THE MUCKY MAMMOTH
The boat creaks, a rhythmic shifting of its metal bones. He pops open another beer and stares at his leg. He hasn’t properly stopped and contemplated it since he woke up at Dr. Truman’s. This has been a day of constant motion. Maybe multiple days. He’s not really clear on that.
But sitting in the dark, he can’t ignore it. Literally. It’s even more blinding in the dark. When he closes his eyes, he sees it burning like filament in his mind.
Yes, something’s very wrong here. But--he takes another sip--it probably doesn’t matter anymore.
Blue slips in, her claws clacking softly on the ferry's wooden floorboard. She is all bones and angles.
“You getting along with that other dog?”
“You got your sea legs yet, Blue?”
“It’ll be good, working for something big. Some structure, you know?”
Blue huffs in response, and collapses at his feet. No, foot. She’s sticking to his good side.
He takes another drink, and stares at the One that’s Wrong. In certain lights, he’d almost take it for a….
“But who’s to say what’s wrong?”
“What does it look like to you, Blue?”
“No sense in making a fuss over what you can’t change, is there?”
If he acknowledges this, it will open the door to other, darker thoughts. Like the fact that when he looked at his new co-workers, he'd swear they looked like…
“Anyway, it works now, no question. It’d be ungrateful to overlook that. We been running all over the place since I got it.”
Blue ignores the words. An arthritic hind leg lifts in an instinct twitch, but she abandons the attempt partway through.
“Bet you wish you had some new legs too…” He stares into the middle distance. “Never mind.”
Conway reaches down and scratches behind her ears. Her tail begins to thump on the floor weakly.
Someone turns on the light. His vision burns for a second, and when it returns the barefoot man—Will—is standing in front of him, blinding in florescent beach shorts.
“Oh! Didn’t know anyone was in here,” Will says. “How’s the journey treating you?”
“No trouble so far.” (raises beer can in salute)
“This boat seems like it’d be hard to maintain.”
“Guess I’m a bit distracted.”
“No shame in that," Will says. "Everyone takes the river in at their own pace.”
They sit in silence side by side, the boat rocking around them. Blue kicks her leg in her sleep. Conway takes another sip of beer, and peers out the portal at the black water moving silently by.
“How long you been on this river?”
“What’s with the mammoth, anyway?”
“You ever feel like a part of you’s not really your own?”
The man doesn’t look at Conway’s leg, just frowns at the ceiling in thought. “Like feeling you’re part of a, what do you call it… universal consciousness?”
“Yeah, that. Sure.”
“No, more like a specific entity owns it. A company, say.”
“No, more like a specific part has been replaced. A leg, say.”
Will peers at him now. If his gaze lingers on the One that’s Wrong, it’s barely perceptible, and he doesn’t comment on it. He just says, “I’ve heard of that. The feeling. Yeah. In one of my tapes I recorded through the vents at my old university. There was this visiting medical lecturer from back east, speaking on delusions.”
“Yeah, this delusion was called… Oh, what was it. A real long, medical-sounding name. One of those words built out of spare parts and not meant to said aloud. But anyway, the people with it believe a part of their body is alien. That it really belongs to someone else. A woman will insist her arm is really her husband’s. A man will insist his leg is really a friend’s. They don’t know why it’s attached to their body. That sort of thing.”
Conway looks down at his leg.
“I don’t know. I’m not sure that’s quite it.”
“Well, I’m no expert. Sounds like you should see a doctor. Closest we have on the Mammoth is Cate, but further down the river there’s a doctor. Well, really, she rents diving equipment, but she used to be a doctor before she found her way down here.”
“I don’t want to trouble anyone.”
“I already went to a doctor tonight.”
“Well, that’s something, I guess. These things can be pretty tricky, though.”
Conway cracks open another beer and takes a long drink. He thought he’d feel something when he finally fell off the wagon. Something momentous, or wrong. It just feels like slipping into an old pair of shoes.
“The lecturer on my old tape, she said that delusions like that can be treated, but not cured.”
Conway closes his eyes and takes a sip. He looks down at his hand, then starts. The hand clutching his beer, and the entire arm attached to it, has changed too. It too looks like a...
“Is the delusion known to... spread?”
“You just have to learn to live with it, I guess.”
(Conway says nothing.)
He moves along the road like a shadow, leaving no trace.
