his feet. The man rose and reached out his hand.
“Nice to meet you,” Lester said, his lips stretching to unveil a practiced smile over phony teeth. His eyes locked on as he waited for the gesture to be reciprocated, realizing too late that it would not.
“The pleasure is mine,” Matt replied, turning his shoulder to lean against the dirty white brick walls of his superior’s halogen-lit office. “So, how can the NYPA help the Energy and Environment Institute? You guys ranting about stray voltage again?”
“No, no, nothing like that,” Lester laughed, returning to his seated position. “I was telling Mr. Campbell here that I am to conduct a certifiable efficiency test on the county’s substations, specifically within the state’s parks. We are targeting forest areas to see where tree growth may affect the electric distribution cords. As you may know, thirty percent of power outages were caused by weather and tree branches last year and we expect that percentage to increase.”
“We did have a heck of a time last winter,” Mr. Campbell said, shuffling his girth across his seat. “I remember the 2003 blackout was caused by the same exact thing. It’s about time the state was willing to spend to get ahead of a problem, don’t you think Matt?”
“The new and improved EEI, doing something useful for a change.” Matt replied. “It would be a first. Funny how we never received information of your arrival.”
“Here’s the inspection form,” Lester said, opening his briefcase to hand Mr. Campbell a stamped and sealed envelope. “There should have been a notice sent a few days ago.”
“Communication has never been a company strong suit,” Mr. Campbell said, his fingers snapping open the document. “We had a ribbon-cutting two months ago and no one from HQ showed up. About a week later I got an e-mail asking for the time of the event.”
“I assure you I don’t plan on being much of a bother,” Lester said. “This should only take half of a day, if that. But if this interferes with your plans, I would be happy to schedule a later date.”
“Not a worry,” Mr. Campbell said. “I’ll call Pete Finn from the NYC office. He’s the main contact for all of these interagency consultations. I’m sure he’ll be able to vouch for you.” He lifted his phone. “Up for a quick conference call?”
“Not a problem,” Lester lied.
Mr. Campbell punched the numbers in his landline and used the phone’s handle to hit the speaker button. The room filled with a dial tone being interrupted by a gruff accent.
“New York Power Authority, Peter Finn speaking.”
“Pete, it’s Mike over in Buffalo. I’ve got you on speaker phone.”
“Bills Mafia Mike? What a pleasure. Do you still have that homemade four-time runner-up trophy in your den?”
Matt let out a corner chuckle as Mr. Campbell scowled.
“Is that Matt’s pretentiousness I hear? Look at you two, the dynamic duo. How can I help the Buffalo M ’n M’s?”
“We’ve got an environmental inspector here, a Lester Deiss from the EEI. He’s requesting a survey of the transistor substations in our county.”
“Is he on the call?”
“Hello,” Lester cleared his throat. “I am Lester, Lester Deiss. How are you?”
“I am doing just peachy Lester. Did you have any specific locations you wanted to check?”
“I’ve got an itinerary, handing it to Mr. Campbell now.” Lester reached into his briefcase to remove a manila folder and handed a document to Mr. Campbell. “There are several locations, but the priority is Zoar Valley.”
“Zoar was first on the list?” Matt asked, intercepting the list from Mr. Campbell and peering over its contents from under his unplucked caterpillar of a unibrow. “Are we doing the alphabet in reverse now?”
“No, by proximity,” Lester said with a rehearsed reply. “That’s why I came here. My goal was to complete this as quickly as possible.”
“Did you catch that Pete?” Mr. Campbell asked. “Lester said he wanted to scrutinize the units in the state parks south of here, starting with Zoar…Pete? You there?”
“Yea, just checking the database. Is there a case number?”
“Yep, it’s J498-73-015.”
The sound of pulled file cabinet drawers echoed over the line.
“I can’t seem to find a duplicate. Could you send me a copy electronically?”
“I’ll send it right over.” Mr. Campbell put his hand over the speaker. “Matt,” he whispered loudly, handing over the form. “Fax.”
