The rooms they rented near the pipeline were these cheap, one-night-stand affairs—a twin bed, a tiny TV, a fridge made for a college dorm, cigarette burns in the sheets, the smell of sweat and ancient milk, souring in the tepid, stale air—and there were occasional power failures, too, which happened at least once every two weeks. Kit was late getting up and into the field on mornings like that. Everybody else made it just fine—Ed, Chris, even Tito. They would already be there, dirtied from head to toe, readying themselves to give Kit shit as he walked up over the crunching gravel from his tiny pickup truck—and this particular day started off no different than the others.
“You were hitting it hard last night, eh?” Ed tucked dip under his lip and grinned.
Tito laughed. “Guess it was the power again, huh? Doesn’t your bitch-ass have a cellphone?”
Ignoring them, Kit strapped his helmet on and sipped coffee from his Thermos, thinking about how much he didn’t want to think about anything anymore—how if he could just make it through the day, he could forget everything again come nightfall.
It’d been a little over a year now since his son had taken off and vanished into the wild, uncomfortable depths of the world. He always thought of him, even when he tried to deaden it with things, but he never mourned him. He still had some fervent, undying hope in his gut that the kid would come walking up out of nowhere one day and say, Dad? Is that you? Dad? I’ve been looking for you. It’s me. Tanner.
They worked for hours under the scorching sun—the others trying to remember while Kit tried to forget.
Not long after lunch, Tito and Ed observed Kit about a hundred yards off, digging frantically in the dirt, just gouging and punching and scraping like a dog. They both watched for a minute before they started off in his direction. When they got over there, he was saying, “Yes, yes, yes. I saved him. Look he’s still breathing. Look at this thing. He’s still alive. Can you believe it? I can hardly believe he’s still alive.”
“What the fuck,” said Ed. “You need to drink some water.”
“Look at this,” said Kit. “He’s still alive. It’s a miracle. I saw his little grey arm sticking up. He was buried alive.”
Tito appeared to be distressed, kept chewing at his lip, grinding his teeth, and would hardly hold Kit’s gaze as he reached down to help him to his feet. “Come on, kid. You need to take a break. Heat’s getting to you.”
“What’re you talking about?” Kit was about to light a cigarette. Tito knocked it clean out of his hand. “Holy shit, I’m so sorry. Forgot where I was for a second.”
“Come on,” they said.
When they got back to the lunch trailer, they sat Kit in front of a fan and got him some water.
“Look at this, can you believe it. I saved this fucker. Isn’t he beautiful? I can’t believe he’s still alive.”
“Jesus, Kit,” said Ed. “It’s just a toy, an alien, a plush toy.”
Kit hardly paid attention to what Ed was saying, instead he just kept going, “I can hardly believe he’s still alive. I can hardly believe he’s still alive.”
Ed and Tito sat there a minute, darting glances back and forth, and then whispered to each other. Ed went out and told the foreman that Kit wasn’t feeling too good and needed to take the rest of the day off. Tito stayed behind to tell Kit he needed to go back to the hotel and get some rest.
Kit nodded and said, “Isn’t it so great?”
“Yeah,” said Tito. “It’s a miracle. Now, go on. You have the rest of the day off. Take advantage of it.”
“All right,” said Kit. “See you guys.”
Before he left, he tried to give it a drink of water. It dribbled off the stiff grey cloth and onto his jeans, made a spot like urine that spread over his lap and into his skin. As he walked back to his truck, Chris waved, trying to get his attention, a sad look in his eyes, but he didn’t notice and just kept walking, dust kicking up and stirring ghostly off each step.
He buckled the plush alien into the passenger seat of his pickup and made his way back to the hotel, the sky turning from a hot bright summer blue into a hard slate grey as a storm rolled in over top the particular patch of earth he was driving on.
At his room, Kit washed the plush alien in the sink, cut off the tag, and used a blow dryer to dry it off. He closed the toilet lid and sat it down there. He turned on the hot water, got a shower going, climbed in after peeling off his clothes, and said, “What’s your name?” He waited, one ear cupped, while water ran down his face, straining to listen. “Well, that’s okay. You’re probably still feeling weak. You’ve been through hell and back, surely. I’ll let it come as it comes. Hope you don’t mind, you know, but that thing sticking out of you didn’t look all that comfortable so I cut it off.” He listened for anything, a stir, but heard nothing, especially with all that water beating into him.
He stayed up the rest of the day watching cartoons with the plush alien beside him on the bed. He popped the occasional pill and chased it with whiskey. Hours and hours went by like this until nighttime slowly covered the windows with its lightless mold. He stumbled outside and sat on a parking block, plush alien in hand. He’d tried talking to it all day to no avail. He was feeling restless, resentful—angry that the thing would disrespect him like that and after all he’d done. Not even one Thank you.
“Listen, kid,” he said. “You need to tell me your name.” He smoked a cigarette and counted the stars. Several minutes passed. He kept touching the alien’s wrist and telling it to say something, anything. He felt he was owed something, even though he wanted something more than that. “Come on, say something, anything. Say it, just fucking say something.” He was surprised that he seemed to be yelling, but embraced it, emboldened it. “Fuck you,” he said. He threw the alien on the pavement in front of him. “You ungrateful fuck. Tell me your name! Tell me your fucking name!” Nothing, crickets in the night. He stood up and stomped on its head. “Why are you doing this to me?” Still nothing—boring stars, a light breeze. He went back into his room and got his Zippo fluid from the Bible drawer. “This is it, you fucker,” he said, dowsing it in fuel. “You don’t start talking, you go up in flames. Got it? Tell me something, you sonofabitch.” Still nothing. The sound of someone coughing in a distant room. A couple fucking in a nearby car. “Fine,” he said, reaching down, crouching and flicking sparks with his lighter. “I don’t like you.” Within a second or two flick flick a load of light filled his face. He could feel the heat through the heat, the ashes rising and becoming one with the night. He stood there and waited until the plush alien was nearly only carbon embers, stomped it into the asphalt, and went back inside.
He went to bed smelling of fumes, tossed and turned all night, and woke up at two. He popped a handful of melatonin, slugged down half a pint of whiskey, and then tried to tire himself out with his fist. Nothing worked. He had to piss. In the bathroom, shaking off, he noticed the discarded tag he’d cut off earlier in the day. He picked it up. He sat on the toilet with his phone and the tag and Googled the serial number on the back. An image popped up, then another. Strange feelings consumed him as he scrolled the images of toys—they burned inside him, confused him. It was hard to feel any pain or sadness. He wasn’t mourning. Of course his son was dead—he missed someone. He just wasn’t sure if it was the son he’d had or the son he’d wanted.
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