He once drove for 56 hours straight when he was a young man, by the grace of some substance shared with him in a truck stop by a long-haired hitchhiker. He pulls similar hours now all the time, and doesn’t ask questions about how that’s possible.
He never has trouble finding the Zero nowadays. It’s a crucial route for moving Hard Times product to their distributors. The lonesome, strange sights always flicker by, but there’s no time to stop. He fiddles with the radio and always eventually finds his way back to the distillery.
This truck lacks the character of his old truck. It’s professionally maintained. Doesn’t veer left if he takes his hands off the wheel. No trouble stopping and starting the engine, though he still doesn't, since that would waste time and gas he can’t afford. The radio works like a charm, though the only thing it picks up are transmissions from Dispatch.
He doesn’t really think too much about the issue that so troubled him back on the Mucky Mammoth. The way he looks doesn’t seem important, so he doesn’t dwell on it. He fits in well enough at the distillery, and that’s what matters. True, he doesn’t need to eat much anymore. Sleep neither. But they say that’s common when you get old.
There's a tape player he carries. He flips it on when he needs to communicate, which isn’t too often. The voice that emanates from the tape doesn’t sound quite like his, but then, no one ever thinks they sound like themselves on a recording, do they? The words never feel like quite what he would have said, either, but it’s close enough. Sure is impressive technology, anyway.
He’d once overheard Ira telling Lysette that that the two of them weren’t doing him any favors by taking him in. Shielding him from the rigors of a real employer. Someone who’d offer discipline and structure. Maybe Ira was right. He’s got structure now. Someone to answer to. He's got the Formula now. There's a relief in having it all out of his hands.
He'd be lying if he said he really understood the Formula. A complex algorithm like that, no one on the floor does. If they did, he supposes they wouldn't be on the floor. He understands that interest compounds, though. And as Doolittle reminds him, you have to factor in the cost of the barracks and the cafeteria. None of that’s free.
The shift drink isn’t optional, either. Hard Times tastes like its name. It’s uncanny.
There’s a lot more to the Formula, he’s told. Things he wouldn’t have expected. Time spent asking Dispatch for directions seems to matter. Stumbling. Staring at scenery. It all adds up.
But he’s paying it all off, or working paying off the interest, anyway. That's where dignity lies.
If he ever misses sunlight on his face, or coffee in a kitchen with yellow drapes, or a friend beside him in the passenger seat, keeping vigil by his side, it passes through his mind quickly and leaves no trace.
Once, his delivery run takes him to an old house. A shuttered glass storefront sits beside a crooked four square, with a barn out back. He doesn’t fully understand why it stirs his memory so much until he sees the address on the door, and looks down at the sheet in his hand. Confirms the address.
How can you give thirty years of your life to a business and forget its address in just…
How long has it been, anyway?
The worst part is the sign over the door. The barrels he delivers in back. He catches a glimpse of the open showtoom through the service door, and it’s hardly recognizable. No antiques present now, that's for sure.
His distraction as he stares around the old house is a form of time theft. When you’re on the company’s dime, Doolittle's told him, the distillery’s paying for both your body and your full attention. Letting your mind wander is shortchanging Hard Times of half of its investment. But he can’t help it right now. A troubled thought keeps running through his head. Lysette wouldn’t sign up for this. She didn’t drink. She wasn’t the sort to get in debt. This was hers. And now it’s theirs.
As he sits in the driver's seat, he radio hisses, disapproving, like it can sense what he’s thinking. What is he thinking? He must be getting old and confused.
No. Lysette had been the one who was old and confused, a voice whispers in his head. Someone could take advantage of that. Especially if you weren't there.
Maybe she wanted to put her house to good use, he reasons, disturbed by the ungracious bent of his thoughts. What’s wrong with that? Letting her house have a little dignity, instead of sitting as a mausoleum to the past? A shrine to old memories is no good to anyone.
Old memories like sleeping in a barn like that one, the sound of horses moving in the dark beneath the loft.
Old memories like kneeling by the bed with Lysette, after the accident, when she’d been too miserable to get out of bed.
Old memories like sitting on the living room floor with a young boy, helping him build paper airplanes.
There had been so little time for that sort of thing, so little time before that bright boy outstripped any skills or knowledge Conway had to offer. But for a moment in time, Conway had something to share. Some small thing to offer Lysette's family in return for all they'd done for him. It had felt good, passing something on.