Matt rolled his eyes, took a photo of the paper with his phone and e-mailed it in a matter of seconds. He then gave his boss a sarcastic thumbs-up.
“Did you get it?” Mr. Campbell asked.
“One second, let me refresh. Yeah, I got it.”
The receiver muffled over with the sound of yelling then swearing before angry footsteps came and went. After a few seconds Pete’s voice returned with an anxious tinge.
“Hey Mike, can you take me off speaker for a second?”
Mr. Campbell raised his eyes to glance over at Lester, picking up the phone before turning away from his captive audience.
“What’s up?” he queried in a low tone.
“I can’t find any copies and we don’t have a Lester Deiss on the EEI agent list. Even weirder, we haven’t even used this copy of the form in years.”
“Huh,” Mr. Campbell said, keeping his poker face. “Want me to call it in?”
“I have an idea of what may be going on,” Pete said. “We’ve been told that the governor’s office is tired of the intermittent blackouts. With the election coming up his staff is pushing a private company to solve the problem.”
“Shit,” Mr. Campbell slumped in his chair. “Have they already ruled on that?”
“They approved a preliminary plan for Blackstone’s new Quebec-NYC corridor last week. They’re scouting in Essex next month to see where they can submerge cables through Lake Champlain and the Hudson River.”
“If we lose our chunk of the state’s budget—”
“We’d be insolvent in less than a decade, I know. As a countermeasure I heard the board was kicking around the idea of taking high-voltage networks and burying them along known pain points. If we dig enough trenches fast enough, we could offer a cheaper solution while the competition treads water in a two-billion-dollar hole.”
“Alright, I follow. But this guy’s paperwork calls for an HVME supervisor with a crane utility vehicle detail. How does that connect to burying power conduits?”
“If we start actively exploring excavation, Homeland Security will demand a task force to check every fail-safe connection from Niagara to NYC. That’s a red flag in every governmental department’s inbox, not to mention press passes eager for clickbait. Think of it this way—instead of tipping your hand, you quietly assess the situation and get a ballpark figure. What’s this guy’s story again?”
“Looking at unpruned tree foliage to prevent downed transmission lines.”
“Plausible-deniability. He’s a go.”
“Alright, appreciate the time.”
“As always. Go Jets.”
Mr. Campbell hung-up the receiver and turned to the two men in his office. Matt’s mug glowed from the cellphone screen held a few inches from his nose while Lester sat in patient perspiration.
“Sorry about that,” he said, returning the documents to Lester. “You have been approved for a visit to Zoar. What can we do to help?”
“Glad to hear it,” Lester asked in clandestine relief. “Would it be too much trouble to loan an automobile and an M.E.?”
“Of course. Matt, what are you up to today?”
“I was planning on calibrating some transistors,” Matt replied, still staring at his phone.
“You remember Zoar?” Mr. Campbell interrupted. “South of Eden, we did a maintenance check about a year ago. Be a pal and supervise Lester for the afternoon.”
Lester cleared his throat as he paged through his notes.
“Actually, I was hoping to work with a Mr. Adam Chevalier. He’s the senior master electrician, correct?”
“Adam?” Mr. Campbell responded wearily. “Sure he is. It’s just, well, Adam’s under the weather today. But I assure you Matt here is tip-top.”
“I don’t know, this really seems more like Adam’s bag,” Matt replied.
Mr. Campbell turned to his subordinate. “You’ll like it Matt. You can catch some sun, see some birds.”
“Nature’s nice and all,” Matt offered unconvincingly. “But I’ve got better things to do than stare at some trees just because Adam’s too hung-over to stand.”
Mr. Campbell glared at his employee. He had heard enough.
“Lester, could you give us a moment?” he snapped.
“Of course,” Lester said. He collected his belongings and left the office. “I’ll be waiting outside.”
Mr. Campbell waited for Lester to close the door before turning to Matt.
“What’s wrong with you? You show up late and have the gall to give me guff?”
“It’s been a bad morning.”
“That’s not good enough.”
