A Triptych Tale …

Four Nights of Takeout

A Triptych Tale

 

When strange internet men call you up to say they’ve been talking with your teenage son about his strong desire to lose a limb, it makes your head cock a little. It sure cocked mine. Although with my neck already kinked as it was, holding the phone to my ear, driving between contract negotiations with Pollyanne in the back, it would have been hard to tell.

I met Scott at the McDonald’s inside the Wal-Mart on Trapper Street, because it was public and because Pollyanne likes fries. I wasn’t too worried because Tommy Jones was with me, so if Scott tried anything I’d have a warning. Scott looked pretty harmless when he stood to greet me. He gripped my hand firmly, and remained standing for a moment as I took my seat.

“Mrs. Hadley,” he said. “Thank you for not calling the police.”

“That’s Miss,” I corrected. “We left Hop Senior back in Texas, and it was a cold day when he ever came around in the first place. Call me Rue.”

“Mrs. Hadley,” he said. “Thank you for not calling the police.”

Scott stalled a little, offered to buy me a blended coffee drink, but I had more contracts to get to so I cut right to it. “Why did you call me, Scott? There had better be a good reason, and it better go well with the innocent one for why you’ve been speaking to my son, or you bet your brisket the cops will be involved. Also, I wrote your license plate down as I was walking up, so don’t try running off now that you’re caught.”

Never mind that Scott hadn’t told me what he was driving. Hadleys are excellent bullshitters.

Scott didn’t catch the lie. “My conversations with Hop Junior are nothing to get upset about. They didn’t even take place directly between us. I’m the moderator of a message board. A forum for kids with identity issues.”

“Identity issues?”

“Such as being transgender. The board is a meeting place for young people who are transgender, transitioning, or just curious.”

I rolled that around for second. “Oh, fuck you, Rue,” I said to myself. I could hear my mother nagging without even seeing her. What did you think would happen, raising the boy on your own? Boys need their dads, she would say, and if they don’t get them, weird things happen.

I was covering my face, recovering my sensibilities, when Tommy Jones moaned at my side. As if he were lending his sympathies to my situation, although the distance to his bones made that impossible.

Perhaps I should explain something. Tommy Jones is the ghost of a West Virginian miner who, judging by his raggedy coveralls and the range of folk songs he sings, I placed at having lived between the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Since he was an old ghost and far-off from his bones, he didn’t have the presence of mind to talk directly to me nor understand if I spoke to him. Tommy Jones wasn’t even his real name as far as I knew. I only called him that because of the amusing — to me — combination of his former profession and his resemblance to Tommy Lee Jones when he played Doolittle Lynn in Coal Miner’s Daughter.

Tommy’s habit of stalking me was a side effect of me having the Sight: seeing and hearing ghosts where other folks aren’t able. It’s an ability I passed on to Pollyanne, and was given to me by my mother, going back to her dad, Paw-Paw Hadley. Other preternatural skills have been known to manifest in the family, such as astral projections and premonitions of the future, but those are less common and have dwindled in frequency as the Hadley line has thinned.

Tommy’s habit of stalking me was a side effect of me having the Sight …

The cashier brought my fries, and nodding dumbly I took them. I passed some over to Pollyanne in her stroller, then cradled the paper box in my lap. “I’ve got to get on better terms with my sister. I’m not cut out for raising a transgender. Look at me — jeans and a T-shirt. There’s not a stick or a brush of makeup in my whole house.”

Scott cocked an eyebrow then said, “I think I gave you the wrong impression. Hop Junior hasn’t been frequenting our boards because he has gender confusion. He joined the forum because it was the closest fit to the dysphoria he’s actually experiencing: Body Integrity Identity Disorder, or BIDs. His left leg, specifically. Hop Junior wants to cut off his leg.”

Scott gave me gist of it. I didn’t pick up on it all because I was struck stupid a bit, and because Pollyanne kept dropping her fries. Also, Tommy Jones had wandered over by the door-greeter and was singing Coal Creek March. The gist of what Scott told me was:

“BIDs is a real psychological condition where sufferers feel they should have been born without one limb or more. In the worst cases, sufferers act on these impulses.”