The memory passes through his mind. He does his job. Gets all the barrels off the truck and inside.
When he leaves, he checks in with Dispatch, and tells them he’s ten minutes late for his next delivery, but he’ll make it up on the road. He’s gonna have to make double-time on the next delivery to make up for his wandering mind. Still, he fiddles with the radio, the endless waves of static sliding by, feeling uneasy about that house he'd made the last delivery at. The unease lingers long after the memory of what caused it slips from his mind.
HARD TIMES DISTILLERY
His truck pulls into the factory. The truck is wet, the wipers still beating hard.
That was some storm back there, on the road. Hundred year’s storm, dispatch called it. Half the bridges he’d tried to cross had been washed away, but he’d made it back.
The distillery is alive with panicked activity. Amidst the commotion, only Doolittle sees him step out of his truck and stops. The words come out of the tape player hissing with static.
“Storm run-off. It’s swollen the lake. Half the warehouse was flooded. Dozens of casks were carried away on the river, including the load of whiskey for you next run.”
“That doesn’t sound good.”
“Can I help?”
“Well, they’re probably gone now.”
“Matter of fact, you can. We need you to go out on the river and look for them.”
“But I’m a driver…”
“Shouldn’t I deliver some of the whiskey that’s still in the warehouse?”
“Listen to him! That’s pine box pauper’s burial thirty-year aged whiskey. We’re not going to have another load of that vintage ready for six months.”
“What if it floods again?”
“Guess I better hurry.”
“Good. Be sure to find all nine casks of it. This is expensive product we’re talking about, real top shelf stuff, and the company can’t afford that much shrinkage. Since it’s your load...it’ll need to come out of your pay if you don’t recover it.”
“Wait, that doesn’t—“
“You can take one of the dinghies out with you. Remember to bring back all nine casks. Good man.”
He hasn’t piloted a dinghy in a long time. The last time, he was a different man. He moves silently through the dark water.
The water looks cold and impossibly deep.
It reminds him of the river he taught Charlie to fish for trout on.
It reminds him of the river he almost drowned in as a boy.
It reminds him of the river he saved his old hound dog from.
There had been a storm. He’d stopped his truck by a flooded-out farm to see if he could help. There she’d been, shivering and wet, a bundle of skin and bones. Caught in a downed tree. She scrambled weakly against him as he took hold. Too exhausted to put up much of a fight. He’d had a blanket in the back of his truck, and he’d toweled her off then wrapped her close. He’d looked everywhere for the owner in the three days the truck was in the shop. But they never turned up. Must have belonged to one of the houses that just washed away.
The thought vanishes. Whatever memory he briefly caught sight of refuses to surface. It lies too deep below the waters.
He strains his eyes into the darkness.
The first cask is bobbing near the shore of an island, entangled in the remnant of some steel beast that looks like a carousel. He pulls the cask free, but there’s no way he’ll be able to heave it aboard, let alone its eight mates, so hooks it by a rope to the dinghy and pulls it along behind him.
He’d heard Marge from Bottling once talk about an amusement park built on the Echo, but there hadn’t been enough families to support operations. Up ahead, he can see a Ferris wheel, arrested halfway through its collapse on its side by a stalactite as big as a cathedral. Passenger tubs in primary colors, rusted loose from their joints, float on the water. Intermingled with them is another cask.
This cask is also attached to the dinghy. It’s joined by others. He finds one in the ruins of an old sawmill, several more run aground on a bar off an island covered in poppies. After he secures each of the casks to his dinghy, they bob along after him, bouncing against each other like streamers. After what feels like hours searching, he drifts downriver, to warmer caves, glowing with phosphorescence. Three casks have floated in there, and he ropes them and pulls them out as quickly as he can. That leaves one more.
The last one proves elusive. He floats for hours through the tunnels and caves of the Echo River system, shining his flashlight into the crooks and folds of the walls. He can’t go back without it, so he presses on.
At last, in the darkness, he sees something unusual. There's a manmade tunnel up ahead: smooth, semi-cylindrical. Like a highway tunnel. Or a railway tunnel.
He steers the dinghy towards it.
The tunnel opens into what appears to be a flooded railway station. High ceilings soar above, arcing like a cathedral’s. This looks familiar, he thinks. He lost something here…
But there’s no time to focus on that. The final cask has lodged itself next to an old service ladder that juts out of the murky water. As he motors the dinghy towards it, a shadow stirs against the wall.