“Have you seen Adam? He’s barely keeping himself together out there.”
“All the more reason for you to go. We’re a team. We don’t hang Adam or anyone else out to dry. I thought you knew better than that.”
Awkward hostility hung in the air. Matt went at it first.
“Some team,” he said. “I cover for Adam every time he goes on another trip down the well, now I have to put up with this guy, dressed up in rubber slacks, helmet right off the assembly line—he’s a hack technician trying to look the part.”
“Then you two will have that in common,” Mr. Campbell countered.
Matt glared at his boss, reached into his pocket he removed a ring of keys. He detached the circular clip and let it loop around his index finger in an audible jangle before depositing it on his boss’s desk.
“Here are the keys to the truck,” he said. “Find someone else to drive this goober around.”
Mr. Campbell’s curls of neck fat buckled over what he had heard.
“You’re the one who took the truck?” he said, the timbre of his voice a low growl. “I almost called it in as stolen, Matt.”
Matt’s face went white.
“Adam told me you—”
“We’ve discussed this. You can’t take company property home. It’s against union policy.”
“Then call it a per diem. I’m paying for the gas. I’m saving the company money—”
“It’s not about that.”
“I’m in it the whole day! Why do I need to drive my car to the truck when I can just use the truck?”
“Because it makes me look bad!” Mr. Campbell bellowed, pounding both fists against the desk. The echo bounced around the room. “You can’t challenge me like that. Not with work.”
“Aw, come on Dad,” Matt whined. “You didn’t put me through college for me to chauffeur a bogus environmentalist.”
“I didn’t do it for you to talk back to me, either. Quit being a dick. I need you on this.”
“Look,” Mr. Campbell said slumping into his chair. His voice implored with exasperation. “I’ll level with you. We’re doing an under-the-table efficiency check. Right now, I need someone I can trust. All you’ve got to do is drive him there and let him look at the trees. I’ll fill you in after.”
“He probably won’t even know how to use the cherry-picker.”
“He probably won’t. But drive him there. Then drive him back.” Mr. Campbell grabbed the keys from the desk and tossed them at his son’s chest. “And take the company property with you.”
“Fine,” Matt said. “The truck sucks, by the way.”
“Then it suits you.”
Matt opened his mouth to have the last word but slammed the door behind him instead. Mr. Campbell stared at the vacant space where his son had stood and shook his head, wondering where it all went wrong.
The green and white cigarette pack—its beheaded saran layer allowing for frictionless movements over the polyurethane surface—slid across the dashboard, indicating each hooked jaunt Matt took over the painted dividers of the highway. Tasked with something he felt was beneath him, his bitterness too mouthy to stay silent, Matt projected his vitriol at the commuters.
“Look at these all these cunt sacks sucking the idiot juice off one another,” he spat, his tongue unwilling to be bitten. “Yes, please, cut me off without using your signal, jack-off. Now look at this retard. At least have the decency to ask me to dinner before riding up my ass.”
Lester glanced up from his reading, noting his associate’s condition with a calm raise of the eyebrow. Matt continued.
“Oh, hello there, lady drifting into my lane. Maybe don’t do your mascara while driving with your elbow? No? Well, thanks for the resting bitch face, bitch.”
“You could just stay in your own lane,” Lester offered meekly.
“Look at this douchebag texting while driving,” Matt said. He began pressing on his horn. “Eyes on the road shitbreath!”
“Do you do this often?” Lester queried. “Is this a hobby of yours or did I just catch you on a good day?”
“Oh, it’s a good day. Just spectacular.”
Matt looked in his rearview mirror at a car maneuvering through the traffic.
“Look at this dumbass, trying to pass me.” He opened his window to deliver a speedy middle-fingered salute. The self-driving vehicle continued past Matt, its passengers shaking their heads.
“What, you think you’re better than me, you think you’re special?”
“You’re wasting your time, letting everything get to you,” Lester said.
Matt snapped his head to stare a hole through his woebegone passenger.
“How about you take your own advice, save your energy and shut up? Or am I getting to you?”