I looked up from my fries. “Act how?”

“Typically, through self-amputation.”

“Sweet, scampering shit.” It was a struggle stringing words together. If Hop Junior had been a transgender I’d at least have had some inkling as to what questions to ask, but this?

Scott must have seen me wrestling with it. “BIDs is not entirely understood,” he said gently, “but from what I’ve read the disorder is similar to the phantom pains amputees report feeling: itching in an arm or leg no longer there. Except with Hop, he has a leg that he feels shouldn’t be there yet is, like you or I might think about a hangnail.”

“The left one,” I repeated.

Scott went into his satchel. “I wrote down the names of some books and the number of a psychologist in Norfolk. I’m sorry I couldn’t find anyone on this side of the state line.” He sighed, then stopped rummaging. “Look, Ms. Hadley.”

“Rue.”

“This isn’t something I usually do, track down the parents of kids from the board. This feels like a violation of trust. But I didn’t really have a choice. Hop Junior has begun acting on his impulse.”

“Acting on it? You mean …”

“Yes. Hop tried to cut off his leg. He stopped short, obviously, or you’d have noticed. But if you check his thigh you’ll find marks.”

Scott resumed his rummaging. “He posted pictures,” he said. “I can show you — “

I waved him off. I’d started feeling queasy, and had to move the fries away from me. “I had no idea about any of this. I mean, I don’t see how I could have known …”

Scott took my hand. “You never do,” he said. “We had no idea about my sister until it was too late.”

“Your sister?”

He nodded. “She was transgender. She didn’t think anyone would accept her and took her own life. That’s why I drove three hours to speak to you, Ms. Hadley. So that Hop Junior doesn’t get hurt, too.”

I’d started feeling queasy, and had to move the fries away from me.

I thanked Scott as he left, and took the information on the doctor from him before we parted ways.

Working moms don’t have time for meltdowns at the Wal-Mart, or at least I don’t. Tommy Jones was still singing in the foyer, so he got left behind. I had contracts to get to. The ghost would catch up to me later, I knew, having followed me on foot across town; since the kids and I had come to Colliersville I was never without him for long. When we moved on Tommy wouldn’t be able to follow – his spirit was bound to remain within a certain distance to his remains – but in the meantime I just had to ignore the endless moaning mixed with singing.

In the parking lot outside, pushing Pollyanne to the truck, I was greeted by a different annoyance. Chip Kinsey had me blocked in. He was leaning against his pickup, grinning with arms crossed and a stench about him that said he’d been up all night drinking and working a stick up his butt over how I screwed him.

“Chip, I’m not in the mood,” I said, putting Pollyanne in her seat.

Chip spat on the ground. “Piss on your mood. I’m not moving until we negotiate.”

Pollyanne was wriggling on me, looking for Tommy Jones. “It’s a contract, Chip,” I said, in between wrangling her. “You negotiate before it’s signed, not after.”

“Well, when one party diddles the other, that contract is null and void. You paid me a flat two thousand for the sub-surface rights to the shale beneath my land. And now I find out you’re going around offering annual payments — sums totaling twice what you gave me.”

“That’s how it works, Chip. People hold out, the offers go up.”

“Well, nobody told me. I’m out of work, woman. And I need that money. Now you’re gonna make me a new contract or God help me —”

I rounded on him. “Of course I didn’t tell you, you big idiot. The company would throw me out on my ass if I paid the max to everyone. If that means some folks get screwed, I’m sorry, but that’s the nature of the business.”

I shut Pollyanne’s door. “Now I’m going to have to ask you to move, Chip, or else I’ll have to call the sheriff. And I’m in a hurry, so I’ll have to call him fast.”

Chip left before that was needed, tearing out of the parking lot and startling one of the kids pushing the carts. I tossed my phone on the passenger seat as I hopped into the truck.

It’s not like I enjoy shorting people. But it was a buyer’s market in the fracking industry, and folks like Chip had to get what they could. And it’s not as if the arrangement wasn’t agreeable for most, especially in a town like Colliersville where the coal mines had been the only work there ever was and those had run dry in the sixties.