Conway returns his attention to the task at hand.
Conway takes a closer look at the shadow in the corner.
The shadow resolves itself to the shape of an animal, all bones and angles, struggling to its feet. He perceives the obvious pain in its joints even before he takes in the shape of the thing. It’s an old hound, with ribs visible beneath its grey coat.
The sight of it, this animal where it doesn’t belong and won’t survive much longer, brings him up short.
“You’re a strange sight down here.” The sound of his voice, even hissing through the tape, makes her take a few unsteady steps toward him, her tail is moving jerkily, like it's trying to wag but has forgotten the motion.
“You're a funny thing, but I suppose should get back to work.”
“Hey now. I think I know you.”
He steps closer and kneels before her. She's a funny old dog, wearing a straw hat, of all things. She's got sleepy eyes, clouded with age and hunger, but her gaze sharpens when it falls on him, and she wriggles forward on her stomach.
Conway stares blankly at the creature.
Conway remembers everything.
It almost hurts, the force of memories coming back, and what they show him. He'd left her here, down in the flooded railway station. He hadn’t planned on that, it’d just happened so fast. He’d made arrangements for his truck, but his dog…
He’d thought maybe she’d come with him. She followed him in most things in life. But it hadn't worked out that way, he’d gone where she couldn’t follow. And instead of giving up and moving on she'd waited this whole time. Someone must have been bringing her food, but whoever it was seems to be gone. There is a pink slip on the exchange operator’s workstation, announcing that the position has been eliminated. The space seems newly abandoned. But Blue has stayed.
He takes a step back, scratching his head, and she moves to follow him. The tape player hums of its own accord. “It’s good to see you, girl, but I can’t stay.”
She ignores the words, just whining and lowering herself into an exhausted heap at his feet. He is frozen to the spot, torn between the words (his words) and the weight of her. For the first time in his tenure as a driver for Hard Times, he chooses time theft, and kneels to pat her.
She butts her head into his hand, nosing at it with curiosity. If she senses that his hand is no longer itself, that he is no longer himself, she does not show it. Unconsciously, his finger curl into her short fur, rubbing her ears where the fur is softest. Something strange, half-forgotten, spreads through his chest.
The tape player continues to hiss. “I don’t have any food for you, see?”
She doesn’t understand, just licks his hand, insistent.
The tape player clicks and new words spill out of the player, sharp with static. “I can’t stay. I got work to do.”
He glances, towards the precious product that’s been entrusted toward him. The tape player agrees. “I can’t have you slowing me down, girl--”
Before he knows quite what he’s doing, his finger finds the Stop button. The tape player shuts off with an audible click that seems to echo through the station.
Her tail thumps on the ground, as she looks up to him. Expectation swimming somewhere in the depths of those murky eyes.
“You don’t belong down here.” He’s not sure if the words come out of his mouth any more. He’s not sure that’s even possible. He used the tape player for a reason. But that’s what he says all the same.
“A dog should be free to lie in the sun,” he continues, his words unsteady. It feels true. It also feels like a betrayal.
He’s been entrusted with a job. A lot of valuable product they’re counting on him to deliver. And he owes Hard Times.
But she’s down here now, left alone in the dark, because of him. Doesn't he owe her a kind of debt too?
“You should leave without me. Everyone’s always been better off that way.”
"Let's go, girl. Sorry it took so long. I lost myself for a bit there.”
There will be a price to pay for walking away from his job. No doubt about that. But he’s got her to settle up with, and what’s life, if you can’t settle up before you go?
The dinghy drifts through the darkness. Blue sits beside him.
He is consumed with guilt. Doolittle trusted him to bring back those casks.
The warmth of a steady presence at his side cracks something open in him, stirs emotions he'd forgotten how to feel.
He doesn’t quite know where he’s going, only that he got down here by the Echo River, and they had been headed somewhere above ground when he’d been intercepted. Hired early. They’d been headed towards a house. He strains his eyes into the dark, hoping he’ll know his destination when he sees it.
At last, something emerges from the shadows. It’s his old truck, abandoned and seemingly empty. The back cleared out. It sits beneath a silo of spiral stairs suspended above him, ending in a pinprick of light. They clamber out together and stare up into the spiral ascending to the sky. He spares one last glance at the dinghy with its casks trailing it like streamers, which are already sliding away down the river, like some strange memorial that might silently slip by boaters on the dark Echo River water, the event it was meant to enshrine lost to time.