“I’m simply saying that you would do better to control yourself. If you let people get to you, you share at least part of the responsibility.”
“This guy with the wise words,” Matt said sarcastically. “How’d you get so smart?”
“We all make mistakes,” Lester shrugged, ignoring Matt’s tone. “If you ever get to my age I hope you will have learned a lesson or two.”
“Please, you’re only a few years older than me.”
“I doubt that.”
Matt gave Lester a cross look.
“No gray hairs around the temples, you can’t be a day more than forty.”
“Wouldn’t that be nice,” Lester smiled.
They turned off Interstate 90 to the 465 towards Zoar Valley nature preserve. With a red light up ahead, Matt slowed, quickly looked both ways then sped through. Lester raised his eyebrow.
“I read somewhere that people waste one year of their life waiting at red lights,” Matt said. “I knock a few seconds off of my toll every now and then.”
“Seems a little hypocritical.”
“What do you mean?”
“You were just railing against poor driving a second ago.”
“Don’t compare that to this,” Matt retorted. “If you can’t wrap your head around the difference—”
“Enlighten me, what is the difference?”
“Intelligence. Smart people who do smart things deserve the freedom to do what they want.”
“Seems a little self-justified. Entitled, even.”
“So? Take a note,” Matt said, his temper getting the better of him. “Who the hell are you to judge? You’re just a guy I’m driving around, pretending like he’s doing something. Why don’t you leave the heavy lifting to the people who can handle the responsibility?”
“Let me put it in simpler terms for you: let people who know better, do better.”
“Of the two people in this car, which one needs the other?”
Lester paused, folded the top corner of the dog-eared page and put his book down.
“Have you ever heard of etiquette? Common decency?”
“We’re living in the age of human indecency,” Matt scoffed. “Get used to it.”
“I know indecency,” Lester replied, his patience wearing thin. “More than you could ever know. Perpetual abuse has a way of teaching the difference between what comes easy and what becomes necessary. I hope life is kind enough to teach you the difference one day.”
“Teach me?” Matt raged. “Teach ME? What. Do. You. Do?” Matt asked, punctuating each syllable to amplify his condescension. “You don’t make anything. You don’t sell anything. You just do what people tell you to do.”
“Like you, right?”
Matt opened his mouth but no words followed.
Taking advantage of his company’s improved conviviality, Lester turned back to his book. Unable to trade solace at the cost of his, Matt began white-knuckling the steering wheel.
“What’s that you’re reading?” Matt demanded, sneering at worn paperback in Lester’s hands. “The Farmer’s Almanac? Worried about your crops there, Farmer Brown?”
“I was memorizing the weather forecast.”
“The weather?” Matt laughed. “Pray tell, how can a book predict the weather?” He reached for his cellphone. “See this? It’s called a smartphone. It tells me things.” Matt pressed a button, activating a beep. “Phone that is smart, what is the outlook for today?”
“The weather is fifty-five degrees, sunny with a 0% chance of rain,” Matt’s phone replied in a femininely programmed monotone.
“See that? Pray tell, what does your almanac predict?”
“Cold and stormy,” Lester replied, eyes never diverting from the beige booklet.
“Ha! It’s the first day of spring. Cheer up Old Man Winter.”
“Lilacs from dull roots,” Lester sighed, looking to the heavens. “Hubris ripe to reap.”
“Lilacs? Ripe to reap? Are you gay or something?”
A shadow crept over Lester’s forlorn face. He put down his notes and turned to Matt, taut and waiting like a feline beside an oblivious rat. He cocked his head and smiled a Cheshire grin.
“It’s called a revelation. Do you know what a revelation is?” Lester asked. “It’s the belief that suffering can be gathered and offered as a means to communicate with God. It is truth weaned from pain.”
With hands sporting several lives worth of scars, Lester unbuckled his seat belt and turned to whisper into Matt’s ear.