…it was a buyer’s market in the fracking industry, and folks like Chip had to get what they could.

The fry-monster and I drove around the rest of the afternoon, then headed home to the company rent-house: a squat little one-story the kids and I got to live in free of charge, isolated from the city proper by a long, dusty unpaved road. The house sat right near the edge of an old surface mine, with the back yard overlooking a slag-covered slope. Not the safest place for children, but the yard was fenced so I didn’t worry much.

I’d gotten two more holdouts signed, yet I had trouble feeling satisfaction. I had no idea what to say to my son. Tommy Jones showed in time for Pollyanne’s nap, which was good because his singing puts her to sleep. I poured myself a drink and paced the room. When it was gone I gargled away the smell, then sat on the sofa and was waiting as Hop Junior came in off the school bus.

“I thank God every day you don’t look like your daddy,” I said to him.

Hop Junior tilted his head.

“Because I worry if you did, I couldn’t love you. It wouldn’t be your fault, I know. What’s more I know me just thinking that makes me a terrible mom. I’m not even sure why I’m telling you this now, aside for the fact I ramble like a crazy woman when I’m pussyfooting around a subject. How was school?”

Hop Junior scooted his shoes. “It was fine.”

“Good. Now go strip down to your skivvies, then come back and show me your thigh.”

Hop Junior didn’t run, but Tommy Jones flickered so he must have considered it. That’s the good thing about having ghosts around: they act as buoys in the ocean of emotional turbulence. If something bad is about to happen, as the result of someone’s actions or even accidently, it has an effect on neighboring spirits. They flicker like a dirty video tape. And the worse the thing is about to occur, the worse they blink.

Tommy’s flicker was subtle in this case, but it was enough to make me raise a stern eyebrow to my son. That look was enough for Hop Junior to reconsider what he was thinking of doing, and so he didn’t do it. Don’t ask me the metaphysical implications of all that.

Hop Junior went and changed as I’d requested, then came back in the living room holding his jeans over his front, as if hiding something.

“Come on and show me, son,” I said. Hop Junior sat beside me, then looked away as he lifted his pants.

There on his thigh, just above his knee and below the line of his shorts, was the faintest blemish of white. I sighed relief. “Well that doesn’t look so bad. There’s barely a mark – like you only touched your skin then got second thoughts.”

There on his thigh, just above his knee and below the line of his shorts, was the faintest blemish of white.

His face reddened. “It’s because I used a knife from the take-out drawer.”

My voice cracked. “Like, the plastic ones?”

“The real ones were scary.”

I let a giggle slip despite trying not to, then recovered myself. “How about you tell me what all this is about?”

Like water from a stone, Hop Junior gave his story with reluctance. “I just feel like my leg doesn’t belong on my body. Like something bad will happen if it stays. It’s hard to explain.”

“Well, you’re gonna have to try, son. Did you read about BIDs on the internet? On some other message board maybe?” I’d pulled up Hop Junior’s search history while I’d been waiting, but either he’d cleared it or else he’d only looked up BIDs at school. Hadleys are crafty, among other things.

“The feelings started first,” he said firmly. “I only Googled them afterwards, trying to figure out what they could be, and looking for people who’d understand me.”

“And you’re sure all this isn’t just a way to make yourself special? On account of you feeling left out because your sister and I have the Sight and you don’t?”

Hop Junior glared at me.

“Because I’d understand that, son. And what’s more, I’d remind you that it’s not too late for your own skills to manifest. I was a late bloomer myself.”

“I’m not making it up, Mom.” His voice sounded rough, so I backed off. We sat in silence for a minute. Tommy Jones starting up another song brought us back, despite that Hop Junior couldn’t hear it.

“These urges are real,” Hop Junior said to me. “And now that they’ve started, I won’t feel right again until my leg is gone.”

“The left one.”

He rolled his eyes. “Yes, Mom, the left one.”

I chewed on that. “Can you at least promise you won’t try cutting it off again? At least until we have a chance to figure this out, in case there’s something else behind it?”

Hop Junior hesitated, then nodded. “There’s something else,” he added. “Something I didn’t tell Scott and the others.”

“Well, don’t keep this from me either. What is it?”