He pulls his eyes away from the sight, and looks up at the circle of sky above them. "Looks like it's time to climb, Blue."
SILO OF LATE REFLECTIONS
Blue ain’t good for it, though. She's too far gone to malnutrition and age. Her legs are shaky and she slips on the stairs. So he scoops her into his arms and carries her; a gangly, shivering old dog too big for his arms.
The light grows with each step. It’s too much after so long underground or under cover of night.
His legs start to ache as he lifts them. At first it's just a funny niggling sensation, familiar and unfamiliar all at once. How long has it been since he felt truly tired?
Since the operation in Dr. Truman's house. Any hurting his body has doing has been distant, like it’s happening to some other body. After that first conversation with Will that first night, he hadn’t acknowledged it since. It didn’t bear thinking about.
That's not what's happening now, though. The higher he climbs, the more he feels his body waking up to feelings that had been numbed. He'd glanced in the rear view mirror from time to time, and seen no tongue to get dry or skin to get chilled or musculature to ache. He feels them all now, and he wonders how he ever managed to ignore them. His skin is cold in the sweat that’s forming. Stubble itches at his jaw. His knees ache with each step. He feels old, walking up these stairs.
More than anything, his leg is throbbing, the one he hurt so long ago. (Where was it? In a mine? Why had he been in a mine?)
The improvements granted to him by the consolidated power company feel like they’re fading away like a radio signal. That doesn’t make sense, it’s not in line with medicine as he understands it, but he’s never understood these things. Is this what comes of abandoning his duties?
He finds he needs a break, and sets her down to sit on one of the stairs. Glancing over the edge, he can see they're very high up now. Sitting on the stairs, he stares at his leg. He’s got to roll his pant leg up to get a good look at it, knotty knee and pale skin swollen under the strain. A leg that was broken and never properly set right, still crying out.
Blue sits beside him. In the cold morning air, she seems to be reviving, even as his body is feeling the strain at long last.
She puts her head on his knee and gazes up at him with big upturned eyes. Soft. Tired. The warmth spreads across his leg, easing his pain a fraction. His hand finds its way to her ears again, scratching them. The blue sky is visible through the top of the silo, and there are wisps of clouds floating by above. He considers, for a moment, just closing his eyes and lying here. This ain’t such a bad place to stop. Halfway between the task to help Blue and the casks he really should be getting back to.
“You should leave me, Blue. Go on ahead without me.”
“Just give me a second. I'll be all right in a second.”
She doesn't go, of course. Just whimpers and huddles closer to his side. She's no more going to leave this spot without him than she was going to leave that spot in the railway station where they'd parted. If he wants her to get to safety, he's going to have to accompany her.
He fondly tousles her ears, floppy and ridiculous. “Let’s go then. It’s only going to get harder the longer I sit here.”
Hoisting himself to his feet hurts pretty bad, and she circles him once in evident concern, but he forces himself on. He’s clinging to the railing by the end, practically pulling himself up, hand over hand, when they emerge into the open air.
It’s bright. He takes in a field, circled by a ramshackle assortment of a dozen buildings, mostly houses. There’s the whir of a small engine, and he turns to see a single engine prop plane taking off, backlit black against the sky.
No one’s around. He sinks to sit on the grass, his feet still on the top stair.
“Where do you suppose we are?”
“Look, there’s a cat over there. You think you got the energy to chase her?”
Blue doesn’t, but she cocks her ears forward at the sight of it darting between two houses. She stays planting by his side, still shaking from the exertion of walking. Rests her head on his knee.
He looks over, and is startled by a familiar sight. Beside them is the beginnings of a garden, and to the side is a worn jacket with sheepskin lining folded neatly on the ground. Like the gardener had been wearing it, only to shed it in the midday sun.
“Nice quality. Always wished I could afford something like this.”
“I had a jacket like this. Gave it away to someone, though. I think she was a friend.”
He pulls it over and smells the sheepskin of his jacket. A long ago scent, of open roads and rain and sweet hay, like from a barn loft, meets his nose. A barn always felt more like home than home ever had. It’s funny, how some places just felt like home.
He looks around the town. There’s something peaceful about this place. Homey too, in its way. He hears voices echoing across the grass, and music. A haunting singing voice lilts over the tin roofs. He sits with Blue, her head still on his knee. Together, they listen.