“You want to know what God told me?” he hissed. “Everything you believe in dies. You surround yourself with nothing, sell yourself deceit, all so you can sleep under a counterfeit sky. Your existence is a testament to distraction, a practice in self-serving aggrandizement and pitiful apathy. And you? You’re already dead, buried in a grave so shallow you can’t even recognize the maggots from your eyes.”
Lester drew back, his voice returning to its solemn ironed tone.
“You can keep your device. Give me the truth we write to remember over the lies people spread to forget.”
Blood boiling through crimson cheeks, Matt’s brow bunched up over his darkening expression. His lips pursed into a snarl before morphing into something sinister. His eyes lit up at what lay ahead. Planted besides a clearing in the surrounding wood was a rusty sign with faded letters: Zoar Valley Road.
He hit the accelerator and veered left off the main pavement, accelerating on to a gnarled and rutted path. Lester swayed with the sudden change in momentum and smacked his crown against the roof handle.
“Whoops,” Matt snickered. “You really should stay buckled-up smart guy. Oh, and if you ever whisper in my ear again, I’ll bite your fucking throat off.”
Lester rubbed the top of his head and ruefully refastened his seat belt.
“The things we do to keep from feeling guilty,” he said before smirking, recognizing that he was doing just that.
They trucked through the wild brush encroaching their route, the shrubbery slowly but surely reclaiming its territory. Lester looked out the window and noticed speckled gravel adorning the pockmarked mud. It was barely noticeable, lost among the dense vegetation, but as the wheels churned along the more pebbles appeared. Soon the watered-down shades of tangerine, pearl, aquamarine, and periwinkle pervaded ubiquitously along the route, their patterns tracing along like the ebb of an acid tide.
“What’s with the technicolor runway?” Lester asked.
Matt gave Lester a cross look.
“That’s an EEI policy,” Matt said, his eyes narrowing. “You should know that.”
“Just making sure you do,” Lester replied. Matt obliged.
“When the first power lines were being placed in the 1950’s, this location was tricky because of the valley’s low water table. Zoar was picked because it rests on a bedrock of granite. With the increase in precipitation, however, the site’s integrity has eroded away due to seepage. About five years ago your agency had the bright idea to tag the makeshift levees with different colored sand so we could indicate how far the flood waters get each year. As you can see, the rate of saturation is increasing.”
The artificially colored stones collected then ceased as Matt and Lester drove to higher ground. They soon reached a gate securing a fenced boundary. Behind the chained links rose metal lattice towers fusing power lines from three separate directions, their elevated trails trekking into the distance. The cords connected to a high voltage transformer the size of an elephant radiating a low and powerful hum. Along the fence were signs testifying to the danger within: “Restricted Area”— “Do Not Enter”— “Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted.”
“We’re going to ignore that,” Matt said. “Consider it more of a suggestion.”
Not ten yards away stood a suburban ranch house, it’s out-of-place façade seemingly plucked from a gated community and helicoptered into the Western New York wilderness. Its maize yellow siding supported a gently sloped roof coated with durable porcelain enamel. Black shudders framed false windows on either end of the plated front door, while an attached motor house sported a garage that would never open. The whole structure rested upon a concrete foundation four-feet thick.
Matt parked and the two men exited. Lester walked around the property, feeling the energy encased within the cement walls twenty yards away. The constant electric drone reverberated between his ears. Turning his attention upward, he noticed the sun’s mid-morning position glazing over branches stretching near several transmission cables, their boughs heavy with dead-leaf dreys squirreled over from the winter. Alerting cries of rodent worry carried over their camouflage. It was then he noticed a camera mounted on a tree near the padlocked entrance. Lester froze, looking sullenly at the unlit lens.
“What, camera-shy?” Matt said. “Say cheese.”
A disconcerted Lester refused to blink.
“Tough guy, doesn’t smile for the camera,” Matt laughed. “It’s a fake. See how the wire goes directly into the trunk? That’s the dirty little secret of these substations. There are thousands of them distributed across the country, architecturally-disguised as dummy houses. It’s cheap but effective.”
Lester sighed and pointed to the foliage.
“The tree line has definitely overgrown the perimeter. Any chance we can get past the fence?”