“This feeling I have about my leg … I feel the same way about Pollyanne, too. I feel like her leg needs to come off.”

“Well, uh …” My hands fumbled in my lap. “Well son, that’s just not cool.”

#

It’s no fun when your son goes insane. I took every sharp object from the house and locked them in the truck, then hid in Pollyanne’s room and cried while I brushed her hair. There was no denying it: Hop Junior’s patty had slipped off his burger. Still, I resolved not to give up on the kid. Maybe that doctor in Norfolk could make his brain right. In the meantime, we’d be eating with our hands.

I got out of bed the next morning, and the one after that, because that’s what you have to do when you’re a single mom on her own, BIDs-afflicted son notwithstanding. Those days after consisted of meeting Hop Junior when he came off the bus, followed by checking his backpack, and ending with evening dinners of pizza or steak fingers or fries. Not that Pollyanne minded the latter.

Maybe that doctor in Norfolk could make his brain right.

Friday came and I needed a break. I was nearly done with the Colliersville contracts, so on a lark I splurged on daycare for the baby, bought myself a pack of Ultra Lights, and headed out past the posted warnings outside of town. I don’t smoke anymore, which means sometimes I can have them.

Tommy Jones caught up to me half a pack through, his intangible boots dragging through the hills of Colliersville’s long-closed mines. Those slag heaps, grown over with a thin layer of weeds, bumped along the valley bottom like burial mounds, reminders of the town’s lost vibrancy. The hills led back to the slope where the surface mine ended, rising up to the ridge with my overlooking house.

The ghost shuffled up, then stopped.

“I’m going to put you rest,” I said to him. “That is to say, I’m going to try.”

Tommy Jones mumbled indistinctly.

“This isn’t something I do for everyone. To be honest, I’m only helping you because I need a distraction. Now, I’m going to start walking downhill, and I’ll be watching you for reactions. I don’t have a lot of time to put into this, but if you pitch in I think we can do it. Here we go.”

Putting ghosts to rest is something I learned from my mother. The principle is simple: head out nearabout where the ghost in question died, and watch for him to become lucid as he gets close to his body. It’s like the spiritual version of hot-or-cold. Once you find his bones he’ll get his wits back, and then you can ask what’s keeping him. If you can fix the problem he’ll flutter off into the ether, free and at peace, like a paper towel in the breeze.

Deep-mining had come first to Colliersville, and it was only years after they carved a surface mine on top of things; like taking a shovel to an ant pile, only in search of coal rather than out of meanness. And so walking down to the valley bottom was like going backward in time. There were signs posted down there, warnings that the area was littered with forgotten shafts, their wood coverings long ago rotted and their openings hidden by thin layers of brush. I kept an eye on Tommy Jones so I didn’t step in any, and also in case we came across the shaft where he’d been buried alive or suffocated or whatever horrible thing had happened to him.

Sure enough, a half-hour in he started blinking. I stopped cold, but couldn’t see what had set him off, and ending up sitting down for a break and a smoke.

“Thanks for looking out, Tommy J,” I said to him. “Now, I just wish I knew where you were.”

Tommy Jones moaned, and I shook my head.

What was I doing out here? Avoiding my problems with Hop Junior, I thought. My chances of actually finding Tommy’s bones were slim – so small I’d have to squint to see them. We could have been standing over his bones right then, and wouldn’t have known because they were too far underground for his soul to detect them. Then, as if chiming in with its opinion, my phone buzzed in my pocket. It was the sheriff so I answered.

My chances of actually finding Tommy’s bones were slim – so small I’d have to squint to see them.

“Good afternoon, Ms. Hadley,” Sheriff Chester said. “Just following up on a report I got. Something about some trouble between you and Mr. Kinsey.”

“Chip Kinsey?” I’d nearly forgotten. “He hassled me a little, Sheriff, but nothing came of it. I don’t want to press charges if that’s what you’re asking. Too much paperwork with the company.”

Sheriff Chester grunted. “Well, you might want to reconsider. Chip’s been heard talking about doing harm to you, on account of some contracts he feels are unjust.”

“I’m sure he’s just chest-thumping …” My phone beeped in my ear. Hop Junior’s school was on the other line. “I’m sorry, Sheriff, I’ve gotta take this,” I said, then switched over.

#

It’s hard to drive while you’re banging your head on the wheel. Fortunately, Hadleys are good at making the impossible possible. Like how Hop Junior could have snuck out of class, broken into the Special Ed supply closet with nobody spotting him, and taken a wheelchair out for a ride.

I picked my son up from the office, and for a time I couldn’t find the words.

“I wanted to see what it was like,” he said eventually, “how I’d get around without my leg.”

“Listen to me, Hop Junior. Nothing in my thirty-six years has prepared me for a son with Body Integrity Identity Disorder. My world view is stunted, I admit. If you had been transgender or just a regular gay, I’d have supported you, but I can’t cup this bullshit in my hands any longer.”

He rolled his eyes. “I’m not faking, Mom.”

“We’re done with it. Tomorrow I’m taking off work, and we’re driving up to Norfolk to see that doctor. Even if you are making it up, I figure he can still help you.”

“Mom, I’m not —”

“Enough, Hopalong Hadley!” That made him shut up for the ride. Although I did see his nostrils flair at the red light on Trapper Street, presumably detecting the cigarette butt in my pocket. Thankfully my genes made him smart enough not to say anything.

We pulled up to the rent-house with Pollyanne and a BIDs-safe dinner in tow. Chinese food – let Hop Junior do his worst with a chopstick. I left the takeout in the truck and took the baby in first.

Hop Junior followed, starting up again. “I’m not safe with this leg. Pollyanne isn’t safe with hers either.”

My baby girl played with my hair as I unlocked the door. “You need help, Hop Junior.”

I bumped it open with my hip, then set the baby on the floor. I shook my head at Hop Junior as I passed him, scooped up the bags from the truck outside, went back through the still-open door, and nearly dropped lo mein all over the carpet.

“I’m not safe with this leg. Pollyanne isn’t safe with hers either.”

Hop Junior sat beside his sister. I don’t know where he’d gotten the lawn shears. I don’t do my own yard work, so I don’t have a working memory of my tools. Wherever they’d come from, he’d sharpened them.

“What are doing, son?” I asked him.

“I figured it out,” he said. “I have to take off Pollyanne’s leg first, because after mine comes off I won’t be able to catch her.”

“Smart thinking.” Pollyanne was humming an old-timey song she must have heard from Tommy Jones. Damn it, I thought. With all my hurrying, I’d left my spiritual alarm system behind; Tommy’s flickering could have warned me this was about to happen.

I set the bags aside and joined my children on the carpet.  “Well son, I just don’t think those shears are sharp enough. They might not cut through her leg all at once. You’d have to keep at it, get held up on the bone …” I shook my head. “You don’t want to hurt her, do you?”

“Of course not.”

“Then let’s not get ahead of ourselves. You give me those clippers, and we’ll go find something better. There’s lots of sharp, unrusted knives out in the truck. A whole houseful.”

“You’re lying,” Hop Junior said. He seemed fidgety, unsure of what I was saying.

“Have I ever?”

With a brief hesitation, Hop Junior handed the shears over. I scooped up Pollyanne and we all went out to the truck.

Hop had a look of suspicion growing on his face as we walked, which broke to the surface as I strapped the baby in her seat and shut the door.

He frowned, peering into the truck bed. It was empty. “Where’s all the knives?”

I pressed my lips into a line. “At the Goodwill. I couldn’t see throwing them out.”

“You lied to me!”

“You gave me no choice, son.” I reared back and slung the shears into the woods. Hop Junior groaned, watching his weapon drop into the trees out of sight. I shook my head at him. Then I checked the parking brake before heading back inside. Hop Junior followed, glowering at me.

I paced the living room, looking for the diaper bag.

“Now what are we doing?” Hop Junior asked.

“Going someplace.” I snatched the bag up from under a table, and as I turned around he was facing me.

“Going where?”

I took a breath. “I’m taking you to your dad.”

“But we haven’t seen him in years!”

“Well, there’s nobody else, son.”