“You can do the job from here,” Matt said. “Get in the bin.”
Lester climbed on to the back of the platform and closed the cage door behind him, staring apprehensively at the controls. Matt switched on the hydraulic hoist, and the moment he heard the motor beside him come to life Lester slammed the handle forward. The bucket lifted then jammed, rocking the vehicle as if it were a punched-up dummy.
“First it unlocks the basket,” Matt sighed. “Then it points the joystick up.”
Lester did as he was told, grabbing the throttle and tilting to move upward. The mechanical arm unfolded in a series of novice jolts, the equipment groaning under the pneumatic compression.
“What an idiot,” Matt said under his breath, shaking his head.
Tired of watching Lester fumble around in the cherry picker, Matt went back into the confines of the cab to ply his cigarettes from off the dash. Grabbing the pack, Matt’s eyes fell upon the briefcase resting upon the passenger seat.
After glancing to see if Lester was in view, Matt snagged the case, unhinged the top and began to rummage through the organized contents. The battered Farmer’s Almanac—its spine severed, its pages stained with finger oil—was at the top of the pile. Matt picked it up and let it open to the current day’s weather forecast.
“March 21: Today has the makings of a maelstrom. Another abnormally warm winter provides a high-pressure system for the spring solstice. Traditional arctic fronts plan to cold press the afternoon into the evening with frosty potential. Better to avoid watering as the potential damage from southern humidity and northern air could lead to icy precipitation, especially over the Eastern Great Lakes and the Hudson Lowlands.”
Matt tossed the guide aside and let furtive fingers skip across the inner contents of manila folders. He skimmed over maps of electrical grids crisscrossing over the state of New York, topographical sketches of the American Northeast and Canada, and detailed blueprints of Niagara Falls dated from 1970.
He dug deeper, spying a thick notebook imprinted with three capital letters: HLP. He paged through until he found the NYPA logo. His eyes widened as he viewed a cutout news article about the recent opening of their plant in Buffalo, followed by personal information summarizing his colleagues. Then he found his own name—Matthew Arthur Campbell.
He read about his state school certificate in electricity, his poor grade point average, high-school teacher recommendations filled with back-handed compliments, and work reports describing him as mediocre at best, insubordinate at worst, and inconsistent most of the time.
Matt’s eyes grew still as he stared at the lurching platform being poorly steered by an impostor in an unblemished hardhat. He reached out and turned off the motor, suspending Lester twenty feet in the air. As Lester jostled at the controls to no avail, Matt stepped out and walked towards the fraudulent agent.
“What happened?” Lester called out. “I was just getting the hang of it.”
“I turned it off.”
“Why did you do that?”
Matt held the HLP report up and stared holes into Lester.
“Matt,” Lester tsk-tsked, reaching into his pocket. “Have you been snooping through my stuff?”
“Why the hell do you have a psychological profile of me?”
“I thought it best to learn about who I might be working with,” Lester said, slyly removing a green flashlight. “Let me down and we’ll talk about it man-to-man.”
“Your shtick smelled earlier but this horseshit ends here,” Matt declared, dialing 9-1-1 before waving his phone at Lester. “You’re done. I’m leaving you high and dry until the police show.”
“Mathew,” Lester said, elongating the second syllable like it was a sticky key. “How’s that phone of yours working out?”
Matt looked at his phone. No reception, no connection, no salvation.
“Now, look at me for a second.”
As he turned, Lester directed the emerald dazzler at Matt’s head and pressed the button. Matt screamed, clutching his eye sockets. The infrared radiation burned its target’s retinas, rendering them useless.
“What did you do to me?” he yelled in agony of sensory abandonment.
“I disabled you,” Lester replied, pocketing his gadget. He shimmied over the bucket’s wall and descended from the platform at his leisure, swinging down across the boom before landing with aplomb.
Hearing Lester’s footsteps, Matt clawed at the ground on all fours, desperately searching for his dropped his phone. Then he heard the crunch of Lester stepping on it.
Matt sprung to his feet and swung his fists blindly. Lester stepped around the empty punches, a shadow boxer in a puppet show.
“I’m sorry for the ruse Matt, but I do need one more thing from you,” Lester said. “Then I promise I’ll let you be.”
He swiped at Matt’s knee, collapsing the joint and felling the man. The young cranium quickly accelerated around until the tendons in his neck dragged the muscles back. His brain floated within the skull until the impact of hitting the turf caused Matt’s ears to ring.
Lester placed his shoe on Matt’s jaw, forcing his face to soil. Lester then removed the lanyard from Matt’s fleece pocket. Getting what he wanted, Lester relented and let Matt breathe dirt.
“Pardon the abuse. I just really need to get into that little yellow house.”
No longer at the mercy of the man standing upon him, Matt wobbled himself upright, still without eyesight.
“The moment you enter,” Matt wheezed. “The computer will know and shut you out.”
“Are you sure about that?” Lester oozed. “Think about it. No cameras. No reception. Why is that?”
The blood in Matt’s cheeks drained and pooled into his retching stomach.
“We’re in a dead zone.”
“Bingo,” Lester replied.
“But everything is on the smart grid now,” Matt interrupted. “The moment you shut off the power it will automatically redistribute through other connections.”
“That’s why this particular home is so fascinating. It’s called a Lustron Meadowbrook, a prefabricated abode made of enameled steel, a life-sized erector set commissioned to meet the demands of returning World Ward II soldiers and the G.I. Bill.
“Despite the government contract, the Lustron Corporation couldn’t meet demand and went bankrupt in less than a decade. There’s only a few hundred models left, most on marine bases, but this beauty was designated by the Eisenhower administration to hide a substation at a minor junction in the northeast corridor While at the time it was practical and cost-efficient, today their shielding creates a problem for modern accoutrements.
“Electricity has a neat little side-effect on steel. You know what that means don’t you, you master electrician you?”
“Electromagnetic radiation,” Matt said. “They can’t digitize this substation.”
“You got it. Inside it’s just simple Cold War analog machinery. The moment I turn them off, well, surely you’ve heard of a race condition,” Lester countered, walking towards his incapacitated chauffeur.
“Uncontrollable events can mess with the whole sequence. Especially when there’s more than one.” He then placed his hand on Matt’s shoulder. “Now let’s get you out of—”
Matt flung out his right foot and hit Lester squarely in the crotch. The sucker dislodged Lester’s dental prosthesis, forcing him to suck oxygen while Matt tore off in the opposite direction, fleeing in a sightless stupor down the road.
“Sonuvabitch,” muttered Lester, his hands on his knees. He checked his crumbling mouth with its three remaining teeth, giving the top two canines and a lower incisor a gentle pinch between index and thumb. He then found his prosthesis by a clump of moss eating away at decaying flora. He blew the sediment off, gave the dentures a rub on his shirt, and slipped them back into place.
“Nearly made me lose another one.”
Looking a generation younger, he ran his tongue over acrylic then cast a lazy glance towards the forest. He spotted Matt down the road and shrugged.
“One hell of a chance you’re taking there, Matt,” he called out. “You’d be better off just sitting tight.”
Lester turned and walked towards the gate. He fiddled with the keys until he found the one that unlocked the fence, then walked towards the Lustron house.
After finding the right key, he pushed his shoulder into the steeled entry. Rusty hinges scratched out a narrow column of sun into the pitch-black room. Once inside, Lester removed his flashlight and set the frequency to white, the bright beam uncovering archaic diagnostic displays at the other end of the tomb.
He walked deeper within, the hum of voltage relays and a monolithic pre-SCADA system labeled PDP-11 permeating his marrow. Lester walked over and started to brush the dust off the instrument panels. One by one he offed each separate division, the always-on machines falling dormant for the first time in over half a century. He stood and waited until the walls echoed silence, a great spirit falling still.
A shrill ring interrupted the tranquility. Lester clutched at his heart with his right hand, using his left to point the flashlight towards the source. He found a landline connected to a rotary phone fastened to the wall. He unlatched the perpetrator and answered the call.
A voice responded from the other end of the line, its robotic timbre easy to decipher.
“Bon jia. Are we. On schedule?”
“I just removed the pin. Still waiting on my contact.”
Static filled the void before the aluminum accent answered. “Stay. Warm.”
Lester hung up the phone.
Making his way out of the house, he locked the door behind him followed by the fence before returning to the truck and starting the engine. He backed his way out and commenced the trip to the highway, turning his attention from the road to the radio.
Lester flipped through stations of dead frequency, trying to find the strongest signal as he retreated from the cage of Faraday. A tune picked it’s note over the static, strumming its pain through Lester’s fingers, too distracted to see the sad sack in front crawling blindly over the dyed sand.
“Poor miserable sap could have been listening to music the whole ride here,” Lester sighed. “What a glutton for punishment.”
Suddenly a thud to the bumper followed by a pair of wet crunches under the wheels caused the truck to jostle. Lester stopped the truck, turned off the engine and heard the yowl of mortal fracture. He got out of the vehicle, walked to the back and inspected the damage.
Matt lay on the dirt road, speckled grit and lush greenery encircling his ruptured and compressed abdomen. He resembled a toothpaste tube that had been too tightly squeezed in the middle, a ketchup packet with swollen ends and a leaking center seal, a mashed human speed bump.
As digestive acid dribbled into internal organs, Lester crouched by Matt’s leftovers and let the smell of sulfuric feces fill his nostrils.
“Aw, Matt,” Lester pitied, his voice genuinely aggravated. “I told you to stay put.”
Matt’s eyes had turned white, his extremities seizing an uncontrollable tremor. He was disconnected from his legs, his spine severed through his stomach.
“The blindness was supposed to be temporary, but you had to run-off like a chicken with its head cut-off. And now look at you,” he sighed with frustration. “A waste of disappointment.”
Matt’s pupils rolled back from the dead to stare daggers into Lester, his lips quivering with a desire to enunciate. Lester took his two hands and placed them on Matt’s temples, holding the dying man’s head between his weathered paws.
“Speak up—a broken vessel has no secrets.”
The movement had the intended effect.
“People always disappoint,” Matt said, the faint whisper escaping his lips.
“I’ll have to write that one down,” he said. “Good to see you find your mettle.
Lester gently placed Matt’s noggin upon its final resting place before ransacking his pockets. By his caved chest Lester found a chrome lighter tainted with blood. He wiped it clean on Matt’s fleece, then found a wet crimson carton of tobacco filthy from the day’s transactions. He removed a cigarette, lit the sordid tribute, and breathed it in before coughing out in disgust.
“Menthol? You got to be kidding me.”
He placed the minty smoke into Matt’s mouth, letting the boy’s dying breath soothe itself with artificial artifice. Lester then stood and soaked in the natural beauty of the scene. The forest was reclaiming yet another on the path taken. He took a deep breath of the real and gratifyingly exhaled it through his nose before addressing Matt one last time.
“My respects to the departing, but I have to let you savor these last moments alone,” Lester said. “I’ve got a schedule to keep and, last I checked, this world is for the living.”
Matt did not hear a thing. As he lay shattered over the lack of consent to his demise, his body did the last decent thing life can afford itself. Cracking the capsule of dimethyltryptamine hidden within his grey matter, the brain let poisoned tentacles deluge the capillaries of a dripping soul. Sliding a kaleidoscopic blanket over remaining senses, thousands of chemical lanterns exploded to unravel the synaptic knots that had anchored the world to his broken reality.
A warm light carved open the cloud cover and shadowed over ashen skin. The cool loam worming below soothed the sweet smell of decay attracting feathered scavengers above. Cooling saliva evaporated from a dusty mouth as the abyss swallowed his last tangible breath. Like an abandoned dream he passed, another fallen husk compiling upon the graveyard of existence, sacrificed to a more disciplined vision making its way north.
Lester was on his way towards Niagara Falls.