“Because we don’t stick around anywhere long enough for there to be anyone.”

“What else am I supposed to do?” A car door slammed. I jerked my head toward it instinctively. “You’re threatening your sister. Waving lawn tools around the house.” Singing carried in from outside. “Taking joyrides with the Special Ed supplies …“

Tommy Jones stood in the doorway, flickering like a whirligig. “Oh, sweet Jesus,” I said as I ran past him.

Chip Kinsey stood beside my truck. His own was parked diagonally across the road, blocking the way in or out. He spat when he saw me.

A car door slammed. I jerked my head toward it instinctively.

“Chip Kinsey! You get away from my daughter.”

Chip wobbled a little, then straightened up. “Long way from the sheriff’s office out here.”

“You gonna hurt my little girl? You gonna threaten to hurt my little girl? Over some damn money?”

Chip stepped at me. “Like your underhanded cheating hurt me? Like you hurt my family? Now, we’re gonna renegotiate, Ms. Hadley, and we’re gonna do it here and now, or God help me —“

Hop Junior hit him in the face. I hadn’t seen my son come up, but he must have done it running. Chip hadn’t either. The punch sent him stumbling away from my open truck door and toward the ledge at the edge of the property. Hop Junior kept at him, swinging his gangly little arms, red faced and tear-eyed.

“Stay away from my sister!” he shouted. Right about then Chip realized he was in a fight. He grabbed Hop Junior by the collar, swung them both around in a circle, through the fence and over the ledge. They vanished in a tumble of dust, rolling down the slag-covered hill and toward the valley floor.

“Hop Junior!”

Coming up to the ledge, standing between the busted pickets, I saw nothing but tall weeds and a knocked over warning sign. I wasted no time going after them. I stumbled down the uneven slope. All I could picture was my little boy, his awkward, teenage form hurt and hidden in the grass. My stumbling gave Tommy Jones time to catch up. I cut the ghost glances often. Halfway down he started flickering, and I skid to a stop just short of tripping over Chip’s corpse.

There was no helping the man. His neck was twisted at a gross angle, hair matted with blood from the rock where he’d landed. Tommy Jones joined me by the body, looking down with an expression of uncharacteristic understanding.

But still no Hop Junior.

I got down on my knees and felt along the grass, searching for anything. I came upon a chunk of rotten wood the size of my palm, and then another one. I tossed them over my shoulder, then proceeded to pat around the surrounding area until I found the hole.

“Hop, can you hear me?” My voice echoed down the shaft. It was a half-meter across, dark and deadly steep. I didn’t fancy going in but, I imagined, neither had Hop. Thankfully I had sense enough to call the sheriff first.

“Ms. Hadley,” Sheriff Chester answered. “Change your mind about those charges?”

My voice echoed down the shaft. It was a half-meter across, dark and deadly steep.

“Too late for that, Sheriff.” I told him about the scuffle, and about the shaft, and one dead Chip Kinsey. I also told him about Pollyanne still in the truck in case anything happened to me. “I can’t wait around for help here, I’ve gotta go after him.”

The sheriff sighed. “I can’t say I think that’s the safest plan, Ms. Hadley, but then …”

“But then you’re not here to stop me?”

Sheriff Chester didn’t answer.

“Take care of my girl,” I said, then hung up the phone.

The shaft opened up a few feet in, and I was able to shift into a shuffling crouch with one hand holding my phone out in front. Daylight had faded to my back, and I needed the phone’s light to see where I was going. I veered left where the shaft split, not for any particular reason, then called out as my son came into sight.

“Baby boy?”

Hop Junior groaned as I hurried over. He was cut up from his fall but conscious. He squinted at the light from my phone, rubbing dirt from his eye with a fist. I examined him slowly, moving my light down his arms and his chest and his legs.

“I’m stuck,” he grunted. An old trap door covered this section of the tunnel. The wood was the perfect amount of rotten to break when slammed into, and have its remnants remain strong enough that they couldn’t be taken apart with bare hands. Hop’s leg had punched through it, and now it was wedged in a circle of sharp splinters that resisted pulling him loose, like a lodged arrowhead.

His left leg.

“Try to keep calm, son.” Dirt sprinkled down as I spoke, along with a couple chunks too large for comfort. I tried to remember where the nearest wellbore was, and what the company literature said about sudden tremors caused by fracking, and whether I believed it.

“I told you this leg was going to kill me.” Hop Junior squirmed. “If I’d gotten rid of it, I wouldn’t be stuck here.”

“Son, that’s about the stupidest —” I started, and then it hit me.

All Hadleys have a touch of the supernatural. Most of us have the Sight: the ability to see ghosts and to hear them. But there are other powers in our bloodline too – ones less common, and not always obvious in how they manifest.

“You don’t have BIDs, son. And you’re not faking either. You’ve got premonitions about the future. Your leg was creeping you out because you knew this was going to happen!”

Hop’s face said he didn’t buy it. “What about Pollyanne? What about me worrying about her leg at the same time I was worrying about mine? She’s not stuck in a shaft.”

“You jumbled things. You foresaw Chip threatening your baby sister, saw yourself and Chip going over the hill, and smashed the two together.”

“Is that boy stuck?”

The voice came from behind – familiar, yet oddly lucid.

Tommy Jones crouched in the tunnel. His eyes glowed with an unmistakable consciousness. “You want to get him free?” he asked, gesturing to Hop. “You gotta go around to the other side. Open it up the other way so it don’t cut him.”

The voice came from behind – familiar, yet oddly lucid.

“Can you lead me?” I asked.

“Yeah sure.”

Tommy Jones took me back to the split I’d passed before. There we skirted a mound of loose dirt, indicating where a section of the shaft had caved in. We made our way around to the other side of the trap door like Tommy Jones said we would, and after a few minutes of prying Hop’s leg was free. There were some scrapes where he’d struggled, but he’d be fine.

“I’m sorry about worrying you, Mom,” he said, “and about Pollyanne.”

“Don’t worry about that.” I left him to lie still until the paramedics came to hoist him out. Then on a hunch, I worked my way back to the mound of loose dirt I had seen just before. Tommy Jones was there, sitting in silence.

“Your bones are in there, aren’t they?”

“Bit deeper down, but yeah.” He sniffled, brushing a hand against his nose. “Nobody bothered digging for me. Not the owners at least, and they were the only ones who had a say in it.”

“Is that what’s keeping you? Are you upset with the owners for not recovering your body? Was it another worker’s fault the tunnel caved in?”

Tommy Jones shook his head. “Nothing like that.”

I pushed him.

“If I had to think why,” he began after a moment. “I guess I worry about my family. I had a little boy when I passed. With me not around bringing in money, I don’t know what became of him.”

“What’s your family name?”

“Chester.”

I smiled. “I wrote a contract earlier this month for a gentleman by the last name of Chester. I can’t say for certain he’s your kin, but him living in Colliersville makes it likely. I can also tell you he made out good on the deal. Annual payments for the rights to the shale beneath his land. Not a lot of money, but enough to stay comfortable. And for a long while.”

Tommy Jones smiled. “Well,” he said. “That sounds right nice.” Then he faded into the ether.

#

The lo mein was questionable by the time we made it back to the house, but Hop Junior said it sounded good to him and so we dug right into it.

Some other things sounded good to Hop Junior too, like sticking around Colliersville for a while. I found a way to oblige him after some soul-searching and some calls to the regional office. For the time being I’ve got work in Colliersville. There’s no more contracts to negotiate, but there’s also no shortage of public relations work to be done over concerns for the safety of hydraulic fracking.

Still, I think we’ll have to get down to Texas this summer after Hop Junior gets out of school. Mom and Paw-Paw Hadley haven’t seen Pollyanne since before she could walk, and the family ought to have a thing or two to teach Hop Junior about his premonitions. Also, as time goes on, I’m getting awfully sick of Chip Kinsey following me.

 

Aaron Wright is a web designer and sometimes writer of speculative fiction. He lives in Belton, Texas with his wife Tina and four children. His works include a novelette pending publication in Black Denim Lit, and he is always working on a new novel or piece of short fiction. He can be found on Goodreads and on Twitter at @aaron_a_